Listen to the first 15 mins of Who Do You Love for free here!

I’m writing this blog post on the summer solstice, 20th June 2020, which is an important date in my novel Who Do You Love. In fact, I like to think the events on the summer solstice June 1988 in a Sussex wood, devastated by the hurricane of October 1987, are pivotal in the novel. They are loosely based on real events that happened to me, when I directed and produced a mime play, performed at midnight at that time.

In the novel, the protagonist, Nick is rescued from a bad mushroom trip by Ellida, the passionate Norwegian woman who becomes the love of Nick’s life.

A tree spirit from the Song of the Falling Trees, June 1987, standing next to an uprooted tree in a wood in the Sussex Downs, fictionalised in Who Do You Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about Who Do You Love recently because I’m working with actor and voice artist, Christopher James, on an audiobook version of the book. He’s now produced the first fifteen minutes for me, which you can find here:

Audiobook version of ‘Who Do You Love’ to be publish soon on Audible!

I hope you’ll agree that he’s read it magnificently! I felt his accent and approach was just right for the narrator Nick: energetic but mournful, which is a difficult combination to get. There’s a sadness, as I see it, in Nick’s voice which he captures well. He also reads the book reasonably slowly and clearly, while maintaining a sense of pace, again this is tricky: you can’t read the novel too fast because the images, the descriptions and the dialogue can be marginalised in a fast reading.

Listening to it was immersive for me. I was actually more present with the book than when I wrote much of it. This said, writing the first draft of it was an enveloping experience: I virtually free-wrote a draft of 120,000 words over the space of six-eight months! I had just started my PhD in Creative Writing with Blake Morrison in 2009-2010; I had got my place on this prestigious programme by proposing another entirely different book, but changed tack when I learnt about the death of a friend. Blake was great because he allowed me to change direction and recognised how I wrote. He let me ‘splurge’ away!

The process of editing and pruning and changing after that was not as hypnotic. I had to have a very critical eye while re-reading what I had written. I must confess editing is not my strongest suit. I can, at times, take the foolish road of publish and be damned, particularly with some of my blogging and journalism!

I have never done this with my fiction, but the temptation is still there. Listening during lockdown to the audio book, I made entry into Nick’s world without that wincing editor’s eye inside my head. This was a rare treat for me. I felt immersed back in the fiction: I was there as Nick gets the news he’s been sacked; I felt for him as he listens to his wife, the New Yorker, Hadley, give him lots of sensible but hard-to-hear advice; and I felt his pain again! This was, I felt, because Chris captured his pain in his voice.

I particularly enjoyed the reading of the second chapter, which is Nick’s memory of the hurricane of October 1987. Chris captures the different voices and accents of the students in this scene beautifully: the dominant, angry George, and the cheeky, clever Luke. This worked well I thought; the reading never strays into parodic student talk in a way some people have complained happens when you read it straight off the page. That’s what a good actor can do: bring a sense of gravity to things that might look a little silly on the page. 

Making an audio book out of my novel, Who Do You Love

I’m very excited to be working on an audio book version of Who Do You Love, my novel which I published with Blue Door Press in 2017.

I have investigated ways of doing this over the years, having a go at reading myself. I found that although I can be an expressive reader — some would say too expressive! — I don’t have the skills of a properly trained actor and audio book reader. To be a great reader of audio, you have to have a lot of different skills: you’ve got to interpret a story meaningfully and emotionally, you’ve got to read it in a dramatic but not too dramatic fashion, you’ve got to be able to voice the different characters properly, and you’ve got to give it all drive and energy. I think I have found just the person after quite a bit of searching, in the voice of the wonderful actor and audiobook reader Christopher James. I found him through ACX, the audio partner it seems of Amazon’s KDP. The process for me was great because it was so simple. I posted my book for auditions and was surprised to find quite a few auditions up within a matter of two days. I listened to them, and picked Christopher as the most suitable for the book. All of them were good, but it was the accent and the nuanced reading that I was looking for, which I really found in Christopher. Here’s his audition tape:

My soundcloud file of Christopher James’ Audition

Reading Who Do You Love well is really tricky. Not least because the novel explores the emotional experience of a contemporary male, something not frequently done. There are not a lot of novels like this around, with the possible exception of David Nicholls, the author of One Day and Us. Christopher and I have talked about this because it affects the way the novel should be read: it can’t be too deadpan, nor too over-the-top in terms of sounding emotional. The other tricky thing in the novel is the range of accents: the Norwegian lilt of Ellida, the heroine, the refined New York accent of Hadley, the Spanish accent of Arnholm, Jack’s older child voice, and the narrator’s own southern English accent, which is neither posh, nor particularly cockney/local. I felt Christopher captured all of them really well. I was delighted by the way the novel suddenly came alive for me again. Anyway, we are just at the beginning of the process; he’s reading the novel just as I write, and will be recording the whole book quite soon. I hope to keep you updated about how it’s going.

What’s in a Kiss?

Here at Blue Door we’re delighted to welcome a new author, novelist Barbara Bleiman. She’s been exploring the connotations of a kiss and explains how her collection of stories, The Kremlinology of Kisses, evolved

Barbara Bleiman

Ten years ago, when I did an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, I started writing some short stories that were clustered around a particular idea – a concept, if you like – prompted by re-reading Anton Chekhov’s wonderful short story, ‘The Kiss’. I was bowled over by the way that Chekhov managed to invest something as seemingly simple as a kiss with huge emotional freight and significance. It made me think about the kiss and the part it plays in our lives. Sex is an obvious, highly charged subject for fiction but what about the kiss?

At the time, I wrote five or six stories involving different scenarios, kisses given and taken, wished for or rejected, in different contexts and time periods, from renaissance Italy through to contemporary London and even into the future. Later, as I was working on first, second and third drafts of my novel, I would step back for a while and give myself a little break by writing another ‘kiss’ story. People would say something in conversation and it would spark off a fresh idea; sometimes, a scene in a film would set me off in a new direction and get me writing a new story.

Gradually I accumulated more of them and this autumn I began to think that perhaps they might make a coherent collection. Here were thirteen stories, one of which had already been published in Birkbeck’s book The Mechanics’ Institute Review, another of which has been selected for an anthology for the secondary classroom, due out in the autumn. But commercial publishing houses are reluctant to invest in short stories.

What to do? I could go down the route of self-publishing. Instead, having learnt about Blue Door Press, I decided to submit the collection to the wonderful group of writers who set it up and publish through it. This co-publishing model offers a third way between self-publishing and mainstream, which means all books will be professionally edited and designed.

A few months after submitting, I received the thrilling news that the group had read my manuscript, loved the overall concept and the stories themselves and were happy to welcome me on board as a new Blue Door Press writer.

Now more really hard work begins. I have had brilliant collective editorial comments from the group and a discussion with Pamela Johnson about polishing the stories, the process of preparing them for publication, the choice of a title, cover and ways in which BDP can support me in this. In return, I’ve agreed to contribute what I can to the Press. One thing I’ll be doing (drawing on my expertise from my working life) will be to work on the BDP’s social media presence.

My collection The Kremlinology of Kisses should be due out early in the new year. I can’t wait to see it in print, with the Blue Door Press logo on its spine.

 

 

How Do You Become a Writer?

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As Blue Door Press is about to publish HIDDEN, Annabel Chown explains how serious illness led her to write this page-turner memoir

Portrait

Annabel Chown

I was thirty-one years old, and wanted to write. Except I had no clue as to what I might write. Plus, working sixty hour weeks as an architect, no time in which to write.

Then on a beautiful May morning in 2002, I was told I had breast cancer. ‘You’ll need chemotherapy and radiotherapy,’ the oncologist informed me. ‘Have chemo on a Friday, spend the weekend recovering, then you can go back to work on a Monday. It doesn’t waste too much time that way.’ No, a voice inside me said, visualising myself at my office desk at 10pm. If I get better, I’ve got the rest of my life to work hard.

Suddenly, I had space, time, and subject matter. Cancer was a harsh place to land in, but also an interesting one, so far removed from my day-to-day reality of site meetings, construction drawings, rushed trips to the gym, and Saturday night parties. Every third Thursday morning was now spent in a high-ceilinged Georgian room, a sac of ruby red Epirubicin dripping into my vein. Out on a date, I’d be terrified the man I fancied would notice I was wearing a wig. ‘You’ve lost weight,’ people who didn’t know would say. ‘You look amazing.’ And I’d keep quiet about the twenty-plus times I’d thrown up after my last chemo.

Cancer was the worst thing that had happened to me. But I was determined to create something good out of something ugly. Could it be a doorway into writing a book? I had no idea how to start. Initial attempts consisted of me simply typing up my journal entries! On the advice of the brilliant therapist I’d started seeing, I was scribbling most mornings. With time, a structure very gradually evolved. A couple of years after I started writing, I was invited to join a writers’ group. The other women were mostly published authors. I was terrified. But it proved to be one of the best things I’ve ever done, and helped me to create a full-length memoir.

My story is told through the lens of a single person, who still hoped to find love, despite feeling like damaged goods. It’s also told through the eyes of an architect, and a lover of London, which becomes almost like an additional character in the narrative.

Eighteen years after my diagnosis, I remain cancer free. I’ll never forget the terror of it, the fear I was going to die young. I hope my story can offer hope and inspiration to those who find themselves somewhere similar, as well as offer insight into what it’s like to go through such a life-changing experience; one that forced me to confront the darkness, but also brought in surprising bursts of light and opportunity.

 

 

Blue Door at the Troubadour

Delighted to announce that 3 Blue Door Press poets – Jennifer Grigg, Pamela Johnson, Jane Kirwan – will be reading at the legendary Troubadour in London on 4 November 2019. They will read from Stories & Lies and The Goose Woman as part of the autumn season of Coffee House Poetry.

 

 

Joining them, to celebrate Blue Door Press, will be 20 poets with 20 newly commissioned poems on the subject of doors, doorways, entrances & exits, locked or wide-open doors,  porches, garage doors, shed doors, doors from distant memory and more – Fiona Larkin, Katie Griffiths, Caroline Hammond, David Bottomley, Mary Powell, Helen Adie, Heather Moulson, Steve Boorman, Angela Kirby, Wendy French, Nisia Studzinska, Vanessa Lampert, Mary Mulholland, Audrey Ardern-Jones, Jean Hall, Jan Heritage, Edwina Gleeson, Matt Barnard, Andrew Ball, Susannah Hart, June Lausch, Jennifer Nadel & Karen Rydings

To be sure of a good seat book tickets, here

 

TAKING LIBERTIES with The Goose Woman

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Many of the poems in The Goose Woman focus on a village in Bohemia. I did worry that a neighbour might come across them and take offence but decided that was unlikely. The collection was in English, published in Britain, I was safe. And there were only a few poems that might be insensitive.

However, when asked by Svět Knihy to talk on a panel about translation, and read a few examples, the risk became more pressing. Svět Knihy is a book fair held annually in Prague in May, both a trade fair for publishers and a literature festival, combining promotion with readings, discussions, argument. The events are held in Výstaviště, exhibition grounds that were built around an industrial palace in 1891.

This year had the usual long queues to get in, people of all ages in a three days extravaganza, a celebration of books: fantasy, romance, TV cooks demonstrating their dumplings, people hunched over incredibly complex, incomprehensible interactive games, talks on politics, philosophy…

An event at the Cafe Europa was about Brexit, with an emphasis on its literary ramifications. David Vaughan moderated and Bernie Higgins and I identified ourselves as fully Europeans, and tried not to get too heated. Questions from the audience included confusion about what the Labour party or more precisely Corbyn was up to. Fintan O’Toole was quoted from Heroic Failure ‘…the strange sense of imaginary oppression that underlies Brexit. This mentality is by no means exclusive to the Right.

The poetry events were held in the Lapidarium. This extraordinary museum houses stone sculptures dating from the 11th century. I could only hope that no one in the audience or wandering through looking at the original statues from Charles Bridge would glance over at the poems projected wall size behind me.

I was asked ‘How has your relationship with Czech (and a Czech) affected your poetry? Which was impossible to answer. The second question ‘because of your close relationship with Czech and your translators (Aleš and Tomáš), when you are writing do you ever pause and deliberate on whether to use a line that you know will be difficult to translate into Czech?’ made me realise I’d failed completely to consider and value translators. Tomáš Míka talked about the difficulty in translating ‘One Made Earlier’  from Stories & Lies. It looks impossible but he did it – a few in the audience were even familiar with the reference to Blue Peter.

Then I was asked to read ‘I Am Slabce’ from The Goose Woman. My untruths/exaggerations were projected behind me; no one seemed to have any difficulty in understanding. Slabce was less than eighty kilometres away; I could only imagine Mr Novak or the mayor or Vladimir wandering in and being appalled by such slander.

Video: readings from Stories & Lies

Families. The word conjures up thoughts of characters and stories. We’re curious about where we’ve come from; we look back to examine scenes that have shaped our own family; were always fascinated to hear tales of other peoples’.

In Stories & Lies, launched in November, a trio of poets asks – but how can we ever get our full family story when some people stray, some stay put, some go to any lengths to hide their past and others invent?

These very different poets  – Pamela Johnson, Jennifer Grigg and Jane Kirwan – present work that ranges from the surreal to the conversational; we glimpse relationships across generations, moving from Ireland to the north of England to New England via the Midwest and Eastern Europe.

Here’s a selection. Enjoy!

A generous, big-hearted anthology, showcasing three poets with different styles and stories … these poets take us around the world, introduce us to characters whose narratives are personal yet share a common thread with the reader. The poems are vital and genuine.   Tamar Yoseloff

These highly accomplished poets are generous, sympathetic, humorous, knowing and audacious. They have a feel for history in their bones.  Julian Stannard

 

 

 

 

A European Evening at Our Latest Launch

 

The latest titles from Blue Door Press had a warm send-off at The Word Bookshop, New Cross, London, on 28 March: Jane Kirwan’s Czech themed Goose Woman and Francis Gilbert’s exploration of Hungarian history, Snow on The Danube.

After rich readings there followed a Q & A with Francis explaining why it took him 21 years to complete the novel, and Jane speaking of the connections she finds between  Slabce, the village in Czech where she spends half the year, and the village in Ireland, home of her grandmother.

For those who couldn’t make the launch, here’s a flavour …

 

 

The importance of patience: why it took 21 years to publish Snow on the Danube

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I started writing Snow on the Danube in 1998, and I’m about to publish it 21 years later!

You can find details (including free tickets) about its launch here.

It was quite unlike anything I’d written before because it was not autobiographical at all, which most of my other work had been.

I became fascinated by Hungary because of my interest in the music of Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók; two very contrasting Hungarian composers. Liszt was the romantic showman, a dazzling virtuoso, and the composer of magnificent piano concertos that I fell in love with when I was a teenager. Bartók was, in many ways, the opposite to Liszt: an experimental composer who did very different things with rhythm and tonality. His Concerto for Orchestra is one of my favourite pieces of music. Reading about his troubled relationship with Hungary and his desperately sad and traumatic exile during the Second World War got me investigating the Magyar people’s history. I had also always loved Hungarian-born George Szirtes’s poetry; one of his early collections of poetry, Short Wave, greatly moved and excited me; I loved his elliptical Kafkaesque poetic narratives.

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Clarissa Upchurch brilliant art adorns George Szirtes’ poetry

In 1998, I took the brave but foolhardy plunge to write a novel about Hungary. I visited the country a few times, following up on contacts provided by me by my New York in-laws, who knew quite a few Hungarian emigres. I had also met George Szirtes by then, and he helped me connect with some people in Budapest, including a wonderful editor of a Hungarian literary magazine. I spoke to them, and toured around Budapest, and bought the books translated into English. The internet had not become the great repository of information that it is now, and so the literature I found in Hungary had a magical, rare quality to me. I watched Hungarian films, and generally immersed myself in as much English-language based Hungarian material as I could.

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Béla Lugosi’s interpretation of ‘Dracula’

I rediscovered Béla Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula after watching Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). Philip Glass wrote a new score for the film which was issued with the film in 1999. I felt drawn to the voice of a ‘count’ who was both a little similar to Count Dracula but in many ways very different: a coward, a hypochondriac, fussy, musical, someone who only adored himself and his sister. A voice emerged, and I found myself writing about the intense love between my protagonist Count Zoltán Pongrácz and his sister, Anna. I was reading Proust at the time, and used a sort of quasi Proustian voice for him in the sense that it was deliberately fussy, nostalgic, full of yearning.

History shaped Zoltán’s fate; he was born on the day of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the disastrous treaty that robbed Hungary of its lands made in France after the First World War. In many ways, Zoltán’s fate was sealed by this denuded world; he was the last in a long line of Counts, doomed live on after his family lost everything.

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The destruction of Budapest’s chain bridge during the WWII.

Zoltan’s story, perhaps oddly, came relatively easily for me; I had completed a draft of it by 2001. But then I found it very difficult to give his historical story, set as it is before and during the Second World War, a ‘frame’: a contemporary story which explained why someone might want to discover his lost narrative. I felt the story needed such a frame; a reason as to why the reader might want to connect with the story, a British connection.

I wrote many contemporary ‘frames’ over the years, seeking to give Zoltán’s voice a suitable justification. Zoltan’s story was of interest to people. George Szirtes, as editor of an anthology of fiction and poetry, First Writing, published a section of it in 2001; an eminent agent liked the novel; other discerning readers such as a literary editor, now the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, and an audiobook publisher, Nicolas Soames, said nice things.

Zoltán was such a powerful character for me that I used him in my first published novel, The Last Day of Term (Shortbooks: 2011; new edition Blue Door Press: 2019). He was the great uncle of my main protagonist Béla Pongrácz, a disaffected teenager living in Bethnal Green and causing mayhem at the academy he had been expelled from. But Zoltán’s story remained hidden from Béla and all those around him; he was just a sad old man living in a down-at-heel council flat, listening to Radio 3, his head forever obsessing about the past.

It took the great editors at Blue Door Press to spot what the novel needed; Pam Johnson and Jane Kirwan read a draft and said they liked Zoltán’s story, but felt that the modern ‘frame’ for the story needed a lot of work. Pam suggested using the device of Béla finding Zoltán’s manuscript after the count died, and this, finally, was the trope that we all felt really worked. The idea of Béla thinking that he’d been left some money only to find a manuscript intrigued me; I saw the potential of Béla finding redemption in reading about his family’s past; the healing power of words, something that interests me a lot.

So, I’ve had to be patient. I’ve learnt to be patient. It’s made me also realise that fiction has a staying power which is quite unusual. Unlike journalism which ages very quickly, stories can linger, stay alive, stay fresh. You can’t easily pick up a piece of journalism you wrote many years ago, and revivify it, but with fiction this can be possible if there are still connections in it with the present day. I’d venture to say that the novel’s focus upon the destructive effects of fascism and anti-semitism have made it more relevant than when I started writing it in the more innocent era of the 1990s, pre-9/11, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, and pre-the scary reprisal of Hungarian fascism which Victor Orbán’s terrible government seem intent upon resurrecting.

Is the poetry world of cravats and bow ties slowly disappearing?

Possibly. Or so Ian McMillan, a poet from Barnsley and presenter of The Verb on Radio 3, heard Daljit Nagra, a prize winning poet from London, suggest when the two were chatting in the interval at the RFH during the TS Eliot shortlist readings.. You can hear some of the shortlisted poems on iPlayer until the first week in February.

Daljit described how different the poetry world seemed to him twenty years ago. Poets (with or without cravats) were mostly preoccupied with themselves and elitist. Now there are more people ‘singing from the margins’, about gender issues, sexuality, race. Poets are writing confidently, are able to speak freely, unlike in the more limited possibilities of the non-poetry world.

The ten shortlisted represented this change in both North America and Britain. Poets are being daring with form, more are using the long poem; they are doing something with poetry that can honestly address identity politics. Poets now dramatise, have nuance, they look at the small p of poetry. Collections are no longer a list of lyric poems; poets are going back to the roots of poetry, to Chaucer, Beowolf, The Ramayana, so the ‘ reader can walk up to the poem and be challenged’.

The judges, Daljit Nagra, Sinéad Morrisey and Clare Pollard chose as the winner Hannah Sullivan who won the £25,000 prize against strong competition with her brilliant debut: Three Poems. The first, You, Very Young in New York is a ‘wry and tender study of romantic possibility, disappointment and the obduracy of innocence’. Repeat Until Time ‘unfolds into an essay on repetition and returning home’. The Sandpit after Rain explores the birth of a child and the death of a father.

You can hear an extract read by Hannah Sullivan: