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Thursday, 23 December 2021

The Great Monster Pie Off of 2020 (A bonus Christmas story for 'Hairy on the Inside' fans)

The highlight of my writing year for 2021 was the publication of ‘Hairy on the Inside’, my debut novella-in-flash (published by the wonderful Ad Hoc Fiction). It has some lovely reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and, hopefully has been making readers laugh. If you read and enjoyed the novella then here is a bonus Christmas story featuring all the ‘Hairy’ gang. And if you haven’t yet read it then this is your Christmas taster …


The Great Monster Pie Off of 2020


It was Frank’s idea. With news that we were moving into Tier 4 and tighter restrictions from Boxing Day, then why not try something new for our two household gathering. Frank is a committed fan of Bake Off, hasn’t missed a single episode since it began, and has proposed we undertake a Showstopper challenge instead of cooking the usual festive feast. He’s calling it a Pie Off. Everyone is keen to join in, even our blood-sucking live-in landlord, Julien, whose culinary skills are confined to heating up left-overs in the microwave, not a sight for the squeamish. We can create a pie of our own design, using whatever pastry crust and fillings we fancy. I’m drooling at the thought. Thankfully, my time of the lunar month isn’t till next week; paws would have been a baking handicap. A Cold Moon will sap my strength, meaning I have every excuse to stuff myself silly beforehand. A selection of pies, washed down with pints of Prosecco, sounds a perfect day to me.


“I can hear your tummy growling already, Chloe,” says Frank, winking at me.


“Do they have to be savoury?” asks Marlene. She has a sweet tooth (the others rotted long ago) and loves desserts. 


“There are no rules. Make your dream pie.” Frank tips his head right back with excitement, straining the fraying stitches around his neck to breaking point. He’s recently been banned from our local supermarket after his head toppled into the frozen peas. 


I’ve invited Gemma, my support bubble girlfriend, to join us. We met between lockdowns and this will be our first Christmas. I’m a little twitchy about how she feels, really feels about me, or even if we have a future together. She arrives mid-morning with bags of gifts and all the ingredients for her pie. She’s not like me, nor the rest of my housemates. Gemma has a pulse and doesn’t shed hair on the sofa, but she’s been invited in and accepted by all. She’s kept teaching all year, a key worker, and Julien calls her a hero for our times. I think he secretly has a crush on Gemma, since he’s abstained from drinking in her presence. Or rather he’s abstained from drinking her.


Gemma selects an appropriately festive play-list on her phone, then Frank declares it’s time to “BAKE.”


Short, puff or filo. Pastry choices sound more like dog breeds to me. Frank is a traditionalist and opted for a hot-water crust, with turkey, stuffing and cranberry layers inside. He’s even fashioned a home-made pie mould using his melted down spare set of neck bolts. “No chance of a soggy bottom with this,” he says. 


Marlene cheerily calls out “Bingo!” She’s just won the soggy bottom sweepstake for guessing Frank would say it before the Queen’s speech. There’s no prize, but she helps herself to a celebratory sherry, filling her schooner glass to the brim. Marlene is petite and still shrinking post-mortem, so it goes straight to what’s left of her head and she’s soon singing the original lyrics to A Fairy Tale of New York, which makes Gemma get the giggles.


“That’s cheating, Chloe.” Frank sniffs as I pull out the ready-made sheets of puff pastry from the fridge.


“If it’s good enough for Mary Berry,” I retort, then spoon in my filling. In deference to Gemma’s veggie tastes I’m using chestnuts, spinach and mushrooms. Technically, it’s a Wellington not a pie, as Frank is keen to point out, but it’s made with love (not lard) for the one I adore. 


My housemates snigger, and I realise I’ve just said that last bit out loud. I’ve never told her this before and Gemma blushes under the flour dusting her cheeks. She’s chosen a shortcrust recipe packed with all my favourite species. Holding her nose, Gemma tips out the innards into the dish and my heart swells as I watch her trying not to gag. In true Bake Off fashion, Frank loudly announces we have two hours left. I have no idea if that’s a short or long time, I rarely cook anything from scratch and often eat alfresco.


Marlene’s baking her pastry case blind. It takes both Frank and me to pop her eyes back in. Her entry is a mulled wine apple pie (her own concoction). She may have gone overboard with the Rioja, but the kitchen smells divine, a heady scent of cinnamon, cloves and pure alcohol. Now we’re all singing along with Wizzard.


A tuneless whining accompanies us from under the table. “Who let the dog in?” says Gemma, as she bends to scratch behind the spaniel’s crinkly ears.


“That’s not a real dog,” I tell her. “This is Malcolm, from Julien’s Book Club. He’s monstrous, don’t let him look up your dress.”


She steps back, as Malcolm, in spaniel form, rolls over to offer his belly for a tickle. I’m not sure when he snuck in, but his presence contravenes the two-household rule and I wouldn’t like to be in his fur if Julien catches him here. When I open the back door to shoo him out, he’s shifted into a posh pink poodle, lips puckered as he poses under the mistletoe. 


“No chance, Malcolm.” I drag him outside by his satin white bow and scold him for being a “bad dog.” That was cruel of me, but he’s been shifting his shape and trying it on all year, never getting the message.


Gemma smiles at me, the way that makes me want to dance. She knows not to sing Last Christmas by Wham! – it brings back painful memories for Frank – but mimes the words to me, then leans in close to whisper, “This year I have found someone special. I baked my pie with love too.” Now I know exactly how she feels and I can’t stop grinning like a love-sick Labrador.


At sunset Julien flies in for the climax of the competition. True to form, he slips his pie (“one I made earlier”) into the microwave. Julien is simple in his tastes, O positive usually. I warn Gemma not to try his entry. 


With all five pies steaming on the kitchen table, it occurs to Frank that we haven’t got a judge. As competition bakers none of us can pick a winner, so we call up our friend Dottie for a video chat on WhatsApp. Dottie is our neighbour, the same age as the Queen (and Sir David), currently shielding until she gets her second vaccination. Unable to sample any of the entries, she unhelpfully decrees they are all winners, which puts Frank into a sulk. Julien saves the day, and Frank’s mood, by unveiling his surprise gift to the household. He’s downloaded every series of Bake Off, a virtual box-set we can enjoy all year round.


Against my better judgement, and with Julien’s permission, I whistle Malcolm back into the kitchen to name the Star Baker for our first Pie Off. He’s now a sleek grey wolf with golden eyes. Okay, he’s getting closer, but I wouldn’t fancy him if he were the last canine on earth. I take Gemma’s hand and she squeezes mine back. Leaping onto the table Malcolm tentatively sniffs and licks each entry, then snatches up Frank’s “turkey with all the trimmings” pie and scarpers.


Gemma climbs onto a chair to crown Frank as the winner. The yellow paper hat, salvaged from a cracker, sits unevenly on his odd-shaped head. “Shame your ears don’t match,” she says, suppressing a laugh.  


Frank beams proudly. “Did I tell you that I once met Mary Shelley? Though she was known as Wollstonecraft Godwin at the time.”


In unison we shout: YES. Then pelt him with cranberries.


Later, we all cram into the lounge to begin a Bake Off binge. Frank brings out a plate of warmed mince pies. “This year I made my own mincemeat,” he boasts.


I notice how several of his fingertips are missing and advise Gemma that the pies may not be suitable for vegetarians. We also share the last chocolate orange, Gemma brought one for each of us but the others have mysteriously disappeared. Marlene refuses to confess when I quiz her about the four empty boxes in the recycling bin, it’s a good job she’s already dead as right now I could kill her. 


Everyone agrees the Pie Off has been a success. We may have begun a new annual tradition. Julien makes a round of snowballs, with a glacĂ© cherry hidden at the bottom as a final treat. Gemma and I exchange a shy smile that reassures me we have a future. Clinking our glasses together, our two households toast what is to come. Old habits aren’t necessarily good ones, it could be the perfect time for change. 


If you enjoyed this story then why not treat yourself to the original novella-in-flash ‘Hairy on the Inside’ featuring these characters. Available from Ad Hoc Fiction and Amazon

Thank you to all my readers and followers. LitPig and I would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a creative, healthy and happy 2022!


Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Hairy On The Inside launch!

I can't tell you how much it means to hold a book with just my name on the cover, and I am delighted with Hairy On The Inside published by Ad Hoc Fiction. I love the cover, which totally fulfilled the brief I gave John at Ad Hoc, and now LitPig has his very own mug to match. 


The launch for my debut novella-in-flash will be hosted by Jude Higgins on Wednesday 15th September 7.30 - 9pm BST. It's a double launch with Jupiter Jones and there will be readings from both of us, along with some chat, Q&A and raffle to win copies of the two novellas. If you'd like to come along (and it would be wonderful to see some of you there) then you can request the link by following the instructions here or if you're on Twitter then DM @AdHocFiction or @BathFlashAward.

For publication day my best writing chum Wendy Clarke gave me this beautiful patio rose to mark the occasion. I'm not sure I'd keep writing without her support and our monthly goal setting (not to mention all the coffee and cake... ). 

This novella-in-flash may not have been written without the encouragement and feedback of my workshop Dream Team: Richard Buxton, Bee Mitchell-Turner and Zoe Mitchell. I owe a big thank you to Michelle Elvy, who judged the 2021 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and shortlisted Hairy On The Inside, and much thanks to early reviewers: Vanessa Gebbie, Amanda Huggins and Tim Craig, for all their lovely cover quotes. 

If you want to hold your own copy of Hairy On The Inside then they are available to buy from Ad Hoc Fiction or Amazon. If you enjoy the read then please think about posting a review online (Amazon, Goodreads, Ad Hoc Fiction). Or just Tweet about it, all and any pics of Hairy out in the wild (perhaps with a hairy/furry friend) are welcomed and much loved!



Monday, 2 August 2021

Celebrating Writing Milestones

Today I'm celebrating two milestones in my writing career.  My short fiction has featured in many anthologies but finally there is a book coming out with just my name on the cover! That's a big deal for me. Here is the cover reveal for my debut novella-in-flash Hairy on the Inside, to be published by Ad Hoc Fiction on 27th August. You can now pre-order the novella with a 25% discount until publication day from Ad Hoc Fiction here.

Hairy on the Inside was shortlisted for the 2021 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award, for which it needed to comprise individual flashes (or chapters) of not more than 1000 words long. Note: A novella-in-flash should have a distinct narrative arc (tell a complete story) and is not simply a collection of unrelated flash stories. 

If you do pre-order then THANK YOU,  and if possible after reading please leave a review on Ad Hoc Fiction, Goodreads etc. It is intended to be a comic novella with the simple intention of making people smile (and hopefully chuckle).

Some advance praise for Hairy on the Inside:

Michelle Elvy, author of the everrumble and judge for 2021 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award - 

A group of flatmates try to hold onto their compassion and civilising tendencies in the face of pestilence and plague - mostly. Their new lockdown lives include all the typical things, from counselling sessions to book clubs. But this is no ordinary tale: you will howl when the moon is full and grimace when there's a hunger for blood. A funny and irreverent monster mash-up, with love in the mix, too, and a serious message about how to be the real you. Carefully written with excellent pacing but also: it's clear how much fun the writer had writing this!

Vanessa Gebbie -

Friends house-share during the pandemic - but that's where the real world fades out. These friends are the undead. Shapeshifters, zombies and werewolves have to endure the ups and downs, the privations and boxed sets of the pandemic just like the rest of us. Nothing escapes Tracy Fells's boundless creativity and wit.

Amanda Huggins, author of All our Squandered Beauty - 

In this original, witty and irreverent novella-in-flash, Tracy Fells sprinkles her skilful writing magic over a group of extraordinary housemates. The monstrous friends grapple with lockdown while pursuing love and doing battle with their unnatural urges, always remaining true to their real selves in the way only the undead can!

Tim Craig, Winner of the Brigport Prize for Flash Fiction - 

Hairy on the Inside shows what can be achieved by a novella-in-flash when it's in the hands of a real master of the form. I laughed. I cried. I checked under the bed...


And my second milestone... reaching 100 publications with a flash story on National Flash Fiction Day's FlashFlood Journal. You can read Brittle here

Brittle is very different in tone and themes from Hairy on the Inside, hopefully demonstrating the versatility of Flash Fiction!

Monday, 21 June 2021

Let Us Look Elsewhere by Mona Dash

My guest on the blog today is the multi-talented writer Mona Dash. Let Us Look Elsewhere (published by Dahlia Books) is her terrific new short story collection and she’s come along to talk about the stories and her writing. 

My own review of Let Us Look Elsewhere is at the end of the post…


Mona Dash
is the author of  A Roll of the Dice : a story of loss, love and genetics (Linen Press, 2019) winner of the Eyelands International Book Awards for memoir, and very recently, Let Us Look Elsewhere (Dahlia Books, June ’21).Her other published books are A Certain Way, Untamed Heart, and Dawn-drops. Her work has been listed in leading competitions such as Novel London 20, SI Leeds Literary award, Fish, Bath, Bristol, Leicester Writes and Asian Writer, and widely published in international journals and more than twenty anthologies. A graduate in Telecoms Engineering, she holds an MBA, and also a Masters in Creative Writing (with distinction). She works in a global tech company and lives in London.

Mona's Wesbsite 

About Let Us Look Elsewhere:

A young boy refuses to ferry his boat. A woman orders a British


accent to fit in. A lover sends messages into the void. Disconnection and desire go hand in hand in this powerful collection. From the bustling streets of Mumbai to the glitz and glamour of Vegas, and the everyday streets of London, these beautifully observed stories explore human frailties and triumph.

Praise for Let Us Look Elsewhere

A wonderful, richly rendered and triumphant collection. Highly recommended

~ Irenosen Okojie, Author, MBE

Mona Dash has produced an unflinching collection of short stories, demonstrating that she is a fearless writer, unafraid to reveal her characters flaws and extremes as they search for a sense of identity and belonging. 

~ Joe Melia, Bristol Short Story Prize Co-ordinator

These atmospheric stories travel across continents and time, offering surprising and intriguing incursions into the disparate moments of solitary lives.

 ~ Amanthi Harris, Author

Mona tells us:

This is a collection of stories written over the past five or six years. Several of these were listed in competitions or published in a journal. It was only when an older and different version of this collection was shortlisted in the SI Leeds Literary Award in 2018. It was the only short story collection to make the final shortlist of six books, so that is when I realised I had a potential book!

I wrote each story as it ‘arrived’ in my head, so the influences and inspirations are varied. There are two threads through the heart of the collection, firstly human frailty and disconnect, since the characters are not complete or content. They are each on a quest, whether it is to find love or self-fulfilment. The second is a sense of place, and how our surroundings often influence and make a difference to our own ideologies and personality constructs. 

