Clare Sudbery's The Dying of Delight: Review and Author Interview
Diva Books, 2004
The Dying of Delight is an extraordinary mixture of absurdity and profundity. It is ambitious in scope, shifting between different times, tenses, and points of view, and bringing alive a wide range of compelling characters, ranging from the eccentric and insane to the dead.
After quitting her job as a computer programmer in the most surreal way imaginable, the protagonist Silver decides to become an artist. Tired of the rat race and, more particularly, of the sexist, bigoted Tories by whom she has been surrounded at work, she begins her quest for greater fulfilment and creativity. In fact, unemployment suits Silver perfectly, and she soon sets about building a new, more interesting, and less predictable life for herself. Switching intermittently between love for men and love for women, Silver hurtles through her new life, making friends, offending people, and talking to cats.
In love with her best friend, the beautiful and straight Niamh, Silver tries to hide her feelings—even from herself—by making art, taking drugs, and looking after her new friend Andy. But the relationship between Silver and Niamh is not easily avoided, and its different manifestations are amusing and macabre by turns. Meanwhile, Andy is struggling to be understood by the rather domineering Silver. We gradually become aware of the severity of this struggle in a plot twist that further enlivens an already lively narrative. Lefties and hippies do their best to fend off insanity, conformity, and commercial development, while the reader tries to keep up with the interlocking lives of Silver and the mysterious character Edna, to piece together their stories --and Edna's identity—from the various clues, real and false, strewn across the pages.
Consistently brave, amusing and creative, Sudbery shies away from nothing. The sexuality, inner world and aspirations of her characters are explored with the same courageous confidence that prods questioningly at the conventional world that encompasses them. Her ability to create atmosphere and her knack for character make this book exceptional. The whole eccentric cast is believable, multi-layered and flawed, and Silver, at its quirky centre, is the star. A self-confessed self-obsessive, Silver is an odd combination of sensitivity and blindness. At times she ignores her own shortcomings with gleeful self-delusion, singing songs about sieves rather than facing up to her own egomania, while at others she berates herself fiercely. She attracts and repels people with equal force, and the narrative is driven by her efforts to more happily accommodate her own obstinately intense personality. This is not always easy, or even possible, and certain oversights concerning the feelings of others lead, ultimately, to Silver's downfall.
Sudbery punctuates her novel with significant dates, building suspense and loading events with a burning significance. The story begins at a typically hedonistic New Year's Eve party, meanders inventively towards the theatrical events of the solar eclipse, and finishes on the 9th of the 9th, 99. The author deftly plays with chronology, contrasting Silver's relatively straightforward story with the strange tale of Edna in a sequence of numbered chapters that flit between the past, present and future. Each plot strand has its own tone, and Silver's hectic, ramshackle lifestyle provides the counterpoint to the quiet mystery of Edna's life, making their eventual coalescence all the more powerful. Weaving a precise, well-crafted post-modern narrative, The Dying of Delight glitters with a complexity that is nevertheless careful to avoid intricacy for intricacy's sake.--Chelsey Flood
Clare Sudbery's debut novel The Dying of Delight was published in 2004 by Diva Books, an imprint of the bigger company Millivres Prowler Limited. Despite winning various awards, Diva was not considered immediately profitable, and was shut down in 2006. Sudbery was just one author who was told that her book no longer had a publisher. In this interview, she talks about the state of publishing in England today, the benefits of blogging, and her new book.
Diva was just gaining a reputation as a quality independent publisher when it was closed down in 2006. Do you think this is typical of the current state of publishing in England?
I honestly don't know. The thing is that I don't know about every single small independent publishing house and how they're currently faring. I know that Canongate and various others seem to be doing really well, but I also have direct experience of the ripples caused by Diva Books and The Women's Press closing down. Some argue that Diva's demise was more about the fact that gay culture is no longer as ghettoised as it was, which is a good thing. Still others say that publishing has never been a lucrative business for any but a rarified few, and writers have always struggled and always complained about the state of the publishing industry. But yes, it does feel as though, unless you are writing identikit fiction for big marketing bucks (which I'm not), you will struggle to find someone willing to invest in you.
