Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Prime Writers

Antonia Honeywell
by Catriona Troth

Soon after she’d signed the publication deal for her first novel, The Ship, Antonia Honeywell realised the people around her had other preoccupations.

She had four small children, and in the lead up to Christmas, they were more interested in turkey, mince pies and what was under the Christmas tree than the imminent publication of their mother’s book. Other debut authors were tweeting about writing residencies they’d been offered, but such opportunities were out of the reach of a forty-something mother.

So in the midst of putting the children to bed on night, and with Joanna Walsh’s Guardian article, 'Why must the best new writers’ always be under 40?' on her mind, Honeywell tweeted a plea:

Is anyone else out there publishing their debut novel over the age of 40?

Claire Fuller tweeted back:

I'll be debut-ing at 43. Let's meet and drink champagne in celebratory protest.

That was the start of a string of responses. Before long, Honeywell was compiling a growing list of debut authors over the age of 40, all eager for someone to share their experience with. And that first champagne meet up happened only a few weeks later, in Browns in Covent Garden.

Thus were The Prime Writers born.

The Prime Writers on their 1st Birthday


That was in January 2015. The original group of 35 authors at that first meet up has now expanded to over 60.

“We completely underestimated the impact we would have. So much emphasis is placed on supporting young writers. But we are at a different life stage, and that puts us in a different space, with different needs. We are more likely to have an existing career, a family, elderly parents to care for.”

The group is specifically for trade published authors who brought out their debut novel over the age of 40. The restriction to trade publishing does not arise out of snobbery, but because the issues that dominate their writing lives do tend to be different to those facing self-published authors.

“It’s about finding your tribe. Writing can be very lonely. Publication isn’t a set route, and no two authors have the same post-publication story. We have different support networks – someone might have a brilliant agent, or an editor, or a writing group they rely on.

“We end up discussing the pressures of delivering that second novel under contract, or issues with advances, or the difficulty of selling a second novel that doesn’t fit a publisher’s expectations - things that arise because we are trade published. A forum in which you can discuss these things openly is without price.”

As with any community like this, sustaining it takes a huge amount of work. Three of the group, Clare Fuller, Vanessa Lafaye and Sarah Jasmon, set up their website, with its closed discussion forum. And the group have a rota for curating material on the website and managing their Twitter feed, @ThePrimeWriters.

“We need people who will engage actively in what we do, and embrace the opportunity to influence and contribute to the group’s identity. That is one reason why we are limiting numbers now. It has to stay manageable.”

Honeywell admits that the group is largely white, middle class and female. “I am not sure what to make of that. We are not trying to shut anyone out. The original invitation was completely open, and the people who responded were self selecting. It’s certainly something we’re very aware of.”

1st Birthday Cake (by Antonia)
The Prime Writers have recently had a first anniversary lunch (with cake) after which they held a meeting to decide what direction they wanted to group to take. And there is plenty on the horizon. Some of the group will be taking part in the Hillingdon Literary Festival in October. And nine of the authors are going away together on a writing retreat later in the year. Two other festivals have approached the group, and discussions are afoot about how best to share their wealth of experience and expertise with their biggest audience – aspiring writers.


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Antonia Honeywell’s first novel, The Ship, was published in February 2015. She says wrote her first ‘novel’ at the age of 8, and has always kept diaries and written letters. But after a difficult childhood, which included a period of homelessness, she put writing on the back burner to prioritise, “safety and security, home, having a front door key.”

After a period as education officer for the Natural History Museum, she became a teacher and was Head of English in a large comprehensive in a deprived area of London.

“I knew I was going to have to write that novel. But I knew nothing about how to begin to be a published writer. I had a romantic notion that someone would just catch sight of me writing on a train and that would be that. I didn’t know you had to work hard to even get your work considered. I didn’t know how to read rejection letters, and to understand they were being encouraging. I learnt slowly and the hard way that what matters is your willingness to work at it.”

Books by Prime Writers

Other Prime Writers include Claire Fuller (Our Endless Numbered Days) Laline Paull (The Bees) Kate Hamer (The Girl in the Red Coat). Explore the full list here.

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