Thursday 5 July 2012
‘New Blood’ at the Hebden Bridge Little Theatre
It had been a manic day, so I was frazzled by the time K and I set off for Hebden Bridge. Once we’d arrived in the town, it took a while for us to find the Little Theatre. It wasn’t signposted but we found a friendly local who pointed us in the right direction. We arrived just ahead of N, another member of our Cleckheaton Writers’ Group.
As aspiring authors, our group (well three-quarters of it) was keen to see 'New Blood', a talk featuring five newly-published authors: Sophie Colombeau, Peter Salmon, Selma Dabbagh, Ros Barber and Suzanne Joinson. The collection of novels and authors was pretty eclectic and we were looking forward to seeing how the event would work. We bought drinks and watched people filter in, chatting and milling about before the show, most people were friendly, but we couldn't help noticing a lady who worked in the theatre giving us very strange looks, both before and after the show, which we all found rather unnerving.
We found some seats just before the lights went up and the five authors were introduced by Stephen May, an established novelist, playwright and TV writer. He explained how the authors would take it in turns to talk about how their novel came into being and then read a short extract from it.
The first author to speak was Sophie Colombeau, author of YA novel 'Rites'. Sophie, who is currently studying for a PhD in York, explained she had gone down a fairly unconventional route to getting published. She decided to enter the Next Great Novelist Award for writers under 30 run by Route, an independent publisher – she had to submit the first three chapters of a novel, which she did, even though her book was far from finished. The publisher liked what they read and asked to see the rest, giving Sophie the choice of an impossible deadline to get it finished fast or to withdraw from the competition. She chose the former and churned out a whopping 50,000 words in two weeks and won the competition. (The book was edited / redrafted before publication). Her story is about four Irish teenagers who make a pact to lose their virginity away from the watchful eyes of parents and priest. Ten years later, they look back on the events and reflect on how it all went horribly wrong. The story is told from 11 points of view and comprises of narrative chunks rather than chapters. She explained her inspiration began when the voice of one of the main characters, Damian, started 'speaking' to her and the rest flowed from there. The extract she read out was Damian's version of 'the truth' (each character has their own version of events). The character's voice came across as that of a very real, self-absorbed and obnoxious individual, and gave us a tantalising taste of an intriguing story.
Peter Salmon, an Australian now living in the UK, did many other things before becoming a novelist. His first novel 'The Coffee Story' was chosen by Toby Litt of The New Statesman as his 2011 Book of the Year. As well as The Coffee Story, Peter has also written short stories, and for radio and television, and is currently working on his second novel. The Coffee Story is told from the point of view of an old Ethiopian man in the last days of his life. Peter explained how he had done five years of research to make it authentic, but in the end he just had to stop researching and follow Teddy's voice. Peter explained how his inspiration came from 'old moleskin diaries with only three pages written' and the rest was from the character of 'Teddy' who 'took over his life and refused to die'. At the behest of an audience member he read a steamy sex scene from his novel while pacing up and down (the audience member had requested the scene, not the pacing!), which (he said) helped him to correctly pace the reading of the extract. It was a highly evocative piece, involving all the senses and pulling the audience into the minds and bodies of the lovers, whether they liked it or not!
Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian who has lived and worked in both London and Palestine. She spent 9 years living in the Gulf but she explained how the time she spent living in London both before and afterwards enabled her to look at the situation from both sides. Her writing is mainly set in the contemporary Middle East, and is especially concerned with men who have fought and been injured in combat. Her novel 'Out Of It' started with the image of a young man on a roof, stoned, frustrated and jumping up in defiance in front of a plane. She said it was also about a sense of guilt. She read a powerful extract from her book featuring the young man in question. The extract plunged the audience inside the mind of an angry young man raging with conflicting emotions while the battle raged on outside. It was a powerful, visceral piece, bursting with raw power and energy.
Ros Barber is a newly-published novelist, but she has had several poetry collections published in book format and over 50 poems published in journals and magazines. She has also taught creative writing for many years. Her first novel, The Marlowe Papers, is written entirely in verse. She said she preferred not to think of it as one long poem, but as '131 linked poems'. Ros explained that this wasn't the first novel she'd written, but it was the first to get published. Her inspiration for The Marlowe Papers came about when she accidentally came across a programme on BBC4 about Christopher Marlowe being the true author of Shakespeare's plays. It set her thinking 'what if...' and she spent the next five years writing The Marlowe Papers (although one of those years was spent purely researching). She deliberated over what language to use when writing her story and decided she didn't want it to be written in mock-Tudor language but in contemporary English. But how could she do this when the narrator of the story was Marlowe, who lived in Tudor times? Ros considered how all Shakespeare's plays were written in iambic pentameter and so took the bold decision to write her entire book in blank verse! In Ros' story, Marlow, a wanted man, doesn't die in a tavern brawl – his death is staged and he escapes to France. Marlowe lives the rest of his life in exile, longing for his true love and pining for the damp streets of London; while in hiding he continues to write plays and poetry, under the name of 'William Shakespeare'. She then read us a moving extract from her novel, which really conveyed the sense of loss and sadness that the protagonist felt at leaving everything and everyone he cared about behind.
