April 1, 2013
With Elizabeth Wright’s stage play of Vanessa and Virginia continuing at the Riverside Studios in London this month, by the award-winning Moving Stories Theatre under the direction of Emma Gersch, I asked the play’s musical director Jeremy Thurlow about writing music for the theatre and Vanessa and Virginia specifically.
– Where did you begin with creating music for Vanessa and Virginia?
I was intrigued by how the novel weaves in echoes of Virginia Woolf’s writing and finds ways to figure Vanessa Bell’s images in words, and at first I wondered about using the music Woolf herself took particular pleasure and inspiration from – composers such as Wagner, who was an important figure for her from early on, but also Bach, and the late sonatas of Beethoven which she used to listen to with her husband Leonard on their gramophone and which she famously said influenced her writing of her novel The Waves ‘to a rhythm not to a plot’. We actually know a great deal about the music Woolf listened to because Leonard kept a listening diary, noting every piece of music they listened to evening by evening.
I also considered choosing some modernist music by composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok, whose struggles and innovations can be compared to Woolf and Bell’s own experiments with language and art, and are contemporary with them.
And finally there was the music associated with more recent depictions of Woolf and Bell, most famously Philip Glass’s music for the film of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours.
– I’m interested that you talk about both sisters. Vanessa Bell is not usually associated with music, is she?
It’s true that Vanessa Bell doesn’t mention music much in her letters and writings. One musical encounter we do know about concerns a painting by Duncan Grant, the great love of her life. Vanessa described it in a letter to her friend Roger Fry in August 1914. She wrote, “Duncan and I do nothing here but paint. He has started on a long painting which is meant to be rolled up after the manner of those Chinese paintings, and seen by degrees. It is purely abstract.” I was lucky to see this painting in an exhibition in Norwich. It’s only about one foot high, but stretches 15 feet from left to right. Bell mentions that it could be displayed gradually by unrolling it. Grant’s idea was that it should be viewed through an aperture, moved by machinery slowly over the picture. The painting is called Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound, and the idea was to imitate the way in music one cannot survey the whole as in a traditional picture, but can only hear the particular moment that is passing by. There’s no doubt that listening to music inspired this project and that Bell would have discussed it with Grant. It’s also very likely that Bell would have taken part in discussions about modern developments in the arts with Virginia and other friends from the Bloomsbury set, including music, and so would have picked up ideas about modern music, even if she hadn’t always heard it herself.
– The music that accompanies the play is newly created. What made you decide finally against using the music Woolf and Bell would have known?
The repertoire I have described is a wonderful one, but would not have served the needs of the play where music is sometimes foregrounded but also takes on background status with the characters speaking over it. Occasionally it needs to move smoothly between the two. Obviously, the works of Wagner, Bach and Beethoven compel attention and concentration: I can scarcely think of any music less well suited to a background, ambient status.
The type of music written by Philip Glass for the film of The Hours presented exactly the opposite problem for me. It certainly works as background music since it is endlessly repetitive and devoid of event or development. But for that reason it seemed to me inappropriate for a play about two artists, Bell and Woolf, whose art is so ambitious and inventive. Repetitive bland background music makes sense in a supermarket, but it would be a travesty in a play exploring two sisters who devoted their lives to producing art which often sought to stretch its audience.
– And what about the musical modernists?
That was more tempting. Woolf probably saw Stravinsky’s notorious Rite of Spring in London in 1914, and probably also heard Pierrot Lunaire. There’s a bold re-imagining of rhythm, tonality and musical form in these works, which, like the Post-Impressionist exhibition in London of 1910, can be seen as a stimulus and model for innovations in both Woolf’s and Bell’s work.
However, I soon decided that neither using music by the great modernist composers nor referencing their style would be right. There’s a lot of disruption and abrupt changes in musical modernism, and these would have continually fought against what was happening on stage. And quotations would have been a distraction: for most listeners, music is primarily experienced emotionally and subliminally, especially in a theatre where it is an accompaniment to something else. Weaving in echoes of other works of art would have taken us away from the experience of the characters. It suggests an arch, ironic disengagement, and invites a similar disengagement from the audience.
That didn’t seem right for the novel Vanessa and Virginia. And as soon as I saw the early rehearsals I became certain that it wouldn’t be right for the play either. To adorn this series of intimate scenes with a palimpsest of knowing references would, I felt, be distracting. Seeing that early rehearsal reminded me that in the theatre every moment must be experienced from within, as though immediately and for the first time – not observed, commented on, situated, cross-referenced.
So I rejected any reference to music known to have connections with Woolf and Bell. Instead, the music was created through improvisation. Rather than writing it alone, in my study, as I normally do, I developed it in the rehearsals, within the space and moment of the performance. I moved a piano to the edge of the stage and watched as a scene played through. Then, having gained a sense of the emotions and the way they developed through time, I improvised at the piano, in real time, responding directly to the actors’ performance. Sometimes, there are places in the play where the experience between the two characters is sharply contrasted, and here I relied on the director to decide which of the two the music would stay with.
– What influenced your choice of style for the music you improvised?
I was inspired by the immediately beautiful quality of the stage-picture. Though it certainly isn’t beholden to obsessive period accuracy, it suggests some of the decorum of the age, as well as a relishing of light and colour and sensory experience. From within the world of these intimate scenes it was immediately clear to me in a way it probably wouldn’t have been composing music on my own, in my study, that the abrupt switches and eruptions of modernist music, however fascinating in their own right, would, in the theatrical moment, have been a distraction. So instead of this, I allowed my fingers to seek a kind of sound-empathy with the scene, and what emerged was surprisingly limpid. Though I didn’t think about this consciously at the time, it is perhaps related to the re-imagined classicism of Debussy and Ravel, and it occurs to me now that Debussy is a composer who has a good deal in common with Virginia Woolf – perhaps more so than Wagner, Bach or Beethoven. Debussy is justly admired for his ideal of a music comprised of fleeting moments of sensation – spontaneous, fluid and evanescent.
In this piece of music, which opens the play, we see Vanessa as an older woman, sitting alone, lost in her memories. I hoped to suggest a complexity of emotion and some sense of the way that images and feelings drift in and out, are liquid, shifting and ungraspable: link.
Photos by Ben Caplan
To find out more about Jeremy Thurlow’s music, visit his website
Vanessa is played by Kitty Randle, Virginia by Alice Frankham. The design is by Kate Unwin, with lighting by George Seal and T.J Chappell. The play is produced by Samuel Julyan, with the assistance of Maria Klockare. To book tickets visit Riverside Studios
March 1, 2013
This month, Elizabeth Wright’s play of Vanessa and Virginia returns for a three-week run at London’s Riverside Studios with Moving Stories Theatre, under the direction of Emma Gersch. The cast is Kitty Randle and Alice Frankham.
I asked the show’s designer, Kate Unwin, about her work.
What made you want to become a theatre designer?
I was doing a degree in interior architecture and one of my modules was in Television Scenography. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. It brought together so many of my interests: design, history, literature, theatre, film….
What qualifications are needed to become a theatre designer?
You don’t really need any actual qualifications although I am glad I did my degree. I studied television design specifically which is very different from theatre. On my first job I just lied and said I had experience even though I’d never designed a costume before or made any costumes. I thought I would try and see how it went. It paid off and I got more work from that show! You need to be creative, practical and able to adapt and think quickly. I do feel sometimes I need to be a historian, artist, costume maker, painter, builder, prop maker as my job covers so many things - which is why I love it so much.
How do you go about conceiving a design for a play?
I start with an initial chat with the director and then the script which I read and re-read making notes. I love research and it is my favourite part of the process. I gather references which I use to start a visual dialogue with the director. I gauge where they want to go by their reaction to the initial research and then do lots more. I make all the design decisions come from the research or the text so it adds extra layers to the work – it makes this initial stage really important.I then start sketching the rough models, followed by more detailed models. The research keeps going throughout the process. A lot depends on the rehearsals as things can change drastically once the actors begin working with the director. One has to be fluid and able to let some elements go as things can evolve all the time! Everything on stage is down to me, including the props and what the masking is like. I work closely with the lighting designer to convey what the set and costumes are going to be like as this will affect their decisions. How much I make myself depends on the budget. On a show with a large budget I don’t really make anything but there are some shows where I make and do everything!
Can you describe your creative process?
I feel like I am always working. When I have a day off I spend it reading, looking at newspapers, magazines, blogs, watching films, seeing exhibitions. The more I can absorb the better my work will be. I now get up quite early and that is a good time for me to work but I also work late into the night too. I usually have between 4 and 10 projects on the go so I need to be disciplined and put the hours in. This job isn’t a 9-5 and you have to be happy to be a bit of a slave to it. I have lost count of the number of social events and holidays I have had to cancel. My friends and family are very understanding!
Can you describe the process of creating the design for Vanessa and Virginia?
I already knew a lot about the aesthetic of Vanessa and Virginia’s world. I had visited Charleston and totally fallen in love with it. I knew about the Omega workshops, the work of the Bloomsbury set and Vanessa Bell’s work so it was a joy to delve into the research. I especially enjoyed studying photos to help with the costume design: luckily Vanessa took a lot of photos. I have been reading as much as I can by Virginia Woolf and about the period and the lives of both women. It’s hard as there is so much material. We had a really limited budget the first time round and there were key props which needed to be integrated into the set. They were fragments on the edge of the women’s world which they moved around. The costumes were layered and changed throughout the show onstage to show the passing of time so that was a challenge.
You are redesigning the production for the forthcoming run at the London Riverside Studios. Without giving too much away, what is different about this redesign?
This time round I feel like I can really turn my attention to the set. The costumes are pretty much there though I am going to add in a few extra pieces and improve some aspects. I have a bit more money for the set for this run and I want to create a really immersive environment, which reflects not only the creative, multi-faceted life these two sisters led but also how they were so inter-twinned. I really want to inject some of that wonder and warmth I felt at Charleston whilst creating a functional and cohesive design.
Visit Kate Unwin’s website
Visit Moving Stories website
Details of Vanessa and Virginia at the Riverside Studios
February 1, 2013
My blog guest this month is Cecily Davey who discusses Hélène Cixous’s intriguing book of dream-writing Dream I Tell You.
Hélène Cixous and the Secrets of the Unconscious
‘They tell me their stories in their language, in the twilight, all alike or almost, half gentle half cruel, before any day, any hour. I don’t wake, the dream wakes me…’
Have you ever been woken by a dream so strange, disturbing or beautiful that you feel an urge to write it down immediately? Have you ever wondered where your dreams come from or what they mean? I know I have many times, and this is why the opening lines of Dream I Tell You by Hélène Cixous spoke to me so profoundly when I first read them. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the book’s original publication in French, yet the experience of entering into its nocturnal world is one that I can still remember vividly. Never before had I come across a writer who was able to portray the infinitely mysterious twists and turns of the unconscious in such a believable way. My first encounter with Cixous’s writing was one of wonder and bewilderment; Dream I Tell You was simply unlike any other book that I had read before.
