Q&A: Robin Sloan on Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan, author of Litro’s current Book Club pick, the fantastic Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, tells us how the idea for the novel came from a tweet.

Robin Sloan
Robin Sloan

Litro: Tell us about Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – what’s the book about?

Robin: It’s an adventure and a mystery set mostly in San Francisco. The story begins when an unemployed designer gets a job working the night shift at a mysterious bookstore that is, needless to say, much more than it appears to be.

Litro: Where did the idea for the book come from?

Robin: The seed of the idea came from a tweet! Years ago, a friend tweeted: “just misread ’24hr bookdrop’ as ’24hr bookshop’. the disappointment is beyond words.” It made me laugh, and like many writers, I am a keeper of scraps—a scribbler of notes—so I copied it down. Then, months later, when I sat down to begin a new short story, I encountered it again, and it seemed to me that a 24-hour bookstore would be a pretty great setting for a story. So, I started writing. The scrap grew into a short story, and the short story into a full-length novel.

Litro: What do you hope people will take away from the book?

Robin: I don’t want to say too much about that, because I think it spoils some of the surprises. I will say that there’s a lot in this novel about the relationship between books and technology, and I hope people emerge a bit more optimistic on that front.

Litro: Tell us about the process of writing Mr Penumbra – how long have you been working on it? Did you know where the plot was going before you started?

Robin: The first draft took about a year, during which I also had a full-time job, working at Twitter here in San Francisco. I didn’t have the whole plotted out precisely, but I did have a sense of what was waiting at the end—the secrets that I wanted to reveal.

Litro: There are a lot of “secret societies” in the novel – the Unbroken Spine, the Google corporation, Grumble’s forum, the Accession Table – what interests you about these closed worlds?

Robin: I’m glad you picked up on that! I like writing about secret societies because I think they are, in fact, quite common. Most offices are little secret societies with their own strange hierarchies, right?—their own little rituals. I think families have those characteristics, too. Relationships certainly do. And so, I think dialing up the strangeness a bit—adding secret passwords, dark robes—actually helps us see these everyday cults a bit more clearly.

Litro: You’ve got a fantastic female character in Kat – where did the inspiration for her come from?

Robin: Kat is probably my favourite character in the novel, and the inspiration for her was very direct: I have, over the years, worked with many brilliant, ambitious women who were engineers and managers, and yet, reading fiction, I didn’t see them represented. Like—nowhere! I couldn’t believe it; still can’t, really. Kat is my small contribution toward balancing the scales and giving these bad-ass women their due on the page.

 Litro: What kind of things were you reading while you were writing Mr Penumbra?

Robin: In general, I’m a huge fan of science fiction, and I think I was probably reading even more of than usual while I was writing Penumbra. I think you can see that in the story: it’s packed with SF homage, shot through with references and asides. All in all, I have to say SF is my favorite genre—my favourite shelf in the bookstore.

Litro: The book focuses on the relationship between “old” print media and new technology – what do you think the future holds for the printed book?

Robin: I think the printed book is going to be around for a long time to come. It’s a finely-honed format with lots of very attractive features; that sort of thing doesn’t disappear overnight. Now, there’s no question we’ll see more mixed collections, more hybrid reading—but that hybridity will, for a long time, include a healthy print component.

Litro: Is technology changing the way we read?

Robin: Well, I think it’s giving us new ways to read. There’s no question: the experiences of reading on a phone, a tablet, an e-reader, a laptop, and a printed book are all different. It has as much to do with our bodies as the screens themselves: what’s our posture like? Are we curled up? Where are we reading—on a train, under a tree, in bed? “Reading” is not just one thing, and right now we’re seeing a sort of Cambrian explosion of different kinds and contexts. That’s nothing but exciting.

Litro: What was the first book you ever loved, and why?

Robin: That’s hard to remember, but I can tell you that among them were the Chronicles of Prydain, the classic fantasy adventure series by Lloyd Alexander.  I remember finishing the last book in the series—the pages dwindling beneath my fingers—and feeling this rising sadness, this great melancholy, because my time with the characters was coming to a close. For me, that’s still the purest expression of love for a book: the sadness when it’s over.

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Litro: Tell us about the first time you realised that the world may not be as it seems.

Robin: This might sound strange, but I honestly think it was in my economics classes at Michigan State University. I had, of course, read about magic systems in fantasy novels for years and years prior to that point; but in those classes it seemed that I was encountering a real system of magic for the first time. I’ve become more skeptical of the discipline’s power in the years since, but I still remember that feeling vividly: like someone was lifting up the skin of the world, showing me the muscle and bone underneath.

Litro: What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

I spend a lot of time working with computers—tinkering, programming, inventing. I’ve released a few digital experiments (I made an iPhone app called Fish, for example—a sort of touchscreen essay) and there are more to come.

 Litro: What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?

Robin: Is the internet a place? I think so. I often think of the Web in particular as a sort of big, weird, sprawling city. I feel lucky to have wandered in relatively early and seen it grow and change.

Litro: What are you working on next?

Robin: There’s a prequel to Penumbra coming out in the fall, a digital short. It tells the tale of Mr. Penumbra’s arrival in San Francisco in the year 1969 how he first encountered this strange 24-hour bookstore, and why he decided to stay.

Read the book? Tell us what you think on the Book Club discussion page.




The Mystery Lady of Gladstone’s Library – Short Story Competition

The UK’s only residential library (doesn’t that just sound brilliant? A library you can sleep in?) is running a short story competition as part of the library’s first ever literary festival.

The mystery portrait hanging in Gladstone's Library
The mystery portrait hanging in Gladstone’s Library

Gladstone’s Library, founded by Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone, is challenging writers to come up with a story inspired by a mystery portrait that hangs in the library’s front hallway. The lady in the portrait is richly dressed, pictured with a small dog and holding a blossoming orange (a clue to her tale?), but no one knows who she is.

Louisa Yates, organiser of GladFest, the Library’s first literary festival which is being held in September, says,“we know what the picture looks like but not the story behind it or who the lady is. We would love people to use their imagination and create their own story around this mysterious lady. The competition is not intended as a research exercise, as it’s much more fun to imagine than to know!”

Entries can be in either of two categories – short fiction up to 3000 words or flash fiction up to 360 words. The deadline for submissions is Friday 9th August.

The first prize for both categories is a 7-night stay at Gladstone’s Library and the winning story will be published online at The Word Factory and the winning flash fiction will be published in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and the second prize in both categories is a 3-night stay at Gladstone’s Library.

More details on how to enter can be found here.




“Mystery” Photo Competition Winners

Impossible architecture, spooky stories and fabulous fairytales in the winning photos in our “Mystery” themed photo competition.

It’s arguably the case that all great photographs contain mysteries; something hidden as well as what is revealed. We asked you to send us photos on the theme of our “Mystery” issue back in March, and these are our top 10 from the entries we received.  We picked Dorothee Lang’s My Stery as the winner because we loved the sense of depth in this image. It demands to be looked at, decoded, turned around like a puzzle box until we understand, but doesn’t quite give us the answer we want. There were also images which asked questions, told stories and hinted at a little magic. Have a look at our top 10 below.

Dorothee_Lang_my_stery
WINNER: My Stery by Dorothee Lang. Dorothee Lang is into roads, stories, places, crossings, and all the things they lead and connect to. She lives in Germany, edits BluePrintReview and blogs at life as a journey.


@samhowell0508_1
Untitled, by Sam Howell. inktopixels.co.uk

Laura_Hutton_Whidbey_Island
Whidbey Island: End of Dock by Laura Hutton. Laura is a writer and photographer from the Pacific Northwest area of the United States. Her poetry and photography have been featured in various literary magazines, including Cloudrag and Fragments. She currently lives and works in London.


Steffi_Pusch_Swimmer
Swimmer by Steffi Pusch. Steffi lives in East Sussex and works negative based with old fashioned film, toy and pinhole cameras. She tries to capture time itself through the use of natural light, blur and multiple exposures. This photograph was taken with a Holga single lens camera. www.steffipusch.com

Cr_Aafi_6
Untitled, by Cr Aafi


Rose_Hunter_elvis_presley
Elvis Presley by Rose Hunter. Rose is a writer who also likes taking pictures. She is the author of [four paths] (Texture Press 2012), and to the river (Artistically Declined Press 2010). She is from Australia and lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She keeps a photo blog here.

Steffi_Pusch_castle
Castle by Steffi Pusch. Steffi lives in East Sussex and works negative based with old fashioned film, toy and pinhole cameras. She tries to capture time itself through the use of natural light, blur and multiple exposures. This photograph was taken with a Holga single lens camera. www.steffipusch.com


Laura_Hutton_Yestere'en_Mystery_Squad
Yestere’en Mystery Squad by Laura Hutton. Laura is a writer and photographer from the Pacific Northwest area of the United States. Her poetry and photography have been featured in various literary magazines, including Cloudrag and Fragments. She currently lives and works in London.

@ajdeho_Tate_Britain
Tate Britain by AJ Dehany, author of ahaikuaday.tumblr.com & tweeting as @ajdeho


Lewis_River_Trail_Laura_Hutton
Lewis River Trail by Laura Hutton. Laura is a writer and photographer from the Pacific Northwest area of the United States. Her poetry and photography have been featured in various literary magazines, including Cloudrag and Fragments. She currently lives and works in London.




Litro London Walk: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Camden

heikowalkThis walk was put together by Heiko Khoo, who runs the Karl Marx Walking Tour in Soho, London, a tour that gives a full introduction to Marx’s ideas, legacy and life in London. Find out more at their website.
You can follow this walk on our interactive Google Map below, or read about the places visited in the accompanying article. Nearest tube stations: Chalk Farm, Camden Town, Kentish Town West, Gospel Oak, Hampstead Heath.


View Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Camden, London in a larger map

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels transformed the world. Their ideas about economics, socialism and society changed the way we think forever, influencing everything from how we view history to how nations are governed. It’s a well-known London fact that Karl Marx is buried in Highgate Cemetery, but most of us don’t know much else about one of the world’s most famous German authors’ time in London. Our walk around his old haunts in Camden will take you through Marx’s years here, his relationship with his lifelong friend and financial supporter Friedrich Engels, his greatest writing, and his sad death.

Marx came to London in 1849, exiled from his native Germany and from France as a political threat. He remained here for the rest of his life, learning English so that he could write in for English language newspapers, sometimes living in extreme poverty (only three of his seven children survived into adulthood). He was largely supported by his friend Engels. The headquarters of the Communist League also moved to London, and the city became an international centre of the socialist movement.

Marx was from a middle class family. A writer of fiction as well as his best know philosophical works, Marx had studied in Bonn and Berlin, becoming involved in radical left-wing politics. He began to develop his theory that societies naturally go through a process of class struggle, a war between the owners and the workers, and that capitalism would be overthrown by socialism and then communism. He called for the working classes to fight to bring this about.

Marx and Engels met on the radical scene in Paris in 1843. Engels had already lived in England, working for his family business in Manchester, where he wandered the slums, researching his work The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844. It was this book that persuaded Marx that the working classes would be crucial in the final revolution that would bring about communism. The two would collaborate on The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

Engels moved with Marx to London, going back to work in Manchester in order to support himself and Marx, whom he saw as an important thinker. During their time in the city they wrote some of their most important works, and were both leading figures in the International socialist movement, putting them under scrutiny from the British authorities.

The Marx Family and Friedrich Engels, date unknown
The Marx Family and Friedrich Engels, date unknown

1. Escaping Poverty: Marx at 36 Grafton Terrace (Formerly no. 9)

Click here for the location. Marx moved to London in 1849 after being exiled from France and Germany as a political thread. His first years in the city were plagued by dire poverty and squalor. In October 1856 the Marx household moved here, to Grafton Terrace near Chalk Farm, escaping the miseries of their former rooms in Dean Street, Soho, where three of their children had died. The move was financed by Marx’s friend Friedrich Engels, who had sold his share in a Manchester factory to fund their joint studies.

The new house had eight rooms, enabling the Marx children to entertain other children from the neighbourhood. Initially, their life was radically improved, but Marx was soon overspending the money he and his wife had inherited from his father, and was soon reduced to begging cash from Engels again. The exterior of building has an appropriate red door, and it remains little changed from when Marx lived there.

The leader of the German workers’ movement, Ferdinand Lassalle, stayed here in 1862 while he was visiting the International Exhibition. He engaged in profligate spending whilst Marx was completely broke, infuriating Marx.

Marx would trundle off from here, taking the omnibus to the British Museum, where he would spend hours in the reading room, researching and writing his great life’s work, Das Kapital.

2. Death of Marx: 44 Maitland Park Road

Click here for the location. The house is gone, but a plaque on a council flat marks the spot where the Marx family, now made up of Marx himself, his wife Jenny von Westphalen, his daughter Eleanor and their maid Helene Demuth, lived from March 1875, a smaller house than their previous address.

Marx was suffering from liver complaints, lung problems, and numerous minor but extremely uncomfortable ailments.

Jenny died on 2nd December 1881, but Marx was so ill himself that his doctor forbade him to attend the funeral.

Engels called on Marx at half past two in the afternoon on 14th March. He left Marx in his room for a few minutes, finding him dead on his return. Marx was buried in Highgate Cemetery on 17th March 1883, his death going largely unnoticed. He was officially a “stateless person”, someone with no nationality, a with only a handful of mourners at his funeral. Engels said in his speech;

“On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep—but forever.”

A hundred years later, 37% of the world was living under governments ruling in Marx’s name. We will never know for certain, but as a man who believed that true social change is brought about by natural social development rather than the actions of “a handful of men”, it seems likely that these regimes would have horrified him.

3. New-found Prosperity: Location of 1 Modena Villas

Click here for the location. The Marx household moved here in March 1864, paying £65 a year in rent. Marx had inherited £820 from Willhelm Wolf, to whom he duly dedicated the first volume of Das Kapital, which was finally ready for publication in 1867 after more than 16 years struggle with the complexities of economics.

In his new-found prosperity, Marx wrote to his uncle Lion Philips claiming that he’d been successfully speculating on the stock market and made more than £400. This was indeed the family’s most prosperous period, when the children could entertain and life was good. It was also Marx’s most productive period in politics and publication.

Marx was hurled into hectic participation in political life when the socialist organisation First International was created in September 1864. Marx’s collaborators organized protests in Hyde Park in 1866, calling for the extension of the male franchise. The Paris Commune of 1871 made Marx the centre of political attention, and he was condemned as the Pope of Communism.

It was during his time here that his clash with the Anarchist leader Michael Bakunin came to a head. 

4. The Good Life: Engels at 122 Regent’s Park Road

Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels

Click here for the location. In 1870, Frederich Engels sold his share of his Manchester factory Ermen and Engels, overjoyed at finally giving up the “shitty business”. He made £12,500 from the sale, with which he moved to this house, also supporting the impoverished Marx family with the cash.

Karl Marx’s wife Jenny found the house for the Engels family, writing, “I have now found a house, which charms all of us because of its wonderful open situation. It is next to Primrose Hill, so all the front rooms have the finest and openest view and air. And round about, in the side streets, there are shops of all sorts, so your wife will be able to buy everything herself.”

It was in this house that Engels wrote his main works and ploughed his way through Marx’s illegible scribbles, producing volumes two and three of Das Kapital, as well as his own famous works, Anti-Duhring, Socialism Utopian and Scientific, and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

It’s a five minute walk from here to the house Karl Marx and his family lived in at the time, a trip Engels would make daily. They loved to take long walks up to Hampstead Heath for picnics, with a compulsory stop at the Jack Straw’s Castle pub.

British police and foreign spies would observe the comings and goings at this strange house from the front of the pub opposite. Engels was relaxed about the attention.  “The imbeciles evidently think we are manufacturing dynamite, when in reality we are discussing whisky.”

Engels loved the good life, entertaining deep into the night with large quantities of claret and champagne laid on. In 1878, he married Lizzy Burns on her deathbed in the house, the younger sister of his lifelong partner Mary, who had died in 1863.

After Marx died in 1883, Helene Demuth, Marx’s maid, moved worked for Engels. When she died, Sophie Kautsky, the estranged wife of the German Social Democratic leader Karl Kautsky moved in, much to the alarm of Eleanor Marx, who feared she was deliberately isolating Engels.

Engels became a leading figure in the new socialist organization Second International, created in 1889. It eventually included the German Social Democrats, the British Labour Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. This house acted as both command centre and intellectual hub of the international Labour movement, with Engels becoming known as “The Grand Lama of the Regent’s Park Road”,

Visiting this house was a pilgrimage for young revolutionaries. All manner of socialist newspapers in many languages would arrive to be studied by Engels every day.

Soviet stamp featuring Engles
Soviet stamp featuring Engels

5. Engels’s Death: 41 Regents Park Road

Click here for the location. Engels moved to this house in 1894, but would only spend a year here before his death. He died in this house of cancer of the throat on August 5 1895. His last words were said to have included a confession that Helene Demuth’s son Freddy was Marx’s child, but this story has always been contested.

His body was taken to Woking Crematorium after being given a send-off at Waterloo Station by socialist delegations from all over Europe. A small group of friends and comrades, including Eleanor Marx, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky rowed out to sea near Eastbourne and scattered his ashes. Engels wanted no monument, statue or tombstone. In the years since his death, thousands of statues of Engels and Marx have been erected all over Eastern Europe, China and the Soviet Union.

 

heikoThanks to Heiko Khoo for the design and information for this walk. The Karl Marx Walking Tour in Soho, London gives a full introduction to Marx’s ideas, legacy and life in London. Find out more at their website.

 




An Epic Project: Interview with Richard House on The Kills

Richard House
Richard House

Richard House’s The Kills, out in July from Panmacmillan, is set to be one of the literary events of the year. Both political thriller and epic literary project, The Kills is an interlinking web of narratives spanning four separate novels, from a remote Iraqi military base and a multi-million dollar theft, to a brutal murder in far-away Italy that replicates a well-known novel. Litro published Richard’s fantastic short story Max405 in our Russia issue back in 2010, and we’re delighted to welcome him back to talk about his latest project.

Litro: Tell us about The Kills – how were the novels conceived?

Richard: The Kills are four novels that are interlinked. They appear to be thrillers, but there’s quite a bit extra going on. The first, second and fourth books follow on one from the other, but the third is a crime novel that characters are reading in the first book. There’s also a film that’s being made of the third book in the second book! So they all link together tightly.

Litro: Did you always envisage this story as four interlinking books?

richard_house_the-killsRichard: I started writing the third book in the series, The Kill, first. I was writing it in Naples, but finding it tough. Everyone assumed I was writing a straight crime novel, and I didn’t like that. So I began to take that idea apart a little.

Then I was on a writing residency for a month, where I just wrote and wrote, and the other books spun out from there. It made sense that they would fit together. I enjoy thinking across a wider scope – you can plant conversations that will be significant later, or introduce ideas that will be repeated.

Litro: Was it a technical challenge to write something on such a large scale, having to think about four books at the same time?

Richard: Yes! It’s such a huge thing to have done, I think I’m a little shell-shocked, looking back on it. A problem would be set up in the first book that I wouldn’t get to the solution of until the fourth book. I like stories that are really complicated, when you feel that the question that the book sets up is answered, but not fully answered. Over four novels I have to be pretty careful about what is and isn’t answered.

richard_house_sutlerLitro: The settings are key to the books. Why did you choose them?

Richard: I used to work as an artist with the Chicago-based collaborative Haha on these large projects where we’d go and try to find out about the history of a building, how it was used, and build an idea of that place within the final piece. Living in the States, I was in this fantastic position that I think a lot of writers experience, where you’re deeply involved in something, but you’re also an outsider. It’s a really healthy position to have. That expresses to me a lot of what writing’s about, being inside and outside at the same time.

When I started writing The Kills, I made a conscious decision to set it somewhere that was going to be a challenge, but also enjoyable, and Naples was that place. I found it impossible to see the city without thinking about all those other stories about it.

I think I’ve been very lucky with my background in a military family. We were in Berlin when the wall was still up, and my dad would come home with incredible stories about what was happening, what we were seeing on the news. We’d see another side to it. I wouldn’t say I was a voyeur, but I like the idea of seeing a place from different perspectives.

Litro: Did you travel to Iraq to research?

Richard: No, I was really determined not to do that. I wanted to play with the idea that you can be abroad but it might as well be your home country. My father was in the military and my family travelled around a lot. When I was with my dad on a military base in Malta or Cyprus or Germany, we could have been in England for all the interaction we had with any Germans or Maltese or Cypriots. It was very artificial. So The Massive is set in the desert in Iraq but there isn’t one Iraqi in the book. It’s about people who are from elsewhere and have no business being there. They’re making a mess of things.

We have a concept of what Iraq is like, constructed from all these narratives that we encounter in the press. I like the idea of playing with this Iraq constructed from stories.

richard_house_the-massiveLitro: Where does your interest in the concept of telling stories come from?

Richard: That is a huge thing for me.  When I was working with the Haha collective, we had this idea that telling stories is a really helpful thing. The more we express ourselves, our stories, the better off we are. I’ve always believed that to be important and true.

But I play with this idea in The Kills. In the final book, a man is getting language lessons and is telling stories to the instructor, and she’s taking these stories as fact. But the reader will know that these are all stories taken from the third book in the series. Not everything he’s saying is true, and she’s building an idea of this man on it.

I wanted to look at how stories can be manipulative, how dangerous it is for someone to tell you their story. I can remember feeling angry at how complicit I was, we all were, about going to war with Iraq. Why wasn’t I on the streets screaming about it? Why did I swallow of the nonsense we were told? I probably knew at the time that it was fabricated, but I didn’t examine it.

Litro: You’ve said that you were influenced by the novelist Roberto Bolaño. What is it about his writing that appeals to you?

Richard: When I was about half way through writing The Kills, I began wondering, what’s the worth of fiction? What does fiction do? I think most writers get to this point where you walk into a bookstore and you see thousands and thousands of books, and you wonder what the worth of that is. Are you just getting more trees chopped down?

Then I read Bolano’s novel 2666 and was inspired by how an idea can be extended across such a vast landscape. It seemed to me that that kind of enquiry was entirely worthwhile. As a reader I felt I was being engaged and entertained with a thriller, but also given a space where difficult ethical issues were being discussed. I loved how intelligent that was. I wanted to do that – to do something where a reader could be involved in the stories as thrillers, but also able to connect the pieces.

richard_house_the-killLitro: The Kills comes with downloadable films and extra content. Tell us about that idea.

Richard: When the internet was in its infancy, people questioned what effect it would have on books. People imagined that if you read Moby Dick online, there would be hypertext linking you to other information, about whales, or Melville, or movies of the book. So while I think that Moby Dick is sufficient in and of itself, I really like that idea that you can step out of the narrative and go somewhere else. A good book stays with you like a scent; you live it a little afterwards. So the films that accompany The Kills allow me to do that. They don’t change the main narrative, but they do inform it. The books work just as books, but the reader has a choice – you can dip into the extra material while you’re reading, or explore it afterwards.

Litro: What made you choose to write in the thriller genre?

Richard: Crime fiction has always involved people who are outside, who are other, dealing with the problem of how they reestablish themselves. So if the territory I write in involves people who are excluded then it makes perfect sense to write a thriller. All I have to do is make sure my characters are complete, that I’m not being sloppy, or stereotyping.

When I wrote my first novel, Bruiser, which was about a gay relationship, it was pretty clear that although it wasn’t autobiographical, it came from experience. And when I came to write The Kills, I started to think, if I’ve ever felt outside, or excluded, because I’m gay, are there other territories that involve feeling like that. Not being able to speak a language, or being poorer, or not being employed – I think fiction is a really good way to get people to approach someone else’s position, a viewpoint that you might not otherwise consider.

Litro: Is this layered approach to writing something you’d like to try again?

Richard: Oh, absolutely. I’m interested in technology –how would you tell a longer narrative over Twitter, for example? I was looking back at Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series [a cycle of 20 interconnected novels], and I really like how that connects together. And while I wouldn’t like to write about a family necessarily, I’d be interested in writing a longer series that would snap together in blocks. You’d get a sense when you were reading it that it was part of a larger whole.

The Kills will be published by Panmacmillan in July 2013. Read Richard House’s Litro story Max  Max405 here.



New £15,000 Essay Prize Announced

A new award for essay writing with a £15, 000 first prize has been announced. Named in honour of the master of the English essay, the William Hazlitt Essay Prize will be awarded annually to the best essay in English of between 2,000 to 8, 000 words. Judged on the originality of the idea, the quality of the prose and the ability to communicate to a wide audience, the winning writer will receive a hefty £15,000, with five runners up receiving £1,000 each.

The competition, run by Notting Hill Editions, a publishing imprint devoted to the best in non-fiction essay writing, is open to both published and unpublished works.

Author and journalist Harry Mount, who will chair the judging panel for the prize, said ‘The British have always underplayed the importance of the essay, and yet we’re naturally very good at them. The mixture of wit, brevity and original thought suits us down to the ground. Such a generous prize is bound to produce a fresh crop of first-rate essays from established and new writers.’

William Hazlitt
William Hazlitt

“It does not treat of minerals or fossils, of the virtues of plants, or the influence of planets; it does not meddle with forms of belief, or systems of philosophy, nor launch into the world of spiritual existences; but it makes familiar with the world of men and women, records their actions, assigns their motives, exhibits their whims, characterises their pursuits in all their singular and endless variety, ridicules their absurdities, exposes their inconsistencies, ‘holds the mirror up to nature, and shows the very age and body of the time its form and pressure’; takes minutes of our dress, air, looks, words, thoughts, and actions; shows us what we are, and what we are not; plays the whole game of human life over before us, and by making us enlightened Spectators of its many-coloured scenes, enables us (if possible) to become tolerably reasonable agents in the one in which we have to perform a part. It is the best and most natural course of study.”

— William Hazlitt, ‘On the Periodical Essay’ (1821)

The submission deadline for 2013 is 1st August. More details on entering here.

Check out some of the essays we love at Litro in our True Tales section, where we showcase creative non-fiction, essay writing and memoir.




A Moment of Weakness: the Finished #LitroStory

Photo by Matthew Allard
Photo by Matthew Allard

Last week we ran a literary experiment on Twitter. We asked our followers to write a collective story, one tweet at a time. Novelist Russ Litten (whose new crime novel Swear Down is the first title in the Litro Book Club) wrote the first line for us, and then we handed the story over to fate … and Twitter.

We had no idea how the experiment would turn out. Could a story written this way work? Would it come out as nonsense, or the whole thing fizzle out in a day?

Well, the results are in, and you can now read the finished story below. We’ve compiled the tweets in the order they were written, making changes only to punctuation for the sake of clarity, and amending a change of person that seemed to be a mistake rather than artistic intention.

We’re rather pleased with it – admittedly, it’s madder than a bag of ferrets, makes little sense, careers from one plot idea to another and ends more confusingly than it started, but it is a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

There’s been much discussion in recent years about what the internet will mean for literature in the long run, and there’s already a slew of work that embraces and plays with the possibilities of the web. There’s flarf poetry, which uses “found” text as the material for a poem, and writers are using the net to engage readers in new ways, like Calum Kerr, who posted a flash fiction story every day for a year on his blog. Fantasy author Silvia Hartmann recently wrote a novel live on Google Docs, inviting fans to watch it come out, word by word, as she typed.

But are these genuine literary innovations, or just publicity stunts, a bit of online fun to while away a lunch break?

Let’s be honest, we’re probably not on the brink of a new literary genre with our Twitfic experiment. But we do think it raises some interesting questions about collaborative fiction, and how similar projects could be made to work in future. The internet offers opportunities for collaboration and the cross-fertilization of ideas that are wider and more far-reaching than anything else in history. We’re already fantasising about getting a group of novelists to write together on Twitter. (Imagine it – Margaret Atwood and Bret Easton Ellis, compiling a joint magnum opus, tweet by tweet…)

Of course, the internet is also by its nature largely unedited, which is generally a pain – finding ways to sift the few grains of genius from the morass of nonsense is getting harder by the day. But perhaps the unedited net is also something to be embraced.

We rather admire (although we don’t recommend) Silvia Hartmann’s decision not to do re-writes on her novel, because, she says, “as far as I can tell, the metaphors are all in order, the timelines sound and the personae who they are all the way through.” So the finished e-book she puts out will truly be an artefact, the “live” novel that her fans watched her create online.

The way we find and read literature has already been fundamentally changed by digital technology. It seems likely that the way writers write will be similarly affected. There’ll still be plenty of them scribbling away with a biro in their garden shed, but there’ll also be revolutionary new approaches to how literature is produced, and by who. The challenge will be watching for the meaningful patterns in the noise.


A Moment of Weakness: A Twitter Story

Photo by Hartwig HKD
Photo by Hartwig HKD

It was a moment of weakness. Nothing more. A chance for a lie-in – but afterwards she would torture herself by asking, what if I had taken him to school that morning, instead of letting him tag along with the kids from up the road?

She could hear the neighbour’s radio from her bed. They were playing Thelonious Monk, but she was too exhausted to get up. She couldn’t face the reality that the sounds of Thelonius brought back the memory of a romantic evening that ended in the disastrous meeting with the man who had called himself Messenger.

She still perfectly remembered the first time she caught that mysterious glimpse in his dark black eyes, drawn, but yet fearful of what it might lead to. She let him take her hand, though he was a perfect stranger, and he took her in his arms, looked into her eyes, and she signed for the delivery of a motorcycle tire for number 30.

“I always wanted to go on a motorcycle trip,” she remembered. Her eyes turned dark, with the memory of her lost dreams rising. Thinking of that chilly April morning when she’d learned of her father’s horrific crash, she mourned both her dad and her dream. It had taken her a lot to put that horrific episode behind her and move on with her life. She knew now that she couldn’t escape the Talents which made her special. The Messenger had come to tell her it was time to make her father proud.

She sat up in bed, and pulled back the covers. Her son was probably safe at school now. She could go anywhere, do anything.

Her mind kept wandering back to Messenger. Last time was a disaster but he called to her. She scrolled through her phone. Could she do it? She scrolled down for the number. Her hands, slippery with anticipation, dropped the phone. She listened to the dial tone stutter. Paralyzed by regret she waited for the phone to go silent. “Is this a bad time?” she gasped.

“Bad times,” he said, the signal chopping his voice into pieces. “But you know that. I want you to come to the cliffs. You know the place.”

Her heart thudded. She knew. “Midday,” he said. “You’ll be there?” The line crackled and then went dead. “I’ll be there,” she said.

She hung up and couldn’t do anything but hold her breath. She looked at the clock on the wall, the hands were pointing at 11:27 am. There were enough reasons not to go, but Billy would be safe at school by now. She had nothing but time. She kicked off the covers and stumbled into the bathroom. The face staring back at her was calmer than she felt. Every time she blinked, it blurred a bit more.

No painkiller in the world could take away the ache she felt in her chest. Like her heart had been picked apart by angry ravens. Angry ravens that followed him home. His territory mocking Poe, his version of the urban becoming a den of the strange.

Sometimes, though, it was enough to just take yourself to the front door, stand on the step, and open your nostrils to the day.

There was no use in worrying about it. She dressed quickly, grabbed her car key and headed up to the cliffs. He was already there. She took a deep breath and got out of the car. He started to walk towards her, his coat flapping in the wind. She tried to smile.

“Here is your next assignment,” he said, passing her a fat manila envelope and not waiting for a reply

Her hands were shaking. She opened it and his name was there. She put it back but The Messenger stopped her. “You know you have no choice.”

They locked eyes.

“There’s always a choice, and the choice is mine to make, mine alone.” She squared her shoulders & pushed him aside. “That’s trouble with choices. Power to choose means responsibility for the choice.” A thin smile, and she headed to the cliff edge.

She threw the envelope. It hit the water like something dead. She didn’t need it. She knew where she’d find him. She turned, shouted his name into the darkness, the wind whispering it through the valley. She needed to know how far she could go. She walked towards his name into the darkness, the wind whispering it through the valley. She needed the echo of that name.

“Come find, comfort and guide me. I know I have spirit but I’m not afraid to say I’m scared.” She looked into the pitiless face of Death, then calmly applied her eye liner. If she had a date with Destiny, she was going to look damn fine.

“Delaying the inevitable?” he called. “Why draw it out?” She turned, tossing the eyeliner after the folder. “A moment of weakness?”

He looked pointedly at the No Litter sign, “Can’t you use the bin like everyone else?” But he didn’t wait for an answer. Kneeling down, he picked the envelope out of the water and opened it again for her. “Do you really think you could hide by destroying the letter? I’ll never give up my hunt for the Messenger. Now read it out loud and tell me what you know in your heart. That you will. You have to. You’re a chosen one without any choice. She sighed & started to read but the writing was blurred, the black ink flashing red. What was happening to her eyes? What language was this?

She didn’t know what to do. The tears in her eyes were blurring the words and her eyeliner. She took a hit from a flask she kept hidden in her purse. Hard stuff. Tasted like nail varnish but it was going to do the job. Then it was time to go. She jumped behind the wheel of the waiting car and put her foot down, leaving the crashing waves behind. Fire in her belly, rage in her heart but cold her resolve to end this tonight.

She tried to steady her shaking hands but only succeeded in gripping the steering wheel tighter. There was no turning back. Under mercury sky she smelt victory, the car pulling the horizon closer. It was a dark and stormy night. She roared into the gravelled lot and slammed to a stop.

Under the flashing neon, she felt for the switchblade in her garter. He’d called it “A tyre for No. 30”, but there was no No. 30 on her street. She pulled the box from the boot, and cut it open. Inside was a note. “If not for your father, for your son” it said, signed by him. She pulled the blade, and headed for the light.

 

Thanks to all our Twitter writers who contributed lines to this story:
@RussLitten @Ashfeld @EleOssola @WeirdJourno @GlenisStott @EmilyCleaver @patrickedunne @MarianneCronin @XavBlancmange @DorotheeLang @ChrisGNguyen  @hennabutt @patrickedunne @jadamthwaite @laurabesley @jlstroudjr @AnuNande @MichaeldeSoet @braket3 @365daystory @Paris_Franz @call_me_inga @BI_Blogfic @SmallPlays ‏@kiwirebecca @MrsCarlieLee @BokehFlux @BI_Blogfic @MirandaHqv @manickmanda @madlendavies @laurabesley @f_sd @hennabutt @AnuNande @braket3 @ormiga



#litrostory: The Story So Far…

#litrostorySMLThis is the #litrostory so far, a collective fiction being told one tweet at a time between Tuesday 26th February and midnight on Tuesday 5th March. Check the #litrostory hashtag on Twitter for the lastest lines and add your own.

THE STORY SO FAR:

@RussLitten
It was a moment of weakness.

@Ashfeld
Nothing more. A chance for a lie-in – but afterwards she would torture herself by asking…

@Ashfeldt
…what if I had taken him to school that morning, instead of letting him tag along with the kids from up the road?

@EleOssola
She could heard the neighbour’s radio from her bed. They were playing Thelonious Monk

@WeirdJourno
…but she was too exhausted to get up. She couldn’t face the reality…

@GlenisStott
that the sounds of Thelonius brought back the memory of a romantic evening that ended in …

@EmilyCleaver
…the disastrous meeting with the man who had called himself Messenger.

@EleOssola
She still perfectly remembers the first time she caught that mysterious glimpse in his dark black eyes.

@patrickedunne
Drawn but yet fearful of what it might lead to

@MarianneCronin
She let him take her hand, though he was a perfect stranger

@WeirdJourno
…and he took her in his arms, looked into her eyes, and….

@XavBlancmange
She signed for the delivery of a motorcycle tire for No. 30

@DorotheeLang
“I always wanted to go on a motorcycle trip,” she remembered. Her eyes turned dark, with the memory of her lost dreams rising.

@ChrisGNguyen
Thinking of that chilly April morning when she’d learned of her father’s horrific crash, she mourned both her dad and her dream.

@WeirdJourno
It had taken her a lot to put that horrific episode behind her and move on with her life. She…

@hennabutt
…knew now that she couldn’t escape the Talents which made her special. The Messenger had come to tell her it was time…

@patrickedunne
to make her father proud

@MarianneCronin
She sat up in bed, and pulled back the covers. Her son was probably safe at school now. She could go anywhere, do anything,,.

@jadamthwaite
… Her mind kept wandering back to Messenger. Last time was a disaster but he called to her. She scrolled through her phone…

@laurabesley
Could she do it? She scrolled down for the number. Her hands, slippery with anticipation, dropped the phone. She…

@jlstroudjr
…listened to the dialtone stutter. Paralyzed by regret she waited for the phone to go silent. “Is this a bad time?” She gasped

@EmilyCleaver
“Bad times,” he said, the signal chopping his voice into pieces. “But you know that. I want you to come to…”

@jadamthwaite
… the cliffs. You know the place.” My heart thudded. I knew. “Midday,” he said. “You’ll be there?” The line crackled…

@RussLitten
and then went dead. “I’ll be there.” I said.

@EleOssola
I hung up and couldn’t do anything but hold my breath. I looked at the clock on the wall, the hands were pointing at 11:27 am

@jadamthwaite
There were enough reasons not to go but Billy would be safe at school by now. I had nothing but time. I kicked off the covers.

@AnuNande
and stumbled into the bathroom. The face staring back at me was calmer than I felt. Everytime I blinked, it blurred a bit more

@MichaeldeSoet
no painkiller in the world could take away the ache I feel in my chest. Like my heart has been picked apart by angry ravens

@braket3
Angry ravens that followed him home. His territory mocking Poe, his version of the urban becoming a den of the strange.

@365daystory
Sometimes, though, it was enough to just take yourself to the front door, stand on the step, and open your nostrils to the day.

@jadamthwaite
There was no use in worrying about it. I dressed quickly, grabbed my car key and headed up to the cliffs. He was already there.

@Paris_Franz
I took a deep breath and got out of the car. He started to walk towards me, his coat flapping in the wind. I tried to smile.

@XavBlancmange
‘Here is your next assignment,’ he said, passing me a fat manila envelope and not waiting for a reply

@EleOssola
My hands were shaking.I opened it and his name was there.I put it back but The Messenger stopped me’You know you have no choice’

@call_me_inga
We locked eyes, “there’s always a choice..& the choice is mine to make, mine alone”..I squared my shoulders & pushed him aside

@BI_Blogfic
That’s trouble with choices. Power to choose means responsibility for the choice. A thin smile, and I headed to the cliff edge.

@SmallPlays
I threw the envelope. It hit the water like something dead. I didn’t need it, I knew where I’d find him. I turned, shouted … #litrostory

‏@kiwirebecca
his name into the darkness, the wind whispering it through the valley. I needed ..

@MrsCarlieLee
to know how far I could go. I walked towards…

@kiwirebecca
his name into the darkness, the wind whispering it through the valley. I needed …

@BokehFlux
… the echo of that name. Come find, comfort and guide me. I know I have spirit but I’m not afriad to say I’m scared. I looked

@call_me_inga
..into the pitiless face of Death, then calmly applied my eye liner. If I had a date with Destiny,I was going to look damn fine

@BI_Blogfic
“Delaying the inevitable?” he called. “Why draw it out?” I turned, tossing the eyeliner after the folder. “A moment of weakness?”

@XavBlancmange
He looked pointedly at the No Litter sign, ‘Can’t you use the bin like everyone else ?’ but didn’t wait for an answer

@DorotheeLang
Kneeling down, he picked the envelope out of the water and opened it again for me. “Do you really think you could…”

@MirandaHqv
..hide by destroying the letter? I’ll never give up my hunt for the Messenger. Now read it out loud and tell me…

@manickmanda
what you know in your heart. That you will. You have to. You’re a chosen one without any choice. She sighed & started to read ..

@madlendavies
..but the writing was blurred, the black ink flashing red. What was happening to her eyes? What language was this?

@laurabesley
She didn’t know what to do. The tears in her eyes were blurring the words and her eyeliner. She…

@f_sd
took a hit from a flask she kept hidden in her purse. Hard stuff. Tasted like nail varnish but it was going to do the job.

@hennabutt
Then it was time to go. She jumped behind the wheel of the waiting car & put her foot down leaving the crashing waves behind

@call_me_inga
Fire in her belly, rage in her heart but cold her resolve to end this tonight.

@AnuNande
She tried to steady her shaking hands but only succeeded in gripping the steering wheel tighter. There was no turning back.

@braket3
#litrostory And on to the next opposition, the tired #twitstory. Under mercury sky she smelt victory, the car pulling the horizon closer…

@ormiga
it was a dark and stormy night…

@call_me_inga
She roared into the gravelled lot& slammed to a stop. Under the flashing neon, she felt for the switch blade in her garter

@MarianneCronin
He’d called it ‘A tyre for No. 30’, but there was no No. 30 on her street. She pulled the box from the boot, and cut it open…

@kiwirebecca
inside was a note ‘If not for your father, for your son’ it said, signed by him. She pulled the blade, and headed for the light.

(This page is not a live update – check the #litrostory hashtag on Twitter to get the latest lines and add your own.)

#litrostory rules

  • To take part, you just have to add the next line. Check out the Twitter hashtag #litrostory to read the story so far, and add your line, using the same hashtag at the end. You’ll have to be quick, or someone else might get there first!
  • You can take the story in any direction you want to, but remember that the aim is to end up with something readable, so please consider the next contributor before going too crazy.
  • You can add as many lines as you want to the story, but not consecutively. Please wait for someone else to add another before you add again.



Calling All Performance Poets!

microphone_Daniela_Vladimirova

Litro is expanding, and to celebrate the launch of our LitroTV channel on YouTube we are running an exciting competition dedicated to the word that is spoken, uttered, shouted or whispered.
We are asking for performance poets and artists to send us an original spoken-word performance video based on our April theme of TRANSGRESSION.

The winner will be invited to perform their winning piece at our very first Litro Book Club event in April which will be held at a secret location in Mayfair. They will also receive one years free membership to Litro magazine and an artist profile on our website.

The closing date for entries is 20th March and the winner will be announced on the website on 2nd April.

RULES

-Entries must be no longer than 10 minutes.

-Once entries have been received, Litro reserves the right to use them on any of our platforms.

-Directly or indirectly, entries must be based on the theme of transgression.

HOW TO ENTER

Email your entry as a video file to [email protected] , in one of the following formats: .MOV , .MPEG4 or .AVI




Sin City: Decadence and Doom in Weimar Berlin

Anita Berber onstage, 1920s
Anita Berber onstage, 1920s

You couldn’t find anything more nauseating than what goes on in Berlin, quite openly, every day. The people there don’t know how low they have sunk. Evil does not know itself there. That town is doomed more than Sodom ever was.  —Christopher Isherwood

Maedels logoPolitics, poverty, cabaret and sex are the words that sum up Weimar Berlin, the city that flourished briefly and brightly between the wars. This week on Litro Lab, our guest podcasters are journalists and Berlin residents Jennifer Collins and Tam Eastley, known as the Mädels with a Microphone. They explore the seedier side of Weimar Berlin’s cabaret scene and gay district, speaking to a local expert about one of Berlin’s best-known chroniclers, Christopher Isherwood, and the notorious haunts of the period, like the Eldorado cabaret club in the Schöneberg district, where Berlin’s transvestive and transgender community came together to see artists like singer and cabaret dancer Claire Waldorf.

Tam Eastley
Tam Eastley

Jennifer Collins
Jennifer Collins

To listen to this episode, use the player below. Or you can subscribe on iTunes — just search “litro lab”.

You can find Mädels with a Microphone online, or on Twitter, Soundcloud or Facebook, or on itunes. In their podcast series, Jennifer and Tam strive to create informative and quirky long and short podcasts about the hidden side of Berlin. Their podcasts are entirely self-produced using Audacity free software and trusty little zoom H2 recorders.




Short Stories: New World Fairy Tales by Cassandra Parkin

9781844718818frcvr.inddSo, my story? Well, it’s your project, of course, but I don’t think there’s much to tell. Married twice, widowed once, two daughters by marriage. I’ve never liked the word ‘stepchild’; it’s a hard, ugly word. And no, I’ve never called myself a stepmother either.

Cassandra Parkin’s New World Fairy Tales, winner of the Scott Prize in 2011, is a collection of modern retellings of traditional stories, set in present-day America.  An anonymous college student is travelling the country collecting interviews for a project. The transcripts of the interviews form the stories in the book, each named only by its interview number. The stories they tell are familiar; a girl with a long plait of hair, a beautiful outcast taken in by seven dwarves, a woman going three times to the ball. But they are relocated, reimagined and reinvigorated for a 21st-century reader.

What’s most instantly attractive about these stories is that they are fun. They treat their source material irreverently but affectionately. Ugly step-sisters become ungrateful step-daughters, the three little pigs become racist policemen, Jack becomes a city slicker and the beanstalk the world of corporate finance. There’s much pleasure in this fairy tale spotting, recognizing the bones of the old tales under the skin of the new ones. (Several of the tales are not immediately recognizable, so complete is their transformation.)

The echo here, of course, is the journeys taken by collectors like the Grimms, recording oral fairy tales. But these stories aren’t just knowing nods to older tales. The voices of the interviewees who tell their stories are rich, convincing and complex. They come from across America, from the swamps of the deep South to the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

There was three of us – me, Mike Stone and Randy Lewis – been hunting this guy for days. Robaire Lebrun; a tragic excuse for a man. Sold drugs, pimped his women, beat his momma; an all-roud blot on society.  —Interview #9

It starts out the way these things always start: with a phone call. I’m drinking Jack Daniels in the Manderley bar, watching the sunset and the bartender. She’s a hot little Latino number, sweet and simple and satisfying, like ice-cream swirled with caramel sauce.  —Interview #27

The voice of the student recording the interviews sometimes tantalizingly peeks through, most vividly in Interview #17, where the interviewee is a down-and-out tramp. “Take your lousy college project and your fucking liberal compassion and your I just rilly feel like there’s a story to be told here, sir, bleeding-heart  West-Coast bullshit and get the hell outta here.”

Cassandra Parkin
Cassandra Parkin

What Cassandra Parkin has brought to her fairy tales are characters. Go back to the originals, and Cinderella is a cipher: she exists only to be mistreated by her step-sisters, to go to the ball, to find her prince. She has no deep thoughts on the matter, no conflicts or neuroses. Traditional fairy tales are all form and no feeling. (In fact, Russian structuralist Vladimir Propp literally reduced them to equations.) Their brightly coloured figures are puppets on a stage, there to keep the story going, and it’s the story that’s the big pull — the amazing, the wish-fulfilling, the fantastical, the bad getting their comeuppance, the good their rewards. But Cassandra Parkin has taken these structures and put people into them. Her Cinderella feels grief, takes on responsibility for reasons hidden to her, struggles with her identity, finds herself and falls in love.

But Parkin doesn’t attempt to turn fairy tales into realism. Her stories are still fables, retaining a flavor of the fantastical. Cinderella is in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time, where she finds an old dressmaker who happens to have three jaw-dropping outfits going spare. The three policemen are targeted by a vengeful and rather wolf-like woman who seems to have the power to blow up (and down) their houses. Jack swaps his father’s cow herd for a job in the city.

This blend of strangeness and familiarity makes for an addictively readable and highly entertaining short story collection.

New World Fairy Tales by Cassandra Parkin is published by Salt Publishing.
Cassandra Parkin was also in the hot seat for our Litro Q&A this week – read her answers here.



Everything Speaks In Its Own Way: An Interview with Performance Poet Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest, Everything Speaks In Its Own Way
Kate Tempest, Everything Speaks In Its Own Way

“So, call me Caliban. They gave me language so I could reign down my curses in verses. I’ll take ’em on word for word — I know the worst is I have to watch my good friends getting caught up in circuits. The serpent rehearses his hisses. He makes the valiant viscous. I know now never to waste wishes. So go on then, conjure a storm on the head of your enemy — you will find yourself victim of negative energy.” —Kate Tempest, ‘What We Came After’

Kate Tempest
Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest‘s angry, heart-felt, sing-song performance style and allusive, pulsating writing come together to create poetry that’s literary, musical and mesmerizing.

In this podcast, we talk to Kate about her love of hip hop, her first slams, telling her poems to squat raves and punk gigs, and the relationship between lyrics and poetry. We also hear some of the tracks from her fantastic new spoken-word album, Everything Speaks In Its Own Way.

Listen to the podcast using the player below, or subscribe on iTunes by searching “Litro Lab”.

Kate Tempest got up on stage in her first rap battle when she was sixteen. She discovered poetry and began to speak her lyrics in poetry slams. Since then she’s gone on to perform her writing all over the world, from the Nu-Yorican poetry café to all the major European music festivals, and has written poems for the BBC and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She also tours with her band, Sound of Rum, and last year her first play, Wasted, was staged in London to glowing reviews.

Beautifully packaged: "Everything Speaks In Its Own Way"
Beautifully packaged: “Everything Speaks In Its Own Way”

You can buy the album Everything Speaks In Its Own Way, which comes packaged with a beautifully produced book of her poetry, at Kate’s website.

The tracks ‘Live and Die’, ‘What We Came After’, ‘Your Sister Thinks I Love You’, ‘Hip Hop’, ‘Babbling Brook’, and ‘Theme From Zingaro’ are taken from Kate Tempest’s album, Everything Speaks in its Own Way, with the kind permission of Kate Tempest.




Chinese storyteller Fong Liu tells the story of the Golden Reed Pipe

Storyteller Fong Liu
Storyteller Fong Liu

Chinese storyteller and musician Fong Liu is on the Litro Lab podcast this week, telling the story of “The Golden Reed Pipe”, a traditional folk tale of the Yao culture, an ethnic minority who live in the mountains of southern China.

“The Golden Reed Pipe” is the story of Little Red, a girl who is kidnapped by a dragon, and her brother Bayberry, who rescues her by making the dragon dance.

Fong’s wonderful storytelling style combines narrative and singing to create a funny and idiosyncratic tale. You can find out more about Fong Liu at her website.

You can listen to the podcast using the player below, or subscribe via iTunes by searching “Litro Lab”.

Sound credits:
“Unanswered Questions” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.
“Yangchun Snow”, from Famous Ancient Chinese Tunes, open source community audio.



AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers

AfroSF

It’s an exciting time for African science fiction. Since the release of the hugely successful film District 9 in 2009, written and directed by South African Neill Blomkamp and dealing with an alternative Johannesburg where alien refugees are ghettoized, there have been a steady stream of creative projects using sci-fi forms and stories to examine African concerns. Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s post-apocalyptic short Pumzi gained enough attention to get her slated as writer and director of the upcoming Who Fears Death?, described as ‘Lord of the Rings in Africa’.

With several more high-profile African sci-fi films in production, and writers like Lauren Beukes and Nneki Okorafor leading the way in literature, the spotlight is very much turned towards imagined African futures. In 2012, both Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery and London’s Southbank Centre held exhibitions and events exploring the explosion of sci-fi in African literature and film.

So it’s perfect timing for the release of StoryTime’s AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, a short story collection edited by Zimbabwean writer and publisher Ivor Hartmann. AfroSF is available initially as an ebook, with proceeds going to fund the production of a print edition further down the line.

Hartmann says in the introduction that his intention was to give African writers a forum to make their voices heard, in a genre that allows them to imagine their own futures: “If you can’t see and relay an understandable vision of the future, your future will be co-opted by someone else’s vision, one that will not necessarily have your best interests at heart.” It’s an exciting concept for an anthology, and the result is a collection of varied voices, some powerful and accomplished, not just imagining futures but also addressing the present through storytelling.

The collection opens with a story by Nneki Okorafor, who won a World Fantasy Award in 2011 for her novel Who Fears Death. Moom is a beautiful story, written from the point of view of a swordfish in the polluted seas off Nigera, experiencing the arrival of a transformative alien craft rising from the depths.

Of course, as with all science fiction, it’s not so much the future that’s being dissected here as the present. The pressing concerns of modern Africa are very much at the surface: the stories play on the themes of segregation, exclusion and power. Sarah Lotz’s Home Affairs examines the inevitability of corruption, even in a state run by apparently incorruptible robots.

In Clifton Gachagua’s To Gaze at the Sun, proud parents wait for manufactured ‘sons’ to arrive at their door, eager to send them off to war to keep up with the neighbours. When a newly arrived son shows unheard-of signs of war trauma, this human attribute disgusts his parents:

The sight of her sleeping son repulsed her, curled up as he was like a soft-boned prehistoric thing, the bed sheets hugging his shoulders. His skin was a little torn, the delicate sphere of his humerus visible, reminding her of innards and the reality of a boy experiencing metabolism. The idea of her Stanis as a system of flesh and blood and nerve endings made her nauseous.

There are stories that draw on African ancestral beliefs and customs: Nick Wood’s wonderful Azania follows a group of settlers arriving on a hostile alien planet aboard a ship presided over by a computer that is more like a mother-goddess:

I manage the corridor with my left hand braced against the wall, following etched tendril roots, past the men’s door and on into the heart of our Base, where She sits. Or squats—her heavy casing hides her Quantum core, scored with bright geometric Sotho art—her flickering holographic face above the casing is now the usual generic wise elder woman, grandmother of all. She straddles the centre of the circular room, like a Spider vibrating the Info-Web.

The African imagery, names and language are refreshingly different for the genre, and the idea of settlers carrying mythology and belief from the cradle of civilisation towards the beginning of a new world is a memorable one.

There are also very original stories. Sally-Ann Murray’s Terms and Conditions Apply holds back on the exposition, creating a convincing, if confusing, future of sexual relations objectified to the point where they are part of the machinery of big pharma research. Some of the best sci-fi is like a glimpse into a different world — we don’t need to understand its every custom and detail, we just need to be excited by its possibilities.

There are echoes of Ray Bradbury in Liam Kruger’s Closing Time, a clever and satisfying story about a man who travels to his own future every time he gets drunk, and finds that his future self is taking an original form of revenge.

For fans of science fiction for its own sake, familiar themes pop up: nanotechnology in Efe Okogu’s interesting Proposition 23, where humans are so intimately connected to the future web that the punishment for criminals is to be disconnected, leading to death.

There are gritty, urban near-futures in Ashley Jacob’s New Mzansi, where a criminal underworld revolves around HIV drugs; and Tade Thompson’s Notes from Gethsemane, where rival gangs clash in a future Lagos.

There’s some solid stories in here, although some feel like sci-fi tropes simply relocated to Africa. S.A. Partridge’s Planet X is an understated and enjoyable story in the tradition of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, asking how we’d react to the arrival of aliens on Earth, in this case in South Africa.

Some of the contributions lack strong narratives – Ivor Hartman has said elsewhere that his approach to selecting the stories for this anthology was to go for solid ideas over quality of prose. This shows in several of the stories, where an interesting concept is unfortunately let down by weak execution, unnecessary exposition or unconvincing dialogue. It’s a shame, as in a collection of this length, slower stories can lose the attention of the reader. But as Hartman makes clear, this anthology is hopefully the beginnings of something much bigger to come, and to that end there’s something to be said for a bag of interesting ideas, even if some are stronger than others, some better written than others. It’s an enticing start.

When we read science fiction we want to be transported. This collection takes us much further than Africa, to a multitude of possible futures: some cautionary, some frightening, some hopeful, all worth listening to.

AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers is currently available as an ebook. Buy it here.
Thanks to Ivor Hartman for the review copy.



Short Story: “A Professor on the Lawn” by Richard Smyth

You must be so brainy,’ the girl said. I remember that. I think – I think – that when she said that she was perched upon my arthritic old knee. I may have – you know – jiggled her a bit. Playfully. I don’t really recall.

Litro Lab starts the new year with a bitter-sweet short story, ‘A Professor on the Lawn’, by Richard Smyth. We loved this story as soon as we heard it, it’s funny and moving. A middle-aged man, thrown out of the house by his wife, remembers an illicit titillation at the local pub that brought him there.

To listen to the story, use the player below or search Litro Lab on iTunes.

Richard Smyth
Richard Smyth

Richard Smyth‘s stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, .Cent and Vintage Script. He also contributed the title story to the 2012 Fiction Desk anthology Crying Just Like Anybody. His articles feature regularly in magazines including New Scientist, History Today and New Humanist, and he is the author of the non-fiction books Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History Of Toilet Paper (Souvenir Press, 2012) and Bloody British History: Leeds (The History Press, 2013). He is represented by Peter Buckman at the Ampersand Agency.

Greg Page

A Professor on the Lawn is read by Greg Page. Greg trained at Maria Grey College and the City Lit. Previous credits include touring with the London Bubble, Malvolio for TTC, appearing as a hired killer and a gay street preacher in independent films, and the voice of a coma victim for BBC radio. He currently appears in Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre, London. He can be contacted through Rosebery Management.




Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane

magicanthology
The anthology’s cover art by Nicolas Delort

A good occult story doesn’t require the reader to believe in the occult. I can be scared by Algernon Blackwood without believing in ghosts, or get a chill down my spine from H. P. Lovecraft without thinking that ancient tentacled gods really control the affairs of man.

In fact, a great occult story plays on that friction between not believing, and wanting, just for a little time, to be convinced. The best stories in Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane, published by Solaris Books, walk that line with perfect balance, while others fall on the wrong side of it.

The theme of the collection is magic, and while card tricks, escapologists and beautiful assistants do feature, it’s really supernatural magic of one kind or another that’s on offer here.

Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler’s Wife) comes first with ‘The Wrong Fairy‘, playing on the relationship between madness and the supernatural, with a story featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s father, locked in a mental institution and compulsively drawing fairies, apparently at the behest of an actual one. Then there are tales of druids working on traffic congestion, modern witches who make bad mothers, reincarnated Houdinis and demonic babies.

I enjoyed Liz Williams’s ‘Cad Coddeu‘, set in a prehistoric time of druids and tribal magic. With its owl-men, women in deer form and sentient trees, it reminded me of the fantasy writing of Susan Hill or Alan Garner that I loved as a kid.

The Changing hissed and fell back, scrambling into the cave. The oak-man cursed and bolted after her: I followed them both, but a wood-warrior blocked my way. He was a holly man. His teeth glittered, even in the darkness. I discovered that I did, after all, care whether I lived or died. Behind me, I heard hisses and cries as the wood-warriors fell upon one another with the rustle of braches. I reached for the flint, nearly dropping it, and struck kindling. It was dry, the spark caught. I threw it. I saw the holly man’s mouth open in an O and then he was gone in a rush of flame.  from ‘Cad Coddeu’ by Liz Williams

Some of the stories are rewardingly dark and ambitious – Will Hill’s ‘Shuffle‘, about a card sharp with a shady past trying to lose his way to salvation, uses its structure to pull off a card trick of its own. Alison Littlewood’s ‘The Art of Escapology‘ plays off a child’s hunger for some magic in his life against the cruel reality of a distant father, and Christopher Fowler’s ‘The Baby, about a ill-advised attempt to mix magic and abortion, is satisfyingly gruesome.

But other stories in the collection do less to challenge the reader. Thana Niveau’s ‘First and Last and Always‘ and Storm Constantine’s ‘Do As Thou Wilt‘ both deal with rather teenage and domestic versions of magic – spells that involve hair and cooking and have love and boys as their focus. This in itself is no bad thing, but these stories seem to take for granted our acceptance of this stuff, and so do little work to convince us to suspend our disbelief. ‘Do As Thou Wilt’ ramps up within a couple of paragraphs from a bit of innocuous tarot reading and wholesome cookery magic to a sudden and unexplained manifestation of a “dark angel with a gun”. Gail Z. Martin’s ‘Buttons‘ similarly takes for granted the reality and efficacy of psychometric investigators and biddable voodoo deities.

Humour is also a welcome element of great horror and occult writing. Without a touch of it, a writer risks taking themselves far too seriously and allowing their story to get bogged down in joyless certainty.

Here, Dan Abnett’s ‘Party Tricks‘ gets the humour right – it’s the very convincing voice of his public-school educated political mover-and-shaker that’s diverting, as much as the suggestion of possible dark arts at work in Westminster’s corridors of power.

Sophia McDougall’s ‘MailerDaemon‘ is also a funny and entertaining take on the genre. A woman plagued by nightmares jokingly agrees to a friend emailing her a helpful demon who eats bad dreams but doesn’t like boys. Her dreams turn psychedelically beautiful, but when her dates start to have cripplingly bad nightmares in her bed she starts to wonder if humouring her friend was a good idea.

The only other side effects are the dreams. The leaflet in the box with the pills warns that this can happen, but anything’s better than the nightmares – and these are good dreams, really. It’s only that night after night they grow in detail and complexity, until they’re sometimes exhausting. A painted city carved into the walls of a canyon. A tunnel that’s also a garden, opening at both ends to whirling stars. Building a cathedral in a desert of blood red sand. Impossible shapes, and music she can’t remember when she wakes up. And there’s someone beside her yet half out-of-sight, a pillar of shadow with clawed hands that help her build, bright eyes that watch her climb.  from ‘MailerDaemon’ by Sophia McDougall

The final story in the collection, ‘Dumb Lucy‘ by Robert Sherman, leaves us on a high. Sherman plays with our expectations of the genre. Ostensibly a story of a travelling magician in a grim future world rift by magical battles, a sudden and unexpected shift in perspective from the fantastic to the personal makes us question this reality, and the nature of the darkness that seems to threaten him. This comes as a refreshing surprise after some of the more straightforward contributions.

And he realized all the darkness in the room was her, it was her, it was coming from her. He could feel it now, it was pouring out of her. With every breath she made she was spitting more of it out, and it lay heavily on her, and it lay heavy on him, and it was going to suffocate him unless he stopped it. He’d lost her. He’d lost her. She’d been swallowed up whole.

He got up. She didn’t stir.

He packed the truck with all the props he needed for his magic art, his costume, the takings from the last three weeks of performance. He drove off into the night.  —from ‘Dumb Lucy’ by Robert Sherman

In his mix of illusion, the possibility ‘real’ magic and the darkness at the heart of a relationship, Sherman achieves that balance between questioning and wanting to believe.

The highs in this collection make it an enjoyable read. As the nights draw in and you’re thinking about curling up for the winter holidays with something spooky to read, this anthology is a good choice.

Thanks to Solaris Books for providing a review copy. Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane is available now. Buy it here.



Short Story: “The Rental Heart” by Kirsty Logan

The day after I met Grace – her pierced little mouth, her shitkicker boots, her hands as small as goosebumps writing numbers on my palm. The day after I met her, I went to the heart rental place.

Kirsty Logan

Litro Lab this week features an unsettling fantasy tale of clockwork love by the talented short story writer Kirsty Logan. I’ve been a fan of Kirsty’s weird, funny, sharp writing since I came across this story, called ‘The Rental Heart‘, in Salt Publishing’s Best British Short Stories 2011, so it’s a pleasure to feature her work on the podcast.

Kirsty is 28 and lives in Glasgow. As a fiction writer, her work has been widely published in print and online, recorded for radio and podcasts, and exhibited in galleries. Her short stories have been published in over 80 journals and literary magazines, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

As a journalist, Kirsty is the literary editor of The List, and also co-edits flash fiction magazine Fractured West.

She is currently working on her first novel, Rust and Stardust, and a short story collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, which she says can be summed up in the three words: “dark sex magic”, very much in keeping with Litro’s magical theme this month.

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Lizzie Roper

You can find out more about Kirsty and her writing at www.kirstylogan.com. ‘The Rental Heart’ is read by actor Lizzie Roper.

To listen to the podcast, use the player below, or search “Litro Lab” on iTunes.

 




Tania Hershman: Author of My Mother Was an Upright Piano

Tania Hershman’s first collection of short stories, The White Road and Other Stories, described by Toby Litt as “acute, meticulous, memorable”, was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, and her second collection of very short fiction, My Mother was an Upright Piano, was published in 2012 by Tangent Books. Drawing on her background as a science journalist, Tania’s stories are often inspired by science. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, had her work broadcast on Radio 4, and been published in numerous magazines.

Tania teaches creative writing for the Arvon Foundation and is writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, working on a new collection inspired by spending time in a biochemistry lab. She also edits the Short Review, an online magazine dedicated to reviewing short story collections.


Describe your earliest memory.
Falling off the seat in a London taxi and banging my head on the seat opposite, when I was about two or three. I have a tiny scar above my eyebrow.

What was the first book you ever loved? Why?
The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I adored that book! Why? Hmm. I loved the colours, I loved the association with food, and I loved the quirky holes in the pages… I can’t remember it exactly but I think I loved it because it was a book but it did things slightly differently!

Describe the first time you realised that the world may not be as it seems.
Wow, this is a hard question. I have to think about it. I don’t think I was very aware for a long long time. I was quite immersed in my imaginary world when I was a child, and I loved science at school, maths especially. I adored the logic, the fact that there was a right answer and a definite way to get there. So perhaps it was getting to university and discovering, when I began studying Maths and Physics, that the maths at this level was suddenly very abstract; there are no answers. That was a bit of a shock—and discovering I wasn’t very good at it! Also, I learned a lot, I think, when I was diagnosed over a decade ago with a health issue—the first time my body seemed not to be working properly. That was an existential jolt.

What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?
Jerusalem. It’s a city I lived in from 1994-2009, the bulk of my adult life. It was really the first place I chose to be home, rather than having that choice made for me; the first place I felt at home; and the first place I woke up in the mornings delighted to be in, every day, even the terrible days, the days of explosions and the deaths of friends, of war and conflict. It’s going to sound strange to those of you who have never lived in a place where you step out of your house with full awareness that each day might be your last, but it certainly adds colour to life, heightens everything, and once you’ve experienced that – I imagine this is why war correspondents do what they do – then living elsewhere, somewhere apparently “safer”, takes some getting used to.

Which literary or historical character do you most identify with? Why?
I don’t know if this counts, but I always wanted to meet Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, my favourite physicists, but also they were far more than that—both emphasised the role of creativity and imagination in life, not to be bound by rules and regulations. Feynman would crack people’s safes, just for fun, and he played the bongo drums! Not that I am saying I am anywhere close to Einstein and Feynman in brainpower, who were geniuses, but I identify with their philosophies, I want to continue their legacy in some way, bring science into places it doesn’t normally go, and other things into science that haven’t been there – for a long time, anyway.

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
Blimey. Is there such a time? I am addicted to a few TV series – The Good Wife, Homeland, The Thick of It, to name a few. I also knit, when my poor computer-beleaguered hands allow me too. And I like to think I do some exercise, but probably not enough. I do teach more and more writing workshops, which I love doing. There’s nothing greater than inspiring someone else to write.

Describe the worst job you’ve ever had.
I did a week’s work experience at FeMail, the Daily Mail‘s “women’s” section, when I was studying journalism, last century, and that ended up being the venue where my first-ever article (on the health benefits of water!) was published. I was both delighted and utterly embarrassed. The Daily Mail is not my idea of a quality newspaper and Femail doesn’t really fit with my feminist ideals.

Describe your most defining experience with money.
I’m not sure I understand the question! Being paid for a short story was a huge thrill—my first time was for my first ever published story, which was actually broadcast on Radio 4. I bought a pair of gorgeous and gorgeously strange shoes that I never wear but they always symbolise to me my first writing breakthrough. I still find it odd to be paid for something I love doing, but I now understand that I need to ask for that, that we deserve remuneration for our work.

If you could time-travel and teleport, which literary world would you want to visit? Why?
I’ve never wanted to. When I read, if it’s a fantastic short story or other piece of writing, I am transported, if it’s doing its job. So no need.

Being a writer is a strange brand of “celebrity”. Tell us about your most memorable encounter.
It certainly can be strange. I did a reading a few months ago and it’s always difficult to pick which of my mostly very very short stories to read. I read one I love reading, ‘Missy’, because of the rhythms, but it does appear to be about an abusive mother. And someone came up to me after the reading and declared loudly, “I don’t agree with your story, ‘Missy’!” I had no idea what to say. How can someone not agree with a piece of fiction? I sort of smiled and let her talk a bit more, but I’ve certainly learned that I can’t try and respond. Each person reads – or hears – a story in their own way!

What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done in pursuit of your writing?
Another interesting question, and after mulling it over for a while all I can come up with is that I leave the extreme for the writing, not the pursuit of it. Writing stories is my way of doing things and going places I would never get to do – or be brave enough to do – in life. I’d rather be extreme in my imagination.

If you were to write yourself as a character, what would be your most defining characteristic?
I’d like to think my defining characteristic would be my powers of imagination. I hope.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Why?
Flying. Definitely. I love the dreams where I can fly – less to get somewhere than to get away, above. My ideal position has always been on the periphery, observing, rather than in the middle. Flying adds a whole new dimension to this possibility.

What is the most important piece of life advice you would give a young person?
Probably not to listen to anyone else’s advice! No, seriously. To go your own way, because you never see until afterwards, years later, when you are where you thought you might want to be or somewhere you didn’t know you wanted to end up, how often circuitous-seeming routes are far more interesting than the direct path. I had no idea when I started studying for a BSc in Maths & Physics at age 19 where this might lead me.

