Friday, 29 July 2016

A book - with my name on it

A threshold moment

It’s a strange game, these days, writing fiction. There are the joys of learning your craft, improving in tiny increments over the years. Alongside that, a series of disillusions occur, like nasty little tales told by the bigger children, about what will happen to you. Each of these either sends you into retreat or makes you more determined, only grimly so.

As green writers of literary fiction, we are presented with a kind of slough of despond to traipse through. Hardly any books of the kind you are writing get published, we are told; it’s about luck more than quality; such books sell in tiny numbers and are basically subsidised by the publisher’s range of celebrity cookbooks; advances are trifling compared with genre fiction. What are these books, then? Cheap window-dressing for publishing houses raking it in on stocking-fillers, whilst pretending to be patrons of great writing?

That would, of course, be the most horribly cynical view. I admit I’ve been there, in dark moments, wishing that somehow, I’d grown up to write vampire-police-procedural-raunch-horror-teen-romances in tweet form (I’m not ruling this out). It is true that I have had to ditch the now laughable fantasy that most literary fiction writers can make their living almost entirely from their books. I’ve also absorbed the news that things are even worse for short stories; there may be the odd prize, but hardly anyone wants to publish those tricky little monsters in a book, apparently.

All this is fine with me. It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if short stories were like diamonds not just in a metaphorical sense, but a financial one. On the other hand, if I want to plough on with writing fiction for its own sake, without worrying about the hourly rate for my toil, that’s up to me. Millions of us do it, and are rewarded in myriad ways that do not have to equate to coins.

I’ve worked quite hard at staying positive about writing. I’ve checked in with myself often, asking, are you sure? Is this still worth it, despite the latest bit of doomy news about your calling? After a while, you can let all that stuff go. Probably, you need to, in order to get any blooming writing done.

After all that, imagine my surprise when I found myself with good news to share. The second surprise was that, now it was happening, I felt shy about telling anyone, and especially my fellow writers. We’re all working so hard, chipping away at those veins in the rock; we’re all at different depths, different heights. In a way it was easier to be looking up in awe at the professionals. The expectations were lower, there were many conspiratorial winks to be shared.

But here it is: my first fiction book will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2018. The dream has come true, and I am awfully happy.

I considered writing a post describing how this came about – from my first wonky words to a real publishing deal. But there is no magic formula to be distilled from such stories. Instead, I think it is best to hope, to write, and see what happens. You never know.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Bluebeard – symbols, secrets and power in folk tales

The Forbidden City: a natural holiday destination for Bluebeard

Do you know the Bluebeard folk tale? If so, how do you know it? Are you familiar with the whole plot, or is it a collection of images that float in your memory – a castle, a blood-stained key, unusual facial hair, the dismembered bodies of women?

It’s a gruesome story, and laden with symbols ripe for borrowing. The symbols and magic of folk tales are tempting material for writers, because they do so much to us; as Sara Maitland puts it, folk tales are ‘full of the reverberations of everyone’s dreams’. But writers continuously find novel ways of using these dream-meanings, re-using our instinctive responses to tell entirely new tales.

One of my favourite examples of this is Kirsty Logan’s ‘Flinch’ (in A Portable Shelter). In this story, the protagonist has something of the selkie (or seal person) about him, but his seal ancestry becomes the tool he uses to finally connect with someone he secretly cares about. This is very far from traditional selkie stories, of seal-women trapped by men who hide their seal coats in order to keep them in human, wifely form.

But while there are dozens of wonderful and entirely new stories that use folk tale reverberations (see recommended reading below), when it comes to Bluebeard, rare is the writer who can step away from its original plot. In almost every short story I’ve found that draws on, or retells, Bluebeard, the core plot, its tensions and gender dynamics, remain intact. The core story is of a terrible man and disempowered (not to mention dismembered) woman Why is this?

In the old tale, Bluebeard’s new wife is left alone in his castle with a bunch of keys, one of which she is forbidden to use. She gives in to temptation, though, and finds in the secret room the dismembered remains of his previous three wives. The key, which she drops in the blood, will not give up its stain, so Bluebeard finds her out; the new wife is usually rescued by her brothers at the last minute, when Bluebeard is about to kill her too.

I’ve looked at many Bluebeard-inspired stories, including: Margaret Atwood’s ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ (in her collection of the same name); Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Blue-bearded Lover’ (in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me); Donald Barthelme’s ‘Bluebeard’ (in Forty Stories); Francesca Lia Block’s ‘Bones’ (in Roses and Bones); and Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (in her collection of the same name).

