Flash Fiction: ‘The Stag’

Last month, I was delighted to have a flash fiction piece receive honorable mention in the University of Aberdeen Special Collections Flash Fiction contest. The contest asks you to respond to one of the images from their Special Collection. I chose one that seemed to me vaguely Elizabethan and also made me think of all of the outrageous and clever creations I’d been watching on Great British Bake Off (especially the bread lion from two years ago!). We were given no context or information about the images, but the one that I chose turned out to be printed in 1491, of a woman collecting honey. You can have a look at it, and the other images, here.

Wayne Price, the contest judge, was kind enough to describe my story as: ‘A bravely and artfully written fantasia that contains some wonderful moments of linguistic play and inventiveness.’

This story was published on the University of Aberdeen’s website here. You can read the winning story, ‘Weave’, there too, which I’d recommend. Enjoy!

The Stag

By Carly Brown
I make things they want to eat: white cakes studded with violet flowers and clotted cream in silver dishes. Pastries in the shape of swans. I knead dough for almond gingerbread until my arms go numb. I boil plums down into sweet paste. My hands are calloused from grinding fennel and nutmeg to powders. They love my roses and gillyflowers, sparkling with sugar.

When they see my work, they smile with blackened teeth, but they lose interest quickly. A visiting noblewoman nibbles at a candy flower and leaves the uneaten petals on her plate. A prince cuts the head off my swan and everyone claps like he’s killed a real thing. But soon my headless swan lies forgotten, and they are on to dancing or playing cards.

By the time the plates are carried back down to the kitchens – my shortbread with bite marks, my half-eaten cakes filled with cherries and currants – the kitchen is all smoke, steam, and dirty plates. I try not to look at the carnage they leave behind. I let the other cooks bicker over who will eat the shattered pieces of my ginger biscuits.

The stag came to me in a dream. I knew it would be the most beautiful thing that I’d ever made. His antlers would be rock candy sculpture, his eyes hunks of sugared plum. His smooth flank perfectly baked honey bread. He would stand tall as a man, taller, and smell of cinnamon and autumn forests.

I baked the stag for three days straight, instructed the other cooks on what to stir and cut. He took shape. Soon he stood as proud as any animal, muscular and oven hot. His candy antlers scraped the ceiling and he pawed at the floorboards with marzipan hoofs. The other cooks gasped as he ran around the kitchen, banging into a pot of stew and spilling it across the floor. Then I opened the door and let him loose into the house.

I ran after him as he galloped into the corridor, tearing family portraits with his antlers and hunks of breadmuscle flying off his body as he ran. I followed when he charged into the Great Hall and all the nobles screamed. He leapt straight onto the banquet table and shattered glasses beneath him. He posed atop the table like the fiercest beast in Christendom. A man nearby fainted.

I stood in the doorway clapping. The stag was still. Nobody dared touch him. All they could do was stare as he pranced out of the room, smashing their glasses underfoot and gazing back at them with sweet, purple eyes.

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News: October

Happy Halloween! I hope that everyone is having a spook-tacularfang-tastic (okay, I’ll stop) holiday today. Personally, I’ve been celebrating all throughout the month by reading creepy stories (the Ghost anthology edited by Louise Welsh is a personal favorite to dip in and out of), watching old episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? on YouTube, lighting lots of candles and even going on ghost tour here in Edinburgh which took us underground into the Blair Street vaults. On late afternoons, I’ve also been strolling through The Meadows, trying to snap photos of the autumn foliage before it disappears.

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The Meadows, Edinburgh

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As I mentioned in my last blog post, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays (second only to Christmas) and October is certainly my favorite month. It also contains my birthday, which I celebrated this year with a chill pub night with friends and with a trip down to Cumbria to read at a poetry event (more on that below!).

These seasonal and birthday celebrations provided welcomed and much needed breaks from PhD work, which has, honestly, been tough this month. I’m in my final year of my Doctorate of Fine Arts and while I’m at a good place with my work, some days it’s really a struggle to stay motivated with this project which I began two years ago. Anyone doing a PhD (or who has ever done any long project probably!) can almost certainly relate to this feeling of CAN’T I JUST BE DONE ALREADY. Or worse: WHAT POSSESSED ME TO DO THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE? INSPIRATION, WHERE HAVE YOU LED ME?!? I might write a longer post about this in the future, but finding the motivation when you’re in the middle of something, of anything, can be super challenging with all the new, shiny ideas buzzing around out there. But I’m staying the course, slowly but surely. Fellow PhD candidates at any stage of the process, you have my admiration and respect!

But enough of my grad student woes. I wanted to share with you some of the exciting literary happenings that took place this month…

Publications

This month I had a short story, Climbing Boys, published in the historical fiction magazine The Copperfield Review. It’s a macabre tale of Victorian chimney sweeps and perfect seasonal reading (if I do say so myself!). You can read it here.

I also had an extract of my performance poem, Texas, I Can’t Bring you to Parties Anymore, published in the Write to be Counted anthology for human rights, profits go to PEN International. You can get a copy of the anthology here.

Performances

I only did one poetry performance this month, but it was a fantastic one. I went down to Cumbria for the launch of the Write to Be Counted anthology and had the pleasure of staying with a friend of mine, writer and Cumbria native Katie Hale.

She showed my partner and I around this beautiful part of England and I was blown away by the landscapes.

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Cumbria, England

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Is it any wonder that so many poets are from this area?

I would definitely go back to Cumbria any time and it was a delight to perform at the launch, which took place in an old Fire Station and had a potluck buffet.

Press

The performance I did at the Transatlantic Literary Women Symposium last summer was featured on their amazing podcast here. (Doesn’t the podcast host have the most soothing voice?) I was also interviewed on their previous podcast about creativity, the role of workshops and my favorite Transatlantic Literary Woman (hint: she’s also an American poet who lived in the U.K…).

I was also interviewed by the lovely Haley Jenkins over at Selcouth Station. We talk all about performance poetry, poetry slams, tips for overcoming stage fright and more. Check out the interview here.

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That’s all folks! I hope that you have lovely and suitably spooky day. If you’re in the mood for a scary film, might I recommend Under the Shadow? It’s set in 1980’s Tehran and I was lucky enough to see it last year at the Glasgow Film Theatre with both the director and star there for a Q and A! You can read it as a traditional haunted house story, or as more of a psychological thriller, or as something in between. Either way, it continues to haunt me.

Have a wonderful Halloween night! And remember, in the immortal words of Tim Curry in The Worst Witch, ‘Anything can happen on Halloween…’

 

 

News: September

I remember reading (in Jay Parini’s book The Art of Teaching, I believe) about how interesting it is that autumn, a time of nature’s decay, is seen as a time of new beginnings and fresh starts for so many students and teachers. Yet, for me, a student and a teacher, that’s exactly what autumn means. A new chapter. September for me means new stationary, a new group of students, a brand shiny new academic year.

This whole New Beginnings feeling is probably strengthened by the fact that I’ve actually moved cities. I’ll be living in Edinburgh for the final year of my PhD. I will miss Glasgow, of course, but I’m delighted to be here amidst the winding medieval streets, quaint bookshops and unbeatable castle views. I have a fondness for so many different cities, especially not-too-big, picturesque, historic ones (see: York, Florence, Boston), but Edinburgh might just be my favorite city in the world.

In addition to moving cities and recovering from the Fringe (so much sleep!!), I’ve been busy with lots of other things too. Here’s a wee wrap up of my September literary adventures.

Readings/Performances

I performed with my pals the Loud Poets over in Glasgow in mid-September at their event Loud Poets: Appetite for Destruction at Broadcast. Always great fun to perform my poems with The Loud Band and these poets always put on a fast-paced, fun, interactive show. I love performing with them.

I also had the opportunity to read at Glasgow Women’s Library for National Poetry Day at their Story Café event. I was joined by the other editors of Glasgow Women Poets Anthology (my fellow sub-editor, Cameo Marlatt, and our editor, Mairi Murphy) and we talked a little bit about the anthology, as well as sharing our own poetry. We’re really proud of the Glasgow Women Poets anthology, which we published last year, featuring writing by women writers with a connection to the city of Glasgow. It’s really special to work on a project that celebrates and elevates women’s voices. Plus, it’s also got a fantastic cover!

Glasgow Women Poets

National Poetry Day was a big one for me because I ALSO had a reading over at the University of Glasgow where I was Commended in the Alastair Buchan Poetry Prize for my poem ‘Fisherman Knit.’ Congrats to all of the other commended poets and runners up, and congrats especially to the winner, my friend Daisy LaFarge, who has a pamphlet out now. Her winning poem knocked my socks off and I’d highly recommend having a look at her work!

Publications

My debut poetry pamphlet, GROWN UP POETRY NEEDS TO LEAVE ME ALONE, is now available to order online, with worldwide shipping, from the Loud Poets Etsy store. They’ve been selling like hotcakes so far which is amazing, so thank you to everyone who has bought a copy and I hope that you are enjoying them! Check out the listing here.

Grown Up Poetry Pic 1An extract from my poem ‘Texas, I Can’t Bring You to Parties Anymore’ will be published in Write to be Counted, a forthcoming anthology in support of human rights, with all the profits going to Pen International. They are launching on October 4th in London and Saturday October 14 in Cumbria. I might be along to read at the Cumbria launch, which is taking place in an Old Fire Station!

Teaching

I started my second year teaching undergraduates at the University of Strathclyde. It’s an introductory Creative Writing class and basically goes over the building blocks of creating characters, setting the scene, building dramatic tension, all that good stuff. As a writer, I think it’s always useful to go over those fundamentals and I’m looking forward to another semester of teaching.  

Upcoming

Next Thursday, October 5th, I’m performing at a ‘new material’ night in Partick in St Louis Cafe Bar, so will hopefully be debuting a new poem. Feel free to come along! Check out the event page here.

I’ll mainly be editing and redrafting my historical fiction novel in these next few months, which is daunting but also very exciting. For me, this entire academic year will really be about finishing up and submitting my Creative Writing PhD.

I’m also working concurrently on a short story collection…more on this later!

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As I’m writing this post, it is also the first day of October, which is my FAVORITE MONTH. October means my birthday, Halloween, pumpkins, and occasional spiders in the flat (okay, that one isn’t really something to look forward to). You can guarantee that I will be watching Halloween movies, going on haunted tours of the city and generally embarrassing myself with my exuberance for this season. Just so you have an idea of how excited I get about Halloween, this is what’s on top of my bookcase already.

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Happy October. I’m hoping that everyone is having a great start to the season.

Edinburgh Festival Reflections (Part I): Writing for a Magazine

In which I discuss my experience writing for a magazine at the Edinburgh Festivals, the reasons why journalistic writing can be helpful for your creative work and that time I drank too much coffee and power walked around Charlotte Square.

Last month, I had the opportunity to cover the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe AND the Book Festival for Broadway Baby magazine. This is my second year writing features for them (Only feature interviews! I didn’t write any reviews.) and it’s been a fun experience putting on my journalistic hat once again (Literally. I wore a hat which I’ve been told was very 1930’s journalist-y: see photographic evidence below).

Journalist hat

This year, I was able to interview artists across mediums about their work. I spoke with Booker Prize shortlisted author Graeme Macrae Burnett of His Bloody Project, bestselling Danish author Meik Wiking who wrote The Little Book of Hygge (which you’ve probably seen around if you’ve been in a bookshop in the past year!), and Holly Smale, author of a personal favorite feel-good and feminist book series: Geek Girl.

As primarily a writer of fiction and performance poetry, I’ve enjoyed changing gears a little and focusing on journalism for a month. Here are three ways that I think writing for a magazine can sharpen/improve your fiction and poetry:

1 – Writing to a deadline

I’ll be the first one to admit that I didn’t always make my article deadlines (a bout of Fringe Flu struck mid-festival), but having a deadline always rapidly approaching made me less precious about my writing. There is no time for perfectionism when you’ve got to get something out there into the world in a couple of days time.