What did the demise of your publisher mean for the copies of your book that had already been printed?
(Sigh.) I wish I knew. According to the figures, there should have been over 2000 copies of my book floating about. But the publishers only claimed to have access to 642 of them, of which I bought 300. Seeing as Amazon Marketplace has copies for sale for the magnificent sum of £0.01, I suspect the other copies are sitting in bargain bins all over the world, or have been pulped, but there is no way for me to know. Then again, if people are buying it cheap and reading it, this is a good thing for my ego and my writing psyche, if not for my pocket. Since the book is technically out of print, I no longer get royalties for copies sold.
Was it this turn of events that spurred you to set up your blog?
No, quite the opposite. I set up the blog just before the book was published, when my excitement was all shiny and new and I had dreams of big things. It was supposed to be a place people could come to find out what was going on regarding the book and its publicity, but I ended up building an entirely new audience, purely on the strength of the blog.
A well-maintained blog like Boob Pencil must take up quite a lot of time. Do you find it difficult to find time to work on your other writing? Do you prioritise one kind of writing over the other?
It takes up loads of time, yes. But it's mostly time I would otherwise spend watching telly or chilling out. I set aside time for novel-writing, and during that time I unplug my internet cable and hide it in a far-flung corner of the house. But, of course, sometimes I crack, and blog when I should be writing fiction. Because blogging is essentially a leisure activity, I'm far more motivated to do it than I am to write novels. Or at least, I'm more likely to feel like doing it out of the blue. Novels feel more like work, and I often have to push myself when I'm not in the mood. Blogging is rarely like that.
How many visitors does your blog attract? And how efficient is blogging as a way of selling books?
I get 400-500 individual visitors per day, but it's a rubbish way of selling books. Either they're not interested, they've already read it, or they're all buying it from Amazon for a penny. I don't know. But they're not buying it from me any more. I know it's tempting to get such a cheap deal, but if I don't earn a living from writing I can't write any more books.
How do you think blogging has affected your writing career?
Many subtle ways. It's helped me to build up a network of people who like my stuff, as well as fellow writers. I've been introduced to literary agents, I've had various writing opportunities passed on to me, and one agent even approached me purely on the strength of my blog. But it hasn't led to a single piece of paid work, so... well, it's not a very efficient way of building my career. Maybe I could justify it on the basis of raised profile and increased networking opportunities, but really I blog because I'm addicted to it. Any writing-y benefits are just happy side effects.
And how do you think your writing career has affected your blog?
Not much. Sometimes I write about writing, but only because I write about things that are happening in my life. If it wasn't that, it would be something else. Then again, my writing in both spheres (blog and fiction) has improved over the last three years, and in that sense I think they feed each other. Like all skills, writing needs practice, and the blog provides tons of that. Oh yes, and I edit/compose my blog posts more these days. I don't know if that would have happened if I wasn't also writing professionally.
After realising how many other writer/bloggers there are, you set up a forum, BloggersWithBookDeals. How is that going, and what is its main purpose?
It's going brilliantly. We currently have nearly fifty members, and are about to set up a new joint website to pool our talents and help publicise each other's books. If I'm honest, a large part of my motivation in setting it up was that I was intrigued by all these people who had book deals but weren't blogging about it. I realised they had nowhere to go to discuss what was happening to them, and I knew from my own experience that being published is tremendously exciting but also quite stressful, and very isolating. The point of BloggersWithBookDeals is to provide a safe space where people can go to ask for advice, share good and bad stories, vent their frustration, cry on each other's shoulders, and network. I've met tons of fascinating people as a result of setting it up, and it's become a wonderful support network. We're all very pleased with it.
Are there many stories of writers being offered publishing deals on the strength of their blogs?
Yes. Many people have been approached by publishers such as The Friday Project about turning their blogs into books. A much smaller number—Caroline Smailes (insearchofadam.blogspot.com) is the only one I can think of offhand—have had novels published which have been discovered via their blogs. I suspect that the membership of BloggersWithBookDeals is only the tip of the iceberg.
