Was absolutely delighted to get word that the Association for Scottish Literary Studies has accepted a short story from me for inclusion in New Writing Scotland for the second year running.
Last year, “Spree Killer” was written very quickly, seeming to come to me ready-made. I liked it a lot, and felt I got the voice pretty much nailed, though at the time I didn’t know if a Texan malcontent was quite right for the anthology. This year’s story, “Lizard Isle”, is very much the antithesis to that: a gentle, upbeat , light-touch fantasy, it has a central character very different from my usual angsty misanthropes. It’s also very different in its origins and gestation, having been kicking about for years, and has been through revision after revision until I eventually lost patience with it and thought I’d try it somewhere. Glad I did; obviously, I got something right about it, and my thanks go again to Zoe Strachan and Carl McDougall for picking it up.
When I was much younger and in the flush of my early “success”, New Writing Scotland seemed so difficult to break in to for me; I think I tried four years in a row without a sniff at getting in. Now that I’ve managed twice in two years, I’ll take it as a sign that my writing is maturing with age, and I’m finally getting back on track.
Waterstones’ in Argyle Street hosted the Glasgow lauch of NWS 30, and a lovely evening it was too. Zoe Strachan compéred like a professional, and readings were by Alison Irvine, Ross McGregor, Maggie Mallon, Derek McLuckie, Lorna Callery and yours truly. All the readers were great, and the line up was interesting and eclectic. I particularly liked Alison Irvine’s “Nightcalls” which started the evening; she has a beautiful voice and the rhythms of her story are beguiling. Lovely stuff.
Of course, Derek McLuckie blew the place away. “Park Bum” is classic Derek, witty and sexy and delivered with a verve that leaves you breathless. He really does perform his work fantastically well, and in amongst the speed and the self loathing and the sex there are moments of quiet loveliness, like “Sometimes yi see a kingfisher flash, like a stray streak of rainbow…”. It’s a real pleasure to see him and chat again after so many years.
In retrospect, I’m not that happy with my reading: I found myself more nervous than usual at the beginning – I had to give my hand a little silent row for shaking – perhaps because I was last to read and was given a very generous introduction by Zoe that set up huge expectations, and then three pages in I got that dreaded sudden attack of dry mouth and I’d put my water bottle behind me (“Just stop and take a drink, you fool, take a drink!”). However, I got to the end, approximate Texan accent and all. Opinions on the accent were divided between “You got that spot on”, “That was a good stab at it” and “You should have read it as yourself”. I’m very conscious of pace and rhythm in a reading, and I feel that without the accent, the rhythms and inflections that were necessary just wouldn’t come across; still, at least the story itself seems to have gone down well.
So lovely too to see my heroic pal Jenny Allan. Jenny retired early a couple of years back and is now off to Ethiopia to do VSO work with teachers. She’s one of the most admirable women I know, and I’ll miss her. Bon voyage and hurry back, Jenny; you’re a star.
Just a quick announcement!
I’ll be reading a short extract from “Spree Killer” at the Glasgow launch of “A Little Touch of Cliff in the Evening” on Friday 7th September at 7pm in Waterstone’s, Argyle Street, Glasgow. It will be hosted by one (or both) of the editors, the terrific Zoe Strachan and Carl Macdougall. Should be good!
“Chelsea Station”, the New York literary magazine for gay writing, is out now. At over 110 pages of writing, it’s a bumper edition of fiction, memoir, travel writing and poetry. It’s available either as print or as downloadable pdf here.
It includes my story, “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, which tells of the friendship between Brendan and Larry over twenty years. I don’t usually pass comment on my own work, but it feels to me one of the best short stories I’ve ever written: certainly, it’s one of the gentlest, and is as near as I’ve ever got to being uplifting.
Here’s an extract to give a flavour:
He met Larry at Elazio’s cigar emporium off Madison Avenue in the days when he was young and searching for props to make him seem older, more distinguished, more masculine. He’d been fussing over some cheap cigars when he felt the big man loom up behind him, put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Elazio,” a booming voice said to the little wizened man behind the counter who resembled a nut-brown tobacco leaf, “looks like the young gentleman’s a beginner. Show him the good ones so he gets a real taste.” He winked at Brendan and shooed Elazio away to bring out some of the contrabands he’d got by a roundabout route through Canada from his wife’s cousin’s neighbour’s business in Havana. “No point not having the best, son,” he said, “and this place has the best, if you know how to look for it. Hell, the only thing this shop don’t have is a sweaty set of mulatto girl’s thighs. Not that I’d have much use else for them.” He smacked his lips in the lascivious way that Brendan soon discovered made everyone say, “Oh, Laurence!”
