From New Model Army to award-winning novels, Joolz Denby has created an impressive body of work. Now, with poet Steve Pottinger, she launches Ignite Books
Poet, author, artist, vocalist, and all-round force of nature Joolz Denby recently published her latest novel The Curious Mystery of Miss Larkin and the Widow Marvell. Though more playful than her other books, the story also deals with the harmful effects of a religious cult on a young boy’s life, and the attempts of a two strong Bradford women to help him out. Denby’s prolific output has gained just rewards, including an Honorary Doctorate at Bradford University and a Crime Writers’ Association award for Stone Baby. The third novel Billie Morgan lost out to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin for the Orange Prize in 2005. Based on her own involvement at 19 with a biker gang, it was widely praised for the intimacy of its characters and sense of place (Bradford, both present day and during the 1970s). Despite the attributes, one senses that Joolz has found the strictures of publishing houses too limiting at times. Displaying a healthy sense of perspective, she told For Books’ Sake that learning to tattoo was a bigger challenge than writing novels – “you aren’t going to mutilate someone for life” – and also an honest way to support her other projects. This rejection of obstacles keeps her moving forward. Whilst previous work was put out by HarperCollins and Serpent’s Tail (most of her poetry has appeared via Bloodaxe), Jools decided to take the independent route this time. Miss Larkin and the Widow Marvell is the first title for the small-press Ignite Books. The venture was formed in late 2010 with Steve ‘Spot the Poet’ Pottinger, co-author of last year’s The Rest Is Propaganda, Steve Ignorant’s account of life with Crass. Spike spoke to them both on the eve of Ignite’s launch party.
Tell us the story so far of Ignite
Joolz Denby: I got totally bored and irritated by the complete lack of common sense, business acumen and complete disinterest in anything to do with the actual quality of writing by the major publishing house, who I have been published by and who came to make me despair of British publishing.
Steve Pottinger: It was kick-started through a series of conversations with Joolz, who was frustrated by the impasse she felt she’d reached with her then publishers. I’d just finished writing the Steve Ignorant autobiography and was itching for another project. I read the manuscript of The Curious Mystery…, loved it, and was confident other people would too. From there on, Ignite Books was the obvious way to go – the alternative would be to do nothing, and why do that when the opportunity’s there to give it a go?
The project seems to focus on social media. Is this a deliberate policy to remove all barriers between you and the readers?
JD: It’s the best way to get actual readers to relate to a book. We cannot as the majors (see above) do and try to drag on in the past whilst trying to screw the last pitiful drops of cash out an industry they have virtually destroyed by their isolationism and incompetence. We both also work in the music industry and that’s the same.
SP: Yes. Like most people, I thrive on interaction and connection. So I want to hear from people who’ve read Joolz’s book, or who are interested in what we’re doing. I love that exchange of ideas. For me, that’s vital. Cut yourself off from that and the hard work involved in something like Ignite becomes a hundred times harder.
Something revolutionary seems to happen when clusters of people get together. Do you see this happening around books right now?
JD: About bloody time if it is.
SP: Let’s hear it for the cluster. When you’re sharing skills, enthusiasm, and knowledge, when you’re picking each others brains, then your perception of what’s possible gets well and truly shaken up. Why shouldn’t that be true in publishing too? Get your hands on the software, a modicum of enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn, and off you go…
You worked on the book with Steve Ignorant. For Crass there was a political dimension to their creative autonomy. Do you see much evidence of a political aspect to independent publishing?
SP: I think there can be. As soon as you do something as simple – and as profound – as taking control of the process of publishing your work, then everything changes. Beats the hell out of waiting for someone else to promise to do it for you and then screw it up. Ignite produces the books we want and that we know there’s an audience for. Any mistakes and fuck-ups we make are our responsibility, no-one else’s. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Is there a punk/ DIY/ obstinate and bloody-minded aspect to that? I think there may be!
Independent music labels have been common for over 30 years, why is it taking publishing so long to reach a similar acceptance?
JD: Because of their utter snobbery – they see themselves as a ‘cut above’ the music scummers. When I was published by HarperCollins, I suggested that as I was gigging at Glastonbury they could take an ad out ion the programme for the book or at least, flyer the festival. Their response was (and I’m not kidding) ‘Those people don’t read, it’s pointless’. And that with three fully-functioning bookstores on site and quarter of a million attendees. I did it myself in the end and sold about 50 or 60 books at the three gigs I did that year.
SP: Good question. Maybe the fact that writing is a solitary pursuit has something to do with it. Your work gets turned down, or you’re told there’s no market for it, and you just swallow the hurt. Rejected by experts – where do you go? A band – with four or five people to share the cost, and the workload – are more likely to reach that critical mass necessary to go “Stuff it. We’ll do it ourselves”. If publishing’s finally catching up, that’s good.
You must be learning a lot of new things. What have been the most exciting for you so far?
SP: Learning a whole set of new skills has been immensely satisfying. But what I’ve really been struck by is the generosity of people in sharing their knowledge and experience with someone who’s learning the ropes. Christian from Bracketpress (who typeset Steve’s book) couldn’t have been more helpful when I sent him a string of emails going “How do I do this…?” Getting Ignite off the ground would have been a lot harder without that kind of support.
Have you run against any obstacles?
JD: Not as far as I’m concerned but I wouldn’t pay attention if I did.
SP: Obstacles, no. Plenty of challenges, naturally. But then I knew we would! Given that this is our first book, I’m pretty happy with how things have gone. Second time round, it should all be a lot easier.
JD: I am a lazy, chaotic, arty type and Steve is a genius at organisation also he is a big nag and makes me do stuff. I admire him tremendously and am completely grateful for his efforts. Were it left up to me alone none of this would have happened.
What single myth about publishing (or creativity) do you think needs to be challenged?
JD: The one about major and imitation major publishing houses: ‘they know what they’re doing because they’re proper publishers’. It’s pants, they don’t.
SP: Myth: you can’t do it. Reality: you can. (But be prepared to graft.)
What would be your message to everybody affected by the arts cuts?
JD: I never had an arts grant in my life – I made a living out of my various art talents for over 30 years. Never depend on a government. Do it yourself.
SP: If you want to keep your local arts venue, get involved. You might just make the difference.
You work in so many different art forms, what ambitions do you still want to achieve?
JD: To get my own private art and tattoo studio – to write a great novel – to write a great poem – to finish the album I’m currently recording with members of New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack – to tour with the band and live to tell the tale – to get Steve a new camper van – to live forever in order to finish all the projects I want to do – man, the list is endless.
SP: I’ve a couple more writing projects to dive into, for starters. I’m endlessly intrigued by people’s life stories – which is why the chance to write Steve Ignorant’s book was one I grabbed with both hands. And, of course, there’ll be the next Ignite publication to start work on…
Can you tell us a little about how this book came together?
JD: I just thought I’d like to write a light book about something amusing, as everyone in the publishing/media world said I couldn’t. They said I could ‘only’ do big heavy novels. When I do write big serious, exploratory, Urban Romantic novels like Billie Morgan and my latest, Wild Thing (as yet unpublished), they all go, “My god, the writing is superb but it’s not in genre so we can’t publish it, marketing would go mad”. So I thought I’d do it anyway. It would be a nice change and it was. I enjoy studying mythology, so I chose a take on that. I love the idea of Olympian gods living out their immortal years in modern, urban Britain and I put in lots of jokes about stuff like everyone knowing who Brad Pitt really is (guess).