Tuesday 20 March 2018

Review by Stuart Vivers of "Beckett," a videogame by Simon Meek

Beckett is disturbingly enjoyable. It’s filled with elements that would normally make one squirm; and some probably will. Its narrative is a melancholic, yet insightful tale. Characters are depicted as inanimate objects, giving the player a unique way of visualising them in their minds - recalling their own memories in order to try and build a bigger picture of the object they see represented as a person on screen. 

The game uses photographs from the real world in order to construct "Borough" - the fictional city within the game. At first glance the idea of using real world photographs to create a 3D virtual world may seem rather grotesque. With Beckett, however, the game is stylised and created in such a way that the technique actually works in the game's favour. Its language is foul and macabre, exploring various different themes throughout its timeline. The Borough is revealed to the player as a city where "Yellow piss flows in wandering channels among those creamy pockmarks spat from decaying mouths." There is a dark humour which often surfaces throughout the game in various forms. Witty references and downright vulgar character conversations will leave you smirking in an other-wise bleak world. 

The dialogue used within the game is dark, vivid and often paired with images and editing effects which enhance their impact even more. Existentialism, memory and death are all explored in various different ways throughout the game, with visual effects and editing are used to enhance the impact of the games language and themes on the player even more. Memorable and rhythmic audio tracks are another way that Beckett absorbs the player into Beckett’s story even more. The tracks are often combined with vibrant, distorted visual effects, creating an even eerier atmosphere which the player feels constantly throughout the game. 

Website: https://tsebeckett.blog/

About the reviewer
Stuart Vivers is a Junior Interactive Designer at the Glasgow based studio, ISO Design. He recently graduated from Abertay University where he studied game design. His work focuses on conveying history through video games and he enjoys games that are a little bit different than usual. www.stuartvivers.com 

Review by Amirah Mohiddin of "Asian Monsters" ed. Margaret Helgadottir

A collection of short stories edited by Margret Helgadottir, Asian Monsters finally gives monsters the diversity and representation they deserve. In a seemingly endless quest for more racial and cultural identities in literature, this collection gives us a hauntingly beautiful assortment of supernatural voices. As the final instalment of the monster collection published by Fox Spirit, preceded by European Monsters (2014) and African Monsters (2015), it similarly claims to give monsters a renaissance. It does this by portraying them outside the stereotypes of werewolves, vampires and the seemingly inherent longing for human interaction that dominates Western media.

Yap’s ‘Grass Cradle, Glass Lullaby’ quickly became a personal favourite. It depicts a vampiric monster based on the Filipino tiyanak. This expertly woven story conveys the loneliness of a mother without a child, and the horror and obsession it can breed. This narrative was rich in pathos, evoking a bitter understanding of the darkness of the protagonist. 

Terminiello’s ‘Aswang’ gives the monstrosity of the aswang a place in reality. It works through the day and hunts through the night. The aswang brings together the people it attacks, evoking poignant scenes between the titular characters. They overcome social decorum that divides the privileged and disadvantaged. Despite the tenderness this implies, the actual aswang elicits spine-chilling terror, leading you to rethink who you can really trust on public transport. 

Though these stories are primarily about monsters, they are also about love. Love is warped, twisted and crosses boundaries. An example is ‘Kokuri’s Palace,’ where the protagonist helps the kokuri wearing his former lover’s skin to weave ornaments out of human hair. The stories are indeed chilling. Yet, each is unmistakably infused with themes of love, home and change. These themes intertwine, showing that monsters, much like humans, seek belonging. Sometimes home isn’t a place or even a time, it’s the people around you. People intermingle with monsters, until they become interchangeable. The apparent similarities highlight important injustices not only of the fantastical and the supernatural, but also in our own realities. Asian Monsters reveals issues of patriarchy, colonialism, privilege and poverty prevalent in many societies and challenges us to fight them.

I never thought I’d say I’m glad that even monsters have their place in the world, but as I read the sentence back I am hit by its truth. The cultures represented in this book, Filipino, Japanese, Indian Hindu mythology, Vietnamese and many more, have long been silenced and erased in Western literature. Their stories remain secluded, and we as readers who seek this representation are forced to dig through a plethora of Western stereotypes and overdone white-monsters. Asian Monsters empowers these cultures, giving them a diverse identity and voice in the supernatural literary sphere. Asian Monsters has united these masterfully composed stories giving these monsters a well-deserved place in the world, truly bringing them to life, even if some of them are undead. 

About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham U.K, is an MA Creative Writing student. She specialises in fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.

Sunday 18 March 2018

Interview with Hannah Vincent

Hannah Vincent studied Drama & English at UEA and gained her MA in Creative & Critical Writing at Kingston University. Her first novel Alarm Girl is published by Myriad and her new novel The Weaning is published by Salt.

