Andrew J King on winning 2020’s Bath Novel Award, becoming agented, and how he wrote his winning manuscript The Arrow Garden
Where were you when you heard the news?
In a smoky yurt under a starry sky. Inside, I am on my hands and knees feeding, not camel dung but logs into a stove, while my wife pokes marshmallows over my shoulders to toast in the flames. We are off-grid, no wifi, supposedly no phone signal. This is Outer Chipping Campden after all. Then my wife’s phone pings . . .
Award judge Jenny Savill described The Arrow Garden as “brim full of wisdom, humanity, and gentle observation.” How did it feel to read all her comments?
It was like looking at something rather dazzling, while blinking through tears. You spend ten years and more fantasising and day-dreaming, not only about the story, but about the idea that it might get published one day. Then suddenly the world does an odd back-flip and fantasy starts to become reality.
That others can see what you saw with your mind’s eye, and feel the emotions you felt about those visions, is part of the magic of writing. That’s why Jenny’s response was such a white-hot moment for me.
You were unrepresented when you won. What’s happened since?
That same evening under the glamping fairy-lights in the smoky yurt, I got a call from BNA Judge Jenny Savill, to tell me not only that I had won, but that she would like to represent me. I’m not one to rush into things, but I immediately babbled ‘Consider it a deal!’, because looking at Jenny’s career, and the other writers she represents, I honestly could not think of a better match for the book.
What’s the reaction been like from friends and family?
Wildly enthusiastic congratulations! -Tempered perhaps by a certain undertone of relief that maybe I have finally got my act together. -But they are all far too nice to say that . . .
The first full draft of The Arrow Garden also made our shortlist in 2015. Was that a boost?
It was a massive confidence boost. I also quickly discovered the value of having a hard deadline. After entering, I put it to the back of my mind -until a morning came when my wife looked up from her toast and marmalade to ask why was I trying to punch a hole in the kitchen ceiling . . .
Does that make this win all the sweeter?
When I thought about all the hurdles an entry has to pass to get all the way to ‘last book standing’, it seemed impossible I could pull off an outright win. I was well pleased just to be longlisted again, and even more pleased to get into the shortlist. That alone would have been something really solid to add to the book’s ‘CV’ when agent hunting. In my heart of hearts, I knew the earlier version of The Arrow Garden had a lot of flaws, and was not fully developed. Getting onto the 2015 shortlist though, confirmed that I had the basis of something good, and that I should keep working at it.
What changes did you make in those five years and why did you decide to re-submit?
I literally tore the book to pieces. I am a big user of scissors and paste, and like to treat writing as an act of physical making. I changed a lot of the chronology, -then changed most of it back again. The biggest job was to fill out some of the details of both of the two main character’s lives, to make them more three-dimensional. Teaching creative subjects at college and university for many years, showed me how much can be achieved by being ruthless with stuff that doesn’t work. Being willing to tear everything up, make a huge mess, punch your manuscript full of bleeding ragged holes, and then stitch it all smoothly up again. It’s an anxious process, but then you realise that the story has gone up another level, become something a little more ambitious than you had dared to dream of.
I put the result into several competitions this year, and there was no question the Bath Novel Award had to be one of them. Looking at the record of successive years, it’s clear to see how it keeps growing in status.
Thank you, we’re so proud of the talent we’ve been lucky enough to read. You’ve also mentioned working with one of the professional editors at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. When was that and how did it help?
I hesitated for a while, but finally took the plunge in 2017. I will admit it was expensive (I went for a full editorial report), but thinking about it I remembered that I had spent twice as much on a bicycle the previous year. As I was determined to take my writing at least as seriously as my cycling, I decided it would be money well spent. Cornerstones hooked me up with Anna Reynolds, a writer with a really solid track record. I immediately saw that she was someone who would not only relate to my story, but also have a good handle on exactly the aspects of writing that were bothering me. Her report was full of useful details, but the most valuable thing about it was this: Everything I thought was good, Anna said was good. Everything I was worried about, she expressed reservations about. That gave me the confidence to trust my own judgement and plunge into major surgery on the text.
Describe The Arrow Garden.
A writer friend, very practiced at ‘elevator pitches’, called it ‘The world’s first Zen archery time-slip novel’. My own feeling is that I find it hard to say what it is, -and I think that’s exactly the effect I was aiming for. I also wanted to see if I could create that mood the Japanese call ‘mono no aware’ -the sense of beauty in the thought that everything is transient.
