Category Archives: A Life of Almost

For writers starting out. Do comment, discuss and contribute your thoughts!

I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.

It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.

Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.

Way leads on to way.

Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.

Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.

So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.

I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too.  I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.

Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.

I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.

So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.

And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?

Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.

Anna.

Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)

The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)

Mentoring

https://womentoringproject.co.uk/

This is the link to a mentoring project about which I have heard many wonderful things. Its idea is to link women at the beginning of their writing with more established writers and also agents – and a good number of women give their time to it. It is a free programme.

And I was thinking about it earlier as I suppose I feel like I need the company and the guidance. The fire is there, alright. But I see I need to talk about my writing!

I started writing my first novel (by which I mean, the first word of the first draft) in July of 2014 and it was published in March this year; by any standards, I understand that to be a quick turnaround. Between December 2015 and very recently, I was also writing a second novel; that novel is currently out on submission. It has only been seen by a few people (in addition to some beta readers), but it has been requested in full – and I cannot, I think, write about that in detail, but I will say that it is somewhat nailbiting and yet…I continue to think about it: what might be wrong, what right. I am sure this is a funny period for anyone. Do you start a new book? Take a break?

I started a new book and have begun a third novel. I am actually about a third of the way through the first draft because I really, really want to do this. I’ve met a lot of setbacks and disappointments already, but I won’t go into those because, of course, the key is to keep writing. And if, after such things, you want to carry on, well now – doesn’t that show that it is important; this this is you: what you want?

I avoided writing for so long; or rather, I avoided submitting fiction for so long and then, one day, I took myself by surprise and just started. So, since July 2014, I have written two and a half novels (with the first published), been included in two poetry anthologies and had three national features on me; I’ve written articles for national publications on literature and mental health and I made a  (very frank) film for AXA about managing anxiety that has a huge reach. I started a collection of short stories, two of which I submitted to big competitions (don’t know how I got on yet!) and I am still raring to go.

I read all the time; that’s my greatest teacher. I run a business, tutor and mentor young people, I’m a secondary English teacher from time to time and I have three young sons, with no support from any extended family (I am saying this from a purely factual point of view – keep reading) and I struggle every day – yep; every day – with the legacy of complex trauma and mental health problems. Don’t always win, of course. I also hold down three volunteer posts, two of which I can’t write about here, and one of which is as a volunteer creative writing teacher for adults who have had long term mental health problems. So, these things on board, you see that I have proved to myself that I am able to write in pockets; to think even if there is a small chap tugging at my arm because he wants a snack or the other two chaps are punching each other. I am not going to have peace and quiet to write, but I’ve discovered that I can have a pop anyway.

I have found such rewards in corresponding with writers on social media – twitter in particular. It may not seem so from the outside, when, frankly, most of the time you are going to get rejected and, on sad days, you may have to avoid social media altogether because (well I know I do this and it is truly a bit pathetic!) you get to thinking, “They can do it!” as someone gets a splendid publishing deal or something like that…and then you think, “Oh – but not me. No – I am an outsider. I will never manage that!” But, you know, you have to get over that sort of thing. Do you want to do this, or not? Get in training, then. And what I was saying about writers: I have found great encouragement. I’ve asked questions; written to people when I have particularly enjoyed their books; had some great support and feedback and advice. I mean from both new and thoroughly established writers. And so today I was thinking.

Thinking this.

I see, through the work I do, in schools, through my company and my volunteer work, that mentoring can be extraordinary for young people. When I look back to my younger years, I know I only survived- in my health, or my floundering school work – which floundered because of the distress I was in, unspoken and scared – because there were some possibilities suggested by kind people around me who could nudge me towards the insight to carry on. A good class teacher may be a mentor, but I know from twenty years in and around teaching that the best mentor may also be a class tutor, or an older pupil and that you need to look around; eyes open. For do you know who I turned to, as a kid? A dinner lady called Evelyn who, today, is still one of the people I love most in the world. She’s 87; I met her when I was 4.

And so I am quietly looking around: mentoring for me. I don’t mean for my mental health (it is only that my extensive experience in this area shows me the power of an insightful person) but for my writing: for this career which is inextricably bound up with my deepest sentiment, values and fears. No way round that, I think! Still, I am not sure I can do this alone, as I am. Okay – moreorless alone. I feel a need a period with a guide, a teacher, a mentor. It isn’t, with a large family, a job and multiple commitments, plausible that I could do an MA in creative writing or one of the exciting-sounding courses run by, say, Curtis Brown, but I do want to see what I can do to find that mentor as I go forward with this. Eyes open, then.

Perhaps this will surprise me. Perhaps, with this second book, I will naturally meet this person as part of the process. We shall see.

Love to anyone reading this and…keep reading; keep writing. Bon courage.

To keep going…

 

I am crying a little bit here. But read on. It’s fine, really.

Do you know, I am nominated several times for ‘The Guardian’ Not the Booker prize, I am entered for the Goldsmith’s Prize, the new Republic of Consciousness Prize and The Wellcome Book Prize. I also put in a poetry pamphlet for ‘Mslexia”s annual competition.

Do I have a shot? Naaah, not really.

Well, frankly, only a tiny one, at best.

I’m small fry; I’m a newbie and pretty unrefined, still. I blundered into this in the same naive way I have blundered into most things in my life! I sort of…had a go when theoretically it wasn’t supposed to be possible with all my other commitments. I’m a hard worker because, I think, I have had so much experience compromised by mental health problems, illness and bereavement that it has made me more imaginative and keen to seize the day in case we are hit by an asteroid or I go bonkers again (which I am not planning to, obviously). If this is you too, be collected; be encouraged: you would be amazed what is possible and at the way which can be made from no way and from despair.

AND SOMEHOW

In two years, I have written and published a novel, a poetry pamphlet, guest blogged, authored ten articles or so and at this point I am approximately two thirds of the way through a second novel and have poetry and short story publication this autumn and in the spring. So HOLY F*** three kids and a day job and the volunteer stuff. I have to keep going now, don’t I?

On, blunder on. xxx

Anna Vaught's photo.

Latest review and what I have been reading – particularly from The Wellcome Prize Shortlist

It is early days for Killing Hapless Ally. Which is a strange feeling as I am already working on at least one other book. I am both letting her go and keeping an eye on her, and writing pieces on mental health, anxiety, literature and well-being, young people and mental health and parenting and mental health. You can access any of these through the pages of this blog, linked at top, or read some of them as blog posts here. I notice that even when I write on more frivolous topics – such as in my posts for http://www.selfishmother.com – I am also mindful of the topic of mental health. I have so much more to say here, I think.

Anyway, I liked today’s review of Killing Hapless Ally. It’s nicely written, isn’t it? That ‘So’ had me at hello.Here we are:

So. I suggest you don’t try to approach this as a book to dip into, in the few minutes before sleep for instance. The early chapters are a roller coaster of happenings expressed in dense, layered prose full of wit and horror. They are gripping and challenging at the same time, and the style cleverly reflects the state of the young Alison’s mind as she tries to cope with her family. It almost feels like the literary pizazz and black humour is there to deflect the tale of such cruelty to a child. When we get to the adult Alison’s showdown with her demons, and her work with Drs Hook and Crook, the style becomes calmer as Alison’s voice takes over. This packs even more of a punch when describing the dispatching of the chorus of Hapless Ally, Dead Santa Maria, Brother who Might as Well have been Dead, Vaguely Dead Dad and her other demons. This dispatching is incredibly moving, as is the knowledge that Alison’s voice, spirit and fierce intelligence was not dimmed despite everyone’s best efforts including her own. Highly, highly recommended.’

What am I reading? I am about to write a review of The Loney and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, about which I have conflicting views, but both of which interested me greatly. I thought, for example, that the language of the former was utterly beautiful; its evocation of landscape is something that will stay with me for a long time. I also felt it pulled off the difficult feat of making one laugh at the very time one is unsettled by the prose and full of dread. The latter, I am torn by. I am a huge fan of both Beckett and Joyce and instinctively felt at home here and yet…More to come. On my bedside table at the moment, Playthings by Alex Pheby, which is, I am convinced, entirely brilliant. Again review to come, when I get time. I do want to say, though, that all three of these fascinating titles found their home (at least initially) with small presses. May I remind you of my article on publishing with a small press myself. Here:

A Small Press State of Mind

And what with Alex Pheby’s book by my bed (and some rather ravishing other things to come from Galley Beggar Press) and most of my way through the whole Wellcome prize list, I want to recommend to you Suzanne O’ Sullivan’s It’s All In Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness. She is a neurologist and has a deep interest in and respect for psychosomatic illness, which I should add is not ‘imagined’ as in ‘faked’, but a gamut of really experienced physical symptoms which, it is argued, may have their root in psychological issues. That does not under-value their reality, the pain these things cause or the havoc they wreak in people’s lives.

I felt that O’Sullivan is elucidating in what seems to me a very sensitive way the subtle link between the mind and the body. I can see from some of the negative (some furiously so) reviews on Amazon that many people have taken her to task, accusing her of misunderstanding illness for which, at the end of the day, it is hard or impossible to attribute physical cause, but I also have some personal understanding of this, in that, as someone who received mental health support and who had many years of struggling with anxiety, depression and OCD, I also had a raft of  (physically) unexplained medical problems alongside them: pain, awful fatigue and IBS to name three. Now I am mentally much stronger, because – and it would have been different otherwise: I cannot emphasise this enough – I have been helped to find the tools for health by appropriate MHRS support and I had to choose to engage with that support. And my physical health is very different. When it wavers, as it must do, both my psychological and physical responses are very different.  I would have to posit, therefore, that these things – the pain, IBS and fatigue – were, for me,  quite possibly psychosomatic and rooted in the psychological distress I was experiencing. I do feel uncomfortable stating this, but thus was my experience: pain came from pain; illness came from sadness – a fruit of what, in other times, might have been called hysteria or melancholia. It is this same inference on which some of those Amazon reviewers have taken her to task because they feel it is a misunderstanding of subtle illness.

I know that it is not easy for people and that shifting illness for which there is no attributable cause (which is not the same as saying there isn’t a cause which needs treatment or that the illness is not real to its sufferer or that it isn’t a serious matter) does not receive the compassion it should in the everyday world, so that those who suffer from something which may, by some definitions, be termed psychosomatic, also have to cope with others’ lack of understanding and sympathy. I am afraid it is also thus with mental health disorders and I certainly felt stigmatised within society and even within my own family; people still do – and that’s partly why I wrote my novel. No-one should feel both ill and persecuted and I wanted to punch stigma roundly on the nose. So, I did find much of what O’Sullivan wrote resonated with me – particularly its thornier or more uncomfortable points – because I also knew that I could, at several stages, have accepted further medical and/or psychiatric intervention which, on paper, was not essential. It is for serious illness – mental illness, I mean (and you see I am pains to point out that I am speaking only of myself because mental health problems are complex, diverse and peculiar to the individual) but I was encouraged to see I had the answers and, of course, I had my Dorothy Rowe books beside me. Her line – also not popular with all – is that depression is a prison where you are both prisoner and jailer; ergo, you put yourself in there and you have the key to getting yourself out. Human beings have the most extraordinary resources and we should never forget that.

I will take some weeks to digest the book and I urge you to read it. I hope that the tone of my comments comes across well.

Anna.

 

 

Latest Goodreads review…

I enjoyed finding this review of Killing Hapless Ally this morning. I should love to think that someone would re-read the book and think that it would bear re-reading.

 

This is a wonderful book. It’s not one that readers of ‘chick lit’ will take to easily. Nothing is spoon fed to the reader. And yet it is expertly written by someone who not only knows their craft, but enjoys it as well. The author has a habit of placing powerfully upsetting lines, lines that make you want to physically jerk when you read them, in the middle of laugh-out-loud funny scenes. The effect is powerful, making the both the humour and the shock support each other with a sort of literary alchemy few writers can achieve.

I feel like the central character Alison is, if not a friend, someone I know inside out now. The book will bear re-reading (several times over I expect) so I am looking forward to meeting her again.’

An exciting new literary prize for small presses and their authors

I am delighted that the award-winning writer, Neil Griffiths, has agreed to be interviewed here. Griffiths has just set up the Republic of Consciousness Prize for small literary presses and their authors and, as a small press author myself, I want to say many thanks to him for that. I am sure that authors with small presses, the presses themselves and readers too will all benefit from the creation of a prize, the intention of which is to shed light on some of the wonderfully exciting work that readers often don’t know about and on the presses which writers may not know they may approach.

But why don’t they?

Why don’t more people know about books from Calisi, or Mother’s Milk, or Patrician Press, or Galley Beggar or Fitzcarraldo, Comma or Linen Press?

Because small presses don’t have the hefty budgets behind them to shift their books into the spotlight. Books from small presses may win major awards – I mention the  truly striking A Girl is a Half-formed Thing‘ by Eimear McBride which was published by Galley Beggar Press and went on to win the Goldsmith’s prize and the Bailey’s among others – but this is very unusual. Small presses may operate at a loss or break even/make a small profit; to run them, their originators may re-mortgage their home or work several jobs to make it happen because they think it is important that it does. But they don’t have big budgets for publicity and their books may not be widely stocked. Yet I want to say that of my five or so favourite books of the past year, four were published by independent (I tend to use the term ‘independent press’ interchangeably with ‘small press’) presses (the fifth was Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri, if you want to know) and I admit I also read some BIG selling books that many raved about and which fell flat for me, one of which actually made me cry because I was so disappointed. (It would be churlish to name those, so I won’t.) When Griffiths began to read titles from small presses, something he admits he took a while to do, he was astounded by their quality and wondered what to do. The result was the prize and you can see an account of this in ‘The Guardian’ here

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/22/new-award-fiction-small-presses-republic-of-consciousness-neil-griffiths

As I said, I am myself published by a small press, Patrician Press, (www.patricianpress.com) and can tell you that I have learned much from being a part of such. I am a debut novelist and I was put through my paces by a firm and talented editor called Patricia Borlenghi, who is also the founder of the press and is its heart and its everything. Her husband, the artist, Charlie Johnson, designed the cover of my book, she keeps an eye on me, inspires me and chides me as necessary (definitely necessary) and I am blessed to have met her and to be part of the Patrician cohort. She took on my strange little book when I had heard bigger publishers deride ‘misery memoirs’ or even scoff at ‘yet another’ book about mental health or books which did not fit neatly into genre. I am lucky in that I only had two agent rejections, (the other three never replied, which I have written about a bit saucily elsewhere) before I found Patrician. Before I did, I was told by a literary consultancy that I had to be able to go into a bookshop and see straight away which shelf my text would sit on and that, realistically, customers (readers) go into a shop and need to know that they are getting Heinz baked beans and not some ersatz brand or, God forbid, a tin of corned beef.

Obviously, there is some good advice in there; I am not arrogant and I am definitely a rookie. I understand, from the many conversations I’ve had about my book, that I’ve written something which a number of readers describe as ‘difficult’. I knew someone would have to take a chance on my book because it was a bit experimental and didn’t sit so tidily in a genre. I am not sure the next one will either! I don’t know yet what will happen with that (it’s called A Life of Almost – oh, you can tell it’s going to be another strange one if you take a little look at the beginning of my research board here: https://uk.pinterest.com/annacvaught/a-life-of-almost/ ) but suspect I will be sending it to small presses when submissions windows are open – for even small presses receive many manuscripts.

I have loved being with a small press, learning to think laterally, make links, offer to write in all kinds of places for free, do talks, rock up at book groups, put on a very jolly book launch, reply to anyone who asks me about the book (as readers have done), crazily fitting it all in around other little publications (I’m also with www.theemmapress.com later this year), my day job, volunteer posts and three young kids, and to contribute work to those movements which aim to change things – hence an article, called ‘A Small Press State of Mind’, I have just done for https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/  which will be up at the end of the month. They will also feature Griffiths and his prize very soon, so publication of this interview is a little  taster for that.

I suppose I feel that I have a home. I’m an outlier. But hey, I’ve probably always been that. I just didn’t think there was a place for me as an author, but I underestimated what a wealth of presses and readers were out there! Noli timere if I sound like you. Get out there.  May you find a home for your book, too. And homes for you as a reader. With bookshelves of titles which stretch and tantalise you; which make you re-read books to find new subtleties and ideas.  I wonder if Proust would be stuffed without the indies – the small presses – if he popped up now. And who would take on Faulkner?

