Attended this event yesterday evening as part of the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival. It was held at the Little Theatre and I went with two of my fellow Cleckheaton Writers Group members D and N. I have to say that as none of us had been to an event at the Little Theatre in Hebden before, we did struggle to find it. Thankfully we had arrived early and a pedestrian kindly pointed us in the right direction, but I don't think a few signs would go amiss to help newcomers. Stephen May interviewed the five new emerging writers (Sophie Columbeau, Peter Salmon, Selma Dabbagh, Ros Barber and Suzanne Johnson) about their books and the road to publishing success.
Sophie Columbeau is a PHD student based in York who used to be a fast-track civil servant who has written the novel 'Rites' about a virginity pact using eleven narrators and four protagonists. She sent the first 10,000 words and the synopsis of her novel to a North West under-30s writing competition at Root Publishing and was shortlisted, so then had to draft the rest of her novel in two weeks as it had been sent in before it was finished. She then read the first section of her book as the book has no chapters and the narrative goes back and forth.
Peter Salmon has been a bookseller, tv writer and Arvon Foundation tutor who said that his novel 'The Coffee Story' has taken him years to write. It has a hero Teddy, who even he doesn't love, who grew up in Ethopia, so he researched it for five years. His hero is a coffee magnet who helps uprisings and the novel is written on his deathbed. He then read a 'sex scene' from the novel.
Salma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian lawyer who started writing with short story competition success. She found that some of her characters seemed to come from Beirut, with one aim and driving a lexus. She started her book 'Out of It' with an image of a young man, half-stoned and frustrated, jumping up in defiance against the aircraft above him. She read the section of her book that had come from this very first image.
Ros Barber is a poet with three poetry collections and has written her novel 'The Marlowe Papers' as a novel in verse (131 poems linked). She was a teacher of creative writing and felt she needed a big idea to get funding for research and after seeing a documentary, her novel brings to life the theory that Christopher Marlowe survived and was the true author of the works of Shakespeare. The novel took her five years (research for one year) and as she told the audience, Fay Weldon said at a Writers Conference recently that 'research is another word for cowardice.' She thought the only authentic voice that would work was iambic pentameter. She read a section from the book about his exile in France following his staged 'death' from a knife fight.
Suzanne Johnson's travel with her job and reading travel writers lead her to research missionary narratives in archives. This and her background of 'hippy childhood/council estate clash' inspired her to write her novel 'A Lady's Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar' which is similar in that it has two narratives that wind and connect. Suzanne read a section of her novel centred around a photograph her character Freda finds of her mother whilst pregnant with her.
The floor was then opened up to questions:
Peter gave the very sound advice that 'a book gets written by writing' and that the time waiting in between was part of the process. Ros agreed in that she found plot planning didn't work for her as she found that her novel came out 'dead' but, when you just write it and you wand to know the ending yourself, it works. Selma said that she plots hers around the ending and then works backwards, but finds that it can still be innovated as you go along. It was mentioned that Ian Banks said that he plots out, or his book would never end. Sophie said that as she had to do 3,500 words a day to complete her manuscript, she had the first half plotted, but the second not so much and she suggested that writers set themselves a goal and embarrass yourself by telling all that you are going to achieve this goal - then you have to. Suzanne said that you have to get over your own personal confidence issues. She won a prize for a short story competition and got an agent through that and she had the clear deadline of childbirth.
When discussing style, Selma said that a knowledge of how you want it to be shaped helped, i.e. set in Gaza and London. She knew she wanted it to have young characters and to have short chapters and sentences to keep it fast paced. Suzanne said that her dual narrative helped with her book being set in 1920s Kashkar and contemporary London, shaped the whole thing in terms of pace and plot. Peter said that his hatred of the well-crafted novel as a literary trope helped as he can't read it, or write it. He found the fact that his non-reader character was dying, helped him to have a disjointed narrative. Sophie found that story came before style in that she felt her love of Julian Barnes' 'Talking it over' and 'Love etc.' as a teenage reader had opened up the troubling relationship between the reader and the narrative. Ros found that when she addressed the novel to 'you' she realised it was letters that connect to the 16th century and human emotion.
When discussing motivation, Peter confessed that the feeling that he is still not sure he is a writer, even when he has been published, never goes away. Ros had the conviction that she was a writer from an early age (and in her early 20s it nearly happened in poetry) and both she and Sophie agreed that relationships were the key and an audience member wondered how much of a writer goes into each book. Sophie thought each of her eleven narrators has 36%. Peter said that he always writes as an old man, so worries that he is writing his future. Suzanne felt that all art is a return in that it has a clash of culture, theme, loneliness, wandering and Britishness. Ros said that being a 16th century man in her novel was a blissful escape from the autobiographical poems that had got her into trouble with her family. Selma thinks she has certain types who have bits of people that she knows and each has one aspect of her personal relationship to the struggle. She feels that memoir is extremely difficult whilst avoiding the personal, but keeping the resonance.
The evening ended with a book signing and I was very lucky to get to meet Sophie when she signed her book for me and Ros who I found very inspirational. She gave me some excellent advice on the piece that I am working on at the moment and I can honestly say that meeting her was the best thing about the whole evening. Sadly, the same could not be said about one of the women who worked at the Theatre, who spent the entire evening doing her utmost to make attendees feel unwelcome.
Tomorrow, I will post a review of the Jane Green author talk that I attended this evening.