You could say this post is a promoblog, or a literad. Whatever it is, featuring a title with the express aim of encouraging people to buy it is not something I’ve done before on the Literary Sofa, but I hope you’ll soon see why I’m making an exception. This week saw the publication of the paperback edition of the Stories for Homes anthology in aid of the UK homelessness and housing charity Shelter, following the e-book which came out in July. It’s a project I am proud to have played a small part in as one of the 63 contributing authors.
Stories for Homes was the idea of editors Sally Swingewood and Debi Alper who have masterminded the project from conception to completion with extraordinary reserves of energy and commitment to a cause they really believe in. Both Sal and Debi have experienced housing problems first hand, and have written moving accounts of it on the website. But one of the satisfying things about this book is that it’s been a successful collaboration between a large number of people. Everyone has contributed something vital and I know I’m not the only participant who feels very attached to it!
It all started back in the spring when a call for submissions of stories up to 3,000 words long on the theme of ‘Home’ resulted in nearly 200 pieces flooding in to be read and assessed by Sal and Debi. The chosen contributors were notified and began a very interesting editorial process, whereby we were each allocated a partner to work with in order to get our stories in the best possible shape for publication. It’s quite a big deal to exchange critiques with someone you’ve never met and a couple of people dropped out at this stage, but to judge by the end results it seems to have worked very well.
I was lucky to be paired with Amanda Block, whom I still haven’t met, but it was a very positive and enjoyable partnership (she wrote a lovely blog post about it). The very different interpretations of the theme Home make this a diverse collection with stories that are historic, contemporary, dystopian, funny, angry, sad, you name it. They are set all over this world and others, covering every theme imaginable. Amanda’s story Unsettled is loosely based on the fairytale Hansel and Gretl: I loved her beautiful atmospheric writing and the interplay of poignancy and menace but the story was so completely different to anything I would write that I felt rather unqualified to comment on it. Luckily it was in such good shape that it didn’t need much editing.
My contribution Half of Everything was inspired by sitting out Hurricane Sandy in an old wooden house in Brooklyn with a good friend who knew her days under that roof were numbered. Maybe for that reason I found it hard to distance myself from it, so I’m especially grateful to Amanda for the sensitive and perceptive suggestions she made.
Stories for Homes attracted a big buzz online when the e-book was released in the summer and has had a positive critical reception. I was certainly impressed by the overall quality of the writing and storytelling – just this week my book group discussed the 2013 BBC Short Story Award shortlist and I reckon there are a few in this anthology that could give those a run for their money. (Because I know many of the contributors, I’m having to resist the temptation to name my favourites.)
No doubt many of the stories, like my own, bear some relation to real events but as fiction they are predominantly works of imagination. The housing and homelessness crisis in the UK, on the other hand, is all too real and things are heading firmly in the wrong direction due to changes in government policy and the welfare system and the rocketing cost of housing.
I have to admit that until this year our family had not given much thought to these issues, but that changed when our elder son and his friend started volunteering with the Muswell Hill Soup Kitchen. Even in this affluent area, the soup kitchen feeds up to 50 people a night. Although only a few of them are ‘on the street’, the boys were given a research project to learn about the risks faced by the street homeless (as opposed to those in temporary accommodation) and to design an emergency pack they could be given to survive outside in cold weather, which is now being generously funded by a local private school. The chances of the street homeless ever fully reintegrating into society are very low and in addition to physical hardship, addiction and mental illness they are at significant risk of violence. It is shocking and heartbreaking.
But the same is true of other kinds of housing need, much of which is unseen. The Shelter website has an archive of case studies, many involving parents and children forced to live in precarious and unsuitable conditions. It’s quite clear from reading these accounts that intervention by Shelter has the power to turn things around, helping people who are vulnerable and let down by a system which used to provide a better safety net for those who fall – often temporarily – on hard times.
• The highest number of families in a decade are in emergency B&B accommodation.
• 80,000 children are facing homelessness this Christmas.
• Calls to the Shelter Helpline are predicted to soar in the next few weeks.
All proceeds from the sale of Stories for Homes in e-book and paperback will go to Shelter. Good fiction for a good cause – I hope your festive shopping just got easier. (Mine certainly did.) Thank you to all who have already shown their support – I hope you enjoy the book.
If you missed it, there was a lot of interest in my Top Books of 2013 last week. On 13 December I’ll be welcoming the Literary Sofa’s first self-published guest author, Janet O’Kane, to hear why she decided to take this route with her debut crime novel No Stranger to Death. And on 17 December I’ll be revealing my Fiction Hot Picks of 2014!