How to REALLY Know a Writer

A few months ago, along with 19 other writers from Wales, I took part in the Hay Festival Writers at Work programme*

All 20 of us – here’s the full list – spent 12 hours a day together, over 11 days, in the ‘tent’ designated for our workshops, in the canteen and, most evenings, in the pub.

We chatted over meals and during coffee breaks. We discussed where we were from and the sort of things we wrote. We shared our nervousness and excitement about being part of Writers at Work and discussed the masterclasses we’d been to and the amazing insights we’d been given into the way internationally renowned authors work.

A few days into the programme I thought I was getting to know my fellow writers pretty well

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Hay Festival Writers at Work 2018

And then we hosted the first of a series of events about Writers at Work. This was a chance to read our own work at Hay to an audience made up of the public – and each other.

It was a complete eye-opener

After the first few people had read their poetry or prose, it began to dawn on me that even after all the time spent socialising over lunches and coffees, only now was I being given the opportunity to really know them – to see their creativity and to understand what actually made them tick. And I realised that you can never truly know a creative person until you experience what they create.

Each writer came into their own as they took to the podium to showcase their work. They were in their element and it was remarkable to witness. There was such a breadth of fantastic writing on show, rich in diversity and totally inspiring. We had several sessions like this, and after each one I felt I knew my fellow writers so very much better.

So how do you really get to know a writer? Get to know their work. It’s the window into their personality, their soul and creativity.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x 

*Hay Writers at Work is a professional development course for writers from Wales. It’s the brain-child of Hay Festival’s Peter Florence, is funded by the Welsh Arts Council and run by Literature Wales. Author and educator Tiffany Murray is the programme co-ordinator.

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

 

Inside a Prison Book Club

I’ve had some interesting invitations in my short time as an author – I’ve shared my children’s stories in school assembly halls, I’ve read my poetry at Women’s Institute meetings and I’ve spoken about my writing experiences at my local Workers’ Education Association. But a few months ago, a very unusual invitation appeared in my inbox which made me do a double take.

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The email was from Neil Barclay, who introduced himself as the librarian at HMP Thameside London and invited me to discuss my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, with their book club. At first I skimmed over the ‘HMP’, not registering its meaning. Then I did that double take. Yes, I had definitely seen the letters H, M & P and, of course, I knew exactly what they stood for – Her Majesty’s Prison.

The invitation had come completely out of the blue and it took me a moment to process that a prison would even have a book club. Then I saw Neil had included a link to the Prison Reading Groups’ website, a charity that provides books to prisoners, and it was obvious from that what an important role these clubs have. The PRG encourages reading for pleasure so that long hours spent alone can be put to good use – reading fiction is, after all, a walk in someone else’s shoes and a different perspective on the world.

Education Consultant Ruth Perry, who volunteers at the prison library, had come across my novel via a book blog. Yet again I had a reason to be thankful for those wonderful book bloggers who do a marvellous job of promoting new books from small publishers. Ruth read ‘Not Thomas’ and suggested to Neil that he might invite me to speak about it.

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With Ruth Perry who led the book club session

I was delighted Ruth had spotted my novel and extremely pleased to know that it was being read in prison. The novel is about Tomos, a neglected five-year-old boy, and I suspected that it might resonate with some of the men there. Neglect is the most common reason for a child to be taken into care, and many people in prison have been brought up in the care system. A sad childhood is not unusual among prisoners.

I eagerly accepted Neil’s invitation, curious to know what the readers at Thameside would make of my novel and keen to see the innovative library. Neil has won the prestigious Butler Trust Award for his work there and is greatly appreciated by the members of the library. In 2016 a journalist for The Guardian visited and reported on the positive effects of the power of books and it makes for very interesting reading.

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In front of the wall of titles of previous visitors, with the beautiful flowers I was given

Neil certainly succeeds in getting a wide range of guests to visit the library. Actors Sir Ian McKellen and David Morrissey have held recent events there, and authors Paula Hawkins of ‘Girl on the Train’ fame, and Val McDermid have also visited. Crime writer, Martina Cole, is a regular visitor, holding creative writing workshops at the library. I felt I was following in the footsteps of very illustrious people.

The whole morning – from meeting the book club members, as well as Neil, Ruth and Laura (an immigration lawyer who’d come along for the morning) to receiving the thoughtful and often moving feedback from the men in the group – was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Some of the comments the group made were very sad, especially from readers who could identify first hand with little Tomos. Some of the men said they’d cried as they read it – and I was impressed by their open approach in such a ‘manly’ environment.

After the book group session, Neil, Ruth and Laura took me on a short tour of part of the prison. A member of the library team kindly allowed me into his cell so I could see what living in that small space was like. It certainly made me realise the importance of the work Neil and his volunteers do there. Whether convicted of a crime or not, everyone needs a chance to relax and switch off from their environment. Reading in prison gives the men a way to do that, and it gives them a legitimate escape from their sometimes difficult surroundings.

My tour included a brightly decorated room furnished with soft toys where the men can record videos of themselves reading from picture books. It’s a wonderful project provided by the charity Storybook Dads, and it means that children don’t miss out on a bedtime story from their father while he’s away from them. Recording those videos is often an emotional experience for the men but a very worthwhile one. Neil explained that most prisons have now introduced the Storybook Dads scheme although sadly there are still some where it’s not available.

When I accepted Neil’s invitation I never imagined that spending a morning in prison would be an uplifting experience, but that’s exactly what it was. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

So a very big thank you to Ruth Perry and Neil Barclay for offering me such a wonderful opportunity, but most importantly a massive thank you to the men of HMP Thameside Book Club for reading ‘Not Thomas’ – I will never forget your sometimes sad but very kind words.

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Momentos of my visit

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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#BookReview #SnowSisters by Carol Lovekin

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, what with one project or another on the go, book signing events to attend and generally getting my brain in gear for Christmas, and so my blog has been slightly neglected.

Today, however, I have a recommended read.

It’s a novel I read a few weeks ago and loved so much I nominated for the Hay Festival Book of the Year – Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin.

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At the launch of Snow Sisters with Carol Lovekin

 

Some novels I zip through and others I devour slowly. Snow Sisters really is a novel to savour, with its gorgeously sensual prose delivered by a very skilful author. It’s a ‘curl up on the couch in front of a log fire’ kind of novel. If you haven’t already read either of Carol Lovekin’s wonderful novels, I urge you to – you will not be disappointed. 

Here’s a slightly extended version of the review I left on the Hay Festival Book of the Year page:

“I absolutely adore ‘Snow Sisters’. It’s Lovekin’s second offering and is beautifully written – just like her first, ‘Ghostbird’. The novel is set in Wales in the 1970s and has an eerie, gothic feel. It’s the story of a bohemian family, consisting of three generations of women who live in the beautiful but ramshackle Gull House. The house has a chilling history, and teenagers Meredith and Verity become sensitive to this as their home-life is turned upside down by their self-absorbed mother, Allegra.
I read this novel slowly as I wanted to relish the magical atmosphere Lovekin effortlessly creates with her lyrical writing. She paints vivid scenes for the reader. Colours are important – red flannel hearts for a lost child, a grandmother’s mystical blue garden and sumptuous greens for the vivacious Meredith. The author explores ideas of ghosts and family ties, and the enduring love between sisters.
‘Snow Sisters’ is a haunting, spellbinding novel that has stayed with me long after I – very slowly, to savour every last word – read the final page.”

Snow Sisters is published by Honno Press and is available to buy from them, Amazon and bookshops in paperback priced at £8.99. Also available on Kindle

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

 

#WelshWordWednesday #NotThomas ‘Oh diawl!’

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Today’s Welsh word, for readers of Not Thomas who are unfamiliar with the language, is:

‘diawl’

On page 212, Tomos calls round to the lady next door. He doesn’t know where his mother is, so he asks the lady to ring the police. She says ‘Oh diawl, there’s no need for that.’ 

‘Diawl’ – which, when you say it fast, sounds like ‘jawl’ – means ‘devil’

(And call the police is exactly what the lady next door should have done.)

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

 

#WelshWordWednesday #NotThomas

Today’s Welsh word, for readers of Not Thomas unfamiliar with the language, is again not a word at all, but the name of a special day – Dydd Gwyl Dewi (sorry, I can find a w with a ‘to‘ for gwyl on WordPress – anyone know where it is!?).

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On page 154 of Not Thomas, Miss is comforting Tomos. He thinks he might not be going to the zoo after all, because he doesn’t have his permission slip. On the wall of the school hall is a collage of a red dragon that Tomos helped make. It’s marking Dydd Gwyl Dewi otherwise known as St David’s Day and celebrated on March  1st.

But I’m guessing everyone already knew that.

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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Not Thomas Not the Booker Not to be…

So it’s over

The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize drew to a close this morning with a very happy outcome for one of the authors on the shortlist.

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li is Not the Booker winner 2017

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Huge congratulations to Winnie. Her book is moving and brave and a worthy winner. The public vote was a closely fought battle, with Winnie’s novel achieving 130 votes, 24 ahead of Harriet Paige’s Man with a Seagull on his Head.

The public vote wasn’t the end of it, though. The judges’ verdict came next, chaired by Sam Jordison, head judge (think Len Goodman or Shirley Ballas) and organiser of the Not the Booker prize for the last 9 years.

The judges’ comments were really interesting, and listening to and watching them live online as each book was reviewed was a rather surreal experience.

And there was a little surprise for me.

One of the judges – book blogger and avid reader, Jackie Law – made some lovely comments about Not Thomas, saying it was her second choice behind Man with a Seagull on his Head. She called Not T poignant, never mawkish and a very engaging story which raised important issues without preaching. I’m very grateful to Jackie for her positive remarks.

Next the judges’ points were awarded. Yvain Poncet, along with Jackie, voted for Man with a Seagull, while third judge, Hannah Macdonald, gave her vote to Dark Chapter which, when added to the public vote, made this novel the winner.

Sam commented that Dark Chapter was ‘possibly controversial but that’s what winners are meant to be.’ He decided not to use his casting vote, saying: ‘We can feel that we made a strong choice.’

And that was the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize done and dusted for another year

IMG_20171012_193740997Not the Booker shortlisted authors at the Big Green Bookshop, Wood Green, London, from left to right: Rowena Macdonald, Harriet Paige – chair, Sam Jordison – Winnie M Li & me

 

I feel as if I’ve woken up from a very strange dream. This prize contest began back in July and seems to have dominated the last two and a half months of my writing life. It’s been a completely bizarre episode but one, as I’ve said many times since the summer, I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

So what have I learned from my Not the Booker experience?

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Well…

#1 Sometimes opportunities come along that are too good to waste and you have to be brave and just throw yourself at them – even if, like me, you’re not terribly brave at all.

#2 Public voting is a mixed blessing – some people don’t mind you letting them know they can vote for your book if they wish, while some people do.

But…

#3 The vast majority of people are helpful, kind and supportive.

#4 Social media is a godsend – but you knew that already, it’s just me that needed convincing.

#5 Social media is not a godsend when you’re on it for eight hours or more, seven days in a row.

And finally…

#6 Being shortlisted, when you’ve not got a snowball’s chance in hell of going any further (I’m thinking judges’ voting here) is almost as good as winning – I am just so grateful I had a place on that shortlist.

As I was dropping off to sleep last night, I began wondering what advice I’d give anyone who finds their book nominated for the NTB next year

I’d say go for it 100%, obviously, but what else? What tips would I share?

And then I started thinking of a whole new blog post, one titled ‘So you’ve been nominated for the Not the Booker Prize 2018…’

But I think I’ll put that on hold until next year, by which time the last few months will be a happy, distant memory and I won’t remember a single tip to share.

Thank you for reading and keeping me company on this often weird and wonderful experience. And to everyone who voted for Not Thomas and cheered me on – I am so grateful. You are all magnificent!

Diolch o galon,

Sara x

P.S. I’m planning on starting what I hope will become my new novel soon, and so my next series of blog posts will have some writing tips about points to remember when beginning a fresh WiP. I need reminding – I began writing Not T back in 2001!

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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#WelshWordWednesday

 

 

Today’s Welsh word, for readers of ‘Not Thomas’ who aren’t familiar with the language, isn’t a word at all, but a title. It’s Calon Lân and it’s the name of a well-loved Welsh hymn that’s often sung at funerals.

Calon lân translates as ‘a pure heart’:

calon = heart

glân (which loses its ‘g’ when it mutates after calon) = clean.

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On page 123 Miss mentions to Mrs Jones, the school cleaner, that Nanno had planned her own funeral. Calon Lân was Nanno’s favourite hymn and she wanted Tomos to sing it back at home after the chapel service. Of course, Ree had other ideas…

And since I never miss a chance to play my favourite version of the hymn, here’s Cerys Matthews once again.

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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#WelshWordWednesday

Today’s Welsh word, for readers of ‘Not Thomas’ who aren’t familiar with the language, is duw – which sounds like what you might find on your lawn in the morning. It means ‘god’.

On page 86, when Tomos is the only one left without a bacon butty, the fair-minded Saint says: “Duw, you’re a heartless cow, mind Ree.”

And it’s often said twice after hearing a surprising piece of news, for example:

“Mammy turned up for the Christmas concert.”

“Duw, duw.”

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from all good bookshops.

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Not the Booker SHOCK Announcement

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Wow! What a week for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize.

Everything was going along swimmingly – albeit with some pretty choppy waves for a couple of us on the shortlist – and then crash! Out of the blue, Ann O’Loughlin, author of The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, gave Sam Jordison quite a shock.

Ann has withdrawn her novel from the shortlist.

In a statement published by the Guardian, she said:

“I feel a great sense of relief to be moving away from a competition that caused so much stress in my life and that of my family.”

Read her full statement here

Ann already has a very large, faithful following of readers, and as she points out in her statement to the Guardian, her novels have been translated into eight languages and are published in the US. As she says, she didn’t ask to be nominated, and she was worried from the start about what she refers to as the “unjustifiable criticism” that appeared in the comments section from people who hadn’t even read the book.

And she’s quite right.

There are a few people on the Guardian page who clearly don’t read the nominated books but still enjoy leaving a barbed comment or two. All that is par for the course, as far as I’m concerned, but then I’d followed this prize for a few years and knew exactly what to expect. Had I been going into this without a clue what it could be like, then I might feel, like Ann, that it wasn’t worth the stress.

And yes, it is stressful at times – and I imagine it will be even more so, now that mine is the only novel left on the shortlist that Sam has been particularly scathing of. 

But for me it’s worth that bit of stress. 

Unlike Ann, who’s been writing novels for a number of years and has a few under her belt, Not Thomas is my first novel for adults. I don’t have a ready-made fan base – although I’m incredibly grateful to my wonderful readers who have championed Not Thomas and brought it to the attention of others, and who nominated it for the Not the Booker prize and voted it onto the shortlist.

I always said that being part of this prize was like building a platform for Tomos – giving him a headstart in a world jam-packed with new books.

Not Thomas is a debut novel, published by a tiny publisher, and Not the Booker has brought it to a wider audience than would otherwise have been possible so soon after its publication. 

I’m really sorry Ann has decided to leave the competition, but I know her novel will do very well, with or without the publicity of Not the Booker.

The other week I went into Easons, the huge bookstore on O’Connell Street in Dublin. Ann’s novel The Ludlow Ladies’ Society was very prominently positioned on a table near the main door. It had a similar position in many of the other Dublin bookstores I visited too. I have no doubt it’s going to fly off the shelves in Ireland and beyond.

So, au revoir and all the very best to Ann.

While the five of us left on the shortlist will be squirming for a while yet – and me in particular – I know The Ludlow Ladies’ Society will be doing just fine. 

Thanks for reading – please let me know your thoughts!

Sara x

P.S. Don’t forget the Narberth Book Fair in Pembrokeshire tomorrow, 23rd September. At 11am I’ll be chatting to Jan Baynham about writing ‘Not Thomas’ and my experience of being on the Not the Booker prize shortlist. It’s free so come along! 

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from all good bookshops.

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Publication Day for Carol Lovekin’s Snow Sisters

Today is publication day for Carol Lovekin’s second novel, Snow Sisters.

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I loved Carol’s first novel, Ghostbird, and so I’m really looking forward to reading her new offering. It’s received a fabulous review on Being Anne today – read it here. And follow Carol Lovekin’s own blog, Making it Up as I Go Along, to read about her unique take on writing.

Alongside a whole host of other local authors, Carol will be at Narberth Book Fair on Saturday, 23rd September, and she’ll have copies of Snow Sisters for sale, as well as her first novel, Ghostbird.

It’s going to be a great day – hope to see you there! 

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from all good bookshops – and this Saturday, from Narberth Book Fair too.cropped-not-thomas-header.jpg