Vicky Newham


4 Comments

Submitting to agents and choosing the ‘right’ one

Since signing with Peters, Fraser & Dunlop in July 2016, I’ve had a lot of emails asking me about the submission process, and my agent, Adam Gauntlett, so I decided to write a blogpost. All I can say is how I used the advice I obtained, and went about things. It makes me sad when I read tweets and articles saying it’s impossible to get anywhere in publishing unless you have contacts, a private income and/or are supported financially. There are enough hurdles to overcome without unhelpful beliefs such as these. I don’t have any contacts, and I support myself.

 

Opening doors, timing and the book

At a talk which local author, Peggy Riley, gave about getting your novel ready for submission, she said that if you’re going to knock on doors, it’s important to consider the timing. I quickly discovered that it’s easy to talk about the novel you’re writing and drum up interest but if your book’s not ready to send out, it can be pointless. You will simply get, ‘Great. Contact me when it’s finished.’ If you get interest in your novel, you need to be able to send out the full MS within a day, preferably straightaway. If you cannot do that, I don’t think it’s worth querying agents. If you send out your book before it’s ready, you could blow your chances with that agent or book, and you may not find out why. You might get a chance with another book, or a substantial re-write, but you might get pigeon-holed as an average/dull/poor/whatever writer.

Several years ago, I had an agent ask to read my first novel. I rewrote it a few times, but what I sent wasn’t submission-ready, partly because I was over-excited (I know, can you believe it?!) and impatient. I got some useful and very encouraging feedback from it, perhaps because he’d asked to read it, but actually it would have been better to have rewritten that novel several more times and then sent it. As it turned out, someone published a novel with a very similar plot, so I shelved that book and wrote another.

It can be useful to do pitching events if you want a bit of feedback on your concept and writing, but it’s also important to bear in mind that your work will be judged on a small sample and a very short synopsis: polishing 2,500 words isn’t the same as re-writing 100,000 words and getting your structure and pace right. If the feedback you get is encouraging, that can be validating. If it’s bad, it can really knock your confidence. Whatever it is, though, it’s only the opinion of one person. I did a couple of one-to-ones at the York Festival of Writing in 2012. I pitched my first book to Juliet Mushens and Hellie Ogden. They were both lovely, and enthusiastic about the premise of the book and my writing, so it was a very positive experience for me – but, crucially, I was unable to follow it up as I hadn’t finished re-writing the book. When I then met Juliet to discuss my dissertation novel, I had to explain what happened with the previous one.

Regarding pitching at festivals, I know some people get their agents that way, but I decided the best approach for me was to submit through each agency, with a proper sample, detailed synopsis and cover letter. I find pitching sessions a little like speed dating but without the alcohol …!

Personally, I do not believe that all feedback is useful and I find it most useful when I’ve done my absolute best first. I also need to trust and respect the person giving the feedback.

 

Courses and masterclasses

There are numerous courses designed to demystify and ease the agent submission process. I always look carefully at who teaches any course I’m interested in, and what their credentials and experience are. I did a Guardian masterclass with the literary agent, Juliet Mushens. I knew and liked Juliet as she supervised my MA dissertation (which became my novel). Two of her authors, Jessie Burton and Francesca Haig, came along and talked through their submission processes. I also did a Guardian masterclass with Scott Pack, who I knew from Twitter. He’s worked as a bookseller and buyer, editor, and publisher. Between the two of them, what they don’t know about the industry isn’t worth knowing. Whenever I go on courses, I’m a complete geek: I write down everything, and write up my notes afterwards. And I followed their advice to the letter.

I saw on Twitter last night that Scott has written an e-book based on his masterclass, which can be found here: http://amzn.to/2doqScR.

 

Researching agents and agencies

If you query an agent, and they read your MS and offer you representation, you need to be prepared to work with that agent or turn them down. I decided, therefore, it was essential to only submit to agents whose comments and wish list appealed. I spent ages with the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. I took notes from Agent Hunter and Query Tracker. I googled each agent, and read everything that had been written and said about/by them, making notes. I used this information to personalise my query letters.

When you identify an agent you want to query, check out their agency. Are they a new agent? How big is the agency? If they work alone, who handles their subsidiary rights? Can they handle film and TV inquiries? How many clients does the agent have, and who are they? What deals has the agent made? Does the agency appeal as a whole? (When I went to meet Adam at PFD, the first thing I saw when I came out of the lift was a dog’s toy. Good sign!)

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD.

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD

It’s really important to read and adhere to the submission guidelines for each agent and agency. Some are similar but some are specific, and even have their own submission portal. I had various documents of different lengths. Do check how your MS may fit their requirements. If they ask for the first three chapters, and your first three amount to five pages, you may want to re-jig the chapter breaks. I am sure it’s true that the first page is a good indicator of your writing, and the particular book, but a few pages won’t show much about your structure, pace, dialogue etc.

 

Market research, deals and debuts

In 2012 I went to my first London Book Fair and Crimefest, then Theakston’s crime writing festival in Harrogate in 2013. The debut author panels at these events are informative about what novels have been bought a year earlier by which publishers and from which agents. I went to every panel I could at each subsequent Crimefest, sat in the front row and took notes! I also started using Twitter more often, and reading announcements in the Bookseller. The Bookseller gives an indicator of which agents are selling, and the sorts of books publishers are buying. I firmly believe that you have to write the book that fires you up, but it is important to get a feel for the market, and know where your book fits in your genre or category.

I quickly saw that some agents are getting good deals for debut authors, and actively like working with them while others seem less keen. I also noticed that attitudes to the slush pile vary. If people make it very difficult for you to submit to them, it’s worth thinking about. Response time varies enormously. I only subbed to a handful of agents but most of them I heard back from very quickly.

This brings me on to editorial input. Some agents like to take on books which don’t need much/any work before they can be subbed to editors. Others enjoy working with their clients editorially. It is often the case that the more clients an agent has, the less time they will have to work with you on your MS. It’s worth considering whether you want detailed editorial input from an agent, what it will involve and whether representation is contingent on you making certain changes.

It’s also useful to check out which agents represent the authors of books you like. I looked up agents who rep crime novels which are a little ‘different’. My series isn’t a traditional police procedural. I call it #UrbanNoir. It combines the police procedural with reflection on cultural dislocation, urban life and the psychology of violence. The crimes stem from the psych-geography and socio-economics of Tower Hamlets in East London. I thought it was important to flag up these aspects (not all of them) in my query letter, and make it clear from the opening of the novel.

 

Social media

I find it hard to mention social media without a groan emerging. While it can be a major time-suck, and the rabbit holes and misunderstandings can be awful, I’ve found Twitter a fabulous way to gain information and get to know people. Many of the people I got in contact with on Twitter, in 2012, I quickly met in real life at events and festivals.

It is worth thinking about what you post, not just from the point of view of libel laws but general perception. The reason I say this is because in the last week an editor told me he’d checked out my Twitter feed, and a TV production company executive told me he’d read a blogpost I’d written on education and social mobility. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. That said, my rule for social media is the same as for everything else: to be myself. I use Twitter and Facebook for having a laugh, posting pix of the dog and the sea, and enthusing about books and dramas I like. I post about stuff which interests and bothers me. It is useful for getting a feel for what people are like. Most agents are on Twitter, so check them out.

 

Manuscript assessments, beta readers and feedback

I think it’s extremely difficult to know when your book is ready to send out on submission to agents. I don’t see agents as the people to use for feedback because they are extremely busy and you may not get any, or hear anything. In which case, how do you interpret that?

I decided not to query until I really thought my novel was ready. I was contemplating querying at one point but had reservations. Unable to decide whether my reservations were self-doubt and fear, or genuine, I got a manuscript assessment and an author friend offered to beta read for me. Having done two workshop modules on my MA, I was okay with honest, constructive feedback. Unfortunately, the critique didn’t identify any strengths in my novel but listed a lot of ways I could write it differently. This was confusing and destructive for me, and I completely lost my confidence in the book and my own writing for at least a month. Fortunately, the report from my beta reader was more balanced and constructive, and another author friend offered to read for me, and give me feedback. After a few weeks, I compiled a master list of all three sets of feedback, and set about making all the changes which felt right, ticking them off my list. After this, I rewrote the whole MS twice more, line by line, and read it aloud.

 

Which agent?

It helps to have a clear idea of the sort of person you will work well with. Having been a teacher for 10 years, I’ve had a lot of feedback from many different people: your teaching is ‘observed’ from the moment you step in the classroom. I also did the dissertation for my Effective Learning MA on feedback, and what is/isn’t helpful. This has enabled me to clarify what feedback style works for me.

Above all, I wanted:

1) an agent I felt I could talk to, feel relaxed with and laugh with. You need to be able to be honest with your agent, and him/her with you. I didn’t want to have to have a gin before/after speaking to him (or both!). It is a business relationship but humour is a great defuser. (As Adam and I found out the first time I used tracking changes and didn’t realise you had to actually switch them on …! Gawd, the embarrassment.)

2) an agent whose judgement I respect, and who I trust.

3) an agent who likes my book on its own merits, not because others were interested in it.

When it came down to it, I was very lucky. I very quickly got several offers of representation. I also made my decision before everyone who had my full MS got back to me. Why? Because my gut feeling told me Adam was the right fit.

Do get clear before you sign with an agency what edits the agent is going to request, and whether you have a similar vision for the novel. None of the edits Adam suggested were deal breakers, and they’ve all helped to make the book stronger and tighter. I think it’s important to know what edits you are prepared to make and which will fundamentally change the book for you.

 

Attitude and beliefs

Assuming you want one, getting an agent is one step along the traditional route to a publishing contract. If you believe it won’t happen, that things like that happen to other people but not you, it’s unlikely to. If you believe it’s possible, it’s more likely. And if you can nurture the determination to do your absolute best, to get your novel as good as it can be, you’re in with a chance. Then, you can let go and see what happens. Expect nothing, hope for the best and believe it can occur.

On Facebook today, I got one of those memory things. Two years ago today I handed in the dissertation which became my novel. I began writing it in early 2014. Since then, I’ve re-homed a crazy puppy, finished my MA, finished the novel, bought three flats, done two up and sold them, written the first draft of another novel and half the follow-up of this one.

My point? ‘Luck’ and timing all come into play. All the rest is hard graft, and takes a lonnnng time.

 

Asking for advice

When I was subbing to agents, numerous author pals gave me advice on Facebook and privately. It was hugely appreciated and very helpful. I have written this post as I want to encourage people to feel optimistic about querying. All the agents I’ve dealt with have been really lovely, and there are lots of people around to ask for help. Everyone who’s written a novel knows how hard it is, and in itself is a massive achievement.

 

—————————

Vicky Newham © 2016

 


Leave a comment

Stuff Kevin – we need to talk about education!

The more I hear about education and social mobility, the more it worries me. To be specific, what bothers me is the claim by some ministers that the purpose of education should be social mobility.

I don’t have a vested interest here: I don’t have a child who’s failed entry tests or been turned down by the school of their choice. My interest in this subject derives from having gone into teaching because I’m passionate about learning, and left the profession because I realised the system isn’t about learning. I believe we are making some serious errors if we don’t radically re-think what we see as the purpose of education, and bring our system back in line with goals which will help our kids most and prepare them for a happy, healthy life.

My first teaching school was a comprehensive in Stepney in London’s East End. Tower Hamlets is a fabulous, vibrant and diverse borough but a quick google will tell you about the disadvantage faced by many groups living there. At the school where I taught for four years, the percentage of pupils on free school meals was very high. Forget A-levels. At the time, while Tony Blair was championing the belief that everyone should go to university, I witnessed the frustrations and disappointments of kids whose language and literacy levels were significant barriers for them in preparing for GCSEs. It was as though they were expected to wade through treacle to get to a destination which someone else was telling them they should want. For many, what would have helped and empowered them was greater learning support (including provision in the sixth form), more EAL classes, and a system which valued skills and learning rather than tests, targets, exams, qualifications and predictions.

Of course education can help kids to learn and access vocational and higher education. These, in turn, can help them to reach beyond their socio-economic origins, if they want to. But the idea that the purpose of education should be social mobility is, in my opinion, as misguided as it is unhelpful. And the possible reintroduction of grammar schools is not going to be the solution which many ministers and pundits claim it will be. Schools which use an entrance exam to select pupils, inevitably advantage kids who’ve been to ‘better’ schools, or whose parents have been able to afford tutoring. Sometimes innate ability and application are enough to gain a place at a selective school. Often, though, they are not.

Amidst all of this, numerous things concern me, and their implications flutter about in my mind like birds trapped in an aviary at the zoo. In my ears I hear the echoes of many of my students’ voices, telling me they don’t want to go to university, or that they’re so confused by other people’s ideas for what their aspirations should be that they don’t know what they want. For kids who want to work in the family business or raise children, often what they need is to be able to read and write well, and to learn some life skills. They don’t need or want to be told that they should aspire to something else or ‘better’.

That said, there is nothing wrong with the desire to ‘better’ oneself, to grow, to develop. Aren’t many of us doing it one way or another? Who wouldn’t want to escape deprivation, disadvantage and discrimination? But there is something about the idea of making social mobility the purpose of education which implies that everyone should be unhappy with who they are and what their backgrounds are. Rather than being told we should want to be socially mobile, perhaps government could more usefully consider whether everyone wants that, and what other factors hinder that mobility, so it’s actually possible? The education system is only one of many factors which contributes. Others are: welfare policies; housing shortage and cost; skill demand and supply; health inequalities; discrimination and prejudice; and many factors connected to our status within the EU. Plus variables I’ve forgotten, I’m sure.

