Summer Reading Series: Sam Jordison & Stefan Tobler

It’s the end. Cases are packed. Summer jobs replace exams and deadlines. Offices are emptying; library books are back on the shelves. Is anyone still out there? And are you doing any writing?

If so, Sam Jordison and Stefan Tobler may want to know about it. They are on the hunt for literary talent and when they find it, they shout about it. Against the odds, the finance and the logistics they have compelling success stories to tell. They may look and sound gentle enough, but Jordison and Tobler are dynamos of the indie publishing world and an increasing threat to the bosses of big book publishing.

Amy Sackville; Sam Jordison; Stefan Tobler

Amy Sackville; Sam Jordison; Stefan Tobler

Jordison set up Galley Beggar Press in 2011 with Eloise Millar and their bookseller chum Henry Layte. It began when Layte was approached in his Norwich bookshop by an author unable to place his manuscript, a curious bit of ‘autobifantasy’ about the writer’s great-uncle Robert Graves. Layte read it and passed it to Jordison and Millar, who felt it had to be seen. Unwilling to leave the author at the mercy of vanity publishers, Jordison and co set up a press and printed a thousand copies of the book. The White Goddess: an Encounter by Simon Gough received rave reviews. ‘Thankfully’ says Jordison ‘we sold all the copies, so we didn’t go bankrupt.’

Since the first of those thousand copies hit the shelves, Galley Beggar Press has thrived, building a steady reputation as a publisher of solid literary fiction with surprising sales potential. When they launched Eimear McBride’s Baileys Prize-winning first novel ‘A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing’ last year, they knew it was good, but Jordison hadn’t foreseen the level of success it would bring. ‘Having a big prize winner on the list has been a huge boost.’ If you look for a copy of the novel on the GBP website, the gratifying words ‘sold out’ appear – but they certainly don’t apply to the publishers themselves, who are holding firm to their indie mantra of being ‘an old fashioned publisher for the 21st century’.

It’s a similar story for & Other Stories, the press set up by Stefan Tobler in 2010. Tobler was a freelance translator with a passion for Brazilian poetry. Frustrated by the decisions of big publishers who, for commercial reasons, failed to invest in writers deserving of an audience, Tobler set up his own company to do just that. & Other Stories publishes quality fiction and poetry written in and translated into English. Starting small with seed funding from the Arts Council, Tobler looked to the 18th century business model to run his press. ‘We run by subscription’ Tobler explains. By using crowd funding, the emphasis is not on pleasing a board of directors but on bringing books to an appreciative audience. Pay an annual subscription fee – ‘the cost of a magazine’ – and you can receive up to six books a year through the post, and know you are helping keep the publishers and their principles afloat. More on this, and on the ethics of the press, which is run as a not-for-private-profit company, can be found on the & Other Stories website.

Tobler’s dream of bringing a new readership to existing writers has extended into publishing debut novels. Like Galley Beggar Press with McBride, & Other Stories hit gold with the publication of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, shortlisted for the Booker in 2012. Titles from indie presses are filling up the literary shortlists. While the big publishers remain risk averse, smaller houses have the time to invest in new or overlooked authors. ‘We are small and agile as an indie press’ says Jordison. ‘We are not tied to some person that has the chequebook. We are the chequebook!’ Tobler agrees, although he admits the chequebook is still pretty small. What about the lure of money for writers who are getting some interest? ‘Big publishers can take up authors once they are established’ says Tobler. ‘We’ve both lost authors that way.‘ It’s a sorry tale of riches over loyalty, but both publishers shrug it off – they have earned their stripes this way. And there are plenty of reasons why a writer should go indie regardless of the money. Both Jordison and Tobler love books as objects and believe in the aesthetic of the book. They use the same printers – ‘people with pride in what they do’ – to ensure consistent quality. They invest in their authors, promote them, support them with readings and appearances and get their books reviewed and onto prize lists. Alongside the traditional values of book publishing, they embrace the possibilities of technology too. Galley Beggar Press promote the short story as a monthly ebook sent to subscribers, a piece of hand-selling that, as Jordison points out, is only ‘possible through contemporary technology’. For Tobler, Twitter is a useful tool for creating a buzz about a book. ‘A large part of the publicity for literary books is through word of mouth, not on the sides of buses. Social media is great for this.’

If you are looking to get signed up by either press, you could be in luck. Both Galley Beggar Press and & Other Stories operate an open submission policy. You don’t need representation by a literary agent to be considered: there are no gatekeepers in the indie world. All Tobler asks is that you buy one of & Other Stories’ books – a policy that Jordison vows to take on. After all, ‘if you aren’t interested enough to buy one’ says Tobler, ‘why would you want to be published by us?’

Given the evidence, why would you want to be published by anyone else?

Galley Beggar Press is based in Norwich where the founders have their roots. Find them at www.galleybeggar.co.uk . & Other Stories straddles continents, if in an unassuming eco way. Visit www.andotherstories.org to find out how. Both presses and Tobler and Jordison are active tweeters, so do look them up.

That’s it for the term and the academic year. Thanks to our postgrad readers from the last in the Reading Series: Matthew West, Beau Jackson, Michael Milton and Jacob Peatey. Thanks for being at events, for listening, writing and reading.

Campus may be quietening down, but the summer will be full. There will be festivals. There will be nervous interviews. There will be grand graduation ceremonies in Canterbury Cathedral. And maybe there will be some Kent CW leavers in literary shortlists before the next year is out.

Have a great summer.

Sonia

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Summer Reading Series: David Miller

The decorous beige face of Keynes SCR is wearing a slightly twisted complexion. Design work on the walls, heads in glass cases, ceramic shopping bags. Flags of oversized print hanging above the audience. A man in an apron flaunting kitchen utensils over the speaker’s right shoulder. Postcards of grimacing Elizabethan clowns dishing out steaming bedpans.

