Book of the Month: A Very Special Kind of Storytelling by Gordon Wise

We’re nearly at the end of our second Book Group Month and we’ve just about recovered from all of the shocks and twists of our joint book of the month – The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble.  In today’s blog, Stuart’s agent here at Curtis Brown, Gordon Wise, reveals just what it was that made The Insect Farm stand out for him and why it’s a book not to miss on publication in March.

Gordon Wise, Agent at Curtis Brown

Gordon Wise

“I was hooked by this book from the first page of its very first draft. And at that time, it had a very different opening – what it was then remains Stuart’s and my secret.

And this is a book about secrets – about trying to get away with something, even when you don’t know if you did wrong. At least one guilty person meets their end. But so do innocent people. Quite why, and how, you will have to read to find out. And there are a few moral decisions you will have to make for yourself: can you possibly see the

world the way that Stuart’s characters do?  And yet you can see exactly why they do see it the way they do.

There’s a very special kind of storytelling at work here: while you know from the first pages that some kind of crime has been committed, soon you realise that this is a book about significant relationships, and just how blood can be thicker than water. No-one I have met who has read The Insect Farm has failed to be wrong-footed about their assumptions about what is going on. There aren’t many books that can excite you in the very particular, creepy way this one does without laying it on thick, while at the same time have you rooting for its antiheroes – or wondering whether they are even heroic at all?

Stuart has been a storyteller in all sorts of media for a number of decades. It’s so exciting that he is now becoming a master of psychological suspense writing, and all of us here at Curtis Brown, his award-winning UK publisher Alma Books, and the mighty Mulholland Books of the US Hachette Publishing Group are on the edge of our seats to see what he writes next.”

51rFVWHTmWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Insect Farm will be published in the UK by Alma Books on Thursday 26th March and in the US by Mulholland Books in Tuesday 7th July.  You can follow Stuart on Twitter at @StuartPrebble and find out more about The Insect Farm and Stuart’s previous books at www.stuartprebble.com.

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Five Siblings in Literature

Our other book of the month, Stuart Prebble’s The Insect Farm, deals with the complex and often sinister relationship between brothers – here between our protagonist Jonathan and his disabled older brother Roger. This got us thinking about our favourite siblings in literature and their relationships, from the sweet to the stormy to the downright sinister.

  1. Miles and Flora in The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

When the governess in James’s novella The Turn of the Screw takes on a new position in an Essex country estate, she cannot believe that her angelic charges could be capable of the mysterious transgressions attributed to them. But she soon discovers that Miles and Flora, however innocent they may appear, possess a terrible and haunting knowledge, and that they are the conduit for the house’s old ghosts to make their presence felt. The children, the governess realises, ‘saw MORE – things terrible and unguessable and that sprang from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past.’ The original creepy horror children, Miles and Flora still bring us out in goosebumps, and will make you think twice about taking on babysitting. turn-of-the-screw-cover.preview

  1. Lowell, Rosemary and Fern, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

“I knew the winds of doom when they blew,” writes Rosemary of leaving her sister Fern to go and stay with her grandparents as a child at the beginning of Karen Joy Fowler’s 2014 bestseller We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Rosemary and her brother Lowell return to find that Fern has vanished, and the rest of the novel follows the siblings as they try to unravel the reason behind Fern’s disappearance, and confront why her loss might have always been inevitable. Fowler’s novel emphasises that the absence of a sibling can have as profound an effect on our life as their presence, and, with its revelation of Fern’s secret, asks the reader to interrogate what, exactly, makes us brothers and sisters to each other. We Are ALl

  1. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

On their own, the Pevensie children aren’t all that great: Peter’s a bit of a bully, Susan’s a bit of prig, Edmund’s a bit of a sneak and Lucy’s a bit of a drip. But C.S. Lewis is brilliant at capturing the dynamic between siblings, the power plays and alliances, however fantastical the setting he sends them into. The Pevensies carry their bickering into Narnia with them, and even if only three of them are allowed into Lewis’s frankly hokey heaven (silly old Susan, having developed an interest in ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations’, isn’t allowed to join her brothers and sister in heaven at the end of The Last Battle), it is Lewis’s talent for conveying the combined love and resentment that we feel for our siblings that has made these books timeless classics.

