This has been a really odd year, so far. David Bowie’s death completely floored me (I’m still prone to bouts of crying and think I will be for some time to come), and my aunt had died (also of cancer) just a few days before. It was a lot to take in all at once. I didn’t even read any books for about a fortnight, which is so out of character for me as to be almost unheard of.
But on the 24th of February, I had a theatre date with my good friend Joanne Harris, so even though I was feeling decidedly rough, I made the trip to London to meet her and to see Adrian Lester in Red Velvet. Adrian and I follow each other on Twitter and when I indicated I’d love to see the play, he made sure I was able to get tickets (thank you, Adrian), as they were selling fast.
I’d arranged to meet Joanne at Leicester Square station at lunchtime, so we had enough time to collect our tickets and have a bit of lunch before the play started. I hadn’t realised the Garrick Theatre was literally about thirty seconds away from the Tube, so once we’d done that, we went for noodles. Even though I wasn’t very hungry, being ill, noodles are always A Good Thing, and I managed to eat most of them, cos they were yummy. Then we went for tea and chatted about books (a favourite topic of conversation between writers at any stage in their career), and then we went back to the theatre and settled in. Adrian had sorted amazing seats for us and we had an excellent view of the stage. This was great, as I’m usually treated to a fantastic view of the back of someone’s head (I’m short), so to have no one in front of us was a real treat.
I won’t tell you the story of the play, here. It’s been staged in London before, so I could’ve read up on it, but I feel sure that my enjoyment of it was enhanced by knowing nothing about it apart from the very basic premise: a black actor is brought in to replace a white actor in the role of Othello – Ira Aldridge was the first black actor to play the Moor on the London stage. This was 1833 – women had yet to be emancipated, but at least they were allowed on the stage. For black actors, life was somewhat tougher, and this play, written by Lolita Chakrabarti (who happens to be Adrian’s wife), rammed the point home in amusing and sometimes truly shocking ways. There was one moment in the play when the whole theatre seemed to light up, and it was all down to Adrian Lester’s spectacular acting ability. I’ve loved his work ever since he played con artist Mickey Bricks in the BBC’s Hustle, so I already knew he could act. Seeing him on stage, however, brought it to a new level. At a point where Ira Aldridge is explaining to one of the other actors the importance of conveying emotion to everyone in the audience, Adrian looked up, and his face opened up to such a degree that there was a tangible connection, and I could feel it physically. I doubt I was the only one to feel it, but I also don’t think everyone is predisposed to be sensitive to such things, and if you saw the play and didn’t feel that, then that’s a shame, because it was such a powerful moment, lasting only a split second, that it will remain burnt into my memory for the rest of my life. Perhaps there were those in the audience who felt it, but didn’t analyse it, who knows? I took a lesson from it. Being someone who’s trained in kung fu for 8 years, as well as a writer who needs to read aloud and make the words resonate, that moment in the Garrick Theatre was something truly magical.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to meet Adrian either before or after the show, but that’s something to look forward to for another time.
Joanne had an event to go to and I’d promised to help out with the kids’ class, so off we went in different directions. The kids’ class was fine, if a little uncomfortable, as I was able to do it with Fisherman’s Friend in my mouth the whole time to stop me coughing too much. But as soon as the suang yang class started, it became impossible to train myself without coughing. We’re not allowed, for obvious reasons, to have anything in our mouths when we train, so that aid was taken away and I couldn’t move without starting another coughing fit. So unfortunately, I made the decision (with approval from the foundation assistant who was taking that class) to go home.
But I still needed to get well enough to go out again on the Saturday, as I was lucky enough to have secured a place at Foyles’ Discovery Day. Agents from Curtis Brown and their sister company Conville & Walsh would be present and available to writers, to hear their pitch and read the first page of their novels. The novel I wrote set in the world the SO and I created together was already with two publishers who’d opened their submissions doors to unagented writers, so I took the other one, my baby, with the character who’s been with me, and developing, and refusing to go away, for about 14 years. Waiting in the queue, I got talking to two ladies, Katie and Rita, and so we allayed our nerves by talking to each other and wishing each other luck. Rita was up first (as soon as an agent became free, the next writer in line was escorted over to meet them), then me, then Katie. I delivered my pitch to Matt Marland from Conville & Walsh, who gave me some advice about both my pitch (needed to be stronger – I’ve since rewritten it) and the first page of the book. His comments about the opening were perfectly valid – he even suggested I give it weight by using more swear words on the first page (those who know the book have been as shocked as I was, considering my character is very free with expletives already). But one thing he pointed out that I considered, I later found I disagreed with. In context, what I’ve already written works better than if I changed it to what he suggested. It was literally a single, one-syllable word, but no one knows my character the way I know her, and I disagree. But it’s definitely something to think about. Afterwards, we were ushered into a different room, where there were agents sitting at tables that had been squashed together, giving room for four or five writers to sit round and ask them questions. Rita was already on a table when I arrived, and I joined them. Matt had told me, as regards genre, that my novel would be categorised as (brace yourselves) ‘high-end women’s fiction’ – I asked Jonathan Lloyd about it and he immediately picked up on my meaning, saying, ‘There’s no Men’s Fiction, is there?’ Precisely my point. Joanne had already warned me that if you’re a woman who’s written a book and it’s not genre fiction, you’ll be shoved into in the ‘women’s fiction’ corner. Sure enough… I mean, for fuck’s sake, women are not a subcategory. But on my own, there’s little I can do except ram the point home whenever I get a chance (like now). After everyone had asked their questions, we stood up to make room for others who were waiting. Rita and I waited for Katie to finish (she was on another table), and then we decided to go for a coffee. We exchanged details, laughed a fuck lot and talked for ages. In fact, and I know this will be a proper shock to those of you who know me, Rita talks even more than I do. I know. I KNOW!!! Katie is much quieter and prefers to listen, so we were a motley bunch but somehow the dynamic worked. We’ve kept in touch since.
And yesterday in class, one of my kung fu brothers gave me the rest of the manuscript – the SF one – with his notes and thoughts, so now I need to work on that so it’s good and ready to send out when (not if – never say ‘if’) a publisher asks me for a partial or full.
Having been to Discovery Day, the first time I’ve shown any of my work to an actual agent, I feel something is beginning to click into place. I’m a writer. I write. No longer too afraid to think about really being published, about other people, who I don’t know, reading my work, rather the opposite is happening. I can’t wait to get it out there and see my books on the shelves in bookshops. It’s a significant shift in my psyche. And also, some of you may already know that the SO and I have started a new Twitter feed especially for little snippets set in our SF world, but which won’t be in the books. Background, moments in time, character sketches. If you want to follow, it’s @LongYuStories. (Long Yu is Mandarin for Jade Dragon, which is the name of our fleet of space ships.)
Now, to the rest of my Sunday.