And if, by education, these ministers mean qualifications, what sort of social mobility are they going to result in? When qualifications enable young people to get into jobs, or onto higher education courses, which they then cannot do or hate, how is that helpful? What I mean is, they’ve often passed the exam but not learned the right skills or knowledge.

When I was teaching, vocational courses were becoming popular again and many students were relieved to escape traditional A-levels. However, some of these courses were still assessed via the traditional means of exams and coursework, and inevitably disadvantaged kids who struggled with language and literacy. Time and time again what I saw was that students of all ages needed greater learning and SEN support, and far more extensive access to EAL classes. Some faced insurmountable economic barriers. Some faced discrimination and prejudice. Others struggled to assess pervading social and cultural norms. It’s obvious though that what affects, and benefits, kids in one region of the country may not be relevant in another. Stepney is a world away from Wimbledon and Croydon (both places I’ve taught also). The South East is different from the North East, Wales and Scotland.

To my mind, what our education system requires is a curriculum which is useful to kids from the moment they start primary school, and one which will cater for the needs, preferences and abilities of all children. The system should be free, and should offer equal access to all. In addition, rather than having someone else’s vision of what they should want stuffed at them, I see a greater need for much earlier help with option assessment and decision-making. Like most teachers, I’ve taught all manner of pointless subjects in PSHE lessons, and I’ve had my suggestions for topics the kids really need to know about fall on deaf ears. I’ve also seen scores of students put on courses they aren’t suited to, or don’t want to do.

The way I see it, education needs to prepare youngsters for the complexity, challenges and wonderfulness of life. For dreaming their own dreams, and making informed choices about what they want. This should be its primary purpose.

Radical, isn’t it?

 

————————————

Vicky Newham © 2016


1 Comment

Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello – a review

 

I’ve been looking forward to reading Paris Mon Amour for months because I knew it was set in Paris, and because Isabel Costello and I both did language degrees and share a love of language. I had a feeling her debut novel would be something special and it really is. When a novel opens with, ‘The first time I caused terrible harm to those I love was an accident. The second is the reason I’m here’, it has my attention. The mysteries which these statements set up permeate the narrative as Alexandra recounts what has happened in the distant and recent past. As the plot progresses, the sense of impending disaster builds and you know it isn’t going to end well. However, while there are deaths in this book, and violence and crimes of a kind, Paris Mon Amour isn’t crime fiction.

When Alexandra learns her husband, Philippe, is having an affair she is plunged into a bewildering mental landscape. It fascinated me that it’s her mother who tells her, as this makes the revelation all the more confusing for Alexandra. I couldn’t help wondering what the mother’s motivation was for passing this information on, particularly in view of the way she does it. What did she expect her daughter to do with this bombshell?

Told in the first person, from Alexandra’s viewpoint, the reader is privy to her reactions and actions. Alexandra is frank about being drawn to Jean-Luc, who is much younger than her, and is the son of friends. She shares her reflections in a way which shows enormous courage and insight, and I found these aspects extremely interesting. It’s a sophisticated book and I am so pleased Canelo gave it a serious (and gorgeous) cover. Costello handles the sexual scenes extremely well. She portrays the sex graphically and honestly, but it never feels pornographic or voyeuristic. It shows us what Alexandra is thinking and feeling, and is integral to the plot.

It’s clear from the outset that Alexandra’s relationship with her mother is fraught with a number of complex emotions, and I found this element fascinating. Both women have been affected by the tragic death of Alexandra’s brother, Christopher. From their reactions and interactions, the reader gets glimpses of how this tragedy was handled and what dynamics it set in motion for mother and daughter. From the narrative, it’s clear that these dynamics have framed their entire relationship, Alexandra’s upbringing and psychological development. As someone who’s fascinated by mother-daughter relationships, it prompted immense sympathy and empathy in me towards Alexandra. I wasn’t sure whether the affair with Jean-Luc was supposed to come across as an all-consuming passion. I felt that the knowledge of her husband’s affair unleashed repressed grief around her brother’s death, and also anger about the way the tragedy was dealt with by her mum. Jean-Luc, we learn, also has issues from the past, so their mutual attraction is understandable, if ill-fated.

In a publishing market where literary and genre fiction are seen very differently, it’s interesting to consider where Paris Mon Amour fits. Women’s fiction, chick lit and domestic noir have specific tropes and rules. Thematically, and in many ways, it reminded me of many of the things I loved about Hausfrau. I wouldn’t describe Paris Mon Amour as chick lit, and while it has an element of the ‘women behaving badly’ which we’ve seen in recent domestic noir, the tone and feel of the novel are different. Whatever genre it fits doesn’t really matter. The point is it’s an emotional read, and a highly compelling story.

