When poet Katrina Naomi wrote to let us know about the role that the regular exchange of poems by letter plays in her friendship with fellow poet Judy Brown, we felt sure that Something Rhymed readers would be interested to hear about it too. Here, they share their thoughts in our last guest post of 2017…
If the stamp escapes franking, an increasingly shabby envelope can travel between us for months, ferrying cargoes of new poems, images and a letter.
We met a dozen years ago in London, bonding over confessions of how much we wanted our poems to be good – and to publish. For years we met monthly to share vegan cakes, new work and discuss what we were reading. When Katrina moved to Cornwall in 2014 we reluctantly gave up the cakes but added the Post Office into the familiar mix – along with an agreement to write a brand-new poem each month in response to one written by the other.
We quickly became addicted to the process. We found it so fruitful that we added a second, more visual, conversation in which we exchange images to write from, again on a monthly cycle. We also critique a batch of each other’s poems each month. The envelopes keep getting fatter, and tattier.
We’re loyal to the letter, only using email when we’re abroad. Plotting the trajectories of our poem exchanges would require a moderately complex SkyMap: Japan (Katrina has just returned from an Arts Council-funded project); Grasmere (Judy spent a year as Poet-in-Residence at Dove Cottage); Hong Kong (Judy’s old home); Katrina’s residency at the Arnolfini (Bristol) and the Brontë Parsonage (Haworth); and our residences at Gladstone’s Library and Hawthornden Castle (but at different times) – plus London, Derbyshire and Cornwall.
We were both committed letter writers before we met, but our poems and our processes differed considerably. They still do, despite the transference of ideas such a long-term collaboration catalyses. Yet if something gets skimped from the envelope, it’s the letter not the poems.
This is partly because the poem exchange is also an exchange of information. And it’s exciting – not just because of time pressure and the surprising (and often uncomfortable) triggers, but also because of anticipation about what the other will come up with. Sometimes what our poems have to say is pure trickery or excitement about technique. They may spin off of current preoccupations or whatever we’re trying to hit in our own process.
It’s great to have a trusted recipient for this, but even better to have one who lobs back something fresh and alive in answer to our own puzzles, poetic and personal. It can be a refutation or refusal of a technique, a subject or a pronoun – you never know what’s coming! But you know you have to respond to the other’s poem and visual image, whatever you’ve made of it, mostly because of our shared urgency to write but also because we promised.
Both our recent second books contain many poems which have emerged from this deadly serious game.
Deep familiarity with each other’s process and the differing ways we transform material has increased our respect for each other’s work but our critiques aren’t soft. As friends, we may know a little too much about the underlying raw material, but that too helps us see what’s a real poem and what’s just diarising.
Sometimes the line blurs for us – is this two women talking or something more impersonal, two poems talking to each other? Do we care? Not really, as long as we get a proper meet-up once in a while and can go to the pub or on a walk, have a dance or a curry, leaving the poems behind for – well, at least for a couple of hours.
Thank you to everyone who has contacted us to send congratulations on the US publication ofA Secret Sisterhood. We are enormously grateful for the support of our readers, who did so much to convince us that historical female literary friendship was a subject worth exploring in a book.
Today, we are delighted to bring you a guest post from two more modern-day writer friends, debut novelist Preti Taneja and poet and film critic Sophie Mayer.
We met twenty years ago. I was applying to be editor of the student newspaper, Sophie was, and still is a poet, activist, the best arts critic in the game. We shared a love of Quark Xpress.
When I got the top job, she became my theatre editor, but was already on her way to publishing her first collection of poems, winning an Eric Gregory award – showing me that becoming ‘a writer’ was possible – something I had never believed for myself until I met her.
She went to Toronto to do her PhD and I moved to London to train in journalism. I sent her my first fiction pages – she sent me Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Steering the craft’. We began to write letters to each other, and send each other things. There were kama sutra pillowcases. And many blank notebooks – especially important was the one I received after my mother died. Sophie thought I would need it.
The care packages and mix tapes (later, playlists) have continued through years of job applications, journalism, human rights reports, PhD proposal, publishing successes (her) rejections (me) and the drafts of the book that became We That Are Young.
Sophie’s poetic and critical language, the formal risks she instinctively undertakes, teach me about the kind of writer I want to be. Inventive. Fearless. The changing conversation we have been having over many, many years about what constitutes experimental writing, about race, gender, and representation, about who gets published, when and how, has kept my hopes in balance and my determination high. At my book launch, Sophie made sure I had a fresh glass of water next to me before I read.
I think when we first met, she knew we could be who we are now – I just believed her and pushed myself in line with it. The daily practice of our friendship – the texts and talking, tea, book sharing – that are not seen as part of being ‘literary’ – are indelible to our writing lives.
From that nervous first interview, Preti struck me as someone who knew how to take the measure of the world and shape it – through hard work, aided by late-night Kit Kats and pun-based hilarity. It was the first time I had seen someone (not on TV) committed to making change through words: it was Press Gang come true, and I still thrill that I got to be part of it.
