Monday, 31 December 2012

here's to 2013, lovely blog readers

"May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself." - Neil Gaiman

Monday, 24 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, lovely folk! I hope you all have a lovely time, whatever you're doing. I'm up north at the moment, back in Geordie-land, to spend Christmas with family.

I know I've posted this before, and a lot of you have already seen it, but some haven't and there's always room for a re-watch. My Christmas present from me to you: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.


Thursday, 13 December 2012

Author Visit: Melissa Lee-Houghton

I'm very, very happy to welcome Melissa Lee-Houghton to the blog. I raved about her collection 'A Body Made of You' in a blog post recently, and tracked her down on Twitter, asking her to come and talk to us. I think this is probably the most heartfelt and honest interview I've posted, and I thank Melissa for that.

Everyone who replies to this blog post will have their name put into a hat, and the name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of 'A Body Made of You.' The giveaway closes at midnight Monday 17th, and is open to everyone worldwide.

If you don't win, do track down a copy. If you only buy one poetry collection this year, or over several years, make sure that it's this one. 


Hi Melissa, thanks so much for stopping by the blog!

Thank you for having me!

Can you tell us about your relationship with poetry? When did it start, and how did it evolve?

I always delighted in reading rhymes as a child, The Owl and the Pussycat for instance, and when I was seven or eight I wrote a very long poem on many pieces of paper. My teacher stapled it onto the classroom wall. I was immensely thrilled. It was about scuba diving, and I’d painstakingly illustrated it too. I had ideas that poems were very important, and I have no idea where this came from, but I think I just took it upon myself to find out about them. I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which I found so dark and dramatic. I had these really old illustrated books on whaling and my world began to take shape, with these gloriously tempestuous books. 

As I became older, we kept an anthology on the bookshelf called The Albatross, which I don’t think I was supposed to touch, but I got it out and read to myself. Eventually, when I was a young teenager I went to a bookshop in Skipton and saw Sylvia Plath’s collected works and wanted to buy it. My parents tried to put me off, in light of the fact I was in psychiatric care at the time. They told me she had killed herself, and that possibly made me want to read it even more. In the end they let me have it and I read it hungrily. I have never coveted a book like I coveted that one. It was very difficult for me to find poetry but I discovered Brian Patten’s Love Poems which I think was the standard book in WHSmith’s poetry section and probably still is. I loved it, the study of love, the body, psychologies. I read some of Leonard Cohen’s poetry, and borrowed Forward Prize anthologies from my local library. 

Overall, I had a feeling that poetry was something very difficult to get into or find out about. I don’t remember ever studying it at school until I was fifteen, though I barely attended secondary school. When I was sixteen I had an English teacher who encouraged my own writing and I realized it was something I desperately wanted to do. In hospital during my teenage years a nurse brought Dylan Thomas for me, and all I can really say is poetry affected me in a way nothing else could, though I admit to being influenced by song lyrics, as this was the main component of language and rhythm in my literary diet throughout my broken-up adolescence.

What does poetry mean to you?

I write poetry or prose every day. Poetry means I can express myself. Many times in my life I have felt I couldn’t express myself or couldn’t be heard, so being able to write about anything at all, as it occurs to me, anytime I want to, is the ultimate fulfilled wish for me. I also think if I didn’t read poetry at all my inner life would not be as rich. I don’t think you can really write poetry if you don’t also read it. Sometimes I read a poem and it astounds me so much I just have to put the book down and breathe! If I didn’t have poetry in my life the colour would begin to drain out of it, and I would not have the same sense of purpose. I also wouldn’t think in the same way, or be interested in the world in the same way.

Which poets inspire you?

Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is my ultimate literary heroine. I first read her work when I was twenty and I couldn’t believe anyone had the imagination or the fluency of language to write something so tragically beautiful. She taught me that no matter what the thought or deed, no matter how painful or unpopular an idea, that writing transcends those things, and you can write anything you like, for anyone you like, or for no-one in particular. I love the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva for their bravery and stark and sober adherence to a line of inquiry. I love Anne Carson, for writing about pain and love and the female experience of it. My favourite living poet is Sharon Olds. 

One subject I struggle to write about is my family, especially my children. I don’t know how to access that emotion as it feels so primeval and raw and frightening; to love someone so much. Sharon Olds writes about family with such brilliance. She also explores pain and violence in a way not many writers can compare. Other writers that inspire me include Sheila Hamilton, whose book Corridors of Babel had those ‘put the book down and breathe’ moments. Abegail Morley tackles subjects like love, death and mental illness with unerring nerve. Lucie Brock-Broido is new on my radar but I love her mysticism and her living magic. (I realize I have mentioned no male poets whatsoever,) I also love Bobby Parker’s work. He doesn’t hold anything back and there’s all kinds of psychological and psycho-somatic distress and raw emotion but there’s also a tenderness and love for the world around him which is infectious. One of my all time heroes is Frank Stanford, whose work is under-celebrated and ridiculously stunning, and I would have loved to have spent an afternoon drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and talking with him, watching the sun set from a porch in a garden with a lawn and a picket fence. I would have liked to have tried my hand at convincing him not to shoot himself in the heart. 

When you’re writing a poem, how does it normally form at first? As an idea, or as an initial phrase?

I just let something come to me, anything, a line, a word, an image, whatever it is I just write it straight down. I have learned to just write. I used to think, no, that’s no good, and I’d be editing as I wrote and thinking about an end product, but now I just let my mind and intuition get on with it and I put it all down and then re-draft later, re-writing the whole structure, working on paper and on computer until a draft is accumulated. I rarely ever sit and think ‘I’m going to write about x today.’ I rarely have a line I’ve held onto all day. I try not to formulate any writing until I’m actually sat with a pen in my hand. It has to be automatic.

I do believe, however, that ninety per cent of a poet’s work is in thought and time spent NOT writing. I walk every day and my mind covers a lot of ground. On some level I’m laying the groundwork for my next poem almost unconsciously.

Tell us about A Body Made of You: how did it come into being? How long did you work on it for? Which poem was the first you wrote, and which was the last?

I was going through a mixed bipolar episode, and it was something I thought up in the early hours of the morning, that I could write a sequence of portraits and interview people. I contacted a large number of people when I was high and a fraction said they were interested, but it was enough. I have no idea how long I worked on it because I have no concept of how long the episode lasted. I took my manuscript in and out of psychiatric hospitals with me, and it kept me going, it was my purpose, it may have even kept me alive. I don’t remember writing the poems, except ‘Portrait of the Husband: the dream’ and ‘portrait: scorched and flayed.’ I wrote the former heavily drugged on antipsychotics in front of the living room fire, and I felt I’d written exactly what I wanted to say. The latter I wrote after a reading in Manchester with the ‘sitter.’ I came home and wrote it in bed on scraps of paper. My husband was very tired and wanted to me turn out the light but I wouldn’t, and at one point I was shaking so badly because I was manic it’s a wonder I ever managed to decipher any of it.

The collection is an examination of people; looking at them from all different angles, seeing things that other people wouldn’t. Can you talk us through one of the portraits?

I interviewed most of the portrait ‘sitters,’ at length. I knew some of these people well and a few of them were complete strangers to me. The first portrait of Stephen came about through extensive correspondence and ‘Stephen’ had also been inspired to paint by subjects we were discussing. It is very difficult to write so close to the mark but he appreciated that writing, like painting, shouldn’t be an exercise in how to make people feel comfortable, or how to dress something up so it resembles something beautiful. He knew that there is beauty in the abject, the terrifying, the tragic. This affinity allowed me to write things that were tough, that weren’t easy to say and look at his own relationships and emotional life and try to make sense of it all. Only it doesn’t make sense nor does it need to make sense. I was inspired by Beckett, especially the last poem in the sequence where my sense of this person just bleeds out. ‘Stephen’s’ paintings are cruel. Cruel in the sense that what they show the viewer is masked. There’s masked pain. There’s anonymity in suffering. There are wolves in sheeps’ clothing, dogs and séance and intense portraits that you want to kiss, punch or shatter. I visited his studio, which was caked in paint, the floorboards, the walls, and whiskey bottles and a black curtain half hanging off and an impossibly bright bare daylight bulb. I could feel him screaming inside, throwing paint at the walls, grabbing the bottle, pacing, talking. I knew that this was a person living with the acute concept of their own mortality. Someone who suffered the afflictions of youth indefinitely. I needed to write his portrait, because I sensed that everything he had to say was never going to be heard.

What is the collection’s publication story?

I sent it to Tom Chivers at Penned in the Margins and waited quite a while. I was surprised when he asked me to resend as he’d had his laptop stolen. When he wrote and said he wanted it, I was, well, I was so happy I couldn’t speak. I was on my way to the swimming pool, so I went and swam just beaming and thinking about all the wonderful things, like what it might look like. I came home and started to ring people, and then it sank in. I think this is one of the happiest memories of my whole life.

You say on your blog that routine is a very important part of your working life - what is your writing routine?

After the morning school run I start work. I have a desk I sit at, though sometimes I like to sit next to a window I can see out of, as it puts me in a state of dissociation. When I write I feel barely there, unreal, detached. I sometimes listen to music while I write as a constraint. I work until lunch, and then I go walking and work in the afternoon before I get the kids. I drink a LOT of tea. I like to use a particular cheap black biro, I buy from a local discount shop. I have a notebook which would be unintelligible to most people aside from the rather obsessive lists. 

Any poetry collection recommendations?

Corridors of Babel, by Sheila Hamilton, which is human, has swathes of empathy, incredible surreal imagery and so many perfectly conceived ideas both historical, political and mythological. 
Ghost Town Music by Bobby Parker which is raw, broken and honest and lights up with quiet hysteria.
Steak and Stations by Michael Egan is expressively vivid, original and surreal, and his passion for language, for place and for possibility comes through on every page. 

What’s the one piece of advice you would you give to a poet?

You don’t need to go to university and suffer many years of debt to be a writer. You do not have to have a lot of money to be a writer. You don’t have to have an MA to be a writer. You just have to write. 

You say things that people don’t want to hear are often the most vital things we need to say.’ What are you working on at the moment, and what are your goals for the future?

I’ve recently finished a pamphlet manuscript and my second collection. The pamphlet is largely concerned with abuse, which in the wake of what has recently come to light with Jimmy Saville, is necessary. It is necessary to speak out. I think that anyone who has a voice and an opportunity or platform, should speak out about abuse, because nobody should have to keep it to themselves. I think that for a long time the media haven’t exposed abuse and exactly how widespread it is. This has had a knock on effect with the general public and people have felt that they must not come forward, that they shouldn’t ‘play the victim’ and they won’t be believed by people in authority. I hope that in light of what has happened in the entertainment industry people are going to open their eyes. People are going to listen. 

 I’m also writing a collection of prose poems around the experiences of teenagers. I have a teenage daughter and I remember now how hard it was to be her age. Some artists are illustrating it, and I don’t know where it might lead but it’s one of those projects you do purely for the love of it. All I hope for the future is that I can continue to write. Often, I have a lot of self-doubt, but when I’m actually into it, writing, typing, editing, planning, playing around with language and ideas, I’m so absorbed, just so grateful to be able to do it at all. 


'With all these fineries and mermaid's hair
and a jaw as tense as a fox, you cannot undress
you are always dressed. Your voice does not know
if it is British or indeed if your throat comes from the purse
of an orchid - there's a lamb's bleat in your gut
and two bride's nervous bellies in your midriff.' 

Everyone who replies to this blog post will have their name put into a hat, and the name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of 'A Body Made of You.' The giveaway closes at midnight Monday 17th. 

