Creatives in profile: interview with Joseph Alexander


Joseph Alexander – a writer of some mystery – assures us that a secretive reading group can be found through clues in this image…happy deciphering, comrades!

Joseph Alexander is a writer from a mixed Romani / white working class background. He went to Oxford for grad school and PhD, where he also taught for about 5 years. At Oxford, he had a one-sided feud with Richard Dawkins for stealing his vegetarian lunch, until they sat next to each other at dinner and talked it over. He has also held a visiting fellowship at Harvard, feud-free.

Joseph writes literary fiction and essays. He lives with his wife and labrador and is currently working on a novel. The first few chapters of his novel-in-progress are available for free at:

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with Joseph in the latest instalment of our ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series.


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


I can’t tell you where I live or too much about my lifestyle for reasons that are not as interesting as this will no doubt make it seem. Basically, I only have like 5 fans but they are very enthusiastic.

I grew up in a kind of halfway Romani/white working class culture. We got into fights a lot as children, everyone seemed to want to beat us up for some reason. I just thought that’s what it’s like to be a boy. I have a crack in my skull and all kinds of scars and it’s only my now-wife who pointed out that maybe even the ‘normal part’ of my childhood wasn’t all that normal. When you grow up with prejudice, you don’t even realise that you’re treated differently. And hiding your background becomes this subconscious thing that you’ve just been Pavloved into doing over the years, and your level of skill in will determine your fate to a large extent. It’s only now that I’ve started telling people.

I showed musical promise early, so I semi-voluntarily applied and got in a hard-ass music academy where we did like 20h of music a week and crammed every other subject into the remaining time. But to put a long story short, there was a series of real tragedies that kind of made my life soundtrack go permanently quiet when I was in my teens. Music has a kind of trapeze artist joy that I just couldn’t get back after everything, so I eventually stopped. Got into maths pretty seriously for a few years, even came second in my school maths-competition, but it was too far down the other extreme – it has real beauty that increases the deeper you go, but also a kind of conceptual coldness. So I eventually found something in between.

Went to Oxford for this famously tough graduate programme, went on to do a PhD (or DPhil as they call it to feel special) and taught there for about five years. I also had this weird semi-formal fellowship thing at Harvard that they give either to people who have promising early careers or are in exile from a successful career elsewhere. I’m not sure how that happened. I’m now part of their weird Alluminati network that has, like, Tony Blair and a bunch of others, and everyone posts in a private network about how they “found their passion” or “dreamt of changing the world”. I shit you not.

So that’s probably enough for now, though I didn’t even tell you about the weird super-Christian religious sect my mum’s family was a part of, or the time I was a platoon leader, or the time I got shot. Next time.


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


Writing is my first love, it’s just that I had to sort of come out of the writing closet. Like a lot of writers, you experiment with stuff in your early life and keep some plan Bs open and maybe the writing works out, maybe it doesn’t. But fiction writing is something I’ve done since I was a child (in my first ever report card my teacher even says she likes my “imaginative little stories”, god knows what she saw), but in my culture of origin it’s not, I guess, socially acceptable for a man to tell stories. I think a lot of working class people can relate. You’re supposed to be hard, and to know your way around an arm bar, and if you just want to be by yourself with a notebook people laugh at you. And someone always bloody found the stories I’d written, and read them out loud to people, so I got into the habit of critiquing my work early and burning or burying (literally, so it can’t be found) the stuff I didn’t like. I basically wrote because I had to, not because I wanted to be a fancy writer. It’s more that I couldn’t make it go away.


Who inspires you?


Oh man. I should say right off the bat that I’m foundationally suspicious of hero worship. Like, everything about it is absolutely, just axiomatically wrong.

Writing-wise, there are a few people whose stuff just shimmers off the page and makes you fall in love with the craft again. Like George Saunders, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Munro, Thomas Pynchon, some of David Foster Wallace. Don DeLillo’s stuff is pretty inspiring too, on a line-by-line level, although I always feel like I didn’t get the whole book when I finish it.

Life-wise, it tends to be people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Greta Thunberg. These are people who saw that there is a lot that’s wrong with this world, and their natural reaction wasn’t “oh shit, better go hunker down somewhere and pray it doesn’t concern me”. It’s easy to think now that they were destined to become the icons that they are becoming, but it must have just been absolutely hopeless when AOC was sitting in her tiny overpriced NYC apartment and going to her bartending job while campaigning, or when Greta Thunberg first decided “that’s it, I’ve had enough of this shit, I’m going on strike.” The things both could do were so tiny and pointless (like who actually cares if some 15-year-old doesn’t show up at school one day, it’s hardly unusual, or if some bartender runs in a primary), but they did them anyway. They both knew they were basically insignificant little nobodies, and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll make any difference. But someone has to do something, so they did. That does inspire me. Normal, insignificant nobodies have tremendous resources when they really decide to do something.


Your story, ‘VZ’, is set in the near future, at a point in time after a near cataclysmic event. How likely is it, do you think, that mankind is facing some form of catastrophe?


The ‘cataclysmic event’ in VZ is a bit funny, and kind of hard to talk about without spoiling it. But I’ll just say it may not be quite the catastrophe that it’s made to seem, at least not for everyone, and it may have actually happened and nobody noticed. Or maybe the things people did to stop it from happening were a far greater catastrophe. So it’s not a “dystopian novel” in that sense, you’re meant to doubt whether anything bad actually even happened.

The point of this, or one of them, is that all kinds of catastrophes happen all the time, and we just pretend like they never happened as long as they fit within the parameters of our preconceptions. Syria was obviously not perfect, but had a lot of well-educated people who were basically liberal individualists (I mean ‘liberal’ here in the classical sense, not whatever Fox News means by it) and genuine hope for a well-functioning participatory society. Now it’s a desperate hellhole that superpowers use to test their weapons on, just to show the other side they’ve got them, and could well be the place the apocalypse begins at. Turkey was edging closer to a full-on liberal democracy, until it became like Erdogan’s version of Gilead that is just a fertility shortage away from real Atwood territory. We’re back on the path of nuclear proliferation, climate change policy is apparently just everyone waiting for everyone else to do something. And these last two could destroy human civilisation as we know it, possibly completely.

I think humankind has faced (and is currently facing) all kinds of catastrophes, but we go on and pretend like they basically never happened and that they’re completely normal events. If people get upset at the effects of these events, someone comes along and directs that anger towards immigrants and poor people. So catastrophes are apparently fine, as long as they are ones that we kind of knew to expect. It’s the unexpected events that aren’t really all that significant, if you think about it, that we label ‘catastrophes’, like Trump winning the election or Brexit. Both are just continuations of pretty predictable trends and not even close to being on the same scale of event as, say, climate change or the poverty crisis in the UK and US, but we’re losing our shit over Trump and Brexit while thinking of maybe switching to a hybrid car and giving £5 to Oxfam once.

So the ‘cataclysmic event’ in VZ is about this kind of mass hypnosis, and in that respect it’s meant to be a reflection on the actual state of affairs.


In the story, we often encounter moments where our protagonist/narrator almost looks to psychoanalyse themselves as well as other members of society he encounters. How closely do the narrator’s thoughts mirror your own, and why do you think human beings behave in the (myriad) strange ways that we do?


From a certain angle, the book is about empathy and failures thereof. The central-stage characters in the book are kind of locked in their own heads and trying desperately to get out, connect with and understand other people. But we have really limited ways of conveying what is in our heads to the heads of others, and so to that extent I am like the characters. Being a writer, I agonise over which words to choose, and what other tools to use to open up commlinks between my head and the reader’s head. It’s a constant struggle to close this distance between what I write and what I want the reader to see or feel.

I think this is a need that everyone has, and from one angle the book is about that need and the crazy things it can get people to do. Some characters in the book do it through psychoanalysing themselves and others for similarities, some do it through exerting control over other people (i.e. making other people the receptacles of their thoughts and wishes), some are out for revenge because they want other people to feel the way they feel and so on. But they’re all trying to feel a kind of sameness and common humanity, as paradoxical as the methods they choose might be. In a sense, they want proof that others are like them. That need, I think, is at the root of a lot of the strange ways we human beings behave in, but common roots can lead to very different branches.

