Creatives in profile: interview with Joseph Alexander

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

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

Joseph writes literary fiction and essays. He lives with his wife and labrador and is currently working on a novel. The first few chapters of his novel-in-progress are available for free at: https://www.wattpad.com/story/185509944-vz

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ALEXANDER

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(End of industry rant.)

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

ALEXANDER

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

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

ALEXANDER

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

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’. Many have argued that literature – from poetry through to fiction – has an element of truth to it that reality itself sometimes lacks. What role do you think stories and storytelling have in a world of ‘alternative facts’?

ALEXANDER

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ALEXANDER

REVOLUTIONARY GOVERNMENT REVEALS: FLORIDA NOT REAL.

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

Quick fire round!

Oooh shit, okay, I’m ready!

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

ALEXANDER

Uuuuhhh Slaughterhouse 5! George Saunders!

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ALEXANDER

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

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

ALEXANDER

Kafka!

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

ALEXANDER

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

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

ALEXANDER

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

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

Or maybe I’d do philosophy. Or maths.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ALEXANDER

I play a mean jazz flute. Not even kidding.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

ALEXANDER

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

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

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

ALEXANDER

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

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

ALEXANDER

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

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Creatives in profile: interview with Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith NITRB.jpg

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite author/poet/photographer?

SMITH

Marilynne Robinson / Robert Frost / Masao Yamamoto

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

Housekeeping is my favourite novel. No hate!

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

SMITH

Tupac.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

SMITH

Pass!

INTERVIEWER

Something you’re particularly proud of?

SMITH

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

Be yourself.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the author of this post

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You?’ she said. ‘Work?

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

‘Not even two,’ he laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the interviewer

Ellen Lavelle

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

 

 

 

 

 

A poetic conversation with Frank Prem

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Frank Prem: a storytelling poet. 

Frank Prem has been a storytelling poet for forty years. When not writing or reading his poetry to an audience, he fills his time by working as a psychiatric nurse.

He has been published in magazines, zines and anthologies, in Australia and in a number of other countries, and has both performed and recorded his work as spoken word poetry.

He and his wife live in the beautiful township of Beechworth in northeast Victoria, Australia.

Nothing in the Rulebook – and particularly Professor Wu – have been fans of Prem’s work for some time, which is available online and via his poetry blog – as well as Youtube. So it was great fun to catch up with him and quickly get down to the bones of what makes a poet tick.

INTERVIEWER

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

PREM

I Live in a small town in North East Victoria (Australia) called Beechworth. This is the town I grew up in back in the 1960s and 70s, before moving away to the city for my middle adult years. I returned to the town about 10 years ago, and have settled back into rural life.

The town itself is well known, in a small way, for three things. It is a well preserved gold rush town. It has associations with Australia’s most renowned bushrangers (Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang), and it has a tourism favourite in The Beechworth Bakery, which is known far and wide.

Professionally, I am a Psychiatric Nurse, and have worked in or around Psychiatric Services for forty odd years now – almost as long as I’ve been a poet.

My wife and I live a creatively rich life in our small town and, despite putting myself about in interviews like this and in whatever media I can entice to publicise my work, I consider myself quite a private person.

INTERVIEWER

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

PREM

Terms like ‘first love’ and words like ‘passion’ aren’t quite accurate in defining the relationship I have with my writing. I have always been a word person – whether reading avidly, or writing, but with writing it is not so much a thing that I sought to do, as a thing that was required of me.

I mean that I don’t think there is much in the way of choice available to someone like myself. I simply wouldn’t be who and what I believe myself to be, if it weren’t for writing, and in my case, writing free verse poetry, in particular,

I reserve passion for my football team, or perhaps some aspect of the garden.

Writing is more like the breath I take.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to writing and poetry?

PREM

Going back to when I started writing in a journal as a teenager, I used words and pen as a way to make sense of my world. This continued into my career in Psychiatry, where much of what I encountered was incomprehensible to me, even though I had childhood associations with the institution in which I trained as a nurse through my parents employment, still it was bizarre and inexplicable to me.

Over time, I found that my interest branched out into many different areas, and gradually I arrived at a point where I felt (and still do) that every single thought, idea, sight or sense that I encounter is potentially worthy of being captured in a poem, that in turn, should be able to be made worthy of being read and appreciated.

I felt and believed that all this was in my grasp and power to achieve.

An example, Professor. On a particular occasion, driving a country road, I had that sense of well being that led me to actually say to myself ‘I could write something amazing about the very next thing I see …’

Well, driving around the corner, the thing I saw was a row of dead foxes in various stages of decay, and strung up on a paddock fence.

Not the subject I might have hoped for, but exactly the test of hubris that I deserved.

Did I write something? Yes I did. Was it worthy, in the way I suggested above? Hard to say, but, fortunately, I can let you decide by posting a link to the poem – a conversation with three foxes – here: https://wp.me/p7yTr8-1MC.

I don’t know if I succeeded but I was quite proud of the poem when finished, and I’ve tried to avoid such extravagant thinking since.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

PREM

I have a reasonably clear inspiration for my writing and what I attempt to achieve with it, but the source dates back to a couple of writers born in the 1860s – Henry Lawson and A.B. (the Banjo) Patterson.

My writing is nothing like theirs. They wrote poetry in galloping rhyme, and Lawson wrote many short stories. Lawson was an alcoholic associated mostly with the bush, Patterson was a city lawyer who wrote of the bush.

The reason I find them inspirational is that they wrote at a time when words were not easily accessed by a largely illiterate populace outside the cities, and yet their work was memorised and recited as news and as entertainment.

I have a vision that recurs of one person who could read, holding the Bulletin Magazine in his hand and reading aloud, while a group of men stand around listening, with lips moving as they try to memorise the verse for repetition later. Perhaps asking for the piece to be read aloud again to make sure.

Fanciful? Probably, but that image informs the aims I have for my work. I want it to be able to be read and understood. I want to take complex ideas and present them in a way that lets my next door neighbour, or the greengrocer, or a stranger in the street know exactly what I’m on about and be able to form a response without difficulty.

You may get a sense that I have a few concerns about published contemporary poetry. you’d be right. I have no time for the deliberately obscure. I think it does the reader of poetry (and therefore poetry itself) a grave injustice.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

PREM

I’ve deliberately avoided formal instruction in the black arts of writing and of writing poetry.

My first reason is because I’ve always had a belief that only I could write the work of only me. I have been inordinately concerned that reading others and formal instruction would dilute my own voice. When I finally discovered that I had a unique voice (someone pointed it out to me in a poem), it became the most precious thing in my repertoire and I would not risk it.

A second reason though, (and I apologise in advance to any who may feel offended) is that I have not trusted the teachers of creative writing programs to know what they were doing. Harsh, yes, but it seemed to me that what I saw as product of such instruction was largely shallow cleverness dressed up in fashionable and exclusive attire. Very little uniqueness that was capable of communicating to everyday folk, who I saw and see as the proper main audience for poetry.

