Mash Stories Interview

Cheryl Whittaker recently interviewed me for Mash Stories, the online creative writing blog. We ranged over subjects as diverse as the Unthank School ethos, changes to my own writing and the hoary question of whether creative writing can be taught.


“I’d kind of experienced an approach which said, “here’s this thing called poetry; it’s better than prose. Here’s this thing called literary fiction; it’s better than genre fiction. Here’s a clutch of writers you must absorb and emulate; if you don’t, we don’t like you. We won’t let you come to our parties.” I was bored of this and wanted to emphasize eclecticism and learning from all sorts of styles and genres. I don’t want to dismiss anything and I’ve always wanted to know how all forms of expression and storytelling ‘work’.”

You can read the full interview here.


Composing Marmara: How to Write a Short Story

Part Two

The Jungle

Last week I started to outline how I wrote my short story, Marmara, the ninth story in The Syllabus of Errors. A freewrite from a Joan Miro painting led me to imagine a woman wading out to sea but in a far more northern locale than the painting. Despite being intrigued by this image I had drawn a blank. Sometimes writing fiction is like exploring the jungle. What you think will be a clearing turns out to be a cliff, the lost world high above you, a treacherous climb still ahead.

Going over my journals for 2006 and 2007 I notice many other ideas, some mapped out in expansive archipelagos of sketches, stories I have either abandoned or not yet written. One is a story called The Violet Stockings (I can’t remember precisely what it was supposed to be about, something to do with Egon Schiele); another is The Girl with the Feather Boa, the story of one of Klimt’s lustrous models, elderly now, witnessing the Red Army liberate Vienna (I am still hankering for this one). I also had an idea for a sprawling alternative history novel set in a reality where Britain had lost world war one and been subjected to a humiliating Versailles-style treaty, maybe featuring a character in the same amoral mould as Michael Moorcock’s Pyat (more on this gem of an idea later).


None of these ideas, including the woman walking out to sea, got off the ground. I was not fully committed to any of them. They were hankerings. Sometimes you hanker after a story you don’t have the experience or talent to write. Sometimes you hanker after a story that you think you ought to write, to please certain editors or outlets or mentors or friends, but you can’t escape the prison of your own scruple. Sometimes you hanker after a story that you don’t have the time to research. How come, then, that I did in the end commit myself to the tentatively entitled Jennifer Strides and not The Violet Stockings? In December 2006 I made a breakthrough.

Then I Came Upon Something that Actually Happened

I was reading David Seabrook’s book about Kent, All the Devil’s are Here (recommended by Luke Haines in an article in Uncut magazine), a psychogeographic and underworldly trawl through the county that takes in TS Elliot writing The Wasteland in Margate, a nineteenth century murder that could have provided the source material for The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Charles Hawtry’s drunken rampages around Deal, all tiptop English stuff, murky, seedy and weird.

All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook

All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook

In a chapter about Broadstairs I read about a house on the cliffs, formerly the residence of Lord Curzon and the inspiration for the house in The Thirty-Nine Steps that was owned in the thirties by a Nazi spy.

Seabrook writes:

‘But then I came across something that actually happened out there one night in the summer of 1939. At eleven o’clock on 16th July a teenage girl tried to kill herself by walking out to sea; but at the last minute she lost her nerve and began screaming. Police officers arrived at the headland and came down the steps to find the girl being lead out of the water by a North Foreland employee. She said later that she didn’t know why she had done it. She was very sorry.

There was much head scratching over this girl in court. She was frequently out with young men at night. On one occasion she had been out for two nights, and was discovered by the Deal police. Her home life seemed fraught, and though her parents reluctantly agreed to take her back the Bench decided that an approved home would be more suitable. At sixteen years old she stood in court and heard her own suicide note read aloud. “Dear Mother, please don’t be angry, but I can’t stand it any longer. The world is against me. I am going to end it all. I am going to Hell where I belong . . . I never tell the truth. I am so very wicked.’

It’s that man again.”

(David Seabrook, All the Devils are Here, Granta, 2002, page 92)

But then I came across something that actually happened, writes Seabrook. So had I.


Straightaway I made a connection between the events described by Seabrook and the woman walking out to see in codename Jessica Strides. During the hankering phase of a proto-story, you are often waiting for a dialectic; for something new to hook into the story, for the two of these ideas to make a third thing possessing an extra-dimension. In this case, I was suddenly free of the problem I’d so far encountered, that of cliché.

Initially, the vanishing point for me was the suicide note read out in court (how cruel to have your suicide note read out in court?). The wording moved me, articulated feelings I could relate to. It suggested that a profound rejection or betrayal was behind the girl’s action. Like Seabrook (“It’s that man again”) I was spinning a spider’s web that connected the girl with Tester, the spy who owned Naldera, the house on the cliffs.

Naldera in Broadstairs

Naldera in Broadstairs


I now had something to work with, to fill in. The story had a frame: the night the girl tries to end it all. Without a tight frame a story can sprawl and lack tension. The girl now had a motivation, and importantly for me, is disabused, shorn of an illusion. This is an arc of sorts. Moreover, it now had a setting in time and place. Plus, I had a useful source book and knew enough about the period to feel confident that I could pull it off. The story that had started with looking at Miro had taken yet another turn.

The moral of the story here is don’t rush into an idea. Wait for the dialectic (and of course, if you keep a notebook, you should have many ideas that can intersect with one another). By March 2007, the story’s proto-working title had become Starless and another dialectic had occurred. The idea about the Treaty of Versailles being inflicted on Britain had been incorporated, to be used as some sort of aid to seduction by the fascist who snares our wayward girl.

Sometimes your glimpses grow into stories. Sometimes your novels are smelted down into paragraphs.

Even so, I was still some way off embarking on working title Starless and would, given its period nature, have to do some research. This research will be the subject of next week’s blog.

The Syllabus of Errors

The Syllabus of Errors

Marmara is the ninth story in The Syllabus of Errors, available from the Unthank Books Online Bookstore, Amazon, The Book Depository and all good bookstores.

The Syllabus of Errors is also available to download for your Kindle or iPod, iPad or iPhone

Unthology 4

Rob Burdock’s Forethoughts on Unthology 4. Reviews of the individual titles will follow.

“Well, not a lot I can say to this really, aside from how eclectic and imaginative it all sounds. It’s always refreshing when the short story form is pulled into new shapes and taken off in new directions, and looking at the brief summaries of some of the stories contained in this anthology, I can tell that I need to throw my short fiction road map away (there’s that bloody ‘journey’ analogy again :)) and dive in with open heart and mind, which is exactly what I love doing with contemporary short story collections (unlike say a classic Chekhov collection which I read in part to study established form and technique).”

Unthology 4

Unthology 4

There’s a second very affirmative review of UNTHOLOGY 4 on the Petals and Pages blog.

“This collection feels incredibly relevant to the contemporary: our experience of the world, emotional and physical, is being fractured, remoulded, restructured through almost every medium and as such our understanding of ourselves and how we connect to the world is becoming increasing unstable.”

Unthology 4

Unthology 4




Here’s the jacket of this quarter’s THE WARWICK REVIEW, which features my story IF ALL THINGS REMAIN EQUAL. The journal should be available next week. I’ll post a link when it is. That’s not me with the beard, by the way, though my name does appear on the back.


This week I’ve posted an old story CIQ to the selection I’m archiving here. It was first published in 1999 in Pretext, the University of East Anglia’s now defunct prose journal, and it received a favourable, though brief mention in the TLS. For me, it represents the end of the something, the last moments of a phase.

In 1999, I was 29 and in my first year of teaching creative writing after completing my MA in 1998. In 1991, the year after I’d finished my BA I had worked for a short time in a call centre in Purley, Surrey. CIQ is based partly on something that happened during that phase (the Napier call). Call centres are now ubiquitous, part of the commercial and technological fabric. In 1991, they were new and rather flash. At the company where I briefly worked, the management talked as if they were pioneers, outriders, people from the future, our clean and gleaming, quickfire future. Post-internet, the world of CIQ seems a little quaint now. CIQ is the world of the call centre in 1991 as seen from the vantage point of 1999.

CIQ was the ninth short story I’d written. Prior to this I’d only written short stories as ‘something to do’ between novels. Until quite recently I saw them as calling cards. Before CIQ I’d written seven short stories and one that became the basis for my second novel, Impossible Places. Impossible Places was never published and is roughly approximate to Nathan Flack’s The Mess in Touching the Starfish. Characters from Impossible Places crop up in CIQ.

The other stories were all published in small magazines and anthologies. All of them make me wince if I think about them. They make me wince like sixth-form poetry makes us wince. This is probably unfair on the stories. My sixth form poetry (lower sixth, I hasten to add; the later stuff was better) was like this:

I thank you for the autumn wind

The dry leaves in your hair

The fields are gaunt and dying

The summer leaves the air.

Anyway, I digress.

CIQ: I wouldn’t write in this type of voice anymore. Until CIQ, all my stories were first person narratives. At the time it was fashionable to sound vocally regional and streetwise and I was often scared of sounding like myself, of sounding like I didn’t fit in (I’m no longer sacred of sounding like I don’t fit in). All my stories were either 3000 or 5000 words long. All of my stories were trying to prove something. I’m not sure what I was trying to prove.

What I do remember is that I wrote CIQ with one upbeat and up-yours-call-centre-Nazis ending in mind and then changed it to something more downbeat and thudding right at the last moment. I also remember that the next story I wrote after this had completely different shades and angles and a very different approach to narrative voice. I never went back to the sort of geezerish slang I used in CIQ, at least not very often. It’s interesting for me to put it alongside something like ALL ELSE IS PHOTOGRAPHS because I have recently made a few returns to the sort of subject material that CIQ explores (maybe we don’t change that much after all).

I said to someone recently, as a joke, that every crap job is a short story.

After I was fired from the call centre in Purley I worked until I was fired from the children’s department of a very famous London bookshop (the firing circumstances were not alike; that shop fired everyone after six months; there was a management style based on Stalin’s purges). A little while after CIQ I wrote Man to Man, about working in the children’s department of a very famous London bookstore. I will dig that one up from its sleep sometime soonish.