Meet the Circle: Jay Harold

The members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about growing alien life forms in a jar. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Jay Harold, brand new co-chair of our Tuesday meetings. He is a proud graduate of the University of Essex, where he earned his MA in Creative Writing in 2018. He also has a BS in Psychology and is currently working towards obtaining his MS.

When did you join the group?
18403721_294989217624826_8062105951356024910_nI joined the Circle in February 2016. I’ll never forget my first meeting. It was a Thursday night and very busy, and I didn’t have a pen on me. I must have turned red in the face when I asked to borrow one and the chair that night looked at me like: ‘Are you kidding me?’ Good times! I learned my lesson in the meantime.

What were your first impressions of the group?
I immediately thought the Writers’ Circle was a fantastic group of people and felt right at home straight away. The prospect of an upcoming BWC meeting leaves me just as enthusiastic and excited today as it did back then.

What have you published so far?
My first real adventure with creative writing was during my year at the American University of Paris, where my writing professor encouraged me to submit a short story for publication in Paris/Atlantic, a student-run magazine. I was seventeen and very proud at the time. The story, ‘Scarred For Life’, was set in 2025 in an apocalyptic World-War-III Paris. It described the life of young American hippie with a dark past.

In the second semester, a piece of flash (non-)fiction of mine was published in a really cool ‘Zine’ called ‘The City Project’, which was founded by a girl who had taken the writing class with me.

I think my most productive time has to have been my year in Essex, though. I had several poems published in anthologies of the University of Essex Writing Society (a fantastic gang of merry misfits who were crucial to my creativity at the time). Speaking of anthologies, some of my poetry has been published in the BWC’s second anthology, ‘The Circle’ (now available on Amazon and at the Brussels Waterstones).

Finally, I post poetry, short stories and sometimes essays on my blog, jayharold.blogspot.com.

What are you currently working on?
I have been working on a novel called ‘Leaving Paradise’. It’s an expansion of my MA dissertation, which explored the relationship between the Beat Generation and the Punk movement. It features characters loosely based on Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Rimbaud, and my writing professor at AUP, all of whom have had a significant influence on me as a writer.

I am also in the research phase of a book on dyspraxia / developmental coordination disorder, which is an issue that I care deeply about. I want people to learn more about it and dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding the issue (I’ll give you one for free: it does not disappear with adulthood).

Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?
Jays (1)I’ve already mentioned the influence that Kerouac and Ginsberg have had on me. Their close relationship to jazz captivates me. As a result, the exploration of the relationship between writing and music, in the broadest sense possible, is a key point in my work. Though I enjoyed ‘The Dharma Bums’ more, ‘On The Road’ is the novel that originally made me want to become a writer. Ginsberg’s poems ‘Howl’ and ‘America’ blew my mind and shifted my perspective on poetry. Some would say that my reverence for the Beats has taken on unhealthy proportions.

Joan Didion’s ‘Play It As It Lays’ fascinated me as well, because where the Beats’ sentences could go on for lines and lines and are more psychologically and emotionally driven, Didion has an incredible talent for brevity and objectivity. Didion and Kerouac, to me, are polar opposites in many ways, and I’m currently exploring how, if at all, their styles could possibly be integrated into one. I think I’m slowly starting to zero in on the answer. On a side note, if anyone is interested in Joan Didion’s beautiful and tragic story, I highly recommend watching ‘The Center Will Not Hold’ on Netflix.

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?
I came to the launch of ‘Circle of Words’ – the first anthology – back in ’16 and remember seeing the whole group come together in a joint effort to promote the book and, even though I hadn’t contributed anything to the first anthology, I felt distinctly proud to be a member of the BWC. I’m even more proud to be the Tuesday co-chair now and look forward to working with Niamh, who will be the other co-chair.

What do you get out of the group?
Inspiration, feedback, validation, motivation – everything that should come along with a collective of writers, does in the case of the BWC. It’s also a great way to keep your ego in check, because there is lots of constructive criticism and we’re such an eclectic bunch that you get a whole range of opinions, approaches and talents.

So far, it’s been an absolute pleasure to be part of the Circle. More importantly, it’s been a learning experience on both an artistic and a personal level thanks to everyone who frequents the meetings. You get a little taste of everything at the BWC, including published and award-winning authors, and that’s what makes it so truly unique. What’s even more exciting is that we get new members all the time. If you’re not a member yet, please don’t hesitate to shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our mailing list.

Advertisements

Meet the Circle: Océan Smets

foto africa girafaThe members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about butterflies. Well, maybe not that last bit. This week we will hear from Océan Smets, a poet turned science fiction writer with a special interest in language and human psychology.

Océan is a published author of poems, flash fiction and nonfiction. He’s the winner of 2015 Spanish 1st International poetry competition Writing Verses, the 2014 winner of  the First Literary Contest of Short Tales for Train Travelers by Thalys Kemkem, Argentina.

When did you join the group?
In February 2014, when I moved to Brussels. I read an invitation to join the Brussels Writers Circle in an English Magazine for expats. I directly emailed to enroll. Destiny?

What were your first impressions of the group?
What first struck me was the variety of styles among us, together with the ability to fold into other writers’ thoughts and be their editors. Our group , from all over the world, has been constantly renewing with pens. It’s so enriching!

What have you published so far?
Articles (non fiction), poems and short stories. I can’t stop writing “magic realism”. I am sort of hooked. Yet I would like to jump from there into something more consistent, diametrically opposite.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my second social sci-fi novel. I dream it. I can see its inhabitants in my nocturnal visions. I really can feel the touch of my characters at night. They are my imaginary friends. So I am never alone.

My Post (1)Who are your biggest literary influences?
Bashö’s haiku, Paul Éluard, Isabel Allende, impacting films like Clockwork Orange, and especially all the gender literature from my studies.

How have they influenced you?
My writing has been influenced by all these factors, so we can say I am a cross between a human and a beast. Well, rather a magical mutant.

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?
Yes. The day Antoinette gave me the title for my novel in three seconds.
“What is your novel about?”
“A little wheel inserted in your body that sends you love and you have orgasms”.
“It’s Wheelgasm!”

So easy!

What do you get out of the group?
I mainly get a shower both of reality and humbleness whenever I read for it. As a writer, I tend to live in my magical world. English isn’t my mother language so I really need editors. Reading for the group also makes me write more. There is always somebody who likes my stories so I am also encouraged. I can see my lines published in an anthology. This gives my life meaning.

Meet the Circle: Colin Walsh

Colin Walsh photoThe members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another. In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and other writerly nuggets.

This week we will hear from Colin Walsh. Colin is from Galway, Ireland, and writes fiction.

When did you join the group?
It was February or March 2017. I’d started writing short stories in 2016. Completing a story is a bit like screaming off a mountain and hoping for some echo that’ll prove you’ve climbed the mountain in the first place. Readers can offer a chink of light and fresh air on whatever it is you’ve been working on in the dark, and that does help you stay vaguely sane. I was having one of those ‘I AM ONLY WRITING INTO THE GAPING VOID’ moments when it’s hard to stay motivated. So I googled ‘writing group in Brussels’ and found the Brussels Writers Circle. I emailed the BWC asking if I could come along to a meeting, and that was that.

What were your first impressions of the group?
That it was totally nuts. Not in the sense of everyone being mad – you only discover that after a couple of meetings – but more in the sense of how wildly eclectic the mix of writers and readers was. It was great. People who were interested in very different things, literature-wise, approaching the world from different angles and backgrounds, all gathering around a large table over a few drinks and giving their time and energy to other people’s work.

Also, the basic kindness and openness of people to the work of anyone who reads – kindness that isn’t hollow back-slapping, openness that is genuine. The BWC is a place for constructive, helpful criticism and real encouragement. That made a very positive impression on me.

What have you published so far?
Last year I won the RTE Frances MacManus Short Story Award, and I was a prizewinner in the Bridport Short Story Prize, got shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, and I won a prize at a cool literary festival back in Ireland a few months ago. All those stories ended up being published in anthologies or online in newspapers. I have another story being published later this year, which I’m very excited about.

When you list all those things out like that, it sounds like a big run of successes, but that’s a total misrepresentation of the reality. The fact is that every single one of those published stories, including those which won prizes, had all been rejected by (at least) one publication/competition before finding a home. There’s never any guarantee as to whether or not what you’re doing is ‘good’ in any objective sense. I find that pretty tough, to be honest.

Ultimately, your own quality compass (which shifts over time) is the only metric against which you should judge yourself, but that’s advice which I consistently fail to follow, haha. It does take a while to get used to just how subjective the whole submissions process actually is, and to not allow it destroy your self-confidence.

You see this type of radically diverging reception at the BWC too; a single text will provoke a huge variety of opinions/tastes around the table. Sometimes I’m bewildered by what other people like/dislike or fixate upon, and I’m sure they are equally nonplussed by what I blather about whenever I give feedback. It sounds harsh, but I really feel like anyone can write something that will be universally rejected, but no one can write something that’ll be universally approved. Like, Hilary Mantel and Flannery O’Connor and William Shakespeare could all read at the BWC and no doubt there would be people who would wrinkle their noses and have reservations about the writing of these giants.

So yeah – in terms of publication, rejection, etc., I suppose the fingers pointing at the moon are not the moon.

What are you currently working on?
A novel. I have a pretty tight deadline on me now, so I’m focusing on that entirely these days – no short stories. It’s a very different experience to working on short stories, but I’m enjoying it. Hopefully I haven’t just jinxed myself by saying that. I have to submit a draft by the end of the summer. Nicely primed for a total meltdown by mid-July, I reckon. I’ll be running naked through the streets screaming ‘show don’t tell.’ In Brussels, I don’t think people would even notice.

Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?
My PostI think different writers and books have all had very different influences, at different times and in different ways. I remember Zadie Smith said something about how reading is not a passive form of entertainment like watching TV. She said it’s much more like sitting at a piano with sheet music written by a composer, a composer who is usually light years from you, musically; sometimes you can sit at that piano and you’re able to access all the magic that the composer has put there for you, but the onus is on you. The pleasure is richer the more you lean into it. Sometimes, I find myself years away from being up to the task of honouring what a writer has actually done. Other times, a novel or short story hits me at just the right time, and has a huge ripple effect on both my writing and my reading.

All of which is a very long way of saying that I don’t think I have any specific writers in mind that I’d single out as clear ‘influences.’ I’m neither coherent nor consistent enough as a reader to say that.

But I can name a couple of books that I think have been important for my writing over the last two years:

Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. This is really the book that made me decide – okay, this is what I want to do. I mean, sweet Jesus, that novel. What he’s doing with voice, language, pace, drama, rhythm, time. Unbelievable. The sheer nerve and courage it would take to even attempt writing such a book. I read it over Christmas 2015. At the time I was buried deep in the pyramid scheme of academic philosophy. I hadn’t read a work of fiction in years. Literally, years. All I was reading was philosophy, theory, history.

Then I read A Brief History and remember being just totally overwhelmed with the depth and breadth of what James was weaving. The throb of life in the prose. It really made me reassess what the hell I was doing with my life. A total Eureka experience. A couple of months later, I left academia for good. I started my first short story on the same day. Best decision I ever made.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. This novel represents a sort of Platonic ideal for me in terms of the balance between literary prose and the popcorn-munching thrills. Fantastic writing and a totally compulsive story, both powering each other. One of the most purely pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in the past couple of years – the closest to the pure joy I had when reading as a child.

I recently read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and it absolutely wrecked me. Reading it was like swallowing a grenade and feeling it gradually explode inside you. But in a glorious way, you know? She’s doing so many things simultaneously, and she is doing all of them at the highest possible level, in prose that really doesn’t call attention to itself as it quietly sets about rearranging your guts. I was totally shook for a few days after I finished. Standing with a wobbly lip in the middle of the street, that type of scenario. Absolutely devastating, in the best way. Exhilarating.

Other writers: Anne Enright for her psychological acuity and the type of sentences that slice your eyelids off; George Saunders and Donal Ryan for their sheer heart without mawkishness; Kevin Barry and Lucia Berlin for their swagger and mastery of the short story; Angela Carter, Mike McCormack, Elizabeth Bishop, Danielle McLaughlin, William Blake, Ezra Pound, Doireann ní Ghríofa, Ginsberg, Heaney, Hughes, the essays of Zadie Smith… blah blah blah…

What do you get out of the group?
An education! I’ve learned so much attending the group – both on the page and in terms of how people approach what’s on the page. Like, you might have someone reading from a genre-mash-up novel they’re working on, and they’ll be receiving considered and in-depth feedback from an experimental poet, a memoirist, a songwriter, a YA author, a playwright, etc. All of these different lenses through which work can be approached, critiqued and enriched.

The sheer generosity of what people are doing at the BWC every Tuesday and Thursday is really incredible. You learn a lot from that alone. People can be so good.

Meet the Circle: Klavs Skovsholm

54DD994B-63CB-4C9E-96B2-5B114EF1DA22 (1)The members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another.

This week we will hear from Klavs Skovsholm who has been an member for several years. Klavs is probably best known for writing Christmas stories over the summer.

When did you join the group?

I am not entirely sure. I believe that it was Autumn 2011 or Spring 2012. I do remember it was a mild day and that it took place in the library of Cercle des Voyageurs.

What were your first impressions of the group?
BWC members were a very welcoming and congenial bunch of personalities. I felt immediately at ease and many have become personal friends over the years.

What have you published so far?
I have self-published two short historical novels “Golden Fields” and “At the Bay” in which we follow the lives of a lovely elderly lesbian couple in South Africa during the Boer war. I have published a children’s book in Danish “Grantræet” in 2017, and

I am involved in making teaching materials, in the form of a children’s book called “Die Kokerboom” in Afrikaans and is in Xhosa with illustrations to colour in. Last year 3000 copies were distributed; this year another 5000 kids in poor rural schools in the Western Cape will have the pleasure of getting to know the story of an unfortunate Quiver tree which ends up as a Christmas tree. Finally, I have a Christmas story included in Anthology 1 & 2 (and hopefully also in the future Anthology 3).

What are you currently working on?
Nothing of my own. I am helping edit an amusing novel written by a very creative Dane who sadly suffers from serious dyslexia . Serious but rewarding work! And not to forget: I am been honoured by the task of being part of the editorial team for Anthology 3.

Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?
History books and historical novels! I have a very keen interest in Colonial African history so writers like Thomas Pakenham and Wilbur Smith have certainly played a role.

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?
What springs to mind is a few evenings where I was reading aloud of a fantasy short story set in the Middle Ages. As the story progressed, my audience was convinced that the mushroom the poor people had to survive on, had to be magic mushrooms! Maybe I should add that, in my view, the audience had had too many Leffe!

What do you get out of the group?
It is a wonderful place to come for inspiration and exchanges of ideas. The social aspect is very important. Let’s not forget that otherwise writing is a solitary activity.

Meet the Circle: Cynthia Huijgens

www.decoroportraits.com

The members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our work with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do and what we think about the social life of tardigrades. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Cynthia Huijgens, co-chair of our Tuesday evening sessions. Cynthia earned a BA and MEd in Art Education, and spend many years working in museum education writing guides and school curriculum to enhance visitor experiences and introduce viewers to artists and the creative processes that inspired them. Today, somewhere between the screaming sirens of Brussels and the muffled silence of falling snow in the mountains of British Columbia where she spends a few months each year, Cynthia finds subjects for her writing which is almost exclusively fiction.

“Dream up big, hairy, audacious goals that you are passionate about and pursue them relentlessly. You have to begin with the end goal in mind, knowing that a goal is a dream with a deadline.” Clay Clark

When did you join the group?
I first attended a Thursday evening session back in October 2016 and loved it. The following week I attended a Tuesday session, and I’ve been a Tuesday regular ever since.

What was your first impression of the group?
Spirited. Fun. Diverse. At the time I joined, I was a new student of The Writer’s Studio Online, a program of Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. Through the program I had a virtual writer’s circle, but I was hungry for contact with local writers. BWC provided that.

What have you published so far?
An article for a fitness magazine in Egypt, an excerpt of my first manuscript, for upper middle grade readers, in an annual anthology of SFU. In October 2018, a short story will appear in the BWC second anthology, Circle 2.

What are you currently working on?
A work of creative nonfiction about my grandmother and things she left behind. I’m also working on a thriller for adults and several short stories, in addition to a sequel to my first MG manuscript. Whew! I’m trying to approach writing not as a hobby, but as a business. I want to get really good at writing and make money from it, so I am now giving myself multiple projects, deadlines, timelines, and real commitment. I’m dedicating resources too, and, if all goes according to plan, by the end of this year I will have extended my publication list of credits!

Who are your biggest literary influences?
unnamed (1)I’m going to go with a contemporary influence: Canadian writer Eileen Cook. Not only because she’s found a way to craft really fun stories for young adults ( I think she has eight or nine novels to her credit), but she’s very generous with her time in helping me and other emerging writers to grow our craft and realise our potential.

I think its important to have different role models, but I’ve never been comfortable trying to follow in the footsteps of some 19th century literary master. I want to be inspired by real writers who are living in my times, dealing with issues I can relate to, enjoying success that I can see is possible for myself.

kingThat said, craft books have greatly influenced me. Among my go-tos: Startle and Illuminate, Carol Shields on Writing, Edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini; On Writing, Stephen King; On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner; and Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark.

What do you get out of the group?
Good advice, support, and a sense of community. If I’m not there on Tuesday evening, I miss it.

You can read more about Cynthia at CCHuijgens.com

Meet the Circle: Barbara Mariani

 

Barbara Mariani

Barbara Mariani

The members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our work with one another.In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Barbara Mariani, our Thursday evening sessions’ co-chair. Barbara is Italian but a happy resident outside her own country. Brussels has brought her back to her university literary interests, which she left aside too long to dedicate herself to what she thought was a more promising profession in environmental policies and public affairs. She is an enthusiast reader of literary fiction, the only fiction she is really passionate about, and has decided to write her first novel in English.

When did you join the group?
In 2014, as I was looking for a writing course.

What were your first impressions of the group?
My impressions were so great that I never stopped going to the weekly meetings since then. What captured me was the mix of informal atmosphere of the gatherings and genuine talent and generosity of spirit of many of the members, some of whom unfortunately have left the Circle as they have headed back to their own countries. Since the first meeting I attended I have felt a sort of sense of “belonging” to the Circle. For me it has been like finding an escape from everyday work routine to a territory where I could switch off and become absorbed in artistic creation with people who share the same passion, even though we come from diverse cultures and are all very different.

What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel which I have started a couple of years ago, evolving from a short story. It’s set in our times and tells the story of a young woman, Caterina Del Canto, whom life has put in front of many unexpected reversals of fortune which have taken away from her origins but also, projected her into unknown worlds. It’s a story about the recklessness and sense of uncontrolled speed, the confusion and profound loneliness that characterises our age.

What are your biggest literary influences ? How have they influenced you?
Raymond Carver book coverThere are so many. I’m a passionate reader of classics and those who have influenced me most are Tolstoj, Proust, Mann, Miller, Hemingway, Flaubert, Maugham, Marquez, Nabokov, Fitzgerald. But I have also found inspiration in many writers of the late 20th century, such as R. Carver, P. Auster, M. Richler, D.F Wallace, J. Irving. I think that these writers have in common the capacity to write in a way that the experience in front of our eyes is really authentic (even though it may be all invented… but that’s the real talent!), something we can connect to emotionally, and at the same time so special in the way they are telling it. It’s the perfect mix between the universal and the particular that make these books unique. They are all style masters, they have found the right “voice”, so difficult to find for a writer, that makes their books stand out in a special place in people’s souls. Finally, each time I re-read them is a new experience. They really are like precious Chinese boxes.

book cover by marquez

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?
I have some beautiful memories from the BWC annual retreats in Tremelo. I felt like we were a big family and that those winter evenings spent in front of the fireplace playing ice-breaking games or talking about writing tricks, politics, religion, philosophy, music or whatever was the issue of the moment are priceless and stand out. Another great emotion was the publication of the first BWC Anthology in 2016, a project in which very few of us had really believed at the beginning but that finally went through thanks to the tenaciousness of some members.

What do you get out of the group?
Inspiration, challenging thoughts and ideas, good vibes & good company.

Meet the Circle: Karmen Špiljak

Profile photo KarmenThe members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our work with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Karmen Špiljak, our Thursday evening sessions’ co-chair. A Slovenian, who feels European, has been writing since a very early age. She is a big fan of crime fiction and writes mystery stories that often have feminist and environmental notes. The biggest obstacle to her writing is that she often has to negotiate computer time with her two cats.

When did you join the group?
Sometime in summer 2017. Before that, I facilitated a workshop at the retreat in May. It’s my first ever writers’ group and I was really excited to join and meet other writers.

What were your first impressions of the group?
It has a lot of talent from all over the world. When it comes to creativity, Brussels really can surprise. I was quite impressed by other people’s work and feedback. It’s great to see such a variety in genres, too. Though I was a bit nervous, the group turned out to be very supportive and motivating.

What have you published so far?

Cover of the novel A perfect flaw

A prefect flaw, cover

In my teenage years, I published several short stories in local newspapers, regional competitions and Slovenian magazines. During my student years, I hardly wrote anything at all, but the story idea began to shape in my mind, that became my first novel: A perfect flaw, a contemporary story about growing up and finding out who you really are.

What are you currently working on?
I have just finished the first draft of a dystopian science fiction novel. It’s set about 200 years in the future in a small society that has survived a climate disaster and has taken some drastic measures to keep peace and order. My heroine suffers the results of these measures and tries to discover what really happened to her.

Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?
I’m influenced by pretty much everything I read and definitely try to learn something from each book and author. Those closest to my heart, though, have remained the same: definitely the queen of crime, Agatha Christie. She had this incredible plotting ability that I really admire a lot.

Then there’s Stephen King. I really love how he puts usual characters in very unusual situations, which I also sometimes do in short stories. One of my all-time favourites is Douglas Adams, whose work encouraged me to get more creative and use humour differently.

20180212_195437

But perhaps one of my biggest influences was Miha Mazzini. He’s a very versatile Slovenian writer, whose work covers everything, from literary fiction like Crumbs to haunting stories like The Collector of Names.

He also happens to be an excellent screenplay writer and film director. I was lucky enough to have had him as a tutor at a screenplay writing course in 2006. Many of the techniques that he taught then, I still use today. That course made me think that I can really write for more than just a hobby.

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?
We once tried to read poetry while a rather big and loud group was having dinner next to us. It proved to be a rather amusing experience.

What do you get out of the group?
Many things. For starters, it’s very rewarding to be among fellow writers, people who go through similar things when creating their stories. I learn a lot from hearing people’s feedback, which affects how I read stories. Of course, there’s also feedback on your own stories. As scary as it can feel to share your writing with the group, it’s also very rewarding, because you get new perspectives, that can help make your story richer. I certainly got a few great ideas that I incorporated into the novel I’m currently working on.

Meet the Circle: Patrick ten Brink

MTCPatrickPhotoThe members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Patrick ten Brink, the co-chair of our Tuesday evening sessions and responsible for the BWC Anthology 2. Patrick is, I am told, a German with a Dutch name who grew up in Melbourne, Tokyo and London, and thought for ages that he was a Brit (but not any more). He has written a load of non-fiction and, coming home one day six years ago with a new book, was encouraged by his daughter to write something that everyone could read, not just those in offices. So he has written close to every day since, complementing the daily non-fiction, with early morning and late evening magic realism.

When did you join the group?

November 2015. I had just finished a draft of the first book of a three part novel I was working on – The Tides: Accidental Spring – and I had a growing niggle saying that I should find a writers group to get constructive feedback on what works well and what could work better with a bit (or even a lot!) of effort. So I googled it, wrote an exploratory email, got an impressively speedy reply, and within a week I was reading out the first chapter to a dozen writers of different background, age and origin.

What were your first impressions of the group?

Friendly but scary. There is a round of introductions, a concise two or three sentences each. Just enough. Not too much, communicating the purpose: we are here to read, listen and comment. This first time is a bit freaky. I hand out copies, and read three, four pages. Twelve faces watch as every word leaves my mouth. It is odd how you can see that they listen, like musicians, with a different part of their brain firing than painters. It is not the eyes that anchor them. There is a way the head cocks to the side to orientate the ear. The last word uttered, the twelve heads drop as one to focus on the copies in front of them, pens scribbling. No eye contact, no signal of delight or disdain, joy or boredom. Ten minutes of scratching paper.

These are the oddest minutes, each second stretching. I wonder whether it really is wise to volunteer my thoughts to this jury, await judgement and advice from people I didn’t know.

Then one by one the pens are laid down, the heads lift, eye contact re-made and the comments tumble out. Advice like sandwiches, a first layer of compliments (Oof, I sigh), a rich filling of constructive criticism (diverse, complimentary, sometimes contradictory, close to always useful), and some words of encouragement. You need the bread, but it is the filling you really came here for.

A round of thanks, another round of drinks and the next writer is on and now it is my turn to listen, underline the great, point out the potential that is not yet fully there, and the bits that inevitably could merit more attention. By the end of the first day I feel welcome in a community helping each other to learn the writer’s craft, encouraging each other to keep going. I am told that occasionally some don’t come back after the first reading. Most do, and they, as I, really do benefit from this wonderful mixed bag of people.

What are you currently working on?

Patrick doesn’t only draw with words…!

I am working on my three part fantasy novel – The Tides: Accidental Spring – and two books of illustrated travel poetry. I’ve completed the first two parts of the Tides (though these are in full edit-and-polish phase) and have started the third.

The books are about three children – Celeste, Newton and Clementine Wells – who start a new life in St. Estelle, a tidal town in France with miles of windswept beaches that get cloaked in mists. The children are drawn into helping two old eccentric beachcombers (Freya de L’Etoile and Georgiu de la Roche) deal with mysterious treasures and creatures swept up in spring tides. They discover that nothing is quite as it seems in this town and with the old couple.

MTCPatrickSquidFreya secretly sculpts animals out of words and brings them to life, but accidentally creates creatures that stalk the lands. The children soon become essential to protect St. Estelle from these Accidental Creations and, in the second book, from the return of St. Estelle’s prodigal son, Darius de Grey.

In the third book, Celeste gets trapped in the magical Land of the Black Sands and meets a pale ghost of a boy. She… Well I can’t say more as it hasn’t written itself yet.

 

You’re a busy man then! Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?

MTCPatrickStarbookGabriel Garcia Marquez and Ben Okri gave me magic, myths and imagery, a joy of life and freedom to let the imagination run riot. MTCPatrickNerudaPablo Neruda gave the real poetry of reality and the art of seeing things how they are. Matsuo Basho gave me crystallised reality, taking a photo of the world with words and whispering them to others. Finally, and more recently, I’ve enjoyed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which has not only been an immense pleasure, but showed that writing a philosophical novel can be a dream and hugely entertaining even if deep. In summary – it is okay to give one’s imagination free rein over one’s words, it is okay to be deep, but capture reality and whisper it to the reader in packaged, glinting crystal words. Then you can tell your story and maybe others will read it and smile.

MTCPatrickBasho

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?

The annual retreat in May 2016 was particularly memorable. In an exercise Hamed led, we sought the questions in the text, noted where the answers came and how it affected reading the text. We quickly saw that questions and answers drove the reader forward, some to the next sentence, others to the next paragraph, and a few larger questions were only answered at the end of the story. And one or two were left unanswered so that readers look forward to the next story. While obvious with hindsight, it was a really good exercise to do. When reviewing my own writing with these tools, I realised that I’d posited way too many questions in one of my chapters.

The other exercise that was fascinating was one where everyone wrote a bit of a story and someone else had to continue the story and then read it out. It was interesting to see how easy (and fun) it was to get into the style-skin of another writer and keep the story going. Even more eye-opening was what others did to one’s own story. In my case Mimi made my character do more in a paragraph than I had in a page, as if liberating her to race along the now fast evolving plot-line. That revealed another side of one of my novel-characters to me. So thank you for that!

What do you get out of the group?

I get constant encouragement to master all the tools in the writer’s tool kit, and insights on how to use them – not only through comments when I read, but seeing others’ work. Some have a great sense of voice, with characters instantly alive. Others have stories that grab you, pull you in and embark you on a high speed journey. Yet others offer poetic puzzles where every word is chosen with care and fits. The fascinating thing is that one can have ten people commenting, with complementary angles, all relevant – on voice, on plot, on characters, repetition, point of views, internal consistency, balance, readership and even marketability. Some evenings I am tempted to take on board all comments, on others to ignore them all. The key is to work out why people have said what they have said, what lies behind it, how relevant it is for the story one is writing and what solutions work, given the characters, the plot and one’s own narrative voice. Then the story stays one’s own, but more accessible and rewarding to others.

It is also great to meet both like-minded and differently-minded people with the same ambition of writing something that people would have fun reading.

 

Meet the Circle: Andreas Bergsten

MTCAndreasPhotoThe members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Andreas Bergsten, a psychologist from Stockholm, avoiding his purported mission to write a Swedish college textbook by indulging in English-language fiction writing.

When did you join the group?

In March 2014. I was surfing some ex-pat sites for advice on how to make the Belgian postal service actually deliver parcels when I saw a link to the BWC. I made contact the same day, went to the next session, and have been a regular ever since. Last year I also went to one of the BWC writing retreats.

What were your first impressions of the group?

I had three immediate impressions. Firstly, how passionate and serious everyone was about writing. Secondly, the welcoming and sociable atmosphere. Thirdly, what a diverse and interesting group of people the BWC is. Something refreshing in ex-pat Brussels where you can find many uniform, conformist cliques. All three impressions have been reinforced over time.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve tried out some different stuff in the group, both fiction and non-fiction. Now I’ve settled on a story that demands space, so let’s say I’m working on a novel. At the same time, I’m supposed to be writing this psychology book in Swedish, so there is both competition and interference. The protagonist of my novel, then, seems to be a psychologist on a confused mission (no, it’s not really autobiographical fiction, he’s even more of a whack job than I am) and the writing appears to be an odd fusion of chick lit and noir. Yeah, I know, that’s not really a description to approach an agent with…

Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?

MTCAndreasJeevesImpossible to say. I’ve been reading English-language fiction daily since I was twelve, when my father drowned me in P.G. Wodehouse paperbacks from Penguin to supplement the school teaching he deemed inadequate. Then I went off on my own and have had so many loves since.

I think my own English writing aspires to a light touch on heavy subjects, but what amalgam of influences brought me there is too hard to unpack. Let me just say that right now, I’m crazy about Ali Smith, Jenny Offil, Ben Lerner, Donald Antrim and Zia Haider Rahman. And I’ve just discovered Iris Murdoch’s amazing oeuvre. Go figure.

 

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?

Oh, yes. More than I can share, really. But to pick an anecdote at random, I remember this one time a guy read out a lyrical and moving short story. Everyone seemed excited and the feedback session was intense. The first feedbacker insisted he condense it into a poem, since the diction, metaphors and rhythm practically yelled out ‘poetry’.

The next one said it would be a crime not to expand on such a gripping theme and develop it into a novel. The third had quite specific instructions on changing characters, switching locations etc; The fourth had actually re-written a few lines to make some transitions smoother.