Having said that, I was strongly encouraged by an English teacher in my Year 9 many moons ago who marked my poem higher than neighbouring essays. I haven’t looked back.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

PREM

Professor, this is an excellent question, I think. I now understand that , in my own case, I have been a writer forever. That is, a person who creates works – whether they be fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose – by writing.

I have drawers full of manuscripts created while I was a writer.

So. If you write, you are a writer.

However, being a writer is actually the easy part of the writing pursuit.

When you create a book, you become an author. Wherever you may appear, you are representing your book as its author. Being a writer is a mere prelude to being your book.

Becoming a publisher (my Wild Arancini Press is a single author publisher) is another step again. Followed by becoming a promotor of the book you are author of. These are work tasks that go with being a professional in the industry of writing.

The simple creativity of just being a writer becomes a bit of a nostalgic dream, if we’re not careful.

INTERVIEWER

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

PREM

I have two answers, Professor. One is a little more boring than the other and both might seem a little shallow.

My first three collections (two published, the third starting now) are written in a memoir style. My research has been to live the events that I relate and turn them into a form that is readable and attractive to readers and listeners.

  • With Small Town Kid, I walked the town again, and went out of my way to have some conversations with folk who could inform and correct my views before I made an ass of myself with them.
  • Devil In The Wind came from direct experience on the periphery of the fires, conversation with fire fighters, news (TV, radio, papers), and finally the Royal Commission we held to Inquire into the circumstances of the fires. Plus all the empathy I could muster.
  • The New Asylum will be the third collection, dealing with my lifetime involvement with psychiatry from a child through to the present day. Primarily the material in this collection will be direct experience.

The second part of the answer relates more to my more fictional work, which is yet to see the light of day. This work includes simply hundreds of poems directly inspired from reading the French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard who died in the 1960s. I can’t begin to tell the influence reading this mans translated works has had on me as a writer.

I also have a speculative fiction manuscript that is perhaps more surreal in nature. That came from a given theme, sustained by a piece of music playing in my head throughout the writing.

So, true answer on research? Not much, I’m afraid.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

PREM

Ethics in my own writing is not something I think about a lot, but I believe it is a valid question.

I put great store in my writing having recognisable qualities, so that there is little likelihood of mistaking mine for someone else’s. That includes content, however, and I feel a responsibility to give my reader not, necessarily, what they expect, but to challenge them within some nebulous parameters that are clearly consistent with me, the writer they thought they were getting

I feel the need to shape any controversy in such a way that it represents, rather than dictates or argues.

Without shying away from a topic, I don’t want to be in the position where I am running a partisan or shallow line on a controversial subject.

I am most comfortable, I think, in representing and interpreting ideas and philosophies poetically than in arguing a position.

INTERVIEWER

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

PREM

My current work in progress has a working title ‘stories of the somme’. I am taking photographs from World War 1 – Australian Soldiers at the Somme and the Western Front, and using what empathy I have to allow each picture to tell me a story.

I hope to publish these in due course, providing I can raise the cash to purchase high quality photographic prints. They are not cheap.

I have been amazed by the capacity of these 100 year old images to move me, and of the poems and pictures together to affect readers emotionally.

Here are links to two of the sample poems posted on my blog page:

  1. Ypres (24): munition wraiths https://wp.me/p7yTr8-76Q
  2. Ypres (16): within the walls (while we lived) https://wp.me/p7yTr8-76s

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

PREM

Robin Hobb – Farseer books

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

PREM

Emmylou Harris – US Country singer.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

PREM

Take your pick. Contemporary seems to be about hype.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

PREM

It’s going back a bit, but H.E. Bates (Darling Buds of May etc) and Damon Runyan (Guys and Dolls) shouldn’t be forgotten.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

PREM

I play ukulele in my wife Leanne’s music classes and like to sing – mainly country songs.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

PREM

Early on. I was meant to say thank you, but I actually gave a rambling speech full of nonsense. Had to get dragged away from the podium. Have never forgotten, never repeated.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

PREM

I think I’m most proud of my wife Leanne’s endeavours and achievements in art and other creative endeavours, including music teaching.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

PREM

Don’t be in a hurry. Everything is material, every moment is developmental.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

PREM

I became my mountain, became me.

Writing Dorset dialect: a treasury of words

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William Barnes: a poet plucked from obscurity in a Dickens-like-happy-ending who wrote the Glossary of Dorset Dialect – which holds the key to understanding terms such as ‘ninnywatch’ and ‘Dumbledore’.

Some years ago, I got it into my head to set a story in the last years of peace before railways arrived ruined everything. As ideas go, it was predicated on some fairly heavy assumptions, but it had the advantage of being inspired by a pub. The pub in question is about 8 miles outside Wimborne Minster and is called The World’s End. So my first assumption was that there was once a time when you could maybe walk that far out of town but beyond that — well, that was the End Of The World, so everything beyond it was a mysterious realm of weirdness. And then, I assumed, the railways arrived and everything started to become ever more mundane.

What happened next was that I started doing research and my vision of a idyllic rural past collapsed like a sodden haystack. Railways came to Wimborne in 1847, around about the time the corn laws were making food prohibitively expensive, the enclosures acts were removing access to the common land that ordinary folk used as pasture; poor laws were damning struggling paupers to the workhouse, and the gradual mechanisation of farming was destroying all rural employment. I learned about the levels of infant mortality, lack of sanitation and the rates of emigration and I gradually realised that there really wasn’t that much for the railways to ruin.

But there was one discovery that cheered me up. I got my hands on a copy of William Barnes’ Glossary of Dorset Dialect. Originally published in 1867, this glossary is a rarity because Barnes was a complete one-off. He was in the unique position of having been born to a family of relatively poor farmers and subsequently receiving an education. This meant he grew up learning to talk with the local dialect, but then, because he was clearly too fragile for farming and showed some acumen at ‘book-work’ he was packed off to school and had the Dickens-happy-ending sort of good-fortune to be plucked from obscurity and sent to university. There can have been very few historical figures to have spoken Greek, Latin and fluent Dorset. And Barnes — bless him — he wrote it all down.

Readers would be spirited into a long-lost world of cider, button-making and eccles cakes…”

My first intention was to use Barnes’ Glossary to give my story flavour. I thought of it as a sort of linguistic spice rack. I would write Dorset characters and have them use a few authentic phrases and you, dear readers, would be spirited into a long-lost world of cider, button-making and eccles cakes. It was an irresistible idea because the phrases in the Glossary were delicious. There were just so many definitions that sang about the world they came from. The first one I employed properly was the word brags. To make one’s brags is to boast. So I got to write the sentence, “He was making his brags”.

Next came the old Dorset intensifiers. Some of these are still in use, others should be revived. Girt is still understood to mean ‘large’ and Banging makes it larger. A  banging girt bridge is larger than a girt bridge. It could also be Brushing, of course, which means much the same as Banging or even Lincen or Trimming. Although, whether a trimming girt hare is bigger than a lincen girt hare or smaller than a banging girt hare or a brushing girt hare is anyone’s guess—but it is clear that Dorset folk did not lack ways of saying that things were large. What sort of things would they have been talking about? It doesn’t much matter because anything complicated would have been called tackle. A Dorset man with aspirations to become a sailor and climb a ship’s mast would have wanted to get a-top all that tackle. That is, of course, unless he or she found the prospect a little intimidating, in which case, he might have called it a turk of a thing. There’s a self-confidence in this sort of one-word reductivism; a hint of humour too.

What I love most about these evocative phrases is how much they reveal a lot about the world they come from. What do you know — immediately — about a world in which it is an insult to call someone Cow-heart? If nothing else, it says they knew cows, and didn’t hold them in high esteem. And maybe it also reveals the true origins of the term ‘coward’ (more conventional etymology has it from the Old French couard — something to do with the tail).

There’s plenty to be learned from other Dorset insults and the things they insulted. Gawk-Hammer is a fool’s bladder, the implied meaning being ‘empty-head’ while the simple term Gawk, meaning ‘fool,’ is still in use through the phrase gawking (staring mindlessly). My personal favourite is Dough-beaked. It doesn’t take much interpretation to understand that a bird with a beak make of dough isn’t too useful. I also love the word, ninny, and its more capacious cousin, ninnywatch. Barnes’ explanation for this term is a feast:

“The following is a bit of talk about the word Ninnywatch between a worthy Dorset gentleman and two of his parish folks: “There see; the policeman told I somewhat that put me in a terrible ninny-watch.” And what’s that?” says I. “What does it mean?” “I d’know ‘tain’t got no meaning, sir; ‘tis only one they words we poor folk do use.” “Old P. tells me it means ‘trouble’” ”Trouble sir?  Don’t mean trouble no more than do mean Richard.” “Well then, how do you use it?” “Well, sir, if I’ve a-seed anybody in a-bit of a bumble about his work—a-peeping about—in a kind of stud, like—I’ve a-heard em say “What be you got a ninny-watchen about?” Ninny watch is most likely a “ninny’s outlook” as for he knows not what.”

There’s lots to that paragraph. You might have spotted the word ‘somewhat’ which is said, ‘zummit’, and sounds like ill-educated mispronunciation of ‘something’. But as Barnes points out, Dorset is logical and consistent in its structure. It uses somewhat alongside somewhen and somewhere, making conventional English seem the less consistent.

The Glossary contains more vignettes like the one above and they are revealing to a level that single-term definitions cannot achieve. Here’s another example; it is an explanation that accompanies the term ‘Dewbit’:

“The first meal in the morning, not so substantial as a regular breakfast. The agricultural labourers, in some parts of Dorsetshire, were accustomed to say that in harvest time they required seven meals in the day: dewbit, breakfast, nuncheon, cruncheon, nammit, crammit, and supper.”

Eagle-eyed readers will recognise this from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, in which one of the hobbits says much the same about the number of meals in a day. This link is unsurprising given that Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and it is evident that many of the obscure terms in Barnes’ Glossary can be traced to Anglo-Saxon roots.

There are other echoes of The Shire in Barnes’ Dorset. It has that same sense of homeliness and good humour. This is a people for whom a bumble-bee was a Dumbledore, a deep laugh was a hobble, a short laugh was a sniggle and who would label someone colourless as Dunducky.  If you were lazy you’d be slack-twisted, if you were brave they’d shout Good Jeminee! if you were strong, they’d say spry, or if heavy, they’d say soggy. And yes, soggy also meant damp and sinking, with the meeting of meaning around the notion of something being pulled down—sinking through weight or ‘sogginess’. It was a world in which the empty-headed were mocked, and concerns focussed on harvests, plants, animal disease and birds; there are innumerable references to birds.

For a word-obsessed writer it was all too much fun. However, after shamelessly cherry-picking Barnes’ Glossary, I started to be dissatisfied with the dialogue that I was writing because, even though it had a good Dorset tone to it, there wasn’t that truly authentic ring you’d find in Barnes’ poems. At first I told myself this was because I always veered away from phonetic spelling, but eventually I came to realise there were rules I was simply not following. I was using individual terms as spice, but the overall recipe was still modern. This revelation came with the words en and em.

En and em are not random terms, nor are they, as it first appears, phonetic representations of bad diction. They are particles of grammar. En is Dorset for him. And em is Dorset for them. So a Dorset woman would say “Don’t think that of en.” Importantly, Barnes insists these terms have good provenance. He traces them to Fresian and makes the link to the original language of the Angles, before it was corrupted by those uncouth marauding Saxons. En and em are grammatically correct within their own sphere. And there’s more to it than that. There are verb forms that follow Dorset rules. Much like the North German and Southern Scandinavian languages that would have given us the English of the Angles, Dorset has a strange sort of preterite and a complex present tense. So in Dorset, the verb is adjusted if it relates to a plural subject. One bird flies, but a flock of birds do fly. A man runs, but men do run. And the habitual context in which I do write is not the same as singular instance when I am a-writing.

With these different (and in some instances, complex) rules in mind, Barnes has no patience for the stereotype of the dim-witted yokel. His poetry champions Dorset dialect as almost a distinct language, but he also illustrates its deep roots in the Germanic and Norse origins of pre-Norman peasantry. This is not an ill-educated population so much as a society that retains a language (and therefore, presumably aspects of a culture) that was thought dead 800 years previously.

All this seemed to suggest that my original premise for writing about a world that ended eight miles outside the town was not as dough-beaked as I’d thought. For the language to have survived that long, the culture, the mentality and the manner of thinking of the people must also have survived—largely by them just staying put. When the Normans arrived they took control, but in the very act of doing so, they ensured the survival of Anglo-Saxon culture because the farm-workers were forced to stay in their villages. I was spurred towards deeper research.

The greatest extremity of my adventures into Dorset dialect was a teach-yourself course for learning Anglo-Saxon. Yes, such a thing exists and no, I didn’t become fluent. Not even sub-GCSE level. But I gained another insight into the style of thinking. Anglo-Saxon has its own thought-style. A way of melding terms to create evocative new phrases (called Kennings). It was a common Anglo-Saxon poet’s device to replace simple words, like ship, with something much more evocative, like wave-floater (wægflota). A dull Anglo-Saxon would say ‘the sea’, whereas a poet would call it a ‘whale’s way’ (hwæl-weġ). I brought a halt to my teach-yourself-Anglo-Saxon adventure because it became clear that while it was fun and helped me get more from Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, it wasn’t the same as learning Dorset dialect. the dialect took a form of its own

So I returned to William Barnes, immersed myself in his records, and eventually started writing. My aim was to create a sort of ‘restored’ Dorset dialect. I couldn’t re-create it, anymore than you can recreate an authentic 19th century farm, but I could manage a sort of restoration. Did I get it right? Maybe. You could spend a life-time studying and still not manage to quite get there. But I got close enough, I think.

