Hannah Croft and Fiona Pearce: Still Friends Above All

Comedians Hannah Croft and Fiona Pearce became friends at school, followed each other to Oxford and then on to drama school before starting to write and perform sketch comedy together as  Croft & Pearce. Their synchronicity didn’t end here – they even became pregnant in the same week!

We asked Hannah and Fiona about their experiences of writing and female friendship.

Hannah Croft (front) and Fiona Pearce (back)

What were your first impressions of each other?

Hannah: We first met in sixth form when Fi joined my school. I remember seeing a geeky-looking new girl sitting alone in the common room and thinking ‘look at that friendless loser…I think I’ve found a kindred spirit!’

Fiona: Hannah didn’t seem to have many friends despite having been at the school for five years, which was ideal for me. I remember she was very colour co-ordinated – her top matched her necklace which matched her belt which matched her eye shadow – so my first impression of her was ‘purple’.

How did you come to write and perform comedy together?

Hannah: Having discovered this new friendship we clung to it with all our might and followed each other to Oxford and then on to drama school. It was when we were trying and failing to forge our careers as the greatest classical actresses of our generation that we took a step back and began to laugh at ourselves and at the world.

Fiona: I had some friends who were running a sketch comedy night in a basement below a pub on London’s Great Portland Street and they offered us a three-minute set, which we thought would be too short and ended up being around two and a half minutes too long.

Describe your co-writing process?

Hannah: It has chopped and changed over the years as we’ve found our feet, but on the whole we each allow ourselves to be inspired by the everyday and we each make notes separately of things that have made us laugh. Then we put our heads (and lists) together and start to develop the ideas.

Fiona: We tend to come to each other with what we think are completely amazing ideas, and then work them up together and gradually realise they’re flawed, and then very slowly make them better. We improve ideas and start writing from there, either in a room together (normally with tea, coffee and cake that Hannah has made) or over Skype.

Hannah: Our benchmark for a good idea is whether it makes us laugh or not. If it passes that test we deem it worthy of being tested out in front of an audience. You get very direct feedback in comedy, so we tend to let the audience be our script editors.

How do you manage the personal and professional aspects of your relationship?

Hannah: We’ve discovered over the years that our friendship is a very powerful procrastination tool and we tend to kick off each writing session chatting away as friends until we finally give into the inevitable and begin to work, work, work, usually hurrying to make up for lost time. We never learn. But I find it such a joy to have this great excuse to spend so much time hanging out with my best friend and I prize our relationship above all else.

Fiona: Yes, we are still friends above all, which makes it all so much more fun when things are going well, and so much more manageable when we encounter setbacks.

What have been the most significant changes in your writing friendship?

Hannah: We have gradually eased into becoming much more direct with each other as time has passed. In the early years we’d try to be very tactful with each other and humour (no pun intended) each other’s less promising ideas, whereas now, with evermore projects to juggle at the same time, we’ve become less pussyfooty.

Fiona: Yes, less pussy, more footy. At the same time we’ve become more relaxed and playful with our ideas and willing to try things out that we’re not sure will work, which comes from having lots of experience with different audiences on tour.

What are your hopes for your writing and performing careers, together and separately?

Hannah: We’d love to get ourselves on more comedy writing teams – even some in LA where they have comedy writers’ rooms…hell, why not put that out there! – and the big dream is to have our own show on TV.

Fiona: Everyone says it’s hard to get a show commissioned but we are still naive enough to believe in our dreams. It was a great experience to write our own series for BBC Radio 4 and we’d love to make something for TV. We’ve been lucky to be taken under the wing of some great comedy writers already and we’d love to work with other experienced comedy greats like Armando Iannucci and Tina Fey…Hell, why not put that out there!

Croft & Pearce won a 2014 Edinburgh Spirit of the Fringe Award and in 2015 they were a BBC Next Big Thing Act. Their episode of BBC Radio 4’s Sketchorama was nominated for Best Scripted Comedy at the BBC Audio Drama Awards and this led to the commission of their first solo sketch show for BBC Radio 4, The Croft & Pearce Show, which was broadcast in March 2016. Following a Total Sell-Out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, they launched a podcast with their hit characters June & Jean, and embarked on their second UK tour.

Croft and Pearce will be taking their new show, Double Take, up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. You can find out more about their show here.

You can follow them on Twitter @croftandpearce

Companions, mentors, fairy godmothers: Alice Fitzgerald, Margarita Gokun Silver and Nicola Prentis

When one of Emma’s former City University students, Alice Fitzgerald, shared the good news about securing a publisher for her debut novel, Her Mother’s Daughter, we asked her to write about the female writers who have influenced her own literary journey.

It is with great pride and pleasure that we celebrate today’s launch of Her Mother’s Daughter with Alice’s post on her own writer friends. And we will follow up soon with her piece on the bond between her literary heroines Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple, and British filmmaker, Pratibha Parmar.

If you would like to write for Something Rhymed, or help in other ways, please find further details here.

Alice’s debut novel, launched today by Allen & Unwin.

You have school friends, university friends, work friends, going-out friends, and then you have writer friends. There is something particularly nourishing about writer friends. They get you in a way others don’t. They understand the loneliness, the lows – which feel so low and so all-encompassing when they come – and the highs – just as high and all-encompassing when they (allbeit more rarely) come.

