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.

Medieval Murderers… and Friends: Susanna Gregory and Karen Maitland

Our guest interview this month comes from two bestselling authors. Susanna Gregory is the author of numerous medieval murder mysteries, Restoration whodunits and other historical crime fiction – something that drew her together with Karen Maitland, the writer of medieval thrillers. They are the sole female members of the Medieval Murderers, a group of popular authors who write historical crime novels together.

Authors with Edwin and Sharon Gregg
Susanna Gregory (left) and Karen Maitland, on a visit to Northern Ireland in 2014, as part of Libraries NI’s Crime Week.

SR: How did the two of you meet? Can you tell us about your first impressions of each other?

Karen: Our first official meeting was when I joined the Medieval Murderers, but in fact I’d first seen Susanna about two years earlier when I was an audience member at a talk she gave about The Tarnished Chalice, the year before my first historical novel was published. I was awe-struck by her knowledge of the medieval period, but also how gentle and self-effacing she was, even though she was such a successful novelist. I couldn’t believe she’d once been in the police-force. Her description of medieval Lincoln in the novel was so well-written and researched, that even though I’d already lived in that city for eight years, it was another six years before I dared set one of my novels in medieval Lincoln.

Susanna: Our first meeting was at an event we did together in Margham Country Park, near Neath, and I remember feeling an instant liking for Karen as we strolled slowly around the shell of the old house there. We chatted nineteen to the dozen to each other, while the others were more interested in finding somewhere to get some lunch! I suppose we should have been talking about the ‘performance’ we were about to give, but what I remember is being rather stressed about having an orthodox Jewish friend to stay, and making sure I got everything right for him diet-wise – I’m not Jewish, and didn’t want to make a stupid mistake. Karen gave me a lot of helpful advice and encouragement – which I’m sure she wasn’t expecting to have to do just before an event! I was very grateful.

SR: From our research into writer friends Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, who collaborated on works by the Detection Club, we know that writing as part of a collective of authors can present both joys and challenges. How do the Medieval Murderers manage to make things work?

Karen: The six Medieval Murderers authors are scattered all over the UK and most of us live in rural areas. So as most writers based outside London will know, you can feel cut off from the literary scene. You can’t just pop along to launch party for an hour after work. But the advantage modern writers have, which Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie didn’t, is email. One of the MMs, Ian Morson, has kept copies of all the emails the MM’s members have exchanged over the years, which reveals every step in the process of our writing collaboration throughout the ten MM novels, which should make fascinating reading for researchers in the future, if only to reveal the dark and twisted imaginations of six crime writers.

Susanna: When we collaborate, we probably generate hundreds of emails – someone has a concept, and the rest of us respond with answers and opinions. Usually, one of us comes up with some central theme that will hold all our stories together – such as a dangerous book, a curse or a weapon – and then we toss ideas around between us for a while, until we have something that works. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of tweaking along the way, but it’s a lot of fun.

SR: Can you tell us about something you particularly admire in your friend’s approach to writing?

Karen: I hugely admire Susanna’s ability to plot historical crime, whether it’s in a long novel or novella. It seems effortless, though I know it isn’t. She can judge exactly how many murder suspects, clues and twists there needs to be in different lengths of stories and that’s something I tried to learn from her when I began to write the MM novellas. She also has the skill to make the reader feel they know the characters in depth as living people, regardless of whether she has an entire novel to develop them in or just a novella.

Susanna: Karen’s research into her era is meticulous, and she knows far more about some aspects of life in medieval times than I do, particularly about women and fringe religions. My research tends to be manuscript-based, and as most scribes were monks, I tend to have their view of events, but Karen’s research is much more wide-ranging. As I have male protagonists, the Latin sources are usually fine, but I’ve learned a lot about 14th century attitudes to women from Karen, which has helped me greatly with my stories.

SR: Writing seems to be central to your friendship. Do you ever see each other in other contexts?

DSCF1305
Susanna and Karen, appearing together at Libraries NI’s Crime Week.

Karen: We share a love of rescue chickens. I used to keep them and Susanna does now, so we’ve exchanged tips such as coaxing them into a hen-house at night with tinned sweet corn and we’ve sympathised with each other when we’ve lost birds we adore. Hens, especially those who suddenly experience freedom after a life in a cage, radiate such joy. It’s contagious.

Susanna: I would certainly ask Karen for help if I was stuck with some aspect of my research, but I also confide in her as you do with any friend. We talk about our families, our work, our publishers, our likes and dislikes – just like any two people with a lot in common and a respect for each other’s opinions. Karen helped my husband and me a lot with advice and moral support when we got our beloved chickens – having birds as pets isn’t always easy, and Karen is always sympathetic and understanding when things go wrong. And she listens so patiently when I blather on about their antics, and is always ready with a smile!

SR: We set up Something Rhymed because we’d noticed that literary bonds between famous female authors are generally less well-known than the great male writing friendships. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be?

