Author Interview with Taylor Byas

Taylor is a black, fun-sized Chicago native currently living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received a Bachelor’s Degree with Honors in English and a Master’s in English, Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, Birmingham. She is now a second year Creative Writing PhD student and Yates scholar at the University of Cincinnati. Her work appears, or is forthcoming, in New Ohio Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Jellyfish Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Empty Mirror and others. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and Best New Poets 2020.

1. How did your writing journey begin and did anything in your life particularly influence this?


I’ve been writing since I was much younger, probably in my early teens. I used to write poems in the middle of my diary entries, so I always had a love for poetry. When I went to college at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, I was an English major with a Creative Writing concentration, but back then I focused more on Fiction. I was still writing poems, but I wasn’t really studying and reading it outside classes. In my senior year, I took an Ekphrastic Poetry class, and that was what caught my attention. Looking back, I was in a really terrible romantic relationship at the time, and my father was starting to become more noticeably abusive around that time, so I think poetry saved me during a really hard time in my life. After that class I switched my concentration to Poetry for my Master’s degree, and I’ve been dedicated to writing it ever since. Of course, I branch out and write other things, but writing poetry is essentially second nature to me now.

 2. What have you learned from your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English, and has this changed the way you write?

Since my Bachelor’s degree was so heavily focused on fiction, my poetry is often narrative-driven and it’s really important for me to get the details right. I’m almost always trying to tell a complete story within a poem and to tell it so vividly that my reader is right there with my speaker. When I was writing poetry during my Master’s degree, I was still finding my voice as a poet. Those two years were me figuring out how to make a poem as strong as I possibly could. How can I make these line breaks have more impact? How can my verbs do more work, so I can then spend less time describing things? How do I write about the subjects things with a fresh twist? My Master’s was really a two year study in making my language come alive on the page.

3. What is the area of study for your PhD? 


I am currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, focusing on poetry.

4. Can you tell us a bit about your poetry and your creative non-fiction work?


Lately, I’ve been writing more heavily about race and thinking about what it means to be a Black woman in this world. My first completed poetry manuscript touches on themes of ancestry and black womanhood, and I believe those threads run through everything I write, and will continue to be currents running through my work throughout my career. The poetry that I’m writing now in this moment is essentially a part of this larger project, to write the kind of poems I wish I had read when I was a younger Black girl. I think I would have come to poetry much sooner if I was reading poetry in which I could see myself. So the poems I’m writing now are about being in love, having a difficult family, loving my body, and experiencing racism. My creative non-fiction work has been a space where I’ve given myself permission to write about some of the more traumatic things in my life, such as my alcoholic father and body dysmorphia.  I want to eventually complete a collection of essays looking at all of the things that have shaped me and made me the woman and writer I am today, and I think a big part of that is looking at the obstacles I’ve overcome along the way.

5. How has being nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and Best New Poets 2020 affected your profile as a writer? 

Being nominated for two Pushcarts and for Best New Poets was such a shock. I’m not sure if it has necessarily affected my profile as a writer, but it did wonders for my own personal view of my writing. It’s been a little over a year now that I’ve started submitting my work, so to get those nominations right away confirmed that I was doing something right. This time last year, I was getting ready to start a PhD program with writers who were older than me, more accomplished, had awards, books and tours. I was joining the program with only a handful of publications to my name. I know that playing the comparison game is never a good idea, but impostor syndrome was very real. Those nominations were like a voice that said, “keep going,” during a time when I wasn’t sure I belonged in this world.

6. What advice would you give to new writers?

Write about what matters to you. There is no right or wrong way to write a poem. Don’t just read poetry, read things outside your genre, outside of your interests. Always shoot for the stars, you miss every shot you don’t take! 

7. Who or what are your inspirations?


This is such a hard question because there are so many writers publishing some really amazing writing. One of the writers who completely changed my life was Erica Dawson. I was introduced to her during my Master’s and that was the first time that I realised I could write about what mattered to me. I could write about being black, I could write about my grandmother, I could write about getting my hair done. I also admired the way Erica wrote in form, and I’m now a formalist at heart myself. She definitely changed the entire landscape of what I thought poetry could be for me. Danez Smith is another poet who continues to stun me with the way they use language (Danez is non-binary). Their poetry manages to be joyous even while being about heavy subjects. They have a gift for rhythm, for music. They put words to feelings that I never knew I had. I am always connecting to their work and feeling seen in their work and that’s so important to me.
Two other really incredible Black female poets that come to mind are Ashley M. Jones and Tiana Clark. Ashley is unapologetic in the way she writes about race and blackness and it’s so admirable. Tiana transports me into another universe every time I read her work.

8. This is a difficult but necessary question – How has being Black affected your life?

I would say that the area that is probably most affected by my race is education. I didn’t have teachers who looked like me until I got to college. The texts I read throughout high school were mostly by white, male authors. My knowledge of black history is nowhere near where it should be, and I’m doing the work of catching up on my own, and even writing about those gaps in education in my poetry. In my Catholic high school and middle school I experienced racism from my teachers. An 8th grade teacher equated sounding unintelligent with “talking black.” In high school, black students were drug tested far more often than white students, and the school tried to penalise students with false positive test results. When I lived in Birmingham, I was called a “nigger” at the gas station the morning after Trump was elected president. When I was dating a white man, I ended the relationship because I didn’t feel like he would fully understand my position and the position of our children in a world like this. In the world of academia, I often have to be twice as impressive as my white peers and counterparts. I’m fortunate to be on a PhD course where I have other women of color as peers, but I know that other PhD courses aren’t as diverse as mine. I worry about what life may be like in the future if I work in academia, and if the environment will be one in which I’m constantly fighting to prove my worth and be heard. I go back and forth on whether I want to bring children into this world. Just within the past few days, the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag has put a spotlight on the disparities between how writers of colour and white writers are paid for their work, which has been a little disheartening to see. It bleeds into everything. But I’m so proud to be Black. I love being Black. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

9. Can you recommend any good literary journals run by Black editors or Black writers that we can read, support and follow? 


A poet I follow on Twitter, Natalie Eilbert, compiled a really wonderful list. I would suggest Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Fiyah Lit Mag, The Hellborne, and Kissing Dynamite, to name just a few.

You can find Taylor at taylorbyas.tumblr.com or @TaylorByas3

Interview with EllipsisZine Editor, Steve Campbell


Ellipsis Zine is an online and print literary magazine for beautifully written fiction & creative nonfiction.

How and why did you begin Ellipsis Zine, and how long has it been running?


I set up Ellipsis Zine in June 2017 and initially wanted to create an online space for flash fiction I liked to read. I hadn’t been writing flash very long and thought that a website with a mixture of work I enjoyed reading would help improve my own writing, while also offering a new space for writers to submit to. I wasn’t sure how well that was going to be received but pretty soon I was swamped with great submissions. Following on from the wave of excitement during the first month, I took the plunge and opened a call for work to be published in print and I was completely overwhelmed with the response.

What have you learned from your experience as Founding Editor?

It’s all subjective. I’ve declined work that has almost immediately been snapped up by other publications and reading them again, it was clear I was wrong to pass on them. There can also be any number of factors for a piece being declined, it’s not always because the piece isn’t ready. The magazine may not be the right fit. Timing can also be important – and not always something that a submittor can do anything about. If a piece submitted deals with the break up of a relationship, for example, I would generally pass on it if I’ve published a similar piece recently.

What do you do with your time outside working on the Zine?

I work in a marketing department, with a background in design, and so the setting up of the magazine and print zines has been a fairly smooth process.

The editorial team has expanded. Can you tell me who is on the team and how or why they were chosen?

I have a great team of flash writers helping me behind the scenes. Stephanie Hutton, Amelia Sachs, Richard De Nooy, Helen Rye, Jennifer Harvey and Christina Dalcher. It was Richard who first suggested putting together a team, to help strengthen the website and have a team to help compile the zines, and as a sounding board for ideas and advice. Working in a bubble can be difficult at times, so having a team of writers to work with has been invaluable.

What are you looking for in a piece that you hope to publish?

We want to publish stories that make us forget where we are, stories that introduce us to people, places and things we’ve never seen before and stories that stick with us long after we leave them. In the same way a great song, novel or film, hangs around with the audience. We want a great piece of flash to be something that will be read again and again, and something that will linger.

Can you tell us about the process from submission to publication in the online and print zines?

With print online submissions, I try to get back to everyone within seven days. If selected, I may put forward minor edit suggestions and then provide a date for publication. This is usually scheduled around a month or so later, depending on the time of year. With the print publications, the time between submission and selection is a little longer. With the last few zines, I’ve had one or more of the editorial board compile the list of published work for me. Again, once chosen, we ask for minor edits to the work. Once the zine is compiled, I will send page proofs to all writers, to ensure I’ve copied everything over correctly. At this point, writers have the opportunity to make any last minute changes. This is usually a week or two before publication.

Do you have any advice for authors sending you submissions?

