Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Three good publishing related news items this week.

First, my review of Morag Joss's Across the Bridge appeared in Northwords Now. A favourable review :) because I enjoyed it and what the author was trying to do. Northwords Now launch this issue with an event at the Scottish Writers' Centre on Thursday 8 December from 7pm.

Second, a surprise through the post! A copy of Le soir, quand je me couche: the French translation of As I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Really weird, seeing what you've written expressed in a different language through the filter of a translator whom you've never met. Thank you, Alexander Fox! I'm very pleased the book is out in France. And in one of the bigger sized paperbacks, too!

Third, an email telling me that Spilling Ink Review have accepted my short story 'Safety Glass' for issue seven of their influential e-zine. 'Safety Glass' is a difficult story in that it demands full attention from the reader as it's a bit of a puzzle. What happens when your protagonist's thinking is fuzzy? The story started out life when I imagined what it would be like to be a woman trapped between the two layers of a double glazed window (reading this as all kinds of metaphor) but it moved on to be about a woman trapped in a very different kind of glass. I'm glad Spilling Ink Review have run with the idea. It's a story I wrote at the same time as 'Grit', which was published in From Glasgow To Saturn e-zine.

Monday, 5 September 2011

What I did on my holidays

Did we have a summer this year? Possibly not. Though my garden did produce a knee-high volume of grass, docks and buttercups so I guess we must have.

Craggy landscape, Northern Ireland, 2011
Now the new term is starting, I'm thinking back over what I did during the two months off. The good things included a trip to Ireland, which is where my dad's two grannies came from, and also where Keith's dad's family were from. We spent three days in Sligo and three based in Ballymena, so this was an all-Ireland trip and a very educational one for me, too, given it was my first visit to the island.

The biggest shock for me was seeing so many Union flags and NI flags with their 'red hand of Ulster', hanging from every lamppost in the main street as we drove off the ferry at Larne. There's clearly a strong desire to proclaim a nationality, there, and a separate one at that from the rest of the island. I think of the design for a new sculpture which is planned for the main road north from England to Scotland, with its shooting, revolving stars, and I guess the difference is that Scotland, now, doesn't feel under quite so much pressure of being overwhelmed and assimilated by its bigger neighbour.  Though I see that Belfast has its own significant piece of architectural and stellar sculpture planned, too, as this link shows. No one turned up for a public meeting about that so I guess the flags might be statement enough for many. Enough on that from me.

Carol looking awkward at Bellanurly, Co. Sligo
In Bellanurly, just outside Sligo, we tracked down the field where my grandmother was born in 1888. I hope there was a house there at the time! Sligo town and the area around it were beautiful. So, too, were the north and north east coast of Northern Ireland. We had a very blustery day at the Giant's Causeway, which was atmospheric, and then blissfully clear and calm weather for our trip south towards Glenarm, the village Keith's father's family were from. Sadly, I managed to delete half of my photos while they were still in my camera (don't ask) but Keith took some. Here are a few:
Turbulent Garavogue River, Sligo, Aug 2011
Yeats' Building, Sligo, August 2011

The river that flows through Sligo is very lively. Perhaps it's tidal?  There were plenty of swans on it, despite the currents.
The Glasshouse Hotel, Sligo, 2011
We also passed what might be Coole Park, setting for one of my favourite W. B. Yeats' poems, The Wild Swans at Coole. The building in the picture was donated by one of the banks to create a museum in recognition of the poet, who spent a lot of his childhood in Sligo.

Carol, near the Giant's Causeway, Aug 2011
Keith on a blustery day at Giant's Causeway, Aug 2011
One very good thing about my holiday was that I was able to take lots of notes and I've since written a 3000 word story set there. Lots of it is direct fact in that it uses real landscapes, weather and incidents, but it's fiction in that the characters are imagined and the central storyline is untrue.
Causeway flags

I really like the neatness of these 'flagstones'. 

I've called the story 'Flags' and have sent it off to a magazine already. Normally, I'd leave it a while and then read it over and over again during editing. Fallow time helps defamiliarise it so the writer can discover it as if for the first time, coming close to what the prospective reader will experience. However, I've sent it off already. If it comes back with a thanks but no thanks, fair enough: I'll work on it again.

