Gig Review: Launch Party for Dreamtime by Venetia Welby

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Last Wednesday I travelled to London for my first book event since lockdown began in March 2020. Venetia Welby, author of the fabulous Dreamtime, had invited me to the launch of this, her second novel. The venue chosen was Vout-O-Reenee’s, a private member’s club perfect for what turned out to be a well attended and convivial party. Copies of the book were being sold by Sam Fisher of Burley Fisher Books. I was delighted to hear afterwards that he sold out, although do hope that those who couldn’t pick up a copy on the night have now made their purchases elsewhere. Dreamtime is such a good read.

Attendees were warmly welcomed to the party and invited to partake of a Dreamtime Cocktail. Deliciously refreshing as it tasted I suspect a few of these may send the imbiber to their own dreamtime a tad earlier than anticipated. I made the pragmatic decision to switch to white wine after one glass.

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A selection of fine cheeses and chutneys were available for the hungry. Seats in a small outdoor terrace offered a few moments respite from the friendly hubbub inside. 

Numbers quickly increased with new arrivals finding friends and acquaintances to chat to. There appeared to be a good mix of family, friends and fellow authors, although I spoke to only a handful of guests. With my natural reticence I was grateful Venetia had been happy for me to bring along my husband. We enjoyed observing and soaking up the atmosphere.

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All were in attendance to celebrate the publication of a book so there was excitement when the author stepped forward to give a reading, the crowd gathering round to hear her bring life to her characters.

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When finished, the appreciative audience applauded and called out as one, ‘More! More! More!’ – a first in my experience at a literary event. Venetia’s riposte was perfect, suggesting that those wishing to find out what happened next could buy the book. And they did.

The evening was far from over with more mingling (me trying to recognise faces from social media). As numbers gradually started to thin husband and I took our leave.

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It was lovely to be back amongst bookish folk after so long, and well worth travelling to the city for. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of Dreamtime, I recommend you rectify this soon.

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Dreamtime is published by Salt and is available to buy direct from the publisher (click the above cover for link) or from any good bookshop.

Gig Review: Launch Party for The Life of Almost by Anna Vaught

Last Thursday evening I travelled to Bath Spa for a book launch at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. Author Anna Vaught was celebrating the publication of her second novel, The Life of Almost, and her supporters packed the bookshop out. It was a friendly and fun event involving books, chat, readings, wine and delicious snacks. This is my sort of party.

    

Anna talked about her two published books (her first was the autobiographical Killing Hapless Ally) and her writing inspirations. For The Life of Almost these were: her family; her love of Pembrokeshire; Welsh myths; Dickens’s Great Expectations.

She and two of her friends then gave readings from the book before Anna’s husband, Ned, spoke of his wife’s prolific writing and his pride in her achievements. Anna does not have a dedicated space for her craft. She writes at her kitchen table surrounded by family life. The time for this must be squeezed in around her many other commitments.

    

Questions were invited from the floor and Anna spoke of her next books. Saving Lucia will be published by Bluemoose Books in 2020. A fourth novel is currently out to submission and she has started writing a fifth.

In talking of her characters Anna explained that many are based on wider family members and the stories they have shared with her. She wished to capture these before they were lost. Her family do not read her books so she has few concerns about their reaction to her representations.

Anna then offered to sign books and there were a flurry of purchases before a queue formed. As it was getting late I had to slip away.

    

The Life of Almost is published by Patrician Press. Signed copies are currently available to buy at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.

Anna’s launch party was just one of the many enticing events in Mr B’s Autumn schedule.

Gig Review: Sarah Hilary in Bath launching #ComeAndFindMe

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to attend the launch of Sarah Hilary’s fifth crime fiction novel in her DI Marnie Rome series, Come And Find Me. I have been lucky enough to receive proofs of each of the books in this series to review and they just keep getting better. As I now choose to read very few crime fiction novels, I put my continuing enjoyment of Sarah’s books down to the quality of the writing, the challenging topics explored and the skilfully rendered plot development. They are fast moving page turners and follow expected structures but never feel formulaic during reading.

The launch was held in Toppings bookshop where we received a warm welcome alongside a tasty array of nibbles to go with our wine. Alison Graham had prepared a series of interesting questions which enabled Sarah to offer an insight into the nuts and bolts of crime writing. In the audience I spotted Mick Herron, another Bath based crime writer. It is always good to see authors supporting each other’s endeavours.

   

Following introductions and thanks the Q&A began. Below I summarise the key points I came away with.

Marnie Rome is a complex character. Throughout the series she is trying to find out why her step-brother, Stephen, killed their parents. He knows this and baits her. In Come And Find Me the plot is based around a prison riot at the prison where Stephen is serving his sentence. He is hospitalised and Marnie must deal with how she feels about this. A violent offender has escaped and Marnie’s job is to find him.

Sarah was asked what will happen to Marnie in the future.

As she doesn’t plot, Sarah doesn’t know. She develops her characters as she writes them. Part of her impetus, the pleasure in writing, is this discovery. Sarah dislikes giving out too much information about her characters as subsequently this can limit what happens next. Such parsimony of detail has led to readers getting in touch when some minutiae is revealed – as when Marnie mentioned having a slow cooker.

Women in real life write to violent prisoners. Sarah was asked what research she did into this.

When preparing a media interview Sarah was once asked if she had been such a penpal (the answer is no). She was inspired by a particular news story about an apparently intelligent woman who remained in thrall to a cult leader convicted of abuse. The characters she writes are rounded but have flaws, just like people in real life. She will feel a degree of sympathy for most of them. She likes to pose the question: who do you think the monster is?

A further question in this vein was how such a lovely lady as Sarah can write such malign characters.

Sarah told us that she has always been interested in dark stuff. Since reading her books, her mother’s neighbours have commented on this – what is it with Sarah! She reminded us that it is fiction. Had she experienced anything so dark she doesn’t believe she could have written about it in the way she does. She talked of the reader’s desire for a vicarious thrill, to experience from a position of safety.

Asked why women in particular seem to lap such stories up Sarah suggested that part of this may be because, from a young age, women are taught to be afraid – of strangers, of walking alone after dark. Perhaps there is a fascination about what may happen.

Sarah mentioned a real life example. In 1879 Kate Webster, a housekeeper, murdered her mistress. She disposed of the body by cutting it up and boiling the remains. She then sold the resulting dripping to neighbours who had belittled her. She was hanged for the crime but, whilst in prison, people could pay to go in and observe her. Most of those who went were of a similar age and class.

Sarah was asked if she would have gone to look.

After some consideration she admitted that she might have done.

Sarah was asked if she had ever visited a prison.

She hasn’t. She doesn’t even have a police consultant to talk to about the procedures she writes about, although she has been assured they come across as credible.

Moving on, Sarah was asked if Marnie has any friends, and if Sarah would be her friend.

Sarah admires her courage. She considers Marnie brave because she is afraid but tries not to let this get in the way. Sometimes she fails but she doesn’t give up, she carries on. In Come And Find Me she is changing. In the early books Marnie was spiky and brittle. Now she is softer, she has allowed herself to be more vulnerable and this has made her stronger.

One detail about Marnie that has been revealed is her tattoos. Although embarrassed by them she carries them as she does her guilt for how she behaved towards her parents as a teenager. These things are a part of her past that she must somehow learn to live with.

Alison commented that Sarah is good at writing lost souls and asked if she empathised with everyone.

Like all writers, Sarah watches people. She is drawn to the stories of those who do not belong, who are invisible to society, such as the homeless. She commented that it can sometimes be necessary to look the other way. There are so many bad things happening in the world that we feel powerless to change – considering them all would be overwhelming. She is, however, inspired by the Arthur Miller quote:

“I think the job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

Sarah was asked if she considered her books violent.

She doesn’t like horror to be written in graphic detail as she believes this numbs the reader. Instead she seeks an emotional reaction, to open a door and then allow imagination to take over as this can be more powerful than words.

Alison asked how many more books there are to be about Marnie.

Sarah told us that she may rest the series after book six, although this depends on what temptation presents itself. She is aware that she is stretching readers’ patience for certain answers. When she started writing, series were wanted by publishers. Now it seems that debuts are the thing. Her next book may be standalone.

As a professional writer does Sarah have a routine?

There is a certain element of this although waiting for ideal conditions is a writers way of prevaricating. If words need to be written they will happen. Sarah’s inspiration no longer flows as freely as it once did. She writes in the mornings, currently in a cold kitchen wearing fingerless gloves for warmth – very Dickensian.

Questions were opened up to the audience and the subject somehow veered into a discussion about Blake’s Seven. Sarah was then asked if Come and Find Me could be read standalone.

Each book details a crime that is solved so yes. However, the depth of Marnie’s character is best understood by reading the series from the beginning.

Sarah was asked if she ever felt uneasy when real life crimes mimicked her fiction.

In one sense yes, but in writing realistic crime fiction this can happen. It would probably be different if a copycat crime happened and she was cited as the inspiration. She tries to write with compassion, to shine a light on dark situations. She is not squeamish about what is real.

Marnie is a difficult character to write whereas Noah is easy. He started with a much darker persona but Sarah was told that she must have at least one lighter character. As a result she doesn’t believe Noah could work as a protagonist, there wouldn’t be enough of interest. Her favourite part to write in each book is when Noah plays the part of the criminal in order to allow Marnie to try to solve the crime.

Sarah was asked if we can expect a Marnie cookbook and what her favourite recipe would be.

This ellicited some discussion about slow cookers and pot noodles. In the end Sarah decided Marnie would advise visiting a favourite cafe.

To finish, Sarah mentioned that she had seen a comment on Twitter, that books put us in touch with humanity in surprising ways. She liked this, and also the irony of reading it on such a site.

   

Having wound up the formal part of the event there was time to chat, imbibe, and purchase books. Sarah was being kept busy at her signing table so I slipped away.

Come And Find Me is published by Headline and is available to buy now from all good bookshops. Toppings currently hold a limited number of signed first editions.

 

Gig Review: Launching Quieter Than Killing

Yesterday evening I attended the Book Launch for Sarah Hilary’s latest crime thriller, Quieter Than Killing (reviewed here). Held in one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, Toppings, it drew a large and friendly crowd. I was soon chatting to two Bristol based crime book reviewers who were unimpressed by my efforts to get there. Ladies, that 45 minute journey is only straightforward for those comfortable with driving a car…

Unusually for me I opted to settle at the back when we were invited to take our seats. Having attended several of Sarah’s events I wanted to take this opportunity to photograph the crowd.

Sarah opened proceedings by thanking her publisher, agent and family before reading from her book to a rapt audience. Alison Graham (@TVAlisonGraham), whose other claims to fame includes her work with the Radio Times, then asked an excellent range of questions.

Throughout the Marnie Rome series the plot arc of her foster brother Stephen, who murdered her parents when he was fourteen years old, is developed. Why did he do it?

Sarah talked of Stephen’s obsession with Marnie and the emptiness he feels, how Marnie fills a void in him, and that she got away. In Quieter Than Killing his predicament is presented in a way that draws a degree of sympathy from the reader. Sarah does not plot her books prior to writing so cannot say if or when his reasons for killing will be revealed.

Alison asked where Marnie Rome came from, and also the writing in general.

We were told that Marnie arrived fully developed and first appeared in a story that has not been published – thank goodness according to Sarah! She has always been scribbling stories but didn’t make any serious attempt to write until about fifteen years ago, starting with short stories and flash fiction. A friend told her that she had a dark streak and suggested she try her hand at the crime genre. Novel writing commenced six to seven years ago.

As this series has progressed Marnie has become softer, nicer. Sarah’s child has suggested that she kill Noah (cue gasps of horror from the audience) to explore the emotional impact on Marnie. No decisions have been made…

Sarah was asked why Marnie has a tattoo.

It is all about secrets. The quotes are from Albert Camus, who Sarah loves, although she smiled at how pretentious this can seem. She wanted Marnie to have chosen to undertake something painful, a youthful decision that she may, in later life, regret. At a book club event Sarah was taken to task about the cost “How could an 18 year old afford such an expensive procedure?” She would not reveal if she herself has a tattoo.

Sarah’s empathy and her ability to write children so well was commented on.

