I’ve got a new little book coming out in July (but you can pre-order it now). It’s a collection of seven short stories, all set in the same universe – which is our world, except that a house has inexplicably appeared on the moon. The house drives some people mad, while others don’t even believe it’s real. But everyone, from under-employed millenials to global superstars, is affected.
I wrote these stories over a period of three months while I was travelling around Croatia, which is a very beautiful country with some of the best-looking people I have ever seen in my life. Some of the settings in the House stories are lifted straight out of Zagreb, Split, and the islands of Korcula and Badija. But I swear to God I didn’t kill anyone there. Not even a little bit.
Ten years have passed since I arrived in Edinburgh, got a job, found a nice wee flat by the river, worked out that ‘how’ meant ‘why’ and that ‘getting your messages’ was nothing to do with telecommunications, ken. Ten years walking the cobbled paths, the snaky wynds, up and down thousands of steps, along the river, along the railway paths, to the sea, to the hills, to the forests. Some of my favourite things to do in Edinburgh: walking through New Town streets in winter, peeping into the houses with round red rooms and paternosters and oil paintings. Trying to get lost in the tangled higgledy-piggledy overlapping streets of the Old Town. Cycling to the beach at Silverknowes and walking across to Cramond, tide permitting, or up along the River Almond, looking for kingfishers. Having stupid hair and pretending to be famous during the festival. Looking out of my window in the mornings, seeing a heron or cormorant or once, thrillingly, some otters playing in the river. Sitting in my flat with the windows open, watching a torrential storm, lightning flaring over the water. Other things I’ve loved: being in a falling-apart classroom with too many students, trying to work out what the fuck a poem was about. Sitting in the workroom with colleagues, laughing ourselves silly over some nonsense or other. In lockdown, standing outside in the snow with my neighbours, drinking cups of tea and pretending to be normal. Lately, sitting out in the sunshine with the neighbours, slagging off the airbnb wankers in my stair.
Ten years. And now I’m leaving. My job is finished. Notice given to my landlady. All my stuff is packed in a yellow suitcase. I don’t know where I’m going, not exactly. But when I get there, I’m going to write. That’s the plan. That’s the whole of the plan. Wish me luck!
The people at Unsung have been busy putting together an anthology of stories “raising awareness of mental health issues” with the proceeds going to a mental health charity, Together for Mental Wellbeing.
There are some amazing writers featured in the anthology, including Aliya Whiteley, Alison Moore, Nicolas Royle, Malcolm Devlin and many more. I’m one of the ‘many more’ – my story is called The Lightness of Their Hearts. I have forgotten everything about this story, to the point that I’d forgotten the title and keep calling it The House on the Moon, which might have been its title once, some time in the distant past. It’s the only short story I’ve written in quite a long while, and I’m just too scared to read it now in case I want to change/delete it all. All I can tell you is that it features a house, the moon, some balloons and some post-natal depression. Hopefully it passes muster as part of this wonderful-looking anthology.
If you’d like to support the anthology and get hold of your own copy, details are here. And please share with friends and on social. Most of us are only too aware of mental health issues, but what sometimes escapes our attention is the fact that others are aware of us, and sharing our troubles. I hope this anthology will make its readers feel understood.
Having said that, I was surprised and delighted to take home the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction for my story White Rabbit a couple of years ago, so who knows, I might get lucky again. That story’s in This House of Wounds, along with another story called Her Bones the Trees which was also nominated for the Best Short Fiction award last year. So it’s a lovely honour and I hope it will spark some interest in the book. Apparently my collection is now available at The Last Bookstore in LA and I’m very much hoping that Charlie Kaufman will wander in and buy a copy. I assume he lives in LA. If not, this plan is a bust.
I was very pleased to see Julie Travis’ fantastic Tomorrow, When We Were Young nominated for the Best Short Fiction award this year. It’s a book I absolutely loved and which filled me with wonder, and was one of my standout reads of last year. Congrats to all the nominees in all the categories. I’m only sad we won’t all be having a drink together at the award ceremony!