These stories do differ marvellously. In Atwood’s, Bluebeard is a heart surgeon in contemporary suburbia, seemingly harmless to the point of stupidity (an illusion), In Lia Block’s, the heroine is a teenage girl impressed by a rich man’s party in a house filled with modern technology. Carter’s story is familiarly gothic, but the doomed wife is rescued by her gun-toting mother. Barthelme makes Bluebeard comically desperate to provoke interest in his secret room. Oates gives her heroine the power to overcome curiosity and survive in her own way, without rescue. The endings also differ – they are happy, or ominous, downright silly (see Barthelme) or sinister. In two of them, the wife does not quite play out her terrified-victim role and has no need of rescue.

But even in these new worlds so far away from the original Bluebeard’s castle, the essential power dynamic between man and woman is in place. The Bluebeard character has power through his secret: while the wife does not know what is in the locked room, she cannot know that she is danger, or at the very least, know what she is up against. The wife does not always come under threat of murder herself, but when doesn’t, there is an equivalent threat that still involves her relinquishing power, as a human and as a woman. Whichever way you look at it, there is entrapment here, and even the retellings by feminists do not alter this.

Power through keeping a secret seems to be a theme in folk tales: selkie stories and swan maiden tales all involve men entrapping women by secreting their fur or feather coats so they cannot return to the water. This might represent a denial of the true self, or full personhood: the woman loses her power to leave or stay as she wishes. These stories look like warnings, given by women to other women and to men. Bluebeard may be worse – he is a murderer as well as a deceiver and manipulator – but the message is similar.

Couldn’t a story giving this warning, whilst also demonstrating the flipside – that refusal to entrap is also possible? Claire Dean’s story ‘Feather Girls’ does just that, and with great poignancy, as opposed to celebration of freedom. The story achieves nuance and complexity that isn’t possible in a straightforward Bluebeard or swan maiden entrapment tale. The warning remains, but we focus instead on a man who has refused to fulfil the role of trapper.

Of course, to defang Bluebeard completely, to change the power relationship, would change the story, but it is still possible to make him pathetic, absurd, a pretender who is no mortal danger to his wife. Interestingly, it is only Barthelme’s story that does this, relying on our knowledge of the original in order to entertain us with this new, silly Bluebeard. But without the original tale in our minds, this man would be simply ridiculous, and the story would not have the impact (and humour) that it does.

Barthelme also gives the wife character her own secrets – she is sanguine, taking advantage of a desperate husband. This means there is still no redemption in this version, and there isn’t meant to be. We might say that a manipulative murderer does not deserve redemption, but it is interesting that in an epoch of looking for reasons behind terrible acts, seeking out explanations of psychological damage or pathology, Bluebeard remains simply demonic in our minds. It is his character, as opposed to the objects and symbols of the story, that brings writers back to Bluebeard time and again.

Some stories that use folk tales but do not simply retell them:

Clare Dean's story ‘Feather Girls’

Lucy Wood's collection Diving Belles

Cassandra Parkin's collection New World Fairy Tales

Angela Carter's collection The Bloody Chamber – some retellings, but some new stories

Sara Maitland's nonfiction and story book Gossip from the Forest - also some retellings, some new stories

Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox

Thursday, 31 March 2016

London Lit Lab

I am still learning, learning, learning as a writer (wish I could miss off the ‘l’s on a couple of those), and I always will be. That is one of the great joys of pursuing something both creative and technical, with a supply of inspiration – in the form of other writers – that may as well be infinite. But there comes a point at which all the learning you have done, so far, is enough to be useful to others. And this is another great joy of creative writing: sharing the processes, shortcuts, discoveries and disasters with fellow writers.
London Lit Lab, which I set up with my good friend and fellow writer, Lily Dunn, is our way of organising, distilling, and passing on all our learning. We found we were both already doing so much of this – whether chairing critique groups, running workshops, supplying written feedback or supporting writers through projects – that it is satisfying to gather all of it in one place, and see what more we can add.
We’ve both valued the teaching and support we’ve received over the years so highly, it is natural to aspire to be a good teacher. It seems to me one of the best things we could possibly do, to help others makes those tiny steps and great leaps that happen when you go on hacking at something like writing. And it is a pleasure to think through the strange writing exercises, unlikely prompts, and surprising editing suggestions that have worked magic for me and my own stories, and revealing them to others who want to improve. Teaching and learning are both wonders, and getting to do both is a great privilege!
We’re already teaching a keen group of writers at Google, who make an impressive switch from code to words at the end of a working day. In June, we’ll be running an evening course for writers who want to start getting words down or improve their writing, followed by a more advanced course in the Autumn that will include more critical feedback. Alongside these, I’ll still be running my monthly critique group for short story writers, and hosting the odd Word Factory salon, not to mention marching onwards with my PhD thesis… 2016 is already busy in the best ways, and I am looking forward to thinking about writing, mine and other people’s, for the rest of the year.
If you’re interested in the courses, feedback services or mentoring on offer at London Lit Lab, do take a look at the website!

Friday, 19 February 2016

You say folk tale, I say fairy tale

Where fairy land meets the real world

What do you think of when you see the words ‘folk tale’? For me, a mental collage appears of overflowing porridge pots, scrubbed cottage floors, sorrowful children and twining tanglewood. As I watch, homely objects become magical ones: mirrors flung down turn to oceans and then shrink; gathered leaves turn to gold and back again.
How does it go when you see the words ‘fairy tale’? Is there a princess, an old hag, a prince, a frog? Do mirrors speak, and straw turn into gold? Are some of these images in cartoon form?
How we label stories ought not to matter, but I find this one an interesting conundrum, because for me ‘folk’ and ‘fairy’ conjure overlapping realms, but with very distinctive far reaches. I tend to think of folk tales as somehow more earthy; fairy tales as more prim, or better dressed. With words and images stripped away, it comes down to colours. Fairy tales are high contrast, jewel hues and precious metals: red, gold, silver, purple. Folk tales are British landscape tones of brown, green and grey.

Folk tales first?

One version of the folk/fairy tale is that the folk came first. ‘Folk’ in this context really means ‘popular’: stories of the people, the kind that circulated orally, shape-shifting as they went.
In the 17th century, along came Charles Perrault, the French creator of Tales of Mother Goose, and his aristocratic contemporaries such as Madame D’Aulnoy. They rewrote these old tales – by then discoverable in written form – and added glamour, the trappings of courtly life, as well as ludicrous magic of their own. Their selection from the endless sea of oral stories has shaped our contemporary fairy tale canon: the stories Perrault chose to retell (I’m tempted to say ‘pimp’) include those we know in English as ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Bluebeard’ and ‘Tom Thumb’.
They were wildly popular, in French and in English translation, which is why they are so recognisable to us now. These are the stories that create the stained glass imagery of ‘fairy tale’ in my head. They are the gilded ornaments from which Disney has picked again, re-establishing a romantic fairy tale canon in the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, those stories languishing in the heap still called ‘folk’ have come to be represented, for many, by the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Un-Disneyfied, they have been repackaged for adults, as they were originally intended. (The Grimms’ tales went through seven editions, many edited, rewritten or even omitted over time, until they were deemed suitable for children). Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, despite the title, is full of old folk tales with adult messages and content. More recently, fairy tale and folk tale scholar Jack Zipes has newly translated all the stories from the Grimms’ first edition, which are more blunt and gory than some of the later versions.
Where fairy tales are glint and glamour, folk tales have come to stand for the authentic, the gritty; they represent community and landscape lost, folklore and folkways, as much as they tell stories. We feel nostalgia when we read them, even if we’ve never read them before.

Fairy tales first?

Marina Warner, queen of academic fairy land, stands on the other side of the mirror, seeing things the other way round. For her, the term 'fairy tale' encapsulates stories both oral and literary, inherited and invented, of which only some "are called 'folk tales' and are attributed to oral tradition". Thus, folk tales are a subcategory of fairy tales.
I like this way of seeing too, including the artful with the accidental, the contrived with the half-forgotten. After all, the written fairy tales, even the literary ones, have often fed back into oral traditions, as far as folk tale scholars can tell. All these stories make up a bubbling pot from which any one may pick to create something new. To pluck a symbol from a Disney film rather than a Grimm original, or an even older tale, is not to fall foul of authenticity.
Warner uses the term ‘symbolic Esperanto’ for the contents of this pot, all the golden hair and keys and doors and paths and wolves and woodcutters that we recognise, deep in the dreaming parts of our minds. We understand them all, and so to separate the older from the newer, the hag from the princess, does not serve our sense of ‘fairy tale’. Rather, all these stories, whether or not they include magic or indeed fairies at all, “conjure the presence of another world, a sense that the story has casements thrown open on a view of fairyland”.
So, whether you call a story a folk tale or fairy tale, look out through its windows and see: the green hills beyond will be glinting with mischief, and you will know exactly where you are.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Short stories, fairy tales and the Angela Carter effect

Carter-infested waters

I am up to my neck in Angela Carter at the moment, working as I am on my PhD thesis which looks at the use of folk and fairy tales in short stories. And the more I read, the more it seems that all writers of folk-fantastic fiction, especially women, are in the same predicament, lapped at all sides by the sea that is Carter’s consuming legacy.

I should declare myself a Carter fan. Marina Warner described Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber as the ‘catalyst of a million awakenings for readers (especially girls)’ and I am among their number. The waters of the Carterian sea have risen and risen since 1979, when The Bloody Chamber was published. In 1992-3, the British Academy Humanities Research Board received over forty proposals for doctorates on Carter’s work, making her one of the most fashionable thesis topics of the late twentieth century.

Outside the ivory towers, there’s no doubting the effect of Carter’s work on both readers and writers, and long may that effect last – her writing is dazzling, after all. But those rising waters seem to be drowning out other ways of talking about the fairy tale in literature, and especially in literary short stories. Most of all, with only their heads showing above the waves (excuse this uncomfortably extended metaphor), women writers of fairy tale-ish fiction are all made to look as if they resemble Carter from the neck down.

Consider this survey of blurbs and reviews for a selection of contemporary short story writers who use folk and fairy tales in their work. According to critics, Lucy Wood’s stories ‘echo the great Angela Carter’; Sara Maitland is ‘rather Angela Carter like’; Helen Oyeyemi ‘is the literary heir of the late, great Angela Carter’; Kirsty Logan ‘has picked up Carter’s mantle’.

This invoking of Carter as a lazy shorthand for fairy tale-inflected fiction only obscures the huge differences between the work of these writers, and the differences between their projects and Carter’s. Only one of the writers named above – Kirsty Logan – cites Carter as a direct influence on her work, but she is arguably following more closely in the footsteps of Emma Donoghue, who wrote her own queer subversions of fairy tales in Kissing The Witch. Lucy Wood’s stories are personal where Carter’s are political, exploring emotional experience alongside the Cornish landscape. Sara Maitland was writing in response to fairy tales at the same time as Carter, and her continued engagement with the genre has always been different, being ‘less interested in sex’, as Carter herself pointed out. Helen Oyeyemi finds no common ground with Carter, and steps much further away from the original tales than Carter did in her fiction.

‘Carter-esque’, then, can be an unhelpful label, letting us forget that every writer goes her own way with the fairy tale, even if she has paddled through Carter’s work to get there. Note I say ‘she’, for I can give no equivalent survey of blurbs and reviews of contemporary male writers. Of course, male writers’ engagement with fairy tale can be less obvious, but they regularly play with the fantastic and the ‘tale’ form, especially in short stories. Rob Shearman’s stories, for example, owe much to the fairy tale, and Shearman does count Carter as an influence, but no critic appears to notice.

Even though Carter exemplified the genre-mixing and virtuosic stylistic play that we often see in fantastic fiction by men, never is she invoked to describe their work. And it’s not only Carter missing from those blurbs. Have a look at the jackets of the books on your shelf, and see if you can find one that likens the male author’s words in its pages to a female writer who has gone before him. Good luck!

Monday, 7 December 2015

Mud-witch – a short story collaboration

Isabel Greenberg's brilliant illustrations

Ever since I began writing stories, I’ve imagined the illustrations that might go with them. They’ve remained imagined, because I can’t draw and it’s taking enough of my time to improve my writing without starting from scratch with visual art, too. Papercuts are the closest I’ve got (you can see the results here). I’d rather given up on the idea that my stories would ever be illustrated by a proper, talented artist, since it’s not the done thing to illustrate fiction for adults. I find this baffling, personally – illustrations can do so much more than just repeat the words in pictures, and who doesn’t like to pause and linger over a patch of colour, a feast for the eyes after all that text?

My chance finally came with a project I’ve just completed for Microsoft. They threw me together with Isabel Greenberg, whose brilliant graphic novels are published by Jonathan Cape, and asked us to come up with an illustrated story in two weeks – using ideas we were supposed to glean from Twitter. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that, when asked for suggestions for, say, a character’s worst habit, Twitter mostly responded with nose-picking and toe-nail biting. Luckily there were enough weird or wonderful ideas that trying out all the combinations of my favourite character, setting and habit suggestions was a bit like playing a fiction fruit machine. E.g.:


Webbed hands
Hiding other people’s things
Left luggage
Museum store room
Inability to say no
Clockmaker’s shop
By the river


Medieval herbalist
Murderously clumsy
Over the hills
Refuses to say sorry
Small wood at midnight
Inability to say no
By the river
Museum store room

I wrote story ideas for as many different variations as I could. A misfit working in left luggage who swaps people’s belongings with odd consequences. A medievalist let loose in museum storage, trying out new recipe concoctions from ancient ingredients to dire effect. A folkloric creature with webbed hands, who lives by the river and cannot refuse wishes made on the objects dropped there…. Luckily Isabel and I are both drawn to folklore, so picking the favourite was easy.

I did write differently, knowing the story would be illustrated – mostly by missing out some details in the hope that Isabel would fill them in from her own imagination. This was really the most gratifying part of the experience, seeing how the mud-witch and her world looked to someone else. Illustrations and words from different heads can make intriguingly complimentary combinations, rather than repeating each other, and the mud-witch became a more sympathetic character in Isabel’s hands. I envy her amazing ability to do both words and pictures, and hope I can wangle working with an illustrator again. Grown-ups deserve pictures with their stories, too.

You can read the finished book online here, and watch the making-of video below!