While I do think it’s valuable to spend time with your work and to be a considerate editor – with a poem especially I can spend ages mulling over a single word – there’s something to be said for efficiency and for putting your work out there in a timely manner. You’d also be surprised at how much you can do in a short span of time!

Basically, if you’ve got two hours, it’ll take two hours. If you’ve got two days, it’ll take two days. I shocked myself with the amount I could write quickly. As someone who has a tendency to hold on to my short stories and poems just a little too long sometimes before sending them out into the big wide world, writing to quick deadlines forced me to just put my work out there, a skill I will try to keep up as I turn once more to my fiction and poetry.

2 – Word counts

Magazine articles have word limits and usually short ones. Writing up these feature articles also made me a sharper, more ruthless, editor. I frequently had to cut down about half the interview I’d conducted to make it fit under the word count. Even if every moment of the interview had been fascinating and relevant, sometimes things had to get cut. I had to make those editorial decisions quickly and trust my gut. Working within parameters (like word count) is a useful challenge for any writer and definitely applicable to poetry and prose. Edit out those unnecessary words!

3 – Confidence

I decided at the start of the month that if there was an artist I wanted to speak with, no matter how famous they were, I’d request an interview. That was all well and good, until some of them started agreeing…then the panic set in.

I was nervous before interviewing some of these authors and performers who I greatly respected. I’ve had more semi-awkward interactions in book signing lines than you can count. You can imagine my nerves when I found out I’d get to interview some of these incredible people. One afternoon before an interview, I was so nervous I drank tons of free coffee in the Press Tent at the Book Festival. I was then so jittery I had to power walk around Charlotte Square while listening to the Hamilton soundtrack to work off some of the excess energy. (Yes, Hamilton was the soundtrack to my festival. Also to my life).

As I power walked, there was a malicious voice in my head saying things like, ‘Who do you think that you are to interview these amazing people? Everyone will think that you’re ridiculous, a fraud, unqualified!’ I was feeling intimidated, full of self-doubt. I really had to reassure myself that I was capable of doing this. I had to remind myself that everybody feels self-doubt sometimes. Requesting and conducting those interviews, even though I was nervous, was a confidence building experience. And confidence is useful in so many areas of life.

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Afternoon Tea at the Spiegeltent at Edinburgh International Book Festival

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There are doubtless many other ways that writing journalism is can help with your creative writing (and vice versa!), but those are just a few that came to mind. When I told my partner (who is a film critic) I was writing this blog post, he suggested quite a few other ways journalism might be useful for other types of writing: gaining practice working with an editor, the ability to do background research and even (for interviewers especially) being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand where they’re coming from. Maybe you’ve got more to add?

Overall, I interviewed nine artists in August. Here’s a sample of those:

Meow Meow, singer/dancer/actress extraordinaire, in which we talk about fairy tales and her cabaret reimagining of The Little Mermaid.

Holly Smale, bestselling children’s book author of the GEEK GIRL series. We talk about travel and why teen books are so important.

Leyla Josephine, poet and performer from Glasgow whose show Hopeless was long listed for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award.

Meik Wiking, bestselling author and CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, about his next book, hygge and mindfulness.

Full list of my articles here.

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Stay tuned for a blog post next week about my favorite shows I saw across all the festivals.

x Carly

News: June-July

Summer is in full swing and I wanted to share with you a few things that I’ve been up to in the past few months, as well as what I’m looking forward to for the month of August. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Readings/Performances

In June, I was asked to perform my poetry at the Transatlantic Literary Women Symposium at Glasgow Women’s Library, sponsored by the British Association for American Studies and the U.S Embassy. This was a fantastic, all-day event of workshops, talks, and readings looking at transatlantic literary women. It included topics like the legacy of Sylvia Plath, UK/US Black feminisms, and much more. As a Transatlantic Literary Woman myself (from America originally, living in the U.K) I was delighted to take part and I was the final reader of the day. I shared a mixture of my ‘performance’ poems and ‘page’ poems. This fascinating project also published an essay of mine on homesickness earlier this year (the first draft of which I published on this blog!).

I also read my work at the West End Festival New Writing Showcase, held in the grand Hunterian Art Gallery on Glasgow Uni campus. I read a piece of flash fiction about Victorian chimney sweeps called ‘Climbing Boys.’ Definitely channeling Dickens.

The Quotidian Magazine Issue #3 launch also took place in June. Having performed at their Issue #2 launch, I was happy to be asked back. This is a beautifully made magazine for students at Scottish universities with the theme ‘the everyday’. Once again, it was a receptive and energetic crowd, with live music and (importantly) delicious cake.

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At Quotidian Issue 3 Launch – Photo Credit Quotidian Magazine

Teaching

I had the opportunity to teach two Performance Poetry workshops in June with Glasgow Women’s Library: one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh. These workshops were for women only and they were geared towards those who had little experience performing their work aloud. We talked about tips and tricks for sharing work with an audience, how to build confidence onstage, and how to write with performance in mind. Both groups were lovely, enthusiastic and full of great writers. I then hosted Glasgow Women’s Library’s All Women Poetry Slam at Out of the Blue Gallery in Edinburgh and one woman who had taken part in my class actually won the slam! Congrats, Jo Gilbert!

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Me and Jo, Winner of the All Women Poetry Slam 2017

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Judges of the All Women Poetry Slam (left to right): Katherine Macfarlane, JL Williams, Kokumo Rocks

This June, I also taught a historical fiction writing workshop with The Young Walter Scott Prize. The Walter Scott Prize is a prestigious prize for historical fiction (won in previous years by the likes of Hilary Mantel) and these workshops are for kids and held at historic sites throughout Scotland. They are aimed at getting young writers writing/thinking about history and also to encourage them to enter the Young Walter Scot Prize, which is a historical fiction prize for young people. This workshop was held in a beautiful, stately home in the Borders: Bowhill. Very Downton Abbey-esque! The pupils explored the gardens, the kitchens, the ornate sitting rooms, and imagined who used to walk those halls…

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Bowhill House, Scottish Borders

Publications

I had a short story published in the awesome literary magazine Jersey Devil Press. It’s called The Silverware Club. It features martinis, a gecko called Franz Kafka, and people dressed up as spoons.

Upcoming

For those who will be around at the Edinburgh Fringe, come out and see me perform with Loud Poets at their Fringe Show! This will be my third year to join these guys for the Fringe and they always put on a great show. Live band, and accessible, funny, emotional poetry. I’ll be their Guest Act on August 26th. Get tickets here.

I’ll also be returning as Features Writer for Broadway Baby magazine at this year’s Fringe. I’ll also be covering The Edinburgh Festival and The Edinburgh International Book Festival. I won’t be writing any reviews, only doing feature interviews with artists. I love having conversations with talented poets, directors, authors (like this one I did with playwright Rona Munro) and I’m so excited for this year’s Festivals.

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So, what have you been up to? Who do you think that I should see at the Edinburgh Festival, Book Festival or the Fringe? Recommendations welcome!

Creative Friends: Laura Becherer and Cameo Marlatt

This is Creative Friends, the series where I spotlight friends whose work inspires me. I’m very excited to feature two mega talented women: Cameo Marlatt and Laura Becherer, authors of the recently released A Drink of One’s Own: Cocktails for Literary Ladies. This is a cocktail recipe book featuring recipes inspired by female writers from all around the world. So if you (like me) enjoy booze, books or all of the above, stick around!

For this post, I sat down with Cameo and Laura to chat about the inspiration behind their new book. Of course, we couldn’t do so without a cocktail in hand. Cameo whipped up The Sylvia Plath, which features gin, grenadine, cream, egg white and raspberry coulis. Delicious!  We sat back and sipped our cocktails as Laura and Cameo filled me in on how A Drink of One’s Own was born.

Carly: You’ve created a cocktail book, with recipes inspired by female writers from around the world. How did you first come up with the idea for the book?

Laura: Cameo and I were sitting at a table at The Curler’s Rest pub and were discussing Kate Zambreno’s book Heroines, which we were studying in a class at that time. We were talking about how ill-used Zelda Fitzgerald has been, and how writing culture still reflects the glorified masculinity of Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bukowski, etc. A lot of them are exclusionary and misogynistic, and the idea of the alcoholic writer is romantic only when it’s men. When it’s a drunk woman, she’s out-of-control and a “hot mess.” Add into that all of the comments by said writers that still reflect the exclusionary publishing and reviewing world today, i.e. TS Eliot’s “there are few men, and no women, worth printing.” (Or whatever).

We pitched the book as a project for our Editing and Publication class. We pitched to Adrian from Freight Books and the project went from there.

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A Drink of One’s Own: Cocktails for Literary Ladies alongside some cocktail supplies

So once you knew you were doing the book, how did you select which writers to include?

Laura: Originally, the list was 100 authors and we had to cut it down to around 50. Some of our favorite authors had to be scarified for the final edit. We focused on cutting white women when possible to avoid cutting down on the women of colour (including a number Black women specifically, and also Asian-American, Latina, and Native American). We were devoted to not cutting women of color and the publisher wanted a very international mix, so the final selection was a mixture of personal values (showcasing a diverse group of writers) and marketing aims.

Cameo: This was probably the hardest part of the process for us, because there are so many amazing women writers out there that we wanted on the list. We joke that we still both wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of night, thinking of women we should have included. For me, Ali Smith and Elizabeth Bishop were the hardest cuts, and I know that Laura would have loved to see Patricia Highsmith in the book. Our publisher chose to organize the drinks based on the authors’ countries of origin, so there is a diverse range of nationalities represented as well, though I regret that we don’t have more authors from African countries. But for us, the book’s feminist framework meant that diversity was our priority, and that really helped us make the final cut. One of the best things about writing this book was discovering and learning about underrepresented authors, and we wanted our readers to have the same experience.

My favorite cocktail from A Drink of One’s Own (so far), is The Virginia Woolf which features gin and sparkling lemonade. How did you come up with recipes to reflect the different authors?

Laura: We tried to make the cocktails new or a twist on an existing cocktail. All of our recipes are original, or as original as they can be in a world with literally thousands of cocktail recipes; you won’t find any mere copies of classic cocktails in our book. Sometimes we matched the cocktail to the personality of the writer, sometimes to where they are from (i.e. bourbon for a southern writer), sometimes to their work. Sometimes the link is very clear (a butterbeer martini for JK Rowling), sometimes its more subtle (oranges for Amy Tan, because she writes about Chinese culture and talks about oranges as good-luck food; or blackberries for Louise Erdrich because she’s from the Midwest and my own personal memories of Midwestern summers include blackberry picking). I researched a lot online and was more experimental with my creations than Cameo. I’m also a practicing witch and was interested in creating my own liquor and simple syrup infusions with herbs and fruit, etc.

Cameo: We both had so much fun with this aspect of the book. For me, it was more satisfying creatively than any of the writing, and I loved engaging with these authors’ works and personalities in such a unique way. Sometimes I would be inspired by specific details from the author’s texts. For example, there is a scene in one of Julia Alvarez’s novels in which a character goes guava picking, so I wanted to use guava juice in her cocktail. But for many of the recipes, it was more instinctual. The ‘Dorothy Parker,’ a classic manhattan with the addition of black pepper syrup, was inspired by the author’s personality and time period.

You are both writers, as well. If you had a cocktail in this book, what would it be?

