I have just written a cheery book about misery called Killing Hapless Ally. It started life as a memoir, but, partly because I am not remotely famous (and was thus advised by both an agent and a literary consultancy that I had zero chance of selling my book because who would want to know?) and then partly so Shirley Bassey wouldn’t come after me, what was a memoir became fiction, but drawing on many real episodes in my own life. And I knew it was a peculiar book; one which didn’t sit neatly in the all-important genre. Its narrative hopped about, in a switch-back sort of fashion, its protagonist had an alter ego who took on a life of her own, it had much colourful cursing and much literary reference threaded through it—from Dante’s The Divine Comedy to Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and moreover its narrative entertained a gallery of imaginary friends, from John Keats to Albert Camus (not to mention some very satisfying trysts with Shirley Bassey and Dolly Parton).
The book offered families who were grisly and, perhaps, hard to believe (except they were real, quick, or not) and it was, above all, the story of how a little girl conceived some really direful ideas, in a balefully confusing world, about who and what she was. And that girl, that ‘weird kid’ and ‘eldritch child’, went on to have many years of mental health problems and crises and illness and got mopped up by the NHS, a shed load of drugs and, frankly, Albert Camus. Well, I thought it was a comedy. It was, more-or-less, my life; all I had known: I had survived it, just about.
But I thought, ‘Who on earth would publish my strange little book?’ I wrote to five agents, two of whom replied with the form no; the other three didn’t reply at all. I found that hard. I mean, I juggle a day job with three young kids, two campaigns, writing a book and articles and so on. Chuck a big and complicated extended family into the mix, too, and the fact that I have to be especially careful that I don’t overdo it because, for me, that way madness lies—which is a bit scary. So not replying at all to submissions because you are so busy seems a bit rude to me; a bit like not marking someone’s essay because I had the rest of the class to do and a bit of lesson planning. (Is immediately blacklisted...)
I wasn’t sure I was up for it. Not the rejection, because I knew that had to happen; was in fact essential. The not replying bit. I pondered. And then I was reading ‘Mslexia’ and something caught my eye. A small press with an interesting sounding person at the helm; someone with many years of publishing and writing experience. That person was Patricia Borlenghi and the press was Patrician.
I wrote to Patricia; she was intrigued by what I told her of the text—and very keen to have a book about mental health. This was a revelation and a relief, because in that year I had heard agents bemoaning ‘misery memoirs’ and, although I had now tweaked to fiction, I had still felt I would fall foul of the process. Too much misery! And there was the all important notion of genre again. I had just been to a literary festival event where an agent spoke of agents being ‘salespeople, at the end of the day’ and of how a prospective author had to be able to go into a bookshop and see exactly which shelf their book would sit on. But Patrician took my book on almost straight away and we were off.
Patricia herself was a very firm hand. Out went the last chapter. ‘You don’t need it.’ Out went anything she felt frivolous, or repetitive or over-blown. In came THE BEST THINGS, like an extended series of correspondences with Catherine Camus, daughter of Albert, about what they (his twin daughters) would feel acceptable as a portrayal of their father in the book. It wasn’t that they sought to censor, but I invited dialogue because I was such a fan and mindful of the shabby press he has often received. Because when I was a sad and separate teenage girl, it was Albert Camus I talked to. He was one of my most abiding imaginary friends. So I wrote that into life in my book.
There were chats with a patent attorney about whether it was okay to have famous people in my book and the answer was, yes because there’s a hefty disclaimer and anyway, they are all drawn as imaginary friends (I don’t think the attorney had met quite this question before) and besides, the fearless Patricia Borlenghi said, ‘Publish and be damned’ and also, ‘Plus if we do get into trouble, the publicity might well be to our advantage with “Mad mother of three and deaf pensioner in courtroom drama” headline.’ Do bigger publishing houses say things like that? I actually don’t know. I just found it all so exciting. (Even while I was wondering if I’d have to leave town.)
I wrote the first word of the book on the 15th of June (I know that because it was after the A level English Literature exam, for which I had been teaching, and I thought, ‘Oh—now I’ve got a few minutes…’), it had a publisher on the 1st of May the first of the following year and was in print by the following March: twenty months from first word to book launch and I am already a third of the way through book two.
Because here’s the thing.
Patrician took my book because it was thought to be high quality fiction, whether or not it was an unusual text. It has a massive bibliography at the back, for example, which is not standard for a work telling you it’s fiction. It’s literary fiction…yet…could also sit with self-help, for example. Its readers are responding to it in very different ways, accordingly, and it is a fascinating and rewarding process. An adventurous press enabled me to published a risky sort of text, I think. There is much in the book that is, perhaps, unsettling or even upsetting: self harm; hospital visits; therapy; the darkest of epically horrible relatives, a frightening environment for a child and a fear that never went away as an adult. It is—and this is, perhaps, my greatest hope for it—a book about fear told fearlessly. It is supposed to be a black comedy. I lived much of it and learned to thrive because I learned how to make sad or dark into anecdote.
Terrible caravans, and loud biblical samplers on the wall and terrifying but lively dead, alive and undead aunts and mothers; and nasty piano teachers and hateful little girls who turned on the wonky little girl who couldn’t and a sibling who left her behind a tree in a dark and shadowy wood to be eaten by the wolves when darkness fell and murdering people with a pickled egg. (You’ll just have to read it to see how this one works out!)
And this twenty months I have had have been life changing. Because publishing with a small press allowed me to write the book I wanted to write and gave me a renewed sense of life and direction —which goes way beyond writing the book—into the bargain. I have had over thirty years of mental health problems and I am now largely free of these. It’s not that telling the story in the book was therapeutic exactly (I had the NHS and my incarnation of Albert Camus for that), but releasing it into the world was empowering and healing. I wanted to entertain; I hoped I would pull off something laugh out loud funny about startlingly horrible things and that the humour would provide relief and imaginative counterweight to a tale of how mental health is compromised and damaged and what that means for an individual. Because I knew how and what that meant for me. And that’s the other thing about the small press—and really about Patricia: they did, too.
So, as the book begins, ‘Shall we start at the end? Friend; sympathiser; co-conspirator: read on’. I hope that you will—and that you will enjoy more from the impressive Patrician Press catalogue, too.
By Anna Vaught
Anna’s first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, was published last month, later this year, she will be included in The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea and is working away on a second novel (called, tentatively, A Life of Almost), a poetry pamphlet and assorted articles. Anna’s recent pieces have been with AXA PPP (film and text), Writers and Artists and she likes to blog – at the moment for www.selfishmother.com. She is an English teacher and tutor, mother of three young boys and a passionate campaigner.
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