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Never Try To Outswim A Bear

Poet interview: Fiona Curran

Fiona Curran is a poet, sonic artist and filmmaker, and also a lecturer in filmmaking. Her first poetry collection, The Hail Mary Pass, was published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2006. Wilton Carhoot, editor of The Slab, said: “Fiona Curran is a bright and feisty northern voice. She treads the landscape of the urban and the domestic, from the smokey fug of the betting shop to the lavender scent of the bathroom. I like Fiona’s poems because she writes about real people who truly exist and whose lives and wine-fuelled loves I can believe in. The Hail Mary Pass is spunky, sexy and brash. This is a belter of a debut and I very very much look forward to the next verse.” Wrecking Ball Press will publish Fiona’s new collection, Never Try to Outswim a Bear, on October 26. We spoke to Fiona to find out more about the collection.

You’ve got a new collection on the way – Never Try to Outswim a Bear – great title, by the way. What can readers expect?

Hummmmm, it’s a real mix to be honest, black humour, grief, period pieces, nature, reflections on art, examinations of the language of flowers, lost lovers, found lovers, the poetry of place, The Postcard Series, Poetry as Script, The Scientist Series…

Can you tell us something about where this collection came from, when you started work on the pieces within, why you wrote it, how it developed?

It’s such a mixed bag, and frankly was written over quite a long time, but I think the underlying theme is one of loss in many forms. Also I was trying to capture some fleeting moments, the things (sometimes quite momentous) just caught in the corner of the eye.

Some of the poems are presented in the form of postcards, what is the reason for this?

I always loved the way that postcards “limit” what you can say, that you have to be succinct, and yet, no matter the picture, they always seem to me to be a joyful and unexpected thing, and I always loved receiving them. They deserve to be celebrated as a writing form. Angela Carter, for instance, was brilliant at them.

How does your work as a lecturer, sonic artist, filmmaker and poet intersect?

It intersects completely. Eventually I gave up trying to reconcile all of the practices and just decided to call myself an artist and be done with it. Nothing I do really stands alone, it’s all water from the same well.

You’re creating films to accompany the collection, can you let us know what to expect?

Some are already in the bag. For instance, The Scientist Series (where a lone female scientist tries to distill and understand grief) gave birth to four experimental films. These are pretty diverse and include a process documentary with a twist, set in a coffin factory, a dancer coming to terms with the lid of the final box, and the escape from purgatory of the dead (me, in fact), making my way back to the land of the living – in this case arriving finally in Ridley Road Market – God Bless Hackney!

Who are you writing for?

That is a very good question! Curious women who are shot through with their own burning experiences.

What experience do you want your readers to have with your work?

I’m just vain enough to hope that a single poem catches a reader and echoes in their mind – perhaps enough to lead them to explore a subject personally.

When you’re embarking on a new piece of work, whether a poem or a piece of visual or sonic art, what approach do you take?

I used to be a big over-thinker. I almost had it done in my mind long before I committed to paper. I’ve stopped doing that now. It kills it. I’ve learned, too, that if I am collaborating, to give the other people succinct direction, but also a lot of freedom – there’s got to be something in it for them. It pays to be surprised when you are making work. I like the feeling of “Good grief, where did that come from and what am I going to do with it?”

Tell us more about your process?

I used to be very much a morning person, but now I take it when it comes! Nothing is ever wasted. It’s all in there somewhere, so I work when I can and when I feel I’ve got something worth saying/showing. I am quicker to spot what won’t work now, before I’ve written myself into a corner and destroyed what was just about flowing. But I’ve also learned that even seemingly insurmountable problems are best addressed by temporarily walking away. Sleeping on it will often give you the solution, or the clarity, you need. And sometimes you just have to abandon ship.

Do you do a lot of planning or procrastinating before you sit down and get writing?

No – there is a Zen saying “We are wrong if we think there is time…” Procrastination doesn’t really exist if you have something driving you to examine your own humanity.

Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?

Frankly, they have never been anything but good to me. I’ve had some wonderful relationships with publishers of small presses and magazines over the years, and I very much include Wrecking Ball here! It’s great to see some of the small presses managing to grow and being recognised as part of the reading culture, simply through their own publishing discernment.

The Hail Mary Pass was published 15 years ago. Looking back, what are your thoughts on the collection and the response to it?

My God, 15 years! It was such an urgent thing getting that first collection published, I wish I had just enjoyed it more! Some of the writing still stands up but in some other poems, it’s like meeting a stranger.

What else are you working on now?

Ahh, well it was going to be a new, much bigger film! I have a re-occurring image, but no detail I can share! But we will have to see what happens in a (hopefully) post Covid-19 world. I think all writers and artists will be reexamining their ideas in what could be a post capitalist world. Whatever we do next has to be relevant, and address that world, not be just more of the same schtick.

So what’s the future hold for Fiona Curran?

For the moment crossed fingers. And I’d like to go back to Rome very soon…

Buy Never Try to Outswim a Bear online.



Paul Birtill was born in Walton, Liverpool in 1960 to an English father and Irish, County Meath mother and lives in London. He has published a number of collections with Hearing Eye, including New and Selected Poems. He is also an accomplished playwright and several of his plays have been staged at London theatres, including Squalor, which was short-listed for the prestigious Verity Bargate Award.
Paul’s new collection Bad News will be published by Wrecking Ball Press on September 14. The collection sees the poet return to his favourite themes of death, relationships and mental illness with his usual brand of dark humour, deep-veined irony and more than one poem about Coronavirus. We had a chat with Paul so he could tell us more about his new collection and squash the rumours about his use of correction fluid.
How would you describe Bad News?
The collection is a mixture of work, some of which is autobiographical, some of which is semi-autobiographical and a somewhat exaggerated version of events and some that display my usual black comedy.
Can you tell us something about where this collection came from, when you started work on the pieces within, why you wrote them, how they developed and how Bad News came to the attention of Wrecking Ball?
I started working on the poems in this collection just under three years ago. What tends to happen is that when I have enough poems together, maybe around 40, I’ll start to think about them in terms of a collection and come up with the title at that point. Coronavirus happened and I wanted to write something about it because we are living through history here and it’s important to capture that, even in my own funny way.
I’ve known the poet Dean Wilson for 20 years and I knew Roddy Lumsden, both published by Wrecking Ball. I sent some poems for inclusion in The Reater years ago but there were no more Reaters so that was that, even though the editor liked them. I read with Dean in Liverpool a couple of years ago and we swapped books. I really liked his book and the quality of its production and he told me to try Wrecking Ball again. So it’s all Dean’s fault.
Who are you writing for?
Normally I write poems in notebooks and if they’re any good I type them up on a typewriter. I start by reading them to half a dozen good friends and if they like them they’re in. If not, I don’t bother. So initially I write for my small circle of friends because they’re a good critical audience.
What experience do you want your readers to have with your work?
Somebody once said to Brendan Behan, “what’s the message in your work?” And he said, “there is no message, I’m not a fucking postman.” Sometimes I’m expressing ideas or my point of view which some people might find bleak and depressing but I also like to make people laugh.
Would you like to share something about your experience with independent publishers?
I had a great working relationship with John Rety, who founded Hearing Eye. He was the poetry editor of the Morning Star, an anarchist and a really good chess player. John published my first collection Terrifying Ordeal in 1996 and went on to publish other collections of mine and pamphlets and I liked him a lot. Good independents allow writers to remain independent too.
You avoid technology and continue to write on a typewriter. Why is that?
I do avoid technology, yes. I’ve never been on an aeroplane and if I travel to Europe I take a boat or Eurostar. I don’t drive a car and it was only in the last year that I got round to getting a mobile phone and only then because the landline was getting more expensive and there were some good deals to be had.
I’ve never really liked technology and I’m not the most practical or technically minded person, so I’ve never really wanted a computer. Someone told me once that they had a computer but quickly went back to a typewriter because they found it too easy to change things on screen and that’s what I feel too.
I have an electric typewriter, a Brother, that I’ve had for 30 years. I can’t even buy the ribbons in Rymans these days so have to order them and I hope I can continue to keep buying them when I need to but so few people use typewriters these days. I’m also a great user of Tippex. When I’m stocking up on Tippex at the newsagent’s I don’t think he quite believes that I use a typewriter at all. I’m pretty sure he thinks I sniff the Tippex.
How is the London life these days?
I moved down here from Liverpool on July 1, 1983. I’m quite good with dates. I’ve been here ever since aside from a year. I live down a leafy road near Hampstead Heath, so I’m in one of the nicest parts of London. Camden Town is down the road if I want to socialise, which I did a lot when I was younger.
I lived in Glasgow for a year, during the European Capital of Culture year. It was the dream place for a writer to be although I moved there for the drink and a woman I was unhealthily obsessed with. That was a great year-long party, the pubs never closed. I nearly stayed but then I ended up back in London after the year. If I ever do move from here now it would be to live back in Liverpool.
What does the future hold for you?
I’m coming up to 60th birthday next month. So with that and the publication of Bad News I’ll be enjoying myself. I’ve already got 20 more poems written and I’m still quite prolific as a poet, so more of that. I’ve also been a playwright since 1984, at the time of the miners’ strike, and have written ten plays and written poetry since 1987. The problem with plays is that you need a really strong idea to be able to sustain 90 minutes whereas with poetry, in ten lines you can write about something quirky and specific. 
Paul Birtill’s Bad News can purchased online at


