News and views
Communications Intern Jo Thompson on her time spent with Writers' Centre Norwich
UEA MA student Jo Thompson has just completed a three month internship within the Communications team at Writers' Centre Norwich. Here, she reflects on what she has learnt from the experience.
We are extremely grateful to Jo for all her hard work, especially with the City of Literature programme at Norfolk & Norwich Festival, and wish her the best of luck with her internship at Blake Friedmann!
I arrived at the Writers’ Centre in late-April to work one day a week with the Communications Team. I knew Norfolk & Norwich Festival
was coming up and had already bought a few tickets. What I wanted, really, to find out, was what kind of work went into actually marketing a festival that goes on for two weeks, features dozens and dozens of performers, writers and artists, and sells thousands of tickets. It was a hectic process, but for me the best possible opportunity – I got to see WCN at its most lively, busy and creative.
Throughout the year, there’s a whiteboard in the office of Dragon Hall, where WCN makes its home. In the run-up to the festival, it’s updated regularly with ticket sales. The numbers creep up steadily, turning green as events fill up. As you can imagine, the whiteboard receives due scrutiny – we need to know what’s already sold out, what’s clearly not been discovered by its audience yet, and what these sales are like compared to the equivalent numbers this time last year. For a rookie in the Comms world, it was exciting to see the practical reactions, and the discussions around how best to market different types of event.
Three months on, I still find it oddly amazing when marketing works exactly as intended. You promo the historical fiction event to audiences that might enjoy historical fiction, and, almost like magic, the numbers on the whiteboard start going green.
Part of the fun of Communications – and it’s all been really, genuinely good fun – is being involved in almost every project. You need to be tuned into everything that’s going on to proofread all the newsletter and website copy, and since more or less everything is for the public, you need to make sure it’s getting out clearly to the public. It’s definitely not all Twitter, which is a bit of a preconception I’ll guiltily confess to having at the beginning! Day to day, on top of managing social media, there are flyers and leaflets being designed, newsletters and emails drafted and sent out, feedback surveys analysed, and content constantly being formulated and adapted for the website.
I was a big fan of WCN and its events before my internship, but I think if there’s one thing I really underestimated, it’s the ambition and breadth of work. A lot of what people recognise WCN for is their local presence – things I worked on for instance with the Young Norfolk Poetry Competition
, reaching out to local schools and creative writing clubs. But there’s a surprising amount being done further afield too. Last month when WCN was advertising two Norwich-based summer residencies for writers from Japan,
a lot of my research and outreach was based around influential Japanese literary associations. At the moment we’re offering eight mentorships in literary translation
, all in different languages. That’s an even more diverse mailing list.
WCN is a dynamic place – there’s been no slowing down post-NNF. Dark plottings are taking place over Noirwich
, the September crime writing festival, and the refurbishments to transform Dragon Hall into the National Centre for Writing will be underway in a few short months. I’m phenomenally grateful to the lively, interesting staff at WCN for letting me spy on their work and lend my inexperience. The internship promises to give an insight into how an arts organisation works, and for me it’s definitely delivered – looking (hopefully!) towards a career in the arts, I feel more informed, confident and, probably most importantly, more genuinely enthused.
An introduction from our second Japanese writer in residence, Motoyuki Shibata
We're very pleased to announce our second Japanese writer in residence, Motoyuki Shibata
,who will be visiting Norwich UNESCO City of Literature in August as part of a programme generously supported by the Nippon Foundation.
'I am a Japanese translator of contemporary of American fiction. Among writers I have translated are Paul Auster, Steven Millhauser, Steve Erickson, Stuart Dybek, Kelly Link, and Laird Hunt. Although I basically translate from English to Japanese, I edit an annual English-language literary journal called Monkey Business
, which aims to introduce contemporary Japanese authors to the English-speaking audience and is published in the US through a generous grant from the Nippon Foundation. I also run a Japanese-language literary journal called Monkey
, which is published three times a year in Japan, and in which I publish a lot of my own translations of stories and poems written in English.
This August I hope to get away from the infernal heat in Tokyo and work in peace on one of my projects, translating the two autobiographical books by Paul Auster—Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior (2013)—at the same time editing the next issue of Monkey. Needless to say I hope to benefit by meeting literary people in Norwich, about whom and which I have heard only good things from a number of friends.'
Concise Novel, Epic Poem: Signs Preceding the End of the World Reviewed
Readers' Circle member Roland Ayers reviews Brave New Reads pick Signs Preceding the End of the World. Read on to see what he thinks:
Unusually there is no poetry selection among this year’s Brave New Reads. Yet with prose as poetic as Yuri Herrera’s, who needs poetry? In fact, the exact choice of words were not his, translated as they were from the author’s Mexican Spanish to English – or as the novel would put it, from latin to anglo – by Lisa Dillman. The Translator’s Note at the end provides some insight into the challenges translation presents. According to Lisa Dillman the original prose is ‘often infused with understated affection and tenderness’, its style ‘elegantly spare’, the use of language 'nothing short of stunning’. It is tribute to the meticulousness of her translation that such qualities shine through into anglo.
Language itself is one of the novel’s themes. Its sassy, yet tender-hearted young female switchboard operator protagonist Makina, operates phones in native tongue, latin tongue and the ‘new tongue’ of those who have crossed to the North. She ‘knew how to keep quiet in all three too’. The word verse is frequently used as a verb meaning to exit. In the Spanish, jarchar, from the Arabic kharja, it was inspired by concluding verses of Arabic and Hebrew poems of the thirteenth century. They would tell of a transformative exit, often a lover’s goodbye, in a feminine voice. The whole novel turns out to be just such an exit for Makina when she heads to the North (the word America never used).
The novel’s nine-chaptered structure draws on the rich literary heritage of the Meshika (known to us anglos as Aztecs) who told of nine underworlds to be passed through following certain kinds of death, each underworld the losing of something, a transition to something less human, something new. Underworld in general is a theme. An ominous opening passage sees a sinkhole open, swallowing ‘all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by’. Underground trains ‘ran round the entire circulatory system but never left the belly’. Tunnels lead out onto a deserted baseball arena where anglos ‘play a game to celebrate who they are’ and a top dog latin godfather plays out his own sport.
And that haunting final chapter. But you don’t want me to tell you about the final chapter, you want to be haunted by it for yourself, along with all one-hundred-and-seven pages of this concise, yet epic tale. And if you are reading this before 10th June, you will want to attend the Meet the Author event too
. If you then visit a bar in Mexico, you’ll want to order an authentically unpasteurised and delightfully alliterative pecan pulque. Alas, not served in the Norwich branch of Marzano.
Get a taster of Signs Preceding the End of the World with the opening chapters.
Borrow Signs Preceding the End of the World from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries, or Suffolk Libraries.
Find out more about Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Find out more about Brave New Reads.
About Roland Ayers
Roland Ayers is a Writers’ Centre Norwich member who is grateful to the Brave New Reads
selection procedure for exposing him to literature, good, bad and amazing, he would not have otherwise discovered. When not reading potential Brave New Reads, he reads about neuroscience, linguistics, neurolinguistics, cognitive psychology, philosophy, running and North Korea.
Hurrah! Brave New Reads 2016 is here!
May heralds the start of summer and the beginning of the bank holiday season. But most importantly, May brings Brave New Reads
back to libraries in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
What’s Brave New Reads, I hear you cry!
As I said earlier, Brave New Reads is special because the books were chosen by readers. We call these literature lovers the Reader’s Circle
, and they hail from all walks of life and all parts of East Anglia. To choose the final six, this dedicated crew read a longlist of over 120 books and whittled down the selection again and again until we ended up with the crème de la crème of modern publications.
Without further ado, the books are:
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock‘First light was a diesel spill across the sky. The ground was gray. The hard silence of the desert sung.’
Technically brilliant and emotionally charged, this novel will transport you to America in the early days of the space race. Jim Harrison is in training to break the sound barrier, poised to become one of the very first astronauts, but his promise will be tested by a family crisis of stellar proportions. Discover a different world in this economic, elegant, and hugely powerful book.
‘An outstanding read: riveting, snappy, and very very cool.’ – Sam, Norwich Readers’ Circle
The Secret to Not Drowning by Colette Snowden‘“The secret to not drowning,” she says, “is to get out of the pool before you get too tired to keep swimming.”’
Marion can’t do anything without Him
knowing. Her only escape is her weekly swimming trip, but soon she’ll learn that taking the plunge creates far-reaching ripples. An intimate and immersive glimpse into emotional abuse, The Secret to Not Drowning
shows how the smallest of acts can be the bravest. Take a chance with this compelling and quietly wonderful novel.
‘A humorous and imaginative page turner, written with a terrifying sense of menace and discomfort.’ – Ruth, Cambridge Readers’ Circle
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume‘I was wrong to try and impose something of my humanness upon you, when being human never did me any good.’
The story of a lonely man, and his one-eyed rescue dog. One Eye and his owner are both outcasts from society, clumsily navigating the world as best they can, each completely dependent on the other. Simultaneously tender and tragic, this is a compassionate and claustrophobic tale of loneliness and friendship. Dog-lover or not, this poetically poignant novel is sure to touch your heart.
‘I found myself engrossed in this jewel of a story. Sensitive, funny and hugely affecting, Baume’s language ribbons naturally out onto the page.’ – Alvina, Ely Readers’ Circle
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson‘We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.’
This crucial and devastating non-fiction book takes us to death row, showing the heartbreaking histories of the prisoners and revealing the inherent prejudices of modern-day America. A scathing, virulent, and utterly necessary condemnation of the US justice system, this book is sure to leave you gasping, crying and raging, but also filled with gratitude and hope. Absolutely not to be missed.
‘An autobiography, a social history, a treatise on the importance of equal justice, and a gripping thriller.’ – Kathryn, Norwich Readers’ Circle
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (Translated by Lisa Dillman)‘They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.’
Makina is gutsy, determined and not frightened of anything. When her mother asks her to travel from Mexico to the US to find her brother, she sets off almost immediately, pausing only to meet the local underlords. Carrying an unknown package from a kingpin, she traverses underworlds, borders, and boundaries, crossing dreamy lands. Echoing Greek myths, this breath-taking novella will move you to other planes of existence.
‘Full of heart and guts, poetic, brief and rich – nothing short of stunning.’ – Roland, Norwich Readers’ CircleThe Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy‘He did what they told him to do. He would have done anything they told him to do. He hid inside the pronoun
An uplifting tale of interconnection, coincidence, and the strangeness of life, this striking novel explores the impact of small actions. Moving across time and space, from wartime Britain to modern-day California, The Illusion of Separateness
shows the tenderness of people, and how seemingly simple actions have great consequences. Haunting, luminous, and totally absorbing, this book will give you a fresh perspective on what it means to be human.
‘Beautifully written. A magical read, which kept me captivated until the very last page!’ – Joy, Huntingdon Readers’ Circle
Our Communications Intern Jo Thompson picks her highlights from the City of Literature programme
Simon Armitage, Irvine Welsh, Jackie Kay; our new Communications Intern Jo Thompson picks favourites from the City of Literature line-up at Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016.
Seeing Simon Armitage and Daljit Nagra billed for appearance, I booked two tickets for Fierce Light
before I’d started at WCN, or checked whether my partner had the night off. I now know this world-premier event commemorating the Battle of Somme is a part of the City of Literature Programme
. The programme is the biggest it’s ever been, and working to prepare this bumper crop of big names and exciting events has, needless to say, resulted in buying more tickets.
It’s also meant bothering my friends. Every event is likely to appeal to someone. Fans of Trainspotting
have been alerted to an evening with Irvine Wels
h in the Adnams Spiegeltent. My fellow medievalists were made aware of the discussions on Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe
, two of the first women ever published. With Ben Rawlence
talking from experience about life in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, bestselling authors like Kate Summerscale
sharing their latest novels, graphic novelists
discussing their craft, and the biggest names in poetry
performing, the festival really packs a punch. Browsing the events is a joy, and real confirmation, if any were still needed, that Norwich deserves its UNESCO City of Literature status.
remains a standout event for me. New work has been produced by the poets to think seriously about war, its immediate complexities and what it can mean to us now, 100 years on. Accompanying the poetry are short films, specially commissioned. In one of her poems for the event Jackie Kay writes ‘the past is lively, impossible to pin down’. Perhaps this is why mixing film, poetry and images in an attempt to in some way recapture World War feels so appropriate. Jackie has worked with her father, discussing his experiences of war, as well as her son, a filmmaker, to create the multi-media work that will be showcased at Fierce Light. It all promises to be something really special, and I’m glad I’ll be there for it.
I was less immediately sure what to make of The Story Machine
. It’s enigmatic, advertised as a literary event like nothing you’ve experienced before, powered by literature and oiled by theatre, and has become the feature I’m most excited about. The participants hear live stories from world-renowned writers, but not from the usual distance, sitting in rows with an author at a microphone. The Story Machine will be held at Dragon Hall, the stunning medieval home of WCN. Attendees are encouraged to wander through its rooms, garden, cellars at their leisure, making use of the street food pop-ups and specially-curated bar
, taking in short stories in unexpected, intimate, immersive, truly one-off ways.
It feels unusual to not know exactly what you’re in for with this event, the charming twists held back to genuinely surprise and enchant on the day, but the more I think about it the truer it seems to storytelling. Hearing about the plans in the office feels like a spoiler.
The Story Machine
is full of surprises, delights that must be discovered, live literature truly alive. It asks the audience to shift gear, let their cogs turn over in fresh ways, and put a little trust in an innovative literary festival bound to please.
Click to see the full City of Literature programme.
French Tear, Red Lotus, Mr Jameson...our literary themed taster cocktails for The Story Machine
Things are stepping up a gear at Writers' Centre Norwich, Dragon Hall as we begin preparations for the immersive, interactive, multi-sensory Story Machine.
With three hours of video projects, illuminations, live performances and more set within the (hopefully) sunny grounds of our beautiful medieval building, we're expecting you to get a little thirsty. So what's on the menu you ask? Take a peek...