Karen: If women begin a professional literary friendship, in most cases it seems to rapidly become a personal friendship. In the past, male to male friendships appeared to be more task-based and operate in public through work, sports or hobbies. So, I wonder if the reason female friendships are less well-known is because the famous female authors themselves talked and wrote publically much less often about their friendships than men did, perhaps regarding these friendships as private, if what they discussed was more deeply personal.

Susanna: The first thought that springs into my mind is that there have been more ‘famed’ male writers than female, historically speaking, which means it isn’t really a fair comparison. Give us a few years …

Karen: I’ve noticed in the email writing circles that I belong to that many of the male authors join in discussions when it’s about writing/publishing/promotion, whereas female authors also talk about family life and problems in these groups. The women often temporarily cut the men out of the group email address list when the discussion turns deeply personal or is about emotional issues. Are male authors doing the same and cutting female authors out of group emails when discussing certain topics? I’d love to know!

Susanna Gregory’s most recent novel is A Poisonous Plot: The Twenty-First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, published by Sphere. She also writes with her husband Beau Riffenburgh, under the name Simon Beaufort.

Karen Maitland’s most recent novel is The Raven’s Head, published by Headline Review.

All Things Horror and Fantastic: Yen Ooi and Denise Saul

We were intrigued by Oriel Malet’s account of how she met Daphne du Maurier. In this month’s guest blog, two modern-day writers, Yen Ooi and Denise Saul, share their story of how they first became friends.

Yen: I spotted Denise at a writing masterclass nearly three years ago. There, we talked about characters, plot, tricks and tropes. I thought she was a fiction writer like myself, and only found out about her love and skill at poetry a little while later. On our first meeting, she seemed so serious and unassuming with her flask of tea and packed lunch. She still is, though I’m getting more of a glimpse of what drives her passion, and what riles her.

Our friendship grew slowly but surely with occasional coffee meet-ups and more writing classes. We talked mostly of our (surprising) shared interest in all things horror and fantastic. Though Denise definitely has a stronger stomach than I do, we are both intrigued by the horror stories that cultures present: today, in the past, at home in London and from our heritage. This side of Denise makes me smile, as it feels so different from her serious side: the poet.

I watched Denise at a poetry event earlier this year at The Poetry Cafe. The evening was pleasant and the people really warm. The basement, filled with poets, audience, family and friends, made it seem like a welcoming house party, where the entertainment was artistic, cultural and distinctive. Denise came on after the interval, and she read with grace and control. Her poetry painted vivid pictures of people and places that brought comforting smiles to our faces, yet they touched us with a sense of reality that demanded attention.

Many of us hide behind our writing, conjuring a new self from the words we make up, but Denise shows me through her work that it is possible to be true to yourself in your writing. And most importantly, that it is ok to do that.

Yen Ooi (left) and Denise Saul (right)
Yen Ooi (left) and Denise Saul (right).

Denise: Yen and I first met at a fiction masterclass about three years ago. I remember her as the most serious writer in the group as she was focused on typing up her notes in the session. We had a chat afterwards about speculative fiction. It was evident that Yen was a natural storyteller. She has the ability to shift her stories from London to other places such as Malaysia or Japan.

We’re both fans of science fiction and horror. A year ago, Yen invited me to the science fiction convention, Worldcon, where she launched her novella, Sun: Queens of Earth, and also acted as a panellist in the same afternoon.

She is a multi-tasker who can work on several writing projects at the same time. It’s a quality that I admire because she always finds time to start her own projects and also help other writers with their writing strategies. Yen always has a number of projects on the go and yet always completes them successfully. It’s easy to see why she has such drive and passion for whatever she does. I recently found out that Yen is an accomplished musician who started playing the piano from the age of three.

I can understand why she sees herself as “a creator, thinker and do-er” and my first impression of Yen was that she embraces refreshingly new ways of literary thinking.

Yen Ooi’s second book, A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories, Poetry and Drawings will be published in July 2015. More information on Yen’s writings can be found on yenooi.com.

Denise Saul is a poet and academic. Her work can be found at www.denisesaul.co.uk

The List: Megan Bradbury and Lauren Frankel

Like many of the writer friends we’ve profiled so far, this month’s guest bloggers Lauren Frankel and Megan Bradbury enjoy tracking each other’s literary progress. But they gave this idea their own twist, thanks to something they call The List.

Lauren

DSC_6096
Image by Rosalind Hobley.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without Megan I wouldn’t be a published writer. Who knows? I might not have a six month old son, either.

Let me explain. Megan and I met on the UEA Creative Writing course some years ago. She was young but fiercely serious, with a great laugh and strong opinions. When other students trashed my writing, she would jump to my defence.