That’s a tough question, because I tend to want to publish a wide mix of work, but it is important to note that it is all subjective. I’ve published sci-fi, horror and humour and I do notice trends with submissions. I sometimes get a batch of work that hasn’t made the longlist/shortlist of a competition, because they are all on the same theme. I’ve also noticed that I can receive a large amount of work based on death, relationship breakdown, dementia etc. I have written pieces on these subjects myself, and although, individually they are brilliantly written, when I receive a lot of them, they can lose their impact. I’d suggest that anyone who approaches these subjects to think a little differently. This will help set the work apart from others.

Can you tell us a little about the expansion into areas such as the Novella-in-Flash, collections, and zines celebrating LGBTQ writers?

Much like everything with Ellipsis, the expansion into publishing Novella-in-Flash and collections stemmed from wanting to try something new. Stephanie Hutton’s novella was a huge success, selling much more than any of the other zines and so it was natural to try and replicate that success. Talking with Stephanie about an open call, she put forward the idea of publishing an author who wasn’t as established – hence, the call for a debut flash collection from an unpublished author. This desire to give underrepresented voices a platform, naturally, influenced the decision to publish a zine that celebrated LGBTQ writers and their work.

What are your plans for Ellipsis for the coming year?

We have an extremely busy year ahead. There are a few flash events, which I will be attending in the Summer: National Flash Fiction Day, June 15th, has just been confirmed, and a publication launch. Our Love | Pride zine, celebrating LGBTQ writers and their work, is released at the end of February, along with a flash fiction collection in April/May. The Summer zine publication will be collection by a single author. Later in the year we’ll have a call for submissions for another zine and a micro-fiction competition. There are ongoing website submissions and, at some point, I may need to have a lie down.

You have recently had some of your own work published. Can you tell us about your own writing?

I’m still finding my feet with my own writing, but running Ellipsis has been extremely helpful. I have read some amazing work and this has enabled me to see what does/doesn’t work with a piece of flash. I began to write my own novella-in-flash, which was sidelined to write a novel, which was then sidelined to write another novel. At some point in the next few years I’m sure one of these projects may be finished.

What are your top five literary journals or magazines?

I love the work in Flashback Fiction. There is the added bonus of hearing the pieces being read by the authors. Popshot Magazine is also a favourite. I’m a sucker for a printed publication, and this is beautifully put together. I also regularly read MoonPark Review, TSS Publishing and Reflex Fiction, but this list is not exhaustive because there are so many great publications out there. I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite publications on the Ellipsis website here: ellipsiszine.com/literary-magazines/

Follow EllipsisZine on twitter: twitter.com/EllipsisZine or on facebook: facebook.com/EllipsisZine.LitMag

Ellipsis is managed by Steve Campbell and has the support of an editorial board of international flash fiction writers and published authors. View their biographies here: Editorial Board.

Steve Campbell has work published in places such as Spelk, Fictive Dream, MoonPark Review, Molotov Cocktail and Flashback Fiction. He is Managing Editor of Ellipsis Zine and trying to write a novel. You can follow him via twitter @standondog and his website, standondog.com.

Author Interview with Sarah Hegarty

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Sarah’s short fiction has been published by The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Cinnamon Press, Mslexia, the Momaya Annual Review, Hysteria 2, and on the web. Her work was shortlisted for the 2016 Fish Short Story Prize and the 2014 Bridport Prize. She is currently working on her second novel and is writer in residence at the George Abbot School in Guildford.

 

1. You have said that, ‘some stories will feel more precious.’ Which of your stories hold that place for you and why?

It’s a combination of the time and effort involved, and if a story taps into something difficult and personal. (Those are the best ones, obviously). My story ‘Something Hidden’ is dedicated to my sister, who died when she was a baby. Writing it was a way of remembering her and celebrating her life, which I was unable to do at the time. It was a long, slow process to uncover the shape of it, and to understand what I was trying to do. I love Stephen King’s quote – from his brilliant book, ‘On Writing’ – that ‘stories are relics […] the writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible’. Writing is definitely excavating for me. My story ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’, recently published in the MIR #14 anthology, is precious for a different reason: I wanted to show life in Beijing in 1980 – a world that has vanished. I also hope it gives voice to people whose stories have rarely been heard, particularly in the West. It took me years to wrestle onto the page, so I’m pleased it’s found such a good home.

2. How did you end up becoming a reader for The Brighton Prize, and what are you looking for in a good piece of writing?

I submitted a story, which didn’t make it, but was asked the following year to be a reader.