In other good news, my copy of Aliya Whiteley’s latest novel Greensmith arrived this morning and it looks amazing. I’m a massive, MASSIVE fan of her books. The cover blurb from Irenosen Okojie calls it “a brilliant, mind-altering, intergalactic delight.” Eek.
A wise person once said that opinions are like bumholes, in that everyone has one. This has always struck me as the perfect expression of distaste towards the unsavory practice of having opinions. I would, however, counter it by saying opinions are not at all like bumholes, in that no one has 50,000 bumholes.
I myself am in possession of several thousand opinions, few of which have the slightest merit or basis in anything other than sheer whimsy. Indeed, I have been known to opine at length on subjects in which I have literally no expertise, knowledge, or even interest. I consider this to be a terrible character flaw, albeit one which I share with most of the population at large. Hardly anything is less pleasant than listening to other people’s untutored, unfounded and ignorant opinions. But to be the expounder of such opinions is delightful. It’s so much fun to just talk, to say whatever inane nonsense passes through your brain, without a care for truth or honour. It’s especially fun to get worked up into an outrageous steaming froth about the sputterings of some random twitter egg or facebook not-friend.
(As I am one of the elite and enlightened few who has eschewed social media, I no longer suffer from the constant urge to express myself online. I now reserve this disagreeable activity for close friends and captive audiences at bus stops and in the post office queue.)
Another way in which opinions are not really like bumholes is that hardly anyone identifies with their bumhole in any meaningful way. Most people probably couldn’t even pick theirs out in a line up, unless it was an especially fancy one. Yet many people do very rigidly identify with their opinions and consider themselves to be the sort of person who thinks this, that, and the other. The thinking of this, that, and the other indicates to the world that they are the right kind of person and that they are very good. Such individuals tend to have clusters of opinions that go together and often these clusters merge with other clusters to form one giant opinion which is taken so seriously and treated with so much gravity that it takes on cosmic mass and becomes a giant bumhole of groupthink. This enormous bumhole hoovers up all the messy freeform thought that swirls around it, and pulls it down into its dark mysterious depths, never to be seen again. Now the person-with-important-and-correct-opinions finds themselves in thrall to a giant bumhole, a position which requires some careful manouevring if they are to escape unsullied. Many individuals, however, seem to take comfort in the giant bumhole, which is warm and crowded with others just like them, and they find shared purpose in patrolling its rim, defending its integrity from critical observers, and fighting off anyone who attempts to help them get free.
A third way in which opinions are unlike bumholes – and yes I am now fully committed to this analogy, although I admit I do have some regrets – is that while a bumhole is a sturdy thing that with luck and care will last you a lifetime, opinions tend to be fickIe and flimsy and floaty. There is nothing really basic or fundamental about opinions. They come and go, briefly providing the illusion that you know what you’re on about, before disappearing in a puff of logic, evidence, growing up, or having a change of heart. Opinions are, put simply, not to be trusted.
To torture the analogy to its painful conclusion, I propose that opinions, like bumholes, should be a private and somewhat embarrassing concern, of no interest to anyone outside your most intimate circle. Certainly not something to be identified with or especially proud of. The ability to think clearly and compassionately is more valuable to society than knowing the right things to say to appease the great giant bumhole in the cloud – or even to rail against it. There is no reason to aspire to having good or correct opinions, any more than one would waste time wishing for extra bumholes.
My writing space is a lie. I’ve never written here. I
put the desk together myself during late-summer, whilst video calling
a friend, in cheap cotton panties and a camisole. Those metal legs
are chill year round. I haven’t been gagged with the unicorn duct
tape, the truffle-coloured bunny remains nameless, I am forever
European. Out of sight is an Ikea bookcase that displays my
collection of plastic lo-fi cameras, and five envelopes containing
poetry chapbooks. The wall to the left is crumbling from damp. There
is a promise somewhere
to fix it.
say you ought to write each day but I find I’m too precious with
words, I can’t seem to let-go. This is how I write: I’ll discover a
word, then I’ll sit on it for a while. Or a title. Currently it’s
‘Terrible Grasshopper’ which I’ve been with since before the new
year. I’ll add to it now and then – on scraps of paper, via notes on
my phone, I’ll leave a thought with someone. Until.
like to let music bleed into my work. Bjork, Maximo Park, something
poppy and melodic. Though more often than not I prefer being read to.
