Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: Scotland

Hear ‘The Ice-House’ at Pitlochry!

Ice House

A stretch of the Scottish coastline, though deceptively close to the port of Dundee in one direction, and the ancient city of St Andrews in the other, was a lonely expanse of sand dunes little more than a hundred years ago. Nowadays there is a pinewood and a car park near one end of it, and tracks to walk, but back then it was a solitary, almost inaccessible area. Somewhere, hidden in the dunes and pines, is an old ice-house, once used for storing salmon. A young woman, out for a day’s hike in the summer of 1919, stumbles across it, and awakens an old, dark mystery…

That is the premise for my eerie short story ‘The Ice-House’, and if you come along to the Pitlochry Festival Theatre on Friday 12th February, you will hear the whole tale unfold, as it is read out to the audience there by actor Helen Logan. Yes, once again one of my stories will feature as a winner in the Winter Words Festival‘s competition – ‘Fearie Tales’.

The time, 9.30pm. The venue, the River Room at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. I dare you to be there!

 

 

It doesn’t hurt to ask, but don’t build your hopes up.

watchOver six months ago several things came to a head seemingly all at once. Firstly the flying of the Confederate flag – or rather its lowering – became an issue all over the southern states of the USA. Secondly a prominent activist was outed as trans-racial. Thirdly, Harper Lee’s publishers released Go Set A Watchman.

The latter was significant to me. Harper Lee had always been a heroine of mine, for writing one of the monuments of American Literature – To Kill a Mockingbird – and then retiring. I wanted to do the Scottish equivalent, but as soon as I published my second novel that was out of the question anyway – that fact always makes me smile.

With the near-coincidence of these three things, it occurred to me to write a short story, set in 2015, in which a young female couple, one of whom is of mixed racial heritage, have a rendezvous in the Alabama town where one of them has her roots. Together they see how the town has coped with the realities of the twenty-first century. The central event in the story is the lowering of the Confederate flag at the town’s courthouse; but also the couple visit, in passing, an elderly lady who can remember her childhood in the town, during the Depression. My story remained unfinished. I had planned it as a tribute to Harper Lee, and it only really made sense if I could call the elderly woman ‘Jean Louise Finch’. This was, as I say, to be a serious story and a tribute, not ‘fanfic’. So I did the polite thing and got in touch with Ms Lee’s publishers to ask permission, leaving the story unfinished.

Well, seven months later, long after I had forgotten about the project, I got my answer. No. Not only could I not call the elderly character ‘Jean Louise Finch’, I could not use any character names out of To Kill A Mockingbird or Go Set A Watchman. That’s fair enough, I guess. Not only that, but I could not call the town ‘Maycomb’. Okay, I can see the logic in that, given the interdict on character names. But apparently I could call the town ‘Monroeville’ if I wanted. Well thanks, I know I could – any writer is free to set a story in a real place – but the point would be lost. In any case, seven months after the event(s), the moment for the story has passed. It remains unfinished.

But I thought I would share a passage with you, just for the heck of it. Very little else of the story has been written, and now probably won’t be; so what you have here is a little insight. The accompanying pictures are of the old and new courthouses in Monroeville – and just to be clear, the new courthouse can be seen to be flying the Stars-and-Stripes and the Alabama State Flag, not the Confederate flag, which was another reason why fictionalisation was necessary. By the way, the story was to be called The Standard of the Camp, which is a reference to Numbers 1:52 and Numbers 2:2 in the Bible.

*
monroeville1

Judith parked the car a few blocks away, and we walked hand in hand, joining one of the little streams of people approaching from every direction to swell the small crowd in front of the building. It was indeed a small crowd as a proportion of the population – only a few hundred – but unless a person had a reason to wish to be there for what was, after all, only a minor piece of history when taken with the bigger picture, why make a fuss and stir yourself? To Judith and me, with our own union being also a small part of a bigger picture, there was a reason to come. There was to be no ceremony. Simply, at six o’clock, the Confederate flag was to be lowered from the flagpole outside the courthouse, never to be raised there again. It was to be an occurrence, that’s all.

“Has that flag always flown here?” I asked Judith.

“Not sure,” she said. “The way I heard it, it wasn’t raised anywhere at all until the nineteen-twenties. There’s a picture somewhere of the old courthouse during World War Two, and it had the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole, and another picture taken during the Cold War that shows the same. Someone told me that a group of local politicians pushed through some measure when Obama got elected President. But hell, I’ve hardly ever been down this part of town before, so I wouldn’t know.”

“I guess people didn’t really notice until it became an issue.”

