Summer reading: Breaking the pattern

Our next summer reading recommendation is from Creative and Professional Writing lecturer Russell Schechter.

 Grey skies laden with menace. Chill winds gouging your skin like fairies with flick knives. Barbecue-blackened sausages which are somehow still trichinosis-pink at their core.

Ah, summer in England!

And time to read for fun. Oh, frabjous season!!

Here’s my suggested summer book guide: read what you want. Read what you really enjoy. And then read something completely different. If you never pick up non-fiction, read a biography. If you hate crime novels, read a murder mystery. Break your reading pattern and expand your horizons – for at least one book.

(What a mealy-mouthed recommendation. Criminy, just what you’d expect a miserable Creative Writing tutor to say.)

So here’s something more particular. Read a John Wyndham novel. It’s not exactly contemporary (he peaked in the 1950s), but good-golly-Miss-Molly was a he smart, economical and entertaining writer. Day of the Triffids. The Chrysalids. The Midwich Cuckoos. Pick one – you can’t go wrong. (NB Day of the Triffids is in the library!)

And remember to bring me back some rock from your holiday.

Summer reading: Angels and clowns

Our next summer reading recommendation is from first-year Creative and Professional Writing student Abi Silverthorne.

Image result for my name is minaMy summer recommendation would be My Name is Mina. It’s not necessarily a new release, but deserves a read by anyone who might have missed it till now. Fans of David Almond’s original work Skellig would be hard-pushed not to enjoy this prequel. It’s a fun and emotional step back into the fantastical world Almond built, only now through the surreal and slightly scatter-shot (but always funny) eyes of Mina. The book is never one thing, moving fluidly from fable to script to prose to poem to empty, interactive pages – it’s a pretty sensory experience to sit out in the garden with it and just go along.

Image result for stephen king it bookThis summer I’ll be bizarrely taking Stephen King’s It on holiday with me, because nothing says fun in the sun like a horror epic about the malevolent amalgamation of fear itself that terrorises children over decades.

Summer reading: From glum to glam – Richard Yates, Beatles and glam rock

Today it’s St Mary’s senior lecturer Richard Mills who offers up his summer reading recommendations and intentions.

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates should be read this, and every, summer. It starts with the genius first line  “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life” , and after this despairing start, Yates continues to pile the misery on. This novel is guaranteed to ruin any beach holiday –  I love it!

Image result for beatleboneImage result for i read the news today oh boy bookKevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone is about John Lennon fleeing his fame (and his demons) in the west of Ireland. Beatlebone is a must for all Beatles fans, as is Paul Howard’s award-winning biography of Tara Browne, I Read the News Today Oh Boy: Tara Browne, The Short and Gilded Life of the Man Who Inspired The Beatles’ Greatest Song (reading the title will take you most of the summer). Howard’s book is an Irish Great Gatsby; that is, a cautionary tale about success and excess,  but unlike Jay Gatsby, Tara Browne’s story – which inspired Lennon to write A Day in the Life is all true!

Image result for shock and awe reynoldsImage result for New Selected Poems ted hughesI’ll be reading Simon Reynolds’ Show and Awe: Glam Rock and its Legacy. It’s a big summer read, coming in at 687 pages! And a recommendation for my second-year poetry class: I’ll be dipping into Ted Hughes: New Selected Poems 1957-1994. This is a must for all you mad, bad, dangerous po-heads… sorry, poets.

Summer reading recommendations 2017

If it’s good enough for the newspapers – who give over most of their books coverage over the summer months to literary and celebrity back-patting and one-up-personship – then it’s good enough for us. We’re going to use this blog to give our summer reading recommendations. What we’ve read and recommend, and what we’ll be reading this summer on the terrace of our Tuscan villa/down the local lido/sitting in our kitchen staring at the rain (delete as applicable). There’ll be entries from students to follow, but here to start is Creative and Professional Writing Programme Director Jonathan Gibbs.