What’s next for you, work- and life-wise?
Well, I’ve just finished my first radio play—not sure if it will be produced but I had a lot of fun writing it; it was a different process from short stories. I actually had to plot it out first, which was novel, for me. I am also beginning to write poetry, which once again is utterly different and I am really really enjoying experimenting, with line breaks, with wordplay, all of that. I am theoretically working on a third collection of stories inspired by my time as a writer-in-residence in a biochemistry lab, but am not sure of the wisdom of planning a book of stories in advance, so I am not letting myself be too bound up by that. I have several other things in the works for next year, and am looking into spending time in a different lab here at Bristol University, something far away from biochemistry and its delicious vocabularies.

Life-wise, I have spent the past three years since we moved to Bristol in a kind of whirlwind of short story events, I am immensely lucky to get so many fantastic invitations! But I am going to slow slow slow down next year, because I want to regain space in my head for stories. The aspect of being an author that requires you to talk about yourself is a privilege but is also something that I don’t think comes naturally to most of us, who probably want to spend most of our time in the worlds inside our head. I’d better spend more time there or there won’t be any writing to talk about, will there? Thanks for having me!

You can listen to Tania talking about flash fiction on our Litro Lab podcast.



A Tribute to Robert McGowan (1947-2012)

This week on Litro Lab we revisit a short story that first appeared on the website in June 2011. Its author, Robert McGowan, sadly passed away last month. Actor Greg Page, a regular voice on Litro Lab, talks about his transatlantic friendship with Robert, and reads Robert’s story “Billy”, about an American history professor struggling to find the words to talk about his own experience in the Vietnam war.

To listen to the podcast, use the player below, or subscribe on iTunes by searching “Litro Lab”.

Photo by Ashley Drew

Robert McGowan served as a pay disbursement specialist with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam, 1968/69. His short fiction and essays have been published in several dozen prominent literary journals in America and abroad, including the Black Herald (France), Chautauqua Literary Journal, Connecticut Review, Etchings (Australia), the Louisiana Review, New Walk Magazine (UK), and South Dakota Review. His work has also been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and anthologised. “Billy” is from his short fiction collection, NAM: Things That Weren’t True and Other Stories, published by Meridian Star Press.

Greg Page is an actor who trained at Maria Grey College and the City Lit. Previous credits include touring with the London Bubble, Malvolio for TTC, appearing as a hired killer and a gay street preacher in independent films, and the voice of a coma victim for BBC radio. He currently appears in Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre, London. He can be contacted through Rosebery Management.




Short Stories: Tea at the Midland by David Constantine

There’s a moment in C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Lucy, walking down the corridor of a magician’s house, catches sight of what she thinks is “a wicked little bearded face” grinning at her from a wall. It is in fact a mirror, surrounded by hair and a beard; and it is her face she has seen. She tells herself the mirror is harmless, but she is unsettled to see her own face so changed.

In David Constantine’s short story “Asylum”, a therapist asks a patient to look in a mirror and describe herself. The mirror is “a lovely thing, face-shaped and just the size of a face, without a frame, the bare reflecting glass.” The patient thinks she is turning into an owl, and for a moment, looking at her, the therapist sees it too—“…if you jointed the arcs of the brows with the arcs of shadow below the eyes, so accentuating the sockets, yes you might make the widening stare of an owl.”

Seeing ourselves unexpectedly reflected, transformed by context—these mirror-moments are what make great short stories, and they pop out often from David Constantine’s collection, Tea at the Midland. In the title story, which won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award, a couple argue over the merits of an Eric Gill freeze in a hotel café.

He sat in a rage. Whenever she turned away and sat in silence he desired very violently to force her to attend and continue further and further in the thing that was harming them.

I was brought up short by this line—such a precise reflection. So familiar, that point in an argument when the desire to go on hurting, being hurt, overrides all else. Great short stories reflect us back at ourselves.

The stories in this collection are often long, and they demand an investment, of concentration. Constantine doesn’t use speech marks. Dialogue is muddled together with no more than a capital letter or a dash to mark its start or end. The style can sometimes be frustrating, forcing the eye back over a line already read to check who spoke it, but where it is used most effectively it is powerful. Here, dialogue is an echo in the head, indistinguishable from what a character sees or feels. The story is their interior life, and this stream of experience pulls us under with them. In “Mr Carlton”, a recently bereaved widower drives north on the day of his wife’s funeral, destroying his mobile phone after sending a last message to his daughters. A traffic jam on the motorway causes him to leave his car, and he sees a house in the shadow of the motorway flyover.

The young woman at the barrier took Mr Carlton’s arm. I’m frightened, she said. You don’t mind, do you? What do you think has happened? It must be very serious to close both carriageways. I heard a man say it was a fire. And somebody else said ten minutes earlier we’d have been in it. My husband said not to worry, they’ll clear it eventually, if we’re here much longer they’ll bring food and water round. He’s right, said Mr Carlton, patting her hand that was gripping his arm. We’re quite safe here. How still it is. I was wondering do they have grandchildren who visit occasionally. I hate it when you’re on a train, the young woman said, and you stop in the middle of nowhere and after a long time they tell you there’s a fatality on the line. Yes, said Mr Carlton, that is a horrible expression. And everybody’s only wanting to get home, the young woman continued, and they don’t are about the fatality in person. But it’s horrible sitting there knowing that someone is chopped to pieces further up. And this is worse than that. It has blocked both carriageways.

This is soundscape, babble. But hearing this conversation through the filter of Mr Carlton’s consciousness, out of the white noise come the shapes of his recent bereavement, the question of his final destination, why he has cut off contact with his family.

I admit to an initial frustration with some of these stories. It takes a while to feel your way into them. A commitment is required early on to persevere with a slow-growing story or with Constantine’s oblique style. In “Charis”, a woman talks to her dead sister. The story seems to slip naturally into the first person and then is jolted out of it again, alienating with its strangeness.

But this investment of effort almost invariably pays off with moments of beauty and revelation. In “An Island”, one of the longest stories in the book, a man stays as a virtual hermit on a remote island. It builds gradually in a series of letters detailing small events, landscapes, and thoughts which soon become immersive.

I should have taken each by the hand, there and then, and summoned up a syrtaki from Ithica or Samothrace and danced the lumbering graceless dance of my leaden soul, right there among the dressed-up islanders, between two girls, danced, and they would have harkened either side of me and heard the tune in my head and taken it up, lifted and lightened it, and led me and I’d have followed, dancing, dancing, ugly bear of a soul, dancing until I was changed.

David Constantine
David Constantine

David Constantine is also a poet, and this is clear in his precise and weighted prose, often very beautiful, like this passage from  “Fault”, a story of a couple on a country walk, feeling around the fractures in their relationship.

And when a skylark started up and the singing of it rose to a height and tippled down, it thrilled her like a pure happiness finding its place of resurrection, there in the present, quickened on a scrap of earth and in a shaft and a fountain of sky.

Constantine is not a writer motivated by plot. His stories centre on moments, conversations, meetings that feel like small details picked out from a larger tapestry. His characters are strange and vividly drawn—the irredeemably lonely, the failures, the mentally and physically ill. These are outsider stories, searches for salvation that sometimes do not succeed. Sometimes, the possibility of happiness reveals itself from a distance, like the house Mr Carlton glimpses from the motorway with its contented inhabitants: seemingly inaccessible—and yet there, still there.

The conflict between loneliness and the overwhelming urge to connect runs through the collection. “Strong Enough to Help” is a sad but lovely story of a lonely man’s encounter with a survey-taker who knocks at his door. Arthur Barlow sits down to write poetry, as he always does on a Saturday morning, wearing his best suit. Then suddenly the language of his family, the sayings and turns of phrase he grew up with, possess him. Speaking one of these phrases invokes his dead Gran Benson, but it also seems to invoke a visit from Gladys, a woman with a very different voice.

One last thing, said Arthur Barlow. Did your grandmother or your grandmother’s sister ever say, ‘Sit thee down, lass’ or ‘Nowt lost where pigs are kept’ or ‘I’ll make one less’ – and go slowly off to bed? – Gladys laughed, such a resplendent laugh. Bless you Mr Barlow, of course they never did. They said things like, ‘Walk-good keeps good spirit’, ‘Hungrybelly an Fullbelly dohn walk same pass’ and ‘When lonely man dead, grass come grow him door’.

We inherit our “voice from home” as part of our identity. Arthur and Gladys’s exchange of voices is the beginning of an understanding that might just cross age, culture and loneliness.

In the mesmerizing story ‘The House by the Weir and the Way”, two old women live as a couple in a remote house on a pilgrim trail, a relationship that began in passion but has ended with them trapped by each other. The weir by their house echoes the weight of old age, worry and fear that bears down on them.

Sabela stood there close in the din and stink of the weir and its slanting topple mesmerized her. At this time of the year the whole phenomenon was at its most violently self-assertive. This was what the river did in spring and by the weir the nature of its deep was made most manifest. The river ingested the mountains’ snow and ice, bulked itself up with them and ran full tilt for the distant sea.

There is a weir also in the closing story of the collection, “Romantic”. Again, it is a terrifying thing, the force of it.

She can smell it on him when he comes in, his voice sounds battered to death by the weight of water, the river’s slanted breadth, the unspeakable amount of toppling-over water and always more and more to come from the sodden hills and the countless stream to the west of Crook.

A weir reveals the force of the river, constantly happening, unstoppable, off somewhere else more quickly than we can comprehend. There is no chance of standing still, and the current is sometimes too much for us. But in this last story, a man who we thought perhaps dead comes through the river in a baptism, a rebirth, his clothes gone, naked into a potential new life.

There is a hope of salvation then, a salvation that perhaps comes with truly recognising ourselves. The mirror in “Asylum” is kept “under lock and key”. It is a dangerous thing, in the wrong hands. That danger runs through this collection—the risk and allure of the mirror-moment, of seeing ourselves clearly where we do not expect to meet ourselves in “the bare reflecting glass” of the story.

Tea at the Midland and Other Stories is available from Comma Press from Thursday 6th December 2012. Thanks to Comma Press for providing a review copy.