I died on my arse in Studio 95

As first of the workshop readers, I should have warmed up the audience for the subsequent authors. Instead I cooled them down. The other readers from Willesden and Harrow workshops were of a high standard, I thought. We were introduced by Dale Arndell, editor of Newspeak, a literary magazine linked to the workshops.

Preethi Nair told us about the marvellous adventure she went on for two and a half years to self-publish her first book, risking destitution, humiliation, and faced with unforeseen nightmares at every stage. Her book Gypsy Masala is about “following your dreams” and sure enough, she ended up with a bestseller and a book deal. Everything about Preethi was impressive, not least her faultless reading of the very interesting first chapter of her book “A Hundred Shades of White.”

Siobhan Curham is another literary star to boast for North West London. Terrific character evocation in her readings from her new book, The Scene Stealers. She introduced four very different characters and how they begin to interact, in a setting based around a fictional grubby video shop in Ruislip Manor. She has a wonderful turn of phrase, for example in her description of a broken gate on only one hinge hanging like a child’s loose tooth, a small tug away from the tooth fairy.

Wonders have ceased

After the last day of the Small Wonder short story festival, I can now:

a) Tell you what the facts are behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.*

b) Confirm the legendary arrogance of our greatest (British) short story writer”.** I think he thought I was an idiot to choose ‘Sleep With Me’ as the book to get signed, but I didn’t get a chance to tell him it was the only one I didn’t already have. I still like the bastard, and his kids seem normal enough. They were helping at the book signing table.

After the accompanied reading, which was superb, one of them (about 5) asked a question from the front row of the audience, and the presenter brought him up onto the stage. The question was, ‘Was that about me?’ It was very sweet, and beautiful I thought. The other two kids asked questions as well, the youngest was last. The story was about him.

c) Tell you all about sex and death in women’s short story writing. Apparently it’s either all vicariously ranting at some unnamed ex while pretending only to be watching slasher movies for research purposes, or writing commercial serial-killer crap and trying to pass it off as serious writing by quoting your university degree.

The biggest “hit” was William Trevor on Saturday. More people bought his books, a huge line of people.

Yann Martel seemed a bit of a cold fish. Very controlled, terribly intelligent and intellectual. Dropping philosophers’ names. He tried to tell us why he liked the short story, and I’m not sure if he realised it or not but he ended up telling us why he didn’t like at all really. I don’t think he’d know a real short story if it bit him on the arse. I didn’t notice any rush to buy his books afterwards.

*In “The facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios”*** by Yann Martel, the narrator urges the idea of co-writing a book on a friend who is dying of AIDS, and to further bore him and us, decides that a good way of doing this is to choose one fact from every year of the twentieth century, a mythical family and a location. Within that framework, they are to write something worthwhile. It’s not enough to die of AIDS, without being tortured in this way, apparently. His next book is going to be about “The Holocaust”. Perhaps he will take 1 fact from every month of the war, a fictitious family and location, and take it from there.

**Hanif Kureishi.

***He wrote hundreds of short stories, he says – mastering the art, y’know – but this book only contains four, longish short stories. The creme de la creme – rich and thick.****

****Samuel Beckett lectured at Trinity College Dublin for a year, and described its intake as “the cream of Irish society. Rich and thick.” [Apocryphal. Ed.]

Small wonder

I read something at the Small Wonder short story “slam” tonight in Charleston, a stately home with literary (Bloomsbury set) connections near Lewes. I got on a shortlist of five, and according a good old clapometer reading of the audience, the winner was Sean Lusk, whom I know from the West Cork Literary festival, where he was also a prizewinner. His was the best story tonight. I ran into Sean and Clem Cairns from Fish Publishing and we tried the specially brewed Small Wonder beer. My round-buying is now in the red again.

Earlier I had the great privilege and edification of listening to William Trevor read, followed by the great merriment and joy of Alexei Sayle. Tomorrow I’m going to hear Hanif Kureishi with cello accompaniment, Yann Martel and some others. Looking forward to it.

Google: Japanese women for sale on eBay

I was searching for a poetry site to repair a dead link on my website. The site was called “Japanese Women Poets”. When I searched for it on Google, I got the following, listed alongside the results:

Discount Japanese Women
New & used selection. Japanese Women for sale.