The backdrop of the Fine Arts degree show may have heightened the irreverence, but David Miller doesn’t need much encouragement. Here was plain-speaking from the first moment. Miller interrupted his host (and client) David Flusfeder to rephrase his opening remarks: ‘I’m editing already’.  After the postgrad readers – Katie Szyszko’s memories of wheat barns and family tragedy, Alex Carey’s pacifists at an air show, Melissa Hicks’ sentient mirror and Charlotte Geater’s dawn gin & tonic – Miller deflected the attention back to the audience. If we had questions, we were to interject, not wait politely for the end and forget what we wanted to say. ‘I’m not here to do a miserable parody of a Samuel Beckett monologue.’

agent & client: David Miller, David Flusfeder

agent & client: David Miller, David Flusfeder and some familiar CW faces

David Miller has been an agent for half of his life. He schooled in Canterbury, studied theology at university and ‘hadn’t a clue’ what to do next.  Then he was tipped off ‘by the woman who was the object of my desires’ about an agent who represented ‘everyone I had ever told her to read’. The agent needed an assistant. Miller sent in his CV, and after three months of silence he phoned to ask if there was a still a post. There wasn’t, but he got an interview anyway, and started soon after as a receptionist at the agency where he still works, Rogers, Coleridge & White. ‘I was a smug twenty-three year old. I didn’t know anything, but I stuck around and now represent the authors I’m proud to have on my client list.’ It’s a list which includes Kent tutors Flusfeder, Scarlett Thomas and Abdulrazak Gurnah. So how do aspiring writers get on it, and what would someone like Miller do for them anyway?

Miller described the literary agent as ‘the ghost in the machine’, a shadowy role that encompasses counselling, representation, being a middle man, handling money, nursing bruises, industrial espionage, match-making and ‘acting as a Jiminy Cricket’. By way of explanation, Miller read an extract from the work of one client, Keith Ridgway, featuring a down-at-heel writer lunching with his exuberant agent. The writer, while determined to retain his integrity, is penniless, recently dumped and really just wants to get drunk. The agent, whose significant pauses are intended to suggest import but actually signify confusion, bemoans those publishers who only pay for inconsequential trash, and suggests that the writer gets a job to keep him afloat. Could he teach Creative Writing, perhaps? The writer is horrified. The agent smoothes him down.

Miller batted away applause for his reading. ‘Save it for Keith. Buy his book!’ When asked if this story was typical of the agent-writer relationship, Miller claimed that his relationships with authors are ‘singular’, atypical, and that the whole business is ‘disgustingly promiscuous’. Does every writer need an agent? ‘I have never said that a writer has to have an agent. So why do they?’ Miller puts it down to the amount of legal bureaucracy thrown at them by publishers. ‘A writer wants to go off and write. Some might want to run their own business, in which case they don’t need me to do it for them.’ An agent’s job, Miller said, is to ensure that a writer reaches ‘the audience they deserve’, but he baulks at the sense of entitlement that some writers convey. His own experience as a novelist made him realise that ‘a lot of people whine’, something he has no time for.  ‘When I took on the writer Magnus Mills, he drove a bus. He’s written nine books and he still drives a bus. He doesn’t feel entitled.’ By staying in the world of work, Mills is also well placed to gather inspiration for his writing. Miller admires those writers who have ‘lived a bit first’ and started their careers later in life, such as Penelope Lively and Anita Brookner: writers who embrace the ‘slow build’ of a reputation, rather than chasing the money and ‘going for advances’.

Miller conceded that publishers take fewer risks these days. ‘There was more originality and risk-taking twenty years ago’, when publishers were willing to create a readership for new authors. ‘It’s no surprise that people who have won prizes lately have been with smaller publishers, where there’s more ‘room’ for them.’ But publishers have to make their money too. ‘A publisher isn’t a charity.’ As far as Miller is concerned, part of the problem is that books are just too cheap. We’ve lost respect for them.  ‘You don’t think twice about spending £10 on a Pizza Express pizza, where the ingredients probably cost 60p. But you if you go into a bookshop and what you want isn’t in the Buy One Get One Free you think you’ve been diddled. Why do we think the price isn’t worth the value?’ While Miller feels that some of the blame for this rests with the publishers and their price wars, and the stranglehold of a few retailers, it is also our fault for ‘not valuing our literary culture’.

Much of what Miller had to say about selecting writers chimed with Lee Brackstone’s talk the week before. ‘Write a good book. Be careful about it, think about it and mean it.’ Miller won’t accept a partial manuscript, although other agents may. He doesn’t need any more clients, so if he takes one on, he knows it’s because he really wants them. Don’t send him your manuscript just because he has published something similar before (‘why would I want it if I’ve already got one?’). He promotes what interests him, which is why his list is ‘all over the place’.

If your idea of an agent combines the starchy non-nonsense comforts of a house matron with the irreverence and comic timing of that Elizabethan clown, David Miller could be the man for you. Find out more about him at http://www.rcwlitagency.com.

Last of the season: Ink, Sweat & Tears and Sabotage Reviews, 11th June; Gallery Beggar Press and & Other Stories, 18th June. Keynes SCR as usual, £2, 6pm start.

Keep writing.

Sonia

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Summer Reading Series: Lee Brackstone

It’s ten to six. In a few minutes you’ll be reading your work in public. Maybe it’s the first time you’ve done this. Breathe. Drink some wine (enough for the nerves, not too much for the tongue). The room is filling up. You know some of the faces, but there is one you daren’t look at. Now the hush, the introductions. The paper in your hand wrinkles. That was your name. Was that your name? Stand up, walk to the front of the room. Everyone is looking at you, and one of them, that one, with his hand on his chin, reading your words as you stumble over them, is a man who has been in the industry for two decades, made literary stars out of unknown scribblers – people like you, people like you want to be – and he has rubbed shoulders with the writers whose work you have spent the last five years of your life studying, distant legends of poetry and prose.

