What shapes the way we see ourselves? An administrator is forced into early retirement; a busy doctor needs a break. A girl discovers her sexuality; an older man explores a new direction for his. An estate agent seeks adventure beyond marriage; a photojournalist retreats from an overwhelming world. A woman reduces her carbon footprint; a woman embarks on a transatlantic affair. A widow refuses to let her past trauma become public property; another marks her husband’s passing in style. Thought-provoking, playful and poignant, these 42 short stories address identity from different angles, examining the characters’ sense of self at various points in their lives. What does it mean to be a partner, parent, child, sibling, friend? How important is work, culture, race, religion, nationality, class? Does our body, sexuality, gender or age determine who we are? Is identity a given or can we choose the someone we become?
If we reach for the stars, do we risk burning our fingers? Is it safer and saner to keep our feet firmly on the ground? In this poignant short story, a vulnerable man becomes more estranged from reality as he contemplates soaring through the sky keeping company with birds.
Have you come across those dolls that don’t just look like babies, they scream and cry and piss and puke like them? They’re not toys, but teaching aids: infant simulators designed to demonstrate the realities of premature parenting. This story is about a teenager who really wanted to get it right, but missed the chance to practice on a doll.
I wouldn’t normally be drawn to an article on sex tourism, but the one that sparked this story – about wealthy white British women paying for black male partners in the Caribbean – stuck in my mind. Did it signify female empowerment or the continuing exploitation by the rich of the poor? I also wondered if anyone other than the tourist and sex worker would be affected by such an arrangement. Might the man have a partner lurking in the background? How would his sideline impact on their relationship after the tourists went home? I wouldn’t normally write a short story from three points of view, but it worked for “The Arrangement” as the transaction becomes more complex with each added layer.
At fifteen, she made a life-changing decision. Thirty years on, it’s time to make another. When Diana escaped her misfit childhood, she thought she’d chosen the easier path. But the past lingers on, etched beneath her skin, and life won’t be worth living if her secret gets out. As an adult, she’s kept other people at a distance... until Simon sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, the city that transformed her life. She’ll lose Simon if she doesn’t join him. She’ll lose herself if she does. Sugar and Snails charts Diana’s unusual journey, revealing the scars from her fight to be true to herself. A triumphant mid-life coming-of-age story about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be. Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize.
In a recent online event with fellow author Mia Farlane, she asked me about my decision to open the novel with a character in crisis. She saw my opening pages as a challenge (and a compliment) to the reader, trusting them with this, right at the start of the book. In reply, I admitted I could have made it easier for myself by revealing Diana’s secret right from the start, but I wanted to introduce her as we’d meet her in real life. I also wanted readers to be able to identify with her, without any preconceptions they might have about her particular identity getting in the way – because there are commonalities for any of us who’ve ever felt uncomfortable in our own skin. I also wanted readers to have the pleasure of discovering her secret at their own pace. After dozens of false starts, I found that kicking off at a crisis point was a way of illustrating her vulnerability, and hopefully inciting sympathy, without giving too much away. You can catch the event replay on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ5CfwddmxQ EXCERPT TRIGGER WARNING: self-harm
When my main character, Diana, meets Simon at a dinner party, she thinks he’s a wimp. They disagree about whether it’s possible to watch the sunrise behind the pyramids in Cairo: Simon, who’d love to visit if he could pluck up the courage, says the complex isn’t open to tourists that early, yet Diana distinctly remembers doing so as a youngster. That memory didn’t make the final cut, but I’m still rather fond of it. Here’s a taster: I bought my ticket from a man with a stripy scarf knotted around his head. Teeth chattering in the morning chill, I wandered towards where the other tourists hovered, staring towards the two pyramids silhouetted against the sludgy-grey sky. I didn’t mind that no one acknowledged me, that I was the only child, the only person without a camera. An awestruck sigh swept through the group as a finger of pink stroked the horizon. Soon the sky was streaked with orange and red and cameras began to click. I moved apart as the golden globe came into touch: the sun god Ra, the daily miracle of life. High on the sense of mystery and natural beauty, I was certain everything would work out fine. Mr Abdullah was going to fix me so I’d never have to worry about anything again.
