Vicky Grut and Kathy Page: Writer friends with the long view

Last month, we were delighted to feature Vicky Grut’s post on the literary friendship between Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens. Today, to mark the occasion of Vicky’s debut short story collection, Live Show, Drink Included, we bring you a guest post by Vicky and her own friend Kathy Page, author of the recently published novel Dear Evelyn.

Vicky Grut (©Bill Williams)

Vicky: We met in 1984. You came to see my degree show at Goldsmiths. I remember the person who introduced us telling my then boyfriend that you were ‘a proper writer’, which suggests I was tinkering with the idea of writing even then, though I was making video documentaries at the time. You published your first book. You learned to drive and moved away to Norwich and the UEA course with Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. We lost touch. About ten years later I found a copy of Frankie Styne and the Silver Man in a bookshop. I still have it. I wrote to you care of Methuen and discovered that you were living just minutes away from me in south London. By then I had started writing seriously. You invited me to join your writers’ group and soon afterwards I began to get my stories published. But I was quite awe-struck by you and all your achievements – I still am. Eleven books!

Kathy-Page-main-picutre-HR
Kathy Page (©Billie Woods)

Kathy: We write quite differently and I like that. I’m always interested to read what you are working on and delighted that the book is finally coming out. As I soon discovered once you joined the group, you’re a very sensitive reader, and articulate too. Also, you talk with your hands…  I’ve always appreciated your very nuanced response to my work in progress, and the way you’ll read something at short notice. Over the years I think we have become more and more attuned to each other’s concerns, aims and voices, which is mainly a very good thing, though I do think that in a way it does perhaps sometimes make it harder to see each other’s work as a stranger will.

Vicky: It was 1993 when we reconnected. Bill and I were living in a one-bedroom flat with our first child. We were desperate to move to a bigger place but everything in our price range was so cramped and ugly. One day Bill came back saying he’d seen a beautiful Edwardian flat in X road. ‘But that’s where Kathy lives!’ I said. There are more than a hundred flats in this road, but the one he’d found turned out to be right next door to yours. We moved in 1994 and we’re still living here. When Becki was born, you and Richard moved to a bigger place. In 2001 you emigrated to Canada.

Kathy: I really enjoyed us being neighbours in the nineties. The living room and kitchen areas of our maisonettes looked in on each other, and early on in that period when I was pretty unhappy I used to glimpse and overhear you and your family and feel inspired by you all getting along so well. I really think it helped me to have the vision and courage to finally ditch my unhappy relationship and find a better one. And then as a result you later got to overhear my moaning and groaning when I was in labour with my daughter.

Vicky: I was so impressed by the way you took charge of your life. You decided to choose happiness. I remember your first-date nerves when you started going out with Richard. Now you have two grown-up children.

Kathy: I was a bit worried when I handed my writing classes over to you. I was exhausted and had been doing too much teaching and I felt that perhaps it was a bit of a poisoned chalice. But I think you are a natural teacher, and it worked out well, and paved the way for us to have the opportunity to teach together later on. And here we are, seventeen years after I left the country, with our books coming out within weeks of each other! I’m very glad that we kept in touch (thank goodness for email) and that we’ve been able to see each other fairly regularly too.

Vicky: I’ve learned so much from our friendship. In the early days it was about the craft of writing itself, but also about publishing. I’ve watched your work go through a creative renaissance since you started working with indie publishers like Biblioasis and And Other Stories. Without them you wouldn’t have published those two wonderful collections of stories, both nominated for the Giller Prize. Your example encouraged me to gather my own short fiction together and to approach Holland Park Press.

Kathy: I like that ours is not just a writing friendship. We help each other through the ups and downs of the writing life and we share our stories and worries about our kids, husbands and work.

Vicky: And we have the long view. We know the road that each of us has travelled and we can check in with one another about what’s important.

 

Kathy Page’s eighth novel, Dear Evelyn, was published on 6 September 2018 by And Other Stories in the UK and  Biblioasis in Canada, and is forthcoming in Germany. You can find out more about her work at  http://www.kathypage.info/

 

Vicky Grut’s first book Live Show, Drink Included: Collected Stories is published by Holland Park Press on 5 October 2018. You can follow her on Twitter @VickyGrut. Her website is: www.vickygrut.com

 

 

Edited by Clêr Lewis. Clêr has an MA in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and is  working on her first novel.

 

 

 

 

A Secret Sisterhood – available for pre-order

Even though writers are supported by a team of people at their publishing house, bringing a book into the world can sometimes feel a lonely business. There’s usually one person hunched over her desk, one name on the cover and one person travelling to interviews and events.

