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 FiveStations, London Lies) has been channelling her inner heroine, and pushed out the boat. Here are some more of her creations, a group of Hollywood icons, although Ingrid Bergman is here for the person she is portraying, Joan of Arc.
Laura: You write a mixture of short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Do you set out to write in a particular form, or do you let the piece develop organically?
Joanne: When I start writing I might not always know exactly how the idea or plot is going to play out, or what the ‘ending’ is going to be, but I do know what form it’s going take, because the processes by which I write a poem, or a short story, or a flash fiction are very different. So, yes, for each piece I suppose I do set out to write in a particular form. Or rather the initial idea I have is for a piece of writing in a specific form.
I can only think of one exception to this: Before I had really heard of flash fiction I had an idea for a short story that I could never quite get to work out. It turned out that idea was supposed to be a flash fiction – and once I was introduced to drabbles, that story idea became a 100 word piece called One Hundred Years.
Laura: Your poem ‘Gifted’ has been selected for the upcoming Arachne Press anthology, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, and focuses on the mythological Arachne. Did you draw from your background in History for inspiration?
Joanne: Not especially – I have a history degree, but it didn’t cover the classical world. My degree is in what Oxford, slightly archaically calls ‘Modern History’, by which they mean everything from around 500 AD onwards. Ancient History is a separate department.
However I’ve been fascinated by all kinds of mythology, and especially Greek mythology, since I was quite a young child. I’ve played around with a lot of the myths in my writing before, but I’ve never written about Arachne, and this seemed a good opportunity. I really enjoyed getting under the skin of a version of the character that I imagined.
Laura: In We/She (short stories by women from Liars’ League, Arachne Press, 2018) your story Cages is written from the point of view of a dragon. Do you enjoy the challenge of writing from unusual perspectives?
Joanne: Very much so – although it’s perhaps less of a challenge and more of a desire to give those characters a voice. As a young reader I was usually much more interested in the secondary characters, the sidekicks and the ‘baddies’ in a story, than I was in heroes and heroines, so as a writer I often like to explore where those characters are coming from, and what their own stories are.
It’s also a device which allows me to explore the experience of being othered in various ways: Most of my central characters are marginalised, and many of them are queer.
Laura: As well as Cages you have had several other stories performed at Liars’ League in London and Hong Kong. Do you enjoy listening to your stories being read aloud by others?
Joanne: Usually, yes! It’s certainly an interesting experience. I tend to think of any piece of writing as a living thing, or a conversation, that’s interpreted by its readers, listeners or performers anyway, but that’s made particularly obvious when someone else is reading it to an audience in front of you. Sometimes an actor will bring out elements in something that I hadn’t even fully realized were there – often humorous moments, or poignant ones.
When I first heard Cages read out, by the wonderful Susan Moisan, she drew laughs and responses from the audience in a few places I wasn’t necessarily expecting, which was very gratifying! It was such a pleasing delivery that I have to admit, when I later read out that story myself, I borrowed heavily from her performance in places.
Still, there can be some anxiety in handing over something you care about so much. A bit of me doesn’t like giving up creative control, but that’s something it’s good for me to learn to do. I’ve only ever had one bad experience, with one group, where I wasn’t really happy with the end result – but that was a situation where I wasn’t able to speak directly either to the actor performing my piece, or to the person advising/directing. Liars League are great because they generally give an opportunity for the writer and actor to discuss the reading in advance.
Laura: One area in which you enjoy performing is competitive dance. Do you find that movement unlocks creativity?
Joanne: Dance definitely helps me to unlock my feelings – it’s common for me to go into a dance practice and find myself working through a mood I hadn’t even realised I was in. It’s incredibly helpful in that respect.
I do also find dancing in a style that has a formal structure and technique can drive creativity in the same way that writing in a fixed form can. I love ballroom dancing for the same reason I love metric poetry: Something about the juxtaposition between the intense emotions being expressed and having a tight form to work within has creative power. I have a very long-standing project I’m playing with at the moment, writing poems based on dances where the metre of the poem matches the rhythm of the dance, as I want to explore that similarity.
Laura: Like many writers, you also have a day job, in your case working in theatres in an organisational role. Do you find that a job which requires a completely different skill set allows more, or less, space for creativity in your free time?
Joanne: I’ve always written, and as a child had ambitions of being solely a writer, but I realised whilst I was still in my early twenties that it wasn’t something I could do full-time. I’m an extrovert and like being around and working with people too much – if I spend much time alone it affects both my mood and my productivity very negatively.