With thanks to the author for a review copy.

You may also be interested in the character interview I carried out recently with Alexandra Folgate, protagonist of Paris Mon Amour. It is here.

———————————————————-

Vicky Newham © 2016.

 


Leave a comment

Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant – a review

 

Having enjoyed previous books by this author, and seen people tweeting about Lie With Me, I was eager to read it. Once I started, I binge read. Clever and sharp from the first page, it brings something fresh to the crime fiction genre, as Durrant’s novels always do.

The story revolves round writer, Paul Morris, who’s dined out – literally – on the success of his work in his early twenties. Now almost out of friends and on the verge of becoming homeless, he’s wondering how his life has taken the shape it has. And who he can hitch his next ride with. When Alice comes back into his life, she seems like his ticket to continued coasting, and possibly redemption. Except old habits die hard. As a liar, a user and a lazy toe-rag, Paul is a fabulous protagonist. Often, if I don’t like a main character I don’t care what happens to them, but the author covers this aspect of the novel brilliantly. I wasn’t rooting for him, but I definitely wanted to find out how his romance with Alice, and the holiday in Greece, worked out. Foreboding and menace crackle and spit their way through the narrative, and I was interested to see what choices Durrant would make about the ending.

What I admire about Sabine Durrant’s books is the energy of her writing. Lie With Me is written in the first person. Often this can become monotonous and exposition-prone. Not so here for one moment. Staccato sentences punctuate vivid descriptions and fast-paced dialogue. Paul’s reflections brim with information about his character, and his tone is sarcastic and informal – and very funny. It’s as though he’s telling you the story over a pint (or perhaps that would be an expensive glass of wine which he gets you to pay for).

The cast of characters are terrific. The tensions between Paul and Andrew are there from the start. I found Tina’s role and position intriguing, and Alice was a wonderful surprise.

A standout novel for me. And check out that cover!

With thanks to the publisher and author for the ARC.

 

————————————————————–

Vicky Newham © 2016.


3 Comments

Crimefest 2016 – observations and highlights

I got two wonderful reflection opportunities over the weekend: one thanks to a banshee-awful, cackling hen group on my Travelodge corridor on Saturday night, the other on the drive home from Bristol yesterday. Each year I feel different about aspects of my own writing and the Crimefest event varies too, depending on who’s there, but one constant is the friendliness and inclusivity of everyone involved.

Rather than a review of panels, I thought I’d share my observations and highlights.

It hasn’t all been done

In such a huge, competitive market, and with a lot of similar books, it’s wonderful to see fresh ideas, settings and concepts swim to the surface of the publishing pond. Not only does this broaden the scope of the genre, it invigorates it and introduces new sub-genres. Just as society is constantly changing, so is fiction. To me, anyone who says it’s all been done, and nothing is new, lacks imagination.

I’d seen Matthew Blakstad’s Sockpuppet gif-ing on Twitter. Having heard him talk about the novel, I bought it and started reading it. I firmly believe in ‘write what you’re passionate/curious about’ and Sockpuppet is a brilliant example of that. Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra series is another imaginative creation, with Baby Ganesh, the elephant. I’m excited by books set in Eastern/Central Europe, written by British authors, and which are becoming mainstream, for example David Young’s Stasi Child and James Silvester’s Escape to Perdition. At one of the panels I asked what’s changing and new in crime fiction and which excites the authors. Two of them mentioned the World War I era as a setting, and explained its relevance to the present day.

IMG_20160522_094538

Less rigid boundaries and hierarchies

For a few years now a handful of independent publishers have been putting out high quality crime fiction and it’s encouraging to see this model going from strength to strength, and newbie publishers joining them all the time. It means there are more doors for authors to knock on, not just the big corporate publisher who may not see a book as an obvious commercial hit.

Similarly, I really believe self-publishing has lost a lot of its stigma. With authors such as Rachel Abbott, Joanna Penn, Mark Edwards and Mel Sherratt indie-publishing well edited bestsellers for several years, the indie route is a credible and worthwhile option for those wanting greater speed of publication, more creative control and higher royalties. Rather than a ‘vanity’ project, I see it as a business-savvy option for the clued up, pro-active author. It makes me sad when people say they won’t read self-published novels. Surely, read first, decide later?

Publishing is hard, competitive and wonderful

Ian Rankin was one of this year’s star attractions. He read from his Rebus-in-progress.

