Book review – Astray by Emma Donoghue

Astray coverIn her short story collection Astray, author Emma Donoghue takes us on a journey that leads us through time and across oceans deep into the lives of people both real and imagined (sometimes a skilful blend of the two). We encounter their hardships, bear witness to their darkest deeds, share in their triumphs, and hope, very much hope, that a happy ending is just over the next horizon.

It’s a reminder that travel was once only for the intrepid, the desperate and those determined to find a better life. As a historian, Donoghue is adept at taking shreds of ephemera and transforming it into something with body and spirit, and with each of these tales, she reveals something of the era, and the people concerned

Following each story is a brief explanation of its origins, including the facts that inspired the fiction. More than once I found myself surprised by which pieces were true, and which made up – evidence, I think, both of Donoghue’s powerful imagination and reality’s tendencies towards peculiarity.

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Book review – On the Edges of Vision by Helen McClory

On the Edges of Vision coverI’ve recently discovered a new term, and it describes Helen McClory’s writing perfectly: mythic realism. Aptly titled On the Edges of Vision, this collection offers a precipitous sense of standing on the edge of something, of glimpsing a view of a world just like the one we live in, only with extraordinary neighbours. These creatures are familiar from ancient tales yet fresh on the page, mingling with everyday folk.

There’s a hint of warning swimming through the words, a reminder that venturing out after dark isn’t always a good idea, a hint that the things we fear aren’t always the right things – that dread, and death, can rush up from unexpected sources.

There’s such a pace to McClory’s writing that you may find yourself careering from start to end, crashing through the undergrowth before halting, blood shrill in your ears, at the cliff-edge, wondering why there’s nothing ahead but dizzying emptiness. Continue reading

How to write a short story collection

Knit graffiti in Arnos Vale cr Judy DarleyToday’s guest post comes from writer KM Elkes and offers an insight into the art of stringing a short story collection together.

Telling people you are working on a novel is easy enough. People ‘get’ novels. Even the least reader-ish person has probably read a couple, either because they were forced to at school or because they were part of Generation Harry Potter.

But a short story collection? Not so much.

Maybe that’s because short story collections are relatively unfamiliar – not so surprising when you consider bookshops force readers into an Indiana Jones-style quest to find them. They lurk unassumingly, a diaspora spread among distant bookcases, waiting for the day when someone has the bright idea to give them a shelf of their own.

But there’s a deeper issue too – even those in the biz, writers and publishers, are sometimes ignorant of what a short story collection really is. Which makes putting one together feel like a Sisyphean task.

Think about it. There’s plenty of advice out there on what makes a good novel – how to write it, pace it, plot it, sell it. But I’ve yet to Google a go-to guide on what constitutes a fantastic collection.

Most short story writers are busy just trying to make each story the best we can. The emotional investment is quick, deep and hard, the art tricky.  It’s only when you come to the point of putting your own collection together that you realise it’s not simply a matter of polishing up your bestest, nicest stories and pressing Send.

What does a short story collection involve? What does it need?

Well, in my opinion, many of the same things that characterise a good short story – unity of purpose and theme.

I’m not talking specifically about some clunky link (hey, watchya know, they’re all characters from the same street!) but something less obvious, spider silk thin at times, but there, somehow.

Runaway by Alice MunroLook at some wonderful collections – Alice Munro’s Runaway; Cathedral by Raymond Carver; Nathan Englander’s For The Relief of Unbearable Urges; Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan. Whether or not the author planned it, there is a thread that runs through these books, located in place, or in an overarching theme, in the kind of lives they tackle and in that most intangible thing: voice.

Regardless of point of view, tense, sympathetic or abhorrent characters, regardless of timeframe or timeline, great authors have a voice, a way of storytelling that leaves an imprint on their collection.

Think of George Saunders at the frayed edge of satire, or the rich gravy of Saul Bellow’s language, the wry humour of Kevin Barry and Edith Pearlman’s precise concision – all give a shape that is the author’s own.

What can those of us putting our debut collection learn from this?

Being ruthless is necessary, especially with our earlier work. Yes they might have won prizes or been shortlisted for decent competitions, but do these stories fit with our latest work, where a more individual voice is starting to form? Perhaps it’s time for that tricky chat: “Thanks guys, we had fun, but I’ve moved on. It’s not you, it’s me.”

Tough love is also needed for the stories that are up to scratch, but simply don’t fit in. That cracking three thousand worder, which someone said reminded them of Jorge Luis Borges, probably won’t fit if you are building a reputation as the Cheever of Milton Keynes.

Even then, this process throws up fresh dilemmas. How do you know when you’re done? How do you know that the next story you write won’t be the one to top out the collection, the crowning glory that will pull it all together?

This is particularly tricky for me, and, I suspect, many other short story writers because I don’t (I can’t) write with a collection in mind. Story writing for me is a weird alchemy, when character, voice, theme and tone come together through some process that has little to do with the analytical part of my brain.

