Another intimate probing into the rich and varied mind of a shortlistee
Helen Led here: I have now learned about French ‘hangover toast’ which I will be testing out this coming weekend - thank you Annette - writers tips are gratefully received.
Annette Gordon, on the 2020 Unpublished Novel Prize shortlist with Everything Is Under Control
When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize and was your entry specifically written for it or were you working on it already?
I first heard about the competition via Twitter which is where I go to for most of my information. Everything is Under Control was a novel I wrote back in 2012 and had put into a drawer.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
Writing is part of my day job but I’ve been writing fiction since 2004, and began with an adventure novel set in the desert, something I adored writing but which does belong in a drawer.
Have you ever started a novel and then abandoned it?
I’ve started writing things then stopped but I don’t consider anything abandoned. I have two novels like this and both are good ideas with great stories but they came to me while I was writing something else. So I started them, planned them then parked them. They still have legs.
Did you write poetry as an angsty teenager?
No, never. I listened to a lot of music when I was a teenager. I worked in a record shop. I was obsessed with music and perhaps the closest I came to writing poetry was an appalling song lyric that ten minutes after I wrote it I hated, but worse couldn’t understand, it was cryptic and philosophical, completely meaningless.
Can you describe what your novel’s about in two sentences?
Everything Is Under Control is about a middle-aged woman who’s an oddball in the disguise of a conventional woman. She’s always lived in the shadow of her beautiful, rich sister, a situation made worse by her mother who favours her sister, and she can’t understand why her sister gets away with so much until she realises she has to let go and not care what people think because that’s what her sister does.
What made you write your book? Where did the idea or impulse behind it come from?
It just grew out of a scene I imagined where a woman comes home to find her sister having sex in her bed with a much younger man. I can’t explain that impulse, it was obviously a what if?!
But what made me write it to the end was to cheer up a friend who was going through a rough patch. My only aim was to make her laugh with something outrageous and satirical so I would write a chapter then send it to her. Comedy is about that really, making someone laugh in recognition at something too difficult to take seriously.
Did you set out to write a funny book? Where does the humour come from?
Yes, I did set out to be funny which is easy to begin with, then gets harder as you have to make it work in a credible story. I normally write historical fiction, I think comedy is really difficult to do.
I suppose my comedy is situation comedy but it’s satirical, there’s a political with a small ‘p’ point buried in there too. My dad was a Glaswegian and everyone from Glasgow has a sense of humour, my favourite kind too, gallows humour because we’re all dealing with terrible stuff most of the time.
Can you read funny books when you’re writing your own? Who do you enjoy reading?
I do. I love Nora Ephron because she’s super-smart and sharply observant. I love any left field black humour like Where D’You Go Bernandette? by Maria Semple, and my favourite Evelyn Waugh book is The Loved One which is a satire on death and Hollywood.
Have you ever read anyone else’s bad review and felt slightly chuffed? (Lying is permissible in this answer.)
One star reviews usually come from someone who feels cheated and they let rip in a review. I’m sure I won’t be this calm about it if I ever get published and my book gets a one star.
Can you tell us about your writing routine – are you a planner or a pantster?
I was a pantser which worked perfectly well on this book when I wrote it back in 2012. I don’t do that anymore. Now I plan then when I get down to writing I might go a bit pantsy because that can throw up some interesting things but I think being a pantser leads you round the houses and is time-consuming.
Where do you write?
I can write anywhere, cross-channel ferries, airports, hotel rooms, edit suites because for work I have to be able to do that even with people looking over my shoulder and shouting instructions. But for novel writing it’s important that there’s zero chance of my being interrupted. My favourite situation is to be completely alone for days, weeks on end.
Mainly, I write in my upstairs sitting room on a camping table. I love this table; it folds up into a large briefcase so I can grab my stuff and be gone in no time.
You can’t find the right words to make a sentence chime: do you (a) swear? (b) cry? or (c) eat? - if (c), what item of food?
I use a thesaurus. Ha ha. If I can’t get a sentence right I either delete it or leave it and move on to try later.
I do a fair bit of eating – I try to keep it to medium-toasted toast with lovely unsalted butter, preferably French – hang-over toast. Or Lemon Sorbet.
What difference has being shortlisted for the CWIP prize made to you? What would you say to anyone thinking of entering next year?
It really boosted my confidence in a novel I thought that no one would ever value. Its main protagonist is 50 and there’s a huge prejudice against funny books with women over 35 years old. Everyone must be young in a rom-com. This competition has broader, bigger ambitions.
This is a great competition because humour in books is often ignored or met with confusion by agents who think it’s too subjective. All novels are subjective in the end. But the other thing is men are allowed to be funny in almost every situation particularly novels whereas women are always felt to be not that funny, but it isn’t true. So, this competition ring-fences us so you can let rip.
Competitions can be a double-edged sword. If you get nowhere it’s disappointing and that can stall you if it comes at the wrong time. But you really do have to be in it to get anywhere. If you don’t enter, you’ll never know. So be brave.
Me again – You’ve inspired me to get out my big fat thesaurus – well done on so many levels.
Annette is a Senior Edit Producer.
Credits include Katie Price: My Crazy Life; Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds series (BAFTA nominated);The Restaurant that Makes Mistakes (a series about people with early-onset dementia).
In 2014, she was short-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Women’s Fiction Prize and recently, longlisted for the Mslexia Adult Novel Prize, 2019. In 2017 she took the Curtis Brown three-month novel writing course in London.