Sheer Good Fortune

As regular readers of Something Rhymed may have guessed, Emily and I have been busy these past months working on other projects.

I’ve become Director of The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio, which offers mentoring by authors and agents to writers of fiction, narrative non-fiction and YA.

Emily has been holed away in the rare books rooms of various libraries, researching a transatlantic group of Victorian clairvoyants for her new book Out of the Shadows, which will be published by Counterpoint Press.

And we’ve both made significant changes in our personal lives too…

When Emily and I launched Something Rhymed back in 2014, we published a post on Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison – writers whose friendship combined from its inception the personal and professional, the celebratory and consolatory.

These legends of American letters grew close when they shared a bill at the Hay Festival in Wales during a time when both women were concerned about their mothers who were ill back home. In the decades since then, these ‘sister friends’ moved seamlessly between the public and private aspects of their friendship, paying tribute to each other’s literary accomplishments at huge official gatherings but also talking about family over dishes of Angelou’s fried chicken or wedges of Morrison’s carrot cake.

It was just such a combination of intimacy and admiration, celebration and consolation that prompted Angelou to help put on an event to honour her fellow author during a period when she knew that Morrison needed to be shown love and comfort following the death of her son.

The event was poignantly titled Sheer Good Fortune after the dedication Morrison had made to her boys at the beginning of her novel Sula: ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’. And now, in the wake of Morrison’s recent death, such a sentiment feels particularly resonant.

Back at the Hay Festival in 2014, Morrison announced from the stage they’d once shared the sad news that Angelou had died. Emily and I, sitting in the audience side by side, promised each other to follow their example by not only continuing to offer each other solace during dark times but also to celebrate each other privately and publicly, professionally and personally.

Over the years, Emily and I have been there for each other during bereavements and breakups as well as periods of professional and financial uncertainty. This only heightens the pleasure we’ve taken in the sheer good fortune each of us has experienced of late.

I will never forget the excitement in Emily’s voice when she called to let me know that she was expecting a baby. And then, not long afterwards, when we were in a tiny French restaurant in Earl’s Court marking both her pregnancy and her birthday, she shared her news that she and her long-term partner Jack had got engaged on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A few months later, when I was delivering bourguignons, curries and Spanish stews to Emily’s flat in preparation for the weeks following the approaching birth, I told her about my partner Jonathan’s proposal to me and mine to him on a hillside overlooking a market town in Shropshire. Once I’d stocked up Emily’s freezer, we headed back to Earl’s Court, this time to one of our favourite coffee houses. There, we celebrated my engagement to Jonathan and Emily’s marriage to Jack and her pregnancy alongside a female friend we’ve  known since our days as young English teachers in rural Japan.

Wedding shoes – Emily & Jack getting married
The spot where Jonathan and Emma proposed to each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emily and I had dedicated our co-written book A Secret Sisterhood to Jack and Jonathan – a strange choice, perhaps, for a book on female literary friendship, but it felt fitting to us since our partners had always appreciated the importance of our own writing friendship, and had supported it at every turn. In our Acknowledgements, we thanked Jack and Jonathan for ‘keeping us well fed during long stints in our studies, and, most of all, never failing to be there when we emerged’.

No sooner did Emily and I emerge, however, than we each went back into hibernation – separately this time. Although we are no longer editing at a shared desk, sustained by Jack’s late-night dashes to the local kebab house or breakfasts with Jonathan at the greasy spoon, the four of us have found new ways to offer each other personal sustenance and professional support.

Emily and I have gone back to reading each other’s drafts, for instance, with a freshness and curiosity that was impossible when we’d already pored over the research materials side by side and laboured together over chapter plans.

And, when Jonathan and I set up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio – a development scheme for writers of fiction and narrative non-fiction – Emily was one of the first people I asked to join our nationwide line-up of mentors. I know first-hand, of course, the quality of her feedback and the dedication she shows to other writers. Like me, Emily is originally from the north of England and we’ve both supported friends and family with access needs, so Emily shares our belief in making mentoring accessible across the country in person and via videocall, and she understands why we are committed to offering a free spot to someone of limited means. Like me, back when Emily was unpublished, she benefited from a period of mentoring by a more established author. Now that she is bringing out books on both sides of the Atlantic, she’s as keen as I am to offer other writers similar opportunities.

