Bookish Fun with Bookish Friends Part 2: The KU Ripple Launch

May 10th, 2022. I’ve nearly regurgitated my morning coffee over my lap as a text comes in asking me to perform a reading at a book launch later that evening…

At that point there were only two possible realities. Either I would mosey into campus with the cocksure swagger of a man rather exceptionally well-endowed, or I’d spend the whole day in state of abject panic that even my good friend Captain Morgan couldn’t mitigate. I won’t go into detail, but whatever you personally think happened is probably the truth. The point is that either way, I was going to accept the invitation.

I knew that if I said no, then I might as well be saying no forever. This was it- do it now or never do it. Don’t kid yourself into thinking there’d be another time, or that in the future you’d be more ready. I’d never read my work in public before, and this opportunity was about the easiest setting I could hope for as my first time. I would be surrounded by friends, the focus wouldn’t only be on me as there were other speakers, and the crowd would be small.

I decided that in order to offset any potential anxiety, my best course of action was to go in there looking like an absolute snack. So I went all out- pomade, cologne, beard oil, the works. I donned my special-occasion loafers and picked out a crisp gray button-down that I’d tuck into my jeans in the hope of turning some heads. When I checked my reflection in the mirror before heading out, I felt like I could do damn near anything.

On the KU2 bus, I typed Emily a message on my phone.

Can we meet outside so we can go in together?

Safety in numbers, that was the trick. When I reached the Penryhn Road campus I sat on one of the benches out front and took in my surroundings. It was a light evening and the campus was still bustling with activity. I assumed that the reason people weren’t stopping to ask me for my number was that they figured everyone else was asking and that I was probably taken anyway. I was probably intimidating them, just sitting there. That had to be it.

I gazed at the Town House and thought about how it wouldn’t be a feature of my everyday life much longer. The academic year was coming to an end, and after just getting used to being a student again after so many years, I was on the brink of being dropped right back into the unpleasant world of adulthood once more. Perhaps this one year at KU was going to feel like a strange dream pretty soon.

A bus came in from Surbiton, and moments later Emily was crossing the road with a broad smile on her face. I stood up, feeling a wave of relief wash over me.

“Christ, it’s good to see you,” I said.

We walked inside the Main Building, against the prevailing traffic of students having finished their day’s classes, and down the corridor toward The Picton, where the launch for this year’s KU Ripple was being held. In theory, The Picton is the campus pub. I’d been a couple of times before and it seemed like the place was in a constant state of identity crisis, unsure of whether it wanted to be a pub or a café. The music would go from chill folk songs to hard rock with all the warning of a bipolar football coach and though it served alcohol, it typically closed at the end of the working day. So it seemed like it was mostly catering to people who liked to get day drunk whilst playing hooky, as though they’d mustered enough effort to go to campus but stopped short of actually going to class.

We walked in and after a few hellos and hugs, were guided by the Managing Editor toward a table on which fresh copies of the book were stacked in a neat pyramid. As Emily and I were both contributors to the anthology, we were each given a free copy. This was a special moment for me. I’d been published in digital formats before, but this was the first time my work had been published in print. And I tell ya, it just hits different. Seeing my name on the contents page gave me a feeling I won’t soon forget. What had once just been a Word document on my PC had now been transformed into something tactile, visible, and beautiful.

But what is the KU Ripple? Well, to call it by its formal title, Ripple 2022: A Kingston University Student Anthology (stylized as “RiPPLE” and referred to casually as simply “Ripple”, the “KU Ripple”, or “Ripple ’22”) is an annual anthology showcasing the creative work of KU students. It’s mostly short stories and poetry, but there’s also artwork, photography, and even short comic strips. Anyone that’s a KU student can enter. You don’t have to be a Creative Writing student at all. You could be a Geography student that writes nihilistic freeverse in their spare time, or a Business Studies student with a passion for boudoir photography. Undergrad or postgrad, domestic or international, full-time or part-time, it doesn’t matter.

The anthology is edited, designed, and produced by Kingston University Publishing MA students- my classmates. But before you cry nepotism, I’d like to make it crystal clear that the whole judging process was anonymous. I didn’t work on the anthology, and even if I did, the Managing Editor wouldn’t have assigned me my own story. It’s like any publication- when you submit you don’t put your name in the document itself. The Managing Editor collects all the submissions and assigns them to a team of judges. After that, the judges pick the ones they like best, and once they’ve agreed which ones ought to be published, pass those on to the editing team. The Managing Editor then informs the winners that their submissions were successful and asks them for their formal permission for the work to be published in the anthology.

The email telling me that my submission had been successful came in January. Obviously, I was overjoyed. I was also slightly self-conscious when I came into class the next day. We had a big lecture with the whole cohort present, and I remember looking around the room, wondering who had been responsible for my submission being accepted. I knew that a select few people in that room had discussed my story. I kept wondering if someone would blow their cover, and I’d suddenly find this person staring right back at me with a knowing grin. But no such thing happened, and I had no idea who had read it.

I’d actually been intending to submit to Ripple before my time at KU had even started. When I was an undergrad at the University of Winchester, I never submitted to Vortex, the university magazine, which was something I regretted. I was there for three whole years, as a Creative Writing student no less, but I never considered it. Part of it might have been the fact that my time at Winchester was a low period in my life, and not something I was sentimental about or eager to commemorate. But I have to admit that it was also down to this stupid, naïve (and frankly pretentious) idea that I should instantly start applying to highly prestigious publications like Glimmer Train or The Paris Review, rather than targeting small presses or comps that were better suited to unpublished writers and students. Looking back, I kinda cringe that I even entertained the idea.

In my last year at Winchester, a bunch of my friends and classmates got published in Vortex and it was great fun looking at the magazine together. What made it special, I realized, was that you could only do it while you were a student. University publications are unique. They capture writers at the beginning of their journey. They’re read largely by people you know, as opposed to a commercial publication like The New Yorker or something, and so you have a more intimate connection with your readers. You can’t submit to them after you graduate, and even if you could, why would you want to? It wouldn’t be special. And there is something special about publishing something alongside your friends and having that as a keepsake to look back on in the future.

In general, my time at KU was something I consciously treated as a second chance. I wanted it to make up for my lousy time at Winchester, and getting published in Ripple seemed to epitomize that for me. My best friend, Emily, had gotten three poems published in the anthology. Maureen- my friend from Seattle- had gotten three of her photographs published, my favorite being a shot of some redwoods with the light passing between the trunks. Sigrún- my friend from Iceland- had gotten a poem published, and would be joining me as one of the contributors performing at the launch. I like the idea that we will be able to look back on this in the future, remembering each other as much as our younger selves.

While I want to keep in touch with all these people for as long as possible, I’m also a realist, and the brutal truth is life can take you in any available direction. People get married, get new jobs, they move house. Visas expire. Kids pop out. Opportunities and responsibilities call in equal measure from every corner of the globe, often without warning. Any day I could get a text from one of these people informing me that they had accepted a position as a copy-editor for a small press in Sheffield, or had decided to jack in the whole publishing thing and work as a yoga instructor in Bali.

This was on my mind as Emily and I took our seats beside Sigrún, Lucia, and Hilde. This iconic trio was another welcome sight that helped put me at ease. Lucia (from Canada) had worked as a Senior Copy Editor on the anthology, and Hilde (from Norway) had worked as part of both the judging team and the editing team. We decided to sign each other’s copies of the KU Ripple. That was another first- the first time I’d ever autographed my work.

“This is so wholesome,” Lucia said, as she and Emily couldn’t stop giggling.

Our professor generously treated us to a metric ass-ton of white wine. Emily and I clinked our glasses together before knocking them back. The wine was good. That was another thing that helped ease the old nerves. More people entered The Picton. Our friend Bethany, a talented artist whose services many people in need of book covers made use of, came and sat with us. I mentioned to her that I was bossing it on Elden Ring and she gave me a smile as if to say “Cheeky”.

We talked amongst ourselves for a while, until the Managing Editor addressed the room and the launch officially got underway. Three of our professors were there, and there were several people I didn’t recognize, including a guy I assumed was one of the Creative Writing professors. The Managing Editor said some words, flanked either side by her two deputy editors like she was the final boss in a video game. I was the first in the list of speakers at the event. One of the deputies introduced me to the crowd, saying where I was from and how I got my kicks, which was another first. An introduction!

I made sure to thank the Ripple team and congratulate them on their achievement before I began, trying to emphasize that today was about them and not me. The book had turned out exceptionally well. It was the 18th edition of the KU Ripple, and out of the ones I’ve seen, it easily has the best cover. A cool, grayish off-white punctured by a slash of brilliant teal across the center. I also loved the interior design choices, with the wide margins and minimalist border lines giving it a slick, modern feel. I like when books trust in the power of a page’s blank space like that, and I think giving each page some “breathing room” suited the fact that there was a range of content types throughout the anthology.

My story, “Hamza’s Loon”, was one I had written in the summer of 2021 for The Writer’s Playground Short Story Competition. I’d used the prompts “lakeside cabin”, “widow”, and “broken tooth” for my story. Obviously, I wasn’t successful in getting it published at the competition, but I was really proud of it. Even though it had been rejected, The Writer’s Playground gave me some very encouraging feedback, saying that they really liked it, and had considered it for their winner’s shortlist. This gave me the confidence that I could perhaps find a home for it elsewhere. As it turned out, that home would be the KU Ripple. I had to do a lot of editing, as the word limit for Ripple was 2,000 words and “Hamza’s Loon” was 3,000 words. I also begrudgingly changed the text from American English to British English. In the end, I was happy with the edits. It was a good exercise in trimming down a text and cutting out the fluff.

The reading went well. I tried to look up now and then at the crowd, but it’s definitely a skill I have to improve. I also found that I was more comfortable addressing the crowd with my unscripted preamble than I was reading the story. It seems strange to be less comfortable when you have a script and therefore know exactly what to say, but maybe the eye contact that comes with speaking naturally actually helped. People were looking at me and smiling, and I feel like confidence is gained through feedback. Feedback can be anything the listener does in reaction to what you’re saying- nodding, smiling, laughing, et cetera. Gasping at a twist or cooing at a moment of poignancy. Anything that conveys to you that they are engaged. Whereas when I was reading the story, I was looking down at the text most of the time. Obviously, I knew the text well as I had written it, but this was a version of the story that was nonetheless new to me, as it had been polished by the Ripple’s editing team. I remember stumbling at one point because I came across a word that I knew wasn’t mine. I also think part of the reason why I was more comfortable addressing the crowd prior to the reading was that I wasn’t putting my work on show. Throughout the reading I kept getting anxious that my story was boring. It felt like I was seeing the story in a new light reading it aloud, and I was paranoid that it wasn’t grabbing the crowd’s attention, or that I wasn’t making it sound interesting enough with my delivery.

Nonetheless, the crowd all clapped and smiled at me after I finished, and I felt an adrenaline rush like I’d just hit a half-court buzzer beater in game seven of the NBA finals. When I returned to my friends they all said I did a great job, and in my chest I felt something loosen, knowing already that a core memory had been unlocked.

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