The Anchoress by Paul Blaney

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The Anchoress published by Red Button

The Anchoress published by Red Button

One of the many strengths of the novel form, when successfully executed, lies in the ease with which it can transport us to exotic, unfamiliar locations and scenarios without the need for big budgets and special effects, but rather through the simple interplay of the written word and our own mind. Whether from the comfort of our favourite armchair or aboard public transport we can open a book at any moment and be transported to  the midst of a medieval market place, walk the streets of Victorian London or even witness intergalactic warfare in distant solar systems.

Or as is the case with The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, we can find ourselves outside a walk in wardrobe wondering why a grown woman has decided to sequester herself there. While this scenario may not seem as obviously dramatic as the previous examples it is important to remember drama has as much do with the interior lives of characters as much as exterior events.

The Anchoress opens with our protagonist, Maggie, already cloistered within the closet; we know nothing about how she ended up in there. As the story unfolds we learn a little of her predicament through her interior dialogue and her interaction between the various individuals who come into her life as a result of the unorthodox action she has taken. The first of these is a pizza delivery man of a philosophical bent who mistakenly enters her unlocked apartment and ends up in conversation with her. Through their initial interaction he soon becomes a confidante who provides food for both sustenance and thought.

Then there is the mysterious neighbour whom Maggie communicates with via the thin partition wall which separates them. This mysterious voice initially sounds like a child or young adult’s, but the probing questions it unrelentingly asks soon suggest otherwise.

The other characters come in the form of Norman, an ostensibly concerned but perhaps self-serving work colleague, an unexpectedly religious policewoman, and as news of Maggie’s retreat from the world spreads, an inevitable journalist. Each of these characters tries to make sense of Maggie’s actions through the lens of their respective positions. The colleague discusses work, property values and material things and represents these concerns, the policewoman represents the state and our responsibilities to it which sometimes come at a cost to us, and the journalist represents society and its determination to categorise our actions.

Blaney presents these characters sympathetically and does not condemn them; they are all shown to have an inner life and unexpected dimensions. This shows real subtlety on behalf of the author who doesn’t condemn these semi-allegorical characters or what they represent. Blaney is possessed of enough perspicacity to realise that things such as the material and social do matter, but it is the order in which we prioritise them which is essential.

It’s clear from reading the Anchoress that Paul Blaney is well-informed about religion, philosophy, mythology, fairy-tales and ritual, as he blends ideas from these areas and intersperses ideas from all these sources throughout the novel. This is most apparent in the form of the conversations between the characters, especially Maggie and the pizza man, which follow the tradition of, and reference, Socratic dialogues.

The fairy-tale themes come in the form of the princess in the castle trope. Over the course of her various dialogues we learn that Maggie’s childhood was quite isolated, growing up as she did in a renovated Martello tower. Although she has since left her childhood home she continues to dwell there psychologically, a prisoner of the consolatory fables she had constructed to aid herself in her time of need which she has now outgrown. Instead of being rescued by a handsome prince as is the convention, Maggie must figure out how to liberate herself from her past. Her seclusion in the closet is the beginning of this process.

The walk in closet is a sacred space which offers a place for self-examination and reconstruction. It is a confession box at first where she must confront herself and the truth of the narrative of her life. Later it functions as many other things, a reference to the famous wardrobe of the Narnia chronicles, a chrysalis for growth, and an echo of the Buddha’s spot under the Bodhi where he resisted the temptations of the outside world in order to attain enlightenment, to name but a few.

The Anchoress is a generous spirited novella which approaches spiritual, philosophical and psychological topics in a refreshingly down to earth way. The character Maggie is an ordinary middle class woman who is quite unexceptional, an everywoman, rather than a wild-eyed mystic or messianic chosen one. This serves to bring topics which can appear forbidding down to earth.

