Monday, 11 January 2021

Naomi Krüger, "May"


Naomi Krüger is a writer and academic based in Lancashire. Her short fiction has been commissioned by Lancaster Litfest, commended in Aesthetica and published in various literary journals. Her debut novel May was published in 2018 by Seren. It was highly commended in the Yeovil Prize, longlisted in the Not the Booker Prize and described by Wales Art Review as ‘a rewarding read: an ambitious novel that speaks to our times.’ Naomi has an MA and PhD from Lancaster University and lectures in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Central Lancashire. Her website is here. You can read a review of May on Everybody's Reviewing here.

About May

The door to the past has been locked to May but fragments of memories still remain: a boy running on the green, his fiery hair, a letter without a stamp, a secret she promised not to tell. She can’t piece together the past or even make sense of the present, but she revisits what she knows again and again. The boy, the letter, the secret. She can’t grasp what they mean, but maybe the people she’s loved and lost can uncover the mystery of the red-headed boy and his connection to May.

Like memories, the book moves through the decades, weaving together the lives of May’s family and Afsana, the woman who cares for her at the nursing home. Their recollections are linked by feelings of doubt, remorse and a sense that they are mourning the paths their lives could have taken. Aftershocks from the past reverberate in the present.

You can read an excerpt from Afsana’s perspective below.

From May

The newsreader is wearing too much make up. It makes her look old. Her hair is as stiff as a helmet. She re-caps the main stories. I’ll feel bad later. I’ll have to make it up to him. I’ll tell him I know I’m selfish. I’ll tell him I’m trying to change. Push the bowl away and think about May. I can’t help it. The images come whether I want them to or not, driving out the pictures of water rushing through shop doorways and people – ordinary people – climbing onto the roofs to get away. Her obsession with the boy starting again. Getting worse because of my stupidity. The enchanted boy. The boy who runs into the trees. He came to the back door once, she said, with nothing on. Not a stitch. And there was frost on the ground. His little toes must have been turning to ice. He was jumping up and down on the spot. Wouldn’t even stay still long enough for them to wrap him in a blanket. 

But there’s nothing at all about him in her memory book. No photos, no records. Only a daughter and never any siblings of her own. Then again, if Dadi ever ended up in a place like that I might not be in her memory book either. It would be easier that way. Better not to exist than to be such a disappointment. 

The sound of Ewan moving around next door. I tiptoe to the bookcase and crouch down to look in the bottom shelf. The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Baba had one too, a different edition and not so concise. He kept it high in his office so we had to ask him to get it down when we needed it for homework. I pray the word is spelt how it sounds. Gill mentioned it so casually, as though it was a normal part of conversation. There’s new research, she said, that suggests that sometimes the best way to keep them happy is just to play along. The pages are thin like scripture. The words so tiny they move and blend. I run my finger down the list and find it between confab and confect. Confabulate. Con. Fab. U. Late. Imaginary experiences as compensation for memory loss. Maybe Ewan’s right. I’m just wasting my time on things that don’t matter. The boy’s not coming. It’s all fantasy. Most likely he never existed at all. 

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Graham Mort, "Like Fado and Other Stories"

Graham Mort is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature at Lancaster University. He was born where a post-industrial mill town merged with rural Lancashire and became an academic after jobs as a gardener, mill operative, dairy worker, psychiatric nursing orderly, teacher and freelance writer. His work has taken him to many countries in sub-Saharan Africa as well as China, Vietnam and Kurdistan. He has published ten books of poetry; Like Fado is his third book of short fiction. His collection Touch (Seren) won the Edge Hill Prize in 2011 and his story, 'The Prince,' won the Bridport Prize in 2005.

Graham's website is here.

About Like Fado and Other Stories 

Like Fado consists of thirteen stories, culminating in the longer novella-style piece 'Whitethorn.' The stories are set in the north-west of England, Italy, Kurdistan, France, Spain, Portugal and South Africa. They are not formally linked, though music is a strong motif in a number of them, underpinned by the structural effects of poetry. The stories are characterised by a prevailing sense of narrative ellipsis and uncertainty compounded by surmise and half-truths as their characters stumble into remembered histories and forgotten futures. In a sense, they're all ghost stories, or the stories themselves are ghosts. The Portuguese musical form of fado, imbued with saudade - an almost inexpressible sense of sadness, lost love and nostalgia – acts as a reference point for the experience and emotions of characters that are both powerfully felt and ambivalently realised.

Like Fado and Other Stories is available here.

In the title story, the narrating character wanders Lisbon, killing time, a flaneur equipped with camera. A chance encounter in the African quarter takes him into a woman's house where she leads him upstairs to her mother. You can read an extract from the story below.


From Like Fado and Other Stories

The old woman was beautiful in the way that only the very old and the very young can be, her skin exquisitely creased, her irises and pupils dark, merging to the point of invisibility. Her hair still black, apart from a crinkling of white at the temples.

I stepped towards the window and saw a group of schoolchildren in the street below being chivvied by their teacher. He wore a lanyard and a straw hat. Inside the room it was hot and still and the sun made wedges of dust where it penetrated the shutters. The younger woman was pointing to my camera, turning to tug at the blinds to let in more light. She cupped her hands towards the figure in the bed. The old lady was emitting short, hoarse breaths.

Por favor, senhor?

She pointed to the camera again. The old lady turned her face to me, without expression. It was then I realized that she was dying, that the scent in the house was the sweet scent of someone passing from this life to the next. 

I took some shots, nudging the window shutters open a little, taking a couple with the aperture closed down, then some wide open, so that only the old lady’s face was in focus. Then a shot of her hands where they were folded on the white sheet, tangled in a rosary. The colours in the room were muted. It felt almost pornographic to look at her through a lens. The younger woman was pressed into a corner. Although the old lady was looking at me, she seemed to be watching a far distance. A desert traveller or a sailor nearing home, crossing the seam between this life and whatever lay beyond. As I worked, her eyes drooped and her head turned to one side, breath softening as if she was no longer able to make the effort of wakefulness. Her daughter put her hands together at one side of her face to show me she was sleeping now. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Call for Submissions for AstroPoetry Competition


Abell 2261
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Michigan/K. Gültekin;
Optical: NASA/STScI and NAOJ/Subaru; Infrared: NSF/NOAO/KPNO

Call for Submissions for AstroPoetry Competition!
The Centre for New Writing at the University of Leicester invites submissions of cosmologically-themed poems for a competition run in conjunction with NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory in Harvard. The competition is open to all students studying Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, and the deadline for entries is Friday 12 February 2021. The winning entry will be published on Chandra X-Ray Observatory's remarkable and world-famous blog. The competition grows out of our second-year undergraduate module, Using Stories, as part of which students explore how scientific discoveries, themes and images can inspire new writing. 

What you have to do
The challenge is to write a poem, no longer than 30 lines, inspired in some way by one of the news stories on Chandra X-Ray Observatory's blog, which you can see here. The nature of this inspiration is up to you - it might be a matter of theme, imagery, language, or a mixture of these things, just so long as it's clear that the poem is connected in some way with the original news story. You should submit your poem as an email attachment to Jonathan Taylor (jt265[at]le[dot]ac[dot]uk) by the deadline, including the weblink to the specific news story to which your poem relates. 

Some guidelines
  • You need to be a student taking at least one module in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester to enter.
  • You should specify which news story on Chandra's blog your poem relates to.
  • Entries will be judged by Jonathan Taylor at the University of Leicester. The judge's decision is final. 
  • The deadline is Friday 12 February 2021. 
  • The winning entry will be published on Chandra's blog; runners-up may be published on the Creative Writing at Leicester blog
Previous competitions
You can read the winning poems from previous poetry competitions we have run with Chandra X-Ray Observatory in 2016 here and 2017 hereYou can read the runner-up poems from the 2017 competition hereYou can read some poems Jonathan Taylor wrote for Chandra here, here, here and here

Thank you to Dr. Peter Edmonds and everyone at NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory for their kind help in running this unique competition. 

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Nigel Pantling, "It's Not Personal"

Nigel Pantling has been a soldier, a civil servant and an investment banker, and for the last twenty years has advised chief executives of companies on strategy. He has written about these worlds in two pamphlets, Belfast Finds Log (Shoestring Press, 2014) and Hip Hind Hook (Smith|Doorstop, 2018), which relate the dangers and human frailties he saw as a soldier in Northern Ireland and during the Cold War, and in his first full collection Kingdom Power Glory (Smith|Doorstop, 2016) which lifts the lid on the secret worlds of Whitehall and the City. 

