I arrive in Jersey to glorious sunshine. It might be the first of October but the island clearly hasn’t had the memo about Autumn yet. I’m here for the Festival of Words, Jersey’s new literature festival. It’s an added bonus that I also get to discover a place I’ve never been to before.
The headline events are taking place in Jersey Opera House which, as you might expect, is a beautiful Edwardian theatre in St. Heller. Over the four days of the festival it will play host to a range of writers including Holly Smale, Irma Kurtz and Jane Hawking. But today I’m here to see Isabel Ashdown along with her agent Kate Shaw and, later on, Carol Ann Duffy.
Isabel Ashdown’s here to discuss her latest novel Flight and her career as a writer. Her agent Kate Shaw’s here to talk about the business side of things.
Ashdown begins by reading a short passage from Flight – she will read three in total throughout the event. Flight is about a woman, Wren, who wins the lottery then leaves her young family and disappears. A subject Ashdown describes as a modern taboo for women.
All of Ashdown’s books revolve around the themes of families and relationships, she says. Shaw’s asked what’s hot in the publishing industry and whether she can predict this. No, she says, but insiders can give the impression they can due to the period between a publisher buying a book and the publication date. Genres are a construct of the publishing industry but sometimes a book comes along that spawns a genre. She refers to Holly Smale, another of her clients, whose Geek Girl books led to the creation of the ‘clean teen’ genre.
Ashdown talks about her journey as a writer. She used to work for The Body Shop head office but after having children enrolled on an English Literature and Creative Writing degree. She quietly wrote short stories and poetry, eventually being persuaded to submit them to competitions and magazines. She was met with a deafening silence she describes as worse than rejection! But then she won a Mail on Sunday competition with an extract from Glasshopper which then became her first published novel.
Shaw tells us she receives around 1000 submissions a year – she likes physical submissions because the pile makes her feel guilty – and takes on approximately 12 writers a year. She says she wants to see submissions from writers taking themselves seriously, something she emphasises throughout the event. She cites entering and being placed in competitions and doing creative writing courses. There’s quite a discussion about how useful creative writing courses can be. Shaw says only three of her writers have a creative writing MA so they’re far from essential but both her and Ashdown (who has taught on an MA course) emphasise the community/workshopping element of these courses in helping to hone talent.
The actual writing is largely a solitary pursuit though and this is explored more when Ashdown discusses how important place is to her work. She has a camper van which she drives to the locations she’s set her novels in – Treyarnon Bay in Cornwall for Flight and the Isle of Wight for Summer of ’76 – walks, absorbs and writes. She grew up in a coastal town and it’s something she keeps returning to in her work.
She also talks about planning, which she describes as ‘the death of creativity for me. I write into the darkness for about the first third of the book.’ Her routine is to read the last 1000 words she wrote, write the next 1000 and then write a single sentence summary of what the following day’s passage will be.
The conversation moves on to the role of the agent and self-publishing. Ashdown says Shaw gives her security, she can throw ideas at her and get valuable advice in return. She didn’t consider self-publishing because the Mail on Sunday win meant she didn’t need to but Shaw says the stigma that used to exist around self-publishing is changing due to the high profile novels that have gone on to be traditionally published. She says she understands why someone would self-publish – how can a small number of agents in London understand everything people across the country want to read, never mind across the world? But she does add a warning about the low earnings of many self-published authors and that there are a disproportionate number of prizes for debut writers and self-published authors aren’t eligible for the majority of these.
Ashdown finishes with some tips for writers: enter competitions; read to yourself aloud; use a page in the back of your notebook to list your bad writer habits; ‘read and read and read and read’; don’t make excuses, find the time and write. Shaw finishes with ‘Don’t give up the day job!’ but it is possible to make your living from writing.
It’s dark when I return to the Opera House to see the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, perform poems from across her career. She’s accompanied by John Sampson who’s brought a range of instruments – crumhorn, descant and treble recorders, goats horn, cornetto – most of which are used for musical interludes but occasionally he plays as she reads.
Before Duffy does read a selection from The World’s Wife, she says how delighted she is to be at the festival, supporting a new literary initiative: ‘It makes us all human and that’s what’s needed in these times’.
Personally I’m delighted that she begins by reading ‘Mrs Midas’. (I’ve loved it since being presented with it in my A level English Literature exam as the unseen poem and credit it with my result!) Duffy’s reading is sharp and playful. She pauses to allow the audience to react to particular lines, emphasising what a fool Midas is. It’s a demeanour she maintains as she moves on to ‘Mrs Tiresias’, showing us through her facial expressions exactly what she thinks of him being turned into a woman as punishment and turning herself to look at Sampson when she mentions Tiresias getting his first period:
One week in bed.
Two doctors in.
Three painkillers four times a day.
to the powers that be
demanding full-paid menstrual leave twelve weeks per year.
She ends this first section by reading ‘Mrs Faust’. It’s clear she’s in a wicked, provocative mood when, eyes sparkling, she tells us that Faust sold his soul to the devil for unbelievable powers, ‘like Jeremy Corbyn’.
Before she reads a group of poems from Rapture, her collection of love poems, she talks about how she aimed to use the sonnet form to capture moods, describing the form as ‘the little black dress of poetry’.
The tone changes again after this, back to the political. Early in my secondary school teaching career, one of Duffy’s poems ‘Education for Leisure’ was banned by the exam board AQA after an invigilator wrote to her MP accusing Duffy of glorifying knife crime. Clearly it still rankles. ‘30 years ago, when Meryl Streep was prime minister’, Duffy says, she wrote a poem that she thought was pro-education. ‘My poem was arrested, taken into a dark room, pulped and shredded.’ She doesn’t read that poem, instead she reads the poem she wrote to the invigilator. ‘I wanted to immortalise the invigilator. That’s not actually the correct verb,’ she says. The rest of this section is characterised by poems written as responses to national events – from the Post Office asking letter writers to no longer include the county on addresses to the Hillsborough Disaster.
The event ends with Duffy reading from The Bees, bookending the section with poems about the death of her mother. It’s interesting to hear how she responds to the personal and the political. The word play is always evident as is the passion she has for her subjects. It’s clear the audience appreciate her style and her range of subjects as she returns to the stage, with Sampson, for a second bow as the applause continues. A wonderful start to the four-day festival.
You can find out more about the festival by clicking on the banner at the top of this post.