The right to write

My blogging friend Mary Smith commented last post, re Edna O’Brien’s Girl, on controversy surrounding white authors using the voice of black characters. Girl was so fast paced and compelling I finished it in three sittings. Then, looking it up on Goodreads, I found a question from a member:

Who else thinks a young, black woman would have been a better authorial choice for this topic/concept?

There were three very different answers (plus the point that authors choose topics for their fiction rather than the other way round).

1. If we start to say that only young black women can write about young black women, where does that eventually take us? To more constraints on what women can and can’t do and there’s more than enough of them out there already.

2. I feel uncomfortable with a white woman telling this story and making any profit from it whatsoever.

3. (recommending a non fiction account): Helon Habila may not be a woman, but he is a highly regarded author and poet from Nigeria.

46195759Girl is told from the point of view of one of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014, the best known of many such abductions. To me the novel is less about a black-only experience than one example of  what throughout history and all over the world men have done to women in the name of religion, power or both. Regardless of race or age, Edna O’Brien is a woman who, raised in Catholic Ireland, knows all about repression. Maybe this makes her a better “authorial choice” than a Nigerian man who would not experience rape or forced marriage in the same way, menstruate, become pregnant or breastfeed, all significant in the book? But, if we discourage men from imagining such lived experiences, how can we expect them to develop empathy? Maybe O’Brien’s just a different authorial choice. She’s quoted on the British Council Literature website: “Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.

I’m not sure you can open up the world with modern levels of migration and travel, then criticise eagle-eyed writers for using the material they find there. More stories become available. An author can only select one and write about that or the boundaries become too fluid. Even an author of the calibre and experience of O’Brien still needs a manageable story, a heroine, a resolution. She was 84 when the Chibok abductions happened; I do salute the research she did, her energy and will to shine a light on injustice in the way she knew best.

The example of male violence she chose is by black African men on black African women and children. If words are an alchemy and story does conduct lives, they should be a power anyone can develop. Black female writers are also theoretically free to use any subject matter they like, but they may have less chance of becoming writers in the first place, for educational and financial reasons, health, class, gender restrictions… all this will also vary depending whether they are rural, urban,  African, Caribbean or western black women. In 2019 they still have less chance of getting published by a wary, traditionally white industry than Edna O’Brien who was working for the publisher Hutchinson when her first novel, The Country Girls, was commissioned (!) in 1960. (Yes, dream on.) Were white people even having this conversation then, when authors were arguably less familiar with “other” cultures? Anyway after six decades of success no one was going to turn down her newest novel, whether set in Ireland, Nigeria or outer space. Whereas, any quick Google of publishing rates for authors of colour confirms the findings of this Publishing Research Quarterly article:

The narrative that there are just are not enough authors of colour writing is (…) used to explain their lack of inclusion in the publishing industry; however, numerous authors of colour have countered this, saying they have struggled to get agents or, if they do have agents, publishing deals. (…) many authors of colour felt pressured to write identity books (…) that reflected their ethnic or cultural heritage or to draw upon cultural stereotypes—in order to be, or continue being, published. (…). These books often had to cover topics such as “racism, colonialism or postcolonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”. 

We all struggle to get agents, and if we are unknown as writers and not celebs in any other sphere the agents then struggle to get us published. But this and other research, for example carried out by We Need Diverse Books, confirms the more boxes you tick out of being minority ethnic, disabled, female, working class, unemployed, mentally or physically ill, LGBQT+, non Western, non white… the less likely you are to be published, and the more you are needed by readers.

When, in 1969, man walked on the moon, the boys at school were fascinated. I wasn’t: the protagonists wore boring spacesuits not pretty frocks, and I didn’t understand the physics. As a girl it made less impact on me, while my male contemporaries still remember it in great detail. I wasn’t reflected, didn’t feel I owned it. The closest the career suggestions I got came to astronaut was air hostess. So people of all backgrounds and abilities must appear in books. Everyone needs to be reflected and have ownership, everyone needs the opportunity to learn to write and publish them. The quality of writing is still paramount – you wouldn’t drive across a bridge built by hairdressers in a car designed by a first year apprentice, and equally writing is a craft that needs skill, training, practice and reward. It must say something interesting and say it well. There must be the freedom to write about anything and anyone, to use the “alchemy of words” to conduct anyone’s life or lives, and nobody should get published without redrafting, editing and perfecting. BAME writers should be free of having to write only about BAME people’s primary concerns, but if that’s true it follows that O’Brien too may write about what she likes.

