the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Limitations and opportunities during the pandemic

Last month I received the news that the Mani Lit Fest 2020 is cancelled. I had been excited about travelling to Greece in October to deliver a couple of workshops and some readings. Although the decision is totally understandable, it did come as a disappointment. But not any more. I understand the festival will be running in 2021 so that’s definitely something to look forward to.

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Church in Chori where Bruce Chatwin’s ashes are buried

The Mani is a beautiful part of Greece and you can read about an earlier visit to writer Carol McGrath‘s house near the delightful seaside town of Stoupa here. Living through a pandemic has many limiting factors and prospects for overseas travel or indeed any sort of travel takes considerable planning. It seems that Coronvirus has the capacity to clip wings but it opens other opportunities. I’ve loved having more regular Zoom calls with friends in Australia, for example.

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When e-volunteering and writing collide

As a former VSO international volunteer at Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda, I am  pleased to be able to continue work with colleagues remotely. I was repatriated from my post as a psychosocial and child protection adviser due to Covid19 in March 2020. Now I’m in contact with team in Yumbe to develop ways to support young children and families through the pandemic.

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In Uganda, the lockdown continues much as experienced elsewhere: social distancing, wearing of masks, essential shopping only etc. Yet in a country where there have been only 870 cases (as of 30 June) and no deaths, one might think that restrictions would be easing. But such is the concern to avoid spread of the virus, there remains no proposals to reopen schools, no allowing of motorcycle taxis (bodas) to carry passengers and no opening of shopping centres. Indeed there is no indication of when lockdown may end. 
This has considerable implications for families who are forced into poverty due to loss of earning. And as for children, without schools this not only means a lack of education but can mean hunger where children rely on school feeding programmes.

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Writing prize longlist announced

Imagine my delight when I received an email saying The String Games has been longlisted in the Dorchester Literary Festival Local Writing Prize. This is fabulous news as it means my novel is recognised in my home county of Dorset. An announcement on Facebook gives details of the five other longlistees. It’s such fun to find myself in the great company of three writers I know and respect. They are Helen Baggott, author of Posted in the Past, Cathie Hartigan author of Notes from the Lost (Cathie was also shortlisted in 2018 competition with her debut novel) and Brent Shore author of Blessed are the Meek. The two other authors are A K Biggins author of Losing Jane and Vivienne Endecott  author of Exploring Englishness.

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What is it with me?

Just when I gain the skills and confidence to be good at something, I decide to move on and try something new. I can see this pattern in my writing. First I was all enthusiastic about flash fiction, then writing a novel. Poetry got shoe-horned between the two and now I’m into children’s literature. Others like to consolidate their learning and deepen their understanding but I’m more interested in starting the next new project. What is it with me?

 

I came to reflect on the meandering journey of my writing career when I shared with a friend my new passion for cycling. It started with a bad knee. When I came back from Uganda into lockdown UK, I decided to use the full one hour per day of time we were allowed to exercise. Hence my runs lengthen from 6km to 8km and I was out every single day. I knew from half marathon training that running each day is not recommended but I became so focused on running further and faster that I ignored my better judgement until my knee buggered. Then even walking was painful and after a week of elevating my leg and applying frozen peas, my knee was better. So, as lockdown continued and my need to get out every day grew, I took up cycling. I was amazed that my lady shopper bike that had never been used since arriving in Dorset in 2007 still had tyres fit to cycle on.

When I started to become fit in 2017, I so enjoyed swimming. Loved going back to the sport I enjoyed as a child and even re-taught myself how to swim front crawl and regularly completed forty lengths of the pool. The only trouble with swimming is the drag of getting to the pool only to end up wet and cold. So, running was an improvement on that. I could start my exercise on leaving the front door and running in any weather certainly warms you up. Now my passion is cycling. This is good to do in the time of Coronavirus because you have to grip the handlebar and there’s no chance of touching anything untoward while out and about.

So with this background in changing exercise routines, should I think about doing a triathlon? Certainly not. It’s one obsession at a time for me. And so for my writing. It’s all about children’s literature at the moment. This week finds me busy making contact with book bloggers who specialise in children’s picture books and I’ve also attended several sessions at an online children’s literature festival. So with the publication of Pan de mo nium scheduled for December, what is my next project going to be? I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s got something to do with podcasts.

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Waterloo Festival 2020

The Waterloo Festival has been running for ten years and it’s a great celebration of community and creativity. St John’s Church is behind this venture and works with partners in the area to generate a variety of creative happenings during the festival month of June. I’ve entered the annual writing competition for three years in a row and I’ve been fortunate to be amongst the winners each time. In previous years there has been an opportunity to share our stories in the church and I love taking the opportunity for a trip to London. I have a particular fondness for Waterloo. Coming into the station by train, I catch sight of the London Eye, the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben between high rise buildings.

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Photo taken from the sky for Pixabay NOT the train!

During my London life, I worked for a charity with offices is situated in The Cut. After work I often met friends or went to one of the shows at the Old Vic or the Young Vic which are both nearby theatres.  Indeed the National Theatre is only around the corner and walking along the South Bank of the Thames is one of my favourite things to do. A scene for my novel The String Games is set there:

Where the path narrows, Imogen lingers watching the Thames. Waves of slate and mottled brown weave together like twine. It’s low tide and the river has shrunk, making a beach. Imogen leans against the railing and a glimpse of winter sun is a reward for leaving the office at lunchtime. A woman is standing by the water’s edge and in the shallows there is a boy in wellington boots …

This year the Waterloo Festival has gone online. At the launch of the ebook anthology  ‘Transforming Communities’, I met lots of fellow writers via Zoom. There was a chance for chat and some winners read their stories. Here we all are, spruced up for an online party.

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Thanks to Euchar Gravina director of the Waterloo Festival 2020 for hosting the event and Gill James for organising the competition.

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sneak preview: pan de mo nium

I’ve been working on a children’s picture book for a very long time indeed. The idea for pan de mo nium came when I was teaching a module of writing for children to undergraduates at the University of South Wales in 2015. We were looking at some features of anthropomorphism, where animals have human characteristics, and I shared examples where this technique was used to explore danger vicariously and therefore safely. Students joined the discussion before going slightly off task and started chatting about cute red pandas.

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Red pandas are found in the mountains of Nepal, northern Myanmar and central China. These animals spend most of their lives in trees.

I spent a long time wondering what the relationship would be like between a giant panda and a red panda living in central China. I started thinking about what it would be like to be part of the same family but look totally different. (Although in fact red pandas are not related to giant pandas). Could these thoughts be explored through anthropomorphism? Would it be possible for a cute and cuddly character to experience tensions around not fitting in?  I began to wonder if the issue of identity could be explored through children’s fiction by creating a purple panda.

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In Pan de mo nium Peta lives in a department store where her purple colour offers camouflage. She gets up to all sorts of mischief but when she’s spotted, the shop assistant puts an end to her tricks.  What can Peta do to become a cheeky panda once again?

Here’s a sneak preview of a scene from inside the book.  I love the colour palate that Fiona Zechmeister has cleverly used here.

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Happy Birthday to you

My debut novel The String Games is one year old today. It’s been quite a journey from launch to anniversary and here are some of the things I have learnt along the way.

Book launches

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  • invite everyone you know and turn the launch into a party to thank all those who have shown interest in your writing . Make sure there’s plenty of wine and nibbles, and loads of books to sell!

Make the most of opportunities 

  • when I attended a Christmas lunch 2018 with the Society of Authors in Salisbury, I had no idea it would lead to an invitation to deliver a session at the Bridport Literary Festival 2019. Chance meetings are often the best!

Put yourself out there

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  • Press releases have enabled The String Games to feature locally, regionally and nationally in print publications and online features. I’ve also talked on local radio programmes several times. There’s nothing wrong with getting about!

Literary festivals

  • I’ve attended so many festivals as a participant but now I’m a published novelist it’s a delight to feature on programmes as an invited guest. Besides the Bridport Literary Festival, I’ve also delivered input at Sturminster Newton Literary Festival, Blandford Literary Festival and Stockholm Writers Festival. Get me, delivering at international events!

Finge Festivals

  • I write collaboratively as part of 3-She to develop comedy sketches. Last summer we took a show to  Shaftesbury Fringe. There’s such a lot to be learnt from the process of writing with others. Love a good gig!

Curry favour with your publisher

  • I’m delighted that Victorina Press have show confidence and commitment in me as an author and thanks to my publisher, I attended the London Book Fair 2019. My novel is also a finalist in The People’s Book Prize. Covid 19 permitting, there’s a black tie do to celebrate this achievement later this year!
  • The team at Wordsmith_HQ continue to promote my poetry pamphlet adversaries/comrades and share my writing successes across their writing community. Good eggs all round!

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Global Day of Solidarity, 22 May 2020

To mark the Global Day of Solidarity returned VSO volunteers were encouraged to post an image on Twitter to convey a message of solidarity with the hashtag Stronger Together.

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This is the photo I shared. The picture was taken in Yumbe town where caregivers (teachers of young children) were receiving training on curriculum development. We were actually doing the Hokey Cokey which everyone loved and my colleague, Josephine, took the photo.

I’ve been back from Uganda for two months but my concern for the refugee families from South Sudan I worked with at Bidibidi refugee settlement grows as Coronavirus spreads. Although the Ugandan government has a strong track record of preventing outbreaks, such as closing the international airport on 20 March, the area in which I worked is particularly vulnerable. The settlement is in the district of Yumbe (also the name of the principal town) and is located in West Nile region in the far north-west of the country.  Borders with Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan are porous. Uganda has reported only 175 confirmed cases of Corona virus to date, but on 16 May there was a peak in reporting with forty-three new cases, all truck drivers.

In South Sudan there are fears for the spread of Coronavirus with reports that the virus has reached a UN refugee camp in the capital, Juba, where some 30,000 people have sought shelter and protection. One of the country’s four Vice Presidents, Riek Machar (read a little about Riek Machar and Emma McClune here) has contracted Covid 19. According to the BBC, ‘experts worry that decades of conflict has left South Sudan incapable of dealing with a surge in new infections’. There are also fresh outbreaks of violence with about 800 people killed in intercommunal fighting since a new treaty aimed at ending the country’s six-year civil war was signed in February 2020.

All this may have implications for Bidibidi where already the food ratio for refugees has been reduced by 30% which makes it hard for vulnerable families to maintain health and wellbeing. Further restrictions imposed to stop the spread of Coronavirus also impact on the host community. On 18 May 2020, President Museveni announced a further twenty-one day extension to lockdown but with the easing of some restrictions in the coming days and weeks:

  • Private transport with up to 3 people in a vehicle is allowed from 26 May, BUT NOT in border districts 
  • General merchandise shops can open from 26 May
  • Public transport at half capacity allowed from 4 June, BUT NOT in border districts
  • Education ministry to have an action plan by 4 June to restart school in some primary and secondary classes

There’s also published guidance on the use of masks:

In view of the restriction placed on all our lives due to this pandemic, it’s certainly worth keeping in mind the benefits of global solidarity and the message #StrongerTogether.

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Vote! Vote! Vote!

Regular followers of this blog must be very aware that The String Games is a finalist in The People’s Book Prize. I’ve written several posts about this competition and have encouraged you to vote for my debut. Thanks to you, The String Games is now a finalist in the fiction category 2020 but in order to become a winner, I need you to vote again.

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Why is this competition important?

For a debut novelist published by a small press, The People’s Book Prize offers an opportunity for The String Games to reach a wider audience. The theme of this coming-of-age novel is about resilience: how it’s possible to overcome barriers in life and embrace fresh starts and new beginnings. The novel shares important messages and that’s why I’m so keen for The String Games to do well.

By entering The String Games into The People’s Book Prize, Victorina Press have shown their commitment and confidence in my work. When a small press receives the accolade of publishing a winning novel in a national competition, this provides a platform to showcase other important books such as One Woman’s Struggle in Iran by Nasrin Parvaz.

For a healthy publishing ecosystem, it’s important that small presses do well and have their place in the sun. Without small presses, there would be less diversity in publishing and less choice of books for readers.

Why vote for The String Games in The People’s Book Prize?

The People’s Book Prize is a unique literary competition which aims to find, support and promote new and undiscovered works. Winners are decided exclusively by the public. Watch this video produced by The People’s Book Prize for more information.

 

Voting is easy. Just pop across the The People’s Book Prize and give The String Games your support. The competition closes on 30 May 2020.

Thank you!

 

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Scratched Enamel Heart, Amanda Huggins

Here’s a treat for you. Amanda Huggins joins The Writer is a Lonely Hunter to answer a few questions about her latest (fabulous) short story collection Scratched Enamel Heart.

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About Scratched Enamel Heart

A lonely woman spends a perfect night with a stranger, yet is their connection enough to make her realise life is worth living? Maya, a refugee, wears a bracelet strung with charms that are a lifeline to her past; when the past catches up with her, she has a difficult decision to make. Rowe’s life on the Yorkshire coast is already mapped out for him, but when there is an accident at the steelworks he knows he has to flee from an intolerable future. In the Costa prize-winning ‘Red’, Mollie is desperate to leave Oakridge Farm and her abusive stepfather, to walk free with the stray dog she has named Hal.

These are stories filled with yearning and hope, the search for connection and the longing to escape. They transport the reader from India to Japan, from mid-west America to the north-east coast of England, from New York to London. Battered, bruised, jaded or jilted, the human heart somehow endures.

About Amanda

Amanda Huggins is the author of the short story collection, Separated From the Sea, which received a Special Mention in the 2019 Saboteur Awards, and a second collection, Scratched Enamel Heart, which features ‘Red’, her prize-winning story from the 2018 Costa Short Story Award. She has also published a flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses and a poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, which is currently shortlisted for  a Saboteur Award.

She has been placed and listed in numerous competitions including Fish, Bridport, Bath, InkTears, the Alpine Fellowship Writing Award and the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award. Her travel writing has also won several awards, notably the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014, and she has twice been a finalist in the Bradt Guides New Travel Writer Award.

Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire.

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Questions for Amanda

Your stories in Scratched Enamel Heart are set in different countries and locations. How do you decide on a setting for your story. What is the importance of the place in the development of your story?

It has always been important to me that my fiction has a strong sense of place – something I’ve carried over from my travel writing. Sometimes an idea for the setting comes first, and the story that follows is inspired and shaped by certain aspects of the location. The landscapes and cities in which the stories are set became important characters in their own right. They can reflect emotions or influence characters’ behaviour – such as the way the wait for the monsoon rains affects Maggie’s decisions in ‘A Longing for Clouds’, and the heat and desert landscape have an effect on Miranda in ‘Distant Fires’ – two stories set in the sensory overload of India. Closer to home, a snow-filled London becomes a major character in ‘A Brightness To It’, forming a soft-edged cocoon around the main characters. Two strangers bond in a soulless hotel room after a chance encounter, and are protected from the reality of the outside world by the beauty of their snow-changed environment – yet the city is only temporarily altered, and this reflects their own fragile situation. In ‘Red’, Mollie is trapped on Oakridge Farm with her mother and violent stepfather, and the vast spaces and relentless red dust of the American mid-west are a contrast to her confinement. The open plains and the endless highway offer freedom, yet the landscape is also hostile and bleak, holding up a mirror to her predicament. One of my favourite locations is Japan. My stories are often about displacement and alienation, trying to find connection, about lost characters in big cities. This can go hand in hand with the notion of things never being exactly as they seem, of them being a little off-centre, misunderstood, or lost in translation – and Japan is the perfect backdrop to reflect that.

The stories in Scratched Enamel Heart range in length from a single side to several pages. How do you decide the length of each story?

It’s not often that I set out to write a piece of fiction of a particular length. I’m usually exploring an idea without knowing where it will take me – it could end up being 300 words or 3000 words. Sometimes, when a longer story isn’t working, I find it can be pared right down to a one-page story that works much better. However, I am writing longer stories most of the time right now, and in doing so I seem to be going against the trend. As more writers are turning towards short flash pieces, I find I’m leaning towards longer fiction!

Congratulations on signing with Victorina Press for the publication of your novella. It’s good to have you onboard as a fellow Victorina Press author. You’ve also had a collection of poetry recently published, the wonderful The Collective Nouns For Birds. What’s it like being a writer of short fiction, long fiction and poetry? How do you manage your time?

Thanks, Gail! I’m already enjoying working with the Victorina team – and it’s lovely to share a publisher with writers I know, such as yourself and Chris Fielden. All our Squandered Beauty is my first novella, and is based around the title story from my first short story collection, Separated From the Sea.

The Collective Nouns for Birds began to take shape when I was snowed-in at a cottage in the North Pennines. I didn’t plan to write a collection – I was just feeling my way at first, as I hadn’t written any poetry since my late teens. However, I discovered I really enjoyed writing it, and the poems started to come together as a loosely themed body of work. A review by Amanda McLeod sums it up better than I can:  “Huggins explores…all the ways in which we lose things, the clarity and sometimes sadness that retrospection can bring. There is the transition from childhood to adulthood, the parting of lovers and friends, loss of life, of special places.”

I don’t think poetry and short fiction are always that different from each other. My prose style leans towards the lyrical/poetical, and I tend to write narrative poetry, so for me there is a real crossover between the two forms. Sometimes a poem will morph into a short story and vice versa – there are a couple of poems in my collection which also feature as flash pieces in Scratched Enamel Heart.

Longer fiction is a relatively new direction for me, and once again it’s something that has come about by accident rather than by design. Both my novellas have developed from short stories, and in each case it was because several readers wanted to know what happened next after those original stories had ended.

I sometimes find it difficult to manage my time – especially as I have a day job four days a week – but once I’m committed to a project then I always finish it before moving on to the next thing. I already have a ‘next thing’ in sight actually – and it may well turn out to be the longest writing project I’ve undertaken to date!

Wow, Amanda. You are so prolific. Good luck with your next project!

If you’re interested in learning more about Amanda, you can read a previous interview here.

Where to find Amanda

@troutiemcfish

https://troutiemcfishtales.blogspot.com/

Where to purchase Scratched Enamel Heart

Available from 27 May from Amazon 

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My review of Scratched Enamel Heart

This short fiction collection contains twenty-four emotionally-charged stories that take readers on a journey to households and communities in a range of countries. Through these stories, Amanda Huggins cleverly shows us the commonality of emotional experience. That feelings of isolation, love, grief, loss and regret occur in different backgrounds and cultures. And equally, that hope and the promise of a fresh start is possible. Amanda Huggins writes in a beautiful and empathetic way to immerse readers in the challenges and dilemmas she presents to her characters. As readers we care about these characters and learn from them. This is a truthful, authentic and essential read.

 

 

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