Wendy Brandmark
Ian Rankin, C.A.R. Hills

Wendy Brandmark’s story is called ‘Irony’. In it a male creative writing teacher get his comeuppance from a young female student in his class. The final scene, set in his office, involves her firing a water pistol at his forehead, setting off tears of rage and sadness that he hasn’t experienced since childhood. A strong feminist image, I’d say.

Brandmark’s website reveals that she has gone on to be a creative writing teacher herself. In London, she has taught creative writing for over fifteen years, which is exactly the length of time that Phil Rosen had taught in Denver, Colorado, where ‘Irony’ is set.

Wendy Brandmark directed creative writing at the Faculty of Continuing Education at Birkbeck. She drafted and helped to launch the MA in Creative Writing there. Currently she teaches short story writing at The City Lit, also London, and supervises students in fiction writing in Creative Writing at Oxford University.

Which is tricky for me. Because I see an irony here, which I am tempted to explore in a fictional way. Already I envisage a final scene where a male student fires a water pistol into the face of the experienced female tutor. But it would be crass of me to write that on the basis of biographical coincidence alone. Besides, I’m a feminist and agree that the patriarchy needs undermining.


I have to try and communicate with Brandmark in an open and honest way. However, I’m almost sad that my opening email comes close to short-circuiting my original idea, because one’s first response to a piece of writing is often the truest.

My email to her includes the paragraph: ‘
I enjoyed reading your 'Irony'. Ironic that you yourself now teach creative writing. I guess you'll have too much empathy for your students for any of them ever to feel the need to fire a water pistol at you!’ 

It’s a week before this comes back:

Dear Duncan,

Thanks for contacting me about
PEN New Fiction 2. It does come out of the blue. I really haven't thought about the anthology for a long time. But in fact the story 'Irony' will be included in my short story collection. I am happy to help you with some of your questions, but first of all, I would like to know more information about the book you are writing:  the publisher, the scope/ themes/ purpose, the other writers you are including etc. Why now? It is so many years later. I guess I am surprised and intrigued.

Best wishes, Wendy

I imagine myself to be Phil Rosen writing to his former student, Jane Wood, asking if he can include a story of hers in a short story anthology he is editing for the Denver College where he has now been working for thirty years. Why have I/Phil selected Wendy/Jane’s story? Well, let’s quote from ‘Irony’:

‘One quick reading revealed flaws in Jane’s stories: stilted dialogue, unbelievable actions. Phil felt relieved but re-reading was struck by the main character in each story: a young woman who spoke to herself in a stream of brilliant images, sentence fragments. It was as if an exotic bird flew out of her mouth, that set, critical mouth, singing wild, high-pitched songs.’


Not much sign of a wild exotic bird flying out of Wendy’s mouth in her first response to my email, perhaps because of the responsible positions she now holds at the City Lit and Oxford, but it is early days. I need to go about this very carefully, just as Phil Rosen would have done, with lots of reassuring cladding. Take it away, Phil, a sort of ‘Jewish Rock Hudson’:

My email goes on to say:
I'm attaching the provisional intro, which will give you an idea of the scope of the book. Basically, I've started to contact fellow contributors. Some chapters are likely to feature just one author while others might cover several. At all times I'll be looking for where the human interest is, where the story is that I can enjoy writing and, hopefully, the reader can enjoy reading.

Why this book now? I'm always asking myself in what kind of project can I most productively invest my creative energies. Recently I realised I wanted to revisit my youthful literary ambitions of 30 years ago, to pay tribute to them (insofar as tribute is due) and to correspond with others who may have shared the same kind of confidence in themselves and their urge to communicate.  

I don't believe in the unexamined life. I also want to take responsibility for my actions
. PEN New Fiction 2 was put out into the world by an editor and a publisher. As a contributor I thought I'd done my bit, and reviewers and journalists would promote the book. That didn't happen. Perhaps it's down to me - to all of us - to do that job even though thirty years have passed! If between us we have had interesting writing lives - and I've already established that many of us do - then my job should be easy enough. Though it's down to me to organise the material and to make sure the book entertains, educates and inspires.

My provisional title oscillates between
PEN PALS and The Class of '87. Of course there never was a Class of '87. Although I chatted to several fellow contributors on the night of the launch and briefly corresponded with one subsequently, that fizzled away. I want to piece together how that experience was for others. And in the process some kind of group ethos or essence might still develop. I'd like to think that in a few months we might be sending emails to those of us who have opted in to some kind of community, though that ambition remains vague for the moment. Any such development I'd try to do justice to in my narrative.


Can you relate to that? I hope so. I wonder if any of the other stories in your forthcoming collection feature the creative writing class environment or foreground the writing process. Do you have experience of the individuals in your courses creating something together and/or forming a communal identity?

What game am I playing? Is it a game I’m playing? I think I’ll leave such questions and return to ‘Irony’ to find out more about Phil and Jane.

‘In workmanlike fashion, Phil dismembered each of Jane’s stories. The class was good that day, echoing his criticisms like a chorus. Phil wondered how Jane could sit there so cool and silent while the crescendo built. He waited for her protest but when it came at the next meeting he was surprised.

Phil began by praising the interior monologue in one story about a murder. Jane stared at him with just a hint of a smile as if she scorned his conciliatory words.

“But the actions of this girl don’t make sense in view of what she tells us about herself.” Phil wished she would stop trying to out-stare him. “Someone who professes to be so passionate would not let herself be victimised so easily,” Phil concluded.

“You missed the irony,” Jane said.

“What irony?” Phil looked around the table for smiles, but found none. She does not even know the meaning of the word.

Jane began to point out sentences, whole passages with so-called double meanings, twists; passion turned to passivity under her scrutiny.

“You see?” she demanded. One by one the students around the table began to nod their heads in agreement.

‘Like dogs,’ Phil thought. “A story is not a puzzle. For the irony to work, it must not be obscure.”

“It’s not, is it?” Jane looked around.


“I don’t think we need discuss this further.” Phil felt ashamed of himself. He noticed Jane exchanging sympathetic looks with the other students. He couldn’t believe he had lost so much.’

On December 17, Wendy writes to me a second time:

Dear Duncan,

I like your intro and I'd be happy to share some thoughts/experiences though I don't have much to say about
PEN New Fiction 2 itself. I always wondered why they even published the anthology since they did nothing to publicise or distribute it (as far as I know).

 I don't know whether you would just want to do this by email or phone or in person. Also I guess I would like before publication of the book to see what you have said about or quoted from me. That's not about vetting but just my fear of being misrepresented, after a few embarrassing interviews where interviewers misquoted or selectively quoted from me or just got the facts wrong.

Best wishes, Wendy

See how this becomes a battle for control of the situation? As between Wendy and me, so between Phil and Jane.

The irony (yet another layer of it) is that this chapter will never appear in print without Wendy Brandmark’s permission, because she owns the copyright both to her letters and to her story, her compelling story…

‘Jane startled him, appearing so suddenly on the other side of his desk. Had she watched him stare at nothing through the window, as though with sightless eyes.

“Sit down,” he responded to her. “Are you busy?”

“I don’t agree with any of your criticisms of my stories.”

“Well, that was obvious today,” he smiled in what he hoped was a fatherly way.


“I was reading your comments; they don’t really tell me anything but your opinions.”

“I can’t tell you how to write your stories if that’s what you mean.”

“I’m not asking that. It’s just that you don’t really read the stories. You have preconceived ideas. You’re very opinionated in a certain way.”

“Yes, I do have opinions. Students have always found my judgements very helpful.” He laughed to keep above her, to make her a child throwing tantrums.

“You dominate the whole class. Everyone’s afraid to say anything.”’

Christ, I wonder if that’s true. I (Duncan, not Phil) wonder if I’m inhibiting the class of ’87 from expressing their individual selves by being too dominant a narrator.

Time will tell.

Hi Wendy,

Yes, I'll send you what I write about you and your work before publication.

