Friday 16 November 2012

Welcome Jon Pinnock, and his Scott Prize-winning 'Dot Dash'

I am thrilled to crash in to a blog tour in celebration of Dot Dash, the long-awaited (in some circles, mine for one...) Scott Prize-winning collection from Jon Pinnock. 
        I thought I'd start with one of the worst questions any writer can be asked - 'Where did the idea for xxx come from' - because you usually can't answer that. 'From my head. Duh...' is the standard reply. However -  structure is another matter, methinks, so I can ask it with impunity. This collection is alternating tiny tiny stories (and I mean tiny - one is reproduced with permission below...) and pieces of 'normal length (what's that?) short fiction. 
       When I was a kid, I loved Roald Dahl. Actually, when I almost grew up, I still loved the stories of Roald Dahl - and I think Jon has the same magic about his work.  So there you go - Jon Pinnock is Roald Dahl's natural successor.  Quote.
        The work feels so 'nutty' and supremely creative, free-and-easy - and yet something unexpected is always round the corner, waiting. It is very clever stuff, an absolute joy to read. Dare I say it's perfect for Christmas stockings? No? Oh OK, I won't... 

Hi Jon. 
 1. The obvious worst question is ‘where did the idea for tiny tiny pieces interspersed with larger pieces come from?’ 
First of all, I like things to have some kind of structure. I'd been playing around with tiny stories on Twitter (and elsewhere) for a while, initially just to see if I could. I was quite pleased with the way some of them had turned out and I thought it might be nice to incorporate them into my putative collection. It turned out I had enough to alternate the two types of story, so I now had my structure.
2. Do you think a very tiny story can ever hold the weight of a  full length short?  
 Sometimes, yes. For one thing, a good tiny story - like, say, the classic six-word Hemingway one - is inherently memorable, because you can literally remember the whole thing without much effort. More importantly, because of its concision, the reader has to work a bit harder to engage with it, and that makes it ultimately quite satisfying. The other thing is, sometimes how much you like a full-length story can come down to just one line. A tiny story isolates that line.
3. My favourite short short short is ‘The Experiment’. Please can I reproduce it here?
Of course!
The Experiment
Professor the said, "surprise a was that, well." Backwards run to began time, on machine the switched they when." 

              4. Do the shorter pieces here serve several purposes? What?
The primary purpose is to give the collection its structure. I think there's maybe also a sense of    giving the reader a little break between courses - to refresh the palette if you like. If I were to be honest, the marketeer in me would also see them as an opportunity for differentiation - a bit of a talking point, perhaps.
 5. Your work remind me of Roald Dahl - snappy pieces, often amusing, then suddenly, a turn in the journey that takes me somewhere unexpected. ‘After Michaelangelo’ for example. Do you have a relationship with the wonderful work of RD? 
Oh yes. I used to read a LOT of Roald Dahl short stories back in the day. He is, I know, a bit unfashionable these days, and the idea that every story has to have some kind of twist in it is regarded as a bit naff. I can see that, but at the same time I do like a story to come to some kind of conclusion, to have some kind of point to it, and I don't see any harm in a well-executed twist as long as it doesn't come out of nowhere. One of my favourite recent examples is "Far North" by Sara Maitland, which performs the most extraordinarily breathtaking handbrake turn - and then you go back over the story and realise that everything's been pre-planned without you realising.
6. I love the way you can tell a story that is on one level entertaining - but which holds real weight. ‘Return to Cairo’ for example. Or ‘rZr and Napoleon’ to name but two. When you start a story, is it ‘inspired’ in some way by something you want to say? Or does the ‘something’ just appear?
The theme almost always emerges in the writing. If I were to sit down and think "I want to write a story about XXX", it would turn out to be thoroughly boring. A good story should start out as a blank canvas onto which the writer's prejudices, worries and convictions get painted, almost unconsciously.
7. What does it mean to you to have won The Scott Prize? 
So many things. First of all, it's wonderful to have a collection published at all, let alone one with "Winner of the Scott Prize" printed on the cover. And it's especially wonderful to have my name on a book published by Salt. When I started out writing seriously a few years back, all the best collections seemed to be published by them - including one about a glass bubble, I seem to remember - and it became my ambition to join their list. But I guess the most important thing is validation, though. Sometimes you need someone to say to you, yes, you can do this.
8. Sticking with competitions - you have many many competition credits - what is it about your work that sends it to the top 10% regularly, do you think,?
Ha. You should see the list of the ones that have flopped! Having seen things from the judge's position as well now, I guess there are a few things that I've done - almost unconsciously - to make my stories stand out a little. I always try to make the title intriguing, for starters. But I think the most important thing is that I tend to come at things from a slightly unusual angle, often with a bit of humour. It's surprising how few short stories there are that are prepared to risk a laugh along the way.
9. Loads of good luck with this collection - and is it too soon to ask what’s next from the Pen of Pinnock?
Thank you! Well, what's next is an odd non-fiction project that is currently out on submission, and I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen with that. I'm trying to work out what happens next. I've probably got half of another short story collection in the can, but it's going to be a few years before anyone lets me publish that. I've also got nearly enough poems for a collection, but  - well, that's not really going to happen, is it? More seriously, I'm about 5000 words into a reasonably serious scifi-ish novel and I really am going to have to decide whether to go any further with it or if I'm going to try something else instead. I have quite a few novels hidden away in a metaphorical drawer that haven't made it past the first chapter or so, and I suspect this may turn out to be another one.

