Everybody's Reading

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Interview with Hannah Stevens


Hannah Stevens is a writer currently based in Leicester in the UK and has a PhD from the University of Leicester where she is also a tutor in creative writing. She has co-founded and currently co-runs Wind and Bones (http://windandbones.com/),  in collaboration with Dr. Will BuckinghamShe writes short stories and flash fiction and has just completed her first book-length collection, In Their Absence. Her pamphlet collection, Without Makeup and Other Stories, was published in 2012 by Crystal Clear Creators, to critical acclaim. Her website is: http://hannahstevenswriter.com/ 



Interview with Sandra Pollock

SP:  When did you first know that you wanted to become a writer? 

HS:  Being or becoming a writer has been a gradual thing. It was a fluke that I started to write at all. It was something I enjoyed so I just kept doing it. 

SP:  What type of writing or genre first caught your interest and why? 

HS:  Poetry initially. I used to read lots of modern poetry. I love the Bloodaxe trilogy that started with Staying Alive. Poetry is a balm during difficult times, I think.  Later it was short stories. I mostly read short stories now because I love the form but I often go back to poetry.  

SP:  Who would you say has had the most influence on you as a writer?

HS:  Daphne Du Maurier. Her short story ‘The Birds’ bowled me over when I first read it and inspired me to try my hand at short story writing. I also like her novels but I love her short story collections in particular.  Joyce Carol Oates has also been a big influence. Her short stories are devastatingly brilliant and often explore tensions around gender and in the domestic sphere. They’re dark and immaculately crafted.

SP:  When did you begin to see yourself as a writer?

HS:  It’s been a gradual thing. I love to write and so just kept doing it. I don’t really think of myself as a writer generally, which is odd really because it’s a big part of what I do. 

SP:  Where did you study your writing?

HS:  I studied Creative Writing at De Montfort University initially.  Originally, I was just going to study English but that year DMU had just started to offer creative writing as a joint option. I had no idea I would love it so much. After my undergraduate degree I had quite a gap from studying because I did some travelling, working and hanging around with interesting people. I didn’t study a Master's degree and went straight into a PhD. I completed my PhD at the University of Leicester. 

SP:  What would you say is the main thing studying Creative Writing taught you or helped you with?

HS:  It was good for introducing me to new authors and forms of writing and for connecting me with other people who write. 

SP:  Where does the inspiration for your stories come from?

HS:  It really varies. It can be something that I’ve read in the news, a small interaction I’ve had with somebody, an image, a line in a song. Inspiration comes from so many different places. 

SP:  Most of your stories in the pamphlet Without Makeup and Other Stories are tinged with sadness some more than others.  Is this how you see life?

HS:  Though sad and difficult things happen to everybody, I think that I’m generally quite an optimist. The current political climate in view of the Conservative government and Brexit are definitely making this more difficult currently, though. I’m appalled by the Conservative government and how they are making people suffer. 

SP:  In Without Makeup and other Stories why did you go for six mini stories in place of, say two longer ones?  

HS:  It wasn’t a conscious decision: each story just felt ‘right’ I guess. I do find it easier and more satisfying to write shorter rather than longer pieces, though. 

SP:  What made you decide to create a pamphlet? 

HS:  It was actually the result of entering a competition run by the small press publishers Crystal Clear Creators and funded by Arts Council England. There were six winners in total. Individually we all worked with a writing mentor and wrote our resulting pamphlets. 

SP:  What did you need to learn about that you did not know before?

HS:  It was the first time I’d worked on a sustained writing project, rather than just ad hoc pieces. So that was interesting because it took sustained work to generate ideas and then edit a number of pieces at the same time. 

SP:  What advice would you give new writers?

HS:  I would encourage anyone who enjoys writing to continue to do it. It might be unlikely that you’ll be able to make a living solely from writing but if it makes you happy then find the time to do it. As much as possible do things that make you happy.  



About the interviewer

Sandra Pollock loves fiction, fantasy and poetry and is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.


Review by Kate Howey of "Breath Visible" by Linda Danz


Breath Visible is the first collection of short stories by Linda Danz. The stories give fascinating insight into the contemporary lives of artists and painters. One of the major themes is the city of New York itself, and how it has changed over time, the ghost of the old city residing within the monolithic new one. The stories describe life in different decades that the author has experienced, capturing poignant moments of reflection and change. 

Danz’s writing has the bite of a North Atlantic wind. Its veracity is evident in her probing accounts of contemporary US life from the perspective of a native New Yorker. Her terse descriptive prose and gift for metaphor breathes poetry into an otherwise realistic narrative, as shown in "From Russia": “She tilted her head, hoping to shake the Beatles’ tune that, since Moscow, had been rattling in her brain like a bee trapped under glass.” The unifying characteristics of her style include the repartee of her characters, which sparkle with wit, echoing the astringent New York streets Danz grew up in. All nineteen stories focus on the fragility and awkward points in relationships. 

Danz writes with unflinching honesty: “Someone once described friendship as a glass ornament. Shattered, it never returns to its original form” (p.117). Her direct, succinct prose style captures the dilemmas of modern life, the pauses between relationships, ill health, the search for artistic fulfilment and reflections on the aftermath of 9/11. For example, "The Churchgoer" begins, “‘These people think they have problems? I have a fucking brain tumor. I have a problem.’ Throats cleared, heads turned and people stared.” 

Together, these stories paint a vivid picture of not just New York life, but the passage through life of the boomer generation on both sides of the Atlantic, and the political and social challenges that they traverse. Danz’s voice provides a strong unifying device across these very different depictions of ordinary life. The major accomplishment of these stories is the spread of topics, themes, styles and characters which will keep you turning the pages well into the early hours. 


About the Reviewer
Kate Howey is a writer and student on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her website is: www.isabelladalzell.com

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Bystander" Anthology



This anthology has been created by MA Creative Writing students at Nottingham Trent University, and features writing inspired by exploring the perspective of the bystander: the one witnessing the action. This is an interesting premise, in that the reader is often cast as a text’s primary bystander, and so there are parallels drawn here between the many unheard or unregistered voices of society and those actively constructing meaning from often very sparse narrative detail. 

This is certainly an eclectic and diverse set of creative pieces: play-script, poetry and short stories sit happily alongside one another, jostling to be heard. Many of the pieces work best when read aloud, particularly the poetry and play texts, but some of the shorter narratives gain from this approach, too, with the form being used to give a platform to hitherto silent, or silenced characters. Standout pieces are those that turn economy of form to their advantage. A short poem, ‘Party Time’ by Tim Youngs, reflects on the ways in which we are all at the mercy of time itself. In ‘To stop times fall / I hold it steady / my hips don’t swing,’ there is a sense that humans are pre-disposed to oscillate between moments of private contemplation and the intoxicating draw of life itself. In another highlight, ‘Changelessness’ by Jonathan Taylor, a despairing parent tries to make sense of a home that has fallen silent, the children having ‘gone, gone’ and is brilliantly captured in a single page of prose. The hopelessness of being forced to move from active participant in one’s own life to observer of a ruined domestic scene is perfectly captured in the narrator’s ‘half-hearted imitations of real tidiness.’ 

There are other thought-provoking moments in the collection, and the anthology gains much of its power via the process of reading one piece after another, the slow accumulation of ideas and styles, which often takes the reader off in new and exciting directions. It is the mark of good editors that the anthology is sequenced to highlight talent on the MA course, both students and lecturers, as well as a wealth of other guest lecturers and writers. An engaging and thoughtful read.   


