Author Joan Taylor-Rowan (Five by Five, Stations, London Lies)
interviewed by Alex Penland (Story Cities)
Alex: How did publishing The Birdskin Shoes change your writing process? How did it alter your view of publishing?
Joan: Firstly a bit of background. The novel was a finalist in a SpreadtheWord novel pitch competition. Buoyed by the response, I completed it and sent it to an agent. The first email from an agent was the kind you dream about – I have it pinned above my computer – but she said it needed work. I duly rewrote it, but despite the changes she decided not to take me on. I had an editor look at it, to give me insights into necessary changes before trying again. The editor loved it and suggested another agent who did take me on. At the time I wasn’t sure that she was the right agent for me, but bruised by my first encounter, it didn’t really occur to me to turn her down. She sent the book out to seven publishers but while they all liked it, no-one said yes.
I decided back in 2012, that if I really believed in the novel I should self-publish. Again I am not a techie so this was a huge learning curve and I was very proud of it. But what I hadn’t really thought out was the amount of work required in promoting it, and you really do have to be doing this full-time. There were a number of things I learned about the publishing process from this:
- choose the agent who is right for your work, don’t just accept the person who takes it
- just because that agent does not get a publisher don’t assume it’s not publishable. I found out later that agents do not approach everyone, only those publishers with whom they have built up a relationship
- once it was self-published, even with good reviews, no agent would then take it on, however that has changed now, but you have to show that it is successful
- you can write a book that people love but you still might not get a publisher for all sorts of reasons, only one of which is the quality of the writing
- at least by self-publishing the book it is not in a drawer under my bed, gathering dust
- getting an agent seems like a miracle but even that is just the very beginning of a long and perilous journey
It did make me much more aware of the commercial side of writing – not that I think anyone should write with that in mind, but if publishing your work is your aim, you have to know and be aware of where your book fits in and what else is out there. It’s harder if you write literary fiction than genre fiction. I learned just how hard it is to write a novel, what a long process it is. It did make me much less judgmental about other writers. Just to complete a novel is a huge achievement. I prefer the intensity of the short story in terms of writing, but I read more novels than short story collections, because I enjoy the immersive quality of a novel.
Alex: The stories in Five by Five are quite different from each other, one set in the 1970’s and one in the Mexican revolution. How did you come to write Bittersweet Like Pomegranates, and The Bet?
Joan: I’ve always been fascinated by Manet’s painting of The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, which is in The National Gallery. It’s very large to start with, and the firing squad are life size. In the painting they are standing very close to the emperor and have already fired the shots so you are there before he dies but after the bullets have left the guns. It made me wonder what it would feel like to have to stand and kill someone who was unarmed. The men are soldiers and are used to combat but this would be very different. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico and so I decided to read up about this emperor and what had lead to the execution. To a large extent he was a pawn and in fact was not bad as emperors go. He encouraged land reform for example.
I began to think about the moral dilemma a soldier might face, especially if he had a child. How might such an event affect him? How would he look his child in the eye? So that is how the story, Bitter Sweet Like Pomegranates evolved.
The Bet, a story set against the background of the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, is a little more grounded in my own experience. My mother was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, and my Irish cousin did send my tomboy sister a rubber bullet. I can still remember the shock of seeing this enormous hard object when I was expecting something the size of a conventional bullet. It transformed my understanding of the news. When rubber bullets were fired, or people were hit with rubber bullets, I knew what that meant. It represented a coming of age – a step into adulthood where suddenly something that seemed the world of a child – a squidgy bullet, is suddenly revealed for what it truly is, a potentially lethal weapon. Luckily my grandpa was not killed with one, that’s where the fiction comes in. However we did all watch the Eurovision song contest, and I wanted to use that as a way of bringing in my mother’s mixed allegiance – she was both British and Irish and that caused her difficulties at times.
Alex: Do you have a literary philosophy–something that you try to include in all your work?
Joan: Hmm..that’s an interesting question. I really believe in the redemptive, life-saving qualities of art and literature, and a love of words and the imaginative life often feature in my stories, even though I don’t plan it that way. I also like to learn something I didn’t know through reading, whether it’s about a different community or some area of knowledge and if I can I’ll try and get an interesting fact in.
Alex: What are your different approaches to poetry and prose? Does one come more easily than the other?
Joan: I rarely write poetry, although I used to in my twenties. In many ways I wish I did. I like performing my work, and having an audience. That’s much more likely with poetry. There are fewer opportunities for short story writers to have their work heard. However I have written lyrics for a musical based on one of my short stories (with a post-graduate composer who heard one of my stories at an event and approached me to collaborate.) I’ve also written lyrics for a pantomime for a friend who teachers A level drama. I enjoy writing lyrics as they are part of a narrative.
Alex: Do you have any strange or funny writing stories?
Joan: After I self-published my novel, I had postcards printed which I left in various shops, galleries etc in London. As it was set in Mexico, I left some in a Mexican gift shop in the Columbia Road flower market in London. A year or so later I signed up for a digital textile class at The City Lit in London. I woman arrived late and breathless and the only seat left was next to me. We both opened our computers to display the images we had brought in to inspire our textiles – hers were of Mexican streets. I commented on them, as mine too were of Mexico. I was there a few years ago, I said, in fact I loved it so much I wrote a novel set there – The Birdskin Shoes. Her jaw dropped. I’ve read that she said. I picked up the card in a gift shop in Columbia Road flower market. I loved it! It was a real Twilight Zone moment.
Alex: What do you have coming down the pipeline? What’s next?
Joan: I’m completing an M.A. in Creative Writing at Chichester University at the moment, and I am working on a novel for that. I’ve also been sending a lot of stories out to competitions although they are a long shot but it makes me revisit and hone my work. I set up a creative writing course in Hastings – and I’ve really enjoyed teaching that and I’m hoping to do more once lockdown is over. I’m also working on a couple of children’s picture books with my sister who is a greeting card designer. Those will be in rhyme, so maybe I have not quite left the poetry behind after all.
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watch Joan read The Bet at Hither Green Festival last year – we would have been there this week, were it not for the cursed covid.