Claire King

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Claire King Edited Choices (10 of 10)

Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

A Launch Party Mingle

Posted on: February 1st, 2013 by Claire - 4 Comments

I’m having (whoopee!) an actual launch party in London on 13th February, on the eve of The Night Rainbow’s official publication date, but not everyone can be there, so I’ll be doing some virtual mingling over the next couple of weeks with some very smashing people indeed.

I’m hoping it will be like being at a party on the web, where you wander around chatting, you meet some new people, ask some questions, have a bit of a laugh. And all this without having to wear heels. So come on in, help yourself to a drink, and I hope you have a good time!

Champagne glasses

Take a glass and mingle

Who I’ve met so far:

Kate at For Books’ Sake, where we talk about the portraying pressures of motherhood and how long a story should be.

Jen at The View From Here literary magazine, who asks me what are the important things, and where did the idea of a night rainbow come from?

Roz Morris, about the Undercover Soundtrack to The Night Rainbow - the songs that were part of its making.

Joe at the Bristol Short Story Prize, the home of my first published short story, who asks “What has it been like?”

Dan at Dog Ear Discs  - who asks about the environment of the novel and the surrounding countryside. ”It becomes as important as the characters. Was it based on an actual place?”

Simon Savidge, who pokes around my bookshelves and asks “Are there any guilty pleasures?…”

Jen Campbell - Bookshoppist and author, who I may have made happy-sad.

Caroline Smailes, who wants to know about being a debut author and asks “How has your following your dream influenced your daughters?”

Isabel Costello on her Literary Sofa, where we talk about the pleasures and challenges of writing in a child’s voice.

Waterstones blog, where I talk about the inspiration behind The Night Rainbow

Alison Bacon, who asks about my experience of the publishing process with a top publisher, as well as life on twitter!

Vanessa Gebbie, who asks “How much did you want the novel to explore notions of non-belonging?”

Alison Wells - Who has been running a series of posts exploring ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. I talk to her about keeping the joy in writing

Rumjhum Biswas at Flash Fiction Chronicles where I chat about how writing short fiction has influenced my novel, and what I looked for as an editor of a literary magazine

 

Spotted across a crowded room! I’m heading towards…

Chris Mosler  over at Thinly Spread, who has things to say, and a giveaway!

Nik Perring, about getting started and keeping going on a novel and…

… Jonathan Pinnock, who wants to know how I managed to wait out the two years from signing a book contract to publication…

and other people too…I hope there’s enough champagne.

The-Night-Rainbow-front

Paparazzi!

Marie-Claire selected The Night Rainbow as one of their top reads for the month.

Marie Claire Book Review

“An original and beguiling debut.”

Stylist magazine tipped me as one of their 4 soon to be bestsellers (alongside Maya Angelou and Dan Brown!)

You'll be on tenterhooks throughout

You’ll be on tenterhooks throughout

Good To Know magazine have listed The Night Rainbow as one of their 2013 book club picks (alongside Jodi Picoult, Yann Martel and Jojo Moyes!). If you post a review here you could win an e-reader.

 

Overheard…”Have you read it yet?”

Dan at Dog Ear Discs - The picturesque setting of Southern France in the midst of a heat wave is almost hypnotic.”

Nettie Thompson - “Pea and Margot are characters who stay with you, long after the last page is turned “

Teresa Majury - ”…a narrator who will grab your heartstrings and never let go”

Tracey Upchurch - “Favourite character? Margot — little sister, voice of reason, bearer of night rainbows.

Laura Vickers at For Books’ Sake Recommended for… Dreamers, mothers, lovers of the rich landscape of the south of France, and those in need of warming up.”

See more reviews on this page.

I’ll update the page with links as they happen.

For mingling in person, please see my events page here.

Champagne photo (c) Chris Chapman

 

 

 

The High Roads and Low Roads of Scottish Fiction

Posted on: November 6th, 2012 by Claire - 10 Comments

I read with interest recently an article that said Scottish children are not being taught enough Scottish literature. A debate has now sprung up over whether or not it should be made mandatory in schools up to exam level. Personally I don’t think that’s a useful approach, but I do believe strongly that if you don’t engage with the culture of the place you live – including the literature and art as well as the local surroundings – then you are likely to feel disengaged from the place, with all the associated problems this brings to a society. Here’s an interesting essay on the subject.

I mentioned this to my Twitter friend, Scottish author Alison Bacon, and she offered to post here on the subject. I asked her if she would talk about what Scottish fiction has meant to her. What did she grow up reading, and how has that influenced her writing?

Here’s what she has to say: My early preferences were the usual suspects: – Enid Blyton (any or all) and series like Sadlers Wells  and The Chalet School,  but for a while adventure stories by Scottish author Jane Shaw were my real favourites. (Like the period feel? Collector’s items now, apparently!)

I went on to historical novels – any period, any country, including Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Renault and with them D.K. Broster’s Jacobite Trilogy And so, if we let pass that Broster wasn’t actually a Scot (!) I’d still argue that Scottish literature was always part of my reading mix. As a teenager I progressed to the miscellany of fiction with which our house was filled, popular novelists of the forties and fifties like Howard Spring, Ernest Raymond, Agatha Christie, and amongst them Scottish classics -  Kidnapped,  Catriona, The Heart of Midlothian. I can still see them lined up around the walls of the ‘front room’ although if anything nudged me towards them it was probably the good old (can we say that now?) BBC whose Sunday serials gave a pretty decent nod to RLS as well as Dumas and Dickens.

Meanwhile, school neither encouraged or discouraged us in reading ‘home-grown’ authors: Burns, Buchan, and Barrie all figured, if briefly. But in the sixties the trend was for modern (in many cases American) authors. I think I only got to the fabulously lyrical Sunset Song and the rest of A Scots Quair via the 1970s TV adaptation (which wonder of wonders, is now available on YouTube!)

To be honest, as I grew up, I don’t remember distinguishing in my mind between Scottish and other writers. Books were generally good things, any decent story would do. But I’m reminded by a member of the Facebook Support Scottish Writing group that I and an entire generation were brought up on the Sunday Post, an icon of popular culture and the prime motivator in my learning to read!

Later, married in England and burying myself in Margaret Drabble and Penelope Lively, I was brought back ‘home’ in reading terms by none other than Inspector Rebus. Never mind the plot or the body-count,I was instantly hooked by the writing ‘voice’. I still can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something in the prose that just feels right. Rankin, like Iain Banks, is from my own neck of the woods, but I find that other Scots writers have the same effect, particularly poet and novelist Moira Forsyth whose dialogue has a ring of authenticity that is instantly satisfying. There are still more gaps in my Scottish reading than I will ever have time to fill, but I’ve recently added James Robertson and Janice Galloway to my favourites as well as Scottish indie authors like Catherine Czerkawska and  Chris Longmuir  all of whom to satisfy that need to hear the ‘guid Scots tongue’.

Going on to writing,  I’m inevitably influenced (no iconoclast me!) by the books I have read, including all of the above. But I don’t consciously ape any writer either. So is my writing style ‘Scottish’? I’m not sure I could answer that for myself! Nor do I feel that Scottish writers have particularly influenced what I choose to write about. My first novel (unpublished) was set in Oxford and France. But a trip to Scotland in 2007 (our first for many years) prompted a strong feeling of homecoming, and maybe even a sense of guilt at having gradually let the idioms and rhythms of speech slip from my conscious memory. And so A Kettle of Fish became, literally, a nostalgia trip, not in the sense of a memoir (I hasten to add!) but I think I used Ailsa’s story not so much to rediscover my roots as to repair my memories of them. Does that make sense?

From my point of view, the experiment worked, because I feel I know Fife better now than I did when I started the novel.I just have to hope that it works for my readers too. I’m afraid I’ve shied away from what is maybe the crucial question of what makes a Scottish writer. Scottish blood? Living in Scotland? Writing about Scotland? Any or all of these will play a part. As an exiled Scot with a desire to write, I’m not sure that I would have put myself in that group before I started Kettle. But it feels like I’m part of it now

 About Ali and her Writing  Ali Bacon was born in Dunfermline in Scotland and graduated from St Andrews University. She now lives near Bristol. Her writing has been published in Scribble, The Yellow Room and a number of online magazines. She was shortlisted for the A&C Black First Novel Competition 2006. Her first published novel is A Kettle of Fish.

Website and blog: http://alibacon.com

A Kettle of Fish  is a rollercoaster family drama set in Scotland and published by Thornberry Publishing Buy it from Amazon UK (£1.99) or Amazon USA in Kindle format. You can ‘Look Inside’ to read a sample.

Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/AKettleOfFish Print edition coming soon.

Potato, Potato, Tomato, Tomato, Book Covers.

Posted on: April 29th, 2012 by Claire - 21 Comments

Today we’re talking about that Special Relationship….

I’m in the amazing position of having The Night Rainbow being published in several countries, including the U.K. and the U.S.A., where the cover designs have now been developed (I had input into both). I’m delighted with both of them, but they are markedly different (U.K. on the left, U.S.A. on the right):

I’ve asked some very kind booksellers in both countries, and my editor from Bloomsbury U.S.A., to talk about the importance of a book cover, and to try and define what defines the differences in our tastes. Here are some of the first responses:

First, Robert Gray, who from 1992-2005 was a bookseller and buyer for the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont.

He has also been a contributing editor and columnist at Shelf Awareness since 2006. As a writer, his work has appeared in numerous publications, ranging from Tin House to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine toPublishers Weekly. He has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College. Rob tweets as @Fresheyesnow

Rob says:

The cover was always a factor for us when buying in stock, though not the deciding factor (excepting, of course those counter books that could be sold as gift items on strength of their covers or titles alone). If a book with a lousy cover was still something I loved and knew I could handsell, content always trumped art. But if a book wasn’t so great and the cover was irresistible, then the decision came down to a question: “Is this a book I know there are readers for, even if I’m not crazy about it?” Another factor I don’t see discussed often: When booksellers are building displays, a great cover always has a better chance of being showcased.

I do think customers instinctively reach for a book with a great cover if it’s on a display or face-out on the shelves. If it’s spine-out, then the game is over before it starts. Ideally, what a great cover does is get the potential reader to pick up the book, maybe scan blurbs on the back cover, open the book and flip through the first few pages.

Anything that inspires a customer to initiate that ceremony is critical.

Looking at your covers, I do think the U.S. cover will appeal more to American readers. I’m not sure I can be more specific than that. It’s an instinctive reaction for me, since I’m not a graphics or even a particularly visually-oriented person. I’ve just watched thousands of books being sold over the years. 

***

Anna J G-Smith has worked at Stroud Bookshop for the last 15 years.
Stroud Bookshop is an independent book shop, keeping books on the High Street and part of Stroud’s cultural heart. Anna is passionate about her job – even more so since she started writing, and rarely seems to have her bookselling hat off these days. Her writers blog is here and she tweets as @eryth
Anna says:
When ordering a new title in for stock, the most important thing is the write-up, and any advance reviews. Also if we like the premise, and feel it fits with the zeitgeist of the moment in which it is published. BUT, once the new titles arrive, then we can assess how best to display them, depending on jacket design (and heft!). I tend to be the one mostly responsible for the displays, as I am acknowledged to have a good eye for overall balance of colour/design. If I think a book looks particularly beautiful, then I will display it as prominently as possible, and especially if it is a hardback. With paperbacks it is slightly easier, in that the bestsellers tend to be displayed depending on how many we have in stock, and what the prevailing colours/designs in paperbacks are at the time. For example, Julian Barnes and Graham Swift look well next to each other at the moment:
Design is important to customers. Hardback design in particular: if they’re going to shell out on a new title they might not otherwise buy (unless they’re die-hard author-addicts who can’t help themselves!) then they like the idea that they are buying something beautiful. Smaller hardbacks in particular fit this niche, (Julian Barnes – again – was an example last year), as do books that they might like for themselves, but can only justify if buying a gift for someone else. Paperbacks are where the most committed browsing takes place. For backlist/classics it helps to have either a smart and recognisable livery (Oxford, Penguin, faber etc) or something beautiful and striking. Joanne Harris’s Chocolat still stands out years later, because of the rich purple; David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet is another good example.
When a title is new, and selling well, then it is more likely to be displayed face-out. This is where good design comes to the fore.
A good cover helps a book more than a bad cover hinders it. If a customer really wants to read a particular title, then a poorly designed cover will not put them off – though it does cause comment. This does happen a lot, and especially if the design is changed between hardback and paperback, or between trade paperback and A-format. Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is a good example here. The original design was very striking in red and yellow. The A-format paperback is less memorable, and especially when there are so many other blue covers around.
Now to your covers. They are BOTH beautiful. I much prefer the English cover for the hardback  - and it will look lovely stacked high in the middle of my hardback display, and in the window! – the U.S. edition is too much like other jackets I have seen, but will look very strong as a paperback cover, whereas I think – lovely though it is – the striking detail on the UK cover will be diminished once it is scaled down. And I’d be very surprised if my customers don’t greatly admire the hardback cover. It is unlike anything I have seen in a very long time, so will stand out well. Bloomsbury do have a knack for GOOD covers that buck the mass market; Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell being another example.
***

Rachel Mannheimer is my editor at Bloomsbury in the USA

Rachel says:

It’s difficult to pinpoint how important is the cover design for a novel. With the closing of so many bookshops, and the rise of online shopping – for print books and especially for e-books – I think there are fewer face-to-face encounters, as it were, with the book cover. There are new ways to find books, which are great, but it’s rarer for readers to discover books based solely on an eye-catching image. Still, when I’m in a bookshop, it’s definitely still my eyes leading me. (Then I read the blurbs or reviews on the back). And a memorable image still makes an impression if you see it online, in an advertisement, wherever. The cover conveys something about the style of the book before you know anything else.

When you consider the difference between what readers in the U.S.A. like in a cover, compared to the U.K., I think it’s a matter of a slightly different visual language, and just what the customer is accustomed to seeing – what connotations different visual cues have. Successful British book covers look like other successful British book covers, and successful American covers tend to look like other American covers. And I would say, to be supremely reductive, that British covers can look a bit schmaltzy to American eyes, while American covers can look stiff and boring. But sometimes something works perfectly in both markets! It just depends.

