Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

In Conversation with: Penelope Farmer

pfToday we’re delighted to welcome the author Penelope Farmer to Vulpes Libris.

With a writing career spanning five decades and a backlist that includes the children’s classics Charlotte Sometimes and A Castle of Bone she has just taken her first steps into the Brave New World of ePublishing for her latest novel, Goodnight Ophelia, (reviewed here). We recently caught up with her to ask her about publishing, death and blowing your own trumpet … but not necessarily in that order.

VL: Welcome to Vulpes Libris and thank you very much for finding the time to answer our questions.

With a career as long as yours, and a catalogue of well-received, well-reviewed and, in one case at least, iconic books to the your name, it will come as more than a surprise to many people to learn that you and your agent decided to take the ePublishing route for your latest novel, Goodnight Ophelia. What was the reason for that?

PF: The simple and short answer to this: my agent could not find a publisher willing to take it. She herself loved the book, to the extent of paying for an editor to help me fine tune it. (These days, publishers are only prepared to edit books they think might be big sellers – we lesser mortals have to present them with the finished article.) Then she sent it out; to receive in due course a good collection of what can only be described as ‘rave rejections.’ On the lines of: I love the book’. “Lovely, lovely book.’ ‘A wonderful read’ etc etc. Followed by the inevitable buts: which ranged from my age and previous sales record (‘don’t know how we’d re-establish an author such as this’) to it’s not following current fashions in fiction: ‘too quiet’ ‘too reflective’ ‘too episodic’ – etc etc – in all of which the voices of sales and marketing can be heard very clearly. (One editor had the grace to point out that this was despite one major aspect of the story being far from quiet.)

My agents like many others was getting similar responses to other books they love; hence their decision to go down the self-publishing route. Given that this now appeared my one hope of getting published –no writer cares to write only to the wall – what could I do but follow them; not least because they took on the hassle of setting everything up, and because their input meant it could not be called vanity publishing on my part. I can’t say I liked the fact their chosen route was Amazon – an irony in itself given that it was Amazon’s brutal discounting that did for mid-list authors like me. Nor do I care for Amazon’s failure to pay taxes or their treatment of their staff, which is why I try to avoid buying books through them. But in such circumstances, what can the poor writer do except exchange a high horse for a rather broken-backed pony. As you can see I did. Sorry about that.

VL: One of the disadvantages of ePublishing is, of course, that you have to handle your own publicity. Virtually every author I know says that publicizing their books is the worst part of the whole writing/publishing process. How are you finding it?

PF: A nightmare. I know of a few writers who very good at blowing their own trumpets and selling themselves but I am not one of them. Modesty I could say if I’m being kind – or embarrassment – or arrogance – “I’m an artist, why should I?” – or sheer idleness, come to that. Or just simple lack of sales ability let alone skill. I spend large amounts of time writing begging letters – such as I wrote to Vulpes Libris! – and getting no reply. I chase up review editors – a difficult process given that those I did know and who supported me have all moved on and why should their younger successors care about old farts like me?…. As for bookshops: publishers at least provide a certain amount of visibility – their reps take your book round bookshops, countrywide, they can get you onto radio or television offer you up to prize juries – Baileys, Booker or whatever – they can put up posters on the underground or advertise your book on literary pages but no author can afford to do that, and no agent is prepared to. Added to which they can get you invited to talk at literary festivals – not that I ever enjoyed that; the fact you can write does not mean you can speak well. Then combine all this with fact older women are generally less visible – unless, in the case of writers, they have large sales figures – and that the word ‘gravitas’ is more usually applied to men: how are they – or me – to  get anyone to see us?

VL: Your adult novels are probably less well known than your children’s and young adult ones, but no less – unusual, I think is the right word. Of those that I’ve read, Eve: Her Story sticks in my mind as being particularly strange and wonderful. I’ll be asking you to name your favourite books in due course – but who were the writers who influenced you most at the beginning of your writing career – even if that influence took the form of: ‘Well I’m not going to do it like that’?

PF: Oh goodness. Children’s books that influenced the way I wrote for children began with Peter Pan, went on through Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, and in particular Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden. I had a passion for fairy tales as a child – I inherited all the Andrew Lang fairy books from an aged aunt and they informed – have always informed – everything I write. As for adult books: my first agent – a very wise woman said it’s no good learning from geniuses – go for the good craftsman – she suggested Arnold Bennett and she was right; although by choice I have to say I read Jean Rhys and George Eliot – Middlemarch, oh Middlemarch – and Joseph Conrad and Chekov short stories, and, later, Alice Munro. (When I wasn’t devouring detective fiction, as I do to this day.) I don’t think when I sat down to write though, no matter how much I was influenced by themes – children learning to fly – timeslips – Celtic mythology – I don’t think I followed anything or anyone except my own instinct of what worked for me and what didn’t.

