Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Booker shortlistee Graeme Macrae Burnet and his publisher Sara Hunt tell all!

As you might expect, it’s been a heady time for publisher Sara Hunt and novelist Graeme Macrae Burnet. For anyone who’s been in a cave these last few months and doesn’t know, Graeme’s literary-historical-crime novel, His Bloody Project, a tale of multiple murder set in the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-late 19th Century, was first longlisted and then shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker prize.


It seemed to me that this was very much a story of joint success, for Graeme and Sara together. I caught up with them recently to interview them both and trace what I felt to be very much a joint journey to this point. It was only a couple of years ago that Sara’s publishing company, Saraband, which has been publishing quality fiction and non-fiction for a while now, started a new imprint, Contraband, which focused mainly on quality crime. Graeme was one of the first signed up, with his debut novel The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau.

I also wanted to offer an alternative story to the slightly patronising headlines that have accompanied Graeme and Sara’s success: Tiny Publisher Fields Booker Shortlistee Shock! I wanted to show how success comes not just from good fortune – it’s also the product of talent, hard work, expertise and a really good partnership between author and publisher.

So in bright warm kitchen of Sara’s home, I met up to talk to them both about indie publishing, agents, how Graeme came to be with Contraband in the first place and why they work so well together.


LM: Let’s begin at the beginning. Your first novel was The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, Graeme. How did you come to publish with Contraband?

GMB: As you’ll know yourself, all advice you get when you start out is that you have to find an agent to approach publishers for you. So eventually I did and I worked hard with them on the editorial side of things. They were brilliant, they gave me lot of feedback and when they were happy with it, it got sent out to all the major publishers. But none of them wanted it. At that point I approached Sara myself. I’d heard about her but I realised quickly we both used to work in same building when I worked for Hopscotch films.  We vaguely recognised each other. That was after she’d accepted it; she took it on pretty quickly.

SH: Adele Bedeau was one of the original three titles for the launch of the Contraband imprint. I just thought it was a brilliant, evocative book. I really felt like I was under Manfred’s skin, I identified with his sense of discomfort. And the setting in the cafe was so realistic. As you read through it, you find it’s full of little surprises, too, it’s such a mixture of suspenseful and gripping but quite charming and occasionally funny too.

GMB: The relationship I had with my agent editorially was really good. I did a big rewrite for them which made it much better by the time it went to Sara.


LM: What difference did Sara make to the book? It sold pretty well for a debut, didn’t it?

SH: Well, at the time we were with the Faber group (Faber Factory Plus) and the London rep absolutely loved it. We sent out proofs very early. Originally Graeme had the translator’s afterword as an introduction but I felt that was too confusing.

GMB: I also felt that when you open a book with an introduction you always tend to skip it. I always intended it to be read after the book so it felt logical to put it at the end. It was just too spoiler-y to have it at the beginning. One of the nicest things about the relationship I have with Sara was that I expected her to ditch that part of the narrative altogether but she didn’t. It did confuse some reviewers and some booksellers who saw it as a French novel – I wasn’t trying to fool anybody, and I felt a bit uncomfortable about that.

SH: With the metafictional wrapper, it just gave the novel that extra something and some people loved it, some were confused by it. The London rep for Faber kept talking it up to all of the major accounts in London like Waterstone’s Piccadilly store and all the major independents like Daunt’s and Foyles, and larger shops, so there were displays in most of those places. It really was through that more than anything that it sold, because we didn’t get big reviews or anything.


LM: That’s relevant for His Bloody Project too, don’t you think, that ‘metafictional’ aspect you have with Adele Bedeau? Because some people have been confused, thinking it’s a real-life story.

GMB: That’s why I put ‘a novel’ on title page. That’s normally a redundant thing to do but at least I said it was a novel. It’s a compliment to the writing that people think it’s a real document but it’s important that it’s understood as fiction.

SH: We never put into anyone’s mind it was true crime, it comes with quite a detailed historical note. When we sent out review copies we also specifically mentioned it was entirely fictional, not true crime.


LM: But the responses haven’t just been to the novel, of course. They’ve been to you both personally, because the Booker nomination has been such a game-changer, hasn’t it?  

GMB: When you start out, of course, you talk to other writers and you all gossip about your experiences. I’ve met several people who had said, they wanted to write such-and-such a book but their agent hates it. But surely your agent should represent you, not force you into a box just to make money? I was a bit worried after the longlisting happened about the pressure on the next book. But Sara just said, don’t worry, you don’t have to write anything. Another agent or publisher might have wanted to milk the situation for all it was worth so I think it says a lot for Sara that she didn’t. Sara understands me, she’s never made any suggestion about what I should or shouldn’t be writing. Maybe she will now! I was very happy publishing my two novels, I felt I’d achieved something and I was already very happy that we had a publisher in Germany and the US for His Bloody Project. I thought we were doing really well, and that I was building up my career in a nice organic way. But I got to that point by writing a book set in a small town in France then changing tack and writing a book set in 19th century Scotland. It’s not been an obvious career path.

SH: We did have that chat at one point, thinking about the sequel to Adele Bedeau (which will be published next) that it might make more sense to do that first. But it was up to you. And although it was all going very nicely, you weren’t earning a living, hardly anyone does. That’s where agents and publishers – well, if you’re not offering massive amounts of money that’s enough to do it, it’s unconscionable to push people around about what they’re doing, I hate this idea that they’re giving you this money so that you’re little more than a battery hen: go over there and write!

GMB: But writers have to accept responsibility for the situation they’re in too.  If they’re offered a two- book deal and they accept then that’s the situation. Most people don’t choose, I know – they all say, oh, make sure that agent is right for you. But, of course, you only get one call and of course, you take that agent calling on, even if they’re not right for you.


LM: His Bloody Project is with the Contraband imprint, which publishes crime. Is that how you both see the book?

GMB: Well, I’m sure Amanda Foreman (the Booker chair of judges) hadn’t heard of Contraband! The construction of my book is very literary but it’s about a crime. It’s a classic literary crime.

SH: To my mind, the notion put about that ‘a crime novel is on the Booker list’ is simply a function of the fact that almost everything on it wasn’t what the pundits were expecting. So they had to come up with something to say. One critic on Front Row even went on about the length of the novels! Somebody else picked up on the crime thing but I don’t see what the big deal is. Eileen is also on the crime-writer association prize list so clearly it’s been entered by its publisher; Northwater on the longlist is a novel about a crime, too. Whether you choose to put it in for a crime festival or prize is not a big deal in today’s market– some people don’t like their historical novel to have the label ‘romance’, for instance, as they think it’s too generic. But it’s just not a big deal.

GMB: The reception of crime fiction in general has probably shifted a bit, in the way that, say, sci-fi hasn’t. There’s still literary snobbishness about romance, sci-fi and so on. Crime has a broad church of novels about crime, as well as the procedural side of things.

SH: We started Contraband thinking it was a commercial proposition. We wanted a mix of Scottish crime that wasn’t being picked up by the big five publishers, classic Tartan Noir like Neil Broadfoot. But it never seemed to me to be difficult to gain a kind of respectability. Adele Bedeau is about a detective solving a crime, it’s not a genre crime novel but it is influenced by Simenon. That made it a really obvious choice for Contraband. We did discuss a little bit His Bloody Project as it was less obvious but it seemed silly to move between imprints, and it’s only amongst certain kind of readers and critics that allowing it to be thought of as crime or noir is somehow cheapening it.


LM: And how has the Booker nomination impacted on your author-publisher relationship? How do you feel about the way you’ve been written about?

GMB: From my point of view (the nomination) has strengthened it incredibly. Not only do I admire Sara even more than I did before but we’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a wee bit stressful but Sara is so lovely to me all the time. She is! I’ve now been exposed to patronising attitudes who have spoken to me very disrespectfully about my publisher, but the only reason they’re even speaking to me at all is because of Sara. It’s unsolicited but probably well-intentioned advice that’s been coming my way since. People seem to think it’s acceptable now to tell me what to do with my future. I think now I understand the situation Sara’s been in for years.

SH: I don’t mind so much. I have had calls from London publishers wanting to partner us now or take over the rights of the book. That’s perfectly fine – one publisher rang really respectful and nice about it. Others have been less so, not doing any homework, not even knowing anyone’s name. They completely assumed we knew nothing about anything, sales, distribution or anything. They assume that a small publisher means there’s no expertise or infra-structure.

