the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other authors

Irenosen Okojie and the NCWIC

This week I was delighted to join the online National Creative Writing Industry Conference.

About the conference

Keynote speaker Irenosen Okojie says: I’m thrilled to be opening the 6th National Creative Writing Industry Conference. This vital, inspiring conference energizes aspiring writers. I’m looking forward to sharing experiences on finding my authorial voice, navigating the industry and methods to stay curious about the world which connects us to the writing process in rewarding ways.

About Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen was born in Nigeria and moved to England aged eight. During her education she attended state schools and boarding schools before studies at London Metropolitan University in Communication and Visual Culture. She is a freelance Arts Project Manager and Coordinator and writer of fiction. Her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, published by Jacaranda Books won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Edinburgh First Book Award. Her short story collection, Speak Gigantular was shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Saboteur Awards and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. It was selected by film director Carol Morley as an Observer Summer Read.

About the keynote speech

I love a good keynote and this was certainly the best I’ve attended online. Irenosen talked a lot of sense and I so wanted to share her words of wisdom that I tweeted her observations and advice. Here are the top ten things that I took from the speech: 

  • Developing an adventurous spirit feeds into the work
  • There is no right way or wrong way to tell a story
  • Create a reward system for yourself while writing your novel to help you keep going
  • We need different exciting voices to enhance the publishing scene
  • Rejection is part of the writing process. Take on critique that is useful and ignore the rest
  • Read first novels. Often they can be brilliant but not always perfect… learn from their mistakes
  • Writing is a joy
  • Literature is for everyone
  • We must write for our sanities
  • Let writing become an obsession

How many of these do you sign up to? 

There are events scheduled for the rest of this week, so if you’re interested click here to see the sessions still available that might be of interest. Thanks to Comma Press and The Manchester Writing School for hosting the conference. 

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Celebrating Libraries Week

Libraries Week is an annual event which takes place during the second week of October. This year it runs from 5–10 October 2020 and aims to celebrate all that UK libraries have to offer. And it’s not just public libraries that participate but school libraries, workplace libraries and university libraries.

Titles available for loan through Dorset Libraries

In Dorset, our libraries have become community hubs where so much more is on offer than the loan of books, audiobooks and DVDs. Babies and young children enjoy songs and rhymes, school children join fun learning activities, residents can find out more about managing health and there’s access to wifi and games. Help is available at the library to find out about employment opportunities, and support to start a new hobby or set up a business. With so much going on, libraries are well worth celebrating.

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Salisbury Fringe goes online

Following from my earlier post, here are details of the Salisbury Fringe which will be streaming live Sunday 4th October on this link. I’m looking forward to seeing my two monologues performed by professional actors from 8:15pm.

Programme:

6.30pm – Duologues

Six duologues, pre-recorded on Zoom and broadcast on the night

7.00pm – Short Cuts

Five theatrical gems, film and live streamed on the night

8.15pm – The Monologue Mash

Eight monologues filmed by the actors, presented in two groups of four. You’ll have the chance to vote for your favourite!

A live, free event! What’s not to like? I hope you’ll join me in the audience.

Find out more about Salisbury Fringe here.

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Unusual connection

I received a direct message on Twitter this week from Rob Casey, a stand up poet, writer and performer who lives in Bridport. He teaches creative writing at Exeter College and is the Bard of Exeter City Football Club. While he was watching the first match of the season for Manchester City (against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Man City won 3-1), he noticed something about the kit that was relevant to me.

Training kit
Away kit

What do you notice? Love a bit of paisley, I do. Indeed I think the tear drop pattern is so great I named my first published book Paisley Shirt. It is a collection of short fiction and the title story is about a Polish man returning to visit a neighbour in the UK who helped to look after him as a child. With twenty-six other stories in this smart, square book there’s a lot of fiction to enjoy. Novelist and short story writer, Maria Donovan kindly endorsed the collection and says the stories are ‘sensitive, surprising, unnerving, tender and crucial.’ It’s easy to get a kindle copy or a paperback by popping over to Amazon. And, if you’re interested, you can read more about the history of the paisley pattern here.

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Pan de mo nium: cover reveal

I love the stage in the writing process when all that hard work comes to fruition. There are steps along the way that cause angst or excitement but there’s nothing to replace that sense of ‘it really is going to happen’ when I see the final cover design for my publication. Here it is, ta-dah:

Welcome to the world of Pan de mo nium my children’s picture book. You can read more about the inspiration for the story here. I absolutely love this image as it captures the characteristics of giant pandas:

They’re fun: see that cheeky expression!

