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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie Gee and Salena Godden: the Innocence Under the Armour

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

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

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

From an Author and Editor Relationship to Something Bigger: Sheila Hancock and Kate Mosse

Today’s guest blog features our interviews with one of Britain’s most-loved actresses Sheila Hancock, also a bestselling author, and her friend, the bestselling author Kate Mosse. The two met in the 1980s, when Kate, then working in publishing, was given the task of editing Sheila’s first book – an experience both women recall with fondness.

‘I was a young editor’, Kate tells us, ‘sent to work with the great and legendary Sheila Hancock and I couldn’t really believe my luck. I was only twenty-five or something, out of university… I felt like I’d been thrust into the world of the stars’.

Kate Mosse Copyright: Mark Rusher. Picture used with the kind permission of Orion.
Kate Mosse
Copyright: Mark Rusher. Picture used with the kind permission of Orion.

Soon she was travelling to Sheila’s house every week to work with her on her memoir Ramblings of an Actress. Kate’s first impressions were that, in addition to being very witty and funny, Sheila was ‘an incredibly clever woman’ and ‘a person of great principle’, with a clear vision for her book – something that made working with her ‘a completely joyous job’.

As for Sheila, she says that Kate ‘was young and probably a bit nervy, but she certainly didn’t show it’. In fact, she remembers her as ‘a real little bossy knickers’, someone who gave her enormous encouragement ‘to keep at it and not lose my confidence and give up’.

Talking of Kate’s regular visits to her home, she tells us about an occasion when the then-editor sat down and informed her ‘I’m not leaving until you’ve finished that chapter’. Sheila says that she predicted even then that Kate ‘would eventually do something amazing’, although she wasn’t sure what. ‘I just knew that this girl was very, very special’.

Kate recalls a memory from around that time when the pair went to one of the famous women’s peace protests at the Greenham Common nuclear base. She describes ‘one terrible picture’ taken of the two of them there ‘although we could be anywhere!’ The day was an ‘extraordinary’ occasion and one that took them away ‘from the author and editor relationship to something bigger’ that was ‘more part of the women we were rather than the workers we were’.

Sheila Hancock We sought permission from Bloomsbury to use this image.
Sheila Hancock
We sought permission from Bloomsbury to use this image.

In the years that have passed since those early experiences, the two have continued to actively support each other. Kate recounts how her friend rang her up for some advice when, after the death of Sheila’s husband the actor John Thaw, she was preparing to write the memoir that would become The Two of Us. And when Kate’s novel Labyrinth  won a prize at the British Book Awards 2006, it was Sheila who presented the award to her.

More recently, Sheila, who has watched Kate’s career develop with ‘awe and pleasure’, attended the launch of Kate’s latest book The Taxidermist’s Daughter. On the 23rd of this month, Kate will be interviewing Sheila on stage at an event at London’s Bloomsbury Institute to mark the publication of Sheila’s novel Miss Carter’s War.

Though both women acknowledge the importance of solitude to the life of a writer, they also talk about the need for friendship. As Sheila says, ‘It’s nice to meet up with a friend to find out what they’re doing and what the life outside is like’. These relationships prevent her from getting into the world of her book ‘to the exclusion of all else’.

Kate tells us that she values friendships with other writers. Amongst her peers, she sees people ‘who have the same creative emotions that I do. We have the same mixture of success and failure… the same mixture of ambition and wanting to be invisible, and that’s how we sustain one another’.

Kate Mosse’s most recent novel The Taxidermist’s Daughter is published by Orion.

Sheila Hancock’s novel Miss Carter’s War will be published by Bloomsbury on 9 October.

It Began with a Mouse: Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie

Zora Neale Hurston once invited her friend Marjory Kinnan Rawlings to give a lecture to her university students. For a time, they shared a publisher too. Like this month’s profiled pair, the bond between authors Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie is both personal and professional. In September’s guest blog, they tell us about the public and private faces of their friendship.

