Introduction

Hi thanks for reading my Personal Anthology. I really hope that you get a chance to read the actual stories, and the collections or anthologies most of them appear in. A lot of my choices have been published (or collected) in the last eight years or so – I was going for ‘very recent’ examples of work that I find inspiring and helpful as a writer. I’ve emphasised the personal element of this personal anthology. It’s very subjective, obviously, but it’s also about what I’m doing right now – its unlikely I’ll ever stop liking these stories, but they are so recent they can only be influences on work I am still drafting.  
 
All of the people on this list are writers I would read anything by – people who have given me the energy to go and write something as soon as I have finished reading their work. To me it’s like a direct shot of inspiration. I read these stories, definitely more than once, and then found them instantly helpful in whatever I was working on at the time. It’s great when writing goes that way, unlike the kind of digging around that can happen when I’m away from reading for too long and everything becomes like a mush on the page in front of me.  
 
As well as serving this artistic function in my life, I do think this would be a pleasing anthology to hand to someone and say, ah yeah, these are all going to give you something – like a bit of a haunting, and a bit of a heartbreak and a bit of a laugh. Taken all at once, these things are what I live on.  

‘A Silent Documentary Through a Terrible Place’ by Helen McClory

This is in the collection Mayhem & Death, McClory’s second story collection. What I love about this whole book is the use of titles as more than a part of the story, but somehow a proposition that can live and stimulate ideas all by itself. This particular story is only a page and a half long, but the feeling of following the camera into this vast, unknowable darkness is utterly captivating. McClory’s audacious use of scale is one of her most effective and dazzling tools. She can throw mountains along the bottom of your street, put a dungeon under the bed and force you to see an entire universe on the other side of an unattended television screen.  

First published in Mayhem & Death, 404 Ink, 2018

‘Secrets Bonita Beach Krystal Cancun’ by Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine is like Vermeer, I think. In the same way that supposedly ordinary people and places are illuminated by Vermeer in a way that is technically flawless, but also imbued with something extra that can’t be extracted from the whole, or seen or replicated. I do think it is genius really, in the both of them.  
 
There is a moment in this story where Erskine makes a plant come to life. It suddenly bursts into bloom. It astonishes and delights a youth in a recreation room. It’s on the television, of course. In time-lapse. Ritchie, the character reporting this event is not moved by the miracle. Regarding the boy, he feels pity. “I thought you poor bastard. You stupid bastard.” 
 
The moment is about five lines long, and part of a genuinely beautiful story about a woman letting go of her comforting routines. I am highlighting it because Erskine doesn’t generally veer from the real and solid world, but always finds a place for some magical intervention to enter the space when required. The plant blooming is something we have all seen, but it is also honestly miraculous. The sweet pain of seeing it through the cynical eye of the narrator is sharpened to the point it makes you catch your breath. You stupid bastard. But you’re not stupid, you’re miraculous really. 

First published by Tangerine Press, 2021. Collected in Dance Move, Picador/Stinging Fly, Feb 2022

‘Island’ by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

A man, the narrator of this brutal and astonishing story, has moved to an island to live a remote life, tending to the grounds, and specifically the grapes on a crumbling hillside house. As he works in solitude, his peaceful wine-sipping is interrupted by a pair of mating monkey (type things). The ‘monkeys’ have a lot of sex and the man watches them. From here, it becomes more surreal. What opens as a typical, fairly sparse form of contemplative masculinity diffuses into a gentle hallucinatory departure from normal life into an exotic death. The whole of Trouble (the collection) is rife with this effortless switch from what a lot of people call ‘muscular writing’ into something shatteringly tender. I’m always so glad when these turns come along, and I always find myself staring at the page for a long time after this story.  

First published in Trouble, Stinging Fly, 2021

‘The Novelist in the Attic’ by Shen Dacheng, translated by Jack Hargreaves

I first read this story in Comma Press’s amazing Book of Shanghai – part of their series of story anthologies from cities around the world. This series has been reliably informative and entertaining for me since I discovered it – one of those publishing ideas that would never happen without a huge amount of work and investment of time, and is so valuable. I am grateful to them for it.  
 
In this story, a novelist lives in the building of the publishing house that puts out his books. The gentle, and quite loving erasure of the novelist’s life charts an ageing friendship, that just come to an end. I’m an absolute sucker for a creepy office building, and this one has a calm and friendly novelist shuffling around in it all night long.

Published in English in The Book of Shanghai, Comma Press, 2020

‘Marabou’ by Joy Williams

After the funeral for her son has not gone well, Anne finds herself surrounded by his friends; first over an expensive dinner that she pays for, and then in her home. As the evening progresses, Anne becomes more and more detached from the people she is surrounded by. These gaunt young people in black. Some of them are addicts, she thinks. Some have recovered. The story is chilling and hard from the first line to the last, but all the way through behind every word is a great wave of love that has nowhere left to go, and that previously was squandered on small things, and must now be swallowed by the reader whole. There are so many works of fiction in the world that play cheaply with grief and the loss of a child, but the need to feel the force of it, as a confrontation of one of our greatest fears is real. I am glad that Joy Williams wrote this story, as hard as it is. I am glad of Joy Williams writing absolutely everything.  

First published in An Honored Guest, Vintage / Knopf 2004; collected in The Visiting Privilege, Vintage / Knopf 2017

‘Kookaburra Sweet’ by Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie’s stories operate on a plane of reality that is both familiar and groundbreakingly new. She works in that zone of language where a body or a city or an island can be effortlessly conjured as real and solid in one moment, and in the next become vulnerable and facing complete transformation and destruction. I love the license she gives the reader to believe in impossible things without ever having to decide if there is some analogy waiting for them, or something to decode. The whole story is all you need.  
 
In this story, extraordinary, gorgeous, violent beautiful spill out from an ordinary plan to return home. Sometimes within the space of a single sentence, these sudden changes to the world come at you, and they do not require further explanation or meaning. There is no safety in her work, if you want only to be reassured and told that certain truths cannot be changed. And why should you want that? My feeling when I first read this story was that I wanted to eat the Kookaburra Sweet as soon as possible, and let everything unravel as it sees fit. The story is also typical of Okojie’s generosity to other writers – she gives space to anyone looking for inspiration and routes into the unknown and impossible. Widely acknowledged as an inspirational figure in the business, and a generous friend to so many of us out here trying to write, stories like this confirm Irenosen Okojie as among the very best of us.  

First published in Nudibranch, Dialogue, 2019

‘The Wall’ by Ho Sok Fong, translated by Natascha Bruce

A wall is erected along the backs of a row of houses to separate the homes from an ever-expanding expressway. In the cramped conditions, people’s habits, relationships and bodies transform.  
 
Ho Sok Fong’s collection Lake Like a Mirror is one of my favourite collections of stories, as well as one of my favourite works in translation. The lives of Malaysian women narrated here are richly detailed and magically realised. I recommend this collection to everyone I meet. It won an English Penn award, but I don’t speak to many people who have already read it. Then I try my best to set that right, and then I become boring probably, but it really is just brilliant story telling. For about 3 months, I would read it just before bed, have some very good dreams, and write some stories I was really happy with. This is my LLAM method, you are welcome.  

Published in Lake Like a Mirror, Granta, 2019. You can hear the story read by Foo May Lynn here

‘The Mountain Lion’ by J.L. Bogenschneider

The youngest of three brothers obsessed with tracking a mountain lion in their suburban neighbourhood quietly and majestically unravels. This story is a great read, it has that ability to tighten your chest after only a couple of paragraphs. The dysfunction of the family is perfectly crystalised, and everything is just really good. Until the last few paragraphs, and then I think this story elevates into a perfectly distilled emotional moment, which I have been returning to as a comparison point for certain types of writing ever since. It’s not easy to operate at this level consistently, but I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read from this writer. I hope there is a collection from J L Bogenschneider soon. 

Published in The Stinging Fly, Issue 44, 2021, and available to read here

‘Rise up singing’ by Anna Wood

I am trying to write about summers at the moment, in lots of my work the sky and the air have become really important, and one of the things that helps is Anna Wood’s collection because 1. It is brilliant and life affirming and reminds me of being young and wreckless and yet also just about safe. 2. Anna Wood can give you summer in about ten words, and it surrounds you completely.  
 
This story is about some friends who have a night out, they take various risks which, from the other side of the page feel as though they could go wrong at any moment, but in fact are fine. They are fine, and it’s just so nice to know they are having a good time! 

Published in Yes Yes, More More, Indigo Press, 2021

‘So Kept, Considered a Whole’ by Holly Pester

Holly Pester is my sister, of course. But I wanted to be honest about work that keeps me going when I write, and this one of Holly’s is high on the list. Two friends try to meet up or keep to their arrangements with one another, and somehow – through portals or disconnected time signatures – they keep failing. The competitive politeness and strained love is continuously reinventing itself. Polaroid photos of mutual events spill across a table. The pubs are full and then empty. The world rocks off course and then back again. All the while it is funny, and moving, and smart as only my sister can be.  

Published in Go to Reception and Ask for Sara in Red Felt Tip, Book Works, 2015

‘Mating Week’ by Ruby Cowling

All of Ruby’s work is precious to me. We share the same tiny publisher, and I think that simple fact, which has no material bearing on anything, has made me always read her work more closely than other writers. It’s a trivial connection, but I treasure it. Especially because she is so phenomenal in the short form. Mating Week is about a character wrestling with the idea of losing her solitude. It’s a moving, beautifully rendered story, with the fragility of life and also moth life fluttering there all the time. I am including this particular story because of a moment I love, when the main character has returned from a date. It has not been a disastrous date, but she isn’t sure. So before going into the house, she sits in her car. And while she sits in her car, she enjoys feeling that absolutely nobody anywhere knows where she is or what she’s thinking. I search for this exact feeling about 10 times a week. Just for the moment of it, just for the space to think. Even as it’s happening, I hope I am not alone in doing this. And then I remember this story, and of course I am not.  

Published in This Paradise, Boiler House Press, 2019

‘My Bonny’ by Jo Lloyd

Jo Lloyd writes in layers, and knots. She can crush decades into a few lines. I read her work often for the tapestry of it. In this story, we follow the unfortunate, hard life of a family who live for generations in the same harbour town. In the same way Anna Wood’s story gives us the lightness of a single carefree day, Jo Lloyd weighs out the years here. The relentless sea holds your gaze as it snatches away your heroes. It’s such a skill to lay these lives down, and keep things moving, keep the drama, and feel every life as it arrives and humbly passes away.  

Published in The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies, Swift Press 2021