Saturday, 29 March 2014

London and back

This week I passed my Transfer Viva (hooray!) and then I went to London for an interview, a meeting and a very enjoyable dinner (during which I attempted to eat a fish as big as my arm and failed). 

Best bits: meeting some lovely bookish people; a funny recorded message in the toilet on the train that asked passengers not to flush their hopes, dreams or goldfish down the toilet; check-in at my hotel which involved the woman at reception producing two hot chocolate chip cookies from under the desk (that's my kind of magic trick). 

Worst bits: being propositioned by a man on the train who displayed the most spectacular lack of self-awareness I've seen in a long time; feeling small and parochial in London - fumbling with my tube ticket at the barriers; having no sense of geography or any idea about where various places are in relation to each other.
When I got home I discovered a package of American proofs. They are longer and thinner than the British proofs and consequently the novel looks shorter. It's all getting very real now but there's still a part of me that, during interviews or while I'm speaking about the book at meetings, is whispering, 'Can you believe this is actually happening? Can you believe you're actually sitting here?' (the answer is, 'no'). 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Thresholds Feature Writing Competition

There's still time to enter the 2014 Thresholds Feature Writing Competition. It's a great competition, not only is entry free, there are prizes of £500 for first place and 2 x £100 for the runners up, and the shortlisted essays are often published. 

I was shortlisted in 2012 with this piece about Helen Simpson and again in 2013 with this piece about Adam Marek

This year, if I have the time, I'm going to write about Robert Shearman's fiction - I have a few other deadlines to meet first (including swatting up for my PhD Transfer Viva, which I've just discovered is on MONDAY - yikes) so it's all going to be a bit of a last minute rush. 

Robert Shearman's fiction is absolutely wonderful and if I don't finish my essay in time for this year's competition, I'll complete it when I'm a little less busy and then post it here. 

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Creative Writing Plus at MMU

Axis Arts Centre - The Centre for Contemporary Arts at Crewe

On 19th March (tomorrow) I'll be reading from Sweet Home and A Song for Issy Bradley at MMU's Cheshire Campus between 1-2 o'clock.

The event is free and will take place in the Axis Arts Centre.

Monday, 17 March 2014

'Love, Life and Longing' - a review of Sweet Home

It's been almost 18 months since Sweet Home was published, so it was lovely to discover a new review, written by Impress Prize winner Carol Fenlon and posted at Thresholds, home of the international short story forum. 

Here's an excerpt:
"The stories in this collection are permeated by loss. Sometimes this loss comes in the form of an unexpected tragedy, such as the death of a child in ‘Scaling Never’ or ‘Bed Rest’. In other stories, Bray explores the loss of mental faculty from old age, or the loss of identity caused by invasive surgery in ‘Under Covers’. But there is nothing maudlin in this writing. Bray avoids sentimentality with black humour and scalpel-sharp detail to reveal the mechanisms by which humans deal with the horrors life can throw at them."
You can read the whole piece here

A huge thank you to Carol for such a generous review. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Short Stories

This week I have been writing a short story for the first time in *ages*. To get me in the mood, I read some great short stories by Tony Williams, Jackie Kay, Nuala Ni Chonchiur and Gee Williams.

Stories I especially enjoyed were Jackie Kay's 'These are not my clothes,' Gee Williams' 'That Story,' Nuala Ni Chonchiur's 'Queen of Tattoo' and Tony Williams' 'Gareth.'

Product DetailsThis little book arrived in the post today, Nik Perring's illustrated, Beautiful Words: Some Meanings and Some Fictions Too. I'm hoping that at some point in the coming weeks Nik will pop over to the blog so I can ask him lots of nosy questions about it.   

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Win one of the new Issy Bradley proofs & a proof of Dea Brovig's 'The Last Boat Home'.

I'm giving away one of the lovely new proofs of A Song for Issy Bradley and a proof of Dea Brovig's excellent novel The Last Boat Home which will be published on Thursday.

If you'd like to be in the draw, pop over to my Facebook page and press the like button.

All existing 'likers' will automatically be entered.

A name will be drawn out of a hat on Sunday 9th March. I'll dedicate the book and post it anywhere in the world.

