Giveaway now closed.
On a grey, dreary Saturday afternoon in London I’ve been told to look for a yellow door. This particular yellow door is the entrance to The Groucho Club, legendary hang-out of the likes of Noel Gallagher, Alex James and Lily Allen. Unfortunately, I don’t spy anyone looking remotely famous on the way up to the second floor where the event I’m here for is taking place.
I’m here for a bloggers’ event for the Young Writer of the Year Award, the shortlist for which was announced last week. The shortlisted writers – Ben Fergusson, Sarah Howe, Sara Taylor and Sunjeev Sahota – are all here as are some of my favourite bloggers – Eric from Lonesome Reader, Erica from The Book Shop Around the Corner and Clare from A Little Blog of Books. We get time to talk to the writers as well as Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of the Sunday Times before the more formal part of the event takes place.
Each of the four writers are introduced and read a two-minute extract from their books. These are The Spring of Kasper Meier, a (literary?) thriller by Ben Fergusson; Loop of Jade, a poetry collection by Sarah Howe; The Shore, a fragmented novel/interlinked short story collection by Sara Taylor, and The Year of the Runaways, a literary novel by Sunjeev Sahota. Andrew Hogan describes it as ‘the strongest shortlist we’ve ever had’. He also comments on the variety of forms/genres that make up the shortlist. As he’s talking about this, I notice that the list is balanced in terms of gender and writers of colour to white writers. Well done the (all white) judging panel of Andrew Holgate, Peter Kemp and Sarah Waters. [After the readings, I was discussing this with a couple of people when Andrew Holgate overheard me and came over. The judges hadn’t even thought about it, he says. It’s interesting that this is the case and makes me wonder what was submitted and whether the shortlist is a reflection of a pool of young, diverse writers or whether the best books rose to the top of a sea of white men. Either way, this is a good thing.]
Because this blog’s all about women writers, I’m only going to discuss Sarah Howe and Sara Taylor’s books. However, I do urge you to read the other books too. I haven’t read The Spring of Kasper Meier yet but it sounds fantastic and is set in Berlin, one of my favourite cities, and The Year of the Runaways, which you’re probably already aware of as it was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize this year, is wonderful and set in the city I live in (Sahota lives here too).
The writers read in alphabetical order, so Sarah Howe’s the first of the two women with her Forward Prize and T.S. Eliot Prize shortlisted collection Loop of Jade. She begins by talking about China’s one child policy which, as you probably know, has recently been altered to allow people to have two children. Howe tells us that one of the results of the policy is that 30 million children and women are missing and her own mother was one of those missing children. Midwives used to have a box of ashes next to the birthing bed so a baby girl could be smothered quickly after birth. She uses this fact to introduce her poem ‘Tame’ which begins:
‘It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.’
– CHINESE PROVERB
This is the tale of the woodsman’s daughter. Born with a box
of ashes set beside the bed,
Howe doesn’t read the poem, she performs it. It’s a joy to watch and listen to her.
Sara Taylor reads the opening of her Bailey’s longlisted, Guardian First Book Award shortlisted The Shore. It begins with news of a murder breaking and the narrator of this chapter, Chloe, hearing the chatter in the local shop. She ends with:
“And that ain’t even the half of it.” The lady leans in close, but her whisper is almost as loud as her talking voice. “They done cut his thang clean off!”
Andrew Holgate begins the Q&A by saying he thinks that all four books are very bold, very ambitious and they all take risks. He says that Howe’s book took eight years to write and encompasses a variety of styles. Is there freedom in that risk?
Howe says, ‘I think risk is a really interesting lens to look at that.’ She says the poem the collection takes its title from has very bare, cut down, fragmented prose sections. With them she was trying to give the barest testimony of what happened to her mother, or at least her understanding of what happened to her mother. These sections are interspersed with high flourishes of Chinese myth. She structured the poem this way as she wanted to square her mother’s upbringing with Chinese myth. She said it was a difficult thing to do because her mum ‘is a real person’ and she was terrified of what her parents would think. She says there’s gaps in her history, some of which are because she doesn’t know her whole history and some are because her mother doesn’t want her to talk about them. She says that the collection’s an elliptic telling of her mother’s story and there are revelations towards the end of the book. ‘I like the idea that mine might be the thriller!’ she says.
Howe was inspired by Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes. She’s wearing a necklace, the pendant part of which is the loop of jade from the collection’s title. It was given to her by her mother but was actually a present from the woman who adopted Howe’s mother. It’s a bracelet for toddlers, the idea being that when a toddler falls over, the bracelet will shatter and save the child from harm. She tells us that they think the woman who took her mother in did so because she was also a lost girl.
Sara Taylor says she took the risk of writing The Shore because she was coming to the end of university and ‘I was tired of doing what people wanted me to do’. She wanted to know what ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ means. ‘The risk was I couldn’t not take that risk.’
She wrote the book without a plan beginning with the first story which led her to write the mother’s story and then to where her husband was from and what happened to her parents. She says her agent was the first person to mention creating a family tree for the book to her but she says it’s more a wreath than a tree.
They’re asked if there’s anything they felt they weren’t able to write and has having some early success trapped them or given them greater freedom?
Howe says, ‘It’s actually a strange notion that people are reading it.’ She says when she was writing in a darkened room at 2am, she lulled herself into the illusion that no one would ever see them. She conceived of herself as a poet’s poet so finds it extraordinary that the book’s reaching beyond the poetry world to a wider audience.
Taylor says she avoided ‘wonderful, horrifying family secrets’. They’re in the second book though! She says she won’t be pigeonholed because she can’t write another fractured novel without a break. ‘I do wonder what the world’s going to make of the next novel.’ [How keen am I to read it right now?]
Hogan rounds off the Q&A by saying he revived the prize along with Caroline Michel, CEO of PFD Literary Agency, because he became aware that lots of potential young British writers were no longer writing books but going into film, digital media and television instead. He asks the shortlisted writers if they’re tempted by other media?
Sara Taylor says she’s seen many writers make that choice as its a tangental necessity to building a career. It’s easier to do a screenplay, magazine copy or other shorter forms instead. They’re ‘more zeitgeisty’.
Well, thank goodness these writers did write books because they’re great. If you want to hear more from them and previous winners Adam Foulds, Andrew Cowan and Helen Simpson, there’s a free shortlist event at Foyles – including beer and pizza! – on Monday 23rd November. The details for which are here.
If you’d like to read some of the books, I have a copy of Loop of Jade and a copy of The Shore by Sara Taylor to give away. To enter, leave a comment below stating which book you’d like to win (you can enter both draws if you wish). I’ll accept worldwide entries. The competition closes at 5pm UK on Wednesday 18th November after which the winners will be drawn at random.
I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry so for The Shore that’s:
1 – Niall McArdle
2 – snoakes7001
3 – jenniferheidi
4 – isabellisima
5 – Helen Lloyd
6 – Claire Stokes
7 – Naomi
8 – Candyfloss
9 – Sheridarby
10 – Erdeaka
11 – Helen Jones
12 – isis1981uk
13 – Keith Hunt
14 – Victoria Prince
15 – Karen Richards
16 – schietree
and the winner is…
And for Loop of Jade:
1 – snoakes7001
2 – Cathy746books
3 – jenniferheidi
4 – Marianthi
5 – Amy Pirt
6 – Elle
7 – Candyfloss
8 – bellarah
9 – isis1981uk
10 – Victoria Prince
11 – Helen S
12 – schietree
and the winner is…
Winners check your emails for what to do next. Thanks to everyone else for entering.
Thanks to the Young Writer of the Year Award for the prizes.