In these twelve short stories, Barbara Bleiman explores the significance of a kiss in the lives of multiple characters. From Renaissance Italy to a prostitute’s bedroom in contemporary London, from the USSR under Brezhnev to a 1970s package holiday in Spain, from a hospital ward today to a ‘bubble’ far in the future, the stories adopt different voices and genres, creating a kaleidoscope of contrasting angles and styles.
Inspired by Chekhov’s iconic short story, ‘The Kiss’, this richly varied collection – wistful, sensual, painful and at times quirky and comical– appeals both to the head and the heart.
Bleiman’s precise, economical prose vividly evokes a remarkable variety of characters, situations, emotions, times and places.
I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in these rich slices of life.
I’ve always loved short fiction. When I went to my interview at Birkbeck for a Creative Writing MA, over a decade ago, I had in my bag Flannery O’Connor’s collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. It was my talisman. I’d always loved the way O’Connor married emotional truthfulness and precise detail about a specific region, the deep south of America, with something more strange, mysterious and full of wonder. I entered the world she created and, on the final page of each story, I remained there long after closing the book. There was always more than met the eye, a conundrum or a human puzzle, a question left unanswered, a marvelling at the oddness (yet unsurprisingness) of human life and behaviour. As O’Connor herself said in her writing about fiction, a story is not a story if it can be summed up, if its ‘theme’ can be announced plainly, as if it were an argument. For her, fiction is all about ‘mystery and manners’. Fiction cannot be fully explained.
At that Birkbeck interview, I was asked why I had applied and what I wanted to learn. The answer was quite simple; I wanted to know how to tell, withhold and reveal, and how much, in other words how to get that fine balance that writers like O’Connor and Alice Munro and William Trevor achieve, seemingly so effortlessly, between the reader knowing too little and knowing too much.
In my MA dissertation I decided to submit a collection of short stories, inspired by reading Chekhov’s famous short story ‘The Kiss’. I started to explore the significance of the kiss in many different contexts – something rather taken for granted perhaps in everything other than romantic fiction. The chance to workshop the stories helped me enormously in having a live audience who could respond to drafts. My co-students gave me invaluable feedback on many aspects of my writing, including that most important issue for me, of what to withhold and what to reveal. Some of the stories in my new collection, Kremlinology of Kisses, and the whole concept for the collection, emerged from that work. I then added to these, bit by bit, over time
The stories in Kremlinology of Kisses are all very different. They’re written in multiple styles and voices, in different genres. They span different times and places. They certainly don’t have the stability of setting of Flannery O’Connor’s regional work, or of William Trevor’s Anglo-Irish stories. And yet there’s a common thread to them and a set of ideas about people and their lives that allow the stories speak to each other, as well as to the reader. They explore ideas about intimacy, or the lack of it, about opportunities grasped or missed, about the importance of a kiss and what it might signify. I hope they will provoke questions as much as offering answers and that, like the bowls of porridge, the chairs and the beds in the famous fairy tale, I give away not too little, not too much, but rather what’s just right!
Blue Door Press is pleased to announce the online launch event on December 7th at 8pm, where Barbara will read from the collection and be interviewed by writer, Lawrence Scott. There will also be a Q&A session.
Watch the wonderful launch of Hidden, Annabel Chown’s marvellous new memoir here:
Annabel Chown writes of her launch:
I am no stranger to sudden change, as you’ll discover if you read my memoir, Hidden. Still, I couldn’t quite believe that my beloved London, in which Hidden is mostly set, could be plunged into lockdown. At first, I mourned the absence of a live event; everyone crowded together in the same space, chatting, drinking and hugging. Things that until recently I’d taken for granted.
I realised I needed to create Plan B, as Hidden still deserved its launch. Enter, Zoom. Something I’d not even heard of until March this year. I kept the same format I’d designed for the library: a short reading from Hidden, an interview with my brilliant journalist friend, Paola de Carolis (who normally interviews the likes of Ralph Fiennes!), and the chance for the audience to ask questions.
Of course it was different to a live event. But there were also advantages to having it online. Unlike at the library, there was no limit on numbers. And it was exciting to see a grid of faces on the screen – both familiar and unfamiliar – many of whom could have never attended in person. We had people from as far afield as California, Zurich, Frankfurt and North Yorkshire.
Life has taught me that even the most challenging situations can offer us opportunities we might not otherwise have had. This is a theme of Hidden, and perhaps one for all of us in 2020.
As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, the process of listening to the audiobook of Who Do You Love has been enriching for me, making me return to the text some years after writing it.
Christopher James reads the book more slowly than me, taking his time, giving the narrator’s voice a melancholic, deadpan quality. This works well. As a listener you are given the room to feel the words. It’s made me realise that the book is very pictorial, or at least it has that quality for me. I feel like I am inhabiting the rooms, the streets, the countryside, the coast lines, the different eras of the novel as I listen.
One of things that really struck me was the way the different time zones encountered so far in the novel, 1987 and 2013, act as counter-points. I’ve been watching the Netflix sci-fi horror drama Dark which is, in part, about certain people time-travelling between 2019 and 1986: two eras I’m very familiar with! The Gothic sci-fi is completely different from my realist novel in so many ways, but one thing I’ve felt they’ve shared is that sense of ‘the uncanny’. I suppose this is because Nick is, in so many ways, my alter ego; and it’s a bit like standing outside myself as I listen to the novel being read by someone else. As the great literary theorist Stuart Hall said, ‘This experience of, as it were, experiencing oneself as both subject and object, of encountering oneself from the outside, as another – an other – sort of person next door, is uncanny’.
In Who Do You Love, in 2013, Nick is sacked (from his job) as an Arts Editor at a London listings magazine and can’t find another job; when he learns that a former girlfriend, Ellida, has died, he finds himself remembering his times with her in 1987. In his first ‘remembrance’ (involve him) he recalls how he directed a strange mime play about the 1986 hurricane in a half-destroyed wood on the summer solstice in June 1987. I found Chris’s reading of this section particularly effective because he evokes the different accents of the main characters so well: the emphatic tones of Nick’s friend George, the cheeky-clever voice of Luke, Nick’s other best friend, the Catalan accent of Arnholm, Ellida’s husband – done particularly well I think – and, of course, Ellida herself. Chris manages to make the relationship between Ellida and Nick seem very tender.
Another thing that struck me was just how much it is about different phases of male crisis: at the onset of forming adult relationships in late teens/early twenties, and at the classic ‘mid-life’ point where everything comes into question in your forties. The section where Nick describes the Men’s Group really brought memories back to me of the late 1980s where there was a real focus upon the idea of the ‘new man’; the emotionally literate, caring, responsible man who listened to women. The talk, as I remember it, was all very ‘gendered’. There was both explicitly and implicitly then the assumption that men and women were fundamentally different in so many ways; biologically, neurologically, genetically and psychologically. The idea of the ‘new man’ was that he would be attuned to these differences, not mocking of them, but understanding. But looking back, I believe it brought into play an ‘essentialist’ narrative – that men and women are essentially separate beings – in a way which is strikingly in contrast to essentialist thinking about gender now. Gender determinists now, such as the likes of Jordan Peterson and horrific Incel, are, I would say, virulently, violently misogynistic. The new man movement in contrast trod softly around these issues, and, at its best, questioned such essentialist assumptions, but I think, as the following extract shows, often fell back on tired stereotypes of ‘men being men’ and ‘girls being girls’; I use the word ‘girls’ advisedly here because the word frequently was used to describe women in a patronising way by ‘new men’. Listening to the section about the Men’s group felt quite an accurate account of what I encountered back then.
Here’s the section 8th July 1987:
I showed a draft of this article to the BDP team, who all commented on it in their habitual useful way. Barbara Bleiman made this perceptive point: ‘ Perhaps there are possible implications for all writers, at a drafting stage, when they hear the words they have written being uttered in someone else’s voice? Maybe it’s about realising the extent to which the reader always brings their own interpretation and that a different actor might have brought something quite different to it, illuminating it for you again in other ways.’
Yes, I would agree with this, and it makes think I must get other people to read my work out aloud during the drafting stage in future. It’s not something I’ve done, but I think it’s clearly a valuable exercise and could really help me improve my writing.
I’m writing this blog post on the summer solstice, 20th June 2020, which is an important date in my novel Who Do You Love. In fact, I like to think the events on the summer solstice June 1988 in a Sussex wood, devastated by the hurricane of October 1987, are pivotal in the novel. They are loosely based on real events that happened to me, when I directed and produced a mime play, performed at midnight at that time.
In the novel, the protagonist, Nick is rescued from a bad mushroom trip by Ellida, the passionate Norwegian woman who becomes the love of Nick’s life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Who Do You Love recently because I’m working with actor and voice artist, Christopher James, on an audiobook version of the book. He’s now produced the first fifteen minutes for me, which you can find here:
I hope you’ll agree that he’s read it magnificently! I felt his accent and approach was just right for the narrator Nick: energetic but mournful, which is a difficult combination to get. There’s a sadness, as I see it, in Nick’s voice which he captures well. He also reads the book reasonably slowly and clearly, while maintaining a sense of pace, again this is tricky: you can’t read the novel too fast because the images, the descriptions and the dialogue can be marginalised in a fast reading.
Listening to it was immersive for me. I was actually more present with the book than when I wrote much of it. This said, writing the first draft of it was an enveloping experience: I virtually free-wrote a draft of 120,000 words over the space of six-eight months! I had just started my PhD in Creative Writing with Blake Morrison in 2009-2010; I had got my place on this prestigious programme by proposing another entirely different book, but changed tack when I learnt about the death of a friend. Blake was great because he allowed me to change direction and recognised how I wrote. He let me ‘splurge’ away!
The process of editing and pruning and changing after that was not as hypnotic. I had to have a very critical eye while re-reading what I had written. I must confess editing is not my strongest suit. I can, at times, take the foolish road of publish and be damned, particularly with some of my blogging and journalism!
I have never done this with my fiction, but the temptation is still there. Listening during lockdown to the audio book, I made entry into Nick’s world without that wincing editor’s eye inside my head. This was a rare treat for me. I felt immersed back in the fiction: I was there as Nick gets the news he’s been sacked; I felt for him as he listens to his wife, the New Yorker, Hadley, give him lots of sensible but hard-to-hear advice; and I felt his pain again! This was, I felt, because Chris captured his pain in his voice.
I particularly enjoyed the reading of the second chapter, which is Nick’s memory of the hurricane of October 1987. Chris captures the different voices and accents of the students in this scene beautifully: the dominant, angry George, and the cheeky, clever Luke. This worked well I thought; the reading never strays into parodic student talk in a way some people have complained happens when you read it straight off the page. That’s what a good actor can do: bring a sense of gravity to things that might look a little silly on the page.
I’m very excited to be working on an audio book version of Who Do You Love, my novel which I published with Blue Door Press in 2017.
I have investigated ways of doing this over the years, having a go at reading myself. I found that although I can be an expressive reader — some would say too expressive! — I don’t have the skills of a properly trained actor and audio book reader. To be a great reader of audio, you have to have a lot of different skills: you’ve got to interpret a story meaningfully and emotionally, you’ve got to read it in a dramatic but not too dramatic fashion, you’ve got to be able to voice the different characters properly, and you’ve got to give it all drive and energy. I think I have found just the person after quite a bit of searching, in the voice of the wonderful actor and audiobook reader Christopher James. I found him through ACX, the audio partner it seems of Amazon’s KDP. The process for me was great because it was so simple. I posted my book for auditions and was surprised to find quite a few auditions up within a matter of two days. I listened to them, and picked Christopher as the most suitable for the book. All of them were good, but it was the accent and the nuanced reading that I was looking for, which I really found in Christopher. Here’s his audition tape:
Reading Who Do You Love well is really tricky. Not least because the novel explores the emotional experience of a contemporary male, something not frequently done. There are not a lot of novels like this around, with the possible exception of David Nicholls, the author of One Day and Us. Christopher and I have talked about this because it affects the way the novel should be read: it can’t be too deadpan, nor too over-the-top in terms of sounding emotional. The other tricky thing in the novel is the range of accents: the Norwegian lilt of Ellida, the heroine, the refined New York accent of Hadley, the Spanish accent of Arnholm, Jack’s older child voice, and the narrator’s own southern English accent, which is neither posh, nor particularly cockney/local. I felt Christopher captured all of them really well. I was delighted by the way the novel suddenly came alive for me again. Anyway, we are just at the beginning of the process; he’s reading the novel just as I write, and will be recording the whole book quite soon. I hope to keep you updated about how it’s going.
Here at Blue Door we’re delighted to welcome a new author, novelist Barbara Bleiman. She’s been exploring the connotations of a kiss and explains how her collection of stories, The Kremlinology of Kisses, evolved
Ten years ago, when I did an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, I started writing some short stories that were clustered around a particular idea – a concept, if you like – prompted by re-reading Anton Chekhov’s wonderful short story, ‘The Kiss’. I was bowled over by the way that Chekhov managed to invest something as seemingly simple as a kiss with huge emotional freight and significance. It made me think about the kiss and the part it plays in our lives. Sex is an obvious, highly charged subject for fiction but what about the kiss?
At the time, I wrote five or six stories involving different scenarios, kisses given and taken, wished for or rejected, in different contexts and time periods, from renaissance Italy through to contemporary London and even into the future. Later, as I was working on first, second and third drafts of my novel, I would step back for a while and give myself a little break by writing another ‘kiss’ story. People would say something in conversation and it would spark off a fresh idea; sometimes, a scene in a film would set me off in a new direction and get me writing a new story.
Gradually I accumulated more of them and this autumn I began to think that perhaps they might make a coherent collection. Here were thirteen stories, one of which had already been published in Birkbeck’s book The Mechanics’ Institute Review, another of which has been selected for an anthology for the secondary classroom, due out in the autumn. But commercial publishing houses are reluctant to invest in short stories.
What to do? I could go down the route of self-publishing. Instead, having learnt about Blue Door Press, I decided to submit the collection to the wonderful group of writers who set it up and publish through it. This co-publishing model offers a third way between self-publishing and mainstream, which means all books will be professionally edited and designed.
A few months after submitting, I received the thrilling news that the group had read my manuscript, loved the overall concept and the stories themselves and were happy to welcome me on board as a new Blue Door Press writer.
Now more really hard work begins. I have had brilliant collective editorial comments from the group and a discussion with Pamela Johnson about polishing the stories, the process of preparing them for publication, the choice of a title, cover and ways in which BDP can support me in this. In return, I’ve agreed to contribute what I can to the Press. One thing I’ll be doing (drawing on my expertise from my working life) will be to work on the BDP’s social media presence.
My collection The Kremlinology of Kisses should be due out early in the new year. I can’t wait to see it in print, with the Blue Door Press logo on its spine.
As Blue Door Press is about to publish HIDDEN, Annabel Chown explains how serious illness led her to write this page-turner memoir
I was thirty-one years old, and wanted to write. Except I had no clue as to what I might write. Plus, working sixty hour weeks as an architect, no time in which to write.
Then on a beautiful May morning in 2002, I was told I had breast cancer. ‘You’ll need chemotherapy and radiotherapy,’ the oncologist informed me. ‘Have chemo on a Friday, spend the weekend recovering, then you can go back to work on a Monday. It doesn’t waste too much time that way.’ No, a voice inside me said, visualising myself at my office desk at 10pm. If I get better, I’ve got the rest of my life to work hard.
Suddenly, I had space, time, and subject matter. Cancer was a harsh place to land in, but also an interesting one, so far removed from my day-to-day reality of site meetings, construction drawings, rushed trips to the gym, and Saturday night parties. Every third Thursday morning was now spent in a high-ceilinged Georgian room, a sac of ruby red Epirubicin dripping into my vein. Out on a date, I’d be terrified the man I fancied would notice I was wearing a wig. ‘You’ve lost weight,’ people who didn’t know would say. ‘You look amazing.’ And I’d keep quiet about the twenty-plus times I’d thrown up after my last chemo.
Cancer was the worst thing that had happened to me. But I was determined to create something good out of something ugly. Could it be a doorway into writing a book? I had no idea how to start. Initial attempts consisted of me simply typing up my journal entries! On the advice of the brilliant therapist I’d started seeing, I was scribbling most mornings. With time, a structure very gradually evolved. A couple of years after I started writing, I was invited to join a writers’ group. The other women were mostly published authors. I was terrified. But it proved to be one of the best things I’ve ever done, and helped me to create a full-length memoir.
My story is told through the lens of a single person, who still hoped to find love, despite feeling like damaged goods. It’s also told through the eyes of an architect, and a lover of London, which becomes almost like an additional character in the narrative.
Eighteen years after my diagnosis, I remain cancer free. I’ll never forget the terror of it, the fear I was going to die young. I hope my story can offer hope and inspiration to those who find themselves somewhere similar, as well as offer insight into what it’s like to go through such a life-changing experience; one that forced me to confront the darkness, but also brought in surprising bursts of light and opportunity.
Delighted to announce that 3 Blue Door Press poets – Jennifer Grigg, Pamela Johnson, Jane Kirwan – will be reading at the legendary Troubadour in London on 4 November 2019. They will read from Stories & Lies and The Goose Woman as part of the autumn season of Coffee House Poetry.
Joining them, to celebrate Blue Door Press, will be 20 poets with 20 newly commissioned poems on the subject of doors, doorways, entrances & exits, locked or wide-open doors, porches, garage doors, shed doors, doors from distant memory and more – Fiona Larkin, Katie Griffiths, Caroline Hammond, David Bottomley, Mary Powell, Helen Adie, Heather Moulson, Steve Boorman, Angela Kirby, Wendy French, Nisia Studzinska, Vanessa Lampert, Mary Mulholland, Audrey Ardern-Jones, Jean Hall, Jan Heritage, Edwina Gleeson, Matt Barnard, Andrew Ball, Susannah Hart, June Lausch, Jennifer Nadel & Karen Rydings
Many of the poems in The Goose Woman focus on a village in Bohemia. I did worry that a neighbour might come across them and take offence but decided that was unlikely. The collection was in English, published in Britain, I was safe. And there were only a few poems that might be insensitive.
However, when asked by Svět Knihy to talk on a panel about translation, and read a few examples, the risk became more pressing. Svět Knihy is a book fair held annually in Prague in May, both a trade fair for publishers and a literature festival, combining promotion with readings, discussions, argument. The events are held in Výstaviště, exhibition grounds that were built around an industrial palace in 1891.
This year had the usual long queues to get in, people of all ages in a three days extravaganza, a celebration of books: fantasy, romance, TV cooks demonstrating their dumplings, people hunched over incredibly complex, incomprehensible interactive games, talks on politics, philosophy…
An event at the Cafe Europa was about Brexit, with an emphasis on its literary ramifications. David Vaughan moderated and Bernie Higgins and I identified ourselves as fully Europeans, and tried not to get too heated. Questions from the audience included confusion about what the Labour party or more precisely Corbyn was up to. Fintan O’Toole was quoted from Heroic Failure ‘…the strange sense of imaginary oppression that underlies Brexit. This mentality is by no means exclusive to the Right.’
The poetry events were held in the Lapidarium. This extraordinary museum houses stone sculptures dating from the 11th century. I could only hope that no one in the audience or wandering through looking at the original statues from Charles Bridge would glance over at the poems projected wall size behind me.
I was asked ‘How has your relationship with Czech (and a Czech) affected your poetry?’ Which was impossible to answer. The second question ‘because of your close relationship with Czech and your translators (Aleš and Tomáš), when you are writing do you ever pause and deliberate on whether to use a line that you know will be difficult to translate into Czech?’ made me realise I’d failed completely to consider and value translators. Tomáš Míka talked about the difficulty in translating ‘One Made Earlier’ from Stories & Lies. It looks impossible but he did it – a few in the audience were even familiar with the reference to Blue Peter.
Then I was asked to read ‘I Am Slabce’ from The Goose Woman. My untruths/exaggerations were projected behind me; no one seemed to have any difficulty in understanding. Slabce was less than eighty kilometres away; I could only imagine Mr Novak or the mayor or Vladimir wandering in and being appalled by such slander.