Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Maintaining Focus

As a matter of record, here is a list of my goals for 2010:

  •  writing an average of 7000 words per month, complete 1st draft of novel;
  • attend University of Chichester’s Research in Progress conference, 15 May, and present paper ‘Voices of the American West: Striving for Authenticity’;
  • attend University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Studies in Literature Annual Postgraduate Symposium, 21 May, and present paper ‘Identity in Western American Literature’;
  • make a research presentation at the Postgraduate Forum at Uni of Chichester;
  • gather critical sources;
  • complete outline of dissertation;
  • review Sherman Alexie’s next book, Fire with Fire, due out in autumn;
  • submit paper to Western American Literature journal;
  • apply for research travel grant from British Association for American Studies in autumn.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Review of 2009

It's been a full year since I started down the PhD road and at times it doesn't feel like I've gotten very far at all. To be honest, I've only been officially on the MPhil/PhD programme since mid-October. The preceding ten months were spent on University of Chichester's Probationer's Scheme, a sort of feeder road leading to the PhD highway, filling out applications, applying for funding, applying for more funding, building my 'writing profile', attending conferences and doing preliminary research into my subject. Lordy, I've filled out a lot of forms this year...

Here's a list of what I've actually done this past year:
  • completed a 7,000-word Literature Review of fiction, historical texts and theoretical works pertaining to my research;
  • finalised my research proposal;
  • applied for funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (a three-month long process which was highly stressful yet ultimately unsuccessful);
  • attended three conferences (The Uncanny, Playful Paradox and NAWE);
  • presented at two conferences (Playful Paradox and NAWE);
  • attended the Small Wonder Short Story Festival;
  • applied to the University of Chichester and was accepted as an MPhil/PhD student;
  • started this blog;
  • completed outline of novel;
  • wrote 8,000 words of novel since beginning of December;
  • applied for Studentship at University of Chichester;
  • was shortlisted and interviewed for above;
  • submitted work to 29 journals/magazines/competitions;
  • published 4 travel articles, 4 book reviews, 2 short stories;
  • had 8 short stories shortlisted for prizes.
  • Oh yeah - I also spent 2 months riding my bicycle from Alaska to Idaho (by far the easiest part of the year).
I'm assured by my supervisor that I'm on track, but I'm still prone to periods of serious self-doubt in which I wonder if I'm really meant to be doing any of this.

Always a bridesmaid...

Have just received an email from the good folks at Moonlight Mesa to say that 'The Difference Between Cowboys and Clowns' was named as one of four runners-up in their 1st annual Cowboy Up Short Story Contest, just missing out on a piece of the prize money...

The story came out of the 1st round of the 2009 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge in which competitors are assigned a genre and subject and given one week to come up with a 2500-word story. I was horrified to receive the genre of 'Romantic Comedy' and the story remains the one and only example of this genre in my portfolio. Shockingly, it's proved quite successful, as it was also a finalist in the NYC Challenge. Perhaps I should give up my pretensions of writing 'literary fiction'?

NYC Midnight run a number of competitions throughout the year, and their SS Challenge is a good way for writers to step out of their comfort zone and attempt something entirely different. Here's a link for more information: The 2010 competition is looming, but sadly I've decided not to take part this year as I'm needing to focus on 'The Novel' and related PhD projects.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Difference Between Cowboys and Clowns

My romantic rodeo romp 'The Difference Between Cowboys and Clowns' has just been named as a Semi-Finalist in Moonlight Mesa's short story contest:

Friday, 4 December 2009

Literature Review

For the purposes of this review I have divided my research into four main categories: historical data surrounding the Lewis and Clark expedition and the life of William Clark’s Nez Perce son, Tzi-Kal-Tza; personal identity in the writing of Native American authors; the use of landscape in literature of the American West; and the acquisition of authority.

Historical Data
Since its completion in September 1806, numerous books have been written about the explorations of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, almost all of them based on the diaries of the two Captains and four of their enlisted men. Sergeants Charles Floyd, Patrick Gass and John Ordway, along with Private Joseph Whitehouse all kept journals during the expedition’s two-and-a-half years.

The first complete record of the expedition to reach the public was the journal of Sergeant Patrick Gass, published in 1807. As Gass was relatively uneducated and his literary skills limited, his work was heavily edited for publication and his original manuscripts have since been lost. The official expedition report wasn’t published until 1814, five years after Lewis’s apparent suicide, and the complete journals of Lewis and Clark themselves were finally published in their entirety, in 1904-1905. Whitehouse’s accounts were included here, in abridged form, alongside those of the two captains, and Ordway’s account was published in 1916. Floyd died of a ruptured appendix three months after the party set off from St Louis, limiting his contribution to the expedition’s archives. In 1966, the last of Whitehouse’s journals was discovered, and between 1983 and 2002, the University of Nebraska Press published three editions of what is now an unabridged thirteen-volume set of diaries, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Numerous abridged and annotated editions have also been published over the course of the last century, but the UNP’s thorough and academic treatment is considered to be the definitive version, inspiring a number of recent scholarly works.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Abstract of my contribution to 'Writing, Risk-Taking and Rule-breaking in the Academy'

Real and Perceived Risks

I think there is always going to be an element of ‘riskiness’ in historical fiction simply because we are taking material considered to be ‘factual’ and reshaping it to fit our purposes. Readers knowledgeable about the historical details I include in my novel are bound to be critical if those details are not presented accurately, and readers more engaged with the fiction will be critical if the plot reads like an academic treatise. But historical fiction is fiction at the end of the day, albeit a form which demands authenticity. The key, then, is to be meticulous in my research.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I face, however, is one which is self-imposed. At the centre of my novel is an historical personage about whom very little is known – Halahtookit, the Nez Perce son of the explorer William Clark – and my original aim was to present one strand of the narrative from his point of view. Many fiction writers would rejoice at such a find – an intriguing ‘character’ which they can manipulate to their own ends without the worry of being criticised for historical inaccuracy. Cultural appropriation such as this, however, has been detrimental and hurtful to Native Americans. In the past, their traditions, beliefs and ancestors have been misrepresented by non-Native writers and these inaccuracies have been given an authority within the wider community which they don’t deserve. This, in turn, has led to resentment and mistrust. Before being introduced to the Nez Perce tribal historian, Otis Halfmoon, I was cautioned to take things slowly and to understand that the sharing of tribal knowledge is ‘serious business’.

Were I writing about an historical figure who was White, I doubt very much that I would have this sense of responsibility about portraying them in a fictional context, but I am very much aware of the sensitivities involved and of the fact that Native Americans have suffered greatly at the hands of non-Natives.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Coast to Coast: A Recycled Journey

A big 'thank you' to Ian Kampel at the for publishind my article on cycling across the United States. You can access the artlcle here.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie, pt 2

Continuing on with my earlier discussion on The Toughest Indian in the World...

As in the title story, the darkly comic ‘South by Southwest’ explores the idea of homosexuality between two outwardly heterosexual men. In a subversion of the outlaw narrative, the protagonist, Seymour, steals a gun and holds up the International House of Pancakes in Spokane, Washington. The narrator tells us that Seymour is a white man – adding in an aside that he is ‘therefore...allowed to be romantic’ (p. 57). He wants to be known as a ‘Gentleman Bandit’ and because these are ‘depressed times’ takes just one dollar from each of the customers in the restaurant (p. 58). Seymour is play-acting at being a tough criminal, going through the motions of intimidating his victims, while at the same time encouraging the cooks to continue cooking because ‘everybody is still going to be hungry’ when he’s finished with the robbery (p. 57).

Saturday, 24 October 2009

My Relationship with Books

I was not a happy reader as a child, and though my mother tried to instil in me her love of literature, it wasn’t until I was thirteen that I first read a book from cover to cover. That book was John Steinbeck’s autobiographical account of exploring the United States, Travels with Charley. From that moment, I was hooked: hooked on Steinbeck, hooked on exploring other worlds through books, and hooked on the written word.

Having grown up in the United States, I was drawn to American writers like Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner, writers who interpreted the world I saw around me. Like Steinbeck, they expressed a keen awareness of landscape and an understanding of what it is to be human. Through their books I came to realise that I was not alone in the world. Through them, I discovered that there were people out there who thought as I did and felt as I did. That is the magic of books: they have the ability to reach inside us and connect with the very essence of who we are.

In 1982, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize, I discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I spent the next few years working my way through his back catalogue, and those of other Latin American writers. After studying Creative Writing at Boise State University, I married an Englishman and moved to the UK where I worked in a number of bookshops in London and the south coast. During this time my reading expanded to include more contemporary American writers such as Toni Morrison, George Saunders, Barbara Kingsolver and Annie Proulx.

In 2003, I began studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester where I was encouraged to broaden my reading and not simply limit myself to those writers with whom I felt comfortable and whose works I knew beforehand I would enjoy. It was at Chichester that I also began reading, not just for pleasure, but critically and analytically – studying what writers do with character and plot and narrative voice. New loves have now joined old favourites and my bookshelves are overflowing with books by William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Michael Ondaatje. Yet still, it is to American writers I instinctively turn. It is their voices which call to me the loudest, to which my ears seem innately attuned.

Since taking up a teaching post at the University of Portsmouth in 2005, critical reading has itself become a pleasure and I find it impossible to read without a highlighter or pencil in my hand. My books today are full of annotations – questions and comments about the merits or demerits of the writer’s craft. Although my books are precious, I am not precious about my books and they are both well-read and well-marked.
In recent months, my book collection has swollen with new acquisitions for my PhD research, and books line my Ikea Billy bookshelves in double rows, vying for attention and the right to be placed spine out. As I explore the relationship between landscape and character, identity and belonging to place, I have made many new discoveries. Yet that very first discovery, that very first writer, remains the most important. Everything I write, everything I try to capture, comes back to him. There can be no greater teacher than John Steinbeck, and none more impossible to live up to. Yet I will continue to try.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie, pt 1

‘Indianness’ is a central theme in Alexie’s work and race is a concern shared by all of his characters (with the exception, perhaps, of Robert Johnson in Reservation Blues). The reader is never allowed to forget the race of the characters nor encouraged to identify with them simply as people. Skin, hair and eye-colour are frequently used as defining features. References to race are so frequent in Alexie’s stories that I carried out a brief survey, selecting forty pages at random, from four of his books – two novels, Reservation Blues (1995) and Flight (2007), and two collections of short stories - Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and The Toughest Indian in the World (2001). I counted all direct references to race (ie Indian, White, Black) including tribal affiliation (Lakota, Spokane, Flathead), blood quantum (half-blood, quarter-blood), and slang (breed, skins, redskins). I did not, though, include other Indian identifiers (braids, tipis, warriors, blue eyes). Using this method, I found an average of 2.2 direct references to race per page in Lone Ranger, 3.5 in Reservation Blues, 4.3 in Toughest Indian, and 2.6 in Flight. The effect is something akin to a jackhammer and after a while Alexie’s stories begin to feel oppressive. As a white reader, I am very much an outsider in Alexie’s world. Which is, of course, at least part of point.

In the early books, in particular, Alexie makes no attempt to link characters to universal themes or to acknowledge that there are common emotional experiences that extend beyond race. Alexie does not pander to a white audience and I get the feeling that he probably wouldn’t mind if he had no white audience at all. Thankfully, that is not the case. Over the past few decades, the New Age movement has hijacked Native American spirituality, and white America in general has romanticised Indians and Indian culture through the commercialisation of ‘Native American Wisdom’. Rather than allowing white Americans to empathise with Indians, as I think is the intention, this romantic view serves to assuage our guilt over the decimation of Native Americans in the 19th century, and their position at the bottom of economic and life expectancy surveys in the 21st. Alexie throws out that idealised, romantic image of Indians and gives us instead, a gritty, realistic one where poverty, violence and alcoholism are as much a part the Indian experience as powwows, vision quests and respect for Nature. White readers benefit from Alexie’s keen observation and biting criticism, which reflects the deep division between Native and non-Native Americans. Only by acknowledging that division, and our role in creating it, can true reparation begin.

Review of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

As a writer, I enjoyed the narrative complexity of this novel: each of the six stories were compelling, and the links between them successfully bound them all together. The structure was interesting, with half of each narrative being told in chronological order up until the central chapter, Sloosha's Crossin', and then in reverse order in the second half of the book. My one grievance with this structure was that it took me a few pages to settle into the very different genre's during the first half, and in the second half, I kept having to flick back to the beginning chapters to remind myself what had happened previously (but that's probably just my poor memory).

Even though the second half of each of the stories (except for Letters from Zedelghem) ended on an upbeat, I was left feeling quite disheartened by the overall message, for the reader knows what the characters do not, that history is unfolding in ever more sinister ways and that Adam Ewing's fervent hope that 'humanity may transcend tooth & claw' is not to be. This is a depressing (though realistic) thought. I did, however, take hope from Robert Frobisher's final musings that the world goes in cycles and that 'We do not stay dead long....In thirteen years from now, we'll meet again at Gresham, ten years later I'll be back in this same room...composing this same letter...Such elegant certainties comfort me.' And even though I don't believe in reincarnation, they comfort me too. Otherwise, the future that Mitchell presents would be very depressing indeed.

Review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road

As a punctuation pedant, it always takes me a while to get into the swing of Cormac McCarthy novels, but I'm always glad when I can remove my teacherly hat and get sucked into the story. I found this one very moving, probably in part due to its stark simplicity. The relationship between the man and his son is beautifully portrayed and utterly tender. McCarthy is not a one-trick-pony; all of his books are different - always dark, but still always different. Which is possibly why the punctuation thing nags at me. I'm not sure why he's chosen to write this way. Yes, it represents a kind of bleakness, which he's famous for, but still it seems unnecessary. He does not need a gimmick like this to set himself apart from other writers. His stories do that for him. And it makes it really difficult to insist that my students use correct punctuation...

Review of Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark

Published in 1968, Outer Dark, is McCarthy's second novel. The black and pessimistic view of human nature, McCarthy's trademark, is there, and themes which emerge in later books are touched upon.

There are, however, some fairly rudimentary issues which kept me from being fully engaged with this book. For some reason McCarthy likes his characters to be as anonymous as possible, seldom referring to them by name. This, and the fact that he does not give us much in the way of physical description, made it very hard for me to picture Rinthy and Culla Holme and to care about them as people. Sure, we know that they live in the bleakest of circumstances (that’s pretty much a given for McCarthy’s characters) and that they are impoverished on all levels, but it is not until nearly half-way through the book that we learn the age of Rinthy. This matters. I do not necessarily need to know that Rinthy is nineteen years old, but it would have helped tremendously when trying to form an image of her, if I’d been given an indication of her age. Until that point, she could have been anywhere from thirteen to forty-five (roughly, the child-bearing years).

One of the other questions I had was why Rinthy suspected the tinker of taking the baby. Culla, himself, didn’t know this when he finally took her into the woods to see the spot where he claimed to have buried the body. After hearing an alligator in the first few pages, my initial concern, had I been Rinthy, would have been that the child had met a worse fate than being taken up by a passing tinker. I had further questions about the fate of the baby. Was it the burnt, one-eyed child that Culla eventually finds or not? If it was, how did the child wind up with these men? I’m all for a bit of ambiguity, but there are some questions that do need answers if the reader is to believe the story. Otherwise, it just seems conveniently coincidental.

McCarthy's work is known for its bleak and amoral view of human nature, and the seeds of his later masterpieces can be found in this early novel.

Review of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

As can be said of all Cormac McCarthy novels, Blood Meridian is not for the faint-hearted. At its centre is 'the kid', a fourteen-year-old boy, sucked into a mercenary band of scalp hunters who rove the south-west frontier of 1849. As they drift from one bloody massacre to another, a hellish world unfolds.

There is little plot in this novel - the action is, for the most part episodic - and the omniscient narrator remains detached to the point that we never get inside the heads of the characters. This makes them feel two-dimensional and clich̩ in their bloodlust and I know that I've seen them all before Рthe psychotic murderers, the crooked lawmen, the Indian accomplices dressed in ill-fitting morning coats Рand because of the narrative distance, I learn nothing new about any of them. The narrator also has an amoral and objective tone: we are never asked to make judgments about or join in the depravity, but merely to be a witness. We do, however, get the sense early on that it is the judge, not Glanton, who we need to be wary of, and in the final chapter our suspicions are confirmed when we learn his true identity.

McCarthy's prose is stunning - visual, rich and multi-layered. Turn to any page and you will find imagery full of precision and clarity: "They did not noon nor did they siesta and the cotton eye of the moon squatted at broad day in the throat of the mountains to the east and they were still riding when it overtook them at its midnight meridian, sketching on the plain below a blue cameo of such dread pilgrims clanking north." It is for writing like this that I will continue to return to McCarthy.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Stepping Across the Chasm

This is a link the Synergise website which has just published an article I wrote about a visit to Malindi, Kenya. If you would like to have a look, please click here.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Playful Pardox creative writing Conference

On 23rd May, I attended the Playful Paradox conference at the University of Bedfordshire and presented a paper discussing my research into the journals kept during the Lewis and Clark expedition. There are many gaps in these diaries, some of which I suspect are deliberate, and I find myself becoming increasingly skeptical about historical 'facts'. Here is a link to my paper, The Paradox of Historical Fiction: Finding Truth in the Absence of Fact. All of this year's conference papers can be found here.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Cut Price Kilimanjaro

Thank you, Sam, at hackwriters for including this piece on your website.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Lion Hunting in the Serengeti

Thanks to Sam North, editor of Hackwriters, for publishing this article.