Monday, September 30, 2013

Para pet

I’m delighted to have Alison Lock over at the blog today to talk about her debut fiction collection, Above the Parapet; “Short Stories that explore beyond the usual boundaries”.

Welcome, Alison! Now, just be careful, pet, as we climb into the harness - have you piloted a tandem paraglider before? No. Oh, right. Neither have I. Ne' mind, I'm sure we'll get the hang of it. Right, off we go!

I must start by quoting some of the extraordinary blurb from your book:

The world is on a cusp, hovering between the familiar and the dystopian. With humour and compassion the characters are sucked into a slipstream of ordinary events and unusual happenings. A woman hears her roses crying as the ash begins to fall; a girl with hearing loss is more at home with bugs, a man with good intent transmogrifies. There’s a secret inside a pony, an occasional angel, a swarm of flying fish and then there is the dog. And all the while, the natural world is taking an ominous turn.”

This description seems to be suggesting your stories are “slipstream” fiction. But I found myself thinking about genres and how I would describe your stories. There’s a mythic quality to the subject matter. In “The Mission”, you give us a character called Gabriel - and I won’t spoil the ending, but - considering the location, it was difficult not to imagine this story as a kind of passion play. Indeed, there are other stories in this collection that make the Bible seem like boring realism, so much so that when asked what I was working on this week, I inadvertently said “Above the Parable”. In other stories, there are floods and all manner of natural disasters looming on the unnervingly close horizon, and “Inside the Pony” has a young girl, named Evie, hiding a secret inside a My Little Pony which made me think immediately of the Trojan horse, therefore, I wanted to ask if you could tell me about the inspiration for this collection?

Firstly, Rachel, thanks for reading the book and having me on your blog.

With regard to the inspiration for this collection, it was not a process of thinking, 'I'll write stories about climate change and relate them to events in the Bible.' I can see how you might think that, and isn't it interesting that stories of impending natural disaster have been written throughout time.  In Greek tales, volcanoes were passages opening to the underworld. In the Scandinavian traditions, the sun, the moon and the stars take on mythic proportions, and the wind is ascribed to sorcery. In fact, in many traditions, the otherwise natural forces that create the world we live in are attributed to all manner of mythical creatures and supernatural forces, and today, some of the occurrences in these stories come close to the predictions of the climate change scientist. Perhaps it is the stories and tales read to us in childhood and passed down from generation to generation that never leave us. I can also see how the idea of a passion play has occurred, now you mention it. I suppose having a couple of angels inhabiting the village does set the scene rather.

Natural disaster in its many forms has become a part of our lives even if we don't experience it first hand; it is always on the horizon, visually, aurally, everyday, on the radio and TV; neither can we escape all the scientific analysis and reports from journalists on the scene. But I wanted to explore the everydayness of this impending feeling, how people are affected and how they are not, their everyday relations in the face of disaster, and not avoiding the darker, unpleasant side.

These stories exist entirely in the realm of the imagination, my imagination, although their source at times has come from actual events, such as flooding, rising sea levels, extra-ordinary heat. Placed within a short story, they are balanced uneasily between a liminal world of imagination, fable, history, and lived experience. It is the region behind the log that floats down the river, the wake of a bird in the sky, the slipstream.

Speaking of natural disaster, this harness is a bit tight. Ooph, that's better. Ooh, mind your head on that bird!

Nah then, I briefly mentioned location. Many of these Royston Vasey-esque stories are set in towns with plausible sounding Anglo-Saxon riddled names that I felt certain could be in my native Yorkshire. For example, Windblatter, I was so sure of its authenticity that I had to Google it, and found this:

Folgende Eigenschaften hat Ayla als TERRIER und Tussi-Yorkie:

- sobald es regnet, kann sie Pipi in Rekordschnelle erledigen (eigentlich hat sie gar kein Bock rauszugehen)

- wenn es nass ist / Schnee liegt, läuft sie am Rand auf den Pflastersteinen, um gar keine nassen Pfoten zu bekommen

- sie erschreckt sich vor Wind

- sie bellt im Wind Blätter an :lol:

- sie erschreckt sich vor ihren eigenen Pupsen

- wenn Hunde von weiten kommen, tut sie einen auf Rottweiler und bellt die Hunde an

For those of you who don’t read German, Google has kindly translated it as:

Has the following properties as Ayla and chick TERRIER Yorkie:
- When it rains, they can do pee in record fast (actually she did not feel like going out)
- When it is wet / snow, it runs on the edge on the cobblestones to get no wet feet
- They frightened of wind
- She barks at leaves in the wind: lol:
- They are frightened of their own fart
- When dogs come from far, she's doing on a Rottweiler and barks at the dogs

Yorkshire Terrier! Tell me, Alison, would I be awarded a prize rosette for budding Miss Marple at The Great Yorkshire Show? Tell me about the importance of place in your fiction. Does where you live or grew up shape one’s fiction, do you think?

Firstly, the name of the island, Windblatter, is entirely made up – although it might mean all manner of things in German (I had not considered this) – it just seemed the right name for the place, an island that was constantly battered by the wind – it's that simple. It's true that the Yorkshire Pennines are a powerful backdrop to my life, but, I'm sorry to disappoint you, Miss Marple, the story was not set there.  In fact, if anywhere, it was a Hebridean island that inspired the setting of this story, and probably only then by a single garage that had been fixed to the rocky shore by steel ropes. There had been a hurricane the previous winter with tides so high that, in some cases, people were cut off from their loved ones, roofs lifted from houses, caravans blown from one end of the island to the other.

Setting is very important to me, and the natural world takes precedence in most of the stories. Often, those in tune with the natural world fare better than those who rail against it. In the last story Swarm, it is the girl who is able to speak the language of the Wingfish who survives and I placed this story at the end of the collection because I wanted it to end with a character who is lifted from disaster because she is in tune with her surroundings.

 I liked that one a lot! Smashing. Oh, Alison, I'm not sure we're meant to be this high. That bird whose slip stream we were following seems to have given us the slip and pulled us into a thermal, only I'm not wearing any thermals and it's a bit parky up here and I'm ever so nesh. Can you drop us down? Speaking of drop....

One of my favourite stories in your collection was “Map Woman”. I loved the darkness, the ominous weather – nature is really the main character in all these fictions – but I especially liked that you don’t make excuses for your characters’ behaviours. They engage in some grim acts at times, although I found myself laughing at the end of “Map Woman”. This story actually reminded me of a film called “Sightseers”. Yet, for all the humour noir and surreal events, there’s a very real engagement with issues surrounding climate change. 

What I thought particularly interesting was how you managed to present these themes on a level where they are relevant to ordinary people; you’ve come at this topic from a very original angle. Large events feel intimate, especially in a story such as “Ashes for Roses”, I think. I was so pleased to read a story about “a brother and sister living at their parents’ home well into their sixties”. You evoke wonderfully a sense of village life, and community, and also people who are often ignored in fiction. Could you tell me how you came to write about Leah and Henry? 

I'm very glad you find the humour in my stories. I am aware that the elements of dark comedy can easily go unnoticed or be read in a serious way often because of their dead-pan delivery.

With Leah and Henry in Ashes for Roses, I wanted characters whose relationship is life-long. They could easily have been a husband and wife but I really wanted characters who went back to childhood with all the irritations and petty competitions that build up and often continue throughout adult life. I wanted to see how those characteristics would play out when placed in a potentially devastating scenario. I suppose it is to do with the things that we cling on to, things that might not mean much in terms of the material, but the things that are important in making us who we are.

 Yes, I suppose that's true. And what I am now is clung to you in this tandem harness! Let's hope this scenario isn't life-long. Can you take us down, please? Any longer up here and I'll be wanting wings. Ah, land ahoy. Mind that pylon......we'll be grand, so long as you don't land us in Darfield; we'd be like Plague Victims Catapulted over Walls into Besieged City!

Finally, there are twenty stories in your collection, all packed with keen observations. You are also a poet and I find I am drawn to the fiction of poets, possibly because of the beautiful prose they employ.

As a result of winning the Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition in 2010, Alison Lock’s first collection of poetry ‘A Slither of Air’ was published.”

