Vanessa and Virginia is the title of Susan Sellers' latest novel: a fictionalised account of the life of artist, Vanessa Bell and of her complex relationship with her sister, Virginia Woolf.(Two Ravens, 2008 and Harcourt, New York). Susan is Professor of English and Related Literature at the University of St Andrews, and co-General Editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of the writings of Virginia Woolf. She is also an author, translator, editor and novelist.
I was privileged and honoured to be invited to hear Susan speak at the monthly meeting of the Hemingford Writers' Group in Cambridgeshire, near where I am currently staying.
Not only was it evident that Susan was an eminent authority on the works and life of Virginia Woolf, but from the start it was apparent that she was a charming, engaging speaker with a passion for her specialised subject and for writing in general. (I am sure her students must adore her!)It is the latter concept of writing in general that I shall focus on this posting as I found the gems she dropped about writing and publishing, and her experiences as an author, simultaneously inspiring and daunting. I have rushed home to write them up while they are fresh in my mind as I want to share them with others. I mention them in no particular order but as they spring to my mind.
In response to a question from the floor, Susan said that generally authors have no say in the design for the cover of a book. In the case of Vanessa and Virginia, it was decided to show the backs of two little girls, each with one hand raised, looking out at a view. Shades of powder blue were chosen on the premise that pink would have been too 'girly'. Interestingly enough, the jacket design is also being used to promote a play, based on the novel, the premiere of which will be held in Aix-en-Provence later this year. She also reported that the novel had a different cover in the States, another in the Swedish and yet another in the French translated versions. The importance of a jacket design and title should not be minimised. With the rise of books being sold in supermarkets, she happened to know that the buyers for Tescos gave each book a mere 30 second glance. If the cover and title conveyed sex, action and thriller it would probably make it to the supermarket shelves!
Commenting on the actual writing process from inception to publication, Susan said that she did not yet have a story for her next novel but had a character and setting in mind. (I query whether subconciously she actually does have a plot which has not yet surfaced. What are your views?) Susan said that rewrites were an inevitable part of writing and that a novel often took years to write. She also mentioned the concept of 'displacement', or procrastination, which is very common among writers, where you do anything to avoid putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. She quoted one instance where she hemmed the living room curtains rather than commence writing. (Oh, how I can relate to this! How about you?)
Susan remarked that although Vanessa and Virginia was a fictional account of the two sisters' lives, she never messed with history or chronology, but did take artistic licence with some anecdotes. An example she gave was that of a friend's toddler, who, jealous of a new baby, tried to put it in the kitchen rubbish bin! She has included this in her book.
Further on the subject of accuracy and the truth, she said that, despite the services of two editors, there was a mistake in her novel. She had swallows searching for grubs, which of course, they simply do not do, but to date noone had picked her up on that. (I wonder if those New Yorker editors would have done!Would you have?) However, sometimes an author will make a deliberate factual error, assuming, or giving credence to his or her readers, that they will be educated enough to realise this. She elaborated on an incident in Woolf's The Voyage Out, where Mrs Dalloway confuses Clytemnestra as being in Antigone rather than Agamemnon. Some researchers think that this is a deficit in Woolf's knowledge, but she is in fact showing a flaw in Mrs Dalloway's character.
Responding to another question from the audience whether she would like to be able to just write fiction fulltime, Susan said that very few writers made enough money to be able to do this. She now only worked part-time to free herself up a little, but she had only made 10,000 GBP on the sale of her last work, which was not in itself bad. However, when compared with other outlays, that amount soon palled. She mentioned that she had paid for her own publicity shots and to be able to use them she had had to buy the photographer's copyright. She had also funded the costs of promoting her book in the USA herself. (I query whether these expenses could be tax deductible? What do you think?)She added that she thought it was good to work as well as just write, not only from a monetary perspective, but it also kept you sharp.
Susan added that to distribute books to bookshops cost money, including putting on the '2 for 3' tables. She also said that two of her colleagues were reviewers. On any one day they might be confronted with a wall of books and asked to select two to review! Two of Susan's MA students' books had been selected for publication, one by the prestigious Hodder & Stoughton, but only one had been reviewed. With the demise of the printed newspaper and word, book reviews were harder and harder to come by.
Answering a question about writing courses at University, Susan said St Andrews had been one of the oldest Universities to run a writing course, but it then came under the label of rhetoric. Writing courses first started in the States and one of the major proponents of such courses in the UK was David Lodge, who introduced the writing course at the University of East Anglia. Cambridge University had no such course!
To conclude, I shall return to the subject matter of Susan's novel. She admitted that there were several literary works about Virginia Woolf, so why another one. One reason she gave was that Woolf and her husband did their own printing. Virginia would write in the mornings by long-hand, type it up, and then in the afternoons would laboriously typeset it letter by letter, which needed to be done from the bottom of the page upwards, working from right to left. In other words, if the last word on a page were 'look', then the 'k' would need to be selected first, then the 'o' and so on. The next day she would rewrite what she had written by long hand, type it up and typeset it again, which explains why there are so many different versions of Woolf's works. Another reason, of course, is that Vanessa and Virginia takes a different slant on both the sisters' works and is written from the pov of Vanessa.
Welcome to my blog!
Why Jacaranda you ask? In case you are reading this the other side of the world and are not sure, Jacaranda is the name of a beautiful tree, which blooms around Oct/Nov, mostly in the Eastern states of Australia. Its flowers are the most exquisite shade of blue-purple, the nearest comparison probably being hyacinth blue, so who could not be inspired to write by such a spiritual colour? When the jacarandas start to blossom, you know it's exam time, but you also know that Christmas is just around the corner. It is said that if a jacaranda flower falls on your head as you walk underneath a tree, good fortune is sure to follow, so guess who did a lot of walking under jacaranda trees! Watch this space for changing images of this lovely tree!