Every Day I Lie a Little

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.”