Yesterday evening I attended my first Word Factory Short Story Salon event. I almost didn’t go – the usual warm house v. wailing wind and rain v. spending two hours in a room full of strangers – but I’m glad I did. If you like reading stories, listening to storytellers, or writing stories, this is really an evening for you. Wine, enthusiasm and books abound.
I gather The Word Factory has been going for a year now. Started by Cathy Galvin, in a small room in Soho, it has gained popularity to the point that last night was its inaugural night in a new location with more space (Waterstones Piccadilly). I’m not going to start throwing out more information, since you can visit the website *here* and get everything you need. This entry is where I get to blather on about the evening in particular.
So yes, large room, filled with people, feeling somewhat windswept. Did my usual thing of getting slightly lost on the way (I don’t know what it is about Piccadilly Circus, but it really throws my already stunted sense of direction). Missed the paper signs in the shop pointing out where the event was and went two floors in the wrong direction before someone sent me the right way.
In the room I was welcomed very warmly by self-described ‘deputy dog’ Paul McVeigh, who asked me who I’d come to see (Stella Duffy, above the other two writers) and advised I sit up near the front so that I could see and hear well. I’m actually more comfortable hiding by the walls when I don’t know anyone, but I’m also a bit deaf, so I plonked myself in the third row back, somewhere near the middle. Attempted to make conversation with someone who was sat alone as well, but who turned out to be waiting for about seven friends.
And then, the evening begins. The Word Factory runs an apprenticeship programme. So the opening readers were Stella Duffy and up-coming writing star Rebecca Swirsky, who Duffy mentors. Seriously, keep an eye out for Swirsky’s work. She’s a prize-winning, published short story writer who is most certainly going places. More about that later.
Duffy has a background in theatre, and it shows in the best way. Utterly relaxed in front of a room full of people, she introduced Swirsky, while also giving the first of what amounted to an evening of pretty fucking inspiring words about writing generally.
~ I’m aware this is a bit rambly, by the way, but I’m tired – I finally (thanks to last night) finished (to the point of getting other people to give feedback) a story that’s been bugging me for a month now. Then I collapsed in an ecstasy of finished writing, rearranged some of my bookshelves to look fabulous but unhelpful to book-finding, and then looked at the time and realised I had done no blogging. So I’m writing this and watching Gossip Girl and getting crushes on all the wrong people in it. I have no intention of proofreading this, either. I’m such a professional.~
So, ANYWAY, Swirsky stood up and gave a short opening speech about her mentorship, and then launched into her story, The House With Eight Windows. I get a very delicious shiver when someone starts reading a story out loud, and you know within two sentences that it’s going to be good. It’s the aural equivalent of picking up a book that’s great within half a paragraph, so you relax against the chair because you know you’re not moving for a while. I got that shiver. Swirsky was noticeably nervous about reading – it was probably more noticeable against Duffy’s total relaxation – but very good. Also I continue to have great respect for anyone with the chops to stand up and read their stuff in public, because I can’t do it (but I will, I will).
Because I am, as mentioned, shit at crowds and starting conversations, it speaks volumes that after the event finished, I actually looked for Swirksy to tell her how good I thought her story was. I think I actually, in a pretentious arse manner, told her I thought it was evocative. But it was, so I’m not sorry I said it. Right after that I ran away, though, courage gone.
So that story finished, and everyone applauded, and Duffy tells Swirsky to listen to the applause and enjoy it (‘Mentoring never stops.’) Then she stood up and told first the anecdote, and then the story that came from the anecdote, about the old woman who lives down your street. It was a beautifully poetic story, and funny, and told with a great sense of timing. Honestly, Duffy is a massive presence on my twitter timeline, and I love her books, so this was one of those moments where you are relieved that someone you admire is actually as brilliant as they seem. Unfortunately, the combination of following a favourite author on twitter and then rocking up to an event they’re at gives me a slightly skeevy stalker feeling, so I didn’t introduce myself. I just applauded and stayed where I was.
Interval time, and most people got new glasses of wine and went to buy books. I didn’t go to buy books, but that’s because if at all possible I prefer to buy mine from the smaller independent bookshops near where I live than give the money to the big companies. (Rye Bookshop, an order will be incoming as soon as I’ve been paid.) I had a brief conversation with someone else there by himself, David, where we ended up discussing the reading of stories out loud and how important that is for the beat of the words – and then lo and behold, up next is David Almond, who is so aware of the rhythm of his words that he actually taps his foot along to certain sentences.
I loved his story, The Knife Sharpener, not just because it was good, but because he was writing from his youth. Set in Cumbria, told through his Grandma and her friend, the tone and the accent and the tale whisked me straight back to CM’s gran’s living room, where she tells us stories of her youth. It really hit a chord, as did the Q&A afterwards, which covered religion, and being in a situation supportive of writing when younger, and how to keep writing (Almond was an ‘overnight success’ with his children’s book Skellig, after 20 years of writing. How did he keep writing over 20 years? ‘You have to bloody love it’), and being able to write the North (a skill he eventually learned by reading books from the Deep South) and put what he knows into his story. Also, politics. That writing is political came up a few times, and yes, yes it is. The most politically active non-politicians that I follow on twitter are all writers, and fiction writers no less. The children’s authors most of all.
Anyway. The whole conversation sent me off down memory lane. People were asking questions about publication and structure and tense, but I caught maybe 25% of that, because my mind had drifted back to having my first typewriter, on which I wrote endless versions of tales involving spurned Celtic ghosts dragging hapless ex-lovers into lakes; to talking to our next door neighbour, Lillian Comber, aka Lillian Beckwith, who gave me my first-ever copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook (1991 edition), who read my stories and told me to just keep writing; the marvellous English teachers I had who encouraged me to write and enter competitions, and the incredibly good grace of one when we entered the same competition and I was placed, but he wasn’t. I had the added bonus of growing up on a island which I simultaneously hated and loved as I grew up, but which, as an adult, I now see made it incredibly easy to believe in all things mythical and magical. You can’t stand on a beach in the mist, or see the fields in afternoon sun on that island and not sort-of deep-down believe that there are glashtins and trolls and bugganes and faeries and the Fynoderee living in a rowan tree.
That got a bit sentimental, but sometimes I look at city streets and think, where’s the magic? And I’m thankful I grew up where I did.
In closing: read stuff by Rebecca Swirsky, Stella Duffy and David Almond. Catch them reading aloud if you can. And if you enjoy stories or talking about them, check out the next WordFactory event. There are nice people, good tales and free wine.