Leicester Writes Festival

leicesterwrites-logo

A brave little writing festival happened during the last weekend of June. It was brand new and modest, but full of illusions and aiming to fill in the gaps in our local and national literature scene. And it succeeded.

Leicester Writes Festival was conceived by Farhana Shaikh from Dahlia Publishing as a way to showcase the microcosmic and diverse writing scene in our city and connect all of us as colleagues and potential friends. “Leicester” might not be a word that comes out from the general public’s mouths when talking about writing scenes and communities, but there is something big happening and it can keep developing only and if only we are aware of it and stay connected.

Damien G Walter. Picture:  twitter.
Damien G Walter. Picture: twitter.

The festival began on Thursday 25 June at Leicester University’s fairly new Centre of New Writing. It was a pecha kucha presentation about literature development in Leicester, condensing the answers that many writers in the area gave to a survey that was filled in in advance. Later that night, on that massive venue called twitter, there was a Q&A with Damien Walter, one of the first columnists to pay attention to indie writers and publishers in the digital era. Throught the hashtag #AskDamienW, he answered in a clear and honest way to several enquires about online publishing and offering alternatives to mainstream outlets like Amazon, “not the writers friend, but […] a business that presents big opportunities if you are savvy”. One of the plans he suggested was to join Patreon and build a fanbase with exclusive online content in exchange for regular income. Something worth checking out.

Jacob Ross. Picture: The Word Factory.
Jacob Ross. Picture: The Word Factory.

Friday was more “in the flesh”, back to Leicester Uni for edifying masterclasses. I was fortunate enough to attend The Art of Short Writing, a morning masterclass hosted by Jacob Ross. Delicious, juicy and visceral. We had to read works in preparation to see how something as brief as a short story could hit you harder than more extensive pieces of literature. Stories by Olive Senior, Mark Hanks, Elise Muller, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Patrick O’Brian and Carys Davies; authors from different walks of life, bringing their realities into our worlds, sometimes harsh, sometimes witty, always like punches to the stomach. To Ross, short stories are meant to be singular, economical, with one dominant result or outcome, and an implied story arch inferring that nothing will be the same. Above all, short stories must have truth and integrity, blend the different with the usual and convince the reader that this can happen, even if it’s fiction.

Saturday and Sunday at the Phoenix were just busy, busy, busy. I will only speak about the events I attended, as they were so many of them and I have heard they were all fantastic.

Kerry Young. Picture: Leicester Writes.

Kerry Young and Rod Duncan spoke about writers on writing. Young comes from a youth worker background, and she writes not as therapy, but as a voice for those who can’t speak. Her novel Pao may have earned her a seat in the pavilion of contemporary literature, but it took her many years of discipline and crafting to become “an overnight success”.

Rod Duncan. Picture: Leicester Writes.

Duncan is still taken aback by the how fast his reputation has changed: he has gone from hopeless waster to promising new voice and respected novelist; with his Bullet Catcher’s Daughter as a finalist for the 2014 Phillip K. Dick award. However, he doesn’t write for external validation but for internal improvement. Just like characters have inner and outer journeys based on what they achieve in and out of themselves, writers have inner and outer journeys. The inner journey is what motivates us to write.

Bali Rai. Picture: Help for Writers
Bali Rai. Picture: Help for Writers.

Bali Rai was another novelist sharing his journey and results. A lot of his comments were sharp reflections on the general unspoken theme of the festival: unprivileged voices navigating a circuit full of privileged shouting. Growing up, he struggled to find books about the multicultural life he lived in Leicester, and all he found was the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend. After briefly living in London and spending his Odeon wages on Brixton bookshops, he came back to write about what he knew and to continue the Townsend tradition of putting Leicester on the map. Through the years, he has noticed that “the concept of diversity is [being] hijacked by the white middle class”, and that “the voices least heard in literature are the voices least heard in society”. That’s why he keeps writing about life in the city, making his voice and those of his neighbours heard, speaking about the true colours of modern-day Britain.

Divya Ghelani. Picture: Kajal Nisha Patel.
Divya Ghelani. Picture: Kajal Nisha Patel.

