Achieving remarkable success in any one form of writing is challenging enough, but to be able to achieve that kind of success in a variety of forms really does take some doing. Today, I am delighted to be able to welcome Angela Readman to the blog, in order to get nosy about her writing process and to glean some useful tips. Thank you so much to Angela for taking the time to answer my questions.
1. How, when and why did you first start writing?
I started writing when I was a kid. I was on my own a lot, so I’d read, mostly fairy tales. I’d let myself in after school and sit and read rather do schoolwork. I bought a lilac Holly Hobby notebook I’d scribble things down in. I wanted to write because it made me happy, but I didn’t do anything about it until I was 28 when I finally started a writing course. I think from where I was coming, I needed that permission.
2. I first encountered your writing through your incredible short stories, but you have a goodly number of poetry collections to your name. When those collections were published did you expect, or sense, that poetry would give way to flash fiction, short stories and, now, a novel?
I started my MA thinking I’d be a story writer. I got a story published in London Magazine and even started a novel. Somehow though, by the time the course ended, I was a poet. There were poetry groups in the area at the time and I’d be out a few nights a week. I was so broke, I’d walk there and back and walk around town to kill time, if there was a reading and a workshop on the same day. I started getting poetry published and even got a few paid gigs. That encouragement meant everything to me. I stopped writing prose for a few years but started again when I started having panic attacks about public speaking. I knew I had to write, but worrying about performance was killing me. I started writing stories and flash and it felt joyous.
3. Writing in various forms, such as poetry, short or long fiction, all involve rather different skills. How does each one of them inform the others? (And is it ever too late for a novelist to start writing poetry and vice versa?)
Though stories and poetry are different, the discipline of sitting to write is the same. That’s part of the battle, learning to do that, even when you don’t feel like it. Stories and poems share concision. There’s nothing set in stone about sticking to one form. It’s all about timing, I think, people come to something when it’s right for them. We write what lights a fire in us. When I started writing, there was so much going on with poetry, it felt like being part of something. I really needed that. Writing a novel is different, it’s a long lonely task I wasn’t ready for yet.
4. So far you’ve been published by independent presses. Did you consciously set out to be published by an indie or was it serendipity?
It’s just the way it worked out. It’s something to do with the sort of stuff I write, I think. It’s sort of underground and strange. I’m happy with that. With something like my short story collection Don’t Try This at Home the stories are so odd only a small press fits. It’s very much an indie book in every sense, and I love that. I think about publishers in the same way we think about music or movies. There are blockbusters that are fantastic, then there are also those smaller films you stumble across sometimes that just stick with you. I often feel that way reading. Indies speak without shouting. Those whispers can be incredibly powerful.
5. Like all publication routes, there are pros and cons to being published by a smaller, independent press. Can you mention a few?
The fantastic thing about small presses is it’s personal. You’re dealing with people. I love that. With my last poetry collection, The Book of Tides, I felt daunted about publishing poetry after taking a break to write prose, but I lucked out with Nine Arches. Jane Commane was so positive it made publishing possible for me again. That nurturing environment is something we sometimes need as writers. It can be a wonderful experience.
The downside can be, finding a sense of momentum, I think. I went years between poetry collections, though I was getting published all over. I just couldn’t face looking for a publisher, I wanted a good one, but didn’t know who to ask or where to start. I was so glad I found Nine Arches, or those poems would have stayed in the drawer like so many have. And Other Stories and Nine Arches have been pretty great. I was lucky.
6. Winning prizes are obviously a huge boost to a writer, but if you hadn’t received any awards would writing still be as big a part of your life as it is now?
I’d want to write, but unless I’d won some prizes things would have been different. I wouldn’t have an agent without the Costa Short Story Award, and without that my story collection and my novel Something like Breathing would never had happened. With poetry, I didn’t think about looking for a publisher until I won the Mslexia Poetry Competition. Those competitions really gave me a boost in morale, and I needed that. That, and, to be honest, the money helped.
With my novel Something like Breathing, I needed to research it. The story is set on an island with a distillery, I could hear the girls in that story breathe. I knew where they had to live to make the atmosphere work. I found I couldn’t write 60 000 words without doing some location research though. I wished I could, as I just didn’t have the funds to travel, but I needed to visit a place. I’d never have been able to afford it without competitions. I won The Mslexia Short Story Competition and that paid for the research. Without it, I couldn’t have finished the novel.
7. How instrumental has your agent been in getting your novel to publication?
My agent is the reason my short story collection Don’t Try this at Home published, and then my novel Something like Breathing. She’s fantastic. I wouldn’t have a clue about how to approach a publisher. It can be so daunting as a writer to even know where to start, without her I probably wouldn’t have.
8. In your last two books, your novel Something Like Breathing and your poetry collection The Book of Tides, the sea and small communities, as well as the magic of the feminine wild (as I see it) have been key. Do you think you’ll continue to write on these themes, or are we to expect something wildly different?
I’m drawn to writing about women, I almost can’t help it. Everyone has their favourite subjects, and this is mine. With Something like Breathing, the small community was crucial for me. I wanted a place that swirled with weather and rumours, a place full of secrets and limited opportunities for self-expression. Often, when we talk about work about women it’s described as being small in scope, but that was almost the point. The inner worlds the girls in the novel are so vivid compared to the opportunities in their daily lives in the 1950’s. I’m interested in the conflict between our wild selves and the more domestic duties we may have. The Book of Tides is like that too, as well as some of my stories, like ‘So Many Words for Rain’. Where women aren’t encouraged to express themselves, it comes out in the wildest ways. Our desires can’t be tamed. I’m fascinated by that.
9. Can you share any writing plans with us?
Only that I hope to get the opportunities to keep doing it. I’d love to do a collection of fairy tale stories someday. I’d love to do a flash fiction/prose poetry collection. I’d love to do so many things, but they are dreams rather than plans. I’m currently working on 30 pages of flash fiction though, for something later this year. I also have a longer short story in Unthology later this year, and am currently co-editing a short story anthology.
10. Do you have any words of wisdom for writers experiencing discouragement?
Write what you want, keep writing, and stay clear of people who feed that discouragement. We all encounter negativity, I think. Whether it’s people who don’t understand writing matters, criticise us, or undermine why we write altogether by laughing if we’re not making a packet. People like that can destroy our confidence, if we’re not careful. Before we know it, we give up. It can be hard not to let it get to you, particularly with social media. It’s sometimes important to step away from all that and just write.
11. Lastly, can you recommend a couple of good books to us? And what’s your tipple/snack of choice when you’re treating yourself to a ‘read-in’?
There are so many books I love, I don’t know where to start. I’ll limit it to indie presses though, they deserve it! Josephine Corcoran’s What are you after? and Deborah Alma’s Dirty Laundry were favourite poetry collections last year. Red Squirrel are a small press I love too. They published some great books last year, like Shelley Day’s story collection What are You Like, and Calisto by Lisa Mathews.
I’m a huge flash fiction fan and loved Meg Pokrass’ Alligators at Night, Ad hoc are doing some amazing things. I have a lot of their books on my list. I’ve just bought Diane Simmons collection and I’m really looking forward to Ken Elkes collection later this year. I’m also loving This Is (Not About) David Bowie by Freya Morris. Retreat West is another indie doing some great things. I really enjoyed Separated by the Sea by Amanda Huggins.
One book I always come back to, is by an American story writer Heather Fowler. Her magical realist collection Suspended Heart is one of my favourites.
I read with a cup of Yorkshire tea with soya milk. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll have their Biscuit Brew. It reminds me of opening a biscuit tin and breathing in, the smell is wonderful.
Many thanks to Angela for taking the time to answer my questions.
Angela Readman’s debut novel Something like Breathing is out with And Other Stories. Her short stories have won The Costa Short Story Award, The Mslexia Competition, and The Anton Chekhov Award for Short Fiction. Her collection Don’t Try This at Home was shortlisted in the Edge Hill Prize, and won The Rubery Book Award. She also writes poetry. Her folkloric collection The Book of Tides is published by Nine Arches.