Creatives in profile: interview with Katie Arnstein

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Katie Arnstein is an actor, writer and musician from the Midlands. Her two solo shows have both won Show of the Week at VAULT Festival, with her most recent show, Sexy Lamp winning The Pick of Pleasance Award.

Sexy Lamp is a show inspired by Kelly Sue DeConnick’s ‘Sexy Lamp Test’, which determines if a female character is relevant to the plot of an artistic work or merely decoration. If a female role could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. In the era of the #MeToo movement, it is in many way a defining show of our times (and, as such, we – along with many others – have been raving about it in our reviews).

Ahead of a summer touring Sexy Lamp, which includes a run through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it was a genuine pleasure to catch-up with Arnstein and talk about her show and everything else besides (including her constant fear of frogs).

 INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

ARNSTEIN

My name is Katie Arnstein, I am a 28 year old actor, writer and musician originally from the Midlands. I am the daughter of  two now-retired teachers, Jane and Tim, and I have two sisters, Grace and Lil. I’m a vegan but am fun in other ways.

INTERVIEWER

In your latest play, Sexy Lamp, you speak about how your love of acting can be traced back to watching Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Has acting always been your first love, and what have been some of the defining moments that have brought you on your journey so far?

ARNSTEIN

I am told that when I was very young I wanted to be a face painter but after seeing the Wizard of Oz I wanted to be Dorothy. I loved acting but didn’t know how to do it as a job until I met the careers advisor at school who said “You can train to be an actor, you know?” and I was like “AWESOME. How?”. I got in to a regional drama school and moved to London in 2012 to begin my glittering career*

*career decidedly not glittery.

INTERVIEWER

Apart from acting, what else are you particularly passionate about?

ARNSTEIN

Equal rights, large cups of tea and Bruce Springsteen.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ARNSTEIN

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jess Phillips, Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm, my sisters and my oldest friend Laura Higgs.

 INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges facing aspiring artists and actors today?

ARNSTEIN

How hard it is financially. How hard it is getting your foot in the door. The lack of diversity within the arts.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your journey in putting together your show, Sexy Lamp? Why do you feel it’s been important to put this show on now, and could you have put it on to the same effect when you first arrived in London, in 2012?

ARNSTEIN

Sexy Lamp is the second solo show I have written. It follows Bicycles and Fish, which I have been touring on and off since 2017. I wrote Sexy Lamp in December, 2018 up until the day of the first show on the 6th of February 2019. I had surgery at the start of December so spent the month sitting down and trying to write. I wrote the opening song and a number of real life accounts of my experiences and then tried to piece them together. It was like a nightmare jigsaw puzzle.

There is absolutely no way I could have put the show on in 2012, I didn’t believe I could write until 2016. In 2012 I was waiting for the call from the National Theatre or Spielberg. Reader, that call never came.

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The ‘Sexy Lamp Test’: if a female character could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. Photography by Simon Jefferis.

INTERVIEWER

In the 1980s, there seemed to be a move within the acting industry towards putting strong, female characters front and centre of stories – think Thelma and Louise, or Alien, for instance. So it’s not unsurprising when many people voice incredulity, really, that we still haven’t moved on much from then, in many ways – and there are still far too many films and theatre productions that don’t pass either the Bechtel Test or the Sexy Lamp test. Why is that, do you think? And what can be done about it?

ARNSTEIN

We need more female voices in every area of the industry; but particularly when it comes to making the decisions of what gets made. We also need to vote with our time and money. We need to seek out and support female and non-binary work. It has been a boys club for the whole time. Thelma and Louise and Alien are exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to films. I hope to see a change and have every film or show pass these incredibly simple tests addressing gender balance.

INTERVIEWER

Writers often speak of having certain habits or processes they follow strictly when writing their first, second and subsequent drafts. Are there any strict rules or rituals you stick to when crafting your shows?