Whatever it is, I shall look forward! Good luck. 
So - Dot Dash has its own website, from which you may purchase signed copies:
Here is the Salt Publishing website, from which you can purchase many many excellent books: 
Here is Jon's blog:

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Coming soonish - a visit from the author of 'Funderland'...

In the spirit of spreading the word... I want to talk about a writer called Nigel Jarrett, who I 'met' on Facebook.
Yes, I know, Facebook can be an utter waste of time. But occasionally it turns up good things. There is a group called The Welsh Short Story Network - I became a member suddenly, somehow - and that was nice. Interesting if spiky and oftentimes depressing debate occurs, in which I blunder about, putting my own point of view. No the short story market is not dead. Yes publishers are having a hard time selling them. We have to work hard too, don’t stop writing them, literary fiction is pretty dead, but it doesn’t mean we stop writing it, does it? What about these massive competitions suddenly? .... that sort of thing, guaranteed to attract a few snippy remarks. But debate is always A Good Thing, innit?
Anyhoo. One of said debaters was/is this writer called Nigel Jarrett. To my shame, I had not heard of him, or his collection Funderland, (Parthian). Well - I haven’t heard of a lot of writers - I’m no expert - but at one point, he listed the places his collection had been reviewed. The Guardian. The Independent. Hang on a minute. Why didn’t I know of this writer?  What had happened? I began to wonder what I was missing, whether he was hiding behind Offa's Dyke (now there's an image...) and ordered a copy. 

The blurb:
Driving to the seaside together are a young girl on the verge of womanhood, her mother and her stepfather with his son. But this is no ordinary trip. There's something sinister about Evan Charlton and all too soon the girl is plunged into a nightmare world that she cannot understand.This debut collection of short stories by award-winning writer and journalist Nigel Jarrett brings together places of violence, longing, helplessness and vivid remembrance, where characters must cope with the darker side of human relationships inside the seemingly cosy world of the family.These stories explore romance with tragedy, family with madness and the lives of people with a warm and tender humour.

Here are extracts from the reviews - there are links on the web page below:
The Guardian
' a music critic by profession, Jarrett has a marvellous ear... And the stand-out story, 'Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan', is an enigmatic study of a Japanese woman's displacement in rural Wales.' Alfred Hickling 
The Independent
'Nigel Jarrett's stories take seemingly ordinary or innocent situations and gently tease out their emotional complexity. Both 'Funderland' and 'A Point of Dishonour' confound expectations superbly...He's not afraid of unusual perspectives and his bravery is well rewarded in this unusual and sensitive collection.' Lesley McDowell
Planet Magazine
'Funderland, Nigel Jarrett's superb short story collection, demands the tribute of slow and careful reading [...] The revelation of these stories is the vast and subtle and inarticulate web that links and separates us all. Read them slowly, more than once, and learn.' 
New Welsh Review
'Funderland is an excellent first offering, giving a thought provoking series of wry, often wistful fresh angles on the fragility of relationships. Readers will want more, anticipating the emergence of a strong, telling voice in fiction from Wales.' Robert Walton
Now Robert Walton’s name I recognise - he was kind enough to review The Coward’s Tale for New Welsh Review too - with its US cover, somehow:
Funderland sounds like sounds something I will enjoy hugely. I’m waiting for this collection to arrive - and have invited Nigel Jarrett to talk about his work here, as and when. I'm afraid it will be more 'when' than 'as' - for a Hawthornden month will intervene - but there’s something nice for me and my reader to look forward to. I may bring you others from this network in due course. is Funderland on Parthian’s website.
and of course all good bookshops will be able to order a copy for you. 

