In The Spotlight Ashley Stokes
How quickly the weeks fly and it’s that time to introduce you to another talent. You may have read my review of his latest book, but now for a closer look at the person behind it. I met Ashley last year at the launch of Unthology 3 in his other role as an editor and now I’d like to introduce him to all of you …
Welcome to the Spotlight, can you tell us something about you …
I’m a novelist, short story writer and co-editor of the short fiction journal Unthology. My first novel Touching the Starfish was published by Unthank Books in 2010 and I’ve had twenty or so short stories appear in journals or anthologies, including Fleeting, Warwick Review and London Magazine. I teach creative writing for my corn, for the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. I’m also a long-time editor and mentor for The Literary Consultancy and have worked on over 800 projects; sometimes with writers like John Fullerton, Mischa Hiller and Nick Tausig. I’m originally from Carshalton in Surrey but have lived in Norwich for fifteen years. I studied Modern History at St Anne’s College, Oxford and Creative Writing at UEA.
What inspires you? What do you like to read?
I’m inspired to write by impulse, images and extreme ideas (and black russians). I usually have far more ideas for stories than I could ever write, and as such it’s the ones that survive a gestation period that end up becoming realized. I almost never have an idea today and rush headlong into it. I like to brood beforehand, sometimes for years. Sometimes things that have happened to me that fit a form I can warp or transform, but you run out of those. I can be directly informed by an image I’ve stared at until something starts to come alive, or a passage in another text contains something I’d like to explore further or animate or interrogate in some way. In The Syllabus, the story Marmara was inspired by a Joan Miro painting and then a story briefly mentioned in David Seabrooks’ All the Devils are Here. I tend to find that writing a story is like charging up a magnet. Once you’ve settled on an idea, all sorts of iron filings and swarf will attach to it.
I have very catholic and omnivorous reading tastes and being a compulsive book buyer I always have more things around than I can read. As such, I have to have a system in which I read three novels, three collections, then three non-fiction books. I go in phases. I like mining themes or authors. I read a lot of history, too especially inter-war history and art history. I don’t read much contemporary British fiction, though I did love Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorne and Child. I’ve just discovered Joseph Roth and am getting very excited about the prospect of reading all of his books.
Have you always wanted to be a published writer?
I did want to be a writer from an early age, though for a long time I thought it was something I couldn’t do. I’d also wanted to be an historian and this sidetracked me for a while. Once I did start to write, when I was twenty-five I became hooked quickly, as soon as I’d had a tiny bit of encouragement. Writing is a state of mind and a way of life, rather than a career, but once I was underway I knew that nothing else made sense, despite the risks. Quite quickly after I’d started I was fortunate enough to have short pieces published (mainly in magazines that should have lasted longer). I had two very near misses in the nineties, novels that were rejected at the last meeting, or the publisher changed their mind, and then finally I had one accepted by Unthank. Unthank Books was founded in the first instance to publish an agent’s fiction list that included Touching the Starfish. I was lucky really, in the right place at the right time.
Do you have an agent?
I do have an agent and have had two others. This is an unorthodox arrangement as my agent is now my publisher, but it’s a Wild West frontier, punk publishing scene at the moment, now that the old publishing model has collapsed (it’s simple really: 50% of cover price goes on distribution; if retailers discount by 60% everyone loses; reinstate the Net Book Agreement and only crap writers and Amazon, who don’t even pay any tax, lose out). All of the agents I’ve had I either met socially when I wasn’t looking for one, or I was recommended to by someone I didn’t ask to do so. As such, I don’t really have any advice beyond realizing that you do really have to click with your agent and agree on what you want to achieve. They do only get a nub of the nub that you’re paid; so both of you need to be in it together.
Do you belong to a writing group? Crit group? Have you had someone professionally critique your work before submitting or publishing?
I don’t belong to a writing group, though when I first started out I had a brilliant apprenticeship in the Lindsay Clarke Workshop. I do sometimes share a story with a writing friend, or just a friend who might enjoy it. Most of my work I share with my agent, actually, who is very good at feeding-back and marking-up. I’ve never paid anyone to look at my work. I edit manuscripts and run workshops for a living, so it would seem odd to do so. However, if you’re a first timer or just don’t know what you’ve got, I think it is a very valuable to pay for a report if the criticism is honest and attuned to what you are trying to do.
Did you have your book accepted by a traditional publisher?
Well, as I said above, mine was the first book on the first list of a new publisher, so a little unusual. I think I told my dad first. I can’t actually remember. It was such a step into the unknown that I didn’t know what was going to happen.
What happened next? What was the editing process like and how long did it take?
The book was in a pretty good state, bar a few typos that crept through in the first edition. It was ready to go, really, and I just handed it over to the team. It didn’t take long. I’ve spent far more time on pre-production editing on the new book.
How much marketing have you had to do and how have book sales been?
We actually didn’t do enough advance marketing on Touching the Starfish, something that has been rectified at Unthank as the list has grown. The sales were, ultimately, what you’d expect for a small press book, and it still sells. I can’t complain.
Tell us about the latest book …
My latest adventure is The Syllabus of Errors, Or Twelve Stories of Obsession, Loss and Getting in a State, a sequence of stories, mostly contemporary but with three experiments in historical fiction. The subtitle says it all, I hope, in terms of its feel. It’s quite intertextual, in that the stories do play off one another without it being an ‘overlapping collection’ or there being a chronology. If there’s an underlying vibration in the book it’s that the neurotic energy of the Twenties is resurfacing now. I explore this through moments in the lives of some lost souls: a shell-shocked soldier in Berlin in 1919, a failed Hitler scholar whose tracked his first, unrequited love down on a social networking site and a young artist in Mussolini’s Rome sucked into a Fascist assassination plot because of his love of Modernist art. It is a little difficult to sum up, but that is the way I like it.
You can read the Introduction, written by David Rose on my website: www.ashleystokes.net
The book is available from the Unthank Books website both as a paperback and Kindle: http://www.unthankbooks.com/node/50
The paperback can be ordered directly from Unthank for £10 inclusive of postage, or £13 signed, or with Touching the Starfish for £25. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What next? Tell us about work in progress and aspirations. Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
I am writing a second short story book at the moment, which is more of a straightforward collection. It has the working title of The Susceptibles and will contain stories I’ve recently published in Unthology, Fleeting and Warwick Review. After that I’m hoping to write a novel set in Berlin during the Inflation. I thought I was done with Berlin in The Syllabus, but it keeps pulling me back. In ten years time I’d like to be editing Unthology No.13. As for my own work, I can’t tell. Maybe I will have stopped. Maybe I won’t.
Any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published?
Write what only you could write.
Tell us something random about you for the pure hell of it.
In ‘Earthly Powers’, Anthony Burgess has his novelist protagonist Toomey say that Mussolini had written The Cardinal’s Daugher, a novel at least as good as any of his own. I feel like Toomey most days.
Finally: can we post an extract of your book?
Yes this is from the first story …
At the railings the boy with the case was still mauling the red headed girl in
the red baseball cap. This time Grant noticed her knuckles. They stood out
like the spine of a fish as she gripped the boy’s cheek. His arm was stuffed
up her green vest top and when his elbow jerked the hem of the vest lifted.
Each time Grant walked by the vest had ridden up a little higher. At this rate
it would be over her face by the time he next came round. He laughed at
this. He had to laugh at something and turned back to face Eros once more.
The steps were flush with girls: girls in mini-dresses, girls who fanned
themselves with thick magazines and others who stared at the sky as if
something there stared back. There were plenty of the girls with Oompa-
Loompa spray-on tans and boyfriends slathered with brand names. At the
language school in Berlin where he taught Grant called these proliferating
trans-global types the Loomparettes and the Adverts. It felt peculiar not
to have their attention now, Mr Woods, the English teacher with his word
games and conversational exercises and what V called his so English
English. He was starting to sweat so paused in the shade of the statue. Still
no sign of V.
She should have been here three-quarters of an hour ago, but she’d
never visited London before and the sheer density of the crowds funnelling
through the West End disorientated even him. In sixteen years he’d come
back to England only for funerals and on those occasions spent no time in
London. The city appeared transformed and disrupted. The Far Eastern
futurist style of the new, high-rise buildings unnerved him, as did the
strange North American atmosphere at street level. Every second shop
was now a coffee shop and every coffee shop was the same coffee shop.
He might easily lose his bearings, so a perfectly understandable problem
could be delaying V. Her map-reading skills may have let her down. There
was overcrowding on the ‘U-train’ as she called it, or she’d left her mobile
somewhere, or deleted his number by mistake or misunderstood the
arrangement. He had called her five times already and left two voicemails.
A feeling congealed in his gut. The Germans have a word for this feeling.
They call it ahnen: a sensation that something is wrong without knowledge
of its cause. The Germans have as many words for anxiety as the English
have for horrible people. When he’d once explained this to V she’d giggled
so much she spilt great splashes of red wine on his floor.
He found a space on the lowest step between a Loomparette and her
Advert. V liked these words as well. She said she enjoyed learning all of the
silly names he gave to things and people. It thrilled him that she liked the
way he spoke and what he did for a living and didn’t like his oldest friend
Alex call him an ‘underpaid lingo gypsy’. Since arriving back in London,
four days ago now, he had missed that sense in Berlin that he was creating
a private language with V. Kicking around in Alex’s spare flat this morning,
waiting for the time when he could leave for their rendezvous on the steps,
he admitted to himself that the shilly-shallying was over.
At the railings the long thin case slithered from the boy’s shoulder. It
dangled from his elbow, twirling as he now put both his hands up inside
the green vest. Her spiny knuckles flexed as she massaged the seat of his
tracksuit bottoms. The strap then slipped over the boy’s elbow towards his
wrist. The end of the case clunked on the pavement.
Grant wondered what was in the case. Maybe a collapsible snooker cue.
The boy did not look like a snooker player, though he might be a pool
player. Maybe earlier he’d fleeced some ageing hotshot and was celebrating
here with Knuckles, his beguiling muse. They were existentialists. They
went from town to town and lived in cheap hotels with names like Zodiac
Heights or The Magic Mountain. They would head out straight from the
statue of love at the heart of the city to where the desert meets the ocean
and the breakers roll like satin on the ancient sands. Or perhaps they had
simply hooked up in a pool hall. Her eyes swam into view in the glass
front of a vending machine. He bought her a Twix and it was life without
compromise thereafter. Maybe he’d wagered his soul for her hand in a
green-baize showdown with a locksmith called Flinty ‘The Octopus’ Ray.
He’d not been inside a pool hall since he’d last lived in London. After
they graduated he shared an unheated flat with Alex for six months. During
that summer, before Alex became the sort of bloke he is now, with two
properties in London and a holiday home in Umbria, the trader, bespokesuit
and bonus-flush Alex who Grant imagined was at this moment high up
in one of those Far Eastern futurist buildings but wishing he was down here
in the Circus waiting for a Russian girl with a beautiful name and beautiful
eyes and a lovely turn of phrase, and despite being from Berkhampstead
and educated at Oundle public school and Churchill College, Cambridge
and whose father was Britain’s ambassador to Indonesia Alex decided to
make his living by trouncing the peasants at pool. He wasted his days in a
spider hole of a venue behind London Bridge station that went by the name
of the 4Play. To reach the required standard, he said, all he needed to do was
crack the jargon and spit like a player. Vicariously Grant discovered that a
pool hall has a food chain of ‘algae’, ‘guppies’, ‘fish’ and ‘sharks’, that there
were ‘ghost balls’, and ‘bait shots’ and something called ‘riding the nine’,
that a ball with a bit of spin was an ‘English’. Eventually Alex gave up the
gig, man, because he’d been trousered by too many handcuff artists with
names like The Cockman or Double Geegees. Meanwhile, Grant decided
to do something useful with his talents and decamped to St Petersburg
to teach English to newly liberated surgeons and electrical engineers. He
thought of Alex trying to put a bit of “English’ on a white ball and laughed
quietly to himself despite the crushingly heavy sensation hardening in the
pit of his stomach. When he became aware of someone standing in front
of him the sensation started to lift.
The vest girl wore at least three silverish rings on each of her fingers that
rode up against the knuckles. Grant couldn’t tell how old she was. The cap
was pulled over her eyes. The boy was late-teens at most, shaven-headed
and seemed to have far too many plates and ridges in his skull. His tracksuit
bottoms, a stylish white affair with navy blue piping had a great mass of
unravelling cotton spilling out from one of the pockets.
‘You well bate, blood,’ said the boy, separating his fingers and stabbing
his thumb upwards.
‘Pardon?’ said Grant. As he stood up it crossed his mind that back in
Alex’s unforgiving pool hall world this one’s opening shot would have been
a ‘Reverse English’.
‘You want a piece you step up, standard?’ said the Reverse English.
‘Standard what?’ said Grant. ‘Standard lamp? Standard Oil? The Standard
Model of Particle Physics?’
‘You done now, blood, I’s banking.’
‘I think there’s been a misunderstanding here,’ said Grant. ‘I think there’s
something that you need to have a quiet think about, so I’m going to walk
away to let you do that.’
He checked around for V and then strode briskly towards Leicester
Square. He would cross by the Angus Steak House and track back to the
steps. The Reverses would move off. They would go for a Happy Meal or
get horny again and make a baby called Tupac or Fing. A brood of black
cabs made a buzzing sound as he waited at the crossing for the lights to
change. Then the heat of the day seemed to press down on him. He wished
he’d punched the exhibitionist little twat’s lights out. Something came back
to him. Being fourteen, fifteen. Kids like the Reverse English rolling their
shoulders across a pedestrianized area after the bad film had ended. Their
bones and baseball caps and the low-voltage slappers they impressed.
By the time he actually made it to the other side of the road he’d told
himself that this language was a dead language. He was nearly forty years
old. He did not live there any more. He did not even live here. He knew that
any sort of altercation always fired him up. In the moment he did the adult
thing, but afterwards wished he’d acted with certainty and force. He paused
under some arches and asked himself what Alex would have done. Alex
would have threatened to sue them. He would have shouted in their faces
that he lives in Blackheath and is a yellow belt in karate. Grant sniggered
and was about to wander back to the steps when he noticed something
oblong and slender poking up from behind the people filing across the
zebra: the Reverse English’s cue case.
He tried to walk away towards Eros
Copyright Ashley Stokes, Unthank Books reproduced with kind permission of the author
Thank you so much Ashley for sharing and peops — do feel free to comment! Next week we welcome to the spotlight author Patsy Collins
Have a great day everyone!