Friday, 11 January 2013

Little Miss Mayhem: Interview with Annie Clarkson

Annie Clarkson is a writer from north west England, currently living and working in Manchester. A writer of intense honesty and sensitivity, her blog 'Forgetting the Time' contains some really superb writing.

Annie's work focuses on the edges of life, the places where the sweet, sad things happen. The writing is raw, but not in the sense of blood pouring from wounds and people fighting in the street, or taking drugs in public toilets. The rawness comes from the emotions evoked, and there is often a quite delicious sense of unease in the reader when she is at her best.

Recently, Annie has been throwing herself into a new sport, that of roller derby. As someone who is keen to explore the links between writing and sport, it seemed to present a perfect opportunity for me to do interview Annie about her experiences with a new sport, and how it might have changed her writing.

Roller derby looks very violent and fast to me, to whom it looks something like something out of a sci-fi film. It looks like it combines the intensity of ice hockey with the thrills of short track speed skating. There is a strong team element, and the team uniforms are often personally adapted into stylish, scary and quite sexy forms.

Firstly, I asked Annie what had sparked her interest in such a physically demanding sport.

"Roller derby is a fast and tough sport, on quad roller skates, where two teams compete against each other to score points, and it’s a full contact sport," she explained.

"But to start playing the sport you don’t need to be fast or tough. I definitely wasn’t. I was never really interested in competitive sport, even at school. I wouldn’t call myself an athlete, but through playing derby I’m faster, tougher and more confident than I was.

"I discovered roller derby about eighteen months ago. A friend of mine from my school days started playing – Abby Dasher.

"She invited me along and I watched a training session. I instantly thought, 'Nah, this sport is not for me, too tough and I’m not fit enough...'

But I followed her progress over the following months, and she was so excited by it. Her skills developed really quickly, and she kept saying, 'Come on Annie, you will love roller derby.'

"I decided to try it, and signed up for the ‘Zero to Hero’ training for beginners run by Manchester Roller Derby ( I instantly loved being on skates and over the course of the training course, I fell in love with the sport."

The costume aspects of the sport always look like they are very important to me. Players also change their names and give themselves pseudonyms. These often seem like the names from a punk band.

Despite that emphasis on costume and looking great, Annie is keen to stress that the sport is very much not just about dressing up.

"The most important aspect of derby is playing the sport," she said.

"But, yes, the image side of derby is fairly unique to the sport, I think.

"A lot of players have derby names which are puns, plays on words, or show the personality or alter-ego of the player. They can be intimidating or witty, clever and fun.

"Some of the names I love are Cleo Fracture who plays for Rainy City Roller Girls, Marty McDie, Psycho-Sis, and Kate Push from Manchester Roller Derby (MRD), and Raw Heidi (London Rollergirls)."

"I love the fact that roller derby encourages personality, individuality and persona. As well as being part of a team and a league, we can be ourselves on the track or who we want to be.

"Some players put on the ‘war paint’ like stripes on their cheeks or paint their face for example as a skull like Skulldozer from MRD.

"Some players like sportswear. Others wear crazy tights, patterned socks, or colourful hot pants. There are many styles, and roller derby allows us to express ourselves on the track, be bold or alternative or whatever we want to be. Men’s Derby has its own styles as well."

The transformative aspect of the sport, where aspects of personality can be explored which are normally suppressed, is something which is important to Annie though.

"I guess it appeals to me, because I can be a different self when I train and play," she mused.

"Aggressive, more fearless, and it gives me permission maybe to access parts of myself that are not appropriate for my everyday life. Little Miss Mayhem can be a trouble causer, can deliberately set out to disrupt, she can shove people out of the way, be cocky and cheeky, wear clothes that I would never wear in my non-derby life."

Annie's writing often deals with people and events at the edge of things. She seems to relish her status as an outsider, despite it often being a lonely experience. Roller derby is a team sport, so I wondered how playing had affected her sense of self, whether she found the team ethic hard to absorb, and also whether it had changed her feeling of being an 'outsider'.

"Yes, it has, to some extent," she admitted.

"In life I often feel like an outsider and on the edges of things. I was never into team sports or team activities at all, preferring to rely on myself, and not feeling as if I belonged in a lot of groups that I joined, or that I was on the periphery of groups.

"I’m not sure whether this is part of my personality or not. But school sport was always a nightmare for me, people expected me to be rubbish, and therefore I never tried, I was always last to be picked for teams, and my confidence in any team or competitive sport was rock-bottom.

"Plus, being a writer can be isolating. It's a very individual, internal kind of experience for me, and I've explored aloneness, loneliness and being on the edges over and over in my writing. I indulged myself in this for a long time.

"Roller derby is very different. It's been an education for me and at first, it was a huge step out of my comfort zone. It has involved a lot of challenges in training, as I learned to trust team mates, work together, and play as part of a pack. I’ve been tested a lot, and sometimes found it hard.

"But I’ve been drawn into it, not just on the track but off-track as well. There is a lot of support and encouragement within the roller derby community, and nobody has ever made me feel rubbish as a player. I am learning. We are all learning. And, it’s taken maybe more time for me, than other people, but I feel very much a part of the team."

Annie also admitted that the sport has had an effect on her writing. Certainly, the sense of overcoming obstacles that sport can bring has seemingly brought about something of a change in aims and purpose in her writing.

"My poetry and short fiction has always tended to verge on the darker side of life," she said.

"It’s gritty and explored perhaps more complex and undesirable sides of life. I was working on a collection of fiction, but roller derby (and other things) have stopped me in my tracks.

"I want to write more uplifting stories, stories that might explore struggle, difficulty and darkness, but show more fight and survival. Roller derby is influencing what I want to write about, the kinds of characters and subjects, and the way I write. I’m still working through these changes.

"I’ve written a few derby inspired fictions, and will probably do so again, not necessarily using the sport as the subject matter but exploring some of the experiences, emotions and characters I’ve discovered through playing derby."

Annie is very clear about whether artists and writers can benefit from an understanding of sport, and how participation can offer new insights and perspectives, not least on the writer themselves.

"Roller Derby has become hugely inspiring to me in many different ways," she explained.

"It has brought me new ways of expressing myself as a person, access to a new community of people and experience, lots of endorphins and drive. It gets rid of tension and stress and the crap that can get in the way of being able to sit down and write, or get out there and live.

"I would encourage any writer or artist to get involved in some kind of sport or exercise. Any writer who has gone for a long walk and found some kind of inner stillness, or has observed things in a new way, or had an epiphany or realisation will already know this.

"I guess a more competitive or physical sport can have a similar impact. I come away from training, full of adrenalin and ideas and thoughts, and I want to communicate and express myself. It fires me up.

"Sport also gives the balance that I need between sitting at a typewriter on my own and getting out there and skating round a track with team mates.

"There is a similar dynamic of performance. Good writing can fill me with adrenalin, ideas and thoughts as well.

"Sometimes I have good sessions at training, sometimes I feel I could have done lots better, I get similar frustrations and excitements. Sometimes, I want to give up, sometimes it is all I want to do. Writing and roller derby are similar in that sense, although I think they belong to different sides of myself."

At an age where most athletes consider hanging up their boots, or skates, Annie has an inspiring determination to be the best she can be at roller derby, which is still a very new sport to her.

"My goals for 2013 are to make it into Furies, the B team at Manchester Roller Derby, to continue my training as a roller derby referee, keep developing my skills, stay fit and have fun.

"I guess what I’m saying is that the future isn’t widely ambitious or competitive. I’m nearly 40, and love roller derby because there’s plenty of room for people to be involved for different reasons: to have fun, to get or keep fit, and/or to compete.

"I had no experience of roller derby a year ago, and I was welcomed in as a new skater. Most leagues teach people to skate and even lend you the skates, helmet and pads at first. Manchester Roller Derby has a ‘Zero to Hero’ training course that teaches all the basic skills needed to play roller derby, and it’s a great way to try out a sport you know nothing about.

"Watching a roller derby bout is a real experience too, and I recommend it to anyone. It’s fun to watch, there is lots of interaction with the crowd, and it’s easy to pick up what’s going on.

"Roller derby is very much a growing sport, and the BBC wrote an article saying just that."

Annie's writing is on a little bit of a sabbatical at the moment, sadly for her readers. She is sure that a rich return to form is not far away though.

"I was working on a collection of short fiction, but it’s come to a halt as I re-think and re-explore what I want to write," she explained.

"I think this is one of those fallow periods where the ideas become really rich through not working at them. My plan is to come back to some old stories with a fresh approach, and eventually get back to finishing my short fiction collection. I think it will be richer and diverse a collection for giving it some time."

One thing she is in no doubt about is the transformative power of sport, whatever it is, to build communities and bring people together.

"YES, it can! Roller derby offers sport, fitness and skating, but it is also socially vibrant," she asserted.

"People can be involved in different ways. I've socialised with my team and made many friends. I’ve been to karaoke with derby friends, eaten food, been to the pub, been to people’s houses.

"I’ve skated as a volunteer for Cancer Research, made cakes, roller disco’d, and within our league there have been clothes swaps, car boot sales, some players skated as part of the Pride parade for George House Trust.
"There is an awful lot of love and support within the league, and I know it sounds like I’m just blowing roller derby’s trumpet, but it’s for really good reason.

"I’ve seen people help others to move house, babysit for each other, dog-sit, give lifts, advice, hugs and a whole lot more. It is a growing community, and leagues are cropping up throughout the UK for women and men.

"MRD has people taking part from all parts of Greater Manchester and beyond, and what I most love is that it’s welcoming to anyone...the sporty, the non-sporty, men, women, people of all shapes, sizes and levels of fitness, and people from all kinds of backgrounds.

"I guess the commonality is that everyone wants to skate and learn and play roller derby. But there is so much more to it than just sport.  

"I loved the Olympics and Paralympics. It was so inspiring to watch and, like many people, I started to think I wanted to be fitter, expand my experience of sports.

"I think seeing the athlete’s warm up and compete, hearing about their training regimes, and seeing them push themselves beyond their own limits to achieve new personal bests, it made a lot of us think, maybe I can push myself further as well, maybe we can all play sport."

Annie Clarkson was talking to Zack Wilson, the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

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