But back to Neil Griffiths. Betrayal in Naples won The Author’s Club First Novel Award; his second book, Saving Caravaggio (which I am reading at the moment) was shortlisted for Best Novel in the Costa Book Awards. Both were published by Penguin. But things are a little different now and his new book, The Family of Love, will be placed with an independent press.’We need small presses: they are good at spotting the literary outliers,’ he writes on his  site here http://www.republicofconsciousness.com/2016/02/a-broadside-against-mainstream-publishing/  ‘Their radar is calibrated differently from agents, or mainstream publishers. Small presses don’t ask how many copies will this sell, but how good is this – what is its value as literature? Quality is the only criterion.’

And here is the YouTube launch film for the prize:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfkUxuAj1UE

SO, AN INTERVIEW WITH NEIL GRIFFITHS ABOUT THE LAUNCH OF THE REPUBLIC OF CONSCIOUSNESS LITERARY PRIZE

Could you tell me why it took you, by your own admission, so long to notice small presses?

I wonder that myself. Possibly bookstore exposure is lacking. Certainly they don’t get the kind of exposure in the book sections of most newspapers. It needs a novel to have already ‘broken out’ for it to be featured. But it’s not all their fault. When something is not on your radar – it gets missed. If I look over my bookshelves there are small presses there, but I guess I didn’t think to wonder about them as having a particular mission – in the sense I didn’t at that point think of any publisher being like that these days. Small presses are a culture, not one particular book – we have to be aware of that culture to notice what it’s doing.

And what about the books you read, for example those by writers at Fitzcarraldo or Galley Beggar Press? How was it they impressed you so much?

The first book I read was Zone by Mathias Enard (Fitzcarraldo), which stunned me. As if I’ve said before, I think it’s the most serious novel ever written. It deals with post-1st World War conflict in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East from the centre of the consciousness of one man as he tries to wrestle with his own actions. It might be about the darkest points in recent history, but it’s a deeply human novel. And formally interesting – one sentence over its 500+ pages. A work of genius. There is also Playthings by Alex Pheby, from Galley Beggar – based on  a true story, it’s a novel about the lived experience of a 19th century German judge as he descends into madness. Writing of the highest order – it has more control than any novel I think I’ve read, given it’s dealing with vagaries of a shifting phenomenology. More recently Martin John by Anakana Schofeld, from And Other Stories. Any novel that’s about public sexual exposure and manages to be formally exciting and sympathetic deserves attention.

You mentioned in ‘The Guardian’ that your third book would be placed with a small press? Could you tell me why and how the process has been different from that with a big publisher? (Griffiths’s previous two novels were published by Penguin.)

It’s different only in that the people are different. In the end an editor has to read your novel and love it – that’s the same. But my experience of mainstream literary people is that they are mostly risk averse and professionally competitive in a way that disadvantages the writer. All the people I’ve met from small presses seem genuinely in love with great writing, interesting novels, and promoting difficult writers. It’s a mind-set that I suspect most people in publishing once shared, but lost because of the need to keep their job. Someone last week told me that at a large literary agency, each agent had to be bringing in £200k a year in advances just to support their employment. It’s a disincentive to take on a difficult book that will unlikely get a big advance and may only sell 2000 copies (initially).
Another way small presses differ is access. I’ve just placed my new novel with Dodo Ink, to be published Autumn 2017. I met Sam Mills, author and MD, at The Small Presses Fair in Peckham. We talked books, and I pitched her Family of Love, and she wanted to read it.

What do you hope to achieve with the new Republic of Consciousness Prize?

Humble objectives – increase exposure for small presses and their novels so a few hundred, maybe a thousand, more copies are sold.

Have you had a good deal of interest in the prize? I have been reading a number of truly supportive comments on the prize website and on your youtube channel, for example. Conversely, have you received any negative criticism? As a side note, I read the myriad reviews of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing on Goodreads and Amazon and was fascinated by how divided they were; how a relatively high number of reviewers baulked at its difficulty. How confused, startled or cross readers had been. How others felt it was a work of brilliance and daring. I was thinking, then, of folk sitting, perplexed, in front of Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, until Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan received it warmly and with fascination and the tide turned. I am naturally enchanted by such a polarity in reception; it would make me want to read the book, frankly. I am digressing. Interest in and support for the prize?

