interview about ‘Chaconne in G Minor’

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Writer and lecturer, Jonathan Taylor interviewed me about my story in the anthology, The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, edited by Ashley Stokes.

This commission asked us to respond to one of Nick Ruston’s paintings. I chose the one above, but the story also ended up being about a piece of music.

J: Like all the other stories in “The End,” your story, “Chaconne in G Minor,” opens with one of Nicolas Ruston’s paintings. In fact, the painting pre-dates your story: all of the writers in the anthology were allotted one painting each before writing their stories. How do you see the relationship between the painting and your own story? How did the story “grow out of it,” as it were? What were your aims in writing it?

Z: My painting suggested film noir to me, and I wanted to write a kind of pulp fiction response. The kind of story that snaps shut at the end, or has a reveal or twist in the tail. I was intrigued by the figure standing next to the blinds and imagined a woman looking up at him, standing there. Sadly, my story did not work out like that at all! It became a story about a relationship, but as with other stories in the anthology, my ideas started to be more about other ways endings relate to short stories and to artistic form in general, and the greatest end of all: death. So, though I intended to write plotted story, I ended up writing a more lyrical short story about a young woman who has lost her way after her mother’s death. She is stuck, playing this piece of music over and over.

read more here.

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Dear Catherine Smith, Labour MP Lancaster and Fleetwood

Dear Catherine Smith,

I have just moved to Lancaster, and am now one of your constituents, as well as lecturer at Lancaster University. This is an email to implore you to pressure the government into concrete action in accepting more refugees. Now, I am sure you are about to say that of course you will do this. But as someone who worked with asylum seekers for a number of years in Manchester, I know what the asylum process in this country entails, and how this dehumanising and brutal legal process positions an asylum claimant as a liar till she proves herself as truthful, and often locks her and her children up like criminals. This process has worsened under the Conservative government with huge cuts to legal aid, but prior to this the Labour government also treated asylum seekers terribly. Cameron’s current position is legitimised by this legacy. The recent increase in refugees has highlighted that the UK’s approach to those fleeing war, conflict and persecution needs to urgently be reassessed.

In any case, I hope that you will do your best to pressure Cameron into concrete action, and remind him that the electorate is not only the Daily Mail. Every utterance seems directed at placating the tabloids. He explained that any aid to refugees in this country would be taken from the foreign aid budget, but when Osborne spoke about bombing Syria, he didn’t mention where money for military action would come from.

I am sure you are gladdened at how the news is full of stories of everyday people helping refugees, whether it is in Germany or people here sending aid to Calais. But you have political power, and I hope you use it well,
best
Zoe Lambert

Creative Writing Courses – Is the Bad Press Fair?

A GUEST POST BY LIZ MONUMENT

Before I enrolled on a Creative Writing MA, I’d written several novels, none of them to a publishable standard. But instead of getting progressively better, I seemed to have reached a glass ceiling I couldn’t break through. The worst thing was, I had no idea why. I’d published non-fiction and competition-winning short stories under my belt, and my novels seemed to begin OK, but the endings repeatedly fell flat. Cost or not, an MA seemed to be the last option I had before I accepted that I was doomed to fail. This is every writer’s biggest fear: the monster that lurks under the bed; the shadow that sneaks into your darkest thoughts as it dawns on you that you might just not be up to the job after all… and I had to find out.

Only a few weeks into my MA, I realised that I’d been writing the kind of fiction I thought I should write, rather than the kind of fiction I really needed to write. My novel endings were hollow because I simply hadn’t gone the extra mile to make my fictional worlds vivid enough. As an experiment, I wrote a test piece to assess my tutor’s and peer-group’s reaction, and was delighted to find they had as much fun as I did venturing into my make-believe world. From that moment onwards, I began to concentrate on Sci Fi Fantasy, something I’d not written since childhood. I’ve never looked back.

The MA’s critiquing process worked, for me, far better than slogging away alone hour after hour. Two years of part-time study later, my MA novel was shortlisted for a competition and signed by an agent. But, without the camaraderie of my critique group and the wise comments of my tutor, I felt adrift. So, the following year, I returned to university to begin a PhD in Creative Writing. Six months in, and I’m back in my comfort zone – in fact, I’m positively thriving on the experience. I’m exploring women in Sci Fi Fantasy, and writing a dystopian novel in which I’m being encouraged to push boundaries and experiment freely. This is what creative practice should be all about. My tutors were, and are, published novelists, poets and short story writers with a plethora of industry awards to their names. And between them, they have a huge amount of educational experience. Just because you write doesn’t mean that you can teach people to write, so publishing and teaching skills are essential for good tutors. So, I simply don’t agree with the angry voices in the aether who blog or post that CW courses are over-priced and pointless. I sometimes wonder whether those dissatisfied customers resent the fact that their MA taught them they don’t make the grade as professional writers. After all, it’s a fact that not everybody with a Creative Writing MA goes on to get published.

So why do we need CW courses at all?

In the old days, an agent would pick up a new writer and would be prepared to work with that writer for up to two years, to produce a polished debut. Then, things changed. A couple of serious recessions impacted the publishing industry, and the internet altered the nature of publishing. Publishers became more risk averse, and agents followed their lead. Today, agents will only take on a novelist who is ready to be put straight out into the public arena. In other words, authors have to do their training somewhere, and the system has conspired to ensure this is at the author’s cost (both in terms of time and money) rather than at anybody else’s. Case in point, Robert McKee (Story, Methuen, 1999) notes that apprenticeships used to exist in the world of film writing. They don’t any more. So, welcome the Creative Writing course…

Now take a look at the Universities who run the majority of CW programmes. I studied for my degree in the days when every UK citizen was entitled to state funding. Student loans were only introduced in my final year (and the maximum amount you could take at that time was £350). Today, Universities are run in a different way. Students take out huge debts to study, and universities have to balance their books, which means courses have to appeal to applicants who will be paying out of their own pockets. And what better way than offering would-be writers the chance to realise what is, for many of us, a long-chased dream. Education is no longer simply a system: today, it is an industry, and universities are smart enough to use it to cash in on those dreams.

You may have read that Stephany Meyer wrote Twilight in three months flat. Combine this with the maxim that ‘everybody has a novel in them,’ and you’ve a heady combination of possibility and promise aimed at the would-be writer. Of course, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that it actually took Meyer ten years to write Twilight, with only the final edit being put together in three months. As I writer, I know it is simply not true to say that anybody can write a novel to a publishable standard, but it’s fair to point out that if most people think they can, then English departments have a guaranteed audience for CW courses. So there you have it. A simple equation, but an equation non-the-less. Add to this the fact that on-line (distance learning) courses have answered the demand for students to keep costs down by studying from home, and you can see why, at the end of 2011, an internet search for CW on-line tuition brought up only two distance learning courses whereas two years later, the same search listed a screen-full of possibilities. Now, in 2015, there are even more. So, if the education industry is providing what we as consumers are asking it for, can we really complain?

I can only talk about my own experience, and it’s been extremely positive. I perform best with repeated reviews of my work, intelligent and structured comments from a feedback group, the overarching guidance of a supervisor, and a recommended reading list. Yes, it’s true you can learn to edit your own work (you have to!) and trawl websites for book reviews but for me, that’s never been a substitute. Every writer benefits from mentoring at some stage in their career. I wouldn’t change my path one bit. I remain a champion of Creative Writing courses, and of distance learning. I’m sure I would’ve got there in the end, but I have no doubt that my MA shaved two or more years off the process. Long may the CW course continue!

Liz Monument is a novelist and PhD student at Lancaster University. Her novel, The Eternity Fund, is published as an audio exclusive by Amazon Audible on the 17th February.

www.lizmonument.com

Taking Over the Library – Chaos to Order

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This is my new site!!! I have absolutely no idea how to use word press, so just trying to work it out as I go along. It turned out you have to pay if you want some colour or anything remotely nice on it. Hopefully it will get me going again. But I wouldn’t bet too much money on it.

I thought I’d start by updating on the fun we’ve had this week at the library. The band Everything Everything colonised Manchester Library with theatre, comedy, music and literature, all exploring the theme of chaos to order. Above is Josie Long, who performed on Tuesday to a full audience. I’d got my a ticket last minute and was confused between Josephine and Josie Long, and was expecting her to start singing. But she didn’t.  Instead, she was very, very funny. She has managed to convince most of the audience to help her stop Farage winning a seat in her hometown. Her plan is to  by organise thousands of people to move there for the election, and then all vote Green. But don’t tell the Green candidate, mind. No, let her think she will lose again, and have a lovely surprise. Then we can all leave afterwards.

Emma Jane Unsworth was the writer in residence, terrorising people in the cafe each lunch time by reading Frank O’Hara poems, appearing on Radio 6, which was recorded there today, and organising the Manchester Fiction Showcase. I was in that one, with Chris Killen, reading from his second novel, as well as Kerry Wilkinson, children and crime writer from Preston. None of us had met him before but he has about fifteen books in the pipeline. Kerry gave a powerpoint (who doesn’t like a powerpoint?) on the writing process and chaos prior to publishing, including email exchanges with his agent. Chris Killen was profound on the meaningless of existence. I read an excerpt from my new novel. It’s the bit I’ve read a couple of times this summer but tbh the rest of my novel is a bloody mess. I had another bit to read on being a communist but I paused, and thought ‘I could just get off this damn stage right now’. The event had overrun a bit and this was all the excuse I needed. Emma read from her new novel. A brilliantly witty teenage girl. Can’t wait to read more. 10805741_472473536224031_8293600422030764122_n

That’s me reading, my face looking kind of angry. Photos when reading always look pretty bloody weird.

Last night Josephine presented ‘Celluloid History Films’. Songs composed to films produced by Kim May from footage from North West Films Archive. The films were of working class people at the beginning of the century having fun, on days out to Blackpool, dancing and generally finding a bit of chaos in very ordered lives. I can’t quite describe how beautiful they were. Utterly spellbinding. As soon as the first song began I started crying. But then I cry at most dog videos on youtube. Here you can see one of the images, but they were also projected onto two of the walls. I think Josephine is going to perform them elsewhere. Just thinking of it makes me teary….1454867_472459436225441_9040172248787090188_n

My Next Book

This is a crime against blogging, but it’s been a year since my last entry. I started a full time job at Lancaster exactly a year ago… and a few other things went to pot. Like this blog. But other things have gone much better.

After publishing The War Tour, I’ve been working on a novel, well kind of novel. The War Tour, was, for obvious reasons, rather far from my own experience (though as I have discussed elsewhere, things are more complex than that). But my second book stems much more directly from the experience of illness and disability and the role as carer. In many ways, these issues have shaped my life. And I want issues that have stemmed from this to be at the centre of my next book.

How I go about that has changed over the past year; the way this kind of material is fictionalised, the form, the approach, has gradually morphed with each word I wrote. Things are now coming together. The structure of this book is more cohesive than my first collection. But there is still something fragmentary about it. I’m still attracted to different stories bumping up against each other, but those connections this time are much more novelistic.

Notes to Self Prior to a Year of Events

a) the two-glass wine hypothesis will prove to be correct.

b) events are very tiring, especially one hour lunchtime readings where you have to keep talking for exactly ONE HOUR. This is a long period of time. Don’t expect any sympathy for this.

c) it’s OK if only your parents turn up. Seriously. And remember this doesn’t reflect on you; it reflects ON SOCIETY AROUND YOU. Think this as you go over your two-glass wine limit. At lunchtime.

d) you never know what event organisers will do, such as decide to include a random poet in your event, who cries at her own poems. If this happens, don’t expect any questions from the audience and don’t expect anyone to buy any books.

e) never try to leave a music festival at 7 am on the Sunday morning to go to another festival. You will want to cry. You will cry. You will miss seeing New Order.

f) there are actually mosquitoes in Wales, and they bite through tights.

g) a one person tent is meant for one person.

h) it’s perfectly OK to BYO wine to events.

i) if you do too many readings, you will certainly get Event Fatigue. This is similar to Compassion Fatigue. You will certainly never want to open your book again. You may even be cruel to it.

j) Swansea is very far but you can get there and back from Manchester in a day.

h) Throckmortons’ Festival has its own butler

i) if you spend a weekend at Throckmortons where you don’t even have to pour your own drinks, your nail polish won’t chip at all

i) Boris Johnson’s dad is a really nice guy

j) you tube recordings of you reading are a bad idea. But there is nothing you can do to stop their proliferation.

k) don’t attempt to drive yourself to events. At some point you will actually be driven by a chauffeur. Unfortunately, it won’t ever be in a limousine.

l) if anyone takes a photo while you are reading, you are going to look like a goldfish:

(c Paul McVeigh)