Science Museum café, London, and a mouse scoots across the floor. T and V have just met face to face for the first time, having emailed for a while. How to react? There are a few seconds of silence, then two sets of giggles. A serious meeting (on our way to an event about writing short stories with science at the Dana Centre) plus laughter. That sets the tone for a friendship that is now in its eighth year.

20140906_201525
(L-R) Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman at Gladfest at Gladstone’s Library

It began with generosity across continents – V, in the UK, emails to congratulate T, in Israel, for winning first prize in a flash fiction competition in which V wins second prize. It progressed to sharing the writer’s journey, ups and downs alike.

We were both at the start of our publication careers and decided to deal with it all with honesty, not hiding how many rejections our short stories were getting, even going so far as to set up a joint blog in 2007 documenting all our submissions statistics – acceptances, rejections, earnings.

This underpins our connection – honesty in sharing work, in giving feedback. Our writing styles are, of course, different, as are our approaches to teaching, but we believe in the No-Rules Rule – we apply it to each other and to everyone else we come into contact with.

We give each other permission to try anything, to take risks, to be a different kind of writer from the one we were yesterday, or last year. We are always trying something new, challenging each other – T inspires V with science, V has lured T into joining her WW1 obsessions through her annual writing group trip to The Somme.

We are both currently experimenting with poetry, sending each other poems-in-progress, wanting not just ‘Oh this is wonderful’ but ‘I think you don’t need this word/line/stanza’ too. We also share teaching techniques – and have taught workshops together.

We’d be firm friends whether or not we were writers, but writing definitely provides some great highs. We’ve both had the joy of being there when the other has received fantastic news – T’s first short story collection, V’s first novel. Each other’s successes lift us both.

We have been fortunate enough to win some prizes, get some awards and residencies, and we make sure that we allow ourselves to celebrate – which is not always easy for writers with a tendency towards introversion – but we both hate complacency and won’t go there, ever!

Eight years later, we live in the same country, though several hours apart, and we see each other more regularly. Wherever we are, the phrase that always gets uttered (mostly by V) is: ‘Shall we write?’ And we always do, not just at home, but in cafés (where cake somehow manages to make an appearance), parks, railway stations.

The Science Museum café might have altered its menu. The mouse might not be with us any more. But some things don’t change.

Tania Hershman’s latest short story collection My Mother Was an Upright Piano is published by Tangent Books.

Vanessa Gebbie’s novel The Coward’s Tale is published by Bloomsbury.

 

A Contact You Can Smell on Your Skin: Harriet Levin and Elizabeth L. Silver

Like Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, this month’s guest bloggers spend hours critiquing each others work over the phone. Separated by long distances across America and different time zones, poet Harriet Levin and novelist Elizabeth L. Silver let us take a look at one of their online chats.

Elizabeth L. Silver
Elizabeth L. Silver

ELIZABETH: I remember the first time we met. You were the big shot director of the writing program at Drexel University in Philadelphia and I was a lowly adjunct with my first post-MFA teaching job. You were an Iowa grad, had a major book of poetry published, and were a Yaddo alum. But our personal backgrounds had so many similarities that I was instantly drawn to you. Those early conversations, which centered on our writing and our relationships, cemented what has become a truly beautiful friendship in my life.

HARRIET: Thank you, Liz. I’m going to hang this on my wall, and whenever I feel down, take a look at it. Truth to tell, it was you actually who inspired me. You were working on a novel and I saw how you went about it and then I literally watched you land an agent, because you were sending out emails from the computers in the Writing Center, while I was trying to write fiction for the first time and had no idea what I was doing.

ELIZABETH: I loved how when we met, we were both conceiving our novels, talking about the work and our approaches to writing fiction. You might not know how eager I was to see you every day, that  I came to my job at the writing center at Drexel just to find out how your novel was progressing and to share my struggles. I had no idea I inspired you at all.

HARRIET: You know when you meet someone whether it’s important. Not every meeting is like that. If you have a good olfactory sense, you can smell it on your skin, because you’ve made contact. I’m the sort of person who has to move her seat in a restaurant when the person beside me wears offending perfume or hairspray, and I’m also the kind of person who moves closer. It was like that with you, Liz, this sense I had (and still have) that life is always happening around you.

Harriet Levin Millan
Harriet Levin

ELIZABETH: Now that I’m going to print out and place next to my laptop when I feel down. Is it clear that Hari is a brilliant poet?

HARRIET: And boy did you help me with my work. I’ll never forget the day when, over the phone, I told you I had reached the climax of my novel, but didn’t know how to resolve it. I was out on the deck off my kitchen, gripping a broom handle in my free hand, raising it into the corner of the porch door to swipe off a spider web. I have an idea, you said, and then you spelled out the resolution for me! It was right there but I couldn’t see it and you were able to see it so clearly. I put down the broom and went into the house and wrote the next pages.

ELIZABETH: That’s so funny because we discuss plot and story all the time, but I don’t remember that exact bit. The truth is that I wish we still lived in the same city, but our friendship has really blossomed long distance. We share work over email and spend hours critiquing it over the phone. It is these long-distance workshops that I rely on, that I treasure, and that I seek at all points in the writing process.

HARRIET: What’s more, in this past week alone, we both discovered that we had started new novels.

ELIZABETH: I could hardly believe it when you told me! As we both enter this terrifying period of novelty with our new projects, I feel a calmness knowing that I will have you along my side in the process. Thank you.

HARRIET: And knowing about the success of your first book, Liz, convinces me that you can do it again. That we both can. Thank you.

Harriet Levin’s The Christmas Show was published by Beacon Press and Girl in Cap and Gown was published by Mammoth Books.

Elizabeth L. Silver is author of the novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton published by Crown  in the US and Headline Review in the UK.

 

The Kind of Friendship that Shores You Up: Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin

A work connection brought Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson together. In this month’s guest blog, novelist Susan Barker and journalist Zakia Uddin tell us about the lucky circumstances that led to their friendship.

Susan

SusanBarker Beijing Photo 3I first met Zakia when we had summer jobs at the Statue of Liberty in 1999. Zakia was working in the gift shop, and I was outdoors in a kiosk selling hot dogs to the tourists. She was 19, I was 20, and we were both wearing unflattering green uniforms.

My first impression of Zakia was that she was pretty (my then boyfriend used to call Zakia ‘the elfin girl’), and very sharp, with a dry sense of humour that unsettled our co-workers at times.

That summer we took cigarette breaks together, and in the evenings we’d hang out at dive bars in the East Village where we weren’t ID-ed. It didn’t take long to establish we had a lot in common. We’d both grown up in Essex, as the children of Asian immigrants, and both had a similar sense of being caught between two cultures, and not fully belonging to either.

But mostly we had books in common. Zakia was a consummate reader, and would lend me her eclectic second-hand book shop finds. Fifteen years later, I still have one of those ‘borrowed’ paperbacks, in my bookcase at home.

Zakia and I reunited in London after that summer, and though I have been living in Asia half the time since then, we have kept in touch. She’s the first person I look up when I am back in the UK, and my favourite person to go to the pub and talk literature with.

For the past decade or so we have also had in common the ritual of locking ourselves away to write fiction (and in Zakia’s case, journalism) and the highs and lows of our vocation to share and commiserate over too.

Zakia is relentlessly interesting, funny and subversive company. A blog post is not nearly enough to describe how fortunate I am to have her in my life.

Zakia

Zakia photoI wanted to be friends with Susan based on her recalcitrant attitude towards customer service. I didn’t know what we had in common until much later, but I thought her tattoo and predilection for vodka and Marlboro Reds was cool.

