‘Mainstream traditional publishing is focused on making money. I mean, Ronnie O’Sullivan? I love watching him play snooker but I won’t be going out to buy his novel.’
Today I talk to short story writer, poet and debut novelist Neil Campbell. Neil has published three collections of short stories – Ekphrasis, Broken Doll and Pictures from Hopper – as well as two poetry chapbooks – Birds and Bugsworth Diary. More recently, he published his first novel, Sky Hooks, about a young warehouseman whose promising football career is cut short by injury. Neil was the editor of the literary magazine Lamport Court from 2003–2008 and has an MA and an MPhil in Creative Writing. His short stories were chosen for Best British Short Stories 2012, 2015 and 2016.
AA: When did you first start experiencing rejection – and how did it feel?
NC: A long time ago. I started by sending poetry out. So it was probably from a poetry magazine in about 2003. But I don’t remember it being too much of a slog to get published. At that time they had various mags in Manchester Central Library. I read through them so had an idea of where my work would fit.
All of my early short stories were rejected by Comma Press about ten years ago. At the time I was pissed off. I think I even took it a bit personally. But I can see now that those stories weren’t good enough, and that Comma were never really the right publisher for my work. Manchester has never given me anything in terms of getting published.
The first novel I wrote, Sheet Metal Sky, got a high mark as part of an MA in Creative Writing in 2006. I sent it to a couple of publishers. I received a lengthy reply from someone in London. It was polite and well intentioned, but indicated that the person just didn’t get my working class characters at all. This gave me a chip on the shoulder for a bit. But after that I didn’t send it anywhere else. I knew it wasn’t good enough, despite the mark it got on the course.
AA: When was your most recent rejection?
NC: On the day my novel Sky Hooks was published I received a rejection from The Nottingham Review for a flash fiction.
AA: Are there any particular rejections that have stayed with you? If so, why?
NC: The one for my novel back in 2006. It was just the fact that the reader didn’t get it. I don’t remember the specifics. But since then I’ve never chased getting an agent. I don’t see myself catching a train to London to chat with someone in Bloomsbury. I don’t really see what we’d have in common. So that rejection has shaped my attitude a little.
AA: Has the way you respond to rejection changed over time? How do you deal with it now?
NC: I don’t take it personally any more. I just move on, immediately. Submittable is good for that. I just delete the rejection. Then I send the poem/story somewhere else. There was a time I’d keep trying with someone who rejected my work. But if you piss in the wind your pants start to get smelly.
I also edited a magazine for five years, so can see it from both sides. Anyone can call themselves an editor.
AA: In my interview with Stephen Gallagher, he said something interesting about rejection/success. He said: ‘It gets so you’re always kind of braced for it. Which can make it hard to feel unbridled joy when something does get picked up, because you’ve so many protective mechanisms in place.’ Is there any truth to this for you?
NC: Yes. Being published is just a little affirmation really. Although when I had my first poem published (Iota, 2003, Issue 61) I was very happy. It gave me a feeling of worth. I remember the day vividly, walking down Upper Brook Street in Manchester, telling myself I was a published poet. Not out loud, of course. I didn’t want to get mugged.
AA: Do you think rejection has helped to shape you as a writer in any way? Has it had any kind of effect on your writing, or what you decide to write, for instance?
NC: It has in no way shaped what I have decided to write. I think that would be a mistake for me. I write by instinct. For example, I have a short story cycle. The best thing I’ve done. But there’s nowhere to send it. It is unmarketable. But I’m stubborn and contrary. And I’ve always felt I’m playing the long game.
AA: More generally, what are your thoughts on mainstream/traditional publishing and the kinds of books that are being rejected now? I’m thinking in particular I suppose of Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’, which was rejected by numerous publishers over many years before eventually being published by Galley Beggar Press and then winning the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, among other awards.
NC: I suspect that was due to its experimental nature. But I have no idea what books are being rejected now. How would I?
Mainstream traditional publishing is focused on making money. I mean, Ronnie O’Sullivan? I love watching him play snooker but I won’t be going out to buy his novel. It is like all these novels published by celebs. Clearly those books can be marketed more easily. That’s obvious.
AA: I suppose, when I say about mainstream publishers and the kinds of books being rejected now, I mean that books such as McBride’s are now being taken up by smaller presses like Galley Beggar and Salt. Have you any thoughts on that and the smaller presses taking on those books which may be less easy to pigeonhole (and therefore, market)?
NC: I think small publishers are a godsend. They are a place for art as well as commerce.
AA: Do you think rejection might serve an important function, as in it weeds out those who may not be cut out for a writing life?
NC: Yes. I really think that if you can’t take rejection, you better do something else. Not acting though, that must be worse. They say it to your face.
AA: Has rejection ever made you doubt yourself so much that you’ve considered giving up writing?
NC: Fuck no.
AA: Should writers experiencing rejection see it as a badge of honour rather than a sign of failure?
NC: It isn’t a sign of failure if the work is up to scratch. It is about finding the right place for it. But rather than piling up the rejections it might be better to stop sending stuff out for a while. And wash your pants.
I’ve just found Broken Dolls in a box of old books and re-read some of the stories. I really enjoy Neil Campbell’s work and, after Googling him to see what he’s up to, I’m really pleased to find out that he’s still writing. I will definitely buy his new novel shortly. Enjoyed the interview. A sincere and talented writer who is vastly underrated.
Neil Campbell’s straight talking about rejection has cheered me up no end! His comments about researching magazines and how he used to take rejection personally is something we all recognise plus his acknowledgement that sometimes his work just wasn’t good enough. His confidence and belief in his work gave me confidence too. Thanks.