Angela Graham gives an insight into her development as a writer and reflects on her strategy for achieving publication of a short story collection…
In June 2017 the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website hosted a blog I’d written for Literature Wales. The Welsh national literature development company had given me a bursary to support the writing of a collection of short stories set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy. A Bursary and a Strategy was the confident title of my blog. It ended: “So now ‘all’ I have to do is keep writing and revising and find an agent and a publisher… Let’s see how far I get.”
More than three years later my debut collection of 26 short stories, A City Burning is about to appear, on the 21st October, from Seren Books, the leading literary publisher in Wales. I have reached my goal. Is this because my strategy was the right one?
Some parts of it were. The blog described how working with a professional literary editor was proving to be very important. It continued to be so. Gwen Lloyd Davies, editor of the influential literary journal New Welsh Review helped me to see the themes in my work. Without her assistance I would not have seen so clearly that many of my protagonists not only encounter or undergo trauma but feel compelled to bear witness to it. In turn, this perception freed me to go deeper into that approach and to experiment beyond it in new stories.
I also learned things about approach. She described mine as one of ‘telescoping perspective’. I finally understood this in terms of my long practice as a film maker – zooming in on the tiny detail; pulling back to the bigger picture, and vice versa. It must have become second nature to me. And, regarding style, Gwen Davies pointed out that mine was often ‘cinematic’, evident in careful scene-setting and the provision of interpretive keys. She published one of the Northern Ireland-set stories, ‘The Road’ in New Welsh Review and it is now the opening story of the collection.
My ‘strategy’ also involved finding an eventual readership in Northern Ireland. The first thing I did on the very first day of the bursary period was to go to Northern Ireland from Wales where I had lived and worked since 1981. I am from Belfast. (I speak Welsh with a strong Northern Irish accent). I knew I wanted to write about Northern Ireland and to be read there. Although I had made films there over the years, I wasn’t known as a writer. So, as my blog reports, ‘I planned to spend some of my time there getting to know about possibilities. I asked Literature Wales to introduce me and my work to their counterpart in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I found my meeting with poet, Dr Damian Smyth, ACNI Head of Literature and Drama, very valuable indeed.’
Damian Smyth and I had met briefly, years earlier, in connection with a Welsh-language Belfast-set feature film I had produced and co-written. As a would-be author in need of some guidance, I found him very informative. Subsequently, I have seen that he is consistently engaged with and supportive of writers. He pays attention to work and output. At this meeting I felt very encouraged and better prepared as I began to extend my knowledge of the writing scene in Northern Ireland. I joined the group for women writers, Women Aloud N Ireland, then in its early days and that has been a wonderful network of support. Two of my poems appeared in WANI’s lockdown publication North Star: Short Stories and Poems by Female Northern Irish Writers.
But as for my focus on finding an agent and a publisher – that wasn’t so straight-forward. Over the years, while working as a producer, I had had a mildly respectable roster of stories published in magazines. I researched agents carefully, narrowing down to a scant list who, in their profiles, expressed interest in the short story. I did the same for publishers – not many names on that list either. Both agents and publishers wanted a novel, not a collection of short stories. I worked out that, for agents, the percentage on earnings from a story collection is likely to be low. For publishers, a collection needs to be exceptional and a good fit for their market before they will put their resources into the genre. I was applying before having finished my collection and was usually restricted by the application process to sending three stories.
I am sure it is not like this for everyone. I decided to finish the collection to the best of my ability before trying again. This worked for me. Two publishers agreed to read the finished collection and one took it immediately. I still don’t have an agent but that’s because I haven’t tried again.
In the meantime, I received a SIAP Award from ACNI towards the writing of a novel set in Northern Ireland and have completed the first draft. It’s about the politics of language − Irish and Ulster Scots − and is set between Spring 2016 and Spring 2017. In the current year, a second SIAP Award has supported me in writing a prose/poetry book about my upbringing in east Belfast. Many of the poems from that have been published already. Since last September I have been mentored towards a first collection of poetry by Northern Irish poet, Glen Wilson. This collaboration was prompted by a similar initiative from the Welsh poet, Matthew C. Smith, editor of Black Bough Poetry. I have had a steady stream of poetry publication generally – including one in Ulster Scots. Achieving publication in Ulster Scots means a lot to me. One of the stories in the collection is partly in Ulster Scots.
And we are in a good period for the short story. The Art of the Glimpse, 100 Irish Short Stories, edited by Sinéad Gleeson has just been published, in the wake of notable anthologies Being Various: New Irish Short Stories; The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers and The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland.
A City Burning will be launched in an online event at 7pm, Tuesday 27th October: