Tuesday, 18 December 2012

'Winston and Me' - The Interview

Presenting an interview with Mark Woodburn, author of our historical fiction blockbuster Winston & MeThe article was written by Oliver Robinson, and first published on TALKonline, the internal newsletter for Lloyds TSB. It is reposted here with their permission.

The cover of Winston & Me.
You might say Mark Woodburn became a novelist by accident.

He had no intention of writing a book, he says. It began as a diversion, something to take his mind off things in the evenings.

He started to jot down a few ideas. Four months later, Mark, who works for our Commercial Banking business, had finished his first novel and a few months later had found a publisher, a small start-up business called Valley Press in Yorkshire.

Winston and Me follows the lives of a young Winston Churchill and his servant or ‘batman’ during the First World War. It is a novel of conflict and contrasts: Blenheim and the battlefields of France, the English aristocracy and Edinburgh slums, the longing for home and the urge to flee domestic dead-ends.

Mark's story is told through the eyes of teenage batman Jamie Melville, who lies about his age to join the army.

"I wanted to create a story of parallel lives and tell it from the point of view of someone who had no axe to grind about Winston Churchill. Even now he is still a really controversial character," Mark explains. "I wanted someone with absolutely no preconceptions about him, and just to see him as he is, as an ordinary person."

The novel also charts the teenager's personal journey towards manhood – his role as the breadwinner in a large family, the pains of first love in his relationship with a nurse and, after the war, his efforts to find a career in London.

Understandably, though, the myth of Churchill looms large.

"Everyone has an opinion about Churchill," says Mark. "But as a battalion commander, he was a huge success, first class in every way. He was also a Renaissance man, he could paint and write. He suffered some terrible setbacks in his life, but he always seemed to come back.

"The thing I identified with most was his humanity – the empathy he had for his men. When he arrived at the front, soldiers wrote home and told their wives and families. The wives and families bombarded him with letters asking to do ridiculous things for them – one soldier's wife had lost her birth certificate and couldn't get it back, so she wrote a letter to Winston to see if he could help get it back – he answered every single letter that came to him, no matter what the subject. He wrote back and he did his bit to help. He wasn't this remote politician some people think he is."

As for his own efforts, Mark is low key about his success and plays down the effort needed to hold down a job and write a novel.

"It can’t be that difficult because I've already started on my third book. I never saw it as being work. Some people come home at night and they go to the gym. My sporting days are over because I had a very serious injury playing rugby. I don't go to the gym and I don't have other hobbies after work. If I were to do this for a living and suddenly a publisher said you’ve got six months to write it, then that might be a different story."

Winston and Me is published by Valley Press, and available through the publisher's website for £9. It is also available from Amazon and Waterstones.com.

There is a pleasing parallel story to the book's publication. Valley Press, established by poet Jamie McGarry, was highly commended in the 2012 Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards, making it one of the top thirty graduate businesses in the UK.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

My Week at Valley Press

(Note from JM: presenting a guest post from a young lady named Stephanie, who spent the week of 5th-9th November helping out in the Valley Press office. If you missed her fellow intern Madeleine's post about the same week, you can catch it here.)

Having been generously offered a week's work placement at Valley Press, I was very excited to get started and engage in some hands-on work, and become more closely involved with books at their editing and production stage. Having only done internships at larger publishing houses before, I had not yet had the experience of working directly with the books and their contents, and so it was something I was very eager to be a part of.

Much to mine and fellow intern Madeleine's surprise, we were given an opportunity to do so on the same night that we arrived in Scarborough! The manuscript in question was due to be sent to the printers the next day, and so valiantly our fresh, new team of brilliant editorial minds (including Valley Press' own Jamie McGarry and local author Felix Hodcroft) took on the roles of proof-readers and typesetters in order to get the manuscript prepared on time. I couldn't have asked for a more hands-on project than that to kick-start the week!

The following day Madeleine and I were given the opportunity to help edit an anthology of poems soon to be published by an author whose name must sadly be kept in the dark for now.  After a lunch in a nearby cafe at which it seemed Madeleine consumed a lake-full of Haddock chowder (a challenge I gamely predicted she would not manage - see, who's to say interning can't be fun?) we delved into a poetry-filled afternoon, fulled by tea, coffee and biscuits provided by our gracious host.

Proving that great minds do not, in fact, necessarily think alike, Madeleine and I disagreed on our opinions of the vast majority of the poems; however, as a collection we both, including Jamie, agreed that the anthology is definitely something special.  The poet's ability to display his subject matter in such a thought-provoking manner was a breath of fresh air to me; his portrayal of everyday and universal situations from such a unique angle and perspective was certainly impressive. We did attempt to come up with equally thought-provoking ideas for the front cover illustration, but this was something that continued to have us stumped throughout the week. I have to admit, though, that Madeleine had the edge in this task; she came up with a few quite interesting ideas while I struggled to come up with anything nearly as constructive!

Dinner that night consisted of home-made quiche (divine) and cocktails (awesome!) provided by Madeleine's aunt; not that I'm saying that all interns would be given such a treat; but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the good company, good drinks and great food. Madeleine and I agreed that the internship was beginning to feel like a holiday even on our first day - we were enjoying the work and the people and, as Madeleine correctly described it, it felt more like an 'editorial retreat' than an work placement!

Tuesday saw Jamie, Maddy and I taking a trip to The University of Hull, Scarborough Campus to give a talk to some undergraduates taking English degrees (at which a previous intern was coincidentally sitting in the audience). Jamie managed to quell one student's misconceptions of the poetry publishing world, proving that publishing poetry is a safe and cost-effective venture into the world of publishing, rather than the risky manoeuvre that the student supposed it to be. (Note from JM: that's that sorted then!)  Madeleine gave details of her MA, her past work placements and how she had managed to get to where she was in her publishing career path. I decided to start giving out names of organisations and societies that I'd been involved in which allowed me to gain my work-experience placements, as they were what led me to the opportunities to get involved in interning. As a lovely surprise afterwards, the lecturer Kevin Corstophine took us for drinks and a delicious dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant as a thank you on the behalf of the university. With perks like those I'd give as many talks as they'd want!

