Category Archives: Unthank Books

Opening Windows With The Short Story Form

After some twenty short stories being published in collections since 2008, the biggest feeling of accomplishment came when my debut novel While No One Was Watching was finally published in 2013, nine years and one MA after deciding to be a serious writer. It was  finally something all in my name and the thing I had been working towards. But it would not have happened without the short story. This is why I have a lot to thank it for and why I still write short stories; although fewer now, there are still some out there trying their luck and still ideas I can’t wait to develop.

The short story form for me is this perfect thing; if you get the voice right; deepen the characters enough and capture life in those few words you can shape the story into something that didn’t exist before — and within a relatively short space of time. It’s incredibly satisfying.

I am probably most proud of three short stories (so far including the one I’ve just written, right?) — the first one ever to be good enough to be published in 2008 and that was Jigsaw. I was in the middle of working on a novel (with a lot to learn about writing) when this child’s voice entered my head and I was compelled to write it. I was nothing like anything I’d written before and I was thrilled when Bridge House Publishing (who I didn’t work for back then) chose it and it inspired the cover. What a feeling that was.

A string of success later (and rejections naturally) I wrote something while studying for my MA, but not as an assignment as an experiment in contemporary story-telling and that was The Theory Of Circles, which I have talked about here before. The faceless/genderless voyeur social media obsessed narrator in a story reporting on the goings-on on a crescent in a nameless place; but reading backward the way you scroll blogs. But of course, I had to make certain it still flowed forward for the reader in terms of story. Quite a challenge. I knew conventional publishers and competitions would pass on it but had been seeing a lot about innovative short story publisher Unthank Books. So I targeted them and waited.That wait was rewarded and the story was published in Unthology 3 back in 2012. I was even more thrilled when the publisher nominated the story for the prestigious US Pushcart Prize.

So more short story successes later ( a few short lists and anthology acceptances), between the novel writing and I saw Learning to Fly win the Bath Short Story Award; another young voice, but an important theme, coping with grief but with humour.  This story, with some autobiographical elements, is one I was so proud of — so did the dance when it won! I celebrated that night at a Bon Jovi concert and wow. They even had a tea-party in my honour in Bath (not Bon Jovi!) but the lovely ladies at the Bath Short Story Award.

Of course amongst these stories are some yet to find homes and others that made it onto prestigious short lists that I hope will find homes: namely Mirror Image that I long to adapt into a novel (short listed in the Aeon Prize in 2010) and Chutney that was short listed in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013 and is the current work in progress having been adapted into a novel.

While No One Was Watching as you may also know was adapted from a short story.

So it’s clear how important short story writing has been for me, in three key ways: the first in teaching me how to write, to experiment, to develop and to grow (and you learn faster and get the satisfaction faster with this shorter form). The second  being that some short stories get bigger and inspire development into a novel. And thirdly, the more I write them, it seems the more the ideas fall from the sky. So ideas seem to be around me all the time and some get scribbled on bits of note paper… and when I am between drafts of novels beg to be written. Once I finish Chutney I plan to write a few more.

When I was thinking about moving back to my home town over the past two or three years I wrote ny first short story set on Canvey Island about a group pf friends meeting at Canvey sea wall after the wake of one of their friends, Adam. I called it Open Windows; which has more than one meaning, but the main theme is making the time for people while you still can. Something happened to Adam when he was thirteen and he got stuck. He is the real boy who never grew up.

The story was selected for another Unthank books Unthology and I got to hold a hot off the press copy in my hands yesterday! Don’t you love the smell of fresh ink! This book is officially released on June 20th. There will be copies at the London Short Story Festival Unthology event that I plan to pop along to and say hi to the lovely Ashley and Robin. And its official launch event is June 25th in Norwich where I, and others, will be giving readings.

While this might be something like publication success number 20, or 21 (which is an odd but humbling thing and to lose count!), and it might be that we all strive for that next novel success (and trust me I do) but we must never negate any success, and to be alongside such a calibre of writers in Unthology 7 is indeed a thing to feel very humble about and feel very grateful for. I am immensely proud to be in another of their collections. Thanks for choosing it Unthank Books.

I will post a small excerpt of Open Windows tomorrow.

Wave your banner BIG and PROUD for the short story form, and thank the publishers for keeping the stories out there…

Happy Wednesday folks!

I hope to invite some of the other unthologists onto the blog to talk about their writing and their stories, so watch this space… and there will be photos and a post about the launch of course!

Unthology 7 coverOrder from Amazon, release date June 20…






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In The Spotlight: Guest Blog by Sharon Zink

I met Sharon when we our short stories were published in Unthology 3 by Unthank Books and I was at the launch in Norwich. We since made Facebook a place to hang out and I very much look forward to a weekend in Brighton this weekend where she launches her debut novel — also published by Unthank Books. She is a literary writer and like me tends to write very American novels (so there is a kindred spirit there) — so I will be reporting on her launch, but I wanted to introduce you to her first by inviting her to the spotlight now her book is released!

So without further ado, please give a warm welcome to Sharon Zink … (pause of raucous applause!)

