Thursday, August 8, 2013

This blog is being retired

Hey. You know what? This blog is, like, so 2012.

If you'd like to read our current blog, Chapter & Verse, head on over to the Manchester Literature Festival website and check it out.

We'll be using it as a place to go deeper into the books, authors and ideas that figure in this year’s festival. We’ll be introducing you to our team, and explaining a bit more about the work that’s involved in making the festival happen every year. Once the festival is underway, we’ll be posting news and reviews of this year's events, and guest posts from literary bloggers around the region.

We'll leave this blog up for archival purposes but will no longer be updating it. Big thanks to the many wonderful contributors who helped write it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Small is big: short fiction writing competition

Flash. Micro. Ultra. Short-short. Smokelong. Sawn-off. Tiny tales of 1,000 words and way less have many monikers and many exponents, plenty of whom are from or who have at some point brought their art to Manchester.

Tonight, for example, sees the city's FlashTag writing collective head up an event as part of Chorlton Arts Festival; their third, in fact. Now a fixture on the incredibly diverse and immense spoken word scene in the city, this soiree offers a fun-filled culmination to an open-submission creative writing competition, with the shortlist of entrants reading their work - with, ultimately, one of them being crowned the winner. In past incarnations, the runners-up have landed in Chorlton from all over the UK, from Bristol to Edinburgh, which just goes to show that the popularity of the short form isn't limited to our city limits. So flash fiction is big business.

There are a couple of ways of looking at flash fiction. The first is treating prose like poetry, in a way. Every word counts, and there are very few words. You could spend days, weeks, months, even years honing a piece of no more than as little as two or three paragraphs that tells a story, complete with beginning, middle and end, and which provides all the plotlines and characters that a much longer piece would offer - the only difference is that it is reduced to an essence; a hard hit, if you like. For others, it's about writing something short and sweet in a matter of minutes or hours; an energetic fizz of putting words on a page, creating something totally of its moment.

It's up to you which you prefer, so we have a challenge for you, and it's up to you to decide which take will impress us the most. We've teamed up with Creative Industries Trafford to run a flash fiction writing competition, the winners of which we will showcase in an event during Manchester Literature Festival 2013, this coming October. And to help you, CIT are running a special flash fiction writing workshop with pioneer of the short form David Gaffney - author of four critically acclaimed micro-fiction collections - on Tuesday 18 June (1-4pm), for just £5. Click here for more details and how to book.

So, to the competition: We are inviting you to create a flash fiction, no longer than 500 words, inspired by the theme of DNA. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the DNA double helix by Francis Crick and James Watson, and we'd love to read your words inspired by the subject, in all genres of fiction - we're thinking creation, mutation, evolution, transformation...

Entry is free and submissions should be sent by email to by 5pm on Monday 16 September.

The winning entries will be featured online during MLF 2013 and short-listed authors will be invited to read their stories at a special event on Saturday 12 October at Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, with the overall winner receiving book vouchers worth £50.

Good luck!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Postcards from the edge

Here's Rosie's postcard...

10 April 1913
My dearest Mabel,

I know you are angry with me. I know you will throw this on the fire. But I shall send it in any case. You’ll have read about the affair by now. It’s in the Courier.

Yes, it was done in protest at Mrs. P being sent down on yet another flummery-mummery charge of incitement. But the intoxication of dashing up and down the waxed parquet, toffee hammers in our fists! Smashing the glass of a dozen paintings before they could hold all three of us down!

I could tell you we did not mean serious damage, which is what I said in court. You ask how I could attack pictures of ladies like ourselves. But Mabel; when I saw those daubs, a veil was torn away. They are not women: they are falsehoods told in paint with spotless skin, perfect limbs, unlined faces, hands that have never had to wring nappies. They are men’s lies told to make us hate our bodies.

I shall not lie and say I did it for you. I did it for all of us, even those who did not want it. I would do the same again, tomorrow.

I remain,
Your affectionate mother,
Annie Briggs

© 2013 Rosie Garland

Historical Note
On 3rd April 1913, Annie Briggs (48, 'a housekeeper'), Evelyn Manesta (25, 'a governess') and Lillian Forrester (33) launched a direct action to protest at the imprisonment and forced-feeding of suffragettes. They waited until Manchester Art Gallery was almost empty at 9pm. Taking toffee hammers from their handbags, they dashed about the room and broke the glass on over a dozen well-known paintings before being overwhelmed by guards. 

Stories from the city, stories from the sea

Postcards From The Past Workshop, Saturday 11th May, 2-4.30pm, Stanley Suite, The Midland Hotel
Words by Desmond Bullen.

 Long before the supposed modishness of flash fiction, prior to the chirpy burst of Twitter, wit at its briefest found its way inked onto the back of a postcard. Denuded of the envelope’s discretion, its commonplaces and tidings were status updates on mass-produced cardboard. To come across one now, forgotten between the pages of a secondhand book, is to have the past blossom with the delicacy of a Polaroid before one’s eyes.
The postcard is of a room. The room is in a hotel, the kind with a history; one whose inlaid angels have witnessed the relentless ebb and flow of guests and staff over years weary and gay, over decades heavy and light. The tales they could tell are on the tips of their tongues, but their tongues are still. The people in the room are not. They prowl and declaim, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, giving rise to an unintentional poetry, part Dada, part poetry.

And conducting this displaced cabaret is the quicksilver figure of Rosie Garland, a protean figure – neither poet nor mistress of ceremonies, neither March Violet nor author, but all, and more – now coaxing ink from pens in a workshop that is far more play than toil.

There is paper, too; the inevitable flipchart, the outpourings of the group in marker pen across it, like benign graffiti. And the pads and notebooks, their lines no longer flat, but beating with prose of which its authors might be cautiously proud. Each table has a soul or two brave enough to voice their new-found words to the room at large. Each has a postcard to send that’s funny or thoughtful, angry or melancholy, flirtatious or droll.

Wish you were here? I was glad I was.

The Postcards From The Past competition, sponsored by The Midland Hotel, closes on 20 July - click here for full details of how to enter. 

Rosie’s latest novel, The Palace Of Curiosities, is out now.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Postcards from the Past - Anne Frank

Dear Mum and Dad,

How are you? I hope you are well.

Amsterdam is not how it used to be. Things are changing constantly and there are now a family of Jews living with us. It is scary thinking that we could be caught for helping them but I refuse to let these people suffer because of the Nazis.

But anyway Mum, Dad; I must go now as I do not have much time until this postcard will be collected to be sent to you. I love you lots. Please keep in touch and do write back.

Love from your daughter,
Miep xxx

Written by Zahraa Ghafoor and Fahimah Dudha from Pulling Together. Inspired Anne Frank's diary, and Miep Gies who helped hide the Frank family.

Dear Hepsebah,

I am writing to apologise for the problems I caused when I came to stay. I saw that the house was on fire and it was all my fault. I destroyed the skull and the curse came true. I pray that you all got out and were unharmed.

My life has changed so much since I came to visit. I have two children and I have recently divorced and hope to come to visit you and Mr Johnny. Please give my love to Mr Owens. How is Albert Sandwich? I am so sorry again for putting a curse on Druid's Bottom.


Written by Nighat Ahmed from Pulling Together  taking inspiration from Carrie's War by Nina Bawden.

Postcards from the Past - Evolution

Dear Reader,

The picture on this postcode has been shot in 9013 by me, Albert Monkeystein. I'm hoping by now you know that history repeated itself. You, like me, may be evolved to a monkey.

The reason I write this is because I want the new evolution I predict to happen, to understand what has happened...again.

When the humans left from the pollution we stayed, adapted and used what the humans left to teach ourselves. We're based where this card should be found - Manchester. Each day is quite a challenge with the animals surrounding our camp.

By 'us' I mean my monkey self, my mother and a poor lost rat we found but I dare not eat.

I must dash. It's getting quite late and the liorats (lion rats) will come soon.

Bye bye,
Albert Monkeystein.

By Saliha Dudha from Pulling Together

Postcards from the Past - from Mar Roldan to Antonio Puerta

Hola mi amor - hello my love,

I know it's been a week since I last visited you, again I've bought you roses. You're a stupid excuse for a boyfriend - where are my lilies?

I still remember the day we met. My initial opinion - what an arrogant ego; stud earring, big physique, pearls for teeth. Yes, a big bad boy impression but then those lips moved and I fell in love.

A year since I gave birth to your son, 3 years since you represented your country, 6 since you stole my heart and almost 2 years till you physically left my life. You're not a memory though. You silenced the whole country. You remain here through me - mi novio. Siempre. Always you are the love of my life. You achieved your dreams, and I want our boy to achieve his - stubborn as he is... Like his dad. He's also got a heart of gold like his papa.

Yours truly
Me encanta tu, mi novio
I love you always my fiance

Love Mar x

This was written by Naadhran Dudra from Pulling Together inspired by the story of Antonio Puerta and Mar Roldan.

Postcards from the Past - from Posiedon to Zeus

My dearest brother Zeus,

Brother, war is brewing. The Titans are ready to attack. Waters are unstable. I can feel the presence of another being roaming around the Atlantic destroying many fish colonies. Athena has come up with many ideas to withstand the Golden Age from reappearing. Even Hades had the decency to contact me as many souls have refused to go to Elysium. My cyclops are working hard to create new weapons to defend Olympus. You must get the wind Gods to support you and protect the areas of Olympus.

The Hyborean giants are already defending Northern mountains; the areas where Kronos (Saturn) is rising. I have acknowledged from Apollo that Kronos is reappearing bit by bit as our children lose faith in us. Ares has gone into the effort of teaming up with Athena to create safer battlefields and to protect our city. I however, will try my best to protect all waters. Many river gods are reporting news upon any Titans I have long forgotten. On the other hand, you haven't done anything after my last emergency call with the rainbow goddess.

Many gods are disappearing, the gods who are not very important perhaps in the human world. You must plan something as you are the main god of all. I hope you understand the danger we are in.

Poseidon (Neptune)

Written by Fatima Anwar from Pulling Together as part of Postcards from the Past. "My inspiration is the book of Percy Jackson written by Rick Riordan. It is based on Greek Mythology, with gods with their Roman forms as well as their Greek forms."

Postcards from the Past - a card from Marius to his friends

Dear Mes Amis

I miss you all everyday. With Cosette's father's permission we finally married. I wish you could have been there. When asked who would be my best man I thought of you Courfeyrac but I remained silent.

Enjolras, with the help of Monsieur Fauchelevent's money I am working to build a better France. I will help the homeless, the urchins like Gavroche. Your dream will not die.


This card was written by Ayesha Ahmed from Pulling Together inspired by "Les Misérables" by Victor Hugo as part of the Postcards from the Past project.

Postcards From The Past - A Card from Ponyboy to Johnny

Dear Johnny

It's been 15 years since you died and I still miss you everyday. I'll never forget the words you spoke to me - "stay gold, Ponyboy". I hope that the way I've lived my life would be considered gold in your eyes. I hope that I've made you proud. After you died things got bad but they eventually got better. I finished school. I went to college and I never stopped writing. My brothers are okay too.

Things are going well for me now. I only wish you were around to see it. I own a little book store on the corner. One of my books got published a few years ago. I dedicated it to you.



Written by Maryam Ahmed from Pulling Together as part of the Postcards from the Past project. Inspired by the novel "The Outsiders" by S E Hinton.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Changing the world

Beacons: Stories For Our Not Too Distant Future, Thursday 7th March, 6.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Sarah-Clare Conlon. Photograph by Clare Dudman.

Manchester Literature Festival celebrated Climate Week by holding the launch of Beacons: Stories For Our Not Too Distant Future, an anthology of cautionary tales themed around environmental damage. In our last blog post, we'd already asked the collection's editor, Gregory Norminton, whether he thought literature could change the world, and this theme cropped up again tonight, in both the introduction and in the second half, when audience members were asked to share titles of texts that had shifted their perspective and made them consider behavioural improvements. 

"Even if it doesn't change the world, this book will at least unsettle you. It's bracing, it's thrilling, it's frightening in places," says Gregory as he explains how the collection, six years in the making, came together. "Fiction that makes you imagine the 'unimaginable' is really useful and the key is to engage with people on an emotional level. The environmental timebomb isn't a coherent, easy-to-understand narrative, but focusing on the human condition helps you try and make a predicament work as a set of stories."

Left to right: Rodge Glass, Cathy Bolton and Gregory Norminton

Another way to make the contents gel was to avoid being overly preachy. "If we asked our writers to write 'campaigning stories', we'd end up with a bad book," Gregory continues. "It's not 'them and us' - we're all in this together. If we agree to this as citizens, we should agree to that as writers too."

Rodge Glass, one of tonight's readers, nods his head. "The challenge is not to come over as if you're hectoring people. It's our responsibility as writers to engage with the world and be honest about it," he chips in. His pacy story is based in Krakow and focuses on a group of political campaigners living in the shadow of the threat of imminent and catastrophic flooding. 

Clare Dudman, who reads first, looks at coping with life in a drier, warmer Britain, although she says she wanted to write a story that had hope in it. Her protagonist, Sophie, is an editor because Clare wanted to explore her own usefulness, as a writer, in the face of an apocalyptic event. "It's so scary, what's happening," she says. "You feel obliged to write about it and have it at the back of your head all the time." 

Gregory is the last to read an extract, his offering being a pastiche of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, his choice for the debate after the break. Others that were raised ranged from George Orwell's 1984 and William Golding's The Inherited to Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne and The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. Gregory holds aloft his copy of Beacons. "I want this book to start a conversation," he says, and I think, going on tonight's event, it already has.

You can read another interview with Beacons editor Gregory Norminton, written by Marc Hudson on the Manchester Climate Monthly site, where a full list of the books that changed our audience's world will be published shortly and where you can find out full details of their new short story competition.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Sustainable storytelling

Interview by Sarah-Clare Conlon. Photograph by Kezia Tan.

Manchester Literature Festival collaborates with various cultural associations and artists on special projects throughout the year, and we're very excited to see the fruition of one of these for 2013 with the launch tomorrow of short story collection Beacons: Stories For Our Not So Distant Future. Here, we chat to Beacons (Oneworld Publications) editor Gregory Norminton about the book and the special event at our official partner venue, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, tomorrow at 6.30pm (free entry; click here for full details; follow @beacons_stories for more via Twitter).

MLF: Could you give us a brief outline of the book?
GN: Back in 2007, when the idea for Beacons first came to me, very few literary writers were engaging with the ecological crisis. This was left to genre fiction, notably science fiction. Now I love good SF, but we are talking about an existential challenge to the basic assumptions of our civilisation: if mainstream writers can't get to grips with it, what use are we? I'm not talking about activism in prose  that is always deadly for good writing. But a literature that blinds itself to the truth is pure decadence. Anyway, seeing a dearth of fiction engaged with climate change, and having sought ways of addressing it in my own writing, I decided to throw down the gauntlet to my peers and betters. When a society faces upheaval, it looks for fresh narratives to help makes sense of events. Statistics cannot motivate us as stories can, yet where are the George Orwells, the Aldous Huxleys and William Morrises of the ecological crisis? Along with Mike Robinson, then chair of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, I set about recruiting enough writers to put together a collection of original stories responding to the challenge. It has taken years to get to the point where I can now caress and coo over a finished book, but the effort has paid off. Beacons consists of 21 short stories that attempt, in a splendid diversity of ways, to help us imagine what we so often fear to look at. As a bonus to contributors and readers, author royalties go to the Stop Climate Coalition.

MLF: How did you get so many critically acclaimed and well-respected authors involved?
GN: By a combination of tenacity and low-level harassment. In the first year of the project, I wrote to over one hundred British authors. (We decided to limit ourselves to this country, though there are wonderful writers abroad who are ahead of us in the field.) One famous author sent me vitriol for being a 'warmist'; many expressed sympathy for the project but declined to contribute; enough were willing to lend their names if it would improve our chances of finding a publisher. Short stories are a hard sell. We needed some big names to drive the thing forward; and we got lucky, because as it transpired, many writers were wrestling with our all-encompassing theme: wrestling as writers, but also as citizens, since none of us can retreat to an oasis, or into internal exile, from the degradation of the biosphere. In my experience, fiction writers are a surprisingly generous lot, capable of interspecies solidarity, and often ready to give of their creativity where money is lacking. We have a fine collection of writers in Beacons  from rising talents like Tom Bullough, Nick Hayes, Holly Howitt and James Miller to established names like Joanne Harris, Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway, Toby Litt, Lawrence Norfolk and Adam Thorpe. All are equals on the page – and in their generosity.

MLF: The anthology is divided into three parts - what are these, and what do they signify?
GN: You need some kind of structure to a collection of stories. What this would be, of course, depended on the flavour and content of the stories as they were delivered. I had the idea of dividing the book into three sections (few things more pleasing than a triad) which, taken together, would imply a thematic journey. Each section of the book takes its title from an epigraph: the words of an astronaut, a Native American chief and a poet respectively. But I think I will leave questions of interpretation and significance to the reader.

MLF: Tell us about the illustrations.
GN: I wanted the book to have a particular visual flavour. Once the impossibly talented Nick Hayes was on board to contribute a 'graphic story', it seemed a great idea to commission Nick to design the cover and the artwork. And so it has proved. Beacons looks like nothing else on the book tables in our dwindling bookshops. I hope this will encourage punters to pick it up and buy it.

MLF: The event is a collaboration between the Manchester Writing School at MMU, Manchester Literature Festival and Steady State Manchester - how did that come about?
GN: I have the good fortune of being employed as a lecturer at the Manchester Writing School. As a result, James Draper, our enterprising manager, offered to sponsor the launch at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. This means we can let people in for free! As for Steady State Manchester, it was they who proposed a joint launch with Beacons, and who, over several meetings with myself and Cathy Bolton of the Manchester Literature Festival, came up with the idea of an interactive event. If that sounds intriguing, you will have to come on Thursday to learn more.

MLF: What is the involvement of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition?
GN: Stop Climate Chaos is an umbrella organisation made of pressure groups, churches and charities dedicated to action on climate change and limiting its impact on the world’s poorest communities. It was instrumental in getting Climate Change Acts passed at Westminster and Holyrood. Mike Robinson, who wrote our afterword, was the chair of the Scotland branch when I began work on the project, and, for reasons too complex to go into here, his support has been essential for its realisation. Some of the bigger NGOs in the coalition are promoting and selling the book to their supporters. Thanks to SCC, we hope to reach a wider readership than short stories commonly enjoy. In return, it is only fair to send our author royalties back to help their future campaigns.

MLF: Is climate change and sustainability still / was it ever an agenda-changing issue in light of other global problems, such as recession, terrorism, poverty, etc?
GN: It is, alas, the envelope that contains all of the above. Resource depletion and extreme weather mean hunger, economic decline, poverty and conflict. In one sense, our climate crisis is a symptom of an unsustainable mode of collective being. This makes addressing it hugely inconvenient to vested interests. Hence the well-financed efforts by those interests to discredit those who are issuing the alarm. It is true that media attention on climate change has dwindled, and I see a growing ideological resistance both to the science and to the policies we need to respond to it. There are a lot of very seductive lies in our culture for the moment: that the problem doesn't exist, that it isn't as serious as 'alarmists' pretend, that ecologists are all Commies trying to take away our freedoms. Countering these lies is difficult, given that the truth is highly unpalatable.

MLF: How can literature change the world?
GN: I don't know that it can  for the better. For every George Orwell warning us about threats to society, there is an Ayn Rand leaking poison into its bloodstream. Individuals can be awakened by great literature  it is one of the tools for consciousness at our disposal  but I have few illusions that a collection of short stories can alter much. This is not a reason for quiescence. We may be going down, but let's not do so meekly, if you please.

MLF: Is the launch deliberately timed to coincide with Climate Week?
GN: Yes. We need all the help we can get, and so does Climate Week: a valiant attempt to return the crisis to the foreground of our distracted culture.

MLF: Could you tell us a bit more about the launch event at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation tomorrow.
GN: I will be hosting and reading from the book, alongside two of its contributing writers, Clare Dudman and Rodge Glass. The event is free, with books on sale at a discount. Steady State Manchester will lead a shared conversation about books that have inspired change or action in their readers. It will be an interactive evening, a celebration of the power of story to waken our inner selves. It should be fascinating. I just hope my wretched cold will have eased off before Thursday!

MLF: Thanks, Gregory. We'll be posting a review of the event on the MLF blog later this week...

Gregory Norminton is the author of four novels - The Ship of Fools, Arts and Wonders, Ghost Portrait and Serious Things - as well as a book of aphorism, The Lost Art of Losing, and two collections of short stories to be published later this year. He teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and lives with his wife Emma in a Quaker community in the Peak District.