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: Hannah, you began your career as a playwright, what first drew you to that form? 

HV: I was (still am – though to a lesser extent) an incorrigible show-off when I was young, which took me into acting and I studied drama at university. When we needed a play to take to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival I stepped up to the plate.

LW: What is your approach to writing dialogue? 

HV: I am a very nosey person. I like to listen in to other people’s conversations. To write effective dialogue all a writer needs to do is listen to how people speak. I am a big fan of Pinter’s plays and my enthusiasm for his work taught me to be alert to subtext and to what folk aren’t saying. 

LW: You now have two novels under your belt (Alarm Girl and most recently The Weaning) how long did you work on each novel? 

HV: It depends when you start counting… The initial idea for Alarm Girl came to me twenty-five years ago but I wrote it as a play. I couldn’t make the play work properly but the idea didn’t go away. As for The Weaning, I can date its genesis back to 2010 when I started work as a childminder and knew immediately that this was a world I wanted to describe.

LW: What writer or book has most influenced your writing? 

HV: Ooh, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, probably. A seminal reading experience for me. I would say Rachel Cusk has been the biggest influence on me in terms of writing style. She was my tutor during my MA. More recently I have attended a few workshops with the short story writer Claire Keegan whose teaching is proving massively influential.

LW: What is the most painful process of writing for you? 

HV: The only painful thing I find about writing is my inability to meet my own high expectations of my writing.

LW: You studied for an MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. In what way did the MA help you as a writer?

HV: What was helpful about it was the exposure it offered to different ways of thinking about writing – different ways of thinking about other people’s writing, different ways of thinking about my own writing. It was also helpful to share my writing in a workshop situation and consider others’ response to it. 

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Sunday 11 March 2018

Review by Robert Richardson of “Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile (1870 – 1904)” at Tate Britain, London. 2 November 2017 – 7 May 2018.

In 1870/71 and years immediately following, French artists arrived in London to escape the horrors of violence and destruction in their own country. This was the result of the Prussian siege of Paris and the defeat of the French army. The humiliating surrender terms helped prompt the radical insurrection of the Paris Commune, which in turn led to its brutal suppression, culminating in “la semaine sanglante” and the wholesale slaughter of the Communards by French government forces. Artists were faced with a depressing situation and its adverse effects on their earnings. Others were more directly affected: the Prussian army turned Pissarro’s family home into stables, and the same army ransacked Sisley’s house.

This Tate Britain exhibition not only presents Impressionists, but also work by other non-Impressionist artists. There is, considering the title of the exhibition, a little too much of what at times seems like padding. Nevertheless it provides an interesting and wider context of exile, showing that refugee artists needed support networks. Ones evolved that were the French helping each other, an example being those who had attended the “Petite Ècole”. Legros, who had settled successfully in London earlier, in 1863, was the focal point for this French artists’ version of the “old school tie”.

In 1870, Paul Durand-Ruel, who has his own historic role as the most important art dealer for Impressionism, moved to London and opened a gallery in New Bond Street. While Daubigny (one of Durand-Ruel’s artists) was painting by the Thames, he encountered another, younger French artist also painting there: it was Monet, twenty-nine years old and evading military conscription. In an early room of the exhibition is a crucial moment of a painting by each artist depicting a Thames-side scene. It was in London, and through this meeting, that Durand-Ruel took Monet onto his roster, its self massively significant. Monet’s stay, though, was not a happy one: he had work rejected by the Royal Academy and failed to sell a single painting. The portrait of his wife, Camille, ‘Meditation, Mrs Monet Sitting on a Sofa’ (1870) embodies the dislocation of exile. This is in sharp contrast to Tissot, who effortlessly stepped from one success in Paris to another in London. His network was essentially wealthy English supporters and collectors, and he ended up buying a smart house in St John’s Wood, staying on until 1882. Not an Impressionist at all, his figures now look as if they were Photoshopped onto their backgrounds: “Monsieur Tissot, did you time travel and discover the Magnetic Lasso Tool?”

It is in the final rooms that the exhibition comes alive with some wonderful Impressionist paintings. Pissarro and Sisley in particular, who enjoyed, as outsiders, some of England’s sporting quirkiness (regattas and cricket) and the expansive parks not present in Paris, seem at ease and the work blossoms, literally with Pissarro’s gorgeous ‘Kew Gardens, Rhododendron Dell’ (painted on one of his returns to London in the 1890s).  In other paintings, Pissarro achieved soft, subtle effects: shimmering light and colours from a combination of Pointillism and Impressionist brush strokes. There are two paintings by Pissarro of cricket matches, of which he became something of a devotee, later playing it with his children in France.

