BFLA Staff Top Picks of the Year 2015

As we all head out to our Office Christmas Party, we thought we'd continue last year's tradition and share our staff cultural highlights of 2015 - enjoy!

Rachel Alvarez

Book: EAT THAT FROG! by Brian Tracy

If there’s one thing people know about me, it’s that I’m an organisation freak. I started reading this book because I’m giving it to a friend and had no idea it would end up changing my own life.

It gives you 21 tips on how to stop procrastinating and balance your work and personal life.

Because the book is aimed at people who are, in fact, not organised, it’s a very short read.

Read it by the end of 2015 so you can set your goals for 2016.

TV & Film: How to Get Away with Murder

This show came out in 2014 but it didn’t appeal to me. However, a friend recently convinced me by saying it was too good to miss and I don’t regret watching it for a minute. It’s a smart script, with strong characters and a plot full of twists. I honestly haven’t watched a TV show quite as good in a long time.

Music: Florence and the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

I have to say, it’s been a while since I’ve heard music as beautiful and as strong as in Florence’s new album. Released in May 2015, this is the band’s third album and, unlike Ceremonials and Lungs, this album is a wave of reality. The songs feel much more personal, almost as if Florence is learning & teaching how to live and love in a world that doesn’t make sense. I highly recommend it!

Emanuela Anechoum

Book: THE USELESS SEX by Oriana Fallaci (original title IL SESSO INUTILE)

Oriana Fallaci was an amazing Italian journalist, who covered many war conflicts in Asia and the Middle East for the Corriere della Sera during the 60s and 70s. It was a time when a woman wasn’t considered suited for that kind of job – THE USELESS SEX is a memoir of her experience in those countries, meeting journalists and politicians, being looked at because of her appearance, being able to do a ‘man’s job’ better than most men thanks to her sensibility and wit.

Youtube Channel: BUTTON POETRY

It’s a poetry slam channel full of amazing poets and performers. My favourite lately is a poem by Brenna Twohy, ANXIETY: A GHOST STORY. You can find it here .

Music: BUILT ON GLASS by Chet Faker

It’s from 2014, but of course everything arrives in Italy after English-speaking cool kids decide it’s worth spreading. I just love this album, his voice and most of all his beard. Here’s my favourite single, Talk Is Cheap.

Cara Armstrong

Exhibition: egon schiele: the radical nude at the courthauld institute

Schiele’s technical virtuosity and unashamed confrontation of the naked form distinguishes these works as being amongst his most significant contributions to the development of modern art and Austrian Expressionism. Not only was Schiele remarkable for the manner in which he was able to confront and deconstruct the classical nude in art, his revolutionary flair enabled him to expose the sordid underworld of the early 20th century.

Television: FARGO, series 2

Executive produced by the Coen Brothers, this American black comedy/crime drama follows an anthology format with each season set in a different era along with a different story, cast and set of characters. FARGO provides the stand-alone pleasure that can give a show texture without seeming like a detour, for fans of brilliant storytelling and obscure humour. Those who pledge allegiance to the original film should not be put off.


The black and white images of Kendrick Lamar’s journey through California will leave you haunted by its seven minutes of exhausting visual metaphor. In 2015, several youth lead protests against police brutality across the country were heard chanting the chorus to 'Alright.' Critic Ben Beaumont-Thomas has described Lamar’s album as ‘the definitive black American statement of the year’; the music may not be to everyone taste but it is without a doubt a cultural and artistic statement worth watching.

Carole Blake:

Book: THE LAST ACT OF LOVE by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Achingly sad, but uplifting memoir.  Sobbed my way through it and even embarrassed myself by crying when I asked her a question during her event at Foyles.

Exhibition: Inventing Impressionism at The National Gallery.

Although I find much Impressionist art too ‘pretty’, the story of the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and the way he devotedly bank-rolled the artists was quite new to me and fascinating.

Performance:  Willard White with Julius Drake at the piano in the Middle Temple Hall

Sitting just 3 metres from him,  the sheer power of his voice and personality  was extraordinary.  Such presence, and in an awe-inspiring setting.


Louise Brice:


My top read of 2015: hugely original, thought-provoking and painful, this book took me places I really didn’t expect to go..

Book: MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrante

Now I’ve read the first of these Neapolitan novels, I see what all the fuss was about! A startlingly honest and riveting story of friendship – it gave me the ANNE OF GREEN GABLES tingle and I can’t wait to read on.

TV: Orange is the New Black (Net Flicks TV series)

A bit of a curve ball as I’m not a massive TV watcher but I really love this series, clever and compelling and again, all about the relationships…

Isobel Dixon

My culture/nature experience of 2015 was a walking holiday in Italy’s southern lake’s region. A flight to Rome, train to Viterbo, then daily walks from town to town – Montefiascone, Bolsenaand spectacular hilltop Orvieto – with our luggage conveniently ferried to the next hotel by the good people of ATG.

The route (unguided, apart from our detailed map) took in Roman thermal baths, Etruscan tombs, spectacular views and beautiful churches (of course – this is Italy, after all). After five hours of vigorous walking (at peak August heat, mad South Africans!) you can eat an enormous plate of pasta and still feel virtuous. And put your feet up and sink into a good book … I read my two favourite non-agency books of the year in this happy recovery time – Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, so imaginative and humane, and the short, yet astonishingly powerful Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal. Both had me in tears and missing the characters when, reluctantly, I reached the end. Young Milos Hrma is my fictional hero of the year and now I look forward to watching the film.

If that journey counts as one choice, then there’s my musical discovery of the year at Cambridge Folk Fest, where the blazing talent of Rhiannon Giddens blew me away. And my pre- Frankfurt New York trip the Knopf centenary party gave me the extraordinary thrill of hearing three literary heroines – Toni Morrison, Sharon Olds and Patti Smith – at a gathering of publishing and literary greats. Joy!

Julian Friedmann

Book: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Vivacious descriptions of life and politics in Ancient Rome. Makes you feel you are there. Should be filed under ‘Time Travel”.

Book: RHS Handbook: Propagation Techniques

A must for any greenhouse owner (which I am now). Beautifully illustrated and seriously simple guidance. My rose cuttings are coming on brilliantly.

Book: Rick Stein's India

Having cooked curries for nearly 50 years I was given this book and have realised that I could do better. Brilliant recipes. The food tastes like the best Indian restaurant food. 

Ellen Gallagher

I’ve been to the cinema 30ish times this year (all hail the Cineworld Unlimited programme), plus the four-or-so movies I consume at home each week, so this was not an easy choice, constant reader!

Film: Mad Max Fury Road

Stunningly shot and tightly paced. Tom Hardy played the title role stoically but with resevoirs of hidden depth, and Charlize Theron’s tough, complex Furiosa was so awesome I briefly considered shaving my head in tribute.

Film: Inside Out (wr. A LOT OF PEOPLE, dir. Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen. Disney, Pixar Animation Studios)

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Pixar fan (they had me at ‘sentient lamp’), and this one didn’t disappoint. Bags of charm plus gut-wrenching tragedy and their usual uncanny ability to plug into the experience of childhood. I was devastated when Bingbong… no wait, that’d be a spoiler. Also, Amy Poehler’s in it, so that’s a seal of quality right there.

Film: Unfriended (wr. Nelson Greaves, dir. Leo Gabriadze. Bazelevs Production, Blumhouse Productions)

At first glance, I noted some over-used and tired modern horror tropes: angsty teenagers, ‘found footage’ etc. BUT overall I was pleasantly surprised. The plotline isn’t terribly original, but this grounded the film in familiarity while taking the risky decision to set it entirely on Skype. Thus, it played like a proper horror film while being visually distinctive. The slowly teased out conflict between the teens felt viscerally honest (rather than trivial), and I was left feeling entertained and spooked.

Honourable mentions: Sicario, The Martian, Bill, Legend, Amy, Ant Man.