Do you think it would be too hopeful to say that blogs can emancipate authors from the limitations imposed by publishing companies? Would it be too gloomy to say that blogs are simply exercises in vanity?
Yes, and yes, or at least neither extreme is true. Don't get carried away here. Blogs are great places for people to write quality pieces and reach an audience, but it's all throwaway stuff. Still, when you consider that millions of people write blogs, it stands to reason that some of them will have genuine writing talent. And those that are vain (and of course there are plenty, as there are in all areas of life) simply won't find an audience unless that vanity is based on true talent. It's a good way for someone to find an audience, but the ones who reach thousands of readers are talented enough that they probably could have got themselves published by a more conventional route if they'd used their energies differently. The publishing industry can be infuriatingly short-sighted and unimaginative, but it also imposes a rigour that blogs do not -meaning that most people are likely to produce a better quality of writing in a book than they would on a blog. It's certainly true of me, at any rate.
How much of your own life and experiences went into your novel The Dying of Delight?
Too much. Then again, it's well known that first novels tend to be autobiographical, and I edited out the worst-offending passages. Still, my writing is better when I stop getting stuck in truth and let my imagination have free reign. My current novel is not autobiographical at all, and much better for it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I've just finished writing my second novel, and I'm now in the business of touting it round publishers and agents, which is exhausting and time-consuming. It's about a mind-reading magician called Leo, and a New Age craze called Psychic Dancing which is driving him mad because it's convinced all his friends that they can actually read minds. I'm really proud of it.
Many thanks to Clare Sudbery for her time. The interview was conducted by Chelsey Flood.
This audaciously brilliant novel follows the adventures of modern English everyman Brian Marley, mortgage slave, ESL teacher, and divorced, devoted father. After surviving a reality TV show competition in the forests of Papua New Guinea, Marley stumbles upon an upper middle-class English settlement, established during the Cold War 1950s by the survivors of a plane crash under the guidance of a character called the Headmaster. To Marley's nostalgic gaze, this society, radiating a confident Englishness that he feels lacking in himself, initially seems to be paradise. But is it? To survive in such harsh conditions, the Colonists have had to allow themselves certain deviations that are not obvious on the surface. Hawes uses his dystopian fable to warn against idealising the past.
Nevertheless, the book is not a blanket attack on fifties mores. Marley's lower middle-class mother, an internationalist who believes in the welfare state and values England's European role over the 'Special Relationship,' is a product of a different strand of post-war culture, and Hawes draws her with considerable sympathy. Thus, from one perspective, this is a novel of ideas about Englishness, pitting the Headmaster's militaristic nationalism against the liberal culture represented by Marley's mother. By bringing the two into conflict in a contemporary English context, Hawes suggests that the choice between these two traditions still lies before us.
The novel is primarily a satire on numerous aspects of modern-day British and English culture and politics: along with more minor targets, such as the fascination of a Tory newspaper editor for "sporty girls in summer dresses, with cellos," it attacks the cruelty of reality television, our obsession with celebrity, and the way in which 'Britishness' is invoked by the Establishment to avoid addressing English concerns. (In the story, the PM and his acolytes -including an amoral Scottish spin doctor, who may or may not be drawn from life—plan a referendum on monetary union, confident that "whatever happens in England won't matter anyway. When the results come in we'll break them down country by country. Three countries to one in favour...") However, it is also a satire with tremendous heart, a tender evocation of fatherhood: much of the tragicomedy stems from Marley's devotion to his tiny son Tommy, which impels him to incredible lengths in order to provide for him and earn his respect.
Hawes also displays great sensitivity in his description of Marley's fruitless search for a real "voice," an authentic English identity that will mesh with his own personality. When he discovers the Colonists, Marley briefly believes that he has found this voice, only to lose it again when his sense of decency is outraged by what they have done to survive. There is another obstacle between Marley and the voice he seeks, however, one related to class. The 'real' Englishness of the Colonists is an upper middle-class register which Marley can never successfully adopt, but which he has come to accept as the authentic type through the Famous Five books and Eagle comics that dominated his childhood. The title of the novel, Speak for England, refers to this dilemma. What is England's voice, and what is its relationship to class? How should you speak if you are English? Which accent? Which words? Which pronunciation of 'garage'? And, most importantly, whom should we choose to speak for England?
