not exactly true

Manchester Review Issue 12

The latest issue of The Manchester Review - Issue 12 - is now live. Edited by me and my PhD supervisor, Ian McGuire, and his co-director of the university's Centre for New Writing, John McAuliffe, it features some really, really, really good prose and poetry. I was particularly delighted to get an unsolicited story through from Helen Cross, whose novel My Summer of Love I adore. If any writers are reading this, please do send us your work: we really do pay attention to the slush pile, and most (not all, but most) of what we publish comes to us this way.

I'm also involved in a critical theory event that's happening tomorrow - July 12th - at Levenshulme Market, in south-east Manchester: I'm part of a loose collective known as Kitchen Table Theory, and we're hosting an open discussion about community and community space from 2pm, though we'll be at the market all day (10am-4pm) passing out flyers. The market itself is worth a visit; this week it's all food and drink, which ought to be a treat on a good summer's day!

Next week, then, I'm off to Lincoln to give a paper at the What Happens Now conference; my presentation will be about short story cycles and genre classification and changing reading and writing strategies as brought about by digital culture: thrilling stuff, eh? Quite a change from what I was doing last week, anyway (photo credit @noteviljoe, my klimbing sensei):


my writing process - blog tour

A new blog post! It's like Christmas around here, only without the snowman (whom, according to my daughter, is the one that brings us all our presents: I believe she gets this, somehow, from Raymond Briggs, but God only knows). Anyway. I've been invited to take part in a bog tour about writing processes by my friend and PhD colleague here at Manchester, the poet Janet Rogerson, whose own contribution to the tour is here. Actually, if you want to know about Janet's PhD experience, seeing as I'm clearly a massive failure when it comes to blogging about it, check this out. Janet's way pithier than me - maybe it's a poetry thing, hey? But, so, read on here if you want to know more about how/why I write.

What am I working on? Well! Because I'm doing a practice-based PhD, I've been working on the same book for the past eighteen months, and will continue to do so for at least another eighteen months, if not longer. It's a book of interrelated short stories, or a short-story cycle, and it's set in contemporary(ish) Manchester and is about the intersecting lives of a group of neighbours. There's all sorts of infidelities and disappointments, and I suppose one of the main themes in there is disconnection, or the way you can perceive yourself as being alone, even if you're in a relationship or surrounded by a community of friends. I'm not sure yet if I'll shove in a glimmer of hope. I probably ought to, right? We'll see.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? I'm not so sure that it does, categorically - these cycles have been around for a while, as have these themes. But while it's not strictly what I'd call formally innovative, it's perhaps not a commonly read or recognised form and so it might appear innovative to the more casual reader. God, that sounds awful, doesn't it? The critical element of my PhD project is partly concerned with historicising this type of construction, and so I'd imagine I've read more short-story cycles than is probably normal. Perhaps my work might be interesting because of the way it's very rooted in its Mancunian setting? Maybe I bring some sort of Irish aesthetic to the North of England? We shall see! It's still a work in progress, so bear with me.

Why do I write what I do? I'm intrigued with the way interconnected stories function, and how that differs from what we might more commonly recognise as a novel, or at least, a novel in the tradition of nineteenth century realism, which is a mode out of which many novelists still seem to prefer to operate. I love short stories: I think we're so brought up on novels that stories can be, especially to occasional readers, an acquired taste, but it's one that I've definitely acquired. I write about fairly grim scenarios most of the time because I find them interesting: how do people cope with difficult or weird circumstances? How to they relate or fail to relate to one another in these situations? But I like a lot of humour, too, and so I try to throw in plenty of funny stuff, for better or worse.