If you could respond by email to the issues I've raised in my last two emails and this one, I feel that would be a good way forward. Because your PEN story is set in a creative writing class context I'm particularly keen on reading what you say about that, with the roles reversed as it were. In other words, though you do to some extent humanize Phil Rosen in the story, and distance yourself from Jane Wood, it's tempting to think of 'Irony' as having autobiographical roots. (Or do you not think so?) And now you are the teacher...

I’m enjoying reading
The Angry Gods. I'd be interested to know a little about its conception and publication history too. I expect I will be ordering a copy of The Stray American soon. 


I've no plan to be in London for the moment, but if I do plan to visit in the next few weeks or months I'll be contacting some of the contributors with a view to arranging meetings.

All best, Duncan

Actually, I have already read The Angry Gods, and its emotional depths are obvious from the start. The novel focuses on a woman in New York in the Fifties, Sonia. She’s from a Jewish family but develops a relationship with a black guy. Sonia’s story is counterpointed with that of her daughter, Helen, who is just beginning to explore her own sexuality. What help does she get from her mother? Not much, as Sonia has married someone other than her black lover, a fellow Jew, and has lost touch with her youthful passions. But as the story moves towards its climax, perhaps Sonia is capable of playing a constructive role in Helen’s path to adulthood.

But back to Phil and Jane in his office:

‘Jane was talking, but Phil could not listen for he must calm himself down, look out of the window. The moment passed. He was able to deliver a mildly patronising statement: “Young lady, you have a chip on your shoulder. None of my students have ever complained.”

He saw her flinch at this as if the charge had been made before. In her vulnerability she became desirable again.

Jane stood up awkwardly; for once she had trouble meeting his eyes. Phil moved from behind the desk as she walked toward the door. He caught her by the arm, jerking her towards him. Before he could reach her face with his lips, Jane gave him a quick push and he had to step backwards to regain his balance. She was out of the door.

Jane Wood disappeared for a week, during which Phil regained respect in the class. Then he asked, although he could have just as well remained silent, “Has anyone seen Jane Wood? Is she sick, do you know?”’


Let's leave Wendy's story there for a moment, in order to assimilate her latest email:

Hi Duncan,

I think it is easiest if I just answer some of your questions bit by bit and then you can ask me for further details. Here's a start.

I did go to the launch party, but remember very little about it. I know I talked to a few people including one of the PEN organisers, but mostly it made little impact on me. I am sure I read the other stories, at least a selection, at the time, but again it was so long ago that I don't remember any of them. As I said in an earlier email, I was disappointed at the lack of promotion of the book. It seemed to just appear and disappear in a moment. For me after the initial boost of acceptance and publication, it became just another entry on my CV.

As for 'Irony', it was not autobiographical. I don't usually write directly autobiographical fiction, it doesn't interest me, although of course details from my observations and my experiences, and people I know, do come into my stories.  The two characters were based on real people, Jane Wood on someone I knew slightly. The plot, including the harassment and aftermath and the pistol scene, is all made up. At the time I wrote the story, I did have teaching experience but more literature classes not creative writing. So the creative writing class scenes which I describe are based in part on some of the creative writing workshops I attended. I started out writing a somewhat different story from Jane Wood's point of view, but found this boring perhaps because I didn't know her well enough. When I turned it around and wrote it from Phil's viewpoint, the story came alive for me and was interesting to write and a challenge since I disliked him, at least to start with. 'Irony' was one of the first of my Denver stories, and it will be in a section of my forthcoming short story collection with all stories set in Denver during the 1970s. That is one of the reasons I am including it. I also still feel that it works pretty well though I have edited it a bit.
I have written another 'creative writing class' story, which was published in 2004 in an anthology of short stories called
Mordecai's First Brush with Love (Loki Books). 'The Book of Life' is told from the point of view of an elderly male creative writing student who has been thrown out of classes because of the explicit sex scenes in his fiction.  I wrote it after having years of creative writing teaching experience. It's a very different story, again not directly autobiographical, but drawing on scenes from creative writing classes I have taught in London and also using various people I have come across. 


I'm glad you'll be reading The Angry Gods. I hope you'll read or even just look at The Stray American since the two novels are very different. I guess the other questions you asked about agents, publishers, the whole business of publishing fiction are big ones. Perhaps I could pause here and come back with more answers. Also you might have further or different questions.

Best wishes, Wendy

I order Mordecai’s First Brush with Love. Wendy’s story is about a Jewish man, Lucian, who attends creative writing classes and whose writing is very destructive. Brilliant but destructive.

He comes to realise this, and in an effort not to hurt anybody else turns his pen on himself, with equally negative results. It’s an old friend of his, Elaine, who attempts to rescue him by gaining entry to his room where Lucian has been lying in bed without eating or drinking. He hasn’t had any liquid for so long that he finds he can’t reply to her words of concern.

Elaine is moved to find him in such a state and tries to badger him into life. It’s a touching scene. And the reader is left with the distinct impression that Lucian will be rising from his bed and engaging with life again.

Hi Wendy,

Thanks for writing to me.

Re PEN2 launch (sorry to revert to it!). Do you still have the book to hand? That is an important question as I found that reading the list of contributors and a few of the stories - as well as stumbling across the odd communication - brought back memories. I have one letter in an old file saying that the Arts Council had reneged on funding so that the contributors were to be unpaid, which Ian Rankin referred to when recently I asked him about his recollection of the publication. I hope to build up a comprehensive picture of the evening, so anything further you can remember I'd really like to know about. Especially anything specific, no matter how seemingly insignificant. At PEN HQ, Suzi Robinson went around getting all the contributors who were present to sign her copy of the book (do you recall that?). She has promised to send me that book of books which may clarify for me who was there on the night.


Thanks for the inside info on 'Irony'. I've now obtained Mordecai's First Brush with Love and enjoyed reading a second story of yours written in a creative writing class milieu. Would you rather be writing full-time or do you enjoy the balance of teaching and writing that you now have? I know that in the art world many artists teach primarily for the money, which doesn't stop the majority of them giving a lot of their energies and knowledge to their students. 

The Angry Gods was your first published book, I think. That was 16 years after PEN2. I guess the long wait was frustrating? My first book came out in 1998, which seemed like long enough a gap following my first published story (PEN2). The book that finally got out into the world was actually my fourth written. How many of your early novels remained at manuscript stage? 

Personal Delivery (my first published book) didn't sell many copies but it got me a column on contemporary art, for the Independent on Sunday. Did The Angry Gods bring you any unexpected benefits? I imagine it may have helped in your teaching career, to have a novel published that gave you credibility as a 'real writer' (accepted at some level by the powers that be in the literary world). Or did your classroom experience/achievements suffice in that respect?  

I guess from what you say about 'Irony' that
The Angry Gods is not directly autobiographical. Though the 1955 and 1972 dates might correspond to your own youth and your mother's?  Indeed there is so much interiority that I expect you had to consult your own feelings pretty regularly in order to come up with such deep and detailed reflections. But perhaps you also had particular other individuals in mind when you wrote of Sonia and Helen?

12 years between your first and second books. Again frustrating, I expect. (Do tell me.) In my case, it was almost as long a wait. A literary agent failed to get two books of mine published, but finally succeeded with my 'biography' of Enid Blyton. He really was most tenacious and I'll always be grateful to him for his efforts. The book sold quite well and it was probably my own fault that it didn't do extremely well. There was a definite gap in the market there, but, alas, grown up ex-readers of Enid Blyton's children books were not thirsting for speculation about how her sexuality fed her creative drive!


Sorry for going on about my own literary career in parallel with yours (and others), but it seems to be part of the writing process that's going on in connection with this Class of 87 project.

I've lost touch with that second publisher now (though as it happens its then editor Phillip Gwyn Jones is now a trustee of the PEN organisation). Too bad, as Portobello Books has quite a high profile for an independent. How do you look back on your experience with Dewi Lewis? I see that Holland Press is to publish your short stories as well as having brought out
The Stray American. It has an approachable website. I read and enjoyed, the two most recent entries in the 'Publisher's Blog', both of which are informative about the book trade and on a human level. The blog column alongside The Stray American is left blank. Why is that?

I've ordered
The Stray American and look forward to reading it in the new year. In the meantime, do respond to anything I've raised in these emails or anything else you think apposite.

