Tuesday 30 October 2018

Interview with Andrew David Barker

Andrew David Barker was born in Derby, England in 1975. He is a writer and filmmaker. He is the author of The Electric and the novella Dead Leaves. As a filmmaker, he wrote and directed the cult, post-apocalyptic indie feature, A Reckoning, in 2011, and has recently made the short films, Two Old Boys and Shining Tor. He lives in Warwickshire with his wife and daughter, trying to be a grown up. His website is: http://www.andrewdavidbarker.com Twitter: @ADBarker

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: As a novelist and filmmaker, who has influenced you the most? 

ADB: Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, probably. They, above all others, were possibly the first creators I knew of that made me want to write and to make films. The filmmaking thing came first as well. I was born in 1975 – the summer Jaws came out – and so I am very much of the Spielberg and Lucas generation. I’m part of the last wave of Gen-Xers; I grew up with TV and movies that gave me a sense of wonder and then came of age in the '90s when we thought life was one big party – the long hangover began around 2001. 

I’m someone who is always hungry for new inspiration. Once I find out about a new author, filmmaker, songwriter, whatever, I tend to want to find out everything about that person, soak up everything they’ve done, and once I’m sated I move onto the next artist. There are mainstay artists though, people I always come back to, but really I’m always looking for something new. I’m on a big Magnus Mills kick at the moment, who I think is fast becoming my favourite English writer. I understand his world and his characters, and he’s very funny.  
I think influences are important. I’ve written a lot about fandom – about how being inspired by a film/book/band whatever can propel you to create your own art. Without those first sparks of excitement I felt watching, say, Close Encounters or reading The Stand, I wouldn’t be doing this stuff.  

LW: What’s your definition of horror?  

ADB: That’s a tough question, but I guess it’s something that horrifies, simple as that. I tend to be drawn more to tales of the supernatural, the uncanny. Maybe it’s because I’m a parent now, but if it exists in a realm that is too real for me, I can’t do it nowadays. It has to be detached from my everyday life. So, humans killing other humans doesn’t do much for me. That said, I think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the greatest horror film ever made. I think it’s a masterpiece. An incredible piece of filmmaking that works on so many levels. It’s very much like a Grimm Fairy Tale in many ways. It’s not a film I can watch very often, but I don’t need to because it’s never left me. 

I had a love of horror films from a very early age. The first horrors I saw were the old Universal pictures, which are just beautiful to look at. Then I saw Salem’s Lot at a ridiculously young age. Yes, Tobe Hooper again. I’m sure it’s very dated now, but the memory I have of those kids scratching at the bedroom windows frightened me very badly. Dawn of the Dead was another seminal film. I was probably about nine when I first watched that and as you can imagine at that age, it had a profound effect. In many ways actually, as that was one of the first films that got me interested in filmmaking. 

I think for horror to really work it has to tap into universal fears. We all understand a fear of what lies beneath the ocean while we swim, which is why Jaws will always work. We all understand nightmares and so we have Freddy Krueger. We all understand the fear of someone wanting to murder us – Psycho, Halloween and so on.
There is the fear of something external – the monster outside – or internal – the monster inside. That is pretty much it. The best books and movies tap into those areas and to really be scary they need to peel back the many layers of our defences and strip them away one by one.     

LW: Your novel, Dead Leaves (about the video nasty area and a group of teenagers), has just been republished by Black Shuck Books after first being published in 2015 by Boo Books. Can you tell us about your experiences of having to find a new publisher?  

ADB: The world of the small press is pretty tough. No one makes any money. These publishers – and writers – do it for the sheer love of books. I think it is a pure thing. Boo Books gave me my start. They published my first novel, The Electric, in 2014, and Dead Leaves in 2015. I thought I was on a roll. Then soon after Leaves was published, Alex Davis of Boo Books had to close its doors. There is pure love, then there’s making something that is tenable. This stuff is hard to do. 

Anyway, I’m always going to be grateful for Alex giving me a start. After Dead Leaves, though, I kind of stalled with my writing. It wasn’t a writer’s block, because I was still writing, I just didn’t finish anything. I started and abandoned two novels. But also, in that time I became a parent, which, as wonderful as that has been – and it is the greatest joy in my life – it will seriously cut into your writing time. So before I knew it three years had passed since I’d published anything. Aside from a short story called "Bank Holiday All-Dayer" anyway. 

As for Black Shuck Books. I went along to Edge Lit in Derby, as I often do, which is a great writing festival, and saw Steve Shaw, who runs Black Shuck. I’d met him a few years before and got on well with him. He’d read Dead Leaves when it first came out and had told me he really liked it. Anyway, I happened to mention that I was on the lookout for a new publisher and he immediately said that he’d be interested in reissuing Leaves. That was in June of this year and it came out in September, so it happened very fast. I hadn’t sent out Dead Leaves or The Electric to any other publishers. I really should though as I’d really like to get a new publisher for The Electric. Anyway, I hope I can do more stuff with Black Shuck Books.  

LW: Your novels and short stories tend to depict the “coming-of-age genre.” Do you fear growing up? 

ADB: Ha, yes! I’m 43, but still feel like a kid most of the time. Growing up is boring. Grown ups are boring! 

I don’t know, I like the genre. There’s something about that time of firsts that has always appealed to me. It’s an exciting time, and a universal one. We all go through it and it’s always life-shaping. Who you are going to be, what you are going to love, hate, everything is formed in those early years. Plus there is a magic to childhood that we can forget when we grow up. But I never want to forget it, and writing can bring it back in very vivid ways. 
That said, it is probably time to move on. My next projects have older protagonists. I’ll more-than-likely return to writing about kids again at some point though. 

LW: Have you ever drawn on any autobiographical content for your fiction? 

ADB: Always. You’ve got to have skin in the game. All my work is drawn from my life. Dead Leaves and the short story "Bank Holiday All-Dayer" especially. That said, I don’t so much as write what I know, more write what I feel. I’m a very instinctive writer. For novels I don’t plan, don’t outline, although I do for screenplays. But for novels I like to see where the characters will lead me and through that very process, memories, feelings, moments I’ve had with people from my life always filter in. 

Like many writers, I spent a good deal of time in my early writing trying to write like authors I admired, but it never worked. You do have to find your own path, dig deep within yourself. It will give your work the honesty that will eventually become your identity. And if that identity can then connect with readers, then you’re well away. 

LW: As well as being traditionally published, you have also self-published a couple of short stories as e-books. What advice would you give for writers thinking of going down this route? 

ADB: Do it. 

Don’t wait for anybody’s permission to do any of this stuff. Get your work out into the world any way you can and don’t apologise for it. There are snobs out there about self-publishing – a lot of them established writers, it seems – that feel it’s a cheat. But a lot of doors are closed in the so-called established world. You’ve got to forge your own path. 

What I find curious is that being independent is celebrated in other areas. If you make an independent film, raise the money yourself, or, like Kevin Smith, pay for your first film yourself, it’s celebrated. It’s also inspiring. How many filmmakers were born through watching Clerks, or any number of indie films? 

If you’re a musician and you bypass the record industry and put your music out yourself, it can be celebrated. But books, no. Yet, when an Andy Weir breaks through or someone like that, a lot is made of the unsung talent out there. And there is a lot of talent out there. There’s also a lot of crap, of course. But there’s a lot of that being put out by established channels as well.  

But anyway … the walls are being torn down to a certain extent. All media is shifting. The old paradigms are crumbling. Get your stuff out there and be the best you can be. By that I mean, treat it as if you are being professionally published. Get an editor, a book cover designer; don’t just throw it out there. Think about the marketing, reviewers you might be able to tap, quotes you might be able to get. Everything a big publisher would do, apply it to your book. You won’t be able to get in Waterstone's or get reviewed by The Guardian. You might, but you probably won’t, but in everything else give it the absolute best shot you can. 

LW: One of your e-books, The Fin, is a short story, based on a scene in a film (Jaws), that was originally based on a novel by Peter Benchley. What were your thoughts when working on that story?   

ADB: Everyone who knows me knows that I’m fairly obsessed with Jaws. Spielberg’s film anyway, I don’t think Benchley’s novel is as strong. The Fin was just a bit of fun to be honest, nothing more than that. It’s fan fiction and I was certainly writing outside of my identity, which I was speaking of earlier. Although it is still about kids I suppose. I haven’t read it in a long time and it’s probably pretty clumsy, but it was fun to write and really fun to write in that world. It’s set in the world of Spielberg’s film, not really Benchley’s novel. I did think recently about taking the story down, but then decided against it. That was where I was as a writer at that point in my life. It’s a document of my abilities at that time. Every book and story is. Every film is. So that’s fine with me. Plus, I still think it’s a fun little story, and it’s very short.  

LW: Though your interests lie in the horror genre, you are yet to write a straight-forward horror novel. Do you believe that “writing scary” is a hard thing to do?

ADB: Really hard. It’s like comedy, which is also very difficult. In fact I think comedy and horror are very similar. They both work in the build-up and pay off. Plus, what scares people and what makes people laugh are very subjective, which is why I said earlier the best ones are the ones that speak to a universal truth. 

As for my writing, I haven’t written a horror novel, although I’ve written about horror. I have, however, started work on a horror novel – a '70s set, occult horror that I hope to finish one day, and I’ve just completed a short collection of ghost stories which I hope to be published next year. But really I’m interested in all kinds of stories. 

Writers are often boxed into genres, but I admire writers who break that and write across genres. I like Michael Chabon for that. He’s seen as literary, whatever that means, but very much plays around in genre, all different kinds of genre. Paul Auster is the same. I think he’s an incredible writer. Joyce Carol Oates is the same. Stephen King, who is classed as a horror writer, has written in every kind of genre there is. In fact, I think he’s only written a handful of pure, balls-to-the-wall horror novels, the rest is across the board. 

One of the main projects I’m working on seems to be a love story, very much in a kind of Nick Hornby or David Nicholls mould. It might be a detriment to my career that I’m jumping from one thing to another – that I’m not doing any one type of novel – but I can only write what I can write, and I have ideas in all kinds of genres and areas. What I try to bring to all these things though is a great sense of me, my identity. I hope that will tie them all together. 
It’s interesting to me that film directors can work in all kinds of genres and stories, and yet writers don’t have that same amount of freedom. I don’t know why that is. 

LW: What was the last novel that scared you?  

ADB: I haven’t read many horror novels in recent years, although I did read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist last year and thought it was quite brilliant. There was some very unnerving stuff in that one. I’m going through a bit of a Blatty stage at the moment. 

I did recently read James Herbert’s The Rats that I had great fun with, but it didn’t scare me. It takes a lot to scare me, in fiction anyway. The real world scares me greatly. 

I love a good ghost story. Michelle Paver’s "Dark Matter" was the last really good one I read. Actually, there’s a section in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore that really upset me. The torture and killing of cats. That was horrible. He’s an incredible writer who defies any box a publisher would try to put him in. That’s an inspiration to me. 

LW: Do you ever get disheartened with writing? 

ADB: Yes. There’s what I call the Demon Doubt. He’s an arsehole. You can be happily writing away, thrilled with what you’re creating, but you come back to it the next day and it can feel and seem completely different. It can feel like what you achieved yesterday in unbridled joy is now utter crap. That’s the Demon Doubt taking hold. 

I’ve learned to ignore him, but it is sometimes hard. Once he’s got his teeth into you, entire projects can die. Believe me, I know. 

The trick is to trick him. Leave the work for a few days, weeks even. Make him think you’ve forgotten it and then go back to the work and more often than not you’ll think, “Hey, this is pretty good” and you’re back in the game. 

Truth is though, I think it’s healthy for a writer to have doubts and fears. If I were blindly confident and thinking everything I’ve written is amazing, then I’d be really worried. That path leads to mediocre, or even crap work. 

There have been times when I couldn’t write, or just had no interest in it, but they’ve been rare. Even on bad days when the Demon Doubt is playing his merry little games with my head I’m still compelled to do the work. And I think that is the key to actually making it as a writer. Now, I haven’t made it in the West’s view of success. I haven’t made big money from my writing and I still have to have a day job, but I’ve made it in the sense that I’ve kept on going and will continue to keep on going. I need to write. It’s who I am and I think I’m a better person when I do write. That’s what my wife says anyway. 

So you have to push on through those times when it all feels pointless and you think you’ve got nothing to say. Dig deep, push through and you’ll have a piece of work that you’ll be proud of. That’s the key. Ignore the Demon Doubt and finish it.   

About the reviewer 
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 in 2017.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Review by Anthony Church of "Stained" by Abda Khan

I've come to the party late in reviewing Abda Khan's first novel, Stained. But seeing Abda speak at the recent Everybody's Reading festival about her forthcoming second novel, Razia, made me want to read her earlier work.

The Booklist
described Stained as 'a contemporary Tess of the D'Ubervilles' and that is not a bad way to define Khan's novel. Certainly Hardy fans might feel she has borrowed considerably from the classic. But Hardy was decidedly English, whilst Khan's work deals completely with the contradictions of a Pakistani community growing up in a Britain that they have made their home.

The central character, Selina, (a first person narrator) is utterly believable as a young woman caught between two cultures and trying desperately to do the right thing to prevent dishonour being brought upon her family. But what a Muslim woman like Khan brings to her narrative is a clear understanding that women like Selina have their lives moderated through the views and actions of men.

It is a powerful feminist message and not just one for the Islamic community.

Definitely a book to be read.

About the reviewer 
Anthony L Church is the principal writer for Loughborough-based Stage Left Theatre Workshop, for whom he also acts. For the company he has written A Man of Humble Beginnings, an adaptation of The Queen and I, Bella and the Tyger-Man and is working on a modern version of Hansel and Gretel. He is also the author of several short stories and poems.

Review of “The History of Crime Fiction”: A talk by John Martin

John Martin began his talk by explaining that crime fiction began with ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ published in 1841. This short story by Edgar Allan Poe was the first to feature a murder and a detective. Since then crime fiction has become a wide-ranging genre, and occupies a large part of the fiction section in libraries.

Fictional detective Sherlock Holmes first appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet in 1887. The Holmes novels dominated crime fiction until 1920 when Agatha Christie began her decades of publishing with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

We heard how Christie introduced new concepts in crime fiction: the unreliable narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; a female detective, Miss Marple, in The Murder at the Vicarage; and multiple murders in Murder on the Orient Express. Other well-known writers of the ‘Golden Years’ include Leslie Charteris (Enter the Saint) and George Simenon (The Crime of Inspector Maigret).

Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming and Alistair Maclean are among the ‘Big Names’ from the forties and fifties. Fleming’s James Bond novels are a variant on the crime novel with the action being played out on an international level. Ruth Rendall, John Le Carre, and Colin Dexter are some of the prominent crime writers of the sixties and seventies, and their popularity was boosted by the advent of the ‘TV Years’ which saw a huge increase in television adaptations of crime novels.

Crime fiction continues to evolve, and John Martin ended his comprehensive talk by outlining the most recent developments. Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo are the most well-known of the Scandinavian crime writers. ‘Domestic Noir, a term first used in relation to fiction by Julia Crouch, includes Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of National Poetry Day Event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham

Time is of the Essence: Three poets launch their latest collections at Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham and help celebrate National Poetry Day, 4th October, 2018.

It could be argued all poems reveal an obsession with time. The form itself demands something else of the writer: a sort of shorthand or sketching ability over the usual compulsion to provide readers with a full, intimate study of a particular setting, character or situation. Poems have to be compact, immediately engaging - the voice, everything. It is not that good verse does not require a great deal of time to craft, but even the heavily revised and redrafted can be read aloud in a few minutes, which makes them of the moment: of the present.

Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham) is hidden away down a side alley in the city centre, and has recently been named Independent Bookshop of the Year (British Book Awards, 2018). This event was held to celebrate National Poetry Day and mark the launch of three new collections by local writers.  Rebecca Cullen’s Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings (Smith/Doorstop Books) is centred on the power of memory to shape and re-shape subjective experience. Sue Dymoke’s What They Left Behind (Shoestring Press) celebrates the immediacy of the present and the poet’s role in capturing the small and powerful details of life going on around us. Whilst Jonathan Taylor’s Cassandra Complex (Shoestring Press) serves as a meditation on the long-standing power of prophecy in shaping our perceptions of personal and political biography. 

Standout moments from Cullen’s choice of readings this evening included ‘Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings,’ which explores the impotency of a mother unable to shield her child from the horrors of a conflict going on around them, where ‘the guns shine in the sun' and even a blackbird ‘likes the meat hanging on the goalposts’ of a local football stadium. In ‘Swimming in a Lake,’ sensory experience is personified, becoming ‘the shock of cold water, swallowing your thighs’ or the ‘metal taste of ache.’ Many pieces gain additional weight when performed, not least of all ‘When I found my father in my thirties’ where Cullen issues a warning to a man who suddenly appears and expects to assume a critical role in the lives of those he has ignored for decades. ‘You can’t give up your daughter, then collect her children.’ For this poet, errors of the past cannot always be so easily undone and she reminds us that time is not the greatest of healers.   

Dymoke treated her audience to a number of humorous and poignant poems from her collection, including ‘Their Pinnies,’ whereby generations of women from the same family are adorned with this ‘household armour’, the poet using this single motif to remark on the confines of female identity and servitude - an item of clothing ‘Never ever worn by men.’  In the equally-amusing ‘I Know this City’ she brings to life a local Wetherspoon’s pub, of people who ‘like to drink and plan their stages of inebriation,’ warning the ‘wrong kind of Sambuca selfie shot can be a horror.’ Her collection contains some visually challenging poems for readers to enjoy, but one she shared with us that evening, ‘What They Left Behind,’ is presented as a list of objects that were discovered in Hiroshima following the atomic explosion of 1945.  People and objects are organised as a mere inventory: ‘Her uniform / His tricycle / Her daughter’s hair.’ Here, the poet re-visits a defining moment from history and shows how personal artefacts – including poems – are there for future generations to use as a way to collectively remember the horrors of the past. 

Taylor’s poems also gained a great deal in performance. The author provided some context about Cassandra of Greek mythology - a princess of Troy and daughter to Priam and Hecuba - who was blessed with the gift of seeing the future, but cursed in that no-one ever believed her. Taylor uses this conceptual framework to revisit a tapestry of long-forgotten myths, not least to comment on the cyclical nature of civilisations: the rise and fall of human endeavour. He often casts himself as the poet-clairvoyant, with ‘refugees from an Apocalypse yet to happen … flooding through the time-gate in bloodied rags,’ predicting it will be the ‘godless, hairdressers, authors … ’ who will be ‘shoved back / whingeing they can’t win on either side of history’ (Teleology II). Other highlights include ‘Determinism’ in which he ponders how chaos theory may or may not have played a pivotal role in bringing he and his wife together, the highly comical poems ‘Pitch for a Horror Movie’ and ‘Person Specification,’ as well as the emotionally-charged ‘Liar,’ in which a father’s assurances to his son following an accident that ‘everything – head, world, etcetera – would be okay,’ are considered a lie by the adult left alone in the world. Taylor’s collection proves time sets out to make fools of us of all, holding us to account for the words we once said – either in jest or all-seriousness - whilst holding a mirror up to the mistakes yet to be made by our future selves. 

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at the University of Warwick. 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. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of publications including Aesthetica, Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature and Education in Practice (National Association for Writers in Education).

Sunday 21 October 2018

Review by Eliot John of "The Mars Room" by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room is Rachel Kushner’s third novel, short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It centres on Romy Hall, her experiences in the American prison system and the lives of women who are also prisoners. 

In the first chapter, Romy’s narration describes a man from her past who "didn’t understand about people who grew up in the city, the nihilism, the inability to go to college or join the straight world, get a regular job or believe in the future." The people that she describes are those at the centre of Kushner’s novel. The Mars Room is not an easy read, and I refrain from saying that it’s not an enjoyable read because I found that I couldn’t put it down once I had started. The tone of the novel is nihilistic and delivers a bleak and realistic depiction of life in an American prison.

The women are treated as uneducated “imbeciles” although we see that they are anything but. They manage to make "home meals" out of creamer, stolen items from the dining hall and Raman’s that you couldn’t imagine. Conan (a transvestite) starts a dildo-business, forging the phallic-objects out of wood whenever the guard turns a blind eye. The flush system on the toilet turns into their version of The Royal Mail. It both highlights the desperation of these women, and lack of amenities, whilst also channelling a dark and bizarre humour.

In recent years, Orange is the New Black has made prison life exciting and almost glamorous, yet The Mars Room buries itself in the political jeopardy that prisoners actually face. Betty LaFrance, an infamous inmate on death row and former model, brags about her life before prison and the evidence for her conviction, "a photo of her lying nude under a pile of money." However, after the postal-toilet flushes up the actual photo, Romy and Sammy are left speechless, staring at a corpse-like body buried under stacks of dollars. 

Sporadically the narration shifts to follow the guard, Gordon Hauser. The focus of these chapters drifts to the land around his cabin and the general destruction of American land due to oil farming: "Machines shook the almond trees in synchronous violence." You can’t help but compare this trope to the women we learn so much about. Is the mechanical American prison system nothing more than a destructive force? Kushner encourages readers to fight for a reform of the system through realistic stories and experiences. 

The Mars Room begins on "Chain Night," the evening that Romy and sixty other inmates are shuffled into prison like cattle – and you will feel like you are one of them.

About the reviewer
Eliot John is an MA Creative Writing student who specialises in flash fiction and monologues. She is currently writing her first novel on feminism and rape culture. Recurring themes explored in her work include loss of identity, sexuality, ethics, and the vices of modern culture. 

Friday 19 October 2018

Review of "Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary": A poetry workshop with Cathy Grindrod

At the beginning of the workshop (an Everybody's Reading event) we were asked what image came to mind when we heard the word ‘change’, and each participant described something different. The exercise was to demonstrate that the image that comes to mind is the place to start a poem, to be ourselves in our writing, and to use our experiences in our own way.

Working in pairs, we generated answers to a selection of ‘What is …?’ questions (for example, the moon, a bat, a seed). This encouraged us to think beyond the obvious and focus on the precision of words to create fresh descriptions. To illustrate this further, we read ‘Refrigerator, 1957’ by Thomas Lux, and discussed the phrases that made an impact and brought the poem alive. Maraschino cherries were ‘fiery globes, / like strippers at a church social’ in contrast to a ‘childhood of dull dinners – bald meat, / pocked peas’.

Fruit and vegetables provided the prompt for one of the longer writing activities. We were invited to combine close observation with associations and life experiences to create a poem of eight lines. Cathy Grindrod encouraged us to look at everyday objects with fresh eyes, to enjoy the words in our writing, and to subvert the norm to surprise the reader. After fifteen minutes, we had produced a wide variety of ideas in our first drafts: plums inspired childhood memories and reflections on regional accents; and an orange prompted a poem about a child’s hope to grow their own tree.

Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary included all the essential elements of a successful poetry workshop: a small number of participants; analysis of poems by published poets; a combination of short and longer writing activities; time to give and receive feedback on each other’s writing; and ideas for further development.

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Friday 12 October 2018

Interview with Carrie Etter

American writer Carrie Etter has lived in England since 2001 and taught Creative Writing at Bath Spa University since 2004. She has published four collections of poetry: The Tethers (Seren, 2009), winner of the London New Poetry Prize, Divining for Starters (Shearsman, 2011), Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014), shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry by The Poetry Society, and The Weather in Normal (Seren, 2018), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Winter 2018. Her individual poems have appeared in The New Republic, The New Statesman, Poetry Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other journals worldwide, and her short stories have appeared in several anthologies as well as numerous journals, and a collection of stories Hometown was published in 2016. Carrie's website is https://www.carrieetter.com/

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: What made you want to write?

CE: I started writing poetry and stories regularly from the age of eleven, and I suppose some of the motivations are the same: the pleasure of working with words, of creating stories and poems others can inhabit; the intellectual challenge in grappling with different ideas, forms, etc.; the drive to understand myself and my world better through language ....

LW: Is minimalism important to fiction?

CE: Minimalism is one stylistic approach, and there are many minimalist writers I admire, but I've read much fiction I enjoyed that defies its suggested boundaries. I'm a pluralist when it comes to both fiction and poetry in that I appreciate a wide range of styles.

LW: Raymond Carver once said that the reason he wrote short stories and poetry was because he liked to “Get in, get out. Not linger.” Does that apply to your own work?

CE: I suppose these shorter forms mean I'm not lingering in the way one would in writing a novel, but I have no eagerness to get out! I love the work of a poem or story, the creative challenges of each new work, and always want more time to write. 

LW: What importance do you attach to dialogue in your stories?

CE: I'm fascinated by the way we interact with one another in speech – the things half said, the abrupt confessions, the negotiations, so I tend to use a fair amount of dialogue. I used to love teaching Raymond Carver's slim collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, for the discussions that would arise around the perceptiveness of his dialogue. 

LW: How do you bring your poems and stories to a close?

CE: That really varies with the individual piece. I certainly don't want the endings to try to point the reader toward a definitive meaning. In a story, it's partly about fulfilling the piece's arc, the protagonist's journey in that moment in time, which gives a story a sense of wholeness or completeness. In a poem I suppose I'm usually more instinctively pursuing a motive, an idea, and have a strong sense of when that has been fulfilled. 

LW: You were born in Illinois and later lived in California, before moving to the UK in 2001. Has living in England influenced or changed your writing?

CE: Living in England has definitely affected my writing in numerous ways. One, I read a far higher percentage of British and Commonwealth authors than I did before I moved here – that exposure has been really nourishing, though I should add that I try to keep up with other Anglophone writers as well. Two, the smaller size of the UK gives me a stronger sense of community, a greater sense of engagement and involvement.  

LW: What next?

CE: My next fiction project is to complete a full collection of short stories of varying lengths (and so flash fiction will feature, but there will be longer stories as well) and hope to get started this autumn. Responding to these questions has made me all the more eager to begin!

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 in 2017.

Thursday 11 October 2018

Review by Andrew Doubt of "Waiting for the Nightingale" by Miles Burrows

Miles Burrows was born in Leicester in the 1930s. Last year he published his second book of poetry after a gap of fifty years. These eighty poems are a joy, shot through with humour; they weave big themes of love, death, memories and poetry from life’s experience.

The first verse of the eponymous opening poem considers birdsong on the Indian subcontinent; the second imagines ‘the wandering major in the foothills’ thinking about ‘his own wife back in Hazelmere / With that awful car salesman type’; the third asks whether John Keats is any use to the birdwatcher in the field, illustrating his irreverent approach both to colonial history and to poetry.

He leads us to believe that he has loved many and often. In 'It’s Eight O’Clock', he cannot
remember which one of five women he shared an experience with twenty years earlier; he reports her saying, ‘It’s not love it’s like margarine.’ 'Pussycats' starts: ‘They used to leave their stilettoes by the door / As I recall, coming in barefoot to my study / In nothing but deerstalkers‘ but, ’Now, splitting up is cool … / I’m let go … / Like an old retainer locked accidentally in a home up for sale.’ In 'The Second Affair': ‘At twenty-five, Mutus thought that embarking on a second affair - / …Would be like having a second slice of cake.’

Death is treated in a similar way. In 'Letter to an Elderly Poet': ‘Relax, your rivals are dead.’; in 'Four Last Things' he suggests learning a foreign language, not to keep the brain active, but ‘You could surprise people / By speaking words in German as you die.’; and in 'Junk Mail', ‘I appreciate that you are dead, but even so… / …that intimate sigh / Into the ear, that wakes me at midnight - / Is it really from the orthopaedic mattress?’. 'Should Catullus be Read by Old People?' sees the funny side of living in an old people’s home.

His classical and literary allusions are fun to search out, though sometimes he does it for you: ‘I googled frottage yesterday’ he says in 'Cold Calling'.

Many of the poems deal with memories of home and schooldays, of his time studying classics and medicine at Oxford, and working as a doctor and psychiatrist in Britain and Asia. There are references to the Little Theatre, Leicester Mercury, London Road and tennis on Carisbrooke Road. In 'A Faulty Connection' he says: ‘- If I can get away with [saying, switch it] orf / People may think my parents don’t live in Leicester / But in Eaton Square.’

Although most of the poems are written in spare, conversational free verse, there are poems in sonnet form, poems that alternate just two rhymes throughout, as in 'Trouble at the Nunnery', and poems that half-rhyme, for example, ‘Imogen’, ‘imagine’ and ‘Sanatogen’ in 'Across the Road'. In 'English Provincial Poetry' he writes ‘Rhyme is no more needed than a two-tone doorbell.’ 

The book’s a many-toned delight.

About the reviewer
Andrew Doubt is a former physicist, engineering analyst and marketeer. He has spent half his life in Leicester, after working in mainland Europe. His interests range through literature and philosophy, science and the arts, long-distance walking and the environment, to family, friends and grandchildren. Currently, he’s writing sketches of close relatives from childhood memories, as well as occasional short stories.

Review by Victoria Pickup of "sometime we are heroes" by Reuben Woolley

Reuben Woolley’s some time we are heroes invites and almost forces a new way of reading. His style breaks rules and defies convention, not as an act of rebellion but with intent and conviction at its core. Just as the continuing theme of water ebbs and flows throughout this collection, the reader is encouraged to forego the need to explain or even entirely comprehend the verse, instead letting the poetry wash over them with its beauty, eloquence and dramatic form. In '& mary is the name of her today,' the poet skilfully lays out the lines to complement their meaning: ‘where she walks / on wet sand / & all the fury / waits /a wave / a sliding land’, as the poem itself takes the form of a lapping tide. 

A powerful ambience runs throughout Woolley’s poetry, with many dazzling phrases - ‘we look for small / whispers / they’re darkly gold & almost / shining’ ('exits & hiding places') -  amidst the stutters and stops of the line breaks and apparently disordered poetic form ('taking stock/the old gallows'):


leaves crackle
                        in cold
                        ground & winter’s
a place to sleep in

As shown here, Woolley’s poetry gives us a fractured moment created from the deliberately haphazard presentation. This style adds life and spontaneity to the verse, whilst also using the line breaks and scattered format to present the reader with multiple ways of reading or relating to each poem. Without the clutter of punctuation and confinements of grammar, arguably, experimental verse results in a deeper, more profound meaning being exposed. 

I felt that Woolley’s style requires me to enter a state of poetic mindfulness, letting go of convention to savour and share in the immediate moment with the main characters in this collection, John and Mary: their love, their sadness, their bitterness, and ultimately, their longing – for each other and for a distant past.  

The couple’s romance is beautifully depicted in this stanza from '& once again.no one': ‘two step / quick / & a kiss in the dark.i’ll / blow the flame and leave / just the glow / of old/ coals / to light a breast’. There is much to lament too; the broken verses hinting at a lapse in memory and loss of time, as in 'old bows breaking over': ‘Fold up time / & pack it away’.

Amidst these lingering, soulful verses come embittered and sinister poems, which arise out of the ashes of what is often portrayed as a tired and at times resentful relationship. In 'storms are not lead.they stink': ‘I learnt to keep my mouth / closed / said mary / breathe / through my nose.sometimes / he’s minnows/sometimes the shark’. The fear Mary feels is palpable in the darkly atmospheric 'behind the trees are shadows': ‘it’s wild / this wood / we’re walking through / john / I’m catching on briars.they’re / scratching my eyes / red / liquor / to fill a cup’. 

The threat turns to violence in 'no fine butchery no': ‘between / your nerve & nerve / I cut / thin / & twist / am no / ordinary / torturer / I’ll stay & / dig / further’. There are many references to bleeding, although Woolley also touches on pain as a symbol of humanity in 'cutting out & sewing': ‘i wear my cuts / with pride / she says … touch me here / & here my love / pain / is just a reminder / i bear / a daughter / john’. 

The brutality is frequently juxtaposed with slow, reflective verses in this collection. The bitterness is washed away by the frequent references to water, which seems to provide soothing qualities as well representing surrender. In 'shadows of whales.passing', which is itself a beautiful title, ‘& / he said / come mary … it is my water / memory / where rain takes / everything … we’re here in simple confusion’. Comfort is found in the metaphor, and again in stories of dry water: ‘john says she steps / in silence / keeps me in seas / I only sail inside.’ Although whether John feels comfort or claustrophobia is subject to the reader’s interpretation.

As a relative newcomer to experimental poetry such as Woolley’s, I leave this collection with my thoughts fully outside of the box. Playing with the rules is a risky business, but with reflective, concentrated reading, there is so much to be gained, and indeed, so much to admire.

About the reviewer
Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the CafĂ© Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: ‘The Chicken that Saved my Children.’ She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken. 

Review of “Independent Publishing: the joys and tribulations” – a talk by Karin Koller

Karin Koller began her talk by stating that she was an enthusiast rather than an expert in the world of independent publishing.

Soundswrite Press was set up in 2005 with the aim of publishing occasional anthologies of poetry written by members of Soundswrite, a women’s poetry group. Since then, a total of four anthologies, three collections and four pamphlets of poetry have been published. Careful attention has been paid to the aesthetic aspects of the books, and I'm delighted that three of my poems are included in the 2015 anthology.

Outlining the processes involved, Karin Koller made everything sound quite straightforward, and offered advice for anyone considering setting up their own press. She recommended using a print-on-demand service and stressed the importance of investing in a proof copy. She also suggested looking at publications by other presses for design ideas.

Quirky Press, as its name suggests, was established to publish unconventional books and pamphlets. The first publication in 2015, was Somali Lullabies featuring illustrations, English translations of the lullabies, and a CD. This was followed by A Handful of Hungarian Earth - one family’s story of the 1956 Hungarian uprising told in letters written by Anna Koller Eady.

The latest Quirky Press publication is Leonie Orton’s memoir, I had it in me. Leonie Orton is the youngest sister of Leicester-born playwright Joe Orton. Part of the publishing process involved dealing with challenges relating to copyright in order to include quotes from letters written by Peggy Ramsey, Joe Orton's agent. Quirky Press also experienced problems with the print run, and future independent publishers were advised to allow plenty of time to check for, and resolve, any errors before the launch date! Approximately seven hundred copies of the memoir have been sold, and there is now a Kindle edition. Extracts of the book are also available on the British Library website.

Karin Koller is clearly enthusiastic and, after publishing fourteen books, has a great deal of expertise. Once again, she is taking on a new challenge: Take Three will be published in 2019 by Soundswrite Press, and will showcase debut collections of poetry by three women poets.

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Please Hear What I’m Not Saying" edited by Isabelle Kenyon

Words are powerful and these words are more powerful than most. They burst through the gaps and silences surrounding mental health with brutal and searing honesty.

It is sometimes said that creativity comes from a dark place, forged from an intense sensitivity to the highs and lows of what it is to be human. It is certainly true of these poets, who write from direct experience of their own or loved ones’ mental illness.

Images are surprising, sometimes shocking. Grief is a ‘cruel handbag - / its catch snaps shut like jaws’ burying ‘an old compact, / hankie embroidered with an M.’ Clothes are ‘a pile of ugly cocoons’ provoking unwelcome memories of childhood. When ‘Baby Blues / were cover for the hopeless days,’ a baby boy is strapped to his mother’s chest, hidden under a blue raincoat as his mother contemplates suicide. Another baby is ‘kicking out sweet baby legs - / his fat oaf of a mother crawling, hands and knees, walrusing the floor / in search of filth.' Dementia is ‘a sleeping sickness / that makes a drought / of memory.' Anxiety is to ‘walk on the needles / of all my worries, / nettling and biting.’

In ‘My Father’s Paranoia’ Jonathan Taylor writes movingly about  how he once said he would cut the hedge when he was ‘less busy’ and then seeing his father, ‘in a sweat, trembling, / falling over, fitting, minor-stroking ... and all I know now / is how un-busy I actually was / that hot Sunday.’

In my own poem I try to convey the visceral jolt of a sudden descent into depression, the  ‘hangman’s drop to Hades.’ But there is also hope, that ‘streaks of sunlight / will diminish the dark.’

There are moments of beauty, of appreciation of small moments, of survival in these poems which are accessible and engaging but also profound. Those who have felt isolated by mental illness may respond with a sense of recognition, and for others there are opportunities for new insights and understanding.  Crass comments about ‘having an OCD day‘ or patronising ‘jokes’ about ‘schizophrenia’ are challenged here in a way that is courageous and empowering.

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell ‘s poems and short stories have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Agenda and Fairacre Press. She has an MA from Loughborough University, and taught creative writing there for several years. She enjoys working on local history projects, giving a voice to those who have been silenced, such as local witches and Leicester Conscientious Objectors of the First World War. 

Sunday 7 October 2018

Review of Everybody’s Reading event – Poetry workshop with John Hegley

John Hegley’s poetry workshop was attended by approximately twenty-five people spanning a wide-range of ages and levels of writing experience.

We began by reading Hegley’s poem, ‘Guillemot’, for inspiration. The poem opens with the following lines: 'I am a guillemot / I use my bill a lot. / I get the fish out of the wet, I eat my fill a lot.'

The group drew up a list of three-syllable words as a starting point for writing. Our list included loveliness, fellowship, anarchy, animals and parallel. We were asked to choose one or more words and to play with language in our writing as Hegley had in ‘Guillemot’. Invited to share our work, without any pressure to do so, we read out our acrostic poems, and poems which incorporated several of the listed words.

Our next challenge was to tear out a leaf shape from a sheet of paper (more difficult than it sounds) and ‘fill it with leafiness’! We continued to write short pieces about elephants, dogs and peanuts on small pieces of paper. Thankfully we didn’t have to create paper shapes of elephants or dogs, just peanut shells! Words and/or drawings were encouraged and appreciated when shared with the very supportive group.

The prompt ‘mistaken identity’ generated a variety of responses: political, surreal, poignant, and humorous. Our last writing topics were hands and footsteps: our words contained within outlines of our hands and feet.

The two-hour workshop was very lively, with lots of humour and music. At the end of the session, our leaves, peanuts, elephants and dogs all came together to create a poetree. In case you are wondering, the elephants were for the trunk and the dogs were for the bark!

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Saturday 6 October 2018

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Dirty Laundry" by Deborah Alma

These vivid and sensual poems sing of women’s strength and survival, sexuality and subversiveness. Deborah Alma offers readers an invitation to share her story, perhaps with '...some smoky tea / and two china cups / laid out with a silver spoon / on an embroidered table cloth.' The power of female friendship shines through and creates a space in which women’s voices are heard. The opening poem is dedicated to Jo Cox, silenced by murder, and in ‘Still Life’ an abusive partner ‘pulls the words from under her feet / as he stamps and stamps and stamps.’

Perhaps the implied question underlying these poems is ‘How did I get here from there', the '1950’s baby overwrapped in a perambulator / with its bouncing chassis?' There are ‘a silver of bangles on a wrist, round mirror chips embroidered / in the the hem of my clothes, my white skin seen tiny times over, / sequins sown into my childhood.’  The sense of difference and exclusion is disturbing, the ‘mix up family half caste council estate bastard.’ In the North London school ‘Miss Minchin says I must show the children / my clothes from Pakistan’ ... ’as I turn round and round up on teachers’ tables / to twist in my pretty pink pyjama suit / like a little blonde doll.'

Shifting roles are charted sensitively. In ‘I am My Own Parent’ there is no longer any need for ‘My Dad’ to pick up beloved red shoes ‘by the scuffs of their dirty necks / and leave them shining in the morning.’ A neat piece of magic realism has sisters swapping eyes, ‘left with little chance of rejection / each looking into our own eyes.’ A broken mug, thrown into the sink by a mother who ‘Moves into Adolescence’ cannot be replaced and it is ‘Suddenly, / terribly, unbearably sad / that there is no Woolworths, / I tell her to go and never come back.’

Sexual experimentation and erotic possibilities are celebrated.’To start with I tried sex with a space hopper’, curiosity leading on to a pencil, a swingers group who ‘drank tea in the intermission / in a Llandrindod Wells hotel’ and a lustful encounter in a cattle lorry on the A49. There is pride in the strength of thighs which could ‘wrestle attacking Picts’, but there are the inevitable judgements and condemnation. The priest’s book ‘open at Revelation’ is countered, bizarrely, with images of dead popes’ penises ‘pickled and preserved’, a practice so weird it is probably true. (I wasn’t going to google ‘popes and penises’ to find out!)

Dark humour is used to painfully excise the wounds of failed and abusive relationships. ‘Only God or his grandmother / could love him the way he wants to be loved.’ Nursery rhymes and fairy stories take on disturbing resonances – ‘After the bird the spider the fly / ... perhaps I’ll die.’ The brutality of the natural world is evoked, a cuckoo ejecting fledglings, ‘and so, in my own kind of pain / push the big baby over the edge, / see it fall on the concrete.’ ‘Dissociation’ is chilling in its listing of strategies developed to cope with abuse. And there is poignant acknowledgement of the price of escape, no one but the AA man to call after a car accident, a ‘yellow striped dress / with deep pockets,' in which 'there is string, a pin, / garden wire and three sweet pea seeds’ but no money.  But there is also the growth of power and strength, the expression of rage – ‘Do you walk on eggshells asked the therapist? No I crunch through / them in my Doc Marten boots.’

There is pleasure and solace in ‘making things tidy’ as my Welsh mother used to say. In the title poem, ‘I hang up a rough white linen sheet / some pretty skirts / a raspberry nightie / and lemon-yellow pants. / I am wiser than Canute / against a tide of grey.’ There is gentle recall of past homes ‘here is the mountain ash I planted / come tall now.’ But there are also ‘plastic soldiers taking aim, / still kneeling steadfast in the dirt.’ Taken for granted, the ‘Angel in the House’ can turn nasty as ‘She hangs up her wings / in the understairs cupboard. / She takes up the three pronged fork.’

The narrative of the poems conveys a strong sense of the passage of time, from the confidence of ‘I will shake off this man I am wise enough / witch enough to know that I can cast again’ to ‘We heal more slowly as we age / don’t quite recover our old selves,’ become fearful, like the chicken, ‘not sure anymore / that we want to cross the road.’ But perhaps there is also wisdom gained, a fantasy not acted upon, a ‘Co-op carrier bag-for-life full of regret and relief, / I found green sequins scattered in the street.’  A magic spell which enchants men ‘Sewn into a tiny felt pocket, pinned into my knickers’ is passed on to a younger woman, ’A gift or curse, I cannot tell.’ There is sympathy for a young woman with ‘naive city eyes ‘I could see me in her bit, / twenty years ago, before babies, divorce, / Guardian soulmates, other shit.’

There is anxiety about ageing, ‘When I am old’... 'Will a lover recognise me / from more than 200 yards / across a car boot sale?’ and in a disturbing dream, ‘... here she is, the crone in her feathered nest,’ who passes her a folded fan with ‘ japanned panels, / a white lily, lavender, a dandelion, a rose.' ‘Oh but  I cannot make it neat again. / I cannot get it back to how it was before.’

But there is also a sense of contentment and peace, in ‘Morning Song', ‘the women I have been no longer fight their corners ...They stay and stare, these women, across the hazy / sunstrewn wooden floor of my dreams / and my ageing; the mirror crazed / and hung with beads, the pink and the red.’ The joy of a warm and trusting relationship is evoked in ‘The Dog Knows its Mistress,’ ‘scratch my back where the bra strap is too tight and release the clasp / let my breasts sag and sigh out / with a wonder of release.’ There is also anticipation, a sense of excitement at what is to come, ‘I still choose the window seat on buses, / trains and planes, and ‘Fortune lives in a hut / in the garden...’ It is to write poems in / to please Fortune.’ Something for us all to look forward to.

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell‘s poems and short stories have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Agenda and Fairacre Press. She has an MA from Loughborough University, and taught creative writing there for several years. She enjoys working on local history projects, giving a voice to those who have been silenced, such as local witches and Leicester Conscientious Objectors of the First World War.