Theatre working hours can be long and anti-social, which can make fitting in time for writing, as well as dancing and studying, tricky. But at the same time, it’s absolutely necessary for me to work around people in a job I love for me to then have the emotional energy and ability to write. And even though I don’t write specifically for the stage, getting to see so much creative content as part of my job is beneficial too. Just as reading as much as possible is useful to a writer, so is watching a lot of theatre.
Laura: When you read something that you think is perfection, how does it make you feel? Does it spur you on, or intimidate you?
Joanne: Oh it inspires me, hugely. That’s why I want to write ultimately – the sheer excitement when you read something wonderful. I want to be able to create that sort of magic with words too.
Laura: As writers, we have to deal a lot with rejection. Do you have a ‘tried and tested’ method, or does it depend on the mood you’re in or the piece that you submitted?
Joanne: I don’t really have a method per se. The majority of the time rejections don’t bother me too much – I know what the statistics are like for almost all writers in terms of rejections per accepted piece.
Of course, there’ll sometimes be a ‘no’ that stings more than I was expecting it to – perhaps if I’ve grown especially fond of a piece of work, or conversely, if it was especially difficult to complete but I thought I’d cracked it.
At the end of the day though, I can always move on fairly quickly. In a way I know I’m lucky, because writing is my ‘side-hustle’ so to speak, and my income doesn’t depend on it.
Laura: Do you have particular writing goals for the next year, or years? Do you, for example, want to write a novel or a play? Do you see writing as part of your career, or more of a hobby?
Joanne: I’m aiming to finish the collection of poems based on dances mentioned above, and I’m also looking to write some stories in styles that are new to me. I have the beginnings of some ghost stories brewing for example, and I’d like to write more comedy.
I’ve no immediate plans to write a novel again. I attempted one years ago, completed it, got feedback and put it through several edits. I then never submitted it anywhere because by the time it was finished I no longer believed in it, either artistically or emotionally. I find I enjoy the process of writing short stories and poems much more. As for a play, the problem I have is that the thing I find hardest of all to write is realistic-sounding present-day dialogue! Of course, not all theatre takes the same form, so never say never, but it’s not among my short-term plans.
To answer the last part of the question, even though writing isn’t my primary job, and it doesn’t make me money, I do see it as part of my career, yes. I’ve always been interested in doing lots of different things or jobs; some of them pay me and some of them don’t, but they’re all important and part of my ‘portfolio career’.
Laura: How have you been managing in lockdown? Have you been able to use this time to write more, or are you – like many others – struggling to put pen to paper? If you are managing to write, what are you working on?
Joanne: It’s been similar to before in terms of productivity if I’m honest. There’s lots of extra time, but my ability to write fluctuates – some days I’m inspired and write in a burst, and other days are just not writing days. I’m afraid my writing habits have never been especially consistent, and that hasn’t changed. One thing I am finding useful though, is an online writing group that a friend is running for a few hours each evening – I don’t join every night, but when I do it’s a good motivator.
I’m working on two pieces – one short story and one poem – for two upcoming deadlines at the moment. They’re both inspired by, or are responses to, famous pieces of literature (respectively the novel Little Women, and a Robert Southwell poem for Arachne’s Solstice Shorts call out).
However, that’s about all my two projects have in common – they’re very different in tone as well as form. I’m also busy redrafting some existing stories, including a couple of modern fairytales, and a dramatic monologue from the point of view first Mrs Rochester.
WooA… a recent member of this writing group asked me how the name came about:
WooA = Writers of OUR age. Apparently, when founding members were on an MA together, amongst much younger writers, they found themselves saying this on a regular basis and it stuck, sometimes the ‘our’ is not emphasised, and we refer to ourselves like this with muted irony.
WooA is where the second Arachne Press title, Stations originated – we used to meet in the Broca cafe just opposite Brockley Station, (I wrote such a lot of food-themed stories then!)
The Overground runs at the bottom of my garden. Before there was the Overground, there was only Southern, but trains went to London Bridge, Victoria and Charing Cross. With the advent of the Overground, the Charing Cross trains were lost, and with them, the possibility of an easy last train home from many favourite central London venues. There was lamenting, there were protests, there was a coffin carried on the very last train. It was epic.
Then there was the disruption: the endless sleepless nights while the track was relaid and the station lengthened and the trees on either side of the cutting massacred. (More protests).
There were the huffy, what use is it? conversations on rush-hour platforms, the disbelieving sneer when told the value of my home would increase, followed by the overcrowding, the noise
…and then there was the eating of words.
Because the Overground is wonderful. It cut ten minutes off my journey to work, it halved the time to get to all sorts of North London places I had given up going to: the Kings Head, the Union Chapel and the Estorick Collection. It made getting to the Geffrye Museum simple. It expanded my horizons. (I’m missing my horizons at the moment!)
I ate my words.
Mentioning this in passing at WooA as we settled for a twenty minute writing exercise, Rosalind said: we should write about the Overground. So we did.
From that twenty minutes blossomed the idea for an entire book, with a story for every station on our section of the line: Highbury & Islington to New Cross, Crystal Palace and West Croydon. So: thank you, Overground, and thank you, WooA.
Over the years, Arachne has published quite a few, although not all, of the shifting membership of WooA. And I continue to go to as many meetings as I can. At the moment these are online, and more frequent than normal, for the comfort of talking – as much about not writing, at the moment, as anything anything else.
We have a few traditions, one of which is to hold a live lit event as part of Brockley Max, our local festival. Of course, that’s gone pfft, like a lot else, but a week ago(?) we got an email saying are you doing anything online that could be part of a virtual Brockley Max?
We weren’t – but – we don’t have a website/Facebook page, anything – well, we could – couldn’t we?
So we are.
At the time and on the date that we would have been doing this live at the Talbot, Arachne Press is hosting WooA (including Arachne Authors, Bartle Sawbridge, Cherry Potts, Joan Taylor-Rowan, Carolyn Robertson and Neil Lawrence; plus Ruth Bradshaw and Innes Stanley) for Open Mind – an evening of stories and poems.
So Friday 5th June at 7pm BST, join us on Facebook: Event / Actual video
or Youtube for Love, Loss, Lockdown, Protest, Playdates, Dancing and DINOSAURS.
*TRIGGER WARNING* reported violence between children about half way through (Neil Lawrence’s story).
Video will be available for a week thereafter on both platforms.
Joanne: You have several flash fictions published, including your collection The Almost 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.
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.
Beyond spiders: how stories start
On the 24th, I went to post a letter, and was a child again. ‘Going to the post’ was one of my earliest errands, and I loved it. Into the tall, glowing pillar box went letters, postcards, small packages. I knew that in next to no time – for local letters, later the same day in a wondrous second post – they would drop on the doormat of Auntie Vi or Mr Jones the grocer.
So as I trotted down a street as empty as those of my childhood to send a friend a birthday card, I looked for Bingo, a dog who furiously chased cars, but who would run happily alongside a pedestrian for no greater reward than kind words.
Before my brief outing I had sent out to friends and others a rousing email invitation to order No Spiders Harmed. ‘It’s nothing too dystopic,’ I had written, ‘perfect reading for the times.’ At lunchtime I found a couple of quick positive responses and a reply from my chum Jorge.
My epistle, which had asked people to go easy on the spring-cleaning, had ended with, ‘Spiders. Forever in your debt.’ I had pushed my luck.
‘Can’t, brother,’ Jorge had written, ‘I was in hospital four days with a red leg due to a bite from one of the precious ones … hate them with force … sorry, not this time. Keep writing.’
Jorge, an artist who works in leather – no, don’t be silly, you know what I mean – is regularly encouraging of my scribbles. But this time, clearly, I had gone too far. Howard Jacobson says that writers should always go too far, but I don’t think he meant to aggravate people’s well-founded phobias.
(Jorge owes me 1.40€, by the way. A bet, from several years ago, about whether Brexit would happen. In the café by the market, after buying a coffee, 1.40€ was all Jorge had left to lay on the chance that we might not leave. Not a bet I wanted to win.)
‘Not so much eight legs good, then, as nine legs bad, Jorge. Sorry. I could do you a beetle story. How are you with those little tinkers?’
‘Stories on hares, birds, squirrels, tigers, lions, or pumas please.’
Not Cyril the Squirrel again, I thought. Jorge has already seen ‘Mouse’ from Shortest Day Longest Night, and, coming from Argentina, he knows more about pumas than I could hope to glean in a short time.
My friend was, let’s say, amenable. ‘Okay, avoid squirrels. Replace them with ducks, the current nuisance at present.’
Jorge lives in the Tarn, south west France. A good few ducks are eaten there, and by and large they go to their fate philosophically – far too much so, many people think. Now it seems that Jorge’s neighbouring fowl have become noisy and forward. With human’s ‘social life’ closed down, maybe the ducks have a stay of execution, and are making merry with it.
Jorge wants a story. The ducks are getting uppity. What might that mean for a particular duck? Might she and Jorge meet? And eggs. We were due to be with Jorge and his wife for their Easter Day egg hunt, but now of course …
Black Duck and her Eggs. How does that sound?
Easter Saturday. The duck had sat on her eggs, fourteen of them, for four days now. The nest, well back from the footpath and the rowdy children, was overhung with …