Jonathan Pinnock - Writer of Stuff

NO SOONER THE WORD THAN THE FICTION

Opening Lines

p026jj45It’s that time of the year again, when the BBC open their virtual doors to unsolicited short story submissions from writers new to radio. If you are such a person and have a suitable story to hand (or can put one together in a couple of weeks), you have until February 13th to send it in.

I would thoroughly recommend having a go, by the way, because hearing your work read on national radio by a proper actor is, frankly, bloody wonderful. Even hearing the announcer saying your name is pretty fantastic.

However, the odd thing about Opening Lines is that it doesn’t seem to provide much of an opening into the BBC. I used to wonder if it was just me who didn’t get invited back (I thought I’d behaved myself, but you never can tell what other people really think), but it turns out that very few of us have been.

I really must emphasise that I’m not in the least bit ungrateful. Opening Lines was a wonderful thing to put on my CV, and I even got paid for it. I’m also quite sure that it helped me towards getting Dot Dash published. Indeed, if you look at the careers of a lot of other OL alumni, it doesn’t seem to have done any of them any harm either – most notably 2014′s Claire Fuller, who was recently identified as one of the new faces of fiction in the Guardian, no less. But it does seem a little odd that the BBC themselves appear to lose interest.

I recently Googled the names of all the 38 writers whose stories have been broadcast in OL since 2005, or Series 7 (I couldn’t find any data on the earlier years), along with the word BBC. One or two of them proved tricky owing to search pollution (particularly the one who happened to share the name of an ex-Speaker of the House of Commons), but the only ones I could identify as definitely having had further work commissioned were:

  • Zoran Zuvkovic (2005), who had a further short story broadcast two years after his OL appearance; however, he turned out to have had 11 full-length works of fiction and 5 works of non-fiction published before OL, so I’m not sure he really counts as an emerging voice,
  • Ian Dudley (2006), who had a further short story broadcast the year after OL,
  • Kachi A Ozumba (2007), who had a short story commissioned for The Verb three years after his OL appearance; as this was also after an acclaimed novel had been published, I’m not sure if OL can really be said to have been a factor.

(If I’ve missed anyone out, please do let me know.)

But as for the remaining 35 of us, it looks like we’ll have to be content with being one hit wonders. Still, there are worse things to be, and I will at least always have this to remember it by:

 

My Year of Reading

Last year I read 95 books. I was a little disappointed at this, because I really wanted to break the 100 barrier. I suppose I could have got a bit closer by counting all four volumes of “Dancers at the End of Time” as separate items, or indeed breaking up Lydia Davis’ collected stories into their consistent volumes. But then I might have had to rule that some of the shorter pamphlets and Kindle Singles didn’t really count as proper books either. So I’ll stick with that 95, with a note to myself to do better in 2015.

The books are a mixture of random stuff I’d had lying around for years, stuff I bought specially, stuff that I happened on in charity shops and – this was a new feature for 2014 – set texts for my Creative Writing MA. I’ll leave you to guess which.

Here we go. No star ratings, because (a) I can’t be bothered rating every single one and (b) I find it very awkward when there are books by people I know in there. I mean, obviously everyone I know is worth at least 6 stars, but some are worth 7 or 8, if you see what I mean.

And yes, I know there are two Dan Browns in there, and probably his worst two as well. Humour me.

Armitage, Simon Book of Matches
Atwood, Margaret The Handmaid’s Tale
Barden, Jenny Mistress of the Sea
Barden, Jenny The Lost Duchess
Barrett, Colin Young Skins
Benson, Fiona Faber New Poets 1
Birnie, Clive Cutting Up The Economist
Boo, Katherine Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Bradley, Lloyd Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital
Briggs, Raymond Ethel & Ernest
Brown, Dan Deception Point
Brown, Dan The Lost Symbol
Bryson, Bill Notes From a Small Country (re-read)
Calvino, Italo The Complete Cosmicomics
Chabon, Michael (et al) The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist
Cleave, Chris Incendiary
Conan Doyle, Arthur The Hound of the Baskervilles
Cook, Lin (ed) Something Like Fire: Peter Cook Remembered
Cope, Wendy Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis
Coutts, Marion The Iceberg
Davis, Lydia The Collected Stories
Dickinson, Ash Slinky Espadrilles
Didion, Joan The Year of Magical Thinking
Duffy, Carol Ann The World’s Wife
Engel, Matthew Eleven Minutes Late
Fleming, Ian Diamonds are Forever
Fleming, Ian From Russia With Love
Fleming, Ian Dr No
Frost, Toby End of Empires
Gaffney, David More Sawn-Off Tales
Gebbie, Vanessa The Half-Life of Fathers
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins The Yellow Wallpaper
Gleick, James Faster
Gough, Julian CRASH! How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love
Gough, Julian BANG! The Great Somali Goat Bubble
Grant, Linda I Murdered My Library
Greer, Bonnie Entropy
Gudgion, Geoffrey Saxon’s Bane
Haynes, Steve (Ed) The Best British Fantasy 2013
Hilary, Sarah Someone Else’s Skin
Johnston, Jennifer This is Not a Novel
Johnston, Jennifer Grace and Truth
Karlinsky, Harry The Stonehenge Letters
Kellaway, Lucy Who Moved My Blackberry?
Kerridge, Richard Cold Blood
Kurkov, Andrey Death and the Penguin
Larkin, Philip The Whitsun Weddings
Larsson, Stieg The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Larsson, Stieg The Girl Who Played with Fire
Larsson, Stieg The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Littler, Richard Discovering Scarfolk
Logan, Kirsty The Rental Heart
McBride, Eimear A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
MacDonald, Helen H is for Hawk
McEwan, Ian Atonement
McGough, Roger Melting into the Foreground
Malcolm, Janet The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
Milligan, Spike The Essential Spike Milligan
Mitchell, David Ghostwritten
Moorcock, Michael The Dancers at the End of Time
Moore, Alison The Pre-War House and Other Stories
Powell, Dan Looking Out of Broken Windows
Powell, Gareth Ack-Ack Macaque
Priest, Christopher The Dream Archipelago
Pryor, Richard Pryor Convictions
Ridgway, Keith The Spectacular
Rohan, Ethel Out of Dublin
Ronson, Jon Them (re-read)
Rose, David Posthumous Stories
Royle, Nicholas (Ed) The Best British Short Stories 2013
Sage, Lorna Bad Blood
Schalansky, Judith Atlas of Remote Islands
Sedaris, David Me Talk Pretty One Day
Simpson, MJ Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams
Smith, Ali The Accidental
Sobel, Dava Longitude
Tatsumi, Yoshihiro A Drifting Life
Thayil, Jeet Narcopolis
The Fiction Desk New Ghost Stories
Thompson, Ben Ban this Filth!
Thompson, Harry Tintin: Hergé & his Creation
Thorne, David I’ll Go Home Then, It’s Warm and Has Chairs
Toibin, Colm The Testament of Mary
Tolkien, JRR Mr Bliss
Townsend, Sue Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years
Turnbull, Bill The Bad Beekeepers Club
Vale, Brenda and Robert Architecture on the Carpet
Watson, Mark Hotel Alpha
Weaver, Dave Japanese Daisy Chain
Wilson, Anthony Riddance
Winchester, Simon The Surgeon of Crowthorne
Wodehouse, PG Joy in the Morning
Wodehouse, PG The Mating Season
Wodehouse, PG Ring for Jeeves
Wodehouse, PG Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

 

A few observations…

 

Series

I continued my journey through P.G.Wodehouse and continued to find it rewarding, with the exception of “Ring for Jeeves”, which was well below par, proving that you need both halves of the double act present to make the comedy work.

I’m still working manfully through the Bond books. They’re certainly improving, but not quite the classics I’d been hoping for.

I was very sad to get to the end of Adrian Mole and even sadder to know that there won’t be any more now.

 

Things I should have read aeons ago that turned out to be every bit as good as I expected

This year’s prime contender has to be “The Handmaid’s Tale” – an absolutely terrific sustained piece of dystopian fiction.

“Making Tea for Kingsley Amis”, as well as a classic that I should have read by now,  was also easily the most entertaining poetry book I read this year. Which brings me on to…

 

Poetry

I read more poetry books than ever this year, and many of them had some excellent moments. Generally speaking, though, I must confess that I’m still struggling find the kind of stuff that really appeals to me. I always come away feeling a bit of a lightweight. Possibly because I am.

 

New discoveries

Biggest discovery of the year was Jennifer Johnston. I literally bought “This Is Not a Novel” for 50p, and then only because a charity shop was selling off books at two for a pound and I needed something to go with “Eleven Minutes Late” (God, I sound a cheapskate). I love her style: very spare, straightforward and not a single word out of place. I intend to read a lot more of her work in 2015.

I’m also looking forward to reading more Ali Smith. “The Accidental” was the first of hers I’d read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I could certainly read more of Colm Toibin, too.

I’d had the “Atlas of Remote Islands” lying around on a coffee table for several years and I’m so glad I got round to reading it. It’s one of the most evocative books I’ve ever read. It’s also a thing of beauty.

“The Silent Woman” was the biggest surprise. It was one of the MA set texts and I wasn’t looking forward to reading it at all, knowing little of either Hughes or Plath beyond the stuff that everyone knows, but it’s one of the most riveting non-fiction books I’ve ever read. A fascinating insight into a whole strange world of literary fandom and factionalism.

 

Anyone else out there read and enjoyed / hated any of my 95? I’d be fascinated to hear what you think.

 

[UPDATE: Forgot to mention that the best short story I read last year, by a country mile, was Simon Bestwick's "Dermot", in "The Best British Fantasy 2013". Utterly chilling and morally challenging story, brilliantly told.]

The Canonisation of St Geoff and Other Stuff

Appearances 2014I haven’t had much in the way of short stories or poetry published this year, but this one, “The Canonisation of St Geoff”, in The Pygmy Giant, just snuck in under the wire.

Its genesis is quite interesting. In our very first Professional Skills workshop at Bath Spa, our tutor, Celia Brayfield, asked us to pick a word and then write down as many connotations as we could think of around it. We then passed it to the person next to us so they could add a few more. Then we had half an hour or so (I think) to write something using that material. And this piece (somewhat edited since) is what emerged. My word, incidentally, was “Saint”, for reasons which one day may become clear. Or not.

The picture shows three highly respectable print publications containing recent work of mine that I don’t think I’ve mentioned here previously. Issue 13 of Ariadne’s Thread contains my poem “Parable”. The Eleventh Annual Ultra-Short Edition of The Binnacle contains my flash “99942 Apophis. Finally, Unthology 6 contains my short story “Hay. Pee. Ah. Wrist.” It’s always nice to have stuff published, but even nicer to see it in print.

Happy Birthday, Jane!

janeaustenYes, it’s Jane Austen’s birthday today. And quite coincidentally, it’s also the fifth anniversary of the online publication of the prologue to Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens. Doesn’t time fly, eh? And what a surprising number of things have happened since then.

Anyway, I thought it would be nice to celebrate this with a new special, as we haven’t had one of those for a while. So here’s Mrs Darcy and the Fairy Godmother. Hope you like it.

When the Man from Del Monte Says Meh

Songlines Take It Cool reviewSo, do we start this with “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” (always a bit suspect, that one) or “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about” (which doesn’t really stand up to close inspection, either)?

Oh well.

I got reviewed by Songlines magazine. I like Songlines. I’ve had a subscription to it since it first came out. So I was quite excited when I heard that they were going to review Take It Cool, although I was more than a little apprehensive. I had a vague feeling that the music press might be a little more picky than, say, Family Tree Magazine (pick of the month, remember – oh, that seems so long ago now).

The thing is, it’s not actually a bad review. It’s more of a meh review, and what’s really annoying is that I can’t complain about much of what the reviewer is saying (although I don’t quite understand that bit about “Jammin’”). The only thing that we strongly disagree on is whether or not the book was worth writing. Although that is, I guess, quite a fundamental difference of opinion. It’s Dennis I really feel sorry for – I feel like I’ve let him down somehow.

Still, the book has now had three print reviews, of which the first two (in the Scottish Herald and Family Tree Magazine – did I say it was their pick of the month?) were excellent. Two out of three ain’t bad, after all.

So I won’t be cancelling my subscription to Songlines. It is still an excellent magazine, even if they do get things ever so slightly wrong every now and then.

National Short Story Week

B24l9NUIIAENwZq.jpg-smallIs it that time of year already? Apparently it is, and I’m not talking about that festival beginning with C either. No, I’m talking about National Short Story Week, the time when the entire nation comes together to celebrate the short form.

As is customary on these occasions, the week has been preceded by a competition for young writers and the resulting truly excellent anthology has just been published. Go and buy yourself a copy now – you won’t be disappointed. Not only that, but all the proceeds go to a terrific cause.

Well, come on, what are you waiting for?

While you’re visiting the NSSW site, you might also like to read this interview that Ian Skillicorn (aka Mr National Short Story Week) did with me, in which I talk about short stories and Take It Cool and stuff. I think it’s quite interesting, but then I suppose I would.

TAKE IT COOL on Kindle!

Take it Cool Cover with groovesWe’ll kick off this post with some excellent news for those of you out there who suffer from paper allergies: TAKE IT COOL is now available on Kindle, at the very reasonable price of £3.84. And if you’re still hesitating over whether to take the plunge, you can even download a sample to try out, via the very same link. Get IN, as I believe the young folk say.

By the way, in case you’re wondering why the posts are coming a little more sporadically than in the past, blame the Creative Writing MA. At the moment, I’m just about keeping up with it as well as the rest of my real life commitments, but it doesn’t leave a lot of space for stuff like this place. The good news is that I am absolutely loving the course and – so far at least – getting out of it exactly what I was hoping to get.

Thresholds

Every year the people who run the Thresholds short story forum hold a feature writing competition. I entered it for the first time this year, with a piece that drew heavily on this blog post from around this time last year. I didn’t make the long list, but they decided my piece was worth publishing anyway, which is nice. And here it is. I still think it’s relevant.

BBC Radio Bristol

IMG_0955It struck me on the way home from Bristol today that a live radio interview to promote a book is a bit like a first date. You’re desperate to make a good impression and anxious to keep the conversation flowing, even though half the time you’re wondering “What in God’s name did I just say that for?”

But it was a lot of fun. Steve Yabsley, BBC Radio Bristol / BBC Somerset’s lunchtime presenter is a really nice guy and he managed to put me at my ease very quickly. He’d also done a lot more research than I’d expected, and he was able to keep nudging me back on course when I was in danger of going off-piste.

If you fancy listening to it (I haven’t dared to yet), it’s available here for the next seven days. My bit starts at just after 32 minutes in.

By the way, when you’re waiting to be let into the studio complex, you get to sit on the sofa that used to be used for BBC Points West. Apparently this is worthy of a plaque:

IMG_0954

In other news, I started the MA course on Monday, and I’m really enjoying it already. Unexpected highlight so far was starting to read my first set book, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Living, and finding out on page 24 that she and her late husband used to watch Tenko. Fellow fans of Ed Reardon’s Week (and I assume that includes any writers out there) will appreciate how satisfying I found this.

 

Phase Two

I usually think of Phase One of my writing career to have begun around about September 2004. OK, I’d had software books published before then, and I’d also dabbled a little bit in creative writing, but September 2004 was when I decided to have one last bash at carving out a proper writing career for myself. I started off gently, by re-joining the local writers’ circle and becoming a regular entrant in their competitions. Then I started to reach out further, joining various internet forums and submitting stuff left, right and centre, until slowly I began – in a small way – to make a bit of a name for myself.

BRAG ALERT WARNING: There’s a bit coming up that sounds like I’m bragging. But it’s contextually necessary. Trust me.

If I were to go back a decade in time and tell my ten-years-younger self what had actually transpired in those years between 2004 and 2014, I would have been pretty amazed to hear that I’d actually managed to get three VERY different books accepted by respectable publishers, had one of them (briefly) in WHSmiths’ charts, had the other two reviewed in the national press, had a story read on BBC Radio 4, had the same story read by a bunch of naked women in New York (actually, that’s probably one to save for my 12-year-old self), won several prizes for short stories and poetry, had several poems published (where did THAT come from?), appeared in 40 anthologies, read my work in public on many occasions, had random strangers get in touch to say how much they like my work and so on and so on and so on.

BRAG ALERT ALL CLEAR. RETURN TO YOUR HOMES. I REPEAT, ALL CLEAR, RETURN TO YOUR HOMES.

And yet. The thing is, I still don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I’ve never had any formal training (beyond what I learnt along with everyone else at that writers’ circle and those forums – and don’t get me wrong, I learnt a hell of a lot from them). I’ve never had a mentor. I don’t have an agent. My writing career, such as it is, is a bunch of random events with no underlying logic to it. (Vanessa Gebbie’s interpretation of this as me not wanting to be pigeonholed is far more generous than it deserves.) To be honest, right now, I haven’t the faintest clue as to what I should be writing about. I have a few ideas, sure (I’m very rarely short of them), but they’re currently showing an alarming tendency to self-destruct a few thousand words in. Whether this is because I don’t have the right skills or if it’s simply because I’ve lost confidence in my writing doesn’t really matter. The plain fact is that there’s only one way I’m ever going to find a route upwards and out of this.

I need to go back to school.

So tomorrow I’m off to register for the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. I’m going to be taught how to write by People I Have Heard Of. It could of course all go horribly wrong. I may find it impossible to fit it all in with the day job. I may not even like being taught stuff at my age (it’s been a while, after all, although I was delighted to find out recently that I won’t be the only extra-mature student there). But it may just be the start of something wonderful.

This is the campus, by the way. They have peacocks there and all.

Corsham CourtPhase Two, here we come. Wish me luck.

 

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