Wednesday 22 June 2016

Genesis of a poem

Today is the centenary of the Red Dragon blow, in Givenchy, Pas de Calais. A visit to the spot and many others in 2011, in the company of military historian and battlefield guide, Jeremy Banning, sparked not just the draft of a novel, but poetry.
       Perhaps it might be of interest to see the story behind a poem? So here, tweeted this morning by Jeremy, and with his permission, is the story of William Hackett and Thomas Collins. Then, my thinking, and finally, my poem.

I found it impossible to stand and look at that field without feeling that time is wobbling,  folding in on itself, and that those men are somehow there below ground, and not there, at the same time. See the field after harvest, after ploughing, and there is an almost imperceptible depression in the furrows.     Below that, all those layers down, the space where a hugely brave man sacrificed himself for a fellow tunneller. On both sides of my family in south Wales not that long ago, there were miners. Maybe there is something echoing down the years?

But how to respond to this particular place in poetry, when I was working on a collection of poems responding to WW1 memorials and places? Maybe my background as a writer of prose, stories, allows me to imagine, try to share for a second the horror those men would surely have experienced, the fear, the pain, the hope, then the despair when they realised that rescue efforts had stopped? But then what? What words would be good enough? I didn't write for some time. For a couple of years at least.

My grandmothers, both of them from Merthyr Tydfil, lived in two of the many rows of terraced houses that cling to the valley sides. They both had great pride in their back gardens, little patches of dark soil. One grew produce, fruit trees along an old brick wall, and in the borders there were shallots, herbs, potatoes  - the other had a rose or two, a straggle of flowers, a tiny lawn. An apple tree. What would I do if I knew time was short, and I was entombed underground? If I knew I was close to death. If all was dark, no light anywhere?

I had the poem.

So this is for both men, but in particular for Thomas Collins from Swansea. Who got no awards, but died in the most awful way in his efforts to do his bit. And whose injuries led to William Hackett's extraordinary, extraordinary comradeship and bravery, for which he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Here's to them both.

To a Welsh tunneller killed in 1916 in France, whose body still lies 40 ft below ground
Did you prefer your garden wild, 
all edges softened, scented? Did grasses 
seed for you 
in the evening light, and 
Spanish daisies dance 
                                    down the old brick step? 
Did shallots wait in untidy rows, with 
chives and parsley frills and leeks, and 
on your two apple trees, did russets grow?

Was all stone mellow, 
none bright, and in the ivy 
were dunnocks nesting year on year, 
and robins too, wood pigeons in the ash?

Everywhere was light, everywhere 
the kindest shadow,
and when it rained 
at night
did you stand at your open window,
                       the sweet air on your skin,
and listen
to the small sounds, 
                                as though

you could hear the whole world, greening?

From Memorandum, poems for the fallen. Published Feb 2016 by Cultured Llama.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Passing it on...the importance of teaching and mentoring

Who was it said, 'Those who can't do, teach'? I don't agree with it, as a general statement, embracing all. Applied to writing, I reckon some can do it rather well and also teach. It is certainly one way in which writers can actually earn something, especially when you turn to poetry, which isn't exactly an earner for most of us. Some no doubt do one or both better than others - but all the writers I know who take time out to share what they do do it so well. Most of them, because they care. It is nice to pass things on.

Me, I care, sure - but I learned a lot from those who taught (or tried to teach) me. It was at times an object lesson in how not to teach - therefore wonderful grounding for later, when I would be passing on to the next generation whatever snips of wisdom I'd amassed along the way.

Mentoring too.

I have just finished a year-long mentorship with a novelist, through New Writing South. On her second novel, she wanted to be supported while she wrote a fair draft of her second.
I am into mentoring another writer already - a partnership between NWS and Creative Futures, the writer is someone who might not otherwise take these things up, for her own reasons.
And as good things come in threes, I am mentoring the brilliant Divya Ghelani through the equally brilliant Word Factory. Her novel Runaway made the longlist of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Prize. (Nowt to do with me!)

Mentoring is an interesting beast. It isn't teaching as such, in most cases. It is support, being a sounding board, an interested colleague. More of a guidance role. And that's fine.

Many years back, I spent a year abroad at a school, and it put me off teaching. That is sad - because actually, I think I'd have loved it - so long (and it is a big so long) as I loved what I was sharing,  encouraging others to try, experiment, see if they loved it too.  And that's what I see teaching as, now.
Encouraging. Opening people's eye to what writing can be.

I ran a workshop a few weeks ago, on the short story. I started with one of my favourites - The Raft, by Peter Orner. Here it is in its entirety, all 1200 wds of it - in the archive of The Atlantic:
           It never fails to give me enormous pleasure to see participants' faces when you unpack that story - and every time I do, I see new things myself, as they tease apart the threads, identify the craft elements.

My goal at a workshop is not to tell people how to do things, then pack up and go home. It is to show them the possibilities, open their eyes, fizz them up, strengthen their confidence in their abilities - and I hope they leave fired up with enthusiasm, full of ideas, and knowing that they CAN do this thing.

Later this year - workshops at Wordthing Festival, at Gladfest - and one or two others - then that will do. It does take a different bit of the brain to do this, and it takes a while to get back into creating mode, lovely and important as it is, for this writer. Next year, plans afoot already for fiction workshops in Venice, in Ireland and again, Gladstone's Library. Can't wait!

Sunday 3 April 2016

Kate Dempsey's poetry collection, The Space Between. And other things. Including Thorium 238...

If you write creatively, whether poetry, plays, prose, you may well be aware of Kate Dempsey’s Emerging Writer blog -  a rather useful blog to say the least, containing a constantly updated drip feed of markets and opportunities for writers of all sorts, in depth interviews and interesting reviews. It is indeed rather brilliant stuff. And it's constant, and it's a free resource, even if occasionally someone drops in the cost of a coffee, I bet that doesn’t happen very often. Among other things, Kate is a poet. A poet who performs as well as sits in a darkened room. Who not just performs but is part of a group of women poets called Poetry Divas. I quote from one festival line-up I read:  
The fabulous Poetry Divas Collective are a glittery group of poets who read their own material at events and festivals all over Ireland including Electric Picnic, FĂ©ile na Bealtaine, Dublin Writers Festival, Dromineer Literary Festival and Kildare Reader's Festival. Each line-up and show is different, blended to the occasion but they guarantee a deliciously infectious show that's bound to touch a nerve and blur the wobbly boundaries between page and stage. The Divas include Barbara Smith, Maeve O’Sullivan, Triona Walsh and Kate Dempsey. 
The Poetry Divas. Kate on the left. In tiara. 

Kate had her own debut poetry collection out at the end of last year, with Doire Press - The Space Between. I happened to be in Dublin thenabouts, happened to be staying in a hotel a stone’s throw from where Kate works, and she kindly whizzed down one lunchtime to deliver my very own copy. 

I don’t review many books. However. This book is different. I don’t know Kate from Eve, apart from the fact that she is a hugely helpful person for other writers - but felt I ought to say I have met her for all of three minutes, in a Dublin hotel foyer, before saying that if you appreciate poetry that is by turns witty, funny, poignant, insightful, beautiful, strange,  and above all memorable, you ought to be getting yourself a copy. I can’t lend you mine, it is covered in scribbles. Its the sort of collection that makes me want to write myself. High praise. 

Look. Here’s the opening poem. (I have Kate’s permission to reproduce this one, and a couple of others, here.)

It’s What You Put Into It
For Grace

On the last day of term
you brought home a present,
placed it under the tree,
a light, chest-shaped mystery
wrapped in potato stamped paper
intricate with angels and stars.

Christmas morning
you watched as we opened it,
cautious not to tear the covering.
Inside, a margarine tub, empty.
Do you like it? eyes huge.
It’s beautiful.
What is it, sweetheart?
A box full of love, you said.

You should know, O my darling girl,
it sits on the dresser still
and from time to time, we open it. 

My heart does a backflip every time I read this one. I wish I’d written it.
Let’s move sideways, to something completely different. Dublin conjured from scents and sounds:

There’s fresh oranges on Mary Street,
fresh words, fresh-sprayed on concrete walls.

Or sideways again, one of my many favourites - a few couplets to give a flavour of 

Verbatim (i m Barbara Ennis Price) :

Its all the fault of the British, she said.
The cursing came in with the troopers,


Sure, weren’t we a gentle race
until the squaddies boated in?


What did we have to swear about 
until the British came?

I bet that one brings the house down.  And sideways yet again to this, which had me laughing out loud on a Ryanair flight. (There’s not much to laugh about on Ryanair..)

Thorium 238

I am Thorium
luke on mi magnifisens an kwiver.


U can bild yr collider in a playgrown,
bombard me wiv protons,
thro evrything u hav at me,
an 1 glorus day I will radee-ate 2 order. 
I am de answer, earthlings...

I googled Thorium 238. This is what it looks like. 
Thorium 238. Great, isn't it? 

I hope you are getting the point. This is not an easy collection to categorise. It is broad ranging, fascinating, and terrific. Sorry, but I love it. 

Kate Dempsey was born and raised in the UK, seems to have lived all over the world, and now lives and works in Dublin. She once studied Physics at Oxford University. (See, we have a lot in common. Not that I went to Oxford, or indeed studied Physics anywhere - I dropped it before O Level. Long Story. But in the run up to the publication of I Am Because You Are, the short story antho in celebration of the centenary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (Freight Press, eds Tania Hershman and Pippa Goldschmidt) I went to Oxford Physics Dept for four private seminars for the commissioned writers, to be fodder for said Relativity themed creation. Yup. Moi.) 

The Poetry Divas, her bio also says, blur the wobbly boundary between page and stage at events and festivals all over Ireland. The collection certainly contains poems I can ‘hear’ being read out loud, as well as those I want to curl up with and enjoy quietly (such as that first one up there.)  So we nattered, remotely. I asked her about the two. 

Moi: Performance and page poetry. Which came first, for you? How did the sideways shift occur? Can you pick one you define as a performance poem, and one that really belongs on the page? Why? What is it that pushes this divide?

Her: Well, page is always first. You have to write a poem before you can perform it. A poem that only works as a performance poem is only half a poem, and vice versa. If a page poem does not work out loud, then something’s wrong. Poetry started as recitation long before it was written down.I do have poems that would lean one way more than another. I have quite a few poems I would not put in a book as on the page they are missing something. Maybe that something is the voice? I don’t know. If I could fix it and make the poem work on the page too, I would. And then again, I have poems that are good on the page but when I’ve read them to an audience, there’s too much going on on the page for a listening audience to get much out of it in the first run through. So those would be stay-on-the-page poems.  
Moi: Some poems seem to straddle to divide neatly. For example: 'Tell me about your scar'. May I reprint this one?

Her: Sure, go ahead 

Tell me about your scar

that pucker of skin in the shape of an owl.
Was it an irritable pug,
a fight about a man, a look, the price of pie? 
Were you cursed by Minerva?
Did your knife slip making a rocket from a bottle?

Is it perhaps where you had a rash tattoo removed? I hear the laser hurts more than the needle.
Were you caught climbing barbed wire into somewhere,
out of somewhere?
Did you fly into a window, smash a mirror?

Was it cancer, may I ask, a nasty melanoma?
Did a small owl-shaped alien erupt after one to many bad nights?
Was it self-inflicted?
Is there a matching half on your other arm,
your leg, your brother?

Does it ache when storms are near?
Do you still notice it? 
Does it disappear in sunshine, 
in the shower, in the snow,
when you sweat, when you fall in love?

