Blog tour feature – Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

By | March 25, 2016

Nothing hurts like not knowing who you are. Nobody will tell Cadi anything about her father and her sister. Her mother Violet believes she can only cope with the past by never talking about it. Lili, Cadi’s aunt, is stuck in the middle, bound by a promise she shouldn’t have made. But this summer, Cadi is determined to find out the truth.

In a world of hauntings and magic, in a village where it rains throughout August, as Cadi starts on her search the secrets and the ghosts begin to wake up. None of the Hopkins women will be able to escape them.

I first “met” author Carol Lovekin through our shared involvement with the Book Connectors group on Facebook, where I shared her excited anticipation as the release date for her first traditionally published novel, Ghostbird, came ever closer. When she decided to arrange a blog tour on release, I really wanted to be part of it. My initial thought was a review – and you’ll find one of those further down the page – but then thought it might be rather good to add a conversation too. 

Ghostbird was published by Honno Press on 17th March, in paperback and for kindle. It has already been named as Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month for April, and I’m absolutely certain this is only the first of many accolades to come for this very special book.

I’m really delighted that author Carol Lovekin agreed to join me today…

Author photograph ©Janey Stevens

Welcome to Being Anne, Carol. A quick introduction to start with?

Hello, Anne. Thank you for agreeing to be part of the blog tour for Ghostbird. I’m delighted to be here. In addition to being a writer, I’m a keen swimmer, an avid reader and I love my walks. My home is in Lampeter – a small university town in idyllic West Wales.

Your excitement in the run up to the publication of Ghostbird has been really infectious – tell me a little more about how the writer of stories, feminist & flâneuse became a traditionally published author…

Like many unpublished writers there were times when I doubted I’d make it. Honno – where I finally found a home for Ghostbird and where I always imagined being – run occasional ‘Meet the Editor’ events. It was to one of these, three and a half years ago, I submitted the first fifty pages. Janet Thomas, who was to become my editor, asked to see the rest. These things take time and in the interim, Janet continued to mentor me. The short version of the tale involves an ‘unexpected email in the book offer area’ followed by a lunch date: my first with Janet as a proper author – to celebrate! 

I’d love to know more about the inspiration for Ghostbird

In 1979 when I first came to live in Wales, I read The Mabinogion – an ancient Welsh medieval legend. It was the strand dealing with the myth of Blodeuwedd, the woman created from flowers to further the political ambitions of powerful men that caught my attention. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that to be turned into an owl could be a curse. A bird can fly away and escape. The idea for a story, reclaiming Blodeuwedd as a survivor rather than a victim, embedded itself in my psyche. It was years before I returned to it however, by which time I was serious about writing to be published. It was a nice bit of synchronicity.

How would you describe Ghostbird? I detest genre descriptions – and rather suspect you will too – but where would you say it fits?

This could well be my one of my favourite questions, Anne! The gendering of fiction has become as ubiquitous as it is meaningless. There is no male equivalent to the “women’s” literary or popular fiction labels and designating a book ‘for women’ is simply another way of marginalising us. Last year I read a brilliant book by Matt Haig called The Humans. In it, he says, “There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called ‘book.’ ” 

This describes perfectly how I feel. Genre limits us both as writers and readers. Ghostbird is a book. It’s contemporary, a ghost story and a love story. There are hints of myth, magic and witchcraft and it has – or so I’m told – “YA crossover potential.” It will almost certainly appeal to women but that doesn’t mean men might not like it. I have no idea where it fits, to be honest – I just hope people discover it and enjoy it.

When you were writing it, did you have a reader in mind? A certain background, or age group maybe? Were they female? 

Initially, I wrote Ghostbird for myself because the story was beginning to make my fingers itch. Once I realised I was on to something, that I was going for broke and aiming to be published, I had an audience in mind. I probably do pay more attention to how women might react but I’m happy for anyone to read my book!

I must mention that cover – it’s really striking, quite beautiful, and would definitely make me reach for it on a shelf. Where did it come from?

One of the things unpublished writers do is to imagine their book cover. I am no exception. Janet asked me if I had any ideas for the cover. The original black and white artwork was one from my large collection. She added the lovely font and then it was handed over to the design team. The result is a beautifully rendered and polished product enhanced by the delicate shades of green. I’m enchanted by it.

And is there a story behind the wonderful endorsement by Joanne Harris?

There is! When I joined Twitter, on the recommendation of Nicola Morgan in her useful book Write to be Published, I referenced her. She kindly asked her friends to follow me and one of them was Joanne Harris. I was suitably star-struck – I’m a serious admirer of her work. Joanne Harris is endlessly generous toward new writers and over the years we shared the occasional moment. When Janet asked if I could think of anyone who might endorse Ghostbird, I decided to take a deep breath and ask Joanne. She was kindness itself, even though my approach was somewhat unorthodox. (These things – I would emphasise – are best done through an author’s publisher.) As we had a small connection, I threw caution where I could find it later and to my delight and astonishment, Joanne agreed to read the book. There are several layers of icing on my publishing cake – her endorsement represents the spun-sugar flowers!

Images are obviously very important to you. You draw them through words, but you’ve also chosen some beautiful ones to share on your blog and Facebook author page in the run up to publication. Want to tell me more about that? 

I’m not a natural self-promoter. (One of my writer friends got so frustrated with me she threatened to buy me a trumpet and an instruction manual on how to blow it.) I prefer to keep things relatively low-key and in any case, I sense it works better that way. I decided on a weekly ‘countdown’ and chose snippets from the story with pictures to illustrate them. It proved successful. Not too much (I hope!) so people got sick of me and enough to pique their interest.

So, it’s finally out there. Planning, writing, editing, getting ready for launch – what’s been the most difficult part of the process for you?

Writing the book was a labour of love and editing was a joy. I’ve always enjoyed editing anyway and I knew, from the initial session with Janet that I was in safe hands. I never came away from an editorial session feeling despondent. I ticked the boxes and did my homework and thanked my lucky stars for Janet Thomas and her extraordinary eye, her patient mentoring and her unstinting belief in my story. 

Once the final editing was done and the book effectively out of my hands, Janet handed me over to Helena in the press department and a whole new world opened; a new set of challenges. I had no real idea what was involved in creating a book and it’s been a huge learning curve. Helena has guided and involved me through every part of the process and I hope I’ve managed to learn something. I do confess to being nervous of the spotlight and I’ve never made a secret of this. Your audience, Anne, will be reading this the day after the launch. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about the experience shortly and I hope some of them will drop by.

Was writing fiction something you’d always wanted to do? And when the moment came, did you just sit at your keyboard and write?

Like most writers, I repeat the cliché about having ‘always written’ and to an extent, it’s true. That said I never imagined myself writing ‘proper’ books. I wrote endless stories as a child and in my teens and twenties, screeds of self-indulgent poetry. I worked as a journalist for a while, wrote a couple of dreadful novels, a less dreadful one which I self-published, and then decided it was time to get serious and wrote Ghostbird.

And how do you write – are you now writing full time? Or are you fitting it round a busy life?

Living alone I enjoy the luxury of being answerable to no one other than the cat. I write by hand in the early morning then on the PC. I try and write every day because I’m writing to catch up. Arrested development is all very well – it does mean you have to cram it in. I still have stories to tell.

How does the part of West Wales where you live inspire your writing?

It plays a huge part. I’m a keen walker and an observer – hence the slightly pretentious, but unashamed ‘flâneuse’ tag. I’m delighted by it all: the hills, the birds, the trees and the mist; the changing seasons. I even learned to love Welsh rain, so much so that I knew I wanted it to feature in Ghostbird

As well as writing, I know you’re an avid reader and write excellent reviews. What writers do you admire? When someone says “your writing reminds me of…” who would you like them to mention?

You’re very kind – I’ve only recently begun reviewing and restrict myself to books that truly resonate with me. I would never write a negative review. If I can’t say something nice, I say nothing. 

In answer the first part of your question – top of the list has to be Virginia Woolf. Other formidable writers I admire include A S Byatt, Edna O’Brien, Margaret Atwood, Iain Banks and Cormac McCarthy. I’m an admirer of numberless contemporary British writers including Maggie O’Farrell, Patrick Gale and Sarah Waters. And newer writers too: Louise Beech and Rebecca Mascull; Sarah Louise Jasmon and the remarkable Sarah Hilary. We produce great writers in the UK. 

As for the second part, Janet once told me my writing reminded her a little of Turtle Moon by one of my favourite novelists, Alice Hoffman. She is an American contemporary novelist who writes with her pen dipped in liquid birdsong. It’s up there as one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. 

And what’s next? Are you writing again?

Yes, I am. I’m close to half way through the first draft of another ghost story. It’s darker than Ghostbird, but set in Wales again, amongst the magic and the mystery.

Thank you Carol – it’s been an absolute joy being part of the launch of Ghostbird, and I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it to the launch party. My thanks also to Helena at Honno Press for my advance reading e-copy and for her ongoing support.

My review

Every so often, a book comes along that makes me feel as if the words I have at my disposal can’t possibly be enough to put together a review that does it full justice. I’ve always enjoyed pushing the boundaries of my reading – it’s one of the things that keeps the whole experience of discovering writing I might just love so very exciting. But this wonderful book was so different, so special… I rarely spend four days on a book, but this one deserved that slow exploration, the experiencing of the emotions and the beauty of the writing.

Where do I start? The basic story maybe. A fourteen year old girl in Cadi, realistically drawn, living with her mother Violet, their relationship overshadowed by the death of another child before Cadi was born. The mother and daughter relationship is always an intricate and difficult one to draw – and this one is so realistically portrayed. You might not like Violet very much at times, but you’ll certainly feel her pain and loss, and understand where her brittleness comes from. Cadi’s other significant relationship is with Lili, her aunt, a storyteller and a witch, and a simply mesmerising character, with a sadness of her own. 

All these relationships have their moments, good and bad, largely because of the layering of secrets. It’s fair to say, I think, that secrets – keeping them, sharing them, making others responsible for them – are a central theme of the story. When the truth clearly emerges, its impact is immense, painful for everyone, and its eventual outcomes totally unexpected. 

This is a book with women at its heart, but the male characters fascinate too. Violet’s past life with Teilo is the catalyst for much of today’s story, and his relationship with her, Lili and his daughter is told in tantalising glimpses. Owen too – with his links to the past, slowly revealed.   

It’s a love story in so many ways – past relationships entered into for all the wrong reasons, current ones under immense pressure, future ones with immense beauty and promise. The best books are always the ones you read with your heart – and this book frequently gave me that aching feeling that means experiencing it rather than simply reading.

A ghost story? Yes, it is, but not as you might expect it. Myth, magic and witchcraft permeate the whole book – but never in a way that is uncomfortable or other than natural. In fact, I really loved the almost incidental introduction of spells, gifts to the rainmaker, the acceptance of ghosts as fact, woven through the fabric of the story, together with the central (and rather beautiful) theme of Blodeuwedd – drawn from The Mabinogion – and the rewriting of her transformation. 

And then there’s the sheer beauty of the writing, with the natural world – and the never-ending rain – as a further central character. The lake and its surroundings become a vivid presence – dark and ominous, perhaps dangerous, but also ineffably beautiful – and a wonderful backdrop for some of the book’s significant moments. There are gardens too – the weeds and the flowers, and their connections with the past – and that recurring smell of meadowsweet that affects all your senses. There’s one particular scene where Cadi rides her bicycle to a hilltop stone circle that took my breath away with its descriptive beauty combined with the vivid portrayal of her emotions.  

And I really have to mention the book’s Welshness. I grew up in a small Welsh village, and the community is described just as I remember it – I’m sure every Welsh village has its Mrs Guto-Evans and Miss Bevan. The cadences of speech are perfectly captured. Welsh words and phrases recur quite naturally as part of the magic, and it’s a device that works really well – particularly with the central theme of maddau, translated as forgiveness, but with somehow deeper significance and meaning through the use of the word. 

There – I said I’d struggle to write this one, and I have. But the one thing I want to say in conclusion is read it, experience it, and love every moment of it as much as I did.

Carol Lovekin – as I mentioned in my questions – is a writer, feminist and flâneuse. Her home is in the beautiful countryside of West Wales, a place whose legends and landscapes inform her writing. She writes contemporary fiction in which the everyday is threaded with elements of magic. She enjoys swimming and reading and has suffered from arrested development for far too long.

Ghostbird is Carol’s first traditionally published novel. It was released on 17th March 2016 by Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. This small but dynamic press is a jewel in Wales’ publishing crown. 

4 thoughts on “Blog tour feature – Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

  1. Jo Lambert

    A great interview and review Anne. Totally agree that Carol works a special magic with words. A beautifully crafted debut novel! Looking forward to her next book…

  2. Anne Williams

    It's not often that a book has me struggling for words Jo – something really special. Really enjoyed your Ghostbird feature too…

Comments are closed.