Jonathan Pinnock - Writer of Stuff

NO SOONER THE WORD THAN THE FICTION

Category: Other people (page 1 of 4)

Interview with Carys Bray

Last week I was interviewed by the humungously talented Carys Bray. Carys was a Scott Prize winner in 2012 with her excellent short story collection Sweet Home and is currently enjoying stellar success with her first novel A Song for Issy Bradley, which I am going to pounce on as soon as it comes out in paperback. And when I say stellar, I mean stellar: massive advance, a slot on Radio 4′s Book at Bedtime and amazing reviews everywhere you look.

I am obviously not the slightest bit jealous about this. Definitely not.

OK, I am a tiny bit. But it’s also more than a little inspiring to see someone who’s kicked a ball around the same playground as yourself making it into the Premier League.

Many thanks to Carys for taking the time to talk to me. Let’s hope some of that stardust rubs off, eh?

Another TAKE IT COOL Interview and Other Stuff

I’m still awaiting that all-important third print review for TAKE IT COOL, but in the meantime, the excellent Gordon Darroch has furnished me with a physical copy of that splendid Herald review and a scan of it now graces the Review page. Gordon is an exceptionally fine writer going through a terrible time at the moment, and I do urge you to take a look at his remarkably moving blog.

I’ve been casting around for possible local groups to talk to and I’ve already got a few potential engagements beginning to line up . However, the first one on the list is going to be the most terrifying: the village WI. These are people I know: if I screw up, I will become a pariah.

I’ve also got myself added to the Literature West SW Writer Directory, which is nice, because all the other people on there look like proper writers.

Meanwhile, back in the world of TAKE IT COOL, I have been on the receiving end of a very comprehensive interview by the splendid Oscar Windsor-Smith, short story writer extraordinaire. There’s a mild spoiler in there if these things bother you, although the existence of a particular photo in the middle of the book does rather give the game away too, so I’m not that worried about this.

[EDITED TO ADD: Forgot to say that I had this unexpected mention of an old short story pop up on Twitter today. I love it when random stuff like that happens because you have things scattered around the place.]

Mark Watson’s “Hotel Alpha”

Hotel AlphaThose of you who have dipped into either Wickhampedia or – more recently – Dashipedia will realise that I’m a big fan of the idea that the content of a book can – and indeed should – spread a long way beyond the borders of the original physical source. And that’s why I was especially intrigued to hear of Mark Watson‘s new novel which just happens to be published today.

Here’s what Mark has to say about this, in the afterword to his new novel HOTEL ALPHA:

Hotel Alpha is designed to be read in two stages. There is the novel which you have just finished and, I hope, enjoyed – unless you’re one of those people who always flick to the back first. Then there are one hundred extra stories, which appear on a website: www.hotelalphastories.com. […] The extra stories span the same time period as the novel. They shine an alternative light on the plot, show the hidden links between some of its main events, solve mysteries, and give voice to some of the thousands of minor characters and dramas which make up the life of the Hotel Alpha while the main story is playing out. They can be read in any order and in any quantity. Or, of course, you can ignore them altogether – it’s entirely up to you.

Everyone knows that human stories are always bigger and more complex than they appear – the relationships and connections between us all are infinite, and a book can only do so much. The Internet, though, removes the physical limitations of the novel, opening up possibilities that have never before existed for readers and writers. We can now choose how much of a story we want to tell, and how much of it we want to know: in theory we can keep going forever. The one hundred extra stories of Hotel Alpha don’t quite go that far, and you as a reader probably have other plans for the rest of your life. But it’s a start . . .

Sounds cool, right? And just for you lucky people, here is one of those stories, right here on my blog. Read on…

Story 82: All Over the Hotel

Top ten reasons for sleeplessness in the Hotel Alpha, occurring in guests between 1965 and 2005:

1. General, unfocused sense of unease.

2. Noise from another room, or from the atrium.

3. Worries connected to work, finances, etc.

4. Worries related to romantic relationships, including marriage.

5. Woken up by strange dream or by unknown circumstances and unable to relax back into sleep.

6. Thinking too hard about need to sleep, paradoxically making goal unattainable.

7. Misjudgement of food or alcohol consumption leading to disturbed physical equilibrium.

8. Miscalculation of fatigue levels leading to too-early bedtime.

9. Body’s instinctive dread of relinquishing consciousness, as sleep too close a sensation to ultimate negation of death, against which human instinct automatically rebels.

10. Dripping tap.

Ten reasons for sleeplessness that have occurred just once in the Hotel Alpha between 1965 and 2005:

1. Allergy to detergent used to wash sheets, causing succession of 46 sneezes in two minutes, causing state of wakefulness impossible to shake off.

2. Fear of dark which cannot be admitted to new girlfriend.

3. Visitation of ghost, presumably in a dream.

4. Gout.

5. Hypochondria leading to conviction about imminent illness.

6. Partner’s wetting of bed.

7. Obsessive desire to solve riddle about getting a goat and some other items from one side of a river to the other.

8. Nostalgia for homeland, Transnistria, a part of Moldova which asserts its independence.

9. Person next door laughing indecently loud, and all through night, at rerun of 1970s sitcom On The Buses.

10. Once killed a man.

I really like that.

For more information, here’s a press release that tells you all about HOTEL ALPHA and here’s where you can find the other 99 stories. And here’s the obligatory link to the book on Amazon. I’m rather looking forward to reading it.

Christmas Dodos and Other Stuff

It’s possible that you’ll think I’m only doing this because the author provided a nice quote for the cover of Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens (STILL available from all tax-paying and non-tax-paying outlets - and wouldn’t a signed copy make a lovely Christmas present?). Or perhaps you think it’s because he said some nice things about Dot Dash (amazingly, this is ALSO still available from all tax-paying and non-tax-paying outlets). Or even it’s because I was given a free copy because I contributed a couple of ideas to the book?

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Well, obviously, it’s all of these. But it’s also because Christmas Dodos – Festive Things on the Verge of Extinction is the perfect stocking filler (assuming, obviously, that the recipient of your generosity already has both Mrs Darcy and Dot Dash). So I’d suggest you order one now – it’s available from the usual places. And tell Steve/Scott I recommended it – one of these days I may need another quote or review from him…

I almost forgot to mention that my short story “Cure for Burroughs” is in the new edition of Synaesthesia Magazine. This edition is nominally about science and numbers, although my piece has a pretty tangential relationship to real science, if the truth were told. I quite like it, though.

A Couple More Reviews and Other Things

Is it really over a fortnight since I last blogged? I guess it must be. Someone said to be on Twitter today that I’d been a bit quiet lately. I really must get back to blogging a bit more regularly as I have a number of reviews piling up waiting to appear, along with some really cool interviews.

Anyway, the reviews of “Dot Dash” have continued to trickle in and they’re still extremely positive. The enigmatic womagwriter certainly seems impressed, ending her brief review with:

they are beautifully written and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

Curiosity Killed the Bookworm is even more positive, giving it five stars and remarking that

It’s one of the best short story collections I’ve read and one I think I will go back to repeatedly.

Many thanks to both bloggers for those generous comments.

I’d also like to give a quick mention for this blog post by my good friend Ian Cundell, which is mainly about the brilliant Julie Mayhew’s debut novel, “Red Ink”. There is a reason why all three of us (and I’m sure there are others) included Ian in the acknowledgements for our respective first novels, because a lot of our success in getting published is down to the curious combination of grumpy critique and unbridled enthusiasm that he brings to the process. I should add (as I’ve said before) that he really ought to get his finger out and write a bit more too, because he’s no slouch himself.

I’ll be saying a bit more about what I’ll be doing at Get Writing soon here. Once I’ve got everything else out of the way, of course…

Dot Dash Hits the Broadsheets!

