An Unchoreographed Life

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Jane Davis is one of my newfound heroes. A prizewinning literary author who tackles the trickiest of subjects and has turned to producing the very finest self-published literary works. She’s a wonderful writer I’m cheering on full voice. She also, as you will see as she discusses her wonderful book An Unchoreographed Life, gives the most wonderful interviews!

1. Let me start with your covers – how important is it for you to maintain such a recognisable feel to your books? If you could summarise that feel, what would you say?

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Branding has become hugely important to me – although I’d be lying if I said that I was fully aware of its importance when I first self-published.

Transworld had the right of first refusal of my second novel, and they exercised it. Half-truths and White Lies was published under their women’s fiction imprint, and the manuscript I presented them with (what later became A Funeral for an Owl), was, they told me, definitely NOT women’s fiction. It may sound ridiculous to say this, but I hadn’t written either book with a particular gender bias. I didn’t – and still don’t – understand why they might assume women would want to read one book and not the other. In the light of the current campaigning against gender stereotyping in children’s fiction, to argue in favour of gender stereotyping for adult fiction seems outdated and, to be honest, more than a little insulting. My then literary agent’s reaction was, “Well, Jane. You wrote the book you wanted to write,” and I was still none the wiser.

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Over the next four years, through submitting work to literary agents, I became aware that my fiction was difficult to categorise. The reason the majority gave for rejecting it was because they weren’t sure how to sell it to a publisher. As I added more manuscripts to my back catalogue, I ventured into yet more sub-categories of fiction. Perhaps my agent was right: I have written the books that I wanted to write, tackling the subjects I am most passionate about – the pioneers of photography; the divisive nature of religion; events and changes I have borne witness to. A book written for market without passion is going to lack integrity.

The brief I gave my graphic designer was that the books should look like a set you’d want to collect. I was thinking of my own bookshelves: the novels of John Irving; Frank Herbert’s Dune series; the classic Penguin paperbacks. If it were possible, I wanted that certain something that would make people say, ‘Oh, another Jane Davis’. I wasn’t starting from scratch, and so I simply borrowed elements from the cover of Half-truths and White Lies and used them as building blocks: the font and the strong photographic image, repeated on the spine.

In terms of the feel, I try to reflect the themes and the emotions of individual books. I suppose the cover for A Funeral for an Owl, which features a boy and an owl, is the most literal. I am absolutely clear in my approach about what I don’t want. My novel, These Fragile Things, tackles near-death experience and religious visions. I didn’t want to exclude readers who would normally avoid Christian fiction, because that is only one element of the book. I chose a butterfly with a broken wing, which not only fits the title and represents transformation, but also hints at vulnerability. For my new release, An Unchoreographed Life, my story of a ballerina who turns to prostitution, I was very careful to avoid any hint of erotica. Instead I wanted to give the feel of a woman living behind a mask; someone who has not quite left her past behind. That’s how I arrived at the image of a ballerina with a deer’s head.

So the key elements have to be instantly identifiable, inclusive and – I hope – intriguing.

2. Mother-child books are amongst some of the most powerful and successful in recent literary fiction – from We Need to Talk About Kevin through Room to Beside the Sea and Magda. Did you think about where your book would fit in relation to them, or as in conversation with them at all?

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I’m embarrassed to say that, of those, I have only read We Need to Talk about Kevin. In the case of Kevin, I don’t think it’s possible to draw any comparisons.My main concern wasn’t where my book would sit in relation to others, but where to pitch the language for my six-year-old character when writing adult fiction. The books I turned to were What Maisie Knew, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Ocean at the End of the Road and The Night Rainbow. And the thing that they taught me is that all children are different. You can only write your character.

3. Tell me a little about your research for An Unchoreographed Life.

There were several areas: motherhood, ballet, prostitution and financial crime.

For motherhood, I researched developmental stages for six to eight year olds, but was then very much reliant on my beta readers to comment on whether they felt that the mother and daughter relationship had an authentic feel about it. Some felt that my child-character Belinda was too old for her age, some that she was too young. Some felt that my mother, Alison, was utterly irresponsible and deserved to have her child taken away from her, others that they would do everything that she did for their children and more. And so I concluded that I had written something that would invite debate.

In terms of ballet, six years of lessons in a cold church hall under the guidance of the extremely strict Miss Coral, to the accompaniment of an out-of-tune upright! Added to this, I read Meredith Daneman’s insightful biography of Margot Fonteyn. But one thing Margot Fonteyn didn’t do was retire. And so for the psychological impact of how an enforced retirement affects someone who feels that she was born to dance, I referred to personal accounts posted on the Internet. All described an identity crisis. That question: If I can’t dance, then who am I?

As with most of research, I wasn’t starting from scratch. I read histories and biographies for my own interest and, for some time, I have been compiling ‘timelines’. I add every fact I can date, so that, whenever I set my fiction, I have a record not only of historical events, but also of what was on at the theatre, what people were reading, what was making the gossip columns. And so I already had an understanding that, had I been born in another age, the chances were that I would have been either a domestic servant or a prostitute – but quite possibly, both. Prior to 1823, domestics under the age of sixteen didn’t receive a salary. They worked a sixteen-hour day in return for ‘bed and board’, a very generous description of what was actually on offer. And, in return, when they reached the age of sixteen, they were cast out onto the streets.