Do you have a story
or shall I make you one?
I can do that.
Sit still.
This will hardly hurt a bit. 

Her: I started that one because I wanted to write a poem with a reference to classics, originally Athena but she changed to Roman Minerva. On top of that, I have taught creative writing in schools and one prompt I’ve used is to write the true story about a scar. Everyone has a scar with a story. And then to tell a story for the scar that isn’t real. Works well.

Moi: Specific question - it seems to me that humour is a fundamental for performance poetry, in whatever quantity - a flash thereof, or a lot.

Her: I don't think so. Maybe it is in mine but there is plenty of performance poetry that is fiercely passionate or angry with no humour at all. I'm thinking Kate Tempest as  a terrific example and many other performance poets who think that anger on its own will make a poem, which it won't. I don't always intend to write funny poems but humour tends to creep in. In a performance environment, a funny poem or a poem with at least touches of humour is good to keep the audience on your side. A laugh relieves the tension of listening (or not)

Moi: I laughed out loud in the plane home, at Thorium 238. I love the humour that runs through the collection - favourites might be I Could Lie and Running Out. And Regeneration... despite the serious echoes underneath

Her: Thorium is one of the more Science poems. I wrote it to be displayed in the Bodleian Science Library in Oxford, which was really cool. Thorium and Thorium 238 in particular some scientists believe have the potential to release very cheap clean energy but they haven't figured out how to do it yet. So I imagined Thorium as some kind of a partially literate superhero, sniggering as he watches humanity trying to work it out.

Moi: O Lord. Thorium 238 is now my favourite. It has to be. To celebrate... here is that pic of...
Thorium 238. Still great...
But doing an about turn, I am wondering, as there are many very insightful, hilariously sharp poems about blokes  in the collection, is this a feminist collection? I am thinking of Karl, poor poor man, ghastly man,  in his very own poem.. .

We weave around conversational sinkholes, as he ploughs
into his half-a-bloody cow, chewing open-mouthed 
as if we all want to savour the flavour...


He’s all for diversity so long as the service industry
speaks English with no accent.

Her: Now there's a question. I come from a generation where it is almost taken as read that if you are a woman, you are a feminist. Of course I'm a feminist! And feminist beliefs will inevitably pop up in some of my writing. But I don't think anyone gains anything by forcing doctrine down other people's throughts. Subtlety and light humourous undermining of assumptions is my main weapon. But if I had to pick out an overtly feminist poem, I would be hard pressed. Perhaps While It Lasted, about a mother taking some time off from running the house and family. Actually my mother worked too, but that's not mentioned specifically. Or Running Out. I may have to address feminism more overtly in some new poems, I think.

Moi:  Love that one too. here it is, on
On to Physics.
Can you say a bit about how this (and broader science) does or doesn't inform your poetry? Noted: Hydrogen, Equations on Waking. Again, may I use Hydrogen on the blog?

Her: I am fascinated with Science, specifically Physics from my Physics degree so I think it is inevitable that some science will creep into poems, even if they are not specifically about science. For example Schroedinger's famous, much maligned and misunderstood cat appears in a poem about a lump in a breast. I sometimes read at Science events so I specifically tried to write a few really science-y poems. I also collect interesting science facts for future poems, I jhave notebooks bulging with ideas waiting for time to craft them into something more than scratchy notes. I wrote a sequence of poems about elements represented as women, which was much fun to research and imagine. I should thank my daughter who is a Chemistrry graduate as well as Wikipedia. Hydrogen addresses varoius attributes of the element, the lightness and flammability. In a lab, the test to see if Hydrogen is released is to set it alight so it will pop. And it commonly occurs as H2, in a pair, two protons, no neutron, so that went into the poem too.

Moi: I knew it. Honest.


You can’t hold me down for long,
buouyant, I’m ready to burn bright, pop.

Simple? Say straight forward,
I say what I mean and I am what I am

a singular girl and 
a star in the making.

If you think about it,
it’s your all-natural pairing --

no need for a gooseberry neutron
my twin and I hold it together just fine. 

Still Moi: You were at Oxford University. One line that sticks in my head from the poem entitled ‘Pure Class’ is this,

Poetry won’t get you outa here,’ my da says. 

Is the 'City with stones of gold' form the poem of that title, Oxford? Can you talk a bit about the class boundaries and their blurring - how class becomes an education thing as opposed to a money thing? Did you feel you were the chosen,  ‘shucking the limits of hometown grime’ (your lovely phrase)?

Her: Yes. Oxford, a beautiful place that I loved for my 3 brief years. I made life long friendships there as well as the education. I went up there from a very ordinary Midlands comprehensive school and the class divide was a shock to me as was suddenly not being the cleverest person in the class. But also working with people who were as interested in science (and reading) as you were. I literally still dream about it. But not everyone managed to survive it. People failed, dropped out, someone from my school killed himself. So there's a price. It's not for everyone. University is not for everyone at that age.

Moi: Lots more I could ask, but I know you are busy.

Her: I am! Apart from working full time, I am running an 8 week online poetry workshop with 7 other poets where we take turns to give a prompt each week and then write a poem to respond to it. So each week I have a poem to write and 7 to respond to. It's a hard slog but very rewarding. We're all going to meet up in Dublin at the end in person.

Moi: Sounds wonderful! No rush. Am off to Gladstone's Library to write from 25th to 1st.

Her: How lovely. How do you get that gig? I would love a week off to write ...soon soon.
Moi: But you can. Anyone can go - its now a terrifically unusual hotel, with this Victorian Gothic library, Gladstone’s memorial, attached. I am hooked. I ran a workshop for them last autumn, and my payment is two blissful weeks of my own this year, glorious.

Ok, peoples. If you only buy one poetry book this month, make it this one. You can buy Kate’s collection direct from Doire Press. Support quality indies! 
OK. We know... Thorium 238, right? Byeee!

Tuesday 9 February 2016

19th March, New Venture Theatre, Brighton Our Sons As Well - poems and prose

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”
Wilfred Owen’s ’Strange Meeting’ reminds us of the human cost of the Great War, and of the individual personalities behind the wartime propaganda and the faceless military uniforms.
An evening of poetry and writing from and about a conflict which affected millions - men and women, parents and children, sweethearts and lovers. The event will feature a selection of poems, letters and prose - some contemporary, some modern - read by New Venture actors and special guests. There will also be a short extract from the forthcoming production of ‘How Many Miles To Babylon’.
The image usually brought to mind is of the trenches of the Western Front - but WWI was truly a World War, sweeping up citizens of many nations. European soldiers of all nations, Indian soldiers of Empire (in France and Belgium as well as Mesopotamia), Turks and Anzacs at the Dardanelles. And all these combatants were supported by families and loved ones, as well as the industries and medical services that underpinned the war effort.
‘Strange Meeting’ was written from the Western Front, but the shared humanity of soldiers is universal. The monument at Gallipoli reads - “your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
I am delighted that some of my own work will be performed during this event by New Venture Theatre actors, including Poem for Seven Voices. This long poem, first published in The Half-life of Fathers, is part of Memorandum: poems for the fallen, from which my work will be taken. Far more importantly, poems by Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Sarojini Niadu and many more, form an integral part of the event. I am privileged to be reading Rosenberg's wonderful poem, Break of Day in the Trenches, and the Naidu, The Gift of India. Caroline Davies also has a poem in the lineup, from her forthcoming collection Voices from Stone and Bronze (Cinnamon, May 2016). 

Sunday 31 January 2016

Interviews are like bloody buses... :)

A few interviews - I seem to be pixellated - scattered liberally all over the internet:

One just up on Storyscavenger website looks at the writing process - and asks, among other things,  what advice I’d give to newer writers. Hmm... 
I’ve had all sorts of advice from all sorts of people - some rubbish. Some sort of OK, sometimes. The only advice that really stands the test of time is: 
Writing well is hard work. Don’t expect it to be easy. The writing world is hard. Don’t expect it to be easy. If you aren’t prepared for hard work, and for knock back after knock back, you’re in the wrong job.” 
Whole interview here, a natter with Wendy Ann Greenhalgh:

An interview also appears on The Short Story website - 
“In my work poetry and prose do a kind of dance, in that sometimes they are so far apart they turn their backs and refuse to have anything to do with each other, and conversely sometimes they move so close that they are almost indistinguishable.”
Interview here, with Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn:

On Litro, a fascinating article about the totemic articles that writers surround themselves with, and which, in some cases, become inspiration for their work, includes my version of Dalou’s ‘Le Grand Paysan’. The original, in the Musee d’Orsay, is huge. A bit like this one... but darker: 

And they might have noticed if I nicked it. Couldn't get it under my coat...but this wonderful work certainly became a huge inspiration,  and is the genesis of the town statue of a coal miner in The Coward’s Tale.  I love it so much I bought my own mini-version...
“The poet Selima Hill once described going for long walks along the Dorset coastline as part of her creative process, collecting stones and shells or any interesting object that caught her eye along the way. For poet and novelist Vanessa Gebbie the inspiration for her first novel, The Coward’s Tale, set in a Welsh mining village, was a larger than life bronze statue, Dalou’s Le Grand Paysan which stands in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.As a surrogate, Gebbie acquired a much smaller bronze replica of a similar statue, Picciole’s In Labore Benedictio, to connect her to her story.”
Full article here, by Niyati Keni:

On Brighton Retreats website, I was interviewed about procrastination - there’s a laugh. The best way to procrastinate is to spend time on these questions... (!). 
“Q: Do you listen to the interminable Inner Critic? How do you keep him/her quiet?A: We argue. Constantly.  I remind him (it IS a bloke) that he is very useful indeed at the right times. Indeed, indispensable. Like blokes are. Some of the time. This one is indispensable when I am rewriting, editing, because he lets me see the work as others will. Other times, I shut him up by turning off the screen when I type, or turning the font to white.”

On Chester University’s digital repository, I am also in pixels - you can download an interview that appeared in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, entitled ‘As of on a magic carpet...’ - about the importance of flash and the flash process. 

Writing flash fiction was and still is absolutely crucial to my development as a writer - an ongoing process. I initially wrote a lot of flash with other writers to tight time constraints, inspired by prompts - a single word, phrase or line of poetry. I found a great strength and a creative buzz in knowing that unseen others were tackling the same prompts at the same time.  The concision, the need to examine every word was a great discipline. The creation of character through hint rather than description was a great skill to learn.”
Interview here, with the editors of Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Peter Blair and Ashley Chantler:

That's probably enough! 

Sunday 24 January 2016

Memorandum - poems for the fallen

My poetry collection is on the chocks from the lovely Cultured Llama - here is the book's page on their website:

Lovely publisher, terrific cover based on an original image by Michaela Ridgway - Memorandum has had some wonderful endorsements. I am a lucky person.