VL: Moving onto Goodnight Ophelia, it’s difficult to miss the presence of what is a recurring theme in many of your books – that of the search for identity; the importance, if you like, of knowing who you are and where you come from. It’s there in your children’s books, and here it is again, writ large. We all have a need, at some level, to know who we are and understand where we fit into the great scheme of things, but do you think that need is magnified when someone is – as you are – a twin?

PF: As a twin; of course. I’ve written about this at length – in particular in the ‘autobiographical’ anthology I produced about twins, in the mid nineties. In Charlotte Sometimes the identity problem surfaced in a way that was quite unconscious – only when reviewer after reviewer commented on the pursuit of identity in my work did I begin to understand where this came from. To summarise briefly, twins, especially non-identical yet mirror twins as my sister and I were, are from the moment of birth compared with someone else; which is she and which is me? How can you tell? Ophelia’s search for her identity is a very different matter from Charlotte’s. In this case it’s about parentage – a problem she shares with all adopted children. Where do I come from – what’s in my genes. These are practical questions, not only ontological ones as in Charlotte’s case – and mine again I suppose in giving them to her.

VL: Goodnight Ophelia struck me as a very personal novel … and having spent many hours with a dying relative myself, and witnessed the way her mind wandered back and forth across her life, I found parts of the book painfully accurate and deeply moving. Is it something you’ve had experience of? It certainly reads that way.

PF: It is and it isn’t a very personal novel. Ophelia more than any main character I’ve ever written about is most definitely not me. I’m very fond of her but as someone quite other. At its simplest, I’ve always known in a genetic and family sense exactly who I am. I have never felt constrained to hide and protect myself the way she does; I am not brutal the way she can be. But her very difference from me made it much easier to use whole chunks of my past and upbringing than I could have done had she been modelled on myself. A writer friend once said to me that the most autobiographical book he wrote would be the one apparently the furthest from who he seemed to be. The converse is true; if I give you my background, my people, you will very definitely get nowhere near me. Ophelia does suffer, though, one particular and painful aspect of a genetic tendency to breast cancer. I watched my mother and my twin sister die in their early fifties. My younger sister and I both suffered from the disease and survived – I got off very lightly I have to say. But yes I have observed dying all too closely. I have observed the coming and going of the past. The episodic nature of Jo’s memory, about which some of the rejecting editors complained, came from that exactly. That is how such memory works. And so I recorded it.

VL: I don’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s a gloomy novel – because it isn’t. Jo – your central character – is far too bolshie to indulge in self-pity, and her search for the identity of her father has more than an element of ‘whodunnit’ about it. But it is an odd choice of subject matter – not obvious best-seller material, certainly. I know writers hate to be asked where they get their ideas from, but in this case, I need to ask it …

PF: You know what? I really don’t know where this idea came from; at least not in its crudest form. The name Ophelia swam into my mind while I was sitting under cotton trees in a backyard in Albuquerque New Mexico while visiting an old friend of mine – an artist. She was ill for much of my visit, so I spent much of the time sitting in her yard and her studio making copious notes. Most of which I discarded. I think the deathbed came in pretty early – but I don’t know quite why – well I do; too much experience of them– and having to contemplate my own death at too young an age. At what point the problem of Ophelia’s true father surfaced I really don’t know; but the moment it did I knew I had my story – the first line surfaced not long after when I was driving our Toyota pickup down the road to the sea in my then home, Lanzarote, in order to walk my dog. “There can’t be many people…. who find out who they are via Wikipedia’…. Eureka. I had it. I think the death of my own father four years back was also a factor. Writing about a father was something I could now do, even if as in this case it was an adopted one. I can also add that like all families we’ve had our nightmares, not to say skeletons, but this theme was sideways on to our actual skeletons; these we keep to ourselves. Though possibly those nightmares did fuel the passion and fury with which I found myself writing – at times I felt the book was writing itself and it wore me out.

Having said this: I do know that much of the book arose from the very things that generated Charlotte Sometimes. I am the child of the two wars that decimated the lives of our parents and their friends and families in one way and another and that set us to grow up immersed in unacknowledged grief. As Jo – Ophelia – says,  the chaos caused by Hitler was what generated her. And also partly generated my book.

VL: Without meaning to be disrespectful about the process, I have to say that in general the covers of self-published books scream ‘I Done it Myself’ in big quivering capital letters. The cover of Goodnight Ophelia is a triumphant exception. I would not have guessed, from looking at the cover, that it was POD. How much say did you have in the design? A lot, I’m presuming.

PF: I was lucky. My agents operated through an agency which provides ‘bespoke publishing services to agents publishers etc’ (their self-description.) They found the artist who produced this. My input was simply to ask for the title to be emphasized and to pick up a colour from the surrounding flowers. I love the result. I’m so glad you like it too.

VL: Before we finish, I know I wouldn’t be forgiven if I didn’t ask you about Charlotte Sometimes. A timeslip novel before they were fashionable; a history lesson, an adventure story and a beguiling piece of storytelling with a poignant ending, often mentioned in the same breath as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Five Children and It … Is it part blessing, part curse to have written such an iconic and well-loved book, to which all your other work in that genre is compared?

