Creatives in profile: interview with Martina Devlin

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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.

 

 

 

 

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15 excellent short stories you can read for free right now

Book and Stones

Are you a literature addict looking for that sweet hit of literary ecstasy that comes from reading well-told stories? Are you also – like so many of us slaving away with ever-increasing work demands – short on time? Fortunately, we have just the thing for you that can satiate your craving for well-told, expertly-crafted fiction; bringing you tightly controlled beginnings, middles and endings in the time it takes to eat your lunch or smoke a cigarette (there’s a reason flash fiction used to be called smoke-long stories, after all).

We’re talking, of course, of some of the finest short stories that you can read for free thanks to the wonders of the interwebs. There are untold thousands – probably millions (if not billions) of these pieces floating around in the digital ether, but to get you started we’ve compiled 15 of our favourites, mixing together writing from new and aspiring artists with established literary titans.

Once you’ve had your fix, fear not! We also have many other collections of short stories you can read for free from legendary writers including J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth and Alice Munro among others.

And if you need even more literary satisfaction; we’re pretty sure you’ll find it thanks to some of these fantastic places you can read tens of thousands of literary texts completely legally and completely for free.

Back to the matter at hand: check out these brilliantly crafted short tales from magazines around the world below.

‘Black Moons’ by Robert Wyatt Dunn

Black Moons

“There were some things you could only do in New York.”

Read the story in Litro.

‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ by George Saunders

“Work, work, work. Stupid work. Am so tired of work.”

Read the story in The New Yorker

‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolff

“The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped.”

Read for free online.

‘Broads’ by Roxane Gay

“Jimmy Nolan has a thing for broads—loud, brassy women who sit with their legs open and drink beer straight from the bottle—women who always say exactly what they’re thinking and for better or worse, mean what they say.”

Read it via Guernica.

‘Ganymede’ by Chelsea Harris

“Tonight I am Venus. We’re sitting on top of the kitchen counters. Daddy hasn’t been back in days but I’m not worried.”

Read it via Okay Donkey

‘Tell-tale heart’ by Edgar Allen Poe

“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.”

Read it courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

‘That was back before, of course’ by Samuel Dodson

“She never knew what Maxine wanted. But it started the moment Mark Dean emerged from all the rust. Then it ended with a knife and the sound of something scraping against metal, some sound almost like an animal.”

Read the story for free courtesy of The TSS

‘Goose’ by Chelsea Grasso

“It’s okay, my goose. She will come back.”

Read the story via Carve Magazine

‘Girls at play’ by Celeste Ng

“This is how we play the game: pink means kissing; red means tongue. Green means up your shirt; blue means down his pants. Purple means in your mouth. Black means all the way.”

Read the story thanks to Bellevue Literary Review

‘Anatomy of a burning thing’ by Monica Robinson

“He was falling in on himself.”

Read via Blanket Sea Magazine 

‘Hills like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway

“I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’”

Read for free online. 

‘Fitting’ by Molly McConnell

“I left a relationship because it was too tight. But once I was out, I wanted back in.”

Read the story in Rabid Oak

‘The lady with the dog’ by Anton Chekhov

“It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.”

Read courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

‘Five baked beans’ by Katy Thornton

“I had started wearing earrings again, after the break-up. Not that I hadn’t worn earrings because of him – I’m sure we never had a conversation about it. I guess at some point I’d grown out of wearing my green-skin inducing costume jewellery and decided only to wear jewellery with sentimental value.”

Read thanks to Porridge Magazine

‘The Veldt’ by Ray Bradbury

“‘Nothing’s too good for our children,’ George had said.”

Read for free online

 

6 things that should be better known

Better Known

At Nothing in the Rulebook, we love starting conversations and building new creative relationships. So we were thrilled to be invited onto a wonderful new podcast called Better Known Show, hosted by Ivan Wise, which seeks to uncover new things that guests think should be better known.

As Ivan set out in an article for NITRB, “If you need a recommendation right now, there will be no shortage of suggestions. The problem is that far too many of them are exactly the same.”

Well, we couldn’t agree more. On the show, we pick six things we think should be better known. If you don’t want to spoil the surprise – click the link and subscribe (on Android or iTunes), and check out our episode!

But, if you don’t mind spoilers, read on!

