Friday, 17 November 2017

This week at Valley Press, #81: 'Steve & Nora'

Dear readers,

Once again I find myself with more jobs than time on a Friday, so a late newsletter is the result. Fortunately I have an ace up my sleeve in the form of an intriguing interview, conducted early in October, between VP authors Nora Chassler and Steve Rudd. Enjoy!

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SR: Hi Nora! How are things, and how has 2017 treated you so far?

NC: Hi Steve, I’m fine. Am I? I think I am. This season is always interesting. I like Fall, but I find it a little scary. 2017 has been very good, career-wise, and personally as well. And my mind is clearer. No, it isn’t; but I am learning to embrace, accept and work with its lack of clarity.

For those not in the know, you’re the author of three acclaimed books, two of which have been published by Valley Press. What led to your work being picked up by Jamie at VP?

I approached Jamie because my agent at the time, Andrew Kidd, couldn’t place G/M=OS. I was incredibly disheartened at the time. I was taking a course to get a certificate in counselling children and young adults. I was throwing in the towel. So, when Jamie accepted it, I was ecstatic, vindicated; I believed! I was fished up, rescued, redeemed!

Even though I don’t really drink (anymore), my daughter got me a bottle of Prosecco and a Victoria Sponge. We had a little party. I now accept that I will always write, and that there will be painful moments when the readers aren’t there. I am incredibly grateful just now to have a few. That allows me to persist with slightly less sorrow.

This in no way means that I think all writers need to be as insecure, pessimistic and as generally needy as I am, but for those who are; you aren’t alone!

How would you best describe your style of writing, and which authors have had the most influence on such a style?

My style is the result of where I am from, what I have read and admired, and what I believe about art and reality. William Boyd called it demotic, which I originally misread as demonic – I rather liked that. Demotic is good, too, of course. Seriously though, hmmm... describe my own style? That’s a tough one. I’m very keen on getting to the bottom of things, and calling the reader’s attention to whatever assumptions they are bringing to the text. They often precisely don’t want their attention drawn to anything about themselves – they are reading to escape – so I employ all manner of tricks: I try to charm, disarm, dazzle, distract, then I get very close to their ear and tell them something they might rather not hear. Why not just tell them outright? Because it’s through the narrative, the characters, the whole shebang, that I attempt to set up a conceptual/emotional world that will change the reader for the better. It’s a moral project. It sounds a little patronising, perhaps, but that’s the truth; and I myself have learned many things from books. Wow, that’s quotable – sounds almost like something that wretch in the White House would say. Though I think the construction “I myself’ is a little advanced for him.

Authors who have influenced me in the last week include Jean Rhys, Heraclitus, Malcolm X, W.B Yeats, Dostoevsky, Julia Kristeva, Freud and Buddha.

You recently interviewed Paul Auster in Edinburgh. (Note from JM: watch here if you missed it.) He is my favourite author, and I have read every one of his books bar his latest. Are you a personal fan of his, and how on earth did you manage to bag the “gig” of interviewing him?

I’m not really a 'fan' of anyone. I am a fan of great books, not people. I’ve known too many great artists.

I love great books; in my life great books have done me far more good than people. Sounds harsh, but I’m too old to mince words. (That’s except for my daughter, Frances, who has done me more good than all the books I’ve loved added up.)

I think The Invention of Solitude, Moon Palace, The NY Trilogy and The Music of Chance are works of literary genius up there with the House of the Seven Gables and Bartleby the Scrivener (Auster loves Hawthorne and Melville, as do I).

When I spoke to him, much mention was made of Beckett, but I had only read Waiting for Godot – which was a little embarrassing. I read a bit of Molloy in a bookshop the other day and was immediately struck by how strong an influence Beckett had been on Auster. I didn’t buy it but I should have. I’ll get it online. It looked great.

I got the “gig” because Nick Barley saw me do a reading from Miss Thing in 2010, and I guess he thought I fielded the Q&A well. I had never interviewed an author before and was super-nervous, but didn’t feel and, to be honest, didn’t want to say “no”, even though I was really scared. I actually said to Nick, “I won’t let you down, Sir!” It went well though. Phew.

Like Paul, you have a kinship with New York, both of you having lived and set your stories there. What would you say are the best and worst things about living in such a huge city of NYC’s caliber?

Place is hugely important in my writing, and in my life. NYC is, as you imply, incomparable. Even now, stuffed with rich bankers, its spirit still breathes under the asphalt. And that is not nostalgia or romanticism. NYC has an intense and fucked-up history in terms of humans, and it’s ongoing. Horrible things happened when the Europeans arrived, and the guilt and bad blood still seethes out of the river and the leaves. I always felt like it was a stolen place.

I spent a lot of time in the parks in NYC growing up, to get out of the tiny, oppressive apartment I grew up in, and there is something so alive about it, geographically. The rocks in the park, the sky, the rivers, are all strong and impolite. (As opposed to the weather in the UK, which sometimes seems passive-aggressive.) Although it’s been through hell, the earth over there is not beaten; it will remind you continually how much bigger than you it is. I like that. The seasons are actually seasons. I miss the weather and the parks.

The best thing about NYC that we can all access without my hippy-vision goggles is being alone in a crowd, I’d say, and not being judged. It took me a while to adjust to the homogeneity of the UK. At first I disliked it, but truth be told, I’ve settled in. I feel safer here. That said, yeah, in New York, you can walk down the street in a chicken suit wearing a placard that says “Go F**k Yourself”, and no one cares. Here, if you don’t have a TV, or your kid isn’t allowed to watch it, or if you don’t iron your shirts, people treat you differently. There are a lot of British protocols that I could do without (all this polite stepping aside when the person on the pavement with you has more than enough room), but the irony is that I find it easier to communicate here. In America, everything is always up for grabs; every conversation is only about that conversation, and the rules are established as you go. It’s every man for himself. Here, you can relax a little. I think this has to do with the welfare state (what’s left of it).

What else? I miss all the windows, and looking into them, feeling envy for all the different lives. I wanted to know everyone in NY. Impossible. NY is impossible. Or it was for me. But I love it. Paul (if I may be so bold) had a very different experience; he grew up in suburban NJ. I think that may be why he stayed. Not that he is an incomer, but he made his move. I was from there, and it was time to go.

In interviews you have stated that you have no desire to return to live in New York. Do you mean “never”, or “for the time being”? I take it that you are properly rooted in Scotland?

I seem to have been approaching that question at the end of the last. No, never. I want to leave Scotland at some point and move somewhere sunny and with better food. Not that I don’t like a good mince round (know that joke about the butcher?), because I genuinely appreciate the wonderful tan foods of my adopted homeland (pies, fish and chips) and the foods that glow, but I’m cracking on and I want to be warmer. I want to be an auld dear with tanned bare legs walking beside the sea.

What memories do you have of growing up in America in the seventies and eighties?

Lots. Can you be more specific?! Kidding. I read recently that amnesia before the age of 6 is very common; I don’t have that at all. Unfortunately for my mother, I remember everything! Let me pull one from my hat…

In the early seventies, all the mental health patients were let out of mental hospitals because NYC was bankrupt. The streets of the Upper West Side of my childhood were populated by many screaming people. They had names: the Scissor Lady, the Chicken Man. I walked everywhere alone from a very young age – 6/7. I had to always have my wits about me as people would chase you and scream. It didn’t help that I was blonde, which was uncommon, and so attracted a lot of attention. To this day I am very jumpy and always sizing people up; it’s a big waste of energy, but it makes me pretty observant. With any luck it adds to my writing.

You wound up in Scotland, in St. Andrews to be precise, owing to a Creative Writing course you wanted to take on. What was the course like, and would you say that you immediately fell in love with St. Andrews?

No! I remember thinking, “this is an outpost”. I grew up looking across the Hudson at NJ, and looking over at Carnoustie was a little different. It seemed so empty and grey. Beautiful, and very bleak. It was a bit of a shock.

Also, in those days (2002), St. Andrews was not as posh as it is now. Nowhere near. It was, of course, pretty fancy, what with the golf, but now it’s nuts. The toffs there are just unbearable, especially if you’re not in a good mood, which, though this interview may make it sound otherwise, I usually am. Anyway, it wasn’t a case of love at first sight at all! I almost didn’t even take the course. My daughter was not yet two, and I thought maybe I should stay closer to my (now ex) husband’s family near Brighton. I also thought: a degree in Creative Writing, what the hell? I almost did a Masters in Modernism at York. But I spoke to Douglas Dunn on the phone and he convinced me. I would not say I regret doing the course, but I didn’t learn how to write on it. I learned how to trust my own opinions of my own work in the face of misreading, perhaps.

