Sunday, 29 December 2013

PD James in conversation with Gillian Hamer

Following our exclusive chat with PD James and the huge success of the BBC three-part TV adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley, here's what she said to us in our recent chat about her reasons for writing the Jane Austen adaptation ...

Along with Agatha Christie, this author formed my earliest inspirations to read and then go on to write crime thrillers. We’re thrilled to have a short Q&A with Baroness James of Holland Park – better known as PD James.

PD James needs no introduction. But for those of you who aren’t avid crime readers, a writer first published in 1962, introducing investigator and poet, Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard. She has gone on win a plethora of awards and accolades and published over twenty novels featuring Dalgliesh, and her other protagonist, Cordelia Gray. Many of her works have also been developed for television and film. The most famous being the Hollywood blockbuster, Children of Men, in 2006.

We asked Baroness James about her experience in seeing her writing developed into other formats and her thoughts on the future of publishing.

You have been lucky to see your books adapted not only for television (The Inspector Dalgliesh Mysteries) but also into box-office successes as films (Children of Men). What was your involvement with the adaptations, and as a writer, which format – film or television – gave you the most enjoyment?

It is always an advantage for a writer to have her work filmed or televised as it brings people to the book, but few of us are really satisfied with the result.  However, I have been more fortunate than many writers and now look forward to the TV adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley.  Television gives me the most involvement as I am often invited to visit the set during filming, and was indeed at Chatsworth recently with my PA to watch a scene being filmed.  This has not so far happened with a feature film and I have to wait until it is released to see the final result.

You’ve been quoted as saying you enjoyed the film version of Children of Men but that the actor, Roy Marsden was not ‘your idea’ of Inspector Dalgliesh. What are the hardest things, as a writer, about relinquishing your rights and letting someone else take control of your work?

I accept that, with a film or TV adaptation I have to relinquish certain of my rights and let people regarded as experts in a different medium take control of my work to a large extent.  The hardest thing is when the dialogue, which I have taken considerable trouble over writing, is expunged and the adaptor’s dialogue substituted.

Location seems to play a strong central role in your books, something that means a lot to me also as a crime writer. This has helped bring the books alive on screen. Thinking of The Lighthouse and The Private Patient, you seem to favour strong, remote locales. What do you look for in a perfect location for your novels, and what do you think location to brings to the narrative?

My novels nearly always begin with my response to a place and this was certainly true of The Lighthouse and The Private Patient.  I do favour strong remote localities where it is possible rationally to limit the number of suspects.  In looking for a perfect location I tend to choose a place which I find beautiful, mysterious or unusual, and I think the location is important to the narrative as it increases credibility, influences character and plot, and adds to realism.

You must have learnt a great deal about writing and publishing over your career. What words of wisdom would you impart to the next generation of writers?

If asked for advice I generally give the following:  A prospective writer should read widely, not in order to slavishly copy, but to see how established writers exercise their craft.  It is also important to increase one’s vocabulary since words are the building blocks of a writer’s talent.

You’ve obviously won so many awards, honours and accolades throughout your career. What, as a writer, have been your proudest moments and achievements?

I have been very fortunate in the public acknowledgement of my success, but I think the proudest moment was when I received a telephone call from my agent to say that Faber & Faber had accepted my first novel.

I’ve read many of your novels over the years, and Death Comes to Pemberley was a change of style and direction for you. What caused that change – and do you have plans for more historical crime adaptations to come?

After the publication of The Private Patient I was wondering whether I had the energy to write a long novel, as detective stories tend to be.  It seemed the right time to return to an idea which had been long in my mind: to combine my two enthusiasms – the novels of Jane Austen and detective story writing – to write a crime novel set in Pemberley some six years after the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth.  It was a joy to write and has been a world-wide bestseller.   I have no plan for more historical crime adaptations in the future.

And finally, can I ask how you see the future of publishing? In such a rapidly changing market and technological world, do you believe ‘real books’ will survive or that e-books are the future?

I think it is difficult for anyone, including publishers, to see with any clarity the future of publishing, but I acknowledge that e-books are immensely convenient for long journeys, stays in hospital or holidays when so many books can be transported so easily.  And e-books also have a use for reading in bed and for people with poor eyesight.  However I believe, and greatly hope, that what you rightly describe as ‘real books’ will survive.

Monday, 9 December 2013

In Conversation with Ben Galley

Ben GalleyBen Galley is an independent author, advisor, entrepreneur and speaker. Here he tells JJ Marsh how he does it.

Ben, you’re one of the leading lights in the indie publishing world, quite literally doing everything yourself. Why did you choose this route?

Why thank you very much—very kind. I can sum up my answer in two words: ‘Freedom’ and ‘Control’. The self-publishing revolution has opened the gates very wide for entrepreneurial authors, and we now have the ability to reach readers directly, and most importantly make a living, without the help of a traditional publishing house. Because of this, we can operate with very few constraints. Yes, we forego some of the benefits too, such as the marketing punch, or the advance, but ours is a long-tail method. We start small and aim high, building our own little book empires bit by bit, reader by reader. You run a business, as well as write books, and all the while you retain control. Your books. Your business. Your responsibility. That’s what I like about being indie.  

Of all the indie covers, I think yours are some of the most beautiful, and apt, I’ve seen. Would you talk a little about the process of creating those images?

Promo 2013 BannerI’d be happy to! The covers for the Emaneska Series were all done by one very talented artist based in Sweden. I brought him on board for the whole lot after he did such an amazing job with my 2010 debut, The Written. Originally I used CrowdSpring to find a designer. I’m a great advocate of this platform (and others such as DesignCrowd or PeoplePerHour) as well as crowd-sourcing in general. All I did was post my ideas and scribbles on the back of napkins to CrowdSpring’s public forum, and designers soon started submitting their ideas for designs—not just outlining them in words, but also producing mock-ups that I could look at and imagine on a shelf. My designer Mikael entered about 24 hours before the project’s closing deadline, and I’m so very glad he did. His vision for the style of the covers was perfect—in my opinion the style is bold, and yet very true to the fantasy genre at the same time. Definitely better than my badly-drawn stick-figure waving a sword.  

