Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Libraries Rock!

by David McVey

Back in 2010, right at the start of the post-recession austerity regime, you may remember that an egregious pro-cuts demonstration descended on Westminster. Now, of course, this is a democracy and everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if they think austerity is great. That’s what I thought, anyway, as I watched on television, and then something caught my eye. One of the protestors carried a home-made placard that read;


It’s just a bit of fun, I suppose he might have argued. No, I’d have replied before I hit him, some things are too important to joke about.

The value of libraries to the communities they serve hardly needs to be emphasised but they’re especially useful for writers. Of course, writers use them to borrow books, for research and reference, digital resources and much more. But they are also valuable as places to work. ‘Where do you do your writing?’ writers are often asked, and most answer ‘At my desk,’ or something similar. But it’s a lonely business, hammering away alone at home, at a pitiless keyboard, and it’s one with many distractions; the contents of the fridge are just downstairs and the telly is just a click away. And then your neighbour clatters in his flip-flops onto his garden decking and switches on an inane commercial radio station at full blast just below your window, before firing up the Black and Decker on some abstruse garden DIY project. What now?

You could take the Rowling route and head for a café, as long as you have the cash (and the bladder capacity) to cope with an overpriced latte every half hour. More likely you’ll end up in the library, like I often do. I’m currently a member of three council library services, including in my own area. I have a membership card for my old university’s library as well as cards for the National Library of Scotland and the National Archives of Scotland. I know I can access a couple of other university libraries for working in, if not for withdrawing books. And I lecture in a small FE college campus with its own small library.

University libraries are inspiring places to work; whatever your research needs you’ll find the material you want and as you write you have a sense of belonging to a community of knowledge and learning and scholarship. Further, most university libraries these days have moved beyond the SILENCE! culture and provide areas for silent study, quiet study, and group study, as well as cafes and social areas. Prefer to work in silence, in an atmosphere of scholarly whispering or in a generalised buzz with an aroma of coffee? Choose your space.

The National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh is one of my favourite places to work. My reader’s card gives me access not only to their books but also their vast store of papers and maps and manuscripts, a bewildering range of which can be viewed online, much of it from my home laptop. As a member of Glasgow Libraries I can also use the mighty Mitchell Library, one of the world’s great municipal collections, with its vast range of lending facilities and specialist services. I remember hammering away on my laptop with a pile of books beside me in the Mitchell while the chap across the aisle was using one of the library PCs to access the web. He was browsing the site of an Ibiza club, in particular its photos of a wet t-shirt Competition. Libraries? All human life really is there.

Of course, libraries, from the local lending outfit to the great national institutions, offer a great deal more than books and study space. They run exhibitions and host writers’ and readers’ groups and special events to encourage reading and writing and library use. Like most writers, a decent amount of my income comes from contributing to events held in or run by libraries. There are all sorts of reasons for writers to cheerlead for libraries, not least of them self-interest.

Despite the cuts in library services during this long dark night of austerity, there are still hopeful signs. The rise of the genealogy craze caused new resources to be put into family history services, as libraries and archives saw an opportunity for a new source of income. A new Highland Archive Centre was opened in Inverness, for example, catering for the many people who flock to the Highlands seeking their roots. The Scotland’s People Centre at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh is also specifically designed to support family history research.

The opening of the new Library of Birmingham was, of course, contentious, given the closure of nearby local branches yet it was an incredible statement of intent; the body language said that libraries are part of the future, not the past, that books matter, reading matters, writing matters. The sheer daring and ambition of the Library of Birmingham was reflected in much of the media coverage of its opening, with reporters clearly puzzled at such an audacious new venture for what was, after all, just a library. The opening paragraph of a report on the BBC website gives a good example of the incredulity and negativity; ‘Birmingham's new central library has opened at a cost of £189m,’ it began, ‘but in an era of spending cuts and library closures across the country, is such an outlay justifiable?’

I do have a secret worry. So much of the use we make of our libraries is free. In our libraries, a rich hoard of the United Kingdom’s historical, artistic and literary treasures is free for anyone to access. There is often concern that the arts are beyond the financial reach of ordinary people, and this can certainly be true in the case of opera, music, dance and theatre. Yet an incredible abundance of cultural riches is available simply by applying for a library card.

But, regrettably, there are politicians. Do they know that such a vast cultural resource is available to the lower orders for free? After all, few politicians these days are particularly well-read. Would they be happy about these cultural handouts if they did know? Most of them, I suspect, of whatever party, are closer in fiscal thinking to Libraries Suck Guy than they are to writers and readers and scholars.

And so to the moral of my tale. Use your local and national libraries. Don’t take your laptop to an expensive, tax-dodging coffee chain, but rather to a community of the written word near where you live. Talk libraries up to your friends, readers, audiences, pupils, neighbours, students, colleagues, congregations and clients. Emphasise that they’re free, especially if you are speaking to people on low incomes or who are unemployed. Let’s play our part in packing libraries with people who value and appreciate them.

And if, as a result, we writers start to struggle to find a seat in our libraries, we can console ourselves with this; we’ll always be the ultimate winners from increased library use.

David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Self-publishing: a creative choice, or a last resort?

by Terry Tyler

Most writers, whilst penning their first novel, have fantasies about submitting to a major literary agent and being accepted by a traditional publishing house. This fantasy becomes reality for one in a million, if not fewer. I started writing long before Kindle; back in the days when I occasionally submitted novels to agents I gained some interest, but it amounted to 'yes, like the way you write, but can you change the content according to what is currently in vogue, so I can sell it to a publisher?'

I wrote nine novels in the 1990s, then started writing again in 2010. I submitted the first to an established agent, and received the same response. My book was from multiple-first-person points of view, which was not popular at the time. Then someone told me about self-publishing on Amazon, and I decided to go down that road, instead—which was when I discovered that some see self-publishing as a last resort on which to fall back after being turned down by agents, mainstream publishers, and even the smallest independent presses. It isn't. It is, in many cases, a creative choice, for the writer who doesn't want to follow grip lit thriller with grip lit thriller, or remove a whole character because she must conform to the romance formula as laid down by her publisher.

Yes, of course, self-published books on Amazon range from the brilliant to the efforts that inspire you to write emails asking for better quality control on the site. The desire to stand apart from the stigma of self-pub and 'be a published author' leads many to sign with the first independent who says 'yes', or, worse, with the rip-off vanity presses—in case you don't know, this is where they flatter you until you sign the contract, then hit you will a huge bill for editing, proofreading, etc. Often, they masquerade as trad pub. They will accept anything as long as you pay their exorbitant fees, and their editing and proofreading usually leaves much to be desired. I was recently asked to review a book published by a well-known vanity press. It had three errors in the blurb alone.

As far as independent publishers are concerned, they range from the very good, who will promote your book, present it professionally, seek out book bloggers and placement in bookshops, etc, to the bad, who don't recognise slack editing and will let books go out with too many errors in them (I've read independent press books with American English in an English historical, waffling narrative that should have been cut, etc), to the ugly, who just want a cut of your takings and will have your books 'edited' by someone who doesn't understand basic grammar. According to blog posts I've read, some writers who've chosen to go with an indie press find that they end up with all the restrictions of the traditionally published: losing royalties, and control of content, timing of publication, price, with none of the advantages (books in high street shops, paid Amazon advertising, sales, etc).

A few years back, a writer friend told me that he'd felt so excited when Kindle publishing was first introduced, but became disillusioned by the reality: wannabe best sellers bunging up any old rubbish on Amazon, thinking they were going to be the next EL James/GRR Martin. This has added to the bad name self-publishing has had since the days when vanity was the only option available, and not only with book bloggers and the reading public. The writers' hierarchy lives on: some who sign with small presses consider themselves superior to the self-published, and indeed make scathing remarks about them, not realising that the standard for acceptance by these companies may be more, shall we say, 'relaxed' than for literary agents/trad pub. Some writers do not even realise the difference between a traditional publisher and an independent publishing company (the latter of which can be set up by anyone), and believe themselves to be among the 'chosen few', and thus vastly superior to the self-pub.

When a writer says they self-publish 'by choice', it means they don't submit their books to publishers in the first place. It doesn't mean they've been rejected by lots of publishers but have come to terms with it. Acceptance by a major publishing house should not be seen as the only affirmation that your output is of merit; such large companies exist to make money, first and foremost, not to nurture the artist, so money invested has to be a safe bet. Saleability to the masses (and investment from large corporations) does not necessarily indicate creative brilliance; it's fair to say that creativity and making money do not go hand in hand.

But what about validation of your talent? Doesn't such acceptance give you that? Not necessarily. I've heard, straight from one horse's mouth, that being taken on by an agent doesn't necessarily mean that you're an amazing writer, just that you've produced a product that can be moulded to have mass appeal. If you want validation, wait to see if readers buy more than one of your books. Rejoice in your genuine reviews from book bloggers and the reading public.

Terry Tyler's latest, psychological thriller, novel
I've been described many times as a 'supporter of self-published authors', but I'm not. Some are dreadful. I'm a supporter of good writers, however they're published. I read a great deal; that some of my favourites are self-pub is neither here nor there. An equal amount are mainstream or small press. A book is a book; while we keep making the distinction, self-publishing will always be seen as the impoverished, embarrassing relation.

It took me a while to realise that I actively WANT to be self-published. A few readers and book bloggers have expressed surprise that I don't have a publisher, and one writer friend keeps very kindly suggesting publishers I could submit to, but I don't like the idea of anyone having control over what I produce. If you have the necessary basic talent and understand the importance of good editing and proofreading, if you realise you will have to do all your own promotion, and accept that creative freedom doesn't mean darting from sweet romance to horror, to cowboy comedy to Plantagenet history and back again, you can do well with self-publishing. Once you stop worrying about writing synopses and what-the-hell-agents-are-looking-for, or getting yet another rejection email, your writing life gets a lot easier—and you can spend your time producing novels, instead of query letters.

Connect with Terry online...



Book Reviews

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Jhalak Prize 2017



by Catriona Troth

On Friday 17th March, the winner of the inaugural Jhalak Prize for books written by British BAME authors was announced from a shortlist of six. Fiction and non-fiction, books for adults and books for children: all have been represented on the shortlist and I can’t begin to imagine how the judges are going to pick the final winner.

I’ve spent the last couple of months reading all the books on the Jhalak short and long lists and reviewing them for Book Muse UK. It has been an absolute joy - every one of the books a voyage of discovery. You can read extracts from my reviews below but first, here are some comments from four of the panel of judges: chair of the judging panel, Sunny Singh and her colleagues Musa Okwanga, Yvvette Edwards and Catherine Johnson.

Why were you keen to support the inaugural Jhalak Prize?

Sunny Singh: I founded the Jhalak Prize because I was tired of seeing brilliant writing not receive the attention it deserves, from the press, bookstores, prizes and therefore never getting to readers. And of course I was seeing great writing either not being published or not being published properly. I have been thinking about the prize for about four years now but after the Writing the Future report and various other attempts at raising the issues, we decided go ahead with it. I was at the Polari Prize and got talking to the judges and supporters and realised that a prize may push the issue into consciousness for the various players in the industry. Of course, I am also being selfish: I want to read the writing I love from writers I love. And hopefully Jhalak can help bring them into the market.

Catherine Johnson: The prize came out of BareLit, an incredible crowdfunded festival - I have been a published writer for over twenty years, and it has always been said, if not openly then tacitly that there is not the big audience for books written by BAME authors. This was the first time it was made blatantly clear that there really was a readership and an audience hungry for those stories.

Also, sadly, the 'big' awards in my field - eg The Carnegie, consistently ignore BAME writers - only two have ever been shortlisted in its 80 year history. Here is a chance to give those books air and space and the accolades they deserve. If the mainstream ignore us, why not do it ourselves?

Musa Okwanga: I feel that it is vital that writing of the highest quality gets its due recognition, whoever makes it; and that, so far, too many people of colour do not have the platform that their talents deserve. The Jhalak Prize, in my view, is a wonderfully proactive and progressive way to address that concern.

Just as the Baileys Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) did initially, any literary prize that restricts it potential entrants to a given category of writers tends to attract criticism that entrants are being judged not for their writing but by their gender/colour of skin etc. How do you answer that criticism in the case of the Jhalak Prize?

Sunny Singh: I don't and I won't answer this question! We know the playing field is not level. We have the statistics, the reports, the endless reams of paper but when we flag up the iniquities we are told to 'quit whining and do something.' Well, the Jhalak Prize is us DOING something. You don't like the Jhalak Prize? Then start with working to make that playing field level and actually based on meritocracy!

Catherine Johnson: I think the Bailey's Prize is a good parallel, it may have been contentious at the start but readers understand and accept it as a useful award which draws attention to the best of women's writing. Of course it would be brilliant if we didn't need a prize like this and there was that level playing field we've heard so much about. But there isn't. Society has its flaws. We could either lie down and accept that books by BAME authors are going to be overlooked or do something to draw attention to the fantastic breadth and depth of writing out there.

Musa Okwanga: I would say that this form of criticism of the Jhalak Prize is a little like criticising a doctor for diagnosing and providing medicine for an ailment, rather than criticising the causes of the ailment itself. Because I think that the lack of diversity in publishing at the moment is an ailment, and one which is depriving us all of some of the most exciting writing out there. So let’s do what we can to cure that.

Yvvette Edwards: There are many literary prizes. There are prizes that restrict submissions to writers from a particular part of the country, ones that only judge debuts or second novels or crime or romance or science fiction, or writers of a particular age or religion or gender, or any of a hundred other criteria. It is not a matter of discrimination why this is so, but an effort to ensure that writers who are unlikely to be put forward to or nominated for the big literary prizes, yet are nonetheless producing great writing - sometimes very progressive, experimental and original writing that deserves a wider audience - that those writers are acknowledged and the quality of their work is recognised. In the case of the Jhalak Prize, there’s nothing ominous about it; it’s simply another literary prize with a submission criterion.

It must be particularly challenging to judge a prize that encompasses non-fiction, adult fiction and young adult fiction and fiction for children. How have you approached making those sorts of comparisons?

Sunny Singh: As chair of judging panel, my role has been mostly to hear out what the panel has says. I think we were clear that books were judged within the category they fell. So YA was seen as amazing within that particular category. Nonfiction the same. And the rest. We got particularly lucky as so many of the books also transcended their particular tag. The shortlist is utterly extraordinary.

Catherine Johnson: I think this is one of the strengths of the prize. Isn't it marvellous to say Children's and YA are just as important as non fiction and literary fiction? Our prize is about readers just as much as writers, about saying to readers how wonderful and rich and varied the work that BAME writers are producing.

Musa Okwanga: The only true challenges have been the creation of a longlist, and then a shortlist - to say nothing of selecting the eventual winner. When judging work, I think that we have all tried to look for originality, for creativity - it will sound like cliche, but we have looked for work which has a unique voice. It’s been very difficult to narrow the submissions down, but I am confident that we have managed that.

Yvvette Edwards: The task was made much easier by the fact that we were not required to longlist a specific number of books. The decision was made early on that every book that deserved to be on the longlist would be, which meant that we were able to put forward every book that the judging panel agreed deserved to be nominated, irrespective of whether it was non-fiction or adult, children or YA fiction. Once we were down to the longlist, we had lengthy discussions about the merits of each book, judging them on their own terms and within their genre.

Can you tell us what has particularly excited you about any of the six books on the shortlist?

Sunny Singh: Gosh all of them! Insightful, innovative. One of the judges commented at a meeting that the longlist was made up of great books and the shortlist is all phenomenal ones. It's been a pleasure to read and reread them during the judging process. And one can't say that about many books, forget about all on a shortlist!

Catherine Johnson: Definitely the breadth and depth. Look at those books, every one is a total gem. I have no idea which is the winner, they all deserve the prize.

Musa Okwanga: We all have our own favourites, I am sure, but I have loved the bravery of the work - the fearlessness and empathy shown in tackling the most taboo of subjects. That’s all I feel that I can say publicly, but I will have to drop that particular writer a private message of congratulation at some point.

Yvvette Edwards: I have to say - and I am not attempting to be diplomatic or coy - that all the shortlisted books excite me. Every one of those books deserved its place on the Jhalak Prize shortlist and to be widely read. Although I had a couple of favourites in mind, I approached the final judging panel with an open mind, because any of those books would have been a worthy winner of the inaugural prize.

Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Jhalak Prize?

Sunny Singh: I started the prize with the hopes of ending it! The prize succeeds when it is no longer needed. So that is all I hope for: that one day, in not too far future, a prize like the Jhalak Prize will not be necessary because it will truly be a 'level playing field.' I guess one can and must dream!

Catherine Johnson: I think the prize has hit the ground running, I hope it will grow and earn a reputation for flagging up brilliance across genres.

Musa Okwanga: That it will continue to flourish and to provide a platform for spectacular writing for as long as it is needed. It has been a pleasure, an honour and a privilege to have helped it on its way.

Yvvette Edwards: I hope it becomes an established fixture in the literary calendar, and that it goes from strength to strength.

Thank you! Look out for the announcement of the winner on the evening of Friday 17th March 2017.
Now here are my reviews of the six shortlisted books. 

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

A day chosen at random – unremarkable in any way, including for the number of young people to die of gunshot wounds in a 24 hour period. On this day, seven of those killed were black, two Hispanic and one white. The oldest was nineteen; the youngest nine. “The truth is it’s happening every day, only most do not see it.”

Each chapter is both a personal account of a young person whose life and death would otherwise have passed unremarked by anyone outside their immediate neighbourhood, and an essay on the factors that create this appalling death rate.

Segregation also creates a numbing distance across which empathy becomes all-but impossible. This book may be one strut in a bridge across that divide.

Genre: Non-Fiction

Read my full review here.

Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie

Following on from her Betty Trask winning debut novel, Butterfly Fish, Speak Gigantular is Irenosen Okojie’s first collection of short stories. And it is almost certainly not like any other short story collection you have ever read. Okojie’s writing rarely stays long in the recognisable world of the five senses. In these stories, emotions take on physical form.

These are unsettling stories. Reading them is like walking through one of those trick rooms whose crooked walls make you think the floor is unstable. Okojie’s range is formidable and her imagination extraordinary.

Genre: Short Stories

Read my full review here.

The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross

Two cold cases twist and turn through the pages of The Bone Readers. Michael ‘Digger’ Digson needs to find the truth behind the death of his mother, killed when he was a young boy. And his boss, Detective Superintendent Chilman, is obsessed with the case of Nathan, a young man who disappeared and whose mother is convinced he was murdered.

Written by Granadan born Jacob Ross, The Bone Readers is set on a tiny, fictional Caribbean island. The multiple strands of the book all play on themes of sexual violence, sexual exploitation, gender power struggles and corruption. The women in the book are tough, shrewd, emotionally intelligent and sassy. Yet they are trapped by male prejudice, male violence and the male stranglehold on power. Many carry scars from the sexual violence they have experienced.

An unconventional crime novel, and one that exposes the dark underbelly of ‘paradise.’

Genre: Crime Fiction

Read my full review here.

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Ink and stars - the two most fundamental tools of the cartographer.

Isa is the daughter of a cartographer, and his unofficial apprentice. But Isa’s Da no longer roams the world to map its continents, but walks heavily supported by a stick. And the only guide to the Forbidden Forest is an ancient cloth map left behind by Isa’s mother. So when a girl is found dead in the Governor’s orchard, and his daughter, Isa’s friend Lupe, disappears into the forest, it is up to Isa to don the mantle of cartographer and guide the search party into the heart of the island, where no one has travelled for years.

Maps have a magic about them. They can say as much about the people who made them as they do about the lands they depict. Kiran Millwood Hargrave has spun that magic into a tale of adventure that is – as all good heroic journeys should be - about friendship and courage, self discovery and self sacrifice.

Genre: Fiction for 9-12 year olds.

Read my full review here.

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

Written as a companion to the BBC television series of the same name, David Olusoga’s book shows how the Black presence in Britain can be traced back to Roman times and has been a feature of life, particularly in London and other big cities, since Tudor times. It demonstrates how British economic interest, first in the slave trade itself and then in slave-produced cotton, warred for centuries with a mixture of the exalted believe that British air was ‘too pure for slaves to breathe’ and genuine courageous humanitarianism.

Britain may have been one of the first countries to outlaw the slave trade, but in the years before abolition, it was also its biggest player. As Olusoga shows, British involvement in the slave trade began in the early 17th C and gained the Royal seal of approval in 1672. In just the 20 years before the slave trade was outlawed by Act of Parliament in 1807, three quarters of a million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas aboard British ships.

Britain has things to be proud of in the history of relations with its Black citizens, but much to be ashamed of too. A powerful, emotional and eye-opening read.

Genre: Non-Fiction

Read my full review here.

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

Calcutta in 1919.The “Quit India” movement is beginning to gain momentum. Calls for violent uprising clash with Gandhi’s approach of non-violent noncooperation. And the British were doubling down on their control with an oppressive set of laws called the Rowlatt Acts. In the midst of this, a senior British civil servant is found murdered in the ‘wrong’ part of town, with piece of paper stuffed in his mouth inscribed with a subversive slogan.

Mukherjee takes you down into the streets of Calcutta, from the stinking gullees of Black Town and the opium dens of Tiretta Bazaar, to the poky guesthouses for the itinerant British, where “the mores of Bengal were exported to the heat of Bengal,” the maroon-painted colonial neo-classic buildings of the Imperial civil service and the exclusive clubs of the rich, mini Blenheim Palaces, sporting signs that declare ‘No dogs or Indians beyond this point.’

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Read my full review here.

And my own personal favourite? One that only made it to the longlist, the haunting novel Augustown by Kei Miller.

Augustown by Kei Miller

Augustown is a poor suburb of Kingston, Jamaica, set up by the slaves set free by royal decree on 1st August 1838. It is also closely associated with Alexander Bedward, the preacher who inspired Bedwardism, the roots from which grew Rastafarianism.

Kei Miller’s novel takes place largely in 1982, when most of those who remember Bedward are dead or dying and the events of his life have become tales told by grandmothers like Ma Taffy. And on the day that Ma Taffy sits up straight on her verandah and smells something high and ripe in the air, she knows an autoclapse is coming. ( Autoclapse: (Noun) Jamaican Dialect. An impending disaster; Calamity; Trouble on top of trouble.)

A stunning novel that takes modern Jamaican history (and the history of Rastafarianism in particular) and spins from it a fable the might stand for any people suffering from ingrained economic disadvantage and religious intolerance.

Genre: Literary Fiction

Read my full review here.

Finally, a couple of 'special mentions' from Yvvette Edwards of books that did not make the longlist:

"One of the books that excited me was Hibo Wardere’s incredibly brave memoir, Cut: One Woman’s fight against FGM in Britain Today, which was a harrowing yet life-affirming read. Another personal favourite of mine was a children’s book, The No1 Car Spotter Fights the Factory, by Atinuke. Aimed at 6 to 9 year olds, it was a social commentary on the positive power of social media and the capacity of the community to affect change, whilst exploring the reality of the lives of the poor in third world countries and the ways in which they are exploited by large corporations. At the same time, it was a genuinely enjoyable and accessible read."

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Snapshots from... Paris

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. Today, Janet Skeslien Charles shows us around her adopted city
Images by Janet Skeslien Charles.

What do you enjoy about Paris?

The thing I enjoy most about the city is the green space. For the last two years, I’ve taught a class on Paris, seen through the lens of literature, music, current events, art, and statistics. So I can tell you that there are 9,884 park benches in over 400 parks and gardens in the city. The Parc de Bercy, close to home, is one of my favorites. The Bois de Vincennes (2459 acres, in case you are curious) is great to tramp around in when you need peace and quiet to think about larger questions.

Paris is a great city to walk and bike. In recent years, the landscape of the city has changed, with an addition of 200 kilometers of bike paths, and 20,000 bicycles. Mayor Anne Hidalgo and her predecessor have worked hard to improve and innovate.

Is Paris an inspiration or a distraction?

Paris is a beautiful city. A lot of work goes into maintaining the streets, pipes, and building facades. On my building, scaffolding stayed up for over a year as workers cleaned and painted as well as worked to make sure the building is watertight. (Despite their work, my apartment has been flooded three times.) As I write this, the buildings on either side of mine are being maintained, which involves a lot of hammering, and the pipes of my street are being replaced.

I seek sanctuary at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, just across the river. Their collection is extraordinary and their librarians are extremely helpful. In November and December of 2016, I was a writer in residence at Shakespeare & Company. I was able to ride my bicycle from home to the bookshop in 20 minutes. I wrote in George Whitman’s room, which was very meaningful to me. When I first arrived in Paris, I visited the library on the second floor of the shop. George came in, opened his arms wide, and asked, “How long can you stay?” It was wonderful to write at a desk in his room and to spend time in the bookshop.


Tell us a bit about the cultural life.

There are free readings and concerts every night of the week. From Shakespeare & Co to the Berkeley bookstore, to the Maison de la Poésie to the BNF, many libraries and bookstores host events.

In France, the most a retailer can discount a book is 5%, so the book business – especially independent bookstores – thrives. The first MFA in creative writing began here in 2012. (In the UK, the first program began in 1970.) The BNF just hosted its first series of creative writing master classes in February.

Can you recommend a few books set in Paris?

Noel Riley Fitch has written Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties an engaging biography of the bookseller who started the original Shakespeare & Company and can be considered the patron saint of writers here.

There are so many great books! For starters: The Sun Also Rises; Down and Out in Paris and London; Good Morning, Midnight; Love in a Cold Climate; Me Talk Pretty One Day; and Art.

Best known local authors?

This is a hard question – there are so many! Edith Warton, Gertrude Stein, Jean Rhys, Nancy Mitford, Madame de Staël, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Yasmina Reza, just to name a few. Of course, I have books by Tatiana de Rosnay, Cara Black, Laurel Zuckerman, Christopher Vanier, and Marie Houzelle on my shelf as well.

What are you writing?

I’m thrilled that one of my short stories – written in Paris, but set in my home state – will be published in Montana Noir this fall.

Sum up life in Paris in three words.

Books. Community. Love.

Janet Skeslien Charles is the award-winning author of Moonlight in Odessa, which has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She has led writing workshops for over a decade and currently works at Ecole Polytechnique.

Janet grew up in Montana where she studied Russian, French and English. She spent two years in Odessa, Ukraine, as a Soros Fellow.

By JJ Marsh

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Short Story Competition 2016 - THE WINNERS

We are delighted to announce the winners of our Short Story Competition 2016, which has been judged by Isabel Wolff

The longlist:

A Crack of Light by Christina Sanders

Forever Four Stone Walls by Niamh MacCabe

Lost within a Mash of Alleyways by Anne Goodwin

Luminous Things by Tracey Glasspool

The Road Movie by Richard Gibney

The Shadow Architect by Mandy Huggins

The Voyage by Margaret Bonass Madden

Three Mothers in Sixty Years by Roy Chadwick

Toothpick Bones by Laura Darling

Unmatched by Mary Whitsell

The shortlist:

Clothes Make the Man by Margaret Goddard

In a Heartbeat by Jacq Molloy

Keeping Chris Alive by Ken McBeath

Mrs P, the Dog and Me by Sara Cole

Pass the Signal at Danger by Anthony Hilbert

Rainbow Days by Lesley Hawkins

Shopping for Connor by Joe Murphy

Single Speed by Joel Blackledge

To End All Wars by Richard Chalk

Welcome to the Street by Thomas Szendrei

Wildfire by David G. Gibson

Without Roots by Hanne Larsson

And the winning entries are:


Labours by Dan Micklethwaite

A day's work in the sun and he turns terracotta. He stands before the full-length mirror in the bedroom and the tan line at his waist is a glowing equator, so removed from that colour are his thick, white thighs.

He leans closer to examine the only flaw in that tint, a bruise by his shoulder where an errant plank struck him. But even that green-yellow stripe retains an earthenware sheen, a kiln-fired glaze. He presses it with two fingers and hisses out at the sting; though it was his fault, he knows, for not paying attention. They all had a good laugh on site, anyway, and if you went home and complained or cried after that then you wouldn't last long.

He doesn't cry now. The first month or two, yes, in the car, in the shower, but not now.

The arnica gives off a sickly sweet smell as he opens the tube, part processed chemicals, part rotting flowers. He's never especially liked using it, not since he used to play sports as a kid -- the welts on the backs of his calves where the studs had collided -- but it does make a difference. Removes some of the stain, some of the swelling.

He checks that he's still on his own -- no wife, no daughter -- before wiping his fingers on the foot of the duvet, and then reaching for another tube, this time of hand cream. Some of the other guys use it as well, it's quite common, but mostly they go for brands that at least sound intended for their line of work. Tradesperson's Friend, some shit like that.

He uses whatever's on offer at the supermarket when he needs a new batch. Hand & Nail Xtra Care, this time around. There's a faint scent of beeswax as he thumbs it into the palm of first one hand then the other, and then between the knuckles, then the tendons on the backs. As he works it into his fingers, smoothing it around the cuticles, he spots dark sickles at the tips of most of his nails. He picks at them, flicks the dirt to the floor, removing the evidence. Rubs it diffuse into the blue weave with his heels.


Every year, the first few hot days, it's always the same. With the grass and the overgrown weeds upturned and tossed into a wheelbarrow, he sets the shovel aside and squats down in the dirt. Takes off the thin black rubberised gloves and stuffs them both tight between denim and belt. Pushes his fingers into the fresh-dug earth, sifting it as a prospector might, hoping to find something afterwards in the pan of his palms.

Mostly it's just denser, claggier mud. The occasional pebble. An earthworm or millipede or woodlouse, things that he's been digging out of the ground since before any of this started; things that still disgust him a little, that he lets drop immediately as he senses them move.

Sometimes, he gets lucky. Luckier. Bottle tops are quite common, and he wipes the dirt clear on his jeans to see if he recognises the brand, if there's even a brand left to recognise. There are scraps of flint that show up, too. Probably they've been brought back from some seaside, or from a mountainous hike, a holiday in the Lakes, but they are often close enough to arrowheads or knives in shape that he can at least pretend.

The bone fragments, it's harder to gauge. The majority of those properties, if they don't currently have a dog, they probably did have at some point. Maybe the bulk of such finds are down to their actions, some long-forgotten canine stash. Or perhaps more directly they're the remains of a beloved pet; there was once a skull, already shattered, that one of the other lads turned up. A rabbit, by the size. One eye-socket still intact and idiot-blank, a tooth still sharp enough to cut if you weren't careful. He imagines their owners buried somewhere nearby, like Celts; imagines dusting at horse bones, the bronze fittings of chariots, though all of the timber has long since decayed. 

But it's the pottery that gets him going most. The wayward little shards of it, white or brown or drained-out blue. Only a few little crumbs of the lacquer remaining. If he finds two such pieces, the same hue and thickness, he gets almost stupidly excited, tries to fit them together. He gets carried away. Sits there on the edge of the trench like a kid in a sandpit, until one or another of his co-workers gives him a shout, or a sly kick, a knock with a spade or a spirit-level.

Or a plank.


The arnica works, but he wishes tonight it would work faster. Risks pressing the area again, the edges of it, testing how far the pain extends. Winces. The experience is worsened by the fact he has a pretty savage headache starting, probably because he was sat out in the dirt for half an hour on what should have been his lunch break, and so he hasn't had much to eat, and didn't drink enough tea.

They'd stayed on site late, until about seven, with the weather being so good, and by the time he got home he'd missed dinner as well. The cheese and lettuce sandwiches he'd packed this morning were soaked and squashed and rubbery, having melted in the van. He had a packet of prawn cocktail crisps instead, and a couple of slices of marmite on toast.

Neither Meghan, his wife, nor Kelsie, his daughter, had asked about his day. They'd done Kelsie's maths homework and her spellings and were watching TV. Britain's Somethingest Somethings. The kind of home video guff-parade he thought they'd stopped making when YouTube took off.

Thankfully, he thought, Kelsie wasn't paying too much attention. She was drawing something bright in a fat A4 pad. Coloured pencils were arrayed on the cream arm of the sofa, neat and precise like a fine set of tools.

He was going to join them, check out the picture, but Meghan, without looking, said, "Don't sit down in those jeans." 


There'd been a visit to a museum when he was back in year four, a school trip to an exhibition on 'Ancient Greek Treasures'. They had models of theatres and of the stadia used in the original Olympics, and one of the Parthenon in something like 1:300 scale, which he'd stood over and felt like a Hollywood god. Like Laurence Olivier.

In other rooms, on other plinths, there were both original and replica amphorae and vases, patterned either black on red or red on black; decorated with monsters and ancient Greek heroes. There was one of Hercules wrestling a lion that he can still recall vividly.

There were sepia photographs of these artefacts being unearthed, piece by piece, by distinctly un-Herculean figures. Anti-Herculean, even. Linen shirts that had yellowed like chain-smokers' teeth, and scrawny, sinewy forearms reaching out, waving small trowels or pointing where somebody else (unidentified in the captions) should scurry along to and dig.

He studies himself in the mirror and he's gotten so much bigger, so much broader than he ever thought he would, and looks nothing very much like those archaeologists now. His forearms alone, from all the lifting he's done over the past seven years, are much more than sinew. The size of them is almost cartoonish, in certain lights. Almost mythic.

Getting carried away, ignoring the ache, he bends over to grapple an imaginary lion. Glances sideways at himself and notes that at least his penis is a bit bigger and more proportionate than they used to paint them back then.

In another time, he thinks. Another path.


"Stephen," his wife says, as she walks into the room. "What the fuck are you doing?"

He jumps; she doesn't swear often. He didn't hear the door open. He must not have closed it.

"Nothing, nothing," he says, "just stretching," he says. And stands up, and swings his arms out from his chest a few times, not letting on that the shoulder-bruise hurts.

"Ok," she says. She looks at him funny. She looks at the mark. "I thought I smelled arnica," she says. "You know I don’t like you using it before bed. It bloody stinks."

Stephen had hoped the beeswax would cover it, but obviously not.

No matter. Meghan's attentions have already turned to his member, watching as it dangles this way and that.

"Put it away now, would you, and come on to bed. I thought you'd got an early start?"

"I do, yeah," he says, still stretching but more slowly.

"What time's your alarm? Is it still the same place?"

"Yeah," he says, dropping his arms by his sides. "I'll have to be on site for half six, to get plenty done before it's too warm. There's a good half-acre of land that still needs mowing, and weeding, and then we've got to strip back another third of it and lay more decking and flags,"

"Decking and flags?" she says.

"Mostly flags," he says, "but we're putting decking down in one corner because they want a gazebo. One of those Japanese-style ones, you know, with those fancy curled gables? Red and white I think they want to paint it, so the decking will have to be cedar, or at least cedar-treated, to fit in more with that…" He's aware of his volume fading, the longer he talks.

"Oh, ok," she says. She's already under the covers and turned onto her side.

He sneaks a last glance in the mirror. The colour always sets him off, even when he hasn’t seen it for a while. Exactly the same as on those amphorae. He tenses again, checking his torso, his forearms. Checking his hair and thinking he may need to start dyeing it soon, or else it'll be too late. You can't go from grey back to black without somebody noticing. The lads would never let him live it down.

"I can see you," she says.

You aren't even bloody looking, he thinks. But he backs away from the reflection, the colour, regardless.

"And put it away," she says, in the gap between his pulling back the covers and shuffling underneath.


He can't imagine anyone ever immortalizing him on a vase, or a wine-jug, or even an ash-tray. Kelsie had painted a plate once, at an arts and crafts café in town, but that had just been a picture of a lion on its own. It was a portrait of her favourite soft toy, and he can understand, he supposes, because she probably spends more time with it than with him; but she'd painted it for Father's Day and hadn't even written on 'Daddy'. The lion doesn't even share his name. It's called Thimble, because that's how she'd said Simba when she was little. Littler.

Still, it was a good portrait. She'd captured its button-eyes, the sparkle within them, and the thin dark w of its mouth. At last November's parents' evening, Miss Bellew -- blonde hair, C-cup -- had been enthusiastic about a fairytale castle that Kelsie had drawn. Pointed it out to them, pinned up on a board trimmed with crepe-paper pumpkins, and Stephen had nearly cried, right there and then, it was so bloody good.

He'd managed to hold back, though.

Lying here, he finds that he's aching all over, not just at the site of that green-yellow bruise. That smear in the clay. There is black behind the red on those old jigsaw-pieced vases, and he finds it as soon as he closes his eyes.

His daughter is only six and already she knows what she wants to do with her life.

"Miss Bellew says I'm going to be an artist, daddy…"

After a minute or so more the blackness turns sepia. He has another long shift to rest up for tomorrow, but he doesn't fancy his chances of an undisturbed sleep.


Picture a Small Bird by Marilyn Messenger

For weeks she came in every day and, perhaps because the building was warm from the summer heat, the smell was bad. The stench that radiated from her clothes, and from the grimy body that shifted within them, ought to have appeared as an aura of pollution that she inhabited. I sometimes visualised a cloud of cartoon flies enveloping her, excited by her filth. When it became so dreadful that I had to walk away before I retched, she would flick me a sideways glance, tilting her head to one side.

Each morning she waited for the library doors to open. One shoulder drooping, she leant against the sign that displayed the opening hours. She always held a carrier bag flat against her chest, her arms crossed over it. Each morning, I turned on the lights and activated the automatic doors. That the doors opened when she took a step forward always amazed her and because her reaction always made me shake my head, we shared that moment of a Groundhog Day.

Though not a spacious building, she tried to vary the route she took to reach the small table in the farthest corner. Her walk was uneven, as if the carpet were stony ground. Sometimes she turned and shuffled along the length of non-fiction, then doubled back, covering the distance to the table at a trot. Other mornings she stood for a while behind the shelves of biographies. I saw her squinting at me through the gaps between the glossy lives of celebrities, to where I sat scanning barcodes - checking books in, checking books out. Now and then, I heard her echo the scanner's beep like an abandoned chick.

Sitting at the small table, her back was to the room. Once seated, she dragged the chair forwards repeatedly until the edge of the table must have been jammed into her stomach. From the carrier bag she brought out pencils and a sheet of paper that she smoothed and straightened on the table. Though no was likely to approach her, she curved one arm around the paper like a small child crayoning in class. Within the privacy of that crooked elbow, the pencil moved fiercely and with assured.

After an hour, sometimes two, a cough, delicate, refined, and at odds with everything else about her, summoned me to the photocopier. I tried ignoring the cough. It annoyed me that she could talk, but refused to speak clearly. Her words were mumbled, and they disappeared into the front of her cardigan to join the stains there. In time, we established a routine of sorts and speech became unnecessary.

I switched on the photocopier, lifted the cover, and looked away as she placed the paper face down on the glass. Turning my head was an instinctive move that enabled me to breathe through my nose for a short time. It was also because no one was meant to see what was depicted on the paper. But I did see.

When the photocopy appeared, I opened the lid, she removed the paper, and took it to the window, tilting it towards the light. On the first day, I saw the drawing reflected in the window. After that I was curious. Each time it was birds, and always with wings outspread. I glimpsed a hawk, the vee of its tail, the ripple along feathered wing tips as it hovered. An owl, its blunt head swivelled in flight, stared at me, its prim beak as cruel as a pursed mouth. I saw the prehistoric angles of a heron, legs drooping as if it had lifted at that moment, ungainly, from marshland. There were small birds, sometimes flying in a vast pattern, an intricate shape across the page, like smoke from a bottle.

Once she was satisfied with the image she went back to the photocopier and muttered a number. Sometimes she asked for as many as fifty copies. I stressed the total cost to her. I emailed for advice from those in a higher command, but they sent back an electronic shrug of their shoulders, so I put her crumpled money into the till, and sprayed air freshener after she left, clutching her carrier bag.

The last day that I saw her, the library was drowsing after an early morning flurry of people. Most of those who came in during the week were retired, and keen to get home to loll in their scorched gardens, doze in the shade with their borrowed books. The smell of her was strong that day, and I felt it would cling to my clothes, would follow me into my car, that I would take it home with me, take a part of her into my home.

The routine began. I checked the paper tray was full, and set the copier going. Once the paper was churning out, regurgitating copies of the image, I returned to my desk. It was too hot to concentrate. The automatic doors swished open and I fashioned a look of welcome for whoever had arrived, but there was no one there.  The photocopier continued to drone so the woman’s agitated muttering irritated me. I caught one word, bird, repeated again and again, bird, bird, bird, as if she thought the repetition might make the word fly to where I sat.

House martins often swooped around the library entrance, dipping to catch insects on the wing, and one must have triggered the sensor and flown in through the open door. It was on the floor, the gloss of its blue black plumage exotic against the grubby beige of the carpet. I thought it would take off as I approached, but saw that its feet were caught in the looped pile. She paced the room, pressed her forehead to the window and spoke the words with her breath on the glass. Poor bird, poor bird, bird.

I knelt by the bird, put my hands over its back, and held it loosely captive. I inclined my head towards its feet, as if I were then the one who couldn't articulate words and had to get by with gestures. I remember that her hands were shapely, the fingers slim with a dark smudge of graphite down the side of one, where a pencil was often gripped. She freed the bird's claws one by one, carefully unhooking them, though the bird's heartbeat still became frantic against my hands. Her eyes were grey, the lashes wet.

I stood with difficulty, cradling the bird. She put out her hands, then withdrew them, pushing both arms behind her back and shaking her head as if appalled at herself. I walked towards the doors holding the bird out in front of me, and her weaving from side to side at my back as if herding us both to freedom. Her hands fluttered towards me again and, when I nodded my head, she hesitated before she enclosed my hands with hers. Linked in this way we moved awkwardly through the doors. Clear of the building, she looked directly at me and nodded her. We opened our hands and watched the bird take flight. Bird, she whispered.

I didn't see her again. The following day, I arrived to find carrier bags piled up against the doors. I didn't need to look in them, for I knew what I would see. 


Demons by Deborah Tomkins

Today the demons are after me.

I stand forgetful at the sink, dishcloth in hand, or slump into the sofa intending to read Sunday’s paper, and find that hours have passed but no news has gone in, it is all meaningless and pointless, and meanwhile the children are squabbling, clamorous with hunger or tiredness or lack of parental attention.

The demons reach out with their clawed fingers, nails rasping at my jeans, scratching inside my head, pulling me down into the floor.

I can take it, I can live through this, I’ve done it before. It’ll take a few months, maybe when it’s summer again, and I’ll wake up and they’ll have gone.

Today I woke too early. I barely sleep anyway when the demons crowd around my bed, plucking at the duvet and at my heart strings. I thought maybe I could have a cup of tea, steady my nerves, it would give me something to do in the dark at three a.m. Perhaps I could do the ironing. It’s quiet, wouldn’t wake anyone.

I went first to the toilet, pulled down my pyjama bottoms, sat on the seat for the tiny trickle of urine that I didn’t need to pass, listened to the wind howling around the house, pebbles of hail crashing against the glass, stared at my feet.

The demons and I agree that I’m not that great a human being. I try to be kind, loving, thoughtful, humorous, a good cook and nice to my husband. We know this is a sham, the demons and I. They have a good laugh about it sometimes, and I just want to jump off a railway bridge when an express is coming through. It would be messy but quick.


It was about four-thirty by the time I peeled myself off the toilet. I’d got so cold my toes and fingers had gone blue, and there was a deep red weal on my buttocks where I’d got stuck. It was a bit sore, but really that doesn’t matter when you’re trying to stay sane in the middle of the night.

I draped a bath towel around my shoulders for warmth and went downstairs. I thought how odd it was that I was trying to get warm at the same time as wondering if I would be killed if I stuck a fork into the plug socket, if it would work better if I stood in a bowl of water. I would have made the water warm because my feet were icy, but the cat came in and miaowed so I fed her first, and then the kettle had boiled so I made a mug of tea.

I stood in the centre of the kitchen, far from knives and gas and other dangerous things, and cradled my mug, hanging onto its warmth while the wind howled outside and I thought of typhoons and hurricanes and the doom of the world. Is this it, then? I thought. Is this the end of it all? And I have three small children who will have to make their way through the end-times – if not nuclear apocalypse then death by global warming, like little frogs heated slowly in a pan of water until it’s too late to jump out and they cook to death. I began to weep, pulling grief out of the depths of me, pulled down by it into the depths; and I wept quietly, so as not to wake a soul, though my heart was breaking. I’m not strong enough any more, I no longer want to resist my demons, and they cackled with pleasure. Sprawled across the quarry tiles, I counted the ways I’ve been tempted: red lights, wrong carriageway, bridges, rivers, painkillers, sleeping tablets.


‘I thought I’d catch up a bit,’ I lied when Anthony came downstairs, and he gave me an odd look, kind of thoughtful and appraising, as he sat down to the cooked breakfast I’d made him, a smokescreen. The baby cried just then and I fled upstairs to change a nappy and give a feed, and by the time that was all done Anthony had to go.


