Emma Herdman on The Weightless World

pictureWhen I was browsing through our submissions in March last year, I wasn’t expecting to find a book I’d fall in love with. It happens so rarely – we get literally thousands of submissions – but of course you open each with the hope that this will be The One. So, when I opened Anthony’s, scanned the cover letter and scrolled down to the first line – Raymond Ess is going to kill me. – I instantly sat up: this was a book for me.

In no time, I had read the full sample he’d sent, and emailed him to request the rest of the manuscript. Then came a few days of anxiously waiting for his response during which I worried: had we left it too long? Had he already signed with another agent? Was he playing it cool? Had he looked me up and decided I wasn’t the agent for him?  Was I ever going to find out whether Raymond Ess snapped?! Finally, a full four days later, an email arrived: ‘I’ve been trying to get back in touch with you, but there seems to have been some problem with delivering to your server.’ No cool games from Anthony, then – just a technical glitch. Ironic, given the themes of the novel, which I then devoured over the following weekend. Thereafter followed a few phone calls and meetings with Anthony, where we discussed editorial notes which he turned around expertly and quickly. With each read of the novel I became more passionate about it – about the characters he’d created, the landscapes he drew so beautifully and the themes he explored intelligently yet subtly.

And so the time came for me to pitch to publishers and send out the manuscript (and all I’ll say about this process is that yes, the rumours about literary fiction being difficult to sell are true). After lots of praise but no bites, we finally got a call from Sam Jordison at Galley Beggar Press who, with Elly, wanted to offer for the book. You’ll note that I say this in a very offhand, nonchalant way, but truly this is one of the most exciting moments of being an agent: finding that editor who is as enthusiastic about a novel as you are. Not only that, but I knew instantly that Galley Beggar would be a perfect home for this book (if you don’t know them, look them up – they now famously published A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, and are a tiny house whose aim is to be ‘an old fashioned publisher for the 21st Century.’). And now we have a finished product, which is being read by real, everyday readers. An odd, but thrilling, feeling.

So I hope that this blog, and Anthony’s before this, will give you a little insight into the life of The Weightless World – when you see it in a bookshop, or look it up online, you’ll appreciate that this little book has had a whole life before making its way onto your shelves and becoming part of yours. And it hasn’t been the smoothest of rides – but that makes this publication all the more exciting. Over a year after Anthony first submitting it, we’re at the stage when the book is officially published tomorrow. How I hope that you read it and get that same feeling that I did – that you see how clever and timely and funny this book is, and that you understand why this is a book I wanted to talk to other people about. And now I can, I’m not sure I’ll be able to stop…

The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan is published by Galley Beggar Press tomorrow. You can follow Anthony on Twitter at @agmtrevelyan, and Emma at @emduddingstone

My inspiration: David Hofmeyr on Cormac McCarthy

David Hofmeyr“‘They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.’

Literary inspirations are the bedrock of my writing. And none come more powerful than Cormac McCarthy. This extract from All the Pretty Horses, first book in the Border Trilogy, defines the spirit of his writing for me. It’s Old Testament biblical and it cuts to the bone. His landscapes are wide, blazing-harsh and haunting.

I suppose Stone Rider was born the day I read the final page of All the Pretty Horses. I closed the book – in about 1993, when I was … oh, a younger man – and I saw ten thousand worlds for the choosing. My dreams from that day coalesced to one thing: publishing a novel. But not just any story. Something primal. Wide plains. Stars swirling in the dark. Outsiders and loners trying to find a place for themselves in a troubled world. That’s the feeling I wanted with Stone Rider.

In All The Pretty Horse the protagonist is 16-year-old cowboy, John Grady Cole who runs away south towards Mexico with a friend, Lacey Rawlins, searching for a land where he can ride his horse uninterrupted by fences. He’s looking for a life lived to the full. What Cole discovers, however, is bad love, bloody conflict, and people made dangerous by their disillusionment. I love this idea of an uncertain future and an unbreakable human spirit. McCarthy gives his characters a restless spirit of humanity, in the face of what often appears to be an absence of hope.

This is particularly true of his Pulitzer Prize winning post-apocalyptic work of genius, The Road. The harrowing story of the journey a father and his young son take across an ash-grey landscape blasted by some unknown cataclysm. Scene after scene leaves you at a loss for how McCarthy’s can illicit such horror, heartbreak and hope. I’m not a big fan of choosing favourites but The Road is up there with mine. It’s a story that haunts you. And the love the father and the son carry for each other propels you through their nightmare world with a kind of reverence for humanity. It’s this spirit I was compelled to evoke in my book, Stone Rider. A yearning for something better.

The primal nature of The Road – survive and protect the ones you love – is the reason you care so deeply about the father and his son. It’s the reason you feel their fear. And the reason you’re right there with them, hiding from the bad guys.

A darker side to McCarthy’s work rises in Blood Meridian. A story that throws the reader into an uncompromising and grim vision of the west. A story that introduces us to the monstrous, Judge Holden. Huge and at the same time delicately pale, like a baby. Ancient and childlike. A true horror. There are strong echoes of this character in the Colonel Mordecai Blood character of Stone Rider. I always wanted a nemesis that acted with impunity. Someone without a moral compass. In Stone Rider the Colonel rides on the fringes, like a slow-building thundercloud out over the desert.

I wept for the loss of the female wolf in his second instalment of the Border Trilogy, The Crossing. Here, McCarthy creates a deep affection and bond between a boy and a wolf and the power of the first quarter of the novel will stay with me forever. In fact, the wolves in Stone Rider most likely owe their origin to The Crossing.

Stone Rider owes a great deal to the power of Cormac McCarthy’s writing. The way he is able can take you on a ride into the heart of darkness, but in a way that that makes you feel a sense of wonder and euphoria rather than bleakness, despite the barbarism of his frontier worlds. If I’ve managed to capture a vestige of this spirit in Stone Rider, then I’d consider my story successful. But I’d rather you were the judge.”

Stone Rider is one of our June book of the month and will be published by Penguin on 16th July 2015.  Follow David Hofmeyr on Twitter @dhofmeyr and find out more about Stone Rider at www.davidhofmeyr.com.

We’re recruiting for new members!

We are very excited to announce that applications are now open for new members of the Curtis Brown Book Group!

We’ve been running since January this year, and have read books as diverse as The Ship by Antonia Honeywell, The Museum of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister, Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey and Barbarians by Tim Glencross – and we’ve got some brilliant books lined up for the next six months. Where previously we’ve featured two books, we’re now going to just have one book a month, with thirty members, so we’d love to hear from you about why you’d like to be a member.

How does it work? Well, at the beginning of each month, we send you a book we have selected by a Curtis Brown or Conville and Walsh author. Throughout the month, we’ll be tweeting about the book and posting exclusive content about it on our blog, and at the end of the month you’ll get to have an exclusive online chat with the author about the book for an hour over a lunchtime. If you can’t make it at the time, there’s the opportunity to post questions before the chat and check back later, so you won’t miss out. We then ask that you review the book around publication, on anywhere from Amazon to your own blog to Good Reads.

So, if you’d like to apply to be one of our members, all you need to do is email us with a short paragraph saying why, and what you feel you could bring to the group, at cbbookgroup@curtisbrown.co.uk. If you have any questions, you can email them to us there, or ask us on twitter, @CBBookGroup.

Previous members are welcome to re-apply. Please note that we can only accept members in the UK. Applications close on June 17th. 

The Scientist: a blog post by author Anthony Trevelyan

I’ve always been rubbish at science.  Mind you, for a long time I was rubbish at everything: my first teachers, at the lovely village primary school I attended, nursed fears I may turn out to be ‘educationally subnormal’ – or, as they put it in those days, ‘a bit of a sweetheart’.  I couldn’t count, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, when my classmates were emeritus professors of the spelling book and the times table.  I got there eventually – at the reading and writing end, anyway.  Not so much at the counting end, and not so much at the science end.

It was embarrassing.  After all, my sister was good at science; my brother was very good at science; and my dad was preposterously good at science, because he was in fact a scientist.  (I don’t know whether or not my mum was good at science; but I know she loved her job at the village post office, helping the old dears with their plastic sachets of coppers.  She was a phenomenal counter: her hand a blur as it scraped up coin after low-denomination coin and squeezed them into brassy columns of exact value.)  My dad worked for a local glass-manufacturing company, modelling improvements to the glass-making processes – tweaks to furnace design, re-anglings of jet-heads.  For this reason he didn’t like you saying he was a scientist: he preferred the term ‘technologist’, because his work concerned the application of scientific ideas (technology), not the interrogation of the ideas themselves (science).  It didn’t make any difference, though.  We all just said he was a scientist.

More awkwardly, he wasn’t the sort of scientist who goes on about science all day (or the sort who stares mutely into space while other people do the talking); no, he was the sort of scientist who reads Dickens and pores over Turner prints and talks about the Middle East and Germaine Greer and Kanye West.  So, just as I realised I quite liked books and all that stuff, I saw I couldn’t take the traditional art-fart route of promoting the excellence of the arts over the sciences.  I couldn’t pretend that literature and physics were naturally and inevitably exclusive of each other, because my bloody dad had already shown that they weren’t.

Still, he did his best with me.  For my tenth birthday he bought me a junior chemistry set, no doubt hoping it would stir in me a nascent appreciation of the periodic table.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The little set, with its test tubes and ground crystals and powdered minerals, was a lovely thing, and I enjoyed it enormously.  But I felt not a jot of interest in chemistry’s underlying principles.  I just liked mixing up pretty colours, imagining I was distilling fantastic essences, magical potions.

These days I know a little bit – a very little bit – more about science; but I think my sensation of it remains pretty much as it was then.  I remember my feelings only a few years ago, when I impulse-bought an iPad on its first day of sale.  That night on the couch my girlfriend and I coiled round the luminous handheld pane, and I thought: This is magic.  I didn’t mean This is brilliant, though I thought that as well.  I meant This is sorcery.  This is old art.

Something else was the same: a slightly frightful rapidity of assimilation.  When I was ten I loved my chemistry set, and I mixed my colours and compounded my potions, and then I got bored of the thing and shoved it in a corner and never looked at it again.  That’s not exactly what happened with the iPad; I never got bored of it, though I did soon lose my awe of it.  In a matter of weeks an object that had felt like radiant contraband from a parallel universe became merely another household item, no more startling than a lamp or an umbrella.  It was assimilated, though – I think crucially – still not understood.

Later I thought about this.  If I didn’t understand it (and I didn’t), how had I managed to assimilate the iPad so quickly?  Was it because the setting in which I placed it, the familiar domestic context of lamps and umbrellas, is similarly inexplicable?  Because, though they surround me all day every day, I don’t really know how lamps or umbrellas work, either?  Because I have become habituated to living out my days in an environment that I not only do not understand, but that I cheerfully assume it’s not my business to understand?

It struck me that I may not be entirely on my own in this.  In our time and place it is a condition of life that we delegate understanding, and specifically scientific understanding, to others.  The science (and, as Dad would remind me, the technology) of our environment is too massively complicated for most of us to grasp without prolonged technical study.  And, let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to do that.  And so we are content to live in ignorance; intelligent, educated Westerners, with our esoteric knowledge of film and poetry and music, we remain glibly ignorant of the technologies every moment reshaping the world around us.  And that, I thought, has to be asking for trouble…

My ideas about where that trouble may lead, or how that trouble may come, resulted in a novel called The Weightless World.  The book isn’t really about science (or technology): more, it’s about our shared credulity in the face of miracles we don’t even try to understand.  And it’s about a pair of berks who go to India in the hope of buying an antigravity machine, which may or may not exist, from an inventor who, likewise, may or may not exist.

And, I suppose, it’s about my dad, who died in 2013, just as I was starting the book (I’d drafted the first chapter when, one Tuesday morning, my sister phoned, and said I may want to sit down).  He’s not in it or anything, but I see now that it begins from a principle he had always set for me, to use however I could: the arts do not excel the sciences; nor the sciences the arts; and yet there are miracles, real miracles, in both.

The Weightless World will be published by Galley Beggar Press on June 18th in their distinctive black paperback and ebook. You can follow Anthony on Twitter at @agmtrevelyan

June Books of the Month

If you can read this through your tears, then welcome to the end of the first round of CB Book Group (we’ll be scouting for new recruits soon!). This month, we’ve got two seemingly very different books – but with some striking similarities. Dusty desert, anyone?

 

 Stone Rider by David Hofmeyr

Adam Stone has grown up in Blackwater, a dusty desert town where the air is toxic and the landscape deadly, and he’s dying to get out. However, the only way to do that is  to win the Black Water Trail Race on your byke, and get your ticket to Sky Base, where life is easy. If it sounds Mad Max-esque, that’s because it is – but Mad Max meets  Winters Bone, with characters you want to stay with long after the book has finished. There is – of course! – a love story, but this is ultimately a novel to sit down with on a  lazy afternoon and finish in one adrenalin filled sitting…we’re really looking forward to discussing this with David (and finding out where he got his inspiration from!).

David graduated from the Bath Spa Writing for Children MA with distinction. You can follow David on Twitter here: @dhofmeyr. Stone Rider will be published by Penguin on July 16th in PB and Ebook.

 

 

 The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan 

Steven Strauss is just where he doesn’t want to be: on a ‘business trip’ to India with his boss Raymond Ess, the charismatic and chaotic founder of Resolute Aviation. Lately the company has fallen on hard time, and Steven and his fellow employees have accepted that Resolute is dead and they’re all going to lose their jobs. But Raymond Ess is determined to save his company, and to this end he’s devised a rescue plan. He claims that during his recent travels he has come across a recluse of the Indian wilds, willing to sell his remarkable invention: an antigravity machine. Now, with Steven in tow, Ess has returned to India planning to buy the machine, to bring it to market and thereby right all wrongs, recover all losses, restore all reputations. It’s a wonderful book which we hope will raise lots of questions for us to discuss with Anthony!

Anthony submitted his work to the Curtis Brown slush pile and was picked up from there. You can follow Anthony on Twitter here: @agmtrevelyan. The Weightless World will be published on June 18th by Galley Beggar Press.

Five Books about Mothers and Daughters

Today it’s our online book group discussion with author Jo McMillan about her novel Motherland, a mother-daughter novel of socialism and coming of age. In light of this, we decided to pick five books about mothers and daughters – tougher than it sounds!

1. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

We’re not quite sure why we’ve chosen so many books with a bit of magic in them – but this is such a special book we didn’t want to leave it off. Jack and Mabel are a childless couple living on a farm in 1920’s Alaska (NB this is also the first of two books set in Alaska on this list – not deliberate!), drifting apart from one another. One day, as the snow falls, their spirits are lifted, and they set about making a snow child together. The next morning, they look outside to find that the snow child they created has disappeared – and there is a young girl, Faina, running in the woods with a fox. And so they take Faina in, coming quickly to see her as their own, especially the lonely Mabel. But all is not quite as it seems, and the ending gives a twist to the idea of the magical fairytale…

2. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Can you tell that we love His Dark Materials over here? We’re determined to get all three of the trilogy into these lists one way or another. So, not quite your usual mother-daughter set up, but it’s one that’s interesting enough to include here anyway. Our protagonist Lyra Belacqua is an orphan, living at Oxford’s Jordan College and supposedly under the care of her uncle, the mysterious Lord Asriel, who is rarely there. So when he returns to the college with the enigmatic Mrs. Coulter, who offers Lyra the attention she’s been craving, Lyra comes to see her as a mother figure – planting the seeds for a relationship which echos throughout the trilogy…

3. Chocolat by Joanne Harris 

A mother-daughter image that’s become iconic due to the film starring Juliette Binoche (and Jonny Depp, lest we forget), this delectable novel tells the story of mother and chocolatier Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk, as they sweep into a small, very Catholic, town and enchant them all with their chocolate creations. However, it’s not just the chocolate that causes a stir… With hints of magic and a mother-daughter bond that’s been replicated through the ages, this is a gorgeous novel of prejudice, change and chocolate.

4. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

This is one of our all time favourites, and one which can be re-read over and over again. Bernadette is mother to Bee, a fifteen year old whose one request is to go to Antarctica, and wife to Elgin, whose TED talk is one of the highest ever viewed and is a Microsoft star employee. They live in Seattle where the supremely anxious Bernadette corresponds with her secret PA in India, mocks Bee’s classmates’ mothers and wages war over a hedge with her neighbours. Having aced her exams, Bee’s request to go to Antarctica is fulfilled – but then Bernadette goes missing. So, Elgin and Bee go looking for this award winning architect, adoring mother, and Bee’s best friend.

5. The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton

We left this one until last as it’s not out until July, but we couldn’t resist including it as it’s – simply – brilliant. The mother and daughter in this novel are Yasmin and Ruby, who have travelled to Alaska to meet Matt, Yasmin’s husband and ten year old Ruby’s father, who’s been out there making a wildlife documentary. However, when they arrive at Fairbanks airport, they are met not by Matt, but by a policewoman who informs them that he has died in a tragic fire in the remote hamlet, Anaktue. Stubborn Yasmin refuses to believe it – and so, she and Ruby commandeer an Arctic lorry and set out across the bleak Alaskan wilds to find Matt. But – and here it gets tense – they are not alone. Another truck is following them through the darkness, and with no one else on the roads, they have to find Matt before they are found themselves. Yasmin and Ruby (who is, coincidentally, deaf) make a fierce mother and daughter team in this clever and compelling novel. Also, we can almost guarantee that once finishing, you’ll want to spend hours on the internet researching the issues it raises…

So, those are our favourite mother – daughter novels. Tweet us with your favourites that you think we’ve missed off (yes, we know we skipped Austen, for which we apologise!), @CBBookGroup.

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published on July 2nd by John Murray Books.

Five Novels Set in Spain

Because despite our best efforts, just doing books set in Mallorca was very hard. So here are our five favourite novels set in Spain, inspired by one of our May book group picks, The Rocks by Peter Nichols. As ever, tweet us with books you think we’ve missed – @CBBookGroup. Let’s dive in…

1. The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

Okay, this one is set in Mallorca, and is one of our favourite intelligent beach reads. The Lemon Grove is a novel replete with lust and tension – Jenn, a woman approaching middle age, is on holiday with her husband, step-daughter and step-daughter’s boyfriend, Nathan. So begins an illicit longing on Jenn’s part, as she struggles to navigate the volatile set of relationships that have suddenly arisen in their tight family group: her step-daughter’s burgeoning sexuality, her husband’s secret, causing stress on his part, combined with Nathan’s ripe masculinity cause Jenn to act in a way you know is going to end in disaster, but feels somehow inevitable. It’s a satisfying and finely observed novel set against the backdrop of a sweltering summer.

 2. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Though it’s not entirely set in Spain, the bull fighting in this iconic novel, which established Hemingway as one of the greats, makes it one that we simply couldn’t miss off.  Protagonist Jake Barnes, an ex-pat living in Paris, is a journalist who’s been wounded in WW1. However, what we’re most interested in is his travel to Spain where he and his  friends go to Pamplona to watch the bull fighting in some of the most recognisable passages in American literature (we think, anyway). Yes, Hemingway isn’t the easiest writer of all  time, but this straight talking American novel is filled with some wonderful quotes, and scenes which will make you want to jump on a plane and head to the nearest Spanish bar.

3. Winter in Madrid by C. J. Sansom

We feel like it’s fitting to put this book after Hemingway, as Sansom’s writing seems to channel an earlier style, akin to Hemingway, Greene or even, in places, Maugham. Set in 1940’s (you guessed it) Madrid, it’s a thriller with heart – a tense, supremely well written novel that charts the fates of a tangle of characters: Harry Brett, a British spy; Sandy Forsyth, an old school friend of Harry upon whom Harry is sent to spy, due to his involvement with the Fascists; Bernie Piper, presumed dead by everyone but Sandy’s ‘wife’, Barbara, who insists he is alive; and Sofia, Harry’s Spanish lover. Leading to a climactic ending, this is a clever and quietly compelling read.

 4. The Return by Victoria Hislop

A classic time slip novel, a genre in which Hislop excels, this romantic but fiercely researched novel is set in Granada, Spain, both in the present day and during the Spanish Civil  War. Sonia Cameron, a middle aged woman from England, has travelled to Granada to pursue her new found love of salsa, following the discovery of old pictures of her mother in  Spain. A parallel story emerges once Sonia reaches Spain – that of the Ramirez family during the 1930’s. Love stories, passionate flamenco dancing, the trials of bull fighting: it’s  all here in a novel of family and war which asks nothing more of the reader than to enjoy it.

5. The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon GoughThe cover of 'The White Goddess: An Encounter' by Simon Gough.

Is this a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it something else altogether? These are questions you’ll ask yourself repeatedly as you read – perhaps ‘experience’ is a better word – The White Goddess. The book is predominantly a telling of Gough’s interactions with his great uncle (or rather, grand uncle: ‘Great is for steamships and railway lines, don’t you think? Grand is for fathers and uncles, and Russian dukes, of course!’), Robert Graves, from whom’s book this one takes its title. A young Simon’s experiences in Deia, Mallorca, echo those of characters Luca and Aegina in The Rocks, as he encounters Graves for the first time aged 11 in the bohemian paradise. You can almost see Lulu there…

 

The Rocks by Peter Nichols is published by Quercus Books in hardback, and will be available in paperback on July 2nd.