During the writing of my memoir, the question I most often asked myself was “how dare I?” This was closely followed by “why should anyone care?” Despite the frequency with which I asked these questions, I always struggled to come up with decent answers. This was in part because I was committing the sin of writing a memoir while being neither famous nor infamous, but also because the story I was writing was a peculiarly northern one.
My book, Cold Fish Soup, is a collection of ten interconnected personal essays about my family and my experiences in and around the town of Withernsea, located on East Yorkshire’s Holderness coast. This is an area that few people seem to know or care about, so my concern was that, while I thought my stories were worth telling, I wasn’t sure that anyone else would agree. This doubt was fed by my suspicion that the publishing world found northern stories unpalatable unless they featured characters with smutted faces who doggedly operated looms. My stories were about burlesque-dancing pensioners, identity struggles, and interdimensional werewolves, which made for a tougher sell. Honestly, how dare I?
When one of my Withernsea essays was included in Test Signal, an anthology of new northern writing published by Dead Ink Books and Bloomsbury, I felt a glimmer of hope that a publisher might find my manuscript intriguing. But publishing one essay about a nowhere town is a very different matter to publishing a whole book of them. I never doubted my subject matter though, and so I finished the manuscript then submitted it to the Northern Writers’ Awards, organised by New Writing North to provide opportunities for writers based in the north of England. I hoped that through them I’d find a sympathetic audience, but was aware that this act was still a wild punt into the darkness.
One evening a few months later, just as my fiancé Emma and I were getting into bed, I’d grabbed my phone to check my email. There was one unread message in my inbox, sent from the Northern Writers’ Awards. My reaction was to feel a sense of dread because, at the time, I was in the grip of a distasteful bout of self-pity. As well as submitting to the awards, I’d sent my manuscript to several agents and publishers, whose lack of interest in it had been palpable. Rejection is an enormous part of publishing but, as a serial overreactor, I’d interpreted this as a thumbing of the nose to both me and my stories. I’d never worked harder on anything in my life, so the lack of interest in my manuscript felt like a direct and painful kick in the ego. It didn’t matter to me that writers I respected had read my essays and said absurdly flattering things. I remained crushed. And now here was this email, certain to be bad news. A pending “we regret to inform you…” I opened it and braced myself.
I’m very pleased to let you know that you have won the NorthBound Book Award for your manuscript…”
I dropped my phone as if it had just bitten me, then turned to Emma.
“Oh, god! I’ve won an award.”
“What?!” she said.
“Can you read that email? Is it a prank?”
She picked up my phone and read the words out loud, confirming that, yes, I had won an award and, more than that, the manuscript I’d been so anxious about was being described as “truly brilliant” and would soon be published by the renowned independent press, Saraband.
“No,” I said, “it must be a prank. Read it again.”
The news was embargoed until the official announcement but, because my manuscript featured my family, I was allowed to inform them. So, I rang my mother, then my sister, explaining that my book was going to be published and that, among other things, it contained an essay about their burlesque career and appearance on Britain’s Got Talent.
“So, people are going to be reading about us in…Japan?” my sister asked.
“Potentially,” I replied, loving this, and the idea that someone in Roppongi could soon be curled up with my book, reading about my mother and sister taking their clothes off in front of Simon Cowell. This, more than anything, made everything seem real, providing me with a sense of validation. It was the thing I’d been sorely lacking. Now there I was, an award-winning writer with a publishing contract, officially validated. Wonderful things were happening for me. So, of course, I created new problems for myself.
“I’m worried about reviews,” I told my friend as we walked up Holcombe Hill together a few days after the award announcement. “And, oh god, what about Goodreads?”
“You’ve won an award, you’ve written a great book, and it’s being published,” she said. “You don’t get to do this. You’re supposed to enjoy it. It’s all you’ve ever wanted.”
“It’s not everything I’ve ever wanted,” I said, looking out across Ramsbottom. “I’ve always wanted to fly.”
“Oh god,” she said. “You’re impossible.”
I thought about this, the idea that I was on the cusp of becoming a published author. Such an unlikely thing. And there was a bit of me that felt like flapping my arms and jumping into the air, testing my luck to see if any of my other impossible dreams might come true.
By Adam Farrer, Winner of the NorthBound Book Award 2021
Adam Farrer will be appearing at Blackwell’s, Manchester as part of its Test Signal showcase event on November 15, 2021. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.
His episode of The Portico Library’s podcast series Rewriting the North will air in late November and focuses on his hometown of Withernsea.
Cold Fish Soup will be published by Saraband in August 2022.