They’re shy: those eyes!

They’re a symbol of vulnerability: imagine it!

They’re peaceful: well, not so peaceful in the case of Pan de mo nium. That’s the point of the story!

The final draft has gone to the printers and I’ll receive proofs within the next week. A last read through and then these copies will be sent into the world headed for readers and book bloggers who have kindly agreed to offer early reviews.

Be sure to get a copy for young children in time for Christmas by placing a pre-order now at the Victorina Press website.

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Welcome to Catherine Randall and ‘The White Phoenix’

This post celebrates the publication day of The White Phoenix for friend and children’s novelist Catherine Randall. She’s wanted to write since she was a child and now Catherine has fulfilled this ambition with a fabulous middle grade children’s bookI adore the feisty thirteen-year-old protagonist in this novel, Lizzie Hopper, who helps to run the family bookshop near St Paul’s in the year of the Great Fire.

“Catherine Randall brings the streets of 17th century London vividly to life… A heart-warming and skilfully told tale.” Ally Sherrick, Black Powder and The Buried Crown

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Welcome Catherine.

Can you start by telling us where your writing journey began?

My writing journey began when I was a six-year-old living in Lincolnshire and I wrote my first ‘book’, alarmingly entitled, ‘Catherine, Lucy and the Goat’. We moved to Shropshire when I was seven, and I continued to write ‘books’, mostly thinly disguised imitations of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, with a few Victorian melodramas thrown in. When I grew up I tried my hand at adult short stories, but realised quite quickly that my heart was in children’s books. The books I read as a child remain the ones that resonate most deeply with me, and now I love reading new children’s books, partly as research, and partly just because they’re a great read.

What inspired you to write The White Phoenix?

I’ve been fascinated by the Great Fire of London ever since I was a child. When I visited London from Shropshire at the age of ten, the first thing I wanted to see was the Monument to the Fire. When I moved to London in my early twenties, I loved walking round the City, with its ancient churches and old street names dotted among the modern glass and steel buildings. Much later, at a time when I was looking for a subject for a story, I caught part of a radio programme about the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, and it reawakened my interest. When I started researching I discovered that London in 1666 was a great setting for a novel, not just because of the Fire but because of all the other things that were going on – war, fear of invasion, the plague, as well as all the prophecies swirling round London about the year 1666. I was initially going to write about St Paul’s, but then I realised it would be more fun to write about the many bookshops that clustered round the cathedral, especially as it was possible for a woman and her daughter to run a bookshop by themselves.

I started writing some time ago, but many of the themes in the book have turned out to have more resonance today than I could ever have imagined.

What are the challenges of publishing your first book during a pandemic?

The first thing to say is that I am absolutely delighted to be having a book published, and the thought of publication has been a beacon of light in what has been a tough year both generally and personally. However, there’s no denying that there are significant challenges. I think the worst thing is that I’ve not been able to do any events with children at bookshops or libraries. I know authors are doing virtual school visits, but it’s quite daunting if you have to start like that. I’m used to going into schools to talk about the Great Fire, but not so used to going into schools to promote a novel as well. But it is something I would very much like to do so I’ll have to get my head round it!

And of course I can’t help being sad that I’m not able to have a proper launch party, because there are so many people who have shared in this journey with me and whom I would like to thank. However, I am having a series of very small parties instead, so that’s going to be fun.

Who is the ideal reader for The White Phoenix?

I really hope that children aged from about 9 to 12 or 13 will enjoy it. I suppose it is a cliché to say so, but I have written the sort of book that I would have liked to read at that age. However, I also know that quite a few adults have read and enjoyed it, so that’s very gratifying.

Is there a message in the novel that you want young readers to grasp?

Lizzie, the main protagonist in the book, refuses to give in to the prejudice of other people around her and makes friends with a Catholic girl at a time when Catholics were very much considered the enemy. I hope that young readers will take away the message that they should never let others tell them what type of people they can or can’t be friends with.

I also hope that young readers grasp the message that you should stand up for what you believe in, which is what Lizzie tries to do, though not always successfully.

Which children’s authors have influenced you?

From my own childhood – Gillian Avery who wrote wonderful, vivid stories about Victorian children such as The Greatest Gresham;  Penelope Farmer who wrote my all-time favourite children’s book, the time-slip story Charlotte Sometimes; and K.M.Peyton, author of the Flambards books among many others. I had the privilege of meeting her once and she was so lovely.

More recent writers who have influenced me include Eva Ibbotson, Hilary McKay (I just love her family stories) and Lydia Syson who has written some terrific historical novels for teenagers.

But I am discovering new children’s authors all the time, and they all have an influence.

What’s next, Cathy?

I’m very excited about my new historical novel set largely in the early nineteenth-century, so once The White Phoenix is well and truly launched, I’m looking forward to getting back to that. However, I have to say that quite a few people have asked about a sequel to The White Phoenix, so I might give that some thought too. I love the characters so much, it would be a pleasure to go back to them.

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The Blurb

London, 1666. After the sudden death of her father, thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hopper and her mother take over The White Phoenix – the family bookshop in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

But England is at war with France and everywhere there are whispers of dire prophecies. As rumours of invasion and plague spread, Lizzie battles prejudice, blackmail and mob violence to protect the bookshop she loves.

When the Great Fire of London breaks out, Lizzie must rescue more than just the bookshop. Can she now save the friend she wasn’t supposed to have?

Purchase links

Foyles, Waterstones, Book Guild Bookshop, Amazon.

Social media

Twitter: @Crr1Randall

For children’s literature that is emotionally engaging, do give The White Phoenix a read. You won’t be disappointed.

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At the London Book Fair 2019

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Two in a row

I’m delighted to share the news that my debut novel The String Games has been shortlisted in another literary competition. This one is very close to my heart. As a resident of Dorchester I’m proud to be one of the final three in a competition founded by the Dorchester Literary Festival and sponsored by Hall & Woodhouse.

The aim of the competition is to continue Dorset’s literary tradition by investing in its homegrown talent. A judging panel, including professional writers and a leading literary agent compile the shortlist so this is a real chance to gain wider recognition for my debut novel. The awards ceremony, hosted by a leading writer will be held on 5 October 2020 (Covid-19 permitting).

I attended the previous two ceremonies, the inaugural competition was in 2018 and hosted by Kate Adie when Philip Browne won with his remarkable non-fiction book The Unfortunate Captain Peirce and the Wreck of the Halsewell about a shipwreck off the Dorset coast in 1786.

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Philip Browne receives his prize from Kate Adie.

Last year, my good friend Maria Donovan was on the shortlist and came runner-up with her moving story about loss and grief from a young boy’s perspective in The Chicken Soup Murderwhile Emma Timpany took the prize with Travelling in the Dark.

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Shortlistees from 2019 with Emma on the left, Maria on the right and centre is Minette Walters

I look forward to meeting the other shortlisted writers but the in meantime, I celebrate all those who were on the longlist:

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Although my name is on the cover of The String Games, there are many Dorset people who helped this novel reach its audience. Thank you to all those readers and writers who gave feedback and others who supported with proof reading and editing. Without you, my story may never have found a home with Victorina Press or gained recognition in writing competitions such as this.

 

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Posh frocks, presentations and prizes

Traditionally held at Stationers’ Hall, the eleventh annual awards ceremony for The People’s Book Prize was instead organised via Zoom thanks to Covid19. Finalists from the three categories were there, authors of fiction, non-fiction and children’s literature, plus all the publishers. The evening was hosted by founder Tatiana Wilson and director Tony Humphreys. At one point I found myself virtually rubbing shoulders with prize patron, Frederick Forsyth.

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We wore our finest clothes to make the occasion special. While I drank a cup of tea, others sipped wine. Like all finalists in the fiction category, I was able to say a few words about my novel and then the winner was announced. Author of The Weighing of the Heart gained the the sparkling trophy and I was very pleased to celebrate Paul Tudor Owen‘s success. I’ve been following Paul on Twitter for some time and feel I know him from the podcasts and interviews he’s offered since his novel was launched in March 2019. The Weighing of the Heart is a contemporary novel set in New York where the English protagonist Nick Braeburn becomes fascinated by his landlady’s Egyptian art and a young artist who lives nearby. Paul was very gracious in his acceptance speech and highlighted the importance of small presses in bringing to market stories that are overlooked by the big five publishers.

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Who can you spot in this photo of fiction finalists and others?

Becoming a finalist in The People’s Book Prize has been a wonderful experience. It’s raised the profile of my coming-of-age novel The String Gamesprovided a platform for my publisher Victorina Press and has given me the chance to connect with lots of wonderful authors. And there are many of you reading this post who I have to thank for helping me reach the finals. Without your votes, I would never have come this far. So, let me take this opportunity to thank you very much for your support.

