170 unread emails greeted my return from holiday, and this almost passed me by in a whirl of administration – but while I was in France, I received the great news that Valve have accepted two of my short stories for the third edition of their excellent journal.
The first story is ‘When The Bough Breaks’. It’s a brutish, experimental piece about a life-term prisoner trying to deal with horticulture in his halfway house.
The second story is called ‘Hound’. I consider ‘Hound’ to be my only true story, so much as any story can be true; I wrote it when I lived in Manchester, back in 2009, and it’s about a stray dog that haunted the streets of Withington. For a month, or maybe six weeks, I saw him again and again, scavenging in the alleys and lanes around our flat. Mon and I would often stop to talk to him, though he became increasingly scared of people. When he finally vanished, as I think I’d always known he would, I looked for him; and when I couldn’t find him nearby, I searched for him on the city’s animal rescue websites. I never discovered what happened to him, but I’ll always feel guilty that I didn’t do more when I had the chance. We left about a month after the dog had gone.
Manchester was a strange time in my life. Three days a week I worked on my first book, a novel-length prose-poem called ‘Meat’, and three days a week, I worked in a bespoke veneer workshop in Stockport. I lost my job when the owner died suddenly from complications of swine flu. On Monday he was there, and on Tuesday he was dead. We finished the last order, then the workshop closed. Desperate for work, I applied for about a hundred jobs in a month: in delis, cafes, factories, shops, offices. I received two rejections and approximately ninety-eight silences. We packed everything we owned into a hired van and drove to Kendal twice in a day. On the second trip, dumb with tiredness, I had to do an emergency stop on the M6 near Preston. There were swans waddling across the motorway. Goddamn swans.
Each of my stories means something to me, but ‘Hound’ is special. Unlike the majority of my work, it is mostly true, and it records a turning point in my life. I had finished ‘Meat’, which took me to some extremely dark and upsetting places, but exorcised a lot of the poison I’d carried through my twenties. I received some good feedback on the manuscript from friends, writers, indie publishers and agents, but the consensus was that it was too dark for a first novel. I think this is probably fair. My reading and writing began to evolve again after Manchester, and ‘Hound’ marks the start of this change in my work: becoming more constructive, more concise and more direct. After ‘Hound’, I became interested in writing as a vehicle for immersive storytelling, rather than writing for the brutality of raw emotion.
As well as being one of my favourites, ‘Hound’ is also the most rejected of all my short stories. I don’t interpret rejection as a validation of the quality of a story, but I’ve been a little dismayed that no-one wanted to take it. I really wanted ‘Hound’ to go to the right home, and I’m humbled and delighted that Valve have taken it on.
I didn’t mean to write so much about this, or to get quite so personal. We only lived in Manchester for eleven months, but when I pull it apart, I feel surprisingly emotional about this point in my life. It marked a step change in who I was and who I am, and ‘Hound’ is a measure of that change. And this perhaps is mostly why I write: to interpret and record my world and myself.