Interview with Caroline Oakley of Honno Press: Supporting Welsh Women’s Writing

Photo of Aberystwyth from the Top of Constitution Hill

Aberystwyth from the Top of Constitution Hill

In this interview with Caroline Oakley, we learn about how Honno, the only Welsh women’s press, has succeeded in publishing a continual stream of titles by women over the last thirty years. Caroline, whose career in publishing has included work with Ian Rankin, Michael Moorcock, Tricia Sullivan and Thorne Moore, also provides some insight into how Honno works with its writers.

Laurie: I’m delighted to be able to feature the only Welsh women’s press in the UK and (I think) one of only two independent women’s presses in the UK in this interview series. Could you tell us a bit about your mission?

Caroline: Honno’s mission is to provide publishing opportunities for women writers living or born in Wales and to provide a place to work in publishing for Welsh women. To date we have published a range of contemporary fiction from literary novels to thrillers (winning awards from the Wales Book of the Year to a Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year nomination) alongside a list of reprinted classic works of Welsh women’s writing in English and Welsh republished with scholarly introductions from female academics (helping bring forgotten writers to life again and boosting the careers of Welsh women working in academia). The press has gone from a small group of volunteers to employing a staff of four employees and has secured ongoing revenue funding from the Welsh Books Council to ensure its survival.

Laurie: You must be so proud to have celebrated Honno’s 30th anniversary last year. It bodes well for interest in women’s writing in the UK! I wonder if you could tell us a bit about why you think the press has succeeded when so many independent publishers don’t make it for the long haul.

Caroline: Honno survives thanks to support from a range of sources…the readers who buy its books, government support through the Welsh Books Council, supportive distributors and booksellers, Honno Friends who support its work physically and financially, and the Honno shareholders who funded its first books through their contributions. I think Honno also benefits from having a wide range of titles available from the literary to the popular – we have something for everyone – female, male, looking for a leisurely and entertaining contemporary read or a challenging adventure into the past. Working cooperatively as staff and volunteer management committee allows us to put time and effort into the books and into mentoring and supporting the next generation of women writers, as well as managing our limited resources cleverly and effectively – we have a wide range of experience within and outside Wales to draw on which helps keep us up-to-date, efficient and agile, as well as enabling us to react quickly to market and industry changes.

Laurie: I always want to know how projects that support women writers use the online world. Has online publishing, community-building or marketing played a special role in Honno’s success? Is there anything that’s worked particularly well for you or that you’d like to do more of?

Caroline: Although as a very small press our time is limited we do use Twitter and Facebook to try and engage with readers and publicise what we do and have recently set up a Youtube channel which we are working to expand on with more output. We also have a dedicated Honno Authors Facebook group. Several of the Honno authors were already doing a lot of networking and supporting each other’s work, so we wanted to facilitate this. They have regular meet ups, advise each other on their areas of expertise – social media, speaking at events, writing articles etc. and have formed a really positive community.

Laurie: Could you tell us about your approach when selecting and working with authors? My sense is that working with an independent women’s press would have a very different feel from working with a mainstream press. I’d love to know if my hunch were correct?

Caroline: I’ve worked for both sorts of organisation and there are pros and cons in both… What I enjoy most about editing for Honno is that I can pick someone out of the slush pile, work with them for weeks, months or sometimes even years, on their writing and see them go from having a good idea not particularly skilfully honed to having a book in the Bookseller’s top ten, on the shelves at Waterstones, or in their local station’s WHS. We offer meet-the-editor sessions where I meet with up to ten writers in a day, chatting for twenty minutes about a sample of script they’ve submitted. It gives me a good idea of whether we can work together and whether the writer has more than one book in them – whether they have the skills and talent for the long haul. We also run workshops on specific writing skills from marketing your own work to writing great beginnings or writing SF and Fantasy.

Laurie: Not sure if this will be a tough question or an easy one: in Honno’s thirty years of publishing, what are the three most memorable Honno titles?

Caroline: I can only answer this from my personal point of view! Each woman at Honno would probably have their own most memorable and, obviously, I love all the titles we publish – you have to love a book to publish it effectively. The first for me would probably be Kitty Sewell’s Ice Trap, which was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and won the Reader’s Award at the Wales Book of the Year in my first year at Honno; the second Caroline Ross’s The War Before Mine – we normally ask for the first fifty pages of a script but this one came in on email and I just kept having to print out the next fifty and the next fifty! Thirdly, Jasmine Donahaye’s biography of Welsh Jewish writer Lily Tobias, The Greatest Need, which opened my eyes to aspects of recent history that I was unaware of in a very engaging and novelistic way (I opted out of history very early on at school thanks to the three-field system). It was Honno’s first commissioned biography and I’d love to see it more widely read. And the fourth, for our fourth decade just beginning(!) would be Sweets from Morocco – Jo Verity writes brilliantly characterised novels about otherwise unremarkable lives which have been turned on their heads by random acts of fate. In this one a brother and sister’s lives are dictated by the birth and disappearance of an unwanted baby brother, a stone in the pond of their existence that sends ripples right through to late middle age.

Laurie: I am an enormous fan of historical fiction, usually of the more literary variety. What should I read from Honno’s list?

Caroline: Probably nearest to your spec would be a selection from the Welsh Women’s Classics imprint – L M Spooner’s Gladys of Harlech is set during the War of the Roses and covers the entanglement of Welsh and English political rivalries in the context of one woman’s life and loves; Hilda Vaughan’s The Soldier and the Gentlewoman discusses women’s relationships with property, tradition and inheritance in the aftermath of the Great War; and Lily Tobias’ My Mother’s House examines what it means to have faith, to feel like a foreigner in your own country and to yourself, and to find a homeland.

Laurie: What’s next for Honno? Do you have any new projects or upcoming titles you want to tell us about?

Caroline: We’ve got an exciting spring programme of fiction titles: the second risque but brilliant novel from Crystal Jeans, Lightswitches Are My Kryptonite: a tragi-comic novel about a damaged young man and his journey to enlightenment; Not Thomas, the first adult novel from award winning children’s author Wendy White/Sara Gethin – told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy living in the shadow of drug addiction and debut novel The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis – a haunting story of motherlove, loss and women betrayed by their menfolk.

Photo Credit

Aberystwyth from the Top of Constitution Hill by Elizabeth Ellis. Reproduced under a CC license.