Blogs on the block

Hooray for the holidays! I’ve finished at Cardiff for Easter and I’m enjoying the start of my last university break. At the end of June after my exams I’m hoping to join the world of work.

Future plans aside, today I had the chance to catch up with my blog and have a   quick peek at what other bloggers are writing. Here are two fantastic blogs which I thought I’d share with you. 

Wear the Old Coat This trendy looking blog is hot off the WordPress after its author Jo left to relaunch and upgrade. It specialises in young adult fiction and includes regular book reviews and guest posts. Jo’s writing is full of personality and enthusiasm for her subject. If you’ve never read this type of fiction before check out her A-Z which has a handy list of books to start with.

Recommended post,  From Cymru with CariadA funny and light-hearted look at what Wales has to offer including film locations, food and rugby stars.

Crawl Space Sarah Hilary’s blog is a must-read for crime fiction fans and writers. Visit it for interviews, book reviews and information on upcoming events in the Bristol area. If you’re a writer you can also join the fun by entering the Flashbang crime writing contest.

Recommended postAuthor Sophie Hannah chooses her favourite thrillers, gives an opinion on crime fiction festivals and shares what it’s like to be on television.


An interview with Ivy Alvarez

Ivy Alvarez was born in the Philippines and grew up in Australia. Her work has appeared in anthologies and journals around the world, with individual poems translated into Russian, Japanese, Spanish and Korean. Now Ivy lives in Cardiff where she runs poetry workshops and is the editor of The Private Press, which publishes handmade chapbooks. Her book Mortal was published by Red Morning Press in 2006.

Your first collection Mortal started with the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone

When did you first hear this story?

My interest in fairy tales, biblical stories, myths and legends stem from childhood. I was very much a reader even then.  I can’t exactly recall when I first discovered the Demeter and Persephone myth in particular. Quite likely it was around that time or pretty much soon after arriving in Australia when I was ten years old.

What was it about this story which captured your imagination?

Photograph taken by Rachael Duncan

The one element in the story of Demeter and Persephone that always sticks with me is the detail of the pomegranate seeds and how everything can be undone by overlooking something so simple and almost trivial. It’s also not a little maddening. They would’ve escaped Hades, if only Persephone hadn’t taken the seeds! Still, I can understand the action. It is an all-too-human mistake.

When I first read it, I had no idea what a pomegranate looked like, though. It’s not very common where I grew up, either in the Philippines or in Tasmania. Knowing it as I do now, the closest approximation I have would be the guava, though in my book, I use the aratilis (Muntingia calabura) to replace the mythical fruit.

Persephone’s story has been used throughout history by poets like Tennyson and artists like Rossetti and Bernini

How did you alter it to make it your own?

The Demeter and Persephone myth provides a solid framework for Mortal and is a microcosmic version of Dee and Seph’s story. In the book, Persephone becomes Seph, Demeter, Dee. The name-change, switching from the formal to a casual nickname, demarcates a splitting-off from the mythical characters. These are now not gods — merely a mother and daughter.

Another sign of this myth-disruption can be found in the prose poem ‘The Abduction of Demeter’, which begins: ‘This time it is Demeter Hades wants.’ This poem forms part of the Demeter and Persephone sequence in Mortal. I envisioned this sequence as a tapestry painting, depicting a story which, when transposed onto the modern lives of Dee and Seph, shows the differences and similarities between past and present.

What was the inspiration for the title of Mortal? How does the collection deal with issues of mortality?

I love it when a word has a multiplicity of meanings, and especially when these meanings contradict each other. ‘Mortal’ is one such word. The poems in the book address these definitions one way or another and the theme of gods and mortals threads its way through some of them.

How does the collection deal with issues of mortality? I’m not sure the book completely resolves the many issues surrounding that question. All one can do is tell a story and hope that, in the telling, one can gain an understanding of why it is mortals have to die and gods can live forever.

In the myth Demeter’s grief after the loss of her daughter is particularly painful 

How special is the bond between a mother and daughter?

The question — what would it be like if they die before I do? — probably floats through one’s mind, as either a parent or a child, at one time or another. This is the yawning chasm nobody wants to look into too closely.

How can one come to grips with such an emotionally loaded topic? One turns to the past. A mythical character’s grief happens at a remove. There is the paper. There is the ink. There is the story of what they’re feeling. Here I am on the other side of the page, reading about it. The myth helps one understand, brings it closer into focus, and so create order from chaos.

 Have you had different responses to the book in different parts of the world? 

One notable response to the book comes from readers whose relationships with their mothers are, I gather, somewhat strained or non-existent.

To these readers, I guess a mother-daughter relationship where the mother is clearly distraught at the loss of her daughter, as depicted in the myth, must seem foreign and unrecognisable. I must admit, it interests me, this reaction, and its difference from what I usually encounter.

Do you think your travel experiences have benefited you as a writer?

In May 2011, I received an invitation to give poetry readings in Seoul, Korea as part of Cordite’s Oz-Ko Poetry Tour. One way I tried to comprehend this life-changing experience is through writing a short series of strange prose poems. I find these personally intriguing because they feel so unlike my previous work.

Anything that shakes me out of my writing habits is to be highly prized, I feel. Travel definitely provides that jolt.

Snowdonia, taken by dringer

What do you think about Welsh culture and writing?

Cardiff’s cultural energy is hard to quantify or describe but it’s undeniable. It’s there. It has a quiet confidence in its own identity, one that’s not strident or self-important. I admire that.

When I first arrived in Cardiff, it felt familiar. The climate reminds me a lot of Hobart, where I grew up. It shares a similar topography: both have a river running through it, both have access to mountains and hills.

I think having a sense of the familiar helps provide some foundation. Wales is where I’ve lived the longest outside of Australia and it feels very stable to me. People here are the closest to the Australian level of laidback that I’ve seen. And I’ve written more here than anywhere else.

I’ve heard you’re writing a second book, can you tell me more about this?

I first had the idea for my second book in 2004, while I was in the middle of trying to get Mortal published. It is about a man who kills his wife, his son and then himself, leaving a daughter as the sole survivor.

I envisaged the work as a novel-like poem, a long poem made up of many poems, all telling the story of this terrible crime. It quickly became an obsession with me. I completed it in early 2011, so that’s about seven years, which is a long time to be living with such dark material. I admit to feeling quite emotional when I finished it.

I’m very excited about it. It’s quite an incredible accomplishment for me and I’m really looking forward to the day when it is published and other people can read it, too.

Ivy has her own website which you can see by clicking here

Cathy Farr on fantasy writing and dog walking

Author Cathy Farr would certainly agree with the saying a dog is man’s best friend. Her Irish wolfhound, Finn, has been a constant companion for four years and also inspired her first novel Moon Chase.

In Cathy’s story the villagers of Thesk, a wild and dangerous fantasy land, rely on the protection of the Fell men and their hounds to defend them against the Wraithe Wolves. For Cathy, having Finn allowed her to picture this world and the personality of the hounds.

Copyright: Monique Green

“People who know wolfhounds describe them as people, they always have a knowing expression,” said Cathy. “He watches me as though he’s trying to understand me.”

At nine foot long, Finn attracts plenty of attention during his walks with Cathy in Cosmeston Park, near their home in Dinas Powys. These trips provide exercise for Finn and inspiration for Cathy.

“When I get blocked and I haven’t got an idea I go to Cosmeston,”said Cathy. “There’s a bit at the back which is a bit barren and it’s great to get a feel of what the fells in Moon Chase might be like.

“If I go down to Cosmeston everybody wants to know about the book and about Finn. It’s really nice, I answer all their questions.”

Finn is also popular when Cathy visits local schools to talk about her book. Last month he accompanied Cathy to twenty different schools in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. During these visits Cathy shares her passion for writing and reading with pupils.

“When I go to schools I’m really glad to see how many children are aspiring to be writers,” she said. “The book is especially popular with young boys.

“It’s very fast and pacy, it includes bows and arrows and big horses running around. The story grabs them and they keep reading.

“I wasn’t very good at English, I wasn’t that widely read. But I used to pore over song lyrics. The first novel I read was Wuthering Heights and I only read it because of the song. Kate Bush inspired me to read, you never know what’s going to kick people into reading.”

Cathy’s second book, Moon Crossing, follows on from Moon Chase and will be published between May and July. To write this Cathy used a technique called free-writing, each chapter was written spontaneously as the story gained momentum and characters came to life.

“I just find it easier to go with the story,”said Cathy. “It comes out of my head when I’m writing it.

“There are bits in the book I didn’t know would happen until they happened. When I started Moon Crossing I had a specific idea of what the end was going to be. But when I got there I realised there were far more stories than I had intended. That scene is in the middle of the book now.”

This month Cathy received a draft front cover for Moon Crossing, which she is hoping will help to make her book stand out on the shelves.

Moon Chase happens in the night-time so the cover is dark and black,” she said. “The second story is set in a big town. There’s a lot of fire and gold is mentioned, so the cover is orange and gold. It should jump out at you.

“I’ve left it open-ended again. I have the opportunity for a third book, but I don’t know if there will be any more. I didn’t think there was going to be a second book, so I don’t want to promise anything yet.”

Cathy has her own website which you can see by clicking here

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Author David Wagner releases his autobiography

The life of a 70-year-old author, who survived years of childhood poverty, has proved to be golden material for an autobiography.

David Wagner’s new book Boy tells of life on the road with his mother Dolly since the age of six, after they were evicted from their home in Regent Street, Barry.

“History is usually written for the rich and famous and I thought it’s time it was written for the impoverished,” said David, who was signing copies of his book at AB Snell and Son, Penarth, last weekend.

“We slept rough anywhere we could find to shelter from the rain,” he said. “I’ve lived in bug ridden slums, that’s the sort of squalor I have encountered.”

After a period in the workhouse David and his mother, a former concert pianist, left and began travelling around the country looking for housekeeping or manual work, in Wales, South England and the Midlands.

“I was never in any place more than a few months,” said David. “You couldn’t look forward to next week. My mother was a very determined woman, she would go anywhere and try anything.”

Set in the 1940’s and 1950’s Boy tells the story of the first 15 years of David’s life. “It’s a world which has disappeared now,” he said. “I used to busk in pubs at the age of ten blacked up as Al Jolson, people didn’t think anything of it then.

“I have tried to introduce the next generation to it through the book. I’ve been telling these stories to my friends for years. People are very kind, they’ve said they found it fascinating.”

Boy includes David’s recollection of characters he met during his childhood, including a pig breeder with a glass eye from Pontllanfraith and a foster father with one leg.

“He took us in when my mother spent a year in hospital,” said David. “He had a smoke house and used to hunt rabbits. I never met my father, my foster father was the closest I had. He would do anything to keep the family provided for.”

Without a formal education, David learned to read from his mother and by reading his favourite author, Dickens. “Dickens was my tutor, I learned my English from him,” said David. “My mother, when she had pennies spare, she would buy me a book. Second to food was a book.”

Boy, which took a year to write, has the same title as Roald Dahl’s childhood memoirs. “My foster father used to call me boy, it was my second name,” said David. “I was called boy more often than I was called David. It was only after I discovered Dahl had called his book boy too.”

Now secretary for Barry Arts Centre, David settled in Penarth 35 years when he met his wife Pamela. “She was a good influence on me, I became respectable,” said David. “I never felt hard done by. That’s the way it was, you survived.”

David’s book can be purchased on Amazon or at AB Snell and Son. He has already started work on a sequel, Lad, which will detail the adventures of his later working life.

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Collecting Old Books

The collection so far

Antique dealers collect old books because they’re valuable. And some artists collect old books because they can be altered– scribbled on and cut to make new works of art. I’m collecting books for something different. I’m getting married in September and I’d like the table decorations to be book-related. So far my fiance seems willing too. 

This has become an excuse to dive into as many old bookshops as possible and I suspect I have more than enough books for the day. I’m hoping we can find a nice bookshelf to put them on when we move in together after the wedding.

But next I need to come up with a way of displaying them on the day. I’ve seen several clever ideas on the internet, but I’m not sure if they’re practical. If people are eating and drinking it might be better to have them in a basket which can be placed elsewhere if they start to get in the way.  If anyone has any suggestions let me know.

This Christmas my future mother-in-law very kindly gave me some old books as a present. Apparently she was going to give them to me separately at another time, but my fiance said I’d really like them and she should wrap them up.

An elephant on the front cover of The Jungle Book

He was right, they were just from the charity shop but I loved them. They were one of my favourite presents that day, books last longer than chocolate or bath salts and even clothes.

Now I’ve caught the collecting bug it’s hard to stop popping into the Oxfam book shop, or looking up my favourite titles on eBay to see if I can get a good copy. Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way you look at it, I’ve yet to bag a job as a journalist so I can’t splash out on too many….

Female writers at Agent 160 steal the show

Although women make up 52 per cent of the population, men write 83 per cent of plays, according to feminist theatre company Sphinx. Now Lisa Parry, artistic director for Agent 160, an exciting new female writer-led company, aims to change all this.

Twelve female playwrights will steal the limelight during the launch of Agent 160, at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, this weekend. With £16,520 worth of funding from art councils in Wales, England and Scotland, Lisa’s new venture will support rising female talent.

Playwright Lisa Parry

A former journalist, Lisa turned to playwriting after freelancing for several national newspapers. She returned to university to study scriptwriting at Birmingham. But as a regular theatre goer, Lisa soon found most plays were written by male authors.

“There was a definite run of them,” said Lisa. “Some writers are absolutely brilliant but it is unequal, you need to hear as many voices as you can. Writing is one of the ways which we express ourselves, we are not getting the full picture if there is no female voice. Frankly it’s not fair for young girls who want to write.”

Two years ago Lisa e-mailed several of her favourite female writers and Agent 160 was born.

“I got an e-mail from Lisa saying I’ve got a project, do you want to be involved?” said Welsh writer Branwen Davies, who is currently studying for a scriptwriting PhD in Aberystwyth. “I was horrified by the statistics when Lisa told me, it wasn’t something that I had thought about before.

“I thought through my favourite writers and a lot of them were men. Then, because I’m a Welsh speaker, I thought about the Welsh speaking playwrights who jump to mind and they were all male. I’m not really sure why this is, but the writers who are breaking through at the moment are all female. I think this will tip the balance.”

Agent 160 playwrights describe their plays in one word

After this weekend Agent 160 will perform in London and Glasgow. The team includes artists who live as far as Scotland and Ireland. Lisa, however, whose family is from Merthyr Tydfil, was happy to see the project launched in Cardiff. “I wanted to go there, it feels more like home,” she said.

Without an office, each writer works from home, using computers and secret internet forums to communicate. This keeps company costs down and makes the project all-inclusive. “All the writers are completely different,” said Lisa. “We deliberately gave them an open brief as some of the writers felt they were being pigeon holed.”

Branwen’s play is called Genki? – it means happy in Japanese,  and is based on her experiences during a year out in Japan.

The piece uses two female actors, with the second actor playing several different parts.  “I wanted to give it a sense of fun, to look at what Japan is like,” said Branwen. “The rehearsals went well yesterday, we had a good giggle.

“I think there is a stigma about female writers, that they write about how bad men are, and how wonderful women are. I wouldn’t say I’m writing in a typical female way. When I write for female characters I want to make them really powerful, I worry if they are too girly.”

Although the scriptwriters are female, other positions in the company are open to men, including London producer Dan Baker. “I think the men love it,” said Lisa. “Everyone has been working separately so I don’t think Dan has been exposed to the full female troop at the moment.”

Agent 160 takes its name from the restoration playwright Aphra Behn. Behn, who was one of the first women to earn a living by both acting and writing, also worked as a spy for Charles II and Agent 160 was her codename.

“I would hope she’d approve,” said Lisa. “From her plays it is obvious she understood power and gender politics.

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AuthoriseBlog talks to crime writer Sally Spedding

Crime writer Sally Spedding published her first novel Wringland in 2001. Since then she has written six more titles, as well as several short stories and poems. Last year Sally was winner of the Welsh Poetry Competition. Her latest chiller Cold Remains, which was released this February, is published by Sparkling Books and is set in the spooky Carmarthenshire countryside.

When did your desire for writing start?

I began, aged eight, combining my love for drawing with words – creating my own ‘newspapers’ – up in the attic of my Dutch grandparents’ house on the Blorenge, near Abergavenny. An escape, to make sense of this world, yet hearing the mighty rows raging down below.

The cover of Sally's new book

Why crime fiction? What is it about this genre you enjoy?

My problem is I can’t equate ‘fiction’ with what is made up. What I put on the page is as real to me as what I can see, touch and smell.

Explorations of the dark side of my characters and places are driven by an intense curiosity to unravel who and what they really are. To quote a maxim, which is so true, ‘people don’t change, they simply reveal themselves.’

I feel the crime genre box needs to be broken. The best crime writing includes horror, the paranormal and other elements so many readers have actually experienced. Johan Theorin is a good example of this, as is Pierre Magnan.

How has Wales inspired and influenced your work? 

Wales, like France, is a country of unfinished business. Living here, even as a Welsh-born, but non-Welsh speaker in a small, rural community in the late 1970’s, was like facing a furnace. That sense of exclusion – despite teaching at the local comprehensive school for 15 years and making some good friends – is hard to forget. However, we came back here four years ago, because it’s still home.

In France, the far right is, yet again, gaining ground. In our village in the Pyrenees, an Arab family is openly ostracized. Etrangers find it hard to get work, and not so far away, amidst the lovely vineyards and mountains, is a former military camp – the Sahara of the Midi -used for the zealous deportation of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals.

As a writer, nothing is wasted.

What was your inspiration for Cold Remains in particular?

In Cold Remains, it was the silence of the disused lead mine workings, just outside Rhandirmwyn, which inspired me to research further. Below the marshy ground lie treacherous caves with their secrets. Just like the silted-up swimming pool at Heron House. Just like those who live there…

Why is the country just as scary as the city? What’s the scariest place you’ve been?

The Rupert Bear books and cartoons are to blame. They always have an ominous speck on the horizon, or someone popping out from behind a bush. At least on a street someone will hear you scream…

The scariest place was around The Wash near Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, where my first chiller Wringland is set. Here, as Hilaire Belloc so aptly says, ‘the mud and tide commingle’ and the air seems full of unhappy ghosts.

Would you agree that horror can give a more realistic representation of today’s world?

Yes, of past and future worlds. Have you ever visited an abattoir? Seen what’s happening in the area of genetic engineering in innocuous looking laboratories? True horror is a close neighbour of reality.

Author Sally Spedding

Have you seen a rise in the popularity of crime fiction since you began writing?

I’ve seen a rise in the detective series certainly, it’s a rather overcrowded marketplace now. Anyone starting out needs to have a fresh vision and steer clear of stereotypes.  For example the cop with a drink problem and a wayward teenage daughter. Also, young girls and women as murder victims. These have literally been done to death.

As an author, whether in novels or the short story, I’ve kept the blinkers on and in doing so, am proud to keep pushing at the boundaries of conventional crime writing.

What has your experience of being a writer working in a world of changing technology been like?

Exciting. Twitter and Facebook keep me connected to those on this same, strange road. However, I love writing in longhand first, then editing  while transferring the work to my computer. I can draw my characters’ faces, create maps and generally feel the flow through the pen. It’s a long process, but I won’t change now. I have, however, become obsessive about saving work and taking my memory sticks with me everywhere.

As an experienced author, do you find the writing process goes more smoothly?

Having had a wonderful editor in Peter Lavery (Pan Macmillan) I find making things clear to the reader easier than I did. Sentence structure can make all the difference, I will always be grateful for his advice. I become suspicious if things go too smoothly. The most challenging aspect is when a main character evolves in a previously unplanned way.

Every novel, every short story or poem has its own challenges, but without these life would just be merely an existence.

Sally has her own website which you can see by clicking here.

If you’ve enjoyed this post I’d love to hear from you. Please click ‘like’ or leave a comment.