Her mother spent several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and Sarah was raised on her grandmother’s stories from this time, although they were told as interesting anecdotes, the full horror only being understood as she got older and learned more from history. It taught Sarah that stories can be multi-faceted.

 

Alison and Sarah – photo credit, the Twitter feed of author MG Harris (@RealMGHarris)

There was a discussion of London, where Sarah lived for eleven years, and of her fascination with Battersea Power Station. She has no plans to buy one of the modern apartments being built there – having Sting as a neighbour, with his noisy, tantric sex, was not appealing.

Sarah was asked if she would consider setting a book in Bath. The answer was no. Three severed feet have been found in the city in recent years. Local news outlets considered if these may be art installations or a student prank. There was no suggestion of a serial killer – as if such a thing could never happen in Bath. She may consider taking Marnie north though, perhaps to Cumbria.

Which contemporary crime writers does Sarah admire?

  • Mick Herron, whose Slough House series  is funny and clever.
  • Ali Land, whose debut, Good Me Bad Me, about a fifteen year old in care because her mother is a serial killer, is amazing.
  • Alex Marwood
  • Sabine Durrant
  • Jane Casey
  • Susie Steiner

Questions were invited from the audience and Sarah was asked if she would consider writing anything other than crime fiction.

She has an idea for a dark and twisty ghost story, although suspects it would be more of a novella. She has also considered a standalone psychological thriller. There are at least two more Marnie Rome books to come (my note – yay!).

Did Sarah know from the beginning that she would write a series?

This was always her hope. She wanted to take Marnie on a journey, developing the character as she was affected by her various experiences. Character is what matters. A diverse cast, especially in London, is a reflection of reality. Characters do not need to be nice to be compelling.

Good fiction is about raising questions in the reader’s mind. Crime fiction, and also young adult fiction, offer scope for exploring a wide range of social and political issues.

After the questions Sarah took time to chat to eager members of her audience who then cleared the counter of the enticing, new hardback editions of her book. A long queue formed for these to be signed at which point I took my leave. This was an excellent event and well worth that anxiety inducing drive.

Quieter Than Killing is published by Headline and is available to buy now.

Gig Review: Launch of Fleabag and the Ring’s End

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It is always lovely to watch books being released into the wild that they may find new readers to appreciate their stories. Yesterday I travelled to Waterstones in The Mall at Cribbs Causeway, Bristol, to watch the incorrigible three legged talking cat, Fleabag, find more fans amongst the young clientele. His adventures have been chronicled in a trilogy of books written and illustrated by Beth Webb. You may read my review of this latest in the series here.

Beth had brought along a gorgeous looking cake, cat cookies, gluten free alternatives, and even some chocolate fleas for those who wished to partake. She soon had the attention of the excited children being treated to new half term reads.

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 Beth talked of Fleabag and magic and lady knights and dragons before offering personalised bookmarks and signing books for those who wished to buy. As I am reluctant to post photos of children without their permission you must take my word for it that she had a rapt audience. I had managed to catch a few words with her beforehand but, much like at a wedding, there were many people wishing to spend time with the focus of the show and it would have been rude to attempt to monopolise. The launch was for a children’s book, and it was the children who deserved Beth’s attention.

Instead I browsed the shelves capturing images of books I was particularly pleased to see on the tables. I had intended to return to say goodbye to Beth, who planned to spend the day at the shop meeting any who wished to chat about her books, but there were always others patiently waiting their turn. I hope that they enjoy getting to know Fleabag as much as I have.

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Fleabag and the Ring’s End is published by March Hamilton Media, and is available to buy now.

Gig Review: Launch Party for Yellow Room

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As a book blogger I follow many bookish types on Twitter. Some of the most exciting tweets feature news and photographs from book launches, those eager celebrations for the publication of an author’s latest ‘baby’. They always look such happy and fun events.

When one of my favourite authors, Shelan Rodger, invited me to attend the launch of the fabulous Yellow Room I decided that I could not turn her kindness down. Thus, yesterday, I traveled up to London for a party.

And what a party it was. Held in Treadwell’s Bookshop, a fascinating place to visit for those with an interest in magic and the occult, the crowd who had come along were among the most friendly I have ever encountered. I knew nobody there other than through the tenuous link of social media yet had no difficulty in striking up a series of varied and interesting conversations.

The wine flowed and the people spilled out onto the street as writers, agents, publishers, family and friends mingled. Shelan gave a lovely speech and then signed all of the books that her ardent readers had purchased.

It seems that a book launch party is something like a wedding. Everyone there knows the star of the show, has come along to admire and wish her well, and then spends the entire celebration talking to random strangers. In a gathering such as this it was all highly enjoyable.

I regretted being unable to join those who were planning on eating together afterwards but I had a train to catch. I left with my head filled with book recommendations, the promise of information on a literary festival close to where I live, and my heart warmed by the people I had met.

Attending the launch was not the only delight of the evening. I discovered that I am quoted on the back cover of the book.

 

 

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Author Interview: Michael Nolan

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Michael Nolan writes because he has to, because he feels when he gets up in the morning that he has to put sentences together and strive for some sort of coherence. He has had a number of short stories published and is currently working on a full length novel. His debut novella, The Blame, was published by Salt earlier this month.

Michael studied Creative Writing at Liverpool and went on to achieve his MA at Queen’s University, Belfast. We were both raised in Belfast although decades apart and on different sides of the tracks. He may have grown up in a less troubled time, but cities retain their shadows; the disillusioned, disaffected and dispossessed. The Blame is set in Belfast and explores its raw underside along with the lingering influence of paramilitary organisations.

I first came across Michael when Salt began promoting their series Modern Dreams, of which The Blame is a part. I had noticed the call for submissions to this interesting initiative in January so decided to have a look at the writers they had accepted.

Michael’s name came to the fore because of our shared background. Our first communication occurred because I commented with some surprise that Belfast now has its own Book Festival, at which his novella will be introduced and launched by TS Eliot winning poet and Booker Prize Long-listed novelist, Ciaran Carson. He responded that the city has changed, yet his book explores so many aspects that remain the same. He has said that ‘The stagnancy of Belfast interests me. Or at least the people do. Belfast itself frustrates me.’ For me this captures the essence of the place and I wanted to know more about the young man who could express himself so succinctly.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Michael Nolan.

Where do you typically write?

At the moment it’s the breakfast bar in my mother’s kitchen. I’m back living with her in her one and half bedroom house. I say one and a half because the spare room, my current bedroom, is about an arms width wide and a single beds length long. There’s just about room for a set of drawers, a lamp and a floor-full of books. No window. No writing space, sadly. So my mother and I share the kitchen/ living-room area. Me with earphones on, strumming away at words on my laptop, her at her easel painting. Writer and artist, we’ve our own wee creative retreat going on in the centre of Dunmurry village. It’s nice and cramped and hopefully temporary. Now and then I hit a coffee shop or Linen Hall Library if I have the cash for a coffee and a bus, a rare occurrence these days.

Tell us about your writing process.

It differs depending on what I’m working on. Short stories usually come with some sort of image or situation. Then follows an elaboration, a voice and character I have to prod into existence. I don’t linger too long on the first draft. I bang out a few thousand words and see what happens. Then I’ll rewrite and rework until there’s some sort of coherence. Sometimes I set it aside for a few weeks or months and go back to it. Letting it go for a while helps.

The Blame was written in an intense three week burst in January. It’s probably the closest to home I’ve wrote and will write again. It had to be, because I was writing about issues and characters of a certain type I have encountered and knew in Belfast. But it wasn’t intentional. I didn’t set out writing them with the view that this was this person etc. They sort of leaked into the story. It’s only now, looking back, that I realise just how close to home I came. In some cases it was very close. Too close maybe. But the characters are as much me as anyone else. Someone I could’ve been maybe, or have been.

Writing the novel I’m working on now has been a more prolonged process. Again, the first draft came quickly over a couple of months last year. The rest of the time has been spent rewriting and doing the real stuff. The craft. I never used to like this. I never had the patience. I was hungry and eager and far too naïve for my own good. I wrote two novels in a year while doing the MA at Queen’s. It got me an agent, which was incredible, but not published. It took me to get to writing this third novel before I realised that getting the words down was only the beginning of the process.

