Publisher interview: Anna Hughes at The Pigeonhole

Recently, I spoke with Rajeev Balasubramanyan about his new novel, Starstruck, and in doing so found out about the exciting digital publisher, The Pigeonhole. I love the idea of returning to the serialisation of novels for the digital age and providing an experience around them, so spoke to the founder and editor, Anna Hughes, to find out more about it.

Anna, can you tell us what inspired the idea of serialising novels and providing other content around them?

The Pigeon’s foundations were formed from a desire to bridge the yawning gap between authors and their readers. The plan was to use the dynamism of a digital launch to offer authors a fresh new platform from which to shout about their works and, really, themselves. The serialisation bit actually came from my business partner Jacob. His original pitch to me, over many drinks and a sketch on a napkin, was Dickens done digitally. I was sold. The idea of using delayed gratification to create an online water cooler moment around books, one championed by the great man of English Literature, such an idea.

In today’s world, we are doing so much more. Dickens changed the way that people read books, by giving literature to the everyman. He made printed stories accessible and relevant. Now we are using the same method to help people fit their reading back into their lives, no matter how busy you might be.

Serialisation to an app means that your book is ready for you whenever and wherever you have the time to read, because really, when are you ever without your phone?

The extra content was merely another device to introduce a writer to their audience. What’s evolved from that is multi-media to give a fully rounded look at the book, as well as offering little talking points and rewards for finishing a stave.

How do you recognise when a book will work well as a serial?

I’m not convinced that all books can or should be serialised. The key to what we do is curation. Non-fiction has long been popular on our site. I suspect this is largely because people are used to reading non-fiction on their phones. We love doing it; it lends itself so well to extra content and discussion. We’ve published a wide range from classics such as Art of War, to commissioned travelogues and 3-minute summaries of top non-fiction books in partnership with Blinkist.

When it comes to fiction, we are open to everything, just so long as there is a strong narrative drive and brilliant storytelling. Short stories are obviously a dream for us to publish, and a pet-passion of mine. As is genre fiction. We recently launched a disappearing book with Head of Zeus. Every day for two weeks we released a new stave of Stefan Ahnhem’s extraordinary thriller – Victim Without a Face – and at 5am the next day, we’d steal it away. The readers went crazy with their comments. By the end of the serialisation we had readers yabbering away at each other, and the author as well, it was a joy to see.

You’ve created a global community of readers and writers – can you tell us a bit about how it works for both the authors you work with and the readers that have joined the community?

We began life working directly with authors as a digital publishing platform, though in the two years since our Beta book, we have grown into a support arm for authors and their publishers. The Pigeon’s aim it to make as much noise as we can for all the books on our site, to create a mobile readership and to craft a space for writers to meet their readers and discuss ideas through the pages of a book. We also want to help publishers to understand their market by providing granular data on the demographics behind any launch through our site.

From a reader’s perspective it is all about providing beautifully written books, delivered in a way that can fit into any lifestyle, anywhere; it’s about building a community of people who are brought together through their love of literature; it’s about offering an innovative way to discover hidden meaning in what they are reading, and finally to meet their heroes.

What kind of stories are you looking for if writers are thinking of submitting to you?

At the moment we are collecting submissions for a hugely ambitious project that we’re launching alongside the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love. From September 1 st our readers will have a little bit of love delivered to them every day in the form of a letter. Our Letters on Love series is going to explore the true nature of this most important of emotions. But we are looking at all themes, all shapes, all colours and sizes that it comes in. The hetero-normative backbone of our society is so passé.

What’s coming up from Pigeonhole over the next few months?

The more publishers and agents we work with, the more diverse and exciting our list becomes. Next month we’ve got our first ever YA novel from Hungarian sensation A.O. Esther and Lost Souls, a story of lovelorn angels. Following that is The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney, an exceptional literary debut around a troubled family history within a mysterious country house. In July we’re working with Vagabond Voices to serialise Redlegs, Chris Dolan’s brilliant modern classic set in 19th century colonial Barbados. Then in October we’re launching Home with Valeria Huerta and Niki Barbery-Bleyleben. Our concept of home, our sense of place and belonging within a family, within a community, provides us with our orientation unto the world that we inhabit; this series of essays explores the theory behind place and its purpose in our lives.

We also have a made-for- digital project coming up. We’re currently pulling together a little game of Pass the Pigeon. The idea is that we publish a chapter and every week a new author is chosen to write the next one. Though the direction will be crowd-sourced by the readers. Can’t wait to get that one started. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

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Thanks so much for coming, Anna. It’s great to have discovered the Pigeon and I’m really looking forward to seeing these stories and projects.

