Thursday, 12 April 2007

Thank You, Clare & Caroline . . .

This is a long post, please bear with me. I have tweaked and updated it over the months/years.

I'm not given to self-pity, but I can truthfully say that having ME has fucked up my life (I became ill in autumn 1982 after contracting the Coxsackie B4 virus when I was a student - after over a year of illness I was diagnosed with ME by a consultant neurologist). It has been virtually impossible to establish a career. I am probably then doubly delighted that Clare Christian at The Friday Project wants to publish my novel,
The State of Me, the story of how ME – 'yuppie flu', an illness few people believed in during the 80s – impacts on student Helen Fleet's world. While all her friends go on to graduate and have careers in London, she is forced to return to her parents’ home, bedridden with vile symptoms that doctors can't explain and often don't believe. She becomes a still point while life around her continues in a blur. The book is unashamedly autobiographical, but it is a novel, not a memoir, and I'm so happy that Clare responded to it as such.

I had a huge impulse to fictionalise the illness (truth comes more easily as fiction) - I consciously didn't want to add to the ME memoirs/self-help books already published (useful as they are). I hoped, through fiction, to make the subject more accessible, make it 'sexy', and most importantly, dispel the myths. There is still huge controversy and misinformation about the condition, sufferers are still marginalised, not really believed. Biomedical research in the UK is woefully under-funded. Sometimes, I feel we are the Palestinians of the medical world, our voices being ignored by those in power, those who have a vested interest in not listening, making up their own truth about us. As people with ME w
e have no state, we do not belong.

I'm happy to see Mischa Hiller, author of Sabra Zoo, echo the Palestinian analogy here (scroll down to Common Reader interview). It may seem like an extreme analogy but I think most people with ME would agree, especially in light of the horribly flawed recent draft NICE guideline. (This guideline was officially published in Aug 2007. A judicial review of the guideline took place in Feb 2009 at the High Court. Tragically, the case was lost. The guideline has been roundly condemned as 'unfit for purpose'.)

The narrative was in my head for a long time, it started as a (very) long short story in late nineties (I'd had some stories published and been shortlisted for a couple of short story awards over the years). I didn't think I had the stamina to write a novel, but slowly, slowly, the book emerged, the crucial thing being that I was under no pressure to write it. My illness means that no activity can be sustained, and overdoing it results in major relapse, or worsening of symptoms, to be avoided at all costs. Though exhausting, I found the process of writing the book hugely cathartic, as well as creative, and I was getting positive feedback on the quality of the writing ('clear, gorgeous prose' from one agent, who sadly had changed jobs by time the book was finished). Weeks - many weeks - could go by where I did no writing at all, it took me almost seven years, but I was determined to get the novel - and the message about ME - out there. I knew this would be impossible without an agent, and I went through the usual agonies of finding one. I can't count the number of emails I had to send out, a gruelling task, but was ecstatic to finally nab one who found the book 'compelling, charming and perfectly formed'. However, she was adamant she wanted to pitch it as a fictionalised memoir rather than a novel. She gave me time to think about it and although I was very opposed to this pitch - I knew my book was a novel not a memoir, and apart from anything else, as a reader I would find it rather odd that someone of mixed race would write a memoir that totally excised her roots - allowed myself to be seduced: agents are like gold dust and when you find one who gets your writing you don't want to let go.

She submitted straight away to the 'big' editors and publishers. Most of them greatly admired the writing (though not all, that is to be expected and fair enough).

One enjoyed
'the spiky candour and immediacy'. Another said it was an 'extraordinary memoir'. Hmm. Another said: 'She evokes the period so well - growing up in the Thatcher years, the student culture - and the love story is beautifully portrayed. She writes movingly about living with a chronic illness that is misunderstood by so many people but we are concerned that it may be tricky to publish. The best-selling 'sick lit' seems to originate from high-profile journalists writing about themselves or those close to them and this is a far more literary and subtle take on things, which makes it far harder to pitch in this competitive market, so I'm afraid it's a regretful pass...'

I was learning that it is not enough that one editor loves the writing, but that the whole marketing department has to approve it too. The agent felt she had done as much for me as she could and suggested I approach small presses on my own (sadly, most small presses now require agented submissions). This was a harsh lesson for me.

It's all so exhausting and disheartening. And contradictory. One small press told me they
'rarely get such well-crafted writing through the door', but they regretted their list was not the best platform for my book. Another I contacted had a receptionist who told me snootily 'they only considered agented submissions'. In the last year, I had stopped actively looking for a publisher - I felt so ground down by it all, the months and months of waiting to hear... it was truly becoming detrimental to my health to pursue the book any longer. I was content now just to post extracts on this blog.