They dedicate time to reading your work, whether it be an essay, or an article, or the first draft of your novel, or the second, third or tenth draft… They are by your side, even if you don’t live in the same city any more, and are at the end of the WhatsApp group on your phone. When you get nervous and disillusioned because the writing process is so hard, and then the publishing process is equally as hard, and brings with it its very own anxiety show, they are there with an ear, and with wise words that make you feel instantly better.

I met Margarita and Nicola at a writer’s group in Madrid six years ago. I didn’t know then that our friendship would become among the most important, and most fruitful, to me. It has happened slowly and gradually. They have been my companions, accompanying me through writing and editing my first novel, then pitching to agents, then through the quest of finding a publisher. They have both encouraged me and pushed my writing in equal measure.

Margarita, particularly, has played a bit of a fairy godmother when it comes to the publication of my novel. She found my agent and pointed me in her direction, because she liked ‘dark’ writing. Later, she had a helping hand in the manuscript getting into the hands of the publisher that picked it up.

For their part, they have both continued to carve out careers as freelance writers/journalists, with enviable bylines and accomplishments. Nicola published her novel and is currently working between journalism, ELT, and copywriting (lots of strings…). Margarita’s own novel came out in the US in 2015. Since, she has written a memoir in essays and is currently burrowing away at a new project. We’ve also seen her branch out into journalism, at which she is a dab hand.

From the left: Margarita, Alice, Nicola, and another writer friend, Julia, in Madrid.

There is the personal side, too, of course. Since I’ve known her, Nicola has had her first and then second child. When I had mine, we traded stories and knowledge on breastfeeding and baby weight gain. Margarita, whose daughter is on the cusp of going to university, serves as a reminder that we must enjoy every minute. While we’re in the midst of nesting and the beauty and madness of raising young children, she finds her nest is free of its fledgling.

They have both moved cities – one now lives in Girona, and the other in Athens. But our mobile chat group keeps the line open, and our weekly call, when we talk through ideas, projects, goals, and anything else happening in our lives, is great encouragement and really eggs me on to edge forward.

And forward we go, coming together every now and then when our paths cross, for some pizza and face-to-face discussions when one may ask the other what it’s all about?, or for a glass of wine and a bout of banter – light and literary-free.

Alice Fitzgerald’s debut novel Her Mother’s Daughter is published today by Allen & Unwin. She’s on Twitter as @AliceFitzWrites.

Nicola Prentis is a double award-winning fiction writer with books for English language learners. She also writes about parenting, travel, food and the English language for various places including Quartz, Cosmo and WSJ.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and artist living in Athens, Greece. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, The Guardian, Oprah, and The Atlantic, among others. You can find her on twitter @MGokunSilver.

 

No Surer Foundation for Friendship: Sophie Butler and Miranda Mills

We first got to know the writer Miranda Mills when she asked us if she could interview us about our book for Tea & Tattle, the podcast she runs with her best friend, academic and writer Sophie Butler. We’ve since enjoyed catching up on their other episodes, and found ourselves particularly fascinated by one discussion in which they talk about the literary beginnings of their long-lasting bond. This week, they explore this subject further in a new piece for Something Rhymed.

Sophie Butler (left) and Miranda Mills

Miranda: 
Whenever I think about my friendship with Sophie, I think of one of my favourite quotes by P.G. Wodehouse: ‘There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.’ I have certainly found this to be true.

Nowadays, the fact that we began our acquaintance as thirteen-year-old pen-pals, scribbling letters to each other that flew weekly across the Atlantic Ocean, is hard to imagine. No Whatsapp, no Facebook – we didn’t even email! But from the very first letter that I exchanged with Sophie, where we described our mutual love for the Chalet School  books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, I knew I’d found what I’d been searching for since reading Anne of Green Gables – a kindred spirit.

It never fails to come as a small shock to me to realise that Sophie and I have always been
long-distance friends; perhaps because it feels as though, from those first hastily torn open envelopes, we’ve never stopped talking. Books have always been a common theme in our friendship. As undergraduates, we’d plan out trips to our favourite book shops: when Sophie visited me in London, we made the rounds of Persephone Books, Daunt and Foyles. Weekend jaunts of mine to Oxford would culminate in blueberry muffins and gossip at Blackwells. Many of our favourite authors were read in sync: Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers

Today, our conversations about life and the books we’re reading are broadcast to thousands of listeners around the world, through our podcast, Tea & Tattle. I can only imagine how thrilled our thirteen-year-old selves would be if they knew.

Sophie:

Throughout my teenage years, suffering from M.E. and being home-schooled, much of my interaction with the world came through the written word. Confined to the house for long periods, my bookshelves became increasingly important, allowing me to travel anywhere from the Austrian classrooms of the Chalet School series to the country-houses of Bertie Wooster and his friends. If only I had someone with whom to discuss my discoveries!

I remember my excitement when I read the first letters Miranda sent me from America, responding to my appeal for pen-pals in a Chalet School appreciation society newsletter. Not only did she like and dislike the same Chalet School characters as I did (vitally important for a thirteen-year-old school story fan), but (what amazement!) she had read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and preferred it to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. With such markers of good taste, how could we fail to become firm friends?

Together, we explored the works of our mutual favourite, Jane Austen, recommending biographies to one another and delving into collections of Austen’s letters to discuss them in our own. I’ve no doubt that it was through these discussions, taking place across hundreds of sheets of paper and thousands of miles, that I began my journey towards becoming a University Lecturer in English Literature.

Through these epistolary conversations, I discovered my interest in exploring a literary subject in its historical context, the fun of following up literary leads, and, most of all, the joy of analyzing literature – and so much else – with a like-minded friend. But much as I treasure my collection of old letters, I’m rather glad that Miranda and I now don’t need to put pen to paper whenever we want a chat!

Miranda Mills and Sophie Butler co-host the Tea & Tattle podcast, which celebrates female friendship and creativity. This incorporates Tea Reads, for which they discuss some of their favourite short reads (none of which should take longer than the time it takes to drink a cup of tea).

Miranda blogs at Mirandasnotebook.com. You can also follow her on Instagram: @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase.

In her work as an English Literature academic, Sophie’s writing focuses on the Renaissance period. You can follow her on Instagram:  @sophie_perdita

Judy Brown and Katrina Naomi: ‘Loyal to the letter’

When poet Katrina Naomi wrote to let us know about the role that the regular exchange of poems by letter plays in her friendship with fellow poet Judy Brown, we felt sure that Something Rhymed readers would be interested to hear about it too. Here, they share their thoughts in our last guest post of 2017…

If the stamp escapes franking, an increasingly shabby envelope can travel between us for months, ferrying cargoes of new poems, images and a letter.

We met a dozen years ago in London, bonding over confessions of how much we wanted our poems to be good – and to publish. For years we met monthly to share vegan cakes, new work and discuss what we were reading. When Katrina moved to Cornwall in 2014 we reluctantly gave up the cakes but added the Post Office into the familiar mix – along with an agreement to write a brand-new poem each month in response to one written by the other.

Judy Brown – image by Colin Francis

We quickly became addicted to the process. We found it so fruitful that we added a second, more visual, conversation in which we exchange images to write from, again on a monthly cycle. We also critique a batch of each other’s poems each month. The envelopes keep getting fatter, and tattier.

We’re loyal to the letter, only using email when we’re abroad. Plotting the trajectories of our poem exchanges would require a moderately complex SkyMap: Japan (Katrina has just returned from an Arts Council-funded project); Grasmere (Judy spent a year as Poet-in-Residence at Dove Cottage); Hong Kong (Judy’s old home); Katrina’s residency at the Arnolfini (Bristol) and the Brontë Parsonage (Haworth); and our residences at Gladstone’s Library and Hawthornden Castle (but at different times) – plus London, Derbyshire and Cornwall.

Katrina Naomi -image by Tim Ridley

We were both committed letter writers before we met, but our poems and our processes differed considerably. They still do, despite the transference of ideas such a long-term collaboration catalyses. Yet if something gets skimped from the envelope, it’s the letter not the poems.

This is partly because the poem exchange is also an exchange of information. And it’s exciting – not just because of time pressure and the surprising (and often uncomfortable) triggers, but also because of anticipation about what the other will come up with. Sometimes what our poems have to say is pure trickery or excitement about technique. They may spin off of current preoccupations or whatever we’re trying to hit in our own process.

It’s great to have a trusted recipient for this, but even better to have one who lobs back something fresh and alive in answer to our own puzzles, poetic and personal. It can be a refutation or refusal of a technique, a subject or a pronoun – you never know what’s coming! But you know you have to respond to the other’s poem and visual image, whatever you’ve made of it, mostly because of our shared urgency to write but also because we promised.

Both our recent second books contain many poems which have emerged from this deadly serious game.

Deep familiarity with each other’s process and the differing ways we transform material has increased our respect for each other’s work but our critiques aren’t soft. As friends, we may know a little too much about the underlying raw material, but that too helps us see what’s a real poem and what’s just diarising.

Sometimes the line blurs for us – is this two women talking or something more impersonal, two poems talking to each other? Do we care? Not really, as long as we get a proper meet-up once in a while and can go to the pub or on a walk, have a dance or a curry, leaving the poems behind for – well, at least for a couple of hours.

Crowd SensationsJudy Brown’s most recent poetry collection, was published by Seren in 2016.

Katrina Naomi’s most recent collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me,  was also published by Seren in 2016.

Sophie Mayer and Preti Taneja: She knew we could be who we are now

Thank you to everyone who has contacted us to send congratulations on the US publication of A Secret Sisterhood. We are enormously grateful for the support of our readers, who did so much to convince us that historical female literary friendship was a subject worth exploring in a book.

Today, we are delighted to bring you a guest post from two more modern-day writer friends, debut novelist Preti Taneja and poet and film critic Sophie Mayer.

Preti

Preti Taneja © Rory O’Bryen

We met twenty years ago. I was applying to be editor of the student newspaper, Sophie was, and still is a poet, activist, the best arts critic in the game. We shared a love of Quark Xpress.

When I got the top job, she became my theatre editor, but was already on her way to publishing her first collection of poems, winning an Eric Gregory award – showing me that becoming ‘a writer’ was possible – something I had never believed for myself until I met her.

She went to Toronto to do her PhD and I moved to London to train in journalism. I sent her my first fiction pages – she sent me Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Steering the craft’. We began to write letters to each other, and send each other things. There were kama sutra pillowcases. And many blank notebooks – especially important was the one I received after my mother died. Sophie thought I would need it.

The care packages and mix tapes (later, playlists) have continued through years of job applications, journalism, human rights reports, PhD proposal, publishing successes (her) rejections (me) and the drafts of the book that became We That Are Young.

Sophie’s poetic and critical language, the formal risks she instinctively undertakes, teach me about the kind of writer I want to be. Inventive. Fearless. The changing conversation we have been having over many, many years about what constitutes experimental writing, about race, gender, and representation, about who gets published, when and how, has kept my hopes in balance and my determination high. At my book launch, Sophie made sure I had a fresh glass of water next to me before I read.

I think when we first met, she knew we could be who we are now – I just believed her and pushed myself in line with it. The daily practice of our friendship – the texts and talking, tea, book sharing – that are not seen as part of being ‘literary’ – are indelible to our writing lives.

Sophie

From that nervous first interview, Preti struck me as someone who knew how to take the measure of the world and shape it – through hard work, aided by late-night Kit Kats and pun-based hilarity. It was the first time I had seen someone (not on TV) committed to making change through words: it was Press Gang come true, and I still thrill that I got to be part of it.

Sophie Mayer © SF Said

I remember being in the office late on 13 October 1998, when I got an email via an American LGBT listserv, reporting the murder of Matthew Shepard. I pitched a piece to Preti and (overlooking my total inexperience as an op-ed writer), she said, Do it, then took my rage and grief and showed me how to turn it into something others could read.

As a writer, you’re advised to develop an inner editor, the voice that calls bullshit on you; that pulls you back to what matters. If I have one, it has been shaped by Preti, who can give me a look (though she generally waits until dessert), and my whole specious defence of a sloppy argument collapses, and suddenly I’m agreeing that yes, I have to write about God and other traumas if I want to explain what the cinema of Sally Potter risks, and why it matters to me. Because I have learned so much from how much Preti’s writing risks, always.

Her fierce refusal to leave any stone unturned, to confront every injustice and taboo, to witness what others turn away from, enlarges the (and my) world. And she does it in prose that moves with the same amazing grace with which she dances to the beats we’ve shared over the years; I can’t help but (clumsily) join in.

Preti Taneja is a writer, human rights activist and editor of Visual Verse. Her debut novel We That Are Young is out now from Galley Beggar Press.

Sophie Mayer is a poet and feminist film activist; her most recent books are Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, published by I.B. Tauris and (O), by Arc Publications. 

Arifa Akbar and Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi: Bringing Unwritten Ideas into the Light

With the UK edition of our book A Secret Sisterhood now sent off to the printers, we’re glad to be able to give more attention to this blog once more.

Today we have an interview with two modern-day female writers. Some of you will remember Arifa Akbar’s fascinating talk at last year’s Something Rhymed literary salons. You can read it here if you weren’t able to come along that evening. She joins us now with her friend Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi to tell us about their literary friendship.

How did the two of you meet, and can you tell us about your first impressions of each other? 

Arifa: I was invited into a circle of British South Asian writers in 2013 and Ayesha was there. We’d meet once a month to talk about our work. For about a year, I only saw Ayesha at these gatherings so I got to know her through her critical opinions first. The friendship grew through it.

At the time, she was planning on doing a PhD on trauma in literature and I was a journalist at The Independent so we came from different worlds but I loved the way she approached books, how she had the ability to really listen. She was someone who seemed passionate and unafraid in her opinions. I thought that she was a gentle person but filled with a spirit of quiet rebellion.

Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi  (left) and Arifa Akbar (right)

Ayesha: At one monthly group meeting, nobody turned up but she, I, and another writer friend, Kavita Bhanot. In that intimate setting, the conversation turned to personal matters and I brought up an issue I had been grappling with. With the same analytical insight and strong feminist sensibility that she applies to her literary criticism, Arifa listened, really listened, to my dilemma. A spark was lit. Soon, we became close, and began to bring unwritten ideas into the light, glimmers of novels, plays, and essays that we then encouraged each other to embark upon.

You have both worked as reviewers. What kind of problems with gender parity have you come across in the literary and media worlds?  And what are your predictions / hopes for writing by women in 2017 and beyond?

Arifa: What grates for me most is that fiction by women is sometimes treated as if it were a special category within literature. And so often, I notice how many books by men which might otherwise have been labelled as domestic literature or romance are being reviewed as ‘literary fiction’ or even as ‘state of the nation’ novels. Who ascribes these labels?

More generally, I see a disparity in how many books by men and women get review space, the amount of male bylines on reviewing pages compared to female. Its source is rooted in the rest of society so I don’t think you can solve it without addressing gender inequality as a whole, but to be conscious of it is some sort of start and I have begun to see the pattern shift.

Ayesha: I moved to the UK from Pakistan at eighteen. Writing here, in an industry dominated by whiteness, has unique complications: there is the danger of being co-opted or misused, as well as an internal often unconscious impulse to surrender to the dominant narrative, to give in to the demand for ‘easy’, clichéd, or exoticised stories. To find an avenue to the truth in this minefield is not simple, and would perhaps be impossible without my torch-bearers.

In literature, my torch-bearers include Fanon, Baldwin, Dickinson. And in life, they are my two writer friends. As a woman also, it is easy to feel one must not reach too high, for fear of falling or neglecting loved ones. Arifa helps me in this struggle through words and example. Sometimes, she channels her own torch-bearers in doing so: like quoting Virginia Woolf when I was telling her of a difficult moment, exhorting me to ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face’.

Which particular qualities do you admire in each other’s writing?

Arifa: I am often surprised by Ayesha’s plays and short stories. They speak in a voice that is hers but that also reveals a part of her I don’t know, and that had remained hidden for me. The short stories that I’ve read have an air of mysteriousness and unanswered questions. They remind me that so much of life, and relationships, happens beneath whatever is being said or done on the surface. And I like her humour too. I noticed it first when I saw a read-through of a play she’d written for Kali Theatre. I was taken aback by how funny it was and, again, this is something that seemed hidden until then.

 Ayesha: Arifa has a sharp wryness that she manages to transfer on to the page, even in her book reviews. Her fiction, which must be shared one day, is of measured pace and remarkable passion: a difficult combination. I think Arifa has learned through her journalistic career how to transfer her essence into words without pretence or showmanship. It is beautiful to read.

Can you tell us how you ‘workshop’ each other’s writing?

Arifa: Ayesha’s a talented editor. She seems to read on an intuitive level, approaching drafts with an extraordinary degree of sensitivity, curiosity and meticulousness. There have been so many times when I’ve got knotted up and sent her a draft just before a deadline and she has been able to unknot it in no time – suggest where I might be going wrong, see faults in the arrangement of a piece, put me back on track with ideas that I could develop, interrogate the claims I’m making or the story I’m imagining, and more.

It has been the case for both the writing for newspapers and the unpublished fiction. I feel confident knowing that if I send her a piece of writing in progress, it will end up better, always. I don’t think I had ever understood how transformative editing could be to a piece of work before I met Ayesha and it reflects her generosity of spirit that she gives so much to someone else’s work.

Ayesha: Arifa and I edit each other’s work with a brutal honesty that is always embedded in kindness. The editing comes from a place of deep empathy, the kind that not only improves the proofread piece, but also enables real growth.

Does writing form the central aspect of your relationship? Are there other shared interests that bring you together as friends?

 Arifa: Writing and critical thinking was the glue to our friendship at the beginning and maybe it has remained so. Gradually, after the writing circle, we formed a three-way friendship and then it became two, and I feel I have got to know different parts of Ayesha through these stages. We’ve only known each other for four years but the friendship feels deeper and longer than that.

Ayesha: Our relationship started off on the basis of writing, but, as it grew into friendship, other matters of the soul rose to the surface. There have in fact been moments of deep crisis and grief that have brought the friendship itself into question. But we’ve faced them with slow perseverance and brutal honesty.

The presence of a firm literary friendship is a gift, one that is sometimes joyously celebrated and at other times patiently nurtured. But always, it is a gift. And to be able to examine the fabric that makes up life in the presence of a loving, understanding other is all that I wish for; Arifa, with her formidable intelligence, empathy, and insight, allows me this.

Arifa Akbar is a journalist, reviewer and is currently working on her first novel.

In addition to her work as a reviewer, Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi is a writer of short stories, essays and plays.

‘We’re given only a handful of these kinds of friendships’: Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert

This month, we’ve been hard at work on final edits for A Secret Sisterhood. As soon as we emerge, we’re looking forward to bringing you a new post about another of the historical literary pairs we’ve come across.

In the mean time, we’re pleased to be able to bring you a guest post by two modern-day writer friends and collaborators. Short story writer Zoe Gilbert and novelist Lily Dunn run London Lit Lab , an organisation that offers creative writing courses and mentoring. They tell us how they got to know each other, and how working as a team of two has changed their friendship, in the most positive of ways…

 

Zoe

Lily and I met when I joined the North London Writers Group as the rogue short story writer amongst novelists. We made an immediate connection through our writing, which was perhaps lucky – at the time, Lily was looking at ways of using sea folklore in her draft novel, and I was working on folk-tale-influenced short stories.

It was also Lily’s humane but incisive approach to critiquing other people’s work that made my ears prick up. Her comments were always the ones I went to first, and found most profound. How lucky I am to work beside her now whilst teaching writers!

I don’t often feel an instinctive, or quick, affinity with other human beings, but becoming friends with Lily came naturally.

Lily Dunn (left) and Zoe Gilbert
Lily Dunn (left) and Zoe Gilbert

As we’ve got to know each other’s writing, and ways of thinking, it’s become clear how very different we are in how we approach fiction, how we use ideas on the page to work out what we think and who we are.

This is a glorious thing: it means I can learn endlessly from Lily as she always has a contrasting perspective on creative work. I marvel at her courage in writing directly from experience, in ways that move me, and I will always admire her writing because I will never fully understand how she does it.

