Every Day I Lie a Little

Experiments, Bus Stations, Collaborations

February 23rd, 2015

old style logo-Slide1So, tonight is the last Curious Tales gig of the season. If you’re willing to forgo seeing the Broadchurch finale as it airs, you could come to Verbose in Fallowfield, hosted by Sarah-Clare Conlon of Les Malheureux fame (more about them here) and listen to myself, Emma-Jane Unsworth and Richard Hirst read.

We have a handful of copies of our latest anthology left – Poor Souls’ Light – which we’re hoping to get rid of on the night. Emma will  be revisiting her amazing story about jealousy and possession from our first volume, The Longest Night, and – most excitingly of all – Richard Hirst will be reading from Bus Station: Unbound, which is our latest collaborative, interactive, experimental project.

It’s been such an amazing experience setting up, working with and helping to shape this writing, art and publishing collective. Curious Tales has been a labour of love, an experiment and an opportunity to work closely with some amazing writers, a fantastic artist, some creative and ambitious venue hosts and partners, and meet readers in a way that we never have before.

I’ve been visiting universities this year, talking about what Curious Tales is and how we work together. I talk about what’s important to us – autonomy, collaboration, trust, risk, experiment, independence and playfulness. I talk about how the idea of exchange and conversation shapes everything we do – our books are in dialogue with writers with we admire, with artwork, with strange and controversial buildings, with each other and with our readers.

We’re all interested in blurring and exploring the historical boundaries between the types of creative work involved in the ‘literature’ industry. Who says writers can’t be publishers? Who says readers can’t have a stake in the writing and help to shape the work? What happens if we get readers and writers together in different ways? We like making problems for ourselves too. How can we create a beautifully illustrated and designed anthology that’s affordable enough for us to produce and our readers to purchase? How can we balance immersion and interactivity in an branching narrative when the two seem to contradict each other? How can we develop projects that aren’t immediately lucrative while covering our costs and our time?

Tonight (probably while you’re reading this, if I can get the scheduling right) we’ll be launching Bus Station: Unbound. An interactive novel in the shape of a bus station, a love letter to a modernist ‘monstrosity’, an experiment in genre (part horror, part love story, part coming-of age, part fable, part something entirely itself) and a spontaneous collaboration between myself and long-time friend and co-writer, Richard Hirst. I’ll write about what it feels like to co-write a novel sometime soon, I think.

This book took us a year to write, and a good few months working to find a way to publish it. We first thought we’d compile it into a Kindle book and sell it via Amazon. Jon from Inkle – which is the studio that’s been supporting us and helping us design the book has been  assisting us every step of the way. In the end though, we decided Kindle publishing wasn’t quite right for us. The book was too big, too complicated, too branching and involved too much random text to shrink down into the kind of file Amazon needed from us. It would have to become much simpler, much less ambitious, much less like a maze of a building to get lost in.

Selling via Amazon itself also felt increasingly problematic and out of step with what we do at Curious Tales more generally. Our anthologies don’t have ISBN numbers. We hand sell them at performance events, and post them out to readers all over the world, licking each and every envelope ourselves. We cart the books about in a battered old suitcase. We love how close to our readers we are. How handmade it all feels. We wondered  – could we keep some of that ‘feel’ in the way we distributed our first e-book only project?

We thought we could. If we were brave enough. So we decided to do something a little different. If you’d like to read / play / explore / experiment with a novel set inside Preston bus station, a fantasy, a fiction and a nightmare – then you can. In your browser, via the link here.

This strange book lets you make choices, lets you navigate a real and imagined space, and lets you control what kind of novel you want it to be. The book also lets you decide how much it is worth. You can read, as many times as you like, and donate, via a Paypal button.

We know when artists and musicians and writers make their work available on this kind of model, it is usually financial suicide. But Curious Tales is a place for risk, for experiment, and for, in all kinds of ways, meeting our readers in fresh and unmediated ways. Enjoy. Thanks for being interested in what we do. Send us some cash if you have it – we put it all towards our costs and future projects and everything is spilt between the entire collective.

P.S The next Curious Tales project is called The Barrow Rapture. If you’d like to be put on a mailing list to hear more about it, click here and scroll down a bit. Our newsletters are infrequent and we never ever send spam.

Curious Tales in 2014 and Beyond

December 29th, 2014

old style logo-Slide1I know August, for most of you, is a time of sand-castles and ice creams. Maybe even a bit of sunbathing. Not so for me and the rest of the Curious Tales team. We spent all of August (and quite a lot of June and July, to be truthful…) writing ghost stories, reading everything by Robert Aickman we could get our hands on, booking another tour and announcing the next Curious Tales anthology – Poor Souls’ Light.

At Curious Tales (here’s the core team and a few people who’ve been kind enough to work with us) we work together as a team on every single aspect of writing, editing, designing and distributing the book. We’re calling ourselves a ‘collective’ to emphasise that we lead and develop all our own projects and the collaborative, creative elements – not only of the writing, but of the way we market, promote and perform are work have been decided on by us, together. I’m really proud of us – last year, with our first volume, we navigated a very steep learning curve, wrote some amazing stories together, and remained mates during what was, at some points, an incredibly stressful and demanding process (thirteen reading and performance events in three weeks, anyone?) We put our own money into The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales – and the massive response from readers last year  not only meant we weren’t left out of pocket (hooray!) but were able to fund this year’s anthology. So thanks, guys.

Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales featured two wonderful guest contributors – M John Harrison and Johnny Mains (who were paid a fair fee for their work) and the beautifully eerie art work and cover design you’ve come to expect from our resident artistic collaborator, Beth Ward. Now, at the end of December, we can look at our spreadsheet and confidently say the experiment was again, a success – we sold enough of the books to break even within ten days, there aren’t that many left now, and almost all of the events were sell-out or near-sell out performances. Our highlights were probably performing in the round in the Harris Museum, in the beautiful gothic atrium of Birmingham Art School, or in a promenade performance where we were hosted by the wonderful Litfest and Lancaster Castle. Creepy!

You’d think this would be enough. But we are gluttons for punishment. Gluttons! Curious Tales will also be releasing two other projects this winter. The Barrow Rapture is a web-only project funded by Lancaster University. I’m co-writing it with Brian Baker and Tom Fletcher, Beth is collaborating with us on art and design, and 3ManFactory of Preston (who designed my wonderful website and keep it maintained) are working with us to create something we’re calling ‘an exploded graphic novel.’

Finally – and for me, one of the most exciting and demanding projects I’ve worked on for a while – Bus Station: Unbound, a novel-length interactive fiction I have co-written and built with Richard Hirst. If you like concrete, brutalist buildings, creepy un-rooms where no rooms should be, choose-your-own adventure style functionality, a snow-storm that just won’t give up, and ruminations on boredom, ambition, family, sacrifice and selling out, you will love Bus Station. If it all goes according to plan (and it looks like it is going to!) it will be available as a digital only e-book from the end of this month.

The coverage we’ve been getting is amazing. We know that what we do is fairly unique – the collaborative, collective aspect, the close working with an artist who helps to shape and edit the stories. The winter performance tour. The fact that yes – we’re mainstream writers who make a living from Waterstones and Amazon and the Big Six publishers but we choose to go it alone for this project anyway. The fact that the anthology will never make us rich, never be an e-book, and never be reprinted. They are all odd, unique things that have snagged the attention of many of the critics and journalists and bloggers that have written about us. It’s gratifying and heartwarming and lovely and all kinds of other things to realise what was just another crazy idea in the heads of me and my friend Richard Hirst a couple of years ago, has turned into something that’s making a splash in the national press. Here’s a write-up we got in The Telegraph last week:

There are no duds in this steely little collection, which – independently written, illustrated, printed and marketed – is also blazing its own brave path through the weird landscape of contemporary publishing.

And what next? A month off to enjoy my christmas chocolate, meet my new students, finish some edits on my (other) novel and work on a story that has been bugging me for about fifteen months (no joke). Then, between promoting Bus Station: Unbound and digging up my next novel, the Curious Tales team will start to dream and wonder about what next year’s anthology might look like… like I say, Christmas comes very early to Preston.

