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
Photo by Pedro Sandrini on Pexels.com
  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.
    toys letters pay play
    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

    Love, Anna.

WRITING. Ten thoughts on the last four years! (PS don’t tell me off for not really having a twitter break; it’s automatic from my site. x)

I am off social media until November or so as I am working on edits for my next book (novel, Saving Lucia, which is out in April) and doing a rewrite – and expansion – of another book. Head is down because I’m balancing this with teaching and a brood of offspring and…well, you know. Anyway, if you reply to me on twitter or FB, I won’t see it, but I hope you find these thoughts encouraging or interesting. They are not only about me, but about what I have learned and seen, since I started writing in 2014.

quotes by lemn sissay
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com
  1. Don’t ever assume that writing is not for you. There are many reasons why you might. In my case, I thought, ‘Oh I’ve left it too late’ and other lame things related, in my case, to self esteem, which has, I will tell you frankly (and as I have written about elsewhere), been radically affected by a tricky background and a daily management of sometimes scary mental health stuff. And I am not going to sugar coat issues of structural inequality; it’s there – let’s look for ways to overcome it as we support each other.  Writing, if you want to do it and can make a good shot at it, IS FOR YOU.
  2. Related to this, I bet pretty much everyone feels like an outsider or has that old chestnut, imposter syndrome. I am constantly sure I am about to make a massive fool of myself, but if I do, I do it with a full heart. Make sense? Would you rather be mightily arrogant and therefore, I would argue, less able to self reflect, less delicate in your observations, perhaps less kind to others, because you NOTICE LESS – and maybe you are thus a lesser writer? Because don’t you need doubt in order to write well?
  3. There could well be some mighty cock ups. You don’t need to hear the ins and outs of what has gone wrong for me, but you might be heftily let down by someone, have a book that is not promoted, simply not be valued or find yourself actually gaslit by someone you work on a book with, in some capacity. This is not the end; it is part of learning, of amassing (sorry, but I do love swearing) the twats in one useful corner (or rather the people who were twats to you) and, though beaten, you can get back up. The writing community is large and welcoming, everyone has disasters sooner or later, far as I can tell, every writer has bad track in common (that is, a book that tanked, but bear in mind that this is more subtle than it looks because much also depends on the provenance of that book) and so lift your sights.
  4. Do not wait for ideal circumstances. Room of your own? I should cocoa; no chance in my house. To be happier, thinner, less busy, add anything…NOOOO. If you want to do it, start right now. YEAH. THIS AFTERNOON. Even it’s just scribbles or a few lines; or a chapter; or the whole first draft vomited onto the page. It will be dreadful, it will be your shit first draft, but it will also be the germ of something that is not. Or lead on to another piece of writing that is so much better in the first place.
  5. You do not have to write every day. Well, if you feel you do you do. But don’t feel that you can’t write a book if you can’t write every day. Write when you can. Also, don’t wait for inspiration. Start writing and inspiration will come; if it doesn’t, take a break. Try later.

    brown notebook in between of a type writer and gray and black camera
    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  6. Read. It’s your greatest teacher. Why not read from a genre you haven’t tried before? Or perhaps read a book that seems too long or too difficult. Try works in translation, novellas, poetry, a play.  All time periods if you like. Get to know the brilliant small presses there are. Try non-fiction as well as fiction.
  7. Your writing and all the shit first drafts that got crossed out or maybe the books – it happens – that didn’t make it: it’s all an apprenticeship. You are learning. While I have been writing, though, I’ve been learning about the industry, because that seemed to me to be something I ought to do. Plus I was interested because I like to learn now things work. By the industry, I mean learning about small presses and big publishers, agents, independent and big booksellers, international markets, editors, marketing and book PR. Also, connect with people. I am a funny mix; I’m naturally quite shy and need to hide, preferably under a duvet with a book, after a big social event, because my tank runneth dry. Nonetheless, I love talking to people and learning about what they do; chatting to people who love reading is a joy of my life but it is also a great way of learning what’s going on.
  8. Pay it forward. Help others. I am a great believer in communities; they are the mainstay, I think, of our world. If you get a break, try and help someone else to. Or just try anyway.
  9. When you come to submit – and this is based on manuscripts I have seen and conversations I’ve had with people more knowledgeable than I am – be you, but be mindful of the fact that agents and small publishers get many, many submissions and so as well as being you, you’ve got to be you pitching up having done the groundwork. Craft your approach really well; make your query personal to them and really do your homework – on their catalogue, say; or be aware – and tell them – of a recent wish list they published or an interview they gave where they mentioned a book they’d love to see and you think you might pique an interest. Likewise, if you are submitting to an indie press, then you really should have read some of the books on that catalogue, otherwise why are you submitting to them if you don’t really know what they publish? If you’re submitting in a particular genre you need to be aware of that genre at market. And follow the submissions guidelines always and without exception.
  10. This might be a testy one, but I stand by it. I have found the best use of your time while waiting for rejections – or hits! – is to be working on something new. I’ve heard people say that they cannot start another book until they know about the one that they have submitted, but you might be waiting many months. This may or may not have happened to you and it sucks and it isn’t really good enough, but here are two things that happened to me. First, I wrote something to time for an agent who then rejected it with a form letter after many a cheery back and forth and I never heard from them again. I thought THIS IS IT (how naive was I?) and didn’t work on anything else. Then I stalled because I was upset. Also, I haven’t, compared with some of you extraordinary indomitable people out there, submitted that widely. But I would say that about 30% or so of the people I submitted to, including big agencies who promise they take notice of the slush pile, never replied. I had a no reply after a full manuscript request. Submission is testing; rejection after rejection is testing. There will be low points. So I say, don’t wait to clear your decks before you start another book. Get cracking. This, by the way, is one reason I’ve managed (nearly!) 7 in four years and I am not a full time writer by any means: I am always writing a book. And the writing can be planning, researching, daydreaming in the bath, reading, mind-mapping: all this is your book writing, be reassured. x

