Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Jackie Law

Novel Nights is a monthly literary event showcasing and supporting writing and writers at all stages of their career. Held in Bristol and Bath, their events open with selected writers reading from their published work or work in progress. After a short break there will then be a talk from a guest speaker, typically a published author or publishing professional who will offer advice to attendees on the varying aspects and challenges of their writing journey. I have previously enjoyed evenings featuring Jon Woolcott (The Business of Books), Sanjida Kay (On How to Plot) and Nikesh Shukla (Writing and Persistence).

On Wednesday of this week I faced a new experience as I had been invited to attend Novel Nights in Bristol as the guest speaker. Putting myself in front of an audience was a daunting prospect but I felt honoured to have been asked and did not wish to pass up the opportunity to talk about my passion.

The event opened with an introduction by host, Charlotte Packer, who shared with us the good news that the founder and organiser of Novel Nights, Grace Palmer, has had her work longlisted for the Ellipsis Zine Flash Fiction Competition and also for the Bath Flash Fiction Novella in Flash Award. Authors remain anonymous at this stage in the judging process so little more can be revealed but it is always wonderful to hear of a writer’s successes, especially one as actively supportive of others as Grace.

Charlotte then introduced the first reader of the evening, Christine Purkis, who read an extract from her latest novel, Jane Evans, recently published by small Welsh press, Y Lolfa. Set in 19th century central Wales it tells the fictionalised story of a remarkable woman who was a pig farmer, the first female drover in the area, and who nursed alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.

The second reader was Mina Bancheva who had invited her friend, Michael, to read from her work in progress. Family Life (working title) is the second book in a proposed trilogy. It is set in Bulgaria and the USA from the 1920s through to the present day. It is a family saga telling a tale of the lives and fates of three generations.

The third and final reader was Jess Farr-Cox who read from her work in progress, described as a gently experimental murder mystery. Jess explained that she had played around with form while writing. Sections are written as script, as diary entries, and in more straightforward prose. She told us this process had been a lot of fun.

The story is set in a small village, key characters being a vicar and his children. In the section read, a young boy had just caught a fish and was weaving a tall tale about it in an effort to impress his playmates.

The first half of the event was drawn to a close with a quick word from Robert Woodshaw from Foyles in Cabot Circus. He told us about an event coming up on 20th March – An Evening of Sex and PoliticsRobert will be discussing his debut novel, The Iron Bird, which takes the premise of Animal Farm and applies it to the life of Margaret Thatcher, a bird of prey. He will be joined by Lucy-Anne Holmes who will be talking about her memoir Don’t Hold My Head Down, the story of how she found feminism through sex and took on the The Sun over Page 3. Whilst the format of this event sounds innovative and lively we were assured that clothes would be kept on at all times.

There was then a break to enable audience members to chat and buy drinks from the bar before I was required to take my seat for the Q&A, hosted by Grace.

Sitting in front of an audience holding a mic and answering questions prevented me from scribbling notes about what was being discussed as I normally do at literary events. I have therefore decided on a different approach in this write-up.

When I was first contacted about speaking at Novel Nights I was told that the audience might like to know more about:

  • how I got into reviewing books;
  • how to set up a blog and build a following;
  • how I choose who to review and (possibly) how they can get their books reviewed;
  • how I deal with requests from individuals as there must be books I am not interested in reading.

Following further emails and a chat over the phone, the topics to be covered were expanded to include:

  • where book blogging sits within the publishing industry, its impact and influence;
  • reviewing self published authors;
  • why I devote so much time to doing something I am not paid for (ed. how many writers ask themselves this?).

Having requested that the structure be a Q&A rather than a talk, I was sent a list of potential questions. My preparation involved writing out my answers and trying to commit them to memory. I hoped that enough would remain in my head to be talked around as my mind has a bad habit of going blank when I try to think on my feet. I believe this approach was successful.

Rather than try to remember the detail of what was actually said live on Wednesday, and worry about the veracity of my recall, tomorrow I will post in full the notes I prepared and from which my answers to Grace’s and the audience’s questions were drawn. This will be a long read but may be of interest to some.

My husband, who came along as taxi driver and moral support, told me that I fluffed one question from an audience member. I believe a gentleman asked me about translated poetry (I had mentioned that I wanted to read more poetry) and I thought he had asked about translated fiction. My mention of Charco Press and Peirene Press was therefore not the answer he was probably looking for – my apologies.

It was an interesting evening and experience. I mentioned in my talk that being a part of the literary world, even if only from my small remote corner, is one of the benefits of book blogging. On Wednesday, within this company, I felt like a writer who had something to contribute. Despite my habit of over analysing every social interaction there remains within me today that warm fuzzy feeling of having been a part of a tribe I admire.