A London Literary Salon

This month I went along to the Tea House Theatre for a Words Away literary salon. These monthly talks aim to ‘bring writers together in a creative environment to explore the writing process.’

Event founder and host Kellie Jackson welcomed award-winning novelist Tessa Hadley to explore the question of ‘Short or long? Form in fiction writing.’ Fellow writer and mentor Emma Darwin led the discussion.

There was a great mix of people in the friendly crowd. I took my tea and cake* and sat down. Claire Scobie, whose novel The Pagoda Tree was launched this summer, was at my table. She had been a guest speaker at a previous salon and was full of praise for their special sense of informality. ‘It’s like a free-flowing conversation between the writers and audience,’ she said.

Onstage, Tessa revealed that short stories were initially her preferred format because their scale felt less daunting than a novel.  ‘Short stories come like gifts,’ she said. ‘They fall into your lap… But nothing is alive until you have written it!’ Tessa is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and it was fascinating to hear how their editors meticulously sculpt every sentence to be syntactically perfect for their readership.

The Tea House Theatre is a magical little place situated on the site of the legendary Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens which featured in William Thackaray’s Vanity Fair. It is a unique and cosy space with a real fire housed in a Victorian pub building dating back to 1886.

Its twinkling fairy lights and quaint exterior beckon you in from across the park. Inside, red velvet curtains open to reveal a tiny stage in the middle of the room.

 

A furry tail brushed past my leg at one point which turned out to belong to Gladstone, one of the resident cats. The regular chimes of the old grandfather clock added to the quirky atmosphere.

It was my first time at this monthly event but I know it won’t be my last. What an intimate and insightful evening!

*I must give a special mention to what was the most sumptuous red velvet cake I have ever eaten. The slice was so huge it couldn’t be devoured in one go and so was savoured throughout the talk (most unusual for me!) And the quality was more than equal to the quantity. Hats off to the baker, what a magnificent feast of a cake!

 

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Celebrating Jane Austen at the Althorp Literary Festival

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. I was thrilled to attend the Althorp Literary Festival for a talk by Paula Byrne.

Paula’s book The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood challenges the academic critical consensus and seeks to uncover ‘the real Jane Austen.’ In her entertaining Q & A session at the festival, Paula explained how the author shaped the English novel by incorporating theatrical techniques.

It was fascinating to learn that Jane’s books were prescribed to shell shocked soldiers during the First World War as they were considered comfort reading. Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne was also known to read her books in the trenches.

Paula described Jane Austen as an anti-romantic comic author with eclectic tastes who loved a farce as much as a Shakespeare play. Ahead of her time, she would take a laptop writing desk on the road with her when she travelled.

It is fitting that Jane’s image is on the new British ten pound note as it turns out she received exactly that amount as an advance for her first book, Northanger Abbey!

This was my first visit to historic Althorp, the ancestral home of Diana, Princess of Wales, which dates back to 1508. The talk was presented in the State Dining Room and Diana’s brother Charles, Earl Spencer, was in the front row. Featuring candelabras and gold-trimmed velvet drapes, it was a splendid setting for a thoroughly entertaining, insightful and educational session.

This year also marks the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death and her memory echoes throughout the house and grounds. The huge impact of Diana’s life is celebrated in a series of poignant exhibitions.

It was very moving to see the hundreds of Books of Condolence signed by people from all over the UK and the world as well as Earl Spencer’s powerful funeral speech. Walking In Her Shoes promotes the inspirational young people who have won the Diana Award for helping others.   Mario Testino’s iconic photographs are also on display.

The island burial place is in an incredibly peaceful spot on the estate’s grounds. It is a genuinely tranquil haven surrounded by ancient tall trees.

What a stunning backdrop to a truly exceptional literary festival!

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Cape Clear Storytelling Festival, Ireland

I recently headed over to Cape Clear Island, the southernmost inhabited spot in Ireland, for the International Storytelling Festival. This wildly beautiful and unspoilt location formed the backdrop to a brilliant creative weekend.I arrived by ferry from the village of Baltimore. The short voyage to Cape Clear was spectacular. We spotted sharks along the way and learnt that whales, leatherback turtles and dolphins all thrive in the area.

I received a warm welcome with tea and cake when I arrived at Cape Clear B&B. We were absolutely blessed with the weather on the first day and the initial events were held outdoors. Paddy O’Brien provided a crash course in the Irish language and many of the stories were told using a combination of Irish and English.

People came from all over the world to share their stories, including Turkey, Austria and the USA. Storytelling is an ancient spiritual art form involving the passing on of tales from generation to generation. Gifted New Zealand-based Irish traditional storyteller Niall de Búrca created the powerful illusion of sitting around a campfire a hundred years ago. Listening to him was a truly astonishing, uplifting experience.

Cape Clear is an Irish-speaking island with around 120 residents. It features harbours, cliffs, bogs and a lake, and its tiny but well stocked library is housed in a cabin beneath the hillside ruins of a 12th century church and graveyard.