Writing and Landscape at MMU Crewe

April 11th, 2014

jenn and elenor creweI had the opportunity last week to visit MMU Crewe (I will never drive there again – it took me nearly three hours to get there in the morning – it’s the train all the way for me from now on) to enjoy David Cooper’s Teaching Landscape Writing study day.

I am sometimes (often) a little suspicious of these academic get togethers. They aren’t always immediately useful for a creative writer and as a practitioner rather than a theorist it is hard not to feel like a patient who is awake in the operating theatre overhearing conversations that are really none of their business. That’s a metaphor for this experience I use often – (and unapologetically, seeing as it actually happened to me once) even though I am curious about just about everything. I suppose it is hard to know how to make use of these kinds of learnings – though the day at Crewe was definitely  designed with a not-quite-house-trained creative writer with a short attention span and the research skills of a magpie in mind.

Highlights of the day involved a wonderfully practical, thoughtful and free-range writing workshop by the accomplished poet Eleanor Rees (here’s a picture of me and Eleanor talking about why rocks brought into a ‘nature’ space aren’t litter, but pop bottles left there by teenagers are – or something like that…) which involved wandering around the edgelands of Crewe business park and writing poems about what the place said to us. I might have broken the rules a little bit, in that I sat down on a bench next to a man eating his packed lunch and reading his kindle and wrote quite a lot about him. Sorry, lunch-hour-man. It was the way you folded your sandwich wrapper so carefully and tucked it back inside your rucksack that made me curious. Were you saving it for something else? Are you a scrap-booker?

There were presentations on the new Landscape writing module at MMU run by David which was open to students from both English and Outdoor Studies courses alongside reflective responses from students who have taken the course – which struck me as an entirely brave and humble and useful way of going about things. A wonderful poetry reading from Eleanor. A presentation from Anthea Cooper about her work providing outdoors education for children and young people – providing outdoor spaces to allow children to be curious, wild, collaborative and reflective; putting legs and arms on the kind of intellectual curiosity (I hope) their indoor education was encouraging in them.  And finally Gary Priestnall from Nottingham spoke about his work with geography students working on digital mapping projects, adding a digital layer to landscape or a layer of landscape to text and gave me a shed load of ideas about taming, walking, moving, reading and what all of these things might and might not have in common. Embodiment, perhaps. Ace, as the cool kids do not say anymore.

My head was whirling – I’m writing a novel (is it a novel? it isn’t looking much like one at the moment) sort of about medicine, and faith healing, and dying bodies, and the changing sands on Morecambe bay, and the decline of the cockling industry, and bespoke suit making, arboriculture, nursing and butchery. There’s walking in it, and pausing on route, and lots of fantasies about travel the body isn’t able to perform. I’m also collaborating with a web designer, two writers and an artist on a new, experimental project that hopes to create a digital literary landscape and use it to help the reader tell a story / play a game (more about this later) and up until the drive home from Crewe hadn’t really figured out what all these things might have in common.

I came home and wrote down some words. Wildness. Taming. Children. Reading. Exploring. Journeying. Reclaiming. Medicating. Bridging. Exchanging. Dissolving.  Lots of doing words, as my primary school teacher used to say. After I’d done all that the way into the next (and last, I hope) draft of the current novel in progress seemed to appear a little more clearly. Love it when a plan comes together.

Jerwood / Arvon Mentoring Scheme

April 9th, 2014

Here’s something special – the opportunity to work closely with three fabulously talented new writers over the course of a year, kicked off with a glorious week at the newly refurbished Hurst. We wrote, played, talked a bit about Games Workshop and childbirth, cooked (not me, but I did eat) admired the scenery, listened to readings, laughed, wrote some more and stayed up far too late and put the world to rights.

mentees and mentors

I spent the week with the wonderful poet Clare Pollard (I first saw her read about 15 years ago – what a small world it is for a Boltonian poet and a Prestonian novelist) and amazingly talented and generous dramatist David Eldridge and their poetry and drama mentees.

The Hurst was beautiful – certainly the fanciest Arvon house I’ve ever been in. The workshop table – handmade from local wood – has to be seen to be believed. I slept in John Osbourne’s study, tried to write at his desk, and read The Entertainer in his front room. There’s nothing like a week in a country house to get to know a set of writers well. I always come away from Arvons feeling like I’ve made a new set of friends.