I remember being in the office late on 13 October 1998, when I got an email via an American LGBT listserv, reporting the murder of Matthew Shepard. I pitched a piece to Preti and (overlooking my total inexperience as an op-ed writer), she said, Do it, then took my rage and grief and showed me how to turn it into something others could read.
As a writer, you’re advised to develop an inner editor, the voice that calls bullshit on you; that pulls you back to what matters. If I have one, it has been shaped by Preti, who can give me a look (though she generally waits until dessert), and my whole specious defence of a sloppy argument collapses, and suddenly I’m agreeing that yes, I have to write about God and other traumas if I want to explain what the cinema of Sally Potter risks, and why it matters to me. Because I have learned so much from how much Preti’s writing risks, always.
Her fierce refusal to leave any stone unturned, to confront every injustice and taboo, to witness what others turn away from, enlarges the (and my) world. And she does it in prose that moves with the same amazing grace with which she dances to the beats we’ve shared over the years; I can’t help but (clumsily) join in.
Preti Taneja is a writer, human rights activist and editor ofVisual Verse. Her debut novel We That Are Young is out now from Galley Beggar Press.
With the UK edition of our book A Secret Sisterhood now sent off to the printers, we’re glad to be able to give more attention to this blog once more.
Today we have an interview with two modern-day female writers. Some of you will remember Arifa Akbar’s fascinating talk at last year’s Something Rhymed literary salons. You can read it here if you weren’t able to come along that evening. She joins us now with her friend Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi to tell us about their literary friendship.
How did the two of you meet, and can you tell us about your first impressions of each other?
Arifa: I was invited into a circle of British South Asian writers in 2013 and Ayesha was there. We’d meet once a month to talk about our work. For about a year, I only saw Ayesha at these gatherings so I got to know her through her critical opinions first. The friendship grew through it.
At the time, she was planning on doing a PhD on trauma in literature and I was a journalist at The Independent so we came from different worlds but I loved the way she approached books, how she had the ability to really listen. She was someone who seemed passionate and unafraid in her opinions. I thought that she was a gentle person but filled with a spirit of quiet rebellion.
Ayesha: At one monthly group meeting, nobody turned up but she, I, and another writer friend, Kavita Bhanot. In that intimate setting, the conversation turned to personal matters and I brought up an issue I had been grappling with. With the same analytical insight and strong feminist sensibility that she applies to her literary criticism, Arifa listened, really listened, to my dilemma. A spark was lit. Soon, we became close, and began to bring unwritten ideas into the light, glimmers of novels, plays, and essays that we then encouraged each other to embark upon.
You have both worked as reviewers. What kind of problems with gender parity have you come across in the literary and media worlds? And what are your predictions / hopes for writing by women in 2017 and beyond?
Arifa: What grates for me most is that fiction by women is sometimes treated as if it were a special category within literature. And so often, I notice how many books by men which might otherwise have been labelled as domestic literature or romance are being reviewed as ‘literary fiction’ or even as ‘state of the nation’ novels. Who ascribes these labels?
More generally, I see a disparity in how many books by men and women get review space, the amount of male bylines on reviewing pages compared to female. Its source is rooted in the rest of society so I don’t think you can solve it without addressing gender inequality as a whole, but to be conscious of it is some sort of start and I have begun to see the pattern shift.
Ayesha: I moved to the UK from Pakistan at eighteen. Writing here, in an industry dominated by whiteness, has unique complications: there is the danger of being co-opted or misused, as well as an internal often unconscious impulse to surrender to the dominant narrative, to give in to the demand for ‘easy’, clichéd, or exoticised stories. To find an avenue to the truth in this minefield is not simple, and would perhaps be impossible without my torch-bearers.
In literature, my torch-bearers include Fanon, Baldwin, Dickinson. And in life, they are my two writer friends. As a woman also, it is easy to feel one must not reach too high, for fear of falling or neglecting loved ones. Arifa helps me in this struggle through words and example. Sometimes, she channels her own torch-bearers in doing so: like quoting Virginia Woolf when I was telling her of a difficult moment, exhorting me to ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face’.
Which particular qualities do you admire in each other’s writing?
Arifa: I am often surprised by Ayesha’s plays and short stories. They speak in a voice that is hers but that also reveals a part of her I don’t know, and that had remained hidden for me. The short stories that I’ve read have an air of mysteriousness and unanswered questions. They remind me that so much of life, and relationships, happens beneath whatever is being said or done on the surface. And I like her humour too. I noticed it first when I saw a read-through of a play she’d written for Kali Theatre. I was taken aback by how funny it was and, again, this is something that seemed hidden until then.
Ayesha: Arifa has a sharp wryness that she manages to transfer on to the page, even in her book reviews. Her fiction, which must be shared one day, is of measured pace and remarkable passion: a difficult combination. I think Arifa has learned through her journalistic career how to transfer her essence into words without pretence or showmanship. It is beautiful to read.
Can you tell us how you ‘workshop’ each other’s writing?
Arifa: Ayesha’s a talented editor. She seems to read on an intuitive level, approaching drafts with an extraordinary degree of sensitivity, curiosity and meticulousness. There have been so many times when I’ve got knotted up and sent her a draft just before a deadline and she has been able to unknot it in no time – suggest where I might be going wrong, see faults in the arrangement of a piece, put me back on track with ideas that I could develop, interrogate the claims I’m making or the story I’m imagining, and more.
