March 16, 2015
As those of you who have followed this project for a while know, I was a writer long before I was a blogger. For the last seven years I have paid my bills by writing and subediting on a freelance basis for a variety of publications and organisations. In fact, for the first seven months or so of my Year of Reading the World, I was working five days a week at the Guardian newspaper in London and juggling shifts and commissions for several other clients. It made fitting in roughly six to eight hours of reading, blogging and researching a day quite a challenge!
What you may not know is that I was also a writer long before anyone paid me to do it. I made my first attempt at a novel when I was seven (a fantasy story set in an old castle with a bookcase that revealed a hidden world – it owed a lot to The Chronicles of Narnia) and throughout my childhood and teenage years I filled notebooks with scraps of stories and splinters of poems and half-formed things.
When I graduated from my creative writing master’s course and had to face the reality of earning my keep, I made a deal with myself: wherever I was working and whatever I was doing, I would always get up early and spend an hour or so on my own writing before I left to go and work for someone else.
For the next few years, through a series of varied and sometimes rather strange jobs (administrator, campaigns officer for a charity, invigilator for school exams, assessor of doctors’ surgeries, freelance choral singer, professional mourner – don’t ask), I stuck to my bargain. Give or take the odd duvet day, I got up at around 6am, sat at my desk and wrote.
I produced a lot of nonsense. Still, when I became a professional writer, I carried on with my regime. Before commuting into London to edit articles on planning applications for Building Design or write about the latest opportunities for international students for the British Council, I would spend an hour or so on my own (usually not very promising) projects.
Then, about four or five years ago, a glimmer of an idea came to me. I found myself gripped by the thought of a pair of identical twins swapping places in a childhood game and then one of them refusing to swap back.
It was the merest flicker of a concept, but it wouldn’t let me go. Over the months and years that followed, my mind returned to it again and again, full of questions. What would cause one child to refuse to swap back? What might it do to someone to grow up with the wrong life? What kind of family wouldn’t notice the change?
A few times, I was on the point of sitting down to start writing the story, but something always held me back. Somehow, it wasn’t ready for me (or perhaps I wasn’t ready for it).
Then A Year of Reading the World came along and for the first time in my adult life, I gave my precious early-morning writing slots over to something else, and filled them with reading and blogging.
What with everything that happened with the project and the book deal, it wasn’t until March 2013 that I got back into the swing of the old writing pattern. Having submitted my first draft of Reading the World to Harvill Secker, I found I had brainspace to focus on other things.
That was when the twins came and tugged at my sleeve once more. And this time I felt ready to take them on.
Over the 18 months that followed, in between long stints re-writing and editing Reading the World, I wrote my twins manuscript. Perhaps it was because I was in the rhythm of writing from the blogging and non-fiction book, but I found the story came to me easily and I wrote with excitement to find out what would happen next.
In autumn 2014, after several drafts, I gave the manuscript to my other half, Steve, and to my novelist friend, Emily Bullock, to read. I worked their feedback into my draft and shared it with a few more people. And then, when my lovely agent Caroline returned from maternity leave towards the end of the year, I sent it to her.
I envisaged that there would be a long process of re-writing and polishing, but when Caroline had finished reading the manuscript she told me she was very excited and that – with a little bit of tweaking – she thought it was ready to sell.
I spent about a week working on Caroline’s edits. Then, on the day that Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published in the UK, Caroline sent my novel, Beside Myself, out to editors.
We soon heard that several publishers were interested. I met with them and, after a few weeks of negotiation, I’m delighted to announce that Beside Myself has been bought by Bloomsbury and will be published worldwide in English by them next year. It means my book will be produced by the same team looking after the works of writers such as Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini, Donna Tartt, William Boyd and JK Rowling.
My seven-year-old self wouldn’t have known about Harry Potter when she was scribbling my first novel back in the late 1980s, but I think she would have approved.
February 4, 2015
My dress is pressed. The wine is on its way. In a few hours’ time, I’ll be taking those shrink-wrapped copies of Reading the World in the picture above to central London to join a mountain of others at the launch before my book goes on sale tomorrow and I become a published author.
I’m excited to see my friends, family and many of the people who helped make the book happen. I’m eager to hear my editor speak about the project. And I’m looking forward to getting up on stage to read an extract out loud.
