The Five Inescapable Truths of Becoming a Published Author by Jessica Thompson

I was just 23 years old when I signed my first book deal. Twenty three.

Working as a journalist and living in a grotty house share, I was so young and naïve it actually scares me to look back at this time. How did I survive?

My cooking abilities were so laughable it’s a wonder I attained basic nutrition. I wasn’t brilliantly practical either. If dumped in the jungle for a Bear Grylls-type challenge I would’ve likely been deceased within 24-hours, but might have left behind a rather nice poem.

Now a little older, supposedly wiser, able to cook and assemble flat pack furniture – and four novels deep – I’m delighted to be sharing my ‘inescapable truths of being a published writer’, with the Curtis Brown Book Group blog.

If you’re a fellow novelist, I’d love to know if you’ve experienced these too. Perhaps you have different truths to share? Tweet me @Jthompsonauthor

  • The more books you publish, the less sure you become.

When I completed the manuscript for my debut novel This is a Love Story’, I never in a fafillion years imagined I would be capable of three more (WTF).

Now I’ve written four, I’m already worrying about the next ones…

I can only imagine these kinds of feelings will never go away, which sounds distressing, however I think they are essential and positive. Without them, the drive to continually grow and develop, would die.

Stay curious about what you’re capable of.

  • You’ve not even slightly made it.

As embarrassing as this is to admit, my early twenties brain having just digested the news that I was to be published by an imprint of Hodder and freaking Stoughton, did instantly raise the following question.

Does this mean I’ve ‘made it’?!

Cringe. The answer is a resounding no.

It’s a wonderful, special and life-changing achievement to be published, and not something to be taken for granted. Ever. But a new kind of journey often starts here, and it’s likely to be a very bumpy ride! Ups and downs a plenty, take it all as it comes. You’re probably going to make some mistakes and there will be a lot of uncertainty.

Unless you’re a rare, overnight sensation, you’ll probably be a teeny tiny fish in a vast ocean of more experienced writers, and the best thing you can do is listen and learn from the best.

Remember, it’s easy to assume all success stories have been quick, smooth and easy. This is hardly ever the case. People don’t talk so much about the things that went wrong.

  • Never stop learning.

And on the ‘learning’ note, being a writer is not something you just ‘achieve’, whether you’re published or not. Practice, all the time. Write scary things, happy things, sad things… Write all the things.

It’s a lifelong learning curve. You’ll grow and you’ll change, just like you will as a person. It takes many varied life experiences, and years of expressing yourself through words and perfecting your craft to truly understand what you can do.

Looking at it that way, it’s actually a really exciting thought! How many other things stay and grow with you like that?

  • The first bad review will hurt.

Family and friends warned me repeatedly about this. I also questioned my brilliant agent (Curtis Brown’s very own Sheila Crowley) who was really chilled, and said that absolutely everyone gets ‘bad’ reviews. I felt pretty sure I could handle it.

But then, POOF! The first one appeared, as irritating and inevitable as a mozzie bite on holiday, and I had a mini meltdown.

I rang Sheila. She was amazing, and then I got over it.

Furthermore, some constructive reviews include things you can really learn from (which all contributes to making you a better, stronger, more kick ass writer, right?).

Anyway, you get much tougher, very fast, and it really doesn’t matter all that much.

  • Hearing from readers never stops feeling like magic.

From the very first time a reader made the effort to get in touch with me on Twitter or Facebook to tell me their thoughts, to the present day when this happens, this experience has never stopped being humbling and wonderful.

I simply cannot thank my readers enough for taking time from their busy lives to read my books, and share their stories with me.

Without readers, are we really writers? It’s just incredible, and a true privilege. Thank you, thank you, thank you…

www.jessicathompsonbooks.com

You can follow Jessica at @Jthompsonauthor and find her at Jessica Thompson books’ on Facebook. We have five copies of The Waiting Game to give away over on Twitter today. 

In praise of writing in English as a ‘foreign’ language, by Kim Devereux

I’m often told that it is ‘impressive’ that I have written a novel in a language that is not my mother tongue. Is it really more difficult? I first started to learn English at the age of twelve, at school in Germany. We were taught using quite a new method at the time. Not a single word of German was spoken. Each new snippet of English was explained with a picture or gestures and once we had acquired a basic vocabulary, definitions were given in English.

However I was living in Germany, so I did not absorb English by some kind
of linguistic osmosis – I consciously fell in love with it.  I enjoyed the feeling of the words and sounds in my mouth. French on the other hand was like an alien critter which my vocal apparatus refused to accommodate. The external circumstances did not help either; my French teacher had a habit of leaning forward AND producing showers of spittle when over-pronouncing the words ‘avec les levres.’

My English teacher on the other hand had a number of unfair advantages. The most important one was his sporty physique, followed by the fact that he was a native speaker and hailed from Kingston-Upon-Thames. He also had an accent to die for.

As you can see, my relationship with English got off to a good start. It was based on the sound foundation of my fanatical zeal to be noticed by Mr Oldfield.

My relationship with German was far more boring. It was that of a fish in murky waters. I must have been a toddler in a sea of grunts, hisses and sounds that sooner or later morphed into handy tools for making my opinions known about the taste of sauerkraut and brussels sprouts.

I have this theory that I was looking at English from within my German habitat. English seemed as beautiful as it was exotic. A little later it became clear to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was vastly superior to German. For starters there were far fewer commas, a good feature when you don’t know where to put them. It basically had dispensed with a lot of dross; no ‘der, die, das’ just ‘the’, no messing around with formal and informal forms of address and no crazy words like ‘Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän’.

To see if I am telling the truth just pick any operating instructions and compare the English to the German entry. You will find the German one goes on and on and on. English gets the job done without much ado.

The only downside I have found over the years is that there is no English word for ‘Ausgeschlafen’. It describes the state when you have had a really good night’s sleep and you feel thoroughly refreshed. Perhaps, I thought, there is no need in England to communicate economically that you feel ausgeschlafen? Perhaps this was the one thing the English enjoy making a meal of: ‘Oh you know, last night I went to bed early. It was raining ever so gently and I felt into the most wonderful slumber. I must have slept for 12 hours straight. Maybe it was the rain? It’s still cloudy now, isn’t it?…etc.’

So I have a degree of separation from English, which gives me a sense of perspective. It is also a language that lends itself both to clarity and to imagery. The latter is useful when you want to employ ambiguity to allow the reader to participate in the creation of meaning. Rembrandt sometimes used translucent glazes to create a sense of depth and at other times he would use pigments that were very opaque. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve, and English has it all!

Kim Devereux’s Rembrandt’s Mirror is published by Atlantic and is out now. We have five copies to give away on Twitter

A Better Man – a blog piece from Louise Cullen, Corvus

Friday heralds our online book group discussion with Leah McLaren – so in advance of that, her editor, Louise Cullen, wrote a blog piece for us on her experience of A Better Man…

I have a confession to make. I was not the editor to discover Leah McLaren. My former boss had acquired UK rights to A Better Man shortly before I came to work for her. In an attempt to look keen, when I started my new job I asked which novel she was most excited about, so I could also read 9781782396321.jpgand a mutual love-in could ensue. A Better Man was top of her list, but came with the slightly odd instruction of ‘But before you read it just go round and ask people here what they think of it.’ So, I did. Seeking out colleagues in sales, rights, publicity, marketing and various other departments I asked ‘So, what do you think of A Better Man? Any good?’ There was no way I was expecting the response received. Expletive laden comments about feckless husbands and how bloody hard it is to be a mum and have a career, sighs of despair about the familiarity that sets in when you’ve been with the same partner for a long time, and lots and lots of laughter. ‘Oh it is so, so funny’ and ‘Leah McLaren just gets it’. Intrigued was putting it mildly, so I delved in, and a short number of hours later I understood exactly what they were talking about.

A Better Man is a novel for anyone who has ever fallen in love, any person who has chosen to commit great swathes of time to building a life with someone, and anyone who has maybe looked at that person and thought: ‘Is this it?’ A straw poll amongst friends and colleagues revealed that this feeling is achingly familiar. When all the fun-filled dates, heady confessions of love, and lust, are over, when your weekends now consist mainly of keeping to a schedule of commitments and obligations, how do you retain that sense of passion and excitement? With effort, luck and faith in the fact that your foundations are solid, seems to be part of the answer. But what if one of you has that sinking feeling that things are just too far gone, and that the person you fell for has become a more tired looking, less carefree version of themselves, and that you can’t see a way to get back to the way things were? It’s not a pleasant scenario, but it happens. Leah McLaren has written a novel that gets to the heart of these questions. She has taken these most difficult to admit feelings and held a mirror up to them, and everyone who reads A Better Man sees at least part of themselves reflected back. It’s not always pretty, but it is honest, it is human and it is pretty damn funny too. Life is not a novel, and the answers can’t be plotted neatly or pithily defined, but in this amazing book, Leah has given me hope. Despite all the challenges, the late-night fears that creep in, people make it. They stay together, they change and find a new way to be, and they find a happiness in that space, not quite were they were before but in a somewhat new direction. A Better Man captured my heart, made me laugh, and helped me sleep a little easier at night. You’ve heard the love: now read it!

