Dymphna Flynn’s Book Review:

A Very Nice Rejection Letter by Chris Paling

The irony in the title of Chris Paling’s latest book, A Very Nice Rejection Letter doesn’t go unnoticed,  because although this diary by the Brighton novelist cover hundreds of rejections, one could argue that with nine fine novels, one play and now two memoirs to his name, he is in fact a successful writer.

The book tracks the trials and tribulations of being a mid-list literary novelist trying to become a full time writer.  For 27 years Chris commuted from Brighton to his day job in London and he wrote seven of his novels on the train (writing in the morning and editing in the evening).  His account of the commute and the rude, selfish and frankly mad people he shares the carriage with will resonate with many Brightonians, but hopefully few have witnessed a death by heart attack like Chris does. The glamourous lunches with film agents and producers lose their allure after yet another project’s been put on hold. This book is a harsh lesson in proving how difficult it is to earn a living as a writer today.

Chris’ determination, resilience, hope, and his never ending need to write whatever the outcome is extraordinary. After a few books and good reviews (‘among the most accomplished novelists to emerge in recent years’ – a quote he says has been hauled out and dusted off many times) Chris thinks about giving up like many of his peers, but never does. The influential literary agent Deborah Rogers represented Chris for many years and as she was behind some of the greats of modern fiction, like Kazuo Ishiguro, and she is a loyal champion of his work. When Deborah tries to sell Nimrod’s Shadow to his then publisher Portobello Books it’s a shock to Chris, Deborah and to this reader that he is offered only a £1000 advance. As he says, Publishing Rule 16: A common rejection Strategy used by publishers is to make an offer so low that the writer is obliged to turn it down. That way both publisher and writer save face. 

Chris’s creative life changed with two serious illnesses, which he chronicles with the same humour and openness as he dealt with the trials of commuting and literary networking. Those passages are sad and not for the faint-hearted. As well as writing Chris is now a painter of watercolours and oils – by delving into his grandfather and great uncle’s own creative lives as painters the way Chris seeks out a source of his own talents is fascinating. Like amusing end credits at the end of a rom-com film, he ends the book with a selection of some of his rejection letters. Thankfully he ends with a high : the letter asking him for lunch to celebrate the publication of his first novel After the Raid in 1994. All power to Chris Paling, may he long keep going.

Dymphna Flynn is an audio producer and books journalist and a Judge on the Costa Book Awards 2021, First Novel category. 

A Theatre For Dreamers by Polly Samson 

Brighton based novelist Polly Samson’s latest, A Theatre for Dreamers,  just out in paperback, is set on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, home to a bohemian community of writers, painters and musicians including Leonard Cohen, Australian novelist Charmian Clift, her husband George Johnston, Norwegian Axel Jenson and his beautiful wife (soon to be Cohen’s girlfriend) Marianne Ihlen.

This is a coming of age novel as into this mix of true-life characters, Samson introduces Erica, a fictional 18-year-old travelling from London who becomes our guide to this community who sit somewhere between the Beats and the Hippies, just 15 years after the end of World War II. The descriptions of islands are gorgeous: an amphitheatre of houses all focused towards the sea, stray cats waiting for the fishing boats, swimming at midnight in a silvery trail of moonlight, delicious lunches.

Samson is interested in the burgeoning feminism of the early 60s and women’s creative lives. There is tension between Charmian and George, Erica and her boyfriend Jimmy as well as Cohen and Marianne as the women end up subservient to the artistic endeavours of the other even while supposedly inspiring them. 

As she did in real life, Marianne leaves a sandwich on Leonard’s desk every morning before he begins his day’s writing. Charmian warns Erica to never let a man clip her wings, observing that she’s seen her looking after Jimmy at the expense of her own writing time. 

Using letters and notes, Samson creates Leonard Cohen’s dialogue from his own words, bringing an authenticity to the character’s voice. This is an honest portrayal of Cohen – he promises nothing to Marianne. And sitting on the periphery of this artistic circle, Erica watches as a paradise unravels. 

Alive with the heat and light of Greece, the novel completely transported me to a faraway place, and is a lovely read for a time when we can’t get away. Highly recommended.

Dymphna Flynn is an audio producer and books journalist and a Judge on the Costa Book Awards 2021, First Novel category.