Touch by Claire North: reviewed by Natalie Denny


‘Do you like what you see?’

Imagine you could change bodies at will, experience life in whatever human form you pleased. Would you?

Claire North’s Touch allows us to explore this idea through Kepler, a ‘ghost’ who can ‘jump’ into any body by mere skin to skin contact. Kepler and kin are possessing entities born into human bodies that experienced violent trauma, triggering a powerful impulse to cling to life. In their death throes these souls reach out – leaving their original bodies and jumping into whomever’s they can lay their pores on. Kepler is a special form of ghost, an ‘estate agent’, who is paid handsomely to find host bodies for other souls that share this unique ability.

We follow Kepler from the first terrifying jump and back and forth through a mesmerising ride through history. We are hurled in at the midst of the action from the outset. Kepler is in love with Josephine, a willing host body that Kepler rents for a considerable sum. The death of Josephine at the hands of a skilled assassin fuels a race against time to unmask Aquarius, the organisation that has made its mission to eradicate Kepler’s kind. We meet others like Kepler; most memorable is the lunatic Galileo who uses ghosting skills to wreak havoc and destruction across the world in an attempt to taunt Kepler. Galileo engages Kelper in a dangerous game of hide and seek, utilising Aquarius to destroy the ghost with Machiavellian precision.

Touch is a fast-paced existential thriller with an original concept. The book deals with issues of love, mortality, identity, and the essence of self. On the ghost’s exit, the hosts are minus the memory of the time they were being ‘worn’, which highlights many ethical issues around survival and consent. Kepler is gender fluid throughout, and the book deals with love and relationships in a very inclusive and thought-provoking way. This is the kind of book that keeps you constantly engaged and questioning the main character as well as yourself.

There’s little doubt that Kepler is a monster who uses people with little regard to their welfare but somehow we are sympathetic.

Claire North’s attention to detail is excellent and the grand finale of the book will keep you gripped until the last page. For me, it doesn’t triumph the marvel that was The First Fifteen lives of Harry August, but it is a book that stands proud in its own right. My only criticism would be that I thought the book could elaborate in many areas such as the origins of these bodiless souls.

Overall it is a gripping, poignant, breathlessly imaginative read that was difficult to put down.


Inky Interview with Mike Gayle by David G. Thorne

mike gayle pic

Previously an Agony Uncle, Mike Gayle is a freelance journalist who has contributed to a variety of magazines including FHM, Sunday Times Style and Cosmopolitan. He is the author of ten best-selling novels: My Legendary Girlfriend, Mr Commitment, Turning Thirty, Dinner For Two, His ‘n’ Hers, Brand New Friend, Wish You Were Here, The Life and Soul of the Party, The Importance of Being a Bachelor, and the latest The Stag and Hen Weekend. His ninth book is a non-fiction work called The To Do List, about his own efforts to complete a 1277-item To Do List.

How do you feel about your books being included in the ‘chick lit’ genre? Do you think male romantic fiction deserves a title of it’s own, and what would that be?

There are up and down sides to being included in any genre whether it’s literary fiction, crime or indeed Chick lit. On the one hand it helps to deliver an audience to authors who may not be particularly well known and who otherwise might have struggled to find a readership. On the downside the effect can be quite limiting in terms of its effect on the author’s output but also in terms of readership too. I’ve lost count of the number of times new readers have told me that they’d avoided my books because they thought they were one thing and only realised how wrong they were when they finally forgot about preconceived notions and just picked up the books. In an ideal world there wouldn’t be genre there would just be good books and people would be open to the idea of reading books about anything at all.

Before you wrote My Legendary Girlfriend, you did a lot of writing for magazines. Was it a difficult transition from writing factual articles to writing a novel? 

It was actually a lot easier than you’d imagine. As a journalist I’d long since grown tired of writing what editors wanted me to write and so the opportunity to explore my own imagination couldn’t have been more welcome. As for going from writing 1000 word articles to 90,000 word novels it was simply the case of breaking down the big task of writing a novel into lots of little tasks. People always ask how do you write something as mammoth as a novel and my answer is always the same: write little and often.

Did you get many rejections for My Legendary Girlfriend before it was accepted? And how did you keep up your motivation whilst you were waiting for your ‘big break’?

I’d completed the novel in its entirety before I sent it to agents because that was my primary goal: to prove to myself that I could write a novel. By the time I was ready to send it out I was actually quite confident of the quality of what I’d written and because of that I felt sure it would eventually find a home so you can imagine my disappointment when I received my first rejection letter quickly followed by my second! Thankfully the third letter I received was from someone who actually liked it and so she gave me some very detailed notes and we worked together on making it the best book it could be.

