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Q&A | Ashley Stokes from Unthank Books

Ashley Stokes and a flat whiteSince publishing Still in 2012, Roelof Bakker has met a number of unique personalities in the world of independent publishing, people who are passionate about books and writing and do things in their own particular way. People like Meike Ziervogel from Peirene Press, an imprint specialising in publishing European novellas translated into English; Nicholas Royle who publishes chap books on his independent press Nightjar; and Robin Jones and Ashley Stokes from Norwich-based Unthank Books, who are leading the way in publishing new experimental fiction. The fifth instalment of their on-going series of anthologies Unthology 5, has just been published and it includes an exciting mix of talented writers, like Angela Readman, Elizabeth Baines and Jose Varghese as well as a short story by Roelof Bakker. He wanted to find out more about Unthank Books from its Short Fiction Editor Ashley Stokes, who is the co-editor of Unthology 5 as well as a celebrated author in his own right (Touching the Starfish and The Syllabus of Errors). He lives in Norwich.

How did Unthank Books come about and what made you and Robin pick the name?
Unthank Books surfaced on a rainy night in Camden. I was in London to read for Staple magazine when Robin Jones told me that he wanted to publish himself novels on his agency list that he couldn’t place with publishers. He liked these novels so much that he thought they needed to be read.

These included David Madden’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood Completed, which has gone on to be Unthank’s bestselling title, and my own Touching the Starfish. Quite soon after this we opened up the nascent press to general submissions.

We came up with the name Unthank pretty quickly. The Unthank is a piece of unclaimed land, a dystopian city in Alastair Grey’s Lanark and a road in Norwich’s Golden Triangle area, where I live, so, along with its Orwellian vibe, it seemed to fit with what we were trying to achieve.

Unthank have just published Unthology 5, part of an ongoing series of anthologies of new, unconventional experimental writing. The first Unthology was published in 2010. Why did you start this series?
Firstly, when we were still thinking of Unthology as a ‘sampler’, we wanted to use shorter work from our authors to showcase their novels. However at the time, I was myself writing short stories again after working on a long novel, and when I was looking about I realized that many journals and magazines seemed to have definite aesthetic agendas and very restricted word counts.

I thought that there was an opportunity to let writers spread their wings with longer stories beyond the 1,000-1,500 words, and allow writers to play with fire in terms of form and content. Later on I started to like the way that a quite conventional story could seem quite different if set alongside a more adventurous or experimental story, and started to pay much more attention to the arrangement of the stories in each collection, so they would have moods and atmospheres that characterized a run of stories within each book.

Unthank are a young and independent publishing company, what’s your outlook on the future of publishing?
Publishing as we knew it pre-internet has obviously changed beyond recognition. It’s easy now to see writing serious fiction, in the UK at least, as either pointless and fruitless, or a lark for insiders administered by a cartel of nepotists and nabobs. I do think that the interesting work is now being done on the periphery and I hope we contribute a vivid spark where the blade meets the rim.

Your proudest Unthank moment so far?
We’ve started a regular prose event in Norwich called Project U. Last November we launched Unthology 4 and Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes there. There was a great atmosphere in the audience and great warmth directed to the writers, one of who, Michael Crossan, had travelled overnight from Renfrewshire to read his story ‘Eden Dust’. The writers were really buzzing and I was left standing there thinking that it had all been worth it, that Unthank meant something after all.

You are also a writer and your second book The Syllabus of Errors is a series of overlapping short stories. What’s the appeal of short stories, as writer, reader and editor?
I love writing and reading short stories. There are straightforward reasons creatively for writing them. They don’t take as long as a novel to write. You can try out new techniques and experiment with material. There is not as much at stake as when you write a novel and they are easier to place.

But, other than that I love the ‘shot of vodka’ effect (Chekhov’s phrase) when you read a short story, that after-burn that you feel in the back of your throat long after you’ve swallowed. I often think of short stories as checkpoints – an obstacle reached after a long journey – or flashpoints: something long-smouldering is going to explode. It’s an infinitely variable form, really, and you can achieve things with short fiction that few other art forms can achieve.

 I love the ‘shot of vodka’ effect (Chekhov’s phrase) when you read a short story, that after-burn that you feel in the back of your throat long after you’ve swallowed.