Women For Sale
Low Priced Women. Big Selection!

Japanese Women Need Love
We want Nice guy to Love and go for date together.

Here, try it for yourself and let me know if they’re any good.*

*Well they’ve gone and fixed it, but not before I got this screenshot.

The Wholly Officious (2004)*

After J. Joyce

Myself unto myself will give
This name, Lord Justice Purgative.
I, who was hired to overlook
The quisling and elected crook,
Bringing to website and to telly
The mind of witty Machiavelli,
Lest Beeb in the attempt should err
Must here be my interpreter:
Wherefore receive now from my court
This most miraculous new report.
To enter Whitehall, sup with Blair,
Get sinecure or peerage there,
One positively needs by rights
To dress in wig and matching tights.
For every true-born British jurist
Advised by three wise monkeys is,
Who’ll savage any Junior Counsel
Who dares disturb his Privy Council,
Like him who costive makes a scene
Expending on the world his spleen.
Ruling the land by nod and wink
Of course deserves a decent drink.
But I must not accounted be
One of that woolly company–
With him who drinks just to forget
The penny that we’ll never get.
While they console him when he whinges
With yellow ties and Cornish fringes–
Or him who rises from his coffin
To vampirise our Bambi often —
Or she who thought that giving birth
In manacles was prisoners’ worth —
Or him who tramps his Texas ranch
And thinks he’s smarter than the French
But privately his pants would crap
If asked for Paris on the map —
Or him who rode on Roland Rat
And in the face of Justice spat
Though loved by all his employees
Refusing to kow tow on his knees–
Or him who thought that mushy peas
Were guacamole, and ‘Oh please,
Oh please,” cried, ‘lend me money
To buy a pad for me and Ronnie.’
Or him whose name is so immaculate
T’would make a saint himself ejaculate
That any sinner dared besmirch
A name as blessed as the church,
Although it’s known to dullest junkie
He’s only ever been a flunkie.
But all these gents and dames decreed
That I absolve their every deed,
So while they scheme their seamy schemes
I carry off their filthy streams.

* This is a bit of fun about the Hutton inquiry, and that was not funny at all. It was published in the Dublin ezine Electric Acorn, which no longer exists. They also published a short story, or what probably would be called flash fiction now, of mine called The Visitor. I’d almost forgotten.

Events on falling asleep

The other night just before I fell asleep something terrifying happened. I was awake and had just turned over onto my left side. It was like an epileptic fit or something, but I saw tiger pattern stripes and heard noise like a jet engine. In the throes of it I thought I was a goner, then it turned from all stripes to just two bands in the dark. There was a sensation as fearful as being swept away by a torrent, and trying to haul oneself out, then it stopped. An instant nightmare? Now that I describe it I’m thinking maybe it was like being attacked by a tiger and rolled over before something made it run away. I didn’t think that at the time.

Another time while lying on my right side, I felt my mind filled with an image of just snakeskin with marvellous scales writhing and glinting muted indescribable colours. It was only the body of a snake, or the sides of one. There might have been more than one snake, or it could have been something like a lizard or a what you might call a dragon. It was a vision I suppose, though really a dream while on the boundary of sleep. It was wasn’t frightening, just fascinating.

I mean I saw them with my eyes closed – they filled my field of vision. Just before I sleep most nights, I am jolted awake for another moment by the sound of someone calling my name, usually a close relative – my mother, father or one of my sisters. The sound is very real in my ears. On other occasions it will be a violent thought, that disturbs the impending slumber – an amputation or something like that. I wonder if anybody else has similar experiences? I’m almost sure they do.

