Friday, 5 October 2012

Kathleen Jones: Writing The Sun's Companion

I wrote my first novel when I was 17 and it was a dreadful, Gothic affair - a blend of Wuthering Heights and Emmerdale, complete with estranged parents, child abuse, strange goings-on in barns, and unrequited love, interspersed with boring conversations about art and life.  I cheerfully sent my masterpiece to a publisher I chose at random in a book shop, and waited for fame to come calling.
What should have been my author pic!
I received (what I know now was) a lovely letter praising aspects of the novel and suggesting amendments.  If I was to re-write, the editor said, they might just be willing to look at it again. All I saw was rejection - I hurled it into the bottom of the wardrobe and wept.  I knew so little about how the publishing industry worked, or what you were supposed to do, I didn’t even consider sending it to another publisher and I knew nothing about agents.

In my twenties I wrote 2 more novels - one, a thriller, set in the middle east where I was living.  But it wasn’t the right genre for me; the plot was clunky and the characters failed to come alive.  The other was set in West Africa where a young expatriate wife and her Ghanaian friend have to sit out a series of violent coups.  This time I had an agent and several publishers liked this novel - Doris Lessing’s name was mentioned - but it failed to find a home in an industry that was already contracting sharply.  I got discouraged.  Publishers wanted me to write biographies and they were selling well enough.  I pushed my fictional ideas to the back of the wardrobe.
My grandmother's family, North Shields, 1898
But one of them simply wouldn’t go away.  My mother came from a colourful Tyneside family with an interesting history - part Italian, originally sea-faring, once wealthy, now firmly working class but with a passion for books and art and music.   My grandfather told me about the pubs his grandfather had owned once he sold the sailing ships and how one of his uncles had preached temperance outside the pubs and been cut off without a shilling.  Then he told me that the old man had married one of his bar maids at the age of 82 and cut everyone off without a shilling.

My -very Italian - grandfather
My own grandfather was a gifted artist, but there was no money for him to study art; he painted ships, walls, houses, did restoration work on stately homes.  None of it paid much.  There was no money for my mother to stay on at school and become the librarian she desperately wanted to be.   Mum had a very close friend throughout her school days - they were inseparable - and supported each other's ambitions  until the war came and swept away all their hopes and dreams. She talked often about how the war had altered their lives.  When I visited my grandparents they used to take me on a tour of the bombed out streets and shipyards - many still derelict well into the sixties.  I used to try to imagine what it must have been like to live through the war - to have your whole life changed in a moment by the operation of fate.  My grandmother was good on the gory details, which she and her friends would revisit regularly round the kitchen table over cups of tea.

‘You’ve got to tell these stories, hinny,’ my grandfather used to say, passing on things his own grandfather had told him, family stories that dated back to the beginning of the 19th century.  I can remember as a young child being really impressed that I knew someone who had known someone who had been alive (just!) when Queen Victoria came to the throne.  It seemed incredible!

So, my 4th novel began life as a series of family stories told against two landscapes I knew and loved - the banks of the river Tyne and the Lake District.  The name of one character, Tamar Fell, came from a gravestone in a local churchyard.  It fascinated me because it was so unusual.  It’s a Quaker name, common where Quaker lead miners established communities in the northern Pennines.  Tamar’s friend Anna Weissmann owed a great deal to my mother’s best friend, but also to Neil’s father’s stories of coming to England from Germany as a young boy in the 1930s and the problems he’d had fitting in. I kept the time frame short - the years from 1935 to 1941 - and tried to recreate the world my mother had known so intimately.   I’ve never forgotten the definition of a good novel as ‘the incredibly detailed forgery of an unlived life’ and that’s what I aimed for - a world so real the reader would feel that they were part of it.

This time I was much more determined when it came to publication.  The editorial agency I sent it to praised the novel, Beta readers on the peer review site ‘YouWriteOn.com’ liked it enough to put it in the top five best-seller charts for six months and even my agent liked it.  But after some ‘rave rejections’ from publishers I withdrew it from the submission process - which had by now taken over a year.  Because this time there was another option - E-publishing.



