Wednesday, 26 April 2017

In Conversation with Joanna Cannon

By Gillian Hamer

Joanna Cannon graduated from Leicester Medical School and was working in psychiatry when she began writing in her spare time. Her debut novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, spent sixteen weeks as a Sunday Times Bestseller and is now published in fifteen languages. She has been interviewed by BBC News 24, BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 5, The Times, The Observer, and The Sunday Times, and has written for The Guardian, Good Housekeeping magazine and The Sunday Telegraph, amongst others.

She continues to work in psychiatry, in a voluntary capacity, with Arts for Health, who give the opportunity for service users and their carers to engage with the arts, both on the wards and in the community.

Hello, Jo, welcome to WWJ. Tell us a little about yourself and your writing?
I live in the Peak District, in Derbyshire, and I was working as a hospital doctor when I started writing. It was just for my own pleasure (I never expected anyone to read it, let alone for it to be published). However, curiosity got the better of me, and when I’d written around 30K words, I entered a competition at a writing festival – just to see what other people thought of it. I won the competition, which was on the Friday night, and by the Monday, I had seven offers of agent representation. I thought I was having some kind of psychotic episode. The agent I chose went on to sell Goats and Sheep to Harper Collins, and in January of 2016, it became a Sunday Times Bestseller. Things like that don’t happen to people like me …

Your debut novel released last year The Trouble with Goats & Sheep has become a bestseller. Can you sum it up in a single paragraph?
Goats and Sheep is set on a very ordinary housing estate in England, during the long, hot summer of 1976. It’s about two little girls, called Grace and Tilly, who wake up one morning during that summer, to find one of their neighbours, Mrs Creasy, has mysteriously vanished. They decide to spend their school holiday trying to figure out where Mrs Creasy might have disappeared to, and why. There’s a mystery running through the story, but it’s really about community and prejudice, and how unbelonging is actually a belonging all of its own.

You’ve said that daily life during your work for the NHS inspired a novel and led to your writing career – can you explain that in more detail?
On a practical level, I started writing as a kind of therapy, to help me deal with the stress (and distress) of working on the medical and surgical wards. The story itself, however, was inspired by my time in psychiatry. I met a lot of patients who lived on the periphery, who were often ignored or humiliated, purely because of the way they chose to live their lives. I wanted to write a story about how it must feel to be subjected to that kind of prejudice, and how we all have our own quirks and secrets, it’s just that some of us are better at hiding them than others. If you scratch the surface of most sheep, you will find yourself with a goat.

You were lucky enough to be part of a mentoring programme, Womentoring, early in your career – how did that help and are you now a fan of mentoring?
Mentoring is a wonderful initiative. As well as guidance and practical advice, it’s so important to have a sense of not being alone. Writing is incredibly isolating, and therefore plagued with self-doubt, and anything which balances that out is truly valuable.

If you could choose your own perfect writing mentor – who would it be and why?
I’d have to say Alan Bennett. Although I’m not entirely convinced he’d be up for it! I watched Talking Heads as a child, and it was the first time I truly appreciated the power of words. I think he’s an absolute genius.

I read and loved The Trouble with Goats & Sheep (see link to my Bookmuse review below) – what was your inspiration for the novel?
As well as working in psychiatry, the story was also inspired by the case of Chris Jefferies, the Bristol landlord, who was taken in for questioning over the murder of Jo Yeates. Chris Jefferies was also an outsider, someone who chose to live his life a certain way, and when his photograph was plastered all over the newspapers, everyone (including me) said, ‘he definitely did it, he looks just the type’. But, of course, it turned out that he didn’t. It really made me take a step back and question my own inclination to judge, and the strange criteria we all use to decide if someone fits in, or if they don’t.

The novel is very nostalgic with superbly detailed observations. Why did you choose that particular period – 1970s – to set your novel?
Goats and Sheep is, partly, about community and power of communities (both as a positive and negative force). In the 1970s, communities were beginning to change, very much as they are today. New people were coming in, from different backgrounds and cultures, which changed the dynamic of the streets we lived in, and (sadly) it made some people very uncomfortable. In the middle of this chaotic decade, with three-day weeks and strikes, and a rapid succession of prime ministers, we had the hottest summer on record. No one knew how to cope, and the community was forced to come together to get through it. I also wanted the physical environment – the cracked lawns and the melting pavements - to reflect the emotional breakdown of the Avenue’s residents. I also love The Bay City Rollers and Angel Delight ;)

What three books would you have to take with you to your Desert Island?
Gosh, that’s a difficult one. I think it would be Three Men in a Boat (because I think it’s the funniest book ever written). I’d also have to take a collection of my favourite poetry, because when you are feeling alone or anxious, there is nothing more uplifting than poetry. I think my third book would have to be Rachel Joyce. I can’t think of a better desert island companion than Harold Fry.

