Thursday, 30 June 2011

Author Interview: John McCullough & Sophie Mayer

I'm very very happy to welcome poets Sophie and John to my blog. They both have new collections out with Salt and are currently touring together. They're here to talk to you about poetry, LGBT literature, and then the three of us are going to make a poem for you all. Because we're nice like that.  

Make yourselves comfortable!


Welcome, both of you! Take a pew, grab a glass of wine etc etc. So, how did you guys first meet?

SM: We met at a reading at the Sanctuary at Brighton in 2001, organised by Leo Mellor: Leo and I had been at university together, and he and John were doing the same MA at Sussex, while I was doing mine in Canada and I’d come home for the summer. Then we met again nine years later through the weird wonders of Facebook.

JM: It was fantastic when we found out we had books coming out with Salt at the same time with similar themes.  The tour was a wonderfully logical step.

When did you first start writing poetry?

JM: I began in 1995, though my first poems were terrible.  The oldest piece in The Frost Fairs is a tiny, rather sordid poem called ‘Dragons’, from 1999.

SM: My primary school was very keen on creative projects – as long as you followed the rules! I can’t remember when I started writing poetry, but I remember having my first poem published in the school magazine when I was in Infants 1 (age 6), which was about our class butterfly-hatching project and began “I’m an Adonis Blue, happy and gay” [JC: love that!]. Although its queerness wasn’t evident at the time, it was considered controversial for having a non-rhyming final couplet. I was more interested in writing stories at that point, and remember having “writer’s block” for at least a term in Infants 2 after a collaborative illustrated story assignment went south. I didn’t really write poetry outside school assignments until I was a teenager and became obsessed with Sylvia Plath and (the shame!) Jim Morrison. I had a great English teacher from Year 9 onwards who introduced me to amazing, innovative poets and encouraged me to submit my work to magazines. It was the 1990s and the height of zine culture, so I sent poems to lots of amazing riot grrrl and grunge zines. That eclectic, experimental, remake-it-new attitude really starting me writing for readers, rather than for my diary.

Which poets have inspired you?

JM: One of the longer poems in The Frost Fairs is called ‘Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express’ and features the speaker imagining a meeting with said poet.  He certainly helped to broaden my outlook, showed me how to employ a more diverse range of tones.  In fact, a lot of my influences are American or Anglo-American: August Kleinzahler, Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Bishop have been especially important to me.  In terms of UK poets, I’ve been inspired by a good number of poets who emerged in the late eighties and early nineties such as Don Paterson, Jo Shapcott and Sarah Maguire.  I like writers who are able to marry emotional depth with a fresh way of looking.

SM: Broadly, poets who have spoken “slant” (to steal from Emily Dickinson): written outside of established traditions or communities; made their voices heard against and despite social and cultural suppression. As a woman and feminist, there is a slanted genealogy of women poets that I return to frequently, and I’m always excited to discover further female voices emerging from historical research or in translation. The same is true for queer poets. At the moment I’m playing around with poem-fragments from a Spanish anthology of medieval women Arabic writers from al-Andalus. Peter Cole’s anthology of poetry from al-Andalus foregrounds a gay male tradition, often using the trope of David and Jonathan, and I am playing with that in a series I’ve been writing.

My work is very openly intertextual and I feel that it’s crucial to make attributions were possible to demonstrate the cycling of ideas and inspirations: my poems often begin with a named painting or photograph or a film, often interconnected with a conversation with or lines from another writer. In the new collection, there are epigraphs from the American poet Elizabeth Willis, who I took a writing workshop with, and from Australian poet Geraldine Mackenzie, who I heard recite her work at the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry in 2002.

There are also poems in the book that work explicitly with, on, towards, around, into the work of Sylvia Plath, Sappho, Federico Garcia Lorca and Rainer Maria Rilke (the latter two are translations) – who are such dominant figures that it’s hard to call them influences. They are more like givens, gifts, myths. I love translating, entering directly into conversation with another writer across time and language, allowing their formations and inventions to work on and in my language.

How well do you think LGBT literature is represented at the moment? 

SM: Represented where? And to whom? And how?

Within academia, the trends began by feminist writers in the 1960s continue for both women’s and LGBTQ writing: the recovery and/or re-analysis of historical writers and historical understandings of gender and sexuality (for example, the recent critical anthology _Queer Blake_); and the broadening of the curriculum so that period and genre studies include queer, female and authors of colour in a non-tokenised way. Experimental queer writers such as Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy are being re-evaluated and their influence is increasingly apparent on the current generation of writers. There is also, in the US and Canada more than here, attention to diversity _within_ contemporary LGBTQ literary identities: not only with the exciting current wave of trans and intersex writers such as Ivan Coyote and Thea Hillman, but also culturally different ways of doing/being sexualities – the rise and rise of Two-Spirit (Native American queer/trans) writers is really exciting (check out the blog BlackCoffeePoet; and also Salt’s publication of Walking with Ghosts by Qwo-Li Driskill).