And now The Sun’s Companion is out there on the virtual bookshelves making its own way in the world and I’m happily writing another novel - this time with the knowledge that it will find a readership, I’m not going to be simply dancing in the dark. 

The Sun's Companion on Kindle

The Sun's Companion on Kobo

Reviewed on Goodreads

Other books by Kathleen Jones

12 comments:

CallyPhillips said...

Ah, I wrote that same novel aged seventeen - or started it - and a play about Lancelot's last night in Camelot (also abandoned) and I came to the conclusion I had to LIVE before I'd be able to write anything even I wanted to read! I still believe there's a lot to be said for some life experience before writing fiction/drama about complex emotional issues certainly (and probably everything else) It's interesting where the 'journey' takes us, especially when writing just HAS to be a part of life but publishers don't feel they need to be a part of our lives! But the JOY of indie publishing is that now we have not just an itch but the ability to scratch it. We can take our stories direct to readers and miss out the time consuming and soul destroying rejections that are less to do with ability and more to do with market forces. I shall read Sun's Companion FOR PLEASURE and look forward to the next one. Fantastic for taking the fictional plunge. Let fellow readers and writers be the guides eh, not the money men.

Dennis Hamley said...

'The incredibly detailed forgery of an unlived life'. What a brilliant statement. I'd never heard it before. Who said it? It's something I realise now that I've always believed and tried to do without articulating it and now here are the words to describe it. Thank you. Yes, you're right. Indie publishing gives such power. So now you can take that very first novel out of the drawer, look at what the publishers said, do whatever you agree with and then see it published at last. Meanwhile, I shall buy The Sun's Companion today.

Debbie said...

I loved this book. 'The incredibly detailed forgery of an unlived life' is exactly how I'd describe it - there was so much detail I felt like I was living it.

Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks Dennis - the quote is by Helen Falconer in the Guardian and the link is http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/apr/19/featuresreviews.guardianreview14
We are very lucky, aren't we, that we've been given such freedom. I feel that it might not last and intend to make the best of it while I can. What I like best is the sense of us all working together to give each other a leg up. Authors are supposed to be rivals, but we are banding together to do the opposite. I suppose I'm a natural socialist!

Kathleen Jones said...

Cally - I think it might have been either Kingsley or Martin Amis who said that a woman ought not to write a word before she was thirty and had had a life to write about! Made me spit acid! I don't think having lots of life experience makes you a better writer - in some ways I was sharper at 17 and had more original ideas than I do now. But I've acquired a lot of craft. There must be a point in your life where both peak together - aahh that must be the moment! Probably passed it decades ago!

Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks Debbie - your review on IEBR was absolutely fantastic. And thanks for copying it onto Amazon and Goodreads too. XX

Jan Needle said...

kathleen, that first novel sounds fantastic to me. have you never read titus andronicus? lovely post, thank you.

Bill Kirton said...

Great post, Kathleen, cataloguing such familiar experiences for all of us and then that affirming, positive ending and the reminder that control can be in our own hands nowadays. Dig out all those MSS and get them out there. Thanks.

julia jones said...

Like Dennis and Debbie I love the forgery quote and will try to hang on to it. Like Bill and Jan I also love the post, a reading pleasure in itself. (I think I bought the Sun's Companion as soon as I'd read the review but had better just go check ...)

Christine said...

Great post and I so enjoyed making connections between snippets of your family history and The Sun's Companion, which I finished reading last week. A wonderful book!

Kathleen Jones said...

Thank you Bill, Julia and Christine for all your supportive comments. I'd better go off and start rooting in the wardrobe!!

Enid Richemont said...

I'm going to grab these books too, but....will SOMEBODY tell me how to deal with Goodreads because it drives me NUTS!!!!