But for now, sitting in the peace and quiet of the living room where this journey started just over three years ago, I’m taking a moment to reflect on this project and where it has led. I’m thinking of the people around the planet who shared their knowledge and experience with me, the supporters who cheered me on, and the amazing stories we found together.
Human beings and books are capable of extraordinary things.
January 10, 2015
A package came last night. This was inside. It’s the UK edition of the finished book, the book that so many of you helped make happen.
If you look closely, you can just spot me peeking up from the author photo on the inside back cover. You can’t see it from here, but I am grinning in that photo almost as much as I am now.
Roll on the UK publication date of February 5, 2015!
December 30, 2014
Since finishing my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to find that booklovers around the planet have kept in contact and still send me recommendations of good reads. It’s always a pleasure to hear of tempting books, but I’m particularly delighted when I come across a new translation from a country that I know to have very little literature available in English. Consequently, when I heard that innovative independent publisher And Other Stories was bringing out By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel from Equatorial Guinea, I was thrilled.
As far as I have been able to discover, this book is the second commercially available translation of literature from the country (the first being Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory, which I read for my project). The reasons for this lack are various (and in some ways the situation is quite typical of French-, Portuguese- and, in this case, Spanish-speaking African nations, most of which have very little literature in translation), however the fraught political situation in Equatorial Guinea made bringing this book to the Anglophone market particularly difficult, as translator Jethro Soutar explained in an article for the Guardian earlier this year. So when my copy arrived, looking striking with its elegant cover design, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
Set on the remote island of Annobón off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, the novel explores the childhood memories of its nameless narrator. It charts his recollections of growing up in his eccentric grandfather’s house and in a society fuelled by the competing imperatives of superstition and the need to secure goods and favours from passing ships. Punctuated by a series of catastrophic events that shape the community and the narrator’s own way of thinking, the narrative examines storytelling, memory and the way we reconcile ourselves with the events, beliefs and customs that made us who we are.
In many ways, this book is an ideal candidate for translation. Because its narrator grew up in a bilingual society, moving between the vernacular and the formal Spanish-language world of school, and because he now lives away from the island, he is a natural-born go-between. Whether he is unpicking the practicalities of cutting the dates from palm trees, explaining the relative significance of Christian terminology in his mother tongue and learned language, or unravelling the beliefs behind the ostracization of she-devils (known by their penchant for nighttime sea bathing), Ávila Laurel gives him a knack for making the unfamiliar plain.
Constantly questioning, evaluating, musing and challenging, the narrator draws the reader in with a compelling hybrid style that (as he reveals towards the end of the book) blends his own recollections with the island’s oral tradition. At times, he asks our opinion on the events of the story; at others he deflates those he portrays with dry wit. When the narrative takes a turn for the shocking, his tone is disconcertingly direct, with some passages recalling the monologues of an analysand on the therapist’s couch as he returns again and again to past traumas, searching for the key to unlock their meaning.
There are fantastical descriptions that might tempt the reader to reach for the term ‘magical realism’. And there are even occasions when the narrator assumes a schoolmasterly tone: ‘Does anyone know how you get the half-formed canoe to the shore from the bush it lies in?’ he asks at one point, so that for an instant we seem to be children sitting in a circle round him, agog as he spins his tale.
In the same way, the narrative plays with print conventions, eschewing chapter markers for occasional breaks in the storytelling and, at one point, even recording the number of victims to die in the island’s cholera epidemic with a series of crosses printed in the middle of a paragraph.
As a result, the book makes for a challenging read in the best sense of the word. Leaping between registers, tenses and episodes, with long digressions and whimsical catastrophisations and speculations interrupting proceedings, this novel (if that is the right term for it) divests readers of their preconceptions. Those looking for a conventional, three-act plot with a protagonist, an inciting incident and everything tied up neatly at the end will not find it here.
Instead, what you get is a lyrical evocation of quite another world, with plenty to chuckle at and be troubled by along the way. Thronged with suspected sorceresses and a sense of the supernatural, this book weaves a kind of magic. Abandon any assumptions you might have about what a story is at the title page and dive right in.
By Night the Mountain Burns (Arde el monte de noche) by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories, 2014).
October 15, 2014
Yesterday, I got an email from my UK editor, Michal Shavit at Harvill Secker/Random House. She said the uncorrected proofs of Reading the World had arrived.
Unable to be in the same city as my book without holding a copy in my hands, I made a detour on my way to visit a friend and stopped off at Random House in Pimlico. This little pile of beauties was waiting for me – six of only 80 produced to be sent out to journalists and reviewers in advance of publication next year. They’re not finished – there are still some proofreading things to catch and one or two loose ends to tie up – but they are pretty close, a sort of dress rehearsal for how the book will be.
I stuffed them into my trusty Daunt Books bag and scurried off, eager to have a good look. Over the next few days I’ll be combing through the pages and going over the queries from the proofreader to try to catch any last slips and typos before it all goes to press for the final time.
There’s a lot to do before it’s finally put to bed, but this is definitely a proud moment. Hard to believe it all started with a 300-word blog post asking for help from the world’s readers almost exactly three years ago today…
October 8, 2014
As promised, here’s the cover for the US edition of my book, which will come out next summer, published by Liveright/Norton. As you’ll see, it’s very different from the UK jacket – not least because it has a different title. The reason for this is that Norton publishes an anthology called Reading the World, so we needed to come up with something new. We batted various ideas around for a few days before my editor Elisabeth Kerr and her colleagues came up with this ingenious solution.
However, though it’s very different, the jacket designers have once again captured something of the spirit of the original quest. This time, it’s the shelf, which formed the backdrop for all the books I read in 2012 (and which you can see filling up over the course of that year in the little film below).
I love how clean and smart this cover feels, while still managing to have a touch or warmth and quirkiness about it. Roll on 2015…
October 7, 2014
I am delighted to share the cover of Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, which will be published in the UK by Harvill Secker/Random House on 5 February, 2015.
The clever designers behind it (who have also created jackets for books by the likes of Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan and Graham Greene – eek!) have worked hard to weave in lots of elements from the original project. Look closely and you’ll see some of the titles from the list featured on the map, along with a number of objects from different regions.
I love the warm and personal feel of it. And I’m also fascinated by how different it is from the US cover, which I’ll share with you around this time tomorrow.
Watch this space…
September 30, 2014
Those of you who followed this blog during my year of reading the world in 2012 may remember the difficulty I had choosing a book to read from India. With such a wealth of stories available from this nation of 1.2 billion people, it seemed impossible to find a way to select just one for my project.
Luckily for me, the dilemma was solved when Indian writer Suneetha Balakrishnan stopped by the blog and observed that all the recommendations I’d had were for books written in English, and that there was a huge amount of even better literature written her nation’s 22 other official languages – not to mention the many unofficial tongues also spoken there. On the strength of Suneetha’s comments, I chose a book by one of her favourite authors, MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. As you can see from the post I wrote at the time, it proved to be a great decision.
All the same, I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t explore more Indian literature in translation during that year. It seemed that there was a rich variety of amazing stories that we English-language speakers rarely if ever hear about.
So I was delighted to hear from Suneetha this summer that she has been blogging for women’s writing magazine Mslexia about Indian literature written in languages other than English. In celebration of this (and because I enjoyed her previous recommendation so much), I decided to feature one of the novels she has reviewed as my September Book of the month.
I plumped for Crowfall by Shanta Gokhale. This was partly because of Suneetha’s enthusiasm for the book, which you can read about on her post, and partly because I was intrigued by the process the novel went through to get into my hands. Not only did Ghokale write the original version in Marathi, she also translated it into English herself. I was intrigued to see how it had turned out.
Crowfall is a big and ambitious book. It weaves together the experiences of three painters, a musician, a journalist, a teacher and the widowed mother of two of them in Mumbai. Recording their struggles as they attempt to define their careers, themselves and one another – and overcome their grief at a series of untimely deaths and a loved one’s disappearance – it uses individual lives as a prism through which to look at large questions of identity, prejudice, the caste system and what we mean when we talk about art.
Though the premise might be tricky to unpick, the language certainly isn’t. Gokhale has worked as a translator during her career and her facility with words shines through in the beautiful clarity of her sentences. Time and again, succinct phrases capture complex ideas and emotions. From writing about the experience of being crushed between passengers on a bus ‘like chutney in a sandwich’ and describing an extreme method for dealing with Eve-teasing, to a skilful elucidation of the way performances based on raags (melodic modes) work in Hindustani music, Gokhale brings us along with her, by dint of her clear, compelling voice.
This linguistic precision makes the discussion of many of the larger issues that pepper the narrative a joy to read. I particularly liked the exploration of what constitutes art in the book, which is accompanied by many insightful descriptions of what it is like to be caught up in the creative process, such as this one:
Creative ideas are like that. You don’t plead with them to come. You pretend you can live happily without them. Then they steal upon you like thieves. Just be alert to grab them by the hair.
Gokhale’s portrayals of the experience of consuming art (as well as the platefuls of delicious-sounding food served throughout the book) are similarly eloquent – no mean feat, as many writers fail miserably when faced with conjuring up what it is like to look at a colourful, urgent painting in flat, grey words.
With such a large cast of central characters and numerous peripheral figures, the book can be confusing at times. This isn’t helped by Gokhale’s decision to leave considerable amounts of dialogue unattributed, so that you can find yourself confronted with long stretches of sentences in speech marks, wondering who said what. In addition, the numerous philosophical discussions – though skilfully rendered – slow the narrative down. There are times when you get the sense that Gokhale is much more interested in evoking experiences and exploring ideas than telling a story.
For all that, though, this is a marvellous read. As intricate as a performance of a raag, it intertwines experiences, lives and cultural specificities to create a powerful and thought-provoking – if sometimes dissonant – whole. Once again, like MT’s work, it provides a tantalising taste of the banquet Indian writers working in languages other than English have prepared.
Crowfall (Tya Varshi [That Year]) by Shanta Gokhale, translated from the Marathi by Shanta Gokhale (Penguin Books India, 2013)
August 26, 2014
I wrote in my last post about the nervous wait to hear whether or not my forthcoming book will be published in the US. What I didn’t say was that of course I was incredibly fortunate to be in a position to have my work considered by publishers in the first place: for writers in many parts of the world just getting your work onto an editor’s desk can be a struggle because there simply aren’t the publishing networks in place to foster, promote and sell much new material.
The Caribbean is one such place. With hundreds of small islands dotted over more than a million square miles of ocean, the region faces big challenges when it comes to moving goods around – and books are no exception. When you tot up the cost of editing, printing and shipping titles, it’s hard to see how a publisher in the region could make any money. People in the industry seem to agree because, apart from a few hardy enterprises in bigger nations like Jamaica, there are very few publishing houses in the region – in fact one of the most famous companies that deals in Caribbean literature, Peepal Tree Press, operates out of Leeds in Yorkshire, England, thousands of miles away.
Add to this the relatively young literary culture of the islands (until a generation or two ago most books taught in schools were by British and American authors) and the lack of literary agents and, until recently, support programmes for Caribbean writers, and you begin to wonder how an aspiring wordsmith in a place like Barbados could hope to get his or her stories out. So when Antiguan writer and blogger Joanne C. Hillhouse tipped me off about an anthology made up of the best Caribbean entries to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (for which I was privileged to act as a longlister late last year), I was keen to take a look.
Bringing together work by writers in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Belize and more, Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean aims to broadcast the region’s literature to a wider audience. It is the first title published under the name Peekash Press, a collaboration between Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books set up to publish works by writers living in the Caribbean – as opposed to those in the diaspora, who make up the majority of these publishers’ lists.
Just as the collection seeks to bring new work to the wider world, so it also opens up fresh perspectives. If you thought that an anthology of short stories written in the Caribbean might reflect back at you all those tempting clichés of white-sand beaches, piña coladas and long, sleepy afternoons, you can think again. Packed with drama, many of the tales throb with a violent energy and deal with the very darkest human impulses. We read of gang violence, dead children, beatings, abuse and robbery.
Indeed, if you want a masterclass in how to start your stories with a bang, this is the book for you. Memorable first lines abound, perhaps the most striking being the opening of Sharon Leach’s ‘All the Secret Things No One Ever Knows': ‘Ten years ago, I found out that I wasn’t my father’s only girlfriend.’
There’s also humour. I particularly liked Barbara Jenkins’ ‘A Good Friday’ for this, with its loveable-rogue narrator who gets more than he bargains for when a devout young woman in distress happens by his bar.
The drama and humour are heightened by robust and often very inventive language. At their best, the writers use their imagery not only to illuminate the experiences of their characters but also to share specific details about their worlds. So, for example, we read in Ivory Kelly’s ‘This Thing We Call Love’ of conversations that ‘were like boil-up, with plantains and cassava and other kinds of ground food and salted meat thrown into a pot of water, in no particular order, and boiled until the pot is a steaming, bubbling, savoury cuisine’, or in Joanne C. Hillhouse’s own ‘Amelia at Devil’s Bridge’ about rocks that ‘are sharper than a coconut vendor’s cutlass’.
Many of the stories are brought to life with equally colourful dialogue, although this poses some interesting questions. A number of the writers have chosen to represent the dialects of their characters for a Standard English-speaking reader (so that someone who uses British or American English could pronounce the words phonetically and get them to sound as the characters would say them). While there are practical reasons for this choice, it has the effect of implying a reader who comes from elsewhere, as though the literary legacy of previous generations is still present on some level. It will be interesting to see whether the region’s authors continue to write in this way in years to come.
As is inevitable with anthologies of this kind, the quality of the pieces varies. Structure is shaky in some, while others have a frustrating, unfinished feel, as though they are fragments of larger works. A few fall into the trap of telling rather than showing, or cram so much incident in that they read more like synopses for novels or (in some cases) action films than stories in their own right. There are also instances of overwriting, where tenuous metaphors and similes are heaped onto sentences too flimsy to take their weight.
Taken as a whole, however, this is an exciting and heartening book. It proves – if anyone was in any doubt – that the Caribbean has plenty of homegrown literary talent to draw upon. Congratulations to Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books for creating a platform for these authors in the shape of Peekash Press. Judging by this collection, there are thrilling things ahead.
PepperPot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Peekash Press, 2014)
August 23, 2014
The last month or so has been a strange time for me. On the one hand, there was the euphoria of getting to the end of the stack of edits I showed you on the penultimate draft of Reading the World and knowing that the book I’d been writing on and off for 18 months was done. But on the other, there was the knowledge that this meant I was entering a whole new phase of the publishing process with challenges of its own.
For me, finding out whether the book would get a publisher in the US was top of the pile. With the manuscript finished, Sarah Levitt at the Zoë Pagnamenta Agency in New York (who often works with my agent Caroline Hardman in the UK) was able to swing into action, pitching the project to editors Stateside.
A nervous wait ensued. I tried not to think about it too much. I reminded myself that it’s rare for a British debut author to get taken on in the US, where publishers have their pick of tens of thousands of homegrown wordsmiths. And I consoled myself with the thought that, whatever happened, my book was going to be published in the UK in early 2015 by Harvill Secker/Random House – and that was far more than I had ever dreamed would happen when I first embarked on the madcap adventure of reading a book from every country in the world in a year. A deal in the US would be the icing on the cake, I told myself.
But the truth was, no matter how sanguine I tried to be about it, I cared very much about whether or not the book would come out in America. Having spent the first few weeks of my Year of Reading the World in the States (the picture at the top, in case you haven’t spotted it, was taken on the pier at Coney Island), I feel that the project has a particular connection with the place – several of the stories I read in those early stages were picked off the shelves at McNally Jackson. What’s more, given that over a third of total views of this blog have come from the US, I was keen to share the book with the nation that has been this venture’s most enthusiastic supporter.
So you can imagine my excitement when Sarah Levitt got in touch this week to confirm that we had a deal with editor Elisabeth Kerr at W.W. Norton & Co. The fact that the publisher is Norton and that the book will be coming out under its Liveright imprint (or trade name) makes the news all the sweeter – relaunched in 2012, Liveright sets out to publish ‘outstanding works that define and redefine our culture’. Its historic list is a literary hall of fame, with William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud and T.S. Eliot accounting for just some of its impressive names.
I was particularly delighted to discover that one of Liveright’s first publications after its relaunch was George Orwell’s Diaries. Orwell has always been a bit of a hero of mine and, like me, he started out as a sub-editor on British newspapers (although, much as I might like to think otherwise, the similarities between us probably end there).
The book is set to come out in the US in summer 2015 (probably in May, but I’ll let you know once the date is confirmed). However, if I thought my writing work on it was done, it turns out I can think again: Norton is publishing an anthology called Reading the World soon, so Elisabeth and I will need to think of another title for the US edition. Any suggestions gratefully received…
Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen