Tag Archives: lit

One good bye and one HOOORAY

My very last post is up on Necessary Fiction.


Go over there and click on all the writers (for info on Chris Rice, you need only her wonderful piece, here)


So it is goodbye, and I’ve had an incredible time. I hope some of you have enjoyed reading my posts – if you haven’t got round to it, they are all archived here. Take your time.


I also have two announcements, one sad, one happy:


Sad, first: my agent Drea and I have parted ways. I was very sad to let her go, but circumstances are tough right now and I think it was the best decision, for her and for me. I look forward to reading work by her authors in the future.


It’s never nice to share bad news , so I put off talking about it for some time. But now I have a piece of good news to share, which balances things out:


I have just learned that I’ve been accepted for the Banff Mountain Residency this winter! Four Scottish artists are heading out to Alberta! In a month! And I am one of them!


OK, breathe. I have a wonderful multi-step project lined up for the residency, alongside goals for novel number three, which I have been to frantically busy to work on for close to two months. I am so grateful to the Banff Centre for choosing me, and – that’s it for the moment. Watch this space!


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‘The rooms above’, Kilea excerpted on Necessary Fiction

My intro:


A second excerpt from my ms Kilea today. In this part of the novel, Kilea is ten or so. She is being looked after in the home of her housekeeper, and having behaved well is rewarded with a visit to a previously unseen part of the house, the unused attic space.


The housekeeper, Mrs Sabine, is an older German woman, the widow of a local man she met in a field hospital during the Second World War. Mrs Sabine keeps a lot hidden about her life, but not everything can remain beyond the gaze of our girl Kilea Grieve. There is a sense of development here, of rooms previously not there unfolding, of space extending outwards in a way both uncanny and quotidian – a blending common to girlhood experience, where the divisions between reality and the fantastical are permeable as limestone.


And always, on the island, a soft rain is falling.


Read More…

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Girl Lit over on Necessary Fiction: Laura Tansley

Laura Tansley’s ‘Rings Only Get Lost Down Drains in Films’ is up on Necessary Fiction as the next installment in my writer-in-residency. Go and read it. But open a window first – it creates a wonderfully stressful atmosphere.


My intro:


Below is a tense piece of the domestic from Laura Tansley. I love her use of detail of life in an early nineties household, and the subtle ramping of stress between the woman and girls, even as they are introduced as a single unit – it appears as if they are, in fact – like a single organism attacking its own cells.


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My residency over at Necessary Fiction

My first post is up! ‘Girl Lit Suggested Reading List’ lays out my mission for September. Please let me know what you think. A taster:


Autumn comes in with a high gale and here I am this September to write away with you on an exploration – of girls in books, of inner and outer landscapes. Like the best adventures, though not perhaps the best essays, it is likely that borders and edges will be misted over, vague, malleable. Come with me, because while I do not write academy-well, I have work to share and voices (or fragments, or urges, or single lines) to which I wish to bear witness.


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In other news, I have been shortlisted for an in-person writing residency in Banff, Canada. I’m so keen on going! It’s now in the Banff Centre’s hands and I should hear either way at the end of this month.


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Soft Shell



(Abandoned home near Española, New Mexico)


A time of soft-shelledness, spongelike and tender, that’s the research and first draft stage. I gather images, fragments, from the apocalypses the world has really seen. Psychogeographies of the most painful sort. I peer from under my stone, pulling threads from dark water.




(Nuclear Warning quilt, Santa Fe, New Mexico)


I’m thinking of the materials of disaster – that which causes it, solid real harmful hazardous do not ingest – and that which is created by disaster. Either intentionally, in the image above, or unintentionally, as in every city lost to radiation, to disease, to poverty, to social injustices, to nature itself.



(Graveyard in the abandoned Doodletown, NY)


Pompeii, Herculanium, Doodletown, The Highland Clearances, the Fukushima district, Pripyat. There are hundreds of examples of lost settlements, things that could be read as apocalyptic, depending on your view of apocalypse. Every war zone, for example. Look at photographs of Syrian cities and see how much they resemble depictions on film of a world decaying, a world almost without us. Though, nothing is through, nothing is neat. With apocalypses the true thing is that there is no clean end.


This is hard research to do. Hence the soft shell. Like the crumbling shells of buildings, the writer looks out on the world, half open. Unlike a building, the writer has to take breaks. Find more careful, more kind things to do with herself. I read fiction and I look at non-hazardous art. But of course contentment is limited when you are in the soft-shell state. When you deliberately try to understand and thread disparate things together from these raw, disastrous materials.


I look once again to that famous Louis MacNeice poem, ‘Snow’ as a kind of confounding guide, to the present situation, the present state of overwhelm. And I leave you with it, having nowhere to guide either you or myself at the moment:




The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses. 



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A sinister imagination

Nothing to do with left-handedness, I speak of the weird, the uncanny, the odd, off-kilter and pallor-inducing.


There is a talk forthcoming at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on these themes and how they appear with disconcerting vigour in Scottish fiction ‘Horror and Weirdness: A Scottish Peculiarity’, and it has got my mind turning over on the grue and the shiver.


Robert Louis Stevenson gave the world Jekyll and Hyde. Hogg, the terrible demonic (or possibly entirely mental) presence of Gil-Martin in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The devil throwing a hootenanny in Burns’ ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. And why not toss James the Sixth’s Daemonologie into the mix – a treatise on witches and witch-hunting from a fanatical believer? In the talk, the matter of the Weird Sisters of the (English-writ) Macbeth will be addressed – though we have in fact plenty witches of our own to think of, alongside the true horror of the many, many executions resulting from a dehumanisation of old women and other outsiders.


Yet more modern works have skeins of darkness running through them – different to the obvious genre trappings of folk orality and sectarianism. Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory brings a body-rooted old magic alive on an island setting. Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, set in a former prison and insane asylum of watchful Victorian gothic flourish.


There is a profusion, it’s true, in Scottish fiction. Whether more so than in other places seems a little presumptuous to rule upon. But this is a small cloudy country on the fringes of Northern Europe. In winter the dark is in more evidence than the light, and in the dark we may imagine strange figures. Dents in reality. The residue of grim history is all around us. Of violent individuals and former cruelties done. The architecture built on former colonial brutalities and ancient stone walls. The lonely moorlands emptied of inhabitants and left to fallow and mutter to itself. I think it would be impossible for someone of imagination to grow up, for example, in Edinburgh – city of Hume and Boswell, yes, and Burke and Hare and Deacon Brodie and the Plague – without having a slight macabre twist to their psyche.


I think of my own writing, and see this is the case, at any rate. That I see ‘ghosts’ in all these forms of landscapes and cityscapes overlapping, of bodies been gone and going. I don’t have any answers at the moment, on the ifs and whys of Scottish horror and its relatives. But I am very much looking forward to seeing this talk, chaired as it is by Margaret Atwood, and after hope to combine it with this exhibit of ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies‘  for a good double dose of the stuff. Afterwards, I plan to report back here, maybe with greater coherence – if you go to see these, or have a perspective on the fictitiously unsettling either in Scottish fiction or your own, please leave a comment.


A ghost story or two, now that would be a welcome thing.


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1. In limbo I learn a French euphemism: ‘he went out to buy saffron’ to mean abandonment


2. In limbo I read difficult books


3. In limbo I read the internet which is difficult for reasons other than syntactical complexity


4. In limbo I do not edit


5. In limbo I do write sparsely


6. In limbo I can see the people above me swimming in heaven, though perhaps it is not heaven, but it is blood bright blue nonetheless


7. In limbo I hold vigils over my email account


8. In limbo there is a palace of all possible futures overhead and I am in its shadow


9. In limbo I am a feminist, I am clumsy, I am a teacher, I am wading through the green grass after the rain has fallen and I am breathing deeply


10. In limbo I am in limbo

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Discount unrealities, free to all takers


For the last few days I’ve been wrangling with a spontaneous minifiction project – to write invented past lives for strangers on the internet. Let’s be clear: the whole thing is a splurge of nonsense, I claim nothing and I ask nothing for these the wee snippets of life I send (or sent; have I finished now?) The demand was huge. More than I could cope with. On twitter and elsewhere.


