Friday, 29 October 2010

A writer's life is sometimes strange

Very strange indeed.  At the same moment that I was deliberating over printer's quotes for a small Independent edition of The Story-teller, and had just put my self-publishing quandary up on the blog, I was approached by one of the British university presses about a publishing deal.   Not only did they want to publish the book, but they wanted to bring it out quickly, before Christmas, to take advantage of all the Penguin publicity.  They were also keen to use Neil's cover design.   The only drawback was that they couldn't offer much money, but from my point of view the fact that I'm not going to be paying the printer's bill is  a big bonus.  All I have to do is to convince my agent that a) a very enthusiastic, well-regarded university publisher is better than no publisher at all, and b) that a good hardback edition and some good reviews might just lead to a mainstream publisher offering for the paperback rights.    Wish me luck on that one! 

Meanwhile, we're going ahead with the re-issue of A Passionate Sisterhood.  The cover proofs arrived today and Alas!!! instead of a lovely, rich blue, they are a deep and depressing shade of purple attractive only to mourning Victorians.    We are beginning to realise the problems of transmitting colour files - it is apparently very difficult to get the same colour calibrated into a printer.  A lot of tweaking is going to be necessary.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A New Fiction Site for Authors and Readers

I've just discovered this new Arts Council site - Fiction Uncovered - which seems to be dedicated to promoting lesser known authors.  You can find it at

Will it make a difference?   I hope so, but I'm feeling a bit cynical today!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Tuesday Poem: The Reluctant Moon

The Reluctant Moon

The old moon is careful
        peering over the dark rim of the hill
edging out of cover
       into the open sky
the pale, cratered disc exposed
       to the prurient eye of the telescope.

I too have secrets -
       damage I would not display
for close inspection.

A life blown across my face
       by solar wind
scored, to the bedrock.

I am past the full now
        thinning to the last quarter
Earth’s pull
        is relentless
dragging us through
       all our phases

solitary - naked as the moon
hallucinating in its aura of vapour.

Kathleen Jones

For more poetry please go to the Tuesday Poem blog by clicking on the link.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Author's Dilemma: to Self-publish or Not

The Book Mill logo
 For the past year I’ve had a problem. A casualty of the economic shut down, my Virago biography of the sisters, wives and daughters of the lake poets - A Passionate Sisterhood - was allowed to go out of print by the publishers. It was still selling, still in demand, but not in sufficient numbers to justify Virago keeping it on their back-list. Print-on-demand and making older titles available as E-books simply hasn’t made an impact on an industry whose feet are still set in the concrete blocks of the gentleman’s club era of publishing.

So I began to consider the idea of printing a new edition myself and marketing it over the internet and through local bookshops and Wordsworth related tourist outlets in the Lake District.

I also had another problem - much more complicated and worrying. My UK publisher, for the new Katherine Mansfield biography I’d just spent 5 years writing, had been bought out by another publishing company whose policy didn’t include literary biography. They didn’t want the book. Penguin New Zealand were still more than happy to publish The Story-teller, but Penguin UK couldn’t take on the English edition because one of their top authors, Claire Tomalin, had also written a Mansfield biography, albeit twenty five years ago. So there was a conflict of interest.

My agent assured me that she had tried every publisher in London, but none of them were willing to risk money on a big, serious biography of a big, serious literary figure, at a time of financial crisis. If I’d been writing about a soap star, or a footballer (or been one myself!) ....... These are frightening times. Two publishers in London - one of them Harper Collins - declared that they weren’t even going to look at submissions of biographies until 2011. Lists were slashed everywhere.

Meanwhile, I had a book almost everyone loved, which I believed to be commercial, but no-one other than Penguin NZ was willing to publish. And it’s a quirk of the publishing world that territory is so jealously guarded that they wouldn’t be allowed to sell it anywhere else. People wrote to me from all over the world asking when this new book on Mansfield was going to be available; reviewers from several of the heavyweight newspapers and magazines wrote offering to review it; book festivals wrote to enquire whether I’d be available to promote it. I just didn’t have a book to promote.

So, the idea has been growing - why not create a private imprint of our own and print 500 copies of the hardback of The Story-teller for distribution in Britain? And why not put A Passionate Sisterhood back into print at the same time? Neil registered himself as a small publisher and began to design covers.  The Book Mill has been born.  He is also very good at the IT side of things and was able to convert my text files into PDF files to send to printers.
Neil's cover design

We began to get quotes from printers - choosing to go with proper trade printers rather than choose ready made self-publishing companies like LULU. I just didn’t feel that publication by one of these sources would give me the kind of credibility I needed. There is, sadly, still a great deal of prejudice against ‘self-publishing’. In the states they call it Independent Publishing and I think that is the right name - after all many of the greatest writers in the world published their own work - publishers as we know them are a modern invention. Originally many books were also published by the book-sellers themselves - as Amazon are beginning to do now. Perhaps it’s time to go back and dismantle the huge publishing houses who control authors lives and act more for their share-holders than for readers or writers. Perhaps it’s time to take control of our own work?

