Welcome, Catherine, and huge congratulations on winning the RNA’s 2021 Goldsboro Books Historical Romantic Novel Award!
When did a love of books turn into a desire to actually write them?
It was probably when I realised that Georgette Heyer should have written at least another hundred books, and I started to play around with story ideas. I don’t claim to have even a smidgen of her wit, but it was her books that made me fall in love with the whole world of Regency Romance. My very first idea was of a character that was like The Grand Sophy, but different. Like Sophy, she was moving to relatives in London having been raised abroad by an easygoing father. Unlike Sophy though, she was introverted, and her new relatives were less than welcoming. Those initial jottings became Waltzing with the Earl, my first novel.
When did you get your first break into publishing?
I had no idea about the publishing industry. I didn’t know about competitions, or the RNA, or agents, or writers’ groups none of it. Once I had the manuscript into reasonable form, I simply sent off query letters to four publishers, including Harlequin Mills & Boon.
Three came back with a ‘no’, but the lovely Julia Williams at Mills and Boon picked up my book from the slush pile and, after some edits, offered me a two-book contract! Waltzing then went on to win the prestigious Rita® Award in the USA. It was a finalist in two categories – ‘Best Historical’ and ‘Best First Book’ and it won the historical section, where it was up against some wonderful books by very experienced writers. I went to the US for the awards ceremony, and afterwards Tessa Dare asked for a selfie with me! It still seems like a dream.
What does being a member of the RNA mean to you?
I love the sense of community and mutual support. There’s never a feeling of competition not even on the night of the RoNA Awards! Some of the women in the RNA Irish Chapter are good friends of mine now, and we’ve been encouraging each other to keep writing during the pandemic. I’d like to thank Ruth Long and Suzanne Hull, our chapter coordinators, for doing such a great job.
Why did you choose Regency as your preferred era?
It kind of chose me! I’ve been reading romance since I was a teenager, but I’ve always been drawn to historical settings. Between Georgette Heyer and the BBC Pride & Prejudice, I succumbed, and have been a Regencyite ever since.
What do you want your readers to have gained from reading a Catherine Tinley novel?
I want them to be carried away by a story, feel all the feels, then feel good uplifted and hopeful by the end. Surely that’s not too much to ask lol? I generally write ‘quiet’ stories set among families and tight-knit communities, rather than action adventures or comedies. Yes, sometimes there are passages or events that are dramatic or funny, but mostly I try to make the world and the people very real to readers.
Your work has been described as ‘unputdownable’ and you have won awards, including this year’s RoNA Award for Best Historical Romance, so what are your future writing ambitions?
I just want to keep writing, and I’d like readers to keep enjoying my books. Everything else is a bonus. I was genuinely shocked when I won the RoNA recently for Rags-to-Riches Wife, as there were nine great finalists. However I do know that many readers particularly enjoyed that book. I deal with class issues, bereavement, and recovery from previous trauma, so I somehow managed to pack a lot in there. Jane, my heroine, is a lady’s maid who visits wealthy relatives and suddenly finds herself sitting in drawing-rooms rather than kitchens. No-one ever asked Cinderella if she was uncomfortable adapting to her new status and surroundings. Jane has a lot of challenges to face before she gets her happy-ever-after!
What advice would you give your younger, unpublished self?
Just keep writing, I guess. I was never particularly hung up on the idea of being published, although of course I hoped for it. For me, the pleasure is always in the writing itself.
How have you coped/worked through lockdown?
I work full-time in the NHS, so the past year has been challenging in many ways. My colleagues are amazing, but we’re all bone-weary at this point. I manage a large maternity service and neonatal unit, and those babies just kept coming, pandemic or no pandemic! We’ve adapted to PPE, social distancing, covid testing, and a million other things, and we’ve tried to be flexible and responsive to women’s (and partners’) needs.
When not writing what do you do to relax?
Writing is my relaxing. I’m usually too tired to write in the evenings after work, so my writing is done on weekends and days off. I find it totally relaxing to return to my created world and my beloved characters. It’s mindfulness on stilts! I also love walking with my family (and our wee dog, Carey) in local beauty spots, including the Fairy Glen and Kilbroney, CS Lewis’s inspiration for Narnia, apparently.
What is next for Catherine?
My next book, Captivating the Cynical Earl, will be out in July, plus I’m half-way through writing the one after. It’s set in the Hebrides in 1810 so lots of research involved. I’m going to keep writing, for as long as readers want to read my books. Simple as!
My sincere thanks to you and your amazing NHS colleagues who have worked so hard to look after us throughout the pandemic.
How time flies by. You were my guest back in 2014!
Wow – is it really that long? It’s great to be back chatting to you again.
Since then a lot has happened – how have you found working during lockdown? Has it been a challenge to stay focused; mentally and physically?
2020 was a tough year for everyone. This year hasn’t started too well either, but I am holding on to hope that things are getting better – even if it’s a bit slow. The big change for me has been my husband working from home. Luckily we’ve managed to make him a small office at the other end of the house, as far away from my office as possible, so we don’t disturb each other too often when we’re working. But we do miss our Sunday walks that seemed to always end with a nice lunch at some pretty rural pub.
It has been hard to stay focussed, although writing is a great escape for me. And deadlines are a great motivator. I have kept to my schedule, but it’s been slighter harder work than in the past.
How much has changed in your writing world since we first chatted?
So much… it’s hard to know where to start. I’ve just had my 14th book released. Close To Home is a story of two strong matriarchs in one small country town. I think it’s my favourite book. But I say that about every new book.
I have given up my ‘day job’ and am now a full time writer and writing tutor, which is the achievement of a long held dream.
And I’m now contracted to Harper Collins (Harlequin) Australia, who are just the best publishers I’ve ever worked with.
What have been the highlights?
So many highlights…. some of them are as simple as suddenly having that lightbulb moment when I’m struggling with a scene or a book. The big ones? Let’s see…
In 2017 I won the RNA’s Epic Romantic Novel of The Year award for Little Girl Lost. To receive such an award from an organisation that means so much to me was a real honour – even if Prue Leith did pronounce my name wrong when she announced it.
Finally writing the Wuthering Heights re-imagining I’ve always wanted to do. Heathcliff’s story set against the Thatcher years and the miners’ strike. I co-wrote this with my friend Alison May and I remain so very proud of it.
Meeting and signing with my agent, Julia Silk – who has turned my writing world around. And in the same breath, signing with my Australian publisher, and meeting my editor Rachael Donovan. Only virtually so far, but one day we will get to meet in person. There will be cake.
You are now the organiser of the RNA’s amazing New Writers Scheme – please share what a challenging and yet rewarding experience this is?
For those who don’t know about it, it’s a scheme which gives 300 unpublished authors a chance to have a manuscript read by a experienced published author, who will offer some guidance on how to become a better writer and achieve that goal of publication. I graduated from the scheme more than a decade ago, and have been a reader for many years. Now I organise it. It’s very time consuming, but I love doing it… its nice to give something back for the help I received.
The hardest part is matching a new writer with the reader who can help them the most. And the very best part is when I get an email from a new writer who had been offered a publishing deal. That means so much to me and to the readers.
What are you working on now?
I’m deep in edits for book number 15. The working title is The Librarian’s Daughter and it’s scheduled for release in 2022. It’s based around a mobile library in rural Australia… just like the one that used to call on my little community. And in some ways, it’s also a tribute to all the books I read and loved as I was growing up.
It’s a complex book, structurally. I’m trying to ensure that, for the reader, it doesn’t seem complex at all – but flows smoothly from one moment to the next.
What is next for Janet?
Hopefully, soon, a trip back to Australia. More books of course. I have been playing with a couple of ideas for very different books to my rural stories. I’ll always write those rural stories of course, because I love them so much. But maybe there’s room for something else too.
And one of these days – a long Sunday walk followed by a nice pub lunch.
Congratulations on your many successes and best wishes for all your future projects!
You grew up with quite a varied and strong literary heritage in your family. Were you encouraged to write and develop your own ideas from childhood, surrounded by books and such talent?
Yes, I was always encouraged to read and to write. My father wrote some textbooks (he was an English teacher), my mother writes poetry, my grandfather Frank Brookesmith had a memoir I Remember the Tall Ships published in his 80s (Foyles put on a window display!). And his daughter, my aunt Shelagh Macdonald, won the Whitbread Prize (as it was then) for the Children’s Book of the Year back in 1977. Sadly, she now has severe dementia and her decline was the inspiration for the mother in my last novel, Mum in the Middle. Uncles various have also been published in different ways and a couple of cousins are journalists. So writing was always seen as A Good Thing.
When did your first break as a published writer happen? Was it non-fiction or fiction first?
Short stories for women’s magazines. I started writing these when I was at home with a toddler and my brain had all but atrophied. When that toddler locked me in a cupboard and I had to talk him through phoning 999* to get me out, I realised how many stories there are all around us. And ended up publishing about a hundred of them. (For the full dramatic saga see my first non-fiction book Wannabe a Writer?)
Of all the impeccable research you have completed, is there one project or person that has intrigued, touched or surprised you more than you expected?
I often seem to include a storyline about some form of mental illness. That is in my family too.
Many of the real issues such as dementia and cancer included are very serious and are given total understanding and respect for the impact they have on the character diagnosed and those supporting them. How do you balance this with the overall tone of your books which is humorous and optimistic?
It’s odd isn’t it, really? But humour has always been my way of getting through. There is a lot of black comedy in the worst things that happen to us, if you know where to look. And I think it is possible to still find humour and optimism in everyday life even when the chips are really down. So I suppose I don’t have any problem writing about bleak issues and amusing encounters side by side. I recently found some parodies I wrote for my sisters after our parents had split up in my late teens, and everyone was being even more bonkers than usual, and they made us all laugh hysterically all over again – even though it was all quite appallingly dysfunctional at the time.
You capture the essence and conflicts within strong female friendship groups well. Have you been strongly influenced by female friends/peers in your own life?
Friends are everything. Both the male and female variety. But I have some wonderful women friends who have been amazingly supportive to me. Both in the publishing world – lovely pals in the RNA for example – and in my personal life.
Over the course of your novels have you noticed the social trends affecting women changing dramatically such as: the boomerang effect, empty nesters, and the sandwich effect between younger and older generations?
Absolutely! I was very aware of this when writing both Mum in the Middle and The Big Five O. Women in their forties and fifties can no longer be pigeonholed. I wrote recently that my earliest memory of my grandmother was of a tiny, silver-haired old lady who wore a pinny, was keen on gardening and polished the teapot a lot. I calculate now that at the time, she was younger than I am! Her parents were long gone and all of her four children had their own homes. Today women of this age will still have ambitions for their careers, might have teenagers at home, or kids even younger, or be supporting adult offspring who can’t afford a place of their own. They’ll still expect to scrub up well for a hot night out, will probably go to the gym, or dance classes or be training for a marathon, and may well be online dating. Just at the time when their elderly parents start kicking off! We are the stretched generation – in more ways than one!
I’ve also had reason to revisit my third novel that was published in 2005 – One Glass is Never Enough. Re-reading the opening pages – which is a party scene – for the first time in a decade,I was struck by how some of the sexual banter I had included would be considered unacceptable in the current climate. The world has moved on a pace since I started writing – which rather dates me, doesn’t it? 🙂
What has being a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association meant to you over the years?
A great deal. Prominent members like Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell and Judy Astley have been exceptionally kind and supportive to me and when I first pitched up to a conference knowing nobody, Catherine Jones made me laugh till I cried. So many, many lovely RNA members have become good friends and are a constant source of inspiration and joy. I have especially loved acting as compere at the RNA awards for the last eight years. It is one of the annual highspots.
What was the most important piece of advice that you were given that you would like to pass on to as yet unpublished writers?
“Get the story down.”
But my own best piece of advice is: Marry someone rich!
Each author has their own favoured way of working. Do you have a strong work ethic: rise early, write late, or with such a hectic and varied schedule work as you move from event to event?
Oh it’s utter chaos. If I’m on a deadline, I get myself out of bed early and glue myself to the chair – out of sheer panic. But generally, on a day at home, I potter about, and tidy the airing cupboard, think I’ll make some bread, send emails and then suddenly – EEK – it’s 4pm and I’ve not even opened the manuscript. But I do do a lot of different things – so it is quite hard to stick to a rigid routine. I usually get there in the end.
How and when did you venture into interviewing and public speaking?
The speaking came about from being asked to talk to a local “Ladies’ Dining Club” when my first novel was published. I think they were a bit shocked – usually they had someone talking about flower-arranging or the history of the rubber stamp. But I had a really fun evening and then I got other bookings from word-of-mouth. The Rotary and Rotarians and such-like .
The interviewing started when I’d been on a panel at the Guildford Book Festival and the then director, the late Glenis Pycraft, invited me to chair a similar panel the following year. It grew from there and now I work at several different festivals each year and am a founder member of BroadstairsLit here where I live, which is huge fun. I really love interviewing on stage. And I’ve been lucky enough to chat to a lot of top authors.
Do you embrace technology and social media with enthusiasm?
I would like to! But I’m not the best at it. I enjoy twitter (@JaneWenhamJones) but I’m a bit sporadic about it – so I’ve never really built that up. And I’m hit and miss with facebook also – it’s all feast or famine. I don’t fully understand how to best utilise my author page either (yes I know I should find out but it’s too easy to lose your life in this stuff.) I’m envious of people who seem to just slide it in to their lives and have zillions hanging on their every word. For example, I love Instagram – which I came late to – but still haven’t properly grasped this “my story” business. I need a friendly seven-year old to instruct me…
What has been the highlight of your writing career to date?
I always think that the wonderful thing about this game is that every day there is the potential for something uplifting to happen. A foreign rights sale or a lovely review or a little surge in the amazon ratings. The are all highlights at the time. It was exciting when Prime Time was shortlisted for the RNA awards some years ago and when Perfect Alibis was optioned by the BBC. Tho unfortunately that came to nothing in the end. Playing the chat show host for Peter James at Brighton’s Theatre Royal to an audience of over 700 was pretty fab…
What are your inspirations or ambitions now?
Oh the screen rights, my own TV show – you know the usual modest stuff… 🙂
What project are you currently working on?
A 10th book and the 2020 programme for BroadstairsLit
I love your hairstyle and wondered if there was a point when you decided that you were going to redefine your image, or if it was something that has just developed over time?
It started with my very first novel Raising the Roof. I thought it would be a laugh to dye my hair the colour of the book jacket – which was turquoise and purple, as they all were then! You couldn’t get the fun colours you can now, so I had hair extensions put in, in the right shades and thus begun my love affair with multi-coloured locks. Everyone’s at it these days but I was a pioneer! People used to stop me in the street to comment on it.
What do you do to keep yourself fit away from the computer and to relax?
Yoga, walking, reading – of course. In the summer I play bad tennis if I can find anyone equally bad to join me. Two years ago I took custody of a tiny, flea-ridden, runt-of-the-litter black kitten and I have turned into a mad cat lady with bells on. Much time is spent admiring the now-huge-and-glossy creature that is Nugget (named by my son after a hop they make real ale with – spelled with two Ts – and not a deep-fried chicken snack) and attending to his every whim. He totally rules the roost and has brought me huge pleasure. I definitely feel calmer and happier since he’s been around. Even when he wakes me at 3.am with a mouse in his jaws…
What is next for Jane Wenham-Jones?
A nice glass of Macon blanc villages I think…. possibly with some crisps….
Many thanks for taking the time to answer all of my questions and sharing some insight into your amazingly varied world.
I wish you every success in 2020 – Merry Christmas, Jane!
You grew up in Massachusetts, moved to the UK and now commute between London and Cornwall. Did you ever think that you would travel so broadly?
I grew up with an inbuilt wanderlust. My father had travelled a fair bit and I would spend hours looking at his slides and dreaming of a time when I too could venture forth. I hadn’t quite imagined that I would lead the travelling life I did for so long. I moved to the UK when I was 26 and that was when it truly began. I met the man who is now my husband of almost 28 years two weeks after I arrived in the UK. We married two years later and that was when moving about began in earnest. We’ve lived in Canada, Moscow, Houston, Indonesia and Dubai. While in those locations we explored as much as was feasible with three small children in tow. But of course there is still more travelling I want to do!
The variety of cross-cultural experience that this life-style has given you is amazing, but the love of Cornwall shines through each of the books you have set there. When did this love affair begin?
It began with my first trip there one hot weekend in June 1989. My boyfriend of just a few months took me to meet his parents…or so I thought. It was in fact the ‘Cornwall Test’. If I hadn’t fallen in love with Cornwall then we wouldn’t have married. I’m certain of it. But how could I not fall in love with bright blue skies punctuated with foxgloves, cliffs falling into the sea and hidden creeks caressed by low tree branches. Cornwall stole my heart and has never let go…even when the sky feels low and the mizzle is so dense I can’t see the bottom of my garden.
Could you explain how and when your first breakthrough as a published writer happened?
My first breakthrough was finding an agent. I had met Carole Blake on line first via Twitter then in person through a TweetUp. We hit it off on a social level and became friends over our love of wine, shoes and books. I was still in the process of finding my writer’s voice. Finally two years after we became friends I knew what my voice was and what I was aiming for. This coincided with me attending the first York Festival of Writing. There I was to pitch to someone else in her agency. I knew this person wasn’t the right agent for me but I also knew the book wasn’t ready…so it was more for the feedback. During our session he asked me why I hadn’t pitched to Carole…fear was the first thing in my mind. She was Carole Blake but in my heart I knew The Cornish House wasn’t what it could be. So I emailed her…knowing her colleague would feed info back to her, saying the book wasn’t ready but I was aiming for Daphne du Maurier meets Jodi Picoult or Cornwall with issues. She told me to send it to her when it was ready. That was April and in February I sent The Cornish House off to four agents, all who I had met through the Romantic Novelists’ Association. By lunch time I had my first request for a full…but I hadn’t heard from Carole. So I emailed her asking as a friend what should I do because her book From Pitch to Publication didn’t say. She emailed saying as a friend you inform the other agents. Three requested the full and by Saturday Carole had offered me representation. By St Patrick’s Day I had my first publishing deal with The Netherlands and in April I signed with Orion. That was the beginning.
Of all the impeccable research you have completed, is there one project that has intrigued or surprised you more than you expected?
I loved researching The Returning Tide. I was terrified as growing up in the States the knowledge that people in the UK have is different and I was terrified of getting it wrong…I lost sleep over it. But I love research and my favourite part of the research for this book was interviewing four people who served during WWII. One of them lent me her diary from 1945 and I was able to see first hand how little everyone knew. This was my biggest struggle in the end. Today if a bomb falls we know minutes later. Then they knew only their part and nothing more….
You are a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association – what does the organisation mean to you?
The RNA is my tribe. I learned so much there during my pre-published days, my apprenticeship. The published novelists were and are so generous with their knowledge. I know that this cut my time waiting for publication. I also know they have my back as I have theirs.
What was the most important piece of advice that you were given that you would like to pass on to as yet unpublished writers?
Don’t rush to publication. I wish I knew who gave me the advice but I am grateful. I would add to it take that time to learn about the industry…because once you are published it all becomes harder!
Each author has their own favoured way of working – would you share yours with us?
Ideally the idea for the story will have been in my head for a year or more. It will slowly build and then I will brain storm with my editor…I love this part. If research is required I will then do the minimum – just enough to write a fast and dirty first draft. This I learned the hard way. I love research and for A Cornish Stranger I thought the historical thread of the story would be about the SOE so I read extensively. I then wrote the story…it’s not about the SOE. So I wasted key time. Now I leave XXXX directly in the text to indicate that more is needed and fly on with the story. What I have discovered is in this more targeted research I have found things that enrich and twist the story…especially since by then I know my characters. Once I have the dirty first draft the real work begins. I write many drafts…not as many as I used to but by the time I send it to my editor this first time it will normally have been through four to six drafts. The final one of these edits will be having my computer read the story to me. Believe me you can’t hide from a clunky sentence, missed word or lack of transition when there is no emotion in the reading voice.
I used to dread the editing process but now I embrace it. With my editor’s input and my own (obtained from stepping back from the book for even as short as two weeks) I can see how to make the story better, stronger and more emotionally charged. So I will normally have two to three rounds of edits with editor then there is the copy edit (hate this bit…when I’m forced to look at the small stuff) and the final proof reading edit is always a bit lost on me…I can’t see a spelling mistake for love nor money. I’m dyslexic.
You are an inspiration to many as you have dyslexia. How much of a challenge has it been to write your lovely novels and overcome the difficulties that this may have presented?
Dyslexia has presented many challenges along the road to writing my novels. Not being able to spell has created two problems one of which has become a blessing. I cannot see a spelling mistake so I need to have someone proof read and a very understanding editor. This is a nightmare. My dyslexia can be so bad sometimes that I can’t look it up in a dictionary or spell it enough for spell check to even offer a possible spelling. This is so frustrating. It has made me many times select a different word, a simpler word. And this has been the bonus. My writing is simple which has brought me many readers who struggle with reading. Unless it is a necessary technical word or the character absolutely would say the simple word the vocabulary used in the books is basic. This means the story can be read by a larger audience. I never thought that my struggles with dyslexia would help others to access stories, but it has.
I was fortunate enough to interview the amazing Carole Blake shortly before her tragically early death. How much of an influence did Carole have on your career?
She was the ideal guide through my first years as a published author. Despite my time pre-published learning as much as I could there is so much to take on board and understand. She answered every question, went to battle for me, reprimanded me if I took a wrong step and laughed with me. She taught me to enjoy every step of the journey, toast every success no matter how small and not to sell myself or my work short. With each and every book she had to sell it back to me because I hated it by the time all the editing was done! She excelled at selling.
Do you embrace technology and social media with enthusiasm?
Yes! As I mentioned earlier it was through Twitter that Carole and I became friends. I also love interacting with readers through the various platforms. It is also where I interact with other writers…making the work process less lonely.
What has been the highlight of your writing career to date?
There are two…the first was when a reader stayed behind at a talk and told me how a story I’d written had helped her. I stood there in shock. I had never imagined reaching someone so deeply. And the second was when The Returning Tide made the short list for the Winston Graham Historical Novel Prize.
What project are you working on now?
I’m doing the preliminary research on a novel that is located on both sides of the Tamar (yes leaving Cornwall briefly) and is set in WWI and the current day. More sleepless nights hoping I don’t mess up the historical details!!
What is next for Liz Fenwick?
The Path to the Sea is out on 6 June 2019. It is a story of three generations of the Trewin women all with secrets. At Boskenna a large rambling house perched on a cliff above a Cornish beach on a hot August weekend in 2018 the past comes closer to the present. The youngest Trewin, Lottie, tries to keep her own secrets hidden as she searches for answers. But once she uncovers what happened in 1962 what is she going to do?
In March 2016 I interviewed Amy Durant, a successful Publishing Director, as a guest on my blog; two years later I am delighted to welcome Amy back as a co-founder of a new and exciting enterprise, Sapere Books.
Such a lot has happened in a comparatively short space of time. Not only have you started your own imprint, but have also been short-listed for major industry awards. How have these motivated you to build an even more dynamic career and when/how did the idea of ‘Sapere Books’ come into being?
I think all of three of us had been independently toying with the idea of setting up our own business, but none of us had the confidence to voice it publicly or ‘go it alone’. We all decided to move into freelance careers for different reasons after leaving our jobs in publishing, and one day – over a couple of drinks, of course! – we finally all blurted it out and realised this was something we could actually do! We all have strong skills in different areas and I think all of us are confident that we are much stronger in a partnership than we would have been on our own.
It is a lovely name, what was the inspiration behind it?
‘Sapere Aude’ was actually my school motto and roughly translated means ‘Dare to be Wise’, and ‘sapere’ on its own means ‘knowledge’, which we thought was quite appropriate for a publisher. It also links nicely to our owl logo. We wanted something a bit different that would get people talking, and it seems to have worked so far!
What do you think makes Sapere Books stand out from other publishers?
I think that – like many other small, independent publishers – we have the benefit of flexibility. We don’t have any external investors or anyone we have to report to, so we have the freedom to make all the decisions ourselves, which means we can experiment with things and change strategies at the drop of a hat. We have all worked with authors for a long time, and always felt in previous roles that authors got sidelined and somewhat neglected. Our focus is very much geared towards creating author brands and an author community, so everyone feels very much a part of the Sapere team.
What genre submissions are you seeking for Sapere Books?
At the moment we are publishing historical fiction (including crime, thriller, romance and saga); crime fiction; thrillers; romantic fiction; women’s fiction; popular history and historical biography. We are publishing both backlist, out-of-print books and brand new submissions, and we are particularly keen to hear from authors who have either already written more than one title, or plan to continue on a series from their submission.
You are one of three co-founders of Sapere Books, so I am delighted to welcome the other two: Caoimhe O’Brien and Richard Simpson.
What are your special roles within the company?
AMY: I am the Editorial Director, so all submissions come through to me, and ultimately, I decide what we publish, although this is something we all discuss together, and I often send scripts to Richard and Caoimhe for second opinions. I work one-to-one with authors once the contracts are signed, shaping their novels and getting them ready for the final copyediting and proofreading stage. I’ll then discuss publishing schedules and marketing strategies with Caoimhe to make sure all the books are released at the optimum time and work with her marketing plans.
CAOIMHE: I am the Marketing Director and I am responsible for the marketing and promoting of our books, authors and the company in general.This involves working closely with our authors on author branding, creating websites for them and coordinating social media campaigns.We have a dedicated team of reviewers and bloggers who play a huge role in a successful book launch and dealing with these eager readers is a really fun part of my job. I also spend a lot of time boosting the online profile of the company with the aim of growing our newsletter and reaching more readers.
RICHARD: I work as the Operations Director for Sapere Books, which basically means that I spend most of my time ensuring that the company’s balances are healthy and that Amy and Caoimhe have enough funds each month so that we can invest as much as possible in all of our books. We constantly reassess whether new methods and strategies that we are implementing are efficient and cost effective to ensure that we are the doing the most we can to help readers see and read our books. However, my time isn’t always spent looking over spreadsheets, as being a small company our roles frequently have to cross over meaning that I often spend some days of my week looking over manuscripts and researching new marketing strategies.
In my previous interview with Amy she explained that she grew up with a father who was a successful children’s author (Alan Durant) and therefore books had always featured in her life, fuelling her passion. Have you both had lifelong involvement with books and publishing?
CAOIMHE: I spent my childhood with my head in a book and did a degree and Masters in English at university but I didn’t consider publishing as a career choice until after my Masters. I wasn’t sure what career path to choose but when I thought about my constant interest in books throughout my life, it seemed like the only thing that made sense and I am very glad I made that decision.
RICHARD: : Although I spent the vast majority of my childhood with a nose in a book I certainly wasn’t surrounded by a bookish world. But although my parents weren’t avid readers they definitely fostered my love of history and encouraged me to read anything that I could lay my hands on. Perhaps their biggest influence on my life now was due to the fact that when I was a child they jointly began a small company, R & J Simpson Engineering, which builds and repairs historic racing cars. Seeing how a small company develops and works influenced me greatly when thinking about setting up Sapere Books with Caoimhe and Amy, and many of the lessons they learnt in the early years I’ve been very keen to implement into our company.
What do each of you look for in a book as readers?
AMY: I read widely and across most genres, so what really grabs me when reading a manuscript is the strength of the characters and whether I am compelled to keep reading. We publish ‘popular’ genre fiction, so all our fiction titles have to be plot-driven and to fit within the confines of those genres (we don’t publish anything overly literary or experimental), and we often sign up authors who are either writing a series, or have a few books, so I need to finish a book with the desire to read more by that author.
CAOIMHE: I mostly read contemporary and crime fiction with some historical fiction thrown in too. I look for plot and character driven novels. Readers enjoy lots of different genres and, as publishers, we must be able to look at a book objectively, not just as something we ourselves would want to read. But regardless of genre, the plot and characters must be strong enough to grab and hold the readers’ attention.
RICHARD: Unlike Amy and Caoimhe I spend most of my time reading nonfiction, particularly histories and biographies. Firstly what I look for in these books is that it must have a compelling subject, secondly it must be grounded in solid historical research, and thirdly, which historians who focus solely upon the research sometimes forget, it must be well-written. I’ve got a huge range of interests though and will happily read books about almost any subject from ancient Mesopotamia through to the development of Meissen pottery and beyond.
This is such an exciting venture and I am delighted to have signed up with Sapere Books.
I am delighted to welcome back Nicola as chair of the RNA.
What can the organisation offer romance writers in 2018?
‘The RNA is the professional organisation that supports and promotes romantic fiction in the UK. Membership of the RNA offers authors the chance to strengthen their career through developing their craft at our workshops and conferences and to build a network with other authors who understand the challenges we face and can offer advice and support. We are also building strong links with the industry and our events give authors the chance to meet a wide range of agents, publishers, booksellers, librarians and other professionals.’
That seems to present a broad spectrum of activities and opportunities to support your members.
‘In addition, members receive Romance Matters, our quarterly journal covering all aspects of writing romantic fiction from the craft to industry issues, discounted tickets to all our events and the opportunity to join regional groups. So the benefits are both professional and social.’
Nicola stresses that although the emphasis is on the professional advice, events and networking a friendly and welcoming atmosphere is nurtured. So how does a writer become a member?
‘The RNA welcomes traditionally and independently published authors. Membership is in different bands: A full or independent Author Member is currently £50 (£57 for non EU based) and £60 for Associate Members (£67 for non EU based). All the details can be found online at or by contacting the membership secretary, Gill Stewart, on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The organisation also welcomes and encourages as yet unpublished writers into its ranks. The New Writers’ Scheme is unique as Nicola explains.
‘We’re very proud of the New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), which provides the opportunity for aspiring authors to submit a manuscript for critique by an experienced writer in the genre. Not only is it a great way for new writers to improve their craft, it also gives encouragement and support. As the RNA has close links with publishers and agents the NWS can provide a route for them to make those connections. Unsurprisingly it is hugely popular and each year a number of NWS members go on to achieve publishing contracts.’
The scheme is open to writers interested in submitting an unpublished romantic novel (or partial) and this year the membership fee cost was £135 (£145 for members outside the EU). This also allows unpublished authors to take part in all RNA activities as well as submitting a manuscript of a full-length novel for appraisal. More details are available by email to: NWS@romanticnovelistsassociation.org There is a cap on the number of submissions that can be accepted each year and acceptance into the scheme is therefore on a ‘first come first served’ basis. The entry slot for submissions closes at the end of August each year.
Today’s publishing environment seems to be becoming more challenging, but Nicola is very optimistic about the present market for the romance genre.
‘I think the romantic fiction genre is changing all the time to reflect both modern life and the changing publishing world. The genre is a broad one. You can find strong romantic elements in many different sorts of novels where people are writing about relationships, whether this is contemporary fiction or epic historicals or books for young adults. Our membership reflects all of these different threads. We also see the books reflecting the concerns of contemporary society, whether it is issues such as work life balance, infidelity or health. The recent return to popularity of Gothic romance perhaps reflects the idea that spooky stories resonate in uncertain times. And of course romantic fiction also continues to provide its readership with the wonderful feel-good stories that readers love.’
Looking forward, I asked Niocla if she thought that the scope for romantic fiction will narrow as lines in the market place are redefined, or do she saw it flourishing as it has done in the past?
‘I see a lot in the press about how the genre is being more and more tightly defined and categorised into sub-genres, but actually at the genre level, in the UK at least, I see it continuing to broaden out. There are romantic relationships represented in a whole range of novels from crime and sci fi to literary fiction. The RNA’s membership reflects that and our awards and events will continue to embrace that wider focus.’
How would Nicola like to see the organisation evolve under your tenure?
‘I’d like to see the RNA continue to provide great support for its membership whilst looking outward a bit more in our promotion of excellence within the genre. We would particularly like to build our relationships within the industry, with booksellers and librarians as well as with publishers and agents. We’d also like to put romantic fiction even more firmly on the map by reminding people what a very successful and dynamic genre it is in business terms.’
Nicola’s natural energy and enthusiasm for the genre shines through her vision, but can romance remain genre specific if there is a need or desire for a more open working relationship within the industry?
‘I think we can do both if we don’t constrain the genre too tightly. Our core role is to support our membership and as this is drawn from a broad range of romantic fiction this fits with the idea of needing a more open working relationship within the industry. With this in mind we are planning a series of joint events with the Crime Writers’ Association and the Historical Writers’ Association, amongst others, where we can explore the things we have in common and the support we give each other as writers more generally.’
Nicola Cornick is the author of dual-time gothic novels House of Shadows and The Phantom Tree (HQ) and also forty plus Regency romances. She is a former trustee of the Wantage Literary Festival and a historian and speaker specialising in public history.
‘The CWA is constantly expanding. So are the benefits we offer our members. Writing is a solitary occupation but we offer the chance to join regional chapters, attend our national conference, and receive an excellent monthly newsletter, Red Herrings – plus much more besides. Members value our various social media platforms, and the chance to promote their work to the large subscriber bases of the very popular Case Files and Crime Readers’ Association newsletter. But it’s the collegiate ethos of the CWA that remains its most valuable asset and benefit. In my 30 years of membership I’ve met many wonderful people, and made some very good friends. And their support, through good times and bad, is beyond price.
The CWA has changed a lot in the 64 years since it was founded by John Creasey. Although it is UK based the membership is international and is open to published crime writers, with provisional membership to writers who have a contract but whose book is not yet out: Full or Provisional Membership cost from £55 annually. There is also an option for associate membership for those in the publishing industry.
This does not mean that the aspiring crime writer has been forgotten.
We are keen to encourage new talent within the genre. The CWA is a professional organisation for professional writers, and others in the crime writing business, but – to take just two examples – the CWA Debut Dagger for unpublished novelists and CWA Margery Allingham Prize for new short stories both play an important part in encouraging and developing talent. We also have the CWA Criminal Critique service where, for fees beginning at £87 writers can receive professional feedback on, as yet, unpublished work.
The Crime Readers’ Association, which is free to join, was set up to make the authors, their works and events accessible to their readers. However, the new writer can pick up advice and tips, such as the Do’s and Dont’s when approaching a literary agent.’
Martin is very optimistic about the way the crime genre continues to evolve.
‘Digital publishing is changing the industry fast and nobody knows exactly what the future holds. But crime writing (fact as well as fiction) is as popular as ever. I’m a contemporary crime novelist, but I’ve been delighted by the revival of interest in classic crime fiction, and the truth is that the genre is a very broad church. So is the CWA.’
In light of all the changes that have happened in recent years within the publishing industry Martin views the future of the crime genre and the organisation in a very positive light.
‘I’m confident about the future of both crime writing and the CWA. Despite the fact that we have been around so long, today we have more members than ever before – and the number is rising all the time. That’s genuinely exciting. Writers face many challenges, not just when they are starting out, but throughout their careers, and the CWA is doing more and more to support them. I’ve also just appointed our first Libraries’ Champion and our first Booksellers’ Champion as we seek to collaborate with others for the benefit of all.’
Although the organisation is genre-specific Martin is keen to establish mutual links with other writing organisations within the industry.
‘Whilst the CWA is by definition genre-specific, I’m a firm believer in collaboration, and since becoming Chair I’ve initiated dialogue with a range of groups both here and overseas. A good example is our developing links with the Romantic Novelists’ Association, at both local and national level. Again, these relationships are mutually beneficial, and have great potential for all our members.’
Martin is a relatively new chair but he has already set many new goals to achieve during his tenure.
‘My aim is to oversee the modernisation and professionalization of the CWA, whilst remaining absolutely committed to its core traditional values of collegiality. Achieving this requires action on many levels – local, national, and international. We are modernising our infrastructure, strengthening our finances, recruiting more members here and overseas, and developing relationships with sponsors and other like-minded organisations. What we are seeing really is a quiet revolution, a radical one in some respects, but a process of making sure that the CWA and its members thrive in a challenging environment, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We don’t neglect our past – for instance, we’ve just launched the British Crime Writing Archives at the wonderful Gladstone’s Library, near Chester, with a weekend festival, Alibis in the Archives, that was such a success that we plan to repeat it next year. But we also look to the future – for instance, we’re starting to work with the ALCS, and looking at how we might contribute to the work of the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group. A huge amount remains to be done, but our continuing growth illustrates vividly that writers see a real need for the CWA, and are keen to be part of a forward-looking association that always strives to support and promote crime writing in general, and its members in particular, as well as encouraging new writers into the genre.’
When asked what advice Martin would give to new writers of crime he explains that he is a planner.
‘The great thing about writing is this – you can always improve what you have written. A plan works well for me – not everyone is the same, of course. But even the best laid plans are sometimes capable of being changed for the better. So far, I’ve never changed the original solution to any of my novels, but I’ve tinkered with many other elements of my stories.’
Martin Edwards’ eighteen novels include the Lake District Mysteries and the Harry Devlin series, and The Golden Age of Murder won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating and Macavity awards. He has edited thirty five crime anthologies, and won the CWA Short Story Dagger, CWA Margery Allingham Prize, and the Poirot Award. He is series consultant for the British Library’s Crime Classics, President of the Detection Club, and Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. His The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books was published in August.
In November 2015 I interviewed Sally Bridgewater, Creative Writing Courses & Competitions Coordinator for Writing Magazine, who was about to embark on an extreme writing challenge of hitting the 50,000 word target for the NaNoWriMo Challenge – but in one day!
I thought I’d catch up with Sally and see what has happened since.
Hi, Sally, welcome back. Can you share with us what has happened as a result of completing the challenge?
Doing the twenty-four hour wordathon was a fun challenge, but I wouldn’t class it as life-changing. I did really appreciate getting the chance to write a piece about it in the Writing Magazine, which is my first proper published article. It did really help me get the rest of my novel draft done back in November 2015, and getting a full draft down on paper gave me a lot more confidence that I really will finish this novel one day.
Have you submitted the finished draft yet?
Nowhere near! I took a break after NaNoWriMo in 2015 – one of the downsides of taking on extreme challenges is that afterwards you usually feel in need of an extreme rest. So I only picked my novel back up in April 2016, when I started world-building and generally trying to re-plot the whole thing. I just aimed for twice a week as I’ve been pretty busy with other things, and that gave me a good stretch of steady progress on it over the summer.
Believe it or not, I have not yet gone back and re-read what I wrote in the wordathon or in the rest of that November – as soon as I started working on the novel again I knew I’d be changing so much that there wasn’t too much point in working from the draft outwards. I still don’t see it as a waste of time though – doing that really rough draft gave me a rough sense of the characters, the world, the plot, and most especially got me far enough to imagine what would happen at the end. All of that was crucial, and as I am a first-time novelist I don’t think there was any other way for me to work out a full plot from my first ideas. I’m hoping with my second or third book I won’t have to write completely discarded drafts though!
I hope not. However, I can see how completing this punishing challenge has taught you so much and given you a tangible first draft to build upon.
In November 2016 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo again, of course, and I was aiming for a complete rewrite of the novel with my new plot. Even though I was the most prepared I’ve ever been, with a spreadsheet of all the scenes I was planning, unfortunately life got in the way. I finally reached the top of the waiting list for a much-delayed jaw surgery during November so I had to give that priority. I thought lying on the sofa recovering would give me lots of time to write, but it turns out that healing is a lot more tiring than it looks! I didn’t want to push myself while I was obviously not at full health, so I’ve not given myself a hard time about it.
I hope you are fully recovered now. What are your writing goals for 2017?
Get this second draft finished! I have recommitted to writing 1000 words a day, and it’s really working pretty well at the moment. I use the Jotterpad app on my phone to write on the bus on my way to and from work, and I am genuinely surprised how much easier I find it to do that than to carve out a chunk of time to sit at my computer – somehow that just feels more like Hard Work. I am using all the psychology tricks I can to make it easier, such as congratulating myself just for making the three short taps it takes to open the Jotterpad on my phone. I know that’s all I have to do really, and then once it’s actually in front of me it’s much easier to contemplate doing the actual writing.
I am also using a site called Beeminder.com to keep me on track – it makes a graph of a goal you want to achieve, so in my case I have one tracking the number of ‘days I worked on my main fiction project’ and I’ve set my target as only three days a week. This is because if you fall off the line on the graph of how many things you said you’d do, then Beeminder charges your credit card an ever-increasing amount of money. It is scarily effective at keeping you motivated, I’d seriously recommend it for anything you’re stuck on.
I’ve then got a great writing project I’m looking forward to in April – my friend Tonks and I (who helped with the Wordathon in the first place) have agreed to do ‘Camp NaNoWriMo’ and make it Editing Month. The real twist is that I will edit her first draft and she will edit mine. It’s a little scary but we trust each other and it will be so much easier seeing how to improve someone else’s work rather than your own. So that gives me a deadline to get the second draft done!
I am delighted to welcome Sarah Quirke, Publishing Manager of FA Thorpe Publishing to my blog to talk about her work and interests.
Firstly, Sarah, welcome! Could you tell us about FA Thorpe Publishing?
F.A. Thorpe Publishing is the publishing division of Ulverscroft Large Print Books Ltd, which distributes large print and audio books worldwide. It was established by Frederick Thorpe in 1964, with the intention of reproducing popular books in larger type for those who struggled to read standard print. Initially, there was scepticism on the part of publishers about this unknown format. However, a chance encounter with Agatha Christie allowed Dr. Thorpe to discuss this project with her, which resulted in her wholehearted support – she expressed a desire to see all of her titles produced in large print. This was a key factor in gaining the support of other publishers and authors. A Pocket Full of Rye was one of the first titles to be published in large print format, and we have, over the years, published all of Agatha Christie’s title in large print – along with a fair few others…
Did you always want to have a career in publishing?
Although I had no doubts about what I wanted to study at university – English literature – I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do once I finished my studies. I feel extremely fortunate to have landed my job. I’ve been with the company for nearly 14 years, so I feel rather fortunate about that, too!
Have you always been an avid reader?
Always! I vividly remember reading aloud to my dad when I was about six, and him telling me to read the words ‘as though you’re speaking’, and it suddenly clicked. And then there was no stopping me…
Which authors have, or do, inspire you?
I found A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash thoroughly inspirational in terms of the writing, which was exceptional; it just poured off the page and felt beautifully effortless. In terms of story-telling, and the moral dilemma presented, The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman was utterly compelling.
What is your favourite genre for your own leisure reading?
I do enjoy a well-written, ‘unreliable narrator’/twisty-turn-y tale. I think Paula Daly is fantastic, and I also like Tamar Cohen. I’m afraid I’ve yet to read The Girl on the Train, but I definitely want to do so before seeing the film.
Could you describe the imprints you represent and the word limitations on each?
Our Charnwood and Isis imprints contain mass market popular fiction and non-fiction titles, and our big name authors. The upper limit here is very much dependant on how well we can expect a particular author to sell. Our Ulverscroft imprint tends to house much shorter titles, and the upper limit here is currently around 60-65,000 words. For our Linford Romance imprint, we’d ideally want titles to be somewhere between 30-50,000 words, although we have taken shorter and longer titles than this; the same is true of our Linford Mystery and Linford Western imprints, give or take a few thousand either way.
What do you look for in a new submission?
For most titles, the first consideration is always a practical one – if it’s too long or too short, I won’t be able to consider it. The next consideration is whether or not it will be a good fit for our lists.
What should writers avoid sending you?
If you’re aiming for one of the Linford imprints, then try to make sure it’s a clear fit within the genre – so, a romance rather than a general fiction title, for example. We tend not to do sci-fi or fantasy titles, or self-published non-fiction.
You must see a vast number of submissions, so is there any advice you could give to a writer who is considering submitting a manuscript to you?
Please read and re-read what you’re submitting with as clear an eye as possible. The fewer mistakes, the easier it is for us to see the story you’re trying to tell.
What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?
It’s great when I win an auction for a title I desperately want in our lists, and it’s also very satisfying putting a list together and seeing what I know are some absolutely cracking reads in there. Being surrounded by books all day is also a definite bonus!
Would you consider writing a novella/novel yourself?
I would love to. I note down ideas a lot, although that’s about as far as I’ve ever got.
When not involved in the world of books what do you love doing to relax?
Yoga and singing – I do both with great enthusiasm and questionable results.
My thanks for your continued support for my work (39 titles to date) and for the insight into your world and that of F A Thorpe Publishing.
It is with great sadness and total shock that I have learnt that Carole died last night. She was an amazing lady and inspiration to many, myself included. My sincere condolences to her family, her many friends, colleagues and authors that she represented and respected so much. She will be greatly missed.
My guest this month is Carole Blake, a lady whose amazing career has taken her from working as a secretary in a packaging company to forming the incredibly successful London literary agency, Blake Friedmann. This journey involved becoming the first Rights Manager for Michael Joseph, then Marketing Director at Sphere, before starting up her own agency in 1977. Five years later she merged with Julian Friedmann’s Agency.
Throughout this time Carole has worked tirelessly to develop the careers of her authors and yet still found time to serve on many boards and institutions to contribute to the industry she loves so much. In 2013 Carole was the recipient of the Pandora Award for her ‘significant and sustained contribution to the publishing industry’.
Welcome, Carole! Did your childhood inspire and nurture your love of books?
My childhood home didn’t have many books, but I was always focussed on them & asked for them as presents. I can remember my first ever rag-books (made of a linen-like material) that I used to ‘read’ in the bath before I could actually read. I loved turning the pages and pretending. Once I could read, my early favourites were the Rupert books, which I still have, with my parents’ messages & dates written inside. When I was 8 I asked for a bookcase for my Christmas present. I got it (& only relinquished it when I moved house 8 years ago). I then set out to catalogue and categorise all the books I owned. I worked out a complicated system of letters and numbers and wrote them inside each book, then listed them all against their titles and authors. Very proud of it. Some years later when I discovered the Dewey System I was crushed. I had thought I was being entirely original!
Was it challenging for a woman in your early career to progress in the industry as you did?
I don’t remember it as difficult. I answered an advert in the Evening Standard, went for an interview & got the job. I commuted from Mitcham in Surrey to Marble Arch, & found myself – a working class girl, in a cotton dress and a white cardigan – working as a secretary to a team of university-educated art experts working on a multi-volume art encyclopedia. I kept a low profile, soaked up information like a sponge (including which pieces of cutlery to use when we went out to restaurants) and made friends there (50+ years ago) that I am still in touch with. It was literally a life-changing experience.
Who inspired you the most to keep moving forward? Are you naturally self-motivated to achieve?
The lovely people I worked with at Rainbirds, in my first job, were extremely encouraging. Working there for 8 years kick-started my life-long love of art. It introduced me to the classics (I compiled a company-wide order of Penguin paperbacks every few months. We could get a discount if we ordered 30 or more. Soon I stopped asking anyone else to mark up the Penguin stocklists, because I was ordering 30 at a time myself. I read my way through all the Russian and French novelists, and I remember crying on the no 16 bus as it went round Marble Arch because I finished Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and found it unbearably sad. How nerdish is that for a teenager in the swinging 60s?
But later when I was marketing director of Sphere, Edmund Fisher fired me, quite rightly. I was running the marketing, publicity, rights and contracts departments and wasn’t juggling them very well. We were having a row – we had a very volatile relationship over the three companies and 12 years that I worked with him – and I was in the middle of resigning. When I realised he was firing me I withdrew my resignation and sued for wrongful dismissal. I knew he hadn’t followed all the right procedures (indeed he hadn’t followed any procedures at all!) and as I was a director, I was employed by Sphere’s then owners, Thomson Newspapers, so he didn’t actually have the right to fire me at all. I won, they settled out of court, and I discovered I had a list of authors who wanted to be represented by me if I started an agency. So I did. The fact that Edmund fired me was the best thing ever to happen to me. I would never have had the courage to ask someone to stop paying me if he hadn’t. No one in my family had ever started a company. If I hadn’t been out of work for 6 months, dealing with lawyers it would never have occurred to me to do so.
You are also encouraging new blood into the publishing industry through your associations with UCLA postgraduate publishing course. Is this something you feel passionate about as much as discovering new writing talent?
Given my start in the industry, remembering how kind people were, and aware that it’s a much more difficult area to get work in now I think the least I can do is to encourage and help others into a business that has given me such a wonderfully satisfying lifestyle. I’ve been associated with other postgraduate publishing courses as well, and am always happy to talk to people wanting to get into the book world.
I am the only person in my company who doesn’t have a degree; many of my staff have several. I didn’t have to go through the purgatory of unpaid internships, which I think are morally indefensible: we pay our interns properly.
Whenever I can I try to introduce people to others in the industry who can be of use to them. We have actually employed more than a dozen of our interns over the years – it’s so much more successful than a 40 minute interview. We also have an annual get-together of all our past staff, past interns. It’s officially known as networking but we all know it’s a great gossip-fest. So great to see where people have moved on to. You might have heard of the singer Dido? She was my assistant for 4 years and was an ace at selling serial rights!
Her parents were both publishers. I work with her mother at Rainbirds in the 60s, sold books to her father when he was running Sidgwick decades later. He and I used to lunch together and regarded ourselves as in-laws while she was working for me. When she resigned ‘to spend more time on her music’ I gave her a very motherly speech. ‘Can’t guarantee to keep your job open Dido.’ I don’t think she’s ever wanted to come back to publishing again …
I do quite a lot of public speaking – at literary festivals, conferences (I’m an honorary vice-president of the RNA, a member of the HNS) and I teach a course on how to sell rights. I’ve been a board member of The Book Trade Charity, and its Chairman, and President over many years and am now a Patron.
Your guide ‘From Pitch to Publication’ is widely used throughout the publishing industry. How much of a challenge has it been to update it?
An extreme challenge, as you can tell from the fact that I’ve not managed to deliver it yet. It took Boxtree (later to become an imprint of Macmillan) several years to persuade me to agree to write it in the first place. And then I renegotiated the delivery date several times, in order not to be in breach of contract (how embarrassing would that have been for a literary agent?). Same has happened with the contracted update/new edition. My agency is SO much bigger & busier than it was when I delivered the original manuscript – 20 years ago! – and so much has changed. I now know what I want to write, what I need to update, what I need to add … but time is the enemy. My editor at Macmillan (a friend) is understanding … up to a point. I now so want to have this new manuscript behind me. There are so very many more ways to promote a book now (social media?!) and I am now writing it but in such small spaces of time.
You represent many of my favourite authors, but two especially. Could you share with us what it was that you loved so much about ‘Lady of Hay’ and the amazing Barbara Erskine? Likewise, when Elizabeth Chadwick’s first manuscript arrived on your desk did you instantly realise that you had found gold?
Two authors very close to my heart: both are good friends.
Barbara Erskine: I was already representing her short stories. She wrote many, and magazine editors around the world would line up for them. We had talked about an unusual novel she was thinking about writing. Two time periods, linked. We talked about it for a long time: years. I remember saying at the outset that it would be vital that every time, at the end of each chapter, the reader was required to move from present to past, from past to present, it must be a wrench. Each time period must be equally compelling, and hard to leave or the novel would be broken backed. Oh my … did she deliver. But although publishers and editors always ask for something new, a fresh voice – they always actually want something that is recognisable. I submitted the partial manuscript for 4 years. ‘I don’t know if it’s a contemporary novel, or a historical?’ Me: it’s both. ‘I don’t know if it’s a love story or a mystery?’ Me: it’s both. Every editor who arrived in a new job found the manuscript on their desk. When Maggie Pringle arrived at Michael Joseph in 1983, she read it, loved it, & recognised it as something fresh and new and exciting, and she was allowed to buy it even though it had been rejected twice by other Michael Joseph editors over the years. They auctioned paperback rights back then and it set a record for the highest paperback advance for a British first novel. This summer it celebrated 30 years continuously in print – quite something for a commercial novel. And it’s in print in many other languages too. In 2017 it will be celebrated for its 30th anniversary in German.
Barbara and I are friends. We’ve worked together for so long: we have even been on holiday together. That Nile cruise will never be forgotten. The only holiday that I’ve ever got a holiday-tie-in best-seller novel from – ‘Whispers in the Sand’! Barbara always stays with me at home when she’s in London overnight.
Elizabeth Chadwick: the early chapters of ‘The Wild Hunt’ arrived in the late 80s in a brown envelope – back in the days when submissions were made on paper, via snailmail. And back in the days when I opened my own mail every morning at my desk. I read it as soon as I opened the envelope and knew there was something very special in my hand. A few weeks later I had sold it, via auction, to hardback and paperback publishers (back in the days before publishers always published in both formats themselves.)
‘The Wild Hunt’ won a Betty Trask award, and Prince Charles was the person giving out the prizes for The Society of Authors that year. That was quite a memorable evening!
As with Barbara, this led to publishing success and a long and on-going friendship. Elizabeth stays with me when she’s in London too, and we often talk into the small hours.
I think it is unfair to ask you which are your favourite books or authors, but of all the novels you have read are there a few characters that really stayed with you? If so, why?
There’s no way I could choose between novels by my clients – I represent them all because they are so original, and so special. It would be like asking a mother to choose between her children! Not that I think of my best-selling authors are children for one moment. But the novels – apart from those written by my clients – that always stay with me are Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (I finished it on a no 16 bus going round Marble Arch roundabout in the late 60s, crying my eyes out), and Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. A haunting work.
You have travelled extensively in your work, but where do you enjoy going to relax and explore?
Italy, always Italy. I go for art, music, food (and Negronis!), shopping. Venice, in particular if I had to pin it down more narrowly. I was lucky enough to take a sabbatical earlier this year and I spent 5 weeks in Italy: Florence, Siena, Padua, Mantua, Venice. Absolutely heaven.
Is it your love of detail that first led you to becoming a collector of dolls’ houses and miniatures (OOAK)? Where did this begin? How is the collection growing?
I’ve always loved houses, furniture, interior decoration. My home is full now so miniatures are the way I buy furniture. I dare not add up the number of miniatures I own … they are stored in many boxes, and I’ve had to forbid myself to buy more until I’ve finished building the 5 floor Regency house which will be taller than me. And I’m forbidden to do any more work on that until I’ve delivered my next book. In addition to that house, I have a Georgian hand made one that I bought already finished. That is fully furnished. I also own an antiquarian bookshop which I made from a kit. Every book is real; they can be opened and read (with a magnifying glass). Most of them are miniature copies of real antique illustrated books that I buy from a particular maker whose work I really admire. I have more than 1000. And I have two more kits to build – they are going to become a row of shops. And then there is the greenhouse, and a conservatory, both full of flowers. My favourite collection though is mouth-blown cranberry glass. Five (miniature) cabinets full so far. The most satisfying thing I achieved myself, was laying a floor of terracotta tiles. Real tiles, 1:12 scale. Laying the tiles was easy: the grouting was murder, the air blue!
What other interests do you enjoy away from the world of publishing?
Early music – I still buy cds because I enjoy the booklets. I’ve got about 5000, all stored on a hard drive and easy to find. But I also like Meat Loaf (that’s Elizabeth Chadwick’s fault!). Art – I always make time to go to exhibitions. I find cooking very therapeutic, and always have freezers-full of home cooked food. I enjoy a variety of crafts – I make greetings cards, keep scrapbooks, make jewellery (I have 1000s of beads, and like to buy them on my travels), and I love taking photographs (check out my 56 Pinterest boards, and my Instagram posts!). I took 8000 photographs during the 5 weeks in Italy. And of course reading. I read a lot of non-fiction for relaxation as a change from the fiction that I work with. I love history, memoir, African wildlife (I’ve been to Africa on safari many times). And I collect books about the publishing industry. I’ve recently taken up knitting and crochet again. But there’s not a lot of time to fit these in around work!
You have achieved a great deal in your career, but what is next for Carole Blake?
I’ve got to make time to finish the new book. Then I can get back to (miniature) house building …
Thank you for the fascinating insight into your career and for sharing some personal photographs of your lovely miniature worlds!