Then there are two themes stitching the stories. Multiple, diverse identity is very important to me as a person, and as a writer. The travesty of belonging and feeling like an outsider, can happen to anyone. Many of the stories explore situational belonging and identity, such as Natural Accents, Golems of Prague, Temple Cleaner, The Sense of Skin, Boatboy. Though Boatboy is a bit different as it is the only one based on a real incident in history.

Desire, passion, sensuality, especially of women, is the second theme throughout the collection. The women in my stories are trying to find themselves, often through love, intimacy, they are often rebelling against the spaces they have been forced into.  This exploration into the complexity of a woman’s mind and her often ambiguous secret world, is explored through the stories like Lovers in a Room, Secrets, Watching the Aurora, Inside the City, Formations, Fitted Lids, That which is unreal, Why does the cricket sing?

I have thoroughly enjoyed writing these stories!

... and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them! Thank you, Mona.

Most Importantly: 

Let Us Look Elsewhere is available from Dahlia Books with free postage in the UK

My review of Let Us Look Elsewhere: 

Let Us Look Elsewhere by Mona Dash is a collection of short stories that will make you look elsewhere with eager eyes. Every time I opened this collection I looked forward to reading a new story. I never knew where the author would take me next, to different times and places all across the world where I could learn about so many different lives and settings. 

Short story collections can often be a chore, the pages filled with admirable prose yet dull plot-lines, whereas Let Us Look Elsewhere is refreshingly packed with compelling and thrilling stories. Realist and speculative fiction happily sit together, which makes for exciting reading. Each story intrigued and fascinated me, I was totally immersed in the characters’ lives and eager to learn their fates. In this collection you will discover multiple worlds, novels played out in miniature leaving you hungry for more yet very satisfied with the story’s closure. Dash’s talent is for creating believable characters who you care about. I particularly loved the more complex and morally dubious characters in this collection. You may question their motives and methods but their voices fascinate and intrigue, and you can’t stop reading.

Imaginative, risk-taking and always surprising, this collection of short stories is a joy to read.

Friday, 4 December 2020

And then there were three: writing a historical trilogy with Richard Buxton

I’m delighted to welcome Richard Buxton back to the blog. He’s recently published the second novel in his Shire’s Union trilogy, a historical series set during the American Civil War featuring Englishman Shire. Now he’s working on the final book and shares his thoughts on writing a trilogy. I’ve been part of a workshop group with Richard sharing our writing since we completed our MAs and have been privileged to read/review Shire’s journey so far. I’m looking forward to the final book but also feel similar to Richard in that it will be tough not to have these characters in my life.

You can read my review of THE COPPER ROAD at the end of this post …

Richard lives with his family in the South Downs, Sussex, England. He competed an MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University in 2014. He has an abiding relationship with America, having studies
at Syracuse University, New York State, in the late eighties. His short stories have won the Exeter Story Prize, the Bedford International Writing Competition and the Nivalis Short Story Award. 

Richard's first novel, Whirligig, was published in 2017 and shortlisted for the Rubery International Book Award. His second novel, The Copper Road, was released in July 2020. 

THE COPPER ROAD

Shire is far from home, his old life in Victorian England a fading memory. He's battled through war-


torn America to keep a cherished promise to his childhood companion. Now she’s pushing him away, while the war won’t let him go. Fighting for the Union, Shire must survive the brutal campaign for Atlanta and try to imagine a future without her.

Clara is free from her husband but not from his ghost. After a violent end to an abusive marriage, she struggles to keep her home in the Tennessee hills as the war steals away its treasures and its people.

Tod, a captured Rebel, escapes in Pennsylvania. His encounters on the long road back to his regiment cast the Civil War in a different light. He begins to question his will to fight.

Three young lives become wrapped in the Rebels’ desperate need for copper. Friendships, loyalty and love will be tested beyond breaking point. Shire has new promises to keep.

And Then There Were Three

There are different levels of commitment when it comes to writing in the long form. Claiming you’ve always wanted to write a book but can never find the time is no commitment at all. Starting a novel is laudable and impressive if you finish it. Casually announcing halfway through writing your first that it’s going to be a trilogy is just highly reckless. I fall into the latter category. It doesn’t help if you are ‘blessed’ with a stubborn streak, born to see things through at all costs. ‘Nothing pays off like persistence,’ a good friend once told me. I’ll let you know if that turns out to be true.

There are upsides, of course. I wouldn’t be without my own Shire’s Union trilogy based in the American Civil War composed of Whirligig, The Copper Road and Tigers in Blue (under construction). There’s a certain long-term comfort, a bit like knowing you’re not going to move house anytime soon. Much of the heavy lifting is done in the first book. Whatever your genre, you’ll have got your universe sorted out. Your characters are ready and waiting for the further books assuming you haven’t killed them off already. You’ve probably settled into your writing voice. If you’re really lucky you have a readership, or at least a favourite aunt, who is gently clawing at you for book two.

But there are also flipsides to the upsides. Let’s start with character and story arcs. Unless you are planning cliff-hanger endings to the early books - it works for Doctor Who but less so with novels – your characters are each going to need a satisfying arc that works for each book as well as one for the trilogy. This involves some major forward planning, or at least forward emoting. What images do you see for the last scene in the last book that are going to leave your aunt reaching for her hankie?

