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 www.unthankbooks.com, Central Books, Book Depository, Waterstones and all good booksellers. Digital formats at iTunes and Amazon