Thankfully, Lee Brackstone knows how you feel. Before launching into stories of his publishing career, his own mistakes and successes, he praised the bravery of those CW Reading series postgrads – Hristina Hristova, Inge Watson, Matthew Gregory and Wendy Edwards – who had graced the stage before him. ‘Reading in public doesn’t get any easier’ he said, ‘but publishers function better on two glasses of red wine after six o’clock.’

Amy Sackville, Lee Brackstone

Amy Sackville, Lee Brackstone

Of few words before the event, Brackstone had plenty to say when given his ground. He has seen vast changes in the publishing landscape since he cut his teeth in the offices of Faber and Faber in 1996. Having fallen in love with the ‘handsome black livery’ of Faber’s literary list of the ’80s and ’90s – ‘those incredible authors like Milan Kundera’ – he found his first secretarial job there, reading the slush pile, aged 21. Stepping into this circle of privilege – he studied in Manchester, ‘not Manchester, Cambridge’ – Brackstone was one of few ‘outsiders’, signifying a seachange due since TS Eliot’s editorship. He is now an institution himself: or, as he put it, institutionalised. He worked alongside Ted Hughes on The Birthday Letters. He spotted the genius of Jeet Thayil’s stunning debut novel Narcopolis. He now is Editor of Faber and Faber’s Fiction and Music lists.

So what advice did he have for the writers in the room? He admitted that ‘publishing is intimidating’ and can seem ‘like a guarded fortress’. Although there are no secrets to unlocking that tower, some ways are better than others. Firstly, Brackstone’s list is pretty full these days, and the chances of being acquired on his fiction list are slight. He may publish only one new author a year, and he never touches ‘commercial’ fiction. Most books he takes on come through agents; there is no slush pile any more, although exceptions do occur. He looks for ‘that spark’ in a manuscript that sets it apart, and responds ‘at the level of the sentence’. Working on sentence-level writing is key: a writer, he said, should be ‘like a carpenter, learning to plane a table’. Brackstone expects ‘technical virtuosity’, and writing by authors ‘that take risks but are in control’. He likes to know ‘from the first sentence’ what the moral compass of a book will be. The title, first sentence and opening paragraph are, for Brackstone, ‘the blueprint of a novel’. Authenticity is essential: he can see through those who write to pay the mortgage, rather than those who simply ‘have to’ write. ‘I read for style; it’s the style that excites me.’

Balancing his high expectations of literary fiction with the demands of the Sales Director and financial targets is a major part of Brackstone’s job. Many of his acquisitions go on to be prize winning successes, so he is known to have a good scent for talent. Despite this, he has his ‘war stories’, those missed opportunities that he never got to sign. His first acquisition for fiction didn’t get the go-ahead, so someone else signed up Dave Eggers’ AHWOSG. He hounded colleagues with a 600 page masterpiece by ‘a dead Chilean writer that nobody else believed in’, and watched as another house enjoyed the acclaim of publishing Roberto Bolano in translation. There are other times when he has failed to spot things himself. ‘Sometimes the reading doesn’t go right.’ And there is always the matter of taste, which is why Brackstone has fellow fiction editors to pass books to that have potential but just don’t appeal.

So, supposing a writer has fulfilled these criteria, what route does he recommend for publication? Firstly, finding an agent: the right one. ‘Find out which agent represents the kind of writing you like. Publishing works on every level on the basis of sycophancy and flattery.’ An element of showboating is essential, while maintaining that vital authenticity. ‘You need to get their attention. It’s all about showing you are smart enough and you care, and that what you do is true.’

So you’ve read your work and survived. You’ve got a script. You’ve read Lee Brackstone’s recommended fiction highlights (The Sun Also Rises; Tender is the Night; Something Happened; White Noise). What next?

Bring your notebook along to Keynes SCR on Wednesday 4th June, 6pm, and find out What Agents Really Want. David Miller of RCW Literary Agency will be ready to answer your questions.

See you there.

Sonia

P.S. Don’t forget there is more still to come of the Full English Festival, including a programme of high profile speakers throughout the week – facebook.com/fullenglishfestival

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Summer Reading Series: Tony Frazer

Debney & Frazer

Patricia Debney; Tony Frazer

Back to Keynes SCR for two events last week, and a familiar face on both evenings. On Tuesday, Nancy Gaffield launched her stunning new collection of poetry Continental Drift, published by Shearsman Books and sold, hot from the press, by the publisher. On Wednesday, the man who is Shearsman was in the chair himself, the first of the Summer Reading Series industry professionals.

Tony Frazer has spent 30 years in the poetry publishing business, and runs one of the UK’s longest surviving small poetry presses. After an initial foray into magazine publishing, and the inevitable folding of that early venture, Frazer found that the submissions still kept coming. ‘It seemed wrong to send these things back’, so while the steam was up he created a modest publication, printing ‘some 100 copies’ which were ‘passed from hand to hand’. A cult following of sorts was established – ‘a virtuous circle of readers’ – and Frazer sensed there was a market. Publishing poetry was never going to make money, of course (‘I had a job for that’), but it was a hobby that took on increasing significance, and eventually began to pay for itself.

Working abroad seemed to help. ‘I was based in Hong Kong,’ Frazer said, ‘and people would get requests from me and think – who is this guy over there? – and then they would send me poems.’ Rather than being away from the centre of literary activity, Frazer was documenting it, creating it. ‘I asked people for poems and I got them: Roy Fisher, Robert Bly – even Doris Lessing sent me something.’

Publications came and went. Frazer collaborated with friends for a while, but discovered that co-editing wasn’t for him. Rather than producing a magazine that published ’everybody’s second choice’, Frazer decided to go alone, setting up Shearsman in the early 90s, where he could publish what he wanted and practice his preferred ‘benign despotism’. Like most small press offerings of the time, Shearsman Magazine ran as a quarterly pamphlet for several years before the hike in postage costs caused Frazer to rethink. ‘So many presses gave up’, but doing the sums, Frazer realised that Shearsman could continue to produce a biannual book at a lower cost. Chapbooks and occasional collections followed, ‘because people kept sending in good manuscripts’, but Frazer was beginning to run out of money. Then digital publishing changed the face of small publishing. ‘Suddenly there was no need to produce copies which were destined to remain in boxes in the garage.’ No master copy, no typesetting, no minimum print run – print on demand was a financial salvation. ‘Finally Shearsman started making money. It had never happened before!’

