the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

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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Woman on the Golden Hind

I’m reading a fascinating novel just now. It’s On Wilder Seas by Nikki Marmery. What an absolutely fabulous cover!

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The narrator is Maria, an enslaved woman who shares her experiences of living on the Golden Hind for nine months.  Meticulously researched, Nikki Marmery allows Maria to live and breathe where nothing is noted about her in the records besides the dates she boarded and left the ship. The action takes place in 1579 during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage.  Maria is a lone woman amongst eighty sailors. Determined to become free, Maria uses tenacity and quick thinking to her advantage.

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Many of you will know there is a reconstruction of the English galleon that has been  berthed at St Mary Overie Dock in Southwark since 1996. Whenever I walk past this full-size reconstruction of Golden Hind I am reminded of how compact the ship appears. Goodness knows how Maria coped! Since the launch of the  reconstruction in 1973, the galleon has sailed  more than 140,000 miles to San Francisco, Japan, the Caribbean and other destinations.  Impressive!

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I will be interested to meet Nikki Marmery online when we appear alongside Karen Havelin on the Debutants panel at the Stockholm Writers’ Festival on Friday 22 May 2020. We are all previous attendees of the festival and have had our debut novels published in the last year. Join us at what is now known as the #StuckHomeWritersFestival here.

 

 

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(unusually) ahead of the technology game

Now everyone is using video technology to keep in touch during lockdown, I’m proud to say I’ve been using this throughout my VSO placement in Uganda to continue writing collaboratively with friends at 3-She. Our comedy writing trio began in March 2017 when Sarah Scally, Maria Pruden and I attended a comedy sketch writing workshop. Our sketch Killer Ladybugs was then selected for a scripted reading scratch night at the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis.

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Flyer from the event in 2017

We continued our comedy writing journey at Sweet in Brighton, where Killer Ladybugs was staged as part of Cast Iron X, the tenth collection of short plays from Cast Iron Theatre. You can read about the experience here.

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Screenshot from WritersDuet of Killer Ladybugs

As we worked on new material, travelling across Dorset to meet up became very time consuming so we started using WritersDuet. This professional screenwriting software enabled us to draft our comedies collaboratively while discussing content during WhatsApp video calls.

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Impro on WhatsApp!

We’re still collaborating in this way and we are hoping to have a new sketch show ready for rehearsal whenever lockdown restrictions are lifted.

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E-volunteering and working as an author

Now that I’ve returned to the UK from my VSO volunteer placement at Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, I’m getting back into the swing of my writing life. You can read about how I am collaborating with illustrator Fiona Zechmeister on a children’s picture book called Pan-de-mo-nium here. But I’m not yet willing to relinquish my experiences in Uganda, so I’m very pleased to share the news that I’ve been appointed as a Psychosocial Support and Emotional Learning Expert E-volunteer. This appointment followed an online application and interview. I have a job description and an E-volunteer agreement which last six months and is renewable. I am very impressed with the thorough application process and the support offered by VSO in my new role. I’m also finding this work dovetails very well with my current writing project.

As part of my E-volunteer responsibilities, I’ll co-ordinate a task group with a focus on mental health, psychosocial support and emotional learning to help children and families in the poorest countries. Proposed work includes adapting advice material for parents to support the emotional wellbeing of young children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Already there is very relevant material published to support parenting, please see an example poster below:

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There are six posters altogether covering issues such as managing behaviour and providing structure for children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Click here to access these in a worldwide range of languages.

I’m also part of a storytelling task group and from my experience as an author of a children’s picture book, I hope to contribute fully.

During the Covid 19 restrictions, there are challenges in terms of coping with lockdown but also opportunities in extending virtual support to others. It’s a time of working out what’s important as an individual, as a family member and as part of a wider community.

How have you found Covid 19 has affected your outlook?

 

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Collaboration: writing and illustrating

I’ve been busy this week working with illustrator Fiona Zechmiester on a children’s picture book which has the working title ‘pan-de-mo-nim’. The main character is a purple panda called Peta. Because of her colouring, Peta is camouflaged and she causes chaos at her home in a department store. When one of the shop assistants notices she’s up to no good, Peta is made to look like all the other pandas which puts an end to her tricks. How can Peta become a cheeky panda again?

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Early sketches and exploration of colour

Fiona lives in Austria but studied in the UK and was awarded an MA in publishing from the University of Derby.  She works on a freelance basis and has been appointed by Victorina Press to illustrate my book which targets three-to-eight-year-old children. In Fiona’s work, the process of illustrating animals begins with a study of anatomy.

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Fiona’s research sketches

She then looks at details of a panda that are relevant to the story. Fiona has experience of using many different mediums for her illustrations but the story behind the picture is the guiding principle of the work.

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Fiona’s research sketches

As the illustrations have developed, I’ve redrafted the story and together Fiona and I decided on fonts and sizes for the text on different pages in the book. As much of my time as a writer involves working alone, this opportunity to work in collaboration has been a fantastic experience. I’ll be posting further illustrations as the picture book gets closer to publication with Victorina Press.

I previously worked with Fiona to design the cover of my debut novel The String Games. This cover won a finalist badge in the International Book Awards 2019. Voting is currently open at The People’s Book Prize where The String Games is a finalist in the fiction category 2020. Please pop over to the website and give my novel your support so that The String Games has a chance to receive further recognition in this prestigious competition. (If you voted in the earlier round, thank you, please vote again now the novel is a finalist.)

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Podcasts: stay-at-home journeys

I returned from  Uganda three weeks ago and I’m still living in a limbo space. I’m not yet willing to relinquish the experience of volunteering at Bidibidi refugee settlement and not ready to launch into a new project. So what am I doing with my time? While overseas, I started listening to podcasts and this is something I continue to enjoy. Before I left home I downloaded BBC Sounds and while I was away, began to also use the podcast app on my phone. Every time I went to a hotel or restaurant with good internet access, I downloaded as many episodes as I could. As it became dark in West Nile around 7:30pm, I was usually in bed an hour later. Although there was electricity in the evening until around midnight, my eyes were often too tired to read, so I’d lie down and listen to a podcast.

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There are some fabulous journalists who have turned their hand to creating podcasts and I became absorbed by many different stories including Paradise. In this series Dan Maudsley and Stephen Nolan investigate the deaths of British backpackers, Chris Farmer and Peta Frampton, who were found murdered in Guatemala after getting on a boat in 1978. Although there were witnesses to the murders, it takes thirty-eight years to arrest the only suspect. Why?

Another story I followed while overseas was The Missing Crypto Queen where Jamie Bartlett traces the whereabouts of Dr Ruja Ignatova who persuaded millions to join her financial revolution. Interestingly, episodes of this podcasts are recorded in Uganda, to illustrate the spread of her deceitful operation.

Now that I’m back at home, I’ve continued to listen to podcasts and can recommend Girl Taken by Sue Mitchell. The story shares the relationship between Rob Lawrie, a British volunteer at the Calais refugee camp and Reza who hopes to start a new life in England with his daughter Bru. Reza’s account of his experiences is not entirely truthful but Lawrie is taken with the idea of saving this refugee family. Both men make impetuous decisions that have consequences.

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I’ve listened to quite a few cold case stories from North America where journalist try to crack unsolved crimes. One of the most interesting is Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo, where Canadian journalist Connie Walker unravels the story of a child believed to be murdered. Cleo, a young Cree girl, was taken by welfare workers from her home in Saskatchewan and put up for adoption in America. This shameful period which tore families, siblings and communities apart became known as the Sixties Scoop. But what happened to Cleo? The answers are obtained after a nugget of information is revealed during a late night internet search. (Incidentally, I could listen to Connie Walker all day. She has an easy-on-the-ear voice and is an empathetic interviewer.)

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A wish for South Sudan: enduring peace

Before I left the UK to begin my placement at Bidibidi in Uganda (a settlement where refugees from South Sudan are offered a chance to rebuild their lives) a friend recommended I read Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins. It tells the story of a young, glamorous aid worker, Emma McClune, who went to Sudan in 1987 with an ambition to do good. She embraced her role at Street Kids International and passionately worked towards improving access to education for children. Emma was also impulsive and headstrong: she married Riek Machar, a warlord, and became embroiled in politics. By the time of her death in 1993 in a car accident in Nairobi, Scroggins suggests that for all her courage and commitment, Emma did little to change anything.

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The backdrop to Emma’s story is the complex historic, social, cultural and political situation in Sudan. Following years of civil war, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Peace was short lived and civil war erupted in 2013 when President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of supporting a failed coup. An agreement to halt the conflict collapsed in 2015 and fighting continued, primarily in Yei River state. This is the area from which many of the refugees in Bidibidi fled in 2016. In Yei, the National Salvation Front (NAS), continued to fight government forces. By 2018, a power sharing agreement was signed between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar which led to the signing of a Unity Government agreement on 20 February 2020. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called upon members of the Transitional Government of National Unity to “fully adhere to the letter and spirit of the Agreement”, so that the people of South Sudan can finally realise the benefits of durable peace and stability they deserve.

Following the announcement of a peace agreement, the South Sudanese refugees I knew in Bidibidi remained cautious. None were ready to rush back to their homeland but instead adopted a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach. One of the caregivers (a teacher of young children) I worked with, Beatrice, talked about her life before becoming a refugee. She married young, had two children then was widowed when her husband was killed in a motorbike accident. Her father owned some land where she was able to develop skills of cultivation. She grew cassava, maize and beans. Then she married a second time (had two further children) and she continued to cultivate the land of her husband’s family. ‘My life at that time was very nice. I made money and paid for my children to go to school, paid for them when they were sick. I bought clothing for myself and my children. I had a very happy life in South Sudan. Then the time of war started and I had to save my life and my children. I lost everything: my land, my house, my garden. We were afraid as any person could attack you, rebels were everywhere. They would grab anything you have. They took things from my garden saying it belonged to them. If you don’t have luck they kill you, if you have luck they just let you go.’

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