A Review: He Wants, Alison Moore

he wants

 

Retired teacher Lewis Sullivan always imagined living by the sea.

He lives instead in the Midlands village in which he was born. His grown-up daughter visits every day, bringing soup. He does not want soup. He frequents his second-favourite pub, where he can get half a shandy, a speciality sausage and a bit of company.

When a childhood friend appears on the scene, Lewis finds his life and comfortable routine shaken up.

In the wake of Moore’s award-winning first novel, The Lighthouse, and her debut short story collection, The Pre-War House (which I reviewed here), my expectations were high and this book did not disappoint. With Moore’s typically sparse plot, her attention to the minute detail of everyday occurrences, and her use of quiet tension, I sunk into this and did not resurface until I reached the end. At 182 pages, it is a short novel but needs no further chapters; its impact lies, in part, in its brevity and in its silences.

I appreciated John Oakey’s clever cover design, and the irony of the brightness of the yellow against the protagonist’s rather dull existence. It is possible that the colour yellow is scattered throughout the text for this very reason. Lewis Sullivan’s reserve and quiet desperation is painful at times, but he also resists change in the same way that a child might stamp his feet. Although, Lewis’s determination to keep a routine existence is done quietly and without a fuss. His occasional need to break out or to experience something new, something shocking, touches on the natural curiosity in all of us, and reminds us of the idea that there is always more beyond the borders of our existences. There is something inherently Freudian about the focus on Lewis’s loss, his inhibition and self-absorption.

Moore’s skill lies in lulling the reader into a comfortable, but temporary, sense of experiencing the ordinary, before she shocks the reader with an aggressive and threatening outside force through language which makes the character feel uncomfortable, or a dry expression and a sense of foreboding. Without giving away the ending, the whole story builds up to an unexpected climax, leaving you replaying the story to see where the clues may have been buried in the pages, if at all. Lewis Sullivan’s routine existence, with daily visits from a daughter with whom he shows no real connection, is shaken up when his old pal, Sydney, resurfaces, causing unexpected disruption to Lewis’s days. The fact that Sydney is also a far-flung destination is not lost on the attentive reader.

The book title is followed through with chapter headings beginning with an ominous, He does not want…, He wants…, or He wanted to… There is a combined sense of anticipation, regret, fear and uncertainly in each chapter – with much of the tension rising from what is left unsaid, in the unspoken sentences – in as much as his life is made up of the things he did not do and the places he did not visit. And then there is the matter of the dog who is weaved through the pages, a dog whose ownership is unclear. At one point we find ourselves in the company of the two characters and the dog in the kitchen, and it is unclear for a while to whom both the dog and the kitchen belong: “The man, who has been looking at him, looks at him some more and then says, ‘Your house?’ ‘Yes,’ replies Lewis. ‘You are in my house. This is my kitchen. You are sitting in my wife’s chair at my kitchen table. I thought for a moment that this was my dog.'” In the following lines Lewis wonders if he is being burgled. I can’t help thinking of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as we wonder about the intruder. There is an almost surreal element to the book, a sense of other-worldliness.

The themes of religion and eternity are well expressed with their uncertainties and extremes, in particular in the chapter,  He wants to fly, where we are drawn back in time to Lewis’s father taking him to see Billy Graham in Manchester at the age of eighteen. His concerns about baptism focus on whether or not a person would need to be clothed or naked, and whether it would require a clean pair of pants. He lists some of the Thou Shalt Nots of the Bible, with which many are familiar, in a way that may threaten to close his life in even further.

The narrative is beautifully layered, with generational links and well-planned time frame jumps. So many elements of the book feel familiar, yet much is also unexpected. Themes of loneliness, memory and loss are unfolded with a deep originality. Lewis is, at times, an unreliable narrator and I sense that Moore enjoys this element of surprise. This book is not for those who want a fast paced thriller, but there are dark aspects to He Wants and an intensity of emotion that will pull you in until the last page.

I’m off to buy myself a new suit and travel the world!

Writing Process Blog Tour

I have been invited by author Rebecca Bradley to answer some questions about my current writing as part of a writing process blog tour. You can read her answers on her blog.

So here are my responses to the following questions:

What are you currently working on?

