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