Month: August 2010

Review of The White Road and other stories by Tania Hershman

A collection of short stories is a tricky thing. The reader needs to get a sense of the writer’s unique voice and residual personality and style but without the stories running into sameness. In The White Road and other stories Tania Hershman accomplishes this masterfully. The collection is inspired by articles from science magazines but Tania, a former science journalist, creates her own utterly original and often beautifully surreal interpretations of the science prompt.  From the striking title story to the magically unusual Rainstiffiness, each story has something unexpected and weirdly wonderful.

One of Hershman’s many fortes is her characterization. There are a range of diverse and memorable characters who linger in the imagination long after the book is read. Two of my favourites were the title characters in Evie and the Arfids and The Incredible Exploding Victor.

For me, as both reader and writer, flash fiction done well has – more than other types of fiction – the greatest potential for joy. To tell a story that is complete and which moves in a few words is a great skill on the part of the writer and for the reader is enthralling. In this collection, some of whose pieces are very short indeed, Tania Hershman demonstrates that skill to a high degree. Each story has its own internal rightness but the collection as a whole has a wonderful breadth and variety. Every story feels like a gift, like spun sugar or the amazing confectionary creations of ‘Self-Raising’ with its extraordinary climax, Hershman similarly makes fabulous things out of ideas and words, always asking ‘what if?’.  As a reader I read in open-mouthed awe and joy, as a writer I writhed with envy. This is a must read collection.

The White Road and Other Stories by Tania Hershman is published by Salt Publishing.

5 New School Year Resolutions for Writing Parents

Kids back at school

In which I muse aloud and you get to listen in.

Although it varies by a week or two across the Northern Hemisphere for many parents, children round about now are returning to school and the more rigid routines of school days, homework and earlier bedtimes will come into play. As parents we need to be more organised and lovingly firm with our kids as we ease them through the change.

Whether you are a going out to work writing parent or a stay at home one or a bit of both, it’s a good time to think about your own schedule, your priorities in terms of projects that you have to complete, client commitments and projects that capture your heart and that you want to spend time on.

An important question to ask is ‘what is actually possible?’ We can take steps to create writing time by getting up early or staying up late, by being good at using small pockets of time between chores or on commute but believe it or not, writing isn’t everything. Our resolutions need to take account of the current demands of our lives timewise, physically, emotionally, mentally. At different phases these demands will fluctuate. All out commitment to the cause of writing without consideration of your current situation cannot be a good thing. As children settle into school they may require more of our empathy and listening time, will benefit and feel less anxious by us just being around, taking a walk with them, creating space for communication. Later on in the year these demands may change.

But if we get a chance to write, we want it to be as fruitful as possible. I often struggle to feel satisfied with my achievements because I have several tasks and projects on the go and have not identified which need to come higher on the list. At the end of the session, which is never very long, I have achieved not much of anything as I flit from document to document, to my email, to Google etc. A simple thing, but sometimes I’m not really clear what I’m working on. Just writing that down and having a schedule will make a lot of difference.

Sometimes I come to write and just can’t get into it, I have no spark. This is often after a period where I have not had any down time, general pleasant relaxation, a walk, or sit down with a book or even an evening in front of the TV.  It is possible to make writing a stick that doesn’t bear fruit because you are beating yourself with it. (Ah the mixed metaphor, my favourite beast!)

So what resolutions might be good ones for the new school and writing year?

5 Resolutions for the new school and writing year

1: Write less but more fruitfully and watch more telly

2: Pick a project, set a deadline or a mini deadline and work to it

3: Think each day about your current demands/desires emotionally, mentally, physiologically, socially, for family etc and decide what is most important, what is possible and necessary.

4: Take pride and joy in what you achieve even if it is less than what you had hoped, write down what you have done, it’s easy to forget

5: Think about, interact with and support others, friends, extended family members, other writers, create a strong and positive network.

Goodwill and good effort for the most part come back. Writing and life energy can be created by taking care of our time, ourselves, each other.

#Fridayflash Pre-determination

Have you ever watched an ant crawling across the floor? Of course you have. Did you wonder where it was going to end up? Did you wait for it to find that crumb or sugar crystal and pick it up in its paws or its mouth or whatever it uses. Then did you amuse yourself by watching it carry the thing all the way back across the Saharan laminate flooring of the living room, out across the white Arctic glare of the kitchen tiles to the back door, over the little rim that seals the door when it closes, down the other side. Only to step on the thing, grind him into the ground just before he makes it back to his nest, sits down, puts his feet up, tucks into his hard earned tucker. I didn’t even wipe him off my shoe.

Last week my mother phoned to say that my father had died. I haven’t told anyone yet, although the funeral is tomorrow and I’ll have to take the day off.

I work in a call centre but it’s okay – don’t feel too bad about it – because I’m the team leader, not one of the treadmill rats. I get to get up out of my seat every so often and walk round the partitions. I get to have meetings. I meet people there, at least they are sort of people-like, they say lots of makey uppy things like quotient and call to kill ratio. They keep straight faces in front of the management and then they forage in secret at the water cooler, feral, digging and nosing each other, making frantic signals as their time runs out.

When I was nine the teacher thought I would be a vet. She told my parents that I had an affinity for animals. I felt pleasure. It wasn’t very often someone said something good. Afterwards I thought maybe she thought I was dumb like them. She never saw me pull the wings off live flies or throw wood lice in the fire just to see them shrivel, drown a beetle in a stream of warm pee.

At the water cooler they talk about that guy who got manslaughter for killing his girlfriend although the prosecution thought they had it sewn up. I crush the polystyrene cup and let it fall to the floor. I think I’ll phone in sick tomorrow.

Back at my desk I figure out why was it manslaughter not murder. Because even though he did her in with a screwdriver, they discovered some beautifully crafted shelves he’d recently made and put up for her. She was a lover of books they said, although their tastes differed. He read Westerns, she read true life drama. She never saw it coming. The guy’s name was Anthony. If it had been Anto, he would have gone down for life. He shaved years off his sentence by using a lathe and not shaving his head.

My father used to have one of those old fashioned razors. I cut my finger on it once, wrote my name in blood on the mirror. He used to joke that he was part of the Slow Shaving movement. He liked to savour his experiences: shaving, drinking – one pint in the pub all evening, dinner – saving the best bits of meat and gravy to the last. He said he added years to his life that way.

But the funny thing is, my father always knew that death was out to get him: lurking in the back of lorries with the defrosting chickens, at the bottom of cigarette packets, or on the front grille of a bus. You’d wonder if he drew attention to himself that way, by always making a thing of it – as if death was a wasp just waiting for somewhere sweet to land. When I was a kid I used to make decoys: barley squash swimming pools for the wasp to land in – anywhere but me. My father died anyway. Of nothing much.

He used to say when it was time, it was time and there wasn’t much point in arguing about it. He folded his newspaper and put it on the side of the armchair every night. Unlike my mother, who begged for obedience, he loved me firmly. He called me son. Always. I wondered if he knew my name. I didn’t call him anything.

But the name is the hook in the call centre, get it and you’re half way there. So when this new girl comes in, not sassy – we never get any of those ponies in here – I lean in over the partition and introduced myself and I say her name, not once, not twice but whenever I can. Margaret, Margaret the mouse with the small head, the tied back hair and the bit that always slips, the bit she pulls at when she’s anxious and her skin so pale, the colour of separated milk and the freckles not a blessing. I aim to be her friend. And she waits at the bus stop in the evening, the one at the cold corner where the wind whips and she wore that skirt, grey cotton to look professional but she’s just sad, those small eyes shuttling all the while. She bites her lip. She would look magnificent in red. I picture us in the summer in the park, all laughter, municipal blooms behind our heads in a snapshot. I know where she lives from her file. When she gets off the bus I am there. She buys bread and milk at the corner shop and her feet in her flimsy court shoes are wet from the rain, her handbag slips on her shoulder and the bag twists round her fingers. It’s a struggle. I watch her make her way along the splattered street, across the precarious road, up six steps and over the rim of the communal front door. She will want to put her feet up. I cross the street with my hammer, wondering if she likes to read.

Review of Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines

Domesticity never takes place upon a large or lauded stage, it is a private, secret world whose interactions and observances are held and carried forward into ‘real life’. Elizabeth Baines’ book places the domestic in this central, core position. ‘A young mother married to a scientist fears for her children’s saftey as the natural world around her becomes even more certain. Until, that is, she meets a charismatic stranger who seems to offer a different kind of power.’

In this novel there is a sense of what was the title of Elizabeth Baines’ short story collection ‘Balancing on the edge of the world’. She subtlely elucidates the tremulous feeling and anxious vigilance of parenthood. There is the impression that threats are always close. What Baines does beautifully is to convey the otherworldliness experience of bringing up small children and their way of making our commonplace world seem bizzare. The not-quite-rightness of the eldest child Danny’s behaviour is imbued with a magical and mystical quality.

This is a book that made me hold my breath. Baine’s gift is to do the literary equivalent of revealing what is on the inside of trouser pockets during laundry, ordinary and sacred things otherwise hidden are carefully revealed. Both these secret pockets and the heart is turned inside out on reading. The main character  goes along the motorway to meet the man she looks to for direction, she stretches the domestic elastic, always travelling back again, she breaks the taboos of suburban motherhood, she risks censure but the elastic tugs constantly. She discovers what is ‘really’ wrong with her child and the threat is now tangible, accessible.

What I found extraordinary as reader and writer was Elizabeth Baines’ ability to convey so skillfully and lightly the nuances of relationships and communication, the small exchanges, the particular words of common conversation that can illuminate the character’s view of each other or irreversibly wound. As a reader it was the kind of book I have longed to read, as a writer, it is the kind of book I would dream of writing. To sum up the strength and marvel of this book is to see it like a dust mote, something mundanely domestic but magical, spinning for long moments in our consciousness.

Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines is published by Salt Modern Fiction

#Fridayflash Some other platform

Do you remember that night in Crewe? Of course you don’t, you weren’t there. I was carrying you in a small space behind my chest at the time. It was like I had a second heart the same as Dr. Who. And I come from Gallifrey too. So far away, can never go back, the last of my kind.

I mean the station of course. Arrogant trains, electric snakes, never a sideways glance, so fast. They shook the platform and my hair went in front of my eyes. There was scaffolding up. Good job. Sometimes it’s needed.

Inside sleepy eyed slouch shouldered lovers snuggled near suitcases. Other people drank tea with weary resignation. The board shuffled the destinations. Take your pick. An old man shuffled into a seat and blinked.

I pictured you stick figured on the platform at the end of this line. Then I put meat on you. Lots of it. You were tall, wide shouldered although you hadn’t yet begun to shoulder anything. I had you looking at your watch even though it would be hours before my train arrived. And it hadn’t just been trains, there had been buses, shuddering and unlikely and a boat that lurched like it wanted to spew.

It was winter so the night was a sleeping bag that wrapped round and couldn’t be got out of. So many qualities of black: the darkness into which the track disappeared, the fuzzy felt mugginess of the sky – not a star. If you could only just zip it open and reveal the real world where a sun still blazed and sandcastles were being built on a beach of dry white sand.

Everything intersects at Crewe. There was a special train for the Royal Mail. All those letters. I could chase my own, arrive before they did. Or the ones from you, I could intercept, crack them open to get at the sense of you. Your handwriting did the caressing.

In the waiting room no-body spoke. They were waiting. My two hearts took it in turn to beat and then, when the board said my train was next they both beat together. On the platform the porters with the Royal Mail sacks were whistling. Then the train whistled in and I got on.

It got later and later as it always does. I saw a girl in the window looking out at nothing. But then there would be a burst of lights, a staccato city. I travelled North, where the tilt of the earth made it darker for longer. I kept my rucksack under the seat and leaned on it, holding onto myself. I dozed, waked, watched, felt thoughts passing by like landscape.  I’m coming to you, I’m coming to you, I’m coming to you.

And I thought you rolled the track up so I got nearer and nearer. Atlas himself folding the world. The stations were a ticker tape of increasing joy. But only at the last was I aware of the slowing, the signal to alight. All that way, collapsed to a pinprick. Lips. I thought, distinctly. Lips.

I got out onto the platform and stood, the crowds exiting diagonally, like a rush of water, leaving behind nothing. All that way, my two hearts…It was almost midnight. I stood. The platform was as lonely as Crewe.

Buntyland

This is the text for a piece that I did on RTE (Irish National) Radio’s Sunday Miscellany Programme broadcast in May 2007

(There is a podcast for this somewhere..looking..)

For the best part of five years in the glitzy 1980s our favourite game was Bunties. Whenever we got our hands on another issue of the age old magazine, Bunty, the three of us, all girls, would paste the female figure on the back page onto a Cornflakes box. Next we would carefully cut around her and her clothes with their hang on tabs. Bit by bit we built up a collection of the fashion figures. We gave them names out of the baby’s name book – what to us were interesting and unusual names – such as Stacy, Tracy, Amy and Rebecca. We kept them in a Lyons tea box.

Growing up in an isolated, rain laden valley on Kerry’s Iveragh Peninsula, six miles from the nearest town, we made our own fun as they say. Surrounded by windswept hills and rugged terrain, we were reminiscent of the Brontes, creating, like they with their toy soldiers and invented lands, a whole new world to inhabit and populate. In this way Buntyland was established.

In its heyday there were thirty two inhabitants of the town. The set-up of the game was elaborate. Armfuls of ladybird books were taken from the bookshelf in my bedroom and arranged on the floor. First their beds would be laid flat – to put one of the Bunties to sleep you simply laid the figure inside the cover, like a bookmark, its head sticking out of the top. To delineate the houses another ladybird book would be propped on its side as a partition.

At the beginning we just dressed them up and compared their outfits. With the selfishness of seniority the two eldest sisters gave the plainest characters to our much younger sibling. The Bunties began to have a life, to socialize, to form alliances and factions. One of the most popular events was the Belle of the Ball, a Beauty and Talent competition akin to the Rose of Tralee, for which we designed elaborate ball gowns, not forgetting the hang on tabs. The Bunties danced to Strauss and Duran Duran on a clunky black buttoned tape recorder.

As time went on we faced a problem. We had no men. We began to select any of the more masculine versions and give them male names. They were still scarce. We decided to make more men, cutting them out of white cardboard and drawing on the faces. The homemade ones however were never as popular with the ladies.

As we grew the game became our own interactive soap opera. A character named Mark became the mayor. Inevitably there were episodes of corruption and dubious unilateral decisions against which the inhabitants eventually revolted.

Of course there were plenty of natural disasters, flood and storms in particular. A rescue squad would have to be established and the townspeople evacuated to the upper shelves of the bookcase. There were other dramatic incidents. In one series of episodes, Christine, an air hostess, was coerced in assisting with a hijacking.

A court found her guilty and she served many months of incarceration in an Easter egg box before finally being exonerated.

Well into our teens the storylines became our own parody of those we had seen in Dallas and Dynasty with the same level of glamour. Some of the characters married, lied and double-crossed each other, had children and even had affairs. This may explain why a game that began in childhood continued until I was an embarrassing seventeen.

Our mother, who never threw anything out, has not so far come clean on the disappearance of an entire cast of characters. Despite the fact that our own children now play with broken-legged cows and armless dolls kept for posterity, the Bunties in their tea box have not emerged from the attic’s time capsule. Sadly it seems we cannot  make them reappear out of the shower like Bobby Ewing in Dallas. Perhaps our mother has finally had her revenge for all the hours we ignored her entreaties for help footing the turf in favour of our fascinating game. Sources suggest that the truth is more likely to relate to a nasty ending involving an over-exuberant puppy – teeth marks and scraps of cardboard were reputedly found close to the scene. At least the Bunties went out with a dramatic twist.

#Fridayflash Adam, Eve and the Indie Author

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God. What on Earth does that mean? What the hell? Earth, hell, heaven, they were good concepts. He took a rib out of Adam and began to write with it.

Eve gave Adam the apple, knowing. Adam took it at face value. As men do. But Eve  knew all along, so did Snow White. She wanted to eat the apple. She wasn’t green, she knew red constituted passion. But that’s another story.

In the beginning and forever after God wrote. He heard that you can write a novel in a week if you really want to. He stayed up all day and night. In the early days he spent a lot of time on world building. He wanted to make sure people really believed in the one he created. Although he was a bit of a sci-fi buff he didn’t want to pigeonhole himself but he was not yet ready for literary fiction. He heard that men enjoyed action/adventure.

At the garden of Eden the squad cars arrived, squealed up to the gate. The cops jumped out. Keystone. Cornerstone. They did a recce, they were too late – the gates were wide open. Adam had fled and the snake had escaped the zoo. Eve was still there but they didn’t want her for questioning or anything. She was now dressed in army combats, blended in.

‘No, no, that’s not right’ God said and crossed it out.

He thought he should perhaps write more from Eve’s perspective but he hadn’t yet figured out how to write the woman’s voice convincingly.

‘Conflict’ he said, ‘we need conflict’ so he created Cain and Abel. Tribes, wars, kings, journeys – the story of the world had a blockbuster feeling to it. He considered writing a screenplay. The working title was Apocalypse Now. He decided against it for the time being.

He could have done with some tuition but he felt his way as he went along. Practise – that was all he needed. He realised eventually that he was committing the cardinal sin of narcissistic writing – all the characters were aspects of himself. He concentrated for a while on character sketches; he wanted to get a feel for the nuances of what he called humanity.

He revisited earlier themes with postmodern irony. In his new work it was summer. The apples were ripening on the trees but they weren’t ready yet. The globally warm weather was perfect for barbeques. The protagonists were enjoying barbeque ribs.

If it had been horror or surrealism Eve would have butchered Adam and the ribs would have been his, albeit that they were done in a honey and chilli marinade. The juice dripped down her chin and all that. But this was more a cozy domestic drama or a slice of life:

Adam and Eve had realised the moment they met on the floor of Mark’s living room in between the cider and the crisps that if they chose each other that they would really have to be serious about it. I mean ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’, Wey hey. But the feeling of lips, hips and skin has no name. The sticks and stones of life, job insecurity, Adam’s intransigence, Eve’s infidelities, 2.4 children and ailing elderly parents might have ushered them out of Eden’s Gate (a newly built deluxe housing estate which had fallen foul of the property boom and of which half was unsold) and broke their backbone but their names, being what they were had never hurt them.

In fairness the ribs were delicious. Adam knew how to barbeque. He’d invited a few of his mates from the golf club and the drugs squad. They really knew how to let their hair down. The cider was gone in seconds.

More apples…

They ate quickly. The bulldozers were coming and the packing boxes were lined along the living room wall. They were levelling the estate house by house so they could sell off the land to set against the developer’s insolvency.

God liked that element of modern verisimilitude. He developed in his writing – particularly in much of the African and Asian stuff – a gritty realism. He dabbled in triumph over adversity stories (and hadn’t his treatment for the reality show Black Death meets Noah’s Ark been of his best?) He went back to the novel.

‘I was watching that pop star scientist on the telly’ the other day said Richard, an IT developer from Oracle.. There’s this mad theory that says that the universe made itself the way it did because some quantum physicists thought about it. At least I think that’s what he said. ‘Another rib?’ asked Eve, waving round the plate. ‘Don’t mind if I do’ said Richard. Eve looked at him, he had rugby shoulders and just out of bed hair. The bulldozers were coming. They would soon be out of here. She fingered the strap of her vest top, revealing a line of pale skin. Later she would be naked with Adam in a fevered twist of limbs and sheets, euphoric yawps, hooted pleasure. But when she looked at Richard, all was still possibility.

He crossed the last bit out; it needed some more work, some more delicacy perhaps. Novels were hard going, they were relentless really. He had progressed to a laptop, the sun made it hard to see. Should he rewrite it dimmer? He chewed the rest of the barbeque rib dry, sucked it and tossed it into some metaphorical bushes. Not burning ones.

Pop star scientists eh? Quantum physicists making it up as they went along? The world needed a lighter touch with only the odd catastrophe. He was tired of creating epics and intergenerational sagas. Flash fiction was the thing.

He went digital. He discovered that ‘Choose your own adventure books’ were now available as an I-phone app. This suited his requirements perfectly.

Needless to say, God never stopped writing and even when he wasn’t producing, stories were writing themselves in his head. Once, when awakening from a power nap, he came up with a self-referential six word story: God saw. And it was good. But like every writer, while the writing was the thing, he needed to get out there, see his characters come to life.

But how? Get an agent? He decided against. It wasn’t his style. God was essentially an indie author. After some careful consideration he self-published. The downloads were free.

Just enough: Lorrie Moore and the power of description

Last night I started reading Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate at the Stairs. I’m a fan of her short stories and am interested in seeing how her style pans out in a novel. Whereas I have always been an avid reader, now I can’t help but read and dissect a little as a writer, asking ‘why is this working for me’, ‘how come I’m getting into this book and liking it when another sits begun but not continued on the bedside locker’.

Apart from the opening, the character sketch and the outline of place both of which were just enough to get me settling back into my pillows, book balanced in hand, with a satisfied sigh it was the quality of the detail that struck me.

A good example of what I am talking about is the following passage:

Two slate steps led, in an odd mismatch of rock, downward to a flagstone walk, all of which, as well as the grass, wore a light dusting of snow – I laid the first footprints of the day; perhaps the front door was seldom used. Some dessicated mums were still in pots on the porch. Ice frosted the crisp heads of the flowers. Leaning against the house were a shovel and a rake, and shoved into the corner two phone books still in shrink-wrap.

We get an idea of the house, not in terms of what it looked like per se but in terms of the character’s impression of her surroundings as she approached. The shrinked wrapped directories would stand out.

She continues:

The woman of the house opened the door. She was pale and compact, no sags or pouches, linen skin tight across the bone. The hollows of her cheek were powdered darkly, as if with the pollen of a tiger lily. Her hair was cropped short and dyed the fashionable bright auburn of a ladybug. Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-coloured and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment.’

A Gate at the Stairs: Lorrie Moore

The description is masterful – unique and original without being overly metaphorical or jarring. The physical descriptions are not purely physical, they say something about the person’s internal landscape.

The ‘university’ of short story and flash fiction writing has taught me how vitally important it is to choose exactly the right detail, the most layered (but not overtly so) phrase to say as much as possible in few words. One of the aspects I enjoy most about editing is recognising a redundant or superfluous phrase. One sentence is always better than two. The constant pursuit of precise pithiness in writing short stories provides a good measure for what really matters in a story and the skill can be carried over to novel writing that way.

As a reader I am fan of lyrical writing but I also enjoy the sense of being carried along rather than being swallowed up in paragraphs of dense description for the sake of it. When we perceive for real we make quick assertations, processing impressions fleetingly to get a handle on our environment. Only as we spend lengths of time, perhaps even years in a place do we get a sense of slowing down, detail coagulating. So more detail could be added to a piece to signify the accumulation of years and related objects.

What we need to learn to do, by reading and by constant practise is to gain an innate sense of how much detail is ‘just enough’ for the particular situation and for the likely reader whether introducing a character, place or moving the story along. This is our judgement call as a writer. Getting it right is the mark of a fine observer, psychologist and wordsmith.