I’m pleased to welcome author Marilyn Pemberton today. Grab yourself a cuppa and enjoy reading the #TenThings Marilyn would like her readers to know about her.
#1. I am relatively new to fiction writing. Up to about five years ago, at the age of 58, I had only ever written fact. I have always worked in I.T. so had to write reports, where imaginative writing was never appreciated. Similarly, when I decided to do a BA, MA and then PhD as a (very) mature part-time student at Warwick University, writing fiction was never an option – every fact and quote had to be referenced and cross-referenced. Having finished my PhD I wrote the biography of Mary De Morgan, a Victorian writer I had “discovered” during my research. A biography again needs to be as factual as possible and it was once this was published that I realised I wanted to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of De Morgan’s life with some “what ifs” and “maybes” – in other words, to use my imagination. I hadn’t used the right side of my brain in decades and seriously wondered whether I could even remember how to use it. I needed help. So I joined a writers’ group in Nuneaton led by Ann Evans, a prolific writer of YA books. The course was only meant to last 6 weeks or so and focussed on plot, character, show not tell – the usual stuff. Five years later it is still going strong with many of the people who joined along with me. The point here is that I have benefitted, not only from the technical expertise, but more importantly from the support and encouragement from Ann and the other members of the group. Not only have they provided invaluable feedback on the passages I read out to them, but I have come to realise that I also enjoy writing short stories and poetry, something I would never have attempted had I not been challenged to do so. I don’t think “The Jewel Garden”, which was published in February 2018, would have got written without the support of the writer’s group. My advice to any writer, whether new or seasoned, is to join a writers’ group and be prepared for your imagination to be challenged, stretched and fully utilised.
#2. Six years ago I started a relationship with a man who loved walking, so I joined him. We progressed from day-long walks at the weekend to long-distance walks lasting 2 weeks. The relationship didn’t last, my love of walking did. I don’t like walking with anyone else and would never consider joining a rambling club. No, I like to plan my route, put on my rucksack, boots and silly hat and just walk across fields, through woods, over stiles and through streams. Where and when else can you be totally alone, miles from any other human being, with just your own thoughts for company? It is whilst walking that I have written much of my first novel and the beginnings of my second, which is still a work in progress. I don’t write anything down whilst I am walking, nor do I use a Dictaphone, as has been suggested, I just try and remember it and then write it at the end of the day whilst I am lying exhausted on my bed. No doubt I forget some stunning lines but I remember enough to be content. At no other time can I spend all my effort on thinking about writing; at any other time there is always something else that needs to take priority. I am looking forwards to June when I am walking from Exmouth to Poole (the last leg of the 600+ mile South West Coastal Path) and will be able to spend 2 weeks thinking of nothing else but 18th Italy and the fate of my young characters in the second novel I am writing – working title is “I Castrati”.
#3. I have had three books published now.
The first book was an academic book, written after I was approached at a conference where I gave a paper entitled “Once Upon a Time: The Use of the Past in Victorian Fairy Tales in Order to Ensure a Happily Ever After”. The man, Tony Simpson, said he was a retired lecturer and had just set up a publishing company, The True Bill Press. He wondered if I was interested in producing a collection of little known fairy tales. Was I interested, of course I was!! The book “Enchanted Ideologies: A Collection of Rediscovered Nineteenth-Century English Moral Fairy Tales” was published in 2010. I was paid $1000 out of the goodness of Tony’s heart – he went out of business a few years later and I don’t think the book is still available.
The second book was “Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan”. This is the book I am most proud of although, like the previous one, it has disappeared into a big black hole. I was approached by Cambridge Scholars Publishing who, it now transpires, publish without any editing advice – the only thing they insisted on was the formatting. They asked me to get endorsements from academics, which I did, but they didn’t ask me to change anything and having sent me my free books I never heard from them again. It is a beautiful looking book – I took the cover ‘photo – and I am sure it could be better publicised. It was only ever available in hardback at a ridiculous cost. I have just contacted them to see if I can back out of the contract or if they can produce the book as a paperback at a cheaper cost – this discussion is still in progress. I have never received a penny as I needed to sell 500, which obviously hasn’t happened due to their inability to promote it. This was published before self-promotion was so necessary and they certainly never contacted me to offer any assistance. As my debut novel, “The Jewel Garden”, is based on the life of Mary de Morgan I would love her biography to be available in case any reader wants to read more about her.
I sent “The Jewel Garden” out to many literary agents and publishers staring for a second time (having re-written some of it based on feedback from a reviewer) in July of 2017. After a raft of rejections (I know they make you a better person, but really…..), I was getting very despondent, when Mike Linane of Williams & Whiting e-mailed me January 1st 2018 saying he loved the book and would like to publish it. I was over the moon – just the thought that someone else loved it was enough for me at the time. It was a short process from signing the contract to getting published – just less than two months. Mike told me to choose a front cover from one of the millions of ones on Shutterstock, but I couldn’t find anything that I really loved, so I asked an artist friend of mine to paint her interpretation of the title. The result was stunning and I am very pleased that Mike agreed to it. It is very different to any other cover and really stands out. Mike did warn me that, although he would do some, I would have to promote the book myself as well. I had no idea what this would entail!
#4. In the old days, a writer would produce a manuscript, hawk it round the publishers until one agreed to take it on, hand the reams of paper over, then sit back and wait for the royalties. These days, it seems, a writer has to pretty much promote the book him or herself. Up until a few months ago, I had avoided FaceBook and Twitter like the plague – I was not the slightest bit interested in social media and could think of nothing worse than spending every spare moment “communicating” with complete strangers. Ha! I am now a member of about fifteen FaceBook groups, “friends” with goodness knows how many people (hopefully all writers or readers, but I can’t be sure), I have joined Twitter (still not sure about this one), I try and write a weekly blog, and have built a website which is very much a work on progress, I have written press-releases and sent to papers and magazines with only a few printing it, I have contacted libraries and bookshops with no success, I have asked anyone and everyone to review the book if they read it, and sent the physical book to a number of places for them to review – I have basically prostituted myself, all just to get myself and my novel “out there”. I am completely outside of my comfort zone; I am a listener not a shouter and I am the one that stands on the edge, not in the limelight. My book is good, I know it is, but if I don’t shove myself to the front and shout louder than anyone else, how will anyone else know?
#5. There are some benefits to joining the world of social media. One is that I have “met” a couple of really lovely writers and communicated with them on a one-to-one basis. The first was Kendra Olsen. She promoted her book “The Forest King’s Daughter” by offering it as a prize to whoever won her competition to come up with the best single word to describe her cover. I submitted the word “fae” and she liked it. The book was a historical novel and we e-mailed each other a few times about research, as I have done a lot on the De Morgan family for both the biography of Mary De Morgan and the novel, “The Jewel Garden”. Just recently I have been messaging Karla Forbes, who commented on one of my blogs. She has written a series of crime thrillers and she has recently just had them republished by Williams & Whiting, who has published my novel. She was agreeing with my blog that moaned about how hard it is to promote a book and we got into a bit of a conversation. I am a relative novice and couldn’t offer any constructive advice to counter her feelings of total depression and despondency. I decided to read one of her books and it is totally brilliant! I told her so, told my sister and daughter-in-law, and hopefully cheered her up a bit. She promised to read my book as well. So that is one additional reader.
#6. So, I am reading the second book of Karla Forbes’ series featuring Nick Sullivan. I thought the first one, “Fallout” was brilliant, so I am all set to read the other six (or maybe seven by now) in the series. I think this is what most readers do – if they find an author they like they will buy everything else they have written. I only recently discovered Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher books. I had ignored them up until recently, as I can’t stand Tom Cruise, who played him in the films, but realising this was a stupid reason for not reading a book I tried it. I then spent the next few months happily reading all 21 in the series! My worry is that if anyone reads “The Jewel Garden” and likes it, they will look for any other novels I have written and find zilch. By the time my second novel is available they will have forgotten me.
#7 The inspiration for my second novel came from Radio 3, which I listen to on my way to and from work. There was an interview which I wasn’t really listening to as I like to listen to the music not someone just talking about it. They were talking about castratos and the interviewee said that in the past, rich men used to buy young boys from poor families, have them castrated and trained to be singers, in the hope they that would bring fame and fortune on their sponsor. My first thought was, “what a terrible thing to do” and my second thought was, “what a wonderful story that would make”. I was still finishing “The Jewel Garden” at the time, but the seed had been sown. The first thing I did was to trawl the internet and buy books on castratos and also the history of 18th century Italy. I can’t say I am that interested in the history of Italy and I certainly didn’t want to include all the politics that was going on at the time. What I wanted to write about was two boys, who are wrenched at an early age from their families, their manhood removed, and then thrust into a world that was beyond their wildest dreams. What would happen if only one was successful, what would happen to the other one? I have started writing the novel, the working title is “I Castrati”, and I am on chapter 12. I am still very excited about it and think it is a great story, but I am really struggling to find time to write it due to the inordinate amount of time I am having to spend promoting “The Jewel Garden.” I realise all I seem to be doing is moaning – but the truth is that I don’t think writers realise how much time they are going to need once a book is published. I wrote a letter to Writers’ Forum which I entitled “Publication is the start, not the end” – and it was the star letter in the April edition!