Despite the appointment of Carol-Ann Duffy as poet laureate (accompanied by plentiful references to her non-appointment in the previous round, speculatively due to her having a female partner) and the ongoing brilliance of Jackie Kay, there are fewer high-profile LGBTQ poets (high profile being reviewing for broadsheets, headlining festivals, etc), while in literary fiction, there are exciting writers such as Ali Smith and Emma Donoghue who challenge the marketing-friendly and increasingly coercive portrayal of gayness often seen in tokenised gay and lesbian characters on TV.

JM: It’s got a lot better of late, especially with path-breaking figures like Sarah Waters, Ali Smith, Alan Hollinghurst and Emma Donoghue who have attracted mainstream attention.  In terms of UK poetry, there haven’t really been any gay male poets under forty releasing books with the bigger presses in the last ten years which is slightly odd, though I don’t think that’s down to homophobia.  There have been many brilliant female LGBT poets who have helped us all like Duffy, Jackie Kay, Patience Agbabi and Maria Jastrzebska.

Who would you love to perform alongside?

SM: I’m reading alongside Ali Smith on July 5th which fulfils a dream: I absolutely love her work on the page, and her readings are so mischievous and engaging and conversational, I think it’s going to be an absolute blast [JC: so jealous of this!!]. It’s also at the lovely Clerkenwell Tales bookstore in Exmouth Market, so it will be a fun audience in a beautiful space.

Anne Carson would be top of my list for future readings, although I’d also be terrified to read alongside her because her reading style is utterly unique. In her Paris Review interview she describes it, and herself, as “unbearable”. I admire the ferociously individual discipline and diction of her work on the page; her readings are both dry (ironic/scholarly) and unlatched (nakedly affective). I wouldn’t like to read _after_ her but I’d love to read alongside her!

Closer to home (and possibility): I saw Anthony Joseph read at the Brand farewell party and I was blown away by his combination of intensity and verve, the playfulness of his language and the work it’s doing. I thought, wow, I’d love to read alongside him because it would feel like a jam.
I’d also love to visit Melbourne to read alongside my friend Alison Croggon: I think I stole her reading style ten years ago and should really give it back!

JM: Lady Gaga would be fun [JC: Ha!].  More seriously, I haven’t read with Kleinzahler, Shapcott or Maguire so I’ll opt for them.

Tell us about your poetry tour.

SM: Two poets are better than one… John and I felt that the co-incidence of our books being published in the same season by Salt was too good to pass up, and that we could help each other find gigs! We approached a combination of bookstores, local reading series (queer and general), academic reading series, and festivals, and so have built a laconic series of travelling events thanks to the tireless organising of hosts like Maria Jastrzebska and Kit Fryatt. Sadly, my visions of a tour bus with AC, Nintendo Wii, a masseuse and a chef (based on old dreams of being a rock star) have been harder to actualise.

It’s been amazing to feel how we respond to each other as the tour has gone on. Although our styles are quite different, there are lots of odd and wonderful tangential connections between our work: lips, Julie Christie and Captain Haddock spring to mind. Come and see us read to learn more...

JM: Yes I was surprised and mightily chuffed to find the number of points of contact which makes the evening feel very much like a dialogue, something which we’ve enhanced with each event.  I like to think that as a pair we deal with alternative desires from both a female and a male viewpoint.  We’ve been touring since the beginning of May, reading at various bars, theatres, universities and bookshops.  We’re always looking for other places to visit if anyone fancies an evening of queer poetry.

Both of your collections are published by Salt – how do you think Salt are fighting poetry’s corner?

JM: Salt are doing very well in the current climate, despite losing Arts Council funding like many poetry organizations.  What I love about Salt is they are more pluralist than most publishers; there’s a genuinely wide array of writers, both experimental and mainstream, together with a big online presence; like me, Chris Hamilton-Emery is often on Twitter, Facebook and poetry forums.  There’s a real enthusiasm for new ways of publishing too, with Kindle editions for most of their releases.

SM: Just by being a small press with a big list, Salt are fighting for poetry as diverse, contemporary and resistant. The range of voices – across styles and generations – published by Salt is enhanced by the press’ efforts to bring its writers together in the Salt Cellars and reading series.
I know John is keen on e-publishing as a solution to poetry’s woes, but I’m less sure… I’m a firm believer in bookstores like the wonderful Clerkenwell Tales, and the book as an object that can be held in the hand and passed around! I think that Salt are working out a keen compromise across the challenges of publishing and distribution as they are affected by digital media: Chris is flexible and proactive.

JM: I love books as objects too!  I like the physical relationship you can have with an individual book and don’t own a Kindle myself.  I would second Sophie on independent bookshops – in Brighton-and-Hove you can only buy The Frost Fairs in City Books on Western Road which is one of my favourites. [JC: Hurray for Indies!]

Pitch your books for us:

JM: The Frost Fairs is a collection of love poems that shifts between the present day and various periods in history, with a particular focus on the nineteenth century.  A range of gay, straight, transgender and intersex voices are conjured in pieces that I hope are moving and tender.  The book explores transatlantic relationships but also probes other urban and scientific themes.  It’s a mixture of free verse and formal poetry – there are lots of sonnets which come at subjects from surprising angles.  Alongside the more poignant work there are also playful, humorous poems that are designed to leave the reader feeling uplifted.

SM: Remember the Buffy episode where Buffy reads Emily Dickinson? That’s the DNA of The Private Parts of Girls: half facing down your demons and half really good kissing.

Sophie, which poem is your favourite from ‘The Frost Fairs’ – and John, what’s your favourite from ‘The Private Parts of Girls’?

SM: One of the things I love about The Frost Fairs is that it’s such a coherent collection with resonances that reach across the book. On each reading, I’m struck again by the way multiple discourses interweave: queer history, critical theory, and natural science forging a new language of observation and desire. For that reason, even though ‘Foucault’s Spoons’ charms me every time John reads it, I’m going to pick ‘The Floating World,’ which for me is the fulcrum of the book: looking ahead to ‘The Cure’ and ‘Tropospheric’ (‘Cloud sex’!) and building on ‘Sneakers’ and ‘Known Light’. In all of them, the precision of scientific terminology and natural observation are brought together to speak of transatlantic love, love across the distance enforced by lyric’s language of compulsory heterosexuality: the distance rewritten into intimacy by the refiguration of the ocean as a connection rather than separation, even as the phone hangs ‘ringing, ringing’ over a stanza break.
‘The Floating World’ is stunning: there’s a riff on WC Williams (the box / of fetid plums left outside your flat / all week) that’s not just a nod to the loveliest love poem: the plums are sea-gifts full of time (the poem, one of the longer ones in the collection, takes its time), like the ‘fossils / of iguanodon’ and ‘whelks’ eggs’: decay, death, birth, this is a poem in love with the precarious body, with recovering the drowned.

JM: I think my answer changes depending on the day I’m asked.  Touring with Sophie, I get to appreciate different poems more when I hear them read aloud. ‘FIRE / white warrior’ and ‘On Being Dismissed as ‘Plathlike’’ are fantastic on the page yet are also transformed by the urgent, sassy way Sophie reads.  Her book gets off to a magnificent start with ‘Trial Proof for The Blue Feet (Kiki Smith)’ too which brims with startling imagery and ingenious line breaks.  One of the most impressive things about the book is how distinctive it is on the page, how it makes numerous fabulous switches between stanza shapes and different styles of punctuation to make particular points.  The boldly imaginative ‘Horticulture’ is a lovely example of Sophie’s gift for urgent, intimate poems with a killer last line and shows well how diverse her talent is with its complex use of half-rhyme.  Others not to miss: ‘Sappho’s Cookbook’, ‘Belle est la bete’, ‘L’espirit d’escalier’ and ‘WATER / Blue Warrior’.

On our book forum we have a ‘Book Tree’ where members choose their favourite novel/poetry collection/play and post it round to each other in a circle. If you were each to choose a book to send round the Book Tree, what would you pick and why?

SM: I work in a bookstore so I would probably encourage the tree people to buy books. So if I were sending something around, it would probably be something rare or out-of-print. I must have “lent out” (as in: and never had returned) half-a-dozen copies of Margaret Elphinstone’s The Incomer, a brilliant Women’s Press speculative fiction novel that seems highly relevant to how we survive the current eco-crisis. I was part of a rather lackadaisical email group last year where we read and talked about Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (still in print, but about anarchism, so beg/borrow/steal). Science fiction is ideas-driven, and the ideas in both of those books  – about environmental politics, economics and storytelling – are urgent and original, so to me a science fiction novel would be the perfect book to share.
I would also love to share Anne Carson’s Nox, which was published in a limited edition. In a box. It’s an object of wonder and deep satisfaction but it’s so gorgeous I would be a bit worried about whether I would ever get it back! [JC: We have had the Royal Mail eat a couple of our books, it's true...]

