I won!

To my genuine amazement, my story The Ghost Marriage has been named the winner (Europe & Canada region) of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize!

I am delighted, of course, thrilled that the story is going to be published in Granta online, hopeful that this will lead to ‘Things’ but mostly … relieved. I’ve been calling myself a writer, carving out time to write, sending off stories, going to events, doing readings, boring people by telling them about my novel and generally trying hard to shut down that bit of brain that scoffs: yeah, right. You’ll never do it. And why would anyone care if you did? Winning a prize doesn’t kill off that voice, but it does gag it for a bit. And it’s wonderful to be able to tell friends, be congratulated and feel how pleased they are for me. I am basking, just for a bit, and it feels like those days when you’ve just finished a big piece of work or just sat a test or completed a contract and you’re free, free …

(Yes, I know I still have a lot to write. And I will. It’s a tremendous motivation to revise what I’ve already done and move on)

The list of regional winners – I love how varied we are, from an accountant in Lagos to a Jamaican environmental activist!

Interesting discussion of the prize on Radio 4’s Open Book with the fab Mariella Frostrup.

Official announcement of winners on the World Service’s programme The Strand

More details in Granta. Excuse the dodgy old picture with fringe.

Whee!!!!!

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Commonwealth Short Story Prize

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?

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February update

Just noting a few of the writing-related things I have been up to this month (which has also seen a depressing number of rejections – oh well).

On the 13th, I went through to Edinburgh for Blind Poetics, where I was a ‘featured’ performer. Now, I just assumed that the name referred to the venue, the Blind Poet pub, but it turned out that I was the only non-poet reading (and, as well as the fantastic Colin McGuire, there were a dozen or so Open Mic-ers). I felt really self-conscious about this as my stories seemed really long by comparison, but everyone was very polite and attentive. A fun night and met some nice people.

On the 16th, I read briefly at the Love Words event at the Museum of Modern Art, organised by the Federation of Writers (Scotland).

On the 25th, the anthology A Thousand Cranes was officially launched at an event at the Arches, part of the Margins festival, reading my story The Unbeaten Track. Helen Sedgwick, Iain Paton, Raymond Soltysek and Katy McAulay also performed and a number of other people from Glasgow Writers’ Group who have stories or poems in the book were there too. It was a surprisingly good turnout (oh, the relief – at one point only 12 tickets had been sold) and quite daunting facing an audience in the large space of the Arches theatre. Some of my friends who don’t normally come along to literary events, along with my partner’s parents, came to support me, which was lovely, and afterwards we drank much wine in the bar. So that’s the anthology now officially out, complete with its foreword by Alex Salmond, and if you could possibly buy a copy that would be very nice (all proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross).

Finally, I went to London for four days this month, piggybacking my partner’s work trip and taking advantage of the free hotel room! An aside: I got the train, he got a BA flight and we left the house at the same time but I got to the hotel by the Barbican literally two minutes after he did … Anyway, my purpose in going was not just to have a Me Party like Amy Adams & Miss Piggy in The Muppets film, but to do some research for my novel in progress.

I had a brilliant time at both the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum (looking into accounts of sea voyages between Britain and China in the mid-19th Century) and then at the British Library Reading Rooms for various other matters. I am a complete library geek and this was my idea of heaven; I’d visited both places before but there was something really exciting to me about getting a Reader’s card and being able to request material from their stacks, waiting for them to be delivered, taking copious notes in pencil (no pens allowed) in the wonderful quiet atmosphere. Absolutely my idea of the perfect London trip (I also saw a great Dickens exhibition) and it has reignited my love for this project.

I’ve been working on it for a while but I feel that I finally have the shape of the story clear and have enough general research (I will still need to check various specific things as I go along) to really achieve what I’m trying to do. Getting the balance right between researching and writing the first draft has been interesting and has thrown up a lot of issues about writing historical fiction. As a result, I’ve put together, with my mate the historian Dr Ben Shepherd, a one-day workshop which will run at the University of Strathclyde on August 23rd, where we’ll be discussing that very thing (more details to follow).

Overall, quite a productive month really (I’ve also written a new, long short story and several thousand more words of novel). I hope this doesn’t sound like showing off; for me, I have to keep note of the good things as a counterbalance for the inevitable crappy feelings that I’m way behind, I keep being rejected, other people are better etc etc. Got to accentuate the positive, talk myself up (to myself) – that’s what Miss Piggy would do.

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They don’t make ’em like that anymore

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”.

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Recent articles

The Scotsman now has an Arts Blog (at long last) – here is a silly thing I wrote for it: Shane’ll Fix It & Other Strange TV Ideas.

I don’t normally put my articles up here but while I’m here, a few more seasonal ones:

How Charles Dickens trademarked Christmas.

Why this series of Strictly Come Dancing offered light relief.

And from last year, a piece I really enjoyed researching about
Christmas in Scotland over the years (can’t link direct, but scroll to Page 28-31; note that the system takes a minute to load).

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Anne And The Skye Bun Prize

The Skye Literary Salon – which is a lovely sounding thing – runs a contest called The Baker Prize 2011. Now, I’m not one of those who enters every competition going but as soon as I heard about this one, I was thrilled. Because the Baker Prize is sponsored by the Isle of Skye Baking Company – and kindred spirits will surely understand that instantly brought to mind Anne Shirley and Rollings Reliable Baking Powder.

In Anne Of The Island, part of the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the teenaged Anne writes her first ‘serious’ story, the hilariously bad Averil’s Atonement, agonising and delighting over every tragic nuance. She is crushed when it is rejected by several literary magazines and vows never to write again. Then she unexpectedly receives a letter announcing her story has won first prize in a contest run by the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company of Montreal – a contest she never entered. Turns out that her best friend Diana has ‘kindly’ entered it for her, in secret.

‘Why Anne, you don’t seem a bit pleased!’ she exclaimed. Anne instantly manufactured a smile and put it on.
‘Of course I couldn’t be anything but pleased over your unselfish wish to give me pleasure,’ she said slowly. ‘But you know – I’m so amazed – I can’t realise it – and I don’t understand. There wasn’t a word in my story about – about’ – Anne choked a little over the word – baking powder.’
‘Oh, I put that in,’ said Diana, reassured. ‘It was as easy as wink … You know the scene where Averil makes the cake? Well, I just stated that she used the Rollings Reliable in it and that was why it turned out so well; and then, in the last paragraph, where Perceval clasps Averil in his arms and says, “Sweetheart, the beautiful coming years will bring us the fulfilment of our home of dreams,” I added, “in which we will never use any baking powder except Rollings Reliable.”‘

Poor Anne! She is mortified at the commercialisation of her beloved story and takes no joy in her prize of $25. Thankfully the Isle of Skye Baking Company did not similarly insist on entries referring to their wonderful artisan breads, oatcakes and 12 flavours of shortbread!

Still, some writers have agreed to insert brands into their work for money – Faye Weldon, for instance, took money from a jewellery company to feature them in a novel, while some authors auction off a cameo appearance in their books for charity. Anne is eventually soothed when Gilbert Blythe points out that people will understand that being “not overburdened with worldly weath, [you] had taken this way of earning an honest penny … One would rather write masterpieces of literature, no doubt, but meanwhile board and tuition fees have to be paid.” How true, Gilbert, how true … and that is why competitions and grants and promotion have to be a part of writing life and why I’ve written advertising supplement copy and features I didn’t have much interest in.

But the case of LM Montgomery herself is a useful corollary. The first couple of Anne books are delightful: an adorable main character, amusing scenes of life in a small Canadian community in the early 20th Century, an irresistible romance with the boy next door and wonderful depictions of landscape and the effect it can have on a sensitive, imaginative nature. But people kept demanding more: novel after barrel-scraping novel followed, some filling in unneeded gaps, others chronicling Anne’s numerous children, along with short stories which shoehorned the character into repetitive situations. Montgomery’s diaries, recently published, reveal that churning out work to order exacerbated her chronic depression.

Later on in Anne Of The Island, by the way, a more experienced Anne realises that most of what she’s written before is silly – but she digs out one simple sketch, reworks it and sends it to a magazine. They accept it, pay $10 and ask to see more of her work. She’s more thrilled than she ever was with the $25 from Rollings Reliable, because she feels like she truly earned it for something worthwhile.

You have to write for money, you have to promote yourself; but you also have to draw the line somewhere, whether it’s inserting unexpected references to delicious baked goods, available at surprisingly reasonable prices, or killing off a popular series. I’m working out where my line is.

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New Writers Award Applications

Phew! I have managed to submit my application for the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards in time. Thousands (probably) apply for this, so it may be a long shot but I spent quite a while on it, revising the stories I sent them (one has caused me so much grief trying to wrestle it into shape that I no longer know if it’s any good or not. In fact, I kind of hate it) and trying to write something that conveyed exactly why I should be chosen. I hate applications of any kind: it’s so embarrassing trying to sell yourself. However, it’s clearly good practice for submitting manuscripts to publishers and, someday, to be pushing that work at readings, festivals and so on. Your work can’t speak for itself if nobody’s read it. Anyway, the process of applying did help me work out what I need now to develop my writing further and what I need to be focusing on, so even if I’m not successful, it’s been useful.
Did you apply this year? How do you feel about awards? If you are involved with the awards, do you take bribes? Only kidding obviously (but you can contact me through this site, if you need to, like, check anything …)

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‘The Goode Daughter’ published in Algebra

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.

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Launch of A Thousand Cranes anthology

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.

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Monosyllabic tonight

I’m reading tonight at Monosyllabic, now at its new venue at the Old Hairdressers’. The theme is ‘In The Dark’ (as they’re following on from a ‘dancing in the dark’ event) and I’ve written something specially, called Under The Covers With Amy. It’s not as saucy as it sounds. Do come!

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