The fifty short narratives collected in this slim volume span ten years in Cixous’s life. They resemble a series of dreams transcribed onto paper whilst the dreamer still lingers in the transitional state of mind between sleeping and waking. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the way in which it eludes traditional categories of genre. As Susan comments in her ‘Tribute’ to Cixous, the reader of Dream I Tell You is immediately drawn into a series of questions about the boundaries between different forms of literature. Does this book present us with a study of the science of psychoanalysis or an experiment in the art of creative writing? Should we read it as a dream diary or an assortment of random drafts? Do the stories we find within it count as fact or fiction? It is precisely the originality of Dream I Tell You that makes it so hard to define. I am fascinated by this book because it seems to display a unique style of writing, what I would call ‘dreamoir’. Cixous’s hybrid blend of dream and memoir reinvents the French literary tradition of le journal intime, resulting in a text which suggests new ways of understanding the very limits of literature itself. It is a work written in a language which originates in the realm of the unconscious, a place where the limits which define all categories – be they literary, sexual, temporal, or existential – can become radically reconfigured.
In her introduction to Dream I Tell You, Cixous describes the process by which the narratives of this book were compiled. It is a process which involves a particular kind of concentration: the writer of the dream must allow herself to linger in the borderland which lies in between night and day, not yet fully conscious but not entirely unconscious either. It is in this liminal state that the dream should be recorded, before the mind of the writer begins to censor, correct, or interpret it. This desire to record the dream in its most unadulterated form leads to another important observation about Cixous’s practice of dream-writing. She is not interested in translating the language of the unconscious into a logical series of symbols that can be interpreted by the conscious mind. It seems to me that what Cixous is far more interested in is how this language resists interpretation, suggesting different ways of how writing can be used to explore what lies beyond the borders of consciousness.
What appeals to me most about Cixous’s practice of dream-writing is how much more imaginative it seems when compared to that of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis and author of The Interpretation of Dreams. Though she remarks on the ingenuity of Freud’s methods of analysis, Cixous resists applying them in her own writing. She makes her intentions clear – in a tone which both parodies and pays homage to Freud – by stating that hers is a ‘book of dreams without interpretation’. Cixous’s deliberate choice not to play the analyst does, I think, give all the more freedom to her readers. The fact that the narratives of Dream I Tell You are presented in no apparent order invites us to weave our own interpretive path through them.
One possible way of looking at the book would be to consider how Cixous uses her practice of dream-writing to reconceptualise the set of oppositions on which language – as a system of symbols – is based: day/night, man/woman, sun/moon, mind/body etc. This set of oppositions, as Cixous argues in her celebrated early essay ‘Sorties’, represses alternative ways of thinking that do not conform to the logic of this system. Dream I Tell You may be seen as an example of her continued effort to move towards a kind of writing which can explore these alternatives by liberating the creative force of the unconscious. The result is like opening a buried treasure trove full of jewels. Cixous’s uniqueness as a writer lies in her ability to capture the sparkling phantasmagoria of the dreaming mind before its brilliant colours begin to fade in the light of day.
Despite my attempts to understand the origins of Cixous’s work, I would not wish to lose that sense of mystery which first drew me to her writing. The feeling of being captivated by the elusiveness of language is perhaps so integral to my experience of reading Cixous because it is also central to her experience of writing. In an interview with Martin McQuillan, Cixous describes the motivation for her work in the following terms: ‘It’s as if we’re starting on a race, towards something that is far away, which is a secret.’ Her writing is what happens ‘in the chase’, and when we read it, we too are drawn into this ‘race towards the secret’. We should not be deterred if the ‘secret’ continues to elude us; it is the pleasure of the ‘chase’ that counts.
Hélène Cixous’ Dream I Tell You is translated from the French by Beverley Bie Brahic and published by Edinburgh University Press.
Cecily Davey is a PhD scholar and tutor in the School of English at the University of St Andrews. She specialises in contemporary women’s writing and particularly the work of Hélène Cixous.
January 1, 2013
I joined in a conversation with Alice Thompson for a new publication launched last month edited by Katherine Cooper and Emma Short. Here is a short extract from the book about my own approach to writing historical fiction.
I never find it easy to begin writing and am capable of great inventiveness when it comes to displacement activities. The rest of life, emails, even housework, can all seem more urgent and compelling than confronting that opening blank screen. I suspect this fear is more acute for the women of my generation than it is for the men. In my own case this period of not-writing can go on for a worryingly long time. What catapults me out of it is clearing a space in which the only task I give myself is writing, coupled with the realisation that unless I do so the material gathering in my head will evaporate forever.
I always scribble my first draft as quickly as possible. I don’t care where I start and I also don’t worry if some parts of it come out in note form rather than fully fledged sentences. I think of myself as an explorer: I’m writing to familiarise myself with my characters and discover their stories. Trying to polish phrases as I go is therefore pointless, and slows the process down. In her novel To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf shows the artist Lily Briscoe struggling with a voice in her head which insists ‘women can’t paint’. Speed can be a powerful weapon against these internal censors. At this stage I give myself unlimited freedom and use research only for inspiration, seldom to check facts.
