Review: Instructions for the Working Day by Joanna Campbell

Kerry Mead reviews Instructions for the Working Day by Joan Campbell 

‘You go too far, my friend. You are near dangerous ground.’

Good literary fiction often delves deep into the human psyche and the myriad of ways the intricacies of human interaction can take form. Some literary fiction, for example, Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, or Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, act as proof that literary fiction set against a historical backdrop can also teach the reader something about our shared histories. These novels make use of the human to flesh out historical events and make them more relatable; also using creative narrative to conjure up the atmosphere of that time, connecting us to the felt, emotional landscape of a particular place, something a history book can never do.

Joanna Campbell’s second novel Instructions for the Working Day, published by Fairlight Books and available in hardback from August 31st, is one of these books. Set in present-day East Germany, Instructions for the Working Day not only weaves an uncomfortable, gripping story of foreboding but also leads the reader to a better understanding of the deeply felt ramifications of the post-war era of the German Democratic Republic for a whole country and its residents, the echoes of which can still be felt today.

The blurb tells us that ‘Neil Fischer is travelling from the UK to a decayed, forgotten village outside of Berlin that he has unexpectedly inherited – his father’s former hometown of Marschwald’. The village has slipped into decline since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 and Neil has visions of restoring it to its former glory. As Neil makes his way to East Germany and arrives at the village to a frosty welcome and a general sense of unease it becomes increasingly clear it may be a more difficult task than he anticipated. 

Neil strikes up a friendship with Silke, who lives with her brother Thomas in the dilapidated house where Neil is a guest during his stay in Marschwald. Silke is the only resident of the village who welcomes his arrival; it is evident that, at least to start with, Silke sees Neil as a living emblem of a better life available beyond the swampy, bleak landscape that surrounds the village. As the story unfolds we revisit Neil’s childhood and more recent life back in the UK living in the shadow of his controlling and abusive father. During his time in Germany, whilst trying to make inroads into shoring up the village’s rapid decline, Neil begins finding the missing puzzle pieces that help him put together a clearer picture of what made his father the man he was. At the same time, the buried secrets of Thomas and Silke’s lives from before the fall of the Berlin wall are also coming to light. The poisoned legacy Neil’s father has passed on to his son reveals how Neil’s life and flawed, disturbed character are just as contorted by East Germany’s dark past as those around him who lived directly through the Stasi regime, and how difficult it is for any of them to be free of its lingering shadow.

Instructions for the Working Day illustrates Campbell’s strong knowledge of the craft of prose writing. She creates a distinct sense of foreboding throughout with her use of clean, stark language and sentence structure, a certain flatness which hints at the banality of evil, as well as deftly conjuring up an atmosphere of deep rot and decay through her descriptions of the physical landscape of Marschwald and its surroundings. Part of the narrative’s beauty is how the very fabric of place and experience described in the novel manages to demonstrate how living under Stasi rule must have felt for most East Germans between 1950 and 1990. The very ground of the landscape and the story’s atmosphere shift and stifle, leaving the reader with a sense of unsteadiness underfoot, of not knowing whether to trust anything that appears solid. At the same time there is a sense of something being held back or concealed from full view that both unsettles the reader and propels you forward to want to uncover the truth. 

This is a story of trust, mistrust, shifting loyalties, and the traps we fall into when we are tempted into a false sense of security. Questions are raised about who and what we should and should not rely on, trusting the wrong people, putting blind faith in strangers, and how those who we trust the most are best positioned to cause us the most damage. Narrative truth becomes harder to pick apart from illusion as the book progresses; a building sense of the boundaries blurring between what is hallucinatory and what is a ‘real’ occurrence in the story is hinted at right from the opening chapters. Neil’s increasingly tenuous grip on reality bleeds through the pages with rapid intensity as the book progresses; there is a tangible sense of being increasingly unsure of your innate ability to work out what is real and what isn’t by the time the novel reaches its conclusion.

This is a novel that does not shy away from presenting the stark reality of the horrors we human beings are capable of inflicting upon each other, and cuts open the dark, insidious underbelly of the human psyche we often avoid acknowledging, presenting it to us in such a way that we are forced to examine it closely. Campbell fully understands that it is in these hidden corners of the human character that the answer to questions about how the Stasi regime and other cruel societal constructs are created and upheld are found. But, without falling into the trap of providing a happy ending, Campbell also provides a glimmer of hope in the closing pages of Instructions for the Working Day. It is hard fought for, but there is a redemptive arc present in one of the character’s storylines which illustrates that we also have the innate ability not to be forever scarred by the cruelties enacted upon us in the past and succumb to the fate it would seem life has presented us with. Sometimes, if we are astute and strong enough, we can claw out of the quicksand and make a grab for an opportunity to change our own endings.

Instructions for the Working Day by Joanna Campbell is currently available in hardback from Fairlight Books.


Interview: Lily Dunn

Nilgin Yusuf interviews Lily Dunn


“Everyone has a right to their story.”

Lily Dunn is a writer, teacher and lecturer in Creative Writing and narrative non-fiction at Bath Spa University and recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck. Her novel, Shadowing the Sun was followed by A Wild and Precious Life, an anthology of recovery stories, co-edited with Zoe Gilbert. Her recent memoir, Sins of My Father: A Daughter, A Cult, A Wild Unravelling, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) was described by The Spectator as an ‘astonishing and valuable’ contribution to the genre. 

I met Lily Dunn when I attended her course at the London Lit Lab entitled Writing Compelling Memoir in 2021. As I prepared to write my own dissertation, an exploration of childhood and formative influences on my future as a writer, the course brightly illuminated this personal form of creative non-fiction. 

Dunn’s recently published memoir, Sins of My Father, was driven by a single burning question. Why, when she was six years old, did her father leave the family home, including her mother and brother, to join a cult in India? Through personal memories, interviews with family members, the examination of photographs, dreams and reading around alcoholism, addiction, abuse within public schools and coercion within cults, the author is simultaneously detective, psychoanalyst, therapist and scholar.  But crucially, she is a daughter who needs to understand. Here, Lily Dunn discusses her process, catharsis and why the hybrid memoir is making its mark on contemporary literature.

Why is the literary memoir gaining popularity right now?

When we hear ‘memoir’, people often think of the celebrity memoir or misery memoir. But I’m interested in the literary memoir, which has sub-genres and might be seen as a hybrid memoir, one that combines the life story with literary criticism, cultural commentary, or art history. Memoirs may, for instance, venture into biography, travel writing or literary criticism, so it’s becoming a more expansive field.  

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun might be placed in the nature section but it’s a memoir about alcoholism and self-realisation. Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations looks at femaleness, illness, feminism and art.  A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a beautiful memoir about being a mother in a domestic space but is combined with the translations of an Irish poet whose story has not been explored in history, so Ní Ghríofa reclaims this woman’s story. Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh is deeply ingrained in her own traumatic childhood but also the political situation in Ireland. By reading these books, you’re getting wonderful, personal emotive stories while learning something of history, culture or politics.  

Can anyone write a memoir?

There’s still some stigma around it. Some people think, ‘well, who are you? Why are you writing a story about your life?’ Everyone has a right to their story. I think people increasingly turn to real-life stories. Social media is part of this but also, the sheen of celebrity becomes too superficial, uncomfortably so, in times of strife. For obvious reasons, there’s been recent interest in the stories of care workers like Adam Kay’s, This is Going to Hurt, based on diary entries of his life as a doctor, which was also dramatised for TV. 


Describe the craft of literary memoir.

I always tell my students they need to write with the reader on their shoulder and ask themselves, ‘why does this matter beyond me?’ It’s imperative it goes beyond a personal story. When I read Educated by Tara Westover, I realised the form could be powerful and affecting and change the way people think and feel. 

When I teach memoir, I focus on how to make a story compelling, how to apply fictional techniques to non-fiction including scene-setting, drama, dialogue and engaging with the senses. You must feel compelled to interrogate something within and be prepared to expose parts of yourself and explore what some people may feel is private, not for publication.  

How has the process of writing, Sins of My Father, helped you? 

There’s something profound about going through the process of researching, writing, rewriting and crafting a personal story, and it becomes more detached from you the longer you live with it. Through the process of trying to understand somebody and reading around certain behaviours, whether that’s addictions or joining a cult, you start to see that person as a type and that can be helpful because it somehow depersonalises it, taking away its power to hurt you.

What was the most challenging part?

In the early parts of the process, stuff was churned up. But, once you get through that, you have the material there, then the crafting and making of it into a beautiful thing becomes really empowering and satisfying because it starts to give something back to you.

When I was going through my marriage separation, I felt compelled to write out some of the more traumatic events of my past, particularly those that involved my dad in the last years of his life, when he was dying of alcoholism. They came out in a fit of inspiration and a need to get the experience on the page but it was painful and I often ended up crying. 

It must have been cathartic?

The book evolved with my natural curiosity and the whole process of facing up to difficult tasks can teach you a lot. I was also going through therapy and having to face things because my life had been turned upside down. Writing changes as you change but it’s important to take your time. You can’t knock something like this out quickly. You need to take care; the longer you give yourself to reflect, the better it will be.

Can you speak about the role of imagination in memoir writing?

I had to reimagine things I hadn’t directly witnessed, so this was a process I engaged with a bit. But the trick with non-fiction is to always be upfront and honest. As long as you tell the reader what you’re doing, you remain a reliable narrator and that’s imperative.  You could argue I don’t have the right to step into my father’s skin but I wanted to get close to him in order to understand him, so I had to do it this way. 

In the opening scene, I desperately needed to understand how my father could get himself into the state where he responded to a scam email, which proved to be his undoing. I’d visited him many times in that house in California and so I knew of his routine. He was very deluded by the end of his life, lived a repetitive existence and we were in close contact. So, I wasn’t creating something I didn’t know.  There’s something about committing to the detail in an intimate way which almost takes you closer to the truth. I wanted to give as good and as whole a picture of his life as I possibly could, and I’ve been told that the attention to detail in those imaginary scenes brought another layer of compassion and love. 

Although this is a book primarily about your father who is largely absent, your mother is a constant presence. How has your relationship evolved?

It’s hard to write about someone you’re close to, but I asked her to read the final draft before it went to the publisher which allowed her to feed in some small details or say if she wasn’t happy with something, and that process was important because she was a part of the production of the book. 

