This is what happens when tree rings are rigged to turntables and a bit of programming. Absolutely beautiful stuff.
I’m delighted to share the news that Brindley Hallam Dennis has decided to organise a festival of writing in locations throughout Carlisle this September. Rather than traditional book festivals, which sustain the celebrity of authorship, Borderlines will celebrate writing itself, using workshops, readings and guerrilla flash fiction to connect reading and writing.
Given the location, this is especially exciting for Cumbrian, Scottish, Northumberland and Lancashire writers. I’d love to take part – I like the idea of celebrating writing for writing’s sake.
On Saturday, I had the guest headline spot at Verbalise at the Brewery. It was an amazing night, for all the squirming terror I went through in the days before the show. It’s strange to get so nervous before a reading. As a teacher, I address large groups all the time, but everything changes when it’s my writing under the microscope. Usually, it goes like this: in the hours before a reading, I feel a pain low in my stomach, and then my throat grows tighter as those hours dissolve into minutes. When I walk onstage and begin to read, my heart pounds in my larynx. At last, around halfway through the reading, or halfway through my second piece – whichever comes first – something changes. In a matter of heartbeats, the nerves are gone, I calm down and enjoy the stories, enjoy the sound of my own words. My grail is to achieve that sense of enjoyment at the start of the reading, rather than the mid-point, and Verbalise was a big step in the right direction.
Before I talk about my reading, I want to sing the praises of the open mic. It was an absolute cracker, kicked off by flash fiction guru Brindley Hallam Dennis. I’m a huge fan of Brindley’s stories, and it was a thrill to see him performing again. He started with another of Kowalski’s Assertions, then read a gem of flash fiction called The Right Words, which looks like this:
After Brindley, I was doubly delighted that my photo challenge sparring partner BigCharlie Poet came north for his first Verbalise open mic. He read two of the poems from our challenge series – Cathedrals and Graffiti – which were even better in person than on the page. He was so good that compere Ann asked him back to headline later in the year. Another future headliner was at the open mic, too, in the glorious form of Joy France, and it was a wonder to witness her at work – she performed a wicked little flash piece and this scintillating poem:
The open mic also featured ace local poet, journalist and painter Helen Perkins, who read her poem for the Drowned Villages competition. South Lakes poet laureate Kate Davies performed a sinister piece about a caul-shrouded something that nipped at children and crunched their bones, and Luke Brown read a twisted tale of flooding and infanticide. Friend Harriet Fraser read three poems, including the exceptional ‘Michael’ from her project Landkeepers. This brooding piece sees the departure of an experienced farmhand from a remote Cumbrian valley, much to the regret of the farmer who worked with him – set against the Sisyphean job of plugging holes in drystone walls. It’s a beautifully bittersweet metaphor.
Finally and brilliantly, one of my best and oldest friends, Steven Malcolm, had come up for the weekend as well. Steve is a wonderful writer, but had never performed his work before. Verbalise marked his first ever open mic. He read two short stories – the first about a bystander struggling to process the accident they’d witnessed, and the second about a man who married a Volvo. They were dreamy, dark and very good.
After the interval – oh, lawks – it was my turn. I gabbled my way through a hapless introduction, and then I started reading stories from Marrow. For all the fear I’d endured throughout the day, I found my groove fairly quickly. I started with The Black And The White Of It, then read Hutch, then new piece The Jubilee Best Cake Competition. I’d originally planned on performing this last piece with an accent, in the style of a well-to-do Yorkshire dear (more like Alan Bennett, probably) but I bottled it at the last moment. I’ll try and summon courage at my next open mic. Maybe. After those three stories, I made a rare switch to poetry. I read Was I Scottish, which is about the dissonance I feel at being Scottish/English/British/whitever, and then my own entry for the Drowned Villages competition, which is called Coffin Routes. Both seemed to go over quite well. (Curiously, I found the poems much easier to perform than the stories. I’m still not sure why, given how fundamentally unsure I feel about my poetry. I’ll brew on this a wee while longer.)
After the poems, I went back to Marrow. I performed the title story, which I’m pleased to say elicited palpable disgust in the audience, followed it with Circle Stone, then finished with the elegiac After The Rain. I garbled something about my book and my blog, and then I fled the stage. I sat in my chair and stared at the floor for many minutes. I struggled to swallow.
Here’s the thing. I think it was a good set. But I have no idea of the passage of time for the duration of the performance. I have no idea if I was up there for three minutes or thirty. Quite sincerely, I cannot comprehend how much time went by. My brain eliminated the tick of the clock, sacrificed to a balance of performance, finding the microphone, reading the book, reading the audience, judging myself, monitoring my breath and not falling over. I needed to recover.
Afterwards, still calming down, I nattered with friends old and new. I discovered that the event had sold out, which is most excellent – the Warehouse was over capacity even before a few more folk snuck in to stand. I also sold eight more books. A quarter of my hundred copies have gone in the first week. (If you’d like one, wander this way.) Even better, compere Ann The Poet has asked me back to headline again in 2015.
Despite the terrors of anticipation, I had a good time. The expansive open mic and the positive response to my own work left me feeling great about stories and writing. I still wish there were more events and open mics in South Lakes – I look to the scenes in Glasgow and Manchester with envious eyes – but what we have in Dreamfired and Verbalise is pretty special.
Here’s a picture of me juggling a pint, a poem and my copy of Marrow.
Here it is, folks. After all those late nights of InDesign tutorials, Photoshop forums, calculations, colour swatches, dimensions, budgets, cursing, blurry vision, uploads, downloads and even a little bit of writing, Marrow has arrived. I’m delighted with the print quality – thanks to Inky Little Fingers for a really good little book. Recycled paper, yo.
Marrow is a collection of 28 flash stories ranging from 13 to 1,000 words. Around half have been appeared elsewhere – in Gutter, Fractured West, Valve, Flashtag, Paragraph Planet, Causeway, Smoke, Dark Mountain and others. The stories feature fighter pilots and guinea pigs, wishing trees and wet weekends, untuned pianos, tattoos, voodoo, daydreams, ink and avocados. There are private eyes and talking poppets – lions and lemons – selkies and tsunamis.
I’ve done this so I have something to share at readings – something to hold in the hand. It feels slightly surreal, but good. If you’d like a copy, get in touch. It costs £5, plus another £1 for UK posting. If you’d like to buy one, mosey over here.
Thanks to everyone who helped me out with advice, proofing and redrafting. Couldn’t have done without you.
I’ve just finished the first copy edit for The Visitors. Quercus sent the documents over a fortnight ago, but I didn’t have the time until last week to open the files and survey the damage. College has been relentless lately, and I haven’t had a chance to work on my writing in what feels like forever. At first glance, I was devastated at how much work seemed to be required. Every page of the manuscript was scarred with dozens of red marks, like this:
At first glance, my heart shrivelled in my chest. The thought of that all work was painful – not least as my friend Ali Shaw had already warned me of the perils of copy edits. He explained that I’d need flagons of strong cider to get through it, and I was braced for some late nights.
Thankfully, it hasn’t been too bad. On closer inspection, virtually all the changes are simply a matter of house style – thousands and thousands of “double speech marks” have now become ‘single speech marks’. I had no idea they were allowed – I’ll try writing with single speech marks from now on, but it’s going to take quite some unlearning – hitting shift with the quote key has become hardwired into my typing. Similarly, hundreds of ‘alrights’ and ‘okays’ have become ‘all rights’ and ‘OKs’. Again, I didn’t know these were the preferred form. More startling, I hadn’t realised I used those words so often – especially in dialogue. I cut many of these where the copy edit drew my attention to repetition.
As well as those thousands of standardised changes, there were infrequent issues with capitalisation. I disagreed with some of these. I don’t consider ‘Internet’ to be a proper noun, for example – small things, but they all need looking at.
On top of all that, there were two typos where I’d accidentally omitted a word – which isn’t bad in a 93,000 word manuscript – and a few instances where the copy editor felt certain words (always adverbs – be warned!) didn’t gel. I agreed with all of these, and made the changes.
All in all, it’s been a fascinating process. It took me two days, in the end. I’ve huge respect for copy editors – to be so meticulous and so creative all at once is a massive challenge, but I felt the changes were fair and sensitive. That’s now gone back to Quercus.
This is my half-term from college. I have a few goals for this week. As well as some looking after Dora while Mon has her last week painting before an exhibition in London, I want to write some new work for National Flash Fiction Day, submit something to the Flashbang contest and finish my Drowned Villages poem. Most important, I’d like to spend some time with Grisleymires – I’ve had a month away from my novel, and I miss it.
Last night was my third Dreamfired storynight, and my second reading in support. It was a wild and windswept night in Brigsteer, but a decent crowd of thirty or so had battled through the rain and sleet. The open mic is always good fun, and I was absolutely delighted to see Trev Meaney again – he’s a dazzling slam poet who I’ve seen in action at Lancaster’s Spotlight. He combines breakneck delivery with great comic timing, and his quick-fire poems never fail to impress. Last night he performed several pieces, including the excellent confessional ‘Lancaster to London’, which looks like this:
I was the last of the support acts. For the first time, I was reading from Marrow (because yes! The books turned up on Thursday. I’ll write more about that in the next post). I read The Black And The White Of It, Hutch and After The Rains – sad, dark and joyful, by turns. It seemed to go quite well – I didn’t fully relax until the second story, but then I started to enjoy it, to really take my time with the words. If I can get to that place at the start of a reading, rather than halfway through, I’ll count that a success. I’d love to perform with Trev’s confidence and flair, but I’m still learning to walk. Running comes with time.
Kat Quatermass – who runs Dreamfired – was the headliner. She performed a startlingly original sequence of contemporary fairytales, couched in feminism and queer culture. It was an excellent show. First she painted a modern city, with an abandoned fairground, pebbledash tower blocks, supermarkets and a polluted river – then she populated it with modern kids, kids looking for ways to fit in, ways to escape – ways to survive. Kat then sent her cast of disaffected adolescents into the gritty, fantastical city, where their stories intermingled with talking foxes, golden birds, the months of the year and Hungarian hag Baba Yaga. The stories chop and change and intermingle, played out in a carnival of urban fairytales. The show was equal parts Neil Gaiman, Brothers Grimm and Arcade Fire’s LP ‘The Suburbs’. Kat’s city made me think of my short story Vanishings – that sense that anything can happen in cities when the lights go down and no one’s looking. She explained that this was a work in progress – she plans to refine and develop the show over the next six months. If last night was anything to go by, audiences are in for a real treat over the lifetime of the show.
All in all, another cracker from Dreamfired. Next up, my 20-minute guest slot at Verbalise…
To finish, here’s a picture of Baba Yaga’s hut, which walks around on chicken legs, because Baba Yaga is awesome. This is by illustrator Bojana Dimitrovski:
Continuing the Beirut kick – here’s a full live concert recorded at Ancienne Belgique in 2011. Sumptuous stuff. Crank open another tab and go about your business with this playing in the background – it’s exquisite.