In Conversation: Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell is a writer, editor, musician, book cover designer and the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and Vine Leaves Press. She is also an editor/writer for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide.

In addition to her novels, poetry collections and her bestselling pocket writing guides (Writing in a Nutshell Series), she has published a variety of works in online and print literary journals and anthologies, including Australia’s Cordite Review, Writer’s Digest, and the anthologies 100 Stories For Queensland and From Stage Door Shadows, both released through Brisbane, Australia’s eMergent Publishing. Jessica will be teaching a one day workshop on How To Publish A Book as part of WriteCon16 in Zürich on 21/22 May (book your place here).

Untitled-8 Jessica Bell

All images courtesy Jessica Bell

I first encountered you as an author, but I’ve since found other Jessicas popping up all over the place: musician, writing coach, litmag editor, cover designer, poet, workshop organiser. Which came first?

I started writing poetry when I was about twelve, inspired by the Greek landscape, but then I soon dove right into music at around thirteen/fourteen. My parents were (well, still are) musicians, so I was surrounded by music for much of my teen and young adult life.

Untitled-7 Jessica Bell

Zürich has a thriving literary programme in various languages for readers. But ten years ago, the opportunities for English-speaking writers were limited. Thankfully Zürich Writers Workshop changed all that and The Woolf grew from a desire to connect and inform writers. What kind of a writers’ scene do you have in Athens?

A very small and narrow one. There are some English writers here, and I’ve met up with a few on occasion, and though they are absolutely lovely people, I don’t have much in common with them on the writing front. The ones I’ve met are very focused on writing romance books set in Greece, or travel writers writing about Greece to boost tourism. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not that kind of writer. Yes, my debut was set in Athens, but it’s so far from Shirley Valentine that I very much doubt readers of Greek island romance would desire to pick it up.

Many of our readers are expats or third culture kids. What do you see as the benefits of living in a different country to the one where you grew up?

There are many fabulous reasons, but I think the main one, as a writer, is that I’m able to experience the way a different culture behaves and I can therefore incorporate those differences into my writing. I love to include characters of various cultures in my books. The culture clash between them is great for tension and relationship dynamics. Of course, I think it goes without saying that being so close to everything in Europe is a godsend. I wouldn’t be able to travel to so many wonderful places so often if I still lived in Australia.

Where does the Vine Leaves journal come in? Who are your readers and how does it work?

Vine Leaves started in late 2011 with my co-founder, Dawn Ius, to draw more attention to the vignette. As it says on our website:

“Vignette is a word that originally meant ‘something that may be written on a vine leaf.’ It’s a snapshot in words. It differs from flash fiction or a short story in that its aim doesn’t lie within the traditional realms of structure or plot. Instead, the vignette focuses on one element, mood, character, setting or object. It’s descriptive, excellent for character or theme exploration and wordplay. Through a vignette, you create an atmosphere.”

vine leavesI believe our readers are people who really enjoy the manipulation of language in a way that isn’t considered the ‘norm’. This doesn’t mean that everything is ‘poetic’, or so experimental that it would take a room full of professors to encrypt it. What it means is that our readers, and writers alike, understand that every word used in a vignette is a choice. To write an excellent vignette, one needs to only use words that have a great amount of weight and significance to the vignette’s overall purpose.

For the first three years we published a new issue every quarter, but from this year forward we are only publishing biannually because we’ve now also opened Vine Leaves Press to unsolicited submissions. We’ve now ventured into book publishing! However, if you’d like to submit your vignettes to the journal, you can find out how here.

Tell us a bit about why you wrote the Writing in a Nutshell series? Was that driven by a desire to pass on what you’ve learned?

writing nutshellIn Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says a writer needs to focus on short assignments to avoid feeling overwhelmed. She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how it reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. If you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole. The same applies to learning writing, editing and publishing craft. If writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting, and piece by piece, it will come together.

With more than eleven years of experience as an editor and writer of English Language Teaching (ELT) materials for various ELT publishers worldwide, I know that “breaking down” language and tasks into smaller focus areas is an effective learning method. After much experimentation on myself, and volunteer aspiring writers, I discovered it is extremely effective with writing, editing and publishing, too. And so the Writing in a Nutshell series was born.

