Monday 31 March 2008

Waterstone's Spring Selection... Golly...

Words From A Glass Bubble is in the Spring Selection in Brighton Waterstone's Newsletter. Front page stuff too!

There's this lovely lady there called Sara Crowley who is also an astute and talented writer, and she interviewed me (you can read her fascinating, ascerbic and often hilarious blog from a link on this one...)

According to Waterstones Spring Newsletter then, Words from a Glass Bubble
contains some of the most beautifully crafted and engrossing stories that one can read,...a rare talent...characters becoming real as she relates their tales with wit, compassion and an unflinching eye."

Thanks Sara and Brighton Waterstones, for a terrific 'review'.

Now all Sussex readers, get down the Brighton Waterstone's, pick up a newsletter and find out about their regular book group meetings, and other exciting developments in store!



I hope the screen doesn’t replace the book. People say I’m out of date and of course, screens will replace books at some point. Of course they will, it’s inevitable. Besides, look at the ecological benefits, they say.

But I say, look at what we’ll lose.

I had three books through the post. All beautiful. And all with the gift of the writer’s signature. A message, overlaying the messages inherent in the words anyway.

Writers can’t sign screens. Make presents of a few words.

The books are beautiful things. Hold them, they feel right in the hand. The slip covers on the hardbacks are great, like wrapping paper over a present. The feel nice, look nice, they move. That’s important. There’s a life to them.

But the permanent covers are important too. Take the covers off, and Tattoo:Tatu by Nuala Ni Chonchuir is the colour of a wise old wine, with gold blocking on the spine. The Searching Glance by Linda Cracknell is a brighter red, with silver lettering.

They feel nice, smell nice. The pages whisper as you riffle through them. The words look good on the paper. The paper is different for both. Tattoo reflects itself. There’s a shadow of each poem left when you turn the page. It says ‘hish hish’ when you feel the pages

The Searching Glance says ‘hush’. It’s like they are reminding you that they require respect. A little silence so they can speak.

The creak of the spine, the hush of pages turning when I’m curled up on the sofa… books speak to you.

What sounds wills screens make? The click of buttons, the pale skit of finger on plastic to ‘turn the ‘page’.

I was brought up surrounded by books. My mother was a librarian. But very few lived permanently in the house; they went back to the libraries. That drove me mad…what if I wanted to revisit something, now?! What if I wanted to add something, notes, thoughts? So now, I buy and keep my books, most of them, and my study walls, upstairs and downstairs, are lined with books. So many that a lot have to lie down on top of the upright ones.

I write in them. Notes along the margins. They are MINE! They are not hallowed things not to be touched and loved. They are friends, companions.

I may put one down, mislay it. Just as I mislay my iPod. But my books don’t run out of battery time. They are more faithful than that. They have their own lifeblood, they don’t require the downloading of electrical possibility.

Yes they use up trees. But with all the technology at our disposal, I’m sure there are alternatives, alternatives that breathe a little life into the words, and don’t just display them on a screen, as cold as meat on a slab.

If I was a tree, I wouldn’t mind being a book.

And actually, come to think of it, I might be, one day. No graves for Chris and I, when the time comes. We’ve decided that. Just a couple of trees. And who knows, if the world doesn’t change too much, one day we may be cut down and turned into a book of poetry.

I like that thought.

Sunday 30 March 2008

Books in the post!

We came home from a week in Switzerland yesterday, to the usual pile of post... among them three books:

The Searching Glance, by fellow Salt author, Linda Cracknell, sent to me and signed by Linda... we swapped our books!

Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes, selected poems by Billy Collins ("one of my favourite poets in the world"...Carol Ann Duffy) sent to me by Sue Booth-Forbes at Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat. Billy Collins is a great friend of hers. Signed in 2002, I opened the book at a poignant poem entitled Embrace, in which he uses that parlour trick of putting your arms round yourself.

Tattoo:Tatu, poems by Nuala ni Chonchuir, with a lovely note inside
"wishing you ink that flows..."

(oh how I need that wish at the moment!)

Each poem is printed in English and Irish, it looks beautiful. I wish I could hear it.
I opened it at a poem entitled Enclosed. Stunning. A beautiful book.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

More on 'The Gathering'

Cover to cover, this book is memorable for so many reasons.

From a writer's perspective it is one of those you know you will learn from. It's just so good. The writing is brilliant, the whole peeling away layers of character, layers of story, until the centre is reached. And it's a sad centre, but one that does not surprise when it comes.

The reader becomes part of The Gathering. Complicit, judgemental as much as they are. You become so aware of the people, the tensions, always tensions, the small cruelties.

Enright says somewhere in the book that people don't change, they reveal themselves. I went to sleep last night with that thought uppermost in my mind. And how, if I can take one thing away from this book as a writer, it's a deeper understanding that character is story.

One of the things that creates character is voice. And here, the voice is true, straight, unmanipulative.

I was fascinated to see on The Guradian book blog from the time of the Booker award, more than a little sniping about The Gathering. Assertions were made that Animal's People was a far better book.

I bought Animal's People at the time, rather than the winner, because it sounded fascinating.

I couldn't get into it, and have not read right through. I felt overtly manupulated by the writer, who was all over the pages like spilled soup. The voice was nothing... not coherent, not authentic in character, far far too aware, articulate, educated for the character it was meant to be portraying... it did not hold up to much scrutiny, and I can understand why it didn't win.

I felt manipulated too by the 'feeling' behind the book.. 'Lets create a really misshapen Calibanesque person... make him say 'Fuck' every few paragraphs... that'll sell!!"

and it does sell, sure, but it's not good enough.

At no point in The Gathering did I feel I was being manipulated. I felt I was instead in the hands of a strong, interesting intelligent writer who didn't need to use sensationalism to sell her story to me. When the revelations come, as they do, they are lightly done, as is the whole. Clever. I saw what happened as a child would see it, and as an adult. And far more importantly, as a reader... I was not fed the scenes cut up piecemeal, delivered in primary colours for me to watch like a bad B movie.

I was led to the scenes, slowly but inexorably downhill, so my feet wouldn't stop. And I was complicit, because I met the writer halfway.

Monday 24 March 2008

The Gathering

I have bought Ann Enright's The Gathering away with me. (We are in Switzerland, ten of us an a chalet, nine skiers and me).

The Gatheringis extraordinary. One of those books which makes me glad I write. Glad to be on the edges of a world with writers like Enright working somewhere in it.

It was 'on the list', as so many are. But I bought it now because Women Rule Writer said something recently about loving this book and not understanding why so many readers express dislike for it.

Maybe it's because it makes them uncomfortable, makes them feel something? Makes them question themselves and others? It's a cage-rattler,for sure.

But I am so glad I listened.

Friday 21 March 2008


The papers are carrying obituaries for one of my favourite actors, today.


I remember seeing him at Macbeth in Stratford in 1967. We used to be taken there in coach loads from my school in North Wales; I was very lucky. The obituary says the Peter Hall production was disappointing... I don't remember that... just being mesmerised by the play, the actors.

No, they weren't actors, they were Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Duncan and Banquo's ghost...and suddenly these dry old pages we'd been ploughing through in lessons dissolved into a story that wouldn't let me put it down.


Is reality in characterisation the same as stereotype?

Fascinating discussion in a writing group.

We all know that characters in strong fiction need to be ‘real’ for the duration of the story, in the sense that they must be ‘believed’ by the reader. They have to hold the ability to take the reader by the hand for a few minutes, helping to create the ‘fictive dream’ necessary to a seriously good read.

The reader has to be willing to be led, as well. It’s a two-way thing.

But as always, the writer is creating the world of the story, weaving the spell of the voice, the characters… to allow the reader to suspend disbelief for the duration.

How does the writer create ‘real’ characters?

Life is full of ‘real’ people... do we simply draw a few more of them?

Is it OK to create stereotypes on the basis that life is full of stereotypes, and they are ‘real’, so there’s nothing wrong with that?

Do some strong stories not need flesh and blood, differentiated characters?

All things to think about over Easter.

But I’ll just copy over a few NO NO snippets from The Willesden Herald’s list of things not to do in literary fiction, to add to the pot.

• Undifferentiated characters. A name is not a character. Pinky said this, Perky said that, Blinky said something similar and Pisky said the same, as the old wartime song might have gone. Each character should be a complete person, with their own C.V. if you like, their own history, temperament, habits, weaknesses, plans, objectives etc, though these need not and should not be explicitly listed as such.

• Boring. “Middle of page 3 and I am totally bored.” “Well enough written but what is the point?” “I’m losing the will to live.” Again, I keep repeating, the reader does not have a gun to his or her head. We have lives of our own. We don’t need to substitute somebody else’s dreary domestic arrangements in our minds for our own. To us, yours are far less interesting – and ours were not that interesting to start with. Who cares if somebody listened to a news story on the radio, went shopping, bought a packet of corn flakes. Yawn, yawn, yawn.

• Banal. Commonplace, dull, the sort of thing you hear every day. This is really a continuation of “boring”. A lot of stories about elderly people living in squalor. A particularly English phenomenon. A lot of stories about dying relatives. Ok, but they better be good. It’s important to write about these things, but when you do you need to realise that there will be ten other people writing about the same thing, so you’d better make it very good.

Me again.

I think strong fiction HAS to have a 'point' or why bother? If the close reader comes to the end of the story and thinks 'So? Why have I spent time reading this? ' because it is a close representation of life and how it is anyway... it's failed.

I think strong fiction HAS to have differentiated characters. Not just within a single piece, but your coal miner MUST differ from the hundreds of others in the lines. YOUR bored mother MUST stand out from the squillions of bored mothers in squillions of boring lives. YOUR old lady at the bus stop MUST engage the reader, not let the reader's eye wander past because shes been met thousands of times before.

The best line in the whole Willesden list , for this reader, is this

"Life can be banal, but we turn to fiction to find ...transcendence."

To be taken out of ourselves for the duration. To be given a glimpse of something else. To be lifted up and out.

Sure, an ordinary person can do that for us. A 'real' person. But they need flesh on their bones, blood in their veins, a beating heart, and they need to touch us.

To do that, they have to make us stop and listen. They need to fascinate, on some level, intrigue. They have to make us want to know...

Wednesday 19 March 2008


And now, the slide show (if I've mastered the technology!)

A selection of images taken by photographer Cora Malinak at the launch party for Words From A Glass Bubble, March 11th. Friends, family, place, people, books, pictures, and a lot of smiles.

Put your speakers on: the music is the Allegro from Handel's Cuckoo and Nightingale Organ Concerto

Handel makes an appearance in the slide terracotta.



Tuesday 18 March 2008


Night Train is great magazine run by Rusty Barnes and his team. It was print, and has now migrated to the web...

I have a story in the latest issue,



Smokelong Quarterly and Innisfreee Poetry Journal

I love Smokelong Quarterly. Each time I teach a flash fiction workshop, I use examples from here to show what the form can be.

I had one of my very first publications in Smokelong back in 2004.

It's been a labour of love to get something accepted again, and finally! "Wei-Ch'i"...LINK HERE.

There seems to be a thread running through the whole issue, as the editor says. Loss and discovery merging into one. Wei=Ch'i certainly fits that.

And Innisfree Poetry Journal has just gone up together with a historic contribution... my very first published poem, To Not Be Water (with acknowledgements to Bev Jackson for both inspiration and encouragement!)

INNISFREE LINKED HERE Please read Eric Pankey's work... especially a poem entitled Walk With My Father.

Poetry is a slippery beast. Whenever I think I've 'got' something, can understand something, it slips away. My tutor David Grubb is very patient, thank heavens.

Molara Wood Blogs About The Glass Bubble Launch

Photo by Molara Wood

Molara Wood, the London-based Nigerian writer, has blogged about the launch party HERE

It was a great occasion for me for so many reasons, one of which was the opportunity it gave me to meet writers I had worked with on the web. Molara Wood is someone I had been greatly looking forward to meeting. A prizewinning writer herself, we had worked together in an international collaborative project, exploring 'Third World' issues through fiction.

(The first thing we all did was chuck out the term 'Third World' as divisive!)

I have borrowed the piccie above... there are some more of Molara's great photos of the launch on her blog.

Molara has just been declared the winner of the John La Rose Memorial Short Story Competition. She has a busy week last week, as her award ceremony took place a few days after we met... read all about it HERE.

Wednesday 12 March 2008


Last night, at London's Foundling Museum, Words From A Glass Bubble was launched.

It was the best possible event. I was surrounded by 130 friends - writers and non-writers. The champers flowed, the noise level was high, there were three readings and a constant opportunity to explore this wonderful place with the help of experienced guides.

I will post pictures when they come through... but HERE IS A LINK to Elizabeth Baines' blog, with her piccies, a lovely account of the party, and the book...

And Sarah Hilary, a super crime writer (and winner of one of the Fish prizes this year) has written it up on her blog HERE

Can't ask for nicer words from either of them. Thank you both. It was lovely of you to make the journey to London, one from Manchester, one from the Cotswolds.

Monday 10 March 2008


I am indebted to Normblog for this link:

THE NEW YORK TIMES reveals that Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis is not fiction after all! It is fact!

Irate publishers have tried emailing and telephoning Franz Kafka, but he appears to have gone to ground, and is not answering calls to explain this scandal.

And neither is his neighbour Gregor who suffers from a rare syndrome in which the sufferer grows a hard carapace and antennae...




Brilliant news! My publishers, Salt, have won an award at the Independent Publishers' Awards, 2008, in Brighton this weekend.

Go to Words from a Glass Bubble Blog (link on right >>>>>) to check it out!

Saturday 8 March 2008


Elizabth Baines reports this on her excellent blog.

Hanif Kureshi's recent talk at Manchester University, and among other things, his views on Creative Writing at University.

The narrator of (Kureshi's) latest novel, Something to Tell You, is a psychoanalyst, and writing as therapy was a strong thread through the evening. The way he told it, he himself took up writing as the best form of therapy...,

..Asked whether he agreed with Will Self's condemnation of the teaching of Creative Writing, Kureishi said that he could see where Self was coming from, there really was something dodgy about it all: what the universities are up to in fact is making money out of the fees, and it would be an utter cruelty to give 'these people' the impression they were likely to get a publishing deal, the point of it all for most of them was therapy ... and some of them in fact were 'absolutely barking' - in fact he's noticed that when you get these shootings in American universities the perpetrators always turn out to be students of Creative Writing.

But then after all it's true that madness is close to genius and all great writers really have to be mad - at which point the audience laughter turned from nervous to relieved.

(my breaks in the text)


From my limited experience, he is spot on about the 'cruelty' of some courses leading students to think they are writing material that will be of interest to the publishing world. But I would probably call it 'cynicism'. After all, as he points out, their objective is to increase income.

But while we are on the subject of cruelty, I think his description of some students of Creative Writing as "absolutely barking" is cruel.

Again, from experience of a university course, but also from the frequent experience of participating in and leading public CW workshops ... people sign up because they want improve their craft, to maximise their chances of being heard. They go to the Universities, to courses, because they believe they will be given the tools with which to create something special.

Sure, they have a captive audience who might have to listen to autobiographical ramblings, and comment on a life in progress.

But if the Universities think what they are writing is 'barking' then surely, these students ought not be ON the courses in the first place.

Two questions:

1)What's the selection process for entry to basic CW courses at University? certificates and diplomas?? (There was no selection for the one I attended for a while...)

2)How many students do you know of who have failed a University CW course?



Friday 7 March 2008

On the Bus with Brighton College

Last Thursday, and four hours spent with bright, buzzy, keen Lower Sixth Brighton College Creative Writers. Add a teacher who says 'There's a bus to Mileoak...' and V is off!

I sent in advance a suitable short story written a while back, not by me, set on a bus. A bus journey back though a life, revisiting relationships, with more than a little element of the surreal.

We didn't tell the students what was planned.

Initially, we plunged straight into a flash writing exercise, with words dropped in at random as they wrote... and as it always does, it produced some good work.

We talked about journeys being great structures for stories, for films. The Oddysey. Lord of the Rings ad inf.

Then we sprang the surprise, that we were off on the bus! And for the next hour and a half at least, the CW session was held on the top of the Number 1 to Mileoak.

We caught the bus outside the College. Each student was asked to sit apart from the rest... and to be observant, feeling the difference between images and sounds that jumped out at them, as opposed to the things that flashed past and didn't 'mean' something.

And we watched the passage of life outside and inside the bus.

To begin with, we were all 'aware' of the necessity to notice things. Trying to notice clever things, not mundane. But slowly, the soporific nature of public transport journeys took over, and the things we were seeing began to blur... but some jumped into focus. Lists were kept. Anything that seemed significant. A child glimpsed in a sandpit. A slipped tile on a roof. A frightened man on a mobile. A woman pushing a buggy over a road.

I was trying to illustrate that stories find the writer, not the other way round.

And the results were very good. For example: one student was so moved by a sequence of tiny events he saw outside a newsagent's. (I won't repeat them here... they are his...) that his voice shook when he described them to us later.

"When should I write this? I want to write it now..." and we were able to talk about not grabbing stories too fast, but the value of waiting and letting the mind do some of the work without us 'interfering' too much.

He'd find, on his list of seeming unconnected sights, that some held more significance than others. More potential links to the woman outside the shop...

They wrote sequences of 'characters' seen, lines of poetry linking sights to emotion. Shared their observations. Said they had changed the way they 'see' things. They were beginning to 'see' as writers. Fabulous!

Very buzzy. very exciting. A privilege to work with this group.

Reading back over, I haven't done the bus journey justice.

Thursday 6 March 2008


Words from a Glass Bubble has been reviewed by Adele Geras today on her husband (Norman Geras)'s blog, Normblog.

(I love Normblog. There is always something to provoke, to challenge, to make me think...)

Adele Geras reviews two Salt Collections: Balancing on the Edge of the World, by Elizabeth Baines, and Glass Bubble.

She writes a very good introduction in which she champions the short story.Here is her article in its entirety:

Two short story collections (by Adèle Geras)

Salt is an independent publisher based in Cambridge and it specializes in short stories. I've read two collections by Salt authors recently: Elizabeth Baines's Balancing on the Edge of the World when it came out a couple of months ago, and - the other day - Vanessa Gebbie's Words from a Glass Bubble, to be launched next week.

Some people simply don't like reading short stories and I find this so inexplicable that every so often I'll try my powers of persuasion to win the form a few more readers. Publishers (though not Salt, obviously) think that collections are not a paying proposition and efforts to bind them up individually as tiny little booklets and sell them at railway stations and the like don't seem to have flourished. They crop up less and less frequently in magazines. The broadsheets will carry a story by a superstar writer at Christmas, and occasionally at Halloween, because ghost stories, at least, are perennial favourites. Val McDermid tried her hardest a couple of years ago to get short stories noticed with a superb website and perhaps the internet is part of the future of this genre. But collections like these two show that the form is still alive and well in its printed version.

Those who don't like short stories are disappointed, perhaps, because they expect them to be small novels and they're not. It's like wishing a truly delicious canapé, or an exquisite strawberry tart, were a three-course meal. That isn't going to happen. With a few exceptions, short stories are short - over in a few pages for the most part - and therefore you'd think ideal for journeys, waiting rooms, the time before you fall asleep and any small time slot when getting stuck into a novel means you won't get further than the next few pages and have to leave it hanging till a later time.

Stories, when they work (and in the hands of these two writers they do work), offer us a chance to look into someone else's life. They can throw a stone into our mind that keeps rippling out to the edges of our thoughts all day long. That, I think, is what the blurbese 'haunting' means: you are literally pursued by the story you've just read, as if by a particularly vivid dream. They can terrify you (M.R. James, Franz Kafka), make you laugh (Damon Runyon), and even bring to life, however briefly, a whole distinct world (Katherine Mansfield, Anton Chekhov). They can be extended jokes, or delicious bits of scandal, or an overheard conversation. There are stories to suit every taste.

Elizabeth Baines's speciality is unpacking relationships. She catches perfectly the embarrassment, rivalry, squabbling, envy and love that exist between parents and children and between siblings. 'The Way to Behave' has a wronged wife going to speak to her husband's mistress. Baines is wincingly funny about the creative process and 'The Shooting Script' ought to be required reading for anyone who fancies themselves writing for television. She's both lyrical and clear-sighted when she looks at the world through a child's eyes. Try the stories 'Power' and 'Daniel Smith disappears off the face of the earth'. She moves between the city and the countryside and her internal monologues sound genuine, which isn't a surprise as Baines is a prize-winning playwright. Many of these tales would make good short dramas and perhaps that's one way of approaching them. The difference between drama and stories, though, is this: you have to provide the setting, costume and props in words and Baines does this with enormous aplomb.

The cover image on Vanessa Gebbie's book (which shows the back view of a beautiful red-haired girl going along a road and which reminds me of the Clark's shoe advertisements from the 50s) is an ironic comment on the contents of the book. The stories here are often heart-breaking. The death of children is a recurring theme and tales like 'I can squash the king, Tommo' (with its deliberate echoes of 'Under Milk Wood') are hard to read with dry eyes. Gebbie is never sentimental and the grief felt by her protagonists is brilliantly described. The ordinariness of pain: the way you settle into it, the way you face what's dished out to you, the way you cope, are examined in language that's plain and even brutal when it needs to be, and tender and poetic when that's appropriate. Some of the stories are set in Wales; the seaside is the background for some others. There's a story about an Inuit child which is desperately sad, but still uplifting. Harry in 'Harry's Catch' - which dwells in some detail on the technicalities of fishing - faces the truth about his marriage for the first time. A lowly employee at a hotel works out who wears the shoes he polishes, and in my favourite story, 'Dodie's Gift', you get an entire thriller plot played out in ten pages. It's terrific stuff: wide-ranging, interesting and, like the Baines, very well-written.

I do urge anyone who loves short stories to read these two collections and help me spread the word. (Adèle Geras)

Wednesday 5 March 2008


I've been invited to judge the 2008 Fish Publishing One Page Story Competition.


Needless to say I am delighted, and honoured. This is a great competition, attracts over a thousand entries per year from all over the English-speaking world.

I am looking forward to this one.


Monday 3 March 2008


Is there an unalienable human right that goes something like this: “I hold this truth to be self evident: That I have the right not to be offended.”?

Jeez. I hope not.

Recently, I posted something that caused a flurry of angry comments. “Look back in ten years and you’ll see how insensitive this post is…” someone lectured.

The commenters, (all anon, of course) had been offended, and were taking the stance that their rights had been violated in some way.

But we do not, and should not have such a ‘right’.

We are perilously close to enshrining such a right in law, aren’t we? Maybe we already have. But can someone tell me how it will work?

You and yours are offended by something I do or say (or write…). So I am prevented from doing/saying/writing. Thus, I become the offended party, as I feel deep offence that my freedom of speech has been denied.

It’s a nonsense.

Rowan William’s recent foray into the limelight seemed to be based on the belief that everyone has the right not to be offended.


and it’s not new. The theatre, literature, art, music… have all at one time or another, in places not that far from home, been censored for “causing people to be offended.”


The above article cites examples of plays being taken off the stage because sections of the community were offended by the subject matter.

In last year's National Short Story Prize, one of the shortlist was not broadcast by the BBC in case it offended some listeners.

Well I am offended that we were not allowed to make up our own minds whether to turn the radio off.

I am offended that we were not allowed to make up our own minds whether to purchase a theatre ticket.

And I am deeply offended that we are approaching, it appears, a time when not only the authorities, but other writers and artists move to censor each other.


Saturday 1 March 2008


There's always something going on in the Fiction Workhouse, and that's great.

But in the last few days it's been busy, champers corks popping everywhere:


Congrats to Joel Willans who finds himself with no less than three pieces on the shortlist!

ECLECTICA, a rigorous and brilliant ezine (one of the originals) have agreed to take a special project selection.

Working from image, (a collage)some 11/12 writers wrote flash pieces. Eclectica indicated interest, then looked at all the work (submitted anonymously). They chose their top three pieces for publication alongside the collage.

So: Congrats to Beverly Jackson (Artist AND chosen writer)
and to Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau,
and to Anna Britten.

FLASHQUAKE ezine have two Fiction Workhouse pieces up together.
Congrats to Sara Crowley (in Fiction section)
and again, to Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau (in Poetry section)


Per Contra announced finalists and winner yesterday of this year's prize.

CONGRATS to Beverly Jackson (again!)
to Elaine Chiew

and me.