I’ve been talking to Jane Davis – fellow author, and the winner of the 2016 Self-Published Book of the Year Award – about my writing process, why I hate having to come up with titles for things, and why I love walking. It’s all over here.
On Tuesday evening, after much fretting over whether my shoes were classy enough for the Army & Navy Club, I headed across London to the Authors’ Awards.
As you can see from the photograph, I came away with a Betty Trask Award (and a cheque for £3000, not pictured).
The winner of the Betty Trask Prize was Daniel Shand, and very well-deserved. Fallow is a seriously good book, funny and creepy and very difficult to put down. Actually, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of the books on the shortlist. They’re all very different from each other, but they’re all of a very high quality.
I got to meet four of my five fellow shortlistees, and they’re all lovely people. In fact, everybody I talked to was absolutely charming. I was half-expecting some snottiness about my being self-published, but in fact my having got so far under my own steam seemed to impress people. And what people! Names that I knew from my bookcase and from my Twitter feed turned out to belong to real live human beings. I tried not to gush too much…
There was wine. There was water. There were little canapés, though I was too nervous to eat much at all. My book was for sale on a table with other people’s books! (Since all my books are sold via print-on-demand, this was something that I’d never seen before, and if I was being flippant I’d say that it did almost as much for my self-esteem as the fact that I was there to receive a very prestigious award…)
Ben Okri, who presented the prizes, gave a speech that affirmed the role of the writer as a person who touches truth, ‘the mystery and the miracle’, and talked about the way that a prize gives you ‘the quiet strength to go on being crazy’. Certainly that resonates with my experience so far…
Well, here’s to the mystery and the miracle that is writing. Tuesday evening, whether it turns out to have been my fifteen minutes of fame or the beginning of the rest of my life, was an event I’ll never forget. And my shoes were fine.
Earlier this week I was an interviewee over at Louise Walters‘ blog, where I talked about my experience as a self-published author and being shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. (I really recommend Louise’s blog if you want an insight into the differences between mainstream publishing and self-publishing. She’s done both, and writes about them very eloquently.)
I mentioned in passing my theory that Section 28 had killed off the genre in which my book might have been published conventionally. And I’ve written a longer piece for LGBTQ Reads about that – about my experience as a writer, and about my experience growing up in that context, as someone whose schooling was entirely overshadowed by erasure on a national scale, and who didn’t even know it at the time.
The next book – after A Spoke in the Wheel, I mean – looks like it’s going to be the sequel to Speak Its Name. I like knowing what the next thing is, and I like having a first draft to turn to when I’m fed up with editing, and vice versa; but on the other hand, there are some things I am going to have to think about pretty sharpish.
The big one is this: Speak Its Name is set at a deliberately vague point in time. It’s set after same-sex marriage became legal in the UK but while the Church of England is still being obstructive. So that would be any point between 2013 and now, really. And that works, because student politics are somewhat detached from the real world, and what happens in Speak Its Name really could happen in any year. But my characters are going to have to grow up and go out into the real world, and so the sequel is going to have to be more firmly tied in to wider Church of England politics. Not just the Church of England. The Anglican Communion.
Some interesting things have happened there this week.
For those of my readers who weren’t frantically refreshing the #pisky feed on Twitter on Thursday afternoon, and who missed the news in the general General Election hoo-hah, the Scottish Episcopal Church voted to allow same-sex weddings. That’s the sort of thing that my characters would have opinions about. I don’t think anybody would be moving to Scotland (Lydia’s far too low church to cope as a Pisky) but it would definitely come up in conversation.
Other things have happened this year. There was the finale of the Shared Conversations, a vote Not To Take Notice, another depressing chapter in the Jeffrey John saga, the tired old question of whether one can be an evangelical Christian and behave decently to LGBT people (spoiler: yes), and now, God help us all, a Tory/DUP coalition. I have strong opinions on all those things, and, my characters being who they are, most of them will have to as well.
Of course, that’s assuming the action of the sequel is happening this year. Last year the picture was different; next year it will be different again.
Another minor problem might arise from the fact that I’ve probably overwritten the Bishop of Bath and Wells (the real one, not the baby-eating one) by putting a cathedral city down on top of Ilchester. Can Somerset support that many cathedrals? Quite possibly not.
At the time of writing I’ve got about a thousand words down. Before I can go much further I’m going to have to make a firm decision about when things happen. I couldn’t do a Catherine Fox and write in real time – I’m too much of a chopper and changer for that – but I do need to have a better idea of how the plot fits into current affairs.
On one level it really doesn’t matter. I know the basic arc of the plot, and that won’t really change. (Is that a spoiler? It might be a spoiler.) On another, it’s integral to the whole thing. The obstacles along the way are going to change depending on precisely when I set it, and, unless I move it to another universe entirely, I have to take current affairs into account. Things are happening that I can’t ignore, not if I want to write a novel that has anything to say about what life’s like in the Church at the moment. And I do.
I am still celebrating Speak Its Name being shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize.
When I first heard the news, I got a glass of red wine for myself and a glass of Estrella Galicia for my brother.
When the news went public, a week later, we went out for dinner and I got a bottle of white Rioja. (This was a mistake. I’ve drunk and liked white Riojas in the past, but this one was disgustingly sweet. Perhaps the name – Diamante – should have been a clue.)
When I told my team at work I bought cake.
Now I’m celebrating with a giveaway at Goodreads. Wander over there if you’d like to be in with a shot at winning a copy of my book. Some people whose work I admire very much thought it was rather good…
It’s been ten days since the news broke, and I’m gradually getting used to the idea. Ideas, plural. That my book has been shortlisted for a major literary prize. That, whatever else happens, I have won £3000 to spend on foreign travel. That people whose writing I admire a huge amount have read my book. That people whose writing I admire a huge amount liked my book. Joanne Harris. Michèle Roberts. Simon Brett.
I’m pretty sure that this will turn out to have been life-changing, but in the meantime life goes on. I cycle to the station and I catch my train; I reset some passwords and I design a flyer or two. And I get used to the idea.
So do the people around me: the ones who knew before that I’d written a book, and the ones who didn’t. I’d kept it reasonably quiet at work, at church, in the extended family. People who followed me on Twitter probably knew; people who didn’t, probably didn’t.
And I have to admit that it’s suddenly become a lot easier to tell people. It’s not just, ‘I’ve written a book.’ It’s ‘I’ve written a book, and some very good writers think it’s good.’
One of the most important requirements of self-publishing, and one that I really didn’t appreciate until I did it myself, is a sheer bloody-minded refusal to give a damn what anybody else thinks. Or, less aggressively, the willingness to accept that every aspect and defect of the book is my own responsibility.
I appreciate the apparent contradiction between those two paragraphs, believe me.
I can only speak for myself, but I found that the bloody-mindedness didn’t land until just after I turned thirty. (Which may go some way towards explaining why I’m the first self-published author to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. The upper age limit is 35.) Up until then I was looking for somebody else to affirm my sense that my book was good, that it was worth putting out into the world. I was looking for somebody else to take responsibility. In the end, I had to do it for myself.
Of course I can see now that it would always have been my responsibility, no matter how many other people were named on the acknowledgements page, no matter who took the final decision to put the thing out into the world. It’s come into starker focus for me, that’s all.
I have this sense that I’m trying to get to the point where I genuinely, honestly, don’t care what anyone else thinks, no matter who they are, no matter what their qualifications. In the meantime, however, a judging panel composed of Joanne Harris, Michèle Roberts, and Simon Brett likes my book. I think that’s going to keep me smiling for a long, long time.
I’m still a little bemused by the fact that I now exist in a universe where I’m a headline in The Bookseller, but here it is: Self -published debut on Betty Trask Prize shortlist
I love this book also because even though the book was fictional it reflects real life. So many people today struggle for so many reasons and being told you are bad or disgusting when the opposite is true can be crushing. People are still worthy of love no matter what they do or how they live their lives, as Lydia learned and finally accepted. The people who love you are who matter.