Friday, 30 October 2015

The Aniseed Gumball Kid

My short story, "The Aniseed Gumball Kid", was recently published in Breakout, a Postscripts anthology from PS Publishing. As usual, I'm blogging a few thoughts as to how the story came into being. There may well be spoilers for those who haven't read it.

I actually wrote this piece some time ago. It was quickly accepted by Pete Crowther who said it was probably the best story I'd submitted to Postscripts, however it's taken a while to get published and my memory of how it was written is a little hazy. However, I do know that I found the title written on the back of a recipe pinned to our corkboard, and that title has been claimed as an idea by my partner. I also remember the story sprang from the title alone.

"The Aniseed Gumball Kid" tells the story of an office worker who has become estranged from his family, who clings to a halcyon vision of reality which doesn't match the situation he is actually in, and who becomes obsessed by a kid he views at a gumball machine through this office window. The kid becomes a representation of everything he wants to be. That's it in a nutshell, but it's also much more nuanced than this. There's a lot of typical office politics, how reality in any office is a self-contained world confirming to it's own rules, and about how loneliness can affect the mind. Here's a bit of it:

Sandford had worked in a handful of offices during his life. None of which were remarkable, either through the nature of the work or the workers themselves. In his new office he realised quickly how the staff fell into stereotypes: the dumb blonde, the surprisingly clever blonde, the SF nerd, the fat guy with glasses who blinked too rapidly, the married woman on the verge of having an affair, the token ethnic, the knowledgeable female, the motherly female, the unattractive temp, the chummy boss, the avoidable boss, the workmate who thought you liked him and who considered himself a friend but who you would never see socially. And so it went on.

Over his spiced chicken wrap - he no longer bought fish paste sandwiches - Sandford catalogued his fellow workers and found each correlated with an identikit counterpart in a previous office. Beryl was Carolyn was Cynthia. Wayne was Dwayne was Shawn. Emma was Sharon was Melissa. Raj was Raj was Raj. From this only one deduction could be made: his brain held a finite template of stereotypes from which to draw new people. Similar circumstances created similar people. The more he toyed with the idea the more he decided to believe that was true. And the more he believed it was true, the more it became true.

Breakout contains stories from twenty-seven writers and can be bought here. Including fiction by John Gribben, Allen Ashley, Jessica Reisman and Steven Utley, John Weldon, Howard Priestley, Kaitlin Queen, Paul Tremblay, Kelly Barnhill, Garry Kilworth, Lisa L. Hannett, Keith Minnion, Robert T. Jeschonek, Vaughan Stanger, Robert Reed, Simon Strantzas, James Cooper, Greg Quiring, Kat Howard, Kit Reed, Darrell Schweitzer, Andrew Hook, Ian Whates, Emma Coleman, Steven Utley and Camille Alexa, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Anna Tambour and Marly Youmans.



Wednesday, 28 October 2015

FantasyCon 2015

Held over last weekend was the annual British Fantasy Society convention, FantasyCon. I love attending this event, and this year was no exception. Heading up from Norwich we dropped our daughter off at her grandmother's in Leicester and then continued along to Nottingham where we easily found the convention hotel within the grounds of the University. It was a warm if cloudy day and the convention building and hotel architecture were all very pleasing. Parking the car we headed to check in.

The first person I chatted to briefly was Simon Clark, followed by our close friends Allen Ashley and Sarah Doyle. After being told we had to wait a few minutes before our room was ready we headed to the convention registration which was already busy. Often at these events you're given a bag with a couple of books inside which you will never read (the second in a trilogy for example), however this year an empty bag was just waiting to be filled with books from the very generous freebie table. I have never seen such a selection of freebies which were so desirable and during the first hour of the convention I probably bored everyone silly advising them to register before they all disappeared. These were our freebies many of which were on our wish lists:

Following registration we headed to our room and found it pleasantly clean and modern. The curving architecture viewed from our window resembled a wooden rollercoaster track. The large windows made us realise we were clearly visible from the outside! Just from the room and those free books alone it intimated this would be a good convention - and those instincts weren't wrong.

