Thursday 30 August 2012

A visit from Meg Pokrass

So, a while back, a facebook friend, the writer Meg Pokrass, invited me to be a visiting editor on Fictionaut, the online writers' hub and forum she helped to create. I had a very enjoyable week or so, reading all the poems and stories that were uploaded - with a brief to pick the ones that struck me as fascinating/good/well done as opposed to those which had the most likes and comments from the members... an interesting ask, yes? And very important, I felt, to acknowledge that bias that creeps into writing group behaviour and try to do something about it. I liked that.
Meg is a prolific writer. She sent me her amazing collection of flashes, 'Damn Sure Right', and I have loved the ride through an extraordinary 80 pieces of work, the vast majority of which have been published in excellent journals. She is also a novelist, a poet, a playwright. And now she is an interviewee here. But before all that, here is a taste of her work, with her permission.

She Wanted a Dog
 Her daughter was shy and reclusive. Her husband had wanted a son. Her family seemed downtrodden and anxious. They were a small family of three—fastidious. She thought about the idea of bringing home something furry with hot breath that didn’t come with an elaborate set of instructions and warranty options. She pictured her husband and her daughter at the beach with it, throwing it a Frisbee. The agile dog catching it in his mouth and running, running, running. Her family battling their brittle nature, chasing each other on the sand. The three of them laughing over the brown paw prints on the beige rug after a walk with the dog. They could care less, they would love that dog so much. She could see it in her mind and even smell the dog on her hands. She also knew she was lying to herself. She remembered how it had been hard on their relationship when she had rescued a parakeet during their courtship. He hated knowing the miserable bird was captive in their one room apartment, watching. Fucking became strange and self-conscious. As predicted, the bird became quiet and lost most of its feathers. Finally, she gave it to a cab driver out of desperation. They didn’t break up, but they never spoke of it again. 

VG: Love it! And I love the quote about your work from Frederick Barthelme  “Meg Pokrass writes like a brain looking for a body. Wonderful, dark, unforgiving.” ! So - tell me a little about you, and where writing fits into your life.

  • I have worked at home for the last 20 years doing corporate consulting. Writing has always been something I’ve had in my life. I have worked privately with a few writing mentors… however, I was often blocked. The worst block was during an extended illness. When I recovered, and my energy returned (about 5 yrs ago now) I discovered flash fiction was growing in venues through online publications, such as Smokelong, elimae, Flashquake, Storyglossia, and Hobart. I decided to try my hand at little stories which my poems had always felt similar to. Blocks and inhibitions went away when I found my voice in flash. Ecstatically, I wrote a ton, submitting to magazines in quantity and I suppose, rather fearlessly. In my then community of poets, eyebrows lifted. My pieces began to be published and a few poets in my poetry group were appalled that I was writing flash and publishing on line. It felt like becoming a stripper! Feeling their disapproval made me even more determined to succeed at publishing my work.
VG: Wow. isn't it funny, how others sometimes try to undermine what we do? Luckily they are few and far between. How does writing fit into your life now?

  • Writing defines my life. I’m terribly glued to it. Currently I am co-writing a screenplay which was commissioned from my novella “The Sticky Lust of Hummingbirds.” with screenwriter Graham Gordy. I am writing a lot these days, fueled and inspired by working with a writer I admire more than any other. I am the most fulfilled, creatively, that I have ever been. I spend days reading, editing, interviewing, writing, doing animal chores, driving my kid Molly (15 yrs old) to where she needs to go, maintaining a home with 6 animals and 3 humans living inside it.
VG: Tell me about writing this collection? How long did it take you? How did you decide which pieces to include and which to leave out?

  • Writing the collection took around a year-and-a-half.  Choosing was simple: I put in my favorite pieces, 90% of which had been published.
VG: Damn Sure Right is, as the title suggests, a collection of raw, strong
writing, flashes in which characters and their lives are conjured in a few
sentences, with many finely wrought layers of emotion, and conflict. Sexual
experience features large, especially early sexual experience.