And what of Monet? He returned to London, successful and wealthy, in 1899, 1900 and 1901: each time staying at the Savoy. Some of the Thames Series he produced during these visits make a superb and triumphant penultimate room. There is also his stunning depiction of Leicester Square, jolting us into a twentieth century Modernist aesthetic.

The final room is presented as a coda, with Derain, at the encouragement of his dealer, paying homage to Monet’s Thames Series with full-on Fauvism. Was this necessary? It would have been better, I think, to end with Monet.

Tate Britain’s exhibition demonstrates, in a way writ large, the positive benefits from providing a place of safety for refugees, and helps us to acknowledge that it remains a privilege being the country to which these brilliant and innovative artists came.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. One of his designs will be included in a book about Leeds Postcards, to be published in 2018 by Four Corners Books. He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists.

Review by Amirah Mohiddin of "The Warrior Women of Islam: Female Empowerment in Arabic Popular Literature," by Remke Kruk

Remke Kruk’s The Warrior Women of Islam opens up a corpus of Arabic literature otherwise erased from the eyes of the non-Arab public. Yes, we know about the very popular One Thousand and One Nights (rolls eyes), but how about a text focusing purely on gender issues? The Warrior Women of Islam explores the poignant question of women in Islamic history, a question which in our quest for women’s rights is becoming increasingly important. Kruk probes the depiction of the heroic woman in their own epics Sirat Dhat al-himma, as well as side characters for the male heroes, for example in Sirat ‘Antara. She questions how women’s tales differ – or more controversially, the tropes that remain the same – from their male counterparts. 

The stories that Kruk recounts describe women who are brave and respected leaders. The writing gives us an image of how current societal expectations of gender roles have severely turned back the clock, beyond even these medieval warriors. Not only are the heroines Dhat al-himma, Qannasa and Ghamra born to be warriors, but they also earn it through their various military conquests, frequently beating male heroes on the battlefield.

Kruk’s concise and engaging style of writing shows a truly passionate and inquisitive vision of the past. She explores the stories in their natural framework in the oral traditional of storytelling which took place in public settings in Cairo and Marrakech until very recently. Kruk enquires and analyses the origins of these stories and opens up their more problematic aspects to the reader. For example, these stories were told and written for males; how can this be seen through the narrative of the Arabian epic? Also, why if Dhat al Himma and Ghamra were so proud of their femininity did they dress as men on the battlefield? Lastly, how are these epics reflective of reality? 

Together, Kruk’s team of warrior women give a wide range of representation of the strong, independent female character. The Warrior Women of Islam unites these diverse women highlighting a controversial argument against the demure, passive and emasculated woman, turning them into an emancipated and empowered vision of the future. Now, I can’t say when Muslim women started to be seen as submissive and why it’s so engrained into our societal culture, but what I can say is that Kruk’s The Warrior Women of Islam is a fantastic eye-opener for the non-Arab public, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to work past the distorted representations given to us by the media. 

About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham U.K, is an MA Creative Writing student. She specialises in fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.

Friday 9 March 2018

Interview with Kerry Hadley-Pryce

Kerry Hadley-Pryce was born in the Black Country. She worked nights in a Wolverhampton petrol station before becoming a secondary school teacher. She wrote her first novel, The Black Country, whilst studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement 2013–14. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Wolverhampton, researching Psychogeography and Black Country Writing. Gamble is her second novel, and is forthcoming in June 2018.

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: Were you encouraged with your writing in the early days, and if so, by whom? 

KHP: Yes, I was. Right from the start, I had a fascination with actual handwriting, and even before I could actually, physically write, my parents used to give me note pads, and I’d fill them with squiggles that I called "details." I must have been, what? Three years old? A little later, in primary school, I’d re-write fairy stories and read them to my parents, who were always keen. In my teenage years, I wrote voraciously: anthologies of poetry (one called simply "Snakes." Don’t even ask…), song lyrics, short stories, a novel about a failing pop group, and plays that I wanted (but never asked) my friends to perform. I went to a grammar school, which you’d think would have been great, but I hated it and became a bit disengaged. I was told by a visiting careers officer that I’d taken all the wrong subjects to be a writer or a journalist. I took her at her word and didn’t write for years. 

LW: Should a writer be ruthless?  

KHP: Oh, now, that’s an interesting question. I recently interviewed Kit de Waal, and she said those actual words. "Be ruthless," she said, when I asked her what advice she’d give to aspiring writers. I had to ask her what she meant, and she said, from her point of view, she’d made a decision about what kind of writer she wanted to be (successful) and what she wanted to write (best-sellers). I don’t see that as being ruthless. Single-minded, yes. I see "ruthless" as something else, something a little unpleasant. For me, I think, as a writer, you need to be serious about it. Like Kit, I think you need to make your mind up to be a writer, by which I mean you need to prioritise your writing as you’d prioritise any job of work. There’s nothing mystical about writing, it’s a job, it earns you money – and it’s a great job, too – but you have to do it really, really well to be "successful," and this includes more than simply sitting and writing, it includes self-promotion, events, tapping into all the social networks, being open-minded and enthusiastic, not being afraid to ask for things or organise things etc. etc. Far from being ruthless, I think it’s important to be organised, driven and productive. It’s also vital to be supportive of your fellow writers, and to seek their support.