I love the cover we came up with for The Night Rainbow; it’s evocative and stylish. There was discussion early on about how difficult it would be to match the title literally (though the UK cover does come close). But it’s also such an interesting phrase, “night rainbow.” The designer had to work with both its sweetness and its mystery. Also, you had been clear about not wanting a straight representation of Pea; you wanted the reader to have space to imagine. This image the designer found, I love that it shows a little girl, but it’s a bit disorienting; you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. You want to read and learn more.

***

Many thanks to Rachel, Anna and Robert for taking the time to comment.

For more discussion on UK versus US covers:

Here’s a link to a brilliant talk by Chip Kidd on Book Design on Seth Godin’s blog.

Some very interesting comparisons of the last year’s novels on The Millions.

Not just a wildly different cover, but a different title too, from Morag Joss

For more information/to see other work by the designers of my covers:

UK: Holly Macdonald

USA: Jennifer Heuer

Not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Posted on: April 19th, 2012 by Claire - 2 Comments

Not too hot, not too cold, but just right. What makes a good short story? I’m  interviewed by Alison Wells over at the Writing.ie blog

Photo by Island Vittles via Flickr

Now in Paperback! Interview with Vanessa Gebbie & Bloomsbury’s paperback editor.

Posted on: March 28th, 2012 by Claire - 15 Comments

As some of you will have noticed, Vanessa Gebbie is a little like my Moses. She is busy parting the Red Sea of debut-novelling in Bloomsbury, and I am standing a year behind her peering over her shoulder. March sees the launch of her novel The Coward’s Tale in paperback, so I have invited Vanessa back along with her (and my!) paperback editor from Bloomsbury, Trâm-Anh Doan, to see what it’s all about.
Vanessa Gebbie (Photograph by Andrew Hasson)

CK: How has life been since the launch of your novel last November?

VG: Well, apart from the joy of knowing my novel is ‘out there’, nothing has changed. I am not doing anything different – still working hard at a hundred and one different things.

CK: What have been your highs and lows?

VG: Highs have been seeing some lovely reviews in the newspapers – especially the glowing reviews from A N Wilson. But the best thing? Getting letters and emails from complete strangers to say how much they have been moved by the book. And even better – when those come from Wales!

Of course there are lows, but it is really important to put these in context – I am delighted and very lucky to be with Bloomsbury, am learning such a lot, and enjoying working with everyone.  But it would be an unusual journey if there were absolutely no shades of light and dark.  The most surprising low is the discovery that if I want to support publicity, marketing and selling The Coward’s Tale,  I have to forget my professional rule of sticking to Society of Authors’ minimum earnings guidelines.I’m also downhearted at the lack of interest in ‘The Cowards Tale’ from lit fests – I love these, and was greatly looking forward to mingling with readers, writers, picking readings to intrigue, raise a smile – but it obviously ain’t to be. If Bloomsbury can’t get the book in, no one can.I suspect it is a vote less against the book, more against the older female author. If I was younger, the story would be different, judging from the authors’ events info on the website – I’m caught somewhere in the no man’s land between glamour and gravitas. (V shuffles off to spinning wheel, sucking her one remaining tooth)

CK: Wait, come back! What else have you learnt?
VG: A lot. That it is not an end, but just another beginning. That your book jostles for attention with a whole raft of brilliant books. Yours is just one of many.

 

CK: The Cowards Tale is getting a new boost this month with the launch of the paperback edition. What is significant about this for you?

VG: It has happened very quickly; I think usually, there is a greater distance between hardback and paperback publication. But for this writer, the daughter of a librarian, and a person who adores books as lovely things, I was delighted to have a few months in hardback, and having now got my hands on my gorgeous paperback, I am as nuts about that book as I was about the hardback.

 

CK: What has it been like working with Trâm-Anh as your paperback editor?

VG: Lovely. All I ask is that there is communication – because I care enormously about my book and need to know what’s happening, or not. And Trâm-Anh is wonderful…she seems to understand that. Thank you Trâm-Anh

 

Trâm-Anh (“This photo makes me look like Head Girl”)

CK: Could you tell us a little about your job as a paperback editor? 

TD: I oversee all paperbacks on our trade list, fiction and non-fiction. I brief our in-house designers for all paperback covers after discussing with our marketing and sales teams which direction we want to take the paperback. I then work closely with our designers as they progress their visuals and, alongside the commissioning editor and our marketing and sales directors, make the final decision on which cover we will have. I also put the book through press, selecting the best press reviews for the cover, making any corrections that need to be made to the main text, and making sure the costs for the book work. Then, in the run-up to a paperback being published, I work with marketing and publicity on their campaigns. It’s a very varied job, and I love the different aspects to it, but the best part is helping an author bring their book into the world.

 

CK: What is the usual time difference between the launch of a hardback and the paperback version? What are the reasons it might vary?

TD: It depends on the book and the time of year that we publish the original edition. In general there’s roughly a year between hardback and paperback, but with Vanessa’s book it made sense to publish in the spring, quite soon after the hardback. Spring and summer are our busiest times of the year for paperbacks as people tend to buy them when they’re off on their holidays, while the autumn market tends to be geared towards Christmas gifts, which suits higher priced books like hardbacks (publishers will almost always save their big cookbooks for October publication). So, of the 120 paperbacks we will publish this year, over two thirds of them are published between January to July. We look at our schedule carefully to make sure we’ve spread out our titles so that similar titles aren’t competing with each other.

CK: Why do paperbacks tend to have different covers from hardbacks? What were your thoughts when preparing The Coward’s Tale?

TD: The market for paperbacks is different from hardbacks – it tends to be a younger, much broader market for the paperback which is why we often go for different covers as we’re trying to reach a bigger readership with the paperback. The gorgeous, illustrated cover for the hardback of The Coward’s Tale (designed by our very talented designer Holly Macdonald) was perfect for making a statement to the trade and literary editors that this is an important literary novel that people need to take notice of. When it came to the paperback, Helen Garnons Williams (Vanessa’s editor) and I both agreed the cover should be photographic, concentrating on the boy Laddy Merridew, with a real sense of south Wales’s sweeping valleys. I have a close friend who grew up in Caerphilly and she helped me find the right kind of photographs of the Rhymney Valley to show our designer, Sarah Greeno. Here are some of the options that we initially looked at but subsequently discarded – we all wanted the cover to be more uplifting, and these designs weren’t quite strong enough (though the feather design is a beautiful and clever idea). As soon as we saw the vibrant orange sky, we knew it was perfect, and the image of the boy running down an empty street was so poignant. There was a collective, simultaneous sigh of ‘Ahhhh’ when everyone saw this cover. We later realized it’s uncannily similar to the cover for one of Vanessa’s previous books, but this was a pure coincidence!

 

CK; Books published under Bloomsbury’s new imprint, Bloomsbury Circus, will launch as ‘unusually sized’ trade paperbacks. When the paperback editions of these books launch, will there a be a difference in how you work versus one that launches in hardback?

TD: No, Bloomsbury Circus books will still be published in paperback in the same way as books that were originally launched as hardbacks.

 

CK: How do you see the share of sales changing between hardbacks, paperbacks and electronic books?