In the Spotlight …

spotlightoj-md                                                                                              …    Sharon Zink


Author Sharon Zink

Author Sharon Zink

Have you always wanted to be a published writer? Tell us something about your path to having your first book/story/poem published or your most recent success.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about five, scribbling stories and even an autobiography (weird kid that I was!) on the top step of the stairs. I was lucky to know what my calling was from an early age and even luckier that I had mentors who encouraged me to pursue my dreams. I dedicated my first novel, Welcome to Sharonville, partly to Bryan Ricketts, a brilliant English teacher who helped a messed up teenager become Young Poet of the Year and get my first collection, Rain in the Upper Floor Café, published when I was seventeen.

The transition from being a baby poet to a grown up one was hard though and so, once I went to university, I got caught in the grip of becoming an academic and creative writing was set aside for pretty much a decade. Bryan and I continued to correspond and he was proud of my studies, but he said to be once in a letter, “You should write” – meaning, real stuff, poems, stories. He sadly died before I started writing fiction – something I never imagined I’d ever do – but I hope he is happy now the novel is being published. I’m pretty sure he has been meddling from on high to make it happen!

My fiction writing journey is one of paradoxes really – of early successes and great luck (as with the poetry), followed by years of work and waiting. I was incredibly fortunate that the first ever story I wrote, “Lobsters” – which you can read on my website – won me the Writers Inc. Writer of the Year title and was published in their winners’ anthology. My novel, Welcome to Sharonville sprang from that story and there was a flurry of excitement as I nearly got taken on by an agent when the manuscript was only 100 pages long. But then – as is the way with my life (and probably every one else’s!) – lots of things happened which dented my confidence. Things unrelated to writing – such as multiple bereavements and falling ill with M.E. – and other more literary struggles, such as my uncertainty about dealing with the book’s opening chapter and rejections from agents, which finally led to me putting the book into a virtual drawer for a few years.

I completed my second novel (which is currently ‘resting’ and may stay that way!), but when I met Jacqui Lofthouse, the novelist and writing coach, she forced me to let her look at Sharonville (as it was titled then). I remember my relief and absolute joy when she rang me and said, “It’s brilliant! This is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in years!”  She instantly breathed life back into a project I’d felt was permanently dead. After that, she began submitting to agents for me as a scout and I gathered courage and approached a few myself and had various near misses, plus the book was even shortlisted in the 2011 Mslexia Novel Competition out of 4000 entries. It was hard to face the rejections, but I told myself that I was getting mostly personal responses (which is unusual in the agent’s world of standard letters) and that near misses meant I was getting nearer  – but then I tried Unthank Books – the first independent publisher I’d approached – and they took the novel!

I felt like it was the perfect home for the book because of its reputation for literary fiction, but also because one of its founders, Ashley Stokes, had critiqued the first draft of the novel years before and had been so enthusiastic and positive about me completing it. I’m a writer and love symmetry, so this circling from the beginning to the end of this novel’s journey really tickles me.

Did that journey involve an agent? If not did you try to get one? Any advice about that?

As Unthank Books is a small press, I didn’t need an agent to get my novel published and this seems to be the way many first time authors get their break. Independent houses are often more willing to take risks on newcomers and those whose work doesn’t fit well with the standard genres. Because of this, I think the independent houses perform a really valid role in terms of allowing innovative writing to find readers who are still hungry for something different and often challenging. The success of many writers from small publishers in recent awards, such as the Baileys, attests to the quality of the books they are producing.

I managed to find a publisher before an agent and it does often seem like it is as hard, if not more so, to find an agent than a book deal due to the increasingly cautious nature of the publishing industry and the sheer number of writers trying to get a book out. Although I would really like a great agent and a conventional publishing deal as it’s the dream of most authors, I also write primarily to be read, so if it is a case of having an agent, but my book never seeing publication (as has been the case with several of my writer friends’ work), I would rather go to the small houses and keep getting my novels out there in people’s hands.

As a literary consultant, as well as a novelist, I would say if you are serious about getting an agent or publishing through one of the small houses, you really need to make sure your work is tip top – I’d strongly recommend hiring an editor to look at your book and the submission package. Agents and publishers are very busy people, so you only get one shot at success – don’t give them reasons to reject you due to rooky errors.

Do or did you ever belong to a writing group? Crit group? Did you ever have someone professionally critique your work before first submitting? Or do you have friends or anyone else who sees it before you send it off? Has that changed since you became a ‘successful author’?

I am a bit of a lone wolf and so haven’t really even been part of an ongoing writing group – I have attended some wonderful courses over the years though which changed my perspective, such as one at City Lit in London which made me realise that, though I was 55,000 words into my first novel, I didn’t have a plot! (Even after doing an English Literature Ph.D.!)

Generally though, I like to beaver away in privacy and then show my work to people I trust, such as well-read friends and literary consultants. Jacqui Lofthouse has been invaluable to me as she offers much-needed ego strokes for the stuff which is good, but she also challenges me when my work could be improved.

I was lucky enough to have two Arts Council Free Reads for Welcome to Sharonville and one for my second novel and would really recommend people look into that scheme as critiques can be very expensive and this scheme allows authors to access editorial advice for free or at cut price. I honestly think no one should attempt publishing – whether self-publishing or through traditional channels – without a good structural and copy edit.

Who did you first tell when you heard your first book/story had been accepted?