ARNSTEIN

I try and do youtube Yoga with Adriene in the morning. I always start the day with a big cup of tea and breakfast. When the show is coming up I sleep with the script under my pillow and I always have a notebook and pen with me. My friend Dan Goldman will hear the script throughout its many drafts and note it for me. Also, for Sexy Lamp, the wonderful Ellen Havard directed and was key in creating the show as it is now. I always buy a Big Issue on the day of the show. My process also includes huge panic and crying. I am trying to work on this…

INTERVIEWER

Your shows blend performance and almost memoir-like driven narrative with music and song. How do you see the relationship between the various different artistic aspects of your show? Do you prefer writing song lyrics to a script, or vice versa?

ARNSTEIN

I began writing songs when I was 21 and only thought about writing dialog when I entered a scratch night at Redbridge drama centre at the end of 2016. It takes me a while to get a song I like the sound of; but once I get there I can write a song in about an hour, it is just a bit hit and miss until then. The script took longer but I am trying to keep practicing.

INTERVIEWER

Why the ukulele, and what are your biggest musical influences?

ARNSTEIN

My Dad bought me my use for my 21st birthday. I was leaving drama school and wanted to start writing songs and can’t play the piano well enough so the ukulele was a brilliant gift. It’s portable and easy to get started on.

Influences wise, I have my dad’s taste in music. I am particularly interested in great lyricists, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, etc. The Kinks are a very important band to me as they make the everyday appear magic.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

I imagine I’m talking to friends which might sound cringe but I hope not. I try to write in a conversational, accessible and gentle way. I want it to feel like you have sat down with a pal you haven’t seen in a while and you’re just catching up. I also try a write a couple of jokes that my parents will like and a couple that my friends will like, then build it up from there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as an actor and writer?

ARNSTEIN

I feel I have a responsibility to be truthful and raise awareness of issues surrounding sexism and the everyday struggles that women are faced with. I hope I contribute to the conversation.

INTERVIEWER

What, in your opinion, is the sexiest type of lamp or lighting?

ARNSTEIN

Since showing Sexy Lamp at VAULT festival I have had many images of sexy lamps and lighting sent to me. It is an unexpected perk and it has OPENED MY EYES I can tell you.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your creative projects?

ARNSTEIN

I have a few more shows of Sexy Lamp and my first show Bicycles and Fish before taking Sexy Lamp to the Pleasance this summer for the Edinburgh Festival. I will start writing a third show I think, although every time I begin it is such a scary feeling I am putting it off. I am also looking to collaborate with other people and theatre companies to keep learning and developing.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

  1. Write a to do list everyday with clear achievable goals.
  2. Be brave.
  3. Believe you can do it.
  4. Get a small and brilliant team around you to help you.
  5. Keep a notebook with you at all times.
  6. Find your individuality and that will be your strength.
  7. See as much as you can.
  8. Be kind. (It is not necessary but it helps)

Quick fire round!

 INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

ARNSTEIN

I have just had my mind blown by Normal People and Conversations With Friends, both by Sally Rooney.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARNSTEIN

I suppose critically acclaimed? But then I’ve seen The Room about 20 times.. so I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

I have followed a woman called Karima Francis for over 13 years and I think she is wonderful.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

 I think R Kelly is still being played and we need to shut that right down.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

ARNSTEIN

Anna Seward, she was a writer, poet, botanist and feminist from my home town of Lichfield and even though we have many statues of men there is nothing that celebrates her.

INTERVIEWER

If the acting industry didn’t exist – what would you do?

ARNSTEIN

I would like to enter pub quizzes for money and see if it could sustain me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARNSTEIN

Me and my brilliant pal Simon just did American Boy at karaoke and it was wicked. I don’t know if that counts.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

ARNSTEIN

When I was at primary school I had my dress tucked into my pants when I was taking the register out to the office and my teacher got the whole class to tell me in unison. It was a harsh move from them.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

ARNSTEIN

Sexy Lamp won the Pleasance Pick of Vault Festival and that is remarkable. I am proud of my sisters, Grace and Lil everyday.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

ARNSTEIN

Don’t worry so much, please. AND DON’T WEAR STILETTOS FOR SCHOOL WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARNSTEIN

She dreamt it then did it.

