Sophie Grigson’s kitchen

Sophie Grigson
Sophie Grigson portrait by Mark Fairhurst.

She’s a self-confessed cook rather than a chef and champions local food production.

Sophie Grigson explains what’s going on in her kitchen.

COOK Sophie Grigson has a personal sense of style more in keeping with an Eighties pop star than a chef. With her spiky haircut, dangly earrings and elfin features she could so easily have bagged a record deal or presented the cult programme The Tube during that era, you can’t help but feel as you talk to her.
Her lovely Oxfordshire farmhouse also has a slightly whacky feel. There’s the new dog, Ben, recently adopted, who currently has to be kept in one side of it while the cat, Spice, rather put out by the usurper, has taken refuge in the kitchen. The door between Ben’s and Spice’s territories remains firmly closed and it’s not clear, if it came to a bun fight, which pet would come off the victor.

Sophie is all smiles, welcome and hand waves, excusing the chaos and ushering me into the most obvious room for this interview the kitchen – or rather, Spice’s space.
It’s just the kind of kitchen you would expect Sophie to have. Not for her the pristine pans gleaming on a rack beside polished granite work surfaces. Instead, it’s a used, lived in, experimented in, sat in, chatted in creative kitchen. It was hand built by a local joiner and has a range down one end, while jars, bottles and packets line shelves all over the walls. The windows frame views over the valley beyond and the sills are packed with kitchen paraphernalia, including a stylish hand-juicer, which, I note, has dust all over it.
“I take it that’s not used much,” I venture.
Sophie, busy creating coffee for us, is unabashed as she replies that it looks good, which is why it won its place in her kitchen.
Sophie herself has lived an interesting life. Her late mother Jane Grigson was a highly acclaimed author, translator and one of the pioneers of the Sixties culinary revolution and her father Geoffrey Grigson was a poet and critic. Hardly surprisingly, Sophie has a string of books to her name and is a regular contributor to Waitrose Magazine. Easy to talk to and passionate about food, she regularly pops up on hit TV cookery shows and spent the run-up to Christmas cooking in Sri Lanka. She was one of the judges of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme Food and Farming awards and uses her not inconsiderable influence and profile to champion local food producers, farmers’ markets and small food-related businesses. Indeed, it was at a local food producers’ festival that I first met her.

Such a good cooking pedigree

With so many strings to her bow, so many demands on her time, so many accomplishments and such a good cooking pedigree, it’s refreshing, if a little surprising, to her that she was slightly daunted on her Sri Lankan trip to discover she was cooking for around 50 guests.
“I’m a cook, not a chef,” she says, adding in the same breath that she really enjoyed the experience. “It made me realise how hard chefs work every day, especially in that heat. In the course of preparation we had several power cuts, the fuse box went up in flames and not all the staff spoke English – but we got it done on time and it was a really good evening,” she says.
I ask her if her children can cook and she assures me that they can, a bit, though se reveals that they think what Mum does is a bit boring.
“They can both cook their favourite dishes,” she says. Favourite means a Thai coconut vegetable and fish noodle soup and pasta with tomato sauce. They’ve also been known to supply peanut butter brownies to local fundraising markets.
“They get the idea and that’s good,” says Sophie.

“It’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use.”

Living with one foot in Oxford and the other in the countryside, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sophie is so passionate about supporting local food producers and retailers.
“I think there are issues that we do need to address… I think it’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use,” she says.
“We are seeing a lot of changes in attitudes to food production. You can have a green hotel, for example, without compromising on quality; in fact by raising your quality. Hotels and restaurants tapping into local food producers get lots of things, not just fresh produce. They can have more say and ask local people to make things for them” she says. And there are so many human interest stories behind the food we eat.”

Community and rapport

Sophie is keen that we should be aware of what is available at farmers’ markets and in farm shops. She also points out that shopping regularly that way establishes a sense of community and rapport between buyer and seller or producer.
Other cooks are also lending their weight and voices to highlighting the way we produce food – recent programmes with Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall about the lives of British-reared chickens have had an impact on supermarkets and customers.
“The demand for free range chickens has gone up, which is also good for British producers – it’s very exciting,” says Sophie, pointing out that the ultimate aim was to improve the way that chickens were raised.
“Good for Channel 4 for being brave enough to do that. When I first started appearing on television programmes 15 or 16 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that sort of thing,” she says.
Sophie would like to do a series on meat and follow the progress and lives of beef cattle, because she feels that if we are going to eat meat we should know the process of getting it on to our plates.
“I love meat, as long as I know it has had a good life,” she says.
So, food apart, how does Sophie spend her time?
“I do a lot with the children. I like reading novels. I’ve been reading a Barbara Trapido book – I really enjoy her novels. I had this strange experience of sitting in bed one night, reading one of her books and there was my name. It was a conversation someone was having – it felt lovely!” says Sophie, adding that she has been a volunteer at Oxford Literary Festival. She enjoys amateur dramatics, recently playing the fairy godmother in her local village panto and taking part in the The Vagina Monologues in Abingdon.
Sophie makes regular visits to France and loves the way the French have remained so connected to their food production. She would like to travel more, especially if she could combine her journeys with discovering food. She was enchanted by Sri Lanka and would like to travel through South America.

“One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”

