Fight Night by Miriam Toews

This is a glorious, fizzing novel about three generations of women. It’s narrated by nine-year-old Swiv, who has been suspended, again, for fighting at school and is being looked after at at home by her Grandma while her pregnant actor mum, Mooshie is working. Swiv has a wonderfully believable voice, sometimes funny, sometimes anxious, that blends her grandma’s turns of phrase with her own youthful understanding. There are many lovely passages about their day to day:

 “Grandma’s leg really hurts right below the knee and she doesn’t know why, it’s a new thing. She checked to make sure she had enough bullets in her purse so she can go out to play cards all day with her friends. When she swallows her pills she pretends they’re tiny soldiers sent off to fight the pain and sometimes she holds them up and says to them, thank you for your service, lest we forget, and then she swallows them and says play ball!”

Swiv is a worrier but to be fair does have plenty to fret about. Grandma is seriously ill and old and Swiv is entrusted with managing her medication and care. Her dad has disappeared (one of Swiv’s home-school tasks is to write her absent father a letter which forms the basis of the narration), and her aunt and grandpa both killed themselves leaving her worried about her mother’s sanity. Mooshie is often angry or upset and has demons to battle, but Grandma provides a lot of love and laughter. She has such verve for life yet doesn’t hide the sadness either. She urges Swiv to always fight. In fact, she teaches us all how to approach life with laughter even when in pain.

The novel is in two parts – part one at home and part two a trip away so Grandma can visit her cousins. All three female characters are great, although Mooshie remains at a distance to the reader. The men are mainly absent though their impact looms large. Toews is always amazing at finding the funny in the sad. She unearths it like life’s treasure. This is what you must do, she says, breathe, live, laugh. You don’t need to be familiar with Toews’s own life and previous books to enjoy this, but it’s helpful to know that the Mennonite community Grandma consistently references (but doesn’t name) is the same one that Toews came from and rejected. And Toews’s father and sister died by suicide. (All my Puny Sorrows is incredible.)

“… what makes a tragedy bearable and unbearable is the same thing – which is that life goes on.”

It’s a joy to read this bittersweet story. There’s not much plot, the trip to Fresno is a bit of a caper, and it all races along, much like life. But Swiv and Grandma are superb characters and spending time in their company is beautifully life-affirming.

Smash Lits with Kirsten Reneau

I just published a great nonfiction flash at The Forge – “The Forgiving Kind” by Kirsten Reneau. And I got to do a Smash Lits interview too. Please enjoy.

1) What would your superhero power be?

I would like to talk to animals because I want to be able to chit chat with my dog about why she keeps trying to chase squirrels.

2) What is your favourite biscuit?

Red lobster cheddar bay biscuits. They have a hold on me.

3) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

Something dramatic and ornate, ideally with herons.

4) What is your default pub/bar drink?

Lately it’s been the local tavern near my house, which is cash only and does country music nights every Monday. My go-to drink sounds nasty (or at least, that’s what I’ve been told) but I promise it’s really good—it’s Jägermeister and coke. Some bartender in West Virginia always got it and I started getting it to and now it’s just my easy go-to. If I’m feeling fancy though, my default is a side-car.

5) What was the last text you sent?

“It’s SO good, right” which was to Shawn Berman about a poem we put up on Final Girl Bulletin Board.

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

We have many posters and pictures on our walls but the one I most recently hung up is a line drawing of my very southern grandparents on new year’s (circa 1970 something) with multiple wine glasses in their hands. It’s so cool.

7) Your writing is music, what style is it?

Sad bluegrass.

8) Have you ever had a nickname?

My nickname in high school was Toast and no one could ever remember why, including me.

9) Do you have a favourite pen?

I wish I was the kind of person who had a favorite pen but mine is really just whichever one is closest.

10) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

They Might Be Giants has never lied to me before.

11) How much money did you spend yesterday?

$42, which was spent on coffee, king cake, beer, and churros.

12) What’s your worst habit?

Probably staring. I am always people watching, and sometimes I forget that people can see me watching.

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

No, but my sister had two and we all played baseball together in the living room with balloons.

14) Who is your writer crush?

Brenda Miller.

15) What are your windows like?

Long and lovely. It’s always bright in our home.

16) Do you have any writing rituals?

My ritual is that there is no ritual. I write when I am ready and in a frenzy, which could be at any time of the day with any amount of preparation. My writing just pours out of me, which can be both good and bad.

17) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Roxane Gay?

Something fancy that would pair with the massive amount of champagne I would also bring.

18) What question should I have asked you?

About my pets! I can talk about my dog forever.

19) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do

If you could do a writing retreat anywhere in the world for one week, where would you go?

20) What was the last gift you gave to someone?

A copy of Matt Mitchell’s “The Neon Hollywood Cowboy.”

Avant skincare

I usually only review books but hey, I’m menopausal and tired and look and feel crap (and have done for a year or so). I’m more interested in skincare and make-up than I’ve ever been before. I dream of finding products that will help me feel/look better. Oh yeah, also, I have sensitive skin with rosacea and seborrheic dermatitis and now I’m on HRT I can get a little spotty too. Whoop. I am very realistic with my expectations of what skincare can actually do. 

Avant is a luxury brand and these are expensive products (nearly £100 each) that I wouldn’t buy for myself. I was, however, lucky enough that someone bought them for me. I’m so fancy! I’ve spent a month using them and hoping to see at least a slight improvement in the quality of my skin. The promise is a reduction of fine lines and a moisture boost and it would be fair to say that has happened. The illumination? Hmm, it’s a nope.

The exfoliator is lovely. It’s exactly how you’d want an exfoliator to be; gentle and effective. It doesn’t irritate my skin and it leaves my face smooth without redness. Hurrah. I went to the Avant website to look up how to use each of the products properly, which is why I know to press the collagen serum on my face before the moisturiser. And, it’s fine, I guess. But after a month of using it I’m not sure that it’s doing anything much. The moisturiser, (the Pro-Intense Hyaluronic Acid Illuminating Day Cream), oh my goodness, it feels like a dream putting it on — cool clouds of softness and hydration which sink into my parched old skin. And it smells so damn good. (I tried to think of a way to describe the scent but can’t identify it — maybe a light floral — but that doesn’t describe the subtle perfume of it, like rain on jasmine, but not.) After that initial delight, I’m not sure it does anything that my Beauty Pie Triple Hyaluronic Acid moisturiser (£15) doesn’t. The overnight serum is a product I dutifully use but don’t know what it’s doing. The rose firming mask I use overnight and because it’s a little thick on application I imagine it will seep into my skin while I sleep but on waking I don’t notice anything different about my face. I mean, my skin is ridiculously dry. I know these products are meant to illuminate and I don’t believe in miracles, but it’s still dry after the mask so I don’t think it’s something that works for me. The tiny eye cream feels extravagant and I have enjoyed using it. Maybe my fine lines are a little less noticeable. My eye bags are as meh as ever.

Overall, it’s lovely to get the chance to use these but they are too expensive for me to buy and don’t do enough to persuade me that I’ll miss out by not having them. (I will be a tiny bit sorry to run out of the moisturiser because it honestly feels like a treat to put on.)

A Shock by Keith Ridgway

A Shock is Keith Ridgway’s latest (not-exactly-a) novel (not-exactly-a-short-story-collection). In nine chapters his London based characters pop up in each other’s lives, sometimes peripherally, sometimes centrally, and the sections layer and themes build and it feels like both traditional and new storytelling. At the heart of Ridgway’s writing is his astonishing skill writing people who breathe on the pages. He digs beneath surfaces and reveals the interesting quirky parts of being human we all have. His dialogue is naturalistic, full of things unsaid, pauses and tangents. He takes a typical setting – the pub – and conjures it all so vividly, the boring mate, the pub weirdo, a shift in mood. People in the pub tell each other tales which echo those in A Shock. One story they make up cannot be told. “It untells itself.” Which is exactly the kind of headfuck A Shock offers.


There’s a wonderfully awkward exploration of racism within a long-standing friendship, the loneliness and sadness of a widow, gay sex and drugs, rented flats, and more rodents than I’m comfortable with. People go missing or are lost or hidden. The reader is gifted an intimate view and it’s all superb.
“It was a blank-sky day, all of London suspended in a bowl of hot milk, her headache spooning through the sludge of her brain, her eyes almost closed, a taste in her mouth of the metal in the air and the shit in the metal and the blood in the shit.” I mean, how fucking amazing is that?

The beginning story is of a widow listening to a party next door, the last story is from the party itself. There are loops and circles and echoes throughout this intriguing book. It’s a witty and smart and human and dazzling read and I think Ridgway is a rare genius. This is storytelling to be excited by. Such a treat to read something so cleverly crafted that it immediately demands to be reread and paid attention to.

Smash Lits with Jasmine Sawers

I published such a great flash by Jasmine Sawers at The Forge this week. You can read Leviathan here (do!) and I got to interview them too. Behold!

1) What is your favourite cheese?

Fresh mozz or goat cheese

2) What was the last text you sent?

“Why are people offended by this”

3) Who is your favourite Sesame Street character?

I straight up don’t remember enough about Sesame Street to answer this.

4) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins? Why?

It’s gotta be bacon for the sheer dopamine hit.

5) What makes the wind blow?

Fat bottomed girls?

6) How much money did you spend yesterday?

Too much on one (1) bubble tea. Oh and a $50 refill of my dog’s nerve meds.

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

No

8) Do you have any recurring dreams?

I have falling or jumping dreams a lot.

9) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Kazuo Ishiguro?

First, I’d bake my own really great gluten-free bread because I’m not feeding this man something sub-par, nor am I compromising my own immune system just for his taste buds. Then, I’d carve some white and dark meat from a freshly roasted turkey complete with skin, and yeah I’m sprinkling that shit with fish sauce. Slap some salami and fresh mozz on there, mayo on the bread, maybe a nice chutney because he’s British. Serve with kettle chips.
Crisps.

10) What’s your favourite swear?

Fuckery

11) What’s your favourite fairy tale?

Copping out with three I can’t decide between: The Snow Queen, which I remixed into a very Buffalo, very Thai American apocalyptic future story over at Uncharted. A Thai fairy tale called Sung Thong, The Golden Conch Shell. My flash from the mother’s perspective appears at AAWW’s The Margins. The Steadfast Tin Soldier, for which I have written an extremely trans piece of flash in response to what I view as its extremely trans subtext. Still trying to place this one.

12) Assuming ghosts don’t currently exist, if I gave you the power to do so, would you will them into reality? (Question from previous interviewee Sam Asher.)

That’s a big assumption I don’t think you can make. I think if you can take “ghost” to have a more expansive meaning, say, for example, something more like “haunting,” they certainly already exist. I think land has a long memory.

13) What was your first concert?

Tina Turner. I assume my parents couldn’t find a babysitter. The well-oiled and scantily-clad sax man from the opening scene of Lost Boys was there.

14) If you had to have one animal live in your freezer, would you be hoping for polar bears?

Turns out tortoises can actually live in your fridge if they’re hibernating so if there’s an Ant/arctic version of them who could survive the freezer, that’s who I’d want.

15) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do

Which careers did the alternate universe version of you pursue instead of what you’re doing now?

16) What word or words make you cringe?

“Pregnant,” but worse are the shortenings like “preggers,” “preggo,” ughhh.
“Hubby.” “Wifey.”
Being called “lady.” Or “Chica.”

17) What is your phone screensaver?

My spouse at my friend’s wedding. Why not at our wedding? Because my friend’s wedding photographer was weirdly obsessed and took about a zillion pictures of just him. He was like, “she’s following me,” and we were all like, “nah she’s just making sure to get everyone.” We got the pictures back and nope. It might as well be an album of bride, groom, and Ben. It was totally bizarre. Anyway she got some great shots of him, so.

18) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

Gnomes, sasquatches, mushrooms, leaves, and ferns. The gnomes and the sasquatches are in love.

19) Mermaid, dinosaur or unicorn?

Well I’m nonbinary so I’m going to say both dinosaur and unicorn

20) What question should I have asked you?

What teas have you been enjoying lately?

What’s your favourite pen?

I asked this question on social media and ordered a few of the pen’s suggested to me. I’m on a mission to find a smooth writing, non-blobbing, easy to hold (for a long time) pen. I have a gorgeous Fisher Space Bullet which I adore for its look, and the satisfaction of putting it away, but the grooves press into my finger and feel a bit uncomfortable. I very much appreciate the depth of colour a black Sharpie gives but can’t bear its bleed through a page. Also, it’s not a fast writing pen. I tried a Uni-Ball Eye after previously being recommended it but found it too scratchy. I was told to try the micro because that is “flowy” which sounded good. The Pilot G2 gel ink rollerball got the most enthusiastic mentions so I ordered one of those. People also suggested the Papermate Flexi-Grip and the Stabilo Pointball.