Now we’ve brashly, rashly, started London Lit Lab together, and learned how to run a business in partnership. That’s a big thing, and we’ve done it in a year when both our lives have been distracting enough that business meetings sometimes turn into much needed rants or wine-fuelled counselling sessions.

In Lily, I have a genuine partner through a phase of taking on life with fists raised in gusto, and four fists somehow add up to more than twice two.

 

Lily

I reckon we’re given only a handful of these kinds of friendships – the kind that happens easily, without much effort on either part. It is a gift to be treated with care.

Zoe was a welcome addition to North London Writers. We gushed over her extraordinary stories, so spare yet textured in style, dream-like yet earthy. She was humble to our praise, elegant and understated. But, according to my memory, it wasn’t writing that first bonded us… but cats.

It was my turn to host the writers’ group, and my two Siamese came purring for attention among various group members, disinterested and allergic. I reassured them that they had a place in the midst of literary discussion, no doubt talking ‘cat’. Lost in my private moment, I was delighted to find Zoe laughing beside me. She likes cats! She’s one of ‘my people’!

Writing, I have discovered, is so nuanced and personal. When you love another’s work, you’re embracing that person, too. Zoe and I have that. The trust between us is unspoken. Together we feel at home in our writing self, as we do in our enquiring self, our silly self, too.

London Lit Lab felt like an effortless extension of this. Hard work, yes, but it came together easily.

With no real plan to teach together, we suggested we’d support each other during the first course then alternate, but very quickly we’d formed a dynamic. We sat amongst our students, and discussed ideas and texts, more a fin de siècle salon than the usual teacher/student divide. It turned into a creative act, well planned but open to the magic.

Soon we realised that the magic was in us  – not individually, but together – as well as the students and our combined inspiration. We came out of those classes buzzing. Two female writers, who like each other, and admire each other’s writing, who want to teach together … and … here’s the best bit…. make it work!

 

Shadowing the Sun by Lily Dunn is published by Portobello Books.

‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ by Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014.

For Someone to Get Me, They Have to Know Her: Lauren Elkin and Joanna Walsh

After reading our recent guest blog by Sarah LeFanu and Michèle Roberts, writer and 3:AM fiction editor Joanna Walsh got in touch to tell us about her friendship with writer and critic Lauren Elkin. In this month’s guest blog, the two share some thoughts on the things that make their relationship work…

Lauren

Joanna and I went to the Latitude festival together a while back. She was part of the festival, doing some kind of craftsy thing in the woods that involved making capes out of cellophane and spraying synthetic snow on them. I don’t remember why.

Joanna is a performance artist before anything else and she likes to make things. I am a critic and a writer, a dealer in abstractions. She makes the stuff herself. I admire that about her.

At this particular festival, it rained so hard and there was so much mud that we had to drink a lot to cope with it. We sat on a tree trunk masquerading as a bench, I think we probably put plastic bags down so we wouldn’t sit in the wet, and we drank beers, and talked about Lacan and Freud and twee Britannia, while all around us frolicked the fine fleur of British youth.

I was miserable, wet, and hungry. Joanna, when she is those things, gets kind of rascally, and makes it all much more bearable. Dinner was some chips, consumed while some boys we met recited ‘The Dream of the Rood’ in Old English. We drank even more. And then we camped.

My inevitable hangover the next day was so bad Joanna had to get the festival’s medical services to peel me off the floor of our tent and install me on a cot next to where Anna Calvi played a thudding set that seemed to go on for hours.

Because of my migraine we missed our train back to London and had to spend the night in nearby Southwold. A lesser friend would have wanted to kill me. But instead, as I recovered, Joanna and I walked next to the angry Northern Sea talking about Sebald and camping shoes and gastropubs and penis-bearing know-it-alls and how I really, really need to eat dinner when I’m drinking.

All of this has nothing and everything to do with why Joanna and I have an enduring friendship that both is and isn’t sustained by the fact that we’re both writers.

I don’t know what else to say about this except that as I told her last night, I feel like for someone to get me, they have to know her.

Lauren Elkin and Joanna Walsh at their recent event at the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Paris.
Lauren Elkin (left) and Joanna Walsh at their recent event at the Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris.

Joanna

So here we are, Snow White & Rose Red, Dorothy and Lorelei, Flaubert’s blonde and brunette (who are exactly like redheads, of course, so what’s the difference?). Lauren’s from the US, I’m from the UK (Lauren’s now French). Lauren’s a critic who writes fiction; I’m a writer who also reviews.

There’s enough distance (I think). There’s tension, but it’s the right kind of tension. We read each other’s work before publication, well, some of it. She reins me in when the rhetoric threatens the logic, or I’m just going off on one. She can tell me I’m wrong without our falling out (so far).

We both like to read, and drink, and look at expensive clothes we don’t buy. We have some of the same lipsticks, and a lot of the same books. We give each other our duplicate copies.

I’ve chaired her at events and she’s chaired me. I always wonder whether we’ll forget we’re in public and start talking about something private: it’ll happen one day…

When things are good, when things are bad, she’s the person I want to talk to: she knows it all. One day we’ll write something together. And we’re just as likely to talk about books behind closed doors.

Lauren Elkin’s next book, Flâneuse: Essays in Wandering, will be published by Chatto & Windus in 2016.

Joanna Walsh’s memoir / essay collection Hotel was published by Bloomsbury this year.

From Student Bashes to Launch Parties: Katy Darby and Lucie Whitehouse

Just as Margaret Oliphant and Anne Thackeray Ritchie helped each other both professionally and personally, so too have this month’s guest bloggers, Katy Darby and Lucie Whitehouse.

Katy

I first met Lucie – er, probably at a party at university, as we were both student journalists (on rival papers). But we first met properly in the early 2000s, after we’d both graduated.

Katy Darby reading Moby Dick at the South Bank by 2 On the Run Photography
Katy Darby reading Moby Dick at the South Bank by 2 On the Run Photography

I’d followed my English degree with a promising job as a cocktail waitress, but more importantly, with a part-time evening course in Creative Writing at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. From that, I got into a writing group with some others from the course.

We met regularly in Oxford, and it was so useful, I kept going even after I moved to London. When we needed a new member, our mutual friend Toby recommended Lucie. She joined, and stayed even after she too moved to London to work for a literary agent. During that time we read and commented on what became her first novel, The House at Midnight.

I remember being really impressed by Lucie’s description and characterisation, as well as her determination and professional approach (I had graduated from waitressing to temping). She also cast her eye over the contract for almost the first piece of writing I got published and paid for: a one-act play for Samuel French called Half-Life. I was writing a very long dystopian sci-fi road narrative and she patiently read each chapter, though it ended up stuffed firmly in the bottom drawer.

Lucie has critiqued my work, written recommendations and given me quotes (including one that helped get me onto the UEA Creative Writing MA), and since she moved to New York in 2011, we’ve emailed. In some ways she has a big-sisterly role of doing everything first: publishing her first book, having a baby, and so I’ve always felt I can turn to her for advice both professional and personal. I’m always vicariously proud when I see her latest novel on the bestseller charts at Smith’s or picked as another book club choice (both Channel 4/Specsavers and Richard & Judy so far!).

Finally, I can honestly say that without Lucie’s example to give me a hard kick up the arse, I probably wouldn’t have finished my debut novel, The Whores’ Asylum (now The Unpierced Heart). At her launch party, I saw up close what I was aiming for and how worthwhile all the late nights, hard work, pernickety editing sessions and bouts of self-doubt would one day be.

Lucie Whitehouse
Lucie Whitehouse

Lucie

If I’ve done everything first, it’s likely because I’m older…

Together, Katy and I show how there’s no one way to approach a writing career. If she was impressed by my professionalism and jobs in publishing, I admired her single-mindedness. In her company, I often guiltily felt that I was hedging my bets. (Not that I missed out on waitressing – I have fond memories of my time lugging plates at Café Rouge. Best upper-arm definition I’ve ever had).

Without Katy, I might have been sidetracked by agenting. I loved working with writers, talking books, reading manuscripts. She was an anchor for my creative side, a reminder that all my life, I’d wanted to write.

Practically, she was essential, too. She’s given me many great opportunities but her invitation to the writing group was a game-changer. Not only was I compelled to produce regular work in my cocktail-enhanced twenties but being critiqued by writers of such calibre catalyzed an enormous technical improvement in my work. Katy is fiercely clever and her comments were always – sometimes painfully – on the nail.

But above all, she is an extremely talented writer and that’s inspiring. When I heard that Penguin had bought The Whores’ Asylum, my first thought was, At last. I’ve long known that Katy is brilliant and when I see her on TV on Booker night, I’ll be doing a dance here. (And by the way, K, that dystopian sci-fi road novel deserves out of that drawer).

unpierced heart cover (small)Katy Darby’s novel The Unpierced Heart is published by Penguin. She also runs the storytelling night Liars’ League.

before we met cover

Lucie Whitehouse’s latest novel Before We Met is published by Bloomsbury.

Till Death Us Do Part: Sarah LeFanu and Michèle Roberts

The bond between this month’s profiled writers was forged when Mary Russell Mitford took the younger Elizabeth Barrett Browning under her wing. It’s a great privilege therefore to feature a guest post with the novelist Michèle Roberts, who has been a mentor to both of us. Here she talks with fellow author Sarah LeFanu about their longstanding friendship.

 

Sarah: I met Michèle in London in the summer of 1972. I saw her as a warm-hearted woman warrior, a bold feminist, a dragon-slayer. I was a student, with a holiday job as a waitress at a rather dodgy restaurant called Borscht’n’Tears. Michèle, two or three years older than me, had a proper grown-up job at the British Library. Whereas I had timidly attended a couple of student meetings about women’s liberation, held safely inside college doors, Michèle belonged to a group of women who braved ridicule and abuse to perform feminist street theatre.

Michèle: I remember arriving home late one night to find Sarah returned from work, sitting outside on the little balcony eating sausages and drinking cider. She seemed dashing, merry, insouciant, completely able to enjoy herself in the present moment. Very pretty, too, with her delicate face and curly auburn hair.

