No shame; no stigma. An event for you.

I realise this is very much a UK and west country event, but if you are in the area, do please come! Or let me just show you what I’m up to. x

For the BOA fringe this year, I am hosting an evening at The Three Horseshoes pub, Frome Road, Bradford on Avon Wiltshire. It’s called ‘No shame; no stigma’ and its focus is mental health. That’s a key theme of my debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally, which was published in March this year and has been featuring in the national press. I have also written a series of articles around its key themes for various publications and stepped up my engagement in mental health campaigning and advocacy. A subject close to my heart, this.

Do please come along. I’d love it. Thursday 7th July, from 8 pm. I will be speaking frankly. Ask me anything! Also, some readings from the book and, with the book as a starting point, a lively extended discussion about mental health, well-being, anxiety, depression and other tricky things. What it means to be ill; what it means to be well, maybe. The language we use and that which is unhelpful. How we challenge taboo. All sorts. Being me, I am not straying away from dark humour  (and the novel is a black comedy rooted in real events) so I hope it will be entertaining for you too. And it’s free. Buy a drink at the bar and come through to the marquee. We’ll stay until we get chucked out. Copies of my book, Killing Hapless Ally, are on sale locally at Ex Libris and Mr B’s in Bath, but you could also order from Amazon, Waterstones and so on, or get a copy from me on the night

No shame; no stigma. 

Do come.

Anna x

Here’s the link to buy at Amazon. https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=killing+hapless+ally

 

 

http://www.fringeboa.co.uk/

Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

This bold, unique novel is a first-rate example of the innovative and original approach exemplifying the contemporary small press scene.

Source: Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

Talking to your children about mental health; helping your children cope with your mental health problems

 

TALKING TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH; HELPING YOUR CHILDREN COPE WITH YOUR MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS.

This text contains some frank descriptions, a swear word and a hint of humour in unsettling places.

Here is an extract from my new novel, Killing Hapless Ally. And in it, I drew very much on my own experience of managing my mental health problems as a mother. In this bit, there are three sons to be cared for and this is how it went when I was once quite unwell and my husband and I struggled to manage until — because for the first time in my life I really opened up — a community of friends swept in. It was this — the honesty of it all, I think — that was a key element in my getting better. Here, in the novel, when the protagonist struggles to hold herself up and doesn’t entirely know what day it is, are three young men, seasoned by fire and the determination of their parents’ love.

‘There was no choice but to let the exigencies of motherhood force Alison to cope. But today, everything was back to front and the wrong colours; clothes were in the incorrect place; there were two packed lunches in one bag and she was crying and her knees were buckling as she came apart. It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon, or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.

“Bye Mum.”

The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’

The ‘boys’ here recall what I remember, just a few years back, of seeing my two boys go out into the world, with their mother very distressed at home (the third was six months old and so I partly fictionalised the text because he was pre-verbal!). Like anyone who has had mental health problems, I have worried about how seeing their mother so upset and so poorly has affected the boys. But I want to say something about this. It’s not that knowing — and seeing — I am being frank; my boys have seen some pretty raw things — a parent at rock bottom is exactly ideal, but you see they have watched me get better, too. They have a sense, they tell me, that I am strong because they have seen me battle and seen me get better. Of the two, it’s the battle they respect the most, apparently. On Mother’s Day this year my eldest, who is nearly fifteen, made me a home-made card listing the reasons I was ‘Greatest Mum in the World’, and he noted that I always ‘took on’ illness and the problems I had had and that he thought this was amazing. No cupcakes; spendy holidays; kit. Just, ‘Mum. You are amazing. You have had all these problems and you have never given up.’ If you are a mum, reading this, worrying, let it be known that I am giving you a HUGE virtual hug RIGHT NOW. And also commenting that sometimes I feel I learn more from my kids than they do from me. Ever feel that way?

We have given the boys information so that they are informed without being over-burdened with facts, answered questions and told them things about mental health and about how and why (insofar as we know) things can go wrong. Certainly, the older two, who are at secondary now, will learn a bit about moods and feelings and where to ask for help in PSHE, but (as well as being their mum and an author I have always worked with secondary age students and also been a PSHE teacher) mental health is still not addressed fully, I would say, in the national curriculum. In our daily lives, it still attracts some pretty horrid vocabulary and whispered voices. Sometimes — I think of ‘Daily Mail’ headlines and the careless lexis of all kinds of people (including teachers) about ‘psychos’, ‘nutters’ and, most recently, ‘going schiz’ to describe a child’s misbehaviour in class, all of which infuriate me — and I wonder if there is still a hefty element of wishing the crazy people ’round the bend’. That screened place, which, in years gone by, was eclipsed from view after the straight drive swept off in its bend to the psychiatric hospital. And by the way, I am not suggesting that we should be, forever, sharing and emoting left, right and centre; emotional continence and discipline have their place; on the other hand, by demonising ‘bad’ emotions we teach nothing of any real value to our offspring. And when people – or when we – need help and support because things have gone wrong with our minds, moods and emotions, we need to be able to have open dialogue about it just as we might about our physical health; I know that we can create a context for that as we speak to our children.

As parents we have a responsibility to talk to children so that they are not frightened if they know someone — and I want to say that one in four people will have a mental health problem — who is experiencing difficulty and so that they are properly compassionate to others and to themselves. I would want my boys to see the reality of who people who have mental health problems or mental illness actually are: they are us; they are you; they are me. Shame and stigma are destructive and while they obfuscate, they cause more problems and more misunderstanding and, perhaps, cause people not to seek the help they need. Because there isn’t really a they; there’s only an us.

Let me tell you what happened to me.

When I was a child, I knew that, in sections of my large family, things had gone awry. Strange things happened and I had glimpsed into them and listened in, furtively, on private, grown-up conversations. I was forever thinking about some terrible things that might be happening behind the silent screens, behind the whispers, but being entirely kept in the dark about them made them more terrible for me, because my imagination and limited knowledge built them into things of gargantuan proportions. For example, I had an aunt who hadn’t got out of bed for some years and her condition was referred to as overwork, yet I caught snatches of conversation about ‘nervous breakdowns’ and heard one of the neighbours say she was a ‘mental case’; sometimes I heard screaming and then recalled it in nightmares; I knew that at least two of my cousins had disappeared and was hastily told they had brain tumours (I know — a strange things to be saying to a young kid; but you see this must have been considered a better explanation than the real trauma); again, earwigging, I came to understand that they had taken their own lives, and sort of wondered where they had put them. It was my family’s epic-fail mythology, on both sides, but particularly in my late father’s, that all was well and that you didn’t tell for shame. A mythology that the sadness wasn’t, anyway, palpable. Because, of course, it was. As a child I sucked it up and felt sick; it was there on the table with bangers and mash when no-one spoke but sat, as Auden had it, ‘in a place beyond glum.’

No-one spoke about what was going on; I had to over-hear the accounts of wife-beating, of a gold-digger marrying the terminally ill aunt who was the person I loved most in the world; of why another aunt had to be sedated for the vast journey across Somerset; of why the aunt who didn’t get out of bed occasionally threw furniture at visitors. Even as a young kid, I knew she must have been so distressed because I was left in the car outside willing myself to think of something else. ‘Bang!’ That’ll be the bedside table. I was told to shut up when I asked. Because everyone was so dead keen on stifling things, it almost killed me when my father cried at said married-to-a-gold-digger aunt’s funeral. And he was furious with me that I had seen it and belted me for it because his shame was so great. I am aware that my family was dysfunctional, but because they were such pillars of the community — and had apparently joined the middle classes now — there was no-one to tell because, as I wrote in my novel, ‘Who would believe you?’ Ah, keeping up appearances does a lot of damage, does it not?

I could also witness, within my own home, familial mood swings that, to me, were terrifying and I do believe that the secrecy and lack of articulation made me into a frightened child and probably adult, too. Because my family (albeit ineptly) covered it up, it felt worse; moreover I was always taught that moods, and PMT and adolescence and passion and crying apart from alone were signs of the most hideous weakness; at least two of my cousins suffered from eating disorders: no-one called them that; despite the fact that they appeared to be wasting away and there was one cousin whose scratches from self-harming I could clearly see. I feel and see this all so clearly now and I know that I desperately wanted to talk to someone about it all.  When you become a parent, maybe you feel more acutely for your child self? And this child self needed to be told that she was okay and coping and she wishes that there had been someone to say, ‘It isn’t you, kid’ or ‘Mental health problems and mental illness are not weakness’ or ‘Your family’s suppression of anything that looks shameful is actually the unhealthy part and totally sucks because the problems are so clearly there.’ And I needed that talk about it because also, as a small child, I began to develop problems myself, in my topsy-turvy, back-to-front world.

My black comedy, sort of bildungsroman of a novel explores the ways in which a child develops problems of some dimensions, has not a soul to tell, is traumatised by many key events in her childhood and is very fearful and full of self-loathing; she scratches and pounds upon herself and uses her imagination to populate a world which, to her, makes no sense. This kid also develops an alter ego who turns nasty. What can I say? I was a funny little girl, but I survived with my unorthodox means. Unfortunately, I also had years of mental health problems — OCD, panic attacks, generalised anxiety disorder, self-harming, extremely poor coping skills in the face of stress, periods of depression — and I thought that I was a ghastly person who had brought terrible things upon her family and, possibly, on others too; an individual whose presence was always deleterious to those around her.  I believe that, at the heart of depression (I am with the Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe on this one),there is a sense one is a bad person, a wicked person; this, unsurprisingly, colours all events that happen to one, making a person feel responsible for things they were not, finding pattens of failure and let-downs and things they can’t do and shouldn’t have entertained. That was me and it took me a long time and many false starts to get better; it was a combination of culling a few people, dead and alive, I am afraid (you’ll have to read the book!), surrounding myself with a good community of friends and getting the appropriate therapeutic support after other systems didn’t work. It was CAT (cognitive analytic therapy) delivered with stupendous skill and compassion that did it and when this worked I want to tell you that things were a different colour and that I fell on the floor, cataleptic with relief. THAT is what skilled support delivered for me and my heart bleeds to think that others cannot access it because they do not have a supportive GP, because they feel they cannot advocate for themselves, because funding is such that the help is sparse — which is the reality in the UK — or because they have always harboured a sense of shame (thus cannot tell anyone) or never received any useful knowledge or information and find themselves stymied by fear: what is happening?  Had I been able to ask and tell as a child, would things have been different? I think it likely, although I am no health professional, that they would.

Let me return to that quotation from the beginning of this article.

‘It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon, or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.’

If children feel loved and if they have some knowledge, but not too much, of what is happening, I think the situation is more manageable for them. I would say that we need to speak frankly and answer all questions — and find out some answers when we don’t — because mental health is still not given the focus it needs. I should like to think that things are changing gradually. Recent books and the excellent work of mental health campaigners and advocates, many of whom are prolific on twitter, and groups with a good presence on social media, such as ‘Respect Yourself’ and ‘Young Minds’ are resources for younger people in distress themselves or trying to cope with that of a parent. Mind and Saneline are terrific and I think Matt Haig’s recent book, Reasons to Stay Alive was a sensible and gentle resource which will, in its way, and for a broad age demographic, help to comfort and de-stigmatise; I am a huge fan of everything that Dorothy Rowe (see above) ever writes and I think that Juno Dawson’s recent book Mind Your Head is an excellent guide to mental health for young people. And there’s us — the parents, many of whom, like me, will have suffered or be suffering from mental health problems or perhaps a thoroughly debilitating mental illness.

Something I do is to make sure — and I will always do this for as long as I can — that I give top priority to those people who have given my children a sense of safety and fun and in whom they can trust; for me, this has also meant those who knew how hard things had been for me sometimes and who didn’t walk away. I have been very careful to ensure the children can go and talk to some of my friends because, as I like to say, family is a flexible construct and sometimes, as I have learned over and over, family cripples you if it can’t look something scary in the face or if its sense of shame is so heavy as to weigh down your very soul and the world you walk through. And sometimes family fucks off in a crisis because it doesn’t like unpleasantness. So I’ve been practical and I hope our boys feel they have a loving community around them and that a shorthand exists because these friends don’t judge and know that people are people and that we can talk and break through problems with open arms and through open conversations. And, yes, that it’s an us.

The open conversation and the consoling warmth of an extended hand: they would be good for everyone, wouldn’t they?

Please feel free to comment on what you have read. x

Latest Goodreads review…

I enjoyed finding this review of Killing Hapless Ally this morning. I should love to think that someone would re-read the book and think that it would bear re-reading.

 

This is a wonderful book. It’s not one that readers of ‘chick lit’ will take to easily. Nothing is spoon fed to the reader. And yet it is expertly written by someone who not only knows their craft, but enjoys it as well. The author has a habit of placing powerfully upsetting lines, lines that make you want to physically jerk when you read them, in the middle of laugh-out-loud funny scenes. The effect is powerful, making the both the humour and the shock support each other with a sort of literary alchemy few writers can achieve.

I feel like the central character Alison is, if not a friend, someone I know inside out now. The book will bear re-reading (several times over I expect) so I am looking forward to meeting her again.’

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!

Here’s the cover of Killing Hapless Ally

cover of killing helpless ally

So here’s the cover, with some nice words, at back, from Martha Roberts (author and journalist) and Alex Campbell (YA author of Land and Cloud 9). At the moment, media interest is building momentum prior to the launch. Fingers crossed for pitches up and coming…

While it’s a work of fiction, the experiences Killing Hapless Ally describes are very much based upon my own – the extraordinary measures a child went to to stay afloat, and how she maintained them in her adulthood: varied gallery of imaginary friends, alter ego (who turned nasty) and all. So while I hope the book entertains and makes you laugh, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope readers might reflect on what mental health is, what we think mental illness is (clue: there are many different types of it), how problems can develop very early in a child who learns to compensate quite flamboyantly, but who feels under a great deal of stress, and possibly how – even within someone who is otherwise healthy – there may be a great lability of mood; a rather too quick shift  from normalcy to near despair and back again. I loathe, however, any text that insists you dissociate yourself from negative thought, because feelings of melancholy, sadness and even despair may be benchmarks of an emotionally healthy person able to run the gamut of all human feeling.To run away from those things is to live fearfully. I already know that some people may be horrified at my literary evocation of self harming, suicide, therapy, funerals and maleficent dead relatives, but these things I stared in the face – and my protagonist stared in the face – and found that feet were still on the ground and eyes were to the stars.

It’s interesting. As I was bemoaning on twitter earlier, a couple of folk have said, for all the best reasons, that they’ll be glad to buy the book – it’s important to support ‘people like you’. By which they mean, I think, that as kind and civilised members of our society we have to support those members referred to – in a tongue in cheek way in my book – as ‘those who can’t’. But there is another narrative tumbling along in the book, you see: it comes first from the mouth of Helen, Alison’s (the protagonist’s) godmother who is dying in a house on Cyclamen Terrace on Tyneside, to the tune of Countdown jacked up to full volume downstairs and stifling plug-in air fresheners. (Actually, this was a formative experience for me, I must admit – for Helen is based on my own godmother and the situation not dissimilar). But as I was saying, Helen looks at little Alison with fire in her eye and she says, ‘You will be the girl who did.’ She understood and she was right. People go through tremendous difficulty, but that does not mean they don’t have an intellectual life, raise a family, run a business, maintain friendships or hold down a job. I want to say that – albeit by the skin of my teeth sometimes – I have managed to do these things, never more so than when I finally accessed the care and support that, for me, was life changing and enabled me to effect permanent change. Having difficulty or illness does not make a person lesser or someone for whom we should give the sort of sympathy that also manages to demean them and suggest that they are not autonomous.

Hey look: I’ve had about thirty five years of mental health problems, but I’ve written three books, taught many hundreds of secondary age pupils, am raising three boys, feed three cats, rescued many chickens, been to two universities, travelled the world, married a bloke who stopped me on the street and asked for directions. Yeah, I know. People with MH problems do those things too. I’ve been off and on meds, received hospital support and spent a lot of time with my GP and MHRS: sometimes I broke. Then I couldn’t do any of the things I describe. I stared into a hole in the middle distance and everything was through a glass darkly and hope was a broken, jagged thing.

So how about this: say that the person who, after many years of anxiety, depression, breakdowns, self harming and OCD, kept rebounding and, eventually and moreorless, got better, well that would be some marathon, wouldn’t it? Say that the person didn’t, but kept battling. Is that not impressive? It isn’t the work of a weakling – as some may see it. It isn’t the work of a sub-species; a sort of collusion of ‘people like yous’. It’s the determination of an individual to survive and thrive. And my battle has been but a skirmish compared with what others have to combat.

But back to the book. Read it for a laugh, for company, to be startled; root for Alison; be horrified at The Hill and what happens to Muffled Mfanwy; wince at siblings like Jaggers in his vile horsehair-stuffed chair and never look at a pickled egg again! And if the book does just one tiny thing to diminish stigma around mental health problems, I’ll be so happy.  And maybe no-one will come up to me and say they are glad to support ‘people like you’ – because I am you, and you are me and I am glad we met.

 

 

 

Some more publication plus MacNeice and Kavanagh

Ramsey Sound, Pembrokeshire

I am very excited to say that my work is being included in a poetry anthology published by the Emma Press. Here they are

http://theemmapress.com/

I wrote a series of poems called Pembrokeshire Poems and they picked one called ‘Cast out my broken comrades’, the title of which draws on Homer and also a poem (which itself does the same) by Louis MacNeice called ‘Thalassa.’ I am so pleased as I didn’t expect to achieve publication so soon.

I’d been re-reading Louis MacNeice prior to starting these Sea poems; he is a great favourite of mine and he always has been. MacNeice appears briefly in my first novel Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician, February 2016) and there is a refrain from his poem ‘Meeting Point’ in the novel, too. If you read the book, you’ll see WHY and HOW ‘time is away’ and also (I quote from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, ‘Prelude’ – another refrain) why ‘the millstone has become a star’ – the epigraph to the novel, a refrain and there at close of day. (I was granted permission from literary estates for these at no charge – very generous.)

For me, the lines already in my head and the lines I have yet to read, will always be salve and solution.

The poem itself decribes a dawn voyage across Ramsey Sound to the island; the voyage itself is both literal and figurative – as I expect you guessed. It is about being broken, being lost and experiencing the first moments of healing. A ‘sea-change’ you might say, quoting Ariel in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.

Do have a look at The Emma Press. They are a dynamic lot – much going on – and their Anthology of Motherhood contains some stunning writing. You can buy it through the site – or borrow my copy!

By the way, I have written (I’m aware this sounds reckless) a chapter book to enter for The Bath Children’s Novel Award (I hadn’t even told my husband I did it), but I’m still deliberating whether it’s too rough and ready to submit.

But back to the poem. The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea will be published in October, 2016.

The picture of Ramsey Sound, above, is from the Pembrokeshire South East Energy Group website.

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.

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!