A long, thoughtful and very enthusisatic review from Damien B Donnelly
The collection cleverly deceives the reader with its light appearance; delicate forms of short poems with few words but that too is its strength, like a language not used enough so that words are forgotten and we must cut to the truth without the fluff and frills.
Following on from Dawn Dumont’s quote at the beginning of the poem One Name, Cymru- to be born indigenous is to be born an activist- we realise that the fight is happening here, within the considered calls rising up from these carefully chosen lines, each word perfectly formed into a sense of identity often bashed, often silenced but ever resilient.
Pieces in the collection rarely seek to impose an anthropomorphized interior experience onto their spiders, and the anthology is filled with musings and suggestions that speak both to things shared between humans and spiders, and to the ultimate mystery of a spider’s inner-world.
The myriad voices in the collection – and the many ways they have interpreted the call for submissions – make for a stimulating read, at once serious and moving, as well as light-hearted and frivolous.
This collection is a refreshing, detailed and compassionate take on an under-loved and fascinating creature.
Your story ‘They said there were Pirates,’ it’s compressed, shifting, allusive atmosphere has stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
I was hooked by the opening lines, it’s spare lyricism. I was hooked in fact by the absolute quality of your writing throughout.
“I’d been part of the water for so long now, it no longer felt like I was moving…. as though it were the planet that swayed to and fro. To and fro.”
By this power of repetition, like an incantation, by the meanings that work in layers, and open up by what you purposefully omit,
“You’re my only treasure’, she said, ‘I have nothing left to lose,” such an understatement of the depth of this woman’s loss.
One of the ways it’s so effective in conveying the quality of dreamlike uncertainty is the way you mix the past, present and future throughout, by your use of verb tenses. Was this a technique you discovered as you wrote your story? Can you tell me more about it?
26th May. 17.27
Thank you for your kind words and astute reflections!
I think my habit of playing with tenses is related to my thoughts on how we perceive and experience time as a dynamic thing. Our experience of the present is always informed by our memories and past experiences and what we expect to happen. I think this is something I’m always trying to represent, often subconsciously.
I wrote this piece (which I see as both flash fiction and prose poetry in a way) as a stream-of-consciousness and when I write in that way tenses often shift around. It’s only through the editing process that I really examine this and figure out how it adapts and reflects meaning and movement in the narrative.
I originally wrote it without the first paragraph, but then I had a discussion with my friend who is the father of a small boy, and we felt the poetic reflections in the piece felt like an adult looking back to their childhood thoughts, rather than a child’s thoughts as they happen.
Exploring the perception of youngsters leads me nicely into your story which neighbours mine in the Dusk anthology. ‘In-between Dog’ has a protagonist Alice, who is herself in between — a preteen just starting secondary school and facing the transition into her teenage years.
The point-of-view here uses the apparently naive worldview of a preteen as a tool to carry us through the narrative, revealing aspects of the setting and characters as we go. The subtlety of this was very effective in helping the reader build a picture of this family’s life through sparse information. It reminded me of something the writer and critic Jenn Ashworth said about how a good short story is like ‘a sliver of light between a pair of half-drawn curtains’. It reveals precisely what it needs to.
In this way, you hint at the magic realist element ‘the in-between’ while still holding something back, the way youngsters always hold something back from adults. The dog Loopy is brought into the family by one of her fathers, but its elemental nature seems to belong to her.
What inspired this otherworldly aspect to the story and the relationship between Alice and the dog?
29th May. 16.55
And thank you, too, for your thoughts and nice question.
What inspired the other worldly aspect to my story is the French expression, quoted by Alice, about dusk being between dog and wolf.
This gift of an expression conveys, with vivid economy, the uncertainty of twilight when things are slipping and changing, and no longer what they appear during daylight hours. Imperceptible alteration, uncertainty, ambiguity – brilliant places for a story to start. And a wolf! Who doesn’t love a wolf as the embodiment of ‘other’, a wilder, exhilarating, dangerous element. (As a side note, ‘wolf’ in French is le loup, and ‘Loops’ became the English version) So I wanted to include this aspect of ‘wolfness’ in the story and also to leave it shadowy and understated in the same way the original expression conveys the meaning of not one thing nor the other.
As you say, Alice is also in that in-between stage of life, neither child nor teen. She’s childlike in her strategy of magical thinking, that is, a belief that if you want something, then all you have to do is think it, for it to take place. And also older than her years in trying to protect her Dad and partner from the bully boys. She came over as socially isolated so it felt like she would naturally develop a strong bond with Loops as her close friend and companion. And it felt right she had that yearning for things being wilder, playing alone in the park with Loops as it grows dark, connecting with something other, raw and alive, that exists just beneath the humdrum surface.
Moving on to your story. Your opening lines, that place the piece, in the first instance, in the here and now before we find ourselves moving back and forth within memory and ambiguities of the dream like state. I want to ask you about the coin. The coin here – intimations of death, of betrayal, of treasure, poignant link with the memory of her brother. The way to pay or buy their journey. So much is conveyed by this simple coin. Can you say more about it, and how the coin came to you as a way to contain these meanings.
All the best
9th June. 17.28
It’s funny, but the River Styx analogy didn’t consciously occur to me until you asked this question! And yet there it is. I think my starting point for the coin was the pirates. I dreamed many years ago that I was on a boat and pirates were coming. It was during a period where real-life Somali pirates were in the news a lot, robbing boats off the coast of Africa. And then more recently I was set a task to write on a political theme during the height of the most recent refugees-in-boats crisis. So I paired these two things together and the coin seemed like the perfect simple object for the child to be carrying (in realistic and symbolic terms). My focus when writing was the timelessness of the refugee flight, how this dance has been played out many times over, and the fragility of life in these circumstances — the bartering with the gods (metaphorical or literal) for a safe passage.
I think what’s really interesting here is how the history of literature and storytelling can seep into what we’re writing without us knowing. So the coin gathers its own meaning and moves beyond the intentions of the author — so meaning in literature isn’t just what we put in but what the reader takes out.
There are certain stories, and ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is a great example, which are ingrained into our psyche. Whenever I see someone falling down a hole in a movie, I think of Alice, whether it’s an intentional reference or not. I love these repeated patterns (or leitmotivs) and I think the wolf is another one which has so many layers of meaning attached to it.
I’m curious, what other things do you write? Are you mainly focused on short fiction? What themes from ‘In-between’ connect this story to your other work?
20th June. 17.49
Finally! Finally I get to think about what I most want to think about but which gets shoved to the back of the queue on a daily basis, partly because it needs time and I don’t want to dash off some unthinking quick response.
Also … because I tend to allow what’s really important to me, to be overridden by other apparently more pressing demands. Which is what happens also with my writing. Which is a whole other topic that could be unpacked. ‘The most common problem writers have is not writing ‘(Mohsin Hamid). Anyway, I’m sorry for the delay and hope it doesn’t interrupt our flow too much.
In answer to your question about what other things I write – I also write stage plays. Having written quite a bit of short fiction, I wanted to not exactly ‘move on’ but to develop and extend my writing skills.
When I started script writing it was deeply weird. How is it possible to set up context? What about interiority? How can you tell a whole story with sub text, only through dialogue and physical action? What about past and future how do you covey that? The whole writing process is always a ongoing puzzle for me, but I do think the rudimentary script writing skills I’ve learnt have fed back and improved my short fiction writing as well. Refreshed it and enabled me to write more succinctly. Keeping to the point. Keeping it fresh and alive.
As for themes. Someone (and I’m rubbish about remembering who says these things, I think it was a guy) he said about his own writing that although he’d been writing stories all his life – in essence they were all part of his one big story. I find that liberating. I kind of know what he means. It’s as if we return to the same undercurrents all of the time. To answer the other part of your question about ‘In between’ and how it connects to other writing themes of mine, I’ve not often written from a young person’s point of view. But there was something about the Dusk brief that I found compelling and the fact I could bring in a wolf of course, and maybe the element of the unknown wildness theme is part of a general theme I allude to without being deliberately conscious of doing so.
The other thing about In Between is I wrote it rapidly and relatively easily. Most of the time it doesn’t happen like this. Normally a lot of stalling and not knowing how to make my writing work. Hours, days, in changes, repetitive, obsessive rewrites, and tweaks. It’s never, ever perfect, it could always be better.
I also think I only ever learn how to write the particular story or play I’m on. Each new project is like starting from scratch with no idea how to do it.
Which leads me on to wanting to ask you a three-part question. Firstly, have you too written in other genres and if so what led you into this? Also, what led you into writing in the first place? And lastly, more of an impossible question really, can you tell me more about the process of your writing, what is your process, how do you locate what your story is actually about, how do you bring it to any sort of completion?
All the best
5th July. 17.33
I really identify with what you said about prioritsing our writing and also the type of writing we’re doing. I’m currently finishing a part-time Creative Writing MA. I decided to do the MA in order to prioritise my writing more in my life as, as you say, more ‘pressing matters’ tend to take over—things which have actual deadlines or family crises or a great big fat pandemic, you know, the usual.
This worked in some respects because it gave me deadlines and classmates to bounce ideas off and a set amount of time to really develop my writing. However, it dragged me away from writing my novel. It put other ‘parts’ of my creativity on the backburner by making other writing more pressing. So it did radically change my priorities but didn’t exactly fix the problem. I’ve found having a mentor and writing buddies or groups the best way to help prioritise my writing by creating accountability. In fact, I actually planned out a workshop I would deliver a year or so ago on helping writers to find the space in their life for their writing but it didn’t happen for various reasons.
In terms of form and genre, I now have 3-4 areas of writing I work in depending on how you categorise and delineate. For short work I tend to write either prose poetry or short fiction or some hybrid of the two. Then I write novels – I have self-published one climate-fiction novel about 7-8 years ago, have my first draft of my second full novel and two other half-worked ones waiting in the wings. These are largely speculative fiction of the Margaret-Atwood-type variety, often set in the near future with themes around the environment, identity and society. Lastly, my MA has introduced me to the lyric essay and other hybrid forms which combine elements of poetry, fiction, memoir and essay with various experiments slipped in through the cracks between form and genre. I’ve fallen a bit in love with these and my dissertation (which I’ve just started in the last few weeks) is in that hybrid style.
To the question of what led to what. I have always written stories since I was little. I was one of those precocious children who started their first ‘novel’ at age 8 (about a family of foxes and very much a rip off of Colin Dann). I didn’t find an idea for a novel I could actually stick with to the bitter end until my mid-twenties and wrote a lot of short stories and half novels instead. I also started writing these stream-of-conscious pieces which I really couldn’t categorise until I finally realised they were prose poetry. I was always terrible at traditional poetry so I think I was in denial that that’s what they were but I’ve embraced this now, though I still have imposter syndrome when I speak to ‘real’ poets.
In terms of process, most things I write which are concept-based tend to start with a dream. Much of my dreams are nonsense but now and then my subconscious throws out some brilliant lump of clay for me to shape into a real thing. The less concept-based stuff comes from free-writing and stream-of-consciousness. I just write and see what comes out and sometimes it’s good enough to form into something else. I do write more than one thing at once and jump around a lot and I guess the ones I go back to and actually finish are the ones which still spark my interest over time. My editing process is first me and then other writers. I’ve been in various critiques groups and worked with an editor on my first novel which all helped me develop my craft and ability to self-edit. Now I have two close friends who write in a similar oeuvre and the three of us share work around. I find feedback really essential to my process now.
In terms of planning things out, I’m the ‘gardener’ not the ‘architect’ writer type (if you’ve heard that analogy). I plant things and nurture them and see how they grow in the world rather than planning everything out to the nth degree before writing it. With novels, I don’t write everything in chapter order, so I do have to organise and create a framework as I go so as not to get completely lost.
In terms of ‘finding what the story is really about’ I think putting something aside and coming back to it is key. Sometimes for a week, sometimes longer. The novel I am writing now started as a short story based on a dream many years ago. I lost my way with it and put it aside. About four years ago a life-event suddenly chimed very deeply with the themes in this story and I saw it more clearly and realised it was too complex for a short thing, so I began developing it into a novel. I like what you said/quoted about everything we write being our story in a way. I think I write because it helps me understand the world and the life I’m living and the people I’m living it with, even if I’m writing about a place I’ve never been or a thing I’ve never directly experienced, it all still relates back.
I’m interested in what you say about differences with playwriting and how the differences feed back into your handle on short stories. I’m a writer who really enjoys writing dialogue (I know many who don’t). I feel that’s where my characters change from some half-formed idea into a person that takes on a life of their own. How do you find writing dialogue? What have you learned from plays about the art of subtext which has informed your story writing? Also how do you feel about directors taking a script you’ve written as a basis and doing something different with it? Are you comfortable with giving up some creative control?
14th July, 21.34
It’s interesting to hear you decided to do the MA to help you prioritise your writing in your life, and yet it also takes you away from other areas of your writing work that you feel are equally essential.
Yes, it often feels like this to me – no matter what writing I’m on, there’s always other work languishing in the background that needs attention, and completion, and just getting round to actually SENDING out!
And intriguing to hear about the hybrid genre, that sounds so fresh and creative, in addition to your prose poems and longer form fiction. Sounds like such rich and fertile ways to work.
Other writers who critique your work and whose insights you trust, are true gold.
I think you must finish that story about the family of foxes btw!
Re your climate crisis novel, I’ve found much of my recent work has involved floods, or trees, without intending for the work to go that way.
To your question about dialogue writing and if I find it easy, what’s weird is that in a play script I can find it deceptively easy, but not so much so, in short fiction. I say ‘deceptive’ as it’s very easy to allow irrelevant dialogue to meander along and really snag up the action, when, like in any form actually, every single word has to have its purpose and momentum.
The useful things I’m learning from script writing, that hopefully do feed back into short stories, pretty basic really, is succinctness, creating an ‘atmosphere’ between characters from what they do, rather than what they say, to have characters say one thing but mean something else. I love the immediacy of theatre, its here and now ness.
Did you, by any chance, catch ‘LUNGS’ by Duncan Macmillan that was performed live on stage to an empty auditorium and streamed from the Old Vic just a week ago or so? It’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of theatre writing I’ve seen. So beautifully and intelligently crafted. An absolute class act in how much to leave out and allow the audience/reader to understand. One of my lockdown high points. They sold ’seats’ as if it was a live performance to an audience, so it was limited each night to the capacity of the theatre.
To answer your question about what it’s like to hand work over to directors and giving up creative control. I think of my script as the starting point for the performance and the director and actors bring their range of skills to make of it what they will, and that’s fine as long as they’re true to the intentions of the piece and the writing. Writers aren’t massively welcome in the rehearsal room normally, but whenever I’ve been allowed in, I’m fascinated by the process. By the serious playfulness of it, or maybe it’s the playful seriousness.
Editor Cherry Potts talks about Departures, an anthology of short fiction and poetry, and the events that inspired it – The Story Sessions, the live literature event that ran for three years. Complete with archive footage from the story sessions, and video from the launch of the book.
Cherry Potts talks (to Ness Owen, briefly) about the most ambitious Solstice Shorts Festival ever – Dusk – A Wave of Words Across the UK travelling at the Speed of Dark as dusk fell, to twelve sites from Ellon in Aberdeenshire, to Redruth in Cornwall on the shortest day of the year.
We did think about delaying this book, what with the Covid situation, but thanks to the power of multiple authors, (Anthologies are so handy that way) we were able to garner enough pre-orders to pay up front for the printing, thus minimising the risk of the books sitting sadly at the distributor with nowhere to sell them. And I have to say TJ International have done a brilliant job, and Karen Boissonneault-Gauthier‘s cover looks BEAUTIFUL.
It’s Independant Bookshop Week, this week by the way, and lots of bookshops have just reopened, in a careful socially distanced way, so you could order a copy through your local indie, or you can order from us.
There will be an online launch on 8th of August, when we will be celebrating our Eighth Anniversary. (Technically a few days before, but all those eights lined up and called to me.)
Those of you who have already ordered – there are a LOT of you, and we are prioritising the overseas orders to ensure everyone gets their books before publication day – and when I say ‘we’, I mean me and the cat, who lovely though he is, doesn’t help much in the way of posting stuff, and is more interested in sitting in the boxes when they are emptied, so please be patient, I know it’s exciting, I’m excited, but I can only get so many parcels to the post office at a time.
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.
I’m a ghost story fan. Ever since The Omen soundtrack drifted into my bedroom aged nine, I’ve loved the shivers being scared out of me. By the time I was thirty I’d compiled a ‘must watch’ list. On it was a black and white 1963 British film called The Haunting directed by Robert Wise (yes, the same guy who did The Sound of Music). Despite its age, and despite all the tropes one would expect, ten minutes into the story my breath was short. As it continued the claustrophobia of the film was unbearable.
The ending puzzled and moved me. The main character kills herself in order to join malevolent ghosts who ‘live’ in the house (if they are in fact real and not a projection of her own psyche). She chooses death to avoid going back to an empty life with an ambivalent family. One chilling scene showed a twisted relationship with her mother and it stayed with me long after the 114 minutes had ended.
Ten years on I bought the book, entitled The Haunting of Hill House in a sale. I had no idea who that author, Shirley Jackson, was. It was not typical trashy fare. The prose was beautifully written; in turns affecting, angry, cutting, satirical and deeply, deeply unsettling. Jackson’s observations on frail human behaviour were uncannily accurate. Even more so than the film, the storyline was an outraged polemic of how restricted roles in society affected women’s mental health. I took an enormous amount out of it.
A few years later I was taking baby steps (and clichés) into my own life as a writer. After being accepted into a prestigious local group I was feeling overwhelmed. When I was offered advice on ways, I could improve my work, I was too defensive to listen. They suggested I write short stories. But having never had the experience of an inspiring anthology or collection, I was set against it.
Then a mate of mine gave me his copy of the The Lottery to read. He had come across ‘a very interesting article in the Guardian’ (why do people always say that? Sorry… different blog…) and thought here was a short story I should read. So, I read it. Mostly to stop him mithering me.
It changed my world.
Despite being first published by the New Yorker in 1948, The Lottery is a savage, unsettling tale. Its satire is unflinching. The tone is dry, so subtly mocking that I instantly wanted to emulate it. And again it was Shirley Jackson who had written it.
I sought out the book that The Lottery came from. Turned out it was unimaginatively entitled The Lottery and Other Stories. It was page after page of powerful and macabre messages, but also savagely funny. In particular one story called ‘The Tooth’ encapsulated everything I wanted to write.
In it, the protagonist is packed off by her husband to see the dentist. To help cope with the pain, she resorts to pain killers mixed with booze. As a result, her awareness is skewed. The journey she takes is drenched with fear and bizzare visions. Time and place dislocate. After she senses a malevolent presence whilst in the dentist chair, she begins to dissociate.
Jackson drags the reader from the surface of the storyline into the turbulent and distressing depths of the protagonist’s life.
The story hit me at a visceral level. After finishing it, I immediately began to write short stories. And have never stopped since.
Two other Shirley Jackson novels in particular have deepened my understanding of how to write. One, her final published book, We Have Always Lived in The Castle, is a story about the moral landscape of small-town America. A family become the target of hatred in their local community when poisoning leaves only three of the household alive. The tone of the novel is light, comic even. It could easily have become like The Addams Family. But in Jackson’s hands the bleak humour is a deconstruction of ‘family values’ and an attack on the judgemental nature of humanity. Her command of tone and language are absolute.
The other, an earlier novel, Hangsaman, is about a young woman who experiences a traumatic event in the woods and then struggles with starting her new life at college. Self-absorbed parents are neglectful to the point of being abusive. Jackson uses blurred images and incomplete narrative to describe the shattering of this poor woman’s personality and the results are harrowing but utterly believable.
Shirley Jackson died too soon at 46. In Ruth Franklin’s biography ‘A Rather Haunted Life’ she describes a writer struggling with feelings of outsidership and having to make a series of cruel compromises. She portrays Jackson as driven despite crippling self-doubt and a number of challenges presented by those around her. Many of the incidents in her life resonate deeply with my own.
Shirley Jackson’s writing has become a constant source of motivation for my own work and ambition. I keep her short stories and novels at my deskside, refer to them constantly. She is my touchstone, my inspiration, a writer whose themes are both modern and pertinent. She’s not a pleasant read, but I love her all the more for that.