Salvador Dali’s ‘Oui’ is a favourite, or wikipedia articles, Nabokov.
I like the process of tuning-out, of taking no notice on a conscious
level and letting the subconscious pick up what it wants.
is a distraction. Little Cora Vespertine. My anxieties. Love. Fear of
never being read, understood, appreciated. I can’t write without a
pen; utilised as a false moustache.
most enjoyable part of writing is not writing, it’s sharing my words
and my weirdness with another who doesn’t desire an explanation. I
find this is also the least enjoyable part.
proud of everything I write. It often feels like a challenge to get
the words out – if you know me you know I don’t talk much, that
voicing my thoughts doesn’t come easy – so every finished something
is a little ‘yay’. My first proper chapbook ‘Some Pink Star’ was
released about a year ago through Eibonvale Press. David Rix did a
stunning job, and I am still besotted with it.
Right now I’m working / not-working on a series of insect poems though, of course, they’re not really about insects. I think ‘Ant Eating With Three Fingers’ is my favourite title so far, or perhaps, ‘Honeydew or Number One Sugar Daddy’ which is about aphids and age-gap relationships. I’m excited to see where I take them.
Sophie Essex is a poet, organiser of spoken word events, and a publisher. Her chapbook Some Pink Star is available here. Her small press Salo publishes both prose and poetry.
Have been off social media for a week or so and it’s clear to me I made a great decision. I feel very free. I also have a lot of thoughts and ideas about what social media is doing to writing and writers, but I’ll save them for another day.
Just a quick heads up for anyone who enjoys podcasts, ghost stories, or being read to: this fantastic podcast by Tony Walker is one you won’t want to miss. He recently did an episode on Little Heart, from my collection This House of Wounds, and it was such a wonderful experience. Tony’s reading brought so much insight into the story and we had a great discussion afterwards about what it all could mean.
It inspired me to write some story notes about my novella Honeybones, which weirdly enough tie in with a lot of my thoughts about social media. I suppose it’s not that weird, given that Honeybones is a story about mind control and violence and not living in reality but inhabiting a simulated world which is designed to disempower you and alienate you from your material existence… Anyway, it’s interesting to think about, and if anyone wants to have me on their podcast or blog or publication to talk about this stuff, that would be great.
CYMERA 2020 took place online a couple of weeks ago and was a fantastic experience. I really enjoyed all the panels I saw and appreciated how much work went into making them run so smoothly. My own panel was on ‘writing the weird’ with Laura Mauro and Kit Power, and was a really fun and interesting chat. But my highlight of the weekend was Penny Jones, Tracy Fahey and Katie Hale discussing ‘The Female Monster’ – they covered so much in the discussion but it felt like they could have gone on for hours, and I would have been there for it! All the panels from CYMERA are on youtube and worth checking out.
That’s all for now! Hope you are all staying well and safe <3
My writing space is an alcove of the dining room using a regular PC, keyboard and screen. It’s not perfect, but when the house is empty or everyone’s asleep it does allow me to create some headspace and it does mean I’m surrounded by books; including the shelves containing everything I’ve been published in (out of shot in the pic). I did have a dedicated office space in the upper part of the house where I wrote for over sixteen years. It was ideal. But when our daughter Cora was born she moved in there so my ‘office’ went downstairs. Seven years later my eldest daughter moved out, Cora moved into her room, and my old office is now my partner’s office. Go figure.
I prefer to write when there’s either no one in the house or everyone is asleep. I’m a bit of a grouch when it comes to being interrupted. If I’m writing short stories then these tend to fall out of me fully formed. I rarely have to edit those other than a few word changes or grammatical edits. I tend to write them in one sitting. Anything longer than four thousand words just depends on the unavailability of everyone else. It can take months to write a novella, snatching a bit of time here and there. So whilst my writing days are few, when I do write it is productive.
Other than listening to music to create a mood (see below), I don’t have any other stimulants. I don’t drink tea or coffee, and very rarely drink alcohol at home. I might just have some ginger beer and some peanuts within reach. Other than that it’s just myself and my imagination.
Because my writing time is rare, anything that can shut out the rest of the world is welcome. Music is perfect for this. I sit down, hit play, and I’m immediately back where I left off in the story. I won’t choose anything too abrasive or lyrically challenging, as this works against the process, but anything subtle can help with ambience. And once I’ve begun writing, the music barely registers, it fades in and out of my consciousness, even when the same song is played over and over (the record for this is “The City Never Sleeps At Night” by Nancy Sinatra which I played seventy times whilst writing a short story called “Blanche” – published in “Something Remains”, Alchemy Press).
Favourites include Bjork, Blonde Redhead, Coeur de Pirate, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (but only the album “Push The Sky Away”), late Echobelly, The Flaming Lips. I know some writers prefer soundtracks and although that’s not my thing, for one nature-themed story recently I did write solely to birdsong. A few years ago James Everington asked me a similar question and a link to his blog (with links to the music) is here.
Distractions: the 9-5 day job, the Sunday job, the freelance proofreading I do most evenings… although the biggest distraction is a seven year old who has taken to staying awake til 10pm. On the other hand, my mini-collection “The Forest of Dead Children”, is inspired by my reaction to that. So, swings and roundabouts.
can’t write without solitude. Interruptions border on the violent.
The most enjoyable part of writing is actually doing it. For me, writing is so much a part of how I identify that having the space and freedom to get on with it allows me to be myself. I don’t find anything about it that isn’t enjoyable. I know a lot of writers aren’t keen on editing, but I don’t tend to do much of that and don’t find it much of an issue. Being immersed in creativity is a real high.
I think my best writing in this space has been what I’ve come to call my ‘celebrity death’ stories. For those reading this who I haven’t already bored to death with this theme, I’ve written twelve stories based on the lives of Golden Era Hollywood celebrities who died young. I really felt I was channeling something important writing these pieces – and occasionally goosebumped myself in the process. They’re intricate, multi-layered, respectful and affectionate. It’s just a shame that I can’t seem to sell them for toffee.
For the first time in about ten years I’ve lost impetus with short stories. The market seems to have shifted and (from my point of view) it appears genre boundaries have returned to parameters which are more clearly defined and my work doesn’t easily sit within that. Last year I began a novel without any idea where it might go and as it turned out it didn’t go more than 7000 words. So I’m in a rare period where I feel disheartened. As an alternative, I’m trying my hand at non-fiction, working on a book about a film. I can’t say much more than that at the moment, but this will be my work for 2020. Of course, writing non-fiction is a hundred ways different to writing fiction: I can’t write with music, I tend to eat constantly, and I actually have to remember stuff and do research. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m writing fiction again, but I am enjoying it.
Andrew Hook is an unstable entity whose material form suffers from interdimensional glitching. His fictional output in our dimension has been prolific, with over 150 stories published, as well as several collections, novels and novellas. Find out more here or just go straight to EvilCorp and buy his books.
We have a spare bedroom that I use as a writing room. It used to be my daughter’s room, but we swapped, so I painted the walls grey with some leftover paint, mainly to hide the disastrous job I did removing her wallpaper, and now it’s a bit like living inside an elephant. The Christmas fairy lights have stayed up. My wife saved the poster from my book launch last August, which is now on the wall. I can’t play the guitar, no more than a few chords anyway, but I like having it next to me. There’s a bookshelf with old notebooks, a printer, all the short story collections I own (they used to live with the novels downstairs, but we ran out of space, so this was my quick, cheap solution), books about writing, and books I’m using for researching current projects.
in the picture is a cluster of three frames on the wall — a photo
of me with my parents at Grosmont railway station, a self-portrait I
made when I was four that my sister found and framed as a birthday
present (‘This is me’), and my Creative Writing Masters
certificate. It’s a little shrine of sorts.
write every day in my notebook, often in a coffee shop on the way to
work — how I’m feeling, what I dreamt the night before, what’s
bothering me, how projects are going, that sort of thing. I’ll
usually share something on Twitter too, which I treat as part of my
creative writing practice.
There’s no routine for writing fiction. It’s led by the project I’m working on. I’ve just finished a short story, and for that I spent a couple of weeks letting ideas take shape in my head, another couple of weeks writing in short bursts, and a final fortnight editing it to completion. When I am writing drafts, I write whenever I can make a spare hour — before work, lunch hours, or evenings. I find these periods exhilarating at first, but they quickly get very tiring, and I can’t stop until I’m happy with it. Right now, I don’t want to write another word.
can’t listen to music and write. I need quiet, or the background
babble of a coffee shop. Music is too interesting.
can distract me from writing if I’m not in the intense phase of a
writing project. Over the years I’ve beaten myself up so many times
for procrastinating, but looking back, a lot of that was trying to
write something before I had a good idea. I wasn’t patient. Writing
every day, or a certain number of words per day, doesn’t work for
me. When I try, I just feel crappy, and what I write seems crappy. I
haven’t found that showing up every day and writing creates good
My ideas come when I’m not writing but doing other things — watching films, having conversations, being with my family, just everyday life. Ideas pop into my head, and they’re usually not very good, but sometimes a couple won’t go away, and I’ll do something with them.
The most enjoyable thing is editing a draft of a scene and seeing something good that I hadn’t intended. A connection appears and the story opens up a bit more. That’s a wonderful feeling. Finishing something that I know is as good as it can be is great too. The relief and letting go. That is a much rarer thing because I haven’t written many stories that get to me to that place.
Writing is least enjoyable when I’m exhausted because I’ve pushed myself too hard. I have a full-time job as a software developer, and a family with two kids, so it’s really important to me that I look after myself and stay healthy. I find it hard to step back when a writing project is in an exciting phase. Self-care is a project that’s always in the background.
Finishing my debut novel, The Complex, made me very proud, and then finding out it had been picked up by Salt changed everything for me. It made me believe in myself and the quality of my work.
My next novel has a title, some locations, and characters. I haven’t written anything yet. It’s still swirling in my mind. I’m not sensing the need to start writing — but I do have some books I want to read related to it. The big projects are still pretty mysterious to me. A short story might take a couple of months, and I fancy writing another one, but The Complex took three years. I don’t know if the next novel I write will go the same way. Christ, I hope not. That one hurt.
work and school, we focus on collaboration and working in teams, but
there is something healthy and magical about working on something
alone. Writing is how I explore personal issues creatively. I’ve
learned over time that for me it is an essential activity. I’ve had
writer’s block for long periods, several years at a time, and it
was debilitating. Writer’s block can make you feel like utter shit.
value of what we write isn’t always obvious. Writing makes no
financial sense. I’ve wondered many times if it is the best use of
my life. But I can’t argue with how I feel when I don’t have a
writing project on the go, even just as an idea that is percolating.
Most days, writing is a slow trudge through daily experience.
Slowing down and noticing how I’m feeling underneath the rush of daily life has become necessary if I want to stay healthy. It’s a manic world and there are plenty of ways to avoid your emotions, including reading and writing, if done in a rush. Creative writing isn’t just stories and poems, it can be writing about your day in your notebook, for nobody’s eyes but your own. This is most of my writing. And
it’s a whole-body activity. Writing feels better when I exercise,
eat lots of vegetables, get enough sleep, and stretch my aching body.
I’m not getting any younger.
Michael Walters’ acclaimed debut novel, The Complex, is published by Salt and available now. Find out more here or tweet Michael @michaelwaltersx
love my writing space! I have a study which I decorated and set up
and filled with lovely things, so I feel very lucky. Our house is
really old and the study has an ancient fireplace and creaking
cupboards and a very wonky floor, so I decorated it in quite a
traditional style with soothing greens. The desk though is modern
(IKEA – Shhh!) and I put it together myself, which I discovered I
really enjoyed doing, though it was tricky finding the precise spot
to balance it on that wonky floor and I’m pretty sure it has a bit
of a slant.
The green shelving was originally in another room but I pinched and painted it so that I could fill it with pen pots and cards from friends and ceramics and pictures and other nice things to look at when I’m supposed to be working. Oh, and it has a skull-monster in a bobble hat who lives in a vase (but everyone has one of those, right?) Behind me are more shelves with some of my books, my to-be-read pile and some handy reference tomes. There’s also usually a sleeping dog or two in here somewhere.
pens are never far out of reach. I’ve clearly become slightly
obsessive about them, and indeed pen pots (it’s all fellow writer
Priya Sharma’s fault), along with my favourite Leuchtturm
notebooks. I have quite a stash of those ready to use and I really
need to stop buying stationery, but just… not… yet!
My mornings are mainly about feeding and walking my two Dalmatian dogs, then once I’ve woken my head up with some fresh air, I can get stuck into work. I usually start off with any adminny stuff before I get my head engaged properly (or maybe that’s just called ‘procrastination’). Sometimes I’ll be drafting a novel, or I might be researching and jotting down ideas or working through piles and piles of editing. Some days I just sit there in a kind of catatonic state staring at the screen hoping that words will magically appear. Those are not good days.
I can’t listen to music while I write. I know some writers have playlists to go with whichever book they’re working on, and that’s all very cool and I love the idea, but somehow can’t do it in practice. I have images of myself happily typing away only to find I’ve typed out the lyrics of whatever I’m listening to, over and over…
There isn’t much I can’t write without, though my chair is one of those easily overlooked things that’s actually pretty important to me. It’s super-ergonomic and rescued me from some nasty neck/upper limb problems a few years back. It’s snazzily attired in a snood a friend gave me because it matches the dogs.
Speaking of which, my main distractions come in canine form. They’re really good at snoozing the afternoons away while I work, but that hour before lunchtime is another matter. Vesper can be especially insistent that it must be time to eat – she’ll paw at my desk and rattle my chair or nudge my arm or jump onto my lap or disappear under my desk and scratch at the footrest or whatever her latest ploy is. I should probably threaten to make her into a snood.
The most enjoyable part of writing is the writing and the least enjoyable part of writing is the not writing, if that makes any sense! What I mean is, there are days when my head’s down and I’m in the zone and don’t notice time flowing past. Those days are golden. Then there are days when it’s treacly and one word won’t seem to follow the next and ugh ugh ugh. That happens sometimes mid-book, because I’m not a very thorough plotter and I’ll sometimes write past the point where I know what happens next. I do like to allow for some flexibility in the middle of a novel, but it can also be frustrating.
Of the books I’ve written in this room, I’m probably proudest of my first historical novel, The Hidden People. It’s based around some of the dark fairy folklore I love – I’ve always found the idea of changelings delightfully creepy, whereby people are stolen away by the fairies and doppelgangers left in their place. It’s also the first book I wrote where I got halfway through and realised there was far more going on than I’d planned, and that the plot was going to get more complex than anticipated. I love it when a project takes on its own impetus and starts to surprise me.
At the moment I’m working on a mixture of things. I’m editing a novel based around the Cottingley fairies and indeed fairy lore, tinkering with a Victorian piece about – well, doppelgangers, but not changelings this time, and I’m starting to piece together a whole new idea which I’m excited about but it’s just too early to give any details. It feels like that would be putting an industrial fan in front of a little cloud of dust that’s just beginning to coalesce in the air. Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive.
Right, it’s time to stop pretending I’m all healthy with that big glass of water on my desk and make a proper strong cuppatea…
Alison Littlewood is the author of several acclaimed books, including The Hidden People, The Crow Garden, and her latest, Mistletoe. She won the 2014 Shirley Jackson award for short fiction, and her first novel, The Cold Season, was picked for the Richard and Judy Bookclub. You can find out more about her work here.