Patricia Debney, interviewing Frazer, asked why he kept going. ‘It’s difficult to get off the carousel once you are on it’, he said. ‘I’ll keep going for another eight years or so.’ And then? ‘A long established press is interested in ‘buying’ Shearsman.’

For now, would-be contributors to the Shearsman stable have only one person to please. So what does Frazer look for? ‘It’s hard to say’, he claimed – although it is clear that anyone submitting work should study the guidelines on his website, and stick to the two annual ‘reading windows’ when sending in writing. What about personal taste? Shearsman is known to have experimental leanings, but Frazer considers it ‘a broad church’. It’s about the eye, and the ear. ‘Some stuff comes in that defies all strictures and if it still works, it’s in.’

If those readers brave enough to start the evening were listening, publication surely beckons. Moyra Tourlamain is already set to publish her collection The Book of Hours of Kitty Power with Verisimilitude later this summer (see Kent Review and previous blog for a sneak preview), and she enjoyed a stint of recognition as the Canterbury Poet of the Year in 2010. Less familiar with the travails of public reading, Jan Mowbray delivered a confident rendition from her series of poems produced this year, including some metronomic lines with ticking syllables ‘like a skein of birds’ (and not a single nervous quiver). Ben Porter read from his series ‘Greyhound Gallop’: pacy, racing lines that landed with the quick grace of forepaws on dirt track. Perhaps bravest of all was Claudia Orduz-Landinez, who had read her poems in Spanish before, but never in English. After embracing the teaching of Simon Smith and the realisation that ‘all writing is nonsense’, putting two languages together posed no problem. The resulting poems not only straddled cultures but seemed to envelope them in each other, a double helix of meanings that made absolute sense, and yet none at all.

A high bar has been set for the term.

More words from the wise over the next few weeks: literary agents, publishers and dauntless postgrad readers every Wednesday at 6pm in Keynes SCR. Keep on coming.

Sonia

 

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Kent Review launch

Sunglasses and smart shoes. Clusters of people hovering in Rose Lane, leaning together in twos and threes, conspiratorial. A sentry in the bookshop doorway. Thankfully I knew the password – Kent Review – and was shepherded through silent, darkened aisles to a shrieking escalator that emerged on the top floor. Among the cardboard boxes and squeaky floor tiles of the Staff Only area, a bubble of noise and excitement. And a bar.

If getting to the launch of Kent Review felt a touch noir, the book itself proved even more evasive. After the contributors to the anthology posed for photographs, the evening began with an introduction from the editors. Dragan Todorovich spoke of a recent nightmare which proved horribly prescient: everything in the dream was going well, something beautiful was appearing, and at the last minute, the project he was involved in was cancelled. A phone call from the publishers in the Czech Republic that afternoon confirmed his subconscious suspicions – the copies of Kent Review, which were due to arrive in Canterbury in time for the launch, hadn’t made it onto the ship the night before. ‘We are promoting an invisible book’ Todorovich said, ‘but at least we have proof that it exists from the pages on display’.

some of the Kent Review 1 writers

some of the Kent Review 1 writers

Further proof came from the readers for the evening, introduced by Amy Sackville. Kent Review showcases work by current and recent Creative Writing postgrads. Two years in the making, the anthology features pieces by students still living and writing in the Canterbury area, and others who have moved on to work or study further afield. Several were on hand to share their work from the publication.

First to read was Ben Said Scott, whose short story ‘The Station Present’ was written during his studies in Paris, where the piece is set. A bilingual station announcer loses his job but keeps the reality of his situation from his young son, wrapping all communication in the distraction of spoken English. Moyra Tourlamain read extracts from her collection of poems The Book of Hours of Kitty Power, another ‘imaginary book’ featuring the voices of two women, suffused with religious imagery: water-walking, fishes at a picnic, crossed life-lines on a palm. The opening to Stephen Ireland’s novel Fin de Siecle was a joyous, drunken effusion set in mildly feverish pre-Millennium London. Drinking in Soho, a stranger’s number scribbled on a tube ticket, a housemate singing nonsense hymns: this was sharp, energetic prose. ‘What is the colour of your bread, my friend?’ I very much wanted to know the answer.

Caroline Greville’s novel Mantle of Shame was a very different offering. In the departure lounge of an airport, strangers meet and begin the search for a woman’s missing husband. Here were distance, distaste and otherness, and a profuse nosebleed on the descent to Heathrow. Mike Turner read the opening section from his multiple narrative The Warm Way, a cinematic pan across a beach on a day so hot the narrator ‘can hear the grass sweating’. An active, seeking voice, this short extract was full of the stuff of the environment, of dogs in the waves, shop windows, and a mysterious woman with a marked map. Inge Watson opted to have her extract read by ‘someone with a convincing Ulster accent’; her novel Page Ninety-Six dripped with the lard of an Ulster fry, meats jostling on a greasy plate, girls grilling the English newcomer who is clearly ‘in the wrong place’. Following neatly, Wendy Edwards’ humorous take on snobbery, inverted and otherwise, sent up the box-ticking, oyster-shucking middle class mothers of Tunbridge Wells. Despite the light-hearted tone and title – A Chicken Without Batteries – this extract from a novella hinted at potential malice in the scrutinising eyes of the protagonist’s son.

Joe McCarthy broke free of the reader’s podium to deliver an extract of his novel A Miraculous Race to Death. As McCarthy wandered, so his characters were set in motion: a figure glimpsed at a train station, the long bike ride to Aberdeen, blood in the cracked leather of a shoe and the enigma of unexplained anniversary. Christine Newman read the first page of her short story ‘Ticking Away’, a meditation on the isolated information of the text message. A woman prepares for the day ahead, measuring out her progress in beauty products, body weight and breakfast allowance. Hristina Hristova’s novel The Happiness Index continued the theme of contemporary complaints and chronic dissatisfaction, of hiked house prices and ‘organic aspirations’. In a world were happiness can be measured, why should four people in the ‘highest index country’ suddenly become depressed, and tip the scales?

IMG_20140514_200126309Last to read was Gonzalo Ceron Garcia, who ‘felt like a priest’ at the lectern. Garcia’s extract from Forgetting Silence followed the protagonist on a bus ride with his mother, seeking places and people of the past damaged by the dictatorship in Chile. Here was poignant, humorous prose, full of clarity and detail; the empanada seller and his wares, the perceptions and presumptions of a young boy, gringos taking pictures of horses on the beach, Medusas lining the shore.

After the readings, wine and celebration. Despite the book’s absence, presales were available at the event. If only some of the works in progress were, too.

Kent Review 1, in its material form, is available to purchase from the Centre for Creative Writing and Blackwell’s bookshop on campus, priced £7.99.

The Reading Series will continue with visiting industry speakers and readings from CW postgrads. First up, the inimitable Tony Frazer, founder of Shearsman Books: Wednesday 21st May, 6pm, Keynes SCR.

 

Sonia

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Students in print

The new term is swiftly upon us, a summer that will see many Kent Creative Writing projects come to fruition.

The Reading Series will welcome professionals from the publishing industry over the coming weeks. Students will be able to share their work, receive advice and get questions answered. And many of them will already have something in print to share and celebrate.

 

The Book Project is a hugely popular module with Creative Writing undergraduates at Kent. An intensive course run by Simon Smith, it gets students writing new work with ambitious scope, building up a body of pieces or a novel that acts not only as a portfolio but a finished, saleable product. Students visit the Poetry Library in London and look at artists’ books in the Templeman. After a period of writing, planning and workshops, each student produces a finished book that is printed, glossily bound and ready for sale. A reading and launch is held. Participants get a true taste of the gigging writer’s life: deadlines, jacket designs, nerves, a live audience, applause. Selling and signing books. Exhaustion and elation.

What do they make of the process? I asked Joe Hill, whose experience with publishing his first poetry collection through the project may have given him the live reading bug. He found the module useful and informative. ‘While it’s been great on the creative writing side, it’s been equally useful to know about self-publication and the like.’ There’s a distinct camaraderie to the Book Project too – the students are in this together, facing similar challenges rather than bowing their heads over solitary desks or fire-fighting those editorial deadlines alone. ‘Like so many of the creative writing modules, you really get to know your fellow students well on a personal level.’ And what about the launch itself? ‘The reading was nerve-racking,’ Hill admits, ‘but really gratifying as a book-end (no pun intended) to the module.’

MA students have been getting their teeth into the magazine industry with a module run by Dragan Todorovich. Well versed in this medium, Todorovich has organised his team of students to work to professional industry standards. ‘I have organised the whole process to resemble editorial work in a proper magazine.’ There are five students in the group, each taking a clear role as well as forming the magazine’s editorial board. ‘This approach is working very well’ Todorovich says, with the team steering away from traditional forms of print-on-demand and opting for a magazine in a box.

Box[ed.] is in its final production stages now. As well as writing their own creative pieces during the term, the students have been active in advertising the magazine and seeking submissions, reviewing proposed pieces, working on design and production costs, building an online presence and keeping a journal of the whole experience. Editor-in-Chief, Jane Summerfield, has been keen to keep up the pace. Her task has included a firm grip on editorial meetings – ‘cutting down the chat’ – and reducing over 70 submissions to a final list for publication. The team has met regularly and reported back to Todorovich through weekly seminars, combining editorial with workshops of their own writing. ‘We informed our leader about our progress with the magazine and about the submissions we had,’ Summerfield states. After weeks of planning and work, the project started to come together and seem real. The boxes arrived, ready to be filled with the final selection of new writing. ‘It felt like a proud moment, as if we had all overcome another challenge with the project.’ Choosing the pieces wasn’t easy. ‘The process was heavy, and challenging people’s opinions was a tough action as Editor in Chief. Ultimately I made the call on pieces with a mixed reaction.’ But rejection from the magazine isn’t the end point. Summerfield has made a point of writing to all hopefuls, successful or otherwise, and asking them to keep in touch. The team is working on new projects and there will be further openings for student writers. ‘One of which is the new website, where we hope to have a writer’s spotlight and sub-sections of writing. An online presence is important.’

Find that presence at www.boxedmagazine.com and keep up to date with publication and launch news.

More student work can be found in the new anthology Kent Review. Volume 1 of this biennial series will be launched on May 14th. It’s a book of some 30 selections, showcasing pieces from current and recent Creative Writing postgrads. Amy Sackville, one of the book’s creators, is justly proud. ‘The book itself is looking beautiful, with an elegant, contemporary design befitting the brilliant work within.’ And the work itself? Expect short pieces and extracts from novels in progress on diverse topics, ‘bees, bikes, ghosts, happiness and jazz…short stories that will make you think and leave you moved, unsettled, and possibly disturbed; poetry full of flair and flex, pushing at the boundaries of what text can do, and exploring the spaces left behind and between words.’

Kent Review 1 will be distributed to publishers, agents and the media, highlighting the writers and their potential. Celebrate the launch with staff and students at Waterstones, Rose Lane, Canterbury on 14th May, 6.30pm. The book will be available to buy at £7.99 at the event, from the Centre for Creative Writing and from Blackwell’s bookshop on campus.

See you at a reading soon.

Sonia

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Spring Reading Series: Open Mic

A change to the line-up of the last Spring Reading Series from a poetry double-bill to – well, a slightly different poetry double-bill, with side dishes. As Jane Monson was unable to join us, Patricia Debney joined forces with fellow Kent poet and tutor Nancy Gaffield, followed by an open mic featuring staff and students.

The premium spots of the evening gave us five minutes apiece of poised, polished poetry Patricia Debneyfrom experienced readers. Debney began, offering a change from her prose poetry (as seen in collections How to be a Dragonfly and, more recently, Littoral) with some works from her ‘newish collection’ Baby. Here were open planes of poems, free verse forms with the odd catch and hook of internal rhyme and assonance. Within each frame, microcosms of emotional relationships and the hovering presences of parental figures. ‘I can’t see your face’, we were warned, ‘it is some kind of horror space’. Seeing and not seeing: vastness and minutiae. The ‘I’ of the poems charted ‘water of biblical proportions’ and the rolling fog that ‘settles into valleys’, obscuring the view through a windscreen. Under the same scrutiny came a litany of material objects, ‘coral, gold pendants needing chains, kaftans’, the stuff of tasteful but empty riches that prove ‘hard to live with’. And as if a piece of trumpery can pass judgement on its wearer, the ‘single eye’ of a silver pearl ring ‘stares right at me…until it closes’.

Gaffield’s recent experiments have been with mathematical poems, employing geometry and the Golden Ratio. Working with the Fibonacci sequence has produced syllabic verse reflecting structure in sound as well as providing ‘attraction of form’ on the page.Nancy Gaffield Gaffield has been working on a sequence of these with fellow poet David Herd for performance at the forthcoming ‘Sounds New Poetry’ festival (see below), ‘but I’m saving these’… Instead we were given a poem inspired by Da Vicni’s Vitruvian Man, exploring the ‘harmony of symmetry’, while other pieces expressed and reflected upon sound and form. These were poems full of atmospheric landscapes, plays of light and natural forces. Wild weather and the wilful elements are not to be shifted with ‘soft syllables’ or ‘antiphonal phrases’. Even the laws of language and abstract mathematics are no match for a proper Kentish flood.

After our scheduled readers, MC Ben Hickman opened the floor to those brave / foolish enough to sign up on the door, whether they had planned to or not. The rules were clear – one poem or one page of prose. Offerings could be rough and raw works in progress or finely tuned and edited finished pieces.

There were plenty of takers.

First up was MA creative writing student Jane Summerfield, whose poem ‘Batteries Included’ – relating the exploits of a hormonal slumber party – has been created under the supervision of Gaffield.  Tutor & PhD poet Kat Peddie followed with a two-line poem in honour of the lost word ‘owhere’ (inspired by Gaffield’s recent pamphlet of the same name), committed to memory but jotted down ‘just in case’. Neelam Saredia, a final year CW undergrad, performed a memorised poem ‘Dress Sense’, a dress rehearsal of sorts for the Gulbenkian Poetry Slam (with prompt notes, ditto). In the only prose offering, I slipped in a page from my recently finished novel Eden (thanks for the cheers at this announcement). Tutor Juha Virtanen gave us another paperless piece, a word explosion extracted from a long sound poem, read from the screen of his phone. Geography and otherness peeped through the poems ‘My Friend from China’, read by Edward Greenward, and an extract from Sam O’Hana’s long poem, also written under Gaffield’s supervision. O’Hana was followed by three fellow final year CW undergrads: Tom Cox, who read his prose poem ‘Citizen’s Advice’, featuring cannibalistic chickens and chronic dissatisfaction; Joe Hill, whose joyfully silly and poignant ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice’ chronicled a life of bad decisions and loss of body parts, and James Richardson, who gamely read a poem of muddy sinking and slippage, fresh from the clay of a recent seminar, which he titled on the spot ‘Already Stuck’.

after the open micAfter the readings and the consumption of all remaining wine, the talk and drinking moved downstairs to the Keynes bar, where the evening was balmy enough for us to sit outside and pretend it was already Summer Term.

This may mark the end of the Spring Reading series, but there is plenty more to come. Next term the Centre for Creative Writing will host a series of evenings with publishing professionals and readings from MA students. Many staff (as seen and heard above and elsewhere) will appear at the ‘Sounds New Poetry’ festival in May: for more details see the listings at http://soundsnew.org.uk/sounds-new-poetry . Some of Kent’s dedicated CW students, led by organiser Sam O’Hana (also see above), will be hosting the UK’s first Creative Writing Undergraduate Conference, ‘Vox’. The programme will run during the exciting ‘Full English’ literary festival taking place at Kent this June. Undergraduate creative writers from all universities are encouraged to submit proposals to ‘Vox’: the deadline for abstracts is 15th April 2014. For more details and the call for papers see http://voxconference2014.wordpress.com .

Look out for a last spring blog celebrating our students in print, a final flourish over the Easter vacation…

Sonia

 

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Spring Reading Series: Alan Hollinghurst

Keynes SCR: fresh paint, beige carpets begging for red wine spills, standing room only at the back. A suitably salubrious setting for Alan Hollinghurst, ‘one of the guiding sprits of the Creative Writing Department’, whose novels The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child are set texts on Undergrad and MA courses at Kent.

Alex Preston & Alan Hollinghurst

Alex Preston & Alan Hollinghurst

Alex Preston cited Hollinghurst as ‘one of the greatest living prose stylists’, a title that foreshadowed the main point of debate for the evening. Laurence Norfolk famously complained that Hollinghurst ‘doesn’t do plot’. A fair comment? ‘Plot is the thing that interests me least in a book,’ he admitted, ‘but I concede that it has to be done’. In poetry, image and sound are what matter, skills which Hollinghurst, first published as a poet, continues to bring to his prose. Starting a novel is not about sharing a story but ‘establishing the detail, the atmosphere’ from which the book can grow. He begins each novel with a new notebook, ‘and anything germane to that book goes in it…building up a world.’ From there, narrative style and characters grow, and eventually, something of a plot. (Reassurance for those in the audience who struggle with narrative structure.)

This interest in the atmosphere of a book is reflected in Hollinghurst’s literary benchmarks, in the ‘intimate, domestic scale’ of Woolf or Henry James, where chronological elision piques the reader’s interest.  Time passing without extended commentary causes the reader ‘to scramble to work out what has happened’ and to follow the development of character and action more keenly. Hollinghurst also places great emphasis on the pattern of the prose itself, of ‘wanting sound and rhythm in a paragraph to matter’.  Is this his poet’s ear at work? ‘I know when words are not sitting right’, he said, but also admitted that he dreaded ‘poetical novels’. ‘Somehow there is a need for the novel to be more robust.’ While he would love to go back to poetry, ‘it wouldn’t have me’. Aside from his pastiche of Rupert Brooke in The Stranger’s Child – a novel that Preston described as ‘the biography of a poem’, Hollinghurst has been bereft of ‘poem-shaped ideas’ for some time.

Preston praised the authentic feel of The Stranger’s Child, and asked how much research matters, given that we are in a ‘literary culture obsessed with historical authenticity’. ‘Who wants to shed daylight on magic?’ Hollinghurst replied. The ‘act of imagining’ matters more than being able to explain ‘how everything in the room is made’. A shunning of the historical novel that wears its research on its sleeve, but an admission that the writer ‘has got to get things right’. Easy enough in the age of the Google search. ‘The etymology of words is important’ too, not only to ensure credible speech for characters, but perhaps to create that illusive web of atmosphere that holds Hollinghurst’s fictional worlds together.

When his ‘twenty minutes of fawning’ were over, Preston requested a reading of ‘the most beautiful paragraph’ of The Line of Beauty, which closes the first chapter (page 19 in the paperback: read it and see why). Hollinghurst consented, summoning in delicious tenor tones the cloistered communal gardens of Kensington, ‘the dingy glare of the London sky’ fading into ‘weak violet heights’, the cool accomplishment of other people’s lives where Thatcher’s darlings hold al fresco supper parties, the open windows backlit with success. Like Nick, ‘leaning out over the iron railing’, the audience was rapt, ‘swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista or vision of the night, and then held there’.

After the readings, questions from the floor about finishing – or even starting – a first novel, the financial implications of writing a long novel, Hollinghurst books as style guides and writing gay sex. And after the applause, the unfurling of audience members from islands of unspoiled carpet, where the dangers of red wine and enthusiastic dialogue were clearly far from over.

Next Wednesday, the School’s own Patricia Debney will be joined by Jane Monson for a final Spring Reading. 2nd April, 6pm in Keynes SCR.

See you there.

Sonia

Alan Hollinghurst is the author of five novels, including the 2004 Man Booker winner The Line of Beauty. His latest novel, The Stranger’s Child, was published by Picador in 2011.

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Spring Reading Series: Evie Wyld

Walking to the Eliot SCR on Wednesday: spring warmth, gloaming mist, blackbirds singing in the trees. Blackbirds, unseen, clattering and whupwhurring somewhere nearby. And no other sound but the song of blackbirds.

My ears were tuned to Wyld wavelength. Her novel All the Birds, Singing, echoes with caws, screeches and cacophonous onomatopoeic renderings from crows and kookaburras. Birds are ominous, stress-triggers, links between two parts of a narrative: a dangerous past in the outback and escape to the freezing fogs of isolated island life.

Wyld, Preston

Evie Wyld; Alex Preston

Evie Wyld was in conversation with Alex Preston, who she first met midnight skinny-dipping in a lake at a UEA conference. It’s a rapport that made for a dynamic and relaxed Q&A. Introducing Wyld as ‘one of the best young writers anywhere, full stop’, Preston asked how she had faced following up the success of her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice. Wyld said the pressure was slight; she spent over four years writing on All the Birds, Singing, reshaping the narrative structure and worrying about writing the same book twice. The two novels deal with similar place and matter, but as Wyld stated, she was ‘still interested in the same stuff’, and ended up tackling the same ideas in unique ways.

The structure of Wyld’s novels, which Preston referred to as ‘reflecting and refracting parallel narratives’, were a key topic for discussion. Having ‘confused readers’ with her first book, Wyld had intended to write a linear novel, but found that the story ‘told itself better if folded in on itself’. Following two narrative strands, All the Birds, Singing is written both backwards and forwards, producing one complete chronological account. The protagonist, Jake, lives in the present day on a sheep farm in an unnamed, imagined British island. Her past as a teenage arsonist, homeless prostitute and sheepshearer in Australia is revealed in reverse. To make matters more complicated, Wyld delivers alternative chapters of each narrative strand, writing the present in the past tense, and the past in the present. By placing these together, Wyld hoped to create a ‘third space’, just as colours resonate differently in juxtaposition. ‘I like the ambiguity of this’, she said, ‘of readers not being able to pinpoint where they are’.

Research for both novels came naturally. Wyld’s mother is a native Australian, and Wyld herself has lived there for periods. She expressed a ‘homesickness’ for Australia but an awareness that she doesn’t fit into the world of her ‘macho, hero uncles’ and their sugarcane farms, preferring the liberal cosmopolitanism of London, where she runs an independent bookshop. Writing about a place ‘where you are not’ comes easier to Wyld: ‘childhood memories are brighter’, she explained, and these are a ‘place to go to start on creative work’. When writing about the ‘reality in front of you’ it is ‘hard to let imagination take over’. Wyld found the contemporary UK sections of All the Birds, Singing much harder to write than those set in a recent Australian past.

Preston asked Wyld about her literary influences. Despite running a bookshop, Wyld considers herself ‘very badly read’, but cited Tim Winton as the first author who really made her ‘wonder what characters got up to next’. ‘My favourite book is always the last one I read’ – making the current star Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

Responding to recent comments by Hanif Kureishi on the value – or otherwise – of Creative Writing studies, Wyld was quick to defend her MA experience at Goldsmiths. In a dead-end job at the time, Wyld saw the course as an opportunity to ‘take a year out to write’ without the pressure of other work. She advised against the culture of ‘sentence to novel to agent to publisher’, a hothousing of novel-writing at university that leads to the expectation of publishing success. Instead, ‘coming to stuff like this’, hearing writers read and discuss their work, working on craft at sentence level and a diverse and challenging reading list were what ultimately made her a writer. (As Preston pointed out, All The Birds, Singing is already core reading at Kent.) And when publication comes, Wyld’s advice was rare and valuable: take notice of independent booksellers, promote in small bookshops, ‘because these are the people who hand-sell your books’.

What can we expect from Wyld next? In place of birds, a graphic memoir with sharks. ‘There is something interesting about our relationship with sharks’, Wyld claimed, speaking of them as the last object of universal fear: ‘people feel they are ugly, malevolent, coming for you, if they had legs it would be game over… Oh, I’m doing my shark thing again.’ Aside from the graphic novel with artist Joe Sumner, she is working on a ‘new normal novel’ based in the UK, an ‘imagined memoir’ about her Grandparents’ relationship. Wyld is aiming to keep this one linear. Whatever form the narrative takes, the novel will be anything but normal.

Next week, novelist and translator Maureen Freely. Wednesday 19th March, 6pm.

Until then.

Sonia

 

Evie Wyld is included in Granta’s list of Best of Young British Novelists 2013. All the Birds, Singing was published by Jonathan Cape in 2013, was shortlisted for the Costa Award and has just been longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize.

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Spring Reading Series: Janice Pariat

Janice Pariat

Janice Pariat

Wednesday evening gave us a rare glimpse into a work in progress. Pariat’s first novel, Seahorse, is due for publication in November. Now in the editing stage, this is writing fresh from the wellspring. Instead of a crisp reading copy flagged with bookmarks, the author read extracts of the draft straight from her iPad.

The protagonist of Seahorse is Nehemiah, a young man whose tutor and lover, Nicholas, suddenly and mysteriously disappears. Pariat’s first extract told of this abrupt absence, of the narrator’s visit to Nicholas’ deserted bungalow, ‘the table set for ghosts’, the space uncluttered and uninhabited, the aquarium empty, the books, once littering surfaces, now gone. But as we learn, ‘this was not death’ which leaves behind ‘accumulated belongings’ as mementos of a life; instead ‘it was as though he had never existed’, as if a tide had come and ‘washed away completely’ all traces. The loss, and its accompanying hope of reunion, follow the narrator through the 1990s in Delhi and across several years to a new life London. ‘We are shaped by absence’, Nehemiah claims, ‘spaces in the trellis by which we trail’.

In a second excerpt, organic and aquatic imagery gave way to the tremulous sexual tensions of hot-housed university students. 90’s India, Pariat explained, was undergoing a ‘swift and sweeping liberalisation’; caught up in the clamour, Nehemiah and his fellow students vie to give the appearance of joining in. Young men swap ‘cigarettes, alcohol and lies’ and watch adult films on late night cable, fantasising over the ‘montage of flesh and desire’ where intimacy segues seamlessly from initial embraces to rumpled bed-sheets. In this haze of hormones and longing ‘everything was sexualised, yet it was impossible to talk about sex’.

Later, desire and incompleteness merge in an unexpected way when Nehemiah muses on Michelangelo’s David. Here is perfection in stone, dominating the gallery where it stands. Yet in the next room, an unfinished work by the same hand shows figures of prisoners emerging from stone whose half-formed presence ‘will not stun you to silence, but rouse you to it’. Here is the unconsummated, yet tangible: ‘endless metaphor and infinite possibility’. This is a quality that the narrator recognises in himself. We are all ‘unconcluded’, and thus we are ‘full of possibility’. David, for all his power, ‘will only ever be David’.

What might seem a passing nod to classicist sculpture takes on a deeper resonance when the novel’s underlying themes are unpacked. Seahorse is a reworking of the myth of Poseidon and his lover, Pelops, a young man who becomes cupbearer to the underwater god and ultimately wins the daughter of a tyrannical king.  As Pariat pointed out, Pelops was sacrificed by his father and served up as a supper to the Olympians, who discovered the nature of the dish and had the boy restored to life. As his shoulder had already been eaten, Pelops could never be completely whole.  Absence and loss, breaking and repair, love and violence. Grisly myths and watery worlds. Answering questions about the writing process, Pariat stated that ‘a writer is like an orthodontist, setting and resetting, breaking and mangling’ to find the form a story must take. In the case of Seahorse, Pariat planned to write a novella and ultimately created a larger story, one which ‘unfurled’ and could not be readily contained. There were evidently bigger bones to deal with.

Like the language of the novel itself, Pariat’s voice contained the subtle nuances of literary English and the rhythms of traditional Indian storytelling. It was one of those sweet, melodic voices that could entrance an audience by reading the phonebook, but given the material, we were near hypnosis. At the end of the reading, a colleague turned to me seeking a metaphor for Pariat’s delivery. ‘Honey in the ear’, I replied. ‘Yes’ she said, ‘but all that breaking and cracking!’

Seahorse will be published by Vintage Books, Random House India later this year.

Janice Pariat is the current Wallace Trust Fellow at Kent. She is editor of the literary journal Pyrta, is widely published as a poet, reviewer and cultural journalist in magazines and newspapers, and won awards for her 2012 short story collection, Boats on Land. She divides her time between Delhi and London.

Janice Pariat will be talking more about her work and its relationship to oral story traditions on Thursday 13th March as part of the School’s Postcolonial Research Seminar series. Find these research events in Keynes seminar room 14, 4pm.

 Next in the Reading Series, novelist Evie Wyld: Wednesday 12th March, 6pm.

 See you then.

 Sonia

Stop press – last call for submissions to Kent’s exciting new literary magazine Box[ed], edited by MA students from the Centre for Creative Writing. Deadline for submissions is Friday 14th March. For more info, see boxedmagazineblog.wordpress.com

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