Review: The Retreat, Alison Moore

SALT Publishing, 2021

Since childhood, Sandra Peters has been fascinated by the small, private island of Lieloh, home to the reclusive silent-film star Valerie Swanson. Having dreamed of going to art college, Sandra is now in her forties and working as a receptionist, but she still harbours artistic ambitions. When she sees an advert for a two-week artists’ retreat on Lieloh, Sandra sets out on what might be a life-changing journey. 

Since reading Alison Moore’s Man Booker shortlisted novel, The Lighthouse, and subsequently her collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, her work has drawn me in with its tight prose and an unnerving sense of foreboding. She has a gift for honing in on fine detail, memory and doubt, creating a sinister unease. There is tension even in the simplest of details and a layered story, where realities shift and doubt creeps in. An other worldliness fills her writing in a way that leaves you questioning and searching for what might be and what might not.

“Sandra wants to be inspired, just like Angie was inspired by the chapel and wrote that poem that everyone said was beautiful. She wants to paint something that she can be proud of, something the others will admire, something she could bear to hand on a wall.”

A sense of isolation is created so well in the mind of Sandra, a thread that runs through many of her characters and books. In The Retreat, this is thrown into the fore as the chapters alternate between what is going on in the mind of Sandra against a narrative that weaves in the actions of the other characters, some of whom the reader will begin to detest. She writes with subtlety, each sentence punching with the weight of a skilled storyteller.

“Carol had understood that the students had arranged to shoot the whole film on the island, sleeping in the house, which had running water and electricity and so on – but something had not worked out, although Carol is not clear what that something was.”

As the chapters shift between Carol, who is alone in a seemingly haunted house on another island and trying to write a novel, and Sandra, who becomes increasingly ostracised by the other artists in the sparse house that they are staying in for an artists’ retreat, many of Carol and Sandra’s thoughts repeat and expand, reflecting the minds of introverts that Moore cleverly creates. You feel an increasing sense of disconnect and longing in Sandra, as she walks to a spot each day to paint the island where Carol is staying, at one point finding someone else in her spot. You expect, and almost hope, the two will meet.

“She wonders what the hell she is doing here, naked at night on the rocks; she is no longer sure that she wants to jump, but she is here now, and she will do it.”

So much of the power of this novella lies in the details: the missing glove, the disregard of Sandra’s needs by her fellow artists, the sounds that Carol hears in the night, the misplaced objects in both of their realities. It’s a gripping book that I read in one sitting on the day that it arrived! Moore creates something that leaves you trying to grasp what is just out of reach. The weight of the story will resonate with you far beyond the end of the pages.

Alison Moore’s short stories have been published in various magazines, journals and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror, and broadcast on BBC Radio. The title story of her first collection, The Pre-War House, won the New Writer Novella Prize; her second collection, Eastmouth and Other Stories, will be published in autumn 2022.

Her first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. She recently published her fifth novel, The Retreat, and a trilogy for children, beginning with Sunny and the Ghosts.

Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives in a village on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border with her husband, son and cat. She is an honorary lecturer in the School of English at the University of Nottingham and a member of the National Association of Writers in Education.

Find her at https://www.alison-moore.com

Flash Fiction Evening with David Gaffney and Tania Hershman

The Milton Keynes Literary Festival moved online this year, with a series of events for their autumn program, which culminated in a wonderful evening of flash fiction readings from David Gaffney and Tania Hershman and a Q&A session of questions from participants. Most, not easy to answer, but, as Tania mentioned, there are no rules. We talked about what flash fiction is, or what it might be, and about permission to leave things out, to be daring.

It was good to see familiar faces, and meet new ones. David Gaffney swept us up into the world of his clever graphic novel, The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head, which began as a performance, based on several of his micro-fictions, and is the title of one of my favourite stories in his collection, More Sawn-Off Tales. In amongst this brilliant collection of 150 word stories, The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head describes the men she hides in the cellar. “Sometimes she would bring three of four ex-boyfriends up from the cellar and arrange them into scenes – a trad-jazz band, or a dispute around a pool table – and she would move their jaws and make them speak in scratchy voices.” He draws us into the world of Valerie’s life of inept lovers and weird obsessions.

Thought-provoking lines from Everything’s West Of Something began, mid-action, with a vase flying through the air. “You can discover everything about your girlfriend by tossing a breakable object towards her.  Is she poised? Confident in her judgements? Does she seem willing to take responsibility for someone else’s actions? Is she comfortable with spontaneity? What is her attitude to risk, debt, transgression, sin, guilt? How does she experience the passing of time? Does she appear to believe in an afterlife? An interventionist god? Ghosts, fate, predestination?”

All Mod Cons was another wonderful reading, about Jake, who “invented a prescription glass windscreen for his car so that he could drive without wearing his corrective lenses. He enjoyed the feeling of freedom – no plastic pads digging into his nose – and it had the added advantage that car thieves couldn’t drive the vehicle unless they happened to have the same degree of myopia.”

We discovered the way that stories formed as he listened and observed details of every day life, with Potato Smiles evolving from an overheard conversation between a couple, where the woman had inadvertently been looking at the children’s menu, had never heard of potato smiles, and ended up ordering them with her steak! These are the nuggets of information that listeners savour, the moments that fuel and form a story.

He talked about inspiration drawn from Lydia Davis’ writing as a short story author. As he read a 150-word flash fiction piece about Eggborough Power Station, a slide show was projected on to the wall behind. This was a work of art in itself. The stories were varied, and, as always, utterly captivating. You can find David’s books at Salt and elsewhere.

Photo credit: Sarah-Clare Conlon

Tania Hershman treated us to readings from her collections, The White Road and Other Stories, My Mother Was an Upright Piano and Some of Us Glow More Than Others, as well as stories from many other places. She has an almost hypnotic style of reading, drawing you into a scene and holding you there, momentarily. Listen to her read a selection of work on SoundCloud. Her writing, often based on Science, is bold, quirky and gives a brutally honest insight into human nature and nature itself. Tania’s Science Journalism background, along with a Writer in Residence year in a lab, feeds into every fibre of her writing. She read two of my favourite stories:

Vegetable Mineral took us into some snappy and insightful dialogue, keeping us hooked to the end. “When you came back with the post, you held the letters out to me as if the red ink would burn through you like acid. ‘Let’s run away,’ I said. ‘Barbados, Brighton, Bermuda, Brooklyn.’ ‘Only B’s?’ you said, and slumped onto the couch. ‘Today is brought to you by the letter B,’ I said. ‘Animal,’ you said. ‘Domesticated?’ I said as I shoved the bills down the back of the armchair.’”

How to be Here, took us on a journey to a riverbank. “Hover, over exactly that spot on the river, half way between the locks and listen. After an hour, century or minute, land on this bank, wait, in long grasses and inhale.” Tania’s stories leave you clasping hold of the final few words, willing them to stay and tell you more. You can find Tania’s books on her page at Bookshop.org.

Sipping from an enviably beautiful cup, Tania answered questions about story length and how to balance narrative with dialogue. She talked about a 800 word story, which took two and a half years to write, and when asked about story length, we learned that David has been asked by editors to expand his work at times, whereas Tania often cuts down her writing, culling the words and reforming a story. Both talked about the feel and shape of a story, and felt that no two writers work the same way, and no two stories are created by any specific process. She discussed her hybrid writing, the freedom of form, and the idea of losing labels. We talked about the importance of permission to be freer with what you write, to take risks.

Photo credit: Tania Hershman

I have, by no means, covered all the stories we heard, but I hope this gives a flavour of the evening. A recording of the session will be available on YouTube within the next few weeks and I’ll add a link here for you to watch. Thank you to the Milton Keynes Literary festival for organising this event, and to Dave Wakely for chairing. Next time, we’ll all bring cake!

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.