I ordered from Cult Pens and firstly, how cute is this? It arrived with a little pack of love hearts!

(I tried a few times to get the Uni-Ball to stay showing its name but it kept rolling over. Damn, I’ll never make it as an influencer with my crappy pictures and lack of patience.)

Here are my initial feelings.

My top two are the Papermate and the Stabilo. It seems I prefer to write with a biro although I prefer the look of the gel pens on the page. If anyone has any other recommendations let me know. No ink pens though! They may be fancy but they get a big no from me.

Remembering Matt

Matt has been dead thirteen years today. This piece was published eleven years ago. We collaborated on a blog and wanted to do more writing together but ran out of time. After his death I used some of his words as prompts. I’m thinking of him today, and often, and sending love to all who are thinking of him too.


Inside Vs. Out

It is another evening of ordinary sand. The moon worms, all mellow and white, glow shine over the laminated floor. Shay’s bladder is full, and protesting with a thump of ache. Shay holds on nervously.

Last time she pissed tiny silver fish that roiled in the froth of her urine. She felt them slip from her as if greased, hundreds teeming, thish thish, into the toilet pan. 

Before the fish were the iron filings, heavy and thuddish. They dragged her down to the seat and weighted her there until she was empty.

The rope that uncoiled itself in one thick plait had taken her hours to pass. Thousands of tiny gold bells had prettily jingled on the ceramic sides. Who knew what was inside now, along with the mucous and muck, the blood and the nightmares?

Bronze coins. Jelly tots. Small, milky teeth. Black stitches, safety scissors, a long, thin needle. Shay is afraid but she always looks.

The moon worms jiggle gleam as she fairy steps across to the bathroom. She sits, she releases, feels fur and sharp bite. She passes out.

By Sara Crowley and Matt Kinnison

Why The Forge declined your work.

I’ve been working with a few new writers, a couple of whom are now submitting pieces to competitions and journals. There’s such satisfaction in helping people shape their words so they shine, especially when you see their writing get stronger as they work at their craft. (My advice to everyone: Step one – READ. Step two – read more! Never imagine you can write well if you don’t read.)

I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post on what makes an editor say no to your work. Of course, writing is subjective, what chimes with one person might not with another, but there is writing which transcends theme, subject etc – and demands to be read. That’s what all writers aim for but rarely achieve, I think. In the five years I’ve been the managing editor of The Forge I’ve read hundreds and hundreds (thousands?) of submissions. Every time I read, I do so with hope. I want to love the piece. I want to be moved in some way – maybe to feel a connection, or have something illuminated, understood, expressed. Sometimes, it’s enough to recognise a feeling. I’m equally happy to be absorbed in a story and believe in wherever it takes me – go along for the ride. I don’t want to notice the writing. It needs to be smooth, immersive. I loathe over-writing. I’m not a fan of punchlines and twists. I read so many stories that are similar that anything unique always gets my attention. There is a kind myth that the majority of submissions are good and to be published is a bit of a numbers game. Luck is required. We publish one story a week and the vast majority of submissions we receive are rejected. Duotrope lists our acceptance rate as 1.6% and we are a “challenging market”. The harsh truth is the vast majority of subs we receive aren’t good. We think it’s vital to offer free submissions so all writers can send us their words, but the downside to this is it opens us up to writers who have nothing to lose by flinging whatever at us. We say our only criteria is literary excellence but it’s super rare to read a story and think yes, this is bloody brilliant and I must publish it. It does happen, but not often. If less than 2% of stories we get sent are superb and about 80% aren’t great, that leaves 18% which are fab but still don’t get published. To those writers, sorry, there’s nothing more you could have done. Each editor of the month only gets two picks and the rejection was sincere when we said we’d like to see more of your work. We don’t keep work at our editorial table for longer than three months – by that time your piece will have usually been read by at least eight editors. I hate those rejections so much because, damn, writer, you are doing it all and still we said no. This writing malarkey is hard and unfair and you deserve better.

I asked some of my fellow editors to tell me why they say no to a piece:

Sarah Starr Murphy

I have SO MANY THOUGHTS. I’m sure they’re not unique but:

-A common storyline (divorce, death, love, etc.) that isn’t treated in a new and exciting way. I love all of these topics but if it’s done a lot you’ve got to figure out a way to do it in your own unique fashion. It’s got to be better than the 10,000 other stories I’ve already read about a character losing a parent, right?

-That goes for characters too. A fully fleshed out character with really intriguing details is very hard to turn down. Ditto setting.

-A piece that doesn’t feel fully resolved, that lacks a complete arc. I love ambiguous endings and I’m happy to push the envelope towards less plot-heavy and more character-driven, also I love flash, but it’s gotta have SOMETHING going on. Even just a minor turn can make it feel complete. Chekov! That man often has practically zero plot, but his short work feels complete because he’s figured out that subtle turn at the end.

-If you can manage to surprise me without being hokey, that’s a win. All editors read a TON of stuff – subs, books, other journals, etc. It has to rise above the general din, and if it genuinely surprises me, it usually will. Not just plot, but voice, setting, theme, title, etc.

-Usually it’s the language that gets me to pick a piece. Really exquisite sentences, not a single extra word. And that’s really hard to tell newer writers because there’s no way to get there other than just working your butt off for years. But it’s true. Like, if I pulled out the stuff I wrote in college, I know that it has plot and arc and character development, etc, but it’s pretty much crap because I hadn’t put in the work yet. The language wasn’t there. It was, generously speaking, adequate.

Sommer Schaffer

For me, I tend to reject if:

1.) The plot and language are too stereotypical–they show me nothing new. I’d rather read someone’s unpolished own voice, than a more polished voice that is not their own or is too stereotypical.

2.) I have a sense of the writer writing, and thus I’m not able to fully visualize and get lost in the story. How can you make the story as immersive as possible? Are you utilizing all your senses when crafting the story?

3.) I don’t have a strong sense of place. As the reader, put me precisely where your story occurs, and show me.

4.) The ending isn’t there yet: it feels as if it was rushed because the author just couldn’t figure out how to end the damn story, or it feels out of character with the rest of the story (because the author just couldn’t figure out how to end the damn story!). Take your time. Let a story sit for a while if the ending isn’t coming yet. It will. Conversely, if you have the ending first, write it first and craft the story from there.

Rachel Wild

I tend to say no if:

1. The writer is telling me what to think about the situation, rather than showing me something, some clues, from which I can then make a deduction for myself

2. The writer is using clichés to describe something, for example: ‘her eyes shone like diamonds’.

3. The characters are two dimensional, they have no emotional depth, or resonance.

4. The story ends, and nothing has changed, despite there being loads of action. What I mean by this is that there must be a difference, and it can be subtle, to how the protagonist feels. It doesn’t need to be spelled out, but I the reader will understand that something has been gained or lost, the world has moved and now this person’s reality has diverged from where it was before.

Damyanti Biswas

A story that I pick up usually has the following:

Layered, nuanced characters.
A setting that’s immersive, sensory.
A story with a great voice.
Something that grabs me, and won’t let me go, and stays with me after I’ve read it.
A story that is about something, and there’s a change in either the character or the circumstances, however minor.
That’s emotionally engaging, moving and with an ending that leaves me thinking.

I’ll reject a story if:

–reads pedestrian–no skill with language, this is an immediate no.
–flat characters.
–feels tired, as if rehashing something that has been said before.
–a story that doesn’t know what it is about.
–reads very artificial, or pretentious.
–the beginning is not compelling.
–the ending does not satisfy.

I’ll possibly pass to the editorial table stories that I subjectively do not like, but have been crafted well. If a story is poorly crafted, at the language, character, or plot level, I let it go.

Jacky Taylor

• If a piece reads like something out of someone’s diary (unless it’s meant to be part of the narrative!) Too often what’s meant to be a story is nothing more than just an account of something that happened and it makes me feel ‘so what?’.

• A piece can be simple, complicated, on pretty much any theme but as Sarah says the writer has to demonstrate their own take on it, they have to lift it above the mundane and what everyone has said in the same way before. There has to be a certain amount of uniqueness about it to make it stand out and grip me in some way.

• The writer has to invest something of themselves in their work, something that only they could say or write about in a particular way. Too often we see well-crafted pieces that are competently written but almost as if they’ve all come out of the same word factory and have nothing new to say.

• I applaud writers who take risks, they may not always succeed but if they’ve taken a piece somewhere different in the narrative, somewhere unexpected, as long as it has its own truth and isn’t just randomly plucked for sensation – it has to have emotional depth and honesty too.

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