  • “He didn’t need to hurt her, damn sure right,” are words a good Samaritan (in the title story) says to the cops. The good Samaritan is an African American woman who had been hiding to protect herself while witnessing a mugging. When safe she comes out to help pick up the pieces. This utterance meant many different things to me as someone who had been mugged (that is the only truly autobiographical story in the collection) so I grabbed onto it. Regarding sexuality: Sex is an enormous part of living; dormant or active. In our formative years it seems in many ways that sexuality defines us early; Who do we fall for? Who falls for us? What is our most vulnerable feeling? Who do we want never to hurt, and how inevitably do we hurt them? Who takes advantage of our innocence? In many ways we are never more alive than when directly facing this part of life. All of it interests me.
VG: A while back you kindly invited me to be a visiting editor on Fictionaut.
Tell me about setting up this online writers hub, and why you felt the need
to have occasional visiting editors.
  • Many exceptional stories on Fictionaut were (and are still not) receiving reads or  favorites.This was proven immediately by the 7 or so visiting editors like yourself, just looking at the incoming stories posted in a day’s time. As in any virtual community, the “popular kids” (the most active and supportive in terms of the sites currency which is the “favorite”) are the ones who, for better or worse, have their stories most read and favorite and are routinely up at the top of the “recommended” chain.  It does not always reflect the quality of the writing.  Administrators at Fictionaut felt it made sense to bring in this fun check and balance.

VG: Brilliant. We've all been in these groups where, if you are not in the in-crowd, or don't say what writers want to hear, you are sidelined. Pack behaviour. Well done for trying to rectify the imbalance.      What are you working on now?

  • I’ve been commissioned to co-write a screenplay based on my novella “The Sticky Lust of Hummingbirds,” along with seasoned screenwriter Graham Gordy who recently completed co-writing  the TV series “Rectify” for Sundance. Always writing stories, and so… working on my third collection of stories. And I’m conducting interviews for the Fictionaut-Five, for BLIP MAGAZINE (I just completed interviewing the brilliant author Bobbie Ann Mason) and at Caroline Leavitt’s blog I have a new feature called UNCAGED INTERVIEWS. For that feature, I’m right now interviewing singer Lucy Wainright Roche. Additionally, I continue to serve as senior associate editor for Rick Barthelme’s BLIP, have a role as associate producer for  the documentary “From Ghost Town to Havana,” by Eugene Corr, and I run Press 53’s 53-word weekly prompt contest. 
VG: Not exactly a couch potato, Ms Pokrass! Makes me feel dizzy.  Is there an overall message you’d like readers to take away - a sort of ‘this is Meg Pokrass’ message?

  • That’s a hard one. I’m quite interested in life’s random and disproportionate outcomes… how we skate between good and bad luck, timing and circumstance. I’m very interested in luck. Many of my stories are about people coping with difficult conditions and the lack of luck. Message: (if there is one) I feel it is so important to believe that, no matter how powerless one feels at times, there is always salvation in rediscovering ones imagination.  Most of my stories deal with the internal urgency to escape our bodies and soar.
VG: Thank you so much, Meg. Damn Sure Right can be purchased from the usual suspects, and is a roller-coaster of a ride, a collection of strong, memorable flashes, 90% of which have been published. Finally, here is another piece, with Meg's permission.

 Ma says stand back while she strikes the match, lighting the Wedgewood stove. There is an end-of-the-world whoosh as gas and flame mate—omelets out of scraps are keen, she says, sucking a Menthol—arranging button mushrooms as eyes, red onion slices into tight little smiles. At dinner, my sister’s hair hangs like a thick curtain around her face. Sometimes I’ll poke through it, whispering, how much for your last three bites? A dollar, she’ll say. Ma can even make a piece of cooked cow look lovely, we both agree, trying to raise two children on her own. My sister excuses herself for the bathroom after dinner. Mom and I look at each other as the sink hisses, then the angry toilet joins the music. We pass the time by inventing situations, playing two truths and a lie. 

Meg Pokrass is the author of Damn Sure Right, a collection of flash fiction from Press 53. Her short novel, Card Houses, has recently been selected for a screenplay adaptation.Her work has appeared in over 150 literary journals. She serves as Senior Editor for Frederick Barthelme's BLIPMAGAZINE (formerly Mississippi Review), and lives near the ocean in San Francisco with her husband, daughter, and seven animals. 

Monday 27 August 2012

Four gifts from Wales

  • First gift comes from the terrific Lampeter Reviewthe online magazine of the Lampeter Creative Writing Centre (part of the University of Wales, Trinity St David.) who have published the very first small extract from the next novel, Kit, which is a sequel and a prequel to The Coward’s Tale. I think. Hope. Trust. Fingers crossed. 

Here’s the start of the extract: 

MAMETZ WOOD July 10th 1916
We were to advance in quick time in eight waves and all Harris could talk about was his broken tooth. He talked strangely bright -  “I have a broken tooth, Sir. Sir - my tooth, and it will be aching before too long,” and someone said to shurrup, it would be alright that tooth, and we could pull the rest out if he liked, after. “After what?” Harris said, standing facing the sandbags like the rest of us, laughter all around like we were waiting for a friendly...
Here is a link to the magazine PDF, where you can read the rest. (Contributors get a print copy, and rather lovely it is too) - Kit is on pages 79 - 81 inc. 

