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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 Nightand 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: 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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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 novelEveryone is Watchingwill be published by Picador in summer 2016.
Lauren Frankel’s debut Hyacinth Girls, published by Crown, came out this month.
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:
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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 includingApple 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.