Vanessa Gebbie’s First World War poems evoke memory and battle, ranging from memorials and Armistice Day parades to stabbing pain. From the idea of a shell reverting to its unmade, peaceful state to dead men buried in Brighton and France being mourned by their mother in Glasgow, she shows the often agonising and transformational effects of war. There are heartrending images such as the Tower of London’s ceramic poppies seen as callow recruits, doubts about a corpse’s identity and how dregs at the bottom of a cup can be reminiscent of the deadly Flanders mud. Blunden and Rosenberg, witnesses and war poets, are here. But this is a modern view, wise and compassionate, of Europe’s fatal wound.
Max Egremont, author of Siegfried Sassoon: A Biography and
Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew
Vanessa Gebbie is that rare breed of poet who understands the trials and tribulations of the ordinary Tommy. Often based on her own research, her annual battlefield visits and inspired by soldiers’ personal stories, these poems are multi-layered, intelligent and deeply moving. They will strike a chord with those who not only read history, but want to understand it.
Jeremy Banning, military historian and researcher, battlefield guide
Memorandum is a haunting and sharply focused collection that summons voices from the shadows of the First and Second World Wars. In spare, poignant language and a range of forms, the dead who linger around memorials and battlefields slowly step again into the light. History may remember them collectively, but Gebbie’s achievement is to present, with sensitivity and without sentimentality, lives rooted in the particular rhythms of hometowns, families, memories. Dialogues are resumed between friends and enemies, between grieving survivors and the lost. War is never truly finished, cannot be tidied away. Memorandum attends to such complexities throughout with an unflinching eye.
John McCullough, author of Spacecraft and The Frost Fairs
From the beautifully tender opening poem, ‘Cenotaph’, these poems rise like ghosts from a scarred landscape as Vanessa Gebbie responds to war memorials and those whose lives were cut short by war. These poems display her deep knowledge of the terrain, chalk, clay and woodland where they fought, and all in the voice of a natural poet.
Caroline Davies, author of Convoy
Praise for Vanessa Gebbie’s previous pamphlet, The Half-life of Fathers…
This is haunted, haunting poetry that both arrests time and attests to its power.
Times Literary Supplement

Wednesday 6 January 2016

Children’s Books 2015: Market Commodities or Meaningful Stories? A Writer’s Tale

Please see the following as a New Year gift, intended to set the record as straight as it can be for aspiring writers of fiction for younger audiences. This is perhaps what they don't tell you when you go fresh-faced and dewy-eyed to writing courses. It is also relevant for writers of literary fiction across the board, methinks - a salutary recent lesson forced by the publishing world on one of our best writers for the younger reader, Nicky Singer. 

Nicky is no stranger to controversy. Her novel The Innocent's Story caused a stir - you can read about the events surrounding its publication on her website, above. I know Nicky. She does not pull her punches. She does not talk down to anyone, especially children. She knows, as do I, that children are thinking beings who need literature for the same reasons we all do. 

She was invited to address The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Conference, in London, on  14th November 2015. This is the text of her speech. It is long. Impassioned. Worth reading right through. 

Children’s Books 2015: Market Commodities or Meaningful Stories? A Writer’s Tale
Today I’m going to do something rather un-British. I’m going to talk about money. Not the sort most writers earn – that would clearly be a pretty short speech – but the swing from editorial to marketing power that I’ve witnessed in the 25 years I’ve been  writing and publishing. I’m going to ask: what happens to children’s books when the definition of success is how many units you can sell, rather than how many souls you can nourish? What happens to language? What happens to the sort of stories that can be told? And what, if anything, can writers do about it?
       It’s not going to be an academic paper. It doesn’t have footnotes or PowerPoint. It’s going to Old School, personal, anecdotal. It might occasionally descend into a rant.
       So, let’s begin where I began. In 1992 – the publication date of my first novel (a book for adults) called  To Still the Child
(...) In those Neanderthal pre- e-mail days you wrote to your publisher and, believe it or not, they wrote back. This file contains the total correspondence that passed between us. For the record there are 9 letters from the Publishing Director of the company Robin Baird-Smith, 5 letters from my editor, 2 letters from the jacket designer and 1 from press and marketing. I’ll repeat that, 1 from press and marketing. It was Robin, the Managing Director,  who chose the book, valued it, wrote me encouraging letters, put the thing into print and then (and only then) delegated it to the marketing team (though team’s a bit of an exaggeration, I think there were two people) to try and get it noticed. 
It’s all rather different nowadays. Editorial teams have got smaller and marketing teams have got larger. Much, much larger. The power has shifted in the same ratio. Nowadays, small teams of editorial staff  go to acquisition meetings to ‘pitch’ book ideas to - marketing people. And the marketing people make judgements about whether the title will – or won’t – shift units. And, if it will, how many units it will shift. For publishing, you see, is no longer some collegiate Gentlepersons Club full of bookish folk seeking higher things. Of course not. It’s a business like any other. There’s money to be made. Big Money if you hit it right. The reach is potentially global. The economics become supermarket.  Or, as one MD of a major publishing house put it to me, recently: ‘Publishers are not charities you know, Nicky.’ 
       Right. Got that. So let’s see how this Brave New Marketing World impacts on the humble writer. This year I have been working on two different books. One is my new novel Island – turned down by virtually every major publisher in London – the other my re-telling of Wind in the Willows – forthcoming in Jan ’16 from just one such major.  Let’s begin with Island. 
       Island started life as a play, a special commission for the National Theatre. It played to sell-out audiences in the Cottesloe, did a 30 school London tour and enjoyed a raft of 4* reviews. This is what the Independent said about it:
The National Theatre’s terrific new play for over-eights is set on what we call Herschel Island in Northern Canada (the Inuit have another, much older name for it). The one-hour  play explores the impact of global warming – think Frozen Planet brought to life for children with characters the audience identify with and care about.  Island explores the conflict between scientific and metaphysical truth, colonialism, the exploitation of other people’s environment, the role of religion and the power of storytelling. So it isn’t short of issues for children to think about afterwards, but at the same time it avoids any sense of worthiness and stands up well as a piece of compelling, moving drama. 
I never planned to re-write it as a novel but I failed to factor in the speed of the melting ice-caps. Five people rang me up in the same week: our young people need that story more than ever, they said. Don't you understand? They have to have the chance to engage with what’s going on in the arctic. Write it as a novel. Now! 
       So I did. And I fell in love with my characters (a grumpy Western boy, a local island girl, an ice bear) all over again. I liked the extra space in the book. I believed I made a pretty good fist of the re-write. In fact, I rather thought the last 100 pages were some of the best I’d ever written.
       My long-term publisher disagreed. ‘It’s too quiet,’ they said, ‘for the current market’. I’m not sure this particular publishing term has made the OED yet but, roughly translated, I think it means: ‘this book will not make the required shed-load of money’. Leaving aside the fact that, if publishers really knew what makes a shed-load of money, eight of them wouldn’t have turned down Harry Potter, I thought, in Island’s case, they were probably right. But guess what, I didn’t write Island to make a shed-load of money, I wrote it because it seemed a story which still needed to be told. 
       Still, if a work never sees the light of day, you might just as well have not bothered. So it behoved me, I thought, to find out a little more about ‘quiet’. I asked a few people who should know, the managing directors of three London publishing houses. They said (to a woman)
1. Quiet means that the story cannot be summed up succinctly, cannot be rendered in a single sentence.  For the marketing people.
I had a think about that. 
And what it might do to complexity. 
Hamlet: bloke dithers about whether to avenge his father’s death.  
Alice in Wonderland: curious child falls down rabbit hole. 
Or, as a top-flight London agent put it to me: ‘the literary end of children’s fiction is contracting at the moment. There’s a lively mainstream - but it’s not very challenging.’  Yup. You can begin to see why.
       Quiet also means, apparently, that although the book might be nicely written, it doesn’t have the necessary pulsating action required by the modern child. In fact one of the particular criticisms levelled at Island was that it wasn’t an adventure story and it ‘should be’. Should be? Who says what my books ‘should be’?  My books, in my view, should be whatever they need to be to best tell the story I’m trying to tell. Although, ironically enough, Island is an adventure story, it’s just not of the (current fad) Boy’s Own Adventure sort. It’s an adventure of the mind, of thoughts and dreams.

Cue Ursula Le Guin’s blistering address to the US National Book Awards last year as she accepted the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (  There is, she said,  a difference between ‘the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art’. She went on to wonder at us – the writers and creators - ‘who let profiteers sell us like deodorant and tell us what to publish and what to write’. This address has been viewed over 300,000 times – so it must be hitting some buttons other than those on writers’ shirts. Le Guin finishes by demanding, not shed-loads of money – but freedom. 
       What might this freedom look like for someone like me? To be able to publish powerful, meaningful stories in powerful, meaningful language. For young people. Yes – young people.  For being too ‘quiet’ was not Island’s only sin. It was also, apparently ‘too literary’ for these supposedly lesser mortals. I’ve felt this chill before. Not least when I was asked to expunge the word ‘bonnet’ from a previous novel, on account of the fact that no self-respecting 12 year old would know such a word. The publisher was unmoved by my assertion that, at the same age, I was required to be able to spell and define words like ‘sinecure’. Does this matter? I think so. Put simply, we think in language. It there isn’t a word for something, or that word is not in our vocabulary, it impairs our ability to know - and also to communicate. And no, Beatrix Potter would not get away with soporific today. She might even have trouble with lettuce.
       So - what do you do when you book is too quiet and too literary for your long-term publisher? Try a new publisher, of course. Only that’s not quite so simple these days either. Because of Branding. Yes – how is New Publisher to position you in the market if you are so closely associated with Old Publisher? Branding costs, you see. Shed-Loads of Money. And that’s another problem with Nicky. She can’t be branded. She writes too many different sorts of thing. She started off writing for adults. Then she switched to children. She writes novels for 8-12 year olds. She write YA fiction. She writes plays. She writes musicals. She even writes opera, for heaven’s sake. How are you going to pile that on a shelf next to 21 identikit David Walliams’? Or, as my agent once famously put it, the problem with you Nicky, is that you always write what you want to. Which, for the record, I thought was the job of the creative artist. 
       Anyway, it wasn’t too long before said agent was running out of possible publishers for Island and I was running out of cornflakes.
       There seemed to be three options 1) lie down and die (only I’m not very good at that) 2) lie down and die (I seriously considered it) 3) put up or shut up. I decided on 3) and began exploring crowdfunding platforms. Crowdfunding is not to be confused with vanity publishing – although many people do confuse them. 
       Crowdfunding is actually more akin to eighteenth century subscription publishing. Vis you would find out how many friends and family wanted to buy your new collection of poetry, ask for money upfront and print the relevant number of copies. Only now – with the internet, the concept has the potential (emphasise potential) for global reach. Enter Kickstarter. One of several on-line platforms where you can hawk your creative wares. 
       I did some homework (not least with a friend of mine who raised £10,000 to make a film about the plight of illegitimate children in Morocco which the BBC had turned down) and launched a Kickstarter campaign. 
       For months my job description changed. I wasn’t a writer any more (we’ll come back to that). I was a film-maker, an administrator, a mail-chimper, a twitterer. I had to get to grips with my website, with technology. I had to self-promote. Puff myself up. Again and again and again. I’m probably more naturally bullish than the average Brit. And certainly more bullish than the average writer. But even so. It was humiliating. As was asking for money.
       And I still didn’t have any cornflakes. 
It was at this moment that my agent rang again: she knew it was terrible money but did I want to do a re-telling of Wind in the Willows?  I should have said ‘no’. Of course, I should have said no. If you take a sublime classic like Wind in the Willows and re-tell it at 4000 words, there’s going to be blood on the carpet. But I was poor and, to be frank, I had no idea how much of the blood was going to be mine.
       I left the Kickstarter to simmer and turned my attention to Mr Grahame. The contract said nothing about how I was to approach the project – only that there was a word count and a deadline. I thought I could be faithful to the original, do a radical edit, but keep the colour and rhythm of Grahame’s language. 
       I was back in the land of bonnet. The motorcar that knocks the four friends off the road couldn’t be a ‘dark centre of energy’,  there was to be no ‘poetry of motion’. Toad was not allowed to ‘expand’ on anything. And as for the snow in the Wild Wood, it couldn’t be a ‘gleaming carpet of faery’. It had to be ‘a gleaming carpet of - white’.  My heart began to break. 
       And that was before the diktat came about weapons. I wasn’t to have any. The animals weren’t to have any. The book was to be a weapon-free zone. No brace of pistols for Ratty. No guns for the ferrets. No great cudgel for Badger.
       Because why?
       Because, Nicky, weapons are violent. And some countries  – notably the United States of America, (which incidentally is big market, Nicky) – they don’t like violence. 
       Well - not in books anyway….
I contemplated my task. Grahame has Toad, Ratty, Mole, and Badger explode out of the secret passage-way into Toad Hall, ‘bulging with weapons’ and ‘whacking every head they see’. What was I supposed to do? Send the friends in to dispatch 400 stoats and weasels with a landlord and tenant eviction notice? 
       I brooded in my lair. I would have liked to have had a conversation with my supposed editor. But guess what – for ‘market’ reasons (ie it’s cheaper), much of this sort of work is no longer conducted in-house. The person I was dealing with (or rather through) was a freelancer. She was decent, she was sympathetic but she didn’t sit anywhere near the seat of power.  It was all too easy to fend me off with the call centre tactic: sorry, it’s just the way it is. It’s the rules. 
       I felt a letter coming on. The ban on weapons gave me practical problems in telling the story. It also touched something much deeper in me. I’m going to quote from the actual letter I sent. Because, until this year, I could never have imagined having to write such a letter to a fellow children’s book professional.
       Dear X, I began:
Taking the weapons out of Wind in the Willows gives me major narrative problems. I know because I’ve tried! Please see the exchange below:
Current text:
Standing guard at the gate of Toad Hall was a long, yellow ferret.
With a gun.
‘Who goes there?’ said the ferret sharply.
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Toad, angrily.
Without a word, the ferret brought the gun up to his shoulder. Toad (sensibly) dropped down flat in the road.
The bullet whistled over Toad’s head.
Toad scrambled back to the river  - a slightly wiser beast. 
Possible replacement text:

Standing guard at the gate of Toad Hall was a long, yellow ferret.
‘Who goes there?’ said the ferret sharply.
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Toad, angrily.
Without a word the ferret stepped forward. His stick was very much larger than Toad’s.
Toad looked…
And looked…
And then…
…bolted right back to the river-bank.

You don’t have to be Shakespeare,’ I continued,  ‘to spot the difference. The first is succinct and funny and truthful (both about Toad’s character and the power relations between the Toad and the ferrets) and the second is flabby and untruthful. Would Toad back off because the ferret’s stick is larger? What about Toad being physically larger than the ferret (which he is)? What in any case does this say ‘morally’ about people with larger sticks? 

I then went on to tackle the deeper thing. 

‘For the record,’ I wrote,  I don’t subscribe at all to the theory that ‘violence in children’s books encourages  real children to be violent’ In fact part of my problem with dispensing with weapons for ‘politically correct reasons’ is that it attacks the heart of what I believe stories are actually for and why human beings tell them. Vis to test morality in a safe space, ie you can shoot or even murder people between the pages of a book and no-one actually gets hurt. This is why fairy tales are full of swords and poisonings and tramping people to death’  

I ranted on for another couple of pages before concluding thus: 
Ps Meanwhile please also purchase large tractor and drive it over me before taking ‘humbugged’ out of the piece again.  
For the record, they took it out three more times and I put it back three more times. This was one of the few ‘tricky’ words I finally won on.
       But we weren’t done yet. There was also the knotty problem of religion. We weren’t to have any of that either.  Toad was allowed to shriek and protest as he was dragged away to prison, but he was not allowed to pray. Even if – or rather particularly because – those prayers were self-serving and ironic. And that, you see, is about as close as you can get to blasphemy without bumping into a fatwa. Which brings us to the No-Pork Rule.  In the original, Badger has hams hanging from his rafters. So I hung some there. They came back as ‘meats’. Why? Because if there are hams in the book we can’t sell it to Muslim countries or even to UK schools with a large number of Muslim or Jewish children. We can’t? No, Nicky, we can’t. 
As it happens, this edition of Wind in the Willow is being sold, predominantly, to schools. It’s an educational text. So what exactly are we saying here? That our profits are more important than teaching a child that different cultures have different ways of doing things and that we need to be respectful of that?  
       I began to think it was me down the rabbit hole, that I’d arrived in some parallel universe. But was it only me facing these sorts of issues?  I started to ask around. Had other writers fallen foul of the new Dark Arts of Global Children’s Publishing? Oh – actually they had. Then why wasn’t anyone talking about it? Because of the gagging orders, of course. Hm. Guess what? There was one in my contract. I quote it verbatim. 

The Author shall not disclose, reveal or make public except to his/her professional advisers any information whatsoever concerning the Work (that’s Wind in the Willows, by the way) or this Agreement, all of which shall be strictly confidential, nor shall the Author make any public statement in connection with the Work or commit any act which might prejudice or damage the reputation of the Publishers or the successful exploitation (my italics) of the Work unless otherwise mutually agreed in good faith.
       So how come I’ve just told you what I’ve just told you? Because I haven’t signed this contract, of course, and I don’t intend to. My husband, who is a lawyer, says I may never work again. But then I’m not working much at the moment, at least not for money. And if you pay writers peanuts, or don’t pay them at all, you make pretty powerful monkeys out of them. Besides – what is this clause about? It’s global corporation speak. It’s the sort of clause you force on someone when there’s a million pounds worth of sensitive commercial information at stake. It is not, in my view, an appropriate clause to put in a contract between consenting artistic collaborators. Not to mention the fact that it would also preclude me (so my lawyer husband confirms) from talking about Wind in the Willows in a school, for instance - with children. 
       Meanwhile – back to Island. The campaign was gathering pace –mainly due to people way smarter at social media than me (thank you, Candy Gourlay, thank you, S F Said).  Many people donated to the campaign.  People from the world of children’s books - editors, agents, translators, writers.  Some I knew. Many I didn’t. Imagine how I felt the day when the legendary writer Geraldine McCaughrean came on board. Swiftly followed by Beverley Naidoo. I felt a message coming. And then there were the librarians, the teachers, the environmentalists (workers, activists, writers, advisors to government); not to mention musicians, composers, theatre-makers, film-makers. And total strangers, people from all over the world (Canada, Belgium, France, The Philippines) they took a punt. Said this book, on this theme, is something we want to read. 
       The campaign also caught the eye of Trevor Wilson. Trevor runs an outfit called Author’s Abroad, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. Puts authors into schools (often actually abroad) to fire children’s imagination about books. He also arranges for those books to be sold in schools. And here’s another piece of the changing publishing landscape jigsaw. It’s much cheaper to print now than it ever was. Trevor realised, if he did some publishing himself,  he could get a cut of the school visit and of the books. So he started a small imprint – Caboodle Books - to do just that. In the first instance he used the back catalogue of writers like Alan Gibbons. And he published notable non-shed-load-of-money fiction such as short stories. Trevor saw the potential for Island at once and offered to put in money to extend the print run. He also started the virtuous circle of school visit planning – getting the books into the hands of the really important people. Children. At the end of this month I will be in Switzerland for a week. In January – in the Sudan.
       So I should have been feeling great, right? Everything going swimmingly. But, in the midst of all the pre-publication excitement, I had a Massive Loss of Confidence. 
       This happens to writers. Some days we are bullish. We have to be in order to get up and go to our desks and work there in silence for seven hours a day with no-one to praise (or blame…) us but ourselves. Sometimes we are not quite so bullish. The days when, for instance, we remember that conventional publishers can - and do - publish great writers and great stories. And soon Island will be out. There’ll be real books. And real readers. And what if I’ve written a turkey, after all? 
       My head is hurting. I can’t work. I take myself off to Waterstones and I’m just sitting there with my cup of tea and Someone Else’s Book (oh blessed relief), when this vandal comes in and starts drawing on the walls. He says his name is Chris and he’s allowed. The pictures are quite good. In fact they’re very good. Which is not surprising on account of the fact that he turns out to be the illustrator Chris Riddell,  newly appointed UK Children’s Laureate. 

       Anyway, we fall into conversation and Chris asks what I’m currently working on and I tell him about Island and also do some DGB (Doom, Gloom and Bitching) about the current state of children’s publishing and he says suddenly – I’d like to do a few illustrations for your book. And I think, the coffee’s well gone to his head. But the next day, on my Facebook page these appear:                   
And he’s SERIOUS.
       And I send him the book and a little while later he writes me: Just finished reading your beautiful text and am now rather in love with 'Island'. And after everything that has gone on, you will understand why this makes me cry.

So anyway. He draws 20 illustrations. He designs a beautiful polar bear face cover. And now you see  - in marketing terms - my ante just raised quite a bit.  Suddenly this quiet, challenging, literary, non-Boys Own Adventure book by some totally non-brandable author has the imprimatur of one of the most influential people in Kids literature right now. And everything’s getting a little noisier. Not to mention the fact that Chris has decided to donate any proceeds due to him to Greenpeace. And Greenpeace swings behind the project. And they have clout and reach and plenty of people who care about the Arctic and plenty of people who understand that children need to have a voice, have to be involved in the debate. It is, after all, their future we are currently trashing. So more word gets out. Our initial print run of 3000 is extended, within a week, to 5,000. I get a call from Italy about Italian rights. I get a mail about Japanese rights. A mainstream London publisher invites me in for a ‘no-agenda’ conversation. The wheels are turning, the supermarket is almost in business. So I’m happy, right? I’d do it all again?

No. I wouldn’t.

Of course, I’m grateful. Of course I’m thrilled about what’s happening for the book. But crowdfunding is not a sustainable model for a writer. The money pledged came initially from my family and friends. There is a limit as to how many times they will be prepared to pay £30 for £6.99 paperback. And a limit to how often I would be prepared to ask. But much more than this, the campaign sucked away 9 months of my life. During that time, other than Wind in the Willows, I did no writing. I am a writer. If I don’t write, I die a little.
       Besides the model is also not sustainable for other writers. Not for first-time writers, not for writers of other quiet books who don’t happen to have my sort of track-record, not for writers without the serendipitous luck I had on this campaign.  So if I was waving a wand for the future of powerful, meaningful stories for young people over what would I wave it?
       I’d wave it over a Farmer’s Market model of publishing. I’d hope for an imprint – for argument’s sake I’m going to call it Quiet Books – where, if  you were an imaginative, hopeful child (or the parent of such a child) it would be your go-to publisher because you’d know that, in the pages of a Quiet Book you’d always find a powerful, meaningful story. And yes, A Quiet Book might not look as shiny as its supermarket cousin, it might even have a little challenging dirt on it. But hopefully, that dirt would signify the passion of the person who’d created it. And yes, you might have to pay a little more for your Quiet Book but, hopefully, you’d be prepared to do that, in order to bring home something you knew would nourish your family.  As for the writers – I hope they (we) would come from all over the world to stand proud on your Quiet BookShelves. I hope we’d bring you stories to touch the deep places in you, stories which would linger, stories which would make you wonder at and question the world we live in. And yes, we the writers, might have to deal with smaller print-runs and even less money. But, you know what, we’d have something we prize more. Ursula Le Guin’s freedom.

Nicky Singer    13/11/2015