(That night we also took a trip to see the new film, Skyfall. Any work placement that involves James Bond films is a successful one for me!)

Madeleine did come up with some magic advice for breaking into the publishing world that kept us tickled for most of the week: "Just live your life." Unfortunately this nugget of wisdom was not shared with the student body, however Jamie and I understood perfectly what she was getting at: live your life, and gain contacts that can help you progress and get your foot in the door. In the world of publishing, networking is everything.

On Wednesday we took a trip to the university at York, where we listened to readings from the very smart and immensely interesting James Nash, author of Some Things Matter, 63 Sonnets (published by Valley Press). We managed to sell numerous copies of his book at the stall that Jamie had set up, and rightly deserved, as his collection of sonnets were witty, amusing, and touching all at the same time. It was a pleasure to hear him read. We were also treated to readings from the brilliant David Tait and the music of Izzy Isgate.

For our second-to-last day, Jamie gave us the opportunity to look at submissions, a task I thoroughly enjoyed. Again, the three of us disagreed on many submissions, especially Madeleine and me, but it just showed that any we DID both agree on were definitely worth a second look. This task gave us an insight into what kind of submissions publishers receive and also what they look out for in terms of content and quality.

Friday was an interesting day for me; as Jamie had to be elsewhere on business, he asked if I could attend an Amnesty International book event at the Guild Hall in Hull (as that is where I live, conveniently!) As a sort of ambassador for Valley Press, I attended the book event where I met many of the authors that had contributed to the anthology, entitled Small Candles, that Jamie had helped produce.  We listened to readings of the poems by their respective authors, and I helped take photos of the readings too. The people were very lovely, providing us all with free tea and cupcakes, and I even got a personal mention in the thank-you speech for my attendance! What a lovely way to finish a brilliant 'editorial retreat'!

Do not underestimate the benefits of undertaking an internship at a small publishing company; in fact, if you want more hands-on involvement and a feeling of really contributing, then I would more than happily suggest Valley Press, and more generally the smaller publishing firms. They are not necessarily just a stepping-stone into bigger things, either, because I undertook two previous work placements at large London-based publishing firms before I came to Valley Press, and I enjoyed this placement just as much, if not more, and certainly took just as much from the experience. Thank you very much, Jamie, for allowing me to take part in such a fantastic work experience placement. I could not recommend it enough.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Mulling Over The Times

Lately I've been mulling over the state of things: my own country (USA, election and all), the world (Israel, Hamas), the universe (poor Pluto, you had a good run) and everything else in between. It can be daunting to take a good, hard look--all that seems to be lacking, all that obviously needs to be done.
The mulling over makes me appreciate every story I've read, for it is in stories, poems, the written word that I see, time and time again, the same inexhaustible truth: good triumphs over evil. It just does.

I love that. I need that--as an artist and as a human being. I am grateful for that truth today. It keeps me going. It keeps me coming back around to my writing (which frightens me just as much as the state of the world does). It makes me realize what a blessing it is to be able to communicate in times like these--when information can be shared so quickly, when a wealth of knowledge is literally at the tips of our fingers.

These are hard, unsettling times, but when has the best art been created? It springs from the hard & unsettling, the mess. So here's to the mess, art's inspiration. Where would I be without you?

Sunday, 11 November 2012

This week I have mostly been... interning at Valley Press!

(Note from JM: presenting a guest-post from a young lady named Madeleine, who spent the week of 5th-9th November helping out in the Valley Press office - her post can be thought of as a sequel to this classic effort. She accidentally announced one of next year's books in the second paragraph, I will edit the name back in when his book has been officially announced.  Enjoy!)

I was very excited to be part of the prestigious Valley Press team at the beginning of last week. And in fact, the work began as soon as I arrived! Settling down with a cup of Jamie McGarry's finest tea; he, Stephanie (who was also interning) and I began a rapid and enjoyable proof-read for a book that needed to be sent off to the printers quick-smart! What a fantastically immediate and immersive introduction to the world of independent publishing.

With a later start the next day, thanks to all our hard work, we started the process of editing a collection of poems from Leeds-based writer --------------. What an exciting new talent has been found. His poems are vibrant with insightful descriptions and witticisms of a very real and often touching regional world. In the office we had many disagreements on which poems to include in the collection, but this of course was all part of the dynamic nature of good editing. Plenty of brain-storming surrounded the issue of the front-cover design and consequently patterned our week's work. It actually kept me up well into the night trying to find inspiration! Stay tuned to see what will be the final stroke of creative genius from VP.

On Tuesday we visited the Scarborough campus of the University of Hull, to give a talk to the students about the realities and benefits of a career in publishing. We all had different perspectives to lend an elucidating hand to the young scholars; from Jamie's entrepreneurial point-of-view, to Stephanie and I as young publishers gathering our thoughts from our recent voluntary work. Stephanie was on fire with useful contacts and website suggestions, and it was satisfying to feel that we may be able to contribute to the mapping of someone's career path at such a turbulent time for employment.

We also visited York mid-week, and were treated to warm and diverting performances from musician Izzy Isgate, poet David Tait, and Valley Press poet James Nash in celebration of the latter's book Some Things Matter: 63 Sonnets. Manning the book-stall, we sold many copies of Nash's book amongst other Valley Press wonders.

Later on in the week we handled new submissions, of which there were a couple of hidden gems that must stay hidden for the time being!

In and around our hive of activity, we were also treated to the various hedonistic possibilities of the town. Most memorably... lunches at Café Venus and Bonnets, dinner and cocktails, Talking Heads tea-breaks and some (personally) traumatic yet hilarious audio-bursts of Keane, cake-sharing, James Bond, and walks along the beach.

I'll say it twice, and I'll write it again: I couldn't call my week at Valley Press work experience, even though we did put our heads together to get great wads of work to the next stage of publication. I think Jamie should be advertising editorial retreats!

Monday, 15 October 2012

Video: VP at Ilkley Literature Festival

All has been quiet on the blog lately - I've been too busy with production (check out the books page if you've not been keeping up), but the great eye of Valley Press will soon turn back to promotion, social media and the more ethereal elements of publishing, such as this blog.  Starting today, actually, as thanks to the incredible media guru that is Marcos Avlonitis, the entire Valley Press event from this year's Ilkley Literature Festival has been preserved on video, for your viewing pleasure.

You can view the first part in the window below, and probably find the second, third and fourth segments at the end without much trouble (otherwise, click the links in this sentence).  The event features VP authors Jo Brandon, Cara Brennan and James Nash, but starts, as ever, with me trying so very hard to be a decent host.  Enjoy!

(P.S. I'm rather amused that I'm in the background of all the shots, looking like I'm waiting for my laundry to finish - there could be a remix where it's just me sat there, silently for half an hour (perhaps with some lift music playing - 'there was a little spanish flea' ect.)  Send in your attempts at this to win a prize... no, I'm joking.  Please don't).

Friday, 3 August 2012

A week at Valley Press

I first met Valley Press editor-in-chief Jamie McGarry at the Cornerhouse café in Manchester, after sending him a presumptuous and hopeful email asking if he could provide me with some publishing experience. We discovered a shared love of good tea and literature, and with those two commonalities I was invited to Scarborough to help out at Valley Press, which I have been doing for the last five days.
                Even with my post-student budgetary constraints I managed to book myself into Scarborough’s infamous Grand Hotel. Upon arrival I heard most of the Scarborians’ well-rehearsed horror stories about the Grand under past administrations: outbreaks of illness, poor food, terrible entertainment and constant seagull chatter. Although most of these things remain true to an extent (I still have my health) I was pleasantly surprised when I entered my small sea-view room and unpacked my suitcase. 

                 And so, early Monday morning I became part of Valley Press’ very first 'work experience' team. Four of us in total. Our roles, although unofficial, read something like this:

·         Jamie McGarry – Publisher / Editor-in-chief
·         Samuel Bowell – Head of Greco-Roman affairs
·         Rachel Glass – Poet Laureate
·         Antony Szmierek – Consulting Editor

All joking aside, each of us had an equal part to play in working through both literal and virtual piles of submissions. I think we owe some of our success to our home at Woodend Art Gallery (pictured below), as it was under its glass ceiling that most of our creative efforts were realised. Without spoiling any future Valley Press projects, the pieces we have unanimously agreed upon will provide a very exciting few months for Valley Press and its readership. I think the most important thing to come of Valley Press’ briefly expanded team was an important difference of opinion. With each member bringing their own taste and expertise to the submissions we have managed to settle on a diverse collection of work from a variety of authors. 

Coming to Valley Press during the submission period was certainly very interesting, and I can imagine I’m somewhat unique in being a work experience volunteer who didn’t have to make anyone other than himself a cup of tea or coffee. When we weren’t sifting through submissions we were selling books face to face at Scarborough Spa, where we were lucky enough to have our photo taken by somebody from The Scarborough News. So, if you don’t feel like taking my word for all the hard work we’ve been doing you might want to look out for us in next week’s edition.
In conclusion then, I’ve grown fond of Scarborough. Despite our geographical differences I hope to remain an honorary member of Valley Press and I’ll do what I can to help push things forward wherever possible. For now though, I’ll be catching a train back to Manchester to re-join the masses of unemployed English graduates in the race to find a real job. Wish me luck.

Edit by JM: here is a photo of the wonderful team at the Spa on Thursday, which appeared in the following week's Scarborough News:

Friday, 27 July 2012

Battling The Elements

A desert summer must be treated like a mountain winter--you lock yourself up for the day, only leaving the house for food & water. You sprawl out on the couch and devour books to fuel the creative fire. You let your body inflame and recooperate, watching the monsoons pass over the horizon (instead of snow).

This summer-winter I've survived on Coco Chanel, Hedy Lamarr & Marilynne Robinson. Coco, because her work ethic outweighs her talent. Hedy, because her ideas outlive her beauty. And Marilynne, because her philosophy outdoes her voice.

It's possible to battle the elements when you know you're not alone.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Valley Press Interview: Sir Andrew Motion

A favourite project by Sir Motion, in Sheffield.
When his recent tour of the UK came to York, VP author Miles Cain had the chance to interview Sir Andrew Motion - the man who revolutionised the laureateship and invented the Poetry Archive.  The tour was to promote Sir Andrew's new sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, entitled Silver (click here for more details), so it's that which forms the main focus, though Miles does of course manage to squeeze out some poetry discussion along the way.  (That last sentence says rather more about my proclivities than either of theirs!)  A shorter version appeared in the York Press, but you can consider the text below to be a VP blog exclusive.

Miles: Where did the idea of writing a sequel to Treasure Island come about?

Sir Andrew: I first read Treasure Island when I was about 20, and even then I was thinking about it. I was interested in the unresolved things in the original plot. I made a few notes over the years. When I finished being Poet Laureate it felt like I was being let out of school. I thought I could have a bit of fun, and started to work on Silver.

M: Were you intimidated by the prospect of writing a sequel to Treasure Island?

A: I was very aware that people might think it was a foolhardy thing to do. Some people might think I was going to stick gum on the face of a national monument. Yet Stevenson was very interested in sequels. He wrote one to Kidnapped called Catriona. Also, Treasure Island is full of open doors and windows – Long John Silver gets away, the Hispaniola and several men are left on the island. It’s very odd, in a way. There’s a highly volatile atmosphere. But I wanted to move things on. The original seems to be set around the 1760s. I set the story 40 years after the setting of the original story. There didn’t seem much point on trying to do a straight copy of what Stevenson did.

M: How did you emulate the original story?

A: I was conscious of being a sort of  ventriloquist of Stevenson, but wanted to make it at least a little different. Both stories begin with the map. But I was conscious of the things underneath Stevenson’s prose. He had complicated feelings about his father. Long John Silver is a sort of dark father figure in the first story.

M: A lot of children’s stories feature the absence, or death, of parents. It’s one way of allowing the story to begin.

A: That’s right. The father has to die in order for Jim to have an adventure. It’s the way the child begins to have the independent life that they wouldn't otherwise have.

M: Silver has a dark edge to it. The cover is dark, and the final chapter is entitled 'The Wreck Of All Our Hopes'. Was the dark atmosphere intentional?