Check out Sexy Lamp for yourselves

Follow Katie Arnstein on Twitter @KatieArnstein and on Instagram (also @KatieArnstein). Ahead of her run at the Pleasance Baby Grand Theatre in Edinburgh for the whole of the Fringe Festival, you can catch her at one of her upcoming shows (information on which is available through Arnstein’s website).

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Creatives in profile: interview with Mark Gillis

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Mark Gillis has been combining writing, performing and directing since his university days (where he studied Biochemistry). As an actor, he has worked extensively in the theatre, most recently playing Agrippa in Antony & Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall and Michael Pennington (Chichester). As a member of the RSC he performed in As You Like It, Macbeth and Troilus and Cressida during seasons at Stratford and The Barbican. He played Mark in the Irish premiere of Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and F***ing. He co-founded and was artistic director of the touring production company LPC, with whom he produced and directed several European tours of modern classic plays such as Waiting for Godot, The Caretaker, The Importance of Being Ernest and GB Shaw’s The White Lady. And he has appeared in several television and film roles including: Silent Witness, The Bill, Emmerdale, Grange Hill, Eastenders, Holby, The Brittas Empire, Absolute Hell, Prick, Jean Moulin, Either/Or, Going Home and An Ideal Husband. Most recently he plays Mr. Hogg Diggins in the Channel 4 comedy Lee & Dean.

There’s a lot of creative stuff to talk about here, but we’re here today to talk primarily about his debut movie, Sink, which tells the story of Micky Mason, a working class man living in East London who must contend with a multitude of different crises of our modern world.

Produced by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance (who says you will find yourselves “immersed” in it), Sink has received glowing reviews (including one from us, of course), following its screenings at cinemas across the UK.

But what does it take to produce a movie independently, particularly in a current climate that so clearly favours the established corporate behemoths over individual creatives? It was a pleasure to catch up with Gillis to find out.

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

I live in Brockley, South East London (the film was shot here and in nearby New Cross/Deptford). I’m an actor who has been writing seriously for about 10 years. I have also directed in the theatre and have made short films. Sink is my first feature as writer/director.

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

I suppose most of my work has been as an actor in the theatre so that would be an equal passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

GILLIS

Donald Glover

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through how the process of taking your debut movie, Sink, from spec-script to fully-fledged film reality?

GILLIS

It was never really a spec-script in that sense. I’d had the typical experience of scripts being developed (unpaid) and getting very close to being made, then failing because the money didn’t match the cast (in both directions). When I was writing Sink, I realised we could make it very cheaply; I knew exactly who I wanted to cast (I’ve worked as an actor with all of them), I knew who’s flat we could borrow, etc., etc.. So I decided we’d just go ahead and make it ourselves. We did a crowd-funder and various small investors came in. We made it for £35K, which is nothing for a feature; BUT that was only possible with EVERYONE working for deferred fees and profit share. Everybody on the film from investor to runner was party to the same financial framework.

Of course, it’s all very well making your film, but at the end of the process you’re back at the brick wall; the first thing distributors ask is “who’s your lead actor.” Without a star name the vast majority won’t watch the film. So it’s very tough. We got lucky – a well known producer saw the film and badgered her distributor to watch it. They picked us up for a limited theatrical release which meant we could get Press reviews (virtually impossible if you haven’t got a distributor who is part of the Film Distributors Association who run the week of release screenings). So although all films are a collaborative process, this one REALLY was, in effect everyone working on the film was an investor in it, literally; they will only get paid once the film shows a profit. That’s a very humbling fact for me.

INTERVIEWER

In Sink, we follow the lives of those who have been dispossessed by the processes of modern capitalism. There’s a clear political angle to the film; yet for all that, it’s also intensely human, and character-driven. As a screenwriter and director, how do you tread the line between potentially competing focuses; the political and the human?

GILLIS

There is a political angle and that kicked off my wanting to tell the story. I live in the area where the film is set and there are pockets of people leading very challenged lives. There are also the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, looming up seemingly at the end of the road.  So you have people whose lives have been changed beyond recognition living in the shadow of the institutions directly responsible. They committed crimes on an industrial scale, yet nobody has been prosecuted. It made me question where we are with that; if people who benefitted so hugely from the system can do that with impunity, can we condemn somebody for doing whatever’s necessary to stay afloat? It also made me angry enough to want to write something! But if that’s all there is, there’s no point writing a screenplay. Write an essay or an article. There has to be a story and for that there must be characters.

At the start I was intrigued by these three generations of men; Micky, his father and his son.  Principally it was the way the relationship to work had changed over those three generations; Micky was once a skilled worker who can now find only menial, zero hours jobs; his father has only ever known skilled manual work and his son has never really had a relationship to work. That’s a massive change in working class men’s lives and a theme I was eager to explore. Then it’s a question of whittling away until you find the core story and that was Micky’s.

If scenes are trying to force in a particular political idea, they will immediately stick out (and ultimately be cut out during the edit). Every scene must move the story forward in some way, while planting enough of the politics that the guiding themes are catered for.

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Three generations of men: Micky (left, played by Martin Herdman, leads his father and son through their local neighbourhood)

INTERVIEWER

What is your personal take on the current political climate, and how does it affect the stories we tell?

GILLIS

I really hope we are not in as bad a state as I think we might be in. I think the current ease with which the fundamental structures of democracy are being dismantled is terrifying. I am trying to have some sense of hope but the precedents for these early warning signs are so clear, I feel we’re sleepwalking into autocracy. It seems all the requirements are in place. If we don’t want that to happen, I guess it’s down to us to speak up.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel the characters in Sink would react to the unfurling narrative around the Brexit process?

GILLIS

It’s so weird for me, because Sink was written and shot before the referendum was even tabled. SO much has changed. I’m a remainer.  I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to decide whether to make Micky a leaver or not. I’m still not sure how he would have voted. It would have been up to me to decide whether I make the character I created reach the decision I want him to, or whether I would be entirely true to what HE would have done. And I’m still not sure which way round that would have been. I do know that an awful lot of people who have felt entirely left behind after 30 odd years of neo-liberalism voted Brexit. Perhaps Micky was one of them. But that makes me a bit upset.

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A Brexit voter? Sink was written and shot before the EU referendum in the UK, so we’ll perhaps never know which way Micky would have voted.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in film making, what are your thoughts and feelings on the movie industry. And how would you advise aspiring film makers to break out onto the scene?

GILLIS

Obviously we live in the age of the huge franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, some of them are great movies. What we might be losing is the middle ground; it’s either massive budgets that only the studios can bring together, or the tiny (in film terms) budgets that are somehow drawn together by financial jiggery pokery based around tax credits. Or people making films themselves on no budgets. It seems to me this isn’t a sustainable business model.

Outside the public funding bodies (and even with their involvement) each film has to start afresh to raise its finance. Add to that the current surge in high end TV which has lead to crew shortages and therefore higher rates, it’s difficult to see where the film industry can be heading. And yet, films still get made. I don’t know an answer. I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

As to what advice to give, I think the most important thing is spending time getting the script right. However you get the film together, it will be the script that brings people on board or makes them pass. It’s getting the right people in to the project that will get the film made. It all starts and ends with the script.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a film maker?

GILLIS

I think there is an ethical responsibility not to create work that simply reinforces a negative. By the same token (in an equal and opposite way) there is an ethical responsibility to create work that examines the negative – that pulls it apart and provides a new viewpoint on it.

But it’s not for the film maker to dictate how that work must be received. There has to be room for the “wrong” view to be taken – otherwise you haven’t created something truthful.

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

What happens next.

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

I really try not to.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

GILLIS

The focussing and entrapment of energy

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘director’ mean to you?

GILLIS

Depends which director you’re talking about.

INTERVIEWER

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’. What role do you think movies have to play in a world of ‘alternative facts’?

GILLIS

It’s strange isn’t it, that we head more and more towards finding truth in stories; in made up events. And yet, that is where truth is found. I’m very interested in the effect that Reality TV has had on our psychology. Even the title is a lie. It isn’t reality, everybody knows what they’re doing because there’s a camera there and they know they can watch it later. So we’ve spent 20 odd years saying that a fabricated reality is the truth. It’s kind of delicious (if it wasn’t so disgusting) that a “star” of the genre becomes the most powerful man in the world. Trump has spent his life lying – his whole ego is based on a lie that he was responsible for creating the financial success he’s had (multi-million dollar bankruptcies notwithstanding), instead of being gifted it on birth.

Can movies be a bulwark against lies? Absolutely. They can tell the truth because they are set free from the constraints of the market place (hang on, weren’t we just saying that the film industry can’t work because it’s not a sustainable business model?). They can show what humanity can be at a time when real life is coughing up its dregs. There’s an enormous role for movies (for ALL storytelling), I think now more than at any point in my lifetime.  Stories could pull us back from the brink. Will anyone listen though?

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

I have two other screenplays, one about a man discovering how his own acceptance of being gay has been affected by events from a previous generation and a story about a charity that goes rogue to be able to carry out its real work. I’m also working on a couple of TV ideas because that’s all anyone wants to hear about.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

GILLIS

He made his own way back.

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

I know it’s a hoary old cliché but just keep writing. And then keep re-writing. Find readers you trust, listen to them and be willing to really start again if necessary. There are all sorts of gut wrenching machinations that come from giving up what you’ve sweated blood over. But sometimes it can be an amazing release.

  • Watch the trailer for Sink here below: 

Creatives in profile: interview with Paul Scraton

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

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

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for the book?

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a writer?

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Joana Ramiro

Joana Ramiro

Joana Ramiro is a journalist, writer and political commentator.

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

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

INTERVIEWER
Who inspires you, and why? 
RAMIRO

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

INTERVIEWER

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

RAMIRO
 

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

INTERVIEWER

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

RAMIRO

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

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a journalist
RAMIRO
 

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

INTERVIEWER

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

RAMIRO

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

INTERVIEWER

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

RAMIRO

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

INTERVIEWER

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

RAMIRO
 

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

INTERVIEWER

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

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

Quick fire round! 

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic? 
RAMIRO
 

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

INTERVIEWER

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?
RAMIRO

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

INTERVIEWER

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

Creatives in profile: interview with Martina Devlin

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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.

 

 

 

 

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

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David Henningham 

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

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

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Why Mud?

HENNINGHAM

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

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

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

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

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

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Modernism or post-modernism?

HENNINGHAM

Modernism

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

Book

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

HENNINGHAM

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

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

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

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

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

HENNINGHAM

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

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

HENNINGHAM

Drawing road-markings made Doug’s handwriting taller.

INTERVIEWER

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

HENNINGHAM

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

 

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

 

Creatives in profile: interview with K.M. Elkes

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

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

ELKES

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ELKES

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

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ELKES

Instagram and Twitter allow this:  #Thewomandreamedofstrollingdampwintermeadowswithherlatehusbandbefore wakingtofindherloverwashingherfeet

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Ian Sansom

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

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

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SANSOM

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

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

SANSOM

Alas, no pipe-lighting dominee lit my way.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

SANSOM

A writer is someone who writes.

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

SANSOM

It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.

Ethics is transcendental.

(Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

Everything changes. Everything evolves.

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

Personally, I am omnivorous.

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

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

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

SANSOM

Six words was not nearly enough.

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

Creatives in profile: interview with No Alibis Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves and your background

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

Once upon a time, she was.

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

Creatives in profile: interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books

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It increasingly appears as though we live in an era where the biggest publishing companies and media organisations are only concerned with stabilising profits for shareholders – and are prioritising making money over supporting originality and new creative ideas.

With the largest corporations influencing so much of the culture we consume, this has the potential to limit us to a devastating cycle of reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises; where the only novels we read are copies of novels that are themselves copies of commercially successful novels. This risk-averse and profit-focussed approach in turn risks homogenising our culture; and limiting our exposure to new ways of thinking.

Yet there are reasons to hope. Across the world, new creative ideas are being put to seed – supported by groups of energetic and enthusiastic individuals.

We caught up with the team behind one such creative endeavour: the Brixton Review of Books, a new literary quarterly magazine – published by a team of creative volunteers who help ensure the magazine remains completely free to readers (though you can also have four copies delivered straight to your door for a tenner).

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books. Caines also works at the Times Literary Supplement, and is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century and a founder member of the Liars League.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

CAINES

I’m an editor on the Times Literary Supplement by day and a layabout by night. I write the odd review, and the odder poem as a private distraction, and have made limited forays into academia, such as writing a book about Shakespeare and the eighteenth century, and editing some plays by female dramatists of the same period. Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys are among my more recherché hobbyhorses, although I’d argue, of course, with the tedious fervor of the true acolyte, that both should be more widely known that they are at present.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

CAINES

Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys. Jane Austen. William Makepeace Thackeray. Anne Thackeray Ritchie. Vernon Lee. Sylvia Townsend Warner. Ronald Firbank. Italo Calvino. Alberto Moravia. Christine Brooke-Rose. The Oulipians. Marguerite Youcenar. Penelope Fitzgerald. Michael Haslam. Lorrie Moore. Peter Reading. Weldon Kees. Elizabeth Bowen. Elizabeth Bishop. Henry Green. Nicholas Mosley. Stewart Home. It’s an incoherent set of influences, I grant you. Yes, they are, some of them, names off the top of my head. There are others who will come to me later. More seriously, there are others who are mainly TLS editors, of infernally greater mental powers than me – damn their eyes.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Brixton Review of Books – how was it borne into existence?

CAINES

It’s an experiment, you might say:  people take all kinds of free newspapers and magazines at tube stations around London, but might some of them take a free literary paper made up of long reads rather than short ones? There are some obvious and quite brilliant models – such as the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the TLS itself – to which I suppose the BRB pays the impudent homage of imitation, while paradoxically trying to do its own thing at the same time. I hope for some readers the BRB will serve merely as a suggestion of what’s to come if they aren’t already readers of one of those other, infinitely more prestigious publications. This particular literary newspaper is free, though, and available to all who pass a tube station at the right time, or spots it in a café, bar, bookshop, library, gallery, waiting room etc (the kind of places to which we’re also distributing it).

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The Brixton Review of Books – look out for a copy at tube stations around London.

INTERVIEWER

It’s no easy feat to bring a new independent literary magazine into existence. What are some of the main challenges you faced in establishing Brixton Review of Books?

CAINES

Well, for the most part, I put together the first issue by myself, and I enjoyed that a great deal. But it’s a relief to have a small team working on the paper from here on.

Then there’s the money. This “experiment” wouldn’t be happening at all if it weren’t for the generosity of the Literature Matters awards established by the Royal Society of Literature. They gave the BRB the funds and the endorsement to get things going.

Thirdly, there’s usually some agony with the administrative side of these things, such as subscriber copies going astray in the post.

And I also worried for a time that the first issue would be universally despised and scorned and laughed out of existence. That hasn’t happened . . . yet . . . that I know of.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, are the biggest opportunities for independent writers and artists within the publishing sector?

CAINES

I suppose there’s a sense in which all writers and artists are (or ought to be) independent, assuming that all trade on some inalienable, intrinsic idiosyncratic approach to their work. Some are just more obviously amenable to the established trade publishers than others, perhaps, and therefore able to cut some kind of a deal. It depends on what a writer or artist truly wants. Publication can mean many things – this airport novel or that pentagonal limited edition with unique perfumes embedded in every leaf – but maybe there’s a mode of publication to suit all tastes. So I suppose the opportunity is out there, and the challenge is finding the right one.

INTERVIEWER

In an era of digital content and e-zines, as well as ‘fake news’ and social media; what role do printed publications like Brixton Review of Books have to play?

CAINES

I’m one of those people – it’s not just me, I hope – who stare at screens for a large portion of the working day but love print. I think I even mean that I can love the material book as a work of art, and reading online, necessary though it often is, forms an instructive contrast to that art. But, er, in less hilfalutin terms, I hope that reading the BRB, or any newspaper or printed work on paper, is simply a change from reading on a screen, and being continuously poked in the eye by electric light.

INTERVIEWER

As editors, do you feel any ethical responsibility for the content you publish?

CAINES

Absolutely – although I tend to mistake ethical responsibility, in this context, for aesthetic responsibility. The two are so easily confused, don’t you think?