6 things that should be better known, according to Nothing in the Rulebook

  1. The Future Library project in Norway
  2. Dr Chuck Tingle Professor of Massage
  3. The bad sex in fiction awards
  4. No Alibis book shop http://www.noalibis.com
  5. Richard Serra’s “portend I slugten” at the Louisiana art gallery in Denmark http://channel.louisiana.dk/video/richard-serra-porten-i-slugten
  6. Josh Spiller’s IF comic book anthology on superheroes
    http://www.joshspillercomics.tumblr.com

And a few things that we mention that almost made the cut:

Now what are you waiting for? Go listen to the episode!

Book review: ‘Truth and Dare’ by Martina Devlin

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Martina Devlin describes the eleven Irish women featured in her collection Truth and Dare as her ‘heroes’. Her admiration is evident; it is impossible to read this book and not discover something interesting. Devlin’s impressive research is fuelled by her conviction that these women were overlooked – sometimes even blatantly abused – in their own lifetimes. The collection is an attempt to redress the balance and give these women the recognition they deserve. It’s compelling and timely, particularly after the 2018 Irish Abortion Referendum, and is full of powerful moments. In Nana’s Ark’, Nana’s father smuggles her onto a merchant ship inside a chest stuffed with wool so that she can attend a convent school in France. In ‘Tucked Away’, two sisters burn to death at a society dance when the crinoline of their dresses catches a spark from the fireplace. Devlin shows us the underbelly of history, tells it from perspectives normally suppressed or dismissed, and it makes for refreshing reading.

It’s an ambitious goal, rejuvenating the legacies of eleven different historical figures within two hundred and sixty pages, and perhaps at times Devlin stretches herself thinly. In her determination to do the lives of the women justice, she prefaces each story with a detailed non-fiction biography and wraps it up with an italicised summation of their subject’s impact on Irish society. In the introduction to the collection, Devlin admits that she was unsure whether to write the book as fiction or non-fiction. ‘I decided on fiction because of the uncanny hold stories have over us,’ she writes. ‘Fiction is laced with enchantment. It hums with energy. It has the power to transport readers – to let us inhabit someone else’s life. Stories connect us with one another on a more intimate level than history or biography allows, creating space for magic to happen – the imaginative leap.’ In fact, Devlin’s storytelling is compelling enough to render the biographies unnecessary. The stories are short and dense, filled with context and historical knowledge, but the best moments are those that are emotional and human. Mary Ann McCracken is the only member of her family to walk with her condemned brother to the scaffold. Incarcerated Hanna Sheehy Skeffington is visited mid-hunger-strike by the ghost of her dead husband. It is only his company that keeps her from imagining delicious meals and distracts her from the cup of congealed tea in the corner. In these moments, the transformative effect Devlin sets out to create begins to emerge.

While fiction ‘brings history to life’, it does also have limitations. Readers are unlikely to be able to inhale facts from a story the same way they would from a reference book, though from a fictional account of someone’s life they are likely to get much else: atmosphere, context etc. Devlin is aware of these limitations, stating in her introduction that ‘none of these stories represent the total sum of the woman concerned. After all, each of them led fascinating and productive lives, whereas a short story can do no more than filter light towards some element or other which caught my attention.’ The stories are most successful when Devlin realises this point and reduces her own scope, choosing one or two moments within a person’s life and using them to paint a human, rather than a heroine.

In ‘Somebody’, featuring activist Anna Parnell (1852–1911) and ‘No Other Place’, about writer Alice Milligan (1866-1953), Devlin appears to do just this. In each, she describes a long scene – a visit to the pawnbroker’s, a conversation with a policeman over a cup of tea – and uses objects to trigger memories, a line of dialogue to open up the character and invite the reader into their past. This method is more satisfying for a historical short story and is well-executed by Devlin. Sometimes, the stories are so detailed they become stationary tableaus – revealing and beautifully described – but slightly overwhelmed by biography. The technique would be hard to sustain as a writer and difficult to absorb as a reader in anything longer than a short story but are probably a result of its form and the need to be concise. Devlin can’t draw it out because she doesn’t have time but, by unlocking information with imagery, manages to convey an extraordinary amount of research in very few pages.