I grew up within the footprint of Nelson’s paradise estate. The story of his mistress, Emma Hamilton, has always fascinated me. Born into extreme poverty and forced to resort to prostitution, she later became a muse for artists such as George Romney and Joshua Reynolds and a fashionista by bucking the tight-laced trends of the day. Cast aside by an aristocratic lover, she went on to marry his uncle. Completely self-educated, Emma continually reinvented herself, mixing in diplomatic circles and becoming confidante of both Marie Antoinette and the Queen of Naples.

Added to the mix, I was gripped by a 2008 court case, when, in an interesting twist, it was ruled that a prostitute had been living off the immoral earnings of one of her clients. Salacious headlines focused on the prostitute’s replies when she was asked to justify her charge of £20,000 a week. But the case also challenged perceptions of who was likely to be a prostitute. The answer turned out to be that she might well be the ordinary middle-aged woman with the husband and two teenage children who lives next door.

Inevitably, while the project was taking shape, I read Belle de Jour. Since it was never my intention to write a book about sex, it was the everyday practicalities I wanted to understand: how the author rotated use of chemists so that she didn’t come under suspicion; her eating habits; her trips to the beauticians; which of her friends did and didn’t know what she did for a living.

Again, I used the Internet extensively to source personal accounts, diaries, blogs and newspaper reports. How did sex-workers come to the attention of the police and social services? What were the main reasons they ended up in court? (The answer was generally tax evasion and financial crime, things I knew about from my day job.) How did sex workers see themselves? How did they view their clients? How did this perception change if they stopped? I also consulted The English Collective of Prostitutes, who very kindly allowed me to quote them in my fictional newspaper article.

And then I began to imagine what life was like for the child of a prostitute. There was nowhere I could research that hidden subject. And it is always the thing that eludes you that becomes the story.

4. How hard do you find it as a writer of literary fiction to be taken seriously for your self-published books?

There are several facets to that question.

Literary fiction is a label that I continue to feel uncomfortable with. As someone who left school at the age of sixteen with an R.E. ‘O’ Level and a swimming certificate (I exaggerate), it seems arrogant to claim such a grand title, which asks readers to compare my writing with the classics or with Booker Prize winners. It can also be off-putting. Some readers – readers I think my books will appeal to – associate the term with something inaccessible and difficult, something that will have them constantly reaching for the dictionary, and my writing is anything but that. The term ‘Lit-lite’ was in vogue a couple of years ago and it tended to be applied to book-club fodder, which is really more my thing.

The difficulty is, of course, that when publishing a work of fiction, you are forced to categorise it. To me, the sub-categories are far more telling. Last week, I had one book in the Religious Fiction Kindle charts and one just outside the top 100 in the Historical Fiction Kindle charts. I am becoming rather fond of Joanne Harris’s comment that she doesn’t insult her readers by assuming they only like to read one type of fiction. We mustn’t fall into the danger of pigeon-holing readers.

As for being taken seriously, I don’t ask to be taken seriously. I would like my books to be taken seriously. The term ‘self-published’ still carries stigma. There is the lasting perception that the better indie authors are those who didn’t quite make the grade. Readers don’t understand that publishers no longer allow authors an apprenticeship; that even experienced authors with excellent sales records may be dropped if their latest book doesn’t sell. And this sea-change isn’t limited to the publishing word. I have just read in Jennifer Saunders’s autobiography ‘Bonkers’ that it’s very much the same with television. I don’t know an indie author who hasn’t had to justify his or her decision to self-publish.

Perhaps I can share these statements with you:

From a literary agent, when I declined to make changes to my books to make them more marketable: ‘You’re delving into deeper psychological territory than most fiction dares. It’s really commendable, and on a personal note, I do find it frustrating how commercialised the market is at times. I’ll refrain from the cliché we each have our cross to bear in this context.’

From a fellow indie author: ‘When I first came across you on line and saw your beautiful covers and confident, slick blog, I assumed that you were trade published, until I received the paperbacks you kindly sent me and I saw the “Made in Charleston” line on the penultimate page!’

From an interview with a book blogger: (Me) Do you think that you would be aware if the book you were reading was traditionally published or self published? (Her) Not until I started reading it – this is going to sound harsh, but if you like reading, I think you can tell if a book has been properly edited or not.

I would settle for half of Polly Courtney’s confidence. She doesn’t say that indie authors should work to the same standards as traditional publishing houses. She says we can do better.

5. Has your experience with the Daily Mail Prize helped you or hindered you in your journey?

If I’m honest, both.

Half-truths and White Lies sold 15,000 copies in a year when fiction sales took a nose-dive. That was a good result for a debut novel from a complete unknown, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the competition win.

