Kate Summerscale: The Wicked Boy

This week we welcomed journalist and editor Kate Summerscale to discuss her latest book, The Wicked Boy, which documents the Victorian matricide committed by thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his younger brother, Nattie. When asked about the journalistic register of her novels, Summerscale said, “All I can do is be restrained with them. All the colour is in the original material, and it becomes about shaping it rather than constructing it.”

She also emphasised the role that research plays in her work. “It would devalue everything I found out if I made up even a little thing,” she said. With the Coombes story, she used transcripts of the trial and newspaper reports that were “fabulously rich in detail”. Transcripts from the Old Bailey included witness names and addresses, as well as verbatim accounts of witness statements. “In terms of reconstructing,” Summerscale said, “there was quite a wealth of material, including dialogue.” When deciding which material to include, particularly if there are conflicting accounts, Summerscale tests the versions against each other for the most verifiable sources, and utilises a bit of instinct for what is reliable and what isn’t. When deciding what details to include and what to leave out, Summerscale said, “If it interests me in terms of the structure, then I include it.” Adding to that, she clarified, “It doesn’t seem fair to the reader to throw in everything […] without steering a little bit.” As an example, she cited a newspaper interview a neighbour had given claiming the two boys were hooligans. The interview was included in the narrative, but with the caveat that it was the only instance on record and that the neighbour had “a vested interest in her friend portrayed as a good mother.”

The Wicked Boy is Kate Summerscale’s fourth book.


Andy Miller: A Year of Reading Dangerously

The Spring term of the Creative Writing reading Series kicked off with Andy Miller, who came to talk about his new book, A Year of Reading Dangerously, which is part memoir, part book about reading, books, and family. Miller said the impetus behind the book was the realisation, as he approached 40, that there were still many books he hadn’t read, and that he would need to make a decisive effort to read more books. He then made a list of books to read by his 40th birthday, titled the List of Betterment, signed and witnessed by his wife. While he didn’t succeed with the List of Betterment, its failure motivated him to develop a list of 50 books he would read over the course of a year. Of the book’s message to readers, he said, “Keep going. It becomes a big thing in the book, and in life. If you don’t get it, keep going,” which was a sentiment he echoed later on his advice to writers in the room. “Writing books is hard,” he said, “and you go through all these emotions that aren’t necessarily delight with the book you are writing.”


Lionel Shriver

dsc_0027Award-winning novelist and journalist, Lionel Shriver joined the Creative Writing Reading Series to talk about her latest novel, The Mandibles, politics, the economy, and writing fiction. When asked if she’d worried about relevancy issues while working on the novel, Shriver answered, “If you feel as if you’re obliged to predict the future, you’ll seize up. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong; you just have to tell a plausible story.” Inspired by the 2007-08 recession, the novel deals with what happens when currency no longer works. “Everything that made things a little wonky [in 2008] still exists,” Shriver said, adding that, in regards to the current economic state, currency only still works “because we need it to work.”


When the discussion turned to the current state of American political affairs, Shriver observed, “The difference between what [the United States] is and what it thinks it is hasn’t been a huge chasm. And not it’s becoming a chasm, and that makes people nervous.” She also went on to say, as a possible catalyst to the election result, that while the left is already celebrating an egalitarian society, “we’re not there yet, and these people are not going to go quietly. And that’s what happened in the election.”


The evening finished with a lively Q&A, and a reading from The Mandibles which illustrated both the humour and tragedy woven into its plot.




In Conversation: Brian Catling with Iain Sinclair

“It is a book that catches you off guard in every way,” said Iain Sinclair of The Vorrh as he introduced the head of the Ruskin School of Art, poet novelist and sculptor, Brian Catling. Sinclair also commented that the novel “seemed to emerge from novel, but was there all along.”

img-20161116-wa0001Catling began with a reading from the novel to get “the atmosphere of it” before telling us a bit about how The Vorrh had come to be. He related his experience visiting museums as a child, and how he’d had to make up the meaning behind the artefacts because there hadn’t been descriptions. “I really believe in the power of not understanding,” he said.

When asked about the question of genre, particularly having now written what could be called a fantasy novel, he explained, “Fantasy has the same response, to me, in writing as surrealism does in art. I’m attracted to its core, but I don’t always like its manifestations.” He went on to talk about his creative process, explaining how writing fiction had allowed him to create things that wouldn’t be possible in sculpture, joking that he wished he’d known that sooner. Catling described the process as being like “things unfold, and I just observe it and write it down.”

The evening finished with a reading from the upcoming second instalment of the  trilogy, The Erstwhile, which will be published in spring of 2017.


Jean “Binta” Breeze

Today at Creative Writing Reading Series we welcomed the most charismatic speaker yet, a Jamaican Dub poet and storyteller, Jean “Binta” Breeze. She arrived at the university to discuss her new collection of prose poems, The Verandah Poems. It is a touching and intimate look at Jean’s life in rural Jamaica, a book of coming home and coming to terms with the choices we make throughout our lives. The poems revolve around the physical space of a verandah, where the speaker spends her time contemplating the departures and arrivals, her past, present and future. The Verandah Poems were published on the author’s 60th birthday and were written in impressively short period of time.


It’s impossible to discuss Jean “Binta” Breeze’s work without mentioning her reading of them. Without a doubt, she was the best reader we had welcomed to the series. Recited with passion, engagement and often, humour, the poems touched the most fragile parts of our souls. We would love to see Jean “Binta” Breeze coming back to Kent in the future. As for now, you can see her during her tour in the UK.



Gavin Selerie’s Hariot Double

The Reading Series welcomed poet and painter Gavin Selerie to discuss his latest book, Hariot Double. The collection, which is the work of seven years, consists of a dual narrative charting the lives of 20th century jazz musician Joe Harriott and Renaissance scientist Thomas Harriot. Blending the two seemingly disparate time periods – as in “Calypso Gloriana”, which juxtaposes the rhythm of calypso with the structure of Elizabethan courtly dance – the poems reflect the constructs of power and servitude through the struggles of both men, from suspicion of atheism and the imprisonment of two patrons in the case of Thomas Harriot to the limitations racism placed on Joe Harriott’s success.

Selerie gave a detailed analysis of the forms at play in his work, as well as reading a selection of several poems from the collection. The evening concluded with a brief Q&A session, concentrating on the problematic nature of reflecting post-colonial voices.

Please join us for our next session on 1 November when Dorothy Lehane will be in conversation with Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze.


Francis Spufford “Golden Hill”

This week in Creative Writing Reading Series we welcomed Francis Spufford, the author of Red Plenty, The Child that Books Built and his newest novel, Golden Hill.

Golden Hill (chosen as Waterstones’ Book of a Month), is set in the Eighteenth Century New York and follows the steps of Mr Smith, a stranger from England who travels to America for a peculiar purpose which remains mysterious to both the readers and the characters he encounters in the story. Although the novel follows the structure known for the adventure books of the period, the author discussed his ambiguous relationship with the genre and his struggle to write the Eighteenth century while avoiding its cliches, and capturing the familiarity of it while sprinkling it with fresh elements a modern reader would enjoy.

The most interesting element of the novel is the main character himself. Although we do not know much about him, we are fascinated with him throughout the whole story. We want to follow him into the unknown.

Francis Spufford, the man who spontaneously delivers the most wonderful quotes, was a great speaker and an extremely entertaining reader.





We broke with our usual format to launch Patricia Debney’s newest collection, Baby. After a quick introduction by Nancy Garfield, Patricia treated us to a reading of several poems from the collection. Delivered with Patricia’s eloquent phrasings, the poems explore the intimate and complex dynamic between an adult child and an ailing parent with brutal, and sometimes poignant, honesty.

The collection, which she told us was written over the course of two weeks with one year in between, came about when a health crisis of her mother’s required Patricia to make two emergency visits to the U.S. It was then that Patricia first realised how much both of their lives had been tied up with illness. Arranged into three sections, the collection includes reflections on her childhood, dream sequences and poised confessionals, all addressed to the central figure of you, Patricia’s mother.

Baby is available for £8.99 from Licorice Fish Books.


Dan Richards’ ‘Climbing Days’

The Creative Writing Reading Series returned with a packed house in Week 1 turning out to enjoy readings from our own Kent staff members. Attendees enjoyed a range of works, from an excerpt of Prof. Scarlett Thomas’ most recent novel, The Seed Collectors to an essay on the complexity of telling refugees’ stories by Dragan Todorovic. We also got a preview of Amy Sackville’s current work-in-progress about a Spanish painter in 1773, as well as a preview of Dr. Alex Preston’s upcoming literary exploration of birds, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds and Books.

“All writing is flailing,” said Dan Richards as we were getting to the end of the talk he gave on his recent book, ‘Climbing Days’. But as it happens with all great conversations, this one too has expanded beyond its starting topic. With passion and humour he led us through the story of his memoir – the story which explores his prestigious roots, women climbers and addresses ‘the wrong’ in his family. The memoir becomes something bigger than Dan’s attempt to capture the life his family led. It’s the way of giving his father a voice he felt he lacked. The voice whose absence Dan’s family and himself has been struggling with through generations.

dsc_0135The conversation between Dan and Dr. Alex Preston was broken by the author’s reading from the book. The fragments chosen were touching, personal and beautifully written. It’s worth mentioning that ‘Climbing Days’ beauty isn’t limited to its content. The cover itself is a work of art, as it has been designed by Stanley Donwood, known for his collaboration with Radiohead.


Tony Fraser – Shearsman

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Tony Fraser is the editor and publisher of the poetry journal Shearsman, and of Shearsman Books, and has been since the founding of both in the early 1980s. It’s a big press — they publish poets from around the world, in chapbooks and full collections, as well as books of essays and criticism, and some reprints of classic works of literature.

As ever in the summer term, the evening started with readings from four postgraduate writers — all poets this time! Nigel Cox read two poems from a collection called ‘Ash’ that came out of the Writing & The Environment module on the Creative Writing MA, Setareh Ebrahimi read a poem from a sequence she’s been working on about mothers inspired by Sharon Olds, Duncan MacKay read a snippet from his ‘Happenstance Journals’, and Moyra Tourlamain read a piece taken from her PhD on the end times.

Tony started off by telling us about how the publishing process work at Shearsman. He says that it depends very much on each project how long it can take — some books will take a matter of days to put out, whereas some can take six months or more. He tends to publish fifty titles or so a year, although some were held back from last year due to no fault of his own, and have put this year’s numbers slightly out of whack. He tries to respond to writers who submit to him within three months of receiving their submission, and he goes through phases where the press is open and closed to submissions in order to manage the numbers. “Make sure to read guidelines!” he says to writers who are thinking about submitting their work.

For the most part he edits the magazine himself, alongside the press, but Kelvin Corcoran edits some issues.

He urges writers to understand markets thoroughly before they start to send their work out on submission. “You wouldn’t send a bodice-ripper to Gollancz, and you wouldn’t send a sci-fi blockbuster to Mills & Boon.” Read books from the presses first to get a good sense of what they like, what they’re interested in. All of this will help writers to send their work to the right place. On Shearsman’s website, there are previews of almost every title that’s available to buy, and at the very least he urges poets who submit to him to click through a fair number of these. Arbitrarily pick a random selection to get a stronger overview. If you don’t like any of them, maybe it’s not the right press for you.

Magazines are a good place for poets to test their work, before they publish a full collection. He recommends poets go to the Poetry Library in London and browse the large selection of magazines there to work out where they should send their poems — where they’d like to be, who they’d like to be published alongside.

They’re also a good way for writers to build up name recognition, and a readership. Tony says that there’s not much he can do to market poetry books — he sends them out for review, and hopes the poet can book some good readings. Poetry Review has a circulation of about 3,000 people, and in the past he’s bought adverts in it. It doesn’t work — he doesn’t sell any more copies than he would otherwise. He has an email newsletter which he says does work. It helps him sell books. But anything physical costs more than it makes back. He organises launches at Swedenborg House in London, and goes to a few good book fairs in London (Free Verse), Leicester (States of Independence)… people come to book fairs, and they buy books there. Shearsman’s bestseller is an anthology that’s sold around 1300 copies, and their worst-seller has sold only around 23 copies. For poetry in general, he’s quite happy if he sells over 100 copies. Shearsman uses POD to print in small quantities, which makes these numbers viable.

Nancy asked if he likes to get involved in the editorial side — specifically, working with the poets on their poetry. He says that he’s not a poet, and so he sometimes uses Kelvin as a sounding board for his suggestions before he sends them to the poet, and that sometimes he gets Kelvin to work with poets directly — especially if they’re new writers. So he tries to work with writers as they need it. He says that sometimes he has met with resistance on editorial work from writers — that sometimes they just envisage a different shape for a project from each other and they can’t resolve that, and so then the writer takes the book elsewhere.

Tony tells us that Nancy’s book, Continental Drift, took about a year to finish editing and to publish. He likes this — he doesn’t like to arrange things to publish a book too quickly, to rush it out before it’s ready. But he also doesn’t like to line things up too far in advance — he tries not to be tied in for something more than 18 months in advance if he can help it.

Some of the recent books that Tony’s most excited about are: the first book by a poet called Erica McAlpine, The Country Gambler, which is mostly made up of sapphics and which he says was perfect when it came to him as a manuscript; and David Hadbawnik’s translation of The Aeneid, Books I – VI, which he described as an insane translation of Virgil, very weird, post-Black Mountain. It gets weirder as it goes on — “book 6 is completely wild, free-form”. Shearsman allows Tony to publish books that excite him, that don’t necessarily have much else in common, as these both demonstrate — and these books allow the press to remain exciting and interesting, too.