Wednesday 28 March 2012


                                                             HELLO PAPERBACK!

It is publication day of the UK paperback for 'The Coward's Tale', and it is the start of a long celebration. It's been a long journey too, and this is some sort of journey's end, so let's raise a glass to lots of hard work and a little luck along the way.
Friends both old and new have been very kind and offered to help the party along - so let's start the life of the paperback with a visit today to three fab blogs, to kick-start an online tour.
CLAIRE KING, whose own debut novel 'The Night Rainbow'comes out with Bloomsbury next February: Claire has persuaded the lovely Tram-Anh Doan, Paperback Editor for Bloomsbury, to join us in a natter about the process of paperback publication. And we have a very unusual treat - a chance to look at the rejected cover images for the book, and find out what I thought of them, (I hadn't seen them before...!).
TANIA HERSHMAN whose forthcoming flash fiction collection has everyone on the edge of their seats in anticipation... She asked me A Question of Place. Where does the writer live - and does that impinge on what she writes?
SARA CROWLEY Talented short story writer, novelist in the making, bookseller and certainly candidate for the most superb Mum on the planet. We talked about The writing of a ‘modern classic’. Dylan Thomas, David Jones, toffees, and tea with Obama.

 The rest of the schedule is as follows:
 30 March
  SYLVIA PETTER: The creative process, use of the senses, especially scents
  ALEXA RADCLIFFE-HART SERVICES TO LITERATURE Meta-narratives, the dialect/voice, stories versus novel, and creating real emotion in the reader,
 31 March
  NETTIE THOMPSON My publishing journey, creating a catchphrase! The amazing musical map.
  JON PINNOCK Review, recycling one’s work and more
 1st April
  SALLY ZIGMOND: April Foolishness - A bit of sex, and why not?
 2 April
  VICTORIA WATSON Ten things working on The Coward’s Tale taught me.
 4 April
  NUALA NI CHONCHUIR Naming, landscape, language...
 5 April
  TERESA STENSON A Letter to myself starting out as a writer in 2002 .
 6 April
  JEN CAMPBELL General chat about writing, poetry, the writer/publisher relationship in two lines (!), 10 April
  ELIZABETH BAINES Fuel for stories, the knotty issue of rewriting, to plot or not and a bit of philosophy?
 11 April
  CHARLES LAMBERT Same-sex relationships and the elusive question of human happiness. Judah Jones and The Window-Cleaner’s Tale.
 12 April
  TOM VOWLER On character
 13 April CHELSEY FLOOD Review and interview
 Date TBA Five questions with Sarah Salway.

Also, the entertainment doesn't stop there!

It is 2012, and it is Bloomsbury's Year of the Short Story. I'd like to join in - I'm far better known as a short story writer than a novelist, and anyway, 'The Coward's Tale' is all about the power of story to transform, heal, illuminate.  So - I was invited to record my favourite short story for the wonderful website Read me Something You Love.  And I did just that, aided and abetted by Steve Wasserman and his travelling recording studio - I read The Ledge, by Lawrence Sargeant Hall.  It is long, so he has edited it into two recordings, interspersed with natter and chat - but do take a chance - it really is something you'll not forget easily.

Saturday 24 March 2012


This is the cover of the Six Women Six Voices anthology, introduced here...

Thanks to Konstantinos Tsikas, there is an interview with self on Athens Voice - here.
Unless you can read Greek, it will not mean much - but I kept a copy in English. Here you go.

KT: How did this project come about? How were you contacted to participate in this anthology?
VG: It was, as I understand it, a collaboration between EUNIC Greece and The General Secretariat for Gender Equality, Greek Ministry of the Interior. There was a tight timescale, ony a few weeks to find writers and for the writers to produce a story. I was contacted by a colleague who works for the British Council, who knew I had published a couple of collections of shorts.

KT: Is this the first time you have participated in an anthology anchored around a specific theme? In particular, was this the first time you partook in an anthology themed around representations of women?
VG: Well, I guess you and I first met, if that is the right word, in the One World project, where we both, together with writers from many countries, explored what we wished in a story - and New Internationalist published the result. That was only a very loose ‘theme’. I have contributed to a few anthologies with themes - one coming up this year is a collection of stories written to be read out loud, whether whispered, shouted or some other way! (“Overheard” will be published by Salt, in November.)
I have not particpated in any other projects on the theme of women/gender, at all. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to do this one. It was a challenge.
Salt Modern Fiction published my own themed collection - ‘Storm Warning, Echoes of Conflict’, explores the after effects of war for those who fought, and those caught up, on the sidelines.

