Friday, 27 April 2012

Floats like a butterfly stings like Ernest Hemingway... Sophie Coulombeau

Sophie Coulombeau signs some books

WHEN I was 27 I was mostly off my face. Yes, I had a five year old kid. Yes, I had a degree. Sort of. And yes, I was working - kind of  But mostly I was out of it. Or planning to be out of it very soon. Novelist Sophie Coulombeau is making much better use of her time. She's a sort of warrior academic of the kind the Spartans might have been proud of. She's got a first from Oxford, she's doing a doctorate on the eighteenth century... and she relaxes by boxing (and eating cheese).

And now she's a published novelist with celebrity literary fans like Philip Pullman and Sophie Hannah.

She wrote her first novel - Rites -  extraordinarily quickly for a competition the Yorkshire publishers Route were running to find the Best Young Yorkshire Novelist (young meant under 30). I was on the judging panel along with five others and to be honest it was an easy choice. There can't have been so little debate on a literary judging panel since the panel met in the Mermaid to give the Upstart Crow Award for Most Promising New Playwright to a young William Shakespeare. Rites was a unaminous choice. And you're going to hear a lot more from her.
It's a great book. Four fourteen year olds decide to lose their virginity together and it doesn't go to plan. Things spiral out of control in a way the participants couldn't have expected and certainly don't desire. Fiona Shaw (another fan) puts it well: ‘Rites is a powerful read that has you questioning the wisdom of any adult and the innocence of any child. The story Coulombeau tells is an everyman tale of desire, friendship and betrayal. Behind it is a mind that takes nothing at face value: not love, not desire and not the violence that we are capable of doing to one another.’

Hello Sophie - can you give me your autobiography in 50 words exactly (not 49, not 51...)

Born in London. Grew up in Manchester. Twenties a long, messy ménage a trois with books & politics: undergrad at Oxford, work for a pollster, Masters in Philadelphia, tinkering with justice system in London, fighting organized crime in Brussels, PhD in York. Now 27, live in York, researching & writing.

Why should I read Rites?

Because Philip Pullman likes it, and he’s amazing. Also because it will hopefully make you think; about belief, trust, love, friendship, culpability, forgiveness and the unreliability of memory. And everyone should think about those things.

How far is this novel based on personal experience?

Not as much as you might expect. It is, on the one hand, very much about the particular kind of Anglo-Irish Catholic community where I grew up, and about some of the psychological effects growing up in that kind of community can have on people. But none of the characters are me. I definitely wasn’t as resourceful and precocious as my four teenage protagonists. I spent most of my time in my bedroom reading Tintin and Asterix, and wondering why my life wasn’t more exciting.

You’re a PhD student. How did your studies help inform the writing of Rites?

I think it’s true to say that my academic practice makes my creative style a lot more controlled, precise and well-researched than it used to be. When you’re used to watching word count like a hawk and footnoting every fact, you don’t suffer sloppy writing gladly. But in terms of subject matter, this book is rather unrelated to my research, which addresses the relationship between naming and identity in late eighteenth-century fiction. This may not be the case with my second novel, which I’m currently writing...

How long did you spend writing the book and were there moments where you felt like giving up?

I wrote the first few chapters of the book in a couple of weeks in the spring last year. Then I sent them in to a competition run by Route Publishing to find a young author under 30. And when I heard I’d made the shortlist, I had to write the rest of the first draft in rather a hurry. So I didn’t really have much time to reflect on my own inadequacies, at least until I’d finished the thing and sent it off. I think there’s a lot to be said for lighting a fire under your own arse; over-thinking is the aspiring writer’s worst enemy.

What has the reaction been from family and friends?

They’re all really supportive and excited about reading it, which is great. My favourite thing is that a few friends have written to me saying that the knowledge that I can get a book published – a real person who they know, who’s completely normal (and by implication, totally uncool) – has spurred them on to really get to grips with writing their own. Because if I can do it, anyone can. I think that’s lovely, in a knockabout sort of way. Writing needs that sort of demystification.

Any events lined up?

