Sheer Good Fortune

As regular readers of Something Rhymed may have guessed, Emily and I have been busy these past months working on other projects.

I’ve become Director of The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio, which offers mentoring by authors and agents to writers of fiction, narrative non-fiction and YA.

Emily has been holed away in the rare books rooms of various libraries, researching a transatlantic group of Victorian clairvoyants for her new book Out of the Shadows, which will be published by Counterpoint Press.

And we’ve both made significant changes in our personal lives too…

When Emily and I launched Something Rhymed back in 2014, we published a post on Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison – writers whose friendship combined from its inception the personal and professional, the celebratory and consolatory.

These legends of American letters grew close when they shared a bill at the Hay Festival in Wales during a time when both women were concerned about their mothers who were ill back home. In the decades since then, these ‘sister friends’ moved seamlessly between the public and private aspects of their friendship, paying tribute to each other’s literary accomplishments at huge official gatherings but also talking about family over dishes of Angelou’s fried chicken or wedges of Morrison’s carrot cake.

It was just such a combination of intimacy and admiration, celebration and consolation that prompted Angelou to help put on an event to honour her fellow author during a period when she knew that Morrison needed to be shown love and comfort following the death of her son.

The event was poignantly titled Sheer Good Fortune after the dedication Morrison had made to her boys at the beginning of her novel Sula: ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’. And now, in the wake of Morrison’s recent death, such a sentiment feels particularly resonant.

Back at the Hay Festival in 2014, Morrison announced from the stage they’d once shared the sad news that Angelou had died. Emily and I, sitting in the audience side by side, promised each other to follow their example by not only continuing to offer each other solace during dark times but also to celebrate each other privately and publicly, professionally and personally.

Over the years, Emily and I have been there for each other during bereavements and breakups as well as periods of professional and financial uncertainty. This only heightens the pleasure we’ve taken in the sheer good fortune each of us has experienced of late.

I will never forget the excitement in Emily’s voice when she called to let me know that she was expecting a baby. And then, not long afterwards, when we were in a tiny French restaurant in Earl’s Court marking both her pregnancy and her birthday, she shared her news that she and her long-term partner Jack had got engaged on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A few months later, when I was delivering bourguignons, curries and Spanish stews to Emily’s flat in preparation for the weeks following the approaching birth, I told her about my partner Jonathan’s proposal to me and mine to him on a hillside overlooking a market town in Shropshire. Once I’d stocked up Emily’s freezer, we headed back to Earl’s Court, this time to one of our favourite coffee houses. There, we celebrated my engagement to Jonathan and Emily’s marriage to Jack and her pregnancy alongside a female friend we’ve  known since our days as young English teachers in rural Japan.

Wedding shoes – Emily & Jack getting married
The spot where Jonathan and Emma proposed to each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emily and I had dedicated our co-written book A Secret Sisterhood to Jack and Jonathan – a strange choice, perhaps, for a book on female literary friendship, but it felt fitting to us since our partners had always appreciated the importance of our own writing friendship, and had supported it at every turn. In our Acknowledgements, we thanked Jack and Jonathan for ‘keeping us well fed during long stints in our studies, and, most of all, never failing to be there when we emerged’.

No sooner did Emily and I emerge, however, than we each went back into hibernation – separately this time. Although we are no longer editing at a shared desk, sustained by Jack’s late-night dashes to the local kebab house or breakfasts with Jonathan at the greasy spoon, the four of us have found new ways to offer each other personal sustenance and professional support.

Emily and I have gone back to reading each other’s drafts, for instance, with a freshness and curiosity that was impossible when we’d already pored over the research materials side by side and laboured together over chapter plans.

And, when Jonathan and I set up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio – a development scheme for writers of fiction and narrative non-fiction – Emily was one of the first people I asked to join our nationwide line-up of mentors. I know first-hand, of course, the quality of her feedback and the dedication she shows to other writers. Like me, Emily is originally from the north of England and we’ve both supported friends and family with access needs, so Emily shares our belief in making mentoring accessible across the country in person and via videocall, and she understands why we are committed to offering a free spot to someone of limited means. Like me, back when Emily was unpublished, she benefited from a period of mentoring by a more established author. Now that she is bringing out books on both sides of the Atlantic, she’s as keen as I am to offer other writers similar opportunities.

During a summer spent largely setting up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio and continuing to work on my new novel, my friendship with Emily has offered me the most joyful of excuses to escape from my writing shed. During my first meetings with baby Lola, I have enjoyed rocking her to sleep in the nursery, pushing her pram through the park and chatting with Emily about everything from marriage to mentoring, motherhood to manuscripts. And, over the years to come, I’ll look forward to helping Emily teach her daughter what creative women have always known – that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Emily and Lola

Emily will be on maternity leave for the rest of this year, but I will continue to run Something Rhymed after its summer hiatus.  

We are looking for female writing friendships to feature on the site from October onwards. Please do take a look at our submission guidelines and get in touch if you’d like to pitch an idea.

It would also be lovely to hear from any of you who might be interested in the following literary projects I’ll be involved in over the coming months:

You can apply for all the mentoring and editing packages offered by The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio via its website, or direct any queries to studio@ruppinagency.com. The deadline for the selective scheme (including the free spot) is 5pm on Monday September 2nd but we accept ongoing applications for all other packages.  

Booking is now open for my one-day novel writing courses at the gorgeous Cambridge Writing Retreat. On Saturday October 19th, we’ll be asking what ‘Show Don’t Tell’ really means. And on Saturday November 23rd, Jonathan will join me in his role as literary agent to help writers work out what steps to take once the crucial first draft is complete.

And do save Saturday October 26th for the University of East Anglia’s Doris Lessing centenary celebration. I’m looking forward to sharing more stories about Lessing’s friendship with Muriel Spark during my conversation on stage with Rachel Cusk and Lara Feigel. This event also includes access to UEA’s Doris Lessing 100 exhibition, which contains archival material on display for the very first time.

 

 

New Chapters: From co-authors to creative companions

On the day when our joint book comes out in paperback in North America, it is my great honour to announce that Emily’s new non-fiction book, Out of the Shadows, will be published by Counterpoint Press over there, most likely in summer 2020. And the North American audio rights have been acquired by Recorded Books, who also produced the audio version of A Secret Sisterhood.

In the midst of our celebrations, I reflect on our circular literary journey from a nervous first exchange of drafts to co-authoring and back again.

I first read Emily’s creative writing a decade and a half ago, when she was still in Japan (where we’d met as young English teachers) while I had returned to the UK and was living back with my parents in Birkenhead. The package of word-processed pages, which had wended their way from Emily’s shoebox apartment to my pink-walled childhood bedroom, lay unopened for days on end.

During my shifts front-of-house at a local cinema and in between protracted break-up conversations with my long-term boyfriend, my faraway friend’s unread work kept playing on my mind: what if I didn’t understand it, or couldn’t think of a response, or hated every word?

Part of me regretted our agreement to exchange writing samples. Although we’d been friends for two years, and had known about our shared dreams of publication for the past twelve months, I wondered whether our promise to read and give feedback on each other’s work had been too hasty. With my home, job and relationship all feeling temporary, I held onto writing and friends for stability. Both, I prayed, would remain in my life for the long haul. And yet, I dreaded receiving Emily’s feedback on my fledgling fiction. I wasn’t sure I had much to offer as a critic, either, and I was worried about the strain the discussion might place on us.

But as soon as I read Emily’s story – pen in hand and bolstered by pillows – I felt a sense of hope. The compelling narrative, enigmatic characters and captivating sensuality introduced me to a new side to my friend. I was brimming with ideas and comments and questions. For the first time in a while, I felt confident about the future: here was a friendship that could only be deepened by our daunting literary endeavours; here was someone I sensed would become my constant writing companion and confidante.

Neither of us could have predicted the extent to which we would walk alongside each other during our long, shared journeys to publication: postgraduate degrees in creative writing from the same programme; lecturing jobs at the same universities; thousands of draft pages covered in each other’s scrawl.

When we finally attended each other’s book launches or award ceremonies – having both by then accumulated stacks of rejection slips – the celebrations felt jointly earned. After all, we knew each other’s writing almost as well as our own, detecting behind each published page the ghostly presences of killed-off characters, discarded scenes and amputated lines.

The North American paperback of A Secret Sisterhood, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is out now.

Back when we first plucked up the courage to exchange our earliest drafts, we’d hardly dared dream of such intense collaboration, let alone the prospect of seeing our names published side-by-side. The first time we enjoyed this privilege was when we pitched a joint idea on female literary friendship to  The Times. And, of course, we would later experience the joy of seeing our names together on the cover of our co-authored book, A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

Writing together has brought us countless chances to share a creative process that is usually characterized by solitude. Instead, we’ve ferried bulging files of notes between each other’s homes; pored over forgotten manuscripts in far-flung archives; eaten fry-ups together after editing through the night; travelled across the USA on the Secret Sisterhood book tour, knowing that the friend we sat beside on stage was ready to pitch in whenever we needed help.

Even the inevitable difficulties of co-authorship have ultimately enhanced our friendship and our writing lives. We learnt, for instance, that we can get over fiery sleep-deprived arguments, that our literary disagreements invariably challenge us to come up with new and more robust ideas.

Owl Song at Dawn (Legend Press) won the literary category of Nudge Book of the Year 2016

Our joint research for A Secret Sisterhood paved the way for each of our new books. I have become increasingly fascinated by another of Virginia Woolf’s female relationships – one that instilled in Woolf such fear and shame that she suppressed it from accounts of her life. Consigned to the footnotes of literary history, this woman will take centre stage in my novel based on her life.

Fiction writing marks a homecoming for me since my debut, Owl Song at Dawn, was a novel that explored Britain’s little-known history of learning disability through the lives of twin sisters born in Morecambe in 1933. Emily, however, will be deepening her practice as a writer of non-fiction.

During our Secret Sisterhood research trip to the New York Public Library, Emily transcribed a cache of letters from Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to her British female friend George Eliot. Emily became fascinated by Stowe’s interest in Spiritualism – the belief that the living have the power to communicate with the dead.

Out of the Shadows will be published by Counterpoint Press, most likely in summer 2020.

Through this, Emily discovered a transatlantic community of Victorian women whose clairvoyant claims secured them unprecedented levels of power and celebrity.

Emily’s book proposal for Out of the Shadows introduced me to the mysterious world of seances, trance lecturers and former child mediums, who spoke up about female suffrage and draconian lunacy laws, delivered powerful political oration, advised Wall Street brokers, and even, in one case, stood as the first female presidential candidate of the United States.

I know that Emily has been spending hours on end in the library, and that her draft chapters are stacking up, but I have only caught glimpses so far of the stories they might contain. Soon, I hope, Emily will send them to me for feedback.

Fifteen years ago, when we first exchanged work, I felt almost paralyzed by the unknown territory contained in Emily’s word-processed pages. Now, I will pick up my pen straight away, curious to see where my friend’s research has taken her, impatient to read her words once more. On this journey back from co-authoring to writing separately, it is this renewed sense of mystery that I most relish – the opportunity to be taken somewhere entirely unexpected, led every step of the way by a trusted friend.

A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf is out in paperback in North America today.