Fourteen

The fourteen stories of ‘Crow Court‘ (Unbound) are steeped in Dorset dialect – pick yourselves up a copy using the discount code RULEBOOK to be immersed in a world of banging girt stories.

And I can tell you why I think that. The simple story I had originally planned grew larger and larger until it formed a whole novel, Crow Court.  As I was writing, I found that expressions came to mind that I hadn’t read and didn’t recall having heard. They just seemed right. I was making stuff up, which is what a novelist is supposed to do, but I was using a registry that sounded properly Dorset. In a key moment in a intricate plot, one of the characters tells his smuggling employer that he thinks the Customs men are onto them. This is how he says it;

“He’s snuffled your truffles, Charlie.”

Truffles, as you may well know, are fungi that grow underground. They are considered a great delicacy, but one of the best ways of finding them is by getting a pig to sniff them out. I don’t understand why the phrase, snuffle your truffles, doesn’t already exist. There is a meaning for ‘truffle snuffle’ but it’s rude and you’ll have to look that up yourself.

Another character came up with the expression “tickled his teats” meaning ‘pleased him’ – “You tickled his teats with somewhat…” I liked that because the language stays with farming and again, I couldn’t believe it didn’t already exist. Maybe it does, but I couldn’t find it. But my favourite moment of inspiration happened when one of my characters came up with the expression, “That’s a cat in a coop…” which refers to a cat getting into the hens’ enclosure. The advent of trouble, in other words. Again, why ‘cat-in-a-coop’ isn’t already an expression, I don’t know. It should be. It is now.

Perhaps I was overconfident making up my own terms, but I took it that the semi-spontaneous arrival of these inventions was a sign that I had steeped myself in Dorset dialect enough to have gained a feel for it. It seemed that way to me and it was thoroughly enjoyable to be writing with this gorgeous dialect in mind. Of course, I might be wrong—I might be totally delusional and the language might be completely off-key. I guess, ultimately, you’ll have to judge that for yourselves. Crow Court is lined up to be published by Unbound sometime early in 2020, but you can reserve yourself a copy by pledging support for the project on the unbound website; http://unbound.com/books/crow-court – just remember to use the discount code RULEBOOK to get 10% off.

For more information about William Barnes, his poetry and Dorset dialect, take a gander at the William Barnes society. Their website is here: https://www.williambarnessociety.org.uk/

About the author

AC Large.jpgAndy Charman was born in Dorset and grew up near Wimborne Minster. He has had short stories published in anthologies and journals. Crow Court is his first novel. He studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick, is married, has a daughter and now lives in Surrey. the first story to be finished, The World’s End, was originally short-listed in Cadenza magazine’s short-story competition in 2008, and was published in the anthology, Pangea, in 2012.

 

 

Creatives in profile: Ben Thomas

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Ben Thomas is editor of The Willows Magazine, author of The Cradle and the Sword, creator of TheStrangeContinent.com, and founder of the neuroscience news agency The Connectome. He travels the world as a freelance writer, and has lived in more than 40 countries. His hobbies include aquaculture, Linux customisation, tantric meditation and ink drawing.

INTERVIEWER

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

THOMAS

I spent my earliest years in the woodlands of Ohio — but was transplanted to the desolate steppe of West Texas at age 10. I got out of there as quickly as I could, moving to Los Angeles to study cinema. I spent most of my twenties in California — then in 2013, I made a decision to cast off my material possessions and backpack across Europe, Africa and Asia for four years. These days I’m nesting in Austin, Texas. But I’m hoping to get back to London, Paris and Rome soon; if only to collect the books and relics my friends have been kind enough to keep for me.

INTERVIEWER

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

THOMAS

I’ve always been intrigued by mysteries of all sorts. One of my earliest memories is of staring into an aquarium at the Toledo Zoo, gazing deeply into the eyes of a fish, trying to imagine what it was like to look out from those eyes; to be that fish. And I suppose some version of that quest has fueled all my great passions: my fascination with rare and esoteric creatures, my love for mythologies and ancient languages, my research on neuroscience and the human mind, my travels around the world, and my lifelong love for weird tales.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to writing and literature?

THOMAS

Well, words are magic, aren’t they? When we present a compelling argument or conjure an imaginary scene in someone else’s mind, we’re quite literally casting spells: shaping our own (and others’) perceptions of reality through the verbal evocation of ideas. I can’t imagine a more delightful or rewarding trade to be in.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

THOMAS

Ashurbanipal, Enheduanna, Paul Atreides, Hypatia, Isaac Newton, Wu Zetian, Aleister Crowley, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, Iain Banks, Rosalind Franklin, Hülagü Khan.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

THOMAS

For the first few years of my life, my mother devoted herself almost entirely to teaching me everything I wanted to know. We’d go to the library and check out stack after stack of books, then bring them home and read them one after another in our rocking chair. If I wanted to learn a skill — say, finger-painting or guitar — we’d acquire the necessary materials and explore that area until it was time to move on to the next exploration. She was the most wonderful gardener my growing mind could have wished for.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

THOMAS

A magician of language. (Cf. my answer to the question above.)

INTERVIEWER

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

THOMAS

I find it’s impossible to write fluently about any subject — fictional or otherwise — without a working knowledge of the world in question. But my research rarely proceeds according to any prearranged plan; each day I simply wake up and ask myself, “What do I want to know about today?” and proceed from there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

THOMAS

I believe people in all creative disciplines bear a responsibility not only to describe the world as it is, but to present compelling pictures of the world as it could be. One of my mottos is, “Remember, someone is turning sixteen every day.” — in other words, every day, new people are waking up to themselves; examining ideas in the media they read and watch; deciding which ones they want to pursue, or integrate into themselves, and which ones they’ll reject. We don’t get to decide which of our ideas will connect with these people — but we do have a responsibility to provide them with accurate and useful concepts, and not to frighten them with falsehoods for the sake of profiteering.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about ‘The Willows’ – how did you first conceive of the idea, and what are some of the challenges in running a regular literary magazine in this day and age.

THOMAS

I first conceived of The Willows in 2006. I’d been an enthusiastic reader of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood since my university days — and one evening it just occurred to me that no one was publishing fiction in that vein anymore. Right then and there I set up a small website and put out a call for stories, and the response was far beyond what I expected: authors, illustrators, marketers and supporters appeared out of the blue, all rejoicing that this magazine existed. Seems I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed a cultural void where that The Willows ought to be!

A small crew of us ran the magazine from 2007-2010. The funds came out of my own pocket — earned at a series of mind-numbing day jobs — and many contributors volunteered to provide work for free, or for significantly less than their usual fees. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to produce a magazine; I taught myself Adobe InDesign, found a local print shop that was willing to work with me, and learned the trade through (often expensive) trial and error.

Over the years, the stress and expenses took their toll — I was spending upwards of $1000 of my own money to produce each issue, and usually making only a few hundred in profit, even with the advertising space we sold. My co-editors Skadi meic Beorh and Orrin Grey picked up a lot of the slushpile work, enabling me to focus more on the production side — but even so, we’d set ourselves the task of publishing a bimonthly magazine, out of our own pockets, while simultaneously working forty hours a week or more at our office jobs.

This obviously wasn’t sustainable — and it was, perhaps, inevitable that in the spring of 2010 I suffered a nervous breakdown, stormed out of my job at at a media planning agency, and became a recluse: living off government benefits, painstakingly crafting elaborate ecosystems in garden planters on the balcony – tiny bonsai trees, grassy hills, lakes, mountains and caves – and attempting to populate them with small frogs and fish, who all hopped away, or died overnight, to my horrified dismay; stringing up fluorescent lights in the attic to grow tomatoes and soybeans, resulting in a forest of dead leaves and vines into which I frantically pumped nutrients in the vain hope of resuscitation; poring over Babylonian cuneiform texts and ancient Greek philosophical treatises.

Long story short: I was, for all practical purposes, dead to the world until 2012 or so. When the dust settled, I decided I wanted to have nothing to do with The Willows — or the weird fiction community — and I moved on to studying neuroscience; and later, to traveling to other continents. It wasn’t until the spring of 2019, when I attended the Outer Dark Symposium of the Greater Weird in Atlanta, that I reconnected with many old friends (and made new ones) in the Weird community. At that conference I floated the idea of a Willows hardcover anthology — and once again, the response was far stronger than I expected. The Kickstarter campaign flowed naturally from there.

INTERVIEWER

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

THOMAS

I’ve just begun a new Strange Continent series on neolithic China, which I think is a fascinating time and place. I hope eventually to bring all Strange Continent stories together into a single attractive print volume (as some readers have suggested). But since visual images play such crucial roles in the historical tales I tell, I’ll need to find a way to acquire print rights to the paintings I’ve interspersed throughout these stories — and I anticipate a labyrinthine series of bureaucratic headaches in that direction.

In the meantime, I’ve been getting back to my roots, writing weird tales in the classic tradition of Machen and Blackwood (though some are set in the present day). I hope to find welcoming homes for some of these stories over the coming months.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

THOMAS

Absolutely impossible to pick just one. Here are my top nine.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

THOMAS

Cult classic. Fashion is fleeting, but style is timeless.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

THOMAS

Brian Evenson. He’s our century’s Kafka.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

THOMAS

The Apostle Paul. We should’ve tossed him out and kept the rest.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

THOMAS

My friend Orrin Grey. He’s a skeleton who writes more about monsters before nine a.m. than most people do all day.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

THOMAS

All my talents remain hidden until the right time comes.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

THOMAS

Hmm… probably that time on a cruise to Mexico when I had a catastrophic panic attack (because it was impossible to get away from the throngs of loud drunk people) and locked myself in our cabin’s bathroom while my girlfriend screamed at me to stop being a psychotic infant. I’ve never set foot on a cruise ship since.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

THOMAS

I’ve done my level best to share everything I have with my friends.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

THOMAS

Nobody’s going to do this for you. If you want it, you’re going to have to build it yourself.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

THOMAS

She’s just my student!

Honey…

Seen.

 

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.

Sink MJS

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.

Fr M Kitchn

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: 

The research is clear: we need to put down our phones and pick up our pens (and our books)

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With 66% of us claiming we don’t have time to read because we’re distracted by our phones, why not put them down and find distractions in the world of books?

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity,” so opined Henry Beston in what is a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology.

Beston was writing in the late 1940s; but his remarks about our relationship with technology – and the potential pitfalls between our ever-closer relationship with it – are perhaps more pertinent today than ever before, especially as new research is published showing the vast majority of us claim to be distracted by near-constant, often idle, scrolling on our Smartphone devices.

This isn’t to advocate the luddites, but simply to draw attention to a remarkable trend that has been emerging in recent years as the use of mobile technology has proliferated among our society. Indeed, since 2012, when for the first time over half of all US citizens owned a smartphone, there has been a rapid change in not only our technological usage, but even in our characteristics as individuals and as a society. A new generational divide has even been seen to open up, as Jean Twenge points out in their work, iGen, which sees the generation born after millennials as being increasingly dependent upon their smartphones – using them to derive pleasure, to communicate with one another, form and maintain relationships, even while use of these devices is linked to poorer mental health and increased feelings of loneliness and decreased productivity.

Few, perhaps, will be surprised by findings that suggest our reliance on smartphone technology has come at a cost. As Rebecca Solnit notes in this wonderful analysis, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.”

Indeed, to build upon this, and to explore why increases in smartphone usage seem to be linked to feelings of loneliness and poor mental health, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

The impact of smartphones on creativity

So what does all this mean for aspiring and established creatives out there? Well, apart from ensuring we all do what we can to support ourselves and one another – looking out for signs of depression and doing what we can to protect our mental health and wellbeing (creative types, after all, may be more likely to experience mental health problems).

But it also means making a conscious effort to switch off our phones and minimise the distractions we face from them. Some of this has a simple reason behind it: with 66% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by their phones, and 31% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by streaming services like Netflix (source), and since we know that reading more and widely helps to improve our writing and creative abilities, switching off our phones and picking up a book would likely spur the creative juices needed to produce original pieces of work.

Indeed, this in part is just common sense. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan has said, in an interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

In fact, cutting ourselves off completely may be the only way to truly minimise the impact of modern technology. As a study by the University of Texas at Austin published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found, a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent — or even when powered off and tucked away in a purse, briefcase or backpack. Putting these distracting devices out of sight does not necessarily put them out of mind, in other words.

But perhaps there’s also something more here. A battle not between ourselves and our urges to distract ourselves from reality (perhaps an understandable impulse given our reality is currently catastrophic climate breakdown amid a geopolitical maelstrom of inaction and the rise of the far right); but rather a battle between society and the Tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg who make billions of dollars precisely from our distraction; and in turn a battle between us and the politicians whose interests it’s in to keep us distracted, to keep us disengaged with reality, because they know (and fear) the potential impact a suddenly creatively energised society could have upon the world.

The art of waiting

What this all ultimately comes down to, perhaps, is patience. The patience needed to work with feelings of boredom and frustration, rather than against them. The patience needed between conversations and meetings with friends to appreciate them all the more (and so much more than you can ever appreciate a simple snapchat streak). The patience needed to properly read a book and appreciate it, rather than simply scanning the pages as one might a smartphone webpage or app. As the brilliant novelist Tim Leach has written, “The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.”

Perhaps if we are able to put down our phones, the wait for the lightning that changes the system will be shorter than we think.

 

 

 

So alternative: 50 independent and alternative publishers to support, buy books from, and submit your work to

Independent_publishing

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 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.

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, we need independent publishers to continue their fine work. 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. We need independent publishers; not corporate monopolies.

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Looking to add to your ‘To Be Read’ pile of books? Or looking to get your own work published and added to somebody else’s reading list? The following list of independent publishers should help!

But independent publishers need us, as readers and writers, too. They need us to buy their books and support their projects; and they need writers to keep submitting books and poetry collections to them, so that they can keep discovering and publishing new, unique, and inspiring new voices and stories.

