I have great pleasure in introducing fellow Parthian debut novelist to the spotlight today to tell us about her publishing journey and her debut novel set against the back drop of the miner’s strike. This is the first of two novels out for the 30th anniversary of this moment in history that I will be showcasng here.
So big round of applause and over to you Kit …
Hello, I’m Kit and I’m a writer.
I still feel a fraud saying those words, even though my debut novel Until Our Blood is Dry is published this spring by Parthian Books, and despite having had short stories published and working as a journalist.
Until Our Blood is Dry is the story of two South Wales families torn apart by the 1984–1985 miners’ strike. The Western Mail has chosen the book as its Morning Serial, running short extracts every day in its Arts section, which is unbelievably exciting.
The book was out on April 1. I’m still pinching myself.
The novel took seven years to write. Looking back, I sent it out to agents far too early. The notion of writing a whole book is daunting and it’s all too easy to get carried away with the sheer excitement of having finished something. Anything.
But then one of the early drafts made the shortlist of the Transworld/Daily Mail debut novel competition. Several agents wanted to see the book after that but didn’t pick it up.
There were a few near misses, not least the agent who accidentally copied me into the emailed in-house report on the full manuscript. To see plain unvarnished feedback turned out to be the best thing to happen. I got to see, warts and all, the book’s strengths and weaknesses. That led to discussions that lasted nearly a year, me redrafting the book, the agency considering it.
In the end, the agent loved the book but said she had no idea how to sell a story about the miners’ strike to the publishing industry. That persuaded me to approach small presses, which is how the lovely people at Parthian Books signed me up.
So advice, no. Except to say that it’s a tough market and maybe agents aren’t the only route.
Do or did you ever belong to a writing group? Crit group? Did you ever have someone professionally critique your work before first submitting? Or do you have friends or anyone else who sees it before you send it off? Has that changed since you became a ‘successful author’?
I have a circle of trusted writers, without whom nothing would have seen light of day – or rather, several circles. There’s the real-world writing group that meets monthly in London.
There are individual writers who critique my writing and whose work I read in return.
There are also online writing colonies; I started posting work on a site called youwriteon.com, which is Arts Council funded. Through YWO, I met like-minded writers who get together in closed online colonies the Book Shed and the Writers Asylum.
Finding a support network is critical for any writer at any stage – but choose your friends wisely and be prepared to give at least as much as you get.
I had a bad experience with one professional critique outfit whose feedback offered little constructive direction and left me feeling that the book I wanted to write was completely beyond my powers. At that point, I stopped writing anything for more than a year and it’s only support and encouragement from my writing friends and mentors that got me back in the saddle at all.
Who did you first tell when you heard your first book/story had been accepted?
With the short stories, anyone who’d listen. With the book, only my partner. I didn’t quite believe it, after all those years of standard and more detailed rejections. Even today, I don’t quite believe it. It’s still not quite real.
What happened next? Can you tell us something about working with an editor? How important is that to you now – is there a lot of discussion and does the editor make a real difference to your work?
The suggestions Parthian made were mostly tweaks and I agreed with pretty much everything. A lot of the material that the editor wanted excised had been bolted on in response to other critiques that wanted certain points fleshed out. Shedding the exposition was like stepping out with a glossy new haircut.
The big change was that three opening chapters were deleted. The novel originally opened with an accident below ground and I was very attached to that chapter and to several scenes in that early section. But the pacing never quite worked and the scenes had to go.
Losing those chapters was my decision, and I’m still sad not to have made the pit scene, in particular, work for the book.
Tell us something about your writing day, routine.
At the moment, there is no routine. My ambition is to claw back time to work on a second novel. The outline is there, the characters and location and the main plot arc are in place. What’s lacking is scenes. And time to think about, plan and write those scenes.
What or who inspires you most? Any particular people, authors, books?
Inspiration can be a book or a song or a news story or a thing that happened to a friend of a friend or an emotion that can’t safely be parked in real life.
You never know where a story will strike. You just need the freedom to go with it, wherever it comes from and wherever it leads. The miners’ strike was the defining event of my teens, and for South Wales and other mining areas is like a sore that never quite healed.
The novel I wish I could write is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. It’s a stripped-down, sparkling gem of a book.
Why do you write? (Now that’s the question!) What do you want your stories to do?
It’s a kind of compulsion. A way of making sense of things. An urge to create other worlds and step into other people’s skins and travel to other landscapes and tell stories and play with words. Even during times I’ve stopped writing, the need to write remains, like an itch that must be scratched
How much marketing have you had to do, even with a traditional publisher? How comfortable are you with self-promotion?
I’m not a natural promoter, but very few books sell themselves. And with a small press, it’s all hands to the pumps; the publisher, editor, marketing team and writer work together to push the book.
Parthian has great connections in Wales. The publishing team negotiated with national newspaper the Western Mail to run the novel in bite-sized chunks as its Morning Serial for a year.
Writing buddies with blogs are hugely helpful (thank you Debz for this invite!) and Parthian has persuaded independent booksellers in Wales to choose Until Our Blood is Dry as their book of the month for May, which is wonderful news.
Meanwhile, I’m available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and book readings.
Tell us aboutyour novel
Until Our Blood is Dry is a story about two families, the Joneses and the Pritchards who live in a fictional South Wales mining village that is torn apart by the 1984–1985 miners’ strike.
The three main characters, Gwyn Pritchard the overman, his schoolgirl daughter Helen and her miner lover Scrapper Jones, are forced during the dispute to choose sides. The decisions they make come to tear their lives, and those of their families and the wider community, apart.
The novel is about loyalty and identity and about what happens to people’s lives when battle lines are drawn.
Some readers have described the book as a work of historical fiction, which seems strange way to look at a book about events that stir strong passions to this day.
Exactly thirty years have passed since the year-long strike began but the wounds have not yet healed.
You can order Until Our Blood is Dry from Parthian’s website. You can tweet me @kithabianic. I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on the book, and especially about any memories people have of their own experiences during the miners’ strike. You can also contact me about these issues and about writing in general via my author page on Good Reads.
What next? Tell us about work in progress and aspirations. Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
I would love to say there’s a game plan, but there isn’t. Not in writing and not in real life. Not for the next two years, let alone the next ten. Although I have the germ of an idea for a second book, progress has been seriously slow. And time seems really short, lately. Let’s hope it’s all a lovely surprise.
Any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published?
Read, write, rewrite, persevere. And repeat. Read, write, rewrite, persevere. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat some more.
Tell us something random about you for the pure hell of it
I’m terrified of daddylonglegses. And moths.
Which of your characters would you most like to be friends with and why?
Going round to Iwan and Angela for a Welsh-Italian Sunday dinner would be a hoot. There’d be a lot of arguing and shouting and setting the world to rights, great food and all the valpollicella you could drink.
Finally: can we post an extract of your latest published book?
Until Our Blood is Dry is divided into five books; winter 1984, spring 1984, summer 1984, autumn 1984 and winter 1985. Below is the opening chapter of the final book, catches up with the striking miners in January 1985.
Extract of Until Our Blood is Dry
Scrapper pulled his donkey jacket closer. Overnight sleet had hardened into sheet ice. The street glittered glass. Even the air had an icy bite. He paused outside the bracchi. The cafe was shuttered and locked, a heap of bills and flyers piled inside the door. Iwan looked away, pretending not to see. Scrapper made a mental note to clear them away when he got back. Mist draped the hillsides. The High Street, once bustling on Saturdays, was silent, Betty’s Unisex Boutique boarded up, cracked plywood pasted with layers of posters. Victory to the Miners. Maggie Out. But Maggie was still in charge and ten months into the strike, victory was no closer than the moon.
He slipped and slid down the High Street, past hairdressers and butchers and funeral parlour. His plastic buckets glowed yellow in the gloom.
‘You should have stayed home,’ Iwan said. ‘You need to keep your nose clean these next few weeks.’
‘Give over, Dad. There’s no harm picking coal waste.’
The track up to the tip was six inches deep in half-frozen mud, the crown of the hill masked in swirling mist. Scrapper soon felt breathless; lately, his strength and stamina were quickly spent. The fog thinned, revealing a man slumped on the stile up ahead, dressed in so many layers he looked as wide as he was tall. As the man doubled over coughing, Scrapper recognised him at once. Sion Jenkins was a martyr to his chest.
He hurried over. ‘You alright?’
‘Came over all peculiar.’
Two empty buckets lay at Sion’s feet.
‘Aw, butty; should’ve called us. We’ll fetch your coal.’
Sion tried to protest, but his chest was having none of it. He collapsed in a spluttering, coughing heap.
‘Go home, Sion,’ Iwan said. ‘We’ll stop by when we’ve filled your pails.’
The old boy staggered back down the track. Scrapper picked up his buckets. As they climbed higher, weak sun dissolved the fog. A hefty figure was outlined against the sky, bare hands plunging into the snow, hurling coal at two outsized buckets, huge arms like pistons. Not one lump of coal fell short or too far.
‘Orright, Dai,’ Scrapper called.
Dai snapped upright, a hand flying to his chest. ‘You scared me outta my skin, Scrapper Jones.’ He bent down again, started picking coal even faster than before.
Scrapper filled Sion’s pails first. The coal was brittle with cold. Wind hissed in his ears. Soon, his gloves were sodden, a chill sunk deep into his bones. Gusts of wind shook the trees below, shaking off day-old snow. His fingers ached, but a beat in his head kept him going. Small Town Boy. It made him think of the funfair at Barry Island, the waltzer ride with Red. He’d felt free for the first time in months, that day. Now, they were cash-strapped and cold, a baby due and a court case to come.