Image result for the luminaries catton

Any first year students who enjoyed Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal this year, and have lots of time on their hands over the summer, might want to try her second novel, The Luminaries. Coming in at over 800 pages, The Luminaries is a densely-potted, intricately-structured novel set in the lawless gold fields of C19th New Zealand. It’s a masterpiece of historical ventriloquism, with prospectors, whores, bankers and ghosts, but you really need a good sun lounger to let yourself get lost in its pages. This isn’t a book to try to read on your commute.





Image result for home marilynne robinsonThis summer I’ll be returning to Marilynne Robinson’s Home, the companion-piece to her quite wonderful Gilead, which I read on holiday a couple of years ago. It’s a quiet, beautifully-written telling of the story of the prodigal son, set in the plains of Iowa, but I need some peace and quiet to let it work its magic. This isn’t one to read on your commute either.


The short and the sweet: prize-winning and shortlisted stories to read online

April is a busy month for UK short story competitions, with the biggest and richest, and one of the newest and hippest both announcing their winners – and the good news is that all of the shortlisted entries are available to read online, making these a great resource for readers and writers. What is the current short story scene looking like? And what kinds of stories are winning prizes?

Firstly, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award was won by Bret Anthony Johnston for his story ‘Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses’. This short story competition is very much an establishment gig – it is only open to writers who have been published in the UK (not self-published), and in fact Johnston is Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. You don’t get much more established than that! Previous winners include Yiyun Li, Junot Diaz and Kevin Barry (who we’ve studied on the St Mary’s CPW course – his winning story, ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ can be read here.

Here’s the opening paragraph of Johnston’s story. It’s a tiny masterclass in grabbing the reader’s attention: the reins being held out of the car window, the name Buttons, Buttons never once turning left. And in the use of language: simple when it needs to be, but with vivid notes of colour, interest and intrigue: swaybacked, carnie, cowgirls.

His daughter’s first horse came from a travelling carnival where children rode him in miserable clockwise circles. He was swaybacked with a patchy coat and split hooves, but Tammy fell for him on the spot and Atlee made a cash deal with the carnie. A lifetime ago, just outside Robstown, Texas. Atlee managed the stables west of town; Laurel, his wife, taught lessons there. He hadn’t brought the trailer – buying a pony hadn’t been on his plate that day – so he drove home slowly, holding the reins through the window, the horse trotting beside the truck. Tammy sat on his back singing made up songs about cowgirls. She named him Buttons. No telling how long he’d been ridden in circles at the carnival. For the rest of his life, Buttons never once turned left.

You can read the rest of Johnston’s story and the rest of the shortlist can be read online here. Will you go for Celeste Ng’s intense first person story ‘Every Little Thing’? Or the experimental, Borgesian games of Richard Lambert’s ‘The Hazel Twig and the Olive Tree’?

Lambert’s story would have suited The White Review Short Story Prize, except that, in contrast to the Sunday Times gig, this is only open to writers who haven’t had a full book (novel or collection of stories published) – ie open to emerging writers. (I, me, Jonathan Gibbs, was shortlisted for the first iteration of the prize, in 2013: it was won that year by Claire-Louise Bennett, whose Pond we have also studied at St Mary’s.)

The White Review is a journal very much at the avant garde end of the literary scene, and so they are looking for writing that “explores and expands the possibilities of the form”. The say the prize was founded “to reward ambitious, imaginative and innovative approaches to creative writing”.

The winner this year is Nicole Flattery, for ‘Track’, a suitably edgy and nervy look at love and celebrity in contemporary New York. Here’s the opening paragraph:

My boyfriend, the comedian, took pleasure in telling me about rejection – how it came about, how to cope with dignity, how it had dangerous, possibly cancerous, elements. He said if I pinched just above my waistband, where the unfamiliar portions of fat resided, that’s what rejection felt like. He claimed the link between cancer and repeated failure was irrefutable. He had a lot of new, unusual ideas. ‘Feel that,’ he said, grasping at my hips and thighs, ‘that’s the texture of rejection right there.’

You can read ‘Track’ and all the other shortlisted stories here and even go back and read the stories from the four previous years.

What do you think? Are these inspirational? What can you learn from them? Could you do better?

