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May 2015

GUEST BLOG: A Pickwick paper trail
21st May 2015 - 12 Midnight Matt Broughton


Stephen Jarvis' engrossing debut novel, Death and Mr Pickwick (half-price at Foyles until end of June), tells the remarkable and still much disputed story of the publication of Charles Dicken's much-loved The Pickwick Papers.


Matt Brougton, Senior Designer at Vintage Books, reveals how he went about creating the jacket design for a novel that will delight any fan of Victorian fiction.


  • Read our interview with Stephen Jarvis, in which he discusses what led him to believe that Dickens tried to bury Seymour's contribution, why The Pickwick Papers was the Victorian era's Big Brother and why it should still be regarded at Dickens' finest achievement


Stephen Jarvis’s enthralling first novel traces the genesis, and subsequent history of Charles Dickens’ much-loved
The Pickwick Papers. He offers a damning indictment of how an ambitious young writer expropriated another man’s ideas and then engaged in an elaborate cover-up of the true origin of The Pickwick Papers. So how do we go about creating a book cover for such a story?

The initial discussions between editor/author and designer revolved around the question should the jacket be simple or complex?


Pickwick 01


Complex and colourful could convey that Death and Mr Pickwick is 'vast', brimming with all sorts of characters and situations. An early idea from the author suggested we could illustrate a crowd gathered outside a nineteenth-century print-shop window, with the prints on display all being miniaturised versions of Seymour pictures. The print-shop window scene was indeed used in pictures drawn by some of Seymour’s fellow-artists, although not by Seymour himself.

The simple jacket approach would aim at summarising the book in a single image – perhaps the 'Dying Clown' motif – a Seymour drawing for Dickens that not only lies at the heart of Seymour’s suicide, but could also be a symbol of Seymour himself. Another possibility was 'Mr Pickwick Addresses the Club' – considered the Mona Lisa of book illustrations – which focussed on the eponymous hero himself.


Pickwick 02

We decided to take the simple route and save Seymour’s illustrations for the endpapers. In which case we needed a device that would set the book apart from historical study, and suggest there was more to the underlying story. I figured that if we used the image of Pickwick addressing the club but zoomed in, making him the centre of attention, we could isolate this crop adopting such a graphic device. At first I considered Pickwick’s pince-nez as the symbolic solution, and then the possibility of creating a structure around period typography. However, given this was a book about an illustrator, a writer and the tensions between, the ink spatter became the obvious answer.


Pickwick 03


After a number of variations, the chosen cover was the version far-right:


Pickwick 04


So who conceived The Pickwick Papers?

Was Pickwick a creation of the artist Robert Seymour or a young journalist using the pen-name Boz? – and was it the ink of the artist or that of the writer?


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GUEST BLOG: Raising awareness about FGM
19th May 2015 - 12 Midnight Emma Craigie


In What was Never Said by YA author Emma Craigie, we meet Zahra, who has grown up in England but was born in Somalia. She remembers her early years in Africa with her sisters: the warm sun, the gunfire and the night the 'cutters' came.


Here Emma reveals the chance encounter in Bristol with young campaigners against female genital mutilation (FGM) that prompted her to become involved in the issue herself and was also to lead to her writing this book.



What was Never SaidWhat Was Never Said tells the story of Zahra, a 15year-old girl who lives in Bristol. The sudden appearance of three women she remembers from her early childhood sets her on a mission to protect herself and her sister from the fate which killed their older sister: female genital mutilation.


The novel is in many ways a universal story about growing up, facing adversity and taking control of your own life. But the particular circumstances which Zahra faces were inspired by an amazing group of young people who I met in Bristol in 2012 when I was researching a very different book.


The last three years have seen a massive increase in the amount of media attention given to the abuse of FGM, which is the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. The NSPCC has, for the first time, set up a FGM helpline and since September 2014 it has been mandatory, again for the first time, for FGM cases to be recorded by health officials. The reason why I wrote the book and the reason why FGM has been so much in public consciousness is one and the same: throughout the world, and particularly in Britain, the young people of FGM affected communities have started to speak up and their voices are incredibly powerful.


The young people who inspired me belong to an organization called Integrate Bristol. When I first met them, they had just won a prize for an anti-FGM film called Silent Scream. Since then, they have lobbied Michael Gove in person about the role of schools in preventing FGM, they have met Ban-Ki Moon, shared a platform with Malala, appeared on Newsnight. They have brought the abuse of FGM, as a form of violence against women and girls, on to the public agenda. They now send ambassadors all over Britain, advising schools on FGM education.


The students I met in Bristol are predominantly from the Somali community. But FGM is not restricted to Somalia. It is an ancient practice going back at least to the time of the Pharaohs. The World Health Organization says that there are currently 100-140 million women and girls who have survived FGM in the world. There are no statistics about the numbers who have died, or about how many have suffered infertility, pain, loss of sexual enjoyment or difficulty in childbirth. But thanks to the campaigns of brave campaigners around the world, in many cases facing violent reactions from traditionalists, FGM is being increasingly outlawed. In the last few weeks, Nigeria has joined the growing list of countries where the practice is a criminal offence.


Zahra’s story in What Was Never Said is not the story of any of the young people whom I met through Integrate Bristol. In fact the book imagines a world without the support and solidarity that Integrate provides for people affected by FGM. The thing that Zahra shares with the wonderful young British Somalis who I met is her determination to survive and her determination to save others. The story is specific, but the values are universal.


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Meet the translator, no.2
14th May 2015 - 12 Midnight


In the second of our occasional series with English PEN, celebrating the vital work of translators in bringing foreign fiction to Anglophone readers, we present an interview with Margaret Jull Costa, about her translation of Spanish writers Jesús Carrasco's Out in the Open, winner of the Spanish book trade's Book of the Year in 2014.

Margaret Jull Costa has been a translator for nearly 30 years and has translated works from Spanish and Portuguese by writers including Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, Javier Marías and Bernardo Atxaga. She has won over a dozen awards for her translations and in 2014 was awarded an OBE for services to literature.



An extract from Out in the Open

From inside his hole in the ground, he heard the sound of voices calling his name, and, as if they were crickets, he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove. The desolate howling of fire-scorched scrub. He was lying on one side, knee drawn up to his chest, with barely enough room to move in that cramped space. His arms either around his knees or serving as a pillow, and only a tiny niche for his knapsack of food. He made roof out of pruned twigs which he had piled on top of two thick branches that served as beams. Tensing his neck, he raised his head so as to hear better and, half-closing his eyes, listened out for the voice that had forced him to flee.



Out in the OpenThe focal character of the book, the boy, consistently imagines different outcomes for the actions he is considering taking. It feels as though the story could have gone completely differently at any one of these narrative crossroads – what was this like to translate?

I think this is key to the way the boy is obliged to live moment to moment, and the prose follows suit, and I, as translator, did the same.


Reviews have consistently compared Carrasco’s story and style to that of Cormac McCarthy (The Road, Child of God, No Country for Old Men). Are those similarities evident in the original Spanish? Is he a literary inspiration of yours, too?

I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy and I don’t know that Jesús has either. I do find all those comparisons rather tedious, actually. Why can’t the reviewer simply talk about the book? Out in the Open seems to me powerful and original enough to merit that.


Tense, gripping and emotional, the book asks a lot of questions and builds tension with its tantalising lack of context. Who is the boy? Why is he running away? What will happen to him? Tiny hints at the boy’s history – an abusive father, an oppressive and limited rural culture, repeated attempts at escape – are revealed through his memories. For you, what does all the tension do?

I think it creates a similar tension in the reader. We are there with the boy, horribly exposed to whatever chance event may happen along. The lack of much background detail only increases our fears for him and makes of the story something universal. He could be any child abuse victim cast out into a very hostile world, where any adult could be another abuser.


The Spanish title of the book is Intemperie, which translates roughly to ‘Outdoors’. Close proximity to the natural world and rural experience spearhead the novel’s rejection of a specified time or place. When translating, did you imagine somewhere in the world that the boy and his protector might be?

‘Estar a la intemperie’ really means ‘to be at the mercy of the elements’, so it’s much more than just ‘the outdoors’. Needless to say, the title was very difficult to translate, and Out in the Open was, I felt, the only one that suggested both the physical and moral exposure to which the boy is subjected. As for location, I imagined it was set in the very parched provinces north of Madrid. The countryside around Tarazona, for example, is like a red desert with only tiny patches of green.


You’ve translated works by profilic writers such as Javier Marías, José Saramago and Fernando Pessoa. Author Jesús Carrasco was an advertising copywriter for many years before the publication of Out in the Open. What was it like translating a first-time novelist? Did you feel he had taken any inspiration – either in terms of literary style or in terms of ideas/theme – from his line of work?

No, I didn’t see any trace of Jesús’s career as a copywriter! The often gruesome details of goats’ innards and horrible gaping wounds seemed to me a million miles away from the world of advertising!


Describe the book in three words.

Stark, moving, visceral.


Interview by English PEN's Programmes Co-ordinator Rebekah Murrell

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GUEST BLOG: Oil, water, money and death in Yemen
12th May 2015 - 12 Midnight Paul E Hardisty


The Abrupt Physics of DyingIn The Abrupt Physics of Dying, an engineer working for oil company in Yemen find himself taken hostage, caught up in a ruthless struggle between opposing armies, controllers of the country's oil wealth, Yemen's shadowy secret service and rival terrorist factions.


This gripping debut eco-thriller is largely based on the experiences of its author Paul E Hardisty. Here he explains how Yemen has become an unwitting battleground for conflict between the West and Islamic militants.



It is often said that the worst war is that waged between brothers. Once again, Yemen is descending into civil war. It is a tragedy. But it is nothing new. Yemenis have been fighting and dying for a long time now, decades. The roots of conflict in the Arabian Peninsula are as ancient as this beautiful, unforgiving land: a toxic brew of religion, oil, water, money, power, and centuries of foreign meddling.


My new novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, published by Orenda Books in London, is a literary thriller set during Yemen’s last civil war, in 1994. The book’s main character, Claymore Straker, is an engineer working in Yemen’s nascent petroleum industry. As the country descends into chaos, he comes face to face with a situation that challenges his carefully cultivated detachment, a distance born of his harrowing experiences fighting in the South African Army during the Border War of the 1980s. His day of reckoning has come. He must decide: fight for the lives of his friends and the poor villagers he has come to know and respect, or turn his back, do his job, collect his pay and get out.


I've had wonderfully enthusiastic reviews: such ‘totally gripping’ (Peter James) and ‘an exhilarating white-knuckle ride’ (Crime Book Club). Sarah Ward at Crimepieces even compared the book favourably to Terry Hayes’ bestseller I am Pilgrim. I'm glad, because I have tried to create a thriller respectful of the places and people it portrays, as real as I could make it, but still fast, breakneck, with as much detail and meaning beneath the surface as the reader cares to delve into.


Much of what I describe in the book, the places, the fundamental technical issues that spark the crisis, are real, based on first-hand experiences I had while working in Yemen with the oil industry in the 1990s and 2000s. So much so that a colleague who’d just read the book emailed me from Kenya a few weeks ago and asked me what it felt like to commit professional suicide (he’d worked in Yemen with me for a while). I answered that right now, I don’t think anyone in Yemen will be paying much attention.


I first went to Yemen in 1990 with the UN, right after the First Gulf War. In retaliation for Yemen’s support of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Saudi Arabia had just expelled over a million Yemeni workers. The capital, Sana’a was a seething mass of angry unemployed youths. Within weeks I came face to face with what this kind of unrest does. The café I was in one evening was bombed. One moment you’re sitting there drinking your tea and the next the whole front of the place disappears in a hail of glass. Over the following months and years I was lucky enough to fly, drive, and walk across much of the country, discovering a place unforgettably beautiful and painfully cursed. And what I learned was that Yemenis, the vast majority of them, just want to be left alone.


But this is a hugely strategic place, and Yemen will not be left alone. It sits on the southern doorstep of the biggest oil producer on the planet, guards the entrance to the Red Sea. The Ottomans were here, the Egyptians, the Brits, the Soviet Union. Now the country is a proxy battleground between the West and Al Qaeda, frontline in the struggle between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. A place of shifting loyalties and uncertain alliances, of deep faith and vast desolate landscapes. This is the place where Claymore Straker must come to terms with his past, and find the courage to be the man he was always supposed to be. In that, he’s a lot like most of us.


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GUEST BLOG - Where were you in '82?
6th May 2015 - 12 Midnight David F Ross


The intensity of our teenage years often leaves an indelible mark upon us. For David F Ross, those years were the early 1980s and it's the music and the politics of that time that he sought to recreate in his new novel, The Last Days of Disco, in which the 7-inch vinyl single experiences its final throes of glory in a small town in Ayrshire.



The Last Days of DiscoPerhaps everyone has a time in their life when they felt at their most alive. For me, that time was in 1982, when I turned eighteen. Although I didn't know it at the time, most of the major decisions that would influence the direction of my life were made in that year. I decided to set my first novel – The Last Days Of Disco – in 1982, because I could easily tap into the emotional memories of what was a pivotal year for me, but also one now universally acknowledged as a year of major political and cultural change. The book attempts to capture similar conflicting hopes and fears for two teenaged best friends growing up in the industrial Scottish town of Kilmarnock. It’s a story fundamentally about people; their relationships and how they attempt to make the best of the constraints and opportunities afforded by their environment.



The book's timeline takes place over a period of six months as Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller attempt to start a mobile disco business, against the backdrop of the looming Falklands conflict, and the emerging pressures of a cabal of local small-time gangsters, led by Fat Franny Duncan. There were three principle drivers for me in telling this story: Margaret Thatcher, the music, and the often complex and contradictory personal relationships that were a factor of my own life.


The Thatcher Government was extremely unpopular, particularly in Scotland. The opportunism of diverting domestic attention away from this unpopularity, to have the public rallying around a senseless war 8000 miles away was staggering to me. In The Last Days of Disco, this had to become as central to the story as those who lived in the town itself.


The changing musical landscape of 1982 is reflected in the initial attempts of the two fledgling DJs to establish qualitative benchmarks for the music they will play. Unsurprisingly, this fails as early as their first night working as Heatwave Disco.


Finally, fractured relationships and an inability for family members to communicate is at the heart of the book. Gary Cassidy – Bobby's elder brother – only joins the Army in an attempt to win his father's grudging respect. He is despatched to the Falklands, unaware that darker family secrets are the real reason for his father's apparent lack of interest in him.


Writing The Last Days of Disco was a real labour of love. It took me back to a time and place when I felt I had the world at my feet, even though I had no idea what I would do with such an opportunity.


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Latest Blog
GUEST BLOG: A Pickwick paper trail

Matt Brougton, Senior Designer at Vintage Books, reveals how he came up with the jacket design for Death and Mr pickwick, Stephen Jarvis' novel about the origins of The Pickwick Papers.

GUEST BLOG: Raising awareness about FGM

Emma Craigie's new YA novel deals with the traumatic topic of FGM. She explains how meeting campaigners prompted her to write about about the subject for a younger age group.

Meet the translator, no.2

In the second of our occasional series of interviewers, presented in translation with English PEN, Margaret Jull Costa OBE talks about her translation of the Spanish bestseller Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco.

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