COCKTAIL TASTING MENU
Our taster menu - kindly invented by the cocktail connoisseurs at 42 King Street
- corresponds with some of the stories taking place during the day.
‘Theatre Six’ by Sarah Hall
French Tear: spiced rum, orange liquor, and fruit juice provide a tart accompaniment to this troubling picture of the near future.
‘Here We Are’ by Lucy Caldwell
Red Lotus: a romantic combination of lychee liqueur, vodka, cranberry juice and fresh lime. A drinkable, fruity cocktail with a bright pink colouring resembling the neon of the early 1990s.
‘The Fly’ by Katherine Mansfield
Rum and Raisin Old Fashioned: a modern take on an old whiskey classic.
‘Mr Salary’ by Sally Rooney
Mr Jameson: whiskey with a mixture of melon liquor and fresh kiwi to create a unique and unexpected mix.
‘A Cruelty’ by Kevin Barry
Unexpected Classics: a choice between a rum based classic and a popular tequila cocktail served with an unexpected twist. Breaking the routine of classic cocktail drinking.
‘Still’ by Anna Metcalfe
Plum Negroni: a fitting twist on the timeless classic using plum liqueur to resemble the plum tree and creating a glorious culmination to the evening.
Cocktails are £5 each, or you can have a taste of all six over the course of the event for £20. Steady on now, though...these will be smaller measures!
We've also got food available from the lovely Purple Plum Catering
, including vegetarian and vegan options. Each meal comes with your choice of story: 'The Reader' or 'The Writer' by Etgar Keret.
UNESCO Creative Leader Nicholl Hardwick reports on her experience so far
This week we caught up with UNESCO Creative Leader Nicholl Hardwick. Nicholl has been very involved with the Creative Leaders' programme so far and has been instrumental in delivering key creative workshops to young people. Below, she offers her perspective on the positive outcome of these sessions for those involved.
'The Lynx in Thetford Forest' Workshop at Avenue Junior Primary School
Young minds are the future of the generations to come. Children approach, explore and attack life in a way that can sometimes get lost as we grow older. We become aware of how the world around us expects us to be, and we can allow that to become our substance when this shouldn’t be the case. However, in today's society, it seems as if children are taught to dampen their creative senses in order to become more ready for the fast world they will soon be working in. To me that is a loss. A loss of talent, a loss of gift, and most of all, a loss of creative exploration.
This is why I wanted to take part in this workshop. The children were given full reign to create a collaborative poem not only with the volunteers, but with one another. They decided the sounds the poem would make, they decide the path the story would go and they let their creative senses run free, not feeling limited by sounds, expressions or movement. The poem we created together revolved around the subject of the Lynx and the possibility of it being re-wilded into Thetford Forest. The children had complete authoritative control over the Lynx’s behaviour, how it would think (because of course a Lynx wouldn’t think in sentences!) and how it feels whilst residing in Thetford Forest. The entire class were encouraged to become involved in shouting sounds and performing movements. The whole process was a chance for kids to really connect with their creative talents without restriction or the need to feel regimented in one way of learning.
I adored the class and the entire experience, and I was hugely impressed with the classes enthusiasm as well as the work they produced. When children are given the freedom to enthusiastically create something new and imaginative, the outcome is always beautifully unpredictable.
Harriet Martineau Creative Writing Workshop
Taking part in this workshop was a huge honour for me. Not only was it about a locally born woman who achieved amazing heights in the persual of equality and fairness, but it was also a chance to hear from the young women of today, and give them a platform for creative freedom and expression. The whole point of this session was to create a discussion, allow thoughts to be verbalised, and encourage ideas to become engaged.
Harriet Martineau created literature for those, who at that time, did not have a platform for their voices to be heard. Women, the poor and non-white citizens were all silenced through oppression in the 1800’s, and it is through this lens we wanted the young women of the session to start thinking. Who is silenced in our community today? Why are they silenced? How can we make them heard?
This sparked off a very challenging discussion which encouraged the young women to not only bring in their own experiences as females, but also to include the perspectives of a whole spectrum of people who continuously fail to have their voices significantly heard in today's society. The main groups they came up with were the silenced voices of the young generation, women of all races and ethnicities, and those who suffer from mental health problems. Of course there are so many voices that go unheard in the society we live in, but in a short workshop session, these were the ones the young women decided to focus on.
Not only did we want to identify certain silenced voices, but we also wanted to deconstruct why these voices were being excluded from main stream discussions. The overall consensus was that it was down to the media, the patriarchal institutions around us and also the need for people to feel safe and not wanting to approach a stigma because that would then involve them being seen as disruptive to the status quo.
The discussion allowed the whole group to get involved and share personal stories as well as critically observe the world around them. The workshops aim was to hone in on the groups creative talent. We wanted to build a vision around them and their own personal ideas. Hence why once the discussion took place we challenged the girls to take everything they had learnt and contributed and use it to create an idea for a revolutionary novel. It could be in any format they wish, whether that be prose, fiction or non-fiction, poetry, visual art etc. The main rule was that it had to be something which resonated with them personally.
Far too often are not only women, but so many other demographics forced to silence themselves in order to conform to the pre-existing order of things. This workshop aimed to break away from that and allow these young women to really engage with the world around them, and feel confident enough to criticize its flaws in order to work towards effective change.
Just over a month remains until the world premiere of Fierce Light, a major national co-commission from 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers' Centre Norwich. Below, WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock allows us to peek behind the curtain at what lies in store at this very special commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. /
The past is lively, impossible to pin down.
So writes Jackie Kay in the brand new commissioned poem she has produced for Fierce Light
, a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. And it’s this challenge of how we make sense of such vast and indescribably bloody events as the Battle of the Somme – casualty figures numbered around 57,000 for the British on the first day alone, of which nearly 19,000 were deaths – that inspired the idea for Fierce Light in the first place. The changes wreaked on our world by World War One reached beyond politics, economics and technology into the very fabric of our daily lives, our communities and relationships. It was the artists of that war – perhaps the poets above all – who took on the challenge to make sense of a world transformed almost beyond recognition.
So, to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Fierce Light has brought together outstanding poets from the UK and around the world to look once more at the legacy of battle, the forces changing our world, and the struggles we face to make sense of them.
Jackie Kay has gone back to explore the story of her grandfather, Joseph Kay, who fought in the second Battle of the Somme, was captured, and injured, and survived the conflict. She visited Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and with an historian tracked down the records of her grandfather – including the date he was captured as a prisoner of war and the names of the medals he was awarded. He’s remembered in Jackie’s poem as a ‘shy man, bit withdrawn, shrapnel in his arm’, singing the miners lullaby Coorie Doon in the pre-dawn light.
On telling her ninety year old dad about this, Jackie reported that he was overcome with new knowledge and memories of his father. He appears in Jackie’s poem, too, remembering seeing his father up early to polish the buttons on his tram drivers uniform, and he, still singing Coorie Doon, ‘still singing his father.’
Jackie has subsequently worked with her filmmaker son, Matthew, on the film of Fierce Light, meaning that in one way or another, four generations have been involved in what you will see at Fierce Light.
The psychological fallout of war, which can be explored in our event with Matthew Green, author of Aftershock: Surviving War, Surviving Peace, is also mined by Daljit Nagra, in his response to Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A 1940 Memory’. There’s a passage in Nagra’s piece which I find almost unbearably moving and utterly poignant to the memory of war, impossible as it is to pin down.
Dear Jack, what blurs you most
so great words forever moral
your mind to war recall?
Is it the soldier smithereens
at your arm, the Hun dispersed
by your pluck that day you lay
in their bunker to read sonnets?
Or how you just couldn’t die?
Look at you now, our haunted
Elsewhere, Paul Muldoon’s takes us into the mind of a young infantryman from the Ulster Division, on July 1st 1916 - the first Day of the Battle of the Somme. It’s barely three months since the Easter Rising, and he finds himself ‘entrenched/no less physically than politically’ in the struggle for Irish independence. But he’s also a young soldier, big questions of national struggles and the world, take a backseat when compared to memories of home, and of Giselle, the girl he met just before departing for the front. It’s classic Muldoon, and the pastoral offers a contrast to what we know is coming in the forthcoming battle. This contrast, and what it opens up in contextualising the destruction of the battle and the fall of man, is also at the heart of Simon Armitage’s ‘Still’ that will be presented alongside Fierce Light. I’ll write more about that – and Yrsa Daley-Ward and Bill Manhire’s work in the coming weeks, as well as the wonderful filmmakers, who have been adapting these great new works of poetry.
We hope to see you at the Fierce Light
event at Norwich Playhouse on Friday 13 May, and the exhibition that runs at East Gallery
throughout the Festival.
Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers’ Centre Norwich.
Spring Short Story Competitions 2016
Spring is the time of plans and projects, according to Tolstoy, and who are we to disagree?
Forget the spring cleaning, and get stuck into these short story competitions. With prizes ranging from cash, to publication, (and even a rather quirky competition for those interested in writing the future!) there's a lot to keep you away from the hoover and focused firmly on the keyboard!
Happy writing, and do let us know if you are successful!
Deadline: 25 April 2016
Open to publish and unpublished writers from the UK and abroad, this competition accepts short stories up 2200 words, and has an £8 entry fee. First prize is £1000, and winners will be published in the anthology.
Deadline: 29 April 2016
This year, the festival is seeking stories of up to 1000 words written by or for children. Winners will read their work at Oxford Festival of the Arts in June.
Deadline: 30 April 2016
Open to published and unpublished writers, both UK and overseas, this competition is very open with entries welcomed from any genre. There's an entry fee of £8, and a first prize of £1000 available.
The Cardiff Review Short Story Award
Deadline: 15 May 2016
Open to new and unpublished writers, this competition seeks short stories of between 1000-5000 words, and winners will be awarded a cash prize of £150. Entry fee £2.
The Sunderland Short Story Award
Deadline: 1 June 2016
Open to younger writers too, with categories for 11- 16 as well as Adults, this competition not only has a cash prize, but those shortlisted will have their work read by a literary agent and by publisher Unthank Books, who will consider work for publication in their anthology.
A prize for both short stories and flash fiction, The Brighton Prize folk have asked to be challenged and excited. Prizes of up to £500 available.
Deadline: 20 June 2016
A prize founded in commemoration of the centenary of one of our finest short story writers of the 20th Century, the annual prize of £1000 goes to the best unpublished short story and is published in Prospect, and RLS Review.
Deadline: 30 June 2016
A new short story competition, with a little bit of a twist! Entrants are asked to submit poems or short stories on the theme of an imagined future England, and the competition features a twist... but we'll let you find out about that yourself! Winners will be published online, and there's no entry fee.
A Factory of Art; Bringing The Story Machine to Life
In our second Story Machine blog from WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock, we're given a sneak preview of the accompanying sculptures, drawings and soundtracks that have been commissioned by talented artists in order to bring the Story Machine to life.
One of the great and unexpected joys of producing The Story Machine has been the other art works we’ve helped bring to life. Illustrations, drawings, sculptures, soundtracks, audio recordings, and more, all commissioned, designed, and developed to help explode the eighteen amazing stories off the page.
Our first task was to acquire a leg. And not just any leg, either. This leg had to represent the severed limb of a Poet Laureate who has been hung, drawn and quartered and is now being dragged to Scotland as a demonstration of England’s power! Given the illustrious subject matter, a manikin simply wouldn’t suffice. Film prosthetics proved a little lifeless, and not sadly in the way we wanted. We thought about trompe l’oeil painting to see if we could recreate the rotting look on a manikin. But nothing felt quite right.
That was until we came upon the work of Martha Todd
, a ceramic artist. Although not produced to imitate flesh, there was something in the angles of her feet that gave them a deeply human look. In one, the toes were curled underneath the foot, as though the entire weight of the body was crushing down upon it. In another, the toes were pointed, calling to mind crucifixion or other long-abandoned methods of execution. There was suffering in these sculptures, and something almost painted and metaphorical about their composition. We were enthralled and - after much hard work to source materials so that we could afford this beautiful, troubling limb – commissioned Martha to sculpt it for us. This is the first glimpse of that limb, ghostly white, spectral, shockingly disembodied.
Next up, Adam Avery AKA The Suffolk Punch Press
, was invited to produce a show poster to help visualise the extravaganza. We wanted to capture both the feel and textures of Dragon Hall, – essentially the canvas we are painting The Story Machine upon - and the sheer multiplicity of stories that are being produced. His response is one you will be familiar with: the wooden beams of the Great Hall adding texture to a series of icons that represent themes across the different stories. There’s a quirky feel to them, a sense that nothing may be quite as it seems. I love it and we’re hoping to have limited edition prints for sale on the day. I’ve already reserved one for me!
Elsewhere Beverley Coraldean of Geneality Art
came on board to produce pencil drawings to accompany our grand climax to the show: Anna Metcalfe’s transcendent exploration of the power of art to transform the everyday into the universal. I don’t want to give too much away about the story itself, other than to say that it revolves around the pictures that a boy and his father take each year as the last leaf of the plum tree in their garden falls to the ground. Beverley is producing thirty-two new images to accompany the show, and we have plans for them to become something altogether more dramatic in the final crescendo.
No tale of the lengths we’ve gone to for The Story Machine would be complete without the international exploits to record Etgar Keret reading his stories. He has done so, directly and specifically for The Story Machine. Huge thanks for this to Yochai Maital and Mishy Harman who produce and present Israeli Story
, modern stories about the ancient land of Israel and the people who live there. Without their assistance, Etgar’s remote involvement would not have been possible.
This has been a multimedia experience like nothing I’ve done before. It’s been a thrill to have new pieces of art float across my desk on a weekly basis, and I can’t wait to see them come together with the audience in May.
Come and be part of our grand experiment.
The Best of Brave New Reads
For seven years, Brave New Reads (formerly known as Summer Reads), has been recommending brilliant books to the people of East Anglia (and those further afield too). We’ve suggested intriguing works in translation, scintillating non-fiction, stunning poetry collections, amazing novels, and fantastic short story collections. We’ve included recommendations from all around the globe; from Australia to Kazakhstan, Jamaica to Mexico, Japan to India.