Catherine Goldstone

Theatre: TREE – Daniel Kitson

Starring the rarely spotted Kitson (who appeared predominantly hidden in the titular Tree throughout the play) and Tim Key, this was a hilarious and meandering two-hander about the conversation between one man in a tree, one man on the ground, and how they got there.  Comedic dialogue at its brilliant, naturally bizarre best.

Film: AMY – Asif Kapadia

Aside from being obviously heart-breaking, the film for made me feel completely maddened. It very powerfully conveyed the tragic waste of talent that was the end of her life. I think what made it work for me was the candid nature of the footage Kapadia used: home videos filmed by friends and family. We viewed her through their eyes, our friend. When Amy Winehouse died it felt like something inevitable that we were all expecting. What I wasn’t expecting, after watching this film, was just how much I should have felt for that loss.

Book: THE BELL JAR - Sylvia Plath

I feel like it might be unforgivable that this only hit my radar this year – but I got there eventually! So beautifully written and not over-hyped.  It defied my expectations and portrayed depression in a very real and non-melodramatic way. It immersed me in a dull grey funk – depicting depression as a kind of inescapable insomnia, which was even more profound for me in the in coming-of-age context. I wish I’d read this 5 years ago – where on earth have I been?

Hattie Grunewald:

Book: LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE by Jessica Knoll

This was pitched to me as GONE GIRL meets DEVIL WEARS PRADA which already had me sold, but I was absolutely blown away. What seems like a standard psychological thriller is actually an incredibly compelling exploration of gender roles, consumer culture and trauma. Absolutely unputdownable.

TV: Sense8

I’m not normally a big science fiction fan but this new Netflix show took me completely by surprise with its warmth and humanity. Eight characters from around the globe find they have an odd psychic connection. Incredible writing, beautifully shot with a wonderful and diverse cast make this a complete winner in my book.

Blog: Ella Risbridger’s column in The Pool

In 2015, I really got into beauty blogging. This is often perceived as shallow and superifical, but I think Ella’s column demonstrates that beauty can be about so much more than this. Ella’s boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer this year and her column tells how sometimes it’s the little things – like lipstick – that can pull you through. Her writing is beautiful, moving, funny, infused with grief and hope – and her lipstick recommendations are always on point. In general, I just love The Pool which I think is publishing some really great writing by women, for women right now.

Samuel Hodder

Book: THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley

The story of a pilgrimage, as a zealously Catholic London family sets off for a remote holy well, hoping to cure the muteness of the oldest son. A young parish priest comes with them, the last priest having never recovered from an earlier failed attempt. As the tension builds a mother’s love has rarely been less comforting and just wait till you see the locals – and the basement. It’s thrillingly gothic with a brilliantly accomplished sense of place.


How to describe the sound of this American duo, who formed in 2009 but hit the big time in 2015 with the release of BLURRYFACE? Critics call it schizoid pop, as it shifts unpredictably from the bombastic to the low key, with reggae, hip hop and electronic influences. Billboard said BLURRYFACE was a ‘hot mess’ but I found a song for any mood. Tyler Joseph’s lyrics express a questing but ultimately positive outlook on life.

Television drama: LONDON SPY

Dark, sensual, paranoid, surreal at times and always tense, this has me glued; when I’m not hiding behind a cushion! Ben Whishaw delivers a transfixing performance as Danny, a lost romantic who believes that enigmatic Alex could be his answer to everything. Danny’s hopes are scotched in the first episode of course, in one long and terrifying scene, and from there on in it only gets more disturbing. Lesson learned: avoid pop producers’ ‘parties’.

Sian Jenkins

Book: THE CABARET OF PLANTS by Richard Mabey (Profile Books)

Fascinating stories about all kinds of weird & wonderful plants.  A personal and idiosyncratic ramble through the mysteries of the plant world & its relation to artists, writers & the imagination. A beautifully produced book too with heavy gloss pages & gorgeous illustrations, I want to pick it up & fondle it often.

Film: SALT OF THE EARTH dir. Wim Wenders and Julian Ribeiro Salgado

A couple of years ago I saw Sebastião Salgado's GENESIS exhibition & his incredible huge black & white photographs have stuck in my mind long afterwards.  This film, made by Wim Wenders with Salgado’s son, explores Salgado’s life & work.  After decades of witnessing & documenting some of the world’s most devastating events – wars, famines, and ecological disasters - he has somehow decided to embrace optimism instead of despair.

Exhibition: LEE MILLER: A WOMAN’S WAR photography exhibition @ Imperial War Museum

Lee Miller had a varied life, from Vogue model & muse to the surrealists to war photographer to surrealist cook.  This exhibition focuses on her photographs from the WW2 period.  The notes include tantalisingly brief accounts of the stories behind the photos of Polish female spitfire pilots, WRENS, factory workers and aristocrats suddenly left to manage huge estates.  The exhibition also has artefacts illustrating the life of the artist herself and ends with a final huge colour photograph of Lee in later life in her country kitchen, sadly not displaying any of her surrealist culinary creations.

Resham Naqvi

Theatre: HAMLET – Barbican production, directed by Lyndsey Turner starring Benedict Cumberbatch

I didn’t know what to expect - the hype surrounding this production meant that it had to exceed expectations, or it was never going to deliver. Benedict Cumberbatch’s masterful Hamlet ensured that it did indeed deliver. Elsinore’s claustrophobic feel was heightened by the ambitious and elaborate set – the subdued dark blue hues of the grand palace to the war torn rubble slag heap piles in the latter half of the play lent an eerie and tense feel to the inevitable impending doom, but it was Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance which left the hairs standing on the back of your neck.

Film: THE MARTIAN – film, dir. Ridley Scott starring Matt Damon

Not your typical science fiction blockbuster. A Robinson Crusoe stranded on Mars, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has to survive until his fellow compatriots rescue him. The ‘best botanist on the planet’ who has to ‘science the shit’ out of his situation in order to survive. Edge of the seat thriller, which had you captivated from the first moment.


This is a book that has changed my life. Literally. Going through regular cycles of tidying up but never really getting anywhere, I thought I was doomed. But Marie’s frank and engaging writing style made me realise I wasn’t alone, and that this is something which can be tackled once and for all. This is the book which will make you feel like a heavy weight has been lifted from your shoulders for good!

Juliet Pickering


It was an impulsive ‘let’s go and see whatever’s on at the cinema’ kind of Sunday afternoon choice, and it turned out to be a lush, romantic film led by the impressive Carey Mulligan. And who doesn’t love a breathy ménage à quatre with a sheep farmer, a soldier and a rich widower?

Book: THE LIGHT YEARS by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’ll mention once again, despite everyone being sick of hearing it, how much I LOVED the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (except the 5th book, which should never have been encouraged). This series tells the story of the big, complicated but utterly fascinating Cazalet family, before, during and after the Second World War, focusing particularly on the women and their experiences as wives, mothers, workers, lovers, feminists… I’m pretty sure I’ll never read anything like this series again, so I’ll simply re-read every few years and savour it afresh. Start with THE LIGHT YEARS. (Repeat: DO NOT READ BOOK FIVE. You were warned.)

Book: AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Lastly, I’d choose AMERICANAH as a real stand-out read of 2015. Stories like this one are not read (or published) enough; Ifemelu (the central character) is smart and full of vigour, yet struggling to maintain an identity true to her Nigerian upbringing in an America that wants to box her into a catch-all black category. AMERICANAH is not only completely illuminating on race and self, it also has a deeply absorbing love story at its heart. I’d recommend this to everyone. 

Tom Witcomb

TV: Mr Robot

One of the most accomplished thrillers I’ve seen. Part Palahniuk-esque satire, part Anarchist manifesto, it deals with questions of youth & sub culture, mental health and global socioeconomic crises. If you do one thing this Christmas, watch this show. I accept no liability for anyone smashing the system as a result.

Book: Little Sister Death by William Gay

2015 was my Year for Fear: so many great movies (Babadook), games (Alien: Isolation – still not finished due to shot nerves) and, for the first time ever, not even my bookshelf escaped. A writer takes his family to a house with history to get inspiration for a new novel. But as he becomes tangled in his book, in the house, and its previous residents; and as the interminable summer heat settles, the house breathes sinister life and - through Gay’s sparse, detached prose - we have to question everything. Do not read at night.

Exhibition: Alexander McQueen at V&A

Despite having impeccable style & a fashion designer girlfriend, I just don’t get fashion. So I wasn’t particularly moved to see this but man am I glad I did. The exhibit was impeccable, something I can only describe (sadly, given the circumstances) as like being inside the designer’s head as his life flashed before his eyes. A frenetic assault on the senses; a hazy junkie trip through the mind of a tortured genius. The level of love, care and passion that was poured into, and consequently emanated from each stitch, feather, crocodile head is something I’ll never forget. I still don’t get fashion, but I do get Lee.

Extra special mention: Catastrophe

Honourable mentions to: Bioshock: Infinite, Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy, Primer, and Match of the Day.


Four Weeks: Frankfurt Book Fair Preparation from a Foreign Rights perspective

In four weeks the first wave of Agents will be flying out to Frankfurt for the Frankfurt Book Fair. Gulp.

In actual fact, we started the preparation for FBF way before today – I received the first request for a meeting on 16 June! We spend the large part of the summer filling up our schedules – one meeting every half an hour from 9:00 – 18:00 Wednesday to Friday at the Fair, then the pre-Fair meetings at the Hessischer Hof on Monday and Tuesday.

As we have so many agents attending the Fair, it is important to be strategic and plan who should meet with whom. For example, the Book Agents will want to meet with editors who publish their authors. The Foreign Rights team will meet with publishers from their territories, and we’ll always try to meet with new publishers as often as possible. After months of scheduling for 6 agents, by 14 September we are left with a beautifully busy schedule. Some could almost say a work of art. Or maybe that’s just me.

This year our summer was filled with a particularly exciting project – our shiny new Rights Guide which is now unveiled on our website. ‘H-Amazing Hattie’ (there’s no synonym for amazing beginning with H, who knew?) took charge, but collectively we all worked together to create something that will incite awe, and envy, but most importantly help us sell our books to publishers.

Sometimes we have to make cut-throat decisions: we want to make sure each and every author gets the best possible attention, but timing is crucial and sometimes that means holding off from including their book for this Fair.  Every book has its Fair, and sometimes discussing a book before it’s been delivered, or sold in the UK can scupper its chances selling internationally.

So much work and thought goes into each and every meeting and having the right tools at hand is vital! 

by the Blake Friedmann foreign rights team


Literary agent Juliet Pickering looks again at THE TRICK IS TO KEEP BREATHING, recently published as a Vintage Classic. What do you ask the author who has been asked everything? Not only do we find out, but we get to hear Janice Galloway's brilliant response in this special dual blog.


I was introduced to THE TRICK IS TO KEEP BREATHING when I began working with Janice, in my mid-twenties, and what I found in it then was a certain amount of comfort. Here was a woman, Joy Stone, who was as confused about life and what it offered as I was. There is great sadness in the novel, but also great humour. Hardly any other book I’d read unpicked the mind of a woman in a way that felt so authentic and challenging (although THE YELLOW WALLPAPER is up there). As we learn of Joy's situation, piece by piece, Janice uses small excerpts of text that sit in the margins to take us occasionally out of the narrative, reflecting Joy’s more erratic thoughts, and this felt – and still feels – an innovative way of using her words – a different way of reading them that reminds the reader so effectively of Joy’s mental state. One of the many reasons I admire Janice is for this bold originality and imagination, and for using words to portray something extra to the reader in an entirely natural way; she’s unafraid to write as she feels, rather than to the conventions of a regular text.

On re-reading THE TRICK IS TO KEEP BREATHING I was surprised by how strongly I felt about Joy and her story, all over again. THE TRICK… is ageless. It keeps coming to mind in odd moments: the particular dynamics of Joy’s relationship with her sister, and how resonant this is of many strained familial ties; the brief comfort a new (or old) relationship can offer when we are lonely, no matter how troubled that relationship might be; the idiosyncracies of many colleagues and bureaucrats, who fail to understand any personal complexities, but often view a person in terms of problems and solutions. The novel offers a wry, real account of a young woman's breakdown as she tries to cope with the death of a lover. We see the struggle to get through each day alone – very alone – and how Joy tries to help herself, even as she’s often helpless. When it comes to finding this help she needs elsewhere, people aren’t always kind or responsive.

Eight years after first reading the novel I am struck by the alone-ness of each of us, that we really have to forge our own way through life, often despite those around us, and that a little kindness goes a long way. Joy’s survival felt more tender, more fragile, this time around. But Joy emerges resilient, and alive. If being alive is all she is capable of in the middle of everything happening to her, it feels like a real achievement. Perhaps we should all stop and consider that just being alive in the midst of our lives is an achievement for us, too.

I wondered what I might ask Janice about her first novel that she hadn't been asked before (a probably impossible task, since THE TRICK is now on school curriculums and Janice does regular school visits!). One of the questions I had was what Janice might say to Joy, if she met her now. Would it be only "the trick is to keep breathing", or would there be some other crumb of advice that Joy might respond to? If we meet a Joy, could we say anything to them that might go some small way to helping, when they need it most?


This is difficult to respond to! I guess it has been hard enough for you to go first because we’re used to being private with a book. That’s one of the luxuries books offer – one-to-one sharing of ideas and complex feelings, with a stranger who will never see you blush. In some ways, Joy's kind of a stranger to me too, certainly after decades.

I hope it doesn’t sound odd to say I didn’t make her up: she was somewhere fully formed and I wrote her down. Chekhov: 'The task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.' It’s up to me to describe a character accurately, whoever he or she is. Joy learns 'the trick is to keep breathing' from a literal truth; i.e. you can’t swim till you learn to breathe while you’re doing it. Through literalism comes simplicity: the most basic recognitions can transform the complexities we would otherwise talk ourselves into. Metaphors refresh perspective. Managing to keep going is the first step in everything, and a first step is a start. It’s not the saying of it, or the reading of it that makes it true: you don’t learn much from simply reading, for crying out loud! You learn from thinking about experience and a book is a presentation of life experience. Plots, my ass. Plot is a thread through the labyrinth, that’s all. Recognition is what makes someone love a book, not the unravelling of a satisfactory device.

What I want to do is to write enough to draw a reader in enough to let it feel real, so that a reader works hard to make decisions about what they’d do. It’s great to hear dramatically different things about characters from readers – it means they’ve used their own thoughts, their own experience, to have their own opinion. Chekhov: 'Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.' My job’s to make stuff – er – visceral. Felt.

What would I say if I met her!? Nothing – she’s a book! The reader has to reach their own conclusions! And if you meet a Joy (my guess is you have), wait till she speaks first. We’re throwing out lifelines all the time: just catch.

(Originally published on the Vintage Books blog)


So, we decided that in the spirit of Christmas we'd rally the staff around and force them (cruelly, some might say) to pick just three things they read/watched/did something with in 2014. Some people cheated. We're not judging (much).

Julian Friedmann:

Trees: Their Natural History by Peter A Thomas (CUP)

Trees are so much more complex and interesting as living organisms than one might imagine: this book shows how they have lived for far longer than any other living thing (5000 years +).

The International Film Business by Angus Finney (Routledge)

The complex world of film finance made clear with great examples. Would it encourage anyone to be a producer? I am not sure, but if you are producing it is a must-read.

Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story by John Yorke (Penguin)

Storytelling is mysterious and theories abound as to how best to do it. Alongside The Uses of Enchantment (Bettleheim) and The Art of Creative Storyteling (Egri) this is the latest classic.

