Writing with several hands, is it possible?
I’m not only a writer, but also a pianist. And I know that playing four hands it’s incredibly difficult. There are so many things that can go wrong – the rhythm, the time… even physically, your fingers can just run over the other person’s! It can be a dissaster because it requires perfect communication with your partner – yes, you need to be soulmates to grant success, basically.
In writing should be easier because there is not the stress of the immediate performance – you have more time to discuss, argue and scream at each other hoping that the final product doesn’t come out drenched in blood.
I have experience on that: I wrote with my father, who’s also a writer. How was it? Well, it was writing with my father…
We see things so differently. For him there is LITERATURE – this includes all the books he likes, which are mainly Literary Fiction – and then that commercial crap that is not any better than a hamburguer at McDonalds – and this includes almost all genre fiction and the books he just doesn’t personally like.
Yes. We argued a lot.
Also, he thinks that what is told is always more important than how it’s told. And that anything you write has to be based on experience. I write about doctors who mummify children and perform c-sections without anesthesics in a lost mansion in the Highlands – did myself experienced all that…? Well, you might not want to hear the answer…
Of course for him is easier to talk about experiences – he has travelled all over the world. He’s also an amazing writer, and he’s funny, and satirical, and critical, and socially-engaged – all things that I admire and I wish my writing had – at least in a stronger way.
Our experience writing together was enriching but in the end, when the book came out everyone thought that the serious, literary parts were his and the funny comical bits were mine – because of the age, I assume. They got it wrong.
Today I want to talk about another book wirtten by multiple hands: Congregation of Innocents, edited by Curious Tales. It contains four short stories by Emma Unsworth, Richard Hirst, Jenn Ashworth and Tom Fletcher plus a graphic short story by Ian Williams. It also has the illustrations, photos and cover design by the artist Beth Ward.
I was lucky that this was the book read in our Gothic Reading Group at Lancaster University and Jenn Ashworth came to talk about the process. She mentioned very interesting things. First of all, the four writers are all friends and work all together editing each other’s texts. I can see here the challenge of having friends and giving them feedback and still being friends after that. We all have such big egoes – I do, at least, although I was partially cured since I started writing in English and I became really humble about it because it’s not my first language… Also, I’d also feel a lot of preassure if continuously giving feedback to my friends just in case I don’t like some of the stuff they do – even if I love them as people, obviously. Art is such a subjective thing… For example, Jenn pointed out that it too her quite a long time to understand Tom‘s short story whereas I fell in love with it immediately.
These people are not just professional writers, they also funded a publishing house – Curious Tales – and have done a trilogy of short story collections called Five Curious Tales. It all started when they decided to exchange ghost stories as a Christmas present. I think this is a such a genial idea.
How do they unifiy their collections, though?
They dedicate their volume to a writer and then gather inspiration fom him or her to write their short stories – as a response to the work of this particular author.
For example the second collection was called Poor Souls’ Light and it was inspired by Robert Aickman, whereas the third one, Congregation of Innocents, – which I have in my hands – is inspired in the short stories by Shirley Jackson.
The illustrations are, in my opinion, what brings the stories all together. Jenn explained how Beth acts as the core of the project. She gives feedback to everyone, she decides how the illustrations will complement everyone’s story, she does the artwork from the cover – and that picture is like the essence of the collection itself, not an easy thing to do, I imagine! She even decides the order of the short stories.
I think this is very wise. First because words can come together through other media – in this case visual images. And third because someone from another media may be more able to see the whole picture.
This volume – we all agreed in the Gothic Reading Group – it’s about endings. All the stories are drenched in the bittersweet essence of farewells. And the cover irself represents – as it couldn’t be other way – a detail from a pink and purple cherry blossom. It looks so Japanese and delicate… and the green colour from the title letters is ghostly and unsettling –as if it was whispering to us that this is a horror story collection nonetheless, so we should be prepared. The first pages also have details from the cherry blossom branches in black. It looked like a sort of radiography so again, even if cherry flowers are beautiful and delicate, it was as if they were already dead.
Preceeding each of the stories there are black and white rows of three photographs – without titles or any word indeed, just the naked image. In The Festival the images show what it seems a piece of embroidery (complexity? a hard work? women?), some round glasses reflecting two boats on the sea (travelling?) and white petals on the ground (death of someone who is young?)
In Do You Know How To Waltz? the photographs are difficult to see because there is something that reflects on them – like the light through the blinds over a dark room. What we can see are the silouettes of flowers and trees. (Nature? Something that is hidden? Danger? Vulnerability?)
The Women’s Union Relief has the image of an isolated park, then a mug filled with tea or coffe, and then another mug but from a different perspective. (Home? Comfort? Lost childhood?)
Desert Stories has – in my opinion – the most unsettling set of images – and this was the story I found more unsettling too among all of them. We have some small hands closed as if praying (a child’s?) a seed that has just started to grow and an empty room with an open door and an empty chair. (Abscence? Infancy? Lose? Revival?)
Now that I have read all the stories I can interpret better the photographs and see how much they are linked to the story. I think it has a wonderful idea to have another medium – photography, in this case – to express another part of a story. We live in a culture where images are very important, why shouldn’t literature nurture from them? The images don’t just reflect what is said by words but also open new paths to the interpretation of these. It is as if images where an integral part of the story, another organ in the whole body. The fact that they are in black and white adds to the atmosphere – we tend to relate black and white with the past, from where ghosts come to haunt us. There are organised in three shots, and this makes the piece cinematic. The details in the photos talk to each other and tell a story by themselves. I think the plastic artist’s work was magnificent because she managed to create a decadent universe where all the stories in this collection can co-exist.
Another visual feature I want to praise was the inclusion of a short story but told in the form of a graphic piece. It’s written by Ian Williams and it’s called The Brood of Desire. The first image occupies the first page and it shows a key with an intrincate design in its hanger. When I saw it for the first time I felt as if the author was invinting me to his world by offering me the key – but it looked like a key made to hide dark things, so I knew that taking it would bring consequences. The graphic short story is also in black and white and what stroke me the most is the way its simple pictures transmit me so much repugnance – in the best way, because when I read horror I want to feel repugnance, and fear, and shock.
To sum up, I believe that Congregations of Innocents is a rare not to be missed piece. It is a collection of short stories set in a dark, dangerous universe. You would not necessarely want to inhabit it – or to meet its people – but when Christmas comes and you’re sick of sweets and Christmas songs and blinking lights and you feel you need something to balance it… this is your thing! Winter is not just about warm fires and hot chocolate but also about naked sharp trees and never ending nights. And there is so much art and talent in this little book.