Told I was going to be the Next Big Thing, my reality check came the following year with the rejection of my second novel. Though I wasn’t so naïve as to think success was going to be automatic, I didn’t expect it to be so tough to find another literary agent. In fact, the message in rejection letters was, ‘This one is not for me but, with your credentials, you’re bound to be snapped up’. I wasn’t. I’ve written elsewhere how I began to feel like the lady character in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, who comes back to a writing conference held on a university campus year after year with a slightly different version of the same novel. A novel which continues to be rejected, albeit for slightly different reasons. Of course, if I had a time machine I could go back and invest my winnings in PR.

Having said that, retreating into anonymity with my tail between my legs gave me the luxury of something you can’t buy: time. If I’d been under contract, I would have had to produce a book a year. Until An Unchoreographed Life, Half-truths and White Lies was the only book that I had completed in a year. The others have taken between two and four years. Sometimes I had the right story but the wrong structure. I had time to let them rest, going back and adding layers and depth, finding new angles, different emphasis; identifying that one sentence on which the entire story pivots. When other authors say to me that they do three edits, my reaction is three? The eureka! moment might not come until the fiftieth edit. I admitted to a friend that I am nervous about my latest release, concerned that I haven’t set it aside for a year. Her response was that the risk you take being in business means that you can’t always put out your best work. That’s a sobering thought, but it applies especially to those who work to enforced deadlines. I am always in control of when I hit ‘publish’.

6. You interview some amazing writers. What is the most important thing you’ve learned from them?

I wish I could say that I have learnt how to write slick interview answers from J J Marsh, but she remains the master in that department.

Mel Sherratt reminded me that that you can’t be in the right place at the right time unless you stick at something. (She was heralded an overnight success, after she’d been quietly working away for fifteen years).

As a result of interviewing Linda Gillard, I have explored how to market myself, rather than my books, as a brand.

But, most of all, it is the fact that there is no one way of writing a novel. You discover what works best for you through trial and error. There are no shortcuts.

7. What exactly is literary fiction?

It is a box that you tick, particularly if there isn’t another that fits.

8. The literary world needs more…

Risk-takers and rule breakers. But we are nothing without readers.

9. The literary world needs less…

10. Is there one question your writing brings you back to again and again? Do you think you will ever find an answer that satisfies you?

I don’t know about a single question. It took me some time to work out that the common theme running through my novels is the influence that missing persons have in our lives. (This shouldn’t have come as any great surprise to me since the death of a friend was what made me start to write.) In my experience, that influence can actually be greater than that of those who are present. In Half-truths and White Lies it was parents who weren’t around to answer questions. In I Stopped Time, it was an estranged mother. I addressed the theme head-on in A Funeral for an Owl which considers teenage runaways. And in An Unchoreographed Life Belinda grows up without knowing her father. Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It is never going to provide the whole answer, but it does force both writer and reader to walk in another person’s shoes. And, in many ways, it is the exploration and not the answer that is important. The idea that there is a single truth is flawed. I have a sister who is less than a year older than me our memories of the same events differ substantially. There are many different versions of the truth and many layers of memory.

11. An Unchoreographed Life is in many ways about finding the whole from the fragments. Some lives come to us in more fragmented ways than others but it strikes me that we can never have the “whole” of another person. Do you think there are ways in which having only fragments can lead to a greater understanding?

The question of whether we can ever know the whole of another person interests me. One of my beta readers made a comment to me when asked if she thought my six-year-old’s dialogue was age-appropriate. She said that we can only know what comes out of children’s mouths, not what goes on inside their heads. Of course, the same is true of anyone. We only know of someone else what they choose to reveal. My partner and I have been together for fifteen years and I know him as well as I will ever know anyone, but I don’t feel entitled to know his every thought. You have to allow each other secrets, and you have to allow each other breathing space.

I don’t allow my characters the same privacy I allow Matt. I throw them to the lions. I know what they are thinking, what they are feeling, the things they lie about, all of their secret fears. But I only meet them at a particular point on their journeys, usually in a highly volatile or unstable situation. Certainly, how people behave when under tremendous pressure can reveal a lot about them. Unfortunately, the reader probably sees my characters at their worst, but I hope that by then the reader will care about them.

12. I will have succeeded when…

My ambitions have broadened in terms of where I want to take my fiction, but are far humbler in terms of what I can expect by way of financial reward. This year I made the decision to only take on enough paid work to settle the bills and to focus on writing. And, in the same year, I have learned that only 5% of books sell over 1000 copies and that making a living from book sales is something only a few writers enjoy, and even fewer can expect to enjoy in future.

A lot is said about how essential it is to define your goals before you start writing. I disagree. I think it’s OK to have changing definitions of success. My background is business, and if it is obvious that your budget is unachievable by the mid-year point, you damned well revise it.

It took me four years to write my first novel while working full-time. My only goal was to see if I could finish a novel. To be honest, it seemed a vain ambition. It took me a long time to have the confidence to show it to anyone else but, once I started to get good reactions, I set my next goal: to find an agent. I found an agent, I set my next goal: to get published. Defining long-term goals can be off-putting if they seem like impossible dreams. There is also a danger that you may end up feeling as if you have failed personally, when the industry that we are operating within and reading trends are moving on so quickly. I find it better to take one step at a time, setting lots of short-term achievable goals. (Another 5 star review today, thank you very much.)

