Saturday, 25 April 2015

Millie and Bird - Tales of Paradise - Avril Joy

In 2012, Avril Joy won the inaugural Costa Prize for short fiction - the first Indie author to win a Costa Award (or any of the major literary prizes).  It was a story that had begun in a workshop, when Avril was given the postcard of a portrait in the National Gallery by Barbara Skingle called 'Katherine and Millie'.

Initially, Avril wrote a poem, but the image wouldn't leave her and when she got home a story began to form in her mind.  The names became reversed - Millie became the girl, not the name of the bird.   The story was also informed by Avril's experience of working in women's prisons with vulnerable individuals.  Avril's first reaction to the postcard had been 'I know that girl'. In Avril's story Millie comes from a fractured family with a mother dependent on alcohol.  But Millie and her sister are bright girls who look after each other.

Although Avril won the Costa award, and has been shortlisted for a number of other significant prizes, it hasn't made it any easier to find a publisher for her fiction.  It's not a case these days of good writing making it into print on its own merits - you have to write for the market and that means sacrificing your own ideas to commercial formulas.  Instead, Avril began a series of short stories set in the world of Millie and Bird,  exploring the characters who live on Eden Row in a place called Paradise, which, like the many Paradise housing estates that dot the industrial landscape, says more about the optimism of the builders than the reality of the location.  What caught me from the beginning was the use of a quote from one of Katherine Mansfield's letters inside the front cover:

"How hard it is to escape from places.  However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - like rags and shreds of your very life."

The characters in the title story, Millie and Bird, re-appear through the pages and tell their own stories of attachment and escape. Tales of Paradise isn't a novel - it's a series of linked stories - but each one can also stand alone.
Avril signing my copy
One of my favourite stories is called 'Waking the Dead', and it's about Deena Box and the day that her son Sean (one of Millie's school friends), dives into the legendary Drowning Pool.  Deena is unhappy in her marriage, fantasising 'about meeting a man who also loved Haagen Dazs and who would make love to her, smearing it all over her body, then slowly, deliberately, licking it off. Her husband Tot was not that man.'  She becomes obsessed with a man called Wolf who lives in the woods.

The stories are full of wonderful characters - the man who cross-dresses on his allotment, Patsy who is a compulsive shop-lifter, Bridger the traumatised soldier - but it's the young people who hook you in with their courage and ingenuity. They are incredibly fragile, living on the edge of a precipice - like Sean's plunge into the Drowning Pool, just one momentary loss of balance can lead to disaster. At the centre of the book is a love affair - Millie's sister Isa and her teenage boyfriend Otis.  I was holding my breath for them until the last page of the book.
Images from Avril's launch party, taken by Wendy Robertson.
Despite the blindingly brilliant quality of the stories, none of the big publishers would take them. It's frustrating that they just aren't interested in short fiction.  But one of the north's wonderful small presses, Iron, with editor Peter Mortimer, was more imaginative and 'Millie and Bird: Tales of Paradise' was launched last month.  Artist Barbara Skingle was very happy to allow Avril to use her portrait as the cover.


Get it while you still can!

Some of Avril's other books:
Avril's website

A gripping thriller

Avril's first, award-winning novel

A tale of love and fear.

4 comments:

  1. I just read "Millie and the Bird". Really poignant work, I will reread it tommorow. Thanks for this post. There are so many great writers and so little time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're right Mel - it's difficult to find time for all the wonderful books that are out there.

      Delete
  2. Thank you Kathleen. A brilliant appraisal of one great writer by another. This intricate reading of a special book endorses the importance of writers supporting each other and small presses playing their important role of getting good writing out there to be seen ands appresiated.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The small presses are so important Wendy - I just hope they keep their Arts Council Funding.

      Delete