Fairy tales are far too important to be reserved for children. In their abandoning mothers and happy-ever-afters they are conduits for our most basic desires and fears. From Cinderella to The Ugly Duckling they reflect the dreams of transformation that can haunt us at any stage of our lives but are particularly prevalent in adolescence as our bodies and minds undergo the dramatic transformation from child to adult. Perhaps it’s this identification with, and fear of, transformation that makes tales of vampires, werewolves and zombies so popular with teens. Sugar and Snails isn’t a fairy story, nor is it for children, but it is about particularly a radical adolescent transformation and its repercussions. Although the exact path my character takes is an unusual one, I hope that her desire to shed her own life and start afresh is something with which most readers will readily identify. Who hasn’t ever wished they were slimmer, more athletic or more beautiful? Who has never daydreamed of being born into a different family, a different country, a more exciting time? Who hasn’t gone to bed hoping to wake up in the morning to find their problems have miraculously disappeared?
When a friend was in labour with her second child, another friend (T) and I took turns looking after the five-year-old. T had got the call to collect the little girl from school and put her to bed, while I went along later in the evening. Chatting as we changed shifts, T remarked on the fun they’d had with her request for stories from T’s childhood. Inwardly, I shuddered. What would I have done in T’s position? Although I could remember happy times from my childhood, I couldn’t think of a single story that would soothe or amuse a little girl who was anxious without her parents. I drew on this experience to illustrate my character Diana’s struggle to integrate her past and present identities. When she’s asked at her best friend’s birthday dinner party to read her daughter a bedtime story, she is flummoxed when Ellie asks for a story about when she was a little girl. Having her past identity for three decades, it’s impossible for her to come up with a story that doesn’t entail a degree of dissemblance. Also, in common with others whose early childhood hasn’t given them a secure foundation, her memories are fragmented, with any happy memories that might be suitable to share refusing to cohere into a proper narrative.
Walking was integral to my debut novel since its inception. I began the first draft on returning home from a long-distance walk across the breadth of England, and dedicated it to the coast-to-coasters who joined me along the way. I also made Leonard, my main character’s father, a walker, avoiding church and the demands of family life by heading to the hills. While I relished my research trips plotting his routes, Leonard didn’t have such an easy time of it. The space to think brought disturbing memories of his early adulthood as a prisoner of war, which strongly influenced his behaviour as a father. When I cut the parents’ points of view from the novel, I also had to let go of most of Leonard’s walks. But one remained, told this time in the form of Diana’s memories of childhood; a rare day out that started well and ended badly, Leonard being decidedly intolerant of the ten-year-old’s terror of the cattle encountered en route. As my own fear of the beasts is the main impediment to my solitary walking, it made sense to gift that bit of my autobiography to Diana and create a scene illustrating the problematic attachment patterns originating in her childhood.
Given the complexity of the developmental tasks of adolescence, I’m sometimes amazed so many people come through unscathed. But I’m particularly interested in the casualties: those who, despite maturing in years, remain psychologically stuck in that limbo between childhood and adulthood, too wounded by the experience to move on. In this novel, I explore the physical and psychological challenges of adolescence, and the interaction between them. As adults, we can underestimate how confusing puberty can be: your own body leaking menstrual blood or semen, and changing shape at an alarming rate. But those physical changes can also provide the catalyst for other changes more under the young person’s control as they experiment with hairstyles, tattoos and outrageous styles of dress. This playing around with different ways of being is part of the process through which the child creates his or her adult identity. But some adolescents, like my character Diana, don’t feel safe to play with who they are. Some parents and teachers can’t tolerate the adolescent’s inconsistency: needy and childish one moment, exaggeratedly independent the next. I believe this ambivalence lies at the heart of the process of becoming our adult selves, and what makes it so precarious. The failure to play with identity can stunt growth or lead to radical changes from which there’s no going back.
Standing in line at some dusty South American border crossing in the late 1990s, I discovered an error in the demographic details in my passport: the letter M for male was printed under sex. Despite the document having got me safely through several borders already, I was anxious. What if the immigration officers queried my identity? What if they wouldn’t let me through? My mild anxiety of being “outed” alerted me to the way in which daily life was unnecessarily complicated for people whose official gender contradicted the gender they perceived themselves to be. Not only on a passport they might use a couple of times a year, but on their driving licence, health service records and job application forms. If the essence of maleness and femaleness is contested, why insist on classifying people by a binary concept that could be a source of pain? At the beginning of the twenty-first century, when my novel is set, that was the case for too many of my fellow citizens, and moved me to try to write the story of one of them.
