‘Mary Renault – A Confession’ by Donna Coonan, Editorial Director, Virago

9781844089611“I have a confession to make. I’m not a life-long fan of Mary Renault. I didn’t read her books feverishly as a teenager; I came to her quite late. To be honest, there was some reluctance as I never thought historical fiction set in the ancient world would be for me. But that shows just how wrong you can be. I like having my assumptions challenged. And I’m enormously proud to publish her on the VMC list.

The first book of Renault’s that I read was The Charioteer which, despite its title, is not one of her historical novels, but set during the Second World War. It is a book that I love – an intelligent, tender portrayal of a young man discovering his sexuality. A courageous, compassionate book, especially when one considers that it was published in 1953 (her American publishers refused to issue it). The Charioteer is unapologetic – there is no shame, no guilt, and no penalty – which, for its time, makes it unusual.

The Charioteer was Renault’s sixth book, and it marked a cataclysmic turning point in her writing. Perhaps writing it made her brave. After this novel, she would leave the twentieth century behind, immersing herself in the world of ancient Greece – in the battlefields of Sparta, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the teachings of Socrates. It was a bold move.

To fully appreciate the risk she took, one needs to know that she was already a successful writer with thousands of loyal readers, and understandably her publishers were apprehensive. To so completely change tack took courage. Up until then, her novels were well written and well received, but they were fairly conventional contemporary romances. That is not to say that they aren’t good books – they are – but when you know what is to come, the novels for which to this day she is justly famous, you can’t help wondering if all that time she had felt constrained and hemmed in. It was a gamble to follow her passion, but it paid off.

Despite The Charioteer being a groundbreaking and for its era a controversial novel, there is still some restraint. By setting her fiction in the ancient world, she won herself freedom: freedom to stretch her imagination; freedom to push the boundaries of what was expected of her; and freedom to write about homosexual relationships without censure. With The Last of the Wine she broke free of her tethers, and from here on in her novels have a vibrancy and pace that readers of her earlier works would never have imagined. On the page, she reinvented the past and made it pulse with life. Indeed, because these novels are such sweeping, thrilling page-turners, it is easy to forget just how much skill went into their creation: the characters are psychologically robust; the plots are imaginatively bold; and every detail is backed up with solid scholarly research that Renault uses with such a light touch, it is only when you read historians on her work that you realise it is there at all.

When we first acquired rights to publish Mary Renault, the more I spoke to people about her, the more I realised just how influential she is – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Emma Donoghue, Madeline Miller, Sarah Dunant, Charlotte Mendelson – all are in her thrall. When Renault took that first step into the past – with The Last of the Wine – she secured her immortality.”

The Last of the Wine, our book of the month, is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics.  Follow Virago Press on Twitter at @ViragoBooks.

September Book of the Month: The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

the-glass-painters-daughter-9781471151880_hrToday we’re delighted to announce our September book of the month, The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore.  First published six years ago, this has become a reading group staple and we’re delighted that Rachel will join us later in the month to take part in our very own book club chat.  And don’t worry if you’re not a member – look out for more exclusive blogs throughout September and for your chance to win a copy of the book.

We’ll leave it to Rachel to tell you more:

rachelhore“The first glimmerings of the idea that eventually became The Glass Painter’s Daughter came to me late one evening as I walked through the backstreets of Westminster. I was with my husband, returning from a party to a borrowed flat where we were to spend the night. It had been raining steadily for some time and the wet streets of Victorian houses with their black iron palings glistened with silver beauty in the soft streetlight. We turned a corner into Vincent Square, where the field at its centre was cast in darkness, and I stopped dead, struck by the odd sensation of stepping into my own past.

It was here that I had worked in a publisher’s office in my twenties, and now powerful memories of the passions I’d felt then, frustrated ambition, the pain of a love affair that went wrong, washed over me with such freshness I almost gasped. Later my mind was to roam back to that night-time incident, and to the gothic atmosphere of the web of streets between Victoria Street and the Thames, the hidden garden squares, the churches with their lovely stained glass windows. It came to me that it was the perfect setting for a story about the agonies and ecstasies of youth.

As I consulted books about the area’s history, the clearance of its slums in the mid-Victorian period, the building of the churches and the missions to the poor, a group of fictional characters began to form in my imagination. The Reverend Brownlow and his family have suffered the loss of a darling daughter and their story begins when he commissions a stained-glass window of an angel to commemorate her. It’s told from the point of view of the dead girl’s sister, Laura, who falls in love with the young artist who designs the window, but happiness is impossible, because he is married with a child. In the Brownlows’ tale of loss, confusion and yearning, there is still hope, however, and the glass angel shines out to tell them so.

This angel became the centrepiece of my novel, linking the narrative from the Victorian past to another that takes place a century later, when the window arrives in shattered pieces at a small stained-glass shop round the corner from the church. Here, Fran, daughter of the shop’s owner, and fellow craftsman Zac take on the painstaking task of repairing it. Through old papers, artefacts and a diary, they learn the story behind the window. This part also involved some careful research on my part, not only excavating some fascinating accounts about Victorian stained-glass making and artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, but taking evening classes in the craft myself, learning how to hone glass into shape without injuring myself, to solder strips of soft lead together and cement them down.

As I wrote, the subject of angels began to fascinate me and the quotes that head each chapter are the fruits of my reading: about the Biblical perception of angels as messengers of God; about nineteenth century ideas of guardian angels; and stories of people today who claim to have been helped by angels. Those readers who are interested might like to consider how some of my characters engage with different aspects of the angelic . Both Laura Brownlow and her mother, for example, struggle in different ways with the Victorian ideal of woman as ‘the angel in the house’. By giving a pure young girl, Amber, a job in the stained glass shop Fran might unwittingly have obeyed the Biblical behest and ‘entertained angels unawares’.

It’s difficult to think about churches and angels without music creeping in somewhere, and I found that Elgar’s dramatic and moving choral piece ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, which Fran sings at her choir, ran through my mind as I wrote. ‘Gerontius’ is about the journey of a human soul after death to redemption and eternal joy, and for me it represented the story of a character who is present throughout the novel, but never speaks – Fran’s dying father Edward.  The secret that lies at the heart of ‘The Glass Painter’s Daughter’ is Edward’s, and only when it is discovered can he and his daughter Fran find peace and wholeness.”

The Glass Painter’s Daughter will be re-issued in the UK by Simon & Schuster on 24th September.  Follow Rachel Hore on Twitter at @RachelHore and find out more about Rachel and her writing by visiting her website.

August Book of the Month: A Better Man by Leah McLaren

Welcome to the CB Book Group’s second book of the month, which we are excited to announce is: A Better Man by Leah McLaren. This is a book we’ve already had lots of heated discussions about here, so we think it will make for a great book group chat. It’s one of Amazon’s Rising Star books for August, and is actually publishing this Thursday – so if anyone else wants to read along, let us know!

Maya wants Nick to be less of a workaholic, to come home earlier, to spend some time with his children. Nick wants a divorce. With his mind made up, Nick is determined to leave quickly and with dignity, but it comes as an unpleasant shock to realise how much it will cost him to walk away. As a stay-at-home mum, Maya is entitled to everything. Nick is resolute, so when an unlikely solution presents itself he gives it everything he’s got. If Nick becomes a better husband and father, if he encourages his wife to rediscover herself, the more self-sufficient Maya will become: and the cheaper Nick’s pay-out. But as Nick pretends to be a better man he becomes one. He remembers his connection with Maya, their ability to be a couple and not just parents who share a house. Everything seems to be back on track. Until Maya finds out exactly what Nick has been planning…

As usual, we’ll be posting blogs about the book from Leah’s editor, Leah herself and from us. You can follow Leah on Twitter at @leahmclaren. A Better Man is published by Atlantic Books on August 6th.

