Where new writing finds its voice

News Archive

23 November

Changes at Pen Pusher Magazine

We've been a bit quiet of late, I know... The reason? We're taking time out to reorganise our online presence, give our website a new look and focus, and to restructure the way PP is run; PP17 will now be published in March 2011 (when PP18 was scheduled to appear).

We’ll be updating the website with news over the coming months, so do look out for updates.

To PP contributors: keep submitting new work to the magazine. PP will still be looking for the best new fiction and poetry in the coming months.

To PP readers and subscribers: don't panic! We'll be back in the new year, shinier and refreshed; if you're a subscriber, many apologies for the gap in your sub, but normal service will resume in March next year, and you won't miss out on any of your due copies.

In the meantime, we have plenty of good news:

Pen Pusher Winter Party

On the 2nd December, join us for the Pen Pusher Winter Party at the gorgeous independent bookshop, Clerkenwell Tales.

We'll have readings from Roddy Lumsden, Kate Kilalea, Niven Govinden, Stuart Evers, and music from talented songstress, Ana Silvera.

It's also a chance to get some early Christmas shopping done as Clerkenwell Tales is offering an amazing 20% off all books on the night.

There will be wine and beer, but feel free to bring a bottle of random plonk along with you, and if we drink the place dry, we can head to the Betsey Trotwood nearby for more.

Readings kick off from about 7pm. Hope to see you there!


Date: Thursday, 2nd Decembert 2010

Time: join us from 7pm

PlaceClerkenwell Tales, 30 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE

Nearest tube: Farringdon

Find it: click here for map


22 November 2010

Pen Pusher Magazine and

PP editor Anna Goodall is guest editor of the second issue of The Clerkenwell Other, due out in January 2011.

PP’s contributors to the Other are: Philip Cowell, Alex Fry, Sarah Hesketh, Li San Xing and Tim Wells.

News of publication date and launch party in the New Year!


3 September 2010

fourthirtythree is a new audio magazine which will be streaming/podcasting/ broadcasting short stories of around five minutes (up to 1,000 words), written and read by some of our favourite contemporary writers. We're looking for edgy, engaging stories about modern life - stories which work well when read aloud. It's all free at fourthirtythree.com.

We're looking for new stories and now is about the best time ever to submit. Guidelines on the website; send all questions great and small to 433mag(at)gmail.com.


19 July 2010

An interview with poet Adam O’Riordan

Adam O’Riordan
Adam O’Riordan, photo by Mark Pringle


Pen Pusher caught up with poet Adam O’Riordan to find out more about his remarkable debut collection, In The Flesh.

In the Flesh
ISBN: 0701185058

How long did it take you to complete the collection? Were you
consciously producing a group of poems or did they just grow by a
natural process of accretion?

The collection formed over six or seven years with a very intense
period of writing when I was in residence at the Wordsworth Trust and
a period of editing and redrafting in the year that followed Chatto
buying the book. I was fortunate in having, in Clara Farmer and Parisa
Ebrahimi, two brilliantly insightful and incisive editors.

Are you a writer that needs routine? Or do you tend to obey creative

I think both are important. I know that if you ignore an impulse to
create you will be punished for it and another might not come along
for some time. I think the discipline is to stay alive and attentive
to what’s coming. Having a regular routine helps but so does knowing
when you’ve done all you can for the day.

What was it like studying under Andrew Motion? In what ways did the
experience influence your work?

Andrew Motion was, and remains, an important figure in my writing
life. In an era that has been remarkable for the quality of Irish and
Scottish poets, Motion is one of the very best poets England has
produced. His elegies in ‘Public Property’ for the Queen Mother, say,
or those his former mother and father in-law are really without equal.
He has been an exemplar as well as a steadying figure. The best piece
of practical advice he ever gave me was to slow down.

Which place did you find the most creatively stimulating place to live
and why – Oxford, London, or Grasmere?

Grasmere to reflect and create. London and Oxford for life experience.

What is the significance of the title In the Flesh? Does it connote
a greater honesty in your work? Or greater erotic content?

I wanted a title that brought together a set of quite diverse themes:
the visceral, the familial, the carnal, ideas of presence and absence,
of death and decay: In the Flesh seemed to do this quite well.