Heading to the bar area we chatted briefly to Steve Savile who I hadn't seen for some years and we reminisced over his book, "Angel Road", which I had published through Elastic press. We then spent some time with the lovely Priya Sharma talking about poetry and surrealism, and were joined by Simon Bestwick and Cate Gardner. I also managed to catch up with Stuart Young before heading to the Pendragon Press launch of "The Lost Film" by Mark West and Stephen Bacon. Chatted with Jay Eales and Selina Lock in the queue before picking up a copy of the book which looked interesting. We also did a brief tour of the dealer's room speaking to Roy at the TTA Press table, George Sandison at Unsung, confirming a preference for two-legged werewolves at another table whose name escapes me, having a brief chat with Trevor Denyer, and saying a quick hello to Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards before diving into their £1 book sale.

We were planning to attend the Poetry Round Robin event from 8 to 10pm, but needed food beforehand. The bar food looked pretty rubbish and we only really wanted a snack so Sophie googled the nearest KFC. It appeared to be six minutes away. We set out to walk but it took about six minutes to leave the campus. After forty-five minutes we realised we must have taken a wrong turn. When we did arrive at the KFC it was a tiny shack near a garage where the staff served behind what resembled bulletproof glass. The hotel turned out to be only six minutes away. We ate quickly.

Back at the hotel we thoroughly enjoyed the poetry event. Sophie read three pieces in total and received some great feedback. The others - some old, some new - were also good to hear. Afterwards we headed to Simon Bestwick's reading from his forthcoming novel, "Hell's Ditch", which went down well. Sitting in the bar area we spent the next three hours chatting to Ray Cluley and his partner, Jess, who are fast becoming good friends. It's always refreshing to talk on a variety of levels and subjects with people who know exactly what you're talking about. By 2:30 in the morning Ray's question, "what haven't we talked about?", suggested we were exhausted and it was time to go to bed.


Woke after an ok sleep. The hotel breakfast was pretty good and I dug in so far I ended up coming out in Australia. Popped into the dealer's room first thing to hand Roy Gray the TTA Best Small Press award for 2011 which I'd collected on Andy Cox's behalf a few years ago but I'd used as a bookend until now because I kept forgetting to forward it on. Better late than never. Then we headed to the book launch room where I signed a few copies of the anthology, "Creeping Crawlers", edited by Allen Ashley for Shadow Publishing, which contains my short story, "Us!". The book looks fantastic.

We then popped along to Ray Cluley's reading but found he had had to swap with Joe Hill who had to leave early. This meant we got to hear Joe first and Ray second, and whilst I have only a passing interest in Joe I did enjoy his reading and he seemed to be a thoroughly amiable bloke. Enjoyed Ray's reading too. From there we ventured over to Adam Nevill's book launch, picking up a copy of "Lost Girl" for a sweet fiver, and enjoyed an even sweeter free beer (the best beer of the weekend in fact) as a bonus. Had a long chat with Stephen Volk whilst I was in the queue about his adaptation of "Midwinter of the Spirit" for ITV. A three-parter which I had really enjoyed (although unfortunately he advised it hadn't been re-commissioned). We also shared our disappointment that it hadn't been featured on Gogglebox.

After Adam's launch we headed to Gary Couzen's reading. He chose a section from the story, "Cold", which was included in his collection, "Out Stack and other places", for which I had written the introduction. It was good to hear the piece being read and I heartily recommend the book.

Around 1pm we realised we had a window of opportunity to catch up with some sleep, and would have done so if a fire alarm in the conference centre hadn't pulled us from the fringes of darkness. Whilst it didn't affect the hotel, the noise did. Thankfully there wasn't an actual fire.

Back in the main building we headed to Paul Meloy's book launch and picked up a copy of "The Night Clock" (a little surprised it was an ARC, but I guess every story needs one). During the course of the day I'd also been selling a handful of copies of my new chapbook, "The Nomenclature of Fear", to those I thought might be interested, and was chuffed when Stephen Volk asked me if I had any with me. Hopefully those who bought these enjoyed them.

At four o'clock we were back in the reading room, this time with myself reading my short story, "Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City". It seemed to go down well, and we remained there to hear Priya Sharma's reading before returning to the general bar area and milling about the dealer's room again. The great thing about the venue was that it was all on one level: no complex corridors or echoey stairwells, no reason to get lost. And whilst I haven't mentioned everyone we spoke to (of course), it was so refreshing to be somewhere where every few paces we might find ourselves amongst people we knew and could readily chat to. I certainly don't get that everywhere I go. We are a band of outsiders.