Hawes is a master of skilful characterisation: to use an old cliché, many of the characters walk off the pages, and even the minor characters are exceptionally well-drawn. Marley himself, luckless and consciously ignoble, but somehow loveable, is an extremely believable protagonist, a reinvention of the classic underdog. Some of the Colonists verge on caricatures, however, particularly the Headmaster, whose Terry Thomas diction occasionally becomes, as TT himself might say, a bit over the top.
The richly allusive style is full of echoes that touch obscure chords in the English cultural consciousness. Hawes manages the impossible combination of playing on English atavism while relentlessly interrogating it, maintaining a general lightness of touch that provides an overlay of irony (though the reader should bear in mind the remark by one of the characters that "Irony is just yearning in disguise").
The book captures the strange homesickness of being English in today's world, the inferiority complexes of post-war generations, and the discomfort of being lower middle-class. It is also a morality tale about the dangers of longing for an Englishness fixed like a fly in amber, and of founding a polity on the basis of anything resembling ethnic nationalism. People and culture evolve, Hawes suggests, in some ways distinctly for the better, and we must learn to accept this.
Although the novel shows the influences of A Handful of Dust, Lord of the Flies, and 1984, it is extremely original, one of the most incisive, moving, and amusing reflections on Englishness ever written. --Isabel Taylor
Gwendoline Riley's third book, Joshua Spassky, is a wistful, existential exploration of what it actually means to love someone. Like her previous novels, Cold Water and Sick Notes, it revolves around a young English female writer whose coolness hides a painful sensitivity. Unlike her previous novels, in this one the protagonist is avoiding drink, but although Natalie stays sober, alcohol remains central to this story. Natalie frequently tops up the hip flask of her companion, American playwright Joshua, who loves to drink and intends to do so until his death. She keeps alcohol close to her, as if she doesn't trust it.
Natalie and Joshua meet up in Asheville, North Carolina, to see if there is something to be done about their nearly-relationship, which has continued erratically at various levels of intensity for five years. Thus begins their holiday, a typically reticent Riley affair of alcohol, talk, and pummelling the past. The two pass their days and nights sweating together in their cheap hotel room or roaming the Asheville area, examining each other with a frankness so brutal that it crushes conventional ideas of romantic love. We reluctantly observe their bedraggled intimacy as they thrash out the truth of their feelings for each other, apparently determined to drown potential happiness before it can begin, in over-analysis and self-pity. As they wallow, kiss, and reveal secrets in their mysteriously wet bed, both holiday and pages dwindle, and this relationship seems as doomed as the undistinguished affairs that preceded it. The fact that these two disenchanted and thoughtful souls are almost certainly a match seems irrelevant.
Riley's thin, large-type novels radiate style. We have come to expect certain things from her work, and this novel does not disappoint: her talent for creating flawed and sympathetic characters, placing them in a landscape, and describing their world with unfailing attention to detail saturates this book, as it did her previous novels. And if she verges on pretension, invents self-important characters who frustrate the reader, and presents love as ephemeral and burdensome, her ironic self-awareness goes some way towards softening this. Her protagonist's book is called Time is Like a Lump and, when Joshua asks Natalie what her new novel is about, she responds, "I don't know… it's just existential."
Joshua Spassky is about relationships in a Godless existence, about going through life with the weight of your own imminent death on your shoulders and nevertheless being light-hearted enough to fall in love. Riley explores this idea with an originality that reverberates long after the book has been closed. A kind of futility hangs over the romance she describes, tainting conversations and charging the surrounding human transactions with a latent bleakness. The work is witty, insightful and intelligent, and the writing is flawless. Though the plot may lack momentum, the themes do not.--Chelsey Flood