Thursday 25 August 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Death of a Bookseller" by Bernard J. Farmer

If you are a crime fiction fan, you will be aware of the wonderful series published by the British Library of out of print crime classics that they have reintroduced for public consumption. The breadth of work covered is mesmerising and some have once again become best sellers.

I have just finished reading Death of a Bookseller in two sittings over coffee and cake at my favourite pub, the Royal Oak in Kirby Muxloe. It is a place highly conducive for reading crime fiction. All the usual suspects drink there!

I usually prefer the Golden Age of Crime, but this novel was written in 1956, the author unknown to me and the echoes of the period are clear even now. 

We are introduced to policeman Sergeant Jack Wigan who befriends bookseller Michael Fisk. Early in the novel the bookseller is murdered and the crime blamed on the unfortunate Fred Hampton, an unpleasant man without a friend in the world. Wigan believes him to be innocent of the crime, even when he is convicted and sentenced to death. 

He fights to clear his name and his journey is faithfully recorded here, as along with new-found friends Charlie North and Searle Connington he endeavours to do this, despite Hampton being the most unsympathetic and ignorant of clients. 

The story delves into the murky 1950s world of book selling where a slash of the razor is as regular as under-the-counter payments. We meet unscrupulous book sellers the Ferrow brothers and the sleazy Corky Edwards, the glamorous Ruth Brent and American multi-millionare Dithan Dand as well as a less than endearing Detective Inspector Saggs. There are so many characters who are described so eloquently that we struggle to discover the culprit until all is revealed. 

Books are stolen and resold, enmities cultivated and entrenched, the merest slight never forgotten. One cannot envisage the Waterstones Bookseller to behave in this manner but who knows? The denouement is blood-curdlingly fulfilling as Wigan fights to the very end to clear Hamptons name. You will enjoy this romp through the bookshops of London and might even be inclined to become a book collector yourself as the leading lights in the novel do. A gem.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Detective Inspector Huss" by Helene Tursten

Following in the footsteps of Swedish crime writers, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, we are invited into the world of a detective and, through them, discover what life is like in Sweden. There is so much more in the Irene Huss novels than a simple crime and discovery and that is how it should be. That is the true delight of the stories. 

In brief, to introduce the main characters, Irene Huss is around forty years of age and is a police inspector working in Göteborg with the Violent Crimes Unit. She is happily married to a chef, Krister. She has twin girls Kristina and Jenny and a dog, Sammie. Many years ago she was European champion at jujitsu. 

Work colleague Tommy Persson is her best and oldest friend. They have known each other since the police academy. Indeed, Irene feels the pull of family in the police force as she says: “We’re just like an old married couple … though she’d never said so out loud.” 

Her boss, Commissioner Sven Andersson, is actually too old for his job and should retire, but he does not want to. He regularly has high blood pressure and worries Irene. 

Jonny Blom is the most unsympathetic of her work colleagues, always on the edge with a spiteful selfish nature. He seems to represent the old fashioned machismo side of the police. Jonny Blom is a corrosive influence within the group. If this was real life, he would have been formally reprimanded for his misogynistic behaviour and I see his character as a weakness in the series. It is all well and good having a defective character, but it has to be true to life. He is an embarrassment and disciplinary proceedings would have been started against him. Blom may be married, but his womanising and drinking as well as his sexism and intolerance would not be acceptable in a modern police force. To say that his boss has old-fashioned values, so doesn’t really understand Blom’s faults, is a little naïve and he doesn’t confront him as he should. Blom is tolerated more as a dramatic device, but I feel in real life he would have been ostracised by his work colleagues, especially after his sexual assault on Birgitta, and sanctioned by his bosses for his intemperate and inappropriate behaviour.

Fredrik Stridh, Hannu Rauhala, Birgitta Moberg and Svante Malm are more sympathetic colleagues and we can warm to them all. The final main character is Professor Doctor Yvonne Stridner who is the forensics specialist. Brilliant at her job, she seems to intimidate everyone in the office, especially Andersson.

The Irene Huss series by Helen Tursten is unique in Scandinavian crime fiction in that as well as being a contemporary story about a Göteborg Detective who has made it to the top, the stories also show that she’s happily married with her two daughters and lives a normal family life as a contrast to the seedy, unpleasant, and often violent work she is involved in. It is the everyday ordinariness of Swedish life that is pivotal here and so the awful murders that do occur stand out in their savagery compared to the day-to-day actions at home.

If you start with Detective Inspector Huss, her first novel, you will be on a journey into Swedish crime and the metamorphosis of a character who should be more widely read.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

You can read more about Utrecht Snow on Creative Writing at Leicester here.

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Not So Quiet" by Helen Zenna Smith

In 1930 author Evadne Price was asked by her publisher to write a spoof of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Instead, she wrote a serious work, based on the now-lost diaries of Winifred Young, who served in France during the war as a volunteer ambulance driver.

As Helen Zenna Smith, Price wrote a supposed semi-biographical account providing an incredible female insight to the horrors of World War I. Not So Quiet criticises nationalism and the social, physical, and psychological effects of the war upon England's youth, men and women.

Praised by the Chicago Sun-Times for its "furious, indignant power," this story offered a rare, funny, bitter, and feminist look at war. First published in London in 1930, Not So Quiet ... (On the Western Front) describes a group of British women ambulance drivers on the French front lines during World War I, surviving shell fire, cold, and their punishing commandant, "Mrs. Bitch." The novel's power comes from Smith's outrage at the senselessness of war, at her country's complacent patriotism, and her own daily contact with the suffering and the wounded.

At the heart of the novel is the juxtaposition between the families of the young women back in England, who are puffed up with pride for what their girls are doing and the visions of glory that come with it, and the realities of the women’s lives on the front. Details are not skimped here and we are plunged into the filth, the squalor, and of course the unrelenting gore of transporting the critically injured soldiers from the battlegrounds to the war hospitals. Quickly Helen becomes bitter about her mother’s constant boasting about what she is doing and, when Helen is sent home ill for a time, she is faced with repeated encouragement to get better quickly and get back out there, if not to do her duty then to make her mother proud.

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is seeing Helen gradually stop caring what her family think. In particular, there is the matter of hair. One of Helen’s new friends, Tosh, has chopped her long hair short, to the horror of some of the other volunteers. How ghastly and unfeminine! But in the filth of the situation, dealing with long hair is nothing more than another inconvenience in a life filled to the brim with them. The difference with hair is that you can do something about it. Yet, Helen is reluctant to do the same, and that reluctance comes from one place: her mother. The moment, about halfway through the novel, when she does chop her hair off, is an important symbol of her increasingly fractured relationship with her family, and more importantly, her family’s expectations.

When Helen is at home, ill, she becomes determined that she will not go back to France. She will not even get a "cushy" job in England. She is done with war, absolutely.

Helen’s sister, Trix, is also a "war girl," and comes back to England pregnant and in need of an abortion. The first thing she does is beg Helen not to tell her parents that she is in the country. Helen is against the abortion – not for moral reasons, but because it is dangerous, and girls die having them – and asks whether the man might marry her. Trix declares it could be any one of three men, and so Helen agrees to raise the money needed. There is only one thing to do. Go back to the front.

It is important that this is the reason that she goes back. She does not do it for glory, nor duty, nor to make her family proud. She does it because her beloved little sister needs her help, and because Trix also understands the horror of war. They were close anyway, but they are bound even tighter by the shared understanding that their experiences separate them from their family back at home. They have seen things that their parents and aunts will never see, and could not begin to comprehend.

This is a wonderful exposition of the crimes of the First World War. Suffering and the pointlessness of war are at the forefront of the novel. The denouement is heart-rending. It must be read.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

Wednesday 17 August 2022

Review by Lisa Williams of "Madwoman" by Louisa Treger

          It was struggle, loss and longing that propelled the narrative forward ... 

 - Louisa Treger, Madwoman

Although this story is based on biographical facts of Nellie Bly’s life, the author stresses from the beginning that we are reading a work of fiction. The gaps in the record have been filled with Treger’s invention and this blend of fact and fiction is seamlessly woven into a fab read. Although a compelling character in real life it is Treger’s yarn-spinning skill that gets us rushing through the book.

