A story from two blue notebooks

Hardback notebook with a cover pattern of blue and white waves

I was in Paperchase at St Pancras station.

Well, you see, I’d been writing everything, all of this, down in a little book, and I’d nearly finished it, so I went to Paperchase for a new one.

I always end up writing the story that I need to hear. And I don’t know whether I’ll ever be good enough to tell this one in fiction, or even if it’s a story that can work in fiction at all, ever, and it seems possible that someone else needs to hear it sooner than that. After all, I’ve found over and over again that, whatever’s happening, I’m not the only one to whom it’s happening. So I’m telling it now.

And I was looking at the shelves of notebooks, thinking about which one to choose, and I had a sudden, very strong sense that I wouldn’t need another one.

I bought one with a pattern of waves in blue and white. That was the Tuesday.

I’ve told the notebook story five or six times now. It’s a good story, a convincing one. It always surprises me how effective it is. I go in expecting pushback, argument, a compassionate suggestion that perhaps I’m mistaken in what’s going on in my own heart, and every time the other person accepts it.

Well, you’d hope they would. It’s true, after all.

On the Wednesday, I went to church. Lunchtime communion at St Pancras. St Pancras new church. And I was about half way there, walking along the pavement on the north side of the Euston Road, the wind blowing a few dead leaves around my ankles, when I understood.

It wasn’t there any more.

The leaving makes a better story than the arrival did. The arrival was cumulative, a succession of comments, questions, observations, from others.

2017. I’d been leading the twenties-and-thirties Bible study group. The ordinand we had on loan from Westcott said to the youth worker, afterwards, ‘Kathleen’s very good at this. Has she thought about ordained ministry?’

The youth worker reported this conversation to me. ‘And so I said to him, I don’t know, you should ask her!’

I thought it was just that I’d picked up some adult education skills from my day job. And forgot about it.

2018. The curate invited me to a Cursillo weekend. I thought it sounded fantastic. It wasn’t until I was signed up and paid up that she said, ‘Yes, that was where it all started for me.’

Oh, I thought. And then, Oh, well. And forgot about it.

I told a friend about the plot of the novel I was working on, how it all hinged on the fact that you can’t be ordained in the Church of England and be in a same-sex marriage. He asked me if my own vocation was going anywhere.

I’d forgotten that I’d ever told him about that.

I said no, though the curate had said what she’d said about Cursillo. And then I forgot about it.

I undertook tutor training. My first thought was how can I use this for church? It occurred to me that thirty-three was quite an appropriate age for all this to kick off again, really. I forgot about it.

I went on the Cursillo weekend and had my mind and my faith expanded in all sorts of other ways, and forgot about it.

I saw young women in dog collars – one in a bookshop, one on a train – and decided that it was confirmation bias.

I remembered Mary Poppins. The wind changes. I could smell the excitement in the air, and I knew what it was, and I didn’t want to admit it.

Returning to my novel, I asked the youth worker about the selection process. Most of my mind was focused on what I’d got wrong, what was going to screw up the timeline, what was going to rescue the arc. A little part of it was watching myself all the time to see if any of it pinged me as something that I was meant to be doing. It didn’t.

2019. I could feel it, smell it, sense it lurking in the undergrowth, waiting.

I demanded a neon sign. The next neon sign I saw said:

Started at the bottom

Now you’re here

It didn’t really help.

I decided that anything that felt that much like horrible and inevitable doom couldn’t be of divine origin. Possibly it was just that I needed a holiday.

(I did need a holiday.)

I prayed to feel better about it, if it was real.

With the twenties-and-thirties group, I was leading a course called SHAPE, designed to help people explore their gifts and their callings. In my day job, I was testing an online tool called Value My Skills. I was very aware of a parallel existence running alongside the life that I was leading, something that was more than a possibility and less than a probability.

I found myself thinking that if I got to the end of the SHAPE course without anything having come up, I was probably safe.

The week before Holy Week was peculiarly intense. Conversations and experiences piled on top of each other.

‘No, it’s not actually a thing, just a lurking sense of doom,’ I said to someone.

‘I’ve heard it often feels like that,’ they said to me.

I applied for a promotion at work in the knowledge that it was very possible that my future lay elsewhere.

I asked the Cursillo spiritual director about spiritual direction. She asked some questions about my church involvement. I answered: I was leading the twenties-and-thirties group, singing in the choir.

‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘I wonder what God’s got planned for you in, say, three years…’

I thought, oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.

I emailed people. I dragged people out to lunch. Nobody was surprised. Their lack of surprise was both infuriating and gratifying.

I didn’t get shortlisted for the promotion. It was rather a relief: I couldn’t have fitted anything else in my head that week.

I told the curate. She prayed for me, and I, who very rarely got visual images in prayer, saw a small square of fog clear, and a set of railway points switch from one track to another. And I knew then, that if this was going to turn out to be true, that was the moment I knew it. She got me onto the reading rota and the intercessions rota and the PCC; she told the vicar.

The vicar was kindly, thoroughly, interrogative, and made it clear that I was going to have to get used to talking about this. I remembered that this was the part I’d hated the last time round.

I wept through the service. I wept because it was gone.

That was the thing: it wasn’t the first time.

At the beginning I thought I’d be able to treat it as if it was the first time, but it wasn’t long before I found myself saying, ‘Well, the last time this happened…’ and having to explain what happened last time.

‘I suppose it came out in my last year of university. I applied for a few pastoral assistant jobs, but I didn’t get any of them.’

But I couldn’t remember what it was like before. I couldn’t remember why I wanted to do it. I couldn’t remember the wanting to do it, only the desolation afterwards.

‘And it just disappeared. I walked the Camino, and by the time I got to the end it had gone, and I hadn’t noticed.’ And then I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I went to Germany as an au pair, and then I still didn’t know what to do with myself, and the year after that was the worst year of my life.

All I had was bad poetry, and a handful of stories that didn’t quite say what I needed to say. What if the widow had her mite returned to her? What if the big fish had received new orders and spat Jonah out on some beach nowhere near Nineveh? There was Abraham and Isaac, reprieved at the last moment, but that seemed a bit melodramatic. Didn’t it?

It felt like a wonderful secret. It felt terrifying and inevitable. It felt like writing a novel used to, back when I didn’t tell anybody about writing a novel.

Returning to my novel, I was struck by how wrong I’d got it. The point of view character wasn’t the one who had a vocation to ordained ministry; that was her girlfriend. But I’d bestowed on both of them the sense of creeping doom, the malevolent attraction of a black hole, that I associated with a vocation when I didn’t have one. Now I could see that it didn’t feel like that at all. When I was in the middle of the thing, there was an excitement about it, a joyful anticipation, a feeling of rightness, of everything making sense.

I read The Night Manager and for once found myself identifying with the main character accepting the call to adventure, rather than inwardly yelling at him not to do it.

I dragged out boxes of old diaries, started sifting through years’ worth of online journals. How many times had I learned this and forgotten it again? I went to Paperchase and bought a notebook with a gold-dotted blue cover. I promised myself that this time I wouldn’t forget.

I realised that I’d been thinking about it for ages. It was just that the feelings had caught up with me.

I worried about turning into a Church of England pod person with naff coasters with Bible verses on.

I knew I needed to become a person who could talk about it, and I didn’t know how to become a person who could talk about it without ceasing to be myself.

I went to an enquiries evening and was too shy to talk to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations. I learned that the next thing to do was to book myself onto the vocations course.

I was under no illusions – certainly not the ones that would have tripped me up had I gone straight into selection and formation and ministry after university. I follow a lot of Clergy Twitter, after all.

But it seemed plausible that a decade working for a member organisation with big ideals and petty politics, one which depended for its continued operation on the labour of a lot of ageing volunteers, might have been just what I needed to equip me to deal with the Church of England. Last time might have been the wrong time. This might be the right time.

I did not book myself onto the vocations course.

I failed to do anything practical about it at all, just kept writing in my blue notebook with the gold spots.

It felt more and more like where I was going.

The Sunday before Advent, the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations was the guest preacher. I talked to her, mentioning a little petulantly that the rest of my life seemed to be trying to happen at the same time (my husband and I had finally scraped together the deposit for a mortgage). She got me booked onto the next term’s vocations course.

On the Friday, the House of Bishops put out an even more tin-eared statement than usual, and I couldn’t help seeing the funny side. I wore a rainbow skirt to church that Sunday.

I went to the first session of the course.

That was the Wednesday before I went to Paperchase.

I saw the course through, as best I could given the challenges posed by Great Northern Rail (sometimes I got from London to Ely on time, and sometimes I didn’t) and (later) having to join in by Zoom over the phone, because the course had gone online and we didn’t have broadband at the new house. It was interesting, and enjoyable, and, for me, irrelevant.

I stuck around, waiting to see if the vocation was going to come back, whether it had been scared off by my moving house, or lockdown, or something. It didn’t.

I finished the novel. I started telling people that it had gone.

It’s ten months now since it went away; it already feels like another life. After the desolation came the relief. I don’t want to do this. I would have done it if I’d had to, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

The other day I found a mind map that I made when it was there and new and I was trying to make sense of it. There it all was, in my own handwriting, and it was nothing to do with me.

And I still don’t know why it happened: why it came, and why it went away.

Was it a piece of research that got a bit too immersive?

Did I need to know what a vocation felt like in order to know when I didn’t have one?

Am I off on another circuit of the labyrinth, bound to follow a long and winding path to get back to the same place?

The more time elapses, the less I think about those questions. The answer’s always the same, anyway: I don’t know.

And I suspect I won’t, not for a long time.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: S

Stack of books: Principal Role by Lorna Hill (with a dustjacket with a ballerina in front of a backdrop showing an Alpine village), Peril at End House by Agatha Christie, and The Rose and the Yew Tree by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott

The fact that I’ve arrived at S just when I have a Stancester book to promote is less a tribute to my skills as a publicist and more a testimony of my inefficiency as a blogger. Nevertheless, here we are, and I’ll talk a little bit about Stancester after I’ve dealt with the work of some considerably more venerable authors.

And I will start with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, and Samavia. (I always got The Lost Prince mixed up with The Silver Sword, probably because they came in Puffin editions of about the same thickness with a teenage boy on the cover, albeit wearing very different clothes. The Silver Sword does not fall within the scope of this project.)

Later in this series I’ll be writing about the imaginative landscape in children’s play, but it bears mentioning here because the way that the boys interact with the idea of Samavia is so important in establishing it as a place.

A good half of the book takes place in London, with the idea of Samavia built up through stories told by Marco and newspapers read by the Rat and maps drawn in flagstones in chalk and in the games that the boys play. Even Marco Loristan, who has been studying Samavia all his life, only knows it in theory. And that fact makes it possible for the the Rat and his gang to know it, too. Similarly, so can we.

He who had pored over maps of little Samavia since his seventh year, who had studied them with his father, knew it as a country he could have found his way to any part of it if he had been dropped in any forest or any mountain of it. He knew every highway and byway, and in the capital city of Melzarr could almost have made his way blindfolded. He knew the palaces and the forts, the churches, the poor streets and the rich ones. His father had once shown him a plan of the royal palace which they had studied together until the boy knew each apartment and corridor in it by heart. But this he did not speak of. He knew it was one of hte things to be silent about. But of the mountains and the emerald velvet meadows climbing their sides and only ending where huge bare crags and peaks began, he could speak. He could make pictures of the wide fertile plains where herds of wild horses fed, or raced and sniffed the air; he could describe the fertile valleys where clear rivers ran and flocks of sheep pastured on deep sweet grass…

The map of Europe into which Samavia is inserted is at first a very rough one:

“You know more about geography than I do. You know more about everything,” [the Rat] said. “I only know Italy is at the bottom and Russia is at one side and England’s at the other. How would the Secret Messengers go to Samavia? Can you draw the countries they’d have to pass through?”

Because any school-boy who knew the map could have done the same thing, Marco drew them. He also knew the stations the Secret Two would arrive at and leave by when they entered a city, the streets they would walk through and the very uniforms they would see; but of these things he said nothing. The reality his knowledge gave to the game was, however, a thrilling thing.

When Marco and the Rat eventually leave London, they travel through Paris, then Munich, then Vienna, before at last reaching Samavia. Because the game is, of course, real.

(Incidentally, The Lost Prince also gives me a solution to my J problem: Samavia borders a country called Jiardasia, but since that’s literally all we know about it I still wouldn’t have had much to write about.)

Many of these fictional countries signal a location somewhere in central or southern Europe with this combination of an S and a V suggesting ‘Slav…’ or ‘Slov…’ Which is rather lazy and, as we shall see in a little, occasionally even embarrassing.

Between Northumberland and London, the Sadler’s Wells books have a very strong sense of place. Revisiting them as an adult, I find that I can’t believe in Slavonia in quite the same way (I think it was actually the Swiss mountains that caught my imagination), but I’ll include it for the sake of my thirteen year old self.

… one of those pocket-sized countries in Europe which have still managed to retain their monarchies or principalities. The capital of Slavonia is Drobnik, and it is about as big as a good-sized English village, but of course all on a very grand scale. Dominating the capital is the royal palace, all in white and pink stone, with pepper-box turrets at the corners. Then there is the Royal Opera House, which is upholstered in red plush and white satin, like the inside of a jewel-box. This building is situated on the banks of the river Juno, which rushes through the city under a succession of little bridges, all covered with sloping roofs to keep off the snow in winter. The cathedral, where the rulers of Slavonia are crowned, is made of rose-coloured quartz, and it stands in the main square, in the middle of which a fountain, designed by one of Europe’s well-known sculptors, plays night and day, and is floodlit on the King’s birthday and other important occasions.

No, at the age of 35 I really can’t believe in a cathedral made of rose-coloured quartz. Ah, well. Still, it gets points for having a national flower, which is a nice detail. This is all from Principal Rôle, which I adored. I didn’t have a copy of The Secret, the other book that deals with Slavonia. Maybe I’ll get a copy some day (yes, I know Girls Gone By are reprinting it, but for these it’s an Evans hardback or nothing).

As for how you get there, well, Lorna Hill carefully doesn’t identify ‘the adjoining country’, and the only people who go there in the course of the book fly, but, though a couple of nice vintage planes (a twin-engined Dakota; a Constellation airliner) are mentioned, they’re going to and from Switzerland. There’s a region of Croatia with that name. Maybe it’s somewhere around there.

While we’re (probably) somewhere in the Balkans, we might as well visit Syldavia. I mentioned its neighbour Borduria earlier in the series; Syldavia is very much the sinned-against party in the relationship between the two. It’s a reasonably coherent entity, though its continued existence is hampered by its being lumbered with a liability of a McGuffin for a sceptre. The Tintin wiki supplies a whole lot more detail, much of which I don’t remember. There’s a shocking dearth of Tintin books in this house.

We were in Ruritania last time, so I’ll only mention Strelsau briefly:

The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class.

(Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

Part of the reason for all these S places is the proliferation and plausibility of places named for saints (real or fictional). Hergé obliges again with San Theodoros. Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead springs immediately to mind. I want to look, though, at St Loo, which she uses in her Mary Westmacott persona as well as in the Poirot series.

In Peril at End House there isn’t much more to St Loo than the Majestic Hotel, where Poirot and Hastings are staying, and the titular house. It exists as a seaside resort:

It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera.

In The Rose and the Yew Tree it turns out to have a lot more going on:

There were… three separate worlds. There was the old fishing village, grouped round its harbour, with the tall slate-roofed houses rising up all round it, and the notices written in Flemish and French as well as English. Beyond that, sprawling out along the coast, was the modern tourist and residential excrescence. The large luxury hotels, thousands of small bungalows, masses of little boarding houses – all very busy and active in summer, quiet in winter. Thirdly, there was St Loo Castle, ruled over by the old dowager, Lady St Loo, a nucleus of yet another way of life with ramifications stretching up through winding lanes to houses tucked inconspicuously away in valleys beside old world churches.

This isn’t just a place where people stay. It’s a place where people live. And what that means is politics. The bulk of the book deals with the General Election (I do like a good election): our anti-hero, Major John Gabriel VC, is standing as the Conservative candidate, and the pettiness of small town gossip and politics, the uneasy interaction between the different strands of society, drives the action.

The narrator wonders how John Gabriel, ‘an opportunist, a man of sensual passions and great personal charm’ could have become Father Clement, a man of ‘heroism, endurance, compassion and courage’. Personally, I think that at least part of the answer is that he’s jumped genres.

Because The Rose and the Yew Tree isn’t just a Barchester novel. Its framing device is distinctly Ruritanian. Slovakia (not the Slovakia we know; its capital is Zagrade, suggesting a portmanteau of Belgrade and Zagreb, rather than Bratislava) gets a scant chapter, hastily daubed with unsavoury characters and assassinations in the name of local colour. And the first we hear of any of these places or people, we’re in Paris.

Yes, Paris again. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done a post on the importance of Paris as a staging post in the Ruritanian novel. We saw Marco and the Rat pass through on the way to Samavia; Rudolf Rassendyll, of course, takes his Great-Uncle William’s advice and spends twenty-four hours there before heading east into Ruritania and the action; Conway Carruthers attempts to see the head of the Sûreté on his way through.

Of course, before air travel you’d be hard pressed to get to anywhere in mainland Europe from Great Britain without passing through Paris sooner or later (probably sooner) but I think there’s more to it than that. Paris occupies a unique place in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: foreign, yet accessible; faintly naughty (both Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond lose their virginity there); instantly recognisable; a known point from which to triangulate our unknown destination.

Asia no longer begins at the Landstraβe, but travel back in time via the medium of the novel, and you’ll probably find that you have to change in Paris for Ruritania.

Back to Cornwall. Jill Mansell’s St Carys has featured in a couple of books now. It has cafés and hotels, whitewashed cottages, huge private houses, estate agencies, newsagents, holiday lets, everything you’d want in a seaside town, really. And a map.

