Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Insignificant Gestures ~ Jo Cannon

The best thing about helping with the Edge Hill Prize was discovering brilliant writers, many of whom were published by small, independent publishers with little or no budget for publicity. One of my favourite longlisted collections was Jo Cannon's 'Insignificant Gestures.' I reviewed it in 2011 here, but I recently reread the collection and have written a longer review:

Jo Cannon is a GP in an inner city practice and her medical expertise is brought to bear in many of the stories in this entertaining and readable collection. Her writing is moving but decidedly unsentimental. The collection begins quietly with the title story 'Insignificant Gestures.' The doctor narrator has returned from Malawi and retrained as a psychiatrist so that he will never have to 'smell blood again, or the sweet nail varnish odour of starvation.' His experiences in Malawi have left him dependent on medication that makes his fingers tremble, but he confesses that he would 'take anything not to wake a three in the morning with my thoughts crawling round and round like caterpillars along the rim of a glass, endlessly circling the same regrets.' Some of those regrets are explored as the doctor remembers a fatal misdiagnosis which left him unable to sleep and feeling 'all edge and scalded surface.' In the closing scene the doctor's memories tumble out, 'like opening an overhead locker.' As he talks about Malawi to a nurse he watches her chewing on her thumb and notes, 'Beginnings start like this, with insignificant gestures.' It's a carefully observed, restrained story that explores degrees of helplessness and sets the tone for the rest of the collection: watch out for the details in these stories, observe the minutiae, the seemingly insignificant gestures, this opening story seems to say.

Medics appear in many of the stories. A doctor’s tact and kindness lead to a moment of acceptance in the sad and funny ‘New Look.’ In ‘Rictus’ a bereaved woman is assailed by memories of medical interactions after her dog dies, while a nurse’s recommendation of speed dating in ‘The Alphabet Diet’ allows Mick to finally acknowledge, ‘how hard it is to tell the truth, to open drawers and show the broken things inside.’

One measure of a successful collection is the memorability of the stories; how many of them stick with the reader and niggle long after the book's pages are closed? 'Insignificant Gestures' is packed with stories that resonate. ‘Fairy Story’ examines a mother’s feelings of culpability when her daughter is hospitalised for anorexia, but it’s not a story without hope. ‘There’s always a way back,’ she tells her daughter. ‘The good and courageous will prevail. And if you are lost, sooner or later someone you love will come and find you.’ 'Daddy's Girl', a story in which a young man boards the tube carrying a rucksack, is an intricate exploration of secret thoughts and isolation. Jo Cannon achieves a lot in very few words and the story ends with a revelation of what is to come: ‘A little girl won’t go to school. Police cars and TV crews will come in the night. Her friend’s fear will be the first crack. Aftershocks from the explosion will injure all the days of her life.’ In 'Mercy is Sick Today' a girl embraces her prodigal sister: 'Flicking at flies, shooing curious children, I guard her. At midday I light the fire for nsima. Not everyone in the village will eat today.' 

Other particularly memorable stories include the sinister 'Shutters' in which the narrator says to his wife, 'Now you're ill it's better. There's only me.' 'A Good Match' is an intricate examination of cultural differences in an arranged marriage, while Dr Campbell is visited by a ghost from her past in 'The Spaces Between' and in 'Staying Power' a woman takes a stand: 'I tear him out like wrapping paper: pinch the edges and pull. So easy I could have done it any time.'

Zoe King maintains that to read Jo Cannon is to 'enter the world of the displaced, the dispossessed, and to emerge with a new understanding,' and Vanessa Gebbie writes that 'Insignificant Gestures' is full of stories that 'sing long after the reader has put down the work.' I felt sad when I reached the end of this collection because I wanted to keep reading. If Jo Cannon produces another collection it will go straight on my wishlist.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Word Theatre

PhotoHere is a picture of actor Jane Zingale of WordTheatre performing one of my stories, 'My Burglar' at the Latitude Festival.

I really, really wanted to go, but it just wasn't possible in the end. One of the children has been in hospital and there has been so much to do.

Unfortunately, there was a technical problem with the recording of the event, so I won't be able to hear the performance, but I've heard from a friend who was there that it was very good. It must be really exciting to listen to an actor read your words and, if such a thing ever happens again, I will (temporarily) run away from home to watch the performance.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ether Interview

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Yesterday Ether Books interviewed me. They asked me how I felt about winning the Best Ether Writer Award, where I get my ideas from and which writers I admire. The interview can be read at the Ether Blog.


Monday, 9 July 2012

The Scott Prize and The Crashaw Prize

I couldn't resist this image of Scott and Crashaw Prize winners' books (or faces, in the case of Rob Roensch and me) from Salt Publishing's blog. Look at all of those gorgeous covers.

Submissions are now open for both prizes. Find out more information here or have a look at the images below.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The 2012 Edge Hill Prize ceremony

Last night Sarah Hall won the 2012 Edge Hill prize and the Readers' Prize with her collection The Beautiful Indifference.

We had a lovely ceremony at the Free Word Centre which turned out to be a fantastic venue, as can be seen in the picture below.

Judges Suzi Feay and Graham Mort spoke about each of the collections and described the interesting and absorbing task of judging. I was lucky enough to sit in on the judges' meeting and it was fascinating to listen to them discuss the collections.

Edge Hill third year student Martin Palmer presented Sarah Hall with the Readers' Prize. Here he is talking about Hall's incredible use of language.

Edge Hill MA student Dawn Wild won the MA prize for the best short story. Here she is with judge, Professor Rhiannon Evans.

Winner of the 2012 Edge Hill Prize and Readers' Prize, Sarah Hall. Pictured with MA prize winner Dawn Wilde and judges Graham Mort, Rhiannon Evans and Suzi Feay.

Shortlisted authors Tessa Hadley and A.J Ashworth chat before the announcement of the winner. Also pictured are Jen Hamilton Emery from Salt publishing and Salt author Elizabeth Baines.

After the ceremony, we squeezed in to the Betsey Trotwood and chatted until the early hours. My lovely publisher Jen Hamilton Emery gave me a Salt bag and a copy of 'Greetings From Below' by David Philip Mullins - just what I needed for the train journey home.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in London, the Ether Writer Awards were taking place and I was really pleased (and frankly, very surprised) to hear that I won the award for the Best Ether Writer (Voted for by the Ether Community). I've never had an award before. I will try to keep it fingerprint free and dusted! It looks very breakable, so I'm being especially nice to my postman.

Working on the Edge Hill Prize has been a really enjoyable and interesting experience. I won't be working on the prize at all next year. I need to concentrate on writing my novel. But I will really miss the excitement of the arrival of the books in January, the race to read and review them in February and March, the subsequent shortlisting process and the ceremony itself. I have met lots of brilliant writers and read loads of gorgeous short story collections - I feel really lucky to have been a part of the prize.

Photographs of the Edge Hill Prize Ceremony courtesy of  Edge Hill.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012