In the prologue we find ourselves shackled to Nellie on the way to Blackwell’s Island, ‘a place of criminals, paupers, the sick and the insane’ with a guard warning us ‘you’ll never get out.’ Despite this prophecy, Nellie and the reader are comforted by the fact that ‘storytelling would get her through this.’ We’re hooked immediately, needing to know how this will end but Chapter One throws us back in time to her childhood.

After a taste of what’s to come, we find out how she got there; we’re with Nellie as she has the dawning realisation of the injustices of the world, discovers the fetters of her femininity. We share her struggles as she rallies against the differences between the opportunities available for her and the ones her brothers are given. At each stage we get glimpses of Nellie’s strong fighting spirit and how she battles against the usual role of women at that time. 

Nellie is, however, encouraged by her father to follow her dreams. At eleven he gives her a journal and fountain pen, bucking against the Victorian idea that ‘too much imagination can play havoc with a young girl’s mind.’  She has an unflinching drive to tell her story and we share her frustrations at the limited options available to her through her formative years before her story continues back on Blackwell’s Island.

The book is about storytelling. We follow Nellie in her struggle to create her own story as a woman in a male-dominated world. The Nellie we read about is part fiction, part fact and is a character you warm to instantly. She recognises the untold stories in the world, and with her indomitable strength of spirit she forges a way to tell them, getting them an audience while helping the other protagonists ultimately find their own voices too.

About the reviewer

Lisa Williams is a shopgirl and a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

You can read more about Madwoman by Louisa Treger, as well as an excerpt from the novel, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Tuesday 16 August 2022

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "One Drop" by Peter Kalu

Having recently completed a PhD in which I creatively and critically explore the function of memory in dystopian fiction, I was very much looking forward to reviewing Peter Kalu’s own, unique, contribution to the genre, One Drop

In war-torn Britain, inseparable Black Radicals, Axel and Dune, are arrested, have SIMs implanted in their heads and are placed in a prison camp for those who defy the white supremacist government, known as the Bloods. 

At its heart, this novel is a love story about surviving against all odds. The peculiar horror here is that all prisoners have to suffer as their SIMs brainwash them with the Bloods’ evil philosophy, whilst drones constantly monitor their movements and thoughts. In order to combat this living nightmare, Axel and Dune have to take the brew called ‘maidenhair’ (and in increasingly heavy doses) as well as applying a resin to their hair in order to create a temporary shield against the drones’ memory re-writes. Most strikingly of all, Kalu’s protagonists recount some of their happiest memories from their lives before imprisonment, referred to as ‘storyfying.’ This form of resistance – of subjective memory cast in direct opposition to collective compliance – is a defined trope of the dystopian novel and is explored with masterful nuance by the author. Similarly, Offred retreats into the past, to escape her present, in Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, whilst the rebels recite whole books from memory at the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Of course, memories being wiped entirely from an individual’s mind have featured elsewhere in the genre, as evidenced in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, which later became the hit sci-fi film Total Recall. As Rafaella Baccolini (2003) argues, ‘in order to fabricate a single, true, hegemonic discourse, which citizens unquestionably follow … it may be necessary to erase memory itself.’ 

The passages where Kalu’s narrator has to observe, up close, his non-binary partner retrieve fewer and fewer of their own memories, make for some of this novel’s most memorable, albeit disturbing, scenes: 

         ‘You remember any of this?’
         ‘Nothing at all?’
         Maybe they heard my disappointment because they squeezed my hand and said, ‘It’s alright. I don’t need thousands of memories. I only need to hear your voice, Ax. Everything’s in your voice. I hear you and I know I’m alive.’

Overall, this is brilliant and important novel. A fast-moving, well-structured narrative moves swiftly through its scenes to reach a satisfying climax and, in keeping with the genre, Kalu leaves enough questions unanswered for the reader to speculate about what kinds of future may be waiting for those who manage to survive the many terrors of the camp. Perhaps Kalu’s greatest achievement is that he skilfully revisits and reinvents the slave narratives of the late twentieth century by other notable black authors such as Haley, Walker and Morrison, to remind us how easily the past can be resurrected when both political and populist views become, once again, about binary oppositional thinking and the rise of violent extremist ideologies. Both timely reminder and proof of Kalu’s sheer verve and originality as an author of speculative fiction, One Drop is a thought-provoking and inventive exploration of hope coming from the most hopeless of places. 

About the reviewer
Dr. Paul Taylor-McCartney is an author, researcher and lecture, with interests in dystopian studies, children’s literature and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Writing in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A Literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall. You can find out more about him and his work by visiting 

Monday 15 August 2022

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Scale" by Mina Gorji

Mina Gorji’s latest collection uses scale as its central theme to explore how life, in its many forms, finds a way to survive, if not flourish, in extreme conditions. In the title poem, the ‘map reveals so many stars … how cold it is between the galaxies, the snowdrops in the garden the morning after frost.’ Gorji goes in search of meaning in the cosmos – both macro and micro versions – using language to give shape and voice to often sublime forms, as in 'Message from an Asteroid' where ‘inside the earth, crusts of cobalt under oceans, on the skin, on the lips of submarine volcanoes.’ 

These are ecologically-centred poems in that they present organisms that are often invisible to the human eye but vital all the same, and whose presence is a timely reminder we must come to view ourselves as stewards of the planet if we are to survive the impact of decisions we make as its dominant species. So, it is into this world of extreme heat, arctic cold, floods and destructive volcanoes the reader is plunged, although Gorji’s methods are subtle when dealing with such topical material. 

The poetry of John Clare and Christina Rosetti are clear influences and Keats is detected in 'Owl' which ‘which glides across silence – slowing to a moment held – white wings steadying air.’ Humans themselves make the occasional appearance, presented as characters in harmony with nature ('After the Harvest,' 'Ice Age') or out of step with it, rather humorously depicted in 'Waiting for Snow' where the poet’s ‘Grandmother had never felt the snow before; she knew the touch of monsoon rain … before the shock of Edinburgh rain, soaking her saree with its cold and grey.’ 

It is a testament to Gorji’s many talents that she is able to create such depth of feeling with so few words – poems rarely last for more than a page – which is a comment about scale in itself. She implies that even a sparse arrangement of words has the power to convey the start and the end of time, the evolution and destruction of a single species, or the continuance of life for others that manage to adapt. There is also a sense that hope is somehow present – even in the most hopeless of places – and, it is this, the reader comes away with after reading Scale in its entirety and is all the richer for it. 

About the reviewer
Dr. Paul Taylor-McCartney is an author, researcher and lecture, with interests in dystopian studies, children’s literature and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Writing in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall. You can find out more about him and his work by visiting

Thursday 11 August 2022

Interview with Susan Napier

Susan Napier is the author of Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art, published in 2018 by Yale University Press. She is also the Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric and Japanese Studies at Tufts University, and a former Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published five books and numerous articles on anime and Japanese culture. In 2018 she was named "Woman of the Week" by The M Dash magazine. Her 2017 TED talk "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Being an Anime Expert" can be found here. 

Interviewed by Mathew Lopez

ML: In the prologue to Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art, you write that the book is an examination of how and why Hayao Miyazaki came to be the preeminent director that he is today, but what inspired you to write such a book?

SN: I suppose the most obvious inspiration behind my decision to write the book was that I had begun to notice that, when I told people that I was researching Japanese animation I increasingly noticed that they would say, "I don’t know much about anime but there’s this director I really like—Miyazaki!” And they would often mention a particular favorite film - the top three would be Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Totoro, although younger people might bring up Howl’s Moving Castle.

Over the years I have observed anime become increasingly accepted in American society but with Miyazaki I was witnessing something even more exciting, a specific director whose work was being acknowledged and appreciated by mainstream Americans. I began teaching a seminar on Miyazaki at Tufts about six to seven years ago, and was excited to see how much enthusiasm there was for the work of this director. It began to seem increasingly obvious that someone should write a book about him and, given my experience in working on animation, the seminar that I was teaching, and my knowledge of Japanese culture and history, I began to think that I was a good candidate!

When I first started planning the book I was also really pleased with the positive feedback the project received. This included a fellowship to the prestigious Bellagio Foundation in Italy where I was able to “test drive” some of my ideas in front of the other fellowship recipients who were from all different backgrounds with little knowledge of animation or of Japan, and then a contract with Yale University Press, an excellent press that was moving to expand its arts and popular culture offerings. Overall, it was very clear that Miyazaki was being appreciated as a global cultural artist, not just some obscure Japanese animation director. I like to think that the book itself has helped him gain even more recognition.

ML: In Miyazakiworld you use a series of essay-like chapters to mostly focus on one Hayao Miyazaki film at a time. Why did you decide on this structure for the book?

SN: Actually, my editor at Yale, Sarah Miller, helped a lot with the structure. Although I had always wanted to discuss each of Miyazaki’s films individually as they are each so unique and fascinating, it was Sarah who came up with the idea of taking a biographical approach. Not only did this allow me to explore some really interesting aspects of Miyazaki’s life and times but, as I worked on the book with this approach, I was able to get a real feel for how his art and thoughts have evolved over the years (and also what elements have remained unchanged).

ML: How did you approach writing individual chapters knowing they needed to form a cohesive whole for the reader?

SN: From my seminar teaching experience and my own viewing, I was already very aware of each film’s particular distinctive aspects including what was appealing, interesting or sometimes problematic about them. For example, one of the most memorable aspects of Miyazaki’s work - for both me and my students - was his consistent use of strong, intelligent and independent female characters from very early on in his career. I really can’t emphasize that enough. As early as the 1980s when there were very few such female characters in the West, Miyazaki was creating fascinating females who played important or even dominant roles in his films - to name a few from the 80s, there’s Nausicaa of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Ma Dola of Castle in the Sky: Laputa, Kiki and all her female friends and helpers in Kiki’s Delivery Service - well, I could go on and on. Not only was this interesting from the point of Japanese culture and society but it made for very interesting comparisons with female characters in Western studios such as the Disney “princesses.” So this was an obvious element that could be traced throughout his work.

Another incredibly important trademark was Miyazaki’s consistent fascination with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, from as early as his 1970s television series Future Boy Conan, to his recent Ponyo and even, arguably, his most recent film The Wind Rises. I had already noticed this apocalyptic trend in many anime and manga in my previous research but now, with Miyazaki’s life to draw upon as well, I could really make connections between his life and ideas - the impact of World War II, his youthful embrace of left-wing ideology, that allowed me, again, to make a more cohesive portrait of both the man and his works.

I would also like to mention something that I call a “feel” for the material. By the time I wrote on Miyazaki I had already written four books on aspects of Japanese culture - a book on two politically engaged writers from roughly the same time period as Miyazaki’s youth; a book on fantasy in modern Japanese literature in which I first included research on anime; a book on Japanese animation in which I introduced the particular aspects of anime that made it so distinctive, and which included a chapter on Miyazaki and female characters in anime; and then a book on the Western fascination with Japan from French impressionism to anime, which included a chapter on Miyazaki fandom in the West. I had also studied, read, and taught about Japanese culture for several decades and lived in Japan for eight years, off and on from the time I was seventeen. 

In other words, I guess what I’m saying is that I know my stuff, and I was bringing all this “stuff” to bear on the Miyazaki book, but hopefully in a fairly subtle and reasonably entertaining fashion. I worked very hard to create a user-friendly style.

ML: You dart seamlessly between memoir, biography and analysis in Miyazakiworld, but did blending elements of life writing with more traditional film criticism ever present a challenge to your own voice in the book? Did you ever hear inconsistencies in your writing voice in the different elements of the text?

SN: Yeah, that was actually a bit tricky. Some of the “model” biographies that Yale suggested I read included quite a lot of author’s input from their personal life. I kind of tried that a bit but never felt really comfortable talking too much about myself. One example I remember was for the chapter on Porco Rosso - a movie about a world-weary ex-pilot who had become disillusioned by his experiences in WW1. There were obvious influences from the movie Casablanca in it, and I initially tried beginning the chapter with an anecdote about going to see Casablanca at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square with my mother and how much I had loved the movie. But, honestly, it didn’t really have a direct connection to either Miyazaki or Porco Rosso and so I eventually scrapped it.

The few other personal references I kept in were mainly about my visiting Miyazaki-related sites in Japan and how I experienced them. I also did keep one anecdote from my first year in Japan about how I lived and worked on my own in Tokyo when I was seventeen because it really did resonate with the Miyazaki’s movie Kiki’s Delivery Service, and it allowed me to bring in my Miyazaki seminar in a hopefully seamless way that might be of interest to readers and be a bit of a break from the film analysis.

ML: Writing creative nonfiction often comes with the unique challenge of trying to represent real, complex people as characters on the page, and that challenge must be all the more difficult when writing about beloved public figures like Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. How did you approach constructing the characters in Miyazakiworld, and were you ever nervous about how your depictions of them might be received?

SN: Of course I was nervous. And I remain nervous! My next book is going to be a comparison of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli with Disney/Pixar studios, so there will be LOTS of opportunities to talk about living persons and potentially offend them. Seriously, I tried to be VERY careful about commenting too much about living people. I am glad that I was able to meet Miyazaki three times over a period of almost ten years which helped form my impressions of him. I also did an enormous amount of reading of his interviews in Japanese - not only was this material not in English and so was more likely to be somewhat more spontaneous but reading the way Miyazaki spoke in often informal Japanese, sometimes with old friends, really helped give me a sense of him as a person.

I was also aware that my last Miyazaki-related visit to Japan, when I met with the director for a formal interview and met with a number of people who had worked with him, occurred only a few months after he had officially retired. This was a tense time for everyone related to Studio Ghibli so I tried to be careful in how much weight I put on certain responses and to be aware of how what I experienced as a palpable sense of melancholy on the part of the director in my last interview may well have been related to the specific time and circumstances.

As for how my depictions have been received - well, I haven’t gotten any letters of protest from Ghibli after the book was published so I guess I didn’t make any truly heinous mistakes. I was actually in Japan when the book came out in Japanese and did a couple of radio and newspaper interviews which were very well received (thank goodness!).

 ML: You mention that you were given the opportunity to interview Miyazaki yourself, ahead of writing the book, and I’ve read some of the fantastic academic essays you’ve published on his films previously, so how did the research process for writing Miyazakiworld differ from writing your more traditional film criticism?

SN: Without doubt the toughest thing was bringing in biography AND of a living subject! I was quite, quite nervous. Being able to read and speak Japanese was a godsend, though, because there is a lot of material on Ghibli and especially on Miyazaki in Japanese - similar to the many books on Disney in English for example. Although god knows it was time consuming, especially reading all those interviews in informal Japanese where you are really trying to get a “feel” for what’s happening between interviewer and interviewee. Kind of fascinating though.

All that being said, I should mention that Japanese society seems far less willing to probe into the lives of its most beloved celebrities and Miyazaki is virtually a national treasure. I will also say that Ghibli, his studio, is very protective of him, and I’ll be dealing more with this in my next book!

About the interviewer
Mathew Lopez is a current PhD Creative Writing candidate at the University of Leicester. His research focuses on anime, ADHD, and modes of memoir and criticism. His short stories and poetry have appeared in both online and print magazines, and he is currently working on his first essay collection. His favourite Hayao Miyazaki film is Porco Rosso.

Tuesday 2 August 2022

Interview with Kevin Fegan


Kevin Fegan, playwright and poet, has written to commission over 50 original stage plays produced for a wide variety of theatre, including several award-winning plays. He has also written several plays, a Classic Serial and a Woman's Hour Serial for BBC Radio 4 and worked as a Storyline Writer for Granada TV’s Coronation Street. He has published ten collections of poetry and edited several anthologies. His latest play was The Palace of Varieties – Life and Times of Dennis Skinner M.P. for Derby Theatre in 2022. Visit Kevin's website for further info and examples of his work here.

Interviewed by Rob Reeves

RR: I’d like to start asking about Let Your Left Hand Sing. How did that project come about and what inspired you to write it? 

KF: It was a Long Journey Home commission to collect stories of migration, how and why people came to live in the East Midlands. The brief was to interview people and select one story from each of the five counties. I decided to write a book-length poem, hanging the five stories on my own family story of Irish parents coming to live in the region. I was born left-handed but forced (by my brothers) to write with my right hand. I used this as a metaphor for dual heritage – in my case, English / Irish (left / write).

RR: How did you develop your characters for LYLHS

KF: All the individuals are real people – Tarasz was literally my next-door neighbour in Nottinghamshire. I widened the theme of migration to include life-sentence prisoner Paul, who had recently been transferred to Boston Prison, Lincolnshire. Paul was a Miscarriage of Justice case who I had met while working as Writer-in-Residence at Grendon Prison. I was campaigning for Paul’s release at the time. It was my job to give a voice to these individuals, which is why I decided to write them in first person present tense, as if they were talking to the reader.

RR: In this - as well as your other work - how do you ensure you develop authentic and unique voices for your characters/ speakers? 

KF: When I interview an individual, I have to try and capture the essence of that person by carefully selecting material and structuring it. Verse is often the best way to do this because it is heightened language. You have to be a good listener. I seem to be especially drawn to voices that aren’t often heard. There is a sensitivity and a responsibility to this. The real endorsement of my work is when the person concerned feels that I have captured their story, even when it is painful to hear.

RR: In a lot of your work, you seem to focus more on the untold experiences of others. Is this a conscious decision to do so? What draws you to this?

KF: I want to learn as much as I can about human nature. Writing about other people influences how I lead my own life. Writing has made me a more tolerant person and I am grateful for that. I don’t want to be one of those writers who can only write about writing and themselves. Playwriting has helped me to live in the moment and poetry to treasure the experience. As a playwright and poet, it is natural for me to explore the cross-over between the two. I’ve invested in my poetry what I have learned from my playwriting and vice versa. My poetry is often character or situation based – I specialise in book-length dramatic poems. My plays are often in verse – sometimes I will write a full-length play in verse, if it is the best way to represent the subject matter.

RR: Part of my research looks at the development of the dramatic monologue and its various definitions.  What is the dramatic monologue to you? Is it a poem spoken from the point of view of a speaker other than the poet themselves?  Or something more than that?

KF: There is often confusion about monologues, if there is no distinction between literary and dramatic monologues. A literary monologue needs to work on the page and can be re-read. A dramatic monologue has to work as spoken word and needs to communicate in a single hearing. Let Your Left Hand Sing is a dramatic monologue.

: In LYLHS, there are mentions of different communities, and that sense of a need for belonging.  How important do you think that is for migrants / immigrants? 

: People who have been displaced naturally want to preserve their cultural identity. At the same time, they are trying to find ways to belong to their host nation. Second-generation migrants (like me) are born in the host country but raised to feel they still belong in the culture of their first-generation parents.

: You also seem to have focussed a lot on communities in your work. Do you feel that a sense of community is dissipating?  Do you think we are (unfortunately) living more separate lives than, say, 30 or 40 years ago?

KF: I don’t think communities are disappearing, they change as culture changes. I don’t see that people are leading more separate lives. Even when communities are deliberately destroyed, new communities evolve. We are tribal creatures, for better or worse.

RR: Could you tell me about your involvement with the project “Our Corby,” and the collection The Singing Tree? I always find there is a strong sense of community in the town. 

KF: As part of the “Our Corby” project, I was commissioned to write a collection of poems representing the many diverse communities in Corby. Again, I interviewed people in those communities, before selecting one story from twelve different communities. One final poem, “English as a Second Language,” is inspired by an ESOL class where many of these communities come together. I love being in the company of people from all over the world and feel privileged to tell their stories.

RR: Could you tell me about your more recent projects, please? Are you currently working on anything new?

KF: My most recent play was The Palace of Varieties – the Life and Times of Dennis Skinner (Derby Theatre 2022). I interviewed Dennis and people from his constituency before writing the play. I’ll often find something in common with the person I’m trying to represent. With Dennis, it was a mutual belligerence and sense of injustice. My current plays are a community musical, On Yer Bike Solihull, as part of the Commonwealth Games festival in the West Midlands in 2022, and Captain Blood’s Singular Circus, a site-specific community play for Belper, Derbyshire where I now live, in 2023.

About the interviewer
Rob Reeves is currently taking his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His thesis focuses on isolation and alienation in modern society. He has been running a spoken word night, called Run Your Tongue, since 2014 which is now based in Leicester.