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.

Something Rhymed by the Sea…

Something Rhymed at the Margate Bookie festival

Do join us for our talk on literary friendship at Margate’s literary festival on August 20th. Or why not make a weekend of it and stick around for Emma’s appearance at the literary lounge on August 21st, where she will be talking about her debut novel, Owl Song at Dawn? 

Something Rhymed Event Poster (3)
Date & Time: Saturday 20 August, 5.30-6.30pm Venue: Sands Hotel, Margate Ticket: £5, book here. Click on the poster to view it in greater detail.

We are really looking forward to two days of literary fun  and friendship down by the sea. The line-up includes friends of Something Rhymed, Maggie Gee and Salena Godden, who wrote a joint guest post for us back in 2014 and appeared at our first Something Rhymed Salon.

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Tickets: £5.00 or all three Literary Lounge events for £15 Date & Time: Sunday August 21, 5.30-6.30pm Venue: Sands Hotel, Margate. Click on the poster to view it in greater detail.

There’s something for everyone: Jay Rayner for the foodies, Ruth Dugdall for fans of crime writing, magical storytelling shows for the kids and happiness workshops run by Psychologies Magazine, which we might all find beneficial. Here’s the full Margate Bookie Programme for your perusal.

As if that’s not enough, we’re assured that Margate Bookie is England’s friendliest litfest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out Now! Owl Song at Dawn by Emma Claire Sweeney

In the midst of turbulent times here in Britain, it is good to have things to look forward to.

 

As many of our readers will know, throughout the two-and-a-half years that we have been running Something Rhymed, and more recently writing a non-fiction book together, Emma has also been working on a novel.

I have written before about the joys of being able to follow the progress of Owl Song at Dawn – a project that has been a real labour of love for Emma.

As a reader, I quickly fell in love with its story too, even in its earliest, least polished drafts. For what feels like a very long time now, I have been waiting for the day when readers beyond Emma’s family and friends will be able to share in her wonderful book.

Owl Song at Dawn is a warm and deeply evocative novel. Its indomitable protagonistMaeve Maloney – the octogenarian proprietor of the Seaview Lodge boarding house – has spent a lifetime in the seaside town of Morecambe, trying to unlock the secrets of Edie, her exuberant yet inexplicable twin. These are characters who will move you, and stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

When Emma called me up to tell me that the publishing house Legend Press had acquired the rights to Owl Song at Dawn, it was a wonderful moment for both of us. While we’ve been hard at work on our joint book since then – and with Emma’s publication date creeping ever closer – it’s been fun to remain somewhat involved with her novel too.

We’ve talked a lot about early drafts of book covers, for instance, and the literary events Emma has planned for this summer. Recently, I was privileged to be able to get a special preview of a short story of hers, which will be coming out at around the same time as the book.

Now, finally, on the first of July 2016, the launch day of Owl Song at Dawn has arrived. And, not as Emma’s friend, but simply as someone who loves good writing, I urge you to buy a copy.

The novel is available to order here. It has, in fact, been available for pre-order for several months but I confess that I haven’t ordered it myself.

You see, ever since I first read a page of Owl Song at Dawn, I have looked forward to the day when I will be able to pick up a printed and bound copy from a bookseller’s display, glance at Emma’s name on the cover and then hand over my money with the lovely, satisfied feeling that my friend wrote this.

After waiting all this while, how could I deprive myself of that?

 

 

Singing Each Other’s Songs

As we mentioned in last week’s post, Margaret Mason’s relationship with Mary Shelley – the daughter of her former governess Mary Wollstonecraft – changed dramatically over the years. Thinking about the change in Mason and Shelley’s relationship prompted us to look back on some of the changes that have affected our own friendship.

It’s my great pleasure to be able to talk of this most recent one now…

Some of our readers – particularly those who follow Emma and me on Twitter – will already know that the first of our novels will be published in 2016. I say ‘our’, but I want to make it clear that this is not a collaborative work of fiction.

Owl Song at Dawn is written by Emma Claire Sweeney. Emma is the one who imagined the characters of twins Maeve and Edie, who grow up together in a seaside boarding house and whose lives later take dramatically different courses. Emma created each sister’s distinctive voice – that of straight-talking Maeve and lyrical Edie, whose musical speech patterns are both enthralling and hard-to-fathom. Emma arranged the modern-day and 1950s story strands until they sang as a pleasing whole.

Revealed today: the cover of Owl Song at Dawn
Revealed today: the cover of Owl Song at Dawn

I cannot take credit for any of these things. And yet, because I have known Emma for so long, and because we have had so many conversations about her novel, I do feel that I am a part of the story behind Owl Song at Dawn.

Over the past few years, I have lived in several different places around Britain, and Emma’s novel-in-progress – like her friendship – has accompanied me from home to home.

I remember cooking dinner in the cramped kitchen of my flat at the time, while Emma – who’d come up on the train from London – stood, sipping wine, close by. Owl Song at Dawn existed only in fragments back then – some of them committed in embryonic form to paper, some still only in her mind. Keen not to give away the plot before she was in a position to show me a full draft, she was sparing with details. But as she talked, and I stirred the pan, I started to fit these snippets together until I began to get a fuzzed sense of the novel’s characters and the intriguing connections between them.

I remember us sitting, surrounded by metal railings and creeping honeysuckle, on the balcony of a different flat, us talking through all the notes I’d made on that first full draft. I remember other drafts in another flat, and later, emails flying back-and-forth between us about submission letters to literary agents, and then the book being sent out to publishing houses.

Back in the very earliest days of our friendship, I think both Emma and I assumed that – although we were already such a big part of each other’s writing lives – moments of success like these would be chiefly for one of us alone. While I’m sure we assumed we’d join in with our friend’s celebrations, I doubt either of us imagined just how collaborative those celebrations would feel.

But when Emma called me up on the phone and told me the wonderful news that Owl Song at Dawn had been bought by Legend Press, I felt the same feeling I’d experienced at this year’s Lucy Cavendish Prize ceremony, just a few months ago: that this was an achievement not just for Emma or for me, but for us both as writer friends.

Copyright: Lucy Cavendish College
Celebrating together (copyright: Lucy Cavendish College)

Emma Claire Sweeney’s novel Owl Song at Dawn will be published by Legend Press in July 2016 and is available for pre-order now.