Sunday, 1 November 2015

SOMETIMES IT TAKES TWO by VALERIE LAWS


Dilston Physic Garden, scene of a new co-writing project blending botany, folklore, neuroscience.

There are some activities which are more fun with two. (Or even more. Allegedly.) Activities which are also fun solo. For most writers, the solitary vice is the chosen norm, though there are writing teams who are very successful. There’s thriller writer ‘Nicci French’, aka Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (see below); while Phoef Sutton has recently teamed up with Janet Evanovich. Some forms of writing involve inevitable collaboration. I write plays, which involve directors, producers and actors, but the actual original writing is mine. I’ve collaborated with visual artists, such as in my ‘science of dying’ project This Fatal Subject which won a Wellcome Trust Arts Award. Collaboration without competition or stifling each other can be a tricky line to walk, and there are few poets and artists who maintain those kind of projects for more than a limited time. Here's a video of one of my animated poems, a film created with artist Susan Aldworth and an animator.

I am contemplating co-authoring a book again now, not put off by the fact that my most successful co-writing project in sales terms ended in divorce. In fact that could be encouraging, as divorce is a wonderful institution. With my then-husband, I co-authored some French and German language course books for a major publisher. Driven by a shared passionate belief in the value of foreign languages being taught to less academic students, which was under threat then, we devised a new type of language course and a fresh approach with a creative zing. The books were to plug a gap in the publisher’s list. We were told by another textbook author, ‘You’ll be lucky to make double figures out of it.’ We didn’t care about that at all, or have any expectations. In fact, Au Secours and later Hilfe became best-sellers, plus extra surprise income from the lovely people at ALCS who chase up royalties for photocopying, broadcasting and the like and should be sought out by all writers forthwith.
A  previous, surprisingly successful writing collaboration

The publishers weren’t totally thrilled though, as they realized schools were saving funds by using our books with a bit of added grammar to teach GCSE instead of buying the multi-coloured multi-book course designed for that… and as the contents (always intended to be up to the minute and practical to use) became dated, they quietly let the books die, though the photocopying went on and to some extent still does. We wrote the books truly together and though it would be more glamorous for me to have a best-selling crime novel or poetry book they are books to be proud of. I did get an email asking about someone rewriting them to teach Cornish but never heard any more about it.
Me (right) with Elaine Perry in her wonderful Physic Garden

Fast forward to my series of Writer’s Residencies on neuroscience, death, and dementia, and I found myself doing some science co-writing with a wonderful professor who’d done pioneer work on Alzheimer’s Disease. We co-authored an article on Near Death Experiences for 'Neuroquantology' which caused a decorous kind of stir in those circles, and a related chapter for a book on consciousness. Now, retired as a Neurochemical Pathologist, my friend and colleague Elaine Perry owns and runs Dilston Physic Garden in beautiful Northumbrian countryside, growing mind-altering herbs (legally), studying not only the folklore of herbalism, but the science of how plant chemicals work on the mind and body. I’ve been Writer in Residence there for several years now, running workshops in the beautiful surroundings. Now a publisher is interested in her idea for a book about physic gardens, basically how to 'grow your own' – they are becoming a big thing across the world I’m happy to say. She devotes her time and effort to the garden to keep this knowledge alive and proven, as big Pharmacorps patent medicines and cut us off from them by price hikes. This book will be for love, not money. And the idea has come about that we will collaborate on it. Despite being a lively and brilliant conversationalist as well as a world-class scientist, she insists that she has trained herself to write only academic articles which are not accessible to the public. I’ve studied the science and written books of poetry and prose which interpret it for a general audience. So that knowledge and skill are what I’ll bring, together with belief in the garden and its maker.
Another shot of the garden, with one of the sculptures that live there

There is much for us as authors to discuss – terms, splitting royalties, methods of working together on this longer project. It means time away from my own creative projects of course, but will I hope be a very worthwhile thing to do – neither of us expect to make any money from it at all. I don’t think non-fiction books based on passionate interests are often written with a view to income. Though it’s nice when there is any. Watch this space for how things progress.

Find out more about my various projects and productions on valerielaws.com (books, art installations etc)
Some of my thirteen books are now on Kindle UK US, iBooks UK USKoboNook and more, on all platforms worldwide.
Follow me on Twitter @ValerieLaws or find me on facebook 
'Nicci French' and Author Electric Julia Jones have 'John's Campaign' to enable carers to be with dementia patients in hospital.

14 comments:

Wendy Jones said...

Your collaboration sounds fascinating. Thank youn

Sandra Horn said...

How exciting!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I love the collaboration of theatre (and radio too) and find myself missing it occasionally, but have never tried it with a book or article of any kind. Your physic garden book sounds fascinating - especially given my own interest in physic gardens!

Chris Longmuir said...

I'm too much of a control freak to think about collaborating with anyone for a book. However, I was once commissioned to write street theatre based on the Forfar Witches, and which was acted on 2 consecutive years on the streets of Forfar, and that involved a fair bit of collaboration, which was fun. Interesting post.

Jan Needle said...

fascinating. thanks

Lydia Bennet said...

thank you folks for venturing here on a sunday! and commenting. These collaborations can turn weird and destroy friendships so I'm hoping this one will work out!

Mari Biella said...

That sounds like an amazing project, Valerie - and the garden looks beautiful. Best of luck with it!

Lydia Bennet said...

It's a stunning place, thank you Mari!

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks for this terrific post. The garden does look lovely. My two attempts at collaboration ended...less than well. I wish you the best of luck.

Dennis Hamley said...

The whole physic garden concept is brilliant. Best of luck with it. And yes, ALCS is wonderful: an essential institution. I still get about £500 a year from them for photocopies of things I'd forgotten I'd ever written and which are long out of print, Oddly comforting. I've earned far more from photopies of some books than ever I did from selling them.

Umberto Tosi said...

I hope you keep us all posted on this deeply intriguing collaboration. Exploring the Dilston Physic Garden site after reading your post, I'm wondering now how far the psychological and somatic sensations evoked by memorable gardens and nature spots goes beyond the aesthetic and metaphoric to the neurologic and chemical. Certainly, I can testify to the powerfully spiritual effects I've felt walking silently through towering cathedral redwood groves on the Northern California coast amid the forest floors' whispering ferns and aromatic bay laurels. I look forward to the book.

Lydia Bennet said...

Thank you so much Reb, Dennis and Umberto! Gardens are indeed important places and our relationship with plants is a deep and vital one ( quite apart from eating them).

julia jones said...

and how brilliant of you to have co-authored Au Secours!

Lydia Bennet said...

oh had you heard of it Julia? thanks!