Tony O’Neill’s brutal debut novel Digging The Vein was published in 2005 by Contemporary Press in the USA and Canada and, in the UK, by Wrecking Ball Press in 2006. Tony was born in Blackburn, Lancashire and now resides in New Jersey. Subsequent novels Down and Out on Murder Mile, Sick City and Black Neon were published via Harper Collins and Bluemoose Press, and have been translated into several languages. His debut graphic novel, La Vie Sauvage / The Savage Life, with illustrations by David Brulhart, was published in French via Helice Helas in 2016. An accomplished writer of non-fiction, Tony has co-authored several memoirs, while his journalism has appeared in a number of publications, including The Guardian, Dazed and Confused, The Fix, Black Book Substance and Vice. Digging The Vein is based upon Tony’s own experiences as an addict and sideman to acts as diverse as the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Kenickie and Marc Almond. Through the eyes of his anonymous narrator readers experience a side of Hollywood that few tourists ever see: Digging The Vein is an unsentimental journey through the underbelly of L.A.’s drug subculture. At the height of Coronavirus and the distruption the pandemic is causing worldwide, we caught up with Tony to talk Digging The Vein, writing and coping with life and what the future might hold.
Digging The Vein was your debut novel and a memoir of your passage from rising indie music star to drug user. 15 years have passed since its publication. What do you feel about the book now?
I actually had to go back and re-read it for the first time since I wrote it – or at least, parts of it – because I was working on a screenplay adaptation. It’s hard to read your own stuff. I think as a writer it’s really easy just to focus on the flaws. My instinct is always to try and re-write everything, fix it, change it. So when it’s fixed in print… it can be difficult. But coming back to it, there were some sections I really liked. You read back certain passages and you can tell that was one of those moments when you were just in that zone, you know, where the words are coming through clear as a bell and all you have to do is keep typing – transcribe it really – and try not to get in your own way. Those sections – you can feel it still when you re-read it. I think the strongest feeling of all when looking back at any book you read is a kind of sense of wonder that you managed it at all, followed by a mounting dread that you’ll never be able to do it again. That fear never seems to leave you. Every book feels like a bit of a fluke.
Can you tell us something about where the book came from, why you wrote it, how it developed?
It came from a place of great personal change, and I think of it as a marker of the place where my life diverged totally. It was kind of a purging of my old life, of the years of addiction and desperation, and a kind of ‘hail Mary’ attempt to write myself into a new existence, if that makes any sense. I wrote it just as my now-wife was pregnant with our daughter, and I was coming off methadone after years of heroin use and methadone maintenance. The worst part of all of that isn’t the acute phase – the stuff they show you in the movies, when you’re puking and shitting and dying for a fix… that stuff is just the dramatic part. The worst part is what happens afterwards… the mourning period, when this thing that has been the north star of your entire life – your reason for getting out of bed in the morning, the thing that gives you sustenance, and happiness, and forms the core of your identity – is no longer there. The despair that comes flooding into its place, the fear, is just all-consuming. If I hadn’t been so in love with Vanessa, and so desperate to be a good and present father to my unborn child, then I don’t know how on earth I would have made it. So, the book became a kind of declaration of that intent as it went on. I mean, it started out as something to do to keep myself sane in the early part of it all. Just writing about these vivid and painful memories as a way to distract myself, keep my worst instincts at bay. But as it went on, I became irrationally fixated on the idea that it represented something else for me. A second chance, or another way of living, or… something. I finished the first draft the same week that Vanessa went into labour. Some of the early chapters were taken from things I found in old diaries and on an old laptop, vignettes that were pretty much written as they happened, but the vast majority of the book was written in London in that state of… I don’t know what you’d call it, really. Hopeful desperation, perhaps.
Does your background as a musician inform your work as a writer?
Definitely, I mean I still make sense of things in musical terms, I suppose. When I think of a certain mood I want to evoke, or a voice I want to get down, then very often I think of things in terms of – you know, a Tom Waits kind of feeling, or whatever. I suppose it’s not much different from someone aiming for a Hemingway type of feel to a piece, is it? Except I’d probably think of it more as a Ramones type of thing: short, sharp and to the point.
Who are you writing for?
The only answer I can give there is ‘myself’ although that’s never quite true is it? There’s always an ideal reader in mind, perhaps someone who likes the same writers and/or musicians that you do. But ultimately thinking too much about who is reading your work can be fatal. I got into a bit of a problem with that after Sick City and Black Neon. It started halfway through Black Neon, I started wondering about what the reader was going to think of this or that, or particularly what the reader who’d liked the last book would think – and it fucking crippled me. For years. Finishing Black Neon was really, really difficult. After that I just had the most horrendous writer’s block, that coincided with some real-life trauma that completely knocked me off the horse for a few years. There was a car accident, a brief relapse, it was just a horrible period in my life. I spent a few years just spinning my wheels, starting books and abandoning them. Constantly re-writing the same material until there was nothing left but mush. I eventually got out of it by collaborating with a great Swiss illustrator on a graphic novel, a guy called David Brulhart. Just having someone else there to bounce ideas off, to be inspired by – I mean, his artwork is just superb, and I wound up writing something that was very different from what came before – kind of dreamlike, and surreal but also with this noir-thriller kind of feel, and that process – where the story was being led as much by the art David was producing, as it was by my own instinct – was super freeing. Following that, I started working on screenplays, and slowly but surely the problem dissipated. But it was terrifying and pretty fucking depressing while it was going on. I mean, a writer who can’t write… is there anything worse than that? I felt like a knackered old horse that needed to be taken out to a back field and put out of its misery.