Can you give us a few insights into the way you approach writing a novel, after you’ve had the initial idea? As creative writing students, we’re encouraged to carry notebooks with us at all times to jot down of ideas. Is this something that you do?

It’s a great idea but like most great ideas has positive and negative attributes. The negative is that it leads you to think that everything you write in it is a sharp insight into the human condition and not the product of someone who has a new note book and wants to write in it! The positive is that when you do have a moment of genuine insight it helps to write it down rather than (as I have done) convince yourself that it’s so profound a thought that it will NEVER leave you and then promptly forget about it when you come to your next writing session.

You have a strong internet presence with your website as well as Facebook and Twitter, and seem keen to interact with your fans. How important do you think social networking is to the modern author?

I think it’s essential but then again I think interacting with your audience has always been fundamental. As a teenager I was a huge fan of the band The Wedding Present and they were the most approachable band you could ever hope to meet. Everything I do I pretty much nicked from them. Being approachable, being interested in your readership engenders a two-way feeling of community that can be positively infectious. Who doesn’t want to belong to a club where everyone thinks you’re ace?

Your website contains a lot of tips for anyone hoping to get published, but what is the single most important piece of advice you  would give to an aspiring novelist hoping to follow in your footsteps? What is the most useful piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer?

I’ve already told you it: Write little and write often. Too often new writers set themselves targets that are simply too high. Better to write 500 words and be desperate to get back to your desk the following day then 2000 and fill with dread at the sight of the computer. Writing is a habit. Cultivate it correctly and you’ll never want to stop.

I loved Turning Thirty – it reminded me so much of my own life and circle of friends, but I was a little bit disappointed that Matt and Ginny didn’t get together at the end. Do you think it’s important to occasionally  upset readers expectations like this?

I think you have to do what’s right for the story and for me the main story of Turning Thirty was an attempt to answer the question ‘is it okay to turn thirty and still not have your life sorted?’ For me there could only ever be one answer and that’s why Matt’s still single at the end of the book. That said I do think it’s important to challenge your readers, they might not always like it but I think they do tend to respect it.

You’ve now also written Turning Forty. Can you tell us when this is due to be published, and what was it that made you want to revisit those characters?

Turning Forty is due out June 2013 and has probably been the most difficult novel I’ve ever had to write. I actually finished a draft that I’d spent a year working on back in 2010 but ended up dumping the whole thing because it just didn’t feel right. It was quite traumatic at the time but it was absolutely the right thing to do because sometimes even if you plan you, you only find out what a book’s about by finding out what it’s not about. The new version couldn’t be more different to the previous version, in fact the only thing it has in common is the title and the characters, but it’s absolutely the right story. I absolutely love it and can’t wait for fans of Turning Thirty to get hold of it.

Your latest novel The Stag and Hen Weekend is quite unusual in that it’s really two novels which can be read from front to back or from back to front. How did you come up with this idea, and what did your publishers think when you told them?

I knew that I wanted to write about a stag and hen weekend but didn’t want to write a story that was too obvious. I tried looking at it a million different ways and then finally my wife came up with the idea and the moment she said it I knew that she’d got it. I suppose what that shows is that it’s good to talk about your ideas with the people closest to you but be prepared for their eyes to glaze over once in a while! My publishers loved the idea and immediately rose to the challenge of turning out a book with two covers which is no mean feat!

We see that you liked ‘Late Lunch’, we loved that too? We love Great British Bake Off too and celebrate our writing milestones with cake. How do you celebrate when a book is published?

Ha! I’d forgotten that I mentioned Late Lunch on the website! I used to love that programme. I think I’ve only ever had one proper launch party and lovely as it was I’d rather my publisher spent the money on advertising rather than feeding and watering my friends and family! These days publishers prefer to stick to a nice lunch for the author which I for one am a huge fan of.

Ink Pantry would like to thank Mike Gayle for his time, we appreciate him agreeing to be interviewed for our blog. Mike’s latest novel, The Stag and Hen Weekend, is available now, published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Find out more about at


Inky Special: Claire North book signing by Natalie Denny

Clare north pic

I attended the book signing event for Claire North at Deansgate’s Waterstones. This was to promote her most recent novel Touch, a story about an entity called Kepler that can switch bodies through skin to skin contact. The book has a wonderfully imagined concept and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Claire North, actual name, Catherine Webb, who also goes by the pseudonym of Kate Griffin, is a prolific yet brilliant writer, her experience spans over ten years despite her being under thirty.

Claire North’s first novel, written as Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August gained critical acclaim on its release in 2014. Touch is the highly anticipated follow up.

It was quite a small gathering that greeted the author at the bookstore, which allowed for a more intimate event. Claire was charmingly eccentric and engaging. Her enthusiasm for her craft was evident in her language and descriptions. Claire delivered a timeline of her writing career to give us some background on herself, which brought us to the current day and novel.

It was interesting to learn that Claire is also a trained theatre lighting engineer as well as a talented writer. She claims that all writers are crazy, which comes from experience of being raised by two. She stated her lighting job helps maintain her sanity while her writing indulges it.

She took questions on Touch‘s themes around gender, sexuality, love and all those existential ideas that propel humans forward. The concept of the book is original and intriguing. The idea came to Claire when watching someone walk through a park and disappear when they stepped out of the lamplight into darkness to then reappear again.

Claire spoke about the future of the book industry and the positives and negatives of self-publishing. She also spoke about feminism and her support for women in male-dominated professions.

When asked what her favourite novel she’d written is, she diplomatically responded. Whatever one she’s finished last seems to be high in her esteem as she believes each story brings with it a different feeling and achievement.

Claire happily signed my copy of Touch and posed for a picture.

Claire has finished ‘The Gamehouse Novellas’, which are out now, and has a further publication due for release in the New Year, which I will keep my eye out for.

Clare north pic

Poetry Drawer: There is a River by Raine Geoghegan

River Itchen

There is a river
running between us,

wide and deep.
It is dark when I look into it,

like your face.
I long to jump in,

swim across
to where you are

stand dripping before you,
but the current is strong

the rocks jagged,
I want to look into your eyes,

trace the light in them
but my feet are stuck in mud

Here on the riverbank
my legs won’t move.

My words are stones

sinking to the bottom of the river


Raine’s Website

Poetry Drawer: The Last Day by Raine Geoghegan (for my father James Charles Hill)

Poetry Drawer: Sunday Mornings by Raine Geoghegan

Inky Interview with OU tutor Emily Midorikawa by Tina Williams

Emily Midorikawa (2)

Hi Emily, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
Thanks for asking me. I am a writer and writing tutor, living in London. My most recent published work was a piece of travel writing set in Spain, which won the Telegraph’s weekly Just Back competition. I’ve also just finished a short memoir for the Tangled Roots project, which I’ll say more about later, and I am heavily into the editing stages of my second novel. When I’m not writing or teaching, I enjoy reading, and dancing, and riding around the city on the back of my partner’s motorcycle.

We must mention your first novel, A Tiny Speck of Black and Then Nothing, which came joint third in the SI Leeds Literary Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Yeovil Literary Prize. How did the story of Anna and Loll come about, and how much of your own experiences of Japan are in the finished book?

A Tiny Speck of Black and then Nothing ended up coming third in the Yeovil Literary Prize too, which was another bit of good luck. The beginnings of the novel’s story began to form in my mind while I was working in Japan in my early twenties, teaching English to high school students. The narrator Anna is also an English teacher, but my time in Japan was, thankfully, rather less creepy than hers eventually becomes. For the record: I never lived with a nightclub hostess, had a friend disappear, or found myself caught up in the criminal underworld of Ōsaka. On a different note, the traditional tales that my Japanese mother used to tell me were another huge influence that found its way into my book.

Do you have a preferred writing genre given that you have written novels, short stories, and non-fiction?

Novel writing is what I get up and do most days, but I enjoy writing non-fiction and short stories in gaps between drafts or just breaks when I need to take a breather from my main project. Shorter pieces can provide variety, but that isn’t to say that I find them any easier. I’ll sometimes write a short story in a single sitting, but it can take me months, even years, to get it into a respectable shape.

You are also an experienced tutor at City University London, New York University in London, and with the Open University. How do you schedule writing time into your day?
I write in the mornings and do other things – like teaching or admin or the ironing – in the afternoons. It wasn’t always like this. I’ve had all sorts of jobs in the past, working as a bookseller, a dental receptionist and a secretary amongst other things. I didn’t used to have this level of control over my time, but now I’ve reached the stage with my writing and my other jobs that I can organise my life in this way.
What are your favourite books and which authors have inspired you?