Through the Looking Glass

Intrigued, I looked over. A pitiful feeling overwhelmed me as I looked into the eyes of a broken soul. You couldn’t see me even though you looked my way. I stared at you closely, as if I was right in front of you. You sat there, in the middle of the room on your chair, with just a desk in front of you. You looked around, eyes wandering over every visual detail as if you were a painter, taking in your surroundings before you picked up your brush.

I stood still, just staring at you through the mirror.

Unexpectedly, you got up from your seat and walked around, even though you didn’t have anywhere to go. Nor was there much space to move. As you moved around, you traced your hands against the edge of the table and made invisible footprints across the cold, grey floor.

You walked over and there you was standing in front of the mirror. My body stiffened, my chest tightened and my heart skipped a few beats. You looked at me, straight into my eyes – except you couldn’t see me.

You looked up, your eyes were soft and blue. As if you spoke to me, I could feel all your pain, your sorrow, your joy, your loneliness and your fire. I touched the mirror that separated us, pressing my fingertips against it. The coldness evaporated, filling each line of my personal ID; my finger print; all four of my fingers and my thumb.

As if you could see right through, or you could sense someone or something behind what wasn’t visible to your human eye, your hand stretched out, rubbing against the glass, creating a trail of smudged strokes. Until you got to me, until maybe you felt the heat. Your hand pressed against the glass, opposite mine. We stood there in a trance; time felt like it had stopped just for that moment.

Then you moved back, leaving my hand exposed and alone. You sat back down on the chair in the middle of the room, with only a table in front of you. I stood there, watching you from behind the mirror, until they came in. They placed you in hand cuffs and took you away.

Leaving me with only your evaporating finger painting on the mirrored canvas.

A flash fiction by 3rd Year Creative Writing student Sharmarni Danials.

Tips from shortlisted Young Writers of the Year

Last night Max Porter won the Sunday Times/ PFD Young Writer of the Year Award for his fantastic essay-cum-novella Grief is the Thing with Feathers (read my review of it here), beating poet Andrew Martin, novelist Benjamin Wood and short story writer Jessie Greengrass.

Waterstone’s asked the four shortlistees for their tips for writers young and old. Here they are, on the bookshop’s blog.

Before you click, ask yourself: what is the tip that three of the four put at the top of their list? Go on, I bet you can guess it…


Publishing experience opportunity: The Carole Blake Open Doors Project

Publishing has been working for a while to open itself out to people from a wider range of society, to stop it being such a closed shop in terms of race, class, wealth and geography. (It doesn’t have much of  a problem with gender bias.) One initiative that is trying to do something about this is the Carole Blake Open Doors Project, run by the Blake Friedmann literary agency, offering a week’s shadowing in the company, giving an invaluable insight into how books get published, and how the industry works.

The company says it will be “looking solely at applicants from backgrounds not well represented in publishing including those who have not been to college or university, those not from high income families, those from BAME backgrounds, and those who live outside the London metropolitan area.”

For more details, read the info on the Blake Friedman website. Closing date for applications for the work – which would be in May or June 2017 – is 31 December 2016, so get thinking and writing.

Jack Reacher / Superman / Maigret

You can usually rely on The New Yorker for some fancy critical action, and this piece, by UK writer John Lanchester about the American thriller writer Lee Child, is no exception. Here we are, about half way through:

According to Graham Greene, Henry James once said that “a young woman with sufficient talent need only pass the mess-room windows of a Guards’ barracks and look inside in order to write a novel about the Brigade.” The Reacher novels often have that feeling, of being constructed around half-longing insights into the lives of others.

The writer whom Child most recalls, in this respect, is Georges Simenon, whose Maigret novels are the work of a man who travelled around France observing strangers and their mysterious routines. Simenon spent a lot of time in the kinds of places where travellers spend time. As a result, he set entire novels in cafés and bars, in fuggy interiors populated by secretive regulars, where the detective is an intruder. Readers find it easy to identify with this perspective: we ourselves are outsiders peeking into another world, like Reacher or Maigret.

Graham Greene and Henry James may hardly be names you’d tend to throw about alongside that of Child, author of the bestselling Jack Reacher novels, but then neither is Simenon, the writer behind the wonderfully glum and mundane detective Inspector Maigret, who features in a incredible 76 detective novels – which sounds like a lot until you realise the French writer’s bibliography runs to over 350 novels and novellas.

It’s an interesting comparison, because Maigret is as unremarkable – plump, a bit glum – as Reacher is extraordinary – a “six-foot-five-inch former military policeman” with a keen facility for violence. Lanchester suggests that Reacher is not far from Superman in his human abilities. But what links them is their (or their creators’) ability to make ordinary, mundane detail count, on the page, or in their investigations.

As Lanchester points out, the greatest creation of Lee Child is not Jack Reacher, but Lee Child himself. The author was born Jim Grant, in Coventry, in England. He had a good career in television before being made redundant, only then turning to writing novels as “the purest form of entertainment”.  As Lanchester has it:

On September 1, 1995, he went out and bought three notepads and a pencil, and used them to work on the book that was to become “Killing Floor”—and he has begun work on a new novel on the anniversary of that day every year since.

There’s the real mystery. Not the who, but – as with Simenon’s superhuman productivity – the how.

Jonathan Gibbs

Lessons on writing from Elena Ferrante

frantumagliaLast week I attended the London launch of the latest book by the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Frantumaglia (a ‘family word’ of Ferrante’s mother meaning ‘jumble of fragments’) is a collection of occasional writings – mostly correspondence with her publishers and written interviews – ranging from 1992, when she published her first novel, Troubling Love, to 2015.

Its arrival comes hot on the heels of the unmasking of the ‘real’ Ferrante, who has always written under a pseudonym and kept her identity private, by an Italian journalist, and naturally this issue dominated some parts of the evening, in which I joined Rosie Goldsmith, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Kate Young and Robin Lustig to read from and discuss Ferrante’s books.

Having the read the new book, however, in preparation for the event, I was struck by how much of it was not about the particular personality of Ferrante, or whoever she might be, but about writing in general. It is full of insights into how she approaches fiction writing – although to be fair these are often filtered through a discussion of her books, so would be most useful to anyone who has read them.

Here are some of my favourite excerpts:

Q: Do you write down your dreams?

Ferrante: The rare times that I seem to remember them, yes. I’ve done so since I was a girl. It’s an exercise that I would recommend to everyone. To subject a dream experience to the logic of the waking state is an extreme test of writing. A dream has the virtue of showing us clearly that reproducing something exactly is always a losing battle.

Which is not to say, I would guess, that dream sequences in fiction are a good thing. They very rarely work. I’ve often wondered why that is? I assume it’s because prose fiction is already akin to a dream. Writing a character’s dream may be going deeper in terms of their psychology, but in terms of the reading experience, it’s duplication, redundant.

Q: You have been praised for your spare, muscular prose. There are no pyrotechnics, the language never draws attention to itself, and the effect is powerful. Do you start in this more spare and dialled-back register, or is the work in earlier drafts messier and more emotional?

Ferrante: I tell stories about middle-class women who are cultivated and capable of governing themselves. They have the tools to reflect on themselves. The slow, detached language I use is theirs. Then something breaks and these women’s boundaries dissolve, and the language with which they are attempting to say something about themselves also is loosed, unbounded. From that moment, the problem – a problem that is, above all, mine, as I write – becomes how to rediscover, step by step, the measured language they started with and, with it, the kind of self-governing ability that stops the characters from falling into depression, into self-degeneration, or into dangerous feelings of revenge, aimed at themselves or at others.

This is particularly true for the first three Ferrante novels: Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter, all of which feature protagonists who are women not on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but fully inside it.

Q: Do you think that fiction writing always involves some sense of guilt.

Ferrante: Absolutely yes. Writing – and not only fiction – is always an illicit appropriation. Our singularity as authors is a small note in the margin. The rest we take from the repository of those who have written before us, from the lives, from the most intimate feelings of others. Without the authorization of anything or anyone.

This is one of the hardest things to teach, I find, especially at undergraduate level: the confidence to appropriate experience, your own and other people’s. If you’re a good writer then by the time you’re finished with it, it will probably be unrecognisable to the person you stole it from – and hopefully scarily familiar to plenty of others with no connection to it at all.

Jonathan Gibbs