Saturday 23 July 2016

First prize winner in GW/FLF Short Story competition 2016.

The Sender of Second Chances by Anthea Morrison

Chock-a-block all the way down on the bus today so I’m upstairs.  Sun’s hot through the glass but best not take my coat off, I’ll be getting ripe underneath it and there’s stains on my dress won’t sponge off with cold water.  Place I’m staying in now, you have to be up with the larks and up for a fight if you want hot water, and I’m past that now.
Not much happening on the street down there – folk scurrying about with their heads down mostly.  Think who they might see if they’d only look up now and then - neighbour, friend, old lover.  Or a stranger with silver buttons on his coat, and a smile like summer.  Saw him pluck up the courage - come to the sea with me, he said, train to Margate; go on, you only live once. 
You get the teenagers upstairs, flicking their hair, putting on a show, no idea the thousand different ways their lives might turn out.  Downstairs the mums battle their prams and kids, promising the moon to keep the peace.  Missed that boat years ago, but I keep a picture in my head of what could have been; a boy I like to think, with that same sunny smile.  Daft, I know.
Bus swings into a stop at Kennington Park, usual clatter of branches from the chestnut tree against the windows.  Young woman comes upstairs - something promising about this one, not plugged into her phone like most.  She has a proper look at people, gives me a smile instead of a wide berth and sits down in front of me.  Her eyes are grey and ever so clear, like the rock pool where we sat down at Margate, dipping our feet while we told each other everything we were, all that we wanted to be. The rock was warm and smooth under my feet when we kissed.
We lurch away up Kennington Road.  Driver yesterday kept sending the tots flying into everyone’s legs - miracle how some of them pass their test - I shot my arm out to catch one, human instinct, but the mum grabbed him off me quick as a stick, eyes wide.  
I don’t blame her.  The years haven’t been kind and nor has some of the company I’ve kept, grog included.  Thirty years and more since I sent him away, after the sand had gone cold under our feet and everyone else was going home. Make a mistake big as that, you stop trusting yourself to make decisions, just let life carry you.
Going round the corner at Lambeth, the woman in front has to grab the pole to stop herself being hurled off her seat by Stirling Moss down there.  Her hair’s dead straight, the colour of conkers, something like mine when I was a girl. 
Waterloo Bridge, and we’re almost full.  Last one to come up is a tall fella with a full beard, trimmed neat like his Brylcreemed hair.  A stillness about him, something solid.  He has a look down the bus and starts to turn back when he spots the last two empty seats, next to me or next to her – well, no prizes. 
Got a good feeling about these two.  They clock each other just a bit longer than they need to as he sits down.  His eyes are set deep and his smile is slow, trace of an old sorrow in it, maybe.  I feel the spark, probably before they do.  She runs her hand down the side of her neck, smoothing her hair, and he straightens his shirt collar, first one side then the other.  I whip out my notepad and scribble, pencil shooting off the page as Stirling throws the bus round the corner at the Aldwych.  They turn towards each other again, not quite in time, and I can’t see from behind whether they’ve caught eyes, but I’ve been doing this for so long I pick up the smallest signs, and I see them lean a hair’s breadth closer.
The woman turns her face like she’s looking out the window, dabs something on her lips from a silver tube in her pocket, faces forward again with a little shake of that lovely hair. Go on, say something one of you, God love us!  But when the brakes get slammed on at Holborn Tube, he gets up slowly, flashing her a smile with a pound of regret in it before he disappears down the stairs.  She half rises, hitching her bag strap over her shoulder, but no.  She sinks down and sighs, twisting her hair round the fingers of her right hand.  No point telling her what I think, she’d smile politely and pull a book out of her bag.
Hundreds of missed chances like this every day, but I can’t be everywhere at once.  Sometimes people take the plunge afterwards and send a message into one of the free papers that get left all over the seats:  ‘To the girl on the District line with the blonde hair and the black coat’ –well that narrows it down – ‘I can’t stop thinking about you, please get in touch.’  That’s why I carry a notepad, so I can get all the details, so there can be no doubt.
Her coat’s the same colour as his all those years ago, silver buttons on the shoulders catching the moonlight after I sent him away down Margate seafront, slowly shaking his head.  I thought there’d be others could make me feel the same.  Didn’t know I’d fallen in love.  
I know the PO Box number by heart. I write out the rest of the message:  ‘To the woman on the No.59 to King’s Cross, Tuesday 1st October – chestnut hair, grey eyes, olive coat, amber earrings, and the man who sat next to her over Waterloo Bridge - red and black checked shirt, brown leather satchel, beard - I saw you both wondering What If?  Here is your second chance.’

