In Residence at the Jan Michalski Foundation

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I’ve been excitedly settling in to my modernist ‘treehouse’ for a month-long stay at the Jan Michalski Foundation in Montricher, Switzerland, where I am a writer in residence over May.

It’s a wonderful programme – offering a beautiful library, accommodation and the time and space to write – and I was especially lucky, because my current book project Islands of Abandonment fell into their special concentration in nature writing.

If you are a writer or translator (and especially if you have an interest in writing about the environment, human impacts or sustainability), I highly recommend applying. It’s been fascinating to meet writers from all over the world (France, Spain, Korea, America…) and it’s an opportunity too for me to brush off my schoolgirl French.

Applications for next year open summer 2019. Find more information here.

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Guardian Country Diary: Cairn Gorm in winter

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I recently made another contribution to The Guardian’s Country Diary. I love writing for this small regular feature, which publishes snippets of seasonal nature writing from around the UK daily.

It can be found on the Guardian website here, or (in a slightly longer form) after the break: Continue reading

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With thanks

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I recently received some welcome news: I’ve received financial awards from two organisations to defray the costs associated with my fellowship at the MacDowell Colony. So I must thank the Whiting Foundation, which generously supports the writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and the Traulsen International Travel Fund, which specifically assists artists travelling to MacDowell from overseas.

Such funding is obviously of enormous practical help to a freelance writer. Financial support also has a knock-on effect: it is a confidence boost, and it helps the recipient to feel that their work and time has value. (Information about donating to the MacDowell Foundation can be found here.)

An invitation to MacDowell was a wonderful opportunity – see me above, proudly posing with the ‘tombstones’ in my studio, where visiting artists recording their names and dates. I highly recommend making an application if a stay of two to 12 weeks in a studio in the woods sounds like something you would enjoy.

If you are a writer, artist, filmmaker or composer and are interested in applying to the MacDowell Colony, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want any advice about the application process, or further information about what it’s like to stay there.

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Books on my bedside table, Q1 2019

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Just before Christmas, I wrote a list of my favourite books I’d read in 2018 for Five Books. I really enjoyed the opportunity it gave me to reflect on what I’d consumed – so much so that I thought I’d make a habit of recording it as I go. So: here is my first instalment, recording the books I’ve read in the first quarter of 2019, with a few brief thoughts on each.

For work/research I read a lot of scraps of nonfiction, wherein I am filleting the texts for hard facts; this isn’t reading-for-reading’s-sake, and many of these titles are not written to be read from cover to cover, so I don’t include them in the list below. (They’ll be recorded in the references/bibliography of my book when the time comes.)

If I’m honest, reading is source of both joy and anxiety. The inflow of new titles into our house is greater than my capacity to read them, so a towering pile of guilt builds up over months until I crack and either shelf them unread, or donate them.  I’m also very promiscuous in my reading habits, apt to start but not finish many books, something that really doesn’t reflect the books’ quality so much as the mood I happen to be in. Once I lose momentum, I hate to plough on – and I see no shame in abandoning a book part-way.

As a result, the books that I do make it through tend to be ones I’ve really enjoyed. Now that I’ve written them down, I see that it does add up quite quickly – which makes me feel better. Anyway: I love to discuss/debate/dissect books with others who have read them, both in terms of content and in craft. So drop me a line if our reading paths have crossed! I’m @calflyn on Twitter.

Nonfiction

The Writing Life / Annie Dillard – I loved, loved Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and this is more of the same. She’s lyrical but unpretentious, dryly funny and incredibly wise. She’s perhaps my favourite author right now, and – as a writer myself – I can’t tell you how reassuring I found this book, and how beneficial it is to demystify the creative process. She calculates that Thomas Mann produced a publishable page a day, and as a result was “one of the most prolific writers who ever lived”; if you can produce “a usable fifth of a page a day” you are on track to produce a book every five years, which is a good rate for literary writers. So we must be realistic and not constantly berate ourselves for slowness.

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life / Peter Godfrey-Smith – I have a fascination with the link between brain and being, having studied experimental psychology (which encompassed neurophysiology and animal behaviour) as an undergraduate. So this book is right up my street and could not be more fascinating. Godfrey-Smith uses the evolution of the octopus as a prism through which to examine subjective experience and intelligent thought from a non-anthropocentric viewpoint, and ask mind-bending questions about what it really means to ‘feel’ and to ‘think’. Plus, it’s packed with enchanting tales from his interactions with octopuses and cuttlefish while diving.

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The Wild Frontier #8: The writer’s cabin

My latest column for Prospect magazine is out now: it’s about my time at MacDowell, and about the habit of writers retreating into the woods more generally. The column beautifully illustrated (as ever) by the brilliant Kate Hazell.

The exterior was clad with overlapping sheets of hemlock bark. Smoke rose in a curl from the chimney and dissipated among the thin pines. Inside, a fire crackled and spat, and my narrow bed nestled alongside a desk, a bookshelf and little else.

Find it online on the Prospect site here, or after the fold.

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The Wild Frontier #7: Planting for the future

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My latest column for Prospect is all about the tree-planting project I’ve been helping with in Torridon (see above) – and how it made us all think about the future and our legacies in new ways.

It felt a significant moment. But as with all moments it had to pass. In the north, winter days are short and twilight was already slinking in around us. Nothing for it but to dig and plant, dig and plant, and do all we could do before dark.

As ever, full text is available on the Prospect site here, or after the fold.

I’ve also written them a brief review of Charlotte Runcie’s debut book, Salt on your Tongue, which is out now from Canongate. It’s also in the April issue; find it online here.

Update: my friend’s had her baby! Isn’t it wonderful?!

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MacDowell Colony fellowship

IMG_0633I’m not long back from a beautiful (and productive!) four-week stay as a fellow of the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. If you haven’t heard of it, MacDowell is an artists’ colony/retreat for those working in all art forms, and while I was there there were composers, photographers, painters, installation artists, filmmakers, novelists, poets, playwrights and non-fiction writers. Continue reading

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The Wild Frontier #6: Starry, starry night

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My latest column for Prospect looks at the joys (and disappointments) of stargazing – and why the most moving celestial experiences are usually unplanned ones.

Other times there was no particular astronomic spectacle to see—only a cloudless sky and the right frame of mind. Every night, overhead, there are a thousand run-of-the-mill marvels. Look up, and find the firmament aglitter with ametrine stars. The Milky Way billowing a trail through the sky. The smooth, unstoppable sweep of satellites—manmade but no less incredible to me.

Find the full text on the Prospect website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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Five Books: The best books on everything

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I’m currently the deputy editor and a director of Five Books, a literary website that asks authors, academics and public figures for book recommendations in their specialist fields. Conducting these interviews is always fascinating, and it’s been a real pleasure to see our audience growing and growing over the past few years. (Last month we had a transatlantic audience of just under 280,000 readers.)

Recently I’ve particularly enjoyed a conversation about autofiction with Olivia Laing (Crudo, The Lonely City); a discussion of the best of contemporary trans literature, with Susan Stryker; and an inspiring chat with Emma Gannon (Ctrl-Alt-Delete, The Multi-Hyphen Method) about building a portfolio career around work that you love.

Before Christmas I worked on a series selecting the best books of 2018. Fiammetta Rocco (of The Economist and chair of the Baillie Gifford Prize) discussed the best general nonfiction; Charles Foster (Being a Beast) picked out five of the best new nature books; and Stephen Bush (of the New Statesman) selected five excellent politics books. I also wrote a short summary of some of the best books I read last year, which you can find here.

We have more than 1300 interviews on the site, gathered together in our archives. So, browse to your heart’s content, and please consider supporting us by way of a donation.

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Scottish Field: Wildlife through the seasons

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I continue to write a monthly wildlife column for the glossy lifestyle monthly Scottish Field. So far I’ve covered subjects as varied as seal pupping season, moths, starling murmurations and raven culls.

There was a liquid quality to the flock, its edges curving and irregular yet clearly defined. All the time smaller flights were being attracted into the larger body, or – when it stretched out thinly – breaking off as droplets, and swooping away only to return minute later. The collective took on its own personality, sweeping overhead in a breathy whisper then making a handbrake turn to swing out over the road, where it seemed to hang for a moment, pulsating.

They’re not available online, so find the text of some of the latest articles after the fold.

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