It Takes A Village

It’s five days until The Fire Starters appears on bookshop shelves and I’m feeling all the emotions: excited, terrified, excited again, mainly just exhausted after a two week dose of the cold which has left me with a peely, red nose and a head so woolly I doubt I’ve made much sense in any of the interviews I’ve done so far. I’ve been in this position a few times before so I’ve some idea of what to expect when launching a book. On Tuesday night there’ll be wine, enough shortbread to sink a small boat, Hannah singing and lots of people I love being happy for me. I’ll be a bit giddy and possibly teary and there will be a moment -somewhere around the fifth or sixth book I sign- when I’ll think, “gosh Jan, you need to get a better signature.” (I really do). I also know that at some point in the evening I’ll make a feeble attempt to thank everyone who’s made this book possible. Inevitably I will forget an important person I really didn’t mean to forget.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I’ve no interest in raising children but I’m planning on bringing a fair few books into the world over the next few years and I learnt pretty early on that I will not be able to do this alone.* I will continue to rely upon a host of fantastic people to keep the words coming. These people are often so good at enabling and encouraging my writing I don’t even notice what a stellar job they’re doing of keeping me on track. So, I thought I’d take half an hour to compile a list of the people, (or more accurately peoples), who make it possible for me to keep doing what I do. (I’m guessing most writers have their own list of heroes arranged under similar headings).

At least now, when I get overawed and forget to mention someone important on Tuesday night, I won’t feel so dreadful because I’ll know this wee blog exists as a testament to how much I appreciate everything these people have done for me. A huge, big enormous heartfelt thank you to all of you, both the named and the insinuated. I’d buy you all a pint if I could, but I don’t have enough money and some of you don’t drink pints on account of being small children or Presbyterians.

  1. Booksellers – Without booksellers writers wouldn’t sell any books and we’d all end up even more penniless than we already are. In my experience good booksellers, and I am lucky enough to have some truly excellent booksellers in my life, (I’m looking at you Bob in Gutter and Emma and Fiona in Waterstones, and obviously Dave and the brilliant team in the home from home that is No Alibis), do so much more than just sell our books. They champion our work. They encourage us when we’re feeling under appreciated and they continuously broker relationships between us writers and the people who will read our work. They also sometimes give us free wine.
  2. Editors – I have to say I’m not one of those writers who enjoys the editorial process. For me, writing is the fun part of the process, like baking a cake and creating havoc in the kitchen. Editing is sort of like doing the dishes afterwards. All my books would have been utter disasters if it weren’t for the editors who’ve carefully and graciously licked them into shape, curtailing my ludicrous fondness for semi-colons and subsidiary characters. Alice Youell who edited The Fire Starters is the Queen of all the editors. She took a muddle of a manuscript, pulled all the best parts to the surface, brought my characters to life and chopped over ten thousand unnecessary words out so artfully I barely noticed. She is a legend of a woman. She has almost made me enjoy editing. (Nb I said almost. I’m not quite there yet).
  3. Family – I am very fortunate to have a family who are supportive and interested in what I do. I know that some writers can’t say the same and so I’m incredibly appreciative of the people I do have around me. Thank you to Mum, Dad, Alan, Laurie, Caleb and Izzy for all the meals you’ve served me when I haven’t had time to cook, the readings you’ve attended, (especially the really terrible ones back at the start), the boring book festival anecdotes you’ve patiently listened to patiently and even the times when you’ve all ganged up to mock my ludicrous lifestyle choice and say things like, “so what’s this book about then? More flying children?” It’s good to have people who keep me grounded even if it does mean being repeatedly skundered by a ten year old. It is good to know where home is.
  4. Journalists – Not all journalists are brilliant. We’ve all endured our fair share of poorly researched, fluff pieces which say very little about our process or the issues explored in our work. However, there are some very talented journalists and critics currently writing about the Irish art scene and it’s always an incredible privilege to come across their work and realise these, (mostly) strangers have invested time and thought in trying to understand my stories. Even a negative review, well-written and researched is a gift to a writer and it’s not unusual for me to better understand my own work once a critical reader has begun to unpick and explore the themes contained in it. To avoid the issues which come with reviewing friends and colleagues’ work, we desperately need to develop more arts journalists and critics, especially in the North. However, this shouldn’t stop us being very grateful for the great ones we already have.
  5. Academics – Similarly, I’d like to acknowledge the incredible amount of work currently being done by those academics who are carrying out research and writing about our work. Over the last few years there seems to have been a real rise of incredible, (mostly young, and mostly female), academics casting much needed light on the writing come out of Northern Ireland. I’ve thoroughly appreciated both the opportunities they’ve opened up for me in terms of being read critically within academia, and also the fresh insight it’s brought into the themes I explore in my work. Special mention must go to Caroline Magennis, Dawn Sherratt-Bado, Marianna Gula, Hedwig Schwall and the incredible support offered by EFACIS and the community of academics within the world of Irish Studies.
  6. Agents – I didn’t have a literary agent for my first three books. Now, I have Kate Johnson and I know for certain I couldn’t go back to being on my own again. I don’t know whether every agent in the world is a great as Kate; maybe they are; maybe I just lucked out. Kate is so incredibly professional. She goes out to bat for me and my writing at every turn and it finally feels like I’m not an individual struggling to be heard so much as part of a really strong team. Not only has Kate found a perfect publishing home for my books, she’s also provided encouragement, stellar book recommendations, a listening ear when I’m feeling confused or discouraged, a friendly face at important meetings and readings AND she remains the only person I know who always responds to emails within twenty four hours. She is, quite simply, the best. For me, it’s incredibly important that the person representing me does so with complete integrity. I need to be able to trust them to convey the values and issues which are an essential part of both my writing and who I am. Kate consistently does this. I honestly don’t know how I managed before her.
  7. Publishers – Good publishers are absolutely integral to the book industry. I’ve had previous experience of both great publishers and not so great publishers and I want to thank Fiona Murphy, Patricia McVeigh, Hannah Bright and the team at DoubleDay for doing such an incredibly good job of looking after me and my book. Releasing a book to a publisher is a bit like dropping off your kid at school on its first day. You really want the publisher to appreciate the best bits of what you’ve created, do their best to improve the parts that need improving and basically love what you’ve made as much as you do. Mission accomplished DoubleDay women. You’ve done the most amazing job of being absolute powerhouses of professionalism and also warm, approachable and available. I’m so thankful to be working with you and excited about what comes next for all of us.
  8. Friends – This will be a short one. I’m always harping on about how much I rely on the arts community in Belfast. I’d be a puddle without these people. You know who you are. You’re mostly women, wearing comfortable shoes, striding purposefully about the city, actually getting things done. I’d add to this list a bunch of amazing Irish writers and literary professionals throughout the UK and beyond who’ve become good friends over the last few years. It’s all very well talking to your brother or the barista in your favourite coffee shop when things are going well writing wise, but when you’re rock bottom, struggling to get to the end of a chapter or facing a pile of rejection emails, nobody’s quite as good at empathising as arts friends. You lot are the best.
  9. Readers – Curious readers. Reluctant readers. Appreciative readers. Readers who buy the book and don’t get round to reading it until you’re publishing the follow up. Fast readers. Readers who never get past the third chapter. Hardback, buy it the day it comes out readers and, (it kind of pains me to say this), Kindle readers. Readers who track you down to tell you how much they enjoyed the book. Readers who track you down to tell you how much they didn’t enjoy the book. We need all the readers. If we don’t have readers there’s very little point in writing books and so I am thankful for all my readers, though I’m maybe not quite as thankful for the ones that track me down to moan.**

*I did once have a woman come up to me after a reading to tell me I was wasting money publishing books through a publisher. I should follow her lead and photocopy my books on the work photocopier and then sell them at car boot sales. So, I guess it is technically possible to go it alone as a writer, though now I’m self-employed I no longer have a work photocopier upon which to clandestinely photocopy my novel.

** I am also struggling to find any thankfulness in my heart for the woman who came up after a reading with a secondhand copy of my book, already signed to someone else. “Can you put a line through that name and sign it to me,” she said and went on to explain that she’d purchased her copy in Oxfam books because she’d read the first page in Waterstones and didn’t think it was really her thing, so she wasn’t going to pay full price for it.

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