Monday, 21 March 2011

Author Visit: Pinckney Benedict

Pinckney Benedict grew up on his family’s dairy farm in the mountains of southern West Virginia. He has published two collections of short fiction and a novel. His stories have appeared in Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, the O. Henry Award series, the New Stories from the South series, the Pushcart Prize series, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. Salt have just published his collection of short stories, The Miracle Boy and other stories.


Hi Pinckney, thanks for taking some time out to speak to us. You’re the first author I’ve interviewed on here from over the pond*, so hello, welcome, and please make yourself at home.

Thanks for the generous greeting. It’s been years since I’ve been in the UK, so I’m happy to have this brief return, even if it is only virtual.

Can you sum up ‘Miracle Boy’ for those who haven’t managed to get their hands on it yet? What are its central themes?

Miracle Boy is a collection of fourteen short stories: the best of the writing I’ve been doing, I believe, for the last fifteen years or so. The title says it all. Each of the stories deals with the lives of boys (and men, who are always boys, yes?) living in Appalachia, and with some aspect of the “miraculous” – the blessed, the monstrous, the outrĂ©, the surreal.

What’s the first thing you remember writing, and when did you know that writing was what you wanted to do?

I recall drawing pictures before I could read, and dictating the narratives that went with those pictures to my mother, who was indulgent enough to write them down for me. (She has beautiful handwriting.) We stapled them together and called them books. I wish I knew where they have gone, because I’d love to see them again. I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t write, if by writing we mean making up stories. It’s all I’m good for.

When you look back on writing from, say, your collection ‘Town Smokes’ in 1987, how do you think your writing has changed?

I recall the fiction in Town Smokes with great affection and nostalgia. How young I was, and how easily those stories came to me! My subject matter is, in its simplest incarnation, much the same: the lives of folks living in rural Appalachia, which is where I grew up, on my family’s farm among the mountains. What’s different now is that I’ve become fascinated with elements of the “miraculous” that I mentioned above. I’m much more interested now in writing about ghosts and monsters and miracles and the supernatural. One of these stories was even anthologized in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #20, about a year ago. That’s a first for me, a horror anthology!

I see that your wife is also a writer – do you find you get rather competitive with each other?

I’d be a fool to compete with her. She writes a highly intelligent species of supernatural thriller (so we share that interest) that people are most eager to read. My work has a much more limited audience: stories, Appalachia, “literary,” and so on. I’m deeply inspired by and impressed with (a bit intimidated also!) how well she plots and with the relentless forward energy of her narratives, and I’ve tried to inculcate some of those aspects of her work: its compulsively readable nature, its unabashed plottiness. I’m a great lover of plot.

You’ve written short story collections, a novel, and a screen play (Four Days (Cite Amerique 2000)) – blimey! - do you have a favourite form to write in?

I wish I could say “blimey” and get away with it. What a great word. I’ve done comics too, though those are mostly for my own amusement and the entertainment of my friends. Here’s an example, from an online magazine called (wonderfully) Plots with Guns: http://plotswithguns.../6Benedict1.htm

I love short stories, but my stories have become longer and longer over the years. The longest in Miracle Boy is perhaps fourteen thousand words, so something like twice the length of what we’re accustomed to see in a conventional short story. Screenplays are a great length for me to write: twenty-five thousand words, give or take. If this were a world where novellas could find a readership, I believe that would be ideal for me. Long enough to stretch my legs but not exhausting, like a novel.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

Don’t try to fulfill anyone else’s vision of what literature should be. Write the stories that you yourself would like to read, without regard to how others might think of them. The stuff that obsesses you, that’s where your efforts belong. The literary world can be deeply snobbish about our enthusiasms. Ignore that aspect of it.

On a side note, I’m curious: over the States, how well are e-readers taking off? What are your thoughts on them?

They’re getting more and more popular and will, in the next few years, match paper books in sales, I think it’s safe to say. I myself own both a Kindle (the big one, the DX) and an iPad, on which I have three reading apps: Kindle, iBooks (Apple’s app), and Google Books, each with many volumes. It’s marvelous, because I am almost never caught without a metric ton (since we’re in the UK) of things to read.

They’ll never replace books, of course, I don’t believe. Conventional books are a fantastic technology and well-suited to the task they fulfill. The hardback is a fine archival format, and the paperbook makes casual reading easy and inexpensive. I won’t ever take my Kindle in the bathtub with me. And one loves paper for its feel and it smell and the sensation of turning pages. But ebooks level the playing field, in marketing and distribution, in some interesting ways,because they considerably lower the bar to entry to the publishing, and I’m all for a democratic writing and publishing world.

For one thing, those novellas I mentioned above? Well, with ebooks, there is no “best length” for a work of fiction. Stories are expected to be a certain length because, in terms of paper publishing, that’s been a marketable length – what you can fit, if you are a magazine publisher, between ads. With novels, it’s the same thing: how much paper can you conveniently glue to a piece of cardboard backing?

With ebooks, maybe novellas will finally have a natural landing place. Maybe stories will become as short as a thousand words and sell for a nickel (um, sixpence?). Maybe novels will become as long as half a million words. None of it is more or less convenient with ebooks. It may be that eventually we will lose these categories of thought – “story” and “novella” and “novel” altogether, and each fiction will simply be its natural length, without regard to its marketing category.

Of course, that’s all pie in the sky and gets me laughed at (no doubt justly) when I say it aloud. But I don’t much mind being laughed at, so long as I can retain my dreams and fantasies.

I think that's a really interesting observation about the length of a book - I can't help feeling that's true for e-books, perhaps novellas will find their place. Let's see what happens. This month we’re dedicating our book forum to Salt Publishing – do you have anything you’d like to share about Salt? What do you think they bring to the book industry?

Good for you, recognizing Salt’s singular contributions in this way. Salt are (in the US I would say “Salt is,” but I think “Salt are” is a proper Britishism, yes?) utterly fantastic. They bring books like mine – which not only will not make them rich but which can hardly be expected to make them any money at all – to an audience that would otherwise never see or hear of them. In an age when conglomerate publishing is, so far as I can tell, utterly corrupt and grotesque and collapsing of its own loathsomeness, Salt are actually publishing books because they love those books, and because they love literature.

I would say this of them even if they weren’t my publishers. I felt this way about them and the books they produce long before we ever decided to work together. They are my heroes.

On our book forum we have a Book Tree where members pick their favourite book and we all get to read it, posting it round in a circle, so that when the book comes back to the owner it’s filled with comments from everyone else. If you were to pick a book for the Book Tree, what would you pick and why?

What a great idea. It doesn’t have to be a new book, does it? I believe I would pick Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. (Is it cheating, to pick a trilogy?) It’s too little known, in the US at least. People in my book forum would initially hate me, because the three volumes taken together are vast, and the postage costs would be enormous. But they would thank me when they finished reading it. (Of course, it would take them years.) Peake is the Proust of fantasy fiction (though fantasy is such a thin word for the complexity and richness of his vision, like saying Tolkien wrote “sword and sorcery” or Lovecraft wrote “horror”), and the world he creates in the Gormenghast books is umatched for its wealth of invention and detail.Impossible adequately to describe it; it’s a tour de force. For folks who don’t know Peake, they can find out about him here:

This is one of those cases where ebooks are wonderful: it wouldn’t matter to a Kindle how long the book is. It wouldn’t be an ounce heavier, no matter how many sizable trilogies you put on it. I don’t know why Peake’s work isn’t available yet in a digital format. I suppose it’s just a matter of time, as with all things.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Pinckney!


An often heart-stopping literary performance. - The New York Times

Benedict's first collection of stories since his auspicious if uneven debut (Town Smokes, 1987) is a far more accomplished work, establishing him among the best young southern writers — full of passion and mature enough to keep it under control. Benedict searches out the moral dimension in the hardscrabble lives of rednecks and country people, and transcends the folksy bromides they espouse. He discerns the confusion and ambiguities in their seemingly uncomplicated lives. -Kirkus Reviews

Buy Miracle Boy over here

More information on Pinckney can be found over here

And his wife's website is over here:

This is the last interview for Salt Publishing month, and I hope that you've all enjoyed it, and have fallen a little bit in love with Salt! I, for one, have really loved doing these interviews, so many thanks to Chris, Jen and Sarah-Jayne for letting me get my mitts on their authors! And a big thank you to Vanessa, Anna, Wena and Pinckney, too. Please do buy just one book from Salt, as part of their Just One Book campaign. You won't be disappointed; their books are wonderful.


*I interviewed Pinckney before Wena

Monday, 14 March 2011

Author Visit: Wena Poon

Good morning, all! Here's the third interview to celebrate Salt Publishing month. Happy Monday x


Wena Poon is a Singapore-born American author whose work has appeared in print, radio and film. Winner of the 2010 Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize in England, twice longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in Ireland, and nominated for the Singapore Literature Prize and the Malaysia Popular Readers’ Choice Award, Poon is the author of Alex y Robert, The Proper Care of Foxes, and Lions In Winter. She also writes a sci-fi action-adventure novel series, the first four volumes of which are collected in The Biophilia Omnibus, which was voted Best Book Gift of the Year by CNN Singapore. A graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, and a practicing lawyer, she lives in San Francisco and Austin. Wena's latest book from Salt is a novel, Alex Y Robert.


Hi Wena, thanks for stopping by our Book Forum, please pull up a chair. How would you sum up your new novel ‘Alex y Robert’ for those who haven’t bought it yet [naughty people]?

A 21st century bullfighting novel starring a pair of Facebooking, Twittering teenage matadors: an American girl and a Spanish boy.

How long did it take you to write this novel – from initial idea to final edits? What was the first idea you had which sparked the whole novel?

It took 8 months from initial writing to final edits. The idea was from a theatre director friend, she commissioned me to do a story of any length as long as it had Spain and bullfighting in it. She wanted it for the stage.

Do you find that there are central themes in your writing as whole?

Yes. Transnationalism, technology, and a world without barriers. And I am often funny.

How has being a lawyer influenced your writing?

