TVFH & The Hiss Quarterly Merge

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by Mike

Crack open the champagne!

I'm really excited to announce that:

The View From Here and the award winning online literary zine The Hiss Quarterly (THQ) have merged.

Sydney Nash, the Production Editor of THQ, joins us as Managing Editor to take the crew to ten here at the magazine and to fling open the doors to submissions.

So questions, questions!

What is THQ?

The Hiss Quarterly are a "Bohemian Eclectic on line zine of Great Surprise and Quality" - - essentially, we think we rock and we think that you think so too. (Say that ten times quickly . . . )

How did it start?

Once, in a galaxy far, far away --

...back in the day when Literary eZines and the world of online publishing wasn't nearly as prolific or pugnacious; two profound people put together a marvelous plan (we'll stop with the "p" words now) that eventually became The Hiss Quarterly.

Ella McCrystle and Sydney Nash weren't quite sure what would become of their idea. Ms. McCrystle had several acquaintances of some writing fame in her address book, Sydney was a digital diva of some merit. Bored, slightly tipsy, tending towards insanity and spending hours on the phone gossiping led to the creation of THQ. "Something Hissy -- something like the Natl. Enquirer of online 'zines, something that people truly looked forward to reading -- but they might not admit it to their friends. Something a little fey, but not outlandishly weird. Literary, but not over the top. Something a little Kerouac, but not whack."

What will change now the TVFH and THQ have merged?

The mains changes are that The Front View of THQ comes across to the new magazine, so we now accept submissions, extracts of which will appear here on the magazine's main page and in full on the new reformatted page of The Front View (see tabs above.) We obviously get the talented and wonderful, Sydney Nash, who will head up the new fiction side of the magazine. Cheers Sydney! And the poetry side (The Rear View) of THQ will stop, to be resurrected at a later time as a separate project.

The new magazine will still be called The View From Here, and it will be still found at this site address. I'll still be at the helm so you can blame me whenever we hit a few rocks - and we will still be in print monthly and hopefully - no definitely - we will be bringing you some of the fresh new talent out there in the wonderful and scary world of writing.


Photo credit: wili_hybrid


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by Kathleen

Alone now in an appallingly decrepit hotel room, Natalie felt Kevin’s spell fading. How else to explain it? She had given him her passport. “So we won’t lose each other,” he said.

And sixty dollars! Voodoo must have stolen her common sense. Kevin’s rationale was that he understood euros.

Natalie had married Kevin thirty hours ago, after meeting him four months ago.
Wedding over, Kevin hailed a taxi and announced he had bought tickets to Geneva, Switzerland. “For our honeymoon.”

Not until they were hunkered into their plane seats did they talk about their finances. Both their credit cards were maxxed out. After a long flight, they staggered into the airport with all of two hundred dollars.

When they paid for the room in the only hotel or hostel they could afford, the proprietor said something Natalie missed. “Are you implying my wife’s a prostitute?” Insulted, Kevin added their marriage certificate to their passports.

The fat, unkempt owner pushed their papers away. “Partez par six am!” Then he pointed upstairs.

The hallway’s linoleum was broken in gaps, offering jagged views downstairs. Heaped along the baseboards was loose rat poison.

The bath was stained brown with greenish streaks. The overhead light bulb didn’t work and the toilet had backed up. But Natalie wanted to rest; they would complain later.

“We’ve got to push through until bedtime,” Kevin told her. “Unless you want jet-lag.”

But Natalie was so exhausted, her body too slow to obey her throbbing brain’s commands: Raise your arm, lift your foot.

Kevin said, “I’m going out for a few beers. Wanna come?”

Natalie shook her head. The mattress was thinner than a Sunday newspaper; the thread-bare bedding gray. She pulled a towel from her luggage, covering her grimy half of the bed.

Now that seemed like hours ago. Dusk was settling and two men very nearby yelled threats, no translation necessary.

Rest was impossible. Natalie’s teeth chattered unless she clamped them. Out the window, in the dingy, gauzy air, she watched a woman in tight, bright orange jeans, matching sweatshirt and matching hair, sprawled in the alley. Using her mouth, the orange woman pulled a strap around her emaciated bicep and tapped to find a vein.

Natalie paced. And when the men next door smashed something, she flinched. What had she been thinking? She barely knew Kevin. A few beers! He had left hours ago. Tears welled in her sore and swollen eyes. No money, no passport, no French, no phone.

Groping in the dark, she folded the towel back inside her rolling suitcase. She pushed on the hollow core door when someone pulled it. Despite the darkness, she knew who was there—and tipsy. “You are…Kevin, right?”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. Can I have my passport?”

In the Wink of an Eye

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by Jane Turley

Caterpillar tracks. Fresh, impressed deep in the sucking mud. The enemy lurks nearby, somewhere close. You feel them in your bones, taunting you.
A stench of sickly sulphur, fetid corpses and manic fear hangs in the air. Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat. Your heart pounds, trickles of sweat run down your grimy face. Anxiously you glance around, dilated pupils flickering over ravaged trees, burning trucks and smouldering wreckage. You pause a second longer on the decapitated head of Sean Watts. Poor bastard.
You take another look. Fuck. Did he wink at you?
Sinking down into the mire, wet sludge clings onto your combats like curds of brown rancid butter. The heavy backpack weighs you down, pushing you deeper into the sodden earth. Stay alive, stay hidden. Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat. Duty calls, there’s no time for sentiment or grief. Remember your training. Block out Sean’s face stricken in macabre astonishment.
But you wonder if he knows something that you don’t.
Fight, not flight. You crawl across the slime, belly wet, face blackened with stripes like a serpent of death. You find Sergeant Hughes crouched in a shell hole. Where to now, Sarge? No reply. You push his shoulder. Now what, Sarge? Then you notice the warm stickiness on your fingers, the hands clasping a split stomach, slippery entrails protruding through bloody fingers. You slump back, breath short.
So Sean did know.
An eerie whistle screams overhead, the earth shakes, explodes. Mud rains down like a plague of locusts, consuming you. Pinpricks of rainbow lights appear before your eyes and the sun begins to shine through the wetness. Heat spreads through your limbs and torso.
Ring, ring, ring. You shake your head furiously. Ring, ring, ring. It’s 8.50 am. Your knees are grubby from the fall. Don’t get messy before school, Robbie. Clean up quickly before the teacher sees you. Hurry, before you line up. You struggle to your feet, body aching as a voice calls across the playground. Robbie! Robbie! Too late. You’re in trouble now.
But it’s not the teacher, it’s Karen. She runs towards you, arms outstretched, white veil billowing behind, the train of her dress catching on thorny shrubs. A small boy follows, thumb in mouth, clasping a toy rabbit by the foot, the long soft ears stroking the uneven ground. You drop your gun and reach out to greet them, overjoyed. Karen, Tommo, I’m here! But Karen runs past, across the pitted clearing and back into the woods. Tommo trails after her, mud squelching through his toes.
And Superman on his pyjamas winks at you.
The ringing fades as you hear the crushing of undergrowth, the tearing of branches, an unmistakable throbbing, pulling engine. Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat. Shouts, screams, rise above the shuddering ground. A grey, hideous monster appears, compressing debris, churning the earth. It strikes fear in you standing defenceless in its deadly shadow. Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat. You turn to run and wonder if God is on your side.
When you awake you hear gentle murmuring and distant echoing voices. You feel warmth, comfort. Safe at last. Maybe God was on your side. Slowly, you open your eyes, blurred shapes move to and fro. You begin to focus on the black silhouette at your side, the white collar, the familiar face.
And then he winks at you.
Hello, mate.

Guest Writing about: Writing about Writing

by Eliezer Sobel

There is nothing more distracting to a writer than reading books about writing. I usually have one of two responses: Either the more I read, the more frustrated and restless I become because the book is speaking about something I wish to be doing, rather than reading about. That can be as frustrating as reading a book about swimming while lying in the hot sun, uncomfortable and sweating profusely. (Not to mention reading The Joy of Sex on a lonely summer night.)

Or, because of the subject matter, another response I can have is to read such books during the time I’ve set aside for actual writing, and convince myself that it is job-related research. Thus, while avoiding the brutal, empty page, which is the day’s true task and demand, I can rest comfortably in the knowledge—delusion—that I am being productive.

And now, ironically, I have been asked to add my own thoughts to this dubious genre here. Instead of working on my novel, I can while away my afternoon writing about writing. In a variation of the axiom, “Those who can, do; those who can’t teach” –(my apologies to educators, for I well know that to truly do it right requires nothing short of sainthood, not to mention an 80-hour work week)--it could also be suggested that “Those who can, write; those who can’t, write about writing.” And perhaps those who really can’t, merely read about writing. My apologies again, this time to those who may have put out a book about writing, but only after having already published many works in their own right. John Gardner comes to mind, Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King—they have all certainly earned the right to write about writing.

But have I? I’ve published five books if you count the little self-published one, and if you count the one some guy paid me a thousand dollars for, printed in his basement in the days before computers, and sold through ads in the National Enquirer. Okay, so three bona fide books and perhaps 50 articles and short stories over the years. But what should the cut-off point be before a writer is permitted to write about writing? As the Carmelite monk, Father William McNamara once said, “Never read good books; there’s not enough time for that. Only read great ones.” This especially holds true for books about writing. To learn about any skill, it’s always wise to turn to those with true expertise.

So if you truly can’t stand writing and prefer to read about it, rather than put my two cents in here, I will instead steer you to a handful of books on the subject that are worthy of your time and attention.

For starters, there’s Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. That one alone might be sufficient, except for the unfortunate inclusion of several lines that could put you off the idea of writing forever: “Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” Write or die??? Come on, Ranier, cut us humans a little slack.

For sheer entertainment value, there’s Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. At one point she speaks of writer’s jealousy, as in when you find that your friend’s great publishing success is basically a huge bummer. What rescued her from this torment, she says, was seeing a poem in the New York Times entitled, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.”

Carl Sandburg called Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write “The best book ever written about how to write.” And as we all know, Sandburg was no monkey. (FYI, Chapter Ten is entitled, “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect it For Their Writing.”)

Henry Miller on Writing has always been a favorite of mine, filled with raw and brutal honesty about his own process: “I entered it [writing] without any apparent talent, a thorough novice, incapable, awkward, tongue-tied, almost paralyzed by fear and apprehensiveness. I had to lay one brick on another, set millions of words to paper before writing one real, authentic word dragged up from my own guts…I had to learn to think, feel and see in a totally new fashion, in an uneducated way, in my own way, which is the hardest thing in the world.”

For sheer mental exercise, loosening up the brain and getting one’s originality and voice kicked into gear, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones has become a classic guide for what she calls “writing as practice.” By “practice,” she means spiritual practice, akin to meditation or other techniques for exploring one’s inner world and consciousness. Writing practice is to use the act of putting words to paper as a method for gaining insight into the nature of one’s own mind. And when actual coherent, meaningful or beautiful passages result, they are a mere by-product of the practice, not the goal. The goal is the process itself, learning to loosen the reins of the inner censor and allow one’s natural thought-stream to flow freely, without regard to product, result, or certainly publication. “The deepest secret in our heart of hearts,” Natalie writes, “is that we are writing because we love the world, and why not carry that secret out with our bodies into the living rooms and porches, backyards and grocery stores?”

Finally, for those who prefer an Eastern, poetic flavor to their books about writing, I recommend The Art of Writing by Lu Ji (261-303). The first lines of his opening verse say it all:

A poet stands between heaven and earth

and watches the dark mystery.

That is pretty much all we need to know about our vocation. Later, Lu Ji says,

A writer makes new life in the void,

knocks on silence to make a sound,

binds space and time on a sheet of silk

and pours out a river from an inch-sized heart.

That truly does say it all, so now it is time to put down the books about writing, tap into our inch-sized hearts, dredge up an authentic word or two from our guts and start writing about something, anything, besides writing.

Eliezer Sobel is the author of Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken, which was the winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, as well as The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist’s Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments. And other stuff.

Visit his web-site here.

Who's Pulling the Strings?

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by Stella

A special what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg problem for writers: Does the story create the character or does the character create the story? Some writers outline the story first and fill in the characters later. Some, like me, create the character and write a story for it. I start with a rough sketch in broad strokes. Not much, just an idea of a person. Then I ask myself two questions: (1) What does he/she do? Not necessarily professionally – it can also be in terms of hobbies, as in does he/she read books? Does he/she go for long walks? (2) Who does he/she know? That is, who are the significant figures in his/her life? I draw a story out of the answers to these questions.

All is usually fine and dandy up till this point, but, like any system, there’s an occasional hiccup. A recent hiccup: I wrote this character, we'll call her… mmm… Cordelia. Nice girl, although pretty stupid. I drew a nice little plot for her wherein she raised her IQ by a few points at the story's end. I started to fill in the other characters and add some dimension to her. Before I knew it, I needed to change the story to accommodate her fuller character. Nothing drastic – she was still a dumb cookie – but I couldn't go quite in the direction I originally planned. It didn't suit her. How did that happen? Yes, I know – I was busy adding dimension and *snap* – suddenly Cordelia was glaring at me, “You don’t think I’m going to do that, do you?” Why, no, of course not! How silly of me.

Maybe it's only a testament to my personality that I let my characters push me around, but I'm not a total pushover, you know. If I feel my characters are getting out of hand – going from comic to tragic let's say – then I know how to bring them back to where they should be. Even when a character gets a will of its own, you can still force it to go the way you planned. You can write absolutely anything. For example, if I decide that a mini-schnauzer will be crowned king in the town square just as the sun is rising in the west, no one and nothing can stop me. (Talk about a power trip…) So if I’m so fancy and omnipotent, why do I still let Cordelia decide her own fate? In other words, if we writers are the creators of our fictional worlds, do we make our characters follow a pre-patterned course or do we give them free will?

All joking aside (really, I mean it), sometimes it’s just good sense to try to think what the character would decide if given a choice. When you write a plot, you can know where to start and you can know where you want to end up, but have no idea what’s supposed to happen in between. It’s a lot like planning a road trip from New York City to Los Angeles – there are dozens of ways to connect the dots, and characterization is a good method for eliminating some of them. Other times it’s good to stick to what you planned, however charismatic the character may be – they might simply belong in a different story. A story which you can begin writing after you finish this one, provided the character lets you have a say in the matter.

Precision Cut

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by Kathleen

I escort William to my station.

“Make it look like two weeks ago, Nora.”

He’s my only regular client. If his former stylist hadn’t severed a fingertip, I’d be back in Chicago. Luckily, William prefers to look unchangeable. A hyper-regular—he’s in here every two weeks.

“Thanks for finding time for my wife. She rarely even touches her hair.”

I don’t tell him that although it’s Saturday, I have no other appointments. Instead, I say, “No worries, William. Anyone can find time when necessary.”

He likes that and sits taller. William wants to hear about me—rather than talk about himself. Or sit quietly. So I tell him about the bad-neighborhood art gallery, and my two paintings there.

How, he wonders, did I come to subsidize my artwork with haircuts?

“Someone complimented my manual dexterity.” When I was waitressing. “And I applied to the Precision school.”

I don’t say that the Precision school sent me to France for “international” status. Or that I met my boyfriend Alan there, attending a sculpture festival. Since we moved to New York, I’ve paid the rent. For a while, it didn’t matter that Alan’s sculptures were too important for day jobs. He had me half-convinced, in love. But it matters now. Two people can’t live on one man’s haircuts.

“The Precision school. That’s why I chose you, Nora.”

“They say you can’t get certified until you can do it in your sleep.”

William laughs. “Sodium pentothal before final testing?”

“Bet they haven’t thought of that yet.” I hand him the mirror and turn the chair.

“Perfect,” he says, tipping me a huge amount and calling Pratibha. “Ready, sweetheart?”

Three minutes later, drugged, narcolepsy—not even! Wormholes? Rabbit holes? Who knows? Apparently, I chopped off three lustrous lengths, on top and the sides. It happened so fast even Pratibha was lulled. Before shrieking, “What the hell?”

Recovering, I see this beautiful young woman, fingering bristly patches like wounds.

“Nobody will ever notice,” I try.

But the damage is obvious. Pratibha has such great hair. “Maybe twisted up my mistake won’t show.”

“My husband likes it down.”

What husband wouldn’t?

Half-measures would look awful, which she realizes. And seethes. “Do your damn Precision cut. We’ll hate it. But it will appear intentional. Ugly on purpose.”

The Precision cut looks spectacular on her. “It highlights your eyes. And neck.”

“Don’t make me laugh. William!”

He glances at her and his cold face bobs near mine. His hand swings up and I flinch. Cursing, he backs away. I return his tip and they race out. Becca in front is saying, “A problem?” and manages to retrieve Pratibha’s apron.

Three more minutes: sickening, prickling skin. In the restroom, I vomit, rinse my mouth, splash my face—my reflection wavering in the mirror.

Tonight, I’ll phone my parents for airfare.

Coat zipped, I tell Becca, “I’m done. I’m gone.”

Interview with Donald Smith - Between Ourselves and Burns

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by Jen

Interview with Donald Smith, Author, &
Director of the Scottish
Storytelling Centre, in Edinburgh

Donald Smith was born in Glasgow to an Irish mother. Brought up in Glasgow and Stirling, he began work in Edinburgh as a theatre stage manager, becoming Director of the Netherbow Arts Centre in 1983. Donald has written, directed or produced over fifty plays, and is a founding Director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Influenced by Hamish Henderson, Donald was also the moving spirit behind the new Scottish Storytelling Centre of which he is the first Director, and is widely recognized as one of Scotland’s leading storytellers.

Donald Smith has produced a series of books on Scottish narrative, including Storytelling Scotland: A Nation in Narrative, Celtic Travelers, and a poetry collection, A Long Stride Shortens the Road: Poems of Scotland. Donald Smith’s study of Robert Burns and religion; God, the Poet and the Devil, has just been published. (Saint Andrew Press 19 Dec 2008).

His two novels are both published by Luath Press. The English Spy (2007) and his most recent book, Between Ourselves (Luath Press, 1 January 2009).

In Between Ourselves, Donald Smith has woven the real life love affair of Nancy and Burns into a tantalising tale of passion and betrayal, binding historical fact and fiction together to create an intimate portrait of Burns the man. It is published this month to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Burns' birth. (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796).