Laura: My first inclination is to say something with hazelnut, because I love hazelnut (and hazelnut ice cream above all), but I’ve recently discovered, after writing the book, that the Bramble is my favorite cocktail. I like it with lime instead of lemon, so that would probably be my twist on a classic. Blackberries are, as I said, a big part of my childhood, so the Bramble tastes like a grown-up version of a kind of fairy-tale vision of my childhood. Since I work with fairy-tales so much, especially rewriting them for adults. So it seems appropriate.

I would definitely choose something whisky-based for Cameo, and something wicked strong! It’s not a cocktail, but I recently made her a whisky sugar scrub for Christmas, using my own personal bottle of Oban single malt. Whisky is just so Cameo—and she’s the one who introduced me to single malt, specifically my favorite (Laphroiag). And I’m not even a whisky person!

Since she loves the Manhattan, I would say that for Cameo I would make a Manhattan with Canadian whisky, since she’s from Canada, and would also maybe use orange bitters.

Cameo: This is such a good question! I’ve always had a soft spot for whisky cocktails, but if I were to choose a cocktail based on my writing, I think it would be more botanical in nature, because plants inspire much of my poetry. Maybe a very dry martini made with kelp-infused gin, with just a dash of orange blossom water.

And because I can’t stop myself from making cocktails for all the amazing women writers around me, I’ve made a “Carly Brown” as well. It is a take on the classic sidecar, for a very classy lady. I have lessened the lemon juice, and added pineapple juice for sweetness to create a cocktail that is bright and zesty, just like its namesake and her wonderful poetry!

The “Carly Brown”

1.5 oz. brandy

3/4 oz. Cointreau

¼ oz. lemon juice

1.5 oz. pineapple juice

lemon peel twist for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine ingredients, add ice, and shake until cold. Strain into a chilled old-fashioned glass. Run a lemon peel twist around the rim, and toss into the drink for garnish.

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Laura Becherer (left), Cameo Marlatt (right) and Laura’s cat Spock (center). Photo Curtesy of Laura Becherer.

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Thanks to Laura and Cameo for joining me for this interview and for making me a delicious cocktail from their collection! AND for creating a cocktail for me. 🙂 I can’t wait to try it!

You can order your copy of A Drink of One’s Own from the publisher, Freight Books, here.

The duo have also recently launched a literary magazine, Ground Floor Drinkers, aimed at publishing subversive writing that reflects on identity. They are currently open for submissions and you can find out more about it here.

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For previous posts in my Creative Friends series, check out my features on Bahraini-Iraqi poet Laala Kashef Alghata and American writer and artist Lydia Cruz.

Thanks for reading! x

This Morning (A Poem)

I wrote this poem today in response to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. 

This morning

(November 9th, 2016)

 

This morning

the light was gray

and I tried to go back to sleep

for a while.

 

This morning

I made breakfast of fried eggs with chili sauce,

but it tasted gummy and white.

 

This morning

someone wrote to me

asking if I was okay.

 

This morning

I got texts that just read

‘What’.

 

This morning

I saw messages typed

by people I love

saying ‘this is not the country

I know. This is not

what I believe.’

 

This morning

I cried in bed

and wished it was yesterday.

 

This morning

I watched TV hosts who make me laugh

look as if they were about to cry too.

 

This morning

I questioned reality.

 

This morning

I was afraid for myself

and people close to me.

 

This morning

I wished I could hug my mom.

 

This morning

I hoped that I misunderstood

all the headlines.

That there would be

a twist at the last minute

like in fiction, when everything goes dark

 

but you know it’s just

that moment before

the hero dusts herself off

and everything is fine again.

 

This morning

I tried to remember

how kind people can be.

 

How, in this world,

there are still kittens wearing sweaters

somewhere

and Tom Hanks in a Pumpkin suit.

 

There is still good gelato

a few blocks away.

 

And there are millions of people

who didn’t want this to happen.

 

This morning

I told someone I loved them.

 

I drank coffee and thought about the day,

how the best way forward

is to write

a poem

 

Which is like saying

I’m here. Where are you?

Which is like saying

Here’s my hand. I’m scared too.

Which is like saying

We will get through this together.

I hear you, I hear you.

 

This morning

I remembered there will be

an afternoon and an evening.

 

Then,

another day.

 

 

Notes from Monticello (III): Thoughts from the Long-Haul Flight

For the month of August, I’ll be living in Virginia on a fellowship with the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. During this fellowship, I’ll be conducting research for my novel-in-progress, which is set in 18th century America during the Revolutionary War. These blog posts will record my musings on research, travel, and life in general during my fellowship.

I’ve had the opportunity and the privilege to travel overseas since I was a kid. The first time I went to Europe was when I was about thirteen-years-old. My dad saved up money and he told me to pick anywhere in the world that I wanted to go. The world. He was an electrician turned high school teacher in an electrical trades program and we couldn’t afford to take Big Trips often. This would be The-Trip-of-All-Trips. He suggested a myriad of locations: Thailand, Brazil, Egypt. But I knew exactly where I wanted to go: London. I wanted to go to the land of my hero, Queen Elizabeth I (Yes, my hero at the age of 13 was a Renaissance monarch, which should clue you in to my popularity at my middle school). The land of Dickens and Shakespeare. My dad, who had probably envisioned a holiday to some crystal blue-watered paradise or ancient ruins somewhere, was like: Um, okay. But he rapidly got on board with the plan. Soon we were on a plane, bound for England.

That first transatlantic flight was smooth. I didn’t sleep a wink (I was too excited), but I watched Pirates of the Caribbean and touched the cool of the window as London appeared below us through the heavy gray clouds. It was dawn and my dad insisted that we couldn’t sleep until the evening because we didn’t want to lose a day. We didn’t want to waste any time. Later, of course, he relented and let me nap at our hotel near Victoria Station.

Our trip was wonderful. We went over Christmas and bought a small tree to keep in our hotel room. I drank hot tea with milk and watched the red-double decker buses drive through the streets. My favorite afternoon was when I drank wassail at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre as soft rain fell around us and imagined that I was travelling back in time.

