Tag Archives: Edinburgh

So, where am I now?

Firstly, here’s a blog I wrote for The Scotsman on the first Edinburgh Historical Fiction Festival this weekend (it’s below the one about ‘Thatcher’s musical legacy’).

The shortlist has just been announced for this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize and Granta will again be publishing the regional winners – I’m looking forward to reading them and wish them all best of luck! In the meantime, Granta have published short updates on the five of us from last year and you can read it here if you like: ‘Where are they now?’ Or, if you’d rather not be scared by a horrible photo of me, I thought I’d put up my original answers to their email questions, which had to be understandably cut down for publication. I hope it doesn’t seem too self-indulgent, but for me anyway it was an interesting exercise to think about how to answer these. Especially the last one.

How has the experience of being selected by Commonwealth Writers and having your story published by Granta altered your perspective of yourself as a writer, if at all?
Oh, it was such a boost. I really believed in this story but it’s a bit of a strange one, so it was amazing to have someone else – especially people as eminent as the Commonwealth judges – say that they got it and they enjoyed it. It really gave me confidence that I was on the right track: I know I have a lot to learn about writing, but this award said that I could do it. I went down to the Hay-on-Wye book festival for the official announcements and it felt like a small taste of a potential future. And, honestly, the prize money came in handy too. The only downside was having to provide a photo for the publicity. Ugh.

Granta was the first literary magazine I ever read, or even heard of, back in 1990. I still have those first issues on my bookshelves. So for me to have a story published under the same imprint (albeit online) as all the big beasts of contemporary literature is something so special that I’m almost embarrassed to talk about it. I was very, very pleased and it has been the highlight of my writing career so far. It was also lovely just to see it laid out on the screen page, with pull-quotes and that beautiful photograph to illustrate it.

Has anything resulted directly from your story being published by Granta and/or winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize?
Since the story was published, I’ve been approached through my blog by a couple of agents wanting to discuss my work, had someone want to translate it and even heard from a cousin abroad whom I haven’t seen in 25 years!

What are you working on at the moment?
I have been developing The Ghost Marriage into a novel, with substantial changes. It’s a long process, but I’m making good progress so I hope to finish by the end of this year and then try to get it published. But I also take breaks from the book to write short stories, on all kinds of subjects – from working in a call centre to a WWI war crimes trial to a zombie rock star.

How did you find the experience of having your work edited?
Great – I just want my stories to be the best they can be. An outside perspective helps make sure that everything’s coming across clearly, so the reader knows what they need to know but the story still has space for ambiguity and imagination. I’m used to being edited anyway because I have a journalism background, but there you don’t tend to get much of a say about it! Fiction allows for so much more nuance and multiplicity of meanings, so there has to be a bit more of a discussion between writer and editor. It’s more personal, yet you don’t want to be self-indulgent, so there’s almost a collaboration going on.

If you were in a band, what would they be called?
The Procrastinators. We’d rehearse a lot but never get around to playing any gigs.

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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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Reading at Duality @ Inky Fingers Minifest

For many years I reviewed shows at the Edinburgh Fringe – this year I (technically) performed in one! And at a venue the Independent called the “coolest in Edinburgh,” no less. Unfortunately the Forest Cafe is set to close at the end of this month, though they’re hoping to find another venue, but in the meantime they have a very full August programme of events, including the Inky Fingers minifest of literary readings. I took part yesterday in an event organised by Duality, run by Alec Beattie, which also included Jamie McIntyre and Gill Hoffs who’d both read at Words Per Minute last month and who I was happy to see (and hear) again.

It was quite a long slot so I read The Real And The Not Real, a fairly long story about old women and fairies. I love this story, but I’m not entirely sure if it worked as a performance piece, I hope people could follow it – being a café, there was a bit of background noise (especially earlier on in the show, when a lot of lunches were being served). However, it was certainly good practice as after this I feel I could probably read anywhere! Afterwards we went to a pub in the Grassmarket and watched Alec do a ‘Flash Fiction Mob’ declaiming a story to passers-by – one of whom had been drinking for quite some time and didn’t really get the concept …

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