Eloise Millar & Aidan Semmens

Eloise Millar is one of the directors of Galley Beggar Press, a literary journalist, and a novelist. Aidan Semmens is a poet and a journalist, and the editor of the poetry e-zine Molly Bloom.

As it’s now the summer term, the event kicked off with four student readers. We heard Katie Szyszko reading a fragment based on a house she lived in in Hungary, Chris Scott reading a scene set in Paris at night time from the novel he’s writing for his PhD, John Wright reading poetry written in dialogue with articles by Robert Macfarlane, and David Dykes reading some poetry that he had written in a seminar taught by Simon Smith. You can read all of this work in the summer reading series booklets, available at the reading series every week — do buy one!

The summer term reading series events are about the publishing industry, and so while both Eloise and Aidan are published writers, they were here in their capacity as publishers and editors.

Molly Bloom is an online poetry magazine that Aidan says is pretty much in ‘the modernist tradition’ — which doesn’t mean that everything he publishes has to be explicitly modernist. But it is a tradition, or a general area of poetry, that he’s interested in. That he likes. The magazine is a reincarnation of a print magazine that Aidan published in 1980, shortly after leaving Cambridge. He set the website up three years ago after being persuaded to recreate it online — he could reach a much wider readership. “Poetry is a niche within a niche,” Aidan says, and finding the readership for the print magazine had been difficult. Online, it’s much easier.

Galley Beggar was set up in 2012, Eloise tells us, by three people — her, Sam Jordison, and Henry Layte (who is no longer involved; he runs The Book Hive in Norwich). She says that they’d been meeting in Henry’s bookshop for a year, “arrogantly moaning” about publishing — about ugly books, and about how it felt that writers they liked weren’t able to get published, or weren’t selling so well, which would then stop them from being able to publish their work. They have eclectic tastes, and the books they wanted to see were often considered maybe too experimental, too left-field. And then one day, she says, they decided — let’s do this! Henry’s godfather, Simon Gough, had written a fictionalised book about his great-uncle — Robert Graves. It had been commissioned as a drama by the BBC as a drama, but when they dropped it, he turned it into a novel. He had been working on it for 25 years. So they took it on — it was their first book. It was a process of learning very quickly. They’ve now published a number of books, including the multi-award-winning A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by recent guest to UoK Eimear McBride! Eloise says that like Molly Bloom, Galley Beggar is also interested in publishing works that fit into a modernist tradition, with their authors Eimear McBride and Alex Phelby as key examples.

Amy asks if it’s been difficult for them to publish works that are modernist and/or experimental, and why they think they’re not being more widely published. Eloise says that at Galley Beggar they can publish what they fancy, and with Eimear and Alex their work is definitely modernist, with a real focus on interiority, but both have done well. Aidan says that poetry doesn’t sell — nobody is in it for the money, and so he’s able to publish what he wants, too, without worrying about what is financially viable. The project is about him working out what he likes on his own, without external/monetary pressure.

Next they talked about how they promote the work they publish. Aidan says that he uses Facebook to connect with writers, and that his network is always expanding there. Facebook is also his prime means of distribution. In 1980 it cost £400 to produce a single issue in print, even as cheaply made as possible. Now he can reach people for a fraction of the cost.

Eloise says that at Galley Beggar they publish 2-4 writers in print books a year — they couldn’t manage more books than that. But Sam thought up their Singles Club short stories and subscription package, that allows them to publish one short story a month as an ebook. These tend to be small pieces of work by new writers, giving them a platform. They’re for sale online, and they go to a few hundred subscribers. They had a headstart with publicising their books because of Sam’s contacts (Sam works as a literary journalist at The Guardian and elsewhere), and their skills from publishing — the networking really helps. The book trade is the only industry where stock can be returned up to 18 months later. So Waterstone’s might order 800 books but send 600 back — which is really difficult and dangerous for small presses. So they have to do their best to survive. Eloise deals with the production side of the books herself — she talks to the typesetter, printer and distributor directly. She has a database with literary journalists in and a good sense of what everyone likes, what’s been reviewed lately etc., so they can email people individually about their upcoming titles. This allows them to ask for feedback, and knowledge of what’s happening. They go to events, and meetups with other small publishers too. “If you run a small press you’ve got to be a jack of all trades!”

The first issue of Molly Bloom was entirely made up of writers that Aidan had invited to submit poems to him, but the proportion of solicited to unsolicited works that he publishes is changing with time. The website says that he’s open to submissions, and he’s slowly getting more and more sent to him without having to ask otherwise. He says that the next issue he publishes will be the first to be entirely made up of work that he came across in this way. Because it’s not about money, he can just take what he likes, and what fits the magazine — he says he does get some submissions that are well-written that he doesn’t take just because he can’t see the point in what they’re doing.

Galley Beggar used to have manuscript submissions open online, but Eloise says that it was too overwhelming — they’d be sent around 200 manuscripts a week. They had to find a third reader, but even then it was just too much to get through. So they’ll move to a system where they have short reading windows — that way they can still receive unsolicited manuscripts, but it’ll be easier to manage. They’ve got a book upcoming from a UoK alumnus (Gonzalo! A former writer of this blog!) who was shortlisted for their recent short story prize, and they’re working closely with another writer from the shortlist too. They only publish work that they love — they need to have a lot of passion and interest to get through the process. “We know it when it arrives,” Eloise says. This passion hopefully follows the book through the whole process — Eloise says that independent publishing isn’t likely to make a lot of money, but they do get attention from people who really care about the work. Larger publishers are great too, but they’re up against a lot — smaller presses can maybe take more risks. Aidan says that poetry publishing has now often moved to PoD, but Eloise says that Galley Beggar use litho printing and have books stored in a warehouse; this is a key difference between poetry and fiction. It’s good to have a number of books printed at once — better margins, and the books are readily available if they’re suddenly needed.

The best part, for Aidan, is when he receives a great new poem by someone he hadn’t heard of before (although he stresses that it’s also good to get poetry from people he does know!); he doesn’t like reading a lot of the poetry that’s out there, but he does like the poetry that gets sent to Molly Bloom.

Eloise’s favourite part of the process is watching a book come together over the editorial process — and then hopefully receiving good reviews, and awards nominations! So many of their authors have previously been rejected from bigger presses for commercial reasons, so it’s really great to see them selling well.


Max Porter


Max Porter is Senior Editor at Granta Books, and a novelist in his own right. Grief is the Thing with Feathers, his first novel, was published by Faber in 2015, and recently won the 2016 Dylan Thomas Prize.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max told us, is structured as a triptych; it’s split into sections for the dad, the boys, and the crow. His first reading was from a section about the dad, and then he jumped around in the book, giving us a sense of all of the different voices.

It hadn’t started out in three sections originally, but he thinks it’s great to do hybrid forms. He loves collage, and he loves the journey, moving between different forms — more than he necessarily loves what the specific forms are. It’s that journey, that hybridity that really gives his book its energy, its shape. He thinks it’s important to acknowledge the pressures on writers — and so this, too, is reflected in the book’s form. It’s fragmentary; much of it was written in emails to himself (“too stingy for Word!”) and he describes the process of finding out how to write it as “adjusting the noise level”. “Not being prose, not being poetry. That was important.”

He’d originally wanted the third main role in the book to be a character from the Odyssey, and to function as a take-down of the happiness industry, but he was obsessed with Ted Hughes, and the crow in his poetry. He saw a big crow in his garden — it landed there and barked at him, like it was an audition. And so in the book he announces himself; that he’s the crow. The crow has held a lot of symbolic weight for thousands of years — all of this adds to it. This intertextuality — both with Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and with a wider tradition through Crow — adds to the hybridity of the novel. It’s not a coincidence that Max describes the tension between the different sections and types of writing in the book as a ‘journey’ — although the book is short, there is a lot of energy there, and depth. The book sparks off against itself.

When writing, he didn’t want to share anything until it was done. He carved out some kind of space when working on it — no internet. A kind of ritual. If in doubt, he draws. He writes in a lot of sketchbooks, doodles on receipts. He’s aware of the dangers of writing under economic imperative, and when he spoke to us he didn’t currently have a new project; he doesn’t want to write just the money. Writing under contract seems frightening — he doesn’t know how to do it. He’s drawing again. Sketches and plots. There are lots of people writing books! And the reception of his first one is making him consider what he wants to do next. He might write a libretto as a way of trying to avoid second book syndrome. It wouldn’t work if he tried to force something; he needs a form/structure, a way of laying it all out that really fits with what he’s writing or he gets confused and throws it all away. But, he says — never destroy your notebooks! He says there’s a danger when writing a debut novel that it’ll be the culmination of all of your life’s work; you need to make sure you don’t use everything up.

He reads about 15 books a week for his job. But he doesn’t publish poetry for work, and so he can read poetry as a way of cleaning out his head. Working in publishing has taught him a lot about the process. But publishing doesn’t have much influence on his writing. He doesn’t think his writers at Granta related to his novel as a threat, or to do with their own work at all. And his manuscript was quite clean — the grammar and spelling were pretty tight. These are the places where the two spheres interact with each other — not with the heart of the work itself. He loved the way the book was typeset at Faber — so deft and insightful. They cared about the little things he wanted to do — very good attention to detail. It’s about the intrusion into a physical space… there needs to be a lot of white space in the book, room for readers to consider this. But there was a point where he had to stop thinking about his own book as a publisher — he had to affect a kind of naïveté, because he didn’t want to be complicit in his own publishing process as someone other than the writer.

There’s a model of writing — where plots and characters are laid out on post-its, with the writer in complete control, a kind of god of the story — that Max distrusts. He tried so hard to create a character who isn’t based on anyone; to make it vivid, he had to know everything about him. He’d speak to him, to find out if he’d be uncomfortable with something. He was tearfully upset about a scene with the boys, and they responded by putting Crow in the oven. There are things like this to do with the writing process that he used to roll his eyes at that he feels now. He’s not a god as a writer — he doesn’t like that idea.

Amy asked if he thought his book was a sign that the publishing world was becoming more accepting of hybridity. He says that he hopes so — and that he also likes to turn the tables and say that it’s 100 years since Ulysses, and it’s weird that in that tie the novel has become solidified as this thing that has so few rough edges. He doesn’t want it to be too hard to read, but he doesn’t want to be too keen to please. He likes exactitude and simplicity — like in the best children’s books. “Really, words form me.” He likes to read Louis Zukovsky and thrillers — reading wildly and without snobbery. In our contemporary algorithmic world, as he describes it, there’s this idea that people read like robots. He doesn’t like it — it’s not how people read. We shouldn’t close ourselves off; art shouldn’t exist only inside discrete categories.


Tim Atkins

tim atkins

Tim Atkins is a poet and lecturer at the University of East London. His book Collected Petrarch came out in 2014, and he has a new book of poetry due to be published later this year.

Tim told us that he read a great translation of Petrarch a few years ago, when he was in San Francisco. He left the book there, and then spent a long time searching for the right translation again. The others that he found were super tedious, and it was annoying not to be able to find the right book. So, in the end, he decided to translate them himself. And in the end he found the translation that he had enjoyed in San Francisco — published by North Point Press.

He used 73 rules for translation at various points when working on the book. He doesn’t read Italian, and often made things up. He says that around half of the poems are translations, and half are just poems that he wrote that fit the project. He said that he hopes his poems stand alone — that you don’t have to know his processes to be able to enjoy reading them. He likes poetry that doesn’t need footnotes — “if you need that to begin with, you’re doomed.”

Asked about Buddhism and poetry, Tim talked about how the experience is wordless — and so, as soon as you put it into words, it’s a definition, position. It’s better without that, but — he feels that the positions he does hold are slippery. It makes him skeptical politically, which of course has a bearing on his work. He’s had a long correspondence with the poet Sean Bonney, because Bonney said that he’s always attacking the left. But Tim said in reply — I always doubt everything, but it doesn’t mean I don’t believe anything.

This led to a question about the place of fatherhood, violence and politics in his poetry. About whether poetry is a place for creating a world for our children — Tim’s daughters, in this case — to grow up in. Tim said that he thinks that poets and artists should be able to do what they want, when they want. He writes a lot about politics in his work and sees it as a necessary action, but at the same time he cautions about poets thinking that their art will change the world. It’s not going to overthrow governments.

But it also appalls him that — if you open an anthology you’re much more likely to be faced by poetry about war than poetry about children. He said that so few male poets have written about having children, which is the most profound, moving experience of his life. And so by writing about fatherhood — that is one way of changing something.

He was asked about influence and intertextuality, which led Tim back to talking about his Collected Petrarch. He said that Dryden talked about how you can translate either the word, phrase, or sentence — and these will, of course, give different results. When translating Petrarch, he read a bit about him and the things he did. He wanted to be the most famous poet of his age. And he thought about his themes — love, and difficulty, were themes that engaged him the whole way through. Every part. He said that all poems work as translations — that we should read as widely as possible, because everything feeds in to writing. “Process everything you’ve read and then something comes out.”

There’s a model of antagonistic influence that gets talked about, particularly with male writers, but he thinks of his work as engaging in more of a dialogue with Petrarch than fighting with him. OULIPO had experiments about antithetical translation, and his antithetical translation of Petrarch was — to put his children into the poems. Petrarch’s children were never in his poetry. But it’s not antagonistic — it comes from an engagement with his life, from thinking about him as well as against him.

The Petrarch poems started as Tim’s PhD thesis, and to begin with a selection of them was published by Crater Press. So about 70 of 400 poems had come out, and he said that he’d been boasting about this large number of poems he had written but unpublished — and then Crater Press said they wanted to publish all of them. So he had to spend a year going back and redoing them for publication! Some had been written procedurally, and those were left as they are — but that still left a lot. Some came quite quickly, but it varies massively from poem to poem. Some are translated properly, but others aren’t. He had written them quickly for the PhD, but spent a year working them over and probably changed about 50% of what he’d written by the time he published the book. It’s good to remember how much the drafting process can vary — and to allow yourself flexibility with your writing, space to think.


Bikram Sharma & Simar Preet Kaur


In celebration of 25 years of the Charles Wallace India Fellowship, last week two current fellows came to read and talk to us. Bikram Sharma is a graduate of the UEA writing MA, and he’s just started his fellowship at Kent, while Simar Preet Kaur is an experienced travel writer who travelled down from her residency in Stirling for the reading. The fellowships bring writers over for three months, and they often live on campus (at Kent or elsewhere). It’s the oldest fellowship that’s still running on campus at Kent, and it often benefits writers early on in their careers.

Bikram told us about having just finished the MA at UEA. He’s currently working on a novel, but he didn’t read from it because it’s still in the initial stages. He’s told us that he started writing flash fiction about nine years ago, and he read us a couple of pieces of flash fiction (very short fiction!) that he’s had published in literary magazines instead. The first story was about a woman who sees a man try to kill himself, and the second was more speculative — a magical realism story about a vanished girl that only the narrator can remember. Bikram talked about how he enjoys reading magical realism, his writing is particularly inspired by Gabriel García Márquez.

Simar is working on a book about what she called “a road in the sky” — a route in the Himalayas, mostly used by truckers, that’s inaccessible for four months of the year. She’s been living there and working on it for almost four years — the fellowship has given her time to edit before she goes back for the next season. She read to us from a chapter about winter, when there’s about 60 feet of snow. She’s been working on the manuscript in isolation, and this was the first time she’d read from it to anyone else! She’ll spend two more seasons there, and then the book will be done. She told us about how she’d worked for a travel magazine before she started work on the book, and she came across the truck drivers and the area and kept thinking about it — about how she wanted to go back. And so she did.

Asked if the isolation in the mountains is conductive, Simar says yes — it really helps her to dwell in isolation, and she can then emerge with work. She’s cut off from her peer group, which she finds helpful when writing. She also finds that the truck drivers are good to talk to about writing — they’re especially keen on poetry. She feels like she’s being trusted with their stories and she has to be careful and respectful with them. Because of climate change, this year the road will be opening early, in April, and she’s going to miss a month while she’s in Stirling. But the distance is helpful for working on the manuscript, too. “And it’s cold, which helps!” She says that it does make her characters seem more bizarre, when editing the work so far away — but it also shows her that the work is interesting to people very far away from the community.

Bikram was asked about what led him to working on a novel, since he’d focused on short stories before. There was one particular image — of a girl and a boy crossing the road in Bangalore — that he kept coming back to, and he started writing from that. He was also working with an idea he got from his mother — this idea that there are lots of different Indias that overlap. He says that he and his friends feel like they’re part of a real lost generation — there’s so much development and so many promises from the government but they don’t know what will actually happen. He sometimes feels despair, but — “then I read a book!” He says that his writing has also been shaped by living in the USA (Bikram did his BA in the US). “India is not what it’s been made out to be,” he says. The setting of his work is very important to it, but it’s not “exotic”. He wants to focus more on regular people and their realities. Writing about people, not just cultural markers.

The best part of the residency, Bikram says, is the uninterrupted time to write. He tried to be very disciplined in his regular life, and write every evening, but it’s great here to often have the whole day. He also says that when writing about a particular place it can be hard to know what to write about and what to leave out — and the distance makes it easier.

It was really interesting to hear from early career writers about their works in progress, especially about two such different projects that are interested in place. We’ll be looking out for any news about both books!


Zoë Strachan


In conjunction with the University of Kent’s LGBT Writers’ Week, on the 16th of February Zoë Strachan came to talk to us and read from her 2011 novel, Ever Fallen In Love. Zoë Strachan is a Scottish writer, and she teaches Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. She has published three novels, and is currently working on her fourth.

Zoë started the evening by reading from different sections of Ever Fallen in Love. She decided to read from this book first (rather than her work-in-progress), because she’d been thinking about it as a themed event — shaped both by LGBT Writers’ Week and LGBT history month. Ever Fallen In Love has a gay protagonist, while her upcoming book doesn’t. She read from the prologue of the book — a section that she described as being sort of out of time with the two main timelines in the novel, and then moved forward. The book is half set in the past, at university, and half in the protagonist’s present. She described it as something like an anti-Brideshead — playing around with the same structure, and the same kind of social climate at university, but developing very differently — with a very different relationship to social class. She then quoted a veteran, who she’d once heard say “the whole of my life was lived between the ages of 18 and 21; the rest is just the credits rolling.” People do get stuck on times in their life, if they’re particularly intense, she said — and so all of this fed into the novel, the story she wanted to tell.

In one of the later sections Zoë read from, her protagonist, Richard, talked about being from a place that was “a shithole, we called it.” Zoë talked about how she’d always been fascinated by small towns — where there’s obviously a lot of social pressure. This seems to tie in well with the idea of the book focusing on a relatively small period of time, even much later on — the sense of a small, intense place that forges you is a powerful one.

After these readings, Zoë told us about the new book she’s working on. It’s a family saga, set between 1935-70, and different in some ways from what she’s written before. It centres on a couple who live in a prosperous small town. She read from a section of the book set in 1961 — it’s interesting how her books use time, and directly show us the same characters from multiple, distinct places in their lives. She said it took her a long time to write — she had the idea 10-15 years ago, but it took her a long time to be able to properly fictionalise what she wanted to write about, and to think of the specific story. But once she had that worked out, it came quite quickly.

When discussing the family saga — and how it centres on a married couple in mid-20th century England, Zoë talked about how she still feels that the book has a queer aesthetic that she can feel creeping in, even if it’s less overt than in anything she’s written before. We discussed the idea of a queer aesthetic, and what it can mean — how often it becomes part of the coding of the novel, the subtext, even if it’s not necessarily textual. How it’s a way of reading as well as writing.

