Smash Lits with Janice Galloway

Janice Galloway is my favourite writer so I was thrilled when we were able to launch The Forge Literary Magazine with her superb story, peak. She recently published a new collection, Jellyfish, available from Freight Books, which showcases her incredible talent. If you’re a fan of short stories I really must ask you to buy/read a copy of this. It’s a masterclass.

 

I’m really chuffed that Janice agreed to take part in Smash Lits and answer my daft questions.

1. Do you have any recurring dreams?

1) Being in an institution or school and trying to pass for a natural member of that institution (one version of this was living in a sauna with only a towel for belongings);

2) Being on a bus heading somewhere very determinedly and realising it has no driver or other passengers after five minutes of just looking out of the window thinking I was safe;

3) Being alone in the dusk and looking out over low-lit moorland with a road winding through it, and someone waiting at the bus stop who may or may not be my mother –

Can I stop now? They go on forever.

2. Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Yes. Indeed, there have been times I wished I could.

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

Balzac, because he wrote (longhand, obviously) very fast indeed and I can’t write anything fast by any means whatever.

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

No. Another loss.

5. What’s your favourite sweet?

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High quality – violet cream. Common or garden – Highland Toffee. I hope my dentist doesn’t see this.

6. Have you ever read someone else’s diary?

No. But my big sister read mine out loud at tea-time when I was 13.

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

Varies. I can confidently say it’s never pub singalongs.

8. Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Tofu because it is honourable and bacon kills things and I want to say the right thing instead of reveal my weakness.

9. What was the last text you sent?

Get onions. Get lots of onions.

10. What is the oldest piece of clothing in your wardrobe?

A cardigan that was knitted by my sister and belonged to my mother. It’s TINY.

11. Have you ever had your fortune told?

Yes. I lived in a seaside town and the travelling fair (funfair, that is) came with a built-on fortune teller.

12. Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I have never seen Neighbours. If there was a dog in it I would have liked that.

13. What’s your favourite swear?

Bugger McFucketty

14. What sandwiches would you have made for a picnic with George Orwell?

Boiled cabbage.

15. You obviously love words, do you have a favourite?

Succulent.

16. What’s the best thing ever?

A wild animal coming to give you a sniff and examine what you are out of curiosity. NB It must not be a spider.

17. Have you ever had a nickname?

No. At home as a child, I answered to “Here, you” more than anything else if that counts.

18. Do you have any writing rituals?

Other than occasionally weeping with rage and frustration, no.

19. Your character in “burning love” calls Sylvia Plath “the Boston Harpie” – what would they call you?

The character in the story would probably call me “Who?”.

20. What question should I have asked you?

Can we send you a cheque?

Janice, you’re amazing. Thank you for supporting our new magazine and thank you for writing your words. Dear everyone, please buy Jellyfish, you won’t be disappointed. 

Failure

I entered the Mslexia short story competition this year. My favourite writer, Janice Galloway, was the judge, so it was a must. It’s an excellent competition in an excellent magazine. I sent what I consider finished, polished, strong work, and got nowhere. Ah well, that’s the way it goes. I put a flippant post up about it on Facebook, and was heartened by the responses I got, both on the post and in private messages. Many writer friends entered this competition and didn’t make it either. Amongst them are a couple of poets who have collections published, short story authors, again with published collections, and a few published novelists. Professional writers with awesome CV’s entered and failed. That they shared this with me was enormously helpful so I thought I’d share it here in the hope it helps someone else too. I know the quality of these women’s writing. They are damn good. So, let’s remember that another judge may have picked a different final six. What resonates with me may not with you. It’s easy enough to weed out bad writing, but when you have, say, thirty stories all containing good quality writing, it will be about what speaks to the individual reader. If I read the stories belonging to the writers I spoke with on facebook I’m fairly sure I would favour one over the others despite knowing they are all fine writers.

A writer who has judged several competitions told me she only ever sees the entries the first readers have decided should make up the long-list. Who knows, Galloway may have adored my words if she’d ever got to read them, but my genius went unrecognised in the initial sifting process. (Yeah, ok, unlikely, but hey, it’s my thought, I can have it if I want.)

I’ve won competitions before, and I’ve obviously lost them too. Winning is a delightful, validating, endorsement. Losing is a huge blow. It makes you question your worth as a writer. One of the things that was discussed on my Facebook page was that some of the writers had gone back over their entries and were truly surprised to not be able to see obvious edits they could make. I do a great line in self hatred, and the first thought on losing is usually that the story isn’t good enough, and that one was delusional in thinking it might have stood a chance. That’s nonsense, the same story that flops in one place can, and does, succeed elsewhere. That’s not to say improvements can’t be made. Do re-read with a critical eye – change what leaps out, then look for somewhere fabulous to submit to. Keep going. Remember why you write in the first place. I don’t write in the hope of winning competitions, I write because I have this impulse to fictionalise things. It’s part of my being. If I can then share those words and communicate with people, then all the better. If I can get recognition for it, well, better still. Financial recompense would be amazing. I’d love to win ALL the competitions and be published everywhere, but even if I never win anything again, I’m going to keep on writing. Don’t lose sight of the heart of your words. Oh, and to the person who told me (kindly) it might be off-putting to potential publishers to mention failures, I don’t believe that is true.

In his superb book “The Antidote” Oliver Burkeman has this to say about failure:

Fortunately, developing a healthier approach to failure may be easier than you’d think. The work of the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that our experiences of failure are influenced overwhelmingly by the beliefs we hold about the nature of talent and ability – and that we can, perhaps quite straightforwardly, nudge ourselves towards a better outlook. Each of us can be placed somewhere on a continuum, Dweck argues, depending on our “implicit view” – or unspoken attitude – about what talent is and where it comes from. Those with a “fixed theory” assume that ability is innate; those with an “incremental theory” believe that it evolves through challenge and hard work. If you’re the kind of person who strives mightily to avoid the experience of failure, it’s likely that you reside near the “fixed” end of Dweck’s continuum. Fixed-theory people approach challenges as occasions on which they are called upon to demonstrate their innate abilities, and so they find failure especially horrifying: to them, it’s a sign that they tried to show how good they are, but didn’t measure up. The classic example is the young sports star encouraged to think of himself as a “natural” – but who then fails to put in sufficient practice to realise his potential. If talent is innate, his unspoken reasoning goes, then why bother?
Incremental-theory people are different. Because they think of abilities as emerging through tackling challenges, the experience of failure has a completely different meaning for them: it’s evidence that they are stretching themselves to their current limits. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t fail. The relevant analogy here is with weight training: muscles grow by being pushed to the limits of their current capacity, where fibres tear and reheal. Among weightlifters, “training to failure” isn’t an admission of defeat – it’s a strategy.
Happily, Dweck’s studies indicate that we are not saddled for life with one mindset rather than another. Some people manage to alter their outlook simply by being introduced to the fixed versus incremental distinction. Alternatively, it’s worth trying to recall it next time failure strikes: next time you flunk an exam, or mishandle a social situation, consider that it’s happening only because you’re pushing at the limits of your present abilities.

You can read a little more here.  I’m hoping to learn how to see failure as an essential part of life, and stop being so afraid of it – I’m definitely more of a fixed theory person and am hoping to persuade my mind to allow me to become more of an incremental kinda gal.

A really long blog post about fiction, autobiography, cultural tourism and such like

