Thursday, 31 March 2011

Newlook NWR - new opportunities for writers

Just had the proofs back from designer Rebecca from Mo Publications. Have gone for a new image to launch a new editorial approach. It looks really exciting and fresh, clearly flagging up new features as well as the revamped author and opinion slots. The latter is now called Pulp Fiction and has had its remit expanded to include what our writers have to say about the world at large, including mass- and new media, film, TV, music, genre titles - anything goes, as long as it's well expressed. The Rich Text column, meanwhile, looks at the business end of the books world. Another major new slot for new and existing potential contributors to consider is for a piece - story or nonfiction - commissioned in response to a classic of Welsh writing in English. This might be a new edition from a Library of Wales or Honno classic, for example, or a much-loved, out-of-print & bashed about copy you'd like to re-read and interpret creatively, with a contemporary twist. The piece will be illustrated by the marvellous young Jamie Hamley, who also provides the magazine's new column headers. Maria Donovan's story 'Slaughterhouse Field', a Holland-set modern gypsy tale, kicks off this series, and is a response to the ill-matched romance in Margiad Evans' novel Turf or Stone.

Highlights of the May issue now still at that delicate proof stage are Kirsti Bohata on rural gothic in Tristan Hughes’ novels (including his forthcoming Eye Lake); Dai George on the perils of interpreting Gwyn Thomas; Patrick McGuinness on portraying the passive witness in his Ceausescu-era debut novel, and newcomer AP Jones' satirical fiction of metrocentric egos in a small Welsh campus town. Finally, major prizewinners: poets Elyse Fenton and Hilary Menos, as well as novelist Roshi Fernando.

Submissions are always welcome but the usual advice applies to any author approaching a publisher: research before you send. Buy a copy, get a feel for it, work out what you might offer any particular slot in the mag. Sounds obvious but it doesn't always happen. Hope you like the new look!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Review of The Woman who Thought too Much, A Memoir by Joanne Limburg

This memoir deserves much more space, which it will get in a future feature in the magazine on a group of new books about the mind. One of my bugbears about the prevailing culture in Wales is that it is dominated by politics and history. When it comes to writers’ biographies, we too often seem to be celebrating undigested, extrovert male grandiosity, especially as expressed in alcoholism. A notable exception is Richard Gwyn’s forthcoming memoir The Vagabond’s Breakfast, published on 15 April by Alcemi, for which I must declare an interest as its editor. While painting a portrait of nine colourful, ‘lost’ years to addiction and vagrancy, Gwyn remains reflective and engagingly embarrassed about his experiences. I am on the hunt for writers, reviewers and critics who can talk intelligently about the mental cul-de-sacs and acts of sabotage – whether colourful or cringe-inducingly introverted – that can besiege us. What more important subject, after all, could face a writer?

Joanne Limburg, having grown from a lonely, hair-chewing, skin-picking London Jewish overachiever into a poet and mother who cannot take her toddler to the shops for fear of pushing him under a bus, works out that she has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She loosely groups anorexics, bulimics, people with Tourette’s and hoarders (Hoarders Disorder?) into the OCD spectrum but is aware that a tendency to tighten loose ends is a symptom of her obsessive nature. She has a lovely wit that leavens the occasionally repetitive material (goes with the territory, and anyway it was only the New Mother phase that started to bore me briefly, probably because we all go a bit mad then). Limburg is especially witty on how her reading and the internet fed into a hyper-expertise which so alienated her psychiatrist, she was refused treatment. Self-disparagement is par for the course for someone whose head is jammed with warnings of woe. But Limburg knows this, makes a joke, and harnesses it. She shows how, despite having wasted half her youth in psychoanalysis when she could have been having sex, her cure was simple and rather boring: a to-do list of scary challenges. She recognises the bathos of her eventual treatment, “If I look at [this] cognitive behavioural model of OCD with a poet’s eyes, the picture that emerges is of a person who is suffering from hyperbole, and perhaps and over-excitation of the metaphorical… it’s not an impulse but the DEVIL’S PROMPTING… it’s not a mistake but a FATAL FLAW.”

Refreshingly too, despite all those years heading for the couch, Limburg lays no blame at her parents’ door, preferring to discuss, very lucidly, the neurological differences in individuals’ brains. In her case, however, school seriously failed her: neither teachers nor bullying peers made any allowance for such discrepancies to the ‘norm’. Feeling out of kilter, acting ditto, feeling rejected, avoiding those feelings, wondering why: wondering far too often. Many a coming-of-age novelist would benefit from studying Limburg’s account of how one teenage emotion snowballs into the next. The Woman who Thought too Much is highly recommended to readers and authors alike, and not only for its insights into pathological perfectionism, procrastination and writer’s block.

Monday, 21 March 2011

View from the Goldfish Bowl: review of Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Gil Adamson and True Things About Me, Deborah Kay Davies

Voice-driven narrative is what I thought I liked. It's what Alcemi, my fiction imprint ( was seeking among the writers of Wales. Forget theme, forget plot, forget setting and dramatic interaction: character as conveyed by voice is what counts. That is what drives a classic such as Vernon God Little – a distinctive narrator and viewpoint that ideally (to my mind) is slightly na├»ve, a bit behind the action panning out backstage in the wider world and certainly slower to cotton on to the drift of things than the reader. That is what I thought I liked.

A first person narrative, then, such as Deborah Kay Davies' debut novel, for Canongate, True Things About Me, should have been a personal dead cert, allowing me to chime in with voices claiming this novel could have won the next Wales Book of the Year Award, had its author not been one of the prize's current judges (a selfless move on her part, coming after her winning last year for short story collection, Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful). It is a brief novel bolstered by wide margins, happy to be constrained by one mind-set, few characters or settings and a claustrophobic scenario of a woman surprised to catch herself in acts of increasingly compulsive, humiliating, plein air and sadomasochistic sex with a stranger. True Things About Me also has distinctive literary style in buckets. So far, so good, and a strain of female-gothic right up my street.

However, it was when I came to read another first person novella presented as a novel, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Canadian Gil Adamson, that I saw how both authors were attending to voice at the expense of width and depth of characterisation, creating a rather cloying, narcissistic world in whose fate I quickly ceased to care.

Help Me, Jacques Cousteau is Adamson's first written work of fiction, appearing this year for the first time in the UK following awards for her first novel, The Outlander, including the International Association of Crime Writers' Dashiell Hammet Prize. Protagonist Hazel is rather handily given a superpower allowing her to hear through walls, thus allowing her perceptions to range beyond the immediate. These experiences, however, from being an infant on board ship from Australia to Canada, to herself as a young woman taking solace – just like Davies' heroine – in sex with random men, are most convincing when they are personal, visual and sensual. One instance is the recurring imagery conveying Hazel's passive view of her neighbourhood as through aquarium glass, binoculars or a ship's porthole. Things happen: her brother doesn't speak for a good while following her parents' separation; the siblings fish-sit for their neighbour Mrs Draper who may or may not be having an affair with a young man who may or may not be her son; Hazel craves her dad's attention, and we see him being over-involved with a kooky set of sketchily drawn brothers and their rotating wives and ladyfriends. The mother is either absent or ignored for much of the time which is probably the missing heart of this book. But there is little artistry in the lack of plot, and less in terms of emotional motivation or perception. Hazel's empty musing, “I'm considering my brother... and I'm wondering: do I have some kind of problem seeing the impossible for what it is?” shows the author seeking refuge in generalising when she could have shown exactly the what and why of Hazel's emotional ailments. It is fine for an author to share with us their main character's alienated mindset but we do need to take home some specifics of dysfunction, not just blanket malaise.

Narcissism, passivity, promiscuity and a tendency to miss the mark when describing emotional states are what characterise the heroines of both Davies' and Adamson's novellas. Both are alienated and inhabit isolated worlds, and so it is right for their viewpoint to capture those underwater refractions. This reader, however, began to get the bends and long for the air circulating in bigger books with a wider dramatic scope. For once, I'll take the bird's eye view over the goldfish bowl.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Wuthering Heights on Stage

Aberystwyth Arts Centre's production company this week kickstarted their series of medium-scale literary adaptations to stage with Lucy Gough's Wuthering Heights, now touring the rest of Wales. Gough's version, directed by Mark Babych, emphasises the circularity of bad behaviour, warns how not to treat the cuckoo in the nest, has the servant Nellie - even more than Cathy, though with less destructive intent - transgress the stratifications of society, the domestic and the wild, and is worth it alone for the scene of Heathcliff giving birth to Cathy from the grave. And the soundtrack. And the feathers. One lesson from this play: the soul is a delicate thing which shouldn't be trapped like a bird on the moor or within the corpse of a lover. In an ideal world.

Audience feedback forms include questions on the book, TV and film versions. Touring now to Cardigan, Brecon, Taliesin Swansea and The Riverfront, Newport: definitely worth a night out.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Review of "The Fluorescent Jacket" by Roshi Fernando

There are several moments in Homesick , Fernando's composite novel in which this story was orginally published, where tables turn. This is what happens right at the start of "The Fluorescent Jacket". Sri Lankan immigrant Kumar is a lodger-under-sufferance at his cousin Shamini’s home where she lives with her two young daughters. The story opens with a scene of the girls laughing at his English pronunciation. Using third person in the "novel", Fernando shows herself to be mistress of how to take your readers with you as you shift viewpoint between characters. Here we are made to slide almost imperceptively from sympathy for Kumar's saying that it “sims” to rain, to neutrality when he notices Lolly, still then only “the younger [one]”, to a pivotal, sickening point where we see the eight-year old through his eyes, “ribbons... a fringe which covers one eye”. Then the direction of the gaze is all Kumar’s as he homes in on her, “He chooses the smaller one, her one good eye, and he repeats, ‘It seems like it rains every day.’” But then power has leaked from him again once he's back out in London’s overground network with only Shamini’s scribbled directions to a possible work lead. As with Fernando’s characters throughout Homesick, Kumar’s focus is always on the “brown” faces in a crowd, and now he selects an immigrant like himself, “an African”, as he did Lolly, to save him, this time from getting utterly lost between Croyden and New Cross. He seems to hope the jacket, given to him when he accidentally gets another job and which is “yellowy-green, the colour of too-ripe limes”, may mark the start of his assimilation into Britain, “He doesn’t find the building, but he finds someone who wants him.” The jacket’s neon nylon is a passport to a council workteam in the local park except he doesn’t actually get paid, only mimes the ritual of belonging, because Sinhala-speaking Kumar lacks the “magic trick” of English which would “convert... callouses into... notes and coins”. While he defaults on housekeeping, stops washing and starts drinking, Shamini tolerates him only because his father paid for her passage over here. Kumar, meanwhile, is enjoying his new role, “digging earth”. Neighbourhood girls have been going missing, though, and Kumar digs one up. The fluorescent jacket doesn’t protect him in the way he’d hoped: from disrespect, poverty, his own spinelessness; from arrest. The lime colour, rather, singles him out, makes him obvious, were he only to realise, just as his natural colour does.

The story strains a little towards the end where it stretches the composite novel’s family sinews too far over the years. Also in a rare drop of the reins, Fernando has Kumar’s blunted sensibility leap into the head of a prison tutor we care nothing about. The subject of child abuse is often badly treated in short stories but this one carries it off, mainly by making it more than a tale of a single injustice. Instead, it is a tale of debt, dislocation, penance and belonging as well as damage.

"The Fluorescent Jacket" by Roshi Fernando is NOW shortlisted for The EFG Sunday Times Short Story Award, worth £30,000; winner chosen during April at the Oxford Literary Festival.

NWR-featured Author makes Times £30,000 Prize Longlist

Roshi Fernando is a fantastic up-and-coming author who will be showcased in my first, May, issue of New Welsh Review with an extract from her novel in progress, The Elephant’s Wife. Her story, “The Fluorescent Jacket” was recently longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award: the most generous UK prize – at £30,000 – for a single short story. Roshi will hear this weekend whether she has made the shortlist. Among her nineteen longlist competitors are heavyweight hitters Hilary Mantel, Susan Hill, Gerard Woodward and the marvellous Michel Faber. Interestingly, eligible stories are not wholly new, only needing to have been published during 2010. After having won the Impress Prize for New Writers, 2009, an award with links to Creative Writing MA programmes, Roshi's story appeared in the prize’s 2010 collection of interwoven narratives on related Sri Lankan characters, Homesick. I came across Roshi on a Swansea University MA Creative Writing class, where her PhD is under the supervision of author Stevie Davies. Her story, “Three Cuts”, published last October in my new anthology from Seren, Sing Sorrow Sorrow, Dark and Chilling Tales, was a gory feminist recasting of Cinderella into a Machiavellian – or rather Grand-Guignolesque – Asian arranged marriage. Homesick is one of my favourite fiction titles of last year, and I hope to review it in more detail. Tomorrow, I’ll review-blog the nominated story, “The Fluorescent Jacket”.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Fuzzy Logic & Inside Out

Fantastic lineup headlining Howard Marks planned for an Academi Life Writing day in May. A way off (Saturday 14 May) and tucked away down in Blaenavon Workmen’s Hall, but definitely worth travelling to and booking right now. Howard Marks always brings to my mind Super Furry’s Fuzzy Logic (nice) and a weary niggle (not) as to why a convicted bigtime drug dealer should be hailed as Wales’ prodigal son, especially in the literary world. Not even Rhys Ifans’ deep involvement with Project Mr Nice makes me interested.

So why does the name of Caspar Walsh, alongside Marks’ in the programme , appeal? Walsh and Marks have been appearing as a double act in literature festivals this spring to promote Walsh’s first novel, Blood Road (Headline). An insider’s insider to the world of crime, whose father was a petty criminal apparently so charismatic and loving that young Walsh couldn’t fail to join the family firm, this author interests me for his insight into traits of father-son dysfunction leading to addiction, and for his ongoing commitment to the personal development of prisoners and their families. His memoir, Criminal, was published to international acclaim. Drawing on his boyhood, his time inside and his work with offenders, Walsh turns True Crime into crime thriller in Blood Road, reviewed in the Belfast Telegraph thus, “Walsh undoubtedly draws on his own experience to make [protagonist] Nick simultaneously irresistible and repugnant. The balance is perfectly struck and gives the novel a core strength. But he also brings in much else – the fruit, plausibly, of his more recent work running writing courses in prisons where he comes into contact with those who have ended up inside as one of the logical outcomes of chaotic childhoods.”

Maybe then, what I steer away from in Howard Marks is an impression of unreformable hedonism, whereas Walsh’s work suggests reflection, reform and atonement: proper Welsh values!

Friday, 4 March 2011

Underage Identity Theft on World Book Night

Aberystwyth small shopkeepers are in turmoil. They've let their usual scapegoat of charity outlets (paying reduced rates and inflated prices, apparently) scarper round the corner. In the sights of local independent bookshops (and certain UK chains, to be fair) now is World Book Night (Saturday 5 March) which they see as undercutting sales by giving away forty-eight copies of a list of classic backlist titles to volunteers around the UK to distribute as they see fit, working from the premise that word of mouth recommendation is the best way to generate book sales. Our local librarian, attempting to co-ordinate deliveries for this new initiative chaired by Canongate's Jamie Byng, sounded equally exasperated as I checked on arrangements for my son to pick up his pile this weekend. True enough, the scheme has well-publicised teething problems, in our case with belated confirmation of volunteers' participation, confusion about pick-up locations (Blaenau Gwent; no, sorry: Aberystwyth, we were told; then the library, or is it Waterstone's) and matching volunteers to deliveries. The only parcel of Toni Morrison's Beloved which arrived at the library is addressed to some woman who is not my son: a slight snag. Still, can't really complain, since my boy, ever-keen to join anything online where he doesn't have to prove he's thirteen, is not strictly eligible. His first choice was Philip Pullman's Northern Lights; mine would have been Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time or perhaps our own Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. Whether or not we have to haggle come Saturday with some lady over the bonanza of Beloveds hardly matters, nor whether my son will soon have new contraband other than DVDs to flog via Amazon (joke): we'll have visited the library and the bookshop, and engaged with strangers on the topic of books. And despite some moaning, the initiative has already boosted sales of the twenty-five titles in the promotion. The perfect way to celebrate my first week at the magazine, even if it involves a literary tussle.

Also on Saturday, look out on the telly for Wales Book of the Year winner Deborah Kay Davies, who will be featured on BBC 2's Culture Show special, “New Novelists, 12 of the Best”, broadcast at 9pm. Five judges with John Mullan as Chair made the selection of debut authors in an unashamed embracing of literary fiction. Deborah's first novel, True Things About Me, was published by Canongate but her prizewinning short fiction collection, Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, came out with Parthian. The Guardian, recently covering the Culture Show showcase, made an interesting exploration of literary fiction but did not mention the crucial, undersung role small and independent publishers play in discovering debut authors. Plus ca change.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

New Editor Toasts Rock-Chick Hack Dreams

I'm toasting World Book Day with a bout of PC-hosted blogging through a Mac-induced migraine after an exhilarating first week as editor of New Welsh Review. Celebrations in my hometown Aberystwyth tonight (3 March), include Dylan Thomas Prize-winner Rachel Trezise at the Arts Centre talking about her new novel in paperback, Sixteen Shades of Crazy, and fine Welsh-language novelist Mihangel Morgan's launch at the town's Orendy winebar, of an historical reimagining, Pantglas. Both authors hail from the Welsh Valleys but only Rachel's world view, perhaps, has been typecast, especially in recent reviews, as a little bleak and claustrophobic. It is her dark world, though, that we recognise and love, with all its inappropriate attachments to loser-blagger drug-dealers and young women who should be old enough to give up their rock-chick hack dreams, its crystal-meth-dry deadpan wit, and its blithe attention to the ordinary details of women's lives, such as the meaty-smelling business of getting tampons in and out, and often. Trezise is working on a new US-set novel on how the lives of an ultra-Orthodox youth and a prostitute collide; indeed she is seeking travel funding to enable her to research and replicate how Jewish Orthodox people talk. Any takers?