“You got that right!” said someone near me.

I get that. When something is just part of the scenery you don’t notice it. Then one day it’s gone, maybe a tree is cut down or a building demolished or something new built, and the best you can do is wonder what’s wrong with this picture. The Stars and Bars on a biker’s jacket or tacked up in the back of a neighbor’s garage can just be scenery. Until someone decides to become a semiotician, and – bam! Just how important to us all was disposing of this symbol? Apparently it was important to APT and WSFA as they had cameras there, so it was potentially news.

The clock at the old courthouse began to strike the hour. A side door of the newer building opened, two uniformed court bailiffs came out and began to walk diagonally across the lawn towards the flagpole. The buzz in our little crowd died down. I could see that a reporter from one of the TV stations had stationed herself between the cameras and the flagpole and was talking into a microphone. There were no salutes, there was no fuss, one of the bailiffs untied the hoist from its cleat, and began to hand-over-hand it. The flag began to descend, slowly. As it did, a knot of men nearer the front began to chant.

“USA, USA, USA…”

I could see a veteran’s cap, I could see a biker’s bandana, I could see a couple of hand-held Stars and Bars being waved.

“God, they say we Americans have no sense of irony, and they’re right,” said Judith.

“Look at another way, honey,” I said. “The way these guys see it, the ideal of the United States is that the whole is not greater than its parts, there is no over-riding principle that can impose itself on a constituent state, and indeed upon the right of an individual’s expression. In some way that’s what they believe in. In their view of history, that’s what the Confederacy was fighting to establish and the Union was trying to crush.”

“That’s an extraordinary opinion to come from an African-American,” said a voice behind me. I looked over my shoulder at the woman who had spoken. I hadn’t heard any hostility in her voice and I couldn’t see any in her face.

“I guess I’m repeating something I heard from someone here in town,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong. To me that flag is just what they say it is – the symbol of white supremacy – and although I’m not from these parts myself, I’m glad to see it taken down. It’s just that the person who gave me that idea also told me that something like nine out of every ten Confederate soldiers had never seen a black person, let alone owned one. They didn’t decide what the flag meant. Somebody else did.”

“Hmm.”

Judith nudged me, and I turned back. People had their iPhones out, taking pictures of the lowering. Some were taking selfies.

“You want a picture?”

“Nuh-uh. No thanks.” For many reasons I did not.

The flag came to the end of its journey. The guys chanting fell silent. I stood on tiptoes to watch the two court bailiffs detach it from the hoist and fold it without any flourish. One of them tucked it under his arm and they began to walk back towards the courthouse. What would happen to it now? As long as it never flew again, did I actually care? Judith and I turned to go.

monroeville2

*

I recall a similar thing happened when I had an idea for a full-length adventure novel featuring a character created by a fellow-Scot. Her creation was not a pleasant character, he was in fact the arch-rival of her protagonist. But I saw in him the potential lead in a story about a cynical adult wizard. So I wrote to her publishers and asked for permission. And of course the answer came back in the negative. Now, I am all for authors protecting their intellectual copyright, given current social and commercial circumstances. I feel no rancor to either Harper Lee or to JKR because their people said no. Indeed, my cynical adult wizard – Agent Delta of the Chthonic Intelligence Agency© – still exists on my virtual drawing-board, is not named as anyone in any other work of fiction, inhabits a milieu nowhere near any boarding-school, and may come to life in a way that infringes no copyright.

1On the other hand, when I got in touch with Irvine Welsh and asked if I could use his name as the central character in an epic poem – Welshday – in which he journeys through the city of Edinburgh in the company of an inebriate detective and a living statue, in a tribute to James Joyce’s celebration of ‘Bloomsday’, he replied “Why not! Go for it!”. All of which leads me to the point of this post: it doesn’t hurt to ask. Countless authors have based novels and stories on pre-existing characters – the Flashman novels, James Bond novels by Kingsley Amis and William Boyd, and so on. Sometimes a living author will hand on the baton willingly to a successor, and the worst that can happen is that they’ll say no.

As it happens, Welshday was never finished either. I know the concept of unfinished writings seem strange, almost like the idea of failure. But I draw the analogy with a painter’s studio – no one finds it strange to find drawings, sketches, studies, and unfinished works there, so I have no qualms about admitting to countless novels, stories, and poems that never made it (yet!) to completion. In fact Welshday gave rise to some good stand-alone poems, so here’s one of them for you. Our journeying hero and his inebriate companion visit a bar in Leith, where they are accosted by a Russian seafarer who claims to be the only survivor from the sinking of the submarine Kursk. It’s a sestina:

 

Old Rimbaud said, “Let’s go and take a glass
of whiskey in a jostling pub I know.”
I, like a sodding numpty, dogged his steps,
And tracked him to a clapped-out, frowsy dive,
Where half the clientele were missing ears –
the other half were shouting to be heard!

We’d been there half an hour when I heard
a Russian sailor tap the falling glass;
he grabbed my sleeve, said “This is for your ears
alone, no other bugger has to know.
I heard my skipper calling dive-dive-dive,
as I slid down the conning-tower steps…”

Old Rimbaud, blootered, sunk down on the steps;
the Russian bellowed at me, to be heard.
“The air inside gets hotter when you dive,
the sea is slagged and dark as bottle-glass.
The ghost of every bugger that you know
floats by, and there’s a pounding in your ears!”

His sliding, slootered accent hurt my ears.
I thumbed my belt and slipped some salsa steps;
I said, “Now tell me something I don’t know,
no half-arsed, half-cocked tale already heard,
no shite enigma darkly in a glass,
no bonny buck-and-wing, no duck-and-dive!”

He scowled at me and, miming a crash-dive,
resumed the tale that battered at my ears,
while I, to ease my pain, sucked at my glass.
“Kolesnikov took all the proper steps,
and we went aft – perhaps you might have heard –

but when you’re frigging shark-bait, boy, you know!”
I shut him up, and said, “Here’s what I know –
no fucker made it home from that last dive –
They all asphyxiated, so I heard!”
He laughed, he jeered, I stopped my ringing ears,
and sat down with old Rimbaud on the steps,
to spit at all the demons in my glass.

When ghosts well from a glass you always know,
You’re sitting on the steps of some sad dive,
and though you stop your ears you’ll still have heard!

So, what are you doing if you’re not writing?

Apart from feeling guilty, you mean? No, seriously, that is an issue.

authoressWhen I think about it, my output over the past few years has been quite something. I have to remind myself that, since about 2005, apart from having finished four novels (three of which have been published and the other is with my publisher awaiting publication), having had at least two-hundred-and-fifty poems published in collections, anthologies, magazines, and e-zines, having written enough short stories to fill over two volumes, I have taken part for five years in a poem-a-day project. So why stop? Why stop that poem-a-day, and why halt progress on my latest novel after 20,000 words? Well, let me be clear about this – I needed a break, and believe me I’m feeling the benefit. Output had taken over from quality, and I was exhausted and frustrated.

So where does the guilt come from? I don’t know. Maybe from the little imp on my shoulder who keeps whispering to me, “You’re an ex-writer, that’s what you are! Now you’ve stopped, you’ll never start again.”

Maybe, in fact, it has to do with the continuing output of fellow-writers I respect. There they go, merrily taking part in NaNoWriMo and suchlike, galloping though the creation of a novel in a single month, filling their blogs with poetry, writing columns of advice for colleague-authors, posting their goals and how they have achieved them… I could go on line now and find, with ease, confident articles on the discipline and routine of writing, and below each I would find an almost endless roll of comments thanking the writer for his or her sage advice. And I would know that, try as I might, I couldn’t stick to anything like such a routine. I might manage it for a week… ten days…

And yet, there’s all my output. I must have had some impetus and discipline somewhere. You would think so. A colleague said my writing was ‘visceral’, meeting that it sprang from emotion, from feelings rather than thoughts. When I consider that such movements in art and writing as modernism, expressionism, and imagism have influenced me, I guess she could be right. Certainly when I set out to write something, with certain exceptions, I do not start out with the goal of reaching a goal. By that I mean that my work is seldom driven by the end, I do not start my novels, for example, with the resolution of the narrative already in my mind*. I describe such a practice a ‘male’ writing, by which I mean it is driven along by the desire to reach a single climax, to use a sexual analogy. It’s the authorial equivalent of ‘getting your end away’. And it is something that is so ingrained in our culture, that it is hard to counter, hard to offer any other way of doing things. As we say in Scotland, ‘it’s aye been’, or at least its ingrainedness gives that impression. Writers like Virginia Woolf showed us that it simply didn’t have to be so, it didn’t have to be the unwritten rule that we all revered like Holy Writ. Yet it lurches along still, like some kind of zombie. There, that’s today’s thought – ‘Zombie male writing’.

To me, there was so much left undone in modernism, as though they picked up the ball, ran with it, passed it to the next author, who just stood there and let it drop. I know, I know, my mixed metaphors are murder today…

Where was I? Oh yes – what have I been doing if not writing. Well, same as ever. Holding down a job, editing, playing my part in family routine, coping with physical and psychological conditions (my own and others’), reading, in fact all the things I was doing while I was writing. Y’know, I wonder where I found the time to write so much! So will I let all these mundane necessities fill the available time, will I become used to them, so used to them that I will one day forget to write, forget that I ever wrote? Well, let’s face it, one day we will all close our eyes on daylight and not simply forget what we were but lose the forgetting too. Life is about letting go. So it is, of course, possible that I will never write again, ever.

Possible, but improbable.

Despite the imp on my shoulder, I’m not an ex-writer. Hell, what am I doing right now if not writing? I haven’t stepped away from my work entirely. I jot stuff down, the odd word, the odd phrase, the odd idea. I go through my unpublished corpus to see if there is anything worth submitting to a poetry magazine**. Ideas on how to progress my novel – the one I’m half way through, the one I always wanted to write – keep circulating in my head. And anyway, competing with the guilt-imp is the wee wight on my other shoulder, telling me that if I don’t go back to writing someday soon, I’ll end up in that charming little beauty spot located, I’m told, near Harrisburg PA.

Near Harrisburg PA

Gonnae no dae that! Gonnae no!

__________

*Many writers claim not to do this, but frankly it’s what most of ‘em do!

**I haven’t submitted anything since about 2013, at which time I devoted all my energy to writing a collection specially for a publisher. The result was my prize-nominated I am not a fish.

Gang time.

gg

Today’s task is reading through the screen-writer’s work so far. Slowly but surely, he has been turning my short story Axe into a screenplay – we’re looking at small or large screen! I have expanded the plot beyond that of the short story, giving a back-story to a couple of the characters, suggesting an overall resolution, and the writer has been working on that, giving it precedence over the main narrative. Some marvellous work has been done so far, the script is actional and attention-grabbing, there’s so much movement to it, and I think the finished product will be great. Watch this space.

M

A Wave of Scottish Monarchs

David I, King of Scots

I wrote this piece of nonsense doggerel in 2010 especially for Visit Scotland (formerly the Scottish Tourist Board). I have no idea whether they ever used it at all. I had a mind to do it when I recalled the famous old jingle that listed the Kings and Queens of England. It began in 1066 with

Willie, Willie, Harry, Ste,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry 3

and continued till the end of the 19c with

Willie and Mary, Anna Gloria,
Four Georges, Willie, and Victoria.

Well, we had nothing like it for the Kings and Queens of Scots, so I just piled in. It’s all in fun, so enjoy!

© 2010 Marie Marshall

© 2010 Marie Marshall

In the dead of night, somewhere in the Highlands…

As I said in my last post, I have been amongst the winning entries in the ‘Fearie Tales’ Competition six times now, in eight years. They don’t rank the eight winners, but it’s a safe bet if you have been scheduled to round off a Saturday evening’s storytelling you can be pretty proud of yourself. I had that spot on Saturday 14th February, and pro actor Helen Logan read out, or rather performed, my story ‘Voices’.

The story concerns an Australian scientist – a woman with one foot in rationalism and the other foot in the ‘Dream Time’ of an old Aboriginal mentor – who camps at the summit of a remote Scottish mountain, intent on investigating ‘random voice phenomena’. What happens next defies explanation. Is it supernatural? Is it psychological? Whichever, the consequences are dire. It is all set out in the spoken commentary to her video diary.

Helen Logan, for whom I had specifically written the story having seen her deliver my previous story, threw herself into the role of the Queenslander, pitching the disintegration of the narrator’s mind at quite a high level of histrionics. It worked; at times it was comic, and at other times it was terrifying.

(c) Bookseeker Agency

(c) Bookseeker Agency

Despite this being my sixth win, it was only my second visit, thanks to the kindness of my ‘fan base’. I lurked at the back of a full room. ‘Fearie Tales’ is popular with festival-goers, and it was good to hear my work being applauded.

I now have quite a portfolio of short stories. A handful of them have been blogged, six of them have now been read aloud publicly, but many of them are simply set by in case they are needed. If collected together, they would make a decent-sized book. I shall have to think what to do with them. Maybe I should consult my agent (a good idea anyway) and discuss options.

__________

By the way, the folk at Indies Unlimited asked me to expand a comment I made on an article about self-publishing into an article in its own right. They asked me to set up an ‘author page’ at Amazon, which is one of the features they like anyone to have, if they are due to be featured on their site. So I have done just that. Just check out amazon.com/author/marie_marshall. The four books of mine which are available at Amazon (not counting the books I have had a hand in editing, or in which work of mine is featured) are listed there.