Which author do you most admire?
I have huge admiration for anyone who finishes writing a novel. It’s a massive achievement, whether you go on to be published or not, and it deserves a huge round of applause. As far as published authors go, I am in awe of people like Nathan Filer and John Boyne. Writers whose stories, somewhere between the first page and the last, change their readers mind about something. I can’t imagine anything more incredible.

Can you tell us anything about your second novel?
Three Things About Elsie is the story of Florence and Elsie, who are lifelong friends, and who now live at Cherry Tree Residential Home for the Elderly. The book opens with Florence, who has fallen and is lying on a wipe clean carpet in her flat, waiting to be rescued. We learn that Florence has a secret – a secret she promised she would keep forever – only Florence is worried her forever is now. It’s a story about growing old and the power of small acts of kindness, and it’s about how the echo we leave in the world might be louder than we think.

See Bookmuse Review of The Trouble with Goats & Sheep HERE

Twitter: @joannacannon


Instagram: @drjocannon


Thursday, 13 April 2017

60 Seconds with Liam Klenk

Liam is a world citizen of German-French-Italian origin. He is passionate about living authentically and learning from meaningful encounters with people from all over the world.

So far, Liam has lived on four continents and worked as a photographer, visual services artist, movie theatre manager, scuba instructor, hyperbaric chamber operator, show diver, underwater theatre coach, and production manager.

Liam's first book and memoir Paralian was published in 2016. He currently lives in Zurich, Switzerland.

Interview by JJ Marsh

Which work most influenced you when growing up?

The work of German author Karl May.

Where do you write?

Mostly either on the couch in our living room, or in the tram during the commute to work. I am teaching myself currently to be ok anywhere, no matter how loud or busy it gets around me...

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

Mrs. Mohatt, my Advanced Art teacher in the US.

How far are you influenced by other media, such as music or fine art?

Quite far. Mostly by films. I've loved cinema for as long as I can remember. And even at home I constantly watch DVDs. I love the cinematographic art of storytelling.

Do you have a phrase that you most overuse?

Haha, yes I do. I believe I say "I love this" way too often.

Which writers do you enjoy?

There are so many. J.K. Rowling is a great inspiration and one of my favourites. Jefferson Bass is another favourite, and Sten Nadolny, and Garth Stein, etc. The list is endless. I read constantly. Always have. Everything from adventure stories, to thrillers, to graphic novels, to classical literature, to popular science.

Why do you write?

It's a passion. I truly love it. With my first book Paralian it was also a life's dream. I felt this book needed to be written. I had to face so many challenges during the first 45 years of my life. I wanted to commit these experiences to paper to share them with my readers; to maybe help some, infuse them with my love for life, add to the human experience, share laughter, tears, be authentic and put myself out there just as I am.
Now I need to continue writing, because I am hooked and letting the words flow onto paper feels like the best way to express myself. I've found my medium.

What makes you laugh?

Almost anything. I love to laugh. A good sense of humour is the elixir of life. Especially being able to laugh about ourselves.

Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

Meg, by Steve Alten. I have to admit I've read it about ten times so far. And I still love it.

How has writing a memoir affected your sense of identity?

I have become more self-assured... and more forgiving - towards others as well as towards myself.

Which book has impressed you most this year?

David Vann's Aquarium has touched me deeply.

Would you share what you’re working on next?

I am working on a book with short-stories about the animal companions I've been privileged to have throughout my life, and the life lessons they gave me. It's going to be a profoundly honest book again. Fun as well. A book about amazing souls... and the ways they touch us, leaving us forever changed.

What’s the best way to start the weekend?

Sleeping in as long as possible. Then, going to the bakery with my soul mate.

Right after, we'll enjoy a lengthy brunch together at home. This includes a steaming hot Amarula coffee (yum!). After breakfast I'll be off for some 'me time' on the couch with a good book.











Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Baileys Prize Challenge

Are you up for a reading sprint?

The Baileys Prize shortlist is out, and what an eclectic bunch!
Six diverse and fascinating takes on the world as it is and was, from some of our finest contemporary women writers.

Top left, clockwise: Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀, Gwendoline Riley, C.E. Morgan, Linda Grant, Naomi Alderman, and Madeleine Thien

Check out the shortlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction here.
  • Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (Nigeria) Canongate
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (UK) Viking
  • The Dark Circle by Linda Grant (UK) Virago
  • The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan (USA) 4th Estate
  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley (UK) Granta
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Canada) Granta
The judging panel is composed this year of Sam Baker, Katie Derham, Aminatta Forna, and Sara Pascoe and chaired by the CEO of House Productions, Tessa Ross.

Listen to Aminatta Forna discuss the panel's choices and why the prize is valid on Radio 4's Front Row (starts at 1.30).

The Words with JAM Challenge

We're big fans of the prize and set ourselves the challenge of reading and reviewing them all before the prize announcement on June 7.

Why not join us?
We'll be reading and reviewing the six books for Bookmuse and we'd love to hear your thoughts.
 And the night before the winner is announced, we'll be joining Triskele Books for a Twitter chat on these novels, what we loved, what we didn't and our bets on the favourite.
 Tuesday 6 June, 19.30 GMT
 #triskeletuesday #baileysprize

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Libraries Rock!

by David McVey

Back in 2010, right at the start of the post-recession austerity regime, you may remember that an egregious pro-cuts demonstration descended on Westminster. Now, of course, this is a democracy and everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if they think austerity is great. That’s what I thought, anyway, as I watched on television, and then something caught my eye. One of the protestors carried a home-made placard that read;


It’s just a bit of fun, I suppose he might have argued. No, I’d have replied before I hit him, some things are too important to joke about.

The value of libraries to the communities they serve hardly needs to be emphasised but they’re especially useful for writers. Of course, writers use them to borrow books, for research and reference, digital resources and much more. But they are also valuable as places to work. ‘Where do you do your writing?’ writers are often asked, and most answer ‘At my desk,’ or something similar. But it’s a lonely business, hammering away alone at home, at a pitiless keyboard, and it’s one with many distractions; the contents of the fridge are just downstairs and the telly is just a click away. And then your neighbour clatters in his flip-flops onto his garden decking and switches on an inane commercial radio station at full blast just below your window, before firing up the Black and Decker on some abstruse garden DIY project. What now?

You could take the Rowling route and head for a café, as long as you have the cash (and the bladder capacity) to cope with an overpriced latte every half hour. More likely you’ll end up in the library, like I often do. I’m currently a member of three council library services, including in my own area. I have a membership card for my old university’s library as well as cards for the National Library of Scotland and the National Archives of Scotland. I know I can access a couple of other university libraries for working in, if not for withdrawing books. And I lecture in a small FE college campus with its own small library.

University libraries are inspiring places to work; whatever your research needs you’ll find the material you want and as you write you have a sense of belonging to a community of knowledge and learning and scholarship. Further, most university libraries these days have moved beyond the SILENCE! culture and provide areas for silent study, quiet study, and group study, as well as cafes and social areas. Prefer to work in silence, in an atmosphere of scholarly whispering or in a generalised buzz with an aroma of coffee? Choose your space.

The National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh is one of my favourite places to work. My reader’s card gives me access not only to their books but also their vast store of papers and maps and manuscripts, a bewildering range of which can be viewed online, much of it from my home laptop. As a member of Glasgow Libraries I can also use the mighty Mitchell Library, one of the world’s great municipal collections, with its vast range of lending facilities and specialist services. I remember hammering away on my laptop with a pile of books beside me in the Mitchell while the chap across the aisle was using one of the library PCs to access the web. He was browsing the site of an Ibiza club, in particular its photos of a wet t-shirt Competition. Libraries? All human life really is there.

Of course, libraries, from the local lending outfit to the great national institutions, offer a great deal more than books and study space. They run exhibitions and host writers’ and readers’ groups and special events to encourage reading and writing and library use. Like most writers, a decent amount of my income comes from contributing to events held in or run by libraries. There are all sorts of reasons for writers to cheerlead for libraries, not least of them self-interest.

Despite the cuts in library services during this long dark night of austerity, there are still hopeful signs. The rise of the genealogy craze caused new resources to be put into family history services, as libraries and archives saw an opportunity for a new source of income. A new Highland Archive Centre was opened in Inverness, for example, catering for the many people who flock to the Highlands seeking their roots. The Scotland’s People Centre at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh is also specifically designed to support family history research.

The opening of the new Library of Birmingham was, of course, contentious, given the closure of nearby local branches yet it was an incredible statement of intent; the body language said that libraries are part of the future, not the past, that books matter, reading matters, writing matters. The sheer daring and ambition of the Library of Birmingham was reflected in much of the media coverage of its opening, with reporters clearly puzzled at such an audacious new venture for what was, after all, just a library. The opening paragraph of a report on the BBC website gives a good example of the incredulity and negativity; ‘Birmingham's new central library has opened at a cost of £189m,’ it began, ‘but in an era of spending cuts and library closures across the country, is such an outlay justifiable?’