I am working on the ending of my second novel. The first was historical fiction, and set in 1980s/1990s Prague. It was a fictional take on the impact of the fall of communism on the lives of the Czech people, and the ensuing changes. This one is entirely different. It’s a thriller, set in Vienna, and was inspired by a trip to an auction house in the city during the annual Long Night of Museums over a year ago, which you can read about here and here. I stood next to a Canaletto painting, which was said to be expected to fetch ten million euros at auction. So many thoughts surfaced, from who would pay that much for one work of art and where would it end up, to imagine if I just lifted it and walked away with a painting. Crazy, I know, but such is the imagination of a writer! And from there, a whole story began to unravel. Researching art theft has been fascinating and I particularly enjoyed reading insights from the founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, Robert Wittman. His memoir, Priceless, is really worth a read. In it, he discusses how he went undercover to rescue some of the world’s most valuable stolen art treasures, and he highlights the need for greater expertise in the area of the theft of cultural property. Several of my short stories have been published online and won various competitions, so I am also polishing a collection for publication.

canaletto

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I read a lot of literary fiction and I really dislike all the genre segregation and the debates surrounding what makes good writing. In my view good writing is good writing regardless of its genre. Does the genre categorisation make literary fiction genreless? Nobody seems to agree. I don’t believe that any one type of writing is better than another. I’m happy about the rise of the short fiction form and hope that all forms and genres can be equally celebrated. My current novel is written in the first person, present tense, which many would say is tough and risky, but I think it works and it has certainly held my attention for long enough to continue with the story. It helps the reader to get inside the mind (and fears) of the protagonist, which would be difficult from another perspective. It increases the tension. It is also set in Europe, and in a city I know well enough to include the minute details and the feel of the place.

Why do you write what you do?

Well, you’ve seen the variety – historical fiction, thrillers, short stories – and it probably reflects a highly varied taste in reading, but as far as the current work is concerned I find thrillers really intriguing in terms of what makes them work, especially psychological thrillers. I have been hooked by many great writers over the years and in a way they have fed into what I am currently writing. I also read a lot of short stories and am passionate about writing short fiction. You’ll find several on my website if you are interested.

How does your writing process work?

It always starts with an idea, which is followed by several vivid scenes. Once I can link them together I can start to plot and plan the story. I do quiet a lot of research, despite the fact that I write fiction, and I draft and re-draft, often adding in new scenes or scrapping parts which don’t quite work. You have to be unafraid of being ruthless. Readers will want to stop reading at points where you don’t edit properly. With the first book I cut out an entire family (who really had no place in the story) and several chapters. I once read that if you take every other word out of a text, the story still makes sense. Try it. It will show you how many unnecessary words can be used which could have been cut. Maybe I should reread this post! I work at an empty table with a strong coffee and some water. I don’t always feel hungry when I write, especially when I get caught up in the flow of the story. I take breaks to move around but I try to keep set time for writing and to treat it seriously. I guard my writing time and often snatch evenings to write when I can.

coffee

I’ll now pass the baton on to Fiona Melrose, Michelle Flatley, Colette McBeth and Jon Rance.

 

Interview with Costa Short Story Award Winner, Avril Joy

I would like to introduce you to our guest author, Avril Joy. With a degree in History of Art and experience as a social worker then a teacher at Goldsmith’s College under her belt, Avril has travelled widely, and it was her experience of working and teaching in prisons which drew her to my attention, as well as her clear gift for short story writing. Avril is a wonderful person and a truly inspiring writer. Her short story, Millie and Bird, won the first Costa Short Story Award in 2012. download (3) You have travelled to India, Kashmir and Nepal. Is travel a key source of inspiration for your work and how does it inform your writing?

I’m not sure about travel exactly, although my travels in India and Sri Lanka do feature quite strongly in my novel The Orchid House, but place is definitely an inspiration for me. For me, an idea for a story or novel often begins with a place and then obviously I have to go in search of the characters. I’ve always loved reading fiction that’s rich in place and atmosphere. I think travel is for the naturally curious and it’s good for a writer to be curious about places and the people who live there. I notice that Asian characters often pop up in my writing. I do love going to new places – I’m off to Venice for the first time soon and will definitely be keeping a journal to scribble down observations and ideas – but I also think that there is a rich source of inspiration to be found in the places where we live.

How did you begin teaching and then writing in a women’s prison, and in what way has the experience affected you as a person?

