Published by Sceptre
I was prompted to read Fell by a book group on Twitter. I will write more about the group, and the theme of New Folk Lit that was its starting point in another post, including contributions from author Jenn, who was kind enough to make herself available for a Twitter Q and A, but first I wanted to write a review of Fell.
Fell is quiet and compelling. Atmospheric. I want to say damp if it weren’t for that having negative or unpleasant connotations. The word is a testament to the real presence of the atmosphere that the book creates. It seeps in and settles on you, with a gentle persistence. The themes are absorbed into your consciousness and around and through each other – predominantly for me, the idea of a kind of shifting hinderance that is halfway between invasion and restraint.
“The illness is itself a creeping illness and its main symptom has been to make Mum’s skin stop working. Everything that belongs inside: blood and sick and wee and number two and spit and some strange green-yellow stuff Mum leaves on the bed and on the back of her nightdress sometimes, is coming out through her skin to the world outside where it should not be.”
Netty and Jack are trapped by Netty’s illness. The house they leave to their daughter Annette is fatally undermined by the roots of the sycamore trees that give the crumbling house its name. The bay, the sands and mudflats seem to open up to wide skies and freedom but they are dangerous with absences; sink holes and drowning spots. After death, Netty and Jack themselves leach through the barrier between life and death and hover, like smoke on a still night, in the heavy air, observing their grown daughter with impotent, anguished love. Their unworldly voice, an amorphous ‘we’ is handled beautifully by the writer, eerie but somehow earthy and believable.
“It’s still strange to see ourselves like this. Unpleasant to have this time returned to us. It’s not what we would have wished for, if anyone had asked. With Annette gone, we’d rather sleep now – go back to the blankness of the no-time before she arrived, when we were aware of nothing.”
Charismatic chancer Tim has a gift that makes him the unwilling bridge between states of being but this is a skill that is uncertain in his hands as though to emphasise that otherness intrudes of its own volition. All the characters are in some way held by something, restrained by forces that intrude to shape and change their lives. This untrustworthiness is reflected in the landscape, a beach that becomes a salt marsh, a river that re-works, as if on a whim, the land.
“It was a hazy day, and all Eve saw was the misty, no-colour sky, the grey shapes of the fells and the dark shadows of the people walking with her reflected in the wet sand. They were barefooted and muddy-legged, all of them, and spread out in an uneven, straggling phalanx so as not to churn up the ground and turn it into quicksand. But it was there – he showed it to them, standing on the wobbling skin of the earth, until the dun-coloured surface began to bend and buckle, so saturated with water it showed signs of cracking wide open, falling into crumbling fissures that would set and ooze without warning.”
Fell describes the way that we are agents in the landscape but we are subject to it. The deft handling makes a case for life lived in layers, layers that might unwittingly invade or restrain each other, or, against the presumed laws of being, over-lap and blend. All of it is done quietly, with perhaps a hint of menace at the ultimate unpredictability of states that we would be foolish to take as absolutes; being, time and place. It is love that remains constant, a kind of care taking, a web that is subtle and agile enough to resist and save. It is a fascinating and beautifully written book.
Funding my book with Unbound has been a fascinating process. There have been unexpected benefits that go beyond the buzz of having my book published.
Unbound came into being as a response to changes in the publishing industry. Good books were not getting published because their commercial success couldn’t be guaranteed. There has been a steady drift toward projects with TV or celebrity tie-ins, so whilst the business of books in general may have been in unexpectedly great shape, areas such as literary fiction have been struggling. Thus the clever people at Unbound came up with a way of addressing this. As well as a way of securing publication for a wide array of books that might not make it in the more commercial sector, it offers a fantastic connection between writer and audience.
Is it for you? Are you about to launch your own crowdfunded book, with Unbound or any other platform? Here, with a little help from my Unbound friends, are some tips and observations on crowdfunding. (Most of them work for promoting a book too.)
1)THE AUDIENCE IS ELUSIVE. It was very much harder than I had anticipated to reach the people that I didn’t already know.
2) TOUGH – YOU MUST HUNT THEM DOWN. You will need strangers to buy your book so start looking for them early. The audience has no need of your words, there are millions of other words already out there that they could gorge on for all eternity. But they will pledge because you make yourself of interest to them, because you let them know you are there. Initially this will probably be because they love you or care about you. Very few will pledge because they happened to read your synopsis and think you are a genius. But you have to find ways to reach them any way.
3) FINDING YOUR VOICE IS DIFFICULT BUT YOU ONLY HAVE TO DO IT ONCE. I don’t mean your writer’s voice, that bit is dealt with already. I mean your professional author voice. That is, if you want to get your book funded and subsequently aim to give up or cut back on the work you are doing to pay your way whilst you write.
Social media guilt starts to drag around behind you like a damp, mildewed cape hanging limp and heavy from your shoulders. Smart people who are good at selling books tell you to do it, do it hard, do it more. Every day, engage, build connections. It takes up a helluva lot of mindspace to even think of how that might work. But eventually you seem to find a kind of honest approach, one that doesn’t feel like a fake or an uncomfortable hard sell. Then it can be quite fun.
Apart from odd moments when you suspect all your friends hate you and wish your computer would break.
4) IT HELPS ENORMOUSLY that Unbound have selected the manuscript. It shouldn’t matter, the selection does not of course, suddenly make it a better book than if I had self-published, but it gives people confidence in it.
5) MAKE NEW FRIENDS. I have come into a fabulous, not exactly secret, but almost, back-stage community. A number of other Unbound writers get together on a regular basis via the medium of Facebook to share tips, moan, high-five, amuse each other and become friends. I’ve even met some of them and hope to do so again. It is wonderful support. A kind of unofficial, ad-hoc scaffold built from the finest materials. There are many different writers, a magically wide array of books (some of which I have made pledges for myself) all come together into a helpful and supportive community. A great resource. It is sometimes the only place you can go to off-load anxiety or boredom or disappointment with progress. You can’t actually tell a friend who has been generous enough to back your project that you are fed up with how slowly it seems to be moving without it sounding like a barely-disguised wheedle.
It has been so valuable and mood-lifting, informative and smart. It is great to know that when someone feels hollow or disappointed by small rewards gained from huge effort, a group of cheery and funny people who totally get the feeling will gather round (temporarily taking a break from penning the next masterpiece/suspiciously ready to engage in an easy online-distraction) to tell them how well they are doing and that they shouldn’t give up.
6) LOVE YOUR OLD FRIENDS. Most wonderful of all is how generous friends, colleagues and family are. I have had so much support. Way more than I expected. Which is incredibly lucky, because see 1). People have been amazingly generous. Like other authors, I have found that it has been by far the bulk of my backing. None of them had to pledge, there is no obligation. It is generosity that makes people pledge, a generous desire to help, a generous desire to fund the arts, a generous desire to make something happen. It is humbling and up-lifting. And, unexpectedly, it made this process, though it has sometimes been difficult, scary and definitely hard work, one that is ultimately very rewarding.
Of course I will never know if my book would have eventually been published by a conventional publisher, but probably not. So I am deeply, immensely grateful to Unbound for making it possible. The opportunity to invest in books that may not make a great deal of money is precious for all of us. And in all my dealings the people at Unbound have been unfailingly kind, helpful and engaged.
It feels great that so many people have invested in my book, even the ones who intended to pledge but never got round to it. The openness of the process has made them aware of what I am doing and interested enough to talk to me about it and that is an investment.
Crowdfunding, asking for help or support, finding people to invest in your work is daunting, it can be very hard work. But it is also uplifting and exciting, and possibly the only option if you don’t want to go it alone. I am very happy with the story so far.
How much does a story change when the location is changed? Some books rely entirely on the place in which they are set, such as Room by Emma Donoghue, the fact of the mother and son’s imprisonment being the core of the narrative as well as the inventive drive behind the ideas that thread through that narrative. Others would falter without the location, though the action of the book could just as readily happen elsewhere. Wuthering Heights is an example; the moors are so woven into the love between Cathy and Heathcliff, being almost an extension of their own wild souls, that though we know such destructive, hungry relationships grow in other parts of the world, it is impossible to imagine the transplanted story being told in the same way.
“Heathcliff, make the world stop right here. Make everything stop and stand still and never move again. Make the moors never change and you and I never change.”
Other books use places as a metaphor to highlight a current theme. The heath in King Lear, the jungle that slowly engulfs Tony in A Handful of Dust.
And of course there is both travel writing and historical or biographical writing that cannot be taken out of its homeland, even when the book is fiction such as the wonderful A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James or one of my recent top fivers, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. In these instances, the places can be both a matter of unavoidable fact and an amplifier of mood and theme.
Plays regularly relocate in time and place, always making a claim that a new light is thrown onto both the original text and the alternate context in which it is played. The same is true of written stories and literary classics, though it is more common for the update to appear as a film and usually it seems that the transformation of interest is the one of time rather than place.
When writing Caitlin’s odyssey through the realms of death, though I hadn’t yet decided the reality of Caitlin, I had confirmed the necessity of her voice and had a clear sense of the setting. Milton’s Paradise Lost had lodged in my imagination as a place of enormous, glittering blackness, the thick dark black of etching ink; waxy, dense, groundless, with enough intent to form a location made of speed and direction. It was this sense of place that was the key. Not heaven or hell, but a vast cosmos driven by unknowable extremes of energy that carve out its changing forms in the blackness.
I pull against the blackness that would once more fling me out past the centurion path of comets, further than the space-bound eyes of man can reach. I don’t want to disappoint but there is nothing to tell. There is more of the same. There is still no place in which I may claim to be. I don’t want to disappoint but I have seen nothing that seems to be a heaven. Only earth with her kind sky and her care-giving cradle of gravity and her beautiful sun. How blessed I am when I find her again. How hard I cling.
The beech woods, a gentler, earth-bound contrast, perform a similar role for Anna; a location for her thoughts. In the same way that the vast unknowable extremes of space worked to undo Caitlin so that she could reclaim herself again, the beech woods are so familiar to Anna that they allow her thoughts to reach beyond the location into imaginary worlds, populated with invented souls. It is through this act of imagination that Anna is able to unbind the grief that has crippled her. The landscape is where she frames her thoughts and also where she is able finally, to confront her memories.
Let the trees sooth out these wrinkles whilst you walk among them. Let them shield and shelter, let them be beautiful enough to sooth. And she walks in the woods, the echoing emptiness of a cold day is comforting. The glimmers of her ghosts still glide between the trunks, they too seem soothed and a part of this landscape.
Place remains central to the book I am currently writing too. Not because I chose it but because in hindsight and overview, I notice that it is so. In this instance it is the spaces that operate between, the edges of things. The eeriness of incomplete human presence. Though often chosen seemingly at random as one writes, it is curious how often a look back reveals that the place of the writing has offered something that maps the story to its soul, connects the characters to the subtler themes that live in the undercurrents of the words.
There is a cape of dread that lands on my shoulders whenever I think about the potential necessity of promoting my book. It’s not a very heavy cape. My guess is that it is made of some type of drip-dry, highly flammable fabric, no natural swing or swagger to it. The cut too is poor, and in combination with the nasty material, it sits like a lurid beacon on my shoulders, like a hi-vis uniform for a fast-food shop you wished you didn’t work for, where managers demand you smile with gleeful joy as you dish out company phrases into the bored or sneering faces of customers.
It is this mood of enforced cheerfulness that most fills me with dread when I try to picture what promoting my book might entail. In spite of having just successfully crowd-funded it on Unbound without having resorted to anything like the clowning, servile foolishness that I imagine is going to be my role for the next months and years, I dread having to sell it.
But it must be done. In the end, it must be done for financial reasons. If I want to give up the cleaning jobs that keep me going and write full time, it must be done. As I wrote in Let’s Hear It For The Hardcore I chose that work because it leaves me free to write. That doesn’t mean I want to stick with it. But it is the intrusion of finance that makes promotion so fraught. Selling, promotion, publicity, all these terms are tainted by the ruthless sharp edge of commerce. Perhaps it is the only real trickle-down we are left with from wealth-making financial concerns – making money deliberately is often an ugly and sometimes deceitful business.
This dilemma reaches into the making of work too. When we talk about authenticity, or dumbing down, or, whether, as I discussed in another post, we produce work for ourselves or an audience, we are getting close to this discomforting taint. Why are we doing it at all?
There is a popular notion of the artist, whether writer, painter or dancer, that they are doing something genuine. Something authentic. We have often imbued their output with a kind of mystery, as if we require our artists to be shamans, bringing down or up or out something reachable only by those willing to enter some kind of otherness, a holy trance state. I see an example of this in that way that some artists embrace (in claim at least) an abject life, a life of little comfort, ideally no success, and a wide safety margin between them and the taints of commerce. It is as if they feel they will continue to produce something pure. (This is problematic for me, but the discussion belongs in a different post.)
It is as though there is a scale that at one extreme has the harrowing desiccating logic of greedy capitalism and at the other has the ragged, wise fool. In the middle somewhere is a wide and cheery sea of co-operative crafters liking each other’s work on Instagram. Where to put myself on this line, in my dayglo cape?
I was told by someone with more experience than me to think about who my audience is. My answer was that I hope they are people who will like my writing, people who like thoughtful books. Unravellers. When I write, I don’t write for them. Nor do I write for myself. But I write for a reader. It would be absurd to write a book then tuck it into a folder never to be thought about again. Writing, like all of the arts, is an act of communication. I think my audience might be a person a bit like me. And one thing is sure, if I see a grinning maniac in a dayglo cape trying to trap me with their eyes, I evade at all costs. So then the answer must be that I sell my book as I write it, by laying open what interested me in bothering with it in the first place. It need not be too hysterical. Simply a matter of making it possible for lots of people to take a look while they make their own choice. I won’t even need to ask if they want free chips with that.
An interview with author Shona Kinsella on the launch day of her new book
Today, I am posting an interview with Shona Kinsella, fellow Unbound author, whose book, Ashael Rising launches today. Firstly, congratulations Shona, I know how hard you must’ve worked to get to this point. I hope you are basking in a celebratory glow of achievement – you deserve it!
Shona has invented a whole world in which to set her book, I was interested to find out more about the way she approaches her writing, so I sent her some questions. There are links at the bottom to connect with Shona and find out more about her book.
Tell me about your writing trajectory, is this your first book? And what lead to you writing it?
It’s kind of a funny story. I have always loved books, for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, maybe 11 or 12, I outlined a series of books called the Unicorn Defenders and sent my outline to some publishers. I was surprised by how many responded – some with handwritten notes added to the form rejection. Anyway, life got in the way as it so often does, I got a bad mark on some writing I did in higher English which knocked my confidence and I stopped writing for years. Writing a book was still the first item on my bucket list though.
Fast forward to 2014. After the birth of my second child I took a career break to look after my children. I was joking with my husband about what I was going to do with all this free time I would have and he suggested that I could write a book. Well it was a throwaway comment but I couldn’t get it out of my head so I decided to give it a go. I sat down at my computer one day with nothing but an image from a dream that had stuck in my mind and from that came Ashael Rising.
In Ashael Rising, is your primary focus on the story? Or the language? What, if you had to break it down, is the key focus of your writing?
My primary focus is definitely story. There are a few points where I think I’ve managed to pull off a nice turn of phrase and I have endeavoured to use language in an elegant way but at the end of the day, without story the language would have no point.
What changed in your life when a) you began writing Ashael Rising b) you began fund raising on Unbound and c) (if you have had enough time to notice!) once you had reached your target?
When I began writing Ashael Rising I think my world both narrowed and expanded. At first I didn’t tell many people that I was writing it. I wasn’t entirely sure that I could do it; that I would have the stamina to see it through or the skill to keep track of it all. Very quickly I became immersed in it. Other things, other interests, fell away as more and more of free time was spent writing or studying writing or listening to podcasts about writing… so my world narrowed. I joined an online critique group called Scribophile and found this amazing community of writers, all supporting each other and driving each other forward. I started thinking about things like diversity and representation in writing. I started thinking about how writing could do some good… so my world expanded.
Crowdfunding was a whole new ball game! I thought I was ready for it but I totally wasn’t. I had to establish a social media presence – something I’ve been avoiding for years. I’m an introvert by nature so it’s really difficult for me to promote myself and my work, start conversations, make connections etc. I suspect that’s probably true of many writers. So I had to learn a whole new skill set. Plus, a few weeks after the campaign started I found out I was pregnant with our third child and I left my day job for good so a lot was going on in my personal life too.
When I reached my funding target and started the editorial stage of the process, I started to feel like a real writer, less of a fake. It’s been a crazy whirlwind time. It’s been a little less than a year since I pitched to Unbound on Twitter and now Ashael Rising is being released. Sometimes it still all seems like a dream.
What would be the compliment of your book that you would most like to hear?
When’s book two coming out? I think that would be the best thing – knowing that someone enjoyed it enough that they want to keep reading. Mostly I want to make people feel something.
And what criticism do you most fear? (you can leave this one out if you like!)
Oh, that’s hard. There are so many things I’m scared of! I guess the one that would bother me the most would be if people thought my characters were flat or uninteresting.
When you invent names, do you have a strategy or do you fish until you find one that sounds right?
The main characters mostly sprang into my head fully formed, names attached so I didn’t really invent them. After that, my main strategy was to look at the linguistic root. I have several cultures in the book so each culture has names that share a linguistic root. So, Ashael’s people, the Folk, largely have names with Gaelic roots, or at least a Gaelic sound. The Agnikant have names rooted in India and the middle east, the Zanthar are more Eastern European. Despite hours of research and fishing about, I never did settle on a name I like for the main antagonist.
Is there significance in the fact that Ashael is an apprentice?
Well, I think it comes from two separate places. First, the story of the apprentice coming into their powers is a fairly common trope in fantasy. It’s useful because it gives you a textual way to explain the magic system without having big chunks of exposition. Also, there are a lot of different ways you can use the student-teacher relationship within your story. Ashael’s apprenticeship gives her the tools she needs to begin to understand what’s happening, without having her being limited or blinkered by years of training.
The second thing is that Ashael is, in a lot of ways, me. Except she’s way cooler than me! I view myself as something of an apprentice writer, still learning my craft, so I think it was natural for Ashael to reflect that.
Is she a healer because she has visions or does her ability to see beyond the immediate develop with her healing and spiritual training?
Hmmm I can’t say too much about this because *spoilers* but the visions are separate from the healing and it does develop over the course of the story along with other abilities.
If you were forced by the literary police to re-set your book in a time and place that is a known part of human history, a) could you do it? and b) where and when would it be?
The setting for Ashael Rising is an idealized version of the days when humans were still hunter-gatherers so I guess it would be in the stone age. Several elements of life as depicted in Oak Cam are based on anthropological findings from that time period. I’m not certain how the land masses at that time would tally with the fairly temperate climate of the book though.
And finally, what are you going to do next?
I have three projects lined up for this year. I’ll be writing for, and editing, an anthology by Unbound authors in which all of the stories will be linked with a library. I’m really excited about this project. I’ll be working with some very talented writers indeed.
I’m also planning to finish a novella that I started writing in November, called The Longest Night. It’s a story set in a (secondary world) equivalent to the arctic. After enduring the difficulties of 2 months of night at midwinter, resources are already greatly depleted and tribe members are falling ill when the sun fails to rise. Banished by his people, Ukiuk sets out across the ice to find the sun.
When I complete the first draft of the novella, I plan to start work on the sequel to Ashael Rising which has been percolating in the back of my mind for a while now.
It’s a sunny Friday morning, I am in the kitchen of a very dear friend’s house. My tea steams in a pale green china cup and a clock with a mottled face ticks behind me on the wall. Sitting brightly at the periphery of my sight there is an orange on a pretty saucer that has shards of peel removed, I suspect for some description of cocktail purposes. Outside birds chat on the feeders a few feet from the kitchen window, hopping now and then back into the adventure playground of the bare hedge. The long lane outside the front door is quiet.
This is day three of a happy, mini-road trip, set up on the coat tails of being invited to participate in an event at Plymouth University, where I spoke alongside three other writers on the theme of my journey into writing and read an extract from my book Twice the Speed of Dark. As a resource to students and staff, whether engaged in academic or other writing the University runs a Writing Cafe where anyone is free to engage with mentors or peers to discuss and develop their work. It is incredibly vibrant and busy, a wonderful resource. They are currently trying to develop strategies to prevent it becoming a victim of its own success. It is fantastic to know that such initiatives exist.
The event was, without there being any negative associations with the sensation, nerve wracking. Partly because speaking in front of people usually is and partly because I’ve never done it before and though I am fully aware that there is of course inevitably going to be a wide variety of responses to my book, my blithe contentment with that knowledge was suddenly and unexpectedly replaced with the thought “Oh my god! They might HATE it!” It’s fair to say that whilst I have always understood that there will be plenty of people whose response will shade anywhere from indifference to fierce dislike, I never really considered being in a room with them. But I put my big girl’s pants on and it was fine. Better than fine actually. I think people responded well and there were some lovely comments.
It was very a enjoyable and interesting evening. There were lots of things that came up that I hope to think further about and write about too. One of them was how we think about the audience or reader and what that means, but more of that another time.
There was one question from an audience member that I wanted to answer but didn’t because at the time I was concerned that my answer would sound dismissive or discouraging. So I’m going to answer it here. The questioner was, I think, a student at the university. She asked all or any of us “Do you plot out your whole book before you start, or do you just start writing and see where it will get you?” I guess this must be a common question in writing classes because an answer was given that I’d already heard once that evening (though not before) that there are ‘Pantsers’, who write by the seat of their pants and Plotters, who, well, it’s self explanatory.
There were fuller answers given too. But I found this binary answer glib and inadequate. It might be true much of the time, but I thought it was unhelpful. It seemed to me that the girl was asking how she could start to write a book, armed with a strategy or insight that was going to make it work. I thought that what she wanted was to be reassured that this complicated, mysterious, slow, sometimes frustrating, uncertain process could be given some kind of treatment that would remove most of those difficulties. I don’t doubt that she was serious and prepared to be dedicated. But she perhaps wanted to make sure all the work she could imagine that lay ahead actually counted.
The only answer to her question is to be found in her attempts and in her growing experience. Only she will know, once she has started. There aren’t any strategies that apply to everyone. Try them all and see what works. Throw away loads if you have to, start again if you have to, fly though it if you are able. Suck it and see. I didn’t answer because my experience with writing is relatively short, I’ve never attended courses, let alone taught them. As I imagined saying the words it sounded dismissive of her and more experienced peers and perhaps discouraging, which is the opposite of what I wanted to be.
What was most enjoyable about the event was seeing people full of curiosity and presumably some intent to be writing themselves. To feel that I was in a position to help in however small a way was a great privilege. So, to the girl at the end of the evening, I would say just throw yourself in, find out what you know, be open to what you will learn, mix grit and glee and see what spell works best for you. It is a great adventure.