Over the past month, reviewers have compared me to Joanna Trollope, Dylan Thomas, Tracy Chevalier, Audrey Niffenegger, Dorothy Koomson and Rachel Hore. I’m very happy with that list.

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Trigger Warning

I’ve written a lot over the years about taboo and censorship. In particular about self-censorship. I have also written a lot, both fact and fiction, about suicide and self-harm in an effort to make my words, even if only for one person, a hand reaching out to hold theirs in the night when they feel utterly alone. I have even written a whole book, (life) razorblades included, that I preface by saying “I celebrate life by writing about death.”

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And it’s on this particular subject that, for me, the subject of self-censorship raises its head most frequently. How do you write responsibly about suicide? How do you reach out with utter honesty so as never to patronise or belittle or “explain” another’s pain?

Of course, the first question any writer must ask, very seriously, is why they should write responsibly, and we should be very wary of coming up with any answer other than “that’s my personal choice.” But that is my choice.

I want to be responsible to those whose pain has become intolerable. I want not to belittle it by slapping a warning all over what I write, either literally or through the book’s “message”, saying “don’t do this at home, kids.” I want to avoid the easy way out of writing about something else. And at the same time I want never to glamorise, never to say “hey kids, this is a cool thing to do.”

It’s a very hard line to walk, and my personal feeling is that in the past we have veered too far towards not glamorising, towards qualifying everything with a suitable message.

 

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This is something I really had to grapple with (among many other things!) in my new book, No Exit. The relationship at the heart of it features my protagonist, Alice, and her best friend, Cassie, someone whose creativity and passion bursts from every pore but who is just too fragile for the world.

Now, in writing Cassie, I faced a lot of very uncomfortable issues that could only be dealt with by absolute honesty. First amongst them is the fact that there was a very big danger of making Cassie a stereotype, and a very unwholesome one at that – the “beautiful dead girl” or the “suicidal creative waif.” Tipping into either of these would kill the book dead. I could have avoided that by writing a different Cassie. But, as some will know, Cassie is based on a very dear friend of mine whose story I wanted to tell. That wasn’t an option.

The only option was to write Cassie honestly. And a lot of that meant drawing on conversations we’d had. There’s one line in No Exit that is at the heart of everything, and it’s one that to many of us feels almost impossible to grasp. Before Cassie and Alice become friends, Cassie gives Alice an ultimatum:

“This is the deal if we’re going to be friends. You don’t ever try to save me. Not ever.”

Of course, because every sentence serves the plot, this is going to be played out later. And it is, in the hardest scene I’ve ever written, when Alice holds Cassie while she dies without trying to intervene despite her whole being wanting to. It’s a dynamic that makes me feel both very uneasy – because it could justify some very damaging behaviour if it’s read in the wrong way – and very comfortable – because it is absolutely honest.

This is all further complicated because Cassie is obsessed with “making death beautiful.” Again, a really dangerous and triggering thing to write. But an essential part of Cassie. And something that feels very normal to a certain kind of outsider. The kind I am writing for.

So what should a writer in my position do? That’s a genuine question. Do I stay silent, leave stories untold? Do I compromise those stories? Which is worse, to write elements out of the story and alienate many of those who feel alone, or to write necessary elements in and risk encouraging, glamorising, triggering? Do I make Cassie and her actions “ugly” because I am so frightened of what happens if I let her beauty be there on the page (someone once told my dear friend she had no right to write her experiences because she was too beautiful – a hideous censorship that has never left me)? Do I layer the text with trigger warnings? I don’t know. I have tried to be 100% honest. But is even that relevant or important?

 

Open Up To Indie Authors

 

It was a great privilege to speak at today’s launch at Kobo’s London Book Fair stall, of Open Up To Indie Authors (download it here), which I co-authored with the wonderful Debbie Young, published by the Alliance of Indie Authors thanks to the tireless efforts of Orna Ross. The book is more than just an essential campaign document and rallying cry. It’s a guide to working with every sector in the global literary sphere, from bloggers through prizes and bookstores to festivals, making the case for the inclusion of indie authors, helping indie authors to understand the industry and helping the industry to see why it needs indie authors.Image

l-r Debbie Young, Jessica Bell, Hugh Howey, Orna Ross, Diego Marano, Me

 

Here’s the text of the speech

Those of you who know me will know that, among other things, I am a fairly outspoken atheist. Nonetheless, by training I am a theologian, and I am going to start with a little sortie into that world.

Most people are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel. Not so many are familiar with the context in which the Gospel’s author places it. Jesus has just delivered his mission statement, for want of a better phrase – “love your neighbour as yourself.” The person he’s speaking to, being simultaneously a handy rhetorical device and someone who’s not going to fall for a politician’s generalities, pulls him up and asks him exactly what he means – “who is my neighbour?” a question Jesus answers, in a manner familiar from all the great orators, with a story, the story of the Good Samaritan.

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There is a simple point being made, and it’s one that the author of Luke’s Gospel makes repeatedly, from the Sermon on the Mount to Pentecost, the instant hook of his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. And the point is this. What matters in deciding “who is my neighbour?” is not the answer. What matters is how we ask the question. And we can ask it in two very different ways. We can ask, as Jesus’ interlocutor does, “Who are the ones I have to love?” Or we can ask, as Jesus reimagines the question, “Whom may I love?” It’s a dichotomy you will find as a pretty much constant feature in human problem solving. On the one hand, we can approach problems by asking, “How do I avoid all the things I need to avoid?” On the other hand, we can approach them by asking, “How do I encounter all the things that are worth encountering?”

You probably start to see where this is going. But let me digress. Self-publishing, like Lionel Shriver’s eponymous Kevin, has become one of those awkward problems in the literary world, one of those things that we need to talk about, that we need to do something about, but we can’t quite figure what. Self-publishers and traditional publishers, and hybrid authors and bricks and mortar stores and journalists and service providers eye each other like a GIF flickering between suspicion and desire.

But the simple truth of it is this. Everyone in the business of books has just one duty. And it’s not to themselves. It’s not to bookstores. It’s not to progress and nor is it to the preservation of the physical book. It’s not to shareholders, and it’s not – though I wish it were – to writers. Every one of us has a duty to readers – to those who read avidly – that they keep coming back for more; to those who might one day read – that the experience brings something wonderful to their lives; to those who have never read before – that they discover worlds they could never have imagined; to those to whom books are the most precious thing in the world – that we never disappoint them; and to those who believe adamantly that books are not and could never be for them – that we provide them with the means to discover they were wrong.

And that brings us back to the question of what to do about self-publishing, and back to the Good Samaritan. Each of us in the business of books can ask the question, it turns out, in two ways. Just like we can ask “who is my neighbour” two ways. We can ask “How do we keep all the bad books out?” Or we can ask “How do we make sure to let all the good books in?” And the simple truth is you can’t do both. You can never do both. But the problem is when you put those questions on most people’s they sound just the same. And those simple syllogisms that won’t sit at ease together are the reason why we can never decide what to do about self-publishing, and why whenever we start to try we sound like we are tearing each other apart.

But the solution is straightforward. Which question serves readers? Now, of course, there’s a different combination of readers and industry cogs for every shade of grey. But if each sector of the industry keeps its eye first, last, and only on its readers and asks the self-publishing question in respect of them, we will very soon get on the right collective footing.

I just want to speak very briefly about the part of the industry that matters to me most, the one that made me first want to get involved in the Open Up to Indies campaign, and the one that makes me more convinced than ever of the need for such a campaign.

The literary media loves to be the second to discover the next new thing. Journalists love the thrill and the kudos of being the one to break the story about something or someone original and exciting. But they are driven by the fear of the finger-pointing of being the one who backed a dud. And so they persist in steering the middle ground, relentlessly ignoring the wild, the brilliant, the flamboyant and the flawed – in other words systematically averting their gaze from what self-publishing does best.

In this world, readers will never be sold a pup. But they will never be exposed to something truly astounding and life-changing either. This is a world that asks the wrong question. This is a world that protects readers from the bad. This is a world that denies reader whole swathes of the outstanding. This is a world that has to change. And that is why Open Up To Indie Authors is essential.

No Exit: Cassie

ga 2(from Veronika von Volkova‘s Grime Angels series, because nothing goes with this book like her photography)

So I’m nearing the completion of No Exit. As could have been predicted, it is resisting all attempts to squeeze it into the thriller genre envelope. At the moment it feels like part Chuck Palahniuk, part Minette Walters, part Anais Nin, part Bolano, and part a whole lot of something so much darker. What I hope I am achieving, though, for all the darkness and character-driven literariness, and the inevitable stylistic quiddity of the thing, is the kind of pace that people who like their reads riveting will want. Anyway, I can’t help myself when it comes to letting snippets of teasers loose on the world. So here is the chapter, narrated by Alice, in which we meet Cassie, whose death is the turning point in Alice’s story. Trigger warnings for self-harm/suicidal thoughts.

I started hanging with Cassie the week my dad walked out and I fell in hate with the world.

We’d been in the same class for four years and never spoken, but that week we sniffed out each other’s pain like junkies cramping for a hit.

It was Saturday afternoon in early summer and I was in the Parks, over the bridge and off the path, two fields to the right where the banks are too overgrown for punters to stop and before the wide green spaces by the rollers where picnickers spread themselves out like strings of peppers in the sun. At the back of the field is a broken tree that provides total privacy whatever you want to do, and what I wanted to do was burn cigarettes into my arms till the cherries reached the bone.

I looked at the cigarette I had in one hand and I looked at the lighter I had in the other and at the clean white flesh streaming down like wax from both. I wondered which arm would burn better. Which arm would hurt more. On which arm I could knock the wound more often in the days to come to relive the pain.

I could smell the smoke already, and as I imagined it changing slowly into the scent of burning flesh, I heard a voice above and behind me and realised the smoke wasn’t in my head.

“The left,” said the voice.

I turned. Cassie was laid out on the fallen trunk, draped in black cotton that ran off her thin frame like water so she looked like she was part of the tree, some kind of dryad waking from the wood. She raised a hand to her mouth, turned her head and blew smoke at me through black painted lips.

“Eh?” I said.

“The left forearm,” she said. “If you’re right handed, it’s easier to knock the scab off your left forearm and open the wound just mooching with your hand in your pocket. That’s what you were wondering.”

I started to speak but Cassie just smiled and said, “Welcome to the charnel house.”

I smiled back and lit my cigarette and I didn’t want to burn myself anymore so I took long, deep draws, aiming the smoke back up at her, but it just blew back in my face and we both laughed.

She lit a second cigarette from the embers of the first, pulled on it once, and asked, “What do you find beautiful?”

For a moment I was filled with an overwhelming, physical desire to say, “You” but I bit down, thought, and said, “The absence of small talk.”

She laughed, a nicotine and catarrh kind of laugh. “I love decay,” she said. “It reminds you that everything’s temporary and that’s OK, that death is the most natural thing in the world. What could be more beautiful than having the freedom to stop breathing? Any time you want. No reproach, no wailing, no gnashing, no tearing of clothes. No get your homework in or pay your bills or be nice to the assholes who want you to suck dick or wash tables and bow and say thank you for the privilege. The freedom just to stop. Like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. Stop right where you are and not breathe anymore and slowly return to the soil and the air like everything else. Decay tells you death is OK, death is beautiful. And that makes the life you have in the meantime beautiful too.”

“Decay doesn’t pretend,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Cassie. “Decay doesn’t pretend. It just is what it is.” In a single, fluid movement she jumped up off the trunk and sat down beside me, and we sat like that for what seemed like hours. After a while, I could sense her tensing beside me, twitching nervously. Eventually she turned to me and said, “This is the deal if we’re going to be friends. You don’t ever try to save me. Not ever.”

We sat in silence for several more minutes, the only things alive around us the glow to fade pulse of our cigarette ends.

Cassie rolled up her long black sleeves and laid her arms out in front of me like an offering. Faint white scars carpeted her skin like a bed of pine needles.

I thought they looked beautiful.

“Not those,” she said, holding her wrists closer. Beneath the others, like unnatural creatures hiding in the darkness of the deep, two fainter lines on each wrist. Fainter but wider, longer. I couldn’t take my eyes away.

“I’m OK now,” she said, rolling her sleeves back down and holding my eyes with hers. “But one day I won’t be. And when that day comes, it’s my choice. It’s my choice when and it’s my choice how and that’s non-negotiable. Get that and we’ll be fine. Don’t get it and you can fuck off now.”

“I get it,” I said. And I did. I knew somehow, even then, at the darkest point, I’d never kill myself, but that was me. That was the way I lived, that was my right. And it was hers to go through with it. I would never tell her what to do, and she would never tell me what to do, and that was the basis for the best friendship I ever had. Short. So so short, just like I knew it would be as I sat there watching her smoke with the broadest grin on her face and the sunlight glinting on her hair and every care in the world dripping like the dead ash to the floor. Bit oh how she shone.

How she shone.

The Platinum Raven

Rohan Quine is one of the most brillinat and original writers around. His The Imagination Thief blended written and spoken word and visuals to create one of the most haunting and complex explorations of the dark corners of the soul you will ever read. Never one to do something simple when something more complex can build up teh layers more beautifully, he is back with a collection of 4 seamlessly interwoven novellas. They are available as one paperback, The Platinum Raven and Other Novellas, or as four separate ebooks (clcik the pics for links).

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I will be talking to Rohan about the books in the coming weeks, but for now suffice to say he is the consummate master of sentencecraft. His prose is a warming sea on which to float and luxuriate. But that is only half of teh picture. He has a remarkable insight into the human psyche, and he demonstrates it by lacquering layer on layer of subtle observation and nuance. Allow yourself to slip from the slick surface of the water and you will soon find yourself tangled in a very deep and disturbing world, but the dangers that lurk beneath the surface are so enticing, so intoxicating it is impossible to resist their call.

The Platinum Raven

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Apricot Eyes

Rohan Apricot

Hallucination in Hong Kong

Rohan Hallucination

Host in the Attic

Rohan Host

All covers designed by the very talented J D Smith.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

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One of the joys of having been around a while and being dafty outspoken about things is that people tweet me and send me things. Yes, I know this is exactly what most people dread, and I know saying I enjoy it opens me up to more of it. And yes, I really really really don’t have time to read everything I’m sent and however guilty I feel about that won’t change the fact that if I’m ever going to write another book I just don’t have time to read everything I’m sent. But I will open it, and have a look. And if it really really grabs me, I’ll want to tell people about it. Owing largely to the peculiarities and nicheness of my taste, the frequency of that grabbing is incredibly low. But when Alice Furse emailed me about her book, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, I was grabbed. First, because she mentioned the Bechdel Test in her pitch. Second, because the way she wrote her email did what so few of even the most experienced writers seem able to do – get their voice across in the shortest of blurbs. Third, because the situation at the heart of the book – the disappointment of being twenty-something and finding that life is full of dead ends when only a few years earlier you were told as a student that the world was your oyster – is one that strikes so many chords with me. And then I opened the book, and the voice took hold of me straightaway. This is a beautifully written exploration of a much underexplored time in life. It is reminiscent on the one hand of the aimless desperation of Murakami’s affectless twenty-something narrators (only this is a protagonist with more backbone), and on the other of the works of the new generation of novelists like Jenni Fagan who combine social commentary and dazzling sentencecraft.

Here’s the very brief Amazon pitch, in itself a mini masterpiece:

“It’s an endless winter in suburbia, and a young graduate who dreams of fading into anonymity moves in with a traffic warden and accepts a mind-numbing job in an office.
Slowly, she starts to believe that the apocalypse is imminent, but unable to find anyone who understands she hatches a plan to save herself – before it’s too late.”

I have to start by asking why you chose to self-publish…

The short answer is, getting Everybody Knows out there and being read is a lot more interesting than endlessly writing to publishing people and crossing my fingers that one of them will take a chance on me.

The longer answer is that I wrote it a few years ago, and right after it was finished I met with a literary agent who sent it out to his contacts. It got reasonably far at a few publishing houses, but they all said the same thing: they liked it, but couldn’t figure out how to market it.

About six months ago it occurred to me what an utter waste this was, and that I’d put so much work into something and no one would ever read it. I also now have three years of PR experience under my belt, so it seemed a good time for giving it a proper crack.

You have a Creative Writing Degree behind you. These have created their fair share of controversy recently. Do you feel that the course helped you to find your own personal voice, or did you feel it smoothing away your uniqueness? Would you recommend it?

I would absolutely recommend it, yeah, and I’m not just saying that because I invested such a huge amount of time and money in my degrees! Doing that gave me space to think about myself as a writer, the nuts and bolts of storytelling, plus a better knowledge of what’s already out there.

I enjoyed a close relationship to my writing teacher at uni, who was the first (actually, the only) person to tell me that I should write a novel, a notion that seemed totally laughable to me at the time. Studying writing gave me permission to give something I’d always loved a proper go.

Perhaps not everyone needs permission – if I had more of an experimental streak perhaps the answer to this question would be very different.

Which leads to the subject of voice – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has a very strong, distinctive voice. How easy was it for you to find that voice? 

I want to say not easy at all because it took me years of writing bullshit to get there, but in a sense that’s a lie because I can’t really write in any other way. As you can probably tell from the novel, I’m not a great fantasist. I like cold hard reality and no frills dialogue.

Recently I’ve become really interested in the concept of ‘a voice’ – maybe because I’m working on a number of short stories and they’re all slightly different. A voice is never something that’s set in stone, is it? My suspicion is that it should always be developing. Perhaps a writer is like Woody Allen’s shark and if it doesn’t keep moving it dies.

When you pitched Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to me, you mentioned the Bechdel Test. With A Year of Reading Women, recent coverage of the Bechdel Test, and greater prominence for the work Vida does, it looks from the outside as though we are finally seeing progress in making women’s voices visible within fiction and the coverage of fiction. How far do you think we’ve come, and how far do you think we have to go?

Great question! The statistics that have inspired the Year of Reading were shocking and despressing – in 2012, 16% of the reviewers at the New York Review of Books were women, and only 22% of the books reviewed written by women. Whichever way you look at it, that suggests we have a long way to go in championing women as legitimate members of the literary world.

Having said that, I’m desperately uncomfortable with the idea women are separate and need special campaigns and awards. I hate the idea that we’re The Other. We’re not. We’re just living lives and writing about them, same as the blokes.

I only heard about the Bechdel test after I wrote Everybody Knows – basically, a film or book passes if it has one female character, talking to another female character, about a subject that isn’t a man. I was pumped when I realised Everybody Knows passed it totally by accident, and in a sense that seems like better progress.

Perhaps this is something that self-publishing will have a hand in helping: if a publishing house can’t market my book because it isn’t chicklit and I go ahead and do it myself, then all the better.

You are writing about a traditionally underrepresented age group in literature. Why do you think this is, what makes it so interesting to you?

My narrator is 24 and I was 25 when I wrote it. Now that I’m nearly 30 and look back, it’s actually a very awkward age. I hadn’t grown into my own skin at all, though I felt as if I should have. I carried a heavy weight of expectation – mainly my own – of what I should do about marriage, and babies, and career, and what on earth I should do with myself. Didn’t know what I wanted, what I was good at, what my options were.

All this is great material for writing though, so god knows why it’s such an underrepresented age – if I hadn’t been writing about it all I’d have exploded.

You say you want Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to reach out to people like The Bell Jar reached out to you. May I ask about that experience, and how you would love to see it replicated?

I was 14 when I first read The Bell Jar and it will have a place in my heart forever. Of course, I was far too young to have understood the societal pressures she was writing about in terms of marriage and babies and choosing a career path, but I also fell in love for the first time that year and my boyfriend was forever trying to stop me from wearing make up and talking to people and taking drugs, so it was all kicking off really.