When asked about her writing process, Zoë told us about the genesis of Ever Fallen in Love as an example. She dreamed a conversation between Richard and Luke while she was on a very quiet writing retreat. The dynamic between the two characters, the idea or problem at the heart of how they relate to one another is what grabbed her — how does a character persuade another character to do something that goes against his principles? This was how she started. She referred back to the quote from the veteran about his life happening in a very short period of time — this would have stuck with Richard, which is why it’s still central in the sections of the book set later in his life. The sections in the book set later on are written in the third person, while the past is in the first person — this was also, she said, to make the past feel more intense, personal, while the present is at a greater distance. It helped the texture of the book, allowed Richard to be dislocated from himself in the present while he tells and re-tells stories about the past, quite consciously. She says that she usually starts writing in first person just to learn about the character, and for this book, the split came to her halfway through writing it.

But although the two timelines in the book are separated, and are written in different ways like this — they are tied together by character and memory. Zoë talked about Don Paterson having said that the upper classes claim a better vocabulary, but the actual distinction between how people from different classes talk is in syntax. So Richard leaves home and he learns whole new vocabularies from the people he meets at university — but he still uses the syntax he grew up with. After Zoë discussed this, Amy Sackville asked if she thought that class marks him as more of an outsider than his sexuality. But the two can’t be entirely separated — Zoë talked about how he’s very concerned with masculinity, and how the things that surround that are all very tangled up. He wants to be unassailable, stoic. This is part of building characters — thinking about how important aspects of context and character like class and sexuality intersect and work with each other.
Asked about whether there’s a different UK and US queer aesthetic that she can identify, with Alan Hollinghurst and Bret Easton Ellis given as examples, Zoë talked more about class, and the idea that there might be more specifically a Scottish aesthetic or sensibility. In Scotland she can identify a number of prominent queer female writers, but thinks that queer male writers are underrepresented. But then — she talked about how it took a long time for Scottish literature to even be read with a consideration or an eye for themes or aspects such as sexuality or gender in the first place. Maybe the idea was that it was the dominant struggle — class — first, and everything else second. And that’s somehow allowed one kind of scene to be built, and not another. But — the fact that she can identify a number of prominent queer female writers means that either this is no longer the case, or people are done waiting. There’s very much a sense of writing — and especially writing about topics like sexuality — as a place to experiment, and learn.


Eimear McBride


Eimear McBride is the author of A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, which won the 2013 Goldsmiths Prize, the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and many other awards besides. Her second novel is due out from Faber later this year.

The evening began with Eimear reading from the very opening of Girl — it starts in the womb, Eimear told us, “so good luck to us all.” After this first reading, Amy Sackville said that she’d been wondering how the book would sound out loud, but that it turned out to have a great orality. Eimear said that she reads her writing out loud as she writes it, and that rhythm is definitely something she considers — although she has worried if other people hear the rhythm as she does. She records her own audiobooks, she says. A way of keeping her stamp on her work — of making sure it’s read as she wants it to be.

She spoke later on about the stage adaptation of the book, which was at Edinburgh in 2014 (and is about to start a run at the Young Vic). She had been very skeptical about at it first. In the book, everything is supposed to happen inside the girl — you never see her. How could you put that on stage? But then — the language really does work very well out loud. It’s a one-woman show, and while Aoife Duffin is from a very different part of Ireland from Eimear and so speaks the language very differently, Eimear says she knew within ten minutes of seeing her perform that it would work, that she could be happy with it. She understood the language, Eimear said. And she knew how to get that across.


Amy asked Eimear how she writes, and she told us the story of how she wrote Girl. When she was 27, her husband gave her six months of writing time — when she didn’t need to do other work. She wrote three drafts in those six months, very quickly. And then she started to send the manuscript out, and — “Nobody was clamouring!” She received lots of very nice refusals, but nobody was willing to publish her book. Finally, after years of this, she put it in a drawer, and stepped away. She didn’t write at all for three years — she was temping, and had no headspace for it. And then she moved to Norwich, and through a series of events, during which she kept expecting everything to fall through — Galley Beggar finally bought and published her book. It took 9 years from Eimear beginning the book to its publication.

In response to this long journey to publication, Amy asked next if she’d ever thought that what she was doing might be too experimental, but Eimar said that she thought she was writing in a very well-established tradition. She didn’t realise that the publishing industry thought that modernism was dead for all time! And so the difficulty she had in finding someone to take the book on might have been a sign of a lack of imagination in publishing. She hopes that her book might have started to crack a once-closed door open again.

Next she told us that she’d first wanted to be an actress, and she’d trained at the Drama Centre in London — a process that was all about destroying and then building yourself back up. But she realised pretty quickly after graduating that she didn’t want to be an actress — she wanted to be a writer! She wrote lots — none of it was any good, she said, but it helped her. When she was 25, with a terrible job in the city, she decided that all that would help her would be to read Ulysses. She started reading it on the Overground to Liverpool Street. That journey was 20-minutes long. She looked up from the book to get off the train, and thought — Oh shit. Right. She threw out everything she’d written already — it turned out, Ulysses told her, that she could write anything she wanted. She wanted to do other things with language. Later on, Amy asked if Beckett had influenced her too, and she said yes and no — but “I quite like an impoverished vocabulary used to thumping effect.”

And two years after that, she wrote A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. She said that she had to leave Joyce “outside the room” when writing — she didn’t want to be too heavily-influenced by him. But he was important. She knew she could do what she wanted to do. If you want to write anything of any worth, Eimear said, you write about what you can when you can. Publishing seems to forget you can write whatever you like, despite all of these great novels in which the writers did exactly that. They will tell you how to write if you let them. You have to try to keep your integrity — hang on to what’s most important to you. Don’t lose sight of it. Later on she added that every writer will decide what they’re willing to sacrifice, to give up. But, for example — she had publishers say that they’d publish Girl if they could publish it as a memoir. Which it isn’t! And which she described as  being — kind of evil. And some writers might have taken that, because they want to be published.

In the end, she said, she didn’t know if Girl was good, but that it was right as it was, and she wouldn’t be persuaded to change that.

Asked whether her training at the Drama Centre has helped her write, Eimear said that the acting classes had, in some ways. They helped her understand how to create a character. It’s a very physical process for her — not literary. It’s about how — the physical situation affects them in every sense. She thinks of it as what happens inside an actor’s head when they create a role — “method writing”.

The second reading from Girl was from about halfway through the book — the section beginning “I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed.” The voice of the book develops with the narrator, and this sounds very different to the first section she read — but it’s still recognisably the same voice, with the same kind of rhythm. It really does sound great read out loud — if you like audiobooks, this is one you should buy.

The first question from the floor was from Alex Preston, who asked about how much the success of her book felt like a vindication. She said that it felt more like a relief than anything else — relief that she hadn’t just turned out to be a bum, which she’d kind of made her peace with. She’s had her moments, but it’s more important just to keep writing. Faber had originally turned the book down, but after its success at Galley Beggar they had taken it on for the mass-market paperback, which was interesting for her. Indie presses can take the risks to put a book out, but when it starts to sell well it can be difficult for them to meet demand. This kind of deal allows them to keep an interest in her book, get some money, while somebody else takes over the production and sales.

Amy asked if the editorial process is different at Faber than it was at Galley Beggar, as Eimear’s next book (which is at the editing stage) is being published by Faber. She said that Galley Beggar had been a bit more casual about edits, and that she and Sam (Jordison) had spent more time in the pub, but they’d fought about edits he wanted at the beginning and end. She didn’t want to change the ending, and although she worked on some of the language in the opening she wouldn’t change the subject of that either. So it’s different this time in that she doesn’t go to the pub with her editor, they have serious meetings. But it boils down to the same thing – “Change this!” “No.” / “Change this!” “Yes.”

A question from the floor asked about whether the publishing machine had affected the writing of her second book, or whether she’d been able to ignore it. Because of the long time it took for her first book to come out, though, she already knew everything about this one. The final rewrite was hard — she found herself second-guessing her publisher, and readers in general. Do they want something the same, or different? She just had to remember that that’s not what you write for — you don’t write for good review. They’re nice, but if you want to be read in 100-years’ time you write what you want to write. And the publishing industry is still old-fashioned, and scared, but there has proven to be an audience for experimental works. She hopes they can realise that “readers aren’t as stupid as they think we are.” Because there’s a lot of adventurous, interesting work out there. And we want to keep reading Eimear McBride’s books for as long as she keeps writing them!


Katharine Norbury


The first reader of February was Katharine Norbury, pictured here with her first book, The Fish Ladder, which was published by Bloomsbury last year. The Fish Ladder is a memoir, travelogue, book of nature writing, and more besides. There’s poetry, and folklore, and family history, and illustrations of birds, fish, landscapes. Katharine’s daughter drew and painted the illustrations, and she’s also very present in the book as a character. It’s interesting and strange, Katharine said, when art strays into life.

To kick off the reading and discussion, David Flusfeder asked Katharine how she had started writing the book. She said that it had happened by accident when she was living in Barcelona, separated from her normal work as a film editor. There was a long summer holiday — 3 months — spent in Wales, for a while just with her young daughter, and she started keeping a journal as she expects other people might take photographs. Almost as a scrapbook. So it started out as a record of the holiday for her to give as a gift to her daughter — not for publication. But, she said, then things started to go wrong — she was diagnosed with cancer not long afterwards — and the journal changed as she wrote it. At first it was a very private book, written with no readership in mind. And then it wasn’t.

Katharine read from two sections of the book. First was a section about salmon returning to the Mersey for the first time in two hundred years, from near the beginning of the book, which turns into a story about how she visited, almost providentially, the convent in Liverpool where she was born and how she learned there about the nun who had looked after her as a newborn. Because The Fish Ladder is not just a traditional memoir, it’s able to be more associative like this — she can write about fish feeling the pull back to the river, wonder what calls them, and then talk about her own life — how she felt “a pull, a draw, as though something were listening” that made her turn around, back towards the convent, and discover her own past.

David asked Katharine if she had a model, or a shape in mind when what she was writing changed from a journal into a book. She spoke about how she had been thinking of a travelogue — how The Odyssey is her favourite book, which had something to do with it. She loves the idea of story of a traveller voyaging out. And so then once more things started to happen, this was the idea she stuck with. The travelogue as a form adds discipline, it isn’t too emotional. And although she was writing a memoir which contained stories about people still living, stories that happen in the present, the travelogue doesn’t call for too much to be revealed about those people. The revelations can belong more to memory — to discoveries about the past.

She also chose to write and edit with a 5-act structure in mind, because she grew up in the cutting room, editing films, and it’s a structure that is ingrained, that she knows how to work with. And so, a certain point, her work fell very naturally into that structure. She said that it felt filmic to her — a story with a crisis, a big set piece, and a resolution. She spoke about editing as the most important part of the process of her writing. She wrote everything down and then carved away what didn’t fit the story, or her structure. She’s naturally an editor, and was able to become detached from her writing — at one point, when working on the 4th draft, she changed the whole manuscript into the 3rd person. She said that this makes it much more plain to her what isn’t interesting, and should be left behind. The final book, of course, is back in the first person. But this was a necessary step — a necessary distancing from her own work. A question from the floor prompted her to discuss this at more length, and she said that she edited it as if it was a documentary. It was the first thing she wrote, and she thinks this structure would have shaped whatever she chose to write — but it helped her, and didn’t force her to change her story or hurt her story. It worked with what she wanted to put down, and not against it.

She also spoke about how the ending of the book — a scene with her mother — originally wasn’t going to be included, but it mirrored the start of the book so well that she had to. This isn’t a loss, or about being forced to write something, but about knowing what you need to write, what will work best. It pushed for her to go deeper.

A question from the floor asked if trauma was important to her writing, and she spoke also about how she almost didn’t mention her miscarriage in the book, and ended up writing it in 14 days before the deadline. It had felt like an absence. She felt the need to make something out of it — to do something. “So I made a book.” The writing and editing process sounded very involved and necessary — as important a part of the journey as her walking had been. As memories came to her at different times, in different places, so did different realisations about moments in her life that she couldn’t leave out.

One of the casualties of editing was that Katharine had to lose 35,000 words. When asked if she felt the loss of them, she said that they are actually lost, due to a dead computer, and can’t entirely remember what they were actually about. She could theoretically retrieve them, but losing them was actually like a huge burden being lifted — a great relief. They were stories that needed to go, because they didn’t fit the shape of the book, and now there was no easy way to put them back in, to give into temptation and weaken the whole.

Katharine’s second reading was from a section about her childhood holidays, and her Auntie Marge, and the way we see more when we examine our old memories — things we perhaps missed at the time (especially if we were children), or didn’t want to see. Somebody asked if recollection has always been as vivid for her as it seems to be in the book, and she said that a lot of the memories — especially memories about her Auntie Marge — were memories that she didn’t even know she had until she visited the right place — a particular riverbank — and the memories were triggered. This, she said, is partly why the travelogue form fascinates her. The journey shapes her memories — it’s integral, it really does structure everything.

She also spoke about how a character called Mr Yields in the book has the same name as he did in real life, but spelt differently — she didn’t realise until the book was published, and somebody told her that she’d got it wrong, because she’d never seen it written down before. This is what writing from memory is like — things change, but we can still get at the truth of it all the same.


Rob Cowen

Rob Cowen Banner

Rob Cowen is an award-winning journalist and writer. He received the Roger Deakin Award for his first book Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild, and read for us this week  from his second, Common Ground. He began with a reading ‘from the beginning, which is a very good place to start.’ His reference to Alice in Wonderland set us burrowing into his own wonderland that was to follow, of March Hares (male and female, not male and male), Tarka the Otter, anthracite hills and silvergold sunrises.

Reading One


Common Ground is a book about the liminal, circling around Bilton, a patch of edge-land just outside Harrogate. It also seeks the subliminal, excavating layers of existence:  the human layers of railways, royal hunting grounds and redundancy in the recession, in a ‘world where fractions of other fractions being bet against other fractions by guys in a glass tower in Canary Wharf’; of watching a fox and documenting its smells, movements, and motivations; of lying in a hollow, senses alive to sunlight and sound, eroding the distance between human and nature in a visceral, fragile moment of connection with a roe deer; of discovering, through becoming a father, that the distance between the green of ‘nature’ and the pink and red of flesh and blood is non-existent.

Fox Reading


Seeking a place of retreat, Cowen ranges off to ‘relentlessly’ explore his edge-land; not to journey as a pilgrim, nor as the writer of a field guide, stating the density of hair follicles on an animal’s fur, Latin names for plants, or specifying species, but as a forensic investigator of place, as if divining by sense and words what had flowed through there before. He wrote, he said, 150,000 words of notes before even beginning the book. In this next reading, we hear him tracking a fox on a cold January night.



Following the fox, the map became ‘cluttered, complicated and different.’ Cowen talked with enthusiasm throughout, from comparing the paired “Twit” and “Woo” of Tawny owl calls reverberating around hills to ‘something from a Phil Spector record’, to seeing the land as a ‘prism’ through which to view ‘different times and human conditions’ of life past and present, whether it be animal, shrub or person. This merging of of viewpoints draws ‘new maps’ of connections between people and nature, and Cowen finds these by going through the edges, whether psychological, geographical or historical.  His final reading enters the realm of humans-as-animals and animals-as-humans, while rejecting a ‘Disney’ anthropomorphism; he enters the mind of the deer that jumped his body, and then allows that deer, in turn, to embody the man that hunts it. The book goes beyond the classifications of genre (something of a running theme in this term’s Reading Series), blurring the bounds and edges between memoir, fiction and non-fiction.

Afterwards there was time for questions and Cowen explained how, in Common Ground, he was looking to ‘pull about’ the dividing line between man and nature. He pointed to plant pots, paintings of landscapes, and nature television programmes to demonstrate a need to be close to nature and of how the line is not finite and concrete, if it even exists. He repeated his desire to write a ‘sense of place’ rather than a guide to viewing it. He went to extemporise on Hares, Easter eggs, land legislation and the birth of his child.

Cowen described the difficult process of reducing words down, of chiseling at them with hard work to make them into the final book. He finished by talking of the metre of a line of text, and of how if it doesn’t deliver a sense of the place it is describing, it has no purpose. This desire to communicate a rich and textured sense of a place is what energised his prose and his energetic, informed and passionate discussion of the book.



Rod Mengham and Marc Atkins

CWRS at Studio 3

CRWS Studio 3

This week’s Creative Writing Reading Series took place in Studio 3 in the Jarman Building. This was our first time in this venue and thanks, along with  a plug, are owed to Katy McGown. The thanks are for her organisation and hospitality on behalf of the School of Arts, and the plug for the ‘In Conversation’ event at the gallery on the 8th of December, with a feast of art and mince pies promised. Bookings can be made here.

In addition to the our immersion in the Stuckism exhibition in Studio 3, we were treated to film, poetry and prose from our guests this week, multimedia polymaths Rod Mengham and Marc Atkins.

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Rod Mengham is on the academic staff in the Faculty of English at Jesus College, Cambridge. He is the author of numerous books on Henry Green, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and contemporary fiction, including The Writing of Iain Sinclair (in Contemporary British Fiction,Polity Press, which he edited). He has published several volumes of poetry, including Still Moving Veer, 2014, for which Marc Atkins produced photographs.

Marc Atkins is an author of poetry, including the two volumes Logic of the Stairwell and The Prism Wall, he has published several albums of photography, including Liquid City, with Iain Sinclair. Atkins trained in Fine Art and his website has exhibitions of his  work, links to his films and a full bibliography.

Rather than describe the texts, there are links below to recordings of the readings from the evening. Below these, there are links to the short films that Atkins and Mengham produced.



Listen to Rod Mengham reading from his work on our Soundcloud page.


Listen to Marc Atkins reading from his work on our Soundcloud page.



Click on either image to be taken to Vimeo, where the videos can be viewed in full.

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Peter Riley

Peter RileyLogo CWRS black

by Dorothy Lehane

Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (Shearsman, 2015). A
collection of his “Poetry Notes” columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes. He is the author of fifteen books of poetry including The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of the Cholmondeley Award for Poetry.

Riley read from Due NorthDue North, a fascinating collection of philosophical landscape poems that present the reader with a series of images
of people walking on earth, travelling away from home; of returning soldiers, of those going out and coming back. In the Cordite Review, Mark Dickinson writes ‘One of the ways in which poetry functions within this paradoxical environment is to return to the body and to simply walk out into the world. By being in the world, through an intimacy of a thorough immersion, the poetry can radically re-engage with otherness and begin to propagate alternative ways of seeing and occupying place.’ This is precisely what occurs in Due North. The thematic continuity is autobiographical; the writing began on the eve of Riley leaving Cambridge for Yorkshire. These poems are concerned with the North of England, but more broadly with walking, how people travel though different atmospheres, cultures, how ‘things stick to your coat’. The journey is through landscape; people negotiating and moving through worlds. As Riley writes: ‘what clings to us, also falls off us.’

This isn’t the first time Riley’s work has focused on landscape: In his letter to Tony Baker dated 1991, Riley considered the impulse to include notes in his collection Alstonefield, ‘And a writing was needed, an interlinear commentary, to work the self through the fairground of its purpose and throw a shadow image back to all the rest of the known.’ (Riley, 2003, 2) These notes provide access to the author’s mind through sources and citations. Riley’s commentary in Alstonefield was a necessary supplement and offers a more thorough engagement with landscape, but common adoption of referential or explanatory footnotes risks devaluing the importance of the reader’s freedom and struggle for meaning. In Due North, language and themes are not all tied up, but instead hold echoes of things already said. Riley’s intention was to allow those echoes to continue through the whole piece, and yet the language and themes are often embedded elsewhere. This brings to mind a passage from Riley’s essay “The Creative Moment of the Poem” (Poets on Writing): ‘The poem is neither transparent nor opaque but itself a body of light. It conceals because it supersedes the light before and after it. And in this concealment it also carries: images, concepts, percepts, messages across a time gap.’