Last night I was delighted to attend the launch party for Shelley Harris's debut novel, Jubilee. Shelley is living, breathing proof that debut novelists are still being published if they have talent, commitment and dedication. Shelley has bucketloads of all three and thoroughly deserves her success.
Unfortunately, the venue was too dark for me to take photos that can be used here. You'll just have to use your imagination ... Think red, white and blue balloons, union jack bunting, mini fish and chips, tiny cup cakes with edible covers of the book on top (!) and lovely Shelley reading in the same engaging and entertaining manner that first attracted attention when she read at York.
As promised here, I'm now even more delighted to welcome Shelley to my blog to ask her the questions I'm sure many of you will want to know the answers to.
Hi and welcome, Shelley. The first time I heard you read from Jubilee, I knew I was hearing something special. What made you decide to write this particular book?
The idea first started with a family photograph, a picture of my dad at a V.E. Day street party when he was a kid. What I found fascinating was the intersection of the public and the private. You can look at that picture and think you know everything about it – V.E. Day was a national celebration; we all ‘own’ it, in a sense. But of course behind the public face lie all sorts of more private things: the family relationships, what was really going on between the members of that community. We tend to think that, if you can see everything, you know everything, but that’s just not true at all. I’d recently done a photography course and learned about the split-second in which the image is taken, and I become fascinated with the idea of everything which might be leading up to that brief moment, and all that might happen afterwards, and we’re left with a vestige: that two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a second.
At first I thought I’d explore this idea through a novel set in 1945, but actually had a much stronger urge to look at my own generation’s iconic street party: the Silver Jubilee of 1977. That was such a year of change in Britain – a cusp year, really, in terms of our relationship with the monarchy, in terms of the way we saw ourselves. Right in the middle of a conservative Buckinghamshire village in this time of great change, I put Satish, one of those remarkable Britons who made their home here after being exiled from Uganda by Idi Amin. So the novel itself is also about the public and private: personal things, like secrets and lies; bigger things, like what it means to be British.
In Jubilee, I was really impressed at the way you seemed to be equally comfortable writing with the narrative voice of a child or an adult, male or female, white British or Asian. This is a rare and special skill. I wondered if all the voices came to you, fully rounded as they appear on the page, or if you struggled more with the ones that are not from your own direct experience.
Well, thank you for the kind words. It was actually surprisingly easy to write from a child’s viewpoint – I just opened my memory and dived in. But you’re right: it was much harder to write as a male, and quite intimidating to write as a British Asian.
In terms of gender-switching, I was surprised how much I had to learn about a male viewpoint, and how different it can be from that of a woman. I got my husband to talk me through what it is to be a boy, what the mechanisms of that culture are, which filters boys use to view the world. It seems to be a relentlessly competitive environment, and one in which power and status is constantly being asserted and re-assessed. At one point, I wrote a scene where boys were playing footie in the street. When the game was over, I had the biggest lads leaving the ball and walking off. He said to me: no, that’s not what they’d do. They’d chip it out of reach so the others would have to scramble for it. Girls have their own hierarchies, of course, but boy-world is more alien than I had imagined.
I was intimidated by writing as a British Asian because I wanted to be accurate and respectful, but also wanted to avoid liberal squeamishness, which is itself a kind of stereotyping. I researched by interviewing British Asians who had grown up here in the seventies, particularly those who (like Satish) came here from Uganda or, also like him, grew up in a very white community. They were remarkably generous with their stories, some of which I’ve used in the novel. They described a wide range of experiences; there was the woman who (along with Kelly Holmes!) was one of only two ethnic-minority children in her village, and was still hurt by how her family had been treated (hissed injunctions to ‘Go Home!’ at a dance in the village hall). And there was the Birmingham Sikh who’d had a high old time growing up alongside his white mates, and recalled begging to be allowed to spectate at a National Front march! Then an Asian friend shared her memories of family gatherings, helping me with those tiny details which, I hope, put the reader right in the heart of the family.
So: yes, it was very challenging to take on a new age, gender and ethnicity to tell this story. I’m relieved to hear that it’s worked!
It certainly did! On the subject of research, Satish is a cardiologist and the hospital scenes feel really authentic. Can you tell us how you made sure the medical details in the novel were accurate?
Well, I spent some time in a well-known London children’s hospital, getting a sense of what it felt like and how things worked. I can’t tell you how much I came to admire the staff there, and I can honestly say that they are heroes to me. I have a close friend who is a paediatrician herself, and I also made contact with a cardiac nurse at Alder Hey hospital; both of them shared their expertise with great generosity. Satish is a fractured human being, deeply fallible, but for the most part he is an excellent doctor. It was important to me that we get to see him being brilliant at least some of the time.
I’d like to go back to when we first met. You won the Authonomy Live event at York Festival of Writing and were swamped by agents as soon as you stepped from the stage. There's a perception that this was a sort of magical 'right place, right time' occurrence, but I know that your authorial journey up to that point had been longer and more arduous than that might suggest. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, it’s an interesting bit of marketing, I suppose, the idea that in some way I had instant success, but it wasn’t like that at all. What took time was getting my manuscript to the stage where agents were very interested. So, I wrote (VERY part-time, because my children were tiny) for a year, and then sent what I had to a literary consultancy, and their feedback was extremely positive, but also involved a root-and-branch restructuring. Which means, of course, starting from scratch – literally, going back to page one, word one.
I re-wrote and went on an Arvon course about the second draft, during which the tutors – an established novelist and an editor – suggested some more structural changes. I made those, and then a friend gave the manuscript to an agent friend of hers, and she took me out to lunch and I thought ‘Whoopee – I’m in!’ And she liked it. But again, she felt it needed another rewrite. By the time I’d done that, her list was full. Then I booked my ticket to York Festival...
So, that’s the situation I was in when I won Authonomy Live: six years of hard work, three major rewrites as well as countless small revisions. That’s your overnight success!
Even after all that hard work though, you were still only at the beginning of your road to publication. For people who haven't had that experience, can you tell us how your journey continued after York?
When I left the Festival, a few agents had said they were interested in the novel. There was a breathless week or so when they were all reading it, and another fortnight when I met some of them for longer chats about Jubilee and the next novel, which I’d already started planning. A few offered representation, and I chose Jo Unwin of Conville and Walsh, who is seriously, seriously good, and great fun to work with. And then (this will not surprise you, of course) there were more revisions to get it ready to send out to editors. Every agent is different, but Jo is someone who really enjoys the editorial aspect of it; she has a keen eye, and there’s no doubt it was a better book after those rewrites. She sent it out in June. This bit was abominably thrilling; some of the editors sent notes to Jo as they progressed through the book, and there was a keen sense of ‘nearly there...nearly there...’
In the first week of July we went to meetings at four publishing houses. They were very welcoming – there was tea, cake and me trying really, really hard not to look as excited as I felt. I met roomfuls of people, and often they’d done something Jubilee-themed; there was a sparkly Union Jack cake at one, a table set out for a street party at another and at Weidenfeld & Nicolson there was homemade bunting up in the office. The editors started bidding straight after the meetings; Jo rang me after she’d received the first offer and said: ‘You will now definitely be published’; that counts as one of the best moments of my life (along with getting married, having my babies and Thatcher resigning).
The novel went to Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s Kirsty Dunseath, who is fantastic to work with (she also edits Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Paul Torday and Francesca Kay, among others). No sooner had we celebrated together when we embarked on – you’ll never guess what! – more revisions. We started medium (this subplot isn’t entirely convincing) and ended up small (you’ve used this word twice on the same page). As with all my previous rewrites, this just made the book better and better. Then they designed a cracking cover and we were off.
So now Jubilee has been released into the world, what plans are afoot for events? Are these going to tie in with the Diamond Jubilee?
I’m sure we’ll be doing some specifically Diamond Jubilee-themed events in June, just after the paperback comes out. Right now, I’m visiting bookshops and libraries, as well making some virtual visits – like this one – to blogs and websites. I have a website (shelleyharris.co.uk), where I’m keeping an up-to-date list of events.
You mentioned you'd already started cooking your next book. Can you tell us something about that?
Yes – but not much. I’m quite squeamish about discussing it, because I’m still at the first draft stage, and things are still developing. So, I hope it doesn’t sound too mealy-mouthed to give you the briefest of brief pitches (an elevator pitch, if the elevator was going up one floor, for a very lazy passenger): the next novel is about a very ordinary woman who has a midlife crisis, and does something absolutely extraordinary in response to it. Will that do you?
That will do me really nicely, Shelley. I know that need to keep schtum until you know what kind of baby you’re carrying. I wish you loads of luck with this book and the next and the next and the …
I’ve a feeling you’re not going to need luck though, because you have bags of talent, dedication and enthusiasm and I’m sure they will bring you the success and recognition you deserve.
Thanks for sharing and good luck with the next stages of your journey!
Shelley's website is here
Read about Jubilee and buy the book here.
Find out about the next Festival of Writing in York here.
Shelley has blogged about fairy dust here.
Shelley on her agent's website.