Once this first draft is done, I put it away for a while before reading it through. Usually it is so rough I don’t even bother correcting it. Instead I draw up a list of what feels alive. My overriding concern is to discover and preserve what the piece is so I can set about writing it. Inevitably, much is pruned. Sometimes I list the elements I now know will comprise my narrative and think about how to order them. This outline can only be provisional because every act of writing introduces new directions and ideas. An important outcome of this first draft is that it will have helped me uncover the ‘voice’ of the piece. With Vanessa and Virginia I allowed myself to be inspired by Woolf’s shimmering, richly allusive prose, but in the novel I’ve just finished the idiom is very different, sparser and more conversational.
Now I have most of the elements I need I can start writing. Although technically this is my second version it still feels like my first, because I open a new document and only occasionally refer back to my original draft. During this stage, I am thinking about the shape and mood of the whole as well as my characters, the way words fall on the page as well as the story. It requires courage and discipline to keep going. I find having deadlines helpful even though they need continual adjustment.
Once this draft is done I am euphoric. Like Lily Briscoe as she finishes her picture, I have the sense some conundrum or tension I was only half aware of has resolved itself. The feeling is short-lived because the reworking that follows is every bit as demanding. I always show a piece to at least one reader before I edit. It reminds me what I have written is no longer my personal affair but must survive the close scrutiny of others. Although I permit myself a great deal of freedom in the early, exploratory stages of writing historical fiction, I am conscious during the editing that I cut or amend anything I know from my research to be beyond the realms of the possible. With Vanessa and Virginia, I removed all but the most minimal alterations to the historical record, and only retained imagined scenarios I felt I could, if required, defend as at the very least highly plausible. This reverence for the past surprises me: it’s not true of all historical novelists, and I never feel constrained in this way if I’m writing a contemporary piece.
Images help me write, and though I work in a tiny office I am surrounded by visual aids. My novel at the moment is set in Paris so I have photographs and pictures of the city up on my walls. [....]
If at all possible, once I have started on a creative piece I write every day. I live with musicians and try to emulate their schedule of regular practice. Writing is like a muscle which gains in strength and flexibility the more it is used. The best way to feed the writing muscle is by incessant reading.
For further details of The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction, edited by Katherine Cooper and Emma Short, click here
December 1, 2012
Book publishing (as the recent Penguin Random House merger indicates) may be in crisis, but more and more authors are taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by new technologies to go it alone.
This month my blog guest Ruth Pickvance shares her experience of self-publishing her novel Tranquilino, and asks whether we are on the cusp of a new writing renaissance.
Writing a novel is always hard. Writing your first novel is very hard.
Believing in the work is hard, turning up for the work is hard and keeping going is hard.
Getting it published is even harder.
I had finished the third re-draft of my first novel.
I had used input from friends and writers, some useful harsh constructive criticism and given the manuscript two severe proof readings. I found that I was left with a manuscript that I didn’t know what to do with next: 90,000 words that had taken me three years to complete.
I had the sense of all dressed up and nowhere to go.
I asked a couple of questions to published writers about what to do next.
I did not feel confident. I don’t think you ever can do so at this stage.
It’s difficult not to feel as if you are imposing by asking other published writers for advice – a ‘newbie on the block’ asking for help, knowing that they too have their own work, time constraints, barrage of emails to deal with usually amidst the day job too.
Part of me wanted to slink away and part of me wanted advice.
Two published writers were very supportive and one was not. The two kindly told me that I was in for a hard road.
It was good advice – I was.
It seemed that buying the Writer and Artist’s Yearbook was the route to take.
I was either looking for an agent or a publisher.
What quickly became apparent was that wading through this tome of a book was extremely time consuming and submitting anything to agents and publishers was extraordinarily time consuming.
Everyone seemed to have different submission requirements – different spacing of lines, different number of pages to be submitted, different length of synopses.
I recall one publisher requiring: a one page synopsis, a three page synopsis, a five line synopsis, the first 50 pages double spaced and not back to back, a full author biography, a shortened biography and the ending of the book.
I was breathless just reading the submission requirements.
I posted the package recorded delivery.
I then received a rejection letter from them, which wasn’t even photocopied straight on the page or signed by hand.
Each time it was like a full-scale job application.
I submitted to about 8 publishers I suppose. Some I did not hear from, some sent sloppy rejections, some sent nice rejection letters and some sent rejections 12 months down the line.
What also became apparent was that I could not approach most publishers as ‘Ms Joe Public’, particularly the ‘big’ ones, without an agent: they would only accept submissions from agents.
Like most people I work full time and researching and submitting to the publishing houses that I could find taking open submissions was more time than I had … and so I decided that I was probably better off trying to get an agent. Agents don’t cost anything – but getting one is very hard – possibly harder than finding a publisher.
I sent the first 50 pages of the manuscript to four agents whom I chose carefully and researched according to the type of fiction that they represent. Two replied asking for the full manuscript.
About two months later I received a phone call from Judith Murray at Greene and Heaton saying she loved the book and wanted to represent me. Greene and Heaton are top literary agents and represent some big names. I was over the moon and falling off my chair and dancing round the room at the same time … although I knew that it didn’t automatically mean publication.
It did however mean that someone ‘out there’ with potential clout had believed in my book – and this is important for a first novel. This point was instrumental in consolidating a belief for me in the book too – if someone of this stature had believed in the book then it was worth something in the eyes of the outside world. I personally needed this ‘endorsement’, particularly as a first time writer. The belief and confidence in the work takes a long time to come – it did for me – and even then you still live on that knife edge of ‘head above the parapet’ and dodging the potential bullets, some of which are your own which ricochet back at you. It’s a balance – we all need a healthy sense of being self-critical and when to use the delete key – but we also need to get to a point where we know, feel and believe in the work. It’s not easy to learn. It’s never easy to ‘finish’ if you ever indeed do such a thing.