During a summer spent largely setting up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio and continuing to work on my new novel, my friendship with Emily has offered me the most joyful of excuses to escape from my writing shed. During my first meetings with baby Lola, I have enjoyed rocking her to sleep in the nursery, pushing her pram through the park and chatting with Emily about everything from marriage to mentoring, motherhood to manuscripts. And, over the years to come, I’ll look forward to helping Emily teach her daughter what creative women have always known – that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Emily and Lola

Emily will be on maternity leave for the rest of this year, but I will continue to run Something Rhymed after its summer hiatus.  

We are looking for female writing friendships to feature on the site from October onwards. Please do take a look at our submission guidelines and get in touch if you’d like to pitch an idea.

It would also be lovely to hear from any of you who might be interested in the following literary projects I’ll be involved in over the coming months:

You can apply for all the mentoring and editing packages offered by The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio via its website, or direct any queries to studio@ruppinagency.com. The deadline for the selective scheme (including the free spot) is 5pm on Monday September 2nd but we accept ongoing applications for all other packages.  

Booking is now open for my one-day novel writing courses at the gorgeous Cambridge Writing Retreat. On Saturday October 19th, we’ll be asking what ‘Show Don’t Tell’ really means. And on Saturday November 23rd, Jonathan will join me in his role as literary agent to help writers work out what steps to take once the crucial first draft is complete.

And do save Saturday October 26th for the University of East Anglia’s Doris Lessing centenary celebration. I’m looking forward to sharing more stories about Lessing’s friendship with Muriel Spark during my conversation on stage with Rachel Cusk and Lara Feigel. This event also includes access to UEA’s Doris Lessing 100 exhibition, which contains archival material on display for the very first time.

 

 

Travelling Together: Our Secret Sisterhood book tour of the USA

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will perhaps recall that we’ve sometimes likened our friendship to that of Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth, and Winifred Holtby, who penned South Riding.

We find ourselves particularly drawn to this pair because, like us, they met when they were at the very start of their writing journeys and each soon committed to becoming the ‘travelling companion’ of the other.

When Holtby spoke of this, she meant it in a metaphorical sense. But, as young friends in the 1920s, the two also enjoyed more literal travels when they spent a summer holidaying together in Cornwall and another in France and Italy.

The Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, which we visited together during our early twenties (Image by Martin Falbisoner – Wikipedia Creative Commons licence)

When we were first getting to know each other, while working as English language teachers in Japan, we did a lot of travelling. We look back on our joint-trips with great fondness – not just because they gave us the opportunity to explore new places together, but also because the conversations we had, walking the streets of ancient cities or the rough paths of mountainous regions, really cemented our fledgling friendship.

Although the years we spent working intensively on A Secret Sisterhood have been – all in all – a wonderful experience, we have sometimes lamented the fact that, during this period, it sometimes felt that work had taken over all other aspects of our relationship, and that important events in each of our lives had passed by without much opportunity for sharing them with our friend.

The two-and-a-half weeks we’ve just spent touring the USA together, to mark the American publication of our book, turned out to be just the chance to put all this right.

We began our tour in New York City, with an interview with Kory French for Book Talk on Breakthru Radio, which has recently gone live. This gave us the chance to reflect – as we would many times over – on the highs and lows of writing a book together, including the joys of joint discoveries, and the frustrations of late-night quarrels about turns of phrase and the points we each felt our book ought to be making. All of these, we’re relieved to be able to say, ultimately brought us closer.

Image by Ravi Sunnak

Our first event was at the NYU bookstore, with Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Next up was a talk at Shakespeare & Co. with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (writer of novels including Bittersweet and June). This event was organised by the Brontë Society’s American chapter and the Jane Austen Society of North America – NY Metropolitan Region.

Our sell-out event with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (image by Shakespeare & Co)

We had known Kate and Miranda only through their books before, and so it was a real pleasure to meet them in person. But at our event at Book Passage in San Francisco, it was lovely to collaborate again with Mary Volmer (Reliance, Illinois), who had also chaired the conversation at our northern book launch in the UK, back in June.

At Vroman’s in Pasadena, another dear friend of ours Elizabeth L. Silver (The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and The Tincture of Time) ran a discussion between us and another pair of author-friends Julia Fierro (Cutting Teeth and The Gypsy Moth Summer) and Caeli Wolfson Widger (Real Happy Family).

And finally, it was wonderful to be interviewed at UCLA by Professor Michelle Liu Carriger, an old friend from our Japan days.

With our book on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt shelves behind us

In between our events, we went to meetings together, saw an interview we’d given to Alexis Coe for Lenny Letter go live, and visited the headquarters of our American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Boston and New York City.

