Monday, December 5, 2011

It's not the cover you're judging a book on any more

Last month at bookswap, Sophie Hannah made a passing-ish comment that really stayed with me. 'Look at all the books that really work', she said. 'They've all got Ronseal titles'.

If you grew up pre-Ronseal, what that means is a title which exactly sums up what the book delivers. In my first in-house publishing job that's exactly what we called book titles, and it's stuck with me ever since.

I've been thinking about this again this week. Is there a correlation between book sales and titles that tell you exactly what they're about without giving it away? A quick browse at any BookScan list (or media bestseller list, usually fed by the same data) will tell you it probably is. Sister. Room. The Help. Have a think.

So the more interesting question is: why? Is it to do with our link-hitting, button-pressing age, where we memorise nothing because 'I'll google it if I need to know'? Is it more prevalent now than it was in the 1950s, for example? Is it because, in this world of the Hollywood pitch, a publisher is more likely to invest more strongly in publicising a book that's easily described? Very possibly, surely, it's a mixture of both.

More and more, books are coming up with titles that sell them to us in our lightning-quick decision-making world. And people are buying them, in their droves. Something to think about before you name your putative bestseller after an obscure 16th-century Latvian poet.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Life on the other side of the fishbowl

Alex James is telling me about a six year old whose dad had just died of cancer. The mother and daughter had returned to the Hospice of St Francis, where Alex runs a bereavement support programme for children aged 2-19. They had viewed the body and were filling out the death certificate, everyone very hushed and still. The little girl pulled Alex to one side and whispered, ‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Of course’ said Alex.

‘How do they know my dad’s definitely dead?’

‘Well, his heart stopped beating’

‘Yes, but how do they know that? What if it hasn’t really?’

Rather than reassuring the child with platitudes, Alex did something that had never before been tried at the hospice. Along with a nurse, she took the little girl back to her father’s body and placed the stethoscope in the child’s ears. They stayed like that for an hour, the child listening intently and asking very pragmatic questions about what, exactly, she could hear, until the little girl was satisfied that her daddy really was dead. ‘She’d been worrying about it for ages’, Alex said, ‘and hadn’t wanted to upset her mum by asking her, so we helped her to understand it’.

I went to visit the hospice as part of this year’s Children In Need campaign, to find out about the work done by the children’s grief support team at St Francis. Children In Need kickstarted the programme by funding a social worker, its inaugural member, three years ago. As the anecdote above demonstrates, the work carried out by the team is amazingly unsentimental. ‘These families are drowning’, Alex explains, ‘and you have to let them drown; you can’t be there for them forever. But what we try to do is to lift them up from time to time and show them dry land’.

The idea of leaving a kid to be upset is heartbreaking for most adults. But a dead mum or dad is upsetting. There probably shouldn't be anything more upsetting to a child than losing a parent; it would almost be disingenuous to try and 'solve' their grief. Instead, each member of her team works one-on-one with a family until the day that the family realises they don’t need help any more.

Alex's team offers support to up to fifty children at a time. Unusually for such programmes, they offer pre-bereavement support (they’re very careful not to call it counselling) as well as post-bereavement support. ‘Children will really open up to us after the parent has died if they feel like we actually knew mum or dad,’ Alex explains. ‘They can trust us when they talk about them. A lot of the work they do is about helping the remaining parent and child to find ways to communicate their grief to each other; to understand that every feeling is valid’.

Kids who connect with their support worker before the parent has died, Alex tells me, do much better, typically, in terms of dealing with their grief and are often ready to go it alone by about twelve weeks after the death of a relative. In striking contrast, children who gain access to the service only post-bereavement find it much harder to come to terms with and are often still seeing their key worker a year later. ‘The other thing’, she reminds me ‘is that grief isn’t linear and kids change as they grow up. So just because Dad died at five and you understood everything then doesn’t mean you won’t have questions when you’re eight and you understand a lot more.’ Children are encouraged to call back to the service whenever they feel the need.

Although we probably imagine children to be utterly bereft when a parent dies, Alex reminds me that this might not always be the case. ‘Some of these adults have been ill for a big chunk of the child’s life, and they’re relieved when it’s over and they can get on with their lives. ‘ She tells me of a teenager who confessed to relief that her motor-neurone-sufferer mother had died before the university term began, so that she could start her course along with her peers and not have to take an (expensive) gap year; of a nine-year-old boy who admitted he was ‘glad’ his father had entered the hospice ‘because now the bathroom has stopped smelling funny’. This is the side of death we don’t like to look at; the terrible truths that actually, life stopping for three years when you’re fifteen can have a huge impact. The team at St Francis help the children to understand that it’s OK to feel like this, that they’re not required to have a Disneyfied reaction to grief.

Sometimes, true emotion comes out elliptically. Not long ago, Alex visited a family whose mother had recently died. The family – three children aged fifteen and down – were sitting formally in the lounge, chatting apparently freely. ‘Everything’s fine’ was the message coming through.

Then Alex looked across at the fish tank. The fish had belonged to their mother, the tank a distraction from the endless days of dying.

‘How are the fish doing, do you think?’ she asked the family.

‘What do you mean?’ the little one asked.

‘Well’, Alex said, ‘we’ve been looking at the room from this side, looking into the fish tank. How d’you think the room looks from their side? What do they see since Mum’s died?’

The kids thought about it.

‘The room’s darker’ said the eldest girl.

‘Yes, and it’s quieter’, said the middle one, ‘Mum used to love to always have music on. There’s no music now’.

Then the little one piped up again. ‘And Daddy often forgets to feed the fish now because he’s drinking more. Mummy never forgot’.

Just like that, Alex said, the floodgates opened. The children were done talking about their grief to well-meaning adults; had honed the platitudes over their mum’s long illness. But turn the subject onto the fish, and what the fish might be thinking of the experience, and suddenly they were brimful of stories and emotions that they needed to share with Alex.

I left wishing the impossible; that none of these kids had had to suffer a parent dying. But the other big thing I thought was: thank goodness for someone like Alex, who really gets it. She's not trying to be their best friend; she's not trying to fix things. She's utterly caring without being cloyingly sentimental; she's calling death by its name when these kids have often had months of side-stepping from adults around them; and she's providing a neutral ear. It's the sort of thing children could probably often do with regardless of bereavement. To be able to provide it so compassionately and yet simultaneously dispassionately is all kinds of amazing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Self publishing doesn't mean the end of the world for seeing your name in print

Catherine Ryan Howard has made quite a name for herself- deservedly - in Ireland and beyond with her success at self publishing. But here she's banging the drum for good, old fashioned, hard work and a little bit of luck.

Right now, the self-publishing evangelists would have you believe that it’s easier to get struck by lightning in the jaws of a shark while holding a winning lottery ticket than it is to get published, and statistically, they’re probably right. But as I’ve said before, the statistics take into account all of the books and all of the writers. If you’re a good or great writer, and you write a good or great book, and you write that book at the right time and the book ends up in the right place, then your chances are significantly improved. Then, instead of a pie in the sky dream of publication, your chances of seeing your book on the shelves becomes not only possible, but likely.

I say it often and I'll say it again here: you can make your luck, to a certain extent. And that's what Maria Duffy has done here:

I first met her in person at an Inkwell “Getting Published” workshop soon afterwards, where Maria spoke of her novels and her hope – her dream, really – that she would one day be published. The next time I saw her was at another Dublin writerly event, this time at Irish PEN, where she whispered her exciting news to me: she’d got an agent. And not just any agent, but one who has had phenomenal success with a dizzying array of Irish women writers, many of them household names. Then, a few months later, the big news came: Maria had signed a two-book deal with Hachette Ireland and her debut novel, Any Dream Will Do, would be released in November.

Look how hard Maria worked at that. Workshops, PEN Ireland meetings - and many, many hours (snatched around the care for her four children) - of just sitting down and writing it. And it's all paid off. Congratulations, Maria. And thanks to Catherine for a fabulous, level headed post.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Falling, soaring

Leaves like jewels come down to greet you, floating to the floor or whacking you in the face by way of hello. It’s hard not to feel like a 1950s bride, ducking through the lych gate to a veil-full of confetti as the colours flutter and twirl all around you.

I was driving home from Portland, Oregon in October 2003 when a black cloud of starling burst into the sky above the car. Dropping all at once from the telegraph wire, they looked just like they were practising being falling leaves, hurling themselves towards the nearest pile. Much like this:

I think we’ve all felt like that some days. At least, I hope so.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In defence of the Emerald Isle

We'd been in Ireland about a month when someone (the lovely MD of Penguin Ireland, to give him full credit), told me the truest thing I ever learned about Ireland. 'The thing is', he said,'the Irish feel a far greater sense of kinship to the English than the English do in reverse'.

Three years living in Ireland taught me nothing more useful.The Irish have generations-worth of layers of familiarity with Britain, be it involuntary or (a consequence of emigration) voluntary. The Irish husband of an American friend told me that, in his primary school in the Eighties, his class of 30 were asked to put up their hands if anyone had an aunt or uncle living in the UK or the USA. Every hand in the room shot up. This would have been an unthinkable phenomenon in Eighties Britain.

How this familiarity translates into everyday life is as follows. Many Irishmen (and women) actively support Premier League teams (though I've yet to meet any Vauxhall Conference die-hards). BBC programmes are watched interchangeably, if not more frequently, than RTE ones - when we were in Dublin, there was genuine outrage and consternation about the migration of the BBC to an all-digital service, which would mean that the Irish would have to start paying for the BBC rather than picking it up via the English transmitters.
Everybody you meet has been to England, usually to visit relatives/close friends and often for a few years. The Guardian was cheaper for me to buy in Ireland than in England (go figure) - and available everywhere the Irish Times was sold.

At the same time, Ireland's got its own thing going on. It most definitely isn't an outpost of England (when I commented once that, with all the consumption of British media, it was as if we were standing on the edge of Ireland leaning towards the UK, an Irish friend said, 'just don't start referring to Britain as 'the mainland'. Noted).

I said it when we lived there, and, eight months out, I stand by it; Ireland's an amazing place for a holiday, but as a place to live, you really need to be Irish. In many ways, and oddly for a country with such deep roots, it's still finding its feet, and the Celtic Tiger mess is that of a teenager let loose with a credit card.
Religion, despite a generation that claims to be beyond it, is still pervasive (just try getting your unchristened kid into school, even Protestant school). Family ties are strong in an utterly exemplary way; but that makes it harder to belong if you're not part of an Irish family.
Then there's the preventative layer of the language; both Gaelige, which still sounds like someone talking through a mouthful of Jameson's however long I twist and turn with it, and the Hiberno-English vernacular, which is glorious, but takes a while to come to terms with. 'The day that's in it'; 'the guts of a week'; 'messages' and 'press' and the difference between 'your man', 'your one' and 'yer wan' - don't try and emulate it if you're an outsider. You won't get it right.

I left Dublin before things got truly bad and for entirely personal reasons; simply put, our roots are in England, and a sum total of seven years abroad felt like enough. Given our utter lack of regret at leaving Ireland, I've been taken aback at just how protective I feel of the view of the Irish as reported in the British media currently. The English just don't care about the myriad differences between themselves and their country cousins. If they think of them at all, it's in cliches.

Still; all the front pages depicting Ballymun slums and piebald ponies; the co-opting of Michael Flatley as spokesperson for Question Time (not yet, but surely only a matter of time); the fundamental indignation that Britain's helping to bail out Ireland, a Eurozone country; it all speaks to one, slightly sad, truth.
Namely: though a strong percentage of the Irish people could take Britain as a Chosen Specialised Subject on 'Mastermind' and ace it, the odds are that the average punter in any English town wouldn't know the name of the Taoiseach if you stopped them in the street. It's peculiar, and it wouldn't have occurred to me as odd before the years spent in Dublin, but now it makes me angry at my fellow Englishmen. I know Britain's far bigger than Ireland, but still. The USA is bigger than them both, and the Americans, even on the Scandinavian-dominated West Coast, all seemed to know heaps more about Ireland than the British do.

These people fought in our wars, they helped to rebuild our towns, and they have their own country and culture. Let's let them keep some dignity, at least, and acknowledge that.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What words are worth

I went to a wedding once where the lead singer of EMF was a guest (it was a Forest of Dean wedding, natch. Everyone's related there, via sheep). After the wedding breakfast, he took the mic and informed the assembled crowd, 'Tonight I'm going to sing some songs about trains'.


And then, he did. I can't remember a single one of them (see again: Forest of Dean wedding. There were many old friends, and much booze), but I remember his set being (a) surprisingly great and (b) full of trains.

I've been overdosing on This American Life podcasts this month thanks to all the sodding running I'm doing. I'm sure there's a train of thought that says you shouldn't listen to something that makes you slow down in the driveway when you're training for a race, but I'm all about the endurance part of endurance running, and far less about speed. Hmm. Not at all about speed, that should probably read.

Anyway, This American Life has a little story before the main deal which sort of introduces the topic, but somewhat tangentially. And apparently the genius of Ira Glass has woven itself into my brain (if only), because that's what the wedding story is. A tangential introduction.


All of which to say; tonight I'm going to tell you some stories about poems. Well, just the one, really; but 'a story' rather than 'stories' would have knocked out the rhythm.

I got lucky at college. My first term in, I made friends who have, with very few shake-downs, been with me ever since. Theo (he of the flowers) and I were pretty much inseparable in those days, and for years after. We fought more or less constantly; huge, incensed arguments about the supremacy of language over science; huger, still more incensed arguments about whether it was OK for him to eat my food whilst I was still eating it too (Theo's point was that he always ended up finishing my meals every day, so he may as well eat it whilst hot rather than wait for it to be congealed). Theo was family from the outset; whatever we were bickering about at the time, the fact that we were friends always seemed obvious; irrevocable.

At the end of the first term, we met to exchange gifts - the vogue was for those hideous carved candles of naked people embracing that you could buy for a fiver in the market. In an Emperor's New Clothes way, everyone thought were unbelievably sophisticated (they were unbelievably ugly, more like). So I was expecting wax, and was pleasantly surprised when Theo gave me two envelopes. One was a Christmas card.

I opened the other one. That was a Christmas card too.

(To understand Theo, you have to think back to early episodes of Friends and imagine Joey mixed with Chandler in proportions of about 70:30. Right at this moment, he was all Joey).

Theo grinned at me. 'Read it!'

It was a poem. I don't remember much of it, though I still have it somewhere; congenital pack-rattage combined with a commitment to never discard other people's emotions means we have an entire sea-chest upstairs filled with randomata.

What made it so utterly brilliant, though, was the dedication that preceded the poem:

'Saz - I wrote this for X (whichever the latest of Theo's conquests had been)but she ditched me so I thought you'd like it'.

He was right; I did. And I especially liked that he knew me well enough, after only eight weeks, to understand that a poem written for me would've felt unbearable and inappropriate; but a poem written by Theo and given to me (proof that language wins! Ha! Except that we continued the language/science argument for at least another ten years) was a beautiful and touching present. And at least it wasn't a sodding candle.


There are lots of things I think I could usefully change about myself. I could be less verbose. Less twitchy. Less hopelessly optimistic in the face of life. But what I absolutely love about being me is that, for some reason, my male friends (never my female friends, and never romantic entanglements) have always felt comfortable giving me their poems to read. I think poetry's amazing, and I think my friends are amazing, so they know it's a safe bet. But it's still a total act of trust, and it blows me away every time.

Happy National Poetry Day.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I had to cut this post short to go and do a little light dusting

Jonah was on the phone to my Mum, on loudspeaker.

'Yeah, nice weekend...Daddy is doing the gardening and Mummy is doing the cleaning'

I choked on my muesli and had to resist grabbing the phone away from him. I could hear Mum, on the other end, howling with laughter. '

Jonah, bless him, is only saying what he sees. Most of my life, personal or professional, is spent working with the premise of 'show, don't tell', and it would appear that when it comes to giving children role models, the traditional ones are what's being served up. So it is that, with two small boys in the house, I'm being more to active feminism than at any other point in my life.

Thinking back, I was lucky. I didn't ever ponder feminism too much (or 'boys vs girls' when I was too small to give it such a multi-syllabic name) because there was no need. I was one of two sisters with sports-loving parents; weekends were just as likely to be spent by the side of a minor-league rugby pitch or helping to mix cement as they were doing the grocery shopping. We had a Scalectrix, and tools; and anyway, books very quickly usurped anything remotely gender-specific for me (unless you're going to claim that reading is inherently female, which is a whole other issue). 'As soon as you learned to read everything else stopped' my Mum has been known to remember wistfully.

I went to an all-girls' secondary school, where CDT and woodwork were taught alongside ceramics and jewellery. When I reached sixth form, one of my general studies classes involved donning overalls and learning how to change the oil and a tyre in our car mechanics class. We were also taught the far-more-useful skill of hotwiring; probably something not being taught to the boys down the road.

I was lucky, too; whilst I had a terrific group of girlfriends at school, my out-of-school friends were predominantly boys (with two key exceptions). And again, I honestly don't think I ever felt that I couldn't do anything the lads were doing. Sometimes there were things I wished I wasn't doing, like abseiling down a disused quarry or leaping off a bridge attached only to a piece of rope (and there was nothing 'professional' about this; it was just an idea cooked up in the pub).

If I'd abstained, nobody would have cared; some of the gang just didn't fancy some of the activities. But there was never an assumption that I would or wouldn't do something based on gender.

I suppose it could be said that I was the ultimate beneficiary of the generation before me, who burned bridges (and bras) so I didn't have to. Honestly, though, I think it was more down to a matter of luck and attitude. I never actively engaged in fighting for feminism not because I didn't care, but because I didn't have to. If I wanted to do something; great, get on with it.

Having boys has made it an issue, though. Maybe having children would do that anyway, in the way they make you reexamine your stance on, say, TV or jaywalking. But as the sole female representative in a house of men, I'm at the diametric opposite end of where I grew up. So we try to ensure the boys know two things:it's possible for them to aspire to anything they like; and secondly: that would be also be true even if they were girls. My boys love to cook (although, as with reading, I fail to see why that should be gender-biased; cooking's a basic human skill set, for crying out loud). They love to play rugby. They love to read endless books, and they love to climb trees. For the most part, I think we're doing OK. All I need to do is figure out how to persuade them that Mummy doesn't clean...