An insight into the publishing world…

Posts tagged ‘Barbican Press’

[Guest Book Review] The Secret Baby Room by DD Johnson

Today Words Are My Craft is lucky enough to host a guest book review from the immensely talented Brian Lavery, journalist and published author of The Headscarf Revolutionaries. Here he discusses DD Johnston’s The Secret Baby Room, published by Hull and London-based publisher Barbican Press. Just another great reason to keep trying out those little gems published by independent presses!

secret baby room

The Secret Baby Room by DD Johnston (Barbican Press, 2015)

Kindle edition

As a child I used to try to make a good book last forever. I still remember the dismay when as an eight-year-old I had to accept that Treasure Island had come to an end. Now, from time to time, that feeling, like a literary madeleine moment, returns.

Well, it came back with DD Johnston’s The Secret Baby Room (Barbican Press 2015).

Johnston constantly surprises with this novel. In what seems like a slow start, you find yourself pulled into what you think is going to be a strong psychological thriller. And you are, because it is – but soon it becomes so much more.

You are pulled further in by multi-layered characters, an increasingly pacey plot, running alongside, detailed, but not detracting, back stories.

The story opens with Claire Wilson, a young woman who has recently miscarried, who has moved into her new home in Manchester. Following her tragedy, Clare, a southerner, quit her job and moved with her Mancunian husband Dan, whose new job is in his native city. Their new shiny housing estate is in the shadow of an empty, ugly, due-for-demolition tower block.

Claire was in the spare room of her new home, unpacking a box when she glances up and sees that high in the abandoned tower block that a woman is bottle-feeding a baby.

As the book’s blurb asks, ‘Why would anyone take a baby into a derelict tower block? And why is her next-door neighbour so determined to delay the block’s demolition? In a Manchester neighbourhood plagued by unexplained tragedies, Claire’s only allies are an eccentric white witch, a wild-child party girl, and a husband with too many secrets.

In ten days’ time, the tower block will be reduced to rubble and dust. Do you look the other way or do you dare to push open the door?’

Claire’s determination to get to the root of the mystery at first has the reader on board, then you begin to wonder if it is all in her mind. The series of weird events, evil-looking graffiti, black magic altars in a derelict building, a series of miscarriages in the shadow of a phone mast, are not all what they first seem.

The same can be said of the characters. Johnston introduces with broad strokes. When Claire’s wacky hippy-dippy neighbour, Morgana Cox, the rosehip tea-drinking, pentangle-wearing, Wiccan priestess and mother to Mooncloud and Unity, enters the story it is almost high comedy.

As the story unfolds, however, there are surprising and shocking revelations in turn. This is the case with all the characters. Nobody and nothing is what it seemed at first. Johnston keeps the reader guessing. The broad strokes become smart, fine, revelatory details that fuel a classy thriller.

When the true character of a graffiti artist who has been daubing the estate with a series of sick tags is revealed, again Johnston shows his capacity for surprise and versatile revelation.

Johnston deftly weaves moments of comedy into his thriller narrative. In a book that could have easily fallen into schlock-horror, this writer manages to keep the reader on the back foot, constantly surprising, both in narrative and character development.

This is Johnston’s third novel, the others (The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, (Barbican Press, 2013) and Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs (AK Press, 2011), were obvious in their political force) whereas The Secret Baby Room’s political and cultural themes are woven well into a driving narrative like dye in cloth.

The political Johnston in this fine novel, is an examiner, a questioner, rather than a polemicist who would detract. The result is a mix of thriller, satire, and cultural examination, seamlessly contained in a thumping good story with a great denouement.

Most importantly, I quite simply enjoyed The Secret Baby Room and was dismayed it ended so soon for me. I can pay it no better compliment. The eight-year-old in my soul wanted the drama to go on.

As a reader I was given a treat.

As a writer I was given a skills demonstration.

Brian Lavery, fellow Hull Alumni. Photo credit: Martin J Goodman of Barbican Press.

Brian Lavery. Photo credit: Martin J Goodman of Barbican Press.

See more from Brian at and follow him on Twitter @brianlavery59

Introducing Independent Publisher Martin Goodman

Today’s guest on my blog is the Publisher and owner of Barbican Press, the publishing house based in my native city of Hull and the company for which I undertook a social media internship last year. I first met Martin Goodman at a Head In A Book event (run by Head In A Book, Hull, discussing the Tony Hogan book by Kerry Hudson) at Hull Central Library last year. From there we began talking and I secured an internship in which I ran the Twitter and Facebook activity for Barbican Press over the course of a month. Of course, I knew of Martin before this, but I hadn’t had a chance to meet him before then. I’m very grateful that we have a formed a good working and personal friendship and I love seeing Barbican Press go from strength to strength. Here in this interview, Martin talks publishing, teaching creative writing, and Barbican Press.