The six months that Robert Burns spent in Edinburgh, between the Ayrshire years and the short-lived maturity in Dumfries, were an intense time in the life of a poet who became a Scottish hero. Burns is an icon, but he is a flawed one. The great bard was fond of drink, women and over familiar with Edinburgh's underworld. He was often conflicted with crippling self-doubt about his talents and bitter about his place in society. During the short time in Edinburgh, Burns had dealings with the infamous Deacon Brodie; was struck by inspiration and failed by his muse; and, fell in love with two unavailable women and bedded many more than that. While never straying from accepted Burns' history, this remarkable novel imagines the life of Burns' in those months to discover the flesh and blood man behind the legend.


‘The English Spy’ about Daniel Defoe, was your first novel, after having written other books of non-fiction and poetry. Is there any connection with this, your next novel, based on Robert Burns, ‘Between Ourselves'?

I’m a storyteller and I’m interested in the big national narrative, if you like, and how we can open these stories up and get inside them. In 'The English Spy' it’s a wonderful way of getting inside the England, Scotland, wider Europe, cultural and political stuff, by homing in on this extraordinary individual, later a major author, qua spy, operating here in E

So, first the narrative, but the second connection is Edinburgh. 'Between Ourselves' is also set in Edinburgh. They each unlock through a literary character, a historical character, issues which are also contemporary, and the great n
ational narrative, with Edinburgh the backdrop.

What drove you to write this book about Robert Burns?

I’ve lived and worked in Edinburgh for thirty-five years, as a storyteller, author, and been involved in different cultural things, so in that respect, I’m not a career author who has to sit and decide, what should be my next book? That’s probably reflected in the fact that I have a wide number of different publishers. It’s that cultural tradition of Scottish literature in Scottish society, that continuing thing that is of great interest to me, that I am a part of, that I want to keep articulating and keep fresh. The story is changing all the time, of today’s society which has experienced major change, and is experiencing major change.

This year is state-designated as the ‘Year of Homecoming in Scotland’, harnessing the 250th anniversary and appeal of Burns to promote Scotland.

I’m not critical of that, but it’s Burns that’s important to me. In both my current books about Burns, I think it’s very much about a journey of rediscovery. Everybody thinks they know about Burns, but we don’t really. He’s a much richer, broader topic.

As a wee example of that, what I found very interesting, when looking at the whole Union thing in 'The English Spy' and looking at Burns, is that English and Scottish literature, even on a broader European context, you can’t cut it off and say “that’s Scottish literature there, and that’s English literature there.” The two are feeding off each other. Daniel Defoe’s experiences here, feed into his later invention, virtually, of the novel in the form of fiction.

In addition, in Burns’s case, what I think is not properly understood, is that Burns’s literary heroes were Alexander Pope and Lawrence Sterne. His favourite book was Tristram Shandy. Obviously, he was greatly influenced by other Scottish poets, Robert Ferguson and Allan Ramsey, but he in his day, is a great creative, contemporary, innovative writer on a British and European scene, and by whatever measure. He’s up there beside Blake as one of the great pioneers of the Romantic.

Do you think that through his early death, he was unable to fulfil that potential, to become a world-renowned literary figure, on a par with Goethe perhaps? He often appears well known as a Scot, and as a poet, but perhaps his work itself is not that well known?

Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. I think that’s wrong and a great shame. He was a hugely interesting and innovative writer across a whole range of genre. He has a huge thing for song and lyric; and that is recognized internationally. Beethoven and Haydn set music to Burns’ lyrics.

But I think that there’s another issue in there. Not only his early death, although relevant. Burns was living at a time of a vast social structure in Scotland, and that’s one of the issues I deal with, the degree to which, literature in Scotland certainly as well as other countries, literature was so dependent on patronage from the elite. And one of Burns’s great traumas and difficulties as an artist, as a writer, is that he was a radical, socially, politically and culturally, in a very conservative society. He was caught on the cusp, between, on the one hand there was a huge upsurge of ideas, the Enlightenment, and then we have the huge reaction against the French revolution, and political and cultural repression. In Scotland that was felt very keenly, because of that social structure again, and there was no parliament, everything was managed from London through the elite.

Burns, and this for me is one of the huge issues I dug into in the novel, is never given the chance to develop his creative potential, for all sorts of social and political reasons. He’s from the wrong class, he’s got no formal education and patronage, he struggles to survive on the margins, and that’s why this period in Edinburgh which is not a major part of his life in other ways, kind of decides the relationship between Burns the writer and the power structure of the day, and in a sense, he has to retreat. Some of his most interesting later works were actually published anonymously, in one of the Grafton journals. So there’s a whole very interesting interaction in Burns, the conflict and struggle between the artist, the writer, and politics, but also in the way the literary system worked, literary patronage, publishing and censorship. Themes that are still so relevant. And Burns’s whole struggle with that, is the guts of the novel.

I liked the bit about his notes on pricing, revising the pricing for submissions, and deductions made.

Oh yes, one of the themes in this book, is not getting paid by your publisher. I had to keep saying to my publisher, “You know it’s not personal Gavin. Honestly.” You know he’s a very nice publisher, I know a great many. But there again, you have this fun, moving between the historical and biographical reality, and building it up. I’ve had a lot of fun with the figure of William Creech, the publisher. He was a real Edinburgh literati, part of that middle class, elite, with huge intellectual snobbery and all the rest of it.

Monies owed by William Creech bookseller to Robert Burns, Poet, for the Edinburgh Edition of his Works:

500 subscription copies £125
Balance Owing for Distribution to Subscribers £400
Property of Poems £100

Damn the bookseller’s discount. Restate as—

Subscription copies £125
Subscribers’ copies (less discount at one quarter) £300
Property of Poems £105

How do you get away with that blend of fact and fiction?

Both of the novels I have written so far are what you might call ‘bio-fiction’. I think there’s a kind of genre there, or a sub-genre, and the way in which you can weave creatively between biographical material and fictional
material is the essence of the art of bio-fiction. To give an example of that, if you look at the two extended autobiographical letters (in the book) - Burns’s one, that is Burns, virtually untrimmed except my intervention is to cut out, to do some as it were, some self-censorship from a letter which was written to someone else and he is amending it for Clarinda and he decides to pare back on it. But Clarinda’s letter is created entirely by me. Although it is based on entirely biographical background. The reason for that, why would you do that? The reason is that Clarinda’s story hasn’t been heard. She hasn’t been given her voice up to this juncture, and this was the challenge an author to explore your themes by exploring things that aren’t there in the biographical detail albeit, I would say importantly, not creating anything that is totally wrong or improbable.

I try to explain that in the introduction to the reader. 80-90% of this is known, but then there are the gaps. I think it’s a definite sub-genre

How do you go about your research?

Well in this case, I have lived with the Burns thing all my life. But I really came to the point of thinking, just after the Millennium, I don’t think I really understand Burns, the man. And I can’t quite get the unified personality behind all these different poems. So I set out on personal research, and I read everything that we have from Burns. And I’ve read all the historical background and contemporary research, and thirdly I went on visits to all the places, there’s a fantastic amount of buildings and places still there, where he’s been. Particularly in Ayrshire and Dumfries. So it was quite a conscious thing.

The first thing I did with it all, was to create a big play, in two acts, Ayrshire (the first part of Burns’s life) and Dumfries (the later period of his life), and I skipped Edinburgh altogether. Because I was on this thing, of all the background and research, all of which I use in the play. But then after writing the play, I got thinking again and actually, although Edinburgh was only an episode in his life, I ended up saying, ‘you know, I think I’m wrong. I think it’s critical, it’s decisive. And I think it gives me the opportunity to draw together what I want to say about Burns, to try and capture a sense of Burns’s personality.’ By this time, I’d done ‘The English Spy’ and I thought, 'I think that might give me a way in.' At first it was very experimental. It was very difficult to say, what is Burns’ s voice? What is the voice behind these quite elaborate, prosaic letters, these bawdy songs, who is this guy?

So, it was an outcome of very long process?

Yes, and first I wrote the novel. Then I got approached about writing a more general book about Burns’s ideas, and I’m also just finished doing a little guide to Burns’s Edinburgh which is to go up on the Edinburgh City of Literature website. It’s the key places from poems, extracts from letters and places associated with them, and it’s not the shiny Burns guide to Edinburgh. And that’s the other side, you see, my relationship with Edinburgh. Edinburgh’s a character in this story as well. It’s a fantastic visual environment and it’s also an amazing history, with layers and layers of interesting stuff.

The role of women in Burns’s life is a whole discussion in itself. But how does it feature in 'Between Ourselves'?

Well, what is very important in the book is that Burns is not the only character. In my view, Nancy McLhose has been at the receiving end of some of the most dreadfully patronizing, sexist commentary from both women and men, and I really, really hope, that if I have achieved anything with this book, that is, putting that side of the story back into perspective, if people pick up on that, that would give me great satisfaction.

Who do you see as your target audience? Do you think Burns is accessible to the average reader?