I can’t remember who I told about my poetry collection as that was a while back, but I screamed so loud when I got the email saying Unthank were taking my book that my cat, Muse, ran away, looking horrified!!And then I texted all my lovely friends who kept me going through the years I was waiting for this to happen and danced to “The Eye of the Tiger” (complete with hand moves). Yeah, I know.

What happened next? Can you tell us something about working with an editor? How important is that to you now – is there a lot of discussion and does the editor make a real difference to your work?

The main reason I didn’t want to self-publish is because I wanted to work with an editor and learn from that process. Even though I am an editor myself, with my own writing, I can’t see the wood from the trees, so it was good to have Robin Jones at Unthank go through the book and pick up the points where the writing could be polished. I was lucky that the novel had been critiqued by multiple people before it reached the publication stage, so a lot of the roughest edges had already been sanded down, but Robin really got the vision I had for the book and was able to put it in words in a way I never could and I gained so much from that. It wasn’t until he described my novel as being “nuanced psychological fiction” that I realised how much of my writing is about the workings of the human heart – that is a hugely important insight to be given after over a decade of writing!

Tell us something about your writing day, routine.

I wish I had a routine, but generally, life and my health issues mean I seem to work more as a “binge” writer these days. I tend to write loads at one sitting or in a few days and then pause for a while. I’d like to get back into a more regular writing pattern though as I think it helps keep your style even and generate more ideas as your mind is constantly focussed on one project. I find afternoons the best time for me as I’m more awake. I am very fortunate and have a seaview from the desk in my new flat, so I’m looking forward to settling down there and getting books three and four finished after the summer’s promotional events are over. They’re exciting though, so I can’t complain!

What or who inspires you most? Any particular people, authors, books?

It’s hard to single out one book really, but I am mainly inspired by American literary fiction – I would love to be mentored by Richard Ford as he’s a genius and was totally lovely to me when we met not long after I’d finished the first draft of my first book. I also adore Paul Auster, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx – I could go on all day!

I also find myself really inspired by music, TV and movies. I find scenes coming to me from song lines – Aimee Mann’s “It’s Not” inspired the ending of the first chapter in my novel, for instance, but David Lynch also deeply affected the book as I worshipped Twin Peaks and just adore his quirky take on the world in general. I often use art as prompts in my creative writing workshops, so sometimes I will look at paintings or photographs and see characters or scenes appearing in them. Images can be helpful to me in terms of generating the atmosphere of a setting and are one of the most fun parts of research.

I think all the art forms can enrich each other though, even if only in terms of allowing us a sense of belonging. I remember being amazed when I heard Talking Heads and seeing David Byrne as I suddenly knew I was part of this bigger creative family, that I wasn’t the only weirdo in the world!

I’ve always been fascinated by Marilyn Monroe for her beautiful vulnerability too – an aspect most artists need, but which makes life harder too – and Madonna for her absolute determination. She’s been very important to me in terms of the way she conveys the sense that anything is possible if you work at it – something you have to believe if you are going to work in the arts, where rejection and self-doubt are rife.

Why do you write? (Now that’s the question!) What do you want your stories to do?

Because I love words and the worlds created by them and I can’t imagine not doing it now. I could give up most things except writing.

I also write because I want to touch people with my work in the way that others’ books have touched me. Literature – especially poetry – has had a profound effect on the way I view life and helps me cope with its darker aspects, as well as bringing humour and enjoyment. If my novel could do that for one person, all the work will have been worthwhile.

How much marketing have you had to do? How comfortable are you with self-promotion?

Unthank Books provided me with a marketing assistant to help me with the legwork thankfully, but all writers – even my friends who write bestsellers – are expected to do the lion’s share of the promotional work. I’ve been very active in terms of working on the creation of websites, my new blog, The Book Diner, where I interview authors, arranging the making of the book trailer and organising the Brighton book launch and so on. I don’t think any of us is really that comfortable – at least at first – about pushing our books on social media and in other ways, but people are usually very generous when you have a big project coming out and tend to bear with you! I’ve had tremendous support from friends and others in the writing community and that makes this busy time easier.  It’s a steep learning curve as, like most writers, I don’t come from a marketing background, but I’m actually enjoying finding out more about it all and I know that, through this process, I will hopefully be much better prepared when my second novel comes out.

Tell us about the latest published work …

My debut novel, Welcome to Sharonville,  was published on June 15th —  it basically explores what happens when a young History professor, Toni Sorrentino, crashes her pickup in the Arizona desert a few days after 9/11 and the big secrets which come out in her small desert home town of Sharonville as a result.

What next? Tell us about work in progress and aspirations. Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?

I’m currently writing my next two novels – Empiness, a literary thriller about female astronauts I was lucky enough to research at NASA, and Low Tide, a bit of seaside-set literary noir, involving mental illness, destructive relationships and a murder on a beach.

I have no idea where I will be in ten years’ time, but I would hope I’d have published a few more novels by then and found a lot of lovely readers. I hope I’m travelling the world, having adventures, surrounded by love and being happy.  I’d love to win the Bailey’s Prize as it’s a prize I really respect, but we’ll see!

Any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published?

Don’t listen to the odds, don’t listen to the naysayers, don’t send out novels to the industry before they’ve really gone through the editorial mill. Find literary consultants or literary friends who are prepared to challenge your work as well as praise. Enter competitions to help get your work noticed. Seek out a mentor who is ahead on the path and can shout back advice about the hurdles of the writing life. Treasure role models who make you feel hopeful – they can be rock stars or movie actors, but just find figures who inspire you with what is possible as a creative person. Tell yourself good things are going to happen for you artistically. Tell yourself good things are going to happen for you all over as everything is connected to your writing. Envision your victories ahead of time. See yourself succeeding in your mind – it works! Get back up after every rejection or bitchy review – expect them to come and develop a non-stick coating! Don’t let the winds of praise and blame, which the Buddha discussed, define you too much – don’t depend on external success. It’s hard not to look for validation and books are meant to be read, but the writing is the main thing always – love that process and everything else won’t get to you so much. And read, read, read – without knowing how others have pulled it off, you will find it hard to learn your craft yourself. Some people light a candle or pray before writing – rituals are helpful. Do anything to make yourself feel as safe as possible as then you’ll take more creative risks.

Tell us something random about you for the pure hell of it …

My family see ghosts – they’re like something out of a Marquez magic realist novel. My gran used to tell me how she’d told my long-gone grandfather about my school reports as if it was completely normal. That’s why one of the characters in Welcome to Sharonville, the Chinese American lingerie maker, Happiness Chong, is a ghost-seer – I had to do something with that craziness! I feel blessed to have grown up in such an interesting family – a writer needs that. My grandmother was an incredible storyteller and a lot of her tales are in the book. I just hope she is proud of me.

Which of your characters would you most like to be friends with and why?

I adore Uncle Franco, the central character in Welcome to Sharonville, as he’s basically a non-violent Tony Soprano – a huge Italian teddy bear of a man with self-esteem issues, an eating problem and enough guilt, as Tori Amos would say, to start his own religion. I love his compassion, warmth and loyalty to those he loves – loyalty is something I value highly in the people I care about and I know Franco would offer that, even if he’s prone to anger and impulsive actions. (I know it’s bad, but whaddyagonnado?)

Can we have a taster of your novel?

Of course!

Opening of Welcome to Sharonville …

Toni tapped her pickup’s cherry Kool-Aid-colored hood twice in greeting: her hand flew back, bitten by a coyote heat. Three months in New York had made her forget the egg-frying-on-the-sidewalk mood of late summer Las Vegas. She sucked on her stinging fingers and yanked the Redsmobile’s door wide with her still good limb, the enclosed heat smacking into her face like an opened umbrella. Clambering across the seat, she wound down the passenger window and set her backpack on the floor, before standing with the door ajar for a few moments, letting the truck breathe, letting herself breathe, though the difference between inside and outside was between Venus and the Sun.

She hadn’t driven for a long while, but, once seated, the pickup’s large white wheel, with its soft, rubbery indentations, felt friendly in her hands. She’d had the Redsmobile – her nickname for her 50’s Chevy truck – since she was a teenager, so there was something of comfort in gazing out over its humped dash, the ways its simple black and chrome dials eyed her as if remembering all their times together.

The engine churned  at the first turn of the key, the radio hurricaning to life–Toni punched it off. All the talk of what happened that Tuesday in Manhattan was too much and already too late, even if it was only three days ago. Those voices–grieving, bribing, selling their interpretations–reached her and yet they didn’t.

She was running home from the smashed Twin Towers, the broken city, from terrorism as never seen before, but it still seemed like she was moving under water, the blue surface jellying above as her own life’s uncertainties, like stones sewn into her clothes, dragged her down to a place where the world and its events–however bold and tragic–hardly mattered. After all, here she was, heading back to Sharonville, no nearer to finding the truth about her father or about who she really was than before she left. Some History professor she’d turned out to be.

 For all she knew, she could be the daughter of a Mafia mobster. Perhaps Uncle Franco was being honest when he claimed he’d lied to protect her, that he’d only sent her on that wild goose chase through New York’s hospitals and libraries to keep her safe.

She didn’t know who was dumber anymore–him for setting her up like that or herself for going along with it. But false names and false hope were possibly better than no hope at all.

 Toni squinted into the rear view mirror as she prepared to move off–her loose black molasses hair, usually so smooth, looped out at odd, static-stung angles following her flight from the East Coast—hours of turning and twisting in her seat to see whether hell was coming. Sleep had been out of the question, even though her eyes–usually such a dazzling amethyst-blue–were dull with exhaustion when she’d looked in her pocket mirror on the plane, a sadness which even kohl couldn’t cover.

God, she was so tired of wondering where her face came from. It was a beautiful face–even she could acknowledge that, at times–but it didn’t seem to matter when, over and over, she found herself returning to the same absence, the same lack of resemblance, the same failure of recognition. She was thirty-three and still didn’t know who she was.

Her best friend, Mila, was so similar to her mother–though you couldn’t tell her that. Mila and her mom, Aunt Happiness, were like Russian dolls, except they were Chinese American and the daughter was very much taller than the mother–the dolls going from small to large in this case. Still, in a way, she’d never really felt motherless–Betta had always been dead to her and her grief at that just walked quietly alongside her, only ever raising its voice when she witnessed generations of women shopping and laughing together in Vegas, or warm, apple-cream arms encompassing her students on the day of commencement. Uncle Franco loved her enough to assuage most moments of loss though–she even felt sometimes he loved her too much. Like his moving to Vegas when she went to college there, just to give her a home. It was generous, yes, but it also felt like she was running beneath his zeppelin-huge shadow.

And yet it wasn’t enough–even while she had this strong male figure in her life, with all his sheltering ways, she couldn’t silence the yearning to find her father. Perhaps the pull of biology was too powerful, the mystery of his name too irresistible for her inquisitive mind. Something kept tapping at her soul, gentle, but sharp, like a kitten’s playful paw. She wondered if he was alive, if he knew of her existence, if he would want to meet her and she was both terrified and electrified by the prospect , by the thought of this enigmatic man’s rejection or embracing. She needed to know the truth–and not just for herself, but for any children she might have some day.

But maybe she wouldn’t want reality when it finally came–maybe she couldn’t take it. After all, Uncle Franco swore he was ready to tell her the full story now, if only she would just go talk with him. Except now she couldn’t believe a word he said.

Toni pulled off, nodding to the security guard as the Redsmobile finally left the university parking lot after three long months, braking as she reached Tropicana Avenue. She should go to Uncle Franco’s place and figure things out–she should try to understand. That was the way he’d raised her–to be tolerant, to consider others. She loved him and so she should do this. Should. Should. Should. The accursed word of civilization, forcing people into forgivenesses they weren’t ready for, obliging them into lives which they never wanted. She “should” visit, but she wouldn’t.  That water she sensed around her–it boiled.

But she didn’t want to go back over the border to Arizona either. Mila would be working late at her office in L.A., leaving their apartment terrifyingly empty–the rising sounds and smells from the restaurant below would bang against her loneliness like a bell. And then there would be Buzz–he adored Uncle Franco and would try to persuade her to give him another chance and she was way too exhausted to justify herself again tonight.

 She pulled off in the direction of the Strip, jolting with the limousines and tour buses past Egyptian pyramids, glittering volcanoes, and the shrunken Eiffel Tower.  Her arm lolled against the side of the Redsmobile as she drove, absorbing the gaudy glory of neon names now emerging in the high desert evening which–if all else failed–would dry your tears.

Las Vegas apparently existed to prove that nothing lasts–hotels shape-shifted like aliens according to market forces; towers fell on film to become golf courses; stars lost their shine and were replaced by lions; boxers bled onto the canvas floor and crawled back up again. And that always made her feel more eternal. She remained while everything else changed–or, rather, everything changed and this told her, in its rough language, that whatever she was going through would become something else.

And if that impermanence failed to comfort you, you could always feel blessed that you weren’t the bird in the Chicken Challenge, tortured into playing tic tac toe, while being blitzed by color and the cock-a-doodle-doos of regretful gamblers. Although there were days when it felt like you were right there with them, chasing an elusive feed that would never come.

Toni took a right down Flamingo, looking into the as-yet-unleased office buildings, their empty white-lit rooms lighthouses warning of the city’s dangers. There was so much construction in Vegas, so many new beginnings. She wished she could start again. She wished she could flee through those rooms, screaming.

Toni eventually left Las Vegas as a violet dusk drifted down, the Redsmobile coughing its way toward the I-93 and the state border. It was her usual journey home, along the same road  Uncle Franco had taken before she was born. She didn’t want to see it that way, but she’d heard the story of her family origins so often, both from him and her now dead Uncle John, that it had bubblegummed to her memory. And so here it was, despite everything–a kind of dusty pilgrimage past careless trucks and distant mountains, a Passion she knew every inch of.


© Sharon Zink, Unthank Books, 2014. Can not be reproduced withour permission from the author and/or publisher



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Thanks Sharon for the great interview and I can not wait to read this and see you at the launch!

If you want to be treated to some great writing folks, of the literary kind, get this book!

Over the next few weeks I have some more Spotlighters waiting in the wings, including the crime thriller writer, Richard and Judy selected … R J Ellory, as well as children’s writer Pauline Burgess and more … so watch this space!

Have a great day everyone!



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In The Spotlight: A J Ashworth

In the Spotlight returns for a couple of weeks to showcase more new and established talent … and this week I welcome fellow Unthologist and so much more — the talented A J Ashworth. I met her at one of the launch events of Sarah Dobbs’s Killing Daniel novel where A J and I read extracts of our stories from Unthology 3, so if you have a copy — her story was the one about the monolith; very unusual and excellently written. We have stayed in touch and she now works as an editor as well as writer and I think she is one to watch for sure … so big warm welcome please …

<<<Pause of rapturous applause>>>


A J Ashworth


Tell us something about yourself and your writing …

Hi everyone! I published a collection of short stories at the end of 2011 – Somewhere Else, or Even Here. The collection won Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize and was later shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. I’ve currently abandoned short stories though and am working on a novel.

Have you always wanted to be a published writer? Tell us something about your path to having your first book/story published.

I’ve wanted to be a published writer for a long time, yes – it’s been a long-held dream of mine. In my twenties/early thirties I was really struggling though. I couldn’t seem to get anything finished so I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere. I therefore decided to take some distance learning writing courses with Lancaster University and these helped me to be a bit more focused and to actually complete some stories. I then went on to do an MA at Sheffield Hallam University and completed the main bulk of my short story collection there. After the MA, I submitted this to Salt for the Scott Prize and was one of three winners.

 Do you have an agent? If not did you try to get one? Any advice about that?

I don’t have an agent at the moment. Most agents are reluctant to take on short story writers – mainly because publishers are hesitant when it comes to buying collections, especially when they’re by debut authors. Independent publishers such as Salt and Comma Press are excellent and you wouldn’t need an agent to have a book published by them.

Do or did you ever belong to a writing group? Crit group? Did you ever have someone professionally critique your work before first submitting? Or do you have friends or anyone else who sees it before you send it off?

On all the courses I’ve taken – distance learning; MA – I have been given feedback on my work, either by other students or tutors. My MA tutor, Felicity Skelton, gave excellent feedback and really helped me to improve my work, and that kind of support is invaluable really. There are other people who give me feedback also and I was previously a member of an online writing group. The key thing is to show your work to people you trust – those who want you to write well – and then take on board those comments you agree with.

Who did you first tell when you heard your first book had been accepted?

I told my partner and my parents. I was pretty excited as you can imagine but I had to restrain myself a bit because I was at work when I found out.

What happened next? Can you tell us something about working with an editor? How important is that to you now – is there a lot of discussion and does the editor make a real difference to your work?

During my MA, Felicity acted as an editor really so she gave good advice when something wasn’t working in a story. Then, when the collection was going to be published I got the first proofs from Jen Hamilton Emery at Salt and she made a few suggestions about words that could be cut, for example. I think it’s important to listen to feedback, whether it’s from a trusted reader or an editor – they’re able to see your work in a way you can’t because you’re so close to it. Good editors make your work better.

 Tell us something about your writing day, routine …

At the moment I’m writing most days because I don’t want to lose touch with the novel, but if I don’t feel like writing one day I don’t. Sometimes I write in the morning, other times the afternoon or evening – so I don’t have a strict routine where I have to be at my desk by a certain time. Some days I’m disciplined, some days I’m the laziest person on the planet.

What or who inspires you most, people, authors, books?

I’ve not read, or seen, all of the work by these people but I love: Woody Allen, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel… lots of Americans really. Two books I’ve loved in recent times: Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I get inspired by people who are passionate about what they do – scientists, artists, writers, filmmakers.

Why do you write? (Now that’s the question!) What do you want your stories to do?

If I don’t have a piece of writing on the go I don’t feel right. That doesn’t mean I always want to write – often it’s the last thing I want to do – but there’s something inside me urging me to do it. I think about writing quite a lot. It’s always there whirring away somewhere in my brain. If I’m watching a film, I’m analyzing the story, thinking about how it’s been constructed, the dialogue. If I’m washing up, I’m thinking about stories – not necessarily mine, but other people’s. I’m not sure it ever really switches off. As for what I want my stories to do… I want them to resonate with people, to connect with something in their own lives, I suppose.

How much marketing have you had to do, even with a big publisher? How comfortable are you with self-promotion?

If you’re published by a small independent you have to promote yourself as much as you can. I don’t like self-promotion – a lot of people probably feel the same – but if you don’t do it then hardly anyone will know about your work. They may still not even know about it even if you do the self-promotion, but you have to try. I haven’t done much really, apart from doing the occasional blog interview, a few readings, etc.

Tell us about the latest published book…

Somewhere Else, or Even Here is a collection of 14 short stories exploring themes such as loss, love, loneliness and hope: a girl meets with danger on the beach when she is lured away by a strange boy; a bereaved wife enlists the help of a mysterious woman to perform rituals that will bring her dead husband back to life; a boy’s anger at his absent father leads him towards an act of destruction in the basement of his school. The book is available from:


Amazon (paperback and Kindle versions)

And I also have some paperback versions available via my blog

What next? Tell us about work in progress and aspirations.  Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

I’m currently writing a novel and also editing Red Room, a collection of new short stories inspired by the Brontës to raise funds for The Brontë Birthplace Trust – this will be published by Unthank Books later this year and will feature stories from David Constantine, Alison Moore, David Rose, Bill Broady, Vanessa Gebbie and many more. I hope I’ll still be writing in ten years’ time but I don’t know what else I might be doing.

Any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published?

Keep going. Perseverance is really important.

Can we publish an extract of your work?

A J Ashworth Sample (click link to read first story and beginning of next — pdf kindly provided by author and not to be reproduced without permission © A J Ashworth, Salt Publishing, 2012

Thanks you so much for being a guest and telling us about your writing. I am trying to get more writers for this spot so if you or someone you know wants to be here — please do let me know. Next week I welcome the talented writer Sophie Jackson to the spotlight …

Have a great day everyone. The sunshine is glorious and I almost wish I was out in it — although I am enjoying editing my novel. Work hard, play hard at the weekend …

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What are you reading?

Hi and sorry for the lack of post on Friday. I am in Essex and tired after my travel on Thursday and distracted, I realised much later in the day I had not Blogged! Sure I wasn’t missed.

I was thinking as I watched people reading on the train about what we read and how being a writer affects our critical eye?

I still think the best book I’ve read in ages is Sarah Dobbs’s Killing Daniel because not only is it a great story, I love a thriller, but it’s a literary one and the writing is just beautiful. It’s not a literary over wordy novel, just beautiful in its simplicity of language  and you can see how each word has been chosen so carefully, the exact right one. Just lovely. I kept wishing I’d written some of the lines!

At the moment I am reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce on a recommendation and although only four chapters in I am really enjoying it. Very different from Killing Daniel but I am enjoying the humour. It’s far more commercial but so far, so good. I also saw it has made it to the Commonwealth Book Prize 🙂 A light read.

But it is possible to turn off the editor in us? I did pick up on a couple of small typos as I was reading, actually more consistency issues in how she had spelled the same word and a ‘her Mum’ with a capital. I can’t help myself, but I am enjoying it so errors like this can be slipped over. I think if the writing is good and the story is good I calm my editing head!

The test is if I am completely immersed in the story and forget to be an editor then it has to be good — right?

I am amazed and remain amazed at how many writers I know who claim not to read that much! I even heard someone say to me once that they don’t like to read other stories in their genre in case it influences their writing. Er … isn’t that the point? Good writing should have a good influence, and bad writing — well put the book down or smile in the knowledge you can do better?

You need to know your market. I read all kinds of books, not just in genre and I am so glad I do.

What about you?

Well, a copy-edit calls but tomorrow I have special guest Gill Lewis In The Spotlight. I am also off to see Watership Down author, Richard Adams tomorrow which is a real treat, so I will Blog about it later in the week.

Set your dreams free ...

Set your dreams free …


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The Fiction Clinic is open …


first aid pic


But we have no patients.

So I am going to say each month if anyone has anything they think needs a little TLC,  an extract of a short or novel then email it to me and I’ll critique it here on the last Friday of the month. It hopefully will be a good way to show how to edit and perhaps common issues we see. Try to keep extracts to no more than 500 words if you can 🙂

So since I am coming to the end of my first draft of I Am Wolf (well another month maybe) I am thinking ahead to short stories itching to be written while I rest the novel. I always like to come back to shorts as they keep the writing sharp and allow you to play with different voices, even be a little experimental. Plus the rewards come faster than the novel!

I am a great fan of experimenting. It paid off with The Theory of Circles since this is the one that was published in Unthology 3 and nominated for the Pushcart. I guess what it comes down to with me is I like short stories (and novels for that matter) that break the mould; that aren’t always predictable or clichéd, that have interesting and strong voices. That make you think. And that’s why I like to play with ideas and ways to write. I like using texts, emails, modern devices since we have new and interesting ways to story tell these days.

But what about you?

I also like stories perhaps set in a single moment in time — where all of the action is internal and yet the outcome is life changing, like the girl in the toilet waiting to see if a line turns blue on a pregnancy kit. The hostage on the phone to the negotiator. A 999 call. It has got me thinking about how we might use slices of time that would make a terrible film because all of the action is internal — but that’s what sets film apart from books. We hear thoughts. And I love a strong character viewpoint narrator.

Perhaps this will prompt some of you this weekend? These could be moments told through a full short or a piece of flash even. If anyone has a go send it over for us to see here.

Well as the novel calls and since the waiting room is empty, I will bid you all a fantastic weekend. Whatever you do. Enjoy it.

This is the book cover Don mentioned yesterday from one the recent Bridge House titles. I think you can agree it does what it says on the tin! This is based on my design!

This is the book cover Don mentioned yesterday from one the recent Bridge House titles. I think you can agree it does what it says on the tin! This is based on my design! With a lot of help from our Graphic Designer Martin James




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In The Spotlight Guest Post by Author Ashley Stokes



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:

 The book is available from the Unthank Books website both as a paperback and Kindle:

 The paperback can be ordered directly from Unthank for £10 inclusive of postage, or £13 signed, or with Touching the Starfish for £25. Email:


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 …


Island Gardens


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!




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Book Review Ashley Stokes The Syllabus of Errors


 The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes

So it’s Valentines so let’s talk chick lit, hearts and flowers … no let’s not. Let’s really not. There might be a romantic thread … but this book is anything but that.

I met the author because of my association with Unthank Books who, as you know, published one of my stories in their Unthology 3 collection. I was intrigued by his writing in the same collection and put my hand up for a review copy of his new book. I knew very little about it but I devoured it, some parts in sizeable chunks and some in small nibbles, savouring each morsel. I wanted to talk about it here as you are all readers and writers and because it’s a great example of thought-provoking, intellectual fiction – this is what you can do with a short story. And some.

So this is my review …

In life there is no blueprint; no manifesto. We don’t come with instructions– if you do this, follow this rule, make this choice, live this way – you will be happy. You will not be afraid. You will never be disappointed.  Instead we all foundering in the unknown, seeking order in the chaos, seeking identity though connection to others, seeking meaning for our very existence.

But even the eternal optimists know life comes with disappointment – we understand why we all champion the underdog because we are the underdog or we have been – and we know how to connect to that. We live lives often shaped by loss, by what ifs – by wondering what life would be, if only … and this book, this book is about that. Kind of.

The Syllabus of Errors (not the religious blueprint) is one of those collection you know is special from the first page and yet the reason for it being special changes with each story – it’s the characters, frighteningly real, disturbed, all flawed in one way or the other.

No, wait, it’s the way we find we’ve stepped into a world that feels familiar yet alien at the same time. It feels like Berlin, it looks like London.  And Berlin is one of the motifs that recurs and connects.

No no, it’s the way these stories challenge the thinking – it’s so well researched – it’s revealing something I didn’t know about myself.

No no this is what it is: it’s because it’s a collection of short stories that work on their own, but are connected by a thread that in places is as delicate as some of the narrative, and yet it’s there and it works. Apart from the enduring sense of loss and obsession, the connection is more academic than that. It’s not a novel, but it’s more than a collection of short stories.

This is one of those books I’ve had to think about – I mean really think about in order to review it and I found myself picking the book up and reading some of the stories again, and each time thinking something slightly different, perhaps scratching off another layer. I like that. But it means I’ve deliberated more and taken a while to write this, not because I haven’t enjoyed it – absolutely not, but because when you come across something like this, you need to give it credence – you need to think up an intelligent response to it. Fail. I can’t compete with Stokes’s witty well considered illuminative narrative or thought-provoking story-telling. So let’s keep it simple – why do I love this erudite collection of stories? – and without grappling hopelessly for some kind of intelligent but elusive answer – I’ll tell you straight – because it’s imaginative, engaging and clever! Did I really say clever? Oh dear, I did. Well it is!

The Syllabus if Errors is aptly described by the author as a ‘sequence’ of stories, rather than a ‘collection’ The stories, or this is how I saw them, are  connected by this idea that we all seek some form of idealism, we are all searching for something, whatever that might be. Identity perhaps? But it’s something that isn’t always definable and sometimes this very fact makes it somehow almost … haunting.  The stories deal with obsession, loss and unravelling in the human state. A soldier with no face looking for his lost love in a city destroyed by war. And these things they seek can be tangible like the lost love or a place, a city, a political ideal.  It felt to me as I was conveyed from one place to another, from one powerful narrative to another, all somehow linked –all the characters had something within them unresolved. In the words of the protagonist in the first story Island Gardens,  they come with a feeling of ‘ahnen‘ which he says is a German word meaning ‘ a sense that something is wrong but not knowing its cause.’

But it’s more than that — it’s a sense of one kiss, one word that was never spoken– one part in a movie that was almost offered – one thing that never happened, but if it had – it might have changed everything. But look what happened instead. Or perhaps it is more – look what might happen. By this I mean it’s the links with the past, the way we have the contemporary alongside the historical gives the reader a sense of screwed or alternative history. For example, I enjoyed the way Stokes deals with war or perhaps I should say ‘between war’ that sets up questions about history, a sense of it repeating, or what if it happened somewhere else instead?

The stories are unnerving, haunting even, what permeates is a sense of loss, of never quite realising the dream. But it’s the language and the way these stories are crafted that stands out, that says ‘You should read this.’ But okay, it is Valentines and I promised no romance, I meant it – but there is a sense of romance – of the unrequited or the unable to say, and the stories come with a  wry humorous edge. You’re left knowing the protagonists’ loss and connecting to their fears and disappointments.

So which stories were particular favourites of mine? Even that changes … but on first reading the ones with an enduring salience – Island Gardens –  the first story, the first bite of this intriguing sandwich. I won’t use any spoilers but there was something about the world I was drawn into, the English teacher protagonist in London waiting for ‘V’ – the girl he met in Berlin, his mind full of what could have beens. He makes observations about the people around him but the unexpected ending deals with the consequences of that – when the line between reality and daydreaming is blurred.

The ‘romantic’ theme (if you can really call it that) is also explored in another favourite Abyssinia whose protagonist is an intelligent, alcoholic, love lorn academic that starts with him waking up in a hospital, still in an alcoholic haze and who pieces together his latest escapade. It deals with his hopes and his frustrations, the red tape of bureaucracy and while being in his head is slightly unnerving, a recurring sense in this collection, there is something to be said about looking out through someone else’s eyes and seeing their world – however skewed it might be.

Other favourites include Post-Leading Man whose out of work actor explores the idea of who we are and who we want to be – again with a blur between real and imagined: the hero and the anti-hero   Other favourites are the worlds we’re drawn into in Ultima Thule and The First Suggestion of Night.  I could go on. I won’t. Except perhaps to add that if you’re a fan of the experimental you’ll love A Short Story About A Short Film that uses film script as part of the story-telling.

I enjoyed the author’s take on post-modern living, with an almost unsettling sense of the twentieth century – shaped by Nazism, fascism and communism and in some way its influence not only on the thinking of the characters, but on arts and culture. There’s a lot to think about in these pages.

While you might well marvel at the learned nature of the work, a sense of some real deep thinking has gone into this collection (falls to the floor and says ‘I’m not worthy’), while Stokes asks the reader to consider new possibilities in the world he’s created leaves you wondering what has become of these characters beyond the final page, what I guarantee is you will be hooked, you will be drawn into the well-written narratives and you will be left with an enduring sense of the what might’ve been or the what could’ve been.


This is a great example of thought-provoking, unnerving and exciting literary fiction. It’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s not chick lit.

I hope this might encourage some of you to buy this book. It’s unusual, it’s literary and it will make you think!

I will have Ashley as an ‘In The Spotlight’ guest as well. His book is out today!


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