Yesterday was one of those milestones in my career as a writer – the day when something of mine was reviewed by one of the broadsheets. Not only that, but The Independent on Sunday saw fit to give Dot Dash four stars out of five, describing it as

an entertaining collection of grotesque, fantastic, pungent little tales

which is as good a one-line summary of the book as I’m likely to get. Knowing how many books the papers get sent to them every week – and especially given that Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens was rigorously ignored by everyone apart from the British Fantasy Society, the Gatehouse Gazette and a handful of plucky bloggers (to whom I’ll be eternally grateful) – I’m absolutely over the moon about this. I do wonder if it’s evidence of Salt’s increasing presence in the book world, following on from Alison Moore’s Booker triumph. Or maybe I just struck lucky. I can’t say I mind either way.

Whether it actually means anything in terms of sales is yet to be revealed, but it does mean that I can point to a place that everyone’s heard of and say, “Look! That’s me! I’m a writer!” Pathetic, really, but you have no idea how insecure and needy we writers can be, and it doesn’t seem to get any better.

There’s also a somewhat longer review of Dot Dash in the first issue of Synaesthesia magazine, by Bec Zugor. This is an expanded version of her original blog post and very nice it is too. Seems like  a good publication; I recognise a some of the other contributors – in fact I remember Jac Cattaneo reading “Cry Wolf”, which has one of the best opening lines ever, at Sparks in Brighton a while back. Do take a look.

In other news, I was asked last week to provide a cover quote for a splendid new chapbook, “Threshold”, by David Hartley for the excellent Gumbo Press. Do watch out for this and get yourselves a copy when it comes out – this is where much of the cutting edge action is right now, places like Gumbo, Nightjar and Spectral. They’ll be collectors’ items one day, mark my words.

Dot Dash For 77p!

It’s madness, it is. Dot Dash arrived on the Kindle today and for a limited time only (at least I assume so) it will cost you no more than 77p! That’s SEVENTY-SEVEN PENCE, people. It also seems to be available in the US Kindle store, although there’s no price currently attached.

If, like me, you still prefer the feel of real paper books, it’s also finally made it to the ordinary Amazon store.

Other bookstores are, of course, available. For the time being, at any rate. Some of them pay a bit more tax than Amazon, too.

The ideal option, from my point of view, would be for you to spend 77p to see if you like the look of it, and then order a signed physical copy from me (see sidebar <–). Or pop into your nearest local independent bookshop.

Five other Scott prizewinners from Salt are also included in this offer, and the ones I’ve read (from Cassandra Parkin and A J Ashworth) and the one I’m currently reading (from Carys Bray) are bloody brilliant. Get in there, I say.

Interview with Mike French

Today we take a well-earned breather from the “Dot Dash” blog tour and turn our attention to another writer, the excellent Mike French. I first encountered Mike in his role as editor of the splendid literary magazine, The View From Here, where he accepted a short story of mine and then proceeded to invite me onto his team as an occasional contributor. TVFH is always worth a read, by the way – there are some excellent pieces published there.

Last year, Mike brought out his remarkably ambitious debut novel, “The Ascent of Isaac Steward”. Not surprisingly, such an unclassifiable book took some time to find a publisher prepared to take it on, but all credit to Cauliay Publishing for having the necessary vision. Since then, Mike has wasted no time at all in getting his next book, “Blue Friday”, to market, this time with the exciting new imprint Elsewhen Press (who, incidentally are also bringing out my good friend Dave Weaver’s debut novel, “Jacey’s Kingdom”, very soon).

Mike very kindly agreed to drop in here recently and answer a few questions. Actually, the process took some time because my mind was somewhat elsewhere, what with my own book coming out. Which may also go some way to explaining why I completely managed to cock up the name of his book in my first question. He was, however, very nice about it, as well as being surprisingly informative…

Can you tell me a bit about “Blue Monday”?

Blue Monday is a single released by New Order in 1983 and is the best selling 12 inch of all time – I think The Beach was on the b-side but I could be wrong.   The song begins with a distinctive semiquaver drum intro. Hope that helps.  Don’t know why you asked me that – but heh it was a great record.  [*smacks head*] Anyway as for Blue Friday it’s about a society that has gone to extreme measures to try and protect the family unit. No overtime is allowed for married couples, there is enforced viewing of family friendly TV, family meal times have to be had at set times and there is a coming of age where twenty-five year-olds are automatically assigned a spouse by the state computer if they have failed to marry.  It’s not on vinyl. It lasts longer than seven and a half minutes and it doesn’t open with a semiquaver drum beat. It does however have a family protection agency that will kick the shit out of you if you deviate from the rules. Apparently it’s dystopian – with a touch of Douglas Adams about it – which was a surprise to me, I thought I was writing a how to manual on caring for potted plants.

That sounds intriguing! Would I be right in thinking that it’s a slightly more straightforward proposition than your first book, “The Ascent of Isaac Steward” (which I’ll be honest I found quite a challenging – although ultimately rewarding – read)?

Yes, Blue Friday has a linear storyline and simpler structuring than Isaac Steward.  Isaac was written in that way to reflect the disintegration of his mind and there was no need to employ that technique with Blue Friday.  I missed the seminar on how to write your first novel with Isaac Steward and jumped straight to a James Joyce style end of career novel that split the reviewers – half loved it, half just seemed to be scratching their heads wondering what on earth it was supposed to be.  So my plan is to work backwards and flip my career progression and regress into pulp fiction – so by around my tenth book I will hit a low and reach the Dan Brown stage of writing style and plotting structures.  I think looking back Isaac was an intensely emotional book to write whilst I had a lot more fun with Blue Friday – and there is more humour in it.  I was also really interested in writing using minimalism to shape my style so Blue Friday is cut back hard and is faster paced as a result. In the same amount of words I used in Isaac to describe a sunset, Blue Friday would have jumped out of the page, ripped your throat out and asked you to muse over the state of society.

That makes perfect sense to me, although I know there are a lot of publishing industry folk who would say that it’s a mistake to dabble in both literary and genre. Has anyone ever suggested to you that you should be using different pen names? If not, what would be your reaction if they did?

No-one has suggested I use a penname and Isaac was part literary and part slipstream so I think as Blue Friday is speculative it’s not a huge jump into a different genre.  However in general I would not be keen to use a penname – I can see in some cases it makes sense, like when there’s another author with a similar name or you wish to remain anonymous, but generally I can’t see the point.  So is Jonathan Pinnock your real name?  I heard your real name was Jonathan Peacock but Salt Publishing thought that your career as a writer and that of an paralympian athlete would confuse the public. ( By the way I saw you win gold you were amazing!)

Sadly my real name is indeed Pinnock, although I have the penname suggestion put to me in the past which is why I asked you. But I’m not keen on them either. Did you find that the fact of having successfully finished and sold a book made the process easier the second time around?

Getting the publishing deal for Isaac Steward really set me on a massive high – and I wrote Blue Friday whilst riding that wave.  It was a good feeling knowing that I was writing something that would definitely exist as a book this time.  And I also came at the whole process differently – Isaac was written in snatches of time when I was looking after the kids as a homedad – Blue Friday was written in a block that lasted 3 months – well the first draft anyway.  In the past I would have thought that that was not enough time but I was struck by how long Iain Banks takes to get a book written when I interviewed him a few years ago, so I was open to the possibility.  I think a lot of the work is done beforehand as it swills around in your mind and Blue Friday had been sitting in my head for years so when I started it just came pouring out like releasing a flood.

Which leads me very naturally to ask you what you’re working on now?

I’m working on a third novel called Convergence with the tag line “The story is everything. And everything will become the story.”  It’s apocalyptic and in its very early stages – there’s a synopsis and prologue but that is it so far. I’m struggling to get the time at the moment with Blue Friday just coming out and I’ve been editing a short story collection from the Luton Writers’ Group called Underground Rivers which was launched last Friday at Luton Central Library – there was quite a crowd with over 80 people packing the place out.

Excellent stuff. Can’t wait to hear more! In the meantime, “Blue Monday Friday” is available from all good publishers bookshops – details available on Mike’s website. Do take a look.

Interview with Dave Weaver

I’ve known Dave Weaver for several years now as a fellow-member of the bestest writers’ circle in the whole wide world and I’ve watched as he’s matured into an exceptionally versatile writer as well as an extremely perceptive critic. He’s just brought out a couple of collections of his work on Kindle, so I thought it was a good time to have a chat with him about his work.

 

At what point in your career did you feel you could start calling yourself a writer?

There are probably two points in my ‘ahem’ career as a writer when I actually felt able to describe myself as one. The first was very early on, actually my first entry to a Verulam Writers’ Circle short story competition where a piece I wrote called ‘Charlie’s World’ came in third. I’d written a very bad book a few years before to kick off my writing, a complicated sci-fi plot, overwritten with every exhausted trope going. I’d followed that with a very very long ‘short’ sci-fi story which bored everyone who’d had to sit through it senseless to a throat-slashing extreme. The subject for the VWC competition was ‘Bird-Flu’ (that Summer’s chosen national panic) and I decided to see the action through an autistic child survivor’s perspective. This meant that the narrative had to be a simple and very basic description of the death and decay that was happening around an uncomprehending Charlie. It unlocked my writing style immediately; say what you see, write what you mean, keep it as simple and uncluttered as possible. Simplicity equals power – over-complication equals dissipation of power. Stories only went wrong after that when I got carried away with myself and over-explained or over-described; then I’d remember ‘Charlie’s World’ and cut back until things generally fell into place again. The other much later point as a ‘writer’ came when I’d finished the first draft of my novel ‘Jacey’s Kingdom’ and belatedly realized I could finish a story arc to a full novel which actually worked and made sense. That made up for the sorry mess of my first attempted book before I’d had the invaluable schooling of the VWC.

 

Tell me a bit about your two new collections.


‘Flowerchain Stories’ is a set of nineteen interlinked tales set in modern day Japan. I say interlinked because the premise is that a minor character in the first story becomes the major character in the second and that pattern carries then on through-out the collection until we find what connection the subject of story nineteen has with the subject of story number one; the ‘flowerchain’ of linked stories is closed and complete. I suppose the ‘trick’ for the reader might be to guess which seemingly unimportant personality in each story will be chosen to head up the next one. Some are obvious, some much less so. Of course this is not new; Arthur Schnitzler wrote the play La Ronde based on the same premise in 1897. These were exclusively sexual encounters between Vienna’s different classes though, and as far as I’m aware didn’t feature ghost children, time travel or unwise sleep experiments. A few of the characters continue through two or even three of the stories and I must admit I got quite attached to some of them and didn’t want to leave them behind as a new story began. One interesting aspect of the structure is that it gives the reader the chance to see a different side of a person they might have initially disliked as their backgrounds and motivations are fleshed out and explained more. The first story is a good example; a wealthy yob named Junichi becomes a sympathetic and rather brave young man in his own story which follows. That’s the first one given away then.

‘Loners’ are fifteen pieces about… Loners, funnily enough, although in this case famous ones. About half are written from their own (imagined on my part) perspective, usually at a perceived crisis point in their lives including the point of their own death. I haven’t named any of them but the reader will almost certainly identify most immediately even if some are now just distant memories. The other pieces are parodies of famous loners from literature. They take in such diverse works as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (George), the Twilight saga (Bella) and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth Bennet texting Mr Darcy on her mobile). Sorry about that, Jane [it's OK, I think she's suffered worse - JP]. They even take in a rather confused Hamlet and the original loner himself, Adam, getting some hot tips from the big guy for his First Date. So a bit of a mish-mash then, but hopefully also a compassionate and amusing read and maybe even a small insight into what makes the character of ‘the loner’ so fascinating for us both in real life and make believe.

 

At what point did you realize that “Flowerchain Stories” had a linking arc?

To my amazement I had a Hiroshima-based story called ‘Finding Uncle’ chosen as one of twenty included in the University of Hertfordshire’s ‘Visions’ anthology. This was my first published story and obviously a stand alone piece, but a while later I wrote a story about two strangers meeting on Mount Aso volcano in Kyushu, Japan, a fascinating place I’d visited with my family a few years earlier. I had the idea of linking the two pieces then trying to build stories outwards from them, just to see how far I’d get. If I could manage six or seven then there was no reason why I couldn’t continue until I had a novel’s worth, or at least a long novella. I’d learned just a little about the way Japanese society worked and had only visited the country twice, so I decided to write the stories with my own perceptions and insights of the country and only include everyday details when it was necessary for the plot or to bring a characters’ background into focus more. They are stories about Japanese people through the eyes of a ‘gaigin’, a foreigner, not a native. Hopefully this may give them a more unusual dimension.

 

Would you count yourself as a “loner” from a writing point of view, or do you see yourself as part of a particular movement?

I like to write about the moment reality tips into fantasy, or at least have my characters walk a tightrope between the two, which isn’t a particularly unusual concept. I prefer my stories to be as unencumbered by needless imagery and metaphor as possible, but I think most writers would agree that’s a good thing to aim for. I try to have an emotional theme running parallel with my story, so that there’s some underlying point to the action rather than just a trip from A to B for the sake of it. I think that’s just good story-telling though. Maybe I do have a rather personal (what isn’t personal?), even odd, view of the human condition; I don’t like obvious displays of emotion, better to keep it locked up so it seeps out gradually as the tale progresses. I’m a bit cold and analytical, but then when the emotion does come I’ll hopefully catch the reader unprepared. I suppose we’d all like to consider our own style unique and in a way it is, but the uniqueness of a piece works much better if its unforced and springs naturally from the writing. All writers are ultimately loners.

 

Your covers are very striking – particularly the one for “Loners”. Do you think your work as a graphic artist informs your writing, or are they two separate disciplines?

You can’t beat a striking image, whether visually or in words. I think I have a visual sense of humor which helps in my writing. I write filmically; I play out the scene in my head then write down what I’ve just observed, like writing up a play while you’re watching it. I don’t know how else to do it. Perhaps everyone writes this way, I don’t know. The cover for ‘Loners’ came straightaway, I used the first idea I had in exactly the way I saw it; it was simple and worked. We always think of loners as being people but its funny to think of inanimate objects also having the loner gene; like they’ve got souls too, even barcodes.

 

What was the rationale for publishing these collections now?

Although ‘Flowerchain Stories’ was written without a competition in mind I thought the unusual format would fit Salt’s Scott Prize short story collection competition. Unfortunately the fit must have had a few rough edges so as there was no way a collection of short stories about Japan by a complete unknown was ever going to be taken up and published by anyone else I thought I’d employ it as my introduction into the brave new world of digital self-publishing. It was so much easier than I’d imagined that I decided to do the same thing with the ‘Loners’ collection as both seemed to have a strong enough overall concept to market them as something slightly different to the usual ones.

 

Where do you see your writing career going next?

Well, apart from down the toilet [very unlikely - JP], I’d like to think I might be able to get my first novel ‘Jacey’s Kingdom’ taken on by a publisher, even as an e-book. Failing that I would probably do it myself again. I have a collection of science fiction stories once again connected by a theme called ‘Tales from the Black Hole Bar’, which I’ll enter for competition then (inevitably) self-publish next year. I’m working on a second novel, a ghost story called ‘Red House’, which I hope to complete by the end of the summer. I will probably concentrate on novels from now on with the occasional short story for competition. I’d like to write either a ghost story series or continue with book two and three of ‘Jacey’s Kingdom’, depending on its success or lack of it.

 

What is your favorite cheese?

  1. Kirk’s dazzling grin at any passing female in the original Star Trek.
  2. Gorgonzola (made from real Gorgons).

 

Many thanks to Dave for some fascinating answers there. Dave blogs here, and the books are available here. I really do recommend them.

Vanessa Gebbie and The Coward’s Tale

OK, I have another treat for you today, so settle down and make yourselves comfortable. This week saw the paperback launch of the debut novel by the stonkingly talented Vanessa Gebbie. I read this book when it first came out in hardback and I absolutely loved it. I think I described it a the time as a gorgeous, warm, patchwork quilt of a book – or something like that. It’s full of wonderful characters, humour and pathos, and the most wonderful ending you could wish for. It’s very strongly recommended, and deserves to win loads of prizes. (And isn’t that the most fantastic cover?)

Anyway, Vanessa’s here to answer a few questions about it, so I’ll let her do the talking. Also, if you leave a comment below, I’ll put you in the draw for a copy of it that I just happen to have lying around here. Can’t say fairer than that.

 

What was the most difficult challenge you had to face when moving from writing short stories to writing a novel?

I didn’t and don’t see any difference at all. I just wrote. That is not meant to be a trite answer – but what ‘is’ the difference, apart from wordcount,  time, more grey hairs? I didnt think too much about  what I was doing, to be honest. I didn’t stop writing everything else, and think, right, now I am writing a novel and life must stop until it is done. I carried on writing whatever came – and that ended up as the Tales of all the men in the town, plus whatever else went into the novel, plus a mass of other work all begun, processed and completed over the same timescale.

I didn’t even have the novel all in one folder, one file, whatever. It was scattered in fragments, as it was written, all over the computer, the laptop, various memory-sticks. It wasn’t until I went to Ireland in January 2010 to get the first complete draft done, that I brought it all together. I remember being astounded at the wordcount – expected it to be about 70k – great if it was pushing 75 – and it was just shy of 100.

The biggest challenge was the revision stage, really.  That was the hardest bit! To have the breadth of vision to see the entire manscript as one – to consolidate everything, especially voice. To make sure all those details married properly – it is quite a thing, creating a whole town, over two timescales. The generation tables, (Maggie Gee’s idea) were a great help – not just for the reader, as it runs out, but for me, too!

 

I noticed an old friend make an appearance in The Coward’s Tale – Tommo Price from your Bridport Prize-winning story “I Can Squash the King, Tommo”. Also, Baker Bowen seems to be closely related to Edwin Tregear from your Fish Short Story Competition prize-winner “The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregear”. When you were writing the original stories, did you have any inclination that they might one day become part of a bigger narrative?

And you can go even further back, to Spring 2005 at JBWB, where this won.

Looking back, that story wouldn’t leave me. It is based on a very real incident – the death of a 7 year old boy called Robert Diplock, on a railway line near Lewes in Sussex, in the 1960s. I didn’t know him then – but later, I got to know his mother Rita very well – she was one of the best women who ever lived and I loved her dearly.  She was a staunch Catholic, and believed firmly that it was all for the best, even though she was an older mother, and had no more children. We used to have fascinating debates about the afterlife – and that is what the tale of Tommo is about really, isnt it?  [The book is in fact dedicated to Robert Diplock - JP]

When she was dying, she wasn’t concerned in the slightest. “I’m really happy, I’m seeing Robert tomorrow,” she said, the last time I saw her, that last evening a couple of years back, in hospital, me trying to brush her words aside … “Don’t be silly, Rita. I’ll bring you some fresh pyjams in the morning. Anything else you want?”

“No, dear,” she said. I don’t need anything at all.”

She died that night.

They started the whole novel, really, blessem. In my study I have Robert’s last painting done at school – a castle with a vast flag flying. And a few of his toy cars, and his chair.

Recycling is good. Sometimes, a piece of work or an idea, a character, a motif, belongs somewhere other than, or in addition to, the original home it had.

The motif of a baker being unable to make bread (such a fundamental thing) was something that fascinated me enough to want to work on it twice.  A few pieces in ‘The Coward’ were written way before the novel was even thought of, but were fragments I’d never completed but kept. I’d get to the edge of a creative cliff and think, ah! I know what’s down there -

It’s a bit of a writers’ morality tale really. Don’t throw those snippets out! [I agree! - JP]

 

It seems a bit perverse to focus on this but I have to say that “The Coward’s Tale” has the most satisfying ending of any book I’ve read for a long time. Still makes me well up a bit thinking of it, actually. Without giving anything away, was that final image always there or did it emerge during the writing process?

Let’s just say the final image was always there – but not at the end. And maybe with different characters in the tableau, too. And perhaps it jumped about a bit and said, ‘Ahoy, I am an ending.  You cannot follow me with anything, except ‘The End’.’  And perhaps, after a lot of jumping up and down, I listened and rearranged things a bit. Or a lot.

 

Continuing on from the previous question, I’ve read an awful lot of novels by well-known writers that promise so much and then fail to deliver at the end. Would it be fair to suggest that as a prolific short story writer, even though this is your debut novel, you’ve had a bit more experience than the average novelist in crafting endings?

Possibly. I’ve certainly written a lot of stories, and they all have endings (ahem). Some are obviously better than others, craftwise. The ending of a short story has to be and do so many things, doesnt it? One thing it absolutely must do is lift the story slightly – no matter how sad – you have to make the reader take a deep breath, then let it out slowly – with a sense of satisfaction, closure, the memory buttons buzzing away because if it ‘is’ a good ending, they won’t forget it.

I know what you mean about novels – so often a really fabulous read is let down because the writer has just tied all the threads up and forgotten to do anything else.

‘What do you mean, ‘anything else?’ I can hear people yelling.

I don’t think an ending is only (if at all) about gathering up the threads. It is about making sure that the music of the merry-go-round keeps echoing even after the machine has stopped. There has to be life, somewhere, that carries on after that ending.

See? [Yes, most definitely - JP]

 

I’ve noticed elsewhere that you’re already working on the next novel. 

Yes – a whole lot of words in storage! It’s called ‘Kit’. For the moment.

 

Do I take it that that’s where you see your career going, or will you still be writing the short stuff? 

Oh lord yes. I’m just finishing two short stories for a BBC radio commission [Hurrah - JP] – well, they asked for one, but I did two – they can choose, then I’ve got a spare. Then there’s Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures, a themed flash collection I’m hoping to publish that this year, helped by a great illustrator.

 

And what about other forms? I know you’ve had some success as a poet – will we see a slim volume one of these days?

Had a few publications, and I love this journey of discovery. Just finished a poetry course with Pascale Petit at Tate Modern, and she is so great as a tutor – I’m really responding well to her style of encouragement. Am off to Ty Newydd with her as tutor in the summer – and Daljit Nagra as well – lucky me! I’m just fascinated… Id love to have a collection some day.

 

Do you have any other writing ambitions?

Yes. To keep going, doing new things!

 

What’s your favourite brand of toffee?

Callard and Bowser! They’ve gorn, sadly. Gorn to the great sweet shop in the sky. [And a damn shame too - JP]

 

Many thanks to Vanessa for some fascinating answers. Now, over to you. Leave a comment below, and I’ll put you in the draw for that free copy. Unless you’ve already read it, you’d be mad not to. It is an utterly wonderful book. Alternatively, if you’d rather just go ahead and buy it, here’s the Amazon link. You can find Vanessa’s blog here.

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