I have just sent A Passionate Sisterhood to the printers, having obtained an ISBN allocation online. For this book we’ve chosen to have it printed digitally - which is cheaper than litho printing and for a paperback there is, apparently, no discernible loss of quality. We’ve chosen to put most of the money into the printing of the cover. It’s all cheaper than we’d imagined. A standard 300 page paperback without illustrations would come out under £1000. Mine is rather more because I’ve got photographic plates and a colour cover. They have promised the books in three weeks. Fingers crossed. Am I mad? Still exploring the options for the Story-teller and I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Tuesday Poem: The Biographer at Fontainebleau

I came, by accident, the same
day she had chosen to arrive
at Avon station
eighty years between us
warm in clear October air
and as I drove towards La Prieuré
the limes were
lighting the Avenue like torches

There, all is gentleness
where Gurdjieff’s tribe
struggled to wrench
old lives
out of their patterns
leaving behind all
that had once been precious.

Where Katherine practised
declining Russian verbs
Her voice
‘I am, we were, we must have been.....’
whispering from the void
left by her rotted lungs.

Letters to Jack
described their future
of visiting New Zealand, driving
from the sea.
When she was ready, she invited him
to watch her die.

For five years I’ve inhabited her life
Moved through the old rooms
of her houses,
touched the fabric of her clothes
her books, her letters
always travelling towards this point
to put the last words on the page
the last full stop.

The cemetery’s quiet,
but she hated noise.
And underground
her bare tubercular bones
stripped to the final truth
have found their last identity
beyond interpretation.

It was Katherine Mansfield's birthday last Thursday - 14th October - so I thought a Mansfield poem would be appropriate.  I wrote this a couple of years ago, after a visit to her grave at Avon, near Fontainebleau.  It was quite an emotional experience and I hadn't expected it to be.  Looking at her grave suddenly brought home the sadness of dying as a writer, barely 34, conscious of what you're capable of doing and knowing you aren't going to be able to do any of it.  KM was immensely courageous.  She was constantly on the move in search of health and didn't get as much support from her family and her husband as she needed.   Her body was moved twice after she died - her husband forgot to pay the cemetery bill and so she was re-buried in a communal plot.  When her family eventually discovered what had happened they bought a proper plot and had her re-interred.
For more Tuesday Poems, visit the Tuesday Poem Blog.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

At University

I now have a new job - as Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lancaster University.  The RLF is a wonderful organisation -  originally founded in 1790  as a charity to keep writers (and their families) out of the debtors' prison, they've been helping authors such as  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, D.H. Lawrence,  and James Joyce ever since.   They've benefited from bequests from wealthy authors, like A.A. Milne, whose estates have swelled the coffers.   The rights to Winnie the Pooh currently fund the RLF Fellowship scheme  - which was a brilliant idea.   Writers are put into universities to help students with their academic writing:  the writer gets financial support in the form of a proper job, and the university gets a useful member of staff.  

I was lucky enough to be appointed as an RLF Fellow in 2006 and am now in my first term as the new Fellow at Lancaster.  It's a scary feeling starting a new job - Lancaster is one of the top ten universities in England and the students all look very bright and enthusiastic.  AAAgh!   But everyone is very friendly and welcoming, and I have a lovely office which looks out onto a courtyard with a gigantic tree.  In the first week I have managed to find the photocopier and the kettle and have achieved a staff card and an email address.  I have also seen an actual student!

I'm very concerned about the new government's plans to scrap the current cap on student fees.  Students already leave university with a crushing level of debt.  How do you afford to make a relationship, have kids, buy a house when you're already more than £30,000 in debt?   The idea that only the children of rich parents can now afford to go to university makes me very angry.   I grew up with the concept of free education and went to university fully funded in the nineteen eighties.  My parents could never have afforded to send me to university if they had had to pay.  They struggled to keep me at school - even uniform items were difficult to afford and I was usually in hand-me-downs.  My own children got to university during the era of student loans, unfortunately during a period when I was a single parent and unable to give much financial support.  Only one child made it to graduation but - oddly enough - now earns less than any of the others.     

I think we've got to completely re-think our approach  to education in England.  We need to value practical skills just as much as intellectual ones and we need to fund training (both practical and academic) for those unable to afford it to enable all our young people to realise their potential.   We also need to provide much more part-time study so that students can support themselves while studying and make it possible for people to re-train when they find themselves in the wrong job.  18 is far too young to choose what you're going to do for the rest of your life.

OK - I'll put the soap-box away and shut up!  I'm going to be quiet for a few days anyway.  I'm off to Knutsford literature festival tomorrow to give a book talk and then dash by taxi and train to London to do a book signing at New Zealand house (they're celebrating Katherine Mansfield's birthday).  Then at 5am on Saturday I'm getting into Neil's ancient car to drive down to Italy - hoping to get there on Sunday evening in time to fly back on Monday to go to work on Tuesday!  One of these days I'll be able to stop travelling and get some peaceful time to write.  

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Tuesday Poem: Above Middleton


From this hill the view is larger than God,
the weather less forgiving.

Rough land, honed by a battering wind
that thrums over the houses
and howls inside the head like a chained dog.

This is the cold that cracks stone,
breaks open keens on calloused fingers
for the few descendants of the long-forgotten dead

who moled the lead seams under the Pennines,
leaving their poisoned bones
in unmarked graves.

Their cottages are fallen stone
and the roofless church
has a congregation of nettles.

They lived, not without language
or music, or the violence
of loving and birthing and hunger.

Only a death brought them down,
ill-suited in their mildewed best
to walk twelve miles to church -

buried, christened, married in job lots.
Crossing their brief marks against the register
of unrecorded lives.

Even their work is hidden
in pipes, drains, the linings of coffins,
or beaten flat in the gutters

of redundant churches, divers’ boots,
the hems of old velvet curtains, fishermen’s weights,
the deadly interior of a nuclear flask.

Kathleen Jones

Up on the moors near where I live are many abandoned lead mines and the ruined dwellings of the people who once worked there. Neil's great-grandparents were among them and we went to visit the ruined house they'd once occupied. We spent a lot of time among the archives of the county record office, finding out about the people who'd lived there, tracing his family history and uncovering the story of an unbelievably bleak way of life.
Most of them were illiterate, and their lives are often 'lost' in official histories because they were too poor to have gravestones and unable to leave any written record. Even the mining company didn't record their names - only the jobs they did. The work was backbreaking. On winter days they went underground in darkness and when they emerged it was dark and the men could go for months seeing the sun only once a week on Sunday. The women worked the smallholdings - growing what food could be persuaded to grow in such a bleak landscape - tending goats and sheep. The community had a reputation for drink and lawlessness and there was a lot of illegitimacy! One of Neil's ancestors died after becoming lost in the snow on a winter's day. Most of the others died young, often from lead poisoning. Even the food they grew was tainted with the ground water from the mines.
The poem is an attempt to capture the atmosphere.

For more Tuesday Poems please follow this link.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

On not writing for pleasure

One of the hazards of becoming a published ‘professional’ writer is that it’s all too easy to lose the ability to write for pleasure. Suddenly you’re up against deadlines, and your work has to be shaped to fit commercial targets. And then there’s the fear of failure - everyone expects you to be good - you’re a published author. Right?

The sense of freedom to experiment, to play with words, vanishes. Writing for a living is a serious business. It’s a bit like playing sport for money rather than for fun.

This is rather how I feel at the moment after completing a 400 page biography, two academic papers, a number of reviews, talks and a commissioned story. The well is dry and putting pencil to pad feels more like going to work at the tax office. Writing simply isn’t fun any more and without that ability to play, nothing new and interesting is likely to appear on the page. I’ve even lost sight of why I began to write in the first place.

So what to do about this? After discussions with friends, there seem to be a number of different things that work for them. Here are some of them.

1. Give yourself a holiday. Set a period of time and don’t write anything until it’s over.

2. Avoid assignments - if money is tight take a mundane job that doesn’t take up any head-space instead.

3. Read a lot - all those books you never had time for.

4. Open a bottle of wine - give yourself time to daydream.

5. Do a short free-write every day - no more than 15 minutes.

6. Be very disciplined and wait for something to go ‘ping’ in your head.

I’m determined not to write until something demands to be written, and I’m experimenting with free-writes. There are lots of internet sites which offer prompts, but I’ve been looking at a book called ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ (subtitled ‘A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life’) by Judy Reeves, which offers a programme of writing, month by month, including a sequence of prompts - one for every day of the year. I’m not a great fan of free-writing, but I’m surprised by what is emerging. My last blog started out as a response to ‘What was forgotten’, followed by a walk on the moors. I think I might put ‘walking’ as the magic number seven on the list - it always worked for Wordsworth and I have several friends who walk enthusiastically when they’re incubating something.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Autumn on Wuthering Heights

There are still wild places left in the north of England. These bare uplands on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire were once home to a large population of small farmers, who began to move in at the end of the last ice age. They burned the trees, drained the peat, introduced sheep, and enclosed the land in walls of grey limestone. A hundred and fifty years ago, in the face of bitter winters, falling prices and the 19th century rise of the cotton and woollen mills, they began to abandon these bleak, wind-scoured heights for a more comfortable life in the lowland townships. It’s a process that is still going on.

The walls are still there, though many are fallen now, and the farmsteads lie in ruins, while the land gradually becomes feral.

On an autumn day with sun and cloud chasing each other across the landscape it’s a good place to be. A couple of crows are hang-gliding in the wind above a copse of trees. There’s water everywhere - seeping out of the limestone through cracks and breaches in the rock.

A few rowan trees are growing on the edge of a natural gorge where the water spills out. It’s the colour of Yorkshire tea, stained by the peat on the moors above. There’s still some here, despite centuries of drainage, and there are schemes to preserve it because the peat has, over thousands of years, locked carbon dioxide away in its fibrous layers.

As I walk up, they’re gathering the sheep for the autumn ‘tupping’. Fell sheep are mated quite late so that the lambs are born after the worst of the winter weather.

Apart from the farmer and his dogs there’s no one else in the landscape, and as I walk down, it's beginning to get dark.  The cloudscape is amazing.  It reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Wuthering Heights’ - ‘the wind/pours by like destiny, bending/everything in one direction’ and ‘hollow doorsteps go from grass to grass’. But these same solitudes that unsettled Sylvia Plath, are home to me, since I was born and brought up on a remote farm in a similar location.  Wuthering Heights was my favourite novel at 16.

When I come home and switch on the television, there’s a moment of shock. Ted Hughes’ newly released poem about Plath’s death ‘Last Letter’ is being read on Channel 4. It is brutal and unbearably tragic, since it was written in the 1970s with the knowledge not only of Plath’s suicide and the guilt of Hughes’ emotional involvement, but also the suicide of his second wife, Assia Wevill, who also killed their child. More grief than anyone should have to deal with. It makes a sombre ending for what had been a particularly beautiful day.

Stone, Wood, Water.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Tuesday Poem: Kathleen Jamie

Garrison Keiller’s online ‘Writers’ Almanac’  recently featured one of Kathleen Jamie’s poems with the comment that she was one of the most underrated poets writing in English today. At least he didn’t make the mistake of referring to her as an English poet. Kathleen Jamie is Scottish and the Celtic idiom and the rhythms of its language flow through every poem. They are as beautifully patterned as music, and there is never a wrong note. Every phrase, every word, every metaphor is so absolutely right and the construction and editing are seamless.

I loved the elegiac ‘Crossing the Loch’, which you can read on this link here at the Poetry Archive

But my favourite is 'Mrs McKellar, her Martyrdom' which is a wonderful character study of an embittered couple locked in terrible proximity. It begins

‘Each night she fills, from the fabled
well of disappointment, a kettle
for her hottie. Lying
in his apportioned bed:
Mr McKellar - annulled
beside his trouser press.’

And it goes on to address the problems of communication for an estranged couple ‘when word is a kind of touch’ The McKellar's neither speak nor touch, so:

‘Who mentions, who defers to whom
on matters concerning
redecorating the living room,
milk delivery, the damp
stain spreading on the ceiling.'

On principle, Mrs McKellar, will ‘die, lips sealed’ rather than ‘display/toward an indifferent world/the means of her agony/a broken toilet seat’.

In contrast to the emotional desert inside the house, outside ‘exquisitely, the darkening hills,/a sky teased with mauve.’

I also loved the sequence of poems on the birth of her child - but there wasn’t a weak poem in the whole collection. ‘Waterlight’ is published in America and features poems from 4 of Kathleen’s collections. For anyone who hasn’t read her before, it’s a good introduction.

Then, on the internet, I discovered that she had written a collection of what are described as ‘essays’. The book is called ‘Findings’ and it’s a series of reflections on the landscape, the natural world and our place in it. The language is simple, the thinking behind it profound. This has become her trademark, simplicity in seeing, a willingness to look, the resulting poetry and prose, "as close as writing gets", said writer Richard Mabey in a Guardian review "to a conversation with the natural world".

I’ve been reading one every night before I go to sleep. Last night it was on the need for solitude. ‘If we work always in words, sometimes we need to recuperate in a place where language doesn’t join up, where we’re thrown back on a few elementary nouns. Sea. Bird. Sky.’ And I wished that I was back in Kaikoura listening to the quiet conversations of the ocean.

For more Tuesday Poems, please follow this link.