A Better Man is published by Corvus and is available now. 

Five Books about Marriage

Inspired by our book of the month, A Better Man by Leah McLaren, I’ve picked my top five books about marriage. This was really difficult because there are SO many – so, chip in with your favourites…

1. An Impossible Marriage by Pamela Hansford Johnson

I adore this novel. Written in the 50’s, set between the wars, it’s the story of Chris, a painfully middle class girl living in Clapham, working as a secretary. That is, until she meets the much older Ned Skelton, and all of a sudden is married to him. However, is this really what she wants? And is Ned all that she thought he was when he was woo-ing her? A total joy to read (and a steal on kindle at just £1.89 – yes, yes, she’s a Curtis Brown author!), this is a book for any fans of Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Jane Howard.

2. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, it’s set in 1920’s Jazz Age, and is replete with the glamour you’d expect of the era. However, it’s actually a touching and affecting insight into a marriage which was immensely troubled, and follows the couple in – you guessed in – Paris as Hemingway finds success and other women…

3. Season to Taste: or, How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young

Not one for the faint of heart, this has one of the most incredible heroines. Lizzie Prain was a totally ordinary housewife: she ran a little cake business, baked a lot, had a dog, lived in a cottage in the woods. That is, until she killed her husband on impulse, and had to work out how to get rid of the body… What sounds like a sinister and macabre book is actually very funny and brilliantly written – definitely unlike any other marriage book you’ll read.

4. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

In 1980’s American college, Madeleine Hanna is devouring the pragmatic realist plots of George Eliot and Jane Austen and thinking on the motivations of the very human heart. However, it being the 80’s, she is surrounded by readers and lovers of theorists (Derrida fans – this one’s for you) – one of whom, Leonard, suddenly becomes a BIG part of her life. And so – inevitably – she begins to question the traditional marriage plot, and tries to formulate her own marriage plot – however convoluted that may be. It’s not one for everyone, but I loved this rather pretentious, sometimes clunky, thought-provoking novel.

This is actual Chesil Beach. Swoon.

5. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

815309A slip of a novel, it opens in a hotel on the Dorset coast – that’s right, on Chesil Beach – where our protagonists, Edward and Florence are sitting down to dinner on their wedding night. However, neither is quite prepared for what is to come – the tim
e to retire to bed looms – and their naivety makes for a toe curling yet compelling novel. As their history unfolds through seamless flashbacks, this novella tells a rich and touching story.

A Better Man by Leah McLaren is our book of the month for August, and is available for purchase from Corvus

Book Group Discussion: The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

Last month’s book of the month was The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon, an atmospheric coming of age story, with an ending that left many readers with pressing questions – so, Sarah joined us online to answer some of them…

On why the book’s set in 1983… (asked Fran Roberts)

Simple maths. At the start, I wanted to make a connection to present day Helen being the age of her dad when he disappeared. My mum’s father died when he was 40, and passing that age herself was a deeply emotional moment. I’m not sure that a lot of that has explicitly remained, but it was saying, Mick would be this age then, so Helen would need to be this age then. If you see what I mean. I also seem to remember that originally the present day was set at an earlier point, and my editor suggested I make it actually present. Which, of course, is now already out of date!

On Helen and Victoria’s reading list… (asked Zarina de Ruiter)

The book thing came up from an old joke I had with a teenage friend (who I’ve lost touch with…) about Ulysses being impossible to read unless you were travelling with no access to anything else. I then put in the sort of books that I’ve heard people say they had trouble finishing, and also looked up lists online. Ooh, confession time! I haven’t read Moby Dick or The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And I haven’t reread W&P since I was a teenager. But I did flick through a lot, and listened to the audio adaptation Radio 4 put on on New Year’s Day…I haven’t read Ulysses yet…

Bonjour Tristesse was a specific choice, but right now I can’t remember what prompted it! There’s the sense of never finishing, I think, which has a resonance with Helen’s avoidance of the end of the summer…

On choosing who to … (asked Jo Lenaghan)

I think it started as first person, moved to third and then developed onto the split. The idea behind it was that, as a child (and Helen is still very much a child) there is a difficulty in having first person, because the young person has a restricted view of life, and less ability to analyse. I’m having my cake and eating it: the adult Helen can reflect, and I can present happenings through Helen’s younger eyes without always having to keep it to what she knows.

On Helen and Victoria’s friendship… (asked Caroline Ambrose)

There’s an element of classic children’s stories, where the adventures can happen because the parents are absent. Think of the Famous Five, and how the parents are always going off on holiday and leaving them behind. Victoria suffers benign neglect, but is of the nature to be tough and independent because of it. Helen, though, is crushed by the overpowering nature of her mum, even when she’s not there. And the tiny shoots of growth are scorched (sorry, but it’s an apt analogy!)

Sarah JasmonOn her characters… (asked Josie Barton)

The whole cast really came alive for me. In fact, as I came towards the end, they tended to come to life like a kind of show behind my eyelids as I was going to sleep at night! It was fascinating to watch them develop as proper rounded characters, almost by themselves, and that very much happened alongside the writing process. I’ve been a lot more organised with my planning for the next book, so it will be interesting to see how the characters pan out, see if it will be very different to write them.

On whose secret backfired the most… (asked Christine Cox)

Hmm, having to think quite hard about this one! I think it was Helen’s parents, especially her mum. She keeps a lot back from Helen in an effort to protect her (and because she’s quite a controlling person), but that takes away Helen’s choice to grow. Something readers often say is that they don’t understand why Helen has never gone to find answers before. I feel that this is the moment where they became too complex and scary for her to acknowledge, and then she found it hard to approach them again.

On the intentions behind that ending… (asked Fran Roberts)

I’m hoping for a measure of catharsis…! The ending became darker through the rewrites, and my editor really encouraged me to go deep with it. I think we all had some wobbles about whether we shouldn’t just brighten up, but I’m glad we held onto it. I get a bit frustrated by books that lead to a dark place and then have a happy bit grafted on. I was aiming for a moment of light, where Helen could begin again.

On what she might go back and tell her teenage self about her future… (asked Linda Hill)

Be brave and stand up for yourself. And don’t be scared of hard answers and trouble: it’s transient and facing up to things is always the best way.

The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon (@sarahontheboat) is published by Transworld and is out now. 

‘To create a good story a certain flexibility with the truth is required.’ Stephen Kelman talks Man on Fire

When I first told Bibhuti Nayak – journalist, sportsman, social activist and holder of twenty world records in feats of ingenious masochism – that I wanted to write a book about him his response was, ‘Great, go ahead, write what you wish. I am with you one hundred percent.’ This was 2008, before I’d written Pigeon English. I had no credentials. I was just dreaming out loud. Had Bibhuti stopped to think about it for a moment – a man he’d never met gets in touch with him out of the blue, and threatens to write a book about him despite having no track record or demonstrable ability as a writer – he might well have gotten cold feet and withdrawn his invitation. But that’s not Bibhuti’s style. He’s a disarmingly trusting man, at least trusting of me, and it’s for this reason that I was so determined, in the writing of Man on Fire, to capture his spirit as faithfully as possible.

Man on FireWriting about people still living is fraught with perils and concern
s that don’t apply so strongly to figments of the author’s imagination. There is an obligation not just to get the details right, when those details can be verified or challenged by the subjects themselves, but also a pressure to show the subject in a sympathetic light. Luckily for me, Bibhuti is a man completely lacking in vanity – he would not hold a world record for being kicked in the testicles were this not so – and also, being a journalist by profession, is media savvy enough to understand that to create a good story a certain flexibility with the truth is required. But just how flexible I could be, given that by the time I sat down to write Bibhuti and I had become close friends, was the key question that guided my explorations of his character on the page.