If you don't win, track down a copy. If you only buy one poetry collection this year, or over several years, make sure that it's this one. 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

"Are these books edible?"

'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' came 4th in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2012 - Humour category, right behind Caitlin Moran! I'm rather pleased with that :) Thank you very much indeed to everyone who voted! x

[Also: LONDON FOLK: Tomorrow night between 6 and 7.30, I'll be signing copies of 'Weird Things...' at Watermark Books in King's Cross Station. There will also be mince pies and mulled wine. Come and say hello! x]

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Weird Things.... for Christmas.

'More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' is finished! Hurrah! Soon it will be illustrated by Greg, and typset and put together and all that jazz. It'll be out in the UK on April 18th 2013.

Yesterday, I spent the day signing books at Waterstones, Tunbridge Wells. I met some very lovely people, ate homemade cookies, and sold a lot of books. Also had a few odd requests. There was a man who talked to me about taxidermy for fifteen minutes, another who said 'Your book looks nice; I'm going to buy it online when I get home,' and a woman who asked me to look after her dog for half an hour, which I did (rather bemusedly). His name was Gumbo, and he was very nice. All in all, a good day!

Most of the books I signed were Christmas presents for people, which reminded me: if any blog readers would like signed books as presents for Christmas (or for themselves), you can buy them in this blog post :). Use the drop down menu to select your postage option (UK, Europe or Rest of the World). If you would like the book dedicated to someone, please use the dedication box.

I've listed the last posting dates at the bottom of this blog post, for books to reach you in time for Christmas. 

Choose Postage Option
Dedication, if any:

If you would like more than one copy, please email me and I can work out the best postage rate for you, and send you a Paypal request :)

Last posting dates - if you would like a book shipped to one of these places, please order before these dates

Wed 5th December 
Asia, Australia, Far East (including Japan), New Zealand

Fri 7th December
Africa, Caribbean, Central America, Middle East and South America

Mon 10th December
Canada, Eastern Europe, USA

Wed 12th December
Western Europe

Thursday 20th December

If you would like a signed copy of my poetry collection, you can get that over here

Friday, 30 November 2012

Author Visit: Jonathan Pinnock

Hello everyone! The lovely Jon Pinnock is here to talk about his award-winning short story collection Dot Dash. So, pull up a seat. 

Everyone who replies to this post by midnight Wednesday 5th December will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Dot Dash. Giveaway is open worldwide.

Prepare to enter a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems, where elephants squat in living rooms, plastic ducks fall from the skies and even the rabbits can’t be trusted. The fifty-eight stories in Jonathan Pinnock’s Scott Prize-winning collection Dot Dash show a vivid yet disciplined imagination at work.

Jon! Welcome to the blog. Please make yourself at home. 

Thank you! It’s nice to be here. [SITS DOWN AWKWARDLY, PUTS HAND OUT TO STEADY SELF, KNOCKS OVER WINEGLASS] Oops. Did you like that carpet? Ah. I think salt is the best thing, isn’t it? Or is that for white? Ooh, and I’ll have a top-up whilst you’re at it. Right. Where were we? (Jen: *sigh* I can't take you anywhere)

I’m in the middle of reading Dot Dash, and loving it. Can you sum it up for those who haven’t read it yet?

That’s right, start off with a nice easy question, won’t you? (Glad you’re enjoying the book, though!) OK, Dot Dash is a collection of 58 stories of widely varying length. The book is structured so that the longer stories are interspersed with very short ones – hence the title of the collection. Other than that, there’s no real overarching theme connecting the stories. Some of them will make you laugh, some will make you cry and others will make you gasp. There may one or two that do all three.

‘Convalescence’ gave me the chills. A lot. Where did the idea for that come from? (Also, I need to ask: is the red frock a deliberate nod to Red Riding Hood? I think that reference amplified the chills.)

Ah yes, that one. I originally wrote that for a competition run by the University of Hertfordshire where the theme was “Vision”. That led me onto the old punk song “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” by The Adverts and I wondered what I could do to crank things up a little.

Funny you should pick up on the red frock – I hadn’t even thought of that! Could be subconscious, because it fits. Or maybe I was thinking more of the figure in the red coat in “Don’t Look Now” – in the sense of someone you can’t quite see or whose significance you can’t quite fathom. (Jen: Thanks for explaining - I'm fairy tale mad, so I was bound to see Red Riding Hood whether you intended it or not, ha!)

I’m very fond of “Convalescence” because it was a kind of a breakthrough for me, in that it was the first time I’d got any kind of recognition outside my immediate circle.

Ali Smith says in one of her short stories that people like short stories because they’re young and exciting; they’re fresh and enticing - a brief affair. Whereas she dubs the novel, jokingly, as a ‘flabby old whore,’ ha. What excites you about short stories? How do you approach writing them?

Ha! Lovely quote :) The thing I like most about short stories is that you can explore different themes, different styles, different voices and so on without feeling obliged to commit to spending an entire novel-writing year in their company.

Occasionally I start off with a fully-defined story in my head, but more often than not I only have a rough idea of where I’m heading, trusting my subconscious to come up with something as I write. When it does, it’s the most wonderfully exciting thing.

This collection has pieces of flash fiction as well as not-so-short stories. Do you have a favourite story? (A mean question, I know, I’m sorry. Actually, no, I’m not sorry. Choose!)

It’s still a mean question, though, even if technically I could simply answer “No”. But I’m not sure I’ll get away with that. Oh dear. I’d probably go for “Return to Cairo” because I think I managed to judge the emotional level about right without tipping over into mawkishness, and I’m quite proud of the central character.

Where were you when you found out you’d won the Scott Prize? How did you celebrate?

I was sitting at my computer, staring at Salt’s website and wearing out the F5 key. I celebrated by letting out an excited “Whoop!” I may also have punched my fist in the air. Then I went and told everyone I knew, some of whom were quite impressed.

