Remembering Lilian Mohin


I’ve just read in yesterday’s Guardian Other Lives, that Lilian Mohin has died, age 81, although the online version is dated March, so lockdown and Covid-enlarged deathrate must have pushed her off the paper version initially. I don’t think she’d be pleased.

We argued, the first time Lilian and I met, and for a while I avoided her as best I could. A couple of years later that first story was published. I’d been having a really bad time at work and I remember tossing the acceptance letter in the air with delight. All grumbles were forgotten.

After a second anthology acceptance of two stories, Lilian confided that she got sent some very bad stories, and wished she got work like mine more often.

I took her at her word. Every couple of weeks or so, I sent her a story, in the post. (The internet was in its infancy. I remember her saying how she was staying in touch with friends in the US via ’email’ and being bemused, it sounded very like witchcraft.) Each envelope was marked ‘Amusing Ms Mohin.’ We both enjoyed it and she would phone to discuss the latest. (Not your best, dearrr-heart, Needs some work, Pumpkin, This is goood.)

Eventually Ms Mohin was amused enough to publish my first collection. (I was thrilled, I got to choose the cover, I got to choose the font – Garamond, still my favourite I got to veto, if not choose the paper!) I now realise how unusual this was, but I was interested in every aspect, so she talked to me about every aspect, except – crucially – one.

I annoyed the hell out of Lilian by refusing to do any publicity beyond a launch at my local bookshop, and a couple of readings elsewhere. I didn’t understand how important it was, I was borderline agoraphobic (more than borderline, if I’m honest), the idea of radio interviews horrified me, and she hadn’t the patience to explain. Despite that, the book sold reasonably well, owing to the phenomenal Onlywomen mailing list – and people bought books then, almost automatically. I own a copy of virtually everything Onlywomen published.

For a while I spent a lot of time in Lilian’s company, both socially and in a business context. I was briefly on the advisory board, (where I met some fantastic women) and I helped with rebranding for the 21st anniversary (there were a lot of laughs to be had from that).

When I first started pulling away from working at things that were nothing to do with writing I helped out in the office, then in the basement of a town house opposite the British Library, one afternoon a week. I read and commented on manuscripts, sent rejection letters, went to the post office with mail orders…  on one occasion bringing brackets, screws and a screwdriver to fix her collapsing desk – it had been like that for weeks, I didn’t dare lean on it. Lilian hardly ate, and I took to bringing lunch with me and making her share it. I had to be imaginative, she didn’t eat dairy, or citrus and – was it tomatoes? I can’t remember, but we had fun with my concoctions.

It is frequently her voice I hear when I am editing my own work – soft, drawling, but what she had to say, to the point. Sometimes she spoke so softly I couldn’t hear her, but I never said so – I would say I don’t know over and over until she spoke up. That probably annoyed her too.

When not editing, she was the mistress of the digression, and I found her very difficult to follow at full volume, never mind her habitual die-away tone. Initially I put in mental parentheses to try to keep track, then, taking a leaf from my partner’s book, would say, put a pin in that, stick to the point. She liked that, and would sometimes voluntarily put a pin in, and come back to the deviation when the import of the conversation was dealt with.

I spent some time office-hunting with her when the lease (or was it the funding?) ran out on the basement, and eventually she gave up and worked from home. Cue more lunches, and meetings dominated by the antics of cat Simpkin (a delightful animal), and I got told some life history – named for the woman who took her pregnant mother in when she arrived in Kent escaping Nazi Germany, her wondrously tall children (Lilian was positively birdlike herself), her MS, her love life.

Eventually came the rejection, in quick succession, of the second collection, and of the novel that she asked me to write. I took my manuscripts away, wounded, and we (wisely) didn’t speak for a bit. Then she phoned me up and said, that collection… It was months later. I quoted back the mean-spirited spidery-pencilled scrawls on the manuscript. She squirmed. I invited her to a birthday party, warning her that there would be men there (we had both been separatists, I had since discovered one or two men I quite liked. It felt like a test – if she came, we were back on, if she didn’t…) She said she wouldn’t come. She said she would come, necessitating changes to the food. She arrived, and sat in the kitchen sulking, where she gradually unthawed until she was holding court in there, with the cats, and mostly, ironically, to the men. They set up a mutual admiration society while the party went on around them. We made up, we published.

I worked harder at promoting that one, I understood, now. When Onlywomen hit its 35th anniversary (coinciding with Lilian’s 70th year – I went to her birthday party) I organised a reading at my local library with other writers published by Onlywomen, and it hit me, as I was doing the introductions, that Lilian had devoted half her life to Onlywomen.

Eventually we fell out again. It was inevitable really, with Lilian, either you were in, or you weren’t. We didn’t drift apart, we didn’t lose touch. It was always all or nothing with Lilian, she didn’t do half measures, and I think that had rubbed off on me, it was entirely intentional on my part.

She was still having an impact on my life though, as, in reaction, I set up Arachne Press. And then found out how little I really knew, despite all those conversations in the basement opposite the British Museum.

