Author and Solstice Shorts Contributor Neil Lawrence is a qualified life coach, and is offering a 90 min phone/zoom coaching session for you as a writer – how are you doing right now, where do you need to focus to get your writing to the next level.
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.
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.
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.
The Other Side of Sleep
Time and Tide
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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.
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 Northcollects poems I wrote during my two sojourns in Lithuania – hence the title, which is the country’s latitude. Minimize Consideredwas 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 Heresiesis 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.
Kelly Davis (Dusk) and Elizabeth Stott (We/She) in Conversation
Elizabeth: You and I were introduced over a decade ago by a writer friend, who said something along the lines of: ‘Kelly is a very clever Oxford graduate, and editor.’ I was a little daunted but found you to be a warm and open person. I remember us both taking our then teenage sons for a guitar masterclass at Maryport Blues Festival. Mum’s taxi service! If I were asked to describe you now, I might say (teasingly): ‘Kelly is a girly swot with passion and principles. And she is an excellent poet!’ And I have been fortunate to see you grow as a writer of poetry.
Kelly: Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I remember first seeing you read one of your beautifully crafted, slightly chilling short stories at a literary event in Cockermouth, and later bumping into you at the Words by the Water Festival in Keswick, where we both chair sessions. The Cumbrian literary scene is very lively and in 2017 our mutual friend Kathleen Jones (along with Jacci Bulman and Nicola Jackson) edited Write to Be Counted, a poetry anthology to uphold human rights and raise money for PEN. We both had poems in this anthology and enjoyed reading together at several events, including a launch at the Poetry Café in London. In 2018, we were both placed in the Magma magazine subscribers’ poetry competition. Now we are also connected through our involvement with Arachne Press. In my case, this came about through Barbara Renel, who lives in Wigton. Barbara is a writer of short stories and flash fiction and a long-time friend of Arachne. She asked for Solstice Shorts contributions from people who attend the SpeakEasy sessions in Carlisle and that was how I ended up submitting poems to Arachne.
Elizabeth: Your Dusk poem ‘Calling Them In’, with its echoing lines, is haunting and deeply unsettling. The form is unusual. Perhaps you could unpack it for me?
Kelly: ‘Calling Them In’ started simply as a response to Arachne’s call-out. I Googled the word ‘dusk’ and found references to children being called in from play and that made me remember my sons playing in the school grounds near our house. I used to call ‘Come home for your tea!’ over the back fence. But on one occasion, they were nowhere to be found – and I had that feeling of dread that all mothers of young children get when they suddenly slip out of sight. In fact they were just playing in some other part of the grounds, out of earshot, but the poem developed into a meditation on time stealing our children. The repetition occurs because I originally wrote it as a valanga (which means ‘avalanche’). This little-known poetic form was invented by Cumbrian author and poet Mike Smith (aka Brindley Hallam Dennis) in around 2007 and it suddenly went viral in Cumbrian writing circles 10 years later. Cherry edited the poem down a bit for the Dusk anthology but some of the repetition remains and I think it creates a sense of threat, which is amplified as the poem goes on.
Elizabeth: When you write poetry, do you have to stop the editor in you from getting in the way? It seems to me that you are able to let your imagination and feelings out, without a leash, and bring them back with a light hand to form your work.
Kelly: That’s a very good question, Elizabeth. My day job involves editing non-fiction where everything has to be crystal clear so it’s easy for me to fall into traps such as explaining too much at the beginning or end of a poem, or trying to manipulate the reader’s response. My poems tend to come very quickly, in a burst of inspiration, often triggered by personal experiences or memories. I then need to revisit them repeatedly, at intervals, to edit them effectively. This process can take a long time and may involve happenstance. For instance, I once wrote a poem called ‘White Gladioli’ that ended very abruptly and I put it aside, as I had no idea how to complete it. I later saw that Mslexia magazine were asking for specular poems. The specular form gave me the ‘other half’ of the poem and I was overjoyed when Mslexia published it in 2017.
Elizabeth, I know you write novels, short stories, flash fiction and poetry. How has your writing developed and what makes you choose a particular form?
