Marlon James, Bernardine Evaristo, Jonathan Coe and Nina Stibbe last night headlined Penguin General’s Spring 2019 showcase on the Strand, where the publisher also introduced its 2019 debuts to booksellers and media.
The evening was compered by Sam Baker, journalist and founder of The Pool, who chaired a series of panels, and was led by Joanna Prior who introduced Penguin General’s "fantastic" authors publishing in between January and June 2019. Of these, alongside four established authors, six were newcomers: Molly Case, Sara Collins, Lara Williams, Emma Morgan, Hanna Jameson and Geraldine Quigley.
In a global first, Man Booker Prize winner James captivated the audience with a reading from Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Hamish Hamilton), the first in his new trilogy which has been described as the “African Game of Thrones”. James read from a section narrated by a character called Tracker, with one word of warning: “In African storytelling there is always a trickster.”
Prefacing his reading, James spoke of his frustration with justifications for lack of diversity in epics like "The Hobbit" film and how he had been inspired by the stories from slave ships to write his own. He said the “eureka moment” for how to write the trilogy came when he met a director and began discussing “The Affair”, a TV show telling the same story from multiple different perspectives. James’ story begins at the end: they find the kid but they killed the kid. There are only three witnesses, and each interrogation is a separate novel.
L-R Penguin authors Jonathan Coe and Nina Stibbe in conversation with The Pool’s Sam Baker
Established Penguin authors Coe and Stibbe talked about their books, the "up to the minute" Middle England by Coe, described as "very much a book for our times", and Stibee's Reasons to be Cheerful, which features a teenage girl in 1970s Leicestershire trying her hand at being a dental nurse.
Commenting on the turbulent political climate, Coe said of writing Middle England: "I wanted to make the book as up to the minute as possible and felt a bit of a hostage to fortune when I wrote the last chapter ... Two ministerial resignations today, I maybe don’t have to mention that. If Theresa May falls, Brexit is cancelled, I may have to slip in another line," he quipped.
Moving on to talk about humour in fiction today, Stibbe spoke about Sue Townsend's influence on her work, and joked about The Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction's recent snub to authors after it was withheld for the first time in 18 years in May. "The prize is suddenly very important; we all want to be shortlisted now because clearly it’s a very high bar! And it’s had a lot of publicity. There weren’t enough actual 'lols', they said, so every novel is now going to have a bit of slapstick where someone’s trousers fall down for the committee. All these novels will have 'lols'. Anne Enright, everyone."
Molly Case, a nurse writing a memoir about the lives of her patients, gave an impassioned performance of her work, expressing her love for her colleagues and for the NHS.
Talking about women's empowerment and writing female desire, one panel featured Emma Morgan, debut author of A Love Story for Bewildered Girls, Bernadine Evaristo, whose latest book is Girl, Woman, Other, a "love song to black Britain" is told through the perspectives of 12 "very different" women, and Lara Williams, whose book about women's hunger, Supper Club, has been described as "an anthem for the MeToo generation".
"Times have changed enormously in terms of women’s stories and feminism," said Evaristo. "In the 80s feminism was trampled on and destroyed by the media. Over the last five years we have seen an incredible thing and I think we have social media to thank. People find their communities and once it reaches a critical mass the mainstream pays attention. Society is starting to listen, and I hope it's not just a phase."
L-R Sara Collins, Hanna Jameson and Geraldine Quigley
In another panel, new Penguin authors Hannah Jameson, Geraldine Quigley and Sara Collins tackled problematic labels of 'high' and 'low' culture and in turn discussed their forthcoming novels - The Last, Jameson's literary murder mystery with an apocalypic twist, won by Viking in a five-way auction ahead of Frankfurt Book Fair; Music Love Drugs War, Quigley's coming of age novel following a group of teenages in 1980s Derry, after she first began writing in her late forties; and The Confessions of Frannie Langton, inspired by Collins' love of Gothic fiction and wish to see someone who looked like her within the pages.
On the topic of diversity, Collins said she thought things will "really change...when we don’t have to answer the question and serious literature isn’t expected from every black writer. When we can be writers on the same terms as everyone else, that is something to celebrate."
Quigley, who came through on Penguin Random House's WriteNow programme, spoke about being considered "an oddity in my class because I write", adding: "I don’t think it is should be considered that unusual that someone who works in a call centre can write ... I think something has changed [with WriteNow]. But I agree, where are the working class writers? We are considered oddities and that has to change."
The evening was ended with drinks and goody bags of proofs to take home.