You wear many hats, but let’s talk about Ben the Writer. The Emaneska SeriesLord of the Rings meets Sin City—tell us more.

You've basically hit the nail on the head there. I always describe the Series as a mix of Lord of the Rings and Sin City—a blend of mythology and brutal action, of mystery and magic. In fact, the whole flow of the plot is an ever-changing, ever-deepening mystery surrounding the main character, Farden. Farden is a strange beast. He’s a Written mage, which makes him a walking weapon, but he’s also a troubled soul—a loner with a tendency for bloody violence, haunted by the disgrace of his dead, mad uncle. He’s also got a tendency for bad luck, or so it would seem. Farden is not only addicted to a drug banned to his kind, he’s dallying with the one princess you’re not supposed to dally with. All of these things make him a tool, a tool for the forces setting a vast plot in motion, one that spans four books, several decades, and thousands of miles of Emaneska’s wild and icy terrain. The Written kicks off with the theft of a book from the libraries of Arfell, during which five scholars are brutally murdered by somebody with immense skill in magic, somebody looking to either start a war, destroy the world, or both at the same time. Farden is sent to investigate, and soon finds himself caught in a whirlpool of politics, myths, legends, and lies. I won’t tell you too much more—don’t want to spoil it! I wanted to make Emaneska very Scandinavian, and I used a lot of Norse poems and eddas, which feature heavily in Middle Earth too. That’s why Lord of the Rings was such an inspiration for the canvas behind all the bloody action of its Sin City/300-esque story. Emaneska is a pseudo-medieval world, almost a world trapped between two ice ages that history forgot. But it’s a wild world, full of the echoes of daemons and gods. Dragons, minotaurs, vampyres, lycans, they’re all in there. Emaneska drips magic and myth. I’m sure you’ll like it.  

SH Logo 13 SmallI’ve learnt a lot from ShelfHelp, your advice site for indie authors. Now you’ve co-written a book called Choosing a Self-Publishing Service for ALLi (The Alliance of Independent Authors). So writers supporting writers is important to you?
Incredibly so. Good self-publishing advice can be hard to come by these days. With so many opinions and facts flying around, it can be hard to know which ones to believe. There are sadly a few companies that exploit authors too, charging ridiculous sums for sub-standard services. This is what I’m trying to combat with Shelf Help and why I helped with the ALLi Guide, and also what the numerous author communities are doing by coming together and sharing good information. We’re a friendly bunch really, eager to share. I’m a member of the ALLi community, and I’m always blown away by the amount of notifications I get on a daily basis, all posts and comments from like-minded authors, all great stuff. It’s a must for new and upcoming authors to seek out communities, and to invest in sources of good advice like the Choosing a Self-Publishing Service Guide. Knowledge is the key to good decisions, I think.

You’ve taken the engaging-with-readers concept to a new level, by using Kickstarter to fund the graphic novel version of The Written. What are the benefits for you?

There’s one reason I love platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and that’s engagement. Thanks to our good old friend the internet, I can chat to fans all around the world in the blink of an eye. I can stay current, relevant, and keep my fans up to date in the process. The speed and ease of transmitting information has now united disparate fan bases, and given opportunity to those who are still looking to build theirs. Kickstarter was a way of using this sudden surge of being social to fund a project I have been yearning to do for years. Sharing is so ubiquitous and commonplace these days, and so when people find something they like (such as a graphic novel project like mine) social media stimulates a viral response, and the project spreads from one person to the next. Without it, it would be much, much harder to get things done. It’s great to be a part of that. At the same time as funding my project, I’m also building up my fanbase and making friends. In turn, my backers get to be part of something exclusive, something they can all share in. It’s at times like these that you think, 'God bless you, internet'.  

Changing format from novels to a graphic series and interactive apps must require some story re-imagination and a whole set of new skills. And you’re now working with an artist. For such an independent mind, how’s the collaboration process going?

Very well, thank you. It’s been a long road getting from funding to plan to artwork, but we’re full steam ahead now, aiming for a release in the next few months, maybe even by Christmas, if we’re lucky. My artist Mike Shipley has a brilliant mind as well as an incredible knack for artwork and capturing scenes. He broke down the book into chunks that suited his style, and yet kept my story. It’s also enabled us to mix it up a bit, and create something the same, but also slightly different. I can’t wait to release it.  

You provide wise advice on understanding metrics. Why is that so crucial for the indie author? Or any author?

Simply speaking, it allows indies to market smarter. In a market that’s very noisy, it can be a challenge to market your books, so what indies need to do is gather data to help them analyse what works and what doesn’t. I speak about this at length in my forthcoming Shelf Help book, but in a nutshell, if I know that making videos has a higher conversion rate (one that I can physically track in numbers) than tweeting, I’ll spend more time on the videos. I can only know this through data, and that’s why it’s important for authors, when they want to take a break from writing, to sit down and take a good hard look at things like sales stats and web analytics.  