At the West Cork literary festival


That was one of the best weeks of my life. I went to Bantry for the Short Story Workshop with David Means. It’s hard to summarise the five two-hour sessions in a few words. David is a great writer and it was worth the journey just to get a sense of what makes him tick, what he looks for in writing, and to spend time going over issues around short story writing and reading. His great enthusiasm for vivacity in language was a recurring theme, just the way that words can transport the reader, and referring to “Dreaming by the Book” (Elaine Scarey) how words can give us more of a three-dimensional image than we can achieve by sheer imagination. (Try to imagine the face of someone you know – it tends to be a two-dimensional image.) Primal words (chair, bed, sky… etc) have colossal power. We read and talked about the following stories: “Popular Mechanics” by Raymond Carver, “Sleepy” by Anton Chekhov, “Steady Hands at Seattle General” by Denis Johnson, “The Bucket Rider” by Franz Kafka, and “Pretty mouth and green my eyes” by J. D. Salinger. David was generous with his time, agreeing to read whatever any of us wanted him to look at overnight and gave us individual feedback. Each participant brought copies of one story that they wished to work on during the week, and we discussed a couple of them each day. The one I put forward was called The Silver Circle, and I got a load of interesting ideas to help solve what I felt were the problems with it. I have a couple of handouts here that we got, but I guess those are really David’s copyright stuff, but I will quote a little bit from one of them titled, “English 205 [David lectures at Vassar] A Few Things”:

9) Bring to the story your own moral and political agenda; your own sociological biases and of course your own tastes and desires in your reading habits (do not discard these things but allow them to strengthen in your reading; on the other hand–and this is somewhat paradoxical and certainly contradictory in that wonderful way we must have to approach art–discard everything you believe, take the opposite side.)

10) Always be aware of the evocation, the power of words, and the way tone produces feeling in you (the reader); never forget the power of primal words, and the abiding power that often arises from simplicity (or complexity that has been pared down to its simplest form.) ….


13) Never forget where you’re from, who you are, and what you will eventually stand for as a human.

14) Forget about the above (13), be dark, forget who you are, attempt to find some central truth in what you describe.

Over the five days, I recall (with the aid of some sketchy notes) we looked at:

– The process of writing – how different writers go about it – pre-writing, writing and revision. The place of the short story between the panorama of the novel and the moments of the poem. When writing feels impossible, maybe narrow the window, look at something smaller.

– Characterisation – writing in the voice of a teenager for example. That was an exercise we were given. How characters come to life when action is added, as opposed to purely descriptive writing. Describing somebody without introducing any actions produces a lifeless, uninteresting scene when compared to describing the same person performing some action.

– Setting – conjuring the sense of place, that is central to the sense of vivacity particularly in David Means’s own stories. Another exercise, to describe a place and somebody in some sort of a situation, probably dramatic. How the same place looks different depending on who is looking, and in what circumstances.

– The power of primal words, and the mythic, folk tales and the silence that speaks volumes. You don’t have to say much, the reader is drawn in by the power of words, as in The Bucket-Rider by Kafka for example. We hardly question the fact that the the narrator in The Bucket-Rider bounces down the stairs on an empty bucket, holding it by the handle and that it is so light it then floats up into the air, carrying him to the merchant to beg for coal. The words take us there without much ado by the writer. Rather more elaboration would merely detract from the evocation.

– Allowing ourselves to write and not holding back. On several occasions, David commented that some of us were “holding back.” He cautioned against holding back information in an attempt to create mystery for example.

In his own writing he has taken this to the extreme of adding parentethic explanations and footnotes, clarifying what the narrative is saying. In his interview with Powell’s (link above) he says that he is not fond of the post-modern games that some writers play, “except perhaps Borges.” He was able to pinpoint the part of a story for some of us, where he felt we “really started writing.” Sadly for me – or rather usefully for me – this was not until several pages into “Joseph” – a draft I gave him of the opening of a story in the first person. The part where he felt I started writing was a section starting with I hate the noise of drills in the morning. How are we supposed to sleep?. The rest he felt was in a non-fiction style, and he “wanted his fiction.” That is just a part of the feedback during the week.

The group in the workshop comprised several Americans, one English, and the rest Irish. There were 15 of us. Three of the group were shortlisted for the Fish Publishing short story prize, and had their stories in the anthology this year. Some of the work was of a high standard, and some of the participants were experienced writers.

As well as the short story and other workshops, there were free readings every day in the town library, from the likes of Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Johnston, David Means too, Paul Williams (author of The General), Malachy Doyle (children’s author), Tony Curtis (there is more than one, but this is the Dublin one with four books of poetry and a load of credits to his name), Mick Delap, and Ian Wild (has to be heard to be believed, a very funny writer and reader with a loud dramatic style.) I attended Roddy Doyle’s seminar on the novel too, and asked him what drove him, as he hardly needed the money – I guessed, he denied – was it to leave a legacy, or a historical document? We’d already heard that he was an atheist and did not believe in any afterlife. He said he was a socialist, former member of the short-lived Socialist Labour Party splinter from the Irish Labour Party, and that what drove him was the possibility of improving conditions for people, such as battered wives and others.