JM: Again, I’d find it hard to choose just one.  Off the top of my head, the novel I’ve re-read the most is Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.  It examines England and Australia in the nineteenth century from a really quirky, panoramic perspective, and it’s beautifully structured through extremely short chapters so you keep seeing the book’s universe through different characters’ eyes.

What are you both working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?

SM: I’m working on extending my use of the series poem across a number of ideas: the poems about David mentioned above, which are also a riff on Wyatt’s Penitential Psalms and the lyric tradition; a very long sequence of narrative poems about Medusa, some of which I’ve just put together in a chapbook, Incarnadine; a series called Kiss-Off which I’m experimenting with publishing on Facebook (oh, the instant, addictive hit of Likes).
Compiling and editing the manuscript slowed down the generation of new work, so my aim for the near future is to see if serials can keep me writing, rather than the concept of the ‘poem’ leaving me stymied by the need to generate a ‘new’ idea and form for each piece. I’m interested in the Modernist use of the serial in visual arts, and its poetic echo in Gertrude Stein’s work.

JM: I’m working on individual poems at the moment rather than a longer project.  The Frost Fairs gathers together work from eleven years of writing and it’s taken a long time to assemble a collection that works as a whole thing rather than a more random assortment of poems.  I think it’ll take me a fair while to put together another.

Finally, I’ve never tried this before, but let’s give it a go. Let’s see if we can write a poem between the three of us. 

[Jen is in black, Sophie is in red, John is in blue]


It happened the day Isabel’s wings broke. Tore on
the sky: those ragged clouds lightninged
a tree on her way home. Her bloody feet an envelope
pushing on my doormat. I let her in. Gave her a beer.
(nothing to see here.
her fingers
nothing to hear.
curling hair around her ear)
Let her peel herself across my living room carpet. 
The cigarette burns my cat used
to fall in. The prowl.

She edged onto the sofa – a knot of feathers, now
not featherfallen but down
self-reproach and faulty angles.  Do you want me
to phone the ministry? I said.  She met my gaze
gauzed and vaselined and haloed
(that’s how they do it
in the movies)
blue angel
then took a swig.  Clutched my wrist and pulled mmmmmmme o! close.

The Private Parts of Girls & The Frost Fairs are available from Salt.


You can view the most recent poems of mine in the new issue of Agenda.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops #6

[Due to the forthcoming book release of 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops', I've removed some of the 'Weird Things...' quotes from this blog. 

You can still find some here and here, and you can find all the information on the book over here]. 

Thank you. xx

Thursday, 23 June 2011

six poems up at Agenda

Hola! I'm sending this message from Espana. I'm currently in Calaceite which looks mostly like thi

I'm getting lots and lots of writing done: hurray for uninterrupted productivity! [Though obviously I also miss you all].

Moving away [just for a second] from 'Weird Things' I'm here to give you a heads up for my 'FO' SERIOUS' writing: six of my poems are up on the new issue of Agenda [five on broadsheet 16, and one on Broadsheet 15]. There's a link to both of those here: and you can download the broadsheets directly by clicking here and here.

Hope you like them. Behave until I return next week. Adios xxxx

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Author Visit: Isabel Ashdown

Today is the release of Isabel Ashdown's second novel 'Hurry Up and Wait', so she's stopped by for a chat. Make yourselves a cup of tea. 

Isabel Ashdown was born in London in 1970 and grew up in East Wittering, a seaside village on the south coast of England. She now lives in West Sussex with her family.

After fifteen years working in marketing, Isabel gave up her career to complete an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, and in 2008 an early extract of her debut novel Glasshopper won the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition. Glasshopper was published to much critical acclaim, and was twice named as one of the best books of 2009 by the London Evening Standard and theObserver Review

Isabel! Welcome. Throw your coat on the sofa and sit yourself down. Tea/coffee/biscuits?

OK, one large iced coffee and two jammy dodgers at hand …

So. What made you give up your career to complete an MA in Creative Writing [a very bold move, if I do say so, and one that has obviously paid off – hurrah!]

Some might say it was an impetuous decision.  I know my boss at the time certainly thought it was!  It was 2003; I was 34, married with two young children, and holding down a tough job as a senior manager for The Body Shop.  Having left school at 15 with very few qualifications, I’d worked my way up through the business and was enjoying all the trappings of that success – but my life felt hollow.  I didn’t see enough of my family or friends, I was constantly exhausted, and my creative life was non-existent.  Then one weekend I returned from an overseas business trip, and as I walked on the beach, watching my family running ahead in the sand dunes, I knew things had to change.  That summer I gave up my career and started to write.