Not content with writing, touring, collaborating and helping other writers, you’re now taking on Amazon. Why set up an indies-only eBookstore?
Logo_f_smallLike the graphic novel, Libiro was something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I highly appreciate and support what stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are doing for indie authors, but those stores are vast, and indie authors can often have a hard time standing out. Some of us are also getting a bad rap—self-publishing is unfairly notorious for bad quality and bad books. (It’s the few that spoil it for the many, unfortunately, as there are a lot of authors like me that put a lot of time and effort aiming for professional standards.) I wanted to combat both things at once, while at the same time injecting a little of that local bookshop feel into an online store. That goes missing sometimes, and that’s a shame. In doing so, I want Libiro to be popular with both readers and writers. And so we have now launched a simple and friendly store that only sells books by indie authors and small/independent presses. In the two-and-a-half months we’ve got almost 450 books on the store, and we’ve got a lot of ideas in the pipeline too. I’m looking forward to seeing what Libiro can become!

I have to ask: top tips for time-management?

Now that’s a hard one! My top tips would be:
  • Calendar.
  • To-Do list.
  • Notepad.
Using those three together is vital, I can tell you that. I am a little guilty of piling the responsibility plate high—I’m a little zealous, I can’t help it. But I’ve also learnt, at my peril, that prioritisation is paramount. Knowing what is the most important thing to be working on will help you focus. And, hey, don’t forget to take a day off once in a while, to get some perspective. Self-publishing is hard work, but it’s worth it.  

Ben Galley is a young self-published author from sunny England. He is the author of the epic and gritty fantasy series, The Emaneska Series. He has published four books to date, and doesn’t intend to stop any time soon. Ben is incredibly zealous about inspiring other authors and writers. He runs the popular advice site Shelf Help, where he offers advice about writing, publishing, and marketing. Ben is also the proud co-founder and director of eBook store Libiro, a store exclusive to indie authors. If you want to know more, Ben can be found being loquacious and attempting to be witty on Twitter (@BenGalley) or at his website,

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. The Beatrice Stubbs Boxset is out now.

Three Reviews on the subject of Memory

Small World by Martin Suter 

A moving and unusual book, which tells the story of Konrad, now in his 60s, who has enjoyed a long association with the Koch family of Z├╝rich. He’s getting forgetful, and the family suspect him of drinking a little too much for his own good. When his absent-mindedness leads to a fire which destroys their villa, something has to change. Gradually it emerges that Konrad is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and as his grip on the present loosens, he recalls more and more about the past. Something Elvira Koch, the family matriarch, fears the most. Swiss author Suter draws his characters with balance and depth, and uses the gentle, but inexorable pace of the story to increase the tension, pile on the pressure and offer poignant insights as to the nature of the disease, of memory and the dangers of secrets.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The narrator returns back to the lane where he grew up, and sitting on a bench by a pond, remembers how much he has forgotten. The adult and his seven-year-old self relate the fantastical recollections of his childhood, his encounters with the Hempstock women, his battles with Ursula the usurper and some startling moments of domestic drama. Gaiman’s story is freighted with symbolism, imagination, memory, reality and invention, stories and myth, while rooted in the Sussex countryside of the 1960s. Full of extraordinary images and ideas, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story I will revisit. This is not a long book, but one to savour and remember how powerful a thing is the childhood imagination.

Secrets of the Italian Gardener by Andrew Crofts

Difficult to define and delightfully unexpected, this novella is an excellent read. A dual narrative draws the reader into the present-day world of a Middle-Eastern dictator struggling to retain power in the events of the Arab Spring, while the ghostwriter hired to pen his autobiography wrestles with painful memories of a past tragedy. The eponymous gardener is rather more than what he seems, sharing observations and philosophies on the personal and political. I read this on a plane journey, which seemed the perfect environment to lose myself to this well-woven adventure. I found a parallel in the realistic environment of the palace, an oasis of luxury amid the cruelty and chaos of the outside world, and the narrator’s mind, where he yearns to escape his constant grief. But the walls, inevitably, come tumbling down. Robert Harris meets Paulo Coelho in a thoughtful, intelligent story.

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. The Beatrice Stubbs Boxset is out now.

60 Seconds with Jeet Thayil

Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter, librettist and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry: These Errors Are Correct (Tranquebar, 2008), English (2004, Penguin India, Rattapallax Press, New York, 2004), Apocalypso (Ark, 1997) and Gemini (Viking Penguin, 1992). He is the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008). His first novel, Narcopolis, (Faber & Faber, 2012), won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize 2013. He currently lives in Berlin.

Which book most influenced you when growing up?

The Bible. And Fleurs du Mal. I was introduced to those poems at the age of fourteen by an uncle who was obsessed by Baudelaire. It changed my life. It made me a poet and a writer and a reader.

Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?

These days? (shrugs) Today I wrote on the train from Paris. I write wherever I wake up, if the laptop is to hand.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?

My father. He’s a writer and a journalist. He wrote books and edited a newspaper and a magazine. So I grew up watching him work. As a boy, I fell asleep to the sound of a typewriter. I still find that a comforting sound.

What’s the relationship between your writing and your music? Do you find one influences the other?

Often. I like to work on two or three things at the same time. So when I’m stuck on one I move over to the other. And it often bleeds in between. But the last thing I’d want to do is find out how that bleed happens. If something’s working, you really shouldn’t mess with it.

And as a performance poet, it strikes me you’re a sound person.

A sound person? Very nice to hear that for a change. There are many people in the world who’d strenuously disagree with you. But yes, if we’re talking ears.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

That first Bridget Jones book.

You liked it?

Loved it. Great fun. I shouldn’t admit it, but since we’re old friends ...

The structure of Narcopolis reminds me of Celtic storytelling – tangents and stories within stories – where does that come from?

Interesting question. I hadn’t thought about that before. I think it comes from the East, a lot of the Arabian stories and Indian folk tales. They begin one place and go somewhere completely different. But I just found that an interesting way to write. It keeps me interested as I don’t know it’s going to end up.

Where did the name Dimple come from?

I knew someone with that name. And Dimple was a well-known Indian actress in the 70s, a continuing influence on girls’ names. India has endless dimples.
Now that I think of it, the Bollywood Dimple didn’t have dimples, unless in places invisible to the untrained eye.