Now we all know that, when it comes to feedback, detailed suggestions for changes are less helpful than just explaining one’s reaction to the text. Since words are the writer’s medium, it’s like taking the brush to someone else’s half-finished canvas. But sometimes we just can’t help ourselves, and it’s often when we get really enthusiastic that we go overboard.

After the fifth feedbacker told him the only sane thing would be to convert the text into pop lyrics or a technical manual or whatever, the poor author threw up his hands. “Please, stop,” he said. “My head hurts!”

What do you get out of the group?

Well, as for the writing (kind of the obvious point of the circle), you get so much interesting feedback. Wildly different and sometimes contradictory reactions and ideas (see above), but that is part of the art and actually quite liberating. If the responses were unanimous, they would be harder to resist and probably influence me too much – especially in the early drafting stages. With such a smorgasbord of reactions, if I may use that expression, I can pick and choose in a way that leaves my feedback diet nutritious and challenging, but not belly-achingly hard to digest. And I get such a rush from having a room full of perceptive and skilled readers doing their best to improve my work.

Then, for me, there has been a most welcome side effect. In Brussels, I mostly skulk around in the shadows. I’m a stay-at-home dad, but the kids live in Sweden (grown-ups, nominally), and my breadwinner wife is constantly on the road. So the BWC is the main provider of great company for me. At the sessions, sure, but also the frequent post-session beers and the friendships growing out of socializing with other lost souls. If you like writing, and you like people, I can’t recommend the BWC enough.

It's not always this cold in Stockholm - honest!

It’s not always this cold in Stockholm – honest!

Meet the Circle: Dimitris Politis

MTCDimitrisPhotoThe members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Dimitris Politis who hails from a tiny whitewashed village on the Greek island of Tinos.

When did you join the group?

Back in 2009, when I followed all the sessions until 2012, when I moved away from Brussels for a while. I then rejoined the Circle in early 2015.

What were your first impressions of the group?

I was delighted to meet other writers and people who were interested in reading and writing. Their views gave a different perspective and often useful advice on my writing. There are always things that a writer might miss, forget or misrepresent. Often little details that can nonetheless make a huge difference in the end. I have found the help of the group in this sense priceless.

What are you currently working on?

MTCDimitrisMetroMy second novel “The Next Stop”, a psychological thriller taking place in a metro carriage right here in Brussels, is already finished in Greek and its English translation is also 95% done. Now I am working on my third nail-biting thriller in Greek: the story of a female archaeologist who gets entangled in the dark Mafia underworld of selling looted antiquities and pieces of stolen art. The story is linked to some antiquities snatched by the Taliban during the Kabul Museum raid back in Afghanistan in 1992. .

Several short stories of mine in Greek have been published on the web and in Greek literary magazines (links in Greek, here, here and here). One of them has been selected by a Greek publisher from more than a thousand submissions to an open short story competition with the theme: “On the edge”.

Another short story of mine in English about the Greek financial crisis has been selected to be published in an anthology of English speaking/writing writers who live here in Brussels, Belgium. So, all in all, not a dull moment!

Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?

There are and have been so many amazing authors from earliest times to the present day that it is unfair to pick out “favourites” as such. I could just mention Stieg Larsson for his amazing thrillers; he never ceases to amaze me as to how aware he was of the IT technology of his era and how cleverly he used all of that in his thrillers. Also the choice of outcast and provocative characters by John Irving and his eccentric, vivid, almost Dickensian protagonists. The beautiful flawless writing style of Jodi Picoult. The identity-defining novels of Luigi Pirandello.

Being of Greek origin, authors such as Odysseas Elytis, the Poetry Nobel Prize winner, and Nikos Kazantzakis with his constant metaphysical and existential concerns had a great impact on me. But there are no favourites, really. Each influenced me in different ways, be it in terms of writing style, pace, plots, characters, scenes or imagery.

Nikos Kazantzakis

Nikos Kazantzakis

 

 

Odysseas Elytis

Odysseas Elytis

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?

I remember one evening a BWC member bringing a chapter from a very renowned bestselling author, presenting it as their own and asking for members’ feedback. While the overall critique was favourable, there was a lot of individual criticism on certain aspects of the writing and the presentation of the story. In the end our member of course revealed the identity of the true author and we all had a great laugh! This story proves once more that all is subjective and fluid in reading and writing and that there is not really one single golden rule!

What do you get out of the group?

Most of all, kind advice, support and friendship. The fact that it is a group composed of Brussels English-speaking ex-pats like me, gives us the opportunity to befriend and connect with like-minded people. To exchange views not only on writing and literature, but also on social, cultural and personal issues and interests which make life what it is.