**Edited to add: the draw has been won, but you can still 'like' the page if you'd like to be in with a chance of winning future giveaways.**

Monday, 3 March 2014

Interview with Dan Powell

Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared across the internet, on mobile phone apps, and in print, most notably in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published on 15th March 2014 by Salt. 

I spoke to Dan about short stories, the Open University, his forthcoming collection and the excitement of publication.

When did you first think about being a writer?

I've always wanted to be one. At about age eight I remember cutting up my comic books and reassembling the images into my own stories. When asked what I wanted to be by my career's advisor in my final year of school my only answer was 'a writer.' He told me to get a job in a bookshop. While studying for my degree I spent time I should have focused on my course reading voraciously and writing my own small press comics and short stories. This all ground to a halt when I started teaching. It was only once I left full time teaching to take care of my young family that I rediscovered my writing self.

I know you did the Open University's Start Writing Fiction course, what made you decide to do the course and did you find it helpful?

The Open UniversityMy enrolling on the OU Writing courses was meant as a very clear statement, to myself as much as anyone, that I was going to seriously concentrate on this writing thing. I reckoned that the feedback I would receive on the course would be a good indication of whether or not my writing was any good. At the time I was suffering from what Ira Glass calls the Gap, when a beginning writer compares his early drafts to the polished, beautiful books he reads and inevitably finds there is a massive gap between the work itself and the writer's ambition for the work. It was this ‘gap’ as much as the lack of time that stopped me writing for at least five years of my life. Like Ira Glass, I wish someone had told me early on that this was normal, that every one writes crap first drafts and that the only way through it is to do a lot of work.

Over the two courses I received critical feedback from both my fellow students and the tutors, feedback which told me that, while I still had some way to go, there was something in my writing that was worth pursuing. In terms of giving me focus and guidance in those years, the OU courses were invaluable. The fact you can now do the Start Writing Fiction course for free is a fantastic opportunity for anyone out there looking for help getting started.

Do you remember your first publication? 

My first publication was a piece of flash fiction called Love Is…' and it appeared on back in 2009. You can read it here. It was one of the first things I ever subbed and I arrived home from a holiday in the Harz mountains to find that it had been accepted. It's a story I still have great affection for and I'd have loved to include it in Looking Out of Broken Windows. In fact, it was in a very early version of the manuscript but as I thinned the stories I realised it didn't fit the emerging theme of the collection and it had to go. Great to be able to share it here though.

I remember publishing 'Looking Out of Broken Windows' in Paraxis. We loved the story; it's clever, funny and warm. Can you describe your writing process? Where do you start when you begin a story? 

My stories tend to unfold out of either an image, some picture that comes into my head or sometimes a picture that I see and have to respond to, or an idea that spawns after reading some unusual news item or hearing a striking song lyric. A handful have been inspired by something that my children say or do that my imagination latches on to. The central image of Half-mown Lawn literally hit me between the eyes while I was mowing my back lawn. Stories like Soiled and Third Party, Fire & Theft grew out of photographs, the Ultrasound trilogy, The Man who Lived Like a Tree, Peekaboo and What Precise Moment all grew out of experiences or conversations with my children, while the latest story I’ve completed, which I just submitted, grew out of a lyric from a Villagers song.

The story ‘Looking Out of Broken Windows grew out of the image of a young woman, eighteen or nineteen, stood looking out of a window that was broken with a single crack that ran the length of the window, the crack running down the window in front of her, sort of cutting her in half. This image hung around in my head for a while until I finally started writing what turned out to be Amy's story. I slowly realised, as the story unfolded, that all the windows in the house were broken in the same way. Mike Zappa appeared fully formed in all his glory as soon as I decided on his name.

For me writing a short story is like that. I start with a single image or moment and I feel my way through a first draft, discovering the story as I write it. It's only once the first draft is complete that I have an idea of what the story is actually about. Redrafting is usually a case of making each element of the story work as hard as it possibly can to achieve what the initial drafting of the story has told me it needs to achieve. Most if not all of my writing choices are made because they feel right. It is only later, when heading toward the final draft that I can articulate the reason why the story had to be the way that it ends up.

Your collection was shortlisted for the Scott Prize, how did that feel?