TD: Over the past year or so we’ve seen a marked increase in the sales of electronic books but so far it’s difficult to tell how much they’ve impacted on sales of print books. Sales overall for publishers are down (hardback and paperback), but we’re yet to see if the rise of eBooks has compensated for this downturn, as unfortunately the sales data for eBooks isn’t quite accurate enough for us to get a clear idea of how they’re doing.

Traditionally, the paperback is the main life of the book and 9 out of 10 print books purchased are paperbacks. In America, eBook sales of big, commercial titles have been known to outsell the print edition. We haven’t quite seen that level here, but I suspect it’s just a matter of time.

 

CK: What has it been like working with Vanessa?

TD: Vanessa is an incredibly warm, intelligent and passionate author and it’s genuinely a pleasure to work with her. I remember first meeting her on our editor-in-chief’s houseboat last summer and having a lovely chat with her about books, families, life and everything. It’s also brilliant to work with authors who are clued up about using social networking sites: I cannot count the number of times our marketing and publicity teams ask editors if their author is active on Twitter! Via her blog, website and Twitter feed, Vanessa clearly works hard to promote the book, and it’s increasingly important to have authors as pro-active as her. More than anything, we’ve all found Vanessa to be a very gracious author, thanking everyone involved in every stage of her book (marketing, publicity, production, design, etc).

 

CK: How early on in the life of a book do you get involved? OK, I admit that’s a slightly loaded question…so have you been having thoughts about The Night Rainbow yet?!

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!

 

Vanessa

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

The Novel Edits (Part 2)

Posted on: January 25th, 2012 by Claire - 24 Comments

In September I met my editor, Helen, to go through the structural edits for The Night Rainbow. If you missed it, you can read about that here. The next part of the editing process, which happened in quite a whirl last week, was the copyedits.

I thought that the copyeditor was there to ‘correct my mistakes’. I was really looking forward to what she would find, because before submitting I’d already done many passes of edits for typos, punctuation, and grammatical errors. I’d also paid attention to ‘continuity’, drawing up detailed maps of locations and timelines with character clothing, mealtimes etc. I didn’t go so far as a style sheet, but I’d thought about it.

Last week was quite an education…

My copyeditor got in touch and she said my book was ‘astonishing’. I loved her immediately. She said she was sending over the queries, and that there ‘weren’t many’. There were, in fact, 10 pages of them. 175 in total. And these were just the queries – obvious typos and missing punctuation had already been corrected without bothering me.

The copyedit was much more than ‘just’ about correcting mistakes. Yes there were some, but attention was also paid to to smoothing out inconsistencies in style, for example where I had used ’grownup’ vs ‘grown up’. My editor also checked facts, questioning things as odd as ‘are puffballs safe to eat?’ and the correct references made to music. Despite my best efforts there were still ‘continuity’ queries - one minute a door was closed, the next it was open…

Responding to the queries took hours and hours. Agreeing that I should change from one kind of punctuation to another was an easy one. But where the suggestion was to choose a different word or re-phrase something it was much harder. Even though I could agree that it was necessary, working within the vocabulary limits of the narrator took a lot of thought and deliberation.

By the time I reached the end of the query list I was feeling quite anxious. Had I managed to get back into the ‘voice’ of the book seamlessly? Had I made the ‘right’ changes? And what about all the mistakes? As soon as a query drew my attention to something I then spotted the same mistake over and over in the text. Even though my editor had told me that she only queried something once and then it would apply throughout, it was very unnerving to see the repeated mistakes and inconsistencies cropping up again and again.

But the biggest revelation for me last week was that my copyeditor not only understood the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation (of course), she also understood where I had intentionally broken the rules to use punctuation or rythym creatively. She understood my intention.

Then she worked with that intention, with my rules, to make the writing more elegant, so the words didn’t get in the way of the story.

The whole experience was really impressive, and I found myself enormously grateful that such painstaking attention is being lavished on my book.

Once the queries were dealt with and the TS returned to Bloomsbury,  I asked my lovely copyeditor, Sarah-Jane Forder, if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions:

1) I edited The Night Rainbow many times before I submitted it. I would have said I went through it with a fine toothed comb. And yet I had 175 queries in total, which you described as ‘very few’! If we imagine I’m towards one end of the spectrum, what does the other end look like?

It was obvious to me when I first read your TS that I was dealing with a very meticulous author. Yes, there were odd things you’d missed in however many edits but that is always the way. I missed things too, which you picked up: remember? My point about the relatively few number of queries, and the absolute ease of my job, was that they were minor things: the odd bit of punctuation here, a tiny bit of garbled text there. Nothing major whatsoever. Many authors, believe me, have neither your eye nor your ear. When you answered my queries you did so with confidence, saying no when you knew absolutely what you wanted. Which is a wordy way of saying that the other end of the spectrum might have multiple typing errors and inconsistencies as well as careless repetition, holes in the plot and characters whose eyes change from blue to brown according to the weather.

2) Many of your queries represented changes that needed applying several times through the book and after you’d mentioned something once I came across dozens of subsequent errors that I’d made (consistency of spellings etc.) Do authors get ‘better’ at noticing these, the more books they write? So fewer slip through to copyedit stage?
I think, the more they write, authors do become aware of certain tics in their writing: words and phrases they perhaps rely on; that sort of thing. It’s great if an author can get it near on 100 per cent accurate (Anita Brookner, whom I copyedited at Cape, was one), but they are rare.
I have to say that I don’t regard picking up spelling mistakes or typos necessarily as part of writing: you can be dyslexic and still express yourself fluently and vividly and with originality, which is the really important thing. If writers made no errors whatsoever, what about us poor copyeditors? You’d be doing us out of a job!

 

3) In terms of your process – do you read the book first as a ‘reader’, or immediately with an editor’s eye?

I always do a first read as a reader, or as near as I can get to a reader when I’m working (you’ve sussed that in my leisure time I read in an entirely different way), with an eye out for plot, pacing, characterisation and so on. I will also at that point make a note of any inconsistencies of style (‘girl-nest’!) and make a ‘style chart’ to follow for the edit proper. The edit proper is slower, and usually said out loud in my head. I find it helps to hear the words – you yourself mentioned rhythm and I think that’s really important.

 

4) How did you become a copyeditor? What do you like about the job?

 

I fell into copyediting! I graduated in English with a vague idea of going into publishing: no more than that. I was lucky enough to be appointed at Jonathan Cape as an editorial assistant working with Liz Calder, one of the top literary fiction editors at that time. Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, John Fowles, Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan: they were all Cape authors. Later, when Liz went to set up Bloomsbury, I followed her. 

I’ll be honest: the job can be extremely tedious (depends what you’re working on!) but it’s always fascinating to work one to one with authors; it can feel like a real privilege, in fact. There’s the satisfaction of making a difference, however small. The devil’s in the detail! Having been freelance now for about 15 years, one of the things I love about my job is being able to work from home, at no one’s beck and call. I like the freedom, I like the quiet! The money sucks: you don’t go into it expecting to become rich. But I specialise in editing literary fiction, and how can you put a price on the pleasure of being paid to read wonderful writing?

 

Huge thanks to Sarah-Jane for taking the time to answer these questions in her busy schedule. I hope you find them as illuminating as I did.

Next steps for The Night Rainbow? First Pages for proofreading in a few weeks, and the cover! It’s also off for translation. Still a year to go until publication, but we’re well on our way!

My true love gave to me…creativity, self esteem and joy – First Story Interview

Posted on: December 23rd, 2011 by Claire - 10 Comments

This week the National Literacy Trust published a survey that said almost one in three UK children do not own a book. This makes me sad. Especially since,  for book-hungry children, we can no longer count on the libraries that I relied on while growing up.

But there are people trying to do something to make a difference. People, including many well respected writers, giving up their time to help children write…and enjoy it.

I recently heard about First Story, a charity which aims to improve literacy and foster creativity in young people through creative writing.

First Story focuses on “challenging” state schools and deprived areas. After reading their excellent and informative website I asked if they would be willing to talk to me about their work.

I’m now delighted to welcome Monica Parle, National Director of First Story and writers Kate Clanchy and Ben Faccini, two of First Story’s contributing authors, to talk about their work.

Claire King: Could you tell us about First Story came about, and the aims of the programme?

Monica Parle: First Story was founded by former teacher Katie Waldegrave and the writer William Fiennes. They met at a party in 2007, and started chatting about the very privileged school where William was writer-in-residence, and Katie, who was working at a ‘challenging’ school in West London near Heathrow airport, said that a writer would never come out to a school like hers. William volunteered to come the following week, and after a terrifying twenty minutes in which they thought no one would show, suddenly the Sixth Formers arrived, and they wrote, and Katie and William saw incredible changes across that year. They thought they’d struck on something, so First Story started its first official year in the autumn of 2008 with eight schools in London.

CK: What are your main activities now, three years later?

MP: We place acclaimed writers in schools for the autumn and spring terms. The writers run weekly, after-school creative writing workshops with somewhere between twelve and twenty-one students aged fourteen to eighteen years. At the end of the project, we publish the students’ work in anthologies, and arrange book launch parties and public readings, so students can share their work. Since 2007, First Story has arranged for 150 writers-in-residence to work with 56 teachers in 27 challenging secondary schools across the country. Some 1,150 students have participated in the scheme, writing an estimated 18,400 stories and poems and producing 50 anthologies.

CK: That sounds like an awful lot of intense activity. How is it funded? Also, how do you see your charitable work sitting alongside state-provided education in schools?

MP: We fundraise extensively, and honestly, it’s been a change each year in terms of the sources of income. But the major sources are grants from trusts and foundations, individual donations, fundraising events, and we do have some income from the schools themselves (they pay about 10-15% of the cost). We steadfastly believe that creativity has a place in education, of course, but when Katie and William first set up the charity, it was really important to them that the project not be positioned just to serve the national curriculum or exams/assessments. They made a point of setting the project up after school. In part, this is because we hope the students will see that education is something bigger than the school day, that we can learn things in so many different settings. But Katie also noticed that with her school, the students didn’t have a tradition of extracurricular activities at all, and she felt that was a major difference from other schools. This is always a challenge for us because a lot of our students associate staying after school as being in trouble, so we have to tackle that each time we start in a new school.

CK: Your list of advisors reads like a Who’s Who of writing and publishing – Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon and Jonathan Dimbleby; Jamie Byng of Canongate; Literary Agents Deborah Rogers of Rogers, Coleridge & White and Andrew Kidd of Aitken Alexander; plus leading figures like Chris Patten (Chancellor of the University of Oxford) and Lord Adonis. That’s a massive amount of support. How do you benefit from that wealth of knowledge?

MP: We try not to bother them too much, as we feel so lucky for their support. But they’re very generous and helped us conceive of how to set up the project and gave us so much useful advice.

CK: Could you please outline the main achievements of First Story to date? How do you measure the impact of your efforts?

MP: We try to be in the schools as much as we can and keep an open dialogue with both the writer and the teacher in the school. We also have done internal surveys in the past few years, but this year, we’ve been really lucky to receive some great external evaluations, one from an independent consultant and one from an academic in Nottingham who did a case study of one of our schools. We’ve also got a lot of teachers who are doing masters and PhDs, so this year we were lucky to get two insightful reports from teachers who had worked on the project about how it works in their schools.

CK: How would you like to see First Story develop in the future?

MP: This is a key question for us. We’re a tiny organization, and yet, since I started working at First Story, we’ve already grown so much. I think all of us would like to get to the point where every young person in the UK has access to some kind of creative education, but we are a small charity, and we think the key to successful projects is the really intensive relationships we build. We like to know all our teachers and writers personally, and we have these great termly meetings where everyone gets together and shares, and we all learn so much from that. So I’m not sure that we feel that we need to be the organization doing the projects everywhere – more to the point, we hope that we can meet people who want to start up their own ventures, and that they’ll take different forms from what we’re doing. It’s exciting to see how many fantastic projects are already out there, and how they’re all different, and I think there’s so much for all of us to share and to learn from.

Meet two of the authors working with First Story: 

Ben Faccini is the author of The Water Breather and The Incomplete Husband. Ben works alongside Lauren Child on the UNESCO initiative My Life is a Story and has been working with First Story since 2009. As well as fiction, Ben writes for UN agencies on educational issues.

CK: Ben, why (and how) did you get involved with First Story?

BF: William Fiennes asked me to get involved. I had followed the beginnings of the scheme quite closely and taught one workshop session with William in his first school, Cranford College. I could see the exciting effect the work had on the pupils and how the world seemed to open up to them when they wrote or spoke about writing. Creative writing, or just writing, was a new platform to free students from the strictures of school and it liberated their voices. They felt enlivened by the chance to explore language and by finding the words and context to express something about themselves. I wanted to get involved as a result. I wanted to be part of this move towards greater self-confidence and expression. Part of me, too, had always been drawn towards teaching – though I would say this is more about facilitating rather than teaching in the true sense of the word.

CK: Are there parallels between the work you do in other countries with UNESCO and the work with children in the UK through First Story?

BF: The work I’ve done for UNESCO and UNICEF is more about getting excluded children and adults into education. The people I have worked with are generally the most deprived and those least likely to have access to formal education. With First Story it’s a different set of issues. It is about making sure that those who are in education have a stimulating education and that the learning they receive is as enriching and relevant as possible. It’s about providing a new layer to the school experience. Initiatives like First Story are about introducing innovations into the school, and it would be fantastic to imagine spreading the idea of First Story to other countries (with local writers) where the education systems are sometimes rather rigid.

CK: Do the children you work with through these two programmes relate to you, and to writing, in different ways?

BF: Children are children and there are remarkable similarities between young people’s aspirations whether they are a rural child in Burkina Faso or a London teenager. That said, the children I work with in First Story are different from the children I work with abroad.

My first book, The Water-Breather, started in Cairo. I had spent the morning interviewing street children and there was this young girl of seven who was weaving in and out of the traffic and knocking on car windows. She would tell drivers a joke and if they laughed she would ask for money. It couldn’t believe how a child so young and so destitute could have the resources to think up new jokes and keep going. I began to think of how it would be for a child closer to the world I grew up in (in rural France and Italy) to try and live with a parallel world in his head. That was the genesis of the book – though I had been writing for some time before that. This was a clear case of my work inspiring my writing. My Life is a Story was then a response to the voicelessness of out-of-school and excluded children in the developing world. It is about getting them to tell their own hidden life stories, and get empowered as a result.