He said that people in America and other places tended to be disappointed when they met him and discovered that he was not a drunken Irish writer on the lines of a Brendan Behan, and while they were out being Irish and getting drunk, he was busily being German and writing efficiently. He said he once tried writing after coming in from a night out drinking, and it didn’t work. One gathered that he has a very stern opinion of drunkenness generally, and that might go some way to explaining his work in The Woman who Walked into Doors, etc. In his reading he read ten chapters without seeming to pause for breath, and held people’s interest all the way, and really had us banjaxed with laughter in the end. He read from a work-in-progress that is being written in 800-word sections (a serial) in a Dublin periodical. He said he doesn’t know in advance what’s going to happen, and that in one episode a character went upstairs to get a tennis racket and completely disappeared – he’d forgotten about him. It’s a science-fiction piece – his first – set in 2005, and has such funny little aspects as a street in Dublin called Trimble Street, mentioning the collapse of the Euro etc. (Too much use of “etc” – note to myself.) It concerns a test for Irishness that the government of the future wants to introduce. The minister tells the protagonist who is developing the test (which involves putting sensors on people and making them watch videos) that he is being given the task of making it seem easier to become Irish, while actually making it harder. It’s very funny.

As well as readings, there were book launches – a good chance to get free booze and sandwiches, but also very good to meet publishers and authors. For example at the launch of A West Cork Life by Tina Pisco, I met the publisher (or one of the main guys) from Random Animals press, John Noonan. He also designed the cover of the book. It was good fun, and John and another guy got their guitars out and gave us a session. Tina Pisco’s experiences with her bestseller, Paper Moon, were very enlightening. It has been translated into several languages, gone through 11 reprints and all that but she is in litigation trying to get money owed to her. They also put a cover she didn’t like on the book, that fitted it in a genre she felt was too limiting.

The best part of the festival was probably meeting people in the evenings, by the simple device of having a designated bar (in the Bantry Bay Hotel) as the Literary Festival meeting place, and having one or other of the organisers on hand every evening to field any questions, or just for a drink or dinner. On the last evening, David Means was present with his wife and two twin children, and so were Tony Curtis, Paul Williams and attendees from the poetry workshop and others. With the kids, obviously David couldn’t stay too late. He told me to keep working, as we shook hands, and I told him it was much more important that he keep working. His wife indicated that he hadn’t much choice about that. There was some saying of poems, and even a bit of singing later when some of us adjourned to the Hideaway Bar (in another hotel nearby) where we stayed till after 2 a.m. before the bar lady told us she wanted to get some sleep. I inflicted a couple of my masterpieces on the group, but thankfully we were blessed with some real poems from Tony Curtis.

I hope that gives you some flavour of what the week was like. It was my first experience of a literary festival, and it has whetted my appetite for more. Maybe next year I will go to Listowel, a bigger neighbour of the West Cork festival, or Hay on Wye here in Britain. I should not forget the Chamber Music Festival which was also on, and we were able to hear some of the rehearsals distantly from a room not far from the one where our short story workshop was in progress. I went to a late night performance of Gorecki’s 2nd string quartet “quasi una Fantasia” by the Silesian string quartet, which was one of the highlights of my week. I thought, this is it, either everything is meaningless and rubbish, or this is one of the greatest things that life has to offer. You simply could not argue with the piece and the performance – it was brilliant.

Some of the recommended reading from the short story workshop:
The Lonely Voice – by Frank O’Connor
Dreaming by the Book – Elaine Scarry
Bird by Bird – by Anne Lamott
Writers Workshop – by Steven Koch
On Writing – by Stephen King
Island – by Alistair MacLeod

By the way, one of the participants was from Chimera Review (currently seeking submissions.)

As a result of exercises during the week, I got a couple or three new stories started, which I will bore you with another time.

Just waving

Words by Jackie Morris



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