Guest Post: The Willow Man - Sue Purkiss

Do you know that feeling, when you’re going through customs and you’ve done nothing wrong and you’re really not smuggling anything at all, but you meet the steely eye of the official and he very much doesn’t smile back at you, and you know you not only look guilty but you feel it as well?

Well, that’s how I feel, having had the temerity to ask for a slot on Authors Electric. Because going by your posts, you’re all hundreds of country miles ahead of me when it comes to ebookery. All I’ve done is put one backlist book up, and it took me well over a year to get that done. But when I’d managed it – in the end, despite all the trepidation, without much trouble at all – I felt such a sense of achievement that I wanted to shout about it! It wasn’t – and isn’t – that I expected to sell many copies. It was that this book, which had meant a great deal to me, was no longer consigned to a great black hole, or to the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ (which Carlos Luiz Zafon has created in The Shadow of the Wind but which I’m sure must really exist in some dimension or other). I had brought my book back to life. If people wanted to read it, they could. I felt like a proud parent, waving my child off as s/he went off into the big wide world – hence the request to blog about it here, on the home of ebooks.

I write for children (and that’s one reason why I don’t expect to sell many copies, but more of that later). I started with books for 7-10 year olds; The Willow Man was my first novel for older children. It was marketed as being for 8+, but in truth, when I was writing it, I didn’t really think about that. There was a story – several stories – that I wanted to tell, and I wrote it in the form that seemed naturally suited to them. 

The Willow Man is a sort of sculpture, made not from stone but from willow, woven on to a 45 foot high steel framework. It stands beside the M5 near Bridgwater in Somerset, and it was created to celebrate the millennium. Its maker was Serena de la Hey. Made as it is out of willow, it was never intended to be permanent, and it’s already had at least two lives – so if you’re driving down the motorway, keep a look-out for it: it won’t be there for ever. (Can I tease out a comparison with the book here? I’m sure I don’t need to…) It used to be that you couldn’t miss it; it towered against the sky, powerful and mysterious, poised with its weight on one foot, ready to leap forward – but of course, it couldn’t. Now it’s less obvious, because it’s surrounded by new housing estates on one side and a vast Morrison’s warehouse on the other. (Yes, rather like what happens to one book when time slides by and suddenly it’s crowded out by masses of new ones.)

The Willow Man somehow seems to lend itself to imagery and symbolism. I used to drive past it on the way to work. It has this inherent, brooding strength; and yet it’s stuck fast. I realised it was just what I needed as a vehicle for the stories I wanted to tell; stories of children who had potential, as they all do – but potential which is in different ways blocked. One story was personal. One of my children had a stroke at the age of seven; for a time she was paralysed on one side. She had only half a smile. It was a big thing. Several years after the event, it seemed natural to write about it, to explore it. And then there were the stories of the children I was working with, young offenders, who followed a well worn path of alienation which included poverty and school failure: that’s a big thing too.

So I wanted to write about children who were stuck, just as the Willow Man is stuck. In fact, re-reading the story before re-publishing it, I realised that it was also about not being able to talk about the things that matter most, about not being listened to. And although it was mostly set in Bridgwater – as industrial a town as you get in Somerset – there was also a strong presence of the Somerset countryside, the levels with their marshes and willows and mists, and the gaunt, windswept spur of Brean Down, which is lashed by the racing cross-currents of the Bristol Channel.

Well, the book was well received. It got some good reviews, and it went into schools, where kids who had trouble with reading and with discipline were delighted to find Ash, a character who was like them – and who in some ways coped with life more effectively than his friend Tom, who was outwardly far more advantaged. But it didn’t sell in vast amounts, and after a few years it went out of print. This was while publishers were still wondering what to do about ebooks. I got the rights back, and the publisher sold me the rights to the cover for a small sum, so I was all set to launch it as an ebook. But it all seemed a very complicated process and I dragged my feet until this summer, when I finally gave myself a good talking to and got on with it – and found it was all very much simpler than I had expected.

At the moment, it seems that not many ‘middle-grade’ children are using ebooks. I think this is bound to change (and may already be changing; see this post from a school librarian); children are growing up with electronic platforms and have a very different relationship to them to the one that older generations have. (This doesn’t mean I think there won’t continue to be a place for beautifully produced conventional books: I do. I was in a bookshop the other day, and nothing beats being able to see the variety of formats, feel the texture of a certain cover, admire an innovative design and layout. But there are also great advantages to reading on an e-reader, as you well know. I should think now at least half of my reading is electronic; probably more.) So, as well as wanting to prolong the active life of this particular book, I saw it as dipping a toe in the water. I have at least one hitherto unpublished children’s novel that I’d like to see the light of day. I don’t think it’s time yet, but I think it may be soon, and when it is I want to be ready.

As I said, I don’t expect to sell lots of copies of The Willow Man. But I’d love it to reach people who might be interested – and that includes anyone who knows someone who’s had a stroke, and anyone who’s interested in dyslexia and children who fail in school. (Not that it’s just an ‘issue’ book; I’m pretty confident that it’s a good deal more than the sum of its parts.) However, if any of you has any tips for maximising sales, that would of course be wonderful! Thank you very much for allowing me to be your guest – and I shall continue to read your posts and learn from you all.


JO said…
Welcome to Authors Electric

I love the Willow Man - it's my gateway to the West Country.

(Just wish someone hadn't built some sort of country store so close to it - your photo shows it as is should be, with nothing but fields and sky.)
Lydia Bennet said…
I enjoyed reading your post Sue, good luck with the ebook and future ones. Shamefully I'd never heard of the Willow Man, he looks great and what a good idea to write a book about him - could you help to market it by asking the local council to promote it to schools in the area? I have a similar critter near me, Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North, which most of us love and which has inspired many plays, poems etc. (I'm Valerie Laws btw!)
Sue Purkiss said…
Thank you, Jo and Valerie. Yes, it is a pity about the huge distribution centre - they call it Legoland down here because it's built in blocks in different shades of green.
madwippitt said…
Hurrah for getting it The willow Man up and running ... it is exciting isn't it? There's something very thrilling about seeing your ebook go live - more than a print one - maybe because you get so very much more involved in all the publishing process?
Jan said…
Yes, I love the Willow Man. And your description of your book was so enticing I've just downloaded it to my Kindle. Looking forward to reading it. Well done - I know what hard work it is to e-book your book!

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