Perhaps there is an analogy there for our friendship itself. Brought to my attention by a random twist of fate after seeing him being kicked in the balls by Paul Merton on TV, I now consider Bibhuti my dearest friend and most cherished confidant. The feeling is mutual. To get here required a flexibility on both our parts; a suspension of disbelief if you will. How could two men who live thousands of miles apart, whose lives are so different from each other’s in so many fundamental ways, grow so close so quickly? I suppose it was partly because it was so unexpected. Life is like that sometimes, and so are stories. What draws us to them is often what draws us to people: a sense that we are breaking new ground. I was so eager to tell Bibhuti’s story because I wanted the world to see the novelty that I see in him. He is a singular personality who has become a singular presence in my life, and there was no way I was going to share him with the world unless the world could accept him for who he is. So I told the truth wherever I could and made sure the lies were in keeping with the spirit of the man.

The proof of this experiment’s success could only come from Bibhuti’s reading of the finished novel. He read it over three days with his wife and son, who also feature. I waited in agony for his reaction. Here is an extract from his email:

My dear friend, 

I salute you with all humility for putting on paper more than everything what we expected. You lived up to my expectations. I find no word to express my happiness as you have aptly projected all. I am the happiest man now as I got complete identity in the society. All my hidden wishes are fulfilled.

With Bibhuti’s endorsement, I now feel ready to release Man on Fire into the world. Whether people like it or believe it is not my concern. I kept a promise to a friend, and I got to tell the lies and the truths I wanted to. No writer can ask more than that.

Man on Fire by Stephen Kelman was published on August 13th by Bloomsbury. We have six copies to give away on Twitter; re-tweet to win one.

Examining what it means to grow old – gracefully or otherwise: Clare Conville on John Niven’s The Sunshine Cruise Company

John NivenJohn Niven is a fiendishly funny novelist who I have admired ever since I read his first book Kill Your Friends, a brilliant satire on the music industry’s greed and excesses. I recognised in him a writer unafraid to examine the sordid side of human nature, but who did so in beautiful, clean prose which made me laugh – a lot. His dark, intelligent and often unbearably funny sense of humour is present in each of his subsequent novels, including his most recent book Straight White Male which takes on the worlds of publishing, film and academia. The protagonists of both these books bear some resemblance to John, who started out as an A&R man for a record label and has worked as a screen writer in Hollywood, and you felt that he was writing from experience. This was perhaps why The Sunshine Cruise Company was such an unexpected delight. I knew when I opened the manuscript that it would be deeply funny but I didn’t think that it would be about two sixty-year old women who rob a bank in Dorset.

The novel tells the story Susan Frobisher and Julia Wickham who live in a small suburban town and lead mostly unexceptional lives. Susan is married to ‘boring’ Barry, a seemingly bland accountant, and Julia works in an old people’s home, mopping up piss and wondering what has happened to her life. But their worlds change dramatically when Susan is told that Barry has been found dead and discovers the nature of his demise which involves a sex dungeon and Barry’s enthusiasm for massively over-sized dildos. It turns out that he has maintained a double-life as a swinger and re-mortgaged the house many times to pay for his fun.

And so the two decide to rob their local building society, along with Ethel, a gin-soaked, sex-crazed, swearing octogenarian and ‘Nails’, an elderly East End ex-convict (a ‘facking fossil’ in his own words). Despite the thieves collective age, the heist is a success and the gang minus Nails who loses his memory during the raid escape to France pursued by two English policeman. At each stage of their flight south the policemen, Detective Constable Wesley and Detective Sergeant Boscombe, display their remarkable incompetence and ability to wreck any hope of catching the criminals, who themselves are clearly not expert crooks. Slow-paced car chases, embarrassing encounters with the French police and dodgy dealing in a night club named Le Punisher ensue as the aging gang smoke, swear, drink and shop their way through France en route – they hope – to South America. I won’t reveal the events of the final chapters but they are a thrilling and hilarious in equal measure.

The Sunshine Cruise Company is a raucous caper which feels something like an Ealing Studios comedy updated to the world of internet pornography. It takes the reader into new territory for Niven but retains his unmistakable irreverence, style and wit. He takes stock-in-trade English tropes – suburban life, hapless cops, tea and gin – and inflects them with his own particular brand of bawdy and irrepressible humour, whilst also examining what it means to grow old – gracefully or otherwise. It is without doubt one of the funniest novels you will read this year.

The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven will be published tomorrow by William Heinemann. We have two copies to give away on Twitter. You can follow John on Twitter at @NivenJ1, and Clare at @C_Conville