The View From Here Interview:
I met Ann Kelley in September, at a poetry workshop as part of the Wonderful Words Festival, at St. Ives Library. For Part One of the interview, click here.
What’s your writing day like? Do you write full time?
I love working at home and I am very disciplined. You have to be, working for yourself. I write seven to eight hours a day. Typically we have breakfast, my husband gets off to work around 7am, then I do a few domestic things, and then I sit down at the computer.
So you use the computer rather than longhand?
Yes I find the computer is better for writing than on paper, because it’s a serious problem for me, that I have appalling handwriting. Computers saved my life really, I started with a little Amstrad.
I have hundreds of notebooks, but with all the notes on the computer it’s much easier.
But I get ideas all the time, could be in the bath, or on the train….
You wrote and published poetry before your novels and you’ve traveled all over the world and given workshops in different places. One of your poems begins, “I’ve a thing about men in waders”?
It’s a very popular poem that! They were in uproar in Australia with laughter about that one. I’ve a poem called Big Men, which is not yet published, it’s about fireman and labourers and so on. It starts “ A trucker with biceps that I can’t get my two hands around…”.
How did you go about publication and choosing an agent?
I was in Edinburgh collecting a (poetry) prize, and a friend called me and suggested that whilst I was there, I try Luath. I was first published without an agent. I’d tried several agents, and had the feedback that no one would place it easily. But I went to Luath, and the girl that took the manuscript was there on work experience. She read it and passed it on. They went on to accept The Burying Beetle.
Jennie Renton is my wonderful, wonderful editor.
Then two years ago I was reading from the Bower Bird at the Edinburgh Festival, and found out that the agent whom I thought might be a potential to represent me in future, turned out to be the person introducing me at the event! Rather than first meet her on the day, I rang her up and asked if we could meet the night before. She agreed that evening to become my agent. It’s Lindsey Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates. They had sold eighteen tickets, in fact only two people turned up, a mother and daughter and we had a lovely session. It turned out some of the others were from a care project and been naughty and banned from attending!
What about writer’s block or your tips for writers?
If I am stuck, I don’t allow myself to get stuck, it’s like a fatal illness being stuck. Something can keep you going - the bee on the window-sill, anything, something comes into your head eventually. Any time you are writing, put it all in, use all your senses. Make notes. It’s those silly little things that make up life, and for a writer, they are vital.
I make notes, although I can’t read my own handwriting. Making notes is so important. And when writing, especially when starting out, so many people try to be clever and try to impress. But it’s about the truth, often told in very simple ways.
You were at school at St.Bernard's in Essex. So were you a contemporary of Dame Helen Mirren?
Yes. My claim to fame is that I attended the same school as Helen Mirren. But she was in the year below. If she ever reads this, my name then was Ann Cousins. I would love her to play Gussie’s Mum in the movie!
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend?
Someone else doing the cooking would be nice. A good single malt, then my favourite meal ever, grilled lobster in garlic butter and a green salad, grown by me of course, and a bottle of fine champagne, lying in the sun in the garden with my lover, who is of course my husband.
Gavin MacDougall is the Director of Luath Press, Ann’s publisher of the Gussie books. I asked him at the Frankfurt Book Fair, how Ann had come to them and about working together.
Most of our books have a Scottish connection, because we’re in Scotland, but by no means all of them. The Burying Beetle has no Scottish link directly, although Ann spent a year or so of her childhood up near John O’Groats, the very, very north of Scotland, so that was her only Scottish connection.
A friend recommended she contact Luath, Robin Hardy, the Director of The Wicker Man. We published his novel covering a similar sort of area, Cowboys for Christ. She had sent her book to us and I was aware of it, but hadn’t yet read it. We had a work experience student with us, who was at Edinburgh University, and part of what she did, was to go through submitted manuscripts and when she left us, of all the books she’d looked at she said, “you must publish this book, it’s fantastic. Do something with it.” It was her enthusiasm for it that brought it more to our attention.
You went on to publish the next two books as crossover books, although the Burying Beetle was written originally for adults?
Yes, but in the process of writing it, Ann had, unusually, approached and road-tested it with kids and schools, and got their feedback as she was writing, which was very helpful for her, but also helpful for us, in working out who the potential readership were. Then WH Smith selected the book for a major fresh talent initiative across all their branches in the UK. They picked six books at a time, and in each batch, they had one crossover novel, and they picked The Burying Beetle, which was great for a first time novelist.
You’ve published a further two books by Ann?
Yes, when she started I’m not sure even she envisaged there would be more. We didn’t know her own personal story when we selected it. The Burying Beetle went on to be shortlisted for the Branford Boase Prize in 2006, which was great. And The Bower Bird went on to win the Children’s Costa Prize 2007, although we hadn’t pitched it especially for children. Gussie the central character is thirteen years old, and that’s why it was picked up as a Young Adult book. We are not children’s publishers especially, as the market and readership is different. Although The Burying Beetle was not the sort of book that I would normally read - I couldn’t get into Harry Potter myself - I could see why others would be so keen on them and why it was shortlisted and won prizes. Number three, Inchworm, is the one that engages me personally much more. Last time I spoke to Ann, she’s now on number four and she has plans for a Gussie scrapbook project.
A full interview with Gavin and about Luath Press will appear shortly at The View From Here.
The Burying Beetle, 2005 ISBN 978-1842820990
The Bower Bird, 2007 ISBN 978-1906307455
Inchworm , 2008 978-1906307622
The Poetry Remedy, 1999
Paper Whites (poetry and photography), 2001
Because We Have Reached That Place, 2006
Her collected photographic works are:
Born and Bred, 1988
Sea Front, 2005
Nine Lives: Cat Tales
Ann has made various appearances on BBC radio. Most recently she took part in an interview on Radio 4, with Eddie Mair, talking about her father's First World War story. (starts about twenty minutes into the one hour programme.)
I would like to say a huge thank you to Ann, for giving generously of her time in St.Ives, not only in the interview but to encourage our small workshop of aspiring poets taking part in the Wonderful Words Festival. She was inspirational, whilst being both practical and honest. She was incredibly modest and self-deprecating, yet one could glimpse an enormous personality and a zest for life just behind the dark glasses, with a warm sense of humour thrown in for good measure. It was a pleasure to meet her and work with her on this article.
Visit Ann's website here.
Enter The View From Here Competition to win a signed edition of her book here.
The View From Here Interview: