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.
We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest poetry title –Stories & Lies – which showcases a trio of poets as they ask – 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?
Three very different poets create the stories that need to be told in order to explore ideas of belonging and leaving, exile and expatriation, family and self. In poems that range 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. From the most intimate poems to the expansive, these portraits reveal the universal in the personal, the extraordinary in these ‘ordinary’ families.
The book was launched in November at the Poetry Cafe in London’s Covent Garden.
Blue Door Press have been wonderful to be part of because there is such a collaborative spirit. Pamela Johnson, one of the founders of the press, gave me a brief introduction (as you can see on the video) and along with Jane Kirwan & Daphne Astor have been real champions of my work. Who Do You Loveis a personal novel, and in some ways quite challenging to write and publish, and I definitely could not have done it without BDP’s unstinting support. BDP has believed in my writing and given me a writerly confidence I haven’t had before.
TWO: Find a supportive bookshop.
The Brick Lane Bookshop were also very helpful; being a local author, they took extra care with things, keeping track of the people invited and offering to sell the books as well as opening after hours on a Friday. The shop was a great venue; cosy but with just enough space to contain the hoards.
THREE: Invite friends and family who like you!
The launch was a great excuse to catch up with family and friends who I hadn’t seen in a while. It was brilliant to see so many smiling faces who were willing to buy my book!
FOUR: Make the speeches short, snappy and include some brief readings.
It’s important to have speeches at a launch, but they do need to be brief; people need time to chat and socialise.
FIVE: Be merry in the moment.
A book launch is a time for celebration so being positive is important; take a moment to enjoy the beauty of people coming together to buy and read your work.
FG, Kathy & Blake Morrison, Chris Kearney[/caption]
I would say that I am something of a veteran when it comes to attending book launches. I have seen the whole gamut: I have snuck into some “media celeb” book launches and seen the likes of Howard Marks, Chris Evans and Plan B. at various populous shing-dings; I’ve briefly clinked glasses with literary luminaries such as Martin Amis and Margaret Atwood in well-thronged, well-upholstered rooms; I’ve been more important at more low-key events when friends and colleagues have given readings and touted their work; and I’ve been largely nerve-wracked when launching some of my own books. I can still remember losing my book launch virginity in 2004, when I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out of Here was first published. That was very exciting because lots of people came along, attracted by the title and the publicity that the book enjoyed: it was serialised in The Observer and I appeared on quite a few TV and radio shows talking about it. I remember drinking too much wine at the launch and not knowing quite what to make of it all. I was even snogged by an admirer!
So, I have seen a few. Nevertheless, the launch of Blue Door Press and two new novels by Pamela Johnson and Jane Kirwan respectively, founders of the press, was very special to me. Unique even. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. There was a very nice ambiance about the launch, which was in a chic venue in Seven Dials, Covent Garden; it really filled up as the evening wore on and even the heat of the day and all those bodies could not dampen people’s enthusiasm and joy, which was very palpable.
However, I have been to events which have had similarly positive vibes. No, it wasn’t quite that which made it so inimitable. It was only after the speeches that I began to realise what made the moment so singular. Then, it hit me like a novel falling on my head from a high shelf: this was the very first time I had felt that authors were really taking control of their own literary destinies. In all the other launches I’ve been to, there was always the sense that the authors needed to bow down before the publishers; tug their forelocks and doff their caps at the “big boys” such as Penguin/Random House etc, and express extreme gratitude at the smaller outfits. This sense of neediness for a publisher was even the case when I’ve been to events where self-published books have been presented; you always got the sense that actually the authors were hoping that one day a “proper” publisher might take them on.
Not so with Pam and Jane. They have done something different entirely in my view. They’ve set up a writers’ collective which has the rigour and high standards of a “traditional” mainstream publisher, but has the autonomy of a self-publishing outfit. It is worth watching the speeches to see and feel this point conveyed:
I spoke to one of the revellers at the launch who made these points in this video:
Above all, BDP is about publishing high quality, readable fiction. I’ve already written rave reviews of both books on Amazon: my review of PJ’s brilliant Taking in Water is here, and JK’s moving Don’t Mention Her is here. These are both writers who are at once literary and accessible. The two things don’t always go hand-in-hand. In a sense, Pam and Jane’s work are the press’s manifesto; they lay out the standards by which other work must be judged. Standards which many people feel are very high. Here are some fans talking about their work:
As you may have noticed at the end of the first video on this blog, I am delighted to have my new novel Who Do You Love accepted by BDP. Pam has proved a brilliant editor and has given me some work to do on the current manuscript, but all being well I hope to publish the novel in late January next year. More on my novel at another time I hope!