As to the narrator’s thoughts/voice, I do some tricks with the narrator that are meant to get you to think “is this the real Joseph trying to sledgehammer through the text and talk to me?” or “is this the real Joseph accidentally showing through, in that he wrote this or in this way because he is/isn’t [insert feature here, e.g. male, female, unnecessarily into maths, liberal, conservative, Christian, Buddhist, straight, gay, transgender, Romani, black, white, privileged, underprivileged, etc]”. The reasons I do this involve some of the bigger payouts in the book so I can’t spoil it.


Your story covers quite a bit – from economic doctrine, religion, right through to the idea of reality as a simulation, and Artificial Intelligence. These are topics that have captured the imaginations of writers, and readers, for years. What is it that draws you, specifically, to them?


Well, many of these are sort of chosen constructs for the purposes of the book. So I just chose them because they were necessary. If we take the empathy angle, economics is just a way to understand and regulate (aggregate) human behaviour and empathy, religion is a way to find both outside community and internal purpose or interpretation of one’s feelings and desires, the study of artificial intelligence (meaning what they now call “general intelligence” and not just machine learning) is an attempt to define what it is that goes on in our head that we call intelligence and how would we recognise it in a machine. It’s basically trying to define what it is to have a mind. The simulation thing in the book is this kind of creeping nightmare monster opposite – what if other people are not like you, and it’s all just a simulation and you, and possibly the AI that simulates you, are the only ones who have free will or real thoughts and feelings and so on. It’s supposed to sound cool and kind of Matrix-y at first, in that the realisation is sold as kind of liberating because you can do whatever you want and you’re the most important person in the world, but when you really understand all its implications and realise it means you are alone, and trapped, in a real and serious prison that there is no way out of, it’s meant to be terrifying. It’s sort of meant to be the logical endpoint of a culture that emphasises extreme individuality and calls it “freedom”.

So the topics of the book have been sort of thematically chosen. It then became clear that it had to be set in the future, to give me a bit more narrative room and tools to play with, and voila, VZ was born.


In your mind, are we living in a simulation? If not, how do we make sense of our reality?


Kind of depends what simulation means. I don’t think anyone is actually directing society to see what would happen with given parameters, so I don’t think we’re literally living in a simulation.

But at the same time, we do live a kind of dream – in Europe and in the US at least, and probably elsewhere too. There’s a great book that everyone should read (though it’s a bit academic) called Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, about how people in the Soviet Union both absolutely knew the whole system was bound to come crashing down any day, but also absolutely could not believe it when it actually happened. A lot of people are like that with Western-style corporate capitalism now, everyone knows it could come crashing down on our heads any day now and that you cannot have infinite growth in a finite environment. Some people I’ve talked to who really had ring-side seats at the time thought it was already happening in 2008. Like, seriously, people who really knew what was going on thought it was all going down. And maybe it did, we just put it on life support and think that everything was fixed but actually we’re just hanging on more and more artificial and drastic life-support. But at the same time, we really cannot imagine any other reality despite the fact that corporate capitalism of any form that we would recognise has only been around for about 150 years, and has effects like distributing more resources (and I mean a lot more) to people who take photos of their bums in bikinis than to the rice farmer they are standing in front of and using as props. And the farmer’s job is literally to feed other people. I mean it’s nuts if you think about it, which is why most people don’t – and that is the dream we project onto our corneas.

So we kind of self-simulate (as the actress said to the bishop, ba-dum-psst).


How did you go about writing VZ, what was your process?


Some of the first ideas were sketched out over a long period of time. Like I remember going past an old school that was being torn down and seeing the mangled rebar and concrete and, like a blackboard miraculously standing in the middle of it that still had some text or numbers, and thinking “what if someone bombed this place last night and they’re just disguising this as a demolition/construction site because they don’t want people to panic?” i.e., what if there’s a war going on and nobody knows it. Then I started poking at the idea a couple of years ago, writing up all kinds of things that would have to happen for that to be true and playing with it. Like, who would want to do that, how would they actually do it, why would they want to do that, why do countries even go to war and so on. The simplest scenario of how to approximate the effects of war on a population without the population realising it’s going on ended up looking not too different than the basic operation of certain economic doctrines (which were, funnily enough, the reason the school was being torn down in the first place). So I thought this was interesting enough to do a whole book on, and it kind of grew from there.

This past year or so I’ve been sort of financially secure enough to just sit and write out all the ideas, and so that’s what I did. There is very little process to it, except just to do the best you can and just keep doing it, every day. I got a good kick start when my wife went away for about three weeks on a work thing, so it was just me and my dog and we went a bit feral in our flat, with me writing the first maybe 30-40k words of this book. From there it was safe to just keep going and see where the text takes you. Some days (maybe most) are really infuriatingly difficult but you just have to show up and keep writing, and when the draft is done you rearrange it and reorder things and take a deep breath and do it again. When you’re confident that you can do no more on it, try to find an editor. Either a professional one, or just a friend who likes books (and you).

I promise you, it will only be done when you’re sick of it.


Looking around at current trends in writing and publishing what are your thoughts and feelings on the publishing industry? And how would you advise aspiring writers to break out onto the ‘scene’?


Oh boy. This might become the longest answer anyone has given you, feel free to stop reading at any point.

Advice? Write a book that is less than 300 pages (so aim for like 70k-90k words, definitely don’t go over 100k or you might as well not write it), have a single, or max two main characters and the story will be about how she/they arrived again at the place she/they left and saw it for the first time. Do a plot where there’s a set-up, a challenge, a crisis, a point of no return, a point of transformation, a climax and a neat resolution. Have an interesting, marketable persona (and remember, the word ‘persona’ literally means ‘mask’, something you hide your true self behind) and have people mistake you for the main character, so they think they’re buying you when they buy the book.

Industry rant begins (feel free to skip, but I promise I’m going to use “mama-bird” as a verb):

You know, I really think we’re in a sorry state with literary fiction and (big) publishers are making it so much worse by trying to make it better. Basically, they’re looking for the lowest common denominator and want a story that is easily understandable and fits a conventional structure. Theoretically this is because they want a wide potential audience, but actually means the end result will be this bland compromise that interests precisely nobody and the only creative parts are the details or casting. It’s a business so they need products that sell, I get that, but I also think people are genuinely sick of the neat narrative arcs because those arcs simple and predictable and kind of stupid. Just look at the stories that people are actually going nuts about – Game of Thrones had way more main characters and even killed off some of them really early before their arcs could be resolved, Stranger Things has a really complex plot that sits on at least 8 criss-crossing main character paths, Rick and Morty actually overtly parodies the neat arc structure and the episodes where they do it most are cult classics (like the giant heads one, or the pickle one and what have you). And these aren’t even directed to a sophisticated audience that reads a lot of difficult stuff, the way that “literary fiction” is meant to be, I’ve deliberately chosen pop-culture examples that appeal to masses of people.

So the idea that readers aren’t going to “get it” if the story is complicated is bullshit, but the publishing industry has been burned so badly that it’s now just in full damage-limitation mode, cowering in a corner and unable to take initiative, and unable to publish books that boldly take an angle and aren’t for everyone. Part of this is just structural. Agents and editors don’t have the time to read a book proposal or draft twice to understand it, they’re leafing through it together with four other drafts and while on the phone to a distributor or marketer and writing an email to Kate from Random House or something. What is really dictating content now is whether they get it, so the gatekeeper audience you’re trying to push through isn’t the person in a quiet reading nook with a free Sunday, a fresh pot of tea and a book, but the frantic time-poor editor/agent who has to make six final calls today and read 20 submissions, because that’s the person who gets to decide whether the person in the reading nook gets a chance to even see what you wrote.

The irony is that if you think about any of the biggest literary successes that people absolutely tie themselves in knots about year after year and that really pushed the art form forward, none of them conform to these stupid rules about arcs and character growth resolutions. Slaughterhouse 5 gives away the whole plot in the first chapter. Catch-22 has a new main character in every chapter and is more like a symphony than a narrative arc, in that it’s variations on a theme that build on top of each other. Infinite Jest has a huge hole where both the plot climax and resolution should be, and you just have to try to work it out from this 1000-page sensory-overload-haystack. Freedom is really weird structurally, breaks all kinds of style rules and the story happens almost entirely in the main characters’ heads. And who even knows what’s going on in Gravity’s Rainbow, but you read page-one and it makes you go ‘holy shit’. And these are just the ones that have sold millions of copies over the years, there are a bunch of others that have still sold really well that I could mention.

Readers want something they can chew, they don’t want to be mama-birded some pre-digested emotional manipulation that just tastes like cold sick. It’s an insult on their intelligence, and people can see that. People are smart, even if they’re not literature professors. So complexity is not the problem publishers think, but try to say that to a publisher.

(End of industry rant.)


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


It’s weird, it’s not really a specific reader but more like an abstract idea of one. I think of someone who has other shit to do and who you therefore have to give something to make it worth their while to read and to keep reading, but who also is kind enough not to think I’m doing this with bad motives or for myself. So someone who is willing to give you a bit of slack and wait for some payouts, but also someone that you do have to win over.


How would you define creativity?


Hmm. I think a lot of creativity is just seeing unexpected connections or similarities. I genuinely don’t think anyone really comes up with stuff all by themselves, you feed a lot of input signal into your noodler (so, read a lot of books) and then stuff starts to come out. I can’t really define it any better than that.


What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?


Someone who writes, possibly as a job. Don’t be afraid to call yourself a writer. If you think it fits and feels nice, do it. Later, haters are going to show up – fuck ’em. Anyone can deny things, be one of the few people who actively assert things.


James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – we live in a culture of ‘fake news’. Many have argued that literature – from poetry through to fiction – has an element of truth to it that reality itself sometimes lacks. What role do you think stories and storytelling have in a world of ‘alternative facts’?


Well, this ‘alternative facts’ or ‘fake news’ thing is really quite alarming, but it has been going on for much longer than people think. Like, basically profit-making corporate news broadcasting is institutionally almost guaranteed to result in a lot of ‘alternative facts’. Fiction has always had a place in combatting that, and I think that’s what people mean when they say that writing fiction is making up lies to tell the truth. Serious literary fiction isn’t defeated by “alternative facts”, if anything it is tailor-made for dissecting it.

Like, nobody captured what it was really like to live in the paranoid Soviet Union better than Mikhail Bulgakov, and that book (Master and Margarita) has magic and demons and women flying on brooms and whatever. Or take Gabriel Garcia Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude – that book is mental but really captures the surreal reality of South America, where a (North) American fruit company can slaughter people just because they wanted a five-minute rest break or something, and your whole life just feels like it’s part of a repeating cycle of exploitation and bloodshed that goes back to colonial conquest. And also 1984, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse 5 about the lies that accompany and protect war and totalitarianism – these are all born out of cultures of ‘alternative facts’.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that peoples that have really been through the shit-mill write very strange stories, because there are topics that can only ever be approached at an angle and those are the topics that “fake news” or “alternative facts” aim to hide from us – war, killing, suffering, and the pointless causes thereof. Some of the analytical terminology we use to dissect and understand what is going on with “fake news” now is actually from these books. Like I can totally imagine someone in South America saying that what is going on in Venezuela is a real Macondo, or that debating semantics when people are in concentration camps at the US border is a move from the Newspeak Playbook. These books help us understand what it is that we’re really looking at, gives it a language, and that is one of literary fiction’s purposes.

So I think now the antidote to “alternative facts” is what it has always been – serious, literary fiction that explores these topics. My book tries to do that, I’m sure a lot of others do too. Like just to mention one, Lucy Ellman’s recent, 1000-page Ducks, Newburyport is exactly the kind of genius strange fiction that helps us dissect what is going on right now.


Could you write us a story in 6 words?




Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?


  1. If you can’t write today, read today.
  2. Read everything. Even the back of a cereal box, or Ayn Rand.
  3. Try to learn from everything you read. Why is this character saying this? Is she saying it to the other characters, or to you? Is that good? What do you like about this cereal box or Atlas Shrugged? Can you pinpoint the thing that makes you want to read on (or watch another episode of Stranger Things or whatever), or the thing that makes you want to stop reading (or watching)?
  4. Don’t try to “write a book”. Try to write a good story, write good sentences, describe things accurately, make characters that come alive.
  5. Writing a novel is a really ineffective strategy to become rich and famous, but it’s great for other things.
  6. In the end, it’s just a book. If it doesn’t sell, or doesn’t do well, or people don’t like it, just write another one.

Quick fire round!

Oooh shit, okay, I’m ready!


If you could be any animal other than a human, what would it be?


A dog in a good home. (You can tell I’ve thought about this one before.)


Favourite book/author?


Uuuuhhh Slaughterhouse 5! George Saunders!


Critically acclaimed or cult classic?


Jodorowsky’s Incal. Any movie you’ve seen since 1980 has ripped it off.


Most underrated artist?



Shit, he’s not exactly unheard-of is he. Well he was really underrated in his lifetime? Kafka is the Einstein of writing, he changed the game and we’re still working out the implications. Maybe I just feel bad for Franz-Kafka-the-person.

No, scratch that, Tove Jansson! Tove Jansson is the lady who wrote the “Moomins” books, nobody has ever heard of her but if you actually read the books (not the comics) they are actual-goddamn-motherfuckin’-genius. Read a few and let’s, like, get high together I’ll talk your ear off about what I think is going on in them.


Most overrated artist?


Right now, Sally Rooney. I read Normal People and genuinely could not see what was special about it, no matter how hard I tried. And I honestly did try. I thought it was for kids. The Ross and Rachel story, with millennials, set in Ireland. I’m even really paranoid that I might just be thinking this because she is roughly the same age as me and I’m just a sour grape, but I honestly think this fuss will blow over.


Who is someone you think more people should know about?


Hasek, the guy who wrote “Good Soldier Svejk”, I forget his first name. Jaroslav? Anyway, the name is not important.


If you couldn’t tell stories or write – what would you do?


Oh man, I’d probably die. I’ve done this despite getting beaten up and laughed at and someone even burned my arm with a cigarette once for it, I used to write like it was this shameful secret thing that I just couldn’t stop doing. I’m still weirdly secretive about it for no real reason.

Or maybe I’d do philosophy. Or maths.


Do you have any hidden talents?


I play a mean jazz flute. Not even kidding.


Most embarrassing moment?


Oh Jesus, there are so many. I once made a real fuss about paying too much for a coffee in a Starbucks in Illinois, only to realise that the list prices don’t include tax in the US. I was very jetlagged, it was 5am. I apologised profusely.

Or one time my dog stole a stranger’s shoe that the person had left on the grass behind the goal during a football game, and ran around with it all over the pitch, being chased my me and eventually everyone in both teams so they could get the game started again. He’s one slippery dog, he had the best 10 minutes of his life.


What’s something you’re particularly proud of?


I and this other writer Zia Haider Rahman (who is way more successful, he wrote In the Light of What We Know) are starting this project where we help disadvantaged kids in London with writing. We haven’t done our first classes yet but I’m genuinely proud of where we’ve got so far. Stay tuned.


One piece of advice for your younger self?


You will get everything, everything, you ever wanted when you were 14. Try not to let it crush you.


Creatives in profile: interview with Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith NITRB.jpg

Nothing in the Rulebook first caught up with writer and photographer Matthew Smith through a conversation about Wundor Editions – a London-based publishing house.

Since then, his first collection of poems, Sea of the Edge has been published, while he has also won second place at the London Magazine Poetry Prize and won the Orbis Readers’ Award.

His photography, meanwhile, has been included in group shows with the New York Centre for Photographic Arts at Art Santa Fe 2019, at Black Box Gallery in Portland and at the Museo di Casa Giorgione in Castelfranco. His first solo exhibition will be at the Hagi Art in Tokyo in January-February 2020.

With so much to catch up on, we thought it best to check in with Smith once more.


When we last spoke, you told us about how your publishing house, Wundor Editions, takes its name from an old English word meaning something unimaginable – a miracle or even a monster. Is there anything you’ve seen or done since our interview that would have seen unimaginable to you at the time?


My daughter learned to speak! In just over a year from her barely talking, we can hold conversations with her. Her one-liners are amazing. Explain that you can’t have chocolate for breakfast and she says ‘I’m not going to eat it for breakfast. I’m just going to eat it.’


Alongside your work with Wundor Editions, you’re also a writer and a poet, a photographer and a designer. How do you balance your time between these creative projects, and do any take precedence over the others? If so, why?


Writing fiction, poetry and taking photographs are all of equal importance to me. They each involve very different processes, so they never interfere with one another in creative terms. Timewise, I often give 2-3 hours a day to each, so even if I were to work on three projects simultaneously, that would be possible. However, I tend to be working on only two of the three at any one time.


In October, you published your first poetry collection, Sea of the Edge. Can you tell us a little about the collection, and what it was like to write it?


In retrospect, I can appreciate what Caroline Price wrote about the collection: ‘…the recurring search for something beyond the physical realities and constraints of everyday life …a capturing of people at a crossroads in their lives.’ It came out of a time – late 20’s, early 30’s – when I was struggling to make a foundation for my future, to ensure that whatever it was that I wanted for tomorrow, I was going to begin to secure it now. But these are often known unknowns, so this time can be very difficult. I found that poetry could empower me to be direct and personal in a way that fiction couldn’t, enabling me to drill deeply into this terrain.


Writers often speak about a certain surreal sense of ‘coldness’ upon publishing a work that is particularly important to them. You spend so much time so close to something that is deeply personal, only to then send it off into the world for others to pick up, investigate, share around. Is this something that you’ve experienced at all?


No not at all, it’s a happy feeling for me, one of relief and excitement. What feels a little strange is when it took you years to write a novel, and someone says they read it in one sitting.


You won second place at the London Magazine poetry prize 2018 and won the Orbis Reader’s award in 2019. What’s it been like to see your work picked up and enjoyed so thoroughly in this way?


Profoundly satisfying. It’s great to see that it’s resonating with readers. Department Store won the Orbis award and that is in my first collection, Sea of the Edge. Black Fire won at the London Magazine prize. It will appear in my next collection.


There’s been a lot of talk recently about how everyone needs to have a so-called ‘side hustle’ – something you do that you love that isn’t your main source of income (but perhaps one day could be). With Wundor, Sea of the Edge and your upcoming photography exhibition at Hagi Art in Tokyo, you seem to have multiple hustles going on all at once. How do you manage it?


I write and edit quite quickly. Photography is woven into my life more finely as I can take a camera with me anywhere. Setting up exhibitions is not as time-consuming as you might think, once the work itself is complete. Experience and a strong work ethic is essential. And you have to enjoy the business and promotional side of things to enjoy working on multiple projects, because that will expand too. Part of being an artist is being an entrepreneur. Get up early, be healthy and remove all distractions from your life, and you can do anything.


There’s poetry to be found in photography; while poems and writing – and other art forms – can inspire a specific photograph. Where do you draw the distinction between different creative disciplines? How do they all bleed into each other?


They have many differences and similarities. Photographs form series involving interplay between various images, ideas, tones and textures. Poems come together in a similar way to make collections. Novels are bound by one overarching story, which can feel stifling at times, due to the need to commit to it over years. That’s partly why my novel The Waking and the new novel I’m working on now have so many sub-stories within them – it keeps the narrative dynamic and it keeps me inspired.


In our last conversation you spoke about the plethora of creative work out there that is waiting to be discovered by publishers, agents, and others within the publishing industry. But is the quantity of excellent creative work in a way its undoing? Has the value of the written word been devalued by the internet – where words and ideas are so freely available and abundant?


We’re all learning how to return to sanity in terms of our use of the internet, without ditching it, because in essence we know it’s a good thing. We don’t want to go around London with an A-Z again, Google Maps is helpful. Privilege in the future in terms of tech will be less about what smartphone you have and more about whether you were taught how to filter online content so that you could benefit from it and not become overwhelmed by it, misled by it or become addicted to it.


What’s next for you and your work, are there any particularly exciting projects we should keep an eye out for?


Yes, I will be exhibiting with the New York Centre for Photographic Arts at Art Santa Fe in July this year. You mentioned my solo photography exhibition at Hagi Art in Tokyo, which will run from January-February 2020. The series from that exhibition, Chora, was taken in London, but the images were inspired in part by a lifelong love of Japanese art and photography, so it’s found the right home. The specific dates will go up on my website and Instagram soon. I’m also working on my second novel and my second collection of poems.

Quick fire round!


Favourite author/poet/photographer?


Marilynne Robinson / Robert Frost / Masao Yamamoto


Can you name a book you love, and a book you hate?


Housekeeping is my favourite novel. No hate!


Critically acclaimed or cult classic?


Critically acclaimed is the ideal! But a classic is a classic, regardless of how many readers it has.


Most underrated artist?


Dario Argento is one of my favourite directors. There’s very little serious attention given to his work, as he was largely working in the horror genre, but his best work is worthy of the highest level of analysis. He tells mercurial stories that slip away from you just as you think you have them figured out. Critics invariably fall for the false endings he creates. I’m thinking in particular of Deep Red, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the best of the giallo films. I’m not so keen on stuff like Suspiria.


Most overrated artist?




Who is someone you think more people should know about?


Polo G’s first album is incredible. He’s a young rapper from Chicago who seems to have arrived fully-formed as an artist. Robert Wyatt is one of my favourite singer-songwriters. He’s still not widely known. I’ve been listening to Shleep recently. ‘Maryan’ is a masterpiece. ‘Was a Friend’ is one of the most unsettling songs I ever expect to ever hear.


If you had to choose one artistic discipline to stick to, which would it be?


I’ve always seen writing and making pictures as part of the same thing, so I can’t choose.


Do you have any hidden talents?


I can speak and write some Japanese. To take it further seems difficult without being based there.


Most embarrassing moment?




Something you’re particularly proud of?


My daughter, who is 2 and already running the show.


If you had one rule to live by, what would it be?


Be yourself.



Beyond Game of Thrones: in search of the ideal modern female heroine


Ever since its inception, the gothic novel has been a curious mixture of over-exaggerated cliché and transgressive boundary pushing. On the one hand, the gothic novel has dealt liberally in tropes such as vampires, bloodlust, disembodied souls and wandering corpses, but it has also explored liminal states such as dreams and the unconscious, and through various literary devices, the very notion of boundaries itself.

Consistent with this characterisation, the women in gothic novels have been either two dimensional ciphers, hysterical screaming maidens in disarray as they flee through the underground mazes of castles and graveyards, or more complex heroines with a depth of passion and self- awareness that transcends their socio-historical situation. This characterisation has often depended on whether the novel in question is penned by a male or female author.

In fact, female authored gothic novels such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and even Angela Carters modern classics from her short story collection The Bloody Chamber, use the themes and conventions such as madness and fairy tale, to explore traditional restrictions around women’s roles in society and along the way, often subvert these radically.

Using fantasy, fairy tale and fugue states, dreams and dissociation, the writers of female gothic novels present us with alluring and engaging worlds within which women act out powerful new roles and dynamics. Indeed, the ubiquitous modern phenomenon of the hit series Game of Thrones uses gothic and fantasy elements in its depiction of the powerful heroines at the heart of its narrative. Through dreams and prophecies, mythical beasts, all-consuming emotions and elemental imagery, the female characters are defined and reinforced with powerful iconography.

I use Game of Thrones as an example here because it is a modern hit with global audiences, which has reverberated strongly through the collective psyche, and yet it is set in a world distinct from our own, a world with powerful women wrapped up in mystique and magic, but women who enact their own agency. For the most part, Game of Thrones, with its gothic elements and yet supremely modern depiction of the female psyche represents a compelling model for how female characters could be represented in contemporary fiction.

Of course, in Game of Thrones, and also in classic female gothic novels, women have to struggle against oppressive patriarchal structures that restrict the expression of their power and agency. This is somewhat less of a factor in the modern world, but it still exists, especially in some cultures, where women have less of a voice.

In my upcoming debut novel Never So Perfect set in London amongst a glamorous coterie of British Asian characters, I always had in mind the female gothic and its conventions as I developed the narrative of my heroine Mia. She is also somebody who has had a varied and complex journey, but the way her story reaches back into a dark past, and how this is then set against a glittering present that sometimes seems surreal and dreamlike to her, was my homage to the female gothic genre that has captivated my imagination ever since I first encountered it.

Delving into fugue states and exploring the boundaries of sanity in my own novel, and the way in which my heroine emerges from all this, fragile and yet powerful, transgressive and irreverent, with humanity and also humour, represents to me, my ideal of the modern female heroine – with a dash of gothic sensibility.

About the author of this post

Sobia QuaziSobia Quazi has been writing on and off since she was a young child. Her early poems were published in a variety of poetry magazines, including The Frogmore Papers and Smoke. Eventually, she executed her escape from medical school and did her PhD in English Literature, dissecting a different kind of dead body, the spectral women of gothic novels and Japanese horror. She is still enthralled by all things dark and gothic, by the intricate webs of intertextuality, and by the transformative power of storytelling. Her first novel, Never So Perfect has been picked up by award-winning publishing company, Unbound, and is currently seeking crowdfunding. She tweets as @QuaziSobia



New comic, The Ogxcun Myth, set for launch

Oxgcun Myth image1

A new, weekly, seven-part story launches this week.

Entitled,  The Ogxcun Myth, it combines the talents of writer Joshua Spiller (Symbolism Rewired, Time Fracture!), artist Kishore Mohan (Head Above Water, Gutters) and letterer Bolt-01 (FutureQuake, Zarjaz).

As well as the preview art above and below, here’s the synopsis:

In a baroque palace, primitive automatons surround their human captives for an unknown purpose.

Meanwhile, in the distant past, a lone warrior treks through a snowy wasteland that resembles the world’s beginning, or its end. Soon, he will face the Ogxcun: a trio of terrifying beings that scent guilt and wreak vengeance upon the “wicked”, creating a cosmos where the good who feel guilt are punished, while the gleefully malicious roam free.

A strange fairytale meeting of two cultures that could never have crossed paths in actuality, ‘The Ogxcun Myth’ features epic fights… experimentations with the comic-book form… and a shocking and intense finale that will tie the two timelines together.

The universe will never be the same after this tale…

The 21-page online comic is a self-contained story, and will be serialised three pages a week for seven weeks.

Its first issue is now live.

Oxgcun Myth image2

What’s more – if you subscribe to online anthology Aces Weekly for just £1 per week, then over the next seven weeks, you will get:

  • Full access to The Ogxcun Myth as it unfolds
  • PLUS over 100 pages of other comics stories by other creators – all serialised simultaneously and available for you to enjoy online whenever you want, through your tablet, laptop or desktop

It all comes from an award-winning publisher, in a neat package at

If the philosophers had been dogs

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The canine philosophers Sun Shitzu and Bernard the Saint: some of the true masters of philosophy whose ideas have finally been revealed in ‘Philosophers’ Dogs‘ – a satirical, illustrated book created by Samuel Dodson and Rosie Benson. (Images courtesy of Rosie Benson/Unbound).

Is it possible to be a good dog? Do we catch balls of our own volition? Or are our decisions to eat the rotten apples, to bark at the cat, predetermined? What is it to know that you have behaved well rather than merely believe it?

These are just some of the questions that promise to be answered in a new creative project from award-winning publishers, Unbound. Written by Samuel Dodson and illustrated by Rosie Benson, ‘Philosophers’ Dogs‘ is the ground-breaking textbook that will shake the very foundations of both western and eastern philosophy by revealing a truth that has hitherto been kept secret: that all human philosophers stole their ideas from their dogs.

Featuring beautiful illustrations alongside thorough, meticulous research and historical fact*, the book follows the philosophic trials, tribulations and tail-wagging of the dogs owned by famous philosophers and essayists, and presents to readers the unadulterated, real histories of the true philosophical masters of enlightenment.

*Not necessarily historical or fact.

Feast your eyes on the true masters of philosophy

A vital companion to the bookshelves of all philosophy students, teachers, dog lovers and, indeed, anyone with any interest in THE TRUTH, Philosophers’ Dogs also reveals the original, genuine quotes hitherto (wrongly) attributed to minds such as Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, David Foster Wallace, Socrates and Simone De Beauvoir.

Nothing in the Rulebook are proud to present here, to you, dear readers, some of the images that can be found in the book. Here below, you can see the real depiction of ancient Greece that Raphael so diabolically painted in his artwork ‘The School of Athens’ – as it truly was.

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Raphael can eat his heart out. In this picture we see an illustrated vision of the famous Athenian case against Socrates’s dog, Droolius Caesar, who argued that he could not possibly know anything about who pooed on the rug. Image copyrighted by Rosie Benson

Spot the difference? Compare this accurate representation of reality, above, drawn by Rosie Benson, to this deceitful painting by Raphael, below – who failed to include any of the canine companions we owe so much to. 


Or why not check out the following illustration of the historic scene where Karl Marx’s dog, Karl Barks, finally broke free from his leash to teach canines across the world that they were truly in control of the means of walkies.


“Dogs control the means of walkies” – Karl Barks. Image copyright of Rosie Benson.

Unbound: liberating ideas

Unbound have been making waves in the publishing sector since they launched – a crowdfunding-based, selective publisher who exploded onto the scene as a suite of their books won or were shortlisted for countless prestigious awards, including the Man Booker Prize. Picking up diverse titles that range from comprehensive ‘rhyming dictionaries’ through to short stories about a small town in Dorset, England, they have played a key role in transforming the publishing sector through crowdfunding.

Their model enables them to pick up and support projects by new authors and artists – something that precious few mainstream publishers seem to be interested in doing in this day and age.

Why not check Unbound – and Philosophers’ Dogs – out, using our exclusive Nothing in the Rulebook discount code to get a whopping 25% off. Simply pledge for a reward that you want, and use the code NITR to get your discount.

What the authors say

We couldn’t turn down the opportunity to get a quote from the creative duo behind ‘Philosophers’ Dogs’ – not least because Samuel Dodson, the author, is also a part of the Nothing in the Rulebook creative collective! On writing the book, he says:

“In making this book I owe a huge amount to my early philosophical teachers, my Lab-Collie cross, Layla, who taught me that not all tennis balls need to be chased, and my border terrier, Marnie, who showed me that obeying orders isn’t always strictly necessary (especially if food is involved). Having grown up with dogs, it quickly became apparent to me and my sister, Rosie, (whose incredible illustrations in this book blow my mind) that the real masters of philosophy in the world were of the four-legged variety; and so Philosophers’ Dogs was born.

It’s hugely exciting to be launching the project – but also incredibly terrifying. Crowdfunding looks like it has the potential to break down the old barriers that existed within the publishing sector, but, given my particular English sensibilities towards being ever so self-effacing and modest, it doesn’t make it any less difficult or awkward to ask people to financially support the project! Still, the fact that people can pick up original art prints, personalised ‘dog-rees’ for your pooch, as well as unique ‘paw-traits’ of your dog as rewards for pledging does certainly make a huge difference. So I feel exceedingly lucky to be on this creative journey with Rosie. I just hope I can do her proud and we can raise the funds we need for the book. It would be so wonderful to see our name’s side by side on bookshelves and coffee tables.”

His sister, Rosie, says:

“It feels like a funny thing to call myself an artist as for many years it hasn’t been my main source of income, as I guess is true for many artists. It seems more appropriate to say that I’ve been artist in my heart, and sometimes in my head, for my entire life.

I certainly wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to collaborate with my brother on his wonderful book.

Dogs have been part of the family my entire life, with one particularly special furry friend ‘Hector’, a beautiful, loyal and dependable Dalmatian. Although he has departed this mortal coil I know he would want me to do my best, to do justice for all the dogs out there whose philosophical ideas have been ignored and stolen for far too long.”

Pledge to support the book with a Nothing in the Rulebook Discount

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen and read here, Nothing in the Rulebook are pleased to have teamed up with Unbound to offer readers a 25% discount. Just use the code NITR and pledge to support the project today.






‘It nearly killed me writing it but it’s also the reason I’m alive,’ – Marcus Zusak on ‘Bridge of Clay’, ‘The Book Thief’ and writing 1.9 words a day


Nothing in the Rulebook’s Ellen Lavelle caught up with best-selling author Markus Zusak at The Collection Museum in Lincoln.

‘I’ve written four books that mean something to me and two that mean everything to me,’ Markus Zusak says. The two books that mean everything to him are The Book Thief and Bridge of Clay – the latter took him thirteen years to complete. ‘It might be time again to write one that just means something,’ he adds.

It seems unlikely, however, as Zusak doesn’t seem able to do anything without doing it well, giving it absolutely everything he has and getting a kick out of the challenge. Even the talk he gives to the crowded auditorium of The Collection Museum in Lincoln is expertly constructed. At first, he tells a funny story from his own childhood, then he explains to the audience why he told it in that order, why he drew our attention to his brother’s red Esky cooler, the upside-down paint cans they sat on to eat their lunch. Why do these details matter?

‘You want people to believe you,’ Zusak says. ‘If you can give them the detail, it convinces people you were there.’

Every story is two stories, he explains. You tell the top layer, while dipping into the bottom layer – the backstory – to add emotional weight. We cared in the moment when young Markus had to confess what he’d done to his dad because we knew his dad yelled at him sometimes when he messed up at work. How did we know this? We knew because Zusak, the grown-up writer, paused the story to relay the time when he painted himself into a corner of a cupboard and had to wait an hour and a half before coming out, so he wouldn’t mess up the paint. We know because Zusak, bestselling author, dipped into the bottom layer.

He’s this good because he’s had a lot of practise. Before going onstage, I interviewed Zusak in the office below the museum, asked how he started out. The first story he ever wrote was about a boy with a cyst in his head that could explode at any time.

‘I stopped at eight pages and thought it could be entered into a competition for the worst book ever written,’ he tells me, laughing. ‘The first thing I finished was when I was eighteen. I wrote my first book and that got rejected by five publishers, which was good – I was lucky that it did. If it hadn’t, I would look back with even more embarrassment at my earlier books. Now, though, I look back at my first published books kind of happily because I think enough time goes by and you can forgive yourself for whatever you didn’t quite get right, all the things you overdid.’

Zusak’s first ever reading was in the year 2000, in a library in Margaret River, Western Australia. Not only did no one come but the librarian made him do the reading anyway, just for her. It’s the unexpected that makes a story work, Zusak explains. When he tells people this story now, the zero-attendance fact gets their sympathy but it’s the sadism of the librarian that really makes them laugh.

As a young writer, Zusak gave talks in schools across Australia in order to make money – telling a good story was essential for his survival.

‘Those boys,’ he says. ‘They really want to kill you.’

It was their sports hour or their lunch break Zusak’s lecture consumed and he knew he had to make it worth their while. It was during a school workshop that he first came up with one of the core features of The Book Thief. In a writing exercise with a class, he described the sky in three colours, used each colour to represent a death.

‘I just knew it was Death talking,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t this profound, deep thing – it was quite simple.’

At the same time, Zusak was writing a short story set in contemporary Australia, about a girl stealing books. He pulled the two ideas together and, inspired by the stories told by his parents about their childhoods in Austria and Germany during the second world war, set the book in Nazi Germany.

Published in 2005, The Book Thief was an international bestseller, translated into more than thirty languages. It was adapted into a film in 2013, starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. Zusak suggested the filmmakers cast Sophie Nélisse as Liesel, the main character, which they did, but apart from that, Zusak says he had very little to do with the film. There are elements about it he likes, some he doesn’t.

‘Film people are different,’ he says, darkly.

Released in 2013, the film went into production exactly halfway through the thirteen-year break between The Book Thief’s publication and the release of Zusak’s latest, Bridge of Clay.

‘It nearly killed me writing it,’ he says, ‘but it’s also why I’m alive.’

Zusak never imagined anyone would read The Book Thief and, liberated by this belief, was able to write it exactly the way he wanted, in only one year. After its immense success he knew that, whatever he did next, he would have a lot of readers. He revisited Bridge of Clay’s beginning ‘thousands of times’, rewriting it over and over again with different narrators. He likes to write in the morning, at the kitchen table, and when he once asked his daughter if she could eat her cereal quieter because he was trying to work, she snorted.

‘You?’ she said. ‘Work?

This was still ringing in his ears when he finished the book and so he worked out his daily word average for the last thirteen years: 1.9 words a day.

‘Not even two,’ he laughs.

It was a frustrating, painful process but Zusak believes that these long years with the same book, the same characters, made it better.

‘The more time you spend with a book, the more you can make good decisions about it,’ he says. ‘I normally say you want to spend enough time with the book, working on it, making notes for it, writing it, that you feel like you can wake up every day and just roll out of bed into the world of the book.’

But what is it like to roll out of bed the morning after you finish the book? What does it feel like when that world, the world you’ve been in for thirteen years, is sealed off, no longer there?

‘Everyone thinks you should feel really happy but you don’t,’ Zusak says. ‘You feel a bit flat. You’ve just been kind of working for the World Championship of Yourself and then it’s over. You’re relieved, don’t get me wrong – you wouldn’t go back in – but you’re still wondering how you’re going to live without it. That’s how you write the next book.’

It’s clearly a joy, though – anyone can see that. The whole time he’s talking, Zusak is smiling.

‘I say it’s like climbing a mountain but there’s a sandpit at the top,’ he says. ‘You don’t get to play without doing the work.’

‘Playing’ is writing parts that are fun or inserting lines from real life into the story. On a hot day while writing Bridge of Clay, Zusak was cleaning his car with his shirt off. His son, then four, rode up on his trike and stopped.

‘Pop!’ he said. ‘What’re you doing out here in just your nipples?’

That’s in the book. But now the world of Bridge of Clay is over, sealed off, and Zusak is breaking his way into the next one.

‘I’ve got ideas, a few little things,’ he said. ‘I don’t guard my ideas. I was talking somewhere else last night and I told the audience the idea. I just said ‘Don’t write it because you’ll probably write it faster than I can.’ That’s the thing, though – I could give everyone the exact same idea and none of us would do it the same way. We’ll see.’ He smiles. ‘At the moment I’m still writing the first sentence.’

About the interviewer

Ellen Lavelle

Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.






Students of Warwick University’s acclaimed writing programme launch anthology

Agents, publishers, and editors are invited to join Warwick’s Writing students for their
anthology launch at Piccadilly Waterstones on the evening of Wednesday, the 12th of June.

Following tradition at the University of Warwick, the students of the esteemed MA in
Writing Programme have been working hard for the past eight months to publish an eclectic anthology of their work.

The anthology, Chimera, features work from 41 writers and includes a foreword from
award-winning poet, translator, and critic Michael Hulse.

Chimera, titled after the monster in Greek mythology, encompasses different styles and perspectives from local and international voices travelling across genres in fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

The launch will feature readings from 13 of the students, whose work includes:

  • An extract from a fantasy novel, where a Warrior-Queen leads her army through the desert to meet a tribe.
  • The opening of a horror novel centring around the haunted past of a childhood
    home, previously owned by a mysterious figure, Howard Pertman.
  • An extract from a historical fiction duology telling the story of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III.
  • A novel exploring a Palestinian Christian family’s experience living under
    Bethlehem’s occupation during the early 2000s, from the viewpoint of a child.
  • A poem that stands strong in the face of tragedy, telling of the poet’s experience
    losing a friend in the 2011 Norwegian massacre.
  • Short stories that range from a humorous tale, to a classical horror story, to an
    intricate tale of unfinished business at the end of a life.

Nothing in the Rulebook’s Professor Wu said:

“At a time when the major publishing behemoths risk creating a homogenised culture where only the same books are published by the same small clique of authors, it is vitally important to support collective creative endeavours like the Warwick Writing Programme Anthology, which has consistently brought unique voices to the ongoing literary conversation – and provides a rare opportunity to discover new stories, characters and worlds, as well as the writers behind them.”

A literary invitation

Literary agents, editors, and publishers interested in attending the launch are welcome to register in advance by emailing Frances at, as spots are limited. Limited copies of the anthology will be available at the launch.

Alternatively, copies are available in both physical and e-book versions on request.

The launch of Chimera will be at 6 pm on Wednesday 12 June at Waterstones, Piccadilly, London W1J 9HD.

The greatest books that haven’t yet been made

Karl Marx mock up

“Canines of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your leashes.” – A look inside one of the unique creative projects currently seeking crowdfunding, ‘Philosophers’ Dogs’, from award-winning publishers Unbound reveals the truth about the real masters of human philosophy: dogs.

Will the revolution be digitised? For the past several years, this has been the question increasingly being asked by those in the publishing industry looking to break with the old, frustratingly risk-averse models that so often – as Julian Barnes once noted – only seem to be interested in publishing “copies of novels that are copies of previously successful novels.”

As the online world becomes ever more a part of the real one, the pressures on writers and publishers has only increased. With the incomes of writers continuing to collapse, and independent publishers struggling to compete with the corporate behemoths, many aspiring writers and publishers are reaching out directly to readers before their books are published (or even written, in some cases) through crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter.

Now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, Kickstarter has seen tens of millions of dollars pledged to fund successful book projects, among their number, the speculative science fiction novel, The 8th Emotion by Josh Spiller, ‘Mud’ by Chris McCabe (published through incredible art-house publishers, Henningham Family Press), and the delightful Shallow Creek project from literary creatives STORGY.

Unbound: liberating ideas

The crowdfunding model is now even being adopted by the publishers themselves. UK publishing house Unbound made waves when they were founded in 2011; and truly announced their arrival as publishing heavyweights in 2014 when one of their novels was longlisted for the prodigious Man Booker Prize.

With Unbound, the company takes crowdfunding beyond the singular focus of financing a project like Kickstarter – as The Independent Publishing magazine explains: “Unbound is a publisher that happens to use a funding platform, rather than a crowdfunding platform suitable for book publishing. It’s an important distinction and visitors to the Unbound website will appreciate that the company is driven by the publication and sales of books. It is refreshingly transparent about its method of business.

Found in the crowd

So, why the move towards crowdfunding? Well, as the author Dan Coxon has noted, part of the reason is that this model provides both writers and publishers with confidence. Coxon says it is “useful to think of the new crowdfunding model as a kind of inverse marketing: whereas the publicity campaign usually kicks in upon publication, here we did all our marketing in advance. I like to think that most of these people would have bought the book anyway – but by doing it ahead of publication, they helped reduce the risk to both publisher and authors, and therefore made the book possible.”

Coxon knows what he is talking about here – having successfully crowdfunded two anthologies on Kickstarter: Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood (Tangent Books), and most recently This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories). But for every book that does reach its crowdfunding target, there are two more that fail to do so and never see the light of day.

10 (plus one) of the best literary crowdfunding projects

So, in the hope of honouring our ambition to support creatives of all stripes to fulfil their artistic ambitions – while also introducing readers to new and unique books, we’ve put together the following list of literary crowdfunding projects that we’d recommend you all supporting. And remember, there aren’t just books on offer here, but often wonderful rewards that you can pick up as well.

P.s. If you or someone you know has a crowdfunding project that you’d like to see here in this list, contact us and let us know – we’ll be updating the list over time as projects successfully fund and new ones launch, so it’s always fresh.

1. Philosophers’ Dogs

Philosophers’__Dogs_2_3DIs it possible to be a good dog? Do we catch balls of our own volition? Or are our decisions to eat the rotten apples, to bark at the cat, predetermined? What is it to know that you have behaved well rather than merely believe it?

All these questions – and more – are answered in Philosophers’ Dogs: a ground-breaking book, featuring beautiful illustrations, it promises to shake the very foundations of both western and eastern philosophy.

Support the campaign now – and pick up rewards including the opportunity to name a dog in the book, pick up beautiful original art prints, as well as even receive a personalised illustration of your own dog as a philosopher.

Also – considering one of the creators of this book is a member of our own creative collective, how could you not support this project? We’re a collective, after all.

2. The Advanced Rhyming Dictionary for Rappers and Poets


This book is a necessity for writers everywhere. Traditional rhyming dictionaries are becoming outmoded as we see rappers and poets turn to multi-syllabic slant rhymes rather than the mono-syllabic perfect rhyming suggestions of ‘cat/mat/Monserrat’. Rhyme is rarely so precise anymore. It has evolved. And with that evolution our tools, too, need to evolve.

With traditional rhyming dictionaries ill-equipped to cater to modern writers, this book, from battle rapper Adam ‘Shuffle-T’ Wollard, there are so many applications for this book and so many ways in which it can help people’s creativity.

Get rhyming (and battle rapping, if you so wish) now – all through pledging for one of the fabulous rewards on offer.

3. Atari: A Visual History

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Atari: synonymous with some of the best-known early arcade hits such as Pong, Asteroids and Centipede, and to this day a favourite of those who understand the groundbreaking impact it had on the home computer and video games industries.

But this book isn’t just a sweet nostalgia trip (though it promises to be that, too). It is, more obviously, a beautiful, one-of-a-kind compendium book for your coffee tables about the Atari 8-bit home computer and its third party software titles from the 1980’s and beyond.

4. Future

Future Poster.jpg

A full-colour science fiction graphic novel about love, hope and the end of the Earth.

Featuring stunning illustrations from award-winning artist Rupert Smissen, Future posits that it’s during the worst times that we most need to move forward, to push through hopelessness and shape our future rather than letting it shape us.

What’s more, you can sneak a preview of this fabulous book by reading the first chapter online.

5. ‘The Willows Magazine’ Hardcover Anthology

Willows Anthology.jpg

We love a good creative endeavour put together by a collective of likeminded creatives, so perhaps no surprise to find this one in the list. ‘The Willows’ is the beautiful hand-crafted magazine put together by a group of artistic and literary misfits. This project aims to bring all past issues together into one beautiful anthology edition.

Featuring a wealth of classic stories from G. D. Falksen, Sarah Monette, Lawrence Dagstine, and many more — along with brand-new tales from award winners Gemma Files, John Langan, Brian Evenson, Orrin Grey and Jesse Bullingtonplus a new introduction from editor Ben Thomas — this anthology will be a collector’s item you’ll be proud to treasure.

6. Nothing But A Good Time

This one is right on the cusp of reaching 100% funding. This book will provide readers with a fascinating cultural history of Glam Metal: where it came from, how it defined America in the 1980s and how it all came crashing down.

The book is written by Justin Quirk, an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster from London who has written for The Guardian’sKerrang! Arena and Esquire as well as the Times, Sunday Times and The Independent.

 We have nothing but good things to say about this book – help make it a reality.  

7. 100 Voices

This book is the culmination of a huge undertaking. Between 6 February and 16 May 2018, 100 Voices crowd-sourced stories from female-identifying writers all over the UK. Award-winning novelists, theatre makers, short-story writers, bloggers and poets each contributed a short piece responding to the theme ‘something I have achieved’ on the 100 Voices For 100 Yearspodcast. The resulting collection, transcribed in this stunning book, is a treasure trove of thoughts on what it is like to be a woman in 2018.

8. Wonders and Visions: A Visual History of Science Fiction


This sumptuous book tells the story of science fiction through its most iconic, beautiful, interesting and (sometimes) crass cover art: from the earliest days of publishing in the 19th-century, through the glory days of Pulp magazine covers and the Golden Age, into the endless visual experimentation of the New Wave and so to the post-Star Wars era, when a ‘visual logic’ comes to dominate not just science fiction but culture as a whole.

With over 350 full-colour images and more than 50,000 words of text this is more than simply an anthology of famous science fiction covers–it is an ambitious attempt to tell the whole history of the genre in a new way, and to make the case that science fiction art, from the sober future-visions of Chesley Bonestell, to the garish splendours of Hannes Bok, from the Magritte-like surrealism of Richard Powers, Frank Freas, Judith Clute, and Ed Emshwiller to the amazingly talented designers and artists of the 21st-century, exists as a vital and neglected mode of modern art as such.

9. The Bystander Anthology

bystander anthology

50+ South Asian creatives. 13 countries. 1 Comics Anthology. Stories about Gender,Identity, Boundary and Exclusion. Presented by Kadak.

The BYSTANDER anthology is comprised of both a print and a web component. The print output will be a beautiful and stunning book offered alongside a variety of rewards like delicious zines, posters, postcards, stickers… which are all up for grabs!

