My compendium of failure and on beating the odds (an updated piece)

In the past few weeks I’ve been paying particular attention to people’s comments on twitter (mainly) about the impossible odds of getting a publisher for a book, or of getting an agent. I also see writers frustrated not only at rejection but at not getting a reply. Moreover, about perceived barriers to finding an agent or publisher and about not being listed for competitions. I thought I would write in response to this because I have launched and had to relaunch. Let me know if you have found this in any way helpful. Oh – and when it comes to competitions and applying for things, I’m going all out here. I BET I HAVE FAILED* MORE THAN YOU.

*TRIED; STUCK MY NECK OUT; WAS NERVOUS BUT DID IT ANYWAY….

road closed signage
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  1. I started writing long-form in late 2014 and wrote a memoir. I can’t quite remember whether it was this year or the following but I submitted it in the Mslexia memoir competition and it was not longlisted. I remember being gutted and crying a lot. I wouldn’t now, but at the time….
  2. In early 2015 I completely rewrote the book and changed it into autobiographical fiction. I submitted it to six agents and three replied with a no; one didn’t reply (with a clear statement that if no reply in…however long it was…it was a no) and the other two didn’t reply at all, even after chasing.
  3. I decided I would send it to an independent publisher and there it was accepted. This memoir went on to be my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, published in 2016 and, although, there were some bright spots and I had many lovely responses because it was about mental illness and resonated with people, was profiled and used as a teaching resource (still is), this book was otherwise pretty invisible. Somehow I hadn’t quite banked on this; probably because I was still really ignorant of how book publishing and marketing worked. And also, I do tend to be wildly optimistic about things!
  4. I wrote a novella right after that, The Life of Almost, and I had two full requests from agents. One never wrote back at full, the other, who had seemed extremely keen, rejected it but asked for my next book. Because I was completely naive, I wrote that to time for them and they then rejected it with a form rejection and I never heard from them again. My previous publisher then took it and it sank pretty much without trace, mood lightened by some wonderfully supportive booksellers and reviewers and readers. This was tough. On my release and book launch day I was crying and feeling wretched, pulled up by a lovely bookshop and some truly great people in the publishing industry, including a really nice agent who had rejected my work but was just a good egg. BUT
  5. …do you know what you do when you finish a book, or it’s out and about? Or when your book sinks? You get off your sorry arse and you write another one! This was my third book, Saving Lucia. I did have an agent meeting (we are now in the summer of 2018) about this one, but I want to tell you – and I am not going to name any names in any of this – that particular agent is someone whom I am proud to keep in touch with because they are so blinking nice and supportive and ethical and that is something to bear in mind. Someone may not be a good fit for you, but that doesn’t mean you cannot maintain really wonderful links with them. This is friendship and community, but it is also commerce. Where was I? For this past year or two I had been reading more and more books from the indies presses in the UK and beyond and it changed my life. It was so exciting. I got to know them, and their work and tried to develop an understanding of their vision; I sent Saving Lucia to seven independent publishers; two were a no with nice comments and I had three requests for fulls. Two didn’t reply at all. Still haven’t, you little buggers. But let’s say there was a fair bit of interest there. Saving Lucia is being published by the awesome Bluemoose Books next April. YAY. And did I say that while I was waiting I wrote another book, a work of historical fiction? It would be wrong to tell you any details now because all in good time…generally publishers will want first refusal on your next book so… (should I get rid of this bit? No, I think it’s ok.) I also met the person who was, in future, to become my agent around this time; just chatting through things, even though I had nothing to offer them right then. Because DO YOU KNOW WHAT? This doesn’t always work how you think it will work. Actually, we talked about hats and reading and what was the best kind of cake and America and Britain and ranging between the two (as we both do). But mostly about reading. And a bit about writing and what I might be up to.
  6. Well, so…I have done another book, I have now got a wonderful yes on Saving Lucia and I seem to have sort of got ahead. It was at this point that I started tinkering and ended up writing two short story collections. This was in very late 2018 and early 2019. I did this for stimulation and pleasure and it made me so happy. Again, this didn’t happen how I thought it would. I hit upon the idea of two themed books: the first with the theme of food and feasts and consumption (as in consuming, not TB) and that is Famished, out with Influx Press next September and while I was hanging around on that – request for full very quickly – and just after I had a decision – YAY – I wrote the other collection, and I am not telling you much about that other than to say it’s positively macabre but I hope you will find it funny too, one day. Oh – and I am also now agented. WHOAH.
  7. Right. So that’s books three and four coming to you in one year (2020) and that means that, in under five years, I have written 7 books (I have just finished number 7 now; it’s another novel and this time, magical realism, currently hanging out with a beta reader the pedigree of whom…well…maybe I can tell you about that if he doesn’t hate my book) and I am not entirely sure how this has been done with the kids hollering and my teaching and dusting and looking after chickens and cats (and see below) and volunteer work and physical and mental health challenges (you get the picture), but I think I took so long to start that once I had, well I was not going to give up. Plus I loved it.
  8. There have been some properly shit bits. The rejections; the no-replies. There are going to be more I expect when someone hates one of my books. Or lots of people do; it’s part of the business. But you MUST move on rather than feeling persecuted as well as rejected because your creativity will, I think, dwindle. That has happened a couple of times. Also, I mentioned relaunching. My first two books are now, as they say, between publishers. It wouldn’t be kind to comment on any of that because sometimes things go wrong, of course they do, but it is sad. Suck it up though because I have a new notebook. And on no replies – especially after a request for a full – not good enough, I feel. Plus, it causes people real upset.
  9. I have not mentioned an absolutely key thing. During this period, first word to page when I knew absolutely nothing about the writing and publishing industry, I have worked my tits off to make sure that I do know things. Maybe that’s how you beat the odds. Clearly the writing has to be there and you MUST listen to constructive criticism and advice and at least give it the time of day, but while you are working away, learn about the industry. Network. Well I didn’t know I was networking, because I call it HAVING A CHAT and I LOVE A CHAT. Expand your reading. Read as much as you can and diversely. Challenge yourself. When you submit, you really should know plenty about those to whom you are submitting. It has been bloody marvellous to do anyway, but I had read lots of books by Bluemoose and Influx and others I submitted to. That’s one example. Put the work in, because they did. Also, meet people and talk to them (HAVING A CHAT AGAIN); engage on social media if funds or your health or caring commitments mean you cannot get about; take an interest in others’ work – it is so life-giving and rewarding. Learn what an agent is, a publisher, and indie publisher, an editor (and the different types of editing); learn about book publicity and marketing, bookshops -especially our wonderful independent booksellers – and book marketing. And I was doing all this while I was writing; I also submitted various poems, short stories, creative non-fiction and short memoir, most of it, to my surprise, was published, though mostly not for money: for that reason, it had to be work I could do in pockets of time. I edited a couple of books and reviewed various books for online journals. I wrote a poetry collection which I submitted for Mslexia’s poetry anthology competition with Seren books and it didn’t get anywhere. You can tell I’ve been busy because I only just remembered about that. I also put together a comical parenting book based on diaries and blog posts I had done for various sites and submitted that to Unbound, where it was a no. Yep. I worked my tits off. I also tried, surmising I might be starting to look at least a bit credible, to help others forward. I have managed complex mental health stuff for a long time and I’ve got a couple of wacky health problems which aren’t always much fun, but that’s NOTHING compared with what many suffer; add to that the structural inequality which means that funds and resources preclude someone from writing. This is why I do four free manuscript reads a year: I think that life revolves, or ought to, around community and love. And chatting to people. Some people are twats, usually because they are (argue as you please) experiencing pain or threat in some way.
  10. Here is my summary catalogue of additional failure, because I see people getting upset that they do not make lists for competitions. I BET I HAVE FAILED MORE THAN YOU. I have never (other than Not the Booker) been longlisted. For anything? Let’s break this down. I didn’t make the Mslexia memoir list, my books were not longlisted for Rubery (that cost me £37!!!), Wellcome, Bath novel (twice!), Goldsmiths, Ondaatje, Exeter or Yeovil prizes; my complete poetry anthology didn’t make the Seren Books/Mslexia anthology; my short fiction and single poems have not made Fish, Costa or Bridport  and WHAT IS MORE I didn’t get a Gladstone Fellowship or Society of Authors Funding; because I didn’t, I a. got up at 4 in the morning to write and b. taught more and it was tough. But what are you going to do? Do you want to do this or not? Are reading and writing your lifeblood? Then there’s your answer.
  11. AND MAYBE THAT IS HOW YOU BEAT THE ODDS. You ignore them. You just write good stuff, as good as you can, keep talking to and meeting people; none of this has happened as I thought it would. A lot of things have happened because I met people and before anyone interprets that as schmoozing in inner circles, no: I mean I like chatting to people (apologies for the HAVING A CHAT repetition) and seeing what they do, asking them about their reading and so on. I am quite shy. but I love to talk to people (if that makes sense) and I think this has held me in good stead. When things go wrong, feel sad and let them go. Yes, there are clearly real things that need to change. Speaking as mum and English teacher, for example (there are other areas and fantastic people shining a light on access and unacceptable dead ends), it’s pretty clear that the industry needs to up its game on BAME books (and you too, exam boards!!!) – but for lots of other things, be sure it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy; avoid feeling resentful and persecuted because that’ll stymie your creativity. Women: I won’t even engage with this stuff about ageism because, as I have been saying this week, unless I am about to get a horrid shock – my eldest son is nearly 18 so clearly I am 318 – I think we need to crack on and I have never experienced it and am not at all keen on its being used as positive marketing tool on the whole, because it’s reductive and I’d be lying. I’d say, ‘I’ll get my coat’, but I wrote that only to encourage and maybe make just one person less fearful.                                                                                                                                               AND I HOPE THAT, OVERALL, YOU’VE FOUND THIS LITTLE POST HAS MADE YOU FEEL BRAVER.
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    Love, Anna.

On reading, making worlds, growing up: on survival.

To ease me into writing a piece for the new Dodo Ink anthology, Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health (here – out January, 2020: http://www.dodoink.com/blog/2019/2/13/dodo-ink-announces-a-new-anthology) I’ve been looking at my first book, Killing Hapless Ally*. This was an autobiographical novel; breathless, not without challenge to read and less than you’d think to write because it came after the life-changing therapy, not before it while the need was pressing in on me. Or when I was nuts and didn’t know who I was. Seeing literary figures in landscapes. Couldn’t compute at all that my fingers were my own extremity. Not then, after.

Killing Hapless Ally was the story of how a frightened little girl developed self defence strategies through pattern, colour and through a binding association with certain people in the public eye who looked kind, perhaps kick-arse and pretty or with a certain kind of powerful glamour (Frida from Abba,  Dolly Parton, Shirley Bassey). These people became imaginary friends when the protagonist (well, she was me, so that’s okay to the people in reviews who didn’t like her!) was tiny; alongside them, a groups of authors and both real and imagined characters from books, or the books’ authors. Thus Albert Camus and, with quite astonishing contrast, Mary Anning the fossil collector of Lyme Regis. As a child and teenager I could see them and hear them: that’s how potent my imagination was. It’s like that now, actually. And, like miniature me, reading is a bedrock. It is has always been there, books consumed as if I’d die without them. Problems solved through the worlds encountered in books and beautiful language there, mouthed, sucked as soother for its mnemonic qualities and to stay alive, calm and in company. Which reminds me, something by me on poetry and mental health here:

https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/971/dedicated-genre-advice/writing-poetry/

Now, my sweet husband says it’s genius, this crazy old imagination of mine. I say, it’s because I was lonely and scared as fuck for years and years. And no-one knew. There was no-one to tell because my mother had so influenced how I saw myself and so shaped how I thought other people saw me, that I was both ashamed and thought I was a mad and bad thing who jolly well should be suffering. I didn’t dare tell anyone what went on. My earliest memory is when I was three and I felt a pop of excitement because it was unseasonably warm, the faces of the celandines were open to the sun and I had on a funny outfit of some sort. A colourful mish-mash. Readers: I am always a colourful mish-mash! It was my birthday. I felt happy, warmth on my back. Then my heart plummeted – the same feeling I get now when people say certain things to me or I am confronted by certain situations – and I was scared again. It was often an amorphous fear. It wasn’t necessarily – remember I was tiny  so I cannot remember it with a detailed veracity –  fear of my mother’s beatings, but more of the dread possibility of something happening and things being said and everyone knowing who or what I was. It has taken me decades to get out from under that woman and, more to the point, to get out from under the belief that I am a nasty little thing and everyone knows it and always will. My father and much older sibling could have done something to alleviate it – it was hardly invisible within the family home. I do remember my father removing my mother from me, handfuls of my hair in her hands; I have no recall of anyone holding me, cuddling me and, as mother of three and carer for two more myself now, I’ve got some pretty strong opinions on that.

Ah – all these difficult feelings. And, do you know, I cannot fully explain it but feeling like bad egg eldritch child led me to develop a sort of alter ego as a more palatable version of myself. Except that it all went a bit wrong and took many years and a lot of therapy to disentangle. That’s the Ally to to my Alison. The killing…well, it’s metaphorical. But let me tell you I took a few other people out at the same time. Actually, when I threw Ally out of a very high window in a site of special psychiatric interest, Albert Camus at my back willing me on with the rest of my long-loved posse, she landed on my mother, whom I’d thrown first. Again, not literal. Sloughing off of the selves, being given permission to do it and God Bless Wiltshire Recovery team because, without them, I’d be dead.

Here’s me, tiny kid.

‘The girl is standing on a soft bank in a spring breeze as the laundry blows high above her there in the orchard. The breeze blows cold, but there are currents of warmth about her legs as the day decides whether it will whip or kiss. She is wearing a long, chunky necklace that she had made of wooden Galt beads, a pink hand-knitted jumper and a pair of knickers. It’s the kind of outfit difficult to carry off once you’re a big girl. But sitting now, legs akimbo on the bank, she sees the faces of the yellow celandines open to the sun, the hedge full of primroses beyond the whirling laundry and she is happy. She knows she can bury her face in the violet patch and lounge there with their sweetness. That is, for a short while, because this child knows that after such delicacy come penalties and consequences.

Dozing now, in the day that is definitely kissing not whipping, the girl feels something against her elbow. She doesn’t open her eyes at first, but now she feels it shuffling towards her cupped palm: it is a thought—insistent; warm; compelling. Here came a voice now and the voice screeched, ‘Alison! Down here now and finish getting dressed! Hopeless dirty little child!’ (That was her mother.)

But also, the thought again, curled up in her palm: ‘Don’t worry, be a Hapless Ally whenever you need to. Make something new: to cover up you!’

The little thought in the palm continues to nuzzle; it won’t give up and so Alison suspends disbelief and decides that there might be an alternative to feeling skin-off vulnerable; unwanted. Now she had a new name to put in her pocket. She didn’t know what ‘hapless’ meant yet, but she figured it sounded clumsy; clunky and less of something―and yet useful. The funny thing was that it came to fit: right, like a well done sum. It was a red letter day: an invisible amorphous thing in the hand had given her a moniker.

 

But back to the things I am going to be writing about in the Dodo Ink anthology. I am thinking about how reading was a source of sustenance to me at an early age; a retreat and a way into new worlds and new possibilities. Even though I did not feel I could access such places, I never gave up hope that I could, one day. And my imagination ran wild, so that I constantly invented stories wherever I went, colouring things in. I was looking at Killing Hapless Ally and really struggled to pick a section because so much of it is about literary worlds. In addition to the books, I had a colour table and miniature books of rules that I had made in order to impose some order, I think, upon my world. I wonder if, looking back, the ruminating thoughts as a child, the phrases I had to repeat for safety and the constant careful settling of the items on the colour table where the roots of OCD for me. I can tell you, I no longer have that. I still have periods of depression but they do not last as long; I still struggle with a kind of hyper-vigilance at night, born in childhood, I would imagine, where I am watchful because I do not feel safe. There was more than one reason for that, too. I also have dissociative episodes which are scary as I don’t always know where I am and feel entirely separate from myself. Those seem to be triggered by events and people which remind me of my worst fears from childhood – largely centred on being sure that I was a terrible thing, a blot on the world: and everybody knows. Oh, but I read and I read. And now, I write too. I could get you a book in six weeks now**, that’s how my imagination is. It took me so long to write a novel – not to write it – I have written all my books in a few weeks; to get round to writing one –  and I was so scared to do it. Well, not any more my bravehearts.

Now, Killing Hapless Ally is on the move; when it lands in a new home, I will tell you about it. And I’ve got loads of books coming and being read and next year is a BUMPER YEAR with two books out and I am ridiculously excited and and and. Shh now, Alison. Here, for you are some extracts from Killing Hapless Ally. An entire scattershot chapter on mis-education. But first this; it’s about my father’s peculiar family; Welsh emigrants, they moved for mining and caving to the Mendips where they isolated themselves and thus we have another weird element of my early life. When my mother died – I was orphaned early – my father’s family turned up and compassionately announced I wouldn’t see them again. Then my brother cut off contact. I have mired in the most profound set in dysfunctions (as well as my deep joys of aunts and uncles and cousins who live colourfully across Wales). Oh – I am okay; ultimately, it has made for great stories and an increasingly low tolerance for people who tell a shitload of lies, upholding them to others’ detriment. And you see, this strange isolated Mendip world had its own beauty because my semi-literate grandparent recited poetry – and it was a formative joy of my life. Here is an account, along with a terrifying picture of paternal grandparents and something which could scare you off pickled eggs for life! It’s about words.

Do write and tell me how it is for you, won’t you? x

Off the dark hallway, seeping red cabbage waited for the hard-knuckled hand and downy arm of Grandmother to scoop and slop and lay down with less than love. No-one here would have even noticed whether Alison was just herself or being the more palatable Hapless Ally; besides which, they hated everyone. It was almost a relief for the child. It didn’t matter who she was, did it?

Here, all the skewering and squishing death-stories were told as gentle reminiscence, horrible endings so comforting over an otherwise silent dinner on the huge table by the old range with the clothes on the Sheila Maid hanging overhead. Frequently, in this exposed position on The Hill, the wind would whip up, Grandpa’s chickens screamed like banshees, timbers creaked and doors quavered and smashed shut: perhaps the unquiet souls of the dead, disliking the cheery retellings of their worldly extinction. Grandpa was nearly blind, but compensated verbally with story after story, determinedly still driving his red Morris Minor van to ‘The Hollow’, the next village along, to go bell ringing with his wall-eyed, big-foreheaded friends: if he killed someone on the road, then clearly they should have known to move and anyway, tolling bells stopped for no man. He was a fine poacher and trout tickler and handy with an axe or chainsaw, with no maiming or fatality up to that point. Had he lived longer, propped up by tales of incompetent oncologists, chiropodists with shaky gin-hands and mental asylums, doubtless he would have expired horribly, like his brothers. Disappointingly, he went quietly, not far from The Hill, in an old people’s home, which smelled overpoweringly of wee, talcum powder and the pungent boiled cabbage smell Alison associated with Terry and Helen’s house. The day he chugged off, the grandfather clock kept going, but the staked dahlias wilted and the cats howled into a place behind the pantry door where a dead grandmother must have lurked as she waited to slop and slap the sludgy umber pickles at future despised grandchildren.

Grandpa had never been able to read very much, but he could recite poems by Tennyson and Arnold and the whole of Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’. Those were the spellbound, golden moments. And it was hard to imagine Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ told with anything other than a broad North Somerset accent, a bit of a dribble and a touch of snuff on the lip and septum. It wouldn’t have made sense, which Alison remembered years later sitting in a tutorial in Corpus Christi College. The esteemed professor declaimed assorted lines and she thought, ‘Wrong! I don’t know what yer saying!’ It should have gone, ‘And firs grey o’ morning filled eeest,/And the fog rose out Oxxxxus streeem’ and not, ‘And the first grey of morning fill’d the east,/And the fog rose out of the Oxus stream’ in received pronunciation. But, however it was said, here’s the thing: words can heal. They can make you soar, whether read or heard. And you cannot take them away once brought into the world. Sometimes they are good even if a bad person said them; because the words can exist independently of the mouth that uttered them or the horrid geography that spawned them. It is magic.

And it is, oh it is! Here, I leave you with a whole chapter on my peculiar education. And I am off to finish my essay.

The mis-education of Alison

So let us tramp more through the forest of ardour later, and
tell now of Alison’s schooldays. There were a few things
worth the re-telling, but these days are really about The
Books and The Ideas, so forgive the story if we keep the
distinctions between Alma Maters necessarily vague. How
can it be that fourteen years of learning and the rest can
give us so little to crystallise on the page? But let us try.
For Alison—especially Alison wanting time and world to be
herself (whatever that was) and not to spend it as Hapless
Ally—the books performed vital functions, curing, as Larkin
had it in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, most things you might
go through, but not school: school had to be endured.
Nonetheless, the books were always a vital salve and it is
impossible to describe these days without them.

Certain chapters in The Wind in the Willows had, we have
heard, the function of creating home and hearth; Alison was not sated by the pastoral pleasures of ‘The River Bank’
(although the hamper sounded a fine thing), but the tramp
through ‘The Wild Wood’ was read frequently because the
 place where Mole lay down to hide sounded like the crawl
space where Alison communed with Frida. Looking back,
all the favourite bits were the descriptions of safe havens,
burrows and long corridors where Badger shuffled along
with a candle and carpet slippers that were scuffed and very
down at heel. Alison imagined herself in a tartan flannel
dressing gown, rusticating happily by a fire in a sett in winter.
She stepped gingerly through the descent to Mole End from
the open road; the episode prompted by Mole sitting down,
crying and giving way altogether to his emotions, because
he scented home. Alison had no particular sense of how that
would be (although the colour table and the crawl space
in the wood did a pretty good job), but read and re-read
significant chapters, ruminating on place and on the home
and the welcoming hearth.
Alison grew up in a beautiful place, but a sense of safety
and comfortable enclosure were best achieved through the
pages of a book, so she turned to ‘The Wild Wood’ (knowing
that Mole would escape its dangers in a hollow and with the
aid of Ratty with a stout cudgel), the home of Mr Badger and
the snowy journey through the fields in ‘Dulce Domum’. The
chapters on Toad and ‘The Open Road’ were best avoided
because they contained a Fucking Caravan but there was one
chapter which caused a shiver, without a clear understanding
of its cause. It would make her cry and feel helpless and lonely
as a child and yet she wanted to read it again and again: the world of our subject was never tidy in the way that the world
of, say, Heroic Alice might have been (although, of course
as adults we discover we never can tell: for the glossiest girl
might be inwardly crying, ‘Help me! My bespoke underwear
is holding up my soul!’). Alison’s world, with its itchy palm
and its sufferance was messy and confusing and caused
headaches and head banging. And so she would run for
places: for dug outs or soft meadows, whether in real life or
in books.
Once, after lingering on stories from The Wind in the
Willows, Alison canvassed her classmates on their opinions
of the book and thus it was that a peculiarity arose: none of
them remembered a particular chapter—and this caused her to
wonder whether it had been imagined in a dream by day or
night: ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.’ It wasn’t the notion
of the child otter having wandered off, held safe by the great
creature, the friend and helper, and found again by his father,
but rather that it is about mystery: of something deeply felt
but, faintly, inchoately understood.
On hearing the pipes of Pan, Ratty knows he has found
the place of my song dream and when the moment is passed
Mole, ‘…stood still for a moment, held in thought. As one
wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to
recall it, and can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the
beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn,
and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard cold waking and all
its penalties.’

To Alison, it was like Caliban who ‘cried to dream again.’ 

She certainly understood cold waking—had many nights of
that, frightened, alone and convinced of appalling sin,
wetting the bed in her fear. Penalties were part of life;
sporadically most of life, and definitely the consequence of
happiness, as she had instinctively known that day in the
orchard, caressed momentarily by deferential celandines and
the warm threads of breeze. Alison would yearn to find this
place and its feeling, of sadness, but also of inscrutability and
throbbing, growing faith. And so into the nearby landscape,
she would run, early and before anyone noticed, to the fields
and the weir. Bounding out so early, unusually chipper and
comical, she might have been Hapless Ally, trying hard for
buoyancy and comedy. But she wasn’t: she was just Alison
and she was looking for something only she could see. Strictly
speaking, running out early was not allowed, but it was
worth the gamble. Yet would she ever find the kindness
of a great creature there? Of a great thing? Hope almost
exhausted, she would lie down in the wet grass and weep
there, knowing that the land retained a memory, sweet and
sad and buried, of something extraordinary there in the sods,
by the pounding of the water. One day. One day.

And so we turn from a tear falling on the grass, to a funny
little girl at school. There, everybody was reading Charlie and
the Chocolate Factory and acting out scenes from it; they were
crazy about it. It didn’t do so much for her. For Alison, the
book added little to her internal inscape but was more use for
the caricature you created to cope: she thought of the nasty, elegant little ballet girls as resembling spoilt, demanding
Veruca Salts. Augustus Gloop was worryingly like Terry
in aspect; Augustus just drank from the river of molten
chocolate rather than imbibing of the multitudinous spotted
dick, tripe and onions and any kind of pie and probably
didn’t watch ‘Countdown’ in a tropically-heated house on
Tyneside. Alison hoped that if she were one of the children,
she’d be Charlie Bucket, a nice kind of kid—and she would
have liked to own a grandparent called Joe. Alison was not
unfamiliar with the concept of relatives who never got out
of bed (although Mad but Nice Andrea tended to wear her
duffel coat in bed, not pyjamas), but for her it would have to
be Frida as your golden ticket companion. Or Helen, before
Cyclamen Terrace, the rain and the short interim before the
brain tumour and bonkers, with the smell of the cabbage
wafting up the stairs, but she was probably being a bit busy
having affairs and smoking in the cool way; sashaying in her
knock-off Chanel suits and cute pillar box hats. Adventures
that never lasted and which they never shared. Alison didn’t
know yet that the bequeathed Albert Camus was the gift that
delivered.
Now, while the peppermint grass in Willy Wonka’s
factory was one to remember as you plucked a blade and
sucked, for her it was a swig of cider in Fantastic Mr. Fox
that provided the correct dosing of comfortable and cosy.
Something about the illustrations of the fox’s lair, with the
table of plenty set out; something about the way Mr and Mrs
Fox were clearly crazy about one another in a truly foxy sort
of way struck a note with her. A note that spoke of hope and possibility. Another from this canon, Danny the Champion of
the World, might be a book for Alison to read securely now
in adulthood and as a mother herself, but as a child the fine
evocation of the joy between father and son was unreadable;
the book scratched and itched, however much you liked the
concept of pheasants being dosed with medicated raisins.
Moreover, they lived in a caravan. And we know about
them. Also, Alison’s father had remarked that Roald Dahl
was known to have disliked children, which placed him on
the same dais as Santa Maria and Alison’s father and she
could never get past the first bit of James and the Giant Peach;
not just because of the ghastly, mutually adoring aunts, but
because of the prefatory blunt description of death. Death, in
Alison’s consciousness, was always a-knocking at the door.
In books she wanted feasts, cosy spaces, secret gardens with
high red walls and gnarled trees; she wanted safe dark rooms
with tall drapes and haven hedgerows of red campion and
honeysuckle. She wanted all that and to be warm, silent and
extremely small. She did not care for a mauling, trampling
or skewering of the parent kind. She could get that at home,
with plenty of gore—particularly over tea at her grandfather’s
house. So what was needed was the comforting detail of
‘Concerning Hobbits’ in The Lord of the Rings (a winter
book), or the straggling but lovely roses of The Secret Garden
(a book to be read in bed, but only when it rained―and in the
autumn).
Back at The Hill (thus interrupting the vital reading
programme) Restless Rhonda, Alison’s cousin, had died mysterious causes while apparently potting on in the shed and
there ensued much shuffling and whispering about the dark,
old house with the creaky gate and the old plum tree that
had been struck again by lightning; at the funeral, no-one
cried, but raised their waxy faces to the altar beyond the waxy
face in the open coffin and sang the hymns quietly through
cold, pinched lips. And in The Place beyond the Sea (which
is to say a corner of South West Wales), cousin Lewis had
died by his own hand, leaving his mother, Mfanwy, turned
inward and mute for decades, looking one way across the old
churchyard where her son lay and the other across the sea
to the islands. The Sound was a place where Alison loved to
be on the boat looking at the whiskered seals, but it became
tinged with the melancholy of a mother, looking out across
the water and thinking of her dead son; local people referred
her to her as ‘Muffled Mfanwy’ as her voice never came
out properly again―for she was stifled by an inexpressible
sorrow. Then Maternal Grandma turned her face to the wall
and Santa Maria responded with an angry bitterness: there
was a late phone call and she said, ‘I am going to watch my
mother die.’
It sounded like a play at the theatre; like Beckett: Theatre of
the Absurd. Alison hadn’t the faintest idea how to comfort her
mother; her carapace was hard and shiny and so hugs would
slide off. Anyway, Alison didn’t really know about hugging;
she saw her relatives extend their hands and brush an arm
stiffly with fingertips, looking into the middle distance. That
must have been their hug. But she saw other people do
something different. Even kiss. To Alison, a kiss was what happened before a man fucked you and what, once, Helen
planted on her forehead, all puffed up with tumour and
morphine in bed.
It had gone like this: ‘Love you, my little one. It could have
been so good, you and me.’
‘Please don’t die, Auntie Helen: what will I do without
you?’
‘You will “lie down”,’ said Helen, between pops of clear
breath, ‘ “where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone
shop of the heart”. It’s Yeats, you know. You remember?’
‘I know, Auntie; he’s on our bookshelf, although we
haven’t talked to one another yet.’
‘There will be time, my darling.’
‘It doesn’t sound very good, though. The foul rag and bone
shop bit—and in the heart, too.’
‘Au contraire, my little one. It is where you will begin.
Where you must begin. And you will survive and be happy.’
‘I don’t know if I can do either of those things.’
‘But you can. And take the Camus from the shelf before
it’s chucked in the skip when I’ve shuffled off. Terry doesn’t
read French and I wonder—but I love him; I do love him,
pet—whether he thinks the examined life is one best avoided.
Don’t tell anyone I said that. I’ve got to stay at Cyclamen
Terrace now, so you take Albert. Look: isn’t he handsome,
too? Maybe he can look after you now?’
Helen knew. She knew everything about Alison. And she
gave her the knowing look: the one which said, ‘You will
become the girl who did.’

‘One day,’ thought Alison, ‘perhaps I can begin and do
what she described.’
Helen kissed her.
‘What did you just do? What was that thing?’
‘I kissed you. Because I love you. It’s what we do.’
Home was silent. No kisses. No ladders. For reasons that
weren’t explained, Alison was not allowed to attend Maternal
Grandma’s funeral. That being so, the girl, true to form,
wondered if she was implicated in her grandmother’s death
and that was why she should not attend the funeral. It was
frightening and shaming and Santa Maria spat angry tears
when her daughter tried to help.
‘I want to make you feel better. And I thought, if Muffled
Mfanwy was at the funeral, I could help her feel better too.’
‘The best thing for me is to be nowhere near you. I am
grieving for my mother. Go away, you little fuck-wit. Go to
your crawl space.’
Alison shook and felt cold and sick.
‘You, you…know about the crawl space?’
‘We know everything and if you’re not careful, we will cut
it all down.’
‘Did I…did I hurt Grandma?’
‘Probably. How could you do otherwise?’
Thus it was that Alison turned to her Important
Acquaintance with Mary Anning and her treasures: because
she felt she couldn’t be implicated in anything there and quite
liked digging things up. And who could she hurt on the
beach at Lyme Regis?
Mary Anning was the carpenter’s daughter from Lyme Regis, she who collected many fine fossil specimens and
found the first ichthyosaur. Acquaintances now, but the
friendship was coming along, although Alison was always in
the way on the beach. There were some hitches, though:
Mary had a cunning little Jack Russell called Tray and Alison
hated him for his perspicacity. When Mary wasn’t looking,
Tray became a leering little black dog who said, like the itchy
scratchy sometime thought in the palm, ‘Better watch out. It’s
going to get you Alison. Or are you Hapless Ally? Which is
you? Which is better? Wait and see. Woof ha ha woof!’
Alison was desperately clumsy and could do a lot of
damage when Mary was cleaning off major specimens with
all her little tools and brushes, so there were lovers’ tiffs and
consigning to storerooms to cause less damage. But Mary
behaved as if she were fond of her and when Alison closed
her eyes, she would imagine that she and Mary were walking
along the Jurassic coast, towards Golden Cap or Black Ven.
Mary would tell off her foolish friend for knocking over
the ‘curies’, the abbreviation Mary gave to the curiosities, the
fossils she collected.
‘No not like thaaaat (in her gentle and flavourful Dorset
accent), you are just hapless—and go gently through Father’s
shop. Step away before ‘tis broken.’
There were some fine things, tumbled onto the floor by
her clumsy friend. Things that, ‘Ah! Things that could have
reached a pretty penny with the folk in London, if you hadn’t
have been and knocked them on the floor. Ah! Anyone ever
told you were haaapless, Alison?’
Well, that was ironic.

Mary had extraordinary faith in herself. She didn’t care
whether other people were interested or not; she was just
led by her eye along the beach, knowing what was worth
the collect and what was just beef. She told Alison that her
vigorous way had been formed by—a story many folk in
Lyme Regis knew—being hit by lightning as an infant. She
had been under a tree and three women with her had been
struck dead, while the infant Mary survived, thrived and
bloomed. Alison watched her in awe and thought that, if she
were struck by lightning, it would be more as it was in the
Stevie Smith poem, where a girl contemplates how it would
be nice to get hit by lightning and killed while she was just
walking across a field, not that anyone would be bothered.
Alison, struck, would be fried and dead, or all raggedy and
alive and Santa Maria going, ‘What have you done now, you
little maggot? Haven’t I been punished enough?’
Mary Anning was the first and last person Alison could
imagine was pretty in a grubby bonnet, stained by the blue
lias—and a dirty apron over the plainest of grey dresses. And
her little dog, Tray, skipped joyfully behind her, but growled,
skulked and strolled behind Alison, when Mary bent
suddenly to dig. Mary was light on her feet and she had the
great love of her father. There were men, important men,
who loved her too, later. Or at least that was the gossip Alison
would hear, whispered in the sea breeze on the Jurassic Coast.
She thought she wanted to have Mary’s clear and unwavering
gaze, but instead she fell over the rocks and picked up the
wrong stones. And, in the end, Mary dumped her for the
more sophisticated Miss Philpot and that was that.

She shouted as Alison left the workshop, jars tumbling
behind her, ‘You really are haaaaapless. Ha ha ha! Take
thaaaat! Duck now: ‘tis a bezoar!’
Mary had thrown a bezoar—a coprolite—at her: fossilised
dinosaur shit. Another face and voice to mock.
Her mother had bought her the book and now quoted
Charles Dickens on Mary Anning to her, ‘Look: here’s
something that could never apply to you, hahaha: “The
carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself and has
deserved to win it.” Heroic Alice or Mary Anning you will
never be.’
Alison knew that this was a fair observation, but it felt
pointed and, useless palaeontologist that she was and would
ever surely be, the quotation stung. Now, on the bedroom
shelf, Mary was laughing at her throatily from within the
book and her laughter had been joined by the more sedate
chuckle of Miss Philpot and the laughing, goading raised
eyebrow of Santa Maria. Bitches.
‘I wish I had a coprolite to throw! Santa Maria’s right!’
After this humiliation, Alison put the book Mary Anning’s
Treasures to the back of the shelf, behind the Bible full of God
who was Dead if He ever Existed and went back to spending
more time with Frida in the crawl space, while it lasted. Frida
said, ‘Oh ya, fossils and mud. Not good. I’d like to see her
survive a Swedish winter. Bonnets and aprons? Not not hot.
How about ice skating with me? Björn could meet us. He’s
still mad for you and has written ‘Fernando’ in your honour.
You could borrow my fur muff, if you like. Muffs are hot!’

In addition to the friendships, there were many love affairs
over the years. Sunday afternoons, even as a child, would find
Alison’s mouth full of Porphyro’s marvellous jellies and fruits
from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. For her, the identification of
the author was a little like that of Pip at the beginning of
Great Expectations, deciphering what his parents might have
looked like from the graphology of the stones. Except Alison
decided who and what John Keats was from the beautiful
ochre leather-covered book, its spine and title pages limned
with fulsome gold. She had a sense of who he was even
before she ventured inside and saw pages featuring the most
winsome picture of John Keats, with a frontispiece of autumn
fruits, putti, roses and waving grasses. The font was
beautifully rounded and the words Keats Poetical Works
looked like they might be edible. Certainly, Keats didn’t look
as if he could build a wall or do anything really manly, but
he was her first blueprint of what a sensitive man might look
like and possibly the first man she fell in love with, aged
ten. Clearly, Alison’s attachment to John Keats (or ‘JK’ as she
liked to call him) was not what you might call a normal first
crush. The shirt was loose at the neck, white and flowing,
and the eyes were intense and sad. There was absolutely
no doubt he would have understood her, unlike her actual
boyfriend Stuart, in school, who touched her chest under a
table in the school library and said, ‘Look your boobies are
developing.’ JK would never have stooped to that. He would
have been too embarrassed and tried euphemism; harked to
The Ancients. But Stuart moved to Barnsley and she went
back to lounging about with Keats and never returned Stuart’s letters. He kept writing, ‘I love you’ and, ‘I bet you’ve
got big boobies now’ and enclosed some black jacks and a
rainbow chew. But what did he know about Greece, urns,
autumn, plants or men in closets with spectacular feasts while
a soft amethyst light was gently falling on their beloved’s
breast? (Or boobie?) But JK wrote, ‘I wish that I were alone
and in your arms or that a thunderbolt would strike me.’
Lines were declaimed with the stroke of a nascent breast
and a hot cheek. They did well to stay hidden while, on
the other side of the sofa, Alison’s parents scowled their way
through ‘Songs of Praise’.
‘Look, dear! Those fuck-wits are miming. Obviously
miming!’
Keats stayed with Alison for some years; her Sunday
afternoon love affair, there by the bookcase, on the scratchy
carpet behind the sofa. Sometimes poor old JK had to stay
entirely in the book because he had something called
consumption and needed his rest and some wet cloths over
his face, but that was part of the romance. Mind you, he
did get a bit demanding, asking her where she had been,
could she alter lines in her letters to him—which she wrote
when she was away in The Fucking Caravan—here and there
so they were warmer and kinder and she got cross once or
twice and told him she wasn’t going to fanny around with
that sort of thing. He would cough and his pupils would
dilate spectacularly and tragically and she would assent to
his requests. Much later on, however, Keats was moved to
the background as someone altogether more manly stepped
forward. Not for this homme a lie down in the afternoon, but a manly growl after lunch, some Gitanes and a Marc.
Step forward Albert Camus and also the story of becoming an
existentialist on a campsite. Not Albert; oh no, no, no: he was
far too cool to be seen in a Fucking Caravan. It was Alison,
trying to translate the world into something that made sense.