I’m still chewing this over so blogging about it may be premature. The other night I mentioned to writing pals that I can’t help but write from my life. That’s usual I think, although people bury themselves in their words to a greater or lesser extent, so sometimes it is obviously a fictionalised account of personal experience (Sylvia Plath) and other times the reality is almost invisible (Ted Hughes.)
I have felt lonely, awkward, happy, and sad. I have had relationships, I have children, I have been ill etc. So when my fiction has a character that feels alone I draw on my own understanding of that emotion in order to convey it. That’s what we all do, right? But what about when I, owner of sixteen pet slugs, write a story about a slug? I draw part of my story from my own experiences, and yet the slug in my story is not my slug, and the slug owner in the story is not me. The things that happen are not real. It is a made-up story. What if my fictional woman picks up a saucepan and bangs her slug to death with it? Does that mean it is something I have done. Nope. But what about her feelings? If she is feeling desperate and angry and fizzing with violence when she flattens that slug I may call upon my own knowledge of how that feels in order to portray it.
I’m not the owner of sixteen slugs. I made that up. You know what I mean though.
My twins have special needs and I have written a story about a boy with special needs. He is not based on my boys. The mum in the story is not me. The situations that arise have not happened to us, the things said and done are all fiction. I draw on my experiences though, my knowledge. I feel okay writing about this made up boy with special needs because although my work is fiction I do have experience of how it may be, and so I feel that it is ok for me to explore.
I don’t have a pet slug. If I wrote a story about a pet slug I could research it, I could read books and articles. I could go in my garden and find a slug and force myself to touch it and write about that. Or I could just make it up. I could imagine that it would feel cool, and jelly, and squishy. That would be ok. Slugs won’t read the story and feel upset that it is inaccurate and that really they feel warm and wet. But. Hmm. I won’t write about a small African girl in a dusty village. I don’t feel that is my story to tell. I am uneasy about the cultural tourism that writers and readers so often engage in. Not my bag, man.
I have had heated debates with other writers about this. We are fiction writers and we make things up. Our imagination is the key we unlock our stories with, and we have the right to imagine anything. Yeah. But.
It was suggested by one writer I discussed this with that perhaps it was because I wasn’t talented enough as a writer that I couldn’t write these types of stories. Rude. I choose not to. I am uncomfortable with taking stories that aren’t mine.
The always awesome Kuzhali Manickavel said in a recent blog post “I am not going to ask why your story is about a Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things where all the girls get raped and raped and raped and raped and raped and everyone speaks some foreign Muslim language which makes them sound like they all have massive brain injuries because hey, that’s just how those crazy foreigners talk, right? I am not going to ask about this because people write this kind of stuff all the time, possibly because they believe that the chances of someone calling them on their bullshit are very slim to nil. This is why so many craptastic stories about “foreigners” get published. However. I do want to know why you would say that legions of white peacocks flooded the skies each dawn and alighted on everyone’s front lawns in the Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things. Legions of white peacocks? LEGIONS? FRONT LAWNS? WTF, are you on drugs? Is this sci-fi? Are you on drugs?”
And I think, she has a point, no?
I suppose what I seek is authenticity, because ultimately I look for truth in fiction. I look to fiction to supply absolute truth in a way that non-fiction sometimes fails to do. And I don’t mind at all if the truth is embedded in magical realism, or laid bare, or if it rhymes, or whatever. I don’t like sentimentality though, that almost wobbling on the brink of tears luxury of voyeuristic misery. I want to recognise, empathise and believe. I revel in the joy of feeling understood and connected in some way.
So we’re back to me writing somewhat biographically but not really.
Tania Hershman just reviewed Janice Galloway’s Collected Stories over at The Short Review. She comments:
“The next point is that where many authors cast their net far and wide and write stories set in many locations – be they cities, countries or other planets – Galloway needs no such exoticism. She is curious about the domestic and mundane; she takes a microscope, peels back the skin and probes, down to the bones, the sinews, the very atoms.”
I hadn’t noticed that, I hadn’t looked. But yes, it seems that the author who interests me the most is one who writes in the way I aspire to. She rejects the exotic and examines the everyday. Her truth shines and resonates. I wonder if that’s true for all my favourite authors, and suspect there it is: the uniting thread between Plath, Galloway, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith, A.L Kennedy, Bukowski, Dave Eggers, Douglas Coupland.
There is a wonderful quote from Lorrie Moore in response to being asked about a story “which seemed to straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction.”
“No, it didn’t straddle a line. It was fiction. It is autobiographical, but it’s not straddling a line. Things did not happen exactly that way; I re-imagined everything. And that’s what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction. It can still have that connection, that germ. It came from something that happened to you. That doesn’t mean it’s straddling a line between nonfiction and fiction. And the whole narrative strategy is obviously fictional. It’s not a nonfiction narrative strategy.”
Brilliant. (You can read the whole interview here.) I love how she sounds kinda testy and absolutely sure of herself.
Anyway, like I say, I’m still mulling. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write whatever you feel compelled to, but I think we all strive for a unique voice, and mine sounds a lot like me. 

Five bits of blether

1) I subbed a few bits and bobs last week; the first time I have done so in what seems like an age. I got my first acceptance of the year today. It’s for a tiny bit o’ word play, nothing big or clever, but I am pleased. It’s a start.


2) This week there were less people coming into the bookshop and brandishing out of print books that they claim to have received as unwanted Christmas presents. The whole exchange/refund thing becomes an awkward business in January. Sometimes you get people coming in with a big glossy hardback that they assume was bought at full price. Without a receipt we will offer an exchange for the price we sold the book at during December. Telling someone that their sister or whoever actually only paid £8 not £16 always makes me squirm. And the person trying to exchange an out of print book? Did someone buy them a gift from a bargain bookshop or are they just trying their luck with an unwanted book they had on their own shelves? Either way it makes me feel a little uncomfortable.


3) I apologise to the man who asked for the erotica section. I really didn’t hear you. I didn’t mean to make you shout “I want erotica” that loudly.


4) I apologise to the man buying the butt fucking anthology. The price on the back was in dollars and I had to type the isbn into my computer to get the price in sterling.


5) Radio 3’s The Verb is running a short story competition judged by Janice Galloway. The winning entry will be read out on a future show. No bucks, no trophy, but plenty of kudos, no?

This month is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Anton Chekhov, doctor, playwright – and master of the short story. He wrote hundreds of them, often very quickly, and many have become enduring and influential classics: The Lady with the Dog, Kashtanka, and The Kiss to name but a few.

As part of Radio 3’s Chekhov season, The Verb would like you to send us an original short story of 1000 words, using one of the following Chekhov titles:

1. The Lady with the Dog
2. Difficult People
3. The Lottery Ticket

Please don’t call your story Difficult Dogs, or The Lady with the Ticket! These will not be considered. You don’t have to use the same characters, or setting – you don’t even have to have read the original story – but we will be awarding points for a certain Chekhovian spirit. Please check our terms and conditions, below, before sending your entry to:

theverb@bbc.co.uk

or:

The Verb,
Room 7045,
Broadcasting House,
Portland Place,
London W1A 1AA

The closing date of the competition is 5th February.

If Janice Galloway had read my story…

The short list for STORY – the International short story competition from HappenStance Press (which is, let’s be frank, a bit of a mouthful) went up today. I’m not on it and I’m so very gutted. I made the long list, but not the short list which means that Janice Galloway won’t get to read my story. Boo hoo.

Regular readers of my blog will be well aware that Ms Galloway is my favourite writer. I had a little fantasy that she’d love my story. Maybe it’s better this way though, she didn’t reject me, it never even made it to her.

By the way, if Janice Galloway’s publisher reads this I totally think you should send me a proof copy of the collected stories. I’ll have to replace “Where You Find It” in my display case so I should read the new volume first so as to properly be able to recommend it to all my customers. I’ll be rather sad not selling “Where You Find It” any more, though this latest collection which is a selection from WYFI and Blood is obviously A Jolly Good Thing Indeed.

Oh well, off to cheer myself up with Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist which is making me laugh out loud, much to my surprise.

Bobbins, short stories (and Janice Galloway)

I love my job. I feel very lucky to work in such an amazingly gorgeous bookshop and to get to go in one day a week and soak up the fiction. Anyway, bobbins and short stories:

A woman came and asked if we had a copy of a specific book. Yes we do, it’s on the next floor up.
“Oh, forget it,” she said sounding disappointed and left.

Someone bought my all time favourite novel “The Trick is to Keep Breathing” by Janice Galloway and I couldn’t resist saying “Ooh, I love this book, it’s my favourite novel EVER.”
“Oh,” the customer replied. “I was looking at “Where You find It” too.”
“You MUST get that as well,” I said. “It’s amazing.”
“Okay. You know, I came in for “This is not about me” really but couldn’t find it.”
“Oh my goodness, also brilliant, it’s in biography, I can grab you a copy if you like?”
BEST CUSTOMER EVER! Oh, and for anyone who has followed my triumphant tale of selling the awesome “Where You FInd It” collection, that brings the total sold to 72. Not bad for a book we didn’t stock eh?
Exciting news is that a collection of Janice Galloway’s stories is forthcoming. How cool is that? I suppose I’ll replace my “Where You Find It”‘s with the new collection, but I’ll be sad in a way. I’m very fond of that book.

Controversially (or, erm, not) I put “Olive Kitteridge” in my short story display case. (If Annie Clarkson reads this please note that Brighton Waterstones has a gorgeous short story display case!)

In other short story news A. L Kennedy’s new collection “What Becomes” is out. I had the pleasure of reviewing it for Waterstone’s Books Quarterly: ( “What Becomes is an impeccable collection from one of the most talented writers around. These are stories that ache and resonate as Kennedy’s stylistic scalpel reveals the pain and truth inside each of her characters. Highly recommended.”)

Today a new online journal has been published. Fancy a read? Head over to The Collagist.

Review of "This is Not About Me" by Janice Galloway

It won’t surprise any regular reader of this blog to hear that I think Janice Galloway’s “This is Not About Me” superb. Despite it being published last year I have only just read it. I hoarded it like a rare treat, saved for a time when I could properly engage, believing that writing this good deserves attention. I have been pounding through umpteen books to review, and have deliciously come to a stop. Time for Janice.

There is a lack of family photographs bar the one on the front cover, so instead snapshots are created with Galloway’s customary precise prose. Rather than write with hindsight Janice the narrator speaks from her childhood, baffled by often cruel words and actions. She doesn’t qualify these things with an adult’s perspective, there is no summation, just a childhood up to the age of 12 told in scenes rich with the sounds, sights and taste of Saltcoats in the 60’s. Music, sweeties, telly, knitted clothes, chips, plants, and people conjured with descriptions as magnificently telling as “Sophie’s wrists were lavender, her eyes rimless, congealed as eggs.”

Janice managed life with a drunken father and an unhappy mother by being as quiet and as little trouble as possible. Her sister Cora was elsewhere, married and with a baby or babies of her own. After leaving her violent husband Beth Galloway moved to a cramped room above the doctor’s surgery she cleaned, taking Janice with her, and for a brief time there was calm. However, they were joined by Cora, now alone, much older than Janice, and full of unpredictability. Cora crackles off these pages, her beauty rituals and rage vivid. She terrorises Janice, her mother, and possibly the local men. She’s a kind of smoking, knitting queen, stationed in a chair, fag on the go, watching the telly, dictating to all and sundry, prone to alarming outbursts.

Janice begins school and learns how being good at tests isn’t enough, she is expected to fit in, to be cheery and make conversation. After school she sits outdoors, waiting hours for her mother to return home from work, making her own entertainment. Reading these clear slices of childhood made me long for a kindly stranger to befriend Janice, show her some affection and understanding, but none appears. It is an uneasy read. Knowing that adult Janice is one of the finest contemporary writers in the world and held in high regard is some comfort.

This is not a voyeuristic misery memoir. There are fleeting glimpses of love here, but it is awkward love, self-conscious and stiff. One of the saddest scenes has Janice saving money to buy her mother a present. She chooses with enormous care something special that she hopes will let her mother know how much she is loved. Cora ridicules the gift, and Janice, before it is given, and insists it be returned to the shop for a refund. Cora pulls her hair, bashes her lip, and Janice does as she is told and buys a pair of “safe” gloves for her mum instead. Ouch.

For the most part Janice observes, attempts to decode actions and anticipate the slight twists and turns of mood that can be the difference between a sort of peace or Cora raging at her, often violently. I was glad when she develops her own sense of anger towards the end of this volume with the onset of hormones. I wanted her to stand up to Cora, take the power away from her.

This memoir is a version of the truth, as all memory is. There are other sides to the scenes here, and as the title says this is not all about Janice. Here is Cora’s story, and Beth’s too. These three females cooped up together, struggling, each wanting something different. I would like to know more of them. As characters, for that is all they can be to me the reader, they are all three interesting. Looking again at the photo on the cover having read the book, the picture becomes perfectly symbolic of the relationships we have learnt about inside. I don’t know if there is to be a follow up, I certainly hope there is some kind of a happy ending.

EDIT: Now available in paperback.

"My" short story display case, and Janice Galloway, Tania Hershman and others…


Lee Rourke blogged yesterday about his book “Everyday” being sold in a branch of Waterstones. And he had the photo to prove it!

Yay! It’s “my” short story display case.

Today Tania Hershman also blogged about it, because her fantastic collection The White Road and Other Stories is there too.

I love the fact that I get to maintain a short story section in the shop. I change it often, try to keep it fresh and enticing, but I always keep Janice Galloway‘s collection “Where you find it” in there. You may or may not recall me blogging about how much I LOVE this book here and here. I am delighted to say that we have now sold 50 copies. How cool is that!

I also keep Sylvia Plath’s “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” there, because, well, it’s Sylvia.

You will currently find Tania Hershman, Lee Rourke, Claire Wigfall, William Trevor, Charles Bukowski, Katherine Mansfield, Richard Yates, Miranda July, Vanessa Gebbie, Ali Smith, Alison MacLeod, Neil Smith, Tao Lin, Sara Maitland, Jhumpa Lahri and Jay McInerney in the case. We have sold out of Lorrie Moore for now.

Short stories are coooool.

Things I wish I had said to Janice Galloway –



1) Anything sensible rather than the breathless, gushy nonsense I babbled at her!

(Ha ha)

Okay, I was a little nervous. The more I thought about it the more I realised that of my revered three (Galloway, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith) Galloway is the writer who I have respected, admired, and aspired to, for the longest, with an unwavering belief that she really does write the best prose of anyone. She is concise, precise, smart, never sentimental, never baggy or saggy. So, y’know, she rocks. And I honestly get a kick out of recommending her books to others, so that they get to read writing of such quality. It occurred to me that I could meet her and dislike her. It happens right? Your hero up there on a pedestal turns out to be an utter arse. I wondered (because I am the type of person to waste time fretting about things that have not yet happened) if I would still heartily recommend her books. I figured I would, because the writing is what counts, not the person.

Didn’t need to worry at all, she was lovely, and very kind to me. She even gifted me a copy of “Rosengarten” which I am delighted by. She looked amazing, read beautifully, answered questions, and asked a couple herself. She was funny and warm, and the extracts she read from “This is not about me” sounded fabulous. I’m very much looking forward to getting stuck into it.

Hurray!

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