Exciting new literary magazine

I am very excited to tell you about a new online literary magazine that launches tomorrow. It’s called The Forge and it’s pretty blooming special. I am one of the editors so yeah, I’m bound to think that, but seriously, it really is going to be good. We launch with a story by Janice Galloway – that’s how fucking cool we are. We have pieces by Roxane Gay, Emma Jane Unsworth, Kevin Barry and other superb writers coming your way. We want your submissions too. It’s free to sub to us and we pay. Didn’t I tell you we’re amazing?

We are an international group of literary writers who work together in an online writing group (The Fiction Forge – natch). Our leader is John Haggerty, a writer who makes me laugh more than any other. Twelve of us are going to rotate in pairs as editors and each of us will choose our favourite stories. John and I are first up. I was asked to write a wishlist of what I would most like to read which I’m sharing here:

Please send me the writing you are proudest of. I don’t want to read the piece that might do, I want the one you know means you are a bloody brilliant writer.

I like fiction that rings with truth and non-fiction that reads like it’s made-up.
I like stories that surprise, but don’t hinge on a twist.
I like darkly funny and dislike punchlines.
I like flash and longer form.
I love words and look forward to reading yours.

So, read us, love us, sub to us, “like” our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, share us, enjoy us.

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Smash Lits with Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary has created a brilliant detective series featuring DI Marnie Rome. She recently won the 2015 Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year for her debut, Someone Else’s Skin, and today marks the paperback publication of her equally dark, twisty and engaging follow-up, No Other Darkness. Obviously it’s time to ask her the really tricky questions. Drum roll please…

1) What was the last text you sent?

To a friend, telling her I hoped the wind wouldn’t play merry hell with her bell tents. It’s a long story.

2) Does your mother play golf? (Question provided by Michael Richardson)

Once, but it was crazy golf outside a Welsh tearoom and only to keep peace between me and my siblings.

3) Who is your unlikely crush?

Norman Bates. I have my reasons.

4) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Bacon kicks tofu’s arse. Then they team up to beat the crap out of quinoa. Because that’s bacon’s duty, and tofu does as he’s told.

You make me laugh with your quinoa hate 🙂

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

Psycho shower scene meets Panic at the Disco. Everyone mosh-pitting until they drip with sweat and drop to the floor.

6) Can you make up a poem about tinned peaches? (winks to those in the know)

The end of the world comes in cans
With blue labels and tastes of pink
Served on a plastic fork.
(Or, to answer your question more succinctly, no I can’t.)
(Ooh, you can. I think that’s rather chilling.)

7) Have you ever had a nickname?

Tiger. Sadly not after the girl from the Double Deckers.

8) What makes the wind blow?

Something to do with the sun and atmospheric pressure. Plays merry hell with my mate’s bell tents.

9) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

No. It would spoil too many great crime stories where the killer thinks he’s been very clever incinerating a corpse near a fire-place.

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

My bloodymindedness.

11) Have you ever written an angry letter to a magazine or “news” paper?

Yes. I once explained to Mslexia why being snooty about fan fiction was a bloody silly idea. They published the letter, too. I think I might become an angry letter writer in my old age.

12) Have you ever woken up laughing?

Not recently.

13) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I never watched it. I watched The Sullivans. John was my favourite in that. And I do love Kylie.

14) Who is your fave TV crime fighter?

Patrick Jane. His hair curls like the sea coming in and his smile is a sunset smiting the sand.

(grin)

15) What’s your favourite sweet?

Peppermint creams. Not the kind covered in chocolate. The plain kind, in the waxy wrappers.

16) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Lorrie Moore?

I would attempt a sandwich layer loaf, which my mum used to make in the 80s. You take a loaf of Hovis wheatgerm bread, unsliced, which you cut into three horizontal sections before adding three different fillings and slapping it back together again. Then you slice it like you normally would and–wowzer, you’ve got three layers of fillings in one slice. My mum used to smear peanut butter on the top crust. It’s retro, and a bit cheeky.

17) What was your favourite book as a child?

The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon. A book of short stories. My favourite was a wonderfully nasty one called The Lady’s Room.

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

Sneak into Battersea Power Station and rearrange all the geegaws in the showroom flats. Then I’d nick Sting’s lute for a laugh.

19) What’s your favourite swear?

Oh fuck buckets.

20) What question should I have asked you?

Am I a good liar?

Ha! Thank you so much for taking part in Smash Lits. I wish you more and more success. 

Literary snobbery, bookshops, libraries and books that people want to read.

I’ve been working as a Library Assistant for six months now. I had imagined that my bookselling knowledge would easily transfer to library work and it’s true that my customer service skills have helped, but that’s about it. Of course I’m still handling books all workday long. l unpack books, shelve books, find books. These things are similar and yet not at all the same. Other skills have been needed. The library wonderfully provides up to two hours free internet access for all users each day and I gladly assist people to use computers. People also need a lot of help with photocopying (which was unexpected and my heart sinks when they ask how to enlarge and scan and so on; I’m getting there though.) Often people want someone to chat to while they collect their Blue Badge, or drop off their borrowed books. Many times customers come in hesitantly and ask questions. It’s so good to be able to find them answers and see them leave the library satisfied. From Baby Rhyme Time to Knit and Natter groups the library service offers something for everyone. It’s a remarkable thing and vital as libraries provide equal access to information for all. I am proud that I am playing my own tiny part in it. You can sense a but though, right?

But…

But, it’s a really big reality check for a book snob like me. Contemporary literary fiction is my thing. I read it, write it, review it, discuss it. For years I sold it. My social media feeds are full of likeminded people. I read broadsheet reviews. I have writer and bookseller friends with whom I chat about books. Sometimes it’s easy to believe literary fiction is as important to everyone as it is to me and I have to remind myself that it’s not. For every person that used to come into the bookshop looking for the latest literary must-have there was a customer proudly stating they never read at all. Hey, I have pals who aren’t into books. I’m married to a man who only reads graphic novels. It’s not how I judge people, but it is something I’m deeply passionate about. I thought that my years of working in the fiction section at Waterstones would be invaluable in recommending books to library users and helping them find what they want. In the six months I’ve worked in the library I have not needed this knowledge. Firstly, people don’t seem to ask for recommendations often. I suppose when you’re not paying for the book there’s less at stake. The library demographic in this county seems to be overwhelmingly children and old people. There are far fewer teenagers through to people maybe in their late 50’s. All the stereotypes that I try to avoid are true; the older women like sagas and romances and the men like crime novels. The latest Peter James novel is the book that’s had the biggest interest and people jostled for places on the reservations list. There is literary fiction available, but it doesn’t get out so much. I have awkward conversations about books with colleagues. They ask if I’ve read XYZ and I have not. I would not. I don’t want to be this awful judgmental bitch, but oh wow, there’s a lot of frothy shite being read. And that’s absolutely fine, isn’t it. We all like what we like. I do miss shiny, new fiction and go to Waterstones and lovingly tidy the tables, patting the delicious litfic, reassuring myself.

What it says to me as a writer is interesting. I worried initially that it meant there simply isn’t a demand for litfic, but now I think it’s likely that readers of this style of fiction are bookshop buyers rather than library users, as I was for years. A library will source whatever book it’s asked for, if it can, so I assume nobody is asking. Of course on the shelves you can find good quality novels, I’m not saying they aren’t there, however, they are nowhere near as popular as I imagined. I have tried adding them to displays to see if they get checked out as a consequence and maybe one or two have, but overwhelmingly the preference is clear. This may only be true of my area; I’m working in small village libraries, not city ones.

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And of course I’m well aware that fiction is fiction and to label something as commercial fiction/genre fiction/literary fiction isn’t always helpful, but my preference is for quality literary fiction and as my husband said when I discussed it with him and called myself a snob because I don’t read the books my colleagues have mentioned to me, “It’s like someone assuming you’d like a Boyzone song because you told them you like music.”

Anyway, libraries, whoo, excellent places and it’s great to enjoy my job and get to feel all glowy from being helpful, I just won’t expect to have a conversation about the fiction I adore.

