Lockdown Intervews: no27 Laura Besley interviewed by Joanne L. M. Williams

Twenty-seventh in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

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Laura Besley (Story Cities) interviewed by Joanne L. M. Williams (No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, We/She)

Joanne L M Williams

Joanne LM Williams

Joanne:        You have several flash fictions published, including your collection The Other Mothers, and a piece in Arachne’s Story Cities. What is it about shorter fiction that you especially enjoy? Do you also write using other forms, or is flash fiction always your preference?

Laura:    When I first started writing I had no intention of becoming a short fiction writer. I’ve always read a lot, but novels, and had initially seen that as my only path. However, when I first started writing, I had lots of ideas, but struggled to get past a few cohesive sentences, or paragraphs.
I stumbled across Calum Kerr online and his challenge to write a piece of flash fiction every day for a year. I decided to do the same and started in May 2012. Some of the pieces were fine, some were terrible, some were never finished, but I learned a lot about myself as a writer in that time, the most important being that I had fallen in love with short fiction and the precision needed to tell a story.
I don’t feel ready to take the leap into longer fiction yet, but I’m fairly sure I will one day.

Joanne:        When did you start writing fiction? Have you done so since you were young?

Laura:    I remember writing a story about a fairground when I was about nine or ten, but that’s the extent of my childhood writing experience. I started writing again when I was in my late twenties, while I was living in Germany. Initially I was writing non-fiction, about my travels and experiences there. Once I’d moved to Hong Kong, I started writing fiction.

Joanne:        Do you have a daily or weekly schedule or pattern for writing? How does this fit in with the rest of your life?

Laura:    I have two young children (six and two) and have to fit my writing in around them. Before lockdown, I used to write while my eldest was at school and my youngest was napping. Now, I’m lucky that my husband is working from home and I write every morning from 7:30-9:00 before he needs the office, and I need to take over the childcare.  I’m a morning person, so this works well for me. Once the children are in bed, I’m usually too tired to write new things, but do other writing-related things for an hour or so like editing or submitting.

Joanne:        Where do you write? Do you have a particular place you always sit to work for example, or any associated rituals, or can you write anywhere?

Laura:    I can write anywhere, in a supermarket queue or while my son is having a swimming lesson, but my preference is in cafés. I like the cacophony; the snippets of overheard conversations, people watching, the small interactions you have with strangers, the coffee. Obviously at the moment that’s not possible, so I’m either in our office or at the kitchen table.

Joanne:        How has your experience of living in different countries and cultures influenced your writing?

Laura:    Directly, not a lot. I’ve only written a few stories set in other countries (I’ve lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong), but everything you see and experience gets filed away. I hope one day to write about these places that have played a big part in my life.

Joanne:        What are your literary influences and who are some of your favourite writers?

Laura:    Always a tough question because there are too many to mention. My current favourite authors are Elizabeth Strout, most famous for her novel-in-stories: Olive Kitteridge; Kate Atkinson, I think her companion novels Life After Life and A God in Ruins are perfection; and Maggie O’Farrell whose books I love, but it was also after reading an article by her wherein she stated that if you wanted to write, you should “take yourself seriously”. I think that advice completely changed my attitude towards writing.

Joanne:        Do you ever write specifically in response to prompts, or call-outs for work on a particular theme, and do you find this useful? Or does your inspiration mainly come from other sources?

Laura:    I often write to prompts or call-outs for particular themes, but not exclusively. If I have an idea about something, I’ll jot it down and maybe it won’t be used for months, or years, but I never throw anything away.

Joanne:        Flash fiction is less well known, and perhaps less easy to find, than other fiction forms. Are there any online sources of shorter fiction, or printed collections, that you would recommend?

Laura:    There are so many online journals for flash fiction, too many to mention here, but I’ll list a few of my favourites: Adhoc Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, Fifty Word Stories, Lunate, Reflex Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, Spelk.
Something relatively new, but gaining popularity fast, is the novella-in-flash: a novella, but each chapter is a piece of standalone flash fiction. I’ve read a few recently and really enjoyed them: An Inheritance by Diane Simmons (Adhoc), Dinosaur by Adam Lock (Ellipsis), Three Sisters of Stone by Stephanie Hutton (Ellipsis), The Neverlands by Damhnait Monaghan (VPress), Tethered by Ross Jeffery.

Joanne:        What is your own favourite piece (or pieces) that you’ve written and why?

Laura:           I’ve chosen three pieces that are very special to me.

  • ‘Near and Far’ (Spelk, 2018) holds a few threads of my mother’s childhood, she was born and spent the first few years of her childhood in Indonesia;
  • ‘That Apple’ (Fictive Dream, 2018) was my first ever journal publication. It’s written in 2nd person point of view and I know popular opinion generally doesn’t favour this, but personally I love it and use it whenever I can.
  • ‘The Motherhood Contract’ (Ellipsis, 2018) is about a mother who is struggling and there is a lot of my early motherhood emotions in this piece.

Joanne:        Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

Laura:    As well as individual pieces, I’m also working on a novella-in-flash. It’s been several years in the making, but am hoping that this is the year I finish it. I’ve also found myself writing about the current situation a lot, either my own experiences or fictional ones. If there are enough good pieces, hopefully I’ll be able to bundle them together.

Lockdown Interviews: no26 Laura Potts, interviewed by Anne Macaulay

Twenty-sixth in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor. Laura Potts (Time and Tide) interviewed by fellow poet, Anne Macaulay (The Other Side of Sleep, Vindication)

 

Laura potts

Anne family tales

Anne: Hello Laura, it’s been really enjoyable reading some of your beautiful poetry. I would like to ask you a few questions about you and your writing. The first thing that struck me when I read a little about you is how young you are, and how prolific and successful already. I must confess to a feeling of envy, as I didn’t really start writing until my late fifties and even then, it took me a while to think of myself as a poet. Can you remember when you first wrote a poem and when you first thought of yourself as a poet?

Laura:  Hello Anne!  Thank you for your kind comments.
The exact age when I started writing is unremembered, but I must have been very young. I’ve always written in one way or another. Prose could hold my attention for an afternoon, but poetry always stayed with me. I think it was the music. It was lovely on the tongue. Can I remember the first time I wrote a poem? No, I don’t think so. But I can remember writing limericks for my dad in the evenings. I must have been six or seven then. I would slip them under the door of his shed as he worked. It was my way of welcoming him home.
I’ve tended not to think myself as a poet in recent years. I write poetry, yes; but it isn’t my profession. There’s a slight distinction to my mind. My work is still wild and juvenile, and I have a lot to learn. The title is something I’m still reaching for.

Anne:  Are you from a background of literature lovers? Who or what sparked your interest in poetry and writing? Who were your early influences – family, friends, teachers?

Laura:  I was lucky enough to be born into an older household where my grandparents had a constant presence. I was their only grandchild, and it was as if they grew young again when I came along. For two octogenarians, they played and danced and threw snowballs in winter, and paper planes in summer, and made dens and spinning worlds out of living room furniture. They gave me endless time. My grandmother taught me to read. She collected dusty books and poetry. I spent many evenings by the fire, lost in the folds of her dressing gown, listening to her read in her great gravelly voice. That was where it came from. Nothing taught or learnt. Just two bright imaginations.

Anne:  Your writing is beautiful with a lyrical, musical quality. And some of your poems have the atmosphere of folk ballads. Is music a big part of your life? Do you play, listen, at all?

Laura:  Yes. It’s strange, but I’ve always heard music in terms of colour and light. A piano is usually blue; a drum is gold; pipes are silver. I don’t have the words for explaining why. It’s an emotional impulse rather than a rational thought.
I play the ukulele and the piano – both equally badly. My mother is an excellent pianist and my father a fine bagpiper, but I’ve never quite had their talent. I love to listen to the piano in the evenings though. Especially through bathwater. Have you tried that? Our piano sits in the room below the bathroom and its aqueous music is beautiful. It’s like warm running water.

Anne:  There is a real feel of flow, fluency in your work, Laura, which made me wonder about your writing method and approach. Where do you get your ideas? Do they just come as moments of inspiration?

Laura:  Difficult question! I suppose my poems aren’t born as ideas as such. They’re the responses of emotions I’m living at the time of writing. I’ll be aware, for example, that I want to write about love, or grief, or anger, and my thinking will revolve around adequately translating those emotions to the page. But I’ll never set out to write a sonnet or a haiku or a narrative poem, and it’s rare that I’ll set out to write to a particular theme. Ian Duhig once gave me some valuable advice which has stayed with me. He said that writing is a process of carrying emotion, and that you’ll never know where the poem will go until you get there. The thinking and feeling processes are just as important as the writing process. There’s some freedom in realising that, and in letting time take its course. The poems are better for thinking on.

Anne:  And do you do much editing – do you worry over a piece?

Laura:  Yes, of course. There are times when I love and loathe my work. It’s a constant fight against language. I tend to edit as I write, which makes the process long and laborious, but I’ve learnt to expect the best results that way. A poem can keep me awake at night – for both the right and the wrong reasons. It often brings pleasure and pain. But I’ve come to see that each mistake paves the way towards progress. It’s taken a long time for me to accept that. There’s a reason I keep writing. The love outweighs anything else.

Anne:  I asked at the beginning about your earliest influences and am wondering now about later influences through academic study and independent reading. I also read that you have been involved in a number of writing groups and projects.
Are there any poets or other writers who you feel inspired you to become a writer? Did any of them influence your writing style?

Laura:  Yes, many. I’ve always believed that the best writers are the best readers. It’s important to step outside the vacuum of your own thoughts and into the work of others. I’ll often find the tracings of other writers in my poems, especially those I was reading at the time of writing. I see Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings and Liz Berry. In certain lights, I see memorable parts of prose and music. Most of them are only subconscious ghosts, fragments of one moment when their words chimed with mine.

Anne:  While beautiful, there is an atmosphere of melancholy and sometimes bleakness in many of your poems that I have read. Are you drawn to these subjects from an aesthetic and sensitive care for human’s viewpoint? How much of you as a person, your story, your personality slips into your words or are you able to keep at a remove?

Laura:  I think it’s fairly impossible for writers to place themselves at a remove from their work. Their language, their semantics, their structure – they all betray parts of the person who chose them. If I were trying to be objective, I would say that my poems are always concerned with the landscape of my home. Whether Yorkshire exists in them or not, I see it. And I think they’re fascinated with sadness. It’s something I’m still trying to understand. There’s a longing or a loss in there somewhere. I think there’s one in me too.

Anne:  Some of your poems have a timeless feel to them such as First Light which is in the Time and Tide anthology by Arachne Press – see your opening lines,
  It is somewhere in a sometime
That a long late night

And others feel more contemporary such as Morning on the Water where I love the visceral quality of the line,
    Poured a hot greasy laugh
Are you seeing your writing develop or change as you go along, or do you have a range of styles you work in?

Laura:  Yes, it develops from one poem to the next. The progress of my voice has been gradual, like a slow opening of thought. I’ve never set out to have a style as such, but I suppose I’m a very imagistic writer. I don’t like wasting words. With each poem, I try to hone that craft a little more.
I’m sure many readers will be familiar with the process of applying for grants or awards, and the ridiculously long application forms which go with them. Recently, I started thinking about why I dislike them so much. It isn’t the foundation or the reasoning behind them, and it isn’t the time I have to spend on them. It’s the fact that I love to work with a blank white page and play with a limited space. And I wish I didn’t have to spend five thousand words explaining that.
But since that realisation, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the blank space of the page – to its absences and silences – in my recent work. I’ve come to see that what isn’t said is just as important as what is. That’s the development which has just begun.

Anne:  And do you have a poem that is a favourite or has a special story that you would like to pick out?

Laura:  Yes. Virginity will always be a special one. It was written after a long period of absence when I had managed to write very little. For a time I thought I would never write again. I took myself away, alone, to a secluded cottage in the Lake District. With time and solitude, I managed to write. More than that – I was pleased with the poem. It was a small triumph at the time. It still is. The experience was necessary. It taught me that the words will come back, even after a long absence. I’ve been writing ever since.

Anne:  I have really enjoyed reading some of your work in preparation for this interview and look forward to reading more in the future. Good luck, Laura.

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If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

Author Guest Blog: Emma Lee – Significant Dresses

The title poem from my Arachne Press collection, The Significance of a Dress, is set in a wedding hire shop in a refugee camp in Iraq. People can be left in limbo, unable to return to the country they’ve left, and not yet able to integrate into the country they’ve applied for asylum in. Processing applications is rarely a priority and people can find themselves in camps for years, decades even. The camps’ residents are mostly young men. One reason is that they don’t have caring responsibilities so it’s easier for them to travel alone and they’re often sent on ahead, with other relatives planning to join them once they’ve settled. Another reason is that they are at risk of being conscripted either into the armed forces or into rebel militia. While girls don’t generally have that concern, girls do have to find ways of coping with sexual harassment and finding protection. In the camps, refugees are still expected to pay for food and utilities. Women can find themselves thrust into finding ways of becoming a family’s main breadwinner. No doubt some marriages are love matches, but others are about buying protection or settling dowries. Whatever the motivation behind the marriage, “a bride still wants to feel special, at least for one day.” When “The future is tomorrow. Next year is a question./ A wedding is a party, a sign of hope.”

In most cultures, a bride-to-be is made to feel that a wedding dress is the most significant choice she has. It may be an heirloom dress, worn by a mother or grandmother. It may be a dress of her choosing that incorporates memories of family members who can no longer attend the wedding, whether a sash in a late relative’s favourite colour, a borrowed pair of shoes, or a favourite flower in the bride’s bouquet. Some women have been planning their dress long before there was a groom. Whether the bride is looking for an extravagant ballgown or a slinky sheath for a beach wedding, or a trouser suit, it’s also likely to be the most expensive dress she’ll buy. Most brides will plan to shop with close friends or relatives, with the expectation of being put centre stage with a wide choice to try on. Where do you find a wedding dress if you’re stuck in a camp, possibly with restrictions on where you can travel and shop, and still under cultural pressure to make your day significant?

In one camp a woman, who’d worked in the fashion industry, set up a wedding hire shop to earn for her family. The title poem is based on an interview with her. The dresses were original brought in via her former fashion industry contacts, but she also uses seamstresses based in the camp to repair and alter gowns. A team of beauticians offer hair and make-up styling that won’t melt in the desert heat and will stay in place in the humid evenings so that the bride can have her big day. There is a risk some of the brides are underage, and the staff in the shop never ask the bride-to-be how old she is. A small group of women can’t police a camp, and they understand the desperation of a family.

My poem Casting a Daughter Adrift (from Time and Tide), looks at a wedding from a mother’s viewpoint. This mother has turned to needlework to earn money to feed the family, but it aware she can’t offer much protection against the harassment in the camps, “This man I have agreed to/ in her father’s absence/ I hope will protect her.” The journey from what was hope to the camp has aged her, “The shop’s cracked, foxed mirror/ tells me I’m decades older than my bones.” Neither of them can go back, “The house she was born in is rubble”. Yet she still wants this day to be special for her daughter, “The final payment is the last of my savings/ but I have one less mouth to feed.” Despite her desperation, she is proud of her daughter, “I’m going to let her go,/ my desert flower will bloom.”

Whatever your feelings on marriage, whether you want to get married or not, it’s hard to resist the idea of a wedding as a celebration and a note of hope amongst people whose lives have been devastated by war.

Emma Lee is a regular contributor to our anthologies, and her collection The Significance of a Dress, really fell foul of the Corona virus, with multiple events cancelled, and one of the launches delayed and venue moved. Instead of moping (which must have been tempting) Emma has been very generous with her time, writing this blog and contributing interviews to the website.

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

Preorder No Spider Harmed…  (Another anthology with a poem by Emma in it) out 8th August for our eighth anniversary.

If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

 

Lockdown Interviews no25: Joan Taylor-Rowan interviewed by Alex Penland

Author Joan Taylor-Rowan (Five by Five, Stations, London Lies)

interviewed by Alex Penland (Story Cities)

 

 

Alex:    How did publishing The Birdskin Shoes change your writing process? How did it alter your view of publishing?

Joan:    Firstly a bit of background. The novel was a finalist in a SpreadtheWord novel pitch competition. Buoyed by the response, I completed it and sent it to an agent. The first email from an agent was the kind you dream about – I have it pinned above my computer – but she said it needed work. I duly rewrote it, but despite the changes she decided not to take me on. I had an editor look at it, to give me insights into necessary changes before trying again. The editor loved it and suggested another agent who did take me on. At the time I wasn’t sure that she was the right agent for me, but bruised by my first encounter, it didn’t really occur to me to turn her down. She sent the book out to seven publishers but while they all liked it, no-one said yes.

I decided back in 2012, that if I really believed in the novel I should self-publish. Again I am not a techie so this was a huge learning curve and I was very proud of it. But what I hadn’t really thought out was the amount of work required in promoting it, and you really do have to be doing this full-time. There were a number of things I learned about the publishing process from this:

  • choose the agent who is right for your work, don’t just accept the person who takes it
  • just because that agent does not get a publisher don’t assume it’s not publishable. I found out later that agents do not approach everyone, only those publishers with whom they have built up a relationship
  •  once it was self-published, even with good reviews, no agent would then take it on, however that has changed now, but you have to show that it is successful
  • you can write a book that people love but you still might not get a publisher for all sorts of reasons, only one of which is the quality of the writing
  • at least by self-publishing the book it is not in a drawer under my bed, gathering dust
  • getting an agent seems like a miracle but even that is just the very beginning of a long and perilous journey

It did make me much more aware of the commercial side of writing – not that I think anyone should write with that in mind, but if publishing your work is your aim, you have to know and be aware of where your book fits in and what else is out there. It’s harder if you write literary fiction than genre fiction. I learned just how hard it is to write a novel, what a long process it is. It did make me much less judgmental about other writers. Just to complete a novel is a huge achievement. I prefer the intensity of the short story in terms of writing, but I read more novels than short story collections, because I enjoy the immersive quality of a novel.

 

Alex:   The stories in Five by Five are quite different from each other, one set in the 1970’s and one in the Mexican revolution. How did you come to write Bittersweet Like Pomegranates, and The Bet?

