No Writer Left Behind: Interview with Carmen Marcus, author of How Saints Die
I first came across Carmen Marcus while googling working class writers. It’s an issue close to my heart and other than Kit de Waal, Sheena Wilkinson and Dave Lordan, there didn’t seem to be many people openly talking about their experiences of being working class and a writer. So I was delighted to discover the No Writer Left Behind Blog, a space for writers to share their stories about their backgrounds and experiences.
I contacted Carmen via twitter and was delighted to get involved with a story of my own. But I couldn’t leave it there; I felt this blog was truly special and so I couldn’t wait to find out more about the project and its founder. Thankfully, Carmen agreed to an interview and although I was originally going to rewrite her answers in a more journalistic style, her responses were so fantastic and true, I felt it best to leave them fully formed. Read on and I think you’ll agree…
Tell us about your own writing journey, including your debut How Saints Die.
My first stories were told to me and my sister by my mother and father at bedtime. They were stories of my mother’s white house on the seashore at Malin Head; black rocks and ghosts with hair the colour of ripe corn. They were stories about lights off the West Scar rocks in Redcar; sea rescues and night vigils waiting for the lifeboat to come home. Every time these stories were told they shifted shape. I felt frustrated with trapping stories on the page at school as this way they couldn’t dance the way they did on the tongue. I got into trouble for not finishing stories at school. But to me, not having an ending meant that they were living.
At my secondary comprehensive school I had an incredible English teacher, a born actor, who made Shakespeare come alive off the page. His reading of ‘Under Milk Wood’ rivalled Richard Burton’s. Every time I think of that classroom I feel a quickening because I discovered how language grows with you and brings its own magic and this meant that part of me would never have to grow up. But school was haunted by very real bullies. My marks dropped. I feared school. I went to the library on the way home to avoid the bitch fest that was home-time. At the house of books I found Judy Blume, Robert Westall and Arthur C. Clarke. I found my tribe. Eventually I just went straight to the library. From there I got to the University of St Andrews to study English. But still it took a long time to come home to story.
So when I came to write How Saints Die I returned to those bedtime stories of sea myths and family ghosts. It began as a screenplay. I joined a local writers’ group – Writers Block North East. This group took writing seriously. I submitted a first draft of my screenplay and my mentor said that I was really writing a novel. When I admitted that to myself I was able to keep writing. Structure is everything when it comes to facing the oceanic voyage that is writing a book. Blake Snyder’s book ‘Save the Cat’ taught me the secrets of structure and I will be forever grateful.
Once I had the structure I just had to change my relationship with time. I had to find every moment I could to write. I had a two hour commute each way by train. It was a perfect intense dose of uninterrupted writing time. I’d sit hunched over a notebook, pen in hand, on the boneshaker train writing Ellie’s world. This first draft won New Writing North’s Northern Promise Award. I got an agent but had no idea what this new relationship meant. I lost that agent. But with New Writing North’s help I found my brilliant new agent and champion, Rachel Conway, who made me realise that the book I was writing had a power of its own. Now it’s alive and out in the world.
In your About page, you state ‘It took me a long time to remember and respect my voice rather than find it.’ Do you feel that your working class background hindered or helped your writing in any way?
I think it did both. My father’s fishing heritage and my mother’s Irish heritage are the roots of my imagination.
However, there is a force that I’ve experienced and observed within working class culture, it’s a toxic kind of belonging that wants to hold you and trap you within it ‘for your own good.’ It feels wrong to admit this, it’s a betrayal even to think it but the dirty truth is that a culture that is bullied bullies, a culture that is oppressed oppresses. Alice Walker got into a lot of trouble for having the courage to say this in The Color Purple. But if we don’t admit it, it can’t change.
At the heart of the problem is a wounding. To stay working class would have meant that I had to cut myself to fit, to not go to college or university, to keep my imagination small and angry. But to leave meant I had to cut my accent, my language, my roots. Either way, stay or go, something red and living gets cut. Like the ugly sister in Cinderella who cuts off her toes to fit the glass slipper because it’s the only way to the thing she loves.
No Writer Left behind was inspired by Kit de Waal – can you tell us about what happened and what gave you the fire to start this blog dedicated to working class voices?
Here’s a cut-down version of the message I sent to Kit after hearing the programme ‘Where are all the working class writers?’ I think it best captures the mix of isolation and the hope of belonging that led to the blog.
