A Place for The Night Sky ~ The View from the Keyboard of Sarah Hammond

Sarah Hammond is a hot new YA and children’s author who lives in the UK and studied in Bath Spa University‘s impressive and very successful MA in Writing for Young People. On my last trip to England, I wanted to buy a few copies of Sarah’s brand new debut novel, The Night Sky in my Head, and so I stopped in at Waterstones. Sold out. I walked around the corner to Mr. B’s Book Emporium where they told me they had just sold three copies that morning, and only had one left. Success! Occasionally compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, this book will be enjoyed by not just the young adult audience it was originally intended for, but by readers of all ages. (You may have noticed Night Sky on the table of our last View contributor, Shawn Shiflett.) 

Beyond being just a fine, fine writer, Sarah is an active supporter of writing and reading for young people. She is a regular visitor to schools, and supported a young person’s writing contest to coincide with the launch of her new book. We need writers like this, don’t you think–the kind who give back to the community and encourage a love of reading and writing in us all?

Let’s take a peek, then, into Sarah Hammond‘s writing space.

Sarah: Here is a picture of my desk, my writing space. Well, to be utterly truthful, this is a slightly misleading statement. It’s one of my writing spaces and perhaps not even the most important of them either. Of course, my computer is here and I have tapped out lots of words and stories on the keyboard at my desk. However, I find that different stages of the writing process require different spaces. Does that sound strange?

When I first hatch a story idea, I am on the move, not sitting at a desk at all. I’m just observing life and responding to things and people around me. Story ideas grow from life, it seems.

Even when I’m ready to put something on the page, I still don’t head for my desk. For a long time I had a serious office job and this has left me with an unhealthy reaction to sitting in a formal office: it makes me too left-brain analytical. When I try to capture the essence of a new character or story at a desk, I sort of seize up or edit myself so harshly that I can’t write. So the second phase of writing, for me, is to sit somewhere comfortably, looking out the window perhaps, half-daydreaming to encourage the story to come out. My place of preference (much to my chiropractor’s horror – I have a bad back) is sitting on my bed, computer or notebook on my lap. In all honesty, this is my favourite writing space.

Once I’m a little more certain of my story, the process moves to my study as shown in this photo.

This is where I wrote a lot of my debut teen novel, The Night Sky in my Head, which was published by Oxford University Press in July 2012. To find out more about my writing, why not visit my website (www.sarahhammond.co.uk) or ‘Like’ my Facebook page for my news and events ( www.facebook.com/SarahHammondAuthorPage).

Anyhow, here’s a little taster of my writing from the desk in this picture in the meantime…


Extract from Chapter One, The Night Sky in my Head

Timmer and me have been locked out again and I’ve forgotten my key, so we’re going to spend the night in the shed. I bet Mum thinks I’m already in bed but I’m not – we went for an extra-long walk today because Timmer is four today. He wags his tail. He likes it in the shed better than in the house. I do too. It’s quiet and safe in there. I don’t have to listen to lots of noises jab jab jabbing in my head.

The moon is a bright white eye in the sky tonight. It makes the night-garden different to the day-garden. There is scuffling in the shadows. Things are hiding in the dark. The leaves on the apple tree are silver and they whisper secrets to each other when the wind blow. I shiver, even though it’s warm, because I know about secret things.

Timmer barks once and walks down the garden, wagging his tail. He wants to go to the shed but I have to check on Mum first.

The windows are like silent TVs in the dark. I stand and watch. I can see Mum at the kitchen table. There’s make-up down her face so she’s got long black tears down her cheeks. She’s drinking beer out of a bottle. She’s got the photos out again and she’s wobbling. I hate it when she’s like this.

I take a step closer and put my hands on the glass.


(Sarah’s top tip: the Book Depository – www.bookdepository.com – offers free shipping worldwide if those outside the UK would like to read more of the story.)

→Thanks so much, Sarah, for taking the time to give us this little tour. So looking forward to reading more from you. Oh, and for those of you who want to support Mr. B’s in Bath, you can also order Sarah’s book from them. As always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

Bristol and Bath Bound ~ In Pursuit of Story in the UK

So very looking forward to a few days of exciting events in the UK. It all starts on Saturday, 14 July, with ShortStoryVille, a celebration of the short story sponsored by the organizers of the Bristol Short Story Prize. (For more on these events, check out this interview with the event’s coordinator and short story champion Joe Melia.) I am honored to be moderating a panel on the short story in the digital age, and will be sharing the stage with Ra Page of Comma Press, Bea Moyes of Ether Books, and Dan Franklin from Random House.

Monday, 16 July through Wednesday, 18 July, Bath Spa University is hosting the first MIX: A Conference Exploring Transmedia Writing & Digital Creativity. Philip Hartigan and I will be giving a workshop on pursuing the narrative in a digital age, and Philip will also be presenting from his multi-media art exhibit The Lucerne Project.

And although it is raining, raining, raining and raining in the UK (and chilly) we are so looking forward to something other than extra hot days spent in the false coolness of air-conditioned rooms.

More on all of this after the fact. And if we see Mitt Romney over there and his multi-million dollar Olympic dressage horse (for which he is allowed more in tax breaks than the average American family makes in a year) we will be sure to say hi to him for you. Or something. We will say something.

→As always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

Bath Spa and Tessa Hadley

In the fall term of 2008, I had the remarkable opportunity to be a visiting lecturer at Bath Spa University in their very impressive Creative Writing program. This was part of our on-going exchange between Columbia College Chicago, where I direct the undergraduate programs in Fiction Writing, and Bath Spa University. It is a good match, CCC and BSU, two schools who each find the teaching of creative writing an important thing to do, not just to educate artists and writers, but to teach these same students how to use these skills in the working world. Creative problem solving, effective communication, analytical thinking, a willingness to listen: these are just a few of the things that Columbia and Bath help their students learn and practice before turning them loose on the world.

There were many things that were exciting about my time at Bath. A morning run on the River Avon where a pair of swans swooped and settled in the water nearby. Living in a Georgian-period building made into a modern apartment block, on a road that Jane Austen herself walked (unhappily.) My desk in a re-purposed centuries-old stable on the castle grounds where BSU’s main campus is situated. Students who were being given their first real chance to have their writing taken seriously (far fewer creative writing programs at the high school level than here.) Talented and interesting colleagues, among them Tim Middleton and Steve May, administrators who are teachers, researchers and writers themselves; Mimi Thebo; Carrie Etter; Lucy English; Annie McGann; Julia Greene; Nic Jeune; Michael Johnson, poets, novelists, young adult writers, and filmmakers. The list goes on and on and includes Gerard Woodward, who is currently writer-in-residence here in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia and whose ideas on the short story you’ll find on another page of this blog, and Tessa Hadley, who was just featured in the Guardian in this fine profile.

You can see that Tessa takes her work very seriously, even as she writes with delightful humo(u)r. You can see, too, if you follow a link or two here, that Bath Spa University is a fine place to study and to teach creative writing, and that we at Columbia College Chicago are lucky to be partners with such a place.

“Respect the Storyness.” Gerard Woodward answers “Why The Short Story?”

Gerard Woodward was recently long-listed for The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award with a prize of £30,000 (nearly $50,000 in today’s currency market—holy sheepskin!) for his single short story, “The Family Whistle.” (Who says there’s no value in the short story?) Gerard is also author of an acclaimed trilogy comprising August (shortlisted for the 2001 Whitbread First Novel Award), I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize), and A Curious Earth. His most recent short story collection is Caravan Thieves. He was born in London in 1961, and published several prize-winning collections of poetry before turning to fiction. His latest collection of poetry, We Were Pedestrians, was shortlisted for the 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize. His most recent novel, Nourishment, was released in the fall of 2010. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and writer-in-residence this year in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago.

This man of many prizes and many lists has graciously joined in on our conversation “Why The Short Story?” and provided us with his take below:

Gerard: Why The Short Story?

Well, I suppose the answer has to be – because it can do something that no other literary form can. If it didn’t, then there would be no need for it. But what is that special thing it can do? That’s a bit harder to define. It can help by comparing the short story to other forms, like the novel and the poem.

I struggled with short stories for many years without much success. I had novels and books of poetry published long before I managed to write a publishable short story, even though I’d been trying since about the age of ten. One reason for this, I think, is that I didn’t properly appreciate the form. I didn’t take on board precisely what it is that a short story does so well – that is, deliver a powerfully engaging narrative in a restricted amount of space. Too often I was treating the short story as a kind of overblown poem in prose (but not a prose poem, which is something quite different), or else they were fragments of novels masquerading as complete, self-contained pieces. I began to see that one couldn’t approach the short story with the same imaginative gear of a poet or novelist, you had to have the unique, special, short story head. Without this apparatus you were unable to see either the potential for short stories in the world around you, or to write them.

At the same time, the short story incorporates elements of both the poem and the novel. In a short story every sentence matters, every word matters, to a far higher degree than in a novel. Every word needs to justify its place, as in a poem. In such a small space there is nowhere to hide your sloppy writing or your sloppy characters. You are exposed. Every metaphor and observation needs to work, because they are making up for the extra three hundred pages you get in a novel. The short story also needs to tell a story. Sounds obvious, but short stories that don’t do this, that try to have the same narrative absence that is possible in a poem, say, usually fail as pieces of writing. So you have to appreciate and respect the form – respect the shortness, respect the storyness. Get a short story head.

You acquire this ‘short story head’ in the same way that you acquire a novel or poetry head, by reading lots of good short stories. For me, Raymond Carver was a revelation. In fact, an exposure to American writing generally has been fundamental to me both in short story and novel writing. Carver’s use of the telling detail, of dialogue that is so perfect it almost sounds artificial but isn’t, and his ability to wring gallons of drama from the driest and most mundane of materials, is a very enabling thing to witness. He is a great permission-giver.

It has been particularly interesting for me since I’ve been in the States and re-immersing myself, as much as I can, in the writing over here, to see how much more prominently the short story figures in the literary culture, compared to back home. In Britain, the short story has never really taken off as a form, it has never held the kind of central position it seems to in North America, where the short story, and in particular the linked collection of short stories (Anderson, Cheever, Steinbeck et al,) seems so defining. Strange, really, that given such a big landscape, such a diversity of peoples and histories, it should find expression through such a compressed and condensed form. But maybe that is the key. The vastness of American culture is perhaps best addressed through the small lens. I know people over here write big novels as well, but as has been so well articulated in the critical narrative of the last few decades, it seems scarcely possible to write a novel that will do the whole American thing.

I know, from reading these debates on line and elsewhere, that commercial publishing in America is as wary of the form as it is in Britain, and that there seems to be an odd reluctance on the part of readers to engage with the short narrative, preferring the immersive experience of the novel instead. But in America the short story does seem to be taken more seriously.

But then there are good signs on the horizon. As I said in a comment to an earlier post, there does seem to be the beginnings of a revival in Britain, with two high profile competitions which are getting lots of national media coverage. My own publisher, Picador, has just brought out a collection by an unknown writer (Stuart Evers – 10 Stories about Smoking). Perhaps this will at last transform into a genuine popularisation of the form. In a world of short attention spans it would seem ideal – but then who are we to presume attention spans are shortening? Perhaps the next generation will actually have better concentration skills. You never know.

→Next up: results from our favorite short story survey. And then Dennis McFadden, the IRA, and good practice.←