Finally, I do have to mention Stancester. We’re definitely in Barchester country now, with characters who can only negotiate their relationships with the Church and academia, not dictate terms. In Speak Its Name I was able to write the Students’ Union rules the way I needed them; in The Real World I was working with stricter constraints. I had more freedom with the geography, however. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the park at Woking one sunny Tuesday, with my notebook and a map of Roman Britain, trying to work out where would be a good place to put a city with a cathedral and a university. I did dreadful things to the railway (either diverted it to the north, away from Yeovil or to the south, away from Somerton) but there are a couple of clues that remain intact. The A303 is in the right place, and, if you happen to have a copy of that map of Roman Britain, this is a dead giveaway:

The harshest critic would struggle to fault the setting of Stancester cathedral. Built on the site of a Saxon minster, presiding over the crossing of two Roman roads, it dominates the north side of the city. Its honey-gold hamstone is echoed all around the old town, and, should one be fortunate enough to visit on a sunny afternoon, the overall effect is charming.

If not, I’ll tell you. I put it down on top of Ilchester, having moved a few hills around. I borrowed the church with the octagonal tower, too.

There’s something very enjoyable, making up new places (and then writing about them in the voice of pompous local historians – don’t worry, he doesn’t get any more than that chapter heading). But it turned out that there was a little more to it than that. I’d had the name for Stancester in my head long before I fixed on its location. And I was a long way into a redraft when I went to Wells with my choir and, in the cathedral museum, found a relief map that showed me that in fact I was a lot closer than I thought.

detail of a relief map showing Ilchester at the top, Yeovil at the bottom, and, in faint red type, 'STANCHESTER' a third of the way up

Books mentioned in this post

The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Peril at End House and The Rose and the Yew Tree; various Miss Marple novels, Agatha Christie

King Ottakar’s Sceptre and Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

Speak Its Name and The Real World, Kathleen Jowitt

Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay, The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, and It Started With A Secret, Jill Mansell

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The Real World: book tour on Instagram

If you’ve been around a while, you might remember that when I launched A Spoke In The Wheel I did a blog tour. This was a whole load of fun, but it was also a whole load of admin, of pitching and chasing and writing.

This time I thought I’d get someone else to do the hard work, and so I approached Sasha at Pride Book Tours. The result? Beautiful. Two weeks of photographs over at Instagram. We’re only a couple of days in and I’m already delighted by the photographic skill and the artistic eye of these bookstagrammers.

Here’s the schedule:

I’ll come back every day and add a link to the new photo. If the two I’ve seen so far are anything to go by, we’re in for a real treat.

The Real World is a contemporary novel about institutions, integrity, depression, and learning to own your decisions and desires. It’s available now.

The miracle

A deciduous tree, with most of its leaves gone, with three cormorants perching in the upper branches. It is lit up by rose-gold morning light.

Last year. An autumn morning, probably very much like this one. Sunday. October, rather than November, because the clocks hadn’t gone back. A slow morning. Not the morning, really. Me. Sluggish. Lethargic. I couldn’t summon the energy to get out of bed because getting out of bed meant crossing the room to find my dressing gown and then I would have to have a shower and how do you even take a shower, I’d have to take my pyjamas off and step into the bath and ugh, then decide which clothes to wear, as if anybody cared, and eat something, and probably I hadn’t done any washing up, and could I face making toast…

But something wonderful had happened. Something had changed. All that was true, but I no longer felt like the worst person in the world. The moral judgement that usually accompanied such a morning had evaporated. It was as if someone who actually liked me had taken charge, someone who thought it was perfectly reasonable to take an hour to get out of bed if that was what was needed.

Every book I write disentangles something in my mind in some way. Speak Its Name sorted out a lot of internalised biphobia. A Spoke In The Wheel showed me how to deal with burnout and overcommitment. And The Real World seems to have taught me about depression.

The Real World is very much a book about depression. I’m not sure that I even mention the word in the text, but it shapes the protagonist’s experiences and, even more, her perceptions, in a way that’s almost bigger than the text. I nearly painted myself into a corner with it; had to tear the walls down to get us all out of there. There are several levels of irony to the title, and one of them is the fact that depression creates a world that isn’t real at all and keeps you trapped in it.

Writing about a fictional character’s depression, writing both the world she’s moving through and the world she’s limited to, reaching deep into my own experience to convey the sheer awkward clumsy fatigued too-bloody-muchness of it all, the way it narrows your horizons and stalls your momentum until it’s as much as you can do to put one foot in front of the other, I was able to find the compassion for her that I’d never been able to find for myself. Writing about someone who loved her and could see her as she was, not as she thought she was, helped me understand that I, too, could be loved as I was. And something inside me, something wiser than my rational brain, was able to apply it to me, too.

It’s still here. Even having been relieved of my 6am alarm and my commute by the lockdown, I’m still finding mornings difficult. I prickle at sympathy and suspect well-wishers of wanting to fix me, of thinking me unacceptable unless better. But my miracle is here, too, singing its serene quiet song: I am loved. I am enough.

