Saturday, 30 December 2017

75 books read in 2017

Feeling creatively somewhat wrung out after 9/10 books of all sorts in ten years, I decided to put creating aside for 2017, and concentrate on other things, mainly teaching, mentoring and hugely important this last - reading. My own reading has taken such a back seat over the last few - time to catch up. 

I aimed at 100 books in the year, was joined by some friends, and we began a closed Facebook group - all with the same goal: to read as much as we could. We weren't all reading the same books, I hasten to add - not a 'reading group' - just a group of interested people, all reading, and all making a note - nothing more, of the books they'd read. A note, a word attached to an uploaded cover image soon increased to a line or two of subjective comment. And the group burgeoned to over 200 names. 

Did I make 100? No. I read 75. They are listed below in order of reading. Nothing planned - just following my nose and interests, some I ought to have read and somehow never did, others I stumbled across, some recommendations, others that has been on my shelf for decades...and occasional light humour as counterpoint. But it is interesting (to me) to see what categories they fell into:

Novels: 29
Short Fiction: 9
Poetry: 14
History/Military History: 5
Biog/autobiog: 4
Humour: 3

the rest... all sorts - philosophy, journalism, religious analysis...

I re-read some of my favourites by friends and colleagues, including The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, Some of Us Glow More than Others by Tania Hershman, Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy, The Flood by Maggie Gee, The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, and Voices from Stone and Bronze by Caroline Davies. All to be recommended highly. 

I chose some books by writers of colour  - novels, poetry, short stories.  

The writer/book I am most pleased to have met/ best read of the year (thanks to a recommendation from one of the group members): Plainsong, by Kent Haruf  

I hated and discarded only one book: Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. 

Here's the list for anyone who is interested. ( [R] means a re-read.) 

[R]The Many                   Wyl Menmuir            #1     Salt a novel

Speak, Memory                  Vladimir Nabokov   # 2           Putnam           autobiograpy
The Shock of the Fall        Nathan Filer             #3           Harper/Collins novel

The Sun Fish             Eilean Ni Chuilleanain     #4           Gallery poetry
[R]They Called it Passchendaele  L MacDonald #5           Penguin military history
Ways of Seeing               John Berger             #6            Penguin           non fic
G                                       John Berger            #7             Bloomsbury     novel
Time's Arrow                     Martin Amis            #8             Penguin novel
First Person &other stories  Ali Smith        #9             Penguin short stories
The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson     #10           Penguin           novel
Too Loud a Solitude               Bohumil Hrabal   #11           Abacus           novel
Sieze the Day                    Saul Bellow              #12           Penguin         novel

The Book of Memory            Petina Gappah     #13           Faber             novel

The Way of the Strangers: encounters w Islamic State  G Wood   #14  Allen Lane religion/current 

The Bright White Tree            Joanna Seldon    #15            Worple poetry 
A Life Discarded          Alexander Masters        #16           4th Estate biography

Plainsong                            Kent Haruf             #17            Picador novel

[R] In Another Country David Constantine       #18             Comma            short stories
Trump and me                          Mark Singer     #19             Penguin journalism/bio
[R] Dark Roots                       Cate Kennedy   #20             Atlantic short stories
The Hundred Fathom Curve /John Barr           #21            Red Hen poetry

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl/Grayson Perry     #22  Vintage autobiography

The Havocs                              Jacob Polley   #23             Picador           poetry
Olive Kitteridge                    Elizabeth Strout   #24       S/Shuster novel in stories
[R]Never Let Me Go             Kazuo Ishiguro   #25             Faber             novel
To Kill a Mockingbird        Harper  Lee            #26             Arrow             novel
Britty Britty Bang Bang    Hugh Dennis           #27     Headline non fic/humour/history
[R] The Flood                   Maggie Gee           #28             Saqi novel
[R]The Essex Serpent        Sarah Perry           #29            Serpent's Tail  novel
lThe Runaway Jury       John Grisham           #30           Arrow               novel
Seven stories         Gabriel Garcia Marquez   #31           Penguin            short stories
Beloved                        Toni Morrison            #32           Vintage              novel

The Handmaid's Tale                   Margaret Attwood    #33                 Vintage          novel
After the Funeral                       Agatha Christie           #34     Harper Collins     novel crime

Contemporary Black British Short Stories   ed. Jacob Ross  #35 Peepal Tree   short stories
The Riddle of the Sands            Erskine Childers                    #36           Dover           novel 

The Berlin Wall Cafe                                Paul Durcan       #37             Harvill         poetry
Springlines       Clare Best /Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis         #38     Little Toller poetry/art/essay
The Snow Child                          Eowyn Ivey                   #39 Tinder            novel
In the Wild Wood                Frances Gapper                    #40     Cultured Llama  short stories
Boy in the Striped Pyjamas  John Boyne                       #41                                 novel
[R]Twenty Prose Poems             Baudelaire                     #42         City Lights     prose poetry

His Bloody Project  Graeme McRae Burnet                   #43       Contraband        novel 
Philip Larkin:Poems (selected by Martin Amis)               #44             Faber             poetry
The Wife - how it works         various                               #45  Ladybird/Penguin     humour

[R]Voices from Stone and Bronze Caroline Davies          #46             Cinnamon         poetry
[R]Candide                                   Voltaire                           #47 Penguin            classics
[R]Some of us Glow more than Others/Tania Hershman #48       Unthank          short stories
The Travels of Lady Bulldog Burton Toksvig/Nightingale #49             Little,Brown     humour
On Writing                               Stephen King                   #50 Hodder              memoir
Lusitania                                   various                            #51  Pen and Sword military history
The Disappearance of Adele Bedeaux Graeme Macrae Burnet #52 Contraband      novel
{R}The Redemption of Galen Pike  Carys Davies            #53             Salt        short stories
The 39 steps                          John Buchan                    #54 Samuel French      novel spy
Diary of a Bad Year          J M Coetzee                            #55             Vintage         novel

Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy  James Kale McNeley  #56     Uni of Arizona     philosophy
Strange Pilgrims   Gabriel Garcia Marquez                     #57           Penguin       short stories
[R]Somme unseen panoramas Barton/Banning #58 Constable/IWM      history/military
Night Sky with Exit Wounds   Ocean Vuong                 #59               Cape                  poetry
Do no Harm                         Henry Marsh                   #60             W&N       non fic medical

On the trail of the poets of WW1:E Blunden McPhail/Guest  #61     Pen&sword biog/history/military
The Magic Toy Shop                 Angela Carter           #62 Virago                  novel
Elizabeth is Missing                  Emma Healey           #63             Penguin           novel

101 things with  mexican sprayer  Heinz Deppe         #64                   ?                  humour
The Seasons of Cullen Church/Bernard O'Donoghue  #65              Faber               poetry
Narcissistic Lovers  Cynthia Zane/Kevin Dibble          #66             New Horizon   non fic
The Wars                       Timothy Findley                     #67           Penguin           fiction
Very selected                        Mimi Khalvati                  #68     Smith Doorstop             poetry
{R}The Spire                          William Golding            #69           Faber and Faber     novel
The Soul of Kindness    Elizabeth Taylor                    #70            Chatto                    novel
Into the Wild                   Jon Krakauer                        #71         Pan/MacMillan     non-fiction
Once an Artist Always an Artist Capt C J Bloomfield #72  Self pub (1921) memoir/milit hist

The Parrot the Horse and the man   Amarjit Chandan #73               Arc                    poetry
An Anthology of Mine Rex Whistler #74 Hamish Hamilton poetry/paint'gs
Photographing the Fallen Jeremy Gordon-Smith #75 Pen & Sword military history

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Writers' HQ - the place to turn to for writing support

Looking for something really interesting to add to this nearly defunct blogette, I decided to have a natter with Jo Gatford, who set up a brilliant organisation for writers called Writers' HQ. Why? Well - let her tell you - but it chimes with me, as I do worry that so many writing opportunities are geared to those with the cash, the confidence, the freedom and the chutzpah to go for it. What if you just don't fit that profile? 
  That's exactly what I asked Jo...

There are 101 organisations for writers springing up all over the place. Why should a writer look closely/closer at Writers' HQ? What can your organisation do for them? 

Writer’s HQ was set up as an alternative for people who can’t afford/don’t want to/don’t have time to take a Creative Writing MA or go on longer residential retreats. There are indeed 101 organisations out there offering courses or retreats but a) many of them can be prohibitively expensive, b) many of them require significant time and dedication or attendance at a specific location that’s simply impossible for struggling writers trying to juggle work/life/study/kids, and c) the literary world can unfortunately sometimes give off a somewhat elitist vibe, and emerging/aspiring writers often suffer from imposter syndrome and/or feel that they need to be a ‘proper writer’ (whatever the hell that means) to take an expensive writing course or attend a retreat.

As parents/writers/low-income workers, we really struggled to find accessible courses or groups that would fit our needs, and Writers’ HQ really emerged to try to fill this gap. Our online courses are designed to fit in around work, life responsibilities, childcare, study, and whatever else gets in the way of writing – so people can take part online, tackle small chunks at a time, join a lively and friendly (and sweary) writing community and get their sh*t done at a pace that suits them.

The central ethos of WHQ is to offer space and time to write, writing advice and expertise, and community support for writers no matter where they are, how long they’ve been writing, or how much time they have to assign to writing. We’re kind of the ‘scruffy nerf herders’ of the writing world. We acknowledge that writing is really bloody hard and the average writer spends a lot of time doubting their abilities. We also swear a lot and enjoy posting stupid gifs which seems to appeal to writers who tend to procrastinate online. 

How does Writers HQ work?

So. Our online courses are available worldwide to anyone with an internet connection. You can sign up to individual courses or become a member and get ongoing access to ALL our courses (with new ones being released every month or so) – a bit like Netflix for writers. Once you’re registered, you’ll work through a series of exercises towards a tangible outcome (such as plotting a novel) at your own pace, with plenty of opportunity for flexibility, peer discussion and feedback. Our private Facebook group is open all hours for anti-procrastination pep talks and general writerly discussion (because, let’s face it, you’re all on Facebook anyway, so you might as well be reminded to write while you’re there).

A huge proportion of our students go on to take more than one course and often work their way methodically through the series – from plotting to editing to submitting a novel, or from idea generation to writing short fiction to submitting to lit mags and competitions. And we get results. Our Wall of Fame is testimony to the many successes our students have had in the last year – most recently we had FOUR students longlisted for the Mslexia novel award, a handful of writers landed literary agents or publishing deals, and a whole bunch more had their short fiction published, or were long/short listed for competitions. We are very proud literary mother hens and we love shouting our students’ achievements from the rooftops (or at least Twitter).  

Our one-day regional retreats are available in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Portsmouth and Worthing each month (with more locations coming soon!). Essentially, at a WHQ retreat, we shut you in a room for 6 hours and ply you with unlimited caffeine and snacks, feed you a tasty lunch, and get everyone to set a tangible personal writing goal for the day. Then we work in small, manageable chunks of writing time, checking in periodically to see how everyone’s getting on, and awarding gold stars for good behaviour (it’s honestly quite remarkable how motivational shiny stickers can be for adults). It’s absolutely not competitive, but the average writer tends to get about 3-5,000 words down in a single day – though we have a few incredibly prolific outliers who have managed a staggering 10,000+ words in one session! 

We’ve found one-day retreats are far more accessible for people who work full time or have kids or generally find it hard to carve out time to write. They’re also much cheaper than residential retreats and often more productive than informal writing groups, and around 80% of attendees are repeat offenders, meaning that you see a lot of the same faces each month, get to know other local writers, and keep up to date with how everyone’s projects are getting on gives them a really lovely community feel.

Many writing opportunities are only accessible to those who can pay/get childcare easily and so forth. How are you addressing these issues? Any plans to help with childcare by providing a creche, for example? 

We both have a couple of sprogs each, so we know how hard it is to get back into writing once you emerge from the daze of the newborn/toddler days. And we get A LOT of parents (mostly mums, actually, who seem to find it harder to prioritise their writing time) at our retreats and on our courses so we’re constantly looking for ways to accommodate people with kiddos. This is exactly why we decided to run one-day retreats, as it can be really tough to get away for a week-long retreat (not only logistically but also because of the never-ending parental guilt), while finding one day per month at a weekend is much more feasible. Similarly, our online courses can be done in the evenings or during nap times/when little ones are at nursery or school in small, manageable chunks.

We’ve actually been talking a lot recently about a possibility of organising a longer residential retreat avec childcare but obviously there are a lot of logistics to consider – it’s definitely on our list for 2018 though! 

I happily added some video support - who else do you have in this series, and what sort of topics are they blathering about?

Oh how we love your videos (watch them all here)! We’ve also had some fantastic advice from award-winning writers like Paul McVeigh (author of The Good Son and winner of the Polari Prize), Emma Healey (author of Elizabeth is Missing and winner of the Costa First Novel Award), Catriona Ward (author of Rawblood, Best Horror Novel – British Fantasy Awards 2016) and Ed Hogan (author of Blackmoor, winner of the Desmond Elliot Prize), editor of Open Pen literary magazine Sean Preston, and literary agent Samar Hammam, so we have a huge range of experiences from the publishing world. We use all our author videos in our online courses covering all sorts of useful subjects such as: 

How does running this add to/impinge on your own writing?

Ah. Well. Do as we say, not as we do… The last year has been pretty manic for us – we were awarded funding from Arts Council England to help us set up our online courses and we’ve been busy training our regional retreat representatives to expand across the UK, as well as planning new courses and content for 2018 and supporting our existing writers. 

We’re both currently writing/editing a novel each, with plans to get them finished (and published!) in 2018, so we’re going through exactly the same trials and tribulations as our students. One of the main intentions of setting up WHQ was to allow us to factor in writing time and we’re getting there slowly. Maybe we need to take some of our own advice and ‘stop f**king about and start writing’.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Teaching in Venice

April in Venice - sharing my love for short fiction for five days was absolute magic. Participants came from as far afield as San Franciso - hi Deb! Based on the Giudecca, we worked hard, played hard, had a 'Paint your own Venetian Mask' session - and ended the workshops richer, all of us. A teriffic bunch, loved every minute.
       Thanks to Janys Hyde of Creative Retreats in Venice for the wonderful invitation, and it was so nice working for and with you. Look forward to 2018!

Publication of A Short History of Synchronised Breathing

A few months late - but a catch up begins.

February 20187

The third short fiction collection, A Short History of Synchronised Breathing, came out from Cultured Llama in February. They bill it as:
Meta-fiction, fable, satire, instruction manual, or reportage? Sometimes all in the one story. A Short History of Synchronised Breathing is funny, sexy, original, heartbreaking, and with true insights to the human condition...
and who am I to argue? Indeed the lovely Paul McVeigh, author of The Good Son, gave me this glorious quote for the cover:

Charming and challenging, inventive and intelligent – a wonderful collection that is also laugh out loud funny.
Funny? Moi? Indeed, apparently. It's had a good reception, and among other quiet celebrations, was the focus of a private storytelling launch lunch which raised over £600 for Friends of Sussex Hospices.

It's a POD publication, which means the publisher doesn't have to find space waiting for copies to sell. It also means you can't find it in a bookshop. But can be ordered from Amazon and so forth, and from the publisher. I'd rather the latter, if you intend buying, please. Thanks.

Link here to the publisher's web page:

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

An interview with the author Jill Rutherford

Well,  hello there! Tis a while since I updated this thing, and SO much has been happening, it has been impossible to keep up. So a catch-up article is in the pipeline.

However. Before that, continuing in the tradition of occasional interviews with writers, I'd like to introduce you to Jill Rutherford, from Eastbourne, in Sussex. I met Jill some time back, and as writers do, we fell into conversation. I remember being fascinated by her own story - that of falling for Japan thanks to seeing a performance by a Japanese all-female theatre company - and moving there, living  and working there for seven years. 

Jill Rutherford
I  was lucky enough to meet up with Jill more recently, and was delighted to discover that she had almost finished the third in an extraordinary trilogy of novels set in Japan - the Secret Samurai trilogy, a fantastical story of a female samurai. (Why should men have all the fun jobs...) And  now she has indeed finished, and here they are! She has self-published all her books, and her Japanese work is beginning to be recognised by those who know - a tough journey, and I admire her sticking power. 

Jill told me that her novels have been included recently on a list of Savvy Tokyo's 7 must-reads set in Japan.
They said she is: "a writer with great insight into Japanese culture and the power to deliver unique plots and marvellous characters"
                                      Savvy Tokyo Magazine 
- well that's some accolade, coming from a Japanese publication!
So, not to be outdone - we had another natter here. 

Me: Come in, sit down, have a cuppa!  I love the title of your latest novel, the final one of the Secret Samurai trilogy - so tell us a little about Secret Samurai?
Jill:  It’s not the usual kind of samurai book. The story is a time-travel adventure involving two women who become samurai and the two men they fall in love with and the women’s influence upon them.

The first is a modern English woman who moves in and out of the mind of a samurai fighting in the civil war of the 1860’s which dragged Japan into the modern world. She lives two lives in parallel (modern and old Japan).
The second is an aristocratic woman of the 1860’s who is forced to disguise herself as a samurai in order to survive the war. Living as a samurai gives her influence and respect – things she has never experienced as a woman of her time. She becomes intoxicated with the power of it and this takes her down unprecedented paths.
The historically accurate story revolves around the war and politics of the time, and they play an important part, but it is more about the relationships of the four main characters, their development, ambitions and perceptions and how their lives change.

Me: They sound absolutely extraordinary! What an imagination you must have. Tell me a little about your writing process, and where the books came from.
Jill:  It all took three and a half years to write and it proved to be a difficult story from the beginning. I thought I knew enough Japanese history to, with the help of a few history books, write the story. I soon found out that this period is the most complex in the history of Japan. Nothing stayed the same for long, factions changed, people altered their names, it was a convoluted war that lasted for fourteen years. As I didn’t want my books to be – or read – like history books, I had to simplify it. That was the hardest part, how to keep the history easy to follow and not bog down the reader. It took a lot of work as I wrote and re-wrote, paring it down each time. Finding ways round obstacles. I hope my readers will be totally unaware of this. If not, then I haven’t done my job.
As to why I wrote this particular story. It started about four years ago when I had to have an operation. While I was at home recovering, groggy from the anaesthetic and pain killers, I closed my eyes one afternoon and suddenly, the story of Secret Samurai came into my mind. I went to my computer and, muzzy as I was, I started to write. The story got bigger and bolder and more exciting until it spread over three books. It was inspiring to write about these four special characters, especially the two samurai women and the way they influenced others. The story developed as I wrote, one thing led to another in a natural way. An organic process.

Me:  And the books are published and making their way into the world? 
Jill.  Indeed - and I’ve had some very positive results. Now the trilogy is finished and people can read the whole story, I’ve been picked up by a couple of magazines in Japan. Recently, an author I don’t know approached me via social media saying she wanted to include the trilogy in an article she was doing for Savvy Tokyo Magazine, entitled, “7 Must Read Japan-Related Books by Female Authors”.
That exposure has made a huge difference. On the back of that, another magazine, Love Japan, is using my trilogy as one of the prizes for a writing competition they are doing.

Me: Fantastic. Congratulations. When did you first get interested in Japan?
Jill: When I saw a programme on BBC 2 in 1994 about a unique and rather strange theatre company in Japan. It’s called the Takarazuka Review Company and is an all female company with over 420 performers who play both the male and female parts on stage. (Off stage, the company is almost exclusively male run).
It’s full of fun, glitz, glamour, sequins, feathers – a real throw back to old Hollywood Movies and the Follies-BergĂ©re . But also, it has its serious side and the Japanese history plays they perform are exquisite, many with sublime music and singing. A real gem of Japan hidden away from most foreigners.
I went to Japan to see the theatre and much to my surprise (for I wasn’t interested in Japanese culture at that time) I fell instantly in love with the country, the people and the culture. Many holidays later, I wanted to live there, to experience, ‘the real Japan’. Alas, I lacked a university degree which is requisite to obtaining a working visa; therefore I couldn’t get a job. So I went for a year’s holiday and didn’t come home for seven. I found a way to open my own English school and prospered.
Me: I think that's something many people would love to do, but never do. Tell us about the book  you wrote about your time there?

Jill:  Yes, I wrote, Cherry Blossoms, Sushi and Takarazuka, Seven Years in Japan about eighteen months after my return to the UK. I realised I had a story to tell and an irresistible urge to tell it. So, I wrote it all down and haven’t stopped writing since. The first draft flew off my keyboard. Then, when I went back and read it through, I realised it needed a re-write. It took eighteen months of hard work, but I got there in the end. I now know that all first drafts are just that. First drafts. You need to go back and hone and polish over and over until you have the best you can do. 
Me:  What would you say to new writers starting out?
Jill.  There’s a misconception that writing a book is easy. I heard of another writer who recently met a scientist at a party. He asked her what she did and on hearing that she was a novelist, he replied, “When I retire, I’m going to write a book”. She retorted, “And when I retire I’m going to write a paper on quantum physics.” Good for her. It’s hard to write a book. I’d say you have to write, write and write. Read, read and read. Go on every writing course you can. Listen, learn and practice. Subscribe to a writing magazine. Join a writing group.  Learn from the books you read, the good points and the bad. How they use dialogue, descriptions, start and end their stories. Look at the structure and start to analyse stories. Practice it yourself until you find your own style. Never stop writing even if it is only a few minutes a day. Always improve on what you have written. I saw a play once about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Someone asked him what he was doing and he replied, “I’m working on a sentence”. That struck me as funny then, but now I write my own novels, I realise how pertinent that comment is.

Me:  Great advice. Do you have anything else in the pipeline – anything more about Japan? Or will you go onto something completely different?
Jill.   I’ll go back to the book I was writing before all this! It’s a family story set around a mystery. It starts at the turn of the 20th century in the Welsh Mining Valleys. It needs a complete re-write, but at least the story is there.
I’m also playing with the idea of a mystery series, but it’s very early days yet.
I’ve written several short stories about Japan which have won competitions including the Charles Dickens’ Fellowship Short Story Prize for my take on A Tale of Two Cities. Mine were Tokyo and London. Plus first prize and also runner up for Eastbourne Writes Festival 2012.
Me.  Congratulations. Are these published?
Jill:  Yes, in a book of short stories entitled, The Day After I Won the Lottery . . . and Other Short Stories.

Me. I do love your covers. They are very eye-catching. So - tell us a little about you, apart from ‘Jill the writer’, who else is she?
Jill.  That’s a difficult one. How you perceive yourself is often so different from how others see you.
I hope I am honest, straightforward, engaging, humorous and hard working, as those things are important to me, but I don’t know if my friends would agree !
 I try to remain positive in this increasingly spiralling world. I follow world affairs – via the BBC – where hopefully, the news is not faked ! I still love the Takarazuka Theatre.
I wish I could master social media and be the Twitter and Facebook Queen with ‘friends’ and tweets everywhere. Alas, it is not my forte and I fear I am being left behind. I do try, but feel it’s a big failing of mine. Another generations’ adventure. So, if I’ve any fans out there, please forgive my strained efforts.
I like to drink red wine, eat out, walk my dog, spend time with friends, go to writing groups. I’d like to be a best-selling author, but then, wouldn’t we all !

Me: Thank you Jill. It's been a pleasure to natter, and I wish you so much good luck with all your books. 


So - if you are a fan of Japan, and would love to try these hugely imaginative stories about the life and loves of a female samurai - her books can be found in the usual places. Don't forget - independent bookshops will always order books for you!