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Comment from the book world in January 2020


Writing under lockdown

26 May 2020

‘Stay off the booze. Just before he died, Dylan Thomas claimed he had drunk 18 whiskies, an act described by the coroner as "an insult to the brain". If you want your brain to work at all during this period, don't insult it. Yes, he wrote the most amazing work while being a famous drunkard, but think of how much more he might have written...

The rules for writing under lockdown are no different to other times. It won't happen unless you make it happen. It's incremental and frustrating, and your chances of being paid for it are tiny, but it's a fascinating process, with all the glamour and excitement of an affair but with less chance of divorce. One you discover the joys of it, and the pains, it will bring you the deepest pleasure. Good luck. And save that whisky for when you've typed "the end".'

Louise Doughty, author of nine novels including Platform Seven, Apple Tree Yard and Black Water, and the how-to-write guide A Novel in a Year, in the Sunday Times Magazine

'Gripping, compelling reads'

18 May 2020

‘It's difficult to envision what will appeal post-Covid19; however, the current trend for uplifting reads is bound to continue, with readers looking for distraction and escape from a fairly dire reality - warm humour, salvation, (stories of) unexpected success, happiness, or beating the odds release tension and provide solace...

A staple diet of Netflix thrillers should increase the appetite for more of the same but, perhaps most importantly, crime has always done well in darker times, perhaps because readers are able to take comfort in the fact that their own lives seem comparatively less bleak. A lot of people have mentioned that they are struggling to read at the moment, with so much going on in their minds and homes, and an overwhelming concern about health, finances and the future dominating. Gripping, compelling reads are most likely to help overcome this.'

Karen Sullivan, founder of Orenda Books, in the Bookseller


'We are going to have change'

11 May 2020

‘The last four or five years in publishing have been great. We're in mourning for them. But you can only dwell on that for a few moments before you say: the reading and the writing are still there. Original work will come out of this lockdown, just as it did out of austerity; it has shone a light on globalisation, and the inconveniences that we have, to a degree forgotten, like mortality...

We are going to have change, I feel sure this is a [permanently] changed environment. But my vocation as a publisher feels very central and important. Reading has had an exciting six weeks. It's breathing for some people. Now we just have to figure out the next bit.'

Stephen Page, CEO of Faber & Faber, in the Observer


Escaping the Lockdown

4 May 2020

‘It's that old cliché of getting lost in a book. You want something that you can get immersed in, that takes you out of what is an extremely difficult time or all of us - and a lot of classic novels do that... I think this period, if it's doing nothing else, is probably making reading a more central part of people's lives than before. Reading is always in one sense, a form of escape. It's escaping into a life which is not the life that you're actually having to live. That's why we do it.'

Penelope Lively, author of Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, Family Album and more than 38 other books for adults and children in the Observer


'The book is writing itself somewhere in my head'

27 April 2020

‘I often write everything all at once. Memory isn't linear for me, nor is experience, but I try to keep it as straight as I can. A sense of fluidity and shift, and that energy, that is about change. It's really integral to my work, which is not about the past becoming a stable object. The past very rarely settles down. It shifts under our gaze all the time. When we articulate things, the past becomes different and so I resist and sometimes resent writers who say, "What is, is" and "What was, was", because to me it changes constantly....

What I tend to do is to focus on one or two paragraphs or chapters pretty much endlessly for months and months at a time, and it feels like I'm getting nowhere. I feel like I'm never going to get this book done, but the book is writing itself somewhere in my head.'

Anne Enright, author of just-published Actress, Booker Prize-winning A Gathering, The Green Road, The Forgotten Waltz and three other novels in the Bookseller


Boomtime for film and TV scripts

20 April 2020

‘We have been busy, as there is quite a lot of action out there. It is really lively and major buyers, like Amazon, Disney and Netflix, are calling and saying "what have you got?" They've had to close down their productions, so are putting everything into development. And, of course subscriptions have spiked, so they have money too...

There is quite a bit of corona-writing going on, of course. Some publishers are being opportunistic, rushing out lockdown-inspired work, but generally agents are looking for something fresh.'

Catherine Eccles of Eccles Fisher Associates in the Observer


Agenting in Isolation

15 April 2020

‘I've taken on four new clients over the last couple of weeks for various non-fiction projects, and as an agency we're very active in pursuit of new clients and ideas. It's a great time to work on manuscripts and proposals with authors, while we've all got additional time and space. And it's hugely important that, when we all emerge from this, we're in good shape for the remainder of this year, and next...

The acquisitions process has inevitably been a bit slower than usual, but it appears that publishers are getting used to the new reality and things are going more smoothly now. I don't envy their having to conduct editorial and acquisitions meetings via Zoom, let alone a cover meeting. It remains to be seen how things will evolve and whether we'll see deliberate belt-tightening from publishers, but we've done a very good number of deals since lockdown, including the conclusion of a multi-publisher auction for a significant amount of money, so in the main things look in pretty good shape...

Publishers are being brilliantly creative at improvising publicity campaigns online and via social media, and certainly authors at the more commercial end of the market (where supermarkets and ebooks make up a good proportion of sales) have been less affected than those who rely on traditional booksellers...

People are being more communicative and sharing problems and ideas - I've had some really interesting and creative chats with editors and authors. People have more time to focus on what truly matters, with fewer meetings and distractions, and good and original ideas will certainly emerge from this period. We're seeing confirmation, if it was needed, that stories nurture and console us.

Tim Bates of the Peters Fraser + Dunlop agency in Bookbrunch (behind paywall)

Editing in Isolation

6 April 2020

‘We're still getting submissions from agents around the world - it's clear that agents are working just as hard as ever. And when it comes to acquisitions, we've got a great video meeting in place. It's certainly weird, as an editor, not to be able to champion and enthuse in person (it has made me realise what a powerful thing that can be), but we're all aware that next year's schedules aren't going to fill themselves, and luckily the team at Little, Brown are receptive to being enthused at remotely.

New acquisitions aren't just going to give us a publishing programme for next year, they're also brilliant for morale - I've just won an auction to secure my first acquisition for Little, Brown since joining in February, and there really is no feeling like it, for me or for the wider team. This particular novel, which we'll announce shortly, is an unbelievably assured piece of reading group fiction, and we'll be publishing it as our debut superlead for next year. I know we're all looking for good news now more than ever, and it was a real boost to be able to share with my colleagues the good news that we'd won such a standout novel.'

Darcy Nicholson, editor at Sphere, Little Brown in Bookbrunch (behind paywall)

'I'm a writer now.'

2 April 2020

'It was only after two years' work that it occurred to me that I was a writer. I had no particular expectation that the novel would ever be published, because it was sort of a mess. It was only when I found myself writing things I didn't realise I knew that I said, 'I'm a writer now.' The novel had become an incentive to deeper thinking. That's really what writing is-an intense form of thought.'

Don DeLillo, author of 17 novels, including Americana, Running Dog, White Noise, Underworld, Libra, Falling Man and Zero.


Advice for aspiring crime writers

9 March 2020

‘Do your homework. This is a very competitive genre and you need to be aware of not only current novels, but current television series and films too. There is nothing worse than working on a story for months only to find out it has already been done. I would also advise that you learn how to write a treatment of no more than two or three pages, because as a writer, you need commissions, be it in publishing, television or film. You will also have to learn how to pitch a plot line if your treatment gets a bite. Importantly, if you do have the good fortune to get a project commissioned, pay for a good lawyer to read through and explain all the contracts you will be asked to sign.'

London Book & Screen Week ambassador Lynda La Plante, author of 33 novels, including The Legacy, Widows and Buried (published in April) and many TV series, including Widows and Prime Suspect in Bookbrunch

Lynda's handsome website

'A controlled psychosis'

3 March 2020

‘Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It's a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher's apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passers-by, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self of the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act.'

Olga Tokarczuk, Polish Nobel Laureate for Literature and author of House of Day, House of Night and Primeval and Other Tales


Writing about Thomas Cromwell

24 February 2020

‘He was a good pick. I thought it was an amazing fact that Henry VIII's reign is told and told and told - but where is Cromwell? It seemed to me that no one had bothered to try to listen to his voice, and that it is such a major gap because he is so central. It's almost as if he was so central that people couldn't see him...

When you look at the earlier books, you can see the movement towards crisis, and the way I've chosen to do it is to lead the first book up to the death of Thomas More... and the second up to the death of Anne Boleyn. But when you get to the third book, there is no tidy pattern because the crises come every day, really; every day he is under siege from circumstances...

I admire his cleverness, his energy, is sheer appetite for life. I admire that kind of determination in the face of the worst life can throw at you...

Novels teach you about all sorts of circumstances in the bigger world that you might encounter or states you might pass through. I don't mean they formed a guide to conduct, but a guide to the complexities of life.'

Hilary Mantel, author of just-published The Mirror and the Light, the third book in her trilogy about Thomas More in The Sunday Times magazine. The first two books, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both won the Man Booker Prize.