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Monday, 3 August 2020

Sky Light Rain: a short story collection by Judy Darley

Today I am delighted to welcome Judy Darley as a guest on the Blog to talk about her short story collection Sky Light Rain (published by Valley Press) and her writing process.

Read my review at the end of this post.

British author Judy Darley describes herself as having an enduring fascination with the fallibilities of the human mind. Her short fiction and journalism has been published in the UK, New Zealand, India, US and Canada, including in The Mechanics' Institute Review 16: The Climate Issue, Spelk and SmokeLong Quarterly. She’s Flash Fiction Editor at Reflex Fiction. Judy’s second short story collection Sky Light Rain is out from Valley Press. 

Twitter: @JudyDarley

Website: SkyLightRain.com

In this collection of eerie, beautifully-crafted stories, lives are lived slightly out of sync with the ordinary world. From a man who makes sock puppets to elderly Italian craftswomen and hens at a taxidermy party, family stories are seamlessly woven with folklore, journeys and natural phenomena to examine the quirks, pain and resilience of human existence.

Framing her tales in the nebulous, shimmering concepts of sky, light and rain, Judy Darley deftly explores our relationship with the natural world and one another, reminding us that however far we travel, some connections remain unbreakable.

Sky Light Rain abounds with original imagery. It jostles with ice sculptures, seagull feathers, puppets, flowers, lost suitcases and – unsurprisingly – birds, being a collection that looks upwards into the sky. Many of the stories seem to end with the sense of a new beginning, a newly-discovered peace. This is a rich collection with a distinctive, haunting atmosphere.’
– Heather Child
‘Brave, honest, beautiful.’
– Jayne Joso

Q- Can you share how you found a publisher for the collection?

My first collection ‘Remember Me To The Bees’ came out from a micro press in 2014. I found the process of assembling the collection really satisfying and was keen to publish more of my fiction in this way. I work as a freelance journalist and was already an ardent submitter of short fiction to journals. After a publication printed one of my stories, they expressed interest in publishing a pamphlet of my tales. As the story I’d already published with them was about the sea, I put together a selection of water-based tales. 

However, the publisher then disappeared, as occasionally happens with small presses. I was keen to publish a full-length collection anyway, and the pamphlet stories amounted to a third of the volume I wanted. I set about thinking up two additional themes. 

When I settled on ‘Rain’ for the watery tales, I realised the name of my culture blog already held the components I wanted, so the title ‘Sky Light Rain’ was born.

I searched online for independent presses and came across a few possibilities. I then read a poetry review in the Guardian for Antony Dunn’s ‘Take This One To Bed’. Valley Press was the publisher. Looking at their website I saw that they also published collections of short prose. I wanted to find out more, so I contacted the publisher and asked for a copy to review. I loved how promptly and professionally they responded and the quality of the printed poetry collection that arrived. When they re-opened for submissions, I emailed my collection over. 

Around a year later we chatted via FaceTime and they told me they’d like to publish it. On a rainy afternoon a year and a half after that, I was holding the printed book in my hands and doing a happy dance.

It was a great reminder of the necessity for patience in this industry – which isn’t something that comes naturally to me at all!

Q- I particularly loved the variety in this collection, your stories weave between reality and folklore. Where do you find inspiration and are there themes/topics that you return to?

I’ve always loved reading fiction where reality and folklore intersected in unexpected ways that the protagonists took for granted. ‘Marianne Dreams’ by Catherine Storr was one of my early favourites, along with ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ by Philippa Pearce. Following those days, I discovered Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri and Philip Pullman, among countless others. 

The world is full of wondrous and horrifying improbabilities. When writing, I often feel I’m conjuring something magical through exploring everyday life, while my fairytales and folklore make perfect sense of the situations my characters choose or that choose them. 

I frequently write about people whose sense of reality is slightly off-kilter. My dad has semantic dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; his wavering sense of the world has influenced several stories, including ‘The Sculptor’. I love art, and find artworks prompt tales. My story ‘The Puppeteer’ sprang from a painting by artist Shirley Sharp. As a journalist, I’ve written masses of travel features and these often seep into my fiction, including in my stories ‘Woman and Birds’, ‘Two Pools of Water’, ‘Paper Flowers’, ‘Not Every Wound Can Heal’, and ‘Fin’.

Between April and July 2020, I wrote masses of Covid-19 stories as a way of managing the stress of so much uncertainty, and found myself highlighting the small, claustrophobic details of life in lockdown.

Q- The acknowledgements in this collection shows that your stories have been widely published. How do you source potential homes for your work? Can you share your process and where to find opportunities?

I’m a constant forager when it comes to finding markets for my words. I spend a fair amount of time browsing Twitter, which helps me connect to other writers and literary journals. I also look at author blogs and take note of the publications they’re being featured by. 

I publish calls for submission on my blog SkyLightRain.com, which keeps me abreast of opportunities as they arise. As a journalist, I’m used to writing to a brief. Calls for themed submissions work in a similar way for me, triggering ideas that entice me down unexpected paths. The Cabinet of Heed published two of my stories in their ‘Writing Prompts’ special. 

Journals who’ve published my work recently include Spelk, Perhappened and The Drabble. For 75-word stories, Paragraph Planet is unbeatable.

I keep a spreadsheet of every piece I send out, where it goes and the response. I can’t recommend this approach enough – it helps me to stay unemotional about the pieces that get turned down. The fact is that for every piece published, several will have been rejected. I try to think that when something comes back it just hasn’t found the right home yet. I take a good look at it, see if anything isn’t flowing or if there are substantial changes I need to tackle, and then I begin thinking about where to send it next. 

Q- All writers have their own process, can you talk us through how you create a new story or flash fiction. What triggers a new piece and how do you take it through to publication? 

I’m always on the lookout for fresh creative prompts, partly because I publish weekly ones on my blog, SkyLightRain.com. 

I might see something that lodges as a scene in my head, which I then write down to find out what it could be about. It could be an object left by the side of the road, a couple arguing on a bus, or a child watching the harbour cormorant dry its wings – anything that snags in my mind and starts a ‘What if…’ avalanche. What if that couple are arguing because of a terrible deed they witnessed? What if the cormorant is the child’s father? What if the road-side object is a clue, or if someone just believes it is? 

I might attach the scene to a thought that was already in my head and use exploration of it to examine ideas stemming from an existing myth, Covid-19, vulnerability, or the climate crisis. I might attach two of these odd observations to one another to see what new directions that takes me in. For me, writing is a process of discovery.

Occasionally a story emerges fully-formed, but at other times I need to tease it out, bit by bit. I’m trying to learn to set the first draft aside for a day or week – at least. Sometimes I get stuck when I’ve tried to pile in too much, and other times I get stuck because there isn’t enough – the complete tale is too slight and insubstantial. Time and space really help with writing revisions. I might lift out one thread and discard it, or change a point of view that isn’t working.

I have writer friends I swap stories with to learn how they read to someone who hasn’t got that whole world bubbling in their head. As much remains unwritten as written, and I need to know a tale stands up without needing additional scaffolding.

When a story is rejected, I take that as a chance to look at why. Have I unearthed the themes enough? Was I too subtle or not subtle enough? 

At this stage, I often change the title. It’s amazing what a difference this can make. As Flash Fiction Editor for Reflex Fiction, I’m keen to remind writers to put as much effort into the title as the story – it should work as hard as your first and last lines!

I’m also trying to learn that not every story needs to be finished. Some are just ways to develop an idea, before moving on to the next story. I find giving up on a story difficult.

Q- Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline? 

I’ve recently finished my second draft of a middle-grade novel about what happens after the end of human society as we know it. The protagonist and her family set out to find a safe place to start afresh. It explores my pervading concerns about the climate crisis, as well as darker aspects of human nature. Book Two is sitting in my head, but I don’t want to start work on that until I’m certain Book One works. I was lucky enough to gain a place on WriterMentor’s 2020 summer school. Working with a mentor on the opening chapters has helped me to take the full manuscript apart and put it back together again into a far better book. Luckily, as a journalist I’m no stranger to editing in response to feedback.

I’m also beginning the slow, satisfying process of assembling my third short story collection, identifying themes to stitch the whole thing together. 

Q - Where can we buy a copy of Sky Light Rain?

Sky Light Rain is available from Valley Press.

I’m publishing an insight series into the collection over the next few weeks. To find out about the inspiration behind each individual tale, visit my blog.

Thanks so much for inviting me to take part, and for your thought-provoking questions!

My Review:

Sky Light Rain by Judy Darley (Valley Press) is a collection of short and flash stories, and follows her debut collection Remember Me to the Bees (2013). This collection consists of three parts: Sky, Light and Rain, which explore nature and our relationship with the world around us. I loved how the stories weave between reality, very recognisable contemporary settings, and folklore where the world isn’t quite what we expect.

 The settings continually change, allowing us glimpses into the lives of people all across the globe and time. The characters are rich and varied, all with distinct voices and stories to tell. Sometimes the story seems familiar and then it distorts, the characters are not what they seem, they may have stepped out of folklore but still share the same heartfelt struggles and desires as us.

 This is a beautifully written collection where each story compels you to keep reading. The mix of short stories and flash fiction is perfectly balanced, the flash pieces are a burst of emotion, making you gasp, before you immerse back into the longer stories and their intriguing characters. 

Monday, 1 June 2020

Scratched Enamel Heart: a short story collection by Amanda Huggins

Today I am delighted to welcome one of my favourite writers as a guest on the Blog. Amanda Huggins has kindly returned to talk about her new short story collection Scratched Enamel Heart (published by Retreat West Books). 
Read my review at the end of this post.
Amanda Huggins is the author of Scratched Enamel Heart, a new short story collection which features ‘Red’, her prize-winning story from the 2018 Costa Short Story Award. Her previous short story collection, Separated From the Sea, received a Special Mention in the 2019 Saboteur Awards. She has also published a flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses and a poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, which won the 2020 Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.

Her fiction and poetry have been placed and listed in numerous competitions including Fish, Bridport, Bath, InkTears, the Alpine Fellowship Writing Award and the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award. Her travel writing has also won several awards, notably the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014, and she has twice been a finalist in the Bradt Guides New Travel Writer Award.

Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire.

Scratched Enamel Heart

The resilience and frailty of the human heart lie at the core of this second short story collection from award-winning author, Amanda Huggins.          

A lonely woman spends a perfect night with a stranger, yet is their connection enough to make her realise life is worth living? Maya, a refugee, wears a bracelet strung with charms that are a lifeline to her past; when the past catches up with her, she has a difficult decision to make. Rowe’s life on the Yorkshire coast is already mapped out for him, but when there is an accident at the steelworks he knows he has to flee from an intolerable future. In the Costa prize-winning ‘Red’, Mollie is desperate to leave Oakridge Farm and her abusive stepfather, to walk free with the stray dog she has named Hal.

These are stories filled with yearning and hope, the search for connection and the longing to escape. They transport the reader from India to Japan, from mid-west America to the north-east coast of England, from New York to London. Battered, bruised, jaded or jilted, the human heart somehow endures.

Animals and nature feature in so much of your writing, is this intentional? What part do animals/wildlife/nature play in your own life, do any of your fictional creatures come from your own experience of animals?

No, it isn’t intentional, however I do have a deep-rooted love of animals and the natural world, so I guess it’s inevitable. My partner and I are members of the RSPB and really enjoy birdwatching, both at nature reserves and while walking on the moors or the Northumberland coastal paths. We also have a menagerie of seven part-time cats – four semi-strays which we feed, and three others which are perfectly well looked after but have just latched onto a good thing!

I always aim to convey a strong sense of place in my stories, and rural landscapes feature regularly in my work. I’m originally from the Yorkshire coast, so the sea plays an important part in a number of my stories – such as ‘Where the Sky Starts’ and ‘Light Box’ in Scratched Enamel Heart – and it is also the all-encompassing theme of my debut novella, All Our Squandered Beauty. I find my characters are shaped by the places they inhabit, particularly in those stories set in the distinctive landscapes of India, Japan and  North America – for example, ‘A Longing for Clouds’ and ‘Red’.

The locations which feature in my stories are always inspired by real life travels – I would never set a story somewhere I hadn’t visited myself. The koi fish and the beautiful garden in ‘A Potential Husband’ were inspired by my travels in Japan, as were the fireflies in ‘Soul of a Fighter’. Nature also features heavily in my poetry, and one of my favourite poems in The Collective Nouns for Birds is ‘At the Kitchen Table’, which I wrote when snowed-in in the North Pennines.

Hal, the dog in ‘Red’, is a creature of the imagination, though I’d love to own a dog like him! Similarly, Jigsaw, in ‘Where the Sky Starts’ isn’t based on a real pony, though I loved horses and horse riding as a child and often pretended that the grey stallion which lived in a nearby field was mine! The only real life creature I have written about is my favourite cat, Duzzy – she was the inspiration for the poem ‘Not-Quite-You’ in The Collective Nouns for Birds.

I am a self-confessed fan of all your writing, Mandy. You are an inspiration particularly as you write across different genres and forms. When an idea first comes to you how do you decide on its final written form, what is your decision process for turning it into a story, flash fiction or poem or longer?

Thank you, Tracy, you are very kind! I’m a huge fan of your writing too!

The truth is that I don’t often think about the final written form when I start to write. As the idea develops, it becomes what it wants to be, but often changes its mind! Poems have morphed into stories and vice versa – as you’ll see from reading The Collective Nouns for Birds and Scratched Enamel Heart side by side – and stories that tried to be something longer have ended up being flash fiction. Also, all three of my novellas are based on short stories of approximately 2000 words – it’s all very fluid. Because my prose leans towards the lyrical and I tend to write a lot of narrative poetry, I find there is a natural crossover between the two writing forms.

How have you found writing during lockdown? Have the words dried (I've struggled to write any fiction) or have you tapped into a flood? Can you share any top tips for surviving lockdown as a writer? (I know this might be obsolete by the time of posting - so I may change the question to how you survived and kept writing (or not) during lockdown).

At the beginning of lockdown I was still heading out every morning to the day job, and I found that incredibly stressful and suffered from deep anxiety and the odd panic attack. I also felt guilty and useless for feeling that way when all around me there were people going to work in much more dangerous circumstances and of course still are.

As a result I struggled to write anything new for weeks – or to concentrate well enough to read – but I did eventually produce a poem and a short flash piece about the lockdown. The latter is published on the 100 Words of Solitude website here.

I think the lockdown experience may inform my future writing in more depth, but it’s too close right now.

I find that walking and communing with nature help to get the words flowing inside my head – I just wish I could hold onto them until I got home! And when I find my mind is a blank, then I look at an old piece of work I’d given up on to try and spark new ideas.

I’m surviving furlough by sticking to a rigid routine. I get up early, go for a walk before I sit down at the computer, and then exercise again before lunch, and take time out to read in the afternoon. My partner and I have also spent more time together watching TV in the evenings – something we would never normally do!

We all have our favourite stories. Sorry to ask you to choose between them but do you have a favourite(s) from this collection and why?

It’s a tough question, but I think my favourite story has to be ‘Red’. It was rejected by several magazines, and failed to reach so much as the longlist in three smaller competitions, before it went on to win third prize in the 2018 Costa Short Story Award. I always had faith in it, and that faith was eventually rewarded!

There are a few other contenders as well, including ‘Part of Sami, Part of Malik’ about the bond between two refugees, which was written for Interact Stroke Support. I had the joy of listening to it performed live by the fabulous actor, Andy Lucas at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston back in February. I’m also fond of ‘A Brightness To It’, the newest story in the collection, and the one which my third novella will be based around, and ‘A Longing for Clouds’, a story set in India that has been around for a good ten years in many guises and versions. The protagonist, Maggie, is one of my favourite characters.

Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline?

As you’ll have gathered, I’m juggling three novellas at the moment! I’ve just started the third, and am currently tweaking the second, Crossing the Lines, which is based on the story, ‘Red’. My first novella, All Our Squandered Beauty, based on the title story from Separated From the Sea, will be published soon by Victorina Press.

Where can we buy a copy of Scratched Enamel Heart?

My review of Scratched Enamel Heart:
Scratched Enamel Heart by Amanda Huggins (Retreat West Books) is a collection of 24 stories, and impressively her third collection of short fiction. The prose throughout, whether in flash form or longer, is breath-taking at times, lyrical as poetry and heart-wrenching.
Numerous stories made me cry, purely because they triggered an emotional resonance. I cried at the ending of the opening story, ‘Where the Sky Starts’, not because it was sad or tragic but I completely understood the protagonist and his desire to escape. Each story has an authentic setting which brings it alive, and Huggins takes us all over the world to drop the reader into new and different landscapes. I particularly loved how I didn’t what to expect when starting a story, these stories are as unique and individual as the charms on Maya’s bracelet in ‘Scratched Enamel Heart’. The characters are often the forgotten and overlooked people of our world, the refugees, the abused and those who believe themselves unlovable. Some of them find refuge, home and acceptance, others don’t always get the happy ending they long for.

To pick out a favourite story is tough, one is the Costa Short Story Award finalist ‘Red’, an uncomfortable story where a girl finds a much needed friend in a wild dog. Others include the title story and ‘A longing for clouds’, again about friendship but this time between an employer and her long-suffering loyal employee. The shorter flash stories intersperse their longer siblings, sometimes making you gasp or gulp with their power and never breaking the spell.

A collection to keep and cherish, to read again when times are tough and remember our lives can be filled with love, friendship and understanding. Amanda Huggins is a writer who understands what makes the world beautiful.

Monday, 9 March 2020

10 years, 90 published stories

Last week I celebrated the 10 year anniversary of leaving my full-time job and career in the pharmaceutical industry. (As you can see, LitPig knows exactly how to celebrate!) From that point onwards my life changed, and for the better as I reinvented myself along with beginning a new career as a writer.

I could rattle on for pages detailing my writing path in the last 10 years but I'm simply going to state for the record that I've never been happier or healthier in the previous decade. I've also met a whole new bunch of friends in the writing world, who I never would have met if I'd continued in my original career. Friends such as Wendy Clarke, Richard Buxton, Sarah Hegarty and Ingrid Persaud, along with many others I now know from Twitter and literary festivals/events and of course the MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University. I share work and projects with many of these new friends and their advice is invaluable, but mostly I value the wonderful support and nurturing that other writers freely give. I feel blessed to have found my tribe.

In February I also hit a milestone of 90 published stories. You can read my 90th story here on the brilliant Fictive Dream @FictiveDream (editor Laura Black): BUZZ WORD.
The piece is accompanied by original artwork by Claudia McGill. Here you can read her thoughts on the illustration and also why she completed two paintings. I love these illustrations and am proud that Claudia "got" the story.

I now own both of the original paintings and hope to soon have these framed and displayed on the walls of my writing cave. Aren't they beautiful?

Finally, LitPig and I would like to thank all loyal followers for sticking with us. Here's to the next decade of writing. I'm looking forward to new projects, goals and to continue learning all that I can about the craft.

Monday, 13 January 2020

A Dinner Party in the Home Counties: a poetry collection by Reshma Ruia

I am delighted to welcome Reshma Ruia as my first guest on the blog for 2020. I first came across Reshma’s writing in May we borrow your country (published Linen Press) and you can read more on this wonderful anthology in a previous post here. Reshma has now published her debut poetry collection A Dinner Party in the Home Counties (Skylark Publications) and has joined us today to talk about her writing …
Reshma Ruia:
Reshma is a published author and poet. Her first novel, ‘Something Black in the Lentil Soup’, was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy.’ Her second novel manuscript, ‘A Mouthful of Silence,’ was shortlisted for the 2014 SI Leeds Literary Prize. Her short stories and poems have appeared in various British and International anthologies and magazines and commissioned for BBC Radio 4.  Her debut collection of poetry, ‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties,’ won the 2019 Debut Word Masala Award. She has a PhD and Masters in Creative Writing from Manchester University, a Bachelor, and Masters Degree with Distinction from the London School of Economics. She worked as a development economist with the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme of the UN. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani-a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers. Born in India and brought up in Italy, her narrative portrays the inherent preoccupations of those who possess a multiple sense of belonging.
Q: How did you come to write this collection, and what do some of the poems mean to you?
I started my journey as a writer through poetry. My earliest memory is winning a UNESCO award at school for my poetry and the first prize was a trip to Paris. I can still remember that heady mixture of excitement and fear as I boarded the overnight train from Rome to Paris.  ‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties’ has grown organically over the years. There have been digressions in terms of writing novels and short stories, but poetry has always been there, quietly ticking away, biding its time.
 These poems are about people travelling between worlds- geographical, cultural, and emotional. As such, they reflect my own hybrid identity, which straddles India, Italy and Britain. There are poems about letting go of old certainties, of hope and of betrayal and loss too. Identities are in a constant flux, being shaped and reshaped by an imperative to belong whether to a map or a feeling.
 The poems are personal in tone but will I hope resonate universally through their exploration of grief, loss, love and age. The poems are particularly relevant to our times when there is a growing sense of parochialism and hostility towards ‘the outsider.’ They will resonate with all those who have portable roots and are at home everywhere and nowhere.
The poems also portray the emotive minefield of relationships, questioning the ambiguity behind maternal or filial love. Society conditions us to love our parent or child or partner but my poems challenge this by describing the tug of war between a woman’s sense of self and the roles she is expected to play.
 I have dedicated the book to my father. I lost him last summer and some of the latter poems in the collection echo with his absence.
 Q: Could touch on the differences in the creative process (if there are any for you) in writing poetry versus fiction (I do love your short stories)?
 I seem to gravitate between the genres. Someone once said that people read poetry for emotion—not information and I believe this. When I write poetry, it is an attempt to arrive at some kind of understanding about what it means to inhabit this world and be human-flawed, imperfect, torn by tribal loyalties yet capable of astonishing kindness. There doesn’t need to be an obvious plot or narrative arc in poetry, there is fluidity instead and I am conscious of language, its tonality, texture and imagery. Some emotions and themes can only be captured in verse. It’s almost a visceral, an intangible tug at one’s core, at what makes us human, like mother’s milk-it’s a taste one never forgets.
Short stories need to be less condensed and more structured in terms of conflict and resolution. Pacing and resolution must be snappy and less open ended than poetry. As Frank O'Connor said, in a short story the crisis is the story. Yet in both genres, I try to capture the predicament of everyday people being at a crossroads, making choices that have far-reaching consequences.  

My thoughts on A Dinner Party in the Home Counties:
This whole collection was a joy from start to end. As a prose writer who loves poetry but often finds collections a little bit scary I found these poems incredibly accessible. Ruia's writing is fluid and lyrical, and I found narrative arcs within the poems and across the collection, which is divided into three sections to neatly present a beginning, middle and ending. Dare I say it but it was the prose that drew me into the poems here. There are many characters and voices, all with distinct stories to tell, often outsiders (for whatever reason) longing to belong or worse being made to belong, and I feel this is a collection I will continue to return to again and again. Ruia captures the thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams of both men and women. Her poems feature bored accountants, desperate mothers and echo how we are all trying to make sense of the world.
My copy is now jam-packed with yellow stickies where I marked up particular lines or stanzas I enjoyed. There really are too many to mention but I want to share some of my favourites as they perfectly illustrate the quality of the writing:
Class Reunion:
Her rose-tinted yesterdays that she ruled
like a queen have no echo in what she is today.
A woman greedy for a gilded past,
dancing in a room full of trick mirrors
that only knew how to lie.

This Could Only Be Lennon's Doing:
Imagine a day like no other.
The sky - a blue-skinned Krishna's belly.
Sun dripping its honey.

A Conversation With Sylvia Plath:
The clouds bleat heavy with rain.
The trick she tells me, is to balance while falling.
To stand still while burning quick.

And then there is this beautiful poem that I want to recite every day as it quietens my fears, bringing peace and calm into an uncertain world ... it could be a mantra for 2020.
(Note: I've aligned this centrally for the blog)
The Lord's Prayer:
Lord, grant me the quiet perfection 
of imperfect days.
The radiator breaking,
the kettle that won't sing,
the train leaving the platform just as I reach.
Lord, grant me sorrows that can be stilled
with toast and tea.
The sound of rain, washing a windowpane.
The world has had enough
of bullets and leaders barking blood,
women clutching babies as they sink.
The world has enough of peacocks.
Let the sparrows come out to preen.

[The Lord's Prayer is reproduced here with the permission of the author, Reshma Ruia]

I hope I've inspired you to share and enjoy A Dinner Party In The Home Counties, it really is a collection with something for all tastes in poetry.
May I also recommend you to read any of Reshma Ruia's short stories if you come across them. She really is a multi-talented writer and I am overawed by her ability to switch across poetry and prose.

And finally ... and most importantly here are some links to where you can buy your own copy of A Dinner Party in the Home Counties

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Top reads of 2019

LitPig is getting ready for Christmas and planning his stocking fillers. If you're anything like me then your Christmas wish-list is packed with books (and chocolate). To help you choose some stocking fillers here are the top 6 books I've read and loved in 2019 (in no particular order):

Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman:
I have been a fan of Angela Readman's short stories for several years, I love her writing voice and was excited to learn of her debut novel 'Something like Breathing.' Readman's quietly beautiful writing translates perfectly to the longer form of a novel. I was soon immersed in the lives of the two narrators, Lorrie and Sylvie (the story runs from 1957 to 1960) on their remote Scottish island. This is the story of their friendship and Sylvie's unusual gift. How exactly Sylvie is special is slowly revealed. Readman does not deal in glitzy tricks or twists and character is everything in this novel. I fell in love with the gentle and very wise soul of Sylvie and I didn't want it to end. I'm still thinking of the two girls ... Lorrie was a force to be reckoned with but I'm fretful for Sylvie let loose in a manipulative world - though she'd clearly inherited her mother's resilience and backbone. I'd love to know what happened next for both of them ...

Ellie and the Harp Maker by Hazel Prior:
All the blurb about this novel is true. It is a heartwarming, engaging, uplifting story about love and friendship. It will also make you smile (a lot) and cry (a lot - but in a good way). I quickly fell in love with Ellie and Dan, the main characters and voices, and felt bereft when I finished reading. I could happily spend many more hours in their company, along with Phineas the pheasant.
This book brought me comfort at a difficult time. It is gentle, written with love and understanding. This has jumped into my top ten of favourite reads, it is a book I will return to again and again.

Little by Edward Carey:
This is an extraordinary novel. Beautifully written and incredibly atmospheric. I was soon immersed in 18th Century Paris and completely absorbed by the narrator's story. Marie 'Little'(later to become Madame Tussaud) is the most wonderful literary creation, her voice still lingers with me: naive and yet strong and determined. This charts the early life of Little as she learns to create wax models from her very odd mentor in Paris. We learn about life at Versailles (she slept in a cupboard), her obsession with the King's sister and ultimately how Little survived the turbulent years of the French revolution.
Carey's language and story carried me through this almost dream like novel, and his own illustrations make it something very special indeed. This is going into my top ten of favourite all-time books.

What She Saw by Wendy Clarke:
This is the terrific debut thriller from Wendy Clarke that kept me absorbed to the end and ticked so many boxes: super twists, page-turning story, characters you care about and a Lake District setting. Quality writing that quickly hooked me in, I read this almost in one sitting.

Ironopolis by Glen James Brown:
This was the most intriguing and unusual book I've read in a long time. Glen James Brown is an excellent storyteller who's characters are unique creations, authentic working class voices drawing you into the dark and at times sinister world of Ironopolis. Ultimately this is Alan's story as he searches for the truth of his father. We become immersed in the community over three generations as the Middlesborough inner city housing estate begins to fade and decay, along with its inhabitants. Jean (Alan's mum) writes her story in letters to a stranger. Henry is the strangely attractive mobile librarian with a  disturbing secret. Alan hunts down what happened on the Day of the Dark, and the New Year Eve's bomb explosion by meeting the misfits and outsiders (like himself) who are trying to make sense of their lives. Throughout the stories the mystical Peg Powler haunts the river and pipes, a creature conjured to scare young children she seems to have been a reality for several characters.
This novel weaves between black humour, horror and a gripping story line that makes you want to keep reading. There is a brooding oppressive darkness that pervades Ironopolis and it will follow you long after finishing.  An atmospheric debut from talented writer Glen James Brown.

HAG, a poetry collection by Zoe Mitchell:
If you love mythology, folklore and ancient history then I highly recommend HAG by Zoe Mitchell. Her poetry is infused with energy and jumps off the page. The writing is equally vivid, visceral and incredibly lyrical. Her classical knowledge is woven seamlessly with the everyday, her characters will linger in your dreams and often inspire you to go search out more details on what lies behind their stories. The natural world appears in several poems, one of my particular favourites is ‘Sycamore Gap’ featuring an argument between the famous sycamore and Hadrian's Wall. ‘Lullaby’ really is the stuff of nightmares and ‘A Matter of Common Talk’ will make you either laugh out loud or cringe (depending on your gender). There are goddesses, Ancient Britons, lovers and the lovelorn, along with the forgotten voices of women doomed for simply being women. Once read and devoured, then this collection is one to read again and out loud so you can savour the delicious rhythms and joy of words that Mitchell has crafted.

You can read more about the creation of Zoe Mitchell's debut poetry collection here.

What have been your top reads for 2019? Please share ...

Monday, 29 April 2019

HAG - debut poetry collection by Zoe Mitchell

It is my great pleasure to welcome poet, Zoe Mitchell, onto the blog today to talk about her debut collection HAG (Published by Indigo Dreams Publishing), which was the joint winner of the 2018 Indigo-First Collection Competition. I first met Zoe at Chichester University on the MA in Creative Writing then later joined a workshop group with her (and two others) where we meet regularly to share and review each other’s work (and to eat cake!). We’ve now been sharing work since the summer of 2015 and it’s been a real privilege to have seen many of the poems from this collection at an early stage of their evolution. It’s also incredibly satisfying to now hold the final collection, brought to life, and share it with others so they too can appreciate Zoe Mitchell’s incredible talents.

About Hag

HAG is the debut collection from Zoe Mitchell. The poems address the ongoing search for magic in the modern world. Using ancient history and mythology as well as the inspiration provided by a wild landscape, the poems consider how to live and endure in an increasingly complex and challenging world. From uncertain heroes and heartbroken heroines to vengeful and lovelorn goddesses, Hag considers the human cost of history and how each individual must carry the weight of their own experience.

About Zoe

Zoe Mitchell is a widely-published poet whose work has been featured in many magazines including The Rialto, The London Magazine and The Moth. She graduated from the University of Chichester with an MA in Creative Writing and was awarded a Distinction and the Kate Betts Memorial Prize. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, examining witches in women’s poetry. Her collection, Hag, was a joint winner of the Indigo-First Collection competition and was published in April 2019.
Twitter: @writingbyzoe
Instagram: @writingbyzoe

Q. Congratulations, Zoe, on the publication of your debut poetry collection HAG, can you tell us how it has been brought to life?

With regard to the individual poems, each one has their own story. Some of the poems were written whilst studying for my MA at the University of Chichester, some emerged from my current PhD research and others were written simply because they demanded to be written, for one reason or another. I wish I could tell you that I have a meticulous and fool-proof process for writing poetry, but I don’t really have one. The poems are inspired by things I’ve read or seen and blended with the real world, both in terms of news stories and my own personal experience. I have a particular interest in mythology and folklore, and I think some of those ancient stories hold great wisdom which still applies to our lives today.
The collection itself came about thanks to Indigo Dreams Publishing. I entered a selection of the poems found in Hag to the Indigo-First Collection Competition last year, and first of all I was excited and honoured just to have reached the shortlist. The prize was announced on National Poetry Day last year, and for me it took a while to really sink in that I had won. Even when I was working on the proofs for the book and discussing the cover with the Indigo team, I still couldn’t really wrap my head around it. Ronnie and Dawn at Indigo are a pleasure to work with, they helped me through every step of the process and I learned a lot about how collections are put together. I am very proud of the final collection, and a lot of that is due to their care and attention. Indigo Dreams really nurtures and supports writers, through their magazines as well as pamphlets and books, and it’s run by creative and caring people who understand poetry and poets so it was an honour and a privilege to work with them to bring Hag into the world.

Q. I understand for the collection and your PhD you have been immersing yourself in some interesting research. Tarot readings and witch summer school for example. You have to tell us more …

My PhD is focused on examining witches in women’s poetry. It’s a creative PhD, which means that alongside an analysis of major female poets who have written on the subject, I am compiling a collection of poems inspired by witches. As part of that, I’ve read a lot of history and mythology and visited various exhibitions and heritage sites, but I’ve also considered the value and practice of witchcraft in the modern world. I attended the WitchFest conference, taught myself to read the tarot and learned various simple spells, which I have since reflected on in poetry.
Recently, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to attend a ‘Witch Summer School’ in Tuebingen, Germany. The weekend brought together academics from a wide range of fields to discuss the significance of the witch in culture. I met some brilliant and fascinating people, including a practising witch who had some excellent insights into the role of the witch in the modern world and in her life. I think perhaps my niece and nephew were a little disappointed that witch summer school didn’t turn out to be anything like Hogwarts – and honestly, I’m probably more Mildred Hubble than Hermione Grainger anyway – but I found the whole weekend very inspiring.
One of the things I really love about creative research is that it gives me a good excuse to explore the world and have adventures. Maybe no one really needs an excuse, but life so easily gets in the way of things and booking trips, whether that’s to a witch summer school or a visit to a historic site like Hadrian’s Wall, really help me with writing poetry. I think it’s because when we’re somewhere new, or with different people, we pay attention in a different way and poetry benefits from that close attention.

Q. What and who inspires your work? Do you have particular favourite poets or poems you always return to?

Is it too vague to say that the whole world inspires my work?! As I said, I am a very curious person and I love learning new things. I read a lot and also listen to a lot of podcasts – not just poetry podcasts but also factual podcasts like HistoryHit or Radio 4’s The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry – and I horde all the facts that fire my imagination and blend them for poems. The poem The Scarlet Mark from my collection came from a programme about the history and science behind red hair, for example. I am also a bit of a word collector, when I learn a new word, I make a note of it so that I can use it in a poem. Sometimes it might take years before the right poem emerges, but they all get used in the end.
Most recently, I’ve been writing poems which integrate the real world more closely with the mythological one. I doubt I’ll ever let go of my love of mythology, but we are living in strange and uncertain times and I think it would be impossible to ignore the political dimension at the moment. Sometimes I think it’s rather depressing that my work on witches is so relevant, but the truth is that women and particularly powerful women, are still treated with suspicion in the world. Poetry is a way for me to express my frustration and rage at the current situation, but also it’s a way for me to reflect on more personal aspects of my life.
In terms of favourite poets and poems, that is a very long list! My first ever favourite poet was Roger McGough because my Dad used to read me one of his books as a bedtime story and I used to request it over and over until he could recite the whole thing from memory, so he has a very special place in my heart for awaking my love of language and poetry. In my teenage years, I was very immersed in the work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and they’re still among my favourites. I love the work of Audre Lorde and I would recommend that alongside her poetry, everyone should read her essays, especially Poetry is not a Luxury and The Uses of Anger. With regard to poets working today, I am in absolute awe of Glyn Maxwell, he has a delicacy and tenderness to his writing that is breath taking and however many times I re-read his work, I can’t quite see how he’s done it. I loved Helen Mort’s collection No Map Could Show Them about pioneering female climbers, and I would also recommend checking out the work of Kate Garrett, who is a bit of a magical pixie in the poetry world, editing poetry magazines filled with magic, folklore and mythology as well as writing her own unique and very striking work.
I have spent a very long time thinking about which poems to recommend – I have decided to compile some from poets working today to narrow the field but that still makes it very difficult to make choices because there are so many poets working today and producing exceptional work.
The poem Unsung by Kei Miller has haunted me ever since I read it, and I admire the quiet tenderness and insight.
Maggie Smith’s poem Good Bones often re-circulates on the internet when a tragedy occurs and for good reason; it holds the very delicate balance between sad realism and hope.
Inua Ellams’ poem Shame is the Cape I Wear is so vivid and exact you feel like you’re right with him in his childhood memory.
And I know I said I would pick from poets working today, but I feel that the list wouldn’t be complete without including the poem Wild Geese by the late, great Mary Oliver because it has saved me more than once. There is such comfort in that opening line, “You do not have to be good.”

Q. Do you have any events/readings planned to promote collection so LitPig can put them in his diary?

I am speaking at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic conference on 18th May, and I currently have readings booked for Loose Muse in London in September, Gloucester Poetry Festival in October and Loose Muse in Winchester in December. I keep a full list of my upcoming events on my website and I’m always happy to have the excuse to read my work and talk poetry with other writers and readers, so I can also be contacted through my site if anyone wishes me to read at an event.

HAG is available to buy HERE from Indigo Dreams.
It’s also worth noting that Indigo Dreams are running a great offer again this year; if you buy four books from them throughout the year, you can choose a fifth one free. You don’t have to buy them all at once, you can buy them throughout the year and it all counts to a free book… which means that buying more books is saving money, which I feel is excellent news for anyone trying to decide if they need more books! (Although, and I am sure you will agree with me, LitPig, the answer is yes, you ALWAYS need more books.)

Thank you, Zoe, for such an interesting and informative interview.

My review:

If you love mythology, folklore and ancient history then I highly recommend HAG by Zoe Mitchell. Her poetry is infused with energy and jumps off the page. The writing is equally vivid, visceral and incredibly lyrical. Her classical knowledge is woven seamlessly with the everyday, her characters will linger in your dreams and often inspire you to go search out more details on what lies behind their stories. The natural world appears in several poems, one of my particular favourites is ‘Sycamore Gap’ featuring an argument between the famous sycamore and Hadrian's Wall. ‘Lullaby’ really is the stuff of nightmares and ‘A Matter of Common Talk’ will make you either laugh out loud or cringe (depending on your gender). There are goddesses, Ancient Britons, lovers and the lovelorn, along with the forgotten voices of women doomed for simply being women. Once read and devoured, then this collection is one to read again and out loud so you can savour the delicious rhythms and joy of words that Mitchell has crafted.

HAG is endorsed by dragons.

Monday, 4 February 2019

May We Borrow Your Country: new anthology by The Whole Kahani

Photo by Jags Parbha

LitPig is delighted to welcome this lovely bunch of writers, The Whole Kahani, onto the blog today and to share news of their new anthology May We Borrow Your Country. You can read my review of this anthology at the end of this post, but first let's hear about this terrific initiative ...

The Whole Kahani (The Complete Story), is a collective of British fiction writers of South Asian origin. The group was formed in 2011 to provide a creative perspective that straddles cultures and boundaries. Its aim is to give a new voice to British Asian fiction and increase the visibility of South Asian writers in Britain. Their first anthology Love Across A Broken Map was published in 2016 by Dahlia Publishing.

May We Borrow Your Country is a contemporary collection of stories and poems published by Linen Press. It looks at dislocation and displacement with sympathy, tolerance and humour. It is peopled by courageous, poignant, eccentric individuals who cross borders, accommodate to new cultures and try to establish an identity in a new place. In the process, they encounter different versions of themselves, like reflections in a room of trick mirrors. The stories and poems are written by women. They are evocative and multi-layered in their portrayal of relationships, family, ambition, careers and friendship. They offer a fresh look at metamorphosis and many catch that fleeting moment of transition between the familiar and the new.

Q: Can you tell us about the writers involved in The Whole Kahani, it sounds a terrific group of talent. How did you all come together?
The Whole Kahani was founded in 2011, so it’s been going for nearly eight years. Our members come from a range of different backgrounds – we have poets, novelists, short story writers and screenwriters. These days we tend to get approached by writers looking for a group rather than the other way around. Our readings and anthology launches are great places to meet us, and several of our current members joined after coming to hear us at festivals.
Q. In creating the anthology how did the group approach selecting prose and poetry pieces for inclusion? How did you decide on order and structure? Was this something you did as a group or were these decisions the remit of the editor?
We worked very closely with our wonderful publisher, Lynn Michell of Linen Press, to choose the pieces and ordering. It was a special challenge because this anthology includes both prose and poetry so we had questions of form to consider as well as questions of resonance and content. We all contributed a number of pieces and workshopped these together, so I think this made it easier since several of the pieces naturally worked well in proximity. Lynn also helped us find the resonances between other pieces, and consider how these might best be placed in the anthology.
Q. There is a strong theme connecting the pieces throughout the anthology, of people seeking to find and understand themselves, particularly when they find are living far from where they were born or their families. Were the writers asked to create work to a theme? Or was this something that naturally arose in the group’s writing?
We knew from the beginning that we wanted to write pieces that would discuss themes of “otherness”, belonging and crossing boundaries. One of the most interesting questions that came up was our choice of title. We were all very much in agreement that “May We Borrow Your Country” should not have a question mark – it should be a statement, or a question which expects no answer. We like the way it encapsulates a lot of different meanings, from colonisation to immigration, from cultural appropriation to cultural integration. It’s also wonderful to hear readers’ own interpretations of the title, as it means different things to everybody.
Q. Do you have any events/readings planned to promote the anthology?
We launched May We Borrow Your Country on Saturday 26th at the Gower Street Waterstones, to a full house. It was great to see so many other writers in the audience, and we do have more events planned. We’ll be speaking at the Wolverhampton Literature Festival on February 3rd, and we’re currently in talks with some more venues. We’ll be keeping everyone up to date on our twitter and website.
Q. Can you share what The Whole Kahani has planned for future projects?
Putting out our two anthologies (the first was Love Across a Broken Map, from Dahlia Publishing) has been such a great experience. We have another project in the pipeline, and in the short-term we’re looking to broaden the forms we work with. Our members have experience in writing such a variety of different pieces, and we want to emphasise this strength in all our future publications.

Social media links:
Twitter: @TheWholeKahani
Where can I buy the book?
My review:

May We Borrow Your Country is an anthology of prose and poetry involving women writers from The Whole Kahani writer’s collective. I thoroughly enjoyed this anthology, loving all the different perspectives within. I was delighted by the variety of character voices within the stories and poems, men and women trying to make sense of their lives and worlds particularly when finding themselves far from the homelands they grew up in. The stories were often poignant and bittersweet with both men and
women struggling to exert their personalities amid more dominant forces. But there is also plenty of humour here too and the uncanny. One of my favourites was ‘Natural Accents’ by Mona Dash, where: “After twenty years of living in a country where the sun rose and set at wildly different times depending on the season, and the clocks were changed to ensure a semblance of lights when people woke from deeply dark nights, Renuka decided she must acquire a pukka accent.” But be careful what you wish for … when Renuka invests in a voice box implant from the accent shop she declares her mother tongue as English forgetting the Indian language she grew up with. The story warns how in our rush to embrace normality and to ‘fit in’ we can sacrifice our cultural roots which make us what we are. Other favourites include ‘Fox Cub’ and ‘Sonny’ by CG Menon, ‘The Enlightenment of Rahim Baksh’ by Nadia Kabir Barb and the very funny ‘A Laughing Matter’ by Shibani Lal. Truthfully, I enjoyed every piece in this anthology, there really is something for all tastes and the writing is superb throughout.