When you’re embarking on a new piece of work, whether a short story or a novel, what approach do you take?
With the books I think my approach is closest to the one that Stephen King talks about in On Writing – the idea of starting with an image, or a character, or a juxtaposition of ideas and then just chipping away at them, like an archeologist finding evidence of something buried underground and slowly digging around it, never quite being sure what the hell is under there. Even with Sick City, which relied a lot on plotting, and multiple characters, and didn’t work from an outline. You just start with your idea, and start writing, and with a bit of luck the thing will pick up enough speed along the way that you’ll make it to the end. The process for a screenplay is totally different. With that it helps to plot and outline, break the thing into acts. There’s a structure, and very strict length and format constraints that you have to work with. It’s two totally different ways of writing – like free-verse versus haiku.
Tell us a bit about your process? Are you disciplined when you sit down and start writing? Do you set a word count, work at a particular time of day?
Yes, I have to be disciplined. I treat it like a job, even if it often doesn’t pay like one! But I have a routine. I sit down to write at the same time every day, and although I don’t give myself minimum word counts, I don’t have to if things are going well. But I do make sure that I don’t check emails, or go online until later in the day, to kind of avoid just fucking around and not getting anything done. There aren’t days when I don’t want to write. If I didn’t write every day I’d be lost, so the routine is just a reflexive thing at this point, like brushing my teeth or whatever. It’s what keeps me sane, I think. Even when the writing isn’t going well, just the act of sitting down and fiddling with something unfinished, it just gives me a sense of normality and sanity that nothing else really does. The upside of this whole Coronavirus thing is that I have more time at home to work now, and aside from all of the financial scarcity and the fears about loved ones and all the rest of it, just knowing there’s a decent chunk of the day when I can sit down at my computer, close the door, and write… that’s what keeps me going a lot of the time.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I’ve been lucky. I’ve had very positive experiences with the majority of publishers I’ve worked with. Of course, some feel more special to me than others, perhaps because of the people or the impact that particular book had on me – but I have always been fortunate to work with people who I thought really cared, and really wanted to do right by the books (and me). I’ve worked with Wrecking Ball Press of course, and also Bluemoose (who did Black Neon) and also Galley Beggar – three publishers who represent some of the very best in British independent publishing, to my mind. Kind, smart dedicated people who always seemed to be working from a place of love for the books they were putting out, a desire to do right by their authors – it’s the best you could ask for, as a writer. So perhaps I’m an outlier, in that my experiences have been pretty much fantastic. Comparing my experiences with indies as opposed to the books I did with, say, Harper Perennial… of course, there’s a certain reach that the big publishers have – in terms of finances and publicity – but I really believe that in today’s industry the independents can be just as effective, perhaps even more so, than the big guys. That said, Perennial were very good to me, although in many ways that’s because they acted and thought a bit like an independent. So once again, perhaps my experience is not typical. You’ve got to remember that at the time they did my books, they also were putting out stuff by Dan Fante, Dennis Cooper, Mark SaFranko, Sebastian Horsley. I mean, they weren’t a typical stuffy, corporate publisher by any stretch of the imagination. However, I do know people who went with the big guys and just felt like they got lost. Especially if their stuff was a little more edgy, or not as commercial, at least.
You live in New Jersey. Does this have any impact on your writing?
None at all, really. I mean, the place I live in Jersey is basically an adjunct to New York. Like so many families, we got priced out of the city and had to find a place that was affordable, had a decent public-school system, and didn’t leave us too far out of the city. I mean, in impacts my writing in that I have a place to write, and we don’t have to worry about having to pack up and move in a few years if the landlord decides to raise our rent or sell the building out from under us, but in terms of the sensibility of the writing I’m still a city boy, at heart.
You also write non-fiction and journalism. Does this work require a different approach? How do these two worlds intersect?
The only real point of intersection is that the journalism tends to pay, and money helps give me time to focus on my writing. I find journalism hard, and I’m not someone who can just write about something I’m not interested in… so if you look at all of the non-fiction I’ve done, there are themes running through it that run through the books too. I did a little bit of stuff at the beginning – real ‘gun for hire’ stuff, but I found it so difficult to do it that it ended up not being worth it to me. Writing 1,000 words on something I’ve got no interest in takes me forever because I find it so painfully difficult. So it becomes almost not worth it, financially. But on the flipside, when I’ve found an editor who I like and who lets me write about subjects I’m interested in, then I’ll stick with them. They cant shake me! There’s one fellow called Will, who I’ve followed to at least three different online journals, because I know that he won’t edit me to death, and he’ll let me write about things that I find interesting, and I just LIKE him. It’s that simple. I wish I could turn it off a bit more, write to order, but to be honest I probably couldn’t make money that way. I find that it’s a bit of a slippery slope, that kind of thing. Writing crap for money. We all have to live, but I find it easier to do manual work, or do courier work, or something totally separate from my writing to pay the bills and give myself space to write, than to try and write commercially. Not only are the well-paid gigs hard to find, but I think you just end up resenting it and the worst thing you could do – in my eyes – is to start associating the act writing with that kind of negative feeling. I know that some people can turn it on and off, but until the day that my books and the screenplays are enough to keep the family afloat on their own, I prefer to make up the difference away from the keyboard.
You’re a founding member of the Brutalists, a literary collective including authors Adelle Stripe and Ben Myers. Care to tell us more about that?
Both Ben and Adelle were really important friends in the beginning, when we were all just starting out. Finding like-minded souls, people whose work you really loved and who were just so full of ideas and inspiring, that’s the kind of thing that keeps you pushing on throughout all of the self-doubt and other bad stuff that can derail you in the beginning. It’s been amazing to see how brilliantly both Ben and Adelle’s careers have taken off in recent years. I remember when Adelle was first talking about the book that turned into Black teeth and a Brilliant Smile. To see her take it all the way to the finish line like that, and then to see the reaction it got? Fucking brilliant. And then, Ben’s fucking wild – he keeps writing these amazing books that just seem to get bigger and better every time, and watching both of their profile’s rise over the years from my vantage point over here in the States, I can honestly say that the prevailing emotion has been one of overwhelming pride. And also a kind of validation. It’s so good to see lots of people seeing the same brilliance that I saw in those early essays, in long-out-of-business fanzines and since-defunct webzines. I love it when I think that there was a time we were all issuing manifestos and dreaming about stuff like this, and now the world seems to have caught up with it! How cool is that? As for the future, you know I’m a big ‘never say never’ person. I think it would be really, really fun to do something again. Why not?
What are you working on now?
The last few years have been mostly about screenplays. I’d had some interest from Hollywood in the books, and its kind of led me onto this journey of both working with and also meeting some amazingly talented screenwriters… guys like Jayson Rothwell, and Bret Easton Ellis, or Jim Uhls. And throughout it all I started looking at the screenplays they were doing, and getting more and more interested in that side of writing and started making some clumsy forays into it until I basically taught myself the form. It was difficult at first. Amazing how being able to write a decent novel does NOT automatically translate into being able to turn out a solid script! I wrote some terrible shit at the beginning, I cringe to think about it. It’s a very different kind of writing, but I figured that while this door was open even just a crack, why not try my hand at it? The producers who approached me about turning Sick City into a series have been very supportive of the process. They really guided me through it and in the last 12 months I’ve turned one of my (unfinished) books into a pilot, finished a movie adaptation of the first two novels (Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile), and had a few other interesting projects on the table (this all before the world fucking ended and everything came to a grinding halt, of course!). Now with the Coronavirus thing going on, a lot of those projects are on hold, so I have turned my attention to something that’s been on my mind for the last few years – finishing the next novel. So… that’s what I’m doing. It’s still early days, so I don’t want to say too much about it, but I will say it’s a case of “so far, so good.”
So what’s the future hold for Tony O’Neill?
Who the hell knows? If all of this madness has shown us anything, it’s that none of us know what the future holds. Every day that I wake up breathing and relatively healthy is okay by me. I’ll just keep doing the stuff I can control – writing, being the best husband and father and I can be, trying to keep the old demons at bay – and hopefully the future will work itself out.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Um… wash your hands x
Tony O’Neill’s Digging The Vein can be purchased online at 
For more information about Tony O’Neill visit


