Saturday, April 22, 2017

Free and footloose reads: part the third

It's always a delight to be back in Ireland, and it's particularly exciting to attend some literary events while here. From the launches of Lisa McInerney's second book and Lisa Harding's debut, to my first STACCATO spoken-word evening and the latest gorse readings, this last week has been a writer's paradise.

I'd forgotten, however, just how dangerous Dublin bookshops are. This was my haul after Day One in the old country:

This collection has since doubled in size, incorporating Dave Rudden's fabulous Forever Court, Mia Gallagher's Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland and a raft of local journals and classics.

But physical books aside, there is a simply disarming wealth of good writing available online. As a follow-up to part one and two, I present another compilation of recommendations - some recent, some not so recent, all excellent and free for your reading pleasure.

Short Stories
  • Orange horses, by Maeve Kelly. Extraordinary, awful, beautiful work, given a new lease on life by Tramp Press. 
  • Pied Piper, by Carys Davies. Bloody (brilliant) (harrowing) (buried) work, as always from this writer. 
  • Treaty 1941, Zoe Meager. "A song for a man alone, dragging his malaria down the road." An astounding, astounding work; the spins and trips of language, newly drunk.
  • What you pawn I will redeem, by Sherman Alexie. Pathos, kinship, beauty, brokenness, triumph. An absolute must-read.
  • And Then There Were (N-One), by Sarah Pinkser. For the effortless and airtight plotting. For the unclassifiable mix sci-fi turned Christie-mystery turned novel-of-ideas. For the texture of need and loss. 
  • Every Little Thing, by Celeste Ng. Memory without loss; memory as loss. A masterfully constructed short story, tender as a birthed heart.
  • Even on Our Longest Days, by Billy O'Callaghan. Read every quiet, beautiful piece by this man. 
  • Drift, by Becky Renner. "They passed cars raptured empty from the evacuation." An ominous, thrilling story of consummate craft.
  • Butcher's Perfume, by Sarah Hall. Rawbone, idiosyncratic life, in all its dark and crooked corners. 
  • Some Days I Wish I Could Be Frank, by Siobhan Welch. Not a spare word struck, each perfectly - perfectly - aimed.
  • Family, Family, by Jeannine Ouellette. "You see, at Rolling Meadow, we frowned on labels." A delicate, wryly subversive story about yarn and bloodthirsty darlings.
  • Healthy Start, by Etgar Keret. A Beckett-esque flight of sparking connections, enthralling from the first.
  • Lucky, by Julianne Pachico. A deceptively tense, closely-observed short story, from a new Faber collection.
  • 75, by Abiola Oni. A story that lures one in, sweetly, cheerfully, before turning upon you. with teeth.
  • My Sam and I, by Nick Fuller Googins. This is magic, and slow sadness, and a call to life.
  • Settling, by Jan Carson. Beautifully-observed, bittersweet and quite, quite strange. (Also Egg, by the same author: tender, with delicately-measured moments of levity and rue.)
  • Destination Unknown, by Joanna Campbell. "Everything and everyone has to be somewhere: his spare glasses in the sock; his cat who may never find her way home." Oh, this story.
  • Zolaria, by Caitlin Horrocks. The basilisks and maps of childhood, the rising mud and guilt.
  • Being Born, by Oisin Fagan. A breathless, must-read extract - claustrophobic, savage, peopled with violent and intersecting desires. 
  • Funeral by the Arcade, by Leland Cheuk. A deft and accomplished piece, weaving together congee, familial estrangement and former gaming legends.
  • Babyland, by Steve Edwards. A smart, strangely aching piece, hard to shake.
  • Nothing to declare, by John Boyne. A deliciously humorous look at success, public defecation and litter envy. Also works for humans.
  • Cyprus Avenue, by Lucy Caldwell. Deftly nails the many, competing emotions of exiles on the return.
  • In the Act of Falling, by Danielle McLaughlin. The savage, claustrophobic connections that both bind us and break us.
