Agent Hunter and other stories

So, where were we? Ah yes, we had finished the Barbara Pym part of the narrative concerning Mr Litlove and we were moving onto the Stephen King part of the narrative that involves me.

But first! Let me tell you about Agent Hunter. You may recall before Christmas I mentioned a novel I was thinking of selling, and I probably grumbled about the selling part because it’s so not fun. Any of my blog friends who’ve been around since I started blogging may remember that we’ve been here before. Back in 2008 I started working with an agent on non-fiction ideas. Now she was a lovely agent and I very much liked her; the problem was a cultural one. I was still theoretically teaching French (though on sick leave) and undoubtedly my mindset was very academic. I just could not put a proposal together that sounded the way the agent wanted it to sound. She even sent me a proposal under cover of darkness that she thought was a good one and between you and me, I didn’t think much of it. It was very vague, very unstructured and by this point I was beginning to feel as if I really ought to write something rather than plan endlessly to write something. We drifted our separate ways, with no hard feelings but I didn’t feel much the wiser about the commercial world.

The thing about working with an agent is that it’s a very, very strange relationship. When you start to write commercially an agent is presented as the Holy Grail. Find an agent, we are told, and then you have someone who believes in your work and who will sell it tirelessly to big name publishers like Penguin and Bloomsbury. And because the ratio of literary agents to people who have written a book is atrocious, the odds of getting an agent are slim. So, even more frenzy is whipped up. It’s impossible! But you must do it! And when you do you will be validated forever!

Ah well, life is never like the movies. I had a very nice agent. She liked my writing well enough and I liked her, but we couldn’t make it work. This is because having an agent is a lot like marrying a virtual stranger with whom you’ve shared a couple of internet dates.  The splicing together of agent and writer is such a high pressure, hardscrabble affair that you never get to know the really important things about one another until it’s too late. Then of course the commercial publishing world is such a viper’s nest that every new book becomes another hurdle in the agent/writer alliance. Most of the authors I know seem to spend their time switching agents.

Anyhow, I digress. When I began looking for an agent again, I have to admit that my heart wasn’t much in it, my confidence was low and my desire to trawl through the internet even lower. So when I saw that a site called Agent Hunter was offering a trial period for an honest review, I gratefully signed up. And thank goodness I did. This site is fab. You can search it for agents who are actively looking to build up their client list; you can search for publishers who don’t require an agent at all. When you find an agent there are often a lot of helpful interviews included that tell you what the agent is looking for. I’ll pass on the information right now that the vast majority want a chilling psychological thriller with a great twist. This makes my heart sink, but never mind, we’ve established that I’m jaded. The point is that in half an hour of my time I had a list of seven possible candidates with notes about their specific requirements in terms of submission materials. Sorted!

And then, not quite. Oh dear friends, I have been up and down the streets and around the houses with this question of an agent. As good as the Agent Hunter site is, it does not have a search criteria for agents who are willing to take on the medically challenged. And I keep imagining scenarios in which I have to explain that no, I cannot charge up and down the country giving author events, and no, I cannot turn my galley proofs around in 24 hours after six months of waiting for them because the editorial department has mysteriously got behindhand. In the wild dating world of the agent, I am not at all an enticing proposition as a go anywhere, do anything kind o’ gal. I’m more your refuse everything kind o’ gal.

I had an okay January, and it was definitely a busy one. Part of it involved doing interviews for an article  with friends of mine, one a poet, one a painter, about their different kinds of creativity. This was a lovely experience with two incredibly talented women. And then we were more booked up socially than usual. Towards the end of the month I saw my eye specialist and he was pleased with me; he decided I should try to come off the medication. I skipped out of the surgery… and then found myself straight back in it a week later, with keratitis back in one eye and a stye in the other. I’d never had a stye before but it didn’t bother me. The second one that came up did. And when I developed a third, all in the same eye, I was distinctly unhappy about it. I sort of had this feeling that CFS would form an unholy alliance with the perimenopause and February was all about that. I asked my eye specialist if hormonal imbalance could be at the root of the problem and he said, for sure. Apparently changes in hormones can completely alter the chemical composition of your tear film – hence the ongoing mayhem. By this point I also had a mouthful of ulcers, sciatica and a lovely new symptom involving muscle spasms and twitches up my diaphragm and esophagus. Think that’s nothing to do with perimenopause? I found this very interesting article that did make me feel better, in a dispirited kind of way. There was much in it that made sense to me, not least because I’ve always felt that my own brand of CFS has a lot to do with my hormones.

When I hit menopause I can go get myself some lovely HRT and feel better. But until that point, which may be a couple of years off… Well, extreme forms of dating are not very appealing. When I laid this problem out to my friend the painter, she was wonderfully clear sighted about it. She reminded me that I was selling the book, not myself, and that if anyone wanted the book, then they’d have to take its owner no matter what state she was in. ‘Litlove,’ she said, ‘we are just too old to be anything other than totally honest about the people we are.’ Which I absolutely agreed with. I think a lot of my problem here is that I did SO MUCH hoop-jumping in the Cambridge University years that my spring is sprung. I do believe we all have a hoop-jumping quota in our internal systems and once it’s exhausted, there’s no going back. And then she said that maybe the book deserved a chance to have its own life as an artwork. Oh, she is one clever woman.

So I am still just about in the game, though I promise faithfully that this is the last time I will mention this book as it’s a tedious topic. But I did promise Agent Hunter their review and it really is an extremely helpful site that I would like to recommend. Next time, I’ll talk about the books I’ve been listening to.

 

 

Gabriel Josipovici Interview

gabriel-josipoviciI had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Gabriel Josipovici for Numero Cinq magazine; what came out of the weeks we spoke together was a profound, moving meditation on the life of an artist. Josipovici has not had things easy, facing almost a critical vendetta against his works. He’s never really had the renown that he deserves, either. If you haven’t read him, I suggest you start where I did, with the short novel, Everything Passes.

Or of course you could begin with our interview, which you can find here.

The Widow’s Confession

widow's confessionI’ve had a horrid cold all week and so I’m very glad that someone else is doing the heavy lifting in today’s blog post. Sophia Tobin is the author of The Widow’s Confession, a gorgeously-wrought Gothic novel set in 1851 in Broadstairs on the Kentish coast. American cousins, Delphine and Julia have settled there for the summer; they have a peripatetic life, running from a troubled past, and they believe that this charming sea-bathing resort is somewhere safe to hide. But they get drawn in to a circle of summer visitors, including a wayward artist, a staid doctor of psychology and an exquisitely beautiful young woman and her older chaperone. Then the body of a girl washes up on the beach, the catalyst for any number of secrets to be shaken loose. I’ll be reviewing this novel in more detail in the next edition of Shiny New Books, but for now I’ll say that it’s beautifully written, and the evocation of a heavy, menacing atmosphere is as close to Daphne du Maurier as I’ve read in a long time. Sophia kindly answered the following questions:

tobin_sophia_13017_2_3001. I found the two American cousins very evocative and enigmatic characters – what was your inspiration for their part of the story?

It was important to me that they are outsiders, and I was really interested in contrasting the American character with the English; it provides a note of tension, and gives Delphine and Julia some leeway to act differently (and get away with it). Also, I’ve always loved the writing of Edith Wharton and the way she portrays New York as a kind of hothouse of wealth and luxury at the turn of the century. I wanted to give Delphine and Julia a hint of that same decadence, so I researched the New York social scene of the 1830s and 40s.

2. This is a very gothic novel, with all sorts of elements of melodrama, religious obsession and stifled passion. Do you think those elements naturally belong in historical fiction? Would you ever write a contemporary tale involving them?

