Sunday, 21st October 2012, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Attendance for today’s event is depressingly low (indeed, one member of the audience is a dog – are they fans of the short story form?) but this doesn’t stop Manchester’s own Comma Press from making it a successful one.

Based in the Northern Quarter, Comma Press specialise in short story anthologies and collections and have just recently been named one of the best independent publishers outside of London by the New Statesman. And it seems that they have many big name authors in their canon to back this up whose short stories might not otherwise get published – Frank Cottrell Boyce, M. J. Hyland, A. S. Byatt and Beryl Bainbridge are just a handful of the heavy weight novelists who have entrusted their smaller babies into Comma’s care. However, today’s event is about two of Comma’s best specialist short story writers who are just as integral to Comma’s success – Guy Ware and the award-winning Adam Marek.

Although the low attendance results in a lack of atmosphere at first, once the authors are up and reading it soon becomes warmly intimate, warding off the steadily growing autumnal bitterness outside. Guy Ware is first to read. His first short story collection, You Have 24 Hours to Love Us is due to be published soon and the story he reads from it, ‘In Plain Sight’, bodes well. It is a darkly comic political dystopia involving goat’s milk, William Shatner’s rendition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and exploding, putrefying chickens. It is clear that while Ware’s political ideas are simple enough, his way of exploring them is as different as you are ever likely to see. He does, at one point, threaten to end his story in a very Orwellian fashion, echoing 1984 quite closely. However, he expertly subverts this expectation, throwing a rotting chicken in the face of that notion (quite literally). Ware’s reading of his story is assured, yet he does seem a little nervous. (Perhaps he has seen that the dog, unlike the human portion of the audience, has fallen asleep – maybe canines prefer poetry?) The nerves, however, are understandable. This is a crucial book launch for him and he pulls it off magnificently.

Adam Marek takes the stage next. His first collection, Instruction Manual for Swallowing,was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Prize and his new book, The Stone Thrower, is bound to be just as successful with its greater coherence of theme and structure.  He can afford to relax a little more than Ware, and his reading of ‘An Industrial Evolution’ from his new collection is confident and vivacious. The story is, like Ware’s, a kind of dystopia. This one, however, is more terrifying as it could realistically be a necessary dystopia. The story follows a journalist who enters a camp in the near future populated by orangutans trained to harvest palm oil. With him is the human who gave birth to them. This foray into the possible future of cloning and bio-ethics is startling and timely, a mix of the real and the unreal, the oil of fantasy floating on top of the water of reality which Marek agitates and mixes: ‘I make mayonnaise’ he quips in the Q&A session following his reading.

This Q&A session is revealing, shedding light on the creative process and influences of both authors thanks to some insightful questions from Comma Press employee and the event’s host, Jim Hinks and from the audience themselves. Both authors reveal the unique thought processes they go through to bring such fascinatingly odd stories to life. It seems like they both share one idea in common however: the mixing of two distinct ideas to create one madcap but engaging picture. And it seems that if Comma Press keeps these two authors in their mix, there’s no telling how far the much maligned short story could go.

Nathan Harrison is a student at The University of Manchester.

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