The fifth and final author was Suzanne Joinson, ex-Writer in Residence at Shoreham Airport (according to Stephen May) and author of 'A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar'. Suzy explained how she had spent most of her 20s travelling, staying in countless far-flung destinations (Europe, Asia, Russia, China, Middle East). She talked about the feeling of dislocation she felt after spending so long staying in soulless hotel rooms, staring out the window at flashing neon lights in a city far from home. Then she started thinking about travellers in days gone by and did some research into missionary travellers in the early 20th century. She discovered that, after World War One, there was a huge surge in applications from women to become missionaries. She wondered if they were really all that religious, or whether they had other reasons. She wondered if one of their reasons was to escape after suffering loss, such as the death of a loved one. Her novel is set in 1923, a time when missionaries were allowed to set up 'ladies houses' which would be designed in an eastern style, set around a courtyard. In these houses, Suzanne supposed there would be lots of affairs, breakdowns, conflicts etc. Suzanne explained how her own upbringing was rather unconventional, growing up in a sort of 'hippy cult' on a council estate in the late 70s/early 80s. She found that her travelling brought her origins to the fore and she felt and looked obviously English wherever she went (red hair, big hat etc). She succeeded in getting a grant to do research in Kashgar, only to find there was a riot going on when she landed! The phone lines had been cut and the whole situation was “very useful and scary!” In the book her character takes her bicycle to Kashgar with her, a very English thing to do. Suzanne then read an extract from her novel which was written and delivered in an amusing style, with the characters seeming to be drawn very much from real life – I got the impression that some might perhaps be people from Suzanne's own past.
The talk was rounded off with a Q&A session, which produced some interesting answers.
Question 1: Where do you get your inspiration/motivation and do you work out your entire plot in advance or do you sit around and wait for a 'big idea'?
Most of the writers agreed that a writer 'just writes' (rather than plotting or waiting for the big idea), apart from Selma who said she decides on the ending and then works back from it. Regarding motivation, Sophie said she thought a looming deadline really helps (well, she should know!) Suzanne said that personal confidence also helps - she also had the looming deadline of childbirth and said after the birth of her son she wasn't sure how to get back to her manuscript as she wasn't the same person as she was when she started it. (This was something I could really identify with, having started my own novel while pregnant). At the same time, she said that, before having a baby, her job had stopped her from working on her novel and so having the 'break' from work helped her writing too.
Question 2: Did you choose the style and format your book was written in before you wrote it – if not, how did you decide on the style and format?
Selma explained that, as her main action was in Gaza, she knew she wanted to keep the chapters short, the style pacy, the characters young, with lots of action such as chases etc. She said it took a long time to get the balance right. Suzanne has two viewpoints in her book, one past and one present, so she knew it would be a dual narrative within one story. Peter said he hates a 'well-crafted' novel. In his book his character is dying and on strong drugs, and his character isn't a reader, so the narrative is very disjointed. He said his character dictated the style of his book. But he admitted that he is currently writing a more conventional book. He doesn't think you can 'pick' a style and that he has been known to write 40 pages of just one sentence! Sophie said she likes Julian Barnes' books which have the main character(s) talking directly to the reader. Ros explained how her book is really an epistolary novel, creating an intimacy between the narrator and the reader. Her book is centred around human emotion which determined much of its style.
Question 3: How do you deal with rejection / dejection?
Peter's answer was “drink”, which was followed by vigorous nodding from the other authors! He went on to say that he had decided that he wasn't going to be a writer on several occasions. He said even when he was finally published he still felt some self doubt. And if he hadn't written anything for a while he thought that was it. Ros said she had a strange conviction from childhood that she was born to write even though she had nothing to back up her claim until she was well into her 20s! And when she had finally written something, a bad event stopped her from writing for several years. She said she wrote her first novel 'in anger' and to 'escape' (she had a very unsupportive partner who didn't want her to write). She said that as long as you're writing it's fine – even bad writing is better than no writing at all. Sophie was in quite the opposite situation: she had a boyfriend who told her she should leave her job in the civil service and take up writing. Her advice was to find fellow writers which she said was a very important thing for her.
Question 4: How much of yourself is in your book / characters?
Sophie joked that her 11 characters had '36%' of her in them. Peter said he had never written as himself – he always writes as an old man. Suzanne quoted Bennett saying “All art is a return.” Her new book is about Jerusalem at the start of the occupation and admitted that certain personal elements always creep in. Ros said that her novel was a “blissful escape from autobiographical poetry”, although she admitted that in her novel the theme of longing for someone you can't be with was an autobiographical thread. Selma said that in her books there are 'bits' of people she knows and that each character is one aspect of her psyche. She also admitted she had to consciously avoid bringing in negative versions of people she knows, which wasn't easy.
At the end of the Q&A the authors and audience mingled in the bar area, where the authors signed their books, all of which were available to buy on the night. My friends K and N bought a book each and got them signed, but as I'm a cheapskate with expensive taste (the one I really wanted was £20) I decided to add it to my Christmas list!
It was an interesting event with some very different personalities who had written in a range of styles and genres. As I left, I wondered whether it was a good or a bad thing for a new author to go on tour with four other new novelists. Surely there must be some rivalry / conflict along the way? Perhaps it could provide the material for a new novel, as yet unwritten?...