Interview with Carol Lovekin, author of Ghostbird

Today I’m welcoming the delightful Carol Lovekin to my blog. Carol is the author of the magical and poignant novel Ghostbird which is published by Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press, an independent co-operative press run by women and this year celebrating 30 years of publishing books exclusively by women.

In case you missed my review of Ghostbird, you can read it here: https://kendraolson.wordpress.com/2016/09/07/my-review-of-ghostbird-by-carol-lovekin/),

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Welcome, Carol! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your novel.

It’s my genuine pleasure, Kendra. Thank you for inviting me.

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Credit: Janey Stevens

Firstly, could you please describe the story for readers?

My central protagonist is Cadi Hopkins, fourteen years old, lonely and surrounded by ambiguity. She lives with her emotionally distant mother, Violet, in a remote Welsh village where each year it rains every day throughout the month of August. Next door lives Cadi’s witchy aunt Lili, guarding a secret she knows she should never have agreed to keep. It’s a frustrating existence for Cadi – all she knows is her father and little sister died not long before she was born. When the ghost of her sister attaches itself to her, Cadi begins a search for the truth. The rainmaker and an ancient myth cast spells and the secrets wake up. In the process, each of the three Hopkins women comes of age, proving you are never too young or too old. The myth of Blodeuwedd – from the Mabinogion – is a thread running through the story and one of its meanings is the origin of the book’s title. In Welsh folklore the barn owl – the bird Blodeuwedd is changed into – is known as the ghostbird.

What is it that makes this story unique?

I’m not sure any story is unique. What sets Ghostbird apart is, perhaps, my ghost. She’s little more than a baby and although at first she scares Cadi it’s less from evil intent than frustrated confusion. And I’ve written a consciously female-centric narrative; reimagined Blodeuwedd’s story from her perspective. I used my vision of her change, together with my imagined metamorphosis of the ghost, as a device to illustrate the transformations of Cadi, Lili and Violet. (My male characters are, I trust, as sympathetic as they deserve to be!) My aim when writing the magic was to make it unobtrusive; incidental almost because it’s part of the Welsh landscape. It’s as authentic as my reader decides it is.

When did this story begin, for you as the writer?

What a great question! Nothing comes from nowhere; all stories begin somewhere and many years ago when I first moved to Wales and read the Mabinogion, I found myself particularly fascinated by the story of Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers, by men, for their political ends. How, as a punishment for her perceived betrayal, she was cursed by being turned into an owl. To my mind, being turned into a bird meant Blodeuwedd would gain her freedom. Wouldn’t she? This seed lay dormant until I was ready to make it germinate.

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revolves around the lives of three women – Lilwen, Violet and Cadi Hopkins. Why did you choose to put women and their stories at the centre of the novel?

I’ve always considered fiction an excellent vehicle for telling women’s stories. Dramatizing real narratives gives them an added dimension. Writer and reader can delve deep; explore their own lives and experiences beyond received wisdom. I am a great delver! I’m also a feminist and women’s stories matter to me. From the moment I read Blodeuwedd’s I wanted to reclaim it – give her a voice and tell her story from her viewpoint. (Cadi came to me out of another blue somewhere on the wings of a bird, fully formed and in agreement. She became my ally.)

Traditional Welsh village life features in the book, yet in many ways the themes are quite modern. Was this conscious on your part and, if so, how did you navigate the literary terrain between the modern and the traditional?

In many Welsh communities, traditional life remains a reality. The old ways still exist, even if they are largely disguised. I’m not a historical novelist in any sense of the word, preferring modern settings, and the myth is a trace – a hook to hang the ghost’s story on. Initially, her voice had far less prominence, hardly more than a whispered soundtrack. Once my editor, the astute and talented Janet Thomas, pointed out the ghost needed more of a voice, I wrote her story in isolation, slotted it into the main narrative and to my surprise discovered I was writing a proper ghost story!

One aspect of the novel that I appreciated was that you feature lesbian characters but did not highlight their sexuality to readers – in other words, their sexuality isn’t of particular importance to their character. Why did you choose to write your characters in this way?

The frivolous answer is I’m on a mission to change the world of fiction one lesbian at a time! You have already addressed the more serious one: Lili’s sexuality is of absolutely no importance in reference to her place in the story. She’s a lesbian, dear reader, move on! Lesbians (and gay men) in literature rarely need explaining. It pleases me that so few reviewers have commented on Lili’s and Pomona’s relationship, those who have, wisely noting how it doesn’t need to be an issue.

Dreams, apparitions, imagination and the subconscious all feature in the story. Some have referred to the novel as ‘magical realist’, myself included. Would you agree or disagree with this statement and why or why not?

In a way, this question feeds into the one you asked about the notion of a story’s uniqueness. If my reader interprets what I write as ‘magical realism’ I’m honoured – it’s a noble tradition. (Frustratingly it’s become confused with fantasy and is too often horribly misappropriated.) I write from a place I have been deeply familiar with for decades. If my reader can suspend disbelief and accept that a woman can have fingers so green her garden never needs weeding, I’m content. If she can accept the possibility of a rain spell, or a ghost in the shape of a child reincarnated as a bird, my work, so to speak, is done. Magical realism is in the eye of the beholder.

Did you encounter any challenges when writing the novel and, if so, how did you get around these?

Writing is a challenge, from first word to last and I enjoy it more than I can describe. As a latecomer, I’m writing to catch up. That’s the real challenge: getting all the stories in my head down on paper while I still have my marbles!

I understand that you’re currently working on a new novel. Are you able/willing to tell us anything about the story?

I’ve recently completed another ghost story. It’s also set in Wales, is darker than Ghostbird, and the ghost is Victorian. It’s another sister story (my favourite kind), features far less rain, an abundance of snow and some Cream Legbar chickens. The only other thing I’m able to tell you is it’s with my editor, pending approval.

Thanks so much for coming by to talk with us today! Best of luck with Ghostbird and with all your writing!

Thank you, Kendra! It’s been enormous fun. And may I say, as a writer, you and the other bloggers and reviewers who continue to support us are the bee’s knees deserving of our undying gratitude.

Thank you! 🙂

Readers can obtain Ghostbird from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghostbird-Carol-Lovekin/dp/190998339X/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Ghostbird-Carol-Lovekin-ebook/dp/B01AOMVP2U/

Honno the Welsh Women’s Press: http://www.honno.co.uk/dangos.php?ISBN=9781909983397

Learn more about Carol and her writing by visiting her website/blog: https://carollovekinauthor.com/

 

 

 

My review of Tregunna by Carla Vermaat

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I sit down, leaning a bit forward, hoping that my sweater covers the bulge on my belly. I don’t know if anyone told her that I am wearing a stoma bag. It’s not something I can easily ask her.

Firstly, I’d like to say that Carla and I are both members of the Writers, Authors, Readers group on Facebook. It was here that I first learned about Carla’s novel—a detective story set against the beautiful, dramatic scenery of Cornwall. As I was just about to embark on a short holiday to Cornwall, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did as the novel is a compelling and swift read with many interesting components to it.

The story opens with a five-year-old girl discovering that her parents have been brutally murdered. This murder is one of many in the area which has gone unsolved over the years. Meanwhile, back in the present-day, Inspector Andy Tregunna has just taken on his first murder investigation. The body of a woman has been discovered in a car park by two ten-year-old twin boys. Figuring out the identity of this woman and piecing together the various components of her life is hard enough, but Tregunna must also learn how and where she died and, most importantly, who would want to kill her.

Unfortunately, Tregunna’s progress is slow and his increasing stomach pain and worries about his health only make matters worse. When he’s forced off the case due to an emergency operation to remove a cancerous tumour from his colon, he not only has to contend with unsympathetic colleagues while also trying to get to grips with a stoma, but he also realises that the body in the car park is linked to other deaths and disappearances in the area. In order to solve the murders, Tregunna will have to break all the rules and work his sick leave, if his body will allow him.

Inspector Tregunna is a refreshing change from the usual hard-boiled and, sometimes, insensitive male detective. When we first meet him he’s reflecting on how difficult it was to see his first body, that of a young man who’d been hit by a lorry. Later we see him struggling to come to terms with his new disability and the possibility that the doctors may not have been able to remove all of the tumour, meaning he’ll have to undergo further disruptive, complicating and potentially painful treatments. Despite all of this, Tregunna continues his investigation of the case, with some help from a sympathetic and astute female colleague.

I enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading book two in the series, What every body is saying, which was released on the 28th June.

The Tregunna series is available from Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B0125J6E1W/

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0125J6E1W/

Follow Carla Vermaat on Twitter: @carla_vermaat

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/carla.vermaat1

Check out her website: http://www.carlavermaat.co.uk/index.html

Interview with Emma Claire Sweeney, author of Owl Song at Dawn

Today I’m delighted to be welcoming the talented Emma Claire Sweeney to my blog as the final stop on the Owl Song at Dawn blog tour. Owl Song at Dawn is Emma’s debut novel and was inspired by her sister who has cerebral palsy and autism. The novel was published on the 1st July by Legend Press.

My review follows the interview.

Owl Song Cover

Welcome, Emma! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your novel.

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photo  taken by Rosalind Hobley

Firstly, could you please describe the story for readers?

Maeve Maloney is a force to be reckoned with. Despite nearing eighty, she keeps Sea View Lodge just as her parents did during Morecambe’s 1950s heyday. But now only her employees and regular guests recognise the tenderness and heartbreak hidden beneath her spikiness.

Until, that is, Vincent shows up. Vincent is the last person Maeve wants to see. He is the only man alive to have known her twin sister, Edie. The nightingale to Maeve’s crow, the dawn to Maeve’s dusk, Edie would have set her sights on the stage all things being equal. But, from birth, things never were.

If only Maeve could confront the secret past she shares with Vincent, she might finally see what it means to love and be loved, a lesson that her exuberant yet inexplicable twin may have been trying to teach her all along.

What is it that makes this story unique?

Owl Song at Dawn explores the UK’s hidden history of learning disability from the 1930s to the present day – a subject very close to my heart since my sister has cerebral palsy and autism. Few novels enter this territory, and, those that do, tend to perpetuate the myth that learning disability leads irrevocably to family breakdown.

What motivated you to write this novel?

I have yet to come across a novel that offers a place for my kind of family: one that has largely succeeded in lovingly accommodating learning disability. And yet, such families are – and always have been – typical.

Novels, I believe, can subvert misconceptions. I wanted to challenge the assumption that a sibling must inevitably resent her sister or brother with learning disabilities; that the life of someone with learning disabilities must be overwhelmingly bleak; that families who raise their disabled child at home are somehow saintly in their powers of endurance. I wanted to celebrate people of all sorts of abilities and call into question what our society tends to value. 

When did this story begin, for you as the writer?

Inspired by William Horwood’s wonderful novel, Skallagrigg, my first ever secondary school creative writing assignment was about a girl trying to decipher a phrase that her sister kept repeating indistinctly.

Over a decade later, when I was studying on the University of East Anglia’s MA course, I found myself gravitating again to this subject during timed creative writing exercises even though I was working on a novel about an entirely unrelated subject.    

Keenly aware that I was in the early days of studying my craft and alert to the importance of a sensitive representation of learning disability, throughout my twenties I wrote about other subjects. And yet, I never doubted that my pen would one day return to this.

What challenges did you encounter while writing the novel?

I wanted Edie, the twin who is diagnosed back in the 1930s as ‘severely subnormal’ to narrate in the first-person, answering back stereotypes with candour, authenticity and verve. And this is where I came unstuck. Initially, I imposed certain limitations on myself – Edie’s voice would only be in the present tense, for instance – in my attempts to capture her apparent inarticulacy on the page.

Although early readers praised the energy of such excerpts, I knew deep down that there was a falsehood at their heart. The rules I imposed on myself threatened to alert the reader to the artifice of Edie’s voice rather than providing the intimate empathetic experience I’d so confidently set out to offer. What’s more, there was a childishness to these sections that undermined my desire to subvert the persistent popular perception of people with learning disabilities as infantile.

How could I convey a certain type of inarticulacy, distinct from the language (or lack of it) in early childhood that would nonetheless demonstrate full access to emotion and the experience of being human?

The answer was close to home. I began transcribing all the things my sister said to me during our nightly phone-calls. In my revised novel, I have attempted to capture something of Lou’s inventive phrases and melodic use of language in the voice of Edie, my character with learning disabilities. Of course, I have simultaneously adapted it for the character who was born in the 1930s in Morecambe and whose seminal life experiences are radically different from Lou’s.

One of my favourite things about this novel is that it not only features disabled characters, but it contains a number of them—in fact, the story is reliant on them, as are the other ‘able’ characters. Could you talk a little about what went into your decision to create a positive story with disability at its centre?

People with learning disabilities and those who love them often know lots of other people with learning disabilities too. I felt that an authentic representation would explore this sense of identity.

When I moved to the town where I now live, it took me a while to feel at home. My first real sense of community came when I was awarded an Arts Council sponsored writing residency at Sunnyside Rural Trust – a social enterprise that offers work experience to adults with autism and learning disabilities. The people there welcomed me into their world with such generosity and warmth that I was struck by the inadequacy of the term ‘disability’. Here were a group of people with all sorts of abilities that demand to be celebrated.    

There are very few characters like Edie, Len and Steph in literature. Why do you think this is and what can be done to remedy it?

I’ll be candid! I suspect that publishers shy away from acquiring books about people with learning disabilities – especially those novels that question misconceptions. We have a problem in the UK with the literary industry showing little faith in readers.

Publishing is chronically undiverse – white, middle-class, Oxbridge, metropolitan – and the gatekeepers are often subconsciously attracted to characters and scenarios that are close to home. But I think that readers are far cannier: we want to read about all sorts of people and enter into all sorts of new worlds – whether they be refreshingly new or reassuringly familiar.    

Your novel not only includes a rich cast of disabled characters, but also features characters who are elderly. Both of these groups are often neglected in mainstream fiction. What advice would you give to writers who wish to expand their character range to include more diverse characters?

Just do it! If the world you are representing would contain all sorts of different characters, then it is only right to render this on the page. But you must do it with authenticity. Work out both the stereotypes and the overly politically correct versions and then try to avoid either extreme. Immerse yourself in the worlds about which you write.

Edie, and those like Edie, aren’t always able to communicate their experiences in the same way as others. Unfortunately, because of the society we live in, this means that they are often excluded. In your opinion, what can be done to create a more inclusive and welcoming society, and what can individuals do to help foster a culture of positivity towards difference?

We need to start focusing on what people can do and less on what they can’t. If we really began to value a wider range of skills, we could increase the shameful rates of paid employment among people with learning disability in the UK (currently 6.6%) and we would see a much-needed fall in rates of disability hate crime (which rose by 41% last year).

I hugely admire my sister’s capacity for happiness – a skill far beyond the reaches of most classrooms. At parties, she is always the first on the dancefloor, giving the rest of us permission to shed our inhibitions by dragging us in her wake. The best way to foster inclusivity is to discard any anxiety or embarrassment and interact with people of all sorts of abilities, learning to value all they have to give. 

Could you talk us through your journey to publication? Was it difficult to find a publisher for the novel, given its themes and characters?

The journey to publication began with relative ease when I was signed by Veronique Baxter at David Higham Associates. I had long admired her, since she represents Emma Henderson (Grace Williams Says It Loud) and Edward Hogan (The Hunger Trace) – two authors whose representations of disability I hold in extremely high regard. Early readers likened Owl Song at Dawn to novels by Maggie O’Farrell, and I was hugely complimented by the comparison. Naively, I assumed that publishers were hungry for books like this that bridge the literary/commercial divide. But editor after editor came back to us saying that they could not work out how to market this book.

I think they were put off by the combination of a cast of characters with disabilities, the northern setting, and the elderly protagonist. Ironically, if I had written a high literary novel, representing a bleaker narrative of disability, it might have been easier to get it published. Certainly, a more commercial novel that repeated well-worn stereotypes would have fared better.

I did work on the novel with an editor from one of the big publishers but she ended up getting cold feet. But this redraft meant that the novel was pretty much ready to print when my tenacious agent sent it to the wonderfully risk-taking team at independent publisher, Legend Press.

Can we expect another novel from you?

So long as I can get it published! I’ve completed the research for The Sister Who Throws Scissors – a novel that will bring together both my fascination with female novelists and my interest in disability. I discovered that the sister of one of my favourite authors was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’ and written out of the family history. The Sister Who Throws Scissors will be narrated by her. 

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or your writing?

My next book will be a non-fiction book on female literary friendship, which I am co-writing with my own writer friend, Emily Midorikawa. A Secret Sisterhood: the hidden friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf will come out in autumn 2017 with Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA.  

Thanks so much for coming by to talk with us today! Best of luck with Owl Song at Dawn and with all your writing!

Readers can obtain Owl Song at Dawn from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney/dp/1785079670/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney-ebook/dp/B015H5RQZY/

Owl Song at Dawn has been selected for Books etc. book club, so, until the end of July, the paperback is half price through them: http://www.booksetc.co.uk/features/view/1676-the-books-etc-club-july

Visit Emma’s blog: www.emmaclairesweeney.com

Follow her on Twitter: @emmacsweeney

Catch up with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emmaclairesweeney/

My review of Owl Song at Dawn

I want to tell him that I need you to sit beside me in the pew, your head resting on my shoulder, the scent of Pears soap on your skin.

Vince Roper and Maeve Maloney’s shared youth frames the budding romance of their twilight years. But, while light-hearted in places, this is not your typical romance novel. Instead, it’s a novel about love—the love we seek, the love we share and the different forms this love may take, or not take, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Set against the once-glamorous backdrop of Morecambe in its heyday, Sweeney skilfully compares Morecambe’s glory days to Maeve’s own.

For Vince and Maeve, it was their shared love of Maeve’s twin, Edie, which brought them together. Edie was an enigma to Maeve. While similar in some ways, in others they couldn’t have been more different. While Maeve expected to obtain a degree, to travel, to marry and to have children, Edie’s life would never contain these pleasurable pursuits due to what her unhelpful physicians termed her ‘severe sub normality,’ and a society which seemed to be set against her unique abilities from the start. In modern-day terms, Edie was affected by  cerebral palsy with associated epilepsy resulting in frequent grand mal seizures, which sometimes put her life at risk. She was also autistic.

Their parents, already living under the constant fear that their beloved daughter might be taken from them, decide against medical treatment and instead choose to raise Edie at home (the story takes place in the 1930s, when the forced extermination of the disabled was taking place in Germany and eugenics was popular in Britain and America). This decision results in a close bond amongst the family and especially between Maeve and Edie, who is particularly loving and affectionate.

With not a word out of place, Sweeney tells her story with poetry (quite literally in the scenes where Edie speaks), poignancy, grace and an uplifting humour. Her characters make for a refreshing change as many of them are learning disabled. But Sweeney doesn’t make the mistake of treating her characters as poor, defenceless victims worthy of pity who sit helplessly on the side-lines while the other ‘real’ characters get on with the action. Instead, her disabled characters are central to the story. For without Maeve’s sister Edie, there would be no story. Without the help and companionship of Len and Steph (both of whom are learning disabled and who help to run Sea View Lodge), Maeve Maloney’s life would be joyless and she would not be able to keep up with her work. Sweeney’s novel demonstrates the importance of diversity and the pleasure which can be achieved when we embrace and celebrate our differences.

Owl Song at Dawn is a novel unlike any other I’ve ever read. Striking in its subtlety, nuance and depth, this is a novel to cherish. I shall look forward to re-reading this for years to come and uncovering new layers with each reading. I strongly encourage you to read this for yourself and see what you make of this ground-breaking new title.

Owl Song at Dawn blog tour

Something Rhymed Literary Salons

Over the last month I’ve been attending a series of literary salons in Central London examining the problem of gender inequality in the literary world and attempting to come up with practical, positive solutions. The salons were run by the talented and generous Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa of Something Rhymed, a blog celebrating female literary friendship. As gender inequality is a topic which I think many female writers are interested in, I thought I’d type up my notes from the salons and share them with you.

Emma and Emily brought together an impressive array of panellists for the salons, including women writers and academics, literary editors, critics, performance poets, reviewers, presenters, and the founder of a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts. Regarding the lack of male panellists (Michael Caines of the Times Literary Supplement was the only man on any of the panels), Emma said that they had tried very hard to get male panellists—they initially sought to have equal gender representation–but did not receive much interest. This is not to say that men did not attend the salons, because they did—indeed, it seemed to me that each salon brought more men who were intrigued and motivated by the discussion; one of them was the talented Leslie Tate, who has written up his observations on the first two salons on his blog:  http://leslietate.com/2016/05/2093/.

The starting point for the discussions was the VIDA count, which has consistently shown a striking imbalance amongst the rates of publication for male and female writers at the major literary publications. For those who don’t know, VIDA is an organisation representing women in the literary arts which seeks to examine, publicise and address gender (and other) imbalances in the literary world.

 

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Salon One: VIDA Count

Michael Caines spoke about unequal representation for female reviewers. Caines speculated that one of the reasons women are poorly represented is due to editors already having a ready pool of tried and tested male journalists at their disposal. He said that we don’t just need more female fiction reviewers but more female reviewers across all categories–women tend to be given the “lighter” stuff whereas men are given more serious subjects, such as politics.

BBC presenter and writer, Harriett Gilbert spoke of her experience, saying that literary editors are far more likely to be women—hers are nearly all female. However, they still tend to choose books by male writers. Her theory is that while women are happy to read books by men and immerse themselves in the male experience, the reverse is not true (this is something that several panellists commented upon over the course of the salons). She believes the problem has far deeper roots than the publishing industry, going all the way back to childhood. After all, it’s easier for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be the reverse. She thinks this is why JK Rowling disguised her sex when writing the Harry Potter books, so that boys could safely walk around with her books. Because of this situation editors need to ferret out the women writers, and women writers should be proactive in seeking reviewing roles. However, alternatives to traditional media should also be considered as publishers are now seeking a variety of publicity and print media is on its way out.

Maggie Gee (prolific writer and Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature) advised young writers to do what they’re interested in and go where they wish—all writers are earning less these days. She recalled Virginia Woolf’s envy of Katherine Mansfield which Gee put down to there being so few opportunities available for women at the time thus making them direct competitors. Gee encouraged women writers to be supportive of one another. During the discussion she spoke to the value of smaller, independent publishing houses who could take risks with more interesting work.

The ever inspiring performance poet and author, Salena Godden, said she is wary of labels and that a writer must only concern themselves with bettering the work they wrote yesterday.  She read from a poignant essay she wrote for the forbookssake website to promote the Women in Print campaign by Unbound. She also encouraged women writers to put themselves out there and enter competitions and submit their work without the constant expectation of being rejected.

I believe that if we do not start publishing more women, we only pass on half of our inheritance, half of our heritage, half of the story. If we only hear from the great white shark, we miss all the other diverse voices and fish in the sea.” –Salena Godden, ForBooksSake

During the discussion, the Books Editor for Mslexia, Danuta Kean, stated that we live in a society where 40% of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities, however this is not represented in literature and publishing. She said that it was up to publishing representatives to change the situation.

 

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Salon Two:  So-called Women’s Issues

The second salon analysed why books about women and so-called women’s issues are so often devalued by the literary establishment. Why is it that the experiences, and perspectives, of women are seen as less than that of men? Is this because women have, traditionally, written about the home and family whereas men, as per their historical life roles, have explored, experienced and thus written about the wider world? Why is one experience seen as valid and not the other? Is this the reason for devaluing women’s literature, or is there another reason?

The journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar (formerly of The Independent) said that while the idea of women’s fiction is a helpful category, it is also a trap. It means you can be pushed to the side-lines easier. Margaret Atwood suddenly becomes women’s fiction. When women read men’s writing we universalise it, but the reverse doesn’t happen. Conversely, the domestic novel is only domestic when a woman writes it, not when Philip Roth or Karl Ove Knausgård write it. She said that editors need to be very aware and give equal space to women writers—she was unsure if these editors were indeed conscious of not doing so—and that women writers have a duty to make them mindful of this.

Bestselling historical fiction author, Karen Maitland, attended an all-girls school yet the only female novelist they read was Jane Austen, and she wrote about husband-hunting! Karen said that she became interested in historical fiction because of the beguinages (the medieval cities of women). She said that at historical fiction conferences, male authors are often given more credit than female authors when it comes to what are seen as male fields (weaponry etc). She was unsure if it worked the other way around. She also related an experience she’d had in a bookstore recently where the (male) bookstore owner had actually separated all the books by the gender of the writer (even those writers who used gender neutral pseudonyms) in order to ensure (one would presume) that his male customers did not “accidentally” buy a book written by a woman! Karen wondered if the advent of ebooks might actually change men’s buying habits as the book cover isn’t visible.

Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts, reminded us that women invented the novel. But most of our institutions – education, the law, the media etc. – have been dominated by men. She thought that the younger generation of men was changing, but that these changes need to be carried out in a wider cultural arena for there to be changes in the literary world.  She said that having a women’s writing group is one of the things which has kept her going as it offers close critical reading and support.

Sarah LeFanu, former senior editor at The Women’s Press, said the issue of gender disparity in publishing has been depoliticised. Nowadays if you complain about it you’re seen as whinging. But the issue remains as political as it ever was. As an example of this she cited last year’s Penguin anthology of short stories, which featured 18 women writers and 30 men! She was concerned that women don’t take up all the space available to them—particularly in this day and age when publishers are so risk averse. She said good writing does not have a gender bias. She also encouraged participants to write about these issues and to talk about why the books they enjoy aren’t being read and reviewed more widely.

 

Red Books

Salon Three: Genuine Change

The final salon aimed to come up with solutions, not only in regards to gender disparity but also in regards to ethnicity, class, ability and sexuality. As one speaker put it, our literature should represent our society as a whole, and all the diversity within it.

Varaidzo, arts and culture editor at gal-dem (an online magazine produced by women of colour), said she’s been quite critical as to the lack of scope in the British publishing industry. But, in some ways, she’s on the opposite side of the panel as her own journey was relatively easy. She attributed this to her growing up during the time of the internet and being able to navigate that space and talk to the people she wanted to fairly easily. Regarding the topic of education and children’s books, she noted that very few children’s authors manage to transcend gender—the boys go out and do things while the girls are introspective.

Orange Prize shortlisted novelist, Jill Dawson said the issue is as much about sexuality, class etc as it is about gender. She said that working class women need more literary role models (currently the women represented in mainstream publishing are mostly from the Oxbridge educated class). As a young woman, she read a lot of African-American women as their writing spoke to her in a way Martin Amis’s writing did not. What interested her was that they had a unique vernacular and voice. They too were struggling (Maya Angelou for example), and their words continued to influence Jill when she became a young, single mother. She encouraged people to think about who and what they’re reading as changing our reading habits and reading more widely is one way of changing the literary landscape.

Former Booker Prize judge and Costa Award shortlisted novelist, Louise Doughty spoke to the benefits of the internet age being that publications can be crowdfunded, there is online publishing, websites etc. For example, VIDA came out of the work of one person. The opportunities for writers now are small but multiple, and while not all ventures will be successful, some will be. While publishers are desperate for new voices, at the same time their (conservative minded) sales and marketing teams are at their backs. These people can only go on what is already selling and are therefore always chasing last year’s successes and unwilling to take risks on new voices.

Melanie Abrahams, the founder of Renaissance One, a literary event company committed to diversity in the arts, said that while there may be a lot of noise made about a title online, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a lot of sales. Traditional publishing has changed very little over the years and the internet doesn’t affect that. She claimed to know a lot of writers who are successful and don’t use social media at all. (I have to admit that this surprised me as I thought even big name writers were expected to use social media these days.)

During the discussion, an audience member who was a professor at both Goldsmiths and New York University spoke to the fact that she was able to choose her own readings for her students at NYU, but at Goldsmiths she had to teach a pre-devised syllabus. The Art of the Novel course, for instance, included only one or two female authors.(Hearing this I felt grateful that my reading list for my MLitt at University of Glasgow was mostly women and, during the second semester, our professor hand-picked a selection of novels which she thought would be of most use to us, having by then gotten to know our writing tastes and styles.)

The issue of prizes came up a few times during the salons. In the first salon, Michael Caines wondered if the judging committees of literary awards should be assessed for gender parity. This was an issue which Maggie Gee and Michèle Roberts spoke of as well, recounting how they’d had to argue to get female novelists shortlisted when judging major literary awards.

 

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While I’m still relatively new to the literary scene, I found the salons enlightening, thoughtful and very accessible–a delightful surprise as they could easily have turned out to be somewhat cliquish and depressing. In fact, the organisers did such a wonderful job of creating a welcoming, friendly and supportive atmosphere that I stayed until the end—and am very glad I did as I had lots of lovely conversations afterwards.

Reflecting on my own experience, I have to admit that I’ve perhaps read more men than women in the past, but in the last few years this has changed dramatically. These days nearly all of the books I read are by women—not because I’ve made a conscious decision to read more women writers, but simply because I’m lucky enough to benefit from many female literary friendships and I’m interested in getting to know the work of these authors and the work of the writers they enjoy. This is not to say that I’ve stopped enjoying the work of male writers—not at all—but perhaps the circles I move in as an author with a small, independent publisher means that I’m more likely to discover the work of female authors.

What do you think? Are you a woman writer, or do you work in publishing? If so, what has your experience been? Regardless, do you have an idea for accelerating change? I’d love to hear so please leave a comment below.