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Write like a lion!

A commission to contribute an essay on creativity to a leading literature website has allowed me to explore an issue which has been on my mind recently: on the journey from wannabe writer to professional author, do you lose some of the freshness and freedom of expression that characterized your early, unpublished work? Can the act of writing be inhibited by the demands of being a writer?

This is the topic I’ve chosen to write about in “Writing Myself into a Corner”, a 1500-word piece which has been published online in Collected, a weekly series of articles, essays and reflections by writers on the art and craft of the creative process, which is published by the Royal Literary Fund.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

In my twenties, I acquired the habit of rising early each morning to write for an hour before heading into work. Back then, I was unpublished, an aspiring novelist, more focused on writing than on becoming a writer. I already had a full-time job as a newspaper journalist, so my fiction writing had to be fitted into my spare time. I’m a morning person, hence the pre-breakfast regime.

To begin with, I produced fragments: responses to prompts in creative writing books, character sketches, stand-alone scenes, abortive stories and novels. Often, I simply free-associated, scribbling the first thought that entered my head and seeing where it led, resulting in pages of stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry. Unreadable, for the most part. Some mornings, I would just gaze out of my window and describe whatever was going on — which wasn’t usually very much, at 6 a.m., in an East Oxford side-street. The milkman often featured in my embryonic work, recast as an MI5 agent (peeping tom, undercover cop, serial adulterer), his delivery round a front for his nefarious activities… or his existentialist musings, during my homage-to-Sartre phase.

Nothing I wrote in that period made it into print. Rightly so. For the most part, it was amateurish, ill-formed, and immature; or, more generously, ‘developmental’. Publication wasn’t the point, though. These were experiments in creative process: flexing my imagination, putting words down any old how, settling into the rhythms of my mind and the motion of pen across page. The writing gurus I was in thrall to at the time assured me such methods were not an indulgence but indispensable to the true expression of my creative self.

Brenda Ueland, in her classic If You Want to Write, urged me to ‘Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate! Write any old way.’ I should not be anxious, timid, restrained or afraid in my writing, she advised, because these were the enemies of creativity. The tutor of the adult-education evening class I attended advised: ‘Don’t be scared to try things and rip them up if they don’t work.’

From the perspective of thirty years’ hindsight – twenty-two of them as a published novelist – those days of free-writing spontaneity might belong to some other writer’s past…

To read the piece in full, or to check out some of the other articles in the archive, please click on this link to the RLF website. I’m grateful to Collected‘s editor, Christina Koning, for commissioning, editing and publishing the essay.

Pick of the libraries

I’m pleased and flattered to hear that my young-adult novel, Never Ending, has been selected for inclusion in a nationwide reading promotion in schools. It’s one of 16 children’s and teen/YA titles to feature in the Building Bridges Conflict Resolution Book Group scheme organised by Cilip, the UK’s library and information association.

The books will be distributed in reading packs designed to serve as a resource for primary and secondary schools across the country. The packs, which include activity guides and topic sheets for each title, aim to provide book-based discussion and activities to support conflict resolution, encouraging students to think about how bridges may be built between opponents and enemies of different kinds.

“At a time when conflict takes place at all levels of society, this theme seems particularly appropriate,” it states on the Cilip website. “[It] will help students to understand both the reasons why people with different ideas may clash, but also how they may understand each other better and find ways to co-exist.”

Several leading lights of contemporary UK children’s and YA fiction feature in the promotion, including: Sam Angus, Malorie Blackman, Catherine Bruton, Brian Conaghan, Jenny Downham, Phil Earle, Zana Fraillon and Geraldine McCaughrean, so I’m honoured to see my name alongside theirs in such a prestigious scheme.

Mad, Bad & Sad

It’s rare that you get the chance to do a gig within walking distance of your home, so I’m looking forward to an easy stroll down to Ilkley Playhouse for “Mad, Bad and Sad” – an event which will explore the dark side of life (and fiction).

I’ll be sharing a stage with two other writers – my good friend, Mandy Sutter, and acclaimed debut novelist Clare Fisher – to give readings from our work and to discuss why so many writers, and readers, are drawn to stories which explore the sordid and the seedy, the grim and the gruesome, the traumatic and the tragic.

Mandy, winner of the 2016 New Welsh Writing Awards, is the author of two novels – Stretching It (2013) and Bush Meat (2017), three poetry pamphlets, most recently Old Blue Car (2015), and co-author of two non-fiction books about the lives of Somali women. Bush Meat was described by Booker-shortlisted Alison Moore as “atmospheric…wonderfully unexpected…disquieting, touching and darkly humorous.”

Clare’s first novel, All the Good Things, was published by Penguin last year – described as “a sparkly and unsettling debut” by The Guardian – and her collection of short fiction, How the Light Gets In, is out this month.

I’ll be reading excerpts from my own story collection, Letters Home (Comma Press, 2017), in which themes of loss, absence and isolation recur (not to mention death, violence, racism and depression). A cheery evening in prospect, then. The event will be chaired by local journalist and author Yvette Huddleston, the books editor of the Yorkshire Post, and there will be time for questions from the audience.

“Mad, Bad and Sad” is at 7.30pm on Wednesday June 13th, in the Wildman Theatre at Ilkley Playhouse. Tickets are £6 from the Playhouse box office and the venue advises advance booking, either online at www.ilkleyplayhouse.co.uk or on 01943 609539. Here’s a direct link to the event page on the Playhouse website.

Papertrail Q&A

My tour of the blogosphere continued with a recent guest spot on the Papertrail Podcast website to take part in a Q&A interview about the themes I explore in my short-story collection, Letters Home, and my writing more generally.

Here’s an extract to give you a flavour:

Q: A lot of these stories feel like they’re examining the absence of something. In some stories it’s literally about people searching for something, or trying to get a glimpse of it. In others it’s more abstract, and the absence is never directly addressed. What draws you too examine these moments?

A: I’m interested in the tension between life as it is (or seems to be) and as we might wish it to be, between what we have and we don’t or can’t have, or what we’ve lost. The boy whose mother has disappeared, the asylum seeker separated from his wife and son, the widower facing another lonely Christmas dinner, the sole survivor of triplets . . . each of these characters is trying to reconcile what is present in their lives with what’s absent from it. I’m exploring the notion that these empty spaces in our existence don’t signify something missing, as such, but are as much a part of who we are as the silences between the notes are integral to a piece of music.

To read the Q&A in full, and to check out other books-related interviews, articles and reviews on the Papertrail site, click here.

Protest in Sheffield

I’ll be revisiting one of my former home towns shortly to take part in the Sheffield Festival of Debate 2018. Pre-children, my wife and I lived in the Walkley Bank area of the city from 1994-95, when I briefly returned to journalism after graduating from the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. While my wife took up a one-year post at Sheffield University Library, I commuted to Bradford three days a week for my job as a sub-editor on the Telegraph and Argus newspaper.

I’ve been back to Sheffield several times down the years and am looking forward to dropping by once again on May 9th for a panel event at the festival, where I’ll be reading from and discussing my short story, Withen, which is set locally and centres on the so-called Battle of Orgreave in the summer of 1984, during the miners’ strike. The story appears in Protest: Stories of Resistance (Comma Press 2017), and I’ll be sharing a stage with Joanna Quinn, whose story based on the Greenham Common peace camp is also in the anthology.

The event will be chaired by the activist, broadcaster and writer, John Rees, one of the consultants for the book, in which writers are paired with social and cultural historians, academics and other experts, to produce short-fiction and accompanying contextual commentaries based on political protests spanning more than 600 years of British history. It forms part of a series of sessions on democracy and activism at this year’s Festival of Debate, now in its fourth year, and which runs to the end of June.

The Protest event is at 7pm on Wednesday May 9th in the Millennium Gallery, 48 Arundel Gate, Sheffield, S1 2PP. To book tickets and to find out about other events, please click on this link to the festival’s website

Beyond the Curb

Book blogs have become a cultural phenomenon in the past decade or so, democratizing literary criticism and journalism for a generation of reviewers and readers who – by choice or exclusion – look beyond the traditional reviews pages of newspapers, magazines and journals. Among the more thoughtful and erudite sites I’ve come across in this flourishing online realm is Curb Complex, which is characterized by excellent reviews, author interviews, thought pieces and the like.

So I was pleased and flattered that my recent short-story collection, Letters Home (Comma Press), has been selected for review on the site, alongside a Q&A-style interview with me, conducted by Curb Complex’s Liam Bishop. His penetrative review focuses on several individual stories in the collection, placing them in a literary, socio-political or cultural context, and concludes with the assessment:

“Bedford’s characters […] are often caught in moments of transition, traversing the past to make sense of the present, and there is nowhere left to go but to go.”

To read the review in full, please click on this link.

And here’s a flavour of the Q&A:

Q: What are you looking for in your own environment to construct the environment of your stories? What drew you to a particular locality for instance?

A: Milan Kundera said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the novelist demolishes the house of his/her life and uses the bricks to build the houses of his/her fiction. Like most analogies, this is an over-simplification of a complex process; it also places undue emphasis on an author’s autobiographical experience in relation to two other essential sources of fictional material: research and, of course, the imagination. However, like many writers, I draw on the events of my own life to varying extents, with varying degrees of disguise and embellishment, in most of my fiction.

Sometimes, as in “The Beckhams are in Betty’s”, the premise is rooted in direct experience: the first half of the story (in which the narrator is told by his dental hygienist that the Beckhams are in town) happened to me, more or less as described. But the protagonist is not me and his response to the rumour was not mine, so the story shifts from semi-autobiographical to fictional as it proceeds. With other stories, the material might be sourced from something I’ve read in a newspaper or seen on TV; for example, “Here’s a Little Baby, One, Two, Three” was prompted by a nature documentary about bee-eaters (although my characters are human, not birds).

The most overtly autobiographical piece in the collection, “Unsaid” – a story told entirely in dialogue – is based on the last weeks of my dad’s life, with many of the exchanges taken verbatim from real conversations, as best as I can recall them, albeit that ‘my’ character is female. As for locality, the drug-smuggler’s grim hotel room in “A Representative in Automotive Components” (as well as his illness and the unlikely friendship with the sales rep who helps him), were drawn directly from my own experiences as a backpacker in India – although the drug-smuggling aspect is made up, in order to provide a plot that enables a particular episode in my life to function as a story rather than memoir.

I don’t subscribe to the old creative-writing adage that you should ‘write what you know’, or not exclusively at least. But I do believe that personal experience, when filtered through a writer’s imagination, can lend essential depth and authenticity – both contextual and emotional – to a fictional narrative.

To read the Q&A in full, please click on this link.

Stories find favour

I’m grateful to the writer, blogger and critic, Hannah Radcliffe, for a wonderful review of my story collection, Letters Home, which she posted this week on the Thresholds website, an international short-story forum. Here’s an edited version of her article:

THE THINGS WE LEAVE UNSAID
by Hannah Radcliffe

I find something profoundly comforting in recognising a semblance of my own life in the writing of others. As a northerner who has lived in the south of the UK for many years now, I find reading stories firmly bedded in a northern culture to be the literary equivalent of slipping on a favourite pair of slippers; shaped exactly to fit you, at once comforting and familiar.
Perhaps I’m being a bit sentimental here, but forgive me. I’m currently homesick for the North – and therefore when reading Letters Home by Martyn Bedford I found it quite wonderful to walk the streets of Ilkley with the protagonist of ‘The Beckhams are in Betty’s’, and hugely evocative to sit in the café at Manchester Oxford Road Station with Louisa in ‘Waiting at the Pumpkin.’

Aside from my own sentimentality, author Martyn Bedford has described this collection – which is published by Comma Press – as a group of characters ‘…struggling to bridge the gap between life as it is and life as they might wish it to be.’ Struggling with the idea of what is home, the nature of identity, the need to escape from one life to something different.

One might say they are characters who are at a point of redefinition: a man facing down the ghosts of his past at his father’s funeral; an asylum seeker in an alien country trying to piece together a new life far away from his family; a young woman slipping further and further away from reality in a seemingly self-induced coma; a teenage drug-smuggler perilously ill in a foreign land.

I think what I found most poignant when reading this collection were the things that were not spoken between characters; the words that fall between the cracks. Time and time again, characters seem to slip past one another, their true intentions never quite vocalised.
Overall, this collection feels to me like a group of stories about tipping points: a man facing a final illness, a woman close to giving birth in a potentially abusive relationship, a son attending his father’s funeral and allowing an old grudge to travel to the surface once more.

Perhaps I found such resonance in this collection because of the particular voices explored here: northern voices. Or perhaps it’s because all of us can relate to times at which we have stood on a precipice in our own lives, needing or wanting something – change, validation, a sense of understanding, looking to move beyond our current circumstances to something different, something better.

So, perhaps, reading Letters Home was not actually as comforting as slipping into my favourite pair of slippers, after all. Perhaps the reality of it was more challenging than that, more demanding.
But then, isn’t the sign of a good book is that it forces you to think? And leaves you thinking, long after you’ve set it down? Martyn Bedford’s characters are reconstructing their own realities, and asking you to do the same.

To read the review in full and to explore the rest of the excellent Thresholds site, please click here.

Lancaster in pics

A late reshuffle was required at my Lancaster Litfest gig yesterday after Sean O’Brien had to withdraw and the widely revered and multiple award-winning veteran of science fiction, M. John Harrison, hot-footed it from his home in Shropshire to take Sean’s place.

Mike, as he’s known, was great to work with on stage and the event was skilfully managed by our compere, Kevin McVeigh. Mike (pictured on the far left) and I read from our respective story collections – You Should Come With Me Now and Letters Home, both published by Comma Press – then discussed our work, and the short-story form, before taking questions from an appreciative audience.

I’m grateful to Comma’s Sales and Production Manager, Becca Parkinson, for the use of these photos from her Twitter feed.

Off to Lancaster

A trip across the Pennines beckons this weekend as I head over to Lancaster to take part in the town’s annual literature festival. It’ll be my first visit to the festival (or the town, for that matter) and I’m delighted and honoured to be sharing a stage with Sean O’Brien, one of the UK’s foremost poets.

Our event – the Comma Press Short Story Showcase – is part of Independent Publishing Day at the festival, which will celebrate some of the best new writing from publishers in the Northern Fiction Alliance, including Comma, Bluemoose Books, Dead Ink and Saraband. I’ll be reading from my recently published solo collection, Letters Home, and Sean O’Brien will read from Quartier Perdu, his second collection of short fiction, and we’ll also be discussing our work and the joys of the short-story form.

The event is at 4pm on Saturday (March 10th) at The Sanctuary, in Lancaster Library, 18-20 Market Street. To find out more, and to book tickets for this or any other events, please click on this link to the website of the Lancaster Litfest, which is marking its 40th anniversary this year and runs until March 25th.

By royal appointment

I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours in a studio earlier this week as a guest on the Emma Truelove culture show on Radio Royal FM, the hospital radio station based at Bradford Royal Infirmary.

I was there to talk about and read extracts from my short-story collection Letters Home, which was published in November by Comma Press. Radio Royal, which broadcasts online and directly to patients across the hospital via individual radio devices, has been in operation since 1954 and currently boasts an average of more 22,000 listening hours per month.

For my guest slot, I shared the studio with indy-published author, E. Rachael Hardcastle, who lives in Bradford and whose books include the Finding Pandora series of fantasy novels for young-adults and a new novella for adults, Noah Finn & the Art of Suicide.

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