Joan:   I’ve always been fascinated by Manet’s painting  of The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, which is in The National Gallery. It’s very large to start with, and the firing squad are life size. In the painting they are standing very close to the emperor and have already fired the shots so you are there  before he dies but after the bullets have left the guns. It made me wonder what it would feel like to have to stand and kill someone who was unarmed. The men are soldiers and are used to combat but this would be very different. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico and so I decided to read up about this emperor and what had lead to the execution. To a large extent he was a pawn and in fact was not bad as emperors go. He encouraged land reform for example.
I began to think about the moral dilemma a soldier might face, especially if he had a child. How might such an event affect him? How would he look his child in the eye? So that is how the story, Bitter Sweet Like Pomegranates evolved.
The Bet, a story set against the background of the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s,  is a little more grounded in my own experience. My mother was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, and my Irish cousin did send my tomboy sister a rubber bullet.  I can still remember the shock of seeing this enormous hard object when I was expecting something the size of a conventional bullet. It transformed my understanding of the news. When rubber bullets were fired, or people were hit with rubber bullets, I knew what that meant.  It represented a coming of age – a step into adulthood where suddenly something that seemed the world of a child – a squidgy bullet, is suddenly  revealed for what it truly is, a potentially lethal weapon. Luckily my grandpa was not killed with one, that’s where the fiction comes in. However we did all watch the Eurovision song contest, and I wanted to use that as a way of bringing in my mother’s mixed allegiance – she was both British and Irish and that caused her difficulties at times.

 

Alex:    Do you have a literary philosophy–something that you try to include in all your work?

Joan:    Hmm..that’s an interesting question. I really believe in the redemptive, life-saving qualities of art and literature, and a love of words and the imaginative life often feature in my stories, even though I don’t plan it that way.  I also like to learn something I didn’t know through reading, whether it’s about a different community or some area of knowledge and if I can I’ll try and get an interesting fact in.

 

Alex:    What are your different approaches to poetry and prose? Does one come more easily than the other?

Joan:    I rarely write poetry, although I used to in my twenties. In many ways I wish I did. I like performing my work, and having an audience. That’s much more likely with poetry. There are fewer opportunities for short story writers to have their work heard. However I have written lyrics for a musical based on one of my short stories (with a post-graduate composer who heard one of my stories at an event and approached me to collaborate.) I’ve also written lyrics for a pantomime for a friend who teachers A level drama. I enjoy writing lyrics as they are part of a narrative.

 

Alex:    Do you have any strange or funny writing stories? 

Joan:    After I self-published my novel, I had postcards printed which I left in various shops, galleries etc in London. As it was set in Mexico, I left some in a Mexican gift shop in the Columbia Road flower market in London. A year or so later I signed up for a digital textile class at The City Lit in London. I woman arrived late and breathless and the only seat left was next to me. We both opened our computers to display the images we had brought in to inspire our textiles – hers were of Mexican streets. I commented on them, as mine too were of Mexico. I was there a few years ago, I said, in fact I loved it so much I wrote a novel set there – The Birdskin Shoes. Her jaw dropped. I’ve read that she said. I picked up the card in a gift shop in Columbia Road flower market. I loved it! It was a real Twilight Zone moment.

 

 

Alex:    What do you have coming down the pipeline? What’s next?

Joan:    I’m completing an M.A. in Creative Writing at Chichester University at the moment, and I am working on a novel for that. I’ve also been sending a lot of stories out to competitions although they are a long shot but it makes me revisit and hone my work. I set up a creative writing course in Hastings – and I’ve really enjoyed teaching that and I’m hoping to do more once lockdown is over. I’m also working on a couple of children’s picture books with my sister who is a greeting card designer. Those will be in rhyme, so maybe I have not quite left the poetry behind after all.

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, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

watch Joan read The Bet at Hither Green Festival last year – we would have been there this week, were it not for the cursed covid.

Lockdown readings: ‘Here’

Samuel Wright reads his short story, Here.

So you all know we don’t publish horror, right? This is as close as we get. It’s fairly horrific, but the quiet way the story is told is what matters. when this file arrived I responded to Sam immediately, saying this sounds exactly like it does in my head.

Published in Dusk, (one of our Solstice Shorts anthologies) Here was performed live, in Carlisle and Rossendale, at dusk, on 21st December 2017.

You can buy Dusk from our webshop, we will post it to you.

If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

One Beautiful Day – Elizabeth Stott – In Lockdown

Author Elizabeth Stott reads her witty, lovely story of music and a tired marriage, One Beautiful Day, fromour Liars’ League anthology, We/She

You can buy We/She (or other books!) from our webshop, we will post them out to you.

If you would prefer eBooks, all our titles are available from your usual retailer, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

Guest Blog: Stories about stories by Margaret Crompton

Margaret Crompton (No Spider Harmed in the Making of This Book) responds to a comment in Sarah Lawson‘s Lockdown Interview.

Sarah Lawson’s reflection that ‘Somehow poems don’t seem to be coming,’ (Lockdown Interview: No 3, 8th April 2020) has given me much to think about. Like her, I ‘d imagined this time-out-of-time would provide opportunity for writing.  As Script in Hand rehearsals and performance had been cancelled, I would seek consolation in writing a new play (Guest Blog, 15th April 2020).  First, however, I would tidy my study. I attacked a desk drawer and evicted my collection of dried-out felt tips. Since then, the study has become even untidier.

Like Sarah, we already spent most of our time at home, each in her/his own study, with a pattern which we intended to maintain. But time and energy were immediately directed to setting up new systems, daily emails with family and friends, and (reluctantly) registering for our estate Community Group Facebook. I identified preparation, transition and settling, (I’d been a social worker), and entered ‘Fortress Crompton’ – which was, I quickly understood, exactly wrong: we should become open, available – not enclosed.

As members of the ‘high risk’ cohort, I sought ways to be contributors as well as receivers, thinking sadly, ‘We have only words.’ Only words? A few years ago, we’d turned from ‘professional’ writing (Communicating with children; English literature) to exploring short stories, poetry. We had accumulated an archive which, we realised, we could freely share with family, friends, and neighbours. We compiled a catalogue from which pieces can be chosen for me to email. This provides stimulus for conversations which don’t focus on C-19, and one piece often leads to others in intriguing sequences.

With a Polish friend/neighbour, I’m translating a folk story to make a book for his daughter.  And a young friend is writing an email serial story with me; she responded to my opening ‘Once upon a time…’ with a challenge which took me days to follow.

I’d been attempting my first novella. I’m most comfortable with short form, and have recently been revelling in flash fiction compression. The novella minimum 25,000 words was daunting, (although my ‘professional’ texts had achieved double and treble that count). Moving from transition to settling, I became obsessed with completing the novella, then realised that I needed only 10,000 words plus synopsis. I pushed myself half-way through the final chapter, then one evening worked too late completing the submission, pressed SEND, felt relieved. Expected to proceed to some fresh challenge. And became ill for over a week with a sub-migraine. I’d been trying too hard, compelled by some self-induced pressure, to complete a task, to be tidy. Another common symptom, I think.

A week later, I responded to Cherry’s call for guest blog writers. ‘I can do that,’ I thought, wanting, as ever, to be helpful. But as a novice blogger, I abandoned Draft 1 (burgeoning three volume novel) and 2 (laconic summary) for Draft 3. I struggled to complete what I hoped would be ‘just right,’ which I blush to admit, cost two minor revisions and much of Cherry’s kind patience.

So back to Sarah’s interview. I learn from friends and others that many creative impulses are being stifled by lethargy, exhaustion, even paralysis. Is it partly that we’re living so intensely in the present, or the sometimes painfully vivid past, that it’s difficult to enter the worlds of imagination? Is it hard to plan for a universally uncertain future? I feel safe and happy, except for some moments on waking, and others when laying down Priestley or Pym before lying down myself. My anxiety is about having to go out again into that dangerous world. After two heart attacks over twenty years ago, I know about a future abruptly revealed as always uncertain, and am familiar with the inevitability of my own death. This is different. As pollution recedes, emotional miasma pervades the environment. Creative energy is invisibly concentrated on fuelling being fully alive, in this present which is all we ever have.

……………

         I began writing this a few weeks ago. Then came VE Day. We weren’t interested in celebrating here, now. We had, after all, been there, then. But John wrote a poem about his memory of winning third prize in a fancy dress competition in 1945. I remember being taken to the bonfire near my home. I posted John’s poem on the Community Group Facebook, where it attracted numerous Likes and several Loves.  Later, we were unexpectedly serenaded by a mouth organ played enthusiastically by the young son of a neighbour singing ‘Happy VE Day to you…’ and presenting us with A4 posters and flags made by school children, and neat paper-and-string parcels containing scones, cream and jam. (We’ve saved the string). Obediently, at 4 pm we set up a table in our front garden, with embroidered cloth and pretty plates, for afternoon tea.

But this is a story about stories. For by now I was so involved that, not only had I tied my hair up in a 1940s ‘turban’ (red, complementing white and blue skirt and shirt), but obsessively rooted-out old photograph albums from the most daunting corner of my study. There I found pictures of my father – not in India, as I’d so confidently informed the estate, but at home with my mother and me. How could I ever face the neighbours? Shame forced me to open a box of papers I’ve kept since my mother’s death nearly 20 years ago. And there was my father’s 1945 diary. To my relief, he had been in India on VE Day – he noted the gin party – and the photographs were from home leave later. I took diary and pictures across the road to neighbours and (appropriately distanced) told my story. Soon John joined us and shared his own story. Now we know a great deal more of our own and our parents’ stories. And at last I feel free to read the contents of that box.

But, more, through these old stories, we’ve met our neighbours in a new way – and shared not only our stories, but also theirs. This is a new estate, and the first social ‘event’ of the Community. I’ve heard from friends experiencing similar unexpected opportunities for neighbourly story sharing. Not written. Spontaneously narrated and received with interest and respect.

For the first time, on Friday afternoon I looked forward to ‘the future,’ To new stories.

……………….

This morning it’s raining. The estate children won’t be following a ‘creature trail’ or playing on the field. I posted a poem (Alexander Astronaut) with ideas for drawing, writing poems/stories.  Although I’ve earned only four Likes, a neighbour I haven’t yet met would like to share this story outside the Group.

Those poems and stories which ‘Somehow don’t seem to be coming’ will come, when they, and we, are ready. Bringing our words out of the Fortress. Although, I’d be grateful if my idea for Tymes Goe by Turnes would stop flitting around and settle into a coherent form. Meanwhile, I should tidy my study.

With thanks to Arachne.

Margaret Crompton

Preorder No Spider Harmed… – out 8th August for our eighth anniversary!

Lockdown Interviews: no 24 Nina Murray interviewed by Cathy Bryant

Twenty-fourth in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

Nina Murray

Nina Murray (An Outbreak of Peace) interviewed by Cathy Bryant (The Other Side of Sleep, Erratics)

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Cathy: You’ve recently been discussing on your blog how to organise work. This must be doubly difficult for you, as you have both art and writing to sort out! What are your strategies?

Nina:  Indeed! I have learned from experience that despite my best intentions, I can only do two things at once: writing and art, for example. Or writing and a day job. Translating and a day job. Day job and art. Not all three at the same time. At the moment, I’m in the “day job and writing” configuration. But whatever is going on, I am always keeping an eye on whatever I am not actively doing: either discovering new artists/authors whose work I admire, or learning additional tricks of the trade. I try to follow two principles. The first one, applicable to every area of life, I think, is to ask, What can only be done by me? The answers are pretty obvious: exercise, reading, writing, certain decisions, etc. My longer-term approach is create – curate – promote. At any given time, I try to be generating new work, revising or publishing or rearranging existing work, and promoting work, my own and that of others. Operative word here is “try.”

Cathy: Much of your work centres on animals. How would you describe your bond with them?

Nina:  The other day my mother was tidying her place and found what she proudly refers to as my first preserved work. I painted that picture when I was five. It is a picture of a farmyard, with a dog, a cat, some wildlife, a number of chickens, and a pair of ducks. All animals are clearly identifiable. There’s a tree for shade, a bone for the dog, and a pond for the ducks. The piece is signed. Not much has changed since then, other than about a decade ago someone pointed me to Pat Shipman’s paper “The Animal Connection” which argues, convincingly, that “Establishing an intimate connection to other animals is unique and universal to our species,” and, in fact, has been a driving force in the human evolution. It’s a great piece. Working with animals requires self-awareness, discipline, and a fundamental ability to get out of your way as an observer. I’ve been known to say that you could make sound hiring decisions based on how someone walks a dog. Or grooms a horse.

Cathy: What are you working on at the moment?

Nina:  Oh, man. Luring the next idea into my brain? My blog, mostly. I’m also putting myself through an online course from the International Writing Program, How Poets Write Poetry. It has generated some drafts…

Cathy: What is your writing/working day like?

Nina:  My job requires that I be responsive to folks in other time-zones, so when I start at 7 am (yay for telecommuting), it’s a sprint for a couple of hours to sort through whatever is waiting in my inbox. I curate my office’s Twitter feed, which means I spend a couple 15-minute intervals on that during the day. I walk the dog; I work out; I read. On Saturdays, I don’t talk to people other than my husband—I need the quiet. Usually that’s when I can write poetry, although I have been working on making it easier to enter that creative space in shorter amounts of time—if I wait for the luxury of a couple of uninterrupted hours, I will almost certainly spend half of that time on a nap. When I have a translation project, I work on that every day. I am fortunate to be married to a fiction writer who makes dinner almost every night.

Cathy: What resources have been helpful to you as a writer?

Nina:  Public libraries (almost) everywhere I have lived. Used bookstores. Thrift shops. I have a magpie kind of mind that relaxes while picking over an abundance of seemingly unrelated stuff.

Cathy: You’ve written some fascinating-sounding books! How would you sum up each one? Or if that’s not helpful, what might the reader take from each one?

Nina:  That’s a great question! There’s a chronology to them.

Fifty-Six North collects poems I wrote during my two sojourns in Lithuania – hence the title, which is the country’s latitude.
Minimize Considered was my first published collection, and it came together from poems I wrote on weekends while serving as a vice-consul in Toronto. I think of that time as the period when I finally committed to a writing habit and embrace Mary Heaton Worse’s maxim that “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” That carried me through two years in Moscow, which produced Alcestis in the Underworld, a book about being a post-Soviet observer of a place whose version of “post-“ differs radically from one’s own. Minor Heresies is my ode to women.  

Cathy: (I’m going to borrow some of your interview questions now, as they’re excellent.)
What type of information do you seek and consume daily? How useful is this information to you? How does it affect your work?

