Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Author Visit: A. J. Ashworth

Everyone who replies to this post by 14th February [no matter where they are in the world], will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Andrea's book: Somewhere Else, or Even Here 

[NB: Remember, if you don't have contact details over at your blog, please leave your Twitter name or email address in your comment so I can reach you!]


Andrea! Welcome. Make yourself at home.

Thanks, Jen – lovely to be here.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and brought up in Blackburn but moved to Yorkshire a couple of years ago. I’ve been writing seriously for the past few years and won Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize last year with my debut collection ‘Somewhere Else, or Even Here’. [Jen: and damn good it is, too!]

Tell us about ‘Somewhere Else, or Even Here.’ How long did you work on it? There are lots of beautifully interwoven themes, and the stories flow from one to the next. Had you planned these connections out, or were those details added later?

The book’s a collection of 14 stories, most of which were written as part of an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. I spent about three years writing them, but I had no overall plan for a collection so I just let each story unfold in whichever way felt right. I’m interested in what you say about interwoven themes and stories flowing from one to the next because all of that happened naturally, without any obvious tinkering or intervention. I have a love of astronomy so I obviously knew that was in there, but other themes such as loss or loneliness were completely unintended. The writer is often the last person who knows what their work is about though!

I didn’t consciously create any connections between the stories, either before, during or after, but it’s not surprising if they’re there because we all have certain preoccupations, whether we’re aware of them or not. Someone once said to me that there are echoes throughout my stories and I like that idea – the idea of the original sound or image repeating elsewhere but in a different way.

Which story in the collection was the first that you wrote, and which was the last?

I think ‘Eggshells’ was the first one. It’s the story of a young girl going on holiday with her family and while they’re driving to the coast they witness a horrible road accident. It was inspired in part by family holidays to Heysham, although I never saw an accident like that, thankfully. The last one to be written was ‘Bone Fire’, which is the story of a troubled teenage boy who carries out an act of destruction at his school using a bonfire.

Where were you when you found out that you’d won The Scott Prize? How did you celebrate?

I was actually at work and knew the winners were going to be announced that day. As you can imagine it was very difficult to concentrate and I spent most of the day clicking ‘Refresh’ on the Salt website, waiting for the news to appear. It was an amazing feeling and I’m forever indebted to Jen and Chris Hamilton-Emery at Salt for publishing me.

I think I celebrated with beer and food at a lovely little Mexican restaurant that I like. There was probably chocolate involved at some point too – there usually is. [Jen: & rightly so, too.]

Which short story writers do you admire?

Raymond Carver is my first love so when I started writing more seriously I always used to try and write like him. I’ve developed my own style since then but his stories are the ones I always return to. I naturally turn to the American short story so I also love Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, etc., and I particularly loved Stephanie Vaughn’s collection ‘Able Baker Charlie Dog’ or ‘Sweet Talk’ as it was titled in the US. Other than the Americans, I really enjoyed David Rose’s novel ‘Vault’, which came out last year, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading a few of his short stories since then, so I can’t wait for his collection to come out. There’s also Claire Keegan [Jen: adore her!], Alice Munro, Elizabeth Baines, Vanessa Gebbie, Simon Van Booy… I could go on and on.

What are you reading at the moment?

Vanessa Gebbie’s novel ‘The Coward’s Tale’, which is fantastic [Jen: Vanessa will be stopping by soon to talk about her book], and David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’. I’m always dipping in and out of short story collections too so I’ve got Jo Cannon’s ‘Insignificant Gestures’ on the go as well.

Give us the name of a book that you wish you’d written.

One of my favourite books of recent years is Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’. It’s described as a novel in stories so it can be read either way – as a novel or as a linked short story collection. The book is set in Maine and tells the story of Olive and her family and follows them through the various events that happen in their lives. The writing is wonderful, of course, but Olive is an unusual and intriguing character too – difficult, a little cold, without much self-awareness – and yet we warm to her and care about what happens to her. She’s real. If a writer can make you empathise with a character who isn’t immediately sunny and warm then that’s great writing.

At what age did you know that you wanted to be a writer? What advice would you give to other writers?

I actually wrote from a young age, as a lot of children do, just because it was a pleasurable thing to do – putting words and sentences together until they made a poem or a story. I loved English and if there was an option to write a story instead of an essay that’s what I’d do. I have a vague recollection of thinking the words ‘I could be a writer’ when I was about 15, but I think I put too much pressure on myself and I couldn’t really write for a long time after that. Taking a writing course and having some deadlines helped me to get going again, but that was only about six or seven years ago.

If I can give any advice at all, it is to write as often as you’re able to just because you like to do it – not for what you think it can give you. And keep going. Rejections will come, they always do, but keep going.

Where do you write, and do you set yourself a schedule?

I write in a room at the top of the house which has a nice view of the sky. If the writing’s not going too well then I stare out at the sky. As you can guess I spend a lot of time doing that instead of writing. I just write when I have the urge so sometimes I write every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes. Other times I can go days and weeks without writing. If there’s a deadline then that helps but I don’t have a schedule.

Can you let us know what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m working on some new short stories and also trying to get going on a novel. Switching from short stories to a novel is going to be a bit of a challenge I think but that can only be a good thing – challenges keep you on your writing toes.

Thanks, Andrea!

Monday, 30 January 2012

all the poems, all the films

Well, Smile for London has finished. It's been really fun. I hope, if you were in London, you managed to spot a poem or two on the tube!

Here are all of the poetry films, back to back. x

Word in Motion, 2012 from Smile for London on Vimeo.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

calling all arts students and graduates

A message here on behalf of The Arts Emergency Service - a new charity aimed to help arts students. Please do take the time to this, if you can. x


The Arts Emergency Service – Write for Us!

Who were are:

“The Arts Emergency Service” is all about the wonders of studying the Arts and Humanities at university and how to make the most of it during and after, not just in the sense of career success but other great benefits which don’t have a £ next to them.

We believe the UK is approaching crunch point for student debt. Many talented potential students from poorer backgrounds especially, may shy away from less vocational subjects when degrees cost £27k (even though loads of studies show Arts grads earn just as much as others). The majority of the current Government have studied a BA – a telling fact!

Higher Education should be accessible to all who are able & willing. In helping us generate useful and genuine content for the website you are becoming part of this brand new project, the sky is the limit and we’re talking to loads of academics about starting a media campaign (we’re in the Guardian next week!) and fundraising to support disadvantaged students. We need graduates and students to share experience and contacts with struggling students who don’t have the family support and financial buffers many others benefit from!

The Audience:

Your piece should be aimed at future students considering BA’s and/or current students studying the Arts or Humanities – these are the people we want to support and enthuse.

The Brief:

The absolute most important thing we want to communicate to the world is why YOU chose to study a BA, why YOU think it’s so important!

The kind of articles we need to make the case are along the lines of YOUR personal answers to the questions we’ve already asked on Twitter (and had such great responses too – thanks!) Questions like:

· NEW STUDENTS: Are you studying a BA next year? What are you studying? Why did you choose it? Are you worried about the new fees?

· UNDERGRADUATES: Are you a current student studying an Arts degree? What challenges do you face? (That can be anything from personal problems to academic issues and of course, the ever present money worries!) Can be totally anonymous of course, we both had things to overcome at Uni and understand what it’s like…

 - GRADUATES: Would you have gone into HE to study a BA degree if you were starting 2012 and paying £9k? Personally I would have had such pressure to choose something more practical like Law or the Sciences (both great things btw)rather than Literature...

Who you are: Just include a short line or two, don’t need your name if you want to be published anonymously, but say where you study & what you study – also, if you have a blog of your own or a website do feel free to link to that in your biography paragraph too! Sharing is the heart of creativity!

Once all the complicated business of setting up as a charity is completed, Josie (@josielong) and I (@_griff) will both write similar blog entries to you guys and publish them all on the new site: www.arts-emergency.org (don’t look yet, it’s a tad empty at the moment!)

Just keep it to around 600 words max and email the copy or, if you have a good idea that isn’t covered above, a short pitch to us @ arts.emergency@gmail.com

Thanks so much and it’s amazing to know so many people feel as strongly as we do about the life affirming value of studying the Humanities and the Arts!

Neil and Josie x

Monday, 23 January 2012

when I was younger...

If you're in London, my short-short poetry film [animated by Sonia Hensler and Andrjez Rudz] is showing in these tube stations between 4-7pm this week, along with other Smile for London poetry films. Here it is for you all to see!

[all of the poetry films will be shown back to back, with no adverts, on platform three, Euston Station, all weekend 28-29th Jan]

our friends at the circus

Last weekend, Lotty, Jo and I went to the Quentin Blake exhibition currently showing at the Foundling Museum. I strongly recommend it if you're in London [or will be before April]. It's a collection of his recent works commissioned by hospitals in the UK and France.

The exhibition will be going on tour next year to seven different galleries in the UK, so if you don't make it to this one, you might have the chance to see it elsewhere. The paintings are just beautiful.

Other things I'd love to point you in the direction of:

This wonderful article about postcards sent by Angela Carter. In 1988, four years before she died, Angela sent a Bard card from the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare festival, in Canada. 

The message on the back reports only that "Canada's nice. Especially Montreal. Like Scandinavia with liquor."

You've probably heard that Waterstone's is getting rid of its apostrophe. If you're on Twitter [or even if you're not] - it's worth checking out the rather hilarious account of @SadApostrophe - the apostrophe on its new job hunt.

And, finally, these two Jan Svankmajer Alice in Wonderland related films. In case you were wondering, Through the Looking Glass is pretty much my favourite book ever. And last week, after the visit to the Quentin Blake exhibition, Jo, Lotty and I were lusting over Marchpane's 383 editions of Alice. 383! Count 'em! Anyway, yes, two of the trippiest films in the world. Enjoy! x

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Konstiga Saker Kunder Säger I Bokhandeln

Today I signed contracts for Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops Swedish translation rights!

'Konstiga Saker Kunder Säger I Bokhandeln' will be published by Bokförlaget Lind & Co. They are commissioning new illustrations for the book by a Swedish cartoonist, and the book will be published this autumn. Spännande!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Smile for London - poetry on the tube

For those who live in London [or who will be in London in the next two weeks], Smile for London goes live on Monday! This is a film of twenty second animated poems aimed to cheer up commuters, and will be on display across 60 digital screens on the London Underground every morning (7am-10am) and evening (4pm -7pm) rush hour for two weeks from 16th January 2012. Stations include: Angel, Camden Town, Oxford Circus, Bond Street, Charing Cross, Covent Garden, Knightsbridge, Paddington, Euston, Piccadilly Circus, Victoria and Waterloo. My poem, about Oxford Circus, has been animated by Sonia Hensler. The launch for this was on Wednesday, where all of the poets and artists got to see the film - and it's looking fab. You can view a sample video over here.

[For non-Londoners, the organisers are contemplating the idea of a DVD of the films, otherwise I'm sure that they will be uploaded online after the screenings.] xx

weird things.... at the bookseller

There are lots of exciting Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops things going on, which I'll be able to talk to you all about soon. In the mean time, I'm ever so grateful to the lovely people of Constable and Robinson and The Bookseller. There are 'Weird Things...' banners on their website today [Friday], and behold the front and back covers of this week's issue of The Bookseller itself. I'm so excited; I'm dancing in the bookshop! x

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

nighttime bookshop

Morning, folks! You can now read yesterday's articles on 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' in The Evening Standard and The Ham and High online by clicking the links. :)

But, mostly, today I am blogging to show you all this wonderful video made by Type Books in Canada. I just love it. So beautiful! x

Monday, 9 January 2012

Author Visit: Liz Berry

Everyone who replies to this topic by 20th January [no matter where you are in the world], will have their name put in a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Liz's amazing collection, The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls

Liz Berry was born in the Black Country and now lives in London where she works as an infant school teacher. She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in most of the major UK magazines and on Radio 3. Her debut pamphlet, The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls, was published by tall-lighthouse in 2010. She is Emerging Poet in Residence at Kingston University and a 2011/12 Arvon-Jerwood mentee.


What's the first poem you remember writing?

My mom and dad both love poetry and so when I was little we were always reading together and making up our own poems. The first poem I remember writing by myself was about the group of ladies my mom used to gossip with in our cul-de-sac in Dudley. I must have been eight or nine because my lovely teacher at the time, Miss Danks, gave me a special exercise book to write my poems in.

Where and when was your first poem published? What was it? Could you give us a small extract?

My first proper poem to be published was in a little magazine called Fire when I was around fifteen. It was in the voice of a seagull in a painting in a suburban living room, speaking her love to the late-night weatherman. The idea stayed with me for years and eventually became the sonnet ‘The Late Night Weatherman Who Used To Love Me’ which is in my pamphlet. The first line is still the same: “The late night weatherman who used to love me /read sonnets of snowfall and westerly rain.” I had poems published here and there in magazines over the following years but I didn’t start writing seriously until I was twenty-seven and I went to study for an MA at Royal Holloway. Then my first publication was in Mslexia. I had two poems – ‘The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls’ and ‘When I Was A Boy’ - chosen by Carol Ann Duffy in their annual poetry competition. I still feel very affectionate about those poems.

Tell us about 'the patron saint of schoolgirls'. 

The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls was my debut pamphlet published by tall-lighthouse in the 2010 as the winner of their pamphlet competition. It’s a collection of 19 poems which were written from Autumn 2007 to Winter 2009.

How long did it take you to write the collection – which poems came first, and which came last? 

I wrote the poems in the pamphlet over about two years, the time I was studying for my MA and also working as an infant teacher. The first poem was ‘The Red Shoes’ and the last was ‘Dog’.

Do you find reoccurring themes creeping into your writing? What areas do you particularly enjoy exploring?

I love writing about the Black Country where I grew up and where my family lives. My boyfriend is from the same little town and so that makes the place even more fascinating to me. It’s got an amazing dialect and folklore, an astounding story of industrial wonder and decline and is a region with a lot of heart and rough-and-ready tenderness. Recently I’ve been writing lots of poems using Black Country dialect and have written about it for the Young Poets’ Network and The Poetry School. I also love writing about transformations and metamorphoses: adolescent girls, fairytale-ish narratives, the interplay between the human and the animal, the way in which boundaries dissolve and we’re made creature by the ecstatic or sensual experience. Although I rarely write about my work as a teacher, I find the spirit of early childhood weaves itself through my poems – that spontaneity, rawness and wonder that little children have.

What form does an idea for a poem normally present itself, for you? As a word, a theme, or perhaps a first line? 

Poems come to me in lots of different ways. Most often with a feeling but other times a story sparks my imagination or a little idea I hear. Or perhaps I go somewhere and experience something and that starts it. I mostly begin to gather my thoughts by making a spider diagram in my notebook with the idea or image at the centre and then just writing, writing, writing everything that comes. I find that allows me to make surprising connections and access ideas and images that might be hidden deeper. Then I get a blank page and let it find the right form.

What poetry collections have you read recently?

At the moment I’m so inspired by Kathleen Jamie’s The Queen of Sheba. It’s an amazing, alive collection which uses Scots dialect in such an exciting way. Her voice just fizzes. I’ve also been reading the wonderful The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse edited by Tom Paulin. New collections I’ve enjoyed recently are Sasha Dugdale’s Red House, Clare Pollard’s Changeling, Daljit Nagra’s Sultan Tippoo’s Man Eating Tiger Toy Machine and Kate Potts’ Pure Hustle. I also love reading magazines like Poetry London and The Rialto and discovering new poets there. Last year I was enchanted by poems I found by Abigail Parry and Anna Woodford.

You're a teacher. Do you get the chance to read/teach poetry at your school? What do you think about the National Curriculum's approach to poetry?

I’m so lucky because I mostly teach Reception, the first year of school, where poetry is all about speaking and listening. It’s a magical time because the children have no preconceptions about poems yet - about them being difficult or ‘not for them’ - and just take huge pleasure in the sound of words and rhymes and the images they make in your head. Poems, songs and stories are part of our daily routine. I’m also fortunate enough to teach at a very bookish school where reading and writing are valued. Our classes are named after writers and artists and it always cheers me up to look out of the window at playtime and see a line of juniors sitting on the wall reading.

What do you consider to be your biggest writing achievement to date?

Taking my dad to the Eric Gregory Award ceremony in 2009. He loves poetry and instilled that same love in me so it was a special thing for us both.

What are you working on at the moment, and what are your hopes/plans for the future?
This year I’m an Arvon/Jerwood mentee and I’m being mentored by Daljit Nagra. He’s encouraged me to write lots of dialect poems and has been an inspiration and a wonderfully tough editor. In the long term, I’m working on putting together a first full collection but I’m not in any rush. It’s more important for me to work hard on the poems and explore everything I want to, to make my work the best it can possibly be.

My hopes for the future are to continue enjoying writing and to care as much about every new poem as I did about the last; to continue to love reading other people’s poems and to retain that sense of wonder.


The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls

Friday, 6 January 2012

some quickfire fun things

1. Here's an anagram tube map. I particularly like: 'Dragon & Falcon Hire,' 'A Retard Cotton Mouth,' 'Burst Racoon' & 'Frog Innard.' & not forgetting 'Rugby Skin,' 'Prussian Gurdle' and 'Queer Spank.'

2. My poem 'The Bearded Creatures' has placed in the York Open Poetry Competition 2011. Hurray!

3. There are only 14 copies of my limited edition poetry collection left. We've now raised over £4000 for EEC International - so, thank you, lovely people. [It's illustrated by Greg, who has also illustrated 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops.']

4. Here are some beautiful illustrations Ronald Searle drew for his wife.

5. Roald Dahl stamps.

6. If you're in North London, there was a piece in today's issue of The Ham and High about Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops.

7. This blog post by Amanda Palmer may or may not have made me cry like a baby.

Night. xx

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

where stories comes from

This morning I gave a talk at the RNIB about poetry, read some of my own work and talked about writing processes and all that jazz. It was really interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion with everyone who came along. One thing in particular that we discussed was where the ideas for our writing come from. One of the participants said that she'd been looking through some of her old school exercise books from the late 1940s, early 50s, when she'd written poetry. A lot of it, she said, was about aliens invading the earth from Mars. At the time she swears that that's what she intended to write about, but now, when she looks back on it, she can clearly see that the aftermath of the second world war was nudging its way into her work. Albeit in a different form - but her subconscious was concerned about invasion, war and the unknown.

With my poetry at the moment I find my ideas [broadly speaking] fall into two separate categories. There's the poetry that is tangled up in the North East and my childhood, and there's the poetry concerned with 'otherness' - 'freaks', odd heroines, mythology and taking control. The full-length collection I'm working on at the moment deals with the latter of these - for instance a poem 'Memories of His Sister in a Full Body Wetsuit' [which will be published in the next issue of Agenda], is about a girl born with her legs joined together - a 'real life mermaid,' or selkie:


She never used to talk much. You said you always used 
                                                                    to come here
before your mum found amber bottles on a top shelf.
Before the operation where your sister’s legs were split 

                                                    - because she’d arrived
in this world swimming. Your dad looking for a receipt.

I've always been fascinated by the origins of fairy tales and mythological creatures, which influenced a lot of these poems in this collection [at the moment called 'How to Weigh Nothing']. Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks make an appearance, along with saints that never existed, Eve leaving Adam for another woman, and many other strange things [a few of those are available over here, on page nine]. Also the deformity element is obviously in some form related to my own - and something which really freaked me out, finding out about The Lobster Boy - people with EEC living in freak shows with people paying to come and stare at them. I think I'll stick to the day job, thanks ;)

In with my North East related poetry is one called Kitchen, a poem which placed in last year's Kent and Sussex poetry competition and will be published in the next issue of The Rialto. It's a narrative: two girls, naked, in the narrator's kitchen talking about love, life and death, scared that one of their mothers is going to come home and catch them. Now, I've never hung out with someone naked in my mum's kitchen [I'm sure she'll be pleased to hear that if she's reading this], but clearly [to me, obviously to anyone else reading it they can make up their own mind], a lot of that poem comes from the anxiety I had about my parents finding out I am also attracted to girls.


...feet tapping on the floor. Your mother would be home soon.
To her yellow and white check tea towels and her hand-painted 

                                                                                   bread bin

and her naked daughter standing like Jesus in front of the
refrigerator. I grabbed your foot.

Some stories are things I've half remembered, or mis-remembered or half-heard things about other people. I suppose writing is our way of making sense of the world, and what's great about that is the poem or story we have written can mean something completely different to someone else [even the inital ideas]. So from memories, old folk tales, and personal stories grow other stories and other perceptions of those stories until they're something else entirely to many different people. I think that's what I love most about literature as a whole.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Author Interview: Shelley Harris

All who reply to this post before 15th January will have their name put in a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Shelley's debut novel, 'Jubilee.' [It's a fab book!]

Shelley Harris was born in South Africa, emigrating to Britain at the age of six because of her parents' opposition to Apartheid. She has been a local journalist, a teacher, a filler of envelopes, an assistant in a wine shop and a bouncer at teenage discos. She lived in Paris for a year, on the sixth floor of a skinny townhouse, in the smallest flat she's ever seen.

Her first novel, 'Jubilee', is about an iconic photograph taken at a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977, about the boy at the centre of that photograph, and about the secrets he has kept hidden for thirty years.

Hi Shelley, thanks so much for stopping by, please make yourself at home!

Thanks, Jen. Mind if I have a biscuit?

Please do! So, your debut, Jubilee, has just been published. Congratulations! How does it feel to be a published author?

Exciting and a bit baffling. It was something I never thought would really happen so even now, when I can find my own book in real bookshops, there’s something about it that seems surreal.

Tell us about Jubilee.

At the heart of the book is an iconic photograph taken at a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977. And at the centre of that is Satish, a British Asian boy living in a conservative English village. The picture is seen as celebrating a harmonious, multicultural Britain – but only Satish knows what really happened that day. When a reunion is planned years later, his secrets threaten to emerge – and to destroy the life he has built.

How long did it take you to write?

It took a long time – six years, to be precise. That was partly because I began it when my kids were very tiny, and I could only write in short bursts, and partly because I honed it through several redrafts.

What kind of things had you written before Jubilee? Can you tell us about your journey from writing to publication?

Well, I’d written all sorts of things before: appalling poems in my teens, journalism in my twenties (when I was a local reporter), and then a whole novel which I lacked the nerve to send out – no-one’s seen it to this day. Then I had a long gap during which I was a secondary English teacher and didn’t write a single creative word. But here’s the really weird thing: what I did do was read, read, read constantly, and when I first started writing Jubilee – bam! – there was this voice I didn’t know I had. Must’ve been the reading, mustn’t it? The words must have fermented inside me or something, and then – pop!

In terms of the journey from there, I’d say that the kernel of the story remained whole, right the way through the process, and the voice didn’t change very much. But what I really needed to find was the right structure to tell my story, and that’s what took the time. I got feedback from an editorial consultancy, and some useful advice on an Arvon course, and I put the manuscript through three major rewrites. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but for me writing is often about a kind of unromantic doggedness.  

And then, after all those years, the deal ended up happening really quickly; I read out a bit of the novel at York Writing Festival, and a few agents said they were interested in representing me. I signed up with Jo Unwin of Conville and Walsh, and three months later I had a contract with Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Where were you when you found out that you had a book deal? How did you celebrate?

That was honestly one of the best moments of my life, right up there with my children’s births and Thatcher resigning. Jo and I had been to see publishers, and when I got home she was on the phone, saying that they’d started bidding for Jubilee. ‘You’ll definitely be published now,’ she said, and then my kids came home and hugged me: perfection. I celebrated the way I always do, by crying like a big old baby.

Tell us about your childhood, growing up in South Africa, and your move to England. What similarities do you and Satish [the main character of Jubilee] share?

I was six when we left South Africa, and so my memories of it are mainly familial. My mom’s South African, so it was all about us, and cousins, and my grandparents. Of course, I know now that we were living in this horrific police state, the beneficiaries of a racist tyranny – it was the reason my parents decided to move to England.

What’s hilarious, looking back, is that I can recall with great precision what I was expecting from Britain. At the time, the IRA were bombing English cities – that’s what I heard the adults discussing, that and the cold. I had this very clear image that our ship would arrive at Southampton, that there would be a crunch as it butted against the ice, and that I’d look down onto a snowy dockside to see my English grandparents ducking for cover as bombs exploded around them. Unbelievable that I would see myself as moving from a place of safety to one of danger!

Satish and I are very different in many ways, but our main similarity is our desire, as immigrant children, to fit in. When I came here I’d watch other kids the way Satish does, just trying to learn the codes. We were both at the margins as children, and I wanted to explore the double-edge of that; Satish’s very exclusion allows him to perceive things more clearly. He’s privy to secrets precisely because he is so disregarded. Our other similarity (I’m wincing a little here), is that we’re both a teensy bit OCD, I think.

You mentioned in another interview that the idea for Jubilee stemmed from an old photograph of your father's. What ideas came first to you, for the novel – characters or storyline?

The idea for the storyline came first, when I looked again at a photograph I was very familiar with – my dad at a VE Day street party when he was a kid. I started to really think about the odd conjunction of public and private which comes in a street party photograph. There’s a tendency for the viewer to believe she understands everything about it because, of course, it’s a public event which we all ‘own’ in a sense. But when you throw together a small community like that, you’re also going to get all sorts of private things going on, which the viewer can’t begin to guess at: tensions, feuds, unforeseen alliances.

So I thought: what if there was all that going on, and it took place at my own generation’s great street party in 1977, when Britain was on the cusp of huge social change? What if the village was a very traditional English one, and right in the centre of the picture there was a newcomer, an exile from Idi Amin’s Uganda? And then along came Satish.

Did you get any books for Christmas, and what are you reading at the moment?

Ooh yum, yum. Yes I did – loads. At the moment I’m engrossed in Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit. I’m a voracious reader of novels, but this is photography – incredible pictures of the centre of Detroit, where economic collapse has caused a mass exodus. It’s an astonishing thing: classrooms which look as if they’ve been abandoned mid-lesson; a theatre which became a car park which is now deserted anyway; a police station, the floor thick with discarded mug shots. I keep thinking…there’s a story here. I’m waiting for it to announce itself.  

And of course I’ve just realised, telling you this, that as with Jubilee, it’s a visual image which is suggesting stories to me. How interesting!

Are you able to tell us what you're working on at the moment?

Well, I’m in the first draft of my next novel, which is about a very ordinary woman who does something absolutely extraordinary, and tips her life on its head in the process. It’s at a fairly early stage, so I’m fighting shy of saying much more than that.

Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

It’s very simple: I’d like to still be writing for publication, and I want to constantly raise the bar on the quality of my writing. I’d also like to be making really good salted caramels – but you can’t have everything.

Thanks, Shelley!


You can find Jubilee at your local independent bookshop, or online