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Tracking back to find the root of an idea

It’s long been my ambition to volunteer with VSO International. I received the vacancies newsletter for many years and have enjoyed browsing the range of educational opportunities available for one or two years. The problem has always been I can’t commit to that length of time. My husband has no interested in joining me, so I figure that if I want to stay married, the longest I can be away for is a few months. Back in the summer I noticed a position in Ethiopia working at a teaching training institution from April 2020 for six months. At last my time had come. I spent a couple of days working up an application and when I came to submit, the vacancy had vanished. After getting all fired up about this new possibility, I searched the VSO website for any other potential jobs and submitted several applications.

A few weeks later, I was invited to a Skype meeting for screening. Once successfully through this, it was explained that I needed to pass a situational online test and a panel interview to join the VSO bank, where I could wait for up to eighteen months for a short term vacancy to arise. My details would then be submitted to the country office for a further interview. During October, VSO suggested I apply for the post of protection and psychosocial support specialist working with early childhood care and education centres at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda. The position had originally been for one year but as funding was due to end in March 2020, this made a perfect short term position for me. I applied, was interviewed and offered the post to begin 8 December 2019.

This role really appealed to me because I had spent several years in Wandsworth working as an advisor for refugee pupils. During that time my work involved curriculum development to promote a greater understanding of the plight of refugees. The aim of these sessions was to enable pupils in mainstream classrooms to develop greater empathy and understanding for new arrival children from refugee backgrounds. One of the resources I used was a publication called One Day We Had to Run! which collected the stories of unaccompanied boys fleeing war to find safety at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The boys were also encouraged to share their memories, experiences and hopes through painting. The material for the book was collected by Sybella Wilkes, then a young aid worker at the camp who now works as the senior communications officer with UNHCR. I remember thinking at the time that this was a great thing to do and I wondered if there would ever be an opportunity for me to do something similar. And so, I guess the seed or an idea or ambition was sewn.

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When I thought about this further, the actual ambition to volunteer with VSO goes back much further. I lived in Papua New Guinea for two years following marriage to my first husband in 1982.  Tom got a job in Wabag, Enga Province and I accompanied him there. While he trained a National team at the Department of Works and Supply, I volunteered at a pre-school. Amongst the expatriate community in this far flung town was a Caribbean poet called Archie Markham. He was a VSO volunteer attached to the Department of Information as a media coordinator. As a working poet, he also established a series of poetry readings which became a highlight for the community. He went on to write a memoir of his time in Wabag titled Papua New Guinea Sojourn: More Pleasures of Exile. It seems to me, this is the deeper root of my wish to become a VSO volunteer. It’s possibly something to do with reclaiming that young woman I once was and combining it with the experience of my more mature years as a teacher and writer. Who knows? Like Archie I may find inspiration to write from working with refugee families at Bidibidi.

Before I get ahead of myself, it’s important to remember I’ve only been in post for two weeks. The in-country orientation in Kampala has involved briefings on the role, an introduction to administration systems, IT support and health and safety. Accommodation has been found for me at my placement and I’ll be joining my new colleagues at the office in Yumbe on 6 January. In the meantime, I’m staying in Gulu over the holiday period which will give me a chance to obtain furniture and furnishings for my new temporary home as well as celebrate Christmas with other VSO volunteers. Although there’s a lot going on at the moment, it doesn’t stop me from looking forward to starting my role at Bidibidi.

 

 

 

 

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Summer Break

I’ve been quiet on this blog over the summer because I spend a fortnight in Edinburgh each August. This is a wonderful city and delightful to visit when the Edinburgh Fringe is in full swing and during the two weeks of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Each morning at the book festival there is a free session called 10 at 10, where on the stroke of ten o’clock a visiting author provides a short reading of their work. It was during one of these sessions that I was introduced to the fabulous short stories written by Wendy Erskine.

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by the castle with friends

Wendy’s stories are set in East Belfast where she lives and works as a teacher. They are drawn from the people and place but reflect a wider narrative around challenges associated with love, isolation and the everyday obstacles that can floor us. I was intrigued by the snippet from a short story Wendy shared so I bought the collection Sweet Home and attended a Q&A session later in the day at Golden Hare Books, located near where I stay each summer in Stockbridge.

In her introductions, Wendy explains that she hasn’t been writing for long and credits a course run by The Stinging Fly magazine as instrumental to her development as a short story writer. She also claims her only previous publishing success was having a recipe for baked banana printed in a newspaper. (The instructions involved nothing more than putting a banana in a hot oven until the skin turns brown and then eating it.)

Sweet Home is a remarkable collection of ten short stories that fizz with tension, sadness and humour. The dialogue is outstanding which makes attending a reading such a pleasure. If you’re looking to dip into a collection that shares dark themes which are illuminated through everyday interactions, then this is the one for you.

 

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