The concision is admirable but it is possible that, in Truth and Dare, Devlin has the making of eleven novels rather than a collection of short stories. The content is arresting and disturbing – the description of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington dreading her impending force-feeding is particularly brutal – and could easily withstand a more thorough examination. Devlin is an expert researcher and prolific writer, having already written nine novels and several short story collections. Truth and Dare is a tantalising hint as to what could be possible, almost a catalogue of stories waiting to be novels or biopic movies starring Meryl Streep. At this time, with these characters, I’m sure a lot of people would buy tickets.

About the reviewer

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.

A Writer’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons Dice

Pssst… are you playing Dungeons & Dragons yet? In case you didn’t know, it’s not just for ‘nerds’ any more, hiding in their bedrooms with stacks upon stacks of impenetrable lore. These days, D&D has experienced a massive resurgence — partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things — and is now the focus of some of the most watched podcasts on the internet, played by stars like Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello, Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll and action superstar Vin Diesel. Groups across the country are springing up and struggling to make room for massive influxes of players.

That’s because D&D is buckets of fun, but it’s also a fantastic tool for writers, allowing them to sharpen their craft without even thinking about it. I started playing D&D around 18 months ago — first as a player-character, and then embarking on a year-long campaign as the group’s dungeon master. The benefit for writers is present on both sides of the screen, whether you’re taking your Level 5 Fighter for a romp through the Underdark or plotting your players’ demise at the hands of Strahd von Zarovich, so whichever way you’re taking part, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn a thing or two.

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D&D has seen a massive resurgence in recent years, partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things

But wait, the treasure’s over this way!

As a player or a dungeon master (DM, if you’re being technical about it), one of the first things you’ll need to get down is improvising, and being quick about it. When there are multiple voices at the table, and dragons have gotta get slain, there’s no time for extensive debate. So, if the DM throws in an assassination attempt on your way back to Waterdeep, or your party’s dwarven warlock decides to hijack the party’s boat, you need to figure out how you’re going to react.

That quick-fire storytelling can be really helpful when it comes to your own writing, especially when you find characters wandering off in their own direction, or a plot thread that seems to be steadily gaining a life of its own. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole takes you; a little improv can take your story in new and exciting directions.

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As with writing, mastering D&D requires preparation – especially if your DM happens to enjoy curveballs (or, indeed, balls of any description)

Preparation is key

 Playing the role of the DM? You’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for your next session. Even if you’re running a module, also known as a pre-written campaign, you’ll need to read through the sections you’ll be handling before your session. It’s often helpful to draft a few pieces of dialogue or something to set the scene, and having that ‘prep time’ in mind can give you the perfect excuse to carve out time in your weekly schedule to write.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably toss out about 70% of what you had planned for the session, based on how your group react, but that’s okay — after all, that’s what editing is like most of the time.

Accents maketh the monk

D&D is also your opportunity to do really, really silly accents. I’m currently playing a Grave Cleric called Gwendolyn who sounds like she’s from Merthyr Tydfil, and while it may seem like an excuse to play the fool, giving my character an accent is one extra level of separation for me. As soon as I start talking like Gwendolyn, I find it much easier to inhabit her shoes, figure out what her motivations are and make decisions that are wholly within her character, rather than what I would do personally — a handy trick for writing difficult passages. The same goes for DMs; giving non-player characters a distinctive accent that’s different from your own voice can help them become more than just Goon #1, and you might be able to build a compelling story around them.

This is our story, nobody else’s

Perhaps one of D&D’s biggest appeals (besides an excuse to hang out, eat junk food and sink a few beers) is the fact that it’s a story everyone can get involved with. Working with other people to effectively create and tell a story is ridiculously good fun, and especially if you’ve been struggling to find the time to start writing, it can help you satisfy that creative itch. Even if you’re playing a classic module, or a campaign you’ve completed with a different group, the story is different every time.

Bardic inspiration

Once you step away from the table and put the d20s back in your bag, the fun doesn’t end there. When I get back from a session, I’m filled with ideas for what might happen next time, and sometimes that even translates into a new story or something to try out in an existing piece of work. It’s thanks to D&D that I’ve felt more creative in those past 18 months than I have in years, whether I’m devising a new campaign scenario or coming up with a backstory for my latest character.

So, where to start…

While D&D can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated at first, the main thing to remember is that it’s a game, with the primary purpose of having fun with some friends. Creating a new character shouldn’t take hours upon hours (unless you want it to!) but should serve as a springboard for your next adventure. Sit back, relax, pick up a pencil and see where it takes you – whether that’s fighting bandits, sourcing magical ingredients or changing the multiverse as you know it.

 About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

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

 

 

How jiu jitsu helped me become a better writer

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The handshakes, that’s how I first know I’m in trouble.

I’m at a Jiu-Jitsu class. Wednesday. I’m recovering from the usual winter cold, have even opened my email twice that day to compose an excuse.

Sorry, Kev. I’m feeling under the weather – can I rearrange for next week?

Delete. If I send that I won’t ever go.

Down a coffee. Get in the car. Drive to the gym.

Now, the handshakes. There are ten men and each greets me by gripping my hand and telling me their name – I forget the names but remember the grips. I don’t know if it’s the coffee or the panic, but I don’t feel ill any more.

What followed was like a nature documentary, but instead of Attenborough’s voice putting the gazelle’s death into perspective, it was the sweaty grunting of ten men and me making noises like Kermit with tuberculosis. They choke me out, one after the other but are very polite about it.

I learn a few techniques and try to use them, without much success – still, I am getting better, surviving longer before they politely choke me. I start to figure that it’s about strategy, not just muscle and reflex. I have been using all of my strength and “gassing out,” while these men, some in their sixties, are effortlessly squishing me like soft cheese. Then they reacquaint me with their grips. Around my neck this time.

I stay on for the advanced class and start to last a little longer before tapping out. All the while, there is a strange thought in the back of my head: if these were fights to the death, I would be dead twenty-six times.

By the end it’s more like thirty.

I shake Kev’s hand, tell him I’ll be back for the next class, and leave with a smile. I am sore all over, have burns on my fingers and toes, but I keep replaying what I’ve learnt as I drive home, and later, when I’m lying in bed, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of how I will improve next time, how I will change my game.

Now, I have been to four Jiu-Jitsu classes. I know nothing. But already, I’m noticing how it affects other areas of my life – my writing in particular. So… why?

Failure. Nothing acquaints you with it better than Jiu-Jitsu. You will be choked. But after a while, that becomes not so scary. And then, once failure is accepted as a necessary step for growth, once it is seen that the only way you learn is through doing something wrong in the first place, there is a feeling of freedom. Get choked. Get up. Go again. You know better this time. If you aren’t afraid to fail, you are willing to try new things, to play risky, to be interesting. Same with writing, and everything else worth pursuing, failure is inevitable – bad drafts, abandoned projects, rejections. Every novelist I know has a project-graveyard file on their computer. That is no source of shame. It is a mark of craft. Lose the fear of losing. A winner is someone who never let loss stop them.

Struggle. We as human beings are not built for sitting on beaches with cocktails. That is nice for a while, but only for a while. We need a target. Something with which to contend. Placing happiness as all important is wrong – better to pursue something difficult, something worth the struggle, something with meaning. Often it isn’t pleasant, but in pursuing that target, you are fulfilled. Do something difficult, just to see if you can. You will surprise yourself. Struggle upwards, towards a goal, and you’ll have something better than brief happiness. It’s why we run marathons, why we climb mountains, and it is why we writers choose to sit and write every day when we’d much rather be somewhere else. We turn up, at the desk, ready to contend. It requires an immense amount of work and effort – the trek out into that hinterland of composition. We are grappling with plot, emotions, ideas, and that greater thing, that unconscious current which dictates the direction we pursue, which word follows the previous. Jiu-Jitsu is just a physical manifestation of that which happens every day at the desk. You are willingly contending with something difficult, and it is often painful, but once it is over, you know it was worth it, and you can’t wait to go again, to see if you will be better. To see what you will learn this time.

A piece of writing is just a by-product of this process of struggle. This contention with the unconscious, the constant working and re-working. If something is jarring with the rest of the work, try something different. In doing this, the process itself will become rewarding – the pursuit of the target. The journey becomes what is important, that process of learning. Like Jiu-Jitsu, if something isn’t working, adapt and find the right technique, be satisfied with the journey, the constant reshuffling of set-ups and finishes. Maybe you will be choked in the end. Who cares? A novel is a by-product of the process of contending with the unconscious, of reshuffling and learning. The process is paramount. The pursuit. You don’t make a sandcastle, you abandon the sandpit.