KT: Were you nervous that the “woman” theme of this anthology might end up producing polemical or “political correct” fiction?
VG: Yes. And in the end, I think that would have been to lay ourselves open to criticism. The job of the writer, as I see it, is not to be didactic, but rather it is to lay the topic in front of the reader in an engaging and original way - to draw the reader in so they can explore their own views alongside the situation portrayed. Besides, a state of affairs that has developed over centuries can’t be genuinely swept away in five minutes.

KT:Are you satisfied by how female voices and experiences are portrayed by both men and women writers in contemporary fiction?
VG: I can’t answer this question - I am not sufficiently well read in comtemporary fiction that deals with the female experience. Why? Because I am a living female. I read to escape the actuality of everyday life, not to look in a mirror.

KT: You mentioned in your speech that major newspapers in USA and UK are biased against books written by women, often overlooking them in favour of books written by men. Do you think this reflects a general bias against women writers?
VG: I quoted statistics from VIDA. Whether there is a conscious bias, I do not know, but the figures show an imbalance. Perhaps I am guity of an imbalance as well. On the plane journeys to and from Athens, I read two books: ‘The Fall’ by William Golding, and a biography of Ernast Shackleton. I then wrote some of my own novel - so was engaged in my own work - as a woman writer. Does that redress the situation? Probably not. My main characters are males. Oh dear. But I would hope we never have a situation where writers are told what they must write - there lie dragons!

KT: You are rapidly becoming one of the most notable writers in UK, especially after the success of your novel “The Coward’s Tale”. Has this exerted any pressure on you?
VG: I think that might be overstating the case! ‘The Coward’s Tale’ is swimming about nicely in the maelstrom - and I am enjoying the ride. But whereas Athens invited me to come across and speak, and whereas I am teaching a week-long fiction workshop in Ireland in June, and whereas I spent a glorious stint in Stockholm as writer in residence a couple of years back - I have had not a single invite to a mainstream literary festival in the UK this year. Go figure. The reality is, festivals are businesses - they are there to make money, and the punters who will pay to attend a talk by famous names who go from festival to festival, they will not pay to hear an unknown. Fact.

KT: These are rather hard times for Greece and Europe in general. Do you think collaborations from European writers, such as the present anthology, might help forge a renewed sense of European identity and solidarity?
VG: I really hope so. Maybe less of the European, perhaps - just as citizens who share the same troubled earth for a year or two. I would like to think that boundaries become less meaningful when there is trouble. Although they are so often the cause of the strife in the first place.

KT: Any fascinating books you read lately and might recommend to our readers?
VG: Well, I love all William Golding’s books. ‘The Fall’, ‘The Inheritors’, ‘Pincher Martin’, ‘The Spire’ - and his best known one, but the one he thought was his weakest - ‘The Lord of the Flies’.
I’d also like to recommend a short story collection or two: ‘The White Road and Other Stories’ by Tania Hershman, ‘The Temple of Air’, by Patricia McNair.
And later this year, a novel called ‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ by Suzanne Joinson, is being published by Bloomsbury. I have been fortunate enough to read an advance copy. It really is wonderful.

KT: Was this your first time in Greece? Have you had any prior experience with Greek literature, writers etc.?
VG: It was my first time on the Greek mainland. Like many, I have visited a couple of the larger islands, Corfu and Crete. Crete I enjoyed particularly, for its history, its dramatic scenery, and the warmth of its people, although I fear Knossos was not treated particularly well by Evans - silly man. I gather that Rea Galanaki’s story in the Six Writers anthology was a reversal of the myth of Araidne. I am very sad that I can’t read it! (The anthology is only in Greek). You, Kostas, are the only Greek writer I have read. Who else would you recommend to me?

KT: Will we see your work translated to Greek anytime soon? Fingers crossed!
VG: I don’t know. It would be great to see ‘The Coward’s Tale’ out there in lots of languages - but the prose is very lyrical in places, and it mirrors a south Wales dialect. I guess that is not easy to translate. Fingers crossed indeed.

Thank you Kostas, I have enjoyed answering these questions!