Studies suggest that reading some kinds of fiction makes human beings more compassionate, enabling them to see life through other eyes. We have centuries of opportunity imbalance to correct, but let’s do it by bringing opportunities for diverse writers up to the levels enjoyed by white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied financially resourced middle class writers, not by building barriers to what each group may write about. Not by creating exclusive pockets that only insiders may occupy, but by welcoming everybody’s efforts to write about everybody else, even if some of us have difficulty and even pain recognising what they produce.

I did worry whether I knew my characters when writing The Magic Carpet and published it in trepidation, opinions having become more forthright since I started it in 2016. Last year an Asian-American YA author withdrew her work from publication following fierce online objections to how it was perceived to depict slavery. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is embroiled in argument over writing judged racist. So I had grounds for worrying I’d be criticised (fine) or trolled (not fine) for representing characters from backgrounds not my own. Suffice to repeat my characters are fictional, from five different backgrounds which by definition can’t all reflect mine, and were researched with colleagues and friends from those backgrounds as well as other sources. I couldn’t have written about London children otherwise, since in 2016 when the book’s set, the primary school population, depending on area, had between 33-94% ethnic minority* pupils and between 14-75% bilingual or multilingual users. My intention was to respect and celebrate this, but if readers find factual errors I’m open to corrections and ready to discuss how I’ve made my fictional characters think and feel. Whew! *This means not White UK heritage and I’m not happy with the “otherness” of the term.

Zadie Smith brilliantly defended writing in and of different voices in the New York Review of Books in October. 3711Unlike me, she’s of Jamaican/English  mixed heritage; like me, she grew up in London. My school friends were Jewish, or of Indian, Turkish, Greek and Black Caribbean heritage; my plumber was born in Pakistan, my solicitor is Greek Cypriot, my doctor Australian, the man who laid my garden turf Moldovan. I have this hinterland to draw on for research which I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in rural middle England. Does that give me more right to write about multi-ethnic character casts? Or should I have used a sensitivity reader? I may explore that another time.

41081373._sy475_
Evaristo shared her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood.

Let’s hope as more diverse authors get through publishing doors, more points of view will be heard. There are creative writing programmes, scholarships and competitions open to specific age, ethnic and income groups as well as to everybody (good luck scrolling through the enormous list on the links above!) It will take a while for these to redress the balance – the Coretta Scott King Prize had already been going 48 years when the PN article I quote appeared,  the Lambda Literary Awards (LGBTQ) started in 1989, the relatively tiny Barbellion Prize (for writing by ill or disabled authors or on that subject) has only just launched. But doors once opened will not close. A young Nigerian undergraduate on the last writing course I attended was writing a fierce, passionate, difficult book set in the Biafran war and the present day. Perhaps her book will be published. Perhaps next year a black woman will win the Booker Prize all to herself.

What to conclude? It’s an inexhaustible topic and I’m exhausted. I think people should be able to talk, read and write about anything and everything, but it must be sensitive and not incite hatred. Subject to that, everyone has the right to write. If they intend to try publishing what they write, they must ensure they’ve researched it thoroughly. However, in a capitalist world we must be realistic. Every good writer has the right to self-publish, and every really good writer whose returns will cover their production costs should have an equal opportunity to be published by a traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers have started efforts to increase the diversity of both their workforce and their authors; it’s well overdue and the world is watching. The right to write is everyone’s; the right to publish should depend on quality alone.

© Jessica Norrie 2020

To Be Read in Twenty Twenty

Sometimes I feel I don’t plan my writing career seriously enough. Although Novel 3 has gone to the agent, Novel 4 doesn’t exist yet, even as an idea, a germ of an idea or anything less tangible than that. An email from a list I should have unsubscribed from popped up today with details of a free short story competition and I thought I’d try a quick story based on an amusing episode over Christmas. There’s a 2000 word limit but who says you have to make it that long? I wrote the amusing episode down and filled it out a bit. I was only on 200 words and the amusing episode had been milked for all it was worth, plus I was having qualms about making hay from people who’d shown me nothing but goodwill. Short stories are hard to get right and one reason is wrongly viewing them as something you can dash off in answer to random competitions in an inbox. So sod the short stories (again). I was given several books for Christmas and my just-before-it birthday and if I read enough of other people’s writing craft perhaps I’ll be guided towards the place where Novel 4 lies in wait.

