This Friday the winner of the 2013 Most Underrated Book Award (MUBA)* will be announced. Following the shortlist announcement, I sent some questions to one of the shortlisted authors, Anna Solding. Her book, The Hum of Concrete, joined Fish-Hair Woman (Merlinda Bobis, Spinifex Press), Staunch (Ginger Briggs, Affirm Press) and Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot (Annabel Smith, Fremantle Press) on the shortlist. I own a copy of Smith’s book and a copy of Solding’s book is on its way to me; I confess I’d never heard of the other two before now. So what’s it feel like to be on this shortlist? That’s what I asked Solding. But first, here’s the blurb from her novel, published by MidnightSun Publishing.
Consumed with despair, Palestinian Nassrin walks into the ocean with her baby in her arms. Susanna dares to take a stand against gay-bashers. By starlight, Bodil sees the city from the roof of a church. Estella meets her tough little half-brother for the first time. Lonely Rhyme seeks shelter in a tree full of fairy lights. And all round them, the hum of concrete. With photographic precision, Anna Solding captures both light and shadow found in the fleeting beauty of everyday life. From the silences between people and the ordinariness of places, she conjures narrative jewels of intelligence and pleasure.
Monique: Can you tell readers what inspired A Hum of Concrete?
Anna: There were several things that inspired me to write The Hum of Concrete. First and foremost it was an interest in the way people relate to each other; in friendships, partnerships and sexual relationships. I was, and I still am, interested in how mothers are considered mothers before they are seen as artists, engineers or teachers. How women in literature are seldom independent, strong mothers and how stories are seldom told from their point-of-view. I set out to change that by creating five women characters who all become mothers during the course of my novel. So The Hum of Concrete is about motherhood. I was simultaneously writing an exegesis to accompany the novel as part of my PhD in Creative Writing and that exploration was about the lack of contemporary stories written from a mother’s point of view. Think about it. How many can you think of? I included narratives such as Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees about an adoptive mother and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin about a mother whose son has gone on a shooting rampage.
Motherhood was a strong inspiration for me but so was my love for the city of Malmö in Sweden, where I grew up. I wanted to write a love song to the city, where the city would invite the reader in to explore and be enveloped by leafy parks and walls of glass. One of my happiest moments as a writer was when I went back to visit Malmö earlier this year and found The Hum of Concrete on display outside the Malmö Room in the city library. Even though Malmö is the third largest city in Sweden, very few books are set there so to see my book as an example was extremely thrilling.
Surprisingly, inspiration also came from an article in a weekend magazine. It was about Intersex, something I had never encountered before, and I became absolutely engrossed in research about the various conditions during my writing. I sympathised with the struggle of Intersex people and realised that I needed to incorporate Intersex into the book somehow. Hopefully, I have managed to do so in a way that will make more people aware of this issue.
Monique: What is the target market for this book?
Anna: I believe that The Hum of Concrete is a book that most people can enjoy on some level. My first, and most treasured, fan letter came from a woman in her eighties. Because the novel is made up of interconnected short stories it is easy to read. It has light-hearted passages and beautiful illustrations. Realistically, though, I know that my book is best suited to readers of literary fiction, readers who want to read about unfamiliar places (in this case Sweden, so people who have been there usually love it), about interesting and even controversial topics, such as intersex and mental illness, and people who love reading books with strong characters who they can identify with. If you like Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, I guess that you would probably like The Hum of Concrete.
Monique: The book struggled to find a publisher initially. What were some of the reasons for this?
Anna: It was quite strange because all the major publishers seemed to love it but they just didn’t think they were the right publisher for it. Perhaps there were too many marketing issues. How do you sell a novel of connected short stories by a new writer? Who could possibly want to buy a book set in a country on the other side of the globe? Why would anyone want to read about intersex? How do you promote a book with five main characters, who are all women? But these are only my guesses. And in a way, I think the publishers were right. It might have been more difficult for them to sell The Hum of Concrete because it doesn’t fit neatly into a box. For a new, independent publisher that just makes it even more interesting.
Monique: So, how did A Hum of Concrete come to be published?
Anna: Up to a point, it was the usual story: the manuscript was shortlisted for several awards, including the Best Unpublished Manuscript Award at the Adelaide Festival, but I still struggled to find a publisher. Everybody loved it but also said it wasn’t for them. In hindsight it’s easier to see why it was rejected; it has too many main characters, five of them, plus the city which is a character in itself; it is set in Sweden; and it’s a novel of connected short stories (a form I decided to call ‘a novel constellation’). How could you possibly market a beast like that?
One day in March 2011, and this is where the story diverges from the norm, I had lunch with a good friend who is an entrepreneur. I was grumbling about not being published and he simply said: ‘Why don’t we start a publishing company?’ I looked at him, incredulous, replying: ‘Because we are not crazy?!’ But we were crazy. After gathering financial support, MidnightSun Publishing was born. We decided to start our publishing experiment with my book, because we knew we would make mistakes with our first attempt and we preferred to make them with my book, rather than with someone else’s. We launched it at Adelaide Writers’ Week 2012. Ultimately we have been very lucky to have such strong support from the writing community, from blurb writers J.M. Coetzee, Brian Castro and Peter Bishop and from our readers. Since The Hum of Concrete was released, MidnightSun has successfully published another two novels and I have been transformed from a writer to a publisher.
Monique: Why do you think A Hum of Concrete is underrated? Why do you think readers should check it out?
Anna: Underrated in terms of this Most Underrated Book Award has to do with that the books generated less sales and exposure than expected for works of such high literary quality and production values. I would have really liked to have seen reviews of the book in ABR, Good Reading Magazine and Bookseller+Publisher but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Good Reading Magazine did, however, feature the book in their Book Bite a bit later. The initial reactions to and reviews of books from independent publishers really matters because we don’t have the same marketing and publicity machine that major publishers do. You should check it out because The Hum of Concrete is a sexy book. Sex is an important part of life for many people so I wanted to integrate that in my book. When women become mothers they don’t leave their sex lives behind. And sex sells, doesn’t it?
Monique: What are some of the difficulties you face trying to market your book?
Anna: As a new publisher, MidnightSun Publishing was unaware of the deadlines for some reviewers, so we missed out because of that. Most major newspapers didn’t review the book even though we sent out copies far and wide. Perhaps the cover letter and media release weren’t exciting enough. Only now, after MidnightSun has published three novels, do I feel like I’m beginning to understand how the system works and feel more confident in the media contacts I have made, especially through social media, which is a very important way for us to reach readers.
The micro-marketing through libraries, book sellers and book clubs has actually worked really well. When people come to listen to me speak, they are more likely to buy the book, and I have also enjoyed that part of the process.
Monique: If you win the award, what are the possible implications?
Anna: I’m not sure what the organisers have lined up for us in terms of marketing, but I might get invited to speak at a few more libraries and book clubs, perhaps get some more print and radio interviews. The award is only in its second year and is still building up a profile. Fellow nominee Annabel Smith and I have been working hard for the last couple of weeks to generate interest through social media, which hopefully means that more people will read blog posts like this one and think ‘I’d like to check that book out’. The award doesn’t have a monetary component so the main aim is to give these underrated books a second chance at sales before the Christmas period, which would be fantastic. They would all make amazing presents (yes, I have my marketing hat on right now, but it also happens to be true …)
Monique: What’s happening in your writing life now?
Anna: I am trying to write a new novel, a companion to The Hum of Concrete, which will focus on the men and fathers who are on the periphery in The Hum of Concrete, but I’m finding it very difficult to concentrate on my writing as I have to keep up with my work as a publisher as well (and I do have three young boys at home who occasionally demand my attention). What seems to work best for me at the moment is to go away on writing retreats and put all other work aside while I write like a mad woman for a few days. I have a couple of retreats planned for the coming months, one in Meningie in rural SA and one at wonderful Varuna – the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountain, so I am hoping to get the book well and truly underway then.
Monique: Which books do you think are underrated? Which do you think are overrated?
Anna: I am working my way through the shortlist for the award and so far I agree completely with the judges. They state: ‘The shortlisted writers represent four of the original and worthy voices to be published by independent Australian publishers in the 2012 calendar year. These books show excellence in their genre and demonstrate quality of writing, editorial integrity, and production. They have been overlooked for other prizes and have not generated the sales they deserve for any number of reasons other than the great quality of the products.’
Ginger Brigg’s Staunch is a harrowing story of a ward of the state and Annabel Smith’s Whisky Charlie Foxtrot is cleverly constructed around the two-way alphabet. I am really looking forward to reading Fish-Hair Woman next. Other underrated books are The First Week by Mag Merrilees, Underground Road by Sharon Kernot and Peace, Love and Khaki Socks by Kim Lock, which have all been published this year by small publishers Wakefield Press and MidnightSun.
Who am I to say which books are overrated? My comments might just be misread as envy because those books have sold better than mine, reached a wider audience. However, a couple of books do spring to mind. Highly anticipated books that have disappointed me slightly. Other people might not feel this way at all and I certainly don’t think these are bad books, just slightly disappointing for me. Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows is one of them. Mainly because the father character is too one-dimensional. Tim Winton’s Dirt Music is another. Because Cloudstreet is one of my all-time favourite books, the Hollywood ending of Dirt Music was a bit over the top for my liking.
The correlation between books that sell well and book that are interesting to read isn’t very high. I am much more likely to find favourite books through friends’ recommendations than from picking books from the bestseller lists so most of the time I wouldn’t know if the bestsellers are overrated because I haven’t actually read them. Consequently, I know more about underrated than overrated titles. And deep down, I think we all go for the underdog, so this award appeals to that part of the reader.
Monique: Anna, thank you for your time. I’ll be reviewing A Hum of Concrete on this blog, but in the meantime, you can buy it here.
*The MUBA aims to shine a light on some of the outstanding titles that are released by small and independent Australian publishers that, for whatever reason, did not receive their fair dues when first released. This year all the shortlisted authors are female. The shortlisted writers represent four of the original and worthy voices to be published by independent Australian publishers in the 2012 calendar year. These books show excellence in their genre and demonstrate quality of writing, editorial integrity, and production. They have been overlooked for other prizes and have not generated the sales they deserve for any number of reasons other than the great quality of the products. The winner will be announced at a presentation on 15 November at the Wheeler Centre.