I’m looking for voice, first of all. A character I want to spend time with, who pulls me in, and makes me forget I’m reading: I’m just listening. I want to be in the story. Show me what your characters can see. Let me feel what they feel. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to be curious about them. Keep the pace moving. And then – let’s have a satisfying ending. Not twisty – but an ending that illuminates what’s come before, and makes you feel, yes: that’s how it should be. Beyond that, I love to see that the writer has cared enough about the work to check for spelling errors or typos. Of course, this answer is much easier to produce than a piece of original, engaging writing! That comes from endless reading, and endless practice. So the other thing I’m looking for is evidence that the writer is a reader, who has absorbed the shape of a story through reading other writers’ work.

3. How do you adjust to the changes between the long haul of the novel writing process and short fiction?

Badly! When I’m mired in editing and re-drafting, there’s nothing more tempting than the idea of a 2,000-word story, neat and perfectly formed (at least in my head). Being able to work on the arc of a short story in one go is hugely satisfying. One way I keep going with the novel (apart from searching out deadlines that make me sit on my chair) is to see each chapter as a short piece. I keep endless lists, and charts, and tick things off as I go, to give an illusion of progress… I’m always curious to see what my characters are up to, but I’m very bad at giving myself time to sink into the world of the book. It was a brilliant boost recently to be longlisted for the Mslexia Novel competition. That’s been a great incentive to keep working on the draft.

4. How did you feel to be shortlisted for the inaugural Bridport Prize First Novel Award and how has it impacted your work?

It was a great feeling. I entered on the off-chance, and was thrilled to get down to the final five, out of over 1200. It gave me a huge confidence boost, and the impetus to get on and finish the manuscript. I was lucky enough to meet some lovely people at the prize-giving whose feedback also encouraged me to keep at it.

5. You manage to create great tension in your writing. How do you capture the reader’s attention in just a few short paragraphs?

Thank you. By endless re-writing! I have a terrible tendency towards throat-clearing although I’m getting better at cutting to the chase. Before writing fiction I worked as a journalist, and I try to report what’s happening so that the reader can be in the story; in the moment. ‘Keep Moving’ is a useful motto. But it’s all down to re-drafting; trying to be clear about the focus of the story; and giving it time to cook.

6. You run creative writing workshops for students. What do you enjoy teaching and what do you use as inspiration?

I love the whole process of engaging with students and hearing their work. I always enjoy workshops on character, but I’m happy to teach viewpoint, dialogue – whatever might be useful. I love being able to talk about the technical process of writing – the tools at the writer’s disposal, if you like – and then handing the toolkit over to the students and hearing what they come up with. It’s always interesting, and unexpected. I feel privileged when they share it with me.

For inspiration – all sorts of prompts, word games, challenges. I love using physical objects, as well as newspaper and magazine cuttings – anything that catches my eye. My stories have often been prompted by a visual clue, and I hope that works for my students too.

7. Who are your favourite writers or inspiring quotes?

Too many to mention! I love Lucia Berlin’s short stories. Sebastian Barry’s prose is perfect. One of the best books I’ve read this year was ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain:  a fascinating and poignant imagining of Ernest Hemingway’s life with his first wife, Hadley. It sent me back to his work with new eyes. I’m currently reading VS Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ about his Indian heritage and his life as a writer. And I’ve just started ‘The Dawn Watch’, Maya Jasanoff’s biography of Joseph Conrad.

The quote I keep on my desk is, ‘You get knocked down, you get up again. I also think writers must have great courage, the courage to trust your own life and your own voice.’ It’s from screenwriter Ashley Pharaoh, who co-wrote ‘Life on Mars’ (as well as many other things). It inspires me.

8. Can you tell us about the Mechanics’ Institute Review ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop?

It was organized by the editorial team at MIR, as part of the preparations for MIR Live, events around the UK where the MIR#14 authors read extracts from our stories. We learned how important it is to relax before reading. One of the ways to ‘loosen up’ was to lie on the floor, humming – a good ice breaker! We looked at the kind of extract that works well, read aloud: short, simple and clear. And we practiced reading – and breathing in the right places. It was a fun evening that gave me lots of useful ideas. I’ve written about it in more detail on my blog: www.sarahhegarty.co.uk  The next MIRLive events are in London (November 17) Birmingham (November 23) and Manchester (January 12). It would be great to see you at one of them!

9. If you had an opportunity to ghost write, whose biography would you choose to write and why?

I hate the idea of ghost writing. Each person’s voice is unique. I would much rather teach someone how to find that voice, and trust it – and then hear what they have to say.

10. Where and how do you write best, are there better times of the day, or helpful locations?

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops with a pen and notebook, and the intention to write, but I find other people too fascinating and distracting.  I can really only write at my desk, surrounded by photos, and cards from friends, inspiring quotes (see above!) and towering piles of books. The other place is Arvon. I’ve been lucky enough to go on an Arvon course, and it’s exhilarating and inspiring to sit at a desk overlooking a peaceful garden, mug of tea to hand – and nothing to do but write until the next meal!

