Creatives in profile: interview with Paul Scraton

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Paul Scraton is a writer and editor who grew up in Lancashire in the north of England and now lives in Berlin, Germany. Among various projects, Paul is the Editor in Chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and also contributes to Slow Travel BerlinCaught by the River. The author of Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast, his fiction debut is  Built on Sand (published by Influx Press), which paints a picture of Berlin through a series of interconnected short stories; and in this, we discover a city three decades on from the fall of the wall, and in many ways still coming to terms with that history.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SCRATON

I am a British-born writer based in Berlin. I have been living in the German capital since 2002. I feel at home both in the north of England and in Germany, and I feel an outsider in both at the same time. As a writer, I don’t think it’s a bad place to be.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

SCRATON

I have wanted to be a writer since I was about seventeen or eighteen, and although I have lots of interests, mainly involving getting outdoors, books and literature remain very important to me.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

SCRATON

Family and friends, of course, and each of them in their own unique way. When it comes to writing, it changes frequently, depending on what I am reading! At the moment I am thinking a lot about how history shapes the present, and how the stories of the past, and our knowledge of them, are particularly important in the current political climate. In this I have been thinking a lot recently about the writings of Joseph Roth and Daša Drndić. When it comes to writing on place, a long-term inspiration is Jan Morris. Her writing combines an interest in others with sharp observation, two of the most important components, I think, in any successful literature of place.

INTERVIEWER

How has your time as editor of the Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, influenced the way you view the relationship between place and imagination? And how important a role does setting play in your own creative writing?

SCRATON

I think the fact that I was already interested in place and how the stories of a landscape and people can shape our understanding not only of that specific location but elsewhere is one of the main reasons that I founded the journal with Julia Stone. When it comes to my own writing, whether fiction, nonfiction or something in between, my main themes are history, memory and identity, and as such place is at the core of nearly everything I commit to paper.

INTERVIEWER

It has been said that events like the Brexit vote in the UK have brought to light the differences between so-called ‘anywhere’s’ and ‘somewhere’s – i.e. people who essentially view themselves as citizens of the world, with no particular attachment to their home town or country of origin, and those who view the world directly through the prism of their geographic origins. Do you subscribe to this as an accurate view? Or is this polarity too simplistic a view to take?

SCRATON

I think there is something going on here that needs to be understood, but I imagine it is more complex than a simple divide between citizens of ‘somewhere’ and Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere.’ I think there is a certain sense of dislocation feeding dissatisfaction for many people, not only in the UK but elsewhere. There is a difference in the populist movements that can be observed in the US, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Italy, Poland… but one common thread is a kind of nostalgia for a rooted sense of belonging that communities supposedly had in the past. And that globalisation and all that comes with it have broken the ties that bound a community together.

This is the danger of nostalgia, that it in turn creates a sense of ‘belonging’ and identity that is exclusive rather than inclusive. That it idealises a non-existent golden era that could be returned to. People call these movements new, but there is very little in them that we haven’t seen before. What is new is the role of the internet and the media, and how it allows dangerous ideas to spread and take hold. And whenever people are split, into somewhere and nowhere, us and them, it is always important to ask: in whose interest are we being divided? It is very rarely the people themselves.

On a personal level, I would like to think of myself as both a ‘citizen of everywhere’ and, as someone born in a different country to the one where I’ve made my home, a person committed to being a ‘citizen of somewhere’ in that I want to be part of my community and understand the stories and the history that brought us to where we are in Berlin and Germany today. I have no doubt that it is possible to be both, to be both internationalist and local in outlook.

INTERVIEWER

When writing, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully fledged story or novel?

SCRATON

I make a lot of notes. I think a lot. I go for a walk or a run. I spend a lot of time looking and feeling like I am not doing very much at all. But I have always been someone who likes to have a plan, have it fixed – whether in my head or on paper – what it is I am going to do. So it can take a while to get to the blank page (or computer screen) but then when I get there I tend to write quite quickly as I have worked most of the problems out already.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when a piece of writing is ‘finished’?

SCRATON

I think I have to get to a draft I am not totally unhappy with. That is usually after two or three goes at it. Then I give it to my partner Katrin, who is always my first reader and who has an excellent bullshit and pretension detector, and whose judgement I trust more than any other. Basically when she gives the green light I feel comfortable to send it off, to the editor or to post it on my blog or whatever. If she tells me its not working, I’ll probably argue with her for a bit, go quiet, and then return to my desk because deep down I know she was right after all.

INTERVIEWER

Your fiction debut Built on Sand will be published in April this year. What has the experience of firstly writing the book, and then seeing it published, been like?

SCRATON

This is the second book I have written for my publishers Influx Press, and so I knew how the practicalities would work. My editor, Gary Budden, is someone who I greatly respect both as a publisher but also as a writer. We share many common interests and outlook on the world and in particular how we write about it (although our styles are different). So when I came up with the idea of a collection of stories set in Berlin and the landscapes around, I felt that it would be a project he would be interested in and would be able to help me realise. What changed during the writing and the editing process was the realisation that what I had – what we had – was actually a novel, that although each story could stand alone, together they told a wider story.

The second time around (and the book is not out at the time of writing) it is interesting to see how much easier it has been to get people to notice the book. I don’t know if it is because it is the second book, if it is because it is a novel (and set in Berlin, which must surely help), or if it is because the publishers are a more established name themselves… most likely it is a combination of all of the above.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for the book?

SCRATON

All the main hopes were in the writing and bringing it to publication, and they’ve been fulfilled. Of course, I hope people discover it and like what I have written. And I hope that some of the themes in the book will resonate, and will make people think about their own relationships to place, and how history and memory, both collective and personal, shape our understanding of the world around us.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a writer?

SCRATON

Only in that I am still trying to find the best way to say what it is I want to say, so my responsibility is to keep working on it.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for authors and poets, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

SCRATON

I think we all have to accept that – with the exception of the very few – most of us will need to do other work to pay the bills. I do copywriting and other bits and pieces for travel companies and content agencies. I do walking tours on the streets of Berlin (which has certainly been good for honing the storytelling skills).  I don’t really have an answer because I still know that I am one of the lucky ones. I have time to write. I can make time to travel. I have a supportive partner. There are people with much more difficult circumstances than mine who create amazing things, and I am in awe of them. The deeper question is, why do we as society not value art and music and literature in a way that means that artists, musicians and writers can live from their work? Because the danger is that the majority of voices we will hear will increasingly come from a privileged minority, those who can afford, one way or the other, to “pursue their passions”. This will have the knock-on effect of only increasing the idea that the arts are for the few and not for the many.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your writing? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

SCRATON

I have started the next novel and have some loose ideas for nonfiction books, one set in the north of England and the other in the hills of Germany. All three books will no doubt continue to explore ideas of history, memory, identity and place. As I answered earlier: I am still trying to work out the best way to say what it is I want to say.

 

 

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Creatives in profile: interview with Ben Armstrong

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Ben Armstrong is a poet from the West Midlands, UK, who specialises in surrealist, hyper-real and absurdist pieces. An alumnus of the renown Warwick University Writing Programme, his poem ‘The Year of the Apple’ was featured in The Apple Anthology (Nine Arches Press, 2013), shortlisted for Best Anthology in the Saboteur Awards. His debut collection Perennial is out now through Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, and has drawn praise from a number of right-on poets and publications, including Luke Kennard, George Ttoouli, and David Morley, as well as the magazines Eye Flash Poetry, and Here Comes Everyone (oh, and ourselves, of course).

In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace unpredictability and recognise order within otherwise apparent disorder, in what is an extremely fun, engaging, witty and anarchic poetry collection. Given that we love witty anarchy as much as the next creative collective (it’s among the best kinds of anarchy if you ask us), we were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Armstrong himself and add him to our community of creatives who have shared their stories and innermost secrets with us.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

ARMSTRONG

I was born in the Black Country, West Midlands, in the early 1990s and still live locally. We’re famous for our pork scratchings, ale, canals and the steel industry (amongst other things). I grew up in Stourbridge, which doesn’t have so much of an accent – people tend to find it hard to place me unless they’re familiar with the Midlands. I’ve just bought a house with my partner so my current lifestyle is mostly settling in there, working, keeping fit and writing for my next book.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry your first love, or do you have another passion?

ARMSTRONG

Music is my biggest passion although I’m a much more perceptive listener than a musician. I was in a band for a few years recently and I spent so much time listening to our mixes, tweaking my EQ – focusing on the really minute details. I loved designing our album booklet and packaging. I guess a lot of people would find that stuff boring? For me, the beauty has always been in the detail. In this way, my love for poetry and music stem from the same place. They’re both very liberating mediums that I can really get stuck into them on a micro level, whilst still having a finished piece at the end of the process.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

ARMSTRONG

On the whole, people who really dedicate themselves to their art. I find that highly commendable, especially in the modern world where money doesn’t exactly come easily for most artists. I’m inspired also by people who have a very strong artistic vision and stick to it, especially across a collection of pieces. We live in quite a quick-fire culture but I still really value full-length collections, records, etc. that tell a story or carry a vibe across a substantial body of work. You can spot these people a mile away and they tend to have long, varied and diverse careers in art.

INTERVIEWER

The structure of your poems is often experimental, while the content blurs vibrant, intricate language with both pop culture references and classical analogy. How do you see the balance or relationship between modern and classical? Are we living in a world of post-post modernism? Or have we simply run out of the terms to adequately express and describe our contemporary cultural trends and styles?

ARMSTRONG

We’re living in an age of pastiche. This is the first time that our entire existence as human beings has become self-referential. It feels like we’re finally letting go of the concept of ‘time’ – the whole thing has just become delineated. Courtesy of technology, the recent past may as well be right now. The distant past is as accessible as what I did last week. People are always creating new art, but the leading trend seems to be recontextualisation. We’re a race of curators, of remixers and remodellers. I think that my poetry and Perennial especially speaks to that. My aim is to make sense of the chaos, somehow.

INTERVIEWER

When writing poetry, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully fledged poem?

ARMSTRONG

Nearly always, a line or phrase will just drop into my mind. If I choose to pursue it, I can feel the tangents pulling off from the original seed and urging me to get to a computer or pick up a pen. From there, I write quickly to capture as much as possible and edit as I go. I tend not to move on until I’m happy with a line although if I end up at a dead end, I’ll consider some radical changes to the structure to jump-start the process. I favour using a computer because I can get a better ‘feel’ for the visual element of the poem.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when a poem is ‘finished’?

ARMSTRONG

This one is down to intuition. Mostly it’ll be when it feels right, visually. I really champion the visual aspect of the poem on the page – it really steers my decision making throughout the entire writing process. Certain ideas just need to ‘look’ a certain way. Some need to slink down, some appear to me as very horizontal and aggressive, others flutter like a burst bag of feathers. I’m not entirely sure why I feel the need to act on these but I do and it’s a big part of why I love writing poetry. I suppose I’d compare it to how a chef arranges a plate. Certain choices are dictated by things other than logic. Why does the onion need to sit just so? It just does.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published your debut collection, Perennial. Can you tell us a little about the work, and the experience of putting it together? How did you first conceive of the idea, and how did it evolve?

ARMSTRONG

Perennial has been in the works for a very long time now. I started writing poems for it in around 2012 on a coach to visit my uncle in Scotland. It was never intended to be my first collection – it is actually a spin-off to a bigger, larger story – but it just so happened that I finished it first. The collection is a diary of sorts written by an unnamed character who finds himself lost on a strange island. In a narrative sense it functions as a backstory for the character, but it’s a real book within this fictional world, too. Characters from my other poems have read Perennial. The interesting part for me is that due to a complete lack of contextual information, a first-time reader is going to be pretty baffled by it. I wanted to create this underlying sense that its part of something bigger but never really state that outright. The next book will unlock a lot of the secrets in this one.

INTERVIEWER

We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery. What role do you see poetry playing in an age of ‘fake news’ and social media trolling?

ARMSTRONG

The reliability and ‘usefulness’ of poetry is always going to be a grey area. I frequently misuse and manipulate language for different purposes. The difference, I suppose, is that I don’t have an agenda. I’m not trying to make you think or feel a certain way, politically or socially speaking. I think modern poetry will continue as it has done for a while – to inspire the few and confuse the many.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre, poetry has been used as a tool to provide a voice for the powerless and inspire movements and action against the powerful. What are your thoughts on the idea of ‘poetry as protest’?

ARMSTRONG

I think poetry can be used as a tool for those purposes – It’s probably one of the better mediums for it. Of course, it depends entirely on the person writing it, their motivations and the reader’s own interpretation. Performance poetry isn’t really my thing but it’s undeniably effective at bringing together communities and giving people a voice.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a poet?

ARMSTRONG

Not as a poet so much as a person writing poetry. We’re all personally responsible for the impact we make on the world.  I write primarily for myself and to do justice to the story I’m telling with each collection I put out. My main responsibility is to let the poems go wherever they want to. In spite of this, I do try and promote the things I think are important through my work, too.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for authors and poets, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

ARMSTRONG

I’d say just do it and keep doing it and keep finding ways to continue to do it. I find it easiest to keep my passions and sources of income separate, but mutually beneficial. I do a lot of writing for my day job, and this keeps me sharp for my poetry.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your poetry? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

ARMSTRONG

As I mentioned earlier, Perennial, is getting a companion collection which should be finished towards the end of Summer. I’m really proud of what I have so far for it; it’s a lot more playful and experimental than Perennial was. Euripides is the biggest influence on it as a whole. I have an incredible artist working with me on the cover design and some internal illustrations too. We’re currently just working on some initial ideas but I can’t wait to pull everything together. 

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite poem?

ARMSTRONG

It would have to be The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot.

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

ARMSTRONG

Mood dependant! I don’t really read to relax so probably the movie more often than not.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARMSTRONG

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

David Morley. I’m biased because he was my tutor, but in my mind, David stands up against the great pastoral poets of the past. Calling him underrated might be selling him short, but he should definitely be even more known than he is.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

Because of how widely he’s taught, probably Shakespeare. Not all of his work has aged gracefully and I never had him down as a particularly great poet.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

ARMSTRONG

This is a really tough question, given that so many poets are unknown in the greater scheme of things. I’d probably say Jonty Tiplady. I love Zam Bonk Dip, his debut collection. I’m not aware of what he’s done since, but this has inspired me to revisit him! Outside of the poetry world, I recommend that people check out the ambient musician Tim Hecker. His sonic landscapes are just so expressive.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARMSTRONG

I’m really good at recalling the specific release years of records. I can also recite Pi up to 50 digits after me and a friend decided to see who could learn it to more decimal places. I’m not even sure why I can still remember it – that was fifteen years ago.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARMSTRONG

“Thank you”

“Thank you?”

“Thank you.”

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring poets?

ARMSTRONG

Don’t be afraid to write bad poetry, just write something. It can take years to finish a poem. It can take one minute to finish a different poem. Avoid saying things that have already been said because you think you should say them. Try to write without using any similes. Put effort into your book cover. Remember to title your documents. Performing live doesn’t have to be the goal if you don’t want it to be. Revel in your rejection letters. Aim high.

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Joana Ramiro

Joana Ramiro

Joana Ramiro is a journalist, writer and political commentator.

Born in Lisbon, in 2006 she moved to London, and in 2010 she became one of the founders of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, as well as its Chief Press Officer. Since then, she has covered the occupation of Tahir Square in Cairo during the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, as well as the 2015 Greek elections and the Calais refugee camp, among numerous other pieces of foreign correspondence.

Domestically, she was the first reporter to cover the fight of Focus E15, a group of London single mothers campaigning to be rehoused, after being evicted from a hostel by Newham Council in 2014. She has reported from a series of mass demonstrations, occupations, deportations and strikes, focusing on the effects of austerity policies in British society.

As a political commentator, Ramiro has been featured on Channel 4 News, BBC and LBC radio, as well as debates against fellow pundits Peter Oborne, Michael White and Peter Hitchens.

At a time when the truth is under attack – when journalists are attacked and maligned by those in power and those online, while Silicon Valley siphons off advertising revenue and amplifies untruths for profit – supporting, and hearing from, independent journalists is increasingly important. So Nothing in the Rulebook were incredibly pleased to catch up with Ramiro to bring you this following interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle
RAMIRO
 

Hi, my name is Joana Ramiro and I’m a freelance journalist and writer based in London. I carry a Portuguese passport and was educated in a German school. My dad’s Angolan. It was all a big melting pot back at home and I try to keep it so in my adult life too (not hard, given that I live in the capital of melting pots).

INTERVIEWER

Is journalism your first love, or do you have another passion?
RAMIRO
 

It wasn’t my first love but it should have been. As a child I wanted to be an actor but when I hit puberty my ambitions got thwarted by the usual patriarchally-instilled insecurities about my looks, weight, and general lack of self-worth. I then went and studied advertising but it wasn’t very satisfying as I needed something a little more academic at that point. So, to compensate the lack of enthusiasm for my degree, I started doing a political blog and getting involved with campaigns I always felt an affinity for. Things like justice for Palestinians and an anti-cuts campaign at my university. That then grew into the student movement of 2010/11 where I was the founder and press officer for one of the main campaigns (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts). I went back to uni in 2010, did a postgrad programme in politics and then a masters in Middle East politics, went to Palestine and Egypt (during the occupation of Tahrir Square) and a few years later got a full time job as a journalist at a small daily called the Morning Star. A week in I thought: “Goddamn! Why haven’t I been doing this all along?!”

INTERVIEWER
Who inspires you, and why? 
RAMIRO

Great journalism inspires me and I think of the greats of old and sometimes wonder if it’s still possible to do that kind of work. Journalists of past and present like Martha Gelhorn, Ryszard Kapuściński, Svetlana Alexievitch, Clare Hollingworth and Paul Mason inspire me every day to speak truth to power.

INTERVIEWER

What is the role of journalists today, in an era of ‘fake news’ and accusations of media bias? 

RAMIRO
 

The role of a journalist at any time is to speak truth to power. To me that means looking at the balance of forces and asking yourself “Who is being exploited, oppressed, or used in this situation?” and then write about it. Much is said about media bias vs unbiased journalism and in the end, you’ll find, the judgement is always in favour of whoever is in control of the narrative. There’s always a bias in journalism because there’s always a bias in our societies. A good journalist asks herself in who’s favour is that bias and writes about what the effects of such bias might be. Who benefits and who suffers under X state policies? Who benefits and who suffers under Y ideology? From there, a journalist’s role is to shine a light on what is in the dark. 

INTERVIEWER

When covering complex political issues and discourse, how do you navigate the challenge between communicating an issue or subject clearly and effectively, while also bringing the necessary balance and nuance and critical thought required to ensure the piece has real genuine value? 

RAMIRO

Good prose is written simply but at length. Unfortunately, it seems that while writing simply is still cherished in our media landscape, length is going increasingly out of style. A dangerous precedent if you ask me. You can’t explain the complexities of war in a 250 word article or in a 2.30min piece. You can’t explore the nuances of the Venezuelan political conundrum in a series of Tweets. We need to start investing in long-form journalism, not only in the case of what is usually called “long reads” but as a matter of journalistic norm. If people will deadscroll through 5min inspirational videos they will watch a 5min piece about Cape Town’s Day Zero. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a journalist
RAMIRO
 

Of course. That’s why I refuse to work for xenophobic and migrant-bashing publications (we all know who they are). I wouldn’t go as far as condemning all that do – many colleagues work wherever work is available because they’ve got bills to pay – but given the choice I’d rather not write than enable or legitimise far-right opinions and rhetoric.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent has current political discourse and debate sidelined other important issues facing the world; such as catastrophic climate breakdown?

