About owlwoman

Writer of Surrealist/Folk-Horror short fiction, published in the independant press in Britain, North America and France. In previous lives has been: a skateboarder, bass guitarist (in The Joy of Living and, briefly, Rubella Ballet), political activist, writer for the gay press, union worker. Inspired by the darker side of nature, the paranormal, dreams/nightmares, unquiet skulls. Element: stone, preferably in circles.

In memoriam: Ginger Mayerson

I’m shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of Ginger Mayerson on March 26 of lung cancer. Ginger was a musician and a writer but it was as a publisher that I came to know her. She published various journals under the Wapshott Press umbrella and my story The Falling Man appeared in her literary journal Storylandia back in 2012. It was the start of a very fruitful working relationship; she believed in my writing to such an extent that she published another story of mine in a later issue of Storylandia then asked me to put together a collection for a single author issue of the journal, followed by a second collection which she published in book form and she’d recently asked me to put a further collection together as well as editing an anthology. I never met her face to face – we joked about how I should go to her hometown of Los Angeles for a book launch, basically an excuse to drink cocktails on the beach. We emailed a lot and discussed politics as well as writing and publishing.

I don’t know what the future holds for Wapshott Press, I hope it can continue in some form, but it’s too soon for any decisions to have been made. I’m too shocked to say any more right now; I considered her a friend and it’s difficult to take in that she’s gone. We had our ups and downs, but her support was absolute and I feel blessed for our paths having crossed. My thoughts are with her loved ones.

You ain’t no punk, you punk

In around 2001 I wrote an article for Diva magazine about Mr Gluck’s Radical Dairy, a social centre run by a collection of anarchists near my then home in Stoke Newington, North London. I’d found the place by accident, after seeing two young lesbians carrying huge pots of food there. It reminded me somewhat of the anarcho-squat scene in Hackney in the 1980s, so I was very keen on spreading the word among lesbians who might not usually hear about this kind of thing. I initially made contact with one of the women, I’ll call her C, and was invited along to their women’s night to see what went on. It all went well, they were friendly and open and I got the information I needed to write the piece.

It’s important to note that there were all sorts occupying the centre, including, C said, members of the WOMBLES anarchist group. I didn’t knowingly meet any of the members face to face, but I got the impression from C that the WOMBLES at the Dairy were male dominated or even completely made up of men.

After I’d started writing the article, I rang the Dairy to speak with C again. As soon as the man who answered the phone realised which publication I was writing for he launched into an aggressive tirade, shouting that I shouldn’t be associated with Diva as it was published by Prowler Group, who were guilty of something terrible, which I couldn’t quite catch. I managed to stay calm and tried to explain that I’d deliberately aimed to get the piece published in a magazine that wasn’t overtly political, so as to reach people who didn’t have activism on their radar. I could no doubt have placed the piece on a political website or magazine, but why preach to the converted? He raged on and to my shame I felt I needed to state my ‘qualifications’ for what I was doing and so I told him that I’d co-founded the Queeruption Festival, among other things. He didn’t have much of an answer to that and I think the call ended quite swiftly afterwards, but I found his aggression surprising and daunting. After the call ended I checked a copy of Diva and found that it was actually published by Millivres, which I think is separate to Prowler.

However, I wrote the piece and sent it to C to make sure it was accurate (as I usually do). I didn’t hear back from her for some time and my deadline was approaching, so I assumed she was happy with it. After I’d sent the piece to Diva I got a very panicky reply from her, wanting to change almost everything she’d spoken about during our taped discussion. Not because I’d misquoted her, but because she was sure the WOMBLES would be really angry with what she’d talked about (which was innocuous as far as I could tell) and she wanted to make all her quotes reflect what she thought they’d want her to say. Apart from the fact that it was too late to make any changes, there was no way that I’d have changed the piece purely for that reason. I felt for her because she was clearly upset, but I was shocked at the bullying that was going on there – which I’d experienced myself, of course.

I haven’t written about this before. I didn’t want to write about such a negative thing, but we can only move forward and evolve if we recognise where change is needed. After I read Cosey Fanni Tutti’s autobiography (Art Sex Music), which described how conservative the males in COUM Transmissions were in regard to adhering to traditional gender roles I was reminded of various experiences I’d had, not just with the Radical Dairy but years before in the anarcho-squatting scene in East London, where derisory remarks were frequently made by men about other men who were in relationships with women. He’ll be busy washing the car, won’t he? (instead of being down the pub with us). Gonna go home and watch a bit of telly, then? (to my then [male] partner when I didn’t want to go to a party). And then there was the male singer of a reasonably well known punk/glam band who, during a discussion about the way forward for punk, turned to myself and the other woman present and said, “I expect you two are overwhelmed, aren’t you?” These were serious remarks made by people who considered themselves superior to mainstream society, minor incidents in themselves but they all chiselled away at my confidence. And it seemed to me that the women of the Radical Dairy were allowed to do things on the fringes of activism, such as a tree-climbing workshop, rather than be involved in the more serious stuff. I may have been wrong on that, but I wasn’t minded to find out, frankly. Has anything changed? I have no idea, as I’m no longer involved in that kind of activism. I can but hope.

BFS Awards/writing update

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The results of the 2020 BFS Awards were announced on February 22. Congratulations to all the winners, particularly Laura Mauro, who won the category I was nominated in (Best Short Fiction) for The Pain Eater’s Daughter and Priya Sharma, who won Best Novella for Ormeshadow. I’ve always had mixed feelings about awards, and this experience – my first, and likely only, nomination (although an anthology I had a story in – Necrologue: The Diva Book Of The Dead And The Undead – won a Lamda award) – hasn’t changed this. That said, I would have happily accepted had I won and it’s possible that my nomination will result in more people being aware of what I do. For the most part I have little interest in self-promotion, but I’m always open to connecting with kindred spirits, so I’ll be happy if the nomination is successful in that respect.

I currently have two stories with an editor who’s putting together an anthology by female writers that sounded strange enough for me to submit to. New story Eleven Eleven is progressing, over 7000 words now and still a way to go before the first draft will be finished. I’m finding the combination of old folklore associated with the New Forest, where the story’s set, and the new folklore that’s appearing as I write, is making for a tale that really doesn’t know where to stop.

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Betwixt and between

Someone recently asked me for an update on various stories I’m working on and when there was likely to be another short story collection. His belief that another should be published was very heartening! As I wrote here some months ago, I was offered the chance by Wapshott Press to write another collection and also to edit an anthology. Both were amazing opportunities, but I had to turn them down because it would have meant 18 months of unpaid work, as well as inviting submissions from various authors who I also wouldn’t be able to pay, and writers/artists cannot live on the thanks of editors alone. There will always be projects that I’ll work on where payment doesn’t matter, but I cannot devote large amounts of time to working for free.

What I haven’t yet announced here until now is that last year I was invited to submit a story for issue one of  Ironic Fantastic Quarterly, edited by the highly prolific and internationally published Rhys Hughes. The brief was to write on the theme of Impossible Nostalgia. I rarely write to a theme, but this grabbed me and I’m delighted to say that my offering, A Visit From Someone Dear, has been accepted and the tome should be published in February of this year.

I managed to write constantly during the second half of 2020, after coming to terms with the anxiety caused by lockdown and fears for my loved ones. New short stories Into An Expanding Sun, Tartan and Sky Eyes are complete, with current work in progress, Eleven Eleven, becoming a tale that could end up being novelette length; the more I work on it, the more I realise there is to this story. And I have plans for two more stories, Getting The Fear, and Yes, No, Goodbye. At present IAES is with a publisher putting a collection of Surrealist fiction together, but I’m in no hurry to place stories these days, as I’ve previously stated here. The process of writing – and dreaming – these stories is my main focus, and having completed stories sitting here at home in physical form creates its own energy. There’s also the possibility of collaborations with writers, musicians and illustrators, but these are only at the initial suggestion stage.

Meanwhile, nature continues to be a comfort and inspiration. I’ve witnessed two starling murmurations in the last week or so, one at very close quarters, with the beating of thousands of wings just above me and nothing else to be heard. I’m taking these encounters as good signs.

All mass murderers are Evil, but some are more Evil than others

This morning I heard the news that Peter Sutcliffe, otherwise known as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, one of the UK’s most notorious serial killers, had died. There’s been a lot of reflection here on the killings which occurred between 1975-80. Much of this has quite rightly focused on the victims and their families. This is an about turn in the attitude of many – the police, the press, and much of the general public – at the time. In an interesting piece of synchronicity, this has occurred while I’m working on a story (Tartan) is based on the Moors Murderers and in particular Ian Brady, who’s still seen as a human embodiment of Evil. I understand why people – especially those old enough to take in the horrific story at the time – would have wished that the pair had hanged. I’m also tempted at times to go along with thinking of both Brady and Hindley as utterly evil humans. After all, Brady especially appeared to have no redeeming features whatsoever and Hindley’s been somewhat unmasked as incredibly manipulative in attempting to gain either sympathy or the possibility of parole. They are both dead but they still haunt us to the point of becoming part of modern folklore.

Today there’s been a few references to Sutcliffe as ‘evil’ but not that many. I was a child when he was carrying out his attacks, living nearly two hundred miles away, but I still found them frightening in the extreme, especially so when the women of that area were urged to stay indoors. This told me that the police were floundering. I remember reading of a victim that was described by the press as ‘innocent’. She was a student, rather than a sex worker like the previous victims had been. It shocked and confused me that the implication was that the other victims were guilty in some way. And while today it has been welcome to hear the current chief constable of West Yorkshire Police has apologised for mistakes made during the investigation and the ‘language, tone and terminology used by senior officers at the time’, they were only reflecting the prevailing attitudes – after all, it was Leeds football fans who sold badges with the slogan, Leeds United – More feared than the Yorkshire Ripper. During one match the chant, Ripper twelve, police nil was heard, as well as one Yorkshire Ripper, there’s only one Yorkshire Ripper. And recent multiple murders of prostitutes in this country have still been met with less than sympathetic attitudes towards the victims. Sutcliffe was a sadistic necrophiliac but Brady and Hindley remain more vilified as their victims were children. Bear in mind that it took some time to find a funeral director who was prepared to deal with Hindley’s body. It would be interesting to know if there is similar angst regarding Sutcliffe’s remains.

But the question Tartan is attempting to ask is whether evil exists in human form and can it ever be eliminated? I’m not of the belief that just anyone could or would have committed the kind of crimes referred to above, but I suspect we are all capable of some terrible deeds in certain situations*. It would, of course, be extremely useful to know why these people did what they did. Sutcliffe’s motives were perhaps easier to identify – massive and hideous misogyny being the root of it (and hatred of prostitutes, or just having been cheated by one as a punter was quoted by the police at the time as being one possible ‘reason’), which of course is still very much with us, so it certainly seems as if we haven’t addressed it at all – but Brady’s absolute loathing of life, along with Hindley’s willingness to comply with his every wish, however appalling, is overwhelming to most of us and perhaps makes us reluctant to try to find out why. And it may be that the perception that some humans are purely evil – born bad, enjoying the crimes they commit with no interest or hope of change – is as far as we’ll get towards understanding. It’s a dark place to delve into, that’s for sure. And all I can really be sure of is that I was glad to hear the news this morning.

All text © Julie Travis

*It’s relevant to note that on a radio phone-in a couple of years ago a woman stated how she’d have loved to have tortured Brady to death. Not only was she allowed to say this without any challenge or question, the presenter described her as ‘lovely’ – without any trace of irony.

British Fantasy Society Awards 2020: shortlist

Photo: Julie Travis

I’m delighted to announce that my chapbook, Tomorrow, When I Was Young, is one of the finalists in the Best Short Fiction category of the 2020 BFS Awards. It’s a shortlist of four, the other finalists being big hitters Laura Mauro, Penny Jones and Robert Shearman. This is the first time I’ve been nominated for any award (although Diva’s Necrologue anthology, which included my story Owl-Blasted, won the 2004 Gaylactric Spectrum Award) and I have mixed feelings about the concept. Recognition is inevitably validating as writing is such a solitary vocation, and wonderful for those involved, but many are overlooked, sometimes over a whole lifetime. Whether the story wins or not, more people may get to read my work because of the nomination, and that would be a good thing.

In an ordinary year there would be a gathering to announce the winners, but this year of course is not ordinary and I don’t know whether there’ll be an online event or just an announcement. I would have loved to have gone to a ceremony and meet other writers and those involved in the independent press, but it’s not to be. But I do need to thank David Rix of Eibonvale Press for having faith in my writing and for making such an amazing job of the chapbook.

Interview: Sci-Fi And Scary

Very happy to see Sci-Fi And Scary’s recent interview with me is now online at the link below. I’ve done more interviews in the last couple of years than in the previous twenty or so as a writer. They’re a very good way of reflecting on what I do and why. Inevitably there’s a sense of being validated when someone’s interested enough in my writing to ask me about it, but I hope that’s a minor motivation.

I came from dust, I shall return to dust

“D.U.S.T ltd is a Memento Mori museum and shop with a growing collection of stuff related to death and grieving rituals. It houses a collection of objects and curios connected to death and mourning. A mummified cat, dried frogs, the head of a goldfinch, broken graveyard debris, Victorian tear vials, bones and haunted dolls are on display alongside artworks by artists and makers whose work addresses grief in some way selling artworks relating to dust, dirt and death. The Shop also hosts a series of online lectures, events and podcast exploring mourning and in particular the presence the dead have in the lives of the living.”

DUST Ltd has recently opened in Penzance. I visited the shop on its opening day and spoke with the owner, Lucy Willow. As you can see from the photo below, it’s an intriguing and beautiful place, highly reminiscent of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall. I gave Lucy a copy of Dykes Ink and it’s likely her shop will stock the zine – there are a number of zines etc for sale there with a ‘folk horror’ element and although Dykes Ink doesn’t come under that category, our ethos is certainly something she could relate to. I also spoke to her about my writing and she will be interviewing me for her forthcoming podcast. It’s very exciting to have such a place here in Penzance and I’m looking forward to working with Lucy – and, of course, visiting the shop again.

Photo: Julie Travis

British Fantasy Society review of ‘Tomorrow, When I Was Young’

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Big thanks to Rima Devereaux for this lovely review:

“A city where the dead go about their ordinary lives, a mysterious Golden Sea Captain, a journey through space and time, a discovering of one’s multicultural past, a hymn to self-realization and an escape from the mundane. This highly unusual, beautifully written and unforgettable novella is all these things.

Zanders finds herself aboard a strange three-masted clipper ship with a ghost crew that she can’t see. She realizes very quickly that the Golden Sea Captain is a woman dressed as a man. Hints are dropped throughout about how Zanders feels drawn to the Captain, but the ending is still a surprise. The gender ambiguity of the mysterious Captain reminded me of the Fool in Robin Hobb – Travis is similarly concerned with sexual identity, explored through the use of fantasy tropes.

Zanders’ sudden transportation to this new world of the past is an awakening in other ways too. Her loved ones have all died, she has sold most of her belongings and she is disabled by having had several vertebrae crushed. But aboard the ship, she is no longer disabled. We don’t actually learn much about her former life (which is in the future, as Travis takes pains to point out), except that her grandmother was Peruvian. In the fantasy world she finds herself in, her aim is to question people about her grandmother’s whereabouts, beginning, naturally enough, in the city of the dead.

Another reminder of Robin Hobb, this time of the liveships, is the fact that the figurehead comes to life and fights for the ship. But these nods don’t make the novella derivative – it has its own powerful and lyrical beauty, fusing an exploration of sexual and cultural identity with a journey in space and time.

Travis underlines the care the Captain takes to play the part he has adopted, and by implication pinpoints the sharp and rigid definition of gender roles in the past she is portraying. The ship is a space where things are more fluid and malleable. The same is true of Zanders’ Peruvian grandmother – the ship allows a meeting that is impossible in our world, a meeting that is a genuine communion. It shows how much is lost in families of mixed heritage where a life is reduced to a bundle of old photographs given to Zanders by her aunt. The book’s tender fantasy highlights the poignancy of these themes in a way that realism can struggle to.

The divide between waking and dreaming, past and present, and past and future, are other dualisms that the novel collapses. What we are is all about recollection and perception. But the book also shows the strong desire many of us have for the past to become real to us, a living thing, more than memory, to paraphrase The Lord of the Rings.”

I find it interesting that most of the writers my work is compared to are ones I’ve never read. It’s resulted in a huge reading list for me that I’ll never finish!