  • When the World Was Soft, by Paul Duffy. "We came upon Witenoom one day, the village they had scrubbed off the maps." Fiercely good story, from a new writer to watch.
  • Bonus readings: the excellent winners of The Short Story competition; the finalists for the Manchester short story competition, and the shortlist for the short story of the year. Also an out-of-the-park-good set of recommendations for International Women's Day.
  • Plus a mention for some excellent Weekend Reads on For Books' Sake: Salting Home by Rebecca F John, Starver by Daisy Johnson, The Missionary Kid and the Moongirl by Zillah Bethell and Theft by Karen E Bender, sadly no longer available online.
Flash Fiction
  • Terra Incognita, by Sharon Telfer. "Beyond this line, nothing; the map waits." Exquisitely captured, a small world complete, and a deserved winner of the Bath Flash Fiction Award. 
  • A Fine Line, by  Leah Jane Esau. How can less than nine hundred words leave your heart in pieces? 
  • My X, by Molly Giles. Sharp, sternum-pricking, such finely-tuned infuriation and familiarity.
  • Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway,
    by Gwen E. Kirby
    . A wild, triumphant wail of a piece. 
  • Happy Endings, by Margaret Atwood. This classic remains as fresh and subversive as it must have in 1983.
  • One Warren Ward, by Fiona J Mackintosh."They are birthing their own endings, these women, in this shabby, beige room." So much more, somehow, than the sum of its broken parts.
  • How to Date a Surfer, by Lori Brody. A wry, bittersweet taste on the tongue.
  • Summer Baby, by Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber. For the exquisite use of language alone, rendering everything new.
  • Pigalle, by Victoria Briggs. Knife-tongued, laced with shock and awe, a spunky jab for any reader. 
  • The Golden Age, by Mark Doten. A crazed, fabulous piece of frighteningly non-fictional fiction.
  • Bonus: almost anything published in Smokelong Quarterly.
  • Song, by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. "Listen: there was a goat's head hanging by ropes in a tree. ...But listen." Every turn of this powerful, gut-punching work is unexpected, even on a second read.
  • Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver. A high, clear slice of beauty and consolation.
  • How to Live in an American Town, by Jennifer Chang. So run with him/ Please./Take the kitchen fire./ Run heart run.
  • Chick, by Mark Belair. Every. single. thing. about this ragged, gum-snapping, show-stopper of a poem.
  • My Blue Hen, by Ann Gray. A tender and wild little thing, this song of eggs and feathers.
  • Prayer, by Carol Ann Duffy. Read this over, and over. Pause, as - each time - something inside lifts to meet it.
  • The Fourth State of Matter, by Jo Ann Beard. I still do not know what to feel about this piece. Gutted. Empty. Full. Just read it. Read it. Read it.
  • Confessions, by Mike Nagel. "I ate their secrets. Swallowed them whole. I've had a stomach ache for eight years." Short, whip-tongued smart, and wholly unsentimental. 
  • To Obama With Love, and Hate, and Desperation, by Jeanne Marie Laskasjan. These voices: lost, fearful, touched with grace. These stories. All these aching stories. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Oh my gosh (Easy, easy!)

Lately, I've come across many heated discussions about the writing/other job balance. Or, in other words: the writing/money balance.

This is a good thing, I think. For a long time it felt like money was a dirty word for a writer to utter. I once had a conversation with an established South African writer who recoiled when I used the word "career" - writing should be a vocation, he said. (Which reminded me of all the times during my grandfather's poorly-paid career as a teacher when he was told it should be a "vocation" too.)

Talking about money is important, because talking about money is really talking about time, and how to find time for your art.