As a child, me, my mum, and brother were a unit. There were fractious times when I blamed her for my pain, but like so many single mothers she was the ‘unsung hero’. My dad was the starry one who had always taken my attention, which I imagine was hard for her at times, but I hope this book is something of a tribute to her. She remains fiercely protective and proud of my brother and me. It’s the world against us. So if anyone is unhappy with the book or the way I’ve articulated or depicted something that has affected them, it’s not just me that has to deal with it, it’s all of us. 

The mother is often the one who stays, therefore unglamorous and underappreciated. But this book was also about allowing her personality and character to come through. I feel it honours her and is the story of so many women who are left with the children, and rarely acknowledged for the important role they have. 

This memoir isn’t about settling scores. I found it deeply empathetic. Was that important to you?

Empathy is important to any writer. We’re all drawn to faulted characters because faults make a person more real. This book was never about blame. It’s more interesting to present the facts as they are and let the reader make their own decisions. I’ve never stopped loving my dad. I wrote this book to give myself a voice, in the shadow of my father’s choices, which so often were noisy in their selfishness and destruction. 

Has writing Sins of My Father brought you peace?

I’m no longer in the shadow of the grief over my father, and my life is in a more settled place. My publisher made me realise I didn’t have to forgive him and it’s more about freeing myself from his influence. It’s possible to hold somebody in our hearts but understand what they did was unforgivable yet not let that ruin our lives.  I sometimes have pangs of guilt that I did this without his consent, but then I remind myself my voice was hidden for much of my childhood because of his disregard. I also attempted to really understand him through the process of writing this – it could have been such an entirely different book – and through writing this, I’ve dignified him. It’s not necessary to forgive in order to free yourself.



Nilgin Yusuf is a London-based author and journalist who recently graduated from Birkbeck’s BA in Creative Writing. Her monologue, George which explores isolation and human connection was selected for the Lost Souls Monologues podcast and can be heard at  An extract of her own memoir, Ink: An Alphabet Book recorded for Birkbeck Arts Week 2022 can be heard at nilgin_yusuf on Instagram. Currently working on her play and first novel, find her on Twitter @nilgin or contact

Interview: Charlie Higson

Richard Norris asks Charlie Higson about his young James Bond book, Silverfin.

“I wanted to show how the destruction of innocence can make an ordinary boy, a killer.” Charlie Higson

From writing characters for Harry Enfield, (Stavros, Loads of Money) TV’s Saturday Night Live and The Fast Show, Charlie Higson’s adult and kid-based novels have shown the world he’s got it all covered. But how does this giant of TV and literature take the world’s most famous secret agent and reinvent him? I spoke to Charlie at his home in North London, about how he developed his first young James Bond novel, Silverfin.

As a wannabe writer, sitting with Charlie in his living room, glasses of water with a laptop recording sitting next to them, I realise how privileged I am to know the man. Like Rik Mayall, Charlie Higson has made a huge impact on aspects of my life, so it was a thrill for him to agree on being interviewed about a character we share a common interest in, James Bond. His first of 5 in the series entitled Silverfin, find a pre-Fleming Bond at the beginning of a most dangerous and exciting life as an Eton school boy.  

How did it start, for you?

I’ve always been a writer since I was a Kid. Because I enjoy the process. I enjoy making stuff up and just by writing something down, you can create a whole world and it always struck me as a sort of magic. And so, you know that’s almost the easiest form of creativity as you know. As a kid, most people will probably find writing easier than say drawing. You can tell the whole story and create characters, a world all that stuff and so I wrote to entertain myself and for the love of creativity and I carried on writing through my teenage years and when I went to university.

Did you come up with the concept of a young James Bond?

I was approached by the Ian Fleming estate. It was all very secretive, they came and said they wanted to revitalise the literary side of Bond and remind people where it came from. They wanted to get new Bond books written by proper writers and I’m thinking, how do you write a new James Bond? How do you do something with Bond that’s not been done before in the books and films. I didn’t know really know where you’d start and then they said they wanted to show his early life and do it for kids at which point I thought ah yeah, that’s quite exciting because we’ve never seen that. There’s room for me to bring something of my own trip. At the time I’d been looking to write for my three boys. I wanted to write an action-adventure thing that they’d enjoy. 

So, you had the plot just nowhere to place it?

Almost. As they spoke of the idea, the plot for the first book sort of sprang already formed straight into my brain. I thought I could put into the book everything that boys love to do and everything that I loved in books when I was a kid. I needed to set out my story. I needed to set out the level of kind of threat and intensity of the book in that first chapter so that kids’ reading it would know if they wanted to keep reading this book? Was it going to be too much for me or am I going to really get into it?  Also, I had to set up how this is going to be a big, exciting world with this (Bond) stuff and because I didn’t have that great device that Fleming came up with. This is your mission get to it, yeah. I couldn’t have him as an actual teenage spy. He had to be an ordinary school kid who stumbled on all these adventures. So instead, I tried to make his early school days as exciting and as James Bond like as I could but scaled it down to a level that kids could relate to.

“Fleming said ‘if you get the everyday details right, that gives you the licence to add elements of fantasy.’ Charlie Higson

How did you research a huge character that really has no background?

Before writing the book (Silverfin) I had never been that keen on research.  I just wanted to get on and write the story. The only real time that we do find out about his background is in the penultimate novel You Only Live Twice, where everybody thinks Bond has died and M writes an obituary that’s printed in the times. That tells us all the back story that’s what I really had to go on. But the hardest part was knowing what it was like to be a schoolboy at Eaton in the 1930s. The librarian and Historian there showed me around there. I was fortunate enough to find an old diary, written by a boy about his experiences in his first year in the Thirties. It’s funny when you’re writing a historical book. It’s the little things, the sort of ordinary domestic details that can trip you up. You need to know what things were used at the time. 

The challenges in creating the man audiences know as action man James Bond just a kid, must have been a nightmare? 

People always used to ask me, who’s your favourite Bond, yeah, and obviously, for men of my generation, it’s Sean Connery. And again, it’s like which of the Bonds is the Bond in the book. I tried as far as possible to make the Bond in the book as much as possible like Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Old school. Also, we can’t pretend that we haven’t seen all those films so all of that did feed into the books and you know there’s a certain energy from the films, so what I was putting into my books and my bond was a sort of amalgamation of the best bits of all of them but at school. I wanted to show how an ordinary boy through the awful things that happened to him could grow up to be a killer, an assassin as it were. And there is huge mythology that has built up around Bond. There are all the trappings that you must have to make it a Bond and so I wanted to try and use as much as that but on a scale that kids could relate to. It was quite tricky because what is Bond known for? Driving fast cars, living in hotels all around the world. Eating in restaurants. Drinking lots of alcohol, smoking and having sex with lots of women and his job is to kill people. None of which you can have a 13-year-old boy doing in a children’s book. It’s a perfect fantasy for a bloke because he’s cut away from all responsibilities and burdens that in real life you have to deal with. There’s a classic structure to a James Bond book. Bond is given the mission by M. He approaches the villain. They have an initial competition. He gets close to the villain, enters his world and meets the girl along the way. He’s captured by the villain. Is tortured, escapes, comes back kills a villain and then sleeps with the girl. I had to work out how I do some of that. It’s a bit unsavoury having an adult torturing a child, so I did come up with different ways. The adult tortures James Bond by forcing him to drink a bottle of gin. That is a rite of passage all teenagers go through. We get hold of a bottle of gin with our mates and go to the park and drink it, puking up thinking we’re going to die. I thought yes, that is a good way to work these kinds of adult things into the books. As a writer, you draw on real life experiences. As it was about growing up and being a teenager, you can put all that stuff in it but in the guise of being just an adventure book.

“One of the other continuation authors said before about writing these books was that your polishing somebody else’s gold”

Was it difficult, to hand over your Young James Bond to another writer?

I wrote around 5 Bond books and well, it was my choice. I didn’t create James Bond and I wanted to write something that was mine. But having done those books I feel I could write a whole new one. As a new adult James Bond novel. I’ve gone inside the world enough.

Beginning the Creative Writing B.A at Birkbeck aged 52, Richard Norris’s experiences through his previously self-employed life as a DJ, Song Writer/ Producer and Pre-school music teacher, are rarely reflected in his writing. He sways away from non-fiction and towards his lifetime fascination with the darker side of comedy, horror, and science-fiction. At 55, Richard, now a delivery driver, looks forward to completing the M.A and releasing his “warped” stories into the world. He hopes that reading his interview with author, comedian and friend, Charlie Higson, is as much fun for you, as they had doing it.

Interview: Shon Faye

An Interview with Shon Faye, Author of The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice


What inspired you to write this book?


I didn’t really want to write it. I got approached by a literary agent who is still my agent and it’s normally the other way. The author goes to the agent, but she contacted me through a friend and asked if I had ever thought about writing a book and I was like, maybe, but like, I’m definitely not gonna write a book about trans issues. I just don’t wanna be pigeonholed in that way. And then I obviously ended up literally writing a book called The Transgender Issue. I think the reason being was that I was a freelance writer, like a journalist and culture writer, before. And there was such a growing hostile media narrative around trans people, particularly trans women, that it started to drain all of my energy in terms of what I was writing as a freelancer, because I just felt compelled all the time to correct misinformation or use my platform to talk about these issues. And so I kind of thought that one a book creates a different platform and a different medium to say a newspaper column or a magazine column and allows you to have the more in depth conversation you might want to have and you gain a readership and a platform that way. So some of my reasoning was strategic. And then in terms of my own career as a writer, I just felt like if you’re a minority writer and a trans writer specifically, I just feel like there’s not really much cultural space for you to write about other things until you’ve in some way addressed your identity. So for me I thought this will also provide me the opportunity to put everything about this aspect of my identity and my politics into one volume and allow me the freedom to move on and write about other things. So there was kind of a personal advantage to it and a critical advantage to it.


In your book you mention your privilege, saying that your own experience isn’t representative of that of the majority of the trans community. With this in mind, what was your goal in writing this book?


I mean the privilege disclaimer I sort of simultaneously hate that about leftwing writing, like modern leftwing writing, but also understand it. I sometimes feel like when people have to make this kind of confession of their structural privilege before they start speaking about leftwing politics it can get a bit tedious. But nevertheless, I was kind of aware that if I was going to engage in this book, it had to be addressed. One of the reasons that I was given the opportunity to write a book is that I went to Oxbridge and all that stuff. So in many ways, apart from the fact that I’m trans, I come from a very similar background to the media in Britain that I’m critiquing and the reality is I can’t undo that. I don’t think these levels of educational or class stratification that we have in Britain are just, or fair, but nevertheless I benefited from them. And so I guess what my intention was is, well, what can you actually do? There’s no point being overly remorseful or guilty for these advantages, but I guess the social justice approach is to think about how you implement them for the purposes of, well, I guess here it’s that I have a degree of platform forwarded to me or interest or publishing contract forwarded to me. And I can use that opportunity to elevate the voices of trans people that don’t typically get media platforms. So, that’s why the book isn’t a memoir about me and I tended to interview firsthand trans people that are maybe having a tougher time than me. People that are still struggling in the arena of class, for example, or race or disability. So the intention there was to elevate trans people’s voices that aren’t typically heard in the mainstream.


I felt it was important not to dumb down and oversimplify because I do feel people will keep up with you. I feel like a lot of the problem around minority issues is that we treat the majority of the population like they can’t comprehend these things. I try to introduce some basic concepts and then hopefully people will come with you in terms of growing complexity around the topic.


I wanted it to be read. When I first first pitched the book I remember I was dating a guy at the time and his parents read The Times, they were Tories. They were middle-aged, never met a queer person before. I kind of want these people to be able to read this book as equally as a young millennial. 

You mention widespread prejudice and misunderstanding concerning the trans community. What do you think are the first steps to challenging these perceptions?


I think there’s a mistake in assuming that people understanding the depths of your experience is necessarily going to change things materially in your life. 


I’m much more interested in where there’s structural discrimination against trans people, where there’s a material harm, whether that’s low income or healthcare inequality or pathologization in healthcare setting.


In the 20th century, you see this process where medical transition becomes more of a viable option and quite quickly psychiatry takes hold of that process and starts framing trans people as mentally ill. Saying that this is a mental health condition and these people are disturbed so that we need to treat them to stop killing themselves. A lot of that sort of pathologization has been reversed, but there’s still seeds of it everywhere, trans people as mentally unstable, they don’t really know what they’re talking about, their opinion on themselves and on gender is less reliable than cisgendered persons. Trans people experience a lot of mental health problems, but that’s because of how society treats us, it’s not because we’re inherently unwell, but I think that kind of pathologization really shapes how people view trans people. It’s quite easy to be seen as unstable or sick in some way and that’s something that I think a lot of trans people, including me, have experienced.

You argue that capitalism and the patriarchy are oppressing all minorities, not just the trans community. How do we achieve solidarity between minorities?


Solidarity politics, they’re not about, we agree on everything or you understand me perfectly, my internal experience and I understand your internal experience perfectly. They’re more about recognizing that we have similar oppressors or similar forms of oppression and therefore it’s in our better interests to kind of fight them together.


Some examples would be in the US in the sixties and seventies, the Black Panthers, black power movement, having allegiances with the gay rights movement. In the eighties when you had gay rights groups supporting striking minors.


One of the things that the right wing does so effectively is, because they are only consumed with money and power and confining money and resources to their small elite group […] it’s very easy for them to work together. Like the Christian right in the US is these big megachurches and then the traditional Republican capitalists and they work together so well because they have the same interests, right. Even though they’ve got quite different ideologies. And I think the left is really bad at being like, oh, you’ve said something wrong, I don’t agree with this at the moment. And I’m gonna work with you. 


The right loves to divide and rule. It’s very invested in making different marginalised groups fight each other, whether that’s white, working class people who are encouraged to think that working class people of color are taking their resources or anti-trans feminists who think trans women are invading their spaces and taking their resources.


People are encouraged to think that their own oppression, the declining standards of living, is to do with another minority group rather than to do with a powerful elite doing it intentionally. 


Is this book for trans people, for cisgendered people to understand the challenges facing the trans community or is it asking people to challenge the gender binary and their own understanding of their gender?


I was at a festival on the weekend and a trans friend was like, “oh, congrats on the book. I haven’t read it by the way. Sorry.” And I was like, to be honest, you don’t really need to read it. It’s not really for you. I mean obviously I’m glad that lots of trans people have read it. And I wanted other trans people to like it because it’s a very socialist book. I feel like there are a lot of trans liberals and a lot of trans people who haven’t quite made the link with socialist politics and I’m just as invested in socialist politics as I am in trans politics.


But it is for a mainstream audience, which is like necessarily cisgender people. It is one of those books that’s designed to turn around a public conversation. And to do that I do need to reach, I wanna say middle England, but like at least a huge wave of the population. I’m never gonna reach committed bigots, but I think there’s lots of people who flirt with transphobic ideas in their head, and it’s because they’ve never really been challenged. A book is a good way to challenge people. I think people are more likely to shift their opinions in private when they’re not feeling threatened.


Natty is a creative writing graduate of Birkbeck University. He claims to have written poetry from a young age and at one time believed he was a distant cousin of the Infrarealism movement. by Ilias Tsagas



Ilias Tsagas is a Greek poet writing in English and in Greek. His poems have appeared at the Sand Journal, The Shanghai Literary Review, the streetcake magazine, Tint Journal, the Away With Words Anthology (Vol 4) and elsewhere. He was also a runner-up at the Briefly Write Poetry Prize 2021.