You can connect with the Pigeon on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with what’s coming next. Find out more about submitting to them on the website.

Guest blog: Mason Ball’s The Dutch Wives

It’s great to have Mason Ball here today talking about his new novel that crowdfunding publisher, Unbound, have picked up. I love the sound of it and can’t wait to get my copy delivered to my Kindle once he reaches his funding target. Thanks for coming, Mason, and over to you…

Let me open by thanking Amanda for giving me this avenue with which to hawk my wares, so to speak, no one knows more than another writer just how difficult reaching an audience or getting published can be!

My latest book, The Dutch Wives, or The Thirty Five Timely & Untimely Deaths Of Cumberland County, is set in the dying years of America’s great depression, specifically Cumberland County in the state of Maine, and taking the real life medical record entries of a Doctor John M. Bischoffberger as its inspiration (examples of which are reproduced throughout the book) it weaves them into a fictional, strange and unsettling narrative of faith versus reason, of the pitfalls of magical thinking, and how we deal with life in the shadow of mortality.

It’s 1934, John Bischoffberger has moved to the relative wilds of Naples, Maine, has married and set up medical practise. Part of his role is as medical examiner is to document all the deaths he deals with, to note the date, the name of the deceased and the circumstances under which they died. However, still somewhat shaken by his experiences during the first world war, John has lost his religious faith and struggles with the mundanity and common-or-garden tragedy of the deaths he comes into contact with.

The years go by, and against his better judgement, and despite all evidence to the contrary, he becomes convinced that every death he deals with is in fact murder; a series of impossible murders committed by three strange characters living in the woods. He becomes convinced that an uneasy alliance of three itinerants is going about the county, killing. A stoic and hard-edged old woman, a vicious and spiteful little girl and a timorous thin man with bandaged hands and feet are fulfilling some strange and unspoken duty, drowning, suffocating, hanging and the like, men, women and children; each of the three harbouring a profound distrust of the other two, yet still this queer confederacy press on with their murderous work.

As the storm clouds of a new world war gather in Europe, and John’s rationality slowly unravels, he must find a way to disprove what he has reluctantly come to believe, or to confirm his worst fears and take steps to end the killing spree of the three in the woods, whatever the cost.

The book itself has been in my head in one form or another literally for decades, in configurations both too abstract and too literal, swinging wildly between horror and fantasy, different approaches, tones and styles coming and going, false starts faltering on blank pages; until that is I read the medical records of Doctor Bischoffberger. But allow me to explain how I came to do so…

Some years ago, on my thirtieth birthday, my then girlfriend (now wife) decided that I should collect something and knowing me as she did, she decided that what I should collect was antique medical equipment. Yeah, I know. To this day I have a lovely cabinet of wonderful and grotesque… things, of varying archaic medical use and brutal if utilitarian aesthetic.

However, one day while searching the internet for something to add to my collection, she came across Bischoffberger’s Medical Examiner’s Record. A large hardcover book, a ledger of deaths stretching from 1934 to 1954, the record instantly drew me in. As I read, my previous disparate ideas and abortive attempts at the story coalesced into a whole (albeit a strange one) and the novel began to take shape in my mind.

So The Dutch Wives is not so much a historical novel as a novel based on real events and featuring some real people but which takes those incidents and characters and imposes a fictional, even fantastical, framework upon them. Other writers will know that when you say you’ve written a book, people always ask you that one fatal question: what’s it about? As you can imagine, when I’m asked this about The Dutch Wives, I take a big deep breath before starting in on an explanation. A so-called “elevator pitch” for the book is tricky, as I think it sits between genres somewhat. I’d say the novel’s biggest influences are probably Cormac McCarthy and David Lynch, though I’m not sure it’s that much like either of them; but I suppose every writer’s work is a conglomeration of their own influences, visible or not.

This is the first piece I’ve written that is even close to being historical in setting and so, beyond the reading of the medical record itself, I had to embark on more research than ever before. While daunting (and often a little laborious) the joy of research is that, no matter what, you will find incredible and unexpected things, many of which seem almost tailor made to fit into your narrative.

I found local history books online, sourced period maps of the area (I also used Google Earth a lot!) and even managed to find a book of historical photographs of the region; I cannot deny a slight shiver running through me upon finding within this book a picture of Doctor Bischoffberger himself looking back at me.

I hope I’ve managed to tempt you into taking a little peek at my Unbound page, where readers can pre-order a special hardback (or digital) copy of the book, get their name listed in the back, and with enough pre-orders, Unbound will publish it! There are lots of bundles to choose from, with many very special items as extras, from vintage bookmarks, tickets to a cabaret show and unique art pieces incorporating genuine antique medical equipment; hopefully everyone will find something that fits their budget.

If I’ve piqued your interest at all, why not pledge your support and find out what mysteries await you in the woods…

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Thanks again, Mason. My interest is piqued and my pledge made! Good luck with it.

You can pledge here if you’d like to help get this novel published; and you can keep up to date with Mason’s Unbound progress and other stuff on his Twitter page.

Matchbook Stories

Today I’m chatting with Ioanna Mavrou, co-founder of the independent press, Book Ex Machina, and writer of flash fictions. I came across their beautiful publications recently and wanted to find out more about them. Their Matchbook Stories series are tiny, beautifully formed literary magazines featuring tiny, beautifully formed stories.

Can you tell us a bit about how Book Ex Machina came about and why you decided to publish Matchbook Stories?
Book Ex Machina is basically two people: Thodoris Tzalavras and me. We are lucky to have a lot of wonderful creative book people support us, but when it comes down to it, it’s just the two of us running everything, wearing our many different hats. We started out by publishing Thodoris’s first book, in 2010, Nicosia in Dark and White, (a photography book that went on to win first finalist of an award that lots of big big publishers were short-listed for), and in the process we discovered how much we loved making books.

We wanted to do a really high caliber photography book and there weren’t any publishers in Cyprus that do this so we decided to start our own. There was always the sense of doing cool projects—well made, with handcrafted elements, fun bookish things that maybe didn’t exist in the world before, and Matchbook Stories was kind of perfect for that. I love reading and writing flash fiction so I was playing around with different ideas on how to publish it in a new format. When people responded to it, we showed it to some of our favorite writers and took off from there!

What do you look for in the stories you include in your books?
The best way to find out what we like is to read the stories we published. We don’t always know what we’re looking for before it finds us. We are selective but read with open hearts. We love it when writers surprise us with their stories, doing so much in so few words. We want stories that we’ll love, stories that will take our breath away. No pressure or anything.

How can writers submit for a chance to be included in the next Matchbook Stories?
We don’t have a fixed dated for our next Matchbook Stories yet, but we do plan to open submissions again—the best way to find out when would be to subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on social media. We promise, we’re not spammy, we’ll only send you emails once in a while.

What plans do you have for future books?
We are working on a super cool bookish item right now—we are really excited about it and we’ll announce it in the next month or so. We also have another photo book that’s been in the works for a while, and a couple of nice literary projects, in addition to another Matchbook Stories, and who knows what else we’ll come up with along the way. For a tiny publishing house, that’s a lot!

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Thanks for coming, Ioanna, and sharing your story of starting your own publishing house. Best of luck with all your projects.

You can follow Book Ex Machina on Twitter and sign up for the newsletter on their website. I for one shall be waiting to find out when submissions open as I’d love to have a story included in such a beautiful publication.

Year of Indie Debuts: Skyjacked by Shirley Golden

A big welcome to author, Shirley Golden, who’s debut science fiction novel, Skyjacked, is published today. Congratulations and happy publication day, Shirley! As well as being a debut novelist, Shirley has been a winner in the Retreat West short story and flash fiction competitions more than once and she is a very impressive and versatile writer. I really enjoyed Skyjacked and I never usually read this kind of science fiction, which is actually rather strange as I watch films like it often, and I think Shirley may have converted me to read more of this genre.

Shirley, your cast of characters are all very distinct and very real, how difficult was it for you to create so many different voices at once?

It wasn’t something I was conscious of doing in the first draft. I was very much led by my main character, Corvus, whose voice was strong in my head. Once the interactions began with the other characters, I went whichever way the dialogue took me. I like to allow the first draft to come out in whatever way it will. Originally, I had three perspectives. But then I spent a great deal of time in later edits, swapping viewpoints and trying first or third person, until I decided to alternate between Corvus and Janelle in close third person viewpoint, as they underwent the most change, and I felt their internal monologues were distinct from each other. I honed the other characters’ ‘voices’ as I developed their backstories, and adjusted the dialogue, highlighting individual nuances. It wasn’t easy, and took many months of editing once the initial draft was written, but it’s the part of writing I enjoy the most.