It was an important moment and lesson for me. Being able to take a step back and be patient. Less of a hungry bastard. And I love it now. I love the cutting and the pulling and discovering what it is I’m trying to say. That’s what it’s all about really.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

My dear friend and wonderful woman Alicia Stubbersfield, knowing well the kind of things I tend to write, sent me a link to Salt’s website with the submission guidelines for Modern Dreams. Contemporary issues, inner-city life, young people. The next day I started writing and it all went from there really.

I got the news while in the cinema. My girlfriend and I had just sat down to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel. I love Wes Anderson films, so I was beyond excited. My packet of Minstrels were fresh open, popcorn perched on my knee and ready to be scoffed when I got the email from Jen Hamilton-Emery on my phone. It was the first time I had walked out of a cinema mid-film, and I felt terribly embarrassed about squeezing past people with my coat in hand. But we had to, and we had to go for a beer, ring my mother and laugh like two kids. It was fantastic. Still haven’t seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I’ll always associate it and the Odeon in Victoria Square Belfast with that night.

Being an eBook, the road to publication was quick. Three months between that night and publication. People are buying it and reading it and telling me they like it. It’s wonderful and frightening and a whole lot of other expletives I could go on listing and won’t. I will say Salt are an incredible bunch though. Such a small team (I think it’s just down to Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery now) yet they are doing some extraordinary work. You only have to look at their authors – Alison Moore, Kirsty Logan, Lesley Glaisterto see that they are at the forefront of independent publishing. It’s wonderful to be part of it.

In what ways do you promote your work?

Well, that’s difficult because there’s a fine line between promoting your work and promoting yourself. I’m a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing. I think writers need to be careful, or at least be aware of what it is they’re doing and what intentions they have, especially on Twitter. Otherwise they become a drone, an endless plug of themselves, all links and amazon reviews and 5 stars.

Having said that, I do like Twitter. I like seeing what other like-minded and not so like-minded people are talking about, and getting my two cents in those rare occasions I have something clever or witty to contribute. That’s what it’s about. The whole interacting thing. Having banter and sharing articles and hearing what other people have to say. It can be good for writers and readers like that. Online publications are much more dynamic now and publishing real strong work. I’m thinking Honest Ulsterman and Colony, both of which use Twitter as an outlet. It’s a platform for them and provides readers with another way to access good writing. You can’t fault that at all.

It’s important for me to see Twitter in that way and not as a tool to create some sort of profile of myself. I hate that ‘author profile’ phrase that gets thrown about. It makes me cringe. But yes, to actually answer the question, I use Twitter, and I admit that I occasionally post a tweet about something Ive published or a link to my book, but I feel dirty after and have to shower at least five times.

What are some of your current projects?

The novel I’ve previously mentioned is taking up most of my time. Now and then I’ll rewrite a bit of a short story, or dabble in some blog writing, but the novel is my main focus. It needs to be. I don’t want to say much about it though.

Where can my readers find you?

@micknolan90 is my Twitter name and The Deaf Hollow is my blog.

You can buy The Blame at the Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store and at Amazon.com.

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Michael Nolan grew up in West Belfast where he spent much of his youth being up to no good. He was 13 years old when he wrote his first novel, a 100,000 word unfinished rip-off of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings that he was sure would be a bestselling, Booker Prize winner.

He grew up, matured and became less delusional, a bit, and completed a BA in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moore’s University, then the MA at Queen’s University, Belfast, in 2012. While in Liverpool, he was selected by the Literature Officer at The Bluecoat to read at their ‘Next Up’ writer’s series, and was editor of In the Red Magazine’s 9th issue. He has published several short stories, and won the LJMU Avalon Prize for poetry in 2012.

Since then he has spent much of his time working in bars and nightclubs to keep himself afloat. He divides his time between hopelessly sending out CV’s for better paid jobs, writing books and scrawling through Twitter.

Michael’s debut novella, The Blame, was published by Salt in June 2014. There will be an official launch type celebration featuring an introduction by Ciaran Carson as part of the Belfast Book Festival on the 10th June.

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