Hope you’re all keeping well and warm out there. I want to start by taking you back to spring 2017, when we were sending out longlisted submissions from 2016 to a vast team of volunteer readers to get their views on what should (or shouldn’t) be published by Valley Press over the next couple of years.
One of them was a stirringly unique novel which, at first, seemed to be historical fiction (starting “On an airless afternoon in 1700…”) but soon turned into something much stranger and more ambitious: a fight between its main character and its author to finish writing the book. Quite a few of the volunteers were lost in what they politely concluded was a “complex read”, but a handful of them really connected with it — the strongest reply was: “I can’t take my eyes off this. Don’t just invite this writer in, drive around [with a contract] and put a pen in his hand.”
Ultimately I wrote back to the author with an edited summary of the feedback, a “no” to publication for the time being, but a promise to consider future drafts should there be any. (“Your foot is in the door!” I cheerfully concluded.) Sure enough, a year later, the author returned with a drastically revised and improved manuscript, which I forwarded to our current intern saying “what do you think to this?” adding “just to add another Jamie to the process” — the intern being Jamie Firby, and the author being Jaimie Batchan, making it three of us with essentially the same first name now working on Siphonophore.
So what did he think to it? I asked Jamie F to tell his own story of what happened next:
“Well, I thought enough of it to spend much of the next year immersed in the world of Darien, meeting up with Jaimie every so often to discuss the merits of a capitalised ‘H’, or whether a particular section needed fleshing out. I thought enough of it to spend my evenings poring over draft after draft … and the result of these evenings, of my own personal journey into the world of independent publishing, of the hard work of all the Jamies and Jaimies, is the short novel of epic proportions you can now hold. To say it is unlike any book I have read before sounds grandiose, but it seems fitting. Siphonophore is a book which spans themes and centuries; the real and the unreal; history and fiction; the need to be remembered. And it is so much more — all in a pint-sized, 170-page package. I hope you enjoy it.”
So yes, this story has a happy ending; Jamies F and B returned with a near-perfect manuscript in mid-2019, and the book finally made it into the hands of readers last week. I’m not sure what moral lesson I want you to take from this tale; something about persistence possibly, or teamwork, or maybe patience? Perhaps just that something as seemingly innocuous as a 170-page book can take such a long time to produce — and, purely as subtext of course, that the least you can do now is buy a copy…?
One of the pursuits Jaimie B filled his time with in the intervening years was hosting a very cool literary fiction podcast called Unsound Methods, and after 35 episodes selflessly interviewing the great and good of contemporary literature, he quite rightly decided to talk about his own book in the 36th. If you’re at all interested in this novel, I highly recommend listening to that episode, which you can find here (then feel free to dig into the rest).
In the discussion, Jaimie reveals his pride at having written a book that is almost impossible to make into a film or TV series (taking the mantle from Lawrence Sterne I guess, who finally lost out in 2006 after a century of resistance). I’m proud too, though it’s the kind of statement that makes our bank manager sigh and go “yeah, that would be awful.” He also clarifies the connection between the titular animal — sorry, animals — and the book’s plot, which is a commentary on symbiosis (obviously..?)
Speaking of which, this seems the perfect time to show you the incredible cover we’ve rustled up:
The photograph (of a siphonophore, of course) is the work of one Matty Smith, who essentially spent a year standing in the sea, getting regularly stung by jellyfish-type creatures, and inventing a new device for half-submerged photography to get shots like that. Definitely worth it.
Credit for the basic text layout goes to Martina Klancišar, who also designed a cool map for the interior, and for the final design to Peter Barnfather, who has been doing some incredible work since he started at VP full-time in October 2020 as “Senior Designer” (just realised I never introduced him properly; the guy is a design powerhouse, basically).
I had half a mind to include a lengthy extract of the book in this post, but I think we’re already approaching the maximum feasible length. Here are the (revised) first few lines so you can get a taste:
This is the end of the world.
A dot shrinks on the horizon, blinks out.
It will not reappear.
I sit on the root-knotted dirt at the base of my tree and begin the count:
The process of my execution has begun; my Darien wields the axe and I am nought but neck.
… Darien, we soon learn, is the Gulf of Darién, following independent Scotland’s doomed colonisation attempt at the end of the 17th century (Jaimie loves a long ramble on Wikipedia) and the “dot” is the last ship for Scotland, marking the beginning of the end for the colony’s last resident; alone except for his “Creator”, who we will soon realise is not a theological entity. That’s pretty much all the help I can give you… you too are on your own once you’ve secured yourself a copy. Let us know what you think!
Before I go, you may recall how in our last email newsletter I gave you the big sell on Jo Brandon’s Cures, and told you about the virtual launch. Now, thanks to the gracious efforts of Leeds Libraries, a 20-minute video from the event is available here, featuring Jo reading a multitude of poems and then being interviewed about her poetic processes by a certain Mr Stoppard. It’s a must-watch for anyone who feels their week could be improved by adding just a little more poetry to it. That’s what we’re here for! Plus all that stuff described above — and who knows, with submissions set to open again soon, the next book to embark on an epic journey to the shelf could be yours…
All the best,
Jamie McGarry, VP Publisher