Monday, 14 January 2019

A short review of the year



The highlight of 2018 was, of course, the publication of ‘Esther Bligh’ in June, by Holland House Books… the highlight of my writing ‘career’, in fact! Hence, the novella’s centre place in the photo.

Beneath it are the other journals or anthologies my stories featured in last year. I’m proud of these, too, because I love the short story form, and it’s something I always return to. So it was great to appear in ‘The Dawntreader’, ‘Leicester Writes Short Story Prize Anthology’, ‘The Cinnamon Review of Short Fiction’ and ‘Dream Catcher 37’. Thanks to those editors for liking my stories! And to them, the publishers, and fellow contributors for producing some excellent representations of the short form.

Otherwise, there were a number of readings, mainly of ‘Esther’ in a variety of venues, including the launch (best moment!), Tregwynt Manor, Llangwm Festival, and a Cinnamon reading in London.  


It was a particular pleasure to take part in Penfro festival, as a writer, after several years as a visitor, or competition entrant (see my earlier blog on this).

All of these were greatly enjoyable and, again, I am grateful to all the organisers, with a special thank-you to Seaways Bookshop, Fishguard, for hosting my launch.

2018 also seemed to be a year for long-listing. I was long-listed for the Leicester Writes prize, the Yeovil prize, the Cinnamon Debut Fiction prize, as well as a bursary I applied to.

How one feels about long-listing often depends on the mood of the moment. If, as a writer, you are in one of those ‘dark’ places, when rejection follows rejection, and you are dissatisfied with your work, then being long-listed can feel rather like ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride.’ You may wonder why you are not making the jump up to being placed. Is there something not quite right with your work, which is putting judges off? Will you ever make it further?

But if you are in a positive state of mind, you can be thrilled to get long-listed, decide you must have written a good story – something that made it stand out from the crowd; it was merely a preference of the judge(s) that stopped it getting a prize. Quite often, being long-listed gets the story included in an anthology (as happened with the Leicester Competition), and this is always to be welcomed, helping to get you and your work out there.

And really, it is better to think this way, whichever mood you are in. As writers, we need all the positivity and encouragement we can get – even if it is from ourselves…


Saturday, 1 December 2018

On Libraries…

 From Fishguard Library,



To Llanelli Library,


Or should that be the other way around?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of reading from ‘Esther Bligh’ in my local library, at Fishguard.

As someone who has worked as a branch-librarian, and in a college library, this was a particular pleasure, along with seeing my book displayed on the shelves.


I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books, but many writers will have started their reading lives in libraries, leading them on to writing in the future… and, perhaps, to that proud moment.

The branch-library where I worked was in Talgarth, a few miles down the road from Hay-on-Wye, a job I loved in a place I loved. It was a joy to serve such wonderful people, and help them find the books they might like, or provide them with any information they may need. Sadly, our borrowing figures were never very high, and every week I gave thanks to the family who borrowed up to thirty westerns in one go, as long as we had been able to get new stock in – or even if we had not.

The college facility, or Learning Resources Centre, was a rather different affair, and the students were more challenging than my village neighbours, but it was still great to spend my days working surrounded by books.

Then, last Saturday, I took part in a Book Fair in Llanelli Library – another special venue.
Llanelli Library would have been the first I ever visited – probably with my grandmother, who lived just up the road, and was a keen reader, borrowing a new pile of books every fortnight.

Of course, the building has been modernised since then, with almost a ‘funky’ interior of lime-green and black. But this extension was built onto the original building, which has been kept with original features, and so it was possible to walk up the stairs and feel myself going back in time, treading in the footsteps of my grandmother, my younger self, and many family and friends.

And some of those friends were kind enough to visit my stand, along with the regular Saturday morning library-users.


The library was a great venue for a Book Fair – spacious, comfortable, with tea and biscuits provided, along with a warm welcome from the librarians. So thank you, to all at Llanelli, for organising and arranging, and making us feel at home.

It can be a strange feeling when past and present get mixed together. In this instance, it was a pleasurable experience.

It’s something that happens in ‘Esther Bligh’, but there, of course, it’s a much darker affair.



Sunday, 7 October 2018

London Launch of Cinnamon Review of Short Fiction




When you live in a rural location, a trip to London is always something of an adventure. We tend to come back saying ‘it’s like another planet.’ And it is, when compared with the far west of Wales.

But interacting with an alien culture is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when the reason for doing so is a rather special occasion – and last month’s visit to the big city to read at the launch of the Cinnamon Review of Short fiction was certainly one of those.

The event had been organised to allow for introductions, chat and refreshments before the readings, with further socialising afterwards – a great idea, which worked well.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Jan and Adam again, and to meet other Cinnamon writers, who are all so friendly, as well as talented. And all this in the unique setting of the music room in a private house in Great Ormond Street, adding to the sense of occasion.

