Children’s need to belong, or the fear of exclusion, can be as intense as the need for sleep and sustenance, so they often band together in cliques and clubs. One of the weirdest fictional clubs I’ve come across, is the arson club in Jesse Ball’s novel, How to Set A Fire and Why. Memoirist, Irene Waters, is after your memories of joining a club: when did you join, why did you join and are you still a member?
While I’d recommend this novel to readers, I want to focus, as I did some time ago with Instructions for a Heatwave, on what we can learn from Laird Hunt’s sixth novel (although the first to be published in the UK) as writers, whether we are looking to write historical fiction or not.
So, you’re midway through composing a blog post when, in a flash of inspiration, you hit on the very book that will nail the point you want to make. You scuttle off to your “library”, zeroing in on the shelf where – however eccentric your filing system¹ – you know it will be waiting for you. Except that it isn’t and, you now remember, it did a flit some time back. You lent it to a trusted friend – his/her exact identity lost in the mists of time – and it’s never been returned.
It’s happened to me a couple of times in recent months. The book in question was one of my favourite novels, namely – I kid you not – Never Let Me Go². I should’ve taken more notice because I’m bereft without it. I want to break into friends’ houses at the dead of night and go rummaging through their possessions till I find it. I’ve asked around of course, but no-one has fessed up.
One of the things I was careful to check before signing up with my publisher, was the proposed retail price of my book. I’d come across other small presses where the paperbacks were the price of a hardback from one of the Big Five. While I appreciate that small print runs contribute to the higher unit costs for the independent publisher, most readers wouldn’t understand. Why should they pick up a paperback from an unknown author and publisher when they could get a discounted hardback from a household name and half a dozen fancy bookmarks for the same price? How could I entice friends and family to support my launch if they had a sneaking suspicion they were being ripped off?
So I was delighted when debut novel, Sugar and Snails, came out priced at the lower end of the scale. With its beautiful cover and quality printing, people queued for signed copies, a few buying an extra one or two for friends. They were happy, I was happy, my publisher was happy – until I spoke to some booksellers.
Mired in marketing my novel, less of a shrinking violet perhaps, but still paddling in the shallows, I was pleased when the latest post from the Carrot Ranch appeared in my inbox this morning declaring that Charli Mills also has marketing in mind. “Marketing takes time,” she says. “You’re too damn right,” says I. But when the alternative is readers failing to find my novel, I accept I have little choice. Because when they find it, and let me know they’ve not only read it but loved it, I still get a buzz.
Today’s highlights have been a tweet from a reader who found my novel via a tweet of this photo by Rebecca Root and a yes from one of the quirkiest independent bookshops around these parts in response to my email nudging them to stock my book. Small gains, but they matter. As Charli says, “Being a marketer is like being a watchmaker. The gears do work, but you have to get it all aligned one piece at a time.” At the moment, I don’t even know what the pieces are, but I’m doing what I can to at least give them a chance of lining up.
It’s been another hectic week on the blog tour: sharing the novels that have helped me find a mind of my own with Urszula Humienik; examining how contemporary novels feature scientific research with Gargi Mehra; talking attachment with Safia Moore stemming from my character’s difficulty in “telling a story about when you were a little girl”; confessing and commiserating with Clare O’Dea regarding our shared difficulty in articulating what our novel’s about; to come to port on Friday with Lori Schafer to address the question of how much my novel might be autobiographical.
After my weekend in a virtual California, I’m heading northward today to join lead buckaroo, Charli Mills on her fabulous Carrot Ranch in Idaho. She’d already set my place at the table with this lovely introduction on her blog. I’m heading back to the UK for the rest of the week, stopping off first with novelist and psychologist Voula Grand, who was the first to feature in my series Psychologists Write, to explore a shared interest in transgenerational trauma, both on and off the page. Then it’s a second guest post (the first, on Day One of the tour, being on debuting as an older author) with my publishers, Inspired Quill, to reveal my responses to the thoughtful questions put to me by one of the team, Hannah Drury. With all this travelling I wonder if I’ll have time to tidy up before Thursday, when I’ll be showing everyone around my Writers’ Room, courtesy of novelist, former prison governor and Costa Short Story Award winner, Avril Joy. Friday, I’ll be hot-footing it to London to join novelist, blogging addict and reader of an early version of Sugar and Snails, Geoff LePard, for a post on how walking facilitates my writing with, hopefully, a few photographs of the walk that features in my novel. (Yikes, did he realise that’s the day he launches his second novel, My Father and Other Liars, or is his attention to me an excuse to avoid a launch party?)