Refugees Welcome Anthology


I’m delighted that I have TWO stories in the forthcoming Refugees Welcome anthology.

refugees welcome

These are We Apologise for the Delay… a story of what it means to be a stranger and how communities form in times of need, told through the prism of the London Underground as the site for ‘first contact’ with aliens; and Queues a story about waiting at a border crossing and recognising someone from home. Both stories have at their heart the human instinct to kindness in a crisis, something I have been hearing from friends all over the country – offering their money and help and even their homes to those in need. All we need now is for the government to actually accept a sensible number of refugees: at the moment what we are offering over a number of years,equates too readily to the numbers arriving in a single day at the European boundaries. We need to offer  proper help, not pretend we are doing anything when we clearly aren’t. A couple of stories isn’t much, but it is something I can do, so I’ve done it; all the writers are donating their stories, no one will make anything from the anthology. RWA is a charity book that combines inspirational stories. It is the 3rd project run by Greg McQueen and 100% of sales go to Red Cross for Refugees.

UPDATE publication date 19th November so you can help by buying a copy (or more than one!). The perfect Christmas/Solstice/Diwali present etc.

 

A busy February: LGBT History Month and a whole lot of Love


February is a busy month for me, readings, publications, A’s birthday…

Just published

my story Neutral Ground is just published in 52 :Loves – a story for every week of the year, all about Love, but not necessarily how you’d think. Kindle only at the moment but you never know.

cover _for_52 loves

On Thursday 5th at 7:45 in my capacity as publisher, I’m ‘compering’ a reading of Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith at Lewisham Library 199 Lewisham High Street SE13 6LG more details over on the Arachne Press Website.

On February 23rd, my story The Wetland Way will be read at Liars’ League Hong Kong (without me, it’s too far to go!)

LGBT History Month

Thursday 12th I’m at North Kensington Library, 108 Ladbroke Grove, W11 1PZ

6-7:30 pm

with VA Fearon where we will each be reading from our books, and interviewing each other about coming out as writers…

Shouting about Lesbian Literature – coming out as a lesbian writer.

Cherry Potts first collection of lesbian short stories, Mosaic of Air was published over 20 years ago, and she now owns her own independent publishing house, Arachne Press.

V. A.  Fearon’s first self-published crime thriller, The Girl with the Treasure Chest came out last year.

What has changed for the Lesbian author in the interim? What has the recent surge of self and indie publishing done for lesbian literature (and what is it anyway)?

Two personal approaches, with readings.

Thursday  26th I’m at Richmond Lending Library, Little Green, Richmond, TW9 1QL at 7pm doing readings and talking about writing and publishing.

Join writer and publisher Cherry Potts for an evening of readings and informal discussion of Lesbian & Gay writing with a whirl through anything from myth, to science fiction. Cherry will read from her own work and others published by her award-winning publishing house, Arachne Press.

Why Short Stories?


There’s been a lot of chat going on recently about short stories, including on the radio, this week’s Open Book had  Aminatta Forna giving a potted history of the short story from Poe, Chekhov and Saki to Helen Simpson, and even Ramblings (a walking programme … fascinating, listen!) had Claire Balding in company with short story writer Anna Maria Murphy. (nothing like being stuck at home recovering, for catching up with the radio in between sleeping.)

Having written two collections of short stories myself (and with enough material for 2 more!) and planning to publish (I hope) at least 6 anthologies over the next year or two, you’ll have gathered I’m quite keen!

I had an email yesterday in response to my posting about London Lies, in which the writer says

I was sure that it was near impossible to get short story collections published unless you are a well-known author

and asking how I managed it.

My very first short story was published in an anthology over 20 years ago. It was called Penelope Is No Longer Waiting, and I had sent it to Rosemary Manning, who was a friend, to cheer her up when she was unwell.  I got a phone call a couple of days later, saying

you could publish this

and then I saw a call for submissions from Onlywomen Press, and sent it off, and was accepted.  That easy.  I can still remember opening that letter, so thrilling.

I had two more stories in a further anthology at OWP, and then having got quite friendly with Lilian Mohin, the director at OWP, she was complaining about the quality of a lot of the submissions she received, and how she wished everyone wrote as well as me (or words to that effect).  My response was

plenty more where that came from

and I started drip-feeding her stories, one a month, under the heading of ‘entertaining Ms Mohin’, until she gave in and offered to publish a collection.  That was Mosaic of Air.

Mosaic didn’t sell very well, partly because I was in a wallflower phase and wouldn’t do any publicity, (I am so over that, as you may have noticed) and ended up with the remaining stock being pulped.  Not a happy moment!

Life rather caught up with me then and I wrote almost nothing for 11 years, then pulled myself together and published another collection, Tales Told Before Cockcrow. This did much better than Mosaic, and has almost sold out.

But what is it about the short story?

I’ll admit that some of my ‘short’ work is very long, almost novella length (now that’s really difficult to publish) but there’s something about a short story that’s like a jewel: carefully faceted and burnished to perfection, not a word wasted nor out of place.

Novels often have slow passages or subplots that don’t quite come off, but you are in it for the long haul so you put up with it, whereas you can’t afford to drift in a short story; and you can take risks and play games with language and structure, and the reader is prepared to come along because they know it’s not going to take you long to reach the punchline.

Since joining a writing group (WOOA) I’ve discovered that with a defined set of limitations I can write a fully formed story with a beginning middle and end in 20 minutes flat. Short Short stories… not quite flash fiction, because if it’s working, I write fast.

A really good short story settles into your mind with a sigh of satisfaction, like a good malt, or a perfectly toasted and buttered crumpet.

© Cherry Potts 2012

Judging a Book By Its Cover


Teresa Villegras' magnificent painting

Joan Taylor-Rowan talks about choosing the right cover for her novel, The Birdskin Shoes, and discovering the work of artist Teresa Villegras

joan taylor-rowan clip 6 book cover

© Cherry Potts 2012