What’s it been like working with Salt? You have two books out with them now: Dot Dash and Mrs Darcy Versus the Aliens.

The experience has been quite different with each book. Steve Haynes (who edited Mrs Darcy) took a very “hands-on” approach and we had some interesting differences of opinion. Annoyingly, he turned out to be right most – if not all – of the time. Jen Hamilton-Emery has been a lot more “hands-off” with Dot Dash, although I guess you could say that most of the stories in the book have been through some sort of editing process already as they’ve pretty much all been published elsewhere or been through at least one judging/critique process. Both books look absolutely gorgeous, and it’s a real treat to have something that classy with my name on the cover.

Do you have a writing routine?

I have a rigid, infallible routine, which basically involves waiting until about two days before a vital deadline, panicking and then scribbling away frantically. I have found that this approach, suitably adapted, works for novels too. I originally wrote Mrs Darcy to a self-imposed publishing deadline of two online episodes a week.

Any book recommendations for us?

I’ve read loads of really good books this year, but I think the two fictional ones that really stood out were Alison Moore’s “The Lighthouse” (although everyone who reads your blog’s probably read that one already!) and Sophie Coulombeau’s “Rites”. I was sent “Rites” out of the blue by the publishers and I devoured it in a very short space of time – a riveting, all-too-believable story with pitch-perfect characterisation (Jen: I love both of those - Sophie stopped by for an interview last month). The best non-fiction book I read this year was definitely Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test”, but then every book of his is terrific. The one book I always come back to, though, is Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” – one of the cleverest and wisest books ever written, even if it is – nominally – for kids.

What are you working on at the moment? Any goals for the future?

I finished book #3 (the story of an offbeat real-life quest I undertook recently) a little while back and I’m currently engaged in the tiresome process of submitting it to all and sundry. Book #4 may turn out to be the novel I’ve written about 6000 words of, but it may not. Alternatively, it may turn out to be a sequel to Mrs Darcy. But then again, it may turn out to be something different altogether.

In terms of writing goals, I’ve already achieved way more than I ever dreamed possible when I started writing again in 2005. I really do have to pinch myself sometimes. I guess the next goal is to somehow establish some kind of proper career as a writer, which is unfortunately a rather intangible thing to aim at and I have a horrible feeling I’ll never know if I achieve it!

Well, it sounds like you're doing pretty damn well! I have faith. Thanks for chatting to us!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

what I'm up to at the moment

Hello, folks! I realised that a lot of blog posts recently have been interviews, reviews etc and I hadn't said what I've been up to in a while. So, here we are.

Firstly: it's November, which means it's time to wear reindeer necklaces. This is a fact.

Secondly. My deadline for getting my More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops manuscript to Constable and Robinson is this Friday, so I'm very busy with that, making the finishing touches. Greg's in the process of finishing the cover at the moment (it's looking good!), so I'll be able to show that to you soon.

At the bookshop, we're getting ready for Christmas. Old books make lovely presents, so if you're in London do stop by. We've got some of our stock online, if you fancy a browse. And there are plenty more not catalogued so if you're looking for a specific book you can always drop me an email. We ship worldwide.

At the beginning of the month I had a lovely time at The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, reading with Sophie Collins, Steven Payne and discussing poetry with Christopher Reid. I'm hoping to have my manuscript The Day We Ran Away From The Circus finished by the beginning of January. The poems are a collection I've written over the past eighteen months exploring mythology, freak shows and Otherness. I've also found myself writing some poems in Geordie, recently. It was one of those that I read at Aldeburgh, and it's been fun experimenting with my old dialect.

I was very pleased to find out I'd been shortlisted for Virago's Fifty Shades of Feminism, which will be published next year. Congratulations to Alice Stride, who won. The book is a collection of essays by Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood and many other wonderful people. Do check it out when it's released!

So, lots of bookshop-work, lots of writing-work, a few walks on Hampstead Heath, and a mug of mulled wine at Camden Market pretty much sums up life at the moment. I hope you're all well! x

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops - book signings

Coming up to Christmas, you can find me here:

Saturday 1st December 11am-2pm
Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Waterstones
I'll be here, signing books.

Thursday 6th December 6pm-7:30pm
King's Cross Station, London: Watermark Books
Next to platform 9 3/4s (yes, actually). I'll be there, as will a few other authors, to sign books. There will also be mince pies and mulled wine. Excellent.

If any other bookshops would like me to do a signing before Christmas (or if you're in London and would like me to stop by and sign stock at some point), just drop me an email.


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Blackwell's Children's Book Tree 2012

I blogged about this last year, and have to blog about it again, because it's so wonderful! Blackwell's in Edinburgh and their Children's Book Tree.

Working with Edinburgh Women’s Aid, Edinburgh Young Carers and other local organisations, Blackwell's have received book requests from vulnerable local children.

These requests are on glittery tags which adorn the Christmas tree in the children's section of Blackwell's.

Each tag has a little message: '7 year old boy would like a book of your choice', for instance, or '15 year girl would like a book by Patrick Ness'.

You pick a tag, buy a book which corresponds with it, and the lovely staff at Blackwell's will gift wrap the book and ensure it reaches the child who requested it in time for Christmas.

If you're unsure which book to choose, the staff will help, and if you can't make it to the shop in person, you can do it over the phone - just call 0044131 622 8225.

So: children who will be living in difficult circumstances at Christmas, who have caring responsibilities beyond their years or who won’t be at home over the festive period will each receive a book to treasure, a book they can't wait to read.

It would be lovely if you could spread the word about it, and take part if you can! 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Goodreads Choice Awards 2012

Lovely folk! 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' has made it through to the final round of the Goodreads Choice Awards 2012! Very exciting stuff. Thank you to everyone who has voted so far.

The final round is open until the end of the week, so if you'd like to vote for 'Weird Things...', you can do so over here. Wonderful.

I do like you all. Happy Tuesday! x

Monday, 19 November 2012

Author Visit: Kat Zhang

A few weeks ago I mentioned the wonderful What's Left of Me in a 'things what I've read recently and rather liked' blog post. Now the author of that book, the lovely Kat Zhang, is here to talk about it. 

Everyone who replies to this post by midnight Friday 23rd November will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of What's Left of Me. (giveaway open to everyone, worldwide).

So, pull up a seat and have a read!


Welcome to the blog, Kat! Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Currently, I'm a senior at university, studying English :) I also love films, theater, dance--any kind of story-telling, really! I perform Spoken Word poetry, as well. I like to call myself a professional dabbler, because I like to do a little of everything :P

What books did you love when growing up?

I read a ton as a kid, and loved different books at different ages, but some stories that really stuck with me are Northern Lights, Ender's Game, Sabriel, Green Angel, and The Bartimaeus Sequence :) I was a big fan of fantasy as a child, and I still love it now, though I've come to really enjoy contemporary stories, as well.

Tell our lovely readers a little bit about What’s Left of Me.

Sure thing :) What's Left of Me is a young adult novel about a fifteen-year-old girl, Eva, who is fighting to survive in an alternate version of our world--one where each baby is born with two souls but one usually disappears by age five or six. Eva is the recessive soul, the one who should have faded away, but she never did. Instead, she lost all control of her own body, existing as only a voice in Addie's--her twin soul--head. 

Both girls must keep Eva's existence secret; society fears and hates hybrids like them. If they were discovered, they'd be locked away. But when another secret hybrid reveals that Eva might be able to learn how to control her body again, Eva can't help but risk everything for the chance to move and speak aloud.

I love the concept of ‘hybrids.’ How did the novel come together - which ideas came first?

I got to thinking one day about the little "voice" we talk about a lot--the sort of inner monologue everyone has. What if that voice was a whole other person? What if they were stuck inside your body and couldn't control it, and couldn't communicate with anyone but you? That's how the idea for Eva came about, and the rest of the story built around her and her situation :)

How long did it take you to write?

I started writing the first draft during the winter of my senior year of high school, completed the draft (after a lot of putting it on hold due to testing/graduation/college stuff) during the spring of my freshman year of college. So I guess the 1st draft took more than a year!

What’s your publication story?

Well, after completing the first draft of What's Left of Me, I revised for a few months and, after querying about two months, signed with my agent, Emmanuelle Morgen. I revised with her for a few more months, and then we went on submission to publishers and announced the deal with HarperCollins about a month after that! :) 

This is the first book of a trilogy; how far are you with writing the next books? Have you planned everything out?

I'm actually doing final edits on Book 2 right now, and I'll begin drafting Book 3 after finishing with that. I know the general direction everything is going, and how I want things to end, but I don't like to plan things out in too much detail, as I feel like that doesn't allow room for the story to grow and breath organically.

What’s the most exciting part of the journey been for you, so far?

I love going to writer/reader conventions and festivals to talk with other people in the book/reading business. Meeting up with bloggers has been really fun, and I really enjoy school visits, too! 

What’s your writing routine?

Sadly, I don't have much of a routine. Since I'm a student, with classes, homework, clubs, and friends who do like to see my face from time to time ;), I tend to write whenever I can. 

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope the rest of the Hybrid Chronicles are well-received, and I'd like, of course, to keep writing books for a very long time :)


Kat Zhang is just 20 years old and began writing What's Left of Me in her senior year of high school. She was born in Texas but has lived in Connecticut, Tennessee, China and most recently Georgia. Kat studies creative writing at Vanderbilt University and also performs as a Spoken Word poet.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

'... some poor boy from a nursery rhyme ...'

My poem 'Appendix' is published in the latest issue of Magma poetry. The issue also contains 70 new poems including new work from Maurice Riordan and Sean Borodale, recently shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, as well as a new poem by Vicki Feaver taking inspiration from Edward Thomas’s Old Man. There is also a poem from each of this year’s Eric Gregory Award winners. Bridget Kendall, BBC diplomatic correspondent, shares her memories of a Russian poet, Linda Black explains how she surprised herself into writing prose poems and Katrina Naomi wonders how violence feeds into the creative process, taking soundings from Sharon Olds and Robin Robertson among others.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

more weird things customers say in bookshops

Quick reminder folks - if you want to send in a quote for 'More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' the deadline is tomorrow (15th November).

Greg's doing the cover for the sequel this week. The sketches look excellent! It's all rather exciting.

Hope you all have a lovely week. x

Monday, 12 November 2012

Author Visit: Carys Bray

Happy Monday, pals! Today the lovely Carys Bray is here to talk about her wonderful short story collection Sweet Home. It won the Scott Prize, and I read the book last week. I think it's wonderful. The stories will haunt you, and trouble you; they'll also tug on your heart strings and make you tear up. Carys writes about the things people don't talk about: the hidden emotions of family life, the things that go on behind closed doors and inside the minds of children and parents. She tells the story of Hansel and Gretel from the point of view of an old woman who angers a town by building a house made of of ginger bread. There's a wonderful story called 'Ice Baby,' where a father creates a child from an ice block and tries to keep her alive when the weather gets warmer. I could go on, but I won't. I'd like you to go and check it out for yourself.

In fact, everyone who replies to this blog post by midnight Friday 16th November will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Sweet Home. This giveaway is open to everyone, worldwide.


Hi Carys! Welcome to the blog.  So, how would you describe Sweet Home to someone who hadn’t read it yet?

It’s a collection of stories about families. There are some sad stories, some funny stories and a couple of stories that could probably be classed as fairy tales. 

How long have you been writing?

I used to write when I was a little girl. I wrote terrible Enid Blyton fan fiction and presented it to my poor teachers. When I was 19 I did a writing module at university in America. For various reasons I came back to England early, before I finished my degree, and I didn’t write again until I was 34, when I decided it was time to stop daydreaming about being a writer and give it a go. So I enrolled on Edge Hill’s Creative Writing MA and had a go at writing short stories. (That was a very long way of saying three years and all my life!)

Which story in the collection did you write first? Which was the last?

‘Just In Case’ was the first story. It was the first time I reached the end of a story and thought: ‘yes, that’s pretty much how I wanted it to go.’ ‘Scaling Never’ was the last story. I was thinking about writing a novel and the idea terrified me, so I decided to begin the process by writing a scene from the novel as a short story. I told myself that if the story didn’t work I could abandon the novel idea, but when I finished the story I quite liked it, so I carried on – I’m up to 100,000 words now!

During the process of writing the stories, were you conscious of making them into a collection, or did you realise half-way through that you had stories with a similar theme?

Initially I just wrote about the things that preoccupied me. When I finished my MA I started to think about the way collections work and then I began to realise that most of my stories were about family.

My favourite story from the collection (though there are so many fantastic ones to choose from) is Baby Aisle, where you can buy babies at the supermarket, already named and listed with hair colour, eye colour, weight and performance guarantee. It reminded me a little of Ali Smith’s ‘the Child’ - both completely different stories about babies in supermarkets but both wonderfully twisted. What was the inspiration for this story?

I have four children and the inspiration for this story came from numerous fraught trips to the supermarket. One of my children used to run away and hide whenever we went shopping. It used to terrify and frustrate me. Occasionally, if there was a space, he would squeeze himself onto an empty bottom shelf and call, ‘Buy me, buy me!’ It made me wonder what it would be like to buy children at the supermarket. 

What made you decide to enter the Scott Prize?

I read and enjoyed the previous Scott Prize winners’ collections and I decided to have a go. I didn’t tell anyone about entering because I didn’t want to look silly when nothing happened. I couldn’t believe it when I ended up on the shortlist.

Where were you when you found out you’d won? How did you celebrate?

I was at home. A carpenter was installing a new bed in our odd-shaped box room and I was talking to him when the phone rang. I recognized Jen Hamilton Emery’s Scottish accent straight away. She told me I’d won and I started racing around the upstairs landing, blabbering about not believing it. My children were home from school and they realised what was happening and ran up the stairs. When I got off the phone I shouted, ‘I’ve won, I’ve won!’ and then the children ran around the house cheering. I think the carpenter thought we were all bonkers. (Jen: Ha! Fantastic :) )

What has been the most exciting part of the publishing process for you?

I think seeing the final cover was probably the most exciting thing. It made it all seem real.

Any book recommendations?

I’ve cut my response down to five short story collections, but I could keep going forever! The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life by Helen Simpson, Somewhere Else, or Even Here by A.J Ashworth and Dressing Up for the Carnival by Carol Shields. (Jen: I’ve actually got myself a copy of The Stone Thrower due to you mentioning it on your blog. Obviously I’m going to have to pretend I didn’t buy it, though, due to my ever-on-going book buying ban. The one I, er, don't stick to at all. Ahem)

I believe you’re writing a novel at the moment. Could you tell us a bit about that?

I feel really awkward talking about the novel. It was relatively easy to get a feeling about whether my short stories were working because I sent them out to magazines and they were either rejected or accepted. My novel is an entirely different beast. It’s unwieldy and enormous and I can’t ask anyone to have a quick look at it. (Jen: I know the feeling...)

As to the content, it’s about the sudden death of a small child. I’m really interested in the effects of grief and the restorative power of fiction. The novel is full of fairy tales and Bible stories and at its heart is an absent miracle. I’m hoping to finish the first draft before Christmas. (Jen: Sounds wonderful!)

Thanks Carys, and best of luck with Sweet Home; it really is a fantastic book!


Everyone who replies to this blog post by midnight Friday 16th November will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Sweet Home. This giveaway is open to everyone, worldwide.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

things what I've read recently and rather liked

So, here are some poetry books I've read recently and wanted to shout about...

Unexpected Weather - Abi Curtis

I pretty much always trust Salt Publishing when it comes to poetry. My favourite poems in this collection are:

Body Baskets: 'The organs are easy / apart from the queasy second-scent of life / that comes from the lungs / the last soft wheeze of their inverted trees.'

Hong Kong: 'I was gwailo, waiting on the harbour-front, buttoned-up in itchy / green. No doubt the sweat drawing its way down my starched collar / smelt to others of milk and butter.' 

& Hitching: 'She didn't have much / two issues left of a subscription / a chunk of April wrapped / in the pocket of her pack, / and a sandwich of mustard cress. / She counted telegraph poles all the way back / to a town strung with three-hundred lanterns.' 

I'm really looking forward to reading her new collection, The Glass Delusion.

The Possibility of Angels - Keith Bosley

Firstly, how lovely is the title? Very lovely, that's how. I fell very much in love with some of the poems in this book. The first one to claim me was 'Testing the Bells'

'...No sight 
no smell was out of place: only 
the sound spun from the new red bells 
was wrong and everywhere. 
And through the mist of it we walked 
upright, apart, with ears on fire
and watched a girl run past tearing 
the flames out of her hair.'

This book is preoccupied with red-haired women, and fiery women - angels in disguise. The middle section talks about war, and death, focusing on the Vietnam war. I was especially moved by 'Old man' - the frustration of a man in hospital where the staff can't see the person he is underneath the illness. The poem 'Haunted' is also beautiful: 

'When she died 
the house stretched itself 
and the tree burst into song 
they bought some new curtains 
and had the kitchen decorated 
and the soldiers 
the soldiers that used to march
round and round the garden
taking pot shots at the upstairs window 
suddenly went away.'

Another favourite was 'Setting a Folk Song', comparing music to a naked woman you find and want to show off to your friends. Published in 1969 this book is a little hard to get hold of, but worth it if you can.

A Piece of Information about His Invisibility - Laressa Dickey

This is a poetry pamphlet from MIEL press in Belgium. They only started publishing a year ago, but I am very impressed with this collection. In fact, they've published four of Laressa Dickey's pamphlets and I'm definitely going to track down the other three.

This is a long poem, which roams around the page, and skips from person to person and place to place. The second half of the collection is my favourite, with lines such as:

 'I tell you I am watching orchids bloom in my body.
Black pitch in a back drawer.
Sound layered like a flower my hands press.
A man can't open windows in this body.'

So, from a girl locking herself away, to a boy who is locked: 'Boy in a fox body. / Boy of the marlins. / Snapping turtle boy. / Boy captain, / boy of the crab nebula. / Boy night, boy terror.' This is a poem about growing up in Tennesse, and growing apart from family members. This is about 'the map of my body in this / house as I remember it.' Dickey writes her memories down as they come to her, rearranging them into beautiful shapes. She must remember this invisible boy; she must write about him. 

One Eye'd Leigh - Katharine Kilalea

I hadn't read this since 2009, so wanted to dig it out and give it a reread. Kate's got a fantastic way with words, with lines such as 'We sit facing the sea like a cinema / ... We laze in the water like dishes in the kitchen sink,' 'The rain. Some days / I watch it. / Some days / I let my clothes be a wet rose in the washing machine. / ...Amazing / my hair grew / long enough / to fill a bucket,' and 'the boy looked at the fire. / It was bigger than him / and he didn't know it yet / but it was so frightening / that he grew older just looking at it.' 

These poems are a set of portraits: people and places, some here and some in Kate's home country of South Africa. Kate represented South Africa in the Poetry Parnassus this year and it's not difficult to see why; the word 'portrait' here is very apt because she does paint pictures with words; each poem has very definite imagery, very sure of itself, from the first poem which compares a past lover to a bird to images such as this one: 'He was just a boy, running / with a fire in his boot / and he was lifting his legs like a deer.' Beautiful.

Selected Poems - Hans Magnus Enzensberger

I'm always fascinated by poetry in translation. Whose poem are we reading exactly? The author's or the translator's? And, more importantly, does it matter? On a slight side note, I think that, when it comes to poetry, we all translate it ourselves any way. Every reader will get a different poem from the same printed text as the person sitting next to them. That's the beauty of it.

This collection is wonderful. It moves from political poetry, to the more intimate and personal. I could quote 'Hotel Fraternite' and 'camera obscura' in full, but I'll refrain. Here are some choice quotes: 'The man who doesn't have enough money to buy himself an island / who rides on the ferris wheel and gnashes his teeth / who spills red wine over his lumpy matress / who kindles his stove with letters and photos / who sits on the quay under the cranes.'

'in my own foam-flecked heart / while it swims around blinded in boiling foam / and gets rusty and swims / immortal as a paperclip.'

'no great art in that / said the critic / you can't get away with that now / throw away those metaphors / they're a thing of the past / and i threw away the metaphors / and went to the sauna / and found / birch leaves / and this taste of earlier times / in my mouth.'

little armoured - Rebecca Perry

This is a really quirky poetry pamphlet. My favourite of the lot is a poem called 'Wasp.' Here's a snippet:

...little yellow-black armadillo.
little snail-slime wings.
little nuzzler, nuzzling a neck.
little alien, little feeler, little zebra.
little dinosaur legs...'

How can you not fall in love with lines like that? My second favourite is the first poem, 'my grandfather considers his life in three stages' with beautiful phrases such as 'Everything simmered / small fires hopped from place to place / like rabbits from hutch to hutch. He never fired a gun. / At night, counting flaming sheep, thought of his wife / at home heating the house with coals.' The poems themselves have wonderful titles: 'Namgalsipschlar' 'hello, little bird' 'what is the most shop-lifted book in the world?' and 'when the wind full of space wears out of faces' with the great first line: 'i: breathe your lungs out into the air / maybe the birds will feel the expansion of it.' This collection has umbrellas as bats, street lamps as beast eyes, and a man in the moon.

'The air is doing nothing / so the bare trees look like / frozen fireworks.'

Just lovely.

A Body Made of You - Melissa Lee Houghton

I can safely say that this is the most fascinating, beautiful poetry collection I have read in years. I cannot do it justice in a review. I started reading this in the middle of September, and the only reason I just finished it is because I read two poems and then lost it in a pile of books in my bedroom and only rediscovered it last week. This might give you some indication of how many books are in my bedroom. Anyway, I have since devoured this book. The author's note says: 'This is a selection of poems written for other writers, artists, strangers, lovers and friends. Thank you to all the sitters for allowing me to write their portraits.'

It's so difficult to pick favourites. I love Olivia:

'With all these fineries and mermaid's hair 
and a jaw as tense as a fox, you cannot undress 
you are always dressed. Your voice does not know 
if it is British or indeed if your throat comes from the purse 
of an orchid - there's a lamb's bleat in your gut 
and two bride's nervous bellies in your midriff.' 

Then: 'I would say you're from Prague or the northern hemisphere / way up where whales drive men mad with their singing.'

Stephen's portrait: 'today i stopped using / punctuation / because i feel mad'

Suzy's: 'Girls like you and I / made rain happen, without meaning, made / rain storms and lightning get in the way.'

I was sort of reminded of Cassandra Parkin's fiction in the tone (she wrote 'New World Fairy Tales', which I've mentioned here before). I don't know what it was, perhaps because these poems are like interviews - pain-staking studies; talking about someone and examining them when they're standing in front of you. This collection was so damn beautiful that it made my chest physically hurt. So, there you go. I think it's fair to say this book has my firm stamp of approval.


I hope you spy something here you think you'd like to investigate further. :) Happy weekend! x

Monday, 5 November 2012

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops GIVEAWAY

To celebrate the 'Weird Things...' facebook page hitting 3000 likes, there are two giveaways happening. One of which is to receive a postcard a month with a quote from the 'Weird Things...' sequel on it, until the release of the book next April. Head over here for the chance to win.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Author Visit: Mark Forsyth

Everyone who replies to this post before midnight 8th November will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of The Horologicon. (Open to everyone, worldwide)  

I did an event with the lovely Mark at the Highgate and Hampstead Literary Festival this summer, where we talked about blogs and books and getting blogs turned into books. Mark's first book The Etymologicon came out last year and was a #1 Sunday Times Bestseller. His new book, The Horologicon, is out this week and promises to be just as excellent.

The Horologicon (or book of hours) gives you the most extraordinary words in the English language, arranged according to the hour of the day when you really need them. Do you wake up feeling rough? Then you're philogrobolized. Pretending to work? That's fudgelling, which may lead to rizzling if you feel sleepy after lunch. It's all very charming and witty. So, pull up a seat and listen to what Mark has to say!

Mark! Welcome to the blog. Do take a seat. Actually, what would be the most interesting way to say ‘rest’ or ‘sit down’?

My favourite is soss from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. He defined it as “Soss: To fall at once into a chair”. I’ve done that a thousand times, but never had the word for it until I found it in Johnson’s dictionary.

Excellent! Let us soss. What started your love of etymology?

It’s impossible to pin it to a particular moment. It’s more that sudden rush of realisation you can get when you realise two words are connected. I remember once toddling around the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, which is one of the freakiest damned places on earth. For centuries the Capuchin monks would leave their bones to be turned into bad taste interior decoration. It’s like a branch of Habitat run by a serial killer. And my first thought was Capuchin-cappuccino – is there a connection? The answer was yes: the coffee is the same colour as the monks’ robes.

What’s your favourite word at the moment?

I’ve just discovered somatico-hedonistic, which means relating to the pleasures of the body. Not that I have many, but at least I’ll have a word when they come along. I also rather like bibliopolistically, which means “in a manner befitting a bookseller”. (Jen: I do like that one)

Tell our blog readers how your first book, The Etymologicon, came to be published.

I wandered into a book launch, got apocalyptically drunk, and cornered somebody from the publishers, saying “You’ve got to publish a book bashed on my blog”. They did.

What’s the one main thing you’ve learnt about the publishing industry that you didn’t know before you were published?

So many things. The difference between sold and sold in and trade and mass market. The strange mixture of glacial slowness and volcanic speed. The ready availability of cheap red wine.

What was the most exciting part of the publication process, for you?

A writer I know once told me that seeing your first child in the maternity ward is the second best experience in life after seeing your name on the cover of a real book. I’ve never had a child.

The Horologicon goes through a typical day, inserting old words in places you’d most likely use them. What’s your favourite part of the day, with regard to its strange words?

Very hard to say. I had great fun with the drinking and the wooing. There are some fantastic words in there like snecklifter (somebody with no money who wanders into a pub in the hope that he’ll see someone who’ll buy him a drink) and dangler (someone who follows a girl around without asking the question). But the really surprising part was the supermarket. I felt I ought to have a trip to the shops after work, but I had no idea there would be such beautiful vocabulary involved. It’s as though supermarkets were all designed by poets: the light thieves, the aisle leapers, the shelf misers, the gondolas. I’ve never been able to look at Budgens in the same way since.

How do you do your research?

For the Horologicon it’s mainly reading through dictionaries cover to cover, which I actually enjoy because I’m a very lonely, boring man. The trick is to find the good dictionaries, which are all stored in the British Library. A lot of them are actually quite short. For example, Cab Calloway’s Dictionary of Hepcat Slang is only fifteen pages or so. But there’s a lot of material in there.

You’ve travelled to various places promoting the books. You were in South Africa recently. What did you learn about South African wordage on your travels?

They call traffic lights robots down there, which I found surprising. But then I discovered that when the very first traffic lights were installed in London in the 20s, the Evening Standard called them Robot Policemen. So they’ve still got the original term, if slightly shortened. Another strange word is soutpiel, which is an offensive Afrikaans term for anyone with a British connection. Soutpiel literally means “salt penis”, because you’ve got one foot in South Africa, one foot in Britain, and your willy dangling in the Atlantic Ocean.

Ha! Excellent. What books have you read recently? Any recommendations?

For various odd reasons, I’ve been reading nothing but Nigerian books for the last month. Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, which is a fantastic story about the secret bitchiness in a polygamous marriage; and Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking For Transwonderland, which is a travelogue about going back to Nigeria for the first time in ten years. Both are fantastic.

What would you like to do in the future?

Get back to fiction. The trouble with writing factual books is that you have to check that you’re telling the truth, and truth is a tedious constraint. 


 Mark's blog / Follow Mark on Twitter / The Horologicon Tour

Everyone who replies to this post before midnight 7th November will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of The Horologicon. (Open to everyone, worldwide)   

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Goodreads Choice Awards 2012

I'm very chuffed to say that Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops has been nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award! Hurrah! It's particularly lovely as the books are chosen due to the ratings and reviews of readers - so, thank you lovely readers!

If you'd like to vote for 'Weird Things...' you can do so over here.Virtual hugs to those who vote!


In other news:

There are two signed copies of the North American edition of 'Weird Things...' up for grabs at the moment: one over on Goodreads, and one over on Bella's Bookshelves.

This weekend you can find me at the Aldeburgh Poetry festival, reading some poetry about mermaids. I'll be there with Christopher Reid, Sophie Collins and Stephen Payne. We'll be discussing all things to with writing poetry, and editing it. Details are over here.

(More author interviews coming up soon with Kat Zhang, Mark Forsyth and Melissa Lee-Houghton)