This is the second in a series of blog posts I am doing this week to honor those who help make others’ literary lives possible---and even wonderful at times.
Another woman to whom I and many writers owe a great deal of gratitude is the British author and former bookseller, Jen Campbell, who spends a part of her days talking about all things literary and promoting books and writers on her popular YOUTUBE channel. She is at once witty, charming, brilliant, and inspiring. Listening to her explain anything from a fairytale to a poetry book to a novel to various aspects of the writer’s life is both fun and enlightening. But be forewarned. Jen Campbell can be addictive. I have binge-watched her on occasion. She is my favorite virtual bookshop-stop.
An award-winning poet and writer in her own right, Jen Campbell has written several books including The Bookshop Book, which reads is like an ode to bookshops around the globe. In it, she describes 300 bookshops on six continents and includes insights from famous authors about their love of books and book stores.
In her section on the United States, she quotes Tracy Chevalier suggesting that the ideal bookshop might have chocolates, hidden among the books. (I’m all for that!) And Bill Bryson describes the literary discoveries one has in a bookshop--that ability to find “books that are forgotten classics, or books that didn’t get the chance to be classics because they weren’t discovered properly.” I think that is exactly why bookshops are so necessary. So many great books never get their moment in the sun, and with the Amazon take-over, how are we to discover them?
Her book, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, is delightful and funny and sometimes a bit shocking. Made up entirely made of quotes of things people say in bookshops, the book reminds me of some of the more humorous moments spent working at the New Dominion Bookshop (which I posted about last Friday.)
A few examples:
Customer: I’m looking for some books on my kid’s summer reading list. Do you have Tequila Mockingbird?
Customer: Excuse me, do you have Flowers for Arugula?
Customer: Excuse me, do you have Fiddler on a Hot Tin Roof?
But the scariest one was this one:
Customer: Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?
Bookseller: . . .
Customer: I really enjoyed her first book.
Bookseller: Her diary?
Customer: Yes, her diary.
Bookseller: Her diary wasn’t fictional.
Bookseller: Yes . . . She really dies at the end—that’s why the diary finishes. She was taken to a concentration camp.
Customer: Oh . . . that’s terrible.
Bookseller: Yes, it was awful.
Customer: I mean, what a shame, you know? She was such a good writer.
I am so looking forward to Jen Campbell’s forthcoming books, a children’s book, Franklin’s Flying Bookshop, and her collection of short stories, The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night.
NA: I was wondering if you could say a few words about your transition from bookseller to YOUTUBE reporter. Do you miss the bookshop?
JC: I loved working in bookselling, and there are definitely parts of it that I miss. Especially pressing books into the hands of children. Children always say the best things, too. Such as:
Little girl (pointing to a cupboard under one of the bookshelves): Can you get to Narnia through there?
Me: Unfortunately, I don’t think you can.
Little girl: Oh. Our wardrobe at home doesn’t work for getting to Narnia, either.
Little girl: No. Dad says it’s because mum bought it at IKEA.
Creating videos on Booktube is now part of my job, along with being a writer and other freelance work.
NA: You spend a lot of your time reading and promoting other writers, and yet you are also a prolific writer with two new books coming out this year. How do you find the books you promote?
JC: In bookshops and also by looking through the catalogues of small presses on their websites. I’m also approached by publishers with 30-40 review requests a week, but I only say yes to a couple of those. I only review books I want to read - that’s why Booktube is a different space to other media; I’m not paid to review books (though occasionally I work with companies such as the Baileys Prize and Northern Ballet). I hope it’s like checking in with a friendly bookseller.
NA: And you still have time to write?
JC: Writing is my job (first and foremost) but obviously it wasn’t always that way. There were many years of working seven days a week in a bookshop, getting up at 5am to write before work, and then writing again in the evening. If you’re passionate about something, you have to make the time to do it.
NA: On your YOUTUBE series, I particularly love your analysis of fairy tales. Your forthcoming short story collection is influenced by fairytales? Could you say a few words about it? Maybe give us an excerpt?
JC: No excerpts, I’m afraid - I’m not allowed to do that yet ;) - but I can say that it opens with a heart arriving in the post. Here’s the blurb:
Spirits in jam jars, mini-apocalypses, animal hearts and side shows.
A girl runs a coffin hotel on a remote island.
A boy is worried his sister has two souls.
A couple are rewriting the history of the world.
And mermaids are on display at the local aquarium.
The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is a collection of twelve haunting stories; modern fairy tales brimming with magic, outsiders and lost souls. Advance praise has already come in from Carys Bray who called it ‘enchanting and whimsical, curiously beautiful and illuminating’ and Claire Fuller: ‘This book is full of character and magic, and I found myself mesmerised.’
Do you give a lot of readings? At bookshops? Pubs? Universities? Is there much of an audience for poetry?
JC: When a book comes out, I go on book tour - talk at bookshops and libraries, book festivals etc. The rest of the time, I give talks at universities or do workshops in schools. I run workshops online, too. There is an audience for poetry, but it’s smaller than an audience for other genres; I think that’s generally the case in most places.
NA: I love your poetry book, The Hungry Ghost Festival and am looking forward to reading the girl aquarium. I was wondering if we could close with a poem of your choice.
JC: I’m not sure if you’re asking for one of mine, or a poem by someone else so I will offer both. x
Jen Campbell is an award winning poet and short story writer. Her debut short story collection, 'The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night,' is forthcoming from Two Roads (November 2017) and her first children's book 'Franklin's Flying Bookshop' will be published by Thames & Hudson (August 2017).
Jen is also the author of the Sunday Times bestselling Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops series, and The Bookshop Book. Her poetry pamphlet The Hungry Ghost Festival is published by The Rialto, and her collection in progress, the girl aquarium, won an Eric Gregory Award in 2016.
Jen worked as a bookseller for ten years and now runs a Youtube channel, where she talks about all things books. She is currently a judge for this year's Somerset Maugham Award. She grew up in the north east of England and now lives in London.