Jamie McGarry: "There are a lot of factors I consider before I publish a book. Language is one of the easiest things to fix"
,Jamie McGarry set up Valley Press - an leading independent Scarborough-based publishing company - in 2008. In the first of a series of blog posts about Europe and cultural expression, I caught up with him about what it would take for him to publish someone writing in English as a second language ...
A few weeks ago, a Dutch friend of mine told me that she and her husband were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the prospect of a post-Brexit Britain. They have lived in Britain almost thirty years - longer than my lifetime - and had always felt extremely happy here (hence the lengthy sojourn).
In the build up to the EU referendum, however, and in the wake of its result, my friend told me she had begun to experience a culture of fear that she insisted she hadn't simply conceptualised out of nowhere; she had started to feel less welcome here, not only in light of reports about people being more openly xenophobic towards foreign nationals (people who, sadly, saw the vote to leave as an expression, and perhaps legitimisation, of their intolerant views), but also as a result of having been goaded in public about her 'right' to live here on the basis of her accent.
She told me she wanted to somehow convey all her experiences of British life, communicating both a positive and admonitory message, but wasn't sure if a blog was the right medium for her. She asked me what I knew about getting a book published in English if it wasn't your first language, and I replied that - honestly - I didn't know much!
It was a query that I was determined to settle, however, because it drew my attention to how important it is that we give a platform to as many voices as possible in the wake of such unprecedented change.
And it became a quest of curiosity that would eventually take me to Wardle and Jones - a gorgeously furnished independent book shop down one of the narrowest snickets in Scarborough - where I'd meet Jamie McGarry, editor and founder of Valley Press and lover of all things literary.
Over a cool, rosewater-pink raspberry lemonade that would have garnered the approval of organic bloggers the world over, Jamie answered my questions about writing in English as a second language ...
Jamie, a basic question to start with: have you ever received a submission from somebody who didn't speak English as their first language?
Not that they've mentioned overtly! And if I have then it was very, very good.
If you saw a lot of potential in someone's work, but there were a lot of mistakes in the language, would you take them on as a writer?
There are a lot of factors I consider before deciding whether a book is good enough to publish. The quality of the written language is one of them, but it's not the only factor. In terms of fiction, if the narrative is absolutely fascinating, if there are great characters, for example, then that can often be reason enough to warrant publication. I also show submissions to a focus group, so lots of people weigh in. Therefore, if it's popular with the people I show it to, that is a big deal. Besides which, there might be something special in the text that appeals to me personally - a sort of magical quality, I suppose you could say, that would make me buy the book if I came across it - not to mention the fact that the writer might have a lot of experience in the field (whether they have been writing in English or otherwise). And then there's the question of whether I actually like the person. Is he or she the sort of writer that I could see myself working with, and could they charm people? Will people be interested enough in them to buy their work?
So it sounds like you're saying that if the language needed some tweaking, but all the other boxes were ticked, a writer might still stand a good chance of getting published?
Yes, that's exactly it. I think of all the things I mentioned, most of them can't be changed upon suggestion. For instance, a writer can't become nicer or more charming, and likewise it would be difficult for me to make a better narrative, or more convincing characters. Whereas language, if it isn't quite up to scratch, could be modified. In short, the quality of the text can be improved - you could hire someone for not a colossal amount of money to just tighten it up, so it really is one of the easiest things to fix.
What do you think can be lost in the writing process if somebody for whom English is not their first language, decides to write something in English?
Well the first thing that comes to mind would be idioms and sayings that are peculiar to English; you know, things that when you really consider them don't make a lot of sense! But actually, when you think about it, someone writing in English as a second language would be more likely to avoid cliches, because they won't have been fed on the same diet as the rest of us, be that made up of radio 4 or ITV morning telly!
Have you ever had a submission from someone who has used the services of a translator?
Yes, I received a submission from someone who had translated something off their own back - there you are, a perfect example of an idiom! - but in terms of whether it's better to use a translator or to try writing your work in English, that would really vary from writer to writer. There's no guarantee of quality either way.
If you were to ever specifically encourage writers with alternative first languages to submit a piece of creative text, say by way of a special campaign, would there be something you'd look for in particular?
Well, we're always open to submissions from anyone, but if we were to do a specific call for non-English speaking writers, I think the main thing readers would benefit from would be a fresh voice. The way the book was written would be much more original, and the style would also vary hugely from writer to writer on the basis of when they started to learn English and what their first language was. I have one poet - Salim Peeradina - who was raised in India, so he was raised on two languages at once, English being one of them. I think that affords his poetry a fresh quality.
If somebody wanted to reach an English-speaking audience but were struggling to get published, would you recommend self publishing?
I don't think my recommendation would be any different to what I'd say to any writer that was trying to get their work out there. First, if you're writing short stories or poems, a blog would be an ideal place to start building an audience, and then - once you've got access to an audience - self publishing would definitely be a viable option, because you'll already have people in mind to whom you could promote your product. Traditional publishing would be better if you needed that bit more help, in terms of coordinating design and promotion, for example. In short, if you don't feel you can sell hundreds of copies by yourself, traditional publishing would aim to get you on that track.
Valley Press publishes poetry, fiction - including short stories - and non-fiction, including memoirs and travel writing. To learn more about the organisation, and how to submit work, visit www.valleypressuk.com