Six weeks ago, I got a surprise email from Clare, asking to see the manuscript. Caroline Smailes had emailed her about my book, I was so touched by Caroline's generosity of spirit, and when Clare's email came in saying she wanted the book, I was not able to fully absorb the news as I was naturally geared up for another rejection.
That she said yes was a bit of a shock - a good shock. I am thrilled. So are my family and friends. I know not everyone will like my book, that is the way of it - I often can't finish books that others love - but the point is, it will be out there, it will have the possibility of being read. So thank you, Clare, and thank you, Caroline.

Update* The Friday Project went into liquidation at the beginning of 2008. It was a dreadfully unhappy time for all concerned. Thankfully, my precious book survived - not everyone was so lucky - and crossed over to the new imprint at HarperCollins. The State of Me was finally published in August 2008.

40 comments:

Kanikoski said...

Yay, nmj! Hats off and flung wildly into the air! I'll go now and celebrate your deserved success with a nice cup of tea. Feel free to feel properly chuffed.

nmj said...

thanks, kanikoski - it is maybe a bit early in the day for champagne in Finland, but please have something stronger than a cup of tea, i could do with a large glass of something, but my head won't allow it just now, so please have one for me.

That's so pants said...

Wonderful!

nmj said...

thank you, lovely blog friends...anna mr, i could weep that you are proud, i am quite emotional today, as you can imagine.

although i am probably quite emotional most days.

and please can i send you along to ms pants to have a look at her novel extracts, there is a beautiful line, stars as high as an elephant's eye, which i have had in my head for days (hope it's okay to quote, ms p) i will read the rest when my head is less pressed.

goodthomas said...

This is great, namj, just great. I love the idea of all of this happening through your blog, one way or another. You write beautifully and deserve to have your words set down in front of more people. I am very, very glad for you (and thankful to Clare and Caroline as well).

I am sorry about your ME/CFS of course, but I am very glad you found your writing voice. It is a splendid voice indeed.

Congratulations. Now, the dreaded coundown begins.

nmj said...

GT, thank you, yes, blogging is indeed a lovely tool! but what is this 'dreaded countdown' you speak of, should i be anxious?

goodthomas said...

Don't be anxious. I was just referring to the countdown to a publication date.

I just think it so wonderful that you have that. A publisher, a publication date, someone behind you, in your corner, eager to see your words typeset and bound and lovely. Eager to have your words out there, with the "the possibility of being read." It is so, so, so well-deserved.

Caroline said...

Yay!
I knew it would all work out for you. Huge congratulations sweetie.
It's an exciting (not dreaded) countdown ... 9 weeks today for me .... ahhhhhh.
Enjoy the now.
x

maht said...

NMJ: I want to say that I knew it would happen as well. I've mentioned several times what a criminal shame it is that people couldn't get past how to label your book and just publish it. In truth, though, I was frightened that the powers that be would never recognize your work for what it seemed to be from the extracts you've posted here.

Anyway, all I really want to say is congratulations. I really look forward to reading it in its proper order one day.

goodthomas said...

And I meant "dreadful" in a playful way, not at all serious.

nmj said...

It's begining to feel like the Oscars.

Signs, thank you, maybe the perception of this devil/illness will benefit from fictionalisation, people will read the book, and think, so that's what it's like...

GT, I kind of knew what you meant, just being coy, good you have Caroline's book to look forward to cos mine is a year away as far as I can tell.

Lovely Caroline, What more can I say? I can't say any more lovely things about you or I'll be gushing like Gwyneth.

Maht, Yes, indeed, you will be able read the extracts in the right order & won't have to work out what the hell is going on. I'm not sure why I posted them the way I did, was a bit whimsical, maybe.

Calla said...

FANTASTIC! I had my fingers crossed when you were making noises about it a few weeks back, this is awesome!

*flicks hair back* you know, now we can all say "oh yeah, that famous author? I used to read her blog before she was published". We'll all be cool by association ;)

So exciting!

Aaron said...

Huge congrats!

Pepette said...

I have been meaning to say for a few days: congratulations!
All good things come to good people - in the end.
I can't wait till March 2008! :)

nmj said...

thank you, calla, you are kind, you have ME too if i recall?

& hello aaron, i haven't seen you here before, welcome!

hey again, pepette, i have wondered what it would have been like if i could've blogged all those years ago, when i was living in france (82-83), really, all we did was write letters home, seems so old fashioned now.

iLL Man said...

Really chuffed for you. Brilliant stuff. Just let us know when it comes out eh? ;D

Right, that's you and Blind Winger Jones I need to look out for now.............

nmj said...

Thanks, ill man, now I must google Blind Winger Jones, I am not acquainted . . .

greenwords said...

I'm clapping wildly, I am so thrilled and excited! But saying that doesn't quite seem to convey how I feel. Even though I was in your mum's camp too, I'm still overwhelmingly delighted now it's happened. You deserve this!

Ms Baroque said...

NMJ, this is wonderful news! The Friday Project is doing such fab stuff, I'm glad they've picked you up. You'll be an ornament to them.

Hurrah!

nmj said...

greenwords, honey, thank you - i am naturally a little nervous, although (as you know)i see the book as fiction, i feel a huge responsibility to everyone with ME, now that it will be published.

hey ms baroque, thank you kindly - an ornament, how lovely!

Aaron said...

nmj

Yes, re. Mr. Z's blog, I am tyger. I had to change my name for a really boring reason that I'm tired of explaining. :o)

Amy said...

Brilliant news nmj! I'm so pleased and excited that your book will definitely be published! I know you don't see yourself as extraordinary, but i have to say that, knowing what ME can do, i feel moved that you've achieved this. And so glad (and even proud, though i barely know you) that this story will be told in an intelligent, articulate way. I fear I'm gushing too much but hope you know what i mean... x

nmj said...

Dearest Amy, Thanks, I hope you are doing okay at moment, sending a hug xxx

Ms Melancholy said...

Hi Lovely - have just got back from a weekend away, and it seems like I missed the official announcement. I am so delighted for you. You absolutely deserve it and I can't wait to read it. I have a quiet belief that talent will always win out. Much love x

The Periodic Englishman said...

Aha! There is some form of justice in this wretched world. Beautiful news, NMJ, this makes me feel stupidly pleased.

I am also rather bown away by Caroline's actions, truth be told. This just adds to the feeling of extraordinary happiness. Proof that good people are out there. I love her for that.

But you are a star, NMJ. A gorgeously talented writer and an impeccably worthy recipient of this long overdue piece of news.

Sweetheart, you are extraordinary - no matter what you say - and I feel so very bloody proud of you.

With admiration and affection from Ireland......

xx

nmj said...

Lovely Ms M & Mr Hot Hooves, I am really quite touched by all this loveliness in people's responses, thank you both so much - I just hope the book doesn't disappoint. Now I must go back to watching the rubbish but scary Channel 5 'Killing Me Softly'drama, I am hiding behind my polo neck (again).

Böbø said...

Dear NMJ, Just got back from a weekend away and all of this happens! I'm so chuffed for you! And as for that ♥ Caroline ♥, she deserves her wings and halo, angel that she is. It's so lovely that magical things happen and happen in magical ways.

I hope you feel the warmth of the pixie dust energises you for a good while ♥ x ♥

nmj said...

Hey Bobo, Thank you - yes, Caroline is an angel, she did a lovely thing, I had thought of sending TFP my chapters as I knew they accept unsolicited manuscripts, but I had really run out of enthusiasm. Caroline's pixie dust has been very welcome & has revived my creative spirit (I hope!).

yellowduck said...

Being wrapped up in some personal stuff it looks like I missed the party. This is fantastic news. Congratulations!

So. Now that novel number one is sorted. What are your plans for novel number two?

;)

nmj said...

Sweet of you to drop by, Duckie, thank you. I wouldn't say novel no.1 is sorted, it'll need a bit of tweaking, no doubt. x

Mo said...

A bit late with my congratulations but here they are. I look forward to your book being published and being able to read it all.

nmj said...

Thank you, Mo.

Billy Bob Brissenden said...

Fucking hell, that'll teach me to be all busy with boring work stuff. Congratulations.

Shameless said...

I am sooooo late to this news NMJ, but I am really happy for you. Congratulations. What a result after all those rejections, eh? You must be stoked, and rightly so. Well done. You're an inspiration to all of us.

nmj said...

Aw, shucks, Shameless, you have me blushing with all this attention. All I really did was write a novel about something I felt VERY passionate about, and finally someone wants it. Nice you think I'm inspiring!

Digitalesse said...

Fantastic news

Anita Mathias said...

Writing a novel with ME! What an amazing and inspirational achievement--and sticking out the long slog to get it published. Well done.
Anita
wanderingbetweentwoworlds.blogspot.com
thegoodbooksblog.blogspot.com

nmj said...

thanks, anita.

A said...

I just finished the book and absolutely loved it! I couldn't put it down, and it made me cry, feel tender and laugh out loud. What a wicked sense of humour.

I have been ill myself the past couple of years (not ME), so I could relate to Helen's feelings. She feels like a real person to me, like a friend.

nmj said...

Thanks, A - glad you enjoyed! Yes, I guess Helen's reactions could occur in many chronic illnesses though ME is of course 'different' because of the way it has been hijacked by psychiatrists and others.