TBR 2020 2

Of these nine books, I’d asked for five. I’ve already finished one, although I read it as slowly and with as much care as I could. Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite authors. There’s a slow cooking and slow eating movement, and there are mindfulness and internet-free days and reading Elizabeth Strout comes into a similar category, ideal for the limbo time between Christmas and New Year, probably less suited to commuting. She observes ordinary people in an ordinary place doing pretty ordinary things and she makes them extraordinary and universal. Olive, Again is an older Olive Kitteridge, which I’m now rereading to remind myself of her back story and those of other residents of Crosby, Maine. Olive is now on and beyond a second 43820277._sy475_marriage. She has mellowed but her go-to judgement is still “phooey to you”. She’s kept her marbles (which she dreads losing) and she’s keeping her temper better than she was. The endearing, human thing about Olive and those around her is that they’re all still learning how to live and they know it. They’re by no means perfect and neither are their partners and at times they’re deeply intolerant of each other. Olive’s son, Christopher, is horrid to her and this may or may not be because she was a bad mother. Fortunately moments of humour and love redeem all this and Olive has a wonderful capacity for compassion and understanding when you’d least expect it. But even the meanest Strout character has the capacity to recognise their mistakes and try co-existing more helpfully. “It came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”

I also asked for A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier. If this is half as good as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Lady and the Unicorn I’m in for a treat. I shall save it for after my next eye operation in mid February because in the lovely hardback edition the font is a generous size. I’m not sure whether to read Joanna Cannon‘s Breaking and Mending account of life as an NHS junior doctor before or after that – the care I’ve had from the overworked but always patient, expert, and caring staff at Moorfields Hospital has been excellent and although I asked for Cannon’s book it may not give me the sweetest of dreams as I trust myself to their care again. Another request was Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a fictionalised account of the experiences of the Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. I found her last book, The Little Red Chairs, almost impossible to read because what it described was so awful. But I can’t fail to respect an author who at nearly 90 years of age is still confronting injustice and violence against women with such uncompromising bravery, and who still crafts every word with such angry care. On a lighter note, I wanted The Binding by Bridget Collins because I’m a sucker for that sort of cover – I call them Paisley covers and there have been a spate of them recently. (It doesn’t look as though the contents are very light-hearted though, and reader opinion appears divided.) My partner coupled it with Jessie Burton’s newest novel The Confession, which I’m hoping will be as good as her first and better than her second. Another lovely cover anyway!

My ex husband and I still give each other books every Christmas and birthday. He’s a Harper Lee fan, and rightly guessed I wouldn’t yet have got around to Go Set a Watchman. (When my first novel came out it briefly whizzed past this in the Australian bestseller lists, a moment of author glory you must forgive me for harpering on about as there haven’t been many more.) He also gave me The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, which has a plug on the back from Rose Tremain. Well, if it’s good enough for her…

And finally who wouldn’t want a David Nicholls Sweet Sorrow to look forward to? Bittersweet, poignant, coming of age… it sounds as though it will be much like the others but they’re all so well written and delivered. It will, I hope, be a comfort akin to watching afternoon TV when I was kept home from school as a child with a cold.

Finally, I’ve been an increasingly laid back gardener since reading Richard Mabey’s Weeds last spring. Knowing this, my partner found Wonderful Weeds by Madeline Harley. Next year we’ll (mabey) eat nettle soup and make nettle linctus for the compost, nurture the last remaining bees on dandelion nectar and feast on foraged forest fruits.

TBR 2020 weeds

So what with operations and all the reading and stewing nettles, Novel 4 may not be along for a while. Phooey to that, as Olive Kitteridge would say.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

Towards the end of the year…

A rounding up, summing up, divvying up write up of the year beckons. I haven’t blogged blogger-recognition-2019as often this year for health and other reasons but was touched despite lagging behind to receive a Blogger Recognition Award today. Actually it’s my second such award… not bad for someone who is poor at networking and not really a team player. More of that below.

Things have certainly happened. The Magic Carpet was published in July and has some wonderful reviews from a pretty exclusive readership. Last night I was invited to answer questions about it by a book club. As I travelled there, I thought I should have prepared a flipchart…a powerpoint…handouts. My mind became strangely blank as to what was in the book, why and how I’d written it, whether I even had any right to claim it as mine. I’ve never been in a book club, my excuse being that I studied literature at university so I’ve been there and done that (arrogant and hardly recent). I also prefer to read what I choose when I want, and as said I’m Christmas 4not a team player. But now that I know a bookclub can involve Crémant de Bourgogne, a “snack” supper of three courses, hand-made home-made chocolates and a kind of gently probing supportive questioning that didn’t last more than twenty minutes, maybe I’ll change my mind. I may have been the guest author but I did feel the junior partner – these women were all much more careful readers (and cooks) than I am!

In November I finished the 3rd edit of Novel Three and sent it to Agent X who has it on his pile for comments. I already have acknowledgments to make, to several friends for discussions and particularly to my writing group, Z, M and C. These mysterious ladies are writing novels set variously in Afghanistan, London, Paris and South America, and we’ve had a good year exploring each others’ ideas in a surprisingly cheap central London cocktail bar M knew. In future it will be known as the Algonquin of the 21st century. London literary walks will skip nearby Bloomsbury and head straight for the blue plaque we fully intend to have there. Until then we’re keeping it secret. Who will get published first? Watch this space.

In August I had my eye operation which went well and I’ll have the other eye done in February. I’ve been pleased that changed eyesight has not meant too much change to my writing routines. I must spend less time on screens and online but that’s a good thing anyway. For the time being all I need do is enlarge the page to type and read. I have no ideas yet for Novel Four, and I hope I think of something because I enjoy writing  so much.  But this year must be the year of a traditional publisher – I’m uncomfortable asking people to buy from Amazon and indeed some of them won’t. Hopefully I’ve improved my craft enough for poor Agent X to get lucky third time round.

Now to that Blogger Recognition Award. I was very touched to be nominated by Sally Cronin at Smorgasbord and her gesture in turn means I can thank some of the bloggers who’ve supported me and who I’ve enjoyed reading this year. We move in overlapping circles so some names have I’m sure received several awards already. No harm piling the awards up though, and congratulations if you’re new to all this!

As Sally says, participation is optional. Many of you will be too busy to act on this at all,or you may want to put it aside for now and come back to it in the spring. That’s entirely up to you. I tried making a badge but I’m crap so please use Sally’s or one of these.

There are a few guidelines attached to the award if you do participate.

My thanks of course to Sally at Smorgasbord for nominating me.

Rules:

1. Thank the blogger(s) who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
2. Write a post to show your award.
3. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
4. Give two pieces of advice to new bloggers.
5. Select up to fifteen bloggers you want to give this award to.
6. Comment (or pingback) on each blog to let them know that you’ve nominated them and provide a link to the post you’ve created.

How My Blog Started:

In 2015 I was advised to blog after I published The Infinity Pool. It was supposed to get me more sales. Slowly, it did, and I found I enjoyed blogging more than I’d expected. I’ve made some good friends in the blogosphere, and am always humbled and touched by the welcome I get when I return to the scene after a few weeks or months away..

Two Pieces of Advice to New (or any) Bloggers:

  1. This plea comes from a reader with poor vision but would help everyone. Please make sure your font is large enough and the colour scheme helps rather than hinders the readability. You should break up long paragraphs, and the whole site should be easy to navigate.
  2. You’ll write a good post if you’re in the mood for blogging. It shouldn’t become a chore. If you can’t be bloggered, don’t.

Select up to 15 Bloggers:  Some who are incredibly supportive I really should include, but when I looked I’d included them last time so I hope they’ll excuse me. You know who you are (D G Kaye, for instance!)

Colleen Chesebro – Word Craft – Prose and Poetry Colleen is hugely encouraging to any creative writers and poets out there. She and all the following are team players – I may not be one but I can certainly appreciate them.

Robbie Cheadle: Roberta Writes Robbie’s frequent comments always encourage me to think at least someone’s read my posts carefully!

Mary Smith: Mary Smith’s Place I couldn’t believe I hadn’t nominated Mary last time around. Not many people have the qualifications, experience and writing ability to guide you from Afghanistan to Dumfries and Galloway!

Liz Gauffreau: Elizabeth Gauffreau is a writer from Adelaide, generous with her thoughtful, appreciative comments.

Shelley Wilson at I write. I read. I review. Shelley is a writing mentor, author, networker and I can only assume a bundle of energy as she’s very productive!

Lel Budge at The Bookwormery  kicked off my recent blog tour with gentle efficiency and blogs about health as well as books.

Marcia Meara at The Write Stuff. Her sub heading is “Writers helping Writers” and she does exactly what it says on the tin.

Mairead at Swirl and Thread is an Irish blogger and NetGalley reviewer but I’ve mainly come across her on Facebook. I’m always struck by her common sense, gentle enthusiasm and discerning taste.

Rekha at The Book Decoder is a breath of fresh air! If I had to explain the meaning of the word enthusiasm to a Martian, I’d guide them to Rekha’s site.

Anonymous (the cat herder?) at Herding Cats hides her light under a bushel but quietly gets on with reviewing, appreciating, communicating her love of books.Cheistmas 3

Katy Johnson is an author and generous interviewer and sharer at Katy’s Writing Coffee Shop. She hasn’t posted in the last couple of months, so must be busy with her many many projects.

Julie at A Little Book Problem gave The Magic Carpet the best review I’ve ever had so I’m encouraging people to throw awards at her until she has a little award problem too.

Camilla Downs is another generous team player from the US. At Meet the Authors she’s always happy to help other authors and produces interesting work herself.

Last but definitely not least, Kriti Khare at Armed with a Book  networks, shares, disseminates, teaches. She’s always worth a visit.

And a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!

© Jessica Norrie 2019

Reads to give and receive

Books as presents 2

Last December I posted what I’d enjoyed reading in 2018 and kind people have asked for an update. I have three categories for books nowadays – those still to be read, those destined for the charity shop, and those I liked so much they earn a place on my shelves. It’s been a pleasure for this post to look along the rows and find them for you. Most are not recent – if you want to read about flavour of the month books there are always the newspapers and all the wonderful #bookbloggers. But these are what stuck in this reader’s mind.

43611453._sy475_Storming in at number one for the second year running is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been rationing her so I don’t run out of gems. This year’s favourite is Life Among the Savages. These columns about motherhood, although her children must now be older than I am, still ring true. Here’s part of her second paragraph “I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living – sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things – and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves (….) I begin throwing things away, and it turns out although we can live agreeably without the little wheels of things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.”

Christmas books 2019 1
…little wheels that have fallen off things

As I was reading this, imagine my uncanny delight when I discovered in the pocket of the old cardigan I was wearing – an unidentifiable little wheel off something! Anyone who’s ever attempted to amuse sick children, schlepped them round a department store or directed household tasks from the labour suite will identify straight away with Jackson. “So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen,” as my mother would say, raising her head from her book for a moment to consider the pile of undarned socks. (At least women don’t darn husbands’ socks anymore.)

Julie Otsuka published The Buddha in the Attic in 2011. It’s the story – completely new to me – of the Japanese “picture brides”, young (and not so young) women chosen and brought to the US by Japanese men between the wars. No groom looked quite as their photo had shown them. This is a story of hardship, disillusionment, making do, humour, 10464963cultural displacement, hostility and integration, as poetic as The Grapes of Wrath from a female Japanese point of view. It’s difficult to quote from, for it’s written as though in several voices, themed by arrival, accommodation, agricultural and domestic labour, childbirth, children, the war and so on. My husband is not the man in the photograph. My husband is the man in the photograph but aged by many years. My husband’s handsome best friend is the man in the photograph. My husband is a drunkard. My husband is the manager of the Yamamoto Club and his entire torso is covered with tattoos. My husband is shorter than he claimed to be in his letters, but then again, so am I…We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113 degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. 

13330466Also from America, also from 2011, comes Winter Journal by Paul Auster. In the beautifully considered phrases you’d expect from him, he chronicles his life via the buildings and countries he’s lived in, the relationships with parents and women, the illnesses or accidents his body has undergone as well as the joys and sensations, the food he’s eaten, the cars he’s driven, his love for his daughter, the people he’s sat shiva for…. He’s sixty-four at the outset of this journal, and it’s intended as a sort of audit, far less self obsessed and more universal than I’m making it sound. A quote would be another massive paragraph, but whoever you are, if you read it for yourself you’ll find echoes.

36670917One of my favourite British authors is Jon McGregor, and his 2006 So Many Ways to Begin rivals the two above in the quality of the prose and the universality of his description of a long, more or less successful marriage over several decades. There have been problems – mental illness, redundancy, family schisms. There have been successes – homes created, a much loved daughter, love held and exchanged. Life could have been different; it may have been better; the narrator husband is on the whole thankful it wasn’t worse. Why have I left this book in the country? I’d like to be able to quote you every line. (For anyone who couldn’t quite concentrate on the wonderful but dense Reservoir 13, this is a more straightforward narrative, with more plot. But the strength as always is McGregor’s enticing poetic language.)

40130093A running theme here is poetic prose. It’s combined with a riveting turn-the-page plot in Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. (And at last a book from 2019!) In late 19th century Oxfordshire, a small child is pulled from the river Thames and brought to an inn on its banks. She was dressed in the simplest of shifts that left her arms and ankles bare and the fabric, still damp, lay in ripples around her. The child seems to have drowned. Yet she is not dead. She is healthy, but she doesn’t speak. Who was, or is the child? Who will claim her, who will heal her, and how will the story affect the characters around her, the innkeeper and his family, the farmers and watermen, the pioneer photographer, the self taught nurse and the delinquent son? The only thing I didn’t like in this book, although it accurately reflects attitudes at the time (and today) was the depiction of the river gypsies: it was hard not to read it as racist and it wasn’t justified by the plot. That aside, it’s a great homage to the tradition and language of the best fairy tales (which of course don’t usually give gypsies a good press.) One to save for next time you have a mild cold and need something to nurse it with on the sofa.

37573276My last recommendation is non-fiction, although it is about teasing out the stories we tell ourselves and reframing them for a better ending. In Therapy is transcriptions of conversations, originally on radio, between psychotherapist Susie Orbach and her clients. As she says: Each individual who comes for help craves acceptance, though they may be diffident or even tetchy…I find the particulars of learning how an individual’s internal world works fascinating. This is not so different from creating characters as a writer, only Orbach’s are real. The threads are as compelling as any plot, as some people work towards understanding themselves better and she tries to help others avoid getting even more bogged down than they were when she first met them. It’s not the end of the road, she is able to advise one man, it’s the beginning of something new and possible. Highly readable, whether you agree with her methods or not.

I don’t deserve to live in this company, but in my novels I do try to make my prose as poetic as theirs and sometimes I succeed. If you’re still stuck for Christmas presents, try The Magic Carpet! I can hardly review it myself, but there’s a lovely one here.

Magic carpet wrapped for Xmas

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

 

A Post about Persephone

Readers of this blog, gentle and otherwise, may remember that I do appreciate distinctive editions that champion forgotten or out of favour books. I went to Persephone books last Tuesday, for a talk about Richmal Crompton. Crompton created William Brown, although she labelled him “a loathsome child” when she realised his fame eclipsed her forty one (yes, 41) novels for adults. Persephone publish one of them, Family Roundabout, and it was this that Dr Sara Lodge from St Andrews University was going to talk about, focussing on women wielding what influence they could in restricted circumstances; on neglected children and on bad writers. I’m glad women are less restricted now even if life still ain’t perfect, and of course I care about neglected children. But what really made my heart leap was the prospect of discussing bad writers. Who hasn’t had fun with the Bad Sex Awards and men writing women? Who can forget the lady novelists who come to live near William and express an anthropological interest in the doings of the Outlaws, or the pompous, detached male and female authors who claim personal hotlines to the souls of their unrealistic child heroes?

The talk was accessible and interesting, but I must admit my attention wandered once I knew the bad writers would feature at the end. My excuse is that the distractions at Persephone are hard to ignore. It’s the prettiest of shops, with framed posters and light wood bookshelves stacked with elegant books in trademark pale grey or with fine art covers (introduction and bookmarks part of the package). There are vases of flowers dotted among the vintage fabrics or in corners warmed by reading lamps. “You’ve just entered the 1940s,” said my friend when I arrived.

The shop was closed for the talk (I think), and crammed in nearly thirty of us on this cold day. “I knew the coats would be good!” someone remarked, examining the audience’s well chosen colours, natural fabrics and print dresses. The embarrassed lady who arrived late was found a place so graciously that I almost wanted to be in her sensible shoes. On the shelves at my elbow, leaving just room for our glasses  of wine or fruit juice, were stacks of books by Elizabeth von Armin (my mother’s favourite), Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I discovered Amy Levy, “the Jewish Jane Austen”, recommended by Oscar Wilde. To my great joy there was Noel Streatfield, and having loved A Vicarage Family I was delighted to find a work for adults I hadn’t read. I rediscovered Marghanita Laski  – if you have never read Little Boy Lost you have a powerfully poignant treat in store. I remember Laski as a customer when I worked at my father’s bookshop and am so pleased Persephone have brought this and other books of hers back to life.

Half listening and half inspecting the room, it was no time before headmistressy* hands were clapped and we were asked to form a line for lunch (no need to ask this audience to make it an orderly line). And what a lunch! Delicious healthy mixed salads, fresh baguette and good cheese, chocolate pudding, more wine or fruit juice, and tea served in bone china cups with, of course, saucers. I almost wish I sweetened my tea, as I’m sure there must have been sugar tongs.