I began teaching in prison when I came back from my travels. I took a temporary post, just because it was on offer, which turned into a lifetime (certainly in terms of prison sentencing!) commitment. It affected me deeply but it’s not necessarily obvious in my writing, although it’s always there underneath. I’m always drawn to people, especially women, living on the margins, or in their own internal prison. Invisible lives interest me, the lives of those who have no voice. I learned a lot from the women in prison about freedom and survival, about laughter, and about not feeling sorry for yourself. There’s a great deal of pain inside a women’s prison but also a surprising amount of fun and also friendship which I’ve written about in my long short story (on Kindle), When You Hear the Birds Sing. I met the author Wendy Robertson in prison when she was appointed Writer-in-Residence. We struck up a great working relationship and ultimately a lasting friendship. She was the first person to encourage me. She told me I could write and in many ways that changed my life.

What drew you to Literary Fiction in particular?

I think this was simply a result of my life as a reader. I’ve always read and loved Literary Fiction and Poetry, so it was natural for me to write in a similar way.

You won the very first Costa Short Story Award in 2012. What is it about short fiction that many writers often love or fear?

What I love about writing a short story is that it allows you to experiment, to try different voices, to use language not so much as a vehicle for narrative but for its own sake, although simplicity and clarity are what counts. I love the intense nature of the short story and it’s ambiguity – the way you leave space for the reader to bring their experience and imagination to the piece. You have a chance with a short story to make it as perfect as you can. What I fear is that writing which is not good enough will be immediately exposed, it’s a very unforgiving form. Also for me I am often afraid that there isn’t enough of a story there and I’m not good at quirky or different and I can’t really do funny which I think is a real skill. I think perhaps my stories are too quiet for some taste but then those are probably the kind of stories I like to read.

What advice would you give to new writers in terms of publication and entering competitions?

I think competitions are great for getting work published or anthologised, also submitting to magazines and for this reason I feature opportunities for both in my free weekly newsletter which anyone can sign up for on my blog. It’s important to think about the particular competition you are entering or magazine you’re submitting to and to look at what they’ve chosen or published in the past, they often have a house style. Also make sure you follow the rules, but my best advice is to write the story you want to write and try to make it, in Nadine Gordimer’s words, ‘burn a hole in the page.’ The reader has to be affected or moved in some way by your story. Oh yes, I should also say, make the beginning good, draw the reader in. How to do all this? Learn from the best by reading the best.

Your blog posts are informative and inspiring, what have you gained from blogging?

I’ve been blogging for more than five years and in that time it’s given me a great sense of audience and helped develop my writer’s voice. I love that you can just hit publish and your words are out there, and this sustained me when my work was not being published. It’s also been a great place to celebrate mine and others’ successes. Blogging makes you a good editor and if you blog regularly it means you exercise the writing muscle. Also blogging has allowed me to share my experiences as a writer, both the ups and the downs, and maybe, I like to think, help or inspire others – once a teacher always a teacher I guess, it definitely fulfils that need in me.

The new short story collection, The Story: Love, Loss and the Lives of Women: 100 Great Short Stories, edited by Victoria Hislop, is out as an eBook with the hardback edition newly released on 26 September. Can you tell us about the collection?

It’s a wonderful collection of 100 stories written by women, selected by Victoria Hislop. I still can’t quite believe I’m in the anthology along with queens of the short story like Alice Munroe, Helen Simpson, Angela Carter, Katherine Mansfield… the list is remarkable. Of course my inclusion is down to winning the Costa which has given my writing a huge boost and a brought me a whole new audience and I’m very grateful for that. As well as being a cornucopia of stories the collection has a great introduction on the selection process, the nature of short story writing and what makes a good story. I think it would make a thoughtful and lasting gift for readers and writers alike. There is something for every taste here. Although I’ve been reading the collection on my Kindle, marvelling at one brilliant story after another, I’m most looking forward to getting my hands on the book itself in hardback, images (9) Featuring two centuries of women’s short fiction, ranging from established writers like Alice Munro and Angela Carter, to contemporary rising stars like Miranda July and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, this is the biggest and most beautiful collection in print today. Handpicked by one of the nation’s favourite novelists, Victoria Hislop – herself a great writer of, and champion for, short stories – and divided thematically into collections on love, loss and the lives of women, there’s a story for every mood, mindset and moment in life. CONTRIBUTORS INCLUDE: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, Daphne Du Maurier, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively, Katherine Mansfield, Hilary Mantel, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Ali Smith, Muriel Spark, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf. Special promotional price to celebrate the short story (limited period).

Avril’s collection of short stories, Millie and Bird and Tales of Paradise, will be published in 2014 by Iron Press. You can find Avril at www.avriljoy.com

Swimming Home

swimming home

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is a book that has been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I managed to reading it, amongst other books, while I was away last week. Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2012, I was expecting great things from this book and it did not disappoint.

As he arrives with his family at the villa in the hills above Nice, Joe sees a body in the swimming pool. But the girl is very much alive. She is Kitty Finch: a self-proclaimed botanist with green-painted fingernails, walking naked out of the water and into the heart of their holiday. Why is she there? What does she want from them all? And why does Joe’s enigmatic wife allow her to remain?

Both the unusual cover and the concept grabbed my attention from the start and I knew that this would be an allegorical journey in many ways. Levy’s use of visual constructs and rich symbolism retains a powerful hold over the reader’s experience. The wording is lyrical and enticing, wasting nothing. She casually underplays the devastating story as it reaches an unexpected climax. It has been described as a ‘literary beast’ of a novel and, although initially skeptical, I can understand why; I would agree. Reviews have been mixed, understandably, as her style is highly specific and will not appeal to all. Her power to draw in and to shock is almost a surprise and I found myself rereading parts of the text in disbelief. She uses subtle repetition to great effect and the prose has a circular narrative in that it ends almost where it begins. The outcome? Well, you’ll have to read it and decide what you think. I would highly recommend it to those who enjoy literary fiction and a short, sharp shock. I look forward to reading her newer short story collection, Black Vodka.

Asunder by Chloe Aridjis: A Review

download (1)

I was recommended this book by a friend and am so grateful to have read it. The rich language and the palpable tension in the narrative kept me turning the pages in one sitting until I reluctantly reached the end. It is a book I will go back to and reread at some stage. The similarity with what I am currently writing was also striking, so the read was timely.

“They call us guards, warders, invigilators, room keepers, gallery assistants. We are watchmen, sentinels, but we don’t polish guns, shoes or egos. We are custodians of a national treasure, a treasure beyond value stored behind eight Corinthian columns of a neoclassical façade, the dreams of the ancients stuccoed to our building.”

Marie’s job as a museum guard at the National Gallery in London offers her the life she always wanted, one of invisibility and quiet contemplation. But amid the hushed corridors of the Gallery surge currents of history and violence, paintings whose power belie their own fragility. There also lingers the legacy of her great-grandfather Ted, the warder who slipped and fell moments before reaching the suffragette Mary Richardson as she took a blade to one of the gallery’s masterpieces on the eve of the First World War.

After nine years there, Marie begins to feel the tug of restlessness. A decisive change comes in the form of a winter trip to Paris, where, with the arrival of an uninvited guest and an unexpected encounter, her carefully contained world is torn apart.

The book has a depth to it that pulled me in immediately. There is a magical darkness to her prose and the author’s descriptions and sharp eye for detail were compelling. It is powerfully and creatively written through the eyes of Marie, the museum guard. Her world and her insights into the people and places around her give you a sense of claustrophobia and of the parallels between the fragility of life and of the valuable paintings in the gallery. I have a particular interest in art and have spent many happy hours in various galleries around the world, so her research into the technical aspects of the topic were interesting.

A passage I really enjoyed describes the character’s feelings as she lies in a bed in Paris in the home of a couple who have recently separated and left the flat empty. There is a sense of the reader intruding on the intimacy of the the lives of the unknown couple:

“Yet almost immediately this darkness began to curdle into something viscous and heavy. As I lay in bed I began to speculate about the couple who’d slept in my spot for who knows how many years. I tried to imagine their faces, their bodies, their voices, whether they slept on their sides, stomachs or backs, whether intertwined or at separate ends of the bed, about whatever moments, fraught or transcendent, they’d lived out where I lay, what conversations, what passion or frustration. I began to worry I might inherit their dreams, that I’d find myself in ragged environments populated by ragged figures without knowing how to fend them off.”

There is something very abstract about Aridjis’ writing. She creates a world that is both surreal, yet very real. There is something of Nabakov in her style and she hones in on the idea of destruction and decay brilliantly, without overwriting.

This is an absolute must-read for anyone who enjoys literary fiction and the world of art. There is a strong psychological element to the story which gives it wide appeal. This book almost flew below the radar and I am so glad not to have missed it.

Interview with Strange Alliances

This is just a quick post to let you know that my interview with Elaine Aldred is over at her blog, Strange Alliances: F.C. Malby. Literally Engaged With Her Writing. We discuss my teaching experience in the Czech Republic just after the fall of communism, and various aspects of writing and publishing.

Many thanks to Elaine for taking the time to interview me. She is a wonderful support to writers and her backlist of author interviews is well worth the read. Do leave comments and feel free to ask any questions.

 

Short Story Writing

writing

I am in the thick of writing short stories and I really enjoy the punch that you can use to mould a high-impact piece of writing. Last night I read the new issue of Paraxis, a wonderful online publisher of short stories, and I was impressed by the range of prose delivered and the tension created in each short story. This current issue 04 is a publication of the works of both developing and established writers and the combination gels in a surprisingly smooth run of stories:

Seclusion

by Alison Moore

Looking out of Broken Windows
by Dan Powell

Saving Face
by Emma Seaman

The Rat-catcher
by Lorrie Hartshorn

Defacement
by Stuart Snelson

The House in the Woods
by Emily Cleaver

Dan Powell’s metaphorical cracked window panes were still on my mind this morning. The other stories had a similarly disturbing effect. Good writing, writing which lasts, leaves you feeling changed, it forces you to see the world through a different lens and nowhere more so than through a short piece of fiction.

My personal preference is for literary fiction, as that is what I immerse myself in when I read and write, but I was given Ian Rankin’s collection of short stories, Beggars Banquet, for Christmas. In a disturbing and gripping set of stories he covers stories of Edinburgh’s underworld to startling effect. It is important to read outside your genre and read widely, so my repertoire of books is expanding. There was an interesting review of Rankin’s collection on Amazon from a reader who does not usually read short stories who said it was like reading a whole novel in a short story.

This is the essence of the the short story. It should be a complete story in somewhere under 5,000 words. Many are a good deal shorter, but never lacking in impact, never leaving the reader wondering about the rest of the story, apart from to search for meaning and to think about where the characters have been and how they will be impacted by an event or a ending.

Fish Publishing, who publish anthologies of the works of international emerging writers and poets, describes the writing of short stories as being, ‘a glance at the miraculous. Joyce used a religious word. He called his stories ‘epiphanies’. A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realization. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb. There is a record by the American singer Tori Amos called Little Earthquakes. That’s a good metaphor for a short story. Often, a good short story will be a little earthquake.’

In an Introduction to the 1997 Fish Anthology, Dog Days & Other Stories,
Joseph O’Connor says this about the writers of this genre:

What kind of strange creature is a short story writer? I must confess that I don’t know. A high priest or priest of art? A wounded soul who can’t understand the real world and thus feels a need to re-invent it? A moralist? A Spinner of yarns? An entertainer? A prophet? Probably all of these things. Possibly none.

The single fact I can be sure about is this: writers are watchers. The one and only thing they have in common is an ability to look at the everyday world and be knocked out by it. Stopped in their tracks. Startled. Gobsmacked.

In an Introduction to the 2003 Fish Anthology, Feathers and Cigarettes & Other Stories, Pat McCabe quotes Frank O’Connor in saying that the form is as close as you could get to the lyric poem:

Henry Thoreau said that it didn’t have to be long but it would take a long while if you wanted to make it short. What was he saying this about? About the form we know as the ‘short story’. Everyone over the years has had something to say on the subject. For V S Pritchett it was an athletic form. If you got a good start you could sprint to the end, unlike the nineteenth-century novel. For Frank O’Connor, it was the closest you could get to the lyric poem, in that the novel requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.

Katherine Ann Porter wrote her stories in one sitting. Or so she said. But then writers say all sorts of things. Another thing that was said about the form – and I think it’s a good one – can be attributed to William Trevor. That it’s the ‘art of the glimpse’. Meaning that if the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story tends more towards impressionism. It is an explosion of truth and its strength ought to lie in what it leaves out as much as what it puts in, if not more.

As an aside – Just after I finished writing this post I discovered Charles May’s post on The Secret Life of the Short Story. In it, he discusses the work of  Alice Munro and William Trevor, two of the greatest short story writers in the world today. Munro has been compared to Chekhov. You can read a post on Chekhov’s short stories if you are interested.