Thursday, 16 June 2011

Let’s Talk About it - Dan Holloway

(That's me at the original launch. I find the key to readings is the 45 degree angle)

No, really. We’re all writers on this site, so we’re pretty used to sitting tapping and scratching till the words come out. But as we’re doing introductions this month, I thought I’d say something about what I love most in this storytelling business. Talking. Reading to a live audience. I say it a lot but as a writer you really can’t beat looking into an audience’s eyes and listening to their laughter and gasps as you lead them through the labyrinth of emotions that is a story.

I never really knew I’d love doing readings and shows. I’ve always been a bit of an exhibitionist. There was that time when we’d just got off the plane in Athens and I walked over the other side of the square so I’d be in the sight-line of a local news crew. And there was the phase when I’d go on any game show that would have me – Countdown, 15-1, Mastermind (Hannibal Lecter novels), Weakest Link, er, Brainteaser and pontificating on late night student radio.

(At the Covent Garden Poetry Cafe with Katelan Foisy, one of my writing - and all-around - heroes)

But I’d never really thought about reading stories to audiences. Until it came to the launch of the first book I self-published (this could have been a “why I self-publish” post, but the answer to that is rather short and not very interesting – I can’t imagine not. It’s two and a half years and five books since I sent out a query, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever send out another), and I realised I was going to have to read some of it. I’d recently been to a concert, a piano recital by a friend of mine, James Rhodes, who wears jeans and talks to the audience – and landed a multi-record deal with Warner for his combination of talent and fresh approach. I thought, “There’s something to that,” and decided to put on the kind of show you don’t normally get at a reading. I was lucky to have a local bookstore, Oxford’s Albion Beatnik, that was very cool with the whole thing. I made programme notes, invited a great musician, Jessie Grace, to play a set of her blues rock guitar, and wrote a performance piece, SKIN BOOK, to read alongside an extract from the novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall.

It was amazing. I was buzzing for days afterwards. The audience responded on such a personal level, and I felt that rehearsing and then reading gave me a much better handle on my own work. Combining it with music, turning a reading into a show worked too. That was November 2009. By February 2010, I was organising shows with the collective I’m part of, Year Zero Writers, with five writers and three bands. And I was getting pleasure out of writing I’d never had before. I found myself connected more closely to my readers. And I was writing poetry and short stories regularly, because they work best live. That in turn meant that I came to my novels feeling fresh. And with a sense of what would hold people’s attention, a feel for rhythm, a sense of pace and timing I’d never had before.

Most of all I was still getting that buzz. And it really is one of those things where one thing leads to another. As a group, we’ve done live shows at Rough Trade, at two galleries in Oxford and at the Covent Garden Poetry Café, and now we have a 12-writer show that we’ve put on to a sell-out crowd at Stoke Newington Literary Festival, and at Oxfringe, and we have what seems to have become an annual event called Not the Oxford Literary Festival. I’ve also found people asking me to do the most wonderful things. Last year I got to judge the Oxford International Women’s Festival Poetry Competition and MC the winners’ night. And I’ve got to read at Brighton Fringe’s Grit Lit, at a marvellous show at Modern Art Oxford where 15 people working in different arts got 4 minutes each to respond to an art installation, and at Literary Death Match where…well, I’ve been told this is a family-friendly blog so I’ll just say “google is your friend.” And this summer I’m going to be putting on a show in Blackwell’s store in Oxford.

(Jessie Grace)

And the buzz just gets better. And your knowledge of your material gets deeper. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s where storytelling first came from. For me it’s what storytelling is about. Reaching deep deep inside yourself, scraping out what you find and dishing it up raw and still beating to a real life crowd.

Ooh, yes, and I write books :)
Black Heart High (book one of a dark paranormal romance series)
The Company of Fellows (imagine the Hannibal Lecter novels set in Oxford University. Voted Blackwell's favourite Oxford novel)
The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes (a dissection of the power of the image in teh modern world)
Songs from the Other Side of the Wall (lyrical literary coming of age after Murakami's Norwegian Wood)
(life:) razorblades included (a collection of all my performance pieces)


Anonymous said...

