A Digital Rebirth: The Book of Crows at The Pigeonhole

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My 2nd novel, The Book of Crows, is about to be serialised on  (an online book club). There are still a few spaces up for grabs, so why not join in?

I’m really excited about this new digital rebirth for the novel. It’s a few years now since it was first published, and this gave me a chance to re-read my book and get caught up in the story once again. The Book of Crows is a novel about a mystery that stretches throughout Chinese history. Featuring a young girl who is kidnapped and taken through the desert to an isolated mountain brothel, as well as a suspicious landslide near Lanzhou, and a grieving Chinese poet, the book follows characters on the Silk Road, all caught up in the story of the mythical ‘Book of Crows’.

The Pigeonhole sends the reader a new chapter of the book to read on your phone or tablet every day. What’s even more exciting, is that there’s lots of ‘extras’ in the digital version. For instance, I’ve recently recorded an interview about the book, created an annotated map of the setting, made a playlist of the Chinese music that inspired it, collected photos I took during my trips to research the story, and written a guest post about it here. So there’s plenty of reasons to dive in!

 
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Writing as Spaces 2016 Conference

This month I returned to Mansfield College, Oxford, where I studied for my BA about sixteen years ago. It felt like travelling in time, though I’m not convinced I enjoyed being reminded of being 18 again!13566965_10157151715980707_2940566787654281282_n

I was there to present a paper at the 2016 Writing as Spaces Conference. As this was an Interdisciplinary Conference, it was a great opportunity to meet and discuss ideas with architects, theorists, journalists, philosophers and educators, as well as other writers.

I talked about how digital spaces allow writers to reconsider the process and reception of writing. Traditionally, form shapes the way that writing is both transmitted and received: a sonnet or haiku will dictate the structure and composition or a poem, while the physical manifestation of a book signals to the reader the structural limits of the story. I argued that it is exactly the same with digital writing:  Twitter chain-stories, Instagram narratives, and podcasts each present a model as distinct and formally challenging as a sonnet or novel.

We talked about how both practitioners and instructors might respond to the new constraints of online environments to find new solutions to old problems.

It was a great opportunity for me to bring together two of the things I love: the work I do in the classroom teaching students to use writing as a form of exploration, and my own writing projects – particularly #5MinuteStories. This work will soon be published as a chapter in a forthcoming book.

And of course, it wouldn’t have been a complete trip back in time to Mansfield without a trip to the Turf Tavern afterwards…

IABA 2016: Excavating Lives

13332801_10157006074550707_1673160119999588840_nThis May I attended the IABA 2016 Conference on Excavating Lives (IABA being the International Auto/Biography Association) at the University of Cyprus.

It was a fantastic experience: writers and scholars from all over the world came to Nicosia to talk about the different ways we research, uncover, present and understand lives.

As well as listening to some fascination papers about digital lives and lives in translation, among  others, I got to explore the historic city (including the border that runs through the middle and splits the Greek Cypriot south from the Turkish Cypriot north). I attended a poetry reading on a rooftop, and dined with newfound friends in traditional local tavernas (complete with Cypriot dancing).

My own paper was about how we write about grief. I argued that grief memoirs expose the fact that writing about the self means defining the narrator in terms of its relations. In other words, when we write about ourselves we’re always also thinking about how we are linked to other people: as a father, a son, a teacher, a boss, an employees, a Brit, a foreigner, a liberal, and so on. But how are we linked to the dead? I looked at Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, and the ‘auto-fiction’ of Karl Ove Knausgård, as well as some of my own recent writing about grief, to examine what this means for our understanding of books about loss.

Essentially, I paper argued that often the dominant mode of autobiographical writing is that of constant positioning and comparison. So when we lose someone close to us, we actually lose something of ourselves.

More links to follow when the article I’m working on about this is published…

Coldnoon Journal of International Journal of Travel Writing & Travelling Cultures

redoubt-fortress-342107_1280 2This week a piece of my life writing work-in-progress has been published in the Journal of Travel Writing – you can also read it online. ‘Gods of Luck and Chance’ is an account of strange journey to the past, a house that never was, and a city of sleeping streets. But it also considers what we mean when we conceptualise ‘home’, and whether each of our lives is bound to a particular (and peculiar) geography. Do you have a place that calls back your imagination again and again? Read my own account of how space and time intersect here.

Bunhill Fields: Poet-in-residence

I’ve had a great time this weekend as a poet-in-residence at Bunhill Fields. I’ve met all kinds of people come to explore this wonderful historic site in the centre of London: some who live nearby, others who have travelled from abroad for the Open Garden Squares Weekend; some with an interest in plants, flowers, trees and gardening, others with an interest in Blake, Defoe, and Bunyan, the great and unconventional British writers buried here; some drawn by the long and somewhat macabre history of the nonconformist burial ground, others happy to wander around in the present.IMG_2652

All of these people helped give me ideas for the poems I worked on over the weekend. I’ve talked to people about the history of Bunhill and the history of poetry, the death (and life) of poetry, and the purpose of poetry today. People have been interested to hear the drafts, and even to make the suggestions about things I should add! Others have been kind enough to share their impressions of the place, their feelings and ideas about the site, and have allowed me to use these in the poems I’ve been creating here. And a fair few people have come right out and asked me: what are you doing here?