It has been the case for both the writing for newspapers and the unpublished fiction. I feel confident knowing that if I send her a piece of writing in progress, it will end up better, always. I don’t think I had ever understood how transformative editing could be to a piece of work before I met Ayesha and it reflects her generosity of spirit that she gives so much to someone else’s work.
Ayesha: Arifa and I edit each other’s work with a brutal honesty that is always embedded in kindness. The editing comes from a place of deep empathy, the kind that not only improves the proofread piece, but also enables real growth.
Does writing form the central aspect of your relationship? Are there other shared interests that bring you together as friends?
Arifa: Writing and critical thinking was the glue to our friendship at the beginning and maybe it has remained so. Gradually, after the writing circle, we formed a three-way friendship and then it became two, and I feel I have got to know different parts of Ayesha through these stages. We’ve only known each other for four years but the friendship feels deeper and longer than that.
Ayesha: Our relationship started off on the basis of writing, but, as it grew into friendship, other matters of the soul rose to the surface. There have in fact been moments of deep crisis and grief that have brought the friendship itself into question. But we’ve faced them with slow perseverance and brutal honesty.
The presence of a firm literary friendship is a gift, one that is sometimes joyously celebrated and at other times patiently nurtured. But always, it is a gift. And to be able to examine the fabric that makes up life in the presence of a loving, understanding other is all that I wish for; Arifa, with her formidable intelligence, empathy, and insight, allows me this.
Arifa Akbar is a journalist, reviewer and is currently working on her first novel.
In addition to her work as a reviewer, AyeshaManazir Siddiqi is a writer of short stories, essays and plays.
This month, we’ve been hard at work on final edits for A Secret Sisterhood. As soon as we emerge, we’re looking forward to bringing you a new post about another of the historical literary pairs we’ve come across.
In the mean time, we’re pleased to be able to bring you a guest post by two modern-day writer friends and collaborators. Short story writer Zoe Gilbert and novelist Lily Dunn run London Lit Lab , an organisation that offers creative writing courses and mentoring. They tell us how they got to know each other, and how working as a team of two has changed their friendship, in the most positive of ways…
Lily and I met when I joined the North London Writers Group as the rogue short story writer amongst novelists. We made an immediate connection through our writing, which was perhaps lucky – at the time, Lily was looking at ways of using sea folklore in her draft novel, and I was working on folk-tale-influenced short stories.
It was also Lily’s humane but incisive approach to critiquing other people’s work that made my ears prick up. Her comments were always the ones I went to first, and found most profound. How lucky I am to work beside her now whilst teaching writers!
I don’t often feel an instinctive, or quick, affinity with other human beings, but becoming friends with Lily came naturally.
As we’ve got to know each other’s writing, and ways of thinking, it’s become clear how very different we are in how we approach fiction, how we use ideas on the page to work out what we think and who we are.
This is a glorious thing: it means I can learn endlessly from Lily as she always has a contrasting perspective on creative work. I marvel at her courage in writing directly from experience, in ways that move me, and I will always admire her writing because I will never fully understand how she does it.
Now we’ve brashly, rashly, started London Lit Lab together, and learned how to run a business in partnership. That’s a big thing, and we’ve done it in a year when both our lives have been distracting enough that business meetings sometimes turn into much needed rants or wine-fuelled counselling sessions.
In Lily, I have a genuine partner through a phase of taking on life with fists raised in gusto, and four fists somehow add up to more than twice two.
I reckon we’re given only a handful of these kinds of friendships – the kind that happens easily, without much effort on either part. It is a gift to be treated with care.
Zoe was a welcome addition to North London Writers. We gushed over her extraordinary stories, so spare yet textured in style, dream-like yet earthy. She was humble to our praise, elegant and understated. But, according to my memory, it wasn’t writing that first bonded us… but cats.
It was my turn to host the writers’ group, and my two Siamese came purring for attention among various group members, disinterested and allergic. I reassured them that they had a place in the midst of literary discussion, no doubt talking ‘cat’. Lost in my private moment, I was delighted to find Zoe laughing beside me. She likes cats! She’s one of ‘my people’!
Writing, I have discovered, is so nuanced and personal. When you love another’s work, you’re embracing that person, too. Zoe and I have that. The trust between us is unspoken. Together we feel at home in our writing self, as we do in our enquiring self, our silly self, too.
London Lit Lab felt like an effortless extension of this. Hard work, yes, but it came together easily.
With no real plan to teach together, we suggested we’d support each other during the first course then alternate, but very quickly we’d formed a dynamic. We sat amongst our students, and discussed ideas and texts, more a fin de siècle salon than the usual teacher/student divide. It turned into a creative act, well planned but open to the magic.
Soon we realised that the magic was in us – not individually, but together – as well as the students and our combined inspiration. We came out of those classes buzzing. Two female writers, who like each other, and admire each other’s writing, who want to teach together … and … here’s the best bit…. make it work!
Shadowing the Sun by Lily Dunn is published by Portobello Books.
‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ by Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014.
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.