We caught up with mutual friends living in the USA, and worked on book-related feature articles, including this one, recently published in The Millions, and this one just out in TIME – Motto. In the gaps between all these things, we enjoyed a bit of sightseeing, and, perhaps most of all, caught up on all that personal news we’d managed to miss, and just enjoyed each other’s company as friends.

 

 

Celebrating Past and Modern-day Writing Friendships

Especially over the past year, when we have been hard at work on our joint-book, we have been focusing mostly on historical literary friendships on this blog.

Reading the novels and stories of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and their friends has given us much to think about, as have our conversations about these important literary relationships.

We’ve often been struck by how relevant the issues faced by these authors of the past still feel to female writers today – particularly in terms of the need to balance the desire to write with other pressing responsibilities.

Austen’s great friend and governess to her brother’s children, Anne Sharp, had time to pen her theatricals only in the hours in between teaching lessons.

Before the tremendous success of her first published novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë faced similar struggles.

But just as Sharp benefited from the support of Austen, who did her best to improve her friend’s work life, Brontë was lucky to have the future feminist author Mary Taylor to encourage her literary efforts.

The two of us have been teachers for about a decade now and have thankfully never found it as limiting as Brontë, or even Sharp, did. We have been lucky in that, rather than teaching a broad curriculum, we are teachers only of writing – a subject in which we naturally have a genuine interest.

Nonetheless, there have been times in both of our pasts when, being short of money or eager to get a foot in the door at a particular institution, we’ve taken on too many classes and our own writing has suffered as a result.

This need for authors to try and find the right balance been writing and other aspects of their lives came up at our recent Writing Friendships event at City, University of London, made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England.

Susan Barker
Susan Barker

We were joined by writers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan and Denise Saul – all also former guest bloggers for Something Rhymed. The feeling among the group seemed to be that, although teaching (and teaching writing especially) can provide inspiration for an author, it’s important to fiercely guard your own writing time.

But we all also felt that it was equally important not to cut yourself off from other people. In the talks by Susan, Ann and Denise, audience members were treated to insights about the literary friendships of each woman on the panel.

Ann Morgan - image by Steve Lennon
Ann Morgan – image by Steve Lennon

Ann, the first speaker of the evening, talked about the important bonds she’d forged through her web project and non-fiction book, Reading the World. Susan spoke about the invaluable advice and support she’d received from Liang Junhong, a friend she met while she was living in China and working on her novel The Incarnations. Denise talked about collaborating with other artists as part of a video poem project, Silent Room: a Journey of Language.

Denise Saul - image by Amanda Pepper
Denise Saul – image by Amanda Pepper

Audience member, Rosie Canning, has written up a fuller account of the evening, which you can read here.

We are grateful to Rosie for commemorating the event in this way, and to everyone who came along to support us. We’re sure to be running more Something Rhymed events in the new year, so do keep an eye on our blog for more details.

 

Writing Friendships event at City, University of London

Emma and I have just returned from an enjoyable weekend in Lincolnshire, where some of our readers may recall I used to live in the early years of our friendship.

We’d gone there to teach two friendship-themed writing workshops together. It was fun to be able to take Emma to a few of the places I used to know well, to introduce her to some of my former evening class students, and also for us to meet plenty of other people for the first time.

For those of you who couldn’t make these sessions, we’re delighted to be able to let you know that we have another event coming up next month, this time at City, University of London, where both of us teach on the Novel Studio programme.

city-uol-logo-rgb-dk1aWriting Friendships at City, University of London

As long-term friends who’ve supported each other’s careers from the beginning, we know just how important building strong links with other writers can be. We’ll be joined by Something Rhymed guest bloggers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie and Denise Saul, who’ll be sharing their own experiences of literary friendship and offering practical advice to new and advanced writers on ways in which they can forge and develop meaningful writing relationships of their own.

Once again, this event has been generously funded by Arts Council England.

When: Wednesday 16 NovemberPrint

Doors open 6.15pm, event runs from 6.30-8pm, followed by drinks reception – a chance to make new writer friends

Where: The Northampton Suite C, City University of London, Northampton Square, London, EC1V 0HB. Details of how to reach the venue appear on this page.

Tickets: Places are free but limited for this event and must be booked in advance through the City, University of London website. You can do this here.

We are grateful to City, University of London and Arts Council England for helping to make this event possible. We hope to see you there.