Huge support from writers and presses. Now it’s about getting some people with money to support it. I want the prize fund to be large enough to give something to the shortlisted presses as well as the winner. As I’ve said, I’m going to write to the ‘richer’ end of literary novels for donations.

Can you tell me how you went about selecting the judges, the details of whom are now on the prize site?

I needed help, so Nicci Praca – a PR consultant for small presses –  recommended some; and Lisa Campbell from The Bookseller also did the same.

Are you able to tell me just a little about the books you have already received?

What I will say is that the covers have been variable. And production quality perhaps not quite what I expected after the beautiful work of Fitzcarraldo and Galley Beggar – the bible black of Galley Beggar’s first runs are my favourite. And the reason this needs mentioning is that book stores won’t take books that aren’t well produced. Small presses are already at a disadvantage. Make your books beautiful and it will make a difference.

Have you had support from any of the bigger publisher or agents? Has the ‘guilt trip’ notion of getting some other authors with bigger publishers to chip in been successful?

Next on my list.

How might we writers from small presses floor you with our brilliance, then?

The prize is for risk-taking literary fiction – in the sense that doubles the jeopardy for a small press. But in the end, beautifully crafted sentences full of insight into what it means to be human will do it.

I know it’s early days, but might you tell me about any future hopes and dreams for the prize?

Given my new novel is out next year, I want to win my own prize. That’s a joke, obviously. I hope it runs for a few years, and the prize fund is such that it makes a tangible – and that means financial – difference to small presses’ continued existence.

Thank you so much.

Very happy to do it – thank you.

 

Book Groups and Killing Hapless Ally

As far as I know, five local (and local-ish) book groups are currently looking at the novel. That is very nice of them. I’ve said that, if I am free and not too far away, I’d love to come and answer questions if a book group would like that. It dawned on me, too, that when I am out and about I should offer to do groups further afield and have also been writing to some wonderful bookshops to that end in mid Wales, Pembrokeshire, Virginia and New York. Oh, what do I sound like?  Wales – all over: that’s where my family’s from; the US South is my husband’s patch and NYC isn’t so far from VA where I’ll be visiting mom in the fall. If you’re with a small press – and perhaps anyway – you have to think laterally to get the book out there! But most of all, I just want to reach readers with the book and, where I can, build meaningful encounters and discussions.

So, here are some book group starter questions you could use, if you like. Anna x

    Questions for

     book groups

Who is Alison and who is Hapless Ally? Are they the same person or two separate people?

Would you describe Hapless Ally as real?

What is your opinion of Santa Maria?

Who is the most horrible person in the book and to whom do you warm most?

What genre do you think the book sits in? Do you call it literary fiction, or does it read as memoir or even, partly, self-help to you? Is it a hybrid?

Did you guess the ending?

What’s the significance of the book’s title? Is it simple and straightforward, or something more complex and nuanced?

Did you like the names for people and places in the book?

Did you take offence to any of the descriptions – for example, of the f…… caravan, the funerals, dying?

There are many literary references shot through the narrative. Some are obvious and documented explicitly in the text (and thus you will see them on the acknowledgements page) but some are harder to spot. So get spotting!

Did you feel that you learned more about mental health from the book?

Did you think that the book gives us insights into therapeutic practice and the sort of help available (although I feel I must add, not routinely available) through our National Health Service in the UK?

Did the book help you? By which I mean, did it make you feel better about your own problems or state of mind? Did it give you a nudge to tackle things that are holding you back and making you unhappy?

Were you able to read it as entertainment, despite some of the themes it addresses?

If you know me, were you able to separate it from me? (This has been an interesting discussion with friends…)

Was the book shocking? If so, why?

Is it a happy ending? Is it over – in a good way?

Who was your favourite imaginary friend – and why? Dolly, Shirley, Albert, JK….

Did you feel sympathy for Santa Maria? For Dad? For Brother who Might as well be Dead? For Terry?

What do you think of Dixie Delicious?

What makes you laugh in the book? Is it the pickled egg murder/horrible deaths/caravan of evil/revenge on the tutus…?

What does the book show us about the power of literature and, more broadly, of the written word? What of the spoken – the “curses ringing”?

I am a mother of three boys, four to fourteen. Some people have asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about what your kids will think?’ Should an author be? Should I, as this author, be?

Why do you think there’s a shift in narrative from first to third person between the prologue and chapter one? Do you think it’s successful?

What’s the significance of the foreword to the rest of the book?

Is Alison strong, or is she weak?

What do you think of having a bibliography in the book? It’s far from a standard feature!

Did all this really happen? Do you believe it did? Why? 

Now that last one is, I think, the most interesting question of the lot!

A Life of Almost and Living with Ally

If you were to look at the  frontispiece to Killing Hapless Ally, you’d see the disclaimer: it’s a work of fiction; no-one real in it and so on. However, there is also a statement that the book is based on episodes in my own life. More is true than a reader might suppose, because you never can tell what occurs in the interior life of another person or within the hidden confines of home. The key thing, though, is that ‘Ally’, Alison, the protagonist’s alter ego, was pretty much real for me. I heard her as a voice, glimpsed her as a shade beside me, as part of myself; I watched myself become her in order to feel more accepted, and I saw her both as myself and as yet another person to hate and pour scorn. It was complicated, the notion of my allegory coming to life.

I have had people write to me and ask whether I thought I was schizophrenic or had a personality disorder and I suppose I can see why the question might be asked, but it was more that, for me, the person I tried to be didn’t work, because it wasn’t me. She was the voice in my head; alternative me. Lots of people weld on what they think is a socially acceptable self; perhaps I just did it in a more complex way – and of course, I also had a gallery of imaginative friends and of course I had a lot of mental health problems and extremely poor coping strategies in the face of stress. But I had The Books: their authors, stories and characters to help me build and re-build. I wasn’t alone.

So, Ally, or someone like her, had been living with me for over thirty years until….well, you’ll have to see what happens in the book! When I wrote it, I gave her a more detailed life and a more delineated character and so she got to hang around, larger than life, while I drafted and re-wrote and finished the book.

Oh – she and I had been together a long time. And I realised that this was why such a creature was a good subject for my book. I breathed life into her and wrote her more fully into being, didn’t I? I lived with her for the longest time. Now, I am doing it with someone else. He’s called ‘Almost’ and he is a lad from the sea and the estuary and the islands of Pembrokeshire. An ‘Almost, down there, kind of kid’. Except he’s not. If you have read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, you will have a little inkling of what my fluid, adventuring soul might get up to; he isn’t constrained by mind, or time, or identity or even gender; he goes to some extraordinary places and ends up, Forrest Gump-like, in fabulous and terrible and curious places. You don’t know about mermaids called Nerys and Dilys and Elleri? You will. I’d watch out, because these girls can get out of the sea and up the Cleddau estuary and wreak havoc and the truest of love and adventure. And they are hungry for sex and blood. I want to tell you who Muffled Mfanwy (of Killing Hapless Ally) was before she was constrained, by grief, never to speak again. To show you how ‘Almost’ ends up involved in the Melanesian Cargo Cults, where they revere Prince Philip (they do) and what on earth that has to do with Pembrokeshire (okay, I might have made that bit that up). It is certainly a strange story: I am not sure I would know how to write anything that wasn’t. And did I say the book’s biggest influence is Dickens’s Great Expectations, which is probably my favourite book?

So Almost is hanging out with me. Telling me how he got his name, what he planned to do with it, what he’s seen, what he’s missed and -oh!- how he’s loved. I want to ask him if he transcended his name; if he wanted time to stop. Who was the lady from Lawrenny Quay that he could never leave – and where, Almost, did the mermaids go, and why was the sea part of you, Almost, and why did you cross each one, but always come back to the night-world of the quay and the mud and the winking yachts and the lady in the stained raggedy dress who watched from the window of the big old house and she who you loved and loved best?

Almost reassures me that he will tell me all that, but only after I have made him a second breakfast because he’s famished after his global sojourns. And when I have done just that and he has begun to speak, I can start writing his story again.