Harriet Evans speech 2014
Harriet Evans, Quick Reads author, spoke at the unionlearn conference 2014.
Last year, I was asked if I'd be interested in writing a Quick Read and I said yes immediately. For those of you who haven't heard of me or my books – I'm betting that's about 99.99% of you – I'll tell you a bit about myself. I've been writing for ten years now and before that I worked in publishing as an editor. I write sort of 'used to be a bit more Bridget Jones-ish, then a bit romcom ish, now a bit more family secrets and saga-ish' books.
I've been on the side of a London bus (I should point out that's a poster for one of my books, not me personally), and I've been in the Top Ten. I've had eight novels published, including my Quick Read book and not including the sex and shopping bonkbuster I ghostwrote for an extremely famous person one summer, whom I'm sure you'd all be much more interested in hearing from. But sorry, today you've got me instead.
I was going to talk to you about my experience with the Quick Reads programme. It's no exaggeration to say that being involved in Quick Reads, from writing the book itself to working with the organisation is the highlight of my career as an author. When you are surrounded by books and people who love reading it is hard to put yourself in the shoes of people for whom books and reading evoke feelings of shame or isolation. I grew up in a house full of books. Not particularly high-brow literary Booker-prize winning stuff, you understand. But good books that people want to read.
My mum works in publishing, she edits Jilly Cooper and the Shopaholic books. My uncle writes those kind of books you get in school libraries called things like How Copper is Made and Miss Bradnam is a Bus Driver. And my dad was in publishing too, and also wrote several novels, thrillers about international spies and glamorous Italian footballers (it was the Seventies). When I was nine months old, he was in a car accident about two hundred metres from here. Now, thirty-nine years later, he's in a wheelchair and cannot walk. He is totally compos mentis, especially about England's defence and Rooney's missed chances, but his life was changed that night.
So I came to Quick Reads with the experience of reading from the other side of the coin as it were because these last thirty years, reading has saved my dad. It is one of the few unalloyed pleasures that hasn't changed since his accident. In that respect, the world is as open to him as it was before. He can't walk or stand up unaided, but he can read, all day, every day. He is as well-informed as people twice as well-travelled, as passionate about issues as anyone walking down the street, as up to date as anyone in his family. In many different ways, as I'm sure you can imagine, times were pretty hard when I was growing up, but books and the local library were everything to me and my little sister. I suppose my point is that I grew up knowing how important reading is when your horizons have shrunk. How like a muscle it is, that if you work at it, it just keeps getting stronger. That is what I passionately believe about reading, that with encouragement and the right support you can bring it further into the centre of your life again. It's definitely what made me want to write a Quick Read.
As I'm sure most of you will already know, Quick Reads publishes six books every year. They are supposed to be enjoyable, easy-to-get-into books for grown-ups. They're aimed at emergent readers, those who are dyslexic, or rusty about their reading and lacking confidence, and those for whom English is not a first language, or those who simply want a quick read to engage them while they're on the bus or waiting for the toast to pop up. Some big names are involved, too: this year the list had titles by Lynda LaPlante, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jeffrey Archer, Lindsay Davies and Emily Barr as well as me. Here's a statistic: 1 in 6 adults of working age in the UK finds reading difficult and would not pick up a book for pleasure. At the last count, 272 libraries have closed in the UK since 2010, and with them organisations and reading groups which might have drawn in those who just need some guidance and encouragement to start reading again. The work of Quick Reads and their partners such as you all gathered today is more important than ever, for as you know, the further we march into a digital age, the faster we leave behind those who find reading difficult.
There is still so much shame surrounding not being able to read, and it has always struck me how strange it is that it's one of the last few social stigmas that is greater today than a hundred years ago. Prejudice against women, against different ethnicities and religions, against illegitimacy, being gay, or disabled like my dad – huge, in some cases radical, strides have been made in the name of social equality to change attitudes in these areas. Not literacy. It is, if anything, even more difficult these days to admit you can't read, and so people don't. When I first met Cathy Rentzenbrink, project director of Quick Reads, to discuss writing the book, she told me a story which stayed with me the whole way through. She went to a reading group at a library to watch some older readers talking about the Quick Read title they'd all read together. Afterwards one of them was talking to Cathy, and she said, "Look at me, sitting there in a library, talking about books. You'd think I was born to it."
As Cathy said to me, we are all born to it. We should all have access to books and libraries and an education that equips us for life. But, for many reasons, some of us fall behind, and that's why it's vital there are projects like Quick Reads to fill the gap.
I have to say I thought it'd be pretty easy to write a Quick Read. My books are typically around 120,000 words, about this thick. Quick Reads are 20,000, much shorter. But actually it's surprisingly hard. You have to concisely and clearly tell a proper story in that time, make it warm and believable and full of life and you can't go off at a tangent or complicate the story with layers of sub plots or additional research – there isn't time. You also have to make quite sure you are keeping your reader, who might be hesitant at first, pulled in and gripped from the start. You can't mess around.
My Quick Read is called Rules for Dating a Romantic Hero. I chose to write a sequel to one of my first books, a Hopeless Romantic, about an ordinary girl who swears off romance and romcoms and Jane Austen TV boxsets & Mills and Boons and then has to go on holiday with her parents and then, on a boring day out with them to a stately home, meets and subsequently falls in love with the owner of the stately home, without realising who he is. It's been the most successful of my books because of the title I think and its Royal Wedding / fairytale style storyline. Everyone likes dream fantasy houses, whether it's visiting a National-Trust-style big house out or watching TV property shows, and so many people like Downton Abbey that I hoped everyone could get into the story of a very ordinary girl from the suburbs who finds herself in love with the most eligible bachelor in the country, a modern day Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. I wanted it to be inviting and cosy like a cream tea, but also believable, not too fluffy and ridiculous.
Plus, I knew who the other authors on the list were and that they would be writing more suspense or historical books and hoped mine might be a counterbalance, more of a girls' book, for want of a better phrase. (However I've since sat in on a prison reading group and discussed it with a group of male prisoners who all said they enjoyed it, so maybe it's a more universal theme than one realises). Finally, I thought if I broke it up into rules, following the title of the book, it'd be easier to give it a structure that leant itself to bite-sized pieces, so you weren't swamped with the storyline.
Because it was a sequel, I had to make sure it worked as a standalone story, but also that the characters were introduced to the reader coming to the setting for the first time in a way that wasn't confusing, but meant those people who loved the first book recognised their favourite characters. It was, at times, hard to keep track of all of that and keep myself in line – but I liked that. Writing such a different kind of book – much shorter, much cleaner, a sequel that can't seem like a sequel – is a bit like the equivalent of going on one of those Driver Awareness courses when you're caught speeding: you can't help but realise halfway through that your skills, whatever they once were and however much you thought you knew you could do this on autopilot, might benefit from a bit of a refresher course, looking at things slightly differently. It was absolutely the case with this.
And it helped me too. It made me realise how the best writing is not about the longest words or the most complicated plot, but the clarity and simplicity which makes images and stories seem enticing and real to the reader. I have done reading volunteering in primary schools and have seen how easy it is for the children of parents who don't speak English or who don't have time, to fall behind with their reading and writing for want of someone to read with them or to them every night. Now I have a daughter myself I can see how the stories that we enjoy rereading most are the ones that have that deceptive simplicity to them. It's true with reading no matter how old you are, no matter your confidence levels. Well-told stories will stand the test of time. That's the first thing I learned, both writing my Quick Read and growing up with people who knew the importance of a good read. The second thing I learned is best summed up in a quote from one of my favourite books of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird. It's what Atticus Finch tells his children and it is for me at the centre of that book:
"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through, no matter what."
It takes such a lot of courage for some people to pick up a book and try and see it through, and they deserve all the encouragement and support they can get.
Thank you very much.