PF: I have cursed it at times….. I have written some other good stuff too – I guess it’s the kind of curse that has afflicted other writers known mostly for one book – like Alan Sillitoe for instance, with the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. But these days I am mainly grateful to have a book that is still remembered and has never been out of print. (Thanks partly of course to The Cure and the song they made out of it.) Too many writers of my generation have sunk, if not quite without trace, certainly without work currently in print. Timeslip by the way was well enough known even then. One of my favourite books as a child was E Nesbit’s Harding’s Luck, about a boy who went back into the past – not one of her best known but I did love it. There was also Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. And as already mentioned Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden.

VL: I know you’re gestating another book – what can you tell us about it and are you planning to go straight to POD with it, or will you and your agent cross that bridge when you come to it?

PF. Ah. I continue to play about with a book I wrote before Ophelia – called ‘Going Mental’ it’s about seven weeks I spent as a writer in residence at a hostel in Birmingham for people with mental problems. I met some extraordinary people there – disturbed not to say weird some of them might have been but I came to love them and to learn a lot from them too. Again some editors wanted to publish. But once more the dead voices of the salesmen … ‘Who wants to read about the nitty-gritty of mental illness.’ If Ophelia did make her mark I’d love that to come out too. As I would the book I’m actually working on – more non-fiction – based on collections of letters between India and England that surfaced after my father and my brother died and that basically suggested the source of my family’s fortune. I am setting the history of that family against my mother’s very different, much more eccentric one: and seeing how the characteristics of both surfaced in later generations, in particular that of my parents and my own. My agent has as yet shown no enthusiasm: as a writer I have tended not to go down obvious routes and in the current publishing climate that is a particular problem. I’d love it to be published in the normal way but if necessary will go again for POD. My family will be interested at least. It will probably be called “Our Father’s Desk.”

VL: It’s a tradition on VL to ask our guests to name their five favourite books – old or new – and give reasons. So, the floor is yours …

PF: Do you mind if I cheat? – some of my favourite writers are short story writers so a very favourite book would be a collection that included all of them; Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Alice Munro (with a grateful nod to that ancestor of hers, James Hogg, author of the unique Confessions of a Justified Sinner and above all Chekov; whose story Gooseberries has haunted me for years, because of this: ‘There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him — disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree — and all goes well …’

Then: George Eliot’s Middlemarch – a book containing everything anyone needs – all human life is here. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – the only book I’ve ever read, put down, and instantly picked up and read through again because nothing else would do. Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre – about the outrageous old puppeteer, a real trickster figure, whose malaise springs from the way his family fell apart after the death of his brother in the war – the same theme which generates Ophelia. But I love it above all for the sheer energy and exhilaration of the writing; it makes most English prose seem pallid. Finally Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead (and its sequels if I may …): one of the great, great books of our time. How does she manage to write about goodness and an old man whose religious precepts are beyond anything many of us feel or believe and yet which gets us utterly inside him and his life? – it’s a miracle of quietness and strength.

And please may I cheat again and add a sixth book? All this is very serious – I’d leaven it with a book my long-dead mother introduced me to and that I’ve always adored Dodie Smith’s: I capture the Castle. How can you not love a book with a stepmother in it called Topaz who wanders out on dark wet nights stark naked but for black gumboots –appearing in flashes of lightning as a white and legless ghost.

(Oh and I adore the current crop of nature writing from Roger Deakin’s Wild Wood to anything by Robert Macfarlane and maybe above all – birds are my joy – Mark Cocker’s Crow Country. I suspect I may add H for Hawk in due course, but I haven’t yet managed to wrest it from my daughter’s hands.)

VL: I think I can safely say those are some of the most unusual  and original choices any guest has ever come up with. It’s been utterly fascinating talking to you. Thank you for taking the time to answer so fully and thoughtfully.


Goodnight Ophelia is available as both a Print on Demand paperback from booksellers, and as an ebook from Amazon.

5 comments on “In Conversation with: Penelope Farmer

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings
    April 17, 2015

    Fascinating interview – and says quite a lot about the state of modern publishing…

  2. Jackie
    April 18, 2015

    This really was a fascinating interview and a brutally honest one. If the way that modern publishing works angers me and I’m not a writer, how much more would it frustrate authors? One can say “it’s their loss” when they miss out on good books, but it’s also cheating readers to pass on a book because they think it won’t appeal to the market, no matter how good the book is.
    The honesty extends to Ms. Farmer telling us of her personal experiences, some of which have been very sad. To revisit some of that in a book is very brave to do. I also really liked the passion she shows for her favorite books. This was an excellent interview, thank you to Ms. Farmer and Moira.

  3. Pingback: Month in Review: April 2015 - The Emerald City Book Review

  4. nick moreton
    June 17, 2015

    nick morerton here from Birmingham try to find a contact with Penelope Farmer

  5. Pingback: Penelope Farmer | R J Dent

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