Plath’s was a voice I could not only relate to but also admire. It’s very honest, and frankly women aren’t used to having an authentic account of their experiences reflected back at them so it blew me apart. The common idea that it’s only for teenage girls and this is a neat way to dismiss it, but utter bollocks.

As for my book, I wouldn’t dream of it having the effect that The Bell Jar had in any real sense, but if one single person writes to me saying that my book has helped them to feel less alone I’m framing it.

In contemporary literature we need more…

Real women. And books passing the Bechdel test.

In contemporary literature we need fewer…

Stereotypes.

To end where we started, you are just starting out as a writer. Publishing is so up in the air now, how on earth do you go about planning a career, or even knowing where you see yourself in 5 years?

I dislike planning life and always have done. I try to look for opportunities to do things I enjoy rather than think about a career or dreaming of being famous. When I moved to London I was a dealer in a casino just for the hell of it and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I currently work at a sports radio station, which is a good laugh and pays the bills. I’m working on several things for magazines, and have also just started using my PR skills to publicise a new online comedy radio station called Mansize.

The fact is, you never know who you’ll meet tomorrow and where it’ll lead, so you might as well just do the things you find fun.

And keep writing.

My New Book Will Not Be Self-published

My next post will be titled “why I chose a small press” and will answer all the questions you all want answered. For now, I’ll simply make the announcement. My new book, No Exit, will be released this summer by the wonderful people at Pankhearst as part of their Singles Club. If you want to know just why I’m so excited, check out this month’s single – End Credits by Simon Paul Wilson, who was until, well, a couple of days ago, the best unpublished writer on the planet (his manuscript, the Murakami-esque magical realist Yuko Zen is Elsewhere was one of the most talked about and exciting books in the history of Harper Collins’ website Authonomy).

Pankhearst is a two year-old publishing collective containing some of the most exciting writers of fem noir. They specialise in kick ass female protagonists and their mix of noir and literary makes them even more perfect for me, especially for this book, which features many of the characters and settings from my forthcoming full length novel Kill Land.

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(one of Veronika von Volkova’s Grime Angels – because noting sums up my work like her pictures)

Here’s the blurb:

Petrichor have a simple philosophy, “Make the world a more beautiful place. Starting with where you are right now.” A group of tech-savvy drifters, dropouts, and dreamers who hang out in Oxford’s hidden spaces – narrowboats, building sites, disused library tunnels – they spend their days and nights undertaking an aesthetic form of place-hacking – littering dry, dead buildings with poetry, running and jumping the rooftops and leaving QR codes on walls that link to videos of the beautiful uses they make of them.
But for Alice, the group’s most proficient coder and computer hacker, making the world more beautiful has a flip side. It means cutting out the cultural cancers that leave hurt and ugliness behind them. So she creates Huis Clos, “No Exit”, the place that lives in the darkest, most honest part of everyone’s dreams – a place with no windows, no consequences and, for the person who enters with you, no exit.
Hidden in the depths of the darknet – and even deeper under Oxford, in the miles of archives of  the Bodleian library, Huis Clos is the place where Alice will bring the person who has made your life hell, leave you alone with them, and, once you have left, make the evidence, and every trace of them, simply disappear.
One day, Alice picks up a target, and discovers that the vilest person she has ever been asked to deal with is her own father.

And here is the opening.

Head out of the Sheldonian and under the gnarled stone reproduction of the Bridge of Sighs, past a turn so tiny you’d never know it was there if you didn’t smell the speciality cider wafting at you and hunt to find the source, further on, cornering twice as tarmac turns to cobbles turn to tarmac, and you arrive at the back entrance of New College, Oxford, and on a clear winter night you can just about hear the sound of choirboys practising far away in the chapel and if you remember that 10 metres below your feet is the plague pit where centuries earlier they flung the city’s unwanted dead, and if it’s dark enough to disorient you, and if you listen for long enough as trebles strain at the top notes, you will be sure you can hear  a thousand last confessions sweating into the sky too late for absolution.

Wait a little longer still, and your mind might carry you deeper. Another 10 metres. And another, to a place where far more recent secrets are stored. All across Oxford the earth beneath your feet is criss-crossed by miles of tunnels that, until even they started to creak under the weight, housed the collections of the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest and largest in England. Many of the books were moved a year or so ago to new, tanked out and humidity controlled homes by the canal in Osney Mead, and further afield in Swindon, leaving acres of empty caves slowly going fetid now the switch has been turned off for good.

But some of them are not so empty. Soundproofed and secure, you will never hear the screams, no matter how long you stand and listen for them. You will hear only the choirboys, calling out for mercy to a God who gluts himself on their supplications and belches out only silence in return. But they are there. The screams. Bouncing off foam clad walls in a hell of their own making. In a room with no windows. A room that welcomes people two at a time. For one of them there are no consequences. For the other, no exit.

I close my eyes so that the fog is present only as a thin film pressing my skin, and I am sure I can hear them. The footsteps, tentative at first, then confident, then pumped full of adrenalin and the lightness of release. And the screams. The unheard screams decaying on the broken-foamed walls. And I allow myself the satisfaction of knowing that whatever else life brings, I have done something good.