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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    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

    Love, Anna.

On writing, on difficulty and sadness, but also the magic of reading and making a new story. Yeah: I AM EXCITED, ALRIGHT x

So, I want to tell you how it feels to be writing what I am writing at the moment. It’s a strange time, because it is also a time of waiting. News of my first short story collection is out and I am receiving edits for my third novel, which is out next April. I have just written some notes for the latter – Saving Lucia, Bluemoose – and some thoughts on cover images; not, that is, what the cover image is to be, but concepts and thoughts I might want to be represented there. There is a further volume of short stories to be read (that is on submission), I have a novel waiting to be sent, and I have been gathering in time for my ongoing project; a new novel, the idea for which began germinating in spring when, quite by chance, I saw a newspaper article for autumn 1940 about London zoo…I can share some details, but not many. I want to tell you what I have been doing and how exciting it has felt, as well as delineate a few of its low points. kit

 

  1. Yesterday I wrote a new chapter. In that I vividly imagined myself in St Nicholas’s Church in Deptford. Here lies Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, a huge favourite of mine, buried in an unmarked grave in 1593 and with a commemorative plaque: its plangent quotation from Dr Faustus made me shiver. Now, I hadn’t actually intended to visit Marlowe, but one of the young characters from the book goes to visit the grave of his father in the churchyard there and his mother tells him, not for the first time, about Kit Marlowe and his untimely death in a Deptford Tavern. There is a great deal in this novel about memory and grief and suddenly, with another shiver, I began to make some connections with the poet and playwright and some of the themes in the book. I can share those with you at some later date. Also that St Nicholas’s church turns out to have been badly damaged by an incendiary bomb on the very night the (true) event on which this novel turns occurred.
  2. I realised, after sensible advice, that in this book, I had to stretch out the action and give it room; I made it first as a novella, but it didn’t work because it was too rushed. I had to allow more time for relationships between characters to develop and that the plot was not tight enough. I’d say that the two biggest flaws in my writing (your view may be different if you read my work) are that I over-express ideas because I love luxuriating in language and consequently a perfectly respectable idea gets lost underneath clusters of these over-expressed phrases which would be HIDEOUS for a reader. The second thing is that I describe too much  – particularly about sensual detail, texture, landscape and the nature of a place – and advance the plot too little. I am learning to be flexible on all this. I have to be! I am not precious about my work, but I do tend to be stubborn about keeping long, poly-clausal sentences because I personally love them; sentences of many clauses held together by a range of punctuation. Work in progress, that one. I also have a really irritating habit of using archaisms and I’ve also had a couple of bitchy reviews about having to read my books with a dictionary on the side. I thought that sounded great, but again, work in progress! You want to be you, but you don’t want to irritate your readers, either. Is that a good maxim, do you think?
  3. I am not a very confident person. Tricky background and so on; lots of truly unhelpful thoughts. I fake it; propel myself into a room. The teaching background has helped in this way. However, I am easy to crush (there’s an antidote or two to that, though). Now, I was told only the other day (and not for the first time) by a member of my extended family – sorry folks; I know you didn’t mean it like this, but it hurts – that when my next book comes out, it’s really hoped that no-one knows we are related. And someone else asked me to tell them what happens in what I am writing and what I am editing, then said, ‘Well I won’t be reading any of that. I don’t think I’d like that at all.’ People, I would rather stick pins in my eyes than say this to a member of my family, but it is not meant to hurt; it’s an expression of disapproval or a lack of interest because if I wrote it, it can’t possibly be good – or it will contain stuff that people would rather not associate with. What can I say? Sometimes we are swatted back to our earliest pathology. Sometimes, when people say such things, I am afraid that I hear my mother’s voice mocking and criticising: it is full of horrid triggers and can spin me into dissociation if I am having trouble coping more generally. (And I don’t mean this in term of criticism of my work by readers, because that is part of the process.) BUT my bravehearts, I want to say that although I had a jolly good cry the other day, by teatime I was in Ethiopia meeting a Grevy’s zebra, by late evening, I was watching Haile Selassie get his photo taken on Brighton Pier (when he was in exile) and by late at night I was back in Deptford again, by way of the Cleddau Estuary and I thought, oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination, (forgive the pink doughnut and the sprinkles, which truly don’t go with the plaque of Kit Marlowe and the sombre comments…no: fuck it. I LIKE pink doughnuts and sprinkles so…), oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination,

    woman holding donut with sprinkles
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  4. Writing a book is a daunting prospect. Here’s something that really helps me. It’s something Hilary Mantel said. That she ‘will do a little scene…then another little scene and try not to think of the enormity of the task ahead.’ That’s very much how I am getting this current book written. I know that, when I have written this post, and before (or after) I have cooked tea for the kids and sorted out domestics and helped with an English homework, I will be writing a ‘little scene’ about some evacuees arriving on St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire in 1939. I know that there is one particular lad called Ernest (he’s the boy from Deptford, if you remember that I was there, in the churchyard, regarding Kit Marlowe!) and that he is lodged with a family that I have based on what I know of that of a distant cousin of my maternal grandmother’s, she whose stories have, my whole life, affected by imagination so much. I have been imagining him all day, though: his life, the times, the details of the very stones and the sea wall around places I know well. So, when I come to write this scene, it will seem at least partly familiar. As if it were a figment of memory that has come forth, filling out a story for me. Again, that feels like magic; a gift.
  5. I hope that, whatever you are writing and despite its ups and downs and the ups and downs of your life, you find solace and happiness as you are absorbed in the rich world that you are creating: something that did not exist before you made it. I hope that it is also so with your reading. Anna x

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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
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  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
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On creative writing: this is for you, GCSE students.

This is especially for my cousin, Gareth. and one of my own boys, Isaac; year 11, both. But I can take this off if you just died of embarrassment. No, I will.

So. You have to write a creative piece somewhere in your two English language exams. You might be writing a descriptive piece or a story. What are some useful tips to help you manage this in an exam? You will probably have done lots of creative writing in primary and possibly less at secondary and, frankly – you did want me to be frank, yes? – creative writing may not get much space plus, unless your teacher is a copious reader or maybe also a writer, it is hard to teach. So here are some pointers because there are plenty of people out there who feel stuck on this one and think, ‘It’s not my thing.’

NOT SO FAST.

 

Right. Choice of tasks; do one. You’ll get story/writing titles, probably a first line and maybe also a last line of a story and, depending on the board, you might get given a picture or photograph to use as stimulus. The exam may ask you to write a ‘story’; it may also simply say ‘write about’ (in which case you could do a narrative, descriptive OR reflective piece) but you need to crack on in prose – continuous writing – even if you were to include a poem in there.

Before we start, what about your nuts and bolts?

  1. Check your high frequency punctuation errors: capital letters; clauses (parts of sentences) separated by commas (ask me if you don’t know what I am on about). Promise me you will not commit CRIMES AGAINST APOSTROPHES? I’d rather not see them at all then see them plastered everywhere there is an s. Simple plurals do not have them. You use them before the s if you’re showing possession and after the s if you’re showing possession by more than one person. You use them in contraction where the missing letter or letters are – do not becomes don’t. CHECK THIS OUT: IT’S meaning it is has an apostrophe BUT ITS meaning something that belongs to IT does not. Ever. Neither do his, hers, theirs, whose or ours.
  2. Check your homophone spelling errors. Touched on them there. Words that sound the same but are spelled differently. So who’s/whose or they’re/their/there. Go online and google LIST OF HOMOPHONES and print it and stick it up somewhere. It’s one of the things that makes you look less literate fast. Too/to and also near homophones, like off/of. AAAAARGHHHH. Wait. What’s this? homophones
  3. High frequency spelling errors. A lot is two words; definite has a FINITE in it. Necessary is like you in the old school uniform there: it has one collar and two socks. Do you get it? Again, google COMMON SPELLING ERRORS, print off and observe.
  4. Please check for errors. Are there words missing? Do you have a sentence which doesn’t make sense? Plan five minutes and check five minutes WITHOUT EXCEPTION. The plan can be simply a list of the main ideas you want to cover, but make one because your writing will be better. And remember, in your plan, that if it’s going to be a story, you need to aim for a beginning, a middle and an end. Plot that out.
  5. NOW CREATIVE CONTENT. Be bold and brave in your choice of words and language and do not panic about using 27 metaphors and similes but, instead, focus on using a beautifully chosen verb. Use adjectives and adverbs judiciously and word combinations in unexpected ways.
  6. Dialogue. It enlivens a piece of writing so practise writing it and be sure you know how speech punctuation ought to be handled. Check with your English teacher if you are using a computer on this because you could use italics for speech if need be.
  7. Look at these pictures. Imagine that you can feel their texture. Really imagine that. 

     

    Well now, that’s what you are aiming to do in a descriptive piece or story. You want to magic up the texture of that place and how it feels, looks, smells and tastes. Bring it alive.

  8. Perspective. You might think of where you are; above or within. Up in the air or below; to one side and unobserved by others. Perhaps you’re not even supposed to be there. OOOOH. Your perspective – the place from where you are seeing events and things – radically changes how you and your reader observe or experience things. Also, shift it within your description or narrative. Like a camera angle, moving from a wide angle observation of a crowd scene to a zoom in on one particular detail or person; their thoughts, feelings – what you read in their face as you look very carefully at them.
  9. Vary your line length. So, you might have a small number of very short paragraphs – perhaps of one line each, contrasting with your longer paragraphs. You might do this with the first and last line. It might actually be the same sentence; say, an intriguing rhetorical question.
  10. And finally, have faith in your imagination. Here is a great piece of ongoing homework. Be more observant. People watch wherever you are. Discreetly, mind. Notice how extraordinary the everyday is; observe and watch and think about how you could weave and extend a story or a piece of descriptive writing from a conversation you overheard or an unexpected encounter you saw. and go forth, storyteller.story

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).

 

 

 

 

EDITING SERVICES. TAKE A LOOK! FOUR FREE READS A YEAR TOO, SO KEEP AN EYE ON TWITTER FOR THAT.

Have you written a story, novella or novella and you’d appreciate someone else’s opinion on how you might improve it? I should love to help with that.

edison

 

Let me read, ponder and provide an objective critique of your work. I will look at voice, language, plot, structure and style. I will also look VERY closely (and several times) at your manuscript for spelling and grammatical errors, missing words – because we all miss those in our own work and, err, editors miss them too.

OR to put it all another way…

We can work on proofing  – checking for errors of all kinds. You might be amazed at how many words are missing or how many typos or misspellings have found their way into your manuscript. Top of the tree are those pesky homophones: words that sound the same but…you get the idea. There/they’re/their; passed/past; who’s/whose. Funny little things, too; like ‘to all intensive purposes’, ‘upmost’, ‘hairy fairy’ (a personal favourite that) and ‘passer bys’ – not to mention all those poor apostrophes which appear when they don’t need to and don’t when they should definitely be there! You can ignore me if you think I’m a pedant too far. Insisting that ‘disinterested’ means not having a dog or a stake in the fight, rather than being ‘uninterested’.  You get the picture.

Line editing – where we look at the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level and focus on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader. Gosh, you will read a lot about this. Culling your adverbs, for example. Showing not telling…

Structural editing (you might also hear this called developmental editing or substantive editing) and it is really the most complex and time-consuming stage of the editorial process. It means that you evaluate the manuscript as a whole and analyse for its author how well its constituent parts cohere. In other words, the big question is, ‘Does this work as a book?’ To make the matter more complex, not everyone agrees on what, err, does make a book. There are plenty of algorithms about on the structure of a successful novel BUT there are plenty of texts that defy those; there are many texts that are genre defying and experimental work. We can talk about that, because I also want to say that your work is your work.

I will also guide, encourage and do my utmost to help you grow in confidence; I will share what I have learned and I won’t pretend to know something that I don’t. I may also recommend someone else if I feel I am not right for you. We will have a good discussion before anything happens!

(Actual picture of me in book and author cheer-leading pose with my favourite pompom)

cheerleader

Details and prices below, but you could DM me through twitter for an initial contact

here https://twitter.com/BookwormVaught

Or you can call, text or whatsapp on my mobile 07814954063 or on my landline, 01225 866488. I apologise in advance: no answerphone because I bought one of those retro 70s style ones and they won’t connect. My email address is annavaughttuition@gmail.com Obviously there’s no charge for that chat. If you are in my area, West Wiltshire, it may be that we can meet face to face. I am based in the Bath area but am also frequently in South and West Wales. That could work too. Or we can do the whole thing online: you might be anywhere in the world!

So, costs…

Novel extract (up to 5000 words) and synopsis: £50

Short story (up to 5000 words): £50

Longer extract or longer short story (up to 10,000 words): £100

How about a submission package, to included detailed feedback on your cover letter, synopsis and first three opening chapters (or fifty pages – dependent on what you are being asked for at submission)? I am happy to  read an agent submission or one which is going directly to a small press. £120

writing

Full novel read (up to 100,000 words) plus your synopsis: £500

Longer novel read – you may have written a stunning and vast work of fantasy or historical fiction – £600 approximately, but we might need to have a chat because HOW LONG ARE WE TALKING HERE?

I will send your critique back to you within 4 weeks of receiving your manuscript and you are then welcome to have a follow-up phone call with me. Sound good? You may wish to send me a paper manuscript but a PDF, Word or a googledoc share are preferred. Either way, you’ll get a report from me plus all my little comments on the manuscript itself. You will know it has been read and loved and more than once.

ALSO THERE IS ONE FREE READ A YEAR UNDER MY FABIAN BURSARY. HERE https://annavaughtwrites.com/the-fabian-bursary-announcing/ You can ask me about that.

Ah yes, who am I?

*I am a novelist, short and flash fiction writer, editor, reviewer, poet and essayist. Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost (2016 and 2018), Saving Lucia (Bluemoose, 2020), my fourth book, The Revelations of Celia Masters is on submission at the moment, my fifth, a book of short stories, is published next year too – THERE WILL BE A SEPTEMBER ANNOUNCEMENT ABOUT THAT!- I have a second short story collection on submission and I’ve just completed a novella called The Zebra and Lord Jones. My short fiction, poetry and critical work is widely published online and in print. I’m BA and MA in English Literature and hoping to start a PhD in published work (focus on memory and trauma) when the multiple offspring are a bit older. I am represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agency in New York.

*I am an experienced proofreader, copy editor and copywriter. For literary and business texts.

*Now, you may or may not think this relevant, but I am also an English teacher and tutor and former examiner. This means I am a grammar geek, a spelling whizz and dedicated to preventing crimes against apostrophes. I am a nerd on the deepest level and actually get excited when I see homophone errors or an it’s which should be an its. That might sound a bit weird.

*I am a mentor and advocate – meaning that a joy of my life is to help people – sometimes in very difficult circumstances – improve their confidence and skills. In other words, let me cheerlead you and encourage you to make the mental leap, if you need it, that allows you to say I AM A WRITER.

cropped-writing-heals2.jpg

 

*I read about three books a week. May I add yours?

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