We’ve teamed up with Lewisham Libraries to run a couple of In Person workshops for writers as part of our 10th Anniversary celebrations. Both are linked to upcoming anthologies, and we are hoping that participants will be inspired to submit (deadline 31st December 2022).
Saturday 12 Nov 3-4.3pm Catford Library 23-24 Winslade Way, Catford Centre, SE6 4JU Off the beaten track with Cherry Potts
In preparation for an anthology of poems and short fiction Byways – which will be published in Spring 2024, Arachne Press editor Cherry Potts is running a writing workshop for anyone who is interested in the ideas behind the book.
A byway is a right of way that you can’t take a vehicle on – so think alleys, snickets, ginnels, bridlepaths, greenways, the highwater line on a beach, mountain passes, desire paths, tow paths… shortcuts or the scenic route, the path to somewhere else, the familiar and the uncertain.
Are there local paths you always take, or avoid? Come and write with us, and perhaps start something that could end up published! We’ll bring examples and writing prompts, you bring pen/paper or laptop, and… maybe a map? free tickets
In preparation for an anthology of poems and short fiction inspired by the menopause, which will be published in October 2023, Arachne Press owner Cherry Potts and co-editor Catherine Pestano are running a writing workshop for anyone who would like to get involved. Our anthology call out is aimed firmly at older women, lesbians and women from the global majority. Our theme is the menopause, and we are looking for stories, flash and poems that go waaay beyond the empty nest and feelings of sexual redundancy, so come along and explore. We will provide playful writing prompts, examples and discussion including some useful facts about the menopause, you provide the imagination. Bring pen/paper or laptop. Free Tickets
Catherine Pestano is a menopause activist, social worker and community musician based in Croydon, South London and offers services through her community interest company Creative Croydon. Key areas of interest include and the use of music and arts for wellbeing & social justice, Mental health and LGBTQ support. She is lead adviser for the national Song Therapy training and is a long-term member of the natural voice network.
Cherry Potts is a writer and creative writing tutor who runs and edits for Arachne Press.
I’ll tell you what though; you weren’t really expecting me, a genuine mermaid, were you? You thought I’d be some girlie in a clamshell bikini and yardage of slinky blue skirt with
unconvincing fins. So why are you disappointed that you got the real thing? That makes no sense at all! You should be in awe, really…
Very few of us survive without the sea. Take us away from it and we pine, dead in a fortnight mostly. Fortunately I’m tough, and I can see the positive side of a career.
And if you’ll stretch to a Selkie, then Jackie Taylor’s Pelt in Strange Waters might be just the thing.
Her scalp itched; her thick, grey-black hair fought against the tyranny of the new perm. She was uncomfortably hot and clammy in her new outer skin of trench coat (belted, beige), silk scarf, beret, tan leather gloves. Samuel had said when he met her at the station, ‘You scrub up well!’ And she’d winced at the thought of the skinning knives used to clean down pelts.
She wanted to take the trench coat off and carry it, but there was drizzle, and it was the wetting kind, and if her skin got wet, she would smell of the sea. She was never sure if anyone else could smell it, but the thought of it made her burn with shame.
Strange Waters is also available as an audiobook read by Sophie Aldred
Thinking about International Women’s Day, sometimes you wonder how any of us manage to live to grow up, the world can be so hard on women; and sometimes you want to celebrate everything we can be. Being of a cheerful disposition, we’ve gone for celebration.
We thought today was an excellent time to launch our submission call for an anthology of women’s writing. We are giving you a spectacularly long run in on this one, because we want it to be truly amazing, and because we are planning some writing workshops which will be run by editors Cherry Potts and Catherine Pestano (as soon as the funding is in place, we’ll let you know!). These will definitely be available online, for maximum reach, and may also be in person, depending on where we can find suitable writer-friendly venues and what the position is with Covid.