I got the chance to listen to the programme on Friday and just wanted to say thank you. It hit every familiar milestone, from struggles with formal education to justifying time to write. It was really empowering to hear your experience and the stories of so many other writers. Since making it to publication with Harvill Secker I’ve felt like Cinderella at the ball but still in rags. Hearing the journey you and these writers have taken has given me heart to believe in the stories I’m writing.
When you talked about how English working class writers were largely ignored by the industry I was nodding furiously. As you say, the metropolitan elite dominate the industry, controlling not only subject matter but which work is made visible. I realise this is a huge question but do you have any guidance on how to get work noticed?
Her answer was to say that writers like me should join together and this led to starting a collective of working class writers from across the country. After the radio show went out I floated the idea of a collective on Twitter and the response was massive. We’re just at the early stages of development but we met in Manchester in February and are putting together our goals – so watch this space! I started the blog to pull together the stories that emerged in response to the call for a collective.
Why do you think it is important to have working class voices heard?
I think it’s important to have as many different stories as there are people. To answer this question fully we have to deal with that awkward question – ‘What is working class?’ For me the term ‘working class’ is like a WW2 grenade. It wasn’t made for this battle but if handled badly can still cause a hell of a lot of damage. So firstly, working class writers need the opportunity to tell their own stories so that we can see how diverse being working class today really is. Being working class now intersects with so many other factors: race, gender and location and these make for very different stories. Writers have the power to raise awareness and drive change if they can speak for themselves.
Secondly, by having working class people writing about working class experiences then we get to see that being working class isn’t a state to escape from but a culture in its own right. As the daughter of a fisherman I was brought up with a deep respect for the sea, for fishing the seasons and living sustainably. These are my values. I don’t need interventions to transition out of them. Yes we were poor but poverty is not the same as working class culture even if it’s a part of the story. Poverty is a social injustice.
Finally I want to differentiate between working class stories and working class voices. It’s important that working class writers aren’t duty bound to tell a tale of woe. They should be free to tell any story they want to tell.
What kind of response have you received so far – from readers and contributors – and is it what you expected?
I was overwhelmed by the number of stories that flooded in after my request. What struck me about contributors was how often they said thank-you for creating a place to tell their story and how invisible they had felt. What struck me about readers was the warmth and encouragement they gave to contributors. Starting the blog meant that I got to witness a mutually supportive community growing right in front of me.
Submissions are open to writers at all stages of development (which I applaud) – can you explain a bit more about why you took this approach and what you hope to achieve?
I wanted to challenge the great lie of the overnight success. No writer wrote a book in the dark with no support and got it out there without a network. By asking writers at all stages of development it lays bare the small steps that lead to a career in writing. The first steps are always about self belief and the contributors were so generous and brave in sharing their struggle with this.
It’s also important to be honest about the sacrifices that most people must make to write. Nearly all writers have a day job, a family, something that they need or needs them; they don’t write in leisure time, they write in stolen time.
My hope with this approach is to create a chain of mutually supportive writers who reach behind to help those who are just emerging and reach forward to those with more experience.
Where do you see the to No Writer Left behind project leading?
I have been blown away by the support writers have given one another so I want to build upon this and grow the blog into an active community.
The stories shared on the blog offer a detailed picture of the real barriers facing working class writers and it is my hope that these experiences can be used to bring about change. These stories can be used to inform industry response and the activity of support organisations.
I’ve received a great deal of support on my journey as a writer from mentors, development agencies and industry professionals. I don’t see the issue as a ‘them and us’ problem. Once within the industry I’ve witnessed a genuine desire for change and new voices. The issue is about awareness raising, showing the industry what working class writers feel, the issues faced and where we are. This will also involve demystifying the publishing process for writers like myself, unschooled in its conventions. I’ve started this by interviewing my publicist Louise Court about how publicity really works and hope to develop this informative strand. The blog needs to be a bridge between writers and industry as much as a platform for voices.
The work of the blog will complement and shape the emerging working class writers’ collective. It’s a very exciting time for working class voices.
How do you think the internet has affected opportunities for working class writers?
The internet has levelled the field for working class writers at all stages of development. Most significantly it helps us to find our tribe, to connect to other writers and learn from them. For the act of writing it makes research so accessible. It provides competition and submission opportunities that give that all important sense of validation. Using the internet we can research the industry, find agents, check out publishers, get industry news – it places us on the threshold if not entirely inside the writing world. Moreover, it has changed the relationship between writer and reader. We can reach out to and connect with readers in ways previously unimaginable. This is crucial to demonstrating that there is an appetite for working class writers and All the different stories they want to tell. I’ve just started an Arts Council funded poetry project, The Book of Godless Verse, that will use social media to share works in progress and co-create with my readers. How exciting is that? The idea of the book as a linear self-contained unit and the writer locked in a Garret is gone. Whoop!
Like myself, you are open about the fact that you have always worked to support your writing – do you find that the benefits of this outweigh the negatives, and what changes would you like to see?
Leading a double life as a writer has real benefits; financially, emotionally and creatively. It was working as a fundraiser writing 30,000 word bids that made me realise it would it be possible to write a 70,000 word novel. It was working as a chocolatier during a heatwave that made me realise that I need to adapt my process to the situation. Working with people means watching people and that keeps your characters sharp. The day job offers a sense of achievement beyond writing and a healthy antidote to the demons of isolation. I’m now at home with my toddler and I write when he sleeps. The challenges of balancing the job of mothering with the job of writing are very different and need a whole new question.
That said, it is a struggle balancing writing with work and life commitments. As I said earlier, writers write on stolen time not leisure time. This is a reality. Therefore we can’t justify time to work for free and we shouldn’t feel shame asking for payment. Being paid fairly for work done is a huge issue.
I don’t know any full-time writers who just write. I know writers who write and work and / or deliver workshops, give talks, mentor, publicise, attend festivals, raise funding, deliver projects, write features, blog, vlog and more. At this moment I’m a full-time mum but I’m also delivering a funded poetry project, working on a second novel, delivering workshops and giving talks. So in terms of change I’d like to see profiles on the portfolio writer, so that we can see all the different heads a writer must wear to survive in this age. And I’d like to see development opportunities for writers in education practice, public speaking and digital engagement because these are all real aspects of the job. New Writing North are delivering a Digital Literature Programme right now and it’s exactly what’s needed.
So, what’s next for Carmen Marcus?
I’m working on my second novel. I’m 25,000 words in, immersed in research and there’s no going back. I was awarded an ACE grant for my poetry project The Book of Godless Verse, to complete my first anthology on the messiness of everyday life and the rituals we hand-make to cope with it. There will be opportunities for folk to get creative and get involved so you can find out more here thebookofgodlessverse.wordpress.com or email me. I’ve also been selected for Read Regional and so I’ll be delivering writing talks and workshops in libraries across the North. It took a long time for me to get here, there are still challenges and sacrifices to make, and the reality is very different from the way I imagined it would be but I’m writing and it’s what I love.
You can also read E.R. Murray’s contribution to the blog: Castles vs Council estates – Where Do Writers Come From?
(c) E.R. Murray
E.R. Murray writes novels for children and young adults as well as short fiction. Her books include The Book of Learning – Nine Lives Trilogy 1 (2016 Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read for Children), The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 (shortlisted for 2016 Irish Book Awards and 2016 Irish Literacy Association Award), The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 and Caramel Hearts. Recent anthology publications include The Elysian: Creative Responses (New Binary Press) and Reading the Future (Arlen House). Elizabeth lives in West Cork, where she fishes, grows her own vegetables and enjoys plenty of adventures with her dog, Franklyn. You can find out more about Elizabeth on twitter @ERMurray.
Carmen Marcus author photographs (c) Kev Howard
About How Saints Die:
‘She is silent now because she is ten and she learns five new words a day and puts them in a sentence, but she has not yet reached the words for this…’
Ten years old and irrepressibly curious, Ellie lives with her fisherman father, Peter, on the wild North Yorkshire coast. It’s the 1980s and her mother’s breakdown is discussed only in whispers, with the promise ‘better by Christmas’ and no further explanation.
Steering by the light of her dad’s sea-myths, her mum’s memories of home across the water, and a fierce spirit all her own, Ellie begins to learn – in these sudden, strange circumstances – who she is and what she can become. By the time the first snowdrops show, her innocence has been shed, but at great cost.
This vivacious and deeply moving novel portrays adult breakdown through the eyes of a brightly imaginative child, sensitively explores questions of responsibility and care, and, above all, celebrates the power of stories to shape, nourish and even save us.
Order your copy online here.