Out of necessity, most writers have written at least their early work around a day job: William Faulkner taking night shifts, Toni Morrison teaching and raising two children, Karen Thompson Walker tapping out her draft on the commute to work each day. Many writers argue it is simply a matter of discipline.
If you want to write... you will make the time. I wrote a novel at night when I had a three-month-old daughter and a full-time job. (Lauren Beukes)

Some even swear by it.
The reason I always maintained other streams of income was because I never wanted to burden my creativity with the task of providing for me in the material world... I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills. (Elizabeth Gilbert)

And, of course, Charles Bukowski had much to say on the matter:
no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on

For those of you who can do this, I salute you. It amazes me.

But perhaps, also... this is not true. Perhaps not all of us can make good art while being pulled in multiple directions, or exhausted from other commitments. Perhaps this is a rationalisation for a situation that is far from ideal. Perhaps you need what you need (baby).

I like how Mia Gallagher sums this up:
Begging, borrowing and stealing time short-change us... and drain our bodies of our precious creative energy – yet even writers of great skill and experience are told they need to do this, to an extent that would be ludicrous in any other profession.

I can't be the only one to find it heartbreaking that Donal Ryan, a literal national treasure, has returned to a full-time job in order to pay the bills. Granted, no-one owes us the means to pursue our passion. But what does it say when a talented, much-lauded author cannot find a way to concentrate on his writing?

The Irish Times has published an excellent series on the reality of writers' lives, sharing a range of different experiences on this topic. The only truth that I can draw from these articles seems to be the same truth we should bear in mind about any advice to writers: nothing is universally true. Every writer needs to try out and discard approaches. In this way, hopefully, they find the one that works for them.


Over the four years since I began writing part-time, I've made certain sacrifices in my "other" career - turning down promotions or offers elsewhere, cutting my hours back - in an effort to fit the two together. I've been lucky to have a good, well-paid job, and lucky to have a parallel career that I enjoy and have worked hard at. I'm extremely grateful for it.

But after four years, it feels like I am doing neither part of my life justice. This may make me weaker than, or less dedicated than, other writers - a stick I've beaten myself with quite frequently. But I am tired, my dears. Tired enough to make a change.

So earlier this month, I walked out of my nice job.

This is the soundtrack that has been going through my head ever since I made the decision:

Let's be real here: I am not becoming a fulltime writer - just temporarily so. And it is, of course, an extraordinary fucking privilege to be able to do even this. But while it's at all possible, I am unashamedly grabbing at it. I am grabbing at it and holding on for dear life.

Oh my gosh
Oh my gosh
Easy easy!
All it down, all it down...

(Has anyone else taken the plunge, temporarily or permanently? Or does the security and stimulation of your day job still outweigh any drawbacks?)
Cat is, of course, thrilled with developments. What after all is a writer's desk without a cat?

Monday, March 13, 2017

Fail better

Sometimes, learning to write feels largely about learning to deal with rejection.

Over the last three years, I've made some 70-odd submissions, to both competitions and journals. I've had a handful of lucky, shining moments as a result of those submissions. And I've had 60-odd flat-out rejections.

If you've never failed 60-odd times at something, let me tell you now: it fucking sucks.

Never mind those inspirational soft-focus quotes about how character-building it may be, or how every great writer must go through a similar experience. These are lies. Wretched, wretched lies.

What I can say for it is this: you do get a little less afraid of failure. You may even actively begin to court it.

Which is perhaps why I found myself submitting on four separate occasions to one particular journal. It helped that I had met the editor, Brendan Barrington of Penguin Ireland, and that he happens to be possibly the nicest man on the planet. (One agent I spoke with called him the "great gentleman of Irish publishing", and I can't think of a better turn of phrase). He also writes the most encouraging rejection letters.

Still, four times is borderline masochism, I think you'll agree. Which is why I couldn't be more thrilled that this arrived in the post today:

Available in the best Irish bookshops, and online at
[And folks, no, I have no idea what the sodding hell I'm doing sharing a cover with Colm Tóibín]

If you'd like to try it for yourself, Brendan is accepting submissions for upcoming issues now. Pick up this latest volume or any of the back issues for a sample of the fiction and non-fiction he looks for - I guarantee you a spanking good read.