Most people that you ask to read a manuscript proof (and it’s a big ask) will be kind and simply say ‘it’s really good’; most people don’t pick holes and aren’t constructively critical. Many people don’t know how to be. Kindness wasn’t what I needed. I needed someone to say ‘You think you’ve finished – well you haven’t. Go back to the book now. You haven’t finished’ which luckily for me was what one writer friend said.
I have a naturally exacting attitude. I’d been an international runner and knew that it took work and discipline to get somewhere. I needed hard truths, productive and constructive criticism which I could weigh. I got it from a couple of people.
And finally I got the ‘endorsement’ I needed from Judith at Greene and Heaton.
I mention these aspects because I doubt that without these I wouldn’t have gone on to get the book to publication or to even consider self-publication.
Judith sent Tranquilino out to her ‘top 10 publishers’. I realized of course that even the agent has to make money and so dealing with the smaller presses didn’t interest her.
Two big publishing houses came within a hair’s breadth of taking it. One sat on it for two weeks deciding.
As the publishing responses trickled in, what totally surprised me was that economics seemed to be the order of the day and the question on everyone’s lips wasn’t about the quality, it was whether everyone was going to make enough money from sales.
They said ‘Lovely book – tender – fascinating – quality writing – nothing wrong with this novel – but we feel the marketing department might have trouble getting a handle on it.’
One said ‘we published one rather similar this year and don’t perhaps feel that the market can handle two on similar topics’.
So – Welcome to the INDUSTRY that is publishing.
Welcome to the world of ECONOMICS.
I’d passed the ‘quality’ test – but that didn’t mean that a book would automatically be published.
I suddenly realized that bookshops (the non-independent ones that are left in existence) were not actually full of eclectic, quality, interesting, niche fiction – but were full of what publishers wanted you to buy and the books that they thought would sell… and cookbooks, cookbooks, cookbooks. I learned that publishers pay to go in the three for two offers and on tables at the entrance to bookshops. I learned that publishers pay to submit works for the Booker Prize.
I learned that money makes this world go round.
The whole process seemed such a long way from creativity and writing.
It was months and months since I had written anything and it started to feel as if the whole act of getting a book to publication was depressingly overly bureaucratic, tarred by marketing targeted at the consumer and incredibly subjective by those with the reigns of economic power.
This sounds as if one thing happened after another.
There were months even years between events.
In 2011 I started a major house-building project in Abergavenny.
It consumed me: I knocked out chimneys from the rooms, took down ceilings, became lost in lighting web sites, sizing, door handles, measurements, calculations, skip filling, planning processes, trip and trips to the tip … a bad back …
The book went onto the ‘back burner’ if there is such a thing.
Judith told me that she’d come to the end of her submissions – it had been a near miss but that was the name of the game.
She advised me to try some of the smaller presses on my own.
The manuscript stayed on the desktop of my computer: Tranquilino – Final Draft.
I had never even considered self-publishing.
And then, something happened: the old man who had been the framework from which I built the novel died. He had no immediate family and I decided that the publication of the book would be a fitting tribute to him.
I felt an imperative to get the book out.
I realized that this wouldn’t happen unless I made it happen and that I could do it without some publisher deciding whether I measured up to their ‘economic criteria’.
I can’t honestly say that I did masses of research beforehand on self-publishing. There are plenty of blogs, forums and Q&A sites about the process. There is a mass of material written about self-publishing. I haven’t read most of it.
I am, by nature, a great ‘learning by doing’ advocate.
I chose CreateSpace which is Amazon’s publishing arm – mainly because I believe that Amazon is the biggest portal for book sales and the place that most people are familiar with.
If I wanted to launch a book then I felt that it would be good to have Amazon on my side.
CreateSpace are based in the USA and the process on the net was very straightforward and clear. It had evidently been well thought through and trialed. I don’t consider myself to be especially ‘computer techie’ at all and I found it straightforward.
There is good support both from your own personally assigned Publishing Consultant and
telephone support is available. However, U.S. EST time differences made it hard for me to schedule calls – especially within their working hours – and I used the email contact more. There is also a support team for various areas of the book – and these people always responded via email within 24 hours. Most of this support was good – occasionally I had to ask the same question twice as I didn’t get the response I needed but I always got there in the end. In fact, they seem to be very concerned about their customer service and whether queries were being answered. This is probably the American approach to business and service – but nevertheless my experience was positive.
You can opt to ‘buy’ help with various stages of production – or you can do this yourself. Because my book contained two fonts I had to pay for the ‘Interior set-up’ service because the ‘DIY option’ on offer didn’t support two fonts.
Although the ‘package’ that I bought actually offered the cover design as well I chose to work with my own graphic designer whom I paid. I had very strong ideas about how I wanted the cover to look and I wanted to work and talk with someone face to face on this aspect of the book. It was an interesting and creative process and I enjoyed working with the graphic designer.
I found that the submission guidelines from CreateSpace for the cover were clear, as did the graphic designer.
In fact, nowhere along the line did CreateSpace keep any information to themselves or make it difficult for the author to pursue their own approach if they preferred.
You were never allowed to progress to the next stage of your book’s production until ‘action required’ had been fully addressed.
CreateSpace will even assign your book an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for free.
I also paid for the Kindle conversion ($69) – again – you can do this ‘conversion process’ of the manuscript yourself but working through the whole MSS and inserting paragraphs and page breaks is very time consuming and I thought good value at the price.