Here’s a picture of us all on the front steps of The Hurst practicing our miserable writer faces. The Jerwood / Arvon mentoring scheme runs annually and is open to anyone who has taken an Arvon course in the previous year. To find out more click here.


BBC Radio 4: Five Thousand Lads a Year

January 4th, 2014

bbc-radio-4It’s been a short-storyish sort of winter, really. What with Katy, My Sister and Dark Jack both coming out in the last couple of months. I’ve been beavering away on a new novel too. But more about that later. Probably a lot later.

My latest short story is about a writer in residence in a prison. It’s called Five Thousand Lads a Year and it will be broadcast on Radio 4 on January 10th at 3.45pm and on Iplayer shortly afterwards.

The story is part of the Friday Firsts series, in which ‘acclaimed novelists’ who are new to radio are commissioned to write short pieces for broadcast. Mine is read by Paul Hilton and I can’t wait to hear it.  Oh, and Happy New Year! :)

The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales

December 1st, 2013

coverIf I’ve already got in your face about this on Facebook, sorry. I’m just very excited.

Today is the official publication day for The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales which is a writing/art/lo-fi DIY publishing collaboration I’ve been working on since August with my friends Richard Hirst, Emma Jane Unsworth, Alison Moore, Tom Fletcher and Beth Ward.

Richard and I have been friends for donkeys years and have always shared a love of ghost stories, the gothic and horror genres. He introduced me to The Wicker Man and The Evil Dead. We’ve been busily reading M.R James and Robert Aickman since we were teenagers. We’re also the world’s two biggest fans of Christmas. Ever.

Why not, we thought, one sunny day in August, write a set of Christmas ghost stories, collaborate with a wonderful artist to have the beautifully illustrated then publish the book ourselves in a limited edition print run and sell it at a series of reading and performance events over December and January in the North West?  Why not indeed. We could see no reason not to, so we did.

We were even lucky enough to get one of our heroes – Stephen Volk - to write a wonderful introduction for us. Our first experience of Stephen’s work was watching Ghostwatch in 1992 – when most of us were ten or eleven years old and should have been in bed. Pipes! Stephen’s most recent work is the haunting novella Whitstable – a rare piece of work that manages to be utterly mesmerising, moving, and creepy as hell, too.

My story is called Dark Jack. It’s set in the Winter of 1963 – a particularly grim one – in ‘the dead time between Christmas and New Year’. It tells the story of Catherine, who was a volunteer listener for a night-line service. Until she stopped. But the phone kept on ringing. (Creepy!)

We’ve had some lovely pieces of publicity already – getting to go on the radio, do interviews with all kinds of people, and even this special write-up from our friends at Creative Tourist, who say: ‘It’s the gothic, that sense of menace darkly blooming in the long hours of a winter’s night, which really makes this anthology worth tracking down.’

The official website for the project is here – you can buy the book, read short extracts from the stories, book tickets for our reading events and admire samples of the artwork. The print-run is very limited edition and we’re currently sending out pre-orders, so if you want a copy, my advice to you is to bag one now. For the sake of your eternal soul, etc.

And Merry Christmas!

Short Fiction 7 2013

November 27th, 2013

SF72-213x300Just a tiny note to say I have a new story published this month in Short Fiction 7. It is called Katy, My Sister and is a kind of companion piece to Every Member A Missionary, which I published in MIR9 last year. The story appears with others from Michelle Greene, Lee Upton and Richard House and has been beautifully illustrated by Sam Rowe (click to see the picture). If you’d like to buy a copy of the journal, or submit to it yourself, click here.

Here’s the opening, to whet your appetite / let you know what you’re getting yourself in for:

“We didn’t have much stuff when we moved into the new place. Not carpets or a dining table, or even curtains or beds at first. My dad must have thought if we weren’t allowed our things we’d come back. But we didn’t, and when the council gave us our new house the members in the Ward gathered round and donated things to us and because we didn’t have a car any more, they made a rota for who would give us lifts to church and to the supermarket too.

‘If there’s one thing we know how to do, its service,’ Mum said, as we accepted the boxes of other people’s chipped dishes and dented baking pans. We were all called to serve, each according to his talents. Mum had given so much to the Ward that there was no shame at all in accepting help this time. This is how we met Brother Johnson, who’d only recently moved into the area himself. After a couple of weeks of doing his share on the service rota, he took Mum to one side and told her he’d had a personal revelation about marrying her. He still had a wife, Mum explained, but she was very ill and going to die soon so would we like to meet her, and the boy and girl who would be our new brother and sister? Me and Anthony said yes, and we were invited round to theirs for tea.”


Forthcoming events

July 12th, 2013

fest 6I’ve been quiet recently. Mainly typing. But here are some places where I will be out and about over the next couple of months. Come and say hello if you’re there.

18th July – 7.30pm Hebden Bridge Library for a reading, talk and Q and A with Russ Litten. We’ll be reading from our new novels, The Friday Gospels (me) and Swear Down (him) and talking a little bit about creative community and the long lonely slog of the first draft. Tickets must be booked in advance. More details here.

20th July – 7pm at Ebb and Flo bookshop, Chorley. The official paperback launch of The Friday Gospels with Carys Bray, author of the Scott Prize winning Sweet Home. Book a ticket in advance (redeemable against the cost of any book) and get more details here.

9th August – 7pm Crewe Central library – a reading, talk and Q and A about the writing process and research behind The Friday Gospels. This is a ticketed event – more details of how to book here.

11th August – 3.30pm at the Edinburgh Book Festival with Peggy Riley. More details here. (SOLD OUT)

23-25th AugustThe Greenbelt Festival (times and days t.b.c)

26th – 31st AugustStarting to Write’ at Arvon – Totleigh Barton with Daljit Nagra

14th September – 2pm – Bury Library for the regular Literary Salon

15th SeptemberFestival Number 6 at Portmerion


On Elizabeth Smart and Chewing Gum

May 12th, 2013

The Friday Gospels has been out nearly six months now (phew!) and I’ve done a ton of events and had a ton and a half of emails about it. Generally people have been very kind, and more than a few have been curious about the ‘fairy cake’ scene in the first chapter – the story Jeannie tells about her early morning seminary class. (Much of the rest of this post won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the book. Sorry – sucks to be you.)

First, no, I did not make this up (though Jeannie would possibly have been more likely to have this lesson in a women’s only sunday school class or sunday night fireside than a semminary class). This and many other ‘object lessons’ concerning women’s sexual purity were very common in the LDS church for a while, thankfully less so these days – although when I was researching The Friday Gospels I found a sixteen year old who’d been treated to the fairy cake lesson in 2010, so the lessons, and certainly the attitudes behind them, are not dying out altogether.

Not all of the emails I’ve had about the book have been terribly friendly. I’ve been considering quoting some of the high-lights from them here, but decided against it. You’re allowed not to like a book, of course. Even though I personally find the idea a little mad, you’re also allowed to be greatly offended by a novel that you haven’t read. Cool by me. It is kind of gratifying that the mere existence of a book can send people into a tizz and reminds me of why I do what I do. But, in reluctant response to some of those emails: yes, the scene is sort of funny. Yes, it does foreground the lesson itself and the attitudes that lead to it as a bit ridiculous. Experiencing this kind of thing on the receiving end has tuned my sense of humour a little differently to yours, perhaps. It’s a shitty thing to sit in room and be told that reptentance can’t restore sexual purity, and sexual purity is the most significant thing a woman can offer to a man. Shittier still to be so young that you believe it. It’s an act of defiance to find the humour in that situation, and I plan to keep on doing it.

I think I would have let all this pass me by completely (I joyfully retain the Mormon characteristic of being able to tune-out anything I don’t quite like the sound of) if Elizabeth Smart hadn’t returned to the news recently. She’s a US LDS woman who, when she was a young teenager, was kidnapped from her home in Utah and held captive by a FLDS man who considered her to be his plural wife. Recently, she’s spoken out about sexual assault and how the way she’d been taught about sexual purity affected her after she’d been raped. Here’s a quote from an article about her in The Guardian.

“I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, she said, ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who’s going to want you after that?”

Indeed. Joanna Brooks, a Feminist Mormon writer and thinker on LDS culture and doctrine wrote, I think, a very good piece on Smart’s comments. She rightly says that while most LDS women would recognise the chewing-gum-lesson as one of a host of ‘object lessons’ involving flowers, fruit, cakes, bananas (!), that you wouldn’t find any of these lessons in the official manuals of the church’s various youth education programmes. She identifies this as a kind of persistent folk doctrine, similar to the racism within the church that persists after the 1978 lifting of the ban on full membership for black members. Read the full article here, at Religion Dispatches.

While on the whole I agree with Brooks’ comments, and generally follow what she writes because I consider her to be something that’s rare in LDS land – a faithful, dissenting voice of objective sanity – she doesn’t mention that this year, in the LDS general conference, Elaine Dalton, the woman who is in charge of all the young women’s programmes (that is the overall direction of social activities, religious education and pastoral-style care) around the entire world chose, again, to speak about ‘virtue’. She’s not an extreme kook, or a fringe member of the church. This is a woman endorsed by the highest authorities and in a very rare position of female influence and leadership.

‘Virtue’ – which she glosses as ‘strength’ but consistently uses interchangeably with ‘purity’ and ‘cleanliness’ – is a bit of a pet topic of hers, actually. You can look at her talk A Return to Virtue here. Or one she gave a little later, Guardians of Virtue. To hear her speak to the young women in her care (including women in countries where rape is commonplace – and only three months after the gang-rape and murder of a student on a bus in Dehli) you’d be forgiven for thinking that the most important thing on her mind, the single message she wanted to impart wasn’t about education, or confidence, or self esteem – values that would empower women to make informed choices in many different areas of their lives. No, it’s about sexual purity. In her latest talk (and her last – she’s no longer fulfilling the leadership role with young women that she was), she quoted a scripture from the Book of Mormon that refers to a brutal mass rape enacted as a weapon of war in order to illustrate her point about the importance of sexual purity. You can read it here. Nice.

I don’t usually use my blog or any other forum I have to speak about these kind of things. I decided that if someone wanted to find out about the finer nuances of a minority religion they wouldn’t turn to a novelist to do it, and that was as it should be. But I changed my mind today and the reason why is because I do think these attitudes are slowly, slowly dying out – in part because in recent years women have been able to speak to each other and compare experiences via web forums, blogs and similar – outside the chaperoning influence of the church – and these conversations have assisted in this change. (For example, many faithful Mormon women were offended by Dalton’s latest talk, blogged about it and opened these attitudes up to a process of reflection and, yes, criticism, that is something new in LDS land. And something good.)

By way of contributing to this conversation – here’s Mormon Iconoclast’s take on it, and from the almost-always excellent Feminst Mormon Housewives, a blog in response to Elizabeth Smart’s remarks and another one on Dalton’s talk. Some of these writers accept the premise underlying these talks and lessons – that purity can be measured by how sexually active a woman is, and in what kind of relationships this sexual activity takes place – but examine the varying harmful ways this doctrine is taught. Maybe one day the converstion will move on and sexual education for young people will focus on helping them to make strong, informed choices, understand what consent is and what the shades of coercion might look like, have the information they need to avoid infection, disease and pregnancy, have the information they need to make it a pleasurable experience for all, and to know, for sure, that no measure of value attached to their personhood has anything to do with sexual choices they have made or acts of violence someone else commits against them. Hey, everyone’s allowed a pipe-dream!

Links and stuff

February 4th, 2013

VelmaBusy busy busy! A wonderful launch party at Blackwell’s Manchester, with lots of friendly faces – despite the snow! If you were there, even in spirit, thank you.

Just a couple of small things…

A Q and A at the Indie and an interview about TFG with Rachel Connor (author of Sisterwives) at her blog, Literary Sisters. Another interview with Alex O’Toole over at the Lancashire Writing Hub. One more interview at For Books’ Sake  and a couple more reviews AND to put the icing on the cake (boom!) TFG was named as ‘the book of the week’ at The Week magazine.


*I do actually say crikey! in real life. Also, wowzers! I am considering adding jeepers! to my vocabulary. What can I say? I like to be surprised.