While sometimes philosophy, religion and literature can seem to occupy a rarefied space reserved for the exceptionally intelligent, spiritual etc… here we see they are in essence tools for helping us to make sense of the world around us.  I think most people could identify with Maggie’s need to “work out what kind of relationship I should have with the world”.

The message of The Anchoress is a simple one which is frequently ignored in our chaotic capitalist society. Sometimes we need space from the chaos of the world, our jobs, families, phones and facebook, all the things which distract us from examining ourselves and asking hard questions. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for something a little bit different from the crowd. Accessible, engaging, full of ideas and humanity, The Anchoress won’t disappoint.

An interview with Red Button Publishing

red buttonI recently got the opportunity to interview Caroline Goldsmith, co-founder of Red Button Publishing. Established by Caroline and Karen Ings, Red Button are an exciting new e-publishing company whose second e-book, The Anchoress, by Paul Blaney has just been released. Expect a review of the Anchoress here soon.

Steve: So first things first, red button publishing, that an interesting name, how did you come up with it?

Caroline: Yeah it was interesting, Karen and I had been talking about setting up Red Button for a while, but the name was something we really had no idea about. We wanted something that grabbed attention also we didn’t want a name which harked back to paper publishing. Lots of people have said, quite disparagingly about digital publishing, that all you have to do is press a button nowadays, which isn’t true but we wanted to sort of play on that. We made it red because that’s the button that you really want to press, it’s the tempting one, it’s the exciting one. It’s the one that wants to be pressed, and really that was the type of books we were looking for, the ones which want to be read, which want to find an audience and want to be out there in the big wide world.

Steve: So it seems like it was important for you to establish a separate identity from more traditional modes of publishing?

Caroline: Well we didn’t want to be disingenuous about what we were doing, because we had both worked in traditional publishing our entire careers, and it’s a fantastic industry to be in. But what we are offering now is a voice through the digital medium. We’ve been very upfront from the start; we understand that lots of authors would love to see their names on the cover of an actual printed book. So our hope is that when our authors become hugely successful and they get Penguin knocking on the door we will be able to handle the transition over. We’re about giving people an audience and we can do that for them digitally.

Steve: So you’re hoping to launch authors and help them to maximise their potential audience?

Caroline: That’s one of our goals, certainly. But our key goal is really to just publish some fantastic fiction, and to work with some authors who we find really exciting, and who we hope other people will find exciting too. That’s the primary goal. Further down the line we wouldn’t stand in the way if one of our authors got a big deal out of this.

Steve: And who knows how big you guys will be in a couple of years…

Caroline: Yes! It’s just the two of us at the moment. There’s lots of work to be done.

Steve: You mentioned earlier how you both have previously worked in traditional print publishing. Have you noticed any major differences between that and digital?

Caroline: Well for a start you’re not printing on paper, that’s the crucial difference. Actually I would say that’s probably the only difference. I think the self-publishing revolution has been really fascinating and really empowering for writers. Increasingly I think a lot of writers are realising that people within publishing, do have certain skills which can be applied to e books just as well as paper books, you know there are production values involved in producing a good e-book. Cover design is something which needs to be professionally done, or to at least look professional. Editing is probably the most crucial thing that a lot of self-published authors are missing out on. Equally there’s the marketing. We found that a lot of self-published authors that we’ve spoken to find it quite exhausting and quite difficult to do their own self-promotion. It’s a difficult enough thing to cold contact book reviewers when you’re a publisher; I know having worked in publicity, it’s another thing if you’re ringing up and saying “my book is brilliant” as opposed to someone else’s book is brilliant. So I think that people are actually realising that the publishing industry, whilst it’s evolving, it still is relevant. If you want to have good quality fiction to read then you need those curators.

Steve: That’s actually what my next question is about, Curators and discernment. The quality of stuff published through e publishing can be variable, more dramatically perhaps than in traditional publishing. When I read Red Buttons debut novel, The Human Script by Johnny Rich, the first thing that leapt out at me was the high quality of the writing and presentation. I could immediately tell that it had gone through an editorial process.  This really challenged my sniffy pre-conceived notions about e publishing, which I had previously assumed to be the preserve of strange people writing vampire fan fiction in their bedroom or vanity projects. Do you think that stigma is slowly being challenged by the likes of red Button who apply traditional editorial standards to e publishing

Caroline: Yes absolutely. I think that stigma is still there, but that was really what we wanted to do with Red Button. Carol and I are both passionate about good fiction. And I do read Vampire novels as well…

Steve: Me too, actually!

Caroline: But we decided right from the start, because it’s just the two of us and because we are running on our energy at the moment, we wanted to do books that we really believed in. When Johnny came to us with The Human Script (Red Button’s first release), I think the two of us must have read it in a day, and we both immediately got on the phone to each other and I recall jumping up and down in my lounge. We knew it was something good and we knew it was something that should have been published and the fact that it wasn’t and that it had just sat under Johnny’s bed for the last decade was a real tragedy, it deserves to be read, it is a brilliant book. For us, we are still finding that there is a stigma attached to e publishing. For example when I tell people what doing, even former colleagues go “oh well that’s not really publishing is it?”  People don’t seem to realise that digital publishing is not just pushing a button. There’s a lot of work, thought and creativity, not just from the writer, which goes into making something the best it can be. So yes I think there still is a big stigma. One of the things we found very frustrating are the literary prizes. We’ve been approaching various literary prizes. The new Goldsmith Prize is one, which is a prize for innovation, and they’re not accepting e-book submissions this year, I have put my case to them and they are apparently going to reconsider for next year but of course that’s too late for Johnny’s book. The Booker does take digital submissions, but there are many who don’t and I think that closes doors to some really interesting writers so that it’s a shame that paper still has such a hold over the list.

Steve: It’s like the rest of the culture still has yet to catch up with the concept of e publishing?

Caroline: Exactly. Equally it’s the same with the mainstream press, which is why Karen and I have been really focussing on the book bloggers, not just because they are becoming increasingly more influential on what people read. I mean even for people who are publishing paperbacks at Penguin it can be difficult to get your books on the Guardian book page because they’re getting smaller, they focus very much on hardbacks and they focus very much on a key demographic, I mean you very rarely see sci-fi books sitting on the Guardian literary pages you have to go elsewhere to find reviews and recommendation for that sort of stuff, but I do think things will change as the move towards more digital reading happens and I do firmly believe that will happen, that it is the future.

Steve: Well to be honest Red Button are the publishers who changed my mind about e publishing and who challenged my preconceived notions about what it can be so I hope you continue to succeed in this. I believe you have another book due out soon?

Caroline: Yes I’m currently wrestling with the formatting as I sit at my Mac. It’s called The Anchoress by Paul Blaney. He’s an ex-pat based in the States, he’s writer in residence at Rutgers University. It’s a fascinating book. Its novella sized, a nice neat little package. It’s a very quirky, very touching and very brilliantly written little novella. Paul is a really good writer and we were really impressed with him. That is coming out imminently.

Steve: Excellent, I look forward to that. You mentioned its format is the novella. Do you have plans to publish other formats such as short stories or serialisations?

Caroline: We haven’t had any short story submissions yet actually, but as we’ve said on our submissions page we are leaving the door wide open really. We will consider any genre. We’ve had thrillers, sci-fi and romance submitted to us. Basically our motto is if Karen and I like it, and if we think we can do right by the writer, we will offer the author a contract. That’s the other thing: we really don’t want to take people on if we don’t think that we work well with them and be of benefit to them. If a short story collection came along and we loved and felt we could do right by the author we would definitely consider it.

Steve: Well I think that covers everything Caroline, Thank you very much for talking to me today and best of luck to Red Button for the future. I look forward to the next book.

Caroline: It was a pleasure, thank you Steve.