TD: Ha, good question! Well, I’m very much involved in the acquisition process here at Bloomsbury and try to read as much as I can of the books that the commissioning editors are considering. It’s impossible to read everything (especially when you have over one hundred paperbacks a year!) of course, but I try to get a feel for as much of our list as possible. So, I normally start thinking about a paperback as soon as the commissioning editor has bought it, and the editor also talks to me about their thoughts on the paperback at a very early stage. Helen Garnons Williams is such a passionate advocate of all her authors and is constantly checking on the progress of all her paperbacks.
And to answer the question about your book: as you know, I’m a huge fan of The Night Rainbow (I almost cried when Helen was launching it at the marketing meeting recently) and have some thoughts on the paperback cover but you’ll have to wait and see!
CK: So, Vanessa, now you’ve seen the alternative covers to the one you were proposed and ultimately ended up with, what are your impressions?*
VG: I am struck by the sombreness of the palette used in firstly the cover showing the close rows of houses – and secondly the boy on the hilltop overlooking the town. And, although I prefer the third concept – the colours in the ‘feather’ cover have the same effect on me. The Coward’s Tale is not a gloomy book – it is about healing, at base – the meta-nattative is about the healing power of story, the way repeated telling of the same tales finally helps the community to acknowledge the past and move on. And frees the teller.
If I tried consciously to do anything at all, I tried to make the story sing. So when Trâm-Anh’s note, in with the paperbacks, said ‘Doesn’t the orange sky sing?” that felt absolutely right!
I know colourways can be tweaked. But the first (hilltop) holds no intimacy, whichever colour it is. The second (close up houses) is too ‘house-orientated’ – it’s muddly as an image, and I don’t really like it as a cover. The feather idea is better, it is clever, but it kind of misses the point – the boy is not the coward, and it leads the reader to expect him to be.
The chosen cover works so very well – and one of the most resonant things for me, apart from the street being ‘right’, the Cat public house, the mine in the distance…the flame-colour of the sky – is the shadows. Or not. When I was sent that cover I liked it immediately. It has very close echoes with the cover of my first book – a red-haired child walking away from the onlooker. So there was a synchronicity about it. It is a more commercial cover than the hardback, and that has to be a good thing, for sales.
The most important thing for me in all this was that I was in the hands of professionals who know the market, who know what works and what doesn’t. It would seem silly to impose my likes and dislikes onto that, as they ought to be irrelevant. Besides, Trâm-Anh told me that some important book buyers liked the cover we ended up with – and that was key. It’s just a product, in the end.
So, on to a cover I like came the fabulous quote from A N Wilson when he made ‘The Coward’s Tale’ his novel of 2011 – saying the book is lyrical, moving and funny. You can’t get better than that, and coupled with an engaging, eye-catching image, more than that we cannot do!
CK: Vanessa, you said at the start that you’re ‘working hard at a hundred and one different things’! What are you up to now/next?
VG: Top of the list would of course be anything needed for ‘The Coward’s Tale’. Thus far, there has not been much to do apart from a few visits to read/talk/record video etc at Bloomsbury. But I’m not twiddling my thumbs doing nothing, I hate not having lots of things on the go! While I was writing The Coward I also wrote two collections of short stories, pitched, organised, edited and contributed a chapter to ‘Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story’, wrote an as-yet-unpublished flash collection, did masses of teaching, and started to learn about poetry.
1. Next Novel! Yes! The working title is ‘Kit’, and it will be a prequel/sequel to The Coward. I started it in Ireland back in Jan/Feb and came back with 40,000 words to play with. Early days, and it’s going to be a rather tough call to make this work - but I will give it a good go. I’ve got a Hawthornden Fellowship for November/December, a period of four blissful weeks in a drafty Scottish castle, with no internet, no phone signal. HO HO! Hot water bottles, blankets, laptop. Imagination. Hopefully ‘Kit’ will start taking shape…. at the moment, it is shut away and I won’t look at it for a few months. Already I know I went down completely the wrong road with one character, and he has to come out.
2. Planning the most exciting thing – a residency on the island of St Helena for 2013. For anything up to six weeks/two months I would like to be on this
fascinating island, responding to the place and the people, somehow, in writing. Whatever comes. Stories, hopefully, then it becomes a third collection. If not, a travelogue with a twist. We’ll see. I’m also hoping to work with the schools, and other plans up the sleeves. And of course, it will be a suitably remote place to work on ‘Kit’.
3. Second edition of ‘Short Circuit,’ for Salt Publishing. You can’t let a great ‘how-to’ book go stale – so I’m making it bigger – adding new stuff – and working with writers like Scott Pack, Stuart Evers, Tom Vowler, Nicholas Royle, either on new interview-based chapters or they are going off and writing their own. It begs the question why am I doing this – I won’t earn much from it – but it’s a good thing, a great book, and I love the thought that it is helping new writers, inspiring tired ones. Passing this thing called writing on to the next generation is very important to me. Many of the original Short Circuit writers, whose chapters will remain an important part of the book, have blossommed even more in the last couple of years – Alison MacLeod, Graham Mort for example – both finding success in national competitions – and Carys Davies – winning the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook award. We have a strong strong team, giving insights and practical advice.
4. ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’. I am working with a fantastic illustrator on a mad collection of flash, subtitled ‘Portrait of a Marriage’. We are planning to publish this as a gift book with a tiny tiny press, planning, funding, designing, sorting all the stages of the production process ourselves – and that will be a fab experience. Sales, marketing, distribution – ask me later! All I’d like to do is break even at this point, so it is an interesting project.
5. Learning! Poetry. I am loving learning about poetry, and maybe uncovering a small talent for this slippery thing. As I write, I am in the middle of a series of wonderful poetry workshops tutored by Pascale Petit. She is poet in residence at The Tate, and we meet every Monday after Tate Modern has closed, in
whichever exhibition she has chosen that day – just us, a group of twenty or so - and we respond to the art. Yesterday, we were with Boetti and his world maps sewn by Afghan women who didnt know what the sea was, so coloured it with what silks whatever they fancied, and sometimes filled it with patterns. Amazing.
6. Teaching! Invitations so far this year to take workshops for Spread the Word in London, New Writing South in Brighton, Wellington College, University Campus Ipswich, Claremont School, The Winchester Writers’ Conference Pitstop, Hope and Anchor Writing School in Whitstable, a week on the short story at Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat in Ireland – and I’m in discussion about another week at a Spanish writers’ retreat. I love teaching – and besides, it pays. That is very necessary now, the combination of husband retiring a while back, our youngest son in his first year at university and the recession has done its worst in our household – I am seeing Toby through uni on what I earn as a writer… go figure!
Thank you to Vanessa for coming by to give us an update, and especially to Trâm-Ahn for taking the time to be interviewed and providing us with the ‘rejected’ covers!
Vanessa’s wacky website is www.vanessagebbie.com and her blog is www.morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com and here’s a quick link to Amazon…
Finally, it’s Bloomsbury’s Year of the Short Story. Vanessa’s ‘unofficial’ contribution is to read and record for posterity what she thinks is one of the most powerful short stories ever written. ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargeant Hall. Here it is – interspersed with a bit of natter – in two sections. It’s long… http://readmesomethingyoulove.com/?cat=110