We have already shared fateful tales of The Fucking Caravan,
of the entrapment between two alder trees and, on the same
trip, tales of two blacksmiths. However, on that same
‘holiday’, parked up by the Seine and sitting under the
willows for days (with her parents somewhere else; they
didn’t say) Alison began a roaring and extraordinary affair
with Camus. It was a reading summer, between the two
sixth form years. All around was the sense that people were
dropping like flies and the deaths of Dad and Santa Maria
must surely be imminent; she just hoped, ever practical, they
didn’t happen when the two were out in the car, or maybe
driving on to the cross-channel ferry, with everyone hooting
furiously behind them. But the reading: for days on end by
the river: Sartre’s Nausea, Genet’s The Thief, and, best of all,
Camus’s The Plague, The Fall, The Outsider and Selected Essays
and Notebooks. Also, at speed on the journey home, Simone
de Beauvoir’s The Force of Circumstance and, cheerily, A Very
Easy Death. When she got home, Alison devoured Gide’s
Straight is the Gate and Fruits of the Earth: ‘Nathaniel—I will
teach you fervour!’ Fervour: Holy Fuck—what was fervour?
What was lust for life? Were those things somewhere in the
unknowable distance, just visible beyond the bacon grease of The Fucking Caravan? She was intoxicated: dislocated
entirely from her surroundings. The dislocation did not
provide a new or unfamiliar sensation, but this kind of
dislocation was one in which she was on fire and in splendid
company.
‘Come. Come away with me now. Tonight,’ said Albert
Camus.
Now, one could dwell on the literary qualities of Sartre
and Simone de Beauvoir, but the most impressive thing for
an adolescent Alison (she whose constant companions to date
had been imaginary Swedes in a crawl space) was the sense
she gained of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s love affair; that they
wrote and argued and shared and, of course, smoked (like
Helen) in the cool way. And when de Beauvoir wrote about
her love affair with Nelson Algren—not to mention sharing
bricks (bricks: Ooh la la!) of raspberry ice cream with
him—Alison had a peculiar light-headed and heavy-hearted
sensation. It was, we would have to say, the first knowledge
of the erotic. And it hurt, because it didn’t exist in any part
of the real world, where there was just getting off and, for
some girls, an early, clumsy, grasping fuck. When Simone
de Beauvoir wrote of their ‘contingent lovers’; of love affairs,
known about by both but clearly allowable and part of
happen-stance rather than a dedication for a lifetime, it
sounded both painful and delicious. How entirely entrancing
for the teenage Alison that de Beauvoir and Sartre wrote and
expressed an intensely creative life to one another. This was
something Alison could never quite get out of her head. And
when she tried and failed to engage something which might look like it, the stone dropped in her heart and she was scared
to open her hand in case the frightening thought was there,
pressed into the palm, waiting to open. And she was scared of
being herself: Just Alison (as Denis the Lusty Blacksmith had
it), while in her heart remained the appalling leaden feeling
and the acute sense of being separate; eldritch-girl, possibly a
killer; not inclined to the magazines and spontaneity of her
female peers: missing the point always. Wrong and Weird Kid.
She willed herself to live on in a way that was meaningful
and hoped that she would find people to discuss these feelings
with; that she could know someone who understood about
absurdity, existence precedes essence or the frightening
experience Sartre’s Roquentin has when, in Nausea, he
touches a door handle and comes face to face with jarring,
sickening anguish: that anguish lived alongside Alison
permanently. At five, it had started somewhere after Saturday
morning cartoons, as the day unfurled; at sixteen it began
after Weetabix and before the first application of lip-gloss.
‘This I understand: it is when the scenery collapses,’ said
Camus.
He made it sound exciting in his low tone. But it wasn’t
in real terms: at least, not yet; instead, it was terrifying and
yet Alison had a timorous sense that from that terror came
only a beginning. That definitely made sense. Good God:
intellectual heat; the erotic in its most subtle form; a notion
of how to live with hope, when God quite clearly does not
exist and we must travel to the frontiers of our anxiety to
understand where to start. Alison was not asking much in a
man, then.

Ah—but one ready day along came Albert, ready for
action. If you have ever read his peculiar, flat, sparkling, cold
story of Meursault in The Outsider, then there is little to
express. But if not, imagine a wandering, solitary individual,
not inclined or feeling the pressure to act as expected. Not
cruel, but mercenary because appetitive; plainly erotic in
responding to his needs as and when they push forward,
articulate of who and what he is and yet without what would
feel like morality to us. He did not cry when his mother
died; he shot a man on the beach and did not express regret,
only annoyance. For the teenage girl, it hit a nerve. The
description Camus had of his protagonist as a solitary and
wandering individual; as somebody entirely alone and on
the edges of society, now, that was the truest description of
her to date. It was—and there is no other way to say this—a
first orgasm. Not only with the plainness of the character
and Camus’s prose, which Alison gamely attempted in both
French and English, but also because of the man. Let us
describe him. Alison had to get over Meursault first, a man
both in love with the world and separate from it. Camus
told her of how his protagonist was inspired by a stubborn
passion, for the absolute and for truth. His truth remained
a negative truth, but it had its own beauty and without it
there could be no adroit comprehension of ourselves and of
the world; no self-containment. Meursault’s life was that of
a foreigner—a stranger—to the society in which he lived,
and he wandered about on the fringe, in the shadows of
others’ lives: plain, but deeply sensual. Such descriptions made
Meursault enormously attractive to Alison and made her fall more for the man who wrote him into being. Such a telling
of the outsider, the wandering foreigner living and breathing
a negative truth, pierced and had a difficult heat for her
because, of course, that was Alison. We could say she was
Weird Kid—plenty did and probably still do—but L’Etrangère
would sound altogether more arousing, non?
Alison had photocopied a picture of Camus: it was of
him, apparently sitting on a rather lopsided sofa, and leaning
forward with his hands tensed, his mouth slightly open, his
eyebrows raised and his trousers showing his socks as he
inclined towards a co-combatant to advance his argument.
He was so fabulously French; so fabulously exotic because he
came from Algeria, that he carried off the sock thing with
élan; socks were not normally a detail of erotic piquancy.
Camus might have been describing how brilliant it was that
William Faulkner had pulled off the language of high
tragedy; that a man from Mississippi could find language
that was simple enough to be our own and lofty enough
to be tragic. Or perhaps he was dictating something for the
Resistance magazine, ‘Combat’, of which he was the Editor
in Chief. But, to a teenage girl, under his spell, he was also
evincing arguments for ‘Come away with me.’
And, ‘Let me show you.’
Or, ‘Let me show you how to live in the face of despair. Sit
on my knee and we will begin.’
And, occasionally, when the Oran sun roused his temper,
‘Come here now. Stand against this wall. I will take you.’
Was this what Helen had meant, in gifting Alison the
Camus as she lay on her Cyclamen Terrace deathbed? It was a jolly long way from a few drunken fumbles in the dark when
they—the boy-kind—mistook her for someone else.
Albert’s cadences were delicious: he was declaiming
phrases of profound, shattering erotic power to Alison’s ear.
And he had enough style to be vulgar, if he wanted. Camus
had a history of manly pursuits, too: goalie for a prominent
Algiers football team; a fine swimmer and athlete. She had
a sense of his being a consummate man. Funny; brave; a
demon in the bedroom—if you ever got that far, because
what are walls, floors and furniture for? And, unlike JK, he
could have built a wall or changed a tyre. On the occasions
when Alison went to other girls’ bedrooms, she saw they had
pictures of The Cure, or Bono, when he was ragged, young
and angry. She, meanwhile, had a picture of Albert Camus
next to her desk. People said, ‘Who’s that?’ and she said,
‘My godfather.’ The notion felt entirely, naughtily fitting, for
the Camus books, en français, that Alison possessed had been
bequeathed to her, as you learned earlier, by her godmother
Helen, studying Camus at The Sorbonne. Perhaps Helen had
been similarly intoxicated (which made the Terry the Fat
Controller, the unexamined life, Friday-pie thing even more
depressing). So the honorific chimed as fitting. Plus it felt
like Albert leaned over Alison in a proprietary and manly
style. L’Etranger was inscribed with the words ‘Helen Griffiths,
Paris, le 19 Janviér 1962’ and Alison had always hoped that,
in leaving France for Terry, Mammy’s pie and a new life in
Tyneside, Helen was able to say, like Camus’s protagonist
at the point of death, that she knew she had been happy.

She hoped it was like this for Helen especially when the
morphine gave her respite from pain and the unexamined life
downstairs, punctuated by the sickening puffs of air freshener
from the Cyclamen Terrace plug-ins.
Now, in all their years together it never mattered to Alison
that Camus had been dead ten years before she was born: he
was there on her wall now.
Godfather. Most louche, brilliant, gorgeous godfather.
She saw in his Notebooks that he wrote, ‘I loved my mother
with despair. I have always loved her with despair.’ Albert
even understood the paradox of that! It was exactly how she
felt about Santa Maria. And by God (although He was Dead
if He ever Existed) Albert was brave: he would stand in the
face of despair and say that now he was free.

Ah, the growingupsexthing. Alison had hopeless
expectations, really, for while Camus smouldered away
behind her closed eyes, real life was, shall we say, more
a damp inconsequential thing than a smoulder. There was
Johnny in the barn. Always, ‘Let’s go to the barn,’ a bunk
up against a bale: no use there expecting conversations about
Proust. She asked him about books and he said, ‘Why would
anyone want to read boring books?’ But in school, there was
an important dalliance with D.H. Lawrence. It was Sons and
Lovers and she remembered mostly Paul Morel’s loving: not
the bit which was like a communion (with Miriam) but the
bit which was ‘too near a path’ with rather racier Clara. The
evocation of Paul’s mother, however, as he drifts back to her—and drifts to his own future death (as Lawrence himself
had it in his notes on the text), now that was a theme best
avoided during these delicate years. Besides which, no-one
would have got it because at that time boys just wanted to get
you drunk and feel you up in a dark room when the parents
are away. Only in reality, they were feeling up someone else.
Like Heroic Alice. Oh yeah: Heroic was still around; jiggly
tits, cool-thriving and diving and looking on her hapless
(again, ironic, though note lower case) counterpart with scorn.
She had the best clothes and hair; told the kind of jokes boys
liked. When she moved upstairs, the party moved with her,
while Alison stood downstairs thinking about existentialism
and, ‘I’m a misfit and nobody fancies me.’ Alison was
definitely Weird Kid. Good job she had Albert.
Not long after, Alison discovered Sylvia Plath: now there
was someone with an embolus of fear and an itchy, scratchy
little thought in the palm. Alison would act out scenarios
of meeting Ted, based on the diaries she had read; they
would meet, drunk and—again—smouldering (she liked
smouldering) at each other at a party and she would bite his
cheek. The room would hum harder and all was in a brandy
glass whirl; the blood ran down Ted’s face and along Sylvia’s
arm. And oh Lordy: the poetry and the sex. In class, the girls
would say, ‘Uggh! She is mental.’
But Alison would think, ‘Sylvia: oh my God, you’re
gorgeous! Look at you, rocking your fifties swimsuit, your
twin-set and pillbox hat. But you put your head in the oven
and I am so so sorry. You know, I head bang and cut myself and think all kinds of dangerous things. Your father might be
full fathom five, but my parents? Well, they are pillars of the
community. We are a middle class family and that, Sylvia, is
how they get away with it. Everyone’s looking at me Sylvia:
they’re saying they know what I’m like and that’s why my
parents are dying. You say you tried to rock shut? Well so
did I: when I was fourteen I took a big dose of paracetamol
and I tried so hard to die and come up through clear water as
someone else. It’s crazy, isn’t it? I even made a big mug of tea
to go with it and lay down with no note. I told Santa Maria;
didn’t want her to find me, but she said, “Oh well that’s just
typical of you, you little bitch.” I never went to hospital, but
I survived. I was always sore―but I survived. And it was so so
selfish. I’m sorry that you lost Otto so young and that your
mum didn’t understand you and that life went wrong with
your Ted and that you ended up getting a bit obsessed with
bees and water. The day you died, February the eleventh? I
will always remember you…And I think you were a fucking
genius.’
Alison reflected that Sylvia was the new Frida. She
certainly had some unusual imaginary friends. Frida had been
stylish, cheeky and coolly Nordic; she had always known
how to distract. Sylvia was a bit trickier: she wrote in a frenzy,
declaimed that she was a genius of a poet and made jam in
between times. Her diaries and texts were full of compelling
and weird images—mirrors, bees, foot lampshades,
candlesticks, panzer man, eating men like air, Hiroshima ash,
more jam making. She was both whore and domestic
goddess. She was a roarer of a girl in an immaculate twin-set; at once a plain, resourceful woman and, as Alison’s classmates
had it, mental. This wasn’t going to be tidy—plus Frida wafted
about Sweden, had a house in the woods, did a bit of
painting; was calm and quite the yoga buff. Plath was
unutterably, horribly, by her own hand dead in the gas oven
 and poor handsome Ted was getting a rough time at the
hands of the Plath acolytes. But Sylvia had the uncanny
ability to put into words some thing; some concept or anxiety
that Alison was trying to give shape and form so that it was
less frightening; in this case, the words with the tireless hoof
taps that meet you on the road years later.
‘Oh,’ said Alison, ‘the words. How they pierced and how
they pierce today still. I wish that I had a way of muffling
the words when it hurts me to hear them…But they’re
indefatigable! Always.’
Alison dabbled in Beckett too: Waiting for Godot needed to
bide its time, but Happy Days—Winnie buried up to her waist
in a mound of scorched earth in the first act of the play and
her neck in the second half? We were getting somewhere.
Once, in those days, a boy came up to her in a pub and
said, ‘You’re weird. You dress weird. You’ve got crazy hair
and a big nose. You’re really fucking ugly. Heroic Alice said
you were!’
There was a crowd looking on; no-one said anything
either to disagree or agree, so she was trying hard to think of
Denis the Lusty Blacksmith seeing them off with his tongs.
Or, ‘What would Albert Camus do?’ Of course, he would
laugh, in a hot, derisive, Gallic way and the youths would scatter like thistledown, insubstantial in the presence of A
Man. It didn’t work this time: Alison couldn’t summon him
up for circumstance pressed down too hard; she couldn’t even
summon up the alter ego to laugh, ‘Look here’s Hapless: the
better part of me. You’ll like her.’
 And where was Hapless when you needed her? Somehow,
she couldn’t be called up to adhere. Alison thought only that
she was Winnie, in the second part of Happy Days, except
that, unlike the brave and bellicose Winnie, the only word
Alison could say to the boy and the crowd was, ‘Sorry’,
then leave to sit down and punch and scratch herself with
Hapless Ally, who had now sauntered in, apparently quite
independently, and was energetically egging her on. Alison
realised with a horrible prickly jolt that the latter appeared to
be developing a cheerful autonomy: popping out to do things
separately.
‘It is this way that madness lies?’ asked Alison.
‘Oh yes. And Boo!’ sneered Hapless, now skipping off with
a popular boy who thought her lovely. She had that familiar,
‘I’m about to get off with someone, but how about you?’
look. The one that curled about the lips of the girls that could.
Absurd.
After this painful and pivotal incident, Alison considered
whether a relationship with divas might be more germane:
Dolly Parton and Shirley Bassey—heroes to this very day.
Dolly and Shirley will meet you again, later. They are gently
competitive these two: you’d love them for it. Va va voom!

Now, in the growingupdays there were days which, at the
time, gave the promise that they were eternal: these were the
Cambridge days. But the thing with the dreaming spires and
ivory towers is that there are untidy people under the spires
and in the towers. There are archives of beautiful things;
there are, indeed, dreams and the reveries that come with
absorption in something that is brilliant. But there are also
desultory cackles and fingers that point: it is like life and it
is not one thing. Alison always struggled with the question,
‘Did you enjoy university?’ because the answer would have
taken half a day: ‘…well, yes and no and story and anecdote
and dusty shelves and accidentally living in the seventeenth
century so I wasn’t safe crossing the road and oh―the clever
folk and the light on mossy Cambridge stones and college
bells at dusk and exeats and climbing over Magdalene Gate
at three a.m. and suddenly Dad (hereafter Vaguely Dead Dad)
was dead on the bathroom floor at home―and Santa Maria
was blaming me―and bedders and porters and dinner in
hall…and of course some days I unravelled…’
Besides, she had a relationship with three universities in
the end because of the ill-advised research projects that came
in later days. There were Cambridge, Oxford and another
fine institution that we must leave unnamed for reasons of its
name being too painful to write or say aloud and because it
was shit. Life in university days would have been so much
easier if not befuddled by roads less taken and kerfuffle and,
well, very funny turns. The kind of thing where you hear
the beautiful chapel bell ring: it is autumn and dusk. Outside
the city the birds fly low over the fens; there is a faint mist over The Backs. It is fine indeed, but Alison would hear the
mellow tone of the bell and in a second it would be alive and
mocking, pulsing and frightening—as the stones of the old
paths rose up to hit her face and she thought for a moment of
the story called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, by Charlotte Perkins
Gilman, where madness falls to rise as the patterns on the
wallpaper animate and quietly terrify their watcher. In those
times, it felt like there was another figure, watching her from
rooms on the first floor: it was Hapless Ally again, beginning
once more to detach more confidently: doing her own thing
and laughing at her host. When you are not wholly well, the
very ground you walk on can do that too, chanting mockery
and perhaps spitting venom. And all around, the mists and
mellow fruitfulness abound: but not for you; no, not for you.
You don’t know then that things can be different. Alison
didn’t know it for a very long time.
Books and more books were eaten up at speed as she came
face to face with her extraordinary ignorance and the more
she read the less she came to realise she knew. There were
Latin and Greek to try and understand; the whole canon of literature before the seventeenth century, as the mis-education to date had not even touched on it. Alison had spent a fevered summer in a static caravan (oh the irony) in
Pembrokeshire stuffing her face with books when she saw the
course contents for the first year. In tea breaks, Camus would
visit to discuss the reading; on walks, he would pull her by the
hair and bite her lower lip; taking her into a sea cave, when
‘Time was away’ and when it was, happily, somewhere else.
Sometimes, boy-Dylan Thomas was on the beach, on holiday from Carmarthenshire, but still dipping his hand in the fish-
frozen sea and Albert would say, ‘Oof—he has potential. He is not afraid of paroles. Now that is a man I could tangle with.’
Alison countered with, ‘Where were you Albert, when the
boy shrieked of my ugliness in the pub? When Hapless Ally
joined in? You’re my godfather and you’re supposed to be
there.’
‘I was in the desert. I went away from Oran to think and
took only dates and anise.’
Existence precedes essence could be a right selfish bastard if
it so pleased.
Such sojourns aside, and alone again in the caravan, there
had been a solo introduction to Chaucer, Langland, and The
Gawain Poet—a desperate and busy rush to fill in some gaps.
For the first time Alison read Arnold (although she had heard
it declaimed by Grandfather at The Hill) and Tennyson and
felt a wild urge to get started and also the fear that she did
not know very much. She didn’t. And yet the world inside
her head was the only world she fully inhabited, because there
had lived Frida, JK, Mary Anning and Albert. And those days
were heady and frightening. They were a helter skelter rush
from her parents dropping her off and sighing at the pretty
view of the punts on the Cam, a sudden collapse by her
father, groaning on to her bed in his endgame, Santa Maria’s
admiration of everybody else and then suddenly being alone.
Alison felt that she must make a life there while, at home,
everything was dying. There was nothing for it but to buy a
packet of cigarettes and steel herself to it. Start on the rituals: turn around four times, walk three paces, recite the first lines
of The Secret Garden four times. And do it all quickly.
Indeed, Cambridge looked to her a forever place, although
she must also have known that this was not possible. Alison
felt helpless in the face of a crush on Germaine Greer: she
had never seen this kind of confidence before; plus she had
humour and was most definitely clever-hot. The historian
David Starkey would visit: a severe, surprisingly funny and
brilliant uncle—before he became media Don and everyone
started being nasty to him on Twitter
#inthequietdaysbeforesocialmedia. Upstairs in Divinity College
sat Doctor Llewelyn, who always showed the students at his
own college the exam papers the night before they sat them,
although Alison rather gathered that it might not even have
been all of them, but just the acolytes with whom he shared
flagons of gin and possibly a biscuit. He made good tea,
though; his cleverness was incendiary; he once cried while
reading Dante’s Inferno in lectures and introduced students (or
perhaps the shiny happy students, who were everyone but
Alison, and who already knew of such) to Walt Whitman,
William Empson, and counting with utter concentration in
the observance of rhyme and rhythm. Alison was terrified
of him, though: his intelligence laid her bare, both Alison
and Hapless; both suffering from a poor education and, not,
apparently, the intellect to set that right. Alison would sink,
on Friday afternoons, into the big armchair in Dr
Rabbithole’s parlour because he gave the impression that he
was sympathetic to Weird Kid: he listened intently, offered
sherry (while she noted how disarmingly strong his wrists looked, as he poured) and once said, shortly before finals,
‘You’re brilliant but, for the first time you’re lucid: you must
be scared.’
That was the picture in other rooms and across other quads,
‘You’re clever but we can’t disentangle what you are saying
 or who you are! There are no signposts.’
‘Signposts? Ha! How do you have signposts when the
scenery has collapsed: there are no real landmarks: it’s just a
heap of detritus, now.’
Albert Camus on the wall kept a watch on proceedings,
Godfather with her real-time own father very much having
played his endgame after screaming all night. And Alison’s
night was not always very pretty, with its clangings and
jungle sounds and screeches. Albert could not save her from
it: probably, he thought she had to feel the despair to be free.
Her night said, in resonant voice, over the low tones of
Albert, ‘I am you. I have no signposts. My essays have no
signposts. They are all laughing at me. At you. Dante is
consigning me to the lowest rung; Whitman is telling me to
stay away from his Leaves of Grass; not to “loose the stop from
your throat” but to keep it in there: not to speak.’
In her dream, the poets looked at each other, looked at her
and looked at each other again, the corners of their mouths
contracting into a sneer. Santa Maria stood behind them.
Virgil was refusing to be Alison’s guide; Whitman told her he
was not for her as he loafed upon the grass, ‘For what did you,
aberrant, know of how it is to be lyric with self-reliance?’
‘But I know that I contradict myself and that I definitely contain a multitude—friends others can’t see, alter ego and
all.’
William Empson, looking askance, chimed in, ‘What I
wrote: it is beyond you, so give up now. There is no
ambiguity about what I said, so don’t look for it, worm. Now
go.’
Santa Maria nodded in agreement, laughed and barked,
‘Told you so’ and Alison woke up to the cold world. Still,
holding the feeling of the dream in a pocket or in the palm of
her hand where the bad thought would come, Alison carried
on reading and carried on having desperate and unobtainable
crushes; clever men left her aflutter for three years, regardless
of whether they were gay or not. Maybe they could be turned
with a jiggle of tits and a declension or two. Ah—but not by
her, of course: it would have to be a mighty show of Hapless
Ally and even so, trimmed of too much vivacity because its
excess would have made them stare in this socially articulate
world. While she simply did not have the confidence and the
hauteur of the Heroic Alice-like girls from public schools (or
maybe just those who weren’t repeatedly hearing, ‘I should
have left you in a bucket’) it still sometimes felt just like one
long three-year fuck: from time to time an actual coupling,
but generally just a theoretical one. Lexis, rather than praxis,
as Aristotle might have said if he had written about different
sorts of fuck. And I don’t think he did.
The fractured days were, dreams and hard spites withal,
tremendously, scarily exciting. Exams were managed only
after the little rituals had been performed and even then her
large, looping script was punctuated here and there with the tears she tried to stop up. And as for the excitement, Alison,
melancholy sort as she was, judged that to be a symptom of
its very mutability; the prelude to a universal ‘Fuck off!’ But
how about we just focus on Professor Pobble? For a while, he
looked like a keeper in a mutable world. Ah―but as what?

 

  • My first two books are on the move at the moment and so you cannot buy them. I will update you on this soon. In the meantime, I have some original signed stock for sale. You can message me through contact page stuff on this blog x

Updates: on libraries, my books, edits and apocryphal texts

News.

  1. MY FIRST TWO BOOKS AND LIBRARIES

First of all, I asked for help from The Society of Authors and a flood of information came through. It was about how I could get my first two books stocked in libraries. Two things about that. First, if you go to a local library you will struggle to find books published by small, independent presses. Libraries, under the current government, are cash strapped and you may have seen news on closures. Well, we know how vital a resource they are – and I will write about that at length another time, not least because my favourite person, in a complex situation as a kid, was the school librarian and the library was the only place I felt safe. Ah – what was I saying? Yes, having received helpful information, I am in the process of buying some stock and donating copies to my local libraries and, because the second book is extremely geo-specific and most of my family is there, I am going to do the same with South West Wales.

2. Lookee here

https://twitter.com/NinjaBookBox/status/1046656144389951489

Ooh join in if you can. This is an online book club discussion about my first book, tonight. Killing Hapless Ally (March 2016) is a semi autobiographical novel; a black comedy. I feel compelled to say ‘trigger warnings’ if you are not doing too well, because it contains frank accounts of mental health states, self harm, violence, hospital, depression and dissociative states. Having said that, they belong to me: I am still here and writing this for you. NOLI TIMERE. Do not be afraid.

Killing Hapless Ally

Published March 3rd, 2016

Prices
£4.85 (e-book)
£10.00 (print)

If you want to order from a local independent bookshop – bear in mind that a big chain like Waterstones stocks very few independent presses, but they can always order – then the ISBN is handy.

ISBN
9780993238857 (e-book)
9780993238864 (print)

Anna Vaught

This is a black comedy in which Alison conceived in childhood an alter ego called ‘Hapless Ally’ to present a different, more palatable version of herself to her family and to the world beyond. Ominously, the alter ego began to develop autonomy. Alison deals with this helped by a varied catalogue of imaginary friends. The book is about serious matters: fear, confusion, dark days of depression and breakdowns. It carries a timely message to anyone pole-axed by depression or associated problems — or any reader interested in such things: you can, like Alison, survive and prevail. Ah, if you had to survive — would you kill for it? Now that is an interesting question.

Buy paperback from Patrician Press

SOME REVIEWS:
Latest Goodreads review. Thank you!
Killing Hapless Ally by Anna Vaught is an intense rollercoaster of a read which grips you from the very beginning.

A dark comedy, the plot follows Alison from childhood to womanhood, as she struggles with inner voices and the family around her.

I’ve never read a book like this. I don’t know if there is another book like this. It is heart-breaking, heart-wrenching yet also heart-affirming at the same time. ‘Hapless Ally’ is the alter ego, created as the more presentable self of Alison, to deal with the incredible family and social life surrounding Alison. My goodness, the life of Alison was hard. Unbelievable treatment from her family, and as a reader, you’re there with her, willing her, aching for her to get through it. With the help of her imaginary friends including Frida (the brunette one), Albert, Shirley and Dolly, and various doctors (some more help than others), the reader sees Alison finally get to a place where she can thrive.

I could not put this book down. If you’ve ever had thoughts that you’re going insane, read this book. It’s a wonderful advocate for mental health and the struggles to survive. I loved Muffled Myfanwy, and think she could be the focus of another novel, but then I could say the same for Helen. This was beautifully written; so much so that it felt like Alison was talking only to you, letting you in on secrets. A triumph of a book, and very brave. Therapy to write and therapy to read. Stunning.

3. The Life of Almost is a month old today. Have you seen him? He’s my drowned bard boy, come up to tell you a story!

The Life of Almost

Published August 31st, 2018

Prices

£9.00 (print)

ISBN

9781999703028 (print)

This is a dark comedy set in Wales and a spectral reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Almost is a boy, brought up by his sister, Perfection. He is shrouded by bereavement and surrounded by the hauntings of his family’s undead. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, amongst mermaids, longing mermen, morticians, houses that respire and a poltergeist moss that grabs your foot. A cast of family and friends drawn from sea caves, the embalming table, the graveyard and the dark Clandestine House, which respires heavily and in which time has stopped. And like Pip, he sings into the sea and likes to tell stories – the key theme of the book which is the story of his life, his struggles and triumphs. He is thwarted in love but understands – the night he meets a ragged convict, for the convict is a merman, come on land – that he has deep and commanding powers.

The poems are the author’s own.

“An exhilarating, exuberantly poetic book with such a wonderful cast of characters, I couldn’t bear for it to end! Like a song, a myth, a fairy tale – by a spellbinding writer.” Heidi James

“In The Life of Almost Anna Vaught has conjured a dark wonder. She writes a distinctive, thrillingly precarious prose, making and breaking its own rules as it glides between voices and stories and worlds with giddy pleasure and incalculable cunning. This short, concentrated novel certainly delights in the fantastic, but it is always rooted in the glorious thicknesses of language and landscape, the ripenesses of a blackberry hedge, the trembling density of a jellyfish.” Anthony Trevelyan

See Storgy review here: https://storgy.com/2018/07/19/book-review-the-life-of-almost-by-anna-vaught/

The first chapter of the book was published by the New Welsh Reader in May 2018. Here is the online edition: https://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=2241

The Life of Almost, although not published until 31st August 2108, was nominated and voted for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize in July 2108. It received a great review from baldoukie:

“Poetic, comedic, a reworking of Great Expectations set in Pembrokeshire, this is a reading delight. A smorgasbord, satisfying at all levels. The child Almost, raised by sister Perfection, lives in an underworld of the dead, with their stories from the past, and with the living. Segueing between both, an interweaving of prose and poetry is the story of his life. The Llewhellin family (my favourite is Muffled Myfanwy Llewhellin), alive and dead, with Miss Davies and her adopted daughter Seren, with mermaids Nerys and Dilys, with the convict Derian Llewhellin, and many more.”

Here is the latest review from the inimitable Jackie Law:

https://neverimitate.wordpress.com/2018/09/03/book-review-the-life-of-almost/

4. And finally. I seem to have worked quickly, in that I’d placed my third book and my fourth was out on submission before I’d published my second. I am soooooo happy that Saving Lucia will be published by Bluemoose in early 2020 and will write separately on that. I cannot tell you details on the book that’s been out and about – where it has been and so on – but I can say that it’s The Revelations of Celia Masters and you can read about it on my last blog post. Anyway, one of my tasks this morning is to work on the letters and accounts that are referred to in the book and which intercut its first person narrative (I’m gambling on this – it’s hard to pull off); some are also referred to in its footnotes. There is, here, an intermingling of truth and…untruth. You must decide. A selection.

Bess Masters: Upon My Sacred Mother (1663)

Virginia Dare: manuscript of These Living Sheltered Days (found 1650)

Anna Constable Lee: A Discourse on Witchery (1647)

Sir William Berkeley. A Treatise on New Britain. Two Volumes. (1645 and 1660)

King James I. An Adjunct to Daemonologie (1597) on The Last Witch (1625)

A Brief Account of The Indian Girl (Anonymous). An account of Pocahontas in London (1617).

 

 

 

 

Raising Sparks: an interview with Ariel Kahn about his debut novel

 Here is an interview with Dr Ariel Kahn. His book, Raising Sparks, published with Bluemoose yesterday. I read a proof copy some time and loved it. I’ve asked quite a range of questions here – not too many spoilers – and you’ll see that I’ve also asked him a little about the publisher and about indie presses. Both are close to my heart because over the past few years I’ve taken so much delight in making much of my own reading from small presses and writing for them. Also, my third novel, Saving Lucia, will be published by Bluemoose in 2020.  And my goodness they are doing well: amongst other things, author Ben Myers just won the Sir Walter Scott prize for The Gallows Pole. (Read now; the press bookshop is on the website listed at bottom!)

But back to you, Ariel. Congratulations and on with the questions.

Malka Sabbatto is a young woman who flees the confines of her traditional family in Jerusalem, followed by Moshe, a Russian immigrant and her father’s top student. After falling in with a sinister cult in Safed she escapes to Jaffa, where she starts to build a new life under the wing of an Arab chef. When she feels she has finally found contentment, a family tragedy forces her to return to Jerusalem.

RAISING SPARKS reveals the hidden worlds, shared histories and unknown stories of the modern Middle East. (From the publisher.)

raising sparks

For those who are about to read your book, tell me about its title and the beautiful illustration on the cover. It’s a tree which looks to be reflected and also part blooming, part aflame.

Hi Anna! Thanks for these very leading questions. So Raising Sparks is a concept in the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, which really resonated with me. It comes from an alternative creation myth expounded by Isaac Luria, the 13th century “Lion of Safed” from who I’m descended. The sections of my novel correspond to the stages that Luria describes, and articulate the journey of my protagonist. He argued that when the world was created, God held back to allow it to form – contraction, withdrawal – “Tzimtzum” in Hebrew. Divine light then poured into creation, but the vessels that were meant to hold that light shattered, scattering fragments of light throughout creation. This stage is known as “Shevirat Hakelim”, or the breaking of the vessels. Rather than a pessimistic portrayal of a flawed creation, Luria’s myth suggests that humanity are co-creators with the Divine – we are responsible for the Raising of the Sparks, and for healing of the shattered world, known as “Tikkun”. How? As one of my characters puts it:

“There is a spark hidden inside everything and everyone in the world – every encounter, every experience, and every sensation. If you can be really present in the moment, you can set a spark free and return it to its source.”

The Tree on the gorgeous cover (designed by Stuart Brill) is the Tree of Life, a key symbol in Kabbalistic texts of the connection between the human and Divine. This always made sense to me, as trees are extraordinary beings, making food out of light, with their roots in the earth and their branches reaching up to heaven. The tree is sometimes portrayed upside down, with its roots in heaven, reaching down to earth – suggesting that the trees we see are mirror or reflections of the Divine reaching down to us, or through us. So on the back cover of Raising Sparks, the tree is inverted.

Malka, my protagonist, is a young female kabbalist in contemporary Israel. She experiences this tree at several points in the novel, and it is bound up with her identity. As she changes, so does her perspective on the tree. Her own abilities initially terrify her, and the flame suggests the power of the repressed rage and sense of entrapment she has felt. Working through that, she reaches a more whole place, effecting “Tikkun” in herself and others. She flowers.

Malka; Moshe. Is there any significance to those names? And what about the black cat that leads one to the other and to the room and to the tree?

Indeed there is! Malka means queen in Hebrew – her full name is Malka Sabbatto, or the Sabbath Queen. An aspect of Kabbalistic writing that really resonated with me was the notion that the reason the world is in such a state is because the Shekhina, the female aspect of the Divine is in hiding, in exile – when we raise the sparks, we help return her to her Beloved.  Another One of Luria’s followers, Solomon Alkabetz, penned a deeply erotic poem to the Sabbath Queen which is still sung on Friday nights in synagogues around the world to welcome the Sabbath. Malka channels this feminist Divine energy, and challenges and disrupts the patriarchal structures she encounters.

Moshe, Malka’s would-be lover, is the Hebrew name for the biblical Moses – though it is fact an Egyptian name, given to him by the princess who pulls him out of the Nile. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house, and then must flee when he kills a slave driver after identifying with the Hebrew slaves on whom their wealth was based.  So the name is bound up with saving, being saved, and the challenges of displacement and loss. My character is a Russian immigrant to Israel, who has come with his mother after the breakdown of their family, the effect of a tragic loss which Moshe believes he is implicated in. Like his namesake, water plays an important part in his story.

I can tell you’ve read the proof version of my novel, as the cat changes colour and becomes a smoky grey in the final version. Thereby hangs a tale. When my wife was pregnant with our second child, we went to a cottage in Suffolk for a few days to write. A black cat walked along the wall, and suddenly I had the image of a young girl pursuing this cat through the crowded food market in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. My wonderful editor at Bluemoose, Lin Webb, is a cat lover, and realised that there wouldn’t be a black cat in Jerusalem. So something was gained in transplantation.

What can you tell me about how this book came to publication? I have to say a few things first. One (and I haven’t told Ariel this yet) I was already aware of the book through a piece drawn from its manuscript which appeared in ‘The Arab Israeli Book Review blog’ and two that my own third book will be published by Bluemoose in 2020 and so we will be in the same stable.

The journey of Raising Sparks to publication had some surprising twists. I wrote it as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Roehampton, where I teach, supervised by the wonderful writer Leone Ross. Then I had lots of rejections by agents. I was just ready to give up and put it away in a drawer, when Leone posted on Facebook that there was a competition for debut novelists based on Pop Idol. Called Pulp Idol, it was run by Wowfest, based in Liverpool, and had heats in cities all over the country. The heats were all on Saturdays, which as an Observant Jew, meant I couldn’t attend one. Then I saw on their website that if you were not able to make the heats, you could record a short YouTube video instead, reading a few minutes of the opening chapter and answering a series of questions. My kids were not yet up, so I sat down, recorded the video, sent it, and forgot about it. A few weeks later, Wowfest got in touch to say that I’d been put through the heats and was one of the national finalists for the final in Liverpool. A was more than delighted. All ten finalists would have our first chapters edited and collected in a hard copy which would be sent around agents and publisher, so I already felt like a winner. The local Jewish community hosted me for meals, and the the Wowfest team led by Mike Morris made me feel at home. The final was in the Black-E, a converted church now a theatre space on the edge of Chinatown. We were each meant to read from our first chapters, before a panel of judges and a live audience. I read first, and Kevin Duffy, now my publisher, was one of the judges. I came runner-up out of the ten (writers, publishers, agents do check out the other finalists in Pulp Idol 2018, available as an ebook and in hard copy – they were all amazing). He liked what he heard, and asked me to send a hard copy to Lin, his editor. She liked it too, and on my birthday last year, Kevin wrote to say they were publishing me. I danced.

I love the rich evocative detail of the book. The pizza, water, tea, the cooking of fish, the doughnuts for the street boys and the layered sensual elements of the way in which you describe the bakery. Not just the smells, but the textures, processes, the pantry…Tell me about food in the book. Why there is so much emphasis on it? I was very taken with the glass of water which Moshe offers Malka so early on because it seemed so much more than the sum of its parts. With the bowl of peas remembered by Mahmoud that carries such resonance and recalls, for him, both beauty and intense pain. I’d quite like a recipe, too. How about something mentioned in the book?

Delighted that this sensory element speaks to you. One of the few written teachings of Isaac Luria is to do with raising sparks through cooking and eating, that this too can be a spiritual experience, which led to mystic pizza in my novel! I think cooking is an everyday kind of creativity, which we can do either mindfully or mindlessly. It feels very akin to writing in the way we combine ingredients which can become something more than the sum of their parts. Food encodes personal and cultural histories, and their mingling and development. Helen Goldrein, a friend of mine is a food blogger, and interviewed me about this element of the novel. At the risk of quoting myself, here is what I said:

“Food creates community. It’s a brilliant bridge builder. You can connect to other people through food because it resonates with everyone. In the book, the characters use food to communicate and open up to one another and forge relationships. A lot of that comes from my own experiences, here in the UK and also living in Israel.”

For more on food in the novel, see the full interview at: https://family-friends-food.com/raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

I’m so glad you connected to the glass of water, and the “Middle Eastern Peas” in Mahmoud’s coming-out story. I think our relationship to food is symbolic of how we see ourselves, and is full of personal symbolism. Both of these very simple foods have layers of meaning, both for the characters, and hopefully, in the novel. Much of the first draft was written in notebooks while sitting in a garden hammock, overlooking the hills of Jerusalem, right next to the herb garden belonging to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents.  I love his food and approach to cultural connection in his restaurants, set up with his Palestinian Business partner, Sami Tamimi. I’m hoping the reader of Raising Sparks will experience the way words and foods combine in my novel to similarly transformative effect.

You asked for a recipe, something mentioned in the book. How about this? A brief extract from Raising Sparks about Jerusalem Kugel, then my translation of a recipe for it from Sherry Ansky’s brilliant cookbook, Food, which we often use at home (my wife Noga is Israeli and a brilliant cook – how people feel about food is an indicator for me about how they are about people too, and she’s the biggest-hearted person I know).

‘What was your favourite food as a kid?’

‘Jerusalem Kugel,’ Malka said without hesitation. ‘I loved the contrast between sweet caramelised noodles and fiery black pepper. Everyone else bought theirs, but my mother made ours, every week. What’s that got to do with it?’