Surprisingly, yes, even though the book isn’t out yet. I’m speaking in a New Novelists panel at the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival on 2nd July with Selma Dabbagh, Suzy Joinson, Peter Salmon and Ros Barber. I hope you haven't forgotten that you're chairing it... I’m also talking in a similar panel at the York Festival of Ideas on June 23rd, with Kathleen McMahon and Essie Fox. The thought of speaking at arts festivals is surreal, but I hope it’ll be a lot of fun.

Who in life or writing do you admire and why?

Life - I’m just going to be a massive stereotype and (truthfully) say my parents, because they support me through thick and thin even though I imagine I often baffle them. Academia – the University of York is stuffed to the gills with amazing thinkers, writers and innovators including John Barrell, my supervisor Harriet Guest and, until recently, the late and great Jane Moody. Writing – I admire a vast and diverse range of writers, but my top five (in no particular order) would be Frances Burney, Philip Larkin, David Mitchell, Julian Barnes and Philip Pullman. Oh, wait, and Angela Carter. It’ll have to be a top six.

How do you relax?

Eating cheese, drinking wine, painting bad pictures of celebrities who make me laugh, walks and pints with my friends, running and boxing (in the feeblest, most amateur way imaginable). I love to travel too, when I can afford it. Turkey and Cuba are next on the list, and I have a turbulent on/off affair with the USA.

What’s next for you?

Finishing my PhD in the next couple of years, and applying for jobs researching and teaching. I love working in academia – which despite the stereotypes is a dynamic, creative, fulfilling and often downright hilarious environment - and hope I can do so for a long time to come. I’ll be writing (and hopefully publishing) fiction too. I’ve just started my second book – a twisted take on the eighteenth-century epistolary novel, set on the eve of the French Revolution – and am also bouncing some ideas around for a play.

Tell me something I don't know...

When I was working at the European Commission, a friend and I noted over a beer that the English have no word to describe "pleasure in someone else's success" and the French have no term to denote "to get things done". And I was once told that I had no personal integrity. By Jeffrey Archer.

Rites is published by Route and is available from June 16 - though you can order it now. You can even order a signed copy. Or come and see her in person in Hebden Bridge.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Sugar Baby Love

It’s my birthday and it’s going to be a great night. By happy coincidence the most exciting new band of the year - Sigue Sigue Sputnik - are playing the Dancehall and that should be a riot (quite literally, judging by what happened at the previous night’s gig in Norwich). They feature former members of Generation X, how could they fail to be great? And not only that, but my best and oldest mate has travelled up to Essex from Brighton to help me celebrate.

It’s February 27 1986. I’m 22 years old (just) and stumbling my way through a Literature degree at Essex University. And I’m having a ball. To be honest I never really wanted to go to University, but now I’m here it’s like being a member of the aristocracy. I rise late, listen to some records, read some books, put on my monkey boots and ex-Bundeswehr shirt with the little German flag on the shoulder - get a girl to crimp my hair, and hit the bar for drinks around six. When the bar closes everyone goes dancing to records by The Smiths, or The Cure or New Order. It’s a beautiful dream of a life.

Only I’m about to wake up. Around 4pm my girlfriend – the University Women’s Officer no less (this is a big deal at Essex Uni in the 1980s. Like going out with a member of the politburo in Soviet Russia) will tell me that she’s having a baby..

I might be at University but I’m a slow learner, because this scenario is actually a repeat, a sequel.

Two years before, twenty minutes after returning from the inter-rail trip that filled the gap twixt school and uni, my girlfriend from home had told me the same thing. She’d even started the conversation in the same way.



‘I said congratulations. I’m pregnant.’

But Monica hadn’t go on to say she was keeping the baby. Instead she had explained that while I had been away exploring the fast food options in railway stations from Harwich to Thessalonika and back, she had been waiting, hoping, praying. And when those prayers hadn’t been answered, she had arranged visits to clinics -  and now I had to go and see her parents who wanted to check I was okay with the arrangements they had made. It was an excruciating conversation, but it only lasted ten minutes and it was the only one I ever really had about what her dad described as The Situation. There was tea, there was cake and there absolutely wasn’t recrimination. They didn’t even tell my parents. All done quietly, cleanly, tidily.

I had got away very, very lightly. I feel shame and embarrassment about my behaviour then, but I don’t feel guilt about the termination. And I really hope Mon doesn’t either. There will always be boys like my dumb teenage self – and that’s why it’s important we have strong pro-choice laws. So that idiot boys like me don’t ruin the lives of unlucky girls.

But I had got away too lightly. My memory of The Situation had quickly faded like a surreal dream I had once, lost in the giddy whirl of  SU bar booze and immature debates about the obvious need for a revolution.

And so now here I am in my bedroom on the swaying 16th floor of a tower-block named after a leading liberal economist (or philosopher, or political scientist – I was never very sure who these people were to be honest), feeling the cold sweat of a particularly painful attack of déjà vu.

This time there are no parents to quietly, cleanly, tidily arrange things. We’ve made our bed and we’ve got to lie on it.

Sigue Sigue Sputnik are bloody crap too.

But universities are strange places – or they were then. Places cocooned from some of the harshest weather of the real world. Yeah we’re going to have a baby that will be born just as we finish university, but that isn’t going to blight anything. It’s not as though we want proper jobs or careers in any case.

And we know that children aren’t easy exactly, but we’ll have help. This baby is going to be a community baby. A baby raised not just by two parents in the discredited nuclear model, but by a loose alliance of us and our most socialist friends.

Within weeks of our final year finishing however, most of the friends have gone. And it turns out they’re mostly doing proper jobs after all. They’re on teacher training courses, or doing social work, or working in local government. In a few cases they’re busy becoming lawyers, journalists, television execs.  No time for other peoples’ babies.

And of course, this was always going to be the case.

And now we’re living on an estate in an Essex dormitory town and wondering what the hell happens next. I’d love – love – to be able to say that I man up, rise to the challenge and find a way to support my new family. Alas, no.

Instead I somehow continue student life by other means while my partner uses the skills honed on the Student Union executive to get a job in the housing advice centre. And she turns out to be pretty good at it. Meanwhile I bumble along getting a series of jobs that involve filing, photocopying, answering the phone and watching youth club kids batter each other during games of uni-hoc. Not quite Mcjobs, maybe not even as useful as a job flipping burgers, but mindless and part-time.

My real life is still pretty much bargain booze and listening to records, though we do gradually join a crowd of other misfits and drop-outs who also have young babies.

And that is one thing I do learn during this period – that our instincts about everything being better if kids aren’t raised by the parents alone were absolutely right. You need places to go to drink tea and swap stories. And you need someone to change the music while you change the nappies or vice versa.

And I actually don’t think I’m a bad Dad. At least my daughter and I are still close. And there are I feel – hope – some advantages to having a young, reckless, thoughtless parent. You go wherever he goes for a start. You weave through traffic on the back of his bike and you get to hang out for hours minimally supervised while the adults talk about whatever it is they talk about. And you get to hear some great sounds.

And later, when it’s parents evening it means your young dad doesn’t embarrass you by being bald. And it means your parents aren’t quite so grey and tired looking as those of the other kids. No, instead they embarrass you in other, more inventive ways – with their cheap bangles and their ridiculous Krazy Kolored hair.

So life does its slow vandalism and the hair stops being Krazy Kolored. And H’s mum and I split up. And I get my call up papers. Because that’s what it’s like if you hit 31 with an English degree but without a proper job. It’s like being conscripted. You absolutely have to become a teacher. It’s all that’s left.

So I do that. And to my own surprise I’m pretty good at it I think and in a school I meet my current partner and then, blow me – fifteen years after that awkward conversation up on the 16th floor of a tower-block named after a Political Scientist (or Philosopher, or Economist) I come home from school and the conversation goes like this:



‘I said congratulations. I’m pregnant.’

Slow learner you see. Maybe the slowest learner you ever met. We have three children between us. I had one when we met. C also had one and now we have one together. We are a blended family and emblematic of modern Britain. Three kids each with a different surname and a very different skin tone.  One 25, one 18, one 9. They all get on. Sometimes they even bicker as if they are all eleven. They’re rarely all in the same place these days, but when they are it works somehow.

And now I write odd little novels about failure, under-achievement and the strange shapes families can take now. You can’t escape yourself however hard you try. However far you go. Once a slow learner, always a slow learner – but at the very least you won’t find me demonising teenage parents. In fact I tend to think young parents can make the best parents – even where the dad is an idiot. Young, old, bright, dim – we all muddle through with our fingers crossed.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Golden Key or A Tale of Two Novels

I was at a thing once where the writer Hari Kunzru was doing a question and answer session with aspiring writers. Inevitably someone asked him How Did You Get Your Agent question. The one that is eventually asked at all such events. It's a bald, bold and rude question really isn't it?  Imagine someone asking How Did You Get Your Wife? It's the word 'get' -  which implies the use of trickery, plus some surprise on the part of the questioner that you managed it at all...

Anyway, at this thing Hari K leant forward and said 'Ah, I have the secret to getting an agent.' The atmosphere in the room changed perceptibly, became just that little more charged. 'Yes, I have the secret and I'm prepared to share it with you now...' Everyone in that room straightened up, then leant forward. Everyone was now fully engaged in a way they hadn't been earlier when he was reading from his novel.

'You do these three things...' dramatic pause. 'Step One,' he said, 'You write your book. Step two - you put it in an envelope and send it to an agent. Step three: you wait. And if they like it enough they'll sign you up.'

And that was it. His entire version of Three Steps to Heaven. The whole group sat back in their chairs with a collective exasperated sigh.

See, there's actually no Golden Key at all. No Magic Words. No tricks. No secret party where agents circulate waiting to pick the authors with the right clothes, the right hair, the right handshake, the right skin colour, or the right CV. There's no secret door in the wall.

Write your book. Send it off. Wait. It's all you can do.

Agents do eventually read everything. I would. No one wants to be Dick Rowe do they? You know Dick Rowe? The guy that turned down the Beatles in 1962 because 'Groups with guitars are on the way out.' (Dick Rowe did sign the Rolling Stones a year later so he redeemed himself a bit - but he only did that because George Harrison told him to.)

I have an agent. In fact I'm onto my second.

In 2005 after years of procrastination and prevarication I started a novel. I also started an MA in Novel-writing at Manchester Met University. Why MMU? Because they let you 'study' at home online and, crucially, they would only award you the degree if you actually finished your novel. Some MAs let you just do 40,000 words and so there are lots of writers with masters with half a novel in a draw (some of them teaching creative writing now themselves but that's a whole other post).

So I started my book thinking that if nothing else happened well, at least  I'd get my MA. A few weeks into the course, it all seemed to be going quite well. I was writing much faster than I thought I would, the feedback was good and so I thought I'd put what I had into an envelope and send it off to an agent. And then do the waiting thing.

How did I choose which agent? I just chose the biggest. I chose Camilla H at Curtis Brown. Curtis Brown because they were the biggest and Camilla H because I'd met her once for about fifteen seconds at Punk Rock Karaoke (Punk Rock Karaoke is also a whole other blog post). She was the only agent I had ever met.

I waited

But only for about two days because that's how long it took for Camilla to phone me and say yeah, it's great I'll send you a contract.

That, I now realise, is a very, very unusual How I Got My Agent story. And it was a very, very good day. If I'd known how unusual a How I Got My Agent story it was, it would have been an even better day.

However, don't worry, because that Good Day was followed by a lot of crap ones. I think there's a sum to be worked on, a proper algebraic equation to be done, but my very rough calculation is that for every Good Day in writing there are about twelve Very Bad Days.

It took a while to finish the book. Camilla read everything very closely and made some brilliant suggestions for redrafts and then she also put the book in an envelope and sent it off. And the 12 Bad Days duly followed. The days where we got the worst kind of rejections. You know the ones - the ones that go 'we love this... but can't publish it.' If even the people that love it won't publish it, where are you then?

And I was thinner skinned then, being a mere stripling of 41 and all. And so then teeny, tiny Cinnamon press came in and said they'd do it and I was so grateful. And I still am. Cinnamon took a chance when no one else would and 18 months later the book - TAG - came out. Tiny print run, invisible as far as shops were concerned, but a published book. And I worked hard. I appeared everywhere and anywhere in my attempts to win the world over one reader at a time. And the book won a prize. And that helped - but not as much as I thought it would.

People love that book. Not many people obviously, because not many people have even seen it, but people that have read it really love it. Which is odd, because I don't. There's so much wrong with it. I'd love to another go at redrafting it. And despite what some people say, books are not like children - you can always, always edit your book one more time. In fact you always should.

And I wrote another book. The book that became Life! Death! Prizes! the book that is officially out today.
I wrote it. I put it in an envelope and sent it off to my agent.

And she hated it.

Well, she never said she hated it, she's way too nice for that (Agents ARE nice you see. Or at least they're nicer than novelists. More interested in literature too. Writers are mostly obsessed with money and sales and prizelists and all that. Agents care less about all that) but I think she hated it. And after I rewrote it several times I think she still hated it. She certainly didn't want to send it out.

She did let one publisher see it however (A publisher who had wanted to do TAG but hadn't been high enough up the food chain then)  and to her frank astonishment that publisher seemed to go for it. There was a lunch, there was a tentative, informal, verbal deal sketched out - there was the phrase 'we just need to get it through sales and marketing.' Sales and Marketing wouldn't let it through. Of course they wouldn't. Sales and Marketing were having none of it. Of course S and M may have just been an excuse. A euphemism for 'Christ I've made a mistake. How do I get out of this?'

So that publisher passed and then, about a day later, my agent retired. I don't think the two events were related.

So to recap - yes, I got an agent very quickly but she hadn't been able to sell the book and now three years on I had no agent, a tiny, tiny publisher (because good old Cinnamon had agreed to publish Life! Death! Prizes! if no one else would.)

But because I felt I should, I put the book into an envelope sent to an agent and waited. This time I didn't send it to a big agency, no, instead I sent it to the only other agent I'd ever met: a bloke about my age whose politics and music taste seemed kind of in tune with mine. He liked punk and hated Tories basically and, in an uncertain world, these are eternal verities. Things you can rely on. If you meet someone and they like The Jam and hate the antics of the ruling class then there's a decent chance the're going to be okay. It's not an infallible rule but it works enough of the time.

Only he didn't reply.

Months went past and I assumed that he hated the book (after all he wouldn't be the first) until I got a phone call while I was on a train back from Hull. He loved it. He was going to put it on the desks of all major literary editors. this book deserved to be huge (I paraphrase - but he was very enthusiastic). So that was A Good Day. But I was 45 by now and older and wiser than the callow youth of 41. By now I was expecting the 12 days of misery that were bound to follow. Yeah, yeah - I thought. And I also thought I'm now going to have to put my arm around my agent. Comfort him as the rejections come in. And that seems a weird situation. Seems against nature somehow.

And we did get some rejections. yes, about 12 I think. And yes, they were of the 'I love it but..' variety. Some of them from the very same people who had said the very same thing about TAG. So I've learned that that 'I love it but...' translates as 'I don't love it.'

And then my agent rang.

'Bloomsbury want it.'


'Yes - they just need to get it past Sales and Marketing.'

Ah yes them. Those funny little twins. S and M. So clearly there was no real chance. If S and M were doing their job they'd see that a book set in a museum in small town Essex had no mass market appeal whatsoever. I relaxed.

Only S and her friend M did like it.

Fuck me. And they paid me an advance of XXXX for XX novels.

Yes, that's right. XXXX for XX novels. Unbelievable isn't it?

So then there was a year of arguing in a very civilised way with my editor (I lost most of the time. Thank Christ because I was nearly always wrong. I might still be wrong about the  few things where I insisted on getting my way. Except in the argument about the title. I won that one and I'm so so right about that) and now here we are Publication Day.

And what have we learned, all of us? If you're a writer just write cos that's the fun bit. Everything else is a kind of misery. Interesting misery but misery none the less. A kind of M if not S.

And actually quite often even the Fun Bit isn't all that fun. I was up at 5.30am today - like I always am - writing the new novel called, funnily enough, Wake Up Happy Everyday and how much did I get done?

Nothing. Nada. Sweet FA. I'm stuck frankly. It'll come but still, mornings like this with a full day of work ahead of you, you wonder what the point is. Writing can feel like a weird, twisted compulsion. It feels like a session in the gym that doesn't get you leaner or fitter. A session in the gym that does the opposite makes you older, greyer...

It feels like that because it is like that.

Still, Publication Day, huh? That's a Good Day. Has to be.  Just need to ready myself for the 12 Bad Days to come...