Over those seven years, we’ve advocated for almost forty titles, encouraging people to try something new and exciting. We’ve heard from many readers, saying how much they’d enjoyed the books and the programme, how they’d discovered new authors because of Brave New Reads and found new genres and styles to enjoy.
So, to celebrate seven years of brilliant books, we asked the Readers’ Circle
and the WCN staff to tell us their favourite books from Brave New Reads gone by. After many suggestions, much deliberation, and lots of enthusiastic exclamations and comparisons, we’ve settled on nine books which we think showcase some of the best of Brave New Reads.
Without further ado, they are:
A Light Song of Light
Jamaican poet Kei Miller’s poems are presented in two parts; Day Time and Night Time. Day Time is soon undermined by a Night Time place where cool caves and bat wings tickle the neck. This collection faces the tough stuff of life but through it all the Singerman calls as Miller uses rhythm and song to pull you through his laments towards a praise of light in language that truly sings.
“I’ve always proclaimed not to understand poetry... but the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I loved this book.” - Readers’ Circle
All the Birds, Singing
Jake Whyte is running from something. But what?
Living alone on a British island, her only companion is Dog, who helps her tend her sheep. Dog’s whimpering and scared though; something is coming. Something that’s picking off the sheep one by one, creeping through the evening as a stranger lurks by the trees over the field...
Flashing through it all there’s Jake’s former life in the heat and rough of Australian sheep farms, the life she ran away from overseas. Why?
“A star of a book! Gritty, brutal and strangely witty in parts.” - Readers’ Circle
Behind the Beautiful Forevers
What is it really like to be poor in Mumbai? Follow the daily lives of slum-residents Abdul, Manju, Sunil, One Leg and Asha who live next to a toxic pond facing Mumbai Airport and its luxury hotels.
Pulitzer prize-winning Boo gets behind the statistics to give lively voice to these slum-dwellers and their stories; the different ways that they deal with thwarted hope, envy, corruption and religious divide in a new India full of possibilities that are constantly just out of reach.
“A spectacular book that deserves each and every accolade it has received.” - Readers’ Circle
Beside the Sea
A single mother takes her children on their first trip to the seaside. As they run from rain to hot chocolate to the fun-fair we see the woman’s close and complex relationship with the two little boys unfold. These are precious children whom she wants so badly to protect from the very unkind world, from hunger and pain. But we find that the severest danger can lurk much closer to home in this emotionally tough but brilliantly written read.
“Bleak yet riveting. Be brave: this is life at its harshest and writing at its most affecting.” - Readers’ Circle
Down The Rabbit Hole
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Holed up in his Mexican castle, Tochtli is getting along playing with his collection of hats and taking daily lessons. But when his teacher disappears and Tochtli finds out that his gangster father has been lying to him, even the promise of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus doesn’t help.
This delicious, neatly written short novel reveals the hectic world of precocious, likeable seven-year old Tochtli just as it starts to unravel.
“Tochtli is a brilliant narrator. I defy you not to be charmed by his tale of a world that, for all his young awe, is far from innocent.” - Readers' Circle
Fallen Land charts the downfall of three generations of land-owners and the disintegration of their American dream. Louise reluctantly sells her family land, property developer Krovik builds on it and goes bankrupt, and the Noallies family move in, ready for an untainted future but unprepared for what’s to come. Saturated with an eerie menace, the prose shifts and mutates to create an unsettling and gripping novel.
"A chilling portrait of obsession and how it can get out of control. Fallen Land is a brilliant and compelling read." - Readers' Circle
Strange Weather in Tokyo Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell)
Tsukiko navigates the Tokyo of her thirties in a solitary path from her flat to work to the local bar. One evening she comes across her old school teacher there, the upright, quiet ‘Sensei’. A gentle relationship develops over good beer and delicious morsels and they end up gravitating towards each other more and more. They attend a cherry-blossom party together, but both end up leaving with other people, and silence ensues. Will they ever get past their mutual loneliness and fear?
“A wonderful, beautiful, slowly engulfing novel” - The Readers’ Circle
The Beautiful Indifference
Sarah Hall’s stories are a portal into the fascinating inner lives of women who are often hiding or recovering from something untold. From one women in search of excitement, to another waiting for her lover to leave so she can make the biggest decision of her life, this collection of carefully crafted moments engages all of the senses, using the rhythms of body and landscape to tell beautiful stories that will stay with you.
“These fabulously written, looming and austere stories are beautiful and a joy to read.” - Readers’ Circle
This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You
You never thought that kind of thing could happen to somebody like you. But then it does. Set in the lowlands of the fens, these brooding stories evoke quiet menace – from the drama of buried bodies that risk being dug up, to the buried crisis of an everyday break-up. The book’s very readable style masks fierce technical skill as McGregor builds tension and plays with your expectations to keep you hooked all the way through.
“These stories are creative, strange, sometimes genius, reflections on life. Read them, you won’t be disappointed.” - Readers’ Circle
Let us know your favourites in the comments, or tweet us @WritersCentre using #BraveNewReads.
All of these books are available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Library Services.
The 2016 Brave New Reads books will be announced at the start of May. Sign up to the Writers’ Centre Norwich e-news
to be the first to know which six made it through!Find out more about Brave New Reads.
Re-imagine India: WCN staff and Norwich writers form cultural connections with Kolkata, India
In January writers Patrick Barkham, Vesna Goldsworthy and Anjali Joseph were accompanied by WCN's Melanie Kidd, (Programme Coordinator) and Kate Griffin (Associate Programme Director) on a five day research and development trip to Kolkata, India. This marked the start of a partnership to form cultural connections between England’s first UNESCO City of Literature and East India’s educational and cultural centre.
Funded by Arts Council England and British Council the trip aimed to develop artistic links between the two countries, paving the way for a more substantial and sustainable project under ACE’s ‘Re-imagine India’ umbrella.
Melanie Kidd, Programme Coordinator at Writers’ Centre Norwich, shares her highlights from the trip below...
(l-r, Vesna Goldsworthy, Melanie Kidd, Patrick Barkham)
On Saturday the 9th January three writers, all with a strong connection to Norwich, along with myself and my colleague Kate, all met in Kolkata for a swift, exhilarating, petrol-fuelled, ride of India’s former capital. The colours of Kolkata are sweet and zingy, celebrating its vibrancy, and the rich, spicy smells of street food fight against the health-hazardous stench of exhaust fumes. Kolkata is busy. But it’s not chaotic. It’s very easy to inhale its rhythmic buzz and float down its smog-drenched streets.
Accompanying the writers nearly 5,000 miles on a smooth Air India flight, I spent much of my time simply wondering - why Kolkata? Once our extensive itinerary began, it soon became apparent why this Indian city was a one-stop-shop for literary inspiration and heritage!
Barely shaking off the jet lag, Monday morning saw our coffee-fuelled writers thrown into an eight hour literary symposium on ‘de-professionalisation’ at Presidency University. During the symposium I was inspired by the engagement and response of the students, darting between their lectures and the symposium, leaping from their seats to add ideas and opinions to the debate.
Later in the trip, during our literary walking tour our tour guide, Ramanuj, introduced us to Henry Louis Vivian Derozio in South Park Cemetery (well, his grave at least). Derozio was an Anglo-Indian radical thinker that in 1826, at the under-ripe-age of 17, became an English Literature teacher at Presidency, introducing the concepts of free thinking and learning through debate. During the symposium one of the students offered the opinion that universities should continue ‘opening their doors’ to other ideas, disciplines, training and values. I couldn’t help but think that Derozio would be ‘whooping’ in his grave, chuffed to bits that his teachings live on in those energetic students, challenging the ways in which they learn.
As my interests lie heavily in social development and community projects, one of the most inspiring moments of the trip for me is when we went for lunch with Naveen Kishore, founder of Seagull Books. Seagull is a small publishing company with a large reputation. Alongside publishing, Seagull also deliver projects such as The Seagull School of Publishing
, a heavily subsidised professional course in editing and book design for young people; and PeaceWorks
, using the arts to promote social change. Both of these projects are what I would call ‘investment’ projects; investing in the education, creativity and social development of young people and the community. What an inspiring publishing company, leaping down the path of social impact, investing in Kolkata’s cultural personality and future.
Towards the end of the trip, our literary tour guide, Ramanju, proudly said he believed that the people of Kolkata were less financially driven than in other parts of India, and more influenced by their passions. I had met several Bengalis on my trip that confirmed this, who had studied or trained to be scientists, mathematicians or accountants, but had dropped it all to follow a less financially driven career in culture and the arts. Something else that Ramanju had said got me thinking: ‘Everything in Kolkata can be fixed’. He was referring to the industrious nature of Kolkata, where everything that had been made by human hands could be fixed or changed by human hands. Nothing from the past goes to waste. Ramanju’s words meant something different for me, echoing a wider sense of cultural renovation.
That last evening those words stuck in my mind, as we watched the Appejay Literary Festival’s ceremonious launch; a festival that revitalises spaces entrenched in Kolkata’s cultural heritage using new writing and ideas. Kolkata was by no means slow-paced. However, it had a strong sense of reflection and pride. It is city that is comfortable in its skin; proud of its past which shapes its present, and inspiringly excited about its future.
Although our visit to Kolkata was brief, I took home the sense that culture is a ‘door way’; opening up a place for others to explore, unlocking a past, providing a path of opportunity and letting in other cultures and influences. The other thing I took home? A mountain of books from Seagull’s spider-web of a book shop! If you ever make it to Kolkata, take an extra suitcase for book shopping. It’s not called a literary city for nothing!
The Kindness of Strangers – a reading in support of Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh
On Thursday 14 January, writers and literature enthusiasts from across the region gathered at Norwich Arts Centre for an evening of readings in support of justice, freedom and Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh
. The event, which simultaneously took place at 122 locations in 44 countries worldwide, answered an international call for solidarity from the International Literature Festival Berlin. Fayadh, a poet and curator who is the son of Palestinian refugees and legally a stateless person, has been found guilty by a court in Saudi Arabia of spreading atheism and threatening the morals of society. His sentence is death.
Novelist and short story writer Sarah Bower gave a reading that evening which reflected on her time spent in Palestine - Fayadh’s birthplace - whilst researching for her new novel, Love Can Kill People, Can't It? During this time, she travelled to the West Bank to act as a protective presence to local people during the olive harvest, and to record any disruptive incidents by illegal settlers for the UN.
The Kindness of Strangers
Image © Jenny Kassman
‘How can I charge you, after everything you have done for us?’ The doctor smiles at me across his desk. His smile is grave, and seems to lack practice.
The doctor is a chest specialist, to whom I have been taken, bumping crazily over potholes, by my concerned host, Ahmed, the headmaster of the local boys’ school. I have a fever and a hacking cough which has been keeping everyone in our dormitory, including me, awake for nights on end. Call to prayer, barking dog, cough, occasional bray of an insomniac donkey. Litany of the night hours. Ahmed says he can feel the fever in my hands. Ahmed knows about illness; his wife, at 49, suffers from a heart condition for which she could be treated in Israel or Jordan, but not here, in the Occupied West Bank.
I cough out my gratitude and self-deprecation and hope the doctor will attribute the tears in my eyes to the coughing. For here he sits, among the diplomas on his bare concrete walls, dispensing what assistance he can to chronically catarrhal children, young men consumed by TB and hopelessness, and their fathers whose lungs are already filling up with tar by the time they reach their mid-forties. He has limited facilities and not much in the way of medicines, and the best hospitals are in Amman, which is about as much use to his patients as if they were on the Moon.
Nor can most of his patients pay him for his services. Not for the first time on this trip, I’m caught in the bind of what the Palestinian Dean of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem calls ‘aggressive Arab hospitality’. I want to pay the doctor. I want to pay him twice what he would charge me, because it’s hardly anything to me and might enable him to treat someone else for free, but, if I offer, he will be insulted. Especially as I’m a woman. There’s that too.
The doctor has his practice in a small town near Nablus. I won’t name it, partly for the protection of the people who can’t leave, even to get medical treatment, or an education, or a job, because they are deemed stateless and cannot, therefore, obtain passports. Partly, also, because I want to let this town, and the villages surrounding it, stand for all the small towns and villages in the occupied areas, carrying on their lives in defiance of the State of Israel which is trying to strangle them.
It’s dusk when we leave the chest specialist’s house, on our way to the pharmacy run by Ahmed’s son. The stars are no doubt spread across the sky, those iconic stars that shone on the shepherds watching their flocks and the wise men coming from the east, and Herod fretting in his palace, but we can’t see them because the hilltops are flooded with halogen blue.
This spills from the security lights surrounding the illegal Jewish settlements that stand, like latterday crusader fortresses, on almost every hilltop. The settlements themselves are oddly elusive; at night all you see are the blinding lights, threaded through with troubling impressions of razor wire and guard towers. During the day, you might catch a glimpse of sugar-white concrete apartment blocks; and there are always the access roads, freshly cut and smoothly tarmaced, signposted only in Hebrew, great surgical scars that have transformed these hillsides into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, head and heart and limbs severed one from the other. Palestinians are not permitted to drive on these roads, even where they cut right through their own farms. Palestinians get stoned, or even shot, for using these roads.
The Dean of St. George’s, who might have stepped out of The Barchester Chronicles or The Vicar of Dibley, was giving a talk to a group of us who were travelling to the West Bank to act as a protective presence during the olive harvest. Olive harvesting in the West Bank can be a dangerous business because the illegal settlers begrudge the local people even what little is left to them of their traditional agriculture. The hills used to be covered with wild flowers in the spring, and terraces of vines and wheat during summer and autumn. The higher slopes were grazed by herds of lean sheep with floppy ears and sly, resourceful faces. But the settlers have diverted the springs that fed this agronomy, in some cases, if they don’t need the water themselves, merely smashing or poisoning the springs so the Palestinians can’t have it. They rustle the sheep, which means only those families who own enough land within their villages to pen the sheep can still keep a herd.
They also burn olive trees, the one remaining crop which is tough enough to survive in the impoverished soil and with scarce water. There are trees in the olive groves which are hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old, in whose gnarled trunks and arthritic branches our entire history is locked. Destroy these trees and you destroy – just as much as American soldiers looting the Baghdad Museum or Daesh blowing up Palmyra – the history of all of us.
Our protective presence is intended to discourage the settlers from trying to disrupt the olive harvest, and to record any incidents which do take place for the UN. This is not merely a matter of spite or ethnic tension, it is strategic. Under Israeli land law, if a farmer
fails to complete his harvest for three years in a row, the land will revert to the government because it is ‘abandoned’. Under this law, Israel has ‘legitimately’ seized thousands of acres of Palestinian land, squeezing the Palestinians into what will soon be little more than reservations.
So, every October, groups of brave and principled people travel to the occupied territories to help get the olive harvest in and to protect their Palestinian hosts from attack, because even the settlers will think twice about the adverse publicity they’d gain from stoning a rabbi or a genteel Quaker lady from the home counties. I was an interloper, of course; I was researching a book, and ended up being too ill to harvest many olives. I saw little, personally, of settler violence.
What I remember are eloquent silences: the state of the art Italian olive press, for example, which Ahmed proudly detoured to show me on our way back from the chest doctor’s; the men sitting idle beside its empty conveyors because there are no olives to process. Ahmed’s son’s pharmacy, on whose shelves the medicines are gathering dust because no-one has the money to buy them. Hana’, the daughter of our village head man, who aspires to become a literary translator, but cannot get a passport to travel to London to study.
Ashraf Fayadh is unjustly imprisoned and should be released. But he was imprisoned on account of his own conscience and creativity, unlike his fellow countrymen in the occupied territories who are imprisoned merely by an accident of birth and history. They, too, should be released and we citizens of western democracies should ask ourselves hard questions about the company we keep, the wretched irony of allying ourselves with states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia for the protection of our freedoms.
About Sarah Bower
Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. She is also a regular contributor to Words With Jam
and the Historical Novels Review
(which she edited for two years). She works as a mentor to other writers, and has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is currently based in her role as manager of the mentorship scheme for emerging literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation. In 2014, she spent a semester as writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Sarah is the author of three novels. Her first, The Needle in the Blood, was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year 2007. Her third, Erosion has an East Anglian setting, was published in 2014. Her work has been translated into nine languages.
‘My new novel-in-progress, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? tells two stories, that of a Palestinian fisherman called Amal and of Rose, an Englishwoman from an outwardly conventional but inwardly dysfunctional family, whose father’s experience of Palestine in 1947/48 formulates her interest in the region. Though their lives are linked much more closely than either knows, it is through their shared experience of key historical events from the Munich Olympics in 1972 to the civil war in Syria that I try to show how our history is informed by that of Palestine and vice versa.’
I’m indebted to Arts Council England for the grant which enabled me to travel to Palestine to research the book.’
A Writer’s Manifesto by Joanne Harris: The National Conversation
An original provocation for WCN delivered at Manchester Literature Festival on Monday 19th October, 2015.
In a world in which the internet, with its forums and discussion groups, has blurred the line between readers and writers almost to invisibility, the relationship between one and the other now seems increasingly difficult – audience participation in the creation of art is considered by many to be not only legitimate, but desirable.
Both on and offline, everyone has an opinion. And everyone has a platform from which to disseminate their opinions. Much of the time, this is a good thing. It allows a potential dialogue to exist between readers and creators. It allows readers to get in touch with the authors of work they have enjoyed. It allows writers to understand where and how they might have gone wrong, and how they can improve and grow. However, this breaking-down of barriers has also created a false sense of entitlement, giving some readers the impression that artists and writers not only inhabit a privileged world, in which there are no bills to pay and in which time is infinitely flexible, but that they also exist primarily to serve the public, to be available night and day, and to cater for the personal needs of everyone who contacts them.
This is partly due to the fact that there are so many more writers than there were fifty years ago. The rise of self-publishing, e-books and fanfiction means that far more people are now able to identify as writers. And although this is a good thing in many ways, it does also help perpetuate the idea that anyone
can write a book, and that the people who actually do so are simply luckier, wealthier, or blessed with more spare time than those who do not.
The truth is, not everyone can – or should – be a writer, in the same way that not everyone can or should be an accountant, or a ballet dancer, teacher, pilot, soldier, or marathon runner. The same combination of aptitude, experience and acquired skills apply to being a writer as to any other job. We would never think of telling a doctor that we were thinking of taking up medicine when we retired. We would never expect a plumber to work for free – or a plasterer, for publicity. We would never expect to hear the word “privilege” of a teacher who has spent their career working hard to earn a living. We would never expect a lawyer who has paid to go through law school to tutor aspiring lawyers for free.
And yet, and yet, these demands are made of writers all the time. Perhaps it’s because the value of writing is such a difficult thing to quantify. Everyone dreams. Not everyone gets to dream for a living. But are we writers expecting too much? Can we keep artistic control, whilst expecting to earn a living? And, in a world in which the consumer increasingly calls the shots, can we still hope for a relationship with our readers that transcends that of mere supply and demand?
Not long ago, I was involved in the debate around an app called CleanReader, which contained an algorithm that picked out and replaced “offensive words” in e-books with “acceptable substitutes.” Thus, “breasts” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch” and any kind of profanity is reduced to a series of American euphemisms, making nonsense of the text, its rhythms, style and meaning. Writers rallied round to combat the distribution of this app, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale. But the designers of the app, a Christian couple from Idaho, wrote to me several times to protest that readers, having paid for my books, should have the right
to change my words if they disapproved of them. Readers are consumers, they said. Therefore, just as a person ordering a salad in a restaurant should have the right to ask the chef for a different dressing, readers should also have the choice to enjoy a story without being exposed to language they deem offensive, or ideas that challenge their perceptions. After all, they said; isn’t that why writers exist in the first place? Are they not there primarily to serve the needs of the public, and does it not make sense that they should take those needs into account?
Well, of course our readers do have a choice. And of course, we writers owe them a great deal. But a novel isn’t a salad with interchangeable ingredients. Nor is the reader entitled to order from a menu. As writers, we are always grateful when a reader chooses one of our books. We hope that they will enjoy it. And most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.
The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone
all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction. Fiction is not by its nature a design for living, nor an imaginary comfort zone. Although it can
be both those things, its range goes much further than comfort or escapism. Fiction is often un
comfortable; often unexpected. Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.
I love my readers. I love their enthusiasm, their willingness to engage. I enjoy our conversations on Twitter and at festivals. I love their diversity, and the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them, and according to what they have experienced. Without readers, writers would have no context; no audience; no voice. But that doesn’t mean we’re employees, writing books to order. We, too, have a choice. We choose what kind of relationship we want to have with our readers – whether to interact online, go to festivals, give interviews, tour abroad, teach pro bono creative writing sessions or even live in seclusion, without talking to anyone. Writers are as diverse as readers themselves, and all of them have their own way of operating. What may work for one author may be hopelessly inappropriate for another. But whatever our methods of working, the relationship between a writer and their readers should be based on mutual respect, along with a shared understanding of books, their nature and their importance.
On the internet I’ve seen a growing number of sites and blogs enumerating what readers expect of writers. Requests for increased diversity, increased awareness of current issues, requests for time and attention, gratis copies of books for review, interviews and guest blog posts - or simply demands to work faster. Readers have numerous spaces in which to discuss author behaviour, to analyse their politics, lifestyle and beliefs – sometimes, in extreme cases, to urge other readers to boycott the work of those authors whose themes are seen as too controversial, or whose ideas do not coincide with their own. Authors are expected to respect these reader spaces, whatever the nature of the discussion. To comment on a bad review – or even to be seen to notice it – is to risk being labelled an “author behaving badly”. Authors whose work is deemed to have problematic content are expected to analyse the cause – and in some cases, to apologize. There is an increasing call for trigger warnings; profanity warnings; age guidelines – in order to help the reader choose amidst a bewildering number of books. The demands on authors are numerous; often even daunting.
But do readers ever ask themselves what authors want of them? Do authors ever ask themselves what they want of their readers?
I think that for most authors, it comes down to two deceptively simple things.
The first and most prosaic is: we want to make a living. This fact is at the same time obvious, and fiercely contested, not least by many authors, who rightly see their work as something more than just a means of paying the rent.
That’s because, many authors find it hard to talk about money. It’s considered vulgar for artists to care about where the next meal is coming from. And many authors are driven to write: would probably write whether or not they had an audience; or whether they were ever published or paid, just for the joy of writing. This is at the same time their strength, and also their downfall; with the exception of a canny few who treat art as a business, writers are often reluctant to think of their work as just another product. We do not like to think of our books as units, to be bought and sold. And yet, to the publishing industry, that’s exactly what they are; the product of thousands of hours of work: of editing; copy-editing; design; marketing; proof-reading; promotion. Publishers spend most of their time thinking about the readers – the consumers of our work - but for an author, thinking about the readers (or, even worse, the pay-check) while trying to write a novel is like thinking about the drop when performing a high-wire act; dangerous, counterproductive, and likely to lead to failure.
But if, as Samuel Johnson maintains, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, there must be a lot of blockheads in the writing community. I’ll admit I’m one myself. Nevertheless, however much we may cling to society’s romanticized views of art for art’s sake, authors and illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.
That’s where the readers come in. Many readers seem to believe that authors are earning millions. The reality is that most authors earn rather less than the minimum wage, and when touring, attending festivals, blogging, giving interviews, holding readings, writing guest posts for bloggers, too often give their work for free. That’s why it’s important for readers to show appreciation for the work of the authors we love; firstly by buying
their books (as opposed to downloading them illegally); by borrowing them from libraries (because authors are paid
for borrowed books, a sum which, though small, adds up and can often provide a welcome annual windfall); and most importantly, by supporting their work; by attending festivals and readings, by writing reviews and joining in discussion groups, and generally promoting awareness of their writing, and of books in general.
Because what authors really want (and money provides this, to some extent) is validation of their work. We write because we want you to care; because we hope you’re listening – that we can make a connection, somehow; that we can prove we are not alone.
Because stories – even fairy stories – are never just entertainment. Stories are more important than that. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy and respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they help eliminate boundaries; they teach us different ways in which to see the world around us. Their value may be intangible, but it is no less real for that. And stories bring us together – readers and writers everywhere – exploring our human experience and sharing it with others.
So this is my manifesto, my promise to you, the reader. From you, I ask that you take it in good faith, respond in kind, and understand that, whatever I do, I do for the sake of something we both value - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.
2. I promise not to sell out - not even if you ask me to.
3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.
4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.
5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.
6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.
7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.
8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new - even if the things I try are not always successful.
9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don't think you really want me to.
10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.
11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.
12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.
Joanne Harris has written fourteen novels, including Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. She has written two books of short stories and three cookbooks with Fran Warde. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. Harris plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16 and still lives in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband and daughter.
This piece was commissioned as part of the National Conversation, a year-long discussion about the issues that matter to writers and readers. Find out more.
Listen to the provocation and debate here
Do let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Mike Carey: How do we reflect the world in fiction?
In advance of our National Conversation event with Joanne Harris on Monday 19th October, we asked Mike Carey for his response to the question - what is the role of the writer in contemporary society?
I don’t believe that a novel is a mirror carried along a road. That’s one of the many things it can aspire to be, but it’s generally not a realistic goal. There’s too much of you in a novel for the rest of the world to fit comfortably. All you can do is say “well this bit of the world looks like this from the angle at which I’m currently standing.”
Having said that, I thin
k all novels are haunted by the real world in the way old repurposed buildings are haunted by their original form and function. And I think you have to watch those angles pretty closely – the points where your stories lean up against reality. They’re always going to be there because everything has to be supported by something.
Ursula LeGuin said that people who don’t read sci-fi think of its narratives as excursions, whereas in fact they’re incursions – raids on the real. Wallace Stevens said that the beauty of Earth is the beauty of every paradise, and that I certainly believe. It’s true of dystopias too, or should be: genre fictions, like all fictions, are curiously shaped and intricate tools for exploring what matters to us (and to the people around us) in the lives we lead in the world we all happen to share. It’s not the only thing they do, but it’s an important thing.
It follows that you’re responsible, at least a little bit, for the inferences and assertions about the real world that either flit across the surface of your fictions or else get deeply embedded in them.
That may seem a bit controversial, even wilfully naïve. The death of the author happened a long while back (I was sorry because I knew the guy). We’re all agreed now that meaning
, signification, is something that happens when the reader’s mind encounters the text, not when the author opens his magic bottle o’ meaning and pours in a big dollop of the stuff.
But still. Your words exist in the world, in the same way a table or a chair exists in the world. If you were building a chair you wouldn’t build it with one leg shorter than the other three. Likewise you wouldn’t make a table with a nail sticking out so anyone passing by might injure themselves on it. And it’s the same with stories.
Please don’t mistake this for a parable about Not Giving Offence
. It’s absolutely fine for stories to give offence. It’s both inevitable and perfectly acceptable. You may think that Salman Rushide is an infidel and Michel Houllebecq is a racist jerk, in which case you can avoid their stories or – better – you can read them and think about them and try to formulate what it is about them you disagree with.
What I’m saying is more about function. You have to be aware, as a writer, of what your story is about and what it’s for. You have to own your meanings, insofar as they are yours. You have to make sure the fiction is fit for purpose.
When you send it out to walk along the road, it’s reflecting you as well as the world. Be in there as yourself, not as someone else. And be honest. It may only ever matter to you, but it should matter to you a lot.
Mike Carey is a screenwriter, novelist and comic book writer. He wrote the movie adaptation for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts, currently in production. He has worked extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His comic book series The Unwritten has featured repeatedly in the New York Times' graphic novel bestseller list. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz. His next novel, to be published in April 2016, is Fellside, a ghost story set in a women’s prison.
Joanne Harris will be discussing the role of the contemporary writer with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Lemn Sissay and Geoff Ryman on Monday 19th October at Manchester Literature Festival. Do join us, or read Joanne's provocation online after the event.