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has stated that the problem with the big publishing companies is that they are too risk averse: they are only willing to “publish novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think that independent magazines have a duty to champion independent voices of authors and essayists whose writing may never be given a chance by the bigger companies in the sector?

CAINES

Perhaps, unfortunately, the indie economy as a whole doesn’t have much say in the matter. But either way, I guess that there are plenty of writers temperamentally too rich for the mainstream, and who flourish in indie magazines and in the literary communities to which those magazines belong. But it depends on the magazine’s character. There seem to be some indies that seem to embrace underground-ness, and others that nurture more commercially lofty ambitions. There’s room in the world for both, I hope.

Regarding an aversion to risk: beyond the world of books, some big companies run (what I think they call) “accelerators”, designed to promote and invest in innovation, because innovation is precisely what big companies, for the most part, don’t do well. It’s interesting that so many big publishers, for their part, now run nimble, pseudo-indie imprints, which are arguably meant to play a similar role. The real indies, meanwhile, don’t necessarily receive the recognition and remuneration they deserve – but that inability to er realize an investment may be a further mark of their indie-ness.

INTERVIEWER

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

CAINES

I’m no industry guru. So rather than second-guess the future, may I instead offer you a naïve wish-list?

1) That the books business gets over its daft dependency on the insipid drug that is literary prize culture.

2) That the indie scene flourishes in perpetuity.

4) (3 was unprintable, even online, and was basically a curse on reviewers who think their duty is to their pals in the business rather than their readers.) That somebody in television works out how to make a show about books again.

5) That Amazon mends its ways.

(Well, I did say “naïve” . . . .)

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

CAINES

A terrible problem we all have to deal with, but some of us are more successful at banishing it than others, poor souls, who have to slog out their guts over “novels” and “villanelles” and the like. Pity them in their enslavement to the myth of art!

Sorry, what was the question again?

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your editorial and submissions process? How can aspiring writers get involved?

CAINES

For the most part, we’re commissioning reviews, and trying to come up with an eclectic mixture of voices: younger writers and worn-hoarse-by-time-but-very-much-still-worth-hearing, from different backgrounds, with varying interests. We have three months between issues, and it’s the middle month when things start to get serious – when deadlines becoming more deadly serious/merely deadening etc. I hope we’ll be trying out new writers (writers new to us at least) in every issue, albeit probably not as many as we’d like. The budget isn’t limitless, and dependent to an extent on advertising. Aspiring writers are welcome to get their moneybags mates to take out full-page ads in every issue.

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to authors thinking of submitting their work to BRoB – or other publications?

CAINES

We’re only publishing four issues a year, and most of those issues will be full of reviews. We’re planning to run poetry in every issue, and maybe some fiction from time to time. So with expectations suitably lowered, I hope, I suggest that anybody who’s still interested check out our website, then drop us a line and declare some area of especial expertise or even enthusiasm.

I’m not so interested in “pitches” for particular books, incidentally. I’m not ruling them out altogether, but pitches can sometimes seem a little intellectually suspect: it’s not that I sense outright cronyism in every e-mail; rather that I wonder if the would-be reviewer has already made up their mind about the book, whether they’ve read it yet or not. So the result may be fine, terrific even, but can also feel shop-bought and stale rather than nattily bespoke.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for Brixton Review of Books? What should we look out for?

CAINES

In the not-too-distant future, we’ll do the decent thing and expand the website to look proper n all. We’re hoping to put on a few bookish events around town. (Go on, guess which part of town. Go on!) And there are going to be some good things in the paper itself later in the year. I’m very much hoping, for example, that a few writers with Brixton connections are going to give us little stories about their personal experiences here. That’d be an acceptably educational digression from reviewing books, I hope.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

CAINES

Joan arrived, kicked ass – and left.

INTERVIEWER

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

CAINES

I’m still aspiring myself, and must stock up on gnomic tips for these occasions. Revise until it looks like you haven’t. Remember style is the ultimate expression of substance. Read New Grub Street. Um. Don’t automatically “um” in the presence of uncertainty? And I’ll get back to you when I’ve thought of a fifth. . . .