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.


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.





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.