I do have a secret worry. So much of the use we make of our libraries is free. In our libraries, a rich hoard of the United Kingdom’s historical, artistic and literary treasures is free for anyone to access. There is often concern that the arts are beyond the financial reach of ordinary people, and this can certainly be true in the case of opera, music, dance and theatre. Yet an incredible abundance of cultural riches is available simply by applying for a library card.

But, regrettably, there are politicians. Do they know that such a vast cultural resource is available to the lower orders for free? After all, few politicians these days are particularly well-read. Would they be happy about these cultural handouts if they did know? Most of them, I suspect, of whatever party, are closer in fiscal thinking to Libraries Suck Guy than they are to writers and readers and scholars.

And so to the moral of my tale. Use your local and national libraries. Don’t take your laptop to an expensive, tax-dodging coffee chain, but rather to a community of the written word near where you live. Talk libraries up to your friends, readers, audiences, pupils, neighbours, students, colleagues, congregations and clients. Emphasise that they’re free, especially if you are speaking to people on low incomes or who are unemployed. Let’s play our part in packing libraries with people who value and appreciate them.

And if, as a result, we writers start to struggle to find a seat in our libraries, we can console ourselves with this; we’ll always be the ultimate winners from increased library use.

David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Self-publishing: a creative choice, or a last resort?

by Terry Tyler

Most writers, whilst penning their first novel, have fantasies about submitting to a major literary agent and being accepted by a traditional publishing house. This fantasy becomes reality for one in a million, if not fewer. I started writing long before Kindle; back in the days when I occasionally submitted novels to agents I gained some interest, but it amounted to 'yes, like the way you write, but can you change the content according to what is currently in vogue, so I can sell it to a publisher?'

I wrote nine novels in the 1990s, then started writing again in 2010. I submitted the first to an established agent, and received the same response. My book was from multiple-first-person points of view, which was not popular at the time. Then someone told me about self-publishing on Amazon, and I decided to go down that road, instead—which was when I discovered that some see self-publishing as a last resort on which to fall back after being turned down by agents, mainstream publishers, and even the smallest independent presses. It isn't. It is, in many cases, a creative choice, for the writer who doesn't want to follow grip lit thriller with grip lit thriller, or remove a whole character because she must conform to the romance formula as laid down by her publisher.

Yes, of course, self-published books on Amazon range from the brilliant to the efforts that inspire you to write emails asking for better quality control on the site. The desire to stand apart from the stigma of self-pub and 'be a published author' leads many to sign with the first independent who says 'yes', or, worse, with the rip-off vanity presses—in case you don't know, this is where they flatter you until you sign the contract, then hit you will a huge bill for editing, proofreading, etc. Often, they masquerade as trad pub. They will accept anything as long as you pay their exorbitant fees, and their editing and proofreading usually leaves much to be desired. I was recently asked to review a book published by a well-known vanity press. It had three errors in the blurb alone.

As far as independent publishers are concerned, they range from the very good, who will promote your book, present it professionally, seek out book bloggers and placement in bookshops, etc, to the bad, who don't recognise slack editing and will let books go out with too many errors in them (I've read independent press books with American English in an English historical, waffling narrative that should have been cut, etc), to the ugly, who just want a cut of your takings and will have your books 'edited' by someone who doesn't understand basic grammar. According to blog posts I've read, some writers who've chosen to go with an indie press find that they end up with all the restrictions of the traditionally published: losing royalties, and control of content, timing of publication, price, with none of the advantages (books in high street shops, paid Amazon advertising, sales, etc).

A few years back, a writer friend told me that he'd felt so excited when Kindle publishing was first introduced, but became disillusioned by the reality: wannabe best sellers bunging up any old rubbish on Amazon, thinking they were going to be the next EL James/GRR Martin. This has added to the bad name self-publishing has had since the days when vanity was the only option available, and not only with book bloggers and the reading public. The writers' hierarchy lives on: some who sign with small presses consider themselves superior to the self-published, and indeed make scathing remarks about them, not realising that the standard for acceptance by these companies may be more, shall we say, 'relaxed' than for literary agents/trad pub. Some writers do not even realise the difference between a traditional publisher and an independent publishing company (the latter of which can be set up by anyone), and believe themselves to be among the 'chosen few', and thus vastly superior to the self-pub.

When a writer says they self-publish 'by choice', it means they don't submit their books to publishers in the first place. It doesn't mean they've been rejected by lots of publishers but have come to terms with it. Acceptance by a major publishing house should not be seen as the only affirmation that your output is of merit; such large companies exist to make money, first and foremost, not to nurture the artist, so money invested has to be a safe bet. Saleability to the masses (and investment from large corporations) does not necessarily indicate creative brilliance; it's fair to say that creativity and making money do not go hand in hand.

But what about validation of your talent? Doesn't such acceptance give you that? Not necessarily. I've heard, straight from one horse's mouth, that being taken on by an agent doesn't necessarily mean that you're an amazing writer, just that you've produced a product that can be moulded to have mass appeal. If you want validation, wait to see if readers buy more than one of your books. Rejoice in your genuine reviews from book bloggers and the reading public.

Terry Tyler's latest, psychological thriller, novel
I've been described many times as a 'supporter of self-published authors', but I'm not. Some are dreadful. I'm a supporter of good writers, however they're published. I read a great deal; that some of my favourites are self-pub is neither here nor there. An equal amount are mainstream or small press. A book is a book; while we keep making the distinction, self-publishing will always be seen as the impoverished, embarrassing relation.

It took me a while to realise that I actively WANT to be self-published. A few readers and book bloggers have expressed surprise that I don't have a publisher, and one writer friend keeps very kindly suggesting publishers I could submit to, but I don't like the idea of anyone having control over what I produce. If you have the necessary basic talent and understand the importance of good editing and proofreading, if you realise you will have to do all your own promotion, and accept that creative freedom doesn't mean darting from sweet romance to horror, to cowboy comedy to Plantagenet history and back again, you can do well with self-publishing. Once you stop worrying about writing synopses and what-the-hell-agents-are-looking-for, or getting yet another rejection email, your writing life gets a lot easier—and you can spend your time producing novels, instead of query letters.

Connect with Terry online...



Book Reviews

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Jhalak Prize 2017



by Catriona Troth

On Friday 17th March, the winner of the inaugural Jhalak Prize for books written by British BAME authors was announced from a shortlist of six. Fiction and non-fiction, books for adults and books for children: all have been represented on the shortlist and I can’t begin to imagine how the judges are going to pick the final winner.

I’ve spent the last couple of months reading all the books on the Jhalak short and long lists and reviewing them for Book Muse UK. It has been an absolute joy - every one of the books a voyage of discovery. You can read extracts from my reviews below but first, here are some comments from four of the panel of judges: chair of the judging panel, Sunny Singh and her colleagues Musa Okwanga, Yvvette Edwards and Catherine Johnson.

Why were you keen to support the inaugural Jhalak Prize?

Sunny Singh: I founded the Jhalak Prize because I was tired of seeing brilliant writing not receive the attention it deserves, from the press, bookstores, prizes and therefore never getting to readers. And of course I was seeing great writing either not being published or not being published properly. I have been thinking about the prize for about four years now but after the Writing the Future report and various other attempts at raising the issues, we decided go ahead with it. I was at the Polari Prize and got talking to the judges and supporters and realised that a prize may push the issue into consciousness for the various players in the industry. Of course, I am also being selfish: I want to read the writing I love from writers I love. And hopefully Jhalak can help bring them into the market.

Catherine Johnson: The prize came out of BareLit, an incredible crowdfunded festival - I have been a published writer for over twenty years, and it has always been said, if not openly then tacitly that there is not the big audience for books written by BAME authors. This was the first time it was made blatantly clear that there really was a readership and an audience hungry for those stories.

Also, sadly, the 'big' awards in my field - eg The Carnegie, consistently ignore BAME writers - only two have ever been shortlisted in its 80 year history. Here is a chance to give those books air and space and the accolades they deserve. If the mainstream ignore us, why not do it ourselves?

Musa Okwanga: I feel that it is vital that writing of the highest quality gets its due recognition, whoever makes it; and that, so far, too many people of colour do not have the platform that their talents deserve. The Jhalak Prize, in my view, is a wonderfully proactive and progressive way to address that concern.

Just as the Baileys Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) did initially, any literary prize that restricts it potential entrants to a given category of writers tends to attract criticism that entrants are being judged not for their writing but by their gender/colour of skin etc. How do you answer that criticism in the case of the Jhalak Prize?

Sunny Singh: I don't and I won't answer this question! We know the playing field is not level. We have the statistics, the reports, the endless reams of paper but when we flag up the iniquities we are told to 'quit whining and do something.' Well, the Jhalak Prize is us DOING something. You don't like the Jhalak Prize? Then start with working to make that playing field level and actually based on meritocracy!

Catherine Johnson: I think the Bailey's Prize is a good parallel, it may have been contentious at the start but readers understand and accept it as a useful award which draws attention to the best of women's writing. Of course it would be brilliant if we didn't need a prize like this and there was that level playing field we've heard so much about. But there isn't. Society has its flaws. We could either lie down and accept that books by BAME authors are going to be overlooked or do something to draw attention to the fantastic breadth and depth of writing out there.

Musa Okwanga: I would say that this form of criticism of the Jhalak Prize is a little like criticising a doctor for diagnosing and providing medicine for an ailment, rather than criticising the causes of the ailment itself. Because I think that the lack of diversity in publishing at the moment is an ailment, and one which is depriving us all of some of the most exciting writing out there. So let’s do what we can to cure that.

Yvvette Edwards: There are many literary prizes. There are prizes that restrict submissions to writers from a particular part of the country, ones that only judge debuts or second novels or crime or romance or science fiction, or writers of a particular age or religion or gender, or any of a hundred other criteria. It is not a matter of discrimination why this is so, but an effort to ensure that writers who are unlikely to be put forward to or nominated for the big literary prizes, yet are nonetheless producing great writing - sometimes very progressive, experimental and original writing that deserves a wider audience - that those writers are acknowledged and the quality of their work is recognised. In the case of the Jhalak Prize, there’s nothing ominous about it; it’s simply another literary prize with a submission criterion.

It must be particularly challenging to judge a prize that encompasses non-fiction, adult fiction and young adult fiction and fiction for children. How have you approached making those sorts of comparisons?

Sunny Singh: As chair of judging panel, my role has been mostly to hear out what the panel has says. I think we were clear that books were judged within the category they fell. So YA was seen as amazing within that particular category. Nonfiction the same. And the rest. We got particularly lucky as so many of the books also transcended their particular tag. The shortlist is utterly extraordinary.

Catherine Johnson: I think this is one of the strengths of the prize. Isn't it marvellous to say Children's and YA are just as important as non fiction and literary fiction? Our prize is about readers just as much as writers, about saying to readers how wonderful and rich and varied the work that BAME writers are producing.

Musa Okwanga: The only true challenges have been the creation of a longlist, and then a shortlist - to say nothing of selecting the eventual winner. When judging work, I think that we have all tried to look for originality, for creativity - it will sound like cliche, but we have looked for work which has a unique voice. It’s been very difficult to narrow the submissions down, but I am confident that we have managed that.

Yvvette Edwards: The task was made much easier by the fact that we were not required to longlist a specific number of books. The decision was made early on that every book that deserved to be on the longlist would be, which meant that we were able to put forward every book that the judging panel agreed deserved to be nominated, irrespective of whether it was non-fiction or adult, children or YA fiction. Once we were down to the longlist, we had lengthy discussions about the merits of each book, judging them on their own terms and within their genre.

Can you tell us what has particularly excited you about any of the six books on the shortlist?

Sunny Singh: Gosh all of them! Insightful, innovative. One of the judges commented at a meeting that the longlist was made up of great books and the shortlist is all phenomenal ones. It's been a pleasure to read and reread them during the judging process. And one can't say that about many books, forget about all on a shortlist!

Catherine Johnson: Definitely the breadth and depth. Look at those books, every one is a total gem. I have no idea which is the winner, they all deserve the prize.

Musa Okwanga: We all have our own favourites, I am sure, but I have loved the bravery of the work - the fearlessness and empathy shown in tackling the most taboo of subjects. That’s all I feel that I can say publicly, but I will have to drop that particular writer a private message of congratulation at some point.

Yvvette Edwards: I have to say - and I am not attempting to be diplomatic or coy - that all the shortlisted books excite me. Every one of those books deserved its place on the Jhalak Prize shortlist and to be widely read. Although I had a couple of favourites in mind, I approached the final judging panel with an open mind, because any of those books would have been a worthy winner of the inaugural prize.

Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Jhalak Prize?

Sunny Singh: I started the prize with the hopes of ending it! The prize succeeds when it is no longer needed. So that is all I hope for: that one day, in not too far future, a prize like the Jhalak Prize will not be necessary because it will truly be a 'level playing field.' I guess one can and must dream!

Catherine Johnson: I think the prize has hit the ground running, I hope it will grow and earn a reputation for flagging up brilliance across genres.

Musa Okwanga: That it will continue to flourish and to provide a platform for spectacular writing for as long as it is needed. It has been a pleasure, an honour and a privilege to have helped it on its way.

Yvvette Edwards: I hope it becomes an established fixture in the literary calendar, and that it goes from strength to strength.

Thank you! Look out for the announcement of the winner on the evening of Friday 17th March 2017.
Now here are my reviews of the six shortlisted books. 

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

A day chosen at random – unremarkable in any way, including for the number of young people to die of gunshot wounds in a 24 hour period. On this day, seven of those killed were black, two Hispanic and one white. The oldest was nineteen; the youngest nine. “The truth is it’s happening every day, only most do not see it.”

Each chapter is both a personal account of a young person whose life and death would otherwise have passed unremarked by anyone outside their immediate neighbourhood, and an essay on the factors that create this appalling death rate.

Segregation also creates a numbing distance across which empathy becomes all-but impossible. This book may be one strut in a bridge across that divide.

Genre: Non-Fiction

Read my full review here.

Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie

Following on from her Betty Trask winning debut novel, Butterfly Fish, Speak Gigantular is Irenosen Okojie’s first collection of short stories. And it is almost certainly not like any other short story collection you have ever read. Okojie’s writing rarely stays long in the recognisable world of the five senses. In these stories, emotions take on physical form.

These are unsettling stories. Reading them is like walking through one of those trick rooms whose crooked walls make you think the floor is unstable. Okojie’s range is formidable and her imagination extraordinary.

Genre: Short Stories

Read my full review here.

The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross

Two cold cases twist and turn through the pages of The Bone Readers. Michael ‘Digger’ Digson needs to find the truth behind the death of his mother, killed when he was a young boy. And his boss, Detective Superintendent Chilman, is obsessed with the case of Nathan, a young man who disappeared and whose mother is convinced he was murdered.

Written by Granadan born Jacob Ross, The Bone Readers is set on a tiny, fictional Caribbean island. The multiple strands of the book all play on themes of sexual violence, sexual exploitation, gender power struggles and corruption. The women in the book are tough, shrewd, emotionally intelligent and sassy. Yet they are trapped by male prejudice, male violence and the male stranglehold on power. Many carry scars from the sexual violence they have experienced.

An unconventional crime novel, and one that exposes the dark underbelly of ‘paradise.’

Genre: Crime Fiction

Read my full review here.

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Ink and stars - the two most fundamental tools of the cartographer.

Isa is the daughter of a cartographer, and his unofficial apprentice. But Isa’s Da no longer roams the world to map its continents, but walks heavily supported by a stick. And the only guide to the Forbidden Forest is an ancient cloth map left behind by Isa’s mother. So when a girl is found dead in the Governor’s orchard, and his daughter, Isa’s friend Lupe, disappears into the forest, it is up to Isa to don the mantle of cartographer and guide the search party into the heart of the island, where no one has travelled for years.

Maps have a magic about them. They can say as much about the people who made them as they do about the lands they depict. Kiran Millwood Hargrave has spun that magic into a tale of adventure that is – as all good heroic journeys should be - about friendship and courage, self discovery and self sacrifice.

Genre: Fiction for 9-12 year olds.

Read my full review here.

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

Written as a companion to the BBC television series of the same name, David Olusoga’s book shows how the Black presence in Britain can be traced back to Roman times and has been a feature of life, particularly in London and other big cities, since Tudor times. It demonstrates how British economic interest, first in the slave trade itself and then in slave-produced cotton, warred for centuries with a mixture of the exalted believe that British air was ‘too pure for slaves to breathe’ and genuine courageous humanitarianism.

Britain may have been one of the first countries to outlaw the slave trade, but in the years before abolition, it was also its biggest player. As Olusoga shows, British involvement in the slave trade began in the early 17th C and gained the Royal seal of approval in 1672. In just the 20 years before the slave trade was outlawed by Act of Parliament in 1807, three quarters of a million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas aboard British ships.

Britain has things to be proud of in the history of relations with its Black citizens, but much to be ashamed of too. A powerful, emotional and eye-opening read.

Genre: Non-Fiction

Read my full review here.

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

Calcutta in 1919.The “Quit India” movement is beginning to gain momentum. Calls for violent uprising clash with Gandhi’s approach of non-violent noncooperation. And the British were doubling down on their control with an oppressive set of laws called the Rowlatt Acts. In the midst of this, a senior British civil servant is found murdered in the ‘wrong’ part of town, with piece of paper stuffed in his mouth inscribed with a subversive slogan.

Mukherjee takes you down into the streets of Calcutta, from the stinking gullees of Black Town and the opium dens of Tiretta Bazaar, to the poky guesthouses for the itinerant British, where “the mores of Bengal were exported to the heat of Bengal,” the maroon-painted colonial neo-classic buildings of the Imperial civil service and the exclusive clubs of the rich, mini Blenheim Palaces, sporting signs that declare ‘No dogs or Indians beyond this point.’

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Read my full review here.

And my own personal favourite? One that only made it to the longlist, the haunting novel Augustown by Kei Miller.

Augustown by Kei Miller

Augustown is a poor suburb of Kingston, Jamaica, set up by the slaves set free by royal decree on 1st August 1838. It is also closely associated with Alexander Bedward, the preacher who inspired Bedwardism, the roots from which grew Rastafarianism.

Kei Miller’s novel takes place largely in 1982, when most of those who remember Bedward are dead or dying and the events of his life have become tales told by grandmothers like Ma Taffy. And on the day that Ma Taffy sits up straight on her verandah and smells something high and ripe in the air, she knows an autoclapse is coming. ( Autoclapse: (Noun) Jamaican Dialect. An impending disaster; Calamity; Trouble on top of trouble.)

A stunning novel that takes modern Jamaican history (and the history of Rastafarianism in particular) and spins from it a fable the might stand for any people suffering from ingrained economic disadvantage and religious intolerance.

Genre: Literary Fiction

Read my full review here.

Finally, a couple of 'special mentions' from Yvvette Edwards of books that did not make the longlist:

"One of the books that excited me was Hibo Wardere’s incredibly brave memoir, Cut: One Woman’s fight against FGM in Britain Today, which was a harrowing yet life-affirming read. Another personal favourite of mine was a children’s book, The No1 Car Spotter Fights the Factory, by Atinuke. Aimed at 6 to 9 year olds, it was a social commentary on the positive power of social media and the capacity of the community to affect change, whilst exploring the reality of the lives of the poor in third world countries and the ways in which they are exploited by large corporations. At the same time, it was a genuinely enjoyable and accessible read."

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Snapshots from... Paris

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. Today, Janet Skeslien Charles shows us around her adopted city
Images by Janet Skeslien Charles.

What do you enjoy about Paris?

The thing I enjoy most about the city is the green space. For the last two years, I’ve taught a class on Paris, seen through the lens of literature, music, current events, art, and statistics. So I can tell you that there are 9,884 park benches in over 400 parks and gardens in the city. The Parc de Bercy, close to home, is one of my favorites. The Bois de Vincennes (2459 acres, in case you are curious) is great to tramp around in when you need peace and quiet to think about larger questions.

Paris is a great city to walk and bike. In recent years, the landscape of the city has changed, with an addition of 200 kilometers of bike paths, and 20,000 bicycles. Mayor Anne Hidalgo and her predecessor have worked hard to improve and innovate.

Is Paris an inspiration or a distraction?

Paris is a beautiful city. A lot of work goes into maintaining the streets, pipes, and building facades. On my building, scaffolding stayed up for over a year as workers cleaned and painted as well as worked to make sure the building is watertight. (Despite their work, my apartment has been flooded three times.) As I write this, the buildings on either side of mine are being maintained, which involves a lot of hammering, and the pipes of my street are being replaced.

I seek sanctuary at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, just across the river. Their collection is extraordinary and their librarians are extremely helpful. In November and December of 2016, I was a writer in residence at Shakespeare & Company. I was able to ride my bicycle from home to the bookshop in 20 minutes. I wrote in George Whitman’s room, which was very meaningful to me. When I first arrived in Paris, I visited the library on the second floor of the shop. George came in, opened his arms wide, and asked, “How long can you stay?” It was wonderful to write at a desk in his room and to spend time in the bookshop.


Tell us a bit about the cultural life.

There are free readings and concerts every night of the week. From Shakespeare & Co to the Berkeley bookstore, to the Maison de la Poésie to the BNF, many libraries and bookstores host events.

In France, the most a retailer can discount a book is 5%, so the book business – especially independent bookstores – thrives. The first MFA in creative writing began here in 2012. (In the UK, the first program began in 1970.) The BNF just hosted its first series of creative writing master classes in February.

Can you recommend a few books set in Paris?

Noel Riley Fitch has written Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties an engaging biography of the bookseller who started the original Shakespeare & Company and can be considered the patron saint of writers here.

There are so many great books! For starters: The Sun Also Rises; Down and Out in Paris and London; Good Morning, Midnight; Love in a Cold Climate; Me Talk Pretty One Day; and Art.

Best known local authors?

This is a hard question – there are so many! Edith Warton, Gertrude Stein, Jean Rhys, Nancy Mitford, Madame de Staël, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Yasmina Reza, just to name a few. Of course, I have books by Tatiana de Rosnay, Cara Black, Laurel Zuckerman, Christopher Vanier, and Marie Houzelle on my shelf as well.

What are you writing?

I’m thrilled that one of my short stories – written in Paris, but set in my home state – will be published in Montana Noir this fall.

Sum up life in Paris in three words.

Books. Community. Love.

Janet Skeslien Charles is the award-winning author of Moonlight in Odessa, which has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She has led writing workshops for over a decade and currently works at Ecole Polytechnique.

Janet grew up in Montana where she studied Russian, French and English. She spent two years in Odessa, Ukraine, as a Soros Fellow.

By JJ Marsh