canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Laura Hird 

by Zsolt Alapi

In the Paris of the early 1920s there was Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Co. and tireless promoter of some of the greatest literary talents of the time, most notably James Joyce. In our current cyberage of on-line publishing, there is Scottish writer Laura Hird, whose websites ( is one of the most eclectic compilations of on-line fiction, prose, interviews, reviews, and cultural varia by some of the most interesting international writers active today. Hirdís site is a wealth of inspiration for aspiring writers, those who are established, and for those who love the unusual and writing that pushes the envelope. Four issues appear per year, and her "Showcase" features well-known voices like Ali Smith (recent nominee for the Booker Prize), major underground figures like Dan Fante and Mark SaFranko, and the best of the new voices like Tony OíNeill, Heidi Smith, Canadian Matthew Firth, and many others. Hird is a tireless promoter of fine talent, and her keen eye for original and quality writing makes her site a must read for anyone who wants to keep abreast of literature that is edgy, ballsy, unconventional, and, above all, real. The voices in Hirdís "Showcase" are all original, contemporary, and passionate: a testament to her own editorial vision

Hirdís site is a slick production. Biographies of each author are featured with links to their other works, their influences, anecdotes, advice, music, reviews, interviews, and even recipes. Her "Lit. Mag Central" is a compilation of some of the top on-line Ďzines as well as print journals, complete with links, submission guidelines, editorial policies, a great service for any writer aspiring or established. There is even a "Forum" where readers can post their responses for the authors to read and a list of the latest literary contests and news on the latest publications. Finally, there is her "About Me," a fascinating look at Hirdís own life as a writer and editor.

Laura Hird lives and writes in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her work has appeared widely throughout the UK and the continent, but has yet to be discovered in Canada, an omission her publishers will hopefully rectify. Her novel, Born Free, a gritty urban tale of a familyís struggles, published in 1999, was short listed for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and for the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award. Nail and Other Stories was short listed for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, and forthcoming in August, 2006 is another collection of stories, Hope and Other Urban Tales from Canongate Books.

Hirdís collection Nail and Other Stories is a virtuoso performance, a stunning collection that offers slices of Scottish gritty realism, alternately disturbing, humorous, and surreal, but always provocative. By her own admission, Hird writes to describe a world "in all its ugly beauty, minus the boundaries of taboo or political correctness." Indeed, NailÖ features a vast array of characters from the woman of the title story whose obsession is typified by a growth that symbolizes her own inner collapse, vindictive men and women, the ghost of a lesbian lover, young children who try to desperately hold onto their innocence in a violent and morally vacuous world, and a soldier who has been driven insane by the horrors of war. The stories in NailÖ transcend gender stereotypes, as Hird is equally skilled at portraying vivid male and female characters. Two personal favorites in this standout collections are "Imaginary Friends" and "Routes". "Imaginary Friends" is the story of a young girl whose best friend is her piano teacher who just happens to be a pervert and potential child molester. Hird skillfully presents the horror of the events through the childís innocent perspective. The ending is wonderfully done, alternately gentle, creepy, ironic, yet almost wistfully poignant. In "Routs", Hird demonstrates a mastery of dialect and presents the point of view of a child who is jaded by his world and living circumstances. It is a blend of emotions from anger, disappointment, and failed expectations, yet ends with the redemptive hope of love and romance, completely true to the pre-adolescent sensibility.

As an editor and tireless promoter of the new and the best in writing, Hird can be summed up in a testament offered to Sylvia Beach about her own work: "she was one courageous woman." For Canadian readers, Laura Hirdís talent as a writer will be a revelation.

What follows is an interview with Laura Hird about her role as both editor and writer. (March 2006)

ZA: How did you come up with the idea for your website?

LH: Initially, it was to create a place where I could publish work by some of my favorite new writers, and also to publicize literary magazines and literary websites (the life blood of new writing and increasingly one of the few places where innovation is still allowed) in the hope that some sort of cross fertilization would occur and that other editors might start noticing some of the writers I was featuring and maybe ask them for stories to publish. Iím glad to report that this is now happening on a regular basis. I decided to set up the Showcase section of the site, initially, so other people could read the works of these writers, and eventually started getting submissions from all over the place. I also started contacting writers whose work I enjoyed in literary magazines and other sites, asking if they would like to contribute. Then, I started reviewing the odd book or film on the site, and subsequently started getting e.mails from people who wanted to review, which has led to the loyal band of reviewers and the growing New Review section the site has today.

ZA: How do you feel about the website now? Is it what you had hoped for?

LH: Itís much more than I had hoped for. I was particularly delighted last October when I reached 1 million hits. As well, many of the writers first featured on Showcase have gone on to have books published and their stories and poems featured in a wide variety of magazines. Iíve published writing from all over the world including the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Pakistan, India, China, Denmark, Mexico, Finland, and even Malta. It has been particularly gratifying since I have formed many friendships with other writers through the site.

ZA: Seeing that there is such a wide variety of stories and poems on your website, what are your criteria for accepting works to feature?

LH: I just look for work that is well-written, has that certain spark, and that I personally enjoy. I donít like to appear too prescriptive about the fiction/poetry/reviews I accept as I like to encourage a variety of genres and styles. I like writing that drags me in, involves me, moves me, expresses some simple truth, and ideally makes me either laugh or cry or both.

ZA: How did you get well-known writers such as Dan Fante, Mark SaFranko, and Ali Smith to submit their work to your site?

LH: Dan Iíve known for a few years since we did some readings together when he was over in Scotland promoting his novels Mooch and Chump Change which Canongate, my publisher, put out. We kept in touch and I asked if heíd be interested in submitting a story and was delighted when he agreed to let me feature "Princess," which ended up in his latest collection, Corksucker. Mark I was in touch with about getting a review of his latest novel, Hating Olivia, on the site and chanced my arm and asked if he would submit a story, which he most generously did. I published a story by Ali Smith when I was guest editing the website and again took a chance and asked if sheíd be willing to let me feature one of her stories on my own site. She very kindly agreed to let me include her wonderful story, "The Child". I love all the writing on Showcase, regardless of where a writer is in his or her career, but itís a great boost to some of the newer writers to be published alongside their award-winning, established counterparts.

ZA: Do you have any advice for aspiring young writers who wish to be posted on your website?

LH: Please send your work along. Iíll be waiting.

ZA: Laura, letís talk about your own writing. Who are your major influences?

L.H. I was first introduced in secondary school to the works of Raymond Carver, who is probably still my favorite writer today. Reading his fiction, I developed an insatiable appetite for short stories. Amongst my favorite short fiction writers, Iíd include Richard Ford, Flannery OíConner, William Trevor, Scottish writers Duncan McLean, AL Kennedy, Ali Smith, and also James M. Cainís novellas. Iím also an enormous fan of Patricia Highsmith for her wonderfully intense, psychological style of writing and deceptively profound, unsettling and deadly short stories. She also wrote a wonderful reference book called ĎPlotting and Writing Suspense Fictioní which I found invaluable when I first started writing and still re-read passages from when the writers block kicks in. Iíve always enjoyed the earthy, working class tales of Zola, Thomas Hardy, and DH Lawrence, and the plays of Tennessee Williams, Genet, Pinter, Singe, Orton, David Hare, Peter Shaffer etc. My favorite novel of all-time is Alasdair Grayís 1982 Janine which was really the book that opened my eyes to contemporary Scottish fiction. I remember reading it more than a dozen times on the trot when I first discovered it as I was convinced I would never read anything as perfect again. Itís still hard to beat. Other novelists I enjoy include Nabokov, early Ian Banks, Charles Bukowski, Dan Fante, Hanif Kureishi, John Fowles, Ian McEwan, David Lodge, A.M. Homes, early Irvine WelshÖ Plus, the hundreds of not-yet-established writers that fill modern anthologies, literary magazines and websites (many of whom Iíve been lucky enough to feature on my own site). I find unpublished writing particularly fresh and inspiring.

ZA: Is there a community of writers in Scotland with whom you can share your work?

L.H. Itís always good to meet up with fellow Scottish writers at workshops and readings, but really this is true of other writers throughout the UK and abroad. Iím still friendly with a couple of writers from the Children of Albion Rovers anthology and have gotten to know some of the younger Scottish writers through featuring their work on the website. I think Glasgow has a stronger sense of kinship between writers due to the Creative Writing course run by the university there. Iíve developed a particularly good relationship with writers from US and Canada over the years as they seem to truly appreciate and celebrate short stories in a way that is sadly lacking in the UK.

ZA: You have said that your most enjoyable creations are "real monsters". As well, you mention Patricia Highsmithís Ripley as one of your favorite literary creations. Clearly, Ripley is an amoral figure who lies, cheats, and kills, even assuming anotherís identity. Why this fascination with the darker side of the human experience?

L.H. The character of Ripley I love because Highsmith really pulls you into his way of thinking to the point you are almost culpable in his behavior. I hate the tendency in society (most often manipulated by the media) to think of things in black and white. Instead of trying to understand why people commit immoral acts, we are encouraged to judge them and see them as Ďevil.í I canít see how society can ever develop and improve if we continue to pigeon-hole people like this. We are all subject to temptation, think ill of other people, have our own prejudices, hurt the feelings of others either consciously or unconsciously or much worse at some point in our lives. Nobody knows what is round the corner, how it might make us feel, how we may potentially respond to it. By its own unpredictability and uncertainty, we are never certain where life will lead us, good or bad, till that life is over. Even the strongest of characters have a point at which, for any number or a culmination of reasons, they can be broken. Writing gives me an opportunity to put myself into the heads of all manner of characters to try and imagine points in their particular journeys. The more complex or difficult the route, the more challenging and fascinating the journey for me as a writer.

ZA: In your story "There was a Soldier" (in _NailÖ_), the main character is a soldier who murders women, has sex with them, and then defiles their corpses. Clearly, the character is mad, yet you offer only a hint of the reason for his obsessive and perverse action. How do you think you are able to maintain that fine line between graphic violence and social commentary?

L.H. Part of the impetus behind that story was my feeling about the desensitizing effect watching modern warfare on television seems to have on the general populace. During the time I was writing the story, the tragic conflict in the former Yugoslavia was unfolding. Each day on the news, we were offered increasingly horrific images. It was as if the concept of people massacring their own friends and neighbors wasnít hellish enough. Like we needed to be shown the charred bodies of entire families wiped out due to ethnic cleansing for it to really sink in and, even then, our lack of compassion and compulsion to keep our heads buried in the sand stopped us having an emotional response? When ĎThere Was a Soldierí was first published, I found it ironic that people were so concerned about the explicit violence in what was simply a piece of fiction when they seemed indifferent to the real extremes of violence that are taking place throughout the world at any given time.

ZA: Two of your finest creations in NailÖ are the 12 year old boy in "Routes" and the young girl in "Imaginary Friends". These stories both hinge upon the innocence of the characters and their attempt to deal with a cruel, vile world that seeks to claim their innocence. Their initiation into the dark reality of this world reminds me of the protagonistís epiphany at the end of Joyceís "Araby" where he sees himself as a "creature". Do you share Joyceís view that reality can only be understood once we have awakened to the darkness in the human heart?

L.H. I think the boy in ĎRoutesí had already built up a set of prejudices with which to protect himself, due to neglect, being verbally abused and through hearing certain groups of people spoken about in a negative way by the adults in his life. However, many of his mother and her boyfriendís own prejudices he had subverted, ie. his desire to join a triad gang or seek the respect of the black community. As is the case with most children, the forbidden is almost unbearably enticing. Often children would not even think about doing certain things if they hadnít been told there was something inherently bad or dangerous about them. With the little girl in ĎImaginary Friendsí her parentsí own awkwardness at physical affection towards her as her body develops makes the advances and affection of her piano teacher all the more welcome. I also meant for the story to suggest that the real horror of the abuse for her personally will begin when it is discovered what has been going on and she ends up feeling almost demonized for having been involved. Finally, I tried to reflect in this story how human beings first become instinctively fascinated with the darkness as children. It is a fine line between letting them explore and discover it for themselves, or serving to protect them from it, in which case they often strive to discover it in possibly more extreme ways as they get older.

ZA: The characters in your stories are often morally bankrupt. Would you say that your writing is a pessimistic reflection of a world that is both chaotic and with little value?

L.H. I think it reflects a world where the majority of people feel they are decreasingly in control. The accumulation of money seems to be the main objective these days. If something is not geared towards making a lot of money, it is seen as worthless. Making people feel useless if they arenít thriving financially creates an ever more fractured society. In this environment, itís hard to explain any sort of moral code to children as they grow up and subsequently our schools are also battlegrounds where pupils are in many cases in control now. Everything comes with mixed messages. Everyone is looking for a scapegoat. We are left with a sense that the only thing we can rely on is ourselves, the pressure of which leads many of us to blank that enormous sense of duty out by one destructive means or another. In Scotland our inherent Calvinist guilt leads us to deal with that by drinking ourselves to death en-masse. Iím probably extremely naÔve, but Iíve always wondered why we always have to compete with each other, rather than pool our resources and do something truly constructive.

ZA: Your forthcoming collection is called _Hope and Other Urban Tales_. Is this collection more character driven (like _NailÖ_), or more of a reflection on social issues and conditions?

L.H. Most of my stories stem from the characters, and as I draw up stories for them, their personal circumstances become apparent. I guess the thing that is common to most of my characters is that they are in some way trying to escape their own realities. Nobody seems to be happy with what they have any more, however much that may be. You rarely, if ever hear someone say, ĎNo thanks, Iíve got enough. Give it to someone else.í When I was reading back the typeset proofs of the new collection, I realized it was probably the most pessimistic book I have written yet. It was not my intention, and I was somewhat depressed by this realization.

ZA: Any new projects on the horizon?

L.H. Iím currently working on a book of my motherís letters for my publisher, Canongate. The book features letters my mum wrote to me during the time I was a student in London in the late 1980ís and early 90ís. At the time my friends and I would take turns and read them out loud to help combat our home-sickness and invariable end up in tears or uncontrollable laughter. After mum died in 1999, I took great comfort from the letters and again used to read bits from them to friends. Everyone Iíve shared them with has always said that it was a great shame mum hadnít turned her considerable writing talents to fiction. The book includes many of the letters, interspersed with my own feelings about our lives at that time, my parentsí early lives and my own childhood, my relationship with my mother and father, regrets, memories. Itís an emotional book to work on, but I could not resist the opportunity to finally get a book of my mumís writing out there. Itís due to be published in May 2007. After that, Canongate have commissioned a sequel to my novel, Born Free, which I look forward to working on. Thereís also a couple of possible projects regarding the website, one being a bilingual English/Italian issue of Storie magazine which would feature stories and writers featured on the showcase, and the other a possible anthology of the showcase writersí work. Iím also working on the screenplay of a film a Dutch filmmaker is making of my story ĎOf Cats and Womení from NailÖ plus a few short story projects.








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