Our October 2023 Anthology is aimed firmly at older women, lesbians and women from the global majority. Our theme is menopause, and the book will be published on Menopuase day 2023 (October the 1st), we want your stories, flash and poems that go waaay beyond the empty nest and feelings of sexual redundancy. Tell us something we don’t know, go wild and magnificent…tell us about surgically induced menopause, unexpected benefits, the freedom of not bleeding… whatever genre you want (within our guidelines), but surprise us.
10 years ago, almost to the day, I started planning Arachne Press, buying the independent publishers guide from IPG, talking to people about names (see the video on our home page for the joy of choosing a name for a publishing house), and contacting printers to ask possibly naive questions.
Last year, Neil Lawrence, one of our authors, asked if he could interview me, as the tail end of all the author conversations we’d recorded in lockdown. We then got too busy to edit it. But with our 10th Anniversary looming (August) I’ve put some work in and finished the edit. A lot of it is about me as a writer and will be used elsewhere, but this section is about starting Arachne and my role as editor, and keeping going.
What was your first introduction to the selkie myths, Jackie?
Jackie: A couple of years ago, I was standing on a cliff overlooking Porthcurno beach in West Cornwall with some friends on a beautiful September day. There were lots of people in the sea below us – kids messing around in the surf and belly boarding, and some serious surfers, and dogs running in and out of the water. Lots of screaming and laughing. The sea was crystal clear and looking down, we could see, amongst all this activity, a pair of seals weaving around the people in the water – so graceful, and so powerful. And no-one down on the beach was aware of this – they couldn’t see what we could see from our perch above them. It was an extraordinary thing to witness. One of my friends started to sing a selkie lament, a song full of beauty and yearning. The seals didn’t stop and look up! – nothing like that – but it was one of those moments.
Cherry: Ah… now I’ve done actual on the ground (strand?) research into this. Seals don’t like seas songs, (bored by them I suspect). My wife Alix and I spent a blissful fortnight in Shetland staying on a clifftop farm, and trundled down to the edge every evening. One time there was a seal sitting out on a flat rock which we nicknamed ‘the cake stand’, and we tried singing to this seal. No response to sea shanties, no response to yearning songs of the sea (no idea what our hosts thought about all this, I’m sure they could hear – their prize bull definitely could!). So then we tried songs from the shows, and The Street Where You Live garnered attention, so we carried on, after half an hour of barking and flipper waving, and the seal sticking its head into the water, we had Sixteen seals, some hauled out on the rocks, some just bobbing like corks, gawping at us – and I am convinced, laughing their heads off – as we worked through the whole of Guys and Dolls!
Jackie: That’s fabulous. What a great image. I’m definitely going to try out a few show tunes next time I see a seal – I’ll let you know is Cornish seals react the same way!
Jackie: I live near the sea and I’m lucky enough to see seals regularly. I was swimming on my own last year, at first light. No-one else was around and suddenly a seal surfaced just a few yards in front of me. We looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity but was probably, well, thirty seconds. There’s something about a seal’s eyes – so expressive, so sad, so old. It’s very easy to imagine how there might be a connection between us.
Cherry: What a magical experience. I’ve never got close to a seal, but I can’t help imagining they have a sense of humour – dangerous anthropomorphism!
Jackie: Indeed! So seals are part of my world, but selkies didn’t appear in my short stories until I was bringing Strange Waters together. There was a strong thread through the stories of women wanting to be somewhere else, living a different sort of life. Living in Cornwall sounds like a perfect existence, but it’s not all Poldark and cream teas! There are a lot of people who live here but long to get away, for all sorts of reasons, so I was interested in exploring that. Tension between domesticity and family, and the call of freedom and the wild sea, are at the heart of selkie stories, and this was perfect for Strange Waters.
copyright Jackie Taylor (you’ll have to imagine the show tunes)
Jackie: So- I LOVED your story Cherry!
Cherry: Thank you! It’s a favourite of mine
Jackie: How did you come to selkies?