GMB: I’ve certainly started addressing that point more. Although we’re still benefiting from the underdog story, some still think ‘small’ means ‘amateur’, back of an envelope situation. I’ve been asked so often now about being with a tiny publisher, but Sara Hunt has been in the publishing industry for 25 to 30 years. She knows every aspect of this industry. It’s started not to annoy me exactly but… let’s not undersell ourselves for the sake of the story.

SH: It did benefit us to go with that ‘underdog’ narrative but we do have an excellent professional sales team PGUK, strong distribution as well as freelance editorial, publicity, administration, publicity and so on! If you’re working for one of the big conglomerates, you have to fit in with their rules of profitability and how to commission, they can’t just commission  because they like it and once they’ve got it, you can forget choosing a cover everyone thinks is appropriate because it will be driven by the sales dept.

GMB: We discussed the cover of His Bloody Project, I love all that stuff and Sara does too. The design, the look of the book was very imp to me. On every aspect, Sara has consulted me. Even when she had a call from another publisher just after the longlisting. I don’t think you were obliged to tell me about that but you did. But it was up to you. If I want anyone to make money out of the book I want it to be Sara, and Saraband.

SH: You can do what you like once you’ve won the Booker, but it’s a very different kind of situation to be in. Obviously now everybody wants to work with Graeme! They’ll want to respect his right to do what he wants.

GMB: They might want to but you actually do respect my right to do what I want and you did before. On the marriage of publisher and writer, it was flattering for me that Sara chose my book to submit to the Booker in the first place, but it’s been a nice confluence of things that have come together.
SH:  It’s also that we live close together, our partners get on, we trust each other. We’re a tight little group, and Craig, Graeme’s editor, is good at protecting him too.

LM: There’s a nurturing aspect here that’s been lost in some big publishing, would you agree?

GMB: Other people don’t have a relationship with their publisher, it’s maybe with their editor or someone else who works for the company. But this is a proper fully functioning creative business relationship. Coming through the New Writers award you all discuss things, you’re all at same stage and nobody I know has a relationship with their publisher like this. Nobody wants to be poor but you have to value other things than people waving cheques at you.

And that seems the best point to end on!


Monday, 1 August 2016

ManBooker Behaving Badly

After this year's longlist for the ManBooker prize was announced, Robbie Millen, literary editor of The Times complained about the lack of famous names like Julian Barnes put forward, arguing that there just weren't enough to attract sufficient numbers of book-buyers to make the prize relevant (J M Coetzee, A L Kennedy, Elizabeth Strout, Deborah Levy aren't famous enough, it seems). He pointed to a 'party of literary insiders' merely talking to itself at the expense of the book-reading, and book-buying, public at large.

This weekend, Andrew Holgate, literary editor of the Sunday Times, complained that there were too many US authors on the list, and that this had been the damaging factor. Not enough British and Commonwealth writers, too many Americans. And believed, like Millen, that there wasn't enough appeal to a wide audience:

'There is...a feeling that the prize is talking to a smaller and smaller potential readership interested in more and more marginal notions of what a satisfying literary novel is. The reading public are being bored out of love with the Booker,' he said, giving as an example the omission of Francis Spufford's Golden Hill (Faber) from this year's longlist.

Let me first declare a personal interest. One of the longlistees, Graeme Macrae Burnet, whose historical novel, His Bloody Project, is a friend of mine. His book is published by Contraband, which is an imprint of Saraband, the publisher of my historical novel from 2013, Unfashioned Creatures. I have tweeted already that I've never before felt such a personal investment in the outcome of the Booker!



However, I hope I'm not blinded to the concerns of Millen and Holgate. Let's just examine them for a moment, shall we? First of all the issue of fame. The ManBooker is meant to reward literary merit. Its tagline is 'fiction at its finest'. It's not meant to reward famous writers, but the 'finest'. And even the most famous writers can produce a dud. They can't expect an automatic award nomination just because their name's on the cover.

But what of Millen's point that not enough of the book-buying public will be attracted to this list of unknowns? Well, already Burnet's novel is a 'bestseller' on Amazon and Nicholas Royle of Salt, the publisher of another longlistee, Wyl Menmuir's The Many, has reported a similar hike in sales for their title.