What’s your favourite short story of all time and why?
I am terrible at answering this sort of question, because if I knew the what-and-why of this, the short story would be solved for me and its allure would dull. I am much better at making short, loose lists in no particular order. I would, if pushed, plump for ‘Metamorphosis’, simply because if a story has had 40,000 books and essays written about it, and still with a relatively linear storyline no one really knows what it means, that’s a triumph.

Otherwise, in my personal canon, stories I’d come back to again and again, I would place: ‘The Overcoat’ by Gogol; ‘Guy de Maupassant’ by Babel; ‘Spring in Fialta’ and ‘The Vane Sisters’ by Nabokov; ‘Grief’ and ‘The Darling’ by Chekov,’ ‘The Five Forty-Eight’ by Cheever; ‘Builders’ by Richard Yates, ‘Breaking It Down’ by Lydia Davis; ‘How to Be An Other Woman’ by Lorrie Moore; ‘Flora’ by David Rose; ‘The Lost Decade’ by F Scott Fitzgerald; ‘Cranley Meadows’ by James Lasdun; ‘The Depressed Person’ by David Foster Wallace and ‘Offerings’ by AJ Ashworth. I could go on, of course.

I was pleasantly surprised when my story ‘Red’ had been accepted for inclusion in Unthology 5. What made you pick this?
It did stand out for us because it’s remarkably tense for such a short piece. Its sense of urban alienation appealed to us, and we felt a certain schadenfreude while reading about a person losing her composure in public. It’s definitely a flashpoint, not a checkpoint. It also sits nicely after the dark-dark of the first two, longer stories, Angela Readmans ‘A Little More Prayer’ and KS Silkwood’s ‘Daddy’s Little Secret’. We are very wary of very short stories, so they really do have to grab us and not seem like poems in disguise. ‘Red’ did manage to get our attention.

Unthology 5Recommend one recently published book (by any press) that deserves a wider audience.
We are Glass by UV Ray (published by Murder Slim). He’s pretty out-there and a brave and honest writer. Talking of honest, I would also recommend Aidan O’Reilly’s forthcoming collection, Greetings, Hero, to be published by our friends at Honest Publishing.

What’s your favourite literary journal (print or website)?
I usually find something I’d like to read on 3:AM.

The most hotly anticipated release by Unthank is…
Meridian by David Rose, a day in the life of an architect and crafted by a master mason.

Apart from writing, editing and teaching is there something else you do that you feel passionate or obsessive about?
Berlin, fur hats and proving the existence of the North Surrey Gigantopicthecus.

Unthology 5 is available from the Unthank Books’ Online Bookshop at, Central Books, Book Depository, Waterstones and all good booksellers. Digital formats at iTunes and Amazon

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Strong Room debuts at Off the Shelf event, Monday 13 January

Roelof Bakker and Jane Wildgoose are delighted to take part with Jan Woolf in SHORT STORY AND THE IMAGE this Monday 13 January at Blacks in London’s Soho. Hosted by author Carol Topolski (Monster Love, Penguin 2008), Jan Woolf will be discussing and reading from her short story collection Fugues on a Funny Bone (Muswell Press) with accompanying images from sculptures by Richard Niman. Jane Wildgoose and Roelof Bakker will read from their collaborative artist book Strong Room (Negative Press London) out on 21 January.

Off the Shelf is part of a series of Writers Guild of Great Britain events at Blacks.

Tickets are £30. The event starts at 11am for coffee, with readings starting at 11.30, followed by a two-course lunch with wine and in the afternoon  readings from the audience.

There are a few tickets left, so if you are a writer or a visual artist, contact
now and reserve your place.

Monday January 13, 11am, Blacks Club, 67 Dean Street, London W1D 4QH.

Strong Room Roelof Bakker Jane Wildgoose

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A negative birthday…

Today is our first birthday and we are feeling remarkably negative about everything in a positive kind of way.

A big thank you to all the writers involved for making Still happen. Many thanks too to the readers, bloggers and shops (particularly Foyles and Tate Modern) for your treasured support.

Exciting times lie ahead as our next print publication Strong Room will be out before the end of the year. More details to follow soon.

