Just before New Year, Roz Morris emailed me to tell me about a project she was involved in – seven women writers working together to self-publish a box set of their novels. I was intrigued; these women – the ones you see in the banner above – are experienced writers, agents, editors, what made them decide to work together and why self-publish? So I asked them. I hope you find their answers as interesting as I have.
How and why did you decide to work together to publish a box set of your novels?
Kathleen Jones: Jessica Bell had the idea – but we all said ‘yes, please!’ because it sounded such a fantastic project. We are all so different as writers – but we knew each other through the Alliance of Independent Authors and liked each other’s work. That was important.
Jessica Bell: I approached these fabulous ladies because I admire their work and adore them as individuals. Each of them is at the very top of their game; each book representative of quality fiction that explores a diverse range of unlikely heroines. I must say, I’m a little bit of a fan girl, and I can’t believe I have the pleasure of taking part in this project.
Orna Ross: The idea behind the collective — independent-minded authors offering page-turning fiction about unconventional women – was irresistible. I hope the success of this project will encourage other writers who believe in their own work to collaborate and experiment together. The calibre of this collective meant I never doubted we’d put together a great book; what I didn’t anticipate is that we’d have such great fun doing it.
Joni Rodgers: Indie publishing is the new high ground for literary fiction. Maybe this is a US thing, but publishers here have gotten more and more gutless and lit fiction is getting very much of an ilk. Authors are pressured by agents and editors into tropes and style that sell — and that’s not a healthy state for the artists individually or the art form at large. Readers will find the true artistic risk takers and creative outliers are in the indie world, where we captain our own fate – as artists must.
Roz Morris: I was proud to be invited. Most of the media focus on self-publishing has been on the mega-sellers or the people who secure traditional book deals. But for me, these writers are the real self-publishing superstars, and the people we should be curious about. They’re storytellers dedicated to their craft, who have proved their worth with awards, fellowships and, of course, commercial success. Each author here is in charge of her own artistic destiny, embracing the indie path as a statement of integrity, yet writing fiction that speaks to everybody.
Jane Davis: I’m excited about the opportunity to showcase the diversity of writing that falls under the labels of general, contemporary and literary fiction. I am rather fond of Joanne Harris’s comment that she doesn’t like to insult her readers by assuming they only like to read one type of fiction. We will not be insulting any readers. Within this set, we offer the full spectrum from light (although never frothy) to darker, more haunting reads that delve into deeper psychological territory.
Carol Cooper: When Jessica Bell approached me, I couldn’t resist the chance to be alongside other writers whose work I admire. Although there’s a range of genres, we each have something to say about the lives of women. We also respect one another’s opinions, which makes for a very democratic project.
Each book has a female protagonist, was this a deliberate decision?
Roz Morris: When we talked about collaborating, we kicked around some ideas. What were we about? It was the unconventional – we’d all written novels that didn’t fit the mould. And as all good fiction comes first from characters, it was clear that our signature was the people at the centre of our stories – and we’d chosen to make them women.
My own novel, My Memories of a Future Life, is the story of an accomplished concert pianist, Carol, whose career is halted by a mysterious injury. An interviewer once asked me if Carol was an ‘everywoman’. On one level, she can’t be because her life has been unusual – she is a professional musician. But the impulse that took her there, and ultimately undoes her, is certainly universal – she wants to belong and feel loved. And that’s why her struggle interested me – she is losing something she cannot imagine living without.
Kathleen Jones: We all had books with unusual female protagonists that didn’t fit traditional models – ‘real’ women rather than stereotypes. One reviewer commented on my main character: ‘another writer might have been tempted to characterise Zenia as a straightforward heroine, or an uncomplicated victim. Jones resists this temptation: Zenia is reckless, vain, mercurial, and occasionally cruel. She is as flawed and fickle as any of us. She is not a heroine, and she is certainly nobody’s victim.’
Jane Davis: I wanted to offer a novel that addresses a major women’s issue: the lengths that a mother will go to in order to provide for her daughter – in this case, sacrificing the ballet career she loved and, after struggling with a number of low-paid jobs, resorting to prostitution. Despite the subject-matter, it was never my intention to write a book about sex. An Unchoregraphed Life has far more in common with Henry James’ What Maisie Knew than it does with Belle de Jour.
Orna Ross: The centre of my book is the mother-daughter relationship – one of the most fascinating, complex and under-explored relationships in fiction. There are a lot of novels about daughters rebelling against a strict, difficult and sex-averse mother — but that is only one side of a double-barrelled story. The Irish novelist Edna O’Brien once said: “If you want to know what I regard as the principle crux of female despair, it is this: in the Greek myth of Oedipus and in Freud’s exploration of it, the son’s desire for his mother is admitted. The infant daughter also desires her mother but it is unthinkable, either in myth, in fantasy, or in fact, that that desire can be consummated.”