Also during the summer, I took the decision to step down from the steering group of the Scottish Writers' Centre. I was involved there for about eighteen months and found it to be hugely fulfilling. I've really enjoyed my time working with the others on the committee but I needed a break. Being a volunteer can be so demanding! Full praise for those who devote so much time and effort to help realise the vision they have.

The Scottish Writers' Centre has a full programme for the months ahead and I recommend a visit to their website - and to their events, which are mostly held in the CCA at 350 Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. I certainly plan on going along to most of them.

So that was my summer 2011. As for the poor weather - better to have downpours and few sunny days than no rain at all.

The background to this summer is that famine has returned to East Africa. I've long been a supporter of the great work done by Oxfam, and urge everyone to consider making a regular donation to them, if at all possible. Many a mickle maks a muckle - lots of us giving a small amount adds up to a great deal.

Yet, surely, in these days, we should be able to do much more than emergency responses? Surely 'capital' should be able to see and seize financial opportunities to provide solar-powered desalination plants and pipelines and to provide valuable infrastructure in Somalia and Kenya? Labour there must be cheap just as Irish navvy labour was cheap one or two hundred years ago when Britain's canals and railways were built.

East Africa could be developed just as Ireland itself was and just as 'the wild west' of the USA was, with private capital funding massive construction projects like railways, roads, electricity, plumbing. It was do-able then. A few people got rich on it and millions benefitted in the process. Why is it not do-able in East Africa now?  

Carol and grand-daughter Mhairi enjoying the luxury of a lush garden, summer 2011.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

If I Should Die Before I Wake

In 2007, I worked with Eileen Munro, a former student on my Open University creative writing course, after she approached me for help in writing her autobiography.  The year or more we spent on it had deep lows as she relived the upsets of her childhood (and as we read her Social Work and medical case notes together) yet it had much in the way of emotional highs and gusty laughter, too. In working together, we tried to create something that adhered as closely as possible to the truth, while crafting a story which would provide an engaging, honest and thought-provoking read. 
After it was published in 2008, I told Eileen I wouldn’t be able to spend the same amount of time co-writing her second volume, given that I had projects of my own which I wanted to explore (and, as I subsequently found out, because my health was in freefall). I was pleased when I heard she was immersed in writing the follow-up. Now it’s available, here’s my review of it.

Eileen Munro’s If I Should Die Before I Wake was published in July 2011 by Mainstream Publishing, three years after her first book, As I Lay Me Down To Sleep. The second volume of memoir follows Eileen from the birth of her first child in difficult circumstances, through a continued exploration of the search for family life and a yearned after sense of belonging.
                Eileen’s life story is a painful one because she was one of the generation of babies given up for adoption in the early 1960s when illegitimacy was universally stigmatised. In those days before abortion was legalised, young mothers-to-be were secreted away in institutions or with family members in distant parts of the country, to complete their pregnancies and dispose of their ‘mistakes’ through adoption before returning home to resume a ‘normal’ life. The theory was that the children born to these single mothers would enjoy a better life because they were adopted by a married couple who would be able to provide love and security.
                As I Lay Me Down To Sleep told the story of the very different consequences for one such child. Adopted just after birth, Eileen might indeed have enjoyed a sweet life except that her adoptive parents became alcoholics who left her vulnerable to abuse. Her father was violent and her mother died in a drunken stupor when Eileen was twelve, after which Eileen and her sister were taken into care. A troubled teenager, Eileen herself became a single mother at the age of sixteen but passionately vowed she would keep her child and cherish him so he wouldn’t suffer physically and emotionally as she had.