And if your submission doesn't work out the first time, well - Beckett said it best:
"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Free and Footloose reads: part two

As a follow-up to part one, and in the pause before part three, gorge thyself on more fabulous, freely available works of fiction and non-fiction (and the occasional sly poem):

Short Stories
  • Do You Hear What I'm Saying? by Kori Waring. Blown sideways by this burning, beautiful, unbearable story. 
  • The Half-Skinned Steer, by Ann Proulx. chilled and awed all over again.
  • Idioglossia, by Eimear Ryan. Read this. Read it now. Then immediately re-read it, for all the unshown, unsaid, only shadowed.
  • A Small Fortune, by Roberta George. The filament of fear, the switchback, hilt-deep turns.
  • The Boy Who Was Born under a Comet, by Benjamin Myers. A piercing story, both unexpected and inevitable, shadowed by all that might have been.
  • All That Glisters, by Anne Donovan. Closely-held but frank; a gently balanced, glittering work.
  • Dido's Lament, by Tessa Hadley. Such an achingly honest dissection of old wounds, the selves we hold up for others.
  • Painted Black, by Joanna Cannon. Heart-struck by this stripped back, darkly flowered piece.
  • The Weak Spot, by Sophie Mackintosh. Clever, cutting capsize of our expectations, featuring murderous teens and teeth.
  • The Names of Things, C. G. Menon. A tender-rough delight of language and discomfort.
  • Ministry of the Interior, by Louise Kennedy. So finely worked, each piece arranged to quiet, restrained effect. 
  • Fascicle 41, by Anna McGrail. The striking, deserved winner of The London Magazine competition.
  • The Phosphorescence, by Nicholas Ruddock. A tense, breathless, headlong read.
  • Cow and Company, by Parashar Kulkarni. Whip-smart satirical office politics as never before imagined.
  • Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead, by Ursula Ruiz. An engaging new twist on the bones of a story.
  • The King’s Teacup at Rest, by Michael Andreasen. Surreal, strangely affecting story on abandoned fairgrounds, loneliness and fealty.
  • The Swimmer, by John Cheever. Prepare to be left chilled, bereft, in exile from yourself.
  • Say You, by Sara Collins. "The story of any island is the story of men, arriving." An immersive, rung-true tale, anchored by surprising turns of language. 
  • Children’s Stories Made Horrific: Curious George, by Mallory Ortberg. For everything The Toast is and was. And for peeling back the skin of childhoods, for what wriggles beneath.
  • Bartleby, the Scrivener, by Herman Melville. The classic's classic, ever worth rereading.
  • Open Water, by Abigail Rose. "For his fourteenth birthday, Jago’s father gave him the ocean." A tenacious, salt-rimed tale.
  • Bonus: listen to the shortlisted stories for the Caine Prize and the Francis MacManus competition.
Flash Fiction
Non fiction
  • A Demonstration by Jessica Traynor. "For what are women really but children themselves, living and dying without reason?" An urgent, beautiful piece.
  • Two Deaths, by Claire Askew. A fierce, piercing, physically affecting piece.
  • Good bones, by Maggie Smith. Over and over, I return to this.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


The turning of another year is a good moment to reflect back on how far we have come. It's also a good place from which to view how far we still have to go.

Four years ago, I stole one day a week away from my day job and started writing. I began, because I didn't know any better, with a novel, which I threw myself into drafting over a deliriously happy seven-month writing binge.

Then I spent the next three years in redraft hell.

2016 was the year I swore I'd crack it. To this end, I created two DIY writing retreats for myself, featuring all the things I believed most crucial for a solid writing endeavour:
good food
fresh air
liberal quantities of chocolate.