Carole Blake


The Medici Boy by John L’Heureux (Astor & Blue)

Many of my passions – art, history, Florence, the Renaissance – brought together in a masterful reconstruction of the life of Donatello, sculptor of the David & Goliath.  A homosexual genius, living in dangerous times as the Medici and Albizi families fight to control the city state.  I didn’t want it to end, and am desperate for others to read it so I can talk about it with them.


Game of Thrones tv series 1-3 (HBO)

I am on record as not enjoying or understanding fantasy.  Yet when someone on Twitter mentioned that Game of Thrones was basically the Wars of the Roses, being a passionate and lifelong  Ricardian, I had to watch it.  I practically inhaled series 1-3.  So very watchable, but I couldn’t tell you now what happened, and I didn’t understand most of the plotlines at the time.  Lovely to look at, though terrible that Sean Bean was killed off . ..


Lucy Parham’s Chopin: Nocturne – The Romantic Life of Chopin

A recommendation from our musical Conrad Williams. Two cds of Lucy’s exquisite playing, with Harriet Walter and Samuel West reading his letters.  Heartbreakingly beautiful.

Isobel’s Top ‘Keepers’ of 2014

[Three, only three, Ed.? Really? Oh, okay, here goes…

My first non-agency Book of the Year, literally, was John Worthen’s absorbing biography of D.H. Lawrence (Penguin). The paperback was a gift to me from artist Douglas Robertson, when we launched into our poetry-art collaboration based around Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers. I finished it on New Year’s Day in Sicily – not in Taormina where Lawrence lived, but in Ragusa, which still felt appropriately close to the tracks of this fierce, complex poet-novelist who wrote and travelled so much. I knew of course that he died tragically young at forty-four and as I read I could see how few pages of the book were left (pages, real pages, not just 70% complete etc…!), so I was surprised to be so overwhelmingly moved when the moment of his death came. Worthen brought the contradictions, the rage, the passion and the ambition so vividly to life, and though Lawrence was by no means always a likeable man, I wept bitterly at the book’s close.

I loved the verve and originality of Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry (Oberon), a book on the reading and writing of poetry like no other I have read. I know I will keep returning to it with relish.

Michael Donaghy was a brilliant poet and performer and an inspiring teacher whose evening class gave me my first sense of a poetry ‘home’ in London. He died ten years ago this September and his absence is still keenly felt by so many. His Collected Poems (Picador), with its Introduction by Sean O’Brien will introduce many new readers to his fine poems – I have been reading them with a bittersweet mixture of admiration, sadness, re-discovery and consolation.

And right now I am delighting in the much-anticipated Bedouin of the London Evening (Bloodaxe) by the late, enigmatic Rosemary Tonks and Clive James’s lively Poetry Notebook (Picador) … [What? That’s it, Ed? Too much already? And I was just getting started…. What about the films, the plays, the music, the novels… ? Ah. Another time.]

But [as Ed. looks the other way, absorbed in guessing who his Secret Santa is from] I have to put in a swift late mention of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant, darkly Gothic novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I know I’m a latecomer to her genius and can’t wait to read more (and know I will re-read this too – what a great character Merricat is, one of my line-up of deliciously unreliable narrators).

[Okay, off to Christmas lunch now!]

Sian Jenkins (cheating with 6)

BARRACUDA by Christos Tsiolkas

A young man struggles to deal with success and failure .  A tough coming of age story, set against the backdrop of the elite world of professional swimming and everyday life in the suburbs of Melbourne.

BARK by Lorrie Moore

Pithy, agonisingly funny stories.  A lot of people die in Lorrie Moore’s stories, often slowly and unpleasantly, but you can’t stop laughing through them.  Every sentence is a beautifully crafted gem.

NORA WEBSTER by Colm Toibin

More tragedy and grief. Toibin re-visits the familiar setting of his earlier novels on the South East coast of Ireland and builds another finely detailed layer onto this world.


Robyn Davidson’s classic true story is gorgeously transferred to the screen. A somewhat grumpy woman crosses the central Australian desert. With camels. And a dog.  Slow but stunning.


A warm, funny, sad nostalgia trip for the Thatcher generation. And there’s a heroine called Sian in it. 


A contemporary vampire story for grownups.

Hattie Grunewald:

Her by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld & Nicholson):

Emma is a new mother, feeling isolated and adrift without her career, and when Nina - sophisticated, confident and commanding - enters her life, she latches onto her much-needed support. But though it is easy to see why Emma needs Nina, it is much harder to understand Nina's motives - which may be more sinister than they first appeared.

The Secret Place by Tara French (Hodder & Stoughton):

One year after a boy is murdered on the grounds of a Dublin Girls' Boarding School, a photo of him is posted on an anonymous school messageboard with the caption "I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM". A chilling read for anyone who, like me, has been to an all-girls' school - French has the atmosphere down to a tee.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (Little, Brown):

The second of JK Rowling's crime novels written under an alias; when an author goes missing having completed a novel featuring poisonous pen portraits of nearly everyone he knows, private detective Cormoran Strike realises that there are plenty of people who wanted the man dead. But in the literary world of high-flying editors and bitter writing rivals, who is really capable of murder? 

Juliet Pickering:

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber & Faber):

If I had to describe a perfect book for me, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS would tick pretty much all my boxes: messed up family; two sisters and a mother; a deeply sad and moving, yet blackly, wryly funny narrative; evocative landscape setting; and engaging, flawed central characters. I had to deliberately finish the book at home, alone, so I could weep profusely without startling train passengers around me. Miriam Toews is a warm, sensitive and beautiful writer, and I'm going to gobble up everything she's ever written or will write.

The Pocket Bakery by Rose Prince (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)

This is an elegantly published little book, and although it's rare to find a baking book that offers something different, these recipes are both charmingly old-fashioned and refreshingly contemporary. I can recommend the Ale and Cheddar Scones, and am next going to try Pistachio and Lime cakes... Yum.

Jane, The Fox, And Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (Walker):

I heard of this book via the excellent children's books radio show Down the Rabbit Hole, and was enchanted by the stunning, delicate illustration. Jane, the Fox and Me is the classic tale of a little girl who doesn't quite fit in anywhere and loses herself in reading Jane Eyre (some might say I saw something of my own childhood angst in here!), and who tentatively finds new friends. It's the loveliest gift, and mixes old and new dilemmas in utterly beguiling style.

Tom Witcomb:

The Last of Us – Naughty Dog

Where to start. One of the best works of fiction I’ve ever encountered, not just this year. Emotionally intelligent, horrifying: I was bereft when the credits rolled.

Galveston - Nick Pizzolato

I read this before I’d managed to see TRUE DETECTIVE (which was outstanding: cheesy last line included). Powerful, emotional, human. A fever dream of low-rent, unbearable beauty.

Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer

One of those movies that I just popped on, and was instantly mesmerised by. A haunting, compelling, brave movie. One that sticks in your mind long after you’re done.

Ellen Gallagher

NIGHTCRAWLER (wr./dir. Dan Gilroy. Bold Films)

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a driven but morally corrupt man seeking work. Through sheer determination and guile, he sets himself up as a freelance news cameraman, racing to the scene of bloody accidents to try and get the first and goriest footage to sell to the newscasters. Helped by a senior news executive (Rene Russo), demand for his work grows, and starts to enter into increasingly questionable tactics to ensure that his footage is the best. A tensely fascinating, chilling and yet darkly comic look at the underbelly of Los Angeles’ news industry through the eyes of a sociopath, this movie plays with all the textbook expectations of movie structure and characterisation to keep you guessing to the end.

FRANK (wr. Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan, dir. Leonard Abrahamson. Runaway Fridge Productions / Element Pictures / Film4 / Indieproduction)

A film inspired by, rather than based on, the life of cult music act Frank Sidebottom. As a northerner, Sidebottom is pretty much worshipped as a god by my people, so I was keen to see this anyway, but the film itself surpassed my expectations. Michael Fassbender shimmers as the ethereal, fragile Frank, his performance evincing bittersweet laughs and heartbreaking sorrow in equal measure. Aspiring small-town musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) joins Frank’s band and gradually begins to try and mould the act to gain the commercial stardom he longs for, but must painfully learn to accept that he isn’t acting in Frank’s best interests. A deeply touching film with an utterly brilliant soundtrack. Maggie Gyllenhaal is very good in this one. My list is quite Gyllenhaal-heavy this year, well done Gyllenhaals!

HONEYMOON (wr. Phil Graziadei, Leigh Janiak, dir. Leigh Janiak. Fewlas Entertainment)

Rose Leslie, otherwise known as ‘that awesome one from Game of Thones and Utopia’, convincingly plays Bea, the female half of a young American couple on honeymoon in a remote cabin. Harry Treadaway plays her new husband – you may wonder if no American actors were free that year, but both actors’ performances soon let you forget preconceptions of their Britishness, and get on with enjoying the movie. The film opens with a rather lovely recounting of how the couple met, featuring a shared bout of food poisoning resulting in the kind of bond that comes from having nothing left to hide! The closeness and affection between them is palpable, and so when Bea goes missing briefly one night and begins to act strangely when she returns, their blissful newly-minted union quickly turns sour… and bloody. A retelling of rather a classic body-horror form, this film is elevated by the intimate direction, subtly manipulative cinematography and stellar performances.

Max Edwards:

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks (Penguin):

16 year old Linus is kidnapped, and kept in a bunker with 5 others. Trying to escape, and to cope with the situation, he is forced to confront his life so far, and cope with the situation. Powerful, haunting and devastating, this deserved The Carnegie Medal it won.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Hot Key):

Cadence spends every summer on a private island, her family so rich that money never even enters the equation. Forming a cadre with two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and outsider Gat something terrible happens on her 15th year. As she pieces it together, the rest of her life comes apart.

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder):

Incarcerated in Auschwitz, Shomer lies dreaming of a world in which National Socialism lost the 1934 election, where Hitler fled to London to become, moustacheless, a PI. Forced to work for the Jews he despises, ‘Wolf’, as he is known here, comes to embody the Jewish historical powerlessness in this metafictional interweaving of real and alternate histories.

Dan Nixon

Pomona by Alistair McDowall (the Orange Tree Theatre)

A sinister, surreal urban thriller, Ali McDowall’s blackly comic play lingered in my mind weeks after first viewing. So I went back and saw it again. Pomona revolves around a young woman Ollie who is searching for her lost sister in a nightmarish version of Manchester. It’s a brilliant example of the type of tension only live performance can create. Special mention also for Ned Bennett’s bravura direction.

Toast of London (Series 2) by Matt Berry and Arthur Matthews (Channel 4)

The second series of Toast was sillier, weirder and, if possible, funnier than the first. The opening episode centred around the Celebrities and Prostitutes Blow Football Tournament, which kind of says it all really. I’m pretty certain Matt Berry is the funniest actor on British television.

The Circle by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, paperback)

The Circle is a prescient and alarming satire about the rise to global domination of Silicon Valley tech giants; it speculates (sometimes terrifyingly) about how far their powers may extend. Dave Eggers is a beautifully subtle writer, and here he uses cool, detached prose to expose the strange dichotomy engendered by our increasing reliance on technology: a desire to connect uncomfortably combined with the feeling of overwhelmed isolation.

Peter Vanderheijden

I’m not one to make lists for my favourite things in a year. I enjoy the things I watch and read in the moment, not in the context of an, in the end, arbitrary amount of time. Instead, I’d like to share the first works of fiction that come to mind when I think of my favourites at this moment.

The most prominent position on this list absolutely has to belong to Wildbow’s Worm, a web serial novel about superheroes. This one’s quite different. First and foremost, it follows human nature to a far darker place than one would expect, and the author doesn’t hesitate to show the horrific consequences the introduction of superpowers in society would have. Of course, besides that, there’s plenty to enjoy that is traditionally associated with this genre, and the innovative superpowers make the fight scenes an absolute delight to read. Likely to stay at the top of my list for a long time.

Travelling to an entirely different part of the world, Japan, another work of fiction I’ve been following recently is the anime Psycho Pass. Anime, as a medium, is somewhat stigmatised as being ‘for children’, as well, but that ignores the much more mature series that occupy it. Psycho Pass is one of these. It’s set in a future Japan where everything is monitored by a computer system, judging people by their ‘crime coefficient’, as in, their mental stability. If their crime coefficient goes too high, a person becomes a target for the police, even if they have not actually committed a crime. This is the basis for society in Psycho Pass, and the series explores what the effect of such a society would be for the people in it. Certainly not for the faint of heart.

I’d like to end this list with Legend of Korra, another series ostensibly ‘for children’. It’s the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender (which you might remember from the movie, in which case, purge all those memories this instant).  The original series already tackled very serious subjects, and was notable for not treating its early teenage target audience like idiots and the sequel continues this trend. The villains in each of the four seasons all embody the extremes of a different ideology, and, for a kids show, it doesn’t pull any punches (season 1 ends with a murder suicide, just so you know what you’re in for). This one’s by far the least dark of my recommendations, however, which says a lot about the previous two.

Melis Dagoglu:

AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini – beautiful, and utterly heartbreaking.

THE FALL (TV series) – Brilliant. Gillian Anderson is just so compelling.

TED Talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ by novelist Chimamanda Adichie: -  A must watch.


The Silk Tree: Fact versus Fiction

by Julian Stockwin

This post originally appeared on Julian's blog, and can be found here.

Two exotic worlds separated by a vast distance

Two exotic worlds separated by a vast distance

My standalone historical fiction The Silk Tree is somewhat of a departure from my seafaring tales but has been a hugely enjoyable project, not the least being the research. As in all historical fiction there is a certain leeway for an author but I firmly believe you have to thoroughly do your homework first and establish what facts are known. Then the historical fiction writer’s creative challenge is to craft a page-turning story, filling in the gaps between what is known to be fact, to offer a plausible and entertaining tale.

The Silk Road (that actual term wasn’t used until the nineteenth century) began very early. An organised camel-based commerce was in place at the time of Alexander the Great’s feats of conquest. There was regular early Roman trade which was interrupted by the Parthians and Persians after which it fell off until the medieval golden age of Marco Polo. It declined terminally when Vasco da Gama found a trading route to the east around Africa in 1498, although the last camel caravans lingered on until modern times. Relics of the Silk Road are still in existence. I visited an ancient caravanserai on the Anatolian plateau and many can still be found dotted along the old routes into Central Asia.

Just what is known of the story of silk? China kept the secret for all of a thousand years and legend there tells of a princess who smuggled eggs out in her headdress when married to a prince of Khotan. In the West accounts generally agree that it was two monks who returned from China in 551 with the secret of silk – I have this from three sources. However these documents vary in their details, each providing tantalising references and with no one version standing out as definitive. My tale is based on these.

Where we do have verifiable historical information I have taken some pains to ensure veracity. Many of my characters in The Silk Tree did exist and it was fascinating researching their lives.

I’ve picked just five to highlight:

On the Silk Road gold talked…

On the Silk Road gold talked…

Emperor Justinian was a towering figure in antiquity who did much to restore the respect and standing of the Roman Empire in the East, and his codifying of laws is the basis of much jurisprudence today. He was, incidentally, the last emperor to speak Latin as a native first language.

Belisarius was his loyal and gifted military general who some claim was ill-used by a jealous Justinian. It is undisputed that it was largely his genius that allowed Justinian to reclaim much of the Western Roman Empire, giving rise to his nickname of ‘Last of the Romans’.

The warlord-turned emperor Wen Hsuan was a genuinely unpleasant individual, the range of his barbarity grim and shocking. He poisoned the deposed emperor ten months after assuming the throne and his blood-soaked reign lasted for another nine years. Stability only came with the glorious T'ang dynasty 70 years later

The immensity of Central Asia starts here

The immensity of Central Asia starts here

Antonina was daughter and granddaughter of charioteers and became an actress, much derided by my historian Procopius for her lewd performances. She oddly became friend and confidante to Theodora, the wife of Justinian and became privy to court secrets. Belisarius saw her and fell in love and she gave up her wild life to follow him in his campaigns.

Ts’ao Fu was a poet of stature in the murderous times before the dawn of the great T’ang dynasty. These men, inheritors of a continuous cultural past, that was well over a thousand years old at this time produced works of great beauty that are still revered to this day.

THE SILK TREE is published by Allison & Busby on Thursday 6 November. If you’re in London on 30 October, you are cordially invited to the Launch Party at Goldsboro Books. We hope you can join Julian to raise a glass to Marius and Nicander’s great adventure!



Lizzie Bates: ‘I was going to have to grow the balls to write my own show’

Originally published on 4 Aug 2014 by Edinburgh Festivals on Click here to see the original post.

Comedian Lizzie Bates on the nerves of a first Fringe performance solo…

Lizzie Bates

After seven Edinburgh Fringe festivals nestled safely within the bosom of my sketch group, The Boom Jennies, it was time to go it alone.

The prospect of bringing up a solo show was exciting and nauseating in equal measure. If the other two Boom Jennies hadn’t already committed to doing it, would I have? Who knows, but the thought of the pair of them panicking together on the train up, and then sharing a celebratory haggis after their first day of shows was too much for me. I was going to have to grow the balls to write my own show and that was that.

Adjusting to life as a solo performer has been a funny old business. In the absence of my comedy cohorts, I’ve found myself seeking artistic reassurance and emotional solace from the first person I lock eyes on after each show. Inevitably that’s my long-suffering techie and now involuntary life coach, Simeon.

He’s always trying to bring it back to the lighting and the sound, no matter how much I tell him this is about me. After one particularly tricky preview, when I was recovering from a throat infection, I genuinely found myself weeping in the face of the theatre manager: a middle-aged man I had not met until moments before the show. Need I say, this was an awkward evening for both of us.

Some habits are hard to shake. Before the Boom Jennies’ shows, we shared some pretty memorable adrenaline-fueled moments backstage: teasing each other, jumping up and down, attempting to control our flatulence. Now I find myself talking to myself (‘Come on Lizzie, knock their Scottish socks off!’) and failing to control my own flatulence. And this time round, there is no one else to blame those dressing room smells on.

Sometimes it seems baffling that it’s only me on stage. (What? It’s my line next again?!) But the wonderful thing is that it forces you to really engage with your audience. I have started creating conversations between them and me, mostly so I don’t have to listen to my own voice for an hour. (What? I’m doing this for a whole hour?)

Marketing decisions are all my own, the money has to come from my (rapidly diminishing) bank account and at times I have found myself drowning under a sea of admin which used to be split three ways.

But the highs are also all my own. When I can feel the audience going with it – when a joke that I’ve written works – it’s the most amazing feeling in the world. I’ve created a show that I’m immensely proud off. I’ve booked an Edinburgh venue and a train ticket all on my own. It’s time to start seeing that nervous backstage flatulence for what it really is – the wind of triumph.

Lizzie Bates: Reprobates, Until 25 Aug, Pleasance Courtyard, more info.

29 Ways NOT To Submit To An Agent by Carole Blake

This post originally appeared on Lucy Hay's Bang2Write blog and continues to be once of her most visited pages! Here's what Lucy says: 

Many thanks to Carole Blake from the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency for providing a VERY comprehensive list on how NOT to submit to an agent. This is a fab list and  I have actually had a number 27 myself!! Maybe it was the same lady? 

1. No gimmicks. Don’t send food, flowers – or anything else. Food goes straight into the bin … just in case. I’ve read lots of crime fiction.

I once received a large parcel that weighed almost nothing. Inside was a rubbish bin and a letter saying the writer assumed the submission would end up there so was sending me one to speed up the process. The partial for a crime novel that was attached looked rather good. I left the bin, letter & ms on my desk. Next morning our office cleaner had removed the contents and put the rubbish bin neatly next to my desk. There was no way to contact the author despite a story on our website and some tweets … That was the end of that.

2. Your own cover design. They almost always look very amateur. A publisher will produce a professional design that takes account of the current market. Even thinking that they might take your design marks you out as amateur.

3. Any kind of jokey letter making fun of the publishing business – I bet this won’t get read etc. In the cold morning light of a busy office – not funny. See no 1.

4. Don’t trash other authors – they might be my clients

5. Don’t send a first draft. Let it sit for some weeks after finishing. Then read & revise. Better to do that before you get a rejection.

6. Don’t keep sending further corrected versions. Revise first & let it sit before submitting.

7. Don’t send again once rejected, unless I’ve invited you to.

8. Don’t send in overly elaborate packaging. I am thinking of a full manuscript, in a lever arch file (duh!) wrapped first in plastic film, then in 2 layers of corrugated cardboard, then brown paper sellotaped around the ENTIRE package. Then in more brown paper. By the time my office had fought our way in to it I hated it already. See no 24.

9. Don’t mark it “private & confidential”. It’s not: it’s a business transaction. I don’t want to come back from a trip abroad to find an unopened unsolicited manuscript on my desk.

10. Don’t make spelling mistakes in the covering email or letter. Or the ms. And don’t rely on spellchecker: read it all the way through several times. See 5 and 6 above.

11. Don’t write the covering letter or email in the voice of one of your characters. I recently received a letter written in the voice of a gorilla. It’s annoying.

12.Don’t send 3 mss with one submission, all in different genres – it shows you’re not thinking about the market and how it works.

13. Don’t have a silly email address. I recently had a submission from someone whose email address was ‘blahblah’. And don’t share an email address with your spouse. This is business correspondence: you need to look professional. Your own email address costs nothing.

14. Don’t say you’re sending your ‘fiction novel’. If you don’t know how to use language, you shouldn’t be writing a book.

15. Don’t write to me abusively after I’ve rejected your ms. Publishing is a small world. And bad manners won’t make me want to work with you. See attached, from an author complaining that we won’t take his work which is in a genre our website makes it clear we don’t work with.

16. Don’t say you’ve read my book from cover to cover and then proceed to offer me a manuscript in a genre I’ve clearly stated I don’t work with.

17. Don’t send your ms in a fancy font, difficult to read. Keep it simple.

18. Don’t email with a peculiar colour background. Keep it simple.

19. Don’t openly email 50 agents at once (I’ve had them!), with all the email addresses shown. At least try to pretend you’ve selected me because you think we would make a perfect team.

20. Don’t tell me you’ve been recommended by a friend of mine and then mention someone I’ve never heard of.

21. Don’t compare your own writing to literary greats: it will only provoke me to disagree. Modesty is more attractive, and allows me to form my own opinion.

22. Don’t plead for individual feedback once I’ve rejected your ms. I received 1000s of submissions a year: there just isn’t time. And I do have to spend some time working for the authors I do actually represent.

23. Don’t tell me your family and friends love your ms. They love you: they are biased.

24. Don’t send me a paper ms. Not any more. See no 25.

25. This perhaps ought to be No 1: do NOT submit to me until you have checked out our agency website and read the submission guidelines. Do NOT. Just do NOT. It’s in your own interest.

26. Do NOT pitch your novel to me at breakfast during a writers festival. If I have to explain why, you may not have read the previous 25 points properly

27. Do NOT slip your synopsis under the door of the ladies loo I am occupying. It happened. Once. I suspect that woman will never do it again.

