Crying Tears of Laughter: Irenosen Okojie and Yvette Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yvette says:

iphone pics 202

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse: Tortoises Rather Than Hares

A Class Act

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

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

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

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

The Polymath and the Will of Steel

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

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

The Unrest Cure

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

Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club

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

Silent 3

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

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

Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse
Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse

Rollercoaster

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

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

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

 

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

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

SR: How did you become friends?

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

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

Liz Jensen, photograph by Jacob Ehrbahn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories of Jean Rhys: our interview with Diana Athill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie Gee and Salena Godden: the Innocence Under the Armour

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

Maggie Gee

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

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

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

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

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.

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(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/