All best, Duncan

OK with that safely pinged off, I can rejoin Phil and Jane in his office.

Jane has stood up and is about to leave. But before she goes she has something to say to him.

‘“I read one of your novels this weekend.”

“Could you find a copy? I’m surprised.” The old joke about literary failure. Phil grinned at her. Perhaps the thing need not end on a bad note.

She kept a straight face. The humourless bitch.

I thought I’d find out more about you, but it wasn’t you.”

Phil didn’t know what to say.


“I mean you couldn’t have had those affairs, and left your wife. It’s all fantasy isn’t it and you’re a coward.” It was the first time he had seen her smile, not a smile really. Though his hand shook with rage, he wanted to touch her mouth.

“Get out of here!”

Jane fumbled with her knapsack, pulled out a black and shiny object. It was a gun she was pointing at him almost nonchalantly.

“How ridiculous.” Phil made an effort to keep his voice low and calm. It could not be real.

“How does it feel?”

He wanted to say ‘you’re mad’, but the words didn’t emerge though he felt his lips move.

“Do you know anything, do you feel anything? Tell me, tell me.”

She came towards him silently now, holding the gun like a live animal, the smile gone from her face.

“You give that to me.” His chin and lower lip were twitching. His flesh, his body, always so solid, so firm around him. grew soft. She wanted to give him something, he understood now, the gun was her present, she wanted him to have its eruption.

“Please give me…” His voice had gone high.

“Here,” she whispered, lifting the gun higher, pointing at his face. She squeezed the trigger.’

At which exciting juncture let's get back to reality:


Dear Duncan,

I do have a copy of the PEN book and have looked at it but it had no impact. I wish I could remember more about the launch party. It's odd I recall so little since I have a head for detail. I have no recollection of signing someone's book. I only remember talking to one person and that was Josephine Pullein-Thompson. I remember looking at her name badge, which somehow fixed the name in my mind. But what we said remains a blank. I'm not that shy but perhaps then I was less likely to go up to a group of strangers at a reception.  I do have the paperwork from the book if that is any help. I have the extraordinary letter from Quartet books telling us all about the problems with Arts Council funding. This was followed up by a letter telling us that the Arts Council had abandoned funding for the PEN anthologies and offering us all six copies of the book or £45. Also I have a joke(?) letter from Alan Massie in which he regrets losing half the stories in the post.

This is the communication I’ve been waiting for. It seems that Wendy finally trusts me and is opening up in her fourth letter. So I need to ignore the water that is streaming down my face into my lap and give her words the attention they deserve, paragraph by paragraph.

My mental picture of the launch now has Wendy Brandmark and Josephine Pullein-Thompson talking to each other in one corner of a featureless room. In addition, I vaguely see myself standing in the middle of the room looking out for a man wearing a name badge that has ‘William New’ printed on it.

The picture I have of the launch party - still in need of much work doing to it – fades…

Josephine Pullein-Thompson - Google tells me - was an author who died in 2014 aged 90. She was well-known for her books about ponies and had written dozens of these by the day of the party in January, 1987, when she would have been 63. She was made an MBE in 1984, either for her pony books or, more likely, for her work with PEN campaigning for writers’ freedoms in authoritarian regimes.

But really the name that sticks out from Wendy’s first paragraph is Allan Massie. Yes, he did send the contributors to PEN2 a letter and I'm looking at it now. It's headed Thirladean House, Selkirk, and dated 25 September 1986.


Massie expresses his regret that half of the stories contributed to
New Stories 2 have been lost in the post on their return journey between Scotland and London. So half the stories were successfully returned but P.E.N. 'are unfortunately unable to return your story, which was, however, carefully considered by the Editor before its disastrous disappearance'.

I now recall the impact this note had on me. I assumed it meant that my story hadn’t been accepted for the book at all. In fact, my story had been lost.

Let’s go back to the point at which I left off ‘Irony’:

‘A spray of icy water struck his forehead. Phil struggled to see through a stream of water, sweat and tears. They were tears he had not experienced since childhood, tears of rage as if some precious toy had been torn from him, mocked and destroyed. Yet till that moment he had not known it was precious.’

At the time of its receipt, the letter from Allan Massie sent me scuttling back to the letter that had been sent a month before, from Stephen Pickles, editorial director of Quartet, informing me that my story ‘A Business Meeting’ had been accepted for publication in
P.E.N. New Fiction 2.

Which of the two letters was to be believed? In the end, I thought I’d worked it out. Each writer was allowed to submit up to two stories. And such was the time gap between the initial call for stories, in August 1985, and the deadline to do so, in December 1985, that I guess many authors would have submitted two stories separately. I did, and it looks like Wendy did as well. And so one letter, from the publisher, applied to the accepted story and the other letter, from the editor, to the rejected one.


OK, back to Wendy’s email:

Your other questions. I think I now have a nice balance between teaching and writing but in the past I did too much teaching, including a job directing the creative writing programme at Birkbeck's Faculty of Continuing Education which just took all my time and energy for seven years (2000-2007). Of course it got in the way of my writing.

I’m inserting a little pause here, mid-paragraph, before Wendy hurries on to firmer ground. Her teaching got in the way of her writing. Let it be said loud and clear. Does one admire or criticise individuals who, knowing that it will have a negative impact on their creativity, pour themselves into what they see to be a worthwhile cause or a paid position?

Which brings me to your next question. I had published short stories before the PEN publication. During those 16 years between PEN and The Angry Gods, I was publishing short stories (my preferred form) and loads of book reviews.  Also during that period I was working first as an editor and later teaching and of course there was family.

Another little pause, mid paragraph. Wendy says nothing more about ‘family’ than this. Her biography on her website tells us she was born in the Bronx and went to university in Boston. She spent two years in Denver completing her MA in Creative Writing, taught at Boston for three years, and after that moved to London. That was in the 1980s. She is silent about her subsequent life. Other pages do say what she’s done professionally, but nothing about her private life.

I guess this isn’t surprising given her teaching role. The occasional student will have problems with boundaries, and so it must seem safest to deny everyone the information. For instance, a reader such as myself who would like to see more clearly how the author’s life has fed into her work, must get by without the link.


As for novels, I wrote my first novel during that period, which took some years; I found an agent for it, but she couldn't find a publisher. So I began another novel which became The Angry Gods. I go through lots of revisions so each novel can take years to bring to completion. The Angry Gods went through two agents, who both loved it, but couldn't sell it, though one came close. Part of the problem with both books was that they were set wholly in the States, so publishers here were wary of publishing an American book. If it had been published first in the States, that would have been more acceptable. I didn't have contacts in the States and it is hard to get an agent there without knowing the scene. What's interesting is that I developed a chapter from that first novel into a long short story, which will appear in the collection, and also wrote several other stories from characters in that book. So the first novel has not been forgotten, at least not completely.

That does emphasise how important Wendy’s formative years were. Not only is the short story ‘Irony’ set in Denver, her first two novels are set in the States.

The blog on my page of the Holland Park Press is empty because I don't have a blog! 

I wonder if the blank column next to her book listing is a missed opportunity as far as publicity is concerned. What she could do is start a blog in which she makes public her response to her students writing. So, for instance, the day after visiting Oxford for some supervision, her blog might begin: ‘Well, I went up to Oxford today to catch up with my students. Same old story: X self-critical to the point of silence. Y only too happy to soak up every word I speak as if it was gospel. Z a danger to himself and everyone on the course… On second thoughts, I can see why Wendy might choose to leave it blank.

It's an interesting publisher founded by Bernadette Jansen op de Haar who works extremely hard and is very dedicated to her authors and books.

Bernadette Jansen op de Haar - Google tells me - resigned as projects director with a leading electronic publishing company in 2009 to found Holland Park Press. She began translating Arnold Jansen op de Haar’s columns and poems and has now translated his novel. In other words, Bernadette has set up a publishing house – at least partly - in order to publish her brother’s work.


The brother does take advantage of the blog opportunity. In the one I’ve read, he goes on about his passion for writing in a self-referential but gently inspiring way. Might be worth Wendy giving it a go after all, like when her book of short stories comes out!

Dewi Lewis was very easy to work with. It's a shame that sometime after he published The Angry Gods he stopped his fiction list. He was mainly known for his photography books and I think his fiction list just didn't make enough money for him. It was a small list but a good one, but as with so many independent presses I think, he chose the books he loved, not those that would necessarily make money.

That’s also true about Harbour Books, who will be publishing the book I’m writing at present. Of course, Jeremy Beale is going to choose the books he loves, why else would he put his time and money into them? It’s encouraging when an editor wholeheartedly puts his resources into his work, just as writers so often do.

About Angry Gods. No it wasn't directly autobiographical. Sonia was not based on my mother (who had a more conventional life). I started out basing her on one woman and ended up with a composite character. The same is true to some extent with Helen. Of course I used details from people I knew, places, scenes, but the story was invented and characters came from everywhere. I had to do a certain amount of research on the 1950s and also a bit on the 1970s.

Fair enough.

It is interesting to hear about your publishing history, the ups and downs, the frustrations with publishers and agents.

Yes, well I was hoping it would draw out more revelations from Wendy. Although her writing reveals emotional depths she is a private person and she is not going to give much away in this context.

Let me know if you have further questions or if I have missed out details.

Best wishes, Wendy


OK we’re almost there. Just this left:

‘Wendy, when you began to write, did you envisage your writing having an impact on other people? Perhaps leading to a change in the way things are set up, or how people treat each other? Has the purpose of your writing changed over the years? Perhaps the person you imagined the writing having the most impact on would be yourself. You've already told me that you go through several drafts to produce a book. Have you read your books since they were published?’ 

To which the reply comes back quickly:

‘As you know I'm not very good or very comfortable with talking about myself or myself and writing. I find it embarrassing. I did write a blog for Oxford University after The Stray American came out which sort of addressed why I write. It includes the lines:

“Somehow a book is not alive until it is published, and we as writers can only be validated in this way. But looking back, I think the real satisfaction was in early days when the novel began to take shape. That lone journey.”

I agree that the process of writing is the exciting bit. But as for the book not being alive until it is published, I no longer believe that. If PEN Pals isn’t published in print for some reason, I will create a new website and stick the chapters on it. And it will shine like an illuminated manuscript created by a monk before the invention of the printing press.

‘I don't write didactically to change people or have a mission, though certain ideas can be the start or source of a novel or story such as racism in The Angry Gods, social satire and dislocation in The Stray American. I seem always to be writing about people who feel disaffected or are outsiders. Once a book has been launched and readings are over, I seem to turn my back on it: I haven't read either The Angry Gods or The Stray American again.  I don't think my purpose in writing has ever really changed from the time I was a child and making up stories. I just like to make things up and the satisfaction comes in the act of creation and the finished product; as Denise Levertov said, 'I like to make a thing.'


The three writers I’ve looked at in depth so far - Ian Rankin, C.A.R Hills and Wendy Brandmark - have all mentioned their joy in creation from an early age. As a child I was more a player of football than a writer of stories, but it’s two sides of the creative coin.

I think Anne Enright said something about failure, the sense of chasing after perfection so that the book you write is always second best, second to some ideal version which you've been pursuing all along. I wish I could find the quote from her on this, which I heard on the radio some years ago. Here's a quote from her which is close and is from a feature in The Guardian:

“I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.”

Am I doomed to fail with PEN Pals? That’s a perspective I’m unwilling to embrace at this stage of the game.

I think I’m done as far as this chapter is concerned, having found out as much as I’m going to about Wendy Brandmark as a writer, and at the same time having taken the opportunity to exercise my own craft.

That last line is important. From my very first piece of creative writing, the story published in
New Fiction 2, pattern making has been something that’s very much excited me about the act of writing. In that old story, the action oscillates between an office, where rationality rules, and a toilet, where all is personal and subjective. Just as in this chapter, I’ve oscillated between Phil and Jane, characters in a story published in 1987, and Wendy and me, who are currently communicating about that which matters deeply to us.

What happens to writers? They disappear into their muse, where symbolic, repetitive actions go round and round…

But what’s this? Ian Rankin has just entered my study, fumbled with his knapsack, pulled out a black and shiny object. It’s a gun he is pointing at me almost nonchalantly.


“Hello, Ian.” I make an effort to keep my voice low and calm. This gun could not be real.

He’s smiling. “How does it feel to be a writer whose books are not read by anyone?”

I want to say ‘hold on a minute’, but the words don’t emerge though I feel my lips move.

The bestselling crime writer tries another tack. “This is what you get for placing me in a fictional scene, sipping Spanish liqueurs in a Portuguese garden.”

Rankin comes towards me holding the gun like a live animal, the smile gone from his face.

“You give that to me.” My chin and lower lip are twitching. My body, always so firm around me, grows soft. The superstar writer wants to give me something, I understand now. The gun is his present, he wants me to have its eruption.

“Please give me…” My voice has gone high.

“Here,” he whispers, lifting the gun higher, pointing at my face. He squeezes the trigger.

A spray of fizzy liquid strikes my forehead. I struggle to see through a stream of what I take to be champagne and tears. The bubbly may have been presented to Rankin at a prize ceremony. The tears are my own. Tears I have not experienced since childhood.

Or is it C.A.R. Hills who has entered my study? His water pistol filled with the darkest urine he could extract from the slopping out buckets on Brixton’s G-Wing?

Yes, it is Charles. But the result is the same. A spray of liquid strikes my forehead. I struggle to see through a stream of piss and tears. They are tears of rage, as if some precious toy had been torn from me, mocked and destroyed. Yet till that moment I had not known it was precious.


Meanwhile Charles has started to speak:

“I think you've got some excellent new material here, Duncan. I like you in fantastic and parodic mode. However, I am a little bit reluctant to function as an object of pity, as at the end of the chapter that concerns me. So I'll just mention a few facts. One: there is far more chance of finding companionship and love in HMP Brixton than there would be in the place where I was living in Portugal. Two: rather than having published no books, I have published ten project books for schools. Although they were published around 30 years ago, I continue to make a certain amount of money from them even today. Three: I have published widely in top magazines such as
The Tablet, Literary Review, The Oldie, Quadrant, Chroma, the New Statesman and Prospect and have written for all four UK broadsheets: The Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian. Four: The money that I have received indirectly from my writing has been very substantial. I would estimate my total earnings from all writing sources at around one hundred thousand pounds in my lifetime. Clearly not a fortune, yet not a risible sum either.”

Does dear Charles expect me to take this in right now? Does he think I’m taking notes?

“Sorry to attempt to ruin the picture of pathos and inadequacy, but, ultimately, I am interested in the truth. However, your writing is very good. Please go on in this style, which will capture readers’ attention.”

Having said his piece, Charles exits my study, leaving me to take stock.

So how come I got it from both barrels, as it were? Ostensibly, both Rankin and Charles were angry with me, and that anger fuelled their water pistols. But really it was two different things - my envy of Rankin’s success and my pity for Charles’s failure - that led to my comeuppance.


From my lifetime sales of ten thousand books, I looked up to Ian Rankin’s sales of thirty million, and I looked down on Charles sales of (I thought) zero books. But looking up to another human being is asking for trouble, just as looking down on someone is. Shoulder to shoulder is the only way forward. I got it so wrong at the end of the last chapter. Charles got it so right a few paragraphs ago.

I’m soaking wet. And whether from fizz or piss, I’ll treat those two imposters just the same. I’ll wipe myself down, change my clothes, and move on to another of the chapters that is being written in parallel with this one.

But before that, I open the window and look into the garden where writers-in-residence - Wendy Brandmark, Ian Rankin and C.A.R. Hills - are larking around, jets of crystal-clear water glittering in the afternoon sunshine.

Basically, as writers they all just like to make things up, to create their own fictional worlds. And I’m the same. “Catch you guys later,” I shout.

(Oh, what a paradise it seems!)

But why would I catch them later? If I haven’t caught them already I never will lay friendly hands on my fellow writers, my co-contributors, my pistol-wielding PEN Pals.

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