Hidden – a memoir

Here at Blue Door Press we’re delighted to be publishing our first memoir, Hidden by Annabel Chown, a beautifully written, thoughtful book, scheduled for Spring 2018.

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Aged 31, Annabel was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time a successful architect with a busy London social life, this came as tremendous shock. In Hidden, Chown charts each stage of the treatment and her growing understanding of different kinds of architecture – those of her own body and the structure of the life she’d built up. Is this what she wants?

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Annabel Chown, in the Swiss Alps, 2017

As Annabel recalls, “It was a very challenging time, but also – in a strange way – an intriguing time, as I was catapulted from my familiar worlds of architecture deadlines and dating into the hinterland of cancer and its treatments. I wrote Hidden because I wanted to create something meaningful out of the devastating diagnosis.”

Fast forward almost a decade and Chown makes another startling discovery about her illness which has meant having to make more choices.

This is not a gloomy book. It’s one woman’s story about learning to accept what life throws at you, learning how to make positive changes. Now she’s ready to share that story, “I’m excited to be putting my book out, and I hope it can support and inspire others in the same situation. Recently, I’ve been revising the manuscript as I prepare it for publication and it’s been interesting to realise how much I’ve changed and my life has changed. Life can actually be better after cancer, something I would never have believed at the time.”

You can read more about Annabel’s story in the November issue of Red magazine, but do come back in Spring 2018 when you can read the full story in Hidden.

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Summer Solstice Readings for National Writing Day at the Word Bookshop, New Cross

I had a very enjoyable day at Goldsmiths on the summer solstice to celebrate National Writing Day. The summer solstice is:

“the time at which the sun is at its northernmost point in the sky(southernmost point in the South hemisphere), appearing at noon at its highest altitude above the horizon.”

It is midsummer; the heart of this glorious season, a time when Vikings used to resolve legal disputes, when the sun would align with the Wyoming’s Bighorn medicine wheel and magnificent Aztec architecture, and the Ancient Chinese would honour the earth which embodied the feminine force known as yin. It’s no surprise then that storytellers, poets and writers have been drawn by its power. In 1987, myself and a group of students from Sussex university put on a play on the summer solstice to honour the trees that fell in the 1986 hurricane. I wrote a fictionalised account of this night in my novel, Who Do You Love, and this prompted me to see if I could celebrate the solstice again. The fact that it was also National Writing Day meant that there were many people interested in getting involved. The following things happened:

First, Goldsmiths English PGCE students hosted a writing workshop in the Goldsmiths allotment. You can find the excellent worksheet they produced on Scribd here.

 

English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017
English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017

Second, although she could not be at Goldsmiths, Ursula Troche wrote these two poems to celebrate National Writing Day and the solstice.

 

Third, myself and a number of other writers, including Ian McAuley, Helen Bailey, Peter Daniels, Julie Hutchinson and Magda Knight read at the Word Bookshop. Here are the videos of their readings. They are audible, but the noise in New Cross can be heard at times; it was very hot and we had to leave the bookshop door open!

What Makes a Successful Book Group?

I’ve visited a number of groups to talk about Taking In Water. Most memorable was a visit to the Luton Women’s Book Discussion Group. I was curious to know how they’d kept going for over thirty years, so asked a few questions – fiction, feminism and food are at the heart of it …

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PJ: How did it all begin?

The Group: We grew out of one of a number of Women’s Groups which met in Luton during the early 1980s. One initiative in 1985 was to create special interest groups alongside the smaller Consciousness Raising groups. Book Group was one of these. We did arise from the ideology of the Women’s Movement, and a belief and interest in the principles of feminism have continued to remain fundamental to our approach. We’ve met eleven times each year, starting in December 1985. The pattern of a monthly meeting on a Thursday evening with a break in August, has continued since.

PJ: Do all current members go back to 1985?

The Group: Five women who attended the early meetings continue today alongside other longstanding and newer members. Sometimes the group can barely fit into the room and sometimes it’s tiny. By and large it seems to self-regulate and usually we have a core group of about twelve.

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 PJ: You only read books by women – no exceptions?

The Group: We’ve always met as a group of women to discuss books written by women. This doesn’t mean, as some critics have suggested over the years, that we reject or ignore literature by men. Most of us read books by both men and women outside the group and books by men may well be cited in discussion. However, we remain a group of female readers who believe that, more than thirty years after our inaugural meeting, we still live in a society where there’s sexism. By maintaining a focus on women’s literature we’re doing something to counter a male-dominated view of the world. In this context, at least, we pay attention the voices of a diverse range of women writers.

PJ: How do you choose your books?

The Group: We choose books two or three times a year. One principle we’ve adhered to is that all books should be readily available in paperback, so not too expensive, although many members order them from the local library. We note down books that interest us and throw them into the pot, sometimes supported by a clipping or a review. A consensus emerges through discussion. We’ve read around 345 books over the years, predominantly novels. But we do incorporate non-fiction, usually biographies and autobiographies, sometimes books about feminist theory. We’ve read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and, more unusually, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Kloot, which deals with racial discrimination and scientific developments in the US. We do our best to include a wide range of cultural perspectives. Not all books are popular and some such as Dolly City, an allegory about the creation of Israel, have been regarded as unreadable. The best discussions to seem to be generated by books which divide opinion

PJ: Have you noticed a shift in your interests, over the years?

The Group: It would be interesting to analyse to what extent the books have reflected our own changing life stages. There was a phase in which we reread some of the classics of our childhood such as Little Women and Black Beauty. The latter proved a grave disappointment. We have reappraised classics that we had mostly already read such as To Kill a Mockingbird which did not disappoint and Wuthering Heights which did. Now that many members have retired, we are less concerned by the number of pages and more able to take on a lengthy read. We’ve never been successful in incorporating poetry despite a number of attempts at poetry evenings. This has never generated a coherent discussion though, interestingly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh was read and appreciated.

PJ: You have a strong identity with your book lists that are mailed to non-members

The Group: One member produces a distinctively illustrated list of the books we are going to read over (usually) a six-month period. It’s a feature of the group that’s remained consistent over the years and promotes our sense of identity. The list is also distributed to a number of people who could loosely be categorised as ‘Friends of Book Group’. These include members who have moved away and friends of members who cannot attend but remain interested in what we are reading.

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PJ: Tell me about your Christmas meeting – I gather this involves food!

The Group: For our December meetings we, in principle at least, choose books incorporating recipes and cook some of these as the basis of our Christmas feast. However, we’ve unearthed only a few examples of that genre that are worthwhile for both reader and cook. Usually either the recipes take centre stage with little in between or they are included mainly to enhance authenticity and are of the ‘first skin your coyote’ variety. More recently, we have largely ignored the suggested recipes and devised our own in keeping with the book’s culture, which we try to vary so we can ‘eat around the world’.

PJ: You also go on literary outings – how did that start?

The Group: To celebrate milestones in the group’s life we started to go on outings to places where women writers lived and worked or used as the subject of a book. Now we try to go every year, and a convivial lunch is a prominent feature. Places have included: Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville-West); Chawton (Jane Austen’s house/museum); Nuneaton (where George Eliot lived until her early 20s – we had a charming and informative guide for this visit); East Sussex for Charleston (Vanessa Bell plus other members of the Bloomsbury Group), Monk’s House (Virginia Wolf) and Berwick Church (beautiful paintings by Duncan Grant, Vanessa and Quentin Bell); The Manor at Hemingford Grey (renamed Green Knowe by Lucy Boston and housing an amazing collection of patchwork quilts made by Lucy well into her 90s); Buckingham (Candleford) and Juniper Hill (Lark Rise) (Flora Thompson); Bletchley Park (to appreciate the work done by the Bletchley girls during the second world war).

PJ: What’s the secret of your longevity?

The Group: With a handful of exceptions we’ve always met in the same home. Maybe this consistency has been one of the reasons for our longevity. There’s no room for confusion about where to go! Some members have stopped attending for several years but when they return it’s to familiar environment and routine. Inevitably, there are times when the resident member has been unable to attend but everyone knows whereabouts of the glasses, bowls and corkscrew!

5 Ingredients for a Great Book Launch

ONE: Find a supportive publisher.

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 Love is 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.

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Melissa Benn, Fiona Millar, Francis Gilbert
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Ian McAuley who launched his novel London Stone with me on the night as well.
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FG with Ayesha Kyrou & Abdul Hanan
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With Sonia Lambert & Andrea Mason (fellow novelists)
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With my father, Peter Gilbert & Tim Hewitt

5 Things I Learnt from reading ‘God’s Own Country’ by Ross Raisin

  1. The intrigue of the unreliable narrator. Sam Marsdyke is a classic first person, ‘unreliable narrator’. He is the son of a farmer living in an unfashionable part of the Yorkshire Dales and tells us about his life tending sheep and amusing himself amidst the wild, remote hills. It’s only as the novel unfolds that we realise that he is not exactly being truthful with us. The first clue is when he presents a family who has just moved in nearby with some mushrooms. We, and the family, think they are a genuine present, but soon discover they are riddled with maggots. Was this deliberate? We’re not quite sure. Sam is nineteen and is both mature and childish. He becomes fascinated with the fifteen-year-old daughter of this family. When we learn that he got chucked out of school for an altercation with a girl, we become increasingly uneasy about his interest in his teenaged neighbour. Where do his intentions lie?