LW: Had you written a novel before working on The Black Country

KHP: Yes. Some terrible novels, too. Awful. Nothing published. Nothing worthy of publication, really. I was a secondary school teacher at the time and had started writing again because I kept having all these ideas that I felt needed to be written. I’d done an OU course in creative writing and loved it so I decided to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School, MMU. Really, studying was an excuse to give me time to write, and as part of my MA, I had to write an entire novel. I submitted it as a novel called Viewfinder, passed the course with a distinction and won the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement, which still amazes me, even now. It was great, because I could workshop parts of the novel with my cohort, and received some interesting and useful feedback as I was writing it. That very novel later became The Black Country and was published by Salt Publishing. 

LW:How long did it take you to find a publisher for The Black Country

KHP: When I look back, I had a fantastic stroke of luck. It seems like all the cards were stacked in my favour. Nicholas Royle is a lecturer on the MA at the Manchester Writing School, and, at the time, I had no idea, really who he was, apart from that. He had always offered great encouragement to me during my course. When I’d submitted my final piece, I contacted him to let him know and to thank him for his encouragement and he asked me what I thought I wanted to do with the novel, whether I’d thought about publication or not, because, he said, he was, amongst other things, an editor at Salt Publishing … This was in 2014. After a few tweaks, and a change of title, the novel was published by Salt as The Black Country in September, 2015. Had I not done the MA, received the feedback from my student friends, or met Nick, it’s hard to say how long it would have taken me to ever be published.

LW: What is the best environment for you to write in? 

KHP: I’m happy to say I can write pretty much anywhere. I’m not the kind of writer that has to have the desk facing south, candles or feng shui or anything. I read a lot of my stuff aloud, but I’m a well-known weirdo in my local coffee shop (i.e. it looks like I’m sitting there talking to myself) so that’s always a good place, but there are various places at home – I’m really not that fussy. Routine, I think, is more important to me than environment, I have to write every day (it doesn’t matter how much) so any external motivation is good for me. I started a PhD in Creative Writing last year, and so that’s good motivation (especially since my thesis requires me to write a novel) and I attend regular "open-mic" sessions where it’s important to have written something new to read to an audience (I recommend that, by the way: get involved in as many open-mic sessions as you possibly can – it makes you write new stuff and you get to see an audience’s reaction).

LW: How important is "place" in your fiction? 

KHP: It’s possibly the most important thing. Both of my novels are set in the Black Country (and my PhD is psychogeography in Black Country writing, so I’m immersed in it academically, too). I realised when I was writing The Black Country that I am totally invested in "place" as a writerly "thing." I love this area. I love the griminess of it, the canals, the brutalist architecture of it, the sense of oddness about it. I think that unsettling quality is what I try to bring to my writing. I’m most comfortable with that. 

LW: How soon after your first novel did you begin work on Gamble?   

KHP: I’d started working on something almost as soon as I’d completed The Black Country, actually. But something interesting happened: within a month of publication, The Black Country received a particularly good review from The Independent. This was a very interesting time for me, because, as an instant result of that one single review (there had been plenty of others, but from bloggers and smaller presses) I suddenly started getting messages from literary agents wanting to represent me. I had absolutely no idea what a literary agent did, or whether I wanted or needed one, so I took some advice. Long story, but I decided to appoint Euan Thornycroft of A.M. Heath as my agent. I had been working on a novel, yet to be given a title, with a character called Greg Gamble in it, and I sent it to him. Pretty quickly, he got back to me saying he didn’t like it. I sent him a re-write of that novel five times. FIVE. Each time, the plot tightened up, and Greg Gamble gradually started taking centre stage as the protagonist. I am nothing if not diligent … Euan, however, wasn’t feeling it at all – in fact, he said (and I think this is pretty much a direct quote): "There are not redeeming features about Greg Gamble." But, see, that was the point. That is the point. And I felt there really was something there that he wasn’t getting. So, I sent it to Nick at Salt, asked him to be completely honest. I’m glad to say he liked it – enough to want to publish it. When I look back at those early drafts, they’re completely different to the finished product. This is a long, rambling answer to your question, isn’t it? In short: I started writing what became Gamble at the end of 2014, it was accepted for publication in the middle of 2017, and will be released by Salt Publishing in June 2018. (FYI, I started writing my next novel – yet to be given a title – in the middle of 2017. I’m aiming to complete this early draft by May this year).

