Thursday 28 January 2021

Andrew Komarnyckyj, "Ezra Slef"


Andrew Komarnyckyj has been a lawyer, odd-job man, PR Consultant, hospital porter, and plongeur among many other occupations. It’s the classic work history of an author but it wasn’t planned that way. It was a happy accident which has stood him in good stead for writing novels. His literary tastes range across every fiction genre including – perhaps inevitably – postmodernism, with which he has a love-hate relationship. When not writing or reading he loves conversation, listening to anecdotes, craft beers, and hiking in mountains. Andrew’s favourite authors include Russel H Greenan, Vladimir Nabokov, Sebastian Barry,  and Gillian Flynn. On a personal note he’s married with two adult daughters. His published novels are: Ezra Slef, a cross-genre thriller due published by Tartarus Press 14 January 2021; Very Nearly Dead, under the pen name A K Reynolds; Manchester Vice, under the pen name Jack D McLean; Confessions of an English Psychopath, under the pen name Jack D McLean; Thatchenstein,  under the pen name Jack D McLean; Zomcats, under the pen name Jack D McLean; Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocalypse, under the pen name Jack D McLean. 

About Ezra Slef

The pioneering writings of celebrated Russian novelist Ezra Slef have made him a titan of contemporary Postmodernism, with a worldwide following keen to know more about the man behind the books. Enter Humbert Botekin, a disgraced former professor of literature, and Slef’s biggest admirer. He writes the definitive biography of Slef, with compendious notes, an introduction, a list of plates, and a glossary.

But Botekin’s narrative soon spirals dangerously out of control. A supreme egotist, Botekin cannot resist assuming the foreground, so that his ostensible biography of Slef gradually changes into a personal memoir in which we learn far more about the biographer than about his subject. The narrative is both sinister and darkly comic.

Botekin’s secrets include making a Faustian pact with a well-travelled gentleman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Devil—a likeness the self-absorbed Botekin fails to notice, even as his world collapses around him.

You can read more about Ezra Slef on the publisher's website here

Below, you can read an extract from the novel.


From Ezra Slef


There is a body of opinion that Ezra Slef lacks a sense of humour. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has a well-developed, if somewhat eccentric, comedic sensibility. I remember as if it was yesterday the time he pretended not to be at home when I called at his house. It was only after I had knocked on his front door and rung the bell for fully fifteen minutes, and finally, in desperation, shinned up a drainpipe to gain access to a first-floor bedroom via a window carelessly left open, that he emerged from his hiding place and revealed himself to me. He made a great show of false annoyance at my antics, weighing into me with a series of expletives too extreme to repeat here, all the while shaking with suppressed laughter. He was so giddy he needed a glass of his favourite scotch whiskey to calm down.

Although Slef is a public figure known to all, he has a strong desire to keep his personal life private. When I asked if I could write an authorised biography of him, he refused point-blank to permit it. Faced with his intractable position on the matter, I thought the project doomed, until I realised I could use his sense of humour as a means of persuasion. I therefore said, in a jocular manner:

“I am not leaving until you give me permission to write your biography, Mr Slef.”

On hearing these words, he took hold of one of my ears in the same way a schoolmaster might take hold of the ear of an errant pupil, marched me good-humouredly to his front door, and ejected me from his house. The alcohol on his breath swirled around me as I stumbled and fell face-down in the snow. His parting shot, delivered with the deadpan humour which I know to be his trademark, was: 

“You can write what you expletive well like, as long as it doesn’t involve me.”

The door slammed shut behind me as I lay on his path, shivering and nonplussed, wondering what to do next. Then, when I got to my feet, brushing snow from my clothes, the full significance of Slef’s words became clear, and my heart soared.

He had said: “You can write what you expletive well like” – i.e., he gave me his full permission to write his biography; and he had also said: “as long as it doesn’t involve me” – indicating that, as a working novelist, he was far too busy to grant me interviews and give me access to his personal papers, but other than for those two minor impediments, I had the green light to go ahead.

Regrettably, I was unable to interview Slef’s friends to obtain background information about him, because they are writers, critics, journalists, and the like, for whom time is at a premium. I have therefore based my book largely on material in the public domain.


List of Plates

Having devoted many years to collecting photographs of Slef to illustrate this work, I met with a last-minute hitch. The images I had lovingly collated could not be used as they were subject to copyright, and the copyright holders were reluctant to allow publication. The issue would have been easily resolved but for the fact that their lawyers behaved like rabid Pit-Bulls, so we have ended up with a biography lacking any photographs of its subject. In order to remedy this omission, I have included in it a number of detailed pen-portraits of Slef. Even if you have never seen a picture of him, by the time you finish reading the book you now hold, you will feel you have looked into his penetrating blue-grey eyes, shaken him firmly by the hand, and perhaps even enjoyed a drink with him in the King’s Arms on Holywell Street, in Oxford.


Chapter 1: Origins and Early Life 

Ezra Slef was born in 1960, or something like that. To be frank, I am not interested in his date of birth, and nor should you be. Such detail may be important to the small-minded, but is of no consequence to me. My interest lies only in the grand sweep of ideas. 

He grew up in Russia, which perhaps accounts for his ability to use expletives in creative ways I never encountered until I met him. 

It is easy to imagine the young ES (as I shall hereinafter refer to him on and off  in the interests of brevity) in his hometown of Moscow, a studious child like me, one who was no doubt picked on by his churlish peers. Enduring their mocking laughter every playtime will have been torture for him. It was only to be expected that he would become a bookish type, choosing to spend his days in the school library rather than risk the cruel taunts of his unappreciative peers. Little did they know he was one day to become a celebrated man of letters, standing tall on the world stage of literature. 

There was one lad in particular – Brian Jessop – who made my young life a misery. I am sure Slef had more than his own fair share of Brian Jessops. Perhaps he made light of the situation. I doubt it. It is far more likely he developed a festering hatred for such characters, one which would lead to all manner of unpredictable outcomes in later life.[1] But I am getting ahead of myself.

So precocious was the young Slef that before his teens he was reading a vast range of literature from Beckett to Elliot to Pound. This had to be done in secret as he attended the sort of school where academic achievement was frowned upon, and likely to earn the achiever in question a summary beating at the hands of one of the school’s many fearsome bullies.

What can it have felt like for the young Slef to be so abused by the thugs who patrolled his alma mater in search of victims to prey upon? Drawing on my personal experience, I am able to paint a vivid picture of what he endured and how it must have felt.

[1] Unknown either to me or Jessop at the time, our paths were to cross long after we left school, with seismic consequences.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Jonathan Coe, "Mr Wilder and Me"


Jonathan Coe, photograph by Josefina Melo

Jonathan Coe was born in Lickey, a semi-rural suburb of Birmingham, in 1961. He attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham, Trinity College, Cambridge and Warwick University where he wrote a thesis on intrusive narration in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. His first novel The Accidental Woman was published in 1987 and he is now the author of thirteen novels, including What a Carve Up! (1994), The House of Sleep (1997), The Rotters’ Club (2001), The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010), Number 11 (2015) and Middle England (2018). In addition he has published a fable for children, The Broken Mirror, and a biography of the experimental novelist BS Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant. He is also an amateur musician whose album Unnecessary Music can be heard on On twitter his handle is @jonathancoe. Below, he talks about his new novel, Mr Wilder and Me, and you can read an extract from it.

About Mr Wilder and Me

I discovered Billy Wilder’s films in the late 1970s, when I was a teenager. But the first film of his that I saw (on television) was not one of his acknowledged masterpieces – such as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard or Some Like It Hot – but The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, his reimagining of the great detective’s personal life, which had been a commercial and critical flop.

I’ve written elsewhere about how my love for this film developed into a full-blown obsession. And of course it led me to watch all of Wilder’s other films, and to find out as much as I could about his life: his formative years in Vienna and Berlin, his flight from Nazi Germany in 1933, his transition from Hollywood screenwriter to Hollywood director. I became fascinated, in particular, by his meticulous, craftsmanlike approach to screenwriting, the formal solidity of his plots, the elegance of his narrative structures. Before the age of video recorders, I recorded his films off the television onto audio cassette and listened to them in bed at night, absorbing the rhythms of his dialogue. His influence on my development as a writer was much greater than that of any novelist.

So I have always wanted to write a book about Billy Wilder. But there are already several good biographies. And besides, while writing Like a Fiery Elephant, my biography of BS Johnson, the thought had stolen over me, more than once, that it might have been a better idea to write a novel about him instead. I might have got closer to him that way; perhaps even written something more truthful. And so I finally arrived at the idea that my book about Wilder should be a work of fiction, albeit based on real events.

The real event I chose to focus on was the making of Fedora, Wilder’s penultimate film – one of his most rarely-viewed, and one of his most puzzling. I knew that it had not been an altogether happy experience, either for Wilder himself or for his co-writer IAL Diamond (who is also an important figure in my book). So because I didn’t want this to be a bitter novel, a story of failure and disappointment, I decided to narrate it through the eyes of a completely invented character – a young Greek woman called Calista, who is taken on as an interpreter during Fedora’s location shoot, and who is full of optimism and starry-eyed wonder at being admitted into the world of Hollywood filmmaking.

I wanted to write a novel about the nature of creativity, and how it changes as you grow older. About the relationship between America and Europe. About the love between two professional colleagues (Wilder and Diamond) who in many ways are closer to each other than they are to their wives. About the most intense forms of personal grief, how you deal with them and how they find their way into your art. Above all, I hope it will be a novel that will make its readers want to watch Billy Wilder films again.

From Mr Wilder and Me

‘You don’t know the story of Nijinsky?’ he said. ‘He was a great dancer, but he went nuts. He ended up in a mental asylum suffering from terrible delusions. There’s a funny story about that, as well.’

This seemed unlikely, but Mr Diamond was determined to tell it anyway.

‘Billy was in a meeting once, with a producer. And he was telling him that he wanted to make a film about Nijinsky. So he told the producer the whole story of Nijinsky’s life, and this guy was looking at him in horror, and saying, “Are you serious? You want to make a movie about a Ukrainian ballet dancer who ends up going crazy and spending thirty years in a mental hospital, thinking that he’s a horse?” And Billy says, “Ah, but in our version of the story, we give it a happy ending. He ends up winning the Kentucky Derby.”’

And this time I did laugh, partly because I thought the story was funny, and partly because I liked the way Mr Diamond told it, the way his eyes shone as he reached the punchline, the way that for him, briefly, the telling of this joke brought an instant of strange joy and clarity to the world. And I realised that for a man like him, a man who was essentially melancholy, a man for whom the ways of the world could only ever be a source of regret and disappointment, humour was not just a beautiful thing but a necessary thing, that the telling of a good joke could bring a moment, transient but lovely, when life made a rare kind of sense, and would no longer seem random and chaotic and unknowable. It made me glad to think that in the midst of the world’s many intractabilities he still had this one source of consolation. 

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Bruce Harris, "Fallen Eagles"


Bruce Harris is a Devon-based author and poet who has been consistently successful in short fiction and poetry competitions since 2003. Bruce has published three collections of short fiction, First Flame (2013), Odds Against (2017), and The Guy Thing (2018), and three poetry collections, Raised Voices (2014), Kaleidoscope (2017) and The Huntington Hydra (2019). His first novel, Howell Grange, was published in October 2019.

Three of his books, Odds Against, The Guy Thing and The Huntington Hydra were published in aid of the Huntington’s Disease Association.  Bruce’s partner was diagnosed with HD in 2016.

A fourth short story collection, Fallen Eagles, is to be published early in 2021, and it will be in aid of the Huntington’s Disease Youth Organisation. The book includes sixteen ‘coming of age’ stories and a Foreword by the Chief Executive of the HDYO. 

About Fallen Eagles

The title story, 'Fallen Eagles,' is a Hamlet-inspired story about a Scottish boy who loses his idolised mountaineer father in an accident and blames his uncle to such an extent that he contemplates murder. Other stories involve the French Revolution, the First World War and more contemporary situations such as coming out, shaking off the parental yoke and exploring old and new love. Each story explores the diversity of young people’s experience as they emerge into adulthood and the wide-ranging themes are both contemporary and relatable to the modern reader. 

Fallen Eagles has been produced to raise funds for Huntington’s Disease Youth Organisation (HDYO), following Bruce’s civil partner’s diagnosis with Huntington’s Disease in 2016. In her foreword to the book, the Chief Executive of the HDYO, Catherine Martin, says: 

'The theme of Fallen Eagles aligns directly with young people impacted by Huntington’s Disease. Their journey with disease takes them through many twists and turns but their decision to go through genetic pre-diagnostic testing for Huntington’s disease is one of the biggest and scariest points in their lives. A young person at risk of Huntington’s disease has to wait until they turn 18 before they can legally decide to test for Huntington’s disease; this is their rite of passage.' 

From Fallen Eagles

Did he appear behind me, Dougal Murray in his prime, pale and shadowy like a phantom apparition? No, he didn’t. Did his voice come echoing down the hill at me, calling out like some lost spirit? No, it didn’t. The apparition was all in my mind, and the voice like a disembodied whisper which communicated ideas without having to articulate them in so many precisely defined words.

Be aware. Stuart saved my life several times, as I saved his. Be aware. He loved your mother almost as much as I did, and he gave way because she chose me. Be aware. Once in a blue moon, harnesses fail; invisible deterioration, hitherto unrealised missing internal part, untraceable consequences of exposure to extreme climate conditions.

Remember. Violence and vengeance are a downward spiral, kill or be killed, until, like the mightiest and proudest eagle, your own fall will come. Remember. The eagle’s blood is still on your hands, human blood is about to follow, and soon, inevitably, your blood will be on someone else’s hands. Remember. Your mother’s heart has been broken once; breaking it again will finish her for ever. Remember. You have almost discarded two people, your lover and your brother, who care for you deeply; you are about to break their hearts as well. Remember, Duncan, remember. These things are true, and you know them to be so.

The words, sentiments, assertions, were invisible, but they were not there in my head because of my own independent consciousness. Someone external to me put them there. I found myself looking around me, ridiculously, for someone, anyone, who was in my vicinity. But there was nothing but the air, the sky and the braying conversation of well-bred voices, growing gradually louder.

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.