The Burden of Guilt by Emma Werner

My little sister Flora is two and a half. She collects chestnuts and pinecones in a small metal box. She stops on walks to smell the flowers as I lean to keep hold of her hand and the greatest problem she has ever solved: a 16-piece puzzle. She is a toddler, and if my biased opinion is to be trusted, a particularly sweet one at that. She is also the same age I was when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Insidious thing, cancer. I often thought of it as a completely separate entity from my mum. The uninvited third wheel in our mother-daughter relationship. But malignant tumours arise from our own cells, so in that sense, my mother’s cancer was her. I was once told to consider the disease as a Darwinian process; species evolve by mutations and natural selection across entire populations, and so do cancer cells within each individual. Malignancy is the inevitable cost of our existence as multicellular beings. In the case of my mother, she was in her early thirties when the unwanted bill came. She had no genetic predisposition, no family history; the chances of her getting sick were laughably small. But the cancer grew anyway, and with it, an unnamed bulk of guilt and responsibility crawled onto my small back. I have flashes of her skinny figure in a vast double bed taller than myself. I doubt I understood what was happening then, but I know she underwent surgery and chemotherapy early on. The cancer hid for a while, then in 1999, it came again, this time grafting itself onto her right hip. With the benefit of hindsight and many years of biomedical studies, I now know this was the beginning of the end – once the cancer reaches the bone, there is no way to remove it. From then on, my mother’s condition was, plainly, incurable. I have no recollection of being explicitly told this, not then anyway. Any mention of Darwin and oncogenic mutations did not reach me until much later in life. But her first relapse remains brutally etched into my memory.

During the Christmas break of that year and amid a vicious round of chemotherapy, my parents took my sister and me to a ski resort. I was five; my sister was eight. Much of that holiday is a blur – and hard as I try to recall, I do not believe I was aware of the full extent of my mother’s disease. Shortly after we arrived, she fell sick and was rushed to a doctor nearby. When she returned the following night, it dawned on me for the first time in my life: one day, my parents would die, and I would be alone. I rushed to my mother for comfort. She calmed me down and said not to worry and to enjoy the rest of the holiday. But a few days later, on New Year’s Eve, while I was jumping around to songs I didn’t really know, thoughts of my mother’s health came back to haunt me, mingled with a dull feeling I could not quite yet put words on. As the millennium drew to a close, I was joined by a shadow that would stalk me for the rest of my life.

The thought that I’d burdened my mother with my own fears was mortifying; what pain she must have felt, knowing the cancer was killing her even as she consoled me. I never mentioned the incident again. Instead, I quietly carried the shame of what I considered my failure to deal with my mother’s terminal illness without causing a scene. And as the cancer cells continued to slowly but inexorably multiply inside of her, so did my own feelings of guilt. 

For the twelve years that followed, the cancer lived with us like an unwanted family guest we all did our best to ignore. Occasionally, it disappeared for a while before storming back in, each remission shorter than the last. The cycle became so familiar that I fooled myself into thinking it would carry on forever. I went about my life as normally as I could. I went to school, sang in a choir, took violin lessons, and convinced myself that things would get better eventually. Yet, at times, the horrors of my reality burst through that naive ignorance, just as they had in 1999.

When I was around twelve, my mother lost her hair. It had happened before several times, but her most recent chemotherapies had spared her this characteristic side-effect and I had almost forgotten what she looked like bald. I was the only one home when she came from the hairdresser, where she’d said goodbye to the last remaining clumps of hair not yet ravaged by the medication. I assured her she looked great, that her new black chemo hat was sweet and that we’d find a good wig anyway but was unable to mask my reaction upon seeing her. She looked so pale. So ill. All I could see was her cancer. I knew how upset she was at losing her hair again and hated myself for hating her appearance and for the half-second in which I feared the shock had been visible in my eyes.

While writing this piece, I found an email I’d sent that same year to a teen magazine in response to a story about cancer they had recently published. Written in Comic Sans and signed off with a smiley face – my attempt to lighten the mood – the message read:

“My mother has had cancer since I was two years old. I have learnt to live with it, but the older I get, the harder I find it. I am unable to talk about it with my mother, nor my family, nor a psychologist nor my friends. How can I make it easier and help my mother?”

🙂 Emma, 12 (Paris)

I received a very kind email back five days later. The editor suggested I look to artistic outlets as a coping mechanism: “drawing, writing.” As it turns out, I had spent most of my childhood writing. Short poems, mainly, though I ventured into other genres too. At primary school, I’d penned a small pamphlet in which I examined the meaning of words. In suitably morbid fashion, the first one on the list was death. I wonder what my parents made of it. 

When I was fourteen, my mother once asked me to pick up the blood test results for her, too anxious to see what they might show. Unfolding the piece of paper in the laboratory’s drab waiting room, I broke down. I willed the numbers to change, but her illness’s stubborn un-solvability stared back at me from the page. I called my father in tears. After all the pain and the treatments, how could I possibly tell her she was still dying? In the end, it was she who had to comfort me. Here I was, five years old again, unable to cope and unable to make her better. “So it’s not so good, is it?” she said as I opened the front door. “It’s ok, the doctor said the markers might continue going up for a bit.” 