About It’s Not Personal 

It’s Not Personal (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) evokes a life, from childhood in the fifties, through the challenges and eccentricities of the workplace, to the unpredictability of family, love, and death. These are poems concerned with truth; but just as importantly, with what it means to tell a story. You can watch Nigel reading from It's Not Personal at the on-line launch, hosted by Martha Sprackland, in November 2020 here. You can read three poems from the collection below.

From It's Not Personal 

On the Way Home from Choir Practice

He was older and bigger than me, and his punch
was as glorious and unexpected as
when we trebles hit the top A in the Kyrie.
I’d done nothing to deserve that.
Oh my outrage as I named him to the police.
I wanted him tracked down, humiliated, punished.

The doubts took years. Had I provoked him?
Maybe I’d exaggerated my shock and the pain?
His mother, when she came round to apologise,
blaming it all on her being so ill with the cancer:
how had she deserved that? And how had he?
I’d pressed charges: where was the mercy in that?

Something My Girlfriend Said to Me

Do you remember, when you were a boy,
how the chimes of an ice-cream van
could bring on a rush of excitement,
how you struggled with the choice –
a strawberry mivvi, a rocket lolly,
or a 99 with hundreds and thousands –
how different each felt
in your mouth,
on your tongue,
how wonderful
it was to know that
if you chose a mivvi today,
you could still have a 99 tomorrow?
Well that’s how it is with me and men.


Final Interview for MI6


There are five of them this time, seated in a row.
No introductions and no name cards.
They give you a hard time but you keep going.

Then the young woman, surely the most junior
but doing most of the talking, tells you to imagine
you’re in a hostile country, and to choose one of them
to be the local you have to entrap, suborn, entice,
seduce or otherwise persuade to come over.

She gives that look you’ve got wrong before, so you choose
the blimp beside her, and greeting him like an old friend,
commiserate on his child’s poor health, and then pretend
you’ve had him photographed as he takes your gift of cash.

When you arrive home, the offer letter is on the doormat.


Slippery bastard chose me. 'Hello Mikhail, it’s good to see you,
let’s have a beer, and I’m so sorry to hear the baby’s poorly.'
Chummy as you like. Perfectly believable. Of course I just blinked.
Took some time to get to the point, but at last he offered me cash,
for 'medical treatment,' one diplomat to another, no questions asked.
When he mentioned the camera, it could have been me thirty years ago.
I was for saying no. But none of the others had been in the field.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Kevan Manwaring, "Black Box"

Dr Kevan Manwaring is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. He is an alumnus of the University of Leicester, where he completed his PhD in Creative Writing under the supervision of Dr Harry Whitehead in 2018. He also taught Creative Writing at the university. His novel and now audio drama Black Box was written alongside his doctoral research, inspired by interdisciplinary conversations on campus and visits to the National Space Centre. It won the national 'One Giant Write' science fiction manuscript competition in 2016. 

About Black Box

Prize-winning eco-science fiction novel Black Box, by Kevan Manwaring, has been adapted into a gripping audio drama by Alternative Stories and Fake Realities as part of their CliFi season. 

Inspired by the cutting edge research into artificial intelligence and space exploration at the University of Leicester (where Kevan completed his PhD and won various writing commissions) Black Box was written as a ‘side novel’ during his part-time research degree – a break from researching Scottish folklore for his main project. He entered the national Literature Works ‘One Giant Write’ science fiction novel manuscript competition ‘on a whim’ and won it. 

Kevan wrote a draft of Black Box while on writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross, Western Highlands. To research the settings of the novel he visited the National Space Centre, and the biomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall. 

Adapting his own opening chapters for the pilot episodes, Kevan has worked closely with sound engineer and Alternative Stories director, Chris Gregory, who recruited and recorded professional British and American actors, and created the soundtrack and soundscape. 

Launched as part of the Alternative Stories CliFi season, Kevan was interviewed about his project in a special feature alongside fellow writer Anna Orridge, whose short story, ‘Backdrop,’ was also adapted. You can listen to the interview here

Black Box is a dark eco-science fiction thriller about the consequences of exploration of the Solar System and beyond. A desperate mission to find water – and the possibility of life – on one of Jupiter’s moons is set against a backdrop of a dying Earth. Kevan says: 'In Black Box, I wanted to look into the abyss, but I also wanted to offer a glimmer of hope. I offer not another bleak dystopian vision of the future, nor a wildly optimistic utopia, but what Atwood terms an "Ustopia" - for one man's heaven is another man's hell.'

You can listen to all three pilot episodes of Black Box here.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Anna Vaught, "Saving Lucia"

Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor, mental health advocate and mum of 3. 2020 saw the publication of Anna's third novel, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose), which has just been longlisted for the Barbellion Prize, and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US. She is currently finishing a new novel and working on some non-fiction, while a further novel and second short story collection are on the desk. Anna’s essays, reviews, articles, and features have been featured widely online and in print. She is represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agents, in New York City. Her website is here. She is also on Twitter @BookwormVaught and Instagram @bookwormvaught6. 

Anna Vaught will be giving a guest talk and masterclass as part of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester on Wednesday 3 March 2021. If you are interested in attending, please email Jonathan Taylor (jt265[at]le[dot]ac[dot]uk). 

About Saving Lucia

How would it be if four lunatics went on a tremendous adventure, reshaping their pasts and futures as they went, including killing Mussolini? What if one of those people were a fascinating, forgotten aristocratic assassin and the others a fellow life co-patient, James Joyce's daughter Lucia, another the first psychoanalysis patient, known to history simply as 'Anna O,' and finally 19th Century Paris's Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann? That would be extraordinary, wouldn't it? How would it all be possible? Because, as the assassin Lady Violet Gibson would tell you, those who are confined have the very best imaginations.

Saving Lucia explores the last days of the life of the Hon Violet Gibson, would-be assassin of Mussolini. In St Andrew’s Hospital, her lifetime co-patient is Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, and Lucia helps Violet to organise one last and extraordinary adventure, together with two other well-known psychiatric patients, and in the process secure freedom and understanding for herself. Saving Lucia is historical fiction with strong fantastical elements woven in - the journey undertaken is itself a work of prodigious fantasy - plus refrains and rhythms from the works of James Joyce, particularly Finnegans Wake. It is a testimony to the role of the imagination in mental illness and in confinement and its stimulus was the long and difficult experience of its author, who saw these women not as cases, but as heroines. 

Below, you can read the opening page of the novel. 

From Saving Lucia

Violet Albina Gibson, the Honourable, was behind bars, wearing an immaculate black crepe dress, clasping her finest manners and a lovely, lacquered fountain pen, for letters to Churchill and others. She was a criminal because, in April 1926, in Rome, she shot Mussolini. And she was insane with it; an assassin with devotions, prayers and visions. Not a steady-handed murderer, but one that broke apart most untidily and could not be trusted. In prison, in Rome, she threw a chamber pot at her guard and a flower press at a crackbrain; for an Honourable lady, such rude things she said. Then there were the screams and intransigence: strange mystical tantrums. And in 1927, when they put her in the mental hospital, in England, behind those necessary bars, through which you saw a fine vista—oh and the borders were lovely this year! —she would never do a jigsaw or embroidery, when instructed for her own good. Only towards the end of her life would she do one thing they suggested: she agreed to stand outside with the birds and encourage them to feed from her hands. 

Other than that, a hopeless obdurate virago, a strange dotty old girl, mad with religion. And a danger. Or a nuisance. Or both.

Monday, 14 December 2020

Congratulations to Jane Simmons!

Congratulations to Jane Simmons, poet and PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, whose poem "Nativity" has just won the Seren Christmas Poetry Competition 2020. You can read her poem on Seren's blog here

Jane Simmons is a former teacher/lecturer who completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She is now a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Leicester, where her research project is The Poetics and Politics of Motherhood, a practice-led exploration of motherhood through an environmental and political lens, engaging with the theme creatively and as it is treated in contemporary women’s poetry. As a reviewer for The Blue Nib literary magazine, Jane has built a significant publication history of writing about contemporary women’s poetry. A small selection of her own poems appeared in the March 2019 edition of the magazine. Her collection From Darkness into Light – poems inspired by the Book of Kells – was published in 2018. Further poems appeared in the anthology The View from the Steep. She has work forthcoming in Ink, Sweat & Tears. Jane regularly reads and performs her work in the Lincoln area. She won the G. S. Fraser Prize for Poetry in both 2019 and 2020; you can read her winning poems here and here. She recently gave a guest lecture and reading at Leicester University, on the first-year undergraduate module "Introduction to Writing Creatively."