I heard on a night when my MA group was set to meet in a crowded chat room for a session on the nuts and bolt of the publishing world. I had just got the kids to bed and fired up my laptop to find my Twitter feed buzzing with folks congratulating me. It took me a moment or two to realise what had happened. Being shortlisted felt like the end of something I had been working toward since I read my first Salt collections of fiction back in 2008, back when I was just embarking on the Open University courses. Suddenly, here was a publisher I really respected saying that they thought my collection was not only good enough to be published, but in with a chance of winning the Scott Prize. And look at the writers who were on that shortlist. It was great company to find myself in.

Was there time between finding out you hadn't won the Scott Prize and finding out that your collection was going to be published? 

There were about four or five days between my being told the result and the offer from Salt. I was obviously disappointed not to win, but hey, I lost to Kirsty Logan. Losing to a writer whose work I admire was a consolation. This was my first experience of being publicly shortlisted for a prize so while if felt a bit raw at the time, it was actually a very handy insight into the realities of prizes. I feel very lucky to have had my work recognised in that way and having Salt offer to publish my collection anyway felt very much like winning. Life is all about the fact that you win some, you lose some. Here I just did both at pretty much the same time.

What's been the most exciting part of the publication process?

It’s all been pretty exciting. Seeing my cover for the first time was just wonderful. Seeing my name on a book alongside that delicious quote from the brilliantly talented Caroline Smailes was a real highlight. I’ve been very lucky to have some great writers agree to read my collection. To have writers of the calibre of Caroline, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Tania Hershman and Nik Perring provide such wonderful cover blurbs was thrilling. I’ve just spent a couple of days at the Oxted Literary Festival, teaching a flash fiction workshop as well as discussing short fiction in a panel alongside Alison MacLeod, Vanessa Gebbie and Tom Vowler. A great first festival experience. Beyond all that I am really looking forward to the book getting into the hands of readers. The idea of people engaging with and hopefully enjoying my stories is exciting.

What are you working on now?

I am currently entering the last leg of my MA in Creative Writing which means that I have to produce a finished novel for assessment by the end of September. I am part way through my second draft at the moment and that will be taking up most of time for the next few months. That said, I already have four or five stories ready for the next collection. This one is a little different from Looking Out of Broken Windows, in that I am consciously writing a set of stories that will hang together. The stories I have so far seem to be saying something about what it it like and what it means to be a man in the 21st Century. Itll be a while before I have amassed enough stories to complete it, but hopefully some of the individual stories will start trickling out via lit journals or prizes soon.

Thanks Dan and all the very best with Looking Out of Broken Windows. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To win just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.

Sunday, 2 March 2014


An x mark within a boxLike most people, I don't like junk mail and/or spam. Whenever I have the opportunity to tick a box to opt out of sales emails, I tick it. I've registered with the telephone preference service (for all the use it is) and I throw unsolicited post straight into my paper recycling bin.

On Friday my 10 year old daughter came home from school with a Slimming World leaflet. Now, I quite like Slimming World. Of all the diets I've tried (there's a sad sentence opener) it's the only one that doesn't leave me feeling starving hungry. But I'm *not* happy about my daughter being used to courier marketing material like this, particularly material about dieting.

My daughter already complains of being fat (she isn't). I work hard to keep my own ambivalent relationship with food under wraps - yes, I've probably failed, but I try. I don't want her to spend her teenage years thinking that life could be wonderful if she only weighed less than 110 pounds. I don't want her to substitute her lunch with chewing gum and feel a sense of pride in the ensuing hollowness. I don't want large chunks of her diary given over to a running commentary on her weight

My daughter is fierce and clever. She knows about the Bechdel test and refuses to watch films that don't pass. When she handed the Slimming World leaflet to me she said, 'Look Mum, there's no men in this, and the women aren't wearing many clothes.' And then she rolled her eyes.

I don't want my children bringing home any advertising that isn't related to their education. Private companies can buy advertising space in the free newspaper or they can pay people to post leaflets through letterboxes. My children will not be vehicles for this kind of marketing. Tomorrow morning I'm going to school and I'm opting out. 

Update: the head teacher agreed that it was inappropriate and said it won't happen again.