Hi Val, welcome back!
Your first interview was back in 2013. So what exciting things have happened since then?
When you asked me, just before Christmas, if I’d like to do this update, I seem to remember silently screaming, No, go away, can’t cope with this, or something along those lines. Basically I was in festive meltdown – organising kids, grandparents, husband etc. – and didn’t want to have to think about work. After I calmed myself down and messaged you back, you kindly reassured me I could leave it until after January.
So here I am, revisiting my old self from a few years back, remembering what goals she set and what she was planning writing-wise. I’m satisfied that she appears to have achieved her aims, and of course, she’s set some new ones since then, too.
(I’ll slide firmly into first person POV now, so I don’t sound any more pretentious than I have to.)
Firstly, ONCE UPON A WINTER, which had just come out before I was last here on Val’s blog, went on to top the Amazon UK Fairy Tale Chart in 2013 and at the last count had over sixty 5-star reviews. Understandably, I was thrilled about that, considering it was my first attempt at modern magical realism. The feedback from readers, both old and new, was encouraging.
Last time round, I also mentioned a short story I was contributing to the ‘Sunlounger’ anthology organised in 2013 by Belinda Jones. There was another one the following year, and I took part in that, too. My second tale, PANDORA AND THE MUSIC BOX, has also been a featured read on Wattpad. I hadn’t attempted a short story in years, but I valued the discipline of keeping to a strict, low word count.
As for the novella I spoke about last time, I actually ended up writing two that year. A GIRL I KNEW (formerly known as The Trouble With Knights in Shining Armour) and my Christmas themed THE LITTLE BOOK OF LOST HEARTS. The latter set the scene for the next full length work, FOUR SIDES TO EVERY STORY, which I have to admit is the favourite of my contemporary fairy tales so far. It was shortlisted in the 2015 Love Stories Awards and was a 5-star read of 2015 on Chat About Books.
Last year was a bit of a departure, though, as I started working on something different from anything I’d attempted before. I even invented a pen-name – a whole other person to hide behind, which was liberating. But as the year drew to a close, I realised I wasn’t happy. I missed my fairy tales. For reasons rooted in insecurity, I’d begun to think they weren’t ‘proper’ books, not worthy somehow, and could never stand alongside the amazing, emotive fiction being published today.
Then it all changed. FOUR SIDES TO EVERY STORY was listed as a top read for 2016 on Portobello Book Blog, along with a dozen other titles, many of which I’m in awe of. Out of the 140 or so novels Joanne (@portybelle) had read that year, mine had been memorable enough to hover in her top 10(ish). I felt touched, and very grateful. Something clicked in my fragile writer’s brain. A realisation. Just because I choose to weave reality – or our concept of it – with traces of magic, doesn’t mean my work isn’t of value, or unable to hold its own in a crowded market. If this were true, then why is it some of the most famous and enduring stories in our culture happen to be fairy tales, myths and parables? All through history, fiction has worked to make sense of the world around us, and often metaphors are the best way to do it.
So, when the kids went back to school at the start of this year, I dug out a notebook bursting with the plot for a sequel to FOUR SIDES TO EVERY STORY, and sat down as Valerie-Anne to begin this new project. And that’s what I’m working on right now. Oddly, it’s as liberating as having a pseudonym. I feel as if I’ve come home, having forgotten what a wonderful place it can be. I’m energised by my writing again, rather than drained, and excited to find out what 2017 holds for me.
Thank you, Val, for inviting me to return to your blog, to share an update. I’ve enjoyed looking back as well as forward, and come to the conclusion that it’s quite a healthy thing to do at this time of year. Maybe everyone should give it a go!
Exciting times for you, Val. I wish you every continued success in the future!
In November 2015 I interviewed Sally Bridgewater, Creative Writing Courses & Competitions Coordinator for Writing Magazine, who was about to embark on an extreme writing challenge of hitting the 50,000 word target for the NaNoWriMo Challenge – but in one day!
I thought I’d catch up with Sally and see what has happened since.
It is with great sadness and total shock that I have learnt that Carole died last night. She was an amazing lady and inspiration to many, myself included. My sincere condolences to her family, her many friends, colleagues and authors that she represented and respected so much. She will be greatly missed.
My guest this month is Carole Blake, a lady whose amazing career has taken her from working as a secretary in a packaging company to forming the incredibly successful London literary agency, Blake Friedmann. This journey involved becoming the first Rights Manager for Michael Joseph, then Marketing Director at Sphere, before starting up her own agency in 1977. Five years later she merged with Julian Friedmann’s Agency.
Throughout this time Carole has worked tirelessly to develop the careers of her authors and yet still found time to serve on many boards and institutions to contribute to the industry she loves so much. In 2013 Carole was the recipient of the Pandora Award for her ‘significant and sustained contribution to the publishing industry’.
Did your childhood inspire and nurture your love of books?
My childhood home didn’t have many books, but I was always focussed on them & asked for them as presents. I can remember my first ever rag-books (made of a linen-like material) that I used to ‘read’ in the bath before I could actually read. I loved turning the pages and pretending. Once I could read, my early favourites were the Rupert books, which I still have, with my parents’ messages & dates written inside. When I was 8 I asked for a bookcase for my Christmas present. I got it (& only relinquished it when I moved house 8 years ago). I then set out to catalogue and categorise all the books I owned. I worked out a complicated system of letters and numbers and wrote them inside each book, then listed them all against their titles and authors. Very proud of it. Some years later when I discovered the Dewey System I was crushed. I had thought I was being entirely original!
Was it challenging for a woman in your early career to progress in the industry as you did?
I don’t remember it as difficult. I answered an advert in the Evening Standard, went for an interview & got the job. I commuted from Mitcham in Surrey to Marble Arch, & found myself – a working class girl, in a cotton dress and a white cardigan – working as a secretary to a team of university-educated art experts working on a multi-volume art encyclopedia. I kept a low profile, soaked up information like a sponge (including which pieces of cutlery to use when we went out to restaurants) and made friends there (50+ years ago) that I am still in touch with. It was literally a life-changing experience.
Who inspired you the most to keep moving forward? Are you naturally self-motivated to achieve?
The lovely people I worked with at Rainbirds, in my first job, were extremely encouraging. Working there for 8 years kick-started my life-long love of art. It introduced me to the classics (I compiled a company-wide order of Penguin paperbacks every few months. We could get a discount if we ordered 30 or more. Soon I stopped asking anyone else to mark up the Penguin stocklists, because I was ordering 30 at a time myself. I read my way through all the Russian and French novelists, and I remember crying on the no 16 bus as it went round Marble Arch because I finished Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and found it unbearably sad. How nerdish is that for a teenager in the swinging 60s?
But later when I was marketing director of Sphere, Edmund Fisher fired me, quite rightly. I was running the marketing, publicity, rights and contracts departments and wasn’t juggling them very well. We were having a row – we had a very volatile relationship over the three companies and 12 years that I worked with him – and I was in the middle of resigning. When I realised he was firing me I withdrew my resignation and sued for wrongful dismissal. I knew he hadn’t followed all the right procedures (indeed he hadn’t followed any procedures at all!) and as I was a director, I was employed by Sphere’s then owners, Thomson Newspapers, so he didn’t actually have the right to fire me at all. I won, they settled out of court, and I discovered I had a list of authors who wanted to be represented by me if I started an agency. So I did. The fact that Edmund fired me was the best thing ever to happen to me. I would never have had the courage to ask someone to stop paying me if he hadn’t. No one in my family had ever started a company. If I hadn’t been out of work for 6 months, dealing with lawyers it would never have occurred to me to do so.
You are also encouraging new blood into the publishing industry through your associations with UCLA postgraduate publishing course. Is this something you feel passionate about as much as discovering new writing talent?
Given my start in the industry, remembering how kind people were, and aware that it’s a much more difficult area to get work in now I think the least I can do is to encourage and help others into a business that has given me such a wonderfully satisfying lifestyle. I’ve been associated with other postgraduate publishing courses as well, and am always happy to talk to people wanting to get into the book world.
I am the only person in my company who doesn’t have a degree; many of my staff have several. I didn’t have to go through the purgatory of unpaid internships, which I think are morally indefensible: we pay our interns properly.
Whenever I can I try to introduce people to others in the industry who can be of use to them. We have actually employed more than a dozen of our interns over the years – it’s so much more successful than a 40 minute interview. We also have an annual get-together of all our past staff, past interns. It’s officially known as networking but we all know it’s a great gossip-fest. So great to see where people have moved on to. You might have heard of the singer Dido? She was my assistant for 4 years and was an ace at selling serial rights!
Her parents were both publishers. I work with her mother at Rainbirds in the 60s, sold books to her father when he was running Sidgwick decades later. He and I used to lunch together and regarded ourselves as in-laws while she was working for me. When she resigned ‘to spend more time on her music’ I gave her a very motherly speech. ‘Can’t guarantee to keep your job open Dido.’ I don’t think she’s ever wanted to come back to publishing again …
I do quite a lot of public speaking – at literary festivals, conferences (I’m an honorary vice-president of the RNA, a member of the HNS) and I teach a course on how to sell rights. I’ve been a board member of The Book Trade Charity, and its Chairman, and President over many years and am now a Patron.
Your guide ‘From Pitch to Publication’ is widely used throughout the publishing industry. How much of a challenge has it been to update it?
An extreme challenge, as you can tell from the fact that I’ve not managed to deliver it yet. It took Boxtree (later to become an imprint of Macmillan) several years to persuade me to agree to write it in the first place. And then I renegotiated the delivery date several times, in order not to be in breach of contract (how embarrassing would that have been for a literary agent?). Same has happened with the contracted update/new edition. My agency is SO much bigger & busier than it was when I delivered the original manuscript – 20 years ago! – and so much has changed. I now know what I want to write, what I need to update, what I need to add … but time is the enemy. My editor at Macmillan (a friend) is understanding … up to a point. I now so want to have this new manuscript behind me. There are so very many more ways to promote a book now (social media?!) and I am now writing it but in such small spaces of time.
You represent many of my favourite authors, but two especially. Could you share with us what it was that you loved so much about ‘Lady of Hay’ and the amazing Barbara Erskine?
Likewise, when Elizabeth Chadwick’s first manuscript arrived on your desk did you instantly realise that you had found gold?
Two authors very close to my heart: both are good friends.
Barbara Erskine: I was already representing her short stories. She wrote many, and magazine editors around the world would line up for them. We had talked about an unusual novel she was thinking about writing. Two time periods, linked. We talked about it for a long time: years. I remember saying at the outset that it would be vital that every time, at the end of each chapter, the reader was required to move from present to past, from past to present, it must be a wrench. Each time period must be equally compelling, and hard to leave or the novel would be broken backed. Oh my … did she deliver. But although publishers and editors always ask for something new, a fresh voice – they always actually want something that is recognisable. I submitted the partial manuscript for 4 years. ‘I don’t know if it’s a contemporary novel, or a historical?’ Me: it’s both. ‘I don’t know if it’s a love story or a mystery?’ Me: it’s both. Every editor who arrived in a new job found the manuscript on their desk. When Maggie Pringle arrived at Michael Joseph in 1983, she read it, loved it, & recognised it as something fresh and new and exciting, and she was allowed to buy it even though it had been rejected twice by other Michael Joseph editors over the years. They auctioned paperback rights back then and it set a record for the highest paperback advance for a British first novel. This summer it celebrated 30 years continuously in print – quite something for a commercial novel. And it’s in print in many other languages too. In 2017 it will be celebrated for its 30th anniversary in German.
Barbara and I are friends. We’ve worked together for so long: we have even been on holiday together. That Nile cruise will never be forgotten. The only holiday that I’ve ever got a holiday-tie-in best-seller novel from – ‘Whispers in the Sand’! Barbara always stays with me at home when she’s in London overnight.
Elizabeth Chadwick: the early chapters of ‘The Wild Hunt’ arrived in the late 80s in a brown envelope – back in the days when submissions were made on paper, via snailmail. And back in the days when I opened my own mail every morning at my desk. I read it as soon as I opened the envelope and knew there was something very special in my hand. A few weeks later I had sold it, via auction, to hardback and paperback publishers (back in the days before publishers always published in both formats themselves.)
‘The Wild Hunt’ won a Betty Trask award, and Prince Charles was the person giving out the prizes for The Society of Authors that year. That was quite a memorable evening!
As with Barbara, this led to publishing success and a long and on-going friendship. Elizabeth stays with me when she’s in London too, and we often talk into the small hours.
I think it is unfair to ask you which are your favourite books or authors, but of all the novels you have read are there a few characters that really stayed with you? If so, why?
There’s no way I could choose between novels by my clients – I represent them all because they are so original, and so special. It would be like asking a mother to choose between her children! Not that I think of my best-selling authors are children for one moment. But the novels – apart from those written by my clients – that always stay with me are Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (I finished it on a no 16 bus going round Marble Arch roundabout in the late 60s, crying my eyes out), and Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. A haunting work.
You have travelled extensively in your work, but where do you enjoy going to relax and explore?
Italy, always Italy. I go for art, music, food (and Negronis!), shopping. Venice, in particular if I had to pin it down more narrowly. I was lucky enough to take a sabbatical earlier this year and I spent 5 weeks in Italy: Florence, Siena, Padua, Mantua, Venice. Absolutely heaven.
Is it your love of detail that first led you to becoming a collector of dolls’ houses and miniatures (OOAK)? Where did this begin? How is the collection growing?
I’ve always loved houses, furniture, interior decoration. My home is full now so miniatures are the way I buy furniture. I dare not add up the number of miniatures I own … they are stored in many boxes, and I’ve had to forbid myself to buy more until I’ve finished building the 5 floor Regency house which will be taller than me. And I’m forbidden to do any more work on that until I’ve delivered my next book. In addition to that house, I have a Georgian hand made one that I bought already finished. That is fully furnished. I also own an antiquarian bookshop which I made from a kit. Every book is real; they can be opened and read (with a magnifying glass). Most of them are miniature copies of real antique illustrated books that I buy from a particular maker whose work I really admire. I have more than 1000. And I have two more kits to build – they are going to become a row of shops. And then there is the greenhouse, and a conservatory, both full of flowers. My favourite collection though is mouth-blown cranberry glass. Five (miniature) cabinets full so far. The most satisfying thing I achieved myself, was laying a floor of terracotta tiles. Real tiles, 1:12 scale. Laying the tiles was easy: the grouting was murder, the air blue!
What other interests do you enjoy away from the world of publishing?
Early music – I still buy cds because I enjoy the booklets. I’ve got about 5000, all stored on a hard drive and easy to find. But I also like Meat Loaf (that’s Elizabeth Chadwick’s fault!). Art – I always make time to go to exhibitions. I find cooking very therapeutic, and always have freezers-full of home cooked food. I enjoy a variety of crafts – I make greetings cards, keep scrapbooks, make jewellery (I have 1000s of beads, and like to buy them on my travels), and I love taking photographs (check out my 56 Pinterest boards, and my Instagram posts!). I took 8000 photographs during the 5 weeks in Italy. And of course reading. I read a lot of non-fiction for relaxation as a change from the fiction that I work with. I love history, memoir, African wildlife (I’ve been to Africa on safari many times). And I collect books about the publishing industry. I’ve recently taken up knitting and crochet again. But there’s not a lot of time to fit these in around work!
You have achieved a great deal in your career, but what is next for Carole Blake?
I’ve got to make time to finish the new book. Then I can get back to (miniature) house building …
Thank you for the fascinating insight into your career and for sharing some personal photographs of your lovely miniature worlds!
It is my pleasure to introduce Roger Sanderson as my guest author this month. Roger is a prolific romance author and assistant organiser of the fantastic RNA Conferences along with Jan Jones.
Welcome, Roger, and thank you for giving up your time to do this interview.
When and why did you break into the world of romantic fiction?
For many years I lectured in English at a Further Education College, and as everyone knows, all English teachers really want to write novels – so when I retired, I decided to give it a go. I was already writing Commando comic scripts. While waiting at the publishers one day, I picked up their matching romance line STAR, so started with that. I went on to write for Hale, then M&B and am now with Accent (as Gill Sanderson) and Desert Breeze (as Roger Sanderson).
The RNA is a very supportive organisation. When did you first discover and join it?
I was a member of a local writing circle run by the late Sheila Walsh. She was on the committee of the RNA at the time and suggested I join. I am very glad she did!
Did your previous experience of writing scripts for Commando Comics influence the way you plot and write your novels?
They both demand a tight plot and extra care dealing with characterisation because there isn’t the room to over-develop the storyline. You have to focus. Possibly the experience of writing Commando scrpits has left me with a liking for a ‘big finish’. Of course, in a Commando, the hero shoots the enemy. In a romance novel the hero kisses the heroine. An important difference.
You are a prolific writer. How many titles have you had printed by Mills & Boon?
I think I wrote 44 or 45, all of which have now been re-edited and republished by Accent Press. It’s great to know these new digital editions are reaching a second audience.
You must have researched so many medical books and procedures over the years for your medical romances that I wondered if part of you had a leaning towards actually being a doctor or physician. Or do you prefer to stay away from the actual blood?
The latter, definitely! However three of my children are in the medical profession (Mark is a consultant oncologist, Adam is a dispensing nurse and Helen was a midwife for many years) so I have a wealth of research at the end of the phone.
I know many people ask you about writing as ‘Gill Sanderson’, but as many women writers create male protagonists I find this natural and refreshing. Did you choose to adopt a female pseudonym or was it advised?
It was very strongly suggested to me that I write under a female name. At the time the perceived wisdom was that when reading romance, women preferred a female name on the cover.
You have a love of the outdoors and hiking. Do you use this time to switch off from writing or to ponder and plot?
Originally I mountineered at the weekends to counteract the pressures of the staff room. The habit of outdoor exercise never leaves you, even if these days it’s more of a long daily walk by the sea. I rarely switch off from writing. I use walking time to think about the current book and also mull over ideas for future ones.
What is the best piece of advice you could offer to an as yet unpublished writer?
One: read as much as you can. Two: aim to write at least 500 words a week. Some weeks, this might be all you manage, some weeks it might be 5000 words. The important thing is to write something.
What do you like to read to relax?
Anything! I have very wide reading tastes.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a sequel to my light-hearted romance LIVERPOOL TO LAS VEGAS (Desert Breeze Publishing), which features an ex-PE teacher and a documentary film maker and is one of my US-published novels under my own name.
What is next for Roger?
I had a major heart operation last year which is taking me a lot longer than I hoped to recover from. My goal at the moment is to get back to full health and keep on writing!
London barrister and gentleman, Jerome Fender, has just returned to England after five years as a Captain in the killing fields of the Napoleonic Wars.
With the harrowing scenes of battle still haunting his every thought, he sets out to start a new life and to find a wife who will share it with him.
Meanwhile recently orphaned 21-year-old Miss Parthena Munro has also arrived at a North Yorkshire market town.
She has been sent away by her scheming sole relative, cousin Bertram, to be governess to a local family, only to find that the family has already moved away from the area.
Left stranded far from home with no job and no place to stay, Parthena encounters Mr Fender outside an inn, where she takes a chance to steal his money in a witless moment of desperation.
She whispers a promise to return the money one day and makes off across the wild Yorkshire moors.
But it’s not long before Fender catches up with her.
However, on learning of her plight they set out on a plan to seek justice against the wrongs plotted by Bertram.
With Jerome’s help, Parthena returns to her home to the great surprise of Bertram, who, thinking that Parthena, the rightful heir to the estate, was now out of the way, was about to clear his debts by selling the family estate.
Jerome endeavours to hatch a new plan to thwart Bertram, but Parthena’s rightful inheritance can only fall to her if she marries within the month.
Parthena and Jerome discover the flame of love has been kindled between them, but is it already too late?
I am delighted to welcome Jan Jones as my guest this month. Jan is not only an amazing writer of romantic fiction but the organiser of many successful Romantic Novelists’ Association Conferences.
Hi Jan – thank you for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to complete the interview. This year’s conference at Lancaster University was, amazing, as usual. The speakers were from all sections of the industry. How have you seen the event change and grow since you became the organiser?
Since 2005 when I took over as organiser, the conference has grown from just over a hundred residential delegates to over two hundred. We’ve also increased the number of choices, added extra Sunday afternoon sessions and offer a Thursday pre-conference arrival.
The Romantic Novelists’ Association is a very supportive organisation. When did you join it and make your first break into print?
I first joined during the 1980s when I was writing magazine stories, took a break, rejoined in 1994, then made the breakthrough from NWS to full in 2005.
Your career began in mathematics and computing, so when did you realise that you were a writer at heart?
Oh, I’ve always known that, but I also knew I wouldn’t be able to live on it. Computer programming was a much more bankable skill.
Do you prefer to write long or short fiction, YA or adult, historical or contemporary?
All of them. I have a dreadfully low boredom threshold. I like the variety and challenge of writing different forms and genres. As to length, I think when you first get the germ of an idea, you know what sort of size the story will be. When writing serials I have to squash the story into a few compact episodes, so it is an immense relief to then expand it to the length it always should have been and self-publish it.
Do you have a strict writing regime and work ethic?
Erm, no. I’d like to, but life keeps getting in the way. I just write whenever I can. Late at night is good, because everything is quiet and I don’t have the sense of having left chores undone. I try to only have one project on the go at one time, but I generally have two or three in various stages. There are very few points during the day when I’m not thinking about whatever the current piece of work is. The worst time for me is during RNA Conference preparations. I can’t keep a book in my head as well as all the conference arrangements, so I have to completely stop writing at the end of April and not pick the book up again until July. The upside is that by then, I’ve forgotten how much I hated it!
That is a long time for preparation. No wonder the conferences are such a success. What was the best piece of advice you were given as a new writer?
That everyone has something useful to teach you and that you never stop learning. What I worked out for myself was to believe in my own voice, to dare to be different, and to never give up.
What inspired The Penny Plain Mysteries?
I came across a strange jigsaw when I was clearing my mother’s bungalow that gave rise to the first Penny Plain story, but as for where the characters came from, I have no idea. I think all writers have people lying dormant in their subconscious, just waiting for the right setting.
What are you working on now?
I have recently got the rights back for the three Regency novels published by Hale, so I am revising them ready to self-publish. I am enjoying it tremendously – it’s just like meeting old friends and falling in love with them all over again.
I love that description. So what is next for Jan?
Keep on keeping on! At the last count I had something like nineteen projects waiting for my attention, ranging from finished novels to be done-something-with to tantalising germs of ideas with half-a-dozen lines of notes to anchor the thoughts in place.
Good luck and I wish you every success with them. Thanks for sharing some of your writing experience and world.
More from Jan