 

It seems that the book-buying public hasn't been put off quite that much after all. Millen cited the lower sales of the last three years for ManBooker winners Marlon James (2015), Richard Flanagan (2014) and Eleanor Catton than previous years. But his assessment didn't take account of the change in book-buying practices - you could argue that the year before Catton's win saw the height of Amazon's low pricing strategy which elbowed all other contenders out of the picture. Why buy a £25 hardback when there are 1p books available on Kindle? He also didn't consider that all three titles are particularly challenging ones in different ways. Should we exclude writing that is challenging because fewer people will be attracted to it? I can't think of anything more ridiculous.

Andrew Holgate's attack on the Americans is interesting because he was initially enthusiastic about the opening up the ManBooker prize to American writers when it was first announced. Small publishers complained because the rules changed too - if you'd had a book nominated in the past, you could nominate more this time round. Inevitably, small publishers had fewer Booker nominations so would have less of a chance than the majors, which seemed unfair.

And yet, small publishers have consistently defied those expectations, fielding nominees every year. The Americans haven't squeezed them out after all. And I'm not sure about Holgate's argument which seems rather contradictory - not so many Commonwealth writers, whose absence he laments, are also the household names he agrees with Millen should be on the ManBooker list.

So what does he want more of, exactly?

His final point seems to answer that question: what a satisfying literary novel is. He just wants 'satisfying literary novels'. I'm surprised to learn that this year's judges seem to have been hell-bent on picking unsatisfying literary novels, but perhaps Holgate could read those on the longlist before he judges? He might find Burnet's novel very satisfying indeed. I can't know, of course, that he hasn't read His Bloody Project. But I know he hasn't reviewed it. Like pretty much every other London literary editor, he missed it.

Another personal intervention: I tried harder with this book than any other title to get it reviewed. I suggested it to my literary editor at the then Independent on Sunday, asking if I could review it myself. Understandably, I think, she felt that my being published by the same small publisher should exempt me from doing so and she was probably right there. I asked her to send it out to other paperback round-up reviewers and she said she would. Alas, some mis-packaging meant that she included it in the selection of paperbacks she sent to me for review. I pointed out the mistake and posted it back to her, asking again for it to be reviewed by someone else. But it never was.

Small publishers outside London especially have an enormous struggle to get their books reviewed by London newspapers (the Guardian's report on Burnet's longlisting even got the title wrong, calling it His Bloody Scotland). I do understand the problem for London literary editors - often less space for reviewing, increasing numbers of books being sent their way, what do they do?

What they do is make a judgement call - that's what they're being paid to do. Make a judgement call on books that should be noticed. Sure, they might not get that call right every time, they're only human. But like I say, that's what they're being paid for - their judgement.

And this year, that judgement's been found wanting, when so many titles have taken these literary editors by surprise. A few noses are clearly out of joint, it seems by the articles cited above. And so to pile on the harm they do small publishers by ignoring them in the first place, they're now blaming the biggest literary prize for doing what they failed to do: noticing and appreciating their titles. So I say to Millen and Holgate, don't go in the huff because you missed the best ones. Resolve to try and not miss them again!
  

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Is stylised prose making a comeback?

I thought at first I was asking this question with my reviewer's hat on, after reading a few recent novels that seemed to me, anyway, to be excellent examples of stylised prose. Marlon James's debut, for example, John Crow's Devil, felt highly stylised, in the best possible way, a great marrying of voice and language.



 I also got excited by Laird Hunt's excellent Neverhome, about a woman who has joined up to fight during the American Civil War, for the same reason - a voice that felt both realistic and unreal, literary in a stylised way.



I think of Megan Abbott as a great contemporary stylist, too. Bury Me Deep is a perfect example:



A favourite from the past is Eudora Welty, a superb stylist - and of course, the Modernists. Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence and co, all stylists. But for a long time now, 'style' has been out of fashion. Perhaps that's why Hemingway has also been in the doldrums. Chandler, too. Robert Louis Stevenson, a great prose stylist - but who amongst us reads him regularly now? Jane Austen has been cited as a stylist (I was asked once by a terrifying teacher at school who I'd offer up as an example of a great stylist, back in the 1980s. I could only think of Austen and almost died with relief when he just said 'hmmmm', and didn't throw the blackboard chalk at me, which he was wont to do), and at least is still read. But who else? Martin Amis is listed as a stylist, but he's famously never won the Booker. I think James may have beaten him to it, as the times change...