Sarah: We were thrown together by the spectacular disintegration of the relationship between a couple who lived in the flat that we were both staying in; to get away from the rows and recriminations we would creep out onto the balcony above the front door of the terraced house, and in the warm summer evenings we would sit and talk: about women’s liberation, socialism, books, boyfriends and all points in between. What began as an escape from what was going on behind us, soon acquired its own life.

Michèle: I remember watching Sarah pack her bag for her summer holiday. She wanted to travel light, but on the other hand she wanted to take plenty of books. I was impressed that she threw out clothes to make room for books. As I got to know her better, my sense was confirmed that she really enjoyed a good time: physical and intellectual pleasures both. For example, we would don our 1950s frocks then bicycle back and forth across London, going to parties and dancing most of the night. At the same time we took part in a Marxist study group with other friends, and we founded our own group of two to read Freud.

Sarah: We carried on these discussions by correspondence when I went off to work in Mozambique for two years. We shared a desire to understand the world and, of course, to change it.

In the early 80s, while Michèle was making a name for herself as a novelist and poet, I was working in publishing, at The Women’s Press. We published her first two novels, A Piece of the Night and The Visitation. In the 90s we began teaching together for Ty Newydd and Arvon. And for nearly fifteen years now we’ve worked together in a writers’ group, along with novelist Jenny Newman (we call ourselves the Group of Three).

All of which is to say that our friendship is centrally concerned with work and writing and reading.

Or perhaps I should say the work of writing and reading.

Or perhaps I should say: the pleasure of it. Right from the early days we’ve done the reading and talking and writing alongside eating, drinking and partying.

Michèle Roberts (left) and Sarah LeFanu (right) at Sissinghurst in 1981.
Michèle Roberts (left) and Sarah LeFanu (right) at Sissinghurst in 1981.

Michèle: Sarah and I grew up in an era still overshadowed by Victorian notions of the respectable: teenage girls could go out and have fun but adult women, even if they had jobs, were supposed to make staying at home serving husbands and children their priority. It was radical in those days to assert openly that you were linked to other women, across the bonds of families and marriages, and that when you wanted or needed to you put women first.

Men had higher status. They valued each other highly and us far less. They did not believe we could be true friends with each other, if they even bothered to think about it, as they thought all women competed for male sexual favours.

Men dominated the literary scene, edited the journals, wrote memoirs about each other, created the literary canon, went out to meet each other at night in clubs and pubs, wanted ‘their’ women safely at home giving the children their tea.

Sketch by Michele Roberts. Many of Michele's sketches 'of women having a nice time' are pinned up in Sarah's study. They enrich her life 'during good times, bad times and challenging times'.
Sketch by Michele Roberts. Many of Michele’s sketches ‘of women having a nice time’ are pinned up in Sarah’s study. They enrich her life ‘during good times, bad times and challenging times’.

Sarah: While I was struggling to write my first book, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, Michèle gave me a whole afternoon a week of childcare – a blessed stretch of time – and later, on occasions when I was overwhelmed by domestic drudgery, she would think up ways and means of providing me with periods of release.

Michèle: I remember when Sarah got married vowing to myself that I would do my best not to be jealous or possessive, which would have been easy for me to do given how much I loved her. I got to know her husband and got to be fond of him. I was her witness at her wedding (as she was at mine) and she invited me to be godmother to her children. I love and feel close to them. So she helped me go on feeling close to her, feeling I still had a place with her, even though her life had changed so much, having three children and caring for them. She invited me to become involved.

Sarah: Male literary friendships have always been more visible. Men have always felt more entitled to inhabit public spaces – from the 18th century coffee shop to the Soho bars of the 1950s. The romantic idea of a literary friendship is that of two lonely (male) geniuses recognising each other as geniuses and then performing their friendship in front of a star-struck public. But male domination of public space has been, and is being challenged (by feminists then and now), so things are changing.

Michèle: The women’s movement helped to change that. Nowadays the male writers I know and am fond of acknowledge the power of women’s friendships. We know more than we used to about women’s friendships because for the last thirty or so years women have been writing about them, asserting their value and importance and exploring their meaning.

Those books got published because feminist women were working as editors and publishers, commissioning books, championing women writers. So my friendship with Sarah is connected to that history, those politics.

Feminists thought of each other as sisters, we valued each other, tried to listen to each other, tried hard not to obey the patriarchal rule which said that men always had to come first, we lived a public life of going out with each other, not confined to the home.

Sarah: At the same time, I’m going to make a claim for privacy, and the intimacy it allows. It’s more than forty years since Michèle and I met and talked on a balcony in Pimlico, when we cast ourselves off from the noisy goings-on behind us and floated high above the dusty summer streets of London. The intimacy of sailing with Michèle in that stone boat has remained for me an important and nurturing aspect of our long friendship.

Michèle: The Italian expression is: ti voglio bene. I feel Sarah and I wish each other well, at a profound level. Till death us do part.

Sarah LeFanu’s latest books are: Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal, published by SilverWood and S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream, published by Hurst & Co.

Michèle Robert’s latest novel, Ignorance, was published by Bloomsbury. You can read more about her friendships and her feminism in her memoir, Paper Houses, published by Virago.