Sunday, 17 August 2014

Adlestrop poetry competition

Earlier this year, I was delighted to discover that a poem written after seeing a call for poems inspired by Adlestrop by Edward Thomas, had been commended in the competition - run to raise funds for Adlestrop church.  Details of the winning poem, which is rather terrific, can be found here: 

The organisers are now going to publish a collection of the winning, commended and the best of the entries, later this summer. Nice to see, and also nice that my poetry buddy Caroline Davies will have her Adlestrop poem included.

Friday, 8 August 2014

For the Children of Gaza -

It's a privilege to join many other writers and artists in this collection of poems, prose and visual art, 
For the Children Of Gaza. 

Writers include the writer Michael Rosen,  who sent this poem
The artwork is poignant, strong, thought-provoking. 

The book is the brainchild of Mathew D Staunton and Rethabile Masilo and is published by

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Jonathan Pinnock talks about his latest book, Take it Cool

Jon Pinnock is one of those writers for whom I have a sneaky and enduring respect - he won't be pigeonholed, and I love that. I was not a little giggly when I kept reading  episodes of Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens -  and delighted when it was published as a whole by Proxima. I wasn't surprised when his collection Dot Dash won the Scott Prize for short fiction collections, and was published by Salt. He's a well published poet, as well as a novelist and short story writer. And now, he is adding a bio-historico-memoirish-musicological-thing to his repertoire... he is here to introduce it, talk about its genesis, and an amazing story it is too. 

Over to you, Jon:

TAKE IT COOL had its genesis back in the early 1980s, when I came across a secondhand reggae single with that name by a chap called Dennis Pinnock. It was pretty good, too, and I especially liked the dub B side, ‘Pinnock’s Paranormal Payback’. It intrigued me to think of a man of apparently West Indian heritage being saddled with the same daft two-consonants-away-from-disaster surname as me, but I didn’t take it any further until around ten years ago, when it suddenly struck me that I could Google him to see if he’d come up with anything else.

It turned out that he had. In fact, his discography ran to over twenty records, although he’d never got as far as making an album of his own, despite working with some of the biggest names in black British music. I began to wonder. What if I were to try and track him down? Might we be related somehow? There might be a story there, although at that point it seemed a bit thin to stretch out to an entire book.

But I wrote up a first draft of a chapter anyway and read it out to my local writers group, the Verulam Writers Circle. It went down very well, and during the discussion, one of the members of the group wondered if there might be a slavery angle behind our shared name. And that was the point at which the project suddenly became a whole load more interesting, because very soon afterwards I tracked down a Pinnock who – among other things – was a big deal plantation owner in Jamaica in the 18th century.

I now had several strands to work with. First of all, who was Dennis Pinnock? Was he still alive? Could I track him down? Secondly, what about all these other records? Were they any good? Maybe I could collect them all! (Sad, I know) Thirdly, what about the Jamaican connection? Was it even possible that – horror of horrors – I could be descended from a slave owner? So perhaps I needed to dig around in my past as well…

It took me almost a decade to pull all this together, partly because of all the research I had to do and also partly because I had no idea if it was ever going to be publishable. The one thing I did have in my favour was that no-one else was likely to come along and beat me to it. I’m still smarting from the way that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies waltzed in and stole all the glory while I was still writing Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens. But this one was always going to be a Pinnock project.

But finish it I did, and I did find a publisher in the end, in the shape of the wonderful Two Ravens Press. The finished book looks lovely – it’s even got colour pictures in the middle! – and everyone who’s read it so far seems to love it. As my publisher says, it’s unlike anything else on the market – which is both a problem and an opportunity. It’s a problem because there isn’t anything I can point to and say “It’s like that.” And it’s an opportunity for exactly the same reason.

Here’s where you can hear me reading the first chapter, which will give you an idea of what it’s all about: The text below it has details of where you can order the book, which of course you’ll want to be doing once you’ve had a listen.