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller, What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn and The Secret History by Donna Tartt are novels I could read again and again. Underground, in which Haruki Murakami interviews witnesses and survivors of Aum Shinrikyō’s sarin gas attack on the Tōkyō subway system, provides some fascinating insights into contemporary Japanese society. I’ve noticed that Murakami is very good at drawing out the extraordinary details of seemingly ordinary lives. The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon is another favourite, as is anything by Jean Rhys. I first read her when I was sixteen, and after that I never thought about the art of writing in quite the same way again.

Many of our followers are Open University students and/or aspiring writers themselves. Can you offer one piece of advice that you have been given or that you give your students to help stay motivated?
Keep reading and keep writing: it might sound as if I’m stating the obvious, but both of these things are so important. If you were a violin player, you couldn’t expect to be much good if you never found the time to hear other violinists playing, or didn’t bother with any practice yourself. It’s the same for a writer. Your writing can become hesitant and laborious if you don’t keep it up. Even if all you can manage is a matter of minutes per day, that’s better than doing nothing.

Is there anything you are working on at the moment that you would like to tell us about?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve just put the finishing touches to ‘The Memory Album’, a piece that I was commissioned to write for Tangled Roots – a project of stories and events that celebrate multi-racial families and mixed-race people in Yorkshire. It is being organised by the writer Katy Massey. When she got in touch to ask me to be involved, I jumped at the chance play a part in such a worthwhile scheme. You can find out more about the project at

Once again, thank you, Emily, for your time.

Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.



Inky Interview with Christina S Johnson by Lesley Proctor



Christina is based in Georgia in the United States.  Hello Christina and thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.  You’re a full time educator, a published writer, a mum and a creative writing student.  How do you manage to fit it all in? 

There is something I learned recently. It’s called the Law of Priorities. It means the important things are the things which will get done, while the things which are less important will not. “Sleep” has fallen down this list terribly in the last year.  Ironic that my novel is even called Slumbering! Of course, there are a lot of people who help me out, too. People who look like they have it all have a lot of people behind them. No man is an island, but plenty of us out there are icebergs.

Your first novel, The Starlight Chronicles: Slumbering, is out now.  Tell us about it and how you got published.

It’s an epic fantasy novel, and the first in a series which follows the hero’s journey. It centres on the life of Hamilton Dinger, a narcissistic teenager who is reluctant to save his city from danger after he finds out he is a ‘fallen star,’ and capable of supernatural abilities. Slumbering describes his origins as a ‘superhero,’ emphasizing his call to belief and adventure. The mix of Tetris, schoolwork, and teen culture just makes it more fun and confusing and awkward.

I entered into a manuscript writing contest from Munce Magazine, sponsored by Thomas Nelson and WestBow Press. I won second place, and publication resulted.

How would you describe your writing style?

Witty-whimsical is the term I most frequently use to describe my writing style; it’s too fluffy to be completely ironic. My goal as a writer is to get people to think without allowing them to realize it.

The hero in Slumbering is Hamilton Dinger.  Dinger has a high opinion of himself, hasn’t he?!  How did you come up with him? 

I started writing the story while I was in high school. I was not popular.  I say this because there are some out there who would easily see themselves in my portrayal of the ‘ultimate popular guy,’ but the truth is much worse than they think it is: Hamilton is modelled after me. He’s smart, intelligent, and competitive. He is goal-oriented, determined, and largely logical.  He is also ambitious, manipulative, and sceptical of most things.  However unlike me, Hamilton has confidence and charisma. I joke with people all the time that it’s a good idea I don’t have much of either of those things, or I’d have taken on the world by now.

After talking to a range of people who read Slumbering prior to publication, the teenagers and young adults loved Hamilton, even if he is completely all about himself; it was the adults who didn’t like him! Sadly the ‘tragedy of youth’ is just that: we believe life to be all about ourselves. And my own personal growth in that area can be seen throughout the changes to the story: my first draft was mostly about revenge, for people like Hamilton being mean to me. But it ended up being an act of restoration in the end. As a person, and a Christian, it is my hardest challenge to love people where they’re at, rather than who they were meant to be. Seeing Hamilton’s beginnings, and working my way through to his end, it made all the difference in the world to me.  It was life-changing to fall in love with him.

Did you find teenage dialogue difficult to represent?

It was a little hard. I remember a great deal of it, and turns out my college education was worth something, having worked in several high schools as a teacher. But teen communication is something which is hard to keep up with! Communication changes every day, and teenagers are the gatekeepers to language, whether they realize it or not.

You published a charitable anthology for Sandy Hook with your fellow MA Creative Writing students from Southern New Hampshire University.  What was the theme and how did you get on working collaboratively with others?

Our anthology has a theme of heroism despite reality, largely with a paranormal twist. The ‘mild-mannered werewolf accountant saving a child from a burning building’ was the example sum-up we were given by our project leader, Patrick Donovan. He’s really the one who is responsible for getting us together and editing it all for us. We also had a couple of great professors chime in to help.

Your latest novel, Soul Descent, is an adult thriller.  We’d love to hear about it. 

It’s currently awaiting judgment on (would love some votes!)  Having experienced bullying myself at school, both as a teacher and a student, I began to wonder why all the people who go into schools and shoot everyone were boys. Don’t girls need a ‘hero’ like that too? (That’s the irony talking.)

Seeing some of the statistics on rape, bullying, and cyber-bullying in particular, I was outraged. Reading news reports about teen girls getting drugged then raped bring this out too. And thus, Scrags, my protagonist, was born. She has been bullied for years – and the trick is you never really know exactly why.  She is teased for her skin, her weight, her sexual orientation, learning disorder, gender, etc. Then something terrible (terrible terrible!) happens.  She watches the subsequent outpouring of pictures, texts, emails, teasing and then the unfolding of everything that follows it. Anti-spoiler alert! I’m not going to tell what it is.

You have said that ‘the rise of zombies is more real than people know.’  Care to elaborate? (Should we be worried?)

Zombies are walking among us now. In fact, they are us! Think about it. Insomnia and sleep conditions are on the rise (zombie = the living dead, insomniacs = the sleeping wakers).  These are tied to physical as well as mental side effects including depression, irritability and purposelessness. The body needs sleep to look great – doesn’t your skin seem greyer when you stay up late?

The majority of people who hate their jobs/situations automatically go on auto-pilot. Communication is harder than ever despite the accessibility and availability of communication devices. People are desensitized to pain and suffering. We thirst for violence when stressed out; caffeine is the only thing keeping a lot of us from cannibalism some days. A lot of us feel dead inside.

What does all this add up to? The ultimate surprise zombie attack: our own bodies waging war against humanity!  If you can relate to at least two or three of those statements, you know what I’m talking about. We are being zombified by the busyness of our culture.

Share with us some of your favourite books.

Harry Potter series, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Mere Christianity, Out of the Silent Planet,

Star Wars series, Hunger Games series, A Ring of Endless Light, Till We Have Faces, Blue Like Jazz, Astronomy for Dummies, Firebird trilogy

Thanks for taking part Christina, and good luck with all your writing projects.


Inky Interview with OU tutor Ian Nettleton by Lesley Proctor

Ian Nettleton

Ian Nettleton has been named as the 2014 Bath Novel Award runner up and the Peggy Chapman-Andrews (Bridport First Novel) Award runner-up.  Ian is an experienced creative writing tutor, teaching with the Open University as well as other institutions.  He has also written and presented for the BBC and co-written an independent short film.  Ian is interviewed by Lesley Proctor.

Hello Ian and congratulations on your success with your novel, The Last Migration.  Please tell us what it is about and what inspired you to write it. 

Thanks. Well, the main plotline is about two naïve brothers living in an outback town who are asked by a retired gangster to bring back a cousin of his who has run off with a week’s takings from his nightclub. It’s an adventure/thriller novel, for the most part – the elder brother messes up and kills the gangster’s cousin, and the younger brother, Lee, has to go on the run to Melbourne. It was initially inspired by an anecdote about a friend of mine who hit a dead deer in his car, one night. As is often the way, the tale changed and changed till I had a couple finding a burnt out car with two bodies. I didn’t know why the car was there till I dreamt about these two brothers. That was a gift. The dream was like a film. I saw the brothers so clearly that it was easy to write about them because they already existed imaginatively for me.

The Last Migration is set in the Australian outback and was judged to be “is a well-crafted novel, using spare prose to evoke a powerful sense of place”.  How integral was setting to the overall novel?

Very. I saw the location in a cinematic way. The outback is pretty raw. There are roads that lead into the desert and it’s easy to get lost out there. This seemed to fit with the awful moral situation the brothers find themselves in and since the novel is like a road movie, I needed the long roads between towns that you don’t get in the UK. The sandstorm at the end is also a way of adding a dramatic, elemental finale. Well, I hope that’s what it does.

How long did the novel take to write?

I’d been writing scraps for a while, but it really got underway in 2006, after I revisited Australia. So, aside from some additions last year, the novel took around five years to write.

Are the names of your characters important?  Do you find names easy to come up with?  

Sometimes, but sometimes not. Sometimes a name will just seem immediately appropriate. It’s easy to name someone in a way that undermines plausibility.

Which Open University courses have you taught, and what do you find rewarding about teaching this subject?

I’ve taught the now-defunct three month introductory course (A174), and currently teach on A215 and A363. Teaching on A363 has been very interesting, because it opens the writing process up to other genres – screen, stage and radio. This has helped with my writing. Meanwhile, there is a lot of satisfaction in seeing writers develop their craft. I get to be involved in people’s development and their pleasure at achieving new levels of creativity. That’s a very rewarding experience for me.

Many Ink Pantry readers are aspiring writers.  What do you find is the most common mistake made by new writers?

One of the most common ones is beginning in the wrong place. New writers’ stories often start with an everyday situation, like waking up in bed or looking in a bathroom mirror. There’s nothing wrong with establishing the everyday, but the reader wants a reason for reading on – the promise of a story. I often find a story submitted to me really gets going half way down page two. My advice is to lop off those first paragraphs and drop the reader into the events. Then worry about establishing the everyday once you’ve got the reader’s attention.

Creative writing students are often encouraged to keep a daily journal in order to develop the writing habit.  Do you keep a journal, and do you use it daily?

No, not really. I use a small book to write fiction in and I carry it about with me and I occasionally note things I observe and overhear. I should do more of this. To be honest, though, I think every writer has to find their own route to effective writing.

Please tell us what you are working on at the moment.

I’m having fun at the moment working on a novel about a boy whose father is an exorcist’s assistant. It’s actually inspired by some of my childhood experiences, and I’ve thrown in a dangerous escaped criminal and a satanic cult. The usual, everyday stuff.

Finally, which books do you enjoy reading?

This varies. I enjoy books that are full of jeopardy and really rattle along but more than that, I need the writing to be beautifully phrased. Plot is only one element. Excellent descriptions, layered dialogue and strong characterisation are what keep me reading. So I’ll enjoy a Cormac McCarthy as much as a John McGahern or an Annie Proulx. Ultimately I love fiction that is somewhere between literary and popular.

Thanks your time and the helpful weblinks, Ian.  We wish you continued success with your writing.


Picture by Martin Figura


Books from the Pantry: Desiring Dragons by Kevan Manwaring reviewed by Lesley Proctor



Kevan Manwaring has taught creative writing with the Open University and elsewhere for many years.  He is also a writer and performance story-teller.  He draws on these skills in this guide for aspiring Fantasy writers.

Manwaring states at the outset that Desiring Dragons is not another ‘How to Write…’ book.  Kevan believes a bedrock of knowledge is a pre-requisite to writing Fantasy.  In his experience many student writers produce weak, emulative work from lack of understanding; they ‘copy the shadows on the cave wall; without having a full gnosis of what drives their creation’.

In the first part of Desiring Dragons, using Tolkien as his guide, Manwaring defines and explores Fantasy fiction.  He is keen to distinguish between the works of respected authors such as Tolkien and poorer imitators.  He traces the genre back through time to its roots in story-telling and legend, pointing out that the Gilgamesh, believed to be the first story to be written down, is ‘epic Fantasy of the highest calibre’. Manwaring also considers the function Fantasy serves in our lives. For example, he suggests our desire for Fantasy it is to do with the German idea of sehnsucht; a profound longing for some intangible, indefinable other.

The second part of Desiring Dragons is where Manwaring deals with the processes of writing, this time using the ninth century poem Beowulf as his point of reference.  In this section the student writer embarks on Manwaring’s ‘Writer’s Quest’. They become ‘quester’, armed with a pen as their ‘weapon of magic’.  Each chapter ends with a series of writing activities, or ‘questings’.  These are designed to motivate student writers and to unlock their imaginations.

The third and final section is ‘The Dragon’s Hoard’.  This treasure trove of essays includes a consideration of our fascination with dragons, the acquisition of ‘mythic literacy’, and the ways in which creative writing is associated with well-being (imagination ‘is a spiritual vitamin’).  There is also a discussion on genre and what this means for writers, readers and publishers.  Manwaring closes with a comprehensive list of suggested further reading.

I have no great understanding of Fantasy fiction, but it is clear to me that Manwaring’s knowledge is broad and deep.  It is a book that can be dipped into, or read as a whole.  It will be re-read with enjoyment and the writing exercises will be returned to for inspiration and motivation.  While it is a scholarly book, it is also playful.  In the opening chapters Manwaring invites into his fantasy world asking us to imagine we are following a ‘gruff donnish magician into the Perilous Forest – the glow of his pipe in the gloaming our only guide’.   I believe Manwaring to be that beguiling, learned magician.

Desiring Dragons is out now and can be ordered via the following link;


Inky Interview with OU tutor Kevan Manwaring by Lesley Proctor


Kevan Manwaring is a writer, storyteller and performance poet.  He has also taught on all three Open University creative writing modules.  Other projects include The Cotswolds Word Centre.

To start off, please tell us a little about where you are based.

I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Cotswolds – I moved here end of 2010. It is a small town with a great community feel – and a vibrant creative scene. There are a lot of poets, storytellers, writers, musicians, free-thinkers, etc. The ‘Green’ scene is big, and it’s surrounded by gorgeous countryside, where I love to walk.

Having taught A174, A215 and A363, what do you find most rewarding about teaching with the OU?

When I see a student have a breakthrough – when something sinks in, the penny drops (in terms of the theory); or comes together (in terms of their practice). When I hear of a student’s success, eg publication or winning a competition (I’ve had students get book deals with major
publishers and win national competitions). With some students returning for A363 I’ve seen them develop over two academic years – so it’s satisfying to see this fuller arc and the development of their writing.

Many of the Ink Pantry staff and its readers are budding writers.  What would you say is the most common mistake new creative writers make?

Overwriting (in terms of density of style, purple prose, exposition, etc).
Under-writing (in terms of not writing every day and not writing the thousands and thousands of words you need to hone your practice).

In poetry: focusing on the meaning of the words, rather than the sounds.

In prose: poor structure, viewpoint slippage, and lack of telling detail. Most good writing comes down to sufficient visualisation. So many stories I read/assess seem ‘out of focus’ – and it’s frustrating, as you know something interesting is happening there, but you’re cut off from it. As someone who trained in art originally this has fed into my writing. I have a very visual imagination – experiencing cinematic dreams most nights! – and I write what I see in my mind’s eye. You need to make it vivid for the reader.

You were commissioned in 2010 by The History Press to work on a collection of folk tales.  Why do you think it is important to preserve folk tales?

Well, in the risk of being pedantic this project was more about reviving folk tales – rather than preserving them in an academic, set-in-amber, way (if it is possible to capture an authentic definitive telling, as each teller does it differently). The History Press commissioned professional storytellers like myself to gather together the best tale of our chosen county and, critically, retell them in our own words, with a sense of orality – i.e. for  performance; not that these are verbatim transcripts, but they capture the flavour of a live telling and the style of a particular teller/author. Many were cobbled together from fragments of local history, folklore, archaeology, field-work and imagination – so they were very distinctive creations, rather than ‘historically accurate’ versions. Being a writer rather than an anthropologist, this creative freedom engaged me more. I had the opportunity to write 80 short stories – and that’s how I approached them.

A couple of the Ink Pantry team members have been asked to perform their own poetry at special events.  We’d love some pointers on how to capture an audience when performing poetry.

From early on as a performance poet I quickly realised that if you made an effort to learn your poem off by heart then you’re going to gain the respect and attention of the audience more than just reading it. Plus you can maintain eye contact, use both hands, and not have any barrier between you and your audience. Other tips – cut the pre-amble, don’t apologise, project. Connect to the core emotion of your poem and transmit that to the audience. Enjoy yourself!

One of your recent projects led to a show called ‘Tales of Lust, Infidelity and Bad Living’.  This sounds like something we should hear more about!

This was a show based upon my life. No, seriously, it was one of a series of performances based upon The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop. Bath Literature Festival wanted to create a series of storytelling performances of the ballads and that was the one that happened to still be available. I performed it in the Guildhall in Bath – there were a lot of French language students in the audience, who seemed to like it!

There are a lot of sexual politics in those traditional ballads – something I’m exploring in my new show, The Snake and the Rose (based upon my two folk tales collections) in collaboration with my partner Chantelle Smith who is a folksinger.

You are behind the Cotswold Word Centre initiative.  Please tell us about the Centre and the philosophy behind it.

It is a platform for language, literacy and literature based at Hawkwood College, near Stroud. We launched on World Book Day this year and our patron is novelist Jamila Gavin. The idea is to provide a focus for the plethora of spoken and written word-based activity in the area: poetry readings, book launches, storytelling cafes, writing workshops, literary rambles, showcases, competitions, small presses, and so on. It is early days yet – but there’s some exciting stuff in the pipeline. Folk can find out more by following the link below.

You have said your new book, Desiring Dragons Creativity, Imagination & The Writer’s Quest, is the culmination of 13 years’ teaching creative writing.  What kind of things will readers learn from the book?

They will have to read it! But it’s more about process rather than particular techniques. I didn’t want to write another ‘how to’ book, of which there are many (some better than others). It explores the creative process; and strategies for what I call ‘long distance writing’. Many writing courses focus on teaching skills that will lead (hopefully) to publication – but what happens after that? How can you keep going through the long-haul of writing a novel (or several – as someone who wrote a five-volume series, The Windsmith Elegy, over ten years)? Through the ups and downs of a writing life – the setbacks and successes? This is for the writer who wants to be a ‘marathon runner’ rather than a ‘sprinter’.

Finally, you are organising a symposium on the Dymock Poets this year.  Our readers would be interested in hearing more about this event.
The Dymock Poets, as they became known, were a group of friends who gathered in a small village in Gloucestershire just before the First World War: Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Rupert Brooke. For a while they enjoyed long walks, cider and poetry, publishing 4 editions of New Numbers (an anthology which included the first publication of ‘The Soldier’: ‘If I should die think only this of me…’). Frost and Thomas mutually empowered each other to go on to become the great poets we see them as today. When War was declared the Dymocks’ idyll was irrevocably shattered. Frost and his family returned to America. Thomas and Brooke went off to war and did not return. I wanted to celebrate the centenary of their creative fellowship – on the eve of the First World War when they gathered in Dymock (June-July 1914). I have co-organised (along with poet Jay Ramsay) a day-long symposium in Stroud on Saturday 26th July. We have some great talks throughout the day and in the evening, a showcase of modern Gloucestershire writers responding to the themes of the Dymocks. It is this creative response to conflict that interests me more than the whole glorification of War thing. You can book through the Stroud Subscription Rooms website. I find the Dymock Poets story touching and inspiring – to the point of co-writing a feature-length screenplay about them. At the moment, it looks like a drama-documentary will be made. Anyone interested in the Dymock Poets should check out the Friends of the Dymock Poets site:   Many thanks to Kevan for taking the time to speak to Ink Pantry.  Links to Kevan’s books and some of the projects he is involved in can be found below.

Cotswold Word Centre: a platform for language, literacy, and literature

Inky Interview with Ali Hepburn


Ali Hepburn page photo

Can you tell our readers a little something about the piece that you have had published in Fields of Words?

The first of my pieces to feature in ‘Fields of Words’ is the poem ‘The Crow People’. It was inspired by Quentin Blake’s book, ‘The Life of Birds’, which features illustrations of numerous anthropomorphic avian species. ‘Exit Fragments’ is my second piece to feature and is a work of fiction inspired by my fascination for the Arctic.

When it comes to writing, what is your preferred genre?

On the whole, I tend to write dramatic fiction, but there is usually a tendency for speculative or fantastic elements to creep in!I

Why do you write? Who or what inspires you?

I write as a way to explore my imagination; I’m constantly conjuring up new worlds and new characters in my head and I need write them down before I lose them.

As a writer it is also important to be a reader. What are you reading right now? What are some of your favourite books?

Currently, I’m reading ‘The Eyre Affair’ by Jasper Fforde. My favourite books include ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and anything by J.R.R. Tolkien, Iain Banks or Neil Gaiman.

Which of the Open University creative writing course have you taken, and what are your thoughts about them? Any advice for future students?

I have taken both A174 and A215. My advice for future students is to write lots – even if some of what you produce isn’t your best work, it could still be useful for drawing ideas from in the future. Don’t throw anything away; I’ve still got everything I’ve written since I was three years old.

Tell us one interesting fact about yourself!

I like to run around the countryside with a cloak and a sword in my spare time.

Five Favourite Things. Tell us your favourite meal, movie, song, colour and place!

Meal: Venison steak. Movie: Pan’s Labyrinth. Song: ‘Rainy Night House’ by Joni Mitchell. Colour: Indigo. Place: Lochinver, Sutherland.

Share with us what you are currently working on.

I’m currently working on a collection of poetry.


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