I’ve been sitting here on the sofa for a while. The children are watching some  hriek kids’ TV programme, manic presenters in primary colours shouting inanities at the camera and graphics shooting across the screen like meteors. It’s exhausting, and would be even if I hadn’t spent half the night awake. There are crisps and grapes crushed into the carpet but I don’t care. The baby clambers up my leg, chocolate smeared around his mouth and on his downy head, but I don’t want to feed him, I’m not a cow, so I cross my arms and close my eyes. The demons snigger and settle down for a nap, draped around my shoulders, cuddled up under my chin, comfortable, snoring.

I’ve been dreaming there’s someone at the door. I don’t open my eyes because I know there’s no point, it’s a dream. The demons are on my lap and clinging to my ankles, weighing me down. But something’s poking my eyes and it damn well hurts. It’s two little fingers pulling my eyelids up, and the weight on my lap is the baby, and there’s a cool breeze where before there was a humid smelly fug. The smell is still there. It’s the nappy. I open my eyes and the baby puts his fingers in my mouth, and above him I see the smiling face of my sister-in-law, whose name I can’t quite recall at this moment.

‘Hi Cath,’ she says. ‘The kids let me in.’

For a brief moment I feel a flash of fear. They could have let in anyone at all, an axe murderer or a child molester or a man to read the meter. A lone demon chuckles, somewhere behind me.

‘You look tired,’ she says.

I nod.

She puts her head on one side. ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’

I stare at the chaos. It looks terrible. And I can’t work out what she’s doing here.

I remove the baby’s fingers from my mouth and lower him to the floor. He crawls off to the kitchen where I hear Paula – that’s her name, thank God I remembered – coo at him. I imagine her picking him up and wiping his face, smiling and singing, and I think he’d be so much better off with her, they all would, and they wouldn’t miss me, so why don’t I just make it happen? I could write out my last wishes and leave them in the bathroom cabinet. I hear a sort of demon-cackle in the distance, and I close my eyes and see myself asleep in bed, the kind of sleep people don’t wake up from.

Paula comes back with two mugs of tea, the baby crawling after her.

‘I came a bit early,’ she says as she hands me my mug, ‘so you’ll have enough time to get ready.’ She smiles again. ‘Have you worked out where you’re going?’

I’m dumbfounded. I can’t reply, so I shake my head.

‘It’ll be lovely, such a treat.’ The baby clasps her legs and she pulls him up so he’s sitting between us.
‘Ten years. Seems like yesterday, doesn’t it?’

I sip my tea to hide my confusion. Our anniversary. Not only have I forgotten, I’ve been working out how to kill myself, on our anniversary.

I hold down a rising sob, I force it back into my chest, I feel sick with the effort.

She’s speaking again. I watch her mouth, concentrate. ‘You get upstairs while you’ve got the chance, have a nice bath.’ I nod, following the instructions carefully. ‘Don’t worry about supper, the kids and I will work it out. We’ll have a rummage.’ She makes it sound like some exciting game and the children are bouncing around behind her. There’s too much going on and I can’t work out what I’m supposed to do next, so I sit and watch them.

‘Off you go, now, you’ve got loads of time, pamper yourself. The taxi’ll be here at seven.’


I have obediently climbed the stairs and run a bath with bubbles and got undressed and now I am lowering myself into the hot water. I screw up my face when I lie back as there is pleasure and pain in equal measure in this almost-scalding water. I have been told to consider what to wear this evening so I do so, obedient again. I think I should wear the red dress. I need to wash my hair so I sink beneath the bubbles to wet it in the very hot water and I gasp as I go under, and then I think how easy it would be to lie there for a long time and not surface ever again and I lie there for quite a long time holding my breath thinking about lying there for ever until there are suddenly hands gripping me around the back of my neck and my shoulders, the fingers pinching and scrabbling and scraping. They are pulling me up, slipping and sliding over my bubbly skin and hurting me.

I splutter and gasp and pant and push the bubbles out of my eyes and peer through my screwed-up eyes at my attacker, and it is Paula. She is staring at me with her mouth open and she looks ridiculous and I feel superior because she looks more ridiculous than me. I am clothed in bubbles and look dignified, but she is wet all down her front and her sleeves are soaked and her smart tight skirt is soggy and she’s standing in a puddle.

Suddenly I begin to cry. I watch myself crying and I don’t know why I’m crying at all, it’s a mystery to me. Paula fetches a towel from the rail and kneels beside me on the wet floor and wipes my face and says ‘ssh, ssh,’ which is the most ridiculous thing, really, to say to a hysterical woman in a bathtub.

Then she stands and goes to the door and murmurs something quietly. I think of Anthony but then I remember he’s not here and I’m meeting him somewhere. I don’t know where but I do remember - and now I feel triumphant - that it’s our tenth anniversary. So I pour shampoo into the palm of my hand and wash my hair with shampoo which smells of strawberries because it’s the children’s and I giggle because it’s really not very sophisticated for a grown woman to go out smelling of strawberries. Paula has come back and is sitting on the edge of the tub watching me, seriously, and I want to tell her to lighten up but something tells me that this wouldn’t go down well.

‘I didn’t get much sleep last night,’ I tell her, instead.

‘I see.’ She clears her throat. ‘I’m sorry about - ’ and she gestures towards the bubbly water. ‘I knocked and you didn’t reply.’ She runs her hand through her damp hair. ‘I just popped my head around the door and you were, well, you know.’

I nod.

‘You’re all right, though?’

I nod again.

‘Let me rinse this for you.’

She rinses the shampoo out of my hair with the shower attachment. Hah, I think, I know why you’re doing this. But there’s nothing to stop me drowning myself on another occasion, when you’re not here to stop me. And then I remember the children, and tears trickle down my face and neck and plop gently into the bubbles.

Paula wraps the towel around my hair and wipes my face again. She kneels beside me on the floor while I sit in the hot water and bubbles and she hugs me and leans her head against my betowelled head and holds me tight, wet and slippery as I am, and we rock slightly backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, and she says, ‘I know, I know, ssh, ssh.’

‘You - you - don’t - can’t - ’  This is my voice. It is harsh and gasping and I can barely get any words out as I am very angry and upset and I want to scream but I can hardly breathe for sobbing. All this is flashing through my mind at the same time as wanting to lie down and die.

All Paula says is ‘I know, I know’, over and over, and I know she can’t possibly know anything at all so I say ‘NO NO NO YOU DON’T,’ as loudly as I can but my voice is all distorted and it’s more like a groan.

And she stands up and pulls up her sleeves and I think that’s a bit late, they’re already wet through, and she leans forward and shows me first one forearm and then the other, and there are faint silver lines crisscrossing her wrists, dozens of them, and she says, very quietly, ‘I know.’


The children have eaten supper and had a bath, all three together, and I’ve listened in my bedroom to their laughter and Paula singing silly songs and she has come in and out of my room supervising my packing – we’re going away for the night, Anthony and me, and although I’m supposed to know this it’s a big surprise to me – for she is staying here tonight, and she’s wearing some of my clothes because she got so wet bathing me. That’s what she’s told the children, and I really don’t know what they’ve made of that but who cares.

The demons are lurking in the corners of the room. I can almost but not quite hear their snide remarks as I pull on new tights, fasten my bra, slip into the red dress. It still fits me, they can’t mock me for carrying baby weight; I’m thinner than I was. Scrawny, is what they’re trying to tell me. But I’m not listening. I’m not. Instead, I look inside my overnight case, the one I bought for our honeymoon. It has pale pink satin lining, matching little satin cases for shoes and brushes and make-up, a leather strap and brass buckles, and while I look at it I’m able to block out those demonic voices muttering away in the dark corners, and I’m able to remember that I’m married to a man who loves me and that we have a comfortable home and three wonderful children.


In the bathroom Paula said that counting blessings sometimes helps to keep the demons at bay.

I’m counting… I’m counting.

Judge's Report

Judging the Words With Jam competition has been an enormous pleasure and I have been hugely impressed both by the invention of the fifteen short-listed stories and by the quality of the writing. Two stories were set in hotels – the hilarious, deadpan In a Heartbeat about a strings-free liaison between two middle-aged people, and Clothes Make the Man about a divorced salesman delightedly re-inventing himself in a Midlands motel. In some of the stories I learned about new worlds, notably in Pass the Signal at Danger, about a young man working in the signal box on British Rail’s Yorkshire line. The mechanics of this are described in vivid, often lyrical prose, and the writing is also filled with gut-twisting tension as the threat of a collision looms. In Keeping Chris Alive I learned about the dangers of daily life in a South African mine. This story delineates the emotional legacy of an accident that years before had killed the protagonist’s best friend. In Wildfire, set in Montana, a woman steels herself for the impending disaster of a forest fire. The inferno is beautifully described – ‘the edge of the fire was seeping over the ridge like blood from a wound, its glow backlighting billowing smoke’; the story also contains an element of mystery as the fire uncovers grisly evidence of an old crime. In Mrs P, The Dog, and Me a Bulgarian cleaner is taken into the confidence of the rich, pampered divorcee that she works for. The disjunct between their lives is explored with subtle humour and indignation. In Shopping for Conor a father prepares himself for the sadness of his son leaving home. In the shocking payoff Conor does indeed leave home, but not in the way that anyone expected.  Two stories are dystopian. To End All Wars is a hellish vision of a conflict set in WW1-like trenches in which the enemy is Death itself, and Without Roots is set in a pollution-saturated Chinese landscape. In this powerful tale Mrs Yu and her grandson, encased in protective clothing, venture outside into the ‘death-tinted’ rain to soothe the spirits of their ancestors. Single Speed is a rites of passage story in which a teenage girl receives both a new bike for Christmas and a lesson about the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War.  Welcome to the Street is a vivid story of a fugitive struggling to survive on the streets of South Africa and finding an unusual sanctuary. Two of the stories are about mental illness. In the insightful Rainbow Days the author plays with the idea of the spectrum, as an autistic child’s inner ‘dragon’ compels him to colour code his every action. In Demons, a young mother with severe depression battles the inner demons that ‘reach out with their clawed fingers, nails rasping at my jeans, scratching inside my head, pulling me to the ground.’ The details of her domestic life are casually interspersed with her violent impulses to self-harm.  I found this story emotionally engaging, shocking and illuminating and have therefore awarded it third place. In Picture a Small Bird a derelict looking woman visits a library every day, where she sits and does beautiful drawings of birds. When a real bird gets trapped in the building she gently liberates it – and herself. For its wonderfully evocative atmosphere, fine writing, and its ability to make me think about it long after I had read it, I have awarded Picture of a Small Bird second place. Last but by no means least, is Labours. This is a very fine story about a landscape gardener who once hoped to become an archaeologist.  The writing is exquisite. ‘A day’s work in the sun and he turns terracotta. He stands before the full-length mirror in the bedroom and the tan line at his waist is a glowing equator, so removed from that colour are his thick, white thighs.’ I was also impressed by the successful scheme of the story with its subtle, enjoyable ambiguities and its undertow of disappointment beneath surface content. For all these reasons I have awarded Labours first place in the competition, but I want to congratulate every writer for their excellent stories which I have enjoyed reading, and thinking about, so much.

Isabel Wolff
London February 2017

Congratulations to all the winners, we will be in contact soon.

In the meantime, why not check out our latest competition, now open for submissions ...

Combining the Personal and the Professional

The challenges of writing a non-fiction guide to breast cancer

by Dr Kathleen Thompson

Words with Jam asked me to write about the challenges of writing a book involving my personal experiences. Let me explain – I am a doctor who was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. I found negotiating and understanding the treatment surprisingly difficult, even as a doctor, and it made me realise how bewildering it could be for someone without a medical background, who was also in a state of shock following a devastating diagnosis.

So I decided to write a book to guide people through the breast cancer experience. I wanted to explain the tests they would undergo, and the different treatments; how they would feel and why. I also wanted to share my knowledge about medical research, to help people make meaningful treatment decisions. I wanted to explain what cancer was, why we get it, and how to avoid it.

But how should I write it? People are in a state of shock when dealing with a cancer diagnosis, whether it is affecting themselves or their loved ones. A dry text-book approach wouldn’t work. I knew that I couldn’t have picked up any such book to save my life whilst I was having treatment – and, scarily, such a book may save your life. It is critical that you are well-informed during your cancer journey - relying on professionals isn’t always enough.

So maybe I should just tell my own story? No - although other people’s suffering can hold a morbid fascination, generally, unless you are famous, your personal story is only really of interest to friends and relatives.

However, I could combine the two approaches, drip-feeding important information, within the gentle wrapping of my own story. Besides, my particular story had all the elements of a good novel – point of change, tension, multiple episodes of jeopardy, almost resolution … then further jeopardy. It would be light relief from the factual information.

It worked well. I wrote short sections of essential information, then some of my story, reinforcing theory with light relief. At the end of each chapter was a summary and ‘Further Information’ box. Bite-sized pieces were key for people dealing with cancer.

There were some interesting sequelae to this approach. Using only parts of my experience, to complement the factual information perhaps gave a biased view of my personal life, and some people assumed I was alone through my cancer treatment. This wasn’t true, I was surrounded by a loving family and good friends, but I limited mention of them, for many reasons.

There were some interesting challenges too. If I were really to help people and make them feel that I understood their problems, I had to write honestly, including when things went wrong. It was the pitfalls, which would help my readers the most – the reassurance that it was OK to challenge medical decisions for example, and how to do it.

However, unlike a novel, my characters were not figments of my imagination. They were real people, who were generally trying to do their best. We all make mistakes, and my care was not always perfect. But the relevant characters in my book were not necessarily bad or incompetent. So was it fair to label them, based on a freeze frame of their professional lives? I didn’t believe so.

Consequently, my first step was to change not just their names, but also their physical characteristics. The breast cancer world is small, I had to try my best to prevent people guessing who the players really were.

I also used a pen-name. A curious member of hospital staff may check my name, or simply remember me, then the confidentiality would be broken.

My main concern was for the reputation of some of the staff involved, but I also needed to protect myself from any backlash. So I consulted a publication lawyer. He explained that libel only applies if a statement is false. As I had kept notes at the time of my treatment, I was confident of the accuracy of my account. I was also concerned about my interpretations of anti-cancer literature. As an expert in medical research I was keen to give a critical appraisal of some alternative ‘anti-cancer therapies’ which seemed to have limited scientific basis. My lawyer helped me with wording to make clear that I was writing my opinion. Generally one cannot be sued for an opinion. These modifications allowed me to write honestly without fear of litigation.

People asked me what effect writing a book had on me emotionally? Was it hard to revisit the traumatic experience, or was writing about it cathartic? To be honest, no, and no. When I wrote my book I was over the original trauma of the diagnosis and my main focus was to help others. I had a strong feeling that my cancer had happened for a reason. With my medical background I was well-placed to advise others. In fact, strangely, in some ways, I’m not totally sorry it happened.

From Both Ends of the Stethoscope – Getting Through Breast cancer by a Doctor Who Knows by Dr Kathleen Thompson