Some linked the disappearance of style in contemporary writing to the rise in creative writing schools - so I guess nobody is being taught to write like Hemingway? I've never quite understood what's meant by the criticism that a piece of work is very 'creative writing school' and I'm still not quite sure. I think what's meant by that criticism is that individuality is being ironed out, to produce a more bland, more generally acceptable rose style. Get rid of the quirks and obey the rules.

I'm not sure that's fair to creative writing schools, if that is what such a criticism means. What part do publishers play in this? Do publishers prefer a blander, more pared-back, more simplistic style that has a greater potential to appeal to a larger group of people? Marlon James asked recently if the reason publishers didn't go for his early work was because he didn't fit their perception of what they thought he should be writing about - but perhaps also he didn't fit how they wanted him to write.

A more stylised piece of prose may well have more limited appeal, of course. So now I'm asking with my writer's hat on. I think my Madeleine Smith novel could probably be described as 'stylised', and at the moment it's with agents as I look for new representation. Will that be a problem, I've been asking myself, if 'style' is still out of fashion (more than a problem, I should say, than low book sales. Cue hollow laughter)?

I've come to realise over the years that often the novels that excite me the most are those with more stylised prose (Joyce Carol Oates is someone I'd cite in this category, too), and the ones that are least stylised are the ones I truly struggle to 'like'. So is 'style' making a comeback, or are the likes of James and Hunt more of an anomaly? I can but hope...

I should also add, that non-fiction is part of this, too. When I was writing 'Between the Sheets' I was very aware that my writing style was...raw, I would call it. Quite rough in places. I only had to read Claire Tomalin's beautifully written biography of Katherine Mansfield to realise the difference. But I was in a real quandary about that. My book, I felt, had a political point to make and I wanted that to feel real, immediate. A rougher, rawer style felt appropriate. Beautifully polished prose didn't. I have the feeling sometimes, in literary biography, that one is supposed to be more 'ladylike' in one's expressions. But this wasn't, I'm happy to say, a 'ladylike' book!

 

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

How Did She Get So Much Of It Into Him? A Victorian Murder Mystery

In the early hours of March 23rd, 1857, a young man of French parentage, originally from Jersey but living now in Glasgow, staggered into his lodgings in agony. His name was Emile L'Angelier, and he would die from severe and excessive arsenic poisoning around 11am.

His death led to one of the most notorious murder trials of the nineteenth century. Because the individual accused of murdering him was a twenty-two year old woman, the daughter of a wealthy architect. Her name was Madeleine Smith, and she had been conducting a clandestine affair with the dead man for two years.

Her trial caused shock waves, not least because her love letters to the victim were read out in court. They were frank and unashamed, detailing the first time the couple had sex. Madeleine not only wrote about sex, she wrote that she enjoyed it, too. Newspapers were aghast - after the trial, many took the view that Emile, an older man and a foreigner, must have corrupted this young woman.



But that didn't answer the question: did she kill him?

At the end of the short trial, Madeleine was found 'not proven' and released. Despite the evidence of a note she'd sent Emile asking him to meet her, the prosecution couldn't prove that the two had met the night before he died. And despite the fact that she had purchased arsenic three times in the weeks before Emile's death, they couldn't prove that she had administered it to him. And despite the fact that Emile would often stop at her apartments on Blythswood square, tapping the railings to indicate he was there, when she would give him a cup of cocoa, the prosecution couldn't prove that the arsenic had been stirred into the hot drink. Chemists testified at the trial that sprinkling the poison into hot liquid would simply make it adhere into a sizeable lump, easily detected. One found that if you boiled the arsenic up with the chocolate, the poison would disperse into smaller lumps, but not enough to go unnoticed.

Four or five grains of arsenic is all it takes to kill a man. Doctors found, after an autopsy, that Emile had about 90 grains in his body at the time of death. Given the considerable purging that would have taken place, they estimated he'd ingested at least double that amount. Approximately half an ounce. The amount Madeleine bought each time she purchased arsenic from a local apothecary. If she did kill him, how on earth did she get so much of it into him?