The total amount of money that I ended up paying/outlaying was £500; £225 of this was to my own graphic designer. I could have produced the book more cheaply but I think the decisions I took were good. I wouldn’t do anything differently with CreateSpace if I did it again.
I am very pleased with the printed, published product – the paper is of good quality and the text is well presented.
You will be sent a hard-copy proof version and are allowed a number of changes and alterations before the book goes to publication. This is very good – you get the chance to handle, see and read through your real book before full publication and before approving it.
You get the chance to pitch the price wherever you want.
The royalties on Kindle sales are much higher (70%) and so this allows you to sell your book as a Kindle version for less.
I don’t make much on each sale – about £1.50 per hard-copy on Amazon and about £2.50 per hard-copy when I sell myself.
Incredibly, the books are print on demand and are in Amazon Prime and can be delivered the next day. I find this very impressive.
Author copies (which are cheaper for the author to purchase) have to be shipped from the States and so if you are not in the US you will end up paying shipping costs. I still don’t understand why the print on demand Amazon copies are distributed from Europe and the bulk author copies from the US – it must be to do with printing costs. I did query this and Amazon responded that it is something that they are working on. I wouldn’t be surprised if they open a UK/European arm of CreateSpace in the next few years. However, I’d make significantly more money on my own sales if I didn’t have to pay these shipping costs.
Obviously, this is just a brief overview and I could write about the process in more detail but if I managed it ‘feet first’ then I think anyone can.
The advice I would give to anyone considering self-publishing is:
- Don’t begin the process until your book is COMPLETELY finished.
- Prepare everything ahead – Biography, acknowledgements, cover blurb and so on – these things take a lot of time and are important to get right – writing these under pressure isn’t good for your health or the book.
- Do not accept the first proof copy. It’s very very tempting to press submit – I almost did. Make yourself read through the book a final time and record the errors – it’s very frustrating but worthwhile. I had 60 changes to the proof copy – some of these were tiny changes – a semi-colon to a comma to change the pace of a sentence – and I probably still haven’t found all errors despite the fact that the manuscript has been proofed twice. After doing it, I rather wondered whether a professional copy editor would have been able to do it with the same sensibility anyway – one of the changes was a date change in the text and so on. Aim to be professional if you are serious about your book. Do take the cover seriously.
- Kindle and CreateSpace are separate companies under the same umbrella – be prepared for the left arm not talking to the right arm. Kindle were harder to deal with. For example – it took them weeks to display the Kindle copy alongside the hard copy on my .co.uk Amazon page for the novel despite the fact that the Kindle version was up for sale on Amazon.com (the US site).
- If it is your first novel try to get as much external endorsement and feedback as you can. Don’t rush.
I liked the way that I retained complete control of the book and I like the way that I was involved in the publishing process. Of course, I now have to push the book and ‘get it out there’ but friends who have been conventionally published have had to do the same. Less than 1% of all books which are conventionally published get any press coverage and bookshops are closing. It’s a battle for everyone and actually getting published doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll sell lots of books – particularly if it’s with a smaller press. We are living in changing times: people’s reading habits are changing and the way that they buy books is changing. I believe that we are living in new and exciting times where the writer can take back control and give the reader once again that eclectic, exciting, adventurous mix of books that once upon a time any good bookshop would have stocked.
Tranquilino is set in the northern Italian Apennines.
The novel focuses on a central character of Tranquilino who is a peasant farmer, and the way that the land and landscape have shaped, patterned and contained his life.
The book weaves between the past and the present detailing his love for Lucia and the friendship he finds as an old man with an English woman who is making her life on the mountain that he knows intimately.
She has new eyes and he has old vision. The land unites them.
His competitive obsession with the lore of mushroom hunting is a compulsion in his blood, which runs throughout the whole narrative. He discovers here the knife-edge between gold and poison and the fine line between secrets and friendship.
“The Italian Apennines is a character in its own right in this charming, poignant story of an Italian peasant’s life and love for his land. The book is beautifully written with a poetic strength and a wisdom and warmth that befits its hero, Tranquilino. It made me laugh and made me cry, and at the end I didn’t want to leave Tranquilino and his world.” Judith Murray, Literary Agent, Greene and Heaton.
To buy a copy of Tranquilino, click here
November 1, 2012
On October 14th, the day of Katherine Mansfield’s birthday, I took part in a celebration organised by the Katherine Mansfield Society in the Keynes Library in London’s Bloomsbury, with writers Ali Smith and Salley Vickers.
The theme of this year’s birthday lecture was Mansfield’s ‘legacy’, to which Sally Vickers responded by outlining the impact Mansfield has had on her and Ali Smith with a short story in which Mansfield repeatedly appears.
2012 has been an important year for Katherine Mansfield’s legacy. Chris Mourant, a Ph. D. student at King’s College London, came across four hitherto unknown stories while working in the archive of the college library. His find includes ‘A Little Episode’, which has already shed new light on Mansfield’s turbulent relationships with Garnet Trowell (with whom she became pregnant) and George Bowden (a singing teacher she married and left on the same day).
The Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington has acquired six boxes of materials purchased from the family of John Middleton Murry, Mansfield’s husband from 1918 until her death in 1923. These contain drafts and fragments of stories and poems, little known and unpublished letters, notes in Mansfield’s hand, many photographs, her passport, favourite recipes – even a clutch of flowers pressed while on holiday in France. The library’s commitment to making these publicly available should lay to rest the saccharine, saintly figure Middleton Murry tried to turn his wife into after her death. Even Mansfield’s biographers have had only limited access to the materials these boxes contain.
Finally, this month, to celebrate her birthday, Edinburgh University Press launch the publication of the two-volume The Collected Fiction of Katherine Mansfield edited by Gerri Kimber and Vincent O’Sullivan. This is the first chronologically presented and complete edition of the fiction, including many hitherto uncollected or rarely seen stories and prose fragments.
It was a privilege as well as a pleasure to hear Ali Smith and Salley Vickers pay tribute to the extraordinary legacy of Katherine Mansfield, and to participate in the lively discussion that followed.
The Katherine Mansfield Society has copies of a specially produced booklet from the Birthday Lecture for sale here
October 1, 2012
My blog guest this month is Marina Cano López, with a selection of interesting Spanish reads
When Susan first asked me what Spanish writers I would recommend, I wanted to come up with a list of female authors, because this is where my own research interests lie. In fact, the list I made had few women on it, and those it did were mostly contemporary. So I asked myself: why is it that the English canon has so many female authors, especially from the nineteenth century onwards, but this is not the case in Spanish literature? In Spain, women writers remain hidden to a large extent: they are under-read and under-studied. I don’t have the space to redress this imbalance here, but what follows are three texts I’d recommend to anyone interested in Spanish literature and gender. In fact, though they are all about women or traditionally ‘female’ subjects, only one is actually written by a woman.
Aunt Tula (La Tía Tula) by Miguel de Unamuno
Aunt Tula (1921) is the story of Gertrudis, the eponymous aunt. When her sister dies, Tula, a spinster in her early thirties, takes on the role of mother to her sister’s children and housekeeper to her brother-in-law, Ramiro. This work, by novelist, essayist, playwright and poet Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), is a provocative story of love and sexual frustration. Set against the backdrop of repressive Catholic Spain, Aunt Tula narrates the love between Ramiro and Gertrudis, who nevertheless refuses Ramiro’s offers of marriage. The story can only end in tragedy, but it is not for this reason less appealing: the indomitable Aunt Tula is a memorable creation, a determined woman who becomes the real head of the family. This novel was successfully adapted for the screen in 1964, with renowned Spanish actress Aurora Bautista as Tula. I’d recommend both novel and film very highly.
“Onion Lullaby” (“La Nana de la Cebolla”) by Miguel Hernández
My second choice ‘Onion Lullaby’ (1939) is by Miguel Hernández (1910-1942), who was born in Orihuela (Alicante) only 13 miles away from my own Murcian home. He was a poet and an intellectual from the Modernist group known as the Generation of ’27. Hernández was a precocious writer, publishing his first book of poems at the tender age of 23. Like other Spanish intellectuals, he suffered the consequences of the Civil War. His anti-fascist protests repeatedly put him in prison until he was finally condemned to death – a sentence later commuted to a thirty-year imprisonment. Hernández died of tuberculosis at the age of 32, due to the harsh conditions of Spanish prisons during Franco’s dictatorship. ‘Onion Lullaby’, probably his best-known poem, is a reply to one of his wife’s letters, which informed him that their son ate nothing but bread and onions:
The onion is frost
closed and poor:
frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion:
black ice and
big, round frost.
In the cradle of hunger
my child lay.
With onion blood
he was suckled.
But your blood,
frosted with sugar,
onion and hunger.
La cebolla es escarcha
cerrada y pobre:
escarcha de tus días
Y de mis noches.
Hambre y cebolla,
hielo negro y escarcha
grande y redonda.
En la cuna del hambre
mi niño estaba.
Con sangre de cebolla
Pero tu sangre,
escarchada de azúcar,
cebolla y hambre.
The Real Story of Sleeping Beauty (El Verdadero Final de la Bella Durmiente) by Ana María Matute
What happened after the wedding of Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming? Did they really live happily ever after? These are some of the questions Maria Matute answers in The Real Story of Sleeping Beauty (1995). Ana María Matute (1926-) is one of the best-known Spanish writers of the twentieth-century (and a woman to boot!). She is the winner of the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honour (other recipients include literary giants Jorge Luis Borges, Rafael Alberti and José Hierro); Matute is only the third woman to have been awarded this prize. So, what does Matute add to the well-known story of Sleeping Beauty? She goes back to Perrault’s original fairy tale, and ends up writing a prequel and sequel to the “standard” story, one that is full of sexual violence and aggression. In The Real Story of Sleeping Beauty,Prince Charming is not so charming: he rapes Sleeping Beauty in their first encounter – while she sleeps, of course. And mothers-in-law, Matute seems to think, are indeed a problem: Charming’s mother turns out to be a cannibal, interested in tasting her grandchildren. Open this novella if you want to know the “real” story, but remember that, like most original fairy tales, Matute’s is hardly a book for children.
August 1, 2012
Despite all I feel about the cost of hosting the Olympic games in London this summer (siphoning funds that could, in my view, have been put to much better use), I have to confess to finding the dawn-to-dusk media coverage not only impossible to boycott, but also on occasion compelling.
For example, women’s archery. Amazon-like contestants raise their bows, release the arrow, and there it is piercing the small gold ring at the centre of the target.
Except that sometimes, it misses. One archer I watched produced three perfect shots, then, on her next turn, fired three that were so wide of the mark they scarcely added to her score.
I suspected this was what archery is like, even at the highest, Olympic level. Some you win, some you don’t. But the commentators had a different explanation, which made me think about writing.
The contestant, the commentators said, had lost not only her focus but her nerve, and it was this that caused the arrow to land wide.
It was a theme I heard many times during the course of the London Olympics. It was footballer Aaron Ramsey’s hesitation as he took his second penalty shoot-out against South Korea that ended Britain’s hope of a place in the final. Conversely, taekwondo fighter Jade Jones’ ‘bonkers’ gold medal win was the result of a sudden surge in confidence. No one doubts the reason Team GB did so spectacularly well at their home games was down to the belief and support of the crowd.
In many ways, writers are luckier than Olympic contestants. What we do does not depend on a few minutes’ trial in circumstances which may not be ideal (Ramsey had a long wait before that crucial second penalty, and all the archers I watched struggled with a breeze). If words don’t fire well on a particular day, we can always come back the next and try again.
And yet. There is a depressing statistic: thousands of novels are started each year but only a small percentage are ever completed. While some of these will remain unfinished for good reason, I suspect many potentially fine novels are abandoned from lack of confidence. It is all too easy, when writing, to let doubts pull us off course: do my words have the grace and precision of an arrow? Will they reach a reader? What will that reader think of me if I miss?
Completing a novel depends on three things. The first is action. Nothing will get written if space is not cleared so that words can be set down each day. The second is persistence. It isn’t enough to write on Monday when hopes and energy are high, the process has to be repeated each day of the week over months and probably years.
The third element is confidence. As all Olympians know, believing you can do something is perhaps the single most important ingredient in striking gold.
I wonder what insights the London Paralympics, just starting, will give…
READING IN TANDEM: THE GIFTS OF H.C.
Before reading, came looking. Before understanding, already such surprise. For instance: Partie. Where does the book begin? Does it have two beginnings? If it does, what happens to ending? And which of the two beginnings is the ‘real’ beginning? Or can the reader choose?
Then, as the French words became more familiar, and I began to read with the aid of the very few English translations then available, more questions arose. Aha, so voler means ‘to steal’. But it also means ‘to fly’. Which is right? What happens if we allow it to mean both?
It feels impossible even to list all the gifts Hélène’s work has brought me over the years, to sum up in a few hundred words the experience of reading her. For a start, that English singular ‘work’ is all wrong, threatening as it does to conceal the extraordinary range and variety of her oeuvre.
The first text I read was a brief extract from ‘Sorties’ (Ways Out), which had been translated in a then pioneering new collection entitled New French Feminisms. I was just about to come to France for the first time and was in that awkward linguistic crossover when I still didn’t quite trust myself to read accurately in French. The effect of that first piece was extraordinary. Never before had I come across such writing. I felt the words grip hold of me viscerally: I knew that if I carried on reading the world would never be the same again. I was being shown injustice with such bravery and compassion, such understanding and force, that what had, before, been dimly perceived, suddenly became transparent.
After this, I became a regular reader of Hélène’s work, a body of which already preceded me and which grew, with new texts appearing at dazzlingly short intervals. This prolificacy is yet another of her gifts, as is the breathtaking diversity of her writing, much of which is impossible to categorise (is Le Livre de Promethea [Book of Promethea] a novel or a love poem? is Le Jour où je n’étais pas là [The Day I Was Not There] biography, autobiography or something totally new? is Rêve je te dis [Dream I Tell You] a dream diary or an imaginative exploration of the powerhouse of the unconscious?).
Actually, that word, ‘work’, is growing on me. I think one of the greatest lessons Hélène’s writing teaches is that reading is work. She asks her readers to participate in a relationship of encounter, courage, opening, discovery, change and exchange. The lirécrire (writereading), as she so brilliantly calls it, involves writer and reader working in tandem.
Reading Hélène is the hardest possible work. It was Hélène, more than anyone else, who showed me that texts are in constant dialogue with one another, and that in order to read faithfully (something else I learned to do), it is important to try to follow all the many threads writing contains. Hélène’s work is richly allusive, interwoven (one might almost say written in tandem) with the widest possible temporal, geographic and linguistic literary understanding, and reading her demonstrated the value of identifying and tracing all the multifarious references – deliberate or accidental, accurate or not – of which a text is comprised.
More than anything else, I learnt from Hélène that nothing means only one thing and that words bring gifts that can change our view. When I wrote ‘tandem’ a moment ago it gave me a new image for that experience of lirécrire. ‘Tandem’ means working alongside each other, but it also means a bicycle for two people. So I suddenly had a startling and apposite picture of reader and writing pedaling the text together in tandem, the writer at the front steering, but the reader working (that word again) just as hard behind her. In fact, the second person on a tandem is called ‘the stoker’ – literally the one who assists the driver by adding fuel to the fire. It’s Hélène’s metaphor of the reader setting light to her words all over again.
Cycling and stoking are both hard, physical labour, but the spark needed to ignite a text also requires a whole host of activities which, at the time when I first encountered Hélène’s work, fresh from an undergraduate degree in English literature, I had learned to marginalize as not properly belonging to academic criticism. Listening, for instance, to a text’s music, to the play and echo of signifiers, to the polyphony of words, and the possibilities for alternative meanings these engender. Reading with all of one’s senses (it is the case that because of Hélène’s writing about the apple I can never now read the word without salivating, without an immediate and urgent desire to bite into flesh which is suddenly so appleyapparent I can smell it). Letting oneself be touched by the text, allowing emotions as well as the intellect to guide comprehension, reading with the body.
Hélène has changed not only the way I read but the way I write, and I would like to think the way I live. Hers is a work of extraordinary generosity. She offers us the means to be transported, inviting us to ride tandem with her on a voyage of discovery, where we can, if we keep pedaling hard enough, leave ourselves behind, and encounter at last all those feared, desired, necessary and above all altering others.