You might have seen us in The Guardian online this weekend – in a piece about older women writers, the work that Arachne Press does to seek, support and promote older women’s voices, and the gradual sea change that we can see happening in the publishing industry as a whole. We were delighted with the article, but it is only the beginning of the conversation. Here Cherry Potts, owner and founder of Arachne Press, shares some more extensive thoughts about publishing talented, witty, clever and creative older women writers:
In the 10 years we have been publishing we have seen a noticeable shift in all kinds of diversity publishing with specialist publishers such as Incandescent, Jacaranda and Peepal Tree that I’ve not seen since the 80’s. We at Arachne are not specialist in our diversity aims, we are inclusive, and that includes older women. We have always actively sought, supported and promoted older women, and valued what they have to say. The existence of women’s writing networks and magazines like Mslexia (which has been there for 24 years) have made it easier for older women to find publishers like us. It started with independent presses, like us, who intentionally hold space for writers from underrepresented communities. We have always filled gaps we see missing in the commercial publishing industry; the ripple from that has been working through to the industry as a whole, it’s a steady improvement but there is plenty of room for more.
Author Jane Aldous © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/The Guardian
For many women it is impossible to focus on writing until later in life, women’s lives are trammelled with work and caring – children, if they have them, parents almost inevitably as they get older, it takes a strong woman to say no to looking after elderly parents – or a rich one – grandchildren… the list goes on; and battering away at the glass ceiling (should we be so lucky as to not be working in some less inspiring job just to make enough to live on, as the gender pay gap still exists, with all that implies) there isn’t a lot of time for writing or pursuing a publishing deal. Sadly these responsibilities do still fall to women, and because they are usually earning less, they are less able to provide paid for alternatives, and are more likely the one in a heterosexual couple to give up work to care for whoever needs it.
Our open anthology calls consistently attract older women, but we’ve noticed an increase over the years, which led to the idea of our menopause anthology, collecting stories and poems from women in peri/post/menopause exploring the massive changes in their lives that occur as a result. (We will be announcing the contributors on 8th March, International Women’s Day.)
For women who were children during World War II, teenagers in the 50s, young wives or career women in the 60’s, feminists in the 70s, peace campaigners in the 80’s and so on (and some still campaigning!) there is so much they have to bring, and living in their women’s bodies, and coming to terms with all the changes that involves. They are looking back at those changes with the eye of experience and aren’t squeamish about talking about it, as many younger women might be.
Now feels like the right moment for taking all women writers seriously, refusing to conform to the traditional packaging of ‘women’s fiction’, and actively promoting radical, edgy writing – and forms of writing – from a demographic that has a tendency, in the face of the evidence, to be seen as a bit safe, perhaps even cosy. Our older women writers are far from cosy, and they aren’t just old; they are lesbians, (Kate Foley & Jane Aldous) they are disabled (Kate Foley, Jane Aldous and Jennifer A McGowan), they started their lives in this country as refugees (Anna Fodorova) they live somewhere isolated (Clare Owen, Ness Owen, Jackie Taylor) and are (increasingly) from the global majority (Anita Goveas, Seni Seneviratne, Yvie Holder, Victoria Ekpo, Lesley Kerr, Lorraine Mighty). These are just the tip of the iceberg.
Author Anna Fodorova © Michael Ann Mullen / The Guardian
Often we are publishing women in their 60’s plus, who are still writing, or just beginning to write, or more specifically just beginning to publish, having written all their lives. These women are not coming straight into a publishing deal from an MA in creative writing, or off the back of a career writing in TV, or film, or radio, or journalism where they have already have the right contacts to find a deal and get a raft of reviews (and more power to those who do). We are talking about the women who are onto their nth career (Kate Foley worked as a midwife, a cleaner, and an archaeological conservator before finally publishing (as I did, with Onlywomen Press), and won a prize with her first book. In fact I read Kate’s first collection in manuscript! When I started Arachne Press it was with the hope that I would publish writers like Kate, and hers was the first poetry collection we published. We have just published her eleventh collection, Saved to Cloud, having published two previously The Don’t Touch Garden and A Gift of Rivers.
Saved to Cloud
The story here isn’t really that we publish older women (why wouldn’t we?) but that they come to us. It isn’t about debuts, many of the poets (particularly) whom we publish are award winning writers with several collections to their names. But they still send work for our open call anthologies, and that makes space for the debut writers to be published alongside them, and for us to make discoveries.
It’s about women writing quirky, difficult, often angry poetry and short fiction.
It’s about the writers choosing to send us their work because they recognise that we will find a way to overcome the difficulties they face with time and mobility and geographic isolation and anxiety – or whatever it is that gets in their way. We have worked hard at creating a community for our writers, putting them in touch with each other, inviting them on writing weekends, asking them to be guest editors, running workshops, and enabling them to run workshops and panels to discuss what matters to them, work together, explore, make friends, raise their profile… and confidence, if they need it. We don’t start from the assumption that older women (or anyone, even debut authors) need support, but it’s there if it is.
We don’t just publish the anthology, if a writer engages with us, we take an interest in who they are and what they do – their multifaceted careers have found us translators and cover artists among our writers, and anyone who really impresses us gets ‘the email’ saying what else do you have?
We are proud to be one of the primary presses publishing older women and their incisive, imaginative and glorious stories.