As a friend of mine posted on Facebook recently, ‘summer this year was on a Tuesday’. The creative Yorkshire enclave of Hebden Bridge has experienced a particularly British summer this year, and the week before we arrived for the New Blood (New Novelists) event at Hebden Bridge Arts festival had suffered serious flooding. One result of this was that Sophie Coulombeau and I, who met for the first time for a cup tea before the cafe closed (forcing us to shelter from the light drizzle in the White Swan) failed to eat before eating ceased to be an option. In the Swan we bumped into Peter Salmon, who recognised us as fellow New Novelists from the fact that our we all simultaneously received a text from the organiser. He had wisely (as it turned out, though we weren’t sure at the time) opted for the pub’s fish pie.
We found the venue, where our host Stephen May was waiting with other members of the line-up, Selma Dabbagh and Suzanne Joinson (whom I had known as Arts Council Literature Officer ten years ago, when she gave me a grant). We got to know each other a little in the green room before hitting the stage for a really strong and, I thought, interesting discussion. Blow by blow accounts from audience members are available here and here.
These accounts are exceedingly accurate, but seeing words that came freely out of my mouth written down can sometimes be unnerving. My modus operandi is ‘disarmingly honest’, so as a new novelist (rather than a poet, whose words frankly no-one cares to quote until you are dead, at which point they can rarely quote them accurately) I suppose I will have to get used this. Yes, it’s true that in an astonishing act of self-sabotage, I initially married a man who was unsupportive of my dream to write, and only wrote my first novel (unpublished; The Marlowe Papers is my fourth stab at the novel genre) when the relationship was breaking down. I accept full responsibility for that act, however. It was hardly his fault I said Yes, and the three sons I(/we) created instead of novels are all rather splendid.
The other element, that the chief autobiographical element of The Marlowe Papers is the longing for someone you can’t be with. I’m just glad my current (supportive) husband has no interest whatsoever in the internet! The fact is that I have, for as long as I can remember in my adult life (it began at university), created situations where I could, for years afterwards, should I ever want to tune into the feeling, pine for someone unreachable. I’ve discussed this with a close poet friend and believe it’s some kind of necessary creative device: apparently I must have My Male Muse. I think it probably began with the death of my brother, but that’s another story.
Sharing the stage with five other writers, however (for Stephen May is no mean novelist himself), there is no time or space to explain oneself. One’s contribution is simply part of a whole, the focus is you only as part of conglomerate. The audience wants to know how did we get here, to the point of being new novelists? Everyone’s journey and approach was different but there were also many points of contact, a sense of camaraderie, which we took into the pub after the event, and then to the Trades Club, where we shared experience of bad reviews (including, in one case, from the novelist’s own mother) and feasted on crisps, the only food still available in Hebden Bridge. Was there, as one of the audience bloggers asked, rivalry or conflict? If there was, I was oblivious to it. As I mentioned in a previous post, where I have experienced the poetry world as green-eyed and potentially back-stabbing, I have found novelists, since joining their number, genuinely friendly and supportive. Every one of those other debut novels has its own unique brilliance. The comparison is not apples/oranges, but moonstone necklace/nuclear missile. As Stephen May said on the night (to which Pete Salmon wittily alluded in his piece), in years to come this may prove to have been a rather stellar line-up.
Sadly, though, it wasn’t a tour. Writers, I am told by my publisher, no longer do tours, since margins are too squeezed for such things to be profitable. We appear at events here and there, mingle briefly and joyfully with other writers and the reading public, then disappear back to our garrets/basements. I would love for it to have been a tour. I can’t imagine a better bunch of bandmates.