There isn’t much overlap. But if you had to look for a connection, I would say drafting contracts in a fast-paced environment for over a decade has made me love simplicity and brevity in the English language. Working adults don’t have time to read: if you have a story, tell it quickly and get to the point. Just because it’s short doesn’t mean it’s simple or plain: look at a haiku.

What’s your proudest writing achievement?

Ironically, it’s not any of the literary awards I’ve won or been listed for, it’s getting Alex y Robert into mass distribution at WH Smith in England. Distribution is so important to an artist. You don’t want to write an exciting novel and have it become nothing but a damp squib.

What is your writing routine [if such a thing indeed exists]?

I don’t have a routine at all. I write voluminously and have since I was a child. I write whenever I have a chance. Especially on airplanes and at airports.

You were shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize – do you have any plans to write a poetry collection?

I have one, I just don’t publish it. I’m a novelist first and foremost and if I publish poetry as well, there would be a perception problem. People think if you’re a poet, you can’t write a novel, and vice versa. The same people think if you love dogs you must hate cats.

Are you able to let us know what you’re working on at the moment?

Sure, I’m not superstitious. I’m writing the sequel to Alex y Robert, called Smoke, about a third of the way in. I’m finishing a new novel called Further Beyond, which is a transatlantic love story that is rather heartbreaking and I don’t dare to finish it because I will just weep buckets. I’m about 40% into a new short fiction collection.

This month we’re dedicating our book forum to Salt Publishing – do you have anything you’d like to share about Salt? What do you think they bring to the book industry?

Salt is run by Jen and Chris Hamilton-Emery. They remind me of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and the Hogarth Press, in a good way. Salt is what publishing was at the start of the 20th century. Because of Salt, some really amazing books have seen the light of day, and if people don’t know this, it’s their loss. My favorite Salt book is The Trees by Eugenio Montejo, a famous Venezuelan poet translated beautifully by Australian poet Peter Boyle. When was the last time you read a book that you were so moved by, you bought 3 more copies to give to your friends? And I’m not even the type to buy poetry or read Spanish, either. That’s the power of Salt’s vision: to change your view of literature, to make you discover books you ordinarily would never have discovered.

On our book forum we have a Book Tree where members pick their favourite book and we all get to read it, posting it round in a circle, so that when the book comes back to the owner it’s filled with comments from everyone else. If you were to pick a book for the Book Tree, what would you pick and why?

Can I pick Alex y Robert, my book? I am genuinely dying to get reader feedback. As I’m writing the sequel, I’ve been ringing people up and asking, “Should he get the girl? What do you think? Should she marry the other guy? Do you think she’s too hard? How do I make her softer? Do you think he really loves her? When would it be a good time for him to say so?”

I would love reader feedback on the margins, it would really help. For me a novel is like a massively multiplayer online role-playing game: I can’t wait to play it with millions of others.

Thanks, Wena!


In a new century of Google Earth, YouTube and endless connectivity, her characters prove that what moves us and makes us human remains as compellingly simple – and fleeting – as ever. - Alison MacLeod

Perfectly structured and viscerally imagined, Alex y Robert drags bullfighting kicking and screaming into the 21st century, wonderfully evoking the smells and sounds of the ring in cold, pithy prose. An original and fascinating glimpse into other worlds. - Stav Sherez

Read an extract from, and buy, Alex y Robert by clicking here.


Author website with videos, reviews, and extracts:

Wena's Amazon page:

Follow Wena on Facebook:

Monday, 7 March 2011

Author Visit: Anna Woodford

Anna Woodford has received an Eric Gregory Award, a major Leverhulme Award, a Hawthornden Fellowship and an Arvon Jerwood Apprenticeship. Her pamphlet Party Piece was a winner in the International Poetry Business Competition, selected by Michael Longley. Her pamphlet Trailer was a Poetry Book Society Choice. She is widely published in many literary magazines including the TLS, the Rialto and Horizon Review. Based in Newcastle upon Tyne, Birdhouse is her first full length collection.


Hi Anna, thanks for taking the time out to come and have a chat with us – pull up a seat! So, I’ve just finished reading Birdhouse and I loved it. I think that my favourite two poems from the collection [I couldn’t pick one, and even on two I’m hovering over others] are ‘The Goldilocks Variable’ and ‘Gran’s Pantry.’ Which ones are particularly special to you? Could you pick out a couple of lines for us?

Delighted to be here! And thank-you, I’ll stick with your choice. The Goldilocks Variable was nearly the title poem. It’s about the things that might have happened to Goldilocks after she ran away from the bears’ house: from going into pornography to living as a freegan. In the poem I say: ‘maybe she’s not out of the woods yet/and her hair went white,/slim-picking through the neighbourhood bins.’ I’m a big fan of Goldilocks because she’s not a conventional fairytale heroine- it’s a ‘girl meets bear’, rather than ‘girl meets boy’ story. There is no prince or happy-ever-after ending so she has to rely on her wits. The poem was published in the TLS which was thrilling.