This is the point at which If I Should Die before I Wake opens. We meet Eileen, still vulnerable, innocent of the adult world as any sixteen year old is, but steely with bravado. Unlike most sixteen year olds, Eileen had no home or family support. No mother to turn to for help in raising her baby and no one to help her keep tabs on rent and electricity bills. No one other than a social worker on the end of the phone, or the manager of whatever hostel she happened to find herself in.
This should evoke a feeling of empathy in the reader or perhaps a sense of outrage at her circumstances. That doesn’t quite happen in this book and I think it’s because Eileen does herself no favours by presenting every authority figure as loathsome. Universally wicked and evil, associated in her descriptions with stern morality and girdles, the women running the homes she lived in are cardboard cut-outs and this is one thing in this otherwise moving account of her life which irritated me as a reader.
                Take Mrs Woods of Hove House, a woman whose very clothes were imbued with powers to humiliate and repress the young Eileen. ‘Staunch and heavily-girdled in Marks & Spencer’s good churchgoing clothing’, her ‘brown-patent square-toed and -heeled shoes remained unmoved, demanding my answer’. Mrs Linn, the health worker, is also presented as one-sided, biased against Eileen (‘seemed to take my fears as a personal attack on her authority, and she was determined that I would not undermine her’). Even Mac-Mac, a worker shown with a rare soft side, turns deceitful.
                Eileen proclaims herself the injured party throughout, innocent even though she admits assuming the lead in breaking into another occupant’s room. And when she recounts the gruesome brutality she suffered from a partner who arrived in the middle of the night to find her with another man, the reader’s fellow-feeling shrinks a little in disbelief at her unconvincing explanation of why that man was there. There’s sparse evidence of the mature Eileen weighing this up in the memoir: not much in the way of taking stock of how her actions could have been misinterpreted. 
            Memory is, of course, subjective: two people witnessing the same event will write about it from different perspectives and with different attitudes and agendas. Who is to say which is the real truth? Eileen is entitled to write her truth as she sees it and to sculpt a narrative out of it. 
It is the total intimacy with the memoir writer which readers enjoy: a sometimes prurient interest in sharing a wounded person’s hurts then, with the wounded person, learning to rise above them. There is a hunger for this kind of confessional memoir and writers, and commercial publishers, have a right to feed it. Perhaps as readers we're too worldly wise to hope for a 'happy ever after' but at least this chapter of Eileen's story ends, satisfactorily, on a note of lightness and optimism.  

Monday, 11 April 2011

Busy events schedule

Busy few weeks at the Scottish Writers' Centre.

Last week, David Manderson led the discussion on creative writing (higher) education. Very interesting. He gave a useful overview on the growth of CW courses in UK universities over the last 15 years. Some audience members asked what the value was, e.g. what good does it do a student to finish their studies with a pile of short stories when there's no market for them. Reasonable point in many ways but then, we could ask the same question about English Literature essays. There's a value in study; learning techniques of creative writing has the general educational value of developing a student's critical analysis. At a vocational level, it helps the student put craft ideas into practice. As an analogy, I think of driving. You can study theory and pass your driving theory test but that doesn't make you a good driver. Dave's novel's due out soon.

This coming Thursday, 14 April 2011, the fabulous Tom Leonard will be reading from his work. Definitely one to look out for. 7pm in the CCA Clubroom in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. Admission free! The SWC appreciates the support of the Scottish Book Trust in staging this event.

On Thursday 21 April at 7pm, David Kinloch launches his new poetry collection, published by Carcanet. It has the intriguing title of Finger of a Frenchman. That's one not to miss!

And on Thursday 28 April at 7pm, we've a special session on Iraqi Fiction, in cooperation with the Goethe Institut, Glasgow, and featuring Abbas Khider, Kusay Hussain and Sue Reid Sexton. As with other events, admission to this is free (though donations to help with the organisation of future events are always welcome).

The Scottish Writers' Centre operates out of the Centre for Contemporary Arts, 350 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, G2 3JD.

Having mentioned Sue Reid Sexton, I'll also mention that Keith and I attended a launch of her novel Mavis's Shoe, which was published by Waverley Books in March to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz. I'm really looking forward to reading it. It's about a young girl who loses her sister on the first night of the blitz, when Clydebank, a shipbuilding town on the banks of the Clyde, just next to Glasgow, was devastated by enemy bombs. I used to spend my Saturday afternoons in Clydebank when I was just a little bit older than Mavis.  Sue's reading was superb - completely evocative, thrilling and poignant. She had the great idea of using sound system to replicate the bomber alert and all clear sirens, which really made the blood in my veins curdle. She also partly dramatised sections of the novel, with three students from STAG theatre group reading the parts.