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Q&A | Deborah Klaassen

Deborah Klaassen

Writer Deborah Klaassen with the photo that inspired her story at the Still exhibition at Foyles in September 2012

DEBORAH KLAASSEN LIVES IN LONDON. She is a Dutch, London-based blogger, essayist, philosopher, copywriter and the author of the horror novel Bek dicht en dooreten! (Shut up and eat!). She came to Still via James Miller and contributed the story ‘How To Be a Zombie’. She’s currently writing a crime novel.

When did you write your first story and what was it was about?
I started making up stories long before I could write, and must have started writing them down as soon as I could write. My grandmother has kept one of my earliest stories in a photo album. She had given me a piece of paper and some felt tip pens so that I could draw, but instead I wrote a story about a farm.

Why did you move to the UK?
After my MA Philosophy, I discovered that Fay Weldon teaches Creative Writing at Brunel University. I figured that would be a unique opportunity to write a novel with all the guidance I could possibly need. Ergo Veni, Vidi, Vici. (I saw, I conquered, I came)

Do you find it easy to write and communicate in English? Also, do you continue to write in Dutch?
I wouldn’t say that I find it easy, but it’s no more difficult than writing and communicating in Dutch. I talk in my sleep, and according to my boyfriend, my preferred language is English.

What inspires your work? Favourite writers?
It’s the people around me that inspire me the most: the Excel Hero, the Spliff Artist or the Manager with a Heart of Gold. When I was a teenager, my favourite authors were Fjodor Dostojevski and Ronald Giphart. These days, my literary diet is incredibly varied.

You work for a London media agency as a copy writer, how do you find time to work on your writing projects? Do you put time aside every day or do you write sporadically?
I spend about three hours a day on trains and busses to get to work and back. I try to use my commute for writing, though distracting headlines in newspapers, not having a seat or dozing off when I do have a seat all are great threats. I recently won an iPad in a Vine Competition though, which is a great boost for my productivity en route.

Your story ‘How To Be A Zombie’ explores the idea of slowing down time. Is it an expression of a personal frustration of there not being enough hours in the day?
It’s actually more of a frustration with how gullible people can be, no matter how intelligent they are. And with other people’s tendency to take advantage of this gullibility.

Zombie takes a violent turn. How important is violence in your writing?
Just as important as it is in real life.

Short story or novel?
Both. Ideally: short stories within a novel. My favourite passage in Shut up and Eat! is the milk-incident, where Horrible Herman almost gets stabbed by a twelve-year-old. It’s a short story in its own right, but really adds value to the full novel as well because it shows what sort of person Horrible Herman is.

Did you enjoy the experience of collaborating with a visual artist?
I really took the time to choose the right photograph and to let it sink in before I started writing. It was very inspiring, and has made me look at photographs in a different way.

Is reading in public and performance an important part of your writing practice?
When I was still in university, I used to read books and newspapers to someone whose eyesight had deteriorated due to MS. Reading out loud was a very important part of my life, and I started doing it as well when reading difficult texts on my own. It helps understand the structure, grammar and, ultimately, meaning of a sentence. Because reading other people’s work out loud is such an important part of my life, I love reading my own work in public too. It’s an opportunity to share the story and emotions, get carried away and make sure that the ‘reader’ doesn’t miss out on the important nuances.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a crime novel. I’m afraid I can’t tell you much more about the characters and the plot yet, but I’m enjoying it.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Gosh, I wouldn’t even be able to tell you where I see myself in one year! Life is a plot full of unexpected twists.


‘Bek dicht en dooreten’ by Deborah Klaassen

‘Bek dicht en dooreten’ by Deborah Klaassen

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Q&A | Nina Killham

‘Still’ writer Nina Killham at the <em>Still</em>launch

Nina Killham at the ‘Still’ book launch

NINA KILLHAM currently lives in Melbourne. She is the author of three novels: How to Cook a TartMounting Desire and Believe Me. She also writes short stories and screenplays. For Still she contributed ‘My Wife the Hyena’, which has been selected for inclusion in the annual anthology The Best British Short Stories 2013 (Salt), which is published next week. She’s currently writing a historical novel set in Singapore just before the Japanese invasion.

Why and when did you decide to become a writer?

Writing for me has been a way of processing my life. I’ve had a lot of change in my life. My father was a diplomat and so we moved every three years. I was always the new kid on the block, always the outsider, looking in, taking notes. I was writing in my mind long before I was putting it on paper. And once I began I couldn’t stop. The downside is that sometimes I become a spectator in my life rather than a participant. It’s something I’m trying to change.

How do you fit time in to write?
My children are growing up and I thought it would get easier to find the time to write. In fact it’s sometimes harder. Yes, they are out of the house longer going to school but I probably worry about them more. I wrote my first novel around my daughter’s naps. And it showed. My daughter wasn’t a big sleeper so my first draft was a series of little snippets written in about twenty minutes. I’ve recently taken to writing in my bed. Since we moved to Melbourne from north London, I have the most beautiful view outside my window: beautiful spring green Honey Locust trees waving in the wind. So I prop myself up with my laptop and stare out and eventually get some work done.

Is life in the sunshine affecting your approach to writing?
Life in the sunshine. Ah, can’t tell you how lovely it is. I had forgotten sunshine! The people are sunnier as well. Not sure how it will affect my writing. But I am getting it done and for that I’m very grateful. Of course the flat whites are probably a huge help.

Does the short story format offer the opportunity to do something different and let your hair down so to speak?
What let my hair down was that I was not trying to please an editor, an agent, or a perceived ‘buyer’ of my fiction. I’d been writing novels to a varying degree of success. When I approached my fourth, my third had just come out and sank without a trace. I suddenly became very panicky about ever getting published again. So I started looking to see what worked; what was sold, what was marketable. I drove myself and others mad. So when you asked for submissions I delighted to write what I wanted. I felt free and the entire experience has been the utmost pleasure.

Do you have a secret/unpublished collection of short fiction?
I do have a collection! You astute man! The stories circle around a north London primary school. Surprise, surprise. One day, perhaps, after they’ve matured a bit in my cellar, I will sort them out.

Story or novel?
There is nothing more satisfying to read than a good short story. That intense concentration rewarded with a pungent ending thought. I tend, though, to read more novels as they are something to sink into, to completely immerse myself in another world. I also think novels, though more time consuming and horribly muddy and murky at times, are easier to write. Bigger canvas. You get to splash more paint about. Mistakes get lost in the length. Short stories, to be effective, require more control, a sharper focus.

‘The Mayor's Parlour’, ‘Still, Roelof Bakker

‘The Mayor’s Parlour’ from ‘Still’. ©2013 Roelof Bakker

Where did the inspiration for ‘My Wife the Hyena’ come from?
The title came first. In fact I’d wanted to write a story called ‘My Wife the Hyena’ for a while because I’ve long noticed the similarities between society’s perception of hyenas and women. A bit too pushy, a bit too gamey and earthy, possessed of a mean streak, with wicked, raucous laughter… When I saw your photograph I immediately saw how it could work. What I found evocative about your photos was the idea that even though there was no one in the rooms you felt a presence. It was as if someone had just stepped away. The photo I picked with the desk and the coat rack seemed so lonely. It spoke to me of a long, dutiful, rigid and utterly lonely life. Who knows what another viewer would have made of it. That was what was brilliant about Still. So many takes on one body of work.

How did you find working with a visual artist?
I loved working with a visual artist. I can spend hours looking at paintings and photography. In fact I always ask for art books for my birthday. So when you sent me the photographs it felt like something I do on my time off anyway and it really sparked my imagination. I’m also a Sunday painter and wish I was better. So I was just thrilled to be working with you.

Do you use visuals as inspiration for your writing?
I don’t usually. Perhaps I should. My first three novels were contemporary satires so I didn’t think to look at pictures. Currently I’m writing a historical novel and I am looking at photographs of the time. They inspire me in the sense I am trying very hard to impart my visual fascination with the era into words.

How do you approach a new writing project?
It differs. My first novel was fun because I didn’t know better. I just wrote what I thought was amusing and luckily I found an agent and editor who agreed. The second and third I had to approach more professionally, with a little more of an eye to what I thought might be of interest to readers. With my latest book, the historical novel, I have been fairly calculated, trying to come up with something my agent would approve of. And yet at the same time I have had to make sure it’s something that resonates with me, that truly fascinates me. Otherwise it will fall flat.

What are you working on at the moment?
It’s a historical novel set in Singapore right before the Japanese invasion. I find the Peranaken culture – which is a mixture of Chinese and Malay – fascinating. The book is a bit of an octopus at the moment as all the characters are coming alive and saying what they think. Which is brilliant. But I always find the length of novels cumbersome. It’s like being in a dark wood and I can’t see the path in front or behind. I lose my way in my own novel.

Favourite writers?
I love Evelyn Waugh. Handful of Dust would have to be my favourite book. I reread it regularly and laugh deliciously at his viciousness. The way the book ends is sheer brilliance. Graham Greene is another favourite. The Quiet American in particular. I’m coming to the age, unfortunately, where I forget everything I read almost as soon as I close the book. But I loved Life of Pi and oldies but goodies like Love in the Time of Cholera. Now that I’m in Australia I’m immersing myself in its literature. I recently read a gorgeous book called Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany. Just beautiful.

Advice to budding writers?
Advice to a budding writer? Had you asked me that ten years ago I would have said just write, write, write, and eventually you will learn your craft and you will get an agent who will get you a publisher. But now, I don’t know. I feel like so much has changed in the publishing world that it’s barely recognizable. And yes, I suppose, in the end, my advice would be the same. The write, write, write, part anyway. After that I’d probably add, learn your social media to make contacts. Mainly I’d say, be bold. Be you.

‘Still’, Negative Press London

‘Still’, Negative Press London

Any thoughts on the future of publishing?
Off the top of my head I think more small boutique online publishers will crop up. They will offer both ebooks and print but they will have zoomy websites and striking social media skills. They will create followers who will buy their books in the way people will buy branded clothes or music. Their customers will trust these publishers to pick books that they will like and be interested in. They will then create forums for the readers/customers to connect. Because as the world gets more connected and more overwhelming with choice, people will rely on book publishing brands to keep the noise at bay. A perfect example of this are the books published by Peirene Press. A wide eclectic stable of writers under one brief: short European literature. You want one of these, you go to Meike Ziervogel (publisher Peirene Press). She’s collecting the best. My two cents anyway…



The Best British Short Stories 2013

The Best British Short Stories 2013



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‘Still’ | A collage and slideshow of photographs from the anthology

Actor and fervent reader William Rycroft, posted a concise review of Still on his blog on 3 January 2013, alongside some other books he recommended as essential reading (including Nicholas Royle’s First Novel).

‘The anthology is incredibly diverse, featuring some writers I had heard of and read before like Richard Beard, Nicholas Royle and Evie Wyld. Others were completely new to me and that of course is the joy of an anthology. The pictures are wonderful and each reader is sure to find new voices they will want to keep an eye on.’

It was nice for the photographs (by Roelof Bakker) to get a mention, so Negative Press London are happy to present a collage and slideshow (just click on one of the photographs to activate) of some of the photographs from the book. Enjoy:)





All photographs ©2012 Roelof Bakker


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Story | ‘Chopin in the Dust’ by Tim Sutton

The first posting of short-listed stories from the Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition is by Tim Sutton – a composer and lyricist from east London.

Chopin in the Dust

The Stage (Piano) by Roelof BakkerThe woman from the theatre left three messages. So grateful… perfect for the… (What was it?)… some Chekhov on a shoestring.

She had said she would come to collect at eleven, yet it was nearly twenty-five past. Alice hovered by the front door, chewing the skin around her fingernails.

At twenty to twelve, a van pulled up and the woman rushed out, followed by two men in overalls. So sorry… left later than… terrible traffic.

Well. It’s through here.

The woman followed down the hallway. Her eyes took in Alice’s elegant grey coiffure, the exquisite silk of her floral pattern blouse.

Alice stood back to let her pass.

The antique grand piano stood in the study. The woman from the theatre made excited noises – Vanya’s dining room! And to think I might have missed your ad.

I was going to give it a polish, but…

No, no, we’ll take the dust too!

As the woman twittered, Alice seemed to see lines of music uncurling from deep inside the walnut case, gathering in skeins in the weak February light.

Are you sure we can’t give you anything for it?

Lines of Chopin and Schumann, his favourites, conjured endlessly and effortlessly by those long fingers. An air filled with life, that musical life which forbade all others.

No, I’m simply glad it can be of use to someone.