The first was in a cottage on the West of Ireland in May. I learned a lot from that retreat, which I unwisely but happily filled with visiting family members, and which was marred by an unfortunate bout of bronchitis. I benefited immensely from the live-in services of my very talented brother (yes, that brother), who kept me fed and motivated, and who, over long adventures to rescue lost lambs and investigate strange lights in the island dark, provided an excellent sounding board for my editing dilemmas.

This second retreat was a different animal. South Africa closes down for two weeks' summer holidays over December, so I packed my partner off to a friend's house in the bush, and bunkered down to work.

(with occasional piña colada breaks)

I was at home, at my own desk. I spent the mornings out jogging around our local dam, or in the nearby park. I slept when I felt like it, and wrote until hunger stopped me. And I was - crucially - kinder on myself. 

Whatever happens with the manuscript, I am glad to have spent this time with it. Away from the busy-work of daily life, decisions that I couldn't get my head around have become clearer and less insurmountable. Having no demands but writing felt marvelously freeing. I have loved the experience so much that I am planning a major shift/ leap of faith in the coming months (more on that anon). 

It also helped me slow down, and question the unreasonable pressure I have been putting myself under. This writing lark takes the time it takes. As long as you're putting in the hours, the work is getting done.

It might take years, but it's getting done. And this is the thought I want to take with me into 2017, from an outstanding post by literary agent Lizzie Kremer:

"That should be just about long enough."

[I'd love to hear from writers about their own retreat experiences - DIY or structured. Which have you tried? What is the best part of it for you? And are you planning any in 2017?]

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Snapshots: Winter in Johannesburg

Winter in Johannesburg, and the first power cut. An iced afternoon in the dwindling light. Laptops, television, wifi, telephones, stove, fridge, heaters, lamps, kettle: all mute. No writing possible. No dinner. No hot water for tea. We huddle beneath a blanket and wait, mourning the loss of our many conveniences. We strategise about cafes that may be open, warm places we could sit for a while, cinemas in which we could pass the hours. Of course, we have all this at our disposal: money, transport, options. Thousands, thousands upon thousands, right here in this city, a brisk walk from where we sit, do not. This, our city: kerosene stoves and smartphones; high fashion and candlesticks. This place of constant collision of worlds.

Friday, June 10, 2016

An interview with Aesthetica Magazine

Photo via Aesthetica Magazine

Last December, I was beyond thrilled to be named a finalist for the 2015 Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. Their anthology is eagerly awaited by agents, writers and reviewers, so it was an honor to be included in its pages.

Due to the vagaries of the South African postal service, I only finally got to handle a copy when I returned to Ireland for a short break in May. To celebrate, I did a short interview with Alexandra from Aesthetica Magazine, on gaining representation (more on that soon), the influence traveling and working abroad has had on my writing, and the novel I am currently working on.

Here I am, being my usual articulate self:
When short stories do work, they are extremely rewarding: an entire, polished thing, which has sometimes been achieved quite quickly. But I have no idea how to write one; it’s still a mystery. 
You can read the rest of the interview here.

Or read an excerpt from my short story, 'Stafford Street', which landed me a place as a finalist for the 2015 Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. Find out how to enter the 2016 Award here

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Back to earth

My time on the spectacularly beautiful Achill Island is coming to an end. For the last three and a half weeks here, I've had the blessed freedom of doing nothing but writing, reflecting, plotting, gamboling in the hills and eating.

The view from the cliffs beside our cottage.

Naturally, I have spent a lot of that time not actually writing.

This is okay, I think. Discipline in writing is good, and necessary. But so is a certain amount of kindness towards yourself.

This lesson has been a long time in the learning.


Two years ago, I hit a low point. I spent a winter under a blanket, doing very little of anything, including writing. I had always wanted to write, and I had been doing so in my spare time for more than a year, being very disciplined about it. But I had started to believe I would never write well.

I realise now that a year is not a very long time. That I had set my expectations unreasonably high, and that I was turning inwards upon myself. You are not good enough. You will never be good enough. We are our own worst enemies, at times.