How long have you been writing?

When I began to write in earnest, seven years ago, it was almost two decades since I’d last written for pleasure as an angry teenager!  It was the most liberating and natural feeling, and I was so grateful to be writing again.

Can you pitch ‘Glasshopper’ and ‘Hurry Up and Wait’ to us?

London Evening Standard Best Books of 2009: “A disturbing, thought-provoking tale of family dysfunction, spanning the second half of the 20th century, that guarantees laughter at the uncomfortable familiarity of it all.”
Portsmouth, 1984. Thirteen-year-old Jake’s world is unravelling as his father and older brother leave home, and his mother, Mary, plunges into alcoholic freefall. 
Despite his turbulent home life, Jake is an irrepressible teenager and his troubled mother is not the only thing on his mind: there’s the hi-fi he’s saving up for, his growing passion for Greek mythology (and his pretty classics teacher), and the anticipation of brief visits to see his dad. When his parents reconcile, life finally seems to be looking up. Their first family holiday, announced over scampi and chips in the Royal Oak, promises to be the icing on the cake – until long-unspoken family secrets begin to surface.

Hurry Up and Wait:
Daily Mail: “With strong characters, a cleverly constructed story and masses of period detail, this vivid evocation of life in 1985 is a fine second book from a writer who first won The Mail On Sunday novel competition.”

It’s more than twenty years since Sarah Ribbons last set foot inside her old high school, a crumbling Victorian-built comprehensive on the south coast of England. Now, as she prepares for her school reunion, 39-year-old Sarah has to face up to the truth of what really happened back in the summer of 1986. 
It’s 1985, and as she embarks on her fifth and final year at Selton High School for Girls Sarah Ribbons’ main focus is on her erratic friendships with Tina and Kate; her closest allies one moment, her fiercest opponents the next. When her father is unexpectedly taken ill, Sarah is sent to stay with Kate’s family in nearby Amber Chalks. Kate’s youthful parents welcome her into the comfort of their liberal family home, where the girls can eat off trays and watch TV in Kate’s bedroom. They’ve never been closer – until a few days into her stay, events take a sinister turn, and Sarah knows that nothing will ever be the same again.

Do you have a favourite teaser quote from your new novel ‘Hurry Up and Wait’?

He keeps his hands on her waist, and gives her a squeeze.  “You’re a slim little thing, aren’t you?” he says, then he turns and walks back across the garden to fetch another log.  Sarah’s glad the garden is in darkness, to disguise her blushes.  She can still feel the imprint of his large hands around her ribs.

For your first novel, ‘Glasshopper’ what’s your ‘writing to publication’ story?

Alongside work and study, I had been working on my debut novel for over four years, when in 2008 I received the exciting news that an extract had won the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition.  I was overjoyed, and it spurred me on to finish the book by the end of that year. 

Over the Christmas break I polished and edited, read and reread my novel, before sending it out in search of an agent.  Of the seven I approached, three came back wanting to see more and I signed up with Adrian Weston, an independent agent based in Brighton.  Soon afterwards, Myriad Editions made me an offer for the book, and it was published in September 2009.  I always enjoy telling this story, as there are so many ‘you’ll never get published’ conversations going on out there – it can, and does, happen, so keep the faith!  My main piece of advice to aspiring authors is this: get your work in print before you approach agents and publishers – enter competitions, send off to literary magazines.  Writers with a track record stand a far better chance of avoiding the slush pile.

Which book have you enjoyed writing the most?

They were so different to write.  Glasshopper was written over a longer period.  There was the excitement of writing my first book, but at the same time the uncertainty of publication.  With Hurry Up and Wait, I was writing to a publisher’s deadline, but this time I had the pleasure of writing outside of the constraints of work and study.  I loved writing them both.

Which of your characters do you feel most connected with? [I know, I know, it’s like asking you to pick your favourite child; I’m mean]

What a horrible question!  It’s like Sophie’s Choice …  Sorry to sit on the fence, but I have to say, all of them, in different ways.  I adore Glasshopper’s Jake in a maternal way, and I feel for and understand Mary.  But in Hurry Up and Wait I relate to Sarah enormously, as she’s a girl at school in my era (1980s), so of course much of her story draws on my own experience.

What time of day/what conditions are the best for getting your writing done?

It varies, usually depending on family/work commitments.  I write at my desk, on the beach, in my campervan/on public transport.  I prefer to write early in the day, so I tend to do more planning/editing as the day draws on.  I can work in noisy places, so long as no-one is talking to me!

How do you plan?

When I start writing, I let the narrative flow whilst I get to understand my characters and their world.  But before too long, I have to stop and plan a little, to give me direction and the story purpose.  Of course, the plan often changes, but it’s good to have a skeleton of an idea, even if it alters shape halfway through!

What do you consider to be your biggest achievement to date?

Getting into print!  To be a published novelist is a dream shared by many, and I’m so happy to be a working writer with a couple of books under my belt.

On our book forum we’ve got The Book Tree, which is where members choose their favourite books and post them round to each other in a circle, writing comments in each book as they go. So, when their books is returned to them, it’s filled with feedback from everyone else. If you were to choose a book for our book tree, what would you pick?

I would choose The Devil’s Music by Jane Rusbridge.  It’s a wonderfully assured debut; a compelling story, authentic characters and a beautiful narrative.

Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?

I’m so excited about my next novel!  This one is set in the mid 1970s, on the Isle of Wight and it tells the story of 18-year-old Luke Wolff and his best friend Simon, as they share their last summer together on the island.  I’m currently spending a lot of time over on the Isle of Wight in my campervan, for research and inspiration, and the story’s really starting to take shape …

Click here to buy Glasshopper 
Click here to buy Hurry Up and Wait

weird things customers say in bookshops #5

[Due to the forthcoming book release of 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops', I've removed some of the 'Weird Things...' quotes from this blog. 

You can still find some here and here, and you can find all the information on the book over here]. 

Thank you. xx

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Weird Things Customers Say in... oh, wait.

Weird Things Customers Say #5 is brewing like a fine red wine that then chokes you and makes you spit it back out again. [You can find 'Weird Things..' 1-4, here]

In the mean time, I thought you all might enjoy these gems. Sadly we, at Ripping Yarns, do not stock them. Which is a shame, I suppose.

& for Twilight fans too, no doubt. Though I suppose Edward doesn't sleep; he just glitters. Meyer missed out on an opporunity there. Twilight branded bed!coffins? A money maker, if ever there was one.

... Quite. 

If only I'd had that one when I was a teenager. An amazing self-confidence booster. 

I'm keeping this one here for the sperm guy...

Then there's:

Economical! These are tough times we live in, after all.

again, thrifty! I'm sure our dinner party guests would be thrilled....

........I mean... I don't even... WHAT?!

Hmmm. Must ask my brother what he got up to on his week away with Scouts last month...

and my personal favourite...

So very true.

To make up for the lack of 'Weird Things Customers Say' in this blog post. Have some of this.


Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and try and make a bowler hat out of my pet tortoise....

Thursday, 9 June 2011

weird things customers say in bookshops #4

[Due to the forthcoming book release of 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops', I've removed some of the 'Weird Things...' quotes from this blog. 

You can still find some here and here, and you can find all the information on the book over here]. 

Thank you. xx

Sunday, 5 June 2011

weird things customers say in bookshops #3

[Due to the forthcoming book release of 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops', I've removed some of the 'Weird Things...' quotes from this blog. 

You can still find some here and here, and you can find all the information on the book over here]. 

Thank you. xx

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

weird things customers say in bookshops #2

[Due to the forthcoming book release of 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops', I've removed some of the 'Weird Things...' quotes from this blog. 

You can still find some here and here, and you can find all the information on the book over here]. 

Thank you. xx

Author Visit: Tania Hershman

Yey, look who's here [magically, even though she's in Scotland, without internet - she's very clever, that Tania Hershman].


Born in London in 1970, Tania moved to Jerusalem, in 1994, and after 15 years in Israel, she and her partner, and their two cats, moved to Bristol in August 2009. After making a living for 13 years as a science journalist, writing for publications such as WIRED, NewScientist, the MIT Technology Review and Business 2.0, she gave it all up to write fiction.

Her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is now available from Salt and was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. She is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University and has received a grant from Arts Council England to write a collection of biology-inspired short stories inspired both by her time at the university and a 100-year-old biology book. Her short and very short stories, plays and film scripts, have won or been shortlisted for various prizes, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, been published in print and online, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and performed.


Hi Tania welcome to my blog. Please take a pew [and a cake]! I really enjoyed reading your collection 'The White Road'. I think Evie was my favourite character, followed by Victor. How would you sum up your collection for those who haven't yet read it?

Gosh, a hard question to start! Well, 27 short and very very short stories, some less than a page long, and many which are inspired by articles from New Scientist magazine.

And which is your favourite story from it?

Ah now, that's like asking someone to pick one of her children! I can't do that, but I will say that I love each new story as I write it, it is my favourite at that point. I wrote many of these stories six or seven years ago so they have been supplanted by others since, which I think is probably the way it should be. But there are quite a few characters in the stories in my book that I still think about very fondly every now and then: Evie, Henry, Mags, Howie and Victor...

How long did your collection take to write?

I wrote all the “long” New-Scientist-inspired stories as my MA final manuscript in 2003-4, and all the flash stories were written between 2005 and the beginning of 2007, when I sent the collection to Salt.

The idea of 'home' was a theme in a couple of your stories, especially one about a character who had spent a lot of time in Israel. You've spent many years in Israel yourself. Where do you think of when you think of 'home'?

Another very interesting question. That's incredibly hard to answer right now. I lived in Israel for 15 years, longer than any other place in my adult life, but I also moved house 8 times in that time. I realised recently, when we moved for the second time here in Bristol, to a house we now own, that I have not lived anywhere for more than 4 years since I left home at 18, and I'm now 40. I really don't want to move again for a long, long time, I want to sink into this house, for this to become Home. But it's only been 4 months so it isn't yet. And I love Bristol but still feel a bit like an alien in England as a whole – 15 years is a long time to be away, my spoken English isn't as fluent as it was. But Jerusalem stopped feeling like home to me too. So perhaps right now home is more about who than where; it's where my partner and our cats are.

What attracts you to short story writing, and flash fiction?

Ah, an easier question! I am in love with short stories. Passionate about them. I believe that the perfect short story is possible, because I have read many of them. I get a kick from a great short story that is unlike any other reading experience, and I read everything, novels, poetry, non-fiction. But the short story discombobulates me, shakes me, moves me, in only a few pages or less, and it is these short stories I find I carry around with me, like whispering voices, for months, even years. I don't forget a short story I have loved. And this is why I wanted to write them, why I strive to somehow get my stories to do for a reader what other stories have done for me. Flash fiction is a joy for me, because the process is so different, these stories tend to come out in one sitting, in a rush, and that is very exhilerating. Flash fiction is the short story distilled to its heady, intense essence. You understand just how very little a writer really needs to say when you read a fantastic piece of flash fiction.

What is the best short story collection you've read recently, and who are your favourite short story writers?

I read a lot of collections, most of them for review for The Short Review, an online journal I founded which reviews short story collections. I get offered so many and so I often pick books I would never have chosen, and this way have discovered many new favourite authors. A recent favourite is A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud, a major French writer only now being translated (excellently) into English for the first time. His writing is unlike anything I've come across, an old-fashioned tone combined with something so surreal and magical and modern. I loved it. Other favourites include the Scottish trio, Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway, American writers Lydia Davis, Peter Orner, Roy Kesey and Stefanie Freele, and then there are my fellow Salt authors Vanessa Gebbie, Carys Davies, David Gaffney, Elizabeth Baines, Susannah Rickards, Tom Vowler...the list goes on. Who says no-one's publishing short story collections?

Tell us about how you merge science with fiction.

Fiction was my first love but science was my second. I studied Maths and Physics at university. I always looked for a way to combine the two, and for a long time I worked as a science journalist, which was fun but didn't satisfy me creatively. The first time I realised how to let my fiction be inspired by science was at an Arvon Foundation course on Writing and Science in 2002. That was a life-changing course for many reasons, not least of all because that's where I met my partner, James. I had been concerned that getting science into fiction (not thinking about science fiction, which was not something I was reading at that time) would require the shoehorning of facts into a story, but the course tutors showed us how it could be subtle done, with a light touch. And that opened the floodgates. The stories in my book that take inspiration from science articles aren't really about what the articles contain, they take that “fact” as a starting point and then my imagination takes off. Writers and artists take inspiration from so many sources and science is a very very rich source, if you ask me! I am currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University and have spent a year being “embedded” in a biochemistry lab, learning what it means to do science on a daily basis. This was a whole new world for me, I learned so much, and am now working on a new short story collection inspired by this experience.

I love your Twitter idea of a television programme about short fiction. If you could head such a show, how would you do it?

Ha! Well, my idea never got as far as me dreaming about hosting it! I guess the main thing would be that it would dispel the myth that short stories are somehow “worthy”, that they are all heavy and literary, and so I would invite a wide spectrum of guests representing all the short story can be, from lit fic to chick lit, from gothic paranormal romance to feminist comic science fiction. And we'd talk about short stories not from a point of “why should we read them” but from the starting point of “we just love them so much”. No need to defend the short story, it ain't no victim, no “poor relation”.