About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at Warwick University. He has enjoyed a long and varied teaching career in the discipline of English / Theatre Studies and is following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and 20th century literary criticism.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Review by Kevan Manwaring of "Out of Sheer Rage" by Geoff Dyer


An attempt to review a book is to put into words what one thinks about it. One perhaps starts off by not having a firm opinion but by the end of the review, if all goes well, one has been formulated. This does not really change the nature of the book, but it may change the person writing the review, or possibly the person reading it. It may persuade or dissuade this hypothetical reader to buy the book, or it may affirm or conflict with their existing opinion about it, if they’ve already read it – or simply read lots of reviews. It is a chain of ghosts, drawing us further and further away from the book itself, itself an articulation of an experience (either direct, vicariously, or imagined), encoded into black marks, which we translate in our minds into thoughts, feelings, images, and sounds. A homeopathic dilution of real life – that could be a working definition of fiction, creative non-fiction and especially literary criticism. Dyer’s book is, in some senses, a critique and deconstruction of this hall of mirrors. It is an anti-biography, an apparently ‘failed’ attempt at a ‘book about DH Lawrence’ (that we all end up writing, sooner or later, in the Dyerverse of ever decreasing circles – the singularity of futility which is his MO), which, in its gonzo approach of endless digression, indulgences, annoyances, paranoia, and transgressions, actually ‘succeeds’ in channelling something Lawrentian. Dyer makes endless comic capital at of the vainglorious absurdity of ‘experiential research’, while actually undertaking it – globetrotting in pursuit of Lawrence in a form of protracted displacement activity, an endless deferment of gratification – by gratifying every deferment. By the pathological deconstruction of such an approach Dyer actually reifies it, as he finally admits: ‘Had we not seen and done all these things we would not be the people we are’ (p231).  Dyer’s antics is a form of invocation – though he protest too much (ad nauseam) his aches, pains, mishaps, moments of weaknesses, fury, frustration and many failings, all help to conjure Lawrence, to embody Lawrence, to live Lawrence: ‘hoping by this Lawrentian touch to persuade my audience of the all-consuming bond between the subject and the speaker of the talk’ as he quips about a botched talk on Lawrence he gives (p206). He argues forcibly against the aridity of dusty academic studies, far removed from Lorenzo’s full-blooded approach to life – mocking the ivory towers even as he moves to ‘Dullford’ as he calls Oxford, his very own alma mater. His restlessness and neurosis are very much first world problems from the perspective of male, white privilege, at that (the modest lower middle class roots long since abandoned), and as such, his self-ironic posturing would be facile if it wasn’t so frequently funny. And despite his disingenuity – Dyer wears his erudition very lightly – this is only a performance of philistinism within the context of … a book about DH Lawrence. Yet there is method to Dyer’s madness and there are moments of genius, or at least, great wit: ‘Spare me the drudgery of systematic examinations and give me the lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably’ (p105). And yes, Out of Sheer Rage is full of mini-lightning flashes as we observe the synaptic pyrotechnics of Dyer’s overheated brain. It is amusing, almost transgressive, like listening in to the ‘mad’ person at the party who says all the things everyone is thinking. This is writing as Tourette’s Syndrome. Dyer plays the court jester with gusto and perhaps makes some valid points amid his buffoonery. He is entertaining, but exasperating. To spend too long in his company would be grating, but for a while his Lawrentian ‘playback theatre’ is a gloriously irreverent read. And as an approach to ‘life-writing’ it has some originality and literary merit: it has a pulse. But that is perhaps only a reviewer seeking an ending to his review and wanting something positive to end on.


About the reviewer
Kevan Manwaring is a Creative Writing PhD candidate at the University of Leicester, currently working on a novel dramatizing the folk traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.


Review by Lisa Williams of "The Vagina Monologues" by Eve Ensler



After performances of The Vagina Monologues in 1996 women in the audiences found their voices; they came after the show to tell Eve their stories. Eve realised then that art could be used to prompt action. In 1998, on Valentine’s Day, V-Day was born where volunteer activists around the world staged productions of the monologues to raise awareness and funds to stop violence against girls and women. 

This edition is published to mark the 20th anniversary of V-Day.

The new introduction by the author telling of past performances (often in secret) and the reactions they provoked raises goose-bumps. There are six previously unpublished monologues in this special edition as well as a new foreword and afterword. The monologues themselves move from hilarious to heartbreaking. They tell the story of censorship and in turn of abolishing this silence.

The Vagina Monologues show us the power of words, of art, and how sometimes it takes one person’s courage to speak out to start a much-needed global conversation. Sometimes a book is more than just a book and I can’t recommend this one highly enough. 


About the reviewer
Lisa Williams loves to make stuff up and is currently a student on the MA Creative Writing course at Leicester University.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Review by Sandra Pollock of "Railhead" by Philip Reeve



Railhead is a futuristic, science-fiction epic by award winning novelist Phillip Reeve, who has already created a growing readership of young people and adults prepared to join him in his world of space, aliens and machines. His world is very imaginative, for those who are a bit of a rebel at heart and dream of the tomorrow.  

The main character in Railhead is a petty thief by the name of Zen Starling, who enjoys nothing more than riding the sentient trains, all with personalities and attitudes, that take him across the vast expanse of space. This allows him to see and visit the different worlds that exist between K-gates, as he uses his talents to support his family.

Zen is engaged to steal a small box by an enigmatic character with the promise of riches.  Set in the distant future where humans have left Earth and are living on far-flung planets,  interplanetary travel takes place by means of these special sentient trains who go through the K-gates from planet to planet.  The network of planets or worlds are shared with a wide range of strange life forms that include intelligent machines, humanoids known as "Motorik," and other imaginary beings.  

One interesting species are bugs that can organise themselves into a conscious group and speak, known as “Hive Monks.” They have their own aspirations, and reasons for wanting to travel through the K-gates. There are also the Guardians who have to maintain peace through the appointment of the governing families, and control everything and everyone through the Datasea. 

For Zen, this is all a journey of danger and of self-discovery, maturity and of finding love - one which challenges his own view of who he is and what he stands for. In this rich, vividly described tale, Reeve poses questions for us to consider - for example, humanoid development, machines taking the place of humans in the workplace and how we treat the other species that live with us on this planet, not to mention the have and the have-nots.
Reeve manages to create, using descriptive and detailed imagery, new worlds and beings; and he also makes us look at familiar worlds and beings in new ways -  strange but believable.  

Railhead is a very enjoyable read which I could not put down once I’d started it.  The plot is thankfully not predictable and with its many twist keeps you engaged right to the end.  Even if you would not consider yourself a Railhead - that is someone who loves trains and the joy of travelling on them - you will enjoy reading this book. This was my first Philip Reeve book having met him recently in Leicester, where I had the pleasure of hearing him read segments from the book. I was compelled to give it a try and I was not disappointed. 


About the reviewer
Sandra Pollock loves fiction, fantasy and poetry and is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Review by Rosalind Adam of "Please Hear What I'm Not Saying" edited by Isabelle Kenyon



The poetry anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying is described by Isabelle Kenyon as ‘a labour of love.’ It is certainly a mammoth achievement with contributions from over one hundred poets on the subject of mental health and wellbeing. 

Kenyon is author of This is not a Spectacle and The Trees Whispered. She explains that she compiled the anthology for a chance to work with other poets and to make a positive contribution to Mind, the charity that supports people with mental health issues. All profits from the book will go to this charity.  

In October 2017 Kenyon put out a call for submissions on her website, flyonthewallpoetry.co.uk, with an apology that no payments would be made to contributors. She did not expect to receive such an overwhelming number of submissions, a result that must surely reflect the number of people in the country affected by mental health.

Readers have been invited to provide titles for each of the eight sections. Kenyon gives us a clue to their contents in the introduction where she tells us that each section grows ‘with positivity.’ I like the idea of creating my own section headings. It feels as if I have been involved in the compilation process, involved with the content and reminded that we are all affected in some way by mental health issues.

There are too many poems to mention them all. As I read the anthology, I visited over a hundred people’s minds with my ‘face pressed into the dirt’ and ‘the all too familiar mantra sounding loud and clear / in my ear: I hate you, please don’t leave me,' the reminder that it’s ‘Easier to paint a smile of lies / than stumble over the truth,’ and the reassurance that ‘storm clouds part/and I can see / chinks of light appearing.’ This anthology is, in fact, full of familiar emotions and recognisable scenarios. Even if the proceeds were not going to Mind Charity, I would still buy a copy just to reassure myself that other people feel the same way too.


About the reviewer
Rosalind Adam is a writer and student on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her blog is: http://rosalindadam.blogspot.co.uk/