The readers were Kate Mitchell, Jane McLaughlin, Jez Noond, Sarah Barr, David Mark Williams, Isabelle Llasera and myself, whilst Tamsin Hopkins talked about the writing process.

Once again, the variety of the short story form was apparent – variety in subject matter, theme, style, genre – and indeed, delivery. The audience were responsive and kind, contributing to an enjoyable, entertaining evening, which flew by.

So a big thank you to Tamsin Hopkins for organising, and to Jan and Adam for the work they do at Cinnamon, and to all the other writers, who contributed to making both the launch and the anthology so impressive.



Saturday, 29 September 2018

PENfro Book Festival, 2018 – Writers’ Panel


Taking part in PENfro Book Festival earlier in September was a special moment for me. I was there, as a published writer, featuring in a Writers’ Panel, in which I discussed my work, and in particular, my novella, Esther Bligh. In fact, according to the adverts for the programme, I was one of the Sunday morning ‘stars’…!

I think it was in 2013 that I attended my first PENfro, not long after moving here. It had been wonderful to discover that Pembrokeshire had its very own literature festival, providing workshops and talks by some top writers – and to find that it was held in the beautiful setting of Rhosygilwen Mansion was an added bonus. It was worth a visit simply to explore the grounds, and sample their quiche and cake!

And then, the following year, I won the Short Story prize, for my story ‘Ingrid, Audrey and Jean.’ No-one was more surprised than I was, and I still worry that I didn’t thank anyone when I received my prize – I was in such a daze! It was a real boost to my writing – an indication that my work had some value. Particularly inspiring were the words of the judge, Maria Donovan, who said: ‘This is a short story perfectly in tune with itself. From its enigmatic title and first arresting image to the underlying themes of escape and belonging, it always keeps ahead of expectations. Calm, confident and disturbing: a treat to read and re-read.’

It was rather a case of ‘oh, did I really write that story?!’
Because of these comments, Maria is one of the two authors I acknowledge at the end of ‘Esther Bligh’, along with Helen Carey, for helping me believe that I could write.
The story was later chosen to be included in the anthology ‘Secondary Character and other stories’, a collection by the Welsh Short Story Network, published by Opening Chapter. This was the first time for my work to appear in a book – another proud moment.

And I read ‘Ingrid…’ at Rhosygilwen the following year, one of my first experiences of open mic. So it is no wonder I have a lot to thank PENfro and Maria for, on account of that story alone. It still remains one of my favourites.

In that next year, 2015, I was commended for the Memoir Prize, a result I was more than happy with, as this was a new genre for me, and my piece is still the only ‘personal essay’ I’ve written.

In 2016, I was short-listed for the ‘First Chapter’ competition, with my YA novel, since put to one side, but another useful validation of my work.

And now, this year, to appear on the other side of the table has been another significant step on my journey as a writer – which was, indeed, the theme of the panel. I was there along side Hilary Shepherd, another fiction writer, whose novel ‘Albi’ was published earlier this year. The talk was facilitated by Brenda Squires, chair of the festival committee and owner of the beautiful Rhosygilwen, who effortlessly prompted us with questions about the writing process, in relation to our recent publications. 

The Writers’ Forum at Tregwynt had started me thinking about such things (see previous blog), and this was an opportunity to delve deeper into the issues raised. ‘How did ‘Esther’ come about?’ ‘What has it meant to you?’ ‘What are your experiences of the publishing process?’ – these questions were about my novella, but we were also asked how we came to writing, and where our journey was taking us next.

With all this in mind, I started a sort of ‘writing journal’, where I put my thoughts on various topics, and also quotes from other writers, that I feel echo my own views. It’s very useful to see where patterns emerge, so that you begin to think ‘yes, that’s where I am with my writing.’

We both read from our work, and ended with questions from the audience, which can be a scary moment, as it could be about something you haven’t thought of at all. 

So, a big thank you to PENfro, to Brenda, and all the committee, for inviting me. And to Hilary, for being there with me. And to the audience, who were very forgiving, and who did applaud at the end, which is encouraging! 

Pembrokeshire now has another literature festival, at Llangwm, in August. 

I, personally, think the county has enough room for two (if not more!), as there is sufficient variety between them. And, with a wealth of local talent, and top writers from further afield more than happy to visit our beautiful part of the world, I see no reason why they should not both be able to continue to flourish. But I suspect that PENfro will always have a special place in my heart. It seems quite appropriate that the subject of the panel was The Writer’s Journey, as PENfro has been such an important part of mine.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

Reading at Llangwm Literary Festival

 

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading in the open mic at Llangwm Literary Festival.


