Er, Nietzsche, Kathy Kirby, Little Eva and Genghis Khan have something in common ....


Talking it over with Genghis Khan

The colour of '33

After uranium

Do kittens dream in primrose?

A grandmother's green should be reseda

Terrible tales of time and tide

One magenta sock

Kant's day off


'Say "Hello" to the fairies, Karl'

Nietzsche, my darling


Pictures for an exhibition

Looking for Little Miss Universe

Mr Davidsbündler comes to call (or 'If on an autumn morn a traveller')


Speak, Gargoyle

The Big 'D' Gang (or 'The Case of the Double Quincunx')                                                                 

I liked my Bible because it had a lilac cover

Where did you put my khaki shorts?

Hello, indigo

The meaning of geranium

In the bruise-coloured night

Come back, lapis lazuli, all is forgiven

The hidden life of carmine

Remembering saffron

The shock of pink grapefruit

The lavender bride

Cerise: yes

Campaign for more topaz

But is it periwinkle?

A moth-coloured nap

Reasons to be purple

Many of Heather Reyes's short stories share a connection with paintings (and painting titles) by Paul Klee, Matisse and Kandinsky. Full of verve, wit and intimacy, her superbly quirky, mischievous and colour-filled stories show how our daily lives are richer, stranger and more dangerous than we know.
Why is Genghis Khan on little Eva's bed? Who painted 'Only connect' on the Ritz? What does a gargoyle have to say about the world? Did Mr Davidsbundler really come to call? In the world of Heather Reyes Talking it over with Genghis Khan the answers are as unexpected as the questions.

Her short stories have appeared in many UK and US literary magazines including Fiction International, Ambit, Philosophy Now and Mslexia.

'Moves, amuses and provokes' Independent on Sunday on Zade

'Rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender' Maggie Gee on Miranda Road

'Brilliant ... I love Heather's passion for reading' Helen Dunmore on An Everywhere: a little book about reading

An interview with the author

The first thing that stands out about the collection is that it's flooded with colour. There are only a handful of stories that don't feature colour in an important way and many of them use colour in the title.

The stories are hugely varied in form and length, but colour provides a unifying element. The few that don't use colour directly are nevertheless linked to the colour element and what it stands for in the other stories. For example, 'Looking for Little Miss Universe' pits joy and humour against the sadness of human mortality, and that's very much in line with some of what I'm trying to do elsewhere in the more obviously 'colour-full' stories.

Quite a number of the colours you use aren't what I'd call 'straightforward' ones. They're very specific tones - like 'reseda', 'magenta', 'saffron', 'periwinkle'.

I've always been fascinated by the names of colours. It must go back to seeing the names on my grandfather's the oil paints when I was a child. I use this detail very directly in 'After uranium' where they're in contrast to the stories the old man tells the little girl about war. Thematically, it's part of my attempt to foreground the different, the rich, and the unexpected, and making the tales visually interesting, too - and more precise than, say, 'red' or 'green' or 'blue', which would be a bit boring. And, of course, in 'A grandmother's green should be reseda', the contrast between the two different shades of green is very significant - the granddaughter wanting her to be a dignified 'reseda' while the grandmother's real character and her hidden past is expressed through her preference for 'emerald' - which the girl comes to understand in the course of the story. The colour names are also linked with my love of playing with the sounds of words.

Perhaps we can talk about the 'playing with the sounds of words' in a minute. But I wonder if you'd like to say a bit more about the way colour - and even individual colours - function in the stories.

For me, colour - along with music - is one of the greatest sources of joy in life and, even in sad or serious stories, I usually try to retrieve or create something positive: I hope the foregrounding of colour helps to achieve this. In 'The colour of '33' we go with the narrator and the man she loves to an exhibition of Kandinsky's work. Among all the wonderfully coloured paintings, there's one small, uncoloured one called 'Grim situation' - which only makes sense when you read the date, 1933, and know it was the year Hitler became Chancellor. His regime persecuted the Bauhaus artists, of which Kandinsky was one. This stands for the whole history of that ghastly period, and the narrator can only escape it by 'entering' a painting that's full of healing colour. In 'One magenta sock' the colour becomes an enrichment of life and is associated with a creative and unusual person. In some stories, colour is set against 'no colour': in 'Come back, Lapis Lazuli, all is forgiven', that rich blue is set against 'maggot-colour'; saffron is set against grey in 'Remembering saffron'; lavender against conventional white in 'The lavender bride', and so on.

Do you have a favourite colour?

Don't laugh - it's actually pale grey ... But maybe partly because against it you can  put just about any of the glorious colours that exist and they are both enhanced. In terms of the sound of a particular colour, I think maybe 'lapis lazuli' - it has those gentle, lapping 'els' and the zippy, energetic 'z' near the middle.

The collection ends with a string of little stories that hardly seem stories at all, in the conventional sense.

Ah, but what the reader has to do is construct or be aware of the 'big' stories behind them! 'The lavender bride' isn't just a few lines about a young woman who wears a lavender wedding dress. It suggests the whole history of women being made to conform to certain ideas of 'purity' etc. The young woman in the story defies convention - and in doing so sets a valuable example to others, freeing their imagination to be themselves and not cow-tow to others' ideas of what she should be. These small stories are exercises in 'condensation', if you like, and the reader does sometimes have to work a bit harder at them.

Religion crops up in various stories. The title story actually starts with the sentence, 'When Eva first learned about wars and things, she thought she'd better start going to church - just in case.' She's heard that God is supposed to answer prayers. Yet you're not really a 'believer' in the conventional sense.

No, but I was educated at a wonderful convent school so religion is part of my 'imaginative universe'. What I've tried to do in various stories is recuperate some of the richness of religious imagery and put it to use in a new way, but still with an 'altruistic' intent - a route to a more worldly salvation, if you like. Of course, in the title story the girl's naivety is partly a critique of certain religious attitudes in the face of the overwhelming suffering inflicted by powerful war-mongers, here represented by Genghis Khan and Hitler. At the end of the story, the girl engages the help of two religious statues - man-made 'art works', even if rather 'plastery-looking' ones. They appear to come to life, throw aside the trappings of religious iconography and follow the girl out of the church and into the world - as statues. It's tied up with the girl's attempt to start a fashion for replacing the word 'rebirth' with 'Renaissance' - which evokes a blossoming of Humanism and interest in the products of Man's cultural life, as well as 'nicer clothes' than the other option, 'Resurrection', which, as the girl muses, only suggests dusty old blood-stained sheets.

            In 'Campaign for more topaz', the speaker takes the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins and proposes seven new ones to replace them. Then, in 'I liked my Bible because it had a lilac cover', I take biblical words out of their original context and turn them into something pleasurable - 'new words to embroider the tongue with' - and finish with a string of them which suggest that a certain approach to life can contribute to social and personal fulfilment. And above all the loveliness of 'otherness'. But I don't want to analyse it to death!

I guess that leads nicely on to your pleasure in playing with the sounds of words.

Even before I could read, my mother used to read poetry to me. One of my favourite poems was John Masefield's 'Cargoes'. It begins, 'Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir...'. I hadn't the faintest idea what it was about but it was full of the most beautiful-sounding, mysterious words. Then, of course, I studied Anglo-Saxon poetry at university, and I think that also raised my awareness of word-sound. I taught poetry for years, too, and, like many young people with literary ambitions, I started by writing poetry - which focuses the mind like nothing else on the sound qualities of words.

            You have to enjoy what you're writing, and, for me, one of the pleasures is 'playing' - if that's the right expression - with words. Thematically, 'playfulness' is important to the collection as it's one of the things - along with colour - that I try to set against the darkness which can so easily overwhelm us. 'The colour of '33' starts by turning the name of the painter Kandinsky into 'sky-candy man', for example. As I said before, the narrator escapes from his one colourless work, and all it stands for, into a 'healing' colour - a sweetness plucked from the sky! And then there's the fun of the gargoyle names in 'Speak, gargoyle'.

As you mentioned, the stories are very varied in form and voice.

I think variety and surprise are important in keeping the reader's interest - and are also a source of pleasure in themselves. As well as conventional first and third person narratives, I also use second person in a couple of stories, which is less usual. It kind of 'implicates' the reader in the story: it's a very direct address. Italo Calvino makes use of it in his novel If on a winter's night a traveller, which I use as a reference point for the story 'Mr Davidsbündler comes to call' (hence the story's subtitle). And the odd name of the 'visitor' I've pinched from the composer Robert Schumann's imaginary 'Band of David' - people who would slay the cultural Philistines. But one doesn't have to know that to enjoy the story - I hope!

            Other forms I use include a letter ('Say "Hello" to the fairies, Karl'), a monologue (spoken by a gargoyle), a parody detective story, an obituary, a couple of dialogues, one side of an implied dialogue, and I end with something that could be described as a weird kind of little secular sermon. Sometimes I am asking the reader to make a big adjustment from one story to the next. But I hope that's part of the fun!

In many of the stories it feels as if the actual endings are not that important in terms of what the story is really 'about'. Is that a fair comment?

Oh, yes. But then I think that's often the case with short stories as well as novels - apart from some detective fiction where the whole point seems to be to find out, at the end 'who done it' - though I undermine this in my spoof detective story. Yes, I think it's very much what happens in the course of the stories that really counts ... though there are a few exceptions - including two where the whole point comes in the last few words (but I'm not going to tell you which ones!) and which may just catch the reader out ...

It's always interesting to know how much a writer has taken directly from their own life. You've already mentioned your grandfather's paints, but are there any other significant incidents or characters you've lifted straight from life?

Oh, definitely - though sometimes the unexpected things, like the oldish woman in 'The meaning of geranium' - she's a 'local character' and I've described her exactly as she is. The incident at the centre of 'A grandmother's green should be reseda' is an adapted version of something that happened in my childhood (I still have some of the postcards referred to). Despite the 'fantasy' element of 'Pictures for an exhibition', the kernel comes from the fact that my grandfather - who, while still a teenager, fought in the First World War - would only ever copy other people's paintings. 'Looking for Little Miss Universe' was triggered by an old photo I found of my grandmother soon after she died, in her nineties: she was just a little girl in a fancy-dress costume of stars and moons. 'One magenta sock' stems from the fascination my children had for the lurex socks worn by a visiting friend - a poet. 'The colour of '33' came from a visit to an actual Kandinsky exhibition - though the two young Americans are invented - I think! Sometimes, when you've been involved with writing an incident for longer than you took to experience it, the edges begin to blur between what actually happened and one's own shaping of it into a story. That's happened to me more than once! Then there are little details, like the Bible with the lilac cover - which I still have. There are some images from 'In the bruise-coloured night' that originate from the opening exhibition at Tate Modern. The conversations in 'The shock of pink grapefruit' I did actually experience and 'The lavender bride' is my beautiful daughter-in-law. The starting point for 'Campaign for more topaz' was a local demonstration against a proposed new road that would have cut through the best part of the nearby town - including the convent school where I'd been a pupil and where I was teaching at the time. Even the nuns were out there demonstrating, yelling for all they were worth. And so was I. Then I caught sight of my neighbour, a devout Catholic - on the pavement, just watching. I called to her to come and join in but she 'didn't like to' ... as if it were something against her religion! Anyway, that was the feeling behind 'Topaz' - though for some reason I hear it in a slightly African-American voice. And when I was eleven or twelve I had a school friend with whom I used to discuss whether or not animals had souls - used in 'After uranium' ... along with the three-legged dog I remember from a Cornish holiday when I was six.

            But, then, of course, there is obviously lots of material in the collection that cannot possibly be taken directly from life - though one cannot write about anything that's not 'in your own head' in some form or other, even when it emerges as extreme fantasy - as in 'Pink' or 'Speak, gargoyle'. I must say, I do have a great affection for my gargoyle - and its wish to say everything before it's too late. In essence, you might say he's an aging writer ...   

The title. Why did you choose that particular story to be the title of the whole collection?

Actually I did consider one or two others, including 'Speak, gargoyle' - which is a reference to Nabokov's autobiographical Speak, Memory - a book a I love. But in the end I decided that 'Talking it over with Genghis Khan' did several useful jobs at once - which, ideally, you want from a title. I think - hope - it's intriguing because a bit unusual, and it suggests the coming together of two totally opposite 'things' ... a sort of resolving of an impossibility. The idea of 'talking it over' is of civilised, personal dialogue undertaken to sort out some fairly small problem, whereas the association of Genghis Khan is with large-scale, unstoppable violence and cruelty. In the face of such awfulness, literary creation can only be on the scale of 'talking it over'. But I think the title does alert the reader to the fact that the stories, though light-hearted in many ways, do engage with our darker, more destructive side as well as our puzzlement over our own natures as sentient beings in a vast, detached universe. In one sense, the whole collection is 'talking it over' with ... yes, Genghis Khan!

Even though a number of the stories deal with very dark subjects, you've also spoken a lot about fun and pleasure.

If there is no delight in either the writing or the reading of stories, why bother with them? But at the same time, I don't think you can be a worthwhile or useful writer unless you tackle the darkest or most troubling sides of human life - even if you're doing it in quite miniature works. You don't have to write a War and Peace in order to make people think. And you can wrest some joy and beauty from the terror and strangeness of existence on a small scale and maybe bring about some little transformations in the process ... perhaps.

Talking it over with Genghis Khan by Heather Reyes is published by Oxygen Books, £8.99, on 8 October 2015.

'From buying underwear to chewing a hunk of baguette is somehow more stylish because you're doing it in Paris.' Stephen Clarke on all things Parisian in city-lit Paris.

Author Stephen Clarke

Paris is not entirely unique. You can sit in cafés, wear designer clothes and even have sex in lots of other towns.

It just feels unique, as if everything you do, from buying underwear to chewing a hunk of baguette, is somehow more stylish because you’re doing it in Paris. Certainly Parisians act as if they’re unique — not as a community but each individual one of them. It is the city of moi. As they walk down the street they’re thinking, look at moi. Even when they’re kissing a friend on the cheeks, they’re saying it – moi, moi.

And the obsession driving each moi is its lifestyle. Parisians have elevated lifestyle to an art ― no, more than an art, it is (as only the French can say properly) a raison d’être. In summer, they close off a whole chunk of the road running along the right bank of the Seine — the city’s main throughway — to create Paris Plages, a chain of imported beaches, riverside cafés, performance spaces, even pétanque pitches. Block a main inner-city artery so that people can play pétanque? Not many capitals would do that.

Similarly, the new Vélib scheme ― cheap bike rental — was instantly adopted by Parisians as a chance to glide about the city looking stylish, as well as being a great new chat-up opportunity. “Bonjour, you have rented a Vélib? So have I, what a coincidence. Destiny has obviously decided that we must sleep together.”

Admittedly, this love of lifestyle does have its downside. As soon as the Vélibs were introduced, you saw impatient Parisians jostling around, trying to push in front of each other to get a bike. Because waiting is not part of their lifestyle. The person in front is preventing moi from being where moi really wants to be.

So when a chic Parisian office worker barged in front of me to get his Vélib, I knew that he wasn’t just being bad-mannered. No, he had an urgent appointment with himself and his lifestyle. It was probably imperative for him to go and sit outside a café before shutting himself away in the office. If he waited for me to fiddle around selecting my bike, he’d miss the chance to watch that new secretary walk past in her tight skirt. One of these mornings she is sure to notice him, and then who knows what will happen.

It is the city’s addiction to the moi-first lifestyle that has attracted writers to Paris for so many centuries. The average writer is, after all, even more egocentric than a Parisian. What’s more, Paris is the true home of the intellectual, a place where you can talk total arty-farty twaddle and, as long as you are passionate about it (and preferably squinting through a haze of cigarette smoke), people will actually take you seriously.

Fortunately, though, there have been plenty of brilliant writers either visiting Paris or living here, and the book you’re now holding is full of anything but twaddle, except perhaps for the samples of my own writing.

And what strikes me about reading Balzac, Flaubert, Orwell or de Beauvoir on Paris is how little the city changes. Superficially, yes ― Balzac’s heroes didn’t have to battle their way onto a metro during a travel strike — but deep down things are always the same. There are still foreigners getting mistreated in swanky kitchens exactly as George Orwell was. You can still trip over Americans like Hemingway sitting with their litre of wine on the river bank. Even some of the streets in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris are almost unchanged, and the darker ones can certainly smell pretty medieval on a Sunday morning before the cleaners come round.

My own first visit to Paris was inspired by a book ― Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), a novel about the often unappetizing things that went on in the city’s food market at Les Halles. Being too hard up to buy a decent guidebook, I marched off in search of the market using only the free Galeries Lafayette map they give you at the railway station, and was disappointed to discover that the glass-framed market halls had been knocked down and replaced by a hideous shopping mall about twenty years earlier.

However, as I wandered away, deep in literary mourning, I stumbled into the rue Montorgeuil and was confronted with bloody hunks of horsemeat, skinned rabbits, live lobsters and heaps of pungent mushrooms with the soil still clinging to their roots. A boulangère had set up a stall in front of her shop and was gleefully handling money and bread while sneezing into her palm with a disregard for hygiene that would have brought out the bacteria police back home. I was in Zola’s novel.

These days, people moan that the area around the rue Montorgeuil has gone posh — there is now, for example, a trendy Japanese restaurant that does mango sushi. Merde alors. But Zola would recognize the epicureanism of a street where every other business is dedicated to food. And you can still buy a baguette that has been fondled by a baker’s dubious fingers. Mango sushi, OK, but polythene bags for baguettes? Non merci!

The area of Paris where I now live has many timeless qualities to it. It’s the Butte aux Cailles. A picturesque name, I thought when I first moved in ― Quail Hill. But no, a friend explained that quail was an old word for prostitute. Apparently the hill used to be a prime cruising zone. And in a modern way, it still is. There’s a small gang of ladies who go round sticking massage ads on trees and lampposts. Hand-written, too. None of your new-fangled colour printing technology for these quails.

I often see people filling water bottles outside the Butte aux Cailles swimming pool. There is a spring beneath the hill, and a fountain where you can collect the water, free of charge. These days it is checked for purity, of course, but even so, it is a part of daily life that must go back hundred of years.

Nearby is the small local bookshop, which advertises an in-house “public writer”. No, not a resident author who will lecture you on the problems of the omniscient narrator — this is a person who writes your letters for you if you can’t spell too well yourself. What century are we in again?

And the wonderful thing is that none of this is done for tourists or because the state or UNESCO has provided a grant to ensure that future generations will always be able to witness ancient French folk customs. It is simply unchanging, everyday Paris.

There is, however, one quaint folk custom that is state-subsidized. Every year, generally in winter, the French government workers go on strike, and the nearby Place d’Italie comes alive with balloons, revolutionary songs and the fragrant odour of merguez sausages being cremated on barbecues. The atmosphere is usually very festive, with old friends meeting up and comparing banners. Last year, I went and interviewed some of them for a French TV programme, and the protesters were in a hearty mood despite the rain. I met a group of strikers from a suburb of Paris who were sitting out a shower in a café.

“How many times have you been on strike?” I asked one man.

He had a think and replied, “this year?”

Next I found a chanting Parisian social-security worker and interrupted him to ask about his all-time favourite strike or protest march. He consulted his colleagues and they decided that “it was last year, when we went to Brussels.” Yes, these demonstrations are such an integral part of their lifestyle that they even go on striking holidays.

So if you come to Paris hoping to visit some of the places mentioned in this book, and your trip is disrupted by a transport strike or protest marches, don’t be disheartened. It’s just one example of Paris imposing its lifestyle on you. All you can do is adopt the strategy I used with the Vélib queue-jumper – accept that c’est la vie and give a resigned Parisian shrug.

You don’t know how it’s done? It’s very simple. You put on a facial expression that says “what do I care, we’re all mere grains of sand in the infinite desert of the cosmos,” you imagine that a pair of overweight parrots has settled on your shoulders, and then try to lift them six inches higher without tipping them off. Get practising before you visit Paris – it’s a key exercise in all the city’s yoga classes, so you’ll have some catching up to do.

A Year in the Merde author Stephen Clarke's introduction from city-lit Paris, featuring over sixty writers on all things Parisian, £9.99, paperback, Oxygen Books