‘Well, kugel is the taste of home for you, isn’t it? I bet no-one here has ever eaten it.’

From Raising Sparks p.247 Copyright Bluemoose Books

Jerusalem Kugel from Sherry Ansky’s Food, Keter, Jerusalem 2003, p. 144

Translated by Ariel Kahn

Ansky always tells a personal story about each of her recipes. Here she writes:

One of my sweet childhood memories is the kugel which I would eat on Shabbat morning at synagogue. Close to the end of prayers, an Ultra-orthodox woman would appear at the corner of the road, pushing an old baby buggy at great speed, almost running. It contained aluminium pots full of giant kugel, covered in wool blankets, which she would distribute in the synagogues of the city. I would push through the congregants and watch in amazement how her giant pots were upended over trays, and with the help of string, cut into slices. The caramelised kugel was sweet and oily, but crucially, spicy.   In one hand I would hold Kugel, in the other a pickled cucumber, chewing, sweating from the pain of the spiciness, and from the pleasure of the taste. From the silence that prevailed in those sweet moments in the synagogue there arose only the cries of pleasure from the kugel devourers.

Recipe:

Serves 8-12

Ingredients:

½ Kg of straight egg noodles, 2mm thick

One cup of corn or sunflower oil

One cup sugar

6 eggs

Three teaspoons of ground black pepper

Salt

Baking parchment

Method:

  1. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until they are soft, but not too soft, around 3-4 minutes.
  2. Heat the oil and sugar in a deep pot. Cook over a low heat, tipping the pot gently from side to side without stirring it, until the sugar melts and caramelises (around 10 minutes). Immediately, but with great care, add the cooked noodles and stir. Don’t worry if some of the caramelised sugar hardens into granules.
  3. Crack the eggs and add them, together with the black pepper, and stir until you see that the pepper has been fully mixed in. Taste, and add a little salt if necessary.
  4. Heat the oven to 90-100 C. Heat a little oil in a medium lidded pot which can go in the oven, pour the noodle mixture into it, flatten with the aid of a spoon, and cover with baking parchment cut into a circle at the mouth of the pot (without the parchment the kugel will dry out and burn). Pour a little oil onto the parchment, then cover the pot with its lid. It I advisable to wrap the pot in a large sheet of foil. Put in the preheated oven. Cook for 7-10 hours. If you think the kugel is too dry and getting burnt, add a little water to the pot. If you cover the pot properly, it won’t happen.  Eat with pickled cucumbers.

Tell me about the significance of the sea and of water more broadly in the book? Even the title of the restaurant where Malka comes to work is of the sea – ‘The Leviathan’ (which you can also comment on if you like!)

When I was studying to be a Rabbi I was in an all-male bubble six days a week, studying from early morning to late evening. So on Fridays, which is the day off in Israel, I would head for the Tel Aviv beach whenever I could. Only an hour away by bus from Jerusalem, but a different world. The contrast was eye-watering. Then I started to notice little rituals in this supposedly secular space, and thought that maybe Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv were not so far apart. I loved the sea, and found its rhythm, colour and scent magical. Malka longs for water – she’s grown up in arid Jerusalem – while Moshe, with his traumatic history involving the sea, fears it. Water is also a bridge between them – he offers her a glass of water when they first meet, and she uses an ice cube in a key scene in the novel too. The Leviathan is my adaptation of a real restaurant in Tel Aviv called Lilith (after the mythic story of Adam’s first wife – there are two creation stories in the Bible – in the first man and woman are created equal, in the second Eve is subservient. The first woman becomes Lilith in Jewish folklore, challenges Adam, and becomes a kind of femme fatale for the rabbinic tradition – the dangerous, empowered woman  –  this fed into Malka’s identity too)  which trains street kids of all faiths and ethnicities to work in the restaurant trade, a lot like Jamie Oliver’s place in Devon. I decided to combine this with my love of Ottolenghi – only flip it so I had a Palestinian chef and an Israeli backer. The Leviathan is of course the great sea beast mentioned in the Bible, and Malka has some striking experiences in and around the sea. It is also the medium through which Moshe confronts his fears. Water is an agent of “Tikkun” or healing in the novel.

Now, do you have anything you could share on specific stimuli for events in the text or inspiration for any of the characters? If you would like, do explain for readers the significance of the book’s inscription?

Well, I’ve spoken about the black cat that inspired the opening sequence in the novel. After I had this image, I wanted to find out more about who this girl was. I was wrestling with the nature of Malka’s character and gifts. Growing up in a patriarchal family with four sisters, I was fascinated by the thought-experiment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which she wonders what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister as talented as he was. While staying in my sister in law’s home in Nataf near Jerusalem, I had a dream in which I was Malka, in which she goes down to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism, now a bit of a political football. In the dream, all of the prayers which people write and press into the cracks between the stones started to pulse like hearts, or sea anemones, and cry aloud the words written on them.  Malka could hear them. She could hear the music behind speech, the longing that underpins it. She would understand the language of silence. I realised Malka would be a mystic, a kabbalist, someone who could release these charged presences to powerful effect.

As well as a space to question and explore a feminist spirituality, Raising Sparks is also an act of remembrance. When I trained to be a rabbi in Israel, I discovered a love of mystical texts such as the Zohar. I up a writing group in yeshiva (theological seminary) with Matt Eisenfeld, my chavruta (study partner – texts are learned together, through discussion, to tease out their multiplicity of voices). Matt and his Fiancé Sara Duker were tragically killed in a bus bombing during the first intifada. This tragedy had a traumatic effect on me, and made me realise I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I came back to the UK and looked for answers in literature instead, gradually growing towards a different kind of engagement with my faith, one which stressed the more universal, mystical elements, while seeing ritual as a kind of embodied poetry, waiting to be filled with personal meaning, a way of expanding my experience of the other. If each person or situation I encountered contained a spark of light, how might I liberate that? The ultimate other is the Divine, which means so many different things to each of us through our lives. I wanted to write a novel that explored the nature and meaning of faith in the modern world, from a range of perspectives, something I had often discussed with Matt. I was determined that the love and vision Matt and Sara shared would not perish with them. Their relationship is the seed of the love story in my novel. It was also behind the formation of the Arab Israeli Book Club, which I set up in London, on the basis thatthat fiction is an empathy machine, enabling us to experience all kinds of “Other” without fear or prejudice, and wanting readers to have the opportunity to go deeper than the headlines. The Guardian called it “a roaring success”. Brief plug: This book club is relaunching as The Middle Eastern Book Review at Daunt Books Hampstead on September 28th, when I will be interviewed about Raising Sparks by Ian Black, the Guardian Middle East Editor. All are welcome!

The epigraph, taken from Job, is all about the way these sparks sometimes seem like trouble and distress, but are often the inciting incident to a different, deeper life. Job is also a great questioner of God, like Abraham and Moses –which is why God calls him his true servant. Faith is never about certainty. It is about asking the right questions, challenging authority.

While the book does not shy away from pain, unpleasant events, intolerance, brutality and violence, please will you talk a little about the ways in which it is a resolutely hopeful book? I do believe it is. I’ve told you that at a difficult time in my life, I have personally found it consoling and inspiring.

That’s moving to hear. Books have always been a consolation and a tool for engaging more deeply with myself and others, for feeling the things which connect rather than divide us. Faith is all about doubt for me, not in a debilitating way, but in a way that constantly enlarges our frame of reference and understanding, something which good fiction and art in general do too. Malka is a deeply optimistic person, despite everything she goes through. She believes in a shared humanity, in the ways in which all of us are connected. She tries to use her gifts as a tool for positive change, standing up to the forces of oppression and domination which seek to limit and define her. She questions received truths, and suggests that it is precisely by listening to the silenced other within and around us that we become most fully ourselves. She is a wise person but at the same time extremely naïve due to her sheltered upbringing – the modern world crashes in on her full force, so she uses religious myth to critique and engage with it, and create a new, personal kind of fusion/integration between them in the process.

Hard one. Define magical realism. You’ve used it about your book so go on then…

I’ve always loved the kinds of book crammed in under this label, from Rushdie and Marquez to Borges and Bashevis Singer. For me, it means books that enclose multiple ways of seeing, from the mythic to the modern, side by side, and often show how congruent they are. We live by myths – the challenge is to make them the best ones we can, open, fluid and welcoming.

Do you – and I appreciate this might be hard because you made it – have a favourite part of the book?

That is a tough one. I like the hard-earned moment of rest Malka has on the beach in Jaffa-Tel Aviv. That quiet moment was one in which she reached a new self-understanding and accommodation. It feels like a turning point in the story, and the challenge for me, as for Malka, is to make these quieter moments speak as powerfully as the more dramatic ones. I hope I’ve succeeded.

Beyond the book: where next for Dr Ariel Kahn?

Well, I love teaching, cooking, and writing, so hoping to do more of all of those. I’ve got the seed of a new novel with a historical strand calling to me – looking forward to having the headspace to heed that call.

Independent presses have had a stunning few days, haven’t they? Three prizes for three brilliant authors. Might you comment on this in any way? 

With significant recognition like the Walter Scott Prize for Ben Myers outstanding The Gallows Pole, Bluemoose and the Indie scene are having a renaissance. They publish edgy and interesting things mainstream presses are wary of. They work together, in constructive groups like the Northern Alliance of publishers. Bluemoose have a close, nurturing relationship with their authors – Kevin talks about the Bluemoose family, (note from Anna: as you know, Ariel, my own third book, Saving Lucia, is going to be with Bluemoose and Kevin sent me a note when I signed my contract: it said, ‘Welcome to the Bluemoose family’: loved that) and it is more than a phrase, it is something I’ve experienced, with the way other authors within the imprint support one another. As a debut author, the care and attention to detail Bluemoose have lavished on my book, and my inclusion in every aspect of the process including choosing the cover have made this an empowering and pleasurable experience.

And finally…tell me about your reading. Any recently published books you’d particularly like to recommend, say? Or could you name a few favourite authors or books?

I love David Grossman. He’s been a huge inspiration, as a novelist and a deeply ethical person engaging with his own trauma, the loss of his son, while remaining present and powerful in his use of writing as an empathy machine. Given my love of trees and their significance, I’m thoroughly enjoying The Overstory by Richard Powers (Heinemann), which looks at humanity from the perspective of nature on a compelling and moving way. I love comics and graphic novels – the way they blend the visual and the verbal fees deeply true to my experience of the world, and stimulates my own prose, which often starts with a visual image. Recently, I’ve enjoyed two amazing graphic novels. Tumult by John Dunning and Michael Kennedy (Selfmade Hero) is a deeply unsettling noir about a woman with multiple personalities, beautifully rendered, subtle and teasing. My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) is a tour de force – ostensibly a journal by a young girl who sees herself as a monster and investigate the strange death of an upstairs neighbour, it expands into a mediation on the saving power of art, human resilience in the face of tragedy, and the long shadow of World War Two. Finally, as I mentioned my wife writes YA. She introduced me to the amazing writer Philip Reeve, who writes Steampunk SF and is an incredible world-builder.  He writes strong feisty heroines which you root for, and a fascinating engagement with the meaning of technology and culture for our individual and collective identity. I’ve just finished his Railhead trilogy, a future where people travel between galaxies on sentient trains. It is also a moving love story and a meditation on difference and choice. The first novel in his Mortal Engines series is being released a film shortly and that should bring him tons of well-deserved new fans.

MOOSEKETEERS! Thank you Ariel, and I hope you take a good deal of pleasure in interacting with readers of your book over the coming weeks and months and good luck with Raising Sparks events.

Here are some first reviews. .

https://www.thejc.com/culture/books/book-review-raising-sparks-1.466439

http://www.skylightrain.com/book-review-raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

And an event you might like to go to in August (launch was in Waterstones Islington)

https://www.waterstones.com/events/raising-sparks-book-launch-with-ariel-kahn/liverpool

This is the Daunt Books event Ariel mentioned above: https://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/product/ariel-kahn/

And you might like to read this, too. Ariel’s book is part of this survey.

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/sneak-preview-independent-publishers-top-reads-for-2018-1.3357461

https://bluemoosebooks.com/

Follow Ariel Kahn on twitter http.//www.twitter.com/ArielKahn2 and the press http://www.twitter.com/ofmooseandmen

 

Six months of 2017 in books

Last year, I published a list of what I had read during the year. I thought that, this year, I’d get it down in two instalments. As before, I should love to know what others are reading. So do comment or talk to me! I don’t have time to review all these, but when I am done with the current fit of writing, I will try to post a few reviews, with a focus, I hope, on the independent presses. Also, I will update this list as I’ll likely forget something!

I read as much as I can and I read quickly. In snatched hours, in the bath, on the train, little bits of time carved out. But mainly, I go to bed earlier than I would naturally do purely so that I can read. I want to be frank about this. It’s how, as a child and growing up, I coped with anxiety and trauma. I went to bed and built a world. I do believe that with books, you can rebuild your mind and, to this day, it’s what I do.

Why?