LW: Which one novel would you recommend to an aspiring writer to learn from?    

KHP: There are such a lot of excellent novels out there, aren’t there? The (slightly naff) answer is this: it depends. It depends on what kind of writer you want to be. One of my friends gets his bread-and-butter-earnings from writing romance novels for My Weekly. He read a load of them, got the brief from the publisher, got the formula in his head, and writes them, and he keeps up with any changes that are happening in that genre. I have several friends who are successful crime writers, who have done the exact same thing: read a lot of crime novels, got the formula in their heads and have written their own, but they keep up with the changes. For me, I love fiction set in the Black Country, so I’d recommend anything by Joel Lane, but particularly From Blue to Black. His use of description and sense of place is excellent, and the way he holds the reader firmly in this uncertain, unsettling, nervy place is superb. BUT, what I’m saying is, very clearly, you cannot be a writer without being a huge, massive reader. Reading is part of your job as a writer. And I think it’s vital to keep your head in the current game. So, today, I’m going to cheat, and suggest a second, more up-to-date novel, which is a best-selling debut (always good to read best-selling debuts, btw) and it really is brilliant. It’s called My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. Read it and see what the writer is doing to create such a fuss, look at the reviews, and work out why they’re so good. Oh, and enjoy. 

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Interview with Matthew Broughton

Matthew Broughton has written widely for TV, film, radio and theatre. His most recent work for radio includes the award-winning series Tracks, and the comedy-drama Vincent Price and the Horror of the English Blood Beast, both for BBC Radio 4.  His website is https://matthewbroughton.wordpress.com/

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: How did you first come to write, and what was your breakthrough moment as a writer?  

MB: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. It started happening at a very early age, and the writing was always drama, scenarios, characters, and dialogue. Not prose or poetry. Things have generally happened by gradations, but there have been several moments along the way that have felt like a palpable step forward. When no one else was interested, a London fringe theatre company staged a play I sent them, then made me writer in residence. From that series of plays I got representation; getting my first film and TV commissions; working with Complicite (British theatre company); getting a screenplay filmed and broadcast for the first time (it appeared on the launch night of BBC 4). Also, I came very late to audio drama, but as soon as I started writing for the radio I felt immediately at home, so that first Radio 3 drama commission was a step forward moment too.

LW: You’ve written for TV, film, radio and theatre. Could you tell us about the different genres, and which you have most enjoyed doing? 

MB: Essentially, if you’re doing it right, they’re all the same. They all concern creating interesting characters, scenarios, compelling images, dialogue, and story. The only differences between them are purely technical. I enjoy them all and wouldn’t want to choose between them, but each in its way has challenges too. Here’s what I like or find interesting about each one …

For me, film is about placing characters in a landscape/world. Less is more, and at best it can feel mythic and pure. 

TV is very immediate, detailed, and often more disposable. When a large audience engages it can be intense, thrilling, and satisfying. 

Theatre is alive and the work constantly changes and evolves over a run. The drama lives and breathes in the moment, and a play is never finished, the work never complete. 

Radio has the writer at the centre of the experience working closely with the director/producer and actors. And the relationship with the listener is very intimate. You’re whispering into ears. Writer and listener make a pact to create the images between them. Imagination meets imagination. We meet half way.

LW: Your radio drama, Vincent Price and the Horror of the English Blood Beast, was a fictionalised look behind the scenes of the movie Witchfinder General and the working relationship between the American horror actor and British director Michael Reeves. 

How long did you work on this drama for and how did you first come up with the idea?    

MB: The Witchfinder play happened very quickly. A drama that had been commissioned for the Radio 4 Saturday afternoon slot was withdrawn late in the development process, meaning a gap had opened up (which is incredibly rare – it never happens). I was asked if I had any ideas to fill the space.  I’d always loved and had an interest in the Witchfinder General, and I’d enjoyed the legendary stories surrounding its creation. The world of the British Film Industry in the 1960s was pretty fascinating too!  The relationship between Vincent Price and Michael Reeves struck me as tense and creative. A fascinating clash of culture, generation, outlook, and personality. It also seemed very funny too.  

The film that resulted from the tensions, I felt, had a kind of gamey magic. Even though it’s now a bit dated, it still transcends its genre and touches on deeper, darker fears in ways that are unexpected and provocative. There aren’t many films that achieve that alchemy. 

I thought it would be good to explore and understand how that unlikely magic was achieved and felt that, like the film itself, a drama about it could be larger than the sum of its parts.  
I’d made notes on the subject long before I knew what I might do with them, so dug these out and developed them into a brief pitching treatment for R4 commissioning. (My notebooks are filled with ideas, and half-notions for stories like this, you never know which ones are going to fly until they do).