A: Very much so. People associate Treasure Island with adventure, and that’s certainly there. It’s hard to imagine Pirates of The Caribbean without Treasure Island in the background. But nobody expects Pirates to include a scene where Johnny Depp gets killed. There’s a darkness and seriousness in Stevenson that I wanted to capture. Long John Silver is a person of real menace. I wanted to leave a lot of room for the dark stuff. The two books at the back of my mind were Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord of The Flies. What would it be like to be left on an island for the rest of your life? It wouldn’t be the happy adventure we think it would be. It would be something very terrifying.

M: When I hear you on the radio your voice seems to have an introspection and shyness about it. But you lead quite a public life – and one of your poetry collections was entitled Public Property. How do these two aspects of your life work together?

A: I do have an appetite for public things. I have just been asked to be President of the Campaign to protect rural England and that will involve a lot of speaking at public meetings. Left to my own devices, I do want to sit at home, talk to my wife and stroke the cat. But I think there’s a balance between the two things, the public and private.

M: There were times when you found it hard being Poet Laureate?

A: Yes. I was asked to write a poem for the Today programme and I had to write about foot and mouth. They wanted a poem that was about that issue, and I found it hard because they obviously wanted something that was easily comprehensible. The best poems about anything ‘…tell all the truth but tell it slant…’ as Emily Dickinson said.

M: I heard you at a reading and you talked about ‘…work and kindness, kindness and work…’ Is that a kind of personal motto for you?

A: I’d forgotten I said that but yes, I suppose so. It’s particularly important to be kind at home to the people you are close to.

M: It seems to be a good time for poetry by women at the moment.

A: Yes, a delayed high summer, you might say. It’s good that it redresses the balance, partly through highly symbolic things, like having a woman poet laureate. It makes sure that women’s voice are at least equal to those of men. Crucial people have given encouragement over the years and we’re seeing the fruit of that now.

M: Some strong young women poets coming through at the moment, like Liz Berry.

A: Yes. Liz is a fantastically interesting writer.

M: In your biography of Philip Larkin, you quoted a passage from him that said poetry should have clarity. Is that part of poetry’s role?

A: I do think so. That is the poetry I like best. Transparency. I’ve often said that poems should look like a glass of water but taste of gin.

M: On the other hand, ambiguity is important.

A: Yes. The hard and fast answers aren’t good enough. We don’t believe them anymore. I do think, as well, that poetry links to whatever we mean when we talk about religion. A sense of the numinous is really important to poetry. We feel a wonder at the intricacy and marvelousness of the world. The older I get the more I seem to reflect on questions such as what difference can we make, why are we here, and so on.

M: As you look back on the past thirty years, what are you proud of?

I’m proud of my kids. I’m proud of the Poetry Archive – a lot of people go on that website and listen to or read poetry. I like Silver. I like The Invention of Doctor Cake (ed: one of Motion’s novels, vaguely about Keats - spoiler alert!) and there are a few poems that I think are strong.

A delightfully modest end there.  One last fact before I sign off: Sir Motion has in fact contributed to a Valley Press book without realising it - the poem 'Motion' from Daniela Nunnari's Red Tree was written whilst at a workshop he was leading, based on a famous painting of a woman looking out of the window (that I've temporarily forgotten details of).  A great poem though, and one more literary achievement for him to be proud of!

If you're a former poet laureate and want to be interviewed for the VP blog, get in touch via the contact page.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Catch-up and New Interview with J.M.

Hello there - first of all, apologies for the lack of blog posts lately, I've been discovering just how much work really is involved in running a publishing operation... turns out, lots.  I feel confident now, however, that I stand astride the mountain of things to do, having not conquered it exactly but got in the right position to conquer it.  There have been countless events and book launches since my last post (feels like it anyway), particularly in June - some highly successful, some miserable failures, and a rare one or two that turned out pretty much as planned.  We don't have any more 'live dates' scheduled now till 8th September at the Poetry Book Fair, so the next month-and-a-half will be a rare chance for me to get everything up to date and catch my breath.

While all this publishing and eventing has been going on, no-one (except possibly my mum) has expressed a desperation for blog posts, so they have fallen by the wayside - the last really interesting post by me was March 3rd.  I promise to remedy this situation in the remainder of 2012, and maybe even shed some light on what went on during these past few months.

Cover for the last Inpress catalogue.
I assume you've been keeping up with our publishing programme while I've been 'away' - if not, check the homepage.  My next job is to make pages for all the books coming out in the second half of 2012, ideally before the release of the next Inpress catalogue, which will (for the first time) feature our titles.  And in this manner, we arrive at the meat of this post; the catalogue also features an interview with yours truly on the subject of - you've guessed it! - Valley Press, and you lucky blog readers don't need to wait till the catalogue has been printed to read it, as the full version is featured below.  The questions were asked by Inpress chieftain Rachael Ogden.

RO: What was the impetus behind setting the company up?

JM: I have had a peculiar interest in publishing throughout my life – at the age of 6, I was filling exercise books with stories, then adding ‘front matter’, a blurb and even a barcode.  I can’t really explain this behaviour (then or now), except to say it must have been hard-wired from birth!  I continued to experiment with publishing whilst at university, under the name ‘Valley Press’, so after graduation – having struggled for eight months to find any sort of gainful employment – I felt I had no choice but to get some more books printed and give it a proper go.  The rest is history.

RO: What is the primary focus of the press?

JM: Up to now, Valley Press has been responsible for a certain type of poetry – the word ‘accessible’ springs to mind, but never simplistic or banal.  Poetry that would satisfy someone with a wide knowledge of the medium, but also work that anyone could get something from; poetry that doesn’t exclude.  That’s my particular passion and area of expertise, but as readers of this catalogue will see (blog readers: just imagine it), during the next six months I’m experimenting with a few other genres – in the hope me and VP can continue to make ends meet.

RO: What do you think small independents contribute to the publishing landscape?

JM: Well for a start, more books – which is never a bad thing (until it comes time to move house, of course!)  More opportunities for authors to get their work in print, and more opportunities for readers to discover new books, and new ways of discovering books.  Also, with independents there is a great scope for specialisation, of topic and of region, which does wonders for our literary diversity.

RO: What are your aspirations for the company?

JM: This is an easy one – I would like to put in place an infrastructure that could take any book, edit and produce it to be the very best it could be, and market it in such a way that it was brought to the attention of (or perhaps, put in front of) everyone who could gain something from it.  I think at heart, this is the goal of all publishers – no-one really goes into this for the money!

I know this catalogue reaches people in many areas of the industry, so I’d like to say – if anyone has any tips, advice or questions for me, I’d love to hear from you on jamie@valleypressuk.com.  I’m still at a quite early stage in my career, and when I started I knew absolutely nothing; so I still have a lot to learn, and I find a good way to speed that process up is to be honest and ask.

What I'm really looking for at the end, I think, is an offer of a better (i.e. less stressful and more lucrative) job!  Anyway, hope you gleaned some small enjoyment from that - if you've heard all those particular thoughts and stories before, you're obviously a keen follower of VP and won't mind a bit of repetition.  Pretty soon, the story of my early childhood book creation (and subsequent unemployment) will be as familiar and enjoyable to you as a black-and-white lunchtime film on BBC2.  I expect.  Anyway, see you shortly, for more enlightening chapters of the Valley Press story!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Kindle, the book and permanence

Jonathan Franzen recently issued a rebuke to Kindle readers everywhere when he said that text on a screen is ‘just not permanent enough’. What does this mean? What is not permanent about it? 

The language of the Kindle is rooted in impermanence: a page is not turned, it is refreshed; a book is not opened, it is loaded; a book is not bought, it is downloaded. Franzen, perhaps, is objecting to the new reading lexicon. A book is not a book unless the words still exist then the page had been read. In a book, of course, the words physically exist. A turned page still tells the story, but where does the story go when a page is ‘refreshed’? Taking Franzen on face value, does he have a point? Bluntly, no. If a page does not exist before the Kindle refreshes, where does it come from? This is the simple response to Franzen’s objection. Existence may be different in the world of the Kindle than it is in the world of books, but of course it still exists.
However, I believe that Franzen’s objection is far more complicated. It cannot be reduced simply to a luddite’s temper, a fist shake at technological advance. Franzen’s objection is actually about the permanence of text. He says that a Kindle screen feels as if ‘we could delete that, change that, move it around.’ Of course, when a book is in control of the author, this is merely called editing. Yet when it is published, Franzen seems to argue, this type of interference is desecration. This is not, as so many objections about the Kindle are, merely about the tactile response to the new medium. This is something sacred that has been defiled; the writer's vision never crystalised into art.

This is a far more interesting observation. It perhaps reflects textual theory, in particular with regard to a writer’s relationship with the text. Does the artist have ownership of it and therefore the right to change it as he pleases? Should there be a point where the artist comes divorced from it, a point where is belongs to everyone equally? Should the text be analysed as if the writer does not exist at all, divorced from biography? Is a published book set in stone? And is this relationship fundamentally different in kind when the text is on the Kindle rather than in a book?

In a delicious irony, considering Franzen’s remarks, the first UK edition of his novel Freedom was printed with a number of typos. The publishers response? To recall the book and pulp it. Of those that had been sold, readers were offered the opportunity to replace their ‘faulty’ copy with a new one. Of course, not everyone would have done this, but it is fair to say that most were returned and pulped out of existence. And as time passes, more will pass out of existence copies of this book. Words were not just moved about a screen, they were destroyed entirely. This is simply mischief-making, however. This book was destroyed only because it contained typos and did not represent a fair copy of the author’s work. These changes were simply about editing, something which any writer would say they have a right to do. At this point the text still belongs to the author. However, it does demonstrate the paper permanence is not what Franzen might have us believe. 

So perhaps Franzen’s objection is more that once the fair copy of the book has been published it is set, unchanged for future generations, never to edited again. Unfortunately this is not true. Tess of the D’ubervilles is a great book by one of the great English novelists, Thomas Hardy. Yet the story of the book that you come to read today is more complicated. First, there was the serialisation in two magazines, each of which published a slightly different version of the story (the rape of Tess, for example, was left out). Then there was the first book of the story, which differed again. Yet even at that point, Hardy had not finished and still claimed the right to edit so that he made changes even as late as 1912. What is permanence in this case? Is there a stage when the author and the text must divorce themselves from one another? You could object, of course, and say that the other copies still exist, that they are permanent. But do they not simply become versions of permanence? There are other examples: Great Expectations, for instance, had two endings; Elizabeth Gaskell’s Bronte biography went through three editions. Is this permanent in the sense that the author and the work become divorced? It seems, after all, that it is still possible to ‘delete that, change that, move that around.’
What of the Kindle in this debate? It does not offer much of a defence of itself in this regard. Indeed, it might come off worse because Amazon have the ability to remotely delete items on a person’s Kindle without their permission. Thus, in this case, it could simply have removed all faulty copies and replaced them. Therefore, would not this mean that only one version exists, whereas at least for physical books it is possible to retain all editions? But there are other ereaders on the market, and as Franzen’s objections were in respect of a screen rather than a particular product, we shall treat Kindle as other treat Biro, that is a generic terms of all ereaders. When we consider these,  ereaders respect of permanence is more deferential. I have a Sony Reader. To purchase books one must first download it to one’s computer and then upload the book to the ereader. At the point, it is isolated from outside interference. It is also possible to duplicate the file, onto a memory card, onto a hard drive, even onto a server. Duplication of these files, and their isolation from outside interference, is easy. Remote deletion is not possible. The file is protected and easily reproduced, unlike the book which can be pulped; is this not more permanent than a book?
Think too about the oppression of novels. A printed copy could be destroyed. Book burnings are a very strong symbolic gesture about the destruction of knowledge. But in the electronic world, oppression is much more difficult. Think of the brave bloggers in repressed societies. If they were to rely on the printed world, would their testament have such force? The fact the digital, a world of which the Kindle is a part, can so easily reproduce itself on millions of systems worldwide, ensure their permanence and their strength. The ebook still exists where perhaps the physical book can go up in flames.
Franzen is wrong, then, when he objects to the impermanence of the Kindle, or the digital word.  Yet it is difficult for me not to agree with the sentiment. There is something special about a book. But it is not permanence; it is impermanence.  A book's entropy is there for all to see as is its fragile existence, perhaps now more under threat than ever, which one must endeavour to protect. A Kindle screen does not change; one page is much like the other; one book a screen of words, another book simply a screen of different words. Yet, I can look at the physical book without reading the words and appreciate its uniqueness; I can run my hand over a page and feel the undulation of the printed word beneath my fingertips. An older book picks up its own life, its own experience and its own smell, its stains, even its notes in the margin. It gets old, it fades, it loses its memory as it loses its pages. And by the light of a candle sometimes one swears one can see a word’s shadow flicker to the flame's irregular beat.
It is not permanence, it is impermanence that makes the written word special. So special that it must be protected. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A Retirement Note

The first ever Valley Press book cover.
Don't worry, it's not me retiring - that would be a short career!  (Though it is a tempting thought.)  This post is just to announce that as of this week, VP0001, The Waiting Game, is officially 'out of print' and no longer available anywhere.

Viewers with a strong historical memory will recall The Waiting Game was written by myself when I was 19, so to some extent it was the perfect text to experiment on, as far as publishing goes.  The retiring edition is (to put it mildly) not quite as professional a job as the current VP titles, so when Amazon sold their last copy this week, I decided not to print any more - thus, the book is now out of print.

However, I have kept two copies of this edition - one for the 'archive', and one extra one which I will be attempting to sell for an extraordinary price from this point onwards.  If anyone would like to get in with an offer early, you know where the contact page is - don't be shy!  And I may well do another edition at some point... we'll see.

In print for 3 years, 221 days, TWG holds the record for 'VP book in print for the longest time'.  This will be broken on May 10th 2013 by Nigel Gerrans' Tenebrae, assuming I keep printing that one!  (If you're wondering about VP0002, that's been unavailable for a while... I was just too busy to tell you... same deal with the 'spare copy for extraordinary price' there.)  I like to keep an eye on these records - keeps me occupied!  As ever, lots of exciting new books in the pipeline; keep your eyes on the site and subscribed to the newsletter for all the details.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

'Sea Swim' Review - by Christian Ward

I'm delighted to post the first review of John Wedgwood Clarke's Sea Swim, reviewed by poet and writer Christian Ward. Christian's literary accolades include first prize at the East Riding Open Poetry Competition in 2010, and look out for a poem by Christian in Poetry Review this summer.

The sea has inspired poets for centuries; Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, famously compared the sea off Nova Scotia to knowledge in her poem ‘At the Fishhouses’: “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world".

The sea around Scarborough is the inspiration for Sea Swim, John Wedgwood Clarke’s pamphlet. Written as part of imove, a Cultural Olympiad Programme in Yorkshire, this 18 poem sequence is a great showcase for Clarke’s talent for creating original metaphors and stunning images. Diving in (pardon the pun), the reader feels how the sea can transform on an emotional and spiritual level.

Clarke has a knack for recording detail in an imaginative way. A swimmer surfacing in his dark wetsuit is ‘like a cormorant’ (“Rings”), beach chalets are ‘small wooden stanzas’ (“Beach chalets”), a warship’s red flag is like a ‘pilot fish’ (“Warship, South Bay”) and a spider is ‘auburn-legged’ (“Winter Minutes”). The reader becomes part of this landscape with these intimate details.

There is a strong emotional undercurrent in these poems, felt in poems such as “Hydro”, where Clarke compares his shadow to a ‘frisky amoeba blundering in another world’ and the tender “Winter Minutes”, where there is ‘nothing to record but your absence’. The sea can take away just as easily as it can give back. Language, emotion and the real, physical, are all fleeting here.

Sea Swim is an excellent pamphlet. John Wedgwood Clarke’s deft imagery and knack for creating poetry with depth makes him one you need to read. Much enjoyed.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

National Poetry Month (Pt. 2): Charles Baudelaire

Mario Praz once wrote Charles Baudelaire was a poet "in whom the Romantic Muse distilled her most subtle poisons." Having a slight handle on the French language, I couldn't agree more. Take L'Ennemie, par exemple:

The Enemy

My youth was nothing but a storm of shadows
Star-crossed, here and there, by the occasional sun-shaft.
Thunder rolled, rain ravaged (mourning skies)--
My tree never had a chance for fruit to speak of.
I live in the great fall of the mind, now,
Reaping not what I sow, the earth dark and deep (hanging sweet, hanging low).
I dig at trenches--water seeps, mud heaps onto sluit graves.
The meaninglessness of toil, life--tell me, what is it worth?
Will that of which I dream ever bear ripe with ripening fruit?
No, it is pain, pain--she eats at the marrow of life.
The great obscure Enemy sucks the blood, gnaws the strength
right out of me.*

*translation & photographie by Cora Charis

Thursday, 12 April 2012

National Poetry Month (Part 1): Pablo Neruda

It's that time o' the year, so it's time for Neruda.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez claimed Pablo Neruda was "the greatest poet of the twentieth century--in any language." Having a slight hold on the Spanish language, I have a difficult time disagreeing. Take Sonnet 66, por ejemplo:

I do not love you except (because) I love you:
I move from loving to not loving you;
waiting, not waiting for you--
back & forth, through my heart, from ice to fire. 

I only love (you) because I love you.
I love; I hate without end, and hating you 

pray to you, and the measure of my changing love
is not to see you but to love you blindly.

{Perhaps January's light will devour, 
its cruel-intentioned ray, my whole heart,
stealing the key to life's rest.}

In this history only I die, 
die of love because I love you,
because I love you, Love, in fire and in blood.*

Kind of hard to compete with that. 

*translation & photographie by Cora Charis

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A First Month at VP

March has proved itself an extraordinarily exciting month in publishing. So much so that I wonder if life in the wonderful world of Jamie McGarry's Valley Press can possibly maintain this pace? I am assured that I might as well "give up the gym" now that I have secured my seat on the VP bus to success (I am assuming those of you who read this blog regularly are already familiar with Jamie's uniquely confident witticisms?)

Now, before I leap into bringing you up to date to with spring's events so far, I would like to take a little space here to properly introduce myself: I am Jamie's newest (and only) member of staff. I first met Jamie in 2008 at Scarborough Poetry Workshop when he joined us after winning first place at the Scarborough Literature Festival's poetry slam. I myself had held the title for winning the year before and was curious about this new face of poetry rising up through the ranks. I would like to point out (as has now become a custom when we relay this tale) that I had not entered the slam the year that Jamie won. Since then I have entered and won two further slams which Jamie likes to make absolutely clear that he did not enter. So, we have become united by our undefeated titles as Scarborough Slam Champions and while the poetry world waits with baited breath for the day we become slam rivals and enter the same competition, we placate with mutual appreciation in a contrived stalemate - contented - playing scrabble.

...by a poor but equal Scrabble skill.
Ele Lawlor vs Jamie McGarry, perfectly

I have come to Valley Press under a traineeship structured to compliment my studies of English. I currently wear the title 'Editorial Assistant' alongside the endearing nickname given to me by VP Author Jo Reed - 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' (thank you Jo). I very much look forward to getting to know the rest of the VP family as I endeavour to master the manyfold artistry that is publishing. Here's to growth and success all round!

So far I am pleased to report that all is chocolate roses and tuneful harmonies in the VP offices. I have enjoyed a most eclectic four weeks in my new role. My first week began by accompanying Jamie to Hunmanby where we had a brilliant time entertaining the local WI. Jamie gave an informative and humorous talk on VP's rise and future plans, and the industry of publishing in general. We introduced Hunmanby to some of the VP authors' work, reading poems from various collections. The snails were out (of course) and I was most privileged to read from Helen Burke's The Ruby Slippers and Norah Hanson's Love Letters and Children's Drawings. Then, after devouring some deliciously calorific homemade shortbread we were given the honour of judging their poetry competition. The winner was the charming Larraine whose Spring poem caught our eye with its clever rhyming of the words 'blithely' and 'Filey'. Excellent work Larraine! The day ended with an impressive amount of books sold and a sunny drive back back to Scarborough, cannily timed with Radio 2 airing the 1961 classic song 'Poetry in Motion'. Oh how we laughed (and yeah, we sang along).

Cara in full flow.
Next on the agenda was the third leg of the already highly successful Valley Press Fest tour, which took us this time to Newcastle's impressively grand city centre. The venue - The Lit and Phil - couldn't have been more fitting for a literary event. We were lucky enough to have a nearly full cast of the lovely VP Authors turn up to read for us, wine flowed and the performances were each and all superb. The evening's special guest was future VP author Cara Brennan. Cara read from her soon-to-be-published collection of poetry, her style held us all captivated as she gently spoke each poem with an alluringly congruent and clean innocency. She is currently studying for an MA in creative writing. We wish you all the best Cara and look forward to seeing you in print very soon. Watch this space people!

Of course, publishing can't all be jet-setting and sparkling performances. There is plenty to be getting on with and lots of fun new stuff for me to learn here at my desk. I have chosen, from the vast selection of submissions, my first full project for VP. I will be producing an ebook of poems by the extraordinarily beautiful writer Jade Kennedy. I have fallen utterly in love with her work and really can not believe my luck that my working day involves reading and re-reading and editing and ordering this stunning collection. I won't say too much just yet, but be sure to keep your eyes open for more news on this publication.  That's all for now, thanks for reading - hope to see many of you soon at the fine VP free April events!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Miles Cain to Judge Sentinel Poetry Competition

Miles pondering the mysteries of the universe.
I've recently received word that Valley Press author Miles Cain will be judging the next poetry competition run by Sentinel Magazine, the closing date for which is the 5th April.  First prize is £150, so you may want to give it a go - all the details can be read on their website here.

I think readers of the VP blog have a decent shot at the prize.  Think about it: you like what we're doing, we like what he's doing (which occasionally is the same thing), so there's every chance he will like what you're doing!

In other Miles news, he will be reading from The Border and doing some musical numbers at Taylors Cafe & Books (Bar Street, Scarborough), on the 28th April from 8pm, supported by Felix Hodcroft.  Entry is free, so you've no excuse really - I'll be doing more promotion on this gig in April, but I thought this post was the perfect moment to give you a 'heads up'.  See you there!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Valley Press 'Highly Commended' in National Business Award

A couple of weeks ago I reported that Valley Press had been shortlisted for the Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards, which (if you read that post) you'll recall was a competition 'to find the best student and graduate entrepreneurial talent across the country'.  This is the post that announces whether or not I can now describe myself as such - the answer is a tentative 'yes'.  VP was 'highly commended' at the North East heat on the 29th February, and can now display the handsome logo you see on your right.

That's pretty much the only prize for 'highly commended', but it's still something to be proud of; apparently there were close to a thousand entries, sixteen of which won a cash prize, and fourteen of which were commended.  So if you like, we can now declare VP is one of the top thirty graduate businesses in the country - not too shabby!  Especially as many of the other companies were serious business players, employing a dozen staff, revolutionising a particular type of technology and turning over in a month what VP manages in a year... and those were just the ones I beat.

This is not just good news for me and Valley Press; by commending VP, the judges have acknowledged that literature (poetry, even) can be the base for successful business activity - a powerful (and unusual) statement from four high-powered banking executives!  Turned out most of them were quite into books, even.  The competition involved me making a two-minute pitch and answering five minutes of questions; during the latter the judges managed to argue briefly amongst themselves whether ebooks or paper were best.  You can't escape that debate!  At the end of the day, when the commendation was announced, VP was described as a 'beautiful business' - I'd obviously touched a few heartstrings, perhaps reminded them of happy childhood days curled up with a tatty paperback.

The VP table at the awards 'do' - I brought the books!

More than anything, the awards formed the basis for a nice day out - I was accompanied by VP author Felix Hodcroft, who did a great job of talking up the operation while I was busy refining my pitch.  The organisers, judges and fellow finalists were brilliant too; unfailingly cheery and friendly.  I noticed amongst them was former The Apprentice and Dragon's Den contender Leon Doyle, a serious player (and seriously tall - when he and Felix stood next to each other, I came up to their chests, and felt like I was back in primary school.  He was one of the ones I beat, by the way - not that I want to rub this in, or anything.)

A wider angle on the table - there's Leon in the back, to the right.

The number of texts, emails and Facebook messages I received on the day was quite staggering - it seems most of the town was rooting for me, particularly after the article on your right appeared in the Scarborough Evening News.  It's rare in publishing that you find yourself competing with anyone in such a direct fashion; poetry awards are decided in secret and announced via email newsletter, and competition between publishers for your custom is done in bookshops with none of us around (unless I'm hanging out near the poetry section trying to influence you, which isn't unheard of).  So in a way it was nice to have a focal point, an us-versus-them moment where people could really get behind VP.  That being said, after the ceremony, me and Felix dropped in on James Nash for a light editorial meeting about his upcoming collection of sonnets, and it served as a helpful reminder of what I'm really in this for - in case all the showbiz got to my head!

Apparently the Enterprise Awards will be a yearly thing, and while winners can't enter again, commended businesses can - so I'll be back, without question, for the 2013 competition!  And until then, back to business as normal; look out for details of new book releases on the blog and on the site soon.

Friday, 2 March 2012

VP Books 'at Large' in Yorkshire

As I wander round the county in search of further sales and acclaim, there are some very pleasant occasions when I unexpectedly stumble across a Valley Press book.  Here is some photographic evidence from the last few months of the books 'on location', arguably in their natural habitat - the bookshop...

Norah Hanson's Love Letters... in the window of Waterstone's Hull.

Steve Rudd's Pulse in WHSmith Driffield (travel section).

...and on the counter with 'Angry Birds', an unlikely pairing!

Four copies of Jo Reed's Stone Venus in Waterstone's Scarborough.

Apologies for the quality of the pictures - all taken with my phone, the best equipment I had to hand!  If you, gentle reader, should happen to see any of our books in a shop near you (and you've got a lot of time on your hands), why not write in and let us see it!  Frankly, it's how I get my kicks.  If you'd then like to forward a picture of the empty shelf, after they've all been bought en masse, that will be even better...

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Horowitz Question

These are strange times for the publishing industry. At least, that's how it appears to me. Having only had my debut collection published nine months ago, I'm hardly a wizened veteran of the field. Nonetheless, with the future of traditional large-scale publishers up in the air because of e-readers, Amazon, digital production accessibility and all that jive, it appears obvious that I've just entered a world in something of a state of flux. You've got your self-publishers making a quick buck off authors not patient or talented enough to go through the usual channels. The again, you've got business-savvy writers like Terry Jones cutting out traditional publishing contracts by going through those very same channels. You've got hi-tech software on your iPhones and the ability to publish widely online.

You've got writers like Anthony Horowitz, who is a wizened veteran of the field, questioning the very need for traditional publishing houses as the literary industry moves into the modern age. With companies like Apple and Amazon waiting at the gates with offers of 70% royalty on all profits from books published via their digital platforms, there are now a myriad of ways to publish your writing without needing to send of those pesky submissions or wait in the Withnail and I hinterland for commissions.

Interestingly, Horowitz acknowledged the dangers that placing so much control in the hands of said corporations (as Apple and Amazon's schemes require) and ponders how much power publishers really have. It's a pertinent question; Tesco barging in on retail prices, supermarkets dictating age-bracketing and generally swallowing up all the train-station fiction and 'next-Harry-Potter' kids' books. He also questions whether authors really need publishers any more? It's certainly a conundrum.

The antithesis to Horowitz' musing is staring you in the face as you read this. Valley Press is a grass roots product of literary enthusiasm and by looking for the best in new and exciting writing, it's only gone and got itself nominated for a national business award. I'm pretty certain that I could have published my book through other channels; I could have paid to have it self-published, released it as an ebook, whatever. I'm also pretty sure the end-product wouldn't be half the quality of the finished 'Encore' that I and Jamie came out with. Where would the promotion have come from? The editing? The keen literary eye that turned my poems from random internet ramblings into a beautifully designed, coherent book? These are all aspects that writers cannot offer themselves. They require outside assistance and those within the publishing industry offer the best form of that assistance.

Horowitz acknowledged this, paying tribute to the contributions of his editors past and present and he actually read out a passage of self-published fiction to bring the to the attention of the audience the tiny oversights and repetitions that made it 'ploddy' rather than cutting and incisive. He notes, then that publishers help to raise the a for writers and the quality of their work. So Horowitz answers his own question in the end; He enjoys being part of the literary tradition that brings publisher and author together, and so do I. Again, though my experiences are thus far limited, it's definitely not a case of publisher v. author, as some camps might be chanting, including the Society of Authors. The fact that publishers are keen to focus on content, and design and all those fiddly bits that you get to bypass by self-publishing should be something to celebrate amongst writers.

If all publishers began to focus on just the money, as Horowitz concludes, they'd probably end up far better off, but where would that leave the readers who crave decent fiction, or poetry, or a cheeky bit of non-fiction? We'd be littered with more Dan Browns and Katie Prices and screen glare. The industry may be in flux, but I'm glad to be in the eye of the storm, and I'm glad to remain part of the long writer/publisher tradition.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Valley Press Nominated for National Business Award

I'm delighted to report that Valley Press has been shortlisted for the Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards, a competition 'to find the best student and graduate entrepreneurial talent across the country'.  Whether this is me has yet to be ascertained - the first prize is a cash injection of £50,000, but to get my hands on that I will need to out-talk representatives from eight other businesses at the Yorkshire and North East heat on the 29th Februrary, in Leeds, and then a further fifteen finalists in Liverpool on the 13th March.

Suffice to say, if I do win the first prize (or even the £5,000 local prize), things will be changing around here!  Expect to see a Steve Rudd blimp hovering over your town, Jo Brandon on the side of a London bus, and Norah Hanson paraded through the streets of Hull in a sedan chair... (if the organisers are reading this, please note this is not my formal answer to the question: 'how would you invest the winnings?')  I'll be keeping the blog up-to-date with news on VP's progress in the awards, and you can read more and follow the whole thing on the official site: www.lloydstsbenterpriseawards.com