Anatomy / A Scene / Limbo


The anatomy of the boy. His skin is soft and off-white like almond milk, the tips of his fingers blistered and the nail bludgeoned, plump and fluid-filled because he punched his bedroom wall too hard. His legs are thin and gangly like his arms, too long for the torso, still, he is growing, and he stares without attachment, the eyes muddy like his father’s and doe-like his mother’s – speckled browns of emotional poverty, a lack of nurturing, stunted. He has her lips, the family’s brow. The snarl of a beast in the throat of a child.

‘A scene’

A biker jacket swung over an armchair.
A birthday cake with a slice cut out.
An ashtray filled with cigarette butts.
A sheet of wrapping paper peeking out from under the sofa.
A fuzzy television screen.
An empty wine glass with a stained red rim.


Limbo is standing at a bus stop for more than fifteen minutes and feeling a certain dread that your bus is never going to come.

Three pieces of flash fiction/poetry/you decide by 1st Year Creative Writing student Sophie RA Duggan.

Jess Kidd wins Costa Short Story Award

kidd-jess-c-travis-mcbrideLast night St Mary’s Creative Writing alumna Jess Kidd won the Costa Short Story Award for her story ‘Dirty Little Fishes’. This is a fantastic win for Jess, who has completed both an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing at St Mary’s – not least because the award is voted on by the public, from a shortlist. The award comes with a prize of £3,500.

Jess will be coming to the University to read from and talk about her debut novel, Himself (published by Canongate) on Tuesday 14th February, at a free literary event to be held in the Waldegrave Drawing Room, from 6.30-8pm. This will be a great opportunity to hear from this exciting new voice in Irish fiction, albeit nurtured here in south-west London. Details of the event here.

Here is the opening to ‘Dirty Little Fishes’:

She must be a good friend because on Mammy’s day off we catch two buses and walk up a billion stairs to visit her. It’s an estate like ours, only with less swears written on it. We are waiting outside Mammy’s good friend’s door in a corridor the colour of evil. Mammy pulls down her sleeve and holds it over her face.
‘God protect us from the reek of cat piss,’ she says, and knocks on the door.
‘Be quiet in here now, the woman’s dying.’
‘Will she die today? While I’m here?’ I ask hopefully.
Mammy gives me a look and knocks again.

You can download a copy of the story to read here. There is also an audio version to listen to and download on the Costa website.

The Costa Short Story Award is open to published and unpublished writers over the age of 18 living in the UK or Ireland. Entries for this year’s award will open in the summer.

Voice and Style 

By Jamie L. Cruise

In my writing adventures, learning and demonstrating new knowledge in practice, I have been educated in several important elements and have become aware of their universal applications, the key two being ‘voice’ and ‘style’. By the latter, I mean how a tool or mechanism in writing fiction or poetry can be used in the same ways in non-fiction writing, whether essays or otherwise. Some of these are more subtle than others, going largely unnoticed but still appreciated by the reader (and sometimes, perhaps, the writer), whereas others are obvious and aid us to appreciate a passage of text as fluid, coherent and embodying a core purpose.

Being naive and often flippant in my own writing across most mediums, I had not considered how the former, a writer’s ‘voice’, is present in their writing and across their works. I had gathered that a distinct ‘style’ of writing can be detected, regardless of whether the text is fiction or non-fiction, but had not considered that part of that style is the voice in which the reader hears when reading a body of work. Given that recently the majority of texts I have read have been of an analytic nature, I have learned that in many cases an author’s voice can be construed, in non-fiction just as well as fiction, regardless of the purpose of the text.

In my study of language, RL Trask (Language: The Basics) and Noam Chomsky (voicing opinion and theory in a range of linguistic and philosophical fields) have proven to be amusing – certainly not in the subject matter, but in the way they inform and elaborate on their subjects: their voice. Through their use of humour, relatable examples and rhetoric, information is absorbed by the reader that might otherwise be lost

Now, at what point does this get interesting to you – my reader? Well, the names I’ve dropped are of little significance here and are purely anecdotal. The point I’m seeking to make is that I have become aware of the presence of my own voice as a writer (title pending). Perhaps ‘existence’ is more appropriate than ‘presence’, as I am starting to wonder how much of a voice, and subsequently style, my existing publications (blog posts) emanate. In truth, I am confident it is present and growing in form (which is encouraging). However, in much the same way a writer is their own worst critic, I find myself comparing my own style to other authors who have already established themselves and I see striking difference in their delivery. While being different is far from a bad thing, one must consider how that voice will be heard and the style received.

For a practical example, let’s look at this blog entry. Sure, if my reader is an English or Creative Writing student, or perhaps someone with an interest in language study or a novice writer, then perhaps I have already captured their attention with some content – but what about those who do not fall into those categories (hereby referred to as the royal ‘They’)? Have I bored Them already? *close tab, continue scrolling social media*

If I haven’t (thank you for sticking with me!), then why are They still reading? Assuming that it isn’t through a prior established relation to me, or an inability to leave without completing what They have started, one would assume that the style in which I have composed the post in, and the voice I am conveying through particular lexical arrangements on the page or screen have been entertaining enough to warrant reading on. This, obviously, is a vital concept to consider when trying to make a career in writing, be it in journalism, fiction, non-fiction, historical reports, sales pitches, etc.

Taking a step back to look at my style and voice in a more general light, it’s hard for me to immediately ascertain what makes them what they are. I am not shy in admitting that I write reasonably freely, without much hesitation or editing beyond an occasional grammatical correction, and often inebriated to some degree (fun fact: not tonight). I feel, and have been told as much, that this gives a very personal touch to my work.

I imagine for those reading this who know me personally may hear my own voice when reading my words because of this (and if you weren’t, perhaps you will now).  My concern is that perhaps it is too personal to be interpreted as favourably by someone alien to me. Perhaps it goes so far as to be offensive or irritating to others. It makes little difference to me if it does, as I quite like the idea that I have a voice that can get under the skin of some and into the hearts of others. However, understanding one’s resources proves vital in using them most effectively.

Jamie L. Cruise is a first year English and Creative and Professional Writing student

Talking About London

Talking about London
by Stephanie Marquardt

“Talk about London.” What do you mean by that?
A man with a cane, Victorian coat and hat?
Or the Houses of Parliament making decisions,
Or problems with race and class divisions?

Do you mean
Talk about the Queen?
Red telephone boxes,
The population of foxes,
A Ripper with knives,
A King with six wives,
Dr Who and Amy Pond,
Sherlock Holmes, James Bond,
The chime of Big Ben,
Number Ten,
Or summers on Richmond Green?

So when you tell me to talk about London,
Please tell me, which one do you mean?

A poem by Second Year Creative and Professional Writing student Steph, written as part of the Writing London module. Steph said, about the inspiration for the poem:

Being a Londoner, I feel the place is so multi-faceted that it cannot be defined in a short sentence: it is a combination of people, events, objects and of course, the buildings and areas of the city.

As per to the actual writing of it, I had the last 2 lines in my head for a while, to do the rest (the ‘list’ part), I tried to write down every image I have when someone says “London.”

A lot of my friends are musicians and spoken word artists, they give me a lot of inspiration about how things should sound and flow. I wanted to have a smooth, bouncy rhythm to the poem that forces the reader to speak it faster as it goes on. This city does not have a slow rhythm.

I suppose the poem’s a love letter about home, really. I’m proud to have come from here.

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

Bookshop Reading

David MIR12_Cover_01.inddSavill, First Novel MA Programme Director, will be reading from the first chapter of his new novel at Brick Lane Bookshop this Wednesday. The rea41sXPZgjTHLding is in support of part of MIR12, an anthology of writing from Birkbeck Creative Writing graduates. It’s a great collection, and some of the other writers reading on Wednesday are fantastic. Come along, listen to the competition, and have a drink if you feel like a night in the far east.