As well as writing novels, you write poetry. Which comes easiest to you? Prose or poetry?

Poetry comes more easily. At best, that’s a neutral sign; at worst, a bad one. A friend of mine said that “form is a construct” the other day, which is obviously true, once you think about it. I was fretting about whether I could “be a poet”. I wrote poetry before fiction; I stopped in my early thirties because I was discouraged by people (poets) whose opinions I valued, who felt I should stick to fiction. I have written a poem that’s 80 pages long, an epic, but I still haven’t shown anyone. (I read Julia Kristeva’s definition of “epic” yesterday and I liked it.) My relationship to the novel and the narrative structure is fraught, ambivalent, complex; I feel less animosity towards poetry.

I think after all the trouble I’ve had getting novels I worked so hard on (they take 6 years at least) published, I’m allowing myself to try different things with the old “written word”. I guess now that I’ve accepted I will never stop writing, I feel a bit freer to try different forms. I’ve written a play as well, about a survivor of Jimmy Savile’s abuse. In it, the character is writing a panto about her history, so there is some singing and dancing. Anyway, wish me luck with this stuff – I’ll need it!

Your novel Grandmother Divided by Monkey Equals Outer Space certainly possesses the most audacious title I’ve come across in recent years. Were there any other prospective titles in the running for such a book? What made you ultimately settle on the one that you did?

I thought of The Sex Lives of Children. In earlier drafts there was more blatant sexual abuse, but I took it out; I wanted to create an amnesiac, “lacunae” effect that implicated the reader in the suppression. Not sure I succeeded.

I settled on the title because… I’m not sure. Titles are hard. Some people have told me they hate it, others that they love it. It’s a line from a Ted Berrigan poem.

Looking ahead, are we likely to see any more Nora Chassler novels hitting bookshop shelves in the near future?

Hitting? No. Sneaking up to and hiding near Bruce Chatwin and Tracy Chevalier, possibly... in a few years. I have an unfinished novel called The Geographic. The omniscient narrator and the protagonist are with me every day, trying to get me to restart it, but every time I do, my heart breaks and I go nuts. It takes place in NYC and Dundee. I find writing it really hard. There are two intertwined – or “conjoined” as my daughter used to say with inappropriate frequency as a child – stories: one follows the character, who is a child model in the 80s, and the other is the omniscient narrator telling their own story. The omniscient narrator struggles with contradictory information, directions and rules, and slowly loses their powers. The character doesn’t have it too great in the end either.

Finally, what’s the best way for people to find out more about you and your writing? 

They can email me. I’m pretty much an open book. And the parts that aren’t open, they can find in my books.

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Hope you found that as interesting as I did. Nora's books Grandmother Divided by Monkey Equals Outer Space and Madame Bildungsroman's Optimistic Worldview are available now, and remember newsletter readers get 10% off VP books for life! See you next week.

All best,
Jamie McGarry, VP Publisher

Thursday, 16 November 2017

"I knew [the first printed copies of Moon Juice] would be OK. And they were." Kate Wakeling on publishing her children's poetry collection Moon Juice

Over the course of our call for pamphlet proposals, we'll have some of our existing pamphlet authors writing about their experience of having a pamphlet published with us. Kate Wakeling talks about her children's poetry collection, Moon Juice, which won the CLiPPA award this year!

Moon Juice is my first collection of children’s poems and it was published by the Emma Press in September 2016. Until 2015, I’d only really written poems for adults and the collection came about after I had a poem published in The Emma Press’ first anthology for children, Falling out of the Sky. From here I realised that I really, really loved writing poetry for children – and Emma and Rachel were brilliantly warm in encouraging me to go for it and put together a full collection.

Moon Juice is a mixture of lots of different sorts of poems – there are list poems, riddles, story poems, character poems – I wanted it to feel sort of technicolour in the mind’s eye. Lots of the writing is quite mischievous and playful – the book is peopled by some absurd characters like Skig the Warrior and Hamster Man – but in the midst of this mischief, I wanted to explore more serious things like obsession, difficult moods, death, and how it can be important to challenge certain kinds of authority. I believe very strongly in the need to talk (and listen) to children about life’s complex and difficult things – but in a strictly unsentimental way and with a strong peppering of humour. In this vein, my favourite poem in the collection is called ‘The Demon Mouth’. It explores the theme of compulsion and the need for tenderness, but in the midst of some rascally wordplay and (I hope) a rollicking story.

Working with The Emma Press has been a joyful experience and I feel enormous gratitude to Emma and Rachel. Emma brought such a fierce energy and vision to the book. She made me feel like she wanted to invest in making it the absolute best it could be, and her creative eye on every aspect of the book’s design and production made such a profound difference. I’m also so thrilled and grateful that Emma commissioned the wonderful Latvian illustrator Elina Braslina to work on Moon Juice. Elina is such a skilled, playful and intuitive collaborator and she had this amazing instinct for seizing on the nub of each poem, in ways I’d never foreseen but which then felt like the most brilliant fit as soon as I saw the image.

Then, as the collection’s editor, Rachel was such a warm, astute, sensitive (to the poems and to the author) person to work with. I had the wonderful feeling that there was no way anything could ‘slip’ in the book – that I was in the hands of a really terrific brain full of artistry and precision, who was ten-times more likely to spy a wise amendment than me. I am quite an anxious person and in my other freelance writing work outside of poetry, I have a fairly strict policy of never looking at anything I’ve written once its out in the world in print. It’s interesting that I have no recollection of even a twinge of worry when the first printed copies of Moon Juice arrived on my doorstep. I knew they’d be OK. And they were.

This probably sounds a bit much, but publishing Moon Juice with The Emma Press has been pretty life-changing for me. The book won the 2017 CLiPPA and has just been nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal (and Elina’s illustrations have been nominated for the CILIP Kate Greenaway prize: kapow!), and all this has led to some other exciting things, like being asked to work on some children’s picture books, and invitations to give all sorts of performances and workshops. The response to the book has also given me the confidence to begin imagining that I might one day soon find the chutzpah to set to work on a children’s novel. I am so grateful to Emma and Rachel for their belief in my writing and for the skill, hard work and creative juice they put into the book. And I’d urge anyone sitting on an unpublished poetry pamphlet to take up this call for submissions and send it on in.  

Moon Juice is available to order on our website. You can also find out more about our call for pamphlet submissions here.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

"The complete commitment is their priority, putting their money...where their mouth is." John Fuller on publishing AWOL, a collaboration with Andrew Wynn Owen

Over the course of our call for pamphlet proposals, we'll have some of our existing pamphlet authors writing about their experience of having a pamphlet published with us. Here is John Fuller on his collaboration with Andrew Wynn Owen, AWOL.  

My pamphlet with the Emma Press is a collaboration with the poet Andrew Wynn Owen, who I first got to know about five years ago at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was Secretary of the John Florio Society, where at evening meetings the poems are read anonymously and then torn apart in the friendliest way possible. He tended on the whole to set tormenting technical challenges to the members rather than the more usual themes. Inevitably sonnets, villanelles and sestinas put in their appearance, but also tetratinas and ballades and more recondite forms. When we came to terza rima, my long-held prejudice in favour of tetrameters rather than pentameters for long poems asserted itself (as also the neat practice of producing the “missing” a rhyme of the first tercet as the penultimate line of a section, rather than allow a hanging line rhyming with the otherwise unrhymed line of the final tercet). When at the end of the academic year after such pleasant exhaustions Andrew left for Luxembourg, I conceived the idea of a series of meditations in the form of letters addressed to him in the kind of terza rima described, twelve sections of thirteen stanzas each. The idea was to examine in a totally light-hearted way ideas of vacation or rootlessness or vagrancy or escape (I was in a cottage in North Wales at the time) and the underlying conclusions about responsibility are hinted at from the beginning in the title I gave the sequence: AWOL. The military phrase, for “Absent Without Official Leave”, is less known than it once was, but it had a double suitability as also being an acronym for my subtitle: “For Andrew Wynn Owen, in Luxembourg.”

I was delighted to get back promptly from Andrew a sequence of responses of identical form and length, whereupon it seemed viable to try to publish the whole exchange as a pamphlet. Who better to approach than the fairly new Emma Press, who had published Andrew’s first pamphlet, Raspberries for the Ferry? Emma Wright, the artistic and entrepreneurial spirit behind the press, and Rachel Piercey, her poet co-publisher, who had won the Newdigate Prize in 2008, seemed to me to be a perfect combination of artistic dash and critical acumen. I had seen the Emma Press machine at full production tilt, having already had a poem taken for one of their superb anthologies. There are many advantages to being published by a small press. The complete commitment is their priority, putting their money (however little they may have) where their mouth is. Whereas the big London publishers, however supportive your editor, always have the suits upstairs in the finance department breathing down their necks and proposing economies, or worse. The joy of seeing AWOL take shape involved not only constructive and detailed editing but the exciting bonus of an unusual format and full-page colour illustrations from Emma herself. Not to mention prompt contracts and payments that would put many larger publishers to shame.  And sensitively-programmed launches and readings that are now rare in metropolitan publishing unless you are a very big name.

All this for a poet turned 80 who has been publishing his work for 65 years is, though you might not believe it, tremendously encouraging. I have often said at the Florio Society and elsewhere that for me to turn up and to read and be read by young poets like Andrew is rather like Thomas Hardy showing up in a roomful of Vorticists: something of a miracle to be able to communicate at all. And to be published by a young and vigorous press like the Emma Press seems just as remarkable. I always say (particularly in connection with new magazines) that the young should publish themselves, not known names. But the friendly hand held out across the generations is a wonderful thing.

I do publish new titles fairly frequently. Since AWOL there have been two books from Chatto and Windus, Gravel in My Shoe in 2015 and a long poem in ottava rima, The Bone Flowers, in 2016, and also another small pamphlet in 2016 from the excellent Clutag Press, a sonnet sequence called A Week in Bern. Sometimes I reprint pamphlet poems in larger collections, but it is often better to leave them as they are, to be sought out in their original and individuated clothing. AWOL, particularly as it is a collaboration, may best belong to the latter category. Pamphlets can be fairly utilitarian in appearance if appropriate, or they can be hand-sewn to order. They can be numbered and limited, or hawked around freely in pubs. Whatever they are like, they are a fine way of getting directly to readers, and the Emma Press does this job magnificently.

AWOL is available to order on our website. You can also find out more about our call for pamphlet submissions here.  

Friday, 10 November 2017

This week at Valley Press, #80: 'The Late Show'

Dear readers,

A very late missive this week, as the internet has been down in the office, and I've been in York for Oz Hardwick's latest book launch – the third event for his current collection, in fact. (Can't say he's not getting it out there!) It was held as part of the NAWE conference, who really made us feel very welcome; I was given a lovely three-course meal simply for coming, caught up with many old friends, and even made some new ones. As you can see on the photo above, Oz had a slide to match each poem he read, offering an insight into some of the inspirations behind The House of Ghosts and Mirrors (the slide above is a drawing of a castle, hidden behind wallpaper in his childhood home).

Some other news, in brief:

  • Wendy Pratt will be celebrating her latest book with an event at Valley Press HQ (aka Woodend, The Crescent, Scarborough), on Saturday 18th November from 2.30pm. Expect cakes and wine, and if those aren't delights enough, she'll be joined by the aforementioned Mr. Hardwick and rising star Caroline Hardaker.
  • Our next publication, Quantum Theory for Cats, is now available for pre-order; I will share some sample poems in the near future, but for now, please note the forthcoming launch in Waterstones York on Friday December 1st, from 7pm. This is a witty new poet who needs as much support as you can collectively muster; a winner from our 2016 submissions period who has waited patiently all year to see his name in lights. Don't miss out!
  • The first 'proper' episode of me and Emma's new podcast is now available; you can find it exclusively here for the time being (trying to get it on iTunes too). I slightly hijacked this call by sharing my 'four golden rules' for publishing, each more counter-intuitive and difficult than the last, and then thinking of a fifth rule on the spot – but you might find them interesting. We got some coverage in the Bookseller today for our efforts, you can find the article here if you want the behind-the-scenes scoop.
  • It was announced this week that VP are teaming up with York St John University for our first foray into the world of journal publishing, taking over the York Literary Review from 2018 onwards. Submissions will be open to pretty much anyone, by the sounds of it, from late January – all details here (and watch this space!)
  • Finally, more exciting news from York (well done to Vanessa for setting all this up): we will be working with the Cultural Education Partnership to engage children and young people from York's schools, showing them the delights of the literary world (which you newsletter readers already know well) through workshops, author visits and an anthology of work from young writers. We'll be supported in this effort by Colin Jackson of Creative Learning Partnerships, and it all kicks off in January.

Thanks for reading and digesting all that, I hope you found it interesting – I never like to get too caught up in self-promotion, but then it is a company newsletter I suppose! See you next week for some lighter fare; poetry, gossip, and all other manner of fun.

All best,
Jamie McGarry, VP Publisher