#8. One of the first things I had to do when I started to write “I Castrati” was decide from whose point of view to write it. “The Jewel Garden” is written in the first person so I thought about writing the second book in the third person for a change, but only for a short while – I know I would get tied up with the different he’s and she’s. I have decided that, for me, writing in the first person is what I prefer; there is never any doubt as to who “I” am. One of the reasons I write is to tell a story, and writing in the first person means that I am writing “my” story – me being the protagonist, of course, not the real me. I find it far easier to describe events, sounds, smells and emotions if they are happening to “me” rather than to someone else. Writing in the third person puts too much distance between me and the event. I also think that for the novels I write, being an unreliable narrator is good – the reader discovers things and learns truths at the same time as the protagonist. Funnily enough, as a reader I really don’t mind whether it is written in the first or third person.
#9. I am somewhat obsessed with Mary De Morgan (1850 – 1907). I “discovered” her when researching for my PhD on Victorian fairy tales and was attracted, in the first place, merely by her name! I then did some research and found her to be a fascinated woman who was surely not recognised sufficiently, so I set about shining the spot light on her. She was the seventh and youngest child of Augustus (a renowned mathematician – surely you have heard of the De Morgan law?) and Sophia (an avid social reformer who campaigned for improvements to prisons and children’s playgrounds, and the abolition of vivisection). Mary never married, an interesting fact, and so was one of the million or so “odd” women who had to earn their own living, which she did mainly by writing. She was also one of the many who took part in the great effort to “improve” the lives of the poor in the East End of London. She was caught up in the spiritualist phenomena, not only because her mother was an ardent supporter and practitioner, but also because Mary herself was considered to be a “seer.” The title of my novel, “The Jewel Garden” refers to a notebook Mary’s mother kept in which she recorded the dreams of her six year old daughter. One of the jottings is entitled “Mary’s walk in the jewel garden” and tells of Mary playing with her sister Alice, who had died three years previously.
Mary, like many Victorians, suffered from the curse of tuberculosis (many of her family died of this disease) and at the age of over fifty she went to live in Egypt for health reasons, where she then became the directress of a girls’ reformatory until her death. How amazing is that? I wouldn’t be confident moving to a completely new country even in this day of easy and fast travel and instant contact – how brave of her to travel all that way to a completely new life away from all her family. And how she became involved in the girls’ reformatory I have never been able to find out – this is one of the many gaps I have tried to fill in my novel. She is buried in Cairo and I was lucky enough to visit the cemetery when I went to Egypt on holiday – unfortunately there was nothing but sand to mark her last resting place – apparently there had been some subsidence and many of the earlier graves had disappeared.
Mary is a little known writer, but if she is known at all it is for her fairy tales. Many of them are on the internet now and I would strongly recommend people to read them. Victorian fairy tales were not written for children and rarely even included fairies. Although they are entertaining there is an undercurrent of social critique – which, of course, is what most original fairy tales have. She apparently read many of her tales to William Morris, to the Kipling children and to the children of the Burne-Jones’. Mary also wrote articles and short stories – some of which were published, others I found as type-written copies in the De Morgan archives (kept because of her father having worked at the University of London). She also wrote one novel, “A Choice of Chance” – apparently the reviews were so bad that she never attempted another.
My obsession has resulted in her biography (“Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan”) and a novel based on her life (“The Jewel Garden”). What else can I do to tell the world about this fascinating and talented woman?
#10. The writer I would most like to be compared with? Probably A.S. Byatt. Her books are beautifully written, literary and intelligent – just what I aspire to!
Thank you Marilyn for your fascinating and very full answers!
You can buy “The Jewel Garden” now
From Amazon The Jewel Garden
Or from Waterstones The Jewel Garden
You can find out more about Marilyn and her writing from her website or her blog.