Orla & Super Sowilo!

Sowilo Press is an imprint of Hidden River Arts, a Philadelphia arts foundation. As anyone visiting this website can't help knowing by now, this small independent press awarded my novel Inscription the Eludia Prize in 2013, and published the book last year. Then, in the 2016 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Inscription was chosen as one of twelve semi-finalists. This is a serious award, and the winner, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, has been named Book of the Year in many quarters, including Oprah's magazine. My book was in excellent company!

In 2014 the Eludia Prize winner was Northern Irish writer Orla McAlinden, for her collection of short stories The Accidental Wife. Sowilo Press published the book this year. Now one of those stories, 'The Visit,' has won a major award—it's the Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year!  

This means that a small press in Philadelphia has international reach, publishing books that have been connected with major awards both in the USA and Ireland!

Sowilo does publish home-grown authors too; Tree Riesener of Philadelphia won the Eludia award in 2012 for her own book of stories, Sleepers Awake! and she is also a prolific and much-published poet. There are earlier Sowilo books by American writers as well.

The point of all this, apart from my wanting to celebrate Orla's success, is that small publishers can be an important part of a book's journey to finding readers. Writers shouldn't overlook them.

I have some good news of my own: my first poetry collection will appear with Oversteps Books in 2017! More information to follow. 

And now I am trying to really make headway on a second novel. It is so true what they say: you know you have written one book, but you just don't know how you did it, and you can't believe you will be able to do it again.

But I am forging ahead, if forging is the word for a process that feels like wading through treacle. I have help from writing friends; it's good to be accountable to someone. Good to check in with a fellow writer and compare notes....which is exactly what I have to go and do right now.

Forza, fellow writers! Forza is a word I learnt in Italy, it's how you cheer on your team; something like "Go for it!" combined with "Courage!"  Forza, and forge onward, and never ever give up.






Independent publishers—hurrah!

I write this on the day after Thanksgiving (I refuse to give it that shopping-related name. And I am beyond horrified that said name has now infiltrated Britain, although Thanksgiving itself is not a thing there, for obvious historical reasons. Since we don't have Thanksgiving and the last Thursday of November is just an ordinary day in Britain, why on earth have British retailers adopted the American concept of this Friday as a day to do manic amounts of shopping? Well, to make money, obviously. But it is ridiculous on so many levels…..)  

There is much to be thankful for in my life, but today, almost on the eve of the book launch my publisher has organized in Philadelphia, I want to sing the praises of independent publishers.

My publisher, Sowilo Press, is an imprint of the arts foundation Hidden River Arts. Publication by Sowilo Press is part of the Eludia Award prize. Inscription was the second recipient of the award, and the first winner was Sleepers Awake by Tree Riesener.  Both these books are being celebrated this Sunday at the Book Launch Party.

What I want to say to all aspiring writers is, you may dream of a contract with one of the big houses, and it's fabulous if you get one; but there are advantages to being with a small publisher. You might have more input into the cover design than you would with a big house. The editor is perhaps less likely to make you change things in your book for the sake of commercial appeal. And small publishers do what they do as a labour of love. That's not to be sneezed at. Not to say people who work in larger houses don't love books, and working with them. But it takes a particular courage and passion to be a small publisher in this climate of tight economy and short-lived shelf life.

But as I write this, I realise with some degree of guilt that I don't actually buy that many books from independent publishers. I sometimes get emails with lists of indie books, and I see ads in various places for indie books; but I don't often respond. This is something I plan to rectify. 

My own book might never have been brought into the world if it weren't for Hidden River Arts. I have a new-found respect for publishers like this, who, whether through a contest or in some other way, seek out the less mainstream and more unusual work.

So, I am grateful. And looking forward to the party!








Covered in Glory

Well, perhaps that's an overstatement. But it is undeniably an exciting moment when the cover of your book (especially a first book, especially a book you've worked on for more years than you care to admit) is ready, at last. 

Here it is, and I am delighted with it.

Being published by a small press has meant, for me anyway, that I've been involved in the cover design and also in the internal design of the book.  Of course, the process was in the hands of experts, in this case Miriam Seidel for the cover, and Douglas Gordon for the internal design; but I was able to make important choices. I've known of writers published by big houses whose books have had covers conveying completely the wrong impression, so I count myself lucky.

There's so much more to a book than I, bibliophile that I am, had ever thought about. For example, what is written at the top of each page?  Often, it's the book title and the chapter heading alternating. But what if your book (like mine) doesn't have chapters? Book title on both pages? Or your authorial moniker on one and the title on the other? These are matters I'd never even considered before.  

Then, do you have a line separating that running title or chapter heading from the text below, or just a space? Where do you put the page numbers—at the top or bottom, on the right or on the left? Do you want any little squiggly symbols separating the sections of your immortal prose? 

Of course, as soon as these issues were drawn to my attention, I started looking in a new way at the books I have around me, and noticing the effect of different designs. Often a book is visually satisfying and harmonious, but as we turn the pages, we're only subliminally aware of this, and don't even realise why. Yet the design affects our aesthetic experience.

For the cover there is even more so to think about, from the main image to the typefaces to the layout.  All the elements involved, and the way they work together, are more complex than I'd ever realised. In fact, the whole book design thing is a specialised world, and I'm so glad the professionals were there.

Anyway, it's done.  I've had visions over the years of what might be on the front cover of the book, if it ever achieved a physical life: leaping dolphins from a first-century mosaic; an ancient Roman ink-pot; a stylus (antique, not the kind you use with some modern hand-held devices); Odilon Redon's painting "The Mystical Boat";  a notebook half-bound in leather with a marbled paper cover, like the one my modern protagonist writes in; an very early codex, like the Nag Hammadi books, leather-wrapped and with trailing thongs; and more. But in the end I am very happy with this cover as representing—hinting at? echoing?— my double-stranded story of two women connected across two thousand years.






Never Lose Hope!

While writing my book Inscription I kept a notebook about the process. In it I thrashed out with myself ideas for how to proceed, recorded the many, many times I was stuck, agonised about how the thing was utterly impossible, followed myriad false starts and twists and turns and ideas for the structure, and wrote many times that I simply couldn't see how to do it and was on the verge of giving up.  The notebook spans years. A lot of them.

Years later, the novel was complete. It's incredible to be able to say that. Often, I thought it never would be, I thought I couldn't manage it. Not only that, but the book is on the verge of publication. The proofs are done, and the cover design, which should very soon be unveiled to the world (!). This too was a moment I thought might never come. My wonderful agent submitted the book to many publishers (a process we began just as the economy started to flounder badly!) and despite complimentary comments from editors, and optimism at first, in the end no-one felt able to go to bat for it against the publishing house bean counters.

It was never quite the right time and place…eventually I submitted the book to two contests: in the UK, the Cinnamon Press Novel/Novella Award, and in the USA the Eludia Award run by Hidden River Arts. The book was long-listed for the first award, and it won the second. Part of the prize is publication, and so the book is now being published by Sowilo Press, one of the Hidden River Arts imprints. 

I've read accounts like this by other writers, and, while they did help me to keep going, I could never really grasp that they had actually ever been in that place of almost no hope, of being unable to visualize the ending of the book and the writing of it, far less a published volume.  That place of rewriting the whole book over and over and over again. Of being in a labyrinth with no visible exit.  Of waiting and waiting for an editor to take it on.  And of course, there is a tendency in us to want to make it look easy. The tightrope walker runs lightly across the rope, as apparently easily as walking down a lane, and the art is in not letting us know how many falls and failures and practices there have been. Vladimir Nabokov said that showing anyone else unfinished work is like passing round samples of your sputum. 

But I was there in the midst of it, in that labyrinth.  Already deep in the process, I wrote things like "I feel I am back to square one" or "I feel such fear that I can't do it at all. Then I realise that I must just try anyway…"  I really was in that place, over and over, and I am here to say that it is worth it to carry on regardless, to persevere.

It's a difficult tightrope. You have to find a balance between humility and self-confidence. Enough self-belief to keep going, even when no-one cares whether your book lives or dies; enough modesty to realise finding an agent is hard, a publisher even harder, and accolades hardest of all. Self-confidence that you can do it; humility in accepting that (speaking for myself) I am not Nabokov, and the input of others during the process—though not too early—is really helpful. 

It's an impossible balance really, and I found myself ricocheting between extremes. As for accolades, I don't expect my book to be widely read (though I'll try my best!).  Outside family, friends, my agent Julia who loves the book and had faith from the start, and my publisher Debra, I may never have an accolade that means more than the one from Kevin Crossley-Holland. This poet, memoirist, author for adults and children (The Hidden Roads: a Memoir of Childhood; The Seeing Stone; Pieces of Land:Journeys to Eight Islands) picked a poem of mine for first prize in a contest years ago. He's a writer I've long admired. Out of the blue, I asked him to read the book, and not only was he kind enough to do so, but he wrote this:

"Clean, lean, superb prose; the quality of research; thoughtfulness; the subtle interweaving of the stories of two women divided by two millennia but drawn together by circumstance.  It's not difficult to praise many components of this unusual and deeply moving historical novel, but what is less obvious, and in the end more profound, is Christine Whittemore's conspicuous achievement in writing a novel about both the consolation of fiction and of writing fiction."

 Gosh. In the heart of the labyrinth, I may have dreamt yearningly for a response like this, as one dreams of winning the lottery or inheriting a castle; but I could never have imagined it actually happening. That my book not only somehow got done, but touched a chord like this with a reader of this calibre, makes it all worth-while.



Introducing myself

Thank you so much for visiting this website.

Here's a personal note, a sort of "who I am and how I ended up where, in various senses, I find myself" piece. It may—indeed should, as it's called "blog"—be the first of several conversations I'll have with whoever might happen to drop in. But, knowing myself as I ought to by now, I make no promises.

And so:  I was born in England, and I was lucky to grow up with nursery rhymes, songs, and books. Reading was my great pleasure.  A Wrinkle in Time, The Little Prince, the Narnia books, the stories of E. Nesbit, The Eagle of the Ninth and all Rosemary Sutcliff's books, A Dog so Small and others by Philippa Pearcethe work of Leon Garfield,  Alan Garner….others who once were bookish children will have many of the same favourites.

As a child I wrote poems. In my teens I joined a young people's arts centre, a formative experience where the love of language was encouraged and nurtured, and we could read and discuss poetry. I will always be grateful to the centre's director, the late Elizabeth Webster.

Going to university, living in Italy, teaching English, getting married, starting a family, moving to America, teaching English some more….in the business of life, writing sank away into the background. I rediscovered it in my early thirties. At home full-time, with two, and then three, children, I began snatching moments to write: essays first, and then I returned to poetry.

It wasn't only because of the demands of living that I had let writing slip away. It was also because I knew I could never hope to emulate the writers I admired. But now I came to recognise the truth of what Jean Rhys said to David Plante, as he records in Difficult Women, though I think I first saw it quoted by Madeleine L'Engle in Walking on Water: 

"All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."

Since then, I have published poetry, essays, creative non-fiction. And I've written journalism about the arts, and about local history. I also enjoy teaching and have led writing workshops in schools, community colleges, and at writing conferences. I like giving talks, too. On one challenging occasion, I was asked to talk about poetry to a group of business people during a networking breakfast at 7:30 in the morning. It seems they liked it. 

I am very excited about the forthcoming appearance of my novel. Inscription will be published this year by Sowilo Press and will be available in the US, UK, and elsewhere. I will be keeping you updated here and on the Home and Books pages.

What a strange journey it was, being immersed in a book-length project for so long (longer than I care to admit to). Especially a project that took me into another time and place, or places—ancient Britain and ancient Italy, two thousand years ago.

The book isn't a "historical novel," though. It's a novel with a historical strand. It is told in  the voices of two women, one living and writing in the first century AD, the other in our own time (or almost; the end of the twentieth century). Their stories interweave across two thousand years.

I've also co-written, with Harriet Dronska-Feitelberg, the memoir of her experience as a hidden child in World War II. My Father's Promise: a hidden child survives the Holocaust is an extraordinary story. Almost all the Jews of her city were killed. Thanks to her father, to a Catholic neighbour, to her own chutzpah, and to luck or providence, she survived this traumatic time disguised as a Catholic child, living under an assumed name. Exposure meant death.

Today she is in her eighties, like the others who are left of her generation. She has found it painful to think about her past, far less to tell her story, until now. But at last she has been able to remember. These stories must be told before it is too late. I've been honoured that she entrusted me with hers.

After twenty-seven years in the States, and three in France, I am now spending more time in my native England.
I keep on trying to feed the lake. There is always so much more to know and to discover about working with and celebrating language, in all its mystery. 

Some tutelary spirits, in no particular order:  
W.G. Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paul Metcalf, Denise Levertov, Virginia Woolf, e e cummings, George Herbert, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Jean Rhys, R.S. Thomas, Madeleine L'Engle, Penelope Fitzgerald, David Markson, Charlotte Mew…. .

Some living writers whose work I love—an ever-changing and incomplete list:
David Malouf, Julian Barnes, Geoff Dyer, Colm Toibín, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, Jeanette Winterson, A.S. Byatt, Linda Pastan, Frederick Buechner, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard…...

That's enough for now. More soon.