Interview with Lee Murray – Part 2

In the previous blog post, we spoke with New Zealand writer Lee Murray about her dual win at the Bram Stoker awards this year, and her journey with Black Cranes. (Click here for the first interview in this series.) Here we cover her second award-winning book, Grotesque: Monster Stories.

  1. Grotesque: Monster Stories was your first collection, and it won a Bram Stoker for best collection. After all the books you’re famed for, why the move to short stories? What challenges did you face in comparison to publishing novels and novellas?

Not exactly a ‘move’ to short stories; I’d been writing short fiction for anthologies and magazines, and less frequently for competitions, in order to improve my writing, and gain some early credits. Short fiction is a demanding form, with every word vital for creating ambiance, character, and plot. There is the tricky balance of adhering to the theme of the submission call, while also delivering something fresh and engaging. And there is the discipline of sticking to a deadline, word count, and other constraints imposed by the market. So, while creating my novels, I was simultaneously writing short stories to dip my toe into the mechanics of the publishing industry. I didn’t occur to me to gather those works into a collection. Grotesque: Monster Stories might not have happened at all if Steve Dillon at Things in the Well hadn’t approached me for a volume not long after the release of Into the Ashes, the third book in the Taine McKenna series, when I was at a bit of a loose end regarding my own writing. Between jobs, if you like. So we selected some likely stories in my back list, identified a unifying theme and scope (monsters, horror, breadth of style and form), and highlighted some potential gaps which I set about filling with fresh material, including a Taine McKenna novella. I approached it as if I were the editor of an anthology, only in this case I was the sole contributor.

2. Your own stories in Black Cranes, as well as the ones in Grotesque, cover a lot of cultural horror – from New Zealand to China and even other places. Is this a deliberate attempt to educate through literature? What kind of research goes into building a story around traditions, rituals, and cultural events?

No. While I hope that ultimately my writing educates and informs, I think it can be dangerous to make education the focus of our writing. We have to remember that readers are discerning; they know when we’re trying to clobber them over the head with our ideals, and it’s the kind of thing that makes them put a book down. Far better to write a narrative that engages and entertains and inject your theme into the book in more subtle ways, such as through symbolism, metaphor, and character responses. Recently, I’ve been writing more at the intersection of culture and myth, exploring my Asian heritage and Māori culture of my country. “I’ve always felt a yearning for Māori stories,” I wrote in a Medium interview by my Cranes sister, Christina Sng. “There are a lot of shared values and beliefs between the Māori culture of my homeland and the Chinese culture of my heritage: a certain synergy. Both cultures are founded on the deeds of supernatural ancestors, live by a mandate to protect the natural world, are imbued with a sense of community over individual, and tell simple compelling tales which teach respect and honor.” I do a lot of secondary thorough research—online, library resources—but occasionally I’ll use interviews and other primary sources to inform my work. I also send my work out for review and sensitivity assessment before I submit it, because we can’t see our own biases. When it comes to traditional culture and beliefs, authenticity and intent are key factors, as well as ensuring the dynamic aspects of character, since none of us are homogenous; we’re all the sum of myriad influences and identities.

3. You have co-written the Path of Ra series with Dan Rabarts. Could you tell us about the experience in co-writing a book? How does each author’s writing and storytelling style sync with the other to form the final product?

Here’s what I had to say on this topic when interviewed by Claire Fitzpatrick for The Horror Tree back in 2018: “The more I learn about collaborative writing projects, the more I realise that there are a million ways to go about it. It’s always different, depending on the medium, the subject matter, and the writers in question. With Dan and me, we have a kind of Lucy and Linus van Pelt thing going on: where I am the bossy big sister, and Dan is the highly independent little brother, who likes to charge off and do his own thing. Of course, that makes me even crabbier! So, we’ll have a basic plan, and we’ll start out writing chapter about, and by Chapter Four, Dan will have Matiu racing down a dark alley, dodging explosions. Then I’ll have to come up with an explanation for the ‘diversion’, since I’m responsible for the science, writing the uptight stickler-for-rules science consult. Aargh! It’s actually a lot of fun, our real-life process mimicking the relationship you see on the page between our protagonists, Matiu and Penny. I haven’t heard of any other teams writing in quite the same way, but it seems to work for us.”

For our Path of Ra work, we chose a ‘he-said, she-said’ approach to retain very distinct voices for the dual protagonists, so we kept our editing light for that reason. When I wrote Mika (a Kiwi-NZ version of the Wizard of Oz for youth), a collaboration with Piper Mejia, author of The Better Sister and Other Stories, and Dispossessed, we also wrote the book from a basic plan using a turn-about chapter-by-chapter approach, but when the novella draft was completed, I went back and ‘smoothed’ the narrative, sanding off any identifying edges so the story appears to have been written by a single author. There are so many ways to approach collaboration, a no one way is best, but possibly the most important factor is your choice of collaborator because it really is like raising a child with someone; you have to want what’s best for the work.

Path of Ra series, co-written by Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts

4. As an editor, you work with writers across science fiction, fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, thrillers; a mix of poets and prose writers. How do you balance your roles as writer and editor?

I love a fruit salad of genres and forms, and the privilege that comes with working with other writers (and having a small part in shaping their work), so editing projects are a passion on mine. Plus, I’ve forged some incredible friendships as an anthologist; the Black Cranes sisterhood is a good example. I do have to hold myself back from becoming too much of a chipmunk, though. I’m tempted to drop the nut I’m carrying, for another enticing nut I’ve encountered on the way. I’ll get enthusiastic and jump in, taking on new projects at the expense of my own writing. It doesn’t help that I’m a slow writer, with Hemingwayesque wordcounts of just 500 words a day. I don’t typically do the ‘word vomit’ drafts that other writers speak of. I blame my inner editor, a perfectionist, who always has her lips to my ear, saying things like, “Make it lean. You don’t need that. Delete that clutter. What is that: a cliché? No, no, no.” She slows me down a lot; very annoying. So, while I set out to be a writer, and that is still my intent, I find editing easier. If I’m procrastinating, I’ll often edit instead. So, yes, getting that balance is essential and I’m not sure I’ve cracked it yet.

5. Thank you, Lee, for taking the time for this interview. A final question for readers – What and who are your own favorite books and writers for reading? Any authors who inspire your writing, or books you would recommend picking up?

Oh dear. I always find this question very hard to answer, Renata, because there are so many great books, and I don’t want to offend any of my wonderful colleagues. However, I’d be grateful if people who haven’t yet discovered them would pick up a copy of my Bram Stoker Award®-winning works Grotesque: Monster Stories and Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Supporting my work means I can continue to write, so I’m grateful for any reader support. And if you do pick up a copy of Black Cranes and enjoy it, please look for other work by our wonderful contributors, including Geneve Flynn, Elaine Cuyegkeng, Nadia Bulkin, Grace Chan, Rena Mason, Gabriela Lee, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Christina Sng.  Please also show some love to Alma Katsu, who wrote our foreword and who has appeared on the Bram Stoker Award® finals twice in two successive years with The Deep and The Hunger. Katsu’s latest work, Red Widow, is a spy thriller, so sure to be an intriguing fast-paced read. Tori Eldridge, who lent the book so much support, has her wonderful Lily Wong series, Asian American thriller fiction with a kick-ass protagonist, and E Lily Yu, who also endorsed the collection, has her newly released fairy tale-inspired On Fragile Waves—wonderful works to discover. For more horror fiction, there is no better place to start than the Bram Stoker Award® finals list which is crammed with incredible stories from novel through to short fiction.

Happy reading! Thank you so much for having me.

Reading resources shared by Lee Murray:

~For Lee’s interview with Christina Sng: Sng, Christina (2021). How Heritage Affects the Stories We Live and the Stories We Tell: An interview with Lee Murray. 23 Feb 2021 https://magazine.interstellarflightpress.com/how-heritage-affects-the-stories-we-live-and-the-stories-we-tell-bdd381f7a620

~Interview with Claire Fitzpatrick: Fitzpatrick, Claire (2018). The Horror Tree Presents…An Interview with Lee Murray. 20 October 2018 https://horrortree.com/the-horror-tree-presentsan-interview-with-lee-murray/

~Bram Stoker awards list for horror fiction: http://www.thebramstokerawards.com/uncategorized/winners-nominees/

Interview with Lee Murray – Part 1

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows, Bram Stoker Awards). Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. She is proud to have edited seventeen volumes of speculative fiction, including international Bram Stoker Award®-winning title Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women co-edited with Geneve Flynn. Her latest work, released May 2021, is non-fiction title, Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips co-authored with Angela Yuriko Smith. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021 for her poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud.

In the first of a two-part series, in honor of her double win at the Bram Stoker awards this year, we talk to Lee about the award-winning anthology Black Cranes.

  1. Hi Lee, first up, congratulations on your dual win at the Bram Stoker awards this year. You’ve been a five-time nominee overall and now won two awards in the same year. How does it feel to be acknowledged as one of the best in the horror writing genre around the world?

Thank you, Renata. To be honest, it feels like I’ve brought home a gold in two events in the same discipline at the Olympics. In literary circles, the Bram Stoker Awards® are the ultimate accolade for a dark fiction writer, so to win two is simply overwhelming. I can hardly believe it. Such a kind acknowledgement from my horror colleagues. Although, rather than being the ‘best’, the awards are given for ‘superior achievement’, recognition that the books selected have resonated for readers at the moment. When the pandemic was escalating, we were half-way through writing Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, a collection of tales by horror writers of Southeast Asian descent on the themes of otherness and expectation. We considered postponing the release date, but with anti-Asian sentiment on the rise, it seemed even more important to push on. In retrospect, it was a good call. People needed to read these stories in this moment. With Grotesque: Monster Stories, the pandemic might also have been a factor, although there has always been an interest in New Zealand dark fiction in overseas markets. The fact that Grotesque is a book of monster stories, might be significant, since monsters allow us to explore our fears from a safe distance. But do awards make a difference? In my case, I’m always convinced there was some kind of mistake, that people are going to find out I’m not who they think I am, and it makes me want to work harder, to write better fiction.

2. You co-edited Black Cranes – this year’s Bram Stoker winner for best anthology – with Geneve Flynn. With one editor in New Zealand, another in Australia, the publisher in the US, and the contributing writers scattered in different countries, how challenging was it to bring the book to fruition?

Being stuck at the bottom of the globe in New Zealand, I’d already had some experience as an anthologist, bringing together writers from all over the world using simple techniques like email and messaging. Then, when the pandemic erupted, it forced everyone to embrace platforms like zoom, teams, and discord, for our work and social connection, so in a way that’s been the silver lining of the pandemic; the barriers have come down when it comes to bringing together communities of creatives using technology. We’re a little less hung up on professionalism in favour of connection. By now, we’ve met everyone’s cat, seen myriad children run by half naked in the background, and have an intimate knowledge of the speaker’s weekend wardrobe. We’ve become familiar with online book launches, zoom readings and panel discussions, vlogs and pods, virtual conventions, as well as more innovative ways of promoting literary works. Zoom events with our Black Cranes contributors, for example, have served to celebrate the anthology and cement our connection. That said, it was an in- person meeting with my eventual co-editor, Geneve Flynn, and a recognition of our shared experience that prompted the book Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. We were attending a conference in Brisbane and, being conscientious Asian girls, we both turned up too early for a panel. We’d chatted online before, and were connected through various venues on social media, but we had never had a face-to-face conversation. Without even having to say it aloud, there was an instant understanding between us of why we were the only ones waiting in a lobby twenty minutes before the convention opened. We got to talking, asking ourselves where were the other horror writers of Southeast Asian descent? Other people with our experience of the Asian diaspora. People who also had grandmothers who played mah jong late into the night. Other writers like us who everyone assumed would be a bad driver. Where was the anthology comprising those writers? After the conference, we continued the dialogue, including who we might want to see in our project, looking for connections. We played with some names. We realised we’d need a venue. The only publisher that I approached with the concept was Kate Jonez at Omnium Gatherum Media USA, who jumped at the idea, even though anthologies aren’t part of Omnium’s brief. However, their focus has always been on diverse and unusual texts on dark themes, so the fit was good from that perspective. Perhaps too, Kate was influenced by the whisperings of a pandemic coming out of China and early responses to that. In any case, we’re very grateful to her for her enthusiasm and professionalism. In terms of challenges, she had the biggest task, getting books to people all over the world in the midst of a pandemic.

3. Black Cranes addresses a niche market – Southeast Asian women, and women writing horror. Did you envision the book soaring to the heights it has reached? What was your aim in creating this anthology?

It’s interesting that you should describe it as ‘addressing a niche market’. It is certainly true that growing up as a third-generation Chinese New Zealander, I never saw a book that reflected my experience, no characters who looked like me. But despite attempts to keep us out, Asian people have lived and worked here for two centuries now, with more than 15% of New Zealand’s population identifying as Asian currently. And that’s just New Zealand. The Asian diaspora affects millions of people and extends across the globe, with Asian women making up at least half of those people, so surely there should already be bookcases full of works addressing our Asian experience? Just last week, the week Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women won a Bram Stoker Award, a pair of New Zealand editors released the first anthology of Asian fiction in New Zealand, comprising works from around 70 new voices, the majority of whom are women. While I’m not included in the mix, and the work is not horror, I find it shocking that we have had to wait so long for texts of this nature. As for Black Cranes being horror, it seemed natural to me that Black Cranes would tend towards darkness, because, as Geneve Flynn said in her acceptance speech, horror is a genre that doesn’t flinch from uncomfortable themes. Horror writers don’t look away. Again, the timing with the current pandemic, and the spike in anti-Asian sentiment, may have had a lot to do with the response, which has been simply overwhelming. So, to answer your question, we wanted to give voice to our shared experience, to create a community, and open a discussion about our feelings of otherness, of being the perpetual outsider, and it seemed other people have embraced that vision. I guess Black Cranes is the literary prescription for what ails us all right now.

Lee Murray at the 2019 Bram Stoker Award banquet – Photo by Ellen Datlow

4. Black Cranes was picked up by a book club in India last year for their October 2020 book-of-the-month. You and Geneve even met the members at the book discussion, albeit virtually. How does it feel to interact personally with readers from different parts of the globe?

A writer needs readers, so any interaction with readers who have engaged with your text is wonderful. Just knowing that you have fired up the imagination of others, and perhaps incited a broader dialogue feels like a secret superpower. It explains why even those big-name authors who aren’t always accessible to the public, will offer to join book club meetings to discuss their work with readers. And readers who go the extra mile to reach out, like the book club in India, or the little girl who sent me a drawing of my first literary award, are invaluable. People who seek you out to have their book signed. Even those seemingly small interactions can make up for the sucky parts of writing, things like low pay and high barriers. Interactions from across the globe offer extra insight. How do people in other cultures and groups perceive our work? How hard was it to obtain a copy? Do similar texts exist in those countries? Is there a gap that readers are looking for that has yet to be exploited? Questions we were asked, and which surprised us, when we were invited to the Indian group included: Where is the Indian-Asian version of Black Cranes? and There are no cranes in the book; why did you call it Black Cranes?

5. Speaking of virtual discussions, you released two books at the height of the pandemic last year. And both won Bram Stoker awards. With an absence of book launches, bookstore visits, book signings, literature festivals, libraries shutting down, how did the pandemic impact you as a writer? And what does the Bram Stoker mean for you in light of the current situation versus pre-pandemic times?

My dad died in the early months of the pandemic, and the grief and added isolation affected my writing, so all I managed were a few haiku which I shared with a friend. You can read more about that in a guest post called Writing from my Bubble on poet Stephanie Wytovich’s blog, Writing from the Madhouse. I only wish Dad could have been here to see me receive these awards, because he was my first mentor, his own storytelling key to my understanding of story structure and my love of literature. From a writing standpoint, although my workplace didn’t change, I was busier than ever. Looking back, I wonder if that was an attempt to keep myself busy and avoid spiralling into depression, rather than a direct impact of the pandemic. For horror writers, whose work is typically published by small independent presses operating out of a passion for the genre, the pandemic has been especially precarious, since many smaller presses have folded and others have pushed release dates back, meaning incomes have dropped considerably, even among those of us who are doing reasonably well. Here in New Zealand, “despite the wider arts sector accounting for up to 7% of the total workforce, it receives a disproportionately small proportion of overall government spending,” writes arts lecturer Mark Harvey in a New Zealand Herald article in May. “Last year, arts, culture and heritage were given just 0.33% of the total 2020 Budget and COVID-19 Recovery package (NZ$374 million out of $112.1 billion). This was an increase on previous years, but still miniscule compared with other sectors.” The literary arts account for an even smaller slice of that pie, and horror not at all. Most of us did not qualify for emergency aid. Add to that, we have no literary agents and no publishers of horror or even of science fiction and fantasy (other than some micro-presses) here in New Zealand, proving that the barriers for writers were already high even without COVID. Given this context, for me, a horror writer from New Zealand, to receive two Bram Stoker Awards® feels like a turning point. I hope it means a new interest in New Zealand’s horror fiction community. There is still the stigma associated with horror, literature’s ugly stepsister, to overcome. One colleague on the committee of a prestigious national writers’ festival noted that now I have two Bram Stoker Awards® I might have ‘enough respectability now’ with the festival selectors to be invited to a panel. I’m delighted, of course, because any invitation to the table is a step in the right direction, but I’m also saddened because that is an especially high bar to set for genre fiction writers.

Reading resources shared by Lee Murray:

~Lee’s guest post for Writing from the Madhouse: Murray, Lee (2020). Writing from my Bubble, in Writing from the Madhouse by Stephanie Wytovich.18 May 2020. http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/2020/05/writing-from-my-bubble-guest-post-from.html

~Mark Harvey’s article on arts and artists: Harvey, Mark (2021). New Zealand Herald: The Conversation. NZ Budget 2021: we need the arts to live, but artists need to earn a living. 13 May 2021. https://theconversation.com/nz-budget-2021-we-need-the-arts-to-live-but-artists-need-to-earn-a-living-160761

We continue our conversation with Lee Murray in the next blog post. Click here to join the discussion on her second Bram Stoker winner, Grotesque: Monster Stories.

A Thrilling Ride with Sudha Ramnath

When people board an aircraft, mundane day-to-day affairs occupy their minds. But when their flight gets hijacked and subsequently crash lands in an isolated place, they have to call to the forefront all their survival skills, to trek in a hostile terrain, with dwindling supplies of food, physical and mental strength. Adding to their problems is the presence of a terrorist travelling incognito among the passengers. Will they ever find a way home?

After having read the latest thriller from Sudha Ramnath, Flight or Fright (A review of the book can be found here), and being privileged to virtually meet, host, and interact with her on the Author Talk series of Did You Read Today, it was a delight to feature her in this interview by Tomes and Tales.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

From being part of a women’s drama troupe specializing in male roles, to writing plays, from living on a remote island near Madagascar to skydiving from 18,000 feet, Sudha Ramnath has quite the penchant for crafting experiences. She has written, directed and staged four English language plays in Tanzania and Kenya, along with other Indian expats. She has worked in a bank, married a man whom she calls the ‘sane’ part of her life, taught math and physics, and is a mad but loving mom to her two children. While others like her drew up grocery lists and laundry schedules, Sudha made plans to live the moments and stick by them. She made the pilgrimage to Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis, danced like there was no tomorrow at a flash mob in San Francisco, and stood on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and watched the million dollar sunset. She spent a month in the Himalayas, where she met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When he heard that a few chapters of her latest novel dealt with Tibetan issues, he went against protocol and signed the book for her.

An interview with Sudha Ramnath about “Flight or Fright”

1) You debuted on the literary scene with “Susp’Ended”, a short story collection. How did the transition to a novel come about?

I wanted to write a full-length novel for my first publication. However, just as I began writing, my husband got a job in Kenya and we decided to move. Right around the same time, my daughter got married. So life suddenly got very hectic. I had the choice of using some short stories I had written earlier (but not published), or postpone the idea of publishing. I was so bitten by the publishing bug that I chose the first option. That’s how Susp’ended became my first book as a debut writer.

2) “Flight or Fright” is a hijack story at its core, but multilayered in its themes and narrative. How did the story come to you? 

I have traveled a lot in life. During flights, I have always been fascinated by the other passengers. I would wonder if the lady sitting next to me was a quiet homemaker or a business executive? The young man opposite – why was he so upset? The nervous-looking gentleman in the front seat – was he going for an interview? The young girl with all those newly married trappings – was she going back home to meet her parents or was she flying to be with her new husband? I guess when I got a chance to speak about my thoughts, I brought them all into the book.

3) How much of what happens in the novel is based on true events and research versus imagination and creativity? How do you strike a balance as a writer?

Most of the characters are based on people I have observed, but not their stories. For example, the nervous gentleman whom I had once seen on a flight became Mukesh Narula, the jittery entrepreneur going to meet a prospective investor. A sweet-looking lady who kept fussing to her husband about her plants and was worried if the maid would forget to water them became Gowramma, a young mom fond of plants. There must have been plenty of other passengers on other innumerable flights. But some I remember for the stories I wove around them. They became characters. 

4) The novel does not have a protagonist. Your character development is so strong that each one of them is an instrumental part of the story. Was this a conscious decision?

When the story involves a plane full of people and what happens to them, it cannot be about one or two protagonists. I am basically a storyteller. I let the story guide me. A long time ago I had understood something about myself, that I am an average person – whatever strikes me as funny, most others find funny, too; what I think is interesting, others find interesting, too. So I went for whatever interested me. 

5) You are famed for your crime stories and mysteries. Could you tell us about your writing process in creating them? How do you plot situations, keep track of minuscule details, reveal clues for the reader, and introduce twists throughout the story?

I have been a fan of thrillers right from when I was a kid. Initially, I only enjoyed the thrill they provided. But after reading for a long time I began noticing how the famous writers did it – how they laid a trail of deception for the readers to fall for, how they built the suspense, how they revealed the end, what kind of stories needed a reveal only on the last page, and how some writers kept the readers interested by weaving in small bites of suspense that got revealed in the next chapters. I have learned from great masters like Agatha Christe, Jeffrey Archer, and Jeffrey Deaver.

6) Dividing the book into two sections was a very innovative and interesting part of the narrative. The first half as chapter numbers, and the second as numbers of days, interspersed with conversations as transcripts. How did that come about? 

After the passengers were stranded I felt it made more sense to count the story by the number of days than as chapters. I agonized with them, I suffered with them, I enjoyed their escapades, I marveled at their adventures. So, the days mattered to me more than the chapters. 

7) The character of the school principal is seen to be observant and curious, a reader of her co-passengers’ personalities. It reminded me of you. As a writer, how much of your characterization is based on people you know or observe? 

Oh, Looks like you caught me! But her character is something I aspire to. Her acumen, her perspicacity, her maturity; it’s someone I want to be more than I am. But thanks a lot, because I take it as a compliment. Mostly, my characters are based on people I observe rather than people I know.

8) While your thrillers and mysteries are in a league of their own, your humorous travelogues and anecdotes bring much reading delight as well.  Any thoughts about writing books in humor and other genres?

I would love to write humor and also romance. But I am sure the romance I write will also have a twist at the end. 

9) You have written screenplays and directed and acted in theatre. Have you considered publishing them in book format for readers to gain access?

It is interesting to write screenplays. One has to bring about the story only through dialogues and action sequences. But I found it challenging and fun. My first play ‘The Dream’ was adapted from a short story of mine published in a magazine called ‘New Woman’, almost twenty years ago. I had to introduce a few new characters into the play to bring the story out coherently. I enjoyed it tremendously. I have never thought of publishing them. Now that you have asked me about it, maybe I will think about it seriously. 

10) Who are your literary influences? Any books or authors you would recommend reading?

I guess we all imbibe unconsciously from whatever we read. Strangely, I realized something only recently. There is this Facebook writers group called ‘Did You Write Today’ to which I belong. Every Friday a word is given and we write something for the prompts. Most of what I have been writing is somehow or the other influenced by what I was reading when I wrote them. I would love to write humor like PG Wodehouse, murder mysteries like Agatha Christe, courthouse dramas like Perry Mason, and thrillers like James Hadley Chase. I found this author called Ken Follet whose books are a class apart. His storytelling capabilities are amazing. I feel he has never got the popularity he deserves. I would recommend his books,  ‘The Key to Rebecca’, an edge-of-the-seat spy story, and ‘The Man from St. Petersburg’, a political thriller.

11) You’re a natural storyteller, in both speaking and writing. Tell us about any upcoming books or projects to look forward to.

I am almost finishing a novel that I am enjoying writing. Most of the days I am Yagnika, the protagonist of the story. I think like her, react like her, and feel like her. Jokes apart, it’s a story about four friends who are exceptionally intelligent. One of them is suddenly murdered, another one has to run away with a mysterious red packet, the third is chasing her, and the fourth one is absconding. I am using a different technique of alternating the present and past as chapters to make the story interesting. Suddenly I have thought of an epilogue for the story that actually ties very well with something most people can relate to. I can’t say more about it without revealing too much, so please wait and read it for a stunning twist at the end. Also, this DYWT group I spoke about earlier? I have been writing very short stories with a twist for the weekly prompts. I just realized that I have more than sixty of them, and so plan to publish them as a book. These two are what keep me busy these days. 

Flight or Fright – A Book Review

Title – Flight or Fright

Author – Sudha Ramnath

Genre – Thriller

Close on the heels of finishing a Shirley Jackson book as part of a reading project, I wondered what to pick next. Any book would pale in comparison, so I was left deciding for a few days until I heard about a virtual author meet. Eager to interact with Sudha Ramnath – who is famed for her thrillers, mysteries and crime stories – I immediately plunged into Flight or Fright to prepare for the event, and it didn’t disappoint.

The synopsis is fairly simple – a flight bound from Mumbai to Delhi is hijacked, and the reader is taken along with the passengers to extricate themselves from the situation. But Flight or Fright is more than a hijack story. Written in a multilayered format, the first half of the book devotes a chapter to each character (and there are a great many of them). Sudha’s forte lies in the little details, so we aren’t just told about a photographer, a sports coach, corporate employees, foreign tourists, and a host of other people, but there’s a background story for every single one of them, with information that’s just enough to carry the story forward – why they do what they do, who they are and how their individual personalities work through the situation. The characterization is written so well, one doesn’t even need to keep flipping to the character list to identify each one – you know exactly whom you’re reading about and how they are connected to another character. The second half of the book doesn’t have chapter numbers but numbers of days, as the plane crash lands and the stranded survivors try to find a way to reach civilization. In between, we see correspondence exchanged among the terrorists in the form of transcripts. The narrative constantly keeps you at the edge of your seat, as you wonder what happens next and navigate through conversations, hidden and overt.

Flight or Fright is action-packed, but also has a very humane side in its presentation, as the myriad characters deal with hostile terrain, internal group dynamics, dwindling resources of food, physical and mental strength, terrorists incognito among the passengers, the quest to be found accompanied by the anxiety of being found by the wrong people – the flight crash lands outside borders and they don’t even know which country they’re in; equal chances of being welcomed by a hospitable village or thrown into a military prison. Every sentence, every word finds its place in the story, and not a single one is wasted. Sudha knows exactly what she wants to tell you, revealing enough for the reader to put the pieces together and solve the jigsaw, but holding back enough to challenge you every step of the way.

Through the crux of surviving or succumbing in a hijack, we also get side stories – each small one contributing to the larger canvas. A school principal removed through unfair means finds renewed purpose in banding people together, a housewife with a penchant for gardening enjoying the lush floral landscape, a photographer clicking memories, a politician trying to bribe his way out, people who want to play the hero and those who want to do nothing and expect others to do everything for them – the beauty of the writing is that the novel has no protagonist. Sudha gives equal strength to every character – they can either contribute to getting out unscathed, or bring harm to the whole group; a wait-and-watch rendering where everyone is a suspect.

While I have read Sudha’s short stories and screenplays, this was the first novel from the author, and she proves how wonderful a storyteller she is irrespective of story length or format. And it was a marvellous opportunity to hear her story of creating stories. Not a book to be missed!

My rating: 5/5

Speculate – An Interview with Dominique Hecq

From what began as a dialog between two adventurous writers curious about the shape-shifter called a prose poem comes a stunning collection that is a disruption of language—a provocation. Speculate is a hybrid of speculative poetry and flash fiction, thrumming in a pulse of jouissance and intensity that chases the impossible.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

As a guest writer for Meerkat Press’ latest offering, Tomes and Tales has collaborated with the publishing house to feature this remarkable literary endeavor of two writers on its worldwide blog tour. My review of the book can be found here.

EXCERPTS:

1) Evridiki

Friends are not important—like plagues, they come and go, even blood is not thicker. But fate is another matter. Some fool in autumn had a drink in the dark, sought a taste of heaven in a street named Bagh Nakh. Found it in the hands of a runaway who raised a hand and plunged a dagger that clung to the idiot’s heart.

***

You were born in autumn and so, naturally, hate spring. The scent of blackwood showering pollen. The air licked with gold where the buzzing of the bees deepens. The sudden opacity of it all. You run. Run away. Away from the visible and from the invisible. With the pollen clinging to your skin, the sun striking and the darkness beneath your feet settling, you are a living phobia. A fear of no consequence. Yet as eons pass in one beat of the heart, you hear the rustle under the trees. Taste the bite of death.

2) Neither a kitchen nor a sky

Her heart is a room full of photographs and pillows wafting around rehearsing melancholy and reinstating torment. But there is still no word, just somber silence in the floating photographs and neglected pillows cartwheeling like burnt toast past the IKEA blender and microwave in a fairy tale of space that does not involve breathing.

***

His heart smells of burnt toast. If you look closely, you will see a paisley design—the sort found as all-over design for an IKEA bedspread. The main motif and the background of ferns are done with pure (that is unmixed) colors: just red (turkey) and black (jet) to conjure up the marriage of blood and vegemite, the staples of his diet, as well as his sign in the Chinese horoscope. Yes: he is a tiger. Enter the chambers of his heart at your peril. Don’t say you were not warned. He grinds his teeth.

INTERVIEW WITH DOMINIQUE HECQ

I interviewed author Dominique Hecq as part of the release and promotional tour of her latest book, co-authored with Eugen Bacon. Here’s a peek into our conversation:

1) While co-authored books are not uncommon, how did the idea for a conversational narrative come about?

Eugen and I are part of a prose poetry group and at one point we noticed that we were constantly responding to each other’s posts through fiction and feedback. So, it seemed natural to pursue the conversation outside that forum.

Eugen has also co-authored short fiction with other writers, recently with Andrew Hook (slipstream fiction) and Seb Doubinsky (an afro-francophone collaboration), which may be testament to her ability to work with others, and understand synergy.  

On the other hand, I have collaborated with performers, sound-artists, musicians and dancers. I’ve also written a bilingual work with Chantal Danjou, a French novelist, and worked closely with authors whose work I’ve translated (most recently Claudia La Rocca, from San Francisco).

2) Dominique, you and Eugen are so similar, in the sense of being completely different in your respective writing styles. What goes into selecting a co-writer? How did you get together for this project?

It started in master/apprentice relationship—I supervised Eugen’s PhD in creative writing. I was working as an associate professor at the time. The relation evolved to one of mutual respect. We’ve known each other for over ten years and have learned from each other’s stylistic differences. You could say it is precisely these differences that cement our relationship. It also energises our writing. In this project, we bounce off each other’s words and take the narratives to extremes.

3) Speculate is presented as a dialogue through essays. How did the two of you decide on your parts? Did a verbal conversation flow into writing, or as writers did you read each other and then take the conversation ahead?

The latter: As writers we read each other and took the conversation ahead. This is why Speculate has two parts—one in which I respond to triggers in Eugen’s text, and one in which Eugen reacts to mine.

4) Prose poetry as a genre has a very specific following from readers who enjoy both forms. Any literary influences, books or writers you would recommend for further reading?

The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: from Baudelaire to Anne Carson (2018), edited by Jeremy Noel Tod, is a good place to start as it looks at the form’s rich heritage in the literary mainstream. Without wanting to be parochial, I would also recommend The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (2020), edited by Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington. More focused towards critical commentary are Jane Monson’s British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines and Peter Johnson’s A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry (2019).

I couldn’t close this question without mentioning Russell Edson, the “grandfather of the American prose poem,” who has published thirteen collections of prose poems, and Mexican writer Gaspar Orozco’s whose book-length prose poem Book of the Peony (2017) is just stunning in Mark Weiss’s translation.

As for the question of influence, it’s hard to tell, but I’m likely to have absorbed the lessons of Charles Baudelaire during my youth and, later, those of Anne Carson. Truth be told, both Eugen and I greatly admire Margaret Atwood’s work and Oz Hardwick’s skills at defamiliarizing the reader—his prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet(2020) certainly deserves a look. And I know Eugen is madly in love with Toni Morrison, celebrated for her beauty in language in personal text that shouts its meaning.

5) Speculative fiction, flash fiction, essays, stories – Was the hybrid genre a conscious decision, or did you follow the conversation to wherever the writing took you?

That was a conscious decision. Currently short forms are flourishing and, perhaps as a consequence, the boundaries of the prose poem are increasingly porous.And yet, a century and a half after the publication of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, the question remains: What is a prose poem?

While many different kinds of prose poems have been identified over recent decades, a range of innovations and hybridisations challenge and subvert the boundaries of the prose poem form. In fact, what excites us about prose poetry is that it uses poetic techniques to set up and subvert readers’ expectations. And since we delight in crossing boundaries, it’s a perfect form.

6) Dividing the book into two sections was again a very innovative and interesting part of the narrative. The idea of one leading and the other following. How did that come about?

Apart from our concern to be fair to each other, we wanted to give the book a kind of speculative mirror image in terms of style of writing. It was also a natural evolution of our responding to each other’s lead.

7) Did you expect differences in interpretation of the book, considering two writers with a strong hold on readers with their respective styles?

Yes, and it will be interesting to see how reviewers address this conundrum. Literary theorist Gérard Genette in his book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997) explores the liminal devices and conventions, within and without a book, that form part of the complex mediation between the book, its author, its publisher and reader. Eugen and I were pleasantly astonished by our publisher’s reception of Speculate. Let’s see what readers think.

8) What’s the story behind that gorgeous cover?

The cover is the genius of our publisher Tricia Reek of Meerkat Press. It’s her creative response to the work (paratext of interpretation?). I think sheperceived the nexus between the speculative and lyrical modes of the manuscript and worked with that. She then presented us with stunning variants of her design, and we chose the one that appealed most to us. We love the vibrant colours and blurring of tangoing shadows.

SPECULATE: A COLLECTION OF MICROLIT

by Eugen Bacon & Dominique Hecq

RELEASE DATE: JAN 19, 2021

GENRE: Collection / Prose-Poetry / Speculative Fiction

BOOK PAGE:  https://meerkatpress.com/books/speculate/

BUY LINKS: Amazon Book Depository | Barnes & Noble

AUTHOR LINKS: Website Twitter

GIVEAWAY LINK: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/7f291bd825/

Beyond Books with Peace Adjo Medie

First author meet of the year!

It’s always a memorable experience meeting authors and hearing the story behind the story of much-loved books. This was my second interaction with Ghanaian writer Peace Adjo Medie, after I had read and loved her book ‘His Only Wife’ which had released last year (I had reviewed it here, and the write-up about my previous meeting with Peace can be found here). Peace is a university professor of politics and human rights, and wrote the novel alongside her academic work, even publishing a non-fiction book simultaneously. She is a pleasure to speak with, and enlightened us about her research and journey in writing the book while juggling a full-time job. Her wry sense of humor is not to be missed, especially for those who have read the book with its similar tone and know the narrative is not trying to be funny; it just is!

Organized by Book Ya Ya and the Hastings Public Library, community events that bring readers and writers to share a platform are highly enriching. Adeptly moderated by fellow author Maya Lang, the conversation on Peace’s His Only Wife intertwined with Lang’s own memoir What We Carry, engaging readers in the fluidity of literature. We asked questions, which Peace graciously answered, and apprised us about the background work involved in completing the novel, with often amusing anecdotes.

A wonderful author session to begin the year. And read the book, too, if you haven’t already. It’s about the Ghanaian tradition of arranged marriages, with a seamstress protagonist, and oodles of local culture, cuisine and textiles. Books that are both informative and entertaining are well worth ones time.

Time well spent with Peace Adjo Medie and her book His Only Wife

Black Cranes: A Review in Verse

A few months ago I had read and loved an anthology titled, ‘Black Cranes‘. Spearheaded by New Zealand author Lee Murray and Australian editor Geneve Flynn, the project brought together women writers from Southeast Asian backgrounds, to highlight the meaning of being ‘woman’ and being ‘Asian’, and the concept of women writing horror. The collection ranges from science fiction to mythology, folklore, legends, comedic horror, post-apocalyptic tales and historical battles. I had reviewed the book here, and was also fortunate to meet the editor duo at my book club’s discussion of their book – summarized here – and the rest of the writers at a Skeleton Hour event with the team. Black Cranes is such a wonderful and powerful read I have been recommending to all, that I decided to review it again as a poem.

Tales of Unquiet Women

From voices no longer silent

In this anthology of Asian narratives

Ranging from hilarious, to haunting and violent

A frisson towards an immersive journey

Headlined by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

Not merely stories, but an assemblage of shared experiences

And teamwork presented by Omnium Gatherum

Alma Katsu leads the proceedings

Of what follows and what to expect

Asian, women, and horror

Tales of identity, expectation and neglect;

Obligations, traditions, duties and more

Scientists, warriors, princesses, spirits

We can be many things

But we cannot be defeated

A haunting foreword sets the tone

For Elaine Cuyegkeng to kick off with a bang

Pandora’s box of gene editing

Or more attuned to a boomerang;

Snipping out traits and replacing preferential ones

Rarefied offspring too good to be true?

There’s always a price to pay

Specimens or daughters? Are we a ‘what’ or ‘who’?

Nadia Bulkin marshals an uprising

With Indonesian history and folklore

A princess’s people retrieving her throne

A fight and reclamation at its core;

Who is monster and who is human?

Questions Kapre in his chronicle

Rin Chupeco’s unique love story

Depicts a tale heartwarming and ironical

Beauty, cosmetics, enhancements galore

Two tales from Angela Yuriko Smith

How far would you go to be yourself no more?

Sci-fi abounds; this isn’t myth

White on the outside, yellow within

Patchwork eyes and warring factions all over

Whom do we belong to if we don’t belong at all?

Gift recipient or pushover?

Grace Chan makes a two-fold mark

With hunger and fury, suspicion and doubt

Gabriella Lee’s rites of passage

Aspects of womanhood poured out;

The legend of the nine-tailed fox

Of trickster entities and lotus feet

Rena Mason presents womanhood again

As past, present and future accrete

Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

In their dual roles of editor and writer

Lend duality with contrasting themes

From heartbreak, to horror, and lighter;

Caring for an ailing parent,

A mind-blowing take on pets,

A litmus test of acceptance,

Words – their shining assets

Set the clock ahead with Christina Sng

As we time travel to a zombie apocalypse

An ode to women in the military

Fury is not one to be eclipsed;

The fury of sacrifices to accommodate

Meeting the expectations of others

Hollowed versions of ourselves

Emptied out; unconsidered druthers

With stories of folklore and legend

From the common to the esoteric

Across geography and culture

From charming to barbaric;

Returning to ones roots

Or imagining a far-fetched world

From the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore

China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand;

Asian women from wherever they might be

Scattered across place and time

Breaking notions and stereotypes

That living is not a crime;

There’s no single type of woman

No all-encompassing concept of Asian

The multifaceted identities of horror

And the stories of women who experience their own versions.

The Road to Woop Woop Blog Tour

Eugen Bacon’s work is cheeky with a fierce intelligence, in prose that’s resplendent, delicious, dark and evocative. NPR called her novel Claiming T-Mo ‘a confounding mysterious tour de force’. The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories imbues the same lushness in a writerly language that is Bacon’s own. This peculiar hybrid of the untraditional, the extraordinary within, without and along the borders of normalcy will hypnotise and absorb the reader with tales that refuse to be labelled. The stories in this collection are dirges that cross genres in astounding ways. Over 20 provocative tales, with seven original to this collection, by an award-winning African Australian author.

Author bio

As a guest writer for Meerkat Press‘ latest offering, Tomes and Tales has collaborated with the publishing house to feature the award-winning writer and her brilliant book on its worldwide blog tour. Here’s my interview with author Eugen Bacon as part of the release and promotional tour of her latest book.

1) With a range of themes and genres, the book does not fit into a specific category of writing style. Was this a deliberate decision of being genre defying or genre defining?

My writing is experimental, a curiosity. My cross genre stories are a natural birth of my multiplicities as an artist, a scholar, a short story writer, a novelist, a poet. I have always been enchanted with theorist and critic Roland Barthes who found pleasure in the text, for whom text is a multi-dimensional space where things are made or unmade. I am drawn to deconstruction, margins of philosophy, meaning of text. My defying the boundaries of genre is a natural occurrence, a child of wonder and play.

2) The writing features a lot of Australian slang (including the title itself). What was your target reader audience while writing this book?

Streuth, Aussie drawl is not vernacular! Crikey. I write for a global audience, and the writing is accessible in textual context, placement, narrative and flow—as any good writer will see to. Not all stories have an Aussie drawl, just the ones featuring distinct characters, like Bluey in “Dying” (golly gum), the toad in “Beatitudes” (I’m just a bloody toad) and Calder in “He Refused To Name It” (who could have said, “I haven’t seen M in yonks,” but didn’t).

Woop Woop was once a real place for harvesting jarrah timber northwest of Wilga in New South Wales, Australia. It faded from history and today refers to a place remote or without facilities in ordinary speak (“I live out Woop Woop—my internet is down again.”) The slang I use is both a natural aspect of my self and other—I am true blue, as one would say, even as a blend of cultures (African Australian)—and a deliberate playfulness, where writing is an extension of art and play.

3) African stories in Australian fiction – Was this cultural blend something you set out for, or the stories just happened to perfectly sync together?

I am African and Australian—the one is not exclusive from the other. I am a sum of parts. I am many, betwixt, a fusion of cultures. My stories and their characters chart what happens. Perhaps they steal from my everyday in a perfect sync of that self and other. There is no tension when I write, but rather a release.

4) The writing style can be an acquired taste of sorts. Any tips/suggestions for upcoming or newbie writers on honing their skills beyond set narratives?

Find your voice. I talk about voice as integral to a writer’s identity in my book Writing Speculative Fiction (2019) by Macmillan. Voice is your unique way of telling. In a review of my collection by award-winning author Keith Rosson, he wrote: “The Road to Woop Woop pushes boundaries, blurs genres and folklores, and reminds us once again of her dazzling, unique voice. No one writes like her.” When you tell it in your own way of looking at things, this is your voice.

5) Any literary influences or personal favorite authors/books you would recommend that readers pick up?

Fiction by Toni Morrison,celebrated for her beauty in language in personal text that shouts its meaning. Anything by Anthony Doerr (his text is like: “fields enwombed with hedges”)—clove pink carnations, ivory white lilies and crimson rich roses sprout in each sentence. Peter Temple is an Australian crime fiction writer—I wrote a tribute to his writing in the Literary Hub, it will tell you how this author is a favorite: “The New Seduction of an Old Literary Crime Classic”. The novel Truth is his most memorable work.

I am currently reading Nalo Hopkinson’s Skin Folk (2001), was besotted with NamwaliSerpell’sThe Old Drift (2019) and adore Sheree Renée Thomas’s Nine Bar Blues (2019). Andrew Hook is a British author of the literary strange who has really captivated me. I nearly fell when he agreed to collaborate with me in a short story. 

6) The stories are often lyrical. Any upcoming poetry collections?

Yes, thanks for asking! I find a certain attraction in text that makes colour in my mind, that patterns a rainbow in the ideas I find voice to. In 2020 I wrote two prose poetry collections, Her Bitch Dress and It’sFolking Political through Ginninderra Press. They are a response to politics, to the pandemic and much more. What’s more, Speculate, my collaborative collection (with Dominique Hecq) of illustrated prose poetry is out in January 2021 by Meerkat Press. Trust me—this illustrated collection is a provocation. You’ll want to read it.

Speculate – a collection of illustrated prose poetry

7) What’s the story behind the cover?

Meerkat Press would be thrilled to give you an answer. I just said, I want something African and Aussie, and it’s kinda dark. The publisher sent me draft art with a croc and galahs, eyes and skulls, and I said, too right.

(Did you know she also did the inner illustrations? My word.) 

THE ROAD TO WOOP WOOP by Eugen Bacon

RELEASE DATE: DEC 1, 2020

GENRE: Collection / Speculative Fiction / Dark Fantasy

BOOK PAGE: https://www.meerkatpress.com/books/the-road/

BUY LINKS: Meerkat Press |Amazon Barnes & Noble

AUTHOR LINKS: Website Twitter

GIVEAWAY LINK: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/7f291bd824/?

A dazzling piece of literature.

An excerpt from the titular story:

THE ROAD TO WOOP WOOP

Tumbling down the stretch, a confident glide, the 4WD is a beaut, over nineteen years old.

The argument is brand-new. Maps are convolutions, complicated like relationships. You scrunch the sheet, push it in the glovebox. You feel River’s displeasure, but you hate navigating, and right now you don’t care.

The wiper swishes to and fro, braves unseasonal rain. You and River maintain your silence.

Rain. More rain.

“When’s the next stop?” River tries. Sidewise glance, cautious smile. He is muscled, dark. Dreadlocks fall down high cheekbones to square shoulders. Eyes like black gold give him the rugged look of a mechanic.

“Does it matter?” you say.

“Should it?”

You don’t respond. Turn your head, stare at a thin scratch on your window. The crack runs level with rolling landscape racing away with rain. Up in the sky, a billow of cloud like a white ghoul, dark-eyed and yawning into a scream.

A shoot of spray through River’s window brushes your cheek.

A glide of eye. “Hell’s the matter?” you say.

“You ask me-e. Something bothering you?”

“The window.”

He gives you a look.

Classic,you think. But you know that if you listen long enough, every argument is an empty road that attracts unfinished business. It’s an iceberg full of whimsy about fumaroles and geysers. It’s a corpse that spends eternity reliving apparitions of itself in the throes of death. Your fights are puffed-up trivia, championed to crusades. You fill up teabags with animus that pours into kettles of disarray, scalding as missiles. They leave you ashy and scattered—that’s what’s left of your lovemaking, or the paranoia of it, you wonder about that.

More silence, the cloud of your argument hangs above it. He shrugs. Rolls up his window. Still air swells in the car.

“Air con working?” you say.

He flexes long corduroyed legs that end in moccasins. Flicks on the air button—and the radio. The bars of a soulful number, a remix by some new artist, give way to an even darker track titled ‘Nameless.’ It’s about a high priest who wears skinny black jeans and thrums heavy metal to bring space demons into a church that’s dressed as a concert. And the torments join in evensong, chanting psalms and canticles until daybreak when the demons wisp back into thin air, fading with them thirteen souls of the faithful, an annual pact with the priest.

Rain pelts the roof and windows like a drum.

He hums. Your face is distant. You might well be strangers, tossed into a tight drive from Broome to Kununurra.

The lilt of his voice merges with the somber melody.

You turn your face upward. A drift of darkness, even with full day, is approaching from the skies. Now it’s half-light. You flip the sun visor down. Not for compulsion or vanity, nothing like an urge to peer at yourself in the mirror. Perhaps it’s to busy your hands, to distract yourself, keep from bedevilment—the kind that pulls out a quarrel. You steal a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Deep, deep eyes. They gleam like a cat’s. The soft curtain of your fringe is softening, despite thickset brows like a man’s. You feel disconnected with yourself, with the trip, with River. You flip the sun visor up.

Now the world is all grim. River turns on the headlights, but visibility is still bad. A bolt of lightning. You both see the arms of a reaching tree that has appeared on the road, right there in your path. You squeal, throw your arms out. River swerves. A slam of brakes. A screech of tires. Boom!

The world stops in a swallowing blackness. Inside the hollow, your ears are ringing. The car, fully intact, is shooting out of the dark cloud in slow motion, picking up speed. It’s soaring along the road washed in a new aurora of lavender, turquoise and silver, then it’s all clear. A gentle sun breaks through fluffs of cloud no more engulfed in blackness. You level yourself with a hand on the dashboard, uncertain what exactly happened.

You look at River. His hands . . . wrist up . . . he has no hands. Nothing bloody as you’d expect from a man with severed wrists. Just empty space where the arms end.

But River’s unperturbed, his arms positioned as if he’s driving, even while nothing is touching the steering that’s moving itself, turning and leveling.

“Brought my shades?” he asks.

“Your hands,” you say.

“What about them?”

“Can’t you see?”

His glance is full of impatience.

You sink back to your seat, unable to understand it, unclear to tell him, as the driverless car races along in silence down the lone road.

Literary High Tea

The much-awaited Literary High Tea finally arrived! An initiative of Harper Collins Canada, the idea was to sip tea and munch snacks, while engaged in meaningful discussions and conversations over books. A stellar line up of authors including Cathy Marie Buchanan, Joanna Goodman, Cecilia Ekbäck and Alka Joshi, discussing their respective books – Daughter of Black Lake, The Forgotten Daughter, The Historians, and The Henna Artist – as well as each other’s books, and the genre of historical fiction in general. Wonderfully moderated by Alka herself, who steered the discussion through several themes, topics, timelines, introducing each book individually with questions for its writer, along with stringing the different books with familiar threads and finding commonality in their writing, interacting with the attendees and coordinating our questions with the guest writers.

The invite from Harper Collins Canada

Canadian novelist Cathy Marie Buchanan holds a BSc in Biochemistry, an MBA, and is a certified Yoga instructor. Known for her bestseller ‘The Painted Dolls’, her latest work is set in a world of Pagan traditions, bringing life to an ancient world from a time long forgotten. Canadian-British writer Joanna Goodman has authored numerous books, including the bestseller ‘The Home For Unwanted Girls’. Her new release spans multiple timelines, set around French-Canadian history, the Duplessis orphans, and the fight for Quebec’s independence. Cecilia Ekbäck is originally from Sweden, now resides in Canada, and has a Masters in Creative Writing. Her latest book is a conspiracy thriller set in Sweden during WWII. American writer of Indian origin, Alka Joshi has won her way into readers’ hearts through her debut novel that has been making waves around the world, having been translated into multiple languages following its release earlier this year. Curated as a High Tea event by Harper Collins, participants were advised to prep with tea and nibbles as we partook of this warm literary exchange from our little corners of the world. We were even sent a home guide on how to prepare for the session, wonderfully hosted by the Harper Collins Canada team as part of their Harper Presents initiative of discussing books and spending time with authors from the comfort of home.

The stellar line-up of authors who made this a memorable session.

Encouraged by the efforts of the hosts, and keen to make the most of this preponderance of writers and books, I planned for a formal high tea set up, replete with tea and cake. The beverage ultimately chosen for the occasion was a tea-tisane blend of white tea, celosia and lavender. I also made a Flan de Leche, courtesy a recipe from Cuban-American writer Laura Taylor Namey which she shared in keeping with her newest book, ‘The Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow’. It was truly a literary bonanza all around.

Flan de Leche with tea

Food inspired by books

A Single Thread – Of Stories and More

Title – A Single Thread

Author – Tracy Chevalier

Genre – Historical fiction

Theme – WWI

A gorgeous cover that appeals with its simplicity and thematic representation.

Set in the aftermath of the first World War, the story surrounds a group of broiderers – those who stitch cushions, kneelers, carpets and alm bags for cathedrals – and how they band together post the War, taking little steps to spread beauty and warmth in their own way by keeping church-goers comfortable. Tales of embroidery, bell ringing, local food, history of world textiles, all seamlessly woven into a sombre narrative of a war gone by and the world reeling towards another one, in Tracy’s inimitable style of meticulous research and splendid storytelling.

Thanks to Harper Collins, I had the chance of attending a session with the author and her literary agent Jonny Geller, to discuss both ‘A Single Thread‘ and Tracy’s earlier book ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring‘. Behind the scenes conversations are often insightful, to hear what it took to bring a much loved book in front of you. While ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring‘ was a speculative biographical novel on the life of Johannes Vermeer, its protagonist was the titular character and not the painter himself. Similarly, ‘A Single Thread‘ takes us into the world of Louisa Pesel, first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild, an embroiderer and textile collector who was instrumental in gathering people after the war and directing them towards comfort in fabric, needles, threads, colors, patters and stitches, narrated through the lens of a fictional protagonist.

The author and her literary agent in a virtual book discussion organized by the publishing house.

A personal joy in reading is finding out where the title of a book fits into its narrative, and the revelation of A Single Thread is so powerful it makes you marvel at Chevalier’s writing – making the primary subject a secondary character, and still telling us what we need to know, in her subtly shattering way. Books on WWI are particularly heart wrenching because after all that happened, it happened again. And when we read of the characters’ turmoil and reluctant recovery even two decades after the War, history lends its own haunting narrative to the one in front of us.

Tracy’s personally embroidered needle and spectacle cases were so inspiring at the talk, I decided to take my reading experiences a step further by trying out the Lemon Drizzle Cake made by Dorothy for Violet’s birthday, and loved its sweetness and tartness just like the story’s protagonist. A wonderful read from one of my go-to writers for historical fiction. Read this not just for Tracy’s brilliance in presenting novels, but to learn about lesser known people from history who had huge impacts in their own little ways. In a world recovering from War and a political climate predicting another one, one woman decided to do something, with a needle and thread. And made a difference.

My rating – 4.5/5

Lemon Drizzle Cake I baked, inspired by the book.