Interview by JJ Marsh
Laurie Garrison is the author of Women Writers in the 21st century; Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels and much more. An academic for many years, she is now a digital marketer and runs the Twitter project, #Women_Writers, a monthly chat aimed at sharing information and experiences for women who write and Looking for Xanadu, an online resource for writers.
You state your mission as building an international network of women writers. How did this start and what is the aim?
Having come from the PC world of universities into working for myself as a provider of online courses and networking opportunities for women writers, I’ve been shocked to find just how much of a bias there is against women in the publishing industry. If women are going to overturn this bias against them (and other marginalized writers), we need to be organized about it. Raising awareness in itself could go a long way toward improving the situation. There are lots of small presses who write this into their mission and there are a lot of options in addition to traditional publishing now, but I’m not convinced these are widely known enough. They’re also scattered across multiple countries.
What I’d like to do is set up a network of international contacts so we can make sure the news gets out about any developments that might help women reach their writing goals or publicize any big successes of writers who might not have the backing of a big publishing house. I also want to act as an educator who empowers women to manage their own online platforms and make informed decisions about how they publish their work. #women_writers chat and my new course on online self promotion are the primary ways I’m doing this at the moment, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be expanding this in the next few months.
One of the way you’re attracting people to join the network is via your monthly twitchat #Women_Writers. What kind of topics do you discuss?
Some of our sessions are intended to discuss our favorite books and get lots of recommendations for new authors to read. Others are practical like our DIY Online Marketing session, which was geared toward the needs of women writers in particular. We also like to support other marginalized writers as in our session for Women in Translation Month. We just had Women Writing about Women for our September chat with Lesley McDowell, author of Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine Twentieth Century Women Writers. We like to have guest hosts as it brings in a different crowd and we’ve very open to suggestions for topics too. Above all, we make sure the atmosphere is fun and friendly - one that is conducive to meeting people and making some of those contacts that can be so important for writers when they need readers, editors, etc.
Looking for Xanadu is an incredibly generous resource for women writers. How do you find the time to keep such useful content up to date?
Glad to hear that it seems generous - I still feel like I’m just getting started with it! I always have far more ideas than I can accommodate. In terms of managing my marketing including the website, I think it’s taking up about 15 hours of my time each week. I’ve got a rough marketing schedule I follow each month and now that I see lots of results from my marketing work, it doesn’t feel like work anymore.
Can you talk about your focus in Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels: Pleasures of the Senses? Did you set out to look at the writers, the readers or the scientific studies on female sensibilities and fiction in the Victorian age?
Basically, I looked at all of those things. Previous studies had documented the influence of psychology and medicine in the discourses of the sensation novel of the 1860s, which was an incredibly popular genre with some of the women outselling Dickens (who was also reviewed as a sensation novelist in the 1860s and makes an appearance in my book). I looked at the influence of several other sciences, starting with the interest in physiology in the reviewers’ reception of the novels, where they argued that sensation novels were far too physically stimulating for young women and might lead to reckless flirtation or worse. The less stuffy members of the Victorian press satirized this with a great deal of comedy, including a poem that deemed celibacy satisfactory as long as there was a good supply of sensation novels to enjoy. I also looked at mesmerism in The Woman in White, which was worked into a way of representing female same-sex desire by Wilkie Collins, and evolutionary theory in a novel by Mary Braddon, where her presumably mixed-race heroine succeeds in training the men around her to accept her sensational behaviour.
You seem to see the digital age as a great leveller regarding traditional gender imbalances. How do you think women can harness the opportunities available online?
There are so many opportunities for meeting people, promoting work, finding the services needed for self-publishing or self-promotion, but everything seems a bit scattered far and wide. The web is such a big place that there’s no telling whether you’re going to miss some really good resources. This is why we need central places like #women_writers chat and the hashtag to get the word out there and share our knowledge. Also, all of us as women writers need to get out there and start talking to each other.
What was your take on Kamila Shamsie’s call for A Year of Publishing Only Women? A realistic proposal or a way of opening debate?
I would love to see it happen, but I’m not holding my breath! What I like about her argument is that she addresses the fact that the bias against women is embedded in our culture in such complex ways that it can’t be simplified into a problem of decision makers deliberately choosing men’s writing over women’s or as Shamsie puts it ‘fair minded women vs. bigoted men’. I’ve spent a lot of years studying, teaching and writing about feminist theory.
Men and women are both trapped in the power structures of patriarchy and this argument goes right back to our first feminist theorist, Mary Wollstonecraft who pointed out that women were just as likely to adhere to patriarchal structures as men were. The only way to change this is for a large number of people to accept that there is a problem that needs to be addressed and then work together and work hard to change our culturally determined behaviours - in both genders. In the publishing industry, I’d imagine this to take the form of those in the industry working harder to get good submissions from women and women writers developing resilience in the face of rejection and learning to promote themselves and their achievements more. I’d see this as a much longer term solution than a year of publishing women though a year of publishing women would be a fantastic starting point!
Do you think women could learn more effectively in a female-only environment, such a Creative Writing MA geared to female learning styles, for example?
Well, we’d never find a Creative Writing MA openly stated to be geared toward female learning styles in the UK. That sort of thing would never make it through accreditation and other bureaucracy as it would be seen to be exclusionary. This is part of the reason I’m working for myself now: I simply could not be as innovative as I wanted in my teaching when I was a lecturer. What I’m setting up now are courses with a noncompetitive atmosphere where we can openly discuss the number of rejections writers are likely to get as well as the extent of criticism and revision involved in publishing and to have these discussions in an environment where they won’t be judged as signs of weakness. I want to see women writers build up resilience, meet their writing goals and think creatively about how to promote themselves, especially online. I’m marketing these courses to women mainly but any men who like the sound of this are very welcome to join as well.
What milestones do you hope to achieve in 2017, both personally and as a champion of women writers?
In 2017, I’d like to see a significant number of women on my online self-promotion course in autumn 2016 getting out there and succeeding with their online marketing and publishing goals. I’d also like to see our currently monthly #women_writers chat grow enough in attendance and collaborating partners that we can become a weekly chat. Personally, I’m hoping to get my business into a position where I can take a bit of a sabbatical in the summer to do some of my own creative writing.
Laurie is running a FREE webinar for Triskele subscribers on Tues 11 October 2016 at 6pm BST.