We moved briefly to the Curve to see Divya Ghelani read her “Imperial Typewriter”, a story created exclusively for the Hidden Stories compilation and part of a multimedia project about the past and present of the Cultural Quarter. It’s a story about rebellion, dignity and trying to rewrite history as it happens. Ghelani is an intriguing storyteller, and listening to her narration transports you right to where the events took place — not far from the theatre, actually. Also, as someone who wasn’t alive nor here when the Imperial Typewriter strike happened, it was appalling to see the way people back in those days referred to Asian Ugandans and foreigners in general. To think that the smell of curry they certainly despised would take over town and actually turn it into one of the most attractive things about this place…

Speaking of which, An Indian Summer was happening during the same week and spreading its wonders, colours and flavours. Many talks and panels for Leicester Writes Festival were brought in association with AIS, including the audience with Bali Rai, Divya Ghelani’s reading and Nikesh Shukla’s keynote on being a contemporary novelist.

Nikesh Shukla. Picture: Catherine Dunn.
Nikesh Shukla. Picture: Catherine Dunn.

I was particularly excited to see Nikesh Shukla on Sunday, as his Meatspace speaks to my soul in ways people like Nick Hornby or Douglas Coupland never will. He slaps you in the face with truth and gets your arse into action. Some of his points on how to be a writer include jewels like “aspire to nothing”. If your twitter bio says you’re an “aspiring writer”, delete the “aspiring” bit. You are a writer, because you write. Social media is not the enemy, but a tool that can be used to share your exciting news and create a following. Another thing Shukla mentioned, to destroy the stereotype of the “starving artist”, was that there was nothing wrong with having a 9-to-5 job and being a writer — he personally thinks being a barista is where it’s at. But where do you take the time? Josie Long’s Golden Game seems like a good solution: write 90 minutes a day. I should try it. We should try it.

Really needed this today. ❤ #validation #meatspace

A photo posted by Cynthia Rodríguez Barni (@cynstagrammy) on

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For a first edition, Leicester Writes Festival was quite complete and exciting. It brought us together and not only established links within the writers community, but between cultural and geographical communities in general. There were people who came from places like London or Glasgow, and they had never seen anything like this before. This sense of union and equality is what sets us apart from larger cities that may call themselves “cosmopolitan” but are all about hierarchy, elitism and segregation. Here there are no secrets and no crabs-in-a-bucket mentality. No one-ups. Just mutual support. There may be few people who still behave like prima donnas, want all the credit for themselves even on team work and don’t support anyone but their niche little friends, yes. But those people do not belong here.

Nerdsville Book Club: M.J. Arlidge – Eeny Meeny

This post is a review for the Nerdsville Book Club. Eeny Meeny was the first book of the month, as selected by Apple Charlotte. Read her review here, as well as reviews by Isha, Marie and Ragini.

Eeny Meeny Cover

Let’s play a drinking game, shall we? I know it’s quite early in the day, but we all can do with a shot of tequila or two in the morning. Or three? Or even more?

It’s quite easy: grab a crime novel, any crime novel, and whenever you encounter any of the following tropes, pour in your favourite alcoholic drink into a shot glass and gulp it. Are you ready? Here they are:

  • The events happen in Yorkshire, London or the West Country.
  • The main investigator is a tough person who doesn’t let anyone in…
  • … because she has a tortured past…
  • … and she also have a secret sexual “deviation”…
  • … such as S&M.
  • Her sidekick is quite reckless, but talented…
  • … a divorcé…
  • … and alcoholic…
  • … but a raw diamond nevertheless.
  • There is sexual tension between the sidekick and the main investigator…
  • … and they obviously shag.
  • There is a pretty, clean and perfect cop…
  • … who goes through a horrible incident in the story and is quite never the same again.
  • There are clean and perfect victims…
  • … who turn into shells of themselves once they go through their ordeal.
  • One of the apparently clean and perfect victims actually has a dark past…
  • … like the main investigator, LOL.
  • The main investigator only opens her heart and kindness to a few other people…
  • … who are misfits like her…
  • … and the criminal goes for them.
  • There are dead or endangered sex workers…
  • … and one of them is transgender…
  • … and not even the force respects them and their preferred name/use of pronouns after death.
  • There is a lot of monitoring and the investigators are in constant contact with the survivors…
  • … except the misfits and the sex workers, because who needs those.
  • The main investigator goes through on and off changes concerning her sexual “deviation”.
  • There’s a sneaky journalist everywhere.
  • There’s an initial suspect…
  • … who is actually innocent, but is still a person of doubtful morals…
  • … and gets done by the actual criminal.
  • The main investigator is somehow connected to the victims…
  • … so the criminal is obviously going after her.
  • “It’s all about me, me, me, ME!”
  • There’s a red herring who just comes and goes, is actually irrelevant and would make Chekjov grab his gun.
  • At the end, the criminal comes from the main investigator’s dark past…
  • … and was actually going after her!

If you do this while reading Eeny Meeny, by M.J. Arlidge, you will certainly get annihilated. Not by the story, which seems to be drowning in clichés and stereotypes, but by the drinking, which would make the reckless sidekick look like Ian McKaye next to you and your empty bottles of sambuca.

But don’t get me wrong. It is an engaging read. It is over 300 pages long, but you can jug it down in a couple of days. The chapters are brief, and the fast-action pace leaves no room for fillers and boredom. You can easily put it down, go get some errands done, then come back and get quickly hooked again into the story. If you’re a Frequent Flyer, this will be definitely more thrilling than whatever you find for in-flight entertainment. Unless they show Frozen. Then watch Frozen instead.

 M.J. Arlidge

M.J. Arlidge has been in television writing for several years, mostly as a producer, and is currently writing for the quintessential British crime series Silent Witness. While the setting for Silent Witness is currently away from the stereotypes I was mentioning earlier – Nottingham -, Eeny Meeny follows the seaside West Country setting we can find in common TV and literature places like the highly-acclaimed crime drama Broadchurch. This time, the main setting is Southampton, with irregular visits to Portsmouth, Essex, a mention of Bristol, and, of course, South London. We cannot have crime if we cannot have London.

You can tell Arlidge’s TV-centric mind, as this is begging to be turned into a miniseries. Maybe ITV would grab it. My mum would watch this, and so would my mum in-law, partly to pass the time and partly to see familiar landscapes – as it happened with Broadchurch, a few miles away from my in-laws headquarters and with someone’s cousin’s friend or two featuring as extras.

The sequel, Pop Goes the Weasel, is coming up in September. Would I read it? I think I’d pass this time. I may watch it on the telly when there’s nothing left to watch.

Nerdsville Book Club

Charlotte

Isha

Marie 

Ragini

Stephen King – Carrie

Carrie-Cover

When I was in high school, I wanted to be like Carrie. I wanted to have strong, mental powers to defend myself from the bullies, the teachers, and sometimes from family itself. I wanted to have them on the palm of my hand, unable to escape after one joke too many. I’m pretty sure I’m not the one.

Surprisingly, more and more teens shared this disdain and desire. Not necessarily absolute misfits. A few Halloweens later, this beautiful Suicide Girl chick from university went dressed as Carrie to one of the most decadent parties I’ve ever been to. Mind you, the same party had a bloke dressed like a member of the Ingsoc Thought Police, and I think I saw many Alices in Wonderland, Alex DeLarge and even the Aztec god Tlaloc. Accidentally on purpose, it was a literary themed party. Nobody killed anyone, though. Some people shagged, some people threw up and some people threw up while shagging. Nothing like Brian de Palma’s apocalyptic film adaptation, nor like the straight-to-TV alternate fantasy featuring Angela Bettis, which, quite ironically, we were watching before going to the party.

Angela Bettis in Carrie

It seems embarrassing, but it wasn’t until very recently that I read the original novel by Stephen King. The first film gave me so much life, yet I didn’t know what was printed on paper.

To those unfamiliar with the story: it’s about a teenager who is hated at school and at home. Her classmates treat her like little more than a cockroach, while her fundamentalist fanatical mother tends to lock her in a closet for several hours whenever she commits acts of impurity – such as having her period. When she finds out she has telekinetic powers, her self-defence skills grow in monstrous proportions right on time for Prom Night, where she falls prey to the prank to kill all pranks and… well… let’s say pranks are not the only ones that get killed.

While the book is short and easy to drink in one day, King presents it gradually and slowly, bit by bit, unveiling the facts and rumours behind the second-largest tragedy in post-war America. We get to know the circumstances in which Carrie was conceived, born and raised – her birth story being re-imagined on the latest film adaptation, directed by Kimberly Peirce and starring Chlöe Grace Moretz being more Hit Girl than Shit Girl. We read people’s research and speculations intercalated with the omniscient narrator’s telling of events, including every single thought that’s gone through Carrie’s head. We get to compare testimonials and interpretations with the “truth” as it happened. Supposing it did.

Carrie Prom

Can’t help but wonder if the Black Prom happened in real life, on the 27th of May of 1979, would still be remembered today. How would it stand compared to other school tragedies such as the ones in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Red Lake and Sandy Hook? Or, after learning out lesson with the Black Prom, and knowing that children indeed are our present and future, would these other massacres have happened at all? It was a work of fiction, but couldn’t we learn from it anyway and do our best to not give the perfect soil and nutrients to turn it into a reality?

The adaptations have forgotten several things from the book, unsurprisingly. None of them mention the Rain of Stones, perhaps a very large piece of the puzzle of Carrie White’s life. And the genetic background goes unmentioned in motion pictures. So, movie-watchers infer that Carrie’s powers just happened all of a sudden and weren’t around until her first menses.

Chloe's Carrie with piles of books

On the other hand, something I was missing that was not included on the book was some mention of the books Carrie read on telekinesis. On the films we see her diving into piles and piles of them, and I expected some “quotations” or “page selections” from these books in particular. Just like Yukio Mishima included an entire book-within-a-book on Runaway Horses, where lawyer Shigekuni Honda reads The League of the Divine Wind; and this reading, enthusiastically suggested by the young Isao Iinuma, explains the deadly consequences at the end of the story, the entire Sea of Fertility saga, and even Mishima’s own life.

However, contrary to the Japanese author’s example, Carrie was King’s opera prima and not his Swan Song. It was a lesson to learn, but not a testament. And he was not twisted enough (yet) to leave books within books within quotations within annotations like Mark Z. Danielewski in House of Leaves. I am unaware if he actually does it in later works of his extensive catalogue, but this is still a compelling effort for a first book – or for a book in general, full stop.

Stephen King 1970s

Many years after Carrie, Stephen King is still a very influential storyteller, and whether you’ve read him or not, you can relate to his stories in one way or another thanks to his innumerable adaptations for film and TV. Up next, I will be reading The Shining – which inspired my favourite Kubrick film – and Misery – to force myself to keep writing and stop Annie Wilkes from breaking my legs with a hammer.

Troy Blackford: First There Wasn’t, Then There Was

For the first time in a very, very long while, I cried after finishing a book. I’ve never been a soppy person with books and films, even if I love them so much. But it just happened. I welled up.

And who did this? None other than Troy Blackford, a brave little writer from the Twin Cities, self-published most of his life, and using the power of social media to advertise his novels and short stories on paper and Kindle.

firsttherewasntthentherewas

His latest instalment is called First There Wasn’t, Then There Was, and I refuse to give you an in-depth analysis. Why? Because I want it to shock you senseless. I want you to dive into it, no spoilers in mind, and I want it to carry you away.

Four corporate pawns get together before work, at lunchtime and after work to have a smoke while leaning against a wall. These leaners occupy themselves on the lightest trivialities of life and entertainment, but lately they have been intrigued by an occasional wanderer. He comes and goes, hidden in a winter overcoat, talking to himself as he carries a bin bag on his shoulder. “What is he talking about?”, they wonder. So they borrow a dictaphone, sneak it into his pocket by lunchtime and then retrieve it by the end of the work shift. On the next day, they listen to it. And boy, does he talk.

All I will say is that there are passages that could be very triggering to those who one way or another have been involved in the War On Drugs – mostly as unlucky witnesses or victims who have no idea what is going on. You still won’t have an idea what is going on once you’ve gone past these hard bits, but it won’t feel like harsh reminders of a dark reality. It won’t feel like a reality at all.

And yet that finale feels like the realest punch in the stomach. The wildest call to action.

Yes, you can find the odd spelling and continuity mistake, and every memory is “the last thing I remember, then everything was a blur”, but what can you do when you’re a one-man band? Plus, what if the memories kept coming and going amidst the dirt, arriving unannounced and erasing all trace of themselves as they leave? What if everything else was, indeed, a blur?

Just like his début novella Strange Way Out could easily be adapted as an episode of Black Mirror, First There Wasn’t could be turned into a motion picture and directed by Zack Snyder, belonging to the same fairy tale action horror world of Sucker Punch. Without any dancing, of course.

But with lots of singing. Bird singing.

You can get First There Wasn’t, Then There Was through your usual online publication outlets. To find out more information about Troy Blackford, visit his website or chase him through social media. You never know what he’ll do next.