Tenacity. The most important thing. In my last class, Kev, the instructor, rolled with me for the last thirty minutes. My ribcage is still bruised. At one point I think he just sat on me, but I can’t be certain. What I do know is that I didn’t quit. He asked if I wanted to stop but I caught my breath and carried on. And at the end, after my total annihilation, he called me “strong as an ox.” That felt good. Still, I think Kev could easily choke out an ox. I left that class aching, but proud that I had not given up. It’s rare today to encounter that kind of situation, but its good to know that if one were to arise, you have the ability to survive, the tenacity to continue. This directly correlates to writing – 40,000 words into a novel, it will feel like Kev is sitting on your chest. Be an ox. Kev will still sit on you, but the important thing is that you aren’t quitting.

Aggression. Everyone harbours it, no matter what they tell you or themselves. It’s normal. However, it will manifest itself in other, unwanted, parts of life if not acknowledged and integrated. Jiu-Jitsu lets you channel that aggression, and in doing so, gives you the confidence to integrate that assertive side in your life, when people might try to take advantage, when you need to stand up for yourself. It becomes a tool rather than a hindrance. There are circumstances where being nice just isn’t helpful – that isn’t to say that everyone should be an ass all the time. But for those of us who struggle to say no, whose first instinct is to be agreeable, this integration is life-changing. It’s a confidence. A self-belief. Again, an important quality for writers, who are (myself included) some of the most self-critical people around.

Humility. Try enduring a ritual strangling twice a week. It quickly teaches you humility. Appreciate that you will always be learning, that there are others who know more, that cockiness is laziness. If you are humble you are active, always trying to improve the work, but someone who believes they know everything has given up their desire to learn. Inactive. “There are no egos here,” is the phrase they use like a prayer or affirmation. It is a constant reminder that we are all learning, that we are all on the path – as Ursula Le Guin says so perfectly, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

I am halfway through writing a novel at the moment. Kev is sitting on my chest, but I am not quitting. So, on Wednesday, I’ll be back for another choking, and when I get home, I will write my 500 words.

Both are painful, but worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author of this post

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Christopher Baker is a writer, published in the Writers of the Future 35th anthology and with theatre work that has won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. He graduated from the Warwick Writing programme with a First Class BA Hons in English Literature & Creative Writing. He has three dogs and is often covered in their hair. His twitter is @CSBker

Legendary writer Gabriel García Márquez’s archive available online for free

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There are precious few writers who can claim to have influenced the course of literary history and literary criticism in the manner of legendary author Gabriel García Márquez. For aspiring and established writers and litterateurs alike, Márquez stands out as an idol for his role in helping to launch what became known as the “boom in Latin American literature”.

It is a rare gift indeed then, to learn that the entire archive of this most influential of authors has been made available for everyone to read online entirely for free. Especially when that author’s works were still under copyright.

But this is precisely what the University of Texas has done, after acquiring the  Colombian-born writer’s archives in 2015, a year after his death.

The archive includes manuscript drafts of published and unpublished works, research material, photographs, scrapbooks, correspondence, clippings, notebooks, screenplays, printed material, ephemera, and an audio recording of García Márquez’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. It was bought by the University of Texas for US$2.2 million.

The searchable, online archive is comprised of almost 30,000 items, so it’s easy to get lost in there.

“Often estates take a restrictive view of their intellectual property, believing scholarly use threatens or diminishes commercial interests,” Steve Enniss, the director of the Harry Ransom Center, which digitized the archive, said. “We are grateful to Gabo’s family for unlocking his archive and recognizing this work as another form of service to his readers everywhere.”

Many researchers and academics have been pouring over the archive since it first became available in 2017, and have credited the University of Texas for making such a valuable resource available for free. Many expect that access to García Márquez’s archive, including his personal notes and marginalia, will help advance literary research and criticism.

But this is not just a resource to be enjoyed, used and appreciated by academics. One of the most incredible things about García Márquez’s writing is how accessible it is – as The Guardian noted in its obituary of Garcia Marquez, his most famous novel, 100 years of solitude “not only proved immediately accessible to readers everywhere, but has influenced writers of many nationalities, from Isabel Allende to Salman Rushdie”.

So, what are you waiting for? Get on over to the Harry Ransom Center and start exploring (and getting lost in) this incredible literary resource.

 

 

 

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.

Let’s keep our windows on the world

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It is 2006 when I enter a small branch library on Victoria Road, Swindon. On first sight it is stuffed with books and there’s a public computer – hooray! One of the two library assistants notices me and we get chatting. Thus begins my integration into the Old Town – people to meet, books to choose and discuss, reliable information readily to hand and all the advice I need from our librarians. Within days I am greeted by name. And so the uneasiness of settling into a new location is dispelled.

In those halcyon days small branch libraries up and down the country served millions of people, answering millions of queries and providing a focal point for each community.  Free of charge, it has been a special, accessible and safe space to be enjoyed not only by newcomers, but everyone else. What’s not to like?

Swindon opened its first public library in August 1943, in the middle of World War II.  The public library was at that time and until recently recognised by politicians and public servants as an institution essential to the public good. Townsfolk enjoyed a central library and 14 further public libraries, plus a mobile service. It is, however, the sad reality today that, in spite of the town’s expansion and so many new people moving in, the mobile service is defunct and all but four of its public libraries have been divested out of the statutory service, their future sustainability uncertain.

As long ago as 2007 we learned that our own much-appreciated facility was threatened with closure. Margaret, over eighty years of age, said she’d chain herself to the railings in that event, while other users of all ages and backgrounds were similarly distraught.  Roisin had brought her children, then her grandchildren to this little library. Peter had made friends, he says, and it gives him something to look forward to, keeping his brain active. The friendliness and buzz of our branch library, so professionally run had invigorated young and old alike, linking us to the community around us.

Such a threat to it, then, must surely be challenged. Who would petition the council?  How could the library’s closure or the loss of its staff be tolerated?

To gather signatures on any physical petition is a salutary experience, uniting disparate people around a local issue perhaps more than any e-petition can. As we cheerfully roamed the local streets, we became aware that few people knew the library was threatened. It had had such a low profile that a few did not even know it existed. Our presence on street corners in the bitter cold, we hoped, would put an end to that. Note the young mother who signed with alacrity. I recall her particularly because she needed to take her autistic son to a smaller space than the central library. He’d not be able to cope with that, she said. The elderly were worried, too, being less mobile. They were accustomed to visiting the library often (on foot) to load themselves up with enough books or audio-books to read at home.

Appeals to Culture ministers and Secretaries of State, most recently in 2015, met with assurances that our concerns were legitimate and would be investigated. They have actually done absolutely nothing!

On the upside, the support of The Library Campaign, a national charity, has been crucial to our morale and small successes, as we fought long and hard to retain what we felt was ours by right. As a result our branch library and its paid staff were saved for ten years or so. Result!

The threat, however, expanded in 2016 to become borough wide, so there was a massive reorganisation of folk across the Town. Users and campaigners united as Save Swindon’s Libraries. As a result, four excellent libraries continue to serve the town within the statutory service, but the remainder, though open, do not enjoy their former status.  Although it could have been far worse, the loss of staff expertise and the general hollowing out of what is left leaves a woeful legacy for future generations.

Consider, where does the Universal Credit claimant who can’t afford a computer go when he’s told to claim online? What about the teenager who needs somewhere safe to go after school to read or study, when the gates to the library are closed to him? What of the gentleman who has had two strokes; his isolation only eased by trips to the library.  Councils like ours need to think how much they will have to spend picking up the pieces when all these people lose all these lifelines. Health, literacy, education, social services, even crime prevention are underpinned by the public library. Yet at least seven hundred have closed since 2010 and many others have been robbed of staff and have an increasingly precarious existence.

A public library is the local authority’s window on the world. Must it be curtains for them, due to the decisions of philistines and the withholding of investment, or can the public unite again to demand a comprehensive service? I’ll carry on asking for this and I hope you will, too.

About the author of this article

ombudsman3Shirley Burnham is a library campaigner who established the Friends of Old Town Library group in 2008 that became the Save Old Town Library Campaign in 2009. Latterly she has supported Save Swindon’s Libraries which was organised by Sarah Church to protect threatened libraries across the borough of Swindon.  Shirley also campaigns for accessible, professionally-run public libraries in other parts of the country.  You can follow her on Twitter @ShirleyBurnham