New Writing Scotland 32: ‘Songs of Other Places’ is now available to order from the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. Editors Zoe Strachan and Gerry Cambridge have gone for a slimmed down volume this year, and the quality is extremely high, with great writers like Christopher Whyte, Helen Sedgewick, Graham Fulton and Ron Butlin. Here’s an extract from my contribution, the title story ‘Songs of Other Places';
‘She kneads the pie dough, working through the flour, egg slipping between her fingers, strong fingers she has, and she knows how to knead dough cause her momma showed her how. Saturday afternoons, she’d park Alice up on a big kitchen stool and they’d be side by side, her momma baking big pies, apple and blueberry and pumpkin, and Alice made little pies with the same fillings that she’d feed to her dolls. Momma would sing Buddy Holly songs, sometimes whip her off that stool for a dance, whirling her around the kitchen, Every day, it’s a getting’ closer, Goin’ faster than a roller coaster, and she’d lift Alice high and they’d bump noses at the Love like yours bit.
‘During foaling, Roger Hernandez stayed in the hayloft above the barn, put up some walls with bits of lumber and bales of hay, ran a line from the generator so he could have a little hotplate and an old Dansette cassette player. Momma loaned him some Buddy Holly tapes, and he used to play mariachi bands, and Alice would sneak in and hide underneath the hayloft and listen to those horns. Then he got inta some other stuff, foreign like, first kinda Frenchy or European, then strange instruments she’d never heard before, and women’s voices that seemed to fit together in ways that didn’t sound quite like it shoulda. She asked him once, “Roger Hernandez, where does that music you listen to come from?” but all he said was, “Little Alice, they come from other places, far, far away.” They have camels there, he said, as well as horses, and the grasslands go on forever, even bigger and wider than the Prairies. “They don’t sing right,” she told him, and he said she was right, but it wasn’t really singing. “Ululating,” he said it was, and Alice reckoned the word sounded like the singing.’
£9.95 well spent, I say.
Very, very pleased to be included in New Writing Scotland for the third year running – and even more pleased that my story has been chosen as the title for the whole collection. Many thanks to Zoë Strachan and, one of my favourite poets, Gerry Cambridge for choosing me.
‘Songs of Other Places’ is one of a number of American-set stories I’ve written over the last couple of years, and is a companion piece to ‘Spree Killer‘, which was included in NWS 30. Both are set in a Texas that is slowly but inexorably dying from the effects of economic devastation and human indifference.
In the latest story, Alice is a thirtysomething wife of a cop, mother of two sons, who is being marginalised in her own life. She dreams of happier times on the ranch with her mother, and falling in crush with the farm hand, Roger Hernandez. I’m really proud of it; it’s one of the most beautiful and empathetic stories I think I’ve ever written. It’s never easy writing as a woman, but I’m hoping I’ve pretty much got it spot on.
The collection will be published in the summer. I had been saving ‘Songs of Other Places’ as the title of a new collection – I’m trying to have enough written by late next year for a new book on the shelves – but I’m proud it’ll be used for what is a Scottish literary institution.
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!
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!
Day 2 of the Write Now conference is devoted to panel discussions and research papers. The first I attend is on Fact, Fiction and History, with three historical novelists talking about the process of writing. All – especially Sally O’Reilly talking of her research into a re-imagining of the “Shakespeare legend” – are really interesting. I do, however, have a little bit of a problem with this form of reflection on the methods of writing, not because it is not useful but because it seems to me to perpetuate a monolithic university structure that actually has more to do with a self-referential and self-perpetuating academic culture than it has to do with adding to the sum of human knowledge. More of that later.
My own session goes well: however, with my “little often” approach to stimulating writing of teenagers at school, fellow presenter Maeve Tynan worries that we are in total disagreement, given her “strategic imitation” approach that is based on using the work of “master” writers to hone craft. Of course, we’re not: I’m absolutely in favour of learning from exemplars and models as essential practice in school or university. She describes her own practice, which sounds fantastically stimulating; it’s a far cry from the practice I’m trying to change, whereby school teachers spend two weeks forcing every child in their class to complete a twist-in-the-tail story “for their folio”, and giving them no other opportunities to write creatively for the rest of the year.
The Scottish Writers Centre also announces itself. It’s a relatively new venture driven forward by lovely people like Gerry Loose and Ron Butlin. They are absolutely passionate about providing a non-academic forum for writers and it is, I think, much needed.
A lot of activity now revolves around university creative writing courses: magazines are springing up as undergraduate projects to provide outlets for students at particular universities to publish their work (Octavius, for example, will, in its own words, “feature a range of prose and poetry written by student writers from colleges and universities across the country”); many of the fine new publishing houses have close links with universities; and live events such as the excellent From Glasgow to Saturn (linked to an online journal) and Words per Minute (along with some other quite dire live projects) arose from university student activity. This, I have to say, makes me worry about access, diversity, inclusion and democracy.
While no-one who works in the university sector has any intention of excluding anyone – I know and respect hugely a great many individual university creative writing teachers, and they all have the very best of motives in everything they do – nevertheless, the structure of universities is essentially hierarchical and elitist. Looking at person specifications for posts in any department, the prime consideration is research. Therefore, to become a university creative writing teacher, you first have to be a researcher, second a creative writer and third a teacher.
I have always suspected that what this does is fuel activity which supports an industry of academic articles, peer refereed journals, conferences and promotion structures leading to professorial chairs based on research “output”. Many researchers I know and respect in the education field blithely talk of “playing the REF game”, and it is a game in which the rules and access to play are made up and controlled by those who are already at the top of the leader board.
Now there is nothing essentially wrong with this: if it is what universities do, it is what universities do. And there will always be a demand for acknowledgement, accreditation or certification by those who learn in that way. But by collaring the market – and let there be no doubt, universities are interested primarily in the bottom line – then those who have no access to universities will be excluded. In addition, courses which become “unviable” or which are deemed not to fit with a university’s strategic plan may find themselves “disinvested” or even closed, and the corresponding infrastructure can be drastically affected; if it can happen to courses in nursing and community education, it can certainly happen to creative writing.
The end of the conference is marked by talks from three big guns in Scottish literature, Alan Bissett, Ewan Morrison and Zoe Strachan. Strachan ably defends the notion of universities being involved in creative writing programmes, and points to her own course which, she says, was populated by a mainly working class cohort (although David Kinloch, at the SWC meeting expresses concerns about the demographic of creative writing courses). However, she also casually admits that publishers and agents like to build relationships with writing departments because they have access to a pool of talent which is already developed, already edited, already vetted. That worries me, because in a world in which publishing opportunities become more and more scarce – Morrison paints the bleakest of pictures of a so-called “democratized” industry – it may soon be the case that a creative writing degree is the minimum qualification to even get into the slush pile.
At events such as this, I am often asked, “And where are you studying creative writing?”, as if a graduate qualification is the only worthwhile mark of a writer. On a couple of occasions, eyes have glazed over and gazes have swept the room for more worthy and interesting contacts when I say I have never studied creative writing at university; on one occasion, someone came back to me and breathlessly said, “Raymond, I didn’t realise you had a BAFTA!”. The first magazine I was ever published in was Rebel Inc.: it wouldn’t have been seen dead in a University department. At that time, there was a vibrant community group culture (magazines like “Cutting Teeth” from the Castlemilk group was another great publication) that I am worried may now wither as a result of swingeing public sector cuts combined with the rapacious acquisition of creative writing activity by universities.
I speak as an academic, and as someone who may in the near future embark on a PhD, not, I hope, because I need a job in the university creative writing sector or because I want to call myself a Doctor, but because I want to have the support to help me develop my writing and my novel: and I am absolutely sure that is why everyone does a PhD. But, as I say, I worry about the culture that is being created, simply because universities are the biggest kid on the block. Only proper government funding for community arts activity in general and writing in particular through organisations like the Scottish Writers’ Centre can prevent what would amount to a privatisation of cultural development.
Words Per Minute hold a “Sex Special”, later than usual and closeted in a red-lit dungeon way, way at the back of The Arches. It’s the usual blend of able readings, but it doesn’t quite live up to the billing for me.
I can’t help remembering the Paisley Writers’ Group as a result of seeing Derek McLuckie last night. We had a full on attitude to sex as one of the drivers of human behaviour and, therefore, as fertile ground for the most challenging writing we could push. Suhayl Saadi’s lyrical aesthetic saw him write the wild, Baroque S&M fantasy “The Snake” under the pseudonym of Melanie Desmoulins. Graham Fulton – whose latest book launch I hope to attend next week – wrote about adolescents wanking off at the back of classrooms during biology lessons (“Sex Education”) or desperate casual sex and flushed johnnies on a Friday night (“Love Finds a Way at the Liberal Club”). Derek was… well, just Derek. As for me, I wrote stories like “Twitchy” and “The Bus Fare Down the Tubes” because sex and danger were inextricably linked. By my mid-twenties, in a catastrophically dysfunctional relationship, I had learned that dark things can happen between two people.
This evening’s readers are all perfectly fine writers. Lynsay May is charming and Alan Gillespie is as engaging and witty as ever. Derek Taylor and Kei Miller are fantastic voices, full of verve and wit and humour. Taylor’s “Ode to Penis”, with the knowingly delivered line “I’m a lot to take in” is a hoot, as is Miller’s beautifully read, enigmatic opening to his novel in progress about the life and death of an 80-something Jamaican immigrant. Caroline Bowditch introduces a film of Scottish Dance Theatre’s rather lovely “The Long and Short of It”, and Tragic O’Hara ends proceedings with some pretty nifty songs (his CD is unfeasibly good value). It’s all solid, mildly sexy stuff.
However, only Zoe Strachan fulfills the remit for me. Sharing a scene from her new novel “Ever Fallen in Love” in which a young gay man DPs a suspiciously compliant girl with the object of his desire, it is, I think, the only truly erotic reading. Full of the unsaid motivations that underpin what people do in bed, it’s absolutely emotionally – and sexually – honest. The smell and the sweat and the ambivalence and the pain tingle the senses: this is sex.
Of course, this is a pre-watershed show, and so the organisers have perhaps wisely gone for material that is charmingly rude but hardly challenging. It’s another good event – just, I feel, more akin to a Safe Sex Special.