Older Women Writers – Arachne Press in the Guardian

You might have seen us in The Guardian online this weekend – in a piece about older women writers, the work that Arachne Press does to seek, support and promote older women’s voices, and the gradual sea change that we can see happening in the publishing industry as a whole. We were delighted with the article, but it is only the beginning of the conversation. Here Cherry Potts, owner and founder of Arachne Press, shares some more extensive thoughts about publishing talented, witty, clever and creative older women writers:

In the 10 years we have been publishing we have seen a noticeable shift in all kinds of diversity publishing with specialist publishers such as Incandescent, Jacaranda and Peepal Tree that I’ve not seen since the 80’s. We at Arachne are not specialist in our diversity aims, we are inclusive, and that includes older women. We have always actively sought, supported and promoted older women, and valued what they have to say. The existence of women’s writing networks and magazines like Mslexia (which has been there for 24 years) have made it easier for older women to find publishers like us. It started with independent presses, like us, who intentionally hold space for writers from underrepresented communities. We have always filled gaps we see missing in the commercial publishing industry; the ripple from that has been working through to the industry as a whole, it’s a steady improvement but there is plenty of room for more.

Author Jane Aldous © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/The Guardian

For many women it is impossible to focus on writing until later in life, women’s lives are trammelled with work and caring – children, if they have them, parents almost inevitably as they get older, it takes a strong woman to say no to looking after elderly parents – or a rich one – grandchildren… the list goes on;  and battering away at the glass ceiling (should we be so lucky as to not be working in some less inspiring job just to make enough to live on, as the gender pay gap still exists, with all that implies) there isn’t a lot of time for writing or pursuing a publishing deal. Sadly these responsibilities do still fall to women, and because they are usually earning less, they are less able to provide paid for alternatives, and are more likely the one in a heterosexual couple to give up work to care for whoever needs it.

Our open anthology calls consistently attract older women, but we’ve noticed an increase over the years, which led to the idea of our menopause anthology, collecting stories and poems from women in peri/post/menopause exploring the massive changes in their lives that occur as a result. (We will be announcing the contributors on 8th March, International Women’s Day.)

For women who were children during World War II, teenagers in the 50s, young wives or career women in the 60’s, feminists in the 70s, peace campaigners in the 80’s and so on (and some still campaigning!) there is so much they have to bring, and living in their women’s bodies, and coming to terms with all the changes that involves. They are looking back at those changes with the eye of experience and aren’t squeamish about talking about it, as many younger women might be.

Now feels like the right moment for taking all women writers seriously, refusing to conform to the traditional packaging of ‘women’s fiction’, and actively promoting radical, edgy writing – and forms of writing – from a demographic that has a tendency, in the face of the evidence, to be seen as a bit safe, perhaps even cosy.  Our older women writers are far from cosy, and they aren’t just old; they are lesbians, (Kate Foley & Jane Aldous) they are disabled (Kate Foley, Jane Aldous and Jennifer A McGowan), they started their lives in this country as refugees (Anna Fodorova) they live somewhere isolated (Clare Owen, Ness Owen, Jackie Taylor) and are (increasingly) from the global majority (Anita Goveas, Seni Seneviratne, Yvie Holder, Victoria Ekpo, Lesley Kerr, Lorraine Mighty). These are just the tip of the iceberg.

Author Anna Fodorova © Michael Ann Mullen / The Guardian

Often we are publishing women in their 60’s plus, who are still writing, or just beginning to write, or more specifically just beginning to publish, having written all their lives. These women are not coming straight into a publishing deal from an MA in creative writing, or off the back of a career writing in TV, or film, or radio,  or journalism where they have already have the right contacts to find a deal and get a raft of reviews (and more power to those who do). We are talking about the women who are onto their nth career (Kate Foley worked as a midwife, a cleaner, and an archaeological conservator before finally publishing (as I did, with Onlywomen Press), and won a prize with her first book. In fact I read Kate’s first collection in manuscript! When I started Arachne Press it was with the hope that I would publish writers like Kate, and hers was the first poetry collection we published. We have just published her eleventh collection, Saved to Cloud, having published two previously The Don’t Touch Garden and A Gift of Rivers. 

Saved to Cloud

The story here isn’t really that we publish older women (why wouldn’t we?) but that they come to us. It isn’t about debuts, many of the poets (particularly) whom we publish are award winning writers with several collections to their names. But they still send work for our open call anthologies, and that makes space for the debut writers to be published alongside them, and for us to make discoveries.

It’s about women writing quirky, difficult, often angry poetry and short fiction.

It’s about the writers choosing to send us their work because they recognise that we will find a way to overcome the difficulties they face with time and mobility and geographic isolation and anxiety – or whatever it is that gets in their way. We have worked hard at creating a community for our writers, putting them in touch with each other, inviting them on writing weekends, asking them to be guest editors, running workshops, and enabling them to run workshops and panels to discuss what matters to them, work together, explore, make friends, raise their profile… and confidence, if they need it. We don’t start from the assumption that older women (or anyone, even debut authors) need support, but it’s there if it is.

We don’t just publish the anthology, if a writer engages with us, we take an interest in who they are and what they do – their multifaceted careers have found us translators and cover artists among our writers, and anyone who really impresses us gets ‘the email’ saying what else do you have?

We are proud to be one of the primary presses publishing older women and their incisive, imaginative and glorious stories.

What Meets the Eye? – The Writers’ Perspective

We talked to poets Colly Metcalfe and Emma Lee about what it means to be published in What Meets the Eye? and how both their works tackle perceptions of D/deafness and disability.

What Meets the Eye? The Deaf Perspective

– What does having your work included in What Meets the Eye mean to you?

Emma: Firstly, I’m delighted to be alongside an impressive list of names. I’ve known Josephine Dickinson’s poems for a long time and I know Liam O’Dell’s work as a journalist but haven’t encountered his poems before. Raymond Antrobus’s preface is a generous consideration of identity and bias around being D/deaf and hard of hearing. Secondly, I’m really pleased at being included. I was nervous about submitting because I wasn’t sure if I was “deaf enough” to qualify – I can pass as hearing although was deaf as a young child and am hard of hearing now – and I’m unsure of where the boundary lies. In the event, I decided to submit because if I didn’t submit, there was no chance of acceptance. I shifted the responsibility for the decision to the editors and thought it was better to submit and get a rejection than find out afterwards my poem might have been accepted…but I still left it until the deadline.

Colly: I almost didn’t submit my poem!  I saw the call-out but I scrolled past, thinking it wasn’t for me.  I’ve only been writing for 3 years and I had no thoughts that my work would be even a smidge good enough to be published by Arachne Press, in a proper book!

I accidentally joined a (hearing) writing circle, but that too wasn’t easy to follow, but something ignited in me.  I read some of the women’s writings in the group and thought they were fabulous!  I was invited to some poetry reading events, but being deaf, they were completely inaccessible, and my confidence was shaken.  I had no ‘baseline’ to draw from; no peers to learn from about what works, what doesn’t and how to actually write.   

I was (still am!) pretty clueless when it comes to ‘proper writing’.  One of the local poets called my writing ‘childish and immature’, which could have really turned me off writing, but I’m not easily broken.  Maybe that comes from being deaf – thick skin and all that.  Then I took part in a fully accessible writing course for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent writers run by Spread The Word; the first time I’d been able to do something where I felt equal… and I did.  I didn’t know any of the people on the course, but it was led by the marvellous Jamie Hale and had people like DL Williams and Raymond Antrobous amongst so many others.  I wasn’t intimidated, because I didn’t know them, never having been in the writing arena. 

I think this is the reason I pressed the ‘submit’ button. Because other people believed in me, so I thought – why not? Nothing to lose! To have my poem Coffee Shop published in this anthology with such incredible people – and edited by Sophie Stone – is just inspiring!  I’m so proud that my words are in print!  For a new writer who is deaf and pretty much winging it, this is a huge buzz!  I mostly write for performance and I know what ‘looks good’ on a stage; I’m bold and fearless and happy to try things out, so seeing that my piece occupies a valid space in a book amongst other authors, is wonderful.

Colly Metcalfe

– Both of your poems address issues around the social definitions of deafness and disability. Why did you want to explore this in your work?

Colly: Because it comes easy to me.  It’s my lived experience and I could spend all day – all week – telling you sob stories and horror stories about how life is inaccessible (eg the poetry events I don’t go to, or the theatre performances I miss out on), but I don’t want to feel angry and frustrated all the time.  I spent years feeling like that, and hearing people stop caring after a while.  Writing poetry from a personal experience with some humour, gets the point across more effectively for me.  I use my voice a lot when performing live, and I inject BSL as a visual ‘accent’ and often with voice off, which really makes an audience see my point.  I’m told that because I use humour, it can ‘disarm’ an audience into thinking it’s fluffy and funny – but the honest twists of experience can make hearing people think about what it means to be deaf, and with deaf audiences, the shared experience makes us nod and agree because we’ve all been there.  I don’t always write about deafness, but there is often an element of ‘silence’ in my poetry, which alludes to the inability to hear.  I think with Coffee Shop, the references are very relatable for lots of deaf people.  I’ve written several pieces on ‘movement’, but this fit the brief and being an anthology of deaf writers, seemed appropriate.

Emma: My poem is about my journey into deafness, crossing the deaf/hard of hearing boundary and the difficulties created by having a largely invisible disability. At home alone, I don’t have to worry about how loud or quiet my voice is. I am in control of what background noise there is and my being hard of hearing doesn’t stop me doing anything that I want to do. However, in social circumstances, barriers are erected. Hearing people don’t think about background noise, someone knocking a glass on a hard floor is an annoyance rather than something that disrupts a conversation, why you might want to text rather than call, why it mattered that subtitles recently disappeared from TV channels, why it’s important that they are accurate, or why I ask how I sound after a poetry reading (and no one answers that question, except to say “you read well” or “you sounded OK” even though “well” and “OK” are not actual sounds).

don’t want all venues to be library-quiet, but I would like people to think about how noise travels and echoes in spaces and what might be done to accommodate those who can’t or struggle to hear. During the pandemic, when events moved online, it brought accessibility to event organisers’ attention and more effort was made to accommodate those with accessibility needs. I hope that continues as festivals and events open up again. There’s one venue in Leicester that gets it so wrong. When I have to go there, I go straight to the event without stopping for a coffee first, during the interval I do not leave to get a snack or drink and afterwards, I leave and walk to a nearby cafe bar for a drink because I cannot hear a conversation in the venue’s cafe and bar areas and the frequent interruptions from their tannoy (which I only hear as a muffled noise and have no idea what the attempted communication is about) make it difficult to focus to lip-read.

When it comes to equalities monitoring forms and the question “Do you have/consider yourself to have a disability?” I tend to tick “Prefer Not to Say” or “No” if that’s not an option. Especially if it’s part of an audience survey at an event which made zero accommodations for anyone hard of hearing. I don’t want to be responsible for the organisers thinking their event was accessible because they had a tick in their ‘disabled’ box. It’s not about every event having a BSL interpreter (although, in an ideal world, that would be good), but to encourage people to think about their audience and how organisers can meet the audience half-way, instead of expecting the audience to fit a venue that isn’t as accessible as it could be.

Emma Lee

– What do you think of each other’s approaches to these issues?

Emma: I love Colly’s humour and am jealous of people who can write humorously. I think it helps that the surly barrista is someone we’ve all met and we welcome the idea of her getting her comeuppance. A few finely-judged details not only set the scene but build characters so they’re not just cyphers. It’s a good way of holding up a mirror and asking: which character do you identify with? How would you handle the situation? Would you have intervened and forced the barrista to serve people in the queued order? Coffee Shop manages to be both light-hearted in tone and thought-provoking.

Colly: I related 100% to Emma’s piece. Her reference to the teacher saw me immediately sitting in the 1970s Maths classroom, and Mister Taylor who talked to the blackboard and threw chalk at me.  I never heard anything he said, and I didn’t know I was deaf then; I thought I was stupid…  Emma’s words brought all those feelings back, and I completely empathise with her experience.  I, too, struggled for a very long time with the ‘border between hard of hearing and deaf’.  ‘…hear in monotone’ – oh goodness yes.  I read Emma’s dialogue in this conversation too, about feeling that she’s not deaf enough and again, it hit me on a very personal level.  And that feeling of being in almost no-mans-land; neither hearing nor deaf.  I absolutely felt that.  For me, this is all in my past tense; I decided that I would not use the label ‘hard of hearing’ as I grew deafer, I became more comfortable with the word ‘deaf’.  It wasn’t easy; I speak well, I too can pass (bluff?) as a hearing person so the word ‘deaf’ took a long time to associate with, but it is right for me now.

– Is there anything that you would like to say to each other, after reading one another’s work?

Colly: I like your piece, Emma.  I’m glad (if that’s the right word?) that you felt deaf enough to submit your piece, because it’s certainly how younger me felt about becoming deafer.  I’d forgotten how difficult it was, and how far I’ve come in confidence as a deaf person. Your piece describes it perfectly, and I wish you well on your journey.  Your writing is clear and powerful and I’d really love to read more.  Thank you.

Emma: Please continue to write and share your writing. I think Colly’s background in theatre and performance is a good foundation and her ability to create characters from a clutch of telling details and capture conversation in print will take her far.

– How do you think your own poem sits within the wider collection of work in What Meets the Eye?

Emma: The strength in What Meets the Eye is its diversity of experiences, it touches on the barriers D/deaf and hard of hearing people face, on politics, emotions, prejudice, navigating a hearing world, being part of a family, and it also that there is no one definitive definition of deafness. The voices are various because they belong to people who still have a desire to communicate and be more than just a label. My poem is, rightly so, just my experience.

Colly: I think Coffee Shop sits well as a ‘diary-style-funny-we’ve-all-been-here-and-felt-that-moment’ poem, amongst the incredibly personal and touching words.  I write in a relatable way, and Coffee Shop reads like a good ‘lift’ amongst the beautiful, thoughtful and rich pieces.  I don’t know what I expected, and I don’t know how I thought I’d feel seeing Coffee Shop with other works, but I’m very proud and happy with the placing of it in the pages, and how the very different styles gel as an anthology – because of their very diverse approaches.  A huge success, I feel – and I’m very humbled to be there with these talented deaf writers.  

What Meets the Eye? The Deaf Perspective is available now. Order your copy from our online shop.

Behind the Scenes at Arachne Towers: Lockdown Audiobook Production

The Corona Virus crisis meant a moment for reflection, strategising and funding applications at Arachne Press. When we got Arts Council England funding for nine audiobooks, we had to approach the challenge of creating them remotely, while we couldn’t get into the studio due to lockdown. Continuing our #LoveAudio celebrations, here’s a behind the scenes look at how we approached this. Cherry Potts talks to poet Jeremy Dixon, audiobook narrator Nigel Pilkington and Jessica Stone, audiobook producer at Listening Books.

Cherry Potts, Director

Having worked with Listening Books in the studio, I thought I had a rough idea how difficult it would be to record remotely – I knew what was possible, and what wasn’t, I knew that the pickups that were dealt with in seconds in the studio would be more complicated to deal with. I knew background noise would be a problem, and that with our anthologies, we needed the actors to be recording to the same standards. So I thought I knew what we were getting in to.

