Monday, 25 August 2014

RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2014

Writing news is trickling in at a slower pace these days as I'm sending out fewer stories and trying to concentrate on my next novel.

But one competition I did enter was the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2014 and I was delighted to hear that my story, The Bugaboo, was on the longlist.

I was longlisted in 2013 too and wrote this piece for writing.ie at the time. Unfortunately I won't be able to make it to Dublin this year but I'm sure the attendees will enjoy the day in Pearse Street Library as much as I did last year.

Monday, 7 July 2014

An Earthless Melting Pot

What a beautiful cover! Delighted to be part of this:


Another volume of prize-winning short stories from the Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013 is released ...
 
Judged by David Haviland (fiction agent for the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency), Polly Courtney (author of Feral Youth) and Susan Jane Gilman (author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street), this second collection displays the talents of another up-and-coming group of new writers. 
 
A heady mixture of stories, from romance to spine-chilling tension and from the virtual world to the extreme worlds of the self-deluded, these stories will take you to places you’ve never been before. 
 
Longer stories are mixed with pieces of flash fiction. How long is a story? As long as it takes to tell it. This second volume of competition-winning stories proves the maxim once again. 
 
Stories and contributors include:
Advertisement by James Collett
Guests by Alison Wassell
A Lonesome Snow Leopard by David McGrath
The Clock by James Harding
Apprentice Pillar by Ralph Jackman
Recycled by Marie Gethins
Drop-Dead Gorgeous by Helen Laycock
The Road to Repair by Gail Jack
Street Kids Don't Have Birthdays by Gill Sainsbury
Sackcloth and Ashes by Justin N Davies
Beneath the Arches by Lindsay Bamfield
Biological by KM Elkes
Is There Anything You’d Like to Say to the Person Who Donated this Food Parcel? by James Collett
The Baron’s Elixir by Mahsuda Snaith
Let Me Pay by Bren Gosling
Symbiosis by Mark Wilkinson
99 Red Balloons by Barbara Leahy
Cockles by A.M. Hall
Mustard Heart by L.A. Craig
Tell Me a Secret by Alison Wassell
Your Account is in Arrears
Take Action Now by Justin N Davies
A Pointed Question by Brindley Hallam Dennis
Trumpet Dreams by Hilary McGrath
Little Legs by Julia Anderson.
 
Paperbacks are available from Amazon. Ebooks are available from Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and other retailers.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Short Story: What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon


The Spring 2014 edition of Ploughshares Literary Magazine contains this gem: A story about Rusty Bickers and the family that takes him in as a foster child. Joseph is the narrator and is eight years old. Rusty is fourteen. We know little of what happened to Rusty before he arrived into Joseph’s home except a few hushed conversations between Joseph’s parents, where we hear that ‘unspeakable things… happened to Rusty in his family home,' and Joseph’s mother's comment, ‘How long does it take to get over something like that?’

Rusty does talk to Joseph about his past at one stage:


‘Do you know what would happen if a kid like you got sent to a foster home?’


‘No.’ And Joseph breathed as Rusty’s eyes held him, without blinking.


‘They do really nasty things to the little kids. And if you try to scream, they put your own dirty underwear in your mouth, to gag you.’



Although Rusty's past was disturbing, we follow his summer in Joseph's home with a little optimism. We are lulled into the meandering narrative, peppered with humour, especially when Joseph’s father dances with his prosthetic arm.


‘After he got drunk, Joseph’s father would go around touching the ladies on the back of the neck with his hook, surprising them, making them scream. Sometimes he would take off his arm and dance with it.'


But this humour is followed by raw understated emotion:


'Sometimes he would cry about Billy Merritt.’


The story contains some great descriptive passages.

‘Rusty…watching Joseph’s family as they ate their breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like someone who had been marched a long way to a place where they were going to shoot him.’

The story gets progressively more disturbing as the summer passes and we sense that Rusty is a deeply troubled teenager.


‘You could kill the little kids first, while they were sleeping. It wouldn’t hurt them, you know. It wouldn’t mattter. And then, with the gunshots, your mom and dad would come running in, and you could shoot them when they came through the door…’


An excellent and enjoyable story.

Dan Chaon is the author of the short-story collection Stay Awake, the novel Await Your Reply and other works of fiction. He lives in Cleveland.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Authors in France: Amanda Hodgkinson

 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson


In the small village of Labatut Rivière in the lovely south west of France a group of readers and writers welcomed Amanda Hodgkinson, author, to talk about her first novel: 22 Britannia Road.
 
In preparation, I did some strenuous research on my sunlounger...
 
 
Here's the blurb:
It is 1946 and Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship that will take them from Poland to England. Silvana has not seen her husband Janusz in six years, but, they are assured, he has made a home for them in Ipswich.

However, after living wild in the forests for years, carrying a terrible secret, all Silvana knows is that she and Aurek are survivors. Everything else is lost. While Janusz, a Polish soldier who has crisscrossed Europe during the war, hopes his family will help him put his own dark past behind him.

But the war and the years apart will always haunt each of them, unless together they confront what they were compelled to do to survive. 

 
Amanda read an extract from the points of view of the three main characters and I enjoyed (as she suggested everybody does) being read to in the glorious sunshine with a glass of rosé and only next door’s cockerel to punctuate the silences.
 
Then Amanda spoke about her motivation for writing the book - her attempt to capture something of  the relationships between families who were separated during the war and, although reunited, are never the same.
 