It all looks pretty bad for Madeleine. When I started researching for my novel about her, I kept an open mind. Suicide? Suicide to frame her? Murder by another hand? Madeleine's sole motive was her desire to end the affair with Emile, which he was refusing to let her do. He had told her he would show her love letters to her father. Her response was terror and hysteria: she immediately sent the houseboy to purchase prussic acid, a well-known poison for suicides. But the apothecary wouldn't sell it to the young servant. What else was she to do?

Here's how the story began for me. In December 2010, the writer Emma Tennant rang me to say that she was working on a novel about Madeleine Smith and asked if I'd like to write it with her. I was more than happy to agree - I'd reviewed Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair's excellent history, Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain: The Story of Madeline Smith (Manchester UP), and knew something about her life after the trial. Emma suggested I tell Madeleine's side of the story, and I thought about having her tell it towards the end of her life, when she was living in New York.



I was finishing my novel Unfashioned Creatures at the time, and didn't get the chance to write anything when a year later, Emma rang again. We talked about it some more, and this spurred me on to write a few pages. Unfortunately, Emma then became seriously ill. I visited her in the summer of 2012. She had sent me 26 pages of the novel she had been working on, and I had sent her about 20 pages of my side of it. She had hoped to be able to do more, but after my visit she rang again to say she didn't think she could manage it. She gifted me her 26 pages (set at the time of the trial) to use as I saw fit.

By this time, I'd already thought more about Madeline's life after the trial. I wanted to write a section about her life in London, when she married George Wardle, the manager of William Morris's arts and crafts firm. And I wanted to write a section set in New York, the year before she died, set in 1927. When I became Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone's Library in May 2013, I managed to get a rough first draft written.

But I still hadn't solved the essential dilemma. Was Madeleine a murderer or wasn't she? I tried to tell myself it didn't matter, but it did. Either I was writing a story about a woman who had committed murder and got away with it, or I was writing about a women unjustly accused and suspected for the rest of her life. I had to make up my mind, and that also meant deciding how, if she was guilty, she could have done it.

Emma certainly thought she was guilty, and gave me a hint about how it could have been done. Janet Morgan, author of Agatha Christie: A Biography, also told me, when I chaired her at an event, that she was sure Madeleine was guilty. But Sue John at Glasgow Women's Library was quite convinced of her innocence, and biographers are divided, too.

It wasn't until I read through her letters (the crime writer Caro Ramsay very kindly gave me hard copy of the trial, and it is also available online as a pfd) - some of which I got to see at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where a scarcely legible hand covers every scarp of the paper - that I made up my mind. I think it was the letter with her first response ot Emile's threats that convinced me. I believe her terror; I believe she thinks her father will throw her out on the street (given that she was sent away by her family after the trial would bear that fear out). I believe she is quite desperate, and out of her mind with panic.

There then remained the problem of - how? I've badgered my poor family and close friends about my particular theory, which will be revealed at the end of my novel.

But how do you think she might have done it?

  
     

Monday, 13 July 2015

The harm that loving characters too much can do

It's a tricky line for a writer to tread. How many of us have had novels rejected by publishers, who tell us that they "just didn't fall in love with" our characters? How many of us have had novels accepted because publishers tell us that they "just fell in love with" our characters?

How to create a "loveable enough" character can be a cynical exercise and you can see it in some contemporary novels - the overloading of vulnerability (make your narrator an orphaned kitten!), the piling-up of tragic events, the sentimentality ratio off the scale.

But it's what we want, as readers. Or at least, the current fuss about Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman points that way. I have a confession to make - I've still not read To Kill a Mockingbird. I somehow missed the school-imposed years when it became practically a set text, and I've missed subsequent opportunities since.

That doesn't mean I don't hold similar characters close to my bosom: the first 'fictional' character I really fell in love with was The Girl, or the Second Mrs de Winter, in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. I read it when I was about 13, and those first few chapters about the shy and unsure who feels she's doing everything wrong fitted exactly with my perception of myself at that age. I even remember feeling quite annoyed when another girl in my class at school said it was her favourite novel, and The Girl was her favourite character - you can't have her, I wanted to say, she's mine!

When we love, we possess, and it's clear from the furore about Finch that we feel we 'own' him, too. There's an argument to be made that Finch isn't so much a character as an ideal and it's the destruction of that ideal we object to so much in Go Set a Watchman (similarly, we 'love Jane Eyre, but also see her as an ideal - we are meant to cheer when she refuses Rochester's request to be his mistress. How would we feel if an previously undiscovered manuscript of that novel showed a Jane Eyre capitulating to Rochester's request?)

But even with an ideal, it's an expression of love that we have for him/her/it. And that expression of love contains a difficult message for authors. How dare, we seem to be saying, Harper Lee take Finch and make him detestable? How dare she do that to 'our' hero?

But perhaps Go Set a Watchman has given us a useful reminder that characters are not 'ours' to own; that they belong to the author, who has the right to do whatever they want with them. Look at Arthur Conan Doyle, for example: he killed off Sherlock Holmes only to be forced by readers who adored him to bring him back. Conan Doyle felt tethered to a character he wanted to see the back of (actors playing the character have sometimes felt like that too, when they become too popular).

This is where 'love' hampers creativity. We need to be free, as writers, to do what we want with the characters we have created. Recently, the author Claire Messud was questioned about creating an 'unlikeable' character in her novel, The Woman Upstairs. She railed against the suggestion that in order to appreciate a work, we have to 'like' the protagonists. What she was protesting against was the forcing into a creative hole that such a liking entails.

I'm writing at the moment about a Victorian woman accused of murder. If she was guilty, how do I make her 'lovable'? And should I even try? Is that what I should be doing? I don't think so: I want to get at some kind of psychological truth about her, not make her some kind of defenceless kitten. Can I make her sympathetic, like The Girl in Rebecca? I can try - if it feels appropriate. But 'loveable'? Maybe that's just a step too far...




Thursday, 30 April 2015

Do you have to be middle-class to be a writer?

I've decided to raise the thorny question of class and writing, partly because I recently saw a facebook post by another writer, who said that when she went to University, it was full of 'posh kids from private school.' Author James Kelman has been very vocal about the issue of class, and has often raised the point that you pretty much need a private income to be a writer these days (if you don't have a different day job, or aren't a best seller).

I suspect there are some who would like to think class has nothing to do with being a writer any more - in Tony Blair 's words, 'hey, we're all middle class now'. Except, of course, that that's rubbish.

I should 'fess up about what bothered me about that writer's observation about her Uni days - I was one of those 'posh kids from a private school'. Except that what's behind that statement is a little more: my Dad grew up in  a tenement in Springburn before his family emigrated to Canada, my Mum in a council house in Knightswood, both areas in Glasgow (for those who don't know, Springburn once had the accolade of being the worst housing area in the whole of Europe). I was first-generation University educated - like many working-class parents, they held fast to the notion that 'nobody can take it away from you', in reference to a degree. That's important when you grow up in families where the main jobs are in industry the threat of redundancy is always hanging over you. That job could be taken off you in a second.

So my parents worked hard and made sacrifices to send me and my brother to a private school with an academic reputation. And yes, there were lots of 'posh kids' there - I remember still having the glottal stop when I got there (when you don't pronounce all your 't's) and being really aware that I spoke differently. I consciously changed the way I spoke to fit in - right or wrong? Well, I was 12. And at 12, you just want to be like everyone else.

Now - by way of two University degrees and a brief career as an academic - I write full-time as a critic and author. I have no sick pay, no maternity leave, no holiday pay, no occupational pension, no incremental pay rise. But thanks to my parents' efforts, I had the courage to make a leap and go for the thing I really wanted to spend my life doing - writing.

And what of 'class' in my writing life now? Well, two things. When I was researching for my non-fiction book, Between the Sheets, I read a ton of biographies. I've always been keen on history and biography anyway, but this time, because I was trying to pay the bills and take time out to research as well (I got a five-figure advance for that book but hardly enough to live on - £10,000, slightly less after agents' fees and half was paid first, leaving about £4500 to support me for the year I was writing it), I was very aware of the jobs held by biographers, especially women.

Academics aside, and there weren't many of them, they didn't seem to have 'day jobs'. The business of biography research is a slow and time-consuming one. How did they pay the bills, I kept wondering. Did they all have wealthy husbands? Were they all from rich backgrounds themselves?

Many of them probably had, and were. Biographies tend to be written by the middle-classes, because only the middle-classes can afford the time out needed to research.

Second point: I was once castigated by a literary editor for beginning an article with a gerund. I waited till he was finished berating me in front of everyone in the office then calmly said, it's not a gerund. that's a verbal noun. This is a verbal adjective. It's a gerundive.' Because I had a classical education,too, I wanted to add. I'm not saying a private education is best if you need to score points off other people. But at that moment I was grateful for it.

What about fiction, though? How we love the story of single mum J K Rowling scribbling her multi-million pound first Harry Potter in a cafe, where she sat all day because she couldn't afford heating at home. In the twenty-first century, we're still sentimentalising the working-class effort, because the truth is, it shouldn't be happening.

If you're working-class, you shouldn't be writing - and definitely not anything 'literary'! That's the message, anyway. Government grants are meant to help with this, but they're occasional and when you don't have much money, an occasional grant just delays the problem, it doesn't solve it.

I'd like to see the state pay wages to writers - I know people like Janice Galloway have called for this in the past. Would I be ineligible for being a 'posh kid from a private school' though, even though I earn less than many 'working-class' jobs pay? I hope not. But we do need to make a greater effort to ensure that class doesn't have a place in whether you think you can be a writer or not. I attend book festivals every year, either to review or chair. And they're predominantly middle-class (at one, I overheard an author say to the rest of her panel, 'Oh my goodness, three of us are called Charlotte! we're so middle-class!')

I've suggested before that book festivals have tickets that are free for the unemployed. Not just discounted, but free. I've been unemployed plenty of times in my life and book festival tickets, funnily enough, aren't a top priority. The middle-classes still have a monopoly on the production and, if festival attendance is anything to go by, the consumption of literature. We need to do something about that monopoly. But not by stereotyping, or making assumptions, even though I bet I've made a few in this post. It's hard to avoid, but we can try.      


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

When the midlist is where you want to be

I was inspired to write this piece after being alerted by literary blogger Isabel Costello to this article on the Guardian's website on Monday: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/13/publish-brand-literature-hilary-mantel-jk-rowling?CMP=share_btn_tw

The writer argues that midlist authors are being sidelined (ah yes - what's new?), and that's often where the interesting stuff happens. Big publishers are favouring the kind of titles that promise big branding, focusing on pushing one or two writers at the expense of the rest, because those one or two writers can really bring in the big bucks, if TV and film tie-ins are part of the package.

So far, so not-new. But the article ended on a note of hope for all struggling writers out there: "Those people with half-finished manuscripts in their drawers might take heart from the story of Nathan Filer, the mental health nurse who this week won a Costa award for his first novel. He had 11 publishers vying for the rights to publish The Shock of the Fall. The search for the new is not over yet."

Nathan Filer has become huge since winning the Costa - no midlist ignominy for him, he's set to become a 'brand' like Mantel, Rowling et al, the article suggests. In other words. the piece ends by arguing against itself - telling us the midlist is the interesting place to be, but that what you really want is headline-grabbing success.

Well - and my publishers may not like this! - I don't want that. I like the midlist. I like being there. I get published, I get reviewed, I get to speak at book festivals, I get to meet readers, and I even get (once!) shortlisted for a big prize. I don't earn enough to pay the bills from it because midlist writers don't attract those kinds of fees, but that also gives me the freedom to write exactly what I want. I don't have to worry that I'm not being commercial enough - I don't have to do things I don't want to do.

There's another aspect that's often overlooked. When my book, Between the Sheets first came out, it was published in the States first, in February 2010. Reviews started appearing, and continued right up until the end of August that year. It was hugely flattering and often exciting to get that kind of attention. It was also anxiety-inducing.

Since the death of my Dad almost eight years ago, I've suffered from mild anxiety attacks. They don't stop me performing my work, which I love doing anyway. But I think they'd increase and get worse if I did get the kind of attention that the real headliners get. Do I want the Mail launching a crusade against me, as they have done Hilary Mantel? Do I want to be in such demand at festivals that I don't get another word written for years? Yann Martel said that winning the Booker stopped him writing for 12 months, he was having to do so much other stuff.

Of course I'd love to win a major prize. Of course I'd love never to have to worry about money again. Of course 'd love to have publicists running around after me, booking the best hotels and restaurants to keep me happy. But I'm not sure I want all the other stuff that goes with it. the 'midlist' suits me, my writing, and my personality. Maybe that makes me unadventurous, too cautious about my life. But not, I hope, about my writing.