I’m about a quarter way through drafting my final book and realised early on that, as with book two, I needed to totally reassess my characters’ states of mind. How have they changed? Do they have new objectives or desires? This is more pronounced than in a longer series where the number of books extends towards infinity. Series have the option to be more formulaic and character development isn’t required to the same extent. With Bernard Cornwell’s enduring character Sharpe, for example, as a reader I was happy he turned up each time as the same up from the ranks, chip on his shoulder, next book next woman, battle frenzy soldier. In a trilogy, I’d argue, the character progression needs to be more evident from book to book.

I discussed trilogy structures with my good friend Phil Williams, a fellow West Sussex Writer and already with two dystopian and fantastical trilogies under his belt, the Estalia and Sunken City trilogies. ‘It’s possible,’ Phil says, 'to view a trilogy as a single story structure: book 1 as the call to action, book 2 as the rising action, and book 3 as the climax. But within each book there are smaller versions of that same structure for each contained tale.'

If you are a writer with modest experience, I’d suggest being careful with voice. No doubt you will want to develop and progress, you may have recently read a new author whose voice you really admire, but your aunt has expectations now. A sudden shift to first person, or trying to be more literary or more commercial is going to unbalance the trilogy.

Another big wrestle is how much help you may give to book 2 readers who didn’t trouble to open their purse to buy book 1. I decided against a ‘what’s gone before’ insert into The Copper Road. It felt like it would cheapen the trilogy somehow. Nevertheless, you will have to judge how much reminding you do on what has gone before. This is an art in itself. There’s already likely to be some degree of scene-setting early in book 2, so if you are ‘reminding’ as well, then there’s a huge risk that the pace will drop and auntie will have a flat read. The dynamics and pace of the individual books have to be paramount. I’m finding with book 3 that I’m putting in even less in the way of recaps. It’s on the cover. Book 3 of Shire’s Union. Your funeral! 

If you think you have a trilogy on your hands, ask yourself why. Is it just that you always loved Lord of the Rings or is there some broader story that you are trying to tell where one book just won’t do? In my case, the history got hold of me and wouldn’t let go. I’d placed my English hero, Shire, in the 125th Ohio Infantry in Whirligig as there were so many first-hand accounts from the regiment. Their first active posting was in Franklin, Tennessee in 1863 and I dutifully went there to research. On a guided tour, in the basement of a farmhouse which became the epicentre of a climactic battle in late 1864, I discovered the longer heroic story of the regiment and knew I had to write a trilogy. Shire would have to fight his way to Chattanooga in Whirligig, towards Atlanta in The Copper Road but would come full circle in Tigers in Blue, back to Franklin, to complete his story.

 The final trial will be to finish the last book, to say goodbye to characters that I’ve lived with these last several years. I’d not thought about that before writing this article and I begin to sense how emotional that will be. They have been constant, if silent, companions. Oh well, I’ll know where to find them if I need them. 

Where to buy Richard's books:

Whirligig 

The Copper Road

Learn more about Richard’s writing at www.richardbuxton.net.

eBooks for both novels will be on sale from the 4th to 11th of December.

My review of THE COPPER ROAD:

Richard Buxton’s second novel in the Shire’s Union series is page turning quality historical fiction with a dash of romance. The Copper Road continues the story of a young Englishman, Shire, thrown unwittingly into the American Civil War and fighting for the Union. His fortune and fate is bound to his childhood friend, Clara, (the daughter of an English Duke). Clara faces her own battles in The Copper Road to protect her dead husband’s Southern estate from marauding gangs. Her unfulfilled love for Shire is tested when she meets Todd, an escaped Confederate prison-of-war, a man with a deep sense of justice and a passionate heart. How will Clara choose between two men, both her equals in intellect and compassion?

The Copper Road is beautifully written by a genuine storyteller. I was completely immersed in the setting and world of 19th century America, effortlessly brought to life by this accomplished writer. Along with the wonderful descriptions it was the interlaced story of the three main characters that kept me hooked and reading to the end. The Copper Road takes you on a cracking journey and will leave you aching to read the next installment.

Monday, 23 November 2020

The House on the Corner by Alison Woodhouse

I’m excited to welcome Alison Woodhouse to chat with us today about her debut ‘The House on the Corner’ (published by Ad Hoc Fiction). ‘The House on the Corner’ is a novella-in-flash, which is still a new form and perhaps is unknown to many of you. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Alison at various events in the last few years, and to hear her read her work at the Flash Fiction Festival and other workshops. It was a delight to read her debut (I could hear her voice in every story) and my own review is at the end of this post. 

Alison Woodhouse is a teacher, tutor and writer. Her short fiction has won a number of competition, including Flash 500, Hastings, HISSAC (both flash & short story), NFFD micro, Biffy50, Farnham,


AdHoc micro (twice) and Limnisa and many others have been placed or shortlisted. Her stories are widely published both in print and online, including In the Kitchen (Dahlia Press), With One Eyes on the Cows (Bath flash fiction), Leicester Writes 2018 & 2020 (Dahlia Press), The Real Jazz Baby (Reflex), A Girl’s Guide go Fishing (Reflex), National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies and Life on the Margins (Scottish Arts Trust Story Awards). She is part of the team who run the Bath Short Story Award and has an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from Bath Spa. Her debut Novella in Flash, The House on the Corner, is published by AdHoc Fiction. 

Twitter: @AJWoodhouse

Facebook:  Alison Woodhouse

Set at the end of the eighties and early nineties, The House on The Corner traces the changes in the
lives of a middle-class nuclear family. As history unfolds outside the house, an ever-deepening crisis threatens the fragile, tenuous connections within. 

Question: A novella-in-flash will be a new form to many readers. Can you tell us what makes this different from a collection of stories?

Hi Tracy, thank you for inviting me onto your blog. I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer as I’m still unravelling what a novella in flash is myself! There are as many styles and subjects as there are flash fictions! For me, I think it differs from a collection of flash stories because it tells one story, the unifying story, in tiny shards or fragments, leaving a lot of space for the reader to make the connections. Each flash contains a nugget whose whole meaning is revealed in conjunction with the rest of the pieces. Whilst each story does stand alone, the impact is greatly increased when they are read together. A collection of flash stories can share themes and even recurring characters, but they are not narratively interdependent and often you can dip in and out. My novella in flash (Nif) is about what happens next, the consequences of characters’ choices. It was a wonderful way for me to explore the family of four over a period of time and chart the changes that happen both within and without the house, moving freely between point of view and jumps in time. I especially enjoy the fracturing in a Nif, because it leaves so much unsaid, which I love in fiction. You really can show not tell! But I wouldn’t get too bogged down in trying to define exactly what it is. In the end, I wanted to try and get the weight and feel that a novel can give a reader, but in far fewer words and I hope the Nif worked! 

Question: Can you tell us how The House on the Corner came to be written and then published? I’m interested to know if you always had a story arc in mind or if it evolved after writing several individual flash stories?

Bath Flash Fiction Award runs an annual Novella in Flash competition, which closes in January. I had read a few of the AdHoc Fiction Nifs and really enjoyed them. The ones that particularly stayed with me (How to Make a Window Snake by Charmaine Wilkinson, for instance, or Homing by Johanna Robinson) were novelistic in scope but so crafted and clever and memorable. The deadline for Bath was a week away when I had a coffee with a friend (Diane Simmons, author of An Inheritance and Finding a Way) and she suggested I entered. I’d started writing flash and entering competitions a couple of years ago and had a fair bit of success winning prizes etc but though I often write about family I didn’t think the flash I’d written had enough connections in terms of story, so the challenge was I’d have to write something new, minimum 6000 words in under a week (Note: maximum is 18,000 words and Alison's is 10,000 words in length). I do like a challenge! I’d been struggling for months with a novel set in the eighties and early nineties and had done lots of research about the impact of the Berlin Wall coming down and the end of the Cold War and all the seismic changes that happened in such a short time and I knew I wanted to set it in that period but wear the history lightly as the novel had got bogged down. Walking home I began to ‘see’ my family of characters and where they lived. I wrote the first story that evening, with the estate agent selling them the house, and then I was off! I wrote the whole thing in less than a week, giving myself a day to proofread. I can honestly say it was thrilling – the most writing fun I’ve ever had. I didn’t stop to look down, just leapt from story to story, keeping all the connections in my head. I think I said this somewhere else, but it was like weaving, or harmonising! To get back to your question (sorry!), there was an arc of sorts set by dates and the opening and closing stories, but the lives of the characters evolved as I wrote. The novella was Highly Commended, which meant it would be published, alongside the other six novellas. The official launch date is actually this Saturday 28th November. Michael Loveday, the judge, offered some excellent feedback prior to publication and I wrote two new stories for balance and strengthened the ending. I feel incredibly lucky, as I really enjoyed writing it, and Jeanette Sheppard (multi-talented author of Seventy Percent Water) painted me the most beautiful cover.

Note: Jeanette Sheppard recently featured on here to talk about her writing and art, you can read her interview here.

Question: What triggers or inspires a story for you? Can you share your writing process for short fiction? 

Interesting question. I often ‘see’ a phrase, or a word, or a scene. Not exactly memory but just my mind wandering off then getting snagged on something. I also like prompts. Last year Adhoc had the word ‘mistake’ as their weekly competition prompt and I saw the first sentence of my flash, that went on to win (read it here); and the rest of the story flowed from that. My story that won Flash500, The Green Dress (read it here), came from an exercise to write about a loved object from childhood. It took me over two years to write that one, as in each subsequent rewrite I delved deeper into the complicated emotions around ‘love’. A lot of writing, for me, is rewriting and I think that’s particularly important in short fiction. In longer form you need the momentum to keep going and though you edit afterwards you can forgive undulations in the text. In a novel sometimes people just have to get from A to B. In short fiction every word matters, every resonance has to sound the intended note. That’s what I love about the rewrites. It’s about finding the sound and rhythms and perfect image for the emotion of the story.

Question: Can you tell us about your next writing project(s), what do you have in the pipeline? 

I have several projects on the go. Firstly, a sequel to The House on the Corner, set a few years later. I don’t know if this is another Nif or not yet. It’s quite different to the first one as it is mainly the wife, Helen, at the moment. I also want to finish the novel I began on my MA two years ago, the one that got bogged down! Since writing the Nif I can approach it differently, so I think that writing experience was really important. I also have about a dozen short stories, quite a few of them prize winning and published, and I want to add more and try and get them published as a collection. And I always have a folder of flash I’m rewriting! In other news, but still writing related, I’m now offering a critique service for flash and short story via my website (alisonwoodhouse.com). 

Question: Where can we buy a copy of The House on the Corner? 

Thank you for asking! Signed copies are available from my website.  

Online at AdHoc Fiction, Waterstones.com or Amazon


My review of THE HOUSE ON THE CORNER:
The House on the Corner is a novella-in-flash, taking us through eight years of one family’s life in 13 flash stories. Alison Woodhouse writes with such a delicate touch, exposing the heart of the King family with insight and understanding, yet the prose is never overdone or judgmental. This is small enough to be read in one sitting, but I’m glad I read it over several days, to savour and relish the unfolding story. When I finished, I immediately wanted to dive right back in at the beginning and wrap myself up in her writing. Each story can be read and enjoyed on its own, however together they build a complete and satisfying arc. I particularly loved how the opening and concluding stories dovetailed like a handshake, despite being set eight years apart. The recurrent details, such as the doorbell or the hamsters, were a joy to pick out and smile at.

The House on the Corner creaks with the melancholic sadness of unfulfilled lives; its stories echo with loneliness. This house is haunted by the living. The characters still linger with me, and my one final hope is that they all went on to find some happiness and contentment, if not together then at least for themselves.


Monday, 2 November 2020

Manual For A Decent Life: a novel by Kavita A. Jindal

I am delighted to welcome Kavita A. Jindal onto the Blog today. Kavita is here to talk about her novel ‘Manual For A Decent Life’ winner of the Brighthorse Prize for Novel and now published by Linen Press. I know Kavita's writing from The Whole Kahini, you can read about their anthology 'May We Borrow Your Country' here. LitPig is also chuffed to learn Kavita is a fan of Walnut Whips (a big favourite in our household). My review follows at the end of the interview …


Kavita A. Jinda
l is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in anthologies and literary journals worldwide and been broadcast on BBC Radio and European radio stations. She is the author of the novel Manual For A Decent Life which won the Brighthorse Prize as a manuscript. She has published two poetry collections to critical acclaim: Patina and Raincheck Renewed. She also writes short stories and essays. She's worked as an editor for literary journals and she's the co-founder of 'The Whole Kahani' writers' collective. In common with The Literary Pig's owner, Kavita regularly consumes walnut whips. 

Manual For A Decent Life:

India, 1996. Waheeda, a principled and spirited young woman from Uttar Pradesh sets her sights on becoming a Member of Parliament. But her romance with the scion of a Delhi business dynasty threatens that dream. Manual for a Decent Life plays out against the backdrop of a tumultuous time in


Indian politics in a world where nothing is what it seems and danger lurks at every turn.

 This ambitious novel is both epic and intimate as Jindal moves seamlessly between domestic family scenes, the passion of an illicit love affair and the instability of political parties vying for power at any cost. The fast-paced, plot-driven drama unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of India in the 1990s. The writing is accomplished, the story is thrilling with a bombshell of an ending.

Q- Can you share how you came to write ‘Manual For A Decent Life’ and tell us more about its path to publication?

This has been a long-haul project, with a meandering and tortured path to completion. I started the book about ten years ago after I’d completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London. I’d already written and published poetry and short stories but wanted to tell this particular story as it was based on my observations in North India from when I was a young adult and volunteered to help during elections. The narrative is completely fictitious as are the main characters, but the backdrop to their lives is real as is the social context. The novel is not set at the time that I myself observed elections, but a bit later, in the closing years of the twentieth century. This is because India was entering the digital era, alongside the rest of the globe, and things were changing dramatically. Political agendas were getting even more skewed than before. I hoped that some of the social issues, especially the treatment of women, would be different in the 21st century. I cannot say that there hasn’t been progress, but it is so little, and the crimes perpetrated against women are still not punished severely enough, that it’s dispiriting. 

A separate interest of mine is a general record of the times and the clash between rural and urban India. In the metropolises of India wealthy people can live in a kind of societal freedom to be had in Western cities and I wanted to write about that bubble, where women and men can attempt to carve out alternative destinies for themselves, than what is being dictated to them. However, one of the themes of the book is that no one can escape the tentacles or effects of politics or gossip.

I did a lot of research, following the trajectories of women politicians in all regions of India and from all religions, just so that I had a lot of information to draw on for the steps my fictitious protagonists would take. 

The reason the book took ten years from inception to publication is that I wrote a few chapters every year – that’s all I could manage. In my head I had the story, and I had all the complex characters who people the novel, and all the episodes that make up the book, so it was a question of finding blocks of time in my schedule to set it down on paper. Or rather, in a Word folder on the computer.

In an echo of what so many other authors have probably told you, the actual publication happened because at the very last minute of the Brighthorse prize deadline a friend sent me the link and said ‘You have a completed novel. Don’t you?’ The submission required a full manuscript. And yes, I did have one, having finally re-written and edited till I was pleased with it and I was sending it out instead of just talking about it. Some months later I heard, out of the blue, that I’d won the prize. Publication would happen soon. That was at the end of 2018, and the book was published by Brighthorse in early 2020, so there was a wait of another year. Because Brighthorse is a small indie outfit, they agreed that I could find another publisher for the UK edition once the US edition was released. This is where Linen Press came into the picture and is now launching the UK paperback of Manual For A Decent Life.  

Q- The title is unusual, how did you decide on this? I’d be interested to know if the title is something you have right from the onset of writing or does it evolve out of the narrative?

The title has generated a lot of interest. I chose this title at the stage of the final edit of the manuscript. Before that, for several years, the book had another working title. When I started the novel that other title felt right and there was a chapter that alluded to it, but that chapter was cut when I re-structured the book a few years ago. I don’t recall how this title came to me, but I knew it fitted the theme of the book which questions ‘what is decency?’ The word holds different meanings for different people especially in hypocritical societies. Who is decent and who isn’t? Are the people who consider themselves better than others more decent, as they think they are?

In another sense, that of a self-help book, if you will, ‘Manual For A Decent Life’ also sets out pathways to achieving what each individual may consider a decent life for themselves, and for dealing with consequences. But this is really for the reader to fathom, and as I’ve discovered, several have ascribed their own meanings to the title.  

Q- I am in awe how you write across different forms. You have publication credits for novels, short stories and poetry, which is impressive. When an idea begins to stir do you instinctively know which form it will take or does this change at all during the process?

Oh, thank you, Tracy. I am just happy that I’m able to write. 

To answer your question though, I do know which form a particular piece will take. Poems come unbidden usually and I don’t change them into another form even if I spend a long time re-drafting and crafting into a piece I’m happy with. Short stories begin with a germ of an idea and as I’m writing them I begin to figure out where they are going and how long the piece is going to be. A short short story or a long one?

As for novels, well, I have two ideas on the back burner, hopefully one of them will move to the front burner soon, and I do know they have to be novels because there is so much I want to fit into those particular narratives – so much about “place” and so much about people’s emotions and motivations and the general craziness of our current world.

Q- All writers have their own process, what triggers a new piece and how do you take it through early drafting to publication?

I have a lot of ideas and observations noted down for future pieces of writing. I also clip stories out of the newspaper almost every day. When I’m drafting a piece of work I never think of publication. I really want to set down something that is unhampered by thoughts of ‘is this publishable?’ or ‘what will somebody think when they read this?’ I absolutely want to write how I want to write and say what I want to say. 

However, at the next stage, when I’m preparing to submit for publication, I cast an editor’s eye over the poem or story. I try to be a stranger reading it and I do make changes that I think will work better for publication. Then it’s a case of submitting, and getting on with other things, so that there are no expectations, and when I hear back that a piece is being published, I’m simply happy.

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

I’m preparing a manuscript of collected short stories that I would like to see published in book form. 

Q – Most importantly where can we buy a copy of Manual For A Decent Life?

Lots of buying options:

1) From the Linen Press website.

2) Order in bookstores or online from Waterstones, Foyles and some other retailers. 

3) It’s also available at Amazon.

You can learn more about Kavita from:

www.kavitajindal.com 

Twitter: @writerkavita 

facebook.com/kavitajindalauthor

My review:

I confess to knowing nothing about life or politics in Indian in the late 1990s, but that made the whole reading experience of ‘Manual for a decent life’ by Kavita A. Jindal all the more intriguing and sweeter. Within pages I cared about Waheeda, her aspirations and dreams, and was quickly immersed in her world. Social constraints have Waheeda trapped in a marriage where her husband no longer wants her in his life, yet they have a daughter, precious to both of them, and cannot separate formally. Pushed into a new political role where she finds herself a candidate in the local elections, Waheeda finds her private life on display at all times and governed by the strict rules of her society and culture. Amidst this scrutiny she risks everything by falling for Monish, a younger Hindu man from a wealthy and influential family, and has to hide their passionate relationship with constant lies and secrecy. We see how complex and dangerous political canvassing is for a female candidate, yet Waheeda bravely embraces the challenge and uses her influence to improve the lives for school-age girls. The final outcome is tragic and heart-breaking as Waheeda’s family is once again ripped apart by violence. 

I enjoyed the rich details of Waheeda’s world in this novel and found it an absorbing story of two people who really should be together but because of social, family and religious rules have to deceive everyone around them for any chance of love. What surprised me was how both men and women are constrained by rigid social rules, neither can find true freedom to simply be themselves or follow their dreams. Lyrical prose and great characters kept me hooked to the end.