by Ron Rash
Publisher: Cannongate
Review: Charlie

When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.

So opens Ron Rash’s Serena, a novel set in the Appalachian Mountains that follows the fortunes of the eponymous central character and her husband as they create a timber barony in 1930’s America. From the cover art on my paperback edition, you might be forgiven for thinking that what follows Rash’s wonderful opening lines will be a novel of romance and tribulation. How delighted was I to find something far more engrossing; both in content and style.

What Rash has created here is grand theatre, in the best possible sense. He quotes Marlowe on the cover page and I was struck by just how this novel follows the form of Elizabethan drama. It soon becomes apparent that Serena is no heroine as she ruthlessly pursues her ambition. Nor is Pemberton, her equally ambitious husband, heroic. Whilst he has faint qualms about some of Serena’s methods he is not one to let concern for his workers or his business partners stand in their way.

In keeping with Marlowe and Shakespeare a cast of supporting characters are introduced; some major, some minor, some serving to shed light on the characters of the Pembertons and others to provide commentary on their actions. Some are comic, others menacing and yet others heroic in ways the Pembertons will never be. Apart from Rachel, the young girl who has borne Pemberton a child, we are seldom privy to their thoughts, just as we know little of what the Pembertons may be thinking. This is not a novel that presents its characters from within; rather we know them through their deeds and judge them accordingly.

And when their deeds are as remarkable as Serena’s a novel less assured than this might rightly be met with some head shaking. Rash however is a very accomplished writer indeed. His work as a poet and his detailed knowledge of Appalachian history, which he teaches as Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina, allow him to write with power and grace and so detail a time and place where such things seem not only possible but entirely right. He clearly has a deep love for the land and the history of the peoples who have tried to shape it and it is perhaps not going too far to say that in some sense, that Rash has characterised the land itself as locked in struggle with Serena; who embodies the destructive nature of human progress. As she cuts down both trees and people to turn a profit, so the mountains and trees cut down people in their turn. In contrast Rachel is accessible to us, we learn of her thoughts and fears for herself, her son and her way of life. She in a sense is the positive aspect of humanity that is diametrically opposite to Serena.

As for the workers and businessmen, some of the supporting cast I mentioned before, they are in turn awed and cowed by Serena and what she represents. Some strive to do her bidding, some seem to venerate her and some rightly fear her. None it seems can fathom where she came from or what drives her on. In this she is like the great eagle she trains to hunt snakes; beautiful and terrible and utterly unafraid.

In writing the above I am conscious that I have yet to discuss plot. Again, rather like the Elizabethan drama, Rash uses plot as a canvas upon which to paint his scenes and to comment upon the actions of mankind. That said, the story is entirely satisfying and centred upon Rachel who can bear a child and so sustain a future and her struggle with Serena who is barren and can leave no legacy save through destructive force of will. In parallel with this, the book details some of the events surrounding the establishment of the National Park in the region and the impact this had upon business and livelihood. This second narrative is also concerned with sustainability versus profit, industry versus nature and is as relevant today as it was then. It is not however the reason you should read this book. Instead read it for its remarkable sense of time and place and Rash’s wonderfully vivid recounting of people and events set in a hostile yet magnificent landscape. By all means reflect upon how man and nature may come together and for what purpose but at the same time simply enjoy what I found to be one of the most engrossing and substantive books I have read for a long long time.

A Practice

by Cynthia Newberry Martin

For six years, I was a lawyer. I went to law school; I passed the bar exam; I was sworn in, and I paid my licensing dues. Et voila. It fits, doesn’t it?
Far more difficult to know if you’re a writer.
There’s the obvious, “You’re a writer if you write.” But that’s like saying you’re a cook if you cook. When I was in law school, I heard over and over again, “You have to learn to think like a lawyer.” But that doesn’t work here either. What defines a writer is not “thinking.”

All my life I’ve been a reader. While I was taking time off from work, I began to imagine what it would be like to have the kind of life where you created magic on a page. In March of 1995, driving from Columbus to Atlanta, I pulled over to the side of the road and began to write. I wrote two more times that year, seven times in 1996. Then in January of 1997, I sat down to write and I’ve been writing ever since. Ten stories, two novels, three book reviews and countless blog posts. I’ve had some of those stories published. I’ve had writers I respect and admire say my novels are good. At some point in there, I became a writer.

In his blog, “How Not to Write,” Jamie Grove wrote “For many, the making of the writer is a bloody affair.” So true. It’s not easy, especially if you’re a thinker. So how did it happen?

First, there was enjoyment. Writing felt good, and I wanted to keep doing it. Stephen Elliot wrote in The Rumpus that more than anything, writing is what he wants to do with his time. It’s also what I want to do with mine.

Second, there was recognition. Henri Matisse came to painting late, also after trying his hand at lawyering. He wrote, “From the moment I held the box of colours in my hand, I knew this was my life.” Sometimes we can only discover the shape of our lives as we live them. It’s like that glass slipper, though. When it fits, it fits.

Third, there was compulsion. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, it completes me. And in a world of errands and TV, it feels real, as if I’ve done something solid that goes deep rather than just across.

Fourth, there was awareness. Dorothy Allison said, “Be a watcher.” I would have said I was, but I wasn’t. I might have noticed things, but I was not constantly present in the possibilities of the moment. It’s taking practice.

When I read, there are the writer’s words on the page. There are also the unwritten sentences I hear, the connections I make, the creeks I jump, the rivers I forge—these are the reader’s contribution. The reader’s voice. If you come to writing from the perspective of a reader, as I did, you come to writing with a reader’s voice. This seems obvious, and yet I didn’t realize it until a few months ago. When I write, I’ve been putting both voices—the reader’s and the writer’s—on the page, which then left the reader nothing to do.

My writing group, led by Pam Houston, has helped me to weed that reader’s voice out. Pam is always telling me to “trust the reader.” I do, I say. Really. It turns out my problem was not that I didn’t trust the reader but that I couldn’t separate my reader self from my writer self. Now that I understand what’s been happening, I can do the weeding. As a writer I want the reader to jump and forge.

In January I discovered the Gyrotonic Expansion System, a type of exercise similar to Pilates. I love doing it. Every twist. Every turn. It’s all about getting in touch with your body. Most of the movements are circular and three-dimensional—like life. As founder Juliu Horvath said, “You will…find the unexplored parts of the body.” Naturally it’s not for everyone, but I clicked with it. In late April, I discovered that the “wave” was a larger movement than I had understood. I was really supposed to roll far more and involve more of my body.
“Oh,” I said, “I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.”
“No,” Kayley said, “you’ve been doing it right. This is just a different level of right.”

Writing is a practice. I must do it. I enjoy doing it. And it feels right. It’s in the way I go about my days. It’s an openness to impressions, a desire to acknowledge the inner life, to make connections and find meaning. It’s a desire to seek out the unexplored parts of life. To take what I see in the world, run it through my insides, and see what falls onto the page. I’m not a writer because I write. I’m not a writer because of something I do or don’t do or something I have or have not done. A writer is something I am.

Cynthia Newberry Martin lives in Columbus, Georgia, the home of Carson McCullers. Her blog, Catching Days, is one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love,” and on the first of each month, a guest writer contributes to the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Her fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Clapboard House, Six Sentences, Contrary, and Storyglossia. Her first novel, The Painting Story, was a finalist in the 2008 Emory University Novel Contest. She is currently working on a new novel, Between Here & Gone. Find her at Catching Days.

Photo credit above: Nikki Tysoe

The Imaginarium of The Writer

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by Mike

Terry Gilliam's latest film is out at the moment with the mouth twisting title of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  It stars Heath Ledger who died during filming. I chickened out at the ticket office and just asked for a ticket for Imaginarium - before ordering my bucket of popcorn.

It turns out that the Imaginarium is a travelling show that leads people selected from the audience through a mirror into another world. Constructed from their wildest dreams and desires, this alternative reality is sustained by the mind of Dr Parnassus who used to sustain our world by the telling of stories.

"Are you telling me that if you stop telling a story ... This story ... something you made up, a fiction ... that the universe ceases to exist?"
Mr Nick. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I loved this film and the Imaginarium itself  is the closest thing I've seen that equates to a great book. A world is created behind the mirror by Dr Parnassus (the author) and yet it is a landscape emotionally fashioned by the inner mind of the person within it. (the reader)

And that's what a good book does. A book that sticks with you and changes you is one that creates a believable world and gives you space within it to interact and when it resonates with your experiences or what's bumping around inside your mind, then it has a power to truly connect with you in a profound way.

"The people's need for stories grew. Stories that would feed a great hunger. A hunger for more than just understanding."
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

We need stories, everything doesn't break down into information, data, the 9 to 5. 
We need writers who give space for the reader.
We need writers who know their craft who can show us the wonder within their minds in a way we can connect with.
We need writers who understand their fellow humans, who can weave a story for us to walk into.

Cinema, music, TV - they are all great - but it is that most unlikely object sitting on the bookshelf, the book, that asks the most of you and provides such a wondrous return.

That's why we need to encourage new writing, new voices. To nurture new talent. If we let market forces dictate what we read - then we will read the same thing over and over. Another Dan Brown anyone?

Out there are writers who can show you things you never knew to ask for - things that will make you laugh, cry, make you remember you are unique, special. Or they will do given the chance to develop, to mature, to work within the publishing industry but not be conformed and shaped by it.  Terry Gilliam is known for making astounding, different, non-commercial films that have people like Johnny Depp wanting to be involved.  Sometimes he gets it a bit wrong - mostly he breaks new ground with films like Brazil. We need writers like that who don't write for the market, but dare to be true to themselves.

Here's hoping that peoples' thirst for stories will grow and endure and the fixation on celebrity and the lowest common denominator will eventually shrivel up for the want of an Imaginarium.  A life changing experience. A story well told.

Interview with Emili Rosales

Emili Rosales
interview by Mike

Emili Rosales was born in Sant Carles de la Ràpita in 1968. He works as a publisher and has been a regular contributor to the newspapers Avui and La Vanguardia. He has been described by critics as one of the most interesting voices of the new generation of Catalan writers. His fourth novel The Invisible City is an international bestseller and an English translation was published on the 22nd October by Alma Books. Emili took a break from the Frankfurt Book Fair last week to talk to us.

When and how did you discover that you could write?

Many teenagers feel the need of writing. I was one of them. I loved poetry, then I try to write as my favourite poets.

The Invisible City won one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the Catalan language in 2004, The Sant Jordi Prize. How did that make you feel and what effect did it have on your writing?

It was with my fourth novel, and I had taken before the decision of combining writing and editing. The prize didn´t change this situation. I think the reason of the higher attention paid to this novel is in the theme and the story. Perhaps one has a few good stories to tell. Perhaps this is my good one.

How important do you think awards are in general to a writer and the publishing industry?

They are useful if they are able to put the focus on one book; if they shorten the way to the readers; but anyway readers are the stars of this play. With or without prizes.

What was the motivation and creative force behind The Invisible City?

A combination of a big historical event and personal interest. My family arrived to my village in the Ebro delta 2 centuries ago when the building of a promising city started. But the city never existed, and I wanted to know why. The king behind this project was Charles III, the same that discovered Pompeia and then pushed the irruption of neoclassicism. So, my own familiar story, in a small town of fishers, in the center of a continental cultural focus.

What were the reasons for giving the protagonist the same first name as yourself and placing him in Barcelona, where you live?

I like to play with that, and I think readers enjoy this ambiguity. A novel is alive while the reader trust the narrator, and if it helps.

There are lots of descriptions of architecture and the tone of the book quietly draws you into the two worlds in the novel. Do you think history and architecture can shape the present and how important to you was it that this came over in the novel?

Art, architecture helps you to talk about the past, about history, but my interest is how they can show the peoples’ feelings, the peoples’ soul, the peoples’ dreams (this story is about a failed dream: the invisible city).

Did you find it hard to juxtapose the eighteenth-century court with the contemporary art world? Did you write the two parts separately and combine them later or did you switch between the two as you wrote?

It was really hard to combine both times. It took to me more time the building than the writing of the novel, but I enjoy very much as well as writing, the preview investigation: traveling to Naples, to Venice, to St Petersburg, and reading about Enlightenment, and neoclassical architects, etc. The writing of this novel has been one of the more fascinating experiences in my whole life!

Where do you write, what kind of view do you have?

I prefer a window on Sant Carles harbour, but many times I write in hotels, flights, trains...

What's been the reaction of friends to your writing?

Enthusiastic. They are better than me.

You've been described as an interesting new voice in the new generation of Catalan writers. Do you think The Invisible City is of a similar style to that body of literature or do you think it breaks new ground?

Catalan writing is as diverse as other literatures, I mean, there are authors more close to other European authors than to other Catalan writers. I am trying to build my own world, my own references, and of course many of them are Catalan (note two big writers of XX century:
Josep Pla and Baltasar Porcel) and many others are Italian, French, Anglosaxons, Spanish ... Catalan literature, anyway have become a singular, special case among European literatures, and I am proud of being part of that.

I understand you have worked as a translator.  What kind of chemistry has to happen for a translator to bring a faithful version of a book into a different language?

Translating is an art! You must be a writer in the language of arrival!

Are you happy with the translation of La Ciutat Invisible and how does it feel to see it translated into English?

As far as I can appreciate it, I like it very much. I lived one year in England in 1998-99, and I am really happy seeing my novel translated to English.

What has it been like working as the Spanish writer, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's editor?

Working with Carlos is wonderful. And a privilege. His literature has changed many things in Spain. I admire very much him because he was very confident from the first minute of all that was going to
happen. He is a genius.

Did being a literature professor help you in your writing and did you enjoy that role?

Being a literature professor is too much hard for me. I admire the work they do.

What's next? Are you working on another novel?

Yes. Perhaps Emili Rossell hasn´t died.

Thanks Emili. 

Visit Alma's book site here to read more about The Invisible City.

Writers' Block by Kate Thompson

by Kate Thompson

‘Anything about books or publishing,’ was the suggestion for this piece. ‘Write about something you’re passionate about.’

It shouldn’t have given me any problems. I’m one of those people who is always passionate about something. One passion after another has hijacked my attention and steered my life in completely unexpected directions. When I was a teenager it was horses, and I worked with them for several years after leaving school. Then came a sudden, overwhelming, (but short-lived) desire to become a radical lawyer, which led me to London, from where I went travelling, discovered India and fell in love with it. I returned a second time, and might have gone again had it not been for the arrival of my first daughter (arising, as do most children, from another kind of passion!).

I began writing when she and her sister started school. There was a writers’ group in the local library, and I went along as a way of getting out of the house. To begin with it was all quite tentative – a poem here, a short story there - but within a year or two I was in the grip of a new and ferocious passion. The ideas were piling in upon each other, and I was driven to write, and write, and write. Managing it was the difficulty. Time had to be found to do it, and attention had to be dragged away from it and given to the other central things in my life – my family and the small farm I was running. The internal pressure to write was sometimes so intense that I would have to go away for a while and get a draft down on paper, because I was unfit for any other purpose until the pressure was released.

As time went on I managed to regularise things a bit. I found a place to work and developed a routine, and was able to divide my attention more reasonably. But the drive remained, and as soon as I had finished one book, the pressure for the next one would begin to build. There was always some new interest to be explored, some social problem to be wrestled with, some fascination that needed to be moulded into the form of a story and written down. Every book has had a life of its own and has been driven by some underlying interest or concern. Over the years I have written about genetic engineering and extra-terrestrial life, the origins and the demise of the human race, social problems and terrorism, time, alchemy, and (driven by another unexpected and all-consuming passion) Irish traditional music. In 2007 I was offered a residency in Bristol, backed by the RSA and the Gulbenkian Foundation, to study some aspect of ecology and produce a creative work based upon my research. I chose climate change, became passionately interested in it, and wrote my latest book, The White Horse Trick.

Which brings us, more or less, to the present day. And I find, to my surprise, that I am not currently passionate about anything. The White Horse Trick is my nineteenth book in twelve years, and I am suddenly empty. Burned out. I am all out of fascination, all out of righteous indignation about political and social problems, all out of drive and fixations. I am, for once in my life, devoid of passion. I’m not writing and I don’t know what or when I will write next.

Does that mean I’m suffering from writers’ block? The thing is, I don’t believe in writers’ block. I’m not even entirely sure that I believe in concept of ‘being a writer’. A writer is someone who writes. A poet is someone who composes poems. Are these people therefore writers or poets forever, even when their inspiration has dried up? It would be repugnant to me to sit at a desk and produce a new book to some kind of formula, because I was expected to, or expected myself to. I have always written because I had something I wanted to explore or impart, and at the moment I don’t. I’m not blocked. I have nothing to say, so I am saying nothing.

And I’m certainly not suffering. I am using the time to sort out the long-neglected corners of my life. I’m decluttering the house and getting some long-overdue repairs done. I’m tackling the jungly bits of my garden and building some new vegetable beds. I’m playing badminton in the village hall and trying my hand at a bit of painting. I don’t know how long the savings will hold out, but I’m refusing to get anxious about it. I need this time to wind down, to take a look around, to de-focus my mind and let my soul rest.

Perhaps some new passion will come along and push me into writing again. If not, I’ll have to see if there’s anything else I can do. But in the meantime it is wonderful, just wonderful, to be not driven for a while. If this is writers’ block, I’m taking it as an opportunity and not a crisis. I am making full use of it and enjoying every passion-free minute!

Kate Thompson has won the Children’s Books Ireland Bisto Book of the Year award four times – in 2002 for The Beguilers, in 2003 for The Alchemist’s Apprentice, in 2004 for Annan Water and in 2006 for The New Policeman. The New Policeman also won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize 2005, the Whitbread Book Award Children’s category 2005 and the in augural Irish BA Award for Children's Books in 2006 and has been longlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Kate also won the CBI Bisto Book of the Year 2006 with The New Policeman for the fourth time. She is the only author in history of the awards to do so.

Kate's new novel, The White Horse Trick, was released on the 1st October.

Visit Kate's website here.

Top image credit: Sam Llic Photography

Interview with Gary William Murning Part 2 of 2


Gary William Murning
Interview by Mike

Gary's debut book, If I Never, was published by Legend Press in August of this year. Gary is a writer from the northeast of England who enjoys literature, current affairs, music, the arts and sceptical enquiry. I caught up with him last month to see how he was getting on post book launch.

For part 1 of this interview click here.

Some of the violence in the book is treated with comical undertones - was that because you wanted to soften the tone of the book with humor?

I'm not sure why that happened that way, actually. It just developed naturally, and I certainly never made a conscious decision to soften the violence. I think it just fit with the general tone of the novel... there's a mildly comic undertone to most aspects of it so I guess it just bled through (no pun intended) into the more violent scenes.

Often in novels it takes a while for the boy to get the girl - in If I Never they get together in an interesting but very quick way, although the novel does spend a lot of time reflecting on the nature of their relationship - how key was all this to the story you wanted to tell? 

I hate preamble. It's something I was quite prone to in my earlier work and these days I like to cut to the chase, so to speak. The relationship between Price and Tara is fundamental to the novel -- the one thing that interested me most of all -- so I suppose the quickness of their developing relationship stems from my own selfish need to get to what interested me most. I didn't want it to be a novel about falling in and out of love. I wanted, I suppose, it to be a novel about being in love whilst having to contend with some quite extreme external (and internal) pressures. So, yes, it was quite important to get right into the thick of who they were together.

People often react out of their belief systems and perceptions and this seemed key in the book with the George controlling the behavior of Price and Tara; is this something that interests you?

Absolutely. With this novel in particular, I was fascinated by the idea that long-established behaviour patterns and, yes, beliefs, to a degree, dictate the choices we make. I liked the notion that some of my characters' instincts, at the beginning of the novel, at least, were to maintain the status quo -- however painful that might be. Change was being forced upon them and they could either go with the flow or resist... the novel, I suppose, is in part about how they learn which is the best choice to make under their very unique circumstances.

There are characters in the book like Richard and Claudia who are cut off from society by their disabilities - was it important to you to show those specific characters.

Not especially... this is something I've been thinking about quite a lot just recently, actually. As you know, I have a disability myself -- but I've never really considered myself a "disabled writer". It's not usually at the forefront of my mind when I work on a project, and, in fact, many of my novels don't feature characters with disabilities at all, and when they do, they are just characters like any other character... what I mean is, I don't approach writing them any differently. Both Claudia and Richard had an important part to play and a point to make, but it wasn't really about their disabilities. Not within the context of this particular novel.
Even when I do write about issues that arise, quite specifically, from an individual's relationship with his or her own disability I tend to feel that disability itself is not the issue. To a degree, the old idea that societal reactions are the disabling factor rather than the disability holds some water in this context. By that I mean that disability comes from the outside rather than the inside -- massive generalisation but, basically, what I'm saying is that all my stories, whether disability-centric not, are intrinsically human stories. I'm sure we can all relate to feelings of difference, of exclusion, of isolation -- of having to work hard to fit in and earn a place for yourself in life. Yes, the circumstances where someone with a disability is concerned can be quite extreme and unique, but these are stories and characters that should speak to and of something in all of us.

You mention you like music, what kind of things do you like and do you listen to them whilst you're writing or do you work in silence? 
Oddly, I don't seem to listen to music half as much as I once did -- but my taste is pretty varied. I enjoy everything from Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations to 1980s electro-pop, Soft Cell etc. Anything that's good or different, basically.
I never listen to music while I'm writing, however. It just doesn't work for me -- it pulls me out of the world of the novel. I don't always get it, but silence is always appreciated when I'm working.

Can you tell us something about the next book you're working on?

Yes, I am currently working on what should hopefully be my third Legend Press novel, As Morning Shows the Day. At heart, it's a novel about secrets and lies -- about how the things we are told in childhood ultimately shape the people we become. Set largely in the 1970s, in the north-east of England, it builds on certain themes that I touch upon in what will be my second Legend Press novel, Children of the Resolution. It isn't a sequel -- as far as characters and plot are concerned the two novels completely unrelated -- but the two novels are, in many respects, thematically paired. I think they'll sit well together -- and by the time As Morning Shows the Day is finished I think I'll have said just about all I want to say about what it is to grow from a boy into a man. I hope!
After that, it's another very different novel -- currently in early development stages -- called Out Of Season. But I'll tell you about that another time.

Visit Gary's site at

Sabrina Who Always Believed

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by Kathleen

The ever-changing light, time, and temperature enthralled Sabrina. She marveled at the vibrancy of everything alive. And wondered at the imperceptible emanations of everything inert.

It astonished her how the atmosphere was layered with sights and sounds. Sabrina delighted in the way things occurred—constantly.

Sometimes, just as the world’s magnificence overwhelmed her, its rampant pain and deprivation sickened her. But she was profoundly resilient and her intrinsic joy and gratitude returned soon enough.

Was she ambitious? Not so much. She packaged cleaning products gracefully, operated the cash register correctly, and bestowed customers with a bedazzled smile.

When she fell in love with Jon, she sent announcements to friends and family. For six weeks she took photographs of them outside the Chinese restaurant, inside the movieplex, even boarding public transportation. At home she pasted into heart-shaped cutouts pictures of her and Jon kissing, and emailed romantic updates to all contacts.

Until Jon said he couldn’t do it anymore. He wasn’t the man Sabrina thought he was.

She didn’t understand.

“Sabrina, it’s simple.” Jon was hooked on pornography and off-track betting. He disliked pets and stole tips from unguarded tables.

When he left, Sabrina’s resiliency lay dormant. She wept until finally her mother slapped her. “Get on with it, Sabrina.”

Of course. It was wrong to lose faith. And within a year, Sam beckoned. She enjoyed him even more than Jon but this time kept quieter. Until her ebulliency wore him out.

Same story six times over.

So with Jason, Sabrina hid her intensity to the utmost—which left her floating between heaven and earth. He, however, boosted his mood with drugs so that it seemed they existed within similar strata. In fact, they lived ecstatic together until the drugs grew unreliable or Jason’s chemistry changed or both. On Sabrina’s thirtieth birthday Jason said he was bored.

Again she lay stricken. Watched TV and stayed indoors. This time her mother wasn’t in striking distance but said on the phone, “Wise up, Sabrina, or you’ll lose your mind.”

That jarred her awake. Sabrina had always feared for her sanity. Enough so that she immediately tidied up, turned off her electronics, and found a job assisting corporate retreats.

She scheduled events at grand hotels and stood behind a field of name tags. “Please wear them; don’t take them off,” she said, smiling like a child who has tasted ice cream for the first time.

After day-long exercises in trust, a CEO invited Sabrina to dinner. During which she expressed awe at his kindness. The light, the colors, the clever salads, the encrusted entrée—Sabrina was enthralled. She hung on his every word.

Later they danced on the roof and played hide-and-seek in his suite. Come Sunday evening, the CEO promised to call her. And Sabrina believed him.

Interview with Gary William Murning Part 1 of 2

Gary William Murning

Interview by Mike

Gary's debut book, If I Never, was published by Legend Press in August of this year. Gary is a writer from the northeast of England who enjoys literature, current affairs, music, the arts and sceptical enquiry. I caught up with him last month to see how he was getting on post book launch.

Hi Gary, thanks for agreeing to chat about your novel If I Never.

You're very welcome, Mike. Thanks for giving me the opportunity.

How did you get your publishing deal with Legend Press and how did that make you feel?

I actually approached Legend a few years ago with an earlier project -- a quite experimental (for me, at least!) "literary" ghost story called The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. That particular novel didn't quite fit their list but further work was requested so I sent along If I Never. And, as is sometimes the way with publishing, the person I was dealing with at the time moved on to pastures new and I pretty much assumed that that was that. I knew from past experience with other publishers that when a sympathetic editor leaves the opportunity usually goes out the door with them -- so I pretty much forgot all about it. I got on with other projects and didn't even try submitting If I Never elsewhere (something I can't really explain... I usually submit pretty widely.) Then, out of the blue, about eighteen months later I heard from Tom Chalmers -- Mr Legend himself -- letting me know that he'd like to discuss If I Never with me. Naturally I replied pretty promptly!
How did it made me feel? Initially, extremely excited. The conversation I had with Tom went exactly how I would have wished. He made it very clear that everyone who had read If I Never had really enjoyed it and that they wanted to publish it. More to the point, he seemed to "get" what I was trying to do with my fiction. He saw that whilst I wanted to write work that would be extremely entertaining, and also wanted my work to have a little depth -- layers of meaning that the reader could explore if he or she wished.
It really was a wonderful feeling... but then came the short wait for the contract be signed and so on and so forth. That was hell -- not because of any contractual problems or difficulties with Legend, I hasten to add. That all went splendidly. No, the problem was that I managed to convince myself that everything was going to go pear-shaped! There was one week in particular when I was a complete pain to live with! All worth it, though!