What you might call the intelligent, interested, general reader. What Virginia Woolf would call, ‘the common reader’ and what pleases me most about this whole thing so far, is that feedback I’ve had about the novel, readers are saying to me. “This is really interesting, you’ve got a great story there, we’ve learnt a lot.“ But I really have been able to sense a connection with a readership in the story, and as a storyteller, that’s very important to me. As a live storyteller, you really create the thing, in the action of reading. And I think that’s a great Scottish thing. Virginia Woolf had the idea of the ‘Common reader’ and in Scotland it’s the ‘Democratic Intellect” that’s the George Davie idea, I was taught by him at university. The idea that everybody in society should be a reader, should be able to have critical thought. I don’t want to write for a narrow audience, but of course, paradoxically, one of the things I’m pointing out is that Burns was no peasant simpleton. People will so often say, ‘he was the common man’, ‘the peasant poet’, but he was a very sophisticated artist. You’ve got the mind of the sophisticated artist, the irony, the arrogance sometimes. And I think all of that, should be accessible to a wide readership.

Well it might reach that audience with the anniversary celebrations. I saw it was even for sale online at Tesco.

Right. I’m into that. There’s an interesting spark in all that anyway, that the Burns thing, and the 250th anniversary (of his birth) has huge commercial buy in, even Lidl’s cheap-end supermarket has a “celebrating Burns” catalogue. Unfortunately my book was not in that one…..(laughs) I relish that, the storytelling tradition is democratic, and that’s part of the health of a society, its education, and I’m not interested in that ‘select’ t

It sounds as though Burns would very much approve.

I hope so. I don’t know whether he’d be comfortable with some of the other aspects of the story. But honesty, he was for honesty above all. I think he would love what storytelling centres do around Burns. We had this great eveni
ng last night, about Burns, his Irish connection and Edinburgh and so on, with people from all over the world there, and at the end somebody said, ‘you know, I think Burns would really have enjoyed this evening”. And I think, by comparison, at the standard Burns’ supper, he would have run a mile.

Great. Thank you very much indeed for your time.

Cheers then. Bye-bye.


Thank you to Donald Smith for his time, insights and much laughter in the interview. The Scottish Storytelling Centre is located very centrally on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. It is a sign of the positive spirit and backing that literature has in Scotland, and its place in society. If you are passing, do visit some of the Burns' events or take part in the ongoing activities throughout the year. As a native Scot, I will have to pop in on my next homecoming visit.

Happy Burns Celebrations to all our readers on January 25th!

For a printed edition of this interview go here.

Interview with Bookslut Part 2 of 2

Reader Logoby Mike

Interview with Jessa Crispin,
Editor & Founder of

Part 2 of our interview.
For part 1 click here.

How easy did you find it to start earning from freelance writing?

Easier than it should have been, especially considering how awful I am at pitching. Luckily, I tend to fall into long-term assignments, like regular columns and being a regular contributor to certain publications, so I don't have to pitch very often. I think I had one phone conversation with the editor of The Book Standard, thinking there was no way in hell they would give me a job, and ten minutes later I had talked myself into a weekly gig. May the Book Standard rest in peace.

Highs and lows during the years?

The highs have been the people I have been able to meet and work with: Elizabeth Bachner, who is so smart and funny and interesting. Barbara J. King, our resident anthropologist, who I always look forward to reading, and Dale Smith, our poetry columnist, who I met because I interviewed him for Bookslut and who is now one of my dearest friends. Caroline, my assistant, without whom I could not function on a daily basis.

The lows have been, you know, tricky times with advertising as the industry gets weird and panicked, disappointments with where I thought I wanted Bookslut to go, only to discover it was the wrong direction entirely.

What was that original direction?

For a while I thought Bookslut would naturally go into publishing. Then every time we moved towards that, I'd be talking to someone about partnering up or something, and I'd just start to feel dread. An overwhelming sense that this was all wrong. It took me ages to figure out why, and that's a very long conversation, but basically I finally knew it would be a mistake for me personally.

How did you build your reputation?

No idea. I'm very Midwestern in that I just do the work that is in front of me. I just did the work that was in front of me for six and a half years. Somehow, there were just always readers, and I'm appreciative that they exist. (I'm not even entirely sure what my reputation is. I really try not to be distracted by what other people say about Bookslut, because alongside any "Oh, it's great," there will always be someone out there, calling you a dumb bitch.)

Any interesting stories from Bookslut's dealings with authors or publishers?

Yes, but for the most part, those are better told over a couple of drinks, off the record.

Where do you hope to take in the future?

I have my plans, but they're top secret.

What do you make of the current climate for new writers?

I do not envy them. It's a hostile environment. The old way of just writing a book, signing an agent, finding a publisher to nurture you is long, long gone. But also, how exciting to be working right now, when things are changing. You have to be fluid and quick on your feet and inventive, but that stuff is all fun.

Can you offer any advice to new writers?

You have to take responsibility. No one is going to make you a star, baby, you have to do it yourself.

How would you like to see the publishing industry develop in the future?

I would like to see the small publishers thrive, the ones with real identity and passion for books. I don't pay as much attention to the industry side as I used to. I'm more interested in what the creators will be doing.

What is your view on self-publishing?

Right now, unless you have a platform and a good designer and the stars on your side, you're better off setting your wallet on fire. It will be near impossible to get noticed and find readers. Sometimes it works; there are good self-published comics, and the new, brilliant Alinea cookbook was self-published, but those are exceptions. So much that is self-published is just awful. Really, painfully bad.

Thanks Jessa and good luck next year in Weblog 09!

To visit click here.

Interview with Bookslut Part 1 of 2

Reader Logoby Mike

Interview with Jessa Crispin,
Editor & Founder of

This week in the Weblog Awards came in at second place behind author Neil Gaiman's blog for best literary Blog which won with nearly 2000 votes. Our own Kathleen Maher came fifth for her blog Diary of a Heretic
(Well done Kathleen!) TVFH came sixth in the category for best UK blog and a big thanks to everyone who voted for us. Whilst we set our sites for winning the award next year we talked to Jessa Crispin the editor and founder of

First of all congratulations for coming second place in the Weblog awards behind Neil Gaiman! How did you feel about the result?

It's an unfair match up, me and Neil Gaiman. He's got legions of fans. If he asks them to do something, politely in that accent of his, it's just over. I should challenge him to something I have an actual chance of winning. Like a pie eating contest, or thumb wrestling.

So tell me a bit about yourself.

Um, born and raised in Kansas, mid-July, so I'm a Cancer. Turn-offs include... oh wait. I have no idea how to answer this question.

Well how about favourite films? Music?

My father warped me with all sorts of weird science fiction films, from 2001 to The Day the Earth Stood Still to Terry Gilliam films, and I still love all of that. Also, I am madly addicted to Turner Classic Movies, especially when insomnia strikes. As far as music goes, everything from Caruso to Roisin Murphy to Duke Ellington to all of Greg Dulli's side projects. When I was in junior high, I didn't want to be a writer, I wanted to be Zoo TV era Bono, with the leather pants.

What's your ideal night out/in?

I like variety, so there is no ideal. I like having people over for dinner, so a night in would either be a boisterous evening, empty wine bottles on every flat surface and a picked over carcass of some kind in the middle of the table, or, you know, me, a chicken roasting in the oven, and a William James book. Going out, there should probably be good food, and my dearest friend Honeybee would be in attendance, and I would be wearing my four inch patent leather heels. And taxis, because I cannot walk far in those fuckers.

What is your favorite book?

Impossible question. I could maybe name you five, and that would flux depending on many different factors. There are authors I adore no matter what, like Shirley Jackson, William James, Kathryn Davis, Graham Greene, Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, Elizabeth Bowen... And W. Somerset Maugham. W. Somerset Maugham is my patron saint.

First book that comes to mind.

Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, but only because I'm reading a book about him right now.

Can you tell us what is all about?

It's a literary online magazine, with a daily blog and a monthly magazine section, which contains features, interviews, essays, columns, reviews, and other such nonsense. It's noisy and lovely and I adore it.

How did start?

I had a day job in Austin, Texas that I was very bored at. I spent a lot of time scanning the internet for things to read, and I would inevitably send out half a dozen e-mails a day to my sisters and friends, "Look, I found this interview with Salman Rushdie, thought you might like it." I thought it would be nicer if I put them up on a blog they could check if they wanted to, instead of flooding their inbox. It wasn't until a month or so later that I realized other people are reading it as well.

Once I realized that, I got both excited and self-conscious. You know, if they're coming, we should probably spruce the place up, give them something to read. I had a lot of planning meetings with my friend Michael while we were sobering up at 2 am at Magnolia Cafe with the help of their Flamingo sandwiches. (Grilled cheese with tomato and avocado and red onion: divine.) There we came up with the idea of adding a magazine component, after many drunken scribblings on napkins. From there, it grew when people started asking if they could write for the site.

What kind of growth has it gone through to get to what it is today?

Periodic attention from places like the New York Times and the Guardian, writers coming and going, the usual. At some point it absolutely had to become my job, because I basically walled myself out of any employment with this thing. I have a very Google-able name, and any business I interviewed at after I moved from Texas to Chicago knew I had this side project that I was way more excited about than anything they could offer. Then I had a job interview for a book review editor position, and was told, "You'd have to sign an agreement that you would end your involvement with Bookslut." After that, I had to make the decision to shut it down, or try to scrape a life together with it and freelance writing supporting me. Somehow, it worked.

Part 2 next week, when Jessa talks more about and gives her advice to new writers and her take on self-publishing.

To visit click here.

Below: Jessa talks to Neil Gaiman: Notice how whilst smiling sweetly at him, she is really thinking "You beat me you swine!"

For part 2 click here.

For a printed edition of this interview go here.