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  1. Tom and Maggie Tulliver, The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

‘Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it’ writes George Eliot in Adam Bede; but it’s Tom and Maggie Tulliver from Eliot’s 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss who have made into our top five. Perhaps you’ve been either the long-suffering older sibling like Tom, or the adoring but perpetually rebuffed younger sibling like Maggie; Eliot, herself estranged from her brothers for most of her adult life, lovingly captures how different siblings can be and how love can bridge those differences. Mill

  1. Scout and Jem Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

‘When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow’ begins Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. We can’t imagine a list about siblings in literature could be complete without Scout and her brother Jem, who is thought to be based on Lee’s beloved lawyer sister Alice. We can’t wait to see meet the grown up Scout and Jem in Lee’s upcoming Go Set A Watchman, or see if they get on any better, and we’ve already got our ham costumes on in anticipation. HamThe Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble will be published in the UK by Alma on 15th March 2015 and in the US by Mulholland Books on 7th July 2015.

Reality Check – Eve Ainsworth on Seven Days

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Why do gritty, realistic books matter?

When I wrote Seven Days, I was immediately proud of my creation. It felt like a very honest and true representation of what I had witnessed in the school I worked for. I hoped it was something that teens would pick up and relate to. I also hoped that by showing both sides of bullying – the reasons why someone might bully – that I was introducing an interesting perspective.

However, when sending the book out to agents, the response I received was unanimous. Most of the messages were positive, but all said similar things; ‘great book, but too gritty, too dark – it just wouldn’t sell’.

This made me sad for two reasons:

  • I desperately wanted to get published and was convinced this would be the book to do it
  • Maybe real-life, contemporary books weren’t as popular as I’d hoped.

As a teenager, I devoured books and they helped me through some tough times. I tended to veer towards books that were reflective of my thoughts and feelings – it made me feel less isolated, less scared of some of the issues I was facing – like early novels by Jacqueline Wilson, Judy Blume and Robert Swindells. There was one book that I checked out of the library again and again. It was a book about bullying. I wish I could remember the title, but what I do remember was how much the gritty, hard message hit home. At the time, I was being bullied. This one book – this hard-hitting – ‘tell-it-as-it-is’ book, made me feel less alone. I read it so many times, wondering just how the author had managed to tap into my own mind. In many ways it helped me feel less of a victim.

Books like these mattered so much to me when I was younger and mattered so much to my friends.

Therefore I felt overjoyed when Curtis Brown contacted me to say that they loved my book. When I discussed the text with Stephanie Thwaites, I knew she completely understood what I was trying to deliver. Then having a publisher, such as Scholastic, decide to publish it has been amazing.

But what is even more amazing is receiving feedback from readers. I’ve been told that it is a ‘powerful read’ that it reflected personal experiences, that it had impact.

And that was all I wanted to do.

Gritty, real-life books matter because they resonate with the reader. They reflect the world that the readers exist in and prevent it from being a lonely, sad place. Books encourage discussion, thought and understanding. They help us to appreciate exactly what another individual is going through.

And surely that can only ever be a good thing?

The Essential Wonders of The A-Z of You and Me

It is always a rare and exciting moment in an editor’s life when a typescript arrives on your desk (or in your inbox, as it does these days) that REALLY sends tingles up your spine and down your neck and leaves you reeling. This is how I felt after reading THE A TO Z OF YOU AND ME.

We see so many talented writers, but there is one thing for an editor to personally love a book and another thing for a groundswell of colleagues to love it too, and to want to publish it, and make it work in the marketplace (a tough place, as you may know).

When I first read Jim’s novel, I thought: here is a stunning voice – quietly witty, dark, generous, modest, curious, regretful, hopeful –  that touched me deeply. More importantly, I was convinced I had discovered a book that I would want to press into other people’s hands and urge them to read.

Jim’s central character Ivo is an everyman, but he has his own particular story – he is in a bad way (to put it mildly) – and he has brought this bad way on himself. So his story is in a way a battle of the demons, and how he comes to terms with those demons.

You could say this is a book about death. But others say it is a book about life. It’s all about how you look at it, what sort of personal story/baggage/experience the reader brings to it. And that is its strength – a story that can be many things to many people is truly a universal one.

I envy new readers of THE A TO Z OF YOU AND ME who will go on the incredible journey I first went on when Sue Armstrong, Jim’s most ferociously talented agent, first sent this to me. I laughed, I cried, to use that terrible cliché. But isn’t that what every life experience is about? Glorious ups and terrible downs, and finally an unforgettable sort of calm and reconciliation.

The ending of this book is truly one of the most heart-wrenching I’ve ever read in my days (years) as an editor. It truly punched me in the stomach and made me re-assess everything I’d just read, it made me contemplate my own life, and that of my friends and family.

I won’t give the ending away here, of course, but reader, be prepared. It is an uplifting ending, in the purest sense. You will never ever forget it.

Thanks everyone for reading this. Enjoy the book, and pass it on!

Jane Lawson (Editor, Penguin Random House)

The A-Z of You and Me is one of our February books of the month, and will be published on March 12th in hardback and ebook. 

Book group discussion: The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell was our first pick for our book group, so one grey January day she came along to our offices – armed with cakes! – to chat with our members online. The discussions were fascinating – so much so, that we thought we’d share them here (with thanks to our members who asked such interesting questions!).

On the question of whether this is a crossover novel, or a YA novel… (asked by almost everyone!)

It didn’t even occur to me as I was writing that The Ship might be seen as a YA novel. But of course I can see it now – a teenage narrator, a dystopian setting. All I can say is that The Ship wasn’t written as a YA novel, but that if any young adult readers find resonance and relevance in it, then I’m thrilled, as I am about anybody at all reading it. I’m suspicious of overt categorisation, to be honest. 1984 is a YA novel, so is The Catcher in the Rye, and so is Jane Eyre. And nobody’s telling me that everyone who enjoyed The Hunger Games was under 24! And when I was a YA myself (before YA existed as a genre) I read voraciously and questioned absolutely everything I read. So although I have no idea what the answer is, I take the debate as to whether or not The Ship is a YA novel as a great compliment.

On the decision to write the book in first person perspective and whether Antonia ever played with different points of view … (Emma Crowley) (Sara Donaldson)

The trouble is that there is no ‘accurate’ or ‘correct’ perspective on anything. Everyone’s experience of anything is informed by their background, their education, their assumptions… so a third person narrative would have required a ‘true’ version of events (such as Orwell provides in 1984, or Forster in The Machine Stops). And in this particular novel, there’s no such thing.

In one draft, each character told their own story in successive chapters – I enjoyed writing those, and of course they all informed the final draft – but as I worked, it became clearer and clearer that this had to be Lalla’s story, and Lalla’s alone.

IMG_2842On choice… (Alice Popplewell)

The idea of choice was a huge drive behind this novel. Michael goes on and on about choice – he even claims that Anna chose what happened to her. Lalla doesn’t agree – she thinks that things happen to her. But they’re both right, and that tension is part of what it means to grow up. I feel very strongly that we have more choice in our lives than we think, and that the choices we make have an impact and influence far beyond our knowledge. For me, at the end, Lalla has reached a point where she has no choice but to take the action she does. But Michael, Tom and the people on the ship think that she has an alternative, and so they are hurt and broken by her decision.

But it comes down to this – when a parent imposes a world view on a child, that child must either rebel, or become someone other than they might have been. And it’s for each individual reader to decide on that in relation to their own life.

For me, the moment I left my metaphorical ship was the moment I decided I was going to carry on writing, even if I never, ever got published.

On the Ship as a cult… (Fran Roberts) (Alice Popplewell)

I always had the idea that Lalla’s father would be elevated to a cult figure by the people on the ship. I very much wanted his elevation to be led by them, rather than overtly by him. In earlier drafts, the people started calling him Father quite early on, but that was a little too much – I didn’t want to infantilise the people who’d taken this route to survival. I think the idolisation comes from the people – the depths of their gratitude, the horrors they’ve been spared – but I certainly don’t feel that Michael does anything to resist it. He rather enjoys it, and by the end he can’t cope with anything or anyone that doesn’t subscribe to the general view of him as a saviour.

I do think that as a species we’re inclined to elevate people to an inappropriate status. By idolising Michael, the people on the ship are absolving themselves of responsibility for their own decisions. They have to do that, because if they actually looked at how they were living, they would have to go along with Lalla and try to turn the ship around.

On the inclusion of chapter headings… (Jacquie Bloese)

The chapter headings were quite organic. At one point, each chapter began with a direct quotation from a recent news article. Those were replaced with quotations about human nature from various periods of history. In the end, though, the simple summaries won out. I wanted them to be timeless, but with a sense of a story that’s already been told. IMG_2847

 

On food… (Helen Redfern)

You’ve picked up on such an important strand. Food becomes massively important in times of scarcity – and it becomes a way of communicating emotion too, even more than it is in normal situations.

 

On Lalla being annoying… (Amy Fulwood)

Lalla’s incredibly annoying. She’s questioning the accepted world view, with no one to help her. And her questions can only be based on her own experience – she has nothing else. With Anna dead, there is no one who can help her channel her thoughts, feelings and impressions. Her irritating qualities are indicative of the extent to which she’s alone (I hope).

On blind faith… (Zarina de Ruiter)

By developing blind faith in Michael, the people on the ship are giving themselves permission to detach from the responsibility of being alive. When I was writing, I saw this as a conscious decision on their part. But as I began to redraft and edit, I began to see examples of this kind of blindness all over the place. How many times have you seen someone take a particular course of action and wanted to shout, ‘Can’t you see what you’re doing?’ And of course, we’re not always capable of seeing what we’re doing ourselves. We need each other – and a group of people who all make the same assumptions is a dangerous thing.

On Antonia’s writing journey and lessons she’s learnt… (Van Demal)

The biggest damascene moment was the one about four years ago, when after six years of concerted effort and no success, I decided to give up trying. It was just too much, writing and writing and getting wonderful rejection after wonderful rejection (and I’m not being sarcastic there, they were lovely letters, they just said no), that I couldn’t take it anymore.

And I realised that I would rather have written those novels and failed to get published than never have written those novels. That there was a validity to writing beyond publication. And I’d offer that to anyone who is in the same position. The only part you can control is when you decide to give up. And I realised then that I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. And here we are.

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The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is published today (19th February) by W&N.

Featured Book: Paris for One by Jojo Moyes (Quick Read)

If we’re honest, we’re a bit selfish.

We’re not ashamed to say that we decided to start the Curtis Brown Book Group because we love to read (and because we love to talk about the books that we’ve read!)

We’re book devotees, book groupies, book converts – put simply, we’re hooked.

And we’re relieved that we’re not alone – nearly two-thirds of UK adults turn to books for pleasure – and after all getting together to chat about a good story is the best bit!Quick Reads

The charity Quick Reads was set up in 2006 to reach the 35% that don’t read in their free time – in particular the 1 in 6 of adults who aren’t able to read, not because they don’t want to, but because they struggle with literacy, confidence, or access to books.

In the last nine years Quick Reads has distributed a remarkable 4.5million books and, through outreach work, introduced hundreds of thousands of new readers to the joy of reading.

Curtis Brown authors have been proud to support Quick Reads – Jeffrey Archer, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Harriet Evans, and James Caan have all written short works for the charity in recent years – and this year we’re delighted that our own Jojo Moyes’s Paris for One will be one of six new Quick Reads for 2015.

Here’s a bit more about the book below (and for your chance to win a copy just visit our @CBBookGroup on Twitter on Thursday 18th February):

Paris for OneParis for One by Jojo Moyes

Nell is twenty-six and has never been to Paris. She has never even been on a weekend away with her boyfriend. Everyone knows she is just not the adventurous type.

But, when her boyfriend doesn’t turn up for their romantic mini-break, Nell has the chance to prove everyone wrong.

Alone in Paris, Nell meets the mysterious moped-riding Fabien and his group of carefree friends. Could this turn out to be the most adventurous weekend of her life?

Other new titles for Quick Reads in 2015 include Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle, Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen by Sophie Hannah, Red for Revenge by Fanny Blake, Out of the Dark by Adèle Geras, and Street Cat Bob by James Bowen.

For more information about Quick Reads and their work just visit their website or follow on TwitterParis for One by Jojo Moyes was published by Penguin on 5th February 2015.  Follow Jojo on Twitter at @jojomoyes and for more information about her other novels visit www.jojomoyes.com.

Featured Book: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

“These applications are my perpetual torment” – this was Benjamin Franklin, complaining to a friend about the endless requests he received for letters of reference.  Increasingly cynical about the worth of such letters, Franklin disposed of one request very quickly:  “The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name.”

I read (and write) hundreds of letters of recommendation every year during university admissions season, and I’ve become sceptical about their worth as well.  I’ve read letters written by candidates’ family and friends (“Though I am her mother, I can assure you without bias that she is one of the most gifted….”), letters purportedly written by Chaucer and Shakespeare (“Herein ye find the file o’ a man from the North”), and applications accompanied by six­packs of beer or boxes of trophies (“employee of the month”).

But most of the letters I read are dull and formulaic – which, in part, is what inspired Dear Committee Members.  I often force writing exercises on my students, but this time I gave myself an assignment:  Write a piece of fiction in the form of a series of letters of recommendation.  I wasn’t sure this was a good or even a feasible idea, so I told myself (because writing is a mind-game) that it was just a silly low-risk experiment, and if the first ten pages were awful, I would throw them away.

The very best thing about writing this book:  I quickly realized that, in order for the novel to function, my letter-writing professor, Jay Fitger, would need to be wildly inappropriate, including in recommendations written for other people information about his own romantic history, his sense of failure, his frustrations with colleagues at work.

Looking at the pages I was writing in draft, I saw that I’d created a second self, a doppelganger – my evil twin.   I’d never had an imaginary friend to blame things on when I was a child, but here was Professor Jay Fitger, mouthy, obnoxious, funny, and full of rage.  How satisfying!  While I’m on the quiet end of the spectrum, eager for compromise and consensus, Jay (whose name is – curious coincidence – my first initial) was more than willing to push himself forward, aggressive.  I felt a secret thrill of recognition every time he put his cantankerous foot in his mouth.

Some readers have asked if it was difficult to create such an irascible (and male) character.  I want to tell them that I *love* Professor Jay Fitger; he is everything I don’t know how to be.

Some readers have also asked if, after publishing the novel, I still get requests for letters of recommendation.  Yes, of course.  Take a look at this one:

Hi:

My name is ____ and I am an undergraduate student studying at UMN. I am looking to hire an experienced writing professional to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of a recommender who does not have time to write one out for me and has asked that I somehow put one together for him to sign and mail in.

This letter does not have to be longer than one page and I have a format I would like you to follow. You will be compensated for this job if you are able to do it, money is not an objective as I need this letter within the next 2 weeks.

I was tempted to respond, if only to correct his punctuation, but then I realized I could leave that task to Professor Jay Fitger.  I can be appropriate and polite, and leave the piss and vinegar to my evil twin.

Dear Committee Members is published by The Friday Project and is out now in paperback. You can hear Julie on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb on March 13th. We’re giving away three copies on Twitter.