I wrote to one woman, saying she was the first European chef to cook tomatoes, in Florence, for one of the Medicis. Another I informed used to be a reindeer herder, someone else fought in the Battle of Salamis, or rather rowed an Athenian boat. One person was Mary Slessor, on our Scottish money. Here are some others:


@evn_johnston No one before you had thought to eat a sea urchin, but there you went, disgustingly brave, on the shores of the Irish Sea.


@JacquiWine In Tashkent you sat in your vendor’s stall all day, resisting the urge to poke holes in the displays of spices.


@MartyBallz It was your job to clean the floors after the Flemish master fencing school had run through its newest members.


@LynseyMay Your axe bit the trees of Newfoundland for 40 years. You lived with your wife, loved the forest you killed better.


Something about the idea, however clear it was a fiction, touched a lot of people. Someone requested that they had been a dolphin in their past life. I’m not sure why. I think dolphins are the unhinged murderers of the sea.  Other people thanked me, to varying degrees of profuseness, in messages online.


I tried to be kind, even sentimental, with my ‘readings’, when my general urge was to say, you worked in a salt mine, you died when salt fell on you.  The great mass of lives in the past were really hard. But I had come quite quickly to understand that what I said, however fictional, felt in some way real to a lot of the requesters.


You might say it’s a form of delusion. But that’s not quite it, not here. People knew it was play, I think. It comes down to this ability we have to hold in our head an untrue notion that we pretend to ourselves is real, even as we know we are playing a game with ourselves. Hold on to that for a second, the magnitude of this.


It’s how we can read a poem in the voice of the narrator. It’s how we can dissolve our ‘I’ into texts, even if only the toe-tip of ‘I’. We can resist the pack of lies we are having a grand old time reading, be it literary fiction (lies) or a blockbuster thriller (lies again, more lies). We can hate-read a celebrity cookbook and still taste the flavours in our mouth as we follow black marks on the page. It’s a pretty basic thing associated with reading, but it still gets to me, every time. The wonder and magic of this act. It’s like the simple fact that water freezes from the top down; if it didn’t, we might not have life on earth.


Think about the Earth floating in space, a tiny blue ball, spinning awfy quick. Life is short and sometimes hard, and sometimes we die without destiny, white cards cast on the table. How much does even the most rational (I do not say cynical) of us live in fiction every day?


On that point, if you’d like a fake past life, I’m happy to supply one, free, bogus, and probably as I say kind-hearted: wheresthebread[@]hotmail.com

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A long way away, but

– I have been asked to be a guest editor on Smokelong! That means I will have the opportunity to read flash fiction submissions for a week and pick out my favourite. I love, love flash fiction. More than stories certainly. They inhabit that perfect zone of not so long as to sadden and frustrate me when I get attached to something that will end soon, and not so short as to be just a puff of air. But more than that, they can be charged with a special kind of fictive energy, different to poetry, but just as intense and enchanting.


I’m penciled in for October, and will post details and perhaps more joyful exhalations on flash fiction nearer the time. October here is a good month. Cold, crisp, rainsoaked, windblown. Any month that isn’t like sitting in a bowl of warm rice is a good month. Where will  I be when October winds in? What sort of words will be in my hands then? I pretend to see leaves blowing down the street, and pages of my own, started  be filled.




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Within new walls to begin again

sunlit window



This new flat is a wreck of unpacking, but  there are ways of disguising that in picture (this will never be an interior design blog). In corners the light washes everything clean. A South-Western facing flat that drinks in the sunset. A small place that feels airy, or will do, once it is set to rights. What it will become to D and I in time, we don’t yet know. Every flat begins again with new occupants, to a certain degree.


But for now it is a place in which to be productive. Since moving in, I have finished up my application for the University of Otago Scottish Writers fellowship and sent it off. It’s rare to find a writing opportunity that I might actually qualify for – but being of Scottish origin and having been part of the diaspora, I think I might be a good fit. But of course, I have no idea who else has applied. My chances are slim, but keep your fingers crossed.


The next and now to be all-consuming thing is that my agent and I have started a back-and-forth edit of Flesh of the Peach. Amongst the clutter, I’ve begun to work at what she has suggested. Just the first five chapters for now. But what a great feeling it is. To make better, to sand the rough edges. Hands just as steady as they can be, though everything else might be in chaos.


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