It’s a good question. And I told them that what I’ve been doing is the same as everyone else who comes to explore this garden: looking and listening. Each of the gardens open this weekend is unique, and each has something to offer. In Bunhill Fields, history speaks to us about the present. It says something different to each of us, and sometimes its not clear exactly what it might be saying at all. But each place has stories, and that is what I wanted to discover, explore and share during my time here. The poems I wrote in Bunhill Fields are distillations of the unique things I learned, heard, shared and experienced in this garden.

IMG_2625It’s no surprise that the poem’s I’ve worked on and (mostly) finished over the weekend have reflected a balance that is intrinsic to this hidden oasis of calm in the middle of a frenetic city: between the past and the present, between the extraordinary and the mundane, between life and death.

 

Here’s one of those poems that I started yesterday and managed to finish today, about the many people sharing plots beneath the ground in every corner of the park. You can listen to it here:

Towards the edge of the afternoon, I read the poems created here to some of the people in the park, and that seemed like a great way to end the weekend and the residency: by sharing the experiences and ideas that had been planted and grown in this entrancing place.

You’ll be able to read some of the poems I worked on during the residency over at the Poetry School website. And if you’ve never been to Bunhill Fields, do pop by if you’re ever nearby to see this small but important piece of our history in the heart of the city.IMG_2655IMG_2638

Poet in Residence

This weekend, Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th June, I’m at the Open Garden Squares Weekend . This is an annual event where 200 garden in London (many usually kept secret or private) are opened up for exploration. This year the Poetry School has placed 16 poets in selected gardens. I’m the poet-in-residence at Bunhill Fields, near Old Street Station, a former Dissenter’s burial ground and home to the graves of the fantastic writers William Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan.

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Today was the first day of my residency. I spent the morning and afternoon wandering round the gardens, exploring and talking to the visitors. The fantastic things about this garden is the way the past and present seem to merge once inside…

 

The garden was once a huge burial site, and even today more than half of it is graveyard. The name Bunhill itself likely comes from Bone Hill, an allusion to the way the ground is swollen by the dead. One estimate I heard today is that there are close to 200,000 bodies buried beneath the grass and trees, often many bodies buried on top of others. I spent some of today working on a poem about this ever-expanding crowd, called ‘Roomates’, that I will complete and share tomorrow.

 

CHYgOI7WEAAjos2The garden is home to many strange stories. I found a headstone covered in musical notation, which made me wonder whether in the future all our graves might be accessorised with ringtones. I discovered the inscription on the tomb of a woman who died after being “tap’d 66 times, had taken away 240 gallons of water, without ever repining at her case”. I wandered around many locked graves, wondering if the chains, railings and padlocks were still meant to protect the sites from grave-robbers, or whether it’s the other way round and it’s the living who need protection from the dead.

 

And then there are stories from the present. I spoke with some visitors who were trying to fit in as many gardens in as they could in one day, and others who had come here alone in pilgrimage to the grave of the great visionary poet and painter William Blake, buried here in Bunhill Fields. I talked to people who stood for a long time in front of the graves, and others more interested in the ongoing battles between pigeons and squirrels between the plane trees. I also met people who walk their dogs every day on the grass here, or pass through on the way back home, or simply stop to get a minute’s rest (or enjoy a can or two of cider with friends).

 

All of this has really inspired me. As well as the burial practices, I’ve been writing about William Blake’s presence here, the idea of protest and dissent in nature, and even the streetlamps around the park. I’m planning to finish those and read them out tomorrow, so if you’re around Bunhill Fields, do pop by and see this wonderful little place for yourself.

Views from the Beargarden

Last week I was up in Stratford-upon-Avon for a couple of days to attend #Britgrad2015 Shakespeare Conference. I had a fantastic time listening to some thought-provoking papers, and presenting my own – and to my great surprise I won the 2nd prize in the Liz Ketterer Award for best abstract!

IMG_0840Part of the reason for this, I’m sure, is the fact that I was talking about bears. Everyone likes bears. We grow up with smiling teddies that sit at the end of our beds. We are a nation obsessed with making this ferocious predator seem as tubby, bumbling and well-meaning as possible: think of Pooh, Paddington and Rupert. There’s something very strange about the fact we teach children to re-imagine the wild and savage as comforting and cuddly…

Anyway, my presentation was about one very specific aspect of the British relationship with bears: the Elizabethan Beargarden. This was a theatre first called the Paris Gardens, then rebuilt as the Hope Theatre, but always locally called the Beargarden. Crowds gathered there to watch bear-baiting: a bear would be fastened, via a long chain around its neck, to a stake in the middle of a pit of sand and earth. It would then be attacked by dogs (usually mastiffs or bulldogs bred for this sport). The sport was in seeing who would come out best, and huge sums of money were sometimes gambled on the outcome:

“Meet Messieurs Sackerson (a bear most famous, as advertised in the Merry Wives of Windsor), Ned Whiting, George Stone, Tom of Lincoln. See Samson lash against the furious whips, and watch Nan Stiles, Moll Cutpurse, and Bess of Bromley take on our fierce mastiffs. New this season, crowd-favourite Harry Hunks had been blinded to add to the excitement.”

