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.
I’ve had a very quiet blog recently because of pressures on my time (some very welcome, some not so) and because WordPress seems to be difficult to get into these days (I must check out my firewall settings, apparently, though why they have unilaterally decided to go wonky I haven’t a scooby).
July saw two very different major Scottish publications in which I’ve been included. First of all, “Lizard Isle”, a gentle fantasy story, has been included in Black Middens, New writing Scotland 31. It’s a major collection – over 300 pages of the best Scottish writing around – and I’m delighted to be included.
Just coming out from the printers too is the 4th edition of the seminal academic volume Scottish Education, edited by Tom Bryce, Walter Humes, Donald Gillies and Aileen Kennedy. Mine is a small contribution – one chapter out of a whopping one hundred and eleven – on “Ethos and behaviour in secondary schools”. I enjoyed writing it, and it’s a privilege to have been asked.
Unfortunately, neither will open the gateways to fame and fortune, but that’s never really the point, is it?
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!