Trekking back from the Grand Concert on Friday night, we had panoramic views of the island by moonlight. As a city dweller it was a rare treat to see so many stars in the sky.

What an amazing weekend!

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Judge of Flash Fiction

I’m thrilled to be judging the flash fiction category of the Hysteria Writing Competition. Looking forward to reading the huge array of entries by talented and inspirational women writers! The competition also includes poetry and short stories. Submissions are encouraged between now and the closing date of 11.59pm on 31 August 2017.

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City Writes Competition

My short story The Anniversary recently won the City Writes competition. So I was very excited (and a tiny bit scared!) to do a reading at a special event at City University London.

I was in excellent company with fellow winners Katy Darby and Bren Gosling as well as guest author Luiza Sauma. Katy is an award-winning writer who runs the live fiction event Liars’ League. Bren’s stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. Luiza read an extract from her new debut novel Flesh and Bone and Water.

The competition was organised and hosted by Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone. Rebekah is a published author who is teaching creative writing at City whilst working on her second novel.

I wrote the first draft of The Anniversary during a brilliant creative writing course run by the Literary Kitchen. I’m very grateful for the valuable feedback I received during the course from tutor Andrea Mason and all the students (pictured below).

My story was inspired by the Thomas Gainsborough portrait Mr and Mrs Andrews at the National Gallery. Although it was painted in 1750, I think the couple look surprisingly modern.

This was the first time I’ve read my own work publicly and despite the intimate setting, I was very nervous. My knees started actually shaking mid-recital! How ridiculous. What a lovely evening!

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National Writers’ Conference 2017

This month I attended the National Writers’ Conference 2017 held in my home city of Birmingham. Emerging and established writers were welcomed to a day of panel discussions on subjects including digital writing, how to raise your profile, and writing overseas.

The Bramall Music School at the University of Birmingham was our venue for the day

As a Brummie based in London, what impresses me most when I go back for a visit is how genuinely inclusive and diverse Birmingham’s creative scene is. Authenticity was a theme running throughout the conference and speakers emphasized the need for everyone in society to have their voice heard.

Andrew McMillan

 

Opening keynote speaker Andrew McMillan gave an inspirational talk on how writing should be ‘a political act of resistance’ celebrating the history and artistic identity of the under-represented in society.

He particularly focused on working class writers and the reactions he himself has experienced as a poet and academic from Barnsley.

L-R Publicist Amy Winchester, agent Ella Kahn, Chair Jane Commane and writer Luke Kennard

The first specialist session I attended was ‘Working with Agents and Publishers’ where I picked up some great tips on writers’ rights, the role of the literary agent, and submission guidelines. Then there was ‘Writing for Broadcast’ featuring TV and film writers and a producer from the BBC Writersroom. Again, the emphasis was on telling the stories you want to tell reflecting different backgrounds and cultures. Over a networking lunch we were treated to thought provoking readings from Birmingham Young Poet Laureate Nyanda Foday and Birmingham Poet Laureate Matt Windle.

Film writer Paven Virk perfectly summed up the day when she observed: ‘The beauty of the arts is that it’s open to everyone of any background. We are an open door.’ This was certainly true of the National Writers’ Conference 2017!

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Greenwich Book Festival 2017

This year’s Greenwich Book Festival took place in the beautiful setting of the Old Royal Naval College and was accurately described as ‘intimate in scale, though grand in setting.’ Its diverse programme featured both famous and emerging writers from a wide range of mediums including memoirs, crime, thrillers, and poetry. It all culminated in the festival finale of a literary London pub quiz.

As a judge of flash fiction for the Hysteria Writing Competition, I’m always looking to access writing by different voices so I was very excited to attend a reading and Q & A with the fantastic group of writers at the Short Story Prize Showcase. This event launched the 2017/18 Short Story Prize of Galley Beggar Press, a small publishing house committed to nurturing unique and innovative writers.  Longlisted, shortlisted and winning authors from their 2016/17 award read from their eclectic mix of pieces. Winners Yelena Moskovich and Joanna Walsh were joined by T. Schroeder, Malachi McIntosh, Gordon Collins, Richard Smyth, Paul Jones and Henrietta Rose. What a lovely evening!

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Interview with Author Donatella di Pietrantonio

Having reviewed two books by Italian author Donatella di Pietrantonio (My Mother is a River and Bella Mia), her publishing house Calisi Press invited me to put some questions to her this week about her approach to writing.

Read more

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Time Out London Blog

I’ve just joined the Time Out London Blog. My first full post will be out in April but for now I’ve made a small contribution to 22 brilliant places Londoners love in spring. See number 11.

Looking forward to writing about this amazing city!

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Short-listed Poem

brum-poem-cropped
My poem about my home city of Birmingham was short-listed recently for the Verve Poetry Prize 2017. I went along to the Verve Poetry Festival this weekend which aimed to ‘capture and celebrate the spirit of Birmingham and its creative, plucky, open-minded, fun, down to earth, industrious, collaborative, cosmopolitan nature.’ Sounds about right! Read my GEM Magazine feature about the event here.

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