It’s a reciprocal relationship, then, and one that we hope we can help support ourselves by bringing you the following list of independent and alternative publishing houses where you can find inspiration and submit your own work to.

Put together alongside our other writing resources, including our list of literary magazines that are always open to unsolicited submissions, the list below provides all the handy details readers and writers alike might need. But of course, we are fortunate to live in a world abounding with creative entrepreneurs, so, if there’s a great indie publisher that we’ve missed, or if you own or run an independent publishing house yourself and you’d like to see if listed here, please get in touch and let us know.

Happy reading, comrades!

404 Ink

About 404 Ink: 404 Ink is the award-winning alternative, independent publisher of books and literary magazines.

Books: A wonderful collection of books available from their online store, including ‘The Goldblum Variations: The Adventures of Jeff Goldblum”.

Submissions: 404 Ink regularly accept unsolicited submissions during their submissions windows. Check online for more information.

The 87 Press

About The 87 Press: The 87 is a small press, publishing collective, events organiser, and platform for discussion, committed to publishing the very best of bold, innovative and experimental writing from emerging and established writers.

87 Press Books: Check out their online store featuring books by Caspar Heinemann, Callie Gardener and others.

Submissions: The 87 Press accept unsolicited submissions during defined submissions periods. Check online for more information.

Biteback Publishing

Described as ‘Britain’s leading political publisher’ by Charles Moore, Biteback Publishing is one of Britain’s leading independent publishers of political and current affairs titles. They also publish espionage, general non fiction and sport.

Submissions: Always up for considering new writing proposals, you can find out more about Biteback’s submissions guidelines here.

Birlinn Ltd

About Birlinn Ltd: Described as “passionately independent”, Birlinn Ltd is made up of a number of imprints, including Origin, Polygon, BC Books, and Arena Sports. Polygon is known for publishing literary fiction and poetry, including by acclaimed authors like James Kelman and Liz Lochhead. With so many imprints, their catalogue provides an opportunity to lose yourself browsing the digital bookshelves. Worth checking out!

Submissions: If you have a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that you strongly believe would suit their list, Berlinn want to hear from you. You should post a synopsis and three sample chapters, or half a dozen poems, with some biographical information about yourself (including contact details), a stamped addressed envelope (should you wish the material returned) and a brief explanation of why you have chosen to submit your work. More information via their contact page.

Boiler House Press

 About Boiler House Press: BHP is a new publisher of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and everything in-between. Based out of the University of East Anglia, they accept unsolicited writing submissions.

Boldwood Books

About Boldwood Books: A new global publisher founded in 2019 in London, UK. Promises to be innovative and fearless.

Boldwood Submissions: Actively seeking unsolicited manuscripts (praise the day!) Check out their website above or Twitter @BoldwoodBooks for more info, then send manuscript directly to submissions@boldwoodbooks.com

Burning Chair Publishing

About Burning Chair Publishing: From first class editing to cutting edge marketing and promotion, Burning Chair are an exciting new independent publishers that look to provide authors with the support they need to make sure their book fulfils its potential. Check out some of their books published so far via their store.

Burning Chair Submissions: This indie publishers is open for submissions and accepting unsolicited manuscripts from a variety of different genres. Information about what they’re looking for, and how to submit, is available online.

Burning Eye Books

 “Poetry for the people, not just professors.” Burning Eye Books are all about putting Slam/Stand Up/Performance & Spoken Word Poetry on the page. Something that arguably hasn’t been done enough. They have a bookstore where you can purchase their titles, but perhaps of more interest are the free (yes, FREE) book samples you can read right now through their website.

These guys do open every now and then for submissions, but they also charge a small £5 fee (which goes to charity). Check their website for information about when to submit, as well as submission guidelines.

Carcanet Press

Described as “the most courageous publisher” by Charles Tomlinson, Carcanet has been publishing poetry, inventive fiction and literary criticism for decades. They’re a massive name in the world of independent publishing and have a dizzying array of excellent and unique books to choose from, including work from Will Eaves (read our interview with Eaves here), who won the Republic of Consciousness Prize this year.

Carcanet Press Submissions: considering the reputation of this publisher, it’s a sign of their core values that they’re still keen to accept unsolicited manuscript submissions. Carcanet considers submissions and book proposals sent electronically as emailed attachments – and does have strict reading periods for when these submissions can be sent in. Check their website for more information.

Copy Press

Copy Press is an independent publishing company, dedicated to extending ideas of writing, pictures and readability. They have a number of publishing products and welcome proposals of new writing to fit within these.

Cranachan Publishing

Cranachan Publishing we focus on sourcing the finest, freshest writing so that we can produce books that our readers will want to devour in one sitting.

Submitting to Cranachan Publishing: These guys are always open to new proposals but they receive loads of submissions so you need to send a query email first. More information online.

Dahlia Books

About Dahlia Books: A small press publisher, championing regional and diverse voices in literature. They publish a range of different genres and styles of literature (all of it good), and are open to unsolicited submissions twice a year, in March and September.

Damaged Goods Press

Damaged Goods is a queer & trans owned press specializing in poetry & creative nonfiction by queer & trans writers. They’re actively seeking new writing so get submitting!

Dancing Bear Books

Dancing Bear Books have a clear mission and they chose to embark on it because of the lack of diversity in fantasy and fairytale literature within commercial fiction. They are a publisher of Folklore, Fairytales and Fantasy and specifically are after tales that feature BAME, LGBT and disabled protagonists. They have bases in both Newcastle and London, UK, and perhaps more importantly, they are very keen to hear your stories.

Submitting to Dancing Bear Books: With their focus on diversity in literature (and the stories we read), they have some specific rules that manuscripts must meet in order to be considered for publication. Information about this is all online. Importantly, they accept both agented and non-agented submissions and you should feel free to submit your manuscripts directly to them!

Daunt Books Publishing

Founded in 2010, the Daunt Books imprint is dedicated to publishing brilliant works by talented authors from around the world. Whether reissuing beautiful new editions of lost classics or publishing debut works by fresh voices, our titles are inspired by the Daunt Books shops themselves and the exciting atmosphere of discovery to be found in a good bookshop.

Submitting to Daunt Books: DB welcome unsolicited submissions via email or post.

With their roots as a travel bookshop, the titles they publish are inspired by the Daunt shops themselves. They’re interested in writing that evokes a strong sense of place — literary fiction (novels and short stories) and narrative non-fiction with a lingering atmosphere, a thrilling story, and a distinctive style. Further submissions information is available online.

Elsewhen Press

Ahoy there, speculative fiction fans! Elsewhen Press seeks to publish new exciting titles in the Speculative Fiction genre, especially (but not exclusively) from previously unpublished authors. We are looking for high quality manuscripts that tell a compelling story, ideally developed around a strong underlying theme which adds something significant and novel to the genre. Manuscripts must be of book-length, can be an individual story or (first in) a series of stories. More info online!