A few years before I began writing my debut novel, I read a newspaper report about a distinguished academic, a professor with a PhD in psychology, who had died of anorexia. Two things were shocking about the case: firstly, the stark contrast between the confidence and competence she showed to the outside world and the depth of vulnerability hidden inside her; secondly, that she had managed to keep it secret for so long from colleagues, friends and family. And yet, on another level, I wasn’t shocked by the story at all. I knew lots of people who were highly successful professionals on the outside and a morass of neuroses underneath. Let’s face it, I was a bit like that myself. My own experiences of hidden vulnerabilities fed into my character, Diana, also a psychology lecturer whose academic understanding is of little help to her in managing her own life. The source of her vulnerability is a secret revealed in the course of the novel, but its effects are apparent from chapter 1. Diana has self-harmed since childhood and, when a relationship crisis threatens her sense of self, she slices through the scars in her forearm. I found this one of the most difficult scenes to write, not because I couldn’t imagine myself in that situation, but because I could.
Many of us take stock of our lives in middle age, asking ourselves whether we’re on the right path. What has become of our childhood ambitions? How can we ensure we don’t waste our remaining years? My midlife crisis made me a writer; my character Diana’s has her assessing the impact of the decision she made at fifteen. Will she find the courage to grasp the opportunities available or will she continue to hide who she is? As the novel opens, things aren’t looking great …
What does it mean to have a daughter? How does it feel to be one? A child carer would do anything to support her fragile mother. A woman resorts to extreme measures to stop her baby’s cries. A man struggles to accept his middle child’s change of direction. Another uses his daughter to entice young women into his car. A woman contemplates her relationship with her father as she watches a stranger withhold his attention from his child. Mothers of daughters, fathers of daughters, daughters from infancy to middle age. Three award-winning short stories plus a couple more. You’ll never think about daughters the same way again. Prize-winning short stories from the Polari Prize shortlisted author of Sugar and Snails.
Sometimes, like a fantasy pancake, a story creates itself before a writer’s eyes. The central strand of this story – a father’s refusal to join in his young daughters play – was served up to me in a doctor’s waiting room several years ago. Like the narrator, I was saddened by what I saw, but I had the advantage of being able to transform that sadness into a story. Childhood neglect often haunts my fiction, and I know from my work and my own experience how this can have long-term effects. Although I have strong feelings about it, I’d hate to write a preachy story. So I was delighted when a reader got in touch to say that not only had she enjoyed this story, it had helped her to understand and enjoy her child. I can’t imagine a better outcome! CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
I originally wrote my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, from three points of view, but was eventually persuaded it worked better if I cut out my main character’s parents’ perspectives. Most of the deleted scenes remained in the refuse bin, but I was able to recycle one of my favourite scenes in which the father smokes a water-pipe in a dark cafe in a North African country as he tries to adjust to his middle child’s transformation. The resulting story won the Ilkley Festival short story prize and also appears in my book-length collection, Becoming Someone. CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
I always worry about child carers, looking after a vulnerable parent when it’s meant to be the other way around. If asked – and I’ve only seen interviews on TV when they are praised for their devotion – they insist they're glad to do it, but I’m sure their sacrifice takes its toll. Perhaps if the welfare system gave more support to the parents, these small people wouldn’t have to sacrifice their childhood. Mummy and Me, my first ever short story competition winner, a full ten years before I published my debut novel, is narrated by a little girl too young to realise the tragedy of her own situation. CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
What can a mother do when her baby won’t stop crying? Eve hits on an unusual way of silencing baby Felicity, with explosive repercussions. In this disturbing story, I explore the damage frazzled mothers can do, despite their best intentions. Although there’s an element of fantasy, it’s true to the dark side of parent-child relationships which is often overlooked. CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
One summer back in my student days, I worked at a pickle factory in a village in Germany. The nearest supermarket was across the border in the Netherlands and, if we overslept and missed the bus into town, we’d hitch. On one such occasion, a seemingly reasonable guy took me on a diversion down a quiet country lane … I’ve always wondered if I had a lucky escape. CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
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