And now, just a piano, untouched for forty years, while sheets of grey settled on it, on her. Alice watched as the men conferred, the heels of her hands digging into her hips.

Do you play?

The men closed the lid and tilted the instrument onto its left side.

No, it was my husband’s. He was a concert pianist.

They disconnected the pedal mechanism, removed the legs, wrapped the frame in a blanket and strapped it to a trolley.

A concert pianist! What an amazing life you must have had.

For the first time Alice looked the woman directly in the eye. The woman in turn took a step back, her hand moving reflexively to her stomach. There was silence.

Alice’s gaze dropped to the swollen abdomen. From somewhere: a smile.

Oh, the bump! Yes, she’s due in August. Honestly, mummy brain is the last thing I need right now. But look, we’ll leave you in peace.

The piano on its trolley rattled its way up the drive. Alice could hear the keys clattering like broken teeth. Those keys his long fingers had stroked…

His fingers… had stroked…

She shut the front door too quickly on the woman from the theatre, and leant against it, breathing heavily, watching the startled dust careen in the winter sunlight.

That was the last of him.

TIM SUTTON is a composer and lyricist for musical theatre. His first opera, Cycle Song, written with poet Ian McMillan, was performed as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. He teaches the craft of music theatre songwriting at BML and hosts a podcast, Voice of the Musical, featuring interviews with creators of great musicals. He is an Associate of the Inner Magic Circle and lives in east London with his wife and two children.



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Q&A | Ava Homa

Ava HomaAVA HOMA LIVES IN TORONTO, CANADA. She is a Kurdish-Iranian-Canadian writer. Her collection of short stories, Echoes From the Other Land was nominated for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Ava’s writings have appeared in various journals including the Toronto Quarterly, Windsor Review and the Kurdistan Tribune. She’s finishing work on a her first novel and teaches creative writing and English. For Still she wrote ‘A Rose For Raha’, a story about a Kurdish family trying to find their way in Canada.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Eastern Kurdistan (Iran) and my parents still live there. Being a Kurdish woman, I was stigmatised both for my gender and my ethnicity. Nevertheless, living in a collective culture, I’d received unconditional love from my family and close relatives. Something I really miss here. I entered Canada on a student visa six years ago.

How do you describe yourself: Canadian, Kurdish, Iranian?
I have a hyphenated identity: I am Kurdish-Iranian-Canadian. The truth is that I have been exposed to all these cultures and have picked and chosen the best in each as much as I have been able to. The unconscious part of my brain has done its own selection without my consent.

Your story ‘A Rose For Raha’ is about a Kurdish family now living in the free world in Canada, but still not being able to be free. Is this based on your own experience? If not, where did the inspiration come from?
Writing fiction means feeling for others and writing about them. My family never left Kurdistan, but I have observed that the dictatorship mentality lasts long after the dictator is gone. I have observed that victims of oppression can sometimes turn into victimisers without being aware of it.

Female Artists Dressing Room (Rose) by Roelof Bakker

Female Artists’ Dressing Room (Rose) by Roelof Bakker

You selected a photograph with a dried yellow rose. Is the rose significant for you or in Kurdish/Iranian culture?
It was hard to choose between all the inspiring and beautiful photos, but something drew me towards this rose, not because of a significant cultural connotation, rather because of the sense of attractiveness mixed with exhaustion. That’s the sense this photo instilled in me.

Did you enjoy collaborating with an artist?
It was my first experience and a lovely, stimulating one. I look forward to more such collaborations.

How did you get into writing?
It was in me from a very young age. I completed my first manuscript at grade 5: an animal story illustrated by my immature drawing. I followed my instincts to write despite the infinite cultural/economical obstacles. Now, I am hooked on the joy of writing.

Who/what was your greatest influence?
I am constantly inspired by great people. I can mention two examples: Leila Zana, the female Kurdish leader who was imprisoned by the government of Turkey for ten years but never lost her strength and spirituality. She gives me hope as to what extent humans can be resilient.

Bahman Ghobadi, the award-winning Kurdish writer and director of A Time for Drunken Horse, Turtles Can Fly, Half Moon, and most recently Rhino Season. I believe he has served the Kurds in the best possible way. He is passionate, artistic, honest, talented, lovable, inspiring.

Your book of short stories, Echoes From the Other Land, explores the position of women in Iran. Are you active politically to improve women’s lives in Iran? Do you collaborate or work/write with women in Iran?
Iranian women live under horrific laws that openly discriminate against them. For example, based on the law, they cannot leave the country or get a job without their husband’s permission. Yet, they are highly educated, strong, resilient, and ambitious. We work with each other, we support each other, we help each other.

What’s the most important thing you have learnt from life?
No one can help me better than myself.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am editing my completed manuscript: a novel tentatively titled Many Cunning Passages.



Echoes From the Other Land

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‘Still’ competition: winning story ‘Piano’ by AJ Ashworth

Negative Press London is excited to post the winning story of the Still/Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition. To celebrate the publication of Still, writers were invited to write a story up to 500 words, inspired by the photograph ‘The Stage (Piano)’ by Roelof Bakker.

The winning story, ‘Piano’, is written by AJ Ashworth and was selected from over one hundred submitted stories. Judge Evie Wyld said: ‘It was the voice that attracted me and Nicholas Hogg to this one. Her story is strong and understated at the same time.’

‘Piano’ is also on display at Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road until the end of November 2012.


The Stage (Piano) by Roelof Bakker

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

This is not the place she thought she’d return to.

She imagined she’d be with Arthur. Strolling up the promenade as grey, northern skies broke open above them. Or lying beneath him, as he moved over her that first time – the second night of their honeymoon in a B&B in Blackpool.

Perhaps she might have returned to the births of their three children. To the first glimpse of each old face in her arms. Each a miniature Arthur, right down to the wrinkled brows and thin lips, the pale, translucent skin. All of them with long pianists’ fingers too, just like her own mother, even though none of them ever played or ever showed any interest in wanting to.

If they had, perhaps things would have been different for her. Better.

But no. Her failing mind has brought her here. To the stage of the concert hall. Standing in the wings and hidden by the curtains – those heavy ripples of yellow velvet which she would touch, if she knew she wouldn’t get her hand smacked for it.

Her mother stands just behind her, not touching but close. She can’t see her, facing towards the piano as she is, but can feel her, as if the woman is a tall, thin planet at her shoulder. Pulling on her and dark with gravity. Unaware of how she is able to draw in whoever she wants, whenever she wants them – even those she doesn’t.

There is a burst of noise from the auditorium, sudden as rain on a tin roof. The announcer looks at her his hand out towards the piano. He says her name again and then, ‘Young pianist extraordinaire’, his eyes growing wider each second she fails to move.

Finally, her mother pushes her arm. ‘Go on then,’ she says, the applause dying. ‘And don’t embarrass me.’

And she is out, beneath the hot lights, walking towards the piano. Scraping the seat out and sitting down as a sigh of air escapes from a small hole in the side of the cushion. She notices the overwhelming smell of lacquer and, then, how a tiny yellow thread from a duster has become trapped by a hairline crack in one of the keys.

‘In a grand piano,’ she recalls her mother saying during one of her lessons, ‘it’s gravity that brings the hammer to a rest after it’s hit a string. It helps you play faster.’

But when she tries to lift her hands from her lap to place them in their starting position, nothing happens. It is as if they too are being pulled down by gravity.

‘Nobody should have been left there like a sitting duck,’ her father said, later. Her mother in the mirror fussed with a curl at the back of her ear.

She’d never had another lesson after that – not from her mother, not from anyone. In all honesty, she’d probably never had the right kind of hands.

AJ Ashworth was born and brought up in Lancashire and is a former journalist who now works in publishing. She is the winner of Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize 2011 and her debut collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here was published in 2011 by Salt. This collection of short stories was also shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize and nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

A Q&A with AJ about her life as a writer will be posted here soon.

AJ Ashworth blog

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Find ‘Still’ in Foyles on Charing Cross Road

A rainy day, perfect for a bit of browsing and a coffee in a bookshop…

Foyles, Charing Cross Road, Still in Anthologies

If you’re near Charing Cross Road, pop into Foyles and you can find Still in the anthologies section on the ground floor…

And in the art section on the second floor…

Foyles Art section third floor, Still

Also, the first floor café serves a pucka flat white (actually one of the best in London in my humble opinion). And there’s an exhibition of photographs from Still, too.


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