Having to be a director at one remove, though, not being on the ‘set’ as it were, was a real challenge; every problem was magnified by the repetitions that were necessary – and all those actors with neighbours who decide now is the perfect time to drill into the party wall! Jessica and I really bonded over the problems, admitting to occasionally shrieking as some slip happened again and again. But also, I found myself laughing out loud listening to actors apologising for burps or shrieking in their own frustration at some word that would.not.come.out.right; or sighing happily at the perfect rendition of a particular phrase.

I have to be honest; I wouldn’t choose to do it like this. I now know not to rely on an audition recording, and to audition over Zoom. Compared to being in the studio, remote recording is time consuming and frustrating, but needs must in lockdown, and when it goes well, it is a joy.

The absolute best experience has been recording A Voice Coming From Then by Jeremy Dixon. Because of the sensitive material, I asked Jeremy who he wanted to read. We agreed that the reader must be a queer man, and of roughly the same age as Jeremy. Shared understanding of what it was like growing up ‘then’ was really important. I put a call out to actors I knew and to the narrators we were already working with as the people most likely to know someone; and Sophie Aldred, who has narrated two novels for us, immediately suggested Nigel Pilkington. Initially I had in my mind that we were trying to replicate Jeremy’s approach, if not actual voice, as a 15 year old and as an adult, but in the course of auditioning, with Jeremy listening in, we discovered that what was needed was a voice that was, in essence, the reader, reading for the first time – which gave a very necessary steer for what the listening experience would be – this is a book wreathed in content warnings, the tone had to be exactly right.

Nigel read some of the poems  for us on the spot, and it was an emphatic yes, and the resulting files sent off to Jessica for technical approval. Short delay while Jeremy reformatted his carefully laid out and largely unpunctuated poems, so that they could be read aloud without faltering.

Nigel asked if we wanted to listen in via zoom while he recorded. I hadn’t expected that, and it was brilliant, almost like being in the studio, immediate feedback, live performance, and very moving. We just had to remember to mute when we’d finished saying how wonderful every take was! We had, of course, chosen the hottest day of the year, and Nigel was expiring in his recording cupboard, but five hours later we had a complete book.

Jeremy Dixon, Author

My first full poetry collection A VOICE COMING FROM THEN (published by Arachne Press) starts with my teenage suicide attempt and expands to encompass themes of bullying, queerphobia, acceptance and support. In one of those unplanned cosmic coincidences that you just couldn’t make up, we actually recorded the audiobook on the 42nd anniversary of that suicide attempt. So, for me, lockdown recording was very emotional before we even started and then the beautiful and varied ways in which Nige was able to read my work only added to making this one of the most memorable events of my writing career.

Usually the author would not be present in the studio during recording but one of unexpected benefits of lockdown was that it enabled me to be involved via the wonders of Zoom. My editor Cherry was also there, and we could both give small directions in pacing, emphasis, and pronunciation although Nige didn’t really need very much of this, his readings were so fantastic that I kept thinking, ‘I would love this poem if somebody else had written it’. We recorded the audiobook on what was the hottest day of the year so far and so had many breaks for water and food etc, but I was still surprised that it took nearly five hours to record everything from introduction to poems to acknowledgements.

For a writer and poet, it was an invaluable insight into the processes involved in creating an audiobook and I feel very grateful that lockdown enabled me to be a part of it.

Nigel Pilkington, Actor

Being a voice actor during lockdown?  The myth of the Hydra springs to mind! – we’ve needed to grow many more heads for the many more hats that have rained down on us.  When you record a book in an external studio, your entire focus can be on your performance.  But when recording from home, you’re also tasked with the jobs of engineer, sound editor, and sometimes director, and it’s easy to let the performance be pushed to the back of the queue.

Not so when recording A Voice Coming From Then by Jeremy Dixon, published by Arachne Press, as we took our time, allowing Jeremy’s poignant and careful words to be intoned with sensitivity.  After each poem, I’d break to label the files, and this actually afforded me a natural gear change between pieces, so that each one could be approached on its merits, rather than rattling through the entire script in one pass.