Greenacre Writers Groups

Greenacre Writers have four groups:
Fiction Writers Group meet every 6 weeks on a Tuesday. 
The format involves selected members’ work sent to fellow members for critiquing and feedback at the following meeting. We provide guidelines for feedback. We do not carry out writing exercises at meetings. Membership requires a commitment and regular attendance (ie: you should expect to attend the majority of meetings.) 
Finish that Novel group meets the third Monday monthly.
The FTN2 group is for writers currently working on novels, autobiography or memoir. The format involves selected members’ work sent to fellow members for critiquing and feedback at the following meeting. We provide guidelines for feedback. We do not carry out writing exercises at meetings. Membership requires a commitment and regular attendance (ie: you should expect to attend the majority of meetings.) 
Memoir Course starts in September 2016
What's the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? Let's start with that question,  where so much confusion lies. Now get this clear.  A MEMOIR is a part of your life.  An autobiography is the whole thing, the whole life.  OK.  Got that now?  Let's move on. 
Anna Meryt will be running a Memoir Course as part of Greenacre Writers
There’ll be seven 1.5 hour sessions, the venue will be in North London and the cost for the entire course will be £70 (payable in advance for the course, (concessions price available on request).
You've got a story only you can tell.
Novel Focus Group starts in October 2016
Allen Ashley has been successfully running a Novel Focus Group on behalf of Greenacre Writers since October 2015. The current round of sessions concludes in July. Allen is keen to take on a new cohort of would-be novelists for the next academic year, starting October 2016. Subjects covered will include:  Novel planning, Structure, First pages and chapters, Characterisation, Location, Dialogue, Pacing, Style and Editing techniques. If you are serious about settling into writing your novel, this is the course for you. 
For more information contact Greenacre Writers: 

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Second prize winner in GW/FLF Short Story competition 2016.

The Wondwossi Hotel Bar by James Woolf

They visited her for years, this eccentric old aristocrat on the hillside; businessmen, tourists, journalists, teachers, and locals alike. 
   As often as not, they came here to stop, to escape the thrum and turbulence of the city, and perhaps to have a conversation. Sometimes these conversations led to love affairs or business deals and occasionally to squalid fights on the terrace. Other interactions fizzled and were forgotten in moments.
   For when they are here, these patrons, standing tall on the varnished wooden floor, they are the hotel bar’s life blood, as if they’ve never existed elsewhere. But when they are gone, others step up immediately, chuntering between the white walls and cultural bric-a-brac, equally present and alive: they too become the place itself.
   Over there, a young boy sits with his father – in that corner, under the solemn painting of the two brothers. He drinks lemonade as a reward for his achievements at the chess table. His father, in Addis Ababa for a year on business, is repeating the history of this museum piece, built on the whim of an empress at the dawn of the twentieth century. But Oliver is eavesdropping on a young European couple, hoping to hear words of love, which will mean that they are having sex. Years from now, he will return to the Wondwossi Hotel and, in this same bar, will meet an academic from Jijiga. This woman, apparently with no agenda other than to speak with him, and to laugh, will join him at the night’s end in the four-poster bed in his high ceilinged room. And again, years later, when he sets out to find her, he’ll discover that she had become pregnant with his child. 
   Yeneta, the new barman serves cheap draft beer to Oliver’s father. He’s concerned that his mental arithmetic skills may be insufficient for the job. He plans to study biology but will become distracted by friends, and then by a family, and will work at the Wondwossi for years to come. When asked about studying, he’ll say that people are his subject and that observing them is life’s greatest lesson. In a decade or so, Judy, whose conversation Oliver was straining to overhear, will also return. She’ll spend a week, sitting alone in the bar, consuming trashy novels, whilst trying to decide what to do with her life.
   Judy feels let down by her bicycling husband; and certainly, in the Wondwossi, many promises are made and just as many broken. Many pairs of roving eyes are noticed by Yeneta. He notices everything, in fact, until – returning home one wretched night – he is caught beneath the wheels of a motorcycle and never regains consciousness.
   Yeneta’s fate still awaits him when Oliver collides with Habesha in the hotel’s revolving doors. Oliver apologises and begins a conversation. The bar by now shows signs of shabbiness. Plaster falls from the white walls leaving gaps like pock-marked skin. It is though in many respects still a fine hotel. Ethiopian jazz plays once again in the club, after music all but died during the Red Terror. Oliver tells Habesha about his chess tournaments as a boy and how happy he is to be back after all this time. Habesha talks of a memory of riding with her father on their only camel to see her dying grandmother in a Jijiga hospital; her first visit away from their mud-hut to the city; her first sip of Coca Cola; her first sight of the university where she would work.
   You can see how they bring pieces of themselves, but how, mostly, their lives are left outside. Like Mitiku, who returns nightly for what seems like months with his friend Nega after the sudden death of Mitiku’s young bride. In this bar, she is neither named nor mentioned, because language can be stretched to cover the holes in people’s lives. But she is present in the looks that pass between the two old friends as they raise their glasses in their nightly journey towards oblivion.
   And they spot, but do not speak with, Judy, immersed in her week of intensive reading, although she does have a single conversation with Jared, an ex-soldier, and Yeneta clocks this, and also sees them stealing away from the bar together before Judy returns alone (within the hour).
   Over the years, so many thoughts unspoken. So many people kept waiting for dates by careless partners who will arrive and apologise so loudly and profusely that the very bar itself believes their words to be sincere. So many messages left on cell phones, or at the reception desk in the cavernous vestibule, including many for Judy from Jared (all of which naturally go unanswered).
   There were rumours, tensions of course, and everyone knew the potential capabilities of Al-Shabaab to strike in the heart of the capital. But nobody saw it coming in the way that it did. 
   A newspaper with the headline RIP THE WONDWOSSI lies face up in the rubble. Now in their fifties, standing in front of the ruins and attempting to understand what has happened, Oliver and Habesha feel as if this is already old news. 
   They had seen the story of the series of strategic explosions which had taken out different parts of the historic hotel. They had watched it on television in their small Jijiga flat. They had acted as one and driven over to Addis Ababa the next day. 
   The walls are collapsed. Historic artefacts destroyed. Oliver and Habesha know that thirty seven are dead and dozens more wounded. 
   Their grown-up daughter, Lola, is with them. She is training to be a chemist and they have many hopes and fears for her future. They point to the entrance where they first met – “is that really the remains of the revolving door?” – and they hold hands, the three of them, they actually stand on that spot once again, but are moved on by a security man. 
   “This site is not safe,” he says. “Please. Please move along.” 

Monday 11 July 2016

Third prize winner in FLF/GW Short Story competition 2016

Now I’m a Fish by Sal Page

I hear his feet on the jetty. There he is; hands on knees, peering into the water.
‘Stacey? Are you there? Can you hear me?’
I’m well camouflaged here among the dappled water-shadows. I slip between the ticklish waterweeds to wait at a safe distance, wondering what he’s got to say for himself.
‘Okay. You win. From now on, no more staying out all night.’
Huh! Bet that wouldn’t last more than a week. Two mates with a flimsy reason to celebrate and he’d be off with his best shirt tucked into his jeans.
‘I’ll be a new man. Even put a wash on occasionally.’
Occasionally? Half the stuff’s his. Greasy boiler suits. All those towels. And t-shirts dumped in the hamper after only an hour’s wearing.
‘And I’ll remember to put out the bins, rather than wait to be reminded.’
That would be something. I hate the way he turns me into a nag.
But what do I care of such mundane, land-bound matters? I’ve left all that behind. These days I settle for quiet hours on the pebbly lake-bed, letting the cool water ripple over me.
Life is lovely now I’m a fish. I twist my body to admire my new rainbow iridescent scales. My fins grow stronger each day. I own every single drop of this lake. I’ve forgotten what breathing’s like. So much better than that time I was a bird. Water is safer and quieter than air. But then he found me and talked me back down. I should’ve stayed higher and gone further.
He’s sitting on the jetty. His toes dip into the water. I always liked his toes.
‘Your boss called. They need you back. He can’t hold the job open much longer. What should I say?’
Of course. They’d have to employ some other mug to open up in the mornings and take in the deliveries. I bet the cases of tinned stuff were piling up in the yard and no one else bothered to flatten the boxes for recycling like I did.
Like I used to. I shake my head to banish these irrelevant work-thoughts.
‘Stacey? Are you there? Or am I just a fool talking to a lake?’
This makes my giggle. A few bubble-pearls escape from my mouth and shoot up to the surface.
‘I’ve looked everywhere for those light bulbs. Where did you put them? I have to go up to bed in the dark. On my own.’
I told him several times where those bulbs were. I wish he hadn’t said that last bit though. Bed. I do sort of miss our bed. The lake-bed isn’t quite the same. I miss waking on a Sunday, knowing we don’t have to be anywhere all day. I miss his feet warming mine on cold mornings.
Down here I never have to be anywhere and I don’t feel the cold. I wake when the sunlight filters through the water, banishing the shadows I’ve rested in all night. I swim to the surface to feast on the small flies that gather there. Those flies are surprisingly delicious. A few gobbles and gulps and I’m done. No preparation. No washing up. And to think I used to plan meals, go to the market every day and follow recipes.
‘Instead of just watching cooking programmes, I’ll make dinner.’
He must’ve read my mind. He used to make me laugh, criticising the chef’s choice of ingredients and presentation style. Acting the big old expert even though he only ever made cheese on toast. Just last month I had to get up and switch the grill off while he lay snoring on the sofa.
‘And I’m sorry about that time … you know …’
I know what he’s referring to. He’d been drinking all day and night. I should have left him alone. I know he felt bad when he saw the bruises on my cheek and arm.
‘But you came back then.’
Yes. My week as a bird was so hard. The air currents scared me. Here, the other fish just leave me alone. Not like those birds with their screeches and sharp beaks.
‘It won’t happen again, Stace. Tell me you believe me.’
I peer upwards. He’s letting down a line. Something on the end of it plunges through the surface of the water above me. I inch-swim towards it. Caught in silver light-ripples, it glints as it drifts into my eye-line.
A diamond. My tough little fish-stomach does a flip of excitement. I recall the box of chocolates he persuaded the bird-me home with. I fell for them.
But this is something else.
‘I know this is what you want, Stacey. Come on.’
I gulp. The ring’s beautiful. Exactly what I would’ve chosen for myself.
‘Please come back. I love you, Stace.’
He loves me? He never said that before.
My gills prickle and my fish-eyes add a few more drops of water to the lake. I glance up at his feet dangling above me. He still has those calluses on his heels. I once told him he had beautiful feet. It made him blush. They’re still beautiful, despite the rough skin. I wish I had hands still, so I could reach out and touch them.  I’ve told him over and over to keep using that cream. I even offered to put it on for him but he waved me away like I was making a fuss.
‘So are you going to stop sulking now? Come back where you belong?’
Sulking? Is that what I’m doing? It doesn’t feel like sulking. It feels wonderful. The water on my fish-body is smooth as silk. I wonder if I’ll ever stop marvelling at how beautiful it feels.
And … back where I belong?
No way.
I belong in the water.
I flick my new tail and, knowing I leave a trail of silvery bubbles in my wake but not looking back to see them for once, head for the deeper part of the lake.

Truly Scrumptious Joanna Campbell

In 2015, Joanna's story, Upshots, was announced the winner of the London Short Story Prize. It was after we saw this announcement that myself, Lindsay and Carol, all thought Joanna would be perfect as the judge for the Greenacre Writers/FLF short story competition. There followed a hilarious searching of google maps to find out where she lived, and if it was near, enough, to Finchley. Google maps told me Joanna’s home town was near Woking, so not too far then. The reality was somewhat further, much further away! Anyway lucky for us, Joanna agreed to travel to Finchley, with a little bit of help from her husband.

The delightful and friendly Joanna Campbell, was our judge for the FLF & Greenacre Writers short story competition.

James Woolf, 2nd Prize, reading his short story
You can read the winning stories here.

Joanna started off by announcing the first, second and third prizes for the competition. James Woolf who won second prize attended the festival and read his short story, The Wondwossi Hotel.

She also gave a presentation about her writing career, her experiences of living in Germany, which sowed the seeds for her novel and her thoughts about the power of the short story.

'Nothing can be empty of meaning or irrelevant in a short story. It may not always need a plot, but it must have a point.'

Joanna discussed a variety of research methods, which included purchasing communist chocolate bars (all in the interests of thorough research of course), and the stretching of the imagination beyond the usual limits of knowledge and experience. When talking about character she said:

'Often the characters have little to gain, but everything to lose. Any topic, any revelation, any shock or shedding of skin, is fair game for a short story. It’s a raw, intense moment, so make the reader gasp, panic, laugh, weep.'

She cleverly likened the short story to fish:

'Where a novel is a shoal on a mission, the short story is a single fish, close to the surface of the sea. Its appearance is fleeting, a bright flash before it vanishes into deep water. But for that moment, its delicate scales, its streamlined shape, are clearly defined. It doesn’t make waves and it passes in silence, but we have no doubt we have seen it.'

There were some wonderful references to famous writers including:

'According to Frank O'Connor, in a novel the crisis is the destination, the plausible outcome of all the foregoing action. In short fiction, the crisis is the story.'

She spoke about editing:

By the time you have written a story—honed it, then added a word, deleted it, then put it back in (twenty times over), polished the thing, put it away, taken it out, printed it, read it aloud, paced the room declaring it the worst bilge ever to grace a perfectly good piece of paper—you have strayed a long, long way from your own self. And you have done this not to escape from life, but to make it more fathomable, more bearable. You have created other, imperfect people who struggle from minute to minute.

And the whole thing:

'You have made a world detached from you, a world which stands alone, able to exist in isolation. And therefore, although you have made fiction, you have also made truth.'

Joanna spoke about how shyness meant she would lock herself away, perfect for writers to get on with the important stuff of writing but not always so good for the writer. It was good to be reminded that characters must be allowed to take the lead:

Joanna was pleased to meet up with Antonia Honeywell
'Too much confidence can be risky for writers. You must allow yourself to get things wrong. You make progress by recognising mistakes. Your characters should be allowed to take you by surprise and yell, ‘you’re barking up the wrong tree here’.'

And continuing to talk about writing confidence said:

'Perhaps writers possess a different kind of confidence. Not the outward kind, but something entrenched inside, borne perhaps from experience, from childhood, from suffering. The East German novelist, Christa Wolf, talked of how “a deep pain or a deep concentration lights up the landscape within.”'

Joanna read from her collection of short stories, When Planets Slip Their Tracks and an extract from her novel, Tying Down the Lion. We were delighted a few days later to discover that When Planets Slip Their Tracks had been shortlisted for The Rubery Book Award.)

Tying Down the Lion, Joanna's debut novel, is published by Brick Lane and was long-listed for The Guardian's Not the Booker prize 2015. When Planets Slip Their Tracks, published by Ink Tears, is Joanna's collection of prize-winning stories.
Her prizewinning stories have been published in many magazines, Mslexia, The Lampeter Review and The New Writer. She has been shortlisted many times for the Bridport Prize, the Fish Prize and the Flannery O'Connor Award. In 2013 she came second in the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition and won the local prize in the Bath Short Story Award. She has been published in many anthologies, has a novel published and a short story collection which we will hear more about later. It was our great honour to welcome Joanna Campbell and give her our thanks for being our judge and such an excellent speaker. We shan't forget this lovely day.

Follow Joanna on Twitter: @PygmyProse

from Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings by Frances Mensah Williams

Pasta fanatic Faye Bonsu loves her job as Junior interior designer at Cayhill’s - one of the top design consultancy firms in the City of London. Her relationship with long term boyfriend Rocky Assante, is deteriorating due to his heavy work load and Faye felt that:

lost in a haze of work, her high-flying investment banker boyfriend was fast becoming a stranger

The story begins with Faye taking a break from her busy work life to go to Hampstead Heath with her best friend Caroline and Caroline’s daughter Coco. Surrounded by ‘yummy mummies…and shiny buggies’ Faye reflects on her life situation as she watches children running around on the Heath and families spread over colourful picnic blankets.

Faye feels her relationship with Rocky is not moving forward. Approaching thirty she is now ready to settle down. The problem is, Rocky gives no indication he feels the same way. His job involves long hours and a lot of travelling leaving Faye to wonder what the future holds.  Despite enjoying her career, which is heading in a very positive direction, Faye has other aspirations and:

continued to harbour her secret dreams of a big family of boisterous, noisy children

Friends and family, realising she is ready to settle down, are urging her to put her needs first and talk to Rocky about how she feels. However, Faye continues to send Rocky mixed messages about her feelings and their relationship causing them to drift further apart. It seems like her resolve to speak to Rocky about her frustrations disappear as soon as she sees him.

“She just stared at him, struck yet again by how utterly beautiful he was”

She is still drawn to him and although he is unreliable she almost melts the minute she sees him, all her frustrations and annoyance pushed aside.

“Rocky’s low drawl sent familiar shivers juddering straight through her body

When they both return to Ghana for the wedding of Rocky’s sister Amma, Faye is wary of spending a whole week in the same house together and her fears are realised as he becomes even more distant.
Although Faye struggles to confront her own relationship issues she is busy helping others with theirs. Best friend Caroline and husband Marcus have their own problems along with Caroline’s dislike for her mother-in-law and Faye steps in to get them to see sense. Faye’s client Harriet Woollaston is in a similar situation with her husband Jamie and Faye helps to bring the two back together.

It is only after her return from Ghana that Faye begins to reflect on her own desires, looking deeply into a past relationship to find clarity.

from Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings is a story about the complexities of relationships. Many will empathise with Faye’s inability to discuss her own feelings, resulting in an unhappy relationship. It is always easier to see the problems of others rather than one’s own.

It is an entertaining novel which reflects modern day living. The juggling of career and family life and trying to achieve a happy balance between the two. The characters are authentic and it is easy to get caught up in the day to day struggles of their personal issues.

It is also a story about love – which is ultimately what drives everyone forward. Love for friends; love for relatives and love on a more personal level. We see the issues that arise between people once the initial excitement has worn off but there is also the delight and hope of new love when Lottie, Faye’s family housekeeper, falls in love with the dashing, aging actor Sam Molloy who has recently moved into the street.

Cultural references to Ghana, the African food and way of life through Fay and Rocky's experiences also give added dimension and interest to the novel 

Second Helpings was a very enjoyable read and Frances Mensah Williams has achieved a good balance between reality and fiction to enable the reader to identify with the characters in a positive way.

We thank Jacaranda Books for the review copy

Tuesday 5 July 2016

A Conversation with Frances Mensah Williams

Frances Mensah Williams was born in Ghana and although she moved to the United Kingdom when she was just six years old, Ghana – and Africa in general – is still very important in her life. This interest is reflected in her writing of both non-fiction and fiction and in her work. Frances studied at Reading University and took up a career in Human Resources Management, Training and Consultancy where she worked in both the UK and Africa.

Before embarking on a career in fiction, Frances wrote two non-fiction books: I Want to Work in Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent and Everyday Heroes: Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals. She also wrote articles for magazines and newspapers and has continued to do so while holding the position as publisher of ReConnectAfrica.Com and working as Chief Executive of Interims for Development Ltd. She also speaks at events in connection with Africa. Frances now lives with her family in London.

The draft for her first novel Pasta to Pigfoot (May 2015) was written when she was living and working in Ghana and Frances’ follow up novel from Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings was recently published in May 2016.

Pasta fanatic Faye Bonsu seems to have it all: a drop-dead gorgeous and successful boyfriend, a bourgeoning career as an interior designer and a rent-free mansion in leafy Hampstead to call home. But with all her friends shifting into yummy mummy mode, a man who seems to have no desire to put a ring on it, tricky clients, and an attractive and very single boss, things are not quite as straightforward as they might appear.

Hoping to escape from her suddenly complicated life and revive her wilting romance, Faye returns to sunny Ghana for what she hopes will be the time of her life. But life doesn’t always offer second chances and when disaster strikes, she is forced to confront the biggest question of her life and to make a choice that comes with consequences she will have to live with forever.

We thank Frances for joining us in conversation and wish her lots of success with Second Helpings and happy writing for the third novel she is currently working on.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

My journey started as a voracious child-reader who simply devoured books. My author training came from years of Saturday afternoons sitting on the window seat of Hampstead Garden Suburb Library reading as much as I could before being turfed out, and then carrying at least five books home with me until the next weekend. Spending so much time in the worlds created by others, it seemed only natural to me to create my own characters and my own version of the multicultural world that I grew up in. My journey took me from London to Ghana where, for a few years, I experienced first-hand the challenge of blending two cultures and the fascinating – and sometimes hilarious - clashes that could arise; a period of time that informed some aspects of my first novel. Writing has taken many forms for me along the way, from book reviews, contributing chapters to journals and books, numerous articles and opinion pieces, to establishing an online magazine. It was only after writing two non-fiction books that tackled the paucity of black ‘everyday people’ role models and revealed career opportunities in Africa respectively, that my journey has a fiction writer finally came to fruition in 2015 with the publication of my first novel, From Pasta to Pigfoot.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

For me, writing is a way of giving voice and structure to ideas and characters that appear randomly and swill around my brain until I put them to paper. It’s a way of releasing stories that I can visualise internally, almost like a movie, hoping that others will also find them interesting. What I like most is that it gives me a platform to take people into a world that many people don’t get to see often or at all, and to introduce characters that may have a different ethnicity but who have the same hopes, dreams and insecurities and who suffer the same mishaps as any reader.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

I have to hand that prize to Michael, who is the boyfriend of Faye, the protagonist in From Pasta to Pigfoot – and judging by the hissing he gets at book readings, I’m not the only one who thinks so! He’s patronising, opinionated, insensitive and has a completely overblown Pygmalion complex. I’m sure everyone has met and detested a ‘Michael’ at some point in our lives – that person who criticises what you eat, wear, do, and even think. But I can also understand why he has developed into such a culture fascist. We all want to belong and to feel part of a group or society that accepts and validates us even if, as in his case, he takes it all far too seriously.

Last October Greenacre Writers organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience writing about characters of colour?
Characters of colour are the real-life characters that surround me every day so writing about them doesn’t feel any different to writing about white characters. As a black woman, I’m the norm to me, and because my family and friends of colour are as much a part of my daily world as my white friends and family, I don’t see us/them as different, except in their personalities. Growing up, I lived in several different countries and while I recognise differences, take for instance those between my country of origin, Ghana, and the UK; I don’t feel wedded to any one worldview or culture so strongly that the other feels ‘alien’. I tend to believe that fundamentally people are people and when I write, my concern is that my characters should be engaging and entertaining, whatever their skin colour.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Somewhere with a warm climate where I can write on a cool balcony overlooking the sea. And ideally where there’s no kitchen, so I don’t have to stop writing to cook dinner for teenagers.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

It would have to be The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency because Alexander McCall Smith created not only an unforgettable character in Precious Ramotswe, but a world of courtliness and humour where even the scoundrels are charming. The book informs and entertains, but also shows a different facet to Botswana and the Africa we tend to see in novels.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

I tend to think that, like me, most people nod wisely at words of advice and then promptly forget them. My contribution to a nodding-wisely moment would be to encourage anyone who wants to write to quite simply just do it. Don’t apologise for your voice or feel the need to explain the stories you want to share; just write what comes to you, and write it well.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m working on the manuscript of what I’m hoping will be my third novel and trying to live with the different voices from the characters constantly popping in and out of my head. My second novel, From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings – the sequel to From Pasta to Pigfoot – has just been published. As with the first book, Second Helpings is set in London and Ghana, and follows the next phase of Faye’s adventures in life and love.

From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings is published by Jacaranda Books.

Saturday 2 July 2016

A Memorable event - Harry Parker talks about Anatomy of a Soldier

Last Friday, the day of the Finchley Literary Festival, I awoke to a text from my daughter to tell me that the UK had voted to leave the EU. I thought she was joking. I couldn't really take it in as I'd overslept and had to rush up to Finchley High Road, to collect cheques for the short story competition winners. I'm only now beginning to understand the awful consequences of that vote. But on the day, I had no time to think as we had a festival to run.

Having collected the cheques, I ran home, grabbed cat food on the way, and suddenly heard somebody call my name. It was Carol Sampson, on her way to mine. I jumped in the car and was home in two minutes. No sooner had we arrived, than there was a knock on the door, and it was Lindsay Bamfield. We set off and picked up Mr Greenacres, on our way to the library for the FLF second event. We had to get out of the car, empty it of its contents so Mr Greenacres, could re-pack his equipment. Many moons ago, he used to play in a band so is very good at packing and stacking stuff in other people's cars or vans.
Harry Parker with his book
Anatomy of a Soldier

At Church End Library, we were greeted by the new library manager, Richard. And soon our first author for the second event arrived, Harry Parker, to talk to Carol about his novel Anatomy of a Soldier.

To find out more about the first event and the lit fest from Lindsay's perspective, see here.

Harry spoke about the inspiration for the novel, his own experiences in the army in Afghanistan and Iraq. 'Nothing good comes out of war. I came back to a country that looked after me and that gave me hope.' [Our wonderful NHS always deserve a plug]

Anatomy of a Soldier tells the story of Capt Tom Barnes and his near death encounter with a landmine. The story is told from the viewpoints of 45 objects – helmet, bicycle, dog tags, rifle round, rug, medical instruments, handbag, medal, snowflake, drone – before, during and after the explosion.

While writing the book, he was thinking about chapters being blown up in the air and falling in any order, mimicking the disorientation that a soldier goes through. Part of the disorientation for Harry meant working out what each object was. Soldiers can often feel a bit like an object so he tried to make the objects solve problems - joining the army is all about solving problems. Harry loved the way the objects could move in a different way to humans. Move through a country and could even rot and die. His first reading was from the perspective of an infection:

I was inside your leg, deep among flesh that was torn and churned. I lived there for a week and wanted to take root, but it wasn't easy. Some of my spores were washed away with the dirt from your wounds, others were cut out with necrotic tissue, and some were destroyed by a barrage of your white blood cells.
   I struggled to survive.

After recovering, learning how to walk again, and returning to work, he had a desk job filling in spreadsheets, but all the while he was thinking about the book that was a'growing in his imagination. Eventually, he quit his job and the army. When soldiers leave, they are offered some sort of course to help them on their way. Harry asked if he could do a writing course. He was told they had never been asked for that before but they agreed. Harry went to Arvon. When he came back he wrote the Anatomy of a Soldier in twelve weeks, though it was a few years before it was published.

Carol Sampson interviewing
Harry Parker
In writing Anatomy of a Soldier, Harry says, ‘I set myself rules. The objects don’t have emotion, they can’t speak. There were rules along the lines of, they can only know what someone is thinking if they are touching them. The rules don’t really matter for the reader but they mattered for me as a writer to keep a structure.’

Before the book was published, he shared the script with his father, who is a General, he gave his approval and told Harry to go ahead and put it out into the world.

Harry was asked by a member of the audience whether the accident had made him a writer.

Harry said: 'I would have still been in the army and feel lucky to be here,' and he supposed, yes it had contributed to him becoming a writer. However, his background is as a creative, he was an artist, and recently completed a postgraduate course in fine art. So one must presume his army experience would have found its way onto the page in some form or other.

When he was in hospital recovering from the explosion, he was told, when you're better you'll treasure every day. Harry didn't believe the person who told him that at the time. And at that very moment, Harry's baby daughter, Sophie, who was in the audience, started gurgling. It was very apt, because of course his beautiful daughter is all about hope and the future.

Harry Parker grew up in Wiltshire. He was educated at Falmouth College of Art and University College London. He joined the British Army when he was 23 and served in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009 as a Captain. He is now a writer and artist and lives in London with his wife and daughter.

Anatomy of a Soldier is published by: Faber and Faber

You can follow Harry on Twitter: @harrybparker