  • Second gift comes from The New Welsh Review and a reviewer called Robert Walton, who, he tells me, is doing a PhD in CW at Cardiff Uni, researching the contemporary Welsh novel in English - a review of The Coward’s Tale.  I couldn’t be happier to read lines such as:

It is a paradox of Welsh writing in English that the person arguably considered the greatest of our writers, Dylan Thomas, is the one whose influence everyone tries to shake off(... )The Coward’s Tale is remarkable because Gebbie has taken up the baton passed on to Welsh writing by Dylan Thomas and produced a d├ębut novel that is powerful in its storytelling, touching in its view of small-town life, and bold in its stylised language..
       The comparisons with Under Milk Wood could easily lead to the view that The Coward’s Tale is derivative (...)(her) success, however, lies in the fact that she has dared to pick up a tradition in Welsh storytelling and developed it (...) The effect, both ancient and modern, at times struck me as lying somewhere between that of the Bible and the prose of Niall Griffiths or Cormac McCarthy.
This novel should certainly stir a debate about the relationship of twenty-first century fiction from Wales to its heritage from the 40s and 50s. 
 If you are not wanting to throw up at my boundless joy at this, you can read the whole review here:

Ty Newydd

Across the garden to the sea
  • Third gift comes in the form of a wonderful poetry course at Ty Newydd, the writers' centre of Wales, based in the house Lloyd George had built towards the end of his life, in Llanystumdwy, it was brilliantly tutored by Pascale Petit  and Daljit Nagra with a visit from Karen McCarthy Woolf. I've written poetry for a while, had some publications, and even been in the final lists for a comp or two - but I don't know much about why good is good, and not so good is bad - if you see what I mean.  When I read a good poem, I know it's good. But assess my own stuff? Pah!  I think I am getting closer to things as a result of the course, and have started on a systematic submissions programme. Watch this space... 
                    By the way, there is a stonkingly good museum in the village, dedicated to the life and achievements of Lloyd George. Did you know he was brought up by a shoemaker, his uncle, after the death of his father? No neither did I. Did you know we have him to thanks for the old age pension? No, neither did I.

The old Dr Williams' School main building 

  • Fourth and final gift - I went back to Dolgellau, to  Dr Williams', my old school, where I spent five of my teen years. Really strange and wonderful, especially as the school closed five years after I left - it is now a tertiary college. We (I went with an old school buddy) were taken round our old building - and my goodness - very little has changed, really. Some updating of windows,  some new ceilings, but it's all there. Here are a few pics - starting with the very window in the then sick wing, out of which, when I had chicken pox, I was found leaning, dangling knitting wool 30 feet to the ground. And a friend was discovered attaching sweets to the other end, shouting 'Rapunzel Rapunzel, bring up your hair...' Ahem. 

Saturday 18 August 2012

'ROOK' by Jane Rusbridge

A few weeks ago, I was enthralled by a new novel, 'Rook' by Bloomsbury stable-mate Jane Rusbridge.  One of those novels I just couldn't put down, Rook is a wonderful mix of intriguing story, history, present day, gorgeous is part of the blurb:
Nora has come home to the Sussex coast where, every dawn, she runs along the creek path to the sea. In the half light, fragments of cello music crash through her mind, but she casts them out – it’s more than a year since she performed in public. There are memories she must banish in order to survive: a charismatic teacher with gold-flecked eyes, a mistake she cannot unmake. At home her mother Ada is waiting: a fragile, bitter woman who distils for herself a glamorous past as she smokes French cigarettes in her unkempt garden. 

In the village of Bosham the future is invading. A charming young documentary maker has arrived to shoot a film about King Cnut and his cherished but illegitimate daughter, whose body is buried under the flagstones of the local church. As Jonny disturbs the fabric of the village, digging up tales of ancient battles and burials, the threads lead back to home and Ada and Nora find themselves face to face with the shameful secrets they had so carefully buried.

Jane Rusbridge lives in coastal West Sussex. Her husband is a farmer and they have five children. When her youngest child started school, Jane returned to university where she was the recipient of the Philip Lebrun Prize for Creative Writing. She has been an Associate Lecturer at the University of Chichester since the late 90s. She is the author of The Devil’s Music and Rook.

Jane has kindly nattered to me about 'Rook', her brilliant second novel -  

  • Hi Jane! I am always intrigued by the writing process - did you have the idea for Rook from the start, or did it evolve in the writing? 

