Air: Sylphs, Spirits and Swan Maidens


My latest publication!

I couldn’t make the launch, which although on line was at 2am in the morning, so I recroded a reading of the first page or so. Here it is.

my creature of the air, is nothing like the cover image. I had something more like this in mind, but with wilder hair and feathers on her face.

Remembering Lilian Mohin


I’ve just read in yesterday’s Guardian Other Lives, that Lilian Mohin has died, age 81, although the online version is dated March, so lockdown and Covid-enlarged deathrate must have pushed her off the paper version initially. I don’t think she’d be pleased.

We argued, the first time Lilian and I met, and for a while I avoided her as best I could. A couple of years later that first story was published. I’d been having a really bad time at work and I remember tossing the acceptance letter in the air with delight. All grumbles were forgotten.

After a second anthology acceptance of two stories, Lilian confided that she got sent some very bad stories, and wished she got work like mine more often.

I took her at her word. Every couple of weeks or so, I sent her a story, in the post. (The internet was in its infancy. I remember her saying how she was staying in touch with friends in the US via ’email’ and being bemused, it sounded very like witchcraft.) Each envelope was marked ‘Amusing Ms Mohin.’ We both enjoyed it and she would phone to discuss the latest. (Not your best, dearrr-heart, Needs some work, Pumpkin, This is goood.)

Eventually Ms Mohin was amused enough to publish my first collection. (I was thrilled, I got to choose the cover, I got to choose the font – Garamond, still my favourite I got to veto, if not choose the paper!) I now realise how unusual this was, but I was interested in every aspect, so she talked to me about every aspect, except – crucially – one.

I annoyed the hell out of Lilian by refusing to do any publicity beyond a launch at my local bookshop, and a couple of readings elsewhere. I didn’t understand how important it was, I was borderline agoraphobic (more than borderline, if I’m honest), the idea of radio interviews horrified me, and she hadn’t the patience to explain. Despite that, the book sold reasonably well, owing to the phenomenal Onlywomen mailing list – and people bought books then, almost automatically. I own a copy of virtually everything Onlywomen published.

For a while I spent a lot of time in Lilian’s company, both socially and in a business context. I was briefly on the advisory board, (where I met some fantastic women) and I helped with rebranding for the 21st anniversary (there were a lot of laughs to be had from that).

When I first started pulling away from working at things that were nothing to do with writing I helped out in the office, then in the basement of a town house opposite the British Library, one afternoon a week. I read and commented on manuscripts, sent rejection letters, went to the post office with mail orders…  on one occasion bringing brackets, screws and a screwdriver to fix her collapsing desk – it had been like that for weeks, I didn’t dare lean on it. Lilian hardly ate, and I took to bringing lunch with me and making her share it. I had to be imaginative, she didn’t eat dairy, or citrus and – was it tomatoes? I can’t remember, but we had fun with my concoctions.

It is frequently her voice I hear when I am editing my own work – soft, drawling, but what she had to say, to the point. Sometimes she spoke so softly I couldn’t hear her, but I never said so – I would say I don’t know over and over until she spoke up. That probably annoyed her too.

When not editing, she was the mistress of the digression, and I found her very difficult to follow at full volume, never mind her habitual die-away tone. Initially I put in mental parentheses to try to keep track, then, taking a leaf from my partner’s book, would say, put a pin in that, stick to the point. She liked that, and would sometimes voluntarily put a pin in, and come back to the deviation when the import of the conversation was dealt with.

I spent some time office-hunting with her when the lease (or was it the funding?) ran out on the basement, and eventually she gave up and worked from home. Cue more lunches, and meetings dominated by the antics of cat Simpkin (a delightful animal), and I got told some life history – named for the woman who took her pregnant mother in when she arrived in Kent escaping Nazi Germany, her wondrously tall children (Lilian was positively birdlike herself), her MS, her love life.

Eventually came the rejection, in quick succession, of the second collection, and of the novel that she asked me to write. I took my manuscripts away, wounded, and we (wisely) didn’t speak for a bit. Then she phoned me up and said, that collection… It was months later. I quoted back the mean-spirited spidery-pencilled scrawls on the manuscript. She squirmed. I invited her to a birthday party, warning her that there would be men there (we had both been separatists, I had since discovered one or two men I quite liked. It felt like a test – if she came, we were back on, if she didn’t…) She said she wouldn’t come. She said she would come, necessitating changes to the food. She arrived, and sat in the kitchen sulking, where she gradually unthawed until she was holding court in there, with the cats, and mostly, ironically, to the men. They set up a mutual admiration society while the party went on around them. We made up, we published.

I worked harder at promoting that one, I understood, now. When Onlywomen hit its 35th anniversary (coinciding with Lilian’s 70th year – I went to her birthday party) I organised a reading at my local library with other writers published by Onlywomen, and it hit me, as I was doing the introductions, that Lilian had devoted half her life to Onlywomen.

Eventually we fell out again. It was inevitable really, with Lilian, either you were in, or you weren’t. We didn’t drift apart, we didn’t lose touch. It was always all or nothing with Lilian, she didn’t do half measures, and I think that had rubbed off on me, it was entirely intentional on my part.

She was still having an impact on my life though, as, in reaction, I set up Arachne Press. And then found out how little I really knew, despite all those conversations in the basement opposite the British Museum.

Old Women in Books: on publishing your mother


Today is my mum’s birthday. Ghillian Potts is 84. Like me, she has written all her literate life, and still has a notebook full of poems written between the ages of about 7 and 12, (of variable quality!)
To celebrate, my publishing company, Arachne Press, is publishing two of her books today. I crowd funded to the family, and my sisters and Dad all contributed.

I grew up with my mum’s stories, bedtime and bathtime we would congregate to hear the next installment in some long running saga (one of which featured a family of five girls whose names all started with R discovering that their headmistress is a witch, which went on for weeks), or demand yet again an old favourite; Jackanory had nothing on Mum, and the Singing Ringing Tree (remember that?) was a very poor second.

It turned out that the publishing world agreed, and three of Ghil’s stories for primary school aged children were published in the 1990’s, including Sink or Swim which made it onto Jackanory and we were very pleased that they had finally caught up with us! However relatively speaking, these were contemporary, girl/boy in the street, stories (even the one with a witch), which didn’t showcase Ghil’s magnificent flights of fantasy… Her agent ‘knew’ what would sell and just wasn’t interested in her magnificently funny and silly fairy tales for younger children, nor in her fantasy novels for the Young Adult market.

My all time most-often-demanded tale aged 5 or 6 was The Very Cross King, although when I asked Ghil to write it out for me recently, it wasn’t at all how I remembered. Unlike the glorious The Old Woman from Friuli, which was exactly as I remember it, possibly because it was written much later, when Ghil was learning Italian and heard this outrageous claim:

The people of Friuli are the most stubborn in the whole of Italy, and the women are even more stubborn than the men, but the old women… well!

As a  4 star review from The Book Bag says: … a clarion call to our daughters… Three cheers, I say!

Mum denies any intention to instil feminism in the young, saying that she was just having fun letting the Old Woman be as rude as possible, but it’s there nonetheless.

I commissioned Ed Boxall to do the illustrations, having worked with him before, and there would have been more if we could have afforded them.

 

The other book Arachne Press is publishing is Brat: Book One of The Naming of Brook Storyteller.

I don’t have many shared interests with Ghil, we suffer from being very alike in personality but very different in outlook. Writing is our meeting place and touchstone.

Years ago I wrote an extended critique of the three books that make up The Naming of Brook Storyteller for Ghil, probably just before she offered them to the agent, I can’t recall now. And Mum did likewise for me on my novel The Dowry Blade. If there is one person it is difficult to take literary criticism from, it is your mum! Don’t try this at home! I’m sure she found my comments equally difficult, but we were both right. However, it meant that I know these books pretty well, and love them, although they have inevitable evolved over the interim, in fact I realised that some of the cultural peculiarities I had included in a early attempt at a fantasy novel (never to be published!) were swiped from Mum.

Gorgeous cover by Gordy Wright

The decision to publish now was almost spur of the moment, but once made it felt absolutely right. Ghil’s writing inspired me to write, and these are fantastic stories that deserve a wider audience that they have had so far. Neither of us is getting any younger, and I want Mum to see these books published while she can still enjoy the process.

The trilogy tells the story of Brook Storyteller, orphaned and alone, befriended by outlaws and rulers;  trained to remember, exactly, what happens, and sworn to always tell the truth, in a way that the listener will understand, and with the power to raise or destroy people by the names she gives them. Her own name is precious, and changes over the course of the three novels through the success and failure of her own actions.

This is absolutely a series based on the importance of acting and speaking truthfully and the consequences for those who don’t.

So when I sat Mum down and suggested I might publish some of her work, the choice was pretty much already made as to which books to start with, although I did look at one of her other Young Adult books that I remember her writing when I was about the age to be her target market, but these are the stories I grew up loving.

The second in the trilogy, Spellbinder,  will be published in December, and the final one, Wolftalker, in June next year.

Happy Birthday, Mum!

 

 

 

 

The Dowry Blade, live and in the flesh


Dowry blade arrives

There is nothing to beat a pile of new books, except a pile of new books that you wrote yourself. And this is a big pile, of big books! The Dowry Blade is big! It weighs 620 grams. I hadn’t really thought through the amount of space a 400 page book printed in Royal format takes in bulk. This is just the 100 copies to supply events in places that aren’t bookshops, copies for reviewers and the copyright libraries. Buy one before I have to build an extension!

Julian is delighted at the number of new boxes to play in, and also thinks you should buy a copy so that they empty quickly.

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Support Julian’s plans for a small city of boxes to disport himself within by buying a copy direct from Arachne Press, or at one of the launch events (that’s the ‘live and in the flesh’ thing) – Lewisham Library on 24th February at 6:30, or Clapham Books on 25th February at 7.30.

More events to follow in March, in discussions with three more venues.

Callout for pre publication reviewers


So, experimenting with new stuff, my forthcoming book, The Dowry Blade (February 2016) is on NetGalley, a review site for librarians, bookshop owners, book bloggers and professional reviewers. If that is YOU, you can download a review PDF here. It is UNPROOFED, ok, so no comments about typos!

9781909208209

The Historical Birthday-Tea Party March 31st


The final birthday post for March, and again no specific birthday so here is a late one:

Margaret Webster March 15, 1905 – November 13, 1972

American born actor who became well known on stage in the UK before returning to the US as a highly successful Broadway stage director, noted for record breaking long runs, and for employing black actors at a time when this was still unusual. She met and started a relationship with Eva Le Gallienne, who starred in several of her productions.

In 1946, Margaret and Eva co-founded the American Repertory Theater with producer Cheryl Crawford. The relationship with Eva ended in 1948, and in 1950 Margaret became the first  woman to direct at the New York Metropolitan Opera. She worked in theatre and opera untl her death from cancer in 1972.

The Historical Birthday-Tea Party March 30th


Birthdays seem to be scarce in this neck of the calendar, so here’s a bit of not quite history for you.

Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Where thou diest there will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

Ruth

I have a great fondness for the King James version of the Bible – it is great poetry – and I make no apology whatsoever, to either people offended that I’ve included what is not (in my view) a real person, nor to those who are offended that I’ve suggested someone in the bible is a Lesbian. If a woman said those words to me, I know what I’d think.

The Historical Birthday-Tea Party March 29th


louisa lumsdenNo particular birthday today so let’s celebrate

Louisa Lumsden CBE (1840-1935), the first prominent female figure at the University of St Andrews.
Louisa was one of the original students of Girton College Cambridge.  She taught classics there and later at Cheltenham. In 1877 she became Head of St Leonard’s school in St Andrews. In 1895 she was warden of a new university hall of residence,  but resigned in 1900.
Although her initial energies were put into women’s education, she was a strong proponent of women’s suffrage  In 1908 she was president of the Aberdeen Suffrage Association. She had a horse-drawn caravan, which was used for campaign tours. although never a militant herself, she admitted to fellow-feeling.

One has a mean feeling when one is quietly enjoying the good things of life and others are in prison for their convictions.

The Historical Birthday-Tea Party March 25th


Today’s birthday girl is Olive Schreiner, 24th March 1855 – 1920

South African author and prolific letter writer. Olive was a feminist, socialist, pacifist, vegetarian, rational dress advocate, anti-vivisectionist would-be doctor and thinker, you name it she had a position on it. She corresponded with everyone, from Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis to Emily Hobhouse and her best friend Elizabeth (Betty) Molteno and her partner Alice Greene.

All Betty has been to me I can’t tell you. Her beautiful wonderful individuality is such a joy to me. It seems almost all that is keeping up my faith in Humanity now. What a wonderful soul it is.

It is so beautiful that I am able to love you both so that my love for one never seems interrupted by my love for the other, and I know you both love me.

I have a fondness for Olive – I’ve read two of her novels, The Story of an African Farm, and From Man to Man and enjoyed them.

If you want to know more you can do no better than to read her books and play in the shallows of the online archive of her letters, where without much effort I found this:
Olive Schreiner to Isaline Philpot, 17 March 1889, NLSA Cape Town, Special Collections, Olive Schreiner Letters Project transcription

I wish I was large and strong and could put my arms round all the tired lonely women in the world and help them. The work of my life is to try and teach women to love one another. If we would leave off quarrelling with men and just love and hold each other’s hands an would come right. Oh, I love the two women in my book so I am getting to love women more and more. I love men too, so very much only they don’t need me.

Olive Schreiner to Margaret (Maggie) Harkness, January 1891, National Archives Depot, Pretoria, Olive Schreiner Letters Project transcription (this is part of a long letter politely telling Maggie to leave her alone, but I enjoy her picture of a true friend – I’m guessing she means Betty)

The woman I love best in the world, & who I think loves me better than anyone else has written to me ten times or more on political & social questions since I came out here: I have written her two post cards. yet if tomorrow I wrote “I need you” she would leave her husband & home & come to me, & if she simply hinted that she needed me, I should be in England in three weeks. I know that my name is so sacred to her that she never dis-cusses me with anyone, & I never mention her & it would be over my body that anyone should touch her; but I don’t feel I want to write to her, it is she who must give me food for thought in her large interesting life in the centre of political & social thought & action, & I would much rather she was doing her great work in England than hanging round in Africa where she could not be of so much use.

All quotes from letters © Olive Schreiner Letters Project.

So while I don’t think Olive was exactly one of us, she was certainly a fellow traveller, and she gets an invitation to the party, no question.

The Historical Birthday-Tea Party March 17th


No Birthday today, so lets look back to yesterday and celebrate

I. A. R. Wylie. 16 March 1885 – 4 November 1959.

Ida Wylie (known to her friends as Uncle) was a novelist, screenwriter, magazine writer and poet. More than 30 of her works were made into films between 1915 and 1953. Ida had a complicated home life, and identified with the strong women in her life. She was largely self-educated, and wrote to entertain herself, and sold her first story to a magazine at the age of 19 and quickly became financially successful as a writer. She became a suffragette and provided a temporary home for women who were recovering from hunger strikes when released from prison. in 1917 she set off to America on a road trip with a companion Rachel. She then settled in Hollywood where many of her stories were adapted into films, including Keeper of the Flame, with starred the lovely Katherine Hepburn.

Ida lived with Sara Josephine Baker, and Louise Pearce for many years.
In her autobiography My Life with George (George is her alter-ego) Ida said

I have always liked women better than men. I am more at ease with them and more amused by them. I too am rather bored by a conventional relationship which seems to involve either my playing up to someone or playing down to someone…  fortunately, I have never wanted to marry any of them, nor with the exception of that one misguided German Grenadier, have any of them wanted to marry me.

N.B. There may not be an official birthday, but today is Alix & my anniversary: 32 years together, 8 of which we’ve been in a civil partnership. In their infinite wisdom, when the government legalised gay marriage, they neglected to sort out how we ‘upgrade’ so those who haven’t yet made a commitment to each other in front of a registrar can get married next month, and we can’t. How bloody ridiculous is that?