The Missing List: A Memoir

The Missing List: A Memoir by Clare Best, Linen Press, 2018 

I am one of the lucky ones. I made it through. There are too many who do not – our prisons, hospitals and cemeteries are full of them. And so I give you my story, hoping it may help to break down myths and misunderstandings around abuse and its aftermath.

Clare Best finely weaves together a tapestry of memories, delicately stitching the fragments of a life both lived and lost through the experiences of childhood sexual abuse. Best pieces together a collage of “offcuts”, tackling the struggles of a split self who has fought to navigate the rocky terrain of taboo, shame, guilt, anger, anxiety, fear, love and resilience whilst acknowledging and attempting to accept, process and survive the abuse and “fallout” of her early childhood years. She experiments with written form, refreshingly negating the “conventions” of memoirs that often attempt to “fit” the author’s biography into the narrative arc of a novel. She interchanges between film scripts, transcripts, lists, and medical diagnoses, whilst merging or interlinking past and present events, which arguably creates a greater authenticity to the narrative by truly emphasising the experiences of memory in the throes of dealing with trauma.

Best approaches her experiences with both bravery and sensitivity. She is careful to keep control of her narrative, making sure that it remains her story. There is always a fine line between saying what is comfortable to voice and saying too much, where the story no longer remains the author’s to tell, yet Best treads this line carefully, never detailing the abuse too explicitly and ensuring that what she tells the reader is what she has chosen to share. It is hers, and she is finally the one who can own it after all these years. The result is a carefully written piece, and whilst it may act as a trigger for some readers, it may also give comfort to others in realising that they are not alone in what they are feeling or experiencing.

The narrative intertwines childhood memories with those of her present moments of being a carer to her ailing father. By interweaving the past and present, Best highlights the ongoing effects of her abuse and how difficult it is to overcome, particularly when the parent/abuser is still ever present in her life. Whilst the physical effects of abuse can often be grasped in more concrete terms and perhaps, in some ways, overcome more quickly, the psychological trauma of abuse can be far more long-lasting as remnants remain as internal scars for an individual. It is far harder to truly articulate and understand the psychological impact such manipulation and control can have on a person, in which love is conditional and based on what a child will do, as the child learns early on how to play particular roles. Yet, Best deftly brings this to the forefront of the narrative and effectively communicates this manipulative dynamic and fraught relationship to the reader.

His love, such love as he can show, has always been conditional. Do this and I will love you. Be like this and I will love you. Be my mother, sister, wife, daughter – and perfect at each – and I may love you in every way and none. When I see you in this role you become the role. When I’m finished with you in this role, you will revert to another role. This is how it’s been.

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Best brings to light the psychological impact of abuse in a brave and eye-opening way to the reader, not only detailing memories of events, but equally articulating her thoughts and feelings as an important part of her narrative. She tackles the difference between the lived experiences and the medical diagnosis of symptoms by expressing the way in which abuse splits identity and how one may embody themselves as multiple, rather than whole.

One, the home-child, is emotionally volatile, swinging between fury and contrition; she adores and needs to be adored by her mother. The other, the school-child, is careful, measured, self-sufficient, almost obsessively tidy; she works harder and harder at her lessons, with better and better results, despite the unexplained school absences. And then there’s a third presence, discernible as a space that both separates and holds together the two girls. This space is like the central image of Rubin’s Vase – the black-and-white optical illusion where you can see either a vase or two heads in silhouette, but you can’t hold both at once.

Although it is a common symptom of child sexual abuse to dissociate from oneself, it is often difficult to grasp what this entails. Best explores this with great self-awareness of how her sense of embodiment was altered into three aspects of herself, the “home-child”, the “school-child” and a third presence, a haunting of a self that flitted between the other two that she beautiful portrays as the Rubin’s Vase. This splitting can often be a way of coping with the psychological trauma inflicted; therefore, Best assists in bringing to light what is so often the hardest to explain or articulate to others. It is one thing to understand what dissociating means as a term and diagnosis, but it is another thing to be able to eloquently and coherently communicate the lived experiences of such states.