Martin Goodman: Publisher and Professor

Martin Goodman: Publisher and Professor

Tell me a little bit about your background and career.

I was born in Leicester and determined it was time to become a professional writer aged 12. By the end of my first week I had filled a folder and realized I was overproducing – more than the market could bear – and so determined to bide my time. I felt it would be later in life before my writing started to connect, so I kept writing but kept it to myself or sent it out and had it come back. My first novel came out in 1992 – On Bended Knees, shortlisted for that year’s Whitbread Prize. And I keep on going. I moved into academia in 2007 and am now also Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull.

What drove you to start up your own publishing business?

I know what sort of publishing house I need as a writer – one inclined toward quality and risk – and so choose to provide such a house for others. I was external examiner for D.D.Johnston’s The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub when it was up for its PhD. D.D. had determined to write a novel that would be unpublishable by the industry, and I knew it was too brilliant not to share – and so kickstarted the company then.

Do you focus on a particular kind of literature, or publish a wide range?

Our slogan is ‘writing from the discomfort zone’ – ours are the sort of books Picador used to bring out in the 70s. One of our writers sees our books as being ‘dark with a sense of humour’. There’s also some regional focus on great writing coming from Hull.

Mainstream publishers can’t generally risk the sorts of books we bring out because they don’t tick all the mainstream boxes; they don’t come with a sure return.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced with starting your own publishing company?

Getting anybody to notice. After four trips to an independent bookstore they agreed to take an individual copy of two titles. Getting a book shortlisted for Scottish Fist Book of the Year resulted in three copies being bought in for Scottish stores. So bookstores need to know and support us, as do reviewers. We target and send out scores of copies for reviews, then watch them come up for sale on ebay.

Previously, huge publishing conglomerates have dominated the industry. With the publishing industry changing and evolving at a rapid rate, what do you think the independent publisher needs to do in order to stay in the race?

Don’t join in. We can’t win that race. The trick is to keep independent virtues – have faith in the offbeat and determine that other readers are out there and in fact longing for the sort of books with a difference we can bring out. Mainstream publishers can’t generally risk the sorts of books we bring out because they don’t tick all the mainstream boxes; they don’t come with a sure return.

When looking for an outstanding piece of writing, do you have a set, firm criteria that the manuscript must meet? What do you look for? Or do you generally let your gut feeling decide how you feel about a manuscript?

The writing is immediately clear, and opens up a striking and alternative world view. Beautiful prose plus a striking intelligence.

What are your short and long-term goals for Barbican Press?

We have to make a profit in 2015. We need to see our books in bookstores, picked up by overseas agents and customers, and achieve reviews and prizes. All accomplishable. Long-term the goal is to have readers seek us out as their choice brand.

What is your proudest moment for your company?

Honestly it’s each time an author trusts us with their book and we bring it into the world. And they are happy. That’s the crux of what we are about: releasing genius works that might otherwise have languished.

What is your biggest personal achievement?

In Barbican Press terms, where I am very much a hands-on editor, it’s probably supporting Hana Sklenkva on her translation of Martin Vopenka’s THE FIFTH DIMENSION, a book destined to become known as a modern classic which would have stayed obscure otherwise.

Are there any general or universal misconceptions about writing and publishing that creative writing students tend to bring with them into the classroom?

Students generally aim to write better, which is the proper focus. As a long-time published writer, starting a publishing house showed me all the misconceptions I had had. I had never appreciated all the steps and costs and work that go into bringing out a book. I had never given full credit to the extent of a publisher’s commitment.  Writers always deliver books that are special to them, but don’t necessarily give thought to what will make those books stand out in a preposterously crowded market.

How do you find managing your workload as a writer, publisher, and lecturer?

Full-on. I keep the writing side going by starting at 5am. 5-8 became my creative slot. Then I let the day hit me with whatever it wants until it’s time for bed.

Who do you see as a big influencer in the industry? Anyone you feel people should be keeping their eye on as the next big success?

I honestly believe any of our writers could break through in a big way. Such blazing optimism comes in handy. Creative writing departments are going to have an increased say. Most writing of note coming out of the US has some creative writing school allegiance, and that will happen increasingly here. And deservedly so, since so many writers are sacrificing so much and working so hard on their writing with expert tuition over many years. The best ones are using the opportunity, freed from commercial pressures, to break bounds and come up with books that are vibrant and unique.

The Fifth Dimension, one of Martin's proudest achievements.

The Fifth Dimension, one of Martin’s proudest achievements.

Follow @MartinGoodman2 and @BarbicanPress1 on Twitter

Find out more about Barbican Press here.

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