    books in shelf
    Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

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

 

Five, twelve, fourteen. The day after the brexit vote

FIVE, TWELVE, FOURTEEN

June 24th 2016. The day after the Brexit vote.

Here is how it went.

I had my first texts very early and a phone call from a friend in tears. I’d thought, as she, that the vote would be close but the other way round. The previous day, we’d looked, together, at the ‘Vote Leave’ balloons strewn about in the centre of our small town and thought, ‘Ha’— but still I was restive and feeling depressed; the atmosphere did not feel good. In the week before the vote, I had felt miserable and angry that many people in my own extended family were posting union jacks on Facebook with a ‘Remain’ shout. I was furious that people, some of whom I knew pretty well, did not appear to understand where some of the funding for new building had come from in the places where they lived.

What have they ever done for us?’ I heard someone say in Merthyr; in Newport, ‘It isn’t fair that these immigrants come over and are immediately given a council house!’ and I began to argue but was told I was soft and it was alright for me. I am not having a pop at Wales here; it’s where my people are from and I speak of it only because this is where I was in the pre-Brexit week; I rounded off this week in an idyllic valley in the Black Mountains and heard talk of how it was too crowded shortly before I walked a mile and half up the valley to the next house to deliver a get well card. On the way I saw only a dead badger. And then in a local town, I heard the word ‘darkie’. It is not that these sentiments are not thought or exchanged, just that it made me tremble to hear such things expressed more openly and with such vigour. When I got home I was so rattled by some of the papers’ coverage that, topping up with petrol just down the road from home, I turned the offenders round. It was not my place to be a censor, but I couldn’t help it, with all that inflammatory talk.

Yes, that Pre-Brexit week was a tough one. You remember the bus? The Bus. The Bus that Couldn’t Do Maths? I hated that bus. Where is it now and what do you suppose it says? ‘It’s what THEY WANT you to think! But seven is NOT a prime number!’

I had listened, as The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths chugged on, to people talking about British sovereignty and purity which enraged me with its confident stupidity. ‘I hate it when you can’t hear any bloody English being spoken!’ said one. That was in Asda. WHAT IS MORE it was Asda in West Wiltshire, which is not exactly heavingly multi cultural. I was very close to doing the thing called Having a Go. I was minded to be right in there with words on celebrating the polyglot, the verbal texture, the joy, the fun, the life; to speak about howthe same person was also talking about preserving the English language—the English we speak was not suddenly born—Pop! Huzzah! It is English! It is a pretty, pure thing for local people only!—and added to with cultural reference and dialect; that it was, instead and like us, a series of graftings: Anglo Saxon words, Latin, Norman French; you know. I was about to go for it with other words: with jamborees and bungalows and pyjamas and…you get the picture. But I didn’t. I was too upset. And also, I did understand the importance of the vote for people. Because many of those people felt disenfranchised and that their voices were not heard by those in power, by a perceived ruling elite. It was only the other day that MP Jacob Rees Mogg spoke of how one problem in government was that there weren’t enough Etonians. Meanwhile, a house nearby had pages of statistics pasted on its windows: the costs of the EU. This fellow had also helpfully pasted up statistics on immigration with lists of dubious figures on their cost. Like teaching them to speak a language that everybody understood, say. We racked up loads in costs for language courses and teaching them English customs and gifting them five bed council houses because Johnny Foreigner has loads of children.

But back to Brexit the morning after.

The early texts. Miserable. I’m moving away from this wretched place. I’m moving to America (almost funny in retrospect; should add that I am married to an American); I am buying an island as far away as possible. There was one two plane rides away from Fiji for twelve grand apparently. I’ve searched it up.

The school run.

I have three boys, then five, twelve and fourteen. Smallest too small to grasp; Twelve thought the whole thing was just appalling (although one of his friends said the result was good because it meant we kept the pound) and Fourteen, I think, thought it was just typical of these grown ups to be not particularly watchful about something and then grouse. Or wail, in my case.

I left the house to take Five to school and two minutes down the road there was a triumphant woman assailing me. “It’s Independence Day!”

‘What does that funny lady mean?’ said Five. I tried to explain and he said, ‘But France is very nice and especially the train you put your car on.’

‘We got our country back!’ she hollered. Alarmingly similar in wording to Donald Trump’s comments in Scotland later that day, when congratulating them on voting for Brexit…

The rest of the run (I was snivelling by now) was full of moribund parents and I knew it was going to be a long day. It wasn’t even the voters I was cross with. It was, after all, their right to vote and, as I said above, I was entirely mindful of how opinions may have born of feeling eclipsed by a bossy elite. Maybe by bossy Oxbridgey Guardian readers like me, although I like to point out that I am actually very common and come from Welsh farming and mining stock for absolutely forever. Where the fact I have written novels is always going to be eclipsed by the size of Dai’s barbecue and the fact he is now a connoisseur of meat as well as a fan of Cameron, who GOT THE COUNTRY BACK ON ITS FEET. I did point out—that,you know, I’d hardly been head girl at Roedean; I was a bunker offer and swore with a passion—a couple of times in those early hours and days; for example, when someone called me a bad loser and said it was alright for me in my poncey house. I said, ‘I bought that as a semi derelict and washed up in the bath for four years and I am common. Yes, a right Chav. Yeah, okay I read all the time but…’ and I thought, ‘What nonsense am I even saying?’ and stopped in mid flight. My co-combatant smirked at me and, yes, I was a bad loser. I had conversations and made comments I should not have; that were divisive and snarky. I’m worrying I’m doing it now. Also, you saw my comments, above, about novels and the size of your barbecue. I realise that I am sliding more towards an exegesis of a dysfunctional family, but to tell you the truth, the familial schisms and the lies and the crazy rattling stuff that have gone on for decades, well now, they were melding that morning with Brexit ranting and Farage’s frog face and Boris’s snuffle-waffle-heffalump sounds. It was awful to feel so at odds with people who had been there a whole life, love them as I did, as I do. A beloved auntie just told me about how Theresa May is just what the country needs; my father in law is a Trump voter. God: WHAT A YEAR. How has that ‘renewal’ thing been going for you? Maybe TM will be out by the time this has published; I’d bet more on Trump, but I digress.

Around me, it felthad been feeling for a whilelike one great collective breakdown, that squalid summer. I wasn’t sure if I was actually okay. If anything was. Yet, I felt that I should not be smug about why I thought the vote was wrong. I had a secure home and had enough to keep me, us, safe and warm and it is plain as day that this is not the case for many, too many in our country. In some places and for some people, this will have inspired their choice of vote. You can’t go round jeering at others’ opinions when you have not walked in their shoes or heard of what was in their hearts. But I had read and thought a great deal and could not see any pressing reason to pursue Brexit. And as I said, it was those whom I felt had played fast and loose with facts and sums and hugely emotive topics that I was mad at. Well, and the Jingo woman on the school run.

And the fucking Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths.

24th June. Why did it have to be sports day? I felt it would be too sad to watch 421 primary age pupils while wondering how a decision we had made would impact on them. Fortunately, I didn’t see the Independence Day hullabaloo lady again, or I really would have done some very sweary public things, but when we were lining up, just after lunch, oh—people were miserable. Disconsolately dishing out squash for the kids and finding out where their eight year old was currently racing. All that week (I teach at secondary level) I went on to listen to angry teenagers, just not quite old enough to vote, bemoan the idiocy of what happened as more information and non-information came out; as Farage dismissed his endorsement of the facts on The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths. It wasn’t that anyone was saying the EU had covered itself in glory, but mostly we were just confused, sad and, sometimes, a bit frightenedmostly, in my experience, because we witnessed a sense of empowerment from those holding views we found repellent: on the them and the us; the them you can’t trust; who take from us. I do realise I am simplifying, but I think that sense of witnessing loathing and suspicion and long held resentments coming to the fore was terrifying for people not used to dealing with it regularly. I should add that it is all very well for me to say; white; moreorless middle class enclave. Now I had to learn just a little of the kind of resilience that others are compelled to build every day.

Others. Yes. But us. We. Society is, should be, a we. Not us and (tick) other. Shouldn’t it be so? There I go again, worrying about semantic fields. But the words you use are important.

On Facebook ranting and hand wringing went on, as you’d expect. I blocked Independence Day lady. I should have known. She’d previously been posting that egregious thing about how we should be giving our funds to injured servicemen rather than the immigrants. That was a feature of those weeks. A sort of relegation to the back row of any sort of maths that made sense. If we don’t give the Polish bloke who runs the deli and works 100 hours a week a leg up, lazy sponger that he is, we will have funds for our lads. It’s The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths, isn’t it? End our involvement in the EU and it is perfectly clear: straight swap with NHS funds and let’s get to Granny’s hip op and an end to the postcode lottery on, say, Tamoxifen. Anyway, the person with the sums was also joking about how she was playing ‘Spot the Brit’ while in the supermarket and titillating herself with the hilarity of someone asking the ‘foreign couple’ in front if they wanted help with packing their bags. HAHAHA I THOUGHT WE’D ALREADY TOLD THEM TO DO THIS.

Me: block. Pull plug. I cannot look. Oh look, though: she’s a good person because she’s put up another poster about hospices. Julie Burchill once wrote that shallow people cry very easily. Like at Bambi when mother deer gets it. I’ve found that racists do too and that they often like puppies and sick kids and doing their bit. I’ve always thought this is a bit like the Krays: they were ON IT when old ladies had their bags snatched or someone was mean to a defenceless kitten—and they probably contributed handsomely to the whist drivebut they still ran the firm and I wouldn’t have trusted them with my bread knife. There it is: I sound like a smug Guardian reader, I bet.

But back to sports day. Five smiled and waved and then up came the big cry. It was because I was thinking about what we might have taken from these children in terms of friendships made and bonds created; in terms of possibilities for living and studying and understanding. And I felt a dark and clawing sense of enclosure; of things drawing in around me. So I went into the toilets (I had to crouch down, obviously, because these things are built for small people) and I did the ugly cry, up from my toes. I probably wasn’t the only one.

It has been a strange year, summer 2016 to 2017, oh yes. My greatest cheer has come from the emboldening and charity of the young people I work with. The tears we have shared, even. I do believe we are seeing a generation becoming more alive to change and possibility and to the merits of political activism. And as I am fond of saying, it’s the parents you have to worry about. So thank you, thank you so much to all of you. But I worry about the young people and the children, of course. Mine; yours. I do not believe, as so many doand they are broadcasting it on social media that the world is now a terrible place; I don’t believe that. Or rather I believe that it has always been full of terrible things, but that I am optimistic, believe in the kindness of strangers and, to quote J. B. Priestly, that we ‘are one body’.

But we didn’t live in Merrie England until the spring of last year. Or at any time in the past. Speaking to some and listening to many, you’d think that’s what we were after. A return to a golden age; an Arcadia. Perhaps many Elizabethans may have had a whale of a time on all those junkets and national holidays; in gadding about round the maypole and sucking up mead in the days before twitter trolls and pesky plurality, but I’d argue it didn’t compensate for wars, poverty, pestilence and losing lots of your children. Perhaps The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths needed a twin: The Bus That Made Up History. Well, something like that.

I do feel that, at this point in time, we, even we who perceive ourselves to be the original inhabitants of Albion (I am sorry; that was definitely a bit snarky of me), are tempest tossed and I hope, for all our children, that wedo you know, I am struggling with the word ‘we’ here; fretting that it is ethnocentric—are beginning to take stock and that, with clear thinking, proper information untainted by angry cant or prejudice born of sadness in these ‘alternate (sic) reality’ and ‘post truth’ times, with kindness and imagination we can make it to dry land. Off this rough journey out. You know, for the children.

For Five, Twelve, Fourteen.

Or should I say now, Six, Thirteen, Fifteen.

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)