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:

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.

Letters in the press

My short-story collection, Letters Home, has been receiving some favourable attention in the press recently. The Yorkshire Post ran an interview and review in its culture section, an author Q&A appeared in Big Issue North and a smashing review appeared in the well-regarded online books magazine

Here are extracts, with links to the full versions of the articles:

Big Issue North:
Many writers begin with a collection of short stories before making the leap to novels. Why did it happen the other way round for you?
In fact, I started out writing short stories (and had a couple of early pieces published in a magazine and an anthology) before I tackled my first novel. And I’ve continued to write short fiction alongside and in between my novels. I’ve always loved writing stories – it’s just taken me 20-odd years to produce enough decent ones to justify a collection!

For me, the short story began as a training ground where I could practise my craft but, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate it as a form in its own right, quite different to the novel. I’m attracted to the way a story can offer a snapshot of a character’s life at a particular moment – like an encounter with an interesting stranger on a train who you will never meet again but who leaves a lasting impression.

Yorkshire Post:
The quote from Jacob Ross on the book’s front cover says it all – this truly is “a luminous collection”. It is a display of creative virtuosity, with Bedford presenting a huge range of diverse voices and scenarios . . . a dazzling read that reveals a writer at the very top of his game.
Bedford proves to be an author unafraid to challenge his reader and seems keen to provoke introspection about the nature of the world and our place in it. His stories are thoughtful and are sure to empower those of a rebellious nature, as well as being a loving refrain to those who push against the status quo.

Letters Home is a vivid collection of heartfelt stories, told with vigour and obvious empathy. Bedford conjures up powerful narratives of everyday life which explore pertinent, often contentious, topics including migration and economic disparity with humour and care.

New anthology

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest short story in a new anthology of prose fiction and poetry. Portmanteau, released this week by Indigo Dreams Publishing, incudes specially commissioned pieces by staff and students at Leeds Trinity University (where I teach creative writing), and work by regulars at Wordspace, our monthly open-mic event. My contribution, “One Night in Port Manteau”, is a dark and creepy tale set in the red-light district of a seedy harbour town in an unnamed country, where an American tourist hooks up with an unusual pair of sex workers for a night none of them will forget.

Portmanteau is edited by Esther Dreher and Ethan Lowe, two students on the MA in Creative Writing at LTU, and poet and Professor of English, Oz Hardwick. Please click on this link to Amazon if you wish to purchase a copy.

Stories of my life

When my publisher, Comma Press, asked me to write a guest blog-post about my new short-story collection, I considered the suggested topics and decided to write about the ways in which I’ve drawn on personal experience in these fictional tales. My novels aren’t remotely autobiographical and yet, in Letters Home, several of the pieces arose directly from – and closely mirror – real events in my life. I was curious to explore why that might be.

Here’s the opening of the blog post:

Like many authors, I’m often asked to what extent my fiction is based on personal experience. Some readers seem unduly preoccupied with finding the writer in the writing; at least, where novelists are concerned. Philip Roth was recently quoted as saying that readers generally assumed his novels were autobiographical, but that when he published a memoir he was accused of making it up.

Perhaps this perception is rooted in the hackneyed creative-writing adage: Write what you know. As if real-life experience trumps all other cards in the fiction-writer’s hand – research, for example, or (whisper it) the imagination. Of course, plenty of writers do draw closely on autobiographical material for their novels, sometimes heavily disguised, sometimes draping only the thinnest of fictional veils over the fact.

I never have. None of my eight novels is even loosely autobiographical and none of my characters is a surrogate me. Let me state, for the record, that I have not taken revenge on my former teachers, been a trafficked sex-worker in Amsterdam, become obsessed with tracking down a panther on Ilkley Moor, woken up one morning to find my soul inside someone else’s body, or been sent to a psychiatric clinic after causing my brother’s death. I don’t even have a brother.

To read the rest of the piece, please click on this link to the Comma Press blog page.

If you’re interested, you can also listen to the audio of me reading excerpts from a couple of the stories in Letters Home at the book’s recent launch event in Bradford Waterstones. Click here to visit Comma’s twitter feed, where the recording can be accessed.

Letters praised

I’m grateful to David M Barnett, novelist and critic, for this smashing review of Letters Home, which appeared in both the Ilkley Gazette and the Wharfedale Observer this week:

Ilkley’s Martyn Bedford has forged a career for himself as a writer of novels, but Letters Home is his first collection of short fiction and finds both the author and the short story form in fine fettle.

Bedford has written literary thrillers such as Acts of Revision and Black Cat, and novels for young adults including Flip, which was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award. With Letters Home he takes perhaps a more contemplative look at distinct and diverse Northern lives.

The title story is an often moving and thought-provoking tale of an asylum seeker who is living in a flat overlooking Leeds United’s Elland Road ground. Local children chant abuse at him, his door is daubed with graffiti, unspeakable things are pushed through his letter box. Still, he composes in his head letters to send home to his family, cheerful missives about how his life in Britain is safe and comforting, even as Bedford counterpoints the lines from the letters he will never send with the stark and often brutal reality of being an unwanted stranger in a strange land.

In “My Soul To Keep”, Charlotte suffers from a rare condition that means she wants to sleep all the time, eventually succumbing to it and sleeping for a full year, becoming a minor celebrity in the process. Through the eyes of Kim, one of the sleep technicians tasked with monitoring the girl’s seemingly-endless sleep, Charlotte’s condition becomes almost enviable; she sleeps because it pushes the bad stuff in life away. Charlotte isn’t dead, isn’t in a coma, but is not properly alive. Instead she inhabits a strange netherworld that many people, after recent world events, would probably like to embrace.

Bedford’s writing is never anything less than strikingly engaging, and his stories are portraits of lives lived always on the edge of change – in the case of the young man who finds himself living in an apartment where an obscure painter once committed suicide, quite literally so – draw you in like overheard gossip.

The stories are episodes in people’s lives, which we are given access to, and rarely brought to solid conclusions. Like in the wonderful “The Beckhams Are In Betty’s”, in which a rumour that the celebrity family unit has taken over Ilkley’s flagship tearooms for a private tea provide an almost obsessive brief departure from the usual life of the protagonist.

The stories are both short postcards from the edge of everyday existence, and also Martyn Bedford’s bitter-sweet love notes to life in Yorkshire, and Letters Home is a first class read.

Tuning into Leeds

I spent an enjoyable half-hour in the studios of Chapel FM this evening as a guest on the Love the Words show. As well as chatting to the genial host, Peter Spafford, about my new story collection, Letters Home, I also read extracts from a couple of the stories: the title piece, “Letters Home”, and “The Beckhams are in Betty’s”.

Chapel FM, as the name suggests, is based in a former chapel in Seacroft, East Leeds, and broadcasts to listeners all over the Leeds area and around the world online. To hear the show on “listen again”, please click on this link to the station’s website. My slot begins at 86:45.

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