Because every day is a conscious attempt to stay well and to manage, as best I can, my mental health: it has broken several times. Okay, many times. But I am back. Then there’s the pleasure of it all and the way my imagination is hotly stimulated. The way that reading, for me, leads on to discussion and friendship. As, I’ve discovered, does writing. Why did I ever think otherwise? And by the way, if you are feeling low or really, properly battling, I am not an expert, but I can tell you which books have soothed me, including the very few non-fiction texts I have read about mental health – though I have to preface that with, proceed with caution because, as I said, I’m no expert, but I CAN share. x

In no particular order, my reading over the past six months…

Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Finally got round to it. Also, the second book of his Bleak House (a re-read). I also re-read A Christmas Carol because I was teaching it for GCSE. To support my older children I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and  Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. Now, this I found this an excellent read and was delighted to find a friend had been reading it, too. Cue – memorable and moving discussion en route to the hustings in Swindon, two days before the general election. WHICH REMINDS ME: the same person has left Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (still haven’t read) and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Summer reads, then. 

At top speed, for GCSE teaching I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Woman in Black. Which led on to my re-reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in one bit, sitting on the floor, because it was next to The Woman in Black on my sitting room bookshelf. I discovered, through the new OCR English Language and Literature spec, the first poetry collection from Jacob Sam La Rose Breaking Silence (Bloodaxe), which led to some wonderful things. Some of his poems prompted me to revisit one of my favourite modern poets, Tony Harrison. There will have been assorted other reading in here too – going over GCSE (and IGCSE) literature and poetry anthologies and the like; reading for A levels in English Literature and English Language and Literature and the EPQ…but it was Jacob Sam La Rose who was my new discovery.

Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth

Ben Myers: The Gallows Pole and Beastings. Shout out for the independent presses – here, Bluemoose. These are wonderful books. Enormously atmospheric. He’s brilliant, I think, on landscape.

On the subject of indies, from And Other Stories (we have a couple of subscriptions at Bookworm Towers), I am currently reading The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar), which is stunning, and Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End, a series of sharp and funny stories which make me very jealous too: never have I managed to craft one as she does! I’ve just ordered Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – that’s an Influx Press title. Oh, there are so many indpendent presses – but my favourites – that is, of the ones I’ve explored – The Linen Press, Patrician Press, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Influx, Comma Press and Bluemoose. I read from all over, but get some of my greatest pleasure from texts published by risk-taking independent presses. That’s not to say risks aren’t taken by bigger concerns. Why not read both?

Dipped into a favourite book on writing (and close reading), Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This precipitated both editing and reading (I hope she knows how useful she is!) – in this case, going back to Chekhov’s short stories.

I am about to read Jess Butterworth’s Running on the Roof of the World, Jo Barnard’s Hush Little Baby and Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth. I love Chauduri’s books. Such restraint, so moving and unmistakeably his. I thought his last book, Odysseus Abroad gently broke a few rules (the rules you read about…) including ‘show don’t tell’ (bit bored with this): oh, he tells beautifully, and I felt the book was wonderfully episodic and that some of these epiosdes would have stood as short stories. More on which when I’ve got round to reading the latest one. Jo Barnard is a lovely lady. Very encouraging to others (including me) and a lean, spare writer at the literary end (what do I know? So kill me now if I have this market appraisal wrong!) of commercial fiction and cool in a hot and crowded market. That is a considerable achievement, in my view. I’d recommend her debut, Precocious. Unsettling and very well judged in tone. Jess is an old friend and I am very excited for her and cannot wait to see what she does in this, her debut, a MG set in India and Tibet, subjects close to her heart, as they are to mine.

For book groups I re-read A Tale of Two Cities, read PD James’s Innocent Blood – do you know, I had never read a P.D. James book – and Gilly McMillian’s What She Knew (which, by the way, is the same book as Burnt Paper Sky – hence the odd furious review by folks who bought the same book twice). Regarding the latter, generally speaking, I seem to fail with psychological thrillers. I read the Amazon reviews and those on Goodreads and generally feel like I haven’t read the same book, in that the ‘twists’ seem obvious to me – you know like in Of Mice and Men, when the foreshadowing smacks you round the face so hard – girl with the red dress/mouse/puppy/Candy’s old mutt/Curley’s wife…Lennie gets shot? Never saw that coming! It’s that kind of experience – and I don’t find them nail biting at all. I’ve been told that this sounds sneering, but it’s only my opinion and a statement of what works for me. Apologies if I’ve denigrated Of Mice and Men (quite like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath, though…) but to me Steinbeck is a pygmy compared with giants like…Faulkner and Wolfe. Oh yes: I have an idea. Why not read – although you won’t sleep afterwards – Ali Land’s striking debut novel, Good Me Bad Me before or after Innocent Blood? Some of the same themes rise up. Criminality. The choices that children and young people make in extremis. (Ali was previously a children’s psychiatric nurse and that gave the book a certain heft for me.) What it might mean…not to feel, or to feel unusual things. I don’t want to give more away. Yes. Do that for a book group.

But back to Southern US literature and…

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I will re-read in a little while (I want to write something about her), well, that is brilliant. Is all this meandering discussion awful, do you think?

Which brings to me to…

Of Time and the River and (currently reading) The Web and the Rock. Thomas Wolfe. In my view, a genius and we lost him so young.

Patrician Press launched its Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers and we had a lovely event at the Essex Book Festival; I read everything in it and that led me on to (two indies here) Refugee Tales from Comma Press.

Now, for my own current book, Saving Lucia (or even Passerines – depending on who nabs it…), I’ve been re-reading Joyce, so I’ve had Finnegans Wake and Ulysses to hand. Also lesser known Joyce works – Pomes Penyeach. I’ve been reading up on Joyce, Beckett, Mussolini, the history of psychiatric care (I listed some of this stuff in last year’s post and also it’s in my bibliography at the end of Saving Lucia – one for the future, if you be interested); I read Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl and continued to dip into Frances Stonnor Saunders’s exemplary account of Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. I’ve been reading articles in The Lancet, articles on Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann and accounts of Bertha Pappenheim (there’s a need for a bigger study and, I would say, what exists needs to be translated from the German because she is fascinating!); I also looked (in German) at Bertha’s book of prayers – Gebete and found an English translation of her short stories, The Junk Shop and Other Stories and finally read Florence Nightingale’s posthumously published Cassandra – which Virginia Woolf said was more like screaming than writing. I concur. Also, religious texts, archive work (letters and documents) and miscellaneous articles.

And I think we are there!

Two other things on reading and writing. How good it was to see the Authors for Grenfell auction raise so much and I was pleased to be a tiny part of it. I’ve a tea party coming up – and also a tour of Pembrokeshire, visiting all the settings in my second book, The Life of Almost, which comes out in autumn, 2018 with Patrician Press. Also, in September, for the first time, I have a work experience student and I am so excited. I am still a newbie fiction writer (I put pen to paper in mid July 2014, although I’d been a freelance author before and writing is not my day job) and this kind of thing makes it feel…real. We are going to get a writing project off the ground; she’s going to submit work for publication. She may also help me with editing of and suggestions on two anthologies of which I am co-editor and editor, respectively. Said student (she’s in the upper sixth) is reading the manuscript of my third book – which led to her mum reading it too…which led into a date to discuss it. and, I hope, a super-clever new beta reader. Yay.

I’m sorted on my reading for the next few weeks, the manuscript of Saving Lucia goes out again on the 20th of July  – and in the meantime I wait to hear if others are biting…it is a long process and probably a good education for me, seeing as I rush at everything like it’s my last day. (In my defence, it could be: I’ve had a lot of people die on me, some of them very suddenly: another story – some of which is in my first book Killing Hapless Ally, if you are not freaked out by very dark humour. If you are, don’t read the bits of The Life of Almost concerning a love story in a funeral parlour…)

Other booky things: my two Grenfell offers to fulfil in summer and autumn and archive work in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Northampton.

And reading Horrible Histories in bed when stressed or sad. Oh forgot: I had norovirus so badly I was hospitalised. During that period I read Gren Jenner’s (he’s part of the Horrible Histories telly team) A Million Years in a Day. A jolly diverting read.

AND FINALLY

Quibbles and possible spelling errors spotted in some of the books, above (English teacher forevaaa):

prophesise (prophesy) as verb

disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue

past (for passed)

Thursday’s…Friday’s…for simple plurals, not possession

it’s when you mean its (ugh!)

passer bys

me/I/myself I won’t blather on about that because I sound like a twat. BUT in a top selling book for which I’ve shelled out, say, £12, it niggles to see a chapter starting (names changed) “Me and Andrew left France…”

I have been spelling fuchsia wrong my whole life. And cardamom. So I’m a fine one to talk. In my Killing Hapless Ally, Myfanwy twice appeared without the first y. My fault. And I swear as if my life depended on it.

Love,

Anna xxxxx

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)

Passerines: some epigraphs for a new book

I find I vary how I write. With this book – Passerines, a series of interlinked stories about Violet Gibson, Lucia Joyce, Marie (‘Blanche’) Wittmann and Bertha (‘Anna O’) Pappenheim  and of psychiatry – I have tinkered with the beginning because it began life as a short story – and have now lunged into what is sometimes known as the ‘Frankendraft’! So I have 50,000 words to write and I will not read the book back now until it is all done. Then I will attack it with some vehemence.

BUT I have allowed myself two things to help me think. (In addition to the ongoing reading for research).

Although I have a rough plan sketched out, I have decided to write a proper synopsis, even if this is chucked out later – inspiration invariably striking not before but while one is writing. And also, it helps me to look at other books. That is, dipping into things, beyond what I might read for pleasure or research. I read all the time…but it is like magic.

There are lots of books in our house; the house is heaving with them; only yesterday, a cat was almost squished by a tumbling tower of books yet to shelve (or rather as we are waiting for Pete The Shelves to come and shelve for us). But as I was saying, I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. It is magnificent; its beauty makes me cry – and this rarely happens – that I will find a book so affecting. And there it was: the description of boy Eugene, who is Wolfe himself, bounded in by his imagination, knowingly so, and living lonely in its country. And projecting what is required onto the world. I copied it. This is a key theme in Passerines. When you are someone else’s subject or subject to someone else, what might happen to your interior life?

Then…my hand brushed against William Empson’s Collected Poems. I’m sorry if this makes me sound like an utter tosser (‘Ooooh – my hand brushed against a book and it was the very book I needed…’), but this is exactly what happened. I was getting Some Varieties of Pastoral down because I need it for an A Level class on genre. And I suddenly thought of ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’ and its startling pairing of the girl who ‘can’t go on laughing all the time’ with the image of the tortured Christ after this mischievous villanelle. And you see, Passerines has both spirited girls and women and those same people encaged by madness and circumstance – in two cases incarcerated for life and in one almost erased from records  – and a study of both faith and imagination. It begins with Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini, was almost lynched, then pardoned by Mussolini (who himself drew his life as if it were the Passion of Christ and spoke of the prefuguration of his death) and then sent to St Andrew’s Asylum (as it would have been known) until the end of her life. The one picture we have there of Violet is unbearably touching: in her greatcoat in the grounds, feeding the birds, her stance reminding us of Giotto’s St Francis.

So, I realise this will not make total sense. Bear with me. I am fleshing things out. I know this is a rather a WTF sort of post. (Very literary, along with ‘tosser’: apologies.)

As I write, I’m still doing bits and pieces on mental health connected with my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, and that has only been out eight months. I have sent my second book, a novella, The Life of Almost, out on subs to a small selection of presses and agents. Has it had rejections? Well, of course. Interest? Oh yeah. So I am a bit tense. And while this is happening, I am writing a third book, a novel, using the ‘Prolifiko’ app and setting my target to 3,000 words a day. I am told this is a lot, but if I don’t make it, the app is at least a prompt and very encouraging: a little cheerleader for me. In other news, I am thinking about applying to pitch at the London Book Fair (dependent on what happens in the next week or so, I think – as deadline’s approaching), I’ve applied for Womentoring  ( a fine free mentoring service, where an established author guides one at an earlier stage) and asked for Antonia Honeywell (am I allowed to say that?) because I feel passionately that I will find nurturing in such a project and she seems utterly delightful, a wonderful writer and frankly, I thought she might ‘get’ me, also managing a large family! Does that sound odd? And up ahead, Essex Book Festival in March to read my work in Refugees and Peacekeepers (a Patrician Press Anthology) and there’s a Birkbeck day I’d like to go to in May…

Back to the epigraphs. Synopsis follows soon: did you know there’s good money in Mills and Boon? More on which another day…I write well on hospitals, sex, Horlicks from the trolley and death. You’d be amazed at the categories extant in M&B!

‘The prison walls of self had closed entirely round him; he was walled completely by the esymplastic power of his imagination – he had learned by now to project mechanically, before the world, an acceptable counterfeit of himself which would protect him from intrusion.’

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel, 1929, chapter fifteen.

‘Love rules the world but is it rude, or slime?

All nasty things are sure to be disgraced.

A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.

Christ stinks of torture, who was slaked in lime.

No star he aimed at is entirely waste.

No man is sure he does not need to climb.’

From William Empson, ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’, 1937.

‘The bird could also be seen as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. A non-Biblical legend popular in the Middle Ages related how the child Jesus, when playing with some clay birds that his friends had given to him, bought them to life. Medieval theologians saw this as an allegory of his own coming back from the dead. In another legend, when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary a small bird – sometimes a goldfinch, sometimes a robin – flew down and plucked one of the thorns from the crown around his head. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the bird as it drew the thorn out, and to this day goldfinches and robins have spots of red on their plumage. Like the cross that Christ wears around his neck, therefore, the goldfinch might be read as a prefiguration of his Passion.’

From ‘The Goldfinch.Signs and Symbols’, notes in web text from the Ftizwilliam Museum, Cambridge.