All this took place in Southwark, which was essentially the red-light district of the Tudor age – a place outside the city limits where all the things that were illegal inside the main city seemed to flourish: prostitution, gambling, and theatre. What is interesting is that bear-baiting and plays took place in these same theatres: with plays on Mondays and Wednesdays, and bears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Shakespeare’s most famous stage-direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”, might very easily have been taken literally on these stages.

My paper took a virtual tour of the world of bear-baiting. I talked about how Shakespeare notes that bear fail the mirror test (unlike chimps, elephants and magpies who can recognise their own reflection), and how bear-baiting was enjoyed by all classes in Tudor and Elizabethan England. I discussed the polar bear in the Tower of London and the bear given to Princess Anne by Khrushchev. I talked about the Puritans who cursed the Beargarden and saw its collapse as a message from God. I talked about the best ‘prize-fighter’ bears being paraded in the streets to advertise the shows, and the town that spent the money it had scrimped and saved for a new Bible on a fighting bear instead.

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I also talked about the weird statistical anomaly that suggests that you were more likely to get killed by a rampaging bear escaped from the Beargarden enclosures if your name was Agnes!

 

I can feel a story brewing about bears…

Breaking life down into chapters

My latest short story, Butterfly, can be found in the summer issue of Gold Dust magazine.

Butterfly is about a man who ends up with two lives. Do we all life many lives (sometimes in the course of a single day) or are we stuck with just one which we cannot escape?

This is another of my 5-minute stories about our similarities to certain animals. My collection of creatures keeps growing and now includes Whales, Fleas and Spiders (click on the links to read those stories too). I may have to find a zoo to keep them all in.

There are some great short stories, as well as reviews, flash fiction, interviews and poems in the Summer 2013 issue of Gold Dust magazine. It is available as a print version that you can buy here, or as a free download. Alternatively, you can read it for free on the Gold Dust website (my story, in case you’re wondering, can be found on Page 16).

This short story asks: How do you measure a life? After all, it’s not always clear where one ‘chapter’ of our lives ends and another begins. For myself, I have always marked the different ‘chapters’ of my life according to the different houses I have lived in and the various cities I have called home. Some people portion out their lives according to the different husbands or wives they have kept at different times (or, more surreptitiously, the mistresses, sweethearts, secret lovers). Others measure them according to different jobs, and the whole catalogue of little failures or successes that attend them. A few of my friends are able date all the major events of their lives using only the lines drawn on kitchen walls to mark the height of growing children.

How do you see your own life when you look back? Is it a set of ‘chapters’ or a flowing narrative than is impossible to separate in different chunks? Do you feel like you’re still the same person you were when you were young, or does that person seem very different to you now? As ever, please do take a look and let me know what you think…

[Image courtesy of Evan Leeson via Creative Commons]

Murmurs in the dark

A new short story of mine, Whales, appears in the latest issue of Literary Orphans.

When I was 16, I felt like I knew almost everything. I had the world figured out. It probably goes without saying that I was wrong. These days I’m more likely to be amazed by how much I don’t know. Whales is a short story is about not knowing.

This is another in my series of 5-minute stories. I’m going to try and share one with you every month (you can still read the ones for April and May). All of them focus on our similarities to certain creatures. So far I have Fleas, Spiders and now Whales in my little zoo.

Literary Orphans is a fantastic and original online literary journal that focuses on art and fiction that provokes reflection or debate. Issue 7 has just come out and there’s lots of wonderful writing in there, as well as some stunning photography.

So why not take a look. Maybe, like me, you’ll find yourself wondering: how much do I know about the people around me – their home lives, the things that make them laugh or cringe, their fears, their plans and ambitions? How many secrets lie beyond our reach?

Let me know what you think…

Image from Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts.

How do you feel about Fleas?

A new short story of mine, entitled Flea, is featured on the Lablit website.

I know I’ve been pretty quiet lately, so here is a little taster of what I have been working on. 

Flea is a very short story that takes place in a pub called the Talbot Arms, that asks: Would you rather be the rat or the flea? The answer is not as straightforward as you may think.

I have been spending a lot of my time lately writing about animals: Flea is the first of a series of very short stories that explore our similarities to certain creatures, so keep an eye out as more start to pop up in the coming months. All of them are short enough to read on the way to work: they are all going to about the same length as a tube ride. (Of course, the points at which human and animal characteristics and instinct overlap has been something that has interested me in for a long time, as is probably obvious to readers of The Bestiary.)

Please do have a look at the story and let me know what you think. I’m very happy its got such a good home – Lablit.com is dedicated to the perceptions and portrayal of laboratory culture in fiction and throughout the media. It’s a great site, full of essays, profiles, interviews, reviews and, of course, short stories. Check it out!