Your novels all have a powerful voice—whether it’s the torn musings of Melody in String Bridge or the range of distinctive characters in White Lady. How far is this talent with voice connected to your ear for music?

I’m really not sure, to be honest. I do suppose I have an ear for how language should sound rhythmically due to my experience with music, but I wouldn’t say it has a direct effect. When I write I just try to sound authentic. I don’t write stories. I write ‘real’ life. So my voice is a natural result, I think, of wanting to make the narrative sound as realistic as possible. And even when I’m being ‘poetic’, I believe that is realistic too. Because I strive to portray the ‘truth.’ It can be literal or symbolic, or through trying to make the reader feel what my characters are feeling by using poetic prose to create an atmosphere.

When you begin a book, do you start with the voice and find a story to fit, or does character development dictate the tone? Or perhaps you’re a rigorous planner?

I’m all over the place and unpredictable. Sometimes I’ll start writing a character, and a story evolves to fit him/her. Sometimes I’ll think of a plot idea and develop characters to fit that. Sometimes I write without a plan, and sometimes I write with strict chapter by chapter summaries. It all depends on my mood and what kind of book I’m writing. If I find that I need to organize my thoughts, I’ll plan. For example, I needed to plan White Lady so that all the plot and sub-plot points would link up together properly and make realistic sense. String Bridge and The Book weren’t planned. I wrote String Bridge completely out of order motivated by what the main character was feeling. I then pieced the excerpts together and filled in the gaps to create a flowing narrative. The 1st draft of The Book was written from beginning to end in three days, without a single scribble on a notepad to guide me. It just goes to show there is no ‘right’ way. Whatever works for you and gets the book written!



What made you self-publish your novels, and was that the right decision for you? Why?

My debut, String Bridge, was actually first published by a small press in America called Lucky Press. I guess they weren’t so lucky after all because they went bust only six months after my book’s release. I was then confronted with a big decision. Do I let the book go out of print only after six months and completely waste all my marketing efforts? (I’d also written and recorded an accompanying soundtrack to go with it.) I decided to take the matter into my own hands. Since then I haven’t looked back. I love having control over the publishing process. And I especially love that I’m able to publish books that aren’t ‘commercial enough’ for the Big 5, and still have the opportunity to build a dedicated readership that enjoy reading books by a writer with a different voice. This way I get to be the real me. Not a product that has been developed with profit as the main motive to sell it. Of course, we all like to make money. But that’s honestly not why I write. I design book covers to make money. I edit and write text books to make money. I organize workshops to make money. I do voiceover acting to make money. But the writing? That’s just my heart and soul finding a vehicle to express themselves. And if the result of that expression is making money, fabulous! If not, then I have everything else to keep me on my feet.

As an experienced cover designer, you must have a strong opinion on what does and doesn’t work. What are your key principles when creating a cover?

white ladySubtle colour combinations. If bold and vibrant, not too many! Space (very important!). Focus on portraying a theme and/or emotion, not specific story elements. People are attracted to visuals because of the way they make them feel. Which is why you often see TV commercials implementing a narrative that doesn’t seem to have very much to do with the product, but has managed to grab your attention because it has pushed the right emotional buttons. For example, while I was in Australia, I saw an advert that captured my attention. The narrative shifted from scenes in various homes with happy and relaxed families and individuals. Cooking, reading, playing with a baby, a writer content at his desk, etc. All the people in this advert were smiling and at complete ease. In a literal sense, it looked like it was an advertisement for either a furniture store, or a real estate agent. There was no text, until the end, when the Bank’s name popped up, along with something about their new easy Internet banking system. What was their message here? Bank with us and you’ll be able to enjoy life completely stress free. This is what I believe a book cover needs to do. It needs to show potential readers how it’s going to make them feel, not by telling them what is inside, but by pushing the right emotional buttons to make them take a look at the blurb and see what’s inside.

And apart from a busy year of speaking engagements–Zürich, Chicago, Dublin–what’s next for you?