So time is important, to allow things to accrete. Maybe the key to creating a short story collection is the key to all writing – keep going, get better at it, read stories by people who are better than you, learn from them, accept your failures, don’t get carried away with your successes, rinse and repeat.

Eventually you may begin to ‘feel’ a group of stories huddling together. You sense a deeper resonance coming through, common themes being explored. You think – and this is as important as anything else – of a title that makes things tick.

Good advice is hard to come by, but fresh perspectives (note the plural), might help you push to keep creating new material or re-think existing work.

All of this points towards a simple fact – creating a short story collection is also about growing up as a writer, reaching a maturity which enables you to fathom how stories hang together, the palette you work with, the themes which gnaw at you and how that is not such a ‘bad thing’.

And that’s about as much as I can tell you. For now.

Author KM ElkesAbout the author

KM Elkes is an author, journalist and travel writer. He has won the Fish Publishing flash prize, been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize and was one of the winners of the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2014. He also won the Prolitzer short story prize in 2014 and wrote a winning entry for the Labello Press International Short Story Prize 2015. His work has appeared in various anthologies and won prizes at Words With Jam, Momaya Review, Writing WM, Bath Short Story Award, Lightship Publishing and Accenti in Canada. He blogs at www.kmelkes.co.uk and tweets via @mysmalltales.

KM Elkes will be sharing more of his writing expertise at free flash fiction workshops taking place at Bristol Central Library for National Flash Fiction Day (this Saturday!), along with NFFD director Calum Kerr and prize-winning author KM Elkes. The workshops take place from 1.30-4.30pm. KM is also taking part in An Evening of Flash Fiction, from 6pm at Foyles Bookstore Bristol, along with a number of other writers, including Zoe GilbertKevlin HenneySarah Hilary, Freya Morris, Grace Palmer, Jonathan Pinnock, and, well, me.

Remember Me To The Bees update

Remember Me To The Bees coverA few of you have been asking for updates on my debut short story collection Remember Me To The Bees. Thanks for your interest!

Well, the book exists, which is really exciting! The official launch (more details to follow) will be in March this year, and it will be widely available from that point.

The book contains twenty of my short stories, each accompanied by artwork from the talented Louise Boulter, who also designed the gorgeous cover.

Author Tania Hershman has written a lovely foreword for the book, which made me quite blush! Rather marvellously, she says : “The title is, in fact, very apt: bees may be diminutive (relative to us, at least) but they possess power not only to inflict pain but also to give us the gift of intense sweetness. To my mind, as a reader, painful sweetness is a wonderful way to define the best of short stories, a honeyed sting that this excellent collection most certainly delivers.”

Yeeps! No wonder I blushed.

The back cover copy states:

“The twenty stories in Judy Darley’s debut collection cover the moments that make us the people we are, where actions are taken and sights seen that will change the protagonists’ lives forever – with sometimes startling consequences.

From the small boy grappling with fears both real and imaginary to the married woman being ardently pursued by a man who seems able to read her deepest thoughts, we catch our breath as Judy’s characters make emotional as well as physical journeys, twisting and turning to the very end.”

Over the next few weeks you will see copies of Remember Me To The Bees popping up in independent bookshops and art galleries across Bristol and beyond as well as appearing on sites such as Tangent Books’ online bookshop. Go on, buy a copy, and make a writer very happy!

Book review – Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Recovering Apollo 8 book coverMost fiction writers shy away from using real people in their work, but not Katrine Kathryn Rusch (hereafter to be called KKR in this review).

The title story of Recovering Apollo 8 And Other Stories is an award-winning re-imagining of the Apollo 8 launch, examining what would have happened if that space flight had been unsuccessful in its mission to orbit the moon.

By telling the tale from the point of view of Richard, a man who had been a child when the launch took place, she gives the piece a deeply personal viewpoint that makes it identifiable to all, so that the moment when he believes he about to meet the recovered crew for the first time is palpably intense. ‘”He had waited a lifetime for this. He wished the internal mikes were off. He wanted to whisper, “Welcome home, gentlemen.'” Continue reading

Travel, tales and imaginings

Carbis BayI’ve quite a day, tucked up in my writing room as rain has drizzled down the window. Hard to believe that this time last week I was enjoying Cornish beaches in the sunshine! I’ve been busy writing about that trip for Travelbite, and doing some other bits of travel writing for other titles too – some wonderful escapism.

I’ve also been very restless because A Dark Imagined Bristol – the first anthology from the Bristol Fiction Writers’ Group – went live on Amazon this morning, with two of my tales in it!

My stories are ‘Restoration‘ and ‘Untrue Blue‘. The former is a tale of two sisters wrangling their differences in a cemetery.

On a separate but equally happy note, I’ve spent the latter part of my working day struggling with the back cover copy for my debut short story collection, Remember Me To The Bees, due out later this year from Scopophilia Publishing.

Exciting times!