Author Q&A with Hari Kunzru

godsmenUKLitro: You open Gods Without Men with a short chapter reimagining a coyote myth in a modern idiom, which sets the tone for much of the book. Did you set out to tackle desert myths in this way, or did it arise from your experiences?

Hari Kunzru: I got interested in Coyote during the process of researching the book. I’d started reading about the Chemehuevi people who inhabited the Mojave (and are still to be found on the banks of the Colorado) and they tell many Coyote stories. Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book, The Trickster Makes This World, was also an influence. For me Coyote represents an opposing pole to all the Gods in the book – instead of the transcendental organizing principle, he’s immanent to the system, messing with the works, connecting things together in ways that are ‘illegitimate’. Coyote’s mistakes are creative. He suffers the consequences. The trickster steals fire for humans from the realm of the Gods, an illegitimate connection that starts civilization. Coyote is all through the book, making things happen.

Litro: The ‘alien’ passages also seem to be placing a modern spin on mythology, in the sense that alien sightings and alien abductions feel like a modern cultural myth. Do you see them in this way? Where do you think our fascination stems from?

Hari Kunzru: UFO’s are indeed a modern mythology. If you look at the first generation of contactees in the late 40’s and early 50’s, many of them had a prior engagement with Spiritualism. Their UFO stories seem like earlier stories about angels and spirits, given a technological sheen. As the Cold War progressed, these stories became more complicated, and in some ways darker (abductions, etc.), a way for people to process hopes and anxieties about otherness. The UFO period is more or less over now, since other geopolitical issues have taken over, but there’s no reason there shouldn’t be another flowering. In the years before the First World War, as anxieties about aerial bombardment began, there was a spate of alien airship sightings. Before that, even, there were alien balloonists flying over Midwestern farms.

Litro: To what extent do you still feel like an outsider in New York, now that you’ve lived there for a number of years? How does this outsider status affect your writing?

Hari Kunzru: In some ways I cultivate it. I like it that I’m not entirely part of the culture I live in, though in other ways my rootlessness is entirely typical of a whole class of New Yorkers. This is a city which has always attracted cosmopolitan intellectual types, so in that sense I’m just following tradition.

Litro: Along with David Mitchell you’ve been tagged as an author who isn’t afraid to move in and out of historical periods, and across genres. What appeals to you about this style? Why do you think literature is starting to take this direction?

Hari Kunzru: I find historical perspective a useful way to organize the world. I don’t like the idea of ‘the historical novel’ as a genre. Agreed, there is such a genre, which uses ‘history’, and the distance from the past, as a way of generating romance, or putting a superficial sheen on stories which otherwise would be banal. But the contemplation of time, of distance, and of cultural change seems to me like useful work for the novel, and my enjoyment of archives and libraries makes such work congenial.

Litro: Memory Palace and Twice Upon A Time both explore the ways in which writing can interact with a specific location, and both use a multimedia element. Why do you think it’s important for literature to not just be about the written page?

Hari Kunzru: I think it’s time to expand our thought of what literature can be. At the moment, my biggest formal limitation is the production process imposed by the publishing industry, and the lack of distribution (and indeed archiving) of other kinds of work. There are huge opportunities for writers now, in terms of formal exploration. Sadly, that’s accompanied by the collapse of our ability to make a living. At a certain point, when publishers can no longer pay, then there will be no further reason to process text in the way they dictate – delivered in a certain way, with a certain number of pages, cover designs that have little to do with the writer, and a lot of blurbs and other garbage on the front. None of my books have ever looked like I want them to look – some editions are nice objects, others actively repel me. I dream of having the formal and visual control that my artist friends have. Of course, the price of that would probably be a day job, and I’m not quite there yet.

Litro: And finally… what can we expect to see from you next? What’s inspiring you right now?

Hari Kunzru: I’ve become very interested in the Blues, particularly the culture of pre-war blues collecting, and the taste for authenticity and outsider status among white bohemians. I’m writing a novel about authenticity, appropriation, cultural ownership. It’s a sort of ghost story.

Hari Kunzru picBorn in London, Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist (2002), Transmission (2004), My Revolutions (2007) and Gods Without Men (2011) as well as a short story collection, Noise (2006) and a novella, Memory Palace (2013). In 2003 Granta named him one of its twenty best young British novelists. His short stories and essays have appeared in diverse publications including The New York Times, New Yorker, Guardian, London Review of Books, Granta, Book Forum and Frieze. He was a 2008 Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library and is a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. He lives in New York City.

Litro #140: Diaries – Letter from the Editor

litro140_diaries_coverDear Reader,

The New Year is traditionally a time for looking forward. We plan and reprioritise, making resolutions and setting our course for the year ahead. Those of us who keep a diary are literally opening the first page of a new book. The next year sits blank, waiting for us to fill it.

Litro #140 – Diaries – looks both backwards and forwards as it considers the uses that diaries and journals are put to, and the secrets they can share. They open a window onto the past in Shashi Tharoor’s Trying to Discover India, a story that explores the truth behind Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery. Columbus is in the process of being recontextualised by historians, and Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) recently referred to him as a “butcher/rapist/genocide” in a widely read tweet – there’s no better time to read Tharoor’s alternate version of his story. Claire Thurlow also explores the uses of the diary to the modern historian, in her short essay Much Bothered with Buffalo. She delves into the diaries and journals of the women who travelled America’s emigrant trails, and finds their stories candidly preserved in paper and ink.

The second half of this issue looks forward to days to come, with While He Sleeps by Ariel Dawn, a poetic piece of flash fiction that tries to imagine the subconscious communication between the pages of a diary and those written about within. Then James Mitchell opens the pages of a journal written in our dystopian future, in What Good Looks Like. Mitchell’s predictions for the direction our schools are taking feel eerily prescient, and should act as a timely warning. Finally, we chat with cult hero Chuck Palahniuk about the themes behind his bestselling novel Diary, his current love of sequels – and his plans for Fight Club 2. If you’ve been eagerly awaiting the return of Tyler Durden, you won’t want to miss this interview.

As for us, we’re also starting to plan our year ahead. 2015 marks Litro’s tenth year in print, and we have some exciting dates marked in our diaries already. We have the IGGY & Litro Young Writers’ Prize awards presentation taking place at a special event in London’s iconic Shard building this April. Also in April, we’ll be publishing our Mexico issue, celebrating the “Year of Mexico in the United Kingdom” and “Year of the United Kingdom in Mexico” – including some very special events at the London Book Fair. Then, as spring turns into summer, we’ll be launching our very first Litro anthology, a collection of the best stories to have passed through our pages during the last ten years. The book is being published in partnership with Kingston University Press, and includes stories by Nikesh Shukla, Chloe Aridjis, Anthony Doerr, Jenn Ashworth, Kate Williams, and many, many others. Start clearing space on your bookshelf now.

It’s little wonder that we still need diaries to organise our days, and to record our memories. If anyone stumbles across my diary in years to come, they’ll be certain of one thing: 2015 was a pretty good year.

Dan Coxon


Author Q&A with Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club 2Litro: In your novel Diary, you write that “Everything is a self-portrait. Everything is a diary.” To what extent should we take your characters as a self-portrait? Is Misty a self-portrait of sorts? Is Peter?

Chuck: Of course Misty is me. All of my characters are. In the case of Diary I was processing my reaction to how the old wheat-land small towns I remember from childhood are being gentrified with vineyards and kite festivals. That, and I was exhausting the guilt I feel about neglecting all of my close relationships every time I get deep into the writing of a book. It’s as if I take a months-long trip and when I return all except my closest friends have dropped me.

Litro: Do you feel that the diary is in danger of being relegated to history, with teenagers putting the minutiae of their lives on social media for everyone to see? Are we losing our sense of privacy?

Chuck: Diaries are very much alive. The act of keeping one is now referred to as ‘journaling.’ A blog is an entirely different animal, it’s a performance of a public self intended to engage an audience. An act of exhibitionism. The older I get the more I admire those people who burn their diaries and take their best secrets to the grave.

Litro: Your latest novel, Beautiful You, explores and satirizes female sexuality, a bold topic for a male author. What made you want to write this book? Did it require any special research?

Chuck: Please don’t believe all the book jacket copy you read. My intention was to satirize arousal addiction, which is generally understood to be a male issue. By depicting women with the problem, I’d hoped to make it less threatening to male readers. As for research, I was forced to engage the professional services of thousands of world-renown sex experts. Those months of strenuous study have left me hardly more than a dried husk of my younger self. This is how I must suffer for my art.

Litro: Doomed was a sequel to your earlier novel Damned, and you’ve recently spoken about a planned sequel to Fight Club. Do you think you’re more open to sequels now than you used to be? Why is that?

Chuck: I’ve always been interested in sequels and prequels, any forms that broaden and deepen the original story. The real problem is that book publishers despise sequels even more than they do short story collections. There’s usually some attrition between the original and a sequel so publishers always expect the latter to sell fewer copies. Thus, unless the original sells ten million copies, publishers are dead-set against any sequels. My publisher has refused to offer me a contract for sequels to my novels Rant and Beautiful You. Perhaps some day those books will sell enough copies to warrant a sequel.

Litro: The Fight Club sequel will be a series of ten comics, is that right? Why did you decide to revisit these characters, and what made you choose comic books as the medium?

Chuck: It’s been a decades-long effort, but both the book and film of Fight Club have become classics. A sequel in either form would be compared directly to the original and, naturally, suffer. The novel and film have had a long head start to engender their audiences. Therefore, to launch the sequel on a level playing field, I chose the graphic novel because it’s a third medium. Plus it’s a collaborative effort much larger than a novel, but smaller than the army needed to make a movie. I get to be a student and learn from people – artists, editors, colourists, letterers – who are the best in their fields. With luck, my novel Rant will become a film, soon, and I can begin work on a graphic novel sequel to it. My fingers are perennially crossed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChuck Palahniuk‘s novels include the bestselling Snuff, Rant, Haunted, Lullaby and Fight Club, which was made into a film by director David Fincher, Diary, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, and Choke, which was made into a film by director Clark Gregg. He is also the author of the non-fiction profile of Portland Fugitives and Refugees and the non-fiction collection Stranger Than Fiction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Litro #139: No Such Luck – Letter from the Editor

litro139_nosuchluck_singleDear Reader,

We all know the whims of lady luck. Looking back on 2014, most of us will have had our fair share of lucky breaks – and plenty of bad luck too. Here at Litro, we’ve had lots to be grateful for in the last year: the launch of our American website, our three events at the Latitude Festival in the summer, the publication of our ebook anthology Transatlantic in the US, and, of course, all the wonderful writing that has passed through our pages and our website. But none of these came without their share of misfortunes and problems to be overcome. Nothing worthwhile ever does.

Litro #139 – No Such Luck – explores stories of failure, loss, disappointment, and some very, very bad luck. Here we have tales of failed relationships, homelessness, death and despair. And yet, somehow, there are still a few bright sparks of hope among the hardship and ill fortune. After all, every writer knows that it takes more than a little bad luck to break the human spirit.

We’re excited to have David Rose opening this issue with At Colonus, a broadside aimed at Boris Johnson’s recent campaign to eliminate rough sleeping. David’s Posthumous Stories is one of the best collections we’ve seen in recent years, and his contribution displays a masterful touch. What better way to follow it than with Simon Holloway’s Mosquitoes, a character study examining what it means to be left behind after your other half passes on.

Matthew Di Paoli offers a lighter interlude in The Cleaning Lady, a story of childhood obsession, stray dogs and oversized underwear. Then Kelly Creighton revisits an old lover – and a classic The Vaccines track – in Teenage Icon, unpicking the old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Following that, Dominic Stevenson remembers the fallen of World War One, and the victims of the current economic crisis, with his poems I Was There and Bonfire Night Beneath the Stars.

Reece Choules tackles parental grief in Seen and Not Seen, as his narrator withdraws from life following a personal tragedy. Then tragedy is faced full-on in No Angels by Michelle Bracken, as she attempts to answer the question that has haunted mankind for millennia: what happens after death? In our last story, Lucy Durneen picks apart a failed affair in Wild Gestures, a piece that was highly commended in this year’s Manchester Fiction Prize. It’s easy to see why, as Lucy handles her tale of failed romance with grace, wit and imagination. Failure has never looked so colourful.

Finally, we talk to Colin Barrett, author of the critically acclaimed short story collection Young Skins. Colin has won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award – plus he’s recently been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. We chat with him about his writing, his roots, and the importance of luck.

As 2015 looms large ahead, we have plenty to look forward to. We’ll be turning our gaze towards Mexico in the spring, while our Myths & Legends issue, due in March, will include the winner of this year’s IGGY & Litro Young Writers’ Prize. Throw in some unmissable live events, as well as some exciting news on the publication of our anthology in the UK, and 2015 is already full of promise. Let’s hope our luck stays good.

Dan Coxon


Author Q&A with Colin Barrett

We discuss short stories, long stories and the importance of luck with the award-winning author of Young Skins.

Colin Barrett book coverLitro: You’ve been hugely successful for a debut short story writer, winning both the Frank O’Connor prize and the Rooney Prize. Do you think the market is improving for short stories?

Colin: I don’t know. The Internet gives an impression of greater visibility and interest in the form, but the Internet does that for most things. In actuality, it’s still probably the same relatively tiny band of doggedly impassioned adherents who help keep the short story alive. Alive, dead, declining, reviving: in any case such anthropomorphic metaphors have their limits. It doesn’t, shouldn’t, affect the work. I used to worry about things like the ‘relevancy’ of the form, and indeed worry about things like if serious writing etc. was on the way out. Well, it probably is, but it always has been. There are people, alive, now, coterminous with my own contingent existence, that care deeply about the short story. Today, that is enough for me. I don’t worry if there can be ‘enough’ of them, of us.

Litro: What attracted you to short fiction? Will we see any longer fiction from you?

Colin: Short stories, like poetry, are profoundly at odds with the literalness of language and the given-ness of the world. In short stories you are working with distillates. You are concentrating the world, and language. There are intensities achievable in the short story form by definition much more difficult to replicate in longer narratives.

The novel does other, different things, but for the last few years I was fascinated by what the short story does. I used to read and write a lot of poetry. I still read a bit, though less than I used to, and don’t write it as such. My interest in the short story progressed from that original interest in poetry.

But yes, you will see longer fiction from me.

Litro: Many of your characters in Young Skins are down on their luck, or generally in a bad place. Was this done as a dramatic device, to increase the tension in the stories, or did it go deeper than that? Do you see a lot of bad luck around you?

Colin: I did not think of very many of the characters as down on their luck. As I was writing the book, I didn’t think of them as anything, if I could, by which I mean there were no devices or preconceptions in play – not consciously, anyway. I just found a gesture or phrase and built from there. You write to find out what you are writing about. Luck isn’t a concept I spend much time considering. I think maybe most my characters would consider themselves lucky; at least, most have established some sort of working accommodation with their own limitations or inhibitions or parlous circumstances, and most are not alone in their lives.

Litro: The stories also feel very deeply rooted in Ireland. It’s hard to imagine them taking place anywhere else. Do you consider yourself to be a specifically Irish writer?

Colin: The great, or vexatious, thing about being an Irish writer is that you don’t have to worry about considering yourself an Irish writer, because even if you don’t consider yourself so, you are! I’m going to repeat myself and make it sound like I have some sort of cognitive impairment, but I don’t think about it. Practically speaking, reading other writers had more of an influence on Young Skins than any of my own personal experiences, and the majority of those other writers were not Irish. But of course the book is infused with and practically seeping Irishness. How could it not?

Litro: To what extent do you think aspiring writers make their own luck? What advice would you give to a wannabe writer to improve their luck?

Colin: You have no control over how your work is received. You have only limited control on whether it is seen in the first place, that is, published: you can’t legislate for the possibility that the day your work is lifted off an submission editor’s desk is the day the intern is nursing a hangover and an incorrigible grudge against pieces written in the second person singular.

What you have control over is the work itself. Working on it until it is as near to correct as you can get it. Write and read as much as possible. And rewrite and reread. Get deep into the structures of the things, your own work and the work of people you admire. Word counts mean nothing. But keep writing. Write steadily, whenever you get the chance. Keep coming back, as they say in AA. The shittiest page of cliché and typo-ridden dross is still worth more than the most pristine page of unwritten prose. “The more I practice, the luckier I get,” said, apparently, some golfer guy. Now, granted, all he did was wear plaid Dadwear and hit small, dimpled white balls into holes in the ground all day, but the principle, I find, is sound.

Litro: Which writers are you reading at the moment? Who has inspired you most?

Colin: Writers I’ve discovered fairly recently include multiple short story volumes by Joy Williams, Jayne Anne Phillips and a collection, Night Soul, by the novelist Joseph McElroy. I mean, they’ve all had long careers and published a raft of critically acclaimed books, but to me they are ‘new’ discoveries. The work I’ve found I’ve really liked.

James Joyce, Paul Muldoon, David Foster Wallace, Flannery O’Connor and Denis Johnson are, overall, the writers who each likely prompted the most crucial transitions in my writing.

Litro: And finally… what can we expect to see from you next?

Colin: More short fiction. Longer fiction.

Colin Barrett squareColin Barrett was born in Canada and grew up in Ireland. Young Skins, a collection of short stories, is his first book. In 2014 he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and is shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

Litro #138: Horror – Letter from the Editor

litroissue138_horror_singleDear Reader,

Welcome to Litro #138, our Horror issue. Within these pages we have some unique visions of what makes our skin crawl: hauntings and mythological deities, mad scientists and weirdly creepy trips to the cinema. What brings them together is the authors’ desire to make us scream. (If you want an example of how horror bleeds into the crime genre too, then be sure to check out our latest Book Club read – the dark and grisly Barcelona Shadows, by Marc Pastor.)

We’re thrilled to have a new piece from Toby Litt as this issue’s opener, a troubling short story called There was this boy I met at a party, years back. With its unexpected ending and distinctive voice it gives a truly modern flavour to the traditional haunting. Then acclaimed American author Richard Thomas takes us on a trip worthy of The Twilight Zone in Little Red Wagon, a touching (but disturbing) tale, with a twist in the end that reframes the entire story. Pete Segall’s Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them? is similarly surreal but unsettling, as a trip to the cinema takes a sinister turn. Warning: you may never be able to eat peanut M&Ms again.

Krishan Coupland tackles slightly more traditional horror fare, although his unique vision gives 2001 an allegorical depth that you won’t often find in the genre. His simple revenge tale gets deeply weird and disturbing when Skylark and the Bug take to the skies. That’s followed by Sheila Armstrong’s Badhbh, a collision between ancient evil and modern civilisation with an intriguing folkloric angle. Then we close with a story by one of the emerging stars of the horror genre, Adam Nevill, whose dark imagination conjures up The Ancestors. Of all the stories in this issue, this is the one you’ll want to read with all the lights on.

Finally, we talk to Jeff VanderMeer, New York Times bestselling author of the eerily thrilling Southern Reach Trilogy. Anyone who’s read VanderMeer’s books will tell you that he has a truly unique take on the familiar horror tropes, and his recent trilogy contains some of the most unsettling scenes in modern literature. We’re also excited to have illustrations from two talented artists – Dan Henk and Jethro Lentle – so watch out for their artwork as you read.

We hope you enjoy Litro’s walk on the dark side. We dare you to read this issue alone, with the lights down low, as a storm rages outside and a branch tap-tap-taps at the window. Turning the page has never been so fraught with peril.

Dan Coxon


Litro #137: Future Fashions – Letter from the Editor

litroissue137_futurefashions_singleDear Reader,

For the last hundred years, we have been constantly imagining – and reimagining – our destiny. Science fiction writers and directors have projected mankind into the future through new worlds, new cityscapes – and, of course, new fashions. The fashion industry has always looked to the future for inspiration, so it’s no surprise that designers have often been involved in creating these sci-fi visions. Jean-Paul Gaultier, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin have all lent their visual style to the imagined societies we have seen on film. From Barbarella’s intergalactic beachwear to Katniss Everdeen’s combustible evening gown, fashion shapes the way we view mankind’s future.

As London Fashion Week brings the clothes of tomorrow to the catwalk, Litro #137 also puts science fiction’s Future Fashions in the spotlight. We celebrate some of the iconic designs of the last fifty years, and imagine where the fashion industry might end up in the near (or distant) future. We open with Imagining the Future by Claire Smith of the British Film Institute, examining the influence that costume design has had on science fiction films, from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick’s masterpiece will be re-released to cinemas in a new digital transfer this November, as part of the BFI’s epic science fiction season, Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder – don’t miss out on this transcendent slice of future design.

Ian Sales explores many of the same themes in his story The Spaceman and the Moon Girl, taking us back to a time when mankind looked to the stars for inspiration. The worlds of science and fashion collided during the 1969 moon landings, as that era’s designers took their inspiration from NASA’s ambitious space program. Ivor W. Hartmann beams us into the far future with Catwalk, examining the toll the fashion industry takes from its models; then Tosin Coker unveils a world in which clothes have become more than simple garments, in her novel extract The Path. Ryan van Winkle imagines a future in which nudity is the new haute couture, in his poem that was joy she said, a modern take on the Emperor’s new clothes. This is followed by a short travelogue from the future, From Sri Lanka… With Love, by fashion designer Walé Oyéjidé, before Efe Tokunbo explores similar territory in Baby Lon and Imp9000 go to Market. Tokunbo’s story is a hi-tech shopping trip in which individuality – and freedom – come with a price tag.

Finally, we chat with acclaimed biographer Ian Kelly about his latest project, working side-by-side with designer Vivienne Westwood on her much-anticipated biography. There are few fashion designers as iconic as Westwood, and Kelly was given unprecedented access to her friends, her family – and Vivienne herself – as he researched her remarkable life story. For anyone who has an interest in fashion, punk, or simply the British cultural icons of the last fifty years, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

As the world’s models take to London’s catwalks this September, wearing many of the designs and the fabrics that we will see around us for the next few years, I can’t help humming lines from Lady Gaga’s ‘Fashion’: “There’s a life on Mars / Where the couture is beyond, beyond / Fashion”. From space age fabrics to dazzling near-future designs, fashion has always had one foot planted at the furthest reaches of the human imagination. The Space Race may have stalled, but our designers continue to reach for the stars.

Dan Coxon


Litro #135: Somewhere Between The Borders – Letter from the Editor

litroissue135_somewherebetweenborders_singleDear Reader,

Here at Litro, we believe that emerging writers are just as important as the old vanguard – in fact, they’re often more important. Literature is constantly in a state of flux, adapting to social changes, new technologies, even the latest reality TV show. Books are – and always have been – part of a larger cultural conversation, one that isn’t destined to end any time soon. Each generation finds new ways to express itself, new challenges to overcome.

It’s for this reason that we started Litro Represents, our bespoke agency dedicated to discovering and nurturing new talent. It’s also why we run the IGGY and Litro Young Writers’ Prize each year, for writers aged 13-18. And it’s why we’ve dedicated Litro 135 to writers under the age of 35, whose voices are just starting to be heard in the literary arena. The stories here also have a theme in common – a foreignness, a sense of travel – but nothing binds them together as much as their novelty. These are writers who are just starting out on their journey.

The issue opens with a special introduction by Rory MacLean, the seasoned writer of such bestsellers as Under the Dragon and Berlin: Imagine a City. Rory has travelled more than most, and his insights into writing – and the importance of stepping over the border – act as a blueprint for the voices that follow. Aspiring writers could do a lot worse than to follow his advice “to trust strangers, to watch the sky, to follow my nose and to make a lot of notes.”

In ‘Til God, Polis Loizou writes about his Cypriot home, presenting a story set against the backdrop of a real life miracle. Next, Alona Ferber describes a lonely sojourn overseas in her story Berlin, October 29 – and the unlikely relationship that grows out of it. Then William Pittam looks back over Three Years in Arkansas, putting his own experiences as a stranger in a strange land under the microscope, examining the discoveries and the frustrations of repatriation. Sohini Basak watches the world from an apartment window in Suddenly the Garden, before Martin MacInnes takes us To the Border in a triptych of ill-fated journeys.

Finally, we talk to Monisha Rajesh, author of Around India in 80 Trains, and one of the most exciting new voices to have emerged on the travel writing scene. She discusses her work and the experience of returning to her Indian ‘homeland’, only to discover that it was no longer a home at all.

If literature is an ongoing conversation, then these are the newest voices to join the discussion, the freshest faces at the table. Our current Litro Book Club summer read is The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson, a debutant whose work would feel just as at home in this issue. In our interview with him, Ben told us that “I would advise anyone to travel and live overseas… It changes the way people think about themselves and the world.” It’s no coincidence that his novel is set in Berlin, the same as Rory MacLean’s latest book – and Alona Ferber’s story collected in this issue. The German capital knows all too well the importance of stepping over borders, of knocking at the gates of history.

If the past belongs to the established pillars of the literary world, then the future is the domain of writers as yet unheard. We’ll meet you somewhere over the border.

Dan Coxon


Litro #134: Augmented Reality – Letter From The Editor

litroissue134_augmentedreality_singleDear Reader,

Sometimes the future approaches at frightening speeds. It feels like only yesterday that we were wowed by the birth of the iPhone – now we’re living with gesture recognition for our gaming consoles, voice recognition in our cars, even iris recognition at some airports. Systems like Google Glass and Oculus Rift are breaking down the boundaries between the online world and the physical world – between fantasy and reality. It turns out that the key to the door of perception comes not from mind-altering drugs, but in the shape of a microchip. At times modern life feels like a Philip K. Dick novel.

Litro #134 is our Augmented Reality issue, dedicated to mapping out the new technological landscape and exploring reality’s unpatrolled borders. We open with an interview with Bruce Sterling, one of the visionaries who has reported on – and imagined – this erosion between our world and the virtual. If you’re at all uncertain about the impact augmented reality will have, or even what it means, then let Sterling be your guide. He also voices concerns over the collection of data by Google and the resulting loss of personal privacy – a theme that Litro will be exploring at a series of live events at the Latitude Festival this July.

In Cascade, Iain Robinson imagines the logical future for technologies like Google Glass. Then Eveline Pye explores the no man’s land between technology and art in her poems Augmented Reality and Imaginary Numbers. Pye has made a career out of the poetry of mathematics, and her poems in this issue prove that even the most frightening new tech can be incorporated into the human experience. Following that, we have Looking Glass House, an exclusive extract from Jake Fior’s forthcoming retelling of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel. Watch out for some exclusive footnotes hidden in the illustrations, as Alice takes us through the looking glass… Next, Peter Vilbig takes us for a walk through a surreal and vivid version of the world as we know it in Pathway, reimagining our existence through a Technicolor lens.

Our last two pieces offer an examination of the changes technology is bringing to the English language. In Loud and Clear Thomas Darby deconstructs a simple, three-letter text message, and suggests what we can – or cannot – read between the lines. Then, finally, we consider the impact of social media on modern fiction with James Miller’s essay Micro-Narratives of the Everyday. As we spend an increasing amount of time communicating with each other via status updates and 140-character tweets, the way in which we tell stories is evolving. Even the technology we use to read is in a state of flux, as e-readers and apps replace physical ink-and-paper books. Miller will also be taking part in our Latitude Festival events, discussing the impact of social media on modern privacy – keep an eye out for announcements over the coming weeks.

The stories, poems and essays we have collected here will give you a small insight into what the future might hold, and the ways in which augmented reality is slowly seeping through into our everyday world. But technology is elusive and unpredictable. Google Glass may be making the headlines today, but we’re already hearing about the EyeBorg Eyecam, a prosthetic eye that streams live video from the wearer’s perspective to a computer or smartphone. Reality just got a whole lot weirder.

Dan Coxon


Author Q&A with Bruce Sterling


Litro: This is our Augmented Reality issue, and you’re reporting from the frontlines of that field. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, can you give a quick explanation of what Augmented Reality is, or might be in the future?

Bruce: Augmented reality is a system that combines the real and the virtual, is interactive in real time, and is registered in three dimensions.

All the major issues are hidden inside that modest-looking word “registered.” If you want to produce sensory input from a computer into genuine, physical, three-dimensional spaces, there you have to figure out some way to get the “augmentations” to stick there in the “reality.” That’s the big problem in the field. People who understand how to do this understand “augmented reality.” The paradigm of “augmenting reality” is really a kind of computer-science metaphysics, it’s like “virtual reality” or “artificial intelligence” or “thinking machines” or similar large vague notions.

Litro: You’ve been writing at the forefront of technological development for quite some time now. What’s the new technology that has most surprised or impressed you during that time?

Bruce: Well, in terms of “augmented reality,” I was surprised how quickly the sensor technology advanced. Five years ago, if you stuck your hand out in mid-air in real-time, computer vision systems would have only the vaguest data about where your hand was located. Now there are devices like the Kinect and the Leap Motion that can measure that with an accuracy of millimetres.

It turns out that this “gesture recognition” technology has a whole lot of previously unsuspected user-interaction problems, but it amazed me that it works at all. It will still amaze any seven year old child – a Leap Motion really feels like a magic trick. It remains to be seen what these rabbit-in-a-hat actions might be good for – what makes an augmentation impactful, useful and relevant? So far, they remain games, amusements, eye-catching displays, theatrical tricks, art forms. Nobody augments anything from 9 to 5, five days a week.

Litro: On a related note, how big a development do you think Google Glass is? A game-changer, or just the next stepping stone along the path?

Bruce: I think that the Google Glass is basically a side-show for consumers, and that Google’s real path of development is radically advanced computer-vision processing using the full power of Google’s Cloud and Google’s databanks. Glass is just an Android device with a prism that you put on your head; all the real work there is going on through broadband inside Google’s big-iron.

I’ll make a prediction: it will be a bigger deal that Google sees your reality, than you seeing anything that Google might augment onto your own reality. It’ll be like you personally using a search engine, versus the industrial and commercial importance of millions of other Google users interacting with the search engine. Google Glass may be packaged today as an augmentation or a notification service, but Google Glass is really about Big Data. Google has a lot of other paths toward computer-vision versions of Big Data, and so do Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon.

Litro: Your fiction, and the fiction of some of your contemporaries, has often tried to imagine what the future holds. What fictional tech would you most like to see become reality?

Bruce: I want anything that can halt and/or reverse the Greenhouse Effect. At this point; I’m not picky; climate change is a deadly menace. I saw it become reality. That was awful. And it’s getting worse every day, fast.

Litro: Your most recent book, Love Is Strange, surprised many people by being a love story. What made you decide to write that story?

Bruce: Well, paranormal romance is a big deal in contemporary fantasy genre writing, and I hadn’t written one yet. It’s kind of fun to write romance. Romance has always been a vastly more popular form of fantasy than science fiction is.

Litro: Do you think that science fiction still has the potential to imagine future realities? Or is the technology rapidly catching up with the fiction?

Bruce: Well, the truth is that history and futurity doesn’t really work that way. For instance, technology isn’t ever going to “catch up” with Orwell’s 1984 or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. You can say today that mass surveillance is a reality, or that dead guys being medically revived is a reality – but that doesn’t change the nature of those books as cultural artefacts. Like, if somebody today says. “Wow, these shocking Edward Snowden revelations sure are like 1984,” nobody’s going to remark that, wow, they must be thirty years old, then.

As for imagining future realities, that’s not as hard as people let on. Doing it well is about as hard as writing a good book of history, like, one where you try to imagine and portray what life was really like for Akhenaton and Nefertiti. These Egyptian monarchs have had dozens of books written about them, some of them really successful, but none of them are particularly realistic. The truth is, nobody knows what the hell was going on with them in life as they experienced it, and we probably never will. It’s all retrodiction, just words on the page.

Litro: And finally, what does the future hold for Bruce Sterling?

Bruce: Oh, the pages fall off the calendar for all of us, and I’m as mortal as the next guy. All people really need to be happy is something to be enthusiastic about.

Bruce SterlingBruce Sterling, author, journalist, editor, and critic, was born in 1954. Best known for his ten science fiction novels, he also writes short stories, book reviews, design criticism, opinion columns, and introductions for books ranging from Ernst Juenger to Jules Verne. His nonfiction works include The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (1992), Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years (2003), and Shaping Things (2005). He is a contributing editor of WIRED magazine and writes a weblog.

Author Q&A with Marina Fiorato

Beatrice and Benedick book coverLitro: What appealed to you about revisiting Much Ado About Nothing, and specifically the characters of Beatrice and Benedick?

Marina: I’ve always loved the play ever since it was my set text at ‘A’ level. Beatrice and Benedick were so fresh and funny and modern, they just leapt off the page. I was particularly impressed by Beatrice’s freedom of speech and her wit – she takes on the men at their own game. I’ve read in various critiques that she was an anomaly for her times, but we must remember that this was the era of Elizabeth I, an extremely feisty and witty woman who never let a man best her. I bet Elizabeth enjoyed Much Ado.

Litro: Have you seen any of the screen adaptations of Much Ado (including Joss Whedon’s recent version)? How did they compare with your own reading of the play?

Marina: Yes. I loved the Branagh/Thompson version – I don’t think it’s perfect by any means, but it is such a sunny, happy interpretation that it is irresistible. There is an undeniable (and unsurprising!) chemistry between the two leads, and I am, of course, a sucker for an Italian setting.

I also saw the Joss Whedon interpretation, and although I enjoyed it I think that the modern setting presents certain problems for the text. It is harder to sustain misunderstandings if everybody has a mobile phone, and CCTV cameras are everywhere. And it is not quite as sinful, these days, to have a chat with a man who is not your fiancée the night before your wedding. You might have some explaining to do, but you would not be shunned from society, as you would have been in the 16th century when a woman’s chastity was everything. The most interesting thing about it for me was that the film begins with a love scene between a younger Beatrice and Benedick, clearly referencing an earlier relationship, which is what my book is all about.

Litro: Is it right that you studied Shakespeare in some depth at University? How did that affect the way you approached this book?

Marina: Yes, I wrote my dissertation on the value of Shakespeare as an historical source, concentrating on courtship and the making of marriage in the plays. When I began this novel I was glad I had all the academic background, but then I had to throw it all away, and just let the characters speak. The characters are not aware of their larger historical context. No one lives as if they are on a timeline and no one thinks they are old-fashioned. Beatrice and Benedick think they are desperately modern, and I try to remember that.

Litro: How conscious were you of following in Shakespeare’s footsteps, especially in terms of the language he used and the themes he presented?

Marina: To begin with the weight of his genius absolutely crippled me. I had what I thought was this terrific idea that all the characters would speak as if they were in the play, in iambic pentameter as far as possible, using numerous references from the text. The first scene I wrote was dreadful, so stilted and false and mannered. No one speaks that way. So I stopped trying to be ‘Shakespearean’ ; I was on  a losing wicket in any case, because no one can do that better than he. So I threw out that idea and just wrote the characters I knew, with a contemporary cadence. And that’s when Beatrice and Benedick began to speak to me.

Litro: You present several Moorish characters in the novel, as Shakespeare did in his plays. But modern attitudes towards race and ethnicity are very different to the attitudes in his day. How did you tackle this difference?

Marina: This was an interesting one. I was aware that I didn’t want to be too ‘modern’ in my interpretation of inter-racial relationships at that period. But, just as today, there was a vast difference in how Moorish people were treated in different parts of Italy and I reference this in the novel. In Padua, which was a university town stuffed with all different nationalities and races, Moors were treated respectfully. Verona had a black patron saint, Saint Zeno, and a liberal attitude to her Moorish citizens.  Some places changed over time; Sicily, because of her proximity to Africa, was somewhat of a melting pot. One of her festal icons, Grifone, is a black conqueror, and for centuries the Moors integrated readily into Sicilian society, resulting in many mixed race families such as the Crollalanzas in my book.  But attitudes changed with the Spanish occupation, when the Moors were expelled from the island in line with wider Spanish policy. And that, as they say, is when the trouble began.

Litro: I’m sure you’re aware that it’s the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth this April. If he were still alive, what would you write in his birthday card?

Marina: Thank you for the words, words, words.

Litro: And finally, what can we expect from you next? Do you think you’ll ever revisit the Bard?

Marina: Funnily enough, once I finished Beatrice and Benedick I was completely in that zone – I trawled my favourite plays for characters that were begging to be brought to light, to tell their own stories. Creatively speaking, I would love to do that but the cold hard truth is that it will all depend on how Beatrice and Benedick does – if it finds a wide enough audience then yes, bring on the Bard!

Photo: Ian Pickard
Photo: Ian Pickard

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato is published by Hodder & Stoughton in Trade Paperback on 8th May, £13.99. Buy it from Foyles.

Marina Fiorato is half-Venetian. She was born in Manchester and raised in the Yorkshire Dales. She is a history graduate of Oxford University and the University of Venice, where she specialized in the study of Shakespeare’s plays as an historical source. After university she studied art and since worked as an illustrator, actress and film reviewer. Marina was married on the Grand Canal and lives in north London with her husband, son and daughter. She is the author of six novels: The Glassblower of Murano, The Madonna of the Almonds, The Botticelli Secret, Daughter of Siena, The Venetian Contract and now Beatrice and Benedick. She was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Historical Fiction Award for Daughter of Siena.

Litro #133: Shakespeare – Letter From The Editor

litro133_shakespeare_singleDear Reader,

As someone who’s rapidly approaching forty, I know a little about milestone birthdays. They come with peer pressure, and reminiscence – and ziggurats of cake.

But none of us come close to the 450 years Shakespeare is celebrating this April. What do you buy someone who’s already Britain’s greatest cultural hero? Maybe a little celebrity love. Benedict Cumberbatch just announced that he’ll be playing Hamlet this summer, and over the last few years everyone from James MacEvoy to Jude Law has been breathing life into the Bard’s words.

But perhaps all this celebrity glamour is blinding us to the real issue: does Shakespeare speak to our minorities? Is Othello all he has to offer for Britain’s new multicultural landscape? Should we pay attention to the celebrities flocking to play his great heroes – or the men and women who take on the smaller roles, who toil behind the scenes to keep Shakespeare’s words alive for today’s audiences?

We’ve put together Litro #133, an issue devoted to The Bard, as a special gift for his 450th birthday – and to shine the spotlight into some dimly lit corners. Our curtain rises on Ben Crystal – renowned Shakespeare producer, actor and author – as he shares Year of the Prince, a contemplation of what it means to play the greatest stage role of all time: Hamlet. Just like every great actor, Ben makes us laugh, and cry, and keeps us rooted to our seats until they bring the curtain down. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to stand in the spotlight and read those immortal words – “To be or not to be” – this is the answer.

Ben’s Hamlet is a tough act to follow, but England’s writers are up to the task. David McGrath uses Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as an inspirational springboard, applying them to one of London’s most notorious neighborhoods: Soho. Then Jenn Ashworth brings King Lear up to date with Doted, a short story that proves (if there was ever any doubt) that Shakespeare’s themes are just as relevant now as they were four centuries ago.

No celebration of The Bard’s work would be complete without a few lines of verse, so Andrew Pidoux does the honours with Shakespeare’s Words, a poetic rumination on the legacy he left behind – not in the bricks of Stratford, or the over-familiar portraits, but in the words he etched into our cultural foundations. That’s followed by Pauline Kiernan’s Getting Rid of Ovid, a colourful exploration of Shakespeare’s own inspirations, and the debt he owed to the great Roman poet. Finally, we talk to Marina Fiorato about her latest novel, Beatrice and Benedick, and the changes in attitudes towards ethnic minorities that the last four centuries have brought.

It’s hard to measure the effect that any single writer, or artist, has on our culture as a whole. There is no formula to quantify artistic influence, no iPhone app to weigh the complex interactions of art and artists through the ages. But one thing is clear: 450 years after Shakespeare’s birth, it’s hard to imagine British literature – or theatre, or cinema – without that distinctive bald-headed silhouette whispering prompts from the wings.

Dan Coxon


Girls Behaving Badly: an interview with Emma Jane Unsworth

Ahead of her appearance at Litro Live! on 23 April, Dan Coxon talks with Emma Jane Unsworth about alcohol, heroines, and her forthcoming novel Animals.

EmJaneAnimals is great fun to read, the kind of drunken romp that staggers forward under its own momentum. Was it fun to write? Or did it bring its own set of challenges?

I find that the fun comes either side of the writing: having ideas is fun, and seeing the finished thing is fun, but the bit in the middle is just always really hard work. Annoyingly. The themes of Animals gave me scope for extreme humour and a fast pace, incorporating elements of satire, farce, slapstick etc – but I hope there are stiller points, too, where the characters are forced to stop and take stock of what they’re doing. Which is largely being complete dicks.

Why did you want to write this book, about these characters? What seemed so essential or exciting about them?

Oh, they’re awful. Pretentious, self-obsessed, usually drunk or high, out for what they can get. I loved them deeply and felt it was my duty to inflict them on the world.

There’s a lot of drinking in the book, along with drug taking, theft, and various other incidents of bad behaviour. How close is this to your own life? Are you a secret party animal?

There’s nothing secret about it. I’m a druggy thief. I sold my nan yesterday for a bag of mandy.

Who’s inspiring you right now?

Jenny Lewis, Jesca Hoop, Zoe Pilger, Lorrie Moore, Sarah Brocklehurst, Anneliese Mackintosh, Alison Taylor.

What are your four or five favourite books? And what alcoholic beverage would you pair them with?

Hold on, I need a drink to answer that.

The Collected Dorothy Parker – a box of wine

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey – absinthe

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – shooters

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan – a malt whisky

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank – a cup of tea, after all that

animalsWhat’s your writing space like? Describe your desk for us.

At the moment it’s a tray table on a train. I’m between homes, in more ways than one. There’s a dried pool of old coffee on the surface and a man next to me eating a fish sandwich so strong it’s basically assault. I hope he sees me typing this.

And finally… what next for Emma Jane Unsworth?

I’m finishing my third novel – a chase story set in a campervan, about a woman who’s completely screwed her life up. I’m a bit obsessed with campervans.

Emma Jane Unsworth will be appearing as part of Litro Live! on 23 April, alongside Glen Duncan, Naomi Foyle, Charlie Hill, Maia Jenkins, and guest musical performances. Tickets are available here. She won the Betty Trask Award for her novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything (Hidden Gem, 2011) and was shortlisted for the 2012 Portico Prize. Her short story ‘I Arrive First’ was included in The Best British Short Stories 2012 (Salt). Animals will be released by Canongate Books on 1 May 2014. She lives in Manchester.

Book Review: Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean

berlin-199x300There are certain cities that seem to exert their own gravitational pull. Sometimes it’s due to their size; other times, the sheer weight of history gathered behind them. Berlin is certainly one of the latter. The German capital is a dark star at the heart of Europe that continues to draw more artists, leaders and innovators to its streets than cities twice its size. In many ways the history of Berlin is the history of Europe. It’s little wonder that so many have found it so irresistible.

Rory MacLean’s latest book is a significant departure from the travelogues with which he made his reputation. In some ways travel still sits at its core – MacLean, after all, is Canadian by birth – but there is very little travelling involved. Not in the spatial sense. What he attempts in Berlin: Imagine a City is instead, in many ways, a kind of time travel. Collected between its covers are a series of short biographies of the artists and personalities who have shaped Berlin across the centuries. Opening with proto-rebel Konrad von Colln – a 15th century poet who defied both the Mastersingers Guild and his patron – and reaching all the way to Berlin’s reunified present, the collection gives a patchwork impression of a city forever in flux.

It can be read as a simple compendium of biographies, although to do so is to miss some of MacLean’s subtleties. There is plenty of pleasure to be had by dipping into it almost at random, discovering anecdotes about Marlene Dietrich and Christopher Isherwood, or the infectious insanity of Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels. There are lesser known characters from the city’s past too, and each chapter is a miniature voyage of discovery that can be enjoyed in its own right. Some condense an entire life into twenty pages; others focus on one incident. The chapter on John F. Kennedy’s visit in 1963 takes the form of an imaginary film script.

It’s as a whole, however, that this unconventional portrait of a city comes to life. If each individual chapter opens a door onto an episode from its history, then the cumulative effect is to transform these short personal biographies into one larger biography of Berlin itself. MacLean does his best to identify lasting characteristics in the earlier historical figures, but it’s during and after the World Wars that the city we know is fully mapped out. In the rise and fall of Nazi Germany – and in the schizophrenic city that came in its wake – he finds his most intriguing material, a study of guilt, and loss, and acceptance, and reconciliation. As he writes in his Epilogue:

As I came to know the city, I began to understand that, rather than lacking in empathy, Berlin was in trauma. Its collective memory was so wracked by historical suffering, so injured by emotional history, that Berliners – like Germans as a whole – had developed rules as defences.

MacLean’s approach won’t appeal to everyone. Note that the book’s subtitle prompts us to ‘Imagine a City’; not define it. There is much here that’s fictional, inserted between the pages of history like illustrations in a medieval text. What MacLean cannot dig up through research alone, he invents. Historians will most likely be appalled by the liberties he takes, trying to think his way inside the heads of his subjects, creating scenarios and conversations that never occurred in the real world. Even some of the later chapters, dealing with the last century, make similar leaps of the imagination in places. If you’re searching for documentable fact, this is not the place to look.

But his writing has always played with the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, and if you’re prepared to embrace it, this quickly becomes one of Berlin’s strengths. This is more than simply a collection of potted biographies, a cyclopedia of the German capital’s largest personalities. It’s also an attempt to map out the city in four dimensions, to explore the imagery, and the concepts, and the characteristics that make Berlin such a magnet for artists and visionaries.

Does it succeed? Almost. The strongest chapters are often those where MacLean had a personal connection with his subjects – a chance encounter with Marlene Dietrich, his time spent working with David Bowie in the Seventies – which suggests that sometimes he doesn’t delve quite deep enough into his imagination. Perhaps he might have gone further if he had imagined more, and relied on the history books a little less. The depiction of Berlin as an entity in its own right is intriguing; but even more intriguing is the form he has chosen to explore it in. Sitting at the crossroads between historical research and fictional leaps of the imagination, Berlin: Imagine a City is a bold experiment in finding new ways to understand beyond the simple facts and figures, to get to the heart of Europe’s endlessly fascinating dark star. As a work of history it is flawed; as a work of the imagination, it is to be applauded – and savoured.

Berlin: Imagine a City was published in February 2014. Buy it from Foyles.

Author Q&A with Louise Welsh

A Lovely Way to BurnLitro: A Lovely Way to Burn is set against a backdrop of London in crisis, as an epidemic sweeps through the city and law and order break down. Obviously this setting owes a debt to real life events, but what specifically inspired it?

Louise: The ideas for A Lovely Way to Burn have been percolating in me since childhood. I was brought up during the Cold War and at times it seemed like there was a real possibility of nuclear disaster. The feeling was intensified by TV programmes such as Threads which imagined the aftermath of a nuclear war.

Britain’s nuclear weapons programme is housed in the Firth of Clyde, not far from where I live, and I have often seen Trident submarines making their way along Loch Long. The juxtaposition of mountain, loch and the potential for mass destruction is a powerful one.

I have drawn on contemporary fears of mass pandemic rather than nuclear disaster because it holds more prospects for survivors.

Litro: Stevie Flint is an intriguing character, shallow and glossy on the surface but actually as tough as her surname suggests. What attracted you to the character? How much should we read into the fact that she has a man’s name?

Louise: Stevie is a good looking, sporty young woman who sells all sorts of useless stuff on a television sales channel. She initially comes across as good fun but superficial, but Stevie knows what is important – friendship, loyalty and justice. I like her bravery and the way she uses her talents – all those early morning jogs and Pilates lessons are put to good use during her adventures!

Stephanie or Steph just wouldn’t suit Stevie. She has a bit of metal in her soul.

Litro: Stevie started out as a journalist, but she ends up working in telemarketing. To what extent do you think that journalism is still a male-dominated industry? Was her character ever intended as a criticism of this?

Louise: Stevie’s move from journalism to sales girl on a TV shopping channel is not intended to be a statement on the male domination of journalism. New technology means that traditional journalism is an industry in crisis. Stevie is a victim of this trend. I wanted her to know what it is to fail at something close to her heart, but also to have skills that make her a good investigator.

Litro: Who are the writers you most admire? And who are you reading right now?

Louise: JG Ballard, Muriel Spark, William Burroughs, Patricia Highsmith… I could go on and on. At the moment I am compiling an anthology of one hundred ghost stories, so I am reading tons of creepy stuff and having lots of nightmares.

Litro: Tell us about your work environment: where do you write? What surrounds your workspace?

Louise: I love features about writers’ beautiful studies, but in reality you don’t need somewhere smart to write, just a bit of peace and quiet. I wrote my first three books in a small bedroom, just inches from where I slept. I now rent a teeny office in The Briggait, Glasgow’s old fish market which has been turned into artist’s studios. It is a fabulous building with lots of light, but my office is a mess of papers. There are maps and plot outlines stuck to the walls – it looks like a serial killer’s bedroom!

Litro: Crime fiction seems to be a genre in which women writers have excelled, often outselling their male counterparts. What do you think makes women so well suited to writing crime?

Louise: Genre fiction is more welcoming to outsiders than other forms of literature. Women are suited to writing in all varieties of fiction, but are perhaps more likely to be published in crime, horror, erotica etc.

Litro: What can we expect to see from you next?

Louise: Book two in the Plague Times trilogy. At the moment it is called Death is a Welcome Guest, but the title may change. They often do.

Author photo: Steve Lindbridge.
Author photo: Steve Lindbridge.

Louise Welsh is the author of five highly acclaimed novels including The Cutting Room and, most recently, The Girl on the Stairs. She has been the recipient of several awards. A Lovely Way to Burn is the first novel in the Plague Times trilogy. Find out more information on Louise’s website:

Litro #132: The Fairer Sex – Letter From The Editor

litro132_women_singleDear Reader,

On 8 March, thousands of events will be held across the world to help inspire women and celebrate their achievements. International Women’s Day has been held on the same date since 1913, the year that Emily Davison attempted to throw a ‘Votes for Women’ banner over the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Since then much has changed, and for many the focus has moved away from the negatives, instead honouring the positive achievements of women around the world – women like Major Priscilla Azevedo, who graces our cover and is interviewed by Bruce Douglas in this issue.

A few months ago a seven-year old girl became a surprise viral hit on the Internet with her letter to the executives at Lego. In her letter, Charlotte Benjamin berated the toy manufacturers for promoting outdated gender stereotypes: in her words, “all the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and had no jobs,” while the boys “went on adventures, worked, saved people… even swam with sharks”. Emily Davison never experienced the Internet, and she wouldn’t have known what Lego was – but Charlotte’s complaint would have sounded all too familiar.

This Women’s Issue of Litro may be themed ‘The Fairer Sex’, but the women portrayed here do a lot more than “sit at home, go to the beach, and shop.” In Vanessa Veselka’s Just Before Elena the narrator is desperately coming to terms with impending motherhood, an emotional journey that has her finding religion on the back of a taco truck. Maia Jenkins – winner of this year’s GQ Norman Mailer Student Writing Prize – glances back at her own childhood, and the biology classes that defined her early relationships with boys. Then Erica Plouffe Lazure’s The Silent P takes a humorous glance at the battle between the sexes via a chance encounter outside the Men’s Room.

It’s in Bruce Douglas’s Pacification and its Discontents that we see how far modern women have come, as he interviews Major Priscilla Azevedo, the commander of Rio de Janeiro’s first Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP) and the first Brazilian to win an International Women of Courage Award. Denise Muir explores the sexual politics of Barbie dolls in her translation of Mari Accardi’s The Grass is Even Greener… (L’erba del vicino), then Sonia Lambert takes us back to the Suffragette struggles with Smashing, set during the controversial window-smashing campaign of 1912. Finally, we chat to Louise Welsh, author of The Cutting Room and A Lovely Way to Burn, about strong female characters and the dominance of women in the crime genre.

Emily Davison might not recognise the housewives and princesses in the Lego catalogues, but I like to think that she’d feel a comradeship with the many of the women depicted between these pages – including Major Priscilla Azevedo herself. After all, they swim with sharks.

Dan Coxon


Getting Stuck in the Snow: an interview with Dan Rhodes

Dan Coxon talks to Dan Rhodes – author of Anthropology, Timoleon Vieta Come Home and This Is Life – about his latest novel, When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow, and the difficult decision to self-publish.

What was the immediate inspiration for When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow? What did you want to achieve with this book?

I miss Spitting Image. If it was still going they would definitely have a Richard Dawkins puppet, and every week I would be sending in lines for it – but with no Spitting Image I’ve had to take matters into my own hands. I’ve had ideas about writing about him for a long time, and when it was in the news that he’d gone apeshit on Amazon about some instructions for a DVD writer, I knew the time had come. There’s a lot of comedy to be found in people who are perpetually exasperated at the world around them – he’s a bit of a Basil Fawlty in that regard. Coupled with this was a trend for assaults on authorial freedom from people with access to petrifying lawyers. Scarlett Johansson, for instance, appears to have driven a French novel out of print because a character in it resembles her, which apparently damages her brand – as if her maximising her fees from Soda Stream and Moet adverts is in some way more important than authors being able to write fiction – that’s fiction, Scarlett – freely. I had the idea of assembling a protest anthology containing stories featuring clearly fictional versions of public figures, but in the end I decided it would be clearer and less bother just to write this book instead.

Dan Rhodes
Dan Rhodes

I’m sure you know that this year marks the 30th anniversary of Spitting Image. If they were to revive the show next week, who would you like to see them lampooning (apart from Richard Dawkins, obviously)?

There’s never going to be a shortage of horrifying public figures to make fun of. I’m sure they would get a lot of mileage out of Vince Cable for a start. Michael Gove would be an open goal.

For a comic novel, there are some pretty deep, philosophical discussions about the existence of God and the coexistence of science and religion in When The Professor… Why in particular did this interest you?

I’m not embedded in the argument. If I was, and I was trying to get a point across, I think the book would have suffered for it. If I ever tune into those debates they sound to me like the screeching of squabbling toddlers, and I don’t find myself with much option but to make fun of both sides.

You mention a number of celebrity authors during the course of the novel, from Martin Amis to A.C. Grayling. Have you met any of these in person? What has been your experience of these kinds of celebrity authors while on the book festival circuit?

I’ve not met Martin or A.C.. I tend to be at the tail end of these literary events. I always seem to end up among the aspiring novelists as they vomit into municipal shrubberies.

Why the decision to publish this one yourself?

I wanted to get it out fast, and publishers don’t do fast. Also, they are – to put it politely – cautious, and it’s unlikely they would have waved it through without demanding changes. I’m hoping, with this publication, to prove that it isn’t a legal minefield, and to partner up with a conventional publishing house for the paperback. Wish me luck with that.

How challenging have you found that?

Hmmm… You’d better ask me in a few weeks. So far it’s been pretty smooth. I’ve printed 400 first editions, which I’m signing and numbering, and they are trickling out nicely to independent bookshops.

You’ve said that this year marks your twentieth year working in the book trade. What lessons have you learned during that time that you’d like to pass along to our readers?

That nobody knows what makes a book catch on. I know I’m doing everything wrong, but I take comfort in the knowledge that there’s no right way of doing things.

Prof cover shrunk_2What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?

I just bought a stack of John Wyndham novels, which I’m looking forward to, I’m watching Dad’s Army and Blossom, and listening to Samson & Delilah by VV Brown. Part of my determination to get this book out – less than two months between finishing it and publishing it – is my continuing dismay at the delay of the MKS album. We should have been listening to that for months, but instead we’re growing old.

And what can we expect to see from you next? Do you have any unfulfilled projects you’d like to tackle?

Every time I finish a book I feel as if I’ll never be able to do anything every again. But so far something’s always reared up. Who knows?

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow is available now from select bookshops, or from Dan Rhodes’s website. It is also available as a Kindle ebook. Dan Rhodes has written eight other books and won a bunch of prizes, including the E.M. Forster Award. He lives in Derbyshire.

Sexual Gothic Revisited: Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden at the VAULT Festival

George Mackay (Jack) and Ruby Bentall (Julie) in The Cement Garden (Photo by Rebecca Pitt)
George Mackay (Jack) and Ruby Bentall (Julie) in The Cement Garden (Photo by Rebecca Pitt)

There are few writers who’ve shaped the future of the modern British novel as dramatically as Ian McEwan. By volume alone – 12 novels, two short story collections, two children’s books, four original screenplays, a play, an operetta and a libretto – he far outshines many of his contemporaries. When you consider how many of those books have become modern classics, he sits in a very elite group indeed.

The production of The Cement Garden at this year’s VAULT Festival is a timely reminder of McEwan’s taut, twisted roots. With his recent novels he sometimes seems to be targeting book clubs ahead of literature critics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – readers are to be welcomed wherever they’re found – but even McEwan admits that he’s lost some of his edginess. In a recent interview with The Guardian, McEwan stated that: “I’m no longer interested in a kind of sexual gothic. But you can’t in your mid-60s write as if you’re 25.”

David Aula and Jimmy Osborne’s adaptation of The Cement Garden brings his early sexual gothic back to life. Their source material was slim (the novel runs to 127 pages) so much of the work was already done for them. There are very few scenes that have been left out, although some are run into each other for the sake of narrative brevity. What’s more noticeable is how much the sexuality of the novel has been toned down. McEwan’s book contains scenes of masturbation and incest, and these are still present on the stage – but the nudity has vanished. Jack (George MacKay) still self-abuses copiously, starting before the first scene, as the audience take their seats… but he does so with his trousers on. Similarly, when Jack and Julie (Ruby Bentall) carry out their sexual experiments on younger sister Sue (Georgia Clarke-Day) they’re innocent by comparison: their explorations are seen only in shadow, across clean white sheets. It may seem that a stage adaptation of The Cement Garden would be unbearably graphic and sexually-charged, but in fact the reverse is true. McEwan’s sexual gothic felt dirtier when it took place solely in our heads.

The two-tier set allows for some interesting use of space, and the Vaults are in many ways the perfect setting for such a claustrophobic story. Even the sound of trains rumbling overhead only adds to the sense of poverty and seclusion. The outside world surrounding the house – McEwan’s “few terraced houses… cleared to make way for four twenty-storey tower blocks” – is almost unmentioned as Aula and Osbourne focus on the family’s sense of isolation, although curiously this sometimes detracts from the claustrophobia rather than adds to it. With no point of comparison outside their walls, the family dynamic almost starts to seem normal.

David Annen (Tom) and Ruby Bentall Julie) in The Cement Garden (Photo by Rebecca Pitt)
David Annen (Tom) and Ruby Bentall Julie) in The Cement Garden (Photo by Rebecca Pitt)

There are other subtle twists made to the novel’s story too, often to overcome the specific challenges of putting McEwan’s novel on the stage. Younger brother Tom is played by David Annen as an older version of himself, looking back on the events of the mid-70s. Annen carries and manipulates a simplistic paper puppet of his younger self, and it’s a testament to his acting abilities that the audience soon forgets this dramatic device, accepting him as the youngest sibling. Commander Hunt – the hero of the sci-fi novel that Sue gives Jack for his birthday – also steps out of the shadows to represent a fragment of Jack’s psyche, and the role model that he doesn’t have. Christopher Webster brings a physical humour to the role that is much needed in such a dark tale, although his brief turn as their father feels misplaced and far lighter than the abusive, brooding presence of the novel.

Bringing a well-known – and well-respected – novel to the stage is never easy. It says something that Aula, Osborne and their cast fully engage our attention for close to two hours, exploring the same dark pathways that Ian McEwan first trod 36 years ago. If The Cement Garden disappoints at all, it’s in its failure to shock us, to push those boundaries of sexual gothic that made the novel such a darkly brilliant debut. But then, even Ian McEwan doesn’t shock like he used to.

The Cement Garden runs until 8th March at the Vaults, as part of the VAULT Festival 2014. Tickets are available here.

Review: New Kindle Paperwhite Makes e-Reading Easy

popup-paperwhite-diffThe days when a book was simply a few sheets of paper sandwiched between two covers are long gone. Of course, there’s every chance that the paper-and-ink novel will never die out completely – it’s too perfect a design for that – but it’s no longer so simple as that. The times, they are a-changin’.

The Kindle Paperwhite is in many ways the peak of current ebook technology. Sure, it can’t play movies like the Kindle Fire, or leap tall buildings in a single bound like the iPad – but once you remove the tablets from the race it’s pretty clear that the Kindle Paperwhite is several lengths in front. From the sleek, lightweight design to the touchscreen technology and the clear, crisp reading experience, this is as good as (e)reading gets. Here’s a breakdown of its main features:

Screen: If you’re already familiar with the previous generation of Kindles, the new Paperwhite will still come as a surprise. The whites look whiter than before, the blacks blacker. The entry-level Kindle always suffered from slightly greying text, straining your eyes in poor lighting, but you’ll have none of that here. The text is easy to read, and often sharper than plenty of the print books on my shelf. The backlight has been redesigned too, offering a more natural light, which makes for easy reading over longer periods of time.

Most of the features are the same as before. But the tweaks to the screen and the general operation make this the perfect entry-level Kindle for those who want to join the ebook generation – and it’s a valuable upgrade for those still labouring with the basic Kindle, too. They come in a range of sizes and some even have 3G; you can check out all the options here.

Navigation: The touchscreen technology makes for a much easier experience than the old Kindles, so you’ll have to engage your brain just a little less between chapters. Menus are clear and simple, and without an array of buttons to navigate the entire experience is close to seamless.

Capacity: With only 2GB of storage, you may worry that the Paperwhite won’t hold your e-library. But don’t be too concerned. The focus is firmly on its reading capabilities (there are no apps to download here, and there isn’t even a headphone socket) so books and documents are all that will fill up your device – and these tend to take up very little space. There’s room for literally hundreds of books on the Paperwhite, and with a new facility to switch between your cloud and your device storage you have plenty of online storage options should you ever reach capacity.

Battery: We didn’t get a chance to test this, but Amazon are saying that the battery will last for eight weeks, if you read for an average of 30 minutes a day. Even if you read for an hour a day, it should still last a month. Long enough to take it away on holiday with you and forget to pack the charger.

Pages: Without buttons to hold you back, the page-turning experience is quick and seamless. A tap to one side of the screen, or a swipe, does the job, and the new pages now load 25% faster than previous models. Perfect for reading one-handed while you sip a cup of coffee.

Options: If you like to customize your e-reading experience, there are plenty of options to choose from. Menus can be viewed as thumbnails or lists, the text size can be changed quickly and easily, and there are even different fonts to choose from. We also liked the new PageFlip feature, which enables you to ‘flick’ through the book to a specific page. Ebooks have always been more difficult to jump around in than their physical counterparts, but now you can flip backwards and forwards with ease. Surely it won’t be long until they come with a built-in flyswatter too.


If you already have the previous Paperwhite, you probably won’t want to upgrade to this newer version. Most of the features are the same as before. But the tweaks to the screen and the general operation make this the perfect entry-level Kindle for those who want to join the ebook generation – and it’s a valuable upgrade for those still labouring with the basic Kindle, too. Here at Litro we believe that the print-and-ink book is here to stay – but when you’re on the move and want a light, portable way of carrying your library with you, the Paperwhite is currently top of the pile.

Litro has a Kindle Paperwhite to give away this Valentine’s Day. We want to hear your best literary chat up lines (via haiku) by 12th February at the latest. The best lines will be posted online Friday 14th and a winning cupid will be chosen to win a New Kindle Paperwhite. Find more details and terms & conditions here.

Writing the Funny Pages: an Interview with Charlie Hill

Dan Coxon talks to Charlie Hill, author of Books – a satire set within the world of bookselling and international bestsellers –  about the state of the industry and his decision to write a satirical novel.

Photo by AJ Pilkington
Photo by AJ Pilkington

What made you decide to write a satirical novel? Where did the initial impetus come from?

A few years ago, I was working at Waterstones and reviewing books for the papers. Far too many of the books I reviewed were variations on the same formula: uninteresting bloke muses about dull relationships with two-dimensional women. Judging by the covers on them, this sort of rubbish also made up most of the novels we piled up at the front of the shop. I wondered why publishers were putting so many resources into promoting this particular literary idiom above all others, and what would happen if the ‘Cult’ sections of High Street bookshops were enormous and the ‘Mainstream Fiction’ bits tiny. I also thought that if I couldn’t write better books than the ones I was being asked to read, I’d stand stuffing.

As with much comedy, Books has an underlying current of anger in it. It even has a character called Anger! What angers you most about the publishing industry today?

I don’t know if I’m angry with the publishing industry. Frustrated is probably a better description. I am, however, interested in publishing’s place in the culture. Is its timidity a symptom of our present, colorfully vile malaise? Or in some way a cause?

Both Richard Anger and Gary Sayles feel very true to life… was either based upon a particular writer?

Richard Anger has one or two bits of me in him. Gary Sayles is a fictitious character. Any resemblance to any real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

In reading Books I thought I detected a debt to Kingsley Amis, and possibly, in its wilder moments, to Will Self. To what extent were you aware of writing within the cultural history of British satire?

That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I was aware of it, really. I’ve never read any Kingsley Amis and don’t get on with Will Self’s fiction (although I love his non-fiction.) The only Martin Amis I’ve read is Night Train and The Moronic Inferno. I tried to read Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, but didn’t get very far. I haven’t read Cold Comfort Farm. I have read Come to the Edge by Joanna Kavenna and as a kid I absolutely loved Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure by Tom Sharpe, but I doubt his influence on my writing is strong enough to place me in the tradition.

In any case, I’m wary of being lumped in with other writers. I don’t think it means much and can be unhelpful. I’m a writer who comes from Birmingham. There are others. Talking about us on Facebook the other day, someone coined the term ‘Brumlit’. It’s lovely that there are other writers from Birmingham. But I rather wish they hadn’t…

Anger has a love of both alcoholic excess and avant-garde literature. Which writers excite you? And what’s your favourite tipple?

books-lst126555I’m fascinated by the relationship between booze and writing. I can’t write after having a drink but I do revise. I like what Guy Debord said about it: “I have written much less than most people who write; but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.” I’ll drink anything, but I prefer red wine, Guinness or malt whisky.

My reading preferences are less fixed. At the moment I’m excited by Marilynne Robinson, JG Ballard, Richard Brautigan, Ali Smith, Katherine Mansfield, Alison Moore, Ann Quin, Jim Crace and George Pelecanos. I’m hoping to be excited by Junot Diaz and John Williams.

Do you have a specific place you like to write, or a regular routine? What does your writing space look like?

I don’t have a routine. Which might explain why it once took me a year to write and place a 500 word story. If I’m struggling with the structure or tone of my writing, I go out for a walk. Sitting on trains or buses helps too. It’s almost as if being out in the world gives me a clearer sense of what my work is or needs to be. Where it fits, if you like.

I can’t write sentences though – at least not good ones – unless I’m at my desk. Which is always covered in empty wine bottles and whisky glasses.

Charlie Hill’s second novel – a comedy of ideas called Books – is published by Tindal Street Press/Serpent’s Tail, and is available now from Foyles for books and all good bookshops. You can read more of his writing here on the Litro website, including his recent essay “On Class and Writing a Novel”.