He rolls the cigar as he lights it, puff, puff, puff. It relaxes him and he realises he is looking forward to the end game. In the background, Amalia Rodriguez sings; he and Larry saw her once, long before that time she came to New York to kill herself and couldn’t do it. They watched her wring herself empty, and Larry said anyone that miserable had to be a dyke, but he was joking and he’d enjoyed it because he was content to wait with Brendan amongst a small knot of common people outside the stage door to get her autograph. She is singing a happy tune, light; Brendan doesn’t understand Portuguese, but he knows for sure it is about orange groves and beaches with little fishing boats dragged up on to the sand. Hearts are broken in fado, and hearts are mended; this is one of the mending songs.
“Hey, Brendan, you ever realise smoking cigars gave Cuba its name?” Larry once asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“Go on. Say coo.”
“Feel it? The shape your mouth makes?”
“Like a kiss.”
“Na, man. More like a suck. Now say baa.”
“Just like exhaling. Coo-baa. Coo-baa. You say it every time you take a draw of you cigar.”
“Kind of oral, these Cubans.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Ain’t I the lucky one?”
At about a fiver for the digital issue, it’s well worth it. With material from all over the world included, it’s another fine outlet for writers. Take a look.
New Writing Scotland 30 is out now, and very interesting it looks too. You can buy it here: NWS30.
My story, “Spree Killer” tells of one day in the life of Duane, an underemployed, divorced, impoverished Texan with a chip on his shoulder and a semi-automatic rifle, and of his efforts to buy the meat for his friend’s barbecue.
Here’s an extract to give you a flavour:
“He drains the beer bottle, kicks open the back door, tosses the empty at the dumspter at the back of the duplex. It misses, bounces high in the air off the back wall, comes down hard on the metal edge, shatters, spraying glass everywhere. The old guy upstairs, not so bad, but he walks his poodle out back in the evening, he’ll moan like crazy bout the glass. Duane takes a broom, crosses the dusty yard where nothin’s ever grown and brushes the glass under the dumpster. If the poodle gets under there, it’s its own fault, he reckons, though its okay, belonged to the wife afore she died. Not a good dog, not a huntin dog, but it keeps quiet and shits in its own corner of the yard.
The guy’s an old vet, not even from Vietnam or Korea but from the German war, which was like fuckin way back, was the first in to one of those concentration camps, piles of dead hebes and walkin skeletons. Duane woulda liked to’ve seen that, the piles of hebes and those Germans with their hands behind their heads and shittin their pants, and Duane woulda taken his machine gun, big Browning 50 calibre, and spread those motherfuckers’ guts all over the place. The old guy gets misty when he talks bout it though, says it was the worst time ever, but Duane’s brother was in the first Gulf war and he came back wrecked, shakes and sickness specially in winter, just couldn’t keep the food in his belly, heavin all the time until he blew his brains out in a doss house in Denver with a Saturday night special he bought offa some nigger crack dealer, so Duane reckons the old guy couldn’ta had it that bad. Yeah, Duane woulda liked to’ve seen that, seen what the old guy’d saw.
He’d better go get the meat, though fuck knows it could go off by the afternoon in this heat. He’ll swing by Barney’s first, grab a coupla beers, see who’s around, get some ice to pack the meat. He racks up the Woodsmaster in the cab, clears out the burger wrappers on the floor so Jonelle won’t make that screwed up face she makes, climbs in. It’s a rust heap, this fuckin thing, and it burns through rubber fast, but the engine’s good, big 5 litre V8 with that Nip transmission, solid.
The solenoid’s been playing up, almost shot, so it just clicks dead and he has to spark it with a screwdriver, but then it just ticks over sweet. Jonelle says he should get rid of it, it’s too thirsty and he only uses the bed but once or twice a year when he’s gone deer huntin, but he’s not goin for some European compact like hers cos he’s a man and she’s a schoolteacher, and he says he might stretch to a station wagon but he can’t afford it right now. “You can’t afford not to,” she says, “that thing’s just gonna eat money,” but she wants to go shoppin with him for a new car, she’d co-sign the loan, she says, but he don’t want that, don’t want saddled with obligations to her and her weirdo kid yet.
