“It has been life-changing.” NorthBound Book Award 2020 winner John D. Rutter talks to Northern Soul
The award is for a full-length work of fiction or narrative non-fiction written for adults and is only open to submissions from applicants who currently live full-time in the North of England. The winner receives £5,000 in prize money and a publishing contract with Saraband. The award was first awarded in 2019, to J.A. Mensah for her debut novel Castles from Cobwebs.
Here, Northern Soul chats to John D. Rutter, who won the 2020 NorthBound Book Award with his first novel, Approval. The book follows the story of would-be parents, David and Cici, as they navigate the complex process of adopting a child. Rutter, who lives in Lancashire with his wife Lin, is a short story writer and academic who teaches, edits and writes about short stories, which is the subject of his PhD from Edge Hill University. His stories have been published in anthologies and journals.
Northern Soul: What’s the importance of writing competitions, and how do you think they are beneficial for writers?
John D. Rutter: Competitions are vital for new writers and have been essential for me getting started. It gives a great chance for a writer to gain some encouragement and lots of places offer free submissions for people that need this. I have submitted to many short story competitions and had some joy. The competition websites are also a great source of new free stories to read.
NS: What attracted you to the Northern Writers’ Awards NorthBound Award in particular?
JR: It was a real opportunity to pitch without facing the inevitable rejection from Big Publisher, and the involvement of indie northern publishers is great. They are the people who find new writing and give chances to first-time novelists and short story writers.
NS: Your winning book, Approval, covers a range of subjects, including family background, early experiences, adult relationships and the invasive judgement that comes with the current adoption process. It’s quite a feat to explore so much in a novel. Did you plan to look at these themes or did they appear organically when writing the piece?
JR: I had been writing on themes of family, personal history, relationships and abuse for some years, so most of the material existing before the concept of Approval was conceived. The adoption aspect came later.
NS: The novel was originally written as a collection of linked short stories, and the reader could read it as such. It has a strong literary form that takes you through this couple’s adoption process episode by episode. What inspired this style?
JR: Here, I must give credit to Kim Wiltshire, one of my tutors at Edge Hill University. Kim looked at my many stories (you wouldn’t use the word ‘collection’) and advised me to focus on the more personal stories that, eventually, became Approval.
She also suggested I do the Morning Pages routine and see if some focus came out of that. That is when I realised that the adoption process was both a major life experience for me and would allow a structure for the book. The process to be approved as an adopter asks about all the history of a person’s life, so the stories already existed. I had the whole thing assembled very quickly once I’d decided on that.
The process is a quest and has a natural plot arc, so the step from a linked collection to a composite novel was a straightforward one. Saraband, and especially editor Craig Hillsley, gave me great support in the final stage.
NS: Fertility and the adoption process aren’t that openly discussed, and are widely misunderstood. The male perspective is most certainly missing from the narrative. Did you begin writing Approval with the intention of carving out a space for this discussion?
JR: I had not been writing on that subject, but I realised that I needed to examine it. I was simultaneously trying to be secretive going through the process in real life while writing about it. Rhod Gilbert has brought this topic to light, and I am pleased to be able to join the conversation. As he says in his BBC programme about male infertility, it’s simply not something blokes talk about – and we should. Through this process, I have found out that several friends have had issues with infertility.
I also learnt through my research that there were 70,000 children in care in the UK and only about five per cent of that number of approved adopters, so it is something that should be talked about.
NS: What’s your writing process?
JR: I come up with ideas based on a fragment: a word, a memory, an image, usually in the garden or at night (or in the garden at night) and work out the story in my head. The next day I see a note saying ‘M6 or ‘B’ or ‘Salt Seller’ and type a first draft in a couple of hours. Sometimes they come out whole, often they never go further. Then I edit, edit and take the draft to NRG and my writing group from Lancaster University until I can edit no more. Once (number 79 out of 170 stories) the first draft arrived almost complete. Usually, a story takes many months. And I always type straight to screen. I don’t write by hand.
JR: I finished Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession (Bluemoose) yesterday and have started Astral Travel by Elizabeth Baines (Salt). They’re powerful in different ways. I have a couple of new books from Galley Beggar Press, but they’re too nicely wrapped to open, so they sit on my growing TBR stack. I’m also currently reading many of the short story collections submitted for this year’s Edge Hill Prize.
NS: Do you have any advice for writers who are thinking about entering the award?
JR: Enter it. It has been life-changing for me, and the independent publishers and academics involved, people who care about new writers, might give you the break you need.
JR: Your question about form and novels brings me back to conversations about Approval. It might be interesting to see what would happen if there was a related short story collection with different versions of the stories and some new ones, so watch this space.
I’m always writing short stories and I have a draft collection. Again, I didn’t set out with a theme, but I’ve realised that old age and death recur. I am also researching a biography that feels like a sort of true-life-Grisham-thriller story. But, having had my loyalty to the ‘short story club’ challenged lately, it will be all short stories for the next few months.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Main image: John D. Rutter by Joe Gudgeon
Approval will be published by Saraband on August 26, 2021
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