Being a Debut, with Joanna Barnard

This month I caught up with novelist Joanna Barnard – winner of the 2014 Bath Novel Award and newly-debuted author – to chat about 'quiet' books, literary agents and awards.

Joanna Barnard

Joanna Barnard is an English Literature graduate and works in marketing. In 2014, she won the inaugural Bath Novel Award and her first novel, Precocious, was published by Ebury in July.

A Northerner currently exiled in the South of England, Joanna misses flat vowels, friendly bus drivers and chips and gravy.



So, the rundown: your debut novel, Precocious, won last year’s Bath Novel Award, nabbed you an agent and was published by Ebury in August. The route of traditional publishing has lately been seen as inaccessible, with worries that only ‘loud’ books – those with big, dramatic hooks and high-concept bylines – or celebrity tie-ins can still find success. Precocious is about a complex relationship between a woman and a man. Would you describe it as a ‘quiet’ book?

In a way, yes. I mean, it's an attention-grabbing headline, isn't it – the whole teacher-pupil thing. It tends to be presented, especially in the media, in quite a salacious way. But Precocious is a very internally-focused book, it's about emotions, the power of memory, and complex choices – not headlines. So in that sense it's quiet, yes.

The Society of Authors believes literary agents should do enough to justify their commission. Would you point to your agent as a good example? How much has representation helped you?

Juliet is a brilliant agent. She's helped me in the obvious practical ways – it's virtually impossible to break into traditional publishing without an agent, after all, and it's incredibly useful having someone 'on side' who understands and is knowledgeable about the industry. 

being a writer can be pretty lonely and, for me anyway, having an agent has made me feel less like I'm on my own.

More than that though – and I think this is what separates a great agent from a good agent - Juliet has been a big source of support. She demonstrates passionate belief in all her authors and this has helped my confidence enormously – being a writer can be pretty lonely and, for me anyway, having an agent has made me feel less like I'm on my own.

I understand you considered self-publishing before you entered the BNA. Do you think Precocious – or Different as it was then known – would have succeeded that way?

It's hard to say. I planned at that point to self-publish on Kindle and mainly just try to persuade friends & family to buy it. I didn't have any great plans beyond that, despite my background in sales & marketing – I didn't know much about selling books!

I think, rightly or wrongly, the mere fact of having a 'proper' publishing deal probably gave the book some validity

Being traditionally published, you hope, gives you access to a wider audience – those friends & family I tapped up have bought the book, but a few other people have too! But even among those people who know me, I think, rightly or wrongly, the mere fact of having a 'proper' publishing deal probably gave the book some validity in their eyes and meant they were more likely to read it. This quality perception gap is narrowing between traditional and self-published work, definitely, but it's still there. Self-publishing works for lots of people, and has a lot of advantages actually, but on balance I don't think it was the right route for me.

Precocious took a long time to write. What has it been like writing a new book to a deadline after spending so long on your first?

Different! It's actually probably taken me as long to write the second book, but over a compressed period – I've taken this year off from full-time work to do it. There are a few things I hadn't anticipated. It's hard – for me, anyway – to write full-time, 9-5. I still get the inconvenient 1am idea surge. Secondly, I'm really proud of Precocious so I've felt a lot of (self-imposed) pressure to write something 'as good'. Also, I never knew anyone in the world was ever going to read the first novel! So in a sense this time I've felt more self-conscious, but you have to try and put that aside, I think, and just write for yourself.

There has been much discussion lately of sexism in publishing. Many authors complain that serious, diverse books are misrepresented as ‘chick-lit’, or reduced in scope because they speak from a female perspective, or tackle issues of sex and gender. Have you any thoughts on or experiences of this? (And while we’re at it, are your male contemporaries asked questions like this?)

Ha! Good question. I don't recall many interviews or features with male authors that comment on or criticise them for writing 'from a male perspective'. In fact, we don't call them men writers, do we? They're just writers. But we talk about women writers all the time. We have magazines, prizes and so on, just for women (I'm not complaining about this by the way, I just look forward to the day when it won't be necessary). 

you've nothing to lose if you keep trying, and everything to regret if you don't.

The weird thing is that if there is sexism in the industry, I'm not sure where it comes from. Most people working in publishing are women. My experience has been almost entirely working with (strong, intelligent) women. Who's perpetuating the myth, then, that women readers only want chick lit? Or that women writers (ach, I did it, look) can only write about 'the domestic sphere'? (Not sure why, by the way, that's something to be denigrated). I don't know. There's sexism everywhere, and in publishing as with everywhere else, the best thing we can do when we see it is call it out. Again. And Again. Until it stops.

Any advice for young writers who want to be traditionally published? Is there anything you would do differently if you were to start again from page one?

In terms of being published? I'd take myself more seriously. I'd dare to call myself a writer and treat it as a job long before anyone paid me for it. I dipped in and out, of writing and (even more so) of submitting, because of a lack of self-confidence, fear of rejection, all of that. But you've nothing to lose if you keep trying, and everything to regret if you don't. Get resilient. Listen to feedback. Get better. Get knocked, get up and go back for more. 

In terms of writing? Lots of things! But at some point, you just have to step away from the keyboard and say, 'It's finished'. You can only write the book that's in you at that moment.

And finally, what are you reading at the moment? Anything you’d recommend?

This year I've loved Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill – it's beautiful, intense and clever. Highly recommended. At the moment I'm re-reading To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit – I try to re-read it once a year – a gorgeous paean to living your dreams.