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The Life of Almost – some Pembrokeshire settings

Earlier in the year, I pledged a couple of things for the Authors for Grenfell fund-raising drive. Tomorrow I’ve got an author chat and what was once an afternoon tea with it has turned into hanging out at my house and then lunch and a signed copy of my first book, Killing Hapless Ally. Most recent comments on that, by the way, have included “brilliant but patchy”, “this book has changed my life”, “..if this is you how are you still sane?”, “you’d have made the shortlist if the everything was up to the standard of the best passages” and, “reminiscent of Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe.” Are you laughing with me?

BUT ANYWAY

Next weekend I’m off to Pembrokeshire (where lots of my family are, living and dead: read on) because I am picking someone up in St David’s and then I am going to take them on a tour of the settings in The Life of Almost. This novella is out with Patrician Press (nice boutique press; awesome and brave catalogue – possibly foolhardy because they’re so keen on me?), autumn, 2018. It’s a strange tale, starring a flotilla of my relations, and settings, secret places and houses known to me, in which the narrator (previously drowned, aha..) returns to bring happiness and ignite the imagination of someone who is sad and desperately tired of life. He does this by telling the extraordinary story of his life – of sea-boiling mermaid love; lonely dragons on the shore; the Virgin Mary in the corner of the room; murders, crimes, love found and enduring; love torturing and mending – or not, because you can also pick the ending. In it, you’d recognise threads of Great Expectations, a favourite book of mine (indulge me this), not to mention a love affair with the Mabinogion and old Welsh lyrics. I will tell you more as we get closer to publication, but for now, be here with me as you won’t be there at the weekend.

And importantly, I want to make a plug. You will know the appalling things endured by those who were residents at Grenfell Towers. Well, here’s another literary endeavour and it is brilliant. Already 120% funded. I’m so pleased. Have a look and buy it when it’s out.

https://unbound.com/books/grenfell

So, settings in Almost. m making a selection. This is the walk down to Barafundle Bay, accessed, this way, over the headland from Stackpole Quay on the Stackpole Estate (National Trust now). Almost recalls happy times rolling on the beach and out at sea with his mermaid girls, who are so devoted to him – though, all his life, he has been in love with the sour Seren, out at Clandestine House on the Cleddau Estuary. Hmm. Almost is not binary in his sexuality or his gender identity. Oh no no no. I see him as questing and fluid. All things, in this book, take up boundaries and blur or break them.

barafundle

Here. This is Walton West at Church, just above Broad Haven Beach. In the churchyard, so very close to my heart. sixteen relations are buried (and probably more that I’ve yet to clasp to me as my relatives). My grandmother is here and my nanny. Uncles, great uncles and cousins, aunts. Also, some plaques for those interred elsewhere. At least two of the dead are suicides and one, a mother and daughter in law of those who took their own lives, was a figure who has haunted me my whole life and I have fictionalised her as Muffled Myfanwy, both here and in my first book. That’s because she suffered so much, her voice was stifled. When she did speak (I suppose it was selective mutism as I never heard her speak beyond the home), well now it was like a whisper in the breeze. You had to lean in to let it touch your cheek and then you heard and you knew her a little better, perhaps. In The Life of Almost, this character is…by the very particular gifts held by Almost…released. Her throat is loosed; her voice howls into the bright sunlight and she feels safe enough to test love again.

walton

If you want to go and visit, you’re looking, mostly, for a lot of Llewhellins. Now, don’t correct the spelling; this is how my family had it BUT there’s some variation even so – Llewelyn, too, as middle name and surname. I do have another churchyard – this time with my grandfather (Pop) and great grandparents, and this is out at Bethesda, nearer to Tenby. My grandparents’ marriage – they still had thirteen children, ten surviving (one died as a babe) ended acrimoniously and it was said he went and shacked up with a landlady from Tenby, who was a terrible tart and known for it.

I was raised, depending on your point of view, by maudlin, morbid people. And yet…when I think about my family, I find I don’t always differentiate between who’s alive and who’s not. I think that’s because their legends permeate into corners of my life. I am not afraid of darkness. Or graveyards at night. I speak plainly of death and leaving. I was orphaned, anyway, by the end of my teens and that was sad, but by God I’ve learned a few things. And this death in life way of embracing pied beauty, sour beauty, has stood me in good stead. It feels like a Welsh thing and it is thus integral to the book. You’ll wonder sometimes, as I’d ask you to do, who’s alive and who’s dead in The Life of Almost. Also, as in my first book, who’s there, and who a figment in your imagination.

Ah the Virgin Mary. Perfection, sister to Almost, behaves terribly. But in her quiet moments, she visits this place, at St Non’s, on St David’s Head, to see if Our Lady can set her straight. She also spends her days tongue lashing the whores and the ingrates of where they live, but she then, in a fit of piety which is true and real, rushes out to pray for their souls and for her own. And she prays again, to the Virgin, in her own home. At night, Our Lady is illuminated (by Wilko’s solar garden lights, if you’re asking) and below her is the healing well. Ah – also the song, Myfanwy. May her voice and soul flow free.

Now, when Almost begins to tell his tale, he’s out on an unspecified beach, which I’ve imagined directly below the Walton West churchyard I described above. Really, the nearest beaches to this headland would be Little Haven (where my grandmother was born) or Broad Haven, but in my mind’s eye, I saw a particular sea cave. It has been in my mind for as long as I knew what mind was. Pembrokeshire is rich in beautiful caves – I love those at Barafundle – but this was the first I saw and knew as a tiny child. It is on Newgale Beach and you can go right through it to different sections of this spectacular place. I had this in mind, more figuratively: the notion of channels and conduits between worlds, if you would only open your eyes. Or, I suppose, prove an adequate listener to Almost’s story.

And who have we next to the cave? There are some very fine mermaids in the book and you’ll just have to wait and see what they all get up to.

Now here is a beautiful place. These are the woods through which you can walk to Abermawr. Here, they are full of bluebells, though I love this walk in a winter storm, too. But the bluebells are significant because…as I said, I’ve given you two endings to the book. It’s a fantastical story, which also celebrates the tortured love between Seren and Almost. Why does she hate him yet love him? She breaks his heart again and again, this sour suffering beauty. In Great Expectations, Estella is the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham at Satis House. He loves her and eternally. But there were two endings to the book. The original, in which they are parted, and that which was eventually published, in which (though I still feel it bears a shadow of doubt, delicately done) Estella and Pip end up together. I’m not going to tell you why, in my book, Seren hates Almost, save to say it’s something to do with land and sea and freedom and Derian Llewhellin, the escaped convict (spot the Magwitch connection) that Almost helps in the first part of the story. But near the end of the book, this fine bluebell wood is the scene of…an event I struggled to write. Yep. You’ll judge for yourself, now te, whether it is erotic; if I judged it aright.

Abemawr Woods. Beyond them, always, the sea. Coedwigoedd Abermawr. y tu hwnt iddynt, bob amser, y môr.

bluebells

Which brings me to Clandestine House, on the Cleddau. This is Cresswell Quay and is, in fact, the place where my grandmother lived. Cresswell House became Clandestine House and inhabited by the claw-handed spinster, Miss Davies. Ah yes, Elleri Davies. This is a mysterious, changing, respiring house. And, like Seren, Miss Davies is miserable but imaginative. But just like Myfanwy who is oppressed by sorrow, might there not be a way to satisfy the cravings of the land, to comfort the grieving house and to mend hearts?

I do miss you, grandmother.

I will write more in the coming months but, for now, especially for you, Lorna, whom I will meet in St David’s at the weekend, remember that there is no there, there. Trust in Almost, instead. More on which at the weekend. x

st david's

The walk to St David’s

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Six months of 2017 in books

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth

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

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

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

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

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

But back to Southern US literature and…

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

Which brings to me to…

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

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

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

And I think we are there!

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

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

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

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

AND FINALLY

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

prophesise (prophesy) as verb

disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue

past (for passed)

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

it’s when you mean its (ugh!)

passer bys

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

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

Love,

Anna xxxxx

For writers starting out. Do comment, discuss and contribute your thoughts!

I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.

It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.

Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.

Way leads on to way.

Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.

Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.

So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.

I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too.  I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.

Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.

I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.

So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.

And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?

Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.

Anna.

Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)

The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)

THINGS THAT…

Dulled and devastated by The Donald, I turn to trivia and pedantry. But funnily enough, with third novel in the making, second out on subs and waiting…waiting….and all writing about (well okay with plenty of black humour) mental illness and incarceration and the role of the storyteller in preserving our sanity in a mordant world and a Welsh reworking of Great Expectations, with lots of dead people and mermaids, well I thought I might quickly write a little book – just a trifle; a frivolous thing – and call it,

THINGS THAT GET ON MY TITS

Ergo (I bet you’re thinking, ‘Something that really gets on my tits is when someone begins a sentence with Latin’), here we go but don’t take it too seriously.

‘Up’ prefix. We’ve had upselling, upcycling and upskilling but I just encountered -KILL ME NOW- ‘upreading’. From a school. Because I am down with the kids in the work I do, I am aware of ‘up’ being used as a suffix in phrasal verbs. For some reason, this does not bother me at all. SEARCH IT UP! But the prefix annoys me. It seems to mangle a perfectly good word, or stop you using a nicer one. Anyway, it’s the parents you have to worry about. If we’d let teenagers vote in Brexit, we wouldn’t be in this almighty mess right now. But I digress.

Core values. I sniff out a tautology here. You see this all over. But what ARE core values? Are they, like, the important values as opposed to satellite value fuckery that you don’t regularly take to your heart? If I can be bothered values?

Apostrophes. Yes, again. Splashed all over, wherever there’s an ‘s’. There used to be a local shop called ‘Butterfly’s and bee’s’. It’s possible I misunderstood it, but the sign put me off going in. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what that shop sold. Now I feel horrible. I am churlish. AND YET AND YET. And what about hers, its, theirs, ours, whose (which I saw as who’s -indicating possession- in both Harper Collins and Ebury books – I’ll hide this bit later because you never know; I’m already a poor commercial prospect)? No apostrophe, man.

Swearing. I love swearing. I always have. I like learning about invective in different languages. Knowing its history and context. There are limits. Racist; misogynist: get your coat. But something that evokes a sort of rebellious joy, curse on. I’ve wondered if the meanest people I’ve met are those who consider the well chosen swear word beneath them. Maybe. What do you think?

Literal and physical. ‘I can literally do that for you right now.’ Do you usually perform only through an intricate web of the figurative, then? ‘I cannot physically help you.’ Why? Were you gored by a bull just now?’ I realise this does not reflect well on me.

‘I am a good listener’ generally means to me, ‘I might like listening but I am actually a bit of a twat who isn’t really very self aware and I am going to give you a shit load of unsolicited advice.’

‘I am an empath’ (which makes me snort) or ‘I am so empathic’. See above and, also, this sounds like bragging, doesn’t it? I’ve noticed that sometimes people who say such things cry when Bambi’s mother gets shot but don’t bewail a hideous case of social injustice. Perhaps those who are most observant of the delicacies of others tend not to broadcast – at least not on this frequency?

Better get on with some actual work.

Anna xxxx

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.