Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A Malaysian Celebration of Diversity on World Poetry Day, by Dipika Mukherjee

March 21st, 2019 was World Poetry Day. For those of us lucky enough to be at
Lit Books that night in Malaysia, it was a feast of poetry at The Noise of Time - Readings on World Poetry Day.

Pusaka organized fourteen poets to read poetry in 11 languages (Malay, English, Mandarin, Bengali, Arabic, Persian, German, French, Spanish, Malayalam and Russian...with translations into English). Led by organizer and emcee Pauline Tan, the room resonated with the words of Omar Khayyam, Wang Wei, Paul Eluard, Cesar Vallejo, Else Lasker-Schüler, Bei Dao, Mallika Sengupta, Goenawan Mohamad and many other voices, both ancient and contemporary.

I chose to read a Bengali poem by Mallika Sengupta, translated brilliantly by Amit Mukerjee titled Prithibir Ma (Mother of the Universe):

Unbound, my hair spread over the sky
created dark stormclouds.
My green dhanekhali sari
became the lush fabric of forests.
Stealing the melody from my throat
birds chirped into morning song,
the babble of my words became
mother-tongues of vast populations.
My sweat mingling with menstrual blood
is the aroma of rain on the parched ground.
Nurtured by my hunger
tendrils of rice and wheat burst through the ground,
to bathe me were the rivers born
to dry me spreads the sunshine.
My anger made flintstones
flash the first flicker of fire.
My fierce need for love created man,
and into my body he burst his seed,
then, in my womb, was born this universe.

Amit Mukerjee is my brother, and this translation appears in his book, The Unsevered Tongue (Nandimukh Samsad; Calcutta, 2005). This is a book of Bengali women's poetry translated into English, and I am glad I was able to read this poem on World Poetry Day. This reading was especially bittersweet as the brilliant Amit Mukerjee -- Writer, Translator, Professor of Computer Science -- now lies in a vegetative state in New Delhi after an accident and cannot speak at all.

Dipika Mukherjee holds a PhD in English (Sociolinguistics) and is the author of the novels Shambala Junction, which won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction, and Ode to Broken Things, which was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize. She lives in Chicago and is affiliated to the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University and is Core Faculty at Story Studio Chicago.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Cooking Like It's 1519 by Susan Price

The Sterkarm Handshake - Susan Price

Thanks to Theresa May and her cronies, there will soon be a great revival in cooking cheap and nutritious meals, possibly over open fires of hedgerow twigs and dried dung.

So I present some useful recipes from the Sterkarm cook-book.


    Take two and three quarter cups of sour cream, and simmer in a closed pan for about fifteen minutes.

Maybe you have some sour cream because the electricity is off again. If you haven't, milk or half water and half milk will do.

While your cream is simmering, take one and a quarter cups  of oat-flour.  This can be pin-head oatmeal, or porridge oats ground very fine. 

     Sieve about a third of the flour into the cream and continue simmering until the butter-fat begins to separate.  Skim off the fat, and save it in a bowl.
          Sift the remaining flour into the pan, and bring to the boil.  Then simmer until it is the desired thickness.  Whisk to make smooth.  Add salt to taste.
        To serve, take the fat you skimmed off earlier and pour over the groats. Accompany with raw dried meat, such as smoked ham or lamb, or tongue, or dried fish.
      Or whatever you have. A filling dish.
A Sterkarm Kiss -- Susan Price
We'll have to learn to eat all of an animal, not just the muscle meat, so here's how you make a hearty, nourishing meat pudding.
 Take the stomach, liver, heart and lungsof a sheep.
You’ll also need three onions, 250 grams of beef lard, 150 grams of  oatmeal, salt, and about 150 mls of stock.
Start preparing this dish at least a day before you need it because first you must clean the stomach well, emptying it of what the animal was last keeping in it, and washing it out. Soak it overnight.
In the morning, turn the stomach inside out, and boil it for one and a half hours in good stock. Make sure that the weasand -- that it, the windpipe -- hangs over the edge of the pot, to allow drainage.
While the belly-bag is boiling, slap the heart and lungs on a table-top or large chopping board, and mince them with a big knife.
Get hold of the liver and chop up half of it. (The other half isn’t needed for the pudding, so save it for another meal.
Chop up the onions and the beef lard.
In a large crock or tub, mix together the chopped heart, lungs, liver, lard, onions and oatmeal. Season well with salt. Add sage, thyme and parsley, if liked. They will have been grown by Isobel, or gathered wild, and may be either fresh or dried.
Take some of the water the belly was boiled in, and add enough to the mixture to make it a little watery.  Put the belly-bag in another bowl, to support it, with the opening at the top. Fill it with the mixture of oatmeal and offal until it’s half-full.
Squeeze out the air, and sew it up with thread.
Put it back into the boiling stock, top up with water, and boil for three hours, without a lid. Don’t let it boil dry, and if the stomach starts blowing up, prick it with a needle.

Serve with whatever vegetables you have -- boil them in the same pot. Turnip or carrot greens, maybe.

'Give Us A Happy Ending And Don't Hurt The Dogs .'
On The Writing Of The Third Sterkarm Book

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Oh the stories we tell ourselves! Jo Carroll

I’m in Lanzarote - not travelling, for a change, but just dossing about having a holiday. The sun is lovely and warm, the beer is lovely and cold - so all is well. (Apart from the Brexit shambles, of course.)

Except for one, very minor, event - and the stories I have told myself about it.

When I came to get ready for bed last night, I couldn’t find my nightdress. In an attempt make sense of its disappearance I concocted several stories:

  1. I must have put it somewhere stupid. So I checked the bathroom, all drawers and cupboards. The fridge. No nightdress.
  2. The cleaner must have put it somewhere stupid - the bathroom, all drawers etc. No nightdress.
  3. The cleaner had stolen it! Why do such a thing? It’s a ratty old nightdress! I’ve has shampoo and toothpaste stolen before, but never clothing. How dare she ... 
  4. Then, in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that it might have been swept up with the laundry ... how could I have thought ill of my lovely cleaner, she would never have done anything as ridiculous as stealing a nightdress ...

So I selected story no. 4 - that’s the story that made me feel most comfortable.

Oh the stories we tell ourselves, especially when faced with a situation that, at first glance, makes no obvious sense. We need explanations - ‘not knowing’ is deeply uncomfortable. But it’s also, oddly, exciting - it drives us to learn, to find solutions. And sometimes those solutions don’t fit the facts - because that drive for resolution is so strong.

And surely that human drive to find stories that make sense of the world is a great gift to us as writers - we present our readers with predicaments and then stretch out the solution to keep them turning the pages. We can lead them down side alleys, drop bits of jigsaw knowing that our readers are driven to find their own solutions ... and then, wham, we provide another clue and off they head at another tangent. Readers need stories as much as we need to write them. 

 None of which brings my nightdress back. But I’m very happy believing it’s lost in the laundry.

You can read more of my stories at jocarroll.co.uk 

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Lev Butts Lists the Best of Self-Publishing VIII

Since last month's post started out as an intro to this one that grew in the telling, let's just jump right in to my selection for this month's great self-published book.

Jump in like Holmes and Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls

The Swithen by Scott Telek

I have been a fan of the King Arthur legends since I was old enough to read, so much so that I am writing my own version of them.  This series, then, is of particular interest to me. It is certainly the most ambitious.

As anyone who has studied Arthurian myth knows, what we tend to think of as "Arthurian" legend really comes from one book: Thomas Malory's Le Mort D'Arthur and one or two other related texts, usually Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and sometimes Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the King's of Britain or Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian poems.

However, Arthurian legends are much more than three or four texts. There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of Arthurian legends that never made it into Malory. Not to mention these guys:

You didn't really think I'd let an Arthurian article go without mentioning them, did you?
Most authors generally pick one or two main texts and create their own riffs on them. And there's really nothing wrong with that. These books are often fantastic pieces of fiction. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon remains one of the premiere modern Arthurian novels due to Bradley's decision to tell the Arthurian stories only through the eyes of the women, voices that are generally silent in the original texts. Richard Monaco's Parsival series takes a decidedly postmodern look at Wolfram von Eschenbach's thirteenth century epic poem. Other modern retellings, such as Tennyson's Idylls of the King or T. H. White's The Once and Future King have themselves become canonized entries into English literature. But each of these writers have had to alter the original texts or stray far from the original legends in order to create their own unique visions of the Arthurian world.

Not so with Scott Telek.

Telek has taken as his objective to write a series of Arthurian novels that sticks only to events that happen in the original texts of the extant myths. While, like others, he does have to figure out a way to explain inconsistencies between different texts, Telek refuses to add any scene that is not at least implied by the original legend, though he will add characters and scenes rather liberally depending on the needs of the narrative. For example, the story of Merlin’s birth takes only a few lines in the original text, and his mother is never even given a name, so Telek must naturally elaborate on this. Additionally, he makes an effort to introduce gender equality into his retelling, but not at the expense of contradicting previously written legends. His method is to invent a psychology and background or connecting events that slot seamlessly into the existing legend without changing it. As he explains on his webpage:
The Swithen is a series of epic fantasy novels that honor the actual historic legends of King Arthur while re-examining the old, musty gender roles inherent to the tale, and giving women their rightful place as equal and important drivers of the story. Most Arthurian stories don’t tell the real ancient legends because they are too weird and the morality too outdated. This series is committed to keeping the stories intact, but filling in the psychology and re-examining the roles of men and women in way that brings the emotions and characters to life for modern readers.
And this is a herculean task. He has twenty five books planned that span from Merlin's birth two generations before Arthur's through Arthur's death. His primary source material ranges from such well-known texts as Le Mort D'Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to more obscure texts like The Prose Merlin and the Vulgate Cycle.

According to Telek, the title of the series comes from Middle English: “‘Swithen’ is a Middle English term from slash and burn agriculture that means the burning of a field to make it fertile for the next generation.... It refers to the grail quest, in which Arthur and his men are told that their way of life is ending and to make way for the new.”  He has completed the first three volumes of this epic undertaking, and I have to admit, it has the hall-marks of becoming one of my favorite Arthurian series. 

The first volume, Our Man on Earth, tells the story of Meylinde, a young woman in ancient Britain who finds herself at the center of the devil's plan to create an antichrist, a combination of demonic and human nature, to counteract Christ's blend of divinity and humanity. The result of this experiment will be Merlin.

Meylinde must find a way to protect both her own soul and that of her unborn child as she fights for her life against a legal system that requires death for fornication.

I didn't expect to enjoy the book as much as I did, but Telek manages to make the story intriguing, however, through his use of characterization, psychological realism, and a keen eye for how an ordinary person would react to such extraordinary circumstances. “These are ordinary people facing these overwhelmingly strange circumstances,” he explains, “and a lot of it so far has been dealing with Merlin, who is like nothing they’ve ever encountered before.

While there are some possible anachronisms within the pages, they do not detract from the story. In fact, one might read them as nods to the original texts in which anachronisms such as full sets of medieval armor in the Roman era are rampant.

The second novel, The Sons of Constance, is even better than the first as it is here where Telek begins to play in more familiar ground. It tells the story of Vortigern's rise and fall as king of Britain, and skillfully combines historical fact with legends and myths so that Vortigern's witnessing the fight between two literal dragons seems just as realistic and believable as his treaty with the Saxons to provide muscle for his subjugating the land. Again his use of psychological realism in this book is exquisite. Through our knowledge of Vortigern's thoughts, the audience is able to see him less as the traditional villain of pre-Arthurian times, and more as the victim of his own moral failings. He becomes a sympathetic character by the end of his life, so much so, that I almost felt sorry for him as he watches the army of Uther and his brother surround his tower.

While I have not yet read the third volume, The Void Place, I am anxious to get started on it. It tells the story, apparently of Uther's affair with Igraine, and will end with Arthur's birth.

In short, Telek's The Swithen series is well worth your reading time, and each novel is fairly short, not enough to feel rushed, just enough to feel satisfied when you end it. The first three books of the series are available separately or as a bundled trilogy.

We'll see you in Camelot, though it is a silly place.

Friday, 22 March 2019

In praise of social media for writers. Ali Bacon tells us what Facebook has done for her

Social media in general is getting a bad press these days and for very good reasons. But writers would be unwise to distance themselves entirely, as this post (adapted from https://alibacon.com) shows.

Over two years ago, while despairing of my then work in progress (now fully fledged as In the Blink of an Eye) I stumbled on a newspaper article describing the St Andrews Photography Festival.
St Andrews, what's not to like?
This was so germane to my languishing WIP I was immediately intrigued and also a bit cross there was no official website to tell me more. However there was a Facebook page - a poor relation to a website perhaps but as I ran my eye over it, I mused how wonderful it would be to be involved and I found my fingers adding a post about my photography interests and my writing and inviting the still rather mysterious festival to contact me.  Afterwards this struck me as ridiculously brazen. I was an 'unknown' writer with a novel lying around in fragments - what exactly could I offer? I comforted myself with the knowledge I was unlikely to hear back!

I didn't hear back for quite some time and had almost forgotten about it when a message popped up from Alan Morrison who I don't think will mind my dragging it out from the archives:
Hi Ali. Thanks so much again for sharing the news and your links. Will you be able to come to this at some point? It's on Aug 1- Sep 11. We'd love to have you be part of it and have a cunning plan for an awesome event featuring you and your stories.

At the St Andrews Photography Festival 2016*
I got this late one night and had to pick myself up from the floor. Alan was the festival PR guy and he  directed me straight to the festival organiser. I asked her who else would be involved in this event. As it turned out, no one. In a matter of hours I had gone from a writer with a moribund  project to  planning a 'one woman show.' I've described that trip elsewhere but let's just say it in terms of my work and the book that ensued, it was a game-changer.  And all it needed was a two-line message on Facebook.

You see, where a website contact form will often disappear without trace and even an email contact can be out of date, a social media message is highly likely to get a response and a quick one. (Look out for that Messenger indication of 'usually responds within ...' although I have also had responses on Twitter after quite a time-lag).

I had a similar - if less cataclysmic - experience last year when a friend alerted me to a local literature festival.  All I had to go on  - again - was a press article. But I also found a Facebook page which I messaged, still with low expectations but a bit more optimism than previously. And this time I was a bit better prepared for a positive response. Again, it worked!  A few days later I met Mark Lloyd, of Cotswold Edge Events and we went on to organise a showcase event for a group of local published writers.

There's always a degree of luck in these things. I happened to catch both these organisers  just as their programme was taking shape. And yes, a degree of self-confidence or even effrontery is necessary. But leaving a note on a Facebook page takes less courage than a phone call and can have just as exciting and immediate a result. And really, what do you have to lose?

So this is not just about the speed of social media but how it is developing as a business tool. I know there are a lot of Facebook refuseniks out there who worry about privacy and/or the sheer waste of time it can be. These are legitimate concerns, but I suggest that writers who want to engage with communities, events and ultimately readers, ignore this  platform at their peril.

Ali's book In the Blink of an Eye is out in paperback and e-book from Linen Press
Reviews on Amazon UK 

*Photo courtesy ASM Media and PR

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Why I still want to be a paperback writer... Katherine Roberts

In 1966, the Beatles famously sang about wanting to be a paperback writer. I was only four at the time so just starting to read and write, but I must have thought it sounded like a good idea because a few years later I started typing out my first science fiction 'novel' on blue and yellow paper. It was just about long enough to count as a novella, but I never sent it anywhere because the year I finished it I got a place at university to study mathematics. Probably just as well.

By 1987, I was programming computers (think huge mainframes filling whole rooms with massive tape reels you had to change halfway through running a program) and writing fiction secretly in my spare time. I completed another novel - a much longer one that became a fantasy trilogy. I sent it off to a publisher, and the now legendary editor John Jarrold wrote back with a personal note explaining why it was not quite right for them. I forgot about writing for a while, escaped computers at the end of the 80s (when half the department was made redundant), got married and ended up working with racehorses.

Song Quest
(Element Books)
Around 1992, I fell off a young horse into a hedge, had two weeks off work with an injury to my back, and decided I couldn't work with racehorses forever. I started writing again in my spare time, only this time not so secretly. I joined a local writers' group, and with their encouragement published several short stories in magazines. In 1999, after seven years of submitting manuscripts to publishers, I finally became a paperback writer with my debut novel Song Quest, which was released in paperback in 2000, when it won the inaugural Branford Boase Award for an outstanding debut book for young readers.

(Chicken House 2000)
More paperbacks followed, but eventually sales fell off as publishers started letting them go out of print. In 2010, amazon opened their KDP (then called the 'Digital Text Platform') to UK authors, and in 2011 I became an ebook writer with my second novel Spellfall, which had been my bestseller in paperback. More out-of-print books followed, until I had my whole backlist available in ebook format.

For a couple of years, ebooks were hot - or cool, depending on your point of view. People read Kindles instead of paperbacks on the train but the mainstream publishers were over-pricing their digital editions (apparently afraid of losing paperback sales), and as a result reasonably-priced indie ebooks pretty much sold themselves. I'm not a big name by any means, but in 2014 my earnings were almost $1,000 from US ebook sales alone, and the UK and European digital markets were catching up fast.

It couldn't last. My share of the ebook market shrank over the years to around half of this, despite working on better covers and pushing the books out more widely across the other digital platforms... it seems people still want to be paperback readers! Finally, in 2016, I got around to tackling print-on-demand editions for my backlist titles, which I uploaded at Createspace (now part of amazon) and put into extended distribution. This means you should be able to order a copy from wherever you want, just like any other paperback that isn't on the shelf of your local bookstore, and the book will be printed and posted to you, literally hot off the press. Although my ebook sales have dropped off, paperbacks happily seem to have picked up the slack. In 2018, for the first time, my indie paperback income in the US exceeded my ebook income by a fair margin, and the total comes to more than the original $1,000 I earned from my indie ebooks in the early days.

Which brings us full circle. It's now 2019, and I'm a paperback writer again! Here is the current (print on demand) edition of my debut novel Song Quest.

SONG QUEST (paperback)

So if, like me, you write for younger readers and some of your books have gone out of print at their publishers, then I hope this will encourage you to get them back out there as print on demand. Paperbacks are easier than before via amazon's KDP, and one day you might just find they start selling themselves... and then you'll be a proper Beatles-style paperback writer!


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers. Find out more at her website www.katherineroberts.co.uk

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Joys of Football and Shipping by Sandra Horn

Before my next brother was born and we were allotted a prefab, we lived with my mother’s family in an old stone-built house with three stories and a basement. It’s still there, now called Wealden College, a centre for psychotherapies. At the time we lived there, the family comprised my Great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and my mother’s siblings; three aunties and four uncles.  After the birth of my brother we still went to the old house every day. It was a magnet for all its nestlings, long after they’d flown to places of their own and it was near the local primary school so all the children had their mid-day meals at Nan’s and were collected from there after school. There were too many of us to eat at the table at weekends, so the children sat along the big old sofa in the window bay to have their fish and chips (from the shop across the road). Toast was made over the open fire, with long brass forks. White bread from the local baker – we were lucky if we managed to brown most of it, in between the burnt and raw bits. Delicious, and dripping with butter! 

It was a pretty free-and-easy household and children were indulged up to a point, but there was one solemn ritual we were not allowed to interrupt. It was sit still and be quiet, or go outside when the football results were being read on the wireless. Coupons were spread out on the table to be filled in, pens fished out from the dresser drawer, and we did not dare make a sound until it was over and the pens were thrown down, usually in disgust, and loud comments from the menfolk battered our ears. For years I had not the remotest idea what was going on, except that it was something very important, and also very delightful to listen to. I could sit through it happily, listening to the exotic words: Accrington Stanley, Heart of Midlothian, Tottenham Hotspur, Preston North End, Aston Villa... all very mysterious and poetic. 

The other thing we listened to religiously was the shipping forecast. We were 25 miles from the sea and had no connection to ships of any kind, yet could not turn the wireless off until it was finished. As with the football teams’ names, it was meaningless to me, yet hypnotic. The strange exciting words followed by, as I later learned, the wind speed, visibility and prevailing conditions.  

I now know that there are thousands of other landlocked people who listen in too, for the sheer pleasure of it. It’s like a litany in an exotic language, the words not understood but comfort drawn from the sound and rhythm of it, and its regular occurrence four times every day at the same time. Apparently, according to the delightful book by Charlie Connelly, it has even been requested as a Desert Island Disc and worked into a poem by Seamus Heaney. I’m not at all surprised. 

It has also inspired artist Peter Collyer to produce a stunning book of paintings of the sea areas from the forecast:

After those early years, I didn’t listen again for decades, except by chance, so I didn’t know that Heligoland had been replaced by German Bight (Bite? How could you tell, on the wireless?). What a loss to poetry! Then there was the shock of the Utsires. What? Where did they come from? How did you even spell such an outlandish word? I was enraged. ‘They’ are even mucking about with the shipping forecast now. What next? Well, what next was the replacing of Finisterre, the End of the Land, with Fitzroy. Bleugh! Of course he deserved the posthumous honour, it was his idea in the first place and over all the years he must have saved countless lives with it, but I still wish they’d just added him in rather than take away lovely musical Finisterre. Have they no souls, these people?
Here it is, just the names of locations as I remember them. Sorry, Fitzroy, North and South Utsire and German Bight; I’m on a nostalgia trip.
Viking, Forties, Cromarty, Forth
Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, Heligoland,
Humber, Thames, Dover,
Wight, Portland, Plymouth,
Biscay, Finisterre, Sole,
Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea,
Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides,
Bailey, Fair Isle, Faroes,
South-east Iceland.

Bliss. (That’s not a shipping area, it’s my prevailing condition).