Your main character Corvus is given a great opportunity to change his selfish ways – do you think he’ll make the most of it?

Mm, well, I think he’ll try. He’s nothing if not a trier! But it’ll perhaps be all too easy to slip into old habits. I think intentions to change are often hard to maintain long-term or when placed under pressure. I have written a first draft of a sequel so have a rough plan as to how far he will transform. But that could change quite dramatically over subsequent edits, so even I’m not sure at the moment.

You explore the concept of AI robots having real human emotions and relationships – do you think this is something that could become a reality?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of consciousness and how it comes into being. I believe that given the right amount of connections and experience, consciousness has the potential to develop in any living creature. It’s therefore not such a leap to imagine it would be possible for entities that mimic organisms capable of consciousness to develop in similar ways. I’m not so certain it would work if parameters are fixed within the systems, but think it’d be feasible if the systems are able to adapt.

For me, a really strong theme emerged of love and understanding being able to cross divides – is this something you set out to explore or did it just emerge in the writing?

I never set out to explore anything at the start of writing fiction! It always begins with ‘voice’ and a character that won’t go away. Once I’ve written the story, I’ll then go back and sometimes strengthen the themes. Although initially they have to emerge from the interactions, rather than consciously forcing things as I try not to become heavy-handed about it. At an individual level, I like to think that Corvus learns to take more responsibility for his actions and, that after everything, Isidore learns to trust in others a little more. However, Janelle has to let go of her ideals and travels an altogether darker path, and this is something she’s going to have to deal with in the future.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a sequel to ‘Skyjacked’, but unfortunately recent ill health has slowed the editing right down. I’m hoping to get back to it very soon.

Thanks, Amanda, for having me across. Your questions really gave me something to think about.

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Thanks for coming, Shirley, and giving us an insight into your writing process. I hope you are on mend.

You can get a copy of Skyjacked from the Urbane website or on Amazon; and you can connect with Shirley on Twitter and keep up to date with her writing news on her website.

Comp results: April 16 Themed Flash

Many thanks to everyone that submitted stories on the theme of Danger. I’ve been spending a lot of time feeling tense recently while I’ve been reading them! Congratulations to the winners and all on the shortlist.

Winner: Out of Bounds by Jude Higgins

The creeping sense of dread here was so well done. Wondering what the next dare was going to be and knowing that the danger levels of each were going to keep escalating had me completely gripped. Really lovely imagery and great use of the senses. The use of second person narrative really drew me in as well and gave it such a sense of immediacy.
Read It

The author: Jude Higgins converted to flash fiction a few years ago after trying her hand at a novel on the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA. She’s had pieces published in the Fish Prize Anthology, 2014, Landmarks anthology for National Flash Fiction Day, Flash Frontier, Visual Verse and forthcoming in Halo Literary Magazine and Severine literary magazine. She organises the Bath Flash Fiction Award and blogs at judehiggins.com

Runner-Up: We’re Going to Pick Daddy Up by Jan Kaneen

The contrast of the child’s voice and the danger that I thought was coming is very effective. I loved that the danger didn’t turn out to be what I thought it was and that the ending is so open to interpretation.
Read It

The author: Jan Kaneen is a mum, wife, sister and pug servant who recently got a distinction on the OU’s course A215 in Creative Writing. She loves flash fiction and writing short stories and is learning as much as she can about teeny tales to get match fit as she writes her first novel.

The Shortlist

  • Debris by Diane Simmons
  • Fire Ants by Ali Forbes
  • Out of Bounds by Jude Higgins
  • Pear by Helen Young
  • Red Things by JC Winter
  • Rough Wine by Cath Barton
  • Synthflowers by Robert Grossmith
  • We’re Going to Pick Up Daddy by Jan Kaneen

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The next Themed Flash Competition deadline is 31st May 2016 and the theme is Riches. Winner and runner-up stories get published on the website and there’s cash prizes too. Find out more here.

The annual RW Flash Fiction Prize has substantial cash prizes and the winning and shortlisted entries all get published in the annual anthology with innovative new indie press, Urbane Publications.

This year’s judge is the esteemed flash writer, and novelist, David Gaffney. Read his tips on writing flash with an impact before you submit. The deadline for entries is 30th September 2016. Get more info here.

Year of Indie Debuts: The Hungtingfield Paintress

The latest debut author in the spotlight is fellow Urbane author, Pamela Holmes, whose novel The Huntingfield Paintress is a fictionalised tale of a real person’s life. That person being Mildred Holland, a vicar’s wife living in rural Suffolk in Victorian England. It’s a fascinating account of her fight to do and be what she wants to be in a time when women didn’t really have that much choice.

Was it difficult to write from the point of view from a character that was real – did it inhibit you in any way? What approach did you take to find her voice?

I found out everything I could about Mildred Holland (1813 – 1878) and the times in which she lived. In the British Library, I read about the role of women, parish life, the impact of industrialisation on rural areas and the Gothic revival. A local amateur historian with an interest in the genealogy had commissioned a Holland family tree and let me pore over it. Diaries and accounts of people who had taken a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe like Mildred and Willian did for eight years in their early married life gave me insight into what they may have seen.

I interviewed art historians and restorers about painting techniques in the 1850s as well as scanning architectural magazines from The British Institute of Architecture to understand more about that profession. Completing all this research was ultimately liberating for it gave me the impetus, the structure with which to focus my imagination.  Mildred’s voice emerged from it all. I realised I knew where she came from, what and why she would want to act or might feel in a particular way. So it was not difficult to write from her point of view; I felt I knew her. As for what she looked like, I could find no existing photograph or description of her appearance but I think she was physically magnetic.

What inspired you about Mildred that made you want to tell her story?

I recognised that when Mildred settled in Huntingfield after eight years travelling the Continent with her husband, she was in limb. The opportunities to express herself, to do something for herself were few. She was a vicar’s wife. She could run the home, support her husband, serve tea to guests, administer goodly works to those in need. But that was about it. There were firm expectations about what she should do but, as importantly, what she should not.

The Huntingfield Paintress describes her journey to self-expression. The book shows us that Mildred found a way out of her situation. But to do this she needed her husband’s support and she succeeded for there is evidence that William paid for what she did. He would have come in for criticism, allowing his wife to ‘work’ although the fact that it involved religion provided some degree of acceptance. There would have questions about her morality. None of this stopped Mildred, and realising this convinced me that she was determined and clever woman who was willing and able to manipulate people to achieve her ends. That made her fascinating. An impressive woman who I liked very much but also a woman with foibles and faults.

Where did you find out about her life in Huntingfield and also her travels before she settled there?

The local library was a brilliant source of information about the area, its flora and fauna. As I became more absorbed in the writing, I decided I needed to live in Huntingfield for a time so I rented an old laundry building. I sketched, walked the hills and woods she must have wandered, went to churches and towns she may have visited. I was invited to tea in the Rectory where Mildred lived for over 30 years and drank in the pub (or tavern) which still exists in Huntingfield, where her servants may have gone even if she might not. All this helped me to understand what life may have been like there.

Before the couple settled in the village, they travelled widely. For eight years, they were in various parts of Europe, going as far as Constantinople and across the Mediterranean to Morocco. They would have seen glorious examples of medieval, Gothic and Islamic art and architecture as well as experienced the life, geography, weather and cultures of these different places.

What would it have been like to return to a tiny Suffolk village? What would they have thought of their church, a victim of the Reformation when statues, fabrics and glass showing pictures were all destroyed? Inside it was white-washed, according to an entry in the parish records from 1583, so as to cover up ornamentation. By comparison to the splendours of Venice or Florence was it just a little dull?

What did you enjoy most about writing a novel about a real person?

Mildred was at a crossroads when she settled in Huntingfield. She had had a life-changing experience travelling the Continent and she was now in a place which ostensibly afforded few opportunities to express herself. When I came across her story, I was also at a point in my life when there were choices I could make if I only could find the courage and commitment to do so. My two boys were both at University and though I had a job I enjoyed, I knew I had energy left to do more. Finding out that there was little lot known about this fascinating woman gave me the opportunity to create a version of her life that is based in truth but more importantly, I hope, is psychologically and emotionally convincing.

Will your next novel also be a fictionalised account of a real person’s life?

I’ve started writing my second novel. My ideas about it change as I write. It is not a fictionalised account of a real person’s life but, of course, draws on experiences of others as well as some of my own. I think all novels do this at some level; we watch how others cope, respond and are driven by events, circumstances, their past lives and their dreams. It is a wonderful and painful process to write, at least for me. I find this quote from Emile Zola of comfort: ‘From the moment I start a new novel, life’s just one endless torture…..’ If one of the world’s most talented, famous and erudite writers find the process hard, is it any wonder that I do?

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Thanks very much, Pamela, for this insight into the creating of The Huntingfield Paintress. You can get a copy on the Urbane website, in bookshops and on Amazon.