Russ Litten is the author of Scream If You Want To Go Faster (Windmill Books), Swear Down (Tindal Street Press​) and Kingdom, published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2015. He has also written for TV, film, radio and the stage. Russ spent five years as a Writer In Residence at a prison in the north of England and also runs workshops and seminars in prisons and Youth Offender Institutes across the UK on behalf of English PEN. He is a regular tutor at Arvon Writing Courses and a workshop tutor for First Story in a secondary school. In 2016 Russ, along with the internationally renowned producer and musician Steve Cobby, released the spoken word/electronica album My People Come from the Sea. The album Boothferry followed in 2017. A collection of short stories We Know What We Are (Obliterati Press) was published in May 2018. His debut poetry collection I Can See The Lights was published by Wild Pressed Books in February 2020 and a free launch for the collection takes place at Hull’s Union Mash Up on February 20. We caught up with Russ a few days before publication.
Tell us about your first poetry collection I Can See The Lights? What can readers expect, and why poetry, now?
I’m always a bit reticent to call these pieces of writing ‘poetry’, mainly because I’m surrounded by so many great poets who know much more about the craft than I do. To me, many of the fragments in I Can See The Lights fall somewhere between song lyrics and prose. I suppose this is because a lot of them were written as spoken word pieces to accompany Steve Cobby’s music. So there is the poetic use of rhyme, metre etc, but they are ultimately concerned with telling a story. I think I got into writing this way because I didn’t have the energy for a novel and shorter pieces seemed to appeal.

Are you working on a novel currently? Or have one in the pipeline? Can you tell us anything about that?
I’m working on a novel based upon my experiences of working in prisons. It’s the very first novel that I’ve plotted out before sitting down to write the thing. I think it would be best described as a psychological thriller.

We love your musical collaborations with Cobby and others. You’ve got your fingers in a lot of pies. Is it all part of the same creative urge? Is one of your creative pursuits more satisfactory than others?
I started off writing words to music when I was in a band back in my teens and everything I’ve done since then has been a natural progression from that. Working with Steve was great for me, because it emphasised the importance of improvisation and how that can result in stuff that’s very pure because it’s not over-thought or laboured to death. Music is a lot more instant than the published word, you can write, make and release stuff very quickly, so you don’t end up second-guessing yourself. They’re more like snapshots in time. More recently, I got back into playing with bands and that’s been good again because it’s a lot more structured and compact, the discipline of writing verses, choruses etc – which I never really bothered with when we were doing the electronica with Cobby and Litten. Playing music is communal and collaborative, much more so than the lonely solo flight of writing. I see writing and music as different sides to the same thing. They each give me what the other cannot, so I feel doubly blessed to be doing both. I usually have music on when I write, and there’s definitely a beat I find myself tapping into when the keys are being struck. I think it’s maybe to do with being a bass player, where you get rhythm and melody rolled into one.

Kingdom defied easy categorisation and was difficult for mainstream publishers to get their heads wrapped around. Tell us how the book came about, the response and your thoughts on genre?
That book came about as a result of a surgical procedure. I came out of a local anaesthetic and thought I was a ghost for about 30 seconds. So I sort of went with that idea. I’ve always been interested in magical realism, which is what I suppose I was aiming for with Kingdom. The response was about the same as all my other books – pockets of appreciation within a general blanket of indifference. It’s probably my most personal book and the one I’m most proud of, I think. As for genre, I think I’m going to attempt to write a book in each and every one, so romance and sci-fi are next on the list. That should keep me busy for a bit.

Who are you writing for?
I always used to say I was writing for myself, but that seems a bit of a glib answer these days. Most of the books I tend to like seem to wallow in relative obscurity, so I’d probably be slightly better off if I considered the sensibilities of others. I am submitting the work after all, putting a price on the back and asking people to buy it. This came as something of a revelation to me after my wife suggested that I write something that “people would actually want to read.” So now I’m writing for my wife.

What experience do you want your readers to have with your work?
I would like them to come away from one of my stories feeling that there is some hope and light in the world. I was always concerned with presenting things in their raw and naked form, a kind of unflinching veracity, but I’ve shifted my thinking on this in recent times. My stuff is always described as “gritty”, “earthy” etc etc which is fair enough, but I don’t feel that this is enough any more. I would like to make a positive emotional connection. Like Lou Reed said, it’s important that people don’t feel so alone. So I would like them to have a transcendental experience, please. If that’s not too much to ask for.

When you’re embarking on a new piece of work, whether that’s a poem, short story or a full length novel, what approach do you take?
I tend to just get voices talking on the page, wether that’s versions of myself or somebody totally new. After a while I can start to see what the form should be for the particular story that emerges. Some of them get longer, some of them stay short. It’s a sort of clairvoyant approach that I learnt from the ladies whose hair my mam would set in our back kitchen when I was a nipper. They’d go into trances and start talking to ghosts with a head full of rollers.

Tell us a bit about your process? Are you disciplined when you sit down and start writing? Do you set a word count, work at a particular time of day, or anything else?
I am disciplined when I can see a story has got potential. If I’m on with a novel, I try and start as early as possible. This gets easier as the mornings get lighter. I go for as long as I’m fired up about it, which can be anything from half an hour to four or five hours. One tip I learned off Hemingway was to always stop when you know what’s coming next. That’s served me well with regards to momentum.

Do you do a lot of planning or procrastinating before you sit down and get writing?
With this new novel, the planning has become a form of procrastination. I’ve got dates, timelines, biographies, chapter plans, narrative arcs … I don’t usually bother with all that stuff, I’m more concerned with discovering the story through the act of writing and re-drafting etc. Shaping the story out of the text as it unfolds. That involves staring out of the window a lot, or walking the dog. With this one, I know what’s happening so there’s less a sense of wandering about in the wilderness. I can still find a thousand things to do before writing though. But once I’ve got the bit between my teeth, I tend to get on with it. I have periods of indolence verging on horizontal, then I guilt-trip myself into prolonged bouts of hard graft.

You’ve been on both sides of the publishing game, and have had work published by large publishing houses and indies. What are your thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I think independent publishers are certainly less risk-averse then the major publishing houses. The obvious downside is the lack of money and marketing muscle. Ultimately, wether a publisher is major or independent, it boils down to the people who work there and how much time and effort they’re willing to put into your writing. This can vary wildly, regardless of size or bank balance.