RAMIRO

I don’t think it has. Not least because the current political discourse might include disgusting people like Viktor Orban and Tommy Robinson, but also includes inspiring voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who does speak aplenty about climate and a Green New Deal).

INTERVIEWER

In an age of increasingly low incomes for journalists, and with funding models of traditional media corporations often favouring the large, Murdoch-owned papers over other independent news outlets, how can aspiring journalists break onto the scene while maintaining their journalistic integrity and any moral standards they may need? 

RAMIRO

Alas, it often seems nearly impossible and all the more so for young journalists who aren’t white middle class men  living in London. It’s good that places like the Guardian have programmes targeting this but more needs to be done. I suspect media reform is the way to go in order to tackle all these problems. Not to be too on the nose, but the Labour Party’s proposals on media reform announced last year would be a pretty decent start. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s your analysis of the state of both politics and journalism today? Where are we heading?

RAMIRO
 

God, I’d be a millionaire if I had the answer to that question. Can you imagine what the City would pay me for that sort of consultancy?! 

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you personally? Any exciting projects we should know about? 
RAMIRO
 

I’m doing a lot of exciting things this year, but one of those I’m having a lot of fun at is my show Red Hacks. It’s a series of conversations with renowned journalists about being a leftwing journalist in a neoliberal world and it’s hosted by the Politics Theory Other podcast. The latest episode is with New Statesman deputy editor George Eaton. Do give it a listen 🙂

Quick fire round! 

INTERVIEWER
Vehicle of choice: Brexit battle bus or Corbyn bicycle
RAMIRO
 
Bicycle always! I have my own and it’s called Belinda.
INTERVIEWER
Curl up with a book or head to the movies? 
RAMIRO
 

Going to the movies in London is extortionate (unless you go to Peckhamplex in Peckham – £4.99 any ticket any day), so I’m gonna say curl up with a book. That would probably be my default choice anyway.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic? 
RAMIRO
 

Always the classics. Casablanca is a masterpiece in far more ways than it’s known for. Same could be said about To Have and Have Not (I’m not just stanning for Humphrey Bogart, I promise).

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about? 
RAMIRO
 

Erika Lust. She’s a feminist porn film maker and a champion of talking about women’s desire openly and outside of the liberal-cisgendered axis. Plus her stuff is simply beautiful to look at. I’ll be interviewing her soon. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?
RAMIRO

I can sleep anywhere under any circumstances, which is very handy for a journalist. Also, in a better world I would have spent more time singing in a more professional way. My brother (who’s an actual musician) and I have a few amateurish projects but I never seem to have enough time to invest in it properly or as much as I’d like to.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?
RAMIRO
 
Fuckbois. That’s why she was single.
INTERVIEWER
Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring journalists?
RAMIRO
 
  1. Go to the place, talk to the people. Don’t just write a story from whatever you saw on Twitter or whatever an expert commented on.
  2. Always carry a recorder (most phones will have one nowadays) and don’t forget the batteries (or keeping your phone charged).
  3. When taking pictures in a controversial or dangerous situation always carry two memory cards for your camera. Fill one of them with faff/tourist pictures of the place. Carry the one with the journalistic pictures in your sock or bra. Don’t cross checkpoints or police lines with a camera full of “incriminating” material. 
  4. Always carry cigarettes. Even if you don’t smoke. They’re incredibly handy appeasers, bargaining chips, conversation starters, bonding props. Odd, I know. But it works. 
  5. Learn the art of conversation. Everyone will get the same quotes if they ask the obvious questions. Make it your business to be more than a question machine. Offer something back, even if just a shown interest in what your subject has to say. 
  6. Advice I was given (part I): Start writing your piece as if following the sentence: “Guys, guess what?…”
  7. Advice I was given (part II): Read what you wrote out loud at least once. It really helps you catch otherwise unnoticed typos, grammar errors, generally weird sentences and such.
  8. Invest in a transcription programme (I hate hate hate transcribing). 
  9. Read! Read fiction. Read old books. Read theory. Read as widely as you can. Follow it up by listening to music or watching movies on the same theme (in my family we call this “a festival”). Learn the joys of immersing yourself in something other than what is labelled journalism. Good journalism is done with knowledge wider than that. 
  10. Journalism is team work. George Orwell relied on many many people he never mentioned in his books (true story – not just using this as a metaphor for the case in point). Acknowledge that and use it. Help others and ask for help. Reject the idea that journalism is a rat race. Reject the idea that work is a rat race for that matter. Revel in cooperation. It will make you a better journalist, if not even a better person. 

Creatives in profile: interview with Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin Columnist - Image (2).jpg

Back in January, Nothing in the Rule Book had the chance to review Martina Devlin’s tenth book, a collection of short stories, entitled ‘Truth and Dare’. The stories follow eleven pioneering women from Irish history, pulling moments from their lives and reimagining them in fiction. Each story is an invitation into the life of a historical figure but we wanted to know more about the woman behind the book: Martina herself.

A former Fleet Street journalist, Martina was born in Omagh and now lives in Dublin. She writes for the Irish Independent and was named National Newspapers of Ireland Columnist of the Year. Her fiction is ambitious and covers a wide range of genres and themes. From About Sisterland, a dystopian novel set in the near-future, to The House Where It Happened, historical fiction based on the Irish witch trials of 1711, her writing is ambitious and creative, steeped in dedicated research.

Her work has won or been shortlisted for several prestigious several prizes, including the 1996 Hennessy Literary Award and the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize. We were lucky enough to be able to catch up with Martina a second time, to find out more about her background, her inspiration and her writing.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about your background.

DEVLIN

I’m a child of the Troubles. I grew up in Omagh, Co Tyrone when civil war for a prolonged period was our normal – random bomb attacks, heavily armed soldiers on the streets, roadblocks, no-go areas, dawn raids on houses by security forces, helicopters buzzing overhead and civilians treated as collateral damage in large scale violence. My parents protected us from it as much as possible but violence was a fact of everyday life.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love?

DEVLIN

Storytelling certainly is. I regard myself as a storyteller whether I’m engaged in journalism or creative non-fiction or fiction. As a little girl I was always telling stories to told my family and writing them down in copybooks. I also illustrated my stories, rather badly but with an enthusiastic use of colour. I still have one of my notebooks – it shows no early signs of genius but, rather, a fascination with what my characters were having for tea. Enid Blyton was able to carry that off with picnics and all sorts of foodie high jinks but I wasn’t. However, I realised that research mattered and I used to go to Mrs Quinn’s sweetshop near our house and write down the names of various goodies. Although the shop no longer exists, I can’t pass the building without thinking of all those chocolate animals and jelly shapes I used to buy with a few small coins.

INTERVIEWER

What would you be if not a writer?

DEVLIN

A politician because politics can effect change. The Good Friday Agreement is proof of that. But the whip system is exerted too ruthlessly and I know I’d struggle with that – for me, conscience would always trump how any party leadership decided to vote on an issue. So I expect that eventually I’d be expelled from whichever party I joined. I’ve never belonged to any political party. I’m too much of an outsider, an observer. But I do see that politics is a powerful way of driving change and making a difference in people’s lives.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

DEVLIN

My parents. My father, in particular, had a great respect for reading, learning and storytelling – the power of the story – and he shared that love with me. I remember long car journeys as a child, going from our home in Omagh to my mother’s place of birth in Co Limerick, and both parents passed the journey for us with stories. The oral tradition was strong in our family.

My father never felt hard done by, he had a gentle nature, but there’s no doubt he was a clever man unable to get on in life because of the unjust political situation in Northern Ireland which denied him opportunities. He wasn’t able to vote until he was in his mid-thirties, for example – you had to be a householder but housing was in the control of the ruling majority which didn’t believe in sharing. That’s why the civil rights movement started in 1968. My mother lost the right to vote when she moved to Omagh. Isn’t that extraordinary? Both Dublin and London looked the other way for many decades of Northern Ireland’s existence.

My father had to leave school at the age of 12 to work as a message boy – Grandad was more or less an invalid and the family needed my father’s wage to help them survive. By the time I came along, he was a bus driver and worked very hard to raise seven children – as did my mother in the home – and if I have a work ethic I inherited it from them.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you find inspiration?

DEVLIN

If I knew the answer to that I’d bottle it and keep it on my desk. I honestly don’t know. Reading, thinking, looking, thinking some more?

INTERVIEWER

You describe the women featured in ‘Truth and Dare’ as your heroes. Is there some shared quality that earns them this distinction?

DEVLIN

Their vision and persistence. They recognised injustice and struggled to overturn it. They believed they could bring about change and wanted to make it happen not just for their own benefit but for others. They collaborated to achieve their goals, chipping away at enormous obstacles – both from the system, or the community at large, and their own families. It’s always hard to challenge the status quo but they did. Often, they were demonised for their behaviour but they knew they were right and kept faith.

INTERVIEWER

Is there one woman from the book whose life you find particularly moving or instructive? If so, why?

DEVLIN

Mary Ann McCracken because she was loyal and courageous and believed in the strength of her convictions. In 1798, she walked with her brother Henry Joy McCracken to the gallows – now that required pluck – and took responsibility for his natural daughter after his death, insisting the little girl should be recognised by the family. Also she believed in doing what was right in other ways, for example refusing to eat sugar because of the slave trade. She was a successful businesswoman and ran a muslin manufacturing business with her sister to give employment to poor Belfast people, and the pair of them absorbed the losses during slack periods rather than lay workers off. She wanted children to be educated and helped to support a school, she was part of a campaign to stop boys being used as chimney sweeps and she spoke out about cruelty to animals. Her empathy and energy ranged far and wide. This woman was a rock of decency: Protestantism at its most ethical.

INTERVIEWER

Who did you feel you were writing the book for?

DEVLIN

People who didn’t know much about the women I chose to include in the collection, people for whom they were only names, if that – but who might be intrigued and go off and learn more about them. There’s magic in fiction. I hoped the stories would help to breathe life into extraordinary figures who have shaped the world we live in. Women have pockets in our clothes because of the Rational Dress Movement. We can vote because of the suffrage movement. Let’s not take it all for granted.

INTERVIEWER

Feminism has changed so much since the time of the women in your book – 2018 saw the Irish Abortion Referendum. How does being a woman in Ireland now compare to the lives of women a hundred years ago?

DEVLIN

I’m convinced women from a hundred years ago would be disappointed by the slow pace of change, although there have been improvements in recent years – quotas have increased the number of women TDs. But there are still only four female Cabinet ministers out of 15. As it happens, I brought Countess Markievicz back from the dead in one of my stories (What Would The Countess Say?)  to cast a cold eye over the state of politics today. She’s aghast to discover there’s been no female Taoiseach in the history of the Irish State. It doesn’t look imminent, either, with no female leader of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in the history of either party. When you consider that she was the second Cabinet minister in the world and the first in Europe (back as 1919), we can see the trailblazing ground to a halt. Women of enormous talent, with a real contribution to make, weren’t given a look in.

Incidentally, Countess Markievicz has taken on a life of her own apart from the short story collection and a play based on the story is being debuted at Dalkey Heritage Centre in Dublin on April 2nd – the centenary, to the day, of her appointment as Minister for Labour.

INTERVIEWER

How does writing a collection of short stories compare to writing a novel?

DEVLIN

It’s less of a long haul – I liked the variety of working on short stories rather than the concentrated focus of a novel. Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed by a novel.

INTERVIEWER

Were any of the stories in the collection particularly difficult to write? If so, why?

DEVLIN

The really difficult one was the story about Nano Nagle, who founded the Presentation order, because I struggled to imagine myself as a nun. But I hope I did justice to her and her selfless work for the poor of Cork. The stories are all first person or close third so I had to feel an empathy with those I wrote about. One or two women didn’t make the final cut because I didn’t manage that act of ventriloquism. I was nearly there but the clock was against me deadline wise. Perhaps another time.

INTERVIEWER

What makes you angry?

DEVLIN

The risk from Brexit of a hard border undermining peace in Ireland. I can’t say any more, I might burst a blood vessel. Oh, all right, I’ll just say this. Project Fear was the most perfidious phrase to put into people’s hands by the Leave campaign…it allowed them to avoid dealing with inconvenient facts.

INTERVIEWER

What makes you hopeful?

DEVLIN

The shameless self-interest of our cat Chekhov. When he wants something, he weaves figures of eight between your legs, tripping you up. When he can’t be bothered with you, if you try to stroke him he slinks down almost to his (considerable) belly to avoid your hand. It’s all on his terms. Why does that make me hopeful? Nature gives most of us the tools we need to survive. With cats, it’s winning ways – when it suits them. I admire their indifference to us.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any writers you envy?

DEVLIN

No, everyone who gets published is lucky, regardless of how well or otherwise a book does. I know I’m fortunate and I don’t take it for granted.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent do you feel stories should be morally instructive?

DEVLIN

Ouch! You have to sneak in the moral if you’re bent on having one, and I confess I often am. The minute it’s obvious, though, you and your moral are toast.

INTERVIEWER

If you could go back, what advice would you give yourself as you started out on your writing career?

DEVLIN

Listen carefully to all the conflicting advice you’re given, mull it over and make up your own mind.

INTERVIEWER

What frustrates you about writing?

DEVLIN

The days when nothing comes. The days when I start to doubt a story I’m working on. If I don’t believe in them, who will?

INTERVIEWER

What is the best thing about writing?

DEVLIN

I love the characters who spring from my fingertips. I know this makes me sound like a hapless channel for some external intelligence producing the work. But honestly, sometimes – on a good day – characters just muscle in unexpectedly. And I say to myself, well who are you?

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on next?

DEVLIN

A novel about Edith Somerville of Somerville and Ross fame – they were Victorian ladies who charted the demise of their Ascendancy class even as it was happening. I find them interesting for at least five reasons, if not more. But I’ll spare you the dissertation and stop at five. Number one, because Ross was a unionist while Somerville developed a nationalist position. Number two, because they worked in partnership (dual voices combining to create one memorable voice). Number three because they understood the value of authentic dialect. Number four because of their humour. And number five because they insisted they were professional writers, not dilettantes, had one of the first literary agents and demanded to be treated with respect.

 

 

 

 

Mud, books, and Greek mythology: interview with David Henningham

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David Henningham 

When we first caught up with David and Ping Henningham, of Henningham Family Press, they had just been commissioned to make a major public arts contribution to the Central Hall of Artists in Moscow.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the duo behind this dynamic printing press are once again deep into an exciting new creative project – and getting knee deep in mud to do so.

‘Mud’ is the new book by Chris McCabe, which follows his debut novel, Dedalus, also published by Henningham Family Press (HFP).

The couple have been raising funds to support the publication of the book through a recently launched Kickstarter project. And yet, in typical HFP fashion, this is no ordinary printed book – but rather one that blurs the boundary between art and writing.

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‘Mud’ – the new book by Chris McCabe, published by Henningham Family Press

Described by the creative duo as ‘an Artists’ Book in exquisite handmade and paperback versions’, Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with David Henningham to find out more about the project.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about Chris McCabe’s new book ‘Mud’ – and what you’re planning on doing with it.

HENNINGHAM

Mud is a story re-imagining Orpheus & Eurydice in contemporary London. Borak and Karissa must find a bubble buried in mud, somewhere. Along their way into the Underworld beneath Hampstead Heath, to scour the 24 types of mud, they are followed by their film crew and its odious Director. As they chance upon bones, bricks and talking Moles, they must restrain themselves from throttling each other. And falling in love all over again.

We have begun a quest with Chris McCabe parallel to that of his characters underground; an addition to the conventional editing process. We’ve been collecting different types of London mud to use as pigments and salvaging a half-brick, involved in a car crash, to use as our printing block (the perfect metaphor for Borak and Kar’s relationship). We used the faces of the brick to cast Orphic shapes resembling thresholds, mounds and tunnels of the Underworld.

This process will produce three versions of the book that use the same printed pages:

  • High-quality Paperback
  • Deluxe Hardback, representing a mud type with unique limited edition print
  • Deluxe Hardback, representing a mud type, in solander box with unique sculpture

INTERVIEWER

Why Mud?

HENNINGHAM

I can’t answer that, except to say that the notion there are 24 types of mud has totally changed the way I see the world. I keep spotting muds with extraordinary colour or texture and thinking ‘we missed that one!’ I suspect that somewhere in there, this sensation that language variegates experience of the world is “why Mud”.

INTERVIEWER

In an era of digital publishing, amid the rise of e-books and audiobooks; how important is it, do you think, that as readers we return to the physical value books have and invest in printed copies? Do you see your production of hand-made books to be a revolt against artifice or digitalisation?

HENNINGHAM

No, digital technology makes book production and selling cleaner, quicker, cheaper and easier at every stage, which is the most important aspect to us. Our handmade books are enabled by digital technology.

Ebooks are just a copyright thing, they prevent creative opportunity in my experience, but audiobooks are interesting to us. We love moving texts into different creative forms. I like the fact that our books will be among the best someone will handle, and that there’s something you can only get from the book because that means it is a book that has fully exploited the form. But I’m not interested in dominating anything. If someone thinks books aren’t important to them, I’ll wave them on their merry way. If they don’t like stories, I refer them to a special watch list at the Dept of Culture, Media, Sport, Shopping and Lawnmowers.

INTERVIEWER

In your Kickstarter project, you say you believe artist-Writers shouldn’t just be producing radical words; but also radical means of production and distribution. Can you expand on this – is there a Marxist element to your publishing ethos?

HENNINGHAM

Not Marxist, although I’m sympathetic to the Socialist publishing aspirations of B.S. Johnson you can find in Jonathan Coe’s biography, and admire Marxist friends who find a way to navigate the book Market.

What I mean by it is that, instead of approaching the current system of commissioning and selling books and trying to publish books that will change the world, the system itself must be changed in the process. Take diversity. Rooms full of privileged people are saying “how can we publish more diverse writers?” I suspect it isn’t working because the system is token operated. Not only are the people in the room almost all privileged, they begin by saying “how can we help these people?” The Hogarth Press had a fantastic record on publishing women writers. Because of what it was, not because of any policy. So if you want to make a Press that publishes X kind of writing, you need to make a Press the shape that will produce that writing. Not a mini-Corporate.

INTERVIEWER

How can aspiring artists and writers – or newly established publishing houses – reclaim the means of production and distribution from the corporate behemoths who dominate the publishing (and indeed wider media) landscape?

HENNINGHAM

The difference is between big organisations and partnerships of smaller organisations. Become a member of a group of smaller organisations and work together cooperatively if you want to take on the corporates.

If you simply want to make a few things and get them out there, you just need to find the right printer (production) and attend DIY book or arts fairs (distribution).

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through the sensation of crafting one of your books – is there a connection, do you think, between publisher and physical book that goes beyond a desire to sell copies? And where does the line between art and writing collide and/or blur?

HENNINGHAM

When I’m binding I’m very much thinking with my hands. I’m sort of aware of language, and thoughts apparently located in my head, but mostly it’s my hands working almost independently. I also stopped thinking ahead much, I seem to know what to do next without planning.

Afterwards, for me, it’s about getting the fruits of that process as close to readers as possible, but I suspect most publishers aren’t approaching it this way. They have babies, while I’m more of a midwife. Or a sorcerer.