Elizabeth: I had a lifelong notion that I should ‘write’, but didn’t take the idea seriously until mid-life, when I had a young family and needed an intellectual outlet. I had been used to writing in a business context, where work-related reports had to be concise, precise and structured. When I started writing fiction, I began to relate what I had learned about technical writing to so-called ‘creative writing’. My writing style in fiction has always been on the lean side, so my stories are often under 3000 words or so. Flash throws down a gauntlet and makes you ask yourself: ‘Why are you writing this?’ It’s a good way to find out what matters in a narrative. I am still in an early relationship with flash. It exposes a concept and it takes a bit of courage from the writer to recognise weaknesses.
Regarding poetry; years ago, I attended a local creative writing class where my notions of fiction were challenged, and I was introduced to the idea that I could also have a go at writing poetry. Experimenting with poetry made me re-engage with language and seemed to open out my prose.
What I start to write at any given time depends very much on my mood. For fiction, I like it best when I have a clear sense of a character. If I start with an idea, I find it harder to bring the piece to life. Writing a poem can help to evoke something. Even if the poem itself is not successful, it allows a rhythm and voice to emerge that gives a sense of where a prose piece may lead. I am very sound driven.
Kelly, you studied English Literature at Oxford. Did this encourage you to write creatively or did you find it inhibiting? Why did you choose poetry as your medium, and have you tried other forms?
Kelly: I loved writing poems as a child and a teenager but, sadly, studying Eng Lit at Oxford did stifle my creativity. Poetry became something to be pulled apart and analysed, and I no longer dared to write my own. It was only when I came to live in Cumbria in 1989 that I started tentatively writing again. And finally, about ten years ago, I started taking my own writing a bit more seriously. Like you, I value clarity and brevity. Perhaps that’s why I find poets like Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver particularly appealing. Poetry can be very intense – packing a great deal of thought and emotion into relatively few words. There’s something magical about the idea of writing a few lines that can stay in someone’s memory for ever. I have tried writing flash fiction and I have a few pages of an abandoned historical novel – but poetry seems to be my natural mode of expression.
A lot of writers study English Literature as I did, but you made a more unusual choice when you decided to do a physics degree. How do you think your interest in science has influenced your writing?
Elizabeth: My experience is that physics graduates end up doing all kinds of things. But I think it is more to do with having a mosaic mind in my case. I was pretty good at a variety of subjects at school, including languages, and I loved writing long essays for my English homework When my kids were small, I took a career break and needed something to call my own so I started writing articles and stories. I bought a typewriter in Boots whilst my two-year-old daughter demolished the stationery counter.
Studying science requires you to think in a structured, logical way and helps you develop a sense of pattern and a feeling for the direction of an argument. It also introduces fundamental ideas about what lies beneath everyday life and develops a sense of the scale of things, and the place of humankind in the immensity of ‘what is’. I was particularly interested in cosmology, and ideas about life elsewhere in the universe. This led me to marvel at how human beings can contemplate the vastness of existence with leaps of scale that dwarf our lives into insignificance. Our awareness is like a tiny flash of light in the immense darkness!
Kelly, on this subject – the fragility of individual lives – some of your poetry deals with your Jewish ancestry and the impact of the Holocaust on your family. Perhaps you could share how you think about these themes, and how it brings you to write about them in poetry, rather than another form.
Kelly: I am haunted by my grandfather’s story, and I’ve written several poems about him. He was a Lithuanian Jew and his family sent him to South Africa in the late 1930s, in the hope that he would make his fortune and send for them. But in 1941, before he had earned enough to pay their passage, he received a letter via the Red Cross from a good friend, telling him that his entire family had been shot into a mass grave. His friend crawled out from under the bodies, escaped and survived. But when the friend returned to his hometown after the war, his ex-neighbours (who had taken his house) murdered him. I don’t feel able to write about these events in any medium other than poetry. It enables me to distil the emotion and try to find a universal resonance. Of course these terrible stories are still happening all over the world – in Syria and many other countries.
To get back to your writing, Elizabeth, I very much enjoyed your story ‘One Beautiful Day’, published in the 2018 We/She Arachne Press anthology. I wondered what made you think of writing about a pair of aging married opera singers on a provincial tour? The story is written in the third person and entirely from the woman’s perspective. What made you decide to write it like that?
Elizabeth: I was inspired by an unusual event organised by a local arts society, which took place on a dark winter evening at a Cumbrian village hall more frequently used to host Brownies, playgroups and WI meetings. It was billed as an evening of opera, with a dinner prepared by a local chef. Two professional opera singers and a pianist, who had all performed at leading international venues, delivered a remarkable evening of music. They wore full evening dress and performed from a makeshift stage, amidst the children’s dangling Christmas snowflakes, surrounded by stacks of plastic chairs. The pianist, more used to a grand piano, played an electronic keyboard, perched (probably uncomfortably) on two of the stacked chairs, his evening tails hanging down behind him. The performers delivered their music as if from a London stage, with much grace and humour, whilst we ate our dinner on fold-out tables. There was a raffle, of course, mostly for alcoholic beverages. It was a remarkable insight into the life of touring musicians, performing largely for love, and little money. (Much like the life of a writer really!) My characters were fiction, I must add.
On the question of point of view for the story. You have to start somewhere. Sometimes, as the story progresses, it seems that it would work better from the first person, or in another tense. If I am not getting the right vibe, then I will try another perspective. A story must seem natural, even if it is clearly an artifact. There must always be a gap for the reader to inhabit. Grounding it too much will make the story fall flat. With this story, there is a little distance, and a formality, a wry humour, but we can still hear Reneé’s voice through the narrator. I kept the third person to allow me to pull away from the immediacy, and avoid the more obvious aspects of first person, which can be a little too ‘up close and personal’. I wanted to keep a wry perspective and allow the sensibilities of others to cast a light back, and Reneé’s misery could have dominated in the first person. I do use first person and I often play with tenses. Even second person, sometimes. Variety is one of the reasons why I like short fiction, both as a writer and reader.
Kelly, tell me about your plans to get more of your poetry published. It seems that independent presses, such as Arachne, play an important part in bringing new writers to light.
Kelly: I feel I’ve developed my own voice as a poet, and I have a reasonable body of work so I would love to get a pamphlet (or maybe even a collection) published. I am submitting where I see opportunities to do so. However, there are so many talented poets competing for airtime/publishing contracts that one has to be both patient and determined. I often get very warm responses from audience members when I read at poetry events – and that encourages me to keep writing and submitting. What are your writing plans, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: I hope one of these days to finish a novel. I have a few that, for various reasons, I have not finished. And I’d like to get together new collections of my stories. I have also toyed with the idea of writing a play. I enjoyed watching actors engage with my Liars’ League stories in live readings. Of course, Arachne collects and publishes selected Liars’ League stories in its anthologies, and that’s where my story for We/She came from.
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.
Nina: What motivates you? How do you ensure you get the motivation you need?
Cathy: I’ve written since I was a child, and I read and wrote throughout a very unhappy childhood. Books were my escape then, and they’re my pleasure now. Both reading and writing, I still feel that urgency, that excitement that I felt when I was little—particularly that charge one gets when reading a book that one knows is going to be special. Sometimes I lose myself in writing a piece that works, and feel that same urgency. Not always! But I don’t need extra motivation—writing is what I do and who I am, and always has been. Though money is useful too! I know I’m supposed to be above such things as a writer, but I still have bills to pay.
Nina: What throws you off? What do you do to regain your composure?
Cathy: Physical pain, due to arthritis and fibromyalgia and a bunch of other stuff. It’s why I can’t keep a regular routine of the type that is supposed to be so helpful. What I do is let myself off the hook—it’s not my fault, after all. I can also use the time for daydreaming (i.e. constructive idea generation!) or other mind exercises.
Nina: Tell me about a collaboration that was unexpectedly successful. Or, conversely, recall a collaboration that should have worked well but did not.
Cathy: They say don’t work with animals, children—or your spouse. Keir worked with me and several others on the three Best of Manchester Poets anthologies, and it was a wonderful experience. We all discussed and debated things and did a fair bit of complaining, but, on the whole, it was a warm and empowering project. One launch night we had 42 poets performing, and we finished on time and with everyone happy!
Another experience that stands out was working with a dancer for an ‘Inspired by Tagore’ performance run by Sampad. My poem had won a competition with them, and as I read it to the audience, a dancer called Shuma Pal danced. It was very special. She wasn’t happy with her performance, but I thought she was wonderful!
Nina: What skills would you like to learn/acquire? If you could learn anything, and time/money were no object, what would it be and why?
Cathy: I’ll be honest here—fighting pain is my main goal, so that I can continue reading and writing as much as possible. Taking care of my health is a boring but necessary job. If I could learn anything: flying aircraft, dermatology (since I had to work on someone’s cyst I’ve been peculiarly enthralled—yes I know it’s weird!), goldsmithing, botany (so I wouldn’t have to say things like, “That puffy bird that looks like a sponge was on top of the bush with red bits this morning,”), and I’d write a disabled Kama Sutra (one can get great wedges and supports and things these days).
Nina: What type of information do you seek and consume daily? How useful is this information to you? How does it affect your work?
Cathy: I do read a bit of the news—as much as my mental health can stand. Sometimes I write topical poems, political satire and so forth (a recent example is a poem called, Donald Trump Cures Everything). Since we moved into our own home last year, I’ve had a garden for the first time since leaving my parents. I’ve been learning the names of the plants and how to care for them. I’ve always loved birds, and some of my significant childhood experiences centered on them, so now I’m trying to get to know those in my garden. Recently I’ve been writing about a female blackbird in our front garden who seems to be in love with her own reflection, and tries to mate with herself. So nature is featuring more in my recent work. There’s also the journey of marriage, which is a strange and wonderful garden in itself, and which I am stumbling through!
Nina: If you are a goal-setting kind of writer, what are your goals for the rest of this year? What, in your opinion, would be one practical thing that a creative person should accomplish in, say, six months?
Cathy: I think it depends on the writer. These set goals can be impossible for those with chronic health conditions or disabilities. I would say, just keep trying, keep writing when you can, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. Research apps or other software to help with health problems—for instance, speech-activated dictation software is much improved.
Nina: What practices do you have in place to ensure that you solicit frank feedback that is helpful to you?
Cathy: Submitting my finished and proofed piece to a litmag that pays. I used to go to writing groups a lot, but having recently moved I’m still looking for the right one here. As far as feedback from editors goes—if they accept it, they like it, which is useful and remunerative feedback. If they reject it, sometimes they add a note saying, “We loved this except for…” which is incredibly useful. Appreciative and constructive editors are pure gold.
Nina: What public/media engagements have you found to be most effective in promoting your work? What kind of opportunity do you wish to see more of? (pardon the clunky grammar).
Cathy: I like clunky grammar—it’s human and fun! I am limited with performances by my mobility problems and mental health issues. This makes me appreciate my publisher, Cherry Potts at Arachne, even more—I can’t be the dynamic person zooming around festivals and doing performances every week. I use social media—I love Facebook, and as I love to entertain people, I do share links to my work there with any funny poems or posts. I am conscious that I don’t do enough.
Nina: In your typical workweek, what tasks do you tend to complete first? What resources do you regularly draw upon?
Cathy: The morning is for admin, as it’s my best time physically. This is the time for proofing and submitting work, for editing and emailing. I subscribe to Duotrope—it pays for itself every year, for me—and have a lifetime subscription to Firstwriter. I use these and many more websites to collate my Comps and Calls, a monthly list of opportunities for writers. I only list free writing competitions (yes, they are worth doing—I won $1000 for a previously published poem, among many other wins) and submission calls without entry fees (which fees I consider an abomination). Afternoons are for rest. Evenings are for dreaming and writing.
I also take a lot of meds. If I gave a speech, it would begin, “I’d like to thank tramadol, naproxen, bendroflumethiazide…”
Nina: Who are the people/groups to whom you turn? What resources do you still need?
Cathy: I do Napowrimo every year now, as I always seem to get about ten decent pieces out of it. The pieces that aren’t great have still exercised my writing muscles, got my brain working.
The people I turn to are my friends—I have many wonderful friends who are writers too. The writing community is one of my favourite places—so warm, so understanding, so helpful to those who want to enter it, or are having problems within it. I owe a great debt to other writers.
Keir and I are both writers, so we bounce ideas off each other all the time.
Nina: 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?
Cathy: When people turn to me, it’s usually because of my writing success—27 literary awards and writing competition wins, plus several books published, plus hundreds of pieces in litmags. They ask all sorts of things, from how to write a great book, how to find an agent, how to get their stories and poems published, what terms mean (such as ‘MS’ or ‘spec fic’) or if there are any litmags available for people of their nationality, or age, or belief system. I do my best to answer helpfully, remembering the free help I got when I needed it and was broke. But it’s impossible to give everyone the in-depth help they need or want. I just bumble along, doing my best when I can.
Once Robert Graves received a letter from a businessman. He wrote that he’d had a good year, and as he enjoyed Graves’ work he was sending him £400. Now that’s the sort of message I’d like to receive! I do get fan mail sometimes, and it fills me with joy. I still have a need for validation, and when someone messages me to say that they enjoyed something I wrote or performed, I’m walking on air for days. People do donate to keep Comps and Calls going, and I love them for their thoughtfulness.
Nina: How’s your social media presence? Is there anyone whose social media presence you feel is useful and meaningful?
Cathy: I spend too much time on Facebook, though I’ve also had great opportunities from there. As so often, my inspiration there comes from other writers, and editors and publishers—I’ll name a few names here: Dominic Berry, Karen Little, Ayesha Kajee, Cherry at Arachne, Teika Bellamy at Mother’s Milk, Rosie Garland, Angela Smith, Sheenagh Pugh and Steve O’Connor. Fiona Pitt-Kethley is astonishing in all sorts of ways. Apologies to those I haven’t mentioned, a good gross or so of whom (clunky grammar alert) are extremely important to me—the above list is a cross-section.
Nina: How can one make money from writing?
Cathy: There are loads of ways, though my health makes many of them impossible. Dominic Berry goes into schools, for instance, and entertains the children and gets them interested in poetry and writing poetry—he’s the most lovely writer, performer and person. Then there are poets such as Akiel Chinelo who go into prisons and help the inmates via poetry. These are ways of earning money while helping people and writing, all at the same time. Some folk of an academic bent have become creative writing lecturers, a proper job based on writing. Other writers—and I can think of two fabulous ones, who might not want to be named—take the corporate wage and become either content writers or in-house writers. This is less creative but more remunerative, and it depends on each writer’s circumstances what is appropriate.
I struggle to do these things as I often have to cancel events due to my health flaring up. I do run the occasional workshop (£80 per two-hour session if you’d like to hire me, folks), usually specialising in getting published and/or entering writing competitions, as these are my specialist areas. Mainly for me, though, I make money from winning writing competitions, and submitting my stories and poetry to litmags. This is not a way to get rich! I’m very prolific, so I write and submit loads—over 400 submissions one year.
Bonus: What question would you like to be asked?
Ooh! Ooh! Exciting! Umm….what would I like for my birthday? I don’t know, so not that… What do you need to do, Cathy?
I need to stop self-rejecting my manuscript of woman-centered science fiction and fantasy stories. I keep thinking, I’d like to write an intro or afterword to each piece, and an introduction. I keep thinking that it might not be good enough for Arachne (I know that lockdown is a rotten time to publish, so I’m not sending them off anyway at the moment). In other words, I’m doing all the things that stopped me from submitting my work for decades. [Note from Arachne. We have told Cathy she is a noodle and to send at once.]
I need to remember that almost all writers feel like that.
I need to remember my own writing mantra: give it a go. Keep trying. have a go!
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