Yes, I’m resilient. Resilience is the other side of shame. I’ve come through loss and pain, and made many adjustments. I must continue, will continue.

Best questions what it means to survive, and although she is not the biggest fan of this word, it is one of the few that places hope into the narrative, rather than labelling someone forever a victim. Her narrative gives hope through highlighting how one can be resilient. She shows strength and perseverance, and whilst the outcome may not have been the one she wished for or felt she needed, she eventually found her ending. Rather than her father having the last word, waiting for his apology, his acknowledgement or his time to talk about it, she took control of her narrative and chose to be the one to end it. This act seems far braver in many respects, as it takes courage to step away and be the one to break the cycle, to finally say “no”.

Click here to order The Missing List direct from Linen Press.

About the publisher:

Linen Press is the only independent women’s press in the UK.

About the reviewer:

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.

 

 

In the Blink of an Eye

Truth, Beauty and Death: Photography, the Artist and Mourning

In the Blink of an Eye, Ali Bacon, Linen Press, 2018

In a single instance, a transformative and indelible impression may be etched onto the mind via vision, a happening that occurs in “the blink of an eye”. There was seemingly one such moment for the author of this novel. Ali Bacon was working in Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she found a cache of famous Victorian photographs. The overwhelming surge of emotions aroused by that encounter with the first wave of photographic images sparked a life-long interest in early photographers. This, Bacon’s second novel, is the fruit of those powerful feelings and interest. It follows the life of the Scottish artist David Octavius Hill, one of those early pioneers of nineteenth century photography, as he brings to completion the first painting based on photographs, an endeavour that spanned decades. Hill brought a refined sensibility to his photographic partnership with the more technically minded Robert Adamson to establish photography as a recognised art form and the novel is very much a song of praise to this innovator.

The novel is also more than that, of course. It is both history and biography, imagination and reality, fact and fancy. The writing playfully and self-consciously alludes to its status as both truth and fiction, as prominent characters in the establishment of photography as a serious pursuit debate in its pages whether the photographic form of representation is art or artifice, the representation of things as they are or a reimagining of the world. That the issue is relevant to an understanding of the novel itself is indicated by the headings that the chapters fall under: the names of early photographic processes. Thus the novel is seemingly constructed as a photograph and presented as a photograph, one that invites philosophical reflection on its capacity to represent the world and to bear truth beyond surface appearance.

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There are a number of themes which develop in the novel besides its focus on truth and
artifice. Bacon makes much of imbuing her photograph of a novel with the sensibility of
women. She draws on Hill’s relationships with women and often writes from the perspective of these women to understand the man. The novel is therefore interesting in being a “her-story”, rather than a “his-story”, and a self-consciously feminine biography. However, the great theme of the novel which struck me the most was the relationship that it constructed between truth, beauty and mourning. Death is one of the most significant characters in the novel and touches all those involved. From the first, Hill is shown as a widower and then his partner in photography dies. There are further tragedies. All the art and photography that takes place in the novel, described constantly in terms of truth and beauty, can therefore be situated in ideas of death, bereavement and mourning. As Hill’s wife remarks to him towards the close of the novel in a terse summary of the perspective of the novel, Hill’s art can be understood thus: “‘[t]he sadness gives it beauty, the beauty gives you comfort” (204-5).

Inevitably, one wonders why, in Bacon’s view, sadness gives beauty. Is it the sense of
mortality that gives what is beautiful its value and meaning, the sense of an impending
ending? Is it the fleetingness of the moment that gives both art and photography, and this
novel constructed like a photograph, their ultimate raison d’être? Or can we only understand the true artist in the Western tradition as one that suffers?  That is, can Hill only be given recognition as a “proper” artist since he suffers and his suffering bears fruit? After all, one popular image of the artistic genius is “the tortured soul” who is besieged on all sides by harsh happenings, experiences which appear to give his or her art greater depth, value and meaning to the public. One thinks of how their biographical details add to the status of figures like Vincent Van Gogh and the feminist icon Frida Kahlo, who is in fact called “La Heroina del Dolor”, or “The Heroine of Pain”.

Bacon’s novel is certainly a substantial and well-wrought affair which invites the larger
questions on the part of readers. The individual chapters have been nominated for and won several awards and the novel is an engrossing read which also has a feminist dimension. It is a good second novel. It is also a good introduction to the early history of photography and the key debates that the medium first aroused, debates which follow us to the contemporary moment. In the Blink of an Eye is therefore, in my view, a richly rewarding read.

Click here to order Ali Bacon’s In the Blink of an Eye from Linen Press.

About the Publisher:

Linen Press is “a small, independent publisher run by women, for
women”. It published its first book in 2006 to much acclaim and strong sales. The Press
describes itself as the only indie women’s press in the UK. Its policy is “to encourage and
promote women writers and to give voice to a wide range of perspectives and themes that are relevant to women”. Linen Press, in its own words, aims to “publish books that are diverse, challenging, and surprising”. The collective background of the writers in the publishing house is described as “a multi-coloured patchwork of cultures, countries, ages and writing styles”.

Review by Suneel Mehmi

Suneel is currently researching the relationship between photography and law in fiction from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s. He is a scholar and an amateur writer, poet, singer/songwriter, musician and artist. Suneel is a member of the British Asian community and lives in East London. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Brunel University and the University of Westminster.

Women, Writing and Freedom

“A word after a word after a word is power.” – Margaret Atwood

This poignant and all too necessary event was hosted by Linen Press and the Contemporary Small Press on Thursday 19th October at the University of Westminster’s Regent Street Campus. Celebrating women’s writing and the achievements of the press and its writers, the event also delved into the complex struggles and injustices facing women and their writing in the current publishing climate.

Lynn Michell, the founder and director of Linen Press, welcomed us all and began the evening by sharing some of the home truths and hard facts about women writers in the publishing industry. She asked: “How do we get books into the big stores without paying them to sell the books?” Shedding light on the difficulties of gaining recognition in mainstream bookstores, when the fees for production are inordinately high, meaning that authors rarely see a profit from their labour of love. Male writers often take home book prizes and gain greater recognition for their work than both women and minority writers; therefore, publishers often do not want to take the ‘risks’ attached to publishing female writers and will not consider their work. Michell mapped out the lay of the publishing land for women, and the reality of how disparate the landscape is between female and male authors truly hit home – there is still so much work to be done in order to enable women to thrive in the publishing industry.

The keynote speaker, Maureen Freely, a writer, translator and senior lecturer at the University of Warwick, spoke of the often-neglected area of publishing translated works in the UK, particularly those written by women, as the works of male writers are more frequently translated. Freely is currently the president of English PEN, an organisation that campaigns for at-risk writers around the world whose rights to freedom of expression have been censored. English PEN’s inspirational work fights to remove inequalities in the literary world, facilitates the translation of foreign works into English and promotes such work in the UK, introducing UK readers to impeccable foreign works. Commercial censorship was highlighted as a huge and ongoing issue that shapes what writers say and, in turn, what readers are able to read. Freely gave the example of when a writer known for writing chick-lit was unable to publish work with themes around depression or anything “too dark”. Freedom of expression and writing are indivisible, which led Freely to help at-risk writers around the world, with a focus on women in Turkey who are currently either being imprisoned for their writing or are unable to work due to the risks of hiring them as writers. Their freedom to express themselves has been greatly impinged, costing them their writing, passion and voices as feminist activists, journalists and writers, and equally their own personal freedom to remain a part of their society. Freely has regularly contributed to the Observer, the Guardian and the Independent, and is hugely invested in writing on feminism and Turkish culture, where her written work complements her activist work by helping to assist these women writers in the process of gaining asylum in the UK and joining a community of writers, so that they can continue to speak out against the inequality and injustices they are facing.

Freely also shared with us the exciting news of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, which will be awarded on 15th November 2017, and aims to provide an opportunity for greater recognition of the invaluable work produced by women. The prize was set up for works of fiction, poetry or non-fiction by women, which have been translated into English by a female or male translator, published by a UK or Irish publisher, and translated and published between April 1st, 2016 and March 31st, 2017.

Women Writing Freedom
Hema Macherla, Avril Joy, Lynn Michell, Maureen Freely.  Photograph courtesy of Linen Press

Avril Joy, an awarding-winning short story writer and novelist, took us back to her years of teaching and management at a women’s prison, where she learnt the power of imagination, both for these women and for herself, when the writer-in-residence inspired her and prompted her own journey as a writer. Joy initially outlined the context of working at the prison – men would rarely visit the women and, therefore, letter writing and forms of writing in general quickly became a necessary and sought-after skill. More importantly, Joy found that these women were desperate to learn and hungry to thrive in ways that they had not had the opportunity nor freedom to before. It was strange to think that prison would in many ways provide a previously unknown freedom for these women, but within Joy’s cupboard-sized classroom, she was met with a desire to gain more from life, and writing became a way to explore this. Joy remarked that she often heard the women say that “they can lock me up, but they can’t lock up my mind” – a pertinent statement that may resonate with many women who may feel oppressed, their voices unheard and their freedom censored by a society that still retains double standards. Joy gave these women the permission to write their own stories, to voice their own lives and find power in imagination, a power they had so often been unable to access. Whilst many may have been victims in their lives, through the ability to voice themselves creatively, they started to recognise themselves as survivors, changing their relationships to themselves. Ultimately, Joy urged us, like those women in prison, to use whatever voice we have to tell our stories, and to survive.

Hema Macherla, an Indian writer whose works have been translated into English, poignantly articulated her own journey with writing, as well as the injustices faced by women in India when they do not conform to the male-instigated and deep-rooted traditions of Indian culture. It is shocking to realise how much is still needed in order to gain equality and justice for women in India, when men are still ‘justified’ in beating their wives, and the coercion into and practice of Sati (a funeral custom in which a wife immolates herself after the death of her husband) was only banned in its entirety in 1988 by the Sati Prevention Act. Women are struggling to have their voices heard and their freedom granted, since these brutal experiences often go undocumented or unspoken, as they are simply part of the way things are in India, and so Macherla bravely writes of these women within her novels. In her writing, she creatively expresses the cruel and shocking reality of a culture that still subordinates women and justifies the brutal actions against them through a hierarchical system of valuing men, their position and their rules, above the rights of women.

Michell closed this insightful and thought-provoking event by congratulating and thanking her writers and interns who make the work at Linen Press such a pleasure and inspiration. The audience then had the wonderful opportunity to view the trailer for her newly published novel, The Red Beach Hut, which is available online to purchase. It is a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of two lost souls who find themselves pacing along a beach together in a moment of their lives in which they both need a friend, someone who will be out-of-sync with them. To finish the event, we celebrated ten years of Linen Press over glasses of wine and had the opportunity to continue the thoughtful, powerful and much needed discussions with the event’s speakers.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.

Women Writing Freedom Books
Women, Writing and Freedom.  Photograph courtesy of Linen Press

Women, Writing and Freedom

Linen Press in collaboration with The Contemporary Small Press 
Keynote talk by Maureen Freely, President of English PEN.

‘A word after a word after a word is power.’ Margaret Atwood

In a masculine centred literary tradition that values male over female voices, women refuse to be silenced and continue to tell the truth about their personal and political lives. Join us in exploring the politics of silence and in honouring the voices of women writers everywhere who, despite repression and invisibility, risk all to give voice to the need for liberation and freedom.

Thursday 19th October
17.30 – 19.30
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street
London
W1B 2HW
Freedom

Speakers:

Keynote speaker Maureen Freely on the crucial work done by English PEN and like-minded partners, with particular reference to women writers.

Hema Macherla on the plight of Indian women – fallen women, broken women and women shunned by society.

Avril Joy on working for over twenty-five years with women writers in HMP Low Newton.

Lynn Michell on publishing women writers. She is here to celebrate ten years of Linen Press and to launch The Red Beach Hut.

This event is hosted by Linen Press – a small, independent press run by women for women – and the Contemporary Small Press, which aims to promote, explore and facilitate the work of small press publishers of fiction and poetry.

Beyond the Bestseller

SAT 25 MARCH 2017, 10:00 – 16:30 GMT

We’ll tell you about the book trade, the workings of a small press and offer advice about submitting your work and approaching publishers.

Talks and readings by Lynn Michell, director of Linen Press, and Avril Joy, successful Linen Press author and finalist in The People’s Prize.

Karen Kao will introduce her accomplished, searing novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, a new publication due April 2017.

Put your questions, worries, frustrations and hopes to our experienced panel. We’re here to help!

WIN—a consultation with Lynn Michell to discuss your novel

WIN—a consultation with Avril Joy to discuss your short story

WIN—a selection of books from Linen Press

Click here for more information and tickets to Beyond the Bestseller.

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Linen Press: The Dancing Girl and the Turtle by Karen Kao

A Visceral Assault: Dogwood

A Visceral Assault: Dogwood

Lindsay Parnell, Dogwood (2015, Linen Press)

The only thing I’ve ever been addicted to is saying yes. 

Lindsay Parnell’s debut novel is a visceral assault on the emotions from the first page to the last.  Exploring the wounds that are inflicted from girlhood into womanhood and the powers and possibilities of a small American town and its relationship to the church, Dogwood tells the story of three young friends – Harper, Collier and Caro – growing up in Virginia.

Dogwood

We enter the story through the voice and perspective of Harper as she writes to her younger brother Job.  Harper’s letter focuses on the grisly fate of Tara Hackett, a woman who murdered her own sons and their father, and the ensuing narrative that unfolds is Harper’s way of working through her relationship with Tara and the three other significant women in her life: her mother, Collier and Caro.  Collier and Caro are like sisters to Harper, yet the heat and incestuous claustrophobia of their girlhood shapes their lives into a tightly woven knot of friendship with all its tender and harrowing consequences.

All the things that happened happened in summer. Maybe that’s because folks sin in the summer months more than any other season. Sinning is easier done in the sticky months with less clothes and when the sun stays out, spitting its hot breath into the dry ground until almost midnight. The sun’s never weak, not never. 

Lyndsay Parnell has a heart-rending knack for creating characters who live and breathe off the page; characters who can enter the world of the reader almost physically.  With just a few sentences, Parnell sketches her characters’ reality, their relationships to one another, their aching joys and their ecstatic sorrows.  It’s the corporeality of this novel, and its shatteringly physical impact that stays with you so long after reading: I can still feel the characters deep within my bones.  It’s transformative reading that has an undeniably tangible impact fused with the mental and emotional trauma of the story that it tells.

At the novel’s core is the theme of the relationship between mothers and children, particularly mothers and their daughters.  From the first thing we learn about Tara Hackett, through Harper’s destructive relationship with her own mother – the ever-capitalised ‘She’, or ‘Her’ – to the knotted relationship of the three girls and their own complicated potential to enter into motherhood themselves, this relationship is always explored through the carnal and bloody reality of the female body: the interior and exterior limits of human flesh.

I’m seven and it’s the first summer She accidentally burns me with Her cigarette. I wince when She blows on the raw pink flesh then kisses my neck. She apologizes through tears with a mouth that’s poison slick and it’s the first time I know me and Her don’t have the same skin anymore. That we don’t like the same types of touch and pain. I’m seven and no matter how hard I press my own flesh into Hers, we don’t have the same body no more. 

Despite the brutality of many of the relationships described in the novel, there’s such a tender longing for love and trust and forgiveness; a yearning for an impossible return to the nurturing safety of the innocent mother-child bond which may never, in reality, have existed.  It’s this deeply wounded love that generates the novel’s subatomic structure: it has the power both to hold the characters together and to tear them catastrophically apart.

Parnell experiments with an innovative non-linear narrative structure, offering flashes of memory grouped around the ages of the three friends at the time of each significant event intertwined with the first-person epistolary fragments of Harper’s letter to Job.  This gives the novel a vibrant immediacy throughout its narrative, maintaining the logic of the impossible return without the deadening intrusion of flashback taking the reader away from the story’s present – achieved through the use of the present tense to narrate the third-person accounts of Harper’s history.  The effect is to heighten the reader’s immersion in the narrative, which I think contributes greatly to the novel’s sharp, visceral impact.

Of all the manifest achievements of Dogwood – and there are so many – the most lasting, for me, are the ways in which it inscribes the feminine body in such agonizingly sensitive ways – ways that can’t fail to imprint themselves within the cells and tissues of the reader’s own physical experience.

This is an extraordinary debut novel, deserving of a lot of attention and some hefty literary acknowledgement.

About the publisher:

Linen Press is dedicated to publishing ‘fine writing for women, by women’, specialising in literary fiction that gives voice to a wide range of themes and perspectives relevant to women today.  As the only independent women’s press currently operating in the UK, Linen Press has the unique privilege and responsibility of following in the footsteps of such presses as Virago and The Women’s Press.  Many of Linen Press’s books and writers have won or been shortlisted for a variety of literary awards.  Editor Lynn Michell is passionate about taking bold risks to publish innovative and challenging women’s writing such as Dogwood, and long may that continue.

Click here to buy Dogwood by Lindsay Parnell from Linen Press.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow, Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press

Sally is studying for a practice-based PhD in utopian poetics and experimental writing at the University of Westminster.  

Escaping with a Book: Avril Joy Interview

The Contemporary Small Press speaks to Avril Joy about her novel, Sometimes a River Song released today, as well as her influences and experiences of working with small presses.

Avril Joy

 

Tell us about your upcoming novel, Sometimes a River Song, what inspired these characters and plots in such a vivid landscape so far from your home?

I think it goes back a few years ago when I watched a fascinating documentary by chance about a river community like this one – a fast vanishing river community. I was taken with it and I don’t quite know why, but I think somewhere in the back of my head I parked the idea of writing about such a place. I’ve been asking myself why it’s so resonant for me. I’ve always been attracted to water, nearly all my books have some kind of watery element. I actually grew up on a tidal creek. It’s quite different from Arkansas as this was in Somerset on the levels, but water would appear and disappear as if by magic, so I was always fascinated by getting over onto the riverbank and seeing what it would be like. I think that’s probably why it appealed to me so much.

What made you decide to turn this story into a novel?

I wrote two short stories and this helped me to get into the mindset of this community and the way they lived. Then one day I woke up and had this crazy voice in your head thing, which said “Silas keeps the book.” And that must’ve been the first time I heard her (Aiyana’s) voice and I remember thinking I don’t know what this is but there’s something here.

As you know the language is quite strange and I thought ‘this is so different from anything I’ve ever done before, am I going a bit mad?’ but I entered that (short) story for the Manchester Prize for Fiction and I was the only woman short listed, I didn’t win but I met the judges and they were very complimentary. One judge who had championed the story, Claire Dean, said that the voice had really leapt off the page for her late one night when she was reading her way through the entries. That gave me the confidence and I knew I wasn’t really done with it.
You mention on your website how the ‘floating photographers’ inspired your upcoming novel, what was it that inspired you most about these photographs?
They came in a bit later, I was already writing the story. There’s a journalist, blogger and author called Chris Engholm who I mention in the acknowledgements, I used to look at his sites a lot because of his photographs of the White River. There’s also a great book called The Last River by Turner Browne who took black and white photographs of the White River and that was fabulous – in fact grandmas boat is definitely in there – and that’s where I came across the floating photographic studio.

SPOILER ALERT…..

In my mind I was thinking (like any reader will) how is Aiyana really going to escape, and then when I saw the picture of the floating photographic studio I just thought that’s how. Suddenly it wove itself into the story and I knew it would be the end of the novel.

How did it feel to take Aiyana through that journey of trying to escape such a closed community?

I can’t read the ending without crying, I don’t know if it was just the sheer effort of getting her there because there were so many obstacles on the way or whether it has a deeper resonance for me. On a personal level, leaving the place where I grew up and loved was in many ways my salvation. I was one of those grammar school girls of the ’60s who got to go to University, but wouldn’t have been able to if there hadn’t been free education. We were the first real generation of any size of women going onto further education and it changed my life so enormously, so I guess deep down there’s some kind of internal resonance for me. Anyway I’m just glad she’s out of it!

How do you decide which characters are the crucial ones?

Often the name will tell me, if the name really rings for me I know they’re going to be something of importance. I’m not the sort of writer who has a plan, I let it grow organically and I honestly think that’s the best way to write. See what the pen says, as it can be very surprising. For example, I had no intention of telling Silas’ story but then you have to somehow for some reason as it makes sense to do that.

At first he was a monster, then I realised we’ve already got Floyd and no-one wants two monsters in a novel. He would’ve been quite stereotypical and I wanted him to be more complex, he couldn’t just ill-treat her. In reality people probably do go from one awful abusive relationship to the next, but that’s not how I wanted it to be. In fact, I found his story when I re-read The Grapes of Wrath. I had to be really careful actually and in the last edits I started looking at some of the names in Silas’ story to check – I haven’t taken those names from The Grapes Of Wrath have I? But really what better thing to read that chronicles the story of that huge migration, so his story just fell onto the page, probably easiest of all.

So how did you change him from being the same monster as Floyd, as in the book, Silas sort of became a silent monster instead?

That was one of the benefits of having an editor, as Lynn [Michell] said to me that she felt there wasn’t that difference between him and Floyd. We decided on silence together, as soon as Lynn said it, I agreed with her. In the first draft he was doing the physical things her father did, so we reshaped him and both thought silence was the thing. I have some experience of that growing up, of that being used as a weapon and it’s not easy to deal with, it gradually eats away at your sense of self and confidence.

And of course that fits with the experiences of the women in prison, who I’ve worked with for so many years. They don’t have a voice often, certainly not in the community and often not in prison either.

Your work is so viscerally raw and seems to evoke a landscape of women, women’s connections and community, even when it’s a community stitched together with pain. How has working in a women’s prison affected your approach to this?

When I first went there, there was this tiny unit for women because in those days, before heroine and crack, there were very few women in prison, who were mainly prostitutes, shoplifters and the occasional domestic violence murder. Nobody wanted to work with them, the other teachers disapproved of them so strongly and so did the world. There was this kind of almost fear of them. I moved up north from London, so I had slightly different views with the right to choose marches we went on and the growth of feminism. I came up here and found County Durham was about a decade or two behind in all of that! I remember my boss saying could you go over to the female wing and I said “yeah, great!” And it was an extraordinary place to be, eventually it became rerolled as a women’s prison entirely as the prison population exploded, so I became the education manager and a sort of governor.

Everyone used to come to my door whether they were in my class or not, saying “hi miss, you got any paper?” I used to give out paper and pens freely, a bit like contraband. Later, they’d come back saying “this is my story miss would you like to read it?” For them, this was a huge time of crisis and difficulty, but for the first time in ages they had time to think, and a lot of what they’d think about is ‘how has this happened? Where has my life gone so wrong?’ They’d want to write their life stories down and I saw what writing meant to them. They loved education, the women loved getting English qualifications because a lot of them had missed out on school. I’ve met lots of women who couldn’t read and like Aiyana, they’ve learnt to read really quickly. That’s such a fantastic thing! I’ve had the experience of teaching people to read and there’s not much better thing you can do.

How did you come to be published by Linen Press, and what has your experience of Small Press Publishing been like over the years?

In my years of writing I’ve had two agents and two close calls with big publishers and it brought me to my knees. It was not a happy experience, so I nearly stopped writing. Then I just decided to go indie and go do whatever I wanted to do. I had a good experience with Iron Press, so I’d already made up my mind to try and find a small press for this book and Linen Press was on my list. I sent the submission and a few days later I got a fantastic email from Lynn saying just how much she liked it. It’s been wonderful because they really do like what’s arising and I’ve never really had that before, that enthusiasm, help and support. Small presses are really good with helping you. I think it’s a great connection for me as they’re interested in women’s writing as well and so I’d like to think we’re a perfect match, I love them and they’ve been great and really supportive!

Many thanks to Avril for giving us such a wonderful insight into her work.  

Click here to buy a copy of Sometimes a River Song by Avril Joy from Linen Press.

Interview by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing. 

Read Isabelle’s review of Sometimes a River Song here.

Sometimes a River Song