After we left UEA, I doubted that I would ever finish a novel. I was slow as molasses – a procrastinator and a perfectionist to boot. When you’re trying to write your first book, nobody cares whether you finish it or not. You don’t have an editor giving you praise, deadlines, or a bollocking.

Megan and I kept in touch, and hearing about my writer’s despair, she invited me to send her a list of my goals each week by e-mail. She and her friend had been sharing theirs, celebrating one another’s large (and small) achievements. Up until then, I hadn’t dared to give myself weekly targets. I thought it would be too depressing to see myself failing to reach them over and over. But I agreed to try it.

Each week, Megan, her friend Kirsten and I would share by e-mail what we’d achieved in the previous week and what we planned for the current one. Soon other writers were joining us in the e-mail ‘achievement’ chain, which meant that four people now cared how my work was going. As I reviewed their weekly goals and accomplishments, I felt spurred on to aim higher – and also to think more about the long term, a thing which had terrified me previously.

With Megan’s encouragement and the help of my ‘list’ friends, I finally managed to finish my novel. To rewrite it again and again when I wanted to give up.

Hyacinth Girls - cover image
Image used with the kind permission of Crown Publishing.

And as for the baby… well. I never put having a kid on my shared ‘to do’ list. But I made a private list. And he was on it.

Megan

IMG_9123In the autumn of 2011, my partner and I drove 560 miles from Edinburgh to Penzance. We were moving to Cornwall to live with relatives who had offered us a room rent-free for a year – we would now be able to write full-time without distraction.

I was excited but also scared. We had given up our jobs and our home. We had travelled across the country with no plan other than to write.

As we drove into Penzance I visualised myself in twelve months’ time, driving back along the coast with nothing to show for my year – no money, no job, and no novel.

I spoke to my friend, the poet, editor and copy-writer Kirsten Irving, and together we came up with the List.

The idea behind the List is very simple. Every Sunday we write a list of things we plan to do in the week ahead, and when that week is over we review what we did (or didn’t do).

The List can include anything:

  • Write a chapter of the novel
  • Take shoes to be re-heeled
  • Drive mother-in-law to Morrisons

By including non-writing activities, the list makes the act of writing seem less precious. Most importantly, it shows what I have achieved in weeks when I feel I have done nothing. I may feel I have not written well, but I can see I have improved my running times or read an excellent book.

When I first met Lauren, I knew we’d be friends. She always gave superb editorial advice and could be relied upon to recommend interesting books. She made me feel my writing was special. A few years ago, when she mentioned she needed more support with her writing, I told her about the List and asked if she wanted to join.

I’ve been exchanging lists with friends every week now for four years. My fellow Listers pick me up and dust me down every Sunday. They are there for me when things go wrong.

I recently completed my first novel and it’s due to be published in the summer of next year. I know I couldn’t have written it without them.

Megan Bradbury’s debut novel Everyone is Watching will be published by Picador in summer 2016.

Lauren Frankel’s debut Hyacinth Girls, published by Crown, came out this month.

Crying Tears of Laughter: Irenosen Okojie and Yvette Edwards

In her work as a reviewer for the Sunday Times, Dorothy L. Sayers often took the opportunity to praise the work of her friend Agatha Christie – calling Murder on the Orient Express, for example, ‘a murder mystery conceived and carried out on the finest classical lines’. Inspired by this, we asked April’s guest bloggers, Yvette Edwards and Irenosen Okojie, to each sing the praises of their writer friend.

They met when they appeared together at a literary event, a couple of years ago. Irenosen takes up the story:

SONY DSCIt was a platform to showcase new writers; at that point the buzz had started to build about Yvette’s writing. When she read, her work immediately captured me. It was evocative, fearless and powerful.

Not only that but she was very warm, generous and humble. She was the star attraction on the bill but she didn’t behave that way and she didn’t distance herself from me or the other writer. She was incredibly chatty, curious about our writing journeys and happy to offer advice.

One of the images I never forget from that evening was Yvvettes’s mother managing her stack of books being the literary equivalent of a roadie. I enjoyed this tiny window into their relationship.

We all exchanged details; afterwards, I bought a copy of her book A Cupboard Full of Coats. It was so engrossing I read it in one sitting. What I really loved was that the female protagonist was complex and darkly drawn, unapologetically so. It is a brilliant debut novel, a heartbreaking read worth every penny.

One of the things I admire about Yvvette is her tenacity. She didn’t have an easy writing journey but she never gave up.

Over the next year, we’d bump into each other at literary gatherings, our friendship developed from there. We’d email back and forth and she’d encourage me to keep writing when things were difficult. Writing can be such an isolating endeavour that friendships and support are invaluable.

My favourite thing about her other than her literary prowess is her humour. She’s one of the most hilarious writers I know and is never without a funny anecdote or encounter. I cry with laughter whenever we meet up. She could have been a stand-up comedian had she not wanted to go into fiction writing. She’s a natural storyteller. When you engage with her, this becomes apparent.

It’s been fun and heartening watching her journey so far being both a fan and a friend.

Yvette says:

iphone pics 202

Irenosen is a power ball of energy that continually amazes me. She is always busy, is always writing as well as juggling various projects, passionate about everything literary, from the craft itself to championing events, interviewing other authors, getting involved in awards and prizes, reading, judging, spreading the word.

I think her website is a perfect reflection of her as a person and as a creative.  It is warm, full, interesting, regularly updated, filled with information about her own work as well as the projects she’s involved in.

It is vast and varied and quirky. You could pop in, intending only a short visit and a quick browse, and hours later still be clicking into tabs and links, discovering fabulous pics, astute observations and confident commentary, writing that’s rich, humorous, profound. It’s impossible to sum up either Irenosen or her website with a mere handful of words.

And that’s what her writing is like. It defies strait-laced and simple definition.  It doesn’t slip into any pre-packaged boxes or notions or expectations.  You can never exactly anticipate the journey she’ll take you on, or the destination you’ll reach, but you can be confident it will be interesting, that there will be surprises in store, that you will be challenged and entertained along the way, that you’ll emerge from your journey both heady and giddy, like stepping off a super roller coaster at a different place to where your journey began.

And if you do decide to take the matter up with her, there is every possibility she’ll hug you, throw her head back and laugh.

A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld) by Yvette Edwards was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Irenosen Okojie’s first novel, Butterfly Fish, and a collection of short stories, Speak Gigantular, will be published in June 2015 by Jacaranda Books.

Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse: Tortoises Rather Than Hares

A Class Act

Jacqui: I first met Louise twenty years ago, at the University of East Anglia, on a photo shoot for the Sunday Telegraph. We had both studied there, for our MA in Creative Writing under Malcolm Bradbury, but in different years.

Class Act
Jacqui Lofthouse (middle in black) and Louise Doughty (behind her to the left in polka dots).

It’s a moody photograph (the photographer told us ‘don’t smile, you’ll look stupid’) but the actual mood was celebratory. Louise was wearing a sleeveless polka dot dress and had a brilliant suntan. She looked very stylish and cool. We were both excited about the publication of our first novels. Louise’s was already out and mine was about to appear. I still couldn’t quite believe that I was about to be published by Hamish Hamilton and was mixing with other published authors.

Louise: Jacqui struck me immediately as enviably calm and serene.  We swapped notes on being students on the UEA MA and how neither of us felt regarded as the stars of our year – we laughed about that, and about how we were tortoises rather than hares.

The Polymath and the Will of Steel

Jacqui: Louise has been more focussed than me over the years, in terms of her writing, whereas I’ve been more distracted by entrepreneurial ventures, such as setting up my business coaching writers, but also by other art forms, returning to my love of drama and even having an interlude training to be a drama teacher. Right now, for example, I’m developing the business, finishing a second draft of a play, in discussion with a filmmaker and attending screen acting classes. Louise is focusing on her latest novel full-time. Some of this relates to financial decisions, but I think it’s also about our character types. She has a will of steel and I can’t stop myself diversifying.

Louise: Jacqui is more of a polymath than me: she’s much more plugged in to social media, has trained as a coach and run her own business.  I’ve focused very much on the novels and although that’s paid off to a certain extent I think her life is more interesting and varied than mine.

The Unrest Cure

Jacqui: One dinner that particularly stays with me was the night when I told Louise I was planning to train as a secondary school drama teacher. In the end, it was only a two year interlude, but it felt hard breaking the news that I was going to do something so different and apparently out of character. I was ready for a change, what Saki calls the ‘unrest cure’. I wanted to give something back to young people, to be more ‘out in the world’ but I remember, at that time, also feeling somewhat jaded with the literary world and saying ‘but what would you do?’ I don’t think Louise had an answer but I imagine she was thinking ‘I’d rather starve in my garret than do something as crazy as that!’ But she was gracious enough not to try to hold me back from something that I so clearly wanted to do. Those two years, in fact, served to remind me how vital writing is in my life; how impossible it is for me to do without it.

Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club

Louise: At one point, just for a laugh, we formed something called the Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club.  There were five of us and an agreement that whenever one of us signed a book deal, we would all go out for martinis.  It started out as just an in-joke between a group of friends but it got picked up by the media – I think I mentioned it on Radio 4’s Midweek – and the next thing we knew it was mentioned in articles and we received letters from women asking if they could join.  I thought it was a hoot when the Club made it into Jacqui’s satirical novel The Modigliani Girl.  Almost every aspect of writing and the writing world gets satirised in that book.

Silent 3

Jacqui: Louise introduced me to the novelist Charles Palliser at a reading we did together. I was awestruck because an old beau of mine had bought me a copy of Charles’ novel The Quincunx so it was clearly the book to have! Meeting Charles, who had real literary kudos, made me feel incredibly grown up, but more importantly, he is now a genuine friend, whose devotion to writing and books never fails to inspire. In turn, Charles introduced me to a number of other writers and we still meet for an annual dinner each January at Louise’s home and talk about the year we’ve had, sharing the ups and downs of the writing life – and indeed, of life beyond writing.

Louise: This writing group is Silent 3 (don’t ask me why it’s called that, no idea), which was set up by Robert Irwin, a renowned Arabic scholar who also writes science fiction. The group used to be very large and meet in a pub in central London once a month but has shrunk to a hard-core now and every January we all have dinner at my house and review our writing years – another member brings the food and I do the long table etc.

Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse
Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse

Rollercoaster

Louise: When I look back over the twenty years I’ve been publishing, it strikes me just how essential my writing friends have been: my other close writing buddy is the novelist Jill Dawson, but along with her and Jacqui there is a wider circle of writing friends, mostly women but not exclusively, who I feel I have really grown up with.  Those friends are incredibly important, partly because you know each other’s personal and domestic lives as well, but also because you know that the successes are hard-fought for and well-earned and the disappointments often arbitrary.  A writer’s life is such a rollercoaster of success and disappointment that it’s invaluable having friends that will understand and support you whatever part of the ride you are on.  Friends are far more important, at the end of the day, than finding an agent or a publisher.

Louise Doughty is the author of seven novels including Apple Tree Yard and Whatever You Love, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is also a critic and cultural commentator and broadcasts regularly for the BBC.

Jacqui Lofthouse is the author of four novels including Bluethroat Morning and The Modigliani Girl. She runs a mentoring and literary consultancy service for writers The Writing Coach.

 

Two Lives, Lived in Different Ways: Polly Coles and Liz Jensen

Like Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth before them, writers Polly Coles and Liz Jensen have enjoyed many years of friendship. In our first guest interview of 2015, they give us some insights into what makes their relationship work.

SR: How did you become friends?

Liz: Where else but in the Ladies? It was at the wedding of two mutual friends twenty years ago. Polly had already made an impression on me at the ceremony, where she wore a lovely chocolate-brown outfit with a lace collar, and read a poem aloud. Beautifully.

She seemed so serene and poised, which is the exact opposite of how I felt in those days. In the Ladies I overheard her talking to someone – very eloquently and cool-headedly – about the fact that she was writing, and finding it hard. I was writing at the time too, and also finding it hard. So I accosted her.

Liz Jensen, photograph by Jacob Ehrbahn.

SR: Can you tell us about some of the ways in which you have you supported each other over the years?

Polly: Soon after we first met we began meeting every few weeks and exchanging chapters of the novels we were then writing. Liz’s work became her first novel, Egg Dancing. Mine was called Utopia Station. I sent it to a couple of agents and then, although I felt it was an honourable first try, I decided that I’d see it as a kind of apprentice piece and go on to a second one. I went through the same process with the next novel and in 2013 I had a non-fiction work published.

After I stopped writing with the same focus as Liz (some time around when my twins were born and I had three kids under three), I went on editing her novels. I hugely enjoy editing and in fact my work as an abridger for Radio 4 is the mother of all edits – massive cuts are needed, whilst one must also retain the continuity of prose style and narrative.

So – it always came easily and pleasurably to me, the more so because Liz is always very generous and appreciative of any help. I think this matters. It’s not that you expect to be acknowledged, but it’d be disingenuous to say it isn’t nice to be appreciated.

Polly Coles, photograph by Laurie Lewis.
Polly Coles, photograph by Laurie Lewis.

SR: Would you say that writing lies at the heart of your friendship?

Liz: As I remember it began as quite a formal writing/editing partnership but it quickly developed, not just because we complement one another so well (she is the wise one, I am the hysteric) but because after a few months of exchanging chapters and editing one another’s first novels, we both fell pregnant. It was a very happy surprise.

Our boys were born just a couple of weeks apart. Quite independently of one another we hit on archangel names: Gabriel and Raphael. Raphael was my second child, and I stopped at two. But Polly went on to have three more babies in quick succession.

So inevitably, our writing careers diverged. Because it happened in such an organic way, it didn’t feel like a problem. That said, with Polly’s writing mostly on hold, and my novels now being published at two-year intervals, there was an imbalance: she was helping me as much as ever, but I wasn’t reciprocating.

I knew one day she’d write something astonishing, and that it would be published: it was something I never, ever doubted. And sure enough, she has: her astute, philosophical, sharp-eyed memoir, The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice.

SR: Have you ever experienced any feelings of literary rivalry or envy?

Polly: None whatsoever, which might sound strange, given that she was a rising and active literary star and I, despite my literary aspirations, had taken a very different path. I did do some freelance work over the years, but I was mostly at home with my children and although I never stopped writing, I just never quite got round to pushing myself forward in any significant way.

I suppose success or the absence of it can spawn envy, but as I said, I chose to be a full time mother and I always believed that my time could come, so even there, it just was never an issue. I’m afraid this all sounds rather goody two-shoes. It’s not. It’s just two lives, lived in different ways. And a friendship.

The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles is published by Robert Hale. The Essay – Venice Unravelled, her five programmes on life in modern Venice, was recently broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Liz Jensen’s latest novel is The Uninvited. She is also the author of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, which will be released as a film this year. Both books are published by Bloomsbury.

Memories of Jean Rhys: our interview with Diana Athill

We recently wrote to one of this month’s profiled authors to ask if she would be willing to answer some questions about the late Jean Rhys. We were delighted when Diana Athill responded with a charming picture postcard and an invitation to come and visit her. December’s guest blog is the result of our conversation.

Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence
Jean Rhys in older age (1970s). Creative Commons licence

Diana Athill, now in her mid-nineties, has often spoken about how much she likes living at this residential home in north London. The greatest wrench she experienced when she moved out of her old flat in Primrose Hill was the need to give up a lifetime’s worth of books.

There is a single tall bookcase to the left of the chair where she is now sitting. Although it holds a great many more volumes than my similarly-aged grandparents had in their entire house, Athill’s collection previously ran into the thousands. In fact, the mammoth task of being forced to reduce it caused her such stress that she ended up spending a night in hospital.

From the chairs she’s instructed us to pull up – warning me apologetically that mine won’t be very comfortable – we count several titles by Jean Rhys, the author whose career Athill helped to resurrect through her work as an editor at André Deutsch.

Readers of our first December post will know what a long wait Athill had in store for her when Rhys told her she could have the final draft of Wide Sargasso Sea in ‘six or nine months’, and of her support and encouragement over the nine years it took for Rhys to finally deliver her manuscript.

Did Athill ever feel frustrated with her, we wonder. ‘I quite often felt frustrated’, she says, ‘but on the hand it became sort of a habit… She was fun to be with, you see, when she was being happy. And she was great as a writer.’

In relation to her writing, Athill remarks that Rhys was ‘steely’. ‘She knew exactly what she wanted and she was always dead right. In relation to ordinary life, I think she got stuck at about the age of eight.’

But because she could be charming, people wanted to come to her aid: ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman, she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me.’

When we ask Athill about her happiest memories of Rhys, she responds with laughter. She recalls the times when she stayed at Rhys’s cottage in Devon, saying that they were ‘hardly happy… but fun’.

Rhys once described the village she lived in as ‘a dull spot which even drink can’t enliven much’. Athill reserves comment on the geographical location, but she was clearly horrified by the small house itself: ‘When I first saw it I thought, how could anybody live here?’

But although she and others spent hours trying to find the author an alternative home, Athill tells us that Rhys would always say, in the end, ‘I think not. Better the devil I know.’

After the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea and republication of her earlier novels brought her greater financial stability, Rhys’s friends arranged for improvements to be made to the house, which resulted in it becoming warmer. The shed beside the building was converted into a spare room.

‘The funniest time really’, Athill laughs, was ‘when I went there and I was staying in this awful little shed’. It was a windy night and the surrounding bushes were banging against its outer walls. She woke up thinking: ‘Oh goodness, it’s making even more of a noise, and so I opened my eyes and what did I see? My handbag flying through the air out of the window!’

It would turn out that a thief with a hook on a long wooden rod had whisked her bag away. Athill leapt out of bed, but the boy vanished immediately.

First page of the introduction to Smile Please by Diana Athill, Jean Rhys's unfinished autobiography.
First page of Diana Athill’s introduction to  Smile Please, Jean Rhys’s unfinished autobiography.

When she told Rhys about the incident the next morning, the author’s reaction was: ‘“Oh good!” Because she’d been telling people that she’d heard suspicious people creeping about outside at night and they’d all told her she was imagining it.’

Rhys was famously paranoid – something she herself admitted. ‘Victim’ is another term readily associated with her, although this was something that used to make her angry. ‘There was a lot of violence in Jean’, Athill says. ‘She used to get very, very cross when people said she was a victim because she knew perfectly well, in her heart of hearts, that she was pretty fierce.’

Rhys’s literary ferocity combined with her helplessness in everyday matters created the circumstances for her collaboration with Athill – one of the most important in recent literary history.

Diana Athill’s collection of short stories Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is published by Persephone Books. Her selected memoirs Life Class is published by Granta Books.

From Literary Protégée to Competition Rival: our interview with Madeline Miller

We were drawn to the friendship between Nora Lefurgey and L. M. Montgomery because it endured despite marked differences in their literary standings: while Anne of Green Gables propelled Montgomery to international fame, Lefurgey’s novel gathered dust in the proverbial drawer.

Of course, the prospect of rivalry does not end when both friends are published. Then there are questions of sales and reviews and awards. We’d been intrigued, therefore, when it was announced that both debut novelist, Madeline Miller, and multi award-winning author, Ann Patchett, had been shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize since Madeline had previously been one of a Ann’s protégées.

 

Ann Patchett. Creative Commons License.
Ann Patchett. Creative Commons License.

We met Madeline to ask her about the transition from literary mentorship to competition rivals.

Madeline explains that she had always been a great fan of the established author’s work, and that she counts Truth and Beauty, Ann’s memoir about her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, as one of her favourite books of all time.

Early in her career, Madeline had been thrilled to receive a glowing blurb from Ann for the publisher’s proof copy of her debut novel, The Song of Achilles. At this stage, Madeline had never met Ann, this novelist who had unexpectedly done her such a good turn. Evidently still touched by the older author’s generosity, she tells us about how they finally came face-to-face.

Fortuitously, Ann had been due to give a reading at Madeline’s local book store, and so Miller bought tickets, intending to introduce herself after the event. When, on the night, an audience member asked for a reading recommendation, Madeline was delighted to hear the celebrated author single out the forthcoming Song of Achilles for praise. She was even more surprised when Ann suddenly looked up, right into Madeline’s eyes, and introduced her to the crowd.

Ann proceeded to share the limelight with the younger author, who couldn’t fathom how she had been recognised. She jokes that she had been ready to put it down to Ann’s magical powers until her fiancé later confessed that he was the one to have pointed her out. ‘But she does have magical powers,’ Madeline laughs, ‘I stand by that!’

Ann’s kindness didn’t stop there. The pair struck up an email correspondence, and Ann generously shared the benefits of her own longer experience as a published author. Madeline is particularly grateful for Ann’s advice to steer clear of reviews, which give an exaggerated sense of both the positive and the negative, encouraging the writer to focus on the outward expressions of literary “success” rather than drawing on internal inspiration. Ann also shared her secret to a fulfilled writing life: There are times for writing and times for living, Madeline remembers Ann once saying, and one feeds the other.

The next time the pair met in person, it was on Ann’s instigation: she invited Madeline to read at Parnassus Books – the independent store that she co-owns in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there the two novelists discovered that they’d both made it onto the short list for the 2012 Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize) – an award that recognises the work of female novelists.

It could have been a situation fraught with stress: although a game-changer for the debut author, Madeline now found herself pitted against her mentor.

But, instead, Ann, who had already won the prize back in 2002, took great pleasure in the opportunity this time to share the limelight with her protégée. When the date of the prize ceremony was announced, Ann realised that she couldn’t make it over to Britain at that time. She was glad that Madeline would be able to attend, and she even loaned her competitor one of her own outfits that she felt might be particularly suitable for the Orange Prize do: a beautiful dress of tangerine silk.

Madeline Miller wearing the dress she loaned from Ann Patchett.
Madeline Miller wearing the dress she loaned from Ann Patchett.

When the judges revealed that they were awarding the prize to Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles, the young writer keenly acknowledged her indebtedness to her mentor in her acceptance speech. ‘I got to go and help represent her book as well,’ she says.

The competition seems to have actually strengthened their relationship. In fact, Madeline tells us that Ann was not the only one eager to congratulate her. The award, she says, ‘fostered a sense of collegiality’ amongst all its female nominees.

The friendship of Lefurgey and Montgomery taught us that creative rivalry can be endured, while the example of Miller and Patchett shows that it can even be enjoyed.

A shorter version of this interview was originally included in our feature in Mslexia Issue 57. 

Maggie Gee and Salena Godden: the Innocence Under the Armour

A shared sense of a female literary tradition fired the epistolary alliance between this month’s profiled writers: the reserved George Eliot and the ebullient Harriet Beecher Stowe. And so we asked authors Maggie Gee and Salena Godden to tell us about their similarities and differences, and the role in their friendship of the written word.

Creative Commons License
The Road Across the Wolds 1997, oil on canvas 48 x 60″ by David Hockney Creative Commons License

Maggie Gee

Maggie: When I first met Salena I found her lively and funny but also quite dauntingly and dazzlingly young – she’s a quarter of a century younger than me. When I heard her perform for the first time, reading a piece of short prose that was as much poetry as story, I really sat up. Wow – she could write – my memory of that piece is of a wide golden field: a sort of dizzy sweep of perspective; and realizing that she was unafraid to be lyrical about the world – a risk most writers won’t take in a culture where irony is king.

I think we share that innocent eye. I do satire but the presiding vision I have is love. I think that’s true of Salena too, in among the outrageous humour and belly laughs. And maybe we recognized that innocence in each other, though we each in our different ways have shells that prevent most people from seeing it. I knew Salena would like the radiant David Hockney Yorkshire landscape show at the Royal Academy in 2012: we went together (it was about the 9th time I had seen it actually!).

Salena Godden 3Salena: I’ll never forget that day we met and went to see that Hockney exhibition, in my memory it is a film. We had a sunny afternoon tea and shared ideas and gossip. Afterwards I remember walking all the way home, through Regents Park and up into Kentish Town, utterly inspired by the colours and the art, but mostly the company, the listening and the sharing and the fantastic conversations we had that afternoon.

I think we share a love of language, colour and light as much as we share a capacity to imagine the worst and the darkest of outcomes. I also think both of us have had to work (and still do work) bloody hard and have hardly ever taken no for an answer. I might be the naughty one or more hedonistic of the two of us, but there is nothing wilder than having an idea and digging your heels in, there is nothing braver than keeping on keeping on, especially when the chips are down or the odds are against you. I think we share an old fashioned sense of fair play, a willingness to fight your corner and a mischief – these are some of the things I’d say we share. If we had gone to the same school I would have probably nicked sweets and pens from Woolworths to give to Maggie to woo her to be my friend and tell me all about writing. 

Maggie Gee

Maggie: How are we different? Well, my father stuck around and gave me different problems to Salena, whose father left. I had more formal educational chances, and she has had more crazy fun. She sang, for heaven’s sake, and had two bands (at least), and ran cool things like The Book Club Boutique! What did I get: degrees. Oh, and she still writes, performs and publishes poetry, whereas my early drive to write poems compressed itself into prose. She’s a fine, bitter-sweet poet – I wish I had written her new collection, Fishing in the Aftermath: it’s intimate and wild and tender, but the words are worked and reworked like a Toledo blade.

Salena Godden 3Salena: My first impression of Maggie was of a sensation of being drawn into her fantastic inquisitive mind, what I mean is, she asks the most interesting questions of her surroundings and coerces people into revealing their mysteries. It is important to question and notice the tiny details in things, but these moments seem to spring golden when you are talking with Maggie.

When we first met back in 2002, I felt I was a rough boozy ruffian next to her, I was in awe. I could tell right away that Maggie was quick and smart, she uses language beautifully, there’s a magnetic pull and a magic in Maggie, she’s a bold heart and a true believer.

Maggie Gee

Maggie: I think we really like each other’s work. I read an early draft of Springfield Road, her brilliant memoir, which has just come out this summer. I was so pleased when she asked me to introduce her at the launch.

Salena Godden 3Salena: I took Springfield Road to Maggie feeling that I could trust her with it. My confidence was pretty shaken at the time, but I knew Maggie would ‘get it’ after I finished reading her beautiful and vivid memoir My Animal Life. Memoir is another kind of writing, you have no armour: you just have your truth and your ghosts.

Maggie Gee

Maggie: We both had problems with the same very big, mainstream publisher. Maybe my cynical view of how big publishers operate was helpful (my being lyrical about human life does not preclude being pretty cynical about most commercial publishing): and I could tell her, hand on heart, that I thought Springfield Road was a stunning piece of writing just as it was.

Salena Godden 3Salena: It was Maggie’s letters and words of encouragement that gave me the confidence I needed to persevere. Then I met John Mitchinson and Rachael Kerr who signed me on the Unbound label and together we all successfully crowd funded Springfield Road. My memoir would still be in a box under my bed if it weren’t for Maggie.

Maggie Gee

Maggie: Looking at the other side of the coin, Salena gave me a shot of new creative life by inviting me into a world of young writers and artists that I loved and felt happy in. Also, when I recently got a slightly demented Guardian review, Salena was the first to tweet in support.

Salena Godden 3Salena: As for that review, it missed the point, the romance, beauty and comedy in the book. I loved the concept of Virginia Woolf In Manhattan. I ate it all up, loving every imaginative word and page, it made me laugh and cry out loud. I mean imagine getting drunk with Virginia Woolf, what a wicked and wonderful dream that is…

Maggie Gee

Maggie: At significant moments in life, I have received wonderful long emails from Salena that are full of the texture of her days. They probably took a few seconds to write, read as naturally as breathing and are cousins of her confessional poems. Then I’ll write back in a kind of mirror writing. I notice my emails always reflect the style of the email that comes to me. Yes, Salena’s a very stylish lady, as well as a sweet one.

Salena Godden 3Salena: Maggie’s letters are a light beaming out of my inbox. She is a true comrade. It’s a funny old game writing, as you know, it is a lonely and competitive sport. Maggie has been so generous. I don’t know what I would have done without her this past decade or so. Some people bring out the best in you, they make you want to do good and aim high and dream bigger and Maggie Gee is that person to me.

Maggie Gee’s latest novel, Virginia Woolf In Manhattan, was published by Telegram Books.

Salena Godden’s latest book is a memoir, Springfield Road, published by Unbound. Her monthly event, The Book Club Boutique, will be launching its new residency at Vout-O-Reenee’s with a Burning Eye Books party on November 5th.