Sunday 18 March 2012


Some great news from Irish writer Fiona O'Rourke. Fiona is a finalist in the Fish International Short Story Competition, and her story 'Wrong Whisky' will be published in this years Fish Prizewinner's Anthology. It will be her first publication - and when you think of the numbers of great writers who enter this competition each year, that is no mean feat. So, Fiona - here's a pint of Murphy's as a congrats!
Fiona worked with me at Anam Cara Writers and Artists' Retreat last May, on a week-long workshop entitled 'The Short Story - So Much More than it Seems'. We had a great time - the place was abuzz with ideas, writing games, talk about story craft, and writing exercises to practice the theory. There were lots of tips shared, tips that work for me as a writer - with the caveat that of course, they may not work for everyone. But they certainly worked for Fiona.

Fiona sent me this just now: (reproduced here with her kind permission!)

Hi Vanessa,
After a few years of entering short story competitions and not getting shortlisted, I've finally made the runner's up list in The Fish Short Story Prize which is a mighty leap forward for me!
I followed your advice among the gems you shared with us at an Anam Cara workshop last year - I started writing Wrong Whisky at the drowsy point just before going to sleep and the story took over, so there's lot to be said for putting pen to paper in a tired/about to fall asleep state, that's when the story was born. I wrote the bulk of it over a few nights in the sleepy state and I had no idea at any point what would happen next. Also I remembered your other advice about getting stories into competitions way before the deadline which I did for once.
So many thanks for the good advice, I'm glad I followed it, and look what happened - I got shortlisted in a highly regarded competition, made it to the runner up list and Wrong Whisky will be published in the anthology (my first short story to be published), so happy days! I would highly recommend drowsy/sleepy writing to other writers.
All the best,
Fiona O'Rourke (Wexford, Ireland)

That's the best thing, for a teacher - to know that something passed on has made a difference. Good stuff, innit! So here's a second pint...
I'm delighted to be running "The Short Story -so much more than it seems" again this year, at Anam Cara Writers' and Artists' Retreat from June 9th to 16th. If you are interested in finding out more, about this or any of the inspirational workshops and retreat possibilities at this wonderful place, check out the Anam Cara website and workshop schedule, Link HERE In the 30 acre grounds are these cascades - the sound of the waterfalls lulls you to sleep at night, and in the day, you can find a nook to make your own, to write in or dream in for as long as you like... it is just blissful.

Sunday 11 March 2012


In October 2011, EUNIC (EU National Insititues of Culture) in Greece invited a female writer from each of several EU countries to write a short story exploring the issue of gender equality. I was delighted to be the UK writer for the project, and the others were Rea Galanaki (Greece), Marta Pessarodona (Spain), Dacia Maraini (Italy), Rina Katselli (Cyprus) and Annette Mapson (Norway).

The project was in collaboration with the General Secretariat for Gender Equality, Greek Ministry of Interior.
An anthology of our stories was published in Greece, and launched in Athens on March 8th, International Women’s Day.
Entitled ‘Six Women, Six Voices’, the initial idea had been to publish all the stories in Greek alongside each piece in its original language - but the economic situation meant that the whole project was under threat at one point, and in the end, funding was found to ensure its survival in Greek.

The launch was a public event, had been well-publicised, and was held in a packed lecture theatre at the Institute Cervantes. Even the steps were full. The Chair of EUNIC Greece, Eusebi Ayensa Prat, Director of the Instituto Cervantes de Atenas, welcomed everyone, and Maria Stratigaki, General Secretary for Gender Equality, made opening remarks. The discussion was chaired and facilitated by journalist Mary Adamopoulou from the newspaper Ta Nea.
My overwhelming sense was one of privilege to be part of such an important project. Amazed at the fast-filling auditorium, the simultaneous Greek-English translation preparations - ear-pieces just as if it was a United Nations meeting...
After introductions, I addressed the multitude first. I had ten minutes to speak, and could have chosen to tell the audience about myself, my work, but decided not to do that. I described my story, which is a (hopefully) comic fable. Then I described my own journey as a woman writer - being advised early on to write under a pseudonym if I wanted to be taken seriously by the literary establishment. Deciding not to, as that was dishonest. I'd take my chances. Calling reviews the ‘oxygen without which a book cannot breathe’, and going on to show VIDA 2011 Count statistics revealing a real skew, an imbalance in vital review space and in the gender of reviewers.
I was amazed at the high profile of International Women’s Day here and in other European countries. I have not been aware of such celebration and awareness in the UK. Why is that? Interesting too, to see in Internet discussion, the existence of a snippy male response in several places - mainly poking fun. Fascinating, as that only serves to point up the continued belittlement of women and their achievements in some quarters, just because they are...women!
I was interested to hear another of my panel colleagues, the Greek writer Rea Galanaki, suggesting that one of the many reasons for the male bias in the literary establishment is that some female writers do women no favours by writing ‘Harlequin’ romance-type work and other badly written books, therefore getting us all tarred with the same brush. I’ve heard that before and it amazes me. There are many blokes who produce action thrillers, not written well. Or horror. Not written well. And the literary establishment does not assume that every male writer is therefore a bad writer of horror/action thrillers. So, if the ‘Harlequin’ issue is indeed a belief, it does appear somewhat illogical.
I may not be a feminist with a capital 'f', but I defend the right of any writer, male or female, to write what they want. And, my own right to write, and read, what I want. I also have a right as a reader, to be shown a balanced selection of reviews...
Athens is such a fascinating place - I don’t think we get the correct impression in the UK. I was lucky enough to have a day free to visit - first a guided tour round the lovely Acropolis Museum, led by Christina Sordina, Culture and Information officer at the Royal Norwegian Embassy, Athens. On the top floor, the floor dedicated to the Parthenon, and mirroring the size, where the light is stunning, I watched a group of small school children being given a talk on the beautiful frieze. Most of what they were seeing is only plaster casts, kindly allowed by the owners - the UK’s ‘British’ museum - which is of course a museum holding precious few British artefacts at all, just everyone else’s. In the photo, the original section is darker. The rest is replica. Maybe many of these children will never see their heritage without paying to come and see it in London... I felt very bad.
Surely, lordly souvenir-hunting belongs to another age? Today, to give them back seems morally the right thing to do - especially as one of the main arguments against sending the sculptures home was that there was nowhere to house them. Now, the right house is ready. It is better in both design and situation than the one in which we are holding them captive. In crepuscular gloom.
More photos of Athens below.

Saturday 3 March 2012


It is my pleasure to welcome a Welsh writer who is also a friend and writing colleague, Brian George, to me 'umblest of blogs. Brian's second collection, 'Blindfold' was published a few months back by Stonebridge Publications. This is Brian's second collection with them, and I must say their books are rather lovely - each is finished by hand, and has a ribbon bookmark - and comes with the guarantee that should anything untoward happen to damage the artefact - they will repair it until it is good as new. How's that for flying in the face of the soullessness of the e-book?

I had a nice time nattering to Brian about Blindfold - and I started by asking him to compare himself as a writer now with the writer he was on the publication of his first collection.

VG: Tell me how you think your work has changed since 'Labyrinth'.
BG: There are a couple of obvious things, I suppose. Most of the stories in Walking the Labyrinth were set in the south Wales valleys, and many of them explored issues around Welsh identity and culture. Only a few of the stories in Blindfold have valleys settings – though some of them are set in Cardiff – and there’s less of an attempt to explore those issues specific to post-industrial south Wales, for want of a better phrase. Many of the stories in this new collection are set elsewhere, or often have non-specific, sometimes vaguely surreal, settings. I’m really not sure why that should be the case, to be honest. Perhaps I felt I’d worked through some of those specific cultural issues in the previous collection, though it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision.
Another obvious difference is that most of the pieces are much shorter. I won’t say too much more about that here, as I know you’ve got a specific question about flash fiction coming up later!
More broadly, and linked to both these things, I’ve been trying to achieve greater compression, to cut away all but the most essential details and reduce each story to its fundamental core. Out with explanation and too much back story, that was my motto, I suppose!

VG: So, do you work in the same way at all?
BG: In some ways my methods of working have changed. Being lucky enough to participate in the Fiction Workhouse and the Fiction Forge (two wonderful online writers’ groups) over the last five years opened my eyes to new ways of working. I learned to work from prompts, to experiment and ‘let go’ a bit more in the initial act of writing, and then to radically prune and rework what transpired from that kind of exercise.
In other ways, though, I still work in the same way. There has to be some kind of itch, something that haunts me as a writer, something that these techniques of writing help me connect with. Inevitably, I suppose, some of these itches and hauntings change over time, while others remain constant.

VG:What is the broader significance of the title of this collection?
BG: Blindfold is the title of one of the stories, and on the surface it’s about a childhood game the two brothers in the story used to play, and which has now been adapted to help the damaged younger brother cope with an unbearable situation, to shut out a reality he can no longer face. In the context of that particular story, the ‘blindfolding’ can also be seen as a metaphor for the way the whole country was hoodwinked into supporting wars and military adventures in the recent past.
More widely, one writing colleague who has read the collection suggested it might be a metaphor for the way most of us muddle our way – with no particular sense of direction – through life. That wasn’t necessarily my conscious intention, but if that’s the way it strikes an intelligent reader, I’m happy to go along with that interpretation. Perhaps fiction – reading it and writing it – is ambivalent in that respect. It can enable us to see things more clearly on the one hand – to cut through all the stuff that obscures and gets in the way of understanding – but can also itself be a source of deception and self-deception. The phrase ‘telling stories’ can have all sorts of contradictory meanings.

VG: Many of the pieces of work are flash fiction. What is your definition of flash fiction, and what might be some good tips for writers who are new to it as a form?
BG: It’s very tricky to define flash fiction. I think if you put ten practitioners of the form in a room, you’d end up with twenty different definitions by the end of the discussion. At its simplest, it’s just very short fiction. People will squabble about how short that means, but for me, if it’s under a thousand words, you could call it flash fiction. Quite a lot of the pieces in Blindfold, though, are much shorter than that.
More important than the actual word count is the approach the writer adopts to telling a story. Very often in longer fiction, a writer takes pains to explain things – this happened, so then that had to happen; she did such-and-such because of so-and-so; oh, I should mention what happened to him five years ago, because that’ll help to explain why he’s now so wary of emotional commitment; and so on. Well, in flash fiction, you can’t do any of that. No explanation – that’s my one and only mantra! Strange things happen in flash. People act illogically. We see people from unusual and baffling angles, or we see them in fragments. Then, of course, the reader has to piece the fragments together. For this reason, some readers feel unsettled by flash.
At its best, though, this can all make for an extraordinary intensity – a real sense of cutting to the core of what a character, a situation, or life in general, is all about. The term ‘flash’ doesn’t just imply something that’s over in an instant, but also the experience of an extremely bright light being shone for that instant on something significant. The best flash fiction can do that, and can haunt you for years. If this is combined with a fastidious attention to language, a sort of poetic compression and allusiveness, then the results can be overwhelming. As you know, I’m always banging on about some of the short pieces by Jayne Anne Phillips, such as Under the Boardwalk or Solo Dancer, as examples that have stayed with me for years, or decades even, now.
The other thing I like about working with flash is that you can experiment with form in a way that can be very difficult in longer pieces.

VG: Tell me about Fibonacci sonnets.
BG: Well, this was one of the experiments in form I tried out in this book. I think the Fibonacci sonnet was ‘invented’ by an American writer of flash, Bruce Holland Rogers. Though it’s called a sonnet, it’s actually a prose form. The idea is that each sentence in the story has a prearranged number of words, following the Fibonacci sequence of numbers. You start with two sentences of a single word each, then gradually increase the length of sentences, before falling back in the same sequence in reverse order, and ending with two more single-word sentences. According to Rogers, this gives the piece roughly the same sort of balance as a Petrarchan sonnet!
Now, this may well sound like an abstruse and pointless exercise, like putting on a straitjacket, but what I actually found was the reverse. The underlying material of the piece I was writing was so raw and visceral that I found imposing a strict format like this on it – giving it a ‘cage’, if you like - controlled and intensified the emotional content. I’m not sure I’d want to write habitually within this kind of format, but I hope it worked in this particular instance.
And this is one of the beauties of flash fiction: it enables you to try out a great variety of voice and form.

VG: Nothing's ever perfect. If you could change one thing about the book, what would it be?
BG: Well, I often look back at individual stories, even after they’ve been published, and think I should have done this or that, this scene should have been expanded, that one left out altogether, that adjective should definitely not be there, you know the kind of thing! I wanted to make little adjustments to stories even as I was reading them out at the book launch, to be honest.
In terms of the collection as a whole, while it’s not a ‘themed collection’ in the way that’s usually understood – one consistent setting, recurring characters, and so on – there are lots of connections between the stories, some obvious, others more obscure. When I was discussing the running order of the stories in the book with Mike Byrne, the publisher, we decided not to signpost these connections too heavy-handedly, but to allow the reader to make the connections themselves. On reflection, I think we could perhaps have given a few more clues through the way we juxtaposed some of the stories.
Though there is certainly a lot to be said for getting the reader to do a bit of work!

VG: I have a copy to give away as a prize - can you think of a question to ask readers, and you choose the best reply, perhaps?
BG: What’s the best flash you’ve ever read? Explain what it means to you in no more than a hundred words.

There you go dear reader-person! Tell us about the best flash you've ever read - here. Maybe, if it was online, you could leave a link. Look forward! And finally, if you would like to order a copy of this book (highly, highly recommended) please email Brian George on briangeorge711 AT btinternet DOT com or Stonebridge Publications on anni AT wiltonjones DOT