I think there’s room for those elements in novels set at any time, but there is a particular atmosphere about the Victorian period that makes it the perfect setting for them. It was a time when people felt very insecure – there’d been rapid industrialisation, home was separating from work and being idealized (hence the ‘angel in the house’ idea of the perfect wife gaining credence at this time) and there was a great deal of turmoil over religion and its dialogue with science. I think people were very afraid, and it was having a stifling effect on their lives. Once you have those kind of pressures on you, there’s room for drama.

I would certainly love to write a contemporary tale featuring them, but the right idea hasn’t turned up yet. Every time I try to write something set in the present day, the words ‘it was 1851…’ or something similar come out of my pen.

3. I was really pleased that you managed to create a ‘forceful’ character in Delphine who is not an anachronism. Did you feel pressurized at all to produce strong female leads?

I’m really glad you felt that, because I felt I was walking a tightrope with Delphine. I wanted to portray someone who was strong enough to survive great difficulties, whilst also showing just how hard it was for her to be strong, not only because of societal pressures, but also because of her own vulnerabilities.

I didn’t feel any external pressure to create a strong female lead, but my last main character, Mary in The Silversmith’s Wife, was someone who was quite delicate; she had been shattered by the events of her life and had to recover from that. So, having been through the emotional wringer with her, I was ready to write someone a bit tougher.

4. Have you imagined the characters beyond the relatively happy ending of the story? Do you think their marriages will work?

I don’t want to be too specific, because I might give the ending away! Yes, I do imagine them afterwards, definitely. I think that life will throw challenges at them, but they deserve to be happy.

5. This is your second novel (after The Silversmith’s Wife). Was it easy to write or is it true what people say about second novels and the challenge they present?

I think the difficulty with a second book is mastering your own doubts and worries – all the little gremlin voices saying ‘will it be as good as the first?’ On the other hand, you do know that you can write a book – because you’ve already done it once. Also, I learnt a huge amount from writing the first book, and from being edited. That experience helped me with structuring the book and knowing what to push forward with when I was writing, and what to throw away.

I wrote the second book in a much shorter time period than the first, which was a pressure but also a motivation. Every evening, it was just me and the book: it was extremely intense, and I felt as though I was living it as I was writing it.

6. What brought you to writing fiction in the first place?

I’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always loved books. But I think a big influence was a particular incident in my childhood. I was seven years old and I wrote a poem about a play which had been put on at our school. The pivotal moment was watching my teacher’s face as she read it. There was some indefinable quality in her expression which made me realize that she liked it. That’s what I want to inspire in my readers. The poem ended up being printed (another pivotal moment!) and I still have it somewhere.

After that I always wrote, and I always wanted to be a writer, but it was a private thing; I wrote on my own, and I didn’t talk about it. Life carried on and it was over twenty years before I decided I should just go ahead and see if I could write a book or not.

7. Who are your inspirational authors?

There are so many. I’ve read and loved Hilary Mantel’s work for years. Michel Faber, who wrote The Crimson Petal and the White, is brilliant. Other favourites include: Daphne du Maurier, E.M. Forster and, of course, Jane Austen. I grew up reading nineteenth-century writers so I’m very much at home with them.

8. And what are you reading at the moment?

I have an enormous pile of books on Georgian society to read as research for my third book, but I’m also reading Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym. The writing is so full of warmth and wit, you feel as though you’re being lulled by it and then suddenly there’s a little dig, razor sharp; I love it.

widow's confession blog tour graphics (2)

The Power of Stories

‘Writers sit down,’ Ali Smith said, in her talk on the weekend. ‘But books make books. This is one of the freedoms I have inherited.’

Ali in her garden in Cambridge

Ali is one of the wisest people I know, and she gave a brilliant performance at the wordfest, discussing her new book, Artful, a series of essays on literature that were originally lectures given in Oxford. Only being Ali, she wrote the lectures in and through short stories, ‘giving herself permission’ as she put it, to do something very different with the space of a lecture:

I think fiction is authority, fiction is truth. To go directly to the source of truth that is fiction allows us to question and to be held, to be suspended in time. There is a root and a route between art and mortality; fiction becomes an obvious way to hold many things at once.’

What I think Ali was getting at here is that stories are the only way we have of making sense. They are also extremely familiar to us, given that we use stories everywhere, in the way we explain ourselves, what happens to us, how we account for the world to children, how we envisage new futures. Stories organise every aspect of our lives, from start to finish, but they also give us a timescale – narrative time – by means of which we can hope, anticipate and fear. By means of consequence and causality, the two axis of fiction, we imagine that this event provokes this result, which leads onto that event, and so on. So stories manage the paradox of taking us out of our immediate experience, transcending it to view it more clearly, and they embed us in our lives allowing us to hold the threads of any number of ongoing plots and subplots as if we had some control over them. Fiction and its truths tell us what has happened, what is happening and what will happen.

Ali was talking about how she realised she only had a couple of weeks to write her lectures in, and she didn’t know where to begin. So she went to the shelf and took down Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, and started to read it. That reading sparked off an idea, and she decided to read the novel over the course of writing the lectures, and to use something in the novel as a guideline or a springboard every time she had a new lecture to write. She spoke of the way that the reader can feel Dickens thinking and planning as he writes. This was a story that began its life as magazine installments; Dickens was creating his story without knowing the end, placing things in the narrative as he went along, hoping they might be useful or helpful later in the story. Ali decided to write her lectures on the same principle: ‘It gave me a way of trusting the serendipity of art; of trusting in the thing beyond us that organises art.’

This made me think of the Norwegian writer, Knausgaard that I had heard talking the previous day, and the way he had written his memoir by sitting down every day, taking a shameful incident from his past and writing about it, allowing himself to follow whatever energy arose from the narration, aware that he would remember more and more about the event the more he wrote. For both Knausgaard and Ali Smith, writing was about trusting the process of writing to fuel its own internal creative engine.

What also struck me about these two authors was how honest they were, how authentic as individuals. I know Ali quite well, and she is admirably straight, always. As the chair of the session introduced her and listed all her achievements, she was shaking her head, and I know she feels that all this glitter of art has nothing at all to do with the writing she does, or with who she is. She is the least pretentiously starry person I have ever met, although she has every reason to rest on her accolades. I was struck also by the way the Norwegian writer kept refusing the glib and conventional stories that his chair wanted to place over his experience. Several times she hoped to encourage him towards saying that writing his memoir had been cathartic in some way, or that it had improved the quality of his life or simply provided some therapy, but he refused that orthodox storyline every time. No, writing the book had not solved his problems, becoming a famous author was not the route to happiness. Life was one thing, storytelling was another.

I think that storytelling has tremendous power, far more than we realise, and for this reason, when it comes to life, we can abuse it. Or maybe not abuse it, but lean on it too hard, rely on it too much. What these two authors said to me was that it was one thing to trust to the unfolding of events to turn into a story eventually, quite another to take a story from the shelf, readymade, and try to make real events fit it. I think we do the latter far too much in our culture at the moment, leaning too heavily on stories of triumph over adversity, of achievement and success, of catastrophe and tragedy, when life is very unlikely to conform to such neat and tidy plots. We see the outside of people and assume stories about them that take no account of their messy insides, we enter periods of uncertainty and insecurity and rush to find some narrative –any narrative – that will fit, rather than trust to the uncertainty to gradually resolve itself, or even present brand new twists, new thoughts and ideas and possibilities. In other words, we let a few clichéd stories to dominate, rather than allowing the enormous range of potential stories out there to take shape of their own accord. Life is too rich and complex and difficult, really, to be treated this way. I’ll leave the last word to Ali, who when asked about the playful, multiple-storied approach she took to writing said: ‘I don’t have a choice; if there’s a story then there’s another story. There’s always another story.’ I think her latest book is going to be glorious.

 

I’ll be away from the Reading Room for about a week, as I’m in great danger of missing my deadline for an essay on Simone de Beauvoir and blogging takes up too much writing time. A case of a story here preventing any other story from happening, alas… See you all soon.