Gig Review: Sam Guglani and Katy Mahood in Bath

On Tuesday of this week I attended a friendly and fascinating event at Toppings bookshop in Bath. Sam Guglani, author of Histories, and Katy Mahood, author of Entanglement, were in conversation, discussing how the intersections and collisions of human experience can be explored in fiction. Originally the evening had been intended to be a discussion between two doctors about how their work in medicine inspired their writing. Unfortunately Joanna Cannon had to cancel due to illness so Katy stepped in. She proved a fine replacement.

The evening opened with introductions and readings. The authors then questioned each other about aspects of their books. I provide below a summary of their discussion.

Histories is set in a hospital over the course of a week and is structured as a series of interlinked stories told from the points of view of a variety of people who inhabit the place. Katy asked Sam if he used the hospital as a vehicle to explore characters or if the characters were a means to explore how a hospital functions.

Sam talked of how a patient arrives at hospital, presents their symptoms and expects a diagnosis. The reality is a lot more messy. Hospitals are often large and sprawling. Patients are ill so not at their best. Doctors will have differing areas of expertise, skill levels and experience. All of these factors collide in their interactions. Discreet people and events combine in ways that they cannot know, becoming more than the sum of their parts.

Entanglement is about the ripple effects interactions create. It was inspired by Katy’s interest in quantum entanglement (a physical phenomenon which occurs when pairs or groups interact in ways such that the state of each can no longer be described independently of the other(s), even when separated by a large distance). She talked of meeting her husband when she was sixteen years old and discovering that they lived a few hundred yards apart. They must have met before – at playgroups, schools or social events – but weren’t aware. She was propelled to write her story by her husband’s illness which created a sudden awareness of mortality, something always there but not noticed.

Katy asked Sam if his exposure to life changing moments in his work as an oncologist had been a catalyst for Histories.

Sam quipped that his children tease him about being obsessed by death. He mentioned a junior doctor who asked a registrar how he coped with the inevitable deaths. The answer was that at least in oncology the doctor cannot mess up, patients are going to die anyway. Although appearing flippant, this is a reminder that as a society death is regarded as remote, its possibility denied, yet all medicine is an encounter with death. In Histories the characters are facing mortality, theirs or those they know. Fiction offers a way of presenting such truths. Sam reminded us that we live in a post enlightened world where an oncologist can request massively expensive tests yet struggles to find funds to provide oral hydration.

Katy mentioned Joanna Cannon’s latest book, Three Things About Elsie, and how it explores attitudes to people’s changing abilities. She mentioned a blog post Dr Cannon had written about how to talk to a patient suffering a terminal illness (do read this). Histories brings out what being a good doctor means, and the uncertainty that always exists.

The authors were asked if they thought that, in the last few years, there had been an increased interest in both the positives and negatives of healthcare.

Katy talked of the expectation of infallibility and the constrictions caused by the threat of litigation, how this affects what doctors can say to patients. She offered an analogy with motherhood. There is a desire to be a perfect mother, yet all that any mother can hope for is to be good enough. Perhaps society needs to accept good enough doctors.

Sam mentioned that we live in a world that is now far less trusting of authority – understandably. He asked how we square this with providers of healthcare when doctors face crisis at every moment.

Katy talked of the care her husband received, which was not always as it should have been. Yet she recognised that doctors are human and working within the constraints of a far from perfect system. She felt it important that we differentiate before ascribing blame.

Both Sam and Katy read again from their books before talk moved on to a discussion of the use of  language, and empathy.

Katy commented that Histories has dexterous language and asked if this could enable or disable the practice of medicine.

Sam talked of providing compassionate care and what this means, that it should not just be a task on a tick list. Language is the currency humans use and there are ethical as well as technical arguments for certain words, for example madness. He talked of culpability, which is explored in Entanglement, what happens to others as a result of our actions but of which we remain unaware. Kindness is a power.

Katy talked of how kindness shapes those around. For some who show care it becomes their prism – they define themselves by other’s outcomes as a result of their acts of kindness.

When questions were invited from the audience one lady told of her experience of a rare illness being diagnosed because an expert happened to be to hand. She wished to stress the importance of everyone bringing their best to their job. She felt that doctors should be more truthful about what they know and can do.

A question was then asked about media representations.

Sam replied that to get away from the false and sentimental it was necessary to be gritty in his writing, to present the internal troubles of his characters. Doctors cannot know exactly how others feel but can understand fear and pain. He chairs a clinical ethics committee and most discussions are not around great moral dilemmas but much more day to day concerns – how much should be told and shared, how to be with patients. It can be tricky arriving at a reasonable stance.

Sam referenced Seamus Heaney’s essay in which he differentiated between craft and technique in writing: craft is the skill of making, it wins competitions, it can be deployed without reference to feelings or the self; technique defines a stance toward life, a definition of a writers own reality.

And with that the discussion was drawn to a close. The audience were rapturous in their reactions to the discussion and eager to talk to both authors. I managed to catch a few words with Sam when I asked him to sign my copy of his book. When I looked for Katy she was surrounded, deep in conversation, and I was by now out of time. I did manage to introduce myself to Ann Bissell who was representing The Borough Press. It is always lovely to put faces to names I follow on line.

This was another excellent author evening organised by Toppings. If in Bath do check out this fabulous independent bookshop.


Histories is published by riverrun (click on the cover above to read my review)

Entanglement is published by The Borough Press


Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Shortlist Announcement Event

Neil Griffiths prepares to announce the shortlist

Two weeks ago I travelled to Manchester to attend a book event that is close to my heart. Having been invited to join the reader panel for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses early last summer, I have been immersed in the many excellent books submitted for consideration for many months. The longlist was announced in December and was, in my view, an outstanding collection of some of the best literary fiction published in recent years.

Whittling this down to a shortlist proved a challenge. It was done over dinner in London, in January, in preparation for an announcement that then had to be delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. I wrote briefly about the the rescheduled event, held in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, here.

The night, though, was about more than announcing the six books that had made it onto the shortlist. It was an appreciation of the literary achievements of the small presses. As Charles Boyle, author and publisher at CB Editions, said in his guest post for my blog last month (which he told me when I met him in Manchester he really hadn’t wanted to write!):

“Does there have to be a winner? Boringly, yes. It’s how the world tick-tocks. But that doesn’t matter, because the real point of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is to celebrate a movement and a community.”

This sense of community was well in evidence at the Manchester event, despite the obvious disappointment of the authors and publishers that were not shortlisted.

Before the announcement there were panels and talks which I summarise in some detail below for anyone interested.

As an aside, I had not previously been aware that certain other prizes reveal to the publishers beforehand what is to be announced, that print runs may be adjusted to ensure books are available for the anticipated increase in sales. At this event, as far as I know, we judges were the only people who knew the shortlist beforehand.


The evening opened with an introduction by the founder of the RofC prize, Neil Griffiths, who posed a few questions designed to make authors think about what they wanted from a book deal. Neil has published prize winning novels with an imprint of Penguin, enjoying a large advance but little ongoing attention from those he hoped would work to help promote his books. His most recent novel, As A God Might Be, has been published by Dodo Ink, a small press that has offered him a more satisfying experience.

A selection of the longlisted publishers were then invited to form a panel to discuss the recent emergence of the small presses as leaders in literary innovation. Those taking part were Carolina Orloff from Charco Press, Chris Hamilton-Emery from Salt Publishing, Elly Millar from Galley Beggar Press, and Kevin Duffy from Bluemoose Books.

Neil asked why small presses are flourishing.

Kevin suggested that although they still have to sell books (they are not after all a library) they have a different economic imperative.

Elly mentioned some stats that she shares with the publishing students she teaches: in 2001 a literary fiction title written in English would sell on average 1200 copies; by 2015 this average had fallen to around 260 copies per book.

Chris commented that sales are impossible to predict. When Salt started it sold poetry and would be lucky to sell 50 copies of any title; these days it hopes to sell around 200 copies – some perform considerably better, of course.

Carolina added that their longlisted book has sold around 800 copies to date. When asked why she chose to enter the publishing business given these figures she replied it was out of a sense of frustration, that so many good books were simply not available to English language readers. She wished to change the conversation, to bring a wider variety of books to readers.

Kevin suggested that the decline in publishing innovation started with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. From then, authors were dropped if sales did not meet targets – publishers were no longer willing to carry poor sellers. Libraries were also having their budgets cut and buying fewer books.

Neil mentioned media reports about the fall in sales of literary fiction but the rise in sales of books from small presses (Elly whispered, we have the good stuff!)

There was acknowledgement that most of the authors the small presses publish will already have submitted to the larger houses and been rejected.

Neil asked about the role of agents who are also focused on the bottom line as they need to earn many thousands of pounds from book sales simply to pay for their desk space.

Kevin said that, where there is only so much publishing pie to go around, those looking to ‘pay for their desk space’ were not focusing purely on great writing. Some agents have also been known to express concern when writers are not London based.

Chris mentioned that agents tend to look to the small presses last.

Carolina commented that more interesting work could be found by approaching authors directly.

As an aside Neil added that following his Penguin publishing deal he was taken out to lunch but didn’t get invited into the publisher’s building for a year, until he was regarded as established.

Chris talked of the dramatic explosion of authors going it alone, who see no advantage in a small press. In the early days some were earning six figure sums publishing on Kindle but the market quickly became saturated. Authors should ask what benefit an agent will offer them. Small presses are willing to collaborate in such areas as rights sales.

Elly mentioned that most authors have agents but also approach small presses themselves. She currently has 457 submissions in her inbox, despite only accepting for two weeks twice a year. She believes agents may be worthwhile if sales explode, such as if a big prize is won. She pointed out that most people who run small presses, and most writers, also have day jobs to pay the bills.

Chris suggested that writers whose work fits into a fashionable genre may benefit from an agent. He hoped that the many writing schools now in existence teach the realities of publishing, pointing out that even a Guardian review may lead to just 20 extra sales.

Neil added, and others concurred, that despite it being a writer’s dream to write full time, this may not actually be good for their art. He then asked what the wider industry could do for small presses that is not currently being done.

Elly mentioned that reviews are hugely useful, that she sees spikes in sales when reviews appear in such publications as The Sunday Times, women’s magazines or on Front Row. Neil questioned if reviews were really so important in driving sales. The consensus was that what is required is visibility. It is to do with readers spreading the word, such as happens on Twitter.

Kevin commented that this was why they started the Northern Fiction Alliance. He said that readers are looking elsewhere and are now finding the small presses.

Chris didn’t believe the trade owed small presses anything. He takes on books that have commercial potential but this is hard to call. A bookshop may order a thousand of one title while for another, that he considers fantastic, they may order only six.

Dostoyevsky Wannabe, in the audience, chipped in that they print on demand so do not need sales (although they would like them!) Chris added that Salt started in the same way. Dostoyevsky Wannabe believes agents may still be looking for books about wizards, or cookbooks.


Authors Isabel Waidner (Gaudy Bauble) and Preti Taneja (We that are young) then came to the front of the room to give talks.

Isabel spoke of what literature can do, that it can offer cultural assistance and has the potential to affect political and social change. She wishes to see the small presses offering alternative narratives to counter the prevailing conservative one. She stated that the Tory party are good at turning what they wish to become normative into stuff that resonates with people. The arts should come up with alternatives. They need to resonate with audiences not currently engaging with literature. If it remains commercial, middle class, then it excludes a huge readership who thus remain invisible. Where are the working class writers, the queer writers, writing about their subcultures? It is these writers who are featured in an anthology she has been working on recently, Liberating the Canon. There is much still to be done but it can be done. She hopes the small presses will be more willing to look at diversity and cultural innovation.

Preti talked of her experience of getting published and the prejudices she encountered as a woman of colour. Reactions to her novel, a rewriting of King Lear, suggested that what she was attempting was fantastic but that Shakespeare did not belong to someone like her, despite being British born. At one stage the agent who took her on would not submit to a publisher as they already had an unanswered submission from another British-Asian writer, as though such writers are identkit. Eventually her manuscript was hand delivered to Galley Beggar Press, at home, by the tiny Gatehouse Press who had published a novella she had written and recognised the potential of We that are young. Preti was unsure at this stage if a small press would think this work was right for them. Having published she believes that they can offer the mixing up and integration needed to move forward. Literature should be innovative, nuanced, it should be playing with ideas and making something new.

Isabel and Preti were then joined by Simon Okotie (In the Absence of Absalon), David Hayden (Darker With The Lights On) and Ben Myers (The Gallows Pole) to form an author panel.

Like Neil, Ben has been published by both large and small presses. He pointed out that the big advances paid may be for five years work so perhaps not quite as generous as first appears. He mentioned that one of his books was regarded as big but turned out to have a short shelf life. He has enjoyed the autonomy Bluemoose Books have given him, for example he chose the striking cover for Gallows Pole. Picador would never have allowed that.

David was not allowed to choose his cover! Little Island Press has an award winning ‘house style’ which permeates every aspect of their beautiful books. He has been in the book trade since 1989, working in bookshops, as a commissioning editor, a non-fiction publisher – he knows the book trade from every direction. He mentioned that one publisher he submitted to couldn’t be sure his stories would sell, and the commissioning editor is granted only one wild card choice per year. There is a fear element in acquisitions meetings. Commissioning editors can lose their jobs if the finance people are unhappy with how books perform. In talking of the potential for diversity David pointed out that across almost all literary imprints, key decision makers are white, male and privately educated.

Simon described his book as a story about a man taking a set of keys out of his pocket. His next book will have even less action. Neil commented that, like Isabel’s, Simon’s work sits on the extremes of literary fiction. Simon expressed his gratitude that his books can be published as they are very particular, stemming from his work on public transport while studying philosophy.

Neil talked of books as works of art, the author having command over their material, getting it to do whatever they want. He mentioned the longlisted book by Kevin Davey, Playing Possum, which, if written by a renowned author such as Pynchon, would have people doing PhDs on it. If the culture narrows, such books will never be published.

With so many books being published each year, Neil asked the authors if they had any sense of where British fiction is – if it is good, bad, on hold, exciting.

Preti mentioned that from visiting bookshops she noticed more translated fiction.

Ben added that the best novels he has read recently have come from the small presses, been crowdfunded, or authors have been cherry picked by the bigger publishers after a small press success. As a reviewer he is sent so many books that sometimes quality is drowned out.

David talked of all literature being contemporary as all language (writing) interacts with what has gone before. He stated that segmentation and a focus on marketability can be disheartening for readers. The book becomes a product, offered up and then forgotten.

Neil commented that when something works all the big publishers seem to desire their own version. David reminded everyone that commissioning editors are readers first but work within restrictions.

The idea of hybridity was mentioned.

Isabel believes this is improving but literature is still far too homogeneous. She wishes to see more authors working with language and form, crossing intersections, a diversity of writing and also writers.

Preti stated that she does not consider a small press to be a stepping stone to a bigger publishing house. She values the relationship built stating that such things help make the whole process more worthwhile.

Simon commented that he would like to read more books like his own. He wrote it because he couldn’t find it elsewhere. He was eager to emphasise the value of the small presses and the writers they are finding. So much interesting work is coming through.

Isabel believes that reaching readerships that aren’t yet being tapped into matters more than copies sold.

Neil reminded everyone that the RofC prize was set up to reward small presses willing to take a risk on ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. The reaction to the longlist has been intense, but how many people want to read such super premium literary fiction?

Ben does not believe publishers should underestimate readers. He mentioned Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing (first published by Galley Beggar) which has proved a cultural phenomena, sold 57,000 copies and is still much sought after.

Simon suggested this book was still recent, that we should be looking at a book such as Ulysses, its cultural impact, and what is possible.


With that Neil drew this part of the evening to a close. The packed venue (many were by now standing at the back or sitting in the aisle) decamped to another room for wine and conversation before the shortlist announcement was made.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to introduce myself to several publishers I interact with regularly on line but had not previously met – Chris had come across a poet sharing my name which caused some confusion when I introduced myself – as well as authors whose work I have reviewed. At this stage I was unsure if I should be mentioning that I was a judge given that some would, inevitably, go home disappointed by the evening’s outcome.

13 books had to be whittled down to 6. This is the more negative aspect of judging, that favourites from what was a truly outstanding list had to be selected.

The shortlist

The next stage will be to choose a winner which will be announced on 20 March at an event to be held at the University of Westminster. Another difficult decision must be made.


The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Shortlist Announcement

Yesterday evening, at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, an event was held which culminated in the announcement of the shortlist for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Prior to the announcement there were panel discussions and presentations from publishers and authors.

When I saw this lineup last week I knew that I wanted to attend and am grateful to my husband for making it possible. As this post goes out we are still in Manchester enjoying an impromptu City Break.

Having been on the judging panel I was aware of which presses would be on the shortlist – you may remember that I attended a dinner in London where the longlist was hotly debated. For four hours the judges argued and presented their cases for including each book. They all had their advocates and, when it became clear that certain titles were not to go forward, passions were in evidence. The chair did a fine job of keeping the discussion steady and moving things along. Votes were taken and taken again, often with only one or two dividing the books to be included and those to be set aside. We knew that we had an impressively strong longlist and the difficulty of whittling it down to five or six titles was evidence of its literary quality.

Our task though was to produce a shortlist. These are the books that were eventually chosen, as announced last night:


Attrib. by Eley Williams (Influx)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefevbre (Les Fugitives)

Darker with the Lights On by David Haydn (Little Island Press)

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (Charco Press)

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)

The winner has yet to be chosen. There will be a further event in London on 20th March when that announcement will be made. Whichever book is selected, this entire shortlist is well worth reading.





Gig Review: New Voices of 2018 from Headline

Much as I enjoy my trips into London for book events, and am grateful to all the publishers who invite me, it was pleasing to learn that a team from Headline Publishing Group were taking five of their up and coming debut authors around the country to meet booksellers, librarians and reviewers closer to home. The Headline New Voices 2018 Roadshow travelled to Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol before returning to London where they will host a Rooftop Book Club next week, on Tuesday 23rd January at Carmelite House. I was delighted to receive an invitation to the Bristol roadshow event which I attended last Thursday evening.

Held in The Boardroom in central Bristol I spent an interesting few hours chatting to publicists, authors and other attendees about a wide range of book related issues. Although run to promote the five highlighted debuts the conversation and achievement of the event was wider ranging. There was a willingness to talk about the challenges of increasing sales in today’s market. There was palpable excitement from the authors at their creations being released into the wild.

Becky Hunter kicked proceedings off by introducing each book and author. Attendees were then left to mingle and chat while the publicity team – which included Georgina Moore, Millie Seaward and Jenny Harlow – ensured that nobody was left out and that the authors talked to each little group. The wine flowed and delicious canapés were served. The atmosphere was welcoming and convivial.

I managed to fit in conversations with Phoebe Locke (author of The Tall Man), Leo Carew (author of The Wolf) and Nick Clark Windo (author of The Feed). As a medical student, Leo was subjected to my parental pride in my daughter – also a medical student in London. I believe she would be most envious of his time spent in Svalbard, although perhaps not the tent accommodation. I also raised the daughter inspired medical theme with Nick, this time discussing neurology as we discussed how the brain would be changed by an implant as imagined in his book.

I chatted to a poet bookseller from Rossiter Books who was eager to pick up publishing advice from Georgina. I snuck into a conversation with a lovely bookseller from Griffin Books who spoke of the next day service they can offer customers (better than Amazon!). I met lovely library assistant Leah, and was delighted to catch up with my on-line friend, Sue.

I was also pleased to have several opportunities to talk to Georgina, who was candid about the challenges of marketing any book however appealing and well written; and also to Becky, about bloggers and proof distribution. Despite what I have been advised by others it seems that publicists are happy to be approached for review copies. Having said that, no reviewer should feel they ‘deserve’ any particular book. With so many bloggers eager to spread the word about the books they enjoy, not all can be recipients of every ARC.

At this event, though, I came away with copies of each book offered. Having now heard so much about them I am keen to read each one. The roadshow was well worth braving the cold for – thank you Headline for hosting, and for coming to us.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize 2017 Longlist

On Thursday of this week, The Times Literary Supplement announced the longlist for the 2017 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. You may read the article, which includes Neil Griffiths’ thoughts on each book, by clicking here. This made public the results of a process I have been involved in since the summer. As a member of the prize’s reader bloc I have been privileged to be a part of the judging process, reading all the books submitted and providing my views. The reader bloc have been sharing their thoughts and opinions amongst themselves over the past few months which has highlighted differences in reading preferences. One thing we have all agreed on though is the high quality of the submissions. We have read some of the best literary fiction published this year.

The longlist is an outstanding selection representing the wide variety of titles we were asked to consider. When Neil Griffiths created the prize he wrote the following Mission Statement which I kept in mind as the judging process progressed.

The Republic of Consciousness is an expression of the affect of a particular kind of writing. Whilst I’m sure there are examples before Shakespeare, for our purposes the Shakespearean soliloquy might be regarded as the first explicit attempt to deliver us into the consciousness of another person, to take us from being mere witnesses to a character’s behaviour to participating in their lived experience. It is an act of phenomenological conjuring, which in slightly less technical parlance means the re-creation of a perceived world without any mediating voice. Of course there is a contradiction in this definition: the novel or play is an artefact, a work of fiction, and a long way from direct prehension of phenomena. And yet. There are writers whose work suggests that human consciousness beyond their own can be accessed, and through that the categorical unknowableness of others’ lived experience might be revealed. It is writing as a moral act. The Republic of Consciousness is here to support and celebrate this.

The prize is intended to reward small presses willing to take a risk on books that offer readers ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. The longlisted titles meet these criteria and more. As well as literary merit the judges were asked to consider how much we enjoyed each reading experience.

I have already reviewed these works – you may check out my thoughts by clicking on the titles below. Should you choose to read these books do please consider borrowing from a library, buying from an independent bookshop, or ordering direct from the publisher where this is possible. These small presses can only survive if they are able to cover their costs and Amazon does not always support this endeavour. If you click on the publisher listed below you will be taken to their page for the book.

Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis) – published by Les Fugitives

An Overcoat by Jack Robinson – published by CB Editions

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell – published by And Other Stories

Compass by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) – published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Attrib. (and other stories) by Eley Williams – published by Influx Press

We that are young by Preti Taneja – published by Galley Beggar Press

In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie – published by Salt

Playing Possum by Kevin Davey – published by Aaaargh! Press

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers – published by Bluemoose Books

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) – published by Charco Press

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner – published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe

The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner) – published by Tramp Press

Darker With The Lights On by David Hayden – published by Little Island Press

The shortlist will be announced at Waterstones Manchester on February 15, 2018. To keep up with news on the prize you may follow on twitter at @prizerofc. It will be a challenge to whittle this list down to the five from which the winner will be selected later in the spring.

Gig Review: M John Harrison in Bath

Michael John Harrison had his first novel published in 1971 and has since produced more than twenty novels and short story collections, acquiring numerous awards and notable listings for his work. He is credited with being at the forefront of the New Wave science fiction movement. Although known for his SF and fantasy writing he now eschews labels believing the question of genre to be an irrelevance. He secures a space within which he can do what is necessary to get the point he wishes to make across, liberated to write what he needs to at the time. If not all readers get what he is saying he can accept this.

Prior to receiving his latest collection of short stories, You Should Come With Me Now (you may read my review of the book here), I had not come across M John Harrison’s writing. Thus I was pleased to discover he was visiting Bath and went along to Waterstones last Thursday to hear him speak. The event proved popular with the many in attendance who appeared familiar with the entirety of his published work.

Mike was in conversation with Steve Andrews, a Senior Bookseller at the store and an obvious fan. Having introduced his guest we were treated to readings of five of the shorter stories from Mike’s latest book. I was pleased that he included two of my personal favourites – Psychoarcheology and Jackdaw Bingo. He commented that many of the stories are linked to travel in some way, and he was therefore amused to be speaking from within the Travel section of the bookshop.

Following these readings there was plenty of time for questions – from Steve and the audience. Just as Mike’s writing cannot always be easily be categorised, so his answers were not necessarily what may have been expected. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the evolution of his attitude to writing and his creative style.

Mike was asked if he enjoyed playing the trickster. He explained that he sees writing and reading as a game, with points scored between writer and reader. He has fun with his writing, making use of tropes, employing parody and satire. In the past his intentions have not always been understood. Although his latest collection is subtitled Stories of Ghosts, the ghosts are such things as political spectres, past mistakes, ideas and situations.

Asked why he released a short story collection Mike explained that this came from writing his blog. There he takes a paragraph and then flips it, changing direction for the fun of it. He likes the results and also that he has produced stories of different lengths which fit well in a collection. As a writer, if there are no changes of direction he would consider himself stalled, even if still writing. He also has a novel in progress – it has fish people in it who may be trying to take over Britain and no one has noticed! Asked how he got involved with Comma Press he told us he had been looking for a small press as they are all the rage. He approached them and they agreed to publish this latest book.

Does Mike like to drop his characters and therefore readers into unfamiliar landscapes? He has always written about where he is at the time. He grew up in a village on the cusp of being absorbed into a suburb – an Edgeland. He enjoys exploring the transitions between landscape – woods, derelict factories, urban nature writing. He prefers to write what he sees without specialist knowledge of, say, nature, getting across to the reader the experience of simply being there.

His book The Centauri Device was mentioned. Originally conceived as an anti-space opera it ended up revitalising the genre and influencing the works of later authors such as Iain M. Banks. It is Mike’s most in print work but he hates it – he was advised not to write it but did anyway. He much prefers Light, an award winning SF novel which references his personal interests – mountaineering and rock music.

Talking of the New Wave he believes this had more influence outside the genre than within. For a time it broke through the limits of SF&F but the wounds healed. He has no desire to try this again. He has gone on to write as he pleases, always he wishes to move forwards, not working on repeat.

Mike believes genre should react to the writer rather than writers trying to fit into an existing space. Results come through the work of individuals who have differing ideas. An audience member asked about the New Weird. Mike agreed that such umbrellas may be necessary for a given moment, as a shelter, but in the end Mike doesn’t wish to be labelled.

Asked if he read Philosophy Mike admitted to doing so when younger. He sees SF as weaponisation of philosophical metaphor, bruising to read. He has been influenced by dozens of movements outside of fantasy. He manipulates ideas, tips them towards reality and then destroys the image created.

There was discussion of how to world build without info dumping, finding a balance so that the reader understands but the story moves forward. Editors often encourage description but Mike prefers to strip back, to follow his instinct. Info dumps are fine if entertaining – as in Pschoarcheology which contains little dialogue.

Asked how much revising of text Mike did he answered that he is constantly throwing away what he has written and goes through many iterations before being satisfied he has expressed himself as he wishes. Asked what books he has read recently he mentioned Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson. He would like to talk to this author about how he revises.

As the evening drew to a close Mike mentioned that the Christmas issue of New Scientist will contain a new version of Elf Lands – “a five-volume fantasy trilogy in 1000 words”.

There was then the opportunity to buy books and have them signed, with a long queue forming. The eager fans spoke of their excitement at the chance to meet this author, and he appeared happy to talk as he inscribed their purchases.


It was good to see so many younger men making up the audience at a book event. The demographic was notably different to most that I attend. Mike may have been writing for close to fifty years but it was clear from the way he spoke that he is more interested in enjoying what is to come than in what he has already achieved.


You Should Come With Me Now is published by Comma Press 

Gig Review: Graeme Macrae Burnet in Bath

Having read His Bloody Project last weekend (you may read my review here) I availed myself of the opportunity to meet the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, at Toppings in Bath on Monday. Graeme talked about all three of his books including his latest, The Accident on the A35, which I purchased at the event. I look forward to reading and reviewing it in the coming weeks.

A35 is a sequel to Graeme’s debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. Both are set in the unremarkable, small French town of Saint-Louis on the Swiss French border. They were inspired by a visit to the town on which Saint-Louis is based a decade before Adèle was written. The cafe at their centre exists and has not changed in that time – Graeme returned as part of his research for A35 and told us even the menu has remained the same.

All three of Graeme’s books share a playfulness of form. They are written as if true with Adèle and A35 presented as translations. When Adèle was released a bookseller sold it to customers as a newly discovered French work that Graeme had translated into English, as is claimed on the fly page. He felt somewhat hoodwinked on discovering this was untrue. Of course, all works of fiction are untrue. Readers want to believe that stories could be real, to enter their fictional world.

The remote, mundane places Graeme writes about enable a feeling of claustrophobia to be explored. The central characters are young men who consider life to be better elsewhere. Living in a backwater, where middle aged residents treat them as children and will ask after their parents, Graeme prefers not to dwell on the key event – a death. He focuses instead on the effect of living where they do on the characters psyches and what goes on in their heads. The drama is the development of these young men, not who did the killing.

The structures employed are not new, they existed in 19th century fiction. By including documents and changing points of view it is possible to employ unreliable narrators. Graeme spoke of the apparatus of truth, that everyone is an unreliable narrator. Memory is partial, biased and selective. The reader must consider for themselves what is actually happening.

A member of the audience asked Graeme about the effect of his Booker Prize shortlisting. His Bloody Project was rejected many times before being picked up by Saraband, a small Scottish independent publisher. The initial print run was 1000 copies which were selling slowly until the Booker longlist was announced. From there Graeme’s life as a writer changed. He did point out that not all listed books do so well – his outsold even the eventual winner. It gained exposure for being with a small publisher, and a crime novel on the Booker list, although Saraband shouldered the risk in deciding how many copies to reprint. Sales of a book depend so much on visibility, on whether Waterstones will stock, on interest in foreign rights. The Booker Prize listing helps by putting books on tables at the front of shops for a time. Graeme is happy that His Bloody Project continues to sell. With digital and overseas markets he has recently found an agent to deal with the complexities of such deals.

Another audience member asked how he wrote his young protagonists, if he drew on personal experience. Graeme does not have children but as a reader has a view on what is engaging. He did not wish to write historical novels, or to present his protagonists as victims. He understands that seventeen year old boys, in whatever era or place, will be developing an interest in sex and pushing boundaries. The structure of his novels was fun to write but the vividness of the setting and making characters relatable adds the depth.

Graeme shared a few anecdotes: Adèle is currently being translated into French, he is unsure how that will work as it is already presented as a translation; His Bloody Project includes a glossary of Highland words which provide a challenge for any translator; he received an email from a resident of the small town on which Saint-Louis is based. Worried he had caused offence with his portrayal he was relieved to be told he had captured it perfectly. Graeme pointed out that from the point of view of his seventeen year old character he had to present the town negatively as the boy was eager to escape.

Asked if there were any plans for film or TV adaptations we were told rights had been sold but who knew if this would be taken any further. Graeme would be happy to wait a few years for this to happen as such things change readers perceptions of what a story should be.

When I presented my copies of his books for signing I was pleased to discover Graeme is as friendly as this frank and open discussion suggested. I am delighted with the inscriptions he provided, including these very appropriate stamps.