I really want to try and get my books into audio format. Which won’t be too hard, because I’m also an experienced voiceover actor, and have my own recording equipment. The problem is finding time. I think I will try to get started on these this year. I also want to write another album. I miss music!

In advance of our May weekend and your session–How To Publish a Book–what are the most common errors writers make when putting their work out there?

Jessica 3They RUSH. And try to learn everything there is to know before they’ve even finished writing. By trying to do everything at once, you lose focus, and miss (or even create) errors. You really do not need to start thinking about retailers, distributors and marketing, etc. until the book is ready. So don’t rush. Get your book ready for publication FIRST. Step by step. Focus on writing the book. Then focus on editing the book. Then focus on cover design, etc. Through each step of the process, make sure the result is as good as it can possibly be. Then you will have the brain space and power for the logistics of getting it out there and for sale.

Finally, if you’d not embraced the world of writing and language, what else would you have become?

Oh, that’s easy. A rock star. (I still dream about it.)

In Conversation: Daniel Pieracci

Daniel Pieracci is a freelance copywriter who is based in Zürich. JJ Marsh talks to him about writing and publishing his debut novel.

Daniel Pieracci

Image courtesy Daniel Pieracci

This issue of The Woolf takes the theme of Down the Rabbit Hole. When I read your book Take Your Shot, I thought of exactly that phrase. All seems calm and innocent on the surface. Then you gradually spin us into a vortex of small compromises, insignificant manipulations and minor deceptions until they stack up into one centrifugal force. Did you begin writing with the intention to take your reader on that journey?

My intention was to reflect life. On the surface, everything seems normal, but underneath it’s complex and messy. They are people who just happen to be gangsters and madmen.

Switzerland is a long way from LA and not just geographically. Tell us about how this book came into being while you’ve been living here.

I lived in America till I was 28, then I went to advertising school which took me to Europe and got my first job in Hamburg. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing—writing. It was copywriting for an ad agency, but it wasn’t writing for me. Then a friend told me about NaNoWriMo. I said, yes, I can do that! Take Your Shot is the result of a NaNoWriMo project. I wrote 50K words and then it went into a drawer.


Because I didn’t know what else to do. This was 2008 and self-publishing was already a thing, but not my thing. My girlfriend, now my wife, read it and said, “This is great. It needs work, but it feels like a real book!” But I got caught up with the day job which I wasn’t loving as much as I should and time went by until she said, “Go freelance and become a writer. You can, so go for it. So I did.” It took about a year to knock it into shape and build it to 75K. It worked. wrote it about LA, but I’ve never lived in LA or even liked it, but I felt it had to set there. It’s about a Mexican American family, and I’m not from that background. It’s about a guy in the FBI and I know nothing about the organisation.

In that case, I have to ask the obvious question—where did the idea come from?

The idea came from … [Daniel gives away the ending of the book].

You can’t say that! That’s a massive spoiler!

Oh, yeah.

How to say it? The evil mix of ambition and murder was the nugget of an idea which seemed interesting to me. Once I had that character, the story went from there. I always wanted there to be a contrast between the son and his father, free-flowing versus rigid.

Which is counterpointed by your gangster family.

Yes, because I wanted the bad guys to be good guys too. I had the beginning, the middle, and I knew how it had to end …

Hence the title.

Exactly. Then I incorporated things that were going on in my life which is where the juicing came in. I’m still juicing today. Then it was this slog to get to 50K words and I kept at least 40K in the final draft. I had a lot of help from a friend who became my editor. When I met her in advertising school, I thought when I write a book I want her to be my editor, so it felt like serendipity.

Your writing is certainly visual and lends itself to the screen. I compared it to movies and TV shows in my review. What influenced you to write a book instead of a movie script?

I would love to write a script and I will. I have so much respect for that skill. Having worked in advertising, writing scripts and knowing what it takes to make a movie, it just feels impossible. But when I learnt about self-publishing, I thought, “This is magical, I can do this! With help of course.” When I’ve gained more confidence I absolutely will write a script. One day.

Organised crime and the internal workings of the FBI were fascinating to learn about, not to mention the fashion and the fruit juice. Did you have a lot of fun doing the research?

With the FBI, it’s a mix of my experiences in big corporations and basic research and watching how the FBI are portrayed. Because it’s not a book about the FBI, I just had to make it look reasonable to the average reader. The idea of the FBI or CIA being run by a bunch of dimwits is funny to me. I didn’t have anyone to check that side of things but I did have a friend of mine check the Mexican-American detail. I only had to change one thing. Turns out you wouldn’t eat enchilladas for dinner, but more likely albondigas soup. Research is always difficult, as you don’t know how much to add.

It comes across well, interesting titbits but no huge info dumps.

Thank you. Writing about the FBI is like writing about people. On the surface, it looks pretty simple, but when you look inside …

Yes. There are certainly darker elements to the book, such as human trafficking, drugs and torture, which you manage to light in different hues according to the character’s voice. In fact, it’s blackly funny when the torturers just need to get it over with and go shopping. How do you keep authorial opinion from intruding?

The interesting part of a torture scene is not the blood and guts. I’m interested in the ideas and insights in the writing. The torture scene was to show that aspect of these people, that this is what they do. The eyeball thing occurred to me while I was vacuuming one day – is that a spoiler? As you said, the truth of that scene is not what happens but the impatience of the gangsters to get the info and go shop.

There are writers who use their work as a platform for proselytising. I’m not that kind of writer.

As for keeping my opinion out, I don’t know if I did. There are writers who use their work as a platform for proselytising. I’m not that kind of writer. I’d love to see how my book would look with opinions in it. I try to approach things without judgement. The book is not here to convince people human trafficking is wrong. The characters have their own angle and their own trade-offs. I don’t do drugs, run guns or traffic humans but I understand the people who do are dealing with trade-offs.

On the topic of voice, the range of accents, verbal tics and individual speech markers made for a vibrant palette. With such a broad cast, what’s your technique for differentiating characters?

It comes back to life. Look at this restaurant. All these regular people having conversations, but underneath, they have a nervous tic, something they’re terrified of and that will manifest itself somehow. Some characters are there to move the story along, but if they’re central they have to have something interesting about them. Or be so bland, that’s the interesting thing about them. In all of them there’s something weird or funny. Then if I read back over and think a character is not fully fleshed out, I work on that. But everything is a construct. It’s hard to decide what’s realistic and what’s not.

Do you read your work aloud?

A bit but not enough. I started making the audio book as I’ve done voice over work in the past and realised I need to integrate that into my working process for the next book. Do you do it?

More so now. When I started recording the audiobook for my first one, I kept wanting to change things. Plus I found I’d written a whole lot of words I didn’t actually know how to pronounce.

Yes, exactly! Me too!

Will there be a sequel, or even better, a series?

When I wrote Take Your Shot, I thought of it as a single thing. It had closure and it was done, but a lot of people have said they want to read what happens next. The next book I’m writing is a different series; a crime novel taking place in Luzern with a female inspector. But I have come around to the idea that if people want a sequel to Take Your Shot, I’ll write it.

What compels you to write?

A whole bunch of little things including the following: it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. The only class I excelled at and the only one where the teacher handed back my essay and said you can do better. They all said that but he was the only one who was right. Now in my later part of life I feel like I’m crazy for not having done that from high school on.

Another thing is, when I read something, that one sentence that’s so fucking good, in my mind I’m high-fiving the author and he or she and I are sitting on a couch saying, “Oh wow that’s so great what you did there!”, “I know, I love it!”. It happens occasionally when I write something and I can just bask in it. I haven’t done many drugs in my life because that, right there, is the drug for me.

My wife did this incredibly generous thing for me in giving me the space to write so I have to follow through. I don’t need the affirmation, I have enough reasons to get out of bed in the morning. But when someone reads my work and likes it … it’s just not the same as when I make a good omelette.


Take Your Shot is available on Amazon and all good retailers.


In Conversation: Craig Kirkwood

Prior to moving to Wales, photographer Craig Kirkwood was the CEO of high-profile training company, Fearless Media, which he founded in 1999. At the time, Fearless was the largest organisation of its kind in Australia with offices and facilities throughout the country. He was also a regional manager of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and founded the renowned Flickerfest International Film Festival on Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach which continues today in its 25th year.


