Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Insignificant Gestures, by Jo Cannon

Jo Cannon is an online writing buddy of mine, and I recently attended the launch of her first book, Insignificant Gestures. Since then, I’ve been working my way slowly through the collection. Like all good short fiction, you need to take your time with these stories, to savour everything they have to offer. They are multi-layered, and resonate in the mind long after you’ve finished reading. Above all, the characters are so well-realised I found myself wanting to start talking to them each time I finished a story and put the book down.

In her day job, Jo works as a GP in Sheffield, and detailed medical knowledge underpins the precise descriptive writing in a many of these stories. Some of them are set in Malawi, where the struggle of medical staff to perform basic functions in the face of desperately inadequate facilities acquires a heroic dimension:

“Trembling with tension, I detach the placenta from its gritty bed and drop it into a bucket. The barely anaesthetised mother murmurs. Frustrated by blunt instruments and limited skills, I feel a quick jolt of anger.”

The main focus in these fictions, though, is always on the human drama, the uncountable tragedies and indignities suffered by people whose stories are rarely, if ever, heard. Whether they live in Malawi or Dagenham, Jo Cannon gives these ‘insignificant’ people a voice, bringing them vividly to life for us on the page. People like Nasma, Amos and Rosa, all refugees from conflict or oppression, struggling to fashion new lives for themselves in an indifferent or hostile environment in Britain. People like Mercy, wasting away from an unnameable illness when she returns to her village after her dream of a new life in the city turns to ashes. Or Jack, watching his parents’ marriage collapse and expressing his powerlessness by just lying down in the garden.

What gives these stories their power is Jo Cannon’s ability to move effortlessly from precise, matter-of-fact description to another register, where the depths of her characters’ emotional lives are revealed:

“I stack boxes in a storeroom in a cold English city, beneath harsh artificial light that throws no shadows. Lorries arrive by day and night and I record deliveries in a book… Only the blood in my head is hot and loud. I’ve built a fence of mirrors around the past. I guard it vigilantly and it works, reflecting back only the moment… I barely speak this language. Words squirm just out of reach. My voice, strange and thick as if from a mouthful of mud, echoes in this Spartan place of white walls and brown cardboard.”

Not all the stories are about suffering. One of the best pieces in the book, ‘Love on the Rocks’, includes a joyful erotic account of middle-aged lovemaking. Even here, though, the author makes us keenly aware of the impermanence of happiness, as the protagonist imagines what the future holds for her and her partner, using the sailing imagery that has underpinned the whole story:

“They will see many things and thread many more beads on this life they have strung together. Yet Eve understands that in time one of them will falter. Despite his broad shoulders and middle-aged vitality, she suspects this will be Tim. She will paddle for both of them, but one day he will slip away from her into the waves and she’ll carry on alone.”

There is much more I could write about this collection, but, really, the best thing is to buy a copy and discover it for yourself. You can order the book here

I can guarantee you won’t regret it!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

left hand waving

My flash, 'Take me to the coast', has just gone up at Left Hand Waving. You can find it here

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Apology for long absence

Completely inexcusable absence for - what - 6 months now? By way of mitigation, I should mention that I found out a few months ago that the cancer I received treatment for two years ago was trying to make a comeback. So, I'm currently in the middle of a concerted programme of chemotherapy to try to knock it on the head for good. The chemo leaves you feeling frazzled and strange in cyclical waves, and it's not that conducive to coherent writing. However, I have managed to scribble a few flashes which may or may not end up being half-decent.

I found out recently that I'd made the long list for the 2010 Sean O'Faolain Prize. Gave me a welcome boost after bombing completely in a few comps earlier in the year. The competition judge, Tania Hershman, posted a brilliant piece on her blog about the judging process from her perspective. Required reading, I'd say, for anyone thinking of entering a short story comp any time soon. You can read Tania's post here

Anyway, will try to post more frequently, and to return to my list of favourite short pieces before long.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Radio Baby

Here’s the second in my (very) occasional series where I have a go at explaining what I like about my favourite stories. (At this rate, I might get to the end of the list by mid 2011.)

Radio Baby appears in Deborah Kay Davies’s collection Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the beautiful, which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2009. The book’s success caused huge rejoicing among lovers of the short story form - and not just in Wales.

At the start of Radio Baby, a mother has discharged herself early from hospital soon after giving birth to her third child. On one level, the story is ‘about’ post-natal depression, but the writing isn’t in the least didactic or preachy. Davies offers no overt explanation of the mother’s strange behaviour on her return to the family home, and does not set out to elicit either sympathy or condemnation on the part of the reader. We are distanced from the mother’s predicament by the fact that the story is narrated in the first person by the family’s oldest child, Grace, who observes and catalogues her mother’s actions with a deadpan matter-of-factness:

“Mother starts to doodle on the paper, every now and then stopping to listen. I ask her what she’s drawing. I’m portraying the child in the room upstairs, she says and holds up the page. She has drawn a naked baby lying in some grass. From the neck down it appears normal, but where its head should be there is a radio.”

Early in the story the mother insists on having a radio playing constantly to try to drown out the sound of the baby’s crying. As the story progresses she begins to identify the baby with the radio in an illogical, increasingly dangerous, way. The chilling final words of the story contain a hint that she has killed the child:

“There, she says, giving me the bedroom key and dusting her hands, I’ve turned off that radio for good.”

As punch lines go, this is pretty hard to beat: nothing is spelled out, no obvious emotion is indicated, but the telling detail in the parenthetical phrase ‘dusting her hands’ is tremendously evocative.

The world of Radio Baby has nightmarish features. Like all good nightmares, it contains mundanity mixed with a bizarre logic, all related in the convincing voice of a precocious child. If we read the rest of the collection, we know that there is an unhinged quality to Grace herself, but the story can be appreciated on its own, without this knowledge.

In its concision, this is a proper short story, with none of that obsessive need to provide ‘coherent’ psychological explanations for human behaviour that can bedevil so much fiction. Above all, for me, it inhabits the territory where writing works best, that borderland between familiarity and an irreducible strangeness. I first read an earlier version of this story about ten years ago, and it’s one of those I can’t get out of my head.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Decongested Tales

This magazine, which is linked to the monthly 'Tales of the Decongested' short story readings in London, has just published my story Taking Care. Details of the magazine are here.

Many thanks to editors Martin Reed and Pauline Mason.

Find out more about the monthly reading events here.

prizes and shortlists

Well, I bombed in a couple of recent short story competitions - the Willesden Herald and the Rhys Davies. Delighted, though, to see a number of friends and writing colleagues on the shortlists of both comps - huge congrats to Jo Cannon, Tom Vowler and Craig Hawes.

The Willesden shortlist is here, and the Rhys Davies prizewinners here.

The fabulous Salt Books, a great champion of short fiction, have also recently published the shortlist for the Scott Prize, an opportunity for writers to get their first collection of short fiction in print. Three of my writing colleagues from the Fiction Forge are on the list. So another big cheer for Joel Willans, Ben Cheetham and Tom Vowler. Best of luck for the final judgement, guys! The Scott Prize shortlist is here.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Where can you publish your stories?

Tania Hershman has just posted on her blog a comprehensive list of UK online and print journals which publish short fiction. Tania's list also includes information about whether these venues pay writers.

Gold stars galore to Tania for her hard work in compiling this list, and for her wonderful generosity in making it available to others. This is a fantastic resource for all writers and readers of short fiction. You can read the list here.

And if you haven't already discovered it, Tania also publishes The Short Review, the only website I know dedicated exclusively to reviewing collections of short fiction. Check it out here. I've contributed a few reviews to the site - this month I've reviewed Alice Munro's debut collection from 1968, Dance of the Happy Shades. You'll find it here.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Right Hand Pointing

The lovely people over at Right Hand Pointing have published my little flash, Slip out of the warm sheets and gone, in their latest issue.

You can read it here:

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Under the Boardwalk - Jayne Anne Phillips

Number 1 on my list of favourite short stories is also, by some distance, the shortest. Less than a page of text, barely 300 words - these days we’d call it flash fiction. I don’t think that term was widely used when the story was published back in 1979, as part of Phillips’s debut collection, Black Tickets.

Reading Phillips’s work for the first time made me see what short fiction was capable of. How a whole world and way of life could be sketched in a couple of lines. How you could tell stories without having to spell out every little detail. Most of all, how in one page a gifted writer can suggest poetic connections and emotional depths that most novelists don’t get near in 400 pages. She was 26 when the book was published. Damn her eyes!

It took me a few minutes to read Under the Boardwalk for the first time, but its still haunts me, years later, and every time I re-read it I see something new. There’s pitch-perfect, precise description:

‘The Castos all look alike. Skinny, freckled, straw-haired. Joyce’s is the colour of broom sage, dried out by some heat in her head.’

It’s those last eight words that are the killer, moving us from mundane if observant description to the suggestion of something wild, uncontrolled and destructive. Because Phillips plants that little seed here, right at the start of the piece, the later events of the story – incest, teenage pregnancy, possible infanticide – don’t strike us as totally implausible.

There’s a poetic patterning to the language that belies the surface realism. Joyce’s father is a ‘fire-and-brimstone preacher’, and her brother, who works in a steel mill, ‘holds a thing that burns orange fire’. These two details link back to the ‘heat’ that dries out Joyce’s hair, and to this sentence: ‘Music is the work of a devil that licks at her legs.’ Through the story, there’s a real sense of danger and terror, connected with the father’s fire and brimstone religion as well as Joyce’s harrowing experiences.

And just when we think we’re done, Phillips turns the knife in the wound with a final detail involving dogs. This is not a cheap twist in the tail, just an example of how a great short story writer gets the reader in her grip early and never lets go – however short the piece.

There – I’ve written more words than are in Under the Boardwalk itself, and only begun to scratch the surface of what I’ve got out of the story.

And I haven’t even mentioned what the Drifters have got to do with it.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

New year, new blog, new list

Brand new year, so it must be a good time for a list. Here's a random list of some of my favourite pieces of short fiction. No particular order.

Under the Boardwalk - Jayne Anne Phillips
The Tumblers - Nathan Englander
Radio Baby - Deborah Kay Davies
Boys and Girls - Alice Munro
The White Road - Tania Hershman
I can squash the king, Tommo - Vanessa Gebbie
Sheer big waste of love - Kate Atkinson
Mr. Roopratna's Chocolate - Lewis Davies
Brokeback Mountain - Annie Proulx
Junior - Anna Gavalda

There, that'll do for now. I'll try to explain why I like some of them, soon.