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Author interview: Vicky Foster

Having risen to prominence following critically acclaimed appearances at two Contains Strong Language festivals, the broadcast of Bathwater on BBC Radio 4 and with a series of collaborative audio projects thrilling audiences, Vicky Foster reveals more about her work as a poet and author. 
 
BathwaterCan you tell us something about where Bathwater came from, why you wrote it, how it developed and how it ended up being published by Wrecking Ball Press?
Bathwater was a story that I’d been working up to for a long time I think. When those kind of things happen to you, you experience a lot of shame. I did anyway, and that shame and the nature of abuse means you lose your voice, in a big way. Singing and writing gave me mine back, and the further away from those experiences I got, the more I realised that it really wasn’t me who needed to feel ashamed, and I had a lot to say about it. I told Louise Wallwein I was thinking of writing a one-woman show and she offered to mentor me, and she spoke to Sue Roberts (BBC Radio Drama producer) who said she’d like to produce it for Contains Strong Language. Then Sue suggested we try and get it commissioned for Radio 4, and that happened while I was still writing it. Shane Rhodes (Wrecking Ball Press editor) was my writing mentor, and when he read it, he said he’d like to publish it. It just seems crazy even now, saying all that, but that’s the way it happened.
 
Who are you writing for?
I’m writing mostly for myself – it’s my way of making sense of things, I think. But also, I’ve realised through meeting and hearing people like Louise Wallwein, Toria Garbutt, Louise Fazackerley, Kate Fox, that it’s massively powerful to share experiences, especially if you’re working-class or a woman, or you’ve been through difficult things, because there are people out there going through those things right now, being told who they should be and what they’re allowed to do, and just knowing that it happened to someone else, you’re not on your own, and you can come out the other side is a huge thing.
 
What experience do you want your readers to have with your work?
Hmm… I was a bit shocked by how many people cried when they came to see Bathwater, and a bit worried by that. It’s not what I thought was going to happen, which seems a bit daft to say now, cos I suppose it is quite sad! But when I was writing it, I wasn’t really thinking about how people would react, I just wanted to make it as honest as possible. I suppose I just wanted them to feel something, and I suppose that worked.
 
When you’re embarking on a new piece of work, whether that’s a poem or a full length piece for performance, what approach do you take?
I think it’s different every time. A poem will often just fall out of the sky – they’ll sometimes come out nearly fully-formed and then just need a few edits. But Bathwater was a totally different process – I spent ages on structure with graphs and grids, and writing drafts and cutting them up. All that malarkey. Fair Winds and Following Seas (an audio experience commissioned by Freedom Festival) was different again – I talked a lot with (musicians and producers) The Broken Orchestra about what we wanted to say, then spent ages in all the locations on the walk, then worked all those details into the poems. It depends what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, I think.
 
Tell us something about your writing process? 
Ha. I’m always making plans for writing and then not sticking to ’em. It’s a weird mix between discipline and – I don’t know what you’d call it – intuition, subconscious – I don’t have a name for it – just letting your brain do what it needs to do in the background. I think you sort of get the hang of when to do each one. Sometimes you’ve got to be disciplined and sometimes you just need to lay on the sofa and watch Poirot while it all brews in your brain.
Vicky Foster appearance on The Verb at BBC Contains Strong Language
Photo: Andrew Smith
You’ve done a few collaborations with The Broken Orchestra now. How did that originally come about and what else have you got planned with them?
I first met The Broken Orchestra when I was recording some demos for a Carpenters tribute act when I was a singer, and they told me then how they were, at that time, working with different vocalists, and we talked about me maybe doing some vocals on a song with them. That never happened, but I sort of had a feeling we’d end up doing something together at some point. I’d never have guessed in a million years what it would be though. But I just knew straight away when I decided to write Bathwater that I wanted them to do the music, and luckily they said yes!
 
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I’ve been really lucky to have stuff published, and since I first saw how gorgeous Wrecking Ball’s books are I said I’d love to have something published by them one day. The fact that they’re small and based in Hull, and you can pop in and have a chat is really special as well, and that they’ve got an independent book shop in Princes Quay. I popped in there on my graduation day and had my picture taken with my book – you couldn’t do that sort of thing with a big publisher.
 
What’s it like working with the might of the BBC?
Just amazing. It’s like dream-come-true stuff. I still find it hard to believe it happened. I’ve got little tote bags from Contains Strong Language and sometimes I’ll be going shopping and pick one up, and think oh yeah, I’ve been on the radio, I’ve written for them. Everyone I met there and worked with has just been lovely and supportive.
 
We’ve heard you’re working on a novel?
I am! It’s going slowly at the moment. I’ve done all my planning – more grids and all that – and I know what it’s about. It’s been doing the brewing thing in the back of my brain while I’ve been busy on other stuff all year, but it feels like about time to start getting it out now. We’ll see…I’ve never done it before. It might not work. It’s a massive thing. Hats off to anyone who’s ever written a novel. It’s hard.
 
Hull 2017 UK City of Culture seemed to be a springboard for you to get your writing noticed – do you have any reflections on Hull’s year in the spotlight and what it meant for you as an artist?
I know I’ve been really lucky, and I know not everyone in the city had as great an experience in 2017 as I did, but for me, yeah, it was just a huge opportunity, and I was ready for it. I think it’s just that thing that sometimes happens where you’re in the right place at the right time and doing the right things. Which made a nice change for me, because a lot of my life I seem to have been in the wrong place doing the wrong things! Generally, I think it’s been an amazing thing for the city – in terms of realising what’s possible, and civic pride and all that. I know there are lots of discussions happening about legacy, and that’s important. But it’s one of those once-in-a-generation things that we’ll all be talking about for years. Our grandkids won’t believe us when we tell ’em about the streets being full of naked blue people, will they? Not until we show ’em the pictures anyway. As theatre company Middle Child say – it will never not have happened.
 
So what’s the future hold for you?
There’s a lot of maybes for next year, a lot of things that may or may not happen. I’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve had two or three years now of being a professional writer as my job, and it’s been amazing. If I have to go back to other stuff at some point, well, I’ll always have had these last few years, and I’ve loved every minute of it. And I’ll always write now, whether anyone’s gonna read it or not.
 
Vicky Foster’s Bathwater is published by Wrecking Ball Press and can be purchased online at www.wreckingballpress.com/product/bathwater. For more information about Vicky Foster and her work visit www.vickyfoster.co.uk. For more information about Vicky’s collaborators The Broken Orchestra visit www.thebrokenorchestra.com 

Poet interview: Dean Wilson

With a new collection from Dean Wilson imminent, Wrecking Ball Press caught up with Hull’s fourth best poet and the Withernsea-loving enigma to discuss the coastal town he loves, writing and pebble collecting.
 
Dean Wilson with the Turin Shroud of PebblesHow are you feeling ahead of a new collection?
Happy and anxious.
 
What experience do you want your readers to have?
A good laugh, mainly.
 
Your first collection Sometimes I’m So Happy I’m Not Safe on the Streets was followed by the publication WITH. Why With? What’s your fascination with the place?
I love With. I came to With every year on holiday when I was growing up. Lots of happy memories. I moved here a year ago. It’s a magical and wonderous place. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.
 
How does your life manifest itself in your writing?
It’s all there, warts ‘n’ all!
 
Your work’s pretty revealing then, so how do you decide what to write about and what to leave out?
I don’t decide what to write about and what to leave out. I’m writing in my head all the time whether I’m walking on the beach, dusting, shopping, swimming or watching Corrie.
Rhymes never leave me alone. I very rarely sit down and write unless I’m sending Wrecking Ball Press poems for my next book.
 
What impact has social media had on your poetry and writing?
I’m only on twitter. I joined in June 2016 just before Sometimes… came out. I love twitter. A lot of my poems I put straight on there. Short and fast and fun! I’ve met some ace people through twitter. I love it.
 
You make a really big impact with your live performances but get pretty anxious before a gig. How do you feel about performing your work?
I love performing and making people laugh. It’s the best feeling I know. I don’t like the build up – the rehearsing and the doubts and the nerves, but it’s all worth it.
 
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I’ve got nothing to compare it to. It’s the only way I know!
 
You’ve developed an obsession with pebbles. Tell us more about why?
It’s since I moved to With. I found one with a hole in and it blew my mind. Then a few weeks later I started Pebble of The Day on twitter and the rest is geology…
 
You’re working on a novel. How’s that going and what can we expect?
My first and last novel is about a young gay Brontë obsessed postman with a secret. It’s going very slowly. It’s hard work. Poems are easy, anyone can write poem. I won’t be writing another novel. Life’s too Doilies short!
 
So what’s the future hold for Dean Wilson?
Pebbles Pebbles Pebbles
Poems Poems Poems
Gigs Gigs Gigs
Books Books Books
Painting Painting Painting
Men Men Men
Doilies Doilies Doilies
Music Music Music.
 
Dean Wilson is a poet now based in the Holderness coastal town of Withernsea. He collects pebbles on the beach at With and posts them on twitter. Karen Turner recently made Dean a quilt inspired by his pebble collecting, which the poet described as “The Turin Shroud of the pebble world.” When Dean was a boy he never dreamt he’d be the 4th best poet in Hull and the 2nd best in Withernsea. Dean’s collections are published by Wrecking Ball Press. Whet your appetite for his next collection by purchasing Sometimes I’m So Happy I’m Not Safe on the Streets at www.wreckingballpress.com/product/sometimes-im-so-happy-im-not-safe-on-the-streets-dean-wilson.

Author interview: Barney Farmer on Coketown

With Coketown recently published by Wrecking Ball Press, and The Observer lumping him into the new Brexlit movement in contemporary literature alongside Jonathan Coe, Ali Smith, Sarah Moss and Melissa Harrison, we caught up with author Barney Farmer about where the initial idea for his second novel came from, his vision for the book, his writing process, working with illustrator Lee Healey and the state of British politics.
 
Can you tell us something about the vision you had for Coketown?
The idea came from two blokes I saw in a pub. One entered alone and sat at a table right by me 10 or 15 minutes before the second arrived. He was a real bruiser, big bloke, skinhead, face bashed from some recent altercation. The second bloke was totally different, decent suit on, tie, smart haircut. County Hall is nearby and I’m guessing I took him for some kind of mid-management type in the Engineering Department. They greeted each other as if it was the first time they’d met in a while. Without earwigging too much it was obvious they were old mates from way back when, both working class, both at some point scallies. The second bloke asked him what had happened to his face and the bloke brushed it off, and I left shortly after so never got the story, and wondering what it might have been is where Coketown started.
 
Who are you writing for?
Middle-aged working class bog-standard comprehensive school drop-out autodidacts. There’s about 200 of us. But I hope the books are sufficiently accurate depictions of people and places which are plausibly ‘out there’ as to be of general interest to anyone.
 
What experience do you want your readers to have with this new book?
I couldn’t begin to imagine how people might respond to it, and consciously try never to think about the readers at all while writing. But I hope they have a good laugh and come away with lots of questions.
 
When you’re embarking on a new novel what approach do you take?
I probably thought about those two blokes in the pub for six months before writing anything at all about them. Once I’d decided the book would mostly take place in a pub the second bloke would find violently disagreeable, I spent a few months going for drinks in pubs I didn’t remotely like. Several encounters and details in the book were drawn from this period, and it was around then that I started writing a few passages which later went in the book. So I’d probably say live with the idea a bit first and then, if needed, live a little of it too, see if you have any idea what you’re about to start gobbing off about.
 
You’re clearly a political man. How does that manifest itself in your writing?
Mostly by writing as little directly about politics as possible. There’s none at all in my first book, but not really possible in Coketown. Two men in their late 40s or early 50s out for a first pint at the moment are going to talk and think about politics, the end. As a writer I’m much less interested in the mechanics and intrigue of politics – the Great Players and their Press Court – than its ripples across culture and society. The average working class Brexit voting bloke is far more interesting to me, the route travelled from where via what, than is Boris Johnson, who is a two-dimensional cartoon villain who can be read like a child’s book, and a shit one at that.
 
What’s wrong with politics these days?
It’s all really very simple. The interpretation of utilitarian thinking which has underpinned British democracy for so long has failed. The ‘greatest possible happiness to the greatest possible number’ has boiled down to a simple matter of wealth allocation. Gradually for decades and fast since the Crash this ‘happiness’ has only been sustained by making the ‘unhappiness’ of those outside that ‘greatest number’ increasingly intolerable. At the same time, older and so more likely Conservative recipients of the ‘greatest possible happiness’ are suddenly finding it all a bit empty and meaningless and casting around for something else, something to believe in as the darkness gathers. They settled on Brexit about ten years ago and then enlisted enough pissed-off members of those – as social mobility died – to all intents and purposes permanently excluded from the gilded greatest number to their cause, with the time-honoured method of stirring up hate and grudge of ‘the other’.
 
Tell us something about your writing process?
No discipline time-wise, I start when I start and stop when my heart’s not in it. Lots of tea, no smoking at the computer, no music, an ordeal in itself, proper get up and leave the room breaks.
 
Do you do a lot of planning? The inner monologue of Coketown suggests not but that’s just a device, isn’t it? And what about research? Do you delve into archive material?
I try not to use much archive material, and in this book that’s part of the point. The main character not only has no clue what he’s talking about, he knows he has no clue but has decided to blag on anyway. I did enough to put dates and such on a firm footing, because so would he, that bit’s easy! The biggest single bit of research was rereading Hard Times, which was no chore if I’m being honest. The inner monologue is totally unplanned, in the hope of catching something near the natural progression of thought to thought. Which is impossible of course, as the thought process is electricity zapping millimetres through conductive custard and I type about 20 words a minute, but is worth a bash.
 
How does writing a novel length work differ from writing for Viz?
The strips I write for Viz – drawn by Lee Healey, who also illustrated Coketown – are far harder. They’re usually one full page, always five decks, which at most means around 20 panels, and that’s that. If you want to go on, the idea needs to be good enough to do another 20 panels, but no more than 40. And Graham and Thorpy are tough editors. Having written as many great strips as they have they can spot a clunker at 20 paces, and quite right too. A novel has no end so all the discipline has to come from yourself, as I suppose the temptation is to waffle. Probably the years writing for Viz, where it was obvious from square one that any padding or flab in a strip would only succeed in having it returned stamped ‘shite’ has been a good training ground.
 
How close to Barney Farmer is the Barney in the book? Is that inner monologue yours or the character’s?
Don’t want to give much away. But the reason I gave him that name was mostly because I was trying to paint a grimmish picture of middle-aged liberalish leftish but mostly confused manhood to play off the other lad. On the first draft he had no name, but reading back I twigged that I was uncomfortably guilty of quite a lot of the things I’d heaped on him, to varying degrees, and also that by not acknowledging this I was putting myself undeservedly upon a fine little pedestal.
 
How did you work with Lee Healey on this?
More or less the same as for the strips. Framed rough sketches of the components which needed to be in each image, along with descriptive extracts from the book, and left him to it. They all came back just as envisaged, with one or two as if he’d plucked them straight from my mind’s eye. He’s a sublimely gifted artist.
 
How do you feel about Coketown being part of this Brexlit movement that you’ve been lumped into?
I see what they’re getting at, and am delighted that anyone, let alone academics, should have enjoyed my work enough to subject it to some critical thought, but they were certainly not written with that in mind.
 
We’re living in time where there aren’t many heroes anymore. Who, if any, are your literary heroes?
SJ Perelman is for me the greatest out-and-out comic writer of the 20th Century, and virtually every funny American column or essay I read to this day is shot through with a manner of expression lifted direct. And he was one of the team that helped Groucho transfer his persona from stage to screen, so debate over. In every other respect I have the standard set of autodidact stopping points for a man raised in the fag-end of postwar existentialism – Kafka, Ballard, Dickens, Camus. The list is boring.
 
There’s a hell of a lot of drinking in both Drunken Baker and Coketown. How important is alcohol to you, your characters and people in general?
Very, although in my private life I now have a fairly good grip on its collar and it is a rare pleasure always now enjoyed to the full. Alcohol is the only state approved flight from the drudgery of consciousness and so I think it’s hugely important, culturally, to my generation and those before, which tended to be more widely – although greatly less so from the 70s on – law abiding in that regard. It is interesting to me that younger people are now apparently far less likely to drink, preferring other substances. I think this is less a rejection of drink, by the way, than a good and healthy growing disdain for the State telling you what you can and cannot ingest for laughs.
 
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I thank goodness for them. Not to get too Dave Spart about it, but writers from my background writing books like mine would simply never be published without the indies, not in a way that is any use to them. Wrecking Ball and the like perform a vital role both in their communities, through organising events, bringing attention and activity, and generally in culture, as enablers for writers who might, just might, have an audience and the chance to give writing the hard time and dedication required.
 
So what’s the future hold for Barney Farmer?
It is yet unwritten, and no spoilers are available. 
 
Barney Farmer is a writer and artist who writes about things for Viz, mostly about drunken bakers, and sometimes for Private Eye, but not about drunken bakers. Farmer also wrote a short film called Who is to Blame. He uses biros. Coketown, illustrated throughout by Lee Healey, is published by Wrecking Ball Press and available at www.wreckingballpress.com/product/coketown.