This was not the only interesting thing that writing The Real World did to my head. I’ll tell you about the other thing another time. But I’m not sure it wasn’t the most important one.

Ebooks!

Kobo ebook reader showing the first page of 'The Real World'

I am not a particularly patient person. I’m also not particularly fond of hassling people. You can imagine, therefore, my state of mind over this past week, waiting for Lulu customer service to tell me what the hell was wrong with my book and why it wasn’t showing up anywhere except Lulu. (At least it’s been a distraction from the US election, which has also had a certain ‘hurry up and wait’ quality to it. US friends, you have my deep respect. When there are elections on over here, I usually go to bed half an hour after polls close so that I can face whatever joy or gloom the morning might bring on a decent night’s sleep. I don’t know how I’d have coped with this endless election week that you’ve had to go through.)

Well, I got a reasonably helpful response from one person. I acted on their suggestions and uploaded the new file. It took me a while to get the thing to recognise that this was a new submission. It gave me an ‘Error approving your project for distribution’ message within a minute. It did not tell me why. Nor did customer service.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Lulu kept spitting the book back at me, giving me no indication as to what might have failed. Yesterday I gave up, retired the ebook from Lulu, and made myself an account on Smashwords instead. Smashwords also kept spitting the book back at me, but it did tell me that it didn’t like my numbered lists.

There are no numbered lists in The Real World.

This was almost as frustrating, but I eventually tracked the problem down to the chapter headings. By this point it was getting on for midnight, so I gave up and went to bed.

This morning I deleted all the chapter headings, put them all back in as body text, and made a hyperlinked table of contents with my own fair hands. And here we go.

It’s now waiting for manual review, which won’t happen over the weekend, but my hope is that it’ll be fairly quick next week. And if there still are any problems with the file then at least a manual reviewer will be able to tell me what they are. If not, it should then start filtering out to more mainstream suppliers.

I should say at this point that Amazon won’t be one of those, unless I manage to sell seriously vast numbers through Smashwords. So I need to work out what to do about that. The MOBI is available from Smashwords in the meantime, and the paperback is staying on Amazon.

The great irony is that I got everything done – or so I thought – in September, and then sat on it to give it a chance to get through the distribution channels.

Well, look, you’d have thought so too if your book had been sitting there all that time with a little message saying ‘Your project has been approved for distribution’. It’s only since I started asking politely why it wasn’t showing on any of the other platforms, and why, come to that, both the other two had started falling off, that the ‘Error approving your project for distribution’ message appeared.

Now I need to work out what to do next. I’ll probably move the other ebooks over to Smashwords too, beginning with Speak Its Name. I also need to work out how I feel about Kindle Direct: i.e. whether I think I’ll sell enough ebooks through Amazon, given the fact that Smashwords does a decent MOBI file, to make it worth getting my head round it. (I’d be interested to hear from Kindle owners on this, though I make no promises.) But this is not a decision to make before I’ve had a cup of coffee. I’m off to make one now. In the meantime, here’s The Real World.

Award-winning crossword clue

Framed certificate with text: 'The Betty Trask Award 2017/Winner/Kathleen Jowitt for Speak Its Name (self-published)/The Society of Authors Prizes/Judges/Simon Brett/Joanne Harris/Michele Roberts'

That cryptic (thank you, thank you, I’m here all week) title refers not an award-winning clue, nor even an award-winning crossword (though you never know), but to Jae‘s F/F Fiction Crossword featuring award-winning WLW & lesbian fiction, which features, among other award-winning books, my first novel, Speak Its Name.

What’s the name of the hall of residence at the University of Stancester where Lydia Hawkins is Christian Fellowship representative?

Well, you can find the answer in the extract on my site, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the book (and the award), because I know a lot of readers will very reasonably be reading that clue and thinking ‘what on earth???’ Because, let’s face it, that question (which I drafted) seems like a bit of an unlikely start for a WLW book. And yet there it is, in some excellent lesfic company.

Speak Its Name is (as you see) a university story and (as you can guess) a coming out story. It’s got a bit of romance and a bit of satire. It is, above all, a story about how it’s possible to be more than one thing at once, to claim an identity that might be more complicated than most people assume, about the joy and the tension and the grief of having both a religious faith and a queer identity.

Lydia Hawkins is the main character, and by now you’ve probably guessed that ‘the secrets she tried to keep even from herself’ include her identity as a lesbian. Which I suppose would be a bit of a spoiler, if you hadn’t come here from Jae’s crossword. Anyway, she manages to get her head and her heart around that, but that’s rather less than half the story…

In ‘very good timing’ news, I’ve just released the sequel. In ‘very bad timing’ news, I’ve been hit by a bug that’s kicked all my ebooks off the major retail platforms. I’m trying to get that fixed; in the meantime, you can still get everything in paperback, and the ebooks are available from Lulu.

The award that it won was the 2017 Betty Trask Award. The Betty Trask Prize is awarded every year by the Society of Authors to the best debut by an author under the age of 35. Submissions, it says, have to be in ‘a romantic or traditional style’. Speak Its Name is a bit of both.

I only entered because it was free to do so, and because they accepted self-published books (at least, they didn’t say they didn’t). Being shortlisted was a huge surprise. I was walking with my brother in northern Spain at the time, and had in fact forgotten that I’d even entered my book for the awards. Realising that I was the first self-published author ever to have been shortlisted blew me away completely. I’ve made a tiny piece of literary history, and I’m still immensely proud of that.

The delightful thing about it is that even being on the shortlist gives you a Betty Trask Award and a cheque for £3000 to be spent on foreign travel. (I went Interrailing and enjoyed myself hugely.) And again, I’m in good company. Previous winners include Sarah Waters – who I met at the awards ceremony, and who was absolutely lovely.

I have the certificate hanging on the wall to the right of my desk, and it makes me smile every time I see it. Writing a book is a slog. (So is self-publishing.) If my experience is anything to go by, all the authors on that list of clues will have put a huge amount of work into their books, and will have been delighted to have it recognised.

Good luck with the rest of the crossword clues – and I hope you find many more new authors to enjoy!

Banner showing a golden cup and text 'Award-winning WLW & Lesbian Fiction'

The Real World is live!

Stack of six paperback copies of 'The Real World'

November is here, and so is The Real World. Well, mostly. I’m very annoyed that the ebook has not yet filtered through to any mainstream retailers, despite having had six weeks to do so, and, to add insult to injury, all my other ebooks have disappeared. I apologise for the inconvenience.

Here are all the places where you can get it:

In paperback, from Lulu

In paperback, from Amazon.com

In paperback, from Amazon.co.uk

In paperback, from Waterstones

In paperback, from Indiebound

In paperback, from Bookshop

In paperback, from Barnes & Noble

In EPUB, from Lulu

It is possible to convert EPUB to MOBI and get the ebook onto Kindle that way. Here’s a guide. But I appreciate that this is something of a faff. I’ll update here as soon as the ebook has become more widely available.

I’m having a launch party over Facebook Live this evening (8.30pm GMT) and I’d be delighted for any of my blog readers to join me. I’ll be doing a reading from The Real World and answering questions about it, and my other books, if people have questions about them.

RSVP

Anyway, distribution hitches aside, I’m immensely proud of this book and very glad to be able to share it with you at last. If you liked Speak Its Name, I hope you’ll be glad to see more of the characters you met there. If this is your first encounter with the people of Stancester, I hope you’ll enjoy the experience. (And yes, it should work as a standalone. One of my beta readers said that they didn’t realise it was a sequel!)

Writing this book took me longer than I’d expected, and there were times when I thought it was never going to be done. It took me to some interesting places, too. I’ll be talking a bit more about that in the weeks to come. But it’s been worth it, and I think this might be the best thing I’ve ever written.

Heading vaguely in the direction of a launch

Cardboard box containing a stack of paperback copies of 'The Real World'

It’s almost a month since I uploaded the finalised files for The Real World. The wheels are turning, and, though I’m never quite confident that the book is going to appear on the sites I want it to until it, you know, appears on the sites I want it to, I think it’s all heading in the right direction.

I’ve approached some bloggers and reviewers, some of whom have previously enjoyed Speak Its Name, and some who I’ve only recently come across. And apart from that, I’ve just got to hurry up and wait.

In the meantime…

… I’ve put an extract – the first thousand words or so – up. Find it here.

… I’m going to be having a launch party over on Facebook. Time: 8.30pm GMT. Date: 2 November 2020. I’ll be reading a bit (the awkward party scene seems appropriate) and answering some questions. Bring your own fizz and canapés. And questions. RSVP here.

… I’m doing a giveaway of some ebook copies over at LibraryThing. Scroll about half way down this page to find it.

Page 69, revisited

Remember the Page 69 test? It’s where you:

Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.

Marshall McLuhan, quoted in ‘How To Read A Novel’ by John Sutherland

Last time round, I put both my existing books through the test, showed you what would have been page 69 had The Real World gone to print as it stood, and promised to be back ‘in a few months’ with the final page 69.

Well, just over a year later, here we are.

Page of a book. The text is transcribed below.

… make a great sermon illustration. You could demonstrate a miracle.’

Lydia sniggered. ‘And I noticed they weren’t using actual custard. Does actual custard not work? Or is it too expensive to make a whole paddling pool full?’

Colette thought about it. ‘Do you know, I’m not sure. The egg might do something weird…’ She frowned at her diagram: she’d missed a bond somewhere. When she next looked at the screen, an Asian woman was talking enthusiastically about the properties of wood. Barry did not appear again.

*

‘Are you up to anything interesting today?’ Colette asked the next morning.

‘Not at work. But I’m going to have lunch with Felicity, and bring her up to date with all the discernment stuff.’

‘Ah.’ Colette felt faintly put out. It wasn’t really fair, she knew: Felicity had as much right as anybody to know what was going on in Lydia’s life, and more than most. Felicity had been the one who had started all this, had been the one to say to Lydia, ‘So have you ever thought about ordination?’

‘Is that OK? I did mention it a few days ago.’

Colette remembered, and quashed an irrational surge of resentment. Why shouldn’t Lydia talk to Felicity? Why shouldn’t she let off steam? Why shouldn’t she complain to Felicity about the arcane processes of their Church, and the fact that she wouldn’t be getting married any time soon? ‘You did. It’s fine. Are you still going to want dinner when you get home?’

Lydia stretched up to kiss her cheek. ‘If you’re cooking.’

It was her turn. ‘I’ll sort something out.’

*

It was a grey day, and colder outside than it looked. Colette regretted walking up to campus, but told herself that waiting for the bus on Southview would be even colder. She buttoned her coat up to…

Well, other than the fact that this one also begins and ends mid-sentence, I think it works better than the previous page 69. It’s more representative. We get a hint of Colette’s academic trials (Barry, who has just pulled a disappearing act, is her PhD supervisor) and also see her being more absorbed than strictly necessary in an intriguing but unimportant question; we do get the Church of England and the discernment process this time. We lose James, but we gain Felicity. (They’re both new supporting characters, and I’m quite fond of both of them.) There’s also more of a sense of place, which is something I’ve been working on quite a bit lately.

If you preferred the previous page 69, well, it’s all still there. It’s just on page 76 now. And I’ve replaced [thing] with spike.

If you like it, buy the book, says Marshall McLuhan. Well, you’ll be able to do that in just under a month. If you want a reminder on the day, sign up for my newsletter.

Visibility, possibility: links for bi visibility day

I put the finishing touches to The Real World a week ago, and since then I’ve been doing my best to do very little. Writing this book has taken an awful lot out of me, and I’m trying to make up for that by sitting in a deckchair on the lawn, reading other people’s books.

But I do also write things that aren’t 94,000 word novels, and I’m very pleased to have two pieces to share for Bi Visiblity Day. As I wrote in one of these,

my experience of being bisexual has been the ever-present consciousness of other possibilities. I’ve made a particular series of choices, my life has unfolded in a particular way – but I’m always aware that I could have made other choices, that my life might look very different today if… If I hadn’t grown up under Section 28. If I’d heard the word ‘bisexual’ before the age of 20. If, if, if.

I might have taken the road more travelled by, but that doesn’t mean all the other roads disappear from existence. (They closed the road through the woods…) Both of these pieces explore that sense of possibility, in fiction and in non-fiction (A merry road, a mazy road…).

The first one is perhaps more bi audibility than visibility, as it’s a podcast. This is the second story I’ve had featured at A Story Most Queer (the first was Prima Donna), but my first to be premiered there. I’ve added a PDF version too. It’s a fairy tale about a young woman who sets out to look for her friend who’s gone missing…

Daisy’s Yarn (podcast)

Daisy’s Yarn (PDF download)

The second piece is a guest post at Licence To Queer, where I wander all over the 007 canon, both book and film, looking for bisexual possibilities and revisiting my Eng Lit past. I even gave it a proper Eng Lit essay title with a colon in the middle. If that sounds a bit dry, I should also warn you that I fail to answer the question of what Felix Leiter was doing in Bond’s hotel room, and that I do pick up on a surprising allusion to the Book of Common Prayer. Fortunately David’s added some pictures.

“What makes you think this is the first time?”: assumption, possibility, and bisexuality in Bond

If you’re at all interested in James Bond and queer themes I recommend the whole Licence To Queer site heartily: it’s a joyful deep dive into the world of 007 – with some intriguing cocktail recipes too.

Interestingly, while The Real World has turned out to be an extremely bi novel in other ways, the sense of possibility isn’t nearly so present. Except, perhaps, as a sense of something missing, something distorted… Ah, you’ll see.