Do you find your poetry background helps you write fiction, or are the two genres in separate brain departments? How do you know the difference between a poem idea and a story idea?

I recently talked about the process of writing poetry and short stories in a post on Carys Bray's blog and particularly about the source; when an idea becomes a poem or a story or a piece of prose. I love poetry for its ability to express ideas using words as shapes, well, that's how I see it.

In short stories I like the subtle use of words, the light touch, the description that is also an emotion, the small things that describe the whole far better than a panoramic shower of words. I remember learning about the technique of synecdoche on my MA course and just loving it. It was such a revelation and it opened up so many possibilities.  I suppose all writers have their favourite ways or techniques and these are useful but I don't believe that techniques+idea=a good story, there has to be that impulse to explore, create and learn about characters in their settings and the ability to take the reader with you. I hope my stories do this, because I just love what I do.

Are you going already? You shuftied off that harness pretty swiftly. Alreight. Thanks so much for talking to me, Alison. Thank you for landing us safely, albeit on top of a very precarious stone.  Above the Parapet can be bought direct from Indigo Dreams, and here for Kindle.

Alison lives in Holmfirth, Yorkshire. Many of her poems and short stories have been published in anthologies, magazines and even a mobile phone app. She has an MA in Literature Studies and Creative Writing from York St John University and was the first Poet-in-Residence at Holmfirth Arts Festival.”

Other nice things folk have said about Alison’s work:

Alison's stories linger long after you've finished reading them. Soulful, unsettling and beautifully written.” - Rachel Connor

As you begin savouring each tale, you don't want it to end. The worlds that she deftly conjures feel possible, yet otherworldly; the characters are complex and remain with the reader long after the stories end.” - Suzanne Gannon

Ethereal, oppressive, playful, savage, chilling and haunting - Alison Lock's short stories are an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy - some teasing and whimsical with a gleeful, misanthropic Roald Dahl humour, others more sinister and threatening. This 20-strong collection certainly impresses but it's a far from easy read, and not just because of the undercurrents of darkness. The tales - although lyrical and beguiling - often seem more like poetry than prose, challenging readers to bring their own interpretations and meanings to the sparse, cryptic storytelling.” – Iain Pattison. Amazon reviews.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

His story

Having handed over the Artist in Residence baton to Yvel Clovis, over at Counterexample Poetics, I wanted to take a moment to appreciate his work - it's always good for a writer or artist to maintain a connection to the places they've had work appear -  and I'd be grateful if you could take a moment with me.

Yvel says this:

"I love art.  As a Haitian-American photographer, I enjoy meeting new people and having the ability to take a moment from their lives and turn it into a STORY that will last forever."

Please checkout his website for more.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Just this

Really pleased with the way my art turned out in the latest issue of Counterexample Poetics. I've thoroughly enjoyed my time as Artist in Residence there and working with Justis Mills and Pamela Hill has been a joy. Their collaborative piece was inspirational to the extreme - thanks, Justis and Pamela!

My sincere thanks to Flash Fiction and Art Editor, Jamez Chang, for letting me run with this piece when all I gave him for "plans" were three scrawled sketches in a notepad!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Pelt ed

It gives me immense pleasure to welcome Catherine McNamara to Snow Like Thought to talk about Pelt and OtherStories, her first collection of short stories. Thanks so much for dropping in on the southern hemisphere to talk to me, Catherine. 

Catherine and I first virtually *met* when she published her novel The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy (Indigo Dreams Publishing), a sassy and humorous romp about Marilyn Wade’s journey of self-rediscovery. But Pelt and Other Stories is very much literary fiction: 

Lust and dirt from a world of places

Two foolhardy snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites. A Ghanaian woman strokes across a pool in the tropics, flaunting her pregnant belly before her lover’s partner. A sex-worker is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents. Hit by a car in Brussels, a young woman returns to her doctor boyfriend. And in Berlin, Celeste visits her suicidal brother Ray and his partner for the very last time.
Pelt and Other Stories lingers on the cusp between Europe and Africa, between ancient sentiments and modern disquiet.

To start off, Catherine, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the importance of “place” in your fiction. I know you live in Italy currently and have spent some time in African countries and elsewhere, experiences obviously important to your fiction in terms of locations, but as a migrant  (writer in self-imposed exile) myself, I am always acutely aware of the risks of appropriation when living in a country not one’s own. 

I remember talking to Jo Cannon about her debut short fiction collection, Insignificant Gestures, and I was really tough on her with a question about the issues raised by a white middle class woman writing as “other” (Jo’s justification, by the way, was not insignificant), so I’m going to ask you why is your fiction not “cultural tourism” or appropriation and how significant is place? 

Lovely question! And I must say that ‘appropriation’ is always high on my list of writerly preoccupations. I’ll answer the second part of the question first. In these stories there is range of settings – Ghana, Italy, Berlin, Australia.  As you know I’ve moved around a lot and ‘place’ provides a context for my main concerns. I studied African and Asian Modern Independence Movements at university and have a passion for the history/effects of imperialism on the continent, so this, plus years of living in Africa, added to the migration/racism situation in Italy, make these the major themes of my stories.  

As for ‘cultural tourism’ or appropriation, there are two levels to my answer. On a personal level, I lived for nearly ten years in Ghana, ran a business with my Ghanaian partner, had a baby there, lived very simply, raised kids, travelled… It was home. I’m trying to shift the settings of my stories to Europe (I never thought I would be able to write a story set in Italy) and it’s happening gradually, but Ghana was my reality for a long time. I invested a lot of energy in surviving, finding my place, even earning it if you like. They were good, rich years.

On a literary level I understand much has been written that makes Africa seem like an exotic postcard, or a war-torn, AIDS-ridden environment. I wanted to show more normal forces at work. Relationships, shifting economics tides, migration, families. Just stories. When the collection was accepted I was concerned I would be accused of appropriation so I wrote to Nigerian/Belgian writer Chika Unigwe, who generously wrote a cover comment for the collection. Chika loved the stories and I immediately felt some sort of approval and relief. In interviews, Chika has a very down-to-earth attitude to race and migration (Wasafiri Issue no. 75, Autumn 2013).

Following on with the theme of migration, I read a great article in the Guardian recently by Chibundu Onuzo, about “the African diaspora returning home to seize new economic opportunities,” and there’s a lot of movement in your stories, cultural shifts and people who have left their home countries (whatever home means) to live and work abroad. Your stories appear to be immersed in this cross cultural dialogue. Can you explain your interest in these themes?

There is a wonderful shift in energy coming from contemporary Africans in the West. Raised in London, New York, Toronto, these are the children of those who left after the painful disappointment of Independence. Author Taiye Selasi (link: voiced their qualms in her groundbreaking article ‘Bye bye Babar – Or What is an Afropolitan?’ and gave them a name, Afripolitan. While some of this movement seems trendy and there are the dangers Chibundu Onuzo mentions, it also signifies a large-scale return to Africa, where in so many countries life is good and there are opportunities to be seized. I’m hoping this will translate to a period of construction as it’s a sad truth that life in the villages is still a very tough one without water, lights, birth facilities, good schools.  

I’m also very interested in another aspect of Africans abroad – the migrant experience in Italy. In my story ‘Janet and the Angry Trees’ a West African sex-worker is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents. Janet goes from being objectified black woman to house cleaner – which is the doublethink often applied to African women here. I suspect I will be writing quite a few more stories about racism in Europe.

The body comes to liquid life in your prose. You write richly, and beautifully and convincingly from many characters’ perspectives and points of view. Many of your stories explore culture, race, sexuality and gender. One reason I think your narratives are so convincing is your interesting use of syntax, really adds fabric to the characterisation, particularly in “Pelt”. I’d like to quote a line near the ending – not giving anything away – of the title story, if I may, to demonstrate:

“Before leaving I order a tonic water, which I used to drink with gin before the baby. I ask Osman to put in some gin. Perhaps this is why it happens so afterwards.”

Do you think first person point of view lends itself to narratives of displaced individuals particularly? 

Not necessarily. In ‘Infection’, told in the third person, Eugene is a displaced returnee to Ghana and this story explores the way he is detached from the culture that is folded within his being. First person or third person – it’s like you’re sitting in a different seat in a cinema, either close to the front or far on the side. There’s a delay, a filter in place; or a cropped vision of the action. In ‘Infection’ I didn’t want to reside in his thoughts because I wanted to provide a bit of Ghanaian history and place him within the context that shaped his displacement. With a first person view I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I wanted to show the decayed city on the coast and bring back the thrilling ideals of the Independence years, now so decayed themselves. I also wanted to look at Eugene with a soft focus lens – poor guy was going through so much! 

But there is another story – ‘Taxidermy’ – where the immediacy of the first person voice helps convey the fragility and shock pervading Celeste’s last visit to her suicidal brother and his partner.

And yet, I don’t think a lot about narrative  effectiveness when conceiving a story. The voice, character and twist of the action seem to decide this of their own accord. For me there is still a lot of magic in the act of writing and I’m not sure I want to understand my own tricks!

What made you decide to tell “Pelt” from first person point of view? 

For me writing a short story starts with a first sentence and a sort of thrust. The characters are shadows that I usually see from behind, and I don’t have a clue where I’m headed. That’s the fun part – the risk that it might work but it might also be a flat and toneless piece. The first paragraph is something core that I really work at and it rarely changes. And working that first paragraph – even ‘hearing’ it if you like – it’s clear to me whether this is a first person or third person. It’s a gut thing, as you travel into character, and then the story forms. 

The fact that this story is told by the Ghanaian pregnant girlfriend, rather than the German lover or his discarded wife, exempts her (I hope!) from becoming a possible cliché, which she may have been were the story told by either of the other characters involved. In their eyes she would have been the African lover, the husband-stealer, instead of a woman with desires, a history and objectives.

One consequence of this narrative device, of course, is that characters tend not to name themselves, but, I wondered, had you named the protagonist? 

No, but I can still see her now! In ‘Pelt’ I didn’t want to name her because I think it gives her emotions more power. And heightens her swollen, nebulous force as she heads towards her maddened act at the end. A name would have pinned her down – there are always associations popping into the reader’s head. I’ve just written another story in the first person with everything hurtling from and towards another unstoppable action and it was a big thing to decide whether to give the narrator a name or not. In the end I did – his girlfriend names him in a conversation – and it felt like I’d thrown a brick through a window. 

Finally, because I was such a tease with that tiny quote, earlier, I’d like to include a generous taster, so, with many thanks to Catherine and a hearty recommendation to read her collection, here’s a sample of the title story:


Rolfe triggers it. In the way that is the way of all men. In his case a type of athletic bragging ruined by the self-defeat he hangs his hat on. I feel a plock and, with his surprised, involuntary retreat, my waters come splashing out, gay and heralding, whereby he bounds back to inspect the folds of his manhood.

My obroni baby will come this day. I roll onto my back and raise my knees in sweet excitement, the baby nestling back even though her head is plugged within my pelvis. Soon after Rolfe is agitating with a towel, peering cautiously at my dark opening. No action there, I laugh. He looks perplexed. Despite his thirty-nine years Rolfe is unfamiliar with the mulch of his own body. A fever sends him into studied ecstasy. The tumble worm in his butt, whose head and long wrinkled body I inch into the light, is repellent and edifying.

At the apex of his growth curve I suspect I must place myself. This is the man who continues to daub his hands on my sheeny back and breasts. He told me that in Ethiopia, his last posting, they call girls like me ‘slaves’ because of our broad noses and skin a shadow cannot cross.

This is Rolfe’s first child. His wife Karina was barren. I have led Rolfe to believe that this is my first although I had two others before. They are at the village and I send them money. The midwife will no doubt perceive all of this.

Pelt and Other Stories is available to purchase from CATHERINE'S BLOG, the INDIGO DREAMS online bookshop, AMAZON, and THE BOOK DEPOSITORY.

Catherine’s next stop on her blog tour will be at Ether Books and following this she'll be at Nuala ni Chonchuir's blog on Thursday 12th September - and hop over to her blog now to be in with a chance of winning yourself a copy of Pelt and Other Stories!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Catherine!