Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Two Cities, Two Islands: An Interview with Miriam Gómez

Deep inside the Gloucester Road apartment where the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante resided from 1967 until his death in 2005, the visitor finds a majestic landscape. This landscape – which the writer once referred to as an inverted tromp l’oeil – is in fact a sash window that frames a magnificent view: beyond it, a sequence of six mesmerizing arches produces a mise-en-abyme that tempts the viewer into remembering Joseph Gandy’s nineteenth century pictorial interpretation of the Bank of England in ruins. Hidden from the nearby bustle of trendy Kensington, with its noisy proliferation of Bentleys and Lamborghinis, the window seems to open onto a different city: one as grandiose as the neo-classical London of Sir John Soane, a city that appears frozen in time like that spiral staircase that rises like bindweed amidst its six arches. The visitor who, guided by the elegant and extremely generous Miriam Gómez, widow to the late Cuban writer, is confronted with such a view can’t avoid but remember the first lines of Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical novel Infante’s Inferno: “This is my inaugural memory of La Habana: climbing marble steps.” That window, one could risk saying, hides – within the heart of modern London – the memory of La Habana.

The daily vision of that staircase lost amidst vertiginous arches must have remained, for the exiled writer, the passageway to that city which he had lost three times. A first time in 1962 when, after the affair regarding the government’s censorship of PM, his brother’s documentary, as well as the closing of Lunes de Revolución, the journal for which he worked, he decided to accept a post abroad as the culture attaché in the Cuban Embassy in Brussels. The second time in 1965 when, after returning to the island to bury his mother, he realized that the revolution he had initially supported had taken an irreversible turn. And lastly, a third time, when in 1972, after months of struggling to write a film script based on Malcolm Lowry’s unsettling Under the Volcano, he suffered a psychic collapse that would force him to undergo electroshock therapy, a treatment which resulted in a loss of memory that threatened to erase all recollection of that city whose decadent splendour and sumptuous resonance he had delectably documented in his 1967 debut novel Three Trapped Tigers. “Guillermo lost his memory and with it those memories related to La Habana. That’s when he spread the map of La Habana over his desk and decided to write, street by street, the memories he had of the city,” Miriam Gómez recounts, pointing to a desk lying at the very centre of the couple’s studio, half way between that magnificent window full of Cuban memories and the window facing Gloucester Road.

One then realizes that it was from that desk that Guillermo Cabrera Infante, arguably La Habana’s greatest narrator, took upon himself the task of salvaging – through writing – the city and its memory from the power of oblivion. Neither he nor Miriam Gómez returned to Cuba after 1965. His writing, however, remained faithful to this task of retrieving the image of a place that had given him – as he would later state – the four greatest pleasures of his life: cinema, literature, cigars and women. Surrounded by thousands of books pilled upon an impressive bookshelf Gómez bought from a young Ron Arad in the early nineties, the bookshelf that holds the books of Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne and Alexander Pope – “three of his reverends,” as Gómez humorously calls them – Cabrera Infante’s desk remains a symbol of the possibility of writing to act as a remedy for the pains of exile. It was from that desk that he finished A View of Dawn in the Tropics, the novel in vignettes where he reconfigured the history of Cuba as a history of violence and cruelty; Infante’s Inferno, the novel that gave him back – thorough the image of his sentimental education – the city he had lost after his mental collapse; Holy smoke, his own personal history of one of his lifetime pleasures, cigars; and Map Drawn by a Spy, the posthumously published chronicle of the last four months the writer spent in Cuba, a history of his growing disillusionment with the same revolution in which he had once believed. “Guillermo would seat down to write dressed with his suit. Soon after he would remove his shoes, then his socks. Soon after he would take off his trousers, his shirt, and he would end up almost naked in front of the page. He would do a striptease in front of the page. He was the type of writer that became the subject of his own reflections. I would often see him there in his desk writing and couldn’t stop asking myself: what is he unleashing? What sort of private story is he telling?” jokingly remembers Gómez, and one can’t avoid but think that for Cabrera Infante, England was that second island that gave him the critical distance from which to better understand the complexities of Cuba’s history.

A fan of both Laurence Sterne and Alfred Hitchcock, London proved to be a fertile atmosphere for a writer who always had one eye on high culture and one eye on popular culture, one eye on the page and the other on the film screen. The London that welcomed the exiled couple was, indeed, simultaneously the Swinging London of the Beatles as well as the London where friends like Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes spent long seasons, sketching in nearby apartments those novels that – alongside those of Cabrera Infante –  would eventually form the great literary tapestry known as the Latin American Boom. As Miriam Gómez recounts, Mario and Patricia Vargas Llosa were in fact their neighbours during the early sixties, before they even moved to Gloucester Road: “We already knew Vargas Llosa from Paris, but soon after we arrived to London he moved in with his wife, who was then pregnant with Álvaro, their first son. Back then we all lived very modestly, but for some strange coincidence we ended up living next to each other, in Earl’s Court. We would see each other often. I remember vividly that both of our gardens faced the tube station. Carlos Fuentes joined later. In fact, I remember that in a way, he inaugurated this house. I had constructed myself a wooden desk and Carlos would come often to write from that desk.” Both terribly modern and conservatively Victorian, home to both Harrods and the Natural History Museum, Kensington was in fact a perfect location from where to produce a literary project that perverted tradition in the most refreshing of manners. Always an advocate of humour, Cabrera Infante had learned from the world of cinema that style is as much a matter of originality as it is an art of playful ventriloquism. Most famously, in Three Trapped Tigers, he had narrated seven times the death of Trotsky, each time parodying the style of one of the great narrators of the Cuban tradition – from José Martí to Alejo Carpentier, from Lydia Cabrera to Lezama Lima – as part of an exercise de style that nodded to the world of cinema, where acting was always adopting the voice of another. “He could imitate Cantiflas perfectly. In fact, that’s how he conquered many women. He could also re-enact perfectly movie dialogues. For example, when a man would come to greet him with a kiss he would often say: “No kissing Frenchy,” imitating perfectly the voice of Humphrey Bogart in To Have or Have Not,” remembers the widow as we sit in the living room, surrounded by their library and dozens of piles of DVDs that Gómez – a retired model and actress herself – has collected throughout the years, as part of an enduring love of cinema that the couple shared since their marriage in 1961. Only encircled by films and books, like an exiled emperor hidden within the walls of a fortress, did Cabrera Infante feel at home.

Cabrera Infante was well aware that at Kensington, however, he was not alone, but surrounded by a literary tradition which he – in a manner reminiscent of Joyce – liked to playfully quote and humorously rewrite. As he states in a beautiful essay entitled London, un paseo al pasado, a simple walk around the neighbourhood quickly becomes a literary pilgrimage. As the famous blue plaques that punctuate the city’s architecture remind us, the streets nearby their apartment hosted dozens of famous artists, writers and directors. Just a few doors down is St Stephens Church, where TS Eliot served as churchwarden for twenty-five years. In fact, as he recounts in the essay, it is said that The Four Quartets was once entitled The Kensington Quartets. A few blocks away, two different plaques remind us that Henry James and Robert Browning also resided nearby. For the Cuban author, however, perhaps the most significant of his famous neighbours was Alfred Hitchcock, who lived in the third floor at 153 Cromwell Road from 1926 to 1939. No plaque marks the historical significance of the place, just as no mark has yet been mounted upon the façade of Cabrera Infante’s building, but for the author of Three Trapped Tigers this proximity to the former apartment of one of his favourite film directors must have felt like a homely breeze within foreign grounds. Like the sash window leading back to the lost grandeur of La Habana, the window overlooking Gloucester Road was an opening to that world of art, culture and fashion that first astonished the young boy from Gibara when, still an adolescent, he first visited the cinema and discovered that the film screen was a magical territory that connected him – under the spell of light and darkness – with distant lands.

That same game of light and darkness that begins to overtake the apartment as the last rays of light begin to trickle through the Gloucester Road window. Only then do I realize that time has passed and that, with the subtle treachery of British summers, evening has begun to set without us noticing. Surrounded by the haze of dawn, Cabrera Infante’s living room has gained a particular atmosphere: it has acquired the dreamlike fragility of the cinema room. Every evening, around that time, in that same room, Miriam Gómez sits down to watch a movie. Perhaps a Korean movie, perhaps a Japanese one, perhaps one of those old Humphrey Bogart films whose scenes her late husband used to perfectly mimic. It is a ritual she has maintained since his death. In the background, now merely a set of shadows, the six arches have also begun their slow descent into the night. I then see the image clearly: Guillermo Cabrera Infante in that precise setting, seated between those two windows that somehow led to his two cities, La Habana and London, turning on the television with the same childlike pleasure he must have felt when, in his adolescence, he first found in the cinema room a solace from the unbearable heat of the Cuban summer.




Litro #162: Literary Highlife | Interview: Jenn Nkiru

Director Jenn Nkiru’s En Vogue, an experimental, high-concept, bold short film documenting the potent vitality of New York’s voguing and ballroom subculture, marked the arrival of an exciting new voice. Possessing a visually striking, poetic style, Nkiru’s work captures stories of the socially marginalised through the lenses of race, gender and music. Of Nigerian heritage but British and a Howard University alumnus, she’s part of a diasporic group of artists who navigate their multiple identities with ease. Having collaborated with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young, amongst others, the future looks promising. I sat down with her to discuss her process and forging a path for herself in the current climate.

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Litro: You’ve just launched your first ever series, HASHTAG$, on music and subculture, which you wrote, produced and most importantly directed for Red Bull Music, exec produced by Pulse Films, the same execs behind Beyoncé’s Lemonade music video film. Tell us about it.

Jenn: Yes! This is my first ever series and I’m really proud of it as it took a lot of work to get it out. My series of HASHTAG$ is actually series two of the franchise. There was an initial series which ended up being really successful for Red Bull and resulted in being their most watched. Because of this, Red Bull were really eager to do a second series and approached Pulse Films to do so. At the time I’d been writing music video ideas with Pulse for everyone from Pharrell to Major Laser through to J Cole and Imagine Dragons. This project came in the middle of that and we both agreed it would be perfect for me so we started developing ideas for it. It took off from there. This was a big project – we shot internationally from here in the continent (South Africa) through to Europe and LA and New York. I interviewed over sixty musicians, journalists and tastemakers throughout the project. We shot five episodes and four were released.

Litro: How do you think being Nigerian living in the UK and US has influenced you as a filmmaker?

Jenn: The British-Nigerian identity is a cultural identity in and of itself at this point. Moving to America at twenty-one to go to film school, and at a historically Black university at that, just added another layer to my consciousness and identity as a filmmaker. The biggest influence being the clearest sense of self: learning about my history, who I am, where I’m from, roots and culture. This level of awareness has been the most important influence in my life, making film and the content of my films itself.

Litro: Your first film, En Vogue, was shot by Bradford Young (Selma, Mother of George, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, amongst others). His work is exquisite. Bradford also became the first Black cinematographer to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2017 Oscars for his work in Arrival. What was your experience of collaborating with him and collaborating in the US in comparison to the UK?

Jenn: Brad is magic and his work is magic. I see him as a big brother and we come from the same filmmaking roots (Howard University under the tutelage of Haile Gerima) so that’s family. We’re all so incredibly proud of the strides he’s taken in the industry, yet not surprised. It’s more so at this point, the industry catching up to him rather than vice versa. Brad along with Arthur Jafa shot En Vogue, which also ended up being my graduate thesis film as I was still a student at Howard when I directed it. Working with both of them is like working with master artists. It was an incredibly supportive environment where I got to play and push which they embraced so it was a magical time and a treat of a first professional experience for me.

Litro: You previously worked alongside directors such as Diane Martel on projects with Beyoncé and Levi. As well as being bread and butter, how has that sort of work honed your skills as a filmmaker?

Jenn: Yes, before working as a director I assisted directors and worked across almost every department in the filmmaking process. I purposely did this and it truly served me well because I wanted to have an understanding, even if basic, across the whole production process. It also allowed me to know what my possibilities are as well as what everyone’s role is, which has allowed me to get the best from my teams. Beyond this, assisting, watching and studying directors work on set was really important to me very early on. Directing is as much craft as it is art, that muscle that needs constant honing and exercise to keep it strong. That constant on-set experience working with both commercial directors and huge talents as well as smaller indie directors and talent early on really served me well. It’s allowed me to anticipate things I never would have without it on my sets.

Litro: Can you tell us about being a Black woman filmmaker at this time and what sort of stories you’re interested in telling?

Jenn: I think more than ever we’re at a time where audiences are tired of seeing the same old thing – white male stories – and are interested in a new worldview. This is coupled and most likely in conversation with the fact that we are at an interesting social crossroads where all previous structures are being challenged and the general awareness of us all is growing. People are now awake – woke even. Entering into the conversation at this point as a woman and a black woman and an artist has meant I, and other filmmakers like myself dedicated to pushing culture forward, have been tasked with reflecting this through our work. This is a responsibility which I embrace and take very seriously. I’m looking forward to telling stories about the Black experience and putting us on screen in ways we have never seen us before. We are such a dynamic, multi-layered people who have so many stories to tell so I’m looking forward to telling our stories and reflecting us in ways that are close to who we actually are on screen.

Litro: You set up your own production company Nkiru + Nkiru which is great. What was your thinking and intention behind that?

Jenn: Independence and ownership, period. That’s my biggest aim and goal. It’s really important as far as possible for us to own our work and dictate how that work is formed, managed and exhibited – the individual that controls these aspects is the one that controls the image. If we want to see a change or improvement in how we are viewed we need to control the image. I urge all artists to exercise agency in their work as far as they can manage it. By virtue, my independent work created under NKIRU + NKIRU is my best work as it’s where I feel freest and so does my work.