Many thanks indeed to the lovely Vanessa for having me!

Monday, 28 July 2014

Lane Ashfeldt and 'Saltwater'

Lane Ashfeldt
I am very pleased to welcome the terrific writer Lane Ashfeldt to the blog today - and her first collection of short stories, 'Saltwater'.  We had a rather lovely event in Brighton a while back to celebrate this collection - a launch at Waterstones during which we discussed things like writing comps, and why...and she kindly agreed to answer some similar questions here. But first - let me say how much I enjoyed this collection. It sings - great characters, great writing - what's not to like? Lane also runs Offa Dyke House in Knighton, a characterful, very comfortable B and B which morphs into a writers retreat. Check that out too...but first,those questions, and  'Saltwater'...

Me:  Tell me a little about the book - did you consciously write stories in SaltWater with the sea as a character - or did you look back and see what you’d created?

Lane: Not consciously, no. But I grew up on the north Dublin coast, wanting to run away to sea, and while still a teenager I worked aboard a boat on the Rhine. Later, a two-week holiday to a Greek island stretched to a couple of years... Both my parents are from the south west of Ireland and I spent time there growing up, so the sea was kind of “there” in lots of my stories before I ever thought how they’d fit together. When I got to that point there were stories I wrote in for balance. Airside, about people whose islands are taken from them and how that loss filters down generations. And a piece that touches on sea level rise, something we or our children and grandchildren will be living with in the coming decades. I suppose I felt a sea-themed collection that left stuff like this out of the picture would be wrong — yes there are calm blue days in July and August, but what about the rest of the year? These were demanding stories to work on, and I’m aware that in writing them I’ve barely dipped a toe into topics on an oceanic scale. 

Me: Two stories here have won competitions. When in your career did you start entering comps, and why? What prompted that first entry?

Lane: About ten years back, I sent off a few hasty pieces to online lit-spaces and was surprised when they went up as I’d barely finished writing. I’m not good at going to the post office, I like the immediacy of pressing Send instead. It was Save or Send, almost. Why? To see what happened. I heard of short story comps through one of the places that published my work. It was somewhere else to press Send to, though usually with a small entry fee, maybe a fiver. It didn’t seem real until the Fish Prize put a story on their shortlist – then all of a sudden it was really real. I wasn’t rigorous about it though. Never kept a spreadsheet or sent out everything I wrote. There are stories in SaltWater that were never entered into competitions. There’s also a story withdrawn ahead of judging — at shortlist stage they sent a publication contract I could not sign, because by then first publication rights were needed for the collection.

Me: I believe you gave up entering comps for a while - can you expand on that? 

Lane:  thought I’d give up for a year (2012-13) but once the year was over, it’s not something I’ve felt much urge to do. There are of course one or two awards I’d enter if my work met their rules, and if I happened to spot their deadline, and if I happened to have a good unpublished story of the right length. So a lot of ifs, really. Maybe it is the word limit thing that is not suiting me right now. Or maybe it’s just time to move over and let others have a go — people writing for the first time who will get a lot out of it.

Me: What about judging other people's work, either in a comp, or as an editor? How did that work for you - how did you approach the process?

Lane: You have me there. A set word length isn’t right for me at present, but I can see the point of limits when judging or selecting work – without them, you cannot compare like with like... It’s such a responsibility, to judge other people’s writing. And because it is a relatively small world, after a while you may know some writers or entrants. This can be distracting. Are you voting for the writer, their past work that you and others admired, or the actual story they’ve sent in? Comps that are judged blind minimise these issues, and if invited to edit or judge short stories again this is how I’d like to work. 

Me:. What are you working on now?

Lane: Today, this interview, another interview and some admin and ‘day job’ stuff. Tomorrow I’ll have a little walk to think, and have a proper fiction day. I’ll be working on a project that I’ve had on the go for a while. I’ve a couple of things on the go in fact, at different stages of progress. One of them I really ought to send out sometime soon...

Me: If you could choose a scene from one of your stories and have it painted, who would you choose to paint it, and which scene might it be?

Lane: So there’s this tiny audio piece I recorded for 4’33”, called Wild in the Country. A few young people from the city find themselves near a farm one weekend, and on impulse become animal welfare activists for the night. New Zealand painter Sarah Jane Moon has done some fantastic oil portraits of subcultural groups, and might do a good job. Tricky though. As she mainly works with posed subjects she might demand a reenactment! Failing this, a seascape artist might like to paint (from imagination) a battle scene set on the Irish Sea from the title story in SaltWater. Offers welcome.
metaphorical battle at sea...
Me: Thanks Lane - great to have this conversation here. All very best with the collection! 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

13th International Conference on the Short Story - Vienna - July 15 - 19 2014

Well, what a fantastic week on so many levels. A potent mix of academe and practice, with panel events discussing and debating the myriad facets of short story writers and their writings. There were many participants who straddle the divide very successfully -  wonderful writers, wonderful teachers as well - and some, like me, who just do the practical stuff and non-academic teaching.
It was such a privilege to be there. I;d heard of the conference, had tried to get grants to attend in previous years, with no success - this year I was invited to lead a workshop, to read twice and to be part of a panel discussion "how to read the short story". Too much detail to list it all. Instead, here are a few quick pics taken with the mobile when I thought of it - so apologies that they are not beautiful - but they do illustrate a wonderful week in the company of friends old and new.
Cakes at the legendary Cafe Central

Preparing for an unforgettable reading at the Americahaus - from left: Tomas E Kennedy,  Sandra Cisneros, Robert Olen Butler,  Kelly Cherry - introducing: Dr Maurice E Lee. 

Finally, I own a real panama hat!

Dr Adnan Mahmutovic trying to look dangerous in my hat, unsuccessfully...

Tania Hershman, self, Zoe Gilbert

Jarred McGinnis told this joke, and we all fell about...with Stef Pixner, Alison Lock,  Adnan, Catherine McNamara, Zoe G and Jarred. 

Sandra Jensen, Thomas E Kennedy,  Tania, Elizabeth Baines,  Adnan, David Crean
Cate Kennedy (l) Paul McVeigh (r)

Dr Maurice Lee addresses the multitude at the final al fresco dinner 

Dr Sylvia Petter, organiser of the whole thing, and her husband, Gunter
Robert Olen Butler and friend, after his reading at the Americahaus

Moi with same friend...

seen in a shop window

Valerie Sirr reads at the Irish Embassy

Nuala O'Connor at Irish Embassy

Billy O'Callaghan at the Irish Embassy

Nancy Freund reading at the Juridicum

Jose Vargese reads at the Juridicum

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Letters to the Unknown Soldier

There is a fantastic public memorial in the making, brainchild of Kate Pullinger and Neil Bartlett, a chance for anyone and everyone to write and send a letter or poem to the Unknown Soldier - Jagger's wonderful statue at Paddington Station - memorial to the GWR employees killed in the Great War. 
    All the pieces, from the well known and famous to the unknown, from school children to the elderly, are being published on the website and it will be there for everyone to access until 14th August. After that it will be archived by the British Library. Here's the link:
Some of the pieces are featured as they come in, and I was moved and delighted to have mine featured today, alongside a pice from Andy McNab, among others. 

Letter to an unknown soldier
Things you do not know:
When you leave, you will leave a child, growing. When night falls on the day you die, your officer will write two letters to two families, yours and his own. He will say to his mother that he has never had to write a letter like that. He has never knowingly lied before. He helped three of his men to bury what was left. He will ask does his mother think, under the circumstances, he did the right thing when he said ‘it was quick?’
Your wife and your mother will weep together in the kitchen, over a pot of tea. Your wife will smile through her tears and say, “At least, it was quick.” Your mother will shake her head and reach for your wife’s hand.
Your child, a girl, will be born early, on a hot June night, to the sound of the first bombs to fall on London from a fixed wing aircraft. Those bombs will hit the school in Upper North Street, and kill eighteen children, mostly between the ages of four and six years old.
You will be moved with infinite care and laid between men you never knew. Your wife and mother choose the words ‘Only son and beloved husband’ for your headstone. They mean to come and visit your grave when they can save the money. They never do.
Your daughter’s husband will be called up to fight in another war. He will leave her, pregnant with her second child, at home with your wife and mother. He will have reinforced the kitchen table with metal sheeting from the works, and they are used to sleeping underneath on a single mattress from the spare bed. Your eldest grandson, a boy of three, lies awake, listening to bombs falling on the streets. He loses his best friend.
Before their own house is hit, killing your wife and mother, your daughter and son are sent away to a farm in Wales. They never go back.
Your son in law will be killed at Cassino. Your daughter will not marry again. She helps out at your grandson’s school, then trains to become a teacher.
Your grandson becomes a teacher too, lecturing in sociology at Cardiff University, and he marries one of his students. They are pacifists. They do not approve of the wearing of red poppies on Remembrance Sunday but when their son, your great grandson, comes home from his school, aged five, with a poppy, they let him pin it to the wall chart – but only after an argument.
Your great grandson will find your photograph in a drawer, and will ask who you are. He is the first person to visit your grave, over eighty years after your death. He will become a military historian, and battlefield guide, keeping your memory alive and the memory of all those who fell with you. You don’t know this, but you’d be proud of him.

And here is the detail, from the website - get writing!


In a year jammed-full of WW1 commemoration our project invites everyone to step back from the public ceremonies and take a few private moments to think.  For us, it is important to move on from cenotaphs, poppies, and the familiar imagery we associate with the war memorials.
If you could say what you want to say about that war, with all we’ve learned since 1914, with all your own experience of life and death to hand, what would you say?
If you were able to send a personal message to one of the men who served and was killed during World War One, what would you write?


Thousands of people have already written to the unknown soldier, including schoolchildren, pensioners, students, nurses and members of the serving forces.  Letters have arrived from all over the United Kingdom and beyond. Many well-known writers have contributed as well, authors as diverse and distinguished as Stephen Fry, Malorie BlackmanAndrew MotionLee ChildLouise Welsh, and Kamila Shamsie.


The website will remain open until 11 p.m. on the night of 4 August 2014, the centenary of the moment when Prime Minister Asquith announced to the House of Commons that Britain had joined the First World War.  Between now and then every letter that the soldier receives will be published here and made available for everyone to read.
Eventually all of the letters will be archived in the British Library where they will remain permanently accessible online.
Please add your voice. What you write will help provide a snapshot of what people in this country are thinking and feeling in this centenary year. Your letter will help us create a new kind of war memorial – one made entirely of words, and by everyone.
Neil Bartlett and Kate Pullinger

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A workshop with a difference! Short stories with Retreat West at Emley Farmhouse

Last week, I scooted off to Thursley, a journey of some hour and a half, to find the venue for the short story workshop I was running for Retreat West. It isn't easy to find. No signposts, a hidden village, yet more 'no signposts', two helpful ladies in a 4WD,  a phonecall, and bingo, I found it!  Even more hidden, in a beautful valley, surrounded by slopes, fields, ancient pathways - and even a barn on stone mushrooms to keep out the rats! What a place. 
        This is Emley Farmhouse, a National Trust property cleverly chosen by Amanda Saint as the venue for a writers' retreat weekend. Amanda runs Retreat West - and she and her clients will take over interesting properties, matching them to the workshop content, where possible. This place was teeming with possibilities for short fiction - and when I looked at images available of the upstairs accommodation, and found this - well - what story would you place in this setting? Isn't it gorgeous!

Go on - half an hour - just write anything - you never know... I'd love to know if it inspires anyone!

I arrived in time for a rather delicious lunch - Amanda cooks for her writers so they can focus all their time on their writing - which we had in one of the two dining rooms. We cleared the table and the food morphed into paper, pens, and words flowed. Four hours later - several cups of tea,  a plate of biccies - and many new pieces of writing had been filed away - new characters, storylines, settings, voices. 

Amanda kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her brilliant organisation:

Amanda Saint

Me: It was such a delight to spend a few hours working with your writers in Emley Farmhouse. It is old, rambling, has an indoor well and underfloor running water - such an inspirational place. How did you dream up this fabulous idea, a partnership with the National Trust?

Amanda: The partnership kind of happened by accident. My initial idea for running residential retreats was to tie in the venue with the author that I wanted to do the workshop. I'd just read The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, and loved it, and wanted her to be the first author I had running a workshop at the new retreats. I was told about a lighthouse that National Trust Holiday Cottages rented out close to where I lived so went and had a look at it - it was incredible and in a truly spectacular setting. So I booked it for October 2013 and from that developed a relationship with a lovely man who manages the National Trust holiday cottages for the South West, Chris Curtis, and we then worked together on a series of retreats for 2014 - one of which will be in the lighthouse again.

Me: How do you select a property to work in/stay in for your retreats with Retreat West? 

Amanda: Where possible I have tried to tie the venue in with what we'll be doing for the workshops. For example, later this year there is an Historical Fiction retreat in a former Victorian carding mill, with a workshop from historical novelist, Emma Darwin. Then there's a Women's Fiction retreat in a house built by a suffragette, with best-selling author in the genre, Rowan Coleman, delivering the workshop. It's not always possible to do this though, so my other criteria are that the property has a wow factor and is in a beautiful setting - like the farmhouse we've just been at for the Short Story retreat.

Me: Tell me a bit about how your retreats work.

Amanda: They last for three nights, usually over a weekend, and there is one half day workshop during that time, apart from at the Just Write retreat, where I'm sure you can guess what happens! The rest of the time is for writing, reading, relaxing, whatever people want to do really. We all get together for meals and I do all the cooking and clearing up so that the guests can focus on their writing. It's proved to make them very productive and lots of new work has been created at the ones I've run so far. There's lots of readings and discussions that go on too, which help people to solve problems they're having with a piece. 

Me: Should a writer have a project in mind when they come to you, or can they come with nothing - just needing space and time to reflect?

Amanda: Either or, really. I've noticed that what usually happens is they bring something with them that they're currently working on, novels, shorts, memoirs, and then new stuff gets created too - both in the workshops and outside of them. I bring along writing magazines and books, and my set of the wonderful Writing Maps created by Shaun Levin, which are filled with prompts and exercises to get the words flowing. All of the venues are in great walking country too and getting out walking usually means people come back with new ideas or existing story problems solved.

Me: Who else do you have coming to work with your writers, and where will they be working?

Amanda: As well as the ones detailed above, I'll be back at the lighthouse with a workshop from the Faber Academy's Head of Fiction, Richard Skinner. This will be focused on landscape and setting in fiction. There's also a Literary Fiction retreat at an old manor house that looks like a mini castle, where Alison Moore will be running the workshop. The Just Write retreat is at an old Exmoor farmhouse and although there is no workshop at this one, novelist and creative writing teacher, Sophie Duffy, is coming along and I know she'll be happy to share thoughts and ideas with other guests. 

Me: If they are interested (and how could they fail to be...) how do writers find out more?

Amanda: All of the retreats that are planned for this year can be found here: To keep up to date with new plans, writers can sign up for the newsletter on the site. There's also blog interviews with the authors where they talk about what will be happening in their workshops.

Me: Fantastic. Well, from what I saw, and having spoken to the writers who attended the Emley Farmhouse retreat and my workshop - this formula is very special, and very clever, and it works! Thanks for the invitation, Amanda, and thanks for giving us a little insight into Retreat West. May it go from strength to strength.