So, as much as recording in lockdown has been vexing, it did actually work to our advantage in this case… and I managed NOT to lose my head…!

Jessica Stone, Producer

I have both sympathy and admiration for voice actors who’ve been forced to transition from professional studio to recording at home. Not everyone has access to quiet, non-reverberant spaces, and it can be a steep learning curve to work well with the technical equipment and recording software. This means that the raw recordings I receive from actors can vary significantly in how much interference they need from me! In this case, however, Nigel made my job as easy as it gets, with the happy result that I was free to enjoy Jeremy’s text and Nigel’s performance as I worked. I am especially fond of ‘I’m learning to shout “Oi!”’ 

#LoveAudio is the Publisher’s Association annual week-long digital celebration of audiobooks is designed to showcase the accessibility, innovation, and creativity of the format. Follow the hashtag on twitter.

A Voice Coming from Then will be published by Arachne Press in August 2021. It is available for pre-order now, from our webshop.

In Lockdown Conversation No2: Paula Read and Lily Peters

Mother and Daughter authors, Paula Read (Stations) and Lily Peters (Noon, An Outbreak of Peace), speak by phone from their respective lockdown locations.

A first in the lockdown series, with audio!

You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.

If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, we recommend Hive for ePub.

In Lockdown Conversation no 1: Elizabeth Stott and Kelly Davis


Kelly Davis (Dusk) and Elizabeth Stott (We/She) in Conversation


Elizabeth: You and I were introduced over a decade ago by a writer friend, who said something along the lines of: ‘Kelly is a very clever Oxford graduate, and editor.’ I was a little daunted but found you to be a warm and open person. I remember us both taking our then teenage sons for a guitar masterclass at Maryport Blues Festival. Mum’s taxi service! If I were asked to describe you now, I might say (teasingly): ‘Kelly is a girly swot with passion and principles. And she is an excellent poet!’ And I have been fortunate to see you grow as a writer of poetry.

Kelly: Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I remember first seeing you read one of your beautifully crafted, slightly chilling short stories at a literary event in Cockermouth, and later bumping into you at the Words by the Water Festival in Keswick, where we both chair sessions. The Cumbrian literary scene is very lively and in 2017 our mutual friend Kathleen Jones (along with Jacci Bulman and Nicola Jackson) edited Write to Be Counted, a poetry anthology to uphold human rights and raise money for PEN. We both had poems in this anthology and enjoyed reading together at several events, including a launch at the Poetry Café in London. In 2018, we were both placed in the Magma magazine subscribers’ poetry competition. Now we are also connected through our involvement with Arachne Press. In my case, this came about through Barbara Renel, who lives in Wigton. Barbara is a writer of short stories and flash fiction and a long-time friend of Arachne. She asked for Solstice Shorts contributions from people who attend the SpeakEasy sessions in Carlisle and that was how I ended up submitting poems to Arachne.

Elizabeth: Your Dusk poem ‘Calling Them In’, with its echoing lines, is haunting and deeply unsettling. The form is unusual. Perhaps you could unpack it for me?

Kelly: ‘Calling Them In’ started simply as a response to Arachne’s call-out. I Googled the word ‘dusk’ and found references to children being called in from play and that made me remember my sons playing in the school grounds near our house. I used to call ‘Come home for your tea!’ over the back fence. But on one occasion, they were nowhere to be found – and I had that feeling of dread that all mothers of young children get when they suddenly slip out of sight. In fact they were just playing in some other part of the grounds, out of earshot, but the poem developed into a meditation on time stealing our children. The repetition occurs because I originally wrote it as a valanga (which means ‘avalanche’). This little-known poetic form was invented by Cumbrian author and poet Mike Smith (aka Brindley Hallam Dennis) in around 2007 and it suddenly went viral in Cumbrian writing circles 10 years later. Cherry edited the poem down a bit for the Dusk anthology but some of the repetition remains and I think it creates a sense of threat, which is amplified as the poem goes on.

Elizabeth: When you write poetry, do you have to stop the editor in you from getting in the way? It seems to me that you are able to let your imagination and feelings out, without a leash, and bring them back with a light hand to form your work.

Kelly: That’s a very good question, Elizabeth. My day job involves editing non-fiction where everything has to be crystal clear so it’s easy for me to fall into traps such as explaining too much at the beginning or end of a poem, or trying to manipulate the reader’s response. My poems tend to come very quickly, in a burst of inspiration, often triggered by personal experiences or memories. I then need to revisit them repeatedly, at intervals, to edit them effectively. This process can take a long time and may involve happenstance. For instance, I once wrote a poem called ‘White Gladioli’ that ended very abruptly and I put it aside, as I had no idea how to complete it. I later saw that Mslexia magazine were asking for specular poems. The specular form gave me the ‘other half’ of the poem and I was overjoyed when Mslexia published it in 2017.


Elizabeth, I know you write novels, short stories, flash fiction and poetry. How has your writing developed and what makes you choose a particular form?

Elizabeth: I had a lifelong notion that I should ‘write’, but didn’t take the idea seriously until mid-life, when I had a young family and needed an intellectual outlet. I had been used to writing in a business context, where work-related reports had to be concise, precise and structured. When I started writing fiction, I began to relate what I had learned about technical writing to so-called ‘creative writing’. My writing style in fiction has always been on the lean side, so my stories are often under 3000 words or so. Flash throws down a gauntlet and makes you ask yourself: ‘Why are you writing this?’ It’s a good way to find out what matters in a narrative. I am still in an early relationship with flash. It exposes a concept and it takes a bit of courage from the writer to recognise weaknesses.

Regarding poetry; years ago, I attended a local creative writing class where my notions of fiction were challenged, and I was introduced to the idea that I could also have a go at writing poetry. Experimenting with poetry made me re-engage with language and seemed to open out my prose.

What I start to write at any given time depends very much on my mood. For fiction, I like it best when I have a clear sense of a character. If I start with an idea, I find it harder to bring the piece to life. Writing a poem can help to evoke something. Even if the poem itself is not successful, it allows a rhythm and voice to emerge that gives a sense of where a prose piece may lead. I am very sound driven.

Kelly, you studied English Literature at Oxford. Did this encourage you to write creatively or did you find it inhibiting? Why did you choose poetry as your medium, and have you tried other forms?

Kelly: I loved writing poems as a child and a teenager but, sadly, studying Eng Lit at Oxford did stifle my creativity. Poetry became something to be pulled apart and analysed, and I no longer dared to write my own. It was only when I came to live in Cumbria in 1989 that I started tentatively writing again. And finally, about ten years ago, I started taking my own writing a bit more seriously. Like you, I value clarity and brevity. Perhaps that’s why I find poets like Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver particularly appealing. Poetry can be very intense – packing a great deal of thought and emotion into relatively few words. There’s something magical about the idea of writing a few lines that can stay in someone’s memory for ever. I have tried writing flash fiction and I have a few pages of an abandoned historical novel – but poetry seems to be my natural mode of expression.

A lot of writers study English Literature as I did, but you made a more unusual choice when you decided to do a physics degree. How do you think your interest in science has influenced your writing?

Elizabeth: My experience is that physics graduates end up doing all kinds of things. But I think it is more to do with having a mosaic mind in my case. I was pretty good at a variety of subjects at school, including languages, and I loved writing long essays for my English homework When my kids were small, I took a career break and needed something to call my own so I started writing articles and stories. I bought a typewriter in Boots whilst my two-year-old daughter demolished the stationery counter.

Studying science requires you to think in a structured, logical way and helps you develop a sense of pattern and a feeling for the direction of an argument. It also introduces fundamental ideas about what lies beneath everyday life and develops a sense of the scale of things, and the place of humankind in the immensity of ‘what is’. I was particularly interested in cosmology, and ideas about life elsewhere in the universe. This led me to marvel at how human beings can contemplate the vastness of existence with leaps of scale that dwarf our lives into insignificance. Our awareness is like a tiny flash of light in the immense darkness!