Litro: You’re credited with having a strong visual style / aesthetic and an interest in sound design. What are some of the ideas behind both?

Jenn: As an artist and filmmaker, I’m constantly interested in seeing things in ways as human beings that we have not before. That is at the centre of what drives my work. I love seeing worlds which typically wouldn’t come together. I’m especially interested in getting out stories from and of people not often typically celebrated on screen; Black people and other marginalised groups. By virtue of being so focused on showing experiences in ways we’ve never seen before by default, it means the visuals will also bring something fresh. Music and sound are my first loves. I also DJ so that naturally finds a special place in my work. Visuals and sounds/music tend symbiotically to come together to create something unique in my work.

Litro: What work excites you?

Jenn: I mention him a lot both personally and publicly: Khalil Joseph. His work is magic and as a contemporary Black filmmaker working in the industry, it’s so affirming to see someone at the top of their craft who comes from a similar thought space be so embraced by the industry and audiences. What strikes me most about his work is he showcases black people, black experiences and spirituality in such a visceral way. Something I am committed to also and that’s what truly excites me about his work.

Litro: Ava Duvernay’s success has been wonderful to watch. Her tremendous documentary 13th was nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta. Do you draw any inspiration for how she’s carved a path for herself and if so what?

Jenn: Ava is a force and incredibly inspiring. I’m so glad we have her. Whilst I was a student at Howard University. Ava was readying her first narrative feature film, I Will Follow, for release. She called upon us, students and faculty at Howard University to play key roles in distributing her film in the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia) where our film school is based. We were tasked with selling out every single screening of her film, which we successfully did. That was the first time I noticed her magic and ability beyond being a great filmmaker to be a great leader. That’s particularly what inspires me, her ability to lead and most of all that she does so independently thus making her model sustainable. That is incredibly inspiring to me.

Litro: How often do you visit Nigeria? How does your connection with it reflect in your work?

Jenn: I don’t visit Nigeria as much as I used to or would like to so I’m eager to change that soon and connect with other Nigerian filmmakers committed to enhancing, pushing and progressing us as a culture and a people. Growing up I had parents that made my sister and I culturally very aware of where we’re from geographically and traditionally, so naturally, whether overtly or more abstractly, there is always that connection in my work, whether it be in the pacing, story, music or general approach. I’m incredibly proud of my culture and it’s intrinsic to me as an individual and to my style as a filmmaker. I truly wouldn’t be the filmmaker I am without it. For that, I’m both grateful and proud.

Litro: You’re highly involved in the discussions about Black cinema and film. Where are we when it comes to that? What has to be done?

Jenn: We still have a long way to go but we’re getting there slowly. Small changes are being made. We all cumulatively regardless of race need to keep challenging the status quo but as Black people need to lead that charge. I think for the longest time, the belief was that audiences felt only certain stories were relatable, worthy of cinema and would sell. In the last couple of years especially, that belief is slowly being dismantled as audiences are showing they want something different, they want stories and perspectives, the kind till recently that haven’t been celebrated on screen. Moonlight the movie is the most recent and direct example of this. For the longest time, there’s been a cloud of erasure both socially and historically when it comes to stories of people of colour. In order for things to continue changing we need to widen the scope of who is greenlighting / commissioning projects. The more range of individuals from broader backgrounds, colours, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds we have in power positions, the more likely we are to see a wider range of stories. We need to see ourselves to know we exist. We all want to see stories that reflect our humanity and our society and to do that those stories have to be colourful. There’s so much more that unites us than separates us and life is just so much more interesting that way.




Litro #153: Open | Q&A: Author | Jane Rogers

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I recently had the extremely good fortune to be able to interview one of the most decorated writers in the UK, Professor Jane Rogers, about her creative process. Over a long and prestigious career, Rogers has won numerous awards including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Samuel Becket Award, the Writers Guild Best Fiction prize and the BBC National Short Story Award. She has been longlisted for the Man Booker, the IMPAC prize and the Orange Prize and she has also been nominated for a BAFTA. It was heartening to hear that even a seasoned writer like Rogers can still feel uncertainty about whether a story has legs or not and that, on occasion, she still abandons a story without completing it.

NK: What does the first thrill of discovering a story feel like? How do you know that this is the story/novel you’re going to be writing?

JR: I wouldn’t really describe it as a thrill, because it isn’t a single moment. For me, a novel idea gradually comes together over a long-ish period of time. With Conrad and Eleanor I knew I wanted to write about a long marriage, but many different strands had to fall into place before I could be sure it would be a novel.

The first goes back to my schooldays. Around the age of 16 I was told, probably in confidence, that a friend’s father had disappeared. He had left home and not told his family where he was going. I’m not sure how much I embroidered this in my own imagination, but what I thought was that he was fed up with his family and unhappy in his life, and that he was looking for a new life. It seemed to me a much more romantic and a much more radical thing to do than leaving for another woman or man. It was open-ended, and he might or might not return. The idea of his vanishing has stayed with me and has changed meaning over the years of my adult life, as my own father later left my mother, and as I myself felt the pangs of uselessness that came with teenage children growing up and needing me less. So that was always something I wanted to understand better, by exploring it in writing.

Other elements of the novel, for example the interest in IVF and stem cell research, came from earlier research I had done for a TV drama that was never made.

When I sat down and started writing Eleanor’s story, I was very unsure that it would properly develop into a novel. And yes, that is precisely why I wouldn’t call it a thrill! It is mainly uncertainty about whether it actually is a novel, and I seem to feel that uncertainty right up until a first draft is completed. So the real answer is, I don’t know that this is the story I’m going to be writing!

NK: Do you enjoy research? How do you know when to stop?!

JR: Yes, I enjoy research very much, and have done it for most of my novels. Historical research for Mr Wroe’s Virgins, The Voyage Home and Promised Lands, and scientific research for The Testament of Jessie Lamb and Conrad and Eleanor. I like learning things, I guess, and writing a novel gives a specific focus to what I need to research. With Mr Wroe’s Virgins I didn’t know when to stop, and I spent a year or more trying to learn everything I could about life in 1830, from British foreign policy to apocalyptic sects to what kind of underwear people wore, and how to make oatcakes. Eventually I realised it was impossible to know everything, and then I wrote, and did some checking up afterwards. Since then, I think I’ve come to realise there is a kind of tipping point. I keep on doing research until somehow I reach a stage where I certainly don’t know all there is to know, but I feel at home in the world of that subject. Then it is possible to write about it.

NK: We’ve talked before about ‘story totems’, about whether there are particular objects that connect you to a story or to your writing generally.

I have a number of beloved objects which I keep on the windowsill above my writing desk, and I often stare at them while I’m concentrating on writing. But I don’t think any of them specifically connect me to any one of my stories; it is more that I think of them as part of the landscape while I’m writing, and in a way they are talismans. Mostly they are gifts from people who are close to me; there’s a little wooden frog my son brought back from Madagascar; two tiny bronze women – one reclining, one kneeling to chat to her – made by my sister Helen; a clay echidna, whose prickles sometimes crack off, sent by my Mum from Australia; a wooden snail whose curly shell is made from a violin, given to my daughter when she was 3, by a good friend who is a violin maker. There are a few other things too, and a lot of pebbles. I love the shapes and feel of smooth pebbles, especially from beaches and rivers, and I do pick them up and fill my pockets, wherever I go. That suddenly sounds rather Virginia Woolf-ish! I fill my pockets because I love the feel of the pebbles, not to weigh me down! The pebbles are probably the most useful while I’m writing, because there are a few favourites which I like to hold and turn in my hand as I’m thinking and trying to move on with a story. I suppose they are rather like worry beads, only bigger. There are far too many pebbles in my work-room, and I sometimes have to take a bag-full and deposit them in the garden, to make way for new ones. It’s quite nice to come across some of the old ones in the garden from time to time, when I’m weeding.

My short stories are often inspired by a single event or image, or indeed something I have read. But it’s more common for a physical object from my life to take up residence in a story and make the story real for me. For example, when I was commissioned to write a story about Alan Turing (‘Morphogenesis’ appears in Rogers’ Comma Press collection ‘Hitting Trees With Sticks’) I needed a scene between the teenage Turing and the boy he loved, Chris. I found a way of anchoring that in reality by having him present Chris with a fircone from his pocket, using it to demonstrate a mathematical point. The real fircone was sitting on my windowsill at the time, and looking at it carefully and focussing on it gave me the way into the scene.

I suspect most writers do this, though. Good, precise writing is always a result of careful observation.

NK: Are there particular artists that trigger creative responses for you?

JR: I love visual art and yes, there are certain works that have been important while writing particular stories. There’s a wooden sculpture called Infant by Barbara Hepworth which I loved when I visited St Ives, and the postcard of it lives by my desk; likewise, a Samuel Palmer picture which must be about 20 years old now. I’m not sure that they exactly ‘trigger’ creative responses, but they help me to try and be true to what I want to say.

NK: I think a lot of writers feel doubt and are often plagued by a sense of futility (‘Can I really do that all over again?’). Does that still happen for you and, if so, how do you deal with it? How do you deal with periods of creative drought?

JR: Yes, indeed. But I know the only way to deal with it is to plough on. And when I really can’t write, I do something else. Gardening, walking, cooking, reading. I do sometimes give up on things, but I am very stingy and like to recycle stuff, so stories which I have abandoned are sometimes resurrected years later, and finished off.

NK: You’ve had a long and distinguished career. What are your thoughts about longevity as a writer? How does one keep the pot full, the fire lit?

JR: I don’t know! You do what you know how to do. Writing is, in the end, a job like any other. I suppose one of the things that makes me want to write is reading the work of other people. I find other writers inspiring, and I can name specific novels which helped to inspire specific novels of mine. For example, Waterland by Graham Swift inspired The Ice is Singing. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go inspired The Testament of Jessie Lamb. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury inspired Mr Wroe’s Virgins.

NK: Is your creative process familiar to you now over so many novels? Or are there aspects of it that still surprise you? Has it changed?

JR: It’s difficult to say. I think I usually write my way into things. That is to say, I do a lot of writing which is not kept, which is no use, but which I seem to need to write my way through before I get to the voice or idea or language I’m after.

NK: I wondered if you would say a few words about truthfulness/truth-telling in fiction. For me, the mark of a real artist is the drive to voice the truth even if it feels self-exposing or difficult. It feels to me from your work that you don’t shy away from telling the truth. Is this a conscious choice?

JR: Yes, I think telling the truth is the whole point, really. As a reader, you can tell when a writer is being honest, emotionally honest, honest about the way her or his characters think and speak and react. Which is not to say they are familiar or easy to understand, but they have integrity. Hemingway says every writer needs a crap detector, and to my mind that is about truth. For example, easy descriptions are crap: The golden sunshine poured down over the meadow sparkling with beautiful flowers. If you want to write truthfully, is sunshine golden? Does it pour? Can a meadow sparkle? What are ‘beautiful flowers’ and how can I make the reader see them? What colours and shapes do they have? Truthful description is specific.

I know your question is about bigger truths and yes, I’m trying to understand the things I write about, so it would be stupid of me to be dishonest because then I would never understand them, and sometimes a drive to truthfulness does lead into some dark and difficult areas. But for me, exploring and understanding difficult things is the whole point of writing, and it starts in the language, in the sentences, the words.

9781782398233Jane Rogers’ tenth novel, ‘Conrad and Eleanor’, an intricate and nuanced portrait of a dysfunctional marriage as it unravels, is released by Atlantic Books on June 2nd.




Litro: 150 Britishness: Interview Kayo Chingonyi

Kayo Chingonyi
Kayo Chingonyi, image credit Naomi Woodis

Kayo Chingonyi was born in Zambia in 1987, moving to the UK in 1993. We sat down to speak with Kayo to talk about what Britishness means to him, Grime music and more.

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.
I think that I write to explore musicality in language as well as to tell stories and ask questions. I have lived in the UK for most of my life so that is the lens which colours the way I see the world. That said, my work is also informed by the fact that I was born in Zambia and raised with a knowledge of its traditions and culture.

Who inspires you?
Artists who strive in their work to balance spontaneity and craft tend to influence my work. I love Terrance Hayes’s work for that quality; also, Anthony Joseph is a don. The list is very long but I’ll limit myself for the sake of brevity.

How did you get into Poetry?
I was lucky enough to have good English teachers throughout my schooling. Between that and an early fascination with song lyrics and the etymology of words, poetry was always going to appeal to me.

Writing like all art is about communication and expression. How does your work fit within our cultural conversation? And how do ensure the conversation carries on with your work?
I’m not certain I agree with that assertion (the word ‘about’ is somewhat totalizing) but I am interested in my own work in continuing a conversation between work that has gone before and also potential audiences. I don’t think too much about this in the writing process, though. If I did I probably wouldn’t write anything. In the first instance, writing is a conversation with myself. In publication or performance that conversation opens out to include other people.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Grey’s Anatomy, the TV show created by Shonda Rhimes, though I should say I feel no guilt or shame in watching it more in how involved I get in the storylines.

What’s your earliest childhood memory?
Buying chewing gum from the ice cream vendor who had a pitch up the street from our house

The theme for Litro this month is Britishness, Grime is very much a British sound with many of acts finding some success in the USA- music plays a large role in your works – what would you say is the intrinsic relationship between Grime and Poetry and to British Culture?
I think Grime lyricism like poetry is an art form that pays attention to the sound of words as well their meaning. They are both means of tapping into the music of language but with different results. There is a sense in which Grime distills a range of British musical cultures (from Jungle to UKG) and cross- pollinates them with other forms. By comparison with British Hip Hop, Grime is not apologetic for its Britishness but rather revels in it. There were of course pioneering acts like London Posse who made Hip Hop with a UK style while many still rapped in American accents but I guess they used structures from US Hip Hop (most notably the four elements) whereas Grime is similar but has its own elements. I think this has been part of the reason that North American acts (most notably Drake) have borrowed styles from Grime.

Can you give us your top 5-10 tips for budding Poets?
Read a lot of contemporary poetry
Listen to the music in language; become attuned to its various rhythms
Write as much as you can
Learn to edit your work
Read poetry aloud and go to poetry readings

Could you name your top five writers – and explain why they impress you?

I don’t have a top five but I like the following writers a lot:
Junot Diaz – because of how he weaves autobiographical elements into his fiction

Nathaniel Mackey – his musicality and commitment to a particular project (his books continue a serial project he’s been adding to all his career)

Valzhyna Mort – she writes about the messy things of life

Alice Oswald – her work, at its best, feels connected to something arcane

Kei Miller – he combines the skills of a brilliant essayist, novelist, and poet across all his work

How would you define creativity?
I wouldn’t – it’s a very broad human impulse. All of us have a little of it in us.

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?
I don’t think that anyone can. I think we need to stop thinking we can reach everyone. If you work to get good at what you do and put time into building a committed, rather than massive, fan base, you can make a lasting career as an artist.

What’s next in-terms of future projects?
I’m working on a residency project on migration so I’ll be writing some new work as part of that which will be premiered in Refugee Week this June. Other than that, I’m working on my first full-length poetry collection entitled Kumukanda.




Blacking Out and the Female Experience: An Interview with Sarah Hepola

Blackout, Sarah Hepola’s memoirs of her alcoholic past, is published by Two Roads. Author photo © Zan Keith.

I meet Sarah Hepola, the author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget on a sunny sidewalk in downtown Missoula. With the Montana Book Festival in town, the café I had suggested for our interview is packed.

“I saw this cool building yesterday,” she says, pointing towards the Art Deco silhouette of the Florence Hotel.

The questions I have for Hepola about her years of hard drinking and her determination to get sober will have to wait while we walk the few blocks.

The Florence is no longer in business. In place of steamer trunks and railway magnates, there is a small café selling home-made chocolates. We order coffees and contemplate the empty red leather sofas and chairs, taking our seats kitty-corner to each other near the fireplace. She kicks off her shoes and makes herself comfortable.

The previous evening I had seen Sarah Hepola in a black cocktail dress speaking at the Book Festival alongside Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. That these two women should be talking sex, feminism, alcohol abuse, Tinder, and Internet dating in Missoula, the town that provided the setting for Krakauer’s excoriating exploration of campus rape and cover-ups feels meaningful. It seems to me that Missoulians, like hundreds of college-town inhabitants across the US, are finally facing that uncomfortable intersection of booze and sex.

I can’t resist asking Hepola whether she has read Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.

Her response is instant and she flicks her palms upward: “Oh my god, that book was a shit show of drinking!”

We talk about the axis of drunkenness and sexual assault, tiptoeing around it, aware that in Hepola’s words, we are walking on a “loaded minefield”. She admits to being disappointed at Krakauer’s reluctance to make a connection between the levels of alcohol consumed by students involved in the sexual abuse cases at the University of Montana and the murkiness around the idea of consent. I tell Hepola that I had naïvely never really given the idea of consent and its relationship to booze much thought until I read Blackout. The idea of consent was always secondary to desire when it came to my choice of sexual adventures, but conversations on campuses today don’t seem to feature desire and pleasure much; they feature “consent” and “rights”.

When Hepola writes in Blackout that “We can drink however the fuck we want,” she does so knowingly nodding towards the paradox that while drinking however we want, we also often reap the rewards of some pretty unwanted behavior from ourselves and those around us. Hepola is good at holding two slightly opposing thoughts in her head, which is exactly what is needed for this conversation: drinking to excess can make you vulnerable; because you are vulnerable does not give anyone license to abuse you—whether you are male or female. Yet, out in the real and virtual worlds these two thoughts have become divisive rather than inclusive.

Susan Brownmiller has recently been called a “slut-shamer” and “victim-blamer” across the Internet for saying that women “think they can drink as much as men, which is crazy because they can’t drink as much as men.” The Twitterstorm over this has been fierce. This is the very same Susan Brownmiller whose seminal 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape brought an awareness of sexual abuse to the forefront of the agenda of second-wave feminism. How can this be?

Sarah Hepola tells me how in the 1990s while she was at the University of Texas it was important for her to “drink, dress, and fuck like a man”. This felt empowering to her, as it did to many of us who were young and sexually active at that time. And this bravado among women has continued to the point where it is considered a right. Yet, drinking like a man when you are, like Hepola, a petite five-foot-two, is exactly what led to her blackouts, to her “losing the narrative” of her life—which is presumably what Brownmiller is referring to. A false sense of empowerment in Hepola’s case led to an extreme vulnerability and a deeply ingrained addiction. Acting like a man can be seen as liberating, yet more often than not, it serves as a reminder of the power that is still wielded by men in our society. Drinking and fucking like a man are not the same as drinking and fucking as a man.

Hepola thanks me when I tell her that reading passages such as “I needed alcohol to drink away the things that plagued me. Not just my doubts about sex. My self-consciousness, my loneliness, my insecurities, my fears” was like a synthesis of hundreds of conversations I have had with female friends throughout my life. I go on to say that the examination of her ambitions as a writer, her fears of sobriety and her sexual desires and their limitations resonated profoundly with me. Blackout, while being seen and sold as a book about getting sober, is at heart a feminist book. When I put this to her, she sits up straighter. She admits to being surprised that more feminists didn’t use her book as an opportunity to discuss the muddy waters of consent and sexual politics that she explores with such acuity and honesty.

She acknowledges that there is a link between her own drinking and blacking out and the expectations on young women to perform sexually and professionally. And it is a connection that feminists in the blogosphere and in print have not wanted to confront. “I think feminists see my book as a general good, but they don’t want to have to untangle so much mess,” she trails off. The messiness of sex so often gets in the way of logical arguments.

But it is exactly that mess that interests me, I tell her, finally getting to the question I have been dying to put to her: “Where do you think feminism is today?”

“Now you’re getting serious,” she laughs. She slides her feet under her and pauses, “There just isn’t one answer,” she replies, telling me that she is writing on this very subject and is also finding it hard to pin down.

We agree that at the moment, feminism feels fragmented, as if the personal and political arguments of the 1970s have been pulverised and sprinkled throughout the Internet, throughout the fractured dialogues around gender equality. The problem with writing about feminism now is that the plurality and inclusivity that groups like the UK’s Southall Black Sisters or Boston’s Combahee River Collective struggled hard to achieve in the 1970s make it difficult to speak about one coherent political body. While we can applaud the fact that women of all races, religions and sexual orientations have carved out their own platforms within the feminist movement, I can’t help but feel that despite this huge gain, something has been lost.

“Within feminism there has been a distinct shift away from the collective towards the individual,” I say, testing out this thought on her. This shift coincided with the Thatcher-Reagan double whammy of privatisation and the emphasis on personal wealth and agency. Feminism, despite its communally-oriented origins is not immune to the thrust of rampant consumerism and its focus on satisfying one’s self. Hepola relates the consumerism of 80s feminism with the Carrie Bradshaw phenomenon when “brands and shopping ruled”.

I ask her about her own trajectory as a feminist and she admits to coming to it in her early 30s after conversations with other women, like her Salon colleague, Rebecca Traister, and editing the site’s feminist blog at Salon starting in 2007.

“I went into a silent panic,” she says. But adds that this is where she opened herself up to feminist dialogues. “Sexism revealed itself through the conversation around Hillary Clinton running for president against Obama. It was a big national feminist awakening.”

When Hepola first started working at Salon, she was told to “keep feminism out of the headlines”. But now it’s a “click word”.

I can’t decide if being a click word is good or bad.

Hepola also talks about her route to becoming a feminist in the introduction to Blackout. But true to the way her mind seems to work, her awakening arrived with a pile of very real contradictions: “Activism may defy nuance, but sex demands it. Sex was a complicated bargain to me… It was hide-and-seek, clash and surrender, and the pendulum could swing inside my brain all night: I will, no I won’t: I should, no I can’t.” I tell her how much I like the way this passage gets to the heart of the consent debate.

“Feminism today is about identity politics and consent. We didn’t use the word consent in the 80s, and now it’s everywhere,” she exclaims. But even this seemingly straightforward word has its problems, which Krakauer probes to some degree in Missoula and which Hepola also dissects in Blackout: “I drank to drown those voices, because I wanted the bravado of a sexually liberated woman. I wanted the same freedom from internal conflict my male friends seemed to enjoy…. My consent battle was in me.” When your consent battle is within you, how can it be legislated for? It can’t. And this is the problem.

“OK,” I say, “You can’t talk about campus hookups and booze-fuelled nights without coming to porn.”

She throws me a knowing look. “Yes, porn.”

Hepola feels that the connections between drinking to excess, porn, and sexual violence are not linear or causal ones, but much more subtle. Many young women are drinking to excess before having sex, “so that they can be porn stars” to the audience of young men around them, some of whom expect them to be liberated to the point of accepting any sort of sexual act. After all, what college kid wants to look like a prude?

“In the ’90s porn seemed to become ubiquitous,” Hepola says, uncurling her legs. “And now, all of us single people have unwittingly signed up to this idea that we should all be sucking each others’ genitals on a hookup!” She pauses. “In our society alcohol is socially acceptable, but if you had to take heroin in order to have sex, people would see that as toxic.”

According to the Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse, most boys have sought out online pornography by the age of 10. If your formative sexual experiences are with porn actors rather than girls your own age, then surely this is having an effect on your view of women and their sexuality? Hepola goes on to tell me about a male friend who asked her to look at various porn sites and give him a report. Finding a lot of the stuff made by men “horrifying”, she admits to falling for the “clichéd softer, gentler” porn made by and for women. “I found I really liked watching two women,” she says, sounding surprised at this, or maybe surprised at how easily she is revealing this to a stranger. The simple act of watching was interesting, as the visual stimulus allowed her to “get out of my head and into the abandon.”

But getting off on porn as a thirty-something woman and as a nine-year-old boy are very different realities. When your selfhood is being formed and your empathy is still being developed, surely this is the wrong time to be watching women being finger-fucked towards fake climaxes. And if young women are drinking themselves to a state where they physically and emotionally cannot resist doing things they might not want to because of the pressures coming at them, then further questions need to be asked.

In our search for equality, women have gained much ground. But, read Hepola and Krakauer’s books and look at what’s going on around you and tell me there isn’t something more than a little off with the porn-booze-sex Venn Diagram. For most people drinking is fun. As is exploring desire for the first time and tasting freedom from parental supervision with a few beers and some impromptu sex. But what I am seeing around me doesn’t look like much fun.

As Hepola says, “We are drinking away our inhibitions and along with this our judgment.” How and when did parties get so scary that one of the prime goals for the female guests is to disappear through the rabbit hole of alcohol-fuelled oblivion? Is sex for college-age men and women so alienating that the only way to perform it is to do so while semi-conscious? These are the questions I can’t seem to shake. And ones that Hepola looks at forensically through the lens of her own life in Blackout.

Sarah Hepola and I end the interview accepting that although we have questions, there is not one simple answer that would be applicable to the wide range of women out there. “Maybe the questions are good enough”, she says before slipping her shoes on. But as I watch her open the heavy doors of the Florence Hotel and step out into the dazzling Montana sunshine I can’t help feeling unmoored by this axis of self-inflicted oblivion and sexual vulnerability. An axis that feels like it has something to tell us about where young men and women are today with their drinking and sex lives. Like Mr Jones from Dylan’s Ballad of Thin Man, I know something is happening but I don’t know what it is. This is great in a song, but doesn’t feel so good in real life.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is published by Two Roads and is available in paperback for £8.99.




Litro Q & A: Steph Cha

STEPH CHA

Steph Cha is a Korean-American feminist crime novelist based in Los Angeles. The LA Times has described her as possibly “the world’s only author of Korean American feminist noir.” Her new novel, “Dead Soon Enough” (Minotaur Books) is out now.

Litro: How long did it take you to write your first novel, “Follow Her Home”?

Cha: I finished the first draft while I was still at Yale Law School and by the time I graduated I was determined to pursue the glamorous life of a writer. So, I moved home with my parents and spent days writing and querying in bed as I had no desk in my room.
I’d be the first to admit that my life has been exceedingly easy, but, in relative terms, this short part of it was pretty hardFor six months after the bar exam, I spent a lot of time wondering if I’d put all of my eggs in just the stupidest basket.

Litro: Can you tell me a bit about your writing process?

Cha: The expectation in the mystery world is a book a year, which is pretty crazy. My first book took me over a year and a half each, with another two years or so for editing. It took some adjustment to get to a place where I could bang out a manuscript in a year, but I am there, more or less. I’ve had to arrange everything else in my life to accommodate my writing life.




Author Q&A with Denise Mina

blood,salt,waterLitro: Which is your favourite of your novels and why?

Denise Mina: It’s always the next one. There’s a period when a book is just forming in my head when I love it utterly and am convinced that I will do it justice. Two or three years later, when it is finished, all I can see are the flaws and my failings.

Litro: How long did it take you to write Blood, Salt, Water?

Denise Mina: Two years. Most crime writers have to write a book a year but I had longer on this and it is very different than it was in the first draft.

Litro:What is your earliest childhood memory?

Denise Mina: Summer in East Kilbride. Barefoot on hot pavement. Stepping onto the grass and feeling the cool, damp ground on my soles.

Litro: What makes you happy?

Denise Mina: Lots of things. Good tea, being dutiful, nice pencils, being still, travelling. Lincoln said “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be”.

Litro: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Denise Mina: Age 19, reading Zola in a damp bedsit and feeling so profoundly connected to the writer, dead a hundred years. I didn’t think I could be a writer but I decided it was the greatest aspiration a person could have.

Litro: What are you reading at the moment?

Denise Mina: John Keegan’s The American Civil War with The American Civil War: a Visual History as a companion.

Litro: What advice would you give to a first-time writer?

Denise Mina: Accept self-doubt as a condition of your practice. Don’t let it cripple you.

Litro: What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Denise Mina: Nicotine substitutes.

Litro: How do you relax?

Denise Mina: Box sets and painting rooms.

Litro: What is your favourite book of all time?

Denise Mina: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Litro: Which author is underrated or deserves to be better-known?

Denise Mina: Jane Gardam. She wins prizes all the time and hardly anyone has even heard of her. She’s astonishing.

Litro: What’s the worst job you’ve had?

Denise Mina: Academic. I met lovely people but was entirely temperamentally unsuited.

Litro: What is the most important thing life has taught you?

Denise Mina: You’re always worried about the wrong things.

Litro: What’s next?

Denise Mina: A book called The Long Drop (2016).




Conversation with Darcey Steinke

Darcey Steinke
Art work by Mia Funk

Darcey Steinke – author of novels Suicide Blonde, Jesus Saves, and the spiritual memoir Easter Everywhere – talks about faith, Kurt Cobain, freedom, the 70s and her fifth novel, Sister Golden Hair (Tin House). Her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, and The Guardian. She teaches at Columbia and other universities. Her books have been translated into ten languages.

You can listen to the full interview via the LitroLab podcast using the player below, or search “Litro Lab” on iTunes.

Litro: In your fiction you use an every day situation like commuting home from JFK airport to touch on spirituality in America.

Steinke: I feel like anybody can make a church or a garden spiritual, but for me the more interesting thing is to see if you can make holy or spiritual things that are just very ordinary. I also think that’s kind of the truth. I think if God exists it’s everywhere, not just in a church. But in an ugly spot. In a spot where atrocities happen. There’s all sorts of places that are holy, not just the ones that are defined that way by the culture. That’s always been a part of my work. From the very beginning.

Litro: The sense from abroad is that America is kind of like a teenager, someone who has grown up very quickly, too fast, maybe developed in all sorts of awkward ways––and in Sister Golden Hair you really captured that time in the 70s: the awkwardness and the grace.

Steinke: Well, thanks so much. I worked really hard to make the 70s real. Listened to endless records that came out then. Sister Golden Hair is a song by America. I looked up the bestseller lists and I read those books cause I just didn’t want to do the way it looked. I also wanted to do: What were people thinking? What was life really like? I wanted to do my version of the 70s not the general version of the 70s that you see replicated. Cause I was a little girl in the 70s.

Litro: So you’re Jesse? (the main character)

Steinke: A little bit. Not completely.

Litro: Are you Sheila?

Steinke: No, no. I’m a little bit like all the girls, OK. I feel like when you were a little girl in the 70s there’s a lot of wonder about it. There’s the tacky clothes and all that, but there’s something kind of sad about it. There was something really amazing about it, too. So I wanted to capture that, those contradictions in the book.

Litro: Looking back – although it was in the middle of the sexual revolution – in a way the 70s was quite innocent.

Steinke: That’s the thing after I wrote the book. I had a strong feeling of how much freedom and free time we had as children. Nobody was checking their phone all the time. It was wild in a way. I think you’re really, really right. The idea of unstructured time. I actually felt when I was working on it a certain nostalgia for that. Even though this was a time I was unhappy. My family was unhappy. But writing it, I was like Oh, wow, this was the time I really became who I am as a person. When I had a lot of freedom, a lot of privacy. I wasn’t on a computer all the time. That was an interesting thing to discover about the 70s.

Litro: In a way you’ve hit the jackpot in terms of material from your early life. You’re a minister’s daughter. So you had that religious education and you grew up in the 70s, and have this rock ‘n’ roll background. You’ve a lot to draw from that’s really interesting.

Steinke: I’ve gotten a lot out of being a pastor’s daughter. In a way it’s done me really well. Very formative.

Litro: Your books show us a different angle, it’s not straightforward.

Steinke: Just the idea of the religious training that I had in the context with all the other things that I am. My interest in a more open spirituality, my interest in music and rock ‘n’ roll, the avant-garde movements. Everything. It’s kind of a weird. I think it’s rare for people to have the kind of religious training I had nowadays. Grew up in a church. At the time I didn’t like it, but I think it served me very well knowing a lot about the Bible. The King James Bible is so beautiful. The holiness of the book, that more than any of the other trappings. The idea of the book being the most important thing.

Litro: How do you approach teaching creative writing?

Steinke: Mostly I am looking for the hotspots in the text, so I can say this is really good. It might only be a paragraph, but ‘this is what you should be dilating’. In my own work I try for a sense of immediacy and I want to help my students get connected to what they are the most passionate about.

Litro: You’re in a band, Ruffian. You also interviewed Kurt Cobain. He became a friend of yours.

Steinke: My first husband was a rock musician. We knew a lot of bands and people in that world. We also knew a lot of rock critics. So when SPIN asked me to do a cover story it was very exciting. He wouldn’t talk to a regular journalist. He wanted to talk to a novelist because he was kind of burned by the Vanity Fair story. So I was very happy to be chosen. It was really kind of amazing. I didn’t really know him, although I had seen him around the scene years before. He was a very lovely person. The record is incredible. It just sounded different than everything else. Was super-exciting to hear that cause I remember at the time there being just a lot of bad, big hair, guitar rock and then Nirvana was a whole new sound. I found him very, like you would imagine, vulnerable. Very sweet. Extremely paranoid. Very smart. Great vocabulary. Different than you would think. Kind of freaky, I would say. A little freaky guy, you know what I mean? But like a very deep lovely person. That was an amazing experience. Spent two days interviewing him and then I think within three or four months he was dead.

Litro: You’ve covered a lot of extreme or iconic people. The Waco siege. Monica Lewinsky.

Steinke: I really enjoyed writing the Waco story. It was so terrible because people actually died, but it was a perfect story for me in that I know a lot about religion. I’m very interested in cults and religious extremism. I’m hoping to write a novel about a woman who starts her own religion. I think that in the States, and maybe everywhere, community is so fragmented I can understand why people would want to – I don’t want to join a cult – but I kind of understand why somebody would. Someone who was lonely and didn’t have a social network. Why wouldn’t you want to be in a community. So I have a lot of sympathy for people who do that. I don’t think they’re crazy. So I was able to write a story that had more the idea of people searching for community. And look what happens. Look what happens because we’re so disconnected.




Mia Funk talks about Conversations with Writers

Mia Funk photographed in Paris
Mia Funk photographed in Paris

Today our Interviews Editor, Mia Funk, talks with us about The Interviews section of Litro,

I try to approach the interview as a reader and that means following my curiosity while respecting the author’s privacy. I’m interested in their body of work, so I try to read almost everything they’ve written. I don’t consider myself to be critic, I’m an interviewer, a devoted reader trying to share writers I like with the wider world.

Is there one thing that makes these interviews different? –– Apart from reading their latest book, I feel I owe it to the author to be fully familiar with their work. I hope this comes across in the conversations. As an artist, myself, we’re on the same side. I want readers to feel like they’re eavesdropping on the author’s creative process, getting a little glimpse into how it all came together.

I like to interview all kinds of writers, serious authors and literary writers who use humour. For example, it was a pleasure interviewing George Saunders because his work is so original. Right away you know you have some leeway and he won’t take questions the wrong way. I asked him if he were walking to work one day and the ground suddenly opened up and he was swallowed by a giant sinkhole, what stories would he want his friends and family to have as a reminder of him and what he thought and felt about the world.

I think it’s just coincidence that some of the writers I interview are activists. What unites them, I guess, is that many of them are teachers, so they’re passionate about education. Junot Díaz, Joyce Carol Oates, TC Boyle, Dave Eggers…I really admire their use of voice to highlight some of our most pressing issues: race, education, immigration, environment, the alienating effects of technology. The issues that touch us all. The interviews end by me making a portrait of the writer.

Are writers innately different than other non-writers? –– What they do requires so much solitude. To describe a world that they must absent themselves from in order to write it –  what a contradiction. And the fact that they do it so convincingly –  noticing many details that we who lead more extroverted lives fail to notice –  it’s a miracle, really. The creative process, this tapping into the collective unconscious, always fills me with wonder.

Are you a publisher coming out with a book which you feel would interest Litro readers? Do you represent writers who might like to talk with us about their creative process?

Contact Mia by sending your queries here:  [email protected]




‘Words are wormholes in time’: An Interview with David Rose

'Meridian' by David Rose.
‘Meridian’ by David Rose.

Novelist and short story writer David Rose claims to have abandoned fiction. In an interview on the Negative Press website in 2012, he was asked what he was currently working on and his reply was: “I am no longer writing”.

Since that announcement, there has been an acclaimed collection of short fiction – Posthumous Stories (Salt Publishing, 2013) featuring a selection of his work spanning 25 years and, more recently, a novel, Meridian – A Day in the Life with Incidental Voices (Unthank Books, 2015). One can only hope then that his comment from three years ago no longer stands.

I first came across David’s writing in 2011, in the first edition of Salt Publishing’s hugely successful series The Best British Short Stories. His story ‘Flora’, about a botany-obsessed older man who is befriended by a young woman, was a highlight of the collection: the writing was spare, precise and beautiful… and I loved it immediately. Around the same time, David’s first novel, Vault (Salt Publishing), was published – this experimental book about a world war two sniper turned competitive cyclist was told from two points of view: McKuen’s and a novelist writing an account of his life. The two narratives are in conflict and conversation with each other, and both are highly engaging and intriguing.

Because of my admiration for his work, I asked David a couple of years ago to contribute a short story for an anthology of Brontë-inspired short stories I was editing in support of The Brontë Birthplace Trust (Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës, Unthank Books, 2013). He didn’t hesitate and I was delighted when ‘Brontësaurus’ arrived, with its poignant tale of a man constructing a thesaurus of key-words found in Emily Brontë’s poetry. The writing, once more, was as taut as a fishing line.

Now, David’s second novel Meridian has just been published and again demonstrates his interest in language and ideas. The book features the hour-by-hour recording of a day in the life of an architect – trips on public transport, time spent at work, even a drink with an alcoholic on a bench. This narrative breaks off at 12pm (the meridian of the title) and an ‘a to z’ of incidental voices is introduced with the architect’s story then resuming post-meridian. It is impressive, wonderfully written and also very funny throughout.

 

AJ Ashworth: I understand that you started Meridian a while ago but didn’t know how to continue with it so put it away in a drawer for a while. Can you talk a bit about that and how you managed to get started on it again?

David Rose: After finishing Vault in 2004 – my first attempt at a novel-length work, which necessitated a different discipline from short stories, writing every day, in my lunch breaks as opposed to the late-evening writing that produced the stories – I thought I would continue the discipline and start another novel. I wanted something contemporary, and as that was the centenary of Bloomsday, I decided to update Ulysses, making it an exhaustive account of one typical working day. I didn’t want to plot it in advance – elaborate plotting amounts to predestination, which isn’t how we experience life. Rather, I wanted to capture the randomness of life, and ‘through-compose’, making up as I wrote each hourly section. I got to midday and it petered out; it wasn’t going anywhere. So I left it.

Around five years later, Vault – which was already in the bottom drawer when I abandoned Meridian, and had been there ever since – was resuscitated by Nicholas Royle, who liked it enough to pass it on to his agent, who in turn made valiant attempts to place it, without success. Nick felt its length – its brevity – was against it, and suggested I try to write a longer novel, around 60,000 words perhaps, which might be easier to place first. Having no new ideas, I pulled out the abandoned manuscript to see if I could salvage anything.

Being naturally lazy, I decided to leave what I had as it was, and find a new direction from the point of abandonment. I thought it might be possible to use the interest in randomness structurally, as a generating device, in the way the composer Harrison Birtwistle used computer-produced random numbers in his early compositions (this is alluded to in Meridian, when the architect attends a South Bank concert incorporating his music). Numbers work in music, but not in fiction, so I eventually hit on the idea of the homonyms – which are, as Italo Calvino says in discussing automatic writing – random collisions of meanings. I drew up a list of homonyms, selected one – a pair, in effect – from each letter of the alphabet, and they became the start and end points, acting as constraints that generated the narratives from that point.

Having got to the end of the chain reaction (to revert to the sub-atomic physics that governed the novel from its origin), and a resumption of the architect’s master narrative, I still had a lot of homonyms left which seemed too good to waste, so I found a way of using them up as switches, triggers, throughout the rest of the day’s narrative.

All well and good, and the idea produced the text, but Nick didn’t think the text worked, so it was abandoned yet again. It was resurrected a second time by a chance remark to the poet Caroline Clark, who then asked out of curiosity – or maybe politeness – if she could read it. When she did, she thought it might be possible, with some tinkering, to make it more accessible to readers, and made some changes, including a change of title, from the original Untitled to Meridian.

Having done this, she made mention of it on Facebook, whereupon Ashley Stokes, amongst a few others, asked to read it, and passed it on to Robin Jones, the other half of Unthank Books, who decided to risk publication.

So in an appropriately random manner, Meridian now exists in its resplendent jacket, by a series of accidents.

This answer seems almost as long as Meridian itself; my apologies.

AJ Ashworth: I was really drawn to the ideas about randomness and chaos which are present in the novel. For example, you describe a school playground as having “randomness of movement, a space of allowed anarchy between the straits of discipline”. And chaos is also present, particularly in the structure of the novel where the main architect’s narrative is ‘disrupted’ by the incidental voices in the middle. Can you explain a bit about these ideas and what interests you in them?

David Rose: Although, as I’ve explained above, randomness as a structural and generating device was a practical attempt to solve a practical problem, i.e. lack of plot and ideas, exacerbated by laziness, the metaphysical interest in randomness was there from the start. Reading up on Quantum Mechanics and Chaos Theory, it struck me that randomness exists in the universe at only two levels: the sub-atomic; and the human, where social interaction is complicated further by not just chance meetings but differences in mood, personality, ethics and so on. Thus even during the architect’s morning, details emerge of accidental meetings, such as the ticketless woman at the barrier, or with a client’s not showing up, some of which become relationships, some don’t, and prior friendships which have expired from the exigencies of time. So randomness is an essential element in the patterning of our lives.

When I resumed work on the novel, I read further in the literature of Quantum Mechanics, including Michael Frayn’s dazzling playscript Copenhagen, about the wartime meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr, once colleagues, now on opposing sides of the war, in which Frayn uses the Uncertainty Principle as a metaphor for the unknowability of others, and the ethical implications of that.

The school playground, I seem to remember, had to do with the idea of using probability to determine the flow of human traffic – stemming from the natural paths made on grass by people walking across a park – and applying that to public planning and architecture, which struck me as dangerous.

So the idea of randomness permeates the novel, and the governing metaphor of sub-atomic indeterminacy becomes enacted in the central, meridian section, as a sort of nuclear fission producing a chain reaction, each semantic collision setting off the next, until the circuit is completed.

AJ Ashworth: There is a line in the novel which says “words are wormholes in time” and I really like that, especially with regard to how you use words (homonyms) as wormholes into the worlds of the different characters in the incidental voices section. Can you say more about this?

David Rose: That idea only occurred to me when writing that section (as you’ll have gathered, none of the sectional narratives was pre-planned; that’s how the generating device operated), but it struck me then as encapsulating what I had been trying to do – the idea, again from theoretical physics, of the multiverse, an infinity of co-existing universes, which becomes strengthened in the afternoon and evening by synchronous switches across to any of the prior narratives, a reminder of all these personal universes co-existing beyond the consciousness of the architect.

AJ Ashworth: There is a lot of humour in the novel, in particular with regard to word-play. You seem to take a real delight in playing with language.

David Rose: Language is the medium we as writers work in, so we should naturally feel the need to play within it. We need, generally, a much more robust rebuttal of the post-structuralist, Barthesian nonsense spouted about language – as alienating, as oppressive, as the real agent, language writing the author – and a defence of the Leavisite view of language as the means by which humans come together, not just intellectually but socially, personally.

As writers, we can view language as the stuff we shape, as a sculptor shapes marble, which does encompass the experience of resistance, of a certain alienness to language, and it’s a valid description of the efforts of most of us. But although a natural medium, language is organic rather than monolithic; words bear the traces of human interaction back through time. There are still huge, untapped linguistic resources for writers to mine.

AJ Ashworth: You seem to have done a huge amount of research for this novel – in particular with regard to architecture. Did you know much about the subject before you started?

David Rose.
David Rose.

David Rose: Very little in any technical sense. I did have some entirely lay interest in the aesthetics of architecture as one of the visual arts, and had a few books on architectural history, particularly Modernism. But that was it. I did, as a child, own the box of bricks described in the novel, but later, as an adolescent, never gave architecture a thought as a career, despite taking Technical Drawing at school.

I did want to make the novel a typical working day, since most of us spend the greater part of our lives at work – Ulysses is a working day for Bloom, soliciting advertising space, although it’s noticeable that Bloom doesn’t get a great deal of work done. But to make my character a Post Office clerk, while not without literary precedent (e.g. Trollope, and the poet Lee Harwood), would have become too limiting, too complicated, too personal; and there is the Official Secrets Act to consider. I made him an architect, after some thought, mainly because I knew that whatever occupation I chose would involve research, and the research into architecture would probably be the most interesting, as indeed it was – I learnt a great deal about Green Architecture in particular.

I worried about how accurate the technical details of the novel would be, but luckily, had the reassurance of a qualified architect in the person of Myriam Frey, an excellent fiction writer herself – in English, although she is Swiss-German. She read a spin-off story, ‘Rectilinear’, then the pre-Carolinean manuscript of the novel, and thought it convincing enough. She is, therefore, the other dedicatee of the novel.

AJ Ashworth: I know you worked in the Post Office for many years. How has this fed into the novel and also your other work, with regard to inspiration and creating characters?

David Rose: It is, as a friend, fellow writer and writing tutor said to me, the ideal job for a writer: you encounter at close quarters an often friendly range of people from across the whole social spectrum. In my last office, in Richmond, Surrey, I could be serving Lord Watkins, Michael Frayn or Claire Tomalin one minute and a tattooed drop-out in for his benefits the next. So in Meridian, a number of the characters are based, however loosely, on people I had known as customers: the alcoholic gang, the Olympic diver (sadly now dead), the overweight man who becomes an undercover hotel inspector, possibly others.

In fact, I remember people and anecdotes from those years that I couldn’t have used without toning them down, because they would have been, in fictional terms, just too over the top. Real life will always trump the imagination.

AJ Ashworth: Is it true you’ve given up writing? If so, why?

David Rose: It’s true. I originally decided to give up at sixty, as I wasn’t getting anywhere. Then, when Nick Royle, acting for me after his agent gave up, placed my first novel with Salt, I thought I’d carry on. But when that novel, Vault, disappeared with hardly a ripple, it confirmed my original intention. There need to be radical reforms of the literary establishment, which aren’t likely to happen in my lifetime.

AJ Ashworth: Do you think it’s really possible to switch off that desire to write?

David Rose: It seems to be proving possible. Not to be able to give up writing would mean it’s an addiction, which is fine, but art as addiction is no longer art. Maybe I’ll come back to it at some stage. But I never regarded it as a career – it was, for most of my life, something I did in the evenings after a day’s work. My life has changed, my routine has changed.

There is a valedictory feel to the closing of Meridian, although it wasn’t intended at the time. I’m happy for it to be my swan song. But we’ll see.

David Rose’s short story ‘At Colonus‘ appeared in Litro #139: No Such Luck.




A Flash Of Inspiration: ‘Oral Sex’ by Ian Shine

Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr
Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr

 

Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘Oral Sex’ by Ian Shine a dark and complex story with many psychological layers.

A short story can grab your attention for any number of reasons. The lyricism of the language, the vividness of the setting, the voice of the character.

Sometimes though, it is the subject matter itself which gives you a jolt – a little shockwave of excitement or unease that keeps you reading.

In the case of ‘Oral Sex’ the very title has the reader paying attention.

When I first read this piece I will admit I wasn’t sure what to think of it. The sexual tension, the unsatisfied desire, the strange fetishes that keep the couple together, I didn’t quite know what to make of them.

And yet … I kept on returning to it. Why?

I think, primarily the answer is, the voice.The straight talking narrative is punchy and masculine and it definitely helps (this) female reader enter the mind-set of the main character.The directness of the tone made me believe I was privy to some confessional or an intimate heart- to-heart down the pub and it was this which drew me in.
There is a nice contrast between the straightforward tone of the narrator and the quirkiness of the couple’s sexual problems – and their solutions to these problems.

As a reader, I expected these problems to provoke their downfall in the end – the unconsummated relationship bringing about their separation. So when the narrative takes a different turn, and it is precisely these problems which seem to bind the two to one another, I was surprised.

But I was also a curious as to the dynamic in the relationship and, in particular, the way in which the violent incident in the bus seems to both stimulate and traumatise the woman.

There is a grey area with regard to her reaction. First she moans and then she screams. The violence is both attracting and repelling – a turn of events that is quite subversive in many ways. The fact that we are not confronted with a black and white portrayal of what is good or bad acceptable or unacceptable, forces us to think about how this makes us feel.

Are we okay with this or does it make us uncomfortable?

But there is a glimmer of something there in the end – the couple holding hands (albeit with gloves on) offering the promise of physical contact at some distant point in time.

A short and thought provoking little story.

 

Ian Shine
Ian Shine

 Interview With Ian Shine

Jen: I was drawn to the voice in this piece and enjoyed the contrast of this simple telling of things with the complex ideas which are being dealt with. Is this a common theme in your writing?

Ian: I suppose so. The themes are certainly common to my writing: love, sex, and how they both have the capacity to be the most fantastic things and the most terrible; to make life worth living and make you feel like dying. I’m trying to gather enough stories on the themes contained in “Oral Sex” to get a whole book together. I’m slowly getting there.

One of the first stories I had published was about a guy who contracts gonorrhoea from the woman he loses his virginity to, but doesn’t want to cure himself because she dies on her way home that same evening and the disease is all he has left of her. That wasn’t written in such a simple way, as it riffed on the style of an online medical dictionary, but I suppose the majority of my stories go for a more “minimal” voice.

I take a lot of inspiration from the film director Robert Bresson, who said: “One doesn’t create by adding, but by taking away.” His films give you so little, in terms of emotion, yet that somehow makes them more resonant. I think a lot of books lay things on a bit too thick. I’m reading “The God of Small Things” at the moment, and it just feels like it’s trying so hard to impress me with how much history, sensation and imagery it can pack into every page. There’s no room left for me in the book. With Bresson, and film in general, I’m jealous of the ability it has, like a painting, to not guide the viewer, but to just lump something down in front of them and let them bathe in it, make of it whatever they want. I find a lot of writing is like an annoying tour guide, trying to point everything out, whereas film can be just pure destination.

Jen: Where did these characters come from? They’re quite unique.

Ian: I remember writing this story pretty quickly on my lunch hour one day. Someone at work had been discussing a “disappointing” one-night stand, and I starting thinking about how when people talk about sex, there’s never much of a grey area; that it’s purely about whether there’s an orgasm or not. But you know, it’s possible to have good sex without that, and without actually having sex, if, at the risk of sounding corny, there’s that profound connection between the people involved; the kind of connection I think my characters have, and I think this is what they come to realise.

The ending comes from something I experienced while living in Russia with my wife. After spending the five months or so of winter wrapped up in coats and gloves, I remember when spring arrived and we were walking somewhere and held hands, and we were both sort of shocked by being able to feel each other’s skin, rather than their gloves. It’s strange how holding hands is such an intimate act in a way, but is only really done in public places. The same with hugging; it’s not seen as being intimate in the same way as sex, but when it’s with someone who means something to you, who perhaps you haven’t seen for a long time, it can carry a lot of weight.

Jen: Sex and violence are not topics I see broached all that often in the short stories I receive? Why do you think that is and why did you decide to write about them?

Ian: I’d call it love, sex and violence, rather than just sex and violence. I can’t say I initially “decided” to write about these things; when I started writing, I just got down the stuff that came into my head, and after a while I realised the same themes kept ending up on the page, so I then made a more conscious decision to stick with them and work towards a collection.

It doesn’t exactly stem from personal experience, as I’ve been happily married for nearly 10 years, but I guess I’ve known a lot of people who’ve been in, what appear to me at least, to be odd relationships: really unhappy, harmful, traumatic or whatever, full of tension and really unnatural, but these people keep ending up being drawn to each other, because even though they make one another unhappy, they’re also able to make each other happier than anyone else. Having an imperfect and flawed kind of love is better than having no love at all; love is nothing more than finding the one idiot who’s prepared to put up with your imperfections.

About 18 months ago I totally wrecked my back lifting something far too heavy. Immediately after I did it, I was in the most intense pain I can ever remember experiencing, but at the same time I couldn’t stop laughing. While I was lying on my back recovering over the next week or so, I did a bit of Googling and found out that the pain and pleasure sensors, or the brain circuits that react to pain and pleasure, are basically the same, or really close together or something. I’m not razor sharp on the details, but the essence behind it is basically life, and love, in a nutshell. You let someone into your life, they light up your pleasure sensors, but by the same virtue, they’re the only ones with the power to trigger your pain sensors. I think it’s true for everyone that the biggest arguments we’ve ever had have been with the people we love the most. If you’re indifferent to someone, it’s pretty difficult for them to do anything to hurt you. It’s like how most murderers kill family members or close friends. People don’t really get that worked up about anyone else.

As for why these areas aren’t often broached in short stories, I don’t know. It could be because it’s easy to make a bad job of it: you can either make it overdramatic, or into a laughable string of suggestive adjectives and verbs. But then that’s true of everything people write about. Maybe things like the Bad Sex Award and Fifty Shades have given the whole area a stigma, and people want to steer clear. Maybe it’s too close to home, too embarrassing, or not seen as literary enough.

Jen: I have read this story many times trying to figure out the relationship dynamic between the couple – who is frustrating who? Who is in control? Sometimes I think the woman has the upper-hand and other times the man. What do you think is going on between them?

Ian: I don’t think anyone has the upper hand or is frustrating the other. I think they just like each other enough to be prepared to put up with some bad times.

Jen: Finally, you’ve read what we think about ‘Oral Sex’. What is it you like about this story?

Ian: I like the bad title, and hope the story totally overturns the expectations the reader has a result of that title. It sounds so crude when you just dump it there: “Oral sex”. It’s quite cold, because we normally say “blow job” or use some other slang to refer to it; “Oral sex” sounds very textbook, as if we’re going to undertake a technical analysis of it, and I sort of see the story of a mini technical analysis of this relationship.

I also think oral sex can be a lot more intimate than penetrative sex, and I hope the story reflects that a bit. The characters don’t do “normal” sex; they do something better.

Other than that, I just like it when people find something worth holding on to in life, despite all the imperfections around them. Good things are hard to lay your hands on. Keats was the first literary figure I really latched on to. I think he basically nailed it with “Ode on Melancholy”: “And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,/Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.”
One day, I’m sure my protagonists will hug, and it will be great; better than any sex. But they’ll have a lot of grief along the way, and afterwards.




Author Q&A with Hari Kunzru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




A Flash of Inspiration: Could Have, Would Have, Should Have by Ken Elkes

Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr
Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr

 

Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have’ by Ken Elkes, a story which reveals as much about its character through the things left unsaid, as through the words on the page.

One of the most difficult challenges a writer can face when writing a short story is achieving the right balance between knowing what to reveal to the reader and understanding when it is best to leave things to their imaginations.

‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have’ is a story which deftly accomplishes this delicate balancing act.

From the beginning we understand we are dealing with a character full of regret. The title alone indicates as much.

And indeed, on one level, the story appears to be a straightforward list of events, narrated in an almost matter-of-fact tone of voice.

Here is a man who can evaluate his life within a series of could haves, would haves and should haves.

Dig deeper however and the story reveals many layers of self-doubt and melancholy.

The what-ifs, creating space for the reader to ponder some alternate scenarios.

‘You could have cried at the birth.’

 ‘You could have gone to Aqualand’

 ‘You would have said to your wife that children are maps’

 ‘You should have remembered how Friday is bad for lovers’

Each one of these statements elicits a sort of call and response. The writer poses a question, and we, the readers are left to fill in the reply.

You could have cried. So why didn’t you?

You could have gone to Aqualand. But Aqualand seems more a dreamed of destination, a fantasy place. You could have gone. Could you? Really? What was it that stopped you?

You would have said children are maps, but the conversation never came to pass, because …?

Because perhaps all these could haves and would haves relate to some longed-for existence which never came to pass?

Providing such space within a story places demands upon the reader. We have to take those doubts and regrets and contemplate them ourselves. Imagine the many reasons why a man could come to think such things.

In this way we are drawn deeper into the story because we have to bring something of our own narrative to the tale.

It’s not an easy demand to place upon the reader, but when it works, it can bring a story to life in ways a more directed type of storytelling cannot.

But there is a twist in this little tale. The final lines bring a revelation that is less ambiguous.

‘You should have remembered Friday is bad for lovers.’

Now we are faced with the consequence of those missed opportunities – those could haves and would haves that never came to pass.

There is never any explicit mention of the narrator’s relationship problems, no flashbacks or memories, no dialogue to confirm or explain things to us.

Just this simple understanding that, for whatever reason, events have brought us to this moment.

He makes no judgement of himself, gives only one side of the story for us to contemplate, then steps aside and allows us to make of him what we will.

And what is it we are to think of him? Should we be sympathetic? Angry? Judgmental?

Or should we sit with him in the car and watch as the storm draws near from the East? Bringing with it something we can only imagine.

A masterful and complex story which reveals more and more with every reading.

Ken Elkes
Ken Elkes

Interview with Ken Elkes

Jen: The character in ‘Could Have, Would Have Should Have’ is quite difficult to fathom. He seems to sit somewhere between regret and acceptance? Would you say this is a correct reading of him? What do you think of him?

 

Ken: Good characters are much like real people – flawed, sometimes contradictory, complex. Even within the limitations of flash fiction, I think a writer should aim to evoke such depth in a story.

As for this character, there is quite a lot we can tease out from the text – he is likely to be early middle age, probably well-educated from the language he uses, married, now having an affair – hence the ‘spare phone’.

And then, from what he says and how he says it, the reader might conclude he is sensitive, has a vivid imagination, feels thwarted because he cannot be a father, is conflicted about the choices he has subsequently made and knows that the difference between his dreams and reality has cast a long shadow over his life.

I think this makes him someone existing in a liminal place – caught somewhere between where his life might have gone and where it actually is. Maybe that’s why he feels difficult to pin down.

 

Jen: I really enjoy stories such as this, where there is a lot of room for the reader to imagine what has happened to bring a character to this specific point in their life. Did you set out with this in mind when you wrote it?

 

Ken: My admiration of writers like Hemingway and Carver (among many others), and my own preferences about not being fed every detail, means I’m happy to trust readers to use their own imagination and critical skills.

But it is also a product of how I write flash fiction, which tends to be in one sitting, creating the story from a set of prompts. The process – which I learned while I was part of the online writing school Alex Keegan’s Bootcamp – involves playing with the prompts until you find a voice, a tone for the piece, a sense of character and theme.

Then, at the moment when it feels like it’s coming to the boil, I begin to write, fast, without thinking. Then comes the editing – taking away the fluff without excising the heart. I think the whole process from blank page to finished story took a couple of hours.

So yes, readers perhaps need to do some work, but hopefully that is a good thing, rather than a negative.


Jen: The language is quite spare in this story, but the use of a conditional tense and the idea that there is this ‘unreal past’ lurking within the story makes it very complex. How deliberate was this use of language?

Ken: This is tricky to answer, because the way a flash turns out is partly deliberate, but mostly sub-conscious.

So, on a conscious level I knew that ‘could have, would have, should have’ were collectively called the Modals of Lost Opportunity (kudos to whoever came up with that!) which suggested the melancholy tone of the piece.

I also, consciously, realised I could use them to structure the story. From ‘could have’ (which to me is all about possibility), through to ‘should have’, which has more negative connotations.

As for the rest – the tone of the language, the way the first two thirds of the story is about a past that never actually happened (yet from this the reader can deduce something of what did really happen) and then a final third which deals with the fall-out of that fantasy/reality, well, that all came out of some dark corner of my brain.

As for sparseness of language, that is part of my general writing style (though hopefully I can ‘do lyrical’ in the right circumstances).

Jen: I was surprised by the emotional kick within this story. It was only on the second reading that I found myself imagining this man and grappling with the could haves, would haves and should haves that he ponders. The layers within the story only surface after a few readings, nothing is immediately obvious and as a reader you really have to work to get to the heart of things. Is this your usual style of writing?

 

Ken: Yes, if I am doing it correctly. I think a decent short story or flash fiction will pull a reader quickly into the world of the story, makes them forget they are reading and give them a sense of something that resonates, even if they can’t quite fathom exactly what it is.

But then if they want to read more critically, they can find depth, subtlety and layering.

It’s a bit like listening to a great song for the first time. Something about it makes your ears prick up, so you decide to listen again, put your headphones on, concentrate more. Then you hear that great bassline, a guitar riff that hooks you, a splash of keyboards or brass in the background that just lift the whole thing…

I guess I’m not a fan of stories which direct the reader and where too much is explained. For me, that style of writing produces wooden characters, an over-constructed feel to the story and themes that tend to be generalized and have less impact.

Jen: Finally, you’ve read what we like about ‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have’ what do you like about it?

Ken: I think when you write a story, you are so in among the lungs and bowels and heart of, that you know you will never see it the same way as a reader.

So what I like about it is the satisfaction of having created a story that seems to work, is decently crafted and has enough emotional depth and resonance to cause a reaction in readers.

Thanks to Ken for talking to us. Why not take a read of ‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have‘ and let us know what you think.




Author Q&A with Chuck Palahniuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Claire Fuller : Our Endless Numbered Days

Today we welcome Claire Fuller to the Litro Blog and talk to her about her debut Novel “Our Endless Numbered Days” which will be released on February 26th.

To coincide with the launch we also have an exclusive short story for Litro readers which you can read here.

Book Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

In the long hot summer of 1976 eight year old Peggy Hillcoat’s world is still idyllic.

She lives with her German concert pianist mother, Ute, and her survivalist English father, James, in a comfortable London home.

While her mother is remote and unwilling to share her music or even her language with her daughter, her father is committed to introducing Peggy to the eccentric and somewhat disturbing world of survivalists and retreaters.

At first, James’ rigorous schooling of Peggy in such fine arts as skinning rabbits and building fires seems like little more than a great summer adventure, the kind of outdoor thrills and pursuits any child would love.

And so it would remain were it not for a sudden crisis which triggers a crazed response in James and turns this once idyllic life into a nightmare.

While Ute tours Europe James whisks Peggy away to a remote mountain hut, ‘die Hütte’, deep in the German mountains, and explains to her that some terrible apocalyptic event has brought about the end of the world.

They are now the last remaining people on earth and must depend on their skills to survive.

The story is narrated in flashback from the perspective of the now 17 year old Peggy. She has returned to her old home in London and is recounting her lost years spent in the wilds with her increasingly deranged father.

Although we know the outcome of events, the horror of what unfolds in ‘die Hütte’ is not diminished in any way as a result.

The clear narrative voice of Peggy in particular works very well – her childish naiveté and unquestioning acceptance of her father’s authority and expertise allow us, as readers, to trust in him too and to follow his lead, even though we know he is lying, even as we see he is becoming increasingly unhinged.

The vivid descriptions of the landscape and the accurate depictions of the, at times rather gruesome, realities of surviving in the wild, particularly during winter, help create an atmosphere that is as claustrophobic as it is exhilarating.

Particularly poignant is the silent piano which James builds for Peggy during their first summer and which he teaches her to play, fulfilling a role which Ute could never provide.

The silent music is a haunting expression of their continued love not just for Ute but for a time in their lives which was more beautiful, more idyllic than the lives they now lead deep in the mountains.

But in the end, even the civilizing power of music cannot protect James and Peggy from the brutality of existence in such an inhospitable environment, and life in the wilds proves too much for them.

While James’ descent into madness is apparent, Peggy’s retreat from reality is more subtle and more painful and the horror of the revelations as they unfold towards the end of the book make for painful reading.

This is an astonishing debut. A beautifully crafted and intriguing story.

Our Endless Numbered Days is released on February 26th and is published by Fig Tree Penguin

 

Interview with Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller Photo by Adrian Harvey
Claire Fuller Photo by Adrian Harvey

Jen: Our Endless Numbered Days was inspired by the true life story of Robin van Helsum, a Dutch boy who walked out of a German forest in 2011 claiming to have survived there with his father. What was it about this story that captured your imagination and how did it result in Our Endless Numbered Days?

Claire: I’ve always been interested in stories about extreme survival. Just like my narrator Peggy, when I was eight I was allowed to stay up late to watch the original Survivors television series, and the idea of living in a world with few other humans stuck with me. Another thing that has always fascinated me is feral children, or those brought up without civilizing influences. How affected would a person who had that experience be, and in what way?

After reading about Robin van Helsum in the newspapers I started writing Our Endless Numbered Days as a screenplay for a module I was studying for my masters at the University of Winchester. This began with Peggy in the forest, but I soon realised that I needed to understand how she had come to be there, and when the module finished I rewrote my two scenes into prose and continued from there.

Jen: The original title was The Great Divide, why did you opt for Our Endless Numbered Days?

Claire: Actually, there were a lot of titles before The Great Divide. I kept a list on my phone and would add to it whenever a new one came to me. Our Endless Numbered Days could also have been called The Wald-junge, The girl who cried wolf or The Briar Rose. So, The Great Divide was always a working title.

Our Endless Numbered Days is the name of an Iron and Wine album, and I listened to it, and all other albums by Sam Beam as I wrote. Although that’s where the title came from, it is very relevant to what happens in the novel – Peggy and James stop keeping a calendar, but at the same time the reader knows their ‘days are numbered’.

Jen: You’ve mentioned (in a conversation on Twitter) that you sometimes write short stories as a way of developing plotlines or characters in a book. Did you do this with Our Endless Numbered Days?

Claire: Yes, I did that a lot. It also helped me when I was a bit stuck for what needed to happen next. I’m in an online group called Friday Fictioneers and the wonderful Rochelle Wisoff-fields posts a picture every Wednesday (yes, I know, it should be Friday), and about 100 people around the world write a 100-word story inspired by the picture. It’s a great jumping-off point.

Jen: Ute, the mother, is very interesting. We don’t really get to know her too well, and she is a rather guarded character, I would love to find out more about her and how she survived the whole period when Peggy and James were gone. Is that something you would consider?

Claire: I’m glad you found Ute interesting. Some readers have described her as cold, but I wonder if that’s just our view of what we think a mother should be. I sometimes wonder what would happen if Ute’s and James’ roles were reversed and how that would change our perceptions of them as parents. I hadn’t thought about writing about the period when Peggy and James were gone, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Ute does describe a few of the traumatic things she had to face and it might be interesting to look at these more closely.

Jen: I found the use of music in the book as a civilizing force, but also as something which seems to keep Peggy sane, a very accomplished facet of Our Endless Numbered Days. Did you consciously develop this as an idea? Are you musical yourself?

Claire: I can’t play an instrument, but I do listen to a lot of music and when I was younger I sang (rather badly) in a band for a while. The theme of music grew organically as I started out writing this novel, but then, when I became aware of it, I definitely developed it more consciously, and used it in all sorts of ways. As you mention it’s a civilizing force, it’s used to describe both Ute’s and Peggy’s moods, as a connection between Peggy and her brother, and later her mother, and yes, it is certainly used by Peggy to keep herself sane, but ironically on a rather improbable piano.

Jen: The prose in Our Endless Numbered Days is very clear – I heard it described by one reviewer as “translucent” which I think is a perfect description – it gives the story a certain credence, the way Peggy narrates it. Is this a style that comes naturally to you? How easy was it to find and develop this voice and this child’s perspective?

Claire: Thank you. When I was starting to write Our Endless Numbered Days I didn’t think about voice or narration style at all; I just started writing, so to some extent how the novel turned out, is probably just the way I write. But when I was revising the manuscript I was very conscious that Peggy is a young and naïve seventeen when she’s telling this story, and at the beginning she is only eight.

But, there’s also a trick I sometimes use when I’m writing, which might sound a bit odd. If I’m having a day where nothing is coming out right; where my writing sounds like a cheap, poorly written romance novel, I stop and read a bit of Richard Ford. I keep his novel, Wildlife, on the table beside me, but it could equally be Canada, except I have the hardback and it’s big. I read a random page, and sometimes, if I’m lucky that can get me back on track.

Jen: You have written on your blog about the whole process of becoming a published author. Now that it has happened what do you think about it – the whole process of marketing and publicity in particular are you enjoying that?

Claire: I’m very surprised to find myself say that I’m loving it. Previously I co-ran a small marketing agency, so the marketing side is something which comes very naturally to me and I’ve been very keen to get stuck into things like this interview for Litro. But I was much more worried about any public performances I would have to do. The idea of public speaking is frightening and before each event I’ve been very nervous but so far I’ve found that once I’m on stage it’s been ok. And of course it has got easier with each event, and I always have a book to hide behind!

Jen: You’re also an artist and I was struck when reading Our Endless Numbered Days with how vivid the descriptions of the forest and the ‘die Hütte’ were. Do you think being an artist helps with this? I could very clearly see the mountain retreat they escaped to.

Claire: That’s a hard one to answer because I’ve been making art for so long I don’t know what my descriptions would be like if I didn’t! And also, although I do a lot of drawing, I’m not a painter, I’m a sculptor. But, when I write I do ‘see’ the locations, characters and scenes playing out in my mind before I write them down, so perhaps that’s why. A lot of readers have said they felt like they were really there in the forest as they were reading, and that’s a huge compliment.

Jen: The survival strategies used by James and Peggy are also very vivid – skinning squirrels in particular. Are you now an expert wild woman of the forest? ;-)

Claire: Hah! My children say that when the end of the world arrives they’re going to race home from wherever they are because they can be sure that I’ll know how to catch and kill them some food! I’m not so sure though. I know all about it in theory – but many things I describe in the book, I haven’t done in real life – like skinning a squirrel. Though I can now recognise and have collected some of the more obviously edible wild mushrooms – oyster, hedgehog, beefsteak, horn of plenty – so perhaps we could live off mushroom stroganoff, as long as I remember to put a tin of paprika in the cellar with the water purification tablets and penknife!

Jen: What’s next? You’re working on your second novel, how is that progressing?

Claire: It’s going ok so far. I’ve shown it to my agent and I’m working on some revisions, and then we’ll see. It is a very different story, has different characters and a different location although nature is still an important theme.

 

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Many thanks to Claire Fuller for talking the time to talk to us at Litro. Our Endless Numbered Days is published on February 26th by Fig Tree Penguin.




A Flash of Inspiration: Grass by Christina Sanders

Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr
Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr

Our Flash of Inspiration for November is “Grass” by Christina Sanders, an accomplished piece of writing that grabbed my attention with the very first word.

“Grass” is a story that pulled me in immediately.

“Imagine.”

With one word, I understood  I was being invited to participate in the story, that it was not only the writer who was imagining, nor the central character; as a reader, I must also jump in.

“Imagine.”

It’s a powerful declaration but it can only work effectively if the writer makes good on the promise. The “imagining” has to be worth it.

“Grass” is a story that masterfully achieves this.

So, how?

The importance of point of view

The most striking thing about “Grass” is the second person narrative. Having “you” as the point of view, makes space for the reader within the story, and allows us to imagine the experiences as our own. It’s what lends this piece its emotional resonance.

Try reading it in the first of third person. It’s not nearly as effective.

By opting for this voice, and because of the way this particular point of view internalises the story within the reader, the emotional tension can be developed and accentuated using an almost minimalist language.

Take a look at the line “You no longer make love” for example. It’s a brutal statement in any point of view, but the fact that we are party to the experience lends it an added force and poignancy.

For me, the matter of fact tone in “Grass” allows the emotion to shine more brightly.

Crafting a complete story within a compressed form

It’s not just the voice which makes “Grass” such a well-crafted story, however. Structurally the story is very accomplished.

Flash fiction can sometimes be a whimsical form, the language lyrical, the ideas a little off-beat, the story lost within the compression of the form.

In “Grass” however, we get a very complete impression of the central character’s life, told in a series of -not quite – linear moments.

The opening invites the reader to imagine an idealised world – the beautiful garden, the comfortable home, the pleasant family life – and we are allowed to share an intimate moment by the fireside as the dreamed of life seems to become reality.

Only for the dream to be shattered abruptly with a time shift, as we are taken from the romantic moment of conception, to the dark, sad reality of the son’s psychological breakdown, the strains upon the marriage, and the mother’s sense of disorientation as she tries to make sense of things.

Such a sharp swerve in a story is very daring, and in less accomplished hands it would not work, but in “Grass” the shift from the idealised world to the reality works well because we have been invited in from the start and asked to imagine alongside the protagonist.

Because of this, we can share the woman’s sense of confusion, her shock at the contrast between what she dreamed of and hoped for, and what has actually happened.

In this way a wistfulness pervades the story that is poignant and tender and never slips into cliché or melodrama.

What we do get is a light touch of humour as the story shifts again, closer to the present. We are asked once more to “imagine”, only this time things are not so much idealised as self-deprecating.

The self-improvement “elobix”, the Spanish classes, the Chardonnay soaked despondency, these efforts and moments are described with a slight sense of bemusement, which not only lightens the tone but allows us to get a sense of the protagonist having moved on through life – her idealism is tempered this time by experience.

The ending, when it comes, is all the more powerful because of this.

We have come full circle – back to the beautiful garden. Only it is made real now, and experienced in the light of all that is now known – the life that actually happened and not the one that was dreamed of, the one that was imagined.

The final, poetic lines acknowledging that this is simply life, that time moves forward, and everything, great and small returns to dust, to dirt. It’s a bleak idea, and one that could provoke a deep despondency within the reader, but is, instead, lifted by a sense of acceptance.

We understand why she crawls in the grass and dirties her nails, because we have been on the journey with her. We know exactly how she feels.

Christina on writing “Grass”

Christina Sanders
Christina Sanders

Jen: The second person point of view is not one you often encounter as a reader. Why did you opt for this point of view in “Grass”? Is it a point of view you use often?

Christina: I didn’t consciously write in the second person. The story felt to me like opening a door, and standing side by side with someone to point out the view, naming all the hills, lakes and valleys in my role as a dispassionate observer.

The second person is an interesting POV to use as it is strong, immediate, and intimate. The reader becomes complicit from the beginning. This closes the space between the reader and writer, but also allows room for interpretation, so I found it rather liberating.

Jen: I loved the structure of “Grass” the shifts in the time from one moment to the next. It really gave me a sense of a whole lifetime having passed before my eyes within a very short space of time. Did you set out to construct the story this way? I can imagine it would have been quite difficult to compress so much into such a short piece.

Christina: I usually write much longer stories. With Grass I set out to narrate a life in under 1,000 words. I wanted to condense the narrative to as few images /scenes as possible to give a sense of time passing, and allow the characters to be defined by the drama. I was thinking visually when I started writing it, using the Saturday Guardian to create a kind of fictitious collage – the way we are served ideas of how life ‘should’ look on one page, then shown the reality on another. The Talking Head’s song ‘Once in A lifetime,’ was also in the mix.

Jen: The title is very intriguing. Can you tell us a little about that?

Christina: I’d love to say I had all sorts of clever notions about this, (universal, self seeding, grass on the other side is always greener etc….). However, it was originally (and unimaginatively) called ‘Imagine…’   Grass came from the vision of the flame grass, a presence in its right, rustling, a kind of chorus, subtle but insistent on being heard. I wanted this to give expression to the universality of the narrator’s experience.

Jen: The language in “Grass” is beautifully understated, almost minimalist, but it packs an emotional punch. The final paragraph is quite lyrical and stands slightly apart – in terms of its tone – from the rest of the story. I liked this. It made the final scene very powerful for me, as if I was also becoming aware of time passing and the essential essence of things – the dirt, the dust. How conscious of this were you?

Christina: Ah… the difficult last paragraph (as opposed to the first and second one). The ending changed many times as I couldn’t get it to ring true to the rest of the story. However, I knew it would have to end in the garden. At the time I began writing it I was teaching a creative writing class on endings, and thinking about Lorrie Moore’s adage that the ending should shine a light over the whole story, but as I couldn’t get it to work I abandoned it for a while. It was only when I came back to it afresh, that I knew she had to get down and dirty; this in a sense was life and death.

Jen: Finally, we’ve had our say about “Grass”, but what do you like about it?

Christina: That it’s published! Seriously, as I grow older I’ve become increasingly interested in the notion of compromise which I’ve been exploring in my writing. It’s a word that is usually used pejoratively to suggest you can’t get want you want, or have to give something up, both of which are negatives. Yet, I think the concept of compromise if far more nuanced and less bleak than this, so I’m pleased a little of this has been conveyed in Grass.

What do you think of “Grass”? Why not take a read and let us know?




Author Q&A with Colin Barrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

But yes, you will see longer fiction from me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin: More short fiction. Longer fiction.

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




A Flash of Inspiration: ‘Think of Icebergs’ by Tania Hershman

Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr
Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr

In the first in a new monthly series, “A Flash of Inspiration”, we talk to Tania Hershman about her story “Think Of Icebergs

What we love about “Think Of Icebergs”

One of the things I like most about “Think Of Icebergs” is the immediacy of the opening. It drops the reader straight into the action and introduces a big theme in a very clever and subtle way. In the space of just eight lines we learn everything about the world the characters inhabit and how they feel about it.

The dialogue is minimalist but also slightly wistful which provides a sense of foreboding, the flippant remark at the end standing in stark contrast to the gesture of the narrator as he places his arm upon his companion’s “bony shoulder.”

The sparseness of that opening is very striking because it explains so much with so little. The fact that those shoulders are “bony” is no accident. It signifies we are in a world where things have gone wrong, where people go hungry. Become “bony.” It’s apocalyptic. But there is no melodrama, no explanation beyond that word. It’s a great example of control and precision and beautifully demonstrates the deceptive simplicity of flash fiction.

Having set the reader up so carefully the second half of the story then provides us with a strange and unsettling contrast.

The cool refuge of the Grand Hotel is clearly populated by people fortunate enough to be able to escape the “hell” of the world beyond its air-conditioned walls and we can feel their other-worldliness through the descriptions of them – the “high hairdos” and the “heavy suits” – they are at once comical and menacing, and clearly set apart from the thin-limbed central characters.

Yet, although the rarefied world of the Grand provides some respite we nevertheless can’t help but be troubled by it. The privileged guests swoop confidently through the lobby and float gracefully into the lifts, but are they even aware of the main characters? Do they even register the oppressive heat outside? Or are they so cocooned physically and psychologically that they are incapable of acknowledging anything beyond their hotel paradise?

Perhaps it is even this psychological blindness that has helped bring about the catastrophe that is unfolding around them? But the “frying pan” heat and the “melting pavements” surely cannot escape their attention for much longer?

All of this happens within eight short paragraphs but all the questions and assumptions all the imagining must come from the reader. But it’s possible because there is space there, within the story, for the reader to insert themselves.

It’s so well done you can almost feel yourself settling into one of the hotel lobby chairs as you sip iced-coffee and observe the world around you and ponder its fate.

“Think Of Icebergs” is a master class in understatement and a great piece of flash fiction.

Tania on writing “Think Of Icebergs”

tania-hershman-tbJen: Can you tell us a little about the way you crafted “Think Of Icebergs”? There are so many themes and ideas tucked away inside I was curious as to whether you stared with a longer version which you then pared back or whether you distilled the ideas first before sitting down to write it.

Tania: I never start with something longer, I think that 500 words or so is my natural length. As far as I remember, this – as with almost all of the flash stories in my 2nd collection – was written using prompts, a set of phrases chosen by a writing friend. I love this way of writing, you take 5 or 6 such phrases, then try and use them all, in any order, in your story – plugging another one in when you get stuck to keep you writing. It’s best if someone else picks the prompts and you have a very short time to write in.

It works for me, very well. I am also pretty sure I wrote this for a competition on the theme of climate change, so that was in the back of my mind. I can’t quite remember. I didn’t win the competition, but was delighted when Litro chose it for their Climate issue!

So I try not to think about anything while I am writing and generally have no idea what is going to come out, and sometimes I don’t know afterwards what it is I have written about. Which I am fine with, it’s a privilege to have readers or listeners who will tell me what they think the story is about. I love that. It took me years and years of practice to get to this point, but when I write fiction I have no inhibitions at all, no Inner Critic telling me I “can’t” write about certain things, or in a certain way. I suspect that writing very fast helps. I can get a first draft down before my Picky Editor wakes up and starts to say “Wait, hang on, wha…?”

Jen: Why did you choose to open the story with dialogue?

Tania: To follow on from the above, I didn’t consciously choose to do anything, this is how the story came out. For me, fiction starts with voice, with character, and this story started with this voice. The opening line told me a lot – that there were two people, talking to each other. I love using “I” and “You”, I have a lot of stories written in these voices, I learned it from reading Ali Smith’s short stories. To me it feels incredibly intimate, like we, the readers, are standing in that tiny space between two people. So, I started with dialogue because that’s what I heard first and that was my way in to finding out what was going to happen in this story.

Jen: The imagery in this piece is very vivid – those businessmen swooping like birds and the pampered old ladies with their little dogs – I was immediately transported into the world of the Grand Hotel. How do you come up with such imagery? It’s slightly poetic.

Tania: I remembered while thinking about these questions that I had a specific hotel in mind, the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv! I used to live in Israel, and as a technology journalist went to quite a few conferences at the Hilton. Obviously, it being the Middle East, it was often extremely hot outside, but the minute I stepped into the hotel lobby, the world changed, the climate altered. I love sitting in hotel lobbies and watching people pass by.

As to the slightly poetic -thank you! Something I’ve understood now that I am writing things I do actually call poems is that flash fiction, for me, has been the gateway, the “safe passage”, towards poetry. I was frightened by poetry, by line breaks, by the weight attached to the form in general, so flash fiction, these tiny, compressed word-blocks, allowed me to sneak towards poetry, to get a little “poetic” without committing!

Now that I am writing poems, I see how it is a completely different process, for me anyway. These flash stories are flash stories, not poems without line breaks. Each has different needs, and different aims. I am enjoying writing poems because I can get away with less narrative, if I want to, and because I can use the shape of the words on the page to do something more.

Jen: The two central characters are very vulnerable given the world they inhabit, but I found them hopeful. There is a sense that their humanity, the very fact that they care for one another, would help them through their adversity and may even signal that all is not lost. Were you aware of this? This hope within the darkness?

Tania: I am so glad you said this because I do worry that most of my writing is very, very dark, but I like to think of it as tragically hopeful, or hopefully tragic – with a touch of humour. Or, at least, not coming down definitely on one side or the other, but leaving the story open enough. This, for me, is what life is about – trying to find connections to others that help you deal with uncertainty, which is all we can really be sure about: we have very little idea what will happen next.

Jen: Finally, we’ve had our say about “Think Of Icebergs”, but what do you like about it?

Tania: Ooh, there’s an interesting question. I like them, I always feel affection for my characters, even if their stories are very short and I never hang out with them again. I like their relationship, their sense of humour, their embrace of the nonsensical, the way they understand without one saying “What do you mean by…?” I guess in some ways that’s the ideal, a partner who gets you wholly, and who makes sure there’s always iced coffee when you’re hot. I also like that I touched on some kind of climate-related issue without trying too hard, that things are hinted at.

I also like that I wrote myself a story which, four years later, conjures up a specific hotel lobby: I can feel that fierce air con, see those businessmen. I’m so happy to be a writer, for what it does for me, how it helps me shape the way I see the world, get it down on paper. It’s constantly a miracle if it speaks to someone else, anyone else. Thank you for choosing this story, and for asking me about it – the final thing I like about this story is that it got me here, talking to you! What a joy.

What do you think of “Think of Icebergs“? Why not take a read and let us know!




Author Q&A with Jeff VanderMeer

Acceptance book jacketLitro: The Southern Reach trilogy draws heavily upon nature and the wilderness for its horror. What inspired this direction for the books? What do you find horrific about the wilderness?

Jeff: I’d wanted to write about the American South for a while, but the way my imagination works I knew it wasn’t going to be as directly as some novelists might tackle that landscape. My way in was through the 14-mile hiking trail here in North Florida that I’ve walked for almost 20 years now. Complete with a lighthouse just like the one in the Southern Reach novels. I’ve jumped over alligators out there, been charged by wild boars, been heckled by an otter, and also encountered a Florida panther. This last experience was particularly life-changing and profound because you simply stand there and you wait for the panther to kill you and eat you or go away. You don’t really have any options. It’s a unique wilderness area, too, in how it transitions from pine forest to swamp to marsh flats and then the beach. That lends itself to a layered experience in fiction, and there’s no detail of the natural environment in Annihilation, Authority, or Acceptance that’s second-hand. All of it is lived experience—things I’ve observed.

I don’t find anything horrific about the wilderness, and indeed the Southern Reach novels might be seen as books in which most of the wildlife is doing just fine. It’s human beings who aren’t doing as well, and that’s because we’re divorced from the natural world to a greater extent now than at any point in our history. This is one of the key reasons why we’re in such a problematic place regarding our own future and the planet’s future. A study released in 2010 indicated that, for example, US children grown up developmentally challenged about animals and the natural world. That’s the truly horrific thing: that we no longer fully belong on Earth, or function as a productive part of our world. This needs to change or we will find ourselves rudely and swiftly replaced.

Litro: Do you consider this to be a horror trilogy? Why/why not?

Jeff: There are always horrific elements in my novels and comic elements as well. My favourite novels, like Catch-22, combine all sorts of emotions and textures because that’s the way life is. It’s hypocritical to look away from the disturbing things in our world but it’s also wrong to ignore the absurd and hilariously ridiculous elements as well. And the heroic bits as well—Acceptance, the final volume, I believe exemplifies this. And the real horror isn’t from anything uncanny in these books, really, but in the grotesqueries of human institutions when they’ve been subverted or sociopathically twisted. Which happens all too often.

Litro: All three books draw from a variety of sources, from the castaway weirdness of Lost to environmentalists’ concerns about the state of our planet. What were your inspirations for the trilogy?

Jeff: Semiotext(e)’s Intervention series, including The Coming Insurrection, was a huge influence. But also Tove Jansson’s Moomins in Midwinter and her The Summer Book, for a certain tone in parts of the third novel, Acceptance. Kafka, of course, in stories like ‘In the Penal Colony.’ The nature poetry of Patiann Rogers. The Book of Miracles from Taschen. The nature books of Rachel Carson and Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside. Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea. Really, a lot of different books. Stepan Chapman’s amazing The Troika showed me, fictionwise, how to take risks and I couldn’t have written these novels without that in mind. Stanley Kubrick’s films, too, including his version of The Shining and Clockwork Orange—things about the staging and cinematography. Early influences like Angela Carter and Vladimir Nabokov and Deborah Levy are still with me, too. But, more than anything else, my experiences in the natural world, and my experiences observing my father navigating through the world of science.

Litro: What’s it like having a partner who’s also involved in the publishing industry? How much do you influence each other’s projects?

Jeff: My wife Ann is the only person with whom I can discuss my fiction while I’m writing it. Anyone else, and I never finish that piece of fiction. So throughout writing the Southern Reach trilogy we would go out on the porch with a glass of whiskey and we’d talk out certain scenes. If I was at all stuck, I’d just explain the situation and the characters involved and Ann would give her opinion about what might work or what reactions didn’t make sense. She was invaluable in that way as I could fix things before I even wrote the scenes in question. And she bounces things off of me on her editing projects—asking me to read stories, for example, that she’s considering. Although to be honest the last couple of years it’s been more one-sided in terms of me going off to finish these novels and she taking work off of my plate on jointly edited anthologies.

Litro: What music/art/TV/film/whatever is exciting you right now?

Jeff: I’m pretty high on a lot of series, like Orphan Black, Masters of Sex, Mad Men, Rectify (first season), Justified (first five seasons), among others. I haven’t seen many movies of late, to be honest. I’ve mostly been reading mainstream lit: Evie Wyld’s awesome. So is David Peace. Deborah Levy’s latest collection I like a lot. Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek is a stunning first novel. Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things I find pretty interesting so far. I also finally read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and loved it. So you’ve caught me at a time when I’ve been pretty well immersed in some great non-speculative fiction.

One thing I would say that disappoints me about the less outstanding fiction I’ve read: a lack of understanding of our current perilous condition. That’s either near-future SF that ignores global warming to some extent, or mainstream literature that ignores that we live in a science fictional future right now. Which is to say, we are undergoing a kind of slow collapse and crisis right now but much “literary” fiction could as easily have been written 30 years ago with a few changes in the kind of phones being used. You just would have no clue about the modern experience from these novels—and maybe that makes them more universal in the long-run but it makes them less relevant in the here-and-now. Granted, it’s probably worse that a lot of future SF is so escapist or bereft of being willing to deal with our present, either. Indeed, Oryx & Crake, despite being written a decade ago, strikes me as still fiercely relevant to our current situation, which is a rare thing.

Litro: Do you have any deep personal fears?

Jeff: Other than sometimes a sense of claustrophobia in crowds, only a phobia about cockroaches. But that’s because small ones used to burrow into my ears as a child when we lived in Fiji. You’d wake up to this crunching sound in your ears… Otherwise, not much.

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

Jeff: I’m very much focused on touring behind these novels and writing nonfiction on nature and environmental topics because of the novels being out. But the next novel is likely Borne—kind of like a Chekov’s play in the round in the foreground while the equivalent of Godzilla-vs-Mothra goes on in the background.

Photo: Todd Vandemark
Photo: Todd Vandemark

Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor. His fiction has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales and in multiple year’s-best anthologies. He writes non-fiction for the Washington Post, the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, among others. He grew up in the Fiji Islands and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife.




Author Q&A with Ian Kelly

VW book coverLitro: How did you come to work with Vivienne Westwood on her new biography? How much did you know about her before you started?

Ian: The simplest answer to how and why Vivienne and I are in bed together co-writing her autobiography is that I wrote a few years back a biography of Beau Brummell, the Regency dandy and begetter of modern men’s tailoring. Vivienne and her husband Andreas had read this and I was invited to come and meet her at her studio, and so began a long conversation about fashion, politics, art… and biography. But as it happened I had met her before, briefly, and have long admired her work. And when people used to ask me who was the modern ‘Beau Brummell’ I would sometimes refer to Vivienne. So we joke that we met in the 18th century. But I was fascinated also by punk.

Litro: How did your preparation and your working method differ from your other books, since you were working alongside a living subject?

Ian: I’ve before this only written historical biography, but the process was not so very different in that I spent a lot of time reading around the subject – the fashions of the late 20th century, the social history around the punk movement, this is all ‘history’ now but wonderfully so many of the people who shaped the periods I have been writing about, and who worked with Vivienne or knew her, are alive and kicking and were very welcoming and helpful with my questions. But yes, I learned to use a tape recorder, and I have had to have discussions with lawyers and that’s all new to someone used to 18th century archives. But more than the colourful insights into Vivienne and her world from her eclectic coterie of friends (everyone from Pamela Anderson to Prince Charles to Shami Chakrabarti to Debbie Harry) it was humbling to sit with Vivienne for weeks together re-drafting the book with her added comments and corrections. I found myself wishing I had been able to do that with previous biographical subjects. It was very exposing for her in some ways: that taught me a lot about the arrogance of biographers and the vulnerability of the biographical subject.

Litro: The fashion industry can be a cutthroat, and secretive, business. How much was she willing to share with you, and how much did you have to dig out yourself?

Ian: Vivienne is remarkably candid and unconcerned about opinion around her, and this is reflected in the openness of those around her, those she has chosen over the years to head her company and design with her. There was suspicion about me and about the project to being with because those many folks around Vivienne who rightly love her are also quite protective of her. And at first the project was a bit hush-hush. But once I was outted as part of the family as it were, it became very straightforward. Gene Krell, head of Vogue Japan, and a long-time friend of Vivienne’s, gave me a great deal of sage advice at Paris Fashion Week: that in fashion there is always more to admire than to despise, it’s just easy to fall into the negative. That Vivienne is without guile or malice and if you approach her, and those around her, with the good intent she espouses, you’ll get on fine. So I did. Mind you, they were pretty cutthroat sometimes about what I was wearing…

Litro: Her connection to the punk movement is well documented, but to what extent did you find that she still embodies the punk ethos? Or has she mellowed with age?

Ian: There’s no mellowing with Vivienne. As her son Joe Corre said to me as I was leaving one day, “she’s just gearing up.” Some of the intent behind punk – the nihilism, the ethos of the Situationist movement, the violence – Vivienne would probably distance herself from now, but that’s far from apostasy or ‘mellowing’. Vivienne is rightly proud of punk – not just in design terms, where it was indisputably a revolution, a ‘look’ of unparalleled impact – but also in political terms insofar as it asked and asks people to question government, to be suspicious of big business and the concerns of the Establishment – and to that extent what Vivienne does now – as an activist campaigning for the natural environment and human rights – is a direct through-line from punk. She writes in the book that her ‘Climate Revolution’ campaign is punk, so too was her appearance at the Paralympics closing ceremony – and she also wrote that if she’s been made a Dame just for creating punk, she would have thought she deserved it! So yes, she’s a punk dame, a punk grandmother. She is all of that while espousing the highest standards in art and fashion in quite an old fashioned way. It can appear oxymoronic, but that’s Vivienne; dancing on paradoxes.

Litro: You must have studied many of Vivienne’s past collections for the book. Which of her fashions/periods did you most enjoy personally? And which did you find most striking?

Ian: I love her work in the late Eighties and Nineties – her collections like Harris Tweed and Portrait, her Anglomania line: I deeply admire her tailoring and her attention to historical reference in what she does. But I also like her graphics and her T-shirts and I have been keen to point out in the book, and to illustrate lavishly, that Vivienne is one of the most important and influential graphic artists of the age, which tends to get eclipsed because her canvas is usually a T-shirt or a scarf, and because she has done so much else besides. I find her current work with Andreas very striking, the way they are blurring gender lines. I wouldn’t wear some of the MAN collection to the school gates, but you see with both of them their enormous talent as fashion artists and, to steal McLaren’s phrase, agents provocateurs.

Litro: What’s the most recent book that you’ve read? And, in keeping with our fashion-themed issue – what’s the most recent item of clothing that you’ve bought?

Ian: I’m reading Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist which is a work of wonder, and finally reading Wolf Hall because of my next book. I am working at the Huntington Library in Pasadena which explains that the most recent piece of clothing I bought was swim trunks – you can’t have too many in California

Litro: What can we expect to see from you next? Will you stick with writing about the living, or will you return to historical memoir?

Ian: My last book, Mr Foote’s Other Leg, I have adapted for the stage and it’s due to open next year (2015)… so I am back to the 18th century with that, but meanwhile I have a longstanding commitment to a work titled William Shakespeare, The Actor, about Shakespeare’s acting career and the business of being a writer and actor in the early 17th century. Hence the Shakespeare archive here in Pasadena… and hence Wolf Hall.

Ian KellyIan Kelly is an award winning actor and writer whose works include Casanova (Sunday Times Biography of the Year) and most recently Mr Foote’s Other Leg, (Winner, Theatre Book of the Year 2012). He is the author of this autumn’s much anticipated Vivienne Westwood memoir, working with and on the subject of the international fashion icon. As an actor, Ian is perhaps best known from the NT/Broadway hit The Pitmen Painters and the Harry Potter films as Hermione’s father.