Which book has impressed you most this year?

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. By far. And a book of erotic short fiction by an Indian woman writer. Long overdue that this should happen in India, but beautifully crafted and very literary. It’s called A Pleasant Kind of Heavy.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

When I was working on Narcopolis, I would work till very late at night, go to bed, wake up and start on it again, without really thinking. I found that when you’re in that oneiric, half-oneiric state, still slightly in the dream, very interesting things would happen. I’d come up with things I’d never have thought of later in the day. I was astonished about how much I remembered from that time, 25 years earlier, when I had no idea I would write a novel, when I was not exactly in the clearest of mental states. I was also surprised how unhealthy it was, the process of remembering.

A negative experience?

Absolutely. It was the opposite of cathartic.

And the latest project?

A new novel, but I’m going to set that aside, because I think it’s a good idea. And I’m working on a collection of short, travel, fictionalised memoir pieces.

Can you say anything about the novel?

I think it’s better if I don’t. Just silly superstition, but you know ...

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

I wish I could overuse the words ‘The End’. Unfortunately, that’s not happening.

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. The Beatrice Stubbs Boxset is out now.

Indie vs Trade Publishing: A Clash of the Titans?

By Catriona Troth

This has all got brilliantly competitive...” Polly Courtney tweeted the night before her scheduled debate with Richard Charkin, CEO of Bloomsbury Publishing.

Billed as “What’s The Future for Publishers in the Digital Age?”, November’s Byte the Book event was a head to head discussion between best-selling self-published author, Courtney and Charkin, recently appointed Vice President of the International Publishers Association.

Byte the Book is a membership organisation that aims to bring together publishers, authors, agents and others in the publishing industry to educate them on the latest developments in technology and to help authors to get published – whether independently or through the trade. To that end, they run monthly events in the luxurious surroundings of The Club at the Ivy in London’s West End.

This month, they challenged Charkin and Courtney to answer the question: 
“Do authors need publishers or are they better off to go it alone? What do we think will happen to publishing houses in the future as the self-publishing movement gathers momentum?”

Plenty of potential for sparks to fly, you might think – though Courtney somewhat deflated the combative atmosphere by admitting the two had met before – over a bad college dinner – and had found more than a little to agree on.

Charkin began by talking about his early experience of publishing, with Harrap and Co in the 1970s. His description reminded me of the world PD James describes in her book Original Sin, which captures a publishing house on the cusp of the change from the old world to the new commercial realities.

Courtney’s experience is much more recent.  She self-published her first book, Golden Handcuffs, with Matador in 2006.  Her success as a self-publisher led to her being picked up by Harper Collins but her experience there was not a happy one.  Shoe-horned into a ‘chick-lit’ box she felt she did not fit, Courtney famously ditched her publisher shortly after the launch of It’s a Man’s World, and her latest and boldest book, Feral Youth has again been self-published through Matador.

It’s true that they did find much to common ground.  Courtney admitted that self-publishing was ‘too easy to do badly.’ And Charkin agreed that the best promotional tool for fiction was word of mouth.

However, Charkin strongly refuted Courtney’s accusation that the industry was becoming too risk averse.  “If you sat through an editors’ meeting, you would never say that these people don’t take risks.”

And when Courtney posed the question of how readers can filter the vast number of titles published each year to find the titles they really want to read, Charkin replied, “We have filters and they are very highly paid – they are called editors.” (Which rather begs the question of what happens if a reader finds their taste doesn’t match that of the majority of editors.)

So had the debate been combative enough?  Afterwards, Courtney regretted not tackling Charkin on what publishers can actually offer authors. “One of the major things aspiring authors want from a trade publishing deal is marketing support – and that is one thing they almost certainly won’t get.”

The next Byte the Book event will be on Thursday 9th January at The Club at The Ivy, 18:30-19:30, theme tba. Events are free to Byte the Book members and cost £15/£20 for non-members.  Sign up here to be kept up to date with the latest events. 

Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at, or on Facebook at Books by Catriona Troth.

In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights

by Catriona Troth

A couple of years ago, the Human Rights Consortium – part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, came up with the unusual idea of using poetry to promote awareness of Human Rights issues.

In October 2012, on the last day of the Bloomsbury Festival, they hosted a Human Rights Poetry Slam. The response was so good they thought they might take the idea further and publish a few poems. They put out a call for submission, and were overwhelmed by the response. Between February and May, they received a total of 640 entries, from which a panel of judges chose 150 poems from 18 countries, representing a total 38 different heritages.

The result is something unique. Established poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Ruth Padel appear alongside those who had never written a poem before – human rights lawyers, workers from NGOs and those for whom the issues raised are all too personal. It covers issues from the past – like the slave trade – and those – like the war in Syria – that are unfolding under our eyes today. The breadth of scope in its thirteen thematic chapters reminds us that Human Rights issues can touch every aspect of our lives.

The anthology was launched with a second Human Rights Poetry Slam at the Bloomsbury Festival on 20th October. A few days later, when I talked to Laila Sumpton, one of the driving forces behind the project, she was still buzzing with enthusiasm.

“The first Human Rights Poetry Slam, at the end of the Bloomsbury Festival 2012 really inspired the academic staff,” she tells me. “It brought home to them what an amazing way it was to reach a new audience and highlight key human rights issues in a really understandable and immediate way.

“After that, we decided we could publish a few poems.  We thought we might get enough for a small pamphlet, but it took off in a way we could never have anticipated.

“This was something that has never been done before – an anthology with open submission, covering the whole spectrum of human rights, and repeated annually. Pen International produce regular anthologies focused on freedom of speech, but they tend to work with established writers. Amnesty International have had open submissions for their anthologies, but their last one, Fire in the Soul, was published in 2009.