We feel so fortunate to be able to share the experience. During the most intense periods of editing A Secret Sisterhood, we stayed in each other’s homes for days on end, took walks together during our breaks, and cooked each other late-night bowls of pasta.

Now that our UK publication date is almost upon us, we’re working in the same room once more. This time our advance copies are stacked on the desk beside us, our names side by side on the cover – alongside Margaret Atwood’s, who generously wrote our foreword.

Now available for early purchase. Every pre-order raises the book’s profile with retailers.

In keeping with the theme of A Secret Sisterhood, during our years of research and writing, a great many individuals and organisations have extended the hand of friendship to us – not least the readers of this blog. Your confidence from early on that this subject deserved to be explored in greater depth inspired us to write this book.

We’re hoping to meet lots of you in person during the coming months at some of our events. We’ll be interviewed by Michèle Roberts and Sarah LeFanu at Waterstones Gower Street; talking with Kate Mosse at the British Library; and delivering the keynote speech at the 46th Annual George Eliot Lecture. Details of these and other events can be found here, and we’ll be adding to it regularly over the coming days and weeks.

Just to add:

The UK edition will be out on 1 June. The US edition, with a slightly different title (A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf) will be out on 17 October. We’ll say more about this nearer to the time, but both editions are available for pre-order now. The US edition is currently heavily discounted if you pre-order it here.

The Ghost of Charlotte Brontë

In our first post of October, we mentioned that George Eliot once received a letter from her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe in which she recounted a ghostly visit she’d received from the late Charlotte Brontë. Although Eliot brushed off this tale, telling Stowe that, ‘rightly or not’, she found it ‘enormously improbable’, the strange episode intrigued us. From which of the historic writers we’ve profiled on our website, we wondered, would we most welcome the chance of a visit?

The hardest thing about this month’s activity was making that choice. Katherine Mansfield, for instance, with her Bohemian ways, has always fascinated me. Having spent several months of this year immersed in Eliot’s letters to Stowe, I’ve become more and more interested in the life of the author of Middlemarch, and so I seriously considered writing about Eliot in this post, even though – given her reaction to Stowe – I’m not sure she’d have approved of the exercise.

But in the end I realised that, of all the authors we’ve profiled, it is the same writer that Stowe wrote of so excitedly to her British friend who has most haunted my own imagination over the years.

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.
Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

Unlike Eliot or Stowe, Austen or Woolf, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of who the Brontë sisters were. My mother had named me Emily, after her favourite of the three, and, once she thought her daughters were old enough to appreciate the atmospheric setting – but some time, I think, before Erica or I had actually read any of the Brontës’ books – she took us to visit the Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This was a place famously popular with Japanese tourists, and somewhere Mum had got to know well herself through her related work for the regional tourist board.

There was a gift shop at the Parsonage, selling brooches bearing the sisters’ images. I, of course, bought an Emily Brontë brooch – thinking that, given my name – this was pretty much a requirement. I also remember feeling momentarily envious that Erica was able to make the choice for herself, by holding the Charlotte and Anne brooches up to the light and trying to decide whose picture she liked the most.

After much chivvying from our parents, who were no doubt keen to get us all outside for our lunchtime sandwiches, Erica finally selected the Charlotte brooch. Later, on the drive home in the car, we sat side-by-side in the back comparing our Brontë sisters. Unlike the dark colours of my miniature portrait of Emily, the Charlotte brooch was all cream and taupe with the merest blush of rose on her cheeks and lips.

There was something not-quite-there about the image, something that hinted at all the elements missing from the artist’s representation of his subject. You couldn’t guess, not from looking at the woman of that picture, that this was someone whose most famous novel had once made her a scandalous figure, because of the way its plot was believed to mount a dangerous challenge to contemporary patriarchal traditions.

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

Even in the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, there are many elements missing in her account of Charlotte’s life because, in order to try and resurrect her friend’s reputation she suppressed evidence, for instance, of her love of the married Constantin Héger, and tended to ignore details that might work against her aims of honouring Charlotte ‘as a woman, separate from her character as an authoress’.

Although later biographies have filled in many of these details, there is something about all three Brontë sisters, in fact, that remains enticingly enigmatic. It explains to me why my mother, a life-long lover of mysteries, should have been so drawn to their stories, and even perhaps why Stowe sat down in the dark well over a century ago now and tried to make contact with Charlotte Brontë.

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.