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Smile by Roddy Doyle

Smile by Roddy Doyle

Doyle makes storytelling appear effortless, his prose slipping down as easily as one of the pints Victor Forde sups nightly in Donnelly’s, the pub he has decided to make his regular. At fifty-four he’s newly separated and living alone in a small apartment. The area is familiar to him from his youth, but the people he knew aren’t around and he works to get in with a new group of guys in the bar, wanting to be one of the lads again. It’s very different from his life with Rachel, his ex. She built up her “Meals on Heels” business to the point she’s now one of the experts in an Irish Dragon’s Den style programme. Victor is a writer, or was. They were quite the celebrity couple. Back in the day he was an acerbic music journo and then made a name as one of those talking heads whose outspoken opinions on pretty much everything serves to bring controversy and ratings to radio stations. He was working on The Novel, but it never happened for him. Any day now he’s going to start writing again and Doyle is painfully funny on Forde the procrastinating writer. In a notebook he writes, “31/7/14 Girl – fat farmer – Czech. Or Polish. Wake. Sadness. Brother/old girlfriend?”
I’d take it from there. It would become something. A short story. I could feel it in me, written. Just waiting. I was ready for another piss, then bed. I’d text Rachel. Using the notebook – writing a short story and a novel. X. No, I wouldn’t do that. I left the phone on the table, to make sure I didn’t do something stupid. I went into the toilet. I came out, I emptied my pockets. I’d lost my phone. I remembered – it was on the table. I remembered why. I sat on the bed.”

A man, Fitzgerald, shows up in Donnelly’s and says he knows him. He’s loud, awkward, dressed in pink, and Victor can’t quite place him even when Fitzgerald tells him they were at school together, both taught by the Christian Brothers. He invokes schoolboy memories, the terror of slagging from the other boys and worse from the Brothers. Fragmented flashbacks of childhood return and Doyle is great at details which bring people alive on the page – speaking about a teacher they nicknamed Super Cool, “We could see inside his briefcase. Sandwiches in tinfoil and a flask; no books, no newspaper.
—Thinks he’s Paul McCartney but he wraps his sambos in tinfoil.
It was true, we decided. Super Cool was trying to look like Paul McCartney.”

Why can’t he place Fitzgerald though, when they have shared so many experiences? Why does he make him feel so uncomfortable?

The novel can be read through as typical Doyle fare – a middle-aged bloke reminiscing about childhood, school, his parents, his first love. There’s a bar and a lot of pints. A chorus of guys. Underneath though something is rotten. Those Christian Brothers …

And then there’s a weird twist which blindsided me. I’m still not sure what I think about it. There’s a particular quality about a Roddy Doyle novel which depends on the reader enjoying his portrayals of fictional characters as real people; we believe in them. This tricksy ending leaves us with an inability to trust what we’ve read, which would probably be very neat and satisfying if it rang true. Sadly, it doesn’t. Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be realistic, but for all its darkness I would have preferred it to go deeper.

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Submissions (it’s all subjective yada yada yada.)

Submissions (it’s all subjective yada yada yada.)

As Managing Editor of The Forge Literary Magazine, I read a lot of submissions. As a writer, I send very few. I am really bad at sending subs out. If I get a rejection my reaction is along the lines of thinking my story isn’t good, instead of thinking perhaps it simply didn’t chime with whoever read it. The coolest writers I know tell me they send their work out many, many times until it is accepted. I know how ridiculous I am, but I usually wait another few months (six months, maybe a year) and then send the piece out to another venue. Two form declines and that piece is dead to me. Which is obviously stupid. I am vowing here and now to change that. I think I actually get a bit ashamed when my work is rejected as if I was delusional to think it was publishable. At the same time I know I am a good writer. It’s yet another of those fucksy things that co-exists and makes little sense.

Every time I read for FLM I am hoping the piece will be brilliant. I imagine that’s true of all editors. I mean, why read if not to discover wonderful writing? An immediate acceptance is super rare at FLM (although I did just that recently when I accepted a piece nobody else has read because I simply loved it and it was exhilarating to read something that good.) More likely is a yes vote on an admired piece which takes it to the Editorial Table where the Editors of the Month consider it. The majority of pieces sent to us are declined, but if someone gives a maybe vote it will then get passed to another editor for their opinion. Two maybes is a pass to the Editorial Table. I am telling you this because I voted maybe on a flash a couple of months ago. Another editor also voted maybe so it has been under consideration for a while. People have read and commented, but nobody has said they want to keep it and today, when I was going through the stories we’ve hung on to, I figured I’d decline. I read it again and was blown away. This isn’t a maybe piece, this is a hell yes piece. It’s terrific. Apparently I can’t even trust my own judgment to remain consistent. This is one of those revelations which is obvious, I know, but it feels useful enough to me that I’m hoping it might be useful to someone else. I can’t count the number of times I’ve told people that writing and reading is subjective. As is music. As is film. As is… etcetera. And yet I take rejection as a personal judgment rather than someone’s subjective opinion. Two months ago I gave a considered maybe vote to a piece that today I want to publish. Nothing has changed in that time, the words remain the same. Perhaps the first time I read it I was tired, I was in a different mood. But good writing is always good writing. This is why it’s useful to get more than one opinion. But although others liked this flash they too gave it a maybe. Today it’s a yes. A definite yes. I will remember that the next time I get a no.

Smash Lits with Jane Flett

Smash Lits with Jane Flett

I published a superb short story – Shadow Puppetry over at The Forge Literary Magazine.  Please do read it; it’s one of our nominations for the Pushcart Prize and is something special. Thank you Jane Flett for taking part in one of my Smash Lits interviews.

 

 

1) How do you organise your bookshelves?

Alphabetically and also divided into novels/short stories/poetry. Also I have a special section for books of witchcraft and cults, and one for Stephen King and other books to read in the bath.

2) What is your favourite cheese?

A really sharp cheddar.

3) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins? Why?  

Tofu—specifically Mapo Tofu with a holy fuck-ton of Sichuan chilli bean paste. Bacon is pretty tasty but tofu is a sponge you can turn into whatever you like, and that is a quality I find appealing in food. Possibly also in humans.

4) What colour is Wednesday?

Black and white like piano keys.

5) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

Alissa Nutting, to see how it feels in the glorious and filthy innards of her brain.

6) Have you ever had your fortune told?

Of course! I’m a witch, I do tarot all the time. Also I have a soft spot for those old arcade machines you place your palm on and they give you a printed out page of your destiny.

7) What lighting do you have in your living room?

Lamps and candles, and sometimes a red rope light.

8) What’s your most vivid childhood memory?     

Splitting my chin open at playschool because I dared a boy he couldn’t stand on a wobbly block for 5 seconds. He couldn’t. Me, I could do it for 4 seconds and a half…

9) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I don’t know anything about Neighbours, except that when I was younger I had a cassette tape of Kylie & Jason and now I have Especially for You stuck in my head. So them.

10) Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

No. I did have a hand puppet of a hedgehog called Hedgey though, and also my brother and I made friends with a napkin ring that had an alter-ego of a fat lady opera singer called AwMiLaw. She would fly around the kitchen and sing opera songs in a beautiful and not-at-all annoying voice.

11) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Zadie Smith?

I like the number of food-related questions in this interview. I would take a fondue kit in my wicker basket and she would find that charming.

12) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

The wallpaper that’s in my kitchen and author photograph: big 70s red and orange poppies on a white background.

13) What was the last text you sent?

“Ahh we are so hungry!”

14) Do you think Antiques Roadshow is boring?

I don’t know it, can we talk about Gladiators instead? I have a lot more feelings about Gladiators. We had gerbils called Jet and Lightning as kids and I spent a lot of time pretending to do the Eliminator in the school playground.

15) How much money did you spend yesterday?

I am in Madrid, so a lot more than usual! About €50 on Colombian baked goods, calamari sandwiches, and many many beers in the gay bar.

16) What is your most played song at the moment?

9–5 by Dolly Parton (this is almost always true).

17) What question should I have asked you?`

“Can I get you a drink while you answer these questions?”

18) What’s your favourite swear?

Cunt. I like that it upsets people who think vaginas are horrifying.

(I agree wholeheartedly. What’s up with that? Cunts.)

19) Do you like spiders?

Sure. I haven’t met all of them though.

20) Mermaids, dinosaurs or unicorns?
One glorious hybrid to rule them all.

(A merocorn?)

Smash Lits with Ruby Cowling

Smash Lits with Ruby Cowling

We recently published an excellent story by Ruby Cowling at The Forge – please do read

We Are Part of This

Ruby also agreed to take part in an interview with me. Spoiler alert! I think she might be the only person to ever choose tofu over bacon (so far).

1) How do you organise your bookshelves?

Top shelf of best bookcase: Best Books Ever, featuring George Saunders and George Eliot. Next shelf down: great books that almost made it to the Top. And so on down. Then short story collections, then poetry and plays. The other bookcases are chaos, though I try to keep non-fiction quarantined from the rest.

2) Have you ever been on a retreat?

Many.

3) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

My heart says bacon but all my other organs say tofu.

4) What is your favourite smell?

Ugh–I’m a bit phobic about the word “smell.” (And I’ll go out of my way to avoid saying “smelly.”) Probably the *aroma* of woodsmoke on clothes.

5) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

George Saunders, obviously—because I’d come back a better person.

6) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

It’s been decades since I watched it, so I actually had to go to Google images for this one. Des Clarke!

7) What would you cook if Salman Rushdie came for dinner?

Something chewy.

8) What is your favourite biscuit?

Something dark-chocolate-and-gingery.

9) Do you have a poster/picture on your wall? Describe it.

I have a watercolour nude done by the chap who owns the framing shop down the road.

10) What is your motto for life?

“Chill the f*** out.” Only as a reminder, because I’m doing the opposite all the time.

11) What’s your most played song right now?

The deeply satisfying “Funtimes in Babylon” by Father John Misty.

12) Unicorns, mermaids or dinosaurs? 

Dinosaurs, because actual existence is a pretty strong trump card.

13) Have you ever seen a ghost?

Not a *ghost*, exactly…

14) What did you do last Saturday night?

Watched the football and then had a ridiculously early night.

15) Do you have any writing rituals?

Rituals, no, but I’ve started using the Pomodoro technique and can hugely recommend it for Getting Stuff Done.

16) Tell me a secret.

No way! My current WIP is all about the importance of not sharing.

17) What would you do if you were invisible for the day?

Probably just loads of eavesdropping. (Just to contradict the entire message of my current WIP.)

18) Can you write a haiku about your story?

A bunch of women
Spending a week in the woods
But who can they trust?

19) What’s your favourite swear?

Heavens to Betsy!

20) What question should I have asked you?

Where do you get your ideas from? *KIDDING.*

Many thanks for taking part (superb haiku!)

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls by Emma Cline

I have a dislocated elbow at the moment; my arm is in a full cast and I’m unable to work so it’s the perfect time to catch up with some of my giant TBR pile. Last year there was a lot of buzz about The Girls, it was hyped to the max, and I remember hoping it wouldn’t be one of those novels that are full of potential that doesn’t quite get realised. The jury’s out on that one, but I’m happy to report that when I began reading I was totally absorbed. It’s a reimagining of the Manson cult (I initially tried using a dictation device as my right arm/hand is out of action, but it typed Manson cult as mints and coat and I gave up) told from the point of view of Evie, a 14-year-old who is bored by her long-standing friendship with Connie, upset with her separated parents, ignored by her crush, and disillusioned by school. She is the perfect blend of yearning romantic and brittle bravado for the Mansonesque Russell and his girls to manipulate and influence. Cline is dazzlingly good at the socially awkward shuffles and games adolescent girls employ hoping to be accepted and cool, and the faith we have that one day we will discover our real purpose, our real lives.

She was lost in that deep and certain sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience. As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be received. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there. That sometimes you lived a whole life skittering across the surface as the years passed, unblessed.

Interspersed throughout, a middle-aged Evie, damaged and lonely, spends time in the company of a couple of teens who are impressed by her past. Her life is indelibly marked by her association with the cult. Her “inevitable self” is not anything she would have hoped for.

Cline writes convincingly about how the girls, and boys too, come to find themselves part of Russel’s commune, living a bullshit free love existence. Evie is entranced by one of them, Suzanne, enough to return to the grimy commune rather than stay with either of her parents. Russell is the magnetic leader, but he remains distant to the reader as the novel moves towards the inevitable brutal murders. It’s Suzanne who is Evie’s focus, although like all the cult characters she too remains unknowable and mysterious.

On reflection, the weird problem I have with the book is that probably the least successful part is the Manson story. The teen girl insights chimed with me and were where my interest lay. I’m not sure the cult part is that interesting – maybe read Helter-Skelter if that’s your area (the bestselling true crime book written by Vincent Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor in the Manson case – a book I devoured many years ago when I was a teen). I wonder if Cline’s novel was actually hindered by following that narrative. However, her perceptiveness and ability make whatever she writes next very interesting to me.

Smash Lits with Tigele Nlebesi

We published a really good piece of non-fiction at The Forge Literary Magazine this week: Black Girls in Upscale Boutiques by Tigele Nlebesi. I think you’ll agree that last line is a killer.

Thanks Tigele for agreeing to do a Smash Lits interview with me.

1)  You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

A friend of mine got Somali henna done all over her torso, and the first thing I thought when I saw it was “I’d love to have that all over my walls.”

2) What was your favourite book as a child?

Unfair! There are too many to list. Roald Dahl’s The BFG is the first book that made me want to keep reading. Jacqueline Wilson was my favourite author as a child so everything she wrote was an instant hit, but Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is the first book that made me imagine myself as a writer one day. It was harrowing and enchanting.

3) What was the last text you sent?

Sent my boyfriend a link to a hilarious webcomic called “The Worst Best Firefighter” on www.buttersafe.com

4) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

IMG_1242

Bacon. It tastes better, and I can’t wrap my jalapeno poppers in tofu, duh.

5) Have you ever had a nickname?

I’ve probably racked up more nicknames than I have years on this planet. People have a hard time pronouncing my name so they give me new ones all the time.

6) What do you write with?

My right hand and an unhealthy amount of trepidation; unless you mean what I actually write with, in which case it’s a pentel energel pen (in purple or green) and a notebook. I’ve recently discovered writing is easier for me when I do it by hand.

7) What is your motto for life?

“You are more than what you’ve done.”

8) Who is your favourite superhero?

Garnet from Steven Universe. What a babe.

9) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

I watched a show on a European Channel called Zone Reality years ago that said they could and since then I’ve believed they can. I don’t care to check whether it’s true or not.

10) What’s your favourite thing from childhood that you’ve still got?

A Lion King book my aunt got for me from Disneyland in which a character was created in my name. It’s pretty neat.

11) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

The Australian soap opera or the American film? I don’t watch the former, but if you’re referring to the latter I can finally tell the world that I have a huge crush on Seth Rogen. So Seth Rogen’s character is my favourite.

12) Your piece is nonfiction—will Alexa read it do you think? Are you still in touch?

A year after I moved, I went back to Cape Town (and the boutique). She still worked there, and we exchanged emails, but she hasn’t responded to any I’ve sent, so that’s a no and another no.

13) What’s your favourite swear?

I’m obsessed with common British swear words. Right now it’s bellend.

14) What colour is contentment?

Rose gold, like the saucepans and cutlery set I really want but cannot afford.

15) Have you ever seen a ghost?

After he died I saw my grandfather’s head surrounded by a funeral wreath hovering above the curtains in my room. I may have just been jarred from seeing his body at the funeral.

16) What did you do last Saturday night?

Went out for a couple of drinks with my friends.

17) You hold a dinner party and can only invite writers. Who do you invite?

Leslie Jamison, Zadie Smith, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and Toni Morrison. Girls Only, but I’d make an exception for David Foster Wallace were he still alive.

18) Do you have any recurring dreams?

I’m always falling off a cliff or getting bitten by one or multiple snakes.

19) What question should I have asked you?

Whether I find Ryan Gosling irresistible because I don’t, and I feel like I deserve special recognition for it.

20) What would you do if you were invisible for the day?

That isn’t enough time to make my way to wherever Seth Rogen is, so I’d probably waste it spooking the hell out of people.

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

I blooming loved Fell. Loved it. What a treat to read such an engaging and immersive story. Jenn Ashworth has always been an interesting writer, but it feels to me that she’s hit new heights of awesome with this novel.

The book begins with the awakening of Netty and Jack who have spent death in a place of nothingness and are startled into a watchful, skittering existence by the arrival of their adult daughter at the old family home. Annette has inherited the house from Candy, Jack’s second wife, and, uninhabited for years, it’s a decrepit building; rotting, damp, mouldy, invaded by nature and filthy. The huge Sycamore trees outside have encroached and pushed inside. It’s dangerous and will cost a fortune to fix up. Annette calls a tree surgeon, Eve, who refuses to agree to set to it before a structural engineer takes a look, leading Annette to take matters into her own hands.

Meanwhile, Netty and Jack seem helpless to do anything other than watch scenes from their lives play out, which they narrate with one voice. We see Netty’s struggles to look after lodgers as her terminal illness progresses. We watch as, on a rare family day out to the lido, Jack meets Tim, an enigmatic young man who moves in with them after displaying mysterious powers, bringing hope and and intrigue to the story. As Jack tends Netty, Annette is left alone to entertain herself and Tim works on his dreams of becoming a tailor.

Switching between past and present, Morecambe Bay isn’t so much a backdrop to the novel as a surrounding atmosphere and Ashworth’s descriptions of it are superb, rendering it vivid in all its beauty and ugliness.

“The woods seem to last forever. He finds his pace and continues upwards, tripping over roots and slipping, sometimes, on exposed slabs of limestone, greasy with moss. All the while he is relishing the cold muddy smell of the first fresh air he’s had in days. Netty is rotting; she stinks, and there was no way to cover it up any more. In the spring these woods will reek of bluebells, wild garlic and fox bitches in heat, but there’s nothing in the air today except the scent of musty leaves and stagnant pools of rainwater. It’s still early; a hard bluish light shines between the stripped boughs. The fell slopes steeply upwards, covered in close cropped grass and heather. The sky is low and almost white. No one would put this on a postcard…”

She’s equally magical at conjuring the bits and bobs that make up our day to day – the sweets, crockery, pencils, leaves, the ordinary things that forge our connections with the world.

Forced to bear witness to their daughter’s isolation can Netty and Jack somehow help?

All in Fell is flawed; the characters, the landscape, even the magic. What shines through is the hope, that necessary ingredient that keeps us pushing on through life come what may, and kindness, which may be the best that humans have to offer each other.