To keep going…

 

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

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

Do I have a shot? Naaah, not really.

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

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

AND SOMEHOW

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

On, blunder on. xxx

Anna Vaught's photo.

The Life of Almost – and an invitation, if you’re local, like.

An invitation if you are a local-ish writer or reader and would like to come for some reading and discussion of the first few chapters of the book I am working on, my follow up to Killing Hapless Ally (March, 2016, Patrician Press).

The Life of Almost is a re-working of Great Expectations, with its protagonist, Almost, roughly modelled on Pip. It has a predominantly Welsh setting, much of it being in Pembrokeshire. As such, it draws on the stories I have been listening to my whole life and so I have adapted these for the book. Stories of sailors, the strange dangers of the sea and those who love in it and on it; dark events at steam fairs; predicaments at village shows; kelp, barnacles, tough salty men, the cree of the curlew and the dead across the estuary and of how gentry moved in and spoiled all. Stories of beatings known about but hidden in plain sight; curses and vendettas; strange harpists, madness, mutism; poltergeists who threw pictures from walls and plants from windowsills and vases from above the fireplace. People who went away and never came back: stories, stories, stories. Shootings, hangings, disappearances. My idea of a picnic could still revolve around sitting by graves describing the dreadful manner in which relatives died, except I desist because I’m the mother of three young boys and I think my upbringing was definitely weird and I’m sure the kids think I’m quite peculiar, already.

So, you know roughly the story arc if you know Great Expectations, I’ve told you a little of the settings, but there’s more to it. Because, as Almost takes you through stories of his world – as he tells them to Catherine, who opens the first chapter, so tired of life – you come to realise that he is not entirely of this world and not entirely of this time: he is something more protean and unconfined; a storyteller who can shift substance in an extraordinary way and who is not compromised by, shall we say, temporal and ordinal rules…I hope, when it finds its home, that you will find the book darkly funny, maybe a bit shocking in places and that you’ll enjoy what I have done with my favourite book, Great Expectations, such as reworked Jaggers into a nasty (Ben Jonson’s) ‘Volpone’, basking in his gold somewhere off a great motorway and given you many elements of the supernatural. I did something a bit radical the other day and incorporated, euphemistically, some of the Brexit scoundrels – they are part of why Catherine, who begins the book, is so jaded and sad and thus why she has Almost come to visit. And, you know, one might question: is Almost really there at all? Or is he created by others when….they need him. Oooohhhh.

Because I stand by this and know it to be true: a story can save your life.

Like a copy of Killing Hapless Ally? Order from Waterstones, your local bookshop (Ex Libris and Mr B’s have copies in our area), the Patrician Press website or Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Killing-Hapless-Ally-Anna-Vaught-ebook/dp/B01CA5F21Y/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1468239225&sr=1-1

 

 

 

An exciting new literary prize for small presses and their authors

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

But why don’t they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is the YouTube launch film for the prize:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next on my list.

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

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

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

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

Thank you so much.

Very happy to do it – thank you.

 

Book Groups and Killing Hapless Ally

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

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

    Questions for

     book groups

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

Would you describe Hapless Ally as real?

What is your opinion of Santa Maria?

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

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

Did you guess the ending?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was the book shocking? If so, why?

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

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

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

What do you think of Dixie Delicious?

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

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

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

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

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

Is Alison strong, or is she weak?

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

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

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

Food for a writing competition and a beautiful book to buy.

Now that Killing Hapless Ally has gone to press and awaits its first reviews, I am doing various media bits and pieces to promote the book. Well, not only to promote the book, because I do have a passionate and campaigning interest in mental health and in mental health provision and so, with the exception of (fingers crossed) a piece on my correspondence with Catherine Camus, daughter of Albert, that is a book link up I shall make the most of. I have been asked to make a short film about managing anxiety and will tell you more about that later. Soooo…I am working on The Next One, the working title of which is A Life of Almost and, for practice and for joy, I thought I would enter some short story prizes.

Here’s something that caught my eye last year; I thought it was a wonderful idea: a short story on the theme of food.

http://www.oxford-hotels-restaurants.co.uk/the-mogford-literary-prize/

This morning I am working on an entry for this competition. Wish me luck! Last year I wrote a piece called ‘A Tale of Tripe’ (didn’t win but up we get – competition is stiff indeed). Anyone, previously published or unpublished can enter and the winning entry will be featured in the Oxford Literary Festival.

Then…tonight I start on the next of two short stories, but still mulling over which one to think about first. Here’s the BBC/Booktrust competition, which has just opened. You do need to have a history of publication to enter this, but it need not be in fiction.

http://www.booktrust.org.uk/prizes/1

Then there’s this – which has a chosen theme: ‘Ageing’.

https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/competitions

This competition ends pretty soon (15th February; the other two are March) but I have already plotted it out…..

HAPPY WRITING

PS. The image I have set for this post is the gorgeous cover of Martin Johnson’s new title for Patrician Press, Robert Macfarlane’s Orphans which launches on the 24th of February at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, (where Robert Macfarlane is an English fellow). Martin’s book of poems draws on the beautiful, rich and important  prose of Robert Macfarlane, who has written so evocatively on landscape, place, travel and nature – just as Edward Thomas  in his prose works did with the poems of his friend, Robert Frost. I look forward to buying this book. Here’s an article about the friendship between Thomas (of whom I am a huge fan) and Frost while I’m at it…http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/29/robert-frost-edward-thomas-poetry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WRITING…READING…BIBLIOGRAPHY

WRITING

So, my manuscript has gone back and I have a little time (ha!) to work on the chapter book I’m submitting for both Bath Children’s Novel award and Chicken House/The Times competition. I have also discussed writing a YA novel with someone rather wonderful I met through discussions of all sorts (including writing books) on twitter. I also, chancing my arm, submitted feature pitches to ‘Mslexia’ and ‘The Atlantic’ – both were about mental health and writing.

READING

I read – as I tweeted to him – the whole of James Dawson’s This Book is Gay in one chomp. As an exploration of sexuality FULL STOP this is an excellent book. It’s comprehensive, funny and wise; I hope it will get used in PSHE in schools – and I say this with my day job hat on: as an English teacher and one who used, like James, to teach PSHE. PSHE is the starting point, I think, for teachers: do it well and students may come and find you at other times to talk things over. For the digital natives, there is a great deal of LGTB* support online – but this book is an essential for bookshelves: for young people, for their teachers and for their parents. I have already looked at the book with one of my boys: with my almost twelve year old because he saw the cover and was, of course, intrigued (my fourteen year old saw it and ran away. Make that two copies for this household  – I’ll leave it by his bedroom door).

Other reading…I’ve almost finished John Carey’s The Violent Effigy, his fine exploration of themes, images and symbols in the work of Charles Dickens, just started Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, which I think I will stay up late reading tonight as I am already, as you could predict, hooked by its first characters; I want to know what the dilemmas are; I want to know about the first protagonist and her husband and what the consequence will be of his so unapolagetically announcing an affair with Melanie who wears heavy amber beads…I want to know about the legal papers in a fan on the floor and about the title of the book and whether I am to read ‘act’ as both noun and verb.

And it has been the morning of the em dash, of writing to Catherine Camus, daughter of Albert, for literary permissions and of doing the draft bibliography of my debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally. Why the bibliography? The book is about, shall we say, unusual methods of staying sane; of being less alone; of not being terrified in a home of desolate proportions. Bound up with that is reading and the novel does refer to and quote a good number of books. Some are in the acknowledgements section, which houses Kavanagh, Camus, Larkin, Plath, Auden and Dorothy Rowe. Here are the (draft) others!

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I have referred to, used very brief paraphrase, or quoted where the text is out of copyright from the following and I hope my book has piqued your interest in some of those which follow. I have listed the editions I own, but where these are out of print, I have given an obtainable alternative. Albert Camus: The Outsider, (Penguin, 2000, translated by Joseph Laredo), The Myth of Sisyphus‘ (Penguin, 1975, 2000, translated by Justin O’ Brien); Louis MacNeice: ‘Thalassa’, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ and ‘Autumn Journal’ from Collected Poems Louis MacNeice (Faber and Faber, 1966, 1987), Simone de Beauvoir: Force of Circumstance (Penguin, 1987, translated by Richard Howard); Jean Paul Sartre: Nausea (Penguin,1966, 1986, translated by Robert Baldick) and Annie Cohen-Solal: Sartre. A Life (Heinemann, 1987); Sylvia Plath: ‘Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit’ from Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (Faber and Faber, 2001) and the poems ‘Lady Lazarus’,‘Cut,’ ‘Daddy’ from Sylvia Plath Collected Poems (Faber and Faber, 2002); Dylan Thomas: A Child’s Christmas in Wales (New Directions, 2009); T. S. Eliot:‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ from T. S. Eliot Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber and Faber, 2009), Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient (Bloomsbury, 1992, 2009); Samuel Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Waiting for Godot’ from The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett (Faber and Faber, 2006); and his Collected Poems (Grove/Atlantic, 2015); W. B Yeats: ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ from The Collected Poems of W. B Yeats (Wordworth Poetry Library 2000); Andre Gide: Fruits of the Earth (Penguin 1970, translated by D. Bussy); Dolly Parton: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, (Harper Collins, 1995); Peter Hogan: Shirley Bassey. Diamond Diva (ReadHowYouWant.com LTD, 2013); definitions of disorders are as given on the NHS website on its mental health and associated medication information pages and from the DSM-5. [An abbreviation of] The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (Various. Published by the American Psychiatric Association, 2013); Robert D. Hare: Without Conscience: The Disurbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (The Guildford Press, 1993) and his site, www.hare.org, which is devoted to the study of psychopathy; Charles Dickens: Great Expectations and David Copperfield, (Gerald Duckworth and Co Ltd, 2005; this is the Nonesuch Dickens six volume collection); Frances Hodgson Burnett The Secret Garden (Vintage Children’s Classics, 2012); Helen Bush Mary Anning’s Treasures (Puffin, 1976); Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories (Dover Publications, 1997); John Skelton: ‘On the Death of the Noble Prince King Edward the Fourth’ from John Skelton. The Complete English Poems edited by John Scattergood (Penguin, 1992); Walt Whitman; ‘Song of Myself’ from ‘Leaves of Grass’ (Penguin, 1986); Andrew Marvell: ‘A Horation Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, from The Complete Poems of Andrew Marvell (Penguin Classics edition, Penguin, 2014); D.H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers (United Holdings Group, 1922); William Empson: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Pimlico, 2004), John Keats: ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ from Collected Poems of John Keats (William Ralph Press, 2014) and John Keats. Selected Letters (Penguin, 2014), Kenneth Graham: The Wind in the Willows; Robert Browning:The Pied Piper of Hamlin’ from Selected Poems of Robert Browning (Penguin, 2004); Matthew Arnold:Sohrab and Rustum’ from The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Oxford University Press, 1922); Moliere:Tartuffe’ – the title of which is sometimes translated as ‘The Hypocrite’ (NHB Drama Classics, 2002, translated by Martin Sorrell); Duncan C. Blanchard: The Snowflake Man. A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley (Ohio, 1998); W. A. Bentley and W.J. Humphreys: Snow Crystals (New York, 1931); Father Ted: Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan for Hat Trick Productions and Channel 4. The poem (my own) you find in chapter one contains the first line of Richard Lovelace’s ‘To Althea. From Prison’ from The Poems of Richard Lovelace (Clarendon Press, 1963) and the rest of the poem is a pastiche of its form, with a hint of its theme of confinement. The story about Eric Newby’s A Book of Travellers’ Tales (Picador, 1986) being found in Kolkata, as signed by the author, is true and the book is on my shelves at home. The story of meeting Johnny Cash in a lift is also true and happened to my husband; as with the Newby incident, I took it for the book. Signposts you see.

Slight change to the book’s title and other things!

This is a bits and pieces post. The next one will be a review.

Guidance from my publisher has resulted in a change to the book’s title and to that of its protagonist. The novel is now called Hapless Ally and its protagonist is Alison. This is partly a stylistic issue – that is, Hapless Annie doesn’t sit so well with Anna on the cover – but it is also important for me, as author, because the new title helps to make it clear that this is literary fiction and not memoir. It is also helpful from the point of view of clear genre and, moreover, because the book does describe and entertain real people in the public domain – Shirley Bassey, for one – I’m emphasising that any conversation with her is imaginary and had in the head of an imaginary character. Well, actually, it’s all a bit more complicated than that, but enough on the subject. And I hope you like the disclaimer which runs,

Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction and, while real authors and musicians are characters in the book, they are in the role of imaginary friends and are the author’s interpretations only; any celebrity or individual in the public domain who features in the text in no way endorses it or is associated with it; any dialogue is an invention of the author and resemblances to anyone else living, dead or undead but still quite lively, are drawn as literary creations only. I did, however, write regularly to Tony Benn and once sent him some rock cakes.

WARNING: this book contains bad language, graphic accounts of suicide attempts, self-harming, sex, funerals, deaths and some brutal culinary episodes.

What else happened this week? Well, somehow, I managed to work through all the editor’s comments and requests for changes. There has only been one big change and, oh my, was she right. But I won’t say what happened!  Also, I got permissions back for quotations from Kavanagh and MacNeice and I completed requests for Johnny Cash, Dorothy Rowe, Larkin, Plath and Auden, which latter preceded a very nice email from Faber and Faber correcting me: Curtis Brown NY office holds the Auden rights. Oops. Now, should you ever be seeking literary permissions, there is one very quick way to check who holds the key:

http://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/watch//

This site lists writers, artists and their copyright holders, so you know to whom you should write. Don’t assume it’s the publisher (which I had, with Auden) and don’t assume it’s the first publisher of a text – as I had been advised for Albert Camus, hence my applying to Gallimard (I now know it is his daughter, Catherine, I shall be writing to). Then there’s the issue of whether or not I use my own translations….We’ve got round the issue of translation from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ because my wonderful, bilingual publisher did the translation for me; easy to attribute that!

And, finally, I have drafted a plan of Life of Almost  (that’s the Next One) and written the first chapter. It’s a YA novel based on Great Expectations. I’ve enjoyed corresponding with various writers and spoken to someone about working on a collaborative YA piece (clue: genetics; off-world colonies, replicants: I realise that all sounds rather ‘Blade Runner’…) There is a great supportive community out there. Also, because I’ve had, shall we say, a bit of a dip, I’ve had some great exchanges with Mind and with the extraordinary MH survivors I have made contact with through social media. Some of them were contributors to Dear Stranger (Penguin/Mind) – which I will review in the next post. It’s brilliant. Here are some links to it; one from Mind and one from the Penguin blog. I have asked one of its contributors to write the foreword to my own book.

http://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/dear-stranger-is-published-today-in-aid-of-mind/#.Vb0IwflViko

http://penguinblog.co.uk/2015/07/02/dear-stranger-a-letter-from-rowan-coleman/

And, I was pondering: in my book there is a GP called ‘Dr Krank-Werden’, who is ‘possibly the best loved doctor in Albion.’ I was thinking about this earlier. I have talked to a lot of people about the kind of care they have received, over the years. Some have had no continuity of care at all; not all have a GP they find supportive. But I have been lucky. Together we have been down various routes: some things have worked; some have failed. Sometimes, somebody else lost the paperwork or support came to an end without any explanation at all: I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But she never gives up on me. So, while my book might be fiction, Dr Krank-Werden has some elements of my GP in her – and I thought that, if Dear Stranger could ever gain a second volume, I’d like to write a letter to her. It is partly for her that on the acknowledgements page of Killing Hapless Ally there is a thank you, ‘to the kind and determined people in our NHS which on many occasions has made me cry with pride, gratefulness and not a small amount of embarrassment…

Night night.

Topping and Tailing

Do these work as dedication and disclaimer? (I really don’t think I can get away with the disclaimer, but I record it for posterity!)
For Dixie Delicious. Because you loved her when she was Hapless
And you love her now she’s Annie.
Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction and, while real authors and musicians are characters in the book, they are in the role of imaginary friends and are the author’s interpretations only. Resemblances to anyone else living, dead or undead but still quite lively, are drawn as literary creations only.
One of my central characters isn’t actually alive, but is pretty frisky. Others are long dead but very much alive in Annie’s imagination and affect the way in which she marshalls ideas, thoughts and words. ‘Dixie Delicious’ is a character I hope readers will love and, of course, he nabs the dedication to the book because, if he existed (I reiterate that this is a work of fiction), I would throw myself in front of a speeding car, I would take a lightning strike and I would give my last for that man.
So then I started going over any copyright issues and sketching in a list of acknowledgements and it came out like this (incomplete; dates to add – as I’ve got to follow the MHRA Style Guide for attributions consistently……)
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I have quoted in the briefest possible terms or used brief paraphrase of the following: Albert Camus: The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus and Selected Essays and Notebooks; Louis MacNeice: ‘Meeting Point’, ‘Thalassa’, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ and ‘Autumn Journal’; Simone de Beauvoir: Force of Circumstance; Sylvia Plath: Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Collected Journals, ‘Words’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Cut’ and ‘Daddy’; Patrick Kavanagh: ‘Prelude’; Philip Larkin: ‘Faith Healer’; Dylan Thomas: A Child’s Christmas in Wales; T.S.Eliot: ‘Prufrock’ and ‘The Journey of the Magi’; Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient; Dorothy Rowe: Depression: The Way Out Of Your Prison; Samuel Beckett: ‘Happy Days’,‘Waiting for Godot’ and  Collected Poems; W.H. Auden: ‘Musee des Beaux Artes’; W.B Yeats: ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’; Dolly Parton: ‘Coat of Many Colours’ and My Life and Other Unfinished Business; Peter Hogan: Shirley Bassey. Diamond Diva (2008); John L. Williams: Miss Shirley Bassey (2010); Johnny Cash: ‘Down there by the train’; Abba:‘Waterloo’,‘Supertrouper’ and ‘Gimme Gimme a Man after Midnight’; definitions given on the NHS website for its mental health and associated medication information pages and from the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) 5.
If any other quotation or literary reference has piqued an interest, others texts referred to (or quoted but out of copyright) are: Dante: Inferno; Charles Dickens: Great Expectations; Derrida: Positions; Aristotle: The Poetics; Charlotte Perkins Gilman: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’; John Skelton: ‘On the Death of the Noble Prince King Edward the Fourth’; Walt Whitman; ‘Song of Myself’ from ‘Leaves of Grass’; Andrew Marvell: ‘A Horation Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’; D.H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers; William Empson: Seven Types of Ambiguity;‘John Keats: ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and ‘Collected Letters’; William Shakespeare: The Tempest; Kenneth Graham: The Wind in the Willows; Roald Dahl: James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny the Champion of the World; J.R.R. Tolkein: ‘Concerning Hobbits’ from The Lord of the Rings. The strange little poem about ‘Bucket Baby’ that you find in chapter one contains the first line of Richard Lovelace’s ‘To Althea. From Prison’ and the rest of the poem is a pastiche of its form, only; the first line is part of an extended metaphor in the book: that of the prison. Finally, The story about Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush being found in Calcutta, as signed by the author in memory of a walk on Dorset Cliffs with Ted and Vi […]is true and the book is on my shelves at home. Signposts, you see.
I think that when this goes back for edits there might be hard stares, because there’s rather a long list for a work of fiction – and I’ll have to suck it up. And yet it’s all in there. The content of the book and its storyline were necessarily tangled up with a number of people – singers; writers; divas! Because you see Annie is a great bookworm and at least partially detached from the real world. [Depending on one’s definition of ‘real’, of course.] Writers and their creations and also songs and the spirit and sentiment behind them: those are intrinsic to how she copes with any interaction in the world and how she comforts or defines herself; she sometimes uses others’ language to find voice. A slew of acknowledgements and what looks like a reading list would not, I think, find a place in my subsequent books, but in Killing Hapless Annie, this is truly how it went. Although of course it’s fiction; definitely fiction. As I’ve now said three times and I’m sure the lady doth not, ‘protest too much, methinks.’

An interview with Joanna Barnard, author of Precocious (Ebury, 2015) and winner of the 2014 Bath Novel Award

                       AN INTERVIEW WITH JOANNA BARNARD

Write the book you have to write, the story that keeps you awake at night.’

Joanna Barnard won The Bath Novel competition in 2014 with her novel, Precocious. The literary agent Juliet Mushens went on to represent her and Precocious was subsequently bid for in a four way publishing auction – with Ebury Books taking it on. Exciting stuff! The book will be out this July and Joanna is working away on her second novel. I have taken the synopsis and comment below from The Bath Novel page – with thanks.

NOVEL SYNOPSIS:  As a schoolgirl, Precocious’s Fiona Palmer has an intense crush on Mr Morgan, her English teacher. She writes stories, poems and plays for him; he praises her talent and offers a glimpse of what life might have to offer beyond her council estate. The crush develops into a relationship which ends badly.

The novel opens with a chance meeting between the two fifteen years on. Morgan seems once again to offer a form of escape and they quickly begin an affair. A young woman visits Fiona, seeking her help in prosecuting Morgan who she claims abused her at school and Fiona finds she must re-visit her own version of the past.

Gillian Green, Ebury Fiction publishing director told The Bookseller: “Joanna’s debut is an utterly compelling, clever and controversial novel which the fiction team has become hooked by. It’s that Holy Grail in fiction: quality writing but with a commercial heart and a subject matter ripped straight from the headlines.”

I went to hear Joanna, the literary agent, Juliet Mushens, Caroline Ambrose, Chair of The Bath Novel Award and Dionne Pemberton, one of The Bath Novel Award‘s readers, speak at the Bath Literary festival. If you are a writer – however tentative your efforts so far – I would really recommend going to such events for the insights you will gain. It is as if you are saying to yourself, ‘Right. I am taking my writing seriously.’ And go even if you don’t enter the competition!

For me, it was the talk at this event, my manuscript review at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy and the day I said to myself, ‘I have a story I so want to get out there’ that changed things. Because I decided I wouldn’t give up or fall so early in the process. I’m a rookie, don’t you know? The quotation at the top of this article is from my interview with Joanna: that just about sums it up for me: ‘Write the book you have to write, the story that keeps you awake at night.’ It’s a great maxim, isn’t it? And, as Robert Frost had it in ‘The Road Less Taken’, ‘way leads on to way’, because through Cornerstones I  found sterling encouragement in the novelist, Alison Taft; because of The Bath Novel talk I read Joanna Barnard’s blog – and the exchanges we subsequently had were so encouraging; she’s generous with her time and hers is a great story – that she almost put the ms away before giving it one last shot. Finally, after The Bath Novel talk, I went for coffee and a chat with some recent graduates of the Bath Spa MA in Creative Writing, which was how I came to notice profiles on independent publishers in Mslexia magazine – and how I found someone who wanted to publish my novel.
So KEEP GOING and here’s the interview with Joanna!
1. Why did you start writing?
Well, that’s a tough one because I started writing stories at the age of six or seven years old, so I can’t really remember! Like most little girls I had loads of career ambitions growing up, from ballerina to teacher to nun (!), but I always said I was going to write books as well “at the weekends”. I just loved books so much it seemed natural to want to write them myself.
2. Do you have any particular sources of inspiration you could comment on? Events, conversations? I imagine that, as a teacher, I could not have got away with writing a book that tackles a pupil teacher crush and the dark events that ensue over a considerable time, so I am fascinated to see how you handle them. But back to the sources of inspiration!
There were certainly rumours at our school (as with every school) and instances where I would say the pupil-teacher relationship seemed inappropriate. It’s funny because at the time it doesn’t seem that big a deal, in fact you feel jealous of the girl getting the ‘special attention’ – it’s only as you get older that you look back and think, hmm, maybe that was actually a bit off. I’ve known of at least one teacher who was taken to court, but it resulted in him being acquitted, so I can’t really comment on that.
It’s a topic that’s always in the news though, isn’t it – from the Jeremy Forrest case a couple of years ago [when a teacher and his student ran away to France together] to the more recent case of Stuart Kerner [who was excused a jail sentence because the judge felt it was the student who did the ‘grooming’]. It’s an interesting and complex issue to write about.
3. How did you keep going when the going got tough? For instance, after rejections from agents?
Being part of a writing group really helped. Their feedback was so useful and they encouraged me to keep going after rejections. I’ve said before that the Bath Novel Award felt like a bit of a last chance, but for some reason I felt strongly that Precocious would find an audience – if I didn’t get anywhere in the competition, I planned to self-publish it on Kindle. I was determined to get it out there somehow.
4. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? 
Read widely. Write the book you have to write, the story that keeps you awake at night. Write every day if you can, even if it’s just a few sentences. If you get stuck, stop and write something else: a later chapter of your book, or a short story, or a poem. And if you are seeking representation and publication, present yourself and your work as well and as professionally as you can: follow the agent’s guidelines or competition rules, get someone else to proof-read for spelling and grammar, and polish, polish, polish.
5. Do you have a routine for writing? I have read that you like to write in longhand first, with a big cup of tea alongside and on the sofa or in bed (as I wrote in my blog, sometimes I hide in the shed, with earplugs in – and we’re not even talking a posh shed…). Anything else to add?
I always write in longhand first, it’s true. There’s nothing more terrifying to me than a blank screen, but an empty notebook – that’s exciting! I think the physical act of writing must unlock the creative part of my brain. I write quickly and type up slowly, making edits as I go.
I don’t have much of a daily routine, in fact I find frequent changes of surrounding very helpful. At the moment I find I’m writing a lot on trains.
6. Joanna, I already know your favourite book is Nabokov’s Lolita. Do you have any other favourite books to mention – and perhaps some comments to make on what makes them special to you?
Lolita is extraordinary for so many reasons: the voice, the language, the black humour, the pathos. I first read it as a teenager and it was the first time I was aware that an author was playing games with me, but I was powerless to do anything about it. Some of the sentences were so beautiful I had to keep re-reading them. I was blown away.
Other favourites include The World According to Garp (in fact most of John Irving’s novels) – he draws amazing, quirky characters that live long in the memory.
I came relatively late to Donna Tartt and adored The Secret History and The Goldfinch.
7. My own first novel is coming out with an indie and, as is not uncommon with indies, I don’t have a literary agent. (Note to any puzzled readers: authors published by smaller publishers – the ‘indies’ – independents – may not also be working with an agent.) I’d been wondering: you are represented by Juliet Mushens at The Agency Group. Would you be happy to comment on what you’ve learned from the process of working with an agent? Perhaps about editing, the market, presenting yourself – fire away! I think this would be interesting for writers aiming at such a target.
Working with Juliet has been brilliant. She’s warm and supportive but also honest and direct with feedback – if something’s not working, I know she’ll just tell me. There’s obviously a huge advantage to having someone ‘in your corner’ who really understands the market, too.
One thing I’ve learned is that there’s no reason to be intimidated when approaching agents – yes, it’s tough out there, but every agent genuinely wants to find that next book they are passionate about. It might be yours!
The following two questions came from two of my upper sixth students:
8. How does writing make you feel?
When it’s going well, or when it’s going badly?! To be honest above everything else it just feels natural – it feels like this is what I *should* be doing. It’s not always easy, but it always feels right.
And
9. How do you know, when you’re writing, if it’s any good? Do you think you ever really know?
I think most writers are naturally self-critical. I don’t go around high-fiving myself and saying “Wow! That’s an awesome sentence!” Most of the time I’m thinking it’s pretty terrible, but I keep going anyway. Distance is key. I think if you can finish what you’re doing, put it away for a few weeks, then come to it fresh, you can tell then if it’s any good.
10. You’re currently also training as a psychotherapeutic counsellor. In my own life and work I am passionate about how appropriate counselling routes can transform self, how we connect with the world and what we are able to do. I’m wondering why, alongside your literary success, you chose to train in this area and what its link might be, for you, with literature and with your own writing?
I previously worked in sales and I wanted a career change, but never imagined I would make any sort of living from writing. I wanted to learn and I wanted to help people (I still do), so I chose to re-train as a therapist. Like you, I think good counselling can be transformative. I do think my interest in this area comes from the same place as the writing: it stems from an intense curiosity about people, what makes them tick, why they feel how they feel, how they change and are influenced. Funnily enough, that was the same reason I enjoyed Sales.
11. Finally, what’s happening now in the last weeks before Precocious is out? And might you give us the first sentence of your book as a teaser?
Well, I’m going on holiday! I get back the night before the launch, which is quite a good thing as it will (hopefully) take my mind off my nerves. In the meantime, Ebury are contacting press and sending out copies for review.
The first sentence of Precocious is the fairly pedestrian,
We meet again in the supermarket.’
As for the new book…can I have 2 sentences?! With the caveat that this is early draft and may well change, here you go:
As soon as we got him home, it started. I obsessed about him dying.
Thank you so much, Joanna. I am really looking forward to reading your new book….and the next one!

Hanging out with the Holy Rollers

Below (when I’ve finished wittering on) is an extract from Killing Hapless Annie. I think I can get away with offering it here! This bit’s about the attempts of its protagonist to find God, or at the very least to find a church. I have refracted my own experience (but not necessarily events at which I was present) through its description of a religious encounter. But I want to offer a counterpoint, drawn directly from my own experience yesterday, to this.

For reasons that shall remain opaque, or at least seen through a glass darkly, I spent this Sunday with Benedictine monks in their monastery (well, obviously; it’s where they live). That will probably sound like the scenario for a ‘Carry On’ film and you would be partly right about that, because they actually were quite saucy when they got going. I watched them as they conducted and participated in their Sunday service; there were only six of them, but they filled the chapel, devout and hands extended. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were brimful of joy. That is what they were.

After the service, I saw that prayers for my family were listed in the nave and I had to face the wall because, from within, came a big wall of cry. It was the sort of cry that I could not have stifled.

I wandered around their gardens – beautiful places, with the vista of open fields beyond; in the long grass were red campion and snapdragons: it was, to quote W.B. Yeats, a ‘bee-loud glade.’ As I’ve said before, I see metaphor in everything; sometimes, I look at the natural world around me  and I wonder if I am missing its language: that in front of me is the biggest metaphor of them all. Everyone, I think, wants some sense of meaning; at some point – or at multiple points – perhaps everyone experiences what is commonly referred to as an existential crisis. I might be wrong. For some, meaning is in no meaning; that is a meaning in itself, I might argue. Why should an atheist not use the language of grace?

At lunch, not today in silence, they laughed and didn’t stop; they had laid a camelia by the side of my plate, just for me – not because I was special or important, but because they noticed things. And Father Christopher (not his real name) said, ‘Beauty and happiness. Those are the routes to faith. And I am mad for beauty.’

It can’t be an easy life in some ways. The Benedictines’ life is founded on stability, but that means a repetition and, potentially, a lifetime enclosure – which is its own challenge. But I am coming to think that the state of happiness rather steals upon you. Perhaps it isn’t about searching for its roots, but about letting the sense of our demanding individual self slide away. I loathe with some uncertain passions those recycled ‘New Thought’ books, such as The Secret, with their emphasis on levering things towards oneself; with their drive towards consumption, with their anti-intellectualism which insists that the universe exists only to be bountiful to us as individuals. I wonder whether we find ourselves when we let go; when we surrender our greater selves. And that is where we find faith.

I say, I wonder. That is what I am doing. Wondering. This is no conversion on the road to Damascus.

And anyway, I can’t live secluded. I swear way too much. Below, I’ve got from conversion scenes, to orgasms with Albert Camus, to cake-making…..Here’s the extract from Killing Hapless Annie: it’s from a chapter called, ‘Hanging out with the Holy Rollers.’ PS: the bit about writing to Tony Benn and Glenys and Neil  and making rock cakes for CND protestors – absolutely true.

HANGING OUT WITH THE HOLY ROLLERS – FROM KILLING HAPLESS ANNIE

When Annie was fifteen, she struck up a friendship with a boy in a Christian fellowship. They used to have what she considered were extremely dry romps in the back of his Ford Escort and he was a great fan of the Conservative party, which Annie, writing a Christmas card to Tony Benn every year, asking Glennis Kinnock for advice on politics and boys (Glenys said, ‘Neil and I advise sticking with Labour and only courting the Welsh lads because they’ve got fire and sense. Tidy.’- which was fine by Annie) and making rock cakes and mufflers for the women protesting at Greenham Common, instinctively had a hard time reconciling with being, well, of God. It meant instead, ‘I am a wanker and I don’t care.’

The boy’s parents were kind and thoroughly respectable but had an unsteady relationship with immigrants, gippos, lefties and feminists, all of whom they tended to besmirch over a Sunday Roast. But the boy – let us call him Ichabod – and his respectably fascist parents brought her along to the Sunday morning gathering.

Now, Annie really tried, but then, as now, she is repulsed by Christian rock, being more of a fan of the censer, the dirge-like hymn and the furiously non child friendly service. It is like a phrase of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted: ‘I don’t want to go on a pilgrimage to enjoy myself, Father: I want to have a miserable time.’ This is exactly what Annie wanted from a church: to be penitent; uncomfortable – and for it to be very very long and with clouds of incense. She thought that all the twangy guitars and baggy bass were simply too joyful: it sounded like a Bon Jovi concert, but it was less funny and entirely lacking in camp and Jon Bon Jovi’s tight arse. And as for ‘Kum ba yah’ with an acoustic guitar! The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end – and not with pleasure. There was much groaning and mumbling from the congregation, however, so Annie launched herself into the song, feeling sick but still wanting, in some way, to feel the same happiness the others seemed to feel. But it didn’t work.

The service worked in crescendo and diminuendos and with each ascent and descent, arms were raised, tears were shed, sometimes a body writhed on the floor and had to be helped up and everywhere people were speaking in tongues. To hear the language, if we call it this – a gift of the spirit – excluded her. She had no sense that she would ever ever be able to do such a thing. She plucked up the courage to ask someone about it and was informed that this gift could come to her if she truly believed. Like a child she screwed up her eyes and willed herself to, but no: week after week, nothing. Ichabod took her to his pastor, who sat her down on the velour sofa after tea and custard creams, with more Christian rock gently and painfully playing in the background and said,

‘Prepare, sweet child, to receive the Holy Spirit, as Ichabod did.’

All Annie could hear was the traffic outside and all she could think of was the fact that the velour sofa was a bit slippery and a bit squeaky and also that she had sat on a rather damp dog toy and it was digging into her arse.

Opposite her, above the gas fire with its fake stone fireplace, there were several wooden ornamental Name of Jesus jigsaws. Annie knew, in glancing at them, that the jolly little wooden ornaments irritated her. It wasn’t their fault: what she would have preferred, rather than this bright and optimistic room, with its zealous central heating, was a sepulchral cold and damp: a hard seat and some properly Catholic pictures of Jesus bleeding from the crown of thorns and holding up the stigmata. Pine Christian knick knacks and all the rest of the twee God stuff just didn’t hold or enthuse her in the same way, but she found it hard to discern whether that was owing to an aesthetic predilection or a spiritual one. Perhaps Santa Maria had been right about the baby-in-the-bucket: because her daughter now entertained this ungenerous kind of thought.

‘Who do I ask? What can I do?’

Annie had a brief conversation with Dante; he had rejected her before, but she asked again,

‘Who will be my guide? How will I go and what will I see there?’

And up came Dante into the stuffy room, gently telling her to make the journey and come back through her weird Annie and Hapless Annie world to glimpse something else,

‘Yes I am here! I give up! If you will leave me alone afterwards, you can borrow Virgil; he will guide you. Remember these words, Annie, as you go’:

‘To get back up to the shining world from there

My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,

And following its path, we took no care

To rest, but climbed: he first, then I – so far,

Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears,

Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars…’

Then suddenly, with Annie thinking of how it would be to see something beautiful and know that it is ok for you to look at it, Dante was gone and the hand on her arm was not that of Virgil, but of a pastor – sweating; urging and mouth breathing heavily like the nasty dentist of her childhood:

‘You might feel it like heat, or get a buzzing in your ears. But feel it you will.’

There were no stars to see, no hidden tunnel to find and access or aperture to behold as the pastor spoke tongues and hissed all over her. Annie shuffled on the sofa and tried to shift the dog toy from under her left buttock and wondered if the pastor was making the whole thing up. The tongues sounded more like Esperanto than, say, Hebrew or what she imagined Aramaic might have sounded like. But she felt mean for having the thought and tried to dismiss it.

‘I know you feel it. I can see it in you. I am your guide; your conduit. Do you feel faint, loose limbed or dizzy? Ohhhh Spirit we welcome you.’

It sounded more like the séance she had once been to after a village show in The Land beyond the Sea, the Ohhhhh recalled the orgasms she’d seen on forbidden late night telly and tried to emulate with Albert Camus behind the sofa. Now Annie was getting restless (plus she was suppressing a snigger). So she said,

‘Yes to all those things’ as the glasses shuffled on the sideboard and the pastor announced that the Holy Spirit had been in the room with her and had entered her and we must all now rejoice.

The pastor laid her hands firmly on Annie’s head again and announced that again she might feel a kind of heat – or maybe the buzzing thing. Then she abruptly released her hands and it was all over, with a lie. Well, she had been very hot but that was because the central heating was jacked right up.  On the way out, verily skipping with the Spirit’s presence, she recalled painfully a particular section from Philip Larkin’s ‘Faith Healer’ and walked home, feeling lost and all the way there dreading a holiday, to begin that night, in The Fucking Caravan. She wished that hands would come, ‘to lift and lighten.’ Annie became acutely aware that this early adventure with the Pentecostal church did nothing to dull the ache she felt. It was the same lonely thing that had her scurrying for the bookshelf and The Wind in the Willows when she was younger or, for that matter, tracing through adequate space between the objects on the colour table in her bedroom. The impulse had been the same:

‘In everyone there sleeps

A sense of life lived according to love.

To some it means the difference they could make

By loving others, but across most it sweeps

As all they might have done had they been loved.

That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache..’

Later, in attempts to understand and feel what the others feel, Annie tried regularly to go to Church of England services, but there was a sense of a club; a group of people with whom she could at best flirt and acquiesce. Some of them were terrifying and territorial women who didn’t like her children. Or possibly just didn’t like her. She tried with a powerful but ultimately impotent insistence to be one of them: to feel the presence of God. But it never came. She tried to understand The Bible from an intellectual and theological perspective; she met immeasurably kind true believers, but nothing shifted the immense slackening ache; at its best it was watching the comfort derived by others that kept her trying – but were they deluded? Just desperately clinging to something that Camus would have suggested you slough off – and that after terror, there should come liberty and so Virgil, with Dante smiling kindly alongside, as he wrote him, would show her the firmament?