 

Footage of Something Rhymed Salon 3: Genuine Change

For those of you who were unable to make our literary salon series this spring, or for those of you who’d like to relive the experience, please take a look at these film clips of the discussions we enjoyed.

At the third salon, our stellar line-up of guests talked about ways to achieve genuine improvements in diversity in the UK literary scene. To hear their ideas, take a look at clips of Melanie Abrahams, Founder of Renaissance One – a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts; Jill Dawson, Orange Prize shortlisted novelist; Louise Doughty, Costa Award shortlisted novelist and former Booker Prize judge; and Varaidzo, Arts and Culture Editor at gal-dem – an online magazine comprising almost fifty women of colour.

 

 

These films were made by the brilliant Ashley Hall, a former New York University in London student. She also updated this website and designed our banner and posters. Ashley is building up a portfolio for her future career as a media consultant. Get her while you can still afford her! She is based in New York but we communicated by Skype and email. If you are interested in getting a quote from her, feel free to email on ashley.hall@nyu.edu

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Footage of Something Rhymed Salon 2: So-Called Women’s Issues

For those of you who were unable to make our literary salon series this spring, or for those of you who’d like to relive the experience, please take a look at these film clips of the discussions we enjoyed. You can also click on the links below to read write-ups from some of the salon speakers.

At the second salon, our stellar line-up of guests talked about why books by and about women and so-called women’s issues tend to get devalued by the literary establishment. Take a look at clips of journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar; biographer and former senior editor at The Women’s Press, Sarah LeFanu; bestselling author, Karen Maitland; and Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts to see hear them identify the problems and make suggestions for accelerating change.

These films were made by the brilliant Ashley Hall, a former New York University in London student. She also updated this website and designed our banner and posters. Ashley is building up a portfolio for her future career as a media consultant. Get her while you can still afford her! She is based in New York but we communicated by Skype and email. If you are interested in getting a quote from her, feel free to email on ashley.hall@nyu.edu

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Footage of Something Rhymed Salon 1: VIDA Count

For those of you who were unable to make our literary salon series this spring, or for those of you who’d like to relive the experience, please take a look at this film of the discussions we enjoyed during the first event. You can also click on the links below to read write-ups from some of the salon speakers.

At the first salon, our stellar line-up of guests included Michael Caines, Assistant Editor of The Times Literary Supplement; Maggie Gee, first female chair of the Royal Society of Literature; Harriett Gilbert, presenter of Radio 4’s A Good Read; and Salena Godden, poet, performer, author and host of the Book Club Boutique.

They explored why so many of the UK’s most prestigious literary magazines and newspapers review far fewer books by and about woman than men – as evidenced by the VIDA count. On this film, you will hear our speakers pinpointing problems and suggesting solutions.

This film was kindly made by Sam Cheung, a former student at New York University in London.

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Something Rhymed Friendship-Themed Writing Workshops in Lincolnshire

Many thanks to everyone who came along to Saturday’s Margate Bookie talk on the literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. We’ll look forward to sharing more stories about these authors and their friends in our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood.

Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship (Image by Jonathan Ruppin)
Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship. Image by Jonathan Ruppin.

 

For our readers based in or near Lincolnshire, or those of you who are able to travel to this part of Britain, we want to let you know about two more Something Rhymed events coming up soon.

Something Rhymed friendship-themed writing workshops

Dates & Times: We will be running the same Printworkshop at two different venues.

South Holland Centre, Spalding: Saturday 15 October, 2-5pm

Fydell House, Boston (Lincolnshire): Sunday 16 October, 2-5pm

With practical writing exercises that can be tackled at different levels, these workshops will be open to experienced and novice writers – and, of course, both men and women.

The workshops have been generously funded by Arts Council England. Places are free but limited and need to be reserved in advance by emailing somethingrhymed@gmail.com, indicating whether you want to attend the Spalding or Boston workshop.

We do hope to see you at one of these events. In the meantime, do look out for the videos of our recent London literary salons. We’ll be sharing these here on Something Rhymed over the coming weeks.

Something Rhymed by the Sea…

Something Rhymed at the Margate Bookie festival

Do join us for our talk on literary friendship at Margate’s literary festival on August 20th. Or why not make a weekend of it and stick around for Emma’s appearance at the literary lounge on August 21st, where she will be talking about her debut novel, Owl Song at Dawn? 

Something Rhymed Event Poster (3)
Date & Time: Saturday 20 August, 5.30-6.30pm Venue: Sands Hotel, Margate Ticket: £5, book here. Click on the poster to view it in greater detail.

We are really looking forward to two days of literary fun  and friendship down by the sea. The line-up includes friends of Something Rhymed, Maggie Gee and Salena Godden, who wrote a joint guest post for us back in 2014 and appeared at our first Something Rhymed Salon.

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Tickets: £5.00 or all three Literary Lounge events for £15 Date & Time: Sunday August 21, 5.30-6.30pm Venue: Sands Hotel, Margate. Click on the poster to view it in greater detail.

There’s something for everyone: Jay Rayner for the foodies, Ruth Dugdall for fans of crime writing, magical storytelling shows for the kids and happiness workshops run by Psychologies Magazine, which we might all find beneficial. Here’s the full Margate Bookie Programme for your perusal.

As if that’s not enough, we’re assured that Margate Bookie is England’s friendliest litfest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Can We Do?

During our Something Rhymed salon series, and in the conversations they inspired, we looked at ways to accelerate gender parity in the literary world. We’ve compiled a list of all the suggestions that emerged. Perhaps there’s something here that you feel well-placed to do?

This image is in the public domain.
This image is in the public domain.

Readers

  • Start with our own bookshelves. Do we read at least as many books by women as men? And do we read diversely in a broader sense too? If not, perhaps we might want to redress this balance by embarking on a period of reading only women, for example, or black and minority ethnic (BAME) writers or books published by independent presses.
  • Take a look at the VIDA counts and consider subscribing to those magazines whose statistics show a commitment to gender parity. We might also want to think about cancelling subscriptions to magazines whose statistics have been consistently poor in this regard, and writing to the editor to explain why we’re turning away.
  • Encourage our friends to read more diversely.
  • Read stories to our children that explode gender stereotypes.
  • Donate funds to organisations such as VIDA, who campaign for equality in the literary world.

Writers

  • Start with our own writing. Do we explode gender and other stereotypes in our own work?
  • Champion the excellent work of writers from discriminated against groups. We can do this through reviewing, blogging, writing endorsements, nominating for prizes, mentioning fellow authors in talks, holding firm in prize panel negotiations etc.
  • Mentor emerging writers who might struggle to get their voices heard.
  • Keep submitting our stereotype-exploding work to competitions and magazines.
  • Set up a website or event series that focuses on the work of an excluded group.
  • Edit a collection of work by writers whose voices are traditionally suppressed.
  • Find a project we admire and ask those who run it what we might do to help.

Educators

  • Design our syllabi to reflect diverse influences.
  • Call our colleagues out when they fail to do likewise, and encourage our students to do the same.
  • Provide talented students with resources and support to help them overcome barriers to success.
  • Be alert to the preconceptions that might colour class debate and encourage students to question their own prejudices.
  • Consider whether conscious or subconscious prejudice is affecting hiring decisions.
  • Campaign for information about pay to be freely available, so that we can assess whether there are gender or other pay gaps in our institutions.
  • Assist junior colleagues who face greater barriers to success.

Literary Industry Professionals

  • Solicit work from writers whose backgrounds reflect the diversity of the general population.
  • Ask our colleagues to be equally accountable.
  • Keep reviewing our statistics, and asking how we might seek to improve them.
  • Set up a journal or TV/radio show that sends review copies to reviewers without providing any information about the author.
  • Set up a journal or show that asks two very different reviewers to review each book.
  • Think hard about what we prize in writing, and whether any of this is based on prejudice.
  • Is the academic at the highest level of the hierarchy necessarily the best person to write this review? Has privilege contributed to their rise up the ranks?
  • Fight for information about pay to be freely available, so that we can assess whether there are gender or other pay gaps in our institutions.
  • Assist junior colleagues who face greater barriers to success.
  • Identify a gap and come up with strategies for filling it.
  • Work with representatives of excluded groups to find excellent writers from these backgrounds.
  • Consider whether a temporary quota might help.
  • Set up a prize that will champion the work of an under-represented group.
  • When running literary events, make sure that every element of it is committed to diversity in its broadest sense.
  • Be brave!

Using the comment form below, please share any other strategies to accelerate greater diversity in the literary world. Or perhaps you intend to take us up on one of these suggestions. Do let us know what you plan to do.

We’ll be back on the first Monday in June with an autobiographical post by Emma on her early readings of Virginia Woolf – one of the authors who will feature in our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood.