Welcome to my blog

Welcome to The Literary Pig's blog - a safe haven for all those afflicted with
the unbearable urge to write.

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. 

Monday, 24 December 2018

2018: a writing year

You will need to read on to find out why LitPig (left) is celebrating ... but first I'm going to quickly look back over 2018 and my writing year.

The first half of 2018 was quite mixed for me. I was struggling to write anything new. A handful of short stories and flash fiction emerged but I found few ideas turning into new pieces. Writing friends  encouraged me with their wise words and reassured that a fallow period was nothing to fear. It just meant something new and exciting was brewing. Have faith and the ideas would begin to surface.

I had an idea for a new novel and began planning it out during April and May. Using the excellent 'Structuring your novel' (along with the workbook and also 'Outlining your novel') by KM Welland I plotted the entire story. I made detailed notes, drew out a timeline on my whiteboard (it's still there) and jotted all the key scenes down onto index cards. I also did lots of thinking ...

But I didn't start writing ... I needed impetus, a trigger, to get it started. That came on 1 June, when after a seafront run I decided I was going to enter the 2018 Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition. This was free to enter and for debut novelists who didn't have an agent or a publishing contract. One entry clause was the novel should not have been read by any literary agents, which ruled out all of my existing completed novels (unpublished but called in previously by agents). My only option was to enter something new ... Well, I had a new novel all planned - could I write the required opening of 10,000K words plus a synopsis before the deadline of 14 June? I can't resist a challenge and aimed to write a 1,000 words a day over 10 days.

Towards the end of June I learned that my entry THE OTHER SIDE OF HEAVEN was on the shortlist of 5 novels. All I had to do next was finish and submit it before the final deadline of 28 December. Gulp!

Other writing highlights of 2018 include:
Jan - 'Quiet Time' nominated by Nottingham Review for 2018 Best Small Fiction (published online).
Feb - Flash fictions published online with Fictive Dream (later nominated for 2018 Best Micro Fiction).
Mar - Longlisted for Bath Novella-in-Flash competition, shortlisted for Flash 500 Short Story competition, longlisted for Fabula Aesta's Short Story competition (published in anthology).
April - Longlisted in Thresholds Feature Writing competition (published online), flash story published in Flash:International Short Short Story magazine issue 10.2.
May - Finalist in Retreat West Novel Opening Award with THE IMMORTALIST. Highly Commended in Brittlestar Short Story Prize (judged by Nicholas Royle, published in Issue 42).
June - WINNER of Steyning Festival Short Story Prize (judged by Simon Brett & Elly Griffiths),
shortlisted for the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller.
July - Short story published in Unthology 10 & read at London launch. Attended the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol (and took a week to recover).
Aug - Longlisted for Casket of Fictional Delights Flash competition.
September - Attended the Festival of Writing in York where I met with 2 agents who both liked my writing and wanted to read more.
November - Longlisted for Exeter Story Prize, shortlisted for InkTears Flash Fiction competition.

My short story collection was also called in by two agents and a publisher without success - and I had to stop submitting the collection or other novels once the R&J shortlist was announced. To me it feels as if I've achieved little this year for a full time writer, but that's because post June all my creative energy was focused on writing, researching and polishing the novel for the December deadline.

This Blog had a fabulous list of guests throughout 2018, what a talented bunch came on to talk about their writing projects including: poet Hannah Brockbank, and short fiction writers Gail Aldwin, Amanda Huggins, Catherine McNamara and Susmita Bhattacharya.

So why is LitPig celebrating with walnut whips and pink fizz?

I finished the novel. 
And it's now been submitted. That is something to celebrate!

Whatever happens next I am very happy and proud of what I've achieved with the novel. I also couldn't have done it without the continuous moral and practical support from writing friends, and the belief of my family.

In January I will be meeting writing chum Wendy Clarke to discuss and set our 2019 Writing Goals. You can read about her writing year here - what a year she's had! Until the New Year I'd like to wish all followers and readers of this blog a happy and peaceful Christmas. As you can see LitPig is all set for the holidays ...

Monday, 1 October 2018

Table Manners, a short story collection by Susmita Bhattacharya

I have been reading and loving Susmita's short stories for several years. From her features on Thresholds (The International Short Story Forum) I have also been introduced to short story writers such as Amy Bloom and Janice Pariat. Today, I am delighted to welcome her onto the blog today to talk about her writing and Table Manners, her new short story collection.
My own review is at the end of this post. 

Susmita Bhattacharya was born in Mumbai. Her short fiction has been widely published, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her novel, The Normal State of Mind, (Parthian Books, 2015/ Bee Books India, 2016) was long listed for the Words to Screen Prize by the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) in 2018.  She teaches contemporary fiction at Winchester University. She also facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers workshops, a SO:Write project based in Southampton. Her short story collection, Table Manners, is published by Dahlia Publishing.

Table Manners: 
A parrot takes on the voice of a dead husband. Two women in search of god and marriage learn what it means to love. A man living in exile writes home. 
From Mumbai to Venice, Cardiff to Singapore, this collection of short stories of love and loneliness in the urban landscape is delicately nuanced and sprinkled generously with sharp observation of the human condition.
A captivating debut collection which introduces us to a powerful new voice.

Q: How does a short story first come to you? I’d love to know how you go about ‘trapping’ a short story and then turning an initial idea into a real story.

Each story has a different process. Sometimes, I’m inspired by a visual. A person engaged in some sort of action. Maybe sipping coffee in a piazza in Venice. Or a street covered in broken glass after a football match. Sometimes it comes from a moment that I’ve personally experienced. The Luxury of Quiet Contemplation, for example, came to me when I was visiting my sister in India. Due to jet-lag, I didn’t get much sleep and I was disorientated because of the unfamiliar surroundings. I lay in bed and just listened to the sounds of the morning from the window above me. Sometimes I get ideas from the news or radio programmes. I love the Listening Project and I always have Radio 4 on when I’m cooking. Something about the amalgamation of the smells in the kitchen and the stuff I listen to on the radio seem to work. Maybe that’s why I have a lot of food in my stories.

Q. Every writer has a different process. Could you share how you complete a short story? For example, do you know the ending when you start writing or does it evolve during the writing process?
Again it is a different process every time. It could be that I know the ending and I work backwards to find the beginning to the story. I knew how I wanted Letters Home or Comfort Food to end. It was a matter of figuring out how to lead the story to the beginning. Or it could be the beginning and I have no idea of how it’s going to end. Then I usually just keep going until it finds the natural end. Sometimes that doesn’t work, and I have to keep going back to the story until I’m satisfied with it. In Buon Anniversario Amore Mio, I wrote about the protagonist through a writing prompt at a workshop I attend every month. (I try to attend every month!) The prompt was to write about the place – the setting being the focus of the exercise. I set it in Venice, having just returned from a holiday there. I knew why my character went there, but I didn’t know how it would end. The two characters in the story guided me to the ending they wanted. It was quite surreal, just following their lead. It has happened before, and I really enjoy that process because I have no idea where I’m going to end up.

Q. I believe you share work within a writing group. Would you recommend this to other writers – how has it helped your own writing? Do you mind sharing how your particular group works? 
I think it’s incredibly valuable to share work with a writing group. As you know, writing can be isolating, and a lot of times the imposter syndrome gets the better of oneself. A writing group has many benefits. There is of course the social aspect. Being with people who understand you and do not think you’re crazy because you talk to your characters or that you have a different coloured pen for every notebook you own. There is the support network a writer needs so much – to honest feedback genuinely there to help improve the writing, a chance for you to read others’ work and have an input on their process. Deadlines are important too. You have a reason to finish that section of writing because you need it ready for the next meeting. I would definitely recommend it.
I belong to a Winchester based writing group called the Taverners – because we meet in a cosy pub called the St James Tavern. It is run by Claire Fuller, and there are eleven members. We meet once a month and share a maximum of three thousand words of our work-in-progress a week before the meeting. We read and annotate the feedback on the printouts, and then on the evening we begin with someone. That person reads out a section of their work, and then the others follow with discussion of that work. The writer isn’t allowed to speak or engage in the discussion. Once we’ve finished, then the writer concerned can ask questions and talk about their work. Then he or she chooses the first one on their pile and it goes on. It’s great fun. And extremely useful. A few of the stories in the collection were discussed in these sessions, and I definitely got some superb feedback which I incorporated into the final versions.

Q. Is there one short story, or perhaps an entire collection, which you wish you had written? Or one that significantly inspired your own writing.
 I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories. I love her style, and the subtext that runs between the lines of her stories. Reading her work has been vital in the development of my own style. In particular, I love the collection Unaccustomed Earth. There is so much breadth in that collection, one cannot put her in a one-size-fits-all box. I love the quietness of her stories. Sometimes it feels like she’s just mulling over her thoughts on a page, but she does it with such finesse and confidence, it’s wonderful. From the South Asian writers, I love Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories. I’m partial to anything set in Mumbai. He really captured all of the senses and ethos of Mumbai. I wish I could write like that about the city I was born in. The city I love.

Q. Can you tell us what you're working on right now? What new projects are you planning or hoping to work on in the near future.
I have a couple of writing projects on at the moment. I’m working on a novel, which is set in Mumbai and Southampton. I’m also getting together all my flash fiction, let’s see where it goes.

Thank you, Susmita, for coming on the Blog today, it has been a real pleasure to have you.
You can link with Susmita here:
Twitter: @susmitatweets / @dahliabooks
Most importantly you can buy your own copy of Table Manners here:
Dahlia Books

Review of Table Manners:
Table Manners and other stories by Susmita Bhattacharya (Dahlia Publishing) is a collection of 18 mouth-watering short stories which paint poignant images of love and loneliness making you both smile and sigh sadly in equal measures. At times the stories are delicate and incredibly tender, then others are richly comic or heart breaking in their sadness. The prose is sharp and funny, fluid and immensely readable. I read and enjoyed every single story in this collection, and am already returning to read my favourites again. I particularly enjoyed the cast of multi-cultured characters and settings. Whether the story is set amongst the marbled beauty of the Taj Mahal, rich upmarket Singapore or a wet English seaside, you are truly immersed along with the characters and quickly feel part of their world.
Several stories had echoes of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing where the main characters are dislocated from their homes and struggling to settle in a foreign land, such as Hoda in Growing Tomatoes craving her mother’s cooking, or poor Hassan writing home to his wife as he tries to fit into working life in Cardiff. The men in Bhattacharya’s stories are beautifully written, they are complex and multi-layered, never simply villains or heroes. In Buon Anniversario Amore Mio we share Andy’s pain and anger as he endures his wife’s cancer, constantly parading a ‘brave’ face. We nudge the gentle widower in the title story Table Manners towards his new Chinese neighbour, they have no language in common except a shared love of food and we hope their friendship is blossoming.
Picking out my particular favourites is tough, but I did love Mouli and her parrot in Good Golly Miss Molly, a surprisingly uplifting story about grief. Spider is an honest story about the realities of poverty and how a tourist regrets asking to be shown the ‘real’ India. I laughed along with the young couple in Holiday to Remember which took me back to horribly wet childhood caravan holidays by the seaside – this could have been a gloomy depressive story but in Bhattacharya’s skillful hands it becomes a reflection of what it takes to make a marriage work – it has a delightful ending.
Throughout this collection the writing is lush and sensuous, the characters diverse and multi-layered, the stories are expertly structured and you feel in the hands of a very talented author. These are stories to be savoured like a good meal, you will want to keep reading and not leave the table.

Monday, 20 August 2018

The Cartography of Others, a short story collection by Catherine McNamara

I met Catherine McNamara a couple of years ago at the launch of the Willesden Herald anthology (New Short Stories 9), when we both had short stories featured, and we’ve kept in touch via good old Facebook ever since. I am delighted to welcome her onto the blog today to talk about her writing.
My own review is at the end of this post. 

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She was an embassy secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, translator and shoe model. Her collection The Cartography of Others came out in 2018 with Unbound. Her book Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Her work has been Pushcart-nominated and published in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. Catherine lives in Italy.

The Cartography of Others
A Japanese soprano sets sail for arid, haunted Corsica where she seeks her lost voice. A nude woman at the window of a Hong Kong hotel watches her lover dine in an adjacent building, but is her desire faltering? With a young son and her photographer partner, a journalist traverses Mali to interview an irascible musician. A son relives his mother’s last hours before a hiking accident in the Italian Dolomites, while in London a grieving family takes in an ex-soldier from the Balkan wars, unaware of the man’s demons.  
The Cartography of Others takes us from fumy Accra to suburban Sydney, from scruffy Paris to pre-fundamentalist Mali. Each bewitchingly recounted story conveys a location as vital as the fitful, contemplative characters themselves. Lives are mapped, unpicked and crafted, across vivid lingering terrains. 

Q: You have such a wonderful portfolio of short stories, published and award winning, how did you go about making a selection of what to include in the collection? I'd also love to know how you decided on the order of stories, what criteria did you use in putting stories next to each other for example?
This is such a writers’ question, and one I’ve often wanted to ask short story writers, and am very happy to answer. The collection shifted over a number of years before becoming the version it is today. However, I was always certain of the order of the first few stories, the final story, and the ones that would precede it. I wrote the first story ‘Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage’, in late 2013, and ‘Three Days in Hong Kong the same month. I think the last stories were written in 2015. Over that two year period I wrote the twenty stories that make up the collection, with a lot of submitting, rejections, revisions and publication through that period. For some reason, I ended up with slightly more male protagonists than female, a couple of second person stories, a handful of first person stories, and many more pieces written in the third person. Having spent years living in West Africa and in Europe, half of the stories are set in West Africa, and the others spread from Western Europe to Hong Kong and Australia. So when it was time to arrange an order I had to think of location and voice and tone, making an even transition from story to story. As you know, this is not easy! I wrote the titles on strips of paper which I lay down on a rug in my attic, and for a week went up there just to ponder and rearrange. Even now I worry there are order changes that I could make. Although I think this is the nature of the writer – never being satisfied.
Q. What first triggers the idea of a story for you? Is it a theme, or title or a line of dialogue? I know for every writer it's a different process. How do you know you have a short story beginning to form?
For me the trigger has to be the pulse of the first sentence. Which as a writer you must be allured and intrigued by – as much as the reader. Diving into the story with this scent or hint of motion is very exciting and I never know where a story will take me. If I know too much I am likely to overturn everything and veer another way. I like to feel breathless and entranced through to the last word.
Q. What are your favourite short stories and/or short story writers? Could you recommend any collections or anthologies to read, particularly for writers just starting out to write this form?
My first short story loves were Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Patrick White, but I have discovered so many along the way, and intend to reread old favourites and discover many more. I also enjoyed the stories of Mavis Gallant, Grace Paley, Carson MacCullers, John Cheever, Yukio Mishima, Joseph Conrad, Shirley Hazzard, Ben Okri, John Salter, Patricia Highsmith, all high priests and priestesses of the form. Contemporary loves include ZZ Packer, Nam Le, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Viet Nguyen, Miranda July, May-Lan Tan, Deborah Levy. A collection I would recommend is Kasuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes and Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now – pitch perfect works. Collections I’ve read and enjoyed this year include Alison MacLeod’s All the Beloved Ghosts, Rebecca Clarkson’s Barking Dogs and Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now.
Q. Can you tell us what you're working on right now? What new projects are you planning or hoping to work on in the near future.
Right now I’m working on the occasional short story or flash piece, but I’m focussing on writing a novel. It’s been a bumpy year so I’m almost looking forward to the long winter so as to straighten out my ideas. I also have a flash collection on submission and am collaborating on a film script for one of the stories in Cartography. I know that my main love is the short story but it’s useful to explore story itself through different forms. I find it makes me carve straight into the essence, and also to consider the diverse ways of conversing with the reader.

Thank you for having me Tracy!

And thank you, Catherine for sharing your process. You’ve also listed a lot of short story writers that I need to track down.

You can link with Catherine on:
Facebook: Catherine McNamara
Twitter: @catinitaly
Instagram: @catinitaly

And buy your copy of The Cartography of Others:

Gardners (for booksellers)

Plus all good book shops. 

Here is my posted review of Catherine’s latest short story collection, which I highly recommend, and using her words (see above) her stories made me feel “breathless and entranced through to the last word”:

The Cartography of Others by Catherine McNamara (Unbound) is a collection of 20 short stories, which together map the complexities that link men and women. These are beautifully constructed stories, the language lyrical and poetic yet still authentic and real. Many of these stories felt like the beginning of longer pieces, you could believe in the characters, see their lives continuing far beyond the story’s conclusion. I wanted most of them to be longer, to carry on reading and learn more about the people who populated McNamara’s intricate worlds. The voices are varied, both male and female narrators share their moments, and the settings stretch from Japan to Paris, Mali and Spain, Sydney to a boat cruise round Corsica. Each place is exquisitely drawn and always integral to the atmosphere and mood of the story. McNamara often focuses in on a couple’s relationship at the moment where everything is about to change. The passion and pain of love beginning, or ending, is in these stories. Sexual tension, aggression, along with obsession and unrequited longing are here and the emotions are achingly real.
My personal favourite is ‘Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage’ where a Belgian music manager and his Japanese soprano wife have booked a week-long cruise around Corsica. Their relationship is brought into taut comparison with that of the couple managing the boat. There is also humour here as the cook’s ambition is to see the soprano’s hidden toes. The soprano is delicate and nervous, her voice apparently damaged and degrading. The interplay between the four characters in this story was breathtaking, their complexities and neuroses written with a poignant understanding of humanity. It would make a glorious film. I wanted more of these characters – the cost of the collection is worth it simply for this story, and then you have 19 bonus stories to enjoy.
I envy anyone reading this collection for the first time – they have a wonderful experience ahead of them.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Breaking the (writing) rules

When you first start writing it's best to learn the rules and try to stick to them. Experimentation can come later when you feel more confident. That was my own approach to writing. I also have several golden rules that I stick to ... but then rules are there to be broken, aren't they (I'm sure someone very wise said that).
This weekend I traveled to Bristol for the Flash Fiction Festival at Trinity College. If you write or read flash or are interested in learning more about flash fiction then this is THE annual event to get to - I highly recommend you follow @FlashFictFest on Twitter to find out about events and the 2019 festival, and get your place booked early! This year's festival was wonderful: great workshops with very experienced flash writers, lots of time for networking (ie chatting/gossiping), opportunities for Open Mic, mini competitions, terrific food, a well stocked bookshop (note to self: take more cash next year!) and oodles of time for socialising. I wish I'd had Hermione's time twisting necklace (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) as each session I could have signed up for several simultaneous workshops. Here's a flavour of the tutors: Meg Pokrass, Jude Higgins, Vanessa Gebbie, Nancy Stohlman, KM Elkes, David Gaffney, Michael Loveday, Carrie Etter, Christopher Allen, Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Nuala O'Connor, Haleh Agar, Santino Prinzi and so many others. Basically the Stars of Flash Fiction were at this Festival. Writers had traveled from the US and Australia for the Festival, as well as coming from Ireland and all over the UK. It felt truly international, yet still like meeting up with old friends. I met some lovely new friends too and several of my heroes of flash fiction.

Over the weekend I broke two of my golden rules, as follows:
Never read after drinking alcohol. (See photo opposite, in which I look deadly serious. Photo by Debbi Voisey).
Another writer 'encouraged' me to sign up for the Open Mic readings on Friday night. By then I had drunk at least half a bottle of Prosecco. Maybe this was a rule that needed breaking ...

The second golden rule is not a writing one but since I was in the company of writers ...
Never (ever) do Karaoke.
By this time I had polished off the bottle of Prosecco and possibly started another ... I sang Human League's Electric Dreams (my favourite song of all time) along with Debbi Voisey.
I wish I could say never again, but actually I think I may have enjoyed breaking this rule.

Finally, another golden writing rule was:
Don't write a first draft just before a competition deadline and submit without anyone reviewing.
I broke this at the beginning of June when I wrote the opening 10K words of a new novel, then a synopsis and finally entered it into the 2018 Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition (for debut novelists).
If you read this link to Richard and Judy's Bookclub website you'll learn that sometimes it really is okay to break your own rules.
Now I have to finish the novel and submit before 28 December. I'd better get writing then ...

Monday, 25 June 2018

Separated From the Sea: short story collection by Amanda Huggins

 I am delighted to welcome Amanda Huggins on the Blog today. I’ve known Mandy virtually for several years, mainly from seeing her name on competition placings and short listings, and have long admired her writing. It is encouraging and inspiring to now see her short fiction coming out in print and particularly her own short story collection Separated From the Sea (published by Retreat West Books).
All 26 stories are incredibly poignant and will linger with you long after reading. Huggins’ prose is both beautiful and heart breaking; she exquisitely captures those delicate moments where a relationship is about to experience a pivotal change (good or bad). The characters are as diverse and colourful as the settings; we peer into the miniature worlds of her characters as they cope with grief, failed love affairs and seeking their dreams. We travel all across the globe (US, Paris, Italy, Japan etc) and I particularly enjoyed the stories set in Japan, where Huggins’ lyrical writing really seems to take off. My own special favourites include: The last of Michiko, The Shadow Architect, No Longer Charlotte and well I could go on …

Amanda’s work has been published in anthologies, literary journals, and publications such as the Guardian, Telegraph, Wanderlust, Mslexia and Writers' Forum.
Her travel writing has won several awards, including the British Guild of Travel Writers New Travel Writer, and her short stories are regularly placed and listed in competitions, including Bare Fiction, Fish, InkTears, and Cinnamon Press.

A selection of her short stories appear in the InkTears showcase, Death of a Superhero, and her flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses, is published by Chapeltown Books. Separated From the Sea (Retreat West Books) is her first full length short story collection.

Separated From the Sea:
Crossing oceans from Japan to New York and from England to Havana, these stories are filled with a sense of yearning, of loss, of not quite belonging, of not being sure that things are what you thought they were. They are stories imbued with pathos and irony, humour and hope. 
Evie meets a past love but he's not the person she thinks he is; a visit to the most romantic city in the world reveals the truth about an affair; Satseko discovers an attentive neighbour is much more than that; Eleanor’s journey on the London Underground doesn't take her where she thought it would.
Q - Can you share how you went about finding a publisher for the collection and the steps involved from acceptance to publication? 
Prior to 2017 I had only submitted my short story collection to a couple of publishers, as in my heart I knew it wasn’t ready, and that there were at least half a dozen weak stories that didn’t deserve their place in the book.
However, when my flash collection, Brightly Coloured Horses, was accepted by Chapeltown Books at the start of 2017, it gave me the confidence I needed to try and find a publisher for the full-length collection again – this time in earnest.
 After a further edit I submitted it to another publisher, and this time it made the next round, and was sent out to readers. The response was very positive – one reader specifically asked the publisher to let me know that if the book were accepted she would definitely buy it. Yet in the end it was a no – they felt it still needed more work. I was now armed with suggestions for improvements, and as well as making all the changes, I wrote five new stories in a very short space of time that turned out to be some of the best I’ve written. (This is unusual for me, as I’m a very slow writer!). So I was finally able to ditch the weakest stories, re-title the collection and get it back out there.

I made it my writing goal for 2018 to get Separated From the Sea published. I submitted it to three publishers at the end of 2017/beginning of 2018, and Retreat West Books was one of them. I sent the sample stories to Amanda Saint under a pen-name. I had met Amanda briefly at the launch of a Retreat West anthology in September 2017, and I wanted her to read my work without any pre-conceived ideas about the author! She came back to me very quickly asking for the full manuscript, and a few weeks after that, towards the end of January, she signed me up. I’m very proud to be RWB’s first single collection author!

I was expecting publication to be a slow process, and certainly didn’t anticipate Separated being out any earlier than 2019 – however as you know, the book launched on June 2nd, which is amazing. I had the final manuscript over to Amanda very quickly, and then she fired the edits back to me a couple of weeks later. Luckily, she liked my re-writes, and we had agreed on the final version by the beginning of March. By April, the RWB team and myself were proofreading, and I already had the wonderful cover designed by Jennie Rawlings at Serifim. Then the blog tour was arranged, and I fired my guest posts off to Amanda before I went on holiday at the end of May! Phew!

I think I’ve made it sound far too easy (!), and obviously there was a lot more to it than that – especially from the publisher’s point of view!  It goes without saying that there’s a lot more work now that the book is out there – all the ongoing marketing/PR activity by both RWB and myself.

Q - I love the imagery in all your stories. What triggers a new short or flash story for you ... a title, image, character etc ... can you talk us through the Amanda Huggins process of story generation?
 My stories are occasionally inspired by personal experience, yet I would never write an entire short story about something that actually happened to me. Instead, I draw on small incidents that really occurred and include those as part of a longer piece of work.

For example, just like the protagonist in my story ‘Better to see him Dead’, I did accidentally  switch the washing machine on with my cat inside – don’t worry, she escaped unharmed! And just like Evie in my story, ‘Enough’, I did slip on the ice and smash a flask of soup I was taking to a homeless man.
However most of my main story ideas come straight from my imagination, often sparked by something observed or overheard on public transport, in the street, or on the news. Sometimes the starting point will be a newspaper story, or a single scene from a film that inspires me to create a completely new story or an alternative ending.
Q - You are also a successful travel writer, and your sense of place is a key element I admire in your fiction. How do you split your time between the two? What is a typical writing day for you?
 When I started writing seriously a few years ago, I concentrated solely on travel writing. There were so many places I wanted to write about, and I had a pile of travel journals from various trips I’d made to countries such as India, Japan, Russia, and Eastern Europe. The first pieces I wrote were for specific competitions, as I found the deadlines were a useful incentive. I sent a travel piece to the Daily Telegraph every single week until they published me! 

In the last couple of years I have concentrated more and more on writing fiction. However, the sense of place in my stories is still very important to me, and the settings for my short stories are often countries I have explored on my travels. I was brought up on the North Yorkshire coast, and so the sea appears as a major character in a lot of my work as well.

I had to laugh at you saying ‘a typical writing day.’ If only I had a whole day to write – ever! I work full time in engineering, and so five days a week I’m at the day job. I enjoy getting out and talking to people, and writing is a solitary pursuit, so it actually makes for a good mix. However it does severely restrict the time I get to actually write! I have a half hour walk to work, which is useful thinking time, so I'm often jotting down notes as soon as I arrive.

I try and write most evenings during the week, but there are so many demands on my time that if I get an hour or two then I’m lucky. Fortunately my partner writes too - a very popular niche music blog - so we both understand each other’s need for creative space!

Q - Can you tell us what writing projects, fiction and/or non-fiction, you have in the Huggins pipeline? 
 A few months ago I started work on a poetry collection, which is something I’ve been wanting to concentrate on for some time. A number of the poems are about growing up in a seaside town in the seventies, but others explore themes of grief and loss, and of yearning for a different life, closer to nature.
I also have an idea for a novella which I plan to start work on soon.
However, it’s proving difficult to write anything new at the moment, as I’m still busy promoting both of my collections!
I'm also the judge of this year's I Must Be Off Travel Writing Competition, so later this summer I'll be reading the shortlisted entries, which I'm looking forward to!

Thank you, Mandy, for being such a sport and answering all of LitPig's questions. I have to admit we are really excited to hear about a poetry collection and look forward to reading that! 

Please do check out the links below to buy this wonderful collection. You can also follow Mandy on Twitter and her blog.

Published by Retreat West Books - 2nd June 2018
Ebook                ISBN: 978-1-9997472-7-5
Paperback         ISBN: 978-1-9997472-6-8
The collection is currently in stock on:
Mandy's blog - Troutie McFish Tales
Twitter: @troutiemcfish