IMG_20160521_134736828

In his interview with Jake Kerridge, he spoke candidly about his experiences in publishing. I know he’s done this numerous times but each book seems to give a new slant of insight. In a writing career lasting 30 years to date, it’s strangely comforting to know he struggled for years with his books, then was a mid-lister, until one book catapulted Rebus onto the bestseller lists. While these days many publishers might not keep on an author whose books don’t sell well, it is reassuring to hear him say he didn’t make the big time for years. Likewise, when he describes his writing process, and having little idea when he begins a new book what the plot is, you realise some stuff never changes however long you’ve been writing.

Authors have fascinating backgrounds and day jobs

When I was talking to Neil White about the Making a Murderer mock trial he, Steve Cavanagh and Sophie Hannah put on, I commented on how interesting it is to have events which are a bit different from panels and Q&As. Seeing Neil and Steve in action was a real treat. I kept wondering who I’d want to represent me if I was on trial for murder. (I asked Sophie the same question. We couldn’t decide) And I had no idea how important hand gestures are to justice! With such wide-ranging backgrounds, it would be fun to see more of these events at festivals and conventions. And different panel topics.

FB_IMG_1464003001183

The rise and rise of Scandi-Noir

I admit to first reading Jo Nesbo because I saw him on Richard and Judy and liked how he pronounced his name (Yo) and Harry Hole’s (Horry Hooler) in his Norwegian accent. Since then I’ve tried to be more mature in my selection process. Fabulous dramas such as The Killing, The Bridge, Follow the Money, have broadened the appeal (although I still hear people say they won’t watch anything with subtitles). It isn’t just the scenery. What appeals to me is the psychology and history of the people who live in Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland, and of those who’ve moved there. The norms of their societies. I adore the multi-layered plot foci on: society and politics; immigration and employment; violence and addictions. Contemporary and new authors such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Kati Hiekkapelto, Ragnar Jonasson are making my reading much more expensive, not least because I am determined to get to Iceland Noir soon. Ragnar, stop with the stunning photographs, okay?

The generosity of the crime fiction community

We’re all busy. Yet so many people take the time to chat, read books and review them for pure book-love reasons, write interviews and blogposts, read manuscripts to help others, boost the confidence of people when they’ve had a knock or a setback, help people with introductions and publicity. Beneath this is a wonderful respect. And a shared love of good fiction. Since 2011, I’ve been very pleased to help others, and hugely appreciate the kindness and help I’ve received. What is tremendous at Crimefest is the inclusivity and friendliness of being able to chat in the bar – as equals – to readers, writers, publishers, editors, past writing tutors and agents. Great fun also were meals, giggles and drinks shared with writing buddies from social media.

FB_IMG_1464003093084

IMG_20160520_191551476

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being sent home with a bottle of prosecco wasn’t bad either. Nor was getting to show Ian Rankin a photograph of my dog!😉 (I didn’t really)

FB_IMG_1464002953754FB_IMG_1464002982451

 

 

In addition to the awesome people, it’s about the books. And this is what I brought home with me. Stroke stroke.

IMG_20160523_124334509

Vicky Newham © 2016

 

 

 

 


Leave a comment

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings – blog tour

I was lucky to receive an ARC of In Her Wake from Karen Sullivan. What resonated deeply with me was the psychology in the novel and the nature of the themes which Amanda explores so beautifully.

For the blog tour I caught up with Bella, the protagonist in the novel, slipped on my psychologist’s hat and we had a chat about her life and how she feels about some of the things that have happened.

 

Interview with Bella Campbell

 

What was it like growing up with your parents, Elaine and Henry?

It was lovely, really. Our house was beautiful and I had a gorgeous bedroom that overlooked the garden. Elaine was a committed and caring gardener and it was stunning, a real treasure trove of hiding places and sunny spots to read. Elaine had a few issues, of course. She liked me close to her, and felt that the local schools weren’t up to much – at least that’s what she told me and I had no reason back then to question it – so she and Henry home-schooled me. Henry did all the science lessons and maths, and Elaine covered everything else. I particularly enjoyed English literature. She would read passages to me from all sorts of books and we would discuss the characters and the story. I’ve always loved books, you can really escape into them, can’t you? Henry was quiet. You could never describe us as close. But he was a kind man, even if he tended to keep himself to himself a bit.

 

Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby’s theories on attachment, both still inform much of contemporary thinking on the parent-child relationship and how it influences us throughout our lives. What can you tell us about your mother? What was she like?

She loved me, often a little too much. She was a powerful woman and it was easier to let her make all the decisions. Neither Henry nor I dared to argue with her, really. She could go from calm to furious in the drop of a hat! She went to church regularly and loved to cook meals for me. She enjoyed listening to radio plays while she ironed. She was wonderful when I was ill. She would get Henry to drag a chair into my room and she’d sit with me all night, stroke my head, make me chicken soup, and read to me, of course. She hated leaving the house though. It used to make her twitchy. Henry once told me she suffered from a form of agoraphobia. She definitely had a fear of crowds. Is there a name for that? She hated other people and always told me you could never trust anybody.

 

Elaine and Henry clearly had a particular dynamic to their marriage. When we meet your father, he is suffering. It made me wonder whether their marriage evolved to be like this, or whether it was always so. Can you tell us about their relationship?

I don’t really know what it was like before, but certainly there were moments when I’d catch a closeness between them. There were some albums which had a couple of pictures of them together, early on in their marriage, and they seemed totally different – especially Henry! He was smiling and toned and Elaine looked smitten with him. They were very reliant on each other. They had no other friends and no family, just the two of them. And me, of course.

 

The death of a loved one is never easy. Death of a spouse, sibling or child can take years to recover from. Psychology sometimes links grief and mourning to attachment and loss. How does Elaine’s death affect Henry?

I was shocked when I first saw him. He was even frailer than he was before. He seemed to have aged about ten years in ten days. She was just such a big part of our lives, such a presence, and she had real control over us. Henry was a bit like a ship without a rudder. He looked confused and, well, it turned out he was more lost than I thought.

 

I’m fascinated by what people know at a pre-cognitive or unconscious level. Sometimes when something major comes to light, people report afterwards that they had a ‘feeling’ about x, y or z. When you read Henry’s letter, did you have any prior inkling about your up-bringing and parents or was it all a complete surprise?

Things began to slot into place, began to make sense. Of course, I wanted it to be lies. I was cross with him too. I didn’t understand why he had told me. But I couldn’t shut up the voice in my head. All the signs were there. It was a shock, without doubt – I felt as if my world had ended, to be honest – but, if I’m totally honest, it wasn’t a surprise. That letter turned my life upside down. For a long time I wished I could unread it! But you can’t do that can you? You can’t go back in time and change things. You just have to forge onwards.

 

Freud had plenty to say about our choice of partner, some of which is still supported empirically. Bowlby’s ideas on childhood attachment have been extended to apply to our choice of romantic partner. The idea is that partner choice, and perception of relationships and love, are linked to and determined by the sort of attachment we’ve had with our parents. What do you think about this, and what made you choose your husband, David?

 I don’t think I chose him, really. I think he chose me. He was charming and handsome, or at least he had this aura about him that made him handsome to me. He just looked like someone who knew what he was doing. University was very different to home. I hadn’t even been to school and hardly ever out of the house. I’d never mixed with people my own age, so the whole thing was terribly daunting. I missed Elaine and felt lost at sea without her. David made me feel secure from the start, like I didn’t have to worry about anything. Sometimes I used to wish I had a younger boyfriend. I used to look at all my peers laughing and planning parties and things like that and feel jealous, but I knew I’d never have the courage to join them. And David really loved me. He told me all the time that he loved me and would always look after me. And that’s good, isn’t it? To have someone who loves you so much that they want to look after you.

 

Insight, compensatory experiences, and differences in personality and temperament can all affect how we respond to being a parent. If you have children, how will your experiences inform the sort of mother you would like to be?

I know what it’s like not to be able to make your own decisions and so I will encourage my children to be free and to have fun! I can’t help feeling like I won’t let them out of my sight, but that’s understandable, I think. I will tell them I love them and always put their needs first. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have something happen to one of your children. I try not to think too hard about it as it opens up all sorts of feelings I am still trying to process.

 

When people hurt or disappoint us it can be confusing. I’m fascinated by whether motivations make a difference to whatever has been said/done. Buddhism believes that motivation makes all the difference whereas the behaviourism of Skinner, Watson, of Pavlov maintain it’s simply the outcome which matters. When you learned the truth about your parents’ actions, were you able to understand what motivated them? Has this helped you in any way?

 It took a long time. I understand they weren’t well and that they weren’t acting in the right frame of mind. But while I might have a bit of understanding I don’t think I will ever really forgive them. They destroyed so many lives.

 

The theme of betrayal intrigues me. There is something about it which cuts to the core. Do you think that people can fully recover from betrayal? Are all betrayals equal, do you think? Are they forgivable?

 Betrayal is a breaking of trust and trust forms the building blocks of successful human interaction. Without trust it’s hard to have strong, functioning relationships. Betrayal takes so many forms, from things that appear minor, to things that shatter lives and mean there can be no turning back. I think trust can be rebuilt, but it takes patience. Sometimes you have to look at why the other person betrayed you. They will often have their own reasons and that might lay some of the blame at your own feet. It’s important to look at these things objectively if you want to repair the damage done by a betrayal. Sometimes, though, it’s better to walk away.

 

In our lives we each perpetrate, collude with and suffer from so many betrayals. What do you think motivates betrayal?

Lots of things come into play, I think. But selfishness fuels betrayal. Selfishness and lack of empathy. If you aren’t able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and grasp what damage your actions might cause, or worse still, don’t care, then you are more likely to betray someone you love.

 

Studies in psychology show that numerous factors influence the way people respond to life events. Faced with what might seem like the same situation, some people feel crushed and give up while others are able to overcome it. When you read Henry’s letter, what do you think gave you the strength and determination to find out what happened and to re-construct your life?

I just wanted to find out what might have been. And I needed answers. I battled with my decision to search out the truth for a long time, but in the end it just wasn’t an option not to. I couldn’t carry on not knowing my whole story.

 

When things go wrong, some people are more hopeful and optimistic than others. Where or who do you get your hope from?

Ha! Well, that’s a great question. Hope in the early days came from the Mermaid in Zennor. I just loved her story. It showed me that even when things look bleak, happiness is just around the corner, that you just have to chase it. You can’t wait for happiness to happen to you, you have to face adversity head on and claim happiness for yourself. Now things are more settled, I get hope from those around me, from the small things, from the idea that situations can only ever improve. I found myself in some dark places, but I made it through. Hope helped. Without hope I would have given up, I think.

 

Thank you so much, Bella, for sharing your thoughts with us.

My review of In Her Wake is here. It’s one of my favourite books of 2016.

 


Leave a comment

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon – a review

Not one to sit on the fence, I will say from the outset that I adored this novel. I found it funny and heart-warming, and it made me feel nostalgic for a time when life felt more innocent, even if it wasn’t. I can quite see why the book was snapped up by Borough Press, and why the author had so many offers of agent representation. Sometimes I can’t see why one book is ‘hyped’ over another, but in this instance it’s obvious (and I don’t like the word, hyped). It’s an unusual book which has universal themes, and which speaks directly to the complexity and confusion of life.

I read the book partly via an ARC which someone kindly passed on to me (legitimately, thanks Deb), and partly on my kindle. I also then bought the audio book, as I wanted to listen to Paula Wilcox reading it. I decided that my favourite mode was listening to Paula read, while I followed the text on my tablet, as it enabled me to be ‘read a story’ while poring over the text at the same time. You see, the writing is unlike anything I’ve come across and is quite wonderful. Quirky, synaesthetic, and vivid, I found myself reading and re-reading so many sentences, it took me an age to get through the book! The language used in the Grace and Tilly parts brims with innocence and trust and simplicity, yet it is infused with a sense of knowing about many aspects of life, sometimes in a way which may be beyond their years, but also in that wise way that children have.

The book opens in the sweltering heatwave of 1976. Margaret Creasy, from number eight, has disappeared. As ten year olds, Grace and Tilly, make it their business to find out what has happened to her, they get sidetracked into other investigations. Grace attempts to make sense of what they find by filtering it through the teachings she hears in church. This is a wonderfully humorous device, but actually it’s also exactly what children do: filter what they see and hear through other things they’ve seen and heard, creating a sort of jigsaw of life.

What I loved about this novel is that the reader can relate to it on various levels. There’s the story, set mainly in 1976 with flashbacks to key events in 1967, and the mystery of what has happened to Mrs Creasy. Then there are all the other secrets which lurk behind the curtained windows of all the houses on the street. Furthermore, there’s the goats and sheep philosophy about types of people, which Grace gets from church, and there are reflections on themes such as prejudice, belonging and paedophilia.

The characters on The Avenue are ones we will all recognise. It always amuses me when people’s nicknames get passed on from one generation to another, until, via a form of social crypto-amnesia, everyone’s forgotten where the name originated. Prejudices and judgements abound. No-one is exempt, including the police. There’s Walter Bishop at number eleven, and new arrivals, the Kapoors. Grace is wonderful: complex and a bit prickly, her first person sections remind me of the boy at school who makes out he doesn’t like you, and plays hard to get to mask his insecurities and fear. Sometimes I wanted Tilly to tell Grace to get stuffed, but ultimately Tilly knew that Grace liked and needed her. The period details provide the book with an authentic retro feel, and I had to give in and re-sample the delights of butterscotch Angel Delight (still nice, but a bit icky and made me feel a bit strange).

Part of me would love to highlight some of the hilarious and wonderful sentences, but, you know what? Just make a cuppa, grab a packet of biscuits, and read the book. It’s a real treat.

 

—————————————-

Vicky Newham © 2016