Three Months till Publication – November

Three months doesn’t sound like very long.

It doesn’t sound like very long at all.

By the end of next week, I should have decided on and booked a venue for the launch party. On Twitter, where everything is shiny, I shall post much (genuine) excitement about this. But here, on the blog, with more than 140 characters at my disposal, I can admit that I’m terrified. If I wanted to be the centre of attention, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to be able to do a job where I’m completely alone. And yet I desperately want to be the centre of attention because, you know, I wrote a novel, and it’s going to be published, and that’s a cause for celebration. And that contradiction has me in its clutches and is threatening to crush me altogether, a bit like the scene in the rubbish compactor in the original Star Wars film. James is either Han Solo, firing off his laser guns in an attempt to be decisive, or Chewbacca the Wookie, reduced to grunting inarticulacy by my dithering and insecurity. My mother is C3P0, informing us in a polite and slightly panicked voice that we’re all going to die. All we’re missing is a woman in a spotless white dress screaming, ‘Don’t just stand there, brace it with something.’ (No wonder Princess Leia changed into a bikini for the sequels; much easier to hop into the shower than launder all those flowing white robes when you’ve had a brush with a rubbish dump. But I digress.)

So, it’s business as usual really. I’m squeezing the writing a novel around the house and children, and as they haven’t changed much, neither has the way I spend my time. My deal is just for the one book, so on one hand, I’m back at square one, writing with no guarantee of publication. On the other, I’m reliably informed that to be free of the pressure of the second novel is a good thing. Oh those crushing contradictions – whoops, down the chute and back into the rubbish compactor. Only by now, R2D2 has become terribly bored and gone off to have a cup of tea, and I really don’t blame him.

This month, I read an extract from The Ship in public for the first time. Years ago, I dreamed about giving a public reading. In my dream, I was calm and composed, secure in what I’d written, wearing something long and flowing and speaking calm authority. And I’d tried. I’d built in an extra hour to my travel time so that I could find a café near the venue and gather my thoughts. I’d sorted everything out at home. I hadn’t actually TOLD many people it was happening because they might think I expected them to COME or something, but other than that… And then someone threw themselves under the train in front of ours, and we were decanted at Wembley Park with no certainty of onward travel, and as I hurried umbrella-less around King’s Cross in the rain, trying to find the venue with less than ten minutes to spare, my poor mother rang to say that the seven year old had left her school uniform and bag at Brownies and the hall was all locked up. So I made my entrance dripping, smudged and anxious, juggling my ungathered notes and shouting, ‘I don’t know where Brown Owl lives,’ into my phone.

Ian Ellard and Nicci Cloke, who host a monthly Literary Speakeasy at Drink, Shop & Do in King’s Cross, were wonderfully welcoming, as were fellow writers Tom Melrose, Stephen Dea, Linda Mannheim and Marc Burrows. The event went beautifully, and The Ship (to my great relief) was very well received. The best bit by far was meeting the audience afterwards and talking books. It was hard to drag myself away in time for the last train home. In true Cinderella style, I left my Oyster card and my car key behind. Outwardly, therefore, the journey home was almost as fraught as the journey there. But I’d achieved something. Hanging on to that took the frustration out of the scrabble for change for the tube (since when was a single journey within zone one on the Tube £4 without Oyster?), kept me company on the long walk home in the dark and the rain, and took the sting out of the fact that the second car key proved elusive to say the least.

Being a published author is going to be full of those rubbish chute moments. They’re unavoidable in an uncertain industry – and publishing is full of uncertainty. When the walls begin to close in, the voice yelling for constructive action needs to be mine. And the something I need to brace them with is a belief in what I’ve achieved, regardless of what happens to it.

Which brings us back to the launch party. I’ll be the one in the long white dress and plaited earmuffs. I’ll leave to you spot James on your own.

In which I hope that Ali Smith wins the Goldsmith’s Prize

So tomorrow the winner of the Goldsmith’s Prize will be announced. I didn’t set out to read the shortlist, but once I’d read the Man Booker and Green Carnation longlists, I only had two more books to read. Ali Smith’s How to be both was my favourite for the Man Booker; Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and Howard Jacobson’s J were long and shortlisted respectively. Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist was longlisted for the Green Carnation prize. The other two novels on the Goldsmith’s shortlist are Zia Haidar Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know (beautiful title) and Rachel Cusk’s Outline.

Rachel Cusk’s work is never a comfortable read. She is uncompromising; her narratives cut through appearance and deception to the truth she finds at the heart of her characters. The trouble – and the discomfort – comes because what she finds in the heart of her characters is seldom contentment, or even honesty. The narrator is as liable as anyone else to present her own story in the most flattering light to herself. As a reader, I like to anchor myself in the world of the novel. Cusk won’t let me do that – she won’t even throw me a rope in the shape of a story arc as I try to navigate around the various life stories the narrator is told by those around her. The fact that each story is mediated by the narrator (a creative writing tutor) leaves the reader on shifting sands.

In the Light of What We Know uses a similar technique – the story is told by one character, but narrated by the friend to whom he is telling his story. The writing is poetic and the story itself compelling. But when a writer experiments with traditional narrative, there needs to be a reason for it, and I found myself wondering why the author chose to keep the reader at arm’s length from the story he tells. Occasionally I found myself confused as to whether an incident happened to the narrator or to his friend, and this confusion (my fault, but who, in the real world, is able to read without distractions of any kind?) meant I was never completely immersed. Cusk’s distancing device acted as a catalyst for intellectual engagement with the storytelling process – perhaps because there is no plot as such, no suspense in the traditional sense. But Rahman’s removed narrator does have a story to tell and it was frustrating, at times, to be required to dig for it.

I’ve written about the other novels in other posts; suffice to say that, despite the many merits of its rivals, I would love to see Ali Smith’s How to be Both win this year’s Goldsmith’s prize. It certainly ‘breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form;’ it is ‘genuinely novel.’ And it’s powerfully and delicately written, with two separate stories that are compelling in their own rights as well as illuminating of each other.

Roll on the announcement.

The Green Carnation Prize long list 2014

I first became aware of the Green Carnation Prize last year when it was won by a book I already loved, Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomons. Books bring people together; if a stranger loves a book you love, you’ve automatically got something in common. So while I’ve been reading the Baileys and Man Booker longlists (and, this year, the Goldsmith’s Prize, of which more in another post), I’ve kept an eye out for the Green Carnation longlist. When it came, it looked like this:

  • Through The Woods – Emily Carroll (Faber & Faber)
  • The Absent Therapist – Will Eaves (CB Editions)
  • The Fair Fight – Anna Freeman (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • All The Days and Nights – Niven Govinden (The Friday Project)
  • Vixen – Rosie Garland (Borough Press)
  • Thirst – Kerry Hudson (Chatto & Windus)
  • The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan (Salt)
  • In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie (Sceptre)
  • Any Other Mouth – Anneliese Mackintosh (Freight)
  • The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
  • Unspeakable Things – Laurie Penny (Bloomsbury)
  • Invisible Love – Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt (Europa Editions)
  • The Glasgow Coma Scale – Neil D. A. Stewart (Corsair)

I’d already read – and loved – Kerry Hudson’s Thirst (you can read Kerry Hudson’s guest blog on the WoMentoring Project here) and Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart. Anna Freeman’s The Fair Fight was already high on my tbr pile, as was Rosie Garland’s Vixen (solely, I’m ashamed to say, on the grounds of the beautiful cover). In short, the Green Carnation Prize longlist felt like home. We shouldn’t need the Bailey’s Prize (women authors), or the Green Carnation (LGBT authors) – every book should be judged on its merits alone. But here in the real world, did anyone look at this year’s Man Booker longlist and genuinely feel that there was no issue with the gender and/or race balance? Judge Sarah Churchwell pointed out that the Man Booker judges were confined to what publishers chose to submit, but that simply relocates the issue. And then there’s the Green Carnation. Eight women. Five men. A good mix of publishing houses. As refreshing as a cut lemon.

The Man Booker longlist was a very comfortable reading experience. The Green Carnation wasn’t – not always, anyway. The cut lemon is squeezed into society’s hidden wounds in Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things. It should be given out in schools, like the Gideon Bible. Mackintosh treads a finer line between memoir and story; still, the pages of Any Other Mouth fairly blister. In The Rental Heart, Logan uses fairy tale tropes to hold a fresh filter to familiar narratives; Emily Carroll uses illustration in a similar way in her not-a-comic-book Through the Woods. Hudson and Stewart both explore dependent relationships; their novels have completely different outcomes, but both pay tribute to the poor and the dispossessed, and play their love stories out at the bottom of our dirty, unfair and exploitative class system. Freeman and Garland take the reader back in time whilst maintaining astonishing contemporaneity – no mean feat. Govinden and Eaves use language and form over traditional plot to pull the reader through their novels. Schmitt encloses enough material for several novels in his short stories, like a silk scarf crumpled in the palm of a hand. Mukherjee’s epic encompasses class and privilege across Indian society; Mackie’s quieter tale of a man in search of himself is equally epic, although its subject is an individual rather than a country.

I hesitate to select my shortlist, partly because I don’t know how many books the judges are going to choose, and partly because the books are all so different. The books I’ve chosen are not only the ones in which I feel form is married most effectively with language and with character, but the ones which, for whatever reason, resonated with so much force that I can’t get them out of my head.

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things

Kerry Hudson, Thirst

The Fair Fight, Anna Freeman

Kirsty Logan, The Rental Heart and other fairytales.

Emily Mackie, In Search of Solace

Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist.

But whatever the shortlist looks like, I’ll be pleased. I’ve discovered new writers, and been both shaken and stirred. Thank you, Green Carnation, and deep and sincere congratulations to all the long listed authors.