Kelly, on this subject – the fragility of individual lives – some of your poetry deals with your Jewish ancestry and the impact of the Holocaust on your family. Perhaps you could share how you think about these themes, and how it brings you to write about them in poetry, rather than another form.

Kelly: I am haunted by my grandfather’s story, and I’ve written several poems about him. He was a Lithuanian Jew and his family sent him to South Africa in the late 1930s, in the hope that he would make his fortune and send for them. But in 1941, before he had earned enough to pay their passage, he received a letter via the Red Cross from a good friend, telling him that his entire family had been shot into a mass grave. His friend crawled out from under the bodies, escaped and survived. But when the friend returned to his hometown after the war, his ex-neighbours (who had taken his house) murdered him. I don’t feel able to write about these events in any medium other than poetry. It enables me to distil the emotion and try to find a universal resonance. Of course these terrible stories are still happening all over the world – in Syria and many other countries.

To get back to your writing, Elizabeth, I very much enjoyed your story ‘One Beautiful Day’, published in the 2018 We/She Arachne Press anthology. I wondered what made you think of writing about a pair of aging married opera singers on a provincial tour? The story is written in the third person and entirely from the woman’s perspective. What made you decide to write it like that?

Elizabeth: I was inspired by an unusual event organised by a local arts society, which took place on a dark winter evening at a Cumbrian village hall more frequently used to host Brownies, playgroups and WI meetings. It was billed as an evening of opera, with a dinner prepared by a local chef. Two professional opera singers and a pianist, who had all performed at leading international venues, delivered a remarkable evening of music. They wore full evening dress and performed from a makeshift stage, amidst the children’s dangling Christmas snowflakes, surrounded by stacks of plastic chairs. The pianist, more used to a grand piano, played an electronic keyboard, perched (probably uncomfortably) on two of the stacked chairs, his evening tails hanging down behind him. The performers delivered their music as if from a London stage, with much grace and humour, whilst we ate our dinner on fold-out tables. There was a raffle, of course, mostly for alcoholic beverages. It was a remarkable insight into the life of touring musicians, performing largely for love, and little money. (Much like the life of a writer really!) My characters were fiction, I must add.

On the question of point of view for the story. You have to start somewhere. Sometimes, as the story progresses, it seems that it would work better from the first person, or in another tense. If I am not getting the right vibe, then I will try another perspective. A story must seem natural, even if it is clearly an artifact. There must always be a gap for the reader to inhabit. Grounding it too much will make the story fall flat. With this story, there is a little distance, and a formality, a wry humour, but we can still hear Reneé’s voice through the narrator. I kept the third person to allow me to pull away from the immediacy, and avoid the more obvious aspects of first person, which can be a little too ‘up close and personal’. I wanted to keep a wry perspective and allow the sensibilities of others to cast a light back, and Reneé’s misery could have dominated in the first person. I do use first person and I often play with tenses. Even second person, sometimes. Variety is one of the reasons why I like short fiction, both as a writer and reader.

Kelly, tell me about your plans to get more of your poetry published. It seems that independent presses, such as Arachne, play an important part in bringing new writers to light.

Kelly: I feel I’ve developed my own voice as a poet, and I have a reasonable body of work so I would love to get a pamphlet (or maybe even a collection) published. I am submitting where I see opportunities to do so. However, there are so many talented poets competing for airtime/publishing contracts that one has to be both patient and determined. I often get very warm responses from audience members when I read at poetry events – and that encourages me to keep writing and submitting. What are your writing plans, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: I hope one of these days to finish a novel. I have a few that, for various reasons, I have not finished. And I’d like to get together new collections of my stories. I have also toyed with the idea of writing a play. I enjoyed watching actors engage with my Liars’ League stories in live readings. Of course, Arachne collects and publishes selected Liars’ League stories in its anthologies, and that’s where my story for We/She came from.


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