(It was raining, hence the wet hair…)

I read the opening of ‘Esther Bligh’, then answered a few questions about writing, from organiser Philippa Davies and the audience, including one about the novella form, reminding me it’s a subject I want to consider more carefully.



 The readings included prose, poetry, historical non-fiction, memoir, and biography – a great variety, which made for an entertaining event.

Llangwm festival is only three years old, yet it has already become established in the literary calendar, and attracts some of the best writers, performers, artists and foragers (Julia Horton-Powdrill!). Even in the rain, the village is delightful, and the people are so friendly.

After the open mic, I was lucky enough to see Dervla Murphy talking about her travels. She is eighty-six now, and says there will be no more, but she has given us some of the best travel literature of recent years. 

So… thank you again to Philippa, and Michael Pugh, and all who work so hard to put on this fascinating weekend.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Writers Forum – Tregwynt


On Thursday, I had my first opportunity since the launch to read from, and talk about, ‘Esther Bligh’.


This was in the beautiful setting of Tregwynt Manor, at a Writers’ Forum, arranged by Fishguard Arts Society. The Society is a local organisation which embraces all the arts, and we are very lucky to have it in this part of the world.

I was one of four writers taking part, the others being Helen Carey, Carly Holmes and Alex Barr. 


Between us, there was a varied mix of writing styles and subjects, which, I think (hope!) made for an entertaining and interesting evening.


Having been asked to take part in the Forum, I realised I had to think about the writing process – where ‘Esther Bligh’ had come from, how it had evolved, etc. ‘What is it about?’! These are things you don’t necessarily have in your mind while you are writing – you are too lost in the story, which, at that time, is the only thing that matters. This is particularly true, if you don’t plan your book out – something I tend not to do.

So it’s been good to start considering such topics, working out the answers to possible questions. In fact, it has been a valuable and useful exercise, with thoughts not just about ‘Esther’ but all my work. Are there common themes, subjects, characters, settings? Is ‘Esther Bligh’ autobiographical in any way? (I was at pains here to say I had never tried to suffocate my husband – he was, actually, sitting in the audience). 

One thing I concluded, with particular reference to ‘Esther’ but also true for several of my stories, is that my readers need to work to reach their own conclusions. I quoted the back of the book: ‘A psychological exploration of a troubled mind, or a story of demonic possession in a haunted house – ‘Esther Bligh’ is as ambiguous as the character herself.’ And this ambiguity is deliberate. I hope the conclusion is satisfying in its way, but I also want to leave the reader still thinking about the story, still wondering about Esther and Grace. ‘Who or What is Esther Bligh?’ ‘How much is happening inside Grace’s head?’ (that ‘troubled mind’). 

Some of the feedback I’ve already received (including the reviews I’ve had on Amazon – thank you for those!) suggest I’ve succeeded in this. There’s been a lot of debate – and that’s good, that’s great. And I hope there’ll be a lot more in the future, as ‘Esther’ spreads herself around.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Phew...!




I’m just about back down to earth, after the launch of Esther Bligh.

Launches come in all shapes and sizes – a platform for promotion (and sales), a literary event, where the author can showcase their work. Or it can be a celebration.




And that’s what I decided I wanted – a celebration of my debut publication, a book with only one writer’s name on the cover – mine. Yes, I’ve won some competitions in the past, and my work has featured in a number of anthologies and journals. But this is the first time it’s just me. And it’s a great feeling.

A celebration requires family and friends, and I was thrilled that so many turned up for the occasion from far and wide, in spite of the rain. Being a writer, as all writers know, can be a tough business. Rejection is a fact of life, and sometimes it can be very hard to deal with. But a strong network of support (which may, or may not, be connected with the writing-process) provides a cushion for all those blows. Thank you, all, for being there – at the launch, and always.


I was also fortunate to have the perfect venue in Seaways Bookshop, Fishguard. We are very lucky to have this shop in Fishguard – well, I think you would be lucky anywhere. It has a great choice of books, and kind, knowledgeable owners (Barbara and Bridget), who really went that extra mile to make it a great day. Thank you, both.

It was particularly appropriate as the launch was held during Independent Booksellers’ Week, so here are Bridget and Barbara dressed as Bookshop superheroes!


I’m dressed in black, because Esther wore black, and it’s a dark story.



The book is, however, a dual-narrative, alternating between Esther and Grace. So here I’ve put on a hat to read Grace’s words, saying ‘a red hat, topped with a peacock’s multi-coloured feathers sat proudly on her head.’



Quoting from the back cover, I told my audience that the book may be the psychological exploration of a troubled mind (i.e. Grace’s), or a tale of demonic possession in a haunted house. And I posed the question ‘Is this, quite simply, a ghost story?’
Looking at this last photo, where a ghostly image of Esther is peering in through the window at us all, perhaps the answer to that is ‘yes’.



 And here’s to the next launch!