I used to love working late into the night but reality kicked in with family life, and I tend to keep office hours. If I’ve got a deadline I still might creep back to my desk after dark. While the family sleeps I’ll drink endless cups of tea and stare in panic at the screen, and feel like a student again.

You can find Sarah at sarahhegarty.co.uk or @SarahHegarty1

 

 

Author Interview with Anthony Black

Today I interview author, A. Joseph Black, from Carnlough, Ireland. His short stories and flash fictions have been published online in literary magazines and in print anthologies. His story, Just Thinking, is in Schooldays, a collection of poetry and flash fiction from Paper Swans Press, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Anthology. His long short stories By the Lake and Nora have been published as chapbooks in Australia. He has recently been Shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017.

  1. What drew you to writing short stories and do you have any key inspirations?

I should probably declare straight away that I’m not a person who feels they have to write, that they’ll die if they don’t, that they just don’t make sense when they’re not writing. I would use the analogy of snooker, rather improbably. You like watching snooker on the TV, so you ring a friend and begin to play for an hour every week at the local snooker hall. You enjoy it as an observer at first, then you decide that you might enjoy actually trying it yourself. And that’s the basis on which I started writing. Late in life relatively speaking, at 44, I just thought, “I should have a go at this myself”. There are writers I love, obviously, but I’m quite undiscerning in what I read, as I think many readers are. I just like good stories well told. I mostly buy books in second hand shops, where immediately there’s a “found” aspect to it – you haven’t gone there to buy a specific book – and as the reader I love the different dynamic that creates. The last four books I bought were by Katherine Mansfield, Michael McLaverty, Raymond Chandler and Nick Hornby, all second hand. Does that tell us anything? I’m not sure it does.

2. Do you plan your stories or do they evolve as you begin to write?

After my long short story first piece, I continued by starting to write microfictions and flashes, as low as 100 words. With a piece that short, you can’t have character development or a narrative arc. Most often the “idea” is a single point of light – a noise, a phrase, an image – and you just place that in a sympathetic, complementary environment, like setting a jewel. I could have some of those written, revised, edited and pretty much finished in my head before I ever put a word down on paper. Of course, that only worked with very short pieces.

By the time my stories had reached 4,000 words and beyond, like Nora and By The Lake, I found I was planning as a necessity. I find it much more time-inefficient to not plan, and I have to really fight for my writing time, so for me it’s “well begun is half done.” And now I’ve come to enjoy planning and plotting. And it doesn’t mean, in my case at least, that the story can’t still surprise you, change materially, veer off, as you’re drafting it. They absolutely still do that, and it’s a big part of the fun of writing for me. But I do now find it prudent to provide myself with an outline superstructure when I start.

3. Is there any advice you can share with new writers who might be thinking of sending their work to literary journals or competitions?

Just get the really obvious stuff right: familiarise yourself with the type of material they publish, respect the submission guidelines, and never submit anything until you’re absolutely certain you can’t improve it any further. Impending competition/submission deadlines can make for some poor decisions about the quality of your work, in my experience. Also remember that if you’re not generating copious amounts of material then you need to manage your subbing carefully, noting response turnaround times etc. You don’t want your work tied up for months in a competition or with a lit mag. Even just waiting until right on the deadline before submitting mitigates this. You can simultaneously submit of course but do you really want that plate-spinning exercise to manage along with everything else?

And be realistic, for your sanity’s sake: there’s no reason not to shoot for the stars, just as long as you’re not then plunged into despair when your second ever finished piece is rejected by The New Yorker or doesn’t win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

4. Your writing is very descriptive. Do you picture the scene as you write or draw from your own experiences?

I like to picture it, to feel it, smell it, listen – and I want the reader to do all that as well. Again, it’s a function of the type of books and stories I myself enjoy reading. I love good descriptive writing. And it’s kind of frowned on a little now, I feel. Looked down upon almost. Like it’s telling, not showing. And yet if you read Daphne du Maurier, who I think is fantastic, she describes things endlessly: natural landscapes, physical appearances, even the weather. But the story’s barrelling along and you’re right there as the reader, in among the sights and sounds, and it’s exhilarating. If I can even get close to providing that sort of immersive experience for my reader I’d be delighted.

Some contemporary fiction leaves me a little cold, if I’m entirely honest. Too often it feels like an exercise in demonstrating how clever or erudite the writer is, with little or no consideration for the reader’s experience. Much of is actually too intellectual and abstract for my taste. And the lack of defined endings! I suppose I’m steeped in a very orthodox Irish storytelling tradition, but when I read a 5000 word short story which just stops – doesn’t end, or conclude, it just runs off – I find that so infuriating. Like I’ve been robbed of the time I spent reading it, however well written it was. As a reader I  want a well-defined, narratively satisfying ending, and I suppose that orthodoxy is apparent in my own stories.

5. How much does the writing scene in Northern Ireland influence your work and are you connected with other writers or groups?

Haha, I would never be a part of any scene that would have me as a member! There is some tremendous writing happening in NI presently and a thriving litmag scene with The Tangerine recently launching, and The Incubator, who were first to publish one of my stories, and first to give me the opportunity to read my work in public, which I love doing. Staring your listener in the eye is a blast because most of the time we’re closeted away in our writing space.

So I do know a few of the writers and editors like Michael Nolan, Kelly Creighton, Ruth McKee from readings, and I interact a lot with other NI writers on Twitter. As well as reading them, of course (six months after their book has come out and I can find a copy in a second hand shop). But I don’t think I’m much of a “scene” person. I can’t do the rounds of book launches and what have you – I have a full time job and five children all pulling on my time before I even get to my writing time, much less “scene time!”

There is definitely something in the air with NI writing at the moment though. I don’t know if anyone has ever satisfactorily defined “a scene” but I’d guess that’s what it is.

7. You mentioned beginning to write later in life. How did it all begin and what have you learned along the way?

It really was most unremarkable. Having enjoyed reading all my life, I just wanted to see if I could actually write. About six years ago I searched online for a writing prompt and found one that said “write a story in which the two main characters do something illegal and something immoral, but the reader retains sympathy for them.” And I wrote my first story, “An Encounter” (the title being a nod to Joyce, which is of course mandatory for all Irish writers or they revoke your citizenship). I realise now that was probably the worst/hardest prompt I could have found, but I wrote the story, learnt a lot in the process and – crucially – I enjoyed it. So I decided to write another one.

I do think I approach writing differently now than I would have in my 20s. For example, I don’t really set myself goals – there are things I wanted to achieve and did, such as having a story in translation in a foreign litmag, getting into a print anthology, my own name on the front of a book. But I’m not on a mission. I don’t have that iconoclastic zeal of youth. I don’t feel I need to kick over the statues, unseat the establishment and reinvent the novel. I just want to produce writing that people enjoy, that takes them away from their everyday life for the brief time that they’re reading my story.

8. What are you planning at the moment?

I didn’t write a word for almost 18 months last year and this, then I fell off the wagon in the summer when I wrote a short flash purely for my own pleasure. Immediately upon finishing it I saw that the Bath Flash Fiction Award closed at midnight so I submitted it (I’d never sent them anything before, but then I hadn’t had serendipity on my side before either) and it was shortlisted and will appear in the print anthology later this year. I suppose that reminded me of how fun and interesting and rewarding writing can be.

So with my fast broken, I’ve since finished the first draft of the short story I was working on when I downed pens last year (yes, I actually gave up writing right in the middle of a story, although the specific story wasn’t the problem, it just all felt like it had become a bit of a drag). I’ve now planned out a much longer piece, straying into novel-length territory, set in 1950s New York City. It’s inspired by three Edward Hopper paintings. I always look at the people in Hopper’s paintings and wonder what their story is –  What are they thinking? Are they waiting on someone? Who? And then I thought, “Well, why not take some of them and give them that story?” So that’s what I’ve done: the main figures in Hopper’s paintings Nighthawks, NY Movie and Gas are now Eddie, Marion and Victor, my three central characters. It has kind of a “noir” vibe, and it involves a crime, but beyond that I’m not really sure how it will look or sound if it ever emerges. But that’s the fun of writing.

And for me, writing should be fun. Writers who complain about how hard it is to write are the worst! If it isn’t fun, then you probably need to do it differently, or stop doing it altogether. I mean, it’s not heavy lifting and you’re inside out of the weather almost all of the time.

You can visit him at www.ajosephblack.com or join him on Twitter at @a_joseph_black.

Interview – Lecturer, Editor, Critic, SALT and Granta Author, Jonathan Taylor

jonathan-taylor

 

Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007), and the short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman, 2013 and 2014). He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. He lives in Loughborough with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind.

His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.

1. Your novels have been published by Salt and a memoir by Granta Books. You also write short fiction. Do you have a preference and how does your approach to each of these differ?

