I’m delighted (and shocked) to have been shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize!
It’s for a version of The Ghost Marriage, which I’ve been trying to turn into a longer book over the last year, so this is a massive encouragement that I’m working on something which is worth pursuing. I’m so relieved I can’t even tell you.
Since writing this version, I’ve done a lot more historical research and made many changes to develop and expand the book. But it retains the essence of the initial story which I enjoyed writing so much that I didn’t want to leave these characters and that setting.
The prize is open to stories from 54 countries which is amazing: I imagine the entries were incredibly varied so it’s a real honour to be shortlisted. I have to admit, the Commonwealth as an entity is not something I’d previously thought about very much, but looking at the Foundation’s website, they seem to do some great work (there’s also a useful site for writers). They say: “We exist to empower charities, non-governmental organisations, professional associations, trade unions, faith groups and cultural practitioners; the lifeblood of any healthy society. We equip these groups with the tools required to contribute to national and international goals of democracy, good governance, sustainable development and cultural diversity.”
All good things, but the latter I think is something which is particularly in need of celebration at the moment, when “multiculturalism” has become a dirty word in some places and people are either deliberately or thoughtlessly denying the historical circumstances which have made the world the way it is.
My story is all about making connections (Scottish, Chinese, Japanese; men and women; the literal and the metaphorical; the physical and the poetic; commerce, war and Empire; the 19th Century and the 21st) so maybe that’s what made it a good fit for this competition. Or maybe not, I dunno!
I’m looking forward to finding out more about the other shortlisted stories. There’s also a prize for best (published) first novel – anyone read any of them?
Category Archives: Stories
I’m delighted (and shocked) to have been shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize!
Have you seen The Artist yet? Being obsessed with old Hollywood, I was worried it couldn’t live up to my expectations, but I really enjoyed it – like the films it emulated, it combined joyful elements with a good dollop of genuine angst. I miss that combination in films today. Comedy-dramas (or ‘dramadies’) are usually neither particularly funny nor actually dramatic.
Anyway – and happy new year, by the way – after the film I kept wondering about its characters and came up with a few SPOILERY ideas about where the changing trends of 20th Century Hollywood might have taken them after the end of the film. For some reason, I really enjoying coming up with plausible, fake movie ideas; a while ago I wrote a similar short story about an elderly star of the old studio system. Think I’m working towards something on this theme but not sure what it is yet. Here’s my unofficial sequel to The Artist: please let me know if you can identify any of the little in-jokes about classic movies …
After ‘The Artist’
After their first musical together was a smash hit, Peppy and George went on to enthral audiences throughout the 1930s with nine more, each with ever more glamorous outfits, spectacular settings and glorious dance routines, which provided escapism during the Depression. Although it was acknowledged that their dancing was not quite as good as that of Astaire and Rogers, fans loved knowing that the charming relationship between them was mirrored in real life (the pair married the day after their first film was released).
The advent of war changed things, of course. Both stars were regulars at the Hollywood Canteen for servicemen, while George in particular – greatly affected by the invasion of his native France – threw himself into supporting the war effort, tirelessly touring the country to promote war bonds and making many overseas visits to entertain the troops. He left little time for acting, but did appear in a few patriotic films, most notably A Vichy Affair, in which he played a heroic French Resistance fighter who refused to betray his comrades under Gestapo torture, declaring: “I won’t talk!” George was also the original choice to play Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, but withdrew due the impending birth of his and Peppy’s first child.
After two more children, Peppy revived her acting career post-war with roles in 1940s melodramas, such as George Cukor’s The Ones Left Behind, about a war widow struggling to raise her family, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. George, meanwhile, gave a strong performance in film noir Trouble Is My Business, surprising critics who did not expect the song-and-dance man to be convincing as a hard-drinking private eye. The actor explained he’d drawn on his own dark period for inspiration.
In the 1950s, cinema faced a new challenge: television. Peppy was quick to jump on the bandwagon, appearing in several teleplays including Paddy Chayefsky’s Mary, about a middle-aged spinster. George, however, regarded TV as a fad which would soon pass and refused to be involved, leading to another dip in his career as new film stars emerged.
But eventually he reconsidered and joined his wife in a very successful sitcom, Life With The Valentins, which ran for some years. While clearly modelled on ‘I Love Lucy’, it had a twist in that it was George who often found himself in embarrassing situations, to be rescued by his more sensible spouse. The couple’s three children joined them in the show and episodes often concluded with the family united in song.
By the 1960s, tastes had changed again. Work dried up for Peppy and she devoted more of her time to charity work, especially for animal rescue organisations, as she wanted to ensure that all pets would have as long and happy lives as their own dogs (all descended from Uggie). After playing Doris Day’s mother in Love, Set And Match, Peppy recruited her to the cause and influenced her lifelong devotion to animals.
While out of fashion in the US, George had an unexpected renaissance in France, where Cahiers du Cinema had long championed him as an early auteur because of his film Tears Of Love. As a result, he appeared in several French films, including a popular spy series based on the OSS 117 novels, in which he played N, the head of the secret service. The couple’s children Michel, Jean and Berenice were now grown up and had formed a music group, which had several hit records during the Summer of Love.
Peppy and George were unexpectedly back in the limelight themselves after appearing in the disaster film Airport 1974. They played a former Hollywood golden couple, divorced years before, who are brought back together as they struggle to survive a plane crash. Audiences were charmed to see them reunited on screen for the first time in 25 years and their careers were both revived. They continued to work mostly on the small screen, with many cameo roles in popular series including The Streets Of San Francisco, Columbo, Quincy, Dallas, Falcon Crest and others.
In his last years, George was retired, although he did make a cameo appearance in Indiana Jones And The Fountain Of Youth, at the special request of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who were both great admirers of his early work. Midway through the film, Indiana is given a potion which temporarily ages him into an old man, played by George – but, thanks to special effects, he was still able to outrun, out-jump and out-fight his fiendish opponents, giving audiences one final chance to see him in daredevil mode.
Peppy was very grieved by her husband’s death in 1985, but took comfort in her children and grandchildren (who included a rising Brat Pack star). She continued to work, with her long-running TV series She Sang, Murder!, about a former chorus girl who encountered, and solved, crimes wherever she went. Shortly before her death, she was awarded a honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar and gave a touching speech, accepting it on behalf of her late husband – because, she said, “he taught me that a star has to have something that no one else has”.
I have a story called The Goode Daughter in the new Algebra which is the literary journal of Tramway, the Glasgow arts venue. It’s set during the Salem Witch Trials and has rather idiosyncratic spelling to reflect the times and the character. I’d love to know what you think of the story.
I was asked to record an audio version which was daunting but fun, especially as it was recorded sitting on a toilet (seat down) in a small bathroom reading into a screen microphone whose lead trailed out under the door. Very much like the experience of Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, except on a rather different kind of throne. Sadly I wasn’t quite able to manage an authentic 17th Century accent, my voice sounds very, very Scottish indeed – do I really talk like that? Thanks to Sean, the sound engineer, for his patience and for letting me put the audio file here (you can also hear it on Tramway’s site).
Thanks also to Algebra’s editor Beatrice Colin. The other stories in Issue 3 are really excellent and I’m happy to be among them.
Today the Japanese Consul sang me a song. No, really.
It was at the official reception to launch the new Cargo Publishing anthology, A Thousand Cranes, which I’m pleased to have a story in. The project was the idea of Iain Paton, from the Glasgow Writers’ Group, whose wife Deborah used to work in a province of Japan affected by the tsunami last year (he’s also working on a crime novel set there). He asked people to contribute stories, essays or poems with a Japanese theme for a book to benefit the Red Cross’ work there, helping people left homeless or injured by the disaster which killed at least 15,000 people.
I was moved by the TV coverage and wanted to send something but I’ve never been to Japan – and that gave me an idea. So my story, The Unbeaten Track, is about a woman called Henrietta Bird who also never visited the country, but whose sister – the intrepid Victorian traveller Isabella Bird – did, sending back detailed letters to Henrietta back on Tobermory, in Mull, where I imagine that she, too, felt a connection with a faraway land.
It took a while to get the book together (ably edited by Iain Paton, Alex Cox, Alan Gillespie and Cara McGuigan – my pal from last year’s Glasgow Uni DACE course Imaginary Worlds – and produced by the people at the very up-and-coming Cargo) but now it’s available, in a shiny paperback or Kindle edition. This is actually the limited edition first printing; there will be another featuring an introduction by First Minister Alex Salmond (not ready in time for this one), so if you are not a fan of his you might want to snap up one of the first few collectors’ copies.
Mr Tarahara and his wife invited those of us who’d taken part to their official residence today to give a seal of approval to the book, which was a lovely experience if a little strange – I don’t normally mix with ambassadors. But they and their staff were extremely nice and welcoming and it was fun to catch up with writers I knew and meet some new ones. After making many jokes about Ferrero Rochers, when Mr T announced he had a present for us, we were prepared to be ‘really spoiled’ but to everyone’s surprise, this jolly man in a business suit proceeded to sing – in a passable attempt at a Scottish accent – the Robert Burns song Annie Laurie, while we stood around listening. That was a moment I’ll remember for a long time!
Anyway, do check out the book if you can: it’s a good cause and, from my initial browse so far, it looks like there are a number of great pieces in there. It will be available from Waterstone’s soon (with a proper book launch, watch this space) or get it now via Cargo Publishing.
It is apparently vital for every writer, even a timid, not-much-published one like me, to have a website, so here it is, the very-much-beta version.
I have a story up at the lovely online project For Every Year (short stories thematically linked to years in history – mine is the year 1633) called The Big Girl. It’s about Trintje Keever, the tallest woman in known history.
And here’s my most recent TV review in The Scotsman, on BBC Scotland’s The Field Of Blood.
Thank you for reading.