2015 ‘Fearie Tales’ to feature my ‘Voices’

Story reader Helen Logan.

Story reader Helen Logan. Photo (c) Bookseeker Agency

This weekend sees the start of the annual Winter Words Festival at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the literary festival that kicks of Scotland’s literary year. Each evening two professional actors will be reading out two macabre stories, winners of the annual ‘Fearie Tales’ competition. I’m proud to announce that for yet another year I am amongst the winners! My short story ‘Voices’ will be featured this coming Saturday evening, 14th February! So if you are near Pitlochry in the Scottish Highlands this Saturday evening, drop in… the terror begins at 9.45pm!

Script-writer wanted!

After some discussion, my agent and I have decided to propose that my story ‘Axe’ (see previous post) be turned into a TV drama. So, my agent is currently scouting round the TV production companies in the UK looking for those with good drama credentials. We’re also on the look-out for a script-writer who can get the Glasgow and Caribbean-British register right, ‘see’ what was ‘playing in my head’ as I wrote it, and be creative with the para-dialogue – by which I mean the dialogue implied by the descriptions and expressions of emotion in the story, rather than the actual conversation I have written.

Is that you? If you think you could do, then get in touch with my agent. Go to bookseekeragency.com/contact and take it from there.

M.

2014 in review

41ayn0pmq2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_I’m taking a moment to review how things have gone in 2014. Sometimes, at the end of a year, I feel that I haven’t achieved anything; but when I stop and think about it, actually quite a lot has happened.

In January, for example, my first novel aimed at the teenage market, The Everywhen Angels, became available from Amazon, and in March by order at any branch of 1Waterstones. Then in February my short story Da Trow I’ da Waa was read aloud to the audience at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. This was the fifth time in seven years that one of my stories has been featured at the Winter Words literary festival, and I consider that to be quite an achievement.

may prismThroughout the year both old and new poems of mine have been published in anthologies and magazines. Notable among the publications have been The Milk of Female Kindness (ed. Kasia James) in March, May Prism 2014 (ed. Ron Wiseman) in May, although I didn’t find out about that until August, and Rubies in the Darkness (ed. P G P Thompson) in December.

jpegIn September, of course, my third novel was published – From My Cold, Undead Hand – and what more need I say about it! And a short time ago I put the final full-stop at the end of the sequel, KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE. Since then I have placed it in the hands of a couple of beta readers, and have had first reactions from one of them. Amongst her comments were the words “… great job!maelstrom of action and adventure…” and I am still basking in that rosy glow; however, a writer herself, she drew my attention to several things in the general readability of the novel about which I am going to have to think very seriously.

This year someone likened the quality of my poetry to that of Sylvia Plath. I have been continuing to write poetry, mainly in short snatches, for my poetry blogs Kvenna Ráð and a walk in space. As well as that, I have been keeping up the quarterly Showcases at the zen space. With regard to that, I am always on the lookout for ‘new blood’, for people who can express something in very few words – not just traditional haiku, but any form of short, in-the-moment poetry. Drop me an email if you either want to submit or to recommend someone.

So, all-in-all, it has been a busy and a fruitful year. How was it for you?

Fairy folk, writing advice, and no borders!

My publishers recently had a couple of little display stands at the Fairy Folk Market in Murray Street, Pretoria, SA. The hawk-eyed among you will spot my first novel, Lupa, featured on the shelves.

fairy folk 1

fairy folk 2

I must confess I keep forgetting it’s summer down in South Africa!

__________

I recently came across this piece of writing advice from Ernest Hemingway. It’s good advice, and I find that unconsciously I have already been following it…

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time. Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work. The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along.

__________

Something else I came across recently was this art ‘installation’ by Indian artist Shilpa Gupta. Basically she has created rolls of ‘incident tape’ on which the words ‘THERE IS NO BORDER HERE’ are repeated. The tape can be brought into use anywhere – anywhere the public can see it – wrapped around and along fences, suspending a miniature globe, in short stretches almost as a single slogan. But the main installation at art galleries is in the form of a paragraph of what can be fairly called concrete poetry, in the shape of a flag. Gupta is drawing our attention to the arbitrariness of lines on a map, to things that divide one human being from another.

there-is-no-border-here

The exhibition in which Shilpa Gupta’s work is displayed is currently in Scotland, and I would like to get along to see it. (I’m grateful to Paul at Bookseeker Agency for the photograph, taken at Glasgow, I believe.)