It’s great to have you join us for this issue, Craig. Your professional experience spans technology, film and digital media sectors. Have you always been a photographer? And how is your expertise in these other areas brought to bear on your current creative projects? 

I was interested in photography from a young age but by no means passionately. In my twenties I back-packed my way around Europe, India and Africa with an old, fully-manual, Olympus OM-1 film camera—something of a classic these days and I still have it. But despite the romance, film is a bit of a bore really. It’s so long between shooting and processing that I never seemed to improve my shots. I could never remember what settings I’d used to achieve a certain look and I always ended up making the same mistakes over and over again. And of course it was expensive!

I didn’t really pick it up again until much later when I bought a tiny Minolta D’image digital camera in the airport on a trip to Vietnam in 2003. I was so impressed with what this little toy could do that I fell in love all over again. And it took video!

A year or two later I bought a Nikon 50D—an ‘entry level’ DSLR but an excellent camera—and from there I was more or less hooked although I didn’t really take it too seriously until relatively recently.

In the mean time I’d taken a professional interest in Photoshop and graphic design. In fact, I spent more than a decade running a training company in Australia, teaching all the Adobe products along with film-making, editing and publishing. Out of necessity, I became a ‘certified expert’ in Photoshop and that was a big influence on how I later approached photography.

I love the diversity of images you have in the book—from landscapes and streetscapes to portraits and action shots—and I guess you’ve had a lot of adventures along the way. What’s one of the most memorable moments you had while you were out and about, shooting images?

As you know, the book is about the town of Aberystwyth in mid Wales, where we lived for three years. ‘Aber’, as it’s known to the locals, is living proof of rising sea levels. Almost every week the wild waves of the Irish Sea can be seen crashing over the town’s pedestrian promenade. On very high tides the little lighthouse at the end of the ‘stone pier’ is almost entirely obscured by spray as the waves tower above it. It’s an incredible sight and the local photographers can’t resist the temptation of getting as close as possible to the roaring surf.

Spectacular wave explodes onto the wharf, by Craig Kirkwood

Not long after we’d arrived, I was photographing the waves in a massive storm and somehow found myself trapped between the small open harbour and the brunt of the rising sea. At the peak of the high tide, a series of waves came in and through the lens I could see them getting closer but I couldn’t get back any further. They dumped right on top of me and both the camera and I were completely drenched. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage to either.

When did you first get the idea to put together the book?

I wanted to do something kind of … lasting, I guess. I’d been working with electronic publishing, websites and ebooks for some time in my professional life, and I still put my work up on any number of websites, but photographs online come and go and we barely notice them. We’re all spoilt by the number of images that are thrown at as every day on Instagram, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. But in such a short time, books—real, paper books—have become almost a romantic legacy, like vinyl records or film cameras! I think in our digital world (and that’s one I’ve been very much a part of), we’ve begun to crave things organic, tangible and hand made. It’s very satisfying.

Station Master by Craid Kirkwood

I very much enjoyed the fact that you’ve included descriptions for some context about the book’s different sections in both English and Welsh. In what ways has living among different cultures and languages (Welsh and English dialects, as opposed to Australian) made a difference to the way you look a the world?

I absolutely love Wales. I think it’s a very special place and relatively unknown as a ‘destination’. I had visited once when I lived in London in the 1980s but I don’t think I would have come back had it not been for my wife’s work at Aberystwyth University. Aber in particular is very much the Welsh heartland and the Welsh language is spoken widely and defended ferociously. In Cardiff, where I now live, it isn’t anywhere near as widely spoken. Cardiff is more connected to Bristol, London and the rest of Britain by the railway and the great corridor of the M4 motorway but Aber is really quite isolated. It’s at the end of the line so there’s no ‘passing through’ and the nearest town big enough for a department store is over two hour’s drive.

As Aber is the main market for the book, it needed to be in both Welsh and English or I would have had little support for it from the local bookshops and community. But that was part of the fun for me. I didn’t even know the Welsh language was still spoken until I got here so it’s been fun discovering that and learning a little (although I’m afraid not much!).

I think as a photographer you have this window of opportunity when everything is new and exciting. The best time to capture a place is with the fresh vision of an outsider, before things become commonplace and you stop really seeing. When I first arrived there I think I had a sense of that and I wasn’t really working so it seemed the perfect time. I also thought it would be a good way to meet people and get to know the place—and indeed it was.

Catch by Craig Kirkwood

And finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

Over the past 5 or 6 years I’ve begun to listen to audio books. I now ‘read’ more books than ever before and I’m so delighted to have discovered this medium. I’ve just read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity which I loved—along with his earlier work, The Corrections and Freedom.

But I think my favourite author right now is Ian McEwan. I love everything he’s written but my favourite would be Solar. It didn’t receive as much as attention as his Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam, or Atonement which was made into a brilliant film, but I loved it more, perhaps because of the subject matter. It’s about a disillusioned, middle-aged academic and I was reading it while we lived on-campus, mixing with people just like that every day!


See a selection of Craig’s images in the Gallery.

Aber, the book:

Explorations in a parallel cultural universe

by Chris Corbett

“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Berlin Wall by @libby_ol

I first went down the rabbit hole when I moved from America to Switzerland. I then descended further when my first novel was published in Germany before being published in English. I was inspired by one of my favorite crime writers Don Winslow (The Cartel) whose next book is appropriately enough called Germany and is coming out in the German language before it’s even been announced in English.

Following in this noble (if somewhat unorthodox) tradition and seeing how other writers like TC Boyle sell as many books in German as English, I went down this road. The competitive nature of mainstream publishing in the English language is very difficult. After meeting Winslow at a reading in Zürich, I thought living in a German language country might mean bigger opportunities.

Seeing that the second biggest media market outside of the English language world is Germany with its tens of millions of people, I engaged a translator who in turn introduced me to a publisher. He loved my story and soon offered me a contract. The champagne flowed and the celebration went on into the wee hours in the way Berliners celebrate these events—a table full of empty wine bottles by the end of the party. (Good thing the Berlin metro runs 24 hours.)

Metro Berlin

Grudgingly, I had to accept a German style cover over my preferred version, and the publisher also argued successfully to change the title. I gave in. This is Germany, so different rules apply and I’m now happy to say the title is growing on me.

CC cover

Image courtesy Chris Corbett

The book launch was in a small club in a funky neighborhood of Berlin. At the same time I was reading to the twenty people in the theater area, another twenty were at the bar doing what Berlin people do on a Saturday night—drinking and being raucous. But that only added to the atmosphere and gave my book Nirvana Blues an authentic atmosphere. Afterwards, at the signing, I met the man who had been blurting out ‘Happy Christmas’ at random intervals all through my reading and he explained those were the only words he knew in English. I took it as a compliment.

CC stalker

Image courtesy Chris Corbett

Later, an ancient rock ‘n’ roller at the bar with greased back hair and leather jacket sent an emissary to have me come and talk to him. His hair was jet black and looked like he had dyed it in the kitchen sink with shoe polish. We talked about music because he had seen a guitar image on the book cover. He said he’d managed tours for people like Bob Dylan so I gave him my card and was surprised a couple of days later when he wrote me with some names of venues I could approach to do a book tour in.

One of the other people in the audience was a groupie from the ’60s. She told me about a friend of hers, a well-known blues musician who could be interesting to work with. I took her comment with a grain of salt and had another beer. And as the magic of wonderland expanded, a couple of weeks later the guitar player agreed to do a tour with me.

I was getting ever deeper into the world of German culture as my normal American sensibilities were left far behind, as well as my British roots of proper behavior and stuffy, formal conversations. I was enjoying the friendly directness and enthusiastic embrace not seen in my reserved Swiss colleagues who had become my standard of social demeanor.

I met the guitarist between Christmas and New Year and we bonded over dinner at a Greek restaurant next to his concert venue. My book, which is a Romeo and Juliet in ’70s California, has 64 different songs mentioned in it to provide a basis for our special tour. He told me about the tour he had done a couple of years earlier supporting the works of Charles Bukowski (best known for Barfly). The actors reading from Bukowski drank incredible amounts of alcohol to get into character and after the tour the guitarist was so shattered he gave up drinking, smoking, drugs and a lot of other things. Now as a sane citizen he will make a really solid touring partner when we hit the road in a month. Baltic Sea here we come!

Berlin Sunset

My German language skills are still very basic so I’m completely at the mercy of these helpers in this foreign environment where I find myself. It is not only interesting and exciting but also culturally enlightening. The book will come out in English in the springtime so I’m looking at climbing out of the rabbit hole to resume my normal life. But until then I’m living in this wonderland where colorful characters appear and funny adventures unfold. And while I’m wandering through the looking glass I’ll try and remember to not drink from the bottle that says ‘DRINK ME!’.


Gallery: Down the Rabbit Hole

You can read the interview with this issue’s featured artist, Craig Kirkwood here.


SWAG is a new online magazine about the literary scene in Singapore. Its Events Calendar brings all the writerly happenings to one convenient place, while the quarterly journal features author interviews and new writing. Its editor, Jo Furniss, dives in to share the SWAG.

Swag Logo
While criss-crossing from one side of this small island to the other, there’s a building I often see which has a single word emblazoned on its side in giant illuminated letters: CREATE*.
This is a snapshot of Singapore. Ever since Sir Stamford Raffles peered up the Singapore river in 1819 and thought, “Hmm, free trade? That could catch on!”, the city-state has been a boom town.
While the drive to create has long been focused on business and science, a recent concern with fostering creative thinking has led to a boom in the arts. As always, Singapore puts its money where its mouth is: this year’s inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize paid out S$20,000 (USD15,000) to winning Singaporean author O Thiam Chin, the Singapore Writers Festival has positioned the country as a regional literary hub, and the National Arts Council supports projects that would otherwise prove uncommercial in Singapore’s relatively small domestic market.
While SWAG may not have an invitation to this financial banquet, the morsels tumbling from the table put the fire in our bellies to start a magazine: all this zeal for the arts means there are so many literary events going on in Singapore—workshops, book launches, critique groups—how can a writer keep across it all?
My lightbulb moment: an online events calendar that incorporates all the disparate venues and groups would benefit the writing community. A quarterly magazine would allow me to potter about and speak to interesting people. I could even dust off my old BBC microphone and podcast my interviews.
My colleagues at the Singapore Writers Group (900+ members and counting) were supportive and funded the new website. The name SWAG came to mind, partly as a grateful nod to SWG, and also because I like the idea of literary loot; the magazine is a curious collection of our begged, stolen and borrowed riches.
I also reached out to Jill and Libby (The Woolf’s co-founders), having followed The Woolf’s tracks long after leaving Zürich. Their enthusiasm was energising and, perhaps more importantly, their practical advice made the project feel achievable. Like The Woolf, SWAG will be quarterly, themed, rangy.

Image courtesy Swag Literary Journal

The first edition is about BEGINNINGS. As well as interviews with two very different Singapore-focused writers, we have an in-depth feature on three ways to get started in publishing. We look at Late Starters – writers who bloom after 50. And Singapore’s publishing houses also forecast the literary weather for 2016.

And we’re running new fiction: submissions are open to all, though we prioritise pieces that have some connection (however oblique) to Singapore. I’m also open to being told what to do—events or editorial—all contributions are welcome.
Find us at:
We’re on Facebook:
And Twitter: @swag_lit
* CREATE is really the Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise at the National University of Singapore, in case you were wondering.



Making Tracks

Goings on this Spring in the city of Zürich and beyond.

'Chicken' by Craig Kirkwood, partial shot

‘Chicken’, partial image courtesy Craig Kirkwood

WriteCon16: 21 May, Kulturhaus Helferei

This year’s WriteCon is all about Making It Happen. Hands-on and practical. Whichever event you choose, you’ll walk away with concrete, tailored advice.

BOOK online here.


Saturday 21 – a choice of two workshops

Workshop 1: How to Publish a Book, with Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell

Jessica is editor of the Vine Leaves Journal, an author of both novels and non-fiction, plus a writing coach and cover designer.

Her workshop, suitable for writers of fiction/non-fiction, is filled with useful advice and highly productive, with exercises and activities to put theory into practice.

By the end of Saturday, you will have all the information you need to perfect and publish your book. This session will cover:

  • Editing & Polishing Your Work to Publication Standard Part 1 (Content)
  • Editing & Polishing Your Work to Publication Standard Part 2 (Style)
  • Preparing Your Manuscript for Publication (Copy)
  • Making Your Book (Formatting Your Manuscript)
  • Cover Design Considerations
  • Retailers & Distributors
  • Q&A

BOOK Jessica’s workshop online HERE

Workshop 2: How to Market a Book, with Helen Lewis


Helen Lewis

Helen Lewis, Director of boutique publicity agency Literally PR and Co-Founder of The Author School has a wealth of expertise when it comes to promotion.

Helen’s session is comprehensive and realistic, involving participants in creating their own PR stories, advance information sheets and finding what works for you. By the end of this workshop, you’ll take away concrete ideas and immediately applicable techniques to help you find your readers. This session will cover:

  • Publicity Masterclass #1 (What you need)
  • Publicity Masterclass #2 (What you can do)
  •  How to write your own Advance Information Sheet
  • What makes your author story and/or your book appealing to the press?
  • Building your author platform (offline)
  • Social media health-check
  • Q&A

BOOK Helen’s workshop online HERE


Around the region …

Geneva Writers’ Conference

The 10th Geneva Writers’ ConferenceMarch 18-20, will welcome over two hundred writers from around the world to a weekend of workshops, panels, readings and networking, led by well-known authors, agents, editors, and publishers, to be held at Webster University, Bellevue, Switzerland. The instructors—Carmen Bugan, Tessa Hadley, Ann Hood, Liz Jensen, Shaun McCarthy, Frederick Reiken, Andrea Stuart, Susan Tiberghien, Wallis Wilde Menozzi—are all widely published writers and experienced teachers, committed to sharing their knowledge and perspectives on writing as both an art and a profession.  The conference is organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. For more information visit or register at

French Writers’ Retreat

One of the most elusive things for writers can be finding the time and space to write. L’Atelier Writers Retreat and Workshop seeks to provide a balance of solitary space for writing, engaging seminars on craft, critique sessions with peers and instructors, and invigorating social connection. The workshop is intentionally kept small welcoming 15 writers each year. The next retreat will be held June 5-10, 2016 in Villeferry, France. (Check-out is the morning of Saturday, June 11th.)

Writers on Board (Zürich)

Once more, you can see the seasons pass by on the shallow hills outside, while you put inspiration to paper (or machine memory) and talk about the writing life.

This year’s sessions are: Sundays 20th March, 17th April, 22nd May, 19th June, 17th July, 21st August, 25th September, 23rd October, 20th November, and 18th December.

Writers on Board meet at 13:15 at Bürkliplatz next to the departure screen. We take the big round trip departing 13:30 to Rapperswil and will be back in Zürich by 17:25. We write individually on the way up and talk (in English) on the way back. For convenience we treat ourselves to first class. The most economic ticket is the ZVV 9 Uhr pass. Apart from pen and paper or notebook, please bring a little money to buy your own beverages.     —Sarah Buchmann

Authors in Town! (Zürich)

All kinds of interesting people popping up at Kaufleuten, including Pussy Riot founder member Nadja Tolokonnikowa, Yann Martel, Garth Risk Hallberg, William Boyd and Viv Albertine.

Check out the Literaturhaus programme for more interesting authors and literary events.

Calling Poets

Are any Woolf readers writers of poetry? And possibly interested in publishing an anthology? If so, contact Jill via the Editorial page.

Character Agency (SCBWI Switzerland Webinar)

What is agency and why does your character need it?

Merriam-Webster says agency is the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.

What can you do to ensure you are writing characters with agency, and what if you’ve finished a project and think your character needs to demonstrate more agency in your story?

Join SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) on 22 March, 2016 for a webinar with Bridget Smith, Literary Agent with Dunham Literary, Inc. to answer these questions and more.

In addition to the webinar, a limited number of critique opportunities will be offered. Bridget will look at 5 pages from your manuscript, as well as a 1-2 page synopsis, and give you feedback on your character’s agency in the story.

Sign up HERE.