The Radio 4 commissioner offered me the slot and, with time being tight, I researched and wrote the play in 2 or 3 drafts over a few weeks. The process included visiting the BFI library, looking through Michael Reeves’ own scrapbooks and notebooks, speaking with his friends and colleagues, including some of the actors and crew from the original film; reading every available book on the subject, and watching lots of related film material from the era. 

It was an energizing period and very enjoyable.

I’ve worked on a number of projects over the years where real-life people are the subject: Keith Moon, Oliver Reed, Charles Manson, Marvin Gaye, Frank Zappa, Salvador Dali, and others. It’s challenging, but rewarding to get under real skin, and to try to inhabit real voices and lives.

By the end the Witchfinder experience I felt I’d got a handle on "Vinny Price and Mike Reeves." Both were driven characters of great talent, and both were vulnerable, insecure, and fragile too. Reeves was so young (he died aged 25) but had such amazing focus and ambition, and was so accomplished in his filmmaking that he seemed much older. But, looking through his scrapbooks, and seeing how he’d glued in his reviews and made little notes beside them, you could see his youth, enthusiasm and aspirations shining through. It was relatable, and very touching.

So, the play grew out of a curiosity in the subject matter, the opportunity of the cancelled play, and the discoveries made during the research.

LW:  What does a “typical” writing day involve for you?

MB: Chaos. Denial. And occasional small moments of clarity.

LW: Have you ever attempted to write a novel?

MB: No. And hadn’t thought about it until recently, when I was asked if I’d consider writing Tracks, my radio series, as a novel. (I’m still undecided). I think I do have an idea for one now though, so perhaps one day …

LW: What advice would you give to someone hoping for a career in writing? 

MB: Do what you have to do.

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Saturday 3 March 2018

Interview with Tony Williams

Tony Williams’s All the Bananas I’ve Never Eaten won the Saboteur Award for best short story collection. His poetry includes The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street and The Midlands. He lived in Sheffield for more than a decade before moving to rural Northumberland and is an academic teacher of creative writing. His debut novel, Nutcase, was published in 2017.

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: How do you get started on a new book? 

TW: With a great deal of confusion, false starts, procrastination, doubt and hubris. You have so many ideas, and they seem so promising (they have to, or you wouldn’t embark on them), but once you get started you see very quickly that they won’t work, or they’re not a book’s worth of idea. With poems and short stories it’s easier – an idea for a long poem or sequence boils down to a single-page poem, and that’s fine; you come to expect it. The difficulty comes when you end up with half a book, and then you have to decide whether you can build it into more or strip it back to something smaller.

With a novel (and this comes with the caveat that I’ve only published one) it’s a bigger problem – you have to write enough of it to be able to make a judgement on whether it’s going to work or not, but once it’s not going to work, you really want to abandon or fix it as soon as possible, so you’re not wasting effort. Though there’s probably no better learning process for a writer than to write a novel from start to finish, even if, maybe especially if, it’s not going to get published – that’s your prentice-work. I’ve an unfinished manuscript of 120,000 words somewhere, which will probably never see daylight, and it turns out I made all the mistakes in there so that I might not make them next time.

I think you know, once you’re a few sessions into writing something, whether it has potential. That feeling, when you’re writing, that you know where it will go. I don’t mean planning a plot, but having a sense, a vision, of what the whole thing will be. If you’ve got that, and it makes you smile, you’re probably on a good thing. I hate all that elevator pitch stuff, but you have to have a private pitch you can make to yourself, possibly wordless, a mirage, or a vision of a monument that you can show to yourself and say, ‘Let’s build that.’ And then the engineer in you comes out, and you start to look to see if it’s possible, this monument, or will it topple over in high winds.

I work in Scrivener, and I have seven or eight project files on the go. Every now and then I look through them, to re-evaluate, and think about what might be worth more work. (I also have one that I’m actively working on at the moment, trying to write a couple of hundred words a day.)

LW: What led you to the Icelandic saga of Grettir the Strong?  

TW: What got me started was reading. I picked up a saga at random a few years back and got hooked. Reading Icelandic sagas was this weird experience, where half the time I was thinking how bored I was, and yet I couldn’t put the book down. The sagas are very like novels in some ways – they’re about how people are shaped by social forces, and about how actions have consequences – and yet totally unlike them in others: their pace is relentless, and they never tell us how the characters feel and think. So, the more I read of these medieval not-quite-novels, the more I started to think about how I could learn from them. Could I write a novel in the style of a saga? 

The point was not to take on the subject matter. I didn’t want to write a novel about Vikings. It was more about writing a saga about contemporary life. So, I looked for a way to make the saga style work in a non-medieval context. At first, I thought I could just take some of the features I admired and use them in a novel: things like the pace and the external focus. But that didn’t really work. For one thing, the saga features got diluted, and I ended up with fiction that was just a bit quicker than usual; it was hard to keep up the discipline when all the other elements of the novel were tending towards a conventionally detailed, discursive approach. And I began to see that you couldn’t take one or two elements out of the saga, anyway, and expect them to play the same role, to mean the same thing. The sagas of Icelanders are an artistically mature genre, and they work the way they do because of the way they bring technical features together, not because of one or two features in isolation. 
So, I realised I needed to stick to the model much more closely, and the obvious way to do that was to choose a specific saga and adapt it into a contemporary setting, keeping the style and underlying structure. Grettir’s saga was then an obvious choice, because it’s really a very simple story, a tragedy in fact: the young man whose talent for violence makes him a hero but ultimately leads to his doom. 

Violence plays a very different role in our society from the role it played in medieval Iceland, where it was an accepted part of legal dispute resolution. But God knows violence is still something we live with. So, I turned Grettir into Aidan, a young vigilante living on a rough estate in Sheffield, and then the challenge of the book was to find out how the same story could play out convincingly in the modern context.

LW: A “hero” can be defined as a character with a singleness of purpose. Do you prefer your “hero’s” purpose to be dark or light in a story?  

TW: I’m not sure I mind, except that as we know the devil has all the best tunes. Nutcase is a tragedy in the classical sense, because Aidan’s talent for and propensity to violence is arguably what dooms him. (Or you could say he’s doomed anyway by his situation, that he has no real choices to make). The book’s got jokes, but it’s a tragedy. But some of my favourite books are comedies in that their heroes go through life almost invulnerably – picaresques like The Good Soldier Švejk and Simplicissimus, Moll Flanders and Humphrey Clinker

But although I do think of Grettir/Aidan in this way as a tragic hero, I’m not sure the protagonist’s purpose or even trajectory is my main concern in reading or writing. I’m a bit wary of the whole bildungsroman view of the novel, that we’re there to see a character grow in some way over the course of 80,000 words. Actually, we often don’t learn, we just repeat the same mistakes (Moll Flanders, again). That’s one reason I like the sagas, I suppose – they’re about repetition and variation, rather than a narrative arc. In that sense they seem to me more realistic in the way they portray human character.

More generally I guess I do subscribe to the idea of the realist novel – not in terms of style, necessarily, but in terms of the impulse to say something about how the world is. Again, the sagas show us how feuds and behaviour are shaped by the social structure of medieval Iceland. The feuds aren’t just jolly battles between Vikings, they’re inevitable consequences of a nation without an executive arm of government. The realist novel is the novel that tries to show us how things really are (in that sense of course a fantasy novel can be realist). The more you get divorced from that, the more it becomes just about some individual hero learning something and "growing," the more it turns into meaningless escapism, a hero who is just a stand-in for the reader, having adventures. I don’t need that. I can daydream being a hero perfectly well on my own. 

LW: When writing, do you rely on your intuitions? 

TW: Always, in the first draft. I hardly plan. I make things up in the act of writing – I find myself making things up, and it goes in because it feels right. If it feels right it’s going in, and the reader will swallow it. If it doesn’t feel right, then no amount of accurate detail or rationalising will make it work. 

Even editing is a matter of feel. You do need to iron out inaccuracies, but what you’re really doing is going through and seeing if everything hangs together, and that’s a judgement you make in your gut. There’s one bit in Nutcase, one line, in particular, that bothers me, because the feeling isn’t right. I knew that, but I thought I could get away with it. And now I think about that and it bothers me, much more than typos do, because that’s the moment when the book loses confidence in itself, however briefly. I’m not telling you which bit. A reader might not notice – might think it’s iffy at other moments. But it bothers me.

LW: You lived in Sheffield for more than a decade. Is Nutcase something of a water-damaged love letter to the city? 

TW: Absolutely it is. I love Sheffield and loved living there, but also saw and experienced some darker days. Some of the time I lived in Norfolk Park and Manor, which I guess are "disadvantaged" areas in the professional jargon. We had a car written off by a passing joyrider or drunk. There was a stabbing next door but one. It was the usual stuff that you see in a city over time, depending on how unlucky you are and where you happen to live.
But it was just life, really, not subject matter. I was mainly writing poetry at the time, and although the city came into it, I wasn’t writing so much about the kinds of places and experiences that come into Nutcase. VS Naipaul’s great autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival talks about his arriving in London in the 1950s and wanting to be a writer, but not seeing till years later that his true subject matter was all around him. It was like that for me, in the sense that I never consciously wanted to write about Sheffield. But once I had the idea for the saga novel, the Sheffield I had known presented itself to me as a possible setting, and then in the writing I discovered that I was deeply interested in representing it. Setting became subject matter, and the original impulse, the stylistic challenge set by the sagas, became not an end in itself but a means to uncovering the difficult life of the city. So yes, a "water-damaged love letter" is a good description – it’s a love letter written with open eyes, in full knowledge of the place’s faults but also with immense affection.

LW: How much of your writing is based on personal experience? 

TW: Well, I don’t think anything in the novel actually happened. Looking at my short stories, there’s one which is fundamentally non-fiction, inasmuch as it simply narrates something that really happened. But there are others, and certain moments in the novel, which draw on personal experiences more or less obliquely. My wife can’t read the stories because she says she can just see where I got an idea from. Sometimes it’s an incident which you embellish or change, but often it’s a feel or a tone – so people I know from back then have said they recognise the atmosphere. In that sense lots of the writing is based on personal experience, but in the sense that personal experience provides a kind of imaginative hinterland which you can stare into, and that helps you make things up.

LW: What is your approach to the teaching of creative writing? 

TW: There’s (still) a lot of nonsense about whether you can teach creative writing. Of course you can – but there are limits. You can’t teach people to be brilliant novelists or to win the Nobel Prize, but then you can’t teach people to be Yehudi Menuhin either, and yet it’s obvious you can teach them to play the violin. You can teach technical skills, processes, attitudes; you can help people expand their horizons; you can help them understand themselves and the task ahead of them. It’s still up to them and their own resources to do the actual writing. 

It’s also important to understand that publication is not the only measure of success for a Creative Writing student. Many will crave that. But even the ones who achieve it will find that publication is a secondary reward of the art. The primary reward is doing it and taking delight in it. And the ones who don’t go on to publish haven’t failed. You can do a degree in marine biology and not go on to be a marine biologist. It’s about education – as a good in itself, and as a way of learning skills that you can take into the rest of your life.

In terms of my approach: I think it’s important to acknowledge ignorance. Failure and ignorance. I always say to new students, of poetry especially, who may be feeling intimidated by the whole thing, that most of what I write is rubbish. I write it and immediately put it aside. I might come back to it and salvage something, but if I don’t it doesn’t concern me. Writing is trying things out, playing around, and that’s only possible if you allow for total failure as a result that won’t deter you. 

So, I say to students, the first thing you write won’t strike you as being any good, but that’s OK. That’s how it is – you write the next thing, and then the next, and sometimes you write something you’re pleased with. One poem in ten (in a hundred, even) – that’s a good success rate. (With prose it’s different of course. You can’t keep trying out an idea and then starting again, or you’ll never finish a story. But keeping going with something that doesn’t work, just to get to the end, is madness too. To the prose writers I would counsel patience, but of course that’s the last thing anybody wants to hear).

All that’s about reducing the pressure writers put themselves under. But it’s also about eliding my own authority as a teacher. We’re conditioned to think of the people who teach us as experts, and they should be. But expertise in writing does not consist in being able to write perfectly every time. It’s not about infallibility or perfect judgement. It’s about knowing how to go about the practice of writing, and if that practice typically involves multiple, continual, soul-sapping, habitual failure – and great swathes of ignorance – then it’s important that we teach that too. And more than that – we have to acknowledge it in ourselves, or the students will think we’re patronising them. 

LW: How much do you compromise when working with an editor / publisher? 

TW: Sometimes I haven’t been asked to – they’ve taken what I’ve given them and run with it. But sometimes there are conversations – it can be difficult. Amicable, but difficult in the sense that sometimes they’re right, they make you get rid of a poem, say, and after the book’s published you see they were right to do so; but sometimes you wish you’d kept it in. I try to be pragmatic. I would walk away if I felt strongly, even if my default position is being pathetically grateful.

LW: Have you ever “hit the wall” or given up on a big writing project?  

TW: All the time. Like I say, writing is 90% failure, or it feels like it anyway. The big projects I’ve given up on are novels. (Poetry manuscripts just tend to evolve, with the failures dropping out and new poems going in until the book is finished). I’ve a 120K project, unfinished, which I don’t think will ever come together even though I still love the idea. I’ve several more or less complete novels lying about which I’ll probably not go back to. There comes a point I think when you see that a project isn’t going to work, or rather that making it work would be a bigger job than just starting something new.

It’s heart breaking to give up on something. All that investment wasted. But it gets easier. And, of course the investment isn’t really wasted, because you learn from failures most of all. The next thing will be better because this one was worse.

LW: Looking back on Nutcase, what are its strengths and weaknesses?

TW: I don’t think I can answer that! I’m too close to it still; you always rate your last book better than the rest of them. What I like about it is the variety of responses readers have had to it. Some readers read it as a comedy, and some as this bleak and brutal indictment of the times. It’s supposed to be both, of course, and I like the fact that it supports both readings. In terms of weaknesses – well, I don’t want to provide ammunition. I’m sure readers, if I’m lucky enough to have them, will point the book’s shortcomings out.

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.