The book began as a writing exercise. I was having difficulty getting anything finished, so I decided to try my hand at a short story. That was basically the English archer’s tale. I put it to one side, but as the weeks went by I was pestered by the thought that there was a mirror image, a reverse side to the story I had written. I began to write Mie’s story. Somehow, I found her ‘voice’ immediately, and her experiences just seemed to flow. Even as I wrote, I realised I was channelling a rich hinterland of films, novels, and manga I had absorbed over a long period of time, together with my own direct experiences of Japan and its people.
The Englishman was much more difficult, which is odd, because he was much closer to my own life. His sardonic, detached manner was hard to ‘find’ consistently, and to be frank, he fought me all the way. In the end though, I found out why he was the way he was, and he started to make more sense.
The idea of alternating voices was something I got into while writing a non-fiction book about my Japanese experiences. In The Arrow Garden I used it to create a kind of dialogue between two characters who barely meet. A dialogue of silences and parallels. I quickly realised I had created something horribly complex, with intersecting timelines, alternate tenses and two distinct stories that nevertheless had to contain echoes and reflections of each other. I still don’t know how it works!
You’ve mentioned The Arrow Garden was inspired by your love of Shinto ‘stories’ and the aftermath of the events in Japan in 2011. Can you say a little more about that?
I was privileged to visit Japan in September and October of 2011, and to take part in social life there in a way that was very different from sightseeing tourism. Japanese society works in a very special way. I began to experience attitudes, emotions and feelings I had glimpsed only dimly through literature, manga and anime.
But I did not realise how deeply it had changed me until the plane was settling onto Heathrow’s runway. Thinking about my return home, I had a shocking realisation: I literally could not go home. ‘Home’ was no longer there. I would never again be able to experience my own culture in the way I did before. My brain had been re-wired into a different way of relating to others. I suddenly understood what the story of Rumplestiltskin, and similar folk tales were all about.
It is not for nothing that many 19th Century western travellers called Japan a ‘fairy-land’. But that is not to say it is simply ‘other’. The emotions I witnessed and experienced were very human, just organised in different cultural patterns. That was what I had been seeing for years, and not fully understanding, in Japanese storytelling. Just as Western culture is infused at a deep level by Christian moral ideas, even for people who are not at all religious, Japanese culture is structured by three great world-views: Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism. For me Shinto was the most fascinating, as it seems not to recognise a border between humanity and nature. A rock can be a person, and a member of your community. That makes for some interesting plot-lines!
Any plans for the £3,000 prize money?
Really not sure at the moment. I would like it to be something useful, that makes a difference to others as well as to me. We’ll see.
Where and when do you write?
I saw the recent film of Little Women. Cleverly, it is not only the story of the book, but the story of the writing of the book. In a final scene, Louisa sits down in the loft of the family home, and puts on her bad-ass pirate jacket to write in. By the end of the process, she is crawling around on the floor with all the pages spread out. I was grinning from ear to ear in recognition. My loft is much smaller than that of an American farmhouse, so the manuscript gets hung from the roof. When that’s not enough, I take over the kitchen table when my wife is out, and yes, the floor, sometimes all the way from the back door to the front -and back again. I once visited Jane Austen’s house and saw her writing table. A whole eighteen inches in diameter.
Where I really am when I am immersed in writing, only the gods know.
As for when, I think the body dictates. One has to be not only in the right mood, but in the right physical state. Sometimes that state is exhaustion! I make a point of not concentrating for too long, but also of driving myself back to the next task, and the next, after each break. Balzac drank too much coffee. I can see why.
What are you writing now?
Currently I am in the middle of my second novel, set in France. It was sparked by a very strange real-life encounter on the towpath of a canal. Being a human, I immediately thought ‘I wonder what the story behind that is?’ Being a writer, my next thought was: ‘I never ever want to know what that story is, -because I want to write it!’
Interview by Caroline Ambrose
Andrew J King has a BA in English Literature and Fine Art and spent his early career as a professional designer. After taking an MA in Visual Culture he began a second career teaching Art and Design and is particularly interested in the links between images, emotions and words. A Kyūdō archer and lifelong Japanophile, Andrew has assisted at Shintō ceremonies in shrines and temples across Japan. The Arrow Garden was inspired by his love for Kyūdō, Shintō ‘stories’ and the aftermath of 2011’s Great Tōhoku Earthquake. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewJKing5 and read the opening of The Arrow Garden and other shortlisted novels here.