Jane: The uniting thread - people connected in some way by their secrets - remained hidden at first. Rook began as a mass of ideas, tangled, subterranean and muddy. From underground, characters and their stories pushed up, persistent – too many, too fast. Stories came from many sources: oral and local myth, a friend’s tragedy, an historical mystery, friends’ elderly parents, and a sensational newspaper story. Melodrama was a concern. Where to start? Were these stories linked or not? I got in a terrible muddle. Once I began writing random scenes to find my way in the dark, associative links gradually came to the surface. 

  • Research - how did you approach your research? And I’m sure lots of writers are interested to know this - how much did you decide to leave out? 

Jane: I started with rooks and the cello, then moved on to read tabloid newspaper stories, church archives, parts of the Waltham Chronicles, books and pamphlets on 1066, the Bayeux Tapestry and the burial place of Harold II. I talked to women who’ve had an experience similar to Nora’s and visited ‘retirement homes’. All this reading and research provided the mulch from which the various storylines grew, but my memory for ‘facts’ is quite poor, so I often needed to go back to select necessary information rather than decide what to leave out. My creative process zigzags in this way, between research and writing, while the novel is redrafted several times.

I’m not a historian, but with research came the understanding that there are as many versions of ‘what happened’ as there are historians, and the realisation that nobody actually knows how Harold II died or where he is buried. Research for a novel is a very different process from research for an academic essay; ‘facts’ can be discarded, ultimately, to fit the truth of the narrative. I could pick and choose, make up my own version and I got carried away in a late draft. My editor at Bloomsbury, Helen Garnons-Williams, highlighted an off-loading of too much historical material, an imbalance in the penultimate section – the classic ‘info-dump’. It had to be cut back significantly. I now realise this was novel #3 bursting out, in the wrong place. 

  • There are so many layers in Rook -  without giving away plot, Ada it seems to me is balanced by Eva, Harry is the foil for perhaps Isaac and certainly Jonny, and Nora is caught in the middle, like a bird in a cage to some extent of her own making. How did you approach the creation of this mesh - and how much came about during the editing process?

Jane: The ‘mesh’ developed untidily of its own accord and then was shaped by the idea that people are connected through their stories and secrets. During redrafting, relationships and characters were altered and, in a couple of cases, cut out altogether. 

Your description of Nora like ‘a bird trapped in a cage of her own making’ is very close to my sense of her situation when I started writing, and I was soon aware Harry should be the one to enable her release. One early problem was working out Nora’s motivation: did she, or did she not want her ‘secret’ to be unearthed? Because, of course, the only way she can escape her ‘cage’ is by facing her fear.

  • The writer’s love of and respect for the earth is palpable. Do you want to say something about this? 

Jane: Several reviewers have commented on the way landscape features in my writing. My imagination does latch on to observational detail with some ferocity, but for me the subject matter of both novels demands this. In The Devil’s Music, Andrew is haunted by a childhood memory and has a dread of the wet sand he associates with a traumatic event. When he returns to the seascapes of his childhood he has to tackle this phobia. For someone has lived close to the sea for most of my life, the beach is where I am most ‘at home’, so Andrew’s viewpoint – alien to mine - was interesting to imagine. 

Rook concerns our complex relationship with earth, from the mud of Anglo Saxon battle fields, the building blocks of our homes, farming and the way it has shaped our landscape, to historical artefacts discovered beneath the soil, churchyards and burials. I wanted imagery to suggest the relentless power of nature’s recurring cycles – life and death, tides, seasons – not simply to present rural Sussex as pretty and pleasant. The quote from Heaney’s ‘The Herbal’ at the beginning of the book was chosen because the poem, and Human Chain as a whole, expresses what I wanted to capture in Rook, human frailty and the demands of the past, set amongst ancient ditches and fields.    

  • Rooks! Were you fascinated by them already? The descriptions of the young bird, and how it moves, and lives alongside humans is rivetting - is this from personal experience?
Jane: No. I actively dislike birds in captivity. Rooks were an entirely new obsession - a ‘gift’ from the murky part of my mind – and at first I had no idea why I began to notice them. I read Mark Cocker’s Crow Country and went ‘rooking’ in Norfolk. Standing beneath thousands and thousands of rooks coming in to roost was one of the most uplifting experiences of my life. I knew immediately it had to be the final scene of the novel. Then, when I saw the bird etched on the memorial stone for King Cnut’s daughter in Bosham church, I understood why the ‘gift’ of rooks had been thrown my way.

The only rook I’ve touched is a dead one, which my daughter came across earlier this year. Stroking those beautiful feathers after so long imagining them was very poignant. Much of the detail came from talking with people who had kept pet rooks in the past, from reading Esther Woolfson’s wonderful Corvus: A Life with Birds, and having lunch in the garden with a half tame blackbird who, eventually, grew brave enough to take a piece of cheese from my fingers. That blackbird taught me a lot about how birds move, around humans.    

  • Cnut and Harold and Cnut’s daughter - how much of that thread is invention, and how much is fact? Or maybe you don't want to say?
Bosham Church in the Bayeaux Tapestry

Jane: It’s a mixture. Two ancient stone coffins were uncovered in Bosham church during the 50s, and there are photographs, much as I describe them in Rook. The story about King Cnut’s drowned daughter is a village tradition hundreds of years old, but there’s no sound historical evidence to support it. Bosham is pictured on the Bayeux Tapestry, and Harold II’s family had a manor there. The idea that the second coffin is Harold’s belongs to a local historian whose pamphlet presenting his argument can be bought in the church. It makes a fascinating read. And there once was a film company interested exhuming the graves …

  •  Finally - if you could have one scene from Rook, as a painting or other artwork, which would it be - and who would you like to make that artwork?

Jane: It would be the final scene, rooks at dusk somewhere in the South Downs, by Eric Ravilious 

  • Great - so here is an Eric Ravilious, of Mount Caburn near Lewes - and then a gorgeous pic of rooks at dusk from a rather lovely blog. 

Mount Caburn, by Eric Ravilious

Rooks at dusk from

  • Thank you for answering all my questions so generously, especially as the birth of grand-babies, and family weddings have been taking up your energies! I wish 'Rook' oodles of good fortune in its flight. 

Saturday 4 August 2012

Lauri Kubuitsile's 'Anything for Money'

I'd like to welcome again, albeit belatedly, (this was meant to go up weeks ago and I forgot...) Lauri Kubuitsile. Lauri is a  smashing lady and also an award winning writer living in Botswana - however, we have managed to meet   in the flesh a few times on the occasions she has been to London and always have a riotous time! Among other prizes, last year she was shortlisted for the Caine Prize and I think that's why she was in London. 
Lauri  has fifteen or more books out there - I lose count. She has written non-fic books,  books for kids, teens and books for adults, and has now taken her first foray into the self publishing world by publishing three of the books in her Kate Gomolemo Mystery series at Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP): Murder for Profit, Anything for Money and Claws of a Killer

Lauri is giving us a peek into the third book in the series- Anything for Money. Here's the blurb:

 Detective Kate Gomolemo is not sure what to make of Helen Segole’s wild allegations. She’s claiming government ministers and high-ranking civil servants are behind the cold-blooded murder of her father, but Kate wonders if Helen is not confused by the grief she’s feeling.       Against her better judgment, Kate agrees to do some investigations and suddenly she’s swept into a high-rolling, dangerous game of power, greed and corruption. The people behind it will stop at nothing to get what they want. How many people will have to die before Kate finds Goitsemang Segole’s killers? How far can greed push a person?
Excerpt: Anything for Money, from Chapter 1

A rooster crowed, announcing the start of a new day. In the grey dawn, Goitsemang Segole sat on his back veranda, as he liked to do whenever he could, and looked out over the dark, ghostly shapes of the hills surrounding his home village of Shoshong. He was waiting with the hope that a new day brings. Since he was a boy he had loved waking up before the sun and waiting for its unhurried, grand arrival. He always felt a wash of excitement come over him as it peeked over the edge of the hills, flushing his small patch of the world with its warm golden light.He wondered what this new day would bring. Would he meet an old friend, long forgotten but still held dear in the recesses of his complicated mind? Would it be a sad day filled with memories of his wife, now five years dead, who he missed with an aching need? Would he have a new idea, one that he’d never thought of before that would make sense of so many things? One never knew. It was all a big, exciting gamble. And that’s what made each and every sunrise a celebration for Goitsemang.Goitsemang might have held this sunrise a little longer in the gentle folds of his heart had he known it would be his last. By the time the sun sank into the western hills, Goitsemang Segole would lie dead on the ground in front of his tidy house, his blood slowly seeping into the ancient Kgalagadi sands. But that would happen later. He still had a full day of life ahead. He reached for his cup of coffee and took the last sip as the sun finally pulled itself above the horizon. He bent down and patted his long time companion, Shumba, a Setswana mix dog, tall and lean, brindle brown in colour. “That’s it, Shumba, time to get to work.”Goitsemang headed for the back door of his house. Inside, he found his daughter Helen standing at the kitchen sink. “Good morning, Daddy,” she greeted him. “How was the sunrise today?”

Off you go to Amazon Kindle Direct - you have three mysteries by a superb writer  to choose from. perfect summer holiday reading!