Epoque Press

About Epoque Press: époque press is an independent publisher based between Brighton and Dublin established to promote and represent the very best in new literary talent. Through a combination of their main publishing imprint and their online ezine, they aim to bring inspirational and thought provoking work to a wider audience.

Submit to Epoque Press: Open to submissions from new and established writers. More information online.

Eyrie Press

About Eyrie Press: A small indie publisher focused on peculative & historical fiction. Especially keen on featuring underrepresented groups, and supporting regional writers from UK. Info about what they’re looking for in submissions – as well as when they will open their inbox to unsolicited submissions, is all online.

Fairlight Books

Fairlight publish literary fiction and books that promote quality writing. For readers, they have an interesting shop where you can buy bundles of their books together (check it out). For writers, these fabulous folk are accepting submissions of literary fiction (short story collections, novellas and novels). Guidelines here.

Fly on the Wall Press

A really lovely indie publishing press with a commitment to discovering (and, importantly, printing) new writing. Have a great collection of books available through their online store, which readers can peruse at their leisure. Meanwhile, writers interested in submitting their work to the press can find out more online.

Four Corners Books

Four Corners make art books that have a story to tell, with a special focus on art outside traditional gallery contexts. In their ‘Familiars’ series – in which they invite artists to reimagine classic works of literature – or their new series, the Irregulars – about fascinating pockets of British visual culture – they try to find art in the most intriguing and unusual places.

Submitting to Four Corners Books: These fine literary folks are always happy to hear from artists and writers with proposals for books, but ideally they should fit within their current remit: art history, with an emphasis on art made outside the traditional gallery system, and especially on culture in Britain after 1945. Email with a brief enquiry in the first instance.

Galley Beggar Press

Galley Beggar Press is an independent publisher from the UK – they publish innovative writing and all all-round fine folk. Importantly, despite their esteemed reputation, they also accept unsolicited manuscripts once a year (in 2019, this period is July). More information about their submissions processes is available online.

Guppy Books

About Guppy Books: New independent publisher of fabulous fiction for children of all ages, tweeting as @guppybooks. Various new children’s books available online.

Submitting to Guppy Books: Guppy Books welcomes fiction submissions from agents and previously published authors. They remain open as a publisher, and twice a year they will be accepting unsolicited manuscript submissions from unpublished writers over a specific period of time. They will put up these dates on the Guppy quarterly newsletter and via Twitter and social media.

Handheld Press

Based in the lovely, limestone-clad city of Bath in the UK, Handheld Press sells stories, handpicked tales from the past and the present, because they are remarkable and wonderful. They publish books to be books; creating beautiful objects that are designed and laid out with care. They were the regional finalist for The Bookseller Small Press Award in 2018. Importantly, they accept not only manuscript submissions from new and established authors, but also simply ideas for new fiction. So drop them a line and pitch them your story (what are you waiting for? Check out their submissions page for more info).

Head of Zeus

Winner of the 2017 Independent Publisher of the Year award, Head of Zeus are an acclaimed indie publisher dedicated to beautiful books and great storytelling.

Head of Zeus books: A host of excellent titles are available through their online store, including novels by the equally excellent Tim Leach (who we’ve interviewed on our site).

Submitting to Head of Zeus: These guys are immensely popular and, as such, receive an overwhelming number of submissions. That said, they do try to open their submissions portal to unsolicited manuscript submissions whenever possible, so keep up to date with them online.

Henningham Family Press

HFP are a book publisher with a difference, creating award-winning and critically acclaimed books that are in themselves works of art, created through fine art print making and book binding. Their books are each unique and worthy of entire webpages in themselves, so suffice to say we’d urge you all to spend some time checking out their online store and picking up a couple of copies for your friends and family (as well as yourself, of course).

Submitting to Henningham Family Press: HFP, in their own words currently “have enough manuscripts written by white males to keep [them] occupied for ten years”. So their focus is on considering unsolicited material from women and BAME authors. Further information about what they’re looking for and how to submit is available online.

Hera Books

About Hera Books: An independent digital publisher bringing readers the very best in commercial fiction.

Submitting to Hera Books: Actively seeking submissions of new writing, the team behind Hera Books also offer hands-on editorial services, so check them out and get submitting!

HopeRoad Publishing

HopeRoad promotes inclusive literature with a focus on Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. They vigorously support often neglected voices and many of their YA titles (featured in their lovely bookstore) focus on issues dealing with identity, cultural stereotyping and disability. It’s unclear whether they accept submissions but they encourage people interested in the press to get in touch with any enquiries.

Inkandescent

Apart from being a wonderful pun, Inkandescent is also a new publishing venture committed to promoting ideas, subjects and voices underrepresented by mainstream publishing. They hope to discover and celebrate original, diverse and transgressive literature and art, to challenge the status quo.

Lilliput Press

The Lilliput Press is one of Ireland’s smallest and most prestigious publishing houses. They publish a wide variety of Irish interest books and represent authors such as James Joyce, John Moriarty, J.P. Donleavy and many others.

Submissions policy: The Lilliput Press still accept unsolicited manuscript submissions; but only by post (email submissions will not be considered). They offer a range of guidelines and processes for submitting, including what to submit alongside your manuscript.

Linen Press

Linen Press is a small, independent publisher run by women, for women. They are now the only indie women’s press in the UK.

They have dozens and dozens of exceptional books available to readers through their lovely online bookshop.

And, good news, sports fans, Linen Press are looking for submissions. Specifically, they are after ‘beautifully written manuscripts which are relevant to women’s lives and which surprise us with their style and content.’ This can be literary fiction, top-end contemporary fiction and memoir. Check out submissions guidelines online.

Maytree Press

Maytree Press are a new, budding indie press from the UK. They have a small but cool catalogue which they’re currently building and adding to (which means readers can pick up one of their books they’ve already published from their shop, and writers seeking to get published themselves can submit their work for consideration).

New Island Books

About New Island Books: New Island Books are an independent Irish publisher, printing groundbreaking writing from both established and emerging writers. Featuring beautiful writing (often with stunning illustrations on the cover, as with Antony Cronin’s No Laughing Matter), their bookshop is well worth a browse.

Submissions: these guys are all about reading and discovering new writing and new voices. They regularly open their inboxes to unsolicited manuscripts, so check online for information about their submission windows and how and what to submit.

Nine Arches Press

About Nine Arches Press: Founded in 2008, this lovely publishing house based in the midlands, UK, are about more than just printing (award-winning) literature. They are all about the wider literary and social community and help organise events, readings, workshops and open mic nights.

Nine Arches Books: They’ve published over 70 collections, which is pretty great going. Two of their pamphlets. Mark Goodwin’s book Shod stands out after it won the 2011 East Midlands Book Award. All My Mad Mothers by Jacqueline Saphra is also a great read and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Poetry Prize, while David Clarke’s debut poems, Arc, was longlisted for the Polari Prize.

Submitting to Nine Arches Press: They have a couple of steps that interested writers should familiarise themselves with before submitting, but the important thing to remember is that these guys are very open to publishing new writing (it’s sort of what they do), so, if you have a cracking collection of poems burning a hole in your pocket, do consider submitting a sample of poems during one of their regular open submission windows.

No Alibis Press

About No Alibis: 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).

Submitting to No Alibis Press: These lovely folk are real champions of new and exciting writing and welcome submissions from authors (unsolicited or otherwise) at different times during the year. Check their website for information about how and when to submit.

Obliterati Press

Obliterati Press is a publisher for writers set up by writers keen to use the experience they have gained to unveil great new voices.

Obliterati Press Submissions: This indie press is particularly keen to receive submissions from new and emerging writers – so keep an eye on their various channels for news about their reading periods.

Onwe Press

About Onwe Press: UK publishers committed to discovering unforgettable stories and highlighting diverse voices. They’re a new publishing house, so drop them an email for information about their books and submissions via info@onwepress.com.

Panther Publishing

About Panther Publishing: Publisher of crime, mystery, thriller, paranormal and horror novels, based in Wales.

Panther Publishing submissions: These guys are OPEN for unsolicited manuscripts and are looking forward to reading your work. More info online.

Peepal Tree Press

About Peepal Tree Press: Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press is home to some of the finest Caribbean and Black British fiction, poetry, literary criticism, memoirs and historical studies. Discover some of their stunning and unique reads through their online catalogue featuring dozens of excellent writers.

Peepal Tree Press submissions: despite receiving a high volume of submissions, Peepal Tree Press are still open to unsolicited manuscript submissions year-round, and promise to respond to 90% of submissions within 12 weeks. Submit via submittable.

Peninsula Press

This quirky publishing house launched following a successful Kickstarter campaign (oh the things you can do with CrowdFunding!). As they build a following they are keen to receive submissions from new writers, so check out their website for information about how, when and what to submit.

Pool Publishing

A publishing house based out of Vienna, Austria. They primarily focus on illustration, graphic design and photography, working with creatives (being a creative collective ourselves, this is something we strongly endorse) from around the world, they look to create new and interesting publications. They are open to new ideas and submissions so you should check out their website and drop them a line to introduce yourself.

Red Squirrel Press

Red Squirrel Press is a self-funded independent press based in Scotland. It was founded in April 2006 and has published over 190 titles to date.  It publishes poetry pamphlets and full collections.

While they have a full production plan in place until 2021, you can still submit your work by following the press submissions guidelines online.

Salt publishing

About Salt: Salt is one of UK’s foremost independent publishers, committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature. Advocates for writers at all stages of their careers, the company help ensure that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.

Salt books – huge number of books available at reasonable prices directly from their online store. Two of their books, by Eleanor Anstruther and Samuel Fisher, have been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2019.

Salt Submissions – information about Salt’s submissions processes, including when they are open and closed for manuscript submissions, is available online.

Seren Books

About Seren Books: Wales’ leading independent book publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales. With a list spanning poetry, fiction and non-fiction, many of their books are shortlisted for – and win – major literary prizes across the UK and America. You can check out some of their great book titles online via their store – and you can usually nab yourself some nifty discount by registering with their website and newsletter.

Submitting your work to Seren Books: Seren Books are keen to publish new and exciting writing – so don’t be afraid to submit. They have a clear set of submissions guidelines you should read through first, though, so head to their website for information on how to submit your manuscript.

Serpentine Books

Serpentine Books set themselves our as genuinely seeking new, alternative fiction that doesn’t simply “follow trends” (as the majority of the publishing industry seems to try and do). They’re building their first list of books, which will no doubt build the anticipation among readers; while also providing an opportunity for writers with a new story to tell to get published. Check out their submissions guidelines if you’re interested in submitting your manuscript.

Silvertail Books

Publishing fiction and non-fiction, based in the UK. Open for submissions, importantly.

Stewed Rhubarb Press

About Stewed Rhubarb Press: SRP are an independent publisher specialising in spoken-word poetry. Its mission is to treat spoken-word poetry and novellas with the enthusiasm and respect they deserve. They advertise opportunities for submitting unsolicited manuscripts online, via Twitter and through their mailing list.

Swan River Press

Ireland’s only publishing house dedicated to literature of the gothic, fantastic, strange and supernatural. They have a range of beautiful books that are all worth checking out, popping in your shopping baskets and purchasing. Check out their list of titles via their online store.

Tangent Books

Deliberately and resolutely independent, Tangent Books maintains close relationships with the authors, designers and printers they work with to ensure that everyone involved in the production of one of their volumes gets a fair deal, as well as supporting local, independent business. A fine ethos to be celebrated, championed and supported – which you can do so by purchasing one of their wonderful books from their digital shop.

Ugly Duckling Presse

UDP is a nonprofit publisher based in Brooklyn, NYC, focusing on new poetry, translation, lost works, and books by artists. They have a swanky website featuring a host of equally swanky-looking book titles; and, what’s more, they’re open to new ideas and submissions at different points in time (for instance, they’re open to unsolicited submissions of new writing during May 2019).

Unthank Books

Unthank Books is an independent publisher founded in 2010. Historically, the Unthank is the unclaimed land at the edge of town, and that’s where this printing press resides, nurturing distinct and vibrant literature, both in the novel and short form.

Submitting to Unthank Books: To submit, in the first instance, you need to check online or via social media whether they are currently open for unsolicited submissions. If they are, and you have a piece of work no more than 80,000 words long, you should email the first 50 pages and a synopsis and covering letter to ashley.stokes@unthankbooks.com.

Verve Books

About Verve Books: A dynamic digital publisher, inspired by a love of great, original, page-turning fiction led by a team of passionate book lovers.

Verve Books Submissions: these fine folk accept new book submissions from new and established authors. Check out their guidance.

 

And a special shout out to a truly groundbreaking alternative publishing house…

Unbound Books

Innovative and unique in the publishing world, Unbound have a core mission to disrupt the publishing industry with fresh ideas that don’t fit the traditional mould. They combine Crowdfunding with traditional publishing expertise and processes (they have a team of editors, designers, and marketers, as well as a distribution team to ensure the books they publish reach new readers as well as those who back their projects). The end result is a publishing firm that genuinely creates radical and often unique books that readers and writers enjoy and benefit from.

Check out their list of published books via their online store; or go one better and pledge to support a couple of the fantastic projects they’re currently raising funds for. There are some really incredible ones out there, from poetic rhyming dictionaries for battle rappers, to books about Brexit, hills, feminism, deepwater diving and more – including this wonderful illustrated book, ‘Philosophers’ Dogs’, based on the idea that all human philosophers stole their ideas from their dogs.

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‘Who really is a good dog?’; ‘What even are tennis balls?’ ‘How can anyone ever be sure who ate the chocolate cake you left on the table?’ All these questions – and more – answered in ‘Philosophers’ Dogs’, just one of countless fantastic crowdfunding projects currently raising funds through innovative, award-winning publishing company, Unbound.

And, if you have an idea for a book yourself, they’re always keen to hear it. Information about how to submit your idea is available online.