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  1. The lure of a dialect brilliantly represented. Raisin’s great achievement is the way he enables Sam to speak in a dialect which is both descriptive and powerful. This is no mean feat; too often dialect in novels comes across as artificial and unconvincing. But Raisin uses just the right amount of dialect and standard English. Here’s Sam describing a local who is feeling out of sorts in a pub which has been turned into a vertical drinking establishment with loud music and lager: “He was a fair show of how a person can mould and rot to naught. I glegged in at him, shuffling back to his seat, a generation of sorrow and drink worn into his face.” Phrases like “fair show” “rot to naught” and “glegged in” suffuse the text bringing the reader a visceral sense of the character of Sam and the local area. The dialect is earthy and rings true, but it’s never overdone.

 

  1. The pull of the pastoral. Sam is a creature of nature, talking in a very plausible and real way to the animals around him. Here he is talking to the cock of the farm, “Cock-a-doodle-doo, eh? You barmpot, it’s the middle of the bleeding night, some alarm clock you are. But there was no talking to him, perched up on the beam there like a pineapple. Cock-a-doodle-doo, he called again, how many girlfriends do you have Marsdyke? I’ve got twenty.” (Chapter 4). There is a sinister humour here as Sam feels the cock is teasing him for his lack of success with women. The novel is, like Thomas Hardy’s best work, full of the sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells of the country. Like Hardy, there is a sense of the menace of nature, we see lambs being born and dying, the maggots that lurk behind lovely mushrooms, the sexual drives that infuse both animals and humans. Again like Hardy, Raisin shows how modern culture is ruining and changing the countryside with its second homes, its technology, its relentless inroads into the traditional rural communities which are represented as dying off.

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  1. Is Marsdyke the corrupted descendant of Gabriel Oak? Marsdyke shares many similarities with one of Thomas Hardy’s most famous characters, Gabriel Oak, who like, Marsdyke was a sheep farmer and spent quite a bit of time spying upon his beloved from afar. However, where Oak proves himself to be true and sane, I don’t think it’s going to give too much away to say that Marsdyke is deceitful and disturbed in mind. And yet, like Oak, we feel a lot of sympathy for Sam because we see how much a victim of circumstance he is: his father is brutal, his mother emotionally ill-equipped to help Sam, and the culture that Sam has been born into, that of the farming community, is dying. What chance does Sam have?

 

  1. The pleasures of reading a wonderfully accessible literary novel. I adored reading this novel. It is so well-written and nicely structured; it is funny, suspenseful, moving and horrifying. I learnt so much about human psychology, the nature of language and dialect, remote rural Yorkshire and human culture generally. I’m really looking forward to reading Raisin’s new novel, A Natural, which is published in March 2017.

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See Pam Johnson’s interview with Ross on the writing of God’s Own Country, here

http://wordsunlimited.typepad.com/words_unlimited/2009/11/ross-raisin.html

Face-To-Face

Much of what we do at Blue Door Press involves the ‘virtual’ realm – we have Skype meetings, we ‘talk’ to each other through our Facebook group, and our books are designed and produced online. Without all the technology Blue Door Press wouldn’t exist but it’s a moment to celebrate when all four of us are face-to-face in one room, as we were last week.

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There was plenty to celebrate – it was Francis’s birthday, we saw finished copies of his novel, Who Do You Love and made plans for his launch at Brick Lane Bookshop in March. We discussed the format for our event at Owl Bookshop on 20 February and Daphne brought us up-to-date with her plans for our first poetry title, Herrings.

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Herrings will now be launched in November at Poetry In Aldeburgh 2017 and we have plans for further events in Cambridge and London. As soon as we have venues booked we’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, hoping to meet some of you in person at our forthcoming bookshop events.

Pam Johnson

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Who Do You Love by Francis Gilbert

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‘I enjoyed Who Do You Love a lot. It’s beautifully-written, very funny about sex and the excruciating confusion of being young and single then middle aged and trapped. I think you’ve captured something about a generation in a way that will touch a lot of readers…. Really, a terrific novel.” Amanda Craig, literary journalist, and author of A Vicious Circle and Hearts and Minds.

Nick is cracking up. In his mid-forties, he has just been sacked as an arts journalist, with little prospect of getting such a well-paid, prestigious job again. Even more worrying for him is his suspicion that his wife, a Deputy Head at a school, is having an affair with a much more successful person: does she want to trade in Nick for a better model?

But most devastating of all is the fact that he learns that a former lover, Ellida, has died. Unable to find a new job, Nick miserably fails, despite his best attempts, to be pro-active and positive, and retreats into memories of the past.

By turns comic, tragic and romantic, Who Do You Love is a stirring novel which explores the big issues of passion, death and grief; a fast-paced contemporary love story but also moving exploration of what it means to be alive today, which should appeal to fans of writers like David Nichols, Ann Tyler and Nick Hornby.