“We thought it would be amazing if people would take part who worked in the field but who would never normally think to enter a poetry competition. So we used all sorts of channels to spread the word.  The Institute of English Studies and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies were able to put the call out through academic and poetry circles, while organisations like Peace Brigades International were able to reach those actually experiencing these issues at first hand.”

It was through Peace Brigades International that they were able to contact David Ravelo, a human rights activist sentenced to eighteen years in La Picota prison in Colombia on a trumped up murder charge.  Ravelo turned to poetry as a way of coping with his imprisonment, and his poem, ‘The Firmament’ is published in the section, ‘Sentenced.’

Ruth Padel, who wrote the foreword to the anthology, first connected with Sumpton through Exiled Writers Ink at the Poetry Cafe.  “She had been involved with Human Rights struggles in South America.  She recognised this project was unique and said she would like to be involved.”

Judging the hundreds of entries took place over “three gruelling weeks of reading anonymised submissions,” (as it says in the introduction to the anthology). In order to be selected, a poem had to show poetic merit, but also clearly portray a human rights issue. “We wanted poems that looked at things from a fresh angle, but whose message was accessible and supported by accurate facts,” says Sumpton.

To reflect that, the judging panel included poets, human rights experts and an academic from the Institute of English Studies.

Poems were submitted in multiple languages with translations into English. They received poems the posed different point of view on the same issue. Poems that used humour and poems that were heart-breakingly sad. There were some surprises when the names of the selected poets were revealed – a poem that they had assumed must be by a woman, for instance, would turn out to be by a man.

The beautiful cover design by Stephanie Mill takes its imagery from the peaceful revolution that ended decades of fascist dictatorship in Portugal.  It shows a spray of carnations in a slender vase that, on closer inspection, reveals itself as the barrel of a gun.

If this is an unusual project for an academic department to undertake – especially one not part of an Arts Faculty – then some of the motivation must come from the fact that two of the prime movers who worked with the Human Rights Consortium to realise this project – Laila Sumpton and Anthony Hett – are also members of Keats House Poets. Set up as part of the Cultural Olympiad, Keats House Poets is a poetry collective whose brief is to use creative activities to draw a younger audience into a place they might otherwise never visit – in this case, the house on Hamstead Heath where John Keats wrote some of his best poetry. 

“This was a young poet who was basically sofa surfing, who found a place where he was free to write.  So it’s an ideal space to develop young poets, but people like that had never been able to perform their before.”

They now run monthly workshops in Keats House, as well as supporting one another’s writing.

So which came first, I ask Sumpton – poetry or her interest in Human Rights?

“I studied English,” she tells me. “And while I was doing that, I ran some poetry events and published some anthologies of student poetry. But much of the poetry I wrote had a Human Rights theme, and when I finished my degree, I knew I wanted to work with NGOs.”

After a year of working, she started a part-time Masters degree with the Human Rights Consortium.

“I don’t think I actually managed to submit any poems as course work,” she jokes. “But as long as I can, I am going to try and keep them both going.  And this project has been the perfect way to bring them both together.”

The anthology is not a money raising venture.

“We made it a principle that no one who contributed should have to pay for the anthology, so just the postage to 18 different countries ate up a lot of money.  But the aim was always to raise awareness, not funds. As well as developing research, the Human Rights Consortium has a mandate to promote Human Rights research through the wider community and to make it accessible.  So we are treating this as a type of creative campaigning – ‘poetry activism,’ if you like.”

And it doesn’t stop with there.  As well as planning next year’s anthology, Sumpton and her colleagues are lining up a series of events using the poems as a springboard.  Some of these will have a broad theme and others will have a specific focus.

“We are trying to connect with appropriate venues and festivals, and bring in experts and support groups with a specific, relevant focus.  For instance, on International Women’s Day next year (8th March 2014) we will be holding a workshop at Keats House on Women’s Rights.”

If you are interested in hosting one of these events, you can contact Laila Sumpton via the Human Rights Consortium:

In Protest, 150 Poems for Human Rights, is published by the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2013. Its editors were Helle Abelvik-Lawson, Anthony Hett and Laila Sumpton

Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at, or on Facebook at Books by Catriona Troth.

60 Seconds with Ben Hatch

Ben grew up in London, Manchester and Buckinghamshire, where he lived in a Windmill that meant he was called Windy Miller at school for years, though he's not been scarred by this experience at all. He now lives in Brighton with his tiny wife Dinah, and two children, in a normal house. He likes cheese and is balding although he disguises this fact by spiking his hair to a great height to distract people he wishes to impress.
His latest book is called Road to Rouen: A 10,000 Mile Journey in a cheese-filled Passat. Before this he wrote Are We Nearly There Yet? 8,000 Miles Round Britain in Vauxhall Astra, that was a Radio 2 Book of the Year, became a Number One bestseller and is currently being made into a movie by Island Pictures.
Ben was on the long-list of Granta's 2003 list of most promising 20 young authors in the UK. In association with his wife Dinah, he has also written three guidebooks for Frommer's. The guidebooks are a mixture of helpful and humorous tips on holidaying with children, reviews of attractions, and incendiary arguments about things like what is the best type of owl?

Which book most influenced you when growing up?

Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. I wanted to be Holden Caulfield so I bought a deerstalker hat.

Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?

It is a study at the back of the house overlooking the garden. The things in it are only accidentally here because I brought them in and have forgotten, or haven’t been bothered, to take them back out. A tennis racquet, some Mega blocks, a salad bowl, two bike pumps and a roof rack. It also has a lot of shredded orange peel in it. I like to shred orange peel. It helps me think.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?

My dad. He was a comedy writer and performer in the Cambridge Footlights in the 1960s. He taught me the rhythm of writing a joke. He would throw (literally) books at me he felt I was ready to read. (Bang on the back of my head). “Try Amis. I think you’re ready for Amis.”

How do the family feel about featuring in your work?

The kids always take the books into their primary school to show their teachers. Owing to the swearing and nature of some of the adventures, I have never been asked to address a school assembly or help out in a classroom even after I have hinted I would like to do this. I have heard the word toothbrush whispered at me when I pass parents in the playground. My wife occasionally rules material out. A long process then begins where I try and convince her it “isn’t that bad. Everyone’s had things like this happen to them,” before it is struck out. I then put it all back in and she goes mad when she proofs the first draft.

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?


When writing about your travels, how do you go about recording the experiences of the day?

I write up the main events of the previous day the morning after while everyone else in my family is asleep. My wife becomes worried if she wakes to hear me chuckling. She knows this is always bad news for her.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

I hated reading all Shakespeare as a child and as a young adult. I wanted to shout: just say what you mean and stop poncing about with forsooths. A little bit of me still feels this way. Because he was equally lauded I expected to hate Dickens, but I love Dickens. The start of Great Expectations is some of the finest comic writing.

What makes you laugh?

Lots. I saw Richard Herring at the Brighton comedy festival a couple of weeks ago. I thought his show on death was so funny I left the venue sore from laughing. Anything by Caitlin Moran. My brother, my wife, my kids make me laugh. Pictures of cats that look like Hitler. And Dave Sedaris.

Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

I like to read the Innovations catalogue.

You said you were reluctant to become a writer - why?

I wanted to be a professional snooker player really. I just didn’t have the cueball control required. Or the potting ability.

Which book has impressed you most this year?

Single White Male by John Niven and The Humans by Matt Haig.

Will you tell us about the latest project? Where are you driving to this time?

I’m working on a sitcom based on my first novel, The Lawnmower Celebrity and on a book about a 6,000 mile drive round Italy with my family that involves the Mafia, a lion and a sweet maker to the pope.

You’ve sampled a fine range on your travels, so which would be your Desert Island cheese?

Comte. It would maintain its shape and taste in the heat.

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. The Beatrice Stubbs Boxset is out now.

Bill Bryson and Ben Hatch: Bringing Down the Curtain on the 8th Chorleywood Lit Fest

by Catriona Troth

There were so many events I would have liked to have attended at this year’s Chorleywood Lit Fest.  Ranulph Fiennes, David Suchet, Anne de Courcy... I was particularly disappointed to miss Kate Adie talking about her new books, Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War I.  But that night I was having dinner with my Triskele colleagues, on the eve of our own appearance on the Festival’s Fringe – and hey, an author’s got to do what an author’s got to do.

Once our own event was safely behind us, though, I was delighted to be able to snag tickets for the last two events of the Festival – Ben Hatch talking about his travelogue, The Road to Rouen and Bill Bryson talking about his latest book, One Summer: America 1927.


By coincidence, Ben Hatch had just completed JJ Marsh’s 60 Second Interview for Words with Jam (the second fastest ever respondent!). So I’ll confine myself to saying that he is every bit as funny in person as his books would suggest, and to sharing a handful of Ben’s best travel tips:

The secret of packing a car:

“You have to have all your suitcases identical sizes so they are interchangeable. They have to be squishy – and different colours so you can tell which one is which so you don’t end up inside the hotel with no toothbrush and no pants.”

The definitive argument against bringing too many shoes:

“Because my wife brought so many pairs of shoes, the children couldn’t bring many toys, and that meant they made toys out of ‘found objects’. At one point my daughter started treated her cardigan as a doll.  The cardigan was called Ella and she had to sit in the high chair and ride in the push chair, even if it meant our youngest had to walk.  The low point was at the Wedgewood Visitors’ Centre, when we had a fork out £5 for some clay so Ella could press a shape into it.  It’s one thing to be bossed  around by a four year old, but being bossed around by a four year old’s cardigan was too much. And all because my wife brought too many shoes.”

France or Italy?

“Italy, definitely, because of the way they deal with children.  In France, children are expected to behave like small adults.  We were shushed everywhere.  We were shushed in a museum where the only other person in the whole building was the security guard.  We were shushed by a homeless person on the street! But in Italy they let children be children. They can’t do enough for them.”
So what next for the Hatch family?  Ben is hoping to get a book deal so he can write up this summer’s trip to Italy, and he is in talks with a film company about a film of his first book, Are We Nearly There Yet?
And what about future trips? “I’d like to drive coast to coast across America.  Or maybe the trans-Canada Highway.  Or South Africa. But I guess that will have to wait until the children are a little older.”


I have been a fan of Bill Bryson’s ever since I read the opening chapter of Notes from a Small Island.  As it happens, he came to England from Iowa the same year as I returned from Canada – and his description of the culture shock of arriving in Britain from North America in the 70s brought back floods of memories. (No central heating, pervasive damp, one bar electric fires that smelled of dust and burnt your calves while leaving the rest of you freezing, candlewick bedspreads and half-day closing...) Clearly he was a kindred spirit.
The other reason I was looking forward to the evening was that – as she reminded me – 1927 was the year my mother was born.  “He’s billed it as the year of crooks, murderers and heroes. I want to know which one I am,” she told me.

With characteristic self-deprecation, Bill begins by telling us the story of the only time he has been recognised in the street his own country – only to find it was not a fan, but one of his son’s room-mates.

He then shared some of his favourites from his lifelong collection of unfortunate headlines and bizarre typos that began when, as a baffled American trying to get to grips with the vagaries of British English, he was faced with an article about declining seafood stocks in Cornwall in which every instance of the word ‘crustascean’ had been replaced with the words Crewe Station. This could probably only be topped by the over-zealous political correctness that changed as sentence about ‘Massachusetts accounts back in the black’ to ‘Massachusetts accounts back in the African American.’

Eventually, he is induced, somewhat reluctantly, to talk about his new book. (“When I read a new book, I don’t want to be told about all the best bits beforehand,” he protests.)

He began the book with the coincidence of two events – Charles Lindbergh flying the Atlantic and Babe Ruth, right at the end of his career, hitting 60 home runs in one season for the New York Yankees. He planned to write two parallel biographies that would intersect in the summer of 1927.  But when he began to research the book, he discovered an extraordinary confluence of event in that one summer.  It was the year that the Jazz Singer came out, the year of Al Capone’s downfall and the end of prohibition. The year of the Mississippi Flood and of a now-forgotten school massacre that eclipses Columbine or Sandy Hook.  And so the book changed.

True to his promise not to give too much away, he reads only one extract from the book, about Lindbergh’s landing in Paris at the end of his trans-Atlantic flight. If we think the cult of celebrity began with Beatles-mania in the 1960s, we need to think again. As Bryson vividly demonstrates, when Lindbergh left the coast of Newfoundland and disappeared from contact, the whole world held its breath.  When he reappeared over Ireland and it became clear that he would make it to Paris, crowds began to gather at Le Bourget airport. They stopped the traffic.  They swamped the runway.  They damaged Lindbergh’s plane with the sheer pressure of their bodies and in their enthusiasm, violently assaulted an innocent American bystander who was mistaken for their hero. In comparison, Beliebers are models of decorum and restraint.

But Bryson will not be pinned down.  For the rest of his talk, he tells stories that are drawn from across his range of books – from exactly why the only way he will now be killed by a light aircraft is if one falls on him from the sky, to the best advice on how to avoid bear attacks.

Bryson has now lived in Britain for most of the last forty years.  What, he is asked, does he like best about the British?

“Your humour,” he answers, without hesitation. “When we moved back to the States for a few years, this was what we missed most.  Just the little jokes you make out of everyday life. I found myself making those kind of jokes myself and they would fall completely flat. There was this one time when a neighbour’s tree came down in the night.  I got up to find him sawing it up and loading the pieces onto his car.  It was kind of a bushy tree and bits were hanging down. ‘I see you’re camouflaging your car,’ I said.  He looked really worried. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘The tree fell down.’”

And what does he like least? He hesitates – clearly reluctant to offend.  Our tendency to complain and the lack of can-do attitude in officialdom, he says at last. His years as Chairman of the Campaign for Rural England have left a few scars.

His favourite place to walk in the UK?  The Yorkshire Dales.  But the British countryside overall is something he is passionate about.  “The most intensively used land imaginable.  You’ve farmed it, mined it, built on it, driven over it.  And yet so much of it is still spectacularly beautiful. That’s an extraordinary achievement and something you should be really proud of.”

The Chorleywood Literary Festival is indeed ‘The Greatest Little Lit Fest You’ve Never Heard Of – Till Now.’ Over the sixteen days from 6th November to 21st November, a total of 2700 people attended the 19 events put on at the 8th Chorleywood Literary Festival.

Chorleywood is only half an hour out of central London. So sign up here to get notice of next year’s Festival. And you needn’t wait another year. Sheryl Shurville and Morag Watkins – the indefatigable owners of Chorleywood Bookshop, put on fabulous author events throughout the year. Join their mailing list to hear all the latest news.

Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at, or on Facebook at Books by Catriona Troth.

Getting the most out of the Internet – a basic guide for everyone and God by Derek Duggan

Surely there is no better tool in the aspiring writer’s arsenal than the internet. It makes you wonder how anybody ever wrote anything at all before it was invented by Mr T in the eighties. One of its most basic uses is, of course, simply to check facts, but that’s not much good to us writers. It’s always preferable for the fiction author to just make things up as we go along and then try to apply a plan retrospectively to our story at the end. And writers are in good company there – where would we be if God had checked his facts when he was writing the Bible?

No, there are much better ways to use the internet as a writer. For a start it gives us a great opportunity to see inside the minds of the characters we want to people our stories with without having to actually go out into the real world and do any tedious mucking about with actually talking to people or anything. For example, you may have a story that involves a character who works in the customer service department of an office. You may never have experienced this for yourself and so you could be at a loss as to how to truly inhabit the skin of this person. In the old days you might have had to actually take a job in a real office and spent a year or so working there, befriending people, asking them questions, making endless notes, before you could really understand what it is that office workers do all day. Now, thanks to the internet, that sort of research is a thing of the past. Simply fuck about on facebook all day instead of doing any work and hey presto you’ll know exactly what it’s like to work in customer service. Job done.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of blogs out there to tell you how useful having a blog is. So, why not write your own blog! You could invite other bloggers on to do a guest blog where they can tell you and your readers all about how useful their blog has been and maybe you could do a guest spot on theirs saying that yours is also useful. This is also the very place for talking about the plan you have retrospectively applied to your new bit of writing in case anyone that has read your stuff has the wrong idea about it. Not only that, but you can fill your blog with other very useful information like how many cups of tea you had while writing your book, what biscuits you prefer, and most importantly, what music you were listening to at the time and how that influenced you. Nothing interests people more than reading about what music someone else has been listening to. If only God would do a blog –
Extract from God Blog, Bloginus, verses 1-4

Verse 1. And lo, I had hit a wall and wasn’t sure how to continue. In truth I thought I might have to abandon my ambitious project altogether for no baddie had presented himself to hasten my tale onwards.

Verse 2. Thenceforth did I proceed to my mp3 collection and make great declarations that it was to play my favourite song at the time – The Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden.

Verse 3. And then did I fall to my knees and declare Alleluia! As like a bright star in the East the notion did present itself and come fully formed into what would be my head if I had one and thence did the story flow like the Rivers of Babylon (also on my playlist, as is Rasputin – I mean, thou can’st beat a bit of Boney M).

Verse 4. And truly I did give great thanks to Iron Maiden, for I would have been verily bolloxed without them.

Of course, one of the greatest things a writer can do on the internet is to develop a strong social media presence. When you submit your manuscripts this is one of the first things a prospective publisher will look at because it’s much more important to be able to make virtual friends with people than it is to be able to write. The correlation between how many friends you have and how good a writer you are is well documented, but how are you supposed to garner all these friends and followers in the first place? The simple way is to keep asking your existing friends to continuously share links to your blog (and to your friend’s blog that you’ve just done a guest spot on) and to your good review on Amazon. You can occasionally throw in a photo of your dinner (which isn’t a mental-in-the-face thing to do at all) and the odd one of a kitten or dog. This must work and definitely isn’t boring at all as is evidenced by the amount of writers who do just this. You must also throw in constant status updates on how your current work in progress is going. Here’s one I spotted from a while ago on God’s facebook page –

Verily hast I finished my fourth rewrite of the sequel to The Old Testament which is called The New Testament – This time they’re coming back from the dead! (In truth I’m still working on the by-line, maybe I’ll drop it? My publishers simply want to go with – The Gospel, but I think that makes it sound a bit like a West End Musical. What do you think?). I’m not sure which version to go with – perhaps I’ll release all four and let the readers make up their own minds.

And you get the idea with that.

So, that’s just a couple of ways for you to use the internet to great effect. Glad I could help.

Question Corner, with Lorraine Mace

Patrick from Edinburgh has been attending a writers’ group where more experienced writers talk about story and backstory. He isn’t sure of the difference between the two and sent in this heartfelt plea: Please can you explain to me what backstory is. Isn’t that the whole point of telling a story – to let readers know what’s happened to the character?

Let’s start by defining story: a story is a series of events, taking place in a particular setting, which cause a character, or characters, to undergo change or growth.

Now to define backstory: backstory is everything the author needs to know about the characters and setting in order to create a credible and riveting story.

Notice I said everything the author needs to know. The reason for the emphasis is because the reader doesn’t need to know all these things. All the reader needs to know, or rather wants to know, is how the characters react and what part the setting has to play in events.

My day job is critiquing the work of other writers and I deal with a large number of beginners, who almost invariably begin with a backstory info dump of astronomical proportions.

Whenever I point this out to the author, I get a reply explaining exactly why it is essential that the reader knows immediately that Freddy, who is nearly fifty, on the fat side, with sandy hair, hazel eyes, dark eyebrows and a lop-sided grin has only been out of prison for two weeks after being sent down for twenty years for aggravated assault while robbing a post office, not just one post office but a string of them and a bank, too, although he wasn’t actually convicted of the bank job because the cashier turned out to be an unreliable witness (in the end he only served fifteen of the twenty term because he got time off for good behaviour, although he wasn’t really good but the screws were on his payroll so didn’t report that he’d been running a gambling and drug ring on the inside, although one did try to grass him up, but he soon put a stop to that by getting the screws who were on the take to beat him up) and in the first week after getting out he tracked down his old girlfriend because she’d stopped visiting him and he had to beat her and her new boyfriend to a pulp because he couldn’t let them get away with making a fool of him.

If the reader doesn’t know all that, the aggrieved author will ask, how will they understand why he did what he did in week two? Quick answer? They’ll never need to understand, because they won’t read far enough into the book to care!

Taking the example above, how much does the reader really need to know? Very little. All of it is backstory and slows the storytelling.

Some advice given me to when I started out as a writer was to open as close to the action as possible. This is impossible to do if you start out by telling the reader who the players are and why they are there.

Let’s take Freddy and, instead of lumping all that information into the intro, put him right into a pivotal scene instead. If the book opened with Freddy confronting his ex-girlfriend and then beating up the boyfriend, the author would have the perfect opportunity to let the reader know that Freddy is just out of jail. Freddy could berate his ex-girlfriend because she didn’t wait for him. She, in turn, could impart all sorts of information about Freddy and his past as she begs him to spare her new lover.

If we really needed to, we could also learn that Freddy is a bit overweight because he isn’t as fit as he used to be before he went inside. How would the author tell us this? He wouldn’t – he’d show it by Freddy being surprised at how slow he is in attack and being horrified to find he’s wheezing at the end of the fight.

An info dump in the opening paragraphs is the kiss of death to any novel. Opening paragraphs have to hook readers and compel them to read on. They need to make the reader wonder why the characters are acting as they are. As I said earlier, the author needs to know everything, but readers only need to know just enough to intrigue and keep them turning the pages.

Readers can find out a few chapters further on what Freddy got up to while he was inside – provided it’s essential for them to know. But this doesn’t mean it’s okay to use info dumps later in the book. The moment a passage of backstory appears on the page, the author’s voice takes over and the reader is jolted out of the story.

Characters should be just like the people you meet. You have to get to know them by their actions and dialogue. If they speak for themselves, readers will believe in them and follow wherever they go. If the author speaks for them, that connection is broken.

One of the reasons writers are hammered with the mantra of “show, don’t tell” is because it is almost impossible to make an info dump of backstory if you are showing your characters in action, but all too easy to do so if you go into a long spell of narrative.

So, to summarise: think of backstory as an iceberg. It is everything that has happened to the character up to the point he or she appears in the story. The author needs to know all of this so that the players act in character. The reader only needs to know the iceberg tip – just enough to keep them intrigued and desperate to turn those pages.


Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and a competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer's ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.

Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of crime/thriller, Bad Moon Rising, featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey. The second in the series, Someday Never Comes, was released earlier this year and the third, Call It Pretending, will be out in December.