If I was breathless last Monday, announcing Week 1 of the Sugar and Snails blog tour, I must be on the verge of a swoon this week as I begin another round of visits. The first week has gone brilliantly (you can catch up with those first five posts via the links on my blog tour page), so how could I not be excited about the second? I start today under Julie Stock’s Author Spotlight, with a piece about setting part of my novel in Cairo. As a writer of contemporary romance from around the world, Julie has a particular interest in the challenges of setting fiction in real places, the subject of her own post on Susanna Bavin’s blog this week. Tomorrow, Helena Fairfax is interviewing me about where my own life is set, among other things. Helen lives in an interesting place herself, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and former mill town, Saltaire, which you can discover more about in her fascinating post. Then I’m off to chat with my namesake, Shaz Goodwin on Jera’s Jamboree. With her day job as a school Inclusion Lead, I was interested in her interest in novels that tackle a social barrier, as Sugar and Snails most definitely does. On Thursday, I’m on Our Book Reviews discussing the various transformations of my novel from its initial inception as a story of masculinity across three generations. This post arose out of a Twitter conversation after Mary, one half of Our Book Reviews, read and reviewed an advance copy. Obviously, I was delighted to be invited back. Finally, Friday sees me in Australia, quite fittingly discussing the theme of friendship in the novel and in its realisation (extending the theme of my previous post on gratitude) with one of my dearest blogging friends, Norah Colvin. As Norah has already hosted me once before, I know the tour bus will be safe to leave there over the weekend until I get behind the wheel again on Monday.
I’m generally not in favour of “update” posts, but I can’t ignore the perspective shift since I posted five days ago. As of last Thursday, I’m a published novelist, and enjoying it immensely. With each review (six to my knowledge so far), with each supportive tweet at #SugarandSnails, I’m claiming more of my authorial authority. I’m even infiltrating the more traditional media, with a feature on Sugar and Snails in the Lincolnshire Echo and a nerve-wracking but not too dreadful outing on BBC Radio Nottingham (my bit is at about 2.15 p.m. and the link expires in about three weeks). The highlight of the last few days was, of course, my Nottingham launch party, which I’ll be sharing more about in due course. But in the meantime, there’s this lovely and unexpected post on the event from The Mole, the other half of Our Book Reviews.
It’s publication week for Sugar and Snails and I’m breathless with excitement. The buzz is building with two reviews already (from Victoria Best and from Stephanie Burton) and some lovely tweets from early readers at #SugarandSnails. Now, thanks mainly to the generous response to my request for hosts, I’ve made two excursions to other blogs (firstly, to Shiny New Books to share my thoughts on writing about secrets, the false self and insecure identities; secondly to Isabel Costello’s literary sofa to discuss the pleasures of small-press publication), and my case is packed ready to depart on the blog tour proper.
A couple of years ago, I published a post on the four criteria that make one a writer. Although I can appreciate the differing perspectives offered in the comments, I’m still happy with my description of a writer as someone who edits their work; understands the “rules” (although doesn’t necessarily follow them); has served their time; and has attracted readers beyond their immediate friends and family. Conveniently, this definition of a writer enabled me to claim the title for myself.
I didn’t really consider the word “author”, and certainly not as a stand-alone title (as opposed to “author of” such-and-such a work), until I joined The Society of Authors last summer. Even then, it was because I needed advice on my publishing contract rather than to club together with other “authors” – such an old-fashioned term, I thought, that ought to be abandoned in the way that “artists” have now rebranded themselves as “painters”. That changed when, last month, I attended an event on working with the media, led by the award-winning former BBC TV reporter, Alistair Macdonald.
Outside self-publishing, it’s rare for writers to have a say in the covers adorning their books. Even, I’m told, authors whose profits match the GDP of a small nation have to take what they’re given. On the one hand, it makes sense to leave it to the experts. On the other hand, I’d hate to have to tout around a book with a cover that didn't fit. (And some can be ugly – just have a browse through my reviews.) Fortunately, for my novelistic debut, I’ve landed myself a publisher who endeavours to put authors at the centre of the process.
Much as I loved the spoof cover kindly created for me by writer and traveller, Lori Schafer showing a couple of snails making their way across a landscape of granulated sugar, I’ve been itching to share the real thing. I hope you can see why. My thanks to Vince Haig for creating such a beautiful package for my words.
After lots of back and forth, including a panic from me when I realised I’d totally misrepresented it, we’ve also finalised the blurb:
“You’re not Superwoman, Anne!”
It was no doubt a combination of tussles with my current WIP, Charli Mills’s post on her horror of perfectionism and reaching the end of Shelley Harris’ second novel that reminded me of this feedback from a colleague over twenty years ago. Tasked with resettling longstay psychiatric patients into more ordinary lives within the community (incidentally, the subject of my current WIP), youthful idealism made me susceptible to setting unrealistic goals, both for myself and the service. Not recognising my misguided heroics, my colleague’s comment helped me to take a step back. However much I might have wished to, I couldn’t save the world!
So, although I’ve never been tempted to don a cape and mask and strut about my home town righting wrongs, I don’t find it too difficult to identify with the protagonist of Vigilante, who does exactly that. Jenny Pepper has abandoned her career as an actor to become a mother; now she finds herself increasingly marginal in her teenage daughter’s life and unstimulated in her work as the manager of a charity bookshop, the spark long having gone from her marriage. Rendered virtually invisible by dint of her age, unglamorous job and gender, tidying-up has become her life’s purpose until, en route to a fancy dress party, she witnesses a woman being attacked. Although lacking the skills of a comic-book superhero, Jenny does manage to rescue the woman from her assailant. Soon, her secret identity has become an addiction, threatening her marriage, friendship and her own safety. When a masked villain stalks the town, preying on girls the age of Jenny’s daughter, her alter ego is tested to the limit.
At college in 1996 California, Rosemary has grown accustomed to other people finding her a little odd. But she reckons they’d find her even odder if they knew about the unusual circumstances of her childhood. So, despite having been a chatterer since she knew how to speak, she tends to keep quiet. There’s also much that goes unspoken in her family home back in Bloomington, Indiana, especially regarding the whereabouts of her sister, Fern, who she hasn’t seen since she was five years old, and of her older brother, Lowell, who left suddenly ten years ago. It’s only when she is arrested after a fellow student runs amok in the university canteen that twenty-two-year-old Rosemary dares to look back at her past, beginning with when she was sent to stay with her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
We might be marking the centenary of start of the First World War this year, but here on Annecdotal there’s been an unexpected focus on the Second. From Louise Walters’s Polish pilots and land girls to Elizabeth Buchan’s code breakers and Danish resistance workers, from Audrey Magee’s Nazi marriage of convenience to Richard Flanagan’s Japanese prisoners of war, and forward in time to Peter Matthiessen’s Holocaust Memorial, we’ve viewed it from a range of angles but hadn’t, until now, considered the dynamics of the occupying powers overseeing the de-nazification process of a defeated Germany in the years immediately following the war. Step forward Rhidian Brook and his cast of characters strutting the rubble-strewn stage of a bombed-out Hamburg in 1946: Colonel Lewis Morgan, trying to bring compassion to the reconstruction of the city of shattered buildings and broken spirits; his grieving wife, Rachael, with mixed feelings about being reunited with her husband, blaming him for the death of their eldest son; Edmund, their eleven-year-old, whose pre-programmed prejudices cannot withstand his adventurous spirit; and the widower, Herr Lubert, and his teenage daughter, Frieda, whose palatial home they come to share. Add in Ozi, leader of the bunch of feral kids begging cigarettes from the soldiers to swap for bread or other items on the black market of use to the post-war German resistance, and we’re set for powerful drama on both a human and global scale.
When Dan’s girlfriend leaves him suddenly, the last thing he wants is her ugly dog. But when there’s a hiccup in his plan to return the animal to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the unloved dog transforms himself into Dan’s lucky mascot. Out of work for several months, Dan finds himself headhunted by the hip Indology advertising agency; they’re so keen to harness his skills as a copywriter, they even agree to him bringing his dog to work. Then follows a romp through office politics, romance and the revelation of family secrets (although why his dementia-stricken grandfather would have known about this particular skeleton in the cupboard I have no idea) to the heart-warming finale in which the title comes into its own.
In my review of The Long Shadow, I said I’d be interested to see where Mark Mills would take his imagination next. I was hoping for darker, but what he’s done is slipped an extra initial (which I failed to notice originally) between his first and second names and moved sideways into another brand. This is lighter, nice-bloke-lit, Nick Hornby without the subtle humour and emotional depth.
While I take great pleasure in my ability to harvest fruit and veg from my garden, I don’t get particularly excited about cooking it. As I couldn’t let it go to waste, I’ve been rustling up some strange concoctions of beetroot, courgettes and beans lately and rushing to put them on the table before it gets too cool to dine in the garden. Cordon Bleu it’s not! I’m hoping my response to Charli Mills’ latest flash fiction prompt won’t also come out as a dog’s dinner.
Looking for inspiration for my 99-word food story, I turn to the novels on my physical and virtual bookshelves. Consistent with my miserablist inclinations, there’s a dominant theme of the problems that food or its lack can bring. In Shelley Harris’ novel, Jubilee, a boy’s divided loyalties to his white friends and Asian family is played out in his response to the food his mother plans to cook for a street party in 1970s Britain. (You can click on the link to find the quote.) One of the enduring images in Alison Moore’s debut, The Lighthouse, is the way in which, on a catered walking holiday along the Rhine, the main character consistently fails to get the food he has paid for. Although Lewis, the central character in her second novel, He Wants, is forced to endure fewer physical privations, his food is unsatisfying because it’s not what he actually wants.
We’ve had some interesting chat about appearance on this blog recently: how much, as readers, do we want to know what characters look like and, as writers, whether it’s okay to allow our characters to check their appearance in the mirror.
This week, I’m continuing the theme from a different angle over on the Black Fox Literary Magazine blog. Do pop across and share your views on whether the clothes we wear to tap at our keyboards can impact on the fiction we produce.
Staying with matters sartorial, who can say they’ve never felt anxious about choosing the outfit for an important event? As I explore in my short story, A Dress for the Address, even prize-winning physicists aren’t immune.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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