Why do you have a particular fondness for the sonnet? Do you think it
is stronger or weaker with less formal restrictions (rigid rhyme
scheme + rhythm etc)?

I like the flexibility the form offers especially when there’s a
narrative involved as it helps to maintain focus. I think one way of
keeping form relevant is to reinterpret it. It’s rather like living in
a Georgian house: you can enjoy the space and light it provides but it
doesn’t mean you have to wear a powdered wig.

Several collections that I have read recently seem to be moving
towards a rediscovery of traditional verse forms – is this a trend
that you would encourage?

I think the quality of writing is what’s important: slavish devotion
to any form, or approach, can be limiting. I think good writing both
communicates and complicates and perhaps form can help with. However,
I think the best poets, the Walcotts, the Heaneys, the Wilburs, allow
form to serve them not vice versa.

There is a great deal of narrative and use of the second person across
the collection. Were you consciously trying to remove yourself from
some of the poems? Do you think modern poetry is too frequently

It wasn’t so much myself I was consciously removing as the identity of

One of the most impressive features of the collection is the capacity
for acute observation – does poetry reside in the details?

The poetry I love does.

Many of the poems employ a relatively complex vocabulary / high
lexical density. Was this a conscious decision on your part? Did you
want the reader to have to study these poems carefully before they
took anything concrete away from them?

I hope the poems communicate their sense to the reader immediately but
reward rereading and provide deeper resonances over time. It’s an
idea Philip Larkin believed in and one I definitely subscribe to.
There’s no conscious strategy to the use complex vocabulary. The Roman
architect Vitruvius wrote that a building should have ‘firmness,
commodity, and delight’. I think language should serve a poem in the
same way.

Several poems also deal with death. Why is this a theme that you

It’s something I find impossible to make peace with for very long. And
even if you manage to square death for a minute it’s quickly replaced
by the prospect of erasure. There’s that medieval Scots poem by
William Dunbar called ‘Lament for the Makers’ with that chilling,
irresistible refrain ‘Timor Mortis Conturbat Me’ (Fear of Death
Disturbs Me).

After reading your article ‘On Taking up Wordsworth Poet in
Residence’, your comments on the poet’s connection to the public
reminded me a little of C Day Lewis’s A Hope for Poetry. Do you think
that poetry can have a valuable public function? If so, what is it?

I think so. Carol Ann Duffy shows that poetry can respond to, and
invest meaning in, everyday events. In an age when information is all,
poetry makes an extra – and necessary – perspective available. I think
Duffy’s recent poems on David Beckham or the volcano in Iceland prove
this beautifully. Similarly, I’d say Simon Armitage’s long poem ‘Out
of the Blue’ was one of the best responses – in any art form – to 9/11.


7 July 2010

Earthy Anecdotes and Apocrypha

Poet, AB Jackson on the writing of his twenty-one-poem sequence Apocrypha, which is published by Donut Press in November 2010.


* In June 2004 I bumped into Robert Crawford at a Scottish Poetry Library event. He asked me to contribute a new poem for an anthology about St Andrews, which resulted in an anti-St Andrews poem called ‘Apocrypha’. Despite this rudeness it was accepted for the book.

* Later that month, I was sitting in a log cabin in Butterstone, near Dunkeld, trying to quit smoking. Wrote a poem in a similar style about Barabbas. Began thinking of a series (not a sequence) of small fictions, each untitled, under the banner of ‘Apocrypha’. Twenty-one seemed an instinctively good number to aim for.

* I took as my model those writers whose work I still found astonishing after twenty years: Wallace Stevens, and the Geoffrey Hill of ‘Mercian Hymns’. Stevens for his lyrical repetitions – the fire cat in ‘Earthy Anecdote’ and surreal inventiveness: ‘the Socrates of snails, musician of pears ... the lutanist of fleas’; Hill’s hymns for their anachronisms, high historic legend with low present-tense detail.

* With forces in Iraq and the American Christian right running the show, it seemed possible, perhaps necessary, to write mangled religious poetry. To biblical themes, then, I wanted to introduce elements of camp (as I understood it), ie, iconoclasm, high spirits and ‘in’jokes, extravagance, exaggeration, and an alliance with the female. It is only very recently that someone has pointed me to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay on the subject, which includes statements like: ‘One is drawn to Camp when “sincerity” is not enough.’