Cherry: I honestly can’t remember – I was an obsessive adolescent reader of folk tales, (of anywhere, my local library had an excellent collection) and while I can’t abide the vampire/ werewolf side of things, the water spirits draw me in. There’s a Welsh folk tale about a woman from a lake (the source of the Ystwyth, if memory serves – I’ve been there and it is a very strange place, very …quiet, in a not altogether happy way) she marries a farmer on the proviso that if he strikes her three times the game is up. Of course he does, and she goes back to the water. That one stayed with me, not strictly selkie-lore but connected. I’ve read loads or retellings of selkie myths, but no direct source material that I can remember, although I must have done.
Cherry: Your selkies are clearly Cornish, and I wonder if you think there are regional differences (you don’t have to answer this one, but I am genuinely interested!)
Jackie: I’m no expert, but one thing that struck me when I started reading around the subject was how many different selkie stories there are, and how widespread, which I think says something about how the nature of these tales resonate so strongly – romance, tragedy, longing and love, all mixed in with the symbolism of the sea. This is fertile ground for story-telling and lends itself to reinterpretations and reimaginings.
I’m not sure how ‘authentic’ a Cornish selkie is. Our native merman is the Bucca Dhu, not a friendly soul, I’m afraid!
Cherry: And the Mermaid of Zennor of course!
Cherry: You could have written this book as entirely near future climate fiction, but the selkies really add something, without being front and centre – what was the decision making for this?
Jackie: The intention was always to have contemporary issues sitting right at the heart of the collection. The selkie-ness wasn’t an add-on, but a linking thread between some of the stories, not centre stage, but present, adding another layer. I wanted the mythology to be part of the background, another element of contemporary life in Cornwall. We live in the midst of stone circles and fogous. King Arthur lived just over the road (allegedly). People come to visit Cornwall because we are ‘steeped’ in myth and legend, and it’s easy for that richness to overtake and swamp all our other stories. It’s become a bit of a mantra, but I’m interested in what’s behind the postcard.
Cherry: I spent my adolescence reading about King Arthur thanks William Mayne Earthfasts, and the spectacularly good Merlin books by Mary Stewart, but despite visiting Cornwall several times I’ve never been to Tintagel! A dawdle round Glastonbury was enough to put me off the tourist sites for life. Fogous and stone circles, on the other hand, fascinate me. And ‘cup and ring’ marked stones. If there’s an ancient monument on a map I will detour to check it out.
Castlerigg. copyright Cherry Potts
Cherry: I loved Pelt, the story in the collection which most closely examines the Selkie concept, with Marissa yearning, not for the sea, but the hinterland as far from shore as she can get; but there are constant links through her daughter and great granddaughter as the strain gets weaker, but keeps surfacing, how did you decide which elements to keep for the later generations, and how much do you think Gilly, for example, realises that this is what is going on?
Jackie: I’m glad you liked this story. It was a classic ‘what if?’…what if I turned this on its head, and my selkie was desperate to settle down with a human partner and embrace a life of land-based domesticity, and didn’t want to escape back to her wild life?
Cherry: Although its not the fisherman/farmer’s wife life she’s after is it? the bright lights of the city are what she’s after, just like Chloe and Grace and Gilly…
Jackie: I like the idea of a residual tug of the sea on the heart, rolling down the generations, surfacing in different ways. I think Gilly is aware of her heritage, but in a background way. This is just one of many of Gilly’s stories, something she’s aware of but, actually, she has other, more pressing things to think about.
I do think it’s something we see in ourselves – a pull towards a particular type of landscape or environment. The sea is definitely my element. ( And did I mention that I have slight webbing between my fingers? )
Jackie: Fish-Fish has a strong tang of salty sea air around it; the descriptions of sea and weed and pelt are gorgeous. Is the sea your element? How do landscapes/seascapes influence your writing?
Cherry: If I could, I would live by water, but it would have to be the sea or a river, lakes make me uneasy – I like moving water… and salt marshes! Landscapes are very important to me, some places have a very special atmosphere and I take strong likings and antipathies to places, including ones that have been severely manipulated for good or ill by humankind. Some mountains take my breath away, some scare me. Wast Water made me shudder, I had to be dragged away from a particular wood in Wales… I have a hatred of London City Airport seen from the air – so bleak – a recent garden visit had me planning how I could live there!
copyright Cherry Potts
Writing wise, it varies, I’ll never not know where a story is set, at least in broad terms, but some stories require and lean on a setting. Sometimes I have to research to rationalise the landscape in my mind and pin it somewhere real, sometimes it can stay implausibly mythic.
When Fish-fish was being performed at Liars’ League, Katy Darby who was directing, asked where it was set, so that Math could settle on an accent, and I realised that when I started writing it had been the US eastern seaboard (somewhere I’ve never been!) because the painter was American; and that because it was the 20s, I’d said it was a ‘dry’ town, but that it had morphed, through the character of Joel’s wife, into Western Scotland – plenty of selkie myths there, and dry towns too. I love that about writing, the way the introduction of a character can swing the whole shape and heft of a story in another direction.
Fish-fish actually came from a painting, Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale Dining Out by Guy Pene du Bois (1924). In it, a very rounded and sleek couple are sitting uncomfortably at a restaurant table being observed by a waiter. I was struck by the hands, fingers together and rather podgy, and wondered why this otherwise well-executed painting focussed so much attention on these poorly drawn hands, and the idea dropped into my head – of course, they are selkies! I looked again at the waiter, they were ALL selkies.
Jackie: You’ve taken a selkie story and given it a different twist; Joel is a male selkie who marries a woman and settles on land. Although there are male selkie tales, I suspect it is much more usual to have a selkie woman centre stage. Was that decision about gender something that drove the story from the outset, or was it something that came out in the writing?
Cherry: There was such an ambiguous look on the waiter’s face, a mingling of longing and dislike and jealousy, and Joel was born fully-formed. I didn’t know quite what his tragedy was as I started writing, but it quickly took shape. It was a fast write, that one. Unusually for me, I didn’t go back and check the ‘rules’ for selkie folk. The absolutely key scene for me in turning it on its head, was when Joel offers his wife his pelt and she turns him down in horror at the idea of controlling him. Selkie mythology is all about men stealing a woman’s means of escape; coercive control in a nutshell, and I knew she would never do that, even when offered the opportunity.
Jackie: A question about craft: I often struggle with the endings of short stories, writing numerous versions, trying to get the right balance between offering the reader enough information for a satisfying conclusion, and not tying everything up in too neat a package. Fish-Fish has a perfect ending. Did this fall easily onto the page or did you have to search for this ending?
Cherry: I didn’t know the end when I started, but it was easy to find. As soon as Joel witnesses the couple under the pier I knew they were somehow connected, that they were there for him, but that it had to be his decision. It was thrilling to write, the idea and the solution rolled out in front of me as I wrote it, with almost no revision. I try to know what the end is early on, but some stories won’t be told where to go and take their own path, so that isn’t particularly usual, and I have a hard drive full of stories for which I can’t get a satisfactory ending.
Jackie: Thinking about the recycling of myths into contemporary pieces of writing, what mythologies are you drawn to in your writing, apart from selkies? Is this something you’ve explored before? Do you have any favourite modern retellings?
Cherry: Dragons! Mermaids! Gorgons! Sirens! Giants! Dryads, Naiads, Sphinxes, Norns (I might have made them up – very scary). Valkyries, Graeae, Fates and Furies! Elementals of all shapes and sizes… I wouldn’t swear to it, but it’s likely Joel is one of only a handful of male protagonists I’ve let into my mythological universe, there have been a couple of inept knights but apart from that, mainly women, or at any rate female creatures. I have a fondness for Jane Yolen’s trolls, and Tanith Lee’s various monsters, and Adele Geras has a way with a Greek myth or fairy tale that I enjoy. You’ll notice this list includes childrens books (and many are out of print!). Sometimes writers for older children do a much better job than those writing for adults. Among those writing for adults, Neil Gaiman is good at a mythologically inspired story – I wouldn’t call them retellings though. I’ve moved further and further away from that retelling thing myself, it’s more about picking an element from the smorgasbord of tales so good they’ve survived orally for millennia, and roughing it up a bit, giving an old story a firm shake by the scruff and seeing what falls out; and it’s usually the women, especially the voiceless, overlooked or denigrated.
The fact that I spend so much of my writing brain-space on it does mean that I am hypercritical of other people’s retellings – have they read closely enough, pushed far enough, twisted wildly enough? I can be a bit impatient with yet another… whichever myth is flavour of the month.
I’m hard to please, so your selkies had a tough audition, and passed with honours.
For this year’s Independent Bookshop Week we spoke to Arachne Press authors, editors and friends and asked them to tell us about an independent bookshop that’s close to their hearts. To conclude our blog series, Arachne Publisher and Director, Cherry Potts, takes an opportunity to shout about some of the many bookshops who have supported our publishing over the years:
We started last week with a warning to use your local bookshops, or lose them, and my devotion to Gay’s the Word, but it would be remiss of me to not also mention the bookshops who have got behind our books, held events, put up posters for Solstice Shorts and generally been lovely. Bookshops are full of lovely people. When you can, I recommend going and talking to them.
They are, in roughly alphabetical order:
Bookseller Crow, Crystal Palace (Supported the launch of Stations, and just the best bookshop name – Hello Jonathan & Co!) https://booksellercrow.co.uk/
To celebrate Independent Bookshop Week, Arachne Press authors and editors are sharing their stories about the bookshops that are closest to their hearts. Today we hear from Sandra A Agard, who is one of the guest editors for our October 2021 anthology, Where We Find Ourselves. Sandra recalls memories of two brilliant bookshops – one still standing, another now sadly closed.
First taken to this bookshop along with Hugh Boatswain by our English teacher, Miss Cowell. We were two young poets and were
very excited to be there.
At this time the bookshop was in the front room of John La Rose’s and Sarah White’s house. I had never seen so many books that
reflected Black Culture. I had never met a Black Bookseller – I was in awe.
I remembered being so shy and John being so kind and engaging. He encouraged us to browse, ask questions and just chill. It was a wonderful experience – one I will always treasure.
Future trips to New Beacon Books followed to purchase books and attend readings. I remember seeing the Jamaican Poet, Lorna Goodison for the first time as well as the Jamaican academic, Dr Carolyn Cooper.
Hugh and I were invited by John to participate in the first International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books in 1982.
New Beacon Books is still going strong I am happy to say providing books of Black Culture and Creativity. Offering so much like an old, trusted friend.
Centreprise in Hackney was more than a bookshop. It was also a literature development hub that offered the community the opportunity to publish their own writings. Autobiographies, poetry, novels and non-fiction were abundant.
It was here I discovered my professional writing voice with the publication of Talking Blues – an anthology by young people.
It was at Centreprise I first saw writers and poets like Kamau Brathwaite, Merle Collins, Rosa Guy, Linton Kwesi Johnson, June Jordan, Andrea Levy, Joan Riley and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
These readings were exciting, intimate and inspiring. For us young writers and readers it was a brilliant learning curve.
Sadly closed now but what memories those of us who were lucky to pass through its doors will always cherish.
Sandra A Agard
Independent Bookshop Week is part of the Books Are My Bag campaign and run by the Booksellers Association. It seeks to celebrate independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland. Your local bookshop will have their own way of celebrating this week, and we enthusiastically encourage you to visit, celebrate with them and buy a book! Look at #IndieBookshopWeek to keep up with the campaign and follow @ArachnePress to see all our content throughout the week.