He turned to Dai. ‘How are you and Debbie getting on at Dewi’s?’
‘She’s never there.’
‘You’ll have more time together, once the baby comes,’ Iwan said.
‘What babby?’ Dai started hurling coal with raw fury.
‘There’s no babby,’ Dai snapped.
Scrapper frowned at Iwan to lay off the questions. Dai would explain, if he wanted to. Best to leave it if he didn’t. A collier knew not to push his luck. It was the code they all lived by. Downright dangerous, below ground, to poke a man until he snapped.
The three of them laboured steadily, not speaking. The sky gathered darkness, clouds heavy with snow. Soon, Sion’s pails were full. Scrapper carried them down from the tip and tucked them in a clump of bracken, sheltered from the wind and the wet. He climbed back up, started to fill his own buckets. Below, in the trees, a magpie cawed, cross and insistent. The bird spooked him. One for sorrow. He grabbed a lump of coal, lobbed it towards the trees. The magpie cackled and fled on glossy wings.
He straightened his back, rolled his shoulders. ‘Strange how quick you get out of shape. Used to shovel on hands and knees for hours and not get knackered.’
Iwan pulled his tobacco pouch from the lining of his jacket pocket where he hid it from the pit searcher and from Angela. He twirled a sliver of a roll-up, passed the tin to Dai.
Dai took it with a thin smile. ‘Didn’t mean to bite your head off.’
‘Forgotten already, lad.’
For all Dai’s heft, Scrapper sensed something shrunken in him, the light gone from his eyes. So Debbie had done it, then. It took guts to make that choice, to go through with it; a damn sight more guts than he had.
Eerie purple light washed over the valley. Dad and Dai finished their roll-ups. They gathered up their buckets and set off down the slope. But as they clambered over the stile, Scrapper heard footsteps squelching through the mud.
Peter Plod was steaming up the track, his tubby colleague Johnny Boots panting along behind.
‘Fuck,’ Iwan pushed Scrapper behind him.
Penny-sized lumps of sleet began to spatter the hedgerows.
‘You know it’s against the law scavenging coal, boys,’ Peter Plod called. ‘You’re trespassing on National Coal Board property.’
Dai drew himself up to full height. ‘Local bobbies property of the National Coal Board and all, are they?’
‘I don’t like your tone, Dai Dobrosielski,’ Peter Plod said. ‘Step away from the buckets.’
Scrapper opened his mouth but Iwan got in first. ‘There’s families cold and hungry across this valley. You boys got nothing better to do than guard a coal tip?’
Johnny Boots stared at the ground, round face dripping embarrassment. ‘Orders is orders.’
‘Orders is orders?’ Dai echoed. ‘Reckon the guards said that at Auschwitz.’
Peter Plod moved closer, jabbed a finger on Dai’s chest. ‘Set down your buckets now or I’ll arrest all three of you and it won’t look good for Scrapper Jones when his case comes to court.’
‘Do it, Dai,’ Iwan murmured.
Dai set down his pails, slammed the policeman with the flat of his hand. ‘Orders is orders? Next you’ll be saying this got nothing to do with politics.’
The policeman reached for his radio. ‘Fancy a night in the cells, do you?’
There was no way Scrapper could let that happen.
He handed Johnny Boots his two pails. ‘That won’t be necessary.’
Peter Plod paused, radio in hand. He was itching to book all three of them. Sleet pelted Scrapper’s face as he handed over Iwan’s pails, yanked the last two pails from Dai’s clenched fists.
Peter Plod picked up a bucket, eyes still fixed on Dai, tipped the coal over the fence into the brambles.
All the pails emptied, he stacked them, tucked them under his arm. ‘I’ll keep hold of these, thanks, lads.’
He strode off down the track. Johnny Boots staggered after him.
Dai’s fists balled rage. ‘Why the fuck d’you back down?’
‘Gwyn Pritchard’s hauled me up in front of the beak.’
Scrapper explained what had happened at Christmas. Dai’s jaw worked as he listened, as though he was chewing over the information.
‘You’re looking at time in jail?’
‘Anything to line up three square meals a day, butt.’ His attempt at a joke rang sour.
Dai’s face darkened. ‘Bastards. Bleeding all of us dry.’
‘We still got Sion’s buckets,’ Iwan tried to lighten the mood.
Scrapper felt his exhaustion turn to glee. One of them would have a toasty warm house tonight, at least. He would see to it personally. Screw the pigs.
‘I’ll come back for them when night falls,’ he said.
© Kit Habianic, Parthian Books 2014. Reproduced with kind permission of the author. Can not be further reproduced without permission
A huge thanks for Kit for being my guest and I have this book on my wishlist to order very soon! It sounds great and the taster shows the quality of the writing. I hope some of my followers get their copies. I hear the launch event at the weekend went really well. I have a great feeling about this book …