Where have I been?

So! Where were we?… we were in 2013 to be precise and I was just saying that I’d been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and then I fell completely silent. For a year and a half. Why? Well, because I ONLY went and had the best year ever and I sort of forgot to internet for a bit. But now I’m back, hurrah! Just to bring us up to speed, I’ll outline where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to, and then we’ll get back to the usual poetry type stuff.

So the longlisting turned into the shortlisting and then things went a bit nuts. I couldn’t have really anticipated how the Dylan Thomas Prize would affect things, but being part of it really marked a line in the sand in terms of how I looked at my own writing career. It was something that provoked me to acknowledge that I should take my writing seriously – not in a navel-gazing hipster way, but I just became aware that I should start respecting my own writing time and not continue to treat it like a side-line hobby.

The original hellraiser, Dylan Thomas

The original hellraiser, Dylan Thomas

The prize week itself was one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. Me and the other shortlistees were installed in a beautiful house surrounded by horses and hills for the week and taken out each day for publicity calls. The Guardian described our set-up as ‘The Hunger Games crossed with Big Brother’ given that we were all, in a sense, competitors, and also, we were being filmed constantly. Despite the artificiality of the situation (and the fact that we were constantly knackered from being awake for about 23 hours a day which was partially our own fault), it was actually fertile ground for the creation of new friendships as all seven of us were in the same unusual situation and we all navigated it together. I’m still in regular contact with five of the seven short-listees. Infact, Marli Roode, the brilliant south-African novelist is teaching a residential course with me this coming Autumn. I would go into more detail about the experience but really, it would just be gushing because it truly was the best time. And I can imagine reading about it would just be like looking at somebody else’ holiday pictures: faintly boring and abstract.

So fast forward two months to the early Spring of 2014. The dust had settled and I was thinking about what to do next. One morning, staring into my laptop screen, an email popped up asking me if I fancied writing a short story to go in an anthology, and then would I mind going on a mini European tour from the UK to Italy to Germany with the book (I thought about it for about half a second. There is really only one answer to that question!). Then I got phone call from somebody else asking if I’d like to go to Canada ‘next month’. And that was pretty much the template for my year. I was invited to Melbourne, to Sweden (but couldn’t go because I was shortlisted for another prize and had to stay in the country for the awards evening) and to  British festivals and events.

Me on stage on Italy with Luca Giordano and Florian Kessler. I'm huddled on the right with my translator.

Me on stage on Italy with Luca Giordano and Florian Kessler. I’m huddled on the right with my translator.

I celebrated my publishing house’s 21st Birthday at the Hay Festival with many of my lovely Parthian stable-mates. I saw Icebergs in the north Atlantic, flew over the Alps, saw Raphael tapestries in a neo-classical palace and then had to be ‘contained’ in said palace because a protest had started outside (not my fault). I’ve navigated foreign cities by myself in boiling heat and deathly cold. I’ve met some fantastic people and generally, lived my life thoroughly, properly.

Me, Dan Tyte, Joao Morais and Rachel Trezise pre-Parthian's 21st birthday bash

Me, Dan Tyte, Joao Morais and Rachel Trezise pre-Parthian’s 21st birthday bash

And I got a tiny bit of writing done too. My second book, The Undressed, was released in 2014. Claire Houguez (Parthian) did an amazing job of making the book look elegant. As well as working in publishing, Claire has a (not so secret) side-line in burlesque dancing. She makes all of her own costumes and therefore has an eye for period detail and femininity. She was just the perfect person to direct the visual style of The Undressed. The book itself is based on a cache of antique nude photographs of women and Claire’s interests just dovetailed with it beautifully. At some point, I’ll take some pictures of Claire’s little details on the inside pages and post them up here.

THEUNDRESSED

What else? I also bought a caravan (!) and was unexpectedly landed with an 11 week old mongrel pup. I called him Seamus. And that is about it.

Seamus

I’m just grateful for every tiny second of the past year, it’s been magic. I’d spent quite a few years chained to a desk doing research prior to the DT Prize so it just goes to show that you never know what’s going to happen. I’m now taking some time to focus on a lengthy piece of work again – a new novel inspired by my travels to Newfoundland. I want to get back to reading about Plath too. I’ve been neglecting her as much as I have been neglecting this blog. Sometimes, I don’t do modern life very well. I know that we are supposed to document every tiny thing these days but when I’m into something, I don’t often stop to take pictures or Tweet about it. But I’m glad I wrote this out, it’s reminded me of so many great things, and people. Here’s to the next twelve months!

Ciao for now!

Jx

Should writers be read and not heard?

This is something that I’m sure I’m not alone in considering. Last month I read an article in The Guardian describing the difficulties of being an introverted writer in the 21st century. Writers of old rarely met their ‘public’ (unless they went on a forward-thinking tour, Dickens-stylee) but it’s an occupational demand these days given the wealth of literary festivals and the plethora of ‘evening with’ events. A writer doesn’t stand much of a chance of shouting above the noise unless they jump on stage to talk about the nitty gritty of their inspirations/ character motivations/ what they had for breakfast.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with discussing my work with an audience (especially after a complimentary glass of vino) and meeting other writers is always a bonus. But I can see how going from living half the year cocooned in a study surrounded by research, to diving on stage with the enthusiasm of a RADA graduate can for some, be jarring (as indeed, The Guardian columnist suggested). It’s probable that in the future, publishers will need to provide their writers with publicity training. Aside from this issue, my other concern is over-visibility. I find myself questioning what my literary heroines would have done. This in itself doesn’t help my line of questioning, largely because my top two literary heroines, Zadie Smith and Sylvia Plath are about as visible as writers can get (albeit posthumously for the latter). Why do I worry? Well for one thing, it removes, in part, the ownership that a reader can feel towards a text. I don’t particularly want my readers to have to negotiate my voice and face out of their reading experience – it should belong to them more than me.

Of course, I’m thinking about this issue in broad terms and not just in application to myself or more specifically, my career. I write as an audience member as well as a writer. My debut collection ‘The Shape of a Forest’ is due to be published by Parthian next year and I am very much looking forward to promoting it (yesterday I was asked to provide a signed copy of my book for a charity auction – it’s the first time I’ve had such a request and I couldn’t help but feel heartened by the interest). The relevance of my book, for the purposes of this article, is the unseen history of getting the thing published. The road to getting my collection accepted by a publisher was, I would imagine, a typical route. I entered the competitions and spoke at as many events as was possible in order to get my work noticed. This would have been tremendously difficult if I have of been of a quieter disposition. I also went to every literary festival going in order to ‘network’ (bleh! I know, I know!) and to see how the professionals do it. So despite my material only just coming out in the next few months, I have a lot of experience of seeing how others promote their work. One poet, an extremely famous poet at that, was very rude to her audience and it completely put me off her work (if you think this is extreme, you should have seen her face, it was as though she hated each and every one of us). I was subsequently asked to review her newly published collection, and refused because of the difficulty that I now have in separating the woman from the work. She didn’t leave a good impression and it was one that wholly marred the idealised version of her that I had in my head (selfish, I know). That’s an intense reaction yes, and in all honesty, it is also the only negative experience that I have had with a writer. It’s possibly not even her fault; maybe she was having a bad day, maybe her publicist made her do it, maybe we were the fifth audience she’d had in as many days. But that’s not really the point. The physical ‘her’ has now interfered with the ‘written’ her. Her narrator is, to me, indivisible from the person. It leaves me wondering how subtle these impressions are, even if the writer interacts positively with the audience. To me, possibly because my book is shortly due out, I’ve started thinking about these issues in more depth than I ever have previously. I’m unresolved on the answer because we need to sell books (especially since the emergence of the Kindle and all of the ramifications on the industry that it has wrought) so any publicity is good publicity. Or is it?