I've read the first chapter and am now eagerly trying to finish the Emile Zola book I'm reading (slightly struggling with) so I can get on to reading Mavis's Shoe! But I can't skip it because the Zola book is set in the flat plains of Beauce in France, close to where I spent last summer on the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship and this is the area my main character in Spell in the South comes from, so it's useful secondary research :)

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Catch Up

Three months since my last post. This one will have to be a catch up.

I've been to several really worthwhile events connected with the Scottish Writers' Centre recently. One of these was the writers' groups' showcase competition. We held the presentation of prizes at The Mitchell Library at the beginning of March as part of the Aye Write Festival and, for me, it was especially delightful to play a role in The Mitchell Library again as one of the servants of the servants of art (as Prof Willy Maley would say). It didn't feel like decades since I had worked there! I'm sure the event's Green Room used to be WAG Alison the City Librarian's office where I went for my first job interview in 1974.

The competition drew entries from across much of Scotland, from Angus to Dumfries and from Edinburgh to Lochwinnoch. The six finalists inspired the audience with their very able readings. Here's a photo of the six winners with the two judges, David Kinloch (poetry) and Maggie Graham (fiction). Also shown is Irene Hossack of the Scottish Writers' Centre – a very able host for the event and a good friend. I'm grateful to her for this photo.

Left to right: Maggie Graham, David Kinloch, Carol McKay, Jack Hastie, G W Colkitto, Grace Fenwick representing Kriss Nichol, Nancy Holehouse, Theresa Munoz, Julie Macpherson and Irene Hossack.

On Saturday 26th of March, I took part with the Scottish Writers' Centre committee, in the Gaelic Book Festival at the CCA in Glasgow.  Leabhar's Craic - books and banter - is an vibrant event which gives Gaelic speakers the opportunity to gather to chat about their passion for books and writing. We at the Scottish Writers' Centre are keen to involve Gaelic writers in the work of the SWC as our aim is to be inclusive across the whole of Scotland, representing writers in all the languages of Scotland. Our session at the Book Festival was certainly animated; we also had a feature and advert in the programme and we're optimistic about future liaison and cooperation with the Gaelic writing community.

And now, on to publishing news.I was very pleased to learn, recently, that Mainstream Publishing plan to bring out As I Lay Me Down To Sleep (which I co-wrote with Eileen Munro) as an e-book. I find that a very exciting development. They expect an increase in sales and publicity for this title once Eileen's sequel is published in the summer. I also learned, on Monday of this week, that Mainstream have sold the rights to the book to a French publisher which is also really exciting. Good luck to the translator! As I Lay Me Down To Sleep, French style, should be available in the shops in France at the end of 2011. And today, I received my royalty statement. We've sold over 45,000 copies since AILMDTS was published in August 2008.

Since I divorced my agent last year, I've been looking for a new one. I had some word back last week from one prestigious and reputable London agent. Sadly, there's no contract for me as things stand but the agent did express many positives about the book (A Spell in the South) and gave me lots of good feedback. It's disheartening, yet at the same time it's encouraging that he was prepared to spend so much time e-mailing me his response. The agent suggested some significant changes to the plotline. This strikes me as bizarre, given that I always thought I was quite good at plot! Certainly, it's much harder to handle plot in a full length work and the clutter that is in my brain has surely influenced my storyline. Anyway, the agent's going to think about it a bit more and get back to me with more detailed suggestions. Then it's up to me whether I follow them or not. The novel must have some strengths if he's prepared to be so helpful. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

I'm happy to say that Chris Powici, editor of Northwords Now, the free literary magazine of the north, invited me to review a novel by Glasgow-based writer J David Simons. You can read my review of The Liberation of Celia Kahn here.

Lastly, Keith and I are investigating e-book publishing with a view to bringing together a collection of my short fiction. I've had ten stories published in literary magazines and anthologies over the last decade but it's very difficult to interest a publisher in a short story collection in the present economic climate. Yet, many of my students ask me where they can get their hands on my publications. With the advent of e-publishing and print on demand, and encouraged by the proliferation of small chapbooks by authors we admire and respect, Keith and I now think it's time we looked into this seriously. More on this later.