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

                       AN INTERVIEW WITH JOANNA BARNARD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HANGING OUT WITH THE HOLY ROLLERS – FROM KILLING HAPLESS ANNIE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who do I ask? What can I do?’

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

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

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

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

‘To get back up to the shining world from there

My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,

And following its path, we took no care

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

Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘In everyone there sleeps

A sense of life lived according to love.

To some it means the difference they could make

By loving others, but across most it sweeps

As all they might have done had they been loved.

That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache..’

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

Antoinette

If you have not read Jean Rhys’s brilliant Wide Sargasso Sea, I urge you to to do so. It is the prequel (don’t care for that word, I must admit) to the story of Jane Eyre. I wrote a little something about it, below….
                                   Featured image
In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette is recast as Bertha by her new husband. It is a name with which he feels more comfortable. From a tic in her sleep, all shifts and his Bertha – with a name which is not her colour and is an insult to her pride – shifts to a private world where  shapes are lurid and vivid and where she has no sense of being loved. Instead, she is sold like a chattel, exchanged as currency for land. Like cargo, as ballast, she goes on her journey to the attic in the old great house where she is, to generations of school students, the prime example of the mad woman in the attic: Mr Rochester’s first wife. But what if that is not who she really is? What if she were a victim, radiant, then cruelly displaced and raving?
Sometimes at night, Antoinette – for that, of course, is who she really is – runs through the quiet corridors of the great house. Sometimes, Jane Eyre hears her. But no-one visits Antoinette; she has only a drunken jailer. Now, Antoinette is insane, lost to that private world in which nothing makes sense. The lurid, vivid shapes form, again, at night.
One day, she takes a candle and she runs. It is time to flee her dull, sublunary world. She makes fire, maybe by intent, maybe through her own special brand of lunacy. If you’ve read Jane Eyre, this part of the story is known to you. But if you’ve read the other story, then the mad woman in the attic is something else to you. She is a woman treated cruelly; beautiful, turned savage and formed in the heat beyond the wide Sargasso sea.
For her last few moments, she is free and I imagine that she stands, face to the cool, foreign English air, high up on the walls somewhere. Round and about – there in the countryside or beyond in the towns – there will be English ladies, in subdued colours of slate grey and cream or charcoal, with maybe an ornament of pearl or a pretty cameo. But high up on the house, Antoinette stands, in her long red dress – the dress which she had hauled from the Caribbean, all secretly smouldering  in its trunk. And now she is aflame. She will rise. And she is beautiful.

The title of the new book and some snow crystals.

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping going!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I considered my next move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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