The Kindness by Polly Samson

Julia meets Julian when she’s flying her husband’s hawk in Wychwood, and so begins a novel which is told in a series of ever illuminating flashbacks. Despite the age gap between them, and Julia’s existing unhappy marriage, they fall deeply in love and make a life for themselves in London. Their daughter, Mira, adds to their happiness and when Julian’s beloved childhood home, Firdaws, is up for sale he does all he can to buy it to recreate his idea of a perfect family home. It is when Mira becomes desperately ill that everything unravels. As we slide back and forth in time we see devastating heartbreak and discover a lie that poisons everything.

Samson is a gloriously evocative writer. She conjures the countryside and all its scents, sounds and sights beautifully, but is equally vivid writing about homes, clothes, life.

“She pokes her stick among the branches, unzipping the sound of angry buzzing, ‘Oh, but so many wasps,’ she says, batting her hands. The smell of the hot fruit has never pleased him, something too much like tom-cat pee. Where she parts the bush he can see a pair of figs hanging like purple testicles and he’s already trying to scoot off but she’s rushing with him, saying what a shame it is that no one gets to eat those delicious looking figs, her little legs working hard, two strides to his one.”

I really don’t want to give anything away and the plot is such that it would be easy to, so it’s best to just say that The Kindness is a novel to immerse yourself in and I imagine it will be a book club favourite.

Smash Lits with Carys Bray

I’m so glad that Carys has taken part in Smash Lits. She wrote one of my favourite books of the year, “A Song For Issy Bradley” which has been widely praised and is now on the prestigious shortlist of the 2014 Costa First Book Prize. Yay Carys! Anyway, without further ado:

1) Ian is described as “Superman in a Burton suit” – who would you be?

That is such a good question – argh! I would be Bibliogirl in an origami dress.

Ooh, I love that!

2) Do you have any recurring dreams?

Yes, and they’re both horrible! One involves my teeth falling out and the other involves a school reunion and the sudden realisation that I’m not wearing enough clothes.

3) Have you ever seen a ghost?

No (and I don’t believe in them).

4) What’s your favourite sweet?

I love Thornton’s Viennese truffles, yum.

5) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I haven’t watched Neighbours for years. Erm, Libby Kennedy!

6) What’s your most vivid childhood memory?

I remember a whole school assembly in which I had to stand up and receive a dressing down for being late for school that morning. I absolutely wasn’t late – my mum was probably the most organised parent in the universe, I don’t think I was ever late for school – and I was only four. By that evening I was covered in hives and my mum was furious.

7) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Not spontaneously, no.

8) What colour is Tuesday?

Oh, that’s easy, orange.

9) What is your favourite swear?

I didn’t swear for the first 30 years of my life because swearing was a sin, so I’m a late developer. I quite like near-miss swears, like twunt and nucking-futter.

I adore twunt, it’s such a satisfying word.

10) Tofu VS Bacon. Who wins? Why?

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Bacon. The bacony smell is one of the best smells ever. In fact, I think they should make bacon perfume.

Carys, they do make bacon perfume – lookit.

11) What is the picture on your wall?

I have a picture of ruby slippers and ‘There’s no place like home.’

12) What was the last text you sent?

A text telling son 3 that no, I couldn’t bring his drum sticks and music book to school because I was on a train to Liverpool.

13) How do you organise your book shelves?

I used to organise them by colour but the kids teased me so much that I changed them and now I’ve got short stories in one place and novels/favourite novels, poetry etc. elsewhere.

14) Who would play the character of Claire in the film of your book?

Suranne Jones because she’s a great actress, she’s northern and I think she’d be brilliant at the harried/resigned combo.

15) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

Something flocked in red. My violin teacher used to have this amazing red, velvety wallpaper and I remember stroking it as I waited for my lesson to start.

16) Have you ever read someone else’s diary?

Yes. My mum has written in a diary every day since I was born and I sneaked a peek a few times when I was a teenager (I’m pretty sure she returned the favour, so it’s all good).

17) What is your most vivid childhood memory?

I think this is a trick question – it’s one of those memory tests to make sure I can remember the vivid childhood memory I described in answer to number 6!

Oops! 

18) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Margaret Atwood?

I did a little research (because who wouldn’t, if they were going on a picnic with Margaret Atwood) and discovered that she doesn’t answer questions about favourite foods, colours etc. because she has a hard time deciding favourites. I remember reading that she took the Veggie Vows during the tour of The Year of the Flood, so I’d do Greek salad wraps

19) What is your Book of the Year?

Probably All My Puny Sorrows, which I first read about on your blog!

It is stunning isn’t it. So glad you read about it here *chuffed*

20) What question should I have asked you?

I like the questions you asked. It was a relief not to be asked about novel 2 and Mormonism – thank you!

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s short fiction has appeared in many of the literary journals I’ve read over the last eight years or so. She’s editor of the mighty PANK. She writes a wonderful blog. Her non-fiction has appeared in many esteemed publications. She basically rules Twitter with her always interesting observations. She has a very clear, authoritative voice and I have long had a complete writer crush on her. Her collection of essays “Bad Feminist” has just been published in the UK. It’s currently number 13 in the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Roxane Gay is really successful now which is amazing and fabulous and so bloody well deserved. 

A collection of her stories – “Ayiti” – was published in 2011 which I reviewed here. Interestingly the passage I quoted from “Things I Know About Fairytales” features in her debut novel “An Untamed State” which continues exploring the chasm in Haiti between the rich and poor and contrasts it with life in the US. 

Mireille Duval James is a young woman from Haiti who lives in America. She is smart and feisty, an attorney married to an American man, Michael. They have a baby son, Christophe. Returning to Port-au-Prince to visit her wealthy, successful parents, Mireille, Michael and Christophe set off for the beach when their car is surrounded by a group of violent criminals who abduct Mireille, demanding a huge ransom. Her father, Sebastien, refuses to pay, believing that negotiating with the kidnappers can only endanger other members of his family.

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.

     They held me captive for thirteen days.

     They wanted to break me.

     It was not personal.

     I was not broken.

     This is what I tell myself.

    

What follows is a difficult read. Gay’s powerful prose explores the brutality and violence that is inflicted upon Mireille day after day. I flinched from the words. This is not a book I could look forward to reading. It’s a depiction of a woman being abused in every way imaginable. The first part weaves stories from Mireille and Michael’s relationship with time from her imprisonment. It’s necessary to have the relief the memories of their courtship offer. The second part deals with the aftermath. How does a woman survive such atrocities? Tortured, gang raped, imprisoned, how can Mieille possibly move forwards? 

It’s a novel about family: Mireille’s parents and the compromises her mother makes, her father, her sister, Michael’s parents, their son, Christophe. It’s also about personal endurance, self-preservation, the political implications of poverty, violence, domination, hope and courage.  It’s an impossibly dark read. And very powerful.

When I finished reading I googled to find out more about Port-au-Prince and kidnapping. The UK government issues a warning that they will not negotiate with kidnappers believing, as Mireille’s father does, that it only increases the likelihood of more kidnaps. The BBC warn “No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender, or age.” 

Horrifying.

 

Smash Lits with Lee Rourke

1. What would your superhero power be?

Invisibility – I’d ruin David Cameron’s life with it.

2. You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

No pattern. A dark hue.

3. What is your default pub drink?

Beer/red wine winter. Cider/larger/rose summer. Beer if I had one choice all year round.

4. Who would play Jon Michaels in the film of Vulgar Things?

I dunno. Don’t much like actors.

5. Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Tofu. See below.

6. Have you ever had a nickname?

The rather unoriginal ‘Bacon’ at school (Rourke rhymes with Pork). And a few others.

7. Do flowers scream when you pick them?

No, they howl.

8. Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Henry*. Was he called Henry? He had curly hair.

9. Would you rather be a bee or a wasp?

Bee. The noble Bee.

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

No. I was jealous of people who said they did. Still am.

11. What did you do last Saturday night?

I was drinking good wine in France.

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

Writers are boring. It would be boring. I’d cancel.

13. What is your favourite sea?

The Thames Estuary.

14. What is your favourite swear?

Oh, all the Germanic ones.

15. Who is/was your unlikely crush?

Unrequited love’s a bore.

16. What colour is Tuesday?

Black. Like every other day of the week.

17. What makes the wind blow?

Fuck knows!

18. Do you have any recurring dreams?

No. Maybe. Dunno.

19. Will there still be books in the year 3,000?

No, don’t be silly.

20. What question should I have asked you?

My favourite colour. You forgot to ask me my favourite colour!

* He wasn’t really my favourite, just the only one I can remember apart from Kylie and Jason and Toadfish – all of whom I disliked.

Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke

After losing his job, and getting drunk, Jon Michaels finds out that his Uncle Rey has died and is persuaded to travel to Canvey and sort through Rey’s personal effects. Jon stays in his uncle’s caravan and discovers recordings, a telescope, letters – things that fracture everything he’d assumed about his life.

Vulgar Things is an odyssey firmly rooted in and around Southend. Rourke’s landscape is not the familiarly romanticised sea, but rather the bleak beauty of grey waves and scrubland. I’m from Essex myself and my parents now live on the Garrison in Shoeburyness (which gets a brief mention) – Southend is a place I know well and it was refreshing to read a novel set there. It made me realise how unheard that voice is and how far away from the TOWIE stereotype much of Essex actually is. The real Southend can be pretty brutal, incredibly sweary, seedy, grubby, violent – drunks and sex workers mingle with day trippers, old folk, families and school kids. Rourke captures this well as Jon walks back and forth from Canvey to Southend, the repetition of the journey, the landmarks he passes, building into the readers consciousness so we feel we’re walking alongside him.  Alcohol is central to the novel, as is the crackle of violence. Jon’s obsession with a woman he briefly meets is part of a deeper story – his character seemingly doomed to repeat a narrative originally played out by his uncle. The woman is wanted not for who she is but for who he imagines her to be. Even the wide Canvey sky bright with stars and planets transforms from reassuring to dizzying, disconcerting, worrying.

The whole novel has a claustrophobic feel despite the sea and skyscapes. The contained life Uncle Rey led in his tiny caravan bleeds into the present day. Jon visits the local pub “The Lobster Smack”, goes on walks with his trusty stick, obsesses over Laura, watches tapes of his Uncle reading from his novel, recorded in the same caravan, over and over. It feels airless and yet the story itself is compelling and I read on, eagerly trying to fit pieces of a puzzle together.

It’s deeply frustrating to feel my mind battle its own limitations. I knew there were layers to the story that I was missing, intentions that went whoosh over my head. Anyway, there’s a brilliantly illuminating interview over at The Quietus that anyone who is interested should go and read. Smarter folk than me etcetera. (Ah, right, Petrarch & Laura!)

Do come back tomorrow if you are interested in knowing what superhero power Lee Rourke would have and what colour he thinks Tuesdays are (Always asking the tough questions). #SmashLits

 

 

Thirst by Kerry Hudson

Thirst is a joyous read despite its depiction of poverty, violence, abuse and deprivation. It is sliced through with warmth and fizzes with energy from start to finish, just as Hudson’s debut, Tony Hogan… did.

Security Guard Dave meets Alena when she shoplifts from the swanky London department store he works in. Both of them have been battered by life and they are, each in their own way, broken and desperately in need of kindness. And both have secrets.

Alena left her Siberian housing estate to journey to London where she hoped to find a better life. Dave has always dreamt of leaving his estate and travelling. Real life isn’t like that though and both have had their dreams destroyed. When they come together they are uneasy and wary. The things that have happened to Alena have transformed her. She’s had to psychologically armour herself. This is a story of love and redemption, but Hudson’s customary realism ensures there’s no fairy story guaranteed happy ever after. (I was holding out for a “maybe a bit content for a period of time” ending and nope, I won’t tell you if that happened or not.)

I raced through the book, eager to know what would happen. It’s an engaging, bright, beautiful novel with an important heart. Blimey, Kerry Hudson is good. 

Come back tomorrow to read Kerry’s answers to my Smash Lits questions.

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