Our exchange of books happened early. In New York, I read a combination of half-understood theory and old novels. Susan introduced me to contemporary writing that I might have reached by a more winding route, but I’m glad I didn’t.

She lent me Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, and Gwendoline Riley’s Cold Water, which both blew me away stylistically. We don’t always agree on the novels we like (which I love), but she continues to introduce me to technically fascinating writers.

Her genuine, sometimes gruff, encouragement with my writing was a factor in making me come back to fiction periodically, and then finally apply to a creative writing course. I also still think of her description, on a packed night-bus home to North London, of the novel as a ‘will-to-power’ exercise – seeing writing well as a challenge to yourself above anything else. The idea helps me to focus when I get neurotic or needy about ‘success’ or the lack of it.

Our backgrounds played a huge part in why we got along but there was also a shared love of similar music and film, and a tendency to see the comical in most things. We spent a lot of time in clubs, bars, and the kitchens of my various rented houses when she moved to London.

We’ve lived in different countries for a long while now, but the discussions when we sporadically see each other in England feel so much richer with time. What I value equally are the heartfelt, revelatory, honest conversations about work, relationships and the future, which usually make me feel realistic, tough and more hopeful afterwards.

This is the kind of friendship that shores you up.

 

Susan Barker’s third novel The Incarnations was published by Transworld this month.

A selection of Zakia Uddin’s journalism can be read at http://zaktivities.net/

 

Sharing the Knocks and Knockouts: Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan
Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

In this month’s guest blog, long-time writer friends Emily Bullock and Ann Morgan take up the June challenge to send each other a book with a dedication inside.

Emily Bullock

Ann and I first met on the interview day for UEA’s Creative Writing MA… So she tells me, and over the years I’ve come to think of her memory as my own. We were then lucky enough to be in the same writing workshop. Was I first drawn to the person or the pen? I no longer recall that either. But I do know that I liked both a great deal. Ann spent some nights on my airbed, which sealed the new friendship, and all these years later we are still friends.

The book I have chosen for Ann was inspired by her Year of Reading the World. Through this project, she came across a writer who didn’t get to read a novel until she was a teenager. The anecdote stayed in my mind because Ann is such a good storyteller. The first novel this writer got to read also seems the right selection for Ann because of her adventures in reading a book from every country, and the writing journey we have both been on, which will finally result in our debut books coming out next year.

In the words of all the best DJs – Ann Morgan, this one’s for you: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Around the World in Eighty Days
Image used with the kind permission of Penguin Pocket Classics

And my dedication:

‘What had he brought back from this long and weary journey?’

The airbed has deflated but we go on: friends and writers. I feel fortunate to have you as a travelling companion.

Ann Morgan

Emily’s right: we did meet at the interview day for our master’s. I can even remember the book she was reading – Salt: A World History by Mark Kulansky.

If it seems a bit freaky that I can recall so much, it’s no doubt testament to how well we got on. Almost from the word go, we were chatting easily and seemed to understand each other’s take on books and writing. The friendship was particularly important for me as I was commuting from London to study on the course in Norwich – hence the airbed (in case you were wondering).

Ten years on, we remain great friends. We’ve seen each other change, grow, struggle and succeed, and it’s lovely that our debut books, The Longest Fight and Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, will be coming out at roughly the same time in 2015.

In recognition of this, I’ve chosen a novel that links together our projects: Seconds Out by Martín Kohan.

Seconds-Out
Image used with the kind permission of Serpent’s Tail

It’s the book I read from Argentina during my Year of Reading the World and centres on boxing, which is the subject of Emily’s novel. The story also seems appropriate because I think both of us would agree that the journey to publication has been a bit like a battle on occasions. As a result, my dedication reads:

‘It has felt like the longest fight at times, but it’s been great to share the knocks and knockouts with you. Here’s to the next bout.’

 

Emily Bullock’s novel The Longest Fight will be published by Myriad Editions in spring 2015.

Ann Morgan’s non-fiction book Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker, also in spring 2015.

We Speak the Same Language: Julie Sarkissian & Haley Tanner

When Laura MacDougall of Hodder & Stoughton contacted us about the friendship between one of her authors, Julie Sarkissian, and fellow US novelist, Haley Tanner, we were keen to learn more. So, we interviewed them for this month’s guest post.

Julie (left) with Haley (right)
Julie (left) with Haley (right)

Something Rhymed: What were your first impressions of each other and how did you become friends?

Haley: The first time I saw Julie I wanted to become her friend instantly.  It was the first week of the MFA program we did together and during these awful get-to-know you exercises where everyone tried as hard as possible to impress everyone else with their apathy and pretension – in the middle of all that she was a shining beacon of honesty and ease and genuine enthusiasm.  Then we had our first workshop together and the story she brought to the table was just beautiful and strange and so impressive – I still remember lines from that first story – and I thought she’d never be my friend – she just seemed so brilliant – and way too cool for me.  I think she must have done the first inviting-out-to-drinks – I don’t remember – but I’m pretty shy about those things so I bet it was her.  The first time we went out together I could not believe that this gorgeous intense-genius person was so down-to-earth, so real and wonderful and so human.

Julie: A few of us students were standing around after some kind of orientation and I remember thinking Haley was very hip, was totally beautiful and very charming and engaging. We later found ourselves in class together but we didn’t talk outside class until the day her writing was workshopped for the first time. I was blown away by her talent. I went up to her after class and said, your writing is amazing, I have this feeling we speak the same language, let’s go get a drink. So we went to a bar that us MFA kids would go to after class and we stayed up talking long into the night. After that, we took all our classes together and, after we graduated, we saw each other almost as much as we had in school.

Something Rhymed: What qualities or interests do you share and in what ways do you differ?

Julie: Haley’s an adventurer and I’m a creature of habit. I’ve worked in the same restaurant for ten years, had the same therapist for seven years, had the same boyfriend/now husband for nine years. In that amount of time Haley has travelled the world many times over. We are both pretty extroverted, we both love a good in-depth, no holds barred heart-to-heart. Needless to say we both love to read and love to talk about books.

Haley: Oh my goodness! There isn’t anything I wouldn’t like to do with Julie by my side. We both procrastinate by baking or cooking or cleaning when we should be writing. Julie was the first writer I met who would admit that there were many times that we’d rather do anything – anything AT ALL, than write. What ways do we differ? Julie is far more social than I am. She’s a real girl’s girl – she has this incredible ability to create an amazing space where women can be supportive of each other and let go and have real fun.  I remember Julie throwing an all-girls holiday party, cranking Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas’ and getting everyone to dance around the room. I think Julie should be held up as an example that being an incredible literary genius does not mean that you cannot throw a great dinner party, kick off your heels, and dance around the room.

Julie is an amazing friend, and she’s an amazing friend to a long list of very lucky people. I’m sort of a homebody – Julie has always drawn me out of my shell, and taught me, by example, how to be a better friend.

Julie (left) & Haley (right)
Julie (left) & Haley (right)

Something Rhymed: Can you tell us about the role of writing in your friendship?

Haley: Julie is the only person on the planet with whom I can share some of my darkest writing troubles – she’s so unguarded, I can tell her anything. Julie helped me write my first query letter to an agent – and she forced me to send it. I wouldn’t have a career without her encouragement.  I still have all of Julie’s handwritten edits on the early versions of the manuscript for my first novel – those pages are the only edited rough-draft relics I’ve saved – if only for her handwriting and genius.

Recently we’ve been talking about motherhood – it’s an entirely new world we’re both entering.  It’s essential to survival to have someone by your side who knows who you were before you were a mom.  For me, writing has taken on an entirely new importance – it’s a way to spend time in my mind – to reclaim some of the territory lost to the baby and the breastfeeding and the sleep struggles.  I think that having a friend who is also exploring this alien land can keep you from losing your mind.

Julie: Haley is one of the only people whom I am very, very close with that I feel can empathize with the struggles of writing, publishing, the disappointments, the jealousies, the confusion. I rely on her to validate many of my ambivalent, painful feelings about writing and being a writer that are hard to express to other friends. Our friendship is so much more than just about writing, but we first connected over writing and confiding in each other about writing was the basis of a deep intimacy.

Something Rhymed: Have the two of you ever experienced any feelings of literary rivalry and, if so, how did you find a way to manage them?

Julie: When Haley sold her novel and I was still editing mine with my agent I was definitely jealous. I wanted so badly to have what she had. But I think the word rivalry implies one person desiring to be superior and that I have not necessarily experienced. Haley was the first person to read my novel and vice versa, so we were invested in each other’s novels from the very beginning.

Haley: I have never, never, felt any sort of rivalry with Julie – and no envy.  I truly love her, and I’ve only felt true happiness at her success.   I think there’s a very pervasive and damaging idea floating out in the universe that writing – or any art – is a zero-sum game – that someone else’s success is your loss. That’s ridiculous and harmful – and it sabotages real, supportive, loving relationships.  Throughout all of the early struggles I always believed that one day Julie and I would be lucky enough to do interviews like this – to talk about our books and our lives together.

Julie Sarkissian’s novel, Dear Lucy, is published by Hodder & Stoughton

Haley Tanner’s novel, The Adventures Of Vaclav The Magnificent And His Lovely Assistant Lena, is published by Cornerstone.

By the time we met, I felt as though I already knew her: Kadija ‘George’ Sesay and Dorothea Smartt

Our April guest bloggers are poets Kadija ‘George’ Sesay and Dorothea Smartt. They’ve shared with us their conversation about their first impressions of each other…

Kadija George

 

Kadija
The first time I met Dorothea, she was a figment, yet a fixture of Centerprise, a community centre in East London, that housed a community publishing project. In 1995, I became the Black Literature Development Worker, a newly created post that replaced Dorothea’s role in the publishing project, which she ran with Bernadette Halpin. There wasn’t anything I could do that wasn’t compared to Dorothea!

Are you going to run workshops (like Dorothea)? Are you going to set up performance poetry evenings (like Dorothea)? Can you publish our poems in books (like Dorothea)?

Who was this Dorothea person I had to compete against?

In the meantime I took home the Word Up! Women’s Café anthology that Dorothea had edited, and realised why this woman was so missed by those she’d worked with. This was a classic anthology of women’s performance poetry in London, published in the mid-Nineties. There was nothing else like it.

DSafro byRT IMG_7860

Dorothea
I can’t remember when I first heard about Kadija. I had heard of her before I met her because she was working at Centerprise where I had worked, at one of the most enjoyable and rewarding jobs that I had had, up until that time.

Although I left Centerprise under a cloud I was glad to see there was someone taking up the reins. One of my main regrets was that I always felt I should have published more Black people. At the point when I left, we had our publishing resources removed so when she brought out Calabash, a newspaper for writers of African and Caribbean descent, I thought: oh good, she is getting around that, by putting out a resource in newspaper format.

Kadija
By the time I met Dorothea, I felt as though I already knew her – I can’t even remember the exact time, except I published one of her poems in my first anthology, Burning Words, Flaming Images for which she says, till this day, it is the only poem she has published that she has ever been paid for, so I’m proud of that.

Dorothea
I remember reading at the launch event for the book at Centerprise. I still have the photo of Jacob Ross, Bernardine Evaristo, Courttia Newland, Chris Abani… It could very well have been the first time we met in person.

Around that time, Kadija organised the first Writer’s Hotspot in The Gambia in 1996. When she asked me to go a second time to be one of the tutors, I couldn’t believe it. I went again and shadowed Kadija.

She pointed me out and said, ‘On the next trip, she’s the Boss Lady.’ It gave me a lot of confidence that she selected me.

Kadija
I knew Dorothea had a good reputation so there was mutual respect on both sides.

Dorothea
And here was someone who liked travelling as well. I believed in Kadija and what she was doing. I knew that whatever she did was gonna get done!

Kadija ‘George’ Sesay is the publisher of SABLE LitMag. Her poetry collection Irki was published by Peepal Tree Press.

Dorothea Smartt’s third poetry collection Reader I married him and other strange goings on will be published by in 2014.

They are currently co-directors of the Inscribe programme for professional development for writers of African and Asian descent, based at Peepal Tree Press.

Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell: ‘a collaboration to be treasured’

In this month’s guest blog, long-time writer friends Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell take up the March challenge to send each other mementoes of their friendship…

Rachel

Antonia and I were connected even before we met: we were paired, in advance of the MA in Novel Writing at Manchester University, to submit work in the same workshop.

From the beginning, friendship and work have been intertwined.  For nearly a decade we’ve spent happy hours talking of books and our children; of our ambitions, hopes and passions.  There’s a geographical distance (I live in the north; Antonia in the south of England) but we snatch time together in person where we can.

When the MA ended, Antonia and I took turns to submit work by email, which was printed off by the other and returned with comments.  This loop of regular submission and feedback has sustained us ever since.

The pressures of work or childcare have sometimes interrupted the pattern but the firm foundation of a working relationship will always be there.  We are, for each other, cheerleader, editor and critical friend.

Antonia's gift for Rachel
Antonia’s gift for Rachel

When I received the beautiful locket Antonia sent me I was immensely touched.  It symbolises space – the space we have afforded each other and the space for development of our creative work.

When I opened it, I was surprised to see that it contains a tiny rose, to represent growth.  I’m not sure whether she thought of it, but the rose is a crucial image in a novel I’m working on right now (which is based on Charles Rennie Mackintosh).  Consciously or subconsciously, she must have picked up on that.

I do miss Antonia’s actual presence but I know that we’ve carved out an emotional and creative space in which we can both grow.  It’s a friendship and a collaboration to be treasured – just like the locket, in fact, which now takes pride of place on the bookshelves next to my writing desk.

Antonia

It’s possible that the early hours of the morning aren’t the best time to write, but on top of four small children, we have chronic illness in the house, a head teacher being an arse, and a cellar pump that keeps failing. Yet here I am, writing.

From the first days of our friendship, Rachel’s faith in my work has given me permission to write even, and especially, when life has conspired to make it impossible. Others know us as mothers, teachers, wives and workers, but to each other, we are writers first.

Rachel's gift to Antonia
Rachel’s gift to Antonia

The little book Rachel sent me symbolises what brought us together, what sustains our friendship and what is produced by it. No Anne Sharp could have been prouder of Jane Austen than I was of Rachel when Sisterwives was published: it felt like a great triumph not only for Rachel, but for the dedication with which we both carved out the time for our regular exchanges of work.

Those exchanges have ebbed and flowed with the vicissitudes of our other lives, but our writing relationship has always been one in which the words ‘I told you so’ hold no negative connotations.

We don’t meet in person very often, but every meeting is an oasis. The next will be on Rachel’s birthday this summer. The last time I was able to celebrate Rachel’s birthday with her in person, too long ago, I confided the seed of the idea that would become The Ship. This time, The Ship will be on the verge of publication.

It began with two women who wanted to write. The rose in the locket is a symbol of the wonders that can happen, when dreams are given a little space.

Rachel Connor’s novel Sisterwives was published by Crocus Books in 2011. Her radio play The Cloistered Soul will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 29th May this year.

Antonia Honeywell’s novel The Ship will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in January 2015.

 Remember

We’re still searching for more famous female writer pals to feature in the upcoming months, so do let us know if there’s a pair you’d like to see profiled.

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