Wednesday 31 May 2023

The Author as Promoter: A How-To Guide

By Charlie Hill

I’ve always appreciated the central role that promotion plays in establishing and developing a writing career, even if this appreciation is part of a paradox. 

The first piece I wrote for publication was an account of a road trip to the southern United States. I'd flown with some friends to Orlando, hired a convertible and driven round the coast of the Gulf of Mexico - through Alabama and Mississippi - to New Orleans. It was there that, as part of a smorgasbord of non-repeatable jollity, I discovered a weed supplier operating out of a venue I couldn’t have invented if I’d tried: The Chicken Man’s Voodoo Shack.

On my return to Brum, having completed the write-up of my trip and begun the process of submitting it, my imagination leapt ahead to the period immediately following its publication. At the time I lived a shortish distance from Moseley Bog, a patch of greenery popular with young families, that some of you will know as being the inspiration for Tolkien’s Middle Earth. My plan was simple. On the day of publication, I would visit a butcher’s shop, a cathedral and then the bog. I’d find a suitable spot – not too obvious, not too well-hidden - and leave a chicken’s foot, some chicken liver and a miniature statue of the Virgin Mary. The discovery of this collection of horrifying detritus would be at first perplexing. And then, as the reality of the situation revealed itself - why, the bog is being used for voodoo rituals! – a ‘media storm’ would happily coincide with the first reviews of my locally-produced voodoo-centric masterpiece.  

It's probably for the best that my book didn’t find a publisher. And possibly for the best that by the next time I had cause to consider how best to raise my writerly profile, most promotional activity was conducted online. Fully fifteen years after the callous indifference of the publishing industry had spared the world my offal-related nonsense, I finally published my first book. And then set about promoting it in a more traditional manner. 

By this time, Twitter was most successful industry marketing tool. The site was so popular, however, and so full of people tooting their own horn, that I decided the only way to stand out was to undersell myself. To subvert the shrill ‘look-at-me’ desperation of the hoi polloi, and prove instead my credentials as a writer and commentator of considerable gravitas. Not to try to grow my own following but to establish relationships with ‘influencers’ by hitting them with a stream of such irresistible literary allusion they would greet each new exchange by nodding sagely and plugging my latest book.

Mercifully, there appears to be no remaining trace of what I sent to Claire Armitstead, then Books Editor of the Guardian, shortly after I’d opened my Twitter account. She’d made a passing comment about The Great Gatsby and I’d responded with a comment about shirts. An understated comment about shirts. An understated and, it must be said, utterly, embarrassingly baffling comment about shirts. Now as anyone who is over-familiar with The Great Gatsby would doubtless tell you, there is a line in it (from the top of my head it's on page 127 of the 1976 Penguin edition) about Jay Gatsby’s wardrobe. But even so. I wasn’t on Twitter for long.

I’m a fast learner though, and my next foray onto the shaded, shivery uplands of social media was more direct. I became the Facebook friend of a much-lauded writer, and set about establishing a mutually beneficial relationship. At first it went well. I liked some of his posts, he invited me to a festival he ran, and I tapped him for an endorsement. The latter wasn’t forthcoming (he didn’t like the thing) but still; my promotional activities were showing some much-needed signs of progress. Then things took a turn.

The fella posted enthusiastically about a soon-to-be published novel by a Booker Prize-winning author. A post which I, true to my credentials as a writer and commentator of considerable gravitas, judged to be ‘gushing’ and representative of ‘all that is wrong with publishing today.’ The result of this interaction was a summary unfriending and, I presume, several subsequent non-invitations to festivals run by his real friends.  

Chastened by my experience of electronic interaction, I decided on a more direct approach still to the business of literary networking and promotion. Not only that, but I lowered my sights from the great and the good to those who, like me, might consider themselves ‘misunderstood.’ It was from these relationships – defined as they were less by circumstance than shared experience – that I imagined a more genuine camaraderie would develop, and from that, more sales. 

I began a correspondence with a writer from Manchester. Like me, he was wary of promotional efforts that were lacking in integrity (even if, unlike me, he hadn’t arrived at this perspective after spending a decade trying to make them work). We got on. He agreed to review a book of mine and I went to see him at an event. To emphasise the honesty of our connection, I sat at the front and concentrated on making meaningful eye contact throughout his reading. I was sure this was a good idea right up until I saw his review, the opening line of which was ‘I know Charlie Hill ... He once stared at me through the entirety of a reading I gave at Waterstone’s in Birmingham.’

By now, you will have identified the paradox I mentioned at the top of this piece. It is, of course, that although I appreciate the role that promotion plays in the writing life, I am pathologically unsuited to doing anything about it that might have any material value. Oh well. I am further aware that I must persevere. Does anyone know anything about Substack? 

About the author
Charlie Hill is a writer from Birmingham. Despite his unceasingly hopeless promotional efforts, his work has been compared by his peers to Georges Perec, Kafka and Samuel Beckett. His latest book is a collection of short stories called The State of Us.

Tuesday 30 May 2023

Victoria MacKenzie, "For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain"

Victoria MacKenzie is a fiction writer and poet based in Scotland. Her debut novel, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain (Bloomsbury, 2023), explores the lives of the medieval mystics Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. She has won a number of writing prizes including a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award and the Emerging Writer Award from Moniack Mhor, and has held writing residencies in Scotland, Finland and Australia. Her second novel, Brantwood, about the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2025. Her website is here

About For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain is a novel based on the lives of two real women, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Both women have visions of Christ, but to claim direct communication with God is heresy – and the punishment for heresy is to be burnt alive. Using intertwined first-person narratives, Julian and Margery tell the stories of their lives. Margery is a traumatised mother of fourteen, full of shame about sex and childbirth, and hounded by the church for talking about her visions. Julian is an anchoress – haunted by grief, she has lived for twenty-three years in a single room. She has told no one of her visions, but she has written them down in secret. Her book, now known as Revelations of Divine Love, is the first book in English by a woman.

The novel culminates in a meeting between the two women at the window of Julian’s anchoress cell, where they confide their deepest fears. Margery is inspired to return home and dictate the story of her own life: The Book of Margery Kempe is the first known autobiography in English. For Thy Great Pain is a novel about grief, motherhood and grace, and it’s also the story of the beginning of women’s writing.

You can read a review of For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain on Everybody's Reviewing here. Below, you can read an excerpt from the novel. 

From For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain, by Victoria MacKenzie


Those early days, weeks, months, years of being in my cell – I am glad I will not live through them again. Though I knew that God would send me trials and tribulations, I did not predict the form that these would take. 

I had thought I was ready for the life of an anchoress. I had wanted to prolong each moment of my life, to get closer to experiencing time as God experiences it: not the instantly dissolving moment, but something larger and more encompassing. A stillness that doesn’t pass as soon as you think yourself into it.

I’d thought I would live as slowly as moss in my stone cell. I’d thought I would step out of my life as soon as I stepped into the cell. But I was still me. Nothing had changed. I was myself, with all my usual racing thoughts and yearnings and memories and foolishness.

Nothing can prepare you for spending the rest of your life in a single room. Never to be touched by another human being. Never to run. Never to feel the rain on your face. Never to walk in the garden and see flowers unfolding their colours and scents. 

I had died to the world, died to my old life, but I was not dead. 

Sara brought me food and firewood, but in those early days we did not know each other. She was careful to follow Master Thomas’ orders not to distract me with what he called ‘women’s chatter’. She treated me like a holy saint, whispering ‘Mother Julian, I have your supper.’ I could almost hear her curtseying on the other side of the curtain. 

How I yearned for women’s chatter.

Monday 29 May 2023

Laura McKee, "Take Care of Your Hooves Darling"


Laura McKee’s poems have been published widely including in The Rialto, Stand Magazine, Under the Radar, The North, Prole, Butcher’s Dog, The Interpreter’s House, Crannog, The Poetry Review. Online publications include the recent first issue of Propel Magazine edited by Mary Jean Chan, Ink Sweat and Tears, And Other Poems. Anthologised work appears in Mildly Erotic Verse (The Emma Press), and The Result Is What You See Today (Smith|Doorstop). She is currently in the second year of an MA in Writing Poetry with The Poetry School and Newcastle University.

About Take Care of Your Hooves Darling

Laura McKee's first pamphlet Take Care of Your Hooves Darling is published by Against the Grain Press, and examines, in part, issues of identity in terms of sexuality, gender, class background, mental and physical health. It includes biscuits, and has been recommended by Andrew McMillan.

You can read more about Take Care of Your Hooves Darling on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read two sample poems from the collection. 

From Take Care of Your Hooves Darling

good morning

today’s plan is this that
I want to lift up
one of those metal plates
on the pavement that have
names on them like Tom
Selleck and climb in
and slip down into some
pipe or other that leads
to a sewer and hold
my nose until I get
to the river until I
get in the sea and no-one
will have to pretend
to listen to me except
starfish and where are their


It was hard to get through to you
and later I didn’t answer
the door or the phone
We were each other’s brick wall
with the writing on it
Like that wall where someone
well Dave I suppose
has written Dave
above Jesus no name higher
I look up to you now
and want to talk
You always told me
rise above, rise above it all
have some sort of loftiness
but holy Mary mother of god
mortal Daphne mother of me
loneliness is harder than walls

Thursday 25 May 2023

Joy Pearson, "Untangling the Webs"


Joy Pearson lives in Cheshire and has written scripts, serious poetry, amusing verse and her autobiography. A fund-raiser for several animal charities, she has, over the years, worked with families under stress, Shelter campaign for the homeless, and for Esther Rantzen's Silver Line. An adoptee, having found her roots, she helps others voluntarily to find theirs. She is working on her second novel, the follow up to Untangling the Webs (Book Guild, 2018).

About Untangling the Webs, by Joy Pearson

As an imaginative observant child, my confidence to write had been knocked by my adoptive mother, who threw my poems and short stories into the fire, informing me I was useless and so were they and I would never amount to anything. From that time onwards, I wrote in secret, becoming a vigilant observer of both people and atmospheres.

In 2008, I began, with experience gained from this, to write my first novel, Untangling the Webs. I had a vague idea of who my characters might be, but no idea who they would morph into. I wanted to convey parallels in people’s lives, despite different backgrounds. Knowing how much the support of a close friend can bring to one’s life and vice versa, the men and women aid each other in solving stressful entanglements in their lives. Expect the unexpected in this psychological relationship thriller. The reader, as an invisible and privileged guest, is drawn into tangled lives as characters overcome conflicts, emotional shocks, treachery, guilt, serendipitous discoveries, and grief. 

Below, you can read two short excerpts from the novel. 

From Untangling the Webs

As nervous as if she were about to rob a bank, Julia gazed around. No-one, just ranks of semis. Walking across the road, her legs as wobbly as when she’d taken her driving test, a black cat sauntered past. The high privet hedge was an advantage, tatty with gaping holes; she dipped to peer through. A woman could be seen near the window. Seconds later the door opened, the woman shuffling to the garage. Dragging a box along the path, she heaved it into the porch. The door closed. She was wearing a dark robe, slippers and a towel over her head. The dull December day gave no clues as to what David’s ‘squeeze’ looked like. Julia pursed her lips with frustration. ‘Damn, damn,’ she muttered under her breath. Hugging the thickly padded coat to her, trudging to the car, shuddering from remaining an undiscovered voyeur, she tried to freeze those seconds, as December frost had done to the hedge. Clenching the steering wheel, anger welled as she wiped the misted windscreen. ‘The flack I’ve taken, accusations, when David’s been keeping a mistress,  even attacked me.  Wasn’t he getting enough from the tart with the yellow door?’ 


Picnics, concerts, and day to day stuff, which sharing elevated to the sublime, became bitter-sweet. He was, albeit in name only, married. Her perfect love, but she’d ignored the red flag.

Going over telephone conversations, she conjured up how he’d looked the last time she saw him, and if she’d known him at all. Life went on, so did wondering – why, where, when, how? She’d acknowledged positives in their affair, not letting his vanishing act spoil what was. Because their love was so extraordinary, having to return to the ordinary was devastating.

As Holly sprang onto the duvet, Trudie’s thoughts halted. Curling into a foetal position, the last images were of the stalker.

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Sumayya Usmani, "Andaza: A Memoir of Food, Flavour and Freedom in the Pakistani Kitchen"


Sumayya Usmani, photo by James Melia

Well-connected and beloved in the food world, Sumayya Usmani went from practising law for twelve years to pursuing food writing and teaching. Her first book, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes and Memories from Pakistan (Frances Lincoln, 2016), was the first Pakistani cookbook in Britain. Her mentor and friend Madhur Jaffrey, who wrote the main blurb, calls the book 'a treasure.' It won the Best First Cookbook category in the Gourmand Cookbook Awards in 2016. It was also shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award. Her second cookbook, Mountain Berries and Desert Spice: Sweet Inspirations from the Hunza Valley to the Arabian Sea (Frances Lincoln, 2017), was shortlisted in the Best Cookbook of the Year category at the Food & Travel Magazine Awards. Sumayya won The Scottish Book Trust's Next Chapter Award in 2021 for Andaza as a work in progress. Sumayya has been featured as a resident food writer for four weeks in the Guardian COOK supplement (now known as Feast), and has also featured in the Telegraph, New York Times, Independent, Saveur, Delicious, Olive, BBC Good Food and Food 52. She was called 'the go-to expert in Pakistani cuisine' by BBC Good Food Magazine. Sumayya is a BBC broadcaster and has been a presenter on BBC Radio Scotland's Kitchen Cafe as well as being a regular panellist on Jay Rayner's The Kitchen Cabinet on BBC Radio 4. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour. On television, she has appeared on Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Nation on the Good Food Channel, and various times on STV and London Live. Sumayya mentors other writers online as well as hosting her podcast, A Savoured Life

About Andaza: A Memoir of Food, Flavour and Freedom in the Pakistani Kitchen, by Sumayya Usmani 

Andaza is a memoir filled with the most meaningful recipes of my childhood. The book tells the story of how my self-belief grew throughout my young life, allowing me to trust my instincts and find my own path between the expectations of following in my father's footsteps as a lawyer and the pressures of a Pakistani woman's presumed place in the household. Through the warmth of my family life and being with the women of my family in the kitchen, the meaning of 'andaza' (cooking with instinct and intuition) comes to me: the flavour and meaning of a recipe is not a list of measured ingredients, but a feeling in your hands, as you let the elements of a meal come together through instinct and experience. In Andaza I share how food and cooking was my anchor from my childhood growing up on merchant ships to being a young displaced child when we moved back to Karachi. 

Andaza was published in April 2023 by Murdoch Books. You can read more about the book on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read a sample from it. 

From Andaza

On board the ship, the endless weeks of open skies and unchanging horizons seemed interchangeable, indistinguishable from one another. I spent time in my hammock, escaping to Narnia or watching the sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of a dolphin's fin.

Sometimes I'd sneak into Daddy's smoking room. looking for pipe-cleaners. The wooden-panelled room smelt like burnt orange zest and French toast. The side cabinet had an array of briarwood and meerschaum pipes propped against a wooden stand. A box of Montecristo’s sat on a small table, next to Daddy’s black leather tobacco pouch filled with Erinmore tobacco and multi-coloured pipe-cleaners, which I’d steal to make bendy finger puppets and bracelets, or tiny flowers and fruit. 

 We rose early every morning. Breakfast was at 6 a.m. in the officers’ mess, usually parathas and oily spiced omelettes with heavily sweetened cooked chai – Mummy shook her head in disgust at how unhealthy it all was. I would get a bowl of cardboard-flavoured Fauji cornflakes or Quaker porridge oats with long-life milk. We always had so much long-life milk that when cartons neared their expiry date, Mummy and I would take baths in it, imagining we were Cleopatra. 

For the crew, food was mere fodder, and every meal in the galley tasted like mutton korma, under different names. We rarely sat with the crew in the mess for lunch or dinner, as the Pakistani food the ship’s cook made lacked creativity or any kind of adventurousness. But with limited ingredients Mummy became a master of creating meals using tinned vegetables and store-cupboard basics – she just let her heart guide her and improvised when she needed to.

‘Recipes are stories,’ she’d say, ‘and ingredients are characters. You can make up your own story as you go along.’ Mummy herself was like an oral storyteller, making up tales on the spot for me to devour. We had few other distractions on-board, and I watched with fascination as the stories unfolded, different each time they were told. 

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Jo Baker, "The Midnight News"

Jo Baker is the author of eight novels, most recently The Midnight News (April 2023). 

Previous books include A Country Road, A Tree (2017) which was shortlisted for the American Library in Paris Award, the James Tait Black Award and Walter Scott Prize, and was a Book of the Year in the Guardian and New Statesman. Longbourn (2013), which tells the story of what’s going on below stairs in the Bennet household in Pride and Prejudice, was an international bestseller and translated into twenty-two languages.  

Jo is an Honorary Fellow of Lancaster University and was a Visiting Fellow at the Queen’s University of Belfast. She is married to the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville. They live in Lancaster with their two children. Her website is here

About The Midnight News

September 1940, and Charlotte watches from her attic window as enemy planes crawl across the sky. She’s been doing her best to keep herself out of trouble, holding down a typist job at the Ministry of Information, sharing gin and confidences with her best friend Elena. 

On her way to work she often sees the boy who feeds the birds – a source of joy amongst the chaos and destruction. But as the Blitz continues, bringing with it devastating loss, she begins to sense a presence in the darkness. Someone is stalking the blackout, targeting her friends. And now he’s following her … 

From The Midnight News, by Jo Baker

The chaffinch weighs nothing. Its claws barely pinch his thumb; its head tilts to keep one bright eye trained on him as it jabs at the broken biscuit. The tiny stabbing in his palm makes him smile. It grabs a crumb, then flitters off. On the path, sparrows hop and pick at flakes of pastry that he’s scattered. He has to be discreet, to keep an eye out for police, or for anyone who looks his way too long; there’d be hell to pay if he’s caught feeding the birds. Well, there’d be a fine. But he loves their trust, their greed, their fragile beauty. One must find one’s happiness where one can, and he finds it in the quiet, illicit dispensation of crumbs. 
          Someone is coming down the path towards him. He brushes his palms off and the birds scatter; they tweet their protest from the bushes. He pulls his memoranda book from his pocket. Honest, Officer, just taking a breather, just jotting down a few musings; what birds? Oh those birds! Terrible nuisance aren’t they?  
          He looks up. And it’s her. His heart goes still. The girl. The honey-coloured girl is coming towards him. She moves with that easy loping gait of hers; she wears a bluebell-coloured skirt and cream silk blouse, underneath a leaf-green summer coat. 
          Mustn’t stare. 
          Where’s that pencil? He searches through his pockets. If he can just scribble something in his notebook; just to have something to do. Pencil. Pencil. Pencil. Where is his godforsaken pencil? 
          He has tried all his jacket pockets, and is reaching into his left trouser pocket – though why would anyone keep a pencil there just to get stabbed in the thigh? – when she stops directly in front of him. He slides his hand from his pocket, and lays it over the other, which is resting on the memoranda book. He looks slowly up. 
         Dear God, let her not be one of those people who’ll go out of their way to tell you what you’re doing wrong. That would be so disappointing.
         Her eyes are unusual; a clear light brown, like milkless tea. He has never been close enough to notice before. She has a funny kind of look about her, at once determined and exhausted and concerned. And then she smiles. A huge, guileless smile, full of pleasure. 
         ‘There you are,’ she says. And she sits down beside him.  
         There, undeniably, he is; he has never felt more so. Never felt more wedged into the reality of his body. Never more aware of the distinctness of this bench, this patch of gravel, these chrubs and plane trees. His black clothes. Her.
         ‘I am glad to see you,’ she says. 

Monday 1 May 2023

Michael Edwards, "Another Art of Poetry and Doorstones"


Michael Edwards, an Honorary Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge though living in France, is a poet in both English and French, and the first Briton elected to the Académie française.

About Another Art of Poetry and Doorstones, by Michael Edwards

Another Art of Poetry and Doorstones brings together two long poem sequences which are intimately related. Another is at once modest – this is yet another ars poetica after so many others – and not modest at all. Its art of poetry proceeds not as a continuous argument but as a series of poems on all manner of subjects drawn from the poet’s experience which also throw light on poetry; it seeks a new poetics by seeing poetry as the renaming of a world fallen from Eden and as the glimpsing of another world, the Biblical “new heavens” and “new earth.” Doorstones draws on the same poetics, each poem being a threshold to another world or the world as other. Written in three distinct locations: Wivenhoe, a fishing village in Essex, Paris, and Burgundy, both sequences wonder at the revelation of each moment, hum with metaphors and similes, advance through rapid shifts of tone and, as in the previous volume, At the Brasserie Lipp, explore anew the resources of English.

You can read more about Another Art of Poetry and Doorstones on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read two sample poems from the collection. 

From Another Art of Poetry and Doorstones

The Dark Stormlight

The dark stormlight cast by the eclipse
blackens ground-ivy and clover, fills
the thickets with another world and sinks

unknown hues in the silent stream,
and must be changing cities to unreal
or more than real

pictures of cities dead or about
to rise from the dead as the earth-wide cloud
slowly vanishes and the sun comes out

new, like a bridegroom from his chamber.
Poetry sheds, at its best, the same
strange light as the world by imitation.

Himmliche Ruhe

Himmliche Ruhe. Silent mandarin
Ducks on the Lake and gliding widgeon play
Their part in the water’s almost pictured peace.
Green of the trees and islands, blue of the sky
Inverted, hardly stirring, here. You found,
Mother, each time you’d sit with me and watch,
In Kew’s familiar Garden, time stand still,
That other world you knew had to be there.
This calming and awaking of the soul
Wherever waters sleep or quietly live
Is usual, everyone it seems has known
This common place. Rest is a foreign country,
With infinite and open borders just
Within or out of reach. A secret kingdom
Continually appearing, near yet far,
Like sleep, or death. You knew this without knowing.
Be resting in the only peace there is.