CK: Do the two initiatives link up in any way?

BF: We have often discussed the possibility of tying the two together in some way, but we haven’t taken concrete steps towards it yet. We need more funds and more time to work out the administrative side of things, but it’s something we would love to do.

CK: So specifically in First Story, how have you found your experience of working with children in UK schools?

BF: I have really enjoyed it. I’ve learnt a lot. I love it when the students get excited by words or manage to write incredible snippets of stories in a short amount of time. I am often overwhelmed by the stuff I hear, particularly when we read each other our stories. Then there is the discussion time about themes, characters, plot lines – each workshop is a kind of forum for ideas. One great joy is to see how motivated the students are. I am often surprised and this provides me, as a writer, with the necessary enthusiasm to keep writing. We did some workshops last year on ancestry as many of the children come from many different cultures. The result was staggering. We had real-life stories from Ghana alongside fictional accounts of ancestors from Germany, Scandinavia and the Caribbean.

CK: As a writer, you are in the position of storyteller. When encouraging children to write, how does your role change? Is it hard to adapt?

BF: You become the facilitator of stories with First Story. You are encouraging children to examine their own knowledge, dig deep into their memories and their senses. I’m always encouraging them to boost their observational skills, asking them what they’ve seen on the bus on the way to the school, or what they have noticed in the street. If I could do one thing it would be to encourage the students to realise how unique and interesting they are.

CK: Would you like to add anything?

BF: I would encourage people to donate to First Story if they can. There is a donations page on the First Story website, as well as information on the whole scheme.

Kate Clanchy is a prize winning poet, a journalist, playwright, and creative writing teacher. In 2009 she won the BBC National Short Story Award.

CK: Kate, could you tell us about the school you work with?

KC: I started working with Oxford Spires school in East Oxford about two years ago. My involvement was slightly unusual in that I was working in the inclusion unit (for children that would otherwise be excluded), within their regular timetable. I also contribute to extra-curricular activities for the Gifted & Talented children, as well as lunchtime activities for younger ones and some work within the curriculum, for example writing a play with GCSE drama students and the newsletter for humanities.

It’s an excellent school in a deprived area. East Oxford is a European designated area of deprivation. The school ensures that quality literature is available, but many of the students come from a background with no books, and not much conversation around the home. The children there are quite naïve and there is a pretty high level of transitory students.

CK: As a former teacher, how do you see the work done by First Story authors in schools complementing the work done by the schools themselves?

KC:  47% of the children in East Oxford do not have English as a first language. The teachers at Oxford Spires are great, but the English curriculum has a lot of focus on skills and assessment of objectives. The work I do helps to get away from those rules and objectives and remind them of creativity. 

Creativity in writing is extra-curricular. Here’s an example. I judged the FOYLE ‘Young Poets of the Year Award’ in 2006.  I read 10,000 poems from school children and awarded fifteen prizes. 14 out of those 15 turned out to be children from private schools. I felt it was an indication of the fact that those schools have more resources to devote to developing creativity. They own creativity. 

CK: What is your role when you are engaging with the school children? Is it a ‘teaching’ role?

KC: It’s a writer’s role. I am being a writer. The exercises are creative writing exercises and they are very powerful at unlocking memories, and creative ways of describing them.

CK: What specific benefits do you see for the children you work with?

KC: There is a definite benefit in the way this work raises the students’ aspirations. They are encouraged and validated. Many of the children have very low self esteem. Writing can help to lift that. Seeing your own experiences reflected back to you in the stories you have written being read aloud, that can absolutely raise your self esteem. 

CK: How do the teachers respond to you?

KC: The teachers are great. When you’re a teacher it can be very irritating if a writer comes in and sets out their position as ‘the creative one’.  You have to work carefully and respectfully with them and not assume you are more creative than they are. It’s often not the case. The teachers also need encouragement. 

I feel very optimistic about schools these days, they are doing better than when I was a teacher 20 years ago. And First Story is a very optimistic organisation. If you can support First Story, please do.

Useful links:

Authors wanting to donate books, or get involved with First Story, and anyone wanting to donate to First Story please click here

Hear William Fiennes speak about First Story

Ben’s publisher, Portobello Books.

Ben’s books on Amazon

Kate’s books on Amazon

Kate Clanchy/Vicki Bertram Interview on Salt Publishing Site

Thanks to Monica, Ben and Kate for their time, and thank you everyone who has got to this point for taking the time to read this interview. I wish you all a very merry Christmas and all good things in 2012. Claire xxx

 

Is this how The Fairytale goes?

Posted on: December 16th, 2011 by Claire - 2 Comments

This week I had the privilege and the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Kelman for The View From Here.

I loved Pigeon English, Stephen’s debut novel. It’s the story of Harrison, a Ghanan immigrant, as he acclimatises to life in his new home on a London housing estate. It opens with the knifing to death of a local schoolboy, possibly the victim of local gang culture although the police are unable to prove anything. The novel is unusual, bold and challenging and for me, it’s the ending that really makes it. The final sentence still sticks with me. Stephen Kelman proposes a simple truth of humanity that fits perfectly into the story’s end…and you will just have to read the book to see if you agree!

If you hadn’t heard, Pigeon English was shortlisted for more than a handful of literary awards in 2011, including the Man Booker. I’ve read various interviews with Stephen, talking about his ‘humble’ origins, and the ‘fairytale’ of the 12-publisher bidding war for his debut novel. But there’s always more to these fairytale stories, you know. The endings may be all ‘happily ever after’ but for the most part, children are abandoned, eaten by wolves and stolen by witches. Spells are put upon innocents and the path through the forest is dark and set about with danger.

You can read the full interview here. Only there will you find answers to questions like:

  • “How much tenacity did Stephen really have to show before his destiny finally showed up for dinner?”
  •  ”Does Stephen type out text messages using proper, full words?” and
  • “What is the relationship between Stephen and a man whose best friends kicked him 47 times in the testicles in 90 seconds?”

The Coward’s Tale – Interview with Vanessa Gebbie

Posted on: November 10th, 2011 by Claire - 18 Comments

Today I’m thrilled to welcome Vanessa Gebbie to my blog, to talk about her novel The Coward’s Tale, which launched officially three days ago  (7th November 2011). I was lucky enough to have an advance copy to read, and it’s an absolute treasure. The writing is so lyrical I felt as though it was being read out loud to me, the storytelling so thoughtful…

Claire King: Vanessa, first I have to tell you how much I loved The Coward’s Tale. So many novels these days play on our worst fears, make readers anxious and immerse us in the trauma of the characters. Your story was like a breath of fresh air: a careful untangling of cause and effect, written with great generosity and respect. How did you know that this was the story you wanted to tell?

Vanessa Gebbie: I can’t tell you what it’s like hearing those words, Claire. Thank you.  When a reader gives up a few hours of their life to read a book when they could have been doing a zillion other things, that’s always great. But the reader who does that and ‘gets’ it – that’s rather special.

