Wednesday 27 February 2013

Happy dance for Sarah Hilary! A lesson in not giving up, and a little about itchy wrists...

Happy Dance!

Sarah Hilary

I'm delighted to welcome Sarah Hilary to the blog today, and I can't help doing a happy-dance at the same time...
      If you have ever had your writing rejected, and thought it's no good, I'll just give up now - please read on. Sarah is an object lesson in how things CAN come right if you DON'T GIVE UP! 

Let's start with an announcement on a book-trade information website... Headline Acquires Two Novels from Sarah...  and it's lovely, wonderful, woo hooishly great. But behind the woo hoos is another story, and it's that one  Sarah and I would like to share with you. These books are not her first, and second, second and third, or even third and fourth..

Anyhoo - it was 2008 and I was off to Bantry to the West Cork Literary Festival which always includes the Fish Prize awards event.  I knew Sarah, but only on the internet - and I knew she needed to go too, as she'd won one of the Fish competitions that year - The Criminally Short Histories prize. So I offered her a lift from Cork Airport. We nattered like old mates... and now, five years later, I think we probably are old mates. (Well, I'm the 'old' one, she is the younger, tenacious one...) And here we are, five years later, still nattering...

Hi Sarah! I shall stop the happy dance for a few mins now. 
          I remember listening to the plot of the novel you were working on some years back, in the car on our way to Bantry. I remember wanting to stop the car to be able to concentrate properly, to find out who, then why, then what happens, and was just a brilliant story. I sat with you at some event in Bantry Library, right next to the Crime section, and said, ‘You’ll  soon have a whole shelf...’ and you laughed. 
       Well, five years later, you can laugh for a different reason, with delight, hopefully. But. It has not been an easy ride from 2008 to here, has it. It’s been a rocky road - and I’ve followed your fortunes with bated breath! Can you describe your journey to this point, with regard to the crime novels? Chart the ups and downs, if you like...

Sarah: I remember that road trip vividly. Your interest in the story, and your conviction that I could make it into print, spurred me to Try Harder. My motto for the years between then and now has been (and still is!) Must Try Harder. It’s been a heck of a journey - more twists and turns than the road to Bantry - and I’m a little breathless to have got this far. I think the story I described to you was the second or possibly the third manuscript I’d submitted to Jane Gregory, who’s now my agent. She didn’t sign me until the fourth manuscript - and it’s my fifth and sixth books that she’s just sold to Headline - so it’s just as well I decided early on that I was in this for the long haul. 

The ‘downs’ were each time I heard, “Not this book, maybe the next,” but I was lucky enough to be told, each time, what I could do to improve my writing, plotting and so on. Of course it’s incredibly hard to see any silver lining when you’re right under the cloud of rejection, but the only thing to do is to keep moving forward, and keep believing that what you write next will be better, because it will be. That’s the great thing about writing - you really do get better at it. 

(VG: I liked those quotes - so they're in red. And here is the cloud of rejection covering the light of good things...)
The ‘highs’ were each small milestone – winning a short story contest, getting into a print anthology – and seeing fellow writers break through, or sharing the struggle with writing buddies. I must mention the fabulous Ms Anna Britten, whose sympathy, sage advice and support has kept me going over the last two years. It was during one of my lowest spells that Anna and I settled on the need for defiance as a strategy for fighting on. Not arrogance, but a determination to defy the odds, and the urge to give up. I created one of the characters in SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN in a moment of defiance, and he’s a character my editor loves.

VG: *Waves to Anna Britten* - isn't sharing this thing we do so important, on so many levels? I am so glad to hear that. We all need  supporters...
And here is a pic of one of your top supporters, your daughter Milly, stealing your thunder when you won the Cheshire Prize for Literature! 

 You are just an incarnation of the advice I was given, myself, and which, when I’m asked to give a newbie writer advice,  is the first thing that comes to mind. ‘Don’t give up’. You are the best possible example of the wonderful things that can happen if you don’t give up.  But it ain't easy, is it? What did it feel like to keep going? What was it that made you sure that you would succeed in the end? Or were there times you lost faith and had to pick yourself up again?

Sarah: Crikey, how did it feel to keep going..? This is where therapists will read and weep – that they didn’t make money from my teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling. There were days when I lay on the floor and wept. Days when I was furious with myself for falling short (again), and when I told myself that surely if I had any real talent, it shouldn’t be this hard to get published. I don’t think I was ever sure that I would succeed in the end. At the outset, of course, I had a writer’s ego; I submitted my first film script when I was 15, to a company listed in the Writers and Artists Yearbook (the possessing of which was enough to convince me I woz a Writer). Towards the end, I had virtually no ego (a good thing, on the whole) and was armed only with defiance, being a rarefied version of the bloodymindedness I was born with. My paternal grandmother was fond of telling people, ‘You’ll never get Sarah to do anything she doesn’t want to do,’ which is another way of saying I can’t be talked out of something I’ve set my mind to. 

Most helpfully of all, by this stage, writing is like a tic or a reflex; I can’t not do it. So here I am. Oh and I keep getting ideas for better books! I’m always excited by The Next Book, chiefly because I know it will be my best yet; it’s a fresh chance to do a better job at the thing I love doing. Who wouldn’t want that?
Just one of the many anthologies your work can be found in...

 VG: Yee ha! So - say you have to pick yourself up from a big disappointment. How do/did you do that? What advice can you give to a newer writer who is facing the wall?

Sarah: I suspect I’ve given the answer to this already in my ramblings above. It’s about knowing that what you write next will be better - and therefore the odds of it being published will be improved. I know that what you’re writing Right Now might feel like the best thing you’ve ever written, and so it should. I know you’ll feel proud and protective of your story and especially your characters, and that’s okay. It’s allowed. What’s not allowed is letting that pride and protectiveness stop you in your tracks. 

Always have a Next Book bubbling under, even if it’s just a handful of notes in a pad somewhere. I like to keep a notebook that I flip over so the back pages are like a separate pad (I put different stickers or doodles on the covers of each side to make it look like two pads) and those back pages are my Next Book. This means a) not all my eggs are in one basket, and b) with luck I’ll be hooked on writing the Next Book by the time my current one is being read by agents or editors. It really does soften the blow if the first one doesn’t make it. Just the fact that you’ve stopped thinking about it and given headspace to a new story and new characters - makes the rejection easier to bear.
and another anthology - is the shelf full yet?!

VG: Brilliant. Your sage words are emblazoned in RED! And so - on to the books... Tell me about the novel that broke through for you... how long had you been working on this one? Did you have any professional advice to help you shape it?
Sarah: It took me about a year to write SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN, although the idea had been playing in my head for longer. It’s a story about secrets, and survival. The secrets that put us in danger and the ones that keep us safe. It’s about who we pretend to be in order to survive or simply to get by, and who we really are, under the skin. The blurb reads like this:
No two victims are alike.  
DI Marnie Rome knows this better than most. Five years ago, her family home was a shocking and bloody crimescene. Now, she’s tackling a case of domestic violence, and a different brand of victim. Hope Proctor stabbed her husband in desperate self-defence. A crowd of witnesses saw it happen. But as the violence spirals, engulfing the residents of the women’s shelter, Marnie finds herself drawn into familiar territory. A place where the past casts long shadows and she must tread carefully to survive.

I hope it’s a novel that upsets the traditional ideas about domestic violence – and makes us look afresh at why people commit crimes of this kind, and how society chooses to punish these crimes. I’m also fascinated by the psychology of seeing, the emotional lens that colours everything we witness, and by the role of the witness. This role is vital to solving and prosecuting crimes, but what does it mean to be the witness to a brutal crime – how does it change that person? Is there a sense in which they become responsible for the “truth” of what they saw? 
       Marnie, my heroine, is someone who trusts her intellect first and her emotions second. She’s always questioning the truth of what she sees, and she’s someone who wants to make sense of the world as it is. Of course she’d like to change it, but she understands that mess is part of the human condition. She has a huge capacity for compassion, which I think’s essential for the hero/heroine of any crime novel. I wanted to write a detective who was much more than ‘a woman in a man’s world’. Marnie has a woman’s empathy and intuition, and the intelligence and honesty to know these gifts sometimes lead her astray. 

My first draft got quite a tough reader’s report via my agent, and I realised I’d have to change something to make it work on the level I intended (well, more than work – it had to shine). After that, I spent a couple of months despairing quietly and bending my brain around What To Do. Then a further three months rewriting. The two months where I didn’t write because I was thinking - they really helped. I think if I’d sat down and tried to rewrite straightaway, I’d have made the same mistakes all over again. As it was, I produced a second draft that my agent loved – and so did more than one publisher. It went to auction, which was very exciting, and it’s sold in five other countries already. I’m thrilled to think the story will have so many readers.

 VG: Fantastic stuff - this is the dream, isn't it?  And thank you for your honesty here - I am so fed up with writers who tell others that it was easy, they woke up one day and... because even if that did happen for one writer, for the other 99% it ain't like that! It's a hard old slog. 

      Next question: When do you think it is OK to accept advice, and when to ignore it?

Sarah: That’s a tough one. Tempting to say you should never ignore advice, but since I was once advised to give up writing (by a boss who likened it to his DIY: “We’re neither of us very good at it, but it keeps us out of trouble”) I think I’ll say instead that you need to develop an ear for advice, like an ear for music. I say this as someone who is virtually tone-deaf but who can generally tell when a piece of music is off, even if I can’t tell you why or by how much. 

You might think it’s a good rule of thumb that if advice comes from an expert you must act on it, but this doesn’t quite meet the case, I think. After all, the expert might not be in tune with your genre or your writing. So much is subjective in publishing. SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN went to auction, as I say, but for every two publishers who loved it there were four who didn’t, or not enough to offer for it. ‘All it takes is one’, as the adage goes, and you should certainly never give up – or make radical changes – based on what appears to be a loose consensus. Unless or until your gut (or your ear) tells you that what you’re hearing is the truth. 

I honestly think this is something that only comes with time and experience. I spent years railing against rejections from editors who’d missed-the-point of my writing (show me a writer who hasn’t done this at some point in their lives and I’ll show you a saint, or a fibber). Then I spent a good number of years performing literary gymnastics as I tried to meet the demands of every editor all at once, believing they must know best, or better. 

Now, if an editor is saying something invaluable – something I ignore at my peril – I can hear it. It chimes. 

When my editor at Headline told me I needed to do a bit of work on the penultimate chapter in SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN, I knew she was right. My wrists itched; it’s a physical response – and I think it only comes with long experience. I wish there was a shortcut, I really do. Maybe one of your readers, V, will know a trick for this?!

VG: I love that!  Are there any short cuts worth thinking about when it comes to making a manuscript better? Nah, I don't think so...but as ever, am happy to be proved wrong. So have at it!

Thanks Sarah - I know how busy you are with all the hoo ha - enjoy every step. It is so richly deserved. One more happy la la...ooops that was my bad leg...


Thursday 21 February 2013

Nigel Jarrett, 'Funderland', the short story in Wales, fault-lines, schisms, and the knotty topic of hypergamous and hypogamous speech.

Nigel Jarrett

A while back, I promised here to turn the blog over to an interview with Welsh writer Nigel Jarrett, sparked by talk in Facebook's Welsh Short Story Group of Funderland, his short story collection, published by Parthian Books.  Funderland has had some wonderful reviews in the press,  (see here, again)  and I was intrigued to read.  Now I have - it is a very strong collection indeed - not a single weak link in the book - and I am very pleased to be able to natter to its author here.

Or maybe, on reflection, not ‘natter’. I don’t think Nigel Jarrett does ‘nattering’  much -  you will see what I mean, as we dive into an email question and answer exchange, me with the simple aim of spreading the word about a good book. 

VG: Tell me about the title story, and why you chose the title of that piece for the whole collection. Am I anywhere near if I take a stab and say it has something to do with the recurrence of a sense of your characters being so often 'on the edge'? And yet...

NJ: 'Funderland' is just unbidden neologism. When I was writing the story, one of the last before I put the collection together, the word wafted on to my desk like a soap bubble when no-one that you are aware of in the house is blowing them. It seemed appropriate and it sounded like something that might make a title for the book. As a Johnsonian and a journalist I would prefer to write only material I'm being paid for, however pathetically, so I'm always looking at the commercial side of things. Only later did I learn that several fairgrounds in Ireland were called 'Funderland'. I've been waiting for the writ to be served.  That's what I like about short fiction. What happened before you started reading and what's going to happen after the story's finished are part of the dynamic for a reader. So, yes - on the edge.  

VG: 'Funderland' seems to set up an expectation of something cynical (at least, it does for this reader). Life is anything but 'fun', as you explore the fault-lines that open up in relationships, destabilising them. Do you set out to knock your characters off balance, or does it just happen that way? 

NJ: There's no cynicism, though I'm a very cynical person. In relation to the book's title and its contents, I'd prefer the word 'irony'. There's not much fun to be had in my stories and there's certainly none in falling to your death from a water-chute or being abused by your new stepfather. I think 'fault lines' is a good description. But I'm not vindictive towards my characters: I don't deliberately open up schisms. They are just people with whom I sympathise. It's pretty clear to me that in every family there's some kind of difficulty, even tragedy. The idea of a family as the perfect unit of a civilised society seems under-rated but I've never tried any other sort of existence, like making my way alone up the Amazon or across some blood-deluged African republic and writing about it - the Bruce Chatwin thing. Yet I'm a bit of a loner as well as a happily-married family man. There's a recipe for disaster for you. Not in my case, though I've had my moments. Perhaps I've read too much Ivy Compton-Burnett.  I don't knock my characters off balance; I feel sorry for people who have been or are about to be thumped sideways.

VG: Can you talk a little about the unusual role music plays in 'Unfinished Symphony' and in 'Grasmere'? Far from being comforting/stimulating in Unfinished Symphony it seems to underpin a character's failings, perhaps. And in Grasmere, music goes hand in hand with yearning, or loss/displacement... so,

NJ: For many years at the South Wales Argus newspaper I shadowed the distinguished music critic Kenneth Loveland. When he retired I took over from him. Since turning freelance I've also begun reviewing and writing for Jazz Journal. Without music in my life I'd go mental. I learned from Ken that musical knowledge is nothing to do with musical 'appreciation', something we both detested. Musical knowledge is what gives rise to fears for one's sanity if one were to be deprived of music. Neither Ken nor I were musicians in the accepted sense.  'Unfinished Symphony' partly reflects learning music as a middle-class youngster, which was what I once was - well, lower middle-class. I began learning to play the piano very late and I had to give it up before I'd made much progress. That story is also about the way music suggests the eternal.  The coastal setting was deliberate. As I get older, music is having an even more profound affect on me. I now like compositions that I once found difficult or beyond my wavelength. I'm getting closer to where music is coming from though I'm not religious in the denominational sense. But 'Unfinished Symphony' is mostly the world seen through a child's eyes. I'm sure that for him, later in life, music will be the same as it is for me. Music is elusive, not to be pinned down in the way attempted by the narrator's father.
        The connotations of incest in 'Grasmere' are greater than its musical element. It seems to me that the different abilities of children in a family are difficult to reconcile, divisive even. (I've written a story about this called Mutual Friend, recently published in Prole magazine. Two siblings, one a 'worker' the other an academic, are unconsciously switching roles late in life and dealing in their different ways with the amnesia of their father.) 'Grasmere' ia about a lot of things I don't really understand. I've stayed in the place a lot. The incest thing and the idea of a waning prodigy perhaps suggests the Wordsworths. Who knows? Writers don't know. I enjoyed writing about the wild ducks on the lake.
       I'd give up everything, even writing, to be able to play the piano well and professionally. My idea of a musical hero is a jazz pianist who can sit down at a piano and launch into Love for Sale without knowing how it's going to turn out. The old tunes are the best. I'd even put up with deprivations.

VG: The Guardian said this among other things, " a music critic by profession, Jarrett has a marvellous ear. A shepherd's whistle is analysed as "B flat, then a glissando to the double octave, capped by a staccato triplet on D sharp." If you were to set the story 'Unfinished Symphony' to music, would you use the eponymous piece? If not, why not? And if another, 'Grasmere', was to be a short film, what music would accompany that one?

NJ: Oh dear!  Definitely not the Schubert piece because its title simply suggested that the child was at an important stage of his life, but only a stage. If the story were dramatised I might choose music by the Welsh composer Grace Williams, who was inspired by the South Glamorgan coast; she might even be the fictitious Alice Westerway in the story.  Either that, or a piece by Ken Colyer's Jazzmen, to set up resonances and reflect the boy's jazz-loving sister and her feckless swain. For 'Grasmere', a sad piece, it would have to be Chopin's Prelude No 4 in E minor, played by Alfred Cortot!

VG: I loved the story 'Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan', particularly, although it is hard to pick ones I like out of a strong collection I enjoyed so much. Congratulations on the prize it won. I can quite see why. Can you say something about this story and its inspiration? And also, if you could choose one scene from this story to be painted, which scene would it be, and who would you choose to paint it. (alive or dead...!). 

NJ: 'Mrs Kuroda' won the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction. Entries had to reflect an aspect of contemporary Wales - drug addiction in the Valleys, that sort of thing. I decided to write about foreign investment, particularly from the Far East. I'm always interested in the particulars that segue to generalisation.  Mrs Kuroda is a Japanese company boss's lonely wife but also a woman with the feelings of any woman anywhere, especially one in a subservient relationship.  The cultural aspect of that seemed to fall nicely for me, as did the suicide at the end, if it was suicide. One writer praising the story referred to the 'shocking' kick in the tail, which only registered on second reading. I still don't know what he meant. Ever self-critical, I sometimes regret the 'suicide' angle at the end. In a story about nostalgia for Japan, this can seem trite or contrived. Ditto the reference to the women attending a performance of Puccini's Madama Butterfly in Cardiff! At least it was all feasible.
The most pictorial scene depicts the Japanese wives flitting across the yard of a Valleys leisure centre in their kimonos. That might have interested Josef Herman, the Polish artist who lived in Ystradgynlais and immortalised its coalminers. 
Josef Herman

'In the Pitt' 1952 Image from Aberystwyth University website 

As someone who can draw and paint after a fashion, I'm as much interested in visual art as in music. I do see a lot of stories in terms of pictures. I also love the questions visual art throws up. There's a linguistic element to it. If a pile of bricks is not 'art', just find an alternative word for what it is. Only a fool would try to hoax the public in this way, and only a foolish brigade - the righteously indignant tabloid Press - would think there was an issue. What right do the red tops have to be indignant? 

VG:  You mention Arthur Smith and Cambrensis in the acknowledgements - what an inspiration that man was. I am very proud of my copies - the photocopying and cutting n pasting, done with such love! Bless the man. Who is carrying the baton for the short story in Wales these days? 

NJ: Funny you should ask. At the time of writing, the website of the New Welsh Review says the magazine is currently closed to fiction submissions. Planet has published my work, including a story. The Blue Tattoo also publishes stories. After that, the search for a Welsh outlet becomes desperate. As with poetry, there seem to be more people writing stories than reading them. No-one I know reads stories. What is about the the short fiction lobby? Is it stuffed with the opinions of teachers in those dreadful Creative Writing classes, whose livelihoods are at stake?  One does get paranoid about these things. The future is probably with websites or with print magazines that boast an online presence. I worry about this, too, because I see work of merit being buried in the midden that is the Internet. I mean, how will anyone know that your work actually exists? And who will distinguish it from the mountains of crud? And how will you know that anyone is trying to distinguish it from the rest anyway? Far from being a democratic haven, the www is likely to become an undifferentiated dump, where the good will swim unrecognised beside the gorblimey. It's already happening. 
       My theory is that the internet will eventually become mainly a marketplace, which is what it's already very good at, rather than a viable alternative to print culture. 
       Who's carrying the baton for the story in Wales? No-one. Three websites have recently accepted work from me. I don't know whether to leap about or cry into a Kleenex. I know one thing: Funderland is here in my hand with all its faults and finery. Barring flood and fire, I'll be able to pass it on.

Would you say that you're successful? How do you measure success?

NJ: I always tell people who are impressed by Funderland and any of my other published work that every month I receive rejections from magazines, newspapers, websites - you name it, they've ditched me. It used to put me off; now, I don't care and send the rejected work somewhere else. I also get acceptances but far fewer than the brush-offs. One wag famously sent already-published books, one of them a collection of Alan Sillitoe stories, to book publishers whose rejections were comic when they were not sad. It's only one person's opinion. If the same piece is rejected thirty times, of course, you might consider looking at it again.  Otherwise, keep churning it out. It's a mug's game, as there's no money in it - not unless you can write a bestseller. But I'm lucky: as a newspaper journalist I've been published and read every day. You never tire of that. I believe in what I'm doing and that's the only measure there is.  Parthian have agreed to publish my first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool. We press on, hands to the wheel, which nevertheless and often feels Inquisitional. (PS: I did once write a satirical critique of a magazine that once pompously returned my work. I offered the editor my professional services in improving his publication at a cost of £160 and therafter for each published issue £99.99. He didn't get back.)

VG: Some of your lines are so quotable - saying a lot in few words. Eg: "the... evasive way we diminish madness by calling it eccentricity" "the difference between love and the memory of love" and there are many more in that story - 'Nomad' - which seems to hold a particular resonance. Can you talk about that one?

NJ: I don't try to write quotable lines. I do try to write concisely, actually an effort after doing it hour after hour, week in week out, as a reporter and sub-editor. I crave Jamesian extension and have to suppress it. Turns of phrase do pop up as part of the exercise of avoiding cliché. It seems so right in a short story, where everything is suggesting things bigger than itself. I hadn't noticed a plethora in 'Nomad', which is about loss, the most searing of emotions. Moreover, it's about loss as differentially perceived by a mother and a father. It's accidental that the father is the more forgiving. Perhaps as a male he hankers after his nomadic son's wanderlust. You can't win in situations now shaded by gender bias real or apparent. Apparent in my case. 
       I've been criticised for allowing some of my characters to speak 'out of their class'. I don't do 'class' in that sense. If someone hasn't the vocabulary and the phraseology, I provide it. It's my duty to provide it. It's a writer's duty to provide it. Will Self said he wan't interested in character and therefore not interested in the questions of hypergamous or hypogamous speech.  I know what he meant. Do we despise Swift because he was similarly uninterested?  I've read enough accounts of the lower orders and their corny vernacular. 
       Families in my stories might be divided, or heading for division, but I'd prefer them to be happy - adventurous, loving, creative, un-repressed, undivided and happy. The odd affair on the way does make life interesting. So that's adventurous, loving, creative, un-repressed, undivided, happy - and broadminded. I think I jest.


Thank you Nigel, for a very interesting interview. Lots of good luck with both Funderland and the forthcoming poetry collection.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Claire King’s ‘The Night Rainbow’ - an unforgettable read.

I am delighted to welcome the lovely Claire King to the blog today, together with her fabulous, enchanting debut novel, The Night Rainbow, out from Bloomsbury very soon, but shipping already - so if you’ve got it, or are reading it, and want to leave Claire a message - leave it here. 
Claire has just arrived in the UK from France with the family for the launch celebrations, and I am wishing her every joy as her  baby goes off into the world. It's a funny old feeling. I can't get to the party myself, as I'm off on a writing retreat :( - so I'm relying on others to post lots of photos, and make me feel thoroughly jealous.

Now - so often, these bloggy things end up asking the same old same old - so I asked Claire to start the discussion - what would she most want to natter about? 

Claire King: A number of book reviewers who have read The Night Rainbow have told me that they although they loved the book, they are perplexed at how to write a review about it...

VG:( I understand that one, believe you me!)

CK: I also found it hard, when replying to 'What's your book about?' to find ways of answering the question without spoiling the role the reader plays in engaging with the story.
        So, as someone who has read The Night Rainbow: What would you say are the main themes of this book?

VG: Right - my first reaction to that one is this - first and foremost The Night Rainbow is a bloody good story, with wonderful characters, and reading the novel was a unique experience. I had not read anything quite like it before. To talk in terms of ‘what are the main themes of the book’ reduces it to a lesson, a message - and when I was reading, I was so transported I lost any sense of what the writer’s intentions might have been. 
       So with hindsight - and with the caveat that ‘theme-discussion’ should not be taken as an indication that this is anything but a great read - and also in the knowledge that we will all find something different, it is such a rich book, deceptively so - the themes are strong.  Firstly, it explored our sometimes unexpected resilience in the face of difficulties, even at a very young age.  How children can hold great natural wisdom - they may not know how to articulate that wisdom necessarily, but that is no reason not to believe that children are much wiser than they are given credit for. How we all can do much more than we think - I love that! And I’m sure there are other things too - the whole explores the way the parent-child relationship can be turned on its head - even though the children are very young. And the overarching theme, coming to terms with loss, is a classic. Jeez, there is so much there...

CK: Can you say anything about how your own viewpoints and experiences influenced the way you read it?

VG: The chemistry between Pea and Margot is wonderful - for me it started a real reappraisal of how I was when I was a child, my family, my friendships, my relationships with the adults who then surrounded me. It was like meeting myself again, years later through both the girls, if that does not sound daft. I desperately wanted a sister as I was growing up, and never had one. A brother came along when I was three, but that isn’t the same thing, is it? 
          I was a very ‘thinking’ child - so much so that I would be told to stop thinking. I was also a lonely child. At times in The Night Rainbow, I found it almost unbearably poignant therefore, as the girls seek to find their place in a changed world. 
        And as for loss, I watched my mother crying by the Aga when I was two and a half, hiding under the kitchen table - her father had just died. She didn’t know I was there. So I heard all the adult talk - my father trying to comfort her - although he had just lost his father too, so it was a doubly ghastly time for them both. The small girl under the table understood then that everyone must die, that losing someone you love is ghastly, that my mother and father would die, and so would I. I have never forgotten that moment. So, as the book unfolded, the child in me, the child under the table, responded to the book. Does that make sense? I was seeing it all through a child’s eyes.

CK: Do you think the book cover and the trailer give the right message to potential readers about what they can expect?

VG: I think the trailer is a stronger indicator of what the reader will encounter.  It is lovely to hear the book's voice read so wonderfully. Who is reading? That is not to say the book cover is not beautiful, and very intriguing...and yes, once you’ve read the book, you understand the cover more. I’m going to stop there!  

CK: The voice over is the daughter of someone who works at Bloomsbury in London. Her parents are French-Canadian, hence the lovely way she says 'Margot'!

VG: And here is that lovely trailer...enjoy. 
        Now, a question or two from me again... Did the idea come first, or did it unfold as you were writing?

CK: The idea didn't come first, well, not all of it. The novel started off a little like The Mosquito Coast, but more French, with a family who had moved into unfamiliar - and in some ways hostile - territory. But as the story grew the principal character emerged as the oldest girl, and I knew that the story was going to be hers. Then one day, while I was out with my husband, and my two girls - one toddling and one in a pram - in a nearby meadow, the youngest one almost had a terrible accident. Almost. And all I could think was, what if I hadn't been there? After that everything fell into place and I knew the story I wanted to tell. 

VG:  And that leads nicely onto something I’ve been dying to ask...Are the girls based at all on your own two gorgeous daughters?

 CK: Are the girls based on my daughters? Ah it would be tempting to say yes, but it's much more complicated than that. I purposefully made a mood board for The Night Rainbow, with photos of landscapes and houses that are similar but not the same as those where we live. I also chose images of children who didn't look like my own, and I worked with those as guides. Otherwise the temptation to leave fiction and fall into anecdote may have been too great. But the voice of my children is all over the book. My eldest was four years old when I wrote the novel and my youngest two. They would say the most magical and wise things and I wrote them all down. Where I could, I wove them into Margot and Pea. 

Because of their influence, and because I hardly describe the girls at all in the book, I was anxious to see how Margot and Pea would be portrayed on the book cover. When I saw Holly MacDonald's artwork I was quite taken aback. The silhouettes could easily be my girls. A strange and magical bonus. 

VG:  What a magical coincidence. Spooky stuff! But another question - on a serious note: How much did you want the novel to explore notions of non-belonging?

CK: I'd say I was interested in the idea of belonging (rather than non-belonging), in a broad sense of place, people or culture. The cause and effect of it. I noticed when my daughters were very young that they had an innate sense belonging everywhere, a casual intimacy with nature and with people. How we are transformed when that belief is taken from us...

VG: Claire, thank you. It has been a joy nattering for a minute or two about The Night Rainbow. It is going to do so very well - enjoy every minute! 

Tuesday 5 February 2013

A little collection of poetry, and some home truths.

I am hugely pleased to have a poetry pamphlet in the pipeline from Pighog Press. Due out in November, this will be my first little poetry collection - and it has the strange but “I like it so I hope you do too” working title of The Half-Life of Fathers.  That is the title of a poem commissioned last year by artist Philip Hartigan for his Dia Del Padre exhibition in Chicago, and it was also given a special mention in the last Essex Poetry competition. I am looking forward to the Pighog reader’s report, then working with my editor, and talking over the cover designs. Fun!

Having said it is a little collection, I’m not sure the world of poetry really allows that word to be used when it isn’t a ‘proper book’ - pamphlets to be distinguished at all times from the proper books, I suppose? However, Pighog refers to the latter as ‘full collections’ so in that vein, I am calling this pamphlet a 'little collection'. As well as a pamphlet. 

The different conventions in this poetry world take some getting used to. No-one told me, for example: If you are mainly to date a prose writer and have an agent, you do not request said agent to approach publishers of poetry, as I did because it seemed natural. Apparently, the publishers do not like it, and the poet is expected to do the contacting themselves.    Why? It would be useful if some published poets/poetry presses could cast light on this one. One would have thought the slush piles are fifty times higher than prose...

Who was to know all this? But anyway - among whatever else was happening,  I did approach Pighog myself because it’s local, their publications are excellent quality, I know a few of their poets, such as the brilliant Clare Best, and am grinning with pleasure to be joining their ranks. It is also a joy to be published in a limited edition of 300 copies. Why? Because there is then no pressure to sell sell sell to keep the book in print...although I will do my bit while it exists, as I have always done. Publishing any book is a partnership.

Another convention in the poetry world mirrors one that the prose world adhered to some years ago,  ie: a record of online publication does not seem to be seen as much cop.  This despite the rigorous editorial skills of someone like Helen Ivory, for example, who edits Ink Sweat and Tears...which makes little sense to me, but there you go. Maybe someone who knows more can explain?  To be taken seriously, you need a record of quality publications in ‘proper’ magazines, to make up a strong CV. (There’s that word again - the poetry world still seems to have a strong backbone of properness - convention.) If they are thinking commercially, I'd have thought so long as you have a following, does it matter where you are read? A poem probably gets far more readings online than it does in a paper publication... no? If they are thinking purely professionally, why does another editor's previous decision to publish you strengthen their own? 

So how does it work if like me, you kept most of your poetry in the depths of your hard drive, as it was something you turned to when prose didn’t fit the feelings welling up, and when written most of it was forgotten as you had no idea what to do with it?  I was not, and am not, part of any poetry communities, so was not learning markets.  Not out of laziness, I hope, more from a belief that I wasn't really a poet. Ah but sometimes, I’d send stuff out, when I  occasionally stumbled across somewhere that looked suitable - and sometimes it would be accepted, and sometimes not, but I had no idea why in either case.  Or, I’d send it to a comp I didn’t mind supporting with a fiver, as with Bridport (funds go to the Arts Centre - my stuff has been shortlisted a couple of times), or the Troubadour (funds go to support a great live event series, my stuff won a prize last year). But it was always hit n miss, no strategy, because all my strategising was going into my prose. And because of that,  I suspect my poetry hasn’t done as well as it might have done, had I worked at it harder. That’s fact. 

I guess the answer to that is, either you play the game by the rules, or you don’t. And there are conventions, so if you want to get anywhere, follow them. And I don’t think it is coincidence that attending some workshops with Pascale Petit and learning, learning about editing in particular, runs alongside doing  a bit better, do you?