Six o'clock saw me take part in a panel about the future of the short story alongside Gary Couzens, Nina Allan, Marie O'Regan, and Laura Mauro which was moderated by Allen Ashley. Hopefully we said something of interest. Certainly some people were taking notes.

Food was next on the menu, but the hotel choices were limiting. After a bit of aimless wandering we took a taxi into Nottingham with Allen Ashley and Sarah Doyle and settled for the simplicity of Nando's and had some good conversation over a much-needed meal.

Returning to the hotel we looked in on the disco which - at that point - had only two people in the hall. Deciding against it we attended Victoria Leslie's "Skein and Bone" book signing event, picking up a copy and managing to have a long chat with her (Sophie gushing about new poetry ventures and reading a poem from one of her favourite poets to her).

Once we were out of there we found ourselves again alongside Ray Cluley and Jess. Another chat ensued. More beer. Sophie made an admission she had never been drunk and Jess made it a mission to ensure that she was. Singles might have been doubles. Sophie denies that she did - in fact - get drunk, although when I returned to their table after chatting with a few other people her distressed exclamation: "Your face is square, your face is square" coupled with tears and laughter seemed to suggest otherwise.

Whilst that was going on I discussed cheese with Neil Williamson in relation to a forthcoming anthology we will be editing (more details on this when confirmed), and also spoke to Linda Rucker and Rosanne Rabinowitz about the project. Al Robertson and Heather Lindsey were at the fringes of the conversation and I only wish I'd been able to have a much-needed catch-up with them. Neil and I also discussed the Sparks/Franz Ferdinand project, FFS. Always good to have great music conversations.

As the convention area closed down we returned to the hotel bar, striking up my annual noir crime conversation with John Travis and sharing a few recommendations and comments on the state of publishing. By the time it reached 2:30am it was time for bed (and to make use of the extra hour's sleep due to daylight saving time). Another great day with great people.


I got out of bed on Sunday the only way you can when at a Fantasy convention.

Knowing I wouldn't eat til about 9 that evening I ensured I had two cooked breakfasts, then packed our bags into the car before strolling back into the convention area. Hung around the dealers tables, chatting to Priya Sharma and Carole Johnstone, and picked up a copy of "Breakout", the new Postscripts anthology from the PS Publishing table containing my short story, "The Aniseed Gumball Kid", which I hadn't realised had been published (I did confirm I could take my contributor copy with Nicky Crowther), and sold a copy of "punkPunk!" to Steve Shaw. Leaving there I had a conversation with Rob Shearman about his World Fantasy Award judge role (which I had done a few years previously), before resting awhile in the bar area again where Sophie read my "Gumball" story to me.

Having a few hours to wait before the award ceremony we went for a stroll in the university grounds. The autumnal colours were beautiful and it was nice to have some quiet time together without feeling we were heading too far away from the convention. Returning to our car to put some stuff away we decided to have our own FantasyCon banquet which was (unsurprisingly) tasty.

Hanging outside the banqueting hall we were able to have a chat with Alison Littlewood and her partner Fergus about the forthcoming awards, and just before the ceremony we were also able to speak briefly with Nina Allan (receiving a heartfelt hug) before we were whisked into the vortex of unbanqueted-convention-goers sucked into the main hall in time for the awards. I had a vested interest in one of these, having had a story in "Horror Uncut" which was in the best anthology category, but as it happens that award went elsewhere. It was certainly an eclectic list of winners. I wouldn't argue with any of it other than that the film "Guardians of the Galaxy" which won best screenplay was an embarrassing crock of shite. Still, each to their own.

We exited just as the convention was being formally concluded, racing to the car before the crowds could claim us. We'd had a great time amongst friends and for as many conversations we had there were also those who we passed in the corridor and never had the opportunity to see again. The convention is such a magnificent social occasion for those in the genre and this was one of the best. A triumph of individuals finding camaraderie in community. Looking forward to next year in Scarborough.

(Postscript: forty-five minutes out of Nottingham we stopped just outside Leicester for the loo. I was thinking you never see anyone out of the convention, and then promptly bumped into Tom Johnstone as we left. Oh, the power of suggestion!).

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Autumnal Antics

My partner blogged our most recent literary outings on her Fur-Lined Ghettos website. With FantasyCon approaching tomorrow it seemed relevant for me to re-post that here with a few amendments to make it look like I wrote it:

We're spoilt here in the East. It feels as though there is something literary happening almost weekly, & it generally is! Here's a few nights we've attended recently:

Poetry Collective is a big supporter of everything poetic - writers / musicians / comedians etc. Here's regular Olly Watson doing something Sophie and I never could (read from memory!).

I was going to say that Café Writers is my favourite night but honestly I love them all. Definitely worth checking out, there is always a great headline act + open-mic.

Crime Scene was an event run by myself out of frustration at the lack of support for local genre novelists. We think it was a success, and hopefully the start of something new.

The Quiet Compère has a basic premise - ten poets read for ten minutes each. Sophie managed to get her name on the list, & despite being delayed (we hate cars) she had an enjoyable evening - if not a shaky one.

And so tomorrow is FantasyCon, the annual knees-up for the horror/fantasy community and all those inbetween. I'll be around chatting to old friends and making new ones, but there's also a few scheduled events we'll be attending.

Friday 23rd October at 8pm: Round-Robin poetry slam (where Sophie will be reading)

Saturday 24th October at 10am: launch of Creeping Crawlers edited by Allen Ashley which contains my short, "Us!".

Saturday 24th October at 4pm: I will be reading my short story, "Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City".

Saturday 24th October at 6pm: I will be one of the panel members on "The Short Story: Short-Lived or Part of the Long Game?" with Nina Allan, Gary Couzens, Laura Mauro and Marie O'Regan (moderated by Allen Ashley).

Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Old Factory Memories

My short story, "Old Factory Memories", has recently been published online in the seventh issue of Axolotl magazine and as usual I'm blogging a few lines as to how the story was written for those who might be interested. There will be spoilers. The story itself can be read here.

"Old Factory Memories" was the last of four stories that I wrote in quick succession. I had time to write another piece, but other than the title I had no ideas. The title itself is simply a pun on 'olfactory memories', but other than providing the title the wordplay actually has no bearing on the story itself. At the time of writing I'd had a few nights where I hadn't slept very well and I decided to do some research around that, whereupon I found the following snippet of information: "Chronic sleep-restricted states cause tiredness, clumsiness, a discordance between speech and action; but perversely there are also some cases where sleep deprivation leads to increased energy, alertness and enhanced moods." It was the latter half of that paragraph which I found interesting: could it be that sleep deprivation might lead to an enhanced state of being...? Further research led me to 'fatal familial insomnia', a rare disease of the brain which can lead to hallucinations, delirium and confusional states like that of dementia. Suddenly I had my story.

I created a near-future scenario where the occupants of a care home have become wistful about their days before retirement, where they worked in a factory which no longer existed because technological advances had meant much of the surrounding area had returned to grass (kind of an opposite to the usual, I remember when this was all fields situation). They are nostalgic for those factory days of old, and - gradually - as they start to slip away into dementia and delirium, they begin to recreate that factory through memory until it actually becomes a physical object. Or does it. As usual, my stories offer no hard and fast realities. Ultimately the story is about memory and the pending loss of self, about nostalgia and the desire for one last redemptive moment through a kind of collective consciousness.

We entered Carson’s meadow in various states of mind. Summer was leaving. The breeze had an edge to it. The ground was harder, pitted. Angelita fell heavily. I watched Attila help her rise with no trace of bitterness. The factory dominated the skyline. It commanded my view. I tried to imagine the time I believed I had spent inside, when the meadow was tarmac and white lines delineated the rectangular positions of parking spaces. Where the foyer was corporate and the interior working class. I could smell the grease they used on the cogs: a rich memory, a sensory awakening.

"Old Factory Memories" was written whilst listening to the album "Your Future Our Clutter" by The Fall on repeat.

Axolotl is an online magazine with a yearly print anthology. This issue also contains work by Michael Díaz Feito, Kodi Saylor, Joe P Squance, Trevor Shikaze, Kristín Eiríksdóttir, Robert Hamilton and Andrey Kuzmichev.