INTERVIEWER

In many ways, the focus your project places on words influencing the physical design of the book – as well as the structure and form – makes this a thoroughly modernist piece of art and writing; yet the source material for the novel is from Ancient Greek mythology. What is the relationship, do you think, between the classical and the modern? And how important are the works of literary figures like James Joyce to informing any such debate on this topic?

HENNINGHAM

Well as you suggest, Ulysses took myth as its structure and embedded it in modernity. We don’t get equally influenced by all world mythologies, though. Some ancient stories are simply bizarre to us. It’s not just that we’re used to Greek myths, there’s something recognisable about the people and gods in them, and the themes, such as metamorphosis, we carry with us.

In the Penelope section at the end of Dedalus (his sequel to Ulysses), I suspect Chris McCabe wrote a kind of manifesto for himself, about writing myth. If so, he’s delivered in spades with Mud.

INTERVIEWER

Can anything ever be truly ‘new’, ‘modern’, or ‘unique’?

HENNINGHAM

It’s interesting to push it to the other extreme; to try making something the opposite of unique. It will always have this stubborn singularity.

INTERVIEWER

What’s been your experience of using Kickstarter to support your project? What role do crowdfunding models have to play in the current publishing and artistic sectors?

HENNINGHAM

We have been able to share our excitement around a project while we are still genuinely excited about it. Marketing afterwards is fun, but it’s more about sustaining that excitement and sharing a finished product. Involving people in the process and having a way of updating them as we make things for the book changes it too. The rewards structure has obliterated the barrier between our trade and handmade versions.  

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Modernism or post-modernism?

HENNINGHAM

Modernism

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to an art gallery?

HENNINGHAM

Book

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

HENNINGHAM

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

Such a contested field! Agota Kristoff? Or I’d like to see Darker With The Lights On by David Hayden (which was acclaimed in the small press world) accepted wholeheartedly by mainstream booksellers and readers.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

Again, such a contested field! J.K Rowling. So slow and clunky. Magic for people who don’t like to be surprised. Why bother. Ctrl+v Diana Wynne-Jones.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

HENNINGHAM

British Viceroy Robert Bulwer-Lytton was a famous poet and responsible for the deaths of between 6 and 13 million Indian subjects in the Late Victorian period.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

HENNINGHAM

Drawing road-markings made Doug’s handwriting taller.

INTERVIEWER

What 5-10 pieces of advice can you give to people thinking of exploring crowdfunding as a means of getting their writing or artwork out there?

HENNINGHAM

  • Get advice and key questions from their representatives or online knowledge base and do everything they tell you to. They’ve done it a million times.
  • Contact 30 committed supporters and get them ready to pledge in the first 48 hours.
  • Involve people in a process. Make sure you are doing something for the project other than talking about money in that 30 days and make daily updates of the work in progress.
  • Have a theme derived from your project and apply it to all your reward names and updates.
  • Make a video. If it’s just you, a selfie stick and windows movie maker, that’s fine. Without it nobody really knows you.
  • Look out for trolls. If someone spends big, have a look at their identity before announcing you’ve hit your target and raise it with Kickstarter if you think they look suspicious.
  • There will also be spam.

 

To find out more about Chris McCabe’s new novel, and to pledge your support for this fantastic project, please visit the Kickstarter page

 

Creatives in profile: interview with K.M. Elkes

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Writing flash fiction takes skill, precision and – perhaps more than anything – hard work and dedication. When done well, these micro-stories can throw the reader in and out of the human condition in profound and unpredictable ways.

Some have said flash fiction stories are a part of our social media age, our insta-lifestyles, our shortened attention spans, our handheld devices, our micro-making of everything. Yet, in a world preciously short of big ideas, we could do with some of the big ideas contained within these short tales. And we could do with more

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with one of these writers willing to put pen to paper to bring these short tales – and their ideas – to us.

K.M. Elkes’s short fiction has won (or been placed) in a number of international writing competitions including the Manchester Fiction Prize, The Fish Publishing Flash Prize, the Bridport Prize and the PinDrop Prize, as well as appearing in more than 30 anthologies. His work has also been published in literary magazines such as UnthologyThe Lonely CrowdStructo and Litro. A flash fiction collection All That Is Between Us will be published in paperback by AdHoc Fiction in 2019. He is a short story tutor for Comma Press and his work has also been used on schools and college curriculum in USA and Hong Kong.

Elkes lives and works in the West Country, UK. A recipient of an Arts Council England award, he is currently working on a debut short story collection and a novel. As a writer with a rural working class upbringing, his work often reflects marginalised voices and liminal places.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

ELKES

In summary – writer, teacher, musician, traveller, ginger, potty-mouth. Not always in that order. I currently live in Bristol, but my background is rural working-class Shropshire.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

ELKES

Writing is one of the things, like making music, that I cannot not do. It’s more complicated than love or passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ELKES

Single-minded people – I’m too ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, so I draw inspiration from writers, particularly women or those from less privileged backgrounds, who have had the singleness of vision to succeed against the odds.
And pole vaulters – their sport is rife with symbolism.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ELKES

I went to a tiny rural primary school in Shropshire that had about 30 children and two teachers. It was stuck in a 1930s time warp – two classrooms, no inside toilets, dinners delivered lukewarm on the back of a van. But that school and those teachers instilled a hunger for reading in me that has been the catalyst for many things.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

ELKES

As a form based around concision, it combines poetry’s attention to language and rhythm with the prose tools of plot, characterisation, dialogue etc. Within that there are infinite colours, moods and stories, so what’s not to like?

INTERVIEWER

One of the joys of English is that, while its huge vocabulary can be deployed in mesmerising Joycean arpeggios, it can just as easily concentrate its meaning in a few well chosen words. In the age of Twitter, why do you think so many people are increasingly attracted to the brevity of short, flash or ‘micro’ fiction?

ELKES

I’m not a fan of the notion that people have short attention spans so they are attracted to shorter forms. Just because something is short doesn’t mean it requires less concentration and effort to read. I would hope more people are attracted to the form because they recognise it can produce genuinely good writing. The rise of social media and digital platforms for writing has no doubt helped.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a story needs in order for it to be a story?

ELKES

Movement. Not necessarily plot, but a sense that something has changed.

INTERVIEWER

How easy do you find it to move between different writing forms/mediums – can you balance writing a novel with crafting flash fiction or short stories?

ELKES

Transitioning between different forms is not difficult. Writers who claim otherwise are probably just procrastinating. In fact, changing forms is a good way to give the kaleidoscope a shake to find new ideas. What is difficult, sometimes, is the act of writing itself, whatever the form.

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

ELKES

By reflecting at length on the fact that I don’t have motivation to carry out just about any other form of gainful employment.

Also by dreaming of the day when I can walk into a bookshop and find a section devoted just to short fiction, rather than having to play ‘hunt the collections’ among the general fiction…

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel writers should feel any ethical responsibility in their roles?

ELKES

I don’t think it is ethical for a writer to create ethical responsibilities for other writers – they need to deal with their own shit.

Having said that it grinds my gears when well-established writers phone it in for cash. Such as when novelists supply distinctly average ‘been-in-the-bottom-drawer-awhile’ pieces for occasional short story specials in newspapers or magazines. In this case, maybe the ethical motto should be: ‘Do your best or don’t bother’.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

ELKES

No. Except that maybe the fantastic audience who came to a live literary event I did in Bath last year and laughed like drains at my funny stuff and emoted all over my sad pieces. They can come and sit in the room while I’m writing (if they bring their own chairs).

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry (if we can call it thus)? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

ELKES

The trend to encourage more diversity in writing and publishing is something I would like to see continuing. As someone from a working-class background, I know there are barriers still in place. But I also know I have to check what privileges I have as a white male. Even those at the epicentre of the white, male, middle-class, London-dominated and Oxbridge educated system must acknowledge there’s a better way. Done right, I think more diversity would mean more readers, more books sold, a more robust industry.

Another big challenge is how writers, whose average income from books continues to decline, can earn enough to keep creating. There is an unrealistic expectation in society that creative work should merely be another form of free content.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

ELKES

I’m editing a collection of flash fiction called All That Is Between Us which will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in Spring 2019. I’m also working on finishing a short story collection and starting a novel.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5-10 top tips for writers of flash fiction?

ELKES

  1. Give yourself permission to write crap, then use that freedom to write well.
  2. Read lots of short fiction in collections and online to learn more about what works and what doesn’t
  3. Don’t grab at the first idea for a story, let things brew for just a little while longer.
  4. Write hot, edit cold
  5. Ignore lists of top tips for short fiction writers and write whatever feels risky and surprises you.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ELKES

Instagram and Twitter allow this:  #Thewomandreamedofstrollingdampwintermeadowswithherlatehusbandbefore wakingtofindherloverwashingherfeet

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Ian Sansom

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Ian Sansom is the author of the popular Mobile Library Mystery Series. He is also a frequent contributor and critic for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The London Review of Books, and The Spectator. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4.

Previously described by Alex Pryce as an author happy to make “mischief”, his latest book, December Stories I, is full of Sansom’s trademark humour – pulling together a rich collage of different lives lived over the month of December into something funny and sad, lovely and above all else utterly empathetic.

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with Sansom to speak about his new book, his collaboration with the fantastic folk at No Alibis Press, and everything else in between.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SANSOM

I am a small, round, bearded, middle-aged man. I live – as I have done for most of my adult life – in a remote corner of the UK which currently has no functioning government.

INTERVIEWER

Has writing always been your first love, or do you have another passion?

SANSOM

I don’t think ‘love’ or ‘passion’ are quite the words I would use. Flann O’Brien described writing as a form of vocational malfunction. For me that’s probably closer to the truth.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SANSOM

In literary terms, I tend to admire writers who manage simply to keep going, despite all the odds. In personal terms, I have been blessed with many friends and colleagues who have been a great source of encouragement and inspiration.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

SANSOM

Alas, no pipe-lighting dominee lit my way.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

SANSOM

A writer is someone who writes.

INTERVIEWER

Your latest book, December Stories I, exposes the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of human nature and relationships that the festive period brings to light. Of course, these contradictions are not unique to our species during only the month of December; but they do appear to be heightened. Why do you think that is?

SANSOM

In a word: proximity. The coming together of people – or the lack of coming together.

INTERVIEWER

Do you personally identify with any of the characters in the short pieces contained within December Stories I?

SANSOM

Madame Bovary, c’est moi. I’m everyone and no one.

INTERVIEWER

On a scale of Tiny Tim to Ebenezer Scrooge, where would you place yourself during the run up to Christmas and New Year?

SANSOM

Tiny Tim, if only for his plaintive cry, ‘God bless us, every one!’

INTERVIEWER

What research (if any) do you conduct before setting out on a new writing project?

SANSOM

Like most writers, I am incredibly lazy and try to avoid all research if at all possible. If it’s necessary, I will do what’s necessary.

INTERVIEWER

You collaborated with No Alibis Press to bring December Stories I to life. How important, for you, is the relationship between a writer and their publisher?

SANSOM

We depend on each other entirely. In another life, I’d maybe come back as a publisher, to see what the relationship is like from the other perspective.

INTERVIEWER

During a period of the year in which everyone is bombarded with messages urging them to consume more and more goods, food and services, it can feel harder and harder to take time out to read something that doesn’t make December out to be one long glorious month of consumerism. How important is it, do you think, for writers and creatives to try and step away from the background noise of advertising and product placement? And what would be on your Christmas reading list?

SANSOM

What is it that Walter Benjamin writes in ‘One-Way Street’: ‘What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving neon sign says – but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.

The only book I read every year at Christmas is Delia Smith’s Christmas – it’s excellent.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

SANSOM

It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.

Ethics is transcendental.

(Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)

Lugwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness (1961)

INTERVIEWER

You’ve previously asked whether paper can survive in the digital age. But in an age of e-readers and e-zines; do you ever feel that the traditional printed book may be at risk of disappearing? Or will they simply evolve?

SANSOM

Everything changes. Everything evolves.

INTERVIEWER

Seneca once wrote that the “reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady.” And advised that “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” When you read, do you find it helpful to linger only among a select few authors – or do you think it better to read as widely and voraciously as possible?

SANSOM

Personally, I am omnivorous.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

SANSOM

This year I am publishing 3 books: a novel, a work of non-fiction, and a collection of short stories. Plus all of the usual para-literary activities.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

SANSOM

Six words was not nearly enough.

Get more Samson here: watch the video of the author reading an excerpt from his latest book, December Stories I.

Creatives in profile: interview with No Alibis Press

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Emma Warnock and David Torrans, of No Alibis Press and bookstore

It is an increasingly rare sight to find newly published books that break with tradition in uncompromising, unique, surprising and challenging ways. This is, in part, a reflection upon our current times. We live in an era where the biggest publishing companies and media organisations are only concerned with stabilising profits for shareholders – and are prioritising making money over supporting originality and new creative ideas. This is strangling our modern culture – limiting us to a devastating cycle of reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises; where the only novels that are published so often seem to be ones we’ve already read; or else another celebrity biography. This risk-averse and profit-focused approach in turn risks homogenising our culture; and limiting our exposure to new ways of thinking.

At a time when we need new ideas and voices to counter the prevailing cultural winds, which tell us creativity is only of value if it sells, the role of independent publishers becomes more apparent. We need diversity and originality in our publishing; not ceaseless imitation and repetition in pursuit of a fast buck. We need books that experiment and take risks; not those that seem afraid to be different.

Yet of course, setting up and running an independent publisher is no easy feat – not least because anyone who does so must continually battle with the financial weight of the corporate monopolies that dominate the publishing sector.

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Based in a small corner of Belfast, No Alibis Press is a small publishing company with a big shouty attitude. As an independent press they’re relatively new on the scene, but for some time now they’ve been quietly incubating among the shelves of No Alibis bookstore where David Torrans and his team have been selling books for more than twenty years. One of their first books – December Stories I by Ian Samson – has already received praise from critics (including ourselves). So just how does a brand new publishing house shout loud enough to be heard over the noise emitted by the corporate behemoths?

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with the team behind No Alibis to find out.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves and your background

NO ALIBIS PRESS

David Torrans, owner of No Alibis Bookstore (opened 1997) and No Alibis Press (founded 2018), both based in Belfast.

Emma Warnock, commissioning editor at No Alibis Press, joined in 2018 after 10 years of working in the industry for various publications and presses as a freelance editor.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

The people who take a leap of faith – whatever their discipline/job/motivation – and try to change the way things are done. In terms of writing that has been published recently, June Caldwell jumps to mind. Her collection of stories Room Little Darker (New Island, 2017) is a dramatic departure from the norm – both in terms of the writing itself and the subjects she is exploring. It is dark, uncompromising and incredibly inspiring.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about No Alibis Press – how was it borne into existence?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Independent bookselling over the past 20 years has taught us the importance of independent presses in the larger publishing world. Independent presses to a great degree have helped us to survive by bringing in material that is exciting and adventurous, and that’s why it came to mind when we were thinking of ways to celebrate the 20th anniversary of No Alibis bookshop. Happily, this coincided with us coming across Gerard Brennan’s Disorder, which he handed in to the shop to be bound as part of his PhD in creative writing. Having asked if it would be all right to read it, we immediately knew we had our first publication, and this launched No Alibis Press in 2018.

INTERVIEWER

Has the press evolved as you expected since you first set it up?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

It feels too early to say how it has evolved, as we are only coming to the end of our first (incredibly busy and exciting) year. However, we have had really positive responses to our first two publications (Gerard Brennan’s Disorder and Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1), which has certainly given us the energy and inspiration needed to continue.

INTERVIEWER

What makes a work “uncompromising”, in your opinion?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Writing that subverts conventional practices in some way – maybe through form or narrative voice – in order to tap into something new but recognisable. Very often it will defy easy categorisation. For example, Gerard Brennan’s novel Disorder explores the conflicting agendas of a number of characters on the fringes of recreational rioting without entering directly into characters’ minds. It is gritty, darkly funny crime fiction that is experimenting with the conventions of the genre, and it is very effective in creating an appropriately energetic pace. Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1 (a very different work) is also very difficult to categorise. It is a collection of varying forms that work as standalone pieces, but function at a more profound level as a whole. It is a very playful use of form that absolutely suits the insightful portrayals of the characters and their very different experiences of December. In addition to being examples of excellent writing, arguably both of these books are subverting common practice in some way and that makes them very exciting.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published December Stories I by Ian Samson. What drew you to this work, and what’s it been like to bring it into literary existence?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

As soon as we read the manuscript we knew that we had something very special. The stories are characteristic of Sansom’s playful humour, while also exposing the idiosyncrasies of human nature and relationships that December brings to light. We felt very fortunate to be given the opportunity to publish such an extraordinary collection. Watching it come together with beautiful illustrations by the very talented Rory Jeffers was also very satisfying. Working with Ian has been fantastic. He filmed all 31 of the stories with his son Joseph Sansom (who fortunately for us is a filmmaker) which are available on our website.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk a little about the relationship between No Alibis Press and No Alibis Bookstore? How important is it to ensure there is a physical space to provide a platform for both the books you publish, but also for events and readings?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Quite simply, No Alibis Press wouldn’t exist without the bookshop, without twenty years of selling books and getting to know how the industry works. As well as selling books, we have always held gigs and readings in the shop and at other venues, and we regularly participate in festivals across Ireland and the UK. It all comes down to getting writers in front of an audience, getting their work into the hands of interested readers. Publishing feels like a natural progression from that.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

As a small press, we all end up doing a little bit of everything, so the day can involve processing orders, updating the website or promoting our publications, which may mean tweeting reviews or corresponding with event organisers. As we only publish a couple of titles a year, we can devote a huge amount of energy to the production and promotion of the next book. This means we have been obsessed with December (Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1) since about March. We have submissions coming in all the time, and reading new work is a time-consuming and highly enjoyable part of daily life.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a publishing house or printing press should be for?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

For No Alibis Press, publishing is about getting books or stories that may not appeal to more commercial companies out into the public arena. This might be because they are experimental or slightly subversive, or simply exceptional writing that larger companies aren’t willing to take a risk on for various reasons.

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has suggested that mainstream publishing companies are only interested in “publishing copies of novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think this is a fair assessment? And how can independent publishing houses help address the balance – championing new voices and new ideas?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

One of the pleasant surprises for me over the past year is to see how supportive publishers and editors are of one another (both small and large). I think that’s because there’s a sense we’re all aiming for the same goal – to support writers in a difficult industry at a time when outside players (whether online giants or supermarkets etc) are creating unsustainable conditions. There are lots of very talented hardworking people in mainstream publishing companies and many of them are producing original books while still responding to the demands of readers. Sometimes they might be more restricted in certain areas than smaller publishers, or have slightly different motivations, but I think there is a recognition that both small and larger companies are playing different but equally vital roles in producing a range of material.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see your own work as having a political element to it at all?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

I suppose publishing fiction – particularly when you are looking for experimental, new or subversive work – is always political because the writing tends to defamiliarise the everyday and challenge norms. We want to publish unheard voices and stories, which is one of the reasons why we decided to publish an anthology of short stories and have opened this up to submissions (until 31 Jan 2019). But besides wanting to promote equality and traditionally under-represented voices, we don’t take a particular political stance. Having said that, personal politics determine many of our choices – we’re never going to publish fiction that champions far-right perspectives, for example. We’ve also rejected manuscripts that carry misogynistic undertones.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see traditional presses playing in this new “digital era”?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

The digital era prioritises convenience, but arguably something is lost along the way. There is still a strong desire among readers to hold the printed object in their hand. That’s why when it comes to design and formatting we put extra effort into making sure the books we publish are the right quality of paper, the right size, and that the text is beautifully arranged. We don’t see it as a competition with digital, however. Plenty of people want to read some books in a digital format and keep others on their shelf.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

It’s true, we’ve been hearing about the imminent demise of the novel, of traditional publishing, the local bookshop for some time now. Yet, novels are still selling in huge numbers – Milkman by Anna Burns is a good example of that, reprints having exceeded expectations. Of course, not every novel attains the readership of a Man Booker prize-winner, but it does demonstrate that there is an appetite for reading, there is a potential audience. For independent presses, this is a very exciting time. Recent successes of Tramp Press or Galley Beggar Press, for example, remind writers looking for representation that smaller publishers can be an attractive option. At No Alibis Press, we’re really not trying to predict what the future holds, we simply continue to look for the best writing we can find and get it out there on the bookshelves.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

I’d say the main challenge we face, which is the same for all publishers big or small, is the financial aspect. As we do not receive external funding, we need money to be coming into the shop and through book sales in order to continue doing what we love. We have to ensure our authors and readers are happy with the price and available buying options, and that we are not compromising on quality or content. We have to find ways to promote the books that don’t cost a lot of money, for example releasing videos of Ian Sansom reading on Twitter and Facebook, and we rely on our authors being prepared to get out there and talk about their work. Financial restraints can bring about more interesting ways to promote books, however, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

The process of dissecting what you witness or experience, and representing it in a new, original form.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for No Alibis Press? What should we look out for?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

We are currently reading submissions for an anthology of short stories, to be published summer 2019. The purpose of the collection is to celebrate writing that is both exceptionally good and challenging conventions in some way, doing something very new with voice or form. We have been very impressed by the quality of submissions already received (submissions are open until 31 Jan 2019), so we anticipate an exciting volume.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Sure. Here’s some historical fiction with a strong female lead:

Once upon a time, she was.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

  1. Don’t be swayed too much by what other people are doing, or by the market.
  2. Don’t rush to submit work without rewriting (many times).
  3. Find a way to make your work unfamiliar as you redraft – writers’ techniques include printing out work, changing the font, reading aloud. The aim is to read it as though for the first time.
  4. Embrace failure.
  5. Please believe manuscripts are rejected for many reasons – don’t quit on account of rejection.

Creatives in profile: interview with Señor Samba

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In the spirit of all good interviews, Nothing in the Rulebook first encountered Señor Samba on a chilly night in central London, dancing in a group apparently gripped by some shared disco-infused hysteria and shouting half-correct lyrics of classic disco tunes at unsuspecting tourists.

This is the model of a creative phenomenon that has been gripping creative festivals since 2008 – and launched in London in 2018. Founded by Guru Dudu, these silent disco walking tours are a unique blend of interpretative dance, crazy improvisation, and spontaneous flash mobbing through different cultural settings. Inspiring and insane in perhaps equal measure, they offer participants an extremely rare thing in a day and age so often defined by rules and limitations: they offer people permission to play and celebrate their creative and quirky selves.

It may come as no surprise to you, then, that these silent disco walking tours are right up our proverbial alley. Make no mistake: there is absolutely nothing in the rulebook that says you can’t dance and sing to Bohemian Rhapsody in the middle of Leicester Square.

It was thus a real treat to catch up with Señor Samba once he’d had a chance to get out of his effervescent, ever-so-revealing, tight blue outfit and feature him in our long-running ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series.

And we have a real treat for all of you, dear readers, too: the first 10 people who read the interview and quote it in an email to London@gurududu.org (and follow Guru Dudu on Instagram at gurududulondon or facebook at gurududulovesyou) will receive a pair of free tickets to Guru Dudu’s shows. 

Happy reading (and dancing), comrades! 

 INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SEÑOR SAMBA

My name is Rikesh. I grew up in Brighton, UK, where my heart still resides. I live a relatively chaotic life based on the principle of never saying no to anything, which has led me down some pretty interesting avenues (like dancing around in blue lycra short shorts leading people dancing to ABBA).

Other than moonlighting as a lycra wearing disco diva, I’m the Vice President of a green technology company called Pluvo (check us out), a professional session vocalist, and I’m studying a medical degree. I like to keep busy. 😊

As well as singing and dancing on every occasion I like to travel, read, learn, eat, and I’m partial to a good crossword. Favourite quote, and one of the maxims I live by: ‘Just because a song has to end, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the music.’

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SEÑOR SAMBA

Anyone who does good in the world and has a passion for doing so. The real heroes are those who are unsung and fight against all the s*** we put up with but make sure they leave the world in a better place than they found it.

Similarly, I’m inspired by honesty. It’s a really difficult thing in an image-centred world to be true to yourself. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what that truth is. So to find it and to live it is a difficult thing.

INTERVIEWER

How did you get involved with Guru Dudu’s project?

SEÑOR SAMBA

I was going through a really bad period and I did what every sensible adult would do. I quit my day job in the city, moved out of the big smoke, and curled up in a ball in my parents’ house in Brighton for a while. I’ve always been a fan of the Brighton Fringe and I’d seen a bunch of crazy people wearing headphones so I thought I’d give it a go. For an hour I forgot about everything – I was Freddie Mercury, I was Whitney Houston, I was even Kylie Minogue, and I didn’t care who saw. For an hour the world was a splash of music and colour. At the end Guru came up to me and told me I danced like a lunatic. I thanked him. He told me he was recruiting new Gurus. A few months later I was in my blue lycra short shorts in Edinburgh getting 60 shameless superstars to do the YMCA on the Royal Mile.

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INTERVIEWER

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced getting the project off the ground?

SEÑOR SAMBA

London is a big city; there’s loads to do. We’re competing with some of the best entertainment the world has to offer. Also, it’s getting the word out. When people do it they love it, it’s just going to take time before the disco revolution hits these streets. In smaller towns/cities it’s much easier to gain traction but then the target market is smaller. Those are some of my favourite gigs though.

INTERVIEWER

There’s something liberating about singing loudly (often badly) in a group while getting down on it in the middle of an otherwise unexpecting public space. Why is that?

SEÑOR SAMBA

Music is a wonderfully liberating thing. Who doesn’t sing and dance in the shower or in the car when by themselves? Headphones allow privacy and are one of my favourite inventions of the 20th Century. What we do is take that privacy and make it public, through community. Privacy in public – I like that. It doesn’t matter that you’re singing and dancing just like you would in the shower right in the middle of Leicester Square – as long you’re not alone in doing so. And that freedom to be as ludicrous as you feel in front of the whole world? Why, there’s nothing more liberating than that.

INTERVIEWER

Are you in a secret, unspoken war with DJs of traditional, ‘loud’(?) discos?

SEÑOR SAMBA

Absolutely not! The more music the better.

INTERVIEWER

We’re living in some pretty reality-shattering times. In an age of Trump and Brexit, should we be getting people out on the streets to protest, rather than party?

SEÑOR SAMBA

There are a million and one answers I could give here depending on my state of mind, but ultimately the main thing is that Guru Dudu is for everyone. Your politics, your views, they don’t matter when you’re jumping up and down to S Club 7.

Beyond that, I truly believe that fun, joy, laughter – that’s the best form of protest. There’s a lot of angry people in the world and they have every right to be. I’ve been angry. Angry at the state of the world, angry at the state of my life, angry at the state of myself. The best way to combat anger is with love. Self-love, love of others. Play, joy, passion, and love.

INTERVIEWER

Hopes for the future?

SEÑOR SAMBA

For myself or for Guru Dudu? For myself – I hope that someday I find my inner peace, whatever that means. I’ll know it when I see it. Chaos can only last so long. For Guru Dudu? I just hope that everyone who would get something out of our vision gets a chance to.

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Quick fire round!  

Just what is a ‘laughter meridian’?

A meridian that makes you laugh. Obviously.

Are we really supposed to blame everything on ‘the boogie’?

Well we can’t very well go round blaming it on sunshine. Blame it on the boogie. Occasionally you can blame it on Piers Morgan, but yeah – mostly just the boogie.

Craziest thing you’ve seen on a silent disco tour?

I did a tour in Chichester where there were mostly children and I decided to play the Pink Panther theme tune. I got the kids to pretend everyone was a spy and hide. I led the tour into a Poundland. One of the kids, couldn’t have been more than 5, took it so seriously that he climbed onto a shelf and hid himself behind the cereal boxes. It took us a while to find him and a little longer for his mother to coax him down so I had to maintain a dance party in Poundland for a while…

Worst moment as a silent disco leader?

I don’t know that I’ve really had one. I’ve had one tour where the energy wasn’t what I’d like but to be honest people still came up after and said it was the most fun they’ve ever had. It’s difficult when you know you haven’t been on the best form, but this idea is so unique and novel it’s easy to forget that people will still love it anyway. It’s an even harder thing to accept you can’t always be perfect, but it’s an important thing to understand.

Best moment?

I was doing a tour in Edinburgh and I was getting the participants to show off their dance moves. There was one teenage boy with Down’s Syndrome. I passed the baton to him to show his moves. There was a couple of seconds’ hesitation after which he proceeded to break dance in the middle of the circle. Literal air flares. If you don’t know what that is, look it up. It was incredible. I actually fell to my knees. The tour kicked off. At the end I asked him if he wanted to show off some more of his moves and much to the delight of half of central Edinburgh he strutted his stuff on the steps of the National Museum of Scotland. It was one of my first tours, but I’m not sure I’ll ever see anything that tops it.

Doing ‘Dancing Queen’ the weekend after the Tory party conference outside 10 Downing Street and having a police car turn on its sirens in appreciation of our moves wasn’t bad either.

Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner?

Aretha. Saying a little prayer for her on all my tours. But I love all the divas. I’d have to say my favourite is Etta James.

Favourite book/movie/TV show?

Book: The Flying Classroom by Eric Kästner. It’s a German children’s book. I don’t know how to describe how much I love this book. It’s about 5 boys at a boarding school and in 100 pages (with illustrations) it deals with concepts such as abandonment, depression, loneliness, loyalty, fear, poverty, and friendship – and never in a way that feels remotely condescending. A quote from the book goes as follows: ‘God knows, children’s tears weigh no less than the tears of a grown up. It doesn’t matter what causes your unhappiness. What matters is how unhappy you are.’

Movie: Barfi. It’s a Bollywood movie that was the first to deal with disability. The two primary characters are unable to speak for the entire movie. In a country where disabled children are often seen as a burden or a curse and abandoned by their parents, this film is a welcome reminder that disabled does not mean less than. It’s also just adorable and has me a weeping wreck by the end – every time.

TV Show: Ed. A cute little show about a guy who owns a bowling alley in small town America. It’s nothing special but the dialogue is quick, the characters are endearing, the storylines are easy, and it is a saccharine escape from a much more complex existence.

What’s your ideal silent disco playlist?

I love trying to vary up my playlist depending on the crowd. I love hearing people’s ideas too. My favourite song to get people moving however is always a bit of Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance with Somebody. And it’s probably the one song that I have on my regular playlist that I haven’t got remotely tired of yet. Any ideas, let me know!

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Creatives in profile – interview with Laura Potts

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Follow Laura Potts on Twitter @thelauratheory_ 

Laura Potts is twenty-two years old and lives in West Yorkshire. Twice-recipient of The Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has been published by Agenda, Aesthetica and The Poetry Business. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, she was nominated for The Pushcart Prize and became one of the BBC’s New Voices last year. Laura’s first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas, and she received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018.

In the following interview, we talk with Laura about creativity and inspiration, writing style and poetry, West Yorkshire, Donald Trump, Joan Crawford and hats.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

POTTS

Laura, 22. Writes much; reads more. Lives in a city that has been largely lost ever since last century coughed and dropped a war (or two). Born in Yorkshire. Bred on books which always took me further. Fond of rain and winter, the solitary nights and the comfort of the dark. Alone but never lonely and content to be that way. Poet and writer of radio plays. Terminal wearer of hats.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry your first love, or do you have another passion?

POTTS

I have always looked at living like this: life is one great passion, too vast to reduce to the four short lines I just wrote above. My life is many loves. I have never set out to chase just one of them. That would be to exist and not to live. The darkest days and the longest nights; the quiet of a sleeping house; the kindness of another; the seasons, always leaving; anger and its blackness; fire and its warmth; the world unfurling in the hands of ministers and mobs, and all before me. These are just a few of my loves and poetry is their legacy. It has never been art for art’s sake; never poetry for poetry. It is always in the service of my own private chaos that a poem, as the very best medium, comes to be.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

POTTS

Assuming we’re talking poetry, then quite a few haunt me. There’s Dylan Thomas, whose music is truer to ancient verse than winds are to winter; Leonard Cohen, with all the darkness of his heart; John Foggin for landscapes amorphous and Saxon; Clare Pollard for the humour of youth; Peter Riley for Hushings; Ian Parks for desire; Jade Cuttle for what she gives us back; the grace of Phoebe Stuckes; and Sasha Dugdale to the last, whose Joy has stayed with me.

And if we’re not talking poetry, then Joan Crawford. I like her class and taste in hats.

INTERVIEWER

As a Yorkshire-born poet, do you feel that there’s an element of your place of birth and home town in the poems you write? Or do you seek to separate your personal writing from your personal geography? (Is that even possible?)

POTTS

It was Matthew Arnold back in the nineteenth century who famously wrote that the best work comes from the disinterested mind – that is, from those who actively separate themselves from the bright world around them – and I’ve always believed that that ethos should stay firmly in the Victorian era. I disagree with the social ignorance it promotes, nor do I think it is even possible. Such a person would surely be devoid of language and its histories; of human contact and sexual impulse; of feeling altogether? Each poem, whether consciously or not, is the code of my history; each word is the product of past and present. I’ve never thought art can exist in a vacuum. Only a cypher could make that.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry series Sweet the Mourning Dew for BBC Radio 3 focuses on the experiences of those individuals who have lost loved ones to war. What drew you to this topic?

POTTS

My grandfather, mainly. He was an old war veteran and fiercely proud of the fact. He mimed the memory of war each day in a rigid routine; in a noble walk; even in his Brylcreem slicks and the same old comb from 1940 before the morning mirror. Most of all, he wanted to write his memoirs before the cancer came. In that alone he knew defeat. Sweet The Mourning Dew was my testament to a man who was proud of himself, and who wanted the lost to live on from the page past his own small place in time. It was never a passive claim on the tales that others have to tell. It was simply fulfilling a promise.

INTERVIEWER

How do you view the connection between poetry as performance and poetry as a solitary, personal act of reading poems upon a page?

POTTS

I have always believed that a poem can have many lives. Its life on the page is different to its life on the stage, but both are integral to its existence. It is true to the ancient roots of verse that it should be read and shared aloud; that its metre and music should be known to the ear as well as the eye. I am, however, distrustful of poetry as performativity: is emotion so scripted, so fabricated, so brief? And I am nervous of those who shout too loudly: in the most literal sense, in the beginning is the word and no end of spitting or swearing on stage will ever beat that. That is just a sad failure of the imagination.

INTERVIEWER

As a young ‘Gen Z’ poet who has come of age during years marked by the Iraq war; the global financial crisis and recently years of Brexit and Donald Trump, what is your take on the world around you? How can you use poetry to connect with the world as is?

POTTS

Quite frankly, I think the world is creeping dangerously close to repeating those centuries of war and hatred it said it would leave behind. It makes a mockery of those who died for the sake of democracy; for gender and racial equality; for decency; for rights. It laughs in the face of all those who tried and believed in peace. And all for a headline in the New York Times come morning or, better, a few more followers online. I’ve always thought poets are the quiet scribes of history. Like confessional voices to the past, they can speak with a passion which the history page never will.

INTERVIEWER

What has your personal experience been of trying to break onto the ‘poetry scene’?

POTTS

Well, I never tried to ‘break onto’ it as such. I read and wrote and wrote and read, and found the joy in that alone. I never had a formal plan to stand on stage and tell the world that I, self-titled, am ‘a poet’. It was never as scripted as that. But talent alone will always out, or that is what I’m content to think. And it is mainly due to the kindness of friends – of fellow writers, fellow thinkers – who listened and spoke well of me that others hear my voice today.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of writing poetry, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

POTTS

Most of all, I’d say that time should be forgotten. Little will come from a hurried mind, and what does is often stillborn. It’s a gift to hold a finished verse but only when it’s right: more joy comes from a well-worked line than a whole verse with no life. Or that’s my belief at least. I can easily spend a week or more just looking at one line. It’s really a very kind process for the mind to let time alone be the catalyst: the thoughts may be intense, yes; but I give them all the open space to grow and romp and play for months, if they need it. It’s a crucial part of my writing style to let the words live with me for hours, or days, or even weeks. If they haven’t settled in by then, I know they’re not to be.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

POTTS

Yes. Excepting the times when I write for commission and must fulfil criteria, I am the audience I write for. The joy has always been in seeing myself reflected back from the page, and never for the approval of anyone else. If there is a time when that should change, I will put down my pen for good.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

POTTS

An expressive quality by which the mind can translate imagination into reality.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘poet’ mean to you?

POTTS

That’s a much-contended one! I’ve always tried to reserve that title for a rather select group: that is, for those to whom writing is the defining constant of their lives. Perhaps it is their living; perhaps they’ve been well-published; perhaps they did a whole lot more than stand behind a microphone that one time in the pub. Otherwise, I’ll just go chop myself some wood and call myself a craftsman. No, that will never be enough. I think of it like this alone: if you want to align yourself with those who could, with confidence, call themselves ‘the poets’ in the epic annals of Literature, you have to do much more than that. You must be worthy of the name before you make the claim.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley penned the Masque of Anarchy, poetry has been used by writers and artists as a means of revolt against the status quo and to champion causes, giving voices to those who perhaps would not otherwise be heard. What are your thoughts on poetry as protest?

POTTS

I have always believed there is something intrinsically restless to poetry: in its formlessness, its shapelessness and its lack of formal laws, there is a freedom unfound in prose. Unlike most other areas of our lives, rules do not exist. And so the union between poetry and politics is a natural one in which the chaos of the latter can find its freedom. And, of course, it always helps that rhyme makes particularly memorable music.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

POTTS

Really, I’m happy enough just to write when I wish and read to widen my mind. But the next natural step is the first collection for which I have a manuscript; for which the time must be right and I must be ready. Other than that, I’m in the early stage of a full-length play for BBC Radio 4 and I’d like to write for the stage someday. But the plan is to be how I’ve always been and just write for the love alone. So we’ll see. When not writing I am reading, and that will be enough.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 tips for writers?

POTTS

  • Always have an accessible medium. Notebook, diary, tablet, phone. The back of your hand will do. Just make sure your mind never meets a barricade.
  • The best writers are the best readers. You’ll find your voice by listening to others and gauging your own place in the annals of literature.
  • Read your work aloud. At its ancient roots, poetry was an oral art form often set to music. By reading aloud you’ll remember its heritage and notice its flaws. A poem has a different life on the page to its life in the mouth, and it’s easy to know when a writer does not read aloud: their rhythm could be markedly better.
  • Be kind to yourself. Writer’s block is a terrible friend but one we must endure. Take your time. Sometimes the mind works best when at rest.
  • The only regrets you’ll have are for the times you didn’t try. So why not send that submission today?