‘When the world is burning, it’s easy to forget about ice…’
It’s here! Two and a half years after I sat down by the fire and wrote that opening sentence, not really sure whether it would ever amount to anything other than ‘that night I decided not to watch Netflix’, My Name is Monster is a real live book, for sale in regular (and irregular) bookshops.
It’s a slightly odd feeling, knowing that the book is out there in the public. It feels a little bit like going to the supermarket in your underwear – not that I’ve ever done that. It’s the knowledge that people will be reading it (hopefully) and judging it (hopefully not too harshly) and that it’s now completely beyond my control.
In a way, of course, it’s also very liberating – just as I assume it must be walking through the fruit & veg aisle in your knickers.
‘A terrific piece of writing; tough and tender and insightful. I loved it.’
– Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat
‘A complex, accomplished debut. The prose dazzles while the themes of feminism, power and fertility sneak in for a gut-punch. It kept me gripped from the first page, and the characters continue to live and breathe in my imagination.’
– Kirsty Logan, author of The Gracekeepers
‘Katie Hale has written two fascinating, flawed and compelling characters and, with only two people and an empty world, has created a novel that is gripping, insightful and unique.’
– Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days
‘A riveting and disturbing novel, part twisted fairy tale and part dystopian nightmare, in which the primal human need to find meaning and love shines through the darkness of a ruined world.’
– Mick Kitson, author of Sal
Over the coming weeks, I’ve got a number of events lined up to help promote the book, both close to home around Cumbria, and further afield – specifically London and Cornwall. If you’re near any of these, it would be lovely to see you there:
Almost from the moment my flight landed back from the US, I started gearing up towards the next big event of my writing year. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably already clocked that that big event is the release of my debut novel, My Name is Monster, which officially comes out on Thursday 6th June. The finished copies of the book were actually waiting for me when I got home, looking beautiful and shiny through the jetlagged haze.
Since then, it’s been largely a case of getting ready for them to be released into the world. I went up to Edinburgh and signed 135 copies of the book to be sent to independent bookshops. I’ve been writing blog posts. I’ve been talking to local press about the release, and trying to work out what I’m going to say at the launch, and which section(s) of the book I’m going to read. I’ve been talking about it a lot on social media.
Between that and catching up on 6 weeks’ worth of admin, the actual writing time has been a bit thin on the ground. That’s ok. For one thing, I managed to get a lot of writing done while I was in the States, and for another, being a writer isn’t just about writing.
A few good things:
1 – Open The Door Festival
A couple of weeks ago I attended part of the excellent Open The Door festival at Glasgow Women’s Library. What initially drew me to the festival was that my friend and all-round wonderful woman Jess Orr was involved in organising it, and was going to be interviewing Ali Smith during the event on the Saturday evening. But when I looked into it a bit more deeply, and actually googled the programme for the day, I quickly realised that enjoyment of this festival was going to go way beyond personal connection.
Unlike most festivals, which have an audience sitting and listening to what a writer / speaker has to say, then applauding politely and making their way to the bar, Open The Door operated a bit more like a conference, with a choice of interactive breakout sessions, meaning that the attendees were as much a part of the discussion and development of ideas as the writers and facilitators.
This approach led to a much friendlier sort of festival, and made it much easier for interesting conversations to spring up during the breaks.
2 – Theatre by the Lake
This month, the new trailer for the Theatre by the Lake was released, with words by yours truly. This was something I was commissioned to write several months ago, so by the time it came out it had slipped off my radar slightly. So it was a lovely surprise when the finished video popped up on facebook.
3 – Normal Life
One thing that has really been great this month has been getting back into my normal life after so many weeks away, and particularly getting back into attending my normal writing groups.
There’s something about writing groups – the combination of regular structured creative input and the support of trusted peers – that helps feed the creative process. Going back to my regular poetry group and my regular fiction group felt as much like a homecoming as it did landing at Heathrow airport. And of course, it was great to see all those familiar faces again.
Going to America was incredible, and such a boost for my writing and for the particular project I was researching. But returning to my own writing community was equally wonderful.
The month in books:
As with the writing, the reading has been slightly less this month. And, as with the writing, that’s kind of ok. The trick, I think (I hope), is not letting the lack of reading / writing become a habit. Which, given how much I’m itching to get back to both, I don’t think it will.
It’s been prose-heavy this month – something that often happens when I’m limited for time, as reading becomes more escapism at the end of a long day, rather than a habit of immersing myself in poetry first thing in the morning.
I’ve also read four books by friends this month, which always alters the feel of a month’s reading. Two of these came from the WriteNow scheme: Emma Smith-Barton’s The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, and Nels Abbey’s Think Like a White Man. The others were The Accusation, by Zosia Wand, and salt slow, by Julia Armfield. I can heartily recommend all four of these books. Each occupies a different genre (YA fiction; satirical self-help book; thriller; and literary short stories), and each is an example of blooming good writing in that genre.
salt slow is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year (although Lanny is nudging at it from a very close, and debatable, second place), so I think it’s fair to say that May has been a hugely enjoyable month when it comes to books.
The Accusation, by Zosia Wand
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge
The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, by Emma Smith-Barton
Scepticism Inc., by Bo Fowler
Lanny, by Max Porter
Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker
Natural Mechanical, by J O Morgan
Think Like a White Man, by Dr Boule Whytelaw III / Nels Abbey
Last weekend, I went to the Open the Door festival at Glasgow Women’s Library, where I heard (among other people) Ali Smith talking about the books and writers who had opened the door for her. It got me thinking about the writers that did that for me – both for poetry and for prose.
In poetry, I think this is slightly more complex, as a lot of the poets who have opened the poetry door for me have done it not just through their own writing, but also as individual people I’ve worked with. But what about fiction?
I’ve talked before about how Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme gave me the confidence to think of myself as a fiction writer in general – but what about the specific novel? What were the books that opened the door to My Name is Monster?
1 – Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
Robinson Crusoe is probably one of the more obvious influences on the book, as in many ways My Name is Monster is a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe. It’s the story of a woman who believes she’s the last person left alive on earth – and then she finds a girl. The book echoes Crusoe’s solitude on the desert island, his quest for survival, and his subsequent finding (and enslaving) of Friday.
I’ve always had quite a complicated relationship with Robinson Crusoe, ever since I had to read it during my first year of university. On one hand, it’s a story that occupies such a prominent place in our culture. It’s amazing how many people know the story (or at least the basic elements of it), without having read the book itself.
It’s also amazing how many of those people think they’ve read the book, even when they actually haven’t. And understandably – on both counts. There are numerous retellings of the Crusoe survival story, from The Martian to Castaway to Bear Grylls, so it makes sense that we think we know it. But the book itself is actually pretty heavy going. There are a lot of pages before Friday even appears (and before the famous ‘footprint in the sand’ moment), largely narrating Crusoe’s religious transformations, or going into very great detail on the mechanics of building a shelter. Despite being a story so many of us think we know, it isn’t exactly a page-turner. At least, not until the pirates show up.
And of course, there’s also the problematic colonial aspect to the book: its positioning of Friday as the enslaved native who Crusoe proceeds to ‘civilise’; Crusoe’s ability to lay claim to the island solely by virtue of his having been washed up there; the problem of his naming of things.
These were all aspects of the book that drew me in, and that made me want to answer it in some way. My Name is Monster is in many ways a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe, but it’s also a response to some of its themes.
2 – Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
As well as being a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, My Name is Monster is also very heavily influenced by Frankenstein.
Unlike Crusoe, I’ve loved Frankenstein ever since I read it – again during my first year of university. In some ways, the themes of the two classics are quite similar: both deal with one human’s desire to create and control another, and ways of coping with enforced isolation. Both ask who has the power to name a person or a thing.
But whereas Crusoe puts Friday in a position of subservience, Frankenstein presents two individuals with a much more complex creator / created relationship. They are really equal protagonists, and the questions this allows the book to ask are much more complex – questions that have shaped the genre of science fiction ever since, such as to what extent can a created being be considered human?
The question of how much we can truly create another conscious being is one that feeds directly into My Name is Monster – as, of course, does the name ‘Monster’.
3 – The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Given that My Name is Monster is set in an empty world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s a post-apocalyptic novel on this list. I first read The Road when I was at secondary school, and it made a huge impression on me.
What I loved about the post-apocalyptic element to the book, was that that wasn’t the story. The story was the man and the boy, and the relationship between them. The post-apocalyptic setting was just the circumstances needed to tell that relationship story. This is something that interests me: the way something huge can have happened / can be happening in the world of the book, but we remain focussed on the central characters, and on the relationship between them.
Of course, The Road is also just a beautiful written book. The prose is so precise that it feels incredibly simple. But, like most things that appear simple, it’s a demonstration of huge writing skill, and an ability to cut away all the details that don’t really matter – something that’s much harder than it sounds in something the size of a novel!
4 – The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks
The most recent book on this list, The Shepherd’s Life, is only a few years old. It’s a non-fiction book about sheep farming on the Cumbrian fells. It’s a sort of love letter to the landscape I’ve grown up in, and to its agriculture.
When I first moved back to Cumbria after university, I was feeling a bit of resentment. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Cumbria (it’s beautiful, for one thing, and there’s a sense of individuals mattering here in a way that sometimes gets lost in cities) – but it was more that I felt like I ought to have gone somewhere else; this was where I started, and being back here felt like I hadn’t moved forward at all. Like a lot of people who move home / near home, I was worried I would revert to the person I was when I last lived here, aged 18.
Reading The Shepherd’s Life helped me fall in love with Cumbria again. Rebanks’ experiences of Cumbria are very different to mine; although I grew up surrounded by farms and fields and sheep, I’m not from a farming family, so I don’t have the same inter-generational relationship with the land. But the book is so connected to the physicality of the landscape that it helped me to feel connected to Cumbria again. I felt I understood the landscape in a way I’d only ever guessed at before – and that fed into the characters’ lifestyles in My Name is Monster.
5 – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson
Probably like a lot of queer people, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit opened so many doors for me, not just in terms of fiction, but in life as well. Like The Road, I read it while I was at secondary school, and it shaped my understand of who and what could belong in a novel.
But it also influenced my understanding of character – the bold details that can make a character leap off the page, till you feel as though they’re somebody you’ve met – and of the unreliable narrator: something that was compounded when I read Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal several years later.
The nods to history and fairytale and mythology in much of Winterson’s work is something that I often think about – something that also captures me in Ali Smith’s writing. I’m interested in the way in which all of this provides intertextuality, and gives the novel breadth, so that it seems to breathe beyond the confines of it’s 200-ish pages. Like in The Road, the focus remains on the character(s) at the centre of the story, but there’s so much more happening in our peripheral vision.
My debut novel, My Name is Monster, hits the shelves in just two and a half weeks, and it’s got me thinking about how there’s something magical – something almost metaphysical – about the creation of a book. How something can go from being the tiniest flicker of an idea, to being a fully fledged novel, a physical thing you can hold in your hands.
Even when it’s your own book, it can still feel like something of a mysterious process.
Every book’s path to publication is different. It can depend on so many factors: the genre of book, the stage of the writer’s career, the agency or particular publisher, the availability of funding or mentoring schemes, how much of a platform the writer has to begin with.
Since The Bookseller announced the acquisition of My Name is Monster by Canongate back in 2018, a few people have asked my advice on various aspects of the publishing process. As a debut novelist, I’m still working some of this stuff out for myself, but it always surprises me to look back and see just how much I’ve learned since all this started. How does it all work? How do you get an agent? How long does it take to get published? What does the writer get offered in a typical contract?
I can’t speak for every book, but I can share my own experiences. How did My Name is Monster go from being nothing more than a thought, to being on the verge of publication in a couple of weeks?
Let’s start at the very beginning…
Like every story, My Name is Monster started with an idea. Unlike J K Rowling (who famously gave an account of having the idea for Harry Potter while on a train journey), I don’t remember exactly what that first spark of a story was. I do remember that it started with Frankenstein, and the extent to which we can create another human, and that this initial idea was a long long way from the eventual narrative of the book. I’m also pretty sure that it came to me during a service in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where I used to sing in the choir on Sundays. This dates it to the early part of 2011, probably a few weeks after the National Theatre had broadcast their double productions of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch & Johnny Lee Miller.
But if that was the birth of the novel, it wasn’t really it’s beginning in any concrete sense. Sure, I played with the idea now and again, when I was feeling carsick or bored on the bus, but it was just fantasy really. (Then again, aren’t all stories?) It was just a story I told myself from time to time – albeit one that developed in my head with each retelling.
Back then, I didn’t think of myself as a novelist at all. I was a poet, and I had this feeling that if I wanted to remain a poet, I ought not to focus on anything else. I’d put myself in my little poetry box, and I think as much as anything, I was afraid to come out.
Fast-forward to August 2016. I was in Oregon, having just finished an epic West Coast road trip with two friends. In about a week’s time, I would be making my way home, pretty certain that I didn’t have a job to come back to.
Up until the end of 2015, I’d been working two part-time jobs while trying to build my freelance writing work – adding up to around 8 days a week and requiring unsustainable energy levels. Towards the end of 2015, my freelance work was increasing, and it became clear that one of the part-time jobs had to go. Arts funding being what it is, by the time I left for the US, the other one looked on the verge of drying up as well.
In other words, I was panicking slightly and applying for everything.
That was when WriteNow landed in my inbox, flagged up by my editor at Flipped Eye, Jacob Sam-La Rose. WriteNow is a mentoring scheme run by Penguin Random House, for emerging writers from demographics facing barriers to traditional publishing. The first round offered 150 writers a place on one of 3 insight days, with author/agent/publisher panels, and a chance to have a section of your manuscript critiqued by a Penguin Random House editor. The second round offered a year’s mentoring.
The opportunity seemed to good to pass up. There was only one problem: they didn’t accept poetry.
So, two days before the application was due, I sat down and wrote the opening section of the novel. The following day, on the train down to my grandma’s, I wrote the rest of the application. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was any good. Could I write fiction? Who knew? I made a pact with myself: if I got a place on one of the insight days, I would write the rest of the novel.
I never even dreamed that I would make it all the way to the final group – but wonderfully, incredibly, that’s what happened.
I worked on the manuscript with Heinemann editor Tom Avery, whose guidance was invaluable in helping me to navigate the nuts and bolts of the story I was telling – and in giving me the confidence to start thinking of myself as a novelist as well as a poet. During the course of the year, I completed the first draft of the novel, and then another six subsequent drafts. It was also during this year that I signed with my agent: Lucy Luck, and Conville & Walsh.
Getting an Agent:
For a lot of people, this is the first barrier they face to getting their work published. So few publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts (manuscripts not sent by an agent), that it’s quite rare for writers of fiction and non-fiction not to have an agent – though of course there are exceptions to every rule.
I was lucky. The WriteNow scheme meant that Tom put me in touch with a number of fantastic agents – one of whom was Lucy. She read my manuscript, liked my work, and agreed to take me on. From my end, it really was that simple – though of course I know that for many people it’s much more difficult than that. Like anything, it helps to be recommended by someone.
I may write a more detailed post at some point in the future about what an agent does for a writer, and why I’ve already found it hugely beneficial, but for now I’ll just say: signing with Lucy was the next step towards My Name is Monster becoming a real live book.
Again, I may go into this in more detail in a future post, but put simply, ‘acquisitions’ is when a publisher buys (or acquires) the right to publish your manuscript.
Because of WriteNow, Penguin Random House had first refusal on whether or not they wanted to publish. Eventually, after a lot of conversations, they decided against it, and so Lucy sent the manuscript out to other editors at other publishers.
After an agonising period of waiting, two publishers came back positive. I had conversations with both editors, and Lucy negotiated with both publishing houses on the offers made, until we had something we were happy with. I chose to sign with Canongate.
There are many reasons I went with Canongate in the end. One of these was financial (like any job, you have to think about the bottom line, and the advance from Canongate would buy me more time to work on a future novel). But it wasn’t the only reason. I really got on with Jo Dingley, my editor – another northerner, who I found I had a lot in common with. I liked the fact that Canongate were based in Edinburgh (much closer and easier to get to than London). I liked the fact that they were a smaller publisher, and independent, but still had enough presence in the publishing world. I liked the books they published – not only in terms of content, but also in terms of design. I liked the care they put into creating books that were also beautiful objects. On a slightly more frivolous note, I liked that they had an office dog.
Working with the publisher:
Understandably, a lot of people tend to think that, once a book has been acquired, that’s it. It’s been given the seal of approval and will be available in shops soon after. But that isn’t quite the case.
For me, the turnaround was relatively quick. The book comes out roughly a year after I signed with Canongate. Because of all the editing work through WriteNow, the manuscript was in pretty good shape at the point of signing. I think I only did one edit through with Jo (alright, maybe one and a half), followed by a number of proofreads.
And by ‘a number of proofreads’, I mean ‘absolutely loads of proofreads’. Proofs once the novel has been edited. Then more proofs following typsetting. Then more proofs once the ARC (Advance Reading Copy) is published. And then one final sweep after that.
Somewhere in amongst all that comes the beautiful moment when you see the first designs for the cover. Somewhere else in amongst all that come the terrifying first quotes from other writers, about what they thought of your book.
Most of this excitement came in fits and starts throughout the year. Gradually, though, it all starts to build towards…
What happens on publication day? Well, this is the day that the book finally goes on sale in shops – although it is available to pre-order before then.
For me, I’m officially launching the book during the evening on publication day, at my local independent bookshop: Bookends in Carlisle.
My Name is Monster: Book Launch
Cakes and Ale Cafe, Carlisle
Thursday 6th June, 7.30pm
Tickets: £3 (includes £3 off the book) Cumbrian author Katie Hale will join us in Cakes and Ale Cafe to launch her debut novel My Name Is Monster. She will discuss the story and her writing before taking questions and signing copies. ORDER TICKETS HERE
And what happens after that? Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
– Virginia Woolf
I’ve recently come home from seven weeks away from my own regular writing room (read: my kitchen table). During that time, away from my normal routine and my habitual space, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I need in order to write. What are the circumstances that help me, the magical ingredients that go into the mix for creating inspiration?
During my 7 weeks away, about 2.5 of those weeks were spent actively on the road, never in one place for more than a couple of nights. Three of those weeks were spent on a residency at MacDowell Colony, and the rest was spent researching in New York Public Library. The writing circumstances across these weeks were about as varied as I could have asked for over the course of a single trip. And most of the time, I still managed to write.
Ok, so the amount that I wrote varied drastically. As you’d expect, I wrote far more during my three week residency than I did the rest of the trip – but I’m not sure this was entirely about having a room of my own (although my little cabin in the woods was undoubtedly wonderful). I think it was more to do with having the dedicated time for writing, and (that magical ingredient) headspace.
(Let me just make a caveat here: all of the time I was away was technically ‘poetry time’. Even when I wasn’t at MacDowell, I was either at a poetry festival, or in London for a poetry event, or actively dedicating research time to my current poetry project.)
So, building on all of that, what are five things I’ve come to realise about writing on the move?
1 – Writing on the move is just like writing at home
Every writer is different. Consequently, every writer’s process is also different, which means that every writer will require something different in order to feel at their most creative – whether this is nothing more than a stub of pencil and the back of an envelope, or a chaise longue and fourteen daiquiris mixed by a six-foot albino wearing a penguin suit and stilettos. (That isn’t my rider, I promise. Maybe it should be?)
The trick, I found, was to create the same circumstances for writing while I was away that I would normally create at home. For me, this is a quiet space (with plenty of natural light if possible), a notebook and a pen. It’s also about finding a time when I know I’m not going to be interrupted by anything or by anyone.
At home, I need to consciously carve out these occasions from the rest of my life. It’s all too easy to let admin and emails swamp the entire working day, then to get to the end of the week and realise I haven’t done any writing whatsoever. In order to make sure that doesn’t happen, I have to put in the effort. I have to set aside time for the writing.
On the road, it’s no different. I just have to decide that I’m going to get up an hour earlier, so I can write with a morning coffee. Or decide not to browse Twitter for the river crossing on the car ferry, but instead to use that fifteen minutes as dedicated free writing time. Or I have to set aside an hour for a coffee break, during which I work on a poem. The dedication needed is exactly the same.
2 – Writing on the move is absolutely nothing like writing at home
When I was a student, I used to write whenever I could grab a spare moment. Now, I like to lean a bit more into a routine. Ok, so maybe ‘routine’ is the wrong word, as that can vary at a moment’s notice. But I do understand the ways of putting my day together, so that I can choose the optimum time for writing.
When I’m on the moving, all that changes. I found myself aiming to write in the evenings, between dinner and bed time. Normally, this could be quite a productive time slot for me, but what I learned is that this doesn’t work if it follows on from six hours of driving, for example. This might sound obvious, but it quickly became something to factor into my planning. Instead, I ended up stopping en route for coffee towards the start of the day, so that I could write before my brain become too befuddled by all that travelling.
Instead of writing in the privacy of my own motel room, I ended up writing more in public spaces: coffee shops during the latter part of my trip, and, during the first part of the trip, New York Public Library.
Which brings me onto…
3 – Space
Unsurprisingly, the spaces I was writing in changed while I was away. In some ways this is obvious: I couldn’t write at my kitchen table because my kitchen (and the table) was a six hour flight away. So I had to think practically about what sort of space I need in order to write.
While I was at MacDowell, this obviously wasn’t a problem. In fact, it was an idyllic situation, as every day I could walk to my dedicated little cabin in the woods and write to my heart’s content, and where the only disruption to my day was when I had to get up to go outside and see if my picnic basket had been delivered yet for lunch.
But on the road, writing space needed more consideration.
What I found was that I can write in public spaces almost as easily as I can write in private spaces, given the odd caveat – such as nobody reading over my shoulder. I’m also not great with places that play music, particularly if that music has lyrics. I find myself listening to the words or the music instead of listening to myself thinking. Some sort of table (at table-height, rather than a sofa with a coffee table). Coffee helps, but is not essential. Ideally, nobody else there that I know – there’s something about anonymity in a space that helps with writing.
And that’s pretty much it. It turns out that I’m not nearly as picky about writing space as I thought I was. And it took travelling to the other side of the world for me to learn that.
(Of course, now that I’m back at home, I do still love working at my kitchen table. One of the downsides of writing in a coffee shop or a library is that you can’t really read your words aloud to yourself without getting funny looks…)
4 – Inspiration
So far, I’ve talked a bit about the limitations of writing on the move, and how I needed to adapt my writing style to the travelling lifestyle. But of course there are positive sides to it as well. The whole reason I went to the US in the first place was one of these positive sides: to research a poetry collection in the places where parts of it are set.
But travelling can also allow for unexpected inspiration. For me, that’s one of the best aspects of travelling. I’ve written multiple poems that I know would never have existed if it weren’t for travel. Which makes sense: life filters into art, and when we travel we’re more alert to life going on around us. We’re in a place, and often a culture, that we’re not entirely used to, and this makes us pay attention. And, of course, paying attention is exactly what provides quality material for writing.
I often find myself making notes while I’m travelling, so that I have something to look back on. Sometimes this takes the form of a diary. Sometimes it’s literally just a text note on my phone, with phrases and images jotted down in a long list. It sort of doesn’t matter, as long as I have something to look back on.
I rarely write complete poems when I’m travelling – although because of the specific poetry focus of this trip, I did end up writing a few complete drafts of poems while I was away this time. But more often, the travels will filter into the poems once I’m back: my experience percolating through my brain till they drip quite naturally into whatever poem is waiting to receive them.
Either way, writing or thinking about writing while on the move is a great way to inject some variety and freshness into the work.
5 – Managing your expectations
Last, but not least, I learned to be aware of my own limitations. This is probably something I need to think about in my life at home as well, but especially on the road – it’s so easy to create a plan for everything you want to write or to work on, and forget that, when you’re away, things take longer. I mean, getting from place to place always takes longer than the satnav says it will, because it doesn’t factor in stopping, or your slightly slower opposite-side-of-the-road driving pace, or getting lost. Getting fuel takes longer. Doing laundry takes longer.
As well as taking loner, all of these things take more energy, because you’re having to think about them a bit harder. Example: I went to buy shampoo, and whereas at home I would walk into the shop, pick my regular shampoo off the shelf and pay (all in the space of about three minutes), in America, I had to first work out which shop to go to, and then look at all the different brands and prices, and then work out the tax, and all the rest of it. Everything just takes that little bit more time and energy to figure out.
All of this is good in some ways, of course, as it feeds into Point 4, and that added alertness we have when we’re out of familiar territory. But what it does mean is that I had to manage my expectations as to how much I was going to write in a day. With the exception of the MacDowell residency, where I wrote way more than I expected, I generally wrote less while I was away than I would have done at home. But that’s ok. After all, it isn’t all about quantity – and the research and additional stimulation enabled by being abroad was, without a doubt, priceless.
April is by far from being the cruellest month. Sorry, T S Eliot, but this past month has been an absolute dream for me. From the tail-end of a research week at New York Public Library, to a three-week MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire, to just over a week travelling around Virginia & Kentucky to research a poetry collection – it’s been one heck of a month.
I’m writing this sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight back to the UK. In other words, my flight back to reality. Or, to put it another way, my flight back to the present.
My trip to America has mostly been about the past. I came over here courtesy of a ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ grant from Arts Council England, with the remit of conducting historical research to assist me with the writing of my first full-length poetry collection. Some of that writing has happened during the research time (both at New York Public Library, and on the road in Virginia & Kentucky), and of course some has happened during my residency at MacDowell.
I’ll probably write a whole other post about the Developing Your Creative Practice grant at some point – I think it deserves its own post. But for now, I just want to highlight a few of my favourite research moments:
A few good things:
Monticello: There are a number of different tours you can do at Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson. The main tour takes you around the house and talks a bit about Jefferson’s life and achievements. This sounded interesting enough, but it wasn’t what I was there for. Instead, I took the Hemings Family Tour, which explores the life of Jefferson’s primary slave family – including Sally Hemings, with whom he had a number of children. The tour is part small-group tour, part seminar, and encourages discussion among participants – about the historical context of slavery in Virginia and across the US, and about its legacy today. For me and for my work, it opened up new ways of thinking about slavery, and about slave ownership. If you’re going to Monticello and are interested in a more in-depth and complex exploration of the site, then I highly recommend doing this tour.
Mammoth Caves National Park: A very different site, but no less intriguing, was Mammoth Caves National Park. I went because I was interested in exploring the idea of heritage as rooted in place, and caves are a physical manifestation of that idea. They’re literally history carved out through rock. What I didn’t quite expect was for the time I spent there to be this little natural oasis in the midst of all the history and driving. The scale of it, somehow, put everything in some kind of perspective. I did the Historic Tour (which involved walking about two miles underground, and A LOT of steps). I’m still working through all the ideas I bumped up against during that part of the trip (and during the trip as a whole), but even just as an experience it was definitely one of the highlights.
Genealogy research at New York Public Library: The genealogy division at New York Public Library are fantastic. Honestly, I can’t sing their praises enough for all the assistance they provided. Not to mention that the Milstein Division is just such a beautiful space to sit and work in. Again, I’m still wading through some of my findings, but the information I came across formed the backbone of some of the work I’ve been doing during my MacDowell residency.
How will all of this research filter into the poetry? Well, some of it has already, of course – I spent three weeks at MacDowell using a lot of the research I did at New York Public Library. And as for the Virginia / Kentucky research? I think I’m going to be working that into the poetry for a long time to come!
The month in books:
For once, it’s been a good month for reading. Like a lot of people, I suppose, I don’t seem to build enough reading time into my days. But this month has been different. I guess that’s what happens when you have three weeks dedicated to nothing but creativity. You make time for the things that help fuel that creative drive.
Vertigo & Ghost, by Fiona Benson
Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky
A Love Story for Bewildered Girls, by Emma Morgan
The Quick, by Jessica Traynor
We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A stone cabin in the woods. Outside, the snow is falling in big wet flakes. This is probably the last snow of the season, although it’s impossible to tell for sure. It settles on the bare open ground between the edge of the cabin and the beginning of the trees, and on the dirt road that leads back to the main house. The trees are still and unusually silent.
Inside, the cabin is cosy and warm. On the red brick floor, spilling from underneath the enormous plush rug, are the blackened patches marking where the cabin burned down in the 70s, and the floor was the only thing able to be saved. The wooden table you have been using as your desk is a wide stretch of possibility, covered with books and page markers and bits of leaf you’ve brought in from the outside to try to describe. Your poems are laid out in neat rows on the rug behind you. You twiddle your pen between your thumb and forefinger. You listen to the clicks and taps as the heating reasserts itself. You begin to write.
For three weeks, I was an artist in residence at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Every morning after breakfast, I would walk from my room in the shared house, along the dirt road through the woods, to my studio to write. While there, I was writing poetry, working (very very gradually) towards a full collection. I would sit in my studio, in the most peaceful surroundings, writing or reading or collecting ideas, until my lunch was brought to me in a little picnic basket. At which point I would stop, eat lunch, then carry on in the afternoon. Sometimes I would stop to go for a woodland wander and some fresh air. Sometimes I would try to figure out chords on the studio’s Steinway, for no other reason than that I enjoy using my brain in that logical, pattern-based way now and again. In the evenings, I would go to Colony Hall with the other artists in residence – up to 24 of us in total. Afterwards we would listen to someone present work, or I would read in the library, or we would watch a film. This was my life for three incredible weeks.
The days themselves were hugely productive. Even on the days I didn’t actually write very much, I did so much reading and thinking and pulling together ideas for the collection. It’s amazing how much extra time there is in a week when you don’t have to worry about cooking / buying groceries / ploughing through admin. MacDowell Colony’s motto is ‘Freedom to create’, and it definitely lives up to its name.
What MacDowell provides:
Accommodation, either in a bedroom in a shared house, or in a live-in studio
A studio (aka a cabin in the woods)
3 meals a day, including cooked breakfast, lunch delivered to your studio in a picnic basket, and communal dinner
Access to the collections in the James Baldwin Library – one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve ever worked in
An optional lift into town twice a week
Coffee (or tea) available all the time – such an essential for writing!
You can also apply for a stipend to help fund your time away from regular life, and for a travel grant.
What I liked most about the residency: my top 3:
My cabin in the woods: let’s be honest, what writer out there hasn’t daydreamed about getting to work in their own little studio surrounded by beautiful trees?
Meeting other artists: MacDowell accepts residents in all art forms, so the range of interests and practices at MacDowell was such a treat to immerse myself in – and wonderful to hear the other artists sharing their work.
Time: I’ve already said this, I know, but I can’t emphasise enough how important it was to have that time to write, with absolutely no other commitments. Such a luxury, that meant I was able to eat, sleep and breathe the project I’m working on.
Special mention also has to go to Frisky (the director’s gorgeous dog, who popped into breakfast every morning for a scratch behind the ears, and to check if we’d dropped any bacon on the floor) – and to the cat we nicknamed Baldwin (after the James Baldwin library). Baldwin eventually turned out to be a missing cat from a house down the road, but in the time it took to figure that out, she’d already become a firm friend, and followed me around the campus.
The only problem? Three weeks definitely didn’t feel like long enough. I could have spent so long there, revelling in the opportunity to be creative with no distractions from the outside world!