I never thought I'd enjoy reading my work to an audience - I was uncomfortably nervous the first time - but I've got in to the total buzz of it over the past 2 years & even rather enjoyed it at Stoke Newington.

Penny (@triplecherry)

Dan Holloway said...

And you're brilliant at it - your work on the page is incredible but when I listen to you read it the words positively dance

Anonymous said...

Love listening to people reading - just wish audio books were a bit cheaper! It brings a whole new dimension to a book; even though you may have already read it and know it well, in some ways it's like hearing it anew.
Oh, and I'm dead impressed by the way you can stand at 45 degrees without keeling over. Bet that skill comes in dead handy after a few drinks!
(Karen :-) )

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, and the text to voice things are wonderful but just not the same. There are more and more podcasts of poetry and the like available online that can be a really high quality.

It takes many years' practice and lead boots :))

Katherine Roberts said...

Maybe this post could also be called "Let's sing about it"...? I like the idea of combining words with music to make a performance.

Interesting that you are not seeking a publisher, Dan, because as a natural performer you'd be in high demand at lit festivals and in schools (though maybe not the latter with the Literary Death Match...)

Dan Holloway said...

What's very exciting is that we are starting to get some fully integrated performances ready - Two of our eight cuts gallery writers, Stuart Estell and Penny Goring have already collaborated (you can play it at, Stuart composing the music whilst Penny reads a stunning story, and I'm working with electronica artist Rabid Gravy on something to perform in the autumn. A good friend of mine, Dave Griffiths, former lead singer with the band Witches, has a super project at with an actor narrating his words over a soundtrack he's composed.

I don't think a publisher would make a difference either way with the performing (other than they may have palpitations about what I'd perform where). I did my first full literary festival at Stoke Newington a couple of weeks ago and we sold out, which I hope will be a good CV point. The kind of events that suit what I feel most at home with are the fringes, and they don't seem to care whether you have a publisher or not. So far, getting invited to Literary Death Match and Grit Lit has been on word of mouth, and we'll be doing Edinburgh next year but instead of main literary festivals (I run an event called Not the Oxford Literary Festival that pulls in a fair old crowd during our festival here, because I really don't like regular festivals) I'll be looking to do events like Latitude and Port Eliot. Even fairly mainstream places seem to be willing to have us without publishers - Blackwell's seem to be willing to let us run riot, for example, and Clerkenwell Tales have asked for us after seeing us at Stoke Newington. I think a lot is to do with the fact that performance tends to work best with short pieces, and they're just not on publishers' radar - so venues don't really mind.

Ann Evans said...

Enjoyed reading your post Dan, and have to agree there's nothing better than reading to a young audience and watching their expression out the corner of your eye. Wonderful!

Also, I too was impressed by the fact that you can talk at a 45 degree angle but more than that - how did you manage to upload more than one photo? I tried on my blog but it kept placing my second picture right next to the first, instead of after the text I'd written.

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, Ann, it does exactly that (and adds lots of space) whenever I do it. If you have a big screen you can drag it around, but easiest is to go to the html tab (as opposed to the compose one) and cut the html for the picture (it will be the bit surrounded by [img]...[/img] and including thiose tags) and then paste it into the appropriate part. You can then tab back to compose to check it.
Shout if it doesn't work and I'll see what I can sort out.

Debbie Bennett said...

Great post, Dan. Personally the thought of reading aloud terrifies me! You've probably never met Alison Davies from Nottingham, but she's a performance storyteller. I've listened to her do dark fantasy - with no script - and have the audience utterly spellbound. It's magical - if you can do it, which clearly you can!

Dan Holloway said...

One of the people in our show is a slam poet who never uses any kind of script
It's exactly that sense of having ythe audience absolutely captivated that is what makes it so thrilling as a writer. People can *tell* you they were captivated as they read, but you can't beat actually seeing it.

Joan Lennon said...

Dan - thanks so much for the tip about using html for moving pictures - I will try that next time! You are a genius as well as an acrobat.