But the thing that I remember most about that trip was how every time I would look down to read my book (I was burning through The Princess Diaries series at the time), my dad would tap my shoulder and tell me to look out the window. ‘Look at everything,’ he said. ‘Take this in because we’re lucky to be here. You might never see any of this again.’

Funnily enough, I’ve been back to London countless times. Although my father had no way of knowing it then, I would eventually go to university in Scotland and have numerous friends who were from, or currently lived in, London. Yet I’ve always held tight to what he said about looking out the window and appreciating what I see when I travel. Take this in. We’re lucky to be here.

*

It was this adage that I turned to when I was on the most unpleasant long-haul flight I’ve ever experienced.

I was recently coming back from my fellowship in Virginia and thrilled that I’d found a direct flight from nearby Philadelphia to my home: Glasgow. Only 6 hours!

I was also excited because, on my flight over to America this summer, I’d been unexpectedly bumped up to Business Class. And let me tell you what happens in Business Class on British Airways folks: you sit down…and then they hand you sparkling wine. It was amazing. I had lots of legroom in this bright, modern plane. I watched the Downton Abbey box set while reclining back and drinking all the free sparkling wine. I took a lot of happy selfies and I’m certain that the flight attendants were rolling their eyes the entire time.

Foolishly, I half expected that I would somehow be upgraded again for my flight back to the UK. This was not the case.

My trip back to the UK was nothing like that ride in Business Class. On this trip, I was seated in the literal back of the plane, right up against the bathrooms. It was a small plane and there were no screens on the back of the seat in front of you (no screens!). The light above me was broken so I couldn’t read. Which meant the only entertainment options for six hours was the endless stream of superhero movies they were showing on the tiny screens in the center of the plane. I like some superhero movies a lot, but every time I looked up at the screen there were just more cars being smashed to pieces, so I decided to pass.

But the most annoying (and slightly upsetting) aspect of this long-haul flight was the amount of turbulence that we experienced. For the full six hours. Typically, on a transatlantic flight, there are patches of turbulence. That’s normal. But this plane was rattling so much that I could barely drink anything because it was sloshing around in my cup too much. I couldn’t sleep because I was constantly jolted awake by the plane. I felt like we were in a toy plane in the hands of some giant, angry baby.

And while I don’t have any particular fear of flying, I don’t like turbulence. And I struggle with anxiety. Surviving this flight was an intense mental health exercise at keeping my calm and not flipping out. As the first few hours of this bumpy ride ticked by, I made feeble attempts at conversation with the man next to me, a lovely grandpa from Paisley, but my palms were sweating the entire time. My heart was racing. I was freaked out. With nothing else to distract me, I listened to the endless podcasts that I’d thankfully downloaded prior to the flight. Specifically, the first few episodes of the Myths and Legends series. As I listened to tales of Sir Yvain, dragons, lions and the raging misogyny of the middle ages, I counted down the hours until I would be back in Scotland.

I closely monitored the night sky outside, the way preteens monitor the clock on their last day of school before summer. I knew that we were arriving in the morning so I watched the sky for any sign of pink, yellow or orange light.

For a long time, there was just darkness. I think I saw the Big Dipper, but I was so freaked out and tired I couldn’t really see anything properly. I noticed the light on the tip of the wing and imagined it was one of those weird little creatures that you find at the bottom of the sea. The kind with sharp teeth and dozens of eyes. At one point, I saw the distant lights below of some country (Canada? Greenland?). I wondered silently that if I had some kind of panic attack, would they take me to Canada? I’ve never been to Canada.

About an hour or two before landing, I started to smell coffee. Which meant they were making our breakfasts. Which meant we were close.

Slowly, the light began to grow and I could see the clouds again. It was still as bumpy as ever, but I loved being able to see the plump clouds in the dawn light and I tried – I tried very hard – to be grateful for what I was seeing. Yes, I was anxious. I was anxious, nauseous and I was counting down the minutes until we were on the ground. But I reminded myself how lucky I was that I could travel. Period. And how beautiful the earth looks from up here and how I knew so embarrassingly little about the basic physics of air travel (If someone wants to enlighten me, please do. How do planes even fly? What is this wizardry?!).

I took a few photos, partly to give myself something to do but partly because it did look amazing. It was incredible to see the sunrise in the sky.

The words of my dad kept floating back to me: Look at everything, Take this in because we’re lucky to be here. You might never see any of this again.

 *

 As we landed in Glasgow, there was scattered applause throughout the plane but I was too deliriously happy to even register how happy I was. I didn’t clap, I just whispered over and over again, dramatically, ‘We’ve made it. We’ve made it.’ It was only when I collected my bags and walked out into the Scottish autumn air that I realized I was shaking with delight. Literally shaking. I was so happy to have arrived safely, and to be back in Scotland, that my body was like a soda can about to fizz over with joy.

Later, lying on my own bed in my own flat, I flipped through the photos I’d taken from the plane. There was one in particular that stood out to me. In it, you see the wing of the plane against the bright blue and pale gold of the sky. The clouds below are full, fluffy and pink. It looks like what I pictured heaven to look like when I was a kid, minus a few angels with togas and harpsichords. But it was pretty close.

*

My dad is not with us anymore. He died when I was fifteen years old, a few years after getting back from our trip to London. And while I do think I’ve gotten a lot of things from him (stubbornness, a love of history, a weird and fervent hatred of beets), one of the things I appreciate most is how he insisted that I look around and appreciate the world. Especially when traveling.

It’s sometimes difficult, particularly when we’re used to air travel, to remember how fortunate we are that these technologies exist. How fortunate we are if we can afford to use them. I’m not going to lie – my plane ride wasn’t enjoyable. It ranged from frustrating to downright anxiety inducing, but I made it through by reminding myself to look outside. To appreciate what I was seeing. How lucky I was to be there. How things can absolutely change in an instant and we should make sure to pay attention to stuff. We might not get the chance to see any of this again. And it’s really beautiful.