I went on a trip with my conservatoire orchestra a month before her death. In hindsight, I should have known that time was fast running out when cancerous nodules were found in her liver not long before. Still, celebrating Halloween in various bars of Vienna, the cancer seemed far away. And nothing quite takes your mind off impending death like a week of underage drinking and sleep-deprived performances of Verdi’s Requiem. Reality came crashing down the same hour I got back. My father came to pick me up from the coach station on the way to collect my mother up from a therapist appointment. She climbed into the car and burst into tears. “I am not afraid anymore,” she told my dad. It wasn’t until two weeks later, when my father sent me to stay with my grandparents to shield me from the excruciating final moments, that I understood what she had meant. We had finally reached the end. After fourteen years of a life-threatening illness, I still failed to recognise death when it came.

For a long time after her passing, I dreamt about her often and every time the same scenario would play out. I would see her on a Metro platform in Montparnasse, near our flat in Paris, and I would apologise for not realising early enough that she was about to die. My mother was gone, but my guilt remained.

I found solace in biology textbooks in the gaping hole she left behind. I relished learning anything to do with cancer. I sought any mentions of the chemotherapy drugs I had seen my mother endure. Taxol. Taxotere. Any mutations I remembered hearing about. HERC2. BRCA1. “Bones are the most common metastatic site for breast cancer”. “Secondary liver tumours develop in about half of all metastatic breast cancers and often lead to liver failure”. Rather than finding it upsetting, it was like a comforting voice making sense of it all. Here for the first time was a logical justification for my illogical childhood, a coherent explanation of my mother’s illness. 

Biology gave me another, more unexpected source of healing. The same year my mother died, I took an internship at a laboratory researching cancer in Tasmanian Devils. There, I first learnt about malignant tumours in the context of evolutionary theories. The scientist who supervised me called them “biological dead-ends” – once the cancer becomes stronger than its host, it dies with them, just like my mother’s cancer had disappeared with her. In the following months, that same scientist met my dad, who’d wanted to thank her for taking good care of me. They married some years later. And so, in a strange turn of events, after cancer took my mother, it gave me a younger sister, Flora.

It has been eleven years since my childhood fear of losing a parent came to pass. My own thirties are looming large on the horizon. On the other hand, Flora is looking forward to her third-ever Christmas. A few weeks ago, she became inconsolable after breaking a small plate, and as I comforted her, I saw my childhood expectations crumble too. I had always believed it a perfectly reasonable assumption that I should know to deal calmly with my mother’s illness before I had even learnt how to read. All those failures I’d been carrying around since I was Flora’s age, my remorse, my guilt – it was justified. Now, faced with the reality of a toddler’s emotional landscape, I realised for the first time the sad absurdity of it all. 

It took over a decade and the arrival of Flora into my life to reach that basic conclusion. Sometimes in her eyes, I recognise the same carefree innocence I traded as a child for a lifetime of self-reproach. I cannot change how I grew up, nor, as I assured my mother on her deathbed and many times in dreams, would I have wanted to. But as I watch Flora play with her toys and cry over broken crockery, the burden of guilt medical textbooks never quite managed to shift slowly makes way for bittersweet relief. I was a kid who did not know how young she was. I did my best in the worst of scenarios; one day, I will accept that that was enough.

Emma Werner is a creative producer and writer, living in South London. She also holds a PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Cambridge. She is originally from Paris, and enjoys writing in both English and French.

Interview: Toby Litt

Toby Litt is a writer. His résumé is extensive – novels to songwriting, opera collaborations and poetry collections … And creating a comic book character, Crystal Palace, who will feature in the live-action series Dead Boy Detectives on HBO Max. Toby’s story ‘The Retreat’ won the 2020 University of Essex Short Fiction Prize. His latest novel, Patience, was published by Galley Beggar Press in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Toby is also a Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University. His latest work is A Writer’s Diary, sharing a page every day from a year in his life via Substack. (Substack, in case, like myself, you’d never heard of it, is a web platform pushing an alternative to literary boundaries of the last century; its aim is to “allow writers and creators to run their own media empire.”) I’ve read an entry a day of A Writer’s Diary, (Strapline: ‘A year in my life and my life in a year – birth, death and commas.’) since its launch January 1st this year, and each entry has captivated me for different reasons. Each page is so unique in its tone, content, purpose, yet each one retains the familiarity of being in the company of a bloody good writer. His style challenges the reader to think deeply into the everyday and reflect on our emotions. It’s personal for the reader, addictive and impressive.

Hi Toby. Thank you for being here for me to find out more behind A Writer’s Diary. 

What’s your synopsis of this work? The inspiration behind this diary?

Thanks for being interested. When I finished Patience, I felt I’d done something unexpected – for myself. I’d written something I didn’t think I was capable of writing. This partly came out of the voice of the narrator, Elliott, who is very free in his word-choices and associations, and partly out of Elliott’s situation, which is that he is paralysed. He lives in a Catholic home for children whose parents – for one reason or another – can’t care for them. He sits all day in his wheelchair. The Sisters either put him facing a window down into a courtyard or facing a white wall. He can only see what’s in front of him. But he finds it fascinating. He sees everything in what might seem like nothing. In a way, A Writer’s Diary is me trying to continue that generous way of looking at the world – Elliott’s way – and what is in front of me, most of the time, is this desk I’m at right now and these pens, pots, notebooks, this hardboard work surface, these conditions. It may seem like very little, but I find it opens into greatly curious things.

It seems budding authors will have to embrace learning how to publish online, using platforms like Substack. Tell me about your experience of web publishing, your thoughts on writers building and running their own “media empire”? 

My experience on Substack, so far, has been very positive. Most published writers experience a delay of a year or two between finishing a piece of prose and sharing it with non-professional readers. Usually, by the time a novel came out, I was far more into the next novel. I had to fake myself, the writer who wrote the previous book, in order to speak about it. With online publishing, there’s no time-lag, and less of that kind of fakery. I’m talking to you about what I’m writing.

As for the “media empire” thing – I’ve been very aware, since leaving a big publisher, that lots of those jobs (marketing, publicity) were done for me by really good people with great contacts. I’m not them. But even big publishers now expect their writers to self-promote, to have marketing ideas. You see debut novelists creeping onto Twitter six months in advance of their launch date, because they’ve just been told what the total marketing budget is (isn’t). I think it’s better to try to feel at home in those online spaces, and see what’s sustaining in them, rather than to try to pimp off them or add them to any imagined empire. Neil Gaiman may have an empire, I have something more like a shed.

The diary form is personal, exposing. Many writers can fall away from plot into the splurge confessional. What are your tips here to confess in a controlled engaging manner?

This question really is a great chance for me to make an arse of myself, isn’t it? I’d say that, like lots of forms of writing, a diary becomes interesting when you’re not writing something for the first time. You can keep a note of the events of each day, and that can be wonderful to look back on. But the best short stories I’ve written have, I think, been attempts to get a story right that I’ve previously failed at. If you’re splurging a confession, then it’s a first go at a new story. But if you’re looking back at failed confessions, and picking out your own dishonesties, that’s when it’s a rewriting, and I think that’s when it can become more than this happened and then this happened

All the diary entries already exist, but you’ve, to use your words, written, rewritten, moved around, and plotted. The entries vary from a single word to a page… I sense each entry gets edited by your mood each day. Are you editing the entries again daily? Can you tell me more about your process here?

 It’s one of the excitements and weirdnesses of this form – a new publication every afternoon. I’m still nervous about each one. Right now, I’m nervous about today’s. Most entries get a few small changes, but one or two have been completely rewritten. That’s come out of me feeling something was lacking in what was in there already, rather than me importing something from real life. I’ve got a developing sense of real-time pacing. A page-turn is twenty-four hours, not just half a second. A single word entry can have far a greater moment. It’s not just clocked and then flicked away from. I think, in future, I’ll be cutting more.

What are hopes for A Writer’s Diary upon its completion? 

I’m very glad to say that Galley Beggar Press are going to publish it on January 1st 2023. When it’s out, I’d like people to read it as an attempt to do something new in writing – although I know books like The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero exist, and behind them Virginia Woolf’s diary. Part of that new thing I’m trying can only happen this year, before the entries become static, and can no longer be anticipated as taking place tomorrow or in two week’s time.

Lastly, is anything else you would like to give to the MIR readers and budding writers?

Along with Liz Jensen, Chloe Aridjis, Monique Roffey and others, I’m one of the organizers of Writers Rebel, part of Extinction Rebellion. We’re committed to bringing up the Climate and Ecological Emergency whenever we have a public platform (such as this one). That awareness is the basis of all we do, write, contribute. I’d like to give MIR readers a chance to get involved with Writers Rebel. You can contact us at We’re looking for volunteers, blogs for the website, but mostly for people to join the protests that will be happening in September 2022. We – all of us – have to give ourselves a liveable future.

Thank you so much for your time, Toby. 

Sign up to A Writer’s Diary for free.


Alice has lived and worked with an invisible disability for 20 years. Her writing draws on this experience alongside humour. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She loves horses, dogs, lols and libations. And she hopes you enjoy reading her work!


Flow and More Delay by Craig Burnett


Thumbs pressed together at his breast,
fingertips a tingle or two apart, lips
a soft horizon of grief, eyes absorbed 

in the haze of space we all inhabit, –
between a breath and what happens next –
a right leg pushed hard into the earth

with enough force to match the tree
at his side. We watch as John tips
a bowl of infinite flow over his hair.

I don’t care about god. That’s not why
I’m here. Piero shows us the pink
in his cheeks, how beak and stream 

echo above his head, the reticent love
of John’s left hand, the man pulling off
his tunic above the water’s still surface, 

lush with inverted hills, cloaks and clouds,
an opaque veil that hides the current 
until you let your eyes drop into the sky.

More Delay 

I woke up on a patch of yellow grass
in the middle of a sun-baked town square.
Two feelings overwhelmed me: I had a train
to catch. There was no station. The sea glinted
in the distance. A fishmonger displayed
his icy banks of harlequin death, offering
a future that will always elude me. I heard
the toot and shuffle of trains on other planets.
I sought shelter in an abandoned skyscraper
festooned with busted clocks, stuffed
with ghosts who wouldn’t shut up. 

The erotic life of impatience will plot
its own course. When the choreographer
came to town he demanded a swoop of the arm
from everyone, articulating a need to harmonise
all our aches and limitations. Dancers filled
the streets, flaunted a mood of pointlessness
and play. I wonder if you could do me a favour:
Pack all my hesitations into the back of a truck,
take them on a ride.

Craig Burnett is the author of Philip Guston: The Studio and Bucolic Stop, a chapbook. He lives in London.