The honest answer to ‘how did I know this was the story I wanted to tell’ is this –I didn’t!  I was hijacked, and it happened like this. I wrote the first section with no thought as to what it was saying, other than the surface story. I was playing with the character of Tommo Price, the Clerk at the Savings Bank, and the story that unfolds in the narrative ‘now’. I’ve always been hugely interested what makes characters who they are, and most of that has no place in the story – but here, there needed to be a bit of his history. I’d already written much of that backstory, but when I came to ‘cut n paste’ it, I couldn’t make it ‘fit’.  Not until a completely new character wandered into the piece, uninvited, and started telling the backstory himself, in a first person narrative.  That was the beggar, Ianto Jenkins. I had no idea who he was, or why I was going along with this (this is where non-writers shake their heads and think we are nuts!) but it worked so well, I let him get on with it.

It wasn’t until I’d written perhaps half the novel that I tumbled to the importance of what was happening… Ianto’s narratives were revealing a rather important backstory, not only for each character, but for the community.  A single event was common to all of them, however peripheral it seemed. And there was a switch – some time towards the end of writing it all – where his stories took on a much greater significance than the bits I’d been creating deliberately.  The novel should really be ‘by Ianto Jenkins with a bit of help from Vanessa G’!

CK: The Coward’s Tale appears to be a collection of short stories that are all intertwined. How did they grow together under your pen?

VG: I’m a story writer by trade, Ma’am. I approached the novel as a series of stories with the same cast of characters, each with a backstory that made up another strand.  I wasn’t satisfied with a book of linked short stories that could be called a novel for marketing purposes. It needed to be something else – and after a year of editing and rewriting, the backbone of the book is a now a quadruple strand weave (I think) – made up of Laddy’s story now, Ianto’s own story then, the gradual reveal of what happened at Kindly Light then, and the separate character tales. Never been one to tackle simple things, me.

CK: There are so many strange and yet believable idiosyncrasies in The Coward’s Tale – the wooden feathers, the  search for a straight line through the town, the fish in the river, the annual bread ritual…did you find all this in your imagination?

VG:  Aye. I’ve always preferred being in my own head to being out on the street…it’s much more fun.  Refused to go out and play as a kid, always nose in a book, or dreaming. But when you do eventually get out there, people are endlessly interesting, aren’t they? There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ person, a mon avis.  Long live not being normal, I say!

CK: I’d seen on your blog that there is a map of the town, which I love. (For the musical version click here - although if like me you’re the child of a mining community, beware the colliery brass band, which made me a bit teary) I’d expected the map to appear in the book, why did you decide not to include it?

VG: I didn’t. I was kind of hoping a place might be found for it. I love novels with maps in the endpapers – can you imagine The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings without?  It adds another element that smoothes the reader’s initial experience, I think. But Bloomsbury have created the most beautiful book – initially a stunning hardback with gorgeous foil-blocked jacket by designer Holly MacDonald, and the paperback out next March in the UK is equally great.  The US version, also coming out in March has yet another cover – again, absolutely stunning.  I love them all. And you have to draw the line somewhere, I understand that – it’s tough times for publishing, innit?

CK: It is, and we have to count our blessings! What has been your favourite or most memorable part of bringing The Coward’s Tale to life (either in the writing, the research, the road to publication etc)?

Vanessa Gebbie:

Favourite: The realization a while back (its taken over 5 years!) that this was a novel, not a short story, and that I was in for the long haul. I had something that would last, a world to which I would return over and over again, whilst also working on the other short stories that became my two collections.  It was very grounding.

Memorable:  The research – I left it until the book was finished to first draft stage. I didn’t want the temptation to cram the work with research detail just because I had it in a file. I had to make sure each detail really earned its place in the story. I needed to check some technicalities of coal mining, to check what I’d written from imagination and memory was correct. I will never forget reading the reports of so many mining disasters in the Welsh valleys, especially the 1913 Senghennydd disaster.  I needed to get it right, hard as it was to revisit some of the tougher passages in the novel to make my characters go through their experiences again.

Memorable: My visit to Big Pit at Blaenavon, where I had to remove mobile phone, watch, don a hard hat with light fitment and an incredibly heavy battery round my middle, before dropping what seemed like miles down the shaft in the cage, and spending abut an hour walking in the tunnels beneath the ground.  Unforgettable, really.  All that massy rock above you. How little the spaces are where the work got done.  The sense that we are absolutely insignificant…

I’d like to pause a minute and remember the recent Gleision colliery disaster here, if I may.  Men who work in mines are among the bravest souls.

Memorable: My visit to Bloomsbury to meet the team, and seeing the boardroom table awash with bags of toffees! (As you know, Ianto Jenkins only tells his stories if he is fed toffees…) next time I shall write a novel about gold mining, in the hopes of taking away bags of gold – although actually, sitting on the train home, chomping toffees, knowing this was the team I wanted to look after my book, was rather lovely!  (If terrible for teeth and now non-existent waistline.)

CK: OK. The toffees just gave me such a frisson I welled up! Aaaanyhowz…Charles Lambert described your book as “The unlikely but entirely legitimate child of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dylan Thomas” and I’ve seen you’ve already had a number of reviews on Waterstones. How does it feel, seeing your work through the eyes of the readers? Is it different for your novel than for your short story collections?

VG: I love that description from Charles. DT and GGM are two writers whose work I admire hugely, and I count them among the best writing tutors! I am delighted that The Coward is in some way descended from them. Isn’t that perfect? And it is just great to read reviews from readers. As I said above, I am always aware that readers give us a few hours of their lives when they read our ‘stuff’ – I am hugely grateful both for that and for their comments. There’s nothing better, really.

The Waterstones page is here, the reviews now number 13 – and are simply lovely.

CK: In the town you wrote, I could picture the echoes of ancestors wandering around in borrowed clothes, mingling amongst those they left behind, and the new generations. We all carry the echoes of the past with us, to some extent. What are your strongest childhood memories of Wales, and where do you call ‘home’?

VG: ‘Home’ is a difficult word for me, for personal reasons. I’m never sure where it is, but that’s a legacy from my adoption, I suppose. I know lots of adopted adults – many of them, like me, never quite know where they belong. Spend our days looking for it.

But what a gift for a writer, huh?!

I loved staying with my grandmother in Merthyr Tydfil with a passion – never wanted to leave.  Both my lovely parents (adoptive, if we must…) came from Merthyr, so both grandmothers and respective families were there. Some still are. Every setting in The Coward’s Tale is based on somewhere I knew as a child. The kitchens where most of the gossiping got done, where the mantels were hung with gas brackets and carried brass plates and candlesticks and broken cups with spare change for the meter.

I used to play on the tip – the old slag heap at the end of the road, where wild ponies came to graze. We used to try to catch them. Fat chance!

I could ramble on for hours, I’m afraid..

CK: Many of your characters have names that have been bestowed on them by the townsfolk in some way, that have become more than nicknames. How important do you think are the names that others give us?

VG: Oh hugely important. A name holds so much more than the sound, don’t you think? And of course the tradition of linking name to occupation is immensely powerful, if a bit of a cliché. Must be careful with these things…

CK: If you were a character in The Coward’s Tale, what would your given name be, and why?

VG: What a brilliant question. Hmm. I’d be an old bat who wanders the streets with a notebook, her hair in curlers, who sometimes forget she’s still wearing her dressing gown. I’d appear in a line or two in most stories and Laddy would pick up a notebook after I’d left it on the bench in the park…what would my name be?  ‘Imagination’ Ellis, I expect.

CK: I love it! Vanessa, thank you so much for your time, and here’s hoping Ianto Jenkins finds his way into the hands (and hearts) of many, many readers.

Vanessa’s wacky website is www.vanessagebbie.com and her blog is www.morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com and here’s a quick link to Amazon…

Interview with Mike French

Posted on: October 16th, 2011 by Claire - 6 Comments

This week I’m joined by Mike French*

Claire King: Mike French, who are you?

Mike French: Is that a psychological question, because if it is then I’m still working on the answer to that. On a good day I think I’m a writer and editor, don’t ask me about the bad days.

CK: Tell me about the bad days? Why have you only got half a face?

MF: Is this one of those David Frost style interviews? No, no comment.

*Author and Managing Editor of The View From Here Literary Magazine.

CK: OK (I’ll get you later). Tell us about The View From Here literary magazine then, how and why did it come about?

MF: It started with a small group of four of us and now there are over 25 on team from all across the world. I wanted to create something that was fresh, vibrant, something that looked visually strong and built around the people in it rather than squeezing them into a predefined shape.  I think that’s been one of our strengths in that who’s on the team shapes the magazine which has meant it’s grown organically, which is a bit risky but far more exciting.

CK: There are some wonderful contributors to TVFH – novelist Elizabeth Baines, literary agent Simon Trewin and publisher and author Scott Pack to name but a few. How did you manage to pull such a strong group of people together from across the world of writing and publishing?

MF: I gathered a dossier on each one and said look no-one needs to know about this as long as you come and help me change the culture in the publishing world.  The bigger names responded very well to that type of blackmail. Although I think the real trick is to recognise what people’s talents are then give them an opportunity to bring those gifts to the magazine, to support them and encourage them to flourish.

CK: You took the decision earlier this year to move TVFH to online only. Why?

MF: That was a tough decision. We’d been in print for three years and run out 36 issues, each one a labour of love.  However we had to end it for two reasons.  The first was that we were running on a small loss and finding it hard to break into the bricks and mortar shops. The magazine world, much like the book world, is dominated by the big players and distributors who want to deal in large orders. You’re only ever going to make it by getting an advertising agency to buy in big time into the magazine and unfortunately literary magazines are always going to struggle with that. That tied with our policy not to promote self publishing and therefore most of the advertisers who may have been interested, made it very difficult.

We did get into one Waterstones which then promptly closed down.

We also tried a distributor who got us into some stores in New York but they kept wanting us to send stock at our cost with no money coming back our way.

The other reason was the amount of my personal time it took in getting each issue to print; I was doing all the graphic design. When I got my publishing deal, moving to online-only gave me the opportunity to give some time to my writing again and finally get down to writing the second novel.

CK: What conclusions have you come to about the life of a literary magazine purely online, as opposed to print?

MF: I think online literary magazines on the whole only survive because of the passion and drive of the people creating them and that often as people move onto other things or their own careers take off they fade and die.  I’d certainly see them as transient creatures unless they’re linked to a university or publishing house or some other external support system.

CK: What is happening at TVFH now?

MF: Well I’ve just gone through the above thought process for TVFH now my own writing has taken off, in that we’ve asked the question, is it now time to call it a day?  However after much thought we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s important to foster a culture of a co-operative environment so that our creativity isn’t just channelled into promoting our own work but also helping others realise their creative potential.  It’s a check against becoming absorbed in self-promotion which whilst important is dangerous if that is where all your energy is going. So we feel it’s important to keep The View From Here alive and vibrant both as a place for aspiring novelists and those already in the business and for ourselves as a check against becoming narcissistic. We’ve new blood coming into the magazine team at the moment and I’d love to see us still around in ten years’ time, certainly I plan to keep her alive and well however well my own writing career goes.

CK: That’s great news. I certainly get very excited by the talented work I see in our submissions pile for The Front View short fiction section. So, now I know I still have a job I can  congratulate you on the publication of your debut novel! Tell us about ‘the ascent of isaac steward’?

MF: Thanks. Well she’s a strange fish full of wonder and the frailty of our minds as we seek to impose a narrative on the chaos that we call life. It follows one man in particular called Isaac Steward whose life is unravelling and his journey back to the love of his life, Rebekah.

CK: How was your journey to publication? Tell me about the bad days?

MF: It was hard, as it is for most writers, although a lot of people when I say it took six years tell me that’s nothing and I’m lucky! Fortunately I avoided all the traps that lie out there for a new writer like vanity publishing, agents wanting money etc – although each tried their hand. Overall it was emotionally exhausting. It’s like standing out in a storm trying to make yourself heard to someone standing ten miles away or asking someone to hit you in the face with a large stick all day. The hardest moment, when I finally thought I’d done it a few years ago, was when a publisher was interested.  They asked for the full ms and then wanted to meet me at The London Book Fair – I think understandingly I took that to be a very good sign and that a possible contract was on the table but it never happened and I read too much into the meeting.  That was very hard to come back from, but I’m glad I picked myself up and kept going as here I am today all published and grinning like an idiot!

CK: And what is it like finally being published? Is it as you expected?

MF: It’s wonderful. When you’ve created something you really want to see it out there and not sitting in some drawer starving to death, so I was so excited to see it published. When I found out it was such a relief. When you want something for so long it’s like being surrounded by it – like the possibility forms a bubble around you – you hope it will burst and you’ll see it come to life but over time the bubble just gets bigger and you feel smaller and smaller within it until you’re not sure you can even see the bubble anymore.  And yes it’s pretty much as I expected having seen many others walk the same path from my vantage point of magazine editor although there have been some nice surprises that I hadn’t expected.

CK: Such as?

MF: Being nominated for the Galaxy Book awards for New Writer of the Year and the old fashioned type of relationship I’m currently enjoying with my publisher.

CK: What next?

MF: I’ve just finished my second novel, Blue Friday.  It’s set in a dystopian society in the future where working hours are strictly controlled by the government and follows Leviticus, the leader of the Underground Overtime Network who fights for the right for people to choose when they can work.  I’ve really enjoyed getting back into writing again and after pouring so much into the first novel wondered what I had left for the second.  It’s quite different from my first and quite short at just over 30 thousand – although Julian Barnes latest is short so I’m not too worried about the length.

I think people are obsessed with labelling things as novels, novellas, etc which I find a little strange.  Is Animal Farm a novel or a novella or a novelette?

I think people who worry themselves about such things probably would feel at home in some middle management somewhere going to meetings about how long a piece of string should be.

CK: Thanks for coming over to my blog. Good luck with your novel, and indeed with your second.

MF: A pleasure! Thank you.

Mike blogs here, and you can buy his book in ‘all good bookstores’ and also online, here.

The View From Here is a wealth of resources for writers online, and short fiction is currently being published every Friday at The Front View.

 

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