What impact does Hull have on your writing?
It is my natural voice and will probably inform most things that I write purely because my preferred mode is auto-fiction. It doesn’t really go beyond that. I’m not trying to say anything about Hull, the place or the people, in particular. It’s just where I live, what I see when I look out the window.

You’ve led workshops at Arvon centres, in prisons and with secondary schools. What makes for a good workshop? And what, if any, are the differences in the way those different groups run?
A good workshop relies on the person leading it being genuinely interested in writing and passionate about the subject matter. There is no “how to” with creative writing, all you can offer is your perspective as a fellow writer, and offer your views to be challenged. More immediately – and crucially – you have to establish an atmosphere of mutual support and trust and human warmth. I think that goes for wherever you hold such a gathering. The differences in the way they are run are borne of logistical pressures. Prison and hostel work is often fragmented and subject to interruptions, so poetry is often the favoured mode of expression. Retreats such as Arvon mean you have the time and space to consider longer pieces of work. But I think the thing common to all is to be open minded and encouraging. The only rule for writing is “does it work?”. It’s a source of constant wonder. I also think it is good to have something at the end of a series of workshops, either a published anthology or a reading or recording.

Are there too many creative writing courses these days?
No, there should be more. And they should all be free.
Russ Litten’s Kingdom can be purchased online at
For more information about Russ Litten visit


Kitchen sink epic fantasy The Bastard Wonderland was the stunning debut novel from writer Lee Harrison. As Shellie Horst wrote for, “The Bastard Wonderland has epic fantasy scale with solid industrial fantasy technologies woven in. It answers the call for the working class protagonist. It wriggled its way under the radar of man, yet continues to win readers over with its Steptoe and Son feel.” We caught up with Lee to find out more about the book, his writing process and the importance of libraries.
The Bastard Wonderland is an astonishing debut fantasy novel. Can you tell us something about where the book came from, why you wrote it, how it developed and how it ended up being published by Wrecking Ball?
Thanks, pals! The Bastarard Wonderland came from all over the shop and took a long time to evolve. It started from my lifelong ambition to write a fantasy epic like the swords and sorcery stuff I loved as a kid. I got side-tracked in my twenties, did a degree in Religious Studies almost by accident, and then had a bit of a breakthrough with some grim contemporary short stories. 
I learned that humour and a sense of real life can really make your writing sing – and yet I could never quite shake the urge to write fantasy type stuff – so TBW came back, and ended up influenced by all of the aforementioned. It became a very different, more complex beast than what I thought I’d set out to do – but It’s really just about how people cope with change, in the end. I was very pleased with it – but the difference was a problem for the mainstream publishers I submitted to – almost all of them enthused about the work itself, but it was turned down on marketing grounds, being so different than the standard fantasy fare already out there. Disappointing. So when Wrecking Ball Press picked it up without any faffing or doubts, I was delighted. It is the strength of independent publishing that it has the power to champion interesting or offbeat writing without worrying about mass market appeal.
Can you explain what you mean by “kitchen sink epic fantasy”?
I realised through the process above that I enjoy fantasy, big themes, and made up monsters and all that – but I tend to see the world from Hull – from the North, from the working class perspective. The challenge and the intrigue for me, is to honour both – hence – kitchen sink epic. Most fantasy, from Tolkien to now, is written from a very entitled perspective, what with an emphasis on royalty and the old ‘chosen one’ trope – much of it is hackneyed, done to death, and doesn’t say anything to me. I think fantasy works best with its feet on the ground.
Who are you writing for?
Initially me, with the hope that some other weirdos might also enjoy it.
What experience do you want your readers to have with your work?
I want them to choke on sheer delight.
When you’re embarking on a new piece of work, whether that’s a short story or a full length novel, what approach do you take?
I usually have some sort of nucleus of an idea – perhaps just a scene or concept that intrigues me, and I start to flesh that out. Some of these fragments float around for years until they congeal with others, and the whole thing snaps together. Generally there is lots of procrastinating though – a lot of talking to myself and writing badly organised lists and notes.
Tell us a bit about your process? Are you disciplined when you sit down and start writing? Do you set a word count, work at a particular time of day, that kind of thing?
I feel like I’m working method out from scratch every time I start a new book. For the last one, Canyon of Ghosts, I had down a routine of sweeping up before I sat down to write, and lighting incense (it suited the theme and atmosphere of that story). I always prefer to write in the mornings. I tend not to apply targets because I just don’t stick to them – but recently I’ve had a go at the old minimum 1K a day rule – I found that only works when you’re drafting, and not revising – which is when the real decisions about the story and characters are made.
Do you do a lot of planning or procrastinating before you sit down and get writing? 
Yes – and then more planning and procrastinating at frequent junctures during the writing. The work actually gets done in the 0.1% of the time towards the end when I get on a roll.
You studied theology/religion at University – how does this manifest itself in your writing, if at all? 
It was a key part in the inspiration for TBW – I was fascinated by the idea of modernity, and that massive, calamitous shift from unshaken belief in religion to a godless, out of control modern world, and all the nuance and caveat that entailed. My degree never helped my vocational career in any direct way at all – but it set my imagination on fire. Religion contains the oldest, most profound, and most batshit stories in the world.
You’ve worked in libraries. What’s the importance of libraries and books in the 21st century? 
Experience tells me that the more libraries and librarians are viewed as redundant and outdated, the more necessary they are. We live in an information age where people are losing the skill and wherewithal to process and challenge information for themselves. As for books – we need stories – they are how we understand and enjoy life – and books are the most solid structure to tell and enjoy them. Its all very well having the latest Disney/Netflix/Franchise/Star Wars algorithm-based pig-feed shoved down your neck – but a decent book is something else – it challenges you.
What are you working on now?
I’m sitting on a recently finished book about a boy and his undead nana, which I personally think is ace, but probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever written. Next, despite having fallen out with Swords and Sorcery epics some time ago, I am currently having a spin at one. But with fireballs. And swearing. And seventies style comedy scenes. And an old northern bastard. And more fireballs.
So what does the future hold for Lee Harrison?
Fireballs. Maybe some more ghostly nanas. Then hopefully, a really weird novel about giant monsters, which will probably be another unsellable labour of proud love.
“He went out to the balcony as the horizon brightened. That godforsaken silver coast again. That bloody bastard wonderland. Chase it or die. He was the son of pioneers and adventurers, and now he understood.” 
In a land not too far away and a time yet to be decided, one man and his Dad embark on an epic journey of war, peace, love, religion, magnificent flying machines and mushy peas. 
The Bastard Wonderland can be purchased online at


Shirley May‘s poetry collection She Wrote Her Own Eulogy, published by Wrecking Ball Presstakes the reader on a journey, the landscape of Kent and Manchester brought to vibrancy via Jamaica. It is a twisting road, the displaced lives making new communities on strange soil, the stories kept and told and shared. It is wisdom, it is memory, and it is future and hope.
This Friday (January 31), at a Uniqlo Tate Lates event at Tate Modern presented by Apples & Snakes, Shirley will read from She Wrote Her Own Eulogy. The reading will be followed by a Q&A and book signing (see details on how to attend the event for free at the foot of this email).
We caught up with Shirley to find out where the book came from, more about her work mentoring and supporting young poets and the importance of writers finding their voice, and then going on to use their voices in order to change the world. 
How do you feel about the response towards the book?
I feel overwhelmed and blessed. I have had some great feedback. One reader wrote: “Brilliant read, poetry at its most powerful, exciting and informative. Loved it.” Another reader wrote: “A rich and shimmering tapestry – profound and evocative throughout. Wonderful poetry.”
A neighbour bought the book for her mother, having seen it on my artist page on Facebook. Her mother bought it for her sister in America and then bought it for two of her friends. She then sent a message to her daughter saying she wanted one more for a gift for her friend’s birthday. That same neighbour has bought the book to auction at an event that is about raising awareness of inequality. That tells me that the book has an impact – this is heartwarming. I believe the narrative voice within the poems, which cuts across cultures, has struck a chord within the readers. Hence, she wanted to share it with others; we come from very different cultural backgrounds but we share this UK history. This shows me the book is universal in its exploration of place, movement and family.
The response has come from people of different walks of life. You need only to go onto my Instagram where people from all over the world have sent me pictures of themselves with the book. What has been surprising is how many have been sold in America. Old work colleagues, strangers and friends have sent me photos of themselves with the book. It has become quite an Instagram phenomenon for me.
Tell us something of your background and how important this is to what you do?
I was born in Manchester. My parents sold a house in London and moved up north; even then you got more for your money living outside the capital. They were able to buy three houses with what they had made from the sale of the one property in London. We lived in Whalley Range which at the time was, and still is, a beautiful area to live. The house in Moss Side that features in She Wrote Her Own Eulogy was where my mother and father worked; it was where I became Jamaican and Caribbean. My mother rented rooms and sold food to the Island peoples who came to the cafe. It was a place of vibrant people who came from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Africa and Ireland; they all ate her food, spoke, laughed and told stories of homelands. My parents also ran the local shebeen, an after-hours drink and dancing place. It was here where people could meet people like themselves. The house was where I developed my imitation Jamaican accent, that was synonymous with children of migrants looking to identify with their parents and the communities.
The patrons came to the cafe and shebeen and spoke about their homelands with such love and affection, and they dreamt of going home. They lived in a place of remembrance and loving stories; I listened and lived there with them. I imagined it all. They would say England was not home; I suppose that is where my love comes for the Caribbean.
My formative years were laced with folk stories. I am between two worlds – an old Caribbean and England. The world I visited when I finally got to Jamaica did not exist. In She Wrote Her Own Eulogy I write about the black bottom and the Charleston because this was the era that my mother was a teenager. So, you can only imagine when I got to Jamaica, it was a world of Dance Hall, girls in Battyrider shorts and boys who wanted to sing like Buju Banton. Jamaica will always be a place of intrigue and mystery. I was glad I fell in love with the place, people and its nuances long before I got there.
Why do you write?
First and foremost, I wrote the book for myself. I wanted to leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren. I feel compelled to write the stories about friends and community because I do not want those stories to die.
I wanted to bring people back to life; to bring those people who are now part of the missing back to the present. I tell authentic stories, through narrative poetry, and of course there is some poetic licence used, and some poems come from a place of discovery, opinion and observation. I write without trying to be a preacher.
I loved Jackanory, which was the BBC Storytime for children. I was an avid fan. I craved stories and that is why I tell them now. People seem to think I have the right temperament to listen to them and sometimes I feel like a priest taking confession.
What experience do you want your readers to have with your work?
I want readers to imagine and see the places I write about and empathise with the people they might encounter through the poetry. For instance, the man who had no sentences left in him was real. I hope people understand the pain that can come from losing the love of your life, the place of silence that it took him to. My intention is for the reader to find commonality within the poems and short stories. At the very heart of me is a teacher, a mentor and I also want to be a genealogist. I hope in the writing you will also discover a place where you might find help and strength and a belief that you can do it.
Tell us a bit about your process? Are you disciplined when you sit down and start writing?
I would love to say I get up every morning and write. However, I don’t have that luxury of being able to do it. I live in the real world, and that comes with real pressures. I’m in the same universe as the rest of the population, one where the clock is always ticking. The government wants its bit of you, so no, I write when I can. I write when the young people I teach are writing. I write in the middle of the night, which is the wrong time for me as nothing makes sense when I am fully awake in the morning. In the middle of the night, often creative ideas invade my slumber and I get some fantastic one-liners – that’s how I got the title of the book.
Performance or writing?
I have a strong attachment to both writing and performance. However, I have two very taxing auto-immune illnesses – Sarcoidosis and Fibromyalgia. Hence, performing is less and less now, and I think in the end writing will win the day, with other people performing the work. When writing is lifted from the page to the stage and can live again through the performer understanding and interpreting the text it excites me because I love live literature.
How important is it that we share and tell our stories?
We make the world smaller when we share our stories. It enables us to see our commonalities, strengths and vulnerabilities. It builds empathy with people who you might not believe you could find camaraderie with, outside your circle of friends and family. It’s a way of sharing histories, and cultural stories, that pinpoint you to a particular time, especially if you are writing as though you are in a decade that you were not born in or a time-lapse in history.
Your work with Young Identity, Inna Voice, and others, has supported the nurturing, mentoring and discovery of new voices and talent and you’ve dedicated so many years, weeks, days and hours to making people aware of the power of poetry. Why did you take this role on?
According to my son and daughter, I “live, breathe and eat poetry.” I am truly passionate about poetry and literature and the access this gives young people, and helping them find a unique voice that cuts through the noise. Young Identity, Inna Voice and teaching others is fundamental to my ethos. I encourage people never to give up no matter who tries to stand in your way. I suppose this role has come naturally to me and I find peace in nurturing and watching others grow.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I have had a great experience with Wrecking Ball Press, mainly because it feels like home. Thanks go out to Elle Grice being massively encouraging throughout, as the book went back and forth between Wrecking Ball and myself. Elle said it was a privilege to read the book and work on the text and that she had really enjoyed the read – that is what you need from those who are helping you to establish your voice as a writer and to distribute your book. Thanks go out to the whole team at Wrecking Ball. When Shane said he would publish the book by a specific date I was overwhelmed as this meant the launch would coincide with the centenary of my late mother’s birth, so that was a great accomplishment for me.
What’s the importance of place in your writing?
Place writing is essential, allow me to conjugate the themes of my work. Place inspires me to write from my observation of people I encounter, helping me when reminiscing and creating a new fictional narrative. My imagination can run when I place my narrative writing in fixed places. For example, in She Wrote Her Own Eulogy – Miss Immigration takes you to the shores of Jamaica. Big Shirley – Red Truck to a hospital room and diagnose of Cancer, Delilah’s House Monton Street to the local brothel. Place is important in my writing.
When can we expect the next collection?
My next collection will be very different to She Wrote Her Own Eulogy. I am working on something right now. I am hoping it will be ready by the end of this year or early next year. I don’t want to reveal themes or what the collection will be. I have years of poetry and spoken word writing that deserves archiving in a book – I intend it to be like a script; it will come with instructions about the thought that went with the performance. 
There is a snobbery about page and performance poetry. I want to help to eliminate and change people’s mindset in the same way that has been achieved with song lyrics; spoken word should be allowed to live again in books. Picasso was a draughtsman who knew all the conventions of painting. I teach people “you need to know form to break form and establish something new.” Isaiah Hull is a prime example of this so you should check out his book Nosebleeds which was also published by Wrecking Ball Press.
I have about seven other collections in folders. Picasso inspires me to break form. My new collection may come out as a mixture of freestyle poetry and pieces of prose.
What’s the future hold for Shirley May?
More Young Identity. I love working with young people who come to our organisation either as poets or musicians. I enjoy helping them reach their potential. For myself, I would like to write a radio play or a film script, very different from poetry or workshop facilitation, and I intend to make more time to do this.
My mother used to say, “we are a long time dead, so make every day count and enjoy yourself if you can while you are doing life.” I did not know what she meant until I was visiting her grave; I was strolling back to my car, having left her, my dad and brother flowers. It struck me that my brother had been dead 30 years or more and he was 26 when he passed. He had been in the ground a lot longer than he had lived; this was true of many more people as I started reading headstones. I know it’s a bit morbid to end this interview this way. However, I hope it’s a reminder to live life and throw caution and inhibition to the wind and, lastly, enjoy yourself while you are doing just that! Thank you! 
Check out Shirley May’s AndWhat TVs:
My Mama’s Suitcase
Not All Of Us Came On The Windrush
Sue Roberts, BBC Producer, on She Wrote Her Own Eulogy: “Blazing with emotion, challenging all the senses, this life-affirming collection demands to be read. Charting a journey from Jamaica, these beautifully crafted poems offer a fresh, detailed insight into the experience of migration.”
Buy She Wrote Her Own Eulogy direct from Wrecking Ball Press at


Award-winning author Martin Goodman has written ten books, both fiction and nonfiction, and a theme common to much of his fiction is the exploration of war guilt. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of Hull (where he was formerly Professor of Creative Writing) and also a publisher at Barbican Press. J SS Bach was published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2018 and we caught up with the author about the 20-year gestation period of J SS Bach, his writing process, life on the coast and what the future holds.
Where did the inspiration for J SS Bach come from?
A crazy download of the whole idea while standing on a tree stump in a camp site in America. I guess I needed to be slammed by it, since the whole concept of a novel on Music and the Holocaust was too daunting to wish upon myself.
Is it true that the book was 20 years in the writing? Can you explain why?
Yes. It took loads of drafts – different drafts focused on deepening different characters. And a lot of site visits, reading and research. Times I’d think the book was done, leave it to settle, and when I picked it up again I knew there was lots more to tackle.
Can you tell us more about the book for those unfamiliar with it?
Rosa, a musicologist from Australia, turns up at the Big Sur home of Otto Schalmik, a Jewish cellist-cum-composer. What links them is Rosa’s grandfather, who was the adjutant at Dachau concentration camp when Otto was imprisoned there. Rosa is angry with Otto for having spoken on behalf of her grandfather at his war trial.

The book looks to understand that riddle, how could a Nazi love Schubert and Bach yet commit atrocities? It also looks at war from a female perspective – three generations of women, one strand of Jewish heritage and one Nazi heritage. Much of my writing looks at how the effects of war are passed down through succeeding generations.

A curious star of the book is Mango, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. For a while the novel was called Follow the Dog. We have a lot to learn from the simplicity of dogs.
What experience do you want your readers to have with your work, and specifically J SS Bach?
I want them to be engrossed and then see their world differently when they emerge. With J SS Bach, I guess it’s to see the humanity that underpins horror. And to experience something of what it’s like to be inside the creation of music.
Who are you writing fiction for?
I write the book I’d like to read, and hope it plugs a gap in the reading experience of others. In J SS Bach I was also reclaiming the human tales of people whose existence was wiped out by the Holocaust – so I was writing it for those that did not survive, as some act of remembering and sharing.
Are you pleased with the reaction to the book?
It’s not yet won every award going and received streams of headline reviews, so I’ll always feel a bit shortchanged. But yes, I’m pleased. Folk I don’t know have written to tell me how strong their reading experience of J SS Bach has been, so having your novel connect with another life ins such a way is deeply satisfying. The Morning Star, which I’m very fond of, called the novel ‘masterful’. The Financial Times gave it a major review, which I’m glad for.
Aside from the obvious, how does writing fiction differ from writing nonfiction books?
You can truly get inside a character’s head and see what propels them. And then have characters meet and see how they interact. When you try for that in nonfiction, you’re entering fictive territory. My editor for my biography of J.S.Haldane, Suffer & Survive, advised me ‘not to let my novelist’s hat tip over my biographer’s eye’.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
When a book has taken hold, I’m often at it at 5 am. Writing doesn’t take long to flow when I sit down but I often start by reviewing the pages that have gone before. Work is redrafted again and again along the way. If a day has been swallowed and no writing done, I may well sit down of an evening and so mend the day with a paragraoh or two. 1,000 words is a good day, but fifty words or even an idea jotted down is not a bad day either.
Do you do a lot of planning or procrastinating before you sit down and get writing?
I do plan, though characters have minds of their own and keep steering books somewhere fresh. I spend years walking around with books in my head till the steam builds up and I have to make a start.
You’re well travelled and recently moved to the coast. How important are environment and place to you, your wellbeing and your writing?
I need a broad horizon, and somewhere without traffic where I can take walks. A lot of ideas settle in that way. A seascape works like a screen and you can project scenes from a novel upon it. And mountains suffuse me with ideas somehow.
Given that you are, yourself, with Barbican Press a publisher of books that challenge and surprise you’ve seen independent publishing from both sides. So, what are your views and opinions on independent publishers and your experience of them?
Independent publishers are plucky, and an editor’s personal choice and passion can survive there. That’s harder for an editor in a mainstream house to achieve, with marketing departments and their like to please. Independent publishers can work without compromise.
How does it feel to not be as involved with academia now your role with the University of Hull is somewhat different?
A relief. I miss the creative writing students – it was a true privilege to be allowed inside their creative lives. Teaching writing keeps your own writing sharp. But I don’t fit comfortably inside institutions and I feel blessed to be able to step inside my own writing more fully. The last couple of years, when my students were graduating, it felt that I should be graduating with them. Writing and running the publishing house mean my time is still full.
What are you currently working on and what’s in the pipeline?
A thriller in Patricia Highsmith mode. Two chapters to go! I’ve recently finished a play, an essay and a story as well, polishing off work that’s been banking up. I suspect it’s nonfiction next. I’ve two long term projects, but a new eco book about saving the world’s birds looks like it’s muscling to the front.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Please buy J SS Bach or request it from your library and read it and write and tell me what you think about it. I’d love to know what touches you.
J SS Bach is the story of three generations of women from either side of Germany’s 20th Century horror story – one side, a Jewish family from Vienna, the other linked to a ranking Nazi official at Dachau concentration camp – who suffer the consequences of what men do.
Fast forward to 1990s California, and two survivors from the families meet. Rosa is a young Australian musicologist; Otto is a world-famous composer and cellist. Music and history link them. A novel of music, the Holocaust, love, and a dog.
J SS Bach can be purchased online at


Literary outlaw, novelist, playwright and poet Dan Fante (1944-2015) was born and raised in Los Angeles. At 20, he quit school and hit the road, eventually ending up as a New York City resident for 12 years. Fante worked at dozens of crummy jobs including: door to door salesman, taxi driver, window washer, telemarketer, private investigator, night hotel manager, chauffeur, mailroom clerk, deck hand, dishwasher, carnival barker, envelope stuffer, dating service counselor, furniture salesman, and parking attendant. Wrecking Ball Press published his poetry collection A Gin Pissing, Raw Meat, Dual Carburettor, V-8 Son-of-a-Bitch from Los Angeles in 2001 and novella Corksuckerfour years later. We miss Dan a lot.

On the day of the publication of A Gin Pissing, Raw Meat, Dual Carburettor, V-8 Son-of-a-Bitch from Los Angeles, Fante was in Hull for a reading and book launch. Wrecking Ball assistant editor Dave Windass, then a freelance journalist, recalls meeting Fante in the city’s Peaberry’s Coffee House to interview him for The Big Issue.

“It was a just a few weeks after 9/11 so it was an odd time to be talking to an American, never mind one so unapologetically loud. I walked in and Dan, wearing a ridiculous jacket, stood up and thrust out his work-worn hand and knocked something off the table in front of him. He really was an unstoppable whirlwind and I was only in his company for a few seconds before I realised he was a complete force of nature and that I liked everything about him. He never really stopped talking, which is how I like interviewees, and he gesticulated wildly throughout, spitting out bits of his sandwich and spraying me with coffee. I just sat back and let him go and he covered a lot of ground in a relatively short space of time. I’d crammed in his first three novels before meeting him so I didn’t feel well prepared and the whole 9/11 thing made me anxious about the interview but it didn’t really matter because I hardly got a word in. This was my first real encounter with any Wrecking Ball writer and I loved it. 19 years on and I realise what a privilege it was to spend some time with Dan and then remain in touch with him on and off for the next few years. His voice remains one of the most authentic I’ve ever read. He wrote the way he lived.”

Dan Fante had been to the printers with Wrecking Ball Press editor Shane Rhodes the day before the interview to pick up copies of his collection. The inscription he wrote in Shane’s treasured copy reads: “One of the best days of my life was yesterday, when we picked up this book from the printers – a great moment. Thanks is all I can say. Your pal, Dan Fante.” (10-27-01).

In the interview below, originally published in 2001, Fante talks about the shadow cast by his father John Fante, suicide, alcoholism, his home country, surviving via the written word and his approach to writing.

If this is a game of spot the American then Dan Fante has made it far too easy for me. He’ll be the one sat in the corner of the Hull coffee shop with a rather ridiculous Tom Cruise Top Gun style US Air Force jacket on.

“If you don’t mind me saying, you look every inch the crazy American writer,” I tell him during the obligatory handshake.

“Why thanks man,” he shouts back. I’m not sure I meant it as a compliment, but still. The jacket, it turns out, is Fante’s tribute to those that lost their lives on September 11. Having just read the man’s three autobiographical novels – Chump Change, Mooch and the recently released Spitting Off Tall Buildings – a gesture like this seems totally out of character.

In his fiction, Fante – or rather alter-ego Bruno Dante – is a low life, self interested, suicidal sleazeball writer only interested in fuelling his alcohol dependency and getting laid. He hates everything. EVERYTHING. So you don’t expect an act of kindness. You don’t expect to like Fante. Not one bit. But for two hours of caffeine fuelled chat, he has me mesmerised.

Like his fiction, LA-born Fante leaps out at you. He’s so LOUD. Christ knows what a busy coffee shop thought of this American and his litany of filth. How many times can one man use the words hooker, cocaine and cocksucker? This conversational technique was obviously learnt during the 12 years he lived in New York. Fante certainly has a tale to tell. Unlike Bruno Dante, he’s cleaned up his act. If he hadn’t, he would never have become a writer.

“I’m 57 now. I got sober when I was 42. I started writing when I was 45.

“I was completely broke and I had my last suicide attempt and I was in the most miserable depression.”

But this is only part of the start of the story. Fante’s father is John Fante. John Fante’s writing career began with a book called Wait Until Spring, Bandini. During his lifetime, Fante failed to receive the acclaim that many thought he deserved. He ‘sold out’ his talent by working as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

Fante Sr died of diabetes-related complications at the age of 74. By this time, Charles Bukowski was singing his praises and claiming Fante Sr as a major influence. Understandably, Fante Jr has been influenced too.

“I was obsessed with the failure of my father as a writer and this depression that I’d had for 2-3 years. So I was broke and I was living in the back bedroom of my mother’s house. And it came to me that I had nothing to lose. There were no business opportunities, no jobs, I was sober a couple of years and every job I took was never the right thing. So I would leave jobs. And I finally just sat down to write.

“And what I put down was really a love letter to my father. I felt terrible that at that point he wasn’t nearly as famous as he is now. I felt terrible that his work was undiscovered.”

There’s a blurring of the lines with Fante. Man and myth, truth and fiction, they’re all pretty much the same thing.

“Bruno Dante is me,” he says. “Much of the stuff happened to me personally.”

Fante is as honest as his writing. Bruno’s life is a train-wreck, a disaster that just keeps on happening. He falls in love with the most evil, spiteful women, he cleans windows on the 70th floor of skyscrapers under the influence of huge quantities of alcohol, he goes on binge after binge and hears voices in his head. And this really was Fante’s life.

Now, Fante says, “my greatest fear is to be boring.” There’s no chance of that. In one of his many poems, In Camogli, Fante describes his mile-a-minute writing method: “I can write like a gin-pissing-raw-meat-dual-carburettor-V8-son-of-a-bitch.”

As Fante started writing, in his sober state, he found that his dead father would offer him advice. “I’d have my father’s ghost standing over me saying, ‘take that fucking comma out, put a period there, and when you say a sentence, finish the sentence.’

“I like prose that gets to the point and has punch. I like to be hooked as a reader. Writing should grab you immediately and draw you to it.”

Fante knows that he’s lucky to have lived the life he has – and got out the other side.

“In truth, I should be dead. My older brother drank himself to death three years ago. I just was one of the lucky ones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put myself in a position where I should be dead.”

“Writing has replaced alcohol and the terrible mental abhorration. My mind is now fertile and I’m using all of my senses. Alcoholics are always reliving some confrontation, they’re always rewriting and reliving the same moments so that they can get even. And I don’t have to do that any more. I still live in my head but it’s creative, not destructive.”

Anger runs through the sentences that fill the pages of Fante’s work. He says he keeps a lid on this anger now but, listening to him, he’s suffering from the post-modern rage that many of us feel. Despite the patriotic jacket, a lot of this pent up frustration is down to his home country. But this anger fuels his fiction.

“I’m very angry at the pretext of what’s happened to art and literature in America and what television has done. Kids no longer read – and nobody is doing a thing about it. All I have to do is plug into that and I can continue to make comment on and about this American dream that’s not a dream. America can be a horrible place.”

Which is why, despite living in sunny Santa Monica, Fante is considering a move to Europe, where his books sell in bigger numbers.

Several cups of coffee later, Fante and his jacket return to a hotel across the road. I head to the bookshop, anxious, because of what I’ve been told, to get hold of a copy of Fante’s father’s book Ask The Dusk (“that’s the one you should read”). What happens next would make Fante Jr smile.

He’d told me his father’s literary legacy hangs over him. I take the book to the counter. Waterstone’s finest takes my cash and asks, “Read any of his son’s work? It’s very good.” It’s more than good. It’s genius.

This article by Dave Windass was originally published in The Big Issue in the North.

A collection of Dan Fante’s poetry from 1983-2000 – A Gin Pissing, Raw Meat, Dual Carburettor, V-8 Son-of-a-Bitch from Los Angeles, was published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2001. Fante’s novella Corksucker, a framed collection of cab driver stories from the LA streets, was published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2005. 

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 For more information about Vicky Foster and her work visit For more information about Vicky’s collaborators The Broken Orchestra visit 

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