Towards the end of that winter, I received an email from a man in Dublin who wanted to publish a story of mine. His name was Ciaran Carty, and the publication was The Irish Times.

I remember my response being something along the lines of: Ohjesusfuckyesthankyou.

I remember holding onto it like a life raft.

Part of the balance between kindness and discipline is taking the time to celebrate successes, however small they might be: finishing a draft; sending out a story; receiving a heartwarming comment on your work. Successes come far and few between in the writing life. That first publication was crucial for allowing me to be kinder towards myself, to stop driving myself so hard.

Between then and now, I have been lucky enough to have had a few more stories published, and to enjoy some other moments of encouragement. 2016, in particular, has brought affirmation in spades. It has also brought many opportunities to meet other writers and become part of a (mostly virtual) community of practice.

And so it was a joy to attend the 45th annual Hennessy Literary Awards in April, at the invitation of that same Ciaran Carty, to meet all my fellow nominees for the title of New Irish Writer of the Year. My priorities were to: (a) put faces to the names I had been chatting with online, and (b) not get horribly drunk. I may have also unashamedly fangirled over some of the more established writers present:

Irish authors Dave Rudden and Sarah Griff, myself, and my brother Colin. 
(Yes, that brother).

Hennessy puts on a pretty fancy night - cocktails and photographers and Oscar-style announcements. It's all a bit intimidating, in fact. Not made less so by the alcohol getting endlessly pushed into your hands. (Don't get drorribly hunk, I kept reminding myself)

Probably everyone says they are taken by surprise when they win something - but in this case, I truly was.

Naturally, I carried a small, burning hope that it might happen. I think we all do. But I also expected it not to, and so the announcement came as an almost physical shock.

I can't even remember much of it. I do remember the lovely Anne Griffin, who was seated beside me, squeezing my hand to try and keep me from falling to pieces. Also some stumbling and a completely incoherent few words of a speech. I was looking pretty dazed, as you can see:

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (left), who was inducted into the Hennessy Hall of Fame, and me. Other photos of the 45th Awards can be found here

One of the highlights of the night was hearing Tara Quirke read out excerpts from each of the category winners. You can read the pieces by Chris Connolly, Jane Clarke and myself online, but there is something special about hearing them come alive in another person's voice - so go on and listen to an excerpt by Tara here. Meeting previous winners Henrietta McKervey and Jessica Traynor (in the loo, over recalcitrant handsoap) was also fabulous. And spending time with some of the other nominees the next day made for a perfect ending to the week.

It was a beautiful, gloriously affirming experience, for which I am extremely grateful.

But now... back to work.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Free and footloose reads: a wee list

For evenings curled fireside, or mornings abed - I recommend you reach for one of these. All freely available, all exquisitely special. [Installment two and three now also available]

Book, chocolate, bath - all is well with the world. (c) Ríona Judge McCormack

Short Stories
  • Foster, by Claire Keegan. If you have not read, read. If you have read, re-read. I cannot say this more urgently. Exquisite, sharp, timeless.
  • A Small, Good Thing, by Raymond Carver. Read Carver, they said. So I didn't. See me now, unprepared. Reeling.
  • Feeding the Lions, by Sara Brody. “Don’t worry about monsters,” Calvin said. “They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.” “That’s a lie,” Lucy said. “Don’t lie to me.” Shocking, tender, masterful in the execution. 
  • Rest Day, by John Boyne. War, choices, and how we warm to our own captive horrors.
  • Farm's Yield, by Molia Dumbleton. Enters the heart and takes it - two-handed, gently, but takes it nonetheless.
  • The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind, by Billy O'Callaghan. Just unbearably beautifully wrought.
  • I Can See Right Through You, by Kelly Link. A story to read, then re-read anew, seeing more each time. Wry, sweet, thoroughly chilling.
  • Runaway, by Alice Munro. That needle in the chest, cold and sure. 
  • Chicxulub, by T C Boyle. Furious, rousing, like a bloody great punch to the heart.
  • The Human Phonograph, by Jonathan Tel. Stirring as a clear voice ringing, like washed-clean glass.
  • A Different Country, by Danielle McLaughlin. Unsentimental, blistering look at the strangers we are to each other.
  • Black Ice, by Cate Kennedy. Of tree-skins and small, sharpened teeth in a clean-mouthed cold.
  • Other People’s Daughters, by Melissa Howard. " if kittens have clawed out of their insides." Rough-skinned, tough-talking, velvet in the innards.
  • The Clothes They Stood Up In, by Alan Bennett. A classic (long) short story on losing, regaining, and quiet domestic rebellions.
  • The Ways, by Colin Barrett. The angerings and the keenly-knifed grief. The sheer, breathless, filthy poetry of it.
  • The School of English, by Hilary Mantel. For days, this story will not leave. Shake and shake it, but still it clings. Clammy-close, claws in deep.
  • The Bone Child, by Anne Corlett. Chilled raw, clay-damp, all a-bump with gooseflesh.
  • Safe, Somewhere, by Baird Harper. Yellow ash rain, scrub suits; the cutthroat, creeping nasty.
  • Ten Pint Ted, by Ian Wild. Bitter but bighearted; unlit miles of abandoned tunnels lying beneath ordinary lives. 
  • All The Boys, by Thomas Morris. Rough, compelling, dirtily human, and a little bruising.
  • Who Are You With? by Nick Fuller Googins. Emptied chalkboards, waste-flowers, family: what is left, after. Dazzling, winded stuff. 
  • Echo Lake, by Timur Jonathan Karaca. Intense, shocking, just about perfect.
  • Their Cruel Routines, by Barry Lee Thompson. "‘Let me tell you about memory,’ she said." Bitter, vicious, claustrophobically good.
  • Ballerinas Across the Andes, by Owen Booth. Meticulously ridiculous, the best of the absurd.
  • Ger Sheen and the Satanists, by David McGrath. Furiously alive, wildly farcical - glorious Irish whimsy at its height.
  • Rapport, by Dan Micklethwaite. "there. There they go. So close. So warm. Those— hands, reaching."
  • The Johns, by Josie Sigler. "It broke you both at once in different ways but only briefly."
  • The White Road, by Tania Hershman. Still and beautiful, still and haunting.
  • Spoiled, by Jaki McCarrick. Quietly done, unshowy, but each note - precisely - in place.

Winter reading toesies. (c) Ríona Judge McCormack

Flash fiction
  • Vincent in the Yellow House, by Nuala Ní Chonchúir. The voice, the low-key anguish, the colours. Faultless flash fiction. 
  • Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break, by Helen McClory. Whet-sharp, sardonic, slyly absurd.
  • Scrawlbabies, by Rob Grim. Follows you, knocking on your door, long after you read it.
  • Parting, by Elizabeth Morton. "My mother cut towelling lengthwise, sawed the dining table on a diagonal." Sharp-toothed and wrenching. 
  • Ice House, by Jane Roberts. A tickling chill, feathery geese tripping lightly over your grave. 
  • Danny Came Home, by Alisha Karabinus. "... raw with days of standing stagnant in water that stank of war." Gutting, alliterative work.
  • The Moon is a Wasteland, by Daniel DiFranco. Playfully, lightly done - and yet more than a little devastating.
  • Nothing But Bone, by Olga Wojtas. "How exactly could someone by eaten by mice?" Indeed. Eerie, perfect. 
  • Bait, by Amy Sayre Baptista. Oh, the placing of the steps, the chill in the chest, the beats between.
Non Fiction
  • Listening to Grasshoppers, by Arundhati Roy. Every good armament in fiction is brought to bear here, to hollowing, harrowing effect.
  • The dark side of Dubai, by Johann Hari. Feature journalism at its best - a portrait of a city like no other.
  • The Detainee's Tale, by Ali Smith. This is why we write. This, the lacerating power of pen, eye. This. This. This. 
  • Dear Orderly, by Mary-Louise Parker. "Give me the baby/ Give me the baby it will be down the hall/ With other given babies." Devastatingly good memoir.
  • Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich. Voices at your throat, eyes: wry, damaged, heroic on their own terms.

Friday, March 4, 2016

On procrastination, unexpected windfalls and where stories come from

Writers write, right? And usually about other (albeit fictional) people, not ourselves.

However, when it's the truly lovely Eloise Millar at Galley Beggar Press who does the asking, who can refuse? Especially when it's to celebrate the strange and wonderful news that, somehow, my story Backburn was named the winner of the inaugural GBP Short Story Prize.

Elly asked me a range of thoughtful questions: from how a typical writing day unfolds, to where, exactly, the idea for Backburn had first originated.

So although this kind of thing makes me squirm a little, here it is:
It took years to feel ready to write about it. When I did, when the pieces turning over in my head started to slot together, Jacob and Moses came to me almost fully-formed. As sometimes happens, it felt less like I was creating than I was discovering a story that already existed – I was just drawing it down onto the page.
Read the rest of the interview here.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The women, the magic

One of the small privileges of living in my corner of Johannesburg is being close to that most lovely (and rare) of things: an independent bookshop.

And not just any independent bookshop. At Love Books, there are literary quotes engraved into the flagstone step. There are hand-made cross-stitch samplers dividing the genres. There are high-back armchairs upholstered in Madiba-shweshwe and 1950s telephone tables. There is an adjoining cafe that smells of good coffee and expensive chocolates.

Love Books is, in short, less a shop than a welcoming hearth for heartsore readers.

All photos (c) Ríona Judge McCormack

Delightfully, it also plays host to a range of book-launches at erratic times throughout the year. In the last twelve months I've sat enthralled listening to Barbara Kingsolver, Helen MacDonald, Lauren Beukes and John Boyne - and host of new South African authors - speak about life, creativity, loss and the unexpected. (I missed Teju Cole's evening, but thankfully heard him speak instead at the Troyeville Hotel)

This week, it was the turn of Zakes Mda to launch Little Suns.

Photo credit and copyright Victor Dlamini

Zakes freaking Mda, people! How on earth do you begin to interview such a literary legend?

It turns out to be simple: you get Mbali Vilakazi to do it. (This is where I invite you to watch her phenomenal TEDtalk on poetry and process. I'll even wait right here while you do it.)

Over the course of an hour, Mbali took us through a beautifully thoughtful discussion with Professor Mda on fierce women, outsiders, forgotten stories, and the intersection of personal and political histories. Here are just a few fragments from that conversation:

On the array of interesting and bold women that populate Little Suns:
Why do I create strong female characters in my books? I think maybe because I don't know how to create any other kind.
On including the story of King Mamani, the first (and last) woman to be king, who took a wife and had a surrogate child with her:
Mamani she was ruthless in fact. Her cousin wanted to take [the throne] from her, but she was not having any of that. So she had him and all his supporters killed. I am in fact her descendant. But she is written out of my history, out of the history of the amaMpondomise.
On the magic in his stories:
It is from the tradition of stories we tell here, around the fire. My grandmother's stories taught me that the supernatural or the strange and unusual existed on the same plain as the real, that it is a natural part of that world... When I met Gabriel García Márquez he said to me, 'Do you know where I get my magic?' I said no. He said, 'From my grandmother. And do you know where she got it?' And I said no. He said, 'She got it from the African slaves.'
On writing under Apartheid:
During apartheid you could take a realistic slice of life, transfer it to the page and presto! Theatre of the absurd! [from @sa_poptart]

Buy the book - both in design and content, it is a thing of exquisiteness.

Thank you Jozi, for allowing me to bear witness to moments such as these.