The Other Shore

I’m delighted to announce that my latest poetry pamphlet is now out. It’s called The Other Shore, and it’s been published by Eyewear Press.

Quite a few people have asked me about the title already. It comes from a Buddhist parable I first heard when I was travelling in China, about a man who journeys along a difficult path until he comes to a stretch of water. All around him are dangers and troubles, but the other shore in the distance looks calm and inviting. He works hard, and constructs a raft from twigs and branches and grass, and at last paddles out into the water. When he reaches the other shore, the Buddha asks, what should he do? Of course, he must abandon the raft.

meekings-4The parable is often taken to mean that teachings – be they Buddhist dharma, or any principles or beliefs that one lives by – can only take a person so far, and that there will come a time when you must venture further on your own. (Of course, this is not the only interpretation, and the meaning of the lesson has been much debated.) But this is the idea that appealed to me, to keep going you may have to give up much of you used to take for granted.

What is the Other Shore? It’s the place we aim for, and hope one day to reach. But it might also be the place we reach once this life is over. Not long after my brother died, I started travelling through China, in search perhaps of some other shore where life is different. All the poems in this collection were written during or after those travels.

My exploring took me along the path of the Silk Road, that winding and multitudinous trail that stretches across continents. In the past, travellers and traders working their way along it would have finally reached Xi’an, the capital city of Tang Dynasty China. It was here that I travelled too, and here that the germ of many of these poems was planted.

The book contains a number of translations and adaptations of Chinese poetry, all from the Tang Dynasty (618–907), often referred to as China’s ‘Golden Age’ of art and literature. I was drawn to the poetry of this time because it takes the strict forms of previous ages but uses them to reflect not on formal and ornate courtly themes but on the messy, untamed world beyond the palaces and temples.

In these translations, and in the other poems I wrote about the journeys I took, the places I visited, and the stories I heard from the people I met, I aim to draw attention to one reason for travel, and indeed for reading: of engaging in an unending conversation with the past. In this way, I sought to try what those poets from a thousand years did before me, by taking traditional forms, and adapting them to new ideas. After all, as any traveler knows, the end of any journey is also the beginning of another.

In other words, these are poems about how to reach that other shore.

 

2015: The Year in Review

It’s been another restless year, but a good one! Here’s my short round-up of everything I got up to in 2015:
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January: I started my  series (if you still haven’t checked them out, have a look here)

February: Went to Manchester for the first time ever – can’t believe it has taken me this long! Will definitely head back!

April: Completed a CELTA course in Hove and made some great friends along the way.

May: Visited Portugal for the first time and somehow managed to burn my feet to a crisp (ouch!!!)

June: A busy month. First I presented at the British Graduate Shakespeare Conference where I was awarded the 2nd prize in the Liz Ketterer Award for my abstract. Then for the annual Mixed Borders festival in London I was the Poet-in-Residence for Bunhill Fields. The Poetry School created a chapbook of work from the festival, including my poems, that you can read for free here.

July: I was awarded an Authors’ Foundation Award from the Society of Authors to help me work on my 3rd novel Between Falling and Flying. I also presented at the Travel Symposium at Nottingham University.

August: Returned to Doha, Qatar, to work once more as a Writing Lecturer.

September: I had a great time reading at 100,000 Poets for Change at the House of Wow in Doha.

November: Turned 34. The less said about that the better.

December: I had my PhD viva and passed (with minor corrections) and so can now officially call myself Dr if I want (though I can’t see it happening any time soon). I’ve also got myself in gear and created a LinkedIn profile.

So what’s next? Watch this space, and roll on 2016!

#5MinuteStories: Whale

Have you ever wondered what might be hiding in the dark? Are there some limits to human knowledge that we can never bridge?

whale pic

This week’s free story is about how far we might see. It’s also about those strange and majestic creatures that rule the ocean: whales. From the legends of the earliest books, to the use of whale oil in the First World War, to the unexplained appearance of one of these mighty beasts in a field in Yorkshire recently, whales are everywhere.

This is another of my #5MinuteStories (alright, I lied – it’s actually 4 minutes 59 seconds) which is the perfect length for a coffee break, a long queue or a short walk. Once again, the choice is yours: you can listen to the audio versionby clicking below (or subscribe to the podcast).

 

Or you can click-through the illustrated digital story here (apologies for the fact this is hard to do on mobiles or tablets without the free Prezi app – I’m hoping to solve some of these issues soon!)

Writing Process Blog Tour

Robert Sharp tagged me in the Writing Process Blog Tour, a carousel ride of writing answering a few short questions about their creative process. For Robert’s own great advice about swapping filler for fun, please check out his website.

 

What am I working on?

I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel – which should explain why I’ve been a bit slow at putting up new stuff on this website recently!

What’s it about? Well, like a lot of writers I feel a little superstitious talking about it – there’s always the creeping suspicion when you talk about a new project that someone will say ‘Oh, that’s been done before’ or, worse ‘Oh yes, my new book coming out next week it about just the same thing!’ I know that feeling is ridiculous, but nonetheless it niggles me.

But I’ll try to get over myself: it’s the story of a famous doctor, and how he became trapped in a painting. It’s also a history of melancholy, and a journey through the last two hundred years. There, I think that’s quite enough to be getting on with…

 

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think this question is a tricky one. We’re all told these days that, in terms of marketing and promotion, books ought to fit into a clear genre. Of course, I think this is rubbish. The best books resist easy categorization. Some of my favourite books of all time – Invisible Cities, The Rings of Saturn, Labyrinths – are impossible to pin down.

I write stories about how history catches up with us. Does that make me a historical novelist? Maybe. But I’ve always thought of historical novels as those that stay within a particular time and place and explore interesting or important questions through the perspective of a different age. My novels tend to ride slipshod down the river of time. In Under Fishbone Clouds, I followed a couple from the 1930s to the end of the century. In The Book of Crows, I dipped in and out of interlinking stories that happened in disparate times, from the age of Qin Shihuang more than two thousand years ago, to poets in the Song Dynasty and to petty bureaucrats in the late 1980s. The project I’m working on now revolves around the 1890s, but features everything from the Siege of Paris and the 1848 uprisings to Herman Goering and the 2008 financial crash.

So, in short, I try my best not to think about genre. Does that make things hard for the publisher trying to promote the books? I hope not, but it’s not something I dare think about when writing.

 

Why do I write what I do?

If an idea gets stuck in my head, churning round and round until I can’t think about anything else, then I have to write it down.

But more specifically, I like to travel through time, and I figured this was a bit easier than trying to build a Tardis. I like the research (I’ve always enjoyed history, and I studied it at university), and I like getting lost in the past.

The best piece of advice that I’ve heard about writing is ‘Write what you want to read’. For me it’s a simple as that. I write about questions, and ideas, and times that interest me – and that’s more than enough to keep me going.

 

How does my writing process work?

I steal time. Usually, because of work and kids, this tends to be either early in the morning before everyone else has woken up, or late at night after the children are asleep. So its essentially a case of trying to do a page a day – I used to write in great long splurges, but I have come to relish the slowness, and I find it helps me measure out the rhythm of the book much better if I’m trying to make every sentence help.

In a more general sense, my writing process is to throw in everything: not only the kitchen sink, but the kitchen itself and every pot and pan and ladle and spoon I can think of. Because of this, my first drafts tend to be huge beasts. Then after that I go through with a scalpel and cut as much as I can – in this way I find what is essential about the story, which parts matter, and which can afford to fall to the cutting room floor. There is something wonderfully liberating about deleting, about letting go of all the hard-wrought paragraphs and watching something better take shape.

 

I’m going to pass the Writing Process Blog Tour baton to Matilda Tristram. Like me, she doesn’t really have a blog but does have a fantastic website and tweets as @Colonoclast, but more importantly it gives me a chance to mention the forthcoming book of her comic, called Probably Nothing and published by Penguin. I’m really looking forward to it – please do check it out!

 

How often do you travel through time?

Be honest. Time-travel can be something of a guilty pleasure. Guilty because so many well-meaning slogans tell us to ‘live in the present’ and to ‘seize the moment’, and yet there is something about slipping backwards and forwards in time that most of us cannot resist. We take comfort in childhood memories, in reliving perfect days that passed long ago, or else we daydream about future holidays, plans, ambitions.

This month’s short story, Deer, is about a time-traveller I met once last year. It is another one of those 5-minute stories about the strangeness of human experience.

You can read Deer on the Notes from the Underground website. NFTU is a literary and cultural magazine and production company, and it is full of exciting short fiction.

The story is about the distances we travel to reach the present moment. It asks whether our perception of time depends on the people we share our time with, and whether we have got the whole idea of memory the wrong way round.

Where do you time-travel to? Do you like to escape to the distant past of historical fiction or period TV shows? Do you often look back to younger days when things were different, or do you find yourself picking over the more recent past, and analyzing recent conversations and exchanges while thinking about the things you should have said or done differently? Or do you travel forwards, imagining all the things you’d like to do when you finally have the time or opportunity?

Check out the story and as ever let me know what you think.

Calling all writers!

Where do you get your inspiration from?

I recently published a short story called Papercuts and Curses on Medium. For that story I used an image from the Harriet Bennett photo album (though many people have since told me that the man in the picture looks just like me).

The owner of these evocative Victorian images, Robert Sharp, is now encouraging other writers to create short stories using one of the pictures as inspiration. I think this is a really fantastic idea. Take a look at the gallery: every face really does look like it has a fascinating story lurking behind it. So why not have a go yourself – pick any of the pictures and see if you can build a tale around it. Who is this person, and what are the secrets behind their gaze?

You can find out more details about the photos over at Robert Sharp’s website, or you can get straight to the strange, wonderful photo album here!

All the way to Brazil…

My novel, Under Fishbone Clouds, is out this month in Brazil!

Its being published by the wonderful people at Paz E Terra, and has been translated into Portuguese as O Deus e o Imperador, which means The God and The Emperor. It’s a great title – I’ve been told before, especially by Chinese readers, about the difficulty of translating a title that doesn’t have a clear object (what, exactly, is under those fishbone clouds?), and so I have nothing but respect for the fantastic job the translators have done here.

One of the most exciting things about being a writer is the possibility that your words and stories will travel far away, to places you have never been. Brazil is one of the countries I would really love to visit, so it’s a really wonderful feeling to know that even if I haven’t yet made it that far, at least there will be a little part of me in some of the bookshops in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.

If you live in Brazil, or just want to bone up on your Portuguese, please check it out here.