The discussion then moved on to her journey to publication: One query letter (I said 'one' there in case you missed that), several bids which led to an auction, and the novel went straight onto the New York Times bestseller list. A dream for many, but good to hear it can, and does, happen.
 
Amanda's second novel Spilt Milk was released earlier this year and has been very well received:
'Hogkinson's second novel is simply but elegantly written, its subtle charms emerging as her gentle, bittersweet story shows history repeating itself over the generations' Sunday Times

 
 
 
 
She also spoke about the Grand Central, an anthology to be released in July which sounds very intriguing:
Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set on the same day, just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal...

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Thanks to Jane who hosted the lunch in her beautiful garden. I returned home with garden envy and road-to-publication envy. But it was an enjoyable day and great to meet so many book lovers.
 
 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Creative Writing: Robert Olen Butler

Creative Writing: A Spectator Sport


I came across this video by Robert Olen Butler on youtube, published in Oct 2012, the first in a series. He is attempting to capture his creative process for an audience and it's fascinating viewing. He uses an old postcard as a prompt and we watch and listen as he tries to articulate the reasons for the choices he makes without becoming too analytical which would impede on the dreamlike state he needs to preserve. I found it interesting that he collects old postcards for the messages written on them, and how he tries to imagine the person who wrote that card.

I noted that he uses a dictionary which references the date the word came into use. When he checked the word 'shimmied' in relation to a horse, he found that it was first included in the dictionary in 1919, but, as he was writing a story set in 1913, he couldn't use that word.

I recommend watching these if you have quite a bit of spare time, but beware there are no action scenes (unless you count when he reaches for the dictionary), just a writer sitting and tapping the keyboard, then the backspace key, then stretching and re-reading what he's written.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Short stories: ‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

'The China Factory’ by Mary Costello


This collection of short stories, published by The Stinging Fly, really drew me in. The first story, The China Factory, and the last, The Sewing Room, are beautiful pieces. But there is plenty to recommend in between: The Patio Man, And who will pay Charon, and Little Disturbances being worthy of mention.

The China Factory features Gus, the main character's co-worker, who gives her a lift to work every day. He’s a quiet hero and she betrays him, but he understands that she’s young and desperate to fit in with the other women, even if she has nothing in common with them. 

'She was the kind of girl who wore flesh-coloured tights and pencil skirts but never jeans, and would grow into the kind of woman I never wanted to be.'


The Sewing Room is an elegant story, which fits perfectly with the main character’s comportment. It recounts the build-up to a schoolteacher's retirement party. While she accepts everyone's best wishes she is also considering her past mistakes. A slow-moving and evocative story.

I like that the first story is about a young girl starting in her first job and the last story is a woman retiring after many years of service.

In many of these stories there is a note of loneliness, especially within married couples: A husband reminiscing on an affair he had with a girl when he was school inspector; a wife, bored in her relationship, having an online affair; a husband waiting for the results of medical tests, unable to express his feelings. Quite a sad reflection on married life.

Although the characters are normal, almost banal, there is disease, rape, death lurking in the background. 

This collection is a treasure trove to be dipped into and savoured. Mary Costello has a light touch and an uncomplicated, understated way of telling a story.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Creative Process Blog Tour

The Creative Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Paula McGrath for nominating me to answer some questions on the creative process.


What am I working on?

Well-travelled - A short story collection: From the backpacker to the business traveller, from the child of diplomat parents to the retired couple touring in their campervan, I’ve been chipping away at about fifteen stories for the past six months and they’re currently reposing in a virtual drawer.
Rhubarb leaves left on the compost heap for a while
begin to reveal their true colours

New novel: I’ve been plotting and planning and trying to gather inchoate notions of characters and settings for my nameless new novel. This is the creative stage of the writing process that I love. So these mornings I jump out of bed (something I’m not too well-known for) to get back to it. I hope to write the first draft (and give it a working title) over the summer.

source: awesomeparents.com
I’m also working on all the little things writers have to do that take insane amounts of time - submitting my completed novel, Lost in Lourdes, to agents and editors, researching writing competitions and literary magazines, devouring all the information I can about the craft and business of writing (and not getting too distracted on Twitter.)

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
 
I haven’t really figured out my genre. I guess every author’s voice is different though, and I have been told in my writers’ group that a certain turn of phrase is ‘typically Hilary’, so although I can’t define my voice I know others can hear it.

Why do I write what I do?

Although novels were my first love, I started writing short stories and flash fiction as a way of gaining some real critique on my writing. I soon came to love reading and writing short fiction.
I feel I have the freedom as an emerging writer to choose whatever form or style or subject-matter I want. I mostly write for myself, usually to just try to make sense of the world.

The books I’ve read and loved recently include Gone Girl, Apple Tree Yard, Transatlantic, The Luminaries, The Goldfinch and Frog Music. It’s difficult to say what these books have in common (apart from the fact that they’ve all been nominated for literary prizes) but I would like to write like that.
 
How does my writing process work?
 
Here’s a picture of my attempt to follow the subplots in my new novel. I began with normal-sized cards but I was adding too much detail, so I had to cut the cards to small pieces. I still managed to cram each with barely decipherable scrawl.

Losing the Plot

My writing process really consists of sitting down every day and trying to progress on one project or another depending on real and self-imposed deadlines. If my concentration is waning, I push myself to complete the task quickly (because a first draft is easier to revise than a blank sheet of paper) and then punish myself with forty lashes or some housework. 

Who I nominate next...

I’d like to ask the same questions of KM Elkes @mysmalltales and Geoff Holder @geoffholder58 (update: here it is) and look forward to reading how they work.