Sunday, 29 May 2011

Hot Kitchen Snow and Blue Has No South...

I have been a busy reviewer. Two of my recent reviews are in this The Short Review this month..

Blue Has No South, by Alex Epstein

and Hot Kitchen Snow by Susannah Rickards.

They are both very different short story collections. Possibly couldn't be any different. Blue Has No South is a collection of 115 short fictions, that I would variously describe as fables, puzzles, poems, true stories, warnings, dreams, histories, myths, found stories. They are brief, intense, distilled, and this is probably a book I will dip into many times again. Hot Kitchen Snow is more traditional, in the sense that it contains the kind of short stories we might expect when we say short stories. It was a bit of a slow burner for me, but left me thinking wow...

I love short fiction, I love the way stories are so diverse that there is something for almost everyone. I love the way they can be enjoyed in the small pockets of time in my life, snatched between breakfast and work, or at lunchtime, or on the bus or in a waiting room. I love that a small world is contained in only a few brief pages, and we can be taken out of our own world for a brief time, feel something might have changed, or learn something, feel something completely outside of ourselves. And with a good short story it can shake our roots, make us question, unsettle, amaze or make us laugh out loud. And we can carry a whole book load of these moments around with us, get the book out when we want an escape, find odd collections of these experiences inside one cover, but with themes and connections, or an overall journey, or patterns, that if we want to find them are hidden within the different stories.

I mean, I love novels, and I love poetry. But, short stories... are my first love, I think.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Litmus and other writing...

I have just sent back the proofs for my short story What Kind of Dog, soon to be published in Litmus, a Comma Press anthology of short stories from modern science.

The book is due out in June, I think. And I have to say, it looks amazing from the sneak preview on Comma's website.

The list of authors and scientists in the book is amazing. I'm a little astounded and very pleased that I will be amongst them. And can't wait to get hold of a copy.

My story is inspired by a flood in Petrograd in 1924, which created a moment of discovery for neuroscientist Ivan Pavlov in his work with dogs. It's a subject that I never imagined writing about or researching, but sometimes life presents these opportunities, and I decided that yes, I was going to attempt a story completely outside my experience and strengths as a writer. For a person who was never good at science (or that interested), and has never been to Russia, can't speak a word of Russian, and has little knowledge about 1924, it was a bit of a challenge. And some people might remember me agonising a little over this story.

Anyway, lots of researching, a trip to Manchester University to talk with a researcher in neuro-science, reading, writing, editing, feedback, re-writing. It is ready for printing, almost in print, and I achieved something that when I was first asked to do, I almost said 'no, sorry, it's not something I could write.'

The lesson in this story is....

So, I am writing a new story. Again, a story that is outside my experience. It is set in another continent, in a country I know only a little about, a country with ongoing civil unrest and war, with horrific levels of sexual violence, and it's about a family with a different language and culture to me. Can I do it? Well, I'm 2000 words in and still going, and we'll see, but perhaps I can manage it, with the right research and hard graft, and feedback and writing and re-writing.

I've always been told to write what I know, but... I'm not sure about this sage advice anymore. Perhaps sometimes writing is about taking a leap into an experience you have never lived through, stretching the bounds of imagination, and feeling your way through the unknown. What do you think?