Award-winning author Ed Parnell took part in the Escalato r writing competition in 2007. One of its greatest benefits, he says, is the friendships he made with fellow writers, which still continue to this day.
It seems a long time ago now. September 2007, in fact, when an email from WCN’s (then the New Writing Partnership) Chris Gribble dropped into my inbox, saying that he was delighted to inform me that I’d been selected for inclusion on the Escalator Literature programme. I was delighted too.
At the time I’d just handed in the dissertation for my MA in Creative Writing at UEA, and was three-quarters of the way through a draft of my first novel, The Listeners. Things seemed good. I was writing daily, gradually creeping towards the book’s finish line (so I thought), and, having been buoyed up by talks from eager-sounding agents, the world of publishing was awash with possibility.
Things moved fast. I went on a long-planned holiday to Cornwall, getting back the day before the inaugural Escalator event at The Maid’s Head in early October. Here, I met the other Escalatees, and the biographer Midge Gillies, who was to be my mentor for the programme. Looking back, I can’t remember too much of the day itself, but my fellow winners –who’d descended on Norwich from north London, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk and Norfolk – all seemed very pleasant, as did Midge. I had a good feeling about things.
First impressions were entirely correct. Over the next few months we had several more get-togethers, all equally convivial. I also met Midge for a number of mentoring sessions in Ely. Her most recent book was the excellent, non-fiction Waiting For Hitler: Voices from Britain on the Brink of Invasion, and as The Listeners was set in rural Norfolk in May 1940 – the end of the phony war up to which point nothing much had seemingly taken place, at least that affected the lives of people back home –we had much to discuss. It was also great just to get to talk to a published professional writer about the day-to-day practicalities of trying to make a living from writing, something I was discovering as a now-freelance copywriter(alongside ploughing on with The Listeners).
‘the main thing that I gained from Escalator was a long-standing friendship with my nine other fellow Escalatees’
As well as the invaluable advice from Midge, and a very welcome grant from the Arts Council to buy writing-time for the novel, the main thing that I gained from Escalator was a long-standing friendship with my nine other fellow Escalatees. From the beginning we all got on famously and over thecourse of the next year met several times at WCN events, culminating in a reading we gave at Foyle’s bookshop in London (having been drilled by the poet Aoifie Mannix in the art of how to conduct a good public performance).
Beyond the year, we continued (and indeed still do) to keep in touch, forming an ad hoc literature collective called Absolute Fiction for awhile, where we performed other joint readings at Cambridge Wordfest among others. It was good to have a group of like-minded new writers for moral – and editorial – support, something I was finding particularly useful now I’d finished The Listeners and was in the drawn-out process of editing and rewriting, trying to get an agent and,ultimately, a book deal.
That story takes a little longer to conclude. Having finally found representation in 2010 – after a series of flirtations with three other agents who concluded, eventually, that my novel wasn’t commercial enough for them – The Listeners did the rounds of various publishers, gaining some encouraging positive feedback, but no publishing deal.
In early 2014, having effectively given up on it ever making the journey into print, I entered the Rethink New Novels Competition; The Listeners won and was published at the end of the year. To steal from Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as the book came out just a couple of weeks after my brother Chris lost his too-short battle with cancer. The Listeners had its launch in December at an event hosted by WCN, where I read alongside Patrick Barkham and Sarah Perry. Given Escalator’s and WCN’s input into the book’s long road to publication,it seemed a fitting, albeit for me bitter sweet, occasion.
The Listeners is a novel about grief, and how we try to come to terms with the things we’ve lost –it’s dedicated to my brother, who was an untiring supporter of the book during its drafting process. I’m sure he’d be proud to see it on the shelf, though I have no doubt that he would take enormous delight in poking constant fun at the smirking face that gurns out from the back cover.
Edward Parnell is the author of The Listeners. Winner of the Rethink New Novels Competition 2014. Available in paperback, hardback, and on Kindle.