I was going to end with a eulogy to The Short Review  run by the lovely Tania Hershman, and dedicated to reviews of short story collections and nothing else - and I see that its hiatus might be coming to a close... yippee! 

Saturday 10 November 2012

Vienna Writers' Studio - different music, different openings.

1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th November. (Re-) Start that Novel! A four-morning workshop in Vienna.

The first question is: Which is easier - to lead a workshop for  ten writers, or three? It sounds a no-brainer - until you factor in the following: Writer 1 wanting to start a genre novel, happy to write in English, mother tongue German. A list of ideas, all different.  Nothing started. Writer 2 is already working on a memoir in German, but her spoken/listening English is fine. First person narrative. And Writer 3 - English speaking and writing, but who understands and speaks good German. She has a hugely complex novel that has been on the chocs for a long time and is not finished.  If you do a word count, it already sounds like a paperback's worth,  has a need for clarity, order, structure.  Revisiting. A need for a game-plan.
        The second question - how can a single workshop series deliver the goods for three completely different practitioners, three different pieces of work?

The answer seemed to be to address their specific needs by giving them all individual time when necessary, eminently possible with this small number. By using group sessions to focus on craft issues which would be useful to everyone.  To devise exercises that might spark something different for everyone. And by making good use of the fact that we were four brains, four writers - harnessing group intelligence, even though I was the one who was lacking in language skills.

I'm obviously not going to give away what my writers were working on, but by the end of Day 1 a lot had happened. Given a few pertinent questions to address, Writer 1 was away with her first novel, making notes, planning, exploring,  having fun. Writer 3 was considering the question of timelines - as the seeds of something important were already in the work, but hidden. Once light was let in, there was more than one 'Aha!' moment.  Interestingly, after one great exercise, Writer 2 had discovered a rather important character had been waiting in the wings to contribute massively to her memoir. A different voice.
        The different voice was speaking, as was the main character, in German. It was important for us all, me included, to listen, to see what came across - and so Writer 2 shared this new voice over the last couple of days.
        Group feedback in workshops/writing groups can be a sticky one. Encouraging writers to share new work with people they don't know, people who comment on unedited/unpolished work from an unknown level of expertise, can be the wrong thing to do - at best it may be useless, at worst, potentially damaging for the writer.  Beneficial for the commenter, maybe...
       However, a couple of days in, the group had gelled. We all knew a little more about each other and our work. Then,  we discussed and agreed a form of analytical feedback and the writer sharing their work could request specifics. In this way, we controlled a process that can easily go awry. Purely subjective broad-sweep comments did not occur - neither did comments designed to say more about the commenter's 'brilliance', as opposed to the work in question. Ahem. We've all met that one, yes?
        One of the specifics for Writer 2 was obviously 'How well differentiated are these voices?' I was interested to see whether I would pick up anything that differentiated this from the original voice - and indeed - whereas I would not 'understand' the content, whether I would 'understand' the underlying music of the new voice, hearing it as  different to the first.  This process reminded me a little of "Poem in the space between languages" - my collaboration with Dutch poet Siennke de Rooij at the 2011 NAWE conference,  written up in Writing in Education, the NAWE magazine: (see pp 26 et seq)

Suffice it to say that in Vienna, the 'underlying music' of Writer 2's voices came across beautifully. They 'spoke' across the language divide. I heard different rhythms, different sounds, different inflexions, as the different vocabulary and level of maturity in each voice sang across the space. I listened to the other two German speakers addressing the questions (discussions were in English) in a professional, tempered manner, hearing them giving the sort of feedback I would be pleased to receive myself. Reflecting that the voice was indeed well-differentiated. That the vocabulary, the rhythms, the tone, felt 'right' for the speaker.
        Fascinating stuff indeed. And by the end of day 4, Writer 2 had progressed a long way with this voice - writing in her own time as well as in the workshops. Indeed, the new voice had opened up avenues she had not thought of for the memoir. Different perspectives, enriching, layering, bringing more than just surface interest.

Writer 1 wanted to begin her novel. So her 'homework' after day 1 was to write three different openings. Start in different places, use different voices. Experiment. Enjoy. And we would give her feedback the next day, saying which opener held the most potential, and why. First, we discussed what a good opening does. How hard it has to work. What does it have to do, ideally? We ended up with quite a list. Writer 1 then shared the first two versions, both of which were fine... but...then came version 3. No contest! It was as though the other two had been written in the very early stages of a novel's development - whereas this one - the voice, the characters, where she had chosen to begin, the level of intrigue, and more than that, the confidence/assuredness, was palpable. We all gave her good feedback to that effect.
         It turned out that the first two openings had been written as homework, the night before. That they had 'felt' sticky, forced. The third had been written when she woke up, that morning - and had flowed perfectly. There's something about sleeping on your ideas that makes them appear fully clothed, sometimes!
Writer 3 has written about the workshops herself - so rather than repeat what she said, here is her version! 

and here - a photo of  the novel... finally printed out, on the floor in scenes, ready for labelling, moving about, rejigging, playing, sorting timelines...

So - three happy novelists - much further on with their projects than when they started - and that's great!

With Sylvia Petter at Shakespeare and Company
 The few days in Vienna also included an evening reading at Shakespeare and Company English bookshop...
Sylvia poses interesting questions during the reading!
Thanks so much to Sylvia Petter for her invitation to teach - for putting me up, for organising the reading and radio interview - and for being a general good egg and brilliant company!

Added: Writer 1 has sent me this lovely feedback:
I participated in Vanessa’s workshop as writer 1. Thanks to Vanessa’s help my thoughts are clearer now and I have a better idea of what I want to write and how I’m going to do it. I enjoyed the workshop immensely as we all got the opportunity to share our ideas and doubts. Furthermore, we received precious feedback and advice from Vanessa and our fellow writers. Thanks a million for your encouragement and support, Vanessa, and for giving us such a wonderful time!
Can't ask  for more.

Tuesday 6 November 2012


7th November 2011 seems a long long time ago - but it is only a year. An awful lot of firsts have happened since then: 

  • a real first birthday party for a gorgeous granddaughter, 
  • a successful first year completed at Newcastle University for my younger son, 
  • my first trip to Athens thanks to the British Council, celebrating the launch of an anthology, 
  • a first translation of my work into Greek. 
  • I went to Ghent for the first time. 
  • Had my first commissions from BBC radio -  a short short and an appearance on Radio 3’s The Verb, a short story on Radio 4. 
  • I attended my first residential poetry course back in August, led by Pascale Petit and Daljit Nagra, 
  • had my first acceptance from The SHOp in Ireland for a poem I’d sharpened on said course.  
  • I read my first novel by Julian Barnes - loved it - started a flurry of finding and reading his others. 
  • Just been teaching in Vienna for the first time, staying with a writer I’ve ‘known’ on the net for years but have just met for the first time, the indomitable Sylvia Petter.  

All those firsts - and it just goes to prove that life goes on, even after your first novel comes out with a big publisher!
UK paperback

UK hardback

US trade paperback
More firsts. The Coward’s Tale was my first novel. I had reviews  and interviews in the national press for the first time.  I had a book come out in the USA for the first time. A book by meself was chosen as a book of the year (Financial Times, thanks to critic and writer A N Wilson) for the first time. 

Guess what? Nothing changed.

Strange, maybe we writers new to the world of publishing think things are going to change? A bit like waking up the morning after losing your virginity - you expect the world to be different (if I can remember back that far...!) and it just isn’t. Everything looks the same as the night before, and so do you. Ha! 

Oh sure, for a very few writers the world changes hugely.  But for the vast majority - take it from me - the world keeps on turning at exactly the same pace as before.  

So - would I change anything? Not at all. It's been an interesting year, and I have learned a lot.
Did it go as I expected? No!

What advice might I give myself, if I could have a quiet word with ‘Me, a year back’? It would go something like this:

Dear Me,             
           The world of books is a vast and complex one. Your book will fall into the maelstrom like a drop of rainwater into a sea, and become part of something exciting, ever-moving and unpredictable. For all the wonderful efforts of the professional marketers and publicity people, your efforts will be important too. Don’t take your eye off the ball. 
           Don’t expect anything. Be thankful for every review you get, whether from a professional reviewer in the press or from a kind reader on a blog or a website. Don’t keep dates free because there is a big literary festival on that week, and you might just... You probably won’t. 
          Do your best by this book, just as you did when writing it. Start something new, and gradually, gradually, transfer your allegiance. Write another novel. Write poetry. Make a cheeseboard.
                     With lots of love,