How does your writing process work? Slowly. Very. very slowly. It takes me ages, a month or two, to figure out what I want to write, maybe a horrible couple of weeks or more to get a first draft down (anything between 5,000 and 8,000 words), and then months and months of drafting and redrafting. Maybe halfway through this rewriting process I'll realise what I actually want to write about, or what I ought to be writing about, so there'll be huge changes to make. Sometimes I start with some dialogue or a setting and work a plot out from there. Plotting is my downfall - I struggle to get that right. My PhD supervisors are excellent sounding boards - I'll think I've nailed something and they'll point out that a huge chunk is ill-conceived or redundant, or that a character's motivation is far too unclear, and I'll be back to the drawing board - but they've always been right. It's now February 2014 and I've just finished the eight draft of a story that I started in September 2012, if that gives you an idea of my pace. I remember once reading an interview with somebody, perhaps Alice Munro, who said they took six months to do a story, and I thought, huh, that's not very fast - right now six months seems super zippy and efficient. I have a bunch of stories for this book - six or seven - that I've been working on since 2012 or early/mid 2013, and I know it'll be a long time yet before any of them are ready. I've got my critical thesis to do (which is what's taking up most of my time now, and will do until this summer at least), and various part-time jobs, plus a home life with a small child, but it's not really a matter of time constraints; I think it just takes me a while to process, internally, what a story requires. Often if I'm spending all my time on a piece, especially in the earlier stages, it becomes hard to get an overview, so doing it in fits and starts and pondering a lot in the interim can be quite helpful. Having these excellent readers helps. I know I'm getting better at it, and I'm coming to the conclusion that I need to take more time at the start figuring out the core ideas and development of the story before I put pen to paper. The blank page bit is the worst. And I can't start unless I've got a good scene or a great line in mind right from the off. Starting wrong-footed is a nauseating feeling. But knowing what needs to be said and paring away at it until you've drawn that out - that's brilliant. I wish I had a drawer full of dozen of completed works, but, as we've established, I'm very slow and I'm very fussy. I kind of hope that the result will be, if not a very prolific output, a solid and coherent one.

Have I put you off yet? I'm supposed to nominate three other writers to follow in my footsteps and carry this blog tour onwards, but I'm doing it wrong and just naming one: Claire Snook, my former MA classmate and excellent friend, a great writer who gets more work done in a month than I do in a year, and who has a brilliant agent, to boot. She'll post her entry next Monday (March 10th), so keep your eyes on this space.

Gary Shteyngart review

My review of Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure is live at Bookmunch.

Susan Minot review

My review of Susan Minot's Thirty Girls is live at Bookmunch.

time (and the lack thereof)

So, I signed up to the NYC Short Story Challenge this year and quietly bombed - by which I mean I paid the entry fee, got assigned my writing challenge (a 2,500 word story, science-fiction, with the theme 'home security' and starring a butler), managed in a week to write only 250 words and (obviously) didn't submit anything for the deadline last weekend. Waste of money, eh? 

Well. I don't know. It did remind me not to be an utter moron and remember that I can't fit All The Things In. This PhD business takes up four days a week, and then there's the copywriting that pays the rent, the book reviews (more occasional these days, but still), my local book club, and, oh, general child-rearing and having a nice time and getting (some rare) sleep. At the moment I'm concentrating on the critical side of my PhD - the academic dissertation that accompanies my creative work - and so I have three conference papers so sort out, plus the actual thesis chapters, plus the accompanying reading and thinking, and it's all fairly intense. I thought the NYC thing would be a way of doing some fun writing in the meantime, but it just added to the crazy time pressures. Lesson learnt, eh? Good luck to those of you who did enter - may you do a hell of a lot better than me!

In more cheery, if still academic, news, my partner, Andy, recently passed his Fine Art PhD - hardcopy submitted and everything - and my friend Joe passed his Philosophy PhD with ne'er a change to be made. Woop! If any of you are university sorts looking to hire experts on installation practice/institutional critique and social ontology, respectively, I've got a couple going spare.


Reading List 2014

Another bloody year, eh? Honestly, they don't stop. Here's my Reading List for 2014. I'll link to this post in the sidebar and if you're at all interested in what I've been reading, you'll be able to keep up to date. So, same deal as usual: I'll include only books I've finished (these days I'll give it fifty pages and if it's not doing it for me (with the exception of review books or work-related stuff) I'll toss it on the refuse/charity shop pile), with a little (e) to denote e-books (I still have the Kindle and I still rarely use it), an * for a reread, and I'll also generally mention if a book is something I've read for my PhD. I'm not including lit journals, unless I've read them cover to cover, or academic text-books. Oh, and also I've joined a local book club, so I'll note what books are for that. Last year I vowed I'd read a graphic novel each month, which I did, and which was a resounding success that has resulted in a change in my reading habits that I'm really happy about; I've still got a bunch of books left to read on the list a couple of friends compiled for me, but I won't be so consistent as to do one a month this year because I've got a lot of other stuff to get through. Still, every other month, at least. This year (partly motivated by my research) I'm going to read Proust, one volume a month, so I should have nailed it by the summer. I didn't get as many books read as usual last year (105, which I know is a lot, but I do usually read more) and I think that's from a combo of studying and child-wrangling; the studying will probably be even more time-consuming this year, so I expect it to be a slow-ish year, books-wise. Anyway, enough preamble. In reverse chronological order, the books I have read in 2014 are:

July
40. The Great Night, Chris Adrian. Fantastic. A Midsummer Night's Dream by way of Kelly Link.
39. Tabloid Dreams, Robert Olen Butler. fantastic short stories. Surreal, but beautiful and gritty at the same time. Am annoyed I'd had this for months without reading it.
38. Harvest, Jim Crace. Elegiac and brutal novel about the enclosing of the commons in an isolated village. Not so sure about how he portrays women, but the language is stunning.

June
37. *Hawthorn & Child, Keith Ridgway. PhD re-read. Stories. Good stuff.
36. Any Other Mouth, Anneliese Mackintosh. Linked stories: brutal, funny, semi-autobiogrpahical. Well worth a read,
35. Caribou Island, David Vann. Pretty bleak stuff; great descriptions of scenery, but not as compelling as Legend of a Suicide.
34. Oblivion, David Foster Wallace. Stories. Have been dipping in and out of this since last July. I think I might be Walllaced out for the time being.
33. Apple Tree Yard, Louise Doughty. Not my usual thing but recommended by friends Excellent crime thriller - brilliant discussion of the gender politics of sexual abuse.
32. Ten Things I've Learnt About Love, Sarah Butler. Beautiful examination of love and loss.
31. Burial Rites, Hannah Kent. For my book group. Historical murder story. Wasn't keen initially, utterly gripped by the end. Beautiful imagery throughout.

May
30. The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus. Viscerally brutal. And madly clever.
29. Stoner, John Williams. John McGahern meets Marilynne Robinson meets Richard Yates in a campus novel. Very sad, beautiful prose, a fairly staid story-arc.
28. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth. A family saga, sort of, set before WW1: satirical and touching and very funny.
27. Dear Life, Alice Munro. Good - not entirely up with her best, but with some standout moments. The last five pieces were fantastic.

April
26. Our Kind, Kate Walbert. A PhD read, but very unimpressive. First person plural stories.
25. *As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner. Brilliant, of course. My favourite of his (so far). I should reread this more often.
24. Flash, Vol. 5, No 2. Flash fiction lit journal.  So-so. Some great stuff, some bland.
23. Animals,  Emma Jane Unsworth. Excellent. Dirty and funny and full of brilliant writing.
22. Sonnets to Orpheus & Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. Again, not quite my thing, but interesting - the letters more so than the poems themselves. (Fell free to disagree...)
21. Orpheus: A Version of Rilke, Don Paterson. Sonnets. Not really my thing, but interesting.
20. How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez. PhD read. Good. One of the best last lines ever.
19. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski. Well. That was creepy. Don't read it alone at night or in a corridor.
18. In Search of Lost Time ,V.2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Marcel Proust, trans. James Grieve. For my uni reading group. I preferred volume one and wasn't keen on some of the translation.

March
17. Rebel Cities, David Harvey. Non-fiction critique of how capitalism has determined urban/common spaces. Excellent.
16. The Driver's Seat, Muriel Spark. April book club read. As weird and pithy as I expected...
15. Emerald City, Jennifer Egan. Short stories. Good, but not Goon Squad good.
14. The Invisible Circus, Jennifer Egan. A girl tries to find out about her sister's last days. Took a while to get going, but latter half was really engaging.
13. The Palace of Curiosities, Rosie Garland. Book-club choice. Not bad - a bit flowery for me, but interesting, especially the second half.
12. A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride. Astounding. Formally innovative, brutal with the subject matter, and really, really hard to read without crying. Best and most interesting book I'll read all year (she says, in early March. Still, though.)
11. Original Bliss, AL Kennedy. Hmm. My ambivalent relationship with ALK continues ambivalent. I didn't like the shorter stories here, but the novella at the end drew me in against my will.

February
10. Triangle, Hisaki Matsuura. Baffling.
9. The Crow Road, Iain Banks. Just about the most tedious coming-of-age novel I've ever read, and pretty misogynistic on top of that. Thumbs down!
8. Thirty Girls, Susan Minot. An American writer travels to Africa to cover kidnappings in Uganda. Disappointing.
7. Ulysses and Us, Declan Kiberd. A sort-of analysis of Joyce and how his work relates to everyday life, not the elite few... Academia-lite.
6. The Safety of Objects, A.M. Homes. Story collection - some really excellent pieces.
5. Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart. Excellent, poignant, hilarious memoir (and I don't generally like  memoirs).

January
4. In Search of Lost Time ,V.1, The Way By Swann's, Marvel Proust, trans. Lydia Davis. A much more enjoyable read than I expected.
3. Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt. Funny workplace satire, but didn't ultimately go anywhere.
2. A Tale For The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki. January's book club read. Very good stuff, and a fortuitous connection to my Proust plans. Deserved Booker shortlistee last year.
1. A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel. Very long, but very engaging book about real folk during the French Revolution. Especially interesting as a forerunner of her later technique with Wolf Hall, etc.