Would you have considering self-publishing?

I briefly considered this option with Hungry Ghosts, but that was never really something I wanted to do... I suppose I wanted my work to be published because someone else wanted it to be published rather than just myself.

How does it feel now the book is published - is there a high then a come down?

I'm a writer so I should be able to do a little better than cliches but... the old reliable rollercoaster analogy actually fits very nicely. The week before publication was very weird. Friends were asking me how excited I was and, most of the time, I simply wasn't. The excitement came with acceptance and publication itself -- or the run-up to it, at least -- was actually quite scary! It didn't help that I'd opted for an online launch -- a week long "event" with a competition and various other bits and pieces. The closer I got to it, the more I realised that I could end up with egg on my face if no one took part. Thankfully, though, it was a huge success -- the book selling out on within hours on the first day -- and I've been able to enjoy it much more since then.
It's like I was saying to a friend recently, though; you simply can't maintain that level of excitement -- not without keeling over!

The chances are with a small indie publisher, that the book will not make a large number of sales or make the bestsellers list - does that frustrate you or are you just glad to see it in print?

Not make the bestseller list? Pish and tosh! I won't be happy until I've taken the world by storm, Mike. World domination one reader at a time!... Seriously, though, I do think, with time, a good independent like Legend can position itself to, to some degree at least, beat the big boys at their own game. It can't happen overnight, of course, and if If I Never manages to sell 3000 or 4000 (pretty optimistic) in its first year, I'll be extremely happy... but I do believe that with a lot of time and effort on the part of the author, novels from independent publishers can break through and achieve decent sales figures. For example, If I Never is currently stocked in about 140 Waterstone's stores alone around the country. I know of writers with big publishers who haven't got that kind of in-store presence -- and that was only achieved with my publisher's efforts and also my own (with help from my parents), approaching individual stores, sending out flyers, that kind of thing.
I think it's important to accentuate the positive, as the song says. Yes, the odds are stacked against If I Never being a bestseller, but that doesn't mean that it can't achieve a degree of success. Independent publishers, generally speaking, do something different. Difference, as I see it, is a huge selling point and can be used advantageously.

A lot of first novels are semi-autobiographical - how much is this true for If I Never?

None of If I Never is semi-autobiographical... thankfully! Yes, my characters no doubt have bits of me in them, but it's purely fictional (that's my story and I'm sticking to it!)

In your blurb it says that you are passionate about on-line publicity, how important is it for an author of an independent publisher to market their book and have you noticed a difference in attitude between on-line and more traditional routes of advertising?

I think it's important for any author to do as much marketing/promoting as possible. Independent publishers especially have a lot of work to deal with and are usually manned by a fairly small team. Legend Press, for example, is extremely proactive. They work for their authors, and they work hard. But they just can't to everything. That's why, when If I Never was accepted, I made a very conscious decision to do as much as I could myself. I have a fairly severe physical disability so certain avenues just weren't open to me -- but I figured that if I worked on really establishing an online presence this could only work in my favour.
To be honest, I haven't all that much experience of the more traditional route. I've found the local press to be fairly receptive but bigger publications, naturally, seem to be taking a little more persuading. I am finding that it is vital to follow-up, though. Pester and nag them into submission. That's the approach I am currently using. I'll let you know how it goes!

For part 2 of this interview here.
Visit Gary's site at

Review: The Shadow of a Smile

Reader Logo
by Grace

The Shadow of a Smile
by Kachi A. Ozumba
Publisher: Alma Books

Upon first inspection The Shadow of a Smile has everything. It has deception; it has love and family loyalty; it has imprisonment, isolation and loss of innocence; it has illness and sacrifice. The underpinning foundation of the narrative is the unavoidable presence of bribery, corruption and betrayal that has infiltrated and taken residence in Nigeria. The narrative's overriding message is one of unfailing hope amidst a crooked society.

The novel starts with a great pace. It has short sharp sections where the narration flits back and forwards in time. The first few chapters are full of action, throwing us straight into a grim prison cell, and then taking us back in time through road accidents, violent fights and even more violent grief.

Zuba, our boy-to-man protagonist, grows up before our eyes and faces unrelenting challenges (bereavement, false imprisonment, seriously ill father and the task of stepping into his shoes). Zuba's responses to these challenges (sincere anger, utter shock, endless hope and selflessness) show us that he is a kind, honest and fair young man who acts with care and integrity, even in the most dire situations.

It is the power of his noble responses to adversity that allows Zuba to take control of his helpless circumstances. Zuba is described as having 'a lightness to his walk', and as being 'not wily enough for this world'. He is a peacemaker. He is 'a handsome young man, full of promise'. He is tentative and assertive. He is a troubled hero; 'Zuba paced back and forth on the veranda, barechested'.

In spite of his heroic actions, Zuba is not a superhero. He is a very real, very likeable young man who has a flawless character, but who has a pertinent physical flaw in the shape of a keloid (swollen scar) on his forehead (the presence of which he is always aware).

This may be a good moment to mention my one (rather large) criticism of this novel; the novel's one keloid, if you like. The presence of Zuba's keloid is referred to many times by Ozumba, in phrases such as, 'he began to stroke his keloid', 'began to rub his keloid', 'rubbed his keloid'...these phrases became tired and repetitive by the end of the novel. I think Ozumba was attempting to draw attention to how people are acutely aware of their own imperfections, and how a shared imperfection creates an instant bond between two people. However, Ozumba's observation of human behaviour isn't portrayed with any insight or depth. I think what is missing is a flair for language and description. I couldn't help but be reminded of the type of fiction produced by school pupils when asked to write a descriptive passage. This extract will illustrate my point:

'Tiny, revolting, mean-looking, orange-black glassy-bodied lice were lodged along the seams'.

The description in the novel focussed almost solely on 3 areas:

      1. Colour: 'The clouds shed their sullenness and now sparkled a cheery silvery blue'; 'Apart from the church and the green-painted offices to their left, the other blocks framing the yard looked greyed.'

      2. Facial expressions: 'A smile played on the lips of the leader of the group'; 'The smugness vanished from Mr Egbetuyi's face...[his] mouth hung open in mid-sentence...Zuba was too dazed to give them more than a vague glance'.

      3. Smells: 'The mattress smelt of rancid sweat and drool'; 'The air filled with the scent of burning flesh'.

While these descriptions are good and powerful, I found myself wanting more; more depth and more variety. I wanted more factors to be considered. For example, a pattern emerged where males responded to bad news by vomiting and females responded by unstoppable crying. I became bored with the repetition of these descriptions.

I understand the over-description of facial expressions because Ozumba is drawing attention to the importance of the subtleties in people's faces and how a glint in someone's eye can be laden with meaning. While Ozumba described some brilliant facial expressions (for example 'Chairman flashed huge teeth at Zuba', 'His face split by the widest grin', 'her eyes were full of hate') I felt there were too many mundane references to smiling ('he attempted a smile', 'she smiled sadly') which laboured a delicate point.

The Shadow of a Smile seems to be an in depth study into displays of human emotion through facial expressions, but I fear it falls short due to an inability to explore and describe more diverse methods of communication, and a blindness to the depth and variety of emotion. The extract from Anna Akhmatova's Requiem, situated before the first chapter of the first section, hints that something as small as a shadow of a smile can change a person's entire face. Whether this is enough of a premise to sustain 300+ pages of fiction is debatable. If it is, Ozumba hasn't done justice to the profundities of the expression of emotion because he repeats the same phrases much too often.

The Shadow of a Smile has some beautiful moments, some hilarious moments ('A fart trumpeted from his elephantine buttocks'), some moving moments ('It was not the attention-seeking crying of children. It was silent like the bleeding of wounds'), and some joyous moments. The novel was spiked with these gems, but these moments weren't linked together with ease and they seemed too fleeting. The beginning and end were held together superbly with fast paced action, suspense and frequent plot developments, but the middle lingered and trudged around the same worn-out descriptions.

I would recommend The Shadow of a Smile for its big themes, likeable characters and moments of beauty, but I would warn a potential reader to be patient through the slow parts and the repetitious descriptions of expressions, colour and smell.

Stories From The War -- Nathaniel Tower

“You had another nightmare last night,” his wife told him over grapefruit juice and bran cereal.

“Did I?” he asked in that detached voice that he always associated with her observations. In reality, he wasn’t detached at all; that was just how he wanted to appear, and so he barely looked up as he slurped a spoonful of bran flakes and fat free milk into his mouth.

“Yes, honey, you did. You woke up screaming. That’s eight nights in a row now.”
Stunning stories. Thought provoking fiction. Read them at the Front View.

Celebs in Writing Distress: Angelina Jolie

Reader Logoby The Lone Ranger

Dear Lone Ranger

I love your magazine, The View From Here, and it has really motivated me to start my first novel. I don't want to trade on my fame however and want to send it to a publisher under an assumed name. Have you any suggestions as to how best approach them?

Help me Lone Ranger!


Dear Angelina

Thanks for including the signed photo of you with your letter Angelina, I've pasted it up at the local tavern after negotiating a fair price with the proprietor.
So to your problem. You've come to the right Ranger my girl. My advice would be to change your name to Jolie Angelina, research the publishers to find one that you believe will fall in love with your work - plus write a good covering letter and I'm sure you'll get picked up if your writing and story are strong enough after about 5 to 50 years of submitting.
Good luck!

The Lone Ranger

Johannes Speyer and the Active Reader

by Georgy Riecke

This article was going to be all about Lucio Ganzini (whose pointless memoir, Where the Power Lies: Pricks, Prats and Publishing Houses, hit the shelves last week) but circumstances, like a stiff summer wind, have blown me from one field to another, leaving me free to pursue alternative thoughts.

It just so happens that I have recently found myself, on several occasions, laying down the law on my late teacher, Johannes Speyer (1913-1984) – a man whose influential doctrines any reader of mine will have come across, in various forms, throughout my writing. Some say I have lived my critical life in Speyer’s shadow. They are probably wrong - but in case they aren’t, let me say this: I’d rather sit in Speyer’s shadow than melt like a soporific snowman under the smouldering sun of chronic ignorance.

The truth is that I have, for some time, considered writing a book about him (Wolfgang Heizler’s 2004 critical biography, Surfing on Words, though good in parts, failed to get a sense of the man as he really was). Conversations with Speyer was the first title that came to mind. At last a chance to utilize those patient transcriptions I made of all our early conversations! Looking back on these, however, I realised that for every wise thing Speyer said, I would offer something quite inane in reply. Perhaps it would be better, in the long run, to go for Speyer Stories, a compendium of my favourite Speyer anecdotes: the time he almost drowned off the Adriatic Coast trying to read Moll Flanders for the thirteenth time on a makeshift raft; the time he asked a skywriter to reproduce the opening line of Paavo Laami’s The Phoenicians across the sky and refused to pay up on account of a missing comma; the time he threw a glass of vanilla milk at Maria von Küppelberg’s five year old daughter; maybe even the time he killed a facetious magpie with a large German lexicon. So many great stories. Perhaps too many.

What about a collection of quotations instead? Speyer was eminently quotable, after all. ‘Read, re-read and re-read again’ was his most famous phrase – one which bears repeating, re-repeating and re-repeating again. Oh, but to reduce a man to a mere parade of aphorisms: it’s a cruel sport. No - what the world really needs, I thought, is a book that puts Speyer’s life and work into perspective; a book that outlines the relevance of his theories for contemporary readers. Speyer and the Twenty-First Century - something like that.

Should you doubt the immense necessity of such a study, allow me to spend the rest of this short article explaining, for those who don’t already know, just why modern readers ought to know more about Johannes Speyer.

He had his faults, I’ve never denied that. He could be wilfully obscure at times, or just plain silly. Take his infamous surfing metaphors, for example. Whatever provoked a man of his intelligence (nevermind a landlocked Austrian) to pepper his prose with quite so many references to surfing? We shall never know - suffice it to say that beneath the weird frothy waves of his language swam fish of remarkably good sense. Indeed, the foundations of Speyer’s thought were, to some extent, frighteningly simple. He fought, in short, for better understanding; for a greater effort made on the part of the reader to fully comprehend the glorious creations of the writer (curiously he never questioned whether the writer was worth understanding: he took this for granted). He was, you could say, a critic of criticism, constantly haranguing his colleagues for their failure to make an effort worthy of their roles. Lazy readers annoyed him like nothing else. The perfect reader, for him, was one that squeezed every last drop of potential out of a book; that made every page of every book sweat for its very life. To his mind, reading was far from a relaxing activity: it was a fierce struggle, a violent tussle, maybe even an erotic rumble between reader and writer. Anything but a calm afternoon on a cosy armchair. God forbid.

How does this translate into actual practice? As I hinted, Speyer’s methods were somewhat extreme. What’s more, he spent so much time attacking critical methods, he rarely gave himself the opportunity to apply his own. It is up to us, therefore, to try and pick up where he left off; to smooth down the rough edges of his philosophy into a workable form, whilst retaining the core of his provocative thoughts.

I have attempted to do this, in the main, by pushing forward the idea of ‘Active Reading’. Speyer believed not only in re-reading, but in pursuing a range of reading styles. This is something we can all integrate into our own reading practice. Have you ever considered, for example, reading underwater? Maybe it sounds a little mad – but it can do wonders for one’s understanding of resonant themes in early twentieth century Hungarian poetry. I cannot even begin to describe the pleasingly different perspectives one gets from reading Virginia Woolf once on a boat, and then again in a field full of manure. Oh, the nuances, the nuances! They simply seep from a book in the hands of a truly Active Reader. Trust me. Once you’ve read Boris Yashmilye up a tree, in a cave and then again in sub zero temperatures, you’ll never look at literature the same way again. ‘Stop skirting along the surface of things,’ as Speyer once said to me, ‘take a dive, for art’s sake, take a dive’.

Georgy Riecke has been dipping his wrinkled toes into the strange lake of obscure European literature since the 1980s. After studying in Germany, he co-founded a literary magazine, ‘Groping for Allusions’, in London. In the mid 90s he founded another journal, ‘Underneath the Bunker’, which has been online since 2004 ( Since 2008 he has been regularly blogging at

Photo Credit: Jude Giles with thanks to our own Grace Read for sitting in a lake!

Letters From Home - - Andrew Nicoll

"It started right after the helicopter left. Fraser the pilot flew in with two weeks’ worth of supplies, had a cup of coffee with the guys, joked about how there was just another month to go and flew out again. Just another month. As soon as he took off, the first flakes started to fall, as if the beat of the helicopter rotors had stirred them up out of the rocks like fallen feathers."
The rest of this incredible story can be found at the Front View.
I recommend that you grab a cup of something warm and comforting ... this one is a bumpy ride.
You're gonna love it!
~Sydney Nash

Issue 16 of TVFH on sale now!

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Interviews with ...
Brad Listi
Paolo Giordano
Dmetri Kakmi

Original Fiction at thefrontview by:
Oonah V. Joslin
Dena Anderson
W. Jack Savage
Carolyn Belcher

Guest Writers:
Berni Stevens
Rebel Books

The Writing Drum by Mike French

Original Short Fiction by Kathleen Maher
Rabbit Writer monthly cartoon from Naomi Gill

Book Reviews of
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

with original art by Fossfor.
ISSN 1758-2903

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