 

Sarah Jasmon on The Summer of Secrets

Sarah Jasmon“It all started with my divorce. Before that, I’d been a writer who just didn’t write much. There’s a short story, I can’t remember by whom, in which a writer sits in his study and thinks about the stories he’s going to write. He plans them in great detail until it doesn’t seem worth putting them on paper, as they’re so perfect that he wouldn’t be able to improve them in any way, so moves on to the next. He’s supported in this by a wife who deals with all of the prosaic parts of life. When he dies and she finds no trace of his marvellous works, you’d think she’d be pretty angry, but instead she tries to get him a spot in Westminster Abbey, such is her belief in him.

I had nothing in common with him except the lack of actual, physical output. I was a home-educating stay-at-home mum without the discipline to sit down for odd half hours and make myself get on with it. At least my responsibilities gave me an excuse, one that was harder to believe in when I was given the time. Two mornings a week when my first daughter went to nursery. A whole summer when my husband had a sabbatical and we lived in a campervan in the grounds of a derelict house in France. The year when I had every Monday to myself. Didn’t finish a thing. Didn’t really start anything either.

This would have gone on forever if my marriage hadn’t broken down. I wouldn’t actively recommend it as a writing aid, but facing separation gave me space to consider what I really wanted to do with my life. At some point during the whole long, fracturing process, I picked up a newspaper on the train and read an interview with someone who’d taken an MA in Creative Writing and was about to get her book published. That, I thought, was something I could now do.

There’s a lot of talk around the effectiveness of CW courses, but mine gave me some very important tools. For the first time, I was spending time on a regular basis with people who took writing seriously. I had deadlines, both in the short term (essays and workshop contributions) and the long (a 60 000 word novel to complete for my portfolio). It gave me the incentive I needed to grab at odd half hours and just write. It also gave me a toehold within the local literary community.

My agent once told me that I was ‘just shameless enough’, which I took as a huge compliment. Gaining my MA and finishing the first draft of my novel only took me so far. Some part of me realised I had to get out there and build a network. I volunteered for Lancaster LitFest and realised that writers, even quite successful ones, will talk to you, so I started interviewing them for my blog. The following year I blogged for the Manchester Literature Festival, as well as volunteering for at various events. I joined the Notes into Letters project with the Royal Philharmonic Society, writing stories in response to music. I went to book launches and open mics and networking events. Some of this was displacement: my novel needed work before I sent it out to agents, but I just couldn’t see where to start. Being involved with and becoming part of the writing community, however, also meant I still felt like a writer, even though the MA had come to an end.

One other thing that the MA gave me was a boyfriend. His novel, A Kill In The Morning, was shortlisted for the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award and, of course, I went along for the party. A party involving a whole bunch of publishing professionals… It turns out that editors are just as lovely to talk to as writers. Graeme didn’t win, but he did get a publishing deal. And I, as a direct result of those conversations, was put in touch with Carrie Plitt, who is now my agent. Too good to be true? Haven’t finished yet.

I’d swapped emails with another editor with the idea of keeping in touch for review copies from her list, and messaged her the next day to say how nice it had been to meet up. She replied, saying she’d been on my website and noticed I’d written a book but couldn’t find it anywhere. Yes, I admitted, because it was still just a file on my computer.

By the end of the summer, Transworld had made a pre-emptive offer and I’ve had the unmatchable experience of working through the editing process with exactly the right amount of support, guidance and input. It’s so exciting to be here at last, on the actual verge of publication. My ex used to say that at least he was giving me material to write about. What he actually gave me was the freedom to get out there and make a go of it, for which I am pretty grateful. And all that material? It’s composting nicely, thanks. Watch this space.”

The Summer of Secrets

The Summer of Secrets will be published in the UK by Black Swan on 13th August.  Follow Sarah Jasmon on Twitter at @SarahontheBoat and find out more about Sarah and her writing by visiting her website. 

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

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.

Sophie Lambert on Motherland

Sophie Lambert

Sophie Lambert, agent at Conville & Walsh

“As an agent I am always drawn to stories that offer up glimpses of places I’ll almost certainly never get to go to. So when Motherland arrived on my desk, I was immediately swept into a world that no longer even exists – 1970’s East Germany.

Jess and Eleanor are unwavering in their commitment to and belief in socialism being the path to happiness and fairness, and their integrity underpins their actions throughout. But it wasn’t just Jo’s rich evocation of place or the political and historical intrigue that had me hooked, it was the humour. Jo has gifted Jess with a wonderful eye for observation and an endearing and perfectly judged voice. From the outset Jess reminded me of another Jess – Jeanette Winterson’s protagonist in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – who was a personal favourite of mine.

Motherland is as much about the bond between mothers and daughters as it is about political idealism and adventure, and the crumbling of beliefs and loss. What Jo does so effortlessly is to thrust us into 1970’s Tamworth as well as the GDR – Motherland is packed with detail and flavour that is reminiscent of Goodbye Lenin and East is East. Jo peppers the narrative with cultural reference points that enhance the overall sense of place and time, thus building up – over the course of the novel – a snapshot of an era as well as a place.

Motherland is so clearly written from the heart and Jo’s own experiences, knowledge and understanding echo throughout its pages. And when it did arrive on my desk (in the form of a traditional paper submission in the post) this conviction and passion shone through. As an agent it’s unusual to stumble across such a gem in the so called ‘slush pile’ (known to us more commonly as the talent pool!) and it underlines to me what is so rewarding about my job. I know that Jess and Eleanor (as well as Jo and her mother Isobel) would want their story shared far and wide. They would want their hope and naivety, their principled approach and their love of sauerkraut celebrated, pondered and puzzled over and they would want us all to raise a glass of Rotkappchen to life. I urge you to dive into Jo McMillan’s Motherland. It embraces somewhere that has disappeared and I promise it will make you laugh as well as cry.”

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published in hardback and ebook by John Murray on July 2nd 2015.  Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcMillan and find out more about Motherland and Jo by visiting her website jomcmillan.com.

The Rocky Road of The Rocks by Peter Nichols

Some time ago, I felt washed up as a writer. I’d published five books: a memoir, a Peter Nichols imagenovel, three other books of non-fiction, all on maritime subjects—washed up, get it? I once lived aboard a small wooden sailboat, cruising between the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, England, the USA, making my living as a yacht captain, and I was steeped—marinated— in boats and the sea. But I felt I’d exhausted this material. I wanted to write something, preferably fiction, in a way that I never had, but always wanted to, without knowing exactly what that was.

I made many false starts. Bits of novels that inevitably seemed to veer toward water, like reverse evolution, before I abandoned them. I got very depressed about my writing career. I got very broke too.

After several years, I had six pages that I liked. They were unlike anything I’d ever written. It was a scene that happened—yes, on a rocky shore—in Mallorca, where I spent many summers when I was young, but I knew it really had nothing to do with the sea. It was about two very angry octogenarians, a man and a woman, Gerald and Lulu,  who met on a dirt road beside the sea, quarrelled, and had an accident so definitive that it seemed to be the end of the story. But it wasn’t even a story, it went nowhere. It only posed a big question: who were these two and why were they so pissed off at each other, after all this time?

I couldn’t go forward with it, so I decided to look backwards into their lives to see what had happened to them. Gradually, things filled in about Gerald and Lulu: they’d once been married, but long ago. They’d had children (by later marriages to other people), Luc and Aegina, and they seemed pretty pissed off with each other too. I saw distant episodes in all these earlier lives, as if from a long way off.

So I started writing backwards, in reverse chronology. I wrote towards those distant views —1995, 1983, 1970, and so on. I stopped and looked around when I got to each place. The episodes were each just a few weeks long at most. There was a compelling dynamic to this retroactive unfolding: the characters all grew younger, more innocent, more hopeful—they didn’t know what was coming. It was fascinating to see them ineluctably moving toward missed opportunities, heartbreak, the seemingly small mistakes that would resound through a lifetime.

Most of all, I wanted to see what had happened to Gerald and Lulu. What had engendered such bitterness that lasted more than half a century? I didn’t know for the longest time; only that it was something sad and awful that had rent and scarred their lives, and impacted everything and everyone around them until their deaths. I had to write all the way back to 1948 to see it unfold.

Eventually, I had a 500-page manuscript. I still wasn’t sure what it was—“a novel of manners,” one reader friend told me, “an emotional thriller,” someone else said. I sent it to my longtime agent, who had sold my all previous books—he’d represented me for 17 years. It was an unusually long time before he got back to me. This is what he said:

‘There is so much wrong with this book I don’t begin to know how to tell you to fix it.’

We had a short conversation in which he listed all the things that didn’t work for him. It sounded as if he was talking about some other book. It was devastating.

And he cut me loose.

Evidently I had succeeded—grandly—in my goal to write something different. I was no longer recognizable (or of interest) to my agent who had sold my books about maritime misadventure, sailors going mad in a boat race, whaleship disasters, and such manly fare. I had either reinvented—or destroyed—myself as a writer.

I was now in the position of many desperate writers: a manuscript and no agent. It didn’t help that I had published other books; these were looked at almost as liabilities. I was not new and unknown and therefore possibly exciting. I was like many writers with a stalled career, dropped by their agents, the gloss off, trying something different.

A friend in London, Kate Griffin, a partner at Profile Books, who had published all my books in England, sent my orphaned manuscript to Patrick Walsh, of the literary agency Conville and Walsh. He agreed to look at it.

Weeks went by. I had the gloomiest thoughts.

Finally, I heard from Conville and Walsh: “We’ve had a very good report on your novel from our reader. Patrick’s going to read it now.”

More weeks. Another email from Conville and Walsh: “We’ve had a second very good report about your novel. We’re printing it out now for Patrick to read.”

Very soon afterwards, I got a call from Patrick Walsh. We had a conversation about all the things that he liked so much about the book—a sort of point by point rebuttal of the call I’d had with my former agent. Patrick wanted to send it to a freelance editor he knew, Gillian Stern. Then he sent me Gillian’s email reply, which read, in part:

‘I haven’t enjoyed – derived so much pleasure – from a novel in a long while…what zest, what dialoge, what conviction, what a cast of characters, what an affirmation of all that a novel should be… How often do I send emails like this??!’

The rest happened fast, mostly through the skill and devotion of Patrick Walsh. He took the manuscript with him to Kenya and while there—on holiday—did a speedy and masterful line-by-line edit in hastily scrawled pencil. He asked me to come to London (I live in the USA) for 5 days to meet editors. When I got there, we had several offers, and he sold the book to Susan Watt and her own imprint, Heron Books, at Quercus Books. Patrick then submitted it to publishers in New York. Several offers there too, and it sold to the visionary Sarah McGrath, editor-in-chief (and editor of Khaled Hosseini) at Riverhead Books.

The Rocks—a novel about love, heartbreak and relationships—has been handsomely embraced on both sides of the Atlantic, especially by women. It has been featured in a chicklit blog. It is reviewed in the coming June editions of Cosmopolitan, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, and others. I have happily left harpoons astern and seem— for the moment, things can change fast—to have a new career as a novelist writing about the ineffable affairs of the human heart.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was lucky my manuscript was rejected by my former agent. I was luckier still that The Rocks found its way to Patrick Walsh, and now, to the Curtis Brown Book Group.

 

The Rocks by Peter Nichols will be published in paperback  by Heron Books on July 2nd 2015.  It’s already available in hardback and ebook. Follow Peter on Twitter at @NicholsRocks.

Motherland, a novel, by Jo McMillan

(c) Guy Batey

(c) Guy Batey

It’s election night 1979 and we’re having a party. My mum is drinking Bull’s Blood punch from a Meissen teacup and raising a toast to defeat.

Except it isn’t my mum.

It’s Eleanor, my fictional mother, and they aren’t the same person.

Motherland is a novel. It says so on the cover. But it didn’t start out that way. When I first sat down to tell the story of my communist childhood, it was going to be a memoir. The story was true. I’d lived it. I knew what happened. And I understood non-fiction. I’d spent a while in academia. Strange to think it now, but at one time, my favourite place was the British Library and my seat there never quite cooled. I was patient and forensic and I liked dissection. I spent my working life in a library, but it could just as well have been a morgue.

And the odd thing is, I did end up dealing with a corpse. My dad died for Motherland, and I killed him off. In 1978, when the story opens, my father – the real one – was not in a tin in my mum’s knicker drawer. He was in the middle of a tricky divorce. I wasn’t far into this memoir when it dawned on me I’d had a complicated life. In fact, I’d had two – one drama with each parent – and I couldn’t tell both in this book. I wanted my protagonists to live their singular story in the way my mother and I never did. So my father got terminal cancer before his child was born, Jo and Isobel became Jess and Eleanor, and Motherland became fiction.

I’d never felt more relieved. I was released from my duty to fact, and facts were proving thin on the ground. The first necessity for this story might have arisen in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but the End of the World as you’ve known it isn’t something you just sit down and write about. So instead, I forgot about it. And I did what everyone else was doing with the triumph of capitalism: I went shopping.

And then I went to China.

It was a long way from everything that had happened, and where millions of other people were buying their way out of their political past.

And in China, I had to reinvent myself. I wasn’t going to be a career communist anymore, so instead I became a sexologist, a Mandarin-speaking one – until I said some things the authorities didn’t like and Beijing banned me.

But by then, twenty years had gone by: long enough to face the End of the World, too long for the documents and witnesses I needed. I asked around Party circles, and papers had been binned, people had died, memories were slipping. Facts were not going to tell my story. The library wasn’t going to help. Instead, I had to look inwards. And it felt bruising, and oddly heartless, to tell emotional truths – harder still to commit them to paper.

But at least this was fiction. I wasn’t pointing fingers and naming names in the prosecution of my past. And that was important. Motherland was turning into a book about how we’d been engaged in the politics of abstracts, of people in theory, and we’d had no time for the real ones we actually knew. It was a book about empathy, about how much people mattered, so it needed to be an empathetic book. If Motherland had been memoir, the people I most cared about might never have forgiven me.

But they weren’t in it. I had fictional characters – flawed ones: self-righteous, ruthless, pliant.

And my plan was to set them in motion and watch their logic play out.

Only the problem was, it didn’t.

The biggest flaw of my flawed characters was they had no idea of the story. And neither had I. The possibilities seemed endless. I was free to make things up, but that meant I could make anything up. Real events had ceased to apply, so of the thousands of things that could happen next, which actually did? I didn’t have an agenda, a plan, a clue, it turned out. I read novels, of course, lapping them up, but I had no idea what made them tick. And now, here I was in charge of a novel, and I felt sick. I’d have given anything for certainty, for academia – at times even the morgue.

So I did what a mortician manqué would do: I got out the scalpel. I stopped consuming novels and started dissecting them. I took apart books on plot and pinned the walls with three-act structures. On the telly too: I watched dramas and guessed what would happen. Sometimes I even got it right. I became the spoiler on the sofa.

It took many drafts, but in the end, and several years after my father’s literary death, he is still alive and I have a novel. I wrote something kinder than a memoir, and a story wider than the specifics of my past. Through the made-up minutiae of Jess and Eleanor’s lives, Motherland looks outwards – at how we do politics, at how much people matter, at when to take a stand. And because politics doesn’t go away, the questions it raises still apply. There’s not that much difference between 1979 and 2015.

Motherland is fiction and my mum isn’t Eleanor (though Eleanor wouldn’t have been possible without her). After this election, I asked my mum how she’d seen it in. Wrapped up in her dressing gown, she said, because she feels the cold these days. And she’d raised a glass of Baileys, because that’s her tipple, and she’d toasted defeat. ‘And then I toasted the revolution,’ because my mum’s never defeated for long. And ‘because the revolution’s coming.’

‘In my lifetime?’

‘Of course in your lifetime.’ And then a pause. ‘How old are you now?’

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published in hardback and ebook by John Murray on July 2nd 2015.  Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcMillan and find out more about Motherland and Jo by visiting her website jomcmillan.com.