28. If we are chatting at a cocktail party and you have pitched me your novel, and I say, ‘I can’t take in verbal pitches, I need to read storylines, but please do send it to me.’ do not – under any circumstances – tell me the story all over again. And then do the same thing at the next 3 parties we both attend. This happened to me. I will never knowingly occupy the same room as that novelist ever again.

29. Do NOT submit to me on Facebook or Twitter. Chat, yes. Become friends perhaps: but social media is social. It’s not for stalking or submitting. I block people for doing that.

Why 29? Because if I don’t stop there I might go on forever, instancing all the time-wasting submissions I’ve seen over the years. But – you know what? I still get a tingle when I open new submissions … there is sometimes gold in those emailed submissions mountains!

And here’s one of those offending cover letters …

24 (+15) hours in Kampala with Commonwealth Writers

Juliet Pickering reports on her whirlwind visit to Uganda for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Thursday 12th 

Readers, I took that seat

Readers, I took that seat

2.30pm: Sat on the plane next to a guy who looks about 12, who tells me he's on a Christian mission to Uganda. He's American, has never left even his state before, and seems pretty scared of what's ahead. I re-read the shortlisted stories before we watch Frozen in friendly silence until a fellow missionary comes along and takes the mickey out of him for watching a girly film. Not very Christian, to say the least. 

 Two disgusting plane meals later...

 10.30pm I get out of the airport to find my transfer, and realise that there were six other people on the plane that Commonwealth Writers have brought over too. Hooray! We all pile into a large taxi with our cases teetering dangerously over our heads, and head to the hotel.

 11.30pm I'm sharing an apartment with Vimbia Shaire, a freelance editor who is teaching workshops the following week. She's chatty and lovely, and despite the lack of proper milk in the apartment and therefore being unable to drink a good cup of tea, we have a lengthy chat about all things publishing; often working with more academic titles, her experience is very different to mine.

It's good, but it's not P G Tips

It's good, but it's not P G Tips

Friday 13th 

8am I peruse the selection of exotic breakfast dishes: baked beans, curried vegetables, chips, chicken foot... Yup, chicken foot: in breadcrumbs. It's not bad, and goes well with the cassava wedges. 

Breakfast, avec pied

Breakfast, avec pied

I get chatting to Myn Garcia, Deputy Director of the foundation, who delicately nibbles a bit of fruit while I scoff my chicken foot and explain what I'm doing there. I get the sense that the Commonwealth Writers people (especially Lucy Hannah and Emma D'Costa) take on a hell of a workload, and travel a huge amount to promote literature and work with writers all over the world. An incredible and varied job to have, although exhausting.

 Lucy asks me to join them for a non-fiction workshop at midday, to talk about the UK publishing industry and the role of the agent.

 10am I wander the compound but it's fairly self-contained. It alternately rains like crappery and then the sun shines hot and strong. No chance to park myself by the pool and read The Miniaturist, damn it!

 11am I am taken to the hotel where the workshops are being held, and introduced to a group of non-fiction writers - who have come from Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Kenya - and who are being taught by Ellah Allfrey (Chair of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize) and Mark Gevisser. David Godwin also shows up, as he's in town for literary events the following week.

Non-fiction workshopping

Non-fiction workshopping

We are asked about the role of agents in the UK, and when we want to see material etc. We're reminded about how different things are in the Ugandan/East Africa publishing world, when we're asked a lot about book ideas being stolen by unscrupulous publishers. I mean publishers are unscrupulous the world over, obviously (to any publishers reading this - love you guys!), but the writers' concerns were about them telling a publisher their non-fiction ideas at an early stage, and the publisher then taking that idea and publishing that book with someone else. I got the impression that the publishing world is pretty corrupt there. It might be related to the fact that there are no agents, of course.

 1am LUNCH. I eat shredded goat and it is surprisingly delicious. We also chat to the writers who are all kinds of interesting. There are quite a few political memoirists: writers who have suffered because of their political beliefs, or who have lost family/home/identity in genocide. Their experiences are varied and fascinating.

 I also meet Billy Kahora from the Kwani Trust, a literary charity based in Kenya "dedicated to developing quality creative writing and committed to the growth of the creative industry through the publishing and distribution of contemporary African writing".

 3pm I do a podcast interview for the Commonwealth Writers website, with top Dos and Don'ts when submitting to agents.

 4pm Back in our room, Vimbai and I are peckish and order some food. You would only have believed the size of the chocolate cake I was brought if I'd taken a photo instead of greedily attacking it immediately. One word: BRICK. Good to know that giant hunks of cake are enjoyed the world over.

 6pm Having donned our party frocks, Ellah, Vimbai and I head to the Short Story Prize party.

Photocall for the non-fiction writers

Photocall for the non-fiction writers

After an hour of drinks, canapes and chat by the poolside (tough life) – during which I learn that to be 34 and unmarried means I am an ANCIENT SPINSTER in Uganda; I so enjoyed my conversations with the writers about their lives - Romesh Gunesekera announces Jennifer Makumbi as the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014, for her story about a Ugandan woman living in Britain, whose husband dies unexpectedly, leading her to discover he has been leading a double life with a second family in Uganda. She's a worthy winner, and you can read her story on the Granta website here.

Jennifer reads an extract of her winning story

Jennifer reads an extract of her winning story

At 9pm I dash to my room to change, and go to reception to wait for a taxi to the airport. Mike van Graan stops by and we introduce ourselves.

 9.30pm INSANE drive to the airport. The roads are packed, mostly with tiny scooters carrying three people, zooming lethally between traffic. I try not to wince as scooters regularly scrape our car bonnet. This was one of the best bits of the trip: 90mins of cruising through Kampala as people gathered at roadsides to eat from smoking food stalls, gather round a tiny TV or sell gum and nuts to passing cars (my lovely driver bought me a pack of Juicy Fruit as we sat in a long queue). Because you can't walk around town whenever and wherever you like, this was the closest I got to seeing Kampala. And it's worth noting that if you own a new and/or large car in Kampala, you can turn your lights on full beam and drive along the wrong side of the road and everyone will get out of your way because they're in awe of your amazing car *eyeroll*. 

 1am It's announced that the plane is grounded because it's been struck by lightning on the way in, and BA have to check it over before we fly again. No argument from me! Check that mofo twice!

 2am The one hour delay becomes a 15hr delay, and so ensues a long night/day of shunting around from airport to hotel to airport to plane. But despite this, it's been totally worth it.

 Follow-up: I've recently emailed some of the shortlisted writers from all over the Commonwealth; stories I particularly enjoyed included one about a young girl’s friendship with a gardener that’s destroyed by racial tensions; another which told of a teenager dealing with coming of age and the calm wisdom her grandmother could offer her; and a third about a brief, meaningful but then discarded love affair in Paris. I'll begin talking to the authors about their writing and what they're working on, in the hopes that some good fiction might come my way as a result!

 I'm really pleased that this trip introduced me to two groups of writers who might not usually think to submit to a UK agent. This is exactly what I hoped for when we began the association with Commonwealth Writers last year, and huge thanks are due to Emma, Lucy, Keenda and the brilliant team there, for making this happen and taking me along to Uganda.

Liz Fenwick’s writing tips #Romance14

This blog post originally appeared on the Romance Festival website. The Romance Festival is an online literary festival which took place between the 7th & 8th of June 2014 and allowed people to meet their favourite romantic fiction authors, chat to other readers and writers, and get the lowdown on the best in romance, all without leaving the comfort of their own homes! You can follow the Romance Festival on Twitter here.

Liz Fenwick’s Writing Tips:

  1. Have a hero with whom you can fall in love. I have to love the hero, if I don't how can I expect my heroine or reader to?
  2. Think conflict…that’s what makes the reader turn the page. Conflict is shouting, it’s when characters have different goals or what they need is different from what they want.
  3. Try to write something every day but accept that sometimes this isn't possible. Do not beat yourself up…sometimes the laundry does come first and so does dinner (except when a deadlines is approaching!)
  4. As writers we have strengths and weaknesses. Take time to improve your weakest areas until they shine as much as your strengths. Never stop learning your craft.
  5. In twenty minutes a day you can write a novel in a year. Five minutes free…a scene can appear. Any spare time can be used. Grab them. My writing time is always disturbed by family and travel, but I embrace this rather than resent it. I do my best writing when I'm stuck on a plane or a train.
  6. Listen to your work. I use text to voice software so that the computer reads it to me. This gives you separation from your work and makes editing easier.
  7. Writer’s Block – egg timer. Set it for twenty minutes and say you will only write for that time and it doesn't matter what you write. It works!
  8. Read, read, read. Read not just in your own genre, read the best sellers, read literary, read history, read biography, read magazines and the news papers. They all tell stories- just in slightly different ways. From this reading you will learn what works and what doesn’t. You will read books that you wished you wrote (and when you do – analyze to see why you felt that way then discover how you can make your writing better). You will read books and wonder what others saw in it - then analyze it. Fill your writing ‘well’ from the women’s magazines and the latest news.
  9. Be kind to yourself. No book is ever perfect…even the ones we hold up as perfect. Your first draft is for you only, possibly the second and the third too. Writing a book is not a race. Take a breath and enjoy the journey. Accept criticism. Develop your inner critic but contain it as well. Learn to trust yourself.

Liz’s latest book is A Cornish Stranger. You can find her on Twitter here.

Team Stockwin and The Silk Tree

Julian Stockwin is the author of the Kydd Naval series and his latest novel, THE SILK TREE, will be published in late 2014 by Allison & Busby and is now available for preorder here. Julian's partner, Kathy, has become an integral part of the writing process. Below, the author explains the creative development behind THE SILK TREE, where planning and research are the essential ingredients for a compelling story and great writing. 

Team Stockwin!

Team Stockwin!

THE SILK TREE is a new departure for me, a stand-alone historical adventure fiction that is not maritime at its heart.  Its genesis was my wife Kathy’s discovery of a rather lovely silk scarf in the ancient Kapali Carsi, the Grand Bazaar, in Istanbul during a recent research trip to Turkey.  While she was chatting with the merchant I idly wondered just how silk had been brought from China to the West. Intrigued, I did some research and the creative juices started flowing – I knew I had a story I had to tell.

So we got to work, drafting up a list of topics to investigate; a very pleasant task over a meze of various delicious morsels – then on to kepab – all in the name of research, of course...

As usual, local museums and libraries were a major resource. I always travel with a small pocket dictaphone and a compact camera that can take high-quality images of textual material. At the end of the day it’s our strict rule to go through the photos and notate each one. I also transcribe the notes I took verbally and Kathy and I work up any changes to our itinerary as a result of the day’s research.

Of all the iconic architecture in modern Istanbul, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace are the most memorable.  At the time of THE SILK TREE the former was a Christian shrine but Topkapi was yet to be built. Part of the task of a writer of historical fiction is to recreate city landscapes of the past in his mind’s eye and for THE SILK TREE this meant  sixth century Constantinople (as it was called then).

Back in the UK Kathy and I flow-charted the basic story on a large white board that we find invaluable at this stage.  Then we had a number of sessions working up the personalities of the main characters, Nicander and Marius. Once this was done we developed sub-plots around the main story – the quest for the secret of silk. Kathy thought we should have a love story element in the book and we had to find a way to bring two people of very different cultures to mutual respect then a deep attraction. But I don’t want to give the game away as to how this happened...

I’m a firm believer in the old saying that no life experience is wasted for the writer and for THE SILK TREE I was able to call upon my admiration of Chinese calligraphy which goes back to the time I lived and worked in the Far East. And all those hours of dry study of ancient Greek and Latin at grammar school came in handy, too!

When we were satisfied with our planning for THE SILK TREE a detailed synopsis was created, and I wrote the first three chapters, which I sent off to Carole Blake. She loved the idea and I then set out to write the rest of the book.

Kathy is a very integral part of my writing process. Once we have agreed on a strong beginning and a satisfying end, along with the thrust of the middle of the book, we walk and talk segments, making sure the right elements of tension, stakes, detail etc. are there before I write.

Kathy is also my live-in ‘blue pencil’, fine-tuning my writing with her very considerable editing skills as I go along. At the end of the process she does what she calls her helicopter editing, looking at the work as a whole.  Then we both go through the manuscript very, very carefully a number of times before it’s ready to submit.

I realise I am very privileged to be able to earn my living as a full-time writer – and to be able to work so closely with my life partner in this is a wonderful thing indeed!

The Anatolian Plateau, the last stage for the great camel caravans of the Silk Road.

The Anatolian Plateau, the last stage for the great camel caravans of the Silk Road.

Hagia Sophia at dusk

Hagia Sophia at dusk


Carole Blake on ‘Does a writer still need an agent?'

This post originally appeared on Alison Morton's Roma Nova blog.  Alison Morton is the author of three Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIOPERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. Watch the trailer for the hotly anticipated SUCCESSIO here!

I'm delighted to welcome my friend Carole Blake to my blog today to give an insight into one of the hottest questions in the publishing today. Carole has just celebrated 50 years in the publishing business, so she probably knows a thing or two. In 1977, after 14 years in publishing, Carole started her own literary agency which merged with Julian Friedmann’s agency to become Blake Friedmann in 1982. She is a past President of the Association of Authors’ Agents and author of From Pitch to Publication, a must-read for any writer wishing to understand the publishing industry. An updated version is due out in 2015.

Welcome, Carole. In the changing publishing world, one question I see debated everywhere, and with enthusiasm, is whether a writer needs an agent in today’s publishing environment.

Yes. And no. Many authors, especially self-published ones, manage everything for themselves now and many do it really well. Many authors are writing in areas that will not attract agents, so they have no choice.

But, of course, I think an agent is only a good thing for a writer: I’ve been an agent for 37 years and I know there are many things we do for our clients that would be difficult for them to accomplish alone.

Handling your own marketing, selling yourself, takes time and a certain kind of personality too. Having an agent represent you gives you a broader spread of influence, a bigger reach, access to many more contacts  A good agent fights for you on many fronts and brings their experience to your career. I can’t imagine an author alone, negotiating their contract with a gigantic multi-national conglomerate publisher and getting the concessions that agencies do. An author without an agent simply wouldn’t have experience of enough contracts to know what was achievable. Even Amazon, with their ‘White Glove’ programme, offer agented authors who epublish via them, much higher royalty packages than unagented authors, and access to more promotions.

As publishers are sold, merge, go under, an agent represents stability in an unstable industry; continuity as publishing staff come and go. Agency staff change too, of course, but much less frequently than at publishing houses. Some of my clients have been with me for more than 30 years, yet they all find their editor, publicist or publisher (sometimes all three!) has changed. The market is a jungle. An author alone can’t expect to stay abreast of everything, especially if they are having to devote time to their marketing and are having to sell their own books.

In addition to wide negotiating experience, agencies have staff to sell the rights they withhold from UK publishers: US, translation, film, television, stage, audio being the most common. Every extra strand of income we negotiate for our clients, every new language, every new right, brings more income and a greater visibility for the author.

Agents only get paid when they pay their clients (by law we must have separate client accounts, like lawyers). That certainly focuses the mind! We have a common purpose, and we share together in the successes. And we are there to encourage if things go wrong.

Many of my authors are published in more than 30 languages. That means that every time they deliver a manuscript I can anticipate selling it over and over again, without the writer having to do any more work. My agency has a network of overseas agencies that sell our list, and we have staff who deal with publishers around the world. Our preparation for international book fairs is military-like in its precision. My staff and I bring our decades of experience to bear on the work of the authors we represent, and take a huge satisfaction in presenting them with multiple deals over a range of formats and languages.

Thank you, Carole, for such a clear explanation for the readers. I’m looking forward to your update of From Pitch to Publication next year.