*A much loved headmistress, I think.Persephone 5

Once we were suitably replete and had digested, Dr Lodge’s talk continued. The pathos of the neglected children who recur in Crompton’s work was explored, the little girls dressed up as accessories to their mothers but not loved, the children whose parents forget their birthdays, the children whose needs and wishes are ignored and who are, occasionally, slapped. Oliver Twist it isn’t, but Crompton does criticise upper middle, middle class and nouveau riche ideas for bringing up children, or indeed leaving it to the servants and forgetting to check. The satire is gentle, but satire there is. Marriages are respectably unhappy, with cruel chinks in the polished face they present to the outside world, which mainly consists of suburbia. Crompton, a spinster, lived in Chislehurst, Kent and there were hints that in a later generation she might have chosen a female partner.

Then came the bad writers – Arnold Palmer from Family Roundabout apparently writes “tripe with a revolting veneer of literary virtuosity”. I can’t wait to learn more of him when I read my new copy properly instead of skimming it for quotes to give this blog post a veneer of authenticity. And finally questions, thanks to Sara (“So interesting! And not too academic!”) and a chance to browse and chat.

Persephone are interested in suggestions for forgotten authors they might republish (not only fiction). I see they already do one Ruth Adam but would love to see I’m Not Complaining reissued, and a book much loved by my mother and my 1970s self, glimmers to me from the past. This was Life with Lisa (1958) and a companion Leave it to Lisa, by Sybil Burr. I wish I still had them. They were Young Adult when teenagers had barely been invented.

What a discovery! If you’re in London, do visit, and if not they have an online catalogue of lovely ideas  – they will post you a gift wrapped book a month, for example. I’d like to thank friends Gill and Sheila for inviting me along, Persephone books for their hospitality, their imagination, and giving me the chance to use the word “spinster”. And advance thanks too: as a poor selling but well reviewed lady author I’m hoping that in seventy years Persephone books of the future will rescue my own Magic Carpet and Infinity Pool, dress them in a grey jacket and make me a vintage star.

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

We’re home from the blog tour!

My first Amazon.com review appeared on the other side of the pond recently, and it’s a great endorsement of both The Magic Carpet and the blog tour process: When I read the first few paragraphs of a review on a book blog I happened onto… I thought-wow! I really like the way this author writes! I left the blog and immediately bought the eBook. And I did not want to stop reading… I felt warmed sometimes, and then very sad sometimes, and educated in things I didn’t realize, and … finished … with a hopeful heart. I think many people would benefit from reading this book

This was a less interactive blog tour than most. I was due to have an operation in August, so rather than take on several q and a sessions, Anne at RandomTours suggested writing guest posts and choosing extracts in advance. The rest would be reviews. I was quite excited! As the Tour started, my sales had stuttered after a decent start. My Amazon UK rankings weren’t threatening Margaret Atwood or even A. N. Other. I only had a handful of (good) reviews.

Magic Carpet BT Poster .jpg

Day 1: A gentle start, from The Bookwormery. No immediate change to Amazon rankings but it was lovely to see Lesley’s review there (I can’t find it on her blog now so I’m glad she copied it elsewhere) and on Goodreads. Note to self: don’t be impatient!

Day 2: To my great pleasure as a committed Remainer, I went European on The Magic of Wor(l)ds which is a Belgian blog. Stefanie, a Dutch/English/Spanish/French speaker who like my own daughter is a corporate translator, hosted my guest post on “Challenging my characters“. Dank je/thank you/gracias/merci! Note to self: Comments may not appear in English…

Day 3: Woke to find MC at #33,000 on Kindle Store. Watch your back, Margaret Atwood… We haven’t reached the glory days of my Great Amazon Dinner Party, but maybe we’re getting there with a wonderful review from The Book Decoder, who’s given an Amazon.com link, although it appears on Amazon.uk. Note to self: Make sure universal link works well.

Day 4: Naughtily, I got impatient at seeing nothing until late in the day, then remembered with shame the blogger is a mum and Special Educational Needs teacher – she has other things to do with her time. Her Herding Cats review when it came was stunning. I was so touched that this women, who could have been a character in my novel, had got it so right – and shocked that she was still responding to comments at gone midnight! Note to self: Don’t assume the blog tour organiser does ALL the work. The author must still be alert to posts going up, which could be any time of the day or night, ready and able to share them widely, and available to respond to comments. 

Day 5Random Things Through My Letterbox.  It’s good news to be featured by Anne Cater who is bookblogger royalty. This was my second guest post, so I skimmed it but I’m very grateful for the wide reach it will have had. Note to self: Bloggers all use different formats and have different audiences. I now realise the tone that works on my own blog sounds a bit, well, pompous elsewhere. 

Day 6: The most amazing review I’ve ever had would have made the whole tour worthwhile all by itself. Since previous days had already set the bar high for blogger understanding and appreciation in reviews, this one had to be good to outdo them. Huge thanks again to Julie at A Little Book Problem who also gave me a lot more insight into a_little_book_problem1how bookbloggers feel when tour organisers come knocking! This is one of the ones that you volunteer for because it sounds interesting and you have a gap in your schedule. You want to help out the organiser. You pop it in your diary and pretty much forget about it until it comes round in your reading rotation. Sorry to continue the quote, but, well, wouldn’t you? Then boom – you realise that you have stumbled on a beautiful gem of a book, a nugget of gold that dropped into your palm unexpectedly and you are so, so glad that you are a book blogger and that has allowed you to discover THIS book, this book that changes the way you think about things, that makes you see the world differently after you’ve read it. This is what makes book blogging such a privilege and a joy. As was receiving a review like that.

Day 7B for Book Review This was a second European blog (Dutch?) The first extract, with my Somali heritage mum and daughter reading a book together. I hope it gives a good flavour. I hope it makes people want to read. That’s all I can do. Note to self: If an extract will appear in a small lime green font on a white background, keep it very short and snappy! I’m not sure anyone read this.

Day 8TheBookCollector32 This one didn’t happen. Shame – I’d have welcomed appearing on a blog hosted in India especially given the origins of the characters in the book. So after some hesitation I contacted the blogger and she will post a review next month. I’m glad she’s feeling better!  Note to self: nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

Day 9Being Anne. I’d begun worrying about this guest post, realising how pompous my articles can sound. But rereading the “story” about storytelling I’d written for Anne, it worked well. Anne’s another highly experienced and prolific blogger (what is it about the name Anne and bookblogging?) and spreading the word a lot too. She’s also delightfully honest, admitting that The Infinity Pool has sunk without trace inside her Kindle.

Day 10: Over the Rainbow Book Blog Another busy mum posting late in the day, with a last kind review to add to the ones I look at when morale is low. She turns out to live locally, so I’m hoping for coffee and a chat sometime.

My UK rankings whizzed up to only 15,000 short of Atwood. I’ve gained several excellent Amazon reviews with additional Goodreads ratings and reviews in the bag for future quoting. The effort for me was writing some guest posts, collecting links, photos and extracts and sending them with (the very reasonable) payment to the organiser. Then I had to share the results on Facebook, Tweet madly and respond to comments.

Would I do it again? Probably. The sales had a modest spike, but haven’t paid for the blog tour yet. For now I’ll settle for critical acclaim over money in the bank, hope that some of the blog readers will still buy, review and recommend and take a break from marketing to work on Novel Three.

The Magic Carpet Advert .jpg

Things I’ve learnt:

  • Give the tour organiser the right short link. Some bloggers were linking to Amazon.uk, others to Amazon.com, one didn’t provide a buying link at all.
  • When writing guest posts, remember other bloggers use different formats to mine. Long earnest paragraphs look daunting. Other bloggers may not lighten them with illustrations so they appear dense. Avoid this with a lighter style of writing.
  • Set aside time for commenting, sharing on social media and thanking bloggers.
  • You do get a bit addicted to the attention and it’s still worth contacting bloggers individually. Since the blog tour ended The Magic Carpet has also visited Linda’s Book Bag and Katy’s Writing Coffee Shop and lovely Sally at Smorgasbord has been kind enough to reblog past posts too.
  • Learn how to use the hashtag properly or don’t use it at all – I’m not sure mine always leads to the book. Sometimes you get rival products instead.
  • Don’t expect the earth and don’t get obsessive!

Jessica Norrie ©2019

 

Blog Tour Day 6 has delivered my best review ever, from Julie at alittlebookproblem! I wish I could forward this to the publishers’ editors who loved it but wouldn’t take it on because they didn’t know how to market it, or to all those people who like to have an undiscriminating dig at the quality of indie authors from time to time…via The Magic Carpet by Jessica Norrie #BookReview #BlogTour (@Jessica_Norrie) @annecater #RandomThingsTours #TheMagicCarpet