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Manchester Writing series welcomes Rachel Genn and Helen Mort

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By Jamie Stewart

The latest instalment of the Manchester Writing series highlighted the links between regret, humiliation and humour in literature.

This month, the Manchester Writing School welcomed authors Rachel Genn and Helen Mort, who have both recently joined Manchester Met as Lecturers in Creative Writing. The event was hosted by Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing Joe Stretch.

At the event, Genn told the story of Astrid, an up-and-coming singer, and Henry, a failing psychiatrist who latches onto her. She said, “As his career fails, he feels the vortex of love around this new singer and gets caught up in that. Trying to assert his uniqueness, Henry decides that he will not love her and, instead, turns her into a drug experiment.”

The unlikely duo is sent to a nudist camp on a Greek island, becoming obsessed with a party they can hear, but are unable to locate.

When asked about what inspires Genn, she explained “I’m extremely interested in humiliation and how that drives conflict.”

Expanding upon this, Genn posed the question, “Why do we return to situations that are not nourishing spiritually and are potentially dangerous? We crave the inescapable nature of regret, the sting of it motivates us.”

Later, Helen Mort expressed a similar view. She said, “For me, the most valuable things to mine creatively when it comes to poetry, are those uncomfortable places. I think that’s why in the novel I’m interested in rock climbing, because there’s an element of risk.

“When I’m rock climbing and I take a fall there is this strange effect where it seems to happen very quickly but it feels like I’m falling for a long time. There’s a strange paradox there, which means I can remember the details of a climb more readily than I did yesterday.”

Mort also touched upon regret, citing the Hillsborough disaster as a major influence of her upcoming novel: “Hillsborough is a village, townland and civil parish in County Down, Northern Ireland. The Hillsborough Disaster was a human crush. Hillsborough, grid reference SK332896, is a suburb in North West Sheffield. The story of Hillsborough is the story of 96 individuals. Hillsborough is blooming once again after winning the large village category in the 2015 trans-link Ulster in Bloom competition. The real tragedy of Hillsborough is the families of the 96.”

When Rachel was asked about the importance of rumination, and whether writers have a propensity to ruminate she said, “Rumination is necessary for a writer, I think. Writing is cyclic in that it takes you out of the moment. That counterfactual thought requires you to hold two things in your head at once, one that’s happening maybe now and the future or now and the past, which in turn means you can’t be in the moment. I think there’s evidence that being in the moment does make you happy.”

Mort also highlighted the importance of place in her reading, “Locals used to say there were dragons in the woods, a beast slayed by a knight in Sheffield armour.”

Students from the Creative Writing MA were also invited to share their work at the event. Alyson Byrne read from her novel. She told the story of Emily, a young girl who navigates a desolate and unwelcoming land in Southport: “As the rain knifed across the path of the beam the wipers swished from side to side struggling to clear the amount of water. Another violent burst of lightning lit up the rutted fields.” As Byrne read, she emphasised the theme of regret, while Emily doubted her safety.

James Hodgson also read from his novel in progress: an account of an English man who travels to Brazil to find ten films. As he finds comfort in an Irish bar, he watches a brawl with a glass of Shiraz, until he is caught in it himself. “It’s all very Brussels at dawn, very EU high commission.”

Lucy Watson, who attended the event, said, “It’s great to have access to events like the Manchester Writing series. It gives writers a platform to share their work, and also, it allows aspiring writers like myself an insight into other writers’ processes.”

While the themes of the evening were regret and humiliation, it became clear that the Manchester Writing series offers some incredibly useful tools to tap in to for writers.

For more information about upcoming events from the Manchester Writing School,

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Jamie Stewart

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