I write in lots of different forms and genres – short fiction, novels, non-fiction and poetry. Part of the reason is that I get bored easily, and, once I’ve finished something, I want to do something totally different. In the short term, that means something totally different to writing – like getting drunk or cleaning the bathroom. But given that getting drunk and cleaning the bathroom are fairly transient pursuits, I eventually come back to writing, in a different form or genre.

So the short answer is no: I don’t have a preference for any of the forms. In fact, I think our culture overrates novels at the expense of other forms – and that short fiction and creative non-fiction are often unfairly overshadowed by the weird fixation on novels (much as, of course, I love the novel form). Short fiction is actually going through a real renaissance, I think, in Britain – the sheer variety and vitality of what’s being written in terms of short stories is wonderful. It’s much more diverse than it was when I first started writing short stories in the dark ages of the 1980s. As for poetry, I’m sceptical of the ways in which it is both marginalised by our culture, and marginalises itself: too often, it is dismissed as irrelevant to people, and too often what gets lauded within certain enclosed communities really is irrelevant, at least in part. The best performance poets understand this, and speak directly to people (and hence get massive audiences). There are so many ways in which so-called “page poets” could learn from performance poets (and no doubt vice versa). They shouldn’t be separate things.

So I love all the forms I write in. My approach to them doesn’t really differ, in that I do believe, ultimately, that the forms all overlap: short fiction has a lot in common with poetry, especially in terms of style; and, in a theoretical sense, it’s hard often to differentiate creative non-fiction from fiction. Again, writing poetry, for me, arose naturally from writing memoir: poetry is often a kind of fragmented (shattered) memoir form. At base, all forms of so-called “creative” writing are also kinds of storytelling (even lyric poetry, despite what people claim). Homer, after all, was a poet, a musician, a storyteller, a “novelist” (in a loose sense), a performer, and (again in a loose sense) a kind of non-fiction writer (in that he treats the stories as though they are “true”). The same might be said of Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare: these writers do lots of different things at once. And Dickens is actually one of the greatest poets: there are passages of Dombey and Son which, though laid out as “prose,” constitute some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

2. I really enjoyed the short fiction anthology, Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud. As an editor, do you focus more on line edits or on content and structure; is there an overall theme that you have in mind?

I’ve edited work in lots of different contexts, but for Overheard I’d selected the writers myself for the anthology (rather than putting out a general call for submissions) so I knew I’d get good stuff! It makes editing much easier, of course, when the basic material is excellent. I’m a fairly “interventionist” editor, which I know can by annoying; but I’d want the same for my own writing. You can’t entirely ever, on your own, make your writing as good as it could be, let alone perfect: I believe you always need external advice and suggestions from someone you trust. Sometimes, as you become more experienced, those critical voices are internalised – so you have editors in your head, as it were.

At the moment, I’ve just started thinking about co-editing a new short story anthology, with the wonderful writer Karen Stevens. The theme came first: we decided (over a lot of wine) that we wanted to put together an anthology of ‘Drinking Stories.’ There are, of course, strong traditions of ‘drinking songs’ and even ‘drinking poems’ in many cultures – but we want to show how there’s also a tradition of stories structured around the pleasures and pains of alcohol. Chekhov famously likened the short story to a shot of vodka – and there’s a real and metaphorical and structural relationship between the short story form and alcohol. There are stories about drinking, and there are also stories which simulate the effects of drinking (including a wonderful passage in David Copperfield). The relationship between storytelling and alcohol goes back to Chaucer and, in other cultures, even further.

Having said that the theme is the starting-point for editing, I think the important thing is to choose a theme in which the writers involved can do lots of different things. The whole point of an anthology is diversity – so you don’t want to make people write in the same way, or produce something uniform. That’s the readerly joy of an anthology, the unexpected, the tensions and conflicts as well as overlaps between the stories within.

3. Your work has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award and the Saboteur Best Short Story Collection, and longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize. Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud won the Saboteur Best Fiction Anthology. What do you think makes good writing stand out, and is an originality of style essential?

Oh gosh, I’m going a bit red now. But honestly, awards and prizes – no one can deny that they’re pleasant – but ultimately they mean nothing. They are purely subjective attempts to impose order and hierarchy on a contemporary writing world which (in the best sense) is chaotic and multifarious and packed with thousands of wonderful, jostling books. In a way, prizes can be a way of denying that wonderful multifariousness and diversity, of impoverishing literary culture. I’m not saying that’s what they do – just that that’s the danger of them, and people end up just reading what they’re told (by awards, publishers, bookshops) to read, instead of discovering the huge variety of what’s actually out there, over the horizon. Perhaps some of the best books are over the horizon, out of sight, hidden from public view. One shouldn’t just read what one is “told” to read – one should also read at random, books one happens across, books discovered in corners, books from unfamiliar genres, books with pretty covers or intriguing titles.

Obviously, it’s a big question: what makes good writing stand out? I wish I knew. No doubt, in many ways, I’m a stylist, and I do think “originality of style” is of vital importance, maybe primary importance. Having said that, I’m not sure what “originality” would consist of in that respect. Still, there’s something beautifully musical about good writing – it should sound like music, either out loud or inside someone’s head. Short fiction and poetry in particular are, I think, musical forms at root, using rhythm, melody and interweaving voices (for example, in fictional dialogue) in a way not dissimilar to Bachian counterpoint. For that reason, good fiction (I think – but what do I know?) is a place in which, as Mikhail Bakhtin might have said, different voices, tones, registers meet, interweave and clash.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the writing I love the most mingles comedy and tragedy, horror and beauty, laughter and pathos, sometimes in the same sentence. I’m currently writing an academic book about laughter and its close relationship with horror and violence in the work of nineteenth and twentieth-century writers like Poe, Dickens, Carlyle, Wyndham Lewis, Edmund Gosse, Shirley Jackson.

4. Where did your writing journey begin?

When I was ten I gave up wanting to be a train driver, Prime Minister, astronaut or James Bond and decided to do something much more difficult – that is, become a writer. It was only many years later that I realised – in retrospect – that this was, coincidentally or not, the same moment that my father started getting ill. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and an associated form of dementia. I wonder now if storytelling (and writing) is always about loss, or, to be more specific, always a poor replacement for a something which has been lost. In my case, it was an unconscious substitute for lost memories and histories. This is not to say that all writing and storytelling are forms of nostalgia – just that they are signs of a Fall, a lost world, fracture. That’s why so many writers are in exile, literally or metaphorically. In a wider sense, I think consciousness in general – which is, in the end, a kind of storytelling – is the result of loss, fragmentation, splitting. And that’s why, for many people, their earliest memories involve getting lost, or being separated from their parents. One of my earliest memories is of wandering round a big department store in Stoke-on-Trent, searching for Father Christmas. I didn’t find him, and ended up losing my parents as well. There’s some kind of allegory for life and writing hidden there.

5. As a Creative Writing Lecturer, how much can good writing be taught, or is it more a case of feeding a gift that has already taken root? 

As I’ve said on many an occasion, I believe all aspects of writing can be taught – or, at least, learned, which might be a slightly different thing. I suppose I’m a nurturist, and believe that there is no such thing as a “gift” in writing – nothing, as far as I’m concerned, which might be termed “natural.” This may be different for maths or music, where child prodigies do sometimes occur, but writing is an entirely artificial and learned activity. Hence why there are so few (if any) child prodigies in the field of writing.

Maybe all this comes from my own experience: I learnt to read and write very late (my father thought there was something wrong with me); and then it took me years, decades to develop my writing to the point of it being publishable (whatever that means). Each little step was painfully won. I’m amazed by some of the students I teach, who can write fabulously at 20: it took me years and years of effort to improve. And I’m not the only one – after all, many famous authors took to writing quite late (Joseph Conrad is an obvious example). Writing is crawling. Reading, by contrast, should be effortless: the writer puts all that effort in to make reading a straightforward pleasure for the reader. That’s one of the paradoxes at the heart of writing: writing is difficult, hard-won, in order to make reading a simple pleasure.

6. Can you tells us about your role as co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators? 

I set up Crystal Clear Creators in 2003 with Robin Webber-Jones. It’s an arts organisation which develops, records, produces, publishes and promotes new writing, both for radio and in print. We’ve done a lot of different things with it over the years – run workshops and courses, published anthologies and pamphlets, produced radio dramas and run short-term radio stations. So it’s all very varied. At the moment, CCC is involved as co-organiser (along with Nine Arches Press and the Centre for New Writing) of the bi-monthly Leicester Shindig, an open-mic poetry night which has become quite well known. Otherwise, I’ve had to step back from it for a couple of years – what with twins, a full-time job and my own writing, time is at a premium. Still, we’re hoping to run a new project in the next year or so, and relaunch the whole organisation. It’s a social thing as well: writing can be such an isolating activity, so working with other writers in forums like CCC breaks you out of that. Again, this is another paradox in writing: it’s a displaced form of communication, in which you speak to lots of people, but it originates (by and large) in a very lone activity. You write for readers, but you do so on your own in a shed or in front of a computer. Writing is a kind of displaced social activity – it’s an act of communication, a meeting place, on the page.