Gran’s Pantry is the story of diamonds that were hidden under my grandmother’s floorboards. Gran married twice and both her husbands were called Ludwick, both were Polish and Jewish and survivors of the holocaust. The diamonds belonged to the second Ludwick: they were what remained of his family’s jewels after his mother had bartered with them to survive. After Gran and her second husband died, my father found the diamonds under the floorboards. They were sewn, with two gold teeth, inside the hem of a coarse skirt. The poem ends: ‘The real jewels/had brought his mother back/from the camp a lifetime before,/they had changed/in the guards’ greased hands/to leftovers-a little bread,/a precious little, some fruit.’

Looking at all of the poems as a collection, how much time do they cover writing wise – from the first poem to the end? In fact, which one in this collection was the first one you wrote, and which was the last?

The first and the last poems are both the result of momentous journeys. I started drafting Gran’s Death on the train to Gran’s funeral: she died in 1999 so over a decade ago now. The poem went on to be part of the book’s central sequence of elegies. The last poem I wrote, Homecoming, was prompted by bringing my newborn son Archie home from hospital, on New Year’s Eve 2009. It was a magical night: fireworks were going off outside the house, my son was sleeping (magical in itself!) and the poem was beginning in my head. I hadn’t thought of the book springing up between those two experiences of life and death, but it makes sense to me that it does.

What would you say are the central themes of the collection?

Sex. Death. Running away from school. Nuns. Lots of bodies in a variety of positions. Cuddly toy (joking!) I think the book is the story of the ‘I’ speaker: a sort of coming-of-age tale.

I grew up in the North East myself [in a village near Whitburn] so really felt at home reading a lot of these poems. How does the North East inspire you? Do you have favourite haunts/memories of the place in particular that have really inspired your work? [I have a major soft spot for Cleadon Hills and for some bizarre reason have found The Angel of the North creeping up in my work, even though I really didn’t used to be a fan of it – I think it has something to do with moving away and it being one of the first things I see on the train home]

I love the idea of you feeling at home in the poems: you’re welcome any time! I love the North-East but hadn’t thought of myself as particularly inspired by place so was surprised - reading back - how geographically specific some of the poems are: there’s Darlington, Whittle in Northumberland, the Blackie Boy Roundabout in County Durham. There are other places too such as Madrid and Paris but the North-East is probably most prominent. There’s even a pigeon, albeit a dead one.

When did you get your first poem published, and how did it make you feel?

I had two poems published when I was eighteen in Iron magazine. I was ecstatic, especially as they came with their own illustration (of a screaming woman!) I had a poem in the local paper a couple of years before that but it was beyond embarrassing in tone and came with a passport photo of my sixteen-year-old self so I’ll draw a swift veil over that.

What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?

Just keeping on writing. The satisfaction of a day’s work done.

I see that you’re currently a writer in residence at Durham University – how’s that going?

It’s great. I’m working at the Law School in Durham University through a Leverhulme grant. The project is to explore, through poetry, cases where people have turned to the law, having suffered such grievous loss that it threatens to damage their sense of self. Examples include holocaust survivors who have tried to reclaim their possessions (such as suitcases or portraits) from museum collections: the possessions might be ostensibly worthless but are priceless to both the individuals and the museums because of their symbolic value. I’m working with Professor Tom Allen who is writing academically on the same subject-matter. Our starting-point is that both poetry and law share the elevated use of language. We are presenting some of our work later this month at a conference at the New School, New York.

Do you find that your poetry at any given time centres around a certain theme in your life, or not?

I’ve written a lot about law recently as a result of the Durham residency, and about birth and the experience of having a young child which is the other big current theme in my life. Whatever I’m writing though, I’m trying to capture something that has gone, so the underlying theme is always loss and hopefully some sort of poetic regain.

This month we’re dedicating our book forum to Salt Publishing – do you have anything you’d like to share about Salt? What do you think they bring to the book industry?

Well, unsurprisingly I’m a fan of Salt but I was before they published me! They stand for passion and innovation and are a broad church. They take risks and spend enormous amounts of time and energy developing their writers. Great covers too! I love the look of the books and, conversely, the fact that they don’t have a set look.

On our book forum we have a Book Tree where members pick their favourite book and we all get to read it, posting it round in a circle, so that when the book comes back to the owner it’s filled with comments from everyone else. If you were to pick a book for the Book Tree, what would you pick and why?

I’ll stick with my first love: The Sign of Saturn by Sharon Olds. It’s a selected poems and the first book she had published in the UK. It came out when I was sixteen and, as Emily Dickinson would say, it took the top of my head off. I did once buy an edition of Olds’s poems on the net from an American schoolgirl that was filled with comments (probably not quite of the Book Tree variety) such as ‘Jesus, you read to the end of the section?’ At the front of the book she’d written: ‘Hey Anna, pretty nasty at times but have fun analyzing’. She obviously didn’t realize she was sending to a huge fan of Olds but I love her annotations.

What are your plans for the future? Are you working on a new collection?

Yes. I’m writing new poems and hopefully they will turn into a book, pamphlet or something down the line.

Fantastic - I look forward to that. Thanks, Anna!


Anna Woodford is not afraid to move around the page. Most poets cling to the left-hand margin as a starting point for each poem but Woodford know the value of space. It’s possible to make an impact with just a few words if you know what you are doing and these poems do just that. – Ambit

I never thought I would use the word ‘cool’ as a compliment to characterise a young poet’s work, least of all when it deals with family material of such deep personal resonance. And yet that is my reaction to Anna Woodford’s workings in what has lately become a popular literary territory involving grandparents and immigration. The emotions are strong, and for this very reason, in relation to her material, she stands, whether consciously or intuitively, ‘at a slight angle to the universe’, as Forster famously wrote of Cavafy. She is tough-minded and tender-hearted. - Anthony Rudolf

You can buy Birdhouse from Salt over here!


[This was the second of four interviews to celebrate Salt Publishing Month]

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Why I Write

 What makes us write? Because we love reading. Because we love books and stories. Because there's a story out there that no one else has written yet, and we want to write it down. Because it's an escape. Because we want to share something with other people. Because because because.

Whilst all of the above is true, for me, I also have a rather different reason that I wanted to share. This is not supposed to be a self-indulgent post; I've been around on here for just under two years [blimey!] and I've only mentioned it once, rather fleetingly. Most of the time it isn't important, in fact I'd prefer you think that it's not important, but sometimes it is and that's the way life goes. And, considering this blog started as a tale of me and my writing, I think it's important to talk about properly. So, whilst I stop contradicting myself, make yourself a cuppa.

So. Why do I write? I write because I'm not supposed to be able to. I was born with a genetic condition no one then knew the name of, which meant my fingers were fused together [ectrodactyly and syndactyly]. So I had two lumps of bone and skin attached to the end of my wrists. Through a long series of operations [the first when I was three months old], surgeons crafted fingers for me. I have a couple missing, and they're pretty weird shapes.

I really do think that because holding and pencil/pen and writing was such a weird thing for me, and I practiced so hard at doing it, that that is why I got to love writing. Writing more and practicing is the only way that a writer gets better [that and reading as widely as possible - and I read a lot!]. Oh, I was a little brat. I wrote my first novel [Zippy the Wizard] when I was nine. I wrote plays in Year Five and my class performed them to the school. Thank goodness my parents didn't have a flippin' camcorder; in my mind they shall remain good plays!

People say that children can be cruel but, at my school, the kids were pretty excellent. I was more likely to get teased for being a swot more than anything else. But the teachers and adults of this world? Blimey. When my first poem was published in the TES when I was eleven, the local paper came round to take my photograph and my English teacher asked me if I'd like to wear gloves for it. I mean, really? Oh, yes, and there was the time the PE teacher held special GCSE classes for her year elevens to come and work out why I was able to throw a ball really far because, according to her, I shouldn't have been able to do that. I get people looking at me funny on the tube and taking photos (like, for real). Working in bookselling, I get the occasional person who won't take change from me and asks me to put it down on the desk in front of them instead; or is patronising; or comes out nervously with ridiculous questions like 'Wow, can you like... dress yourself?' [that's not made up, yo]. Kids? Yes, they're interested; they ask sometimes. Normally they just want to know if it hurts. The worst thing is when their parents try and stop them. Don't do that to your children; get them to embrace difference, get them to ask, because once you say to them 'I was born like that' they normally just say 'Cool!' and go off and do something else, but if you don't talk to them about it then they think there's something wrong with it. Vanessa's son [at the Edinburgh Bookshop] thinks I'm really awesome because some day my hands are going to be made out of metal and I could punch anyone I liked [oh to be twelve again!].

Sorry, I sidetracked a bit there. Yes. So. When I was eight I got all stubborn I went as far as learning how to play the piano - all the grades and all that (I got told off in my exams for 'using the wrong fingering' *facepalm). And, whilst I can no longer play very well, the knowledege that I did that will always be really important to me. My hands were also not the only thing affected by my genetic condition (EEC Syndrome); I was born without tear ducts, I have some webbed toes [let's go swimming!], I have cleft kidneys, I had teeth in various parts of my skull so I've had some ops. on my eyes and my mouth, I had to have a biopsy to my tongue last year [that was not pleasant!] to remove part of it.

So. Why am I talking about this? Because everyone has struggles. I'm not sitting here going 'oh, woe is me!' Hell, no. But I think that there's certainly something to be said for writers who have struggled through something, whatever that something might be, and need to find a way to express themselves [even if it's only struggling against rejection!]. I'm not saying that you should write specifically about what troubles you, no. And dealing with your own raw emotion when writing, if you haven't dealt with it elsewhere, normally leads to awful writing. [Please do not write poems about your dead hamster. Thank you. Actually, I wrote a short story about the life of my hamster when I was twelve and sent it off to Penguin saying that I'd like them to publish it before Christmas so that I could give copies of it to my family. I think I still have that rejection letter somewhere - those bastards. PS Penguin, I still love you a little bit.]

So, yes. There we go. Let your children (if you have them) ask about differences - embrace differences yourself. And if you want to write, then bloody well write. Go on. Off you go. You never know what might happen. x

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Alternative World Book Night

If you've missed the controversy that's been buzzing around the interwebs about World Book Night then check out Vanessa's post at State of Independents, or yesterday's BBC Book Cafe [from 30 mins in] on iplayer.

All up to speed? Fab.

We, at Ripping Yarns Bookshop, would just like to say that we thoroughly support Nicola Morgan's idea for an 'Alternative Book Night.' Here, at Ripping Yarns, we're an antiquarian bookshop, and 90% of our stock is out-of-print books. We specialise in saving books from being lost - reuniting people with their favourite childhood stories. We work our socks off and we don't make a profit: we do it because we love it.

And for those books that have just come out, or are currently in print we redirect our customers to places such as The Big Green Bookshop and Muswell Hill's The Children's Bookshop. You cannot beat recommendations and assistance from booksellers who really love what they are doing. You don't get that from Amazon, and as Vanessa said on Twitter:

You don't want to do that kittens, surely?

I used to work at The Edinburgh Bookshop - a fantastic independent bookshop, and Nicola's Alternative World Book Night allows us to celebrate places like this: indie bookshops, and publishers, making sure that everyone gets involved.

So, the premise? This week go and buy a book that you love [preferably from a bookshop or directly from the publisher]. I also recommend Salt Publishing for this! Then, write in the front of the book 'Given in the spirit of World Book Night, but bought from [insert name of bookshop or publisher].' Then, on Saturday 5th March, go out and give this book to anyone - a stranger you meet on the street, on the bus, on the tube. Give it to a friend, give it to a library. The thought behind World Book Night comes from a good place, but we think it could have been executed in a different way. We shouldn't hide the fact that places such as Amazon, and supermarkets are giving a warped view of what a book should be worth: of all the hard work that's put in by the authors, editors, marketing people, designers, booksellers! And giving one million free books is great, a lovely idea, but it does, I feel, block the trouble that's going on in the industry. Prospero's bookshop - a wonderful indie bookshop in Crouch End - closed last month, and I hear so many local people here saying 'oh, it's such a shame; it was such a lovely bookshop.' Yes, it was - but did you buy your books from there? Did you? Or did you browse? And now The Big Green Bookshop is in trouble too.

So, use the World Book Night idea in a way that not only supports reading and publishers but also benefits your indie booksellers who work super hard to get you the books, school visits, author events that you enjoy. So, what are you waiting for? Off you go!


this post was cross-posted from my post about this on our bookshop blog.

Author Visit: Vanessa Gebbie

This is the first of four interviews to celebrate Salt Publishing Month. Pull up a seat! [I also recommend buying a Salt book for Nicola Morgan's Alternative World Book Night.]

Vanessa Gebbie is Welsh. She is author of Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt), a collection of her award winning fiction from prizes including Bridport and the Daily Telegraph. She is contributing editor of Short Circuit: Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt), and contributor to The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (Rose Metal Press, USA). She teaches widely; in 2010 she was Writer in Residence at Stockholm University. Her latest collection of short stories is Storm Warning from Salt.


Hi Vanessa, thank you for taking the time to stop by! Help yourself to some tea.

Why thanks. Can I take a macaroon as well? Cheers.

How would you sum up your collection ‘Storm Warning’ for those who haven’t got their mitts on it yet?

It is a collection of short stories and flash fiction exploring the after-effects of conflict. No romance, sex, or flowers, I’m afraid. The earliest story is set in the 1550s, and the latest, yesterday…I’m interested in how conflict changes those caught up – whether they are major players or innocent bystanders. I am interested in the ordinary troops, the kids who witness events, the family – rather than those who go down in history.

I was brought up by a man who fought and was decorated in WWII – and he never forgot his experiences, nor was he able to exorcise them by speaking about it. My mother wouldn’t let him. So for the rest of his life the war stood between him and every day… it was that which inspired me, I think, although I didn’t write these as a collection consciously, I must admit. They were mostly written between 2004 and 2007, when a lot of other writing was happening. Some were sent out and published, and they all sat on my hard drive until Salt Publishing wanted a second collection…

What’s your writing ‘routine’? [if such a thing does exist!]

I don’t have one. I am the least disciplined writer on the planet. I can fiddle with work at home, but when I need to do a concentrated blast of in-depth work I always go away. I go to a writers’ retreat in the west of Ireland, called Anam Cara (see link below)– have been going there a few times a year since 2005. There, I find I can work solidly and steadily, all day, and well into the night, with no interruptions. I am nothing but a writer there – I am not a wife, mother, daughter, friend – although the owner has become a very good one of the last category.

You have won a very impressive amount of writing competitions over the years – which has meant the most to you?

That’s a hard question to answer, because in their way, all the competition successes have been a valued affirmation that I was doing something right. For example, I appreciate the sincerity, the search for standards and the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in places like Bridport and Fish; I have got to know the organisers, and value their professionalism and friendship enormously. Winning at the Daily Telegraph novel competition in 2007 was very important to me – it gave the characters, the style and the then synopsis of the novel, (now called ‘The Coward’s Tale’) much-needed validation. A win at Per Contra with a short section of the same thing meant that this piece of work worked across the pond as well – and lo and behold, the finished novel is coming out over in the USA next year..

But I will single out the Willesden Herald Short Story Competition as the one that means the most to me, looking back. I was joint winner of the very first one back in 2006, when the prize was just a mug- albeit a very treasured one. The final judge was Zadie Smith – and her words about my work were absolutely wonderful – things seemed to change after that. I bow to the founder and organiser, Stephen Moran. He is an inspiration. Not enough people like him around these days.

What’s your tale of from writing/to pitch/to first publication?

Don’t understand the question. If you mean ‘how did my first publication come about’, it was a short story called ‘Stinker and the Taff Vale Railroaders’ written in Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp (hardworking online writing forum) back in late 2003/early 2004. Fellow members of that forum were editors of an ezine called Buzzwords, and they asked me to submit the story. It was published in 2004. It’s still archived – antique value!

However, that makes it all sound rather easy – running alongside it is a list of loads of submissions and a heap of rejections!

I see your novel ‘The Coward’s Tale’ is to be published later this year – can you tell us a bit about that?

Yup - Bloomsbury will publish my first novel, ‘The Coward’s Tale’ this November in hardback, sometime in early-mid 2012, paperback, and then trade paperback in USA. It’s taken a long time to get written – and has had a chequered birthing – high spots include bits of it winning prizes at Bridport, The Daily Telegraph and Per Contra in the USA. Low spots (see the comment on muses below…) include bits of it being plundered by a writing buddy and the subsequent legal action I had to pay for [blimey!]. I could well have given up after that, but I didn’t. I knuckled down after a long period of feeling sorry for myself and changed the pieces that were nicked, rewrote a whole heap of it. That was 2009, a lesson and a half. It completely changed the way I worked.

But all’s well that ends well, and I am thrilled to be with Bloomsbury. Here is the current cover copy:

‘My name is Laddy Merridew. I’m a cry-baby. I’m sorry.’

‘And my name is Ianto Jenkins. I am a coward. And that’s worse.’

The boy Laddy Merridew, sent to live with his grandmother, stumbles off the bus into a small Welsh mining community, where he begins an unlikely friendship with Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, the town beggar-storyteller. Ianto is watchman over the legacy of the collapse many years ago of Kindly Light Pit, a disaster whose legacy still echoes down the generations and blights the lives of many in the town. Through Ianto’s stories Laddy Merridew is drawn into both the town’s history and the conundrums of the present.

Why has woodwork teacher Icarus Evans striven most of his life to carve wooden feathers that will float on an updraft? Why is the undertaker Tutt Bevan trying to find a straight path through the town? Why does James Little, the old gas-meter emptier, dig his allotment by moonlight? And why does window cleaner Judah Jones take autumn leaves into a disused chapel?

These and other men of the town, both past and present, and the women who mothered them, married them and mourned them, are bound together by the echoes of the Kindly Light tragedy and by the mysterious figure of Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, whose stories of loyalty and betrayal, loss and love, form an unforgettable, spellbinding tapestry.

The Coward’s Tale is a powerfully imagined, poetic and haunting novel spiked with humour, about kinship and kindness, guilt and atonement, and the ways in which we carve the present out of an unforgiving past.

Oo, intriguing Thanks for that - I'll keep my eyes peeled for it. Now, on to muses: On your blog, you said :

‘But then I re-read Rose Kelleher’s post about M A Griffiths. ‘Maz and the Male Muse...’ and I started thinking about the muses. Mine is not, never has been and never could be a female. Maybe the muses were depicted as females because they were invented by – er- men?? So what sex is your muse? Are you a woman writer who writes with one of the female muses wafting about in your study? Or are you, like me, fed by someone different? Is your muse something intangible, of the air? Or is it a solid person? The great painters had them. Why not us lot?!

‘People’ muses slightly nark me too because it gives the impression that writers don’t work hard at their craft; that they don’t hone. That it’s whispered into their ear fully-formed. Pfft. Having said that, life is inspiring and other writers do influence us. What/who inspires you [generally, or specifically ]?

Oh no no no no and no !! I don’t know what other people’s definition of a muse is, but for me it is a Janus-type figure who both inspires, sets things sparking - but then who has the job of chucking obstacles in the way. The writer has to work very very hard, it sometimes seems against insurmountable difficulties. Either it is too much and they give up and go on to something easier, or they say: ‘Bugger you, I’m going to DO this…’ and find a way round the obstacles. That’s my perfect muse. And he is very definitely a bloke, real or not, and I love him to bits. When I don’t hate him, of course.

Those writers who habitually give up when things get tough, may find their wonderful muses gradually give up on them too.

I do like your definition :) I also love to find writers who do short stories, poetry and novels – when an idea comes to you, do you immediately know which format it’s going to take?

I approached the novel as a series of short pieces written over 4/5 years on and off, then worked for over a year to weave them together into a novel – so I always knew that particular piece was going to be 1) a short piece, but b) at some point, part of a novel. I tend to know when a poem is being born – I don’t think a poem has ever turned itself into anything else. But I do like work that changes – shorts that turn into flashes, and vice versa.

If you could give just one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

Don’t be too proud to learn craft from other people – but when it comes to making your creations with that learned craft – you know best. No one else.

This month we’re dedicating our book forum to Salt Publishing – do you have anything you’d like to share about Salt? What do you think they bring to the book industry?

This is a lovely thing to do. And yes of course – here goes. I have been lucky to work with Salt Publishing since 2007 – my first book , the collection ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’, came out with them in 2008, and there’s been a text book commission (‘Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story’) in 2009, and then ‘Storm Warning’ late 2010.

For those who don’t know, but who are blown away by the magnificence of their website and the quality of what they do – Salt Publishing is mainly a hard-working couple called Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery. Chris is the web guru, has been poetry editor since the off, although he has now handed that over to poet Roddy Lumsden, I believe. Chris carries the brunt of the business stuff, and he also designs the books – he has a wonderful eye and without exception, the books are gorgeous objects. Her is also a poet. Jen, in charge of the literary short fiction and the novels, she is Superwoman in disguise –she has worked closely with all us cantankerous writer-types to ensure our books are as good as they can be. She also is a working Mum, with three children – the youngest, Cameron, is still only five (I think!) and she is also very busy in the community, a skilled photographer – the list is endless. They of course have help in the office, and interns – otherwise there would be no one to take orders and expedite them, take phonecalls… (although it is usually one of them who does that…).

Salt has made some substantial changes to its provision in the last year. They now include the imprint Embrace Books under the amazing Jane Holland – romance e books, from the sweet to the veeery steamy I gather – and Proxima Books, for the weirder stuff – including Jon Pinnock’s not-to-be-missed ‘Mrs Darcy versus The Aliens’ in October. (I endorsed that one – hands up!)

Through working with Salt, I have learned a lot – primarily that the writer-publisher relationship is a two-way partnership. The exposure of your book on their great website is not going to sell many copies on its own, authors need to get out there, do readings, workshops and other gigs, to spread the word. Salt are good at passing on requests for writers – I’m off to read at the Cambridge Word Fest in April for example, and have had marvellous invitations to places as diverse as the Frank O’Connor Festival in Cork and Sevenoaks Literary Tea - all thanks to them. The last four years have certainly been a whirlwind of activity as far as sales and marketing are concerned, all done whilst trying to write the novel, more short fiction – it has been a bit busy. But I am glad to have done it all, and will of course continue to spread the word for my Salty books - but there is a downside – it does take you away from what you do best - writing.

Having said all that – writers need to get out there anyway, network, use social media, contribute to blog interviews….(!). The days of desks in garrets and other people doing all the publicity, all the marketing and selling initiatives, are long gone. If they ever existed. Charles Dickens used to travel and read his work all over...

You ask what I think Salt Publishing have brought to the book industry. The answer is, a lot. They set an example as innovators, for a start. The industry is going through a period of great change – and those who don’t respond to change, see it coming and try to get in front, go the way of the dodo, don’t they? I think they are brave – not afraid to try new things, and to fail sometimes. If we only ever did those things we knew were going to succeed, we’d never push the boundaries and make new discoveries. So far, in the face of many obstacles, they have not given up, and are still committed to bringing the best writing, in all its myriad forms, to readers. They try everything, sometimes earning negative comments that they are doing too much – but that’s their decision, no one else’s. It can’t have been easy, running a fine independent publishing house in the last few years – in fact I know it hasn’t. And for all the whinging we writers do (and we do do it rather well) this one has a lot of respect for Salt and I wish them continued successes, smoother rides to come. I think the book industry needs publishers like Salt. A mix of ambition, madness, savvy and passion.

Thank you - and I whole-heartedly agree. Now, more than ever, writers, publishers and bookshop owners have to diversify, think up new ways of getting themselves out there [not to sound like they are dating the public em mass or anything...]. The romantic idea of a writer slaving away over a typewriter is over [as you say, if it ever existed!] - hurrah for hardworking and dedicated writers like yourself who are prepared to go out and fight for their books and sell them to potential readers

Now, final question. On our book forum we have a Book Tree where members pick their favourite book and we all get to read it, posting it round in a circle, so that when the book comes back to the owner it’s filled with comments from everyone else. If you were to pick a book for the Book Tree, what would you pick and why?

If it is not already there, I’d pick ‘The Inheritors’, by William Golding. Not an easy one to get into – for reasons which will become obvious on the first page – but worth the effort. It is written from the point of view, mostly, of a Neanderthal man. And as far as we know, Neanderthal man had no fear of others, because he had no logic… ‘a’ did not automatically lead onto ‘b’, and ‘c’ would not be the product of the two. A tour de force, technically, and it really makes you think, this one.


Thank you, Vanessa!


Vanessa's collection 'Storm Warning' is available from Salt over here Vanessa's website Vanessa's blog this follows her novel through all the stages to publication in November.

She is running a week-long residential workshop in late May, for writers who are keen to explore the short story in one of the most inspirational places… she says: 'it changed my writing life, this place – it could change someone else’s too.'