Down the road he’s trailin dust, fast past that fence hopper’s place, the one that drives the el Camino like some pimp, the one picked a fight with Duane down at Barney’s and Duane kicked his ass and almost popped his eye, took the guy’s switchbade off him and damn near dug it right out of its socket till Barney stopped him and they threw the wetback’s ass off the lot and told him not to come back. The guy don’t look Duane’s road now. He hacks hard, spits at the guy’s yard, drives on. The guy has a car in the yard, rust and dents, parts for the Camino.”
I had a lot of fun getting inside Duane’s head: hope you enjoy it enough to buy the book and support the ASLS.
The list of contributors for New Writing Scotland 30 has been announced, and a very long and very interesting list it is too. At 336 pages, it must be the biggest NWS yet; the editors, Carl McDougall and Zoë Strachan, claim it’s the best.
It’s certainly conducive to big-headedness when you’re published in the same volume as fantastic household names like Alasdair Gray, David Greig, Ron Butlin and Agnes Ownes, and it’s also nice to be in the same book as some writing chums old and new, like Derek McLuckie, David Manderson, Jane Alexander and Jonathan Falla.
You can read more about the book and pre-order it here: NWS30. I’m looking forward to the lauch: I’ve been practising “Spree Killer” in my Weegee/Texan accent in case I’m asked to read!
I’m very chuffed to have been accepted for the next edition of “Chelsea Station”, a magazine of gay writing from New York. Edited by Jameson Currier, the whole enterprise seems very ambitious; they’ve published several novels and the magazine is now in its third edition.
I’m especially pleased that the story I submitted, “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, was truthful enough in its setting to be accepted by a New York based magazine, given that I’ve never been to New York. It’s usually said that US magazines are rather protective of their turf, and tend to be suspicious of anything from outside the country; I believe that’s especially true of academic journals. However, Currier is obviously an open-minded guy looking for good writing from anywhere, and I’m pleased that the story was convincing.
Although sex and relationships are pretty powerful drivers in my work, this is only the second purely LGBT themed story I’ve written. The first was “Drowning in the Shallows” from nearly twenty years ago now. That was a pot-boiler of a story about a jilted lover that was so highly personal, I had to find some way to distance myself from the subject matter. Just out of a hugely damaging relationship in which I’d been kicked around like some pathologically devoted stray mongrel for most of my twenties, I’d responded to a bit of kindness and a few treats the way a spaniel puppy might, and got myself into a relationship any emotionally mature person wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole. After six months or so of intense passion, I was then dumped in what one could describe as a fairly shitty fashion.
It served me right, of course. I’d deluded myself about what it was and what it could be, and, justifying it all as “going with the flow”, my behaviour was pretty reprehensible. The resultant freaky breakdown I had was a response not just to those six months but to the misery of the previous ten years that I still hadn’t dealt with. In the ensuing chaos, I bumped around as if in a pinball machine, being embarrassing and needy and miserable and drinking too much and hardly sleeping. I made a wrong decision professionally, and fucked up a third and final chance with a young woman who might have been very special to me. So – just desserts.
The story, then, told of that break up, but first versions were just so outrageously self-pitying, I had to do something with it; so, the ‘dumper’ became a bisexual games-player, and the ‘dumpee’ a lesbian. I think that allowed me to look at it much more objectively, and I managed to do things symbolically and structurally that I couldn’t have managed otherwise simply because I had the distance of writing about someone who wasn’t me.
I think that fictionalisation of our lives is essential to capturing the truth of our existence and making it universal to the reader: it’s a theme I explored in the videos for young writers in school published by Learning and Teaching Scotland a couple of years ago. Here it is again:
The finished story appears in “Occasional Demons”, but I do remember entering a version of it anonymously for a Radio Clyde / Glasgow University competition judged by Janice Galloway. When I was placed first equal, I was quite proud of her comments: she said while she wasn’t absolutely sure it had been written by a gay woman, she was amazed that it had been written by a man, and that she hadn’t expected the ending at all. I took a great deal of heart from that (although a few years later she backtracked on those comments somewhat). Of course, the other winning story – which I can’t remember but which was terrific too – didn’t have swear words and gay sex scenes in it, so it was a shoe-in for the title and broadcast on the radio. At least I got an equal share of the prize money, which was enough to buy my then partner Geraldine and I a pizza and a bottle of wine in the local Italian restaurant.
I’ve heard lots of debates over the years amongst writers concerning ownership of the work we do. Should straight men write about gay women? Can whites write effectively about blacks, or non-Muslims about Muslims? There are a plethora of magazines, events and competitions that are becoming more and more exclusive – women only events, gay anthologies, immigrant literature competitions – and that’s all absolutely fine by me unless it encourages the potentially preposterous Esquire’s “Men’s Fiction” e-series, as if men are some disempowered minority who need affirmative action. And I’ll wager most of the stories Esquire publish will be by and about straight, white, professional men at that.
A lesbian friend did look askance a bit about me writing a “lesbian story”, but I think the reaction from women, gay and straight, to that piece has been generally positive over the years, even though it is, I have to stay, still more than a little overwrought. I do think there are certain groups within society who have the right to identify their own agendas and protect their own boundaries, simply as a bulwark against the discrimination they have suffered and still suffer, or to provide an environment in which they can grow. I hope, though, that those boundaries can be blurred enough to allow genuine dialogue with and sincere responses from those who lie nominally ‘outside’ them.
The problem, I think, is in where we draw the lines of those boundaries. I remember the advice the Writer in Residence at Glasgow University gave me when I took a sheaf of my stuff along to him as an eager first year student; I won’t mention his name, but he’s a major Scottish literary figure and a lovely writer. “Write about what you know” was the old faithful he trotted out. What does that actually mean? Does it mean that writers can never write from the point of view of the opposite sex, of different genders, of alternative lifestyles? That we can’t write about people who are not us, people who are older or younger, richer or poorer? Should we avoid writing about drunks and drug addicts unless we’ve been there and got the vomit-stained t-shirt? Are serial killers off-limits unless we’ve a few bodies buried under the floor boards ourselves? And what, then, of vampires, werewolves and zombies? It was all very confusing for a rather awestruck 17-year-old me. Luckily, I realised I’d misinterpreted the advice (I think), grew out of that phase and decided to branch out into characters I could never be.
As for “Drowning in the Shallows”, I once got a card from the real life ‘dumper’; she congratulated me on getting my collection published, and signed it with the name of “her” character in the story. I found I couldn’t forgive her for that presumption, for taking ownership of my story, of my work, of my catharsis.
I felt she’d had enough of me already.
I’ve blogged a couple of times about the excellent Northern Writes conference for young writers that Aberdeen council runs each year. The annual anthology of writing by those young people is now online here:
The quality of the young people’s writing is terrific, and I’d recommend it to English teachers for use with their senior writers. Well worth a download!
Tutors were asked to contribute something, and I submitted a short character study that goes to prove I can’t really write poetry! Here it is:
Edith Piaf on the MetroOld Edith Piaf is on the Metro. She sits opposite, asleep, buttoned tight in a burgundy coat which falls aside so slightly at the knee, revealing the colour picked out in the stripes of her dress. She is muffled in one, two, three scarves, layered thermally and aesthetically, purple, green-purple, green, and her sky blue headscarf matches the audacity of her handbag. She wears, though, sensible brown shoes, scuffed and worn smooth like the tiniest and oldest of otters. The train rolls into Falguière: I reach across, touch her elbow, “Madame, excusez-moi,” my fearful French supplemented by an eyebrow raised, “votre station?” She blinks, wipes a drool from the corner of her mouth, flusters to her feet. Bustling through the door she remembers her fading charm turns, gap-tooth smiles, flirts a wink and says, “Merci, Monsieur.” Having woken her and been so blessed I have not one regret.
Just had the good news today that my short story, “Spree Killer”, has been accepted for the forthcoming edition of “New Writing Scotland”, published every year by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. In the past, I never seemed to have anything suitable at the time of submission, and if I did it was always rejected. I was unsure about this one – I had doubts about a blue collar / redneck Texan tale fitting a Scottish anthology – so I’m really pleased at this being my first time in the annual anthology of all that is great and good about Scottish writing. My thanks go to Carl McDougall and Zoe Strachan who are editing the book.
All in all, it’s proving to be a busy year in writing terms for me without me really trying. With lots of management work on the PGDE course along with teaching, I haven’t really approached it in any strategic way – and yet, I have ended up with so much to do. Quite apart from my not-so-ongoing novel (I’m tempted to ditch it for now), I’ve had stories in NWS, 1000 Cranes (the Scottish Writers for Japan anthology) and Front & Centre, and have high hopes for a story I’ve sent to a LGBT anthology. I’m quite proud of the stories I have been writing lately: few and far between, they have been goodies. Perhaps short story writing is my true love…
On top of that, I’ve just finished my chapter on ethos and behaviour in Scottish secondary schools for the latest edition of the seminal work on Scottish Education, which I was truly honoured to be invited to join. Then I’ve just finished my part – ruthless editing – of a research article written by a lovely team of colleagues which is just being resubmitted to a notable academic journal.
Biggest of all, though, is the behaviour management book I’m writing for a major academic publisher. It’s due for delivery next Spring, and although it’s already quite bit behind, I’m confident that I’ll get it all done in time. That’s very exciting, and it was a huge surprise to be asked to submit a proposal. It’s nice when people put their faith in you, even if it is a lot of hard work to ensure you don’t let them down.
Kapka Kassabova is a colleague of mine, though there’s no reason why she should know it. We both work at the University of Strathclyde, she in English and me in Education. However, when Jordanhill dies its sorry death in July 2012 and we all troop down to the main campus in the city centre, perhaps our paths will cross: I hope so, because I’d like to learn to write half as beautifully as she does.
I have just started reading her memoir “Twelve Minutes of Love”, a gloriously sensual account of her ten year love affair with the Argentine tango (“the only tango”, she writes). It’s a stunning read, full of esoteric detail of the dance’s history, its music, its steps, its etiquette. More than that, though, it is a subtle but nevertheless forensically honest account of her soul. In throwaway lines, she hints at the uncomfortable “longing” which permeates her life as well as the ethos of the dance: “Our faces were very suddenly close,” she writes, “which was a bit disturbing, but not as disturbing as the sudden closeness of our bodies. I could feel his body heat. It had been some time since I’d last felt the heat of a man’s body.”
She speaks a great deal of this intimacy which is at the same time fulfilling and disturbing, joyous and sad. It’s an intimacy that has its own climax, the “tangasm” of total abandonment and oneness that two partners experience when they achieve that ineffable euphoria of “clarity of mind and crispness of step in the declining afternoon of San Telmo.”
I have brought my sister along as a birthday outing. She is addicted to dancing, there is no other word for it. In the last decade or so, she seems to have been brought to a new life through the tango, ballroom, jive (of so many kinds), salsa, Lindy Hop (the sound of which always makes me smile), LeRoc. She recognises much of what Kassabova talks about: of the “virtual nation” that is tango dancing; of living a life based around where and when the next dance is; of the all-consuming need to find a partner, any partner, for that twelve minutes of love. What she doesn’t comprehend, though, is Kassabova’s revelation that she doesn’t dance much any more; like an addict, she had to go cold turkey. That suggests the book will have a lot to reveal about tango’s emotional cost.
Jeff and Sari of the Dance House give a tango demonstration which is, of course, smooth and sensuous and playful and beautiful. What strikes me is the intricacy of the wordless conversation that is obviously going on because of the way in which she seems to know exactly what he wants her to do at any given moment. The steps, the leans, the drags are all executed with an apparent effortlessness that can only come though a level of communication through weight and balance and inclination and the slightest of pressures that seems like telepathy.
A thought occurs to me. Kassabova is very sweet and charming. She listens to people intently, smiling and nodding, and, unlike many authors, makes sure she answers the questions asked of her in the way the questioner demands, not the way she wants; she is more than happy to respond to someone else’s agenda rather than impose her own. It’s impossible not to warm to her.
I wonder if this is a product of tango, of having to read partners so intently, of being serially compliant on the dance floor? Does tango make you a good listener, or do you need to be a good listener to appreciate tango?
Jeff and Sari make me gasp and smile and laugh; my sister, for the umpteenth time, asks me if I fancy learning to dance for myself. No. I am not a dancer. I have a body built for the clumsy scrum of ceilidhs. My sister is the dancer. I write. Kassabova can do both.
More than that, though, is that the beauty of the dance is something I want to admire, and that beauty is not going to be heightened by me stumbling and fumbling my way to some sort of proficiency. I love Portuguese fado, which, like Tango, has been pompously declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity; but the beauty of the fado is not going to be radically changed by my learning Portuguese or, God forbid, by my taking singing lessons. So let Jeff and Sari and Kapka and my sister get on with it, and I’ll admire from afar.
But Kassabova’s honesty also has me thinking that perhaps the reality is that I have problems with intimacy, I like my space to be private (very West of Scotland); Kassabova notes absolutely truly that in the West we connect with each others’ bodies through sex, nothing else. Perhaps, deep down, the reality is that I see the dance not as an abandonment but as a terrible responsibility to that fleeting partner whose body heat excites and disturbs us.
Perhaps I’m just a bloke with issues.