* On the female side, the apocryphal poems about Jezebel, Judith and Sarah are ‘about’ real acquaintances with those names. Well, not Jezebel, that’s Julie Anne – but she wrote a song called ‘Jezebel’, and sings O’Connor’s ‘Jerusalem’. Sarah Kobrinsky and I danced a highland fling on the platform of Perth station, once. There may have been drink involved.

* The only way to write such poems was to assume that nobody would want to publish them as stand-alone pieces but to carry on regardless and have as much fun as possible before the endeavour collapsed under the weight of its whimsical perversities. When Gerry Cambridge published four of them in The Dark Horse magazine in the summer of 2005, they began to seem like a viable project with a readership of more than one author and his dog.

* I wrote thirteen of them between June 2004 and July 2005, mostly in The Pot Still on Hope Street, Glasgow, then lost the impetus. The final eight would take another four years. I began to think I’d never get across the twenty-one finishing line. On the day I did, I sent a copy to Andy Ching, and a day later we’d agreed to do a Donut special edition. And I’m delighted!

AB Jackson



7 June 2010

Britain on the Box

Pen Pusher’s Helen Lewis discusses the state of British television as part of the BFI’s current two-month season celebrating Britain’s best TV screenwriting talent.

If television is generally considered the poor relation of film drama, then British television is its penniless fifth-cousin-once removed. You won’t find many voices arguing that there’s anything much worth watching on the box in this country, even among those who will happily chew your ear off singing the praises of American series such as The Wire or Mad Men

But that’s a mistake, as a new season of dramas at the BFI continuing this month will argue. Yes, British TV drama has its problems – particularly with budgets, which have been squeezed both by spending cuts and by commissioning editors’ desire for the kind of ratings that only reality shows can give them. But despite this, there are some truly astonishing dramas being made, and some of our best screenwriting talents are working in television today.

First off, let’s deal with the comparison with America. It’s a phoney one, because HBO (the network behind serials like The Sopranos and The Wire and mini-series such as Generation Kill and John Adams) and AMC (which broadcasts Mad Men) are niche channels in every sense. They attract tiny audiences – albeit from the high-earning group so attractive to advertisers – and they produce just a few hours of original programming every week. They’re also run on a subscription basis, meaning they can afford to chase quality rather than quantity. By contrast, the BBC produces thousands of hours of drama every year, and is duty-bound to produce the proverbial something for everybody.

But Britain’s broadcasters do have something going for them: both Channel 4 and BBC take their public service remit seriously, and try hard to produce thought-provoking dramas alongside their more mainstream shows. And there’s one area where Britain clearly triumphs over America – “event dramas”.

These are something of a loss leader for the networks – because they are one-offs, they do not have a chance to build an audience, which is TV’s usual way of justifying high production and promotion costs. But they can tackle big, important subjects, such as politics, economics, the drugs trade, high-profile crimes and miscarriages of justice. They can also give big-name writers the chance to escape the strictures of commercially-minded series drama – for example, Paul Abbott (see below), the creator of Shameless and Clocking Off, tackled political corruption in State of Play

The BFI’s season shows that the current generation of TV writers certainly aren’t shying away from controversial subjects: it includes Tony Marchant’s powerful Iraq war drama Mark of Cain, Frank Deasy’s searing exploration of racist violence England Expects, and Rowan Joffe’s Secret Life, which features Spooks and Pride and Prejudice leading man Matthew MacFadyen as a paedophile living in fear of vigilante justice. 
Of course, there’s an awful lot of dross on telly these days, amplified by the sheer number of channels with airtime to fill, but the BFI season proves that Britain still leads the world in small-screen drama.
Screenings from Second Coming: The Rebirth of TV Drama running at the BFI until the end of June. For more information, visit the BFI's website.     



This 2006 Channel 4 drama by Peter Morgan (The QueenFrost/Nixon) tackles the still-inciendary subject of Lord Longford's campaign for the rehabilitation of Moors murderer Myra Hindley. It centres on the question of whether Hindley's apparent repentance was sincere or whether she manipulated veteran prison visitor Longford into sympathy for her. The cast (Jim Broadbent, Samantha Morton, Andy Serkis) is top-notch, and the script is intelligent, nuanced and surprisingly pacy: clearly the work of a master screenwriter.

 - available at Channel 4 and on DVD

Before Russell T Davies became the purveyor of family-friendly sci-fi on Doctor Who, he wrote this groundbreaking 1999 series about the lives and loves of three gay men for Channel 4. Its frank and sexually-explicit depiction of the hedonism Canal Street 'scene' in Manchester raised eyebrows at the time, as did the decision to make one of the lead characters underage. Its standout moment must be when sexually voracious Stuart outs himself to his family after being blackmailed, and manages to use pretty much every slang term for 'gay' you can imagine (and some you probably couldn't).

This 2004 two-parter by Abi Morgan (the writer of the BBC's recent Royal Wedding, part of its 80s season) won eight BAFTA awards - and with very good reason. It tells the story of two Moldovan women, Elena and Vara, who are trafficked by Vara's so-called boyfriend and made to work as prostitutes in a bar. It's a bleak work, leavened by the beautiful direction and by John Simm's performance as investigator Daniel Appleton. Amazingly, Romanian theatre actress Anamaria Marinca, who won a BAFTA for her depiction of Elena, had never acted for the screen before.

- Showing at the BFI on May 29 at 14:30. Also available at Channel 4 and on DVD

Forget the poorly-received American film version, the original State of Play was a gripping six-part British TV drama starring David Morrissey and John Simm (they certainly know how to pick good roles, those two), with a scene-stealing performance from Bill Nighy as a newspaper editor. Paul Abbott's thrilling story begins with the death of an MP's research assistant, and delves into a shadowy world of political corruption, espionage and skulduggery, which threatens the long-standing friendship between John Simm's reporter and Morrissey's under-fire politician.

- Available on DVD

The BBC's tribute to Dennis Potter, this six-part musical drama was written by Peter Bowker, who recently penned the 18th century romp Desperate Romantics. Yes, you did read that right - a musical drama, which featured the cast lip-synching and dancing along to pop songs as David Tennant's unwilling detective tries to solve a murder in a Blackpool amusement arcade and woo the wife of its owner, played by Sarah Parrish. 
David Morrissey is brilliant as arcade owner Ripley Holden - a brash, vulgar wheeler-dealer with hidden depths - while the love story between Tennant's detective and Parrish's bored housewife is beautifully bittersweet. Incidentally, Tennant and Parrish were later reunited in an episode of Doctor Who (she was a spider-queen) and in the excellent Tony Marchant drama, Recovery, about a man dealing with the aftermath of a brain injury.

- Available on DVD


6 May 2010

Living in The Ice Age: an interview with debut novelist, Kirsten Reed.

Kirsten Reed
Kirsten Reed


In Kirsten Reed’s debut novel, The Ice Age, the narrative takes us on a road trip zig-zagging across America, told through the compelling, wryly funny first-person voice of a seventeen-year-old girl.

We hardly know anything about her: why she is hitchhiking, where she has come from, what her past is, even what her name is. All we know is that she is picked up at a gas station by Gunther, a man much older than her with small pointy teeth like a vampire with whom she falls in love.

Together they drive through endless faceless towns and stay at endlessly identical sleazy motels. Gunther looks after her, buys her food, becomes her companion and provides her with lots of smoke. He also buys a typewriter and endless supplies of grade-A recycled typing paper… the story we are reading is what she has written on the typewriter whilst on the road. The two of them seem to be in a calm bubble of companionship, criss-crossing the huge nation not quite getting anywhere, free from the constraints of ‘normal’ life, but the idyll can’t last forever…

Pen Pusher’s editor Anna Goodall caught up with Kirsten to ask her a few questions about The Ice Age, which is published by Picador on May 6th 2010. Kirsten’s short story ‘Smoke 'em Anyway’ will also be published in issue 16 of Pen Pusher Magazine, due out on July 22nd.

To find out more about The Ice Age visit the Picador website.


1. The Ice Age is based on journals you wrote when you were seventeen. What was it like rereading the experiences of your seventeen-year-old self, and would you describe the novel as autobiographical?

One of the first people to read The Ice Age was Peter Bishop, director of the Varuna Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains; we had a conversation on this exact point. He said that as he read novel he knew none of it had ever happened, but at the same time, he knew all of it had happened... to me, on some level: some authors write literal autobiographies, and some write ‘autobiographies of the self’ – fictitious creations that in some way reflect the emotional life, inner world, and experiences of the author.

I did keep a journal of a trip I took at seventeen, and it informed my writing – I borrowed some of the matter-of-fact tone of the narrator from my younger self. I recalled how I was perceived and treated when I was that age, travelling alone. Strangers reveal aspects of themselves to a young person ‘just travelling through’ they might otherwise keep hidden. I drew some unusual behaviour. The recollection of that phenomenon definitely served me as I wrote. But The Ice Age really does belong to my created characters, which is what made it so enjoyable for me to write. It felt like an escapist romp – I wrote it off the cuff. I wasn’t struck by how much I’d invested of myself until later, as I read it back during the editing process.


2. How difficult was it to find and maintain the first-person voice of the teenage narrator? Did you experiment with using other first-person of third-person voices when you were writing the novel?

I may well be in an arrested state of development. I had no trouble at all handing the reins to a teenage girl. A very real existential angst fuelled the writing of The Ice Age: I had what felt like an intense, unrequited adolescent crush, I was pushing my humility to its limits in a crappy, low-paying job, I was lonely, living in a new city I didn’t particularly like. The best I could say for myself was that I was a relatively harmless person who hadn’t inflicted any major damage on the world. I wasn’t a war-mongering despot. I didn’t head a faceless corporation callously polluting the earth and destroying lives in the name of profit. But I hadn’t contributed in any significant way, either. My life fell way short of childhood expectations.

I felt like my younger, more spirited self had something to say to me, and thus, the narrator was born. The story just tumbled out as it’s written, in first person narration. I’ve always written in first person. I don’t have a problem with stories written in the third person, but get a complex whenever I attempt to write one myself. Because I consider most things to be dependent on point of view and individual perception, I can’t properly situate myself in a story if I’m writing from… above. I find that degree of omniscience disorienting, and descend into hopeless quandary: ‘How do I know that for sure? Who am I—God?’


3. Early on in the novel the narrator tells us, ‘Now this is taking a long time to write, because it’s hard to type when you’re stoned.’ Was the unreliable narrator the only way to keep the ambiguities of motives and morality in the novel in such fine balance?

By this point it’s probably apparent I am very comfortable with ambiguity, and uncomfortable with absolutes. I wanted the narrator to be someone uncomplicated enough to observe her surroundings, and blurt things out, without apology. Sometimes it’s obvious there’s more to things than she’s aware of, or admitting to. I wanted to leave enough space in the telling of the story for the reader to pick up on this, and experience the book on a deeper, more considered level, if they choose to. I wanted them to see these characters in the shifting, complex way that we encounter real people in our lives. The better you know someone, the harder it becomes to simplify them. I desperately didn’t want my characters to read like two-dimensional tabloid headlines.


4. Talking of unreliable narrators, reading the novel it’s impossible not to think of Lolita. How did that novel influence you? And did you draw inspiration from other American road-trip novels or films?

I wasn’t thinking of other people’s stories when I wrote the novel. I was concentrating on my desire to utilise my own experiences to weigh in with a new story, or at least a different angle. I’ve watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books, and I’m sure this influenced my writing, indirectly. If one book inspired me, it was To Kill a Mockingbird: the innocence of Scout, and the deft way she led the reader through some dicey experiences.

I was so young when I read Lolita. I think I was younger than the narrator. I don’t think I understood it very well. All I remember is finding Humbert Humbert to be an awkward character, the sexual tension between him and Lolita’s mother, and the scene where he’s perving on L sunbathing in the garden. In recent years I’ve reflected on the irony that this novel, written from an uncomfortably confessional, flawed perspective, is considered ‘Great Art’, now, at a time when politically correct Western society seems to be abandoning the notion of art for art’s sake in favour of moral prudery. I know from my own life that I dislike being labelled a victim, and can’t stomach when people view my relationships in some kind of predator/prey context. It’s insulting and grossly over-simplified. My stubborn pride has probably gotten me out of, and into trouble, and so it is with my narrator.


5. Throughout the novel we neither disapprove of nor entirely trust Gunther and his motives. We’re following the narrator through the hinterland from innocence to experience with all its complexities, nothing being black and white. So does morality come into it? In what way?

I don’t consider it my role as a writer to deliver judgements on my characters, and I avoid this exercise at all costs. The news bite culture we live in now gives me the fear: the fear that we’re collectively losing the ability to reflect and consider things properly, from different angles. We simply label, which is mentally lazy, and makes for an oppressive, ignorant world. In reality, our existences are comprised of an assortment of acts and experiences, some shameful, some heroic, some selfless, others cold; they can’t be characterised by just one. In regard to Gunther’s motives, people don’t always have motives; most of the time life just happens. He’s no saint; he’s just a regular person, albeit somewhat atypical. I wanted to pull the reader in close, in hopes they would see what attracted the narrator.


6. Ideas of innocence/experience are also found in the girl’s obsessive notion of Gunther as a vampire. ‘I wished he would hurry up and bite me.’ What is the significance of the vampiric theme running in the novel?

Simple answer: I like vampires. I liked a guy with pointy teeth at the time (still do). Plus it felt like the right choice for this story, for her character. It accounted for a young woman’s attraction to someone far more weathered than her. I’m both pleased and annoyed that since I wrote it some four-five years ago, vampires have become über-trendy. It lends credibility to this angle, but the fact it looks as though I just hopped on the Hot Vampire Bandwagon offends my delicate indie sensibilities. This must be how grunge bands and lumberjacks felt when flannel shirts started appearing on models in Vogue. I thought the notion of vampires being irresistibly sexy was offbeat. Nup, it’s mainstream.


7. The girl’s writing of their story as it happens, both characters’ lack of coherent past and future adds to the sense of the narrative’s timeless present. Is the idea of the eponymous ‘ice age’ a desire to freeze the present; is the girl trying not to lose love, something she has clearly experienced before and fears?

I really did sit alone, smoking, watching a documentary on ice ages and climate change, while I was in the midst of writing The Ice Age. That became the title immediately. I like how it can mean so many things. I’ve moved around and don’t have a real sense of home. Thus I lament the widespread breakdown of community, a lot. An old man might nod and smile as you pass him on the street. A younger man might stare blankly/leer. I think a lot of people, partly due to our own fears and reservations, feel that, in some respects, the world is becoming a colder place.


8. How long did it take you to write the novel and how did the story come together? Had the seed of the idea for it been in your mind for a long time?

I literally just sat down and blurted it out. I based the two main characters on aspects of myself and my (now) boyfriend, the part of me that’s an impulsive dreamer and the part of him that’s a guarded old soul. It was as if these notions were two pieces of flint that started a fire, because the characters and entire story took shape on the meditation of those isolated qualities. I suppose being a first novel it can draw as much as it wants from my existence to date. For years I had a vague notion to write about how harrowing and wonderful being in love and adrift can be. But the idea and the desire to write this particular story seem to have come about simultaneously.


9. What is your writing routine? How and where do you write?

I get kind of restless, and as such, I don’t really have a writing routine. I’m a visual artist and suspect I approach writing in much the same way I would a painting. I don’t force things, I let ideas and observations germinate, and then put it all together somewhat intuitively. In a nutshell, I write from home, but most of my time ‘writing’ is spent wandering around thrift shops, doing chores, driving, gardening, talking to pets, painting, going to movies… One person’s procrastination is another’s… er, meditative reflection. I’ve become somewhat obsessed in recent years with the notion of setting up a properly organised permanent workspace, trying to figure out where that place might be, and how the heck to afford it. Since moving to Brisbane, I’ve lived in five rental houses in as many years and this is not conducive to… anything. But it offers some insight into why I wrote a road novel.


10. What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on my second novel, and various art and music projects. I’m certainly not rushing book two. I’m jotting the odd notion down in a notebook, and musing over new characters. I don’t want to write the same book twice. So I feel I need to rack up some more experiences and alter my perspective before I have something new to offer, worth reading. Much of this perspective shift seems to be occurring naturally, as a result of how much my insular little world has expanded since the publication of The Ice Age. I’ve never made anything before that can be picked up and experienced by people around the world. It’s strange. And nice.