What comes between my characters Mercy and Star is a man. Actually, two men. The women are so focussed on Martin, the father, and Zach, the lover, that they fail to see each other. It was my hope, in writing their story, that it might help us all to look more closely at our own mothers and daughters.
Joni Rodgers: Tulsa, my heroine, is a bookish, zaftig misfit, much like I was in my early 20s, and I drew on my experience as the lone female disc jockey at a rock station in western Montana. The themes of body image, forgiveness, making peace with one’s past were important to me, then and now. I also wanted to write about a healthy, loving union between two women (Tulsa’s mother and her partner) and how unfair it was—to them and to their daughter—that they weren’t allowed to marry. I was turned down by a number of agents because I refused to cut that storyline, and back then (in the mid-1990s) it was still a verboten topic for commercial fiction.
Carol Cooper: Writing my female protagonists wasn’t a conscious decision. It just happened. But there’s a reason my female characters developed as they did. Women in novels are often too good to be true. They’re too smart, too beautiful, too kind – or, worse, all of these things at once. Or else they’re hapless bimbos, obsessed by their appearance and buffeted about by events. As Picasso put it, either goddesses or doormats. My novel One Night at the Jacaranda has several major female characters and I wanted them to be complex and compelling. In other words, real.
Kathleen Jones: In traditional publishing it’s very easy to be trapped by the image that your publisher wants to sell. The publishers I worked with only wanted me to write biographies of women. Moving to self-publishing gave me the opportunity to explore the fictional ideas I had whizzing around in my brain and it also allowed me to work on the biography of a man. My poetry is all traditionally published, but by a press that doesn’t have a big digital side. I think this is a big mistake and I’m exploring the possibility of bringing out a digital edition of my collected poems next year.
The glorious thing about being an independent author is that you become part of this online community for the lone writer fighting their way through the self-publishing jungle. We chatter to each other on Facebook, on blogs, on Twitter and through organisations like ALLi. Some of us met through a cooperative called Authors Electric. The important thing is that we support each other. Traditional publishing is competitive and cut-throat, and publishers encourage rivalry. The self-publishing arena is quite different. We help each other. It’s one of the most supportive communities I’ve ever belonged to.
Roz Morris: The initial reason I self-published was I couldn’t get a traditional deal – even though I had an agent. Publishers would tell me my novels were good, then they’d want me to change them drastically to fit the market. I’d successfully ghostwritten a number of bestselling thrillers, and quite a few publishers were keen for me to write more of the same. But I’d grown up with a love for unconventional writers like Donna Tartt and Margaret Atwood, and I realised I found such compromise deeply offensive. At the same time, though, the publishers’ feedback dented my confidence, because I knew I’d taken creative risks. I had a blog and a successful self-published book on writercraft, and readers were telling me they were keen to see my fiction – so I published and hoped. To my great relief, I found my tribe.
So I began self-publishing because I had nowhere else to go. Now it’s a positive choice, a way to build a body of work and keep my creative integrity.
Traditional publishing has business priorities, especially with debut authors. But writers are far more inventive than traditional publishing can accommodate, and readers have a much wider appetite for variety and originality than publishing’s economics will allow. Now, with indie publishing, we can keep the artform alive. I’ll take any amount of guidance on what isn’t working, and I need the people who will tell me that. But I won’t cheat a book to fit a market fashion. The writers I admire don’t do that.
Carol Cooper: I write health and parenting titles as well as fiction. Traditional publishing via my agent is the way to go with them, as I doubt I’d be able to reach the right readers on my own. However, my debut novel wasn’t commissioned. Even in the best-case scenario, I reckoned it would take a while to find a publisher. I was also determined to write the book as I wanted to write it, so control was an important decider. My novel isn’t literary fiction, but it’s not chick-lit either.
Luckily I never thought there was a stigma attached to self-publishing. In her late 70s my mother had self-published several bilingual books for children, and they had done well. Why couldn’t I go down the same road?
You’re a group of experienced writers with a variety of experiences in traditional publishing; what advice would you give to new writers considering self-publishing?
Kathleen Jones: Don’t be put off by literary snobbery. One big London agent thinks that about two thirds of authors will be self-publishing in a few years’ time. It will be the norm. Don’t be afraid to take risks. You don’t have to choose one or the other exclusively. Traditional publishing has its benefits, but self-publishing gives you artistic freedom and you can earn more money per book than a traditional publisher is willing to give you. And you get paid every month instead of twice a year!
Jane Davis: First-time authors need to understand the publishing industry. Unfortunately that’s not as easy as it sounds. I began a Creative Writing and Publishing MA and quickly gave it up because the advice we were given was hopelessly out of date. Then, attending day conferences, my mistake was to listen to those who made their livings by perpetuating the myth that self-publishing was for amateurs. As a result I was relatively late in joining the party. Far from being amateurish, I discovered that self-published authors are comprised of a diverse group, including authors who have walked away from six-figure deals, established authors who have been dropped by their publishers after their latest book didn’t sell quite so well, talented newcomers building a readership, innovative authors whose work doesn’t fit the market, cross-genre authors who sell themselves as a brand, best-selling authors who have never tried the traditional route. And of course there are the 25% who fall under the hybrid model. They decide which route is right on a project-by-project basis.
Eimear McBride, whose novel The Girls is a Half-formed Thing won numerous prizes last year spent nine years trying to find a publisher. In the end, her strategy paid off – but I’d love to have the opportunity to ask her why she didn’t self-publish.
Carol Cooper: There are many people out there ready to take advantage of authors. Don’t jump in and certainly don’t spend any money till you’ve listened to those who’ve gone before. Authors in general and the indie community in particular are so welcoming, supportive and knowledgeable. Join the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), study their resources, and then go for it.
Joni Rodgers: I’m not joking when I say a good freelance editor is so hard to come by I had to grow one. My daughter, Jerusha Rodgers of Rabid Badger Editing, is my secret weapon. Not only is she a ruthless line and copy editor, she has a knack for sussing out storylines. I call her “The Plot Whisperer” because I can call her with a herd of feral ideas, and she makes sense of it—not by telling me the answer but by asking the questions that lead me to my own answer. (I’m bummed that it’s too late for me to grow a cover designer!)
Roz Morris: All the above. Be patient, learn your craft, revise your book exhaustively and gather people around you who’ll illuminate your blind spots. Don’t be in a hurry. It’s easy to publish a book, and technically easy to unpublish it if you get bad reviews or decide with hindsight it wasn’t ready. But what you can’t undo is your reputation.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
Kathleen Jones: I have so many, it’s difficult to narrow it down – if forced I would probably admit to Katherine Mansfield in the past and Barbara Kingsolver among contemporary writers. I love KM not just for the quality of her writing, but also for her courage and the honesty of her letters and journals. She went all out for what she believed in. Barbara Kingsolver is quite a political writer – she is deeply concerned about the environment as well as economic and ethnic issues. Her fiction addresses these issues without being obviously political and I love that.
Jessica Bell: I love the following authors because even though some of their work might be considered commercial successes, they are not just entertainers. They truly have something to say: Marilynne Robinson, Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Miller, Jeanette Winterson, Patti Smith, Anne Lamott, Gwen Harwood, Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath.
Roz Morris: I love Hilary Mantel and Jeanette Winterson for grace, humanity and lens-sharp intelligence. Margaret Atwood ditto – and while we’re at it, Donna Tartt. Barbara Trapido for her warmth. Jilly Cooper for exuberance. Ann Patchett for her fairytale sensibility. I constantly recommend these memoirs by Jane Shilling and Helen MacDonald – The Fox In The Cupboard and H Is For Hawk. I cherish Dorothy L Sayers for beginning a series about Lord Peter Wimsey and maturing it into Gaudy Night. And Stella Gibbons for the joyous, fecund inventiveness of Cold Comfort Farm.
Joni Rodgers: I love to talk up excellent undiscovered fiction and memoirs by small/micro-press and indie authors. I have my go-to publishers like Unbridled Books, Jaded Ibis Press and a few others who consistently do books I love. I get recommendations from my sisters and daughter and many bookish friends, and a lot of PR people send me books to review. I think they appreciate someone who actively doesn’t want to read what everyone else is reading. I mean, Gone Girl was great, but I enjoyed Jessica Bell’s White Lady even more. It’s the difference between a slick Madonna video and a live Neko Case concert.
Carol Cooper: My long list of favourites includes Jane Austen, Mary McCarthy, Françoise Sagan, PD James, Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson, Jean Kerr (author of the laugh-out-loud 1957 book Please Don’t Eat the Daisies) and Jane Davis (who’s Outside the Box with me).
The full line-up:
Orna Ross Blue Mercy
Joni Rodgers Crazy For Trying
Roz Morris My Memories of a Future Life
Kathleen Jones The Centauress
Jane Davis An Unchoreographed Life
Carol Cooper One Night At The Jacaranda
Jessica Bell White Lady
Outside The Box: Women Writing Women is available until just 24 May, 7 full-length novels priced at USD 9.99/£7.99 http://www.womenwritewomen.com/#!buy/ctzx
Thanks to all seven writers for such an interesting interview.