Monday, June 19, 2017

My First Time: Anne Corlett

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Anne Corlett, author of the new debut novel The Space Between the Stars. She lives in a village near Bath in southwest England with her partner and three young sons. Her short fiction has been published in various magazines and anthologies, and she is currently working on a second novel.

My First Time Reading in Public

Before I was a writer, I was a criminal lawyer.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I always wrote, from first being able to hold a pen, and by my late teens, I was certain that I’d finish up working as a writer, or in publishing, but somewhere along the way I got distracted and became a lawyer.

I’m still not quite sure how that happened.

By the time I started taking my writing seriously again, I had ten years as a criminal lawyer and High Court Advocate under my belt. Over that decade, I stood up and talked in front of judges, juries, defendants and their families, fellow lawyers, the press, and members of the public. After the first couple of hearings, I don’t remember ever finding it particularly difficult or nerve-racking. So when I got the news that an extract from my first novel, Telemachus, had been selected for the “Friday Night Live” final at the York Festival of Writing, I was fairly blasé about that side of things.

I read through my piece a couple of times, smoothing out a few clunky sentences, and getting a sense of the rhythm and shape of the extract. I tried out the dialogue, and came to the reluctant but sensible conclusion that I could not do voices, and should probably stick to just reading it straight. But overall, I was fairly comfortable with the idea of reading in public.

Then someone suggested that I video myself, to see how I sounded, and to work out if I needed to slow down or speak up, or vary my pitch or pace a bit more. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea, so I propped up my camera on the mantelpiece, hit record, sprinted back to the other side of the room, and launched into my reading. It went fairly well, I thought.

And then I played the footage back.

On viewing it, I was immediately hurled into a state of complete and utter panic. I appeared to have a whole host of nervous twitches and bad habits. I watched the video several times, with ever-growing horror. Had I been gurning and fidgeting my way around the courts of London for the last ten years? Was I notorious in the judges’ corridors as “that one who flicks her papers back and forward with her thumb and touches her face every three-and-a-half seconds”? Did I generally stand on one leg while addressing the bench? And what was I doing with my face?

This was the day before the festival. I spent the next few hours ruthlessly drilling myself out of all the bizarre habits, until I was confident that I could deliver a performance that wouldn’t have the audience making subtle “how much has she had to drink?” gestures at one another.

When I boarded the train the following day, I had started to feel fairly good about the forthcoming reading. Unfortunately, somewhere between London and York, I managed to put my neck out, and by the time I arrived at the festival, the only way I could look at anything to either side of me, was to rotate my entire body through ninety degrees, keeping my head and torso in strict alignment.

Whatever the opposite of an owl is, that’s what I looked like.

The evening came round, and with it, the gala dinner and Friday Night Live. I did my strange robot-like walk up onto the stage, apologized to the audience for appearing to ignore the very existence of ninety-nine percent of them, while staring at the one percent directly in front of me in a rather fixed and sinister manner, and somehow delivered a reasonably competent reading.

Well, I assume it was reasonably competent. My piece won the judges’ vote, although not the final audience verdict, and immediately afterwards (although not before I’d managed to hurl a large glass of wine down my throat), my now-agent, came and introduced herself. I don’t think I was making much sense by that point, but fortunately we had a meeting scheduled for the following day, where I was able to give a slightly more coherent account of myself. A few days later, after reading my full manuscript, she offered representation.

That novel garnered some interest, but ultimately no offers of publication. My second one did better, getting as far as an acquisitions meeting, before falling at the final hurdle. It was the third one that made it to the finish line. The Space Between the Stars has just been published by Berkley in the US, and Pan Macmillan in the UK.

The story of my first public reading isn’t a tale of overnight success. It took three-and-a-half years before I got that first yes from a publisher. There were smaller “firsts“ along the way–first short story acceptance, first competition win, first serious interest in one of my novels–but that Friday night at the York Festival was where it all started.

I never did work out whether I’d spent the best part of a decade standing on one leg in courts all over London. Someone would have told me.

Wouldn’t they?

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