Category: Cultured Llama Publishing

Noticing the beauty in ordinariness: There are Boats on the Orchard

I am delighted to announce the publication of There are Boats on the Orchard. These poems began as a filler of time, after I had finished the final draft of my story collection As Long as it Takes. I was bereft, having lived with those characters for so many years, and spending time in my writing shed, staring out of the window, or walking the orchard that I could see outside. So I started writing about what I could see: the bunting I had made dripping in the rain, then drying; the arrival of boats, parked by the dead tree near our fence; a woodpecker in the snow, as I sat at my desk with a sleeping bag wrapped round me; local children trespassing, bouncing on a trampoline left out by the orchard owner after a family party.

I went away on a residential writing weekend with Lynne Rees, showed her some of the poems, and talked about my feelings of bereavement after As Long as it Takes was finished. Lynne was encouraging, and I kept going, observing and writing and walking the nearby orchards. Lynne is also an orchard walker, observer – in fact an orchard owner –  and I am delighted to read her review of There are Boats on the Orchardalongside her own thoughts on the changing face of orchards, and how humans deal with change.

And it’s the themes of ‘endings’ and being poorer for what’s lost that percolate McCarthy’s collection: disappearing cherry orchards, the loss of an inspiring view, the absence of seasonal visiting sheep, and the urbanisation of green fields accompanied by the inevitable decline in wildlife: rabbits, woodpeckers, kestrel. So the threads of resentment and sadness throughout many of the 25 poems are to be expected. In ‘Eden Village’, a housing estate built on a former cherry orchard, the children do not play in the natural paradise suggested by the title but “are in their rooms playing games.” In ‘Strange Fruits’ the hedgerows are littered with “Stella cans, a Co-operative bakery wrapper/”. 
 
But despite this tone and detail I do not leave this collection feeling bereft or hopeless and that may well be down to McCarthy’s lyrical language and syntax which, like the pheasants in the previously mentioned poem, are often “Joyous miracles.” 
 
In her previous urban home, “The quarter hours chimed with stolen light.” (from ‘Prologue’ p.1). Her home-made bunting survives, “Rain and shine, rain and shine;/ washed and dried, washed and dried.” (from ‘Drought’ p.11). And I’m particularly comforted by the poplars in the final poem, “Last” that “shush as they bend.” 
 
Because isn’t this how humanity moves forward with grace? By noticing the beauty in ordinariness? By accepting what cannot be changed? By bending but not breaking? And by celebrating and commemorating both past and present, its joys and griefs.

Read Lynne Rees’s review here.

I’d long wanted to work with an artist on these poems, and was delighted to find that Sara Fletcher, whom I knew as a friend of a friend, had wonderful skills in sketching. We walked the orchards together last autumn, which turned out to be our last year living in the house that backed onto the orchard. Sara’s drawings have made There are Boats on the Orchard a beautiful thing, as has Mark Holihan’s design work.

On the day that There are Boats on the Orchard was collected from the printer’s, news came through of plans to build houses on the orchard that I thought of as mine. I am glad not to be there to see this happen, but happy to have the poems and images in this pamphlet to chronicle the years of living next to the disappearing orchards of Kent.

You can only buy the pamphlet from Cultured Llama, for £7 plus p&p: There are Boats on the Orchard 

The Hungry Writer by Lynne Rees is also available from Cultured Llama.

There will be events to launch There are Boats on the Orchard some of them in orchards. See Events on the Cultured Llama website.

For the love (and fear) of short stories

I love short stories. I fear them, too. As a reader, a good short story can stay in the memory for a lifetime. As a writer, one short story can have several lives: a publication in a print or online magazine; placed in an anthology; part of a single-author collection; a prizewinner. My story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ has now achieved three of these, having won the Society of Authors Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015.

The Society of Authors Awards Party was over a month ago, and it has taken me this long to process the experience. There was an email three weeks before, which swore me to secrecy until the awards evening. There was the choosing of something to wear. There was the feeling that there had been some kind of mistake, that someone else would be called up to receive the £1000 award. There was also my usual terror of big occasions. I told myself that I would escape as soon as seemed decent after the awards had all been given – £85,000 was being distributed for a variety of literary awards. There was also the fact that I had recently been at the point of giving up on writing short stories.

Blogging comes easily to me, as does other forms of non-fiction writing. Writing poetry is harder, but not as hard as the months and years it takes me to write a short story. As I write this post, I am avoiding going back to a story I have been working on since Christmas. I think I have come to the end of the first draft (I never know how a story might end when I begin it), but now comes the editing, the picking apart and discarding, rearranging the order of things, adding new sections. The truth is, I’m scared of it.

Here are a few popular misconceptions about short stories:

They are easy to knock off in an afternoon – after all, they are short.

Wrong – it takes a very long time for the writer to reduce a story to the fewest, best words. It’s like writing poetry in that respect. In fact poets write very good short stories for that reason. See poet Kate Clanchy’s excellent short story collection The Not-Dead and the Saved.

They appeal to people’s short attention spans; people can zip through a book of them in no time at all.

Wrong – stories require good attention from the reader, and they are like rich desserts: you take your time over them, and you wouldn’t want to consume several at one sitting.

Short story writers are failed novelists.

Wrong – short story writers have chosen a difficult form, perhaps one that is more difficult than novel-writing.

I could go on…

At the awards party, I spoke to several writers who have great respect for the short form. Ben MacIntyre, who was receiving the Elizabeth Longford Prize for his book about Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends, said, ‘Ah, proper writing’ when I told him I had won a prize for a short story. In that room that evening, there were people who understood the devilish nature of the short form, who looked on me as a good writer for having mastered writing at least one good story.

Tom-Gallon Award winners - Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

Tom-Gallon Award winners – Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

After the awards had been handed out (remember that this was the moment I had planned to escape the scary big party), I got into conversation with Joanne Harris. We talked about the low regard for short stories among the bigger publishers, and how approaching literary agents as a short story writer means they don’t get beyond ‘short stories’ on the covering letter before reaching for the rejection slip. We talked about how a short story can stay with you for the whole of your life: we both loved reading Oscar Wilde’s fairytales as children, both sobbed at ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’. I told Joanne that I was trying to write a ghost story and I was scared to return it, that I might fail. ‘That means it’s good,’ she said.

The lights were being turned on and off in the room; it was time to leave. In fact I had stayed way beyond the official end of the party. ‘You do realise that’s THE Joanne Harris,’ Aamer Hussein, one of the judges of my prize, said to me. Yes, I’d been aware of that for the first minute or so, but then it was just two writers talking about what they do, what they love.

The Awards Party was a glittering evening, studded with big name writers, people I had been in awe of. The truth is that we all share the same thing – we have to return to sit alone in a room to put words on the page, and many of us are terrified by it. Even Philip Pullman told my friend and I that when he finishes a morning’s writing, he stops at the top of a page, so he won’t have to face a blank page the next time he comes to write.

Winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award is a big thing. Some friends have said, ‘You’ll sell more books; maybe you’ll get an agent now.’ I am expecting neither. I’m a realist. I write short stories, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not interested in writing novels. The hard task of writing (and selling) short stories for very little return is my lot, my vocation. The £1000 prize is more than I have ever received for my writing; it’s a good thing to add to my writer’s biography. But it won’t sell more copies of As Long as it Takes and it doesn’t take away the love-hate relationship I have with writing short stories.

The winning story of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, was first published on Writers’ Hub along with a blog piece on how I came to write the story: From Noreen to Norah: on writing More Katharine than Audrey. The story appears in my short story collection As Long as it Takes.

My love of short stories, and an awareness of the few opportunities that exist to publish them, led to the establishment of Cultured Llama Publishing, which publishes poetry, short stories and Curious Things (cultural non-fiction). Cultured Llama now boasts two winners of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award among its authors. Emma Timpany won the award in 2011 . Her debut short story collection The Lost of Syros has just been published by Cultured Llama.

I am judging the Save As Writers’ ‘Writing the City’ short story award this year. The closing date is 31 August 2015. More details here.

Here are a few champions of the short story: Short Stops; Thresholds; The Reading Life.

From ‘Kidney bingo?’ to selling books by Rochester Castle

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

I’ve been a punter at Rochester Sweeps Festival for some 25 years, starting when my children were small through to now being the grandmother of an 18-month-old. This year, for the first time, I was stallholder, helping to sell books for Cultured Llama Publishing. We at Cultured Llama have just published Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris, so we set up alongside stalls selling musical instruments and records in a car park by the moat of Rochester Castle. It brought me back to some happy days in my teens.

My first job was selling fundraising bingo cards door to door, when I was about 12 or 13, for a charity supporting kidney patients. My line to my regulars as they opened the door was, ‘Kidney bingo?’ I wondered if, after carefully tearing the perforations on three sides of their pale mauve bingo cards, their numbers matched those in the winners’ brochure, they might win a new kidney for themselves.

The council house customers on my round were quick to find the money for their weekly gamble-in-a-good-cause. The few in what we called the ‘private houses’ in Castle Road, especially the harrased-looking woman in the house that gave the road its name (it had a mini-tower with castellations), often did not have the change to pay for their tickets.

From there, I followed on to serving on the sweets counter at Woolworth’s, after school and on Saturdays, then graduated to International Stores. After serving my time shelving and on the tills, I gained the role of Saturday chief cashier, working in the office, getting change bags for the tills from the heavy-doored safe, which stood in the front window of the shop. Anyone who was so inclined could have challenged me with a knife, a shotgun, or just the threat of violence as I stood with the safe door open exchanging bags of ten pence pieces for ten pound notes, or storing the till drawers in there at the end of the day. But no one ever bothered me.

Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, I had the most fun working in a shop. I made friends who I met outside of work, going underage drinking in the pubs of Epsom, off to discos and parties. Although the work was hard, I preferred being busy all day, as it made the time go fast.

What I loved most was the brown paypacket with actual cash in it, and a little payslip on thin paper with pale numbers printed in the boxes marking hours worked, pounds and pence earned.

So when it came to being a stallholder at the Sweeps (if only for a day or two), I was quite excited. Laying out the stall, pricing up with coloured stickers. Preparing the float for the cash tin. Marking down sales and giving change.

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Daughter Rachel and granddaughter Caitlin lend a hand on the Cultured Llama stall

It all came back to me – customer service, as we didn’t call it back in the ’70s, and with the bonus of having a part in the production of the books we were selling. I was able to tell people about our stable of Scottish poets, for instance, and even introduce some of our authors who dropped by to the customers who were looking at their books.

Not everyone bought a book. Some chatted a while and left empty handed, some scanned the book table at high speed, not even noticing that there was a human being sitting behind it. For some of the time, I sat with my granddaughter on my lap as I waited for customers. Georgie on a neighbouring stall shared homemade lemon drizzle cake with the other stallholders at quiet times. Customers on the Hobgoblin stand offered virtuoso performances on melodeons, guitars and mandolins (husband Bob included) and my granddaughter danced with joy to a reggae band on a nearby stage. My daughter and I joined in with her; three generations dancing at my favourite festival.

Life has changed since my teens, when I could lift boxes off warehouse shelves, stack them in a trolley cage, and wheel it out to the shop floor. A bad back prevents me from carrying much more than a tea tray; chronic ill health means that a day selling books must be followed by several days of rest. But, for a short time, I was taken back to my shopgirl days. Next time, I fancy one of those aprons with zipped pockets for the change.

‘Saturday Girl’ is a story based on my experiences working in Woolworth’s. Here is an extract:

Sharon looked at the clock above the centre checkout as she dashed to the sweet counter: one minute to nine; just on time. She hated that clock. In the last hour on a Saturday afternoon the minute hand seemed frozen, moving at the rate of the glaciers she’d learned about in geography. Now it meant an hour and half until tea break.

Steve answered her smile with a nod and a ‘Morning, Sharon.’ She wondered when it would be all right to say, ‘Steve and I are going out together.’ She wasn’t expecting a full-on snog in the staff canteen, but some acknowledgement – a wink, a glint in the eye.

She pulled a box of chocolate-covered brazil nuts from below the counter, and tipped some into the Perspex container next to the Quality Street. Paul whizzed by, dipped into the chocolate brazils and pocketed a handful. She flushed and glanced around. Steve was bundling a box of toothpaste onto toiletries; Mrs Harris was demonstrating the Avery pricing machine to a new girl. Both dashed to the records’ counter as The Stranglers clashed across the shop floor. Ralph had broken the rule of playing only the latest Top-of-the-Pops not-by-the-original-artists album. Everyone who had the good fortune to be on records gave it a try, playing their favourite record. No one, so far, had got beyond track one. Meanwhile, Paul bounded up the stairs with a brazil nut-shaped bulge in his cheek, looking like her brother’s hamster.

Steve came over as she was laying out the scoops on the loose sweets. He picked one up and ran it over the top of the chocolate brazils, as if to smooth them. ‘Lou’s favourite, these,’ he said, and wandered off with a pained look. Sharon took the scoop and dug it into the back of the display.

‘Saturday Girl’ is available in my collection of linked short stories, As Long as It Takes.

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