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View from my airplane window

For my recent blog posts about my fellowship in Virginia, please see Notes from Monticello (I): Some thoughts on Homesickness and Notes from Monticello (II): Trying on Stays. You can follow my writing, adventures and random musings on Twitter and Facebook

Notes from Monticello (II): Trying On Stays

 

For the month of August, I’ll be living in Virginia on a fellowship with the Robert H. Smith  International Center for Jefferson Studies. During this fellowship, I’ll be conducting research for my novel-in-progress, which is set in 18th century America during the Revolutionary War. These blog posts will record my musings on research, travel, and life in general during my fellowship.

Today, myself and another fellow here at Monticello, Chet’la Sebree, travelled down the labyrinthine passageways of the University of Virgina’s theatre department into their costume shop. We passed crates of shoes designed for every era, racks with colorful dresses waiting to see the spotlights again. We were there for one purpose: to try on corsets. Both of our projects deal with the lives of women in the 18th century (Chet’la’s looking specifically at the life of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who had a longterm romantic relationship with Thomas Jefferson). One of the historians here at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, Gaye Wilson, had suggested it might be interesting for us to try on corsets, to learn a little more about this item of clothing that so many women wore on a daily basis. My goal for this experiential research was to consider how a corset might have affected a woman’s movements, her composure and perhaps even her thoughts about her own body.

We were greeted by a friendly and incredibly helpful costumer called Dorothy who helped us pick out our chemises or shifts, the long loose dresses that we were going to be wearing under our corsets. Loose cotton or linen dresses like this would have been the undergarment that many women in America wore in the 18th century (no bras in the 18th century, ladies!). We picked out our shifts and started the process of putting on our corsets.

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I was very tempted to just wear my shift as one of those trendy off-the-shoulder dresses, but I resisted!

After we’d put on our shifts, we pulled our corsets over our heads. Then the process of lacing began.

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Gaye explained how corsets were laced by starting with the middle laces and then working your way up and down.

Corsets are designed to cinch in the waist, all the while pushing the breasts up. Elite women would often have a servant lacing theirs up behind them, while working class women might have stays they could lace up on their own. Gaye explained how the narrowness of a woman’s waist could be read as a status symbol, because a very narrow waist would indicate that she’d had someone assist her with her corset.

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After we’d finished lacing, we examined ourselves in the mirror, enjoying the transformation.

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The material was a lot firmer than I thought it would be. When I crossed my arms in front of me, it felt like I was resting my arms on a table!

Chet’la and I discussed how the corsets affected our composure overall. For one thing: it’s constricting (obviously). To do anything like running, or even walking very quickly, would be difficult. Especially when you consider that elite women back then would also have been wearing lots of skirts and a heavy gown (like the ones pictured below).

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Another thing we both noticed was that it keeps your posture upright, particularly if trying to sit down. As I sat in a chair, my instinct was to slouch a little bit, but that wasn’t possible. Gaye joked that she should get a corset to keep her from hunching at her desk in the office. But an improved posture was perhaps one of the only benefits I perceived in wearing something like this all the time.

As a 21st century woman, I found the overall feeling very restricting. It was easy to reach for symbolism: clothing restraining women, keeping them contained. These outfits made women take up less space. Made it more difficult for them to run away, to move, to breath. I was surprised by the stiffness of it, my difficulty breathing out. Difficulty relaxing. Women these days talk about the great relief they feel when they take off their bras to relax at home at the end of the day, I can’t imagine the INCREDIBLE relief someone would feel removing this after a long day. That must have been a good feeling.

Yet, in addition to feeling constrained, the corset also made me feel more poised, more dignified. Perhaps that’s because it’s a period costume, but it’s also something to do with that design that makes you feel more upright, more important. Perhaps for women of the gentry it helped them to play a certain part, to present a certain character to society and, in the end, isn’t that what clothes still do?

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Thanks to Gaye for suggesting this wonderful experience and to Dorothy at UVA. Also thanks to my mom for all the lovely snaps!

Check out my previous blog post, Notes from Monticello (I): Some thoughts on Homesickness. Follow my adventures in Virginia on Twitter or Facebook

Notes from Monticello (1): Thoughts on Homesickness

For the month of August, I’ll be living in Virginia on a fellowship with the International Center for Jefferson Studies. During this fellowship, I’ll be conducting research for my novel-in-progress, which is set in 18th century America during the Revolutionary War. These blog posts will record my musings on research, travel, and life in general during my fellowship.

 

Recently, I was chatting with one of the other fellows here at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. She was relaying a story about her time spent studying abroad in Italy. She told me about how, on day five of her Italian trip, exhausted and frustrated by the language barrier, she broke down crying in front of her host mother. She was homesick. Incredibly homesick.

Her host mother just nodded patiently and, weeks later, informed her that this always happened. All the American students who had previously come to stay with her had experienced a similar bout of homesickness between days five and ten. It was totally normal.

As I listened to the other fellow relaying this story, we were driving through the lush Virginia countryside, dotted with red barns, vineyards and adorable picket fences. This is postcard perfect America. It’s green and the people are friendly. There are fried green tomatoes on the menu and red brick buildings, horses and historic farmhouses. It was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite place on earth. And yet I felt, in the pit of my stomach, a small sadness. I was homesick in a foreign country. Between days five and ten. Like clockwork.

Only the problem is, I’m American. Born and raised in Austin, Texas. I wanted to feel right at home, back in America. Yet I was homesick for rain against the bay windows in my flat in Glasgow. I was homesick for Scotland.

*

I arrived in Virginia for my fellowship with the International Center for Jefferson Studies about a week ago. It’s an incredible opportunity. I am here for a month to do research for a novel and I have access not only to the incredibly beautiful Jefferson Library, but also to private tours of Jefferson’s home Monticello, to archives and a community of expert scholars, all of whom are eager to hear about my project and to help me with my research into 18th century life.

Naturally, I’ve been meeting a lot of new people in the last week. Often one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Where are you from?’

I tell them Austin, Texas, but then add that I live in Scotland. That I’ve been in Scotland for six years, my entire adult life. ‘That makes sense. You have a tiny bit of a Scottish accent,’ they often say.

Now that I’m back in America, I can taste the edges of a Scottish accent in my mouth. The way my voice goes up at the end of questions. Or when I use words like ‘quite’, ‘lovely’ and ‘brilliant’.

People are, naturally, very curious about my life in Scotland. The weather, the whisky. One afternoon at lunch, I almost started crying when someone mentioned a beautiful trip they had taken to the Scottish highlands. Jet-lagged and slightly disoriented, I instinctively put my hand on my heart and felt my eyes welling with tears. Just in case that wasn’t melodramatic enough, I said in a voice steeped in adoration, ‘Scotland is where my heart is.’

That night in my little apartment, I listened to the summer sounds of insects outside and the low hum of the air conditioner. I skyped with my mom in Texas and I kept saying to her, ‘I’m homesick.’

‘For Scotland?’ she asked.

I nodded. It was a big realization. ‘Home’, for me, wasn’t Texas anymore.

I wondered when that changed. I wondered if it had changed.

*

A few weeks ago, before my fellowship in Virginia, I was on holiday (or ‘vacation’, if you prefer) with my partner in Italy. One afternoon, I decided I was fed up with tiny coffees. I didn’t want an espresso in a tiny white cup. I wanted a big mug of watery coffee. The kind of coffee that you find at a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Doughnuts or in the glass pot on the counter in any office in America.

We were at a little pastry shop in Milan at the time, which looked straight out of a Wes Anderson film: waiters in smart black and white outfits, colorful little pastries in neat rows. I ordered an Americano even though it was five pm and I knew that the only acceptable thing to drink at that point was espresso.

The waiter raised an eyebrow at my request and brought me (this is real) a shot of espresso with a cup of hot water. A Do-It-Yourself coffee. Americano for the Americana.

My partner told me the story about how americanos are named after the American soldiers who came to Italy during WWII and craved, just like me, the watery, filter coffees of their homeland. So the Italians added hot water to strong black coffee.

I poured the hot water over the espresso. When I sipped it, it tasted perfect. It tasted like air conditioned afternoons in malls with my friends or driving my old Volvo listening to crappy pop music on the radio after school. I was sick with love for the tastes of my childhood. For Texas. I wanted breakfast tacos with avocado and sunlight in my eyes. I was filled with nothing but excitement that, in just a few weeks, I would be in America for my fellowship.

I was going back to America. Home.

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Pasticceria Cucchi, Milano, Italy. July 2016.

*

But from the moment I’ve arrived back in the US, things have felt strange. Unfamiliar.

I got brunch in Charlottesville with one of the other fellows and her friend. We had breakfast tacos and I got a big mug of coffee with cream. The weather was bright and muggy. We swatted away flies.

I bit into the taco with black beans, avocado, pico di gallo, eggs and cheese in a corn tortilla. It should have been perfect. The perfect taco and that simple cup of coffee that I had been fantasizing about back in Italy. It tasted good – great – but I wished that it wasn’t so hot outside. I wasn’t used to heat anymore. Heat had become hostile to me. I wished the sun was softer.

And I thought about how nice and unusual it was that everywhere here takes credit cards.

How pleasant that people here dress more casually.

How interesting to see how huge the stores are and how much sugar everything has in it.

How everybody drives. Everywhere.

I was looking at things like an outsider.

‘Is the taco everything you hoped for?’ the other fellow asked and I nodded.

But that was a lie.

What I wanted from that meal was the feeling that I belonged, that I was returning to somewhere I easily fit.

But the cream from the coffee sat heavy in my stomach. America wasn’t somewhere I felt totally at home. The realization was physically painful. Like trying on a favorite sweater (or ‘jumper’, if you prefer) only to notice that it has shrunk in the wash. Or that you’ve grown out of it.

Either way, it isn’t the same.

*

I googled ‘Homesickness’ and found an article which called it the ‘distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home. Its cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects.’

Is coffee an attachment object? When I was in Italy, I couldn’t stop craving American coffee and breakfast tacos. Sunlight and avocado. And, if so, does that mean America is still my home? Or, at least, one of my homes?

Yet, now that I’m in America, I can’t stop thinking about Scotland. The sound of the kettle boiling. The bubbles rising in a pint of cider. The rain on bay windows.

Is homesickness always a transitory state? What happens if you feel it more frequently? Is it possible to live in a permanent state of homesickness? To be a little bit homesick all the time?

*

Since I moved away to live in Scotland, I’ve gained so much. A broadened perspective of the world. A slightly more informed, slightly more objective, look at the culture that I left behind. Friends whose backgrounds are wholly different than mine. That excitement when I hear a funny word or slang phrase I’ve never encountered. Numpty. Dreich.

But what I’ve lost is a foothold in one specific culture. I’m now an interesting novelty in Scotland and in America. In Europe, people will always point out when I say ‘y’all’. In America, people will always notice how my sense of style is more ‘European’. I’m not rooted in either place anymore, but treading the strange waters between two continents.

And I’m fortunate, I know. Fortunate to have moved oversees for university. To be able to fly back and forth, every now and then. This fact I know. I think of it often and I’m grateful.

But this week has been a difficult one.

Not only homesick for Scotland, missing the rhythms of my life, my flat, my partner, my university, my friends. But also mourning the fact that America is no longer a place of ritual comfort, no longer a place I totally and effortlessly fit.

This is made all the more difficult with the knowledge that, due to immigration laws and difficulty finding a job, I might be forced to move back to America after my PhD. It all depends.

I am treading water between two cultures. I have a book spread open on my lap about the old south. I’m trying to root myself in the history of a place that is at once is so familiar and so unfamiliar to me. At the same time, I’m receiving texts from my friends in Scotland. A place at once home and yet always brimming with words, jokes, dynamics I’ll never know.

Sometimes I miss rain and bay windows.

Sometimes sunlight, tall coffee, avocados.