Nina:  Ah, yes! For practical purposes, I ensure that I am informed of submission calls, reading periods and the like. I read global news—after it’s been subjected to analysis I trust. I’ll listen to the National Public Radio once or twice a week. Right now, I seem to be gravitating to well-written, thoughtful non-fiction about discrete areas of human activity and history. I just finished Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire,” and it was excellent. Anything that brings new vocabulary with it—so it’s probably time to revisit Seamus Heaney, from whom I never fail to learn words like “scud.”

Cathy: When people seek you out, why do they turn to you in particular? What do they want from you? Are you comfortable with that, or would you rather it were something else?

Nina:  My job determines a lot of my interactions with others, and in that context, it’s usually advice, endorsement, or financial support. Connections. Helping get a project off the ground… On a very basic level, I’d say it’s help in making a decision, however small. I am at a place—I just realized—where I do get invited to translate pieces, rather than being the one who pitches. And for a laugh. I’d like to think I’m reliably funny.

Cathy: What throws you off? This could be a small thing or a big thing. What do you do to regain your composure?

Nina:  A small thing that can really derail me is a sudden change in pre-arranged plans: as in, I have something on my agenda for the day, and the boss comes in and tells me to go do something else. Because usually if that happens, that means somewhere we crossed wires, and I didn’t plan properly, so I’m going to be feeling guilty for the next few hours if not days. That’s not good.
Any unexpected personal confrontation is painful. Heck, even an expected confrontation can derail me—the unexpected ones (there was that legendary time at the DMV in Toronto) just undo me.
I hope and tell myself I have gotten better at not losing my composure in the first place, but if that horse is out of the barn, there’s usually a good, long cry, then a dinner and a heart-to-heart with my husband.

Cathy: How can one make money from writing? How important is this to you?

Nina:  I’m still working on that. I ask every writer willing to answer, you know… I can imagine a situation in which a carefully managed flow of soundly negotiated translation projects could generate a living, especially somewhere with a good internet connection and low cost of living. But I haven’t done that myself, so I cannot in good faith endorse it.
The second part of this question is key, isn’t it? I think influence is more important than income. Recognition. Resonance. The most gratifying response I’ve ever received was from someone who sent me back a picture to illustrate what my poem made him think of (West Point in winter). That was awesome!

Cathy: What are you most proud of that you’ve created (art or writing – children don’t count!)?

Nina:  I don’t have children—by choice, and am slowly, tentatively reaching an age where I don’t wake up every morning asking myself what I’m going to do to make up for that.  I am proud of my marriage (however much credit I can take for that). I know I have been a force for good in a few people’s lives (my interns, my students, a few friends, I hope). At the moment, I’m proud of the fact that our rescue dog—who started out as an animal with utterly no tools to operate in the universe—has developed a few good habits and proper manners through consistent training, and that the two of us have been able to deliver said training. There was also that moment, during the time I was taking dressage lessons every week, when a young horse executed a flying lead change for the first time in his life under me—that was something else!

Cathy: What you like to learn or achieve, both in your work and outside it, if money, time, health etc were no object?

Nina:  I’d like to find out if I could actually write full-time, or if that idea in itself is a red-herring because no one truly does. I’d like to hike Switzerland. Or Austria. Either one. I’d like to apprentice to a jewelry maker. Restore an historic building—re-paint, re-build, re-place stuff.

Cathy: Do you ever struggle with motivation or writer’s block? How do you deal with this?

Nina:  Motivation – definitely. Sometimes I can happy-talk myself into working: say things like, heck, let’s just do this for a bit, not too long, it’ll be fun, you can stop as soon as it’s not fun. My biggest challenge is coming up with ideas, and I’m starting to think I’ve been going about it wrong, as in, I don’t need to have an idea to start. It’s like you said, just give it a go.

Cathy: Bonus: What question would you like to be asked? What is the answer?

Nina:  Uh! Uh! I actually started thinking about this the second I asked you. Here goes: Would you like to go on a weekend trip I’ve arranged, to a beautiful spot in the hills where we can go hiking for as long as you feel like it? And the answer, of course, is yes!

 

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, now VAT free! We recommend Hive for ePub.

Lockdown Frock-Up Friday, with Joan Taylor-Rowan

I had no idea this was a thing. Apparently instead of ‘dress-down’ Friday, in lockdown people are crawling out of their PJs and smartening up their act (Frocking-Up) on a Friday.

Never one to do things by halves, Arachne author Joan Taylor-Rowan, (Five by Five Stations, London Lies) has been channelling her inner heroine, and pushed out the boat. Here are some of the greatest hits so far. Can’t wait to see what she comes up with today…

Amy Johnson

Boudicca

Liberty

Marlene Deitrich

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.