Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Four today only

Surely the world's scariest Santa? He beckons but his wink has ceased to work! Sit on his knee, anyone?

Poet at the Wheel

“I'll throw a poem”. The clay,


cut from the earth in elastic slabs,


beneath my feet incognito

before being


to tread a higher existence.

Polar attraction. We make do,

with sedimentary action until the earth yields

a finer particle to weigh and wedge.

I extrude the shape all nature aspires to and drive it down again,

slip fingered, thumb ridged parings, off centred

and the whole thing spins out of control like a mad dervish.

Broken back.

Cheese wire and flick

of the wrists clears the wheel

for the next attempt.

A second clod is kneaded.

Thump and lift,


and wedge again.


like a drunk

on the wheel to reel another


Its form rises within the wings of my hand, twin encouraged

I press my will, imprint it. Drawn, compressed,

raised and razed and sponged and my foot lifts off the pedal.

I made this.

“I think it's perfect”, I say.


wire in hand, splits my poem piece,


out its heart and says, “you're right,

it was, now throw another just the same”.
This is where I'm at - writing everyday in the must-be-nuts-to-keep-doing-this way that I do, all the time reminding myself to write better and find a more creative way to fall. It is humbling, and necessary.
My thanks to everyone who has offered guidance and advice - I appreciate it - even when it stings - and I do put it all into practice.
My son is two*; I'm struggling to find blogging time but I am still reading and visiting blogs and, most importantly for me, I am still protecting my writing time. Poetry for the last few months. Several per day some days (four today), always trying to find the perfect metaphor; the this-is-how-I-see-this-share-my-view-point way; did anyone else even notice that?; and other forms of autopsy with gentler tools.
Merry Christmas to those who believe and/or celebrate (including those hypocritical atheists such as myself who keep the tree and the pressies and say it's for the kids blah, blah but really we love the rituals!) Happy holidays to everyone else.
*For those of you who have experience of toddler boys - you know they should come with pads and crash helmets! I salute you! For those who have no experience of them, I laugh, I cry, I pity, I envy you.

PS apologies for my apostrophe sin - tis the season. It's the least abhorrent of my recent typing errors...tell you that one later....thanks, t'other Rachel.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

In significant worlds

Warmest greetings to Jo Cannon who is at snowlikethought to talk about medicine, Malawi and Mercy (but not Madonna), in her short story collection Insignificant Gestures: twenty five stories which take the reader from such diverse continents as Africa, Europe and Asia, to Self.

Thanks, Rachel! It’s a pleasure to be here in New Zealand.

Jo, I came to your work completely blind, ignorant (embarrassingly) of your writing and all I knew was that you are a GP, so I was astounded that I should leave your fiction with my eyes clamped as wide open as they are. I'm very pleased to have been introduced to your writing.

Thank you, that’s kind.

More than a few of the stories in your collection are written from the point of view of a doctor or from someone associated with or visiting a doctor. I thought we could look at the title story here. Set in Malawi, “Insignificant Gestures” is the story of a doctor who is haunted by the outcome of his failure to diagnose an illness in a woman who was not his patient. And it's extraordinarily powerful, not simply because of how the plot unfolds or the events it depicts, not in the telling, but, I thought, in the way that you frame the intimacy between the characters, how you show them, and how it is intimacy which gets in the way of objectivity. Intimacy is, if not the cause of the woman's death, the reason her illness goes undiagnosed. Would you agree? Could you talk a little about this and the title?

Yes, in a way. Ian’s judgement is clouded by shock at the violence he believes Celia has suffered, and his affection for her. The intimacy between the two is subtle, based on shared moments of intense creativity. Ian may be in love with Celia, but he’s an upright guy who knows that it would be inappropriate and harmful to act on this. But mostly, Celia’s illness is undiagnosed because Ian is an inexperienced doctor, forced, due to the lack of medical man-power, to make decisions that are beyond his capability. Her death and his disabling distress are consequences of the deprivation and poverty in Malawi.

The title alludes to those unexpected moments of intimacy, or significance, which temporarily break down the barriers between people and reinforce our shared humanity.

As soon as I'd read the title story my mind was filled with anticipation, expectations and questions – so many questions – one of which was the thought of humanity as a hindrance to science. And it should be contradictory but the line “patient heal thyself” crops up which leads me to my next observation. There's very much the sense, reading your stories, that the characters within them are faced with the limitations of medicine, of knowledge, even, and they are forced to look within themselves, to the unexplainable, for what cannot be answered by science. I thought of science and doctors being seen as faith substitutes. Were you aware your book raises such profound questions, did you want it to, or are stories purely for entertainment for you?

I didn’t intend this theme and I’m interested that you picked it up! I see medicine’s limitations every day in my work and take it for granted. I’m privileged as a G.P. that people trust me with their most profound thoughts and emotions. So, if I have a symbolic role, it is to be a witness.

No, I wasn’t aware of these questions. I mostly write for fun, to clarify my thoughts, and to understand how it feels to be someone else. If a reader spends money and time on my book, I want them at least to be entertained. If they find it thought provoking too, I’m delighted.

Following on from the notion that when knowledge fails people look within to find answers – to the commonality among all beings – many of your stories seemed to be about people who didn't find help or, often, they are connected to others who see them as an answer to an unanswerable problem whilst their own problem also goes unanswered. You don't try to wrap anything up in your stories or answer any of your characters' questions, there are lacunas. Could you talk a little about this?

I suppose we all reach out to each other for things that no human being can provide. It starts with the child’s disappointment that her parents are flawed.

Real lives are mostly messy and rambling, and some are desperately difficult. Everyone struggles to find meaning. It is satisfying to make up stories with more shape and clarity than real ones, but if everything was wrapped up they would be unbelievable. I want my fictional people to have happy endings, or at least hope, but in real life nothing is ever finished. After every story, there is another one, which may be better or worse. Until we die, of course.

I think it was René Descartes who said “question anything that involves the senses”, and many of your characters are relying heavily on their senses. What are your thoughts on perception and representations of truth in fiction?

I’m interested that you see them relying on their senses. Most of my characters are preoccupied with their inner worlds, and have a skewed idea of what is going on around them. The apocalyptic backdrop to some of the stories isn’t real, but a projection of an individual’s emotional turmoil, caused by bereavement, childlessness or abandonment for example. I think we make up our reality. An important role of fiction is to help us understand that other people do too.

The blurb talks about “exile and belonging” and “what it means to be an outsider” and there are characters who are refugees or who travel abroad for work or marriage, but it was my interpretation that these terms were more applicable to the characters' psychologies, indicative of a state of mind. I thought it was a clever way of showing that the differences of any consequence your characters have are the internal ones, in their minds, and what I think your writing is particularly skilful at is depicting oppression as a construct. Oppression and repression actually, both internal and external. Characters suffer less from illness or medicine's limitations but from the expectations and shackles placed upon them by society. Is this something you would agree with or are conscious of flagging in your writing?

Yes, I intended those words – exile, outsider – to refer to my characters’ sense of separation from others. As you point out, some characters are displaced by migration, but for others, exclusion is a feeling that results from an unconventional sexuality, body shape or emotional state. I suppose you could say it is a construct. Or an illusion.

Following from your thoughts on society as construct, do you have any thoughts on “self” as construct?

I do think we ‘make up’ our selves, like one might the character in a story. Certainly we all rework the narrative of our lives to give it meaning. We are born with personality traits, and other habits of thought and behaviour are engrained in childhood. But every minute, we chose how to interpret the world, our thoughts and feelings, and other people.

I saw Insignificant Gestures less as a book about standard notions of marginalisation but more as a book about the self-imposed limitations people adopt, perhaps through social conditioning so that they become/have become active in their own displacement. In effect they are dislocated rather than displaced. Is dislocation or exile for your characters externally applied or self-imposed? What are your thoughts on this?

It’s both. Nasma’s treatment at the hands of an oppressive regime derailed both her external and inner world. Theresa in ‘Theresa’s Spear’ had no choice when she was banished. But mostly, in my stories, exile is a state of mind: depression, shyness, loss, for example. At some level it is chosen, but an individual may not have the awareness or inner resources to change. Someone else may need to break in and alter a fixed pattern of thought, by an ‘insignificant gesture’, maybe. And everyone feels disorientated on occasions by time and change. Eve, although rooted in family, is an observer, who never quite believes she fits in. I’m sure this is a universal feeling.

We've talked already, a little, about your being a doctor and some of your characters being doctors but you also write from the perspective of people whose position you obviously cannot have experienced first hand. In “One Hundred Days”, for example, the reader inhabits the first person perspective of someone directly involved in genocide; reading “Daddy's Girl” is like viewing CCTV footage of the events leading up to a suicide bombing. How comfortable were you giving a human voice to people who commit atrocities?

They can have no other voice but human. Amos, in "One Hundred Days", finds himself ‘administering’ an atrocity as a result of his ordinary failings: vanity, inattention and passivity. People who do these things have families and friends. In "Daddy’s Girl", I wanted to show that many bomb victims are far removed from the explosion. In particular, I hoped to describe the terrible effect on the bomber’s daughter.

In several stories you start off in either an “exotic” (compared to the home location of the protagonist) or mundane or familiar location and end in the opposite location. I found this very interesting, for me it brought home the crux of the story and highlighted the social constructs on both sides but did you have a specific reason for choosing the locations other than for contrast?

They are all places I can picture, either because I’ve lived there, or because patients have described them. I work in an inner city where people wash up from all over the world. So I’m aware that you can start off in one society, and through a series of circumstances, end up somewhere completely different. And if you wish, you can reinvent yourself.

Following on from POV and location, I want to talk about writing “other”.

Terry Eagleton posits the social and historical changes in the latter part of the twentieth century as giving rise, from the 1980s onwards, to:

"a new generation of literary students and theorists […] fascinated by sexuality but bored by social class, enthused by popular culture but ignorant of labour history, enthralled by exotic otherness but only dimly acquainted with the workings of imperialism..." (Literary Theory, 2nd Ed)

The supposed male centric 'medical gaze' has long been criticised for not being able to encompass the lived experience of women, particularly ethnic minority women and yet you manage to convincingly write of not only African and Pakistani women but of African and Pakistani males; in One Hundred Days you write directly from, presumably, a Rwandan man's perspective. Some critics might be tempted to levy the accusation at your fiction that it is “cultural tourism” or that, as a white woman writing from the imperial centre, you shouldn't attempt to mimic the post-colonial experience. How far do you agree with this potential critique? Would you say your fiction utilises post-colonial tropes to personify philosophical explorations, for example?

I think that the function of fiction is to make us see from another person’s viewpoint, and if a writer does this successfully – and I don’t claim to – then surely the world is a better place. I write about human beings, with whom I share far more than I have differences. Many of the stories are about post-traumatic stress, sometimes caused by physical assault, as with Nasma, but mostly by emotional events, as in "Fairy Story" or "Needle-Stick Baby". In "One Hundred Days", the trauma was to Amos’s sense of self. All these characters experience similar altered brain biochemistry. The human repertoire of emotions and mental states is the same, whatever one’s race, gender or orientation.

When I interviewed Adnan Mahmutovic I asked whether or not he thought racism and sexism work on the same principles, clearly I think they do, but there's another thing in there, bound up with racism and sexism for me, which I didn't mention then but which I want to ask you about and that is, do you think class distinctions also work on the same fundamental principles?

Yes, I’m sure they do.

In “Evo-Stick And The Bigamist” you tease out class markers with wonderful and endearing humour. But do you think it's currently more socially acceptable to write from the perspective of another culture/sex than it is to write about another class? Do you believe class distinctions still exist?

Evo-stik is a piece of nostalgia about my sixties childhood. I didn’t intend to write about class. I strung together memories of a certain time and place, in the hope that people might smile at ones they recognised.

The greatest class division in UK that I see is between those who work, and people who never have. The most harmful results of this are emotional deprivation and paralysingly low self-esteem. And there is another, unseen, class – illegal immigrants – who are excluded from accessing the most basic necessities, like health care, whilst maintaining everyone else’s lifestyle.

Going back to Eagleton, again in the afterword to Literary Theory, he states “like feminism and postmodernism, post-colonial theory is directly rooted in historical events” and I thought about “Daddy's Girl” and “One Hundred Days” in particular here, again, and I wanted to ask how important to you is it that your stories are grounded in a social and or historical actuality. And what are your thoughts on writing and social function?

I don’t think my stories are historically accurate. "One Hundred Days" is a parable - magical realism. It isn’t really about Rwanda; the village life I describe is Malawian – a very different country, but one I’ve experienced and so can describe. Atrocities like that have happened all over the world, so it could be set anywhere. As in "Daddy’s Gir"l, a historical event is the springboard that allows me to imagine the inner world of people caught up in it. More important to me is that the emotions and behaviour are authentic.

I hope that the social conditions I describe, based on observations mainly, are accurate though.

It was my opinion that you handled the tough themes we've discussed with extreme sensitivity and dexterity. Your empathy and eye for detail resulted in stories which reduced me either to tears or induced me to laugh out loud, and some, such as “Rictus”, do both in equal measure. Aside from the powerful gravity of some of your stories, there is great humour in this collection (and lots of running), I want to quote some examples if I may.

"...he's seen her – he can't believe it – shuffling along in wellingtons on the far side of the field beside that strange jogger. They look so absurd he wants to laugh. There reaches him airborne, like a sound muffled by wind, a sense of something he nearly forgot. As she approaches on the next lap she spots him standing astonished by the gate. Suddenly she's bent double, a gesture he hasn't seen for years, crinkled up with laughter and clutching her belly, helpless. The wind takes away the sound but he hears it in his head like a song remembered." (Cannon. 2010. “Rictus”: p21)

"The conversation moves so fast I'm disorientated. Used to my lugubrious father and Gavin's masturbatory ramblings, I can't believe how much ground we cover." (Cannon. 2010. “The Alphabet Diet”: p57)

"She flicks through Men's Health […] Then spotting a facet of the male psyche usually concealed from women, reads avidly; “Don't worry if in bed with a new girlfriend, you find she has grey underwear, an untended bikini line or hairy legs […] If her panties are baggy, congratulate yourself. She's gone to bed with you before she intended.”' (Cannon. 2010. “Pump It Up”: p97)

As well as a strong talent for humour, and at times very dark humour, you have something of a poet's eye for imagery and detail:

“She wears glasses and she's got ferrets” (Cannon. 2010. “Daddy's Girl”: p66)

“[M]en and women journey on different sexual railway trains.” (Cannon. 2010. “Pump It Up”: p97)

"But I'd take anything not to wake at three in the morning with my thoughts crawling round and around like caterpillars along the rim of a glass, endlessly circling the same regrets." (Cannon. 2010. “Insignificant Gestures”: p3)

“The desert is beautiful. You must eat and get strong and when you're better I'll take you there.” (“Shutters”: p121)

Some of these lines may slip by on a first read but to me they were rich and I luxuriated in them. Do you write poetry, Jo? And can you talk a little about your writing process; for example, which is more important to you, story or language?

I read a lot of poetry. I’ve written some awful poems, none of which must ever see the light of day. I’m closely involved in the work of a poet friend, Carolyn Fisher (The Unsuspecting Sky). When she is polishing a poem, we deconstruct her every line, word and punctuation mark. She taught me two things: that poetry is primarily metaphor, and the importance of every word. I think the quality of language is vital – an art-form, or thing of beauty - and metaphor can be the most powerful way of conveying truth. Plot is less important to me, which is maybe why I write short stories rather than a novel. This year I’ve written more flash fiction, which is a genre even closer to poetry.

Each story deserves a slow and care-filled reading because it strikes me that's the spirit these stories were written in. I felt challenged by Insignificant Gestures which was sometimes unsettling, often surprising and constantly stimulating. How long do you spend on any given story?

I can write a story in a few hours, or maybe a day. But I spend weeks and months rewriting and editing every sentence, an embarrassing, maybe pathological, number of times. I return years later and change things, down to the position of a comma. My sons say I’m a nerd.

What, if anything, would you most like the readers of your book to take away from it or this interview?

I hope they enjoy my book and identify with the characters. If they find my descriptions of emotions or mental states authentic, maybe clarifying something they have experienced, I’d be delighted.

I hope this interview encourages people, who might not otherwise have come across it, to read my book. And if they understand the stories and their context better as a result of our discussion, I would be thrilled.

Well, Jo, I enjoyed Insignificant Gestures immensely, I found your writing very moving and will, no doubt, be thinking up questions I'll wish I'd asked you for many months to come, or even writing an essay – I can see this collection being on the reading list of English courses and it deserves to be. Thank you so much for giving me free rein in these questions and for your generous and candid answers.

Thanks, Rachel. I found this interview really challenging, actually! You are the first person to give detailed feedback, and it's interesting to see how a reader brings their own experiences and understanding to a book. I suppose stories form from the sub-conscious like dreams, and an outsider might sometimes interpret them more easily than the dreamer.

I’m grateful that you paid my book such close attention. And after such a thoughtful and sensitive reading, I’m honoured that you liked it.
It was a real pleasure, Jo. Insignificant Gestures is published by Pewter Rose Press and can be bought directly from the press.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Today ism

Some posts feel like toadyism but this feels necessary; an acknowledgement that something has affected enough of New Zealand to have affected me.

Today was the memorial service for the twenty nine miners who lost their lives at Pike River. My thoughts are with their families.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mish taken

YA Author Talli Roland is on a mish – to make the Amazon bestseller list, even if just for one day, with her debut novel The Hating Game. Best of luck with this, Talli! Read on to help her.


The Hating Game - Cover

Help Talli Roland's debut novel THE HATING GAME hit the Kindle bestseller list at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk by spreading the word today. Even a few sales in a short period of time on Amazon helps push the book up the rankings, making it more visible to other readers.



Amazon.com: http://amzn.to/hX2ieD

No Kindle? Download a free app at Amazon for Mac, iPhone, PC, Android and more.

Coming soon in paperback.  Keep up with the latest at www.talliroland.com.


When man-eater Mattie Johns agrees to star on a dating game show to save her ailing recruitment business, she's confident she'll sail through to the end without letting down the perma-guard she's perfected from years of her love 'em and leave 'em dating strategy. After all, what can go wrong with dating a few losers and hanging out long enough to pick up a juicy £2000,000 prize? Plenty, Mattie discovers, when it's revealed that the contestants are four of her very unhappy exes. Can Mattie confront her past to get the prize money she so desperately needs, or will her exes finally wreak their long-awaited revenge? And what about the ambitious TV producer whose career depends on stopping her from making it to the end?

Facebook & Twitter Status Update

Just paste the following into the status update bar. Feel free to change anything!

With the Amazon.com link (depending on your location):

Help debut author Talli Roland Take On Amazon today!

http://amzn.to/hX2ieD #TheHatingGame

With the Amazon.co.uk link:

Help debut author Talli Roland Take On Amazon today! http://amzn.to/hNBkJk #TheHatingGame

Any RTs appreciated!

Reviews & Tags

If you do buy The Hating Game and you like it, a review on Amazon would be greatly appreciated! If you don't have an Amazon account, you can also post reviews on

Goodreads. Thank you!

If you are on Amazon and in a clicking sort of mood, it would be fantastic if you could click on a few tags ('Tags Customers Associate with this Product' - located underneath the Product Description). Cheers!

Read on for...

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The Hating Game on Amazon (hard-copy)

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Thank you to everyone for reading, and for responding to my call for help!

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch!

Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to help me out! I couldn't have done it without you. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to email me at talliroland@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Harbour abridged

Painted from the impression travelling over Auckland Harbour Bridge left on me: after I went to see Emily Perkins and Dylan Horrocks present their graphic conversation "All Hail Ellie". I think the real bridge is much bigger.

First up, huge thanks to Vanessa Gebbie and Zoe King for all their help and advice and for housing my story "Sticking the Needle In", and poem "Words With Charlie", in Tom's Voice. I'm extremely grateful. Vanessa is the author of Words from a Glass Bubble, a collection of very touching stories, as well as Storm Warning, which I'm looking forward to reading (more links on the side bar).

It's been a stressful few weeks: my husband was told his company's Auckland office was closing at the end of November. The options were: move to Wellington or get another job. Now his office is moving down the road and there's a reprieve until April. I've been feeling unsettled.

I was going to post a poem about writing a poem but Dick's posted one which cannot be rivalled. Hats off to you, Dick. So you've got a repeat (no pun intended). I posted this a while ago, then removed it, and now I'm posting it again. I've written a few poems about stuttering. My husband stutters. It's hard to argue with someone when you have to wait for them to insult you. Laughter replaces intended crimes of passion. He doesn't stutter with our toddler, nor with animals (you wouldn't catch me talking to the animals). Thanks to Donna and Thomas who spotted and left lovely comments on this the first time around. And apologies to Lori whom I confused at the time.

Aubade to Balbettare

Refused your words, gum in a torn pocket,

they are caught within the fabric of your

tongue. Confidence droops like a shamed face, set

to counter exasperation. Breathe. More

lowered, your lids self shield. Self-healed you start

again, and, and, and conversation stalls

till late at night, when all but one dear heart

can be heard, you speak into me. Crystals

hang sparkling about my ears: sentences,

uninterrupted, unfinished by choice;

utterances full-stopped by our senses.

Bodily parenthesis given voice

to mock Aurora before she scatters

your eyes with her curse of fettered letters.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Chilled run

Happy Hallowe'en. The scary story/poem challenge is here. Andrea and Lori are taking part in the festivities and have posted some Hallowe'en themed poetry - please follow the links - and I'd like to thank them both for injecting a little spookiness into an otherwise warm and unspooky weekend!

Before we launch into the story proper I thought I'd tell you a couple of real life scary incidents to get you in the mood and set the scene for where my story takes place.

I grew up in the last remaining row of what had once been several railway terraces. Our garden was the grave of the demolished houses which were levelled around the time Queen Victoria heaved her last. I have the ceramic body, still, of a doll I unearthed from one of the many invisible rooms in our garden, her cheeks as rosy as if she'd just sniffed an overdose of carbon monoxide from our car and not been decomposing underneath the groundsel for decades at all. And there were clay pipes, bits of them anyway, and along the other side of the rail lines, if you weren't afraid of the ditch they dug (to stop us wandering into the newly planted woods and out of the other side onto the newly laid bypass), or of skinning your knees scrabbling back out, you could find tiny blue bottles. The remains of a Victorian bottle factory. I have a bottle with a marble stopper, too. So it was an evocative play yard for one with an imagination such as mine, though it is possible that the landscape gave birth to the imagination and not vice versa. When I asked my mother how she'd met my father and she said he'd crawled out from under a stone it seemed perfectly logical.

The railway carried coal, pre nineteen eighty four, from the pit which was the only landmark to compete with the church spire. Picture it: sunrise on the front in my parent's room, all day shining on the absent houses and lanced on the spire each evening. And the pit out of sight from my window but always the great wheel turning. I wasn't allowed down there, the path which led to the pit also led to the pit pond. People drowned. You could look at the taddies on a summer afternoon and not believe it could get so deep so quickly, it wasn't a big pond as far as ponds go, but it was big enough for pike and who knows how many rusting supermarket trolleys and bike frames from some daft buggers who thought it would be a jape to cycle down the embankment at top speed, and there was nearly always a stray shoe stuck in the mud by the reeds. Of course I never went there alone, except just once or twice, and I always ran all the way home, keeping to the trees in those newly planted woods all the way so that my parents wouldn't spot me from the kitchen window, legging it over the field. The trees gave me the creeps.

Anyway, that's the place, and there were nine houses in our row, then two pairs of big Victorian semis before the dyke. There were dykes and ditches all around us. Unlit (the local authority forgot all about us once the by-pass was built, though if twelve of us kids had gotten run over we'd have qualified for a crossing, never mind the fact that there weren't twelve kids alive to begin with); walking at night was done at your own peril. Our house was the second from the top, nearest the rail crossing. The first house, once a store, was bigger than the other houses on our row but had been empty for as long as anyone could remember. Between it and our house there was an narrow entry; a walkway, and above it was the extra bedroom that made the empty house bigger than ours. I often heard a child crying in there but my mum reasoned, quite sensibly, that it was just the wind, and the wind was fairly powerful through that entryway. I loved pulling my coat over my head, my arms still in the sleeves, holding the corners by the zip and letting the wind catch my up like a sail and spit me back out by the front wall. I digress. Midway down the terrace lived Sam. She was about the same age as my brother and they were friends and partners in crime when it came to nicking fags and puffing away in the Old Dear's fruit and veg patch at the far end of the row. I went with them once, I took a bowl of sugar, and we got caught, them with a woodbine and a regal king and me with a stick of rhubarb. Only the rhubarb was mentioned when we got rollocked for it. One up from the Old Dear lived the girl my story is about but we'll get to her in a moment. The first of the big semis was also derelict. Sam and my brother used to dare one another to go inside and navigate the rotting staircase and wave out of the attic window as proof of their bravery to the one left standing in the yard below. I don't know who was more scared, the one grinning saucer eyed through the filthy glass or the one seeing the face appear at the window, grey and mottled through the muck. They'd got some spunk, that's for sure.

Sam's parents had a ouija board. Sam, my brother and me were the only kids on the row, oh, and Pinny Anne. I wasn't there when they got the board out but I knew something wasn't right when my brother came home without my mother having to explode her lungs shouting him in. Not long after, Sam's mum confided in mine that Sam's dad had been demonstrating some peculiar behaviours. Sam and her mum moved out and Sam's dad put the house up for sale and holed up down the pub along the tracks (ironically, The Railway pub is the only existing railway there now). My brother was sad; he'd lost his pal, and I had lost the chance to be an accessory. We spent more time in our garden, digging up the chipped carcasses of dead kids' playthings and corralling the sock bodied caterpillars of the cinnabar moth into jam jars and trying to count which had the most stripes. Evenings were spent watching the A-Team, Wind-in-the-Willows or some show hosted by a bloke who looked like one of the undead; waxen grey suit (and matching face) de rigueur. A couple of times per week we'd walk the mile and a half to my grandma's, along the old rail lines and into the mouth of the sunset. It was when we were returning from my grandma's that the strange thing happened.

We all clattered down the entry and stared in bewilderment at the back doorstep. Specifically, at my mother's chopping board. Mum picked it up, put it back on the table, under the fruit bowl where she'd left it earlier and me and my brother got ready for bed while my dad chained the dog up for the night. Mum screamed. I was first down. My dad came running in, he thought we had an intruder. I remember clinging to my mum's leg while my dad checked all the rooms. It was only when he came back in the kitchen that my mum was able to say what had scared her. The chopping board had flown across the room at her.

Things got worse. My brother had gone to unchain the dog first thing and took his breakfast out only to come running in crying: our beloved collie had gone for him. My dad went to investigate and found Turpin whimpering, head on paws, but when he tried to unclip his chain he went to bite him too. I peered over the fence and couldn't believe he was the same dog: snarling, a mouth of red, black and foam. Dad shouted for me to get something to wrap him in, to take him to the vet. When I brought him the blanket he was dead.

My story begins a little before Sam left.

Pinny Anne

Pinny Anne lived in the last house but one of our row. Whenever me and my brother went down the yard to play, or when I went to watch my brother play dare with Sam in the derelict house, Pinny Anne would be there, at the back bedroom window, staring down at me with her hands flat against the glass. I never saw her parents and I never saw anyone, Pinny Anne included, enter or leave that house. The lights were never on and no one answered the door on Hallowe'en. Opposite Pinny Anne's house there was an old horse chestnut tree and sometimes I'd climb it and stare at Pinny Anne's window but she never appeared then. If you were wanting to see her you never could, only when you walked by and remembered suddenly could you look up and see her there, staring at you between the pressure pale wings of her hands. It was hard to tell what she was wearing as the windows were as dingy as those of the derelict place but it looked like it was a pale nightie or dress. She never changed it, else she had heaps all the same. It was the Old Dear who first told me her name was Anne. I was staring up at the window one day and the Old Dear came out and asked what I was up to (always we were up to something), and when I asked her who was the girl that looked out of the window she took me by the arm and put her tree skin close to my ear and said

    -her parents never fed her and her father beat her terribly, kept her locked in that room all day and night every day and night. Poor Anne

I wanted to ask if she did anything about it but I knew better than to ask the Old Dear more questions than I was invited to, so I just nodded and I thought she was going to hold me until my arm fell off like a lamb's tail, she seemed to be in some sort of trance of remembering for a while, and then she shook me and let go and went into the house. She walked funny, Sam called her the cripple duck, but I didn't feel like laughing that day as I watched her waddle away. And no sooner had the Old Dear gone back inside than Anne appeared at the window. She was thin, even through that dress I could tell there wasn't much more than a lamb bone to her, as my mother used to say. I went to the back door and knocked. I looked in through the mail flap, there was no carpet, just dirty bare floorboards and a few yellowed sheets of newspaper. I wanted to shout hello but I wasn't that brave so I ran home and drew a picture of her and wrote “Pinny Anne” and an arrow pointing to her and that's how she became known as Pinny Anne.

I drew lots of pictures of her over the years but I saw her less and less. One of the last times I saw her was when my brother and Sam invited me to play dare. I thought my heart was going to bleed out of my ears, I was twelve (a few days before Sam and her mum left), and I remember thinking I'd rather nick my mum's fags any day than this. But I wasn't going to chicken out, not with Sam there.

I crawled in through the missing panel in the door, there were sticky spider webs which caught in my hair and I cut my knee hurrying through the gap to brush them off me. I rubbed the blood and had a little taste. I could hear Sam and my brother laughing, so I went to the foot of the stairs and looked up. You couldn't see all the stairs at once, there was a landing halfway up and then a hairpin turn, the first half being almost in darkness but for the chink of light on the landing. I imagine the house would have been all dark the first time they did this but a few years of waving like idiots through that window had allowed a little light to penetrate and I was grateful for it. I took the stairs to the first landing two at a time. If they creaked I didn't notice; my heart was where my brain ought to have been. Two rooms extended directly from the landing and a narrow runway led to another two, smaller rooms beyond and beneath the next run of staircase. This was harder to negotiate, some of the stair panels were missing altogether and I had to lean against the wall to stop me losing my balance and falling down, there was no bannister. There were more webs there and my fear of spiders became inflamed when I saw the curled up bodies of some pretty huge arachnids. I was navigating these corpses, not wanting to get their legs caught in the toe of my sandals, when I heard the stair creaking behind me. I turned but the noise was coming from beyond the hairpin. I don't think I could have gotten to the attic window any faster if I'd flown but the worst thing was, when I looked down at the yard my brother and Sam weren't even there; I had no proof I'd done it. I was sweating, breathing hard, my heart was pumping fast and my thoughts were turning over and over like the pit wheel, so when I saw the face in the window staring at me, mouth open and grinning, and felt the hand on my shoulder and then another, I screamed, felt my eyes bulge, closed them and ran and fell and ran some more, all the way down those stairs. I scrambled on all fours through the gap in the door but the strap of my sandal got caught on something. I tugged and could feel something sharp biting into my foot and I started to cry. There was a scuffle of something on the bottom of the stairs, coming towards me, and I gave my foot one almighty yank and ran home.

My mother was angry about my sandal and banned us from going into that house again. She made my brother apologise for scaring me like that and made him look at the gash on my foot but he denied following me up the stairs and said it was my own fault if I didn't come down the stairs the way they'd told me to. My mother said it was a wonder I hadn't slipped clean between the broken floorboards and disappeared into the cellar and then where would I have been? In the cellar's what I answered but my mum corrected me and said “in the dark”. My brother said I was always in the dark so why would that be any different but he was just sour at me for getting him done. I was fine with it, I never wanted to go near that house ever again. And I almost didn't.

After Sam left my brother and I didn't play together so much. He went off to play at other lads' houses and I had my own friends; books mostly, and pencils and paint. The pit closed and the surroundings didn't look so sinister after the wheel was demolished and by the time I turned thirteen I was allowed to go out by myself. Just in the nick of time because that's when I had my first boyfriend. Rice was from my school but I only met him on a school trip. He had hair like a bobble hat without the bobble (we didn't call them beanies) and we used to walk along the old railway, trackless, holding hands, and we'd sit on an old sleeper while he sucked at my neck and I fussed his hair. He hated that, according to Persephone (the school's ballerina; she's a whole 'nother story) who knew everything about boys and stuff.

This one time he came to call on me and it was near the end of things for us really, looking back, and he was clearly bored with my neck (it does go on a bit), so I told him about the house. I was naïve. I realise now that he must have thought I wanted to take him there for something darker. Private. He was older than me and had already conquered Persephone. I was shocked at his suggestion, it didn't sound like anything you could do with Sindy and Action Man. I said I'd just got my first nest shedding, that was my mother's stupid term for it, and he thought I was stupid when I said it, too. It put the dampeners on things alright. He was cross and asked why I'd bothered taking him there if I wasn't going to do anything. My neck was purple by this time and he'd gelled his hair with some stuff that had dried real crusty and made my insides feel funny when I touched it. I asked if he'd ever been in a haunted house before and didn't he think it was scary. He said it was boring and the only thing more boring was me. Neither of us said anything for a minute until this gust of wind blew in. I got dust in my eyes and I heard Rice cough and then the wind stopped as though it was on a switch. I swear I heard a sound like a pin dropping. I asked if he'd heard it, too, but he just stared over my shoulder, his eyes big and wide and then he legged it. He didn't speak to me at school after that and he must have said something about me to Persephone and some of his mates because they laughed at me and made flapping actions every time I saw them.

The bullying made me miserable. It got so bad I wanted to run away but I had nowhere to go. I stopped going out after school and at weekends and spent all my free time drawing or watching tv. I liked the fashion programmes, the girls all looked sad, just the way I felt. started to wish I could just disappear.

I stopped eating, just skipping breakfast to begin with and cutting out sweets. Then I cut out sugar altogether, and then anything which wasn't plain fruit or vegetables. It worked. It was months before anyone noticed, the winter had allowed me to hide under baggy jumpers and my big coat, it was only in the summer that anyone noticed. You want to eat something, my mother said, else you'll drop through the gaps in the floorboards. She laughed then but when another few months passed and I still didn't eat she didn't think it was so funny.

She told people, doctors, but they never admitted they were doctors, they had cool names and encouraged me to call them by their first names and they had this way of talking to me like we were best friends, only they thought they were teenagers instead of the other way round. I don't think they thought of things from the other way round, from my perspective, else they would have seen exactly why I wasn't eating; what I was scared of. It was all around for anyone to see and they were in no position to tell me to face it when they were obviously running from it themselves. They got frustrated and took my drawings away, to look at more closely, show their friends who knew about my kind of art, even the pictures I'd done of Pinny Anne. Everyone was being so mean to me. I thought I knew how Pinny Anne must feel, locked up all day and night in that room. I decided to call on her, try, one last time, to talk to her.

No one answered. I knocked as hard as I could and this time I shouted,

    -Anne, Anne, it's me, I understand

I listened and looked through the mail flap as I had done the time before. Some of the papers moved on the floorboards and I called again.

   Anne, if you're there, I want you to know I care and I'm here, can you hear me, I said I care about you

    -what are you doing?

It was the Old Dear. I said

    -I'm talking to Anne and it's none of your concern

Starving had made me brave. The Old Dear got this funny look on her face, like she was going to shout or laugh at me but hadn't made her mind up which, and then she moved to put her hand on my arm but all she got was a handful of jumper and she drew her hand back and I think she was crying, though it's hard to see when you're disappearing and I must have been vanishing quickly because I couldn't speak. I went home.

I stared at myself in the mirror, if I was going to disappear I wanted to see it happening, and that's when I saw her for the last time; Pinny Anne, staring right at me. I put my hand forward and she put hers out to touch mine and for a moment I could feel her cold, flat little hand. I withdrew mine but she kept on reaching until she was out of the mirror and sliding down the glass, thinner than a cellophane off the sweets I still had over from my birthday. I asked her where she was going but she didn't answer me, and I already knew. There was a draught coming under my door, pulled through by my open window and it caught her up and she fluttered around my bedroom like a feather or a piece of paper, side to side, until she touched the floor and then she slipped right through the boards.

No one called me to dinner that night. I went and sat where my plate should have been and listened to my mother talking about the weather, the orchard and the first of the apples she was putting in a bowl at the centre of the table. I picked one up and took a bite. No one saw me.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Writers reign

All white on the grey.
My sincere and grateful thanks to Amber Lee Starfire for including my artwork and poem "And They Were Only People"  in Writer's Eye Magazine. It has a fab new look and is a fantastic venue for new and upcoming writers. Please, take a look, submit.

In other news: Think storms, Gothic windows, strange figures with stony glares and bewitched objects. Tis the month of pumpkins and spooky tales, alas it used to be. Here in NZ there is scant evidence of Hallowe'en at all and I miss it. Therefore, I have challenged Andrea at Rainbow Notebook to something of a scary story duel. Each of us is going to write the scariest story or poem (or whatever pops into our heads and out of the keyboard onto blogger) and post it on our blogs with a link to the other's on October 30th. Feel free to join in, add your own offering! Rahahahahahah!  

Monday, September 20, 2010

Shortened long

Not quite there yet.

Two lovely snippets of news for you:

One of my stories made it to the longlist of the Sean O'Faolain Prize - Congratulations to overall winner Nikita Nelin and to all the other entrants, and huge thanks to Tania Hershman for posting the list.

Secondly, Mark Reep has done an awesome job of setting up the Ramshackle Review and I was lucky enough to have a poem chosen for the first issue. It's a very cool venue and I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops as Mark is an especially talented artist and writer who blogs here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Me meme

Titus - the brainiest most talented poet terrier EVER -  sent me a meme and, although I don't usually do these, I thought that seeing as I was only going to post the winner of the graphic conversation I would pad it out a little and do this, too. Thanks Titus!

1. Why did you start blogging?

It was a dark night. I sat alone in the diner on the corner of fifth and fourth and a quarter eating the dried up crust of a marmite sandwich and stared out of the window. It was raining hard. If it had been raining any harder the rain would have bounced back up and it wouldn't have been wet. But it was wet. Not just any wet: it was the wettest wet I'd ever known. It was Auckland. I wanted to get the rain out of my head and sitting on my ear wasn't working, I decided to try something. First there was the bungee jumping but that made the world spin for twenty four continuous hours, not even a five minute break, and then there was the scoot boarding (as my daughter calls it) but my street cred was falling fast; I needed to do something, something big, and I needed it to be soon...dun dun duuuuun!

What actually happened was I wanted to see if I could get some stuff published and I thought blogging would be a good way to meet other bloggers and put a little pressure on me. That's the official reason. The actual reason is that I was researching for a novel - aaaaargh - the truth is out!

2. If you could travel anywhere in the world with no restriction of costs, where would it be and why?

America - all of it, until I found what I was looking for - because Edward Norton lives there!

3. Did you have a teacher in school that had a great influence on your life? If so, what?

I had three: one told me I was a poor working class girl and as such should be satisfied to work in a local supermarket. I have been trying to grow a bigger moustache than her ever since.

The second got me work experience at the local rag and had a belly like Father Christmas and every English lesson I lived in hopeful fear that a button would ping off his shirt and knock my nemesis in the head.

The third tried, with much patience and perseverance, to teach me French and told me to send my stories to magazines.

4. If you could spend the day with a famous person, who would it be, and what would you do?

Edward Norton and I would discuss ways to end world poverty over a shared sandwich.

5. Toilet paper – over or under?

I am SO over toilet paper - it is so last season. Scootching along the grass for me every time now. And the winner is: R.F. It's me! Kidding! Rachel Fox - you lucky blogger!

6. Name one thing in your life that you would do over if possible.

Is this a rude question?

7. Tell about your pets – if any.

Bubbles the hamster weed on my arm when I was twelve and I didn't tell then but I am now. So there! Oh, ABOUT, not ON....hmn...there is a spider, outside my kitchen window, whom I have named Roberta the Bruce. RtB and I have a deal: she stays put and I don't have to clean the windows - but she isn't allowed inside!

8. Do you live in a small town or a large town?

I live in a city within a city which is the size of a town by UK standards within a city which feels like a town. I live in North Shore City - it is a real city, honest guvnor, but it is within the better known city of Auckland and each has its own mayor and they don't really get along (if you believe the report of one attendee of the most recent meeting) or they really want to hug a lot (if you believe another report of the same recent meeting).

I am supposed to pass this on - like chicken herpes - but you may have had this already. If not, and you want it - come and get it!

And for those of you who just scrolled to the end for the winner - hahahahahahaha - go back up and look again :) I'm a scamp and a half!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Name some paper

Signed by the lovely Emily Perkins and the handsome and jovial Dylan Horrocks.....
I have a copy of their collaborative graphic conversation - on why Emily writes fiction and Dylan draws it - to give away....

....all you have to do is be your usual startlingly witty selves and leave me a jolly comment and I'll pop your graphic/literary representations (erm, names on a bit of paper) in a hat and announce the lucky winner....

....when I have ten comments (not including my replies!)

Have a great weekend :)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ride on

Still working on this but I don't mind you seeing my mistakes; I'm still learning.

My weekend was not as productive as I had hoped, not helped by the fact that I was feeling guilty for sending off HOM with the kids to the playground then discovering it was Father's day! Why can't the world decide on one day? It was June in the UK, which bright spark moved it to September? And the internet was playing up. I didn't get any new stories down, as intended, but I did manage to work some more on a few existing pieces as well as my screenplay.

The screenplay is now up to 115 minutes which means, it being a comedy, I have only another five pages to write. Five pages? What the hick!? So how come I am only up to page 146 of the 267 page novel I'm adapting?
I predict a lot of editing. Note to self, adapting = shrinking.

I am now making more harsh critical choices as I write. It's been an eye opener. And I am taking consolation in the knowledge that although I cannot get across all of my novel with the limitations of the time frame, I will still have the novel; the screenplay doesn't erase the novel. They are different and that's what I'm learning to love about the screenwriting experience. Some novelists who have signed over the rights of their books to film agencies lament that the film doesn't stay true to their vision. Well, I am in charge of my vision, so although I am changing elements which simply do not transfer to film, I am still deciding how those elements should be presented. For now. Which brings me on to my next point.

Film is collaborative. I love that about it. It excites me. With the input of others my story can be even better than I could have imagined. How cool would that be? What I lose in page points I acquire in the beauty of cinematography. However, there is also the distinct possibility that, even if I were to be lucky enough to sell my screenplay once finished, it might never get made. This happens all the time. Being good enough and getting nowhere is not the privilege of the novelist/short story writer. It goes right across the board. But what can you do? All rides and no fun makes for an unhappy playground but I simply must write on.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Blog off

This morning I had so many plans - write write write!

So far I have read internet news for two hours, eaten chocolate and cereal and had five cups of tea! I am expanding my interests if not my creative output!

I have purposefully left my current reading material in the family vehicle which has now departed for the library/mall/ice rink with my off-sprogs.

Big hullos to passing bloggy partygoers.

I have a screenplay to finish and some competition standard stories to write - the day is but an infant...I have an idea about an ant in a thimble....it has to have chocolate in there....and Edward Norton....it's a big thimble....

A quake

Just wanted to send out well wishes to all in Christchurch this morning.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Be t' reader

Just listened this interview at Guardian Online - I wish A. S. Byatt was my beta reader!

Apologies for being a blog pest - will no doubt go back to my once a month posting before too long!

(for those of you who like to decode my post headings - the "t'" is meant to be read as Yorkshire dialect!)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bits added

No idea what this shot was meant to be but I like the colour and the blurry eye full of tears quality to it. Short of poking myself in the eye or standing staring into the wind, it's the best you're going to get!

I'm really getting into the swing of my screenplay now. I've got seventy minutes of screen time and by a quick estimation (based on the heap of MS still to adapt) I can tell I am going to run over time but that's okay as I can edit it down when I'm through with the first draft.

The novel I'm adapting is the one I wrote last June and I must have read it through, first page to last, about a dozen times now, either for editing or for my own amusement - yes it has comedy and yes, I am that pathetic! Here's the strange thing - it still makes me cry at the sad bits!

Is this usual? Do you cry at your own writing (and I don't mean from a lamentable state!)?

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Big hullo to all you lovely bloggy types out there.

I have a review of You at Melusine and my poem "Breathing Apparatus" is up at Camroc Press Review. Very big thanks to Janelle and Barry.

Other than that I am adapting one of my novels into a screenplay and have thirty minutes screen time written so far. I'm also working on another screenplay/novel in tandem. It's a very enlightening process. I am amazed at how different the same story appears on the page and I now have so much respect for screenwriters! Next time I go see a film adaptation of a novel I will not grumble that it is not true to the book!
I am very much writing with "L" plates at the moment but hopefully this can be a way to start earning from my writing. And the change in perspective can only be good for all my writing.

I am very excited about all the new things I'm learning and feeling very positive. Well, all that's left now is for you to tell me what you're all up to?

Sunday, August 8, 2010


 Adnan Mahmutović talks to me about reading with a pen, Beverley Hills 90210, and a girl named Fatima.

Hullo and a huge welcome, Adnan, thank you for visiting snowlikethought and for taking the time to answer my questions about your novel Thinner than a Hair.

AM: Thank you for giving me this space.

RF: Your novel is the most stimulating, thought provoking and enjoyable yet moving book I have read this year and I found myself making notes and circling text, marking pages the whole way through because there was so much in there which I wanted to know more about or which triggered a thought or made a connection, and yet, on the surface your book tells a very simple story.

AM: I have to tell my wife I’m not the only one who reads with a pen. While she’d say I destroy books, I think the very drive to mark memorable things is the greatest compliment I can give to a writer. So thank you for scribbling in my book.

RF: As with all great books, I like to start from the end. The blurb on the back reads:

[t]old in the first person voice of a young woman coming of age as her country falls into war and hatred, the deceptively simple narrative takes the reader on a journey across landscapes, political boundaries, assumptions and emotions.

The story of Fatima is not a complex story on first impressions and yet it deals with some intricately difficult themes, and as I read your book (very quickly, in one sitting) I was struck by how plainly, matter of factly and with simple eloquence, you dealt with, in essence, genocide. It isn’t a subject matter for the faint of heart but what was amazing to me as a reader was that Thinner than a Hair didn’t read as a “war book” but as one girl’s right of passage and I wondered how difficult it was to achieve this so called simplicity; was it something you set out to do or did the story tell itself?

AM: It was incredibly hard. The war is such a powerful thing in itself, it overshadows everything. By this I mean certain features of a war, certain ever-repeating horrors prevent us from seeing the full complexity of it all, prevent us from seeing the ‘how’ of life. If everything I’ve written so far is somehow tied to the war in Bosnia, I have first and foremost wanted to depict the part of the iceberg under the surface.

Historiography, especially that of genocide, seems to attract certain stereotypes and sanctioned forms of narrating them. The writers feel obliged to tell certain things and omit some less attractive events, as if these would diminish the feelings, the pain, the importance of both remembering and forgetting of that which has happened. I always felt that telling a different story would give me a better sense of it all. I love one sentence from Beloved which is repeated several times “This is not a story to pass on.” When I think about it, I’m puzzled, what does “story” refer to? The history of slavery? Yes, but also love, sisterly jealousy, children’s games, and boredom. Does the latter invalidate or enrich the former? To take my ‘history’ as an example, my uncle was in a concentration camp, a small one, in a town just a few miles from where I lived. There were battles over there, we could hear explosions after air raids, and yet for months nothing happened in my city. It was incredibly boring. A terrifyingly unproductive time. I felt like grabbing a rifle many times even though I was a boy. Same thing in Sweden. No war, but nothing happened for months on end.

RF: I once read that the difference between war and genocide is that in war women and children are accidental casualties, whereas in genocide they are the primary targets and I thought of Aziz’s “disability” and was, am, intrigued to know if there was a connection here, as a means of making Aziz a target through gender also?

AM: This definition of genocide sounds true for Bosnia, no doubt. It was in fact that “targeting” that made me start writing. I wanted to understand how all these women actually came out sane and stronger. Early on I wrote a story “She Looked so Cheerful” which is one of the few that recounts an event that happened in my family. What made a rape victim smile? A refusal to let this trauma take charge of life? Having a character who is in-between, sex-wise, gender-wise, was for me a way of exploring potentiality. He becomes a soldier and yet he could just as well be, and in fact is in many ways, a target of this calculated genocide. My question was, if his “disability” was discovered, wouldn’t he be a target of his own fellow soldiers as well?

RF: I thought about how you cut through gender stereotypes and assumptions, was Aziz’s “disability” a means of breaking down barriers of difference – just as Aziz is neither clearly male or female in a stereotypical clearly defined way – is Aziz more than a metaphor for being mixed; un-labelled, un-pin-pointable? Or a way of showing that labels and religious labels, just as gender terms, are only ever needed to discriminate and do not matter in day to day life?

AM: I’d say the latter. During the war everything had a label. I needed to depict a life in which these labels broke down, or rather were hard to apply. For this reason my heart skips a beat when someone asks me how to label my book.

RF: Gender, for me, is not a male female binary but more a spectrum, possibly on the line of an inverse bell curve with more standard male female types on the outer ends and less typical convergences as you move towards the centre. Do you think racism and sexism (particularly against women) work on the same principles?

AM: I couldn’t agree more. While we constantly make abstraction and form types, in my view, maintaining these takes a great effort. This is where a lot of negative energy is boiling: the conflict between how things really are and how we want them to be. I think one of the greatest books that shows how both racism and sexism work on the same principles is Morrison’s Beloved. Everything I’ve written was in that spirit, or at least an effort to attune to it.

RF: Again with the “simple narrative” there’s a line spoken by the character called Elvis where he says:

But if you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on. You don’t just walk into somebody’s office and ask for a passport. You need connections, bribes, you know what I mean? Money talks, brandy talks, VCRs and TV sets talk. Deutsch marks, dollars, and pounds untie all tongues. These things make even the Gordian knot a child’s game.

(Mahmutović, 2010. p96)

and my eye was first drawn to the Gordian knot and I thought what a brilliant metaphor that is for both your book and the issues at its core. But there are so many off-shoots of thought from that one image, such as how many other cultural references there are within the book which are not of Bosnia or associated with Muslims in any clear linear way but which, if you go back far enough you see where all these cultures are so similar at their roots and this was what I thought was the real beauty of your book; the way it not only transcends supposed cultural boundaries, but also points out clearly the artifice or insubstantial basis of the boundaries themselves. But then my eye fell on the words “pounds untie all tongues” and I wanted you to talk to me a little about this line, also.

AM: While many things in the book probably have to do with my Swedish education, and moreover my studies of literatures in English (rather than English literature), it’s important to emphasise that Bosnian culture is not tied to any one religion, ethnicity, or political creed. Many people who we today denote as Christians or Muslim were, for the most part, Communist. Bosnians of any religion have been affected by other religious texts, traditions, and folklore. Russian and English literature has been a great part of our education. Talking about a Gordian knot or any Biblical reference is perfectly natural for me. It doesn’t take an extra effort, except when I try to do something new with these things. It would be much harder, and as you say ‘artificial’ to try and draw boundaries. All boundaries are artificial, no doubt. At the same time we should not refrain from talking about differences. There is danger in politicising cultural differences, and turning them into boundaries.

I guess you reacted to the use of the British currency in Elvis’ line. Bosnians have always had a peculiar penchant for Deutsch Mark, and nowadays Bosnian Mark has the same value as the German currency. In the 80s and 90s the Yugoslavian currency ‘Dinar’ had no value. A loaf of bread cost like two-three million dinar. As much as they could, people used German, British, Swiss, American money. When we had to bribe our way from Bosnia we tried to sell whatever we had in our house. We had to get Deutsch Marks because the soldiers wouldn’t have anything else.

RF: Back to the Gordian knot for a moment: you make a lot of references to imagery throughout the book. Here are some things which I noticed on what could be termed a biblical theme:

“Aziz was like a rib I’d torn out of my body. It was bent like a soft penis, yet hard. I’ve never been able to make it straight, for fear it would break.” (p78)

“Instead of an answer, Father closed himself in his shed, banging on wood and metal, sawing, filing, making something; I have no idea what, an ark perhaps.” (p93)

“Perhaps I walked the entire way back, out of my mind. Perhaps an angel carried me on its back.” (p126)

And these on a philosophical theme perhaps:

“That was how my father fell, like a tree trunk, like a country; the world should have shaken when he hit the ground with his flushed face.” (p128)

“The pen snapped in two sharp pieces and cut my hand as I reread what I had jotted down.” (p128)

“The town was strangely silent about the blowing up of the mosque and the imam’s death. It was such a simple and clear evil, and all chatter ceased. The entire mosque building was levelled except for the minaret, which looked like a broken pencil.” (p 72)

It is some of the strongest and most exquisite imagery I have come across, particularly the last example, (the pen is mightier than the sword came to mind and was promptly inverted) and this was, I thought, what I would carry of your writing to tell others about. Your strength, for me, as a writer, is your ability to note grand events in an understated way; making the events seem poignant not because of their gravity but because of their beauty even in failing.

And, one final quote, if I may be permitted an indulgence:

Mum didn’t say a word about refugees […] She peered into the closet and at the two sole hangers with a sweater on each.

I expected a slap on the head, or at least some shouting. I hated her silence. I wanted her to be strong and alive even if that meant I’d get regular portions of nagging and scolding instead of meals.

She said through a laugh, “You saved these two I made for you.”

“Of course.”

She ran towards me and kissed me all over the face. I was so drenched in her milk-smelling saliva I needed a towel to wipe it off, but I didn’t dry my face. I let the traces of her kisses dry so I could smell them when distant explosions woke me up at night.


Does writing like this come naturally to you or do you have to work at it, edit and pare down to achieve the maximum of showing with the least telling?

AM: There’s nothing harder than tracing my steps back to the origins or even the very process. A good answer would be ‘I don’t know.’ But, that’d be a lie. I am very conscious of some narrative gestures like putting images in contrast, using old hackneyed images to say something different. I assume the reader will at least subconsciously recognise some things, but then I feel I must not fully meet the expectations. There has to be a surprise of sorts, either in terms of imagery, or action, or paragraph structure. The ‘rib’ is something I did with a lot of thought. I didn’t want to go into the entire difference between Islam and Christianity in terms of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. The Qur’an never mentions the rib. Eve is never the culprit in that original drama. However, I once heard a story which said women were created from Adam’s rib, which was not perfectly ‘straight’. If one tries to make it straight, it’ll break. If one doesn’t try, it’ll remain bent. I wanted to reverse the places, especially since Fatima is unsure if Aziz is fully ‘straight’, whether he’s a man or a woman. It puts an entirely different spin on the sex and gender issue.

Sometimes I test images until it feels right but often I use something that surprises myself, like the pen thing, or a scene from the film I made where the character does something with incredible symbolic potential but at the same time it is very much a gut reaction. After the screening the audience was intent on interpreting that scene, and the beauty of it was that I didn’t have the authority over its meaning. Everyone had a personal interpretation and they were all right. I guess I experienced the famous ‘death of the author.’ Anyway, to answer your question, sometimes those powerful instances come easy and sometimes there’s a lot of ‘conscious’ work behind it all.

RF: What I was most impressed with in your book was the way I came away from it feeling like I had read a much larger book and I think this was, in part, due to your skill for using double edged imagery and how you manage to tell so much by omittance, by framing what is missing from the picture to make it stand out all the more. I think of the TV here: US television show Beverly Hills 90210 (nicely timed - all new version now out), being beamed into Bosnian tellies and yet where are the Bosnian, or other, shows being shown? But you never make such obvious comparisons in the book and it is all the more powerful for it.

I remember the war unfolding, as a seventeen year old British girl, on the news and it seemed like it was in another world, unconnected to my life in any way. There was a strong sense that the world, and I in it, was little more than a bystander and that the troubles in Bosnia were little more than a show unfolding on the TV set. So it was staggering to read the lines in your book about the TV sets and the way you simply, yet deftly, posit the notion that the West was preoccupied with itself and that, just as Aziz and Fatima watched the US show on their TV, the rest of the world was doing just the same. And I thought how brilliant that this book will get inside homes the way the cable shows do and what an impossible to ignore instalment it will be, but did any of this even cross your mind as you wrote Thinner than a Hair? How much were you conscious of the TV as metaphor?

Do you think the news provides misrepresentation of cultures in the same way as shows such as 90210 do?

AM: I wasn’t very conscious of that. I realised it much later when I asked myself why in the world did I write an entire scene around that show. As an afterthought it struck me as irrelevant? Why not depict a battle or a concentration camp? But I stuck to my rule ‘Don’t exclude that which seems trivial. It probably isn’t. Wait and see how it plays with the other things.’ I remembered hiding in my attic where I had a small TV set and a VCR watching Beverly Hills and action movies with Schwarzenegger and Stallone whenever there was power. Terminator and Rambo were really quite great for killing time. Hiding all the time, doing nothing, was devastating. We swapped pirated movies any chance we got. I think your idea that Bosnians watching American shows and Americans doing it at the same it is brilliant. There’s another crux with television. The war was quite different in different parts of Bosnia. In my city we had no direct experience of the war as it was in Sarajevo, or Srebrenica. We heard it on the news, just like you did. We talk about it as ‘one’ thing, as ‘Bosnian’ experience, but it’s actually very different for different people. We were in the middle of it, and yet also partly detached.

RF: Well, Adnan, we started this interview with the blurb on the back of your book and I wondered if we could end it with the title on the front. Could you first say a little about where it comes from and why you chose it?

There is a similar passage in the Katha Upanishad:

Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the exalted ones,
for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to go by, say the wise.

(Katha Upanishad – 1.3.14)

This provided the title and epigraph ([t]he sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard) for W. Somerset Maugham’s novel: The Razor’s Edge, thus again, for me, showing similarities, rather than differences, in all cultures, and I wanted to ask, finally, what lasting thought you would like readers to take away from this interview?

AM: Very interesting references. I wasn’t aware of them. I relied on the story about the Sirat bridge that leads to the afterworld. It’s thinner than a hair and sharper than a sword. The path to Salvation is hard. In the novel this higher path has its more material, immediate counterpart, the pure survival. I guess my question is, given what Fatima does in order to survive, how do we imagine her walking on such a bridge as Sirat, how do we judge her, do we judge her at all?

What any reader should notice in such an interview as this is the way a good reader can challenge a writer on his own ground and make the entire reading experience a great deal richer. A reader is not just some sponge that suck in whatever is served to her or him, but always partly a co-author of meanings and ideas in any work.

RF: Thank you so much, Adnan, for giving me so much to think about and for your book which I am certain will go on to become a very important text. I've thoroughly enjoyed interviewing you.

AM: Thank you for asking me such brilliant questions. This has been a great pleasure.

Thinner than a Hair is published by Cinnamon Press and is available from their website and from Amazon.
Catch up with the rest of Adnan's book tour at the following:

Kathryn Magendie at http://tendergraces.blogspot.com/

Vanessa Gebbie at http://vanessagebbiesnews.blogspot.com/

Valerie O’Riordan at http://not-exactly-true.blogspot.com/

Caroline M Davis at http://advancingpoetry.blogspot.com/

Nik Perring at http://nikperring.blogspot.com/

Tom Vowler at http://oldenoughnovel.blogspot.com/

Joakim Jahlmar at http://the-mad-swede.blogspot.com/

Tania Hershman at http://titaniawrites.blogspot.com/