You've won a very impressive number of literary prizes. What is your greatest writing achievement?

Wow, once more with the hard questions. Winning the prizes is an amazing boost, really fantastic, as was having a collection published, a dream come true. And every single publication is something I treasure, I never take it for granted. But I think the achievement is to keep on writing. There's always the worry that this is it, that the last story was, well, the last good one. And I have to say that I'm plagued by procrastination; writing is the one thing I want to do all the time and what I spend far too much time avoiding doing. So the act of writing is the greatest achievement, the thing that brings me the most pleasure.

I have to admit to being very jealous of your writing shed. I for one would love a writing tree house [ahh]. Does having a setting that is writing specific help you concentrate? How do you battle the nemesis of procrastination?

And this brings me on to the shed! I have never had a proper writing room, one with a door I could close. And after I while I realised that this was crazy – James and I both work from home and I needed my own space, somewhere I could pretend I was the only person for miles. Well, our place in Israel was very open plan, and the garden was small – and there's no shed culture over there, so it would have been difficult. In our new house, there was already a shed! We just had a wonderful builder insulate it so that I could heat it properly, and build me bookshelves and put up a desk. And I've just “moved in”, put all my short story collections on the shelves, hung my Einstein “Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge” poster. It's a blissful little space, I can shut the door and be alone with my characters.

But talking about procrastination, the first time I went in there I discovered to my horror that the wifi stretched all the way down the long garden to the shed. I didn't want it – but didn't have enough willpower to just click the Off button on the computer. I know what my demons are: email, Twitter, and online Scrabble (which I am playing as I write this!). And I wanted one place where these weren't an option. My Twitter friends suggested covering the shed in alumnium foil... but I came up with a better plan: I moved the router further inside the house. Now the wifi doesn't reach. And now the shed is perfect. I spent 2.5 hours there last week working on one story. Without interruption. I don't know when I last did that. So: no willpower needed, I just made it physically impossible. I don't think anything else is procrastination, a lot of my stories start life in my head, and it's the head space I need to leave free for them to foment, to mature until they are ready to be written down, because if written down to early, I am liable to ruin them.

On our Book Forum we have The Book Tree where members choose their favourite book and post it round to all other members in a circle, writing in each book as they read it. At the end, all members get their books back filled with comments written by everyone else. If you were to take part in our Book Tree, what book would you choose and why?

This sounds like such a lovely idea! Although I have to say that writing in a book is not something I normally do or condone But if it is out of love... Hmm, which book? This is an almost impossible task for a voracious reader. Ok, one of my favourite collections of the past few years is All Over, Roy Kesey's debut collection, the first book published by the excellent Dzanc, a non-profit publisher in the US. These stories were a great inspiration to me, something I hadn't encountered before, very surreal and very minimalist, funny and moving. Some of the pieces were so surreal that I had no idea what they were about – and I felt that this gave me permission, in a certain way, to let go of realism, let go of the need to explain, to let the reader do the work. I think your Book Tree members would find an enormous amount to say about every story!

Finally, are you able to tell us what you're working on at the moment?

Of course! Last summer I was very fortunate to be awarded an Arts Council grant to work on a new collection of short stories, inspired both by the biochemistry lab I am writer-in-residence in and by an amazing 1917 biology textbook called On Growth and Form which is a work of scientific literature, a beautiful book. So my challenge is to be inspired in two ways which are new to me: by the real life of the lab and by a historical text. It's really an experiment I have just finished my time spent in the lab and was very lucky again to win a fellowship to the Hawthornden Castle writing retreat in Scotland for a month. This is when I hope most of the writing will happen,I am looking forward to seeing what comes out when I am there, when the lab is not a real presence but enters that dreamlike space where fiction is created. I have given myself until the end of the year to have enough stories for a new book.

I also seem to be working on something longer and which is a complete departure for me, something in which I am following 6 characters, which I've never done before; it is already over 6000 words long and it makes me laugh as I write. I won't say more about that, it may come to nothing at all, but it's really fun!


What do a library, an Antarctic station and a dream casino where gamblers can wager their shoes have in common? They're among the multiple venues where Tania Hershman sets the extraordinary tales of The White Road. But though Ms. Hershman is willing to go anywhere in her imagination, her stories are anchored by a poignant awareness of sorrow beneath the surface. The White Road is a unique combination of narrative extravagance and human intimacy. - Melvin Jules Bukiet, author of ‘Strange Fire and A Faker's Dozen’

The White Road and Other Stories is available here.

The Science Faculty blog:
Tania's blog: