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!
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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?

Chillies, rampant bell ringers and some amazing interviews to come!

In a diverse week, I was interviewed by ‘The Sun’ for an article on miscarriage (I also talked a bit about genes, you know), I wrote copy on Kashmiri chillies and what Rogan Josh was all about for a wonderful local company and I decided that one of the characters at the wedding day scene in Killing Hapless Annie was too similar to a ‘real’ person  – and so changed them into an aggressive wedding day bell ringer, cruelly thwarted by Annie’s subsequent rejection of him after a spot of post-evensong pleasuring in the bell tower. I also wrote to the AQA examining board because I got so excited that someone was imaginative enough to set some Samuel Beckett as an unseen text in Thursday’s A2 Literature (spec A) exam.

BUT MOST EXCITINGLY,

….I asked some début novelists if I could interview them for this blog. First up will be Joanna Barnard, who has been so generous with her time. Her novel, Precocious, which was the winner of The Bath Novel 2014 award, gained her the agent Juliet Mushens (who also represents Jessie Burton, author of the best-selling The Miniaturist – which I recommend that you read) and subsequently four publishers bid for her book. It’s out next month with Ebury: here’s the synopsis as posted on The Bath Novel page.

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.

Can’t wait. Back soon with an interview!

The Snowflake Man

Although I am currently working on Killing Hapless Annie, I do have something else simmering away. I am not yet sure if this is something which will – or, in fact, should – come to fruition, but I am enjoying thinking about it. To start me off, I wrote a draft – very DRAFT – synopsis of what it was I thought I wanted to write; then, to begin exploring its subject, I wrote a handful of poems. I’m sure this is an unorthodox method, but think of it as scribbling. Much of it will get crossed out. The thing that is so very different from Killing Hapless Annie is that, there, I wrote about what I knew; here, I am writing about what I want to know. Does that make sense?

Anyway, may I introduce one of my heroes? He appears in Killing Hapless Annie (he’s one of Annie’s, the protagonist’s, imaginary friends), but because he’s shy and apologetic that he’s not a man of letters or for company, he gets a room of his own.

The Snowflake Man

In 1898, a young boy called Wilson Alric Bentley began watching the snow fall around the family farm in Jericho, Vermont; he watched it with an unusually rapt attention. He thought about its composition, about where it came from – about its auspices in both meteorological terms (although he was likely unaware of that word just yet) and those more divine: how could it be that something so pretty should fall so casually? Was it part of a conversation with God and creator – a dialogue which we could not translate and construe? The young Bentley also watched rainwater, seeing it composed in rivulets and torrents, looked at dew as it settled in exquisite beads and watched as frost formation drew delicate shapes across windows of ferns and feathers on the windows of his farm. But it was with the snow that Bentley was most in love: he wanted to understand how and what it was and to look at it more closely. That journey of discovery, separate and loving, is the story of The Snowflake Man. Times came and went; others laughed, but Bentley kept on watching the snow – and he remained the devout watcher of the skies until just before his death.

Bentley’s mother understood her boy’s fascination; his father thought him foolish and possibly unmanly for finding some diversions when, on the farm, there was much practical work to be done. That boy wrote, fifty five years later, that everything he was and had ever done, he owed to her – because she saved and showed considerable devious acumen in presenting her son, aged seventeen, with a microscope and then a camera. Over the next few years, Bentley, working alone in the woodshed, developed the science of photomicrography as he learned to connect the camera to the microscope and photograph the tiny snow crystals on his slides. The results were exquisite and remain, to this day, the fullest and most extraordinary collection of stunning snow crystals – of a myriad filigree stars, strange tiny pillars with hexagons at either end; things possessed of an inchoate beauty and, as Bentley wrote, ‘no two snowflakes are alike.’

When Bentley wasn’t photographing and cataloguing the snow crystals, he made fine studies of the frost formations and patterns of dew – looking at its beads strung along spiders’ webs; tying down a grasshopper atop a blossom overnight so that he could photograph the creature bejewelled with the dew. All this he did while remaining a farmer, playing his trumpet, providing holidays to city folk of slender means: he quietly became a world authority on snow crystal formation and, through his articles and published copies of his photomicrographs, became known as ‘Snowflake Bentley’ – or sometimes just ‘The Snowflake Man’. He saw and entertained worlds others merely glanced at: he was a humble, absorbed genius.

In The Snowflake Man, the reader is made an offer: we have the extraordinary images of the snow crystals he recorded; we have some letters and the transcripts of some interviews and the texts of articles he wrote for meteorological journals as his work became known. But here is the story that remains to be told, because we do not, yet, really know him. The Snowflake Man offers you a story of his life as he sat for fifty winters, alone, in silent thought and study. It explores intriguing questions: who were the three impressive women in his life – one ‘Mina,’ for whom he once scratched ‘Window frost monogram, Mina’, a beautiful but timid declaration of love to the girl the neighbours called ‘sassy’? The story ponders how does an individual can sustain, over a lifetime, a brilliant interest in something others – even his own father – called foolish? Bentley saw in the snow crystals a numinous, spiritual quality: he saw them as a metaphor for heavenly life. The book unfurls a tale of a boy mocked, an interest passionately abided by, of loneliness and love lost and found and celebrates in its story that it is Bentley who is also a metaphor – for those who were laughed at, chided or mocked for what they believed: the Snowflake Man never gave up and the book that is named after him seeks to introduce a greater number of readers to him for the first time. For his is an extraordinary story.

Four poems for Wilson A Bentley (1865-1931)

Horae

How beautiful it is to see

The eye trained on a telling shape –

Which seems to say, “I am the first

You are the last, to see me in my perfect form,

The only man to sit and wait

For what this moment must become.”

The snowflake falls; he catches it

On worsted cloth of deepest black:

It takes a place – but not alone,

For, ferried from beloved sky,

The crystal specimens collude

To give a pattern to a world

Through Vermont’s still and patient man.

For fifty years he sits and holds

The architecture through his glass:

Dendritic crystal, needle fine,

A bullet, hexagon or flower.

He does not mind if they should laugh

At Sisyphus in snow and ice.

So all is well, but glances ask:

The man with camera, microscope –

With evanescence in his heart,

Is he lonely, sat out there,

With slide and board for hours and hours?

A splint of broom to hold each one –

The snowflake man who gathers up

Each tiny plan to hold it dear:

It will not come again to us.

The horae, hours of prayer or joy,

But not with words, this silent man:

His goddesses the six point stars:

He sits and worships, reverent still,

A lucent world and what it tells.

He checks the hoar frost and the glass

To see the curlicues of line –

The ivy leaf or comfrey stem,

The miracles of build that come.

He  does not care to go, for now,

Beyond the cloth, the hands that serve

To show us all a myriad frames

Which coalesce within his grasp.

How beautiful it is to see

The eye trained on a telling shape

Which seems to say “I am the first,

You are the best to see me in my perfect form.”

“Window frost monogram Mina”

Mina, as you were: bay window, a side light and a black background.

Then as you were again: middle room – direct front light. I was specific.

Mina – I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.

Mina, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and went away, sassy girl.

I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.

I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as

The evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost

For you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence

Spoke truth to us – that you could stay.  The frost had crept along the span

To show you how this foolish man had said the most that he could say. And then

I spoke – and ruined all. A foolish joke:  my love; my one;

My word –oh mono gramma, mina gramma. Hush – a clumsy, unschooled man.

When I essayed another length to keep you here – pellucid worlds for us to share,

Yet how I knew what I had done. You cared not yet for crystal casts,

The shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan

Was lost for you in my thwart hands – and so I scratched and tried to show

A simple script, its blazon – you. I fell and fell and no-one knew.

Oh sassy girl, why should you stay or want an artless snowflake man?

 

In Jericho

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, of Jericho on winter nights:

The sweets of patient maple taps, a sugar house and amber lights

Of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My borealis blood red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms; please do not break the splint of broom,

But hold the snowflakes page by page, arranged as I have left them now;

Consider this – why should they be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

In nature’s fragile crystal frame I see a world beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, brook and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen –

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

Mother: snow queen

My mother in her housecoat grey;

Her deep set eyes and sunburned face

Were set against the world that day:

A year of  stringent, creeping grace –

She would provide by hook or crook

A camera for her foolish boy

By winter next. If all forsook,

That should not vex her, seeing his joy.

My father laughed and thought me weak

To study crystals, quite unmanned;

My brother saw me fey and meek:

We must provide and work the land.

But Simple, gifted with such hope,

Sought fine connection, lens to slide –

With camera and microscope

The flake and image to elide.

The photomicrograph crept through:

I tweaked its edges; sharpened; limned.

Arranged it with five thousand new

And held my breath as beauty dimmed.

Still father mocked, but mother saw

The useless craft would last a life;

She saw her boy as metaphor

For human spirit; outpaced strife.

And she could see the shapes I held –

My inscapes in that freezing cage;

And she could know the transient meld

I had transported to the page.

So inchoately grasp the words

Formed by the boy who took her name,

Let us release them – free as birds:

No two snowflakes are the same.

The title of the new book and some snow crystals.

Looks like the title of the novel is going to be Killing Hapless Annie. For various reasons – but mostly those of style and aesthetics.

Killing? Who got killed? Well, I can’t tell you: you’ll have to read the book, but it wasn’t, I can tell you, a tidy and easy process. And there were other people there, too. And in the room there were a flip chart, a desk and an efflorescence of artificial flowers in fake water. Come read  my book – next year, that is.

I have started planning the next one, in the full knowledge that I may start, scrap and try something else. But it’s called The Snowflake Man and it is based on one of my heroes: W A Bentley, the Vermont Farmer who watched the snow fall all the winters of his life and concluded that it was exquisite: he took photomicrographs of the snow crystals for forty four years. And no two snowflakes are alike. You will have heard that phrase. It’s his.

Here: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=william+bentley+snowflake+pictures&espv=2&biw=1024&bih=677&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=oK5kVeWhG4GwUdDcgKgO&ved=0CCAQsAQ

I am going to tell his story. Dolly Parton is not in this one.

Keeping going!

I thought I might write about how I got to this point. Where someone actually said they would publish my novel.

I know, from talking to lots of people, that so many want to write or feel they have a book in them. I know a number of people who have tried many times to get the attention of an agent. Here’s how it went for me. I’m mostly an English teacher and I read all the time. Three books a week sometimes. Does this confer on me the ability to write a fine novel? Well, ummm, no. (I will return to this in future posts.)

A year ago, on days when I had some childcare and when I had some gaps between lessons (as GCSE and A level classes fell away in exam season), I started to write. I’d written as a freelance journalist before and I’d written a couple of self published texts; one was a kitchen diary (that ran out of steam!) and the other the result of a sponsored short story marathon. Good practice, I suppose. But this new project was different. It held me in a a hot fury: I had this story I wanted to tell. It was based on my own life and experiences. Not that I thought I was a particularly interesting individual, but I did have a notion that the story of how an individual, Annie, manages adversity and mental illness with a host of imaginary friends (including Albert Camus, Dolly Parton and Frieda – the brunette one from Abba) and creates an alter ego, Hapless Annie, whom she later has to squish…..might provide an intriguing tale. I also wondered if a number of experiences I could delineate might be, shall we say, unusual.

So I wrote. In a great big splurge. Between lessons; when everyone had gone to bed: sometimes I hid in the shed and sometimes I wore earplugs and bribed the kids with refined sugar. After a few months I had 60,000 words. I edited. I thought I was writing a memoir at this stage, so I entered it for ‘Mslexia”s memoir competition and wasn’t placed. I cried a lot. Told myself the book was rubbish and put it away. Then I decided that there was fire in this Celt, so sat up straight and re-wrote. I began to see its flaws more clearly. Re-wrote. Read the many words of all those who had been repeatedly rejected by agents; of those famous and not so: folks who sat on slush piles for years. I sent my work to three agents. One wrote back. I cried again.

I heard about Cornerstones Literary Consultancy and decided this was a good place to start. They looked at a sample of the ms and told me there was a lot to like, so I approached this discussion as if it were the beginning of an editing or creative writing course and went for a full ms review. It was to be part of study, for me. My work with them provided the turning point and my editor was the wonderful, warm and supportive ‘Chick Noir’, creative writing, non fiction and editing specialist, Alison Taft. She was clever, insightful and so kind to me, but she was also teaching me, being frank about what perhaps didn’t work  – the bits which were so complex as to be befuddling; where it was not entirely clear who the protagonist was; those sections where there was too much  that was passive when it should be active – and what might.

I went on to combine what I was learning from Alison with the self editing material Cornerstones gave me. Within a few weeks, I’d had a substantial ms report, a long conversation and a sense that I was getting somewhere. I did a big re-write and also tweaked it to fiction (which had been a thought since my earliest conversation with Cornerstones) because it gave me a little more artistic licence, allowed me to make more of the most intriguing situations in the book and, to be blunt, gave me a more marketable book: memoirs are extremely hard to sell as an unknown.

I considered my next move.

I got a subscription to ‘Mslexia‘ magazine; saw the lovely Joanna Barnard talk at the Bath Literary festival (then read words of encouragement on her blog), listened to the agent Juliet Mushens at the same event, read this by Juliet…

http://www.torbooks.co.uk/blog/2014/05/27/juliet-mushens-on-how-to-approach-an-agent-dos-and-donts

….and thought, ‘I think I am really learning things now.’

I entered the Bath novel competition. I wasn’t placed. First thought was, ‘That’s because my book is rubbish.’ I was sitting in a car wash at the time. As you often are. I also reflected on how I’d been told so often, growing up, that I was rubbish and that this was part of my internal narrative. But frankly, I’d had enough of it (by now, the NHS had given me permission to have had enough of it) and I thought, ‘By the time I get out from under the blower, I’m going to have changed my mood. And I’m not going to give up. This is only the beginning. And if I can’t place this book, I will write another one.’ It was a bit like CBT (not that this had worked on me – actually: you can see that through Annie in the book), but for nascent authors. In a car wash. Then, I was laughing, the sky hadn’t fallen in and I’d decided I needed to have another go. The car looked pretty good, though the back wiper had now been torn off by the bristles. This might have been a metaphor. I see metaphor in everything.

I had read that Jessie Burton’s stunning debut, The Miniaturist, had sat on slush piles. I knew from Joanna Barnard’s blog that many a year had passed between the beginning of Precocious and publication – that she had considered whether entering the Bath Novel competition might be a last move before putting away the ms. Hmmmm. I wasn’t aiming to be a big author. But I felt – in a truly passionate way – that there were stories I absolutely had to tell. Just had to tell. I couldn’t not. Reading elsewhere, this seemed to be a good sign. Anthony Horowitz said so!

I went home and read Francine’s Prose’s Reading like a Writer. It was an extraordinary book. Here, said she, are your teachers. She introduced me to or reacquainted me with a myriad fine authors. Look in these books – this is how you learn. I rewrote some more.

I went home and read my new copy of ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I decided to try something new, which was to contact an independent press. The magazine was my starting point for information about this; it was full of encouragement and ideas: here was one now. Try contacting an Independent press. I had been learning about such a thing: a small publisher. That something is small, I had concurred, does not necessarily mean it is endowed with less. I looked around and did some finding out and discovered something and somebody I really liked. But would they like me?

I wrote to Patrician Press, a small and vibrant publisher, which produces fine books that are also (does this sound old fashioned?) the most beautiful objects. I had written a funny, quirky book; a black comedy, with some stark and potentially shocking content. I wanted to entertain, but I also had a sense of vocation tied up with this book: I thought, ‘I survived. It was unorthodox, but I’ve done it. How would it be if others could read this book and feel encouraged? Is it even possible that this book could be useful for someone who is a health professional, with its accounts of therapy and response? As a sort of book a bibliotherapist  might mention: “Look, here is an example of how someone has been comforted and restored by reading – by words?”‘ Patrician Press responded warmly to the book, even seeing immediately that an important part of it was, as I said, ‘..as a paean to the NHS!’ And I suppose my book didn’t sit so comfortably in a genre: it was important, as Alison Taft had counselled me, to find the right person for this one.

And so here I am. Now, I work about twenty five hours a week. I have a lot of other commitments. I’ve three boys, aged four to thirteen – and I’ve spent big chunks of my of my life at least partially scuppered by mental illness. It isn’t theoretically possible that I should have time, energy – or perhaps even faith enough to write a book. Except I just did. And It’s coming out in 2016. I’ve even asked two people prominent in mental health journalism and in psychiatry to write the foreword. I gather I might be a bit naive, because apparently that doesn’t usually happen if you’re, you know, a rookie like me.

And so if you have a story you must, absolutely must tell, start writing and when you feel discouraged, get back up and scribe. xxxx