10. Quiet Pine Trees

Quiet Pine Trees is jet fuel for your imagination and a wrecking ball against writer’s block. This collection features more than 500 tiny, strange stories from my years-long campaign to turn the humble tweet into a self-contained work of literary art. The limited format forces each story to combine powerful imagery with haunting themes in just a few words, creating snapshots of bigger, stranger worlds to inspire the creativity of the reader.

These micro stories cover a wide range of genres, from science fiction about advanced time travel techniques, to otherworldly fantasy about desperate trees and artillery pianos, to cosmic horror about why dolls can close their eyes.

11. Poetry to the People: A Book Truck Tour

poetry to the people

Okay, so technically not a single book, but we’re a collective and all about any project that aims to bring lots of literary delights to lots of people, so we’re big fans.

House of SpeakEasy, an inventive NYC-based literary arts nonprofit, has a 27-foot-long box truck retrofitted with open-air bookshelves with enough room to haul thousands of books. Narrative 4, a global story-exchange organization, has a summit in New Orleans. What happens when you put these two together along with dozens of community partners along the way? A 10-day, 10-stop tour: Poetry to the People.

The tour will feature outstanding authors including Raquel Salas Rivera, Rayna Guy, Rickey LaurentiisJenny JohnsonHanif AbdurraqibEloisa AmezcuaHannah PittardKiese LaymonDarrell Bourque, and Daniel José Older–with more authors joining the tour soon!

Go on and get involved. You know you want to.




Book review: ‘Built on Sand’, by Paul Scraton


Paul Scraton’s Built on Sand is described on its own cover as a novel, but those looking for a clear protagonist and a consistent story will be disappointed. They are the only ones, however. The book is challenging and demands concentration from readers, but is written beautifully; no barriers crop up as a result of the language. Though I found the fragmented stories unsettling at first, unsure which characters would appear again later, a few chapters in I felt confident in Scraton’s hands. I didn’t need to know what would be relevant later because I believed Scraton did. To me, the book read not like a novel but a mosaic of fictional stories, memory and memoir, arranged together to create something impressive when you take a step back.

To say the stories are ‘set’ in Berlin downplays the presence of the city in the book. Scraton’s narrator is unnamed, the domestic dramas reduced to background noise. What would usually be the backdrop or context of a novel is brought forward as the focus of the book. We hear about forests, lakes and S-Bahn stations as main events. The narrator’s relationship with his girlfriend, the death of his flatmate, his friendships with other Berliners emerge throughout the book, but always within the context of something else – a trip to a lake, a village, a protest march. This could have been a mistake and made the book very dry, where it not for the fact that the backdrop is so incredibly interesting.

The detail in the stories does not read like research but knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. Scraton has built his life in Berlin and now even gives guided tours of the city. This experience seems to have informed his writing, as he dispenses information with confidence and then walks on. He tackles the big subjects – the historical persecution of Jews, the rise of the Nazis, the trains to the death camps, the invasion of the Red Army, the massacres, the unrest, the Wall – but embeds them within the context of everyday life, a city still moving.

Take the character of Annika, for example. A mapmaker, she attempts to trace the steps of Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th-century Jewish philosopher, who first arrived in the city through the Rosenthal Gate, the only entrance Jews (and cattle) were permitted to use. The Gate is no longer standing, so Annika has to guess where she thinks it would be. Her imaginary Gate stands not far from her own apartment and the cemetery where Mendelssohn was eventually buried. Later, next to the burial site, the Gestapo turned an old people’s home into a collection point for the Jews of the neighbourhood. They were then transported to Grunewald station, loaded onto cattle trucks and deported to extermination camps. ‘Having removed the living, the Gestapo returned with the dead,’ Scraton writes. The burial ground where Mendelssohn was laid to rest became a mass grave for three thousand murdered Jews and three thousand victims of bombing raids. All a short walk from Annika’s apartment where, years later, she makes her maps.

It’s heavy stuff, which is possibly why Scraton has written the novel in fragments. Stories about genocide and murder are interspersed with stories of old friends, of secret bowling alleys in pubs, of art and life. One particular section has an almost Brothers Grimm feeling, as we return to mapmaker Annika, who has moved to the forest with her family and becomes entranced by a mysterious neighbour. Scraton seems to say all these stories are ‘true’, even the fictional ones, and that they coexist, occupying the same space, the same city, built on shifting sand.

This tension reverberates throughout the book. The narrator describes a father trying to explain the significance of the holocaust to his young daughter at the Platform 17 memorial, ‘But we were struggling to comprehend it ourselves.’ After visiting the memorial, the narrator and his girlfriend go swimming. Scraton writes:

‘Despite starting the morning at Platform 17 and all the stories that lingered there beside the rusting railway tracks, this moment that came after, on the lake and in the sunshine, feeling K’s body against mine as we sat there, was to be one of my happiest Berlin memories’.

It is uncomfortable and jarring, but true. Moving on isn’t a choice, a decision made by a committee; Scraton implies it is inevitable, that new lives are built on top of memory, not by denying their existence.

The book is about people(s) and crowds, rather than individuals and it is sometimes difficult to remember who is who, which backstory relates to which person. There is very little physical description, not much to help make connections. This said, there are still some good character moments. Towards the end of the book, we meet museum guide Frau Grautoff. Despite the sombre nature of the exhibition, she’s perky and enthusiastic, keeps telling the narrator that, regardless of whether they’re maps, cranes, birds or exhibits, she could ‘look at them for hours.’ There’s a painful argument between Annika and her partner, with him trying to provoke her into an emotional response and her disappointing him repeatedly. It’s a book about collectives, migration, armies and populations, but there are moments when Scraton swoops down and picks out something personal. It’s effective and moving, but for some readers, might not be enough.

Closure is not an option here. We get hints of domestic unrest from the narrator, but not enough to get a sense of resolution from the ending. However, the book is all about shifting sands. Closure demands a moment of stasis, a moment to get your bearings, for calm reflection. Berlin is constantly moving and in Built on Sand, the reader works to keep up.

About the reviewer

Ellen Lavelle

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

“Groundbreaking” app to predict whether a book can be crowdfunded successfully


Award-winning publishing company Unbound has launched a “groundbreaking” app to predict crowdfunding revenue as well as the length of time required to fund a project.

Unbound, who have carved out a space in the literary market for bringing together traditional publishing and crowdfunding, have already successfully brought over 300 books to market. The company now hopes the new app, developed by their own head of data science and astrophysics, Dr Noelia Jiménez Martínez, will help improve their commissioning decisions and increase profitability.

Having recently launched their own Crowdcube campaign to help expand the publishing house, the new app could play a key role in attracting new investors.

The app uses data from more than 200,000 pledge transactions on its platform, as well as authors’ online engagement, to predict revenues. It is now being used by the company’s commissioning team, with 80% accuracy.

Unbound books

Already featured among Nothing in the Rulebook’s list of fabulous independent and alternative book publishers, Unbound has been making waves ever since it first emerged onto the literary scene.

Based out of a converted warehouse in London, the expert team behind the company have over 300 years of expertise in publishing and connecting people around creative projects.

They’ve got a wonderful catalogue of books they’ve already published (including ones shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize). But of course, the real thrust of Unbound comes from discovering new authors and ideas, and liberating (read: crowdfunding) them.

There are some exceptional projects currently out there – all of which are worthy of support. To give you a flavour of the variety of excellent books on offer, we’ve compiled a short list:

  • The ‘Advanced Rhyming Dictionary‘, from Adam ‘Shuffle T’ Woollard – a revolutionary rhyming dictionary and workbook for multisyllabic rhymes.
  • Keeping On’, by James Kennedy – part memoir, part exposé of the music world’s murky underbelly and part collection of life lessons gained from many years of ‘trying’ but ultimately having to learn to live with defeat.
  • Crow Court‘ by Andy Charman – a novel of short stories set in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, in the 19th century.
  • Blackwatertown‘ by Paul Waters – think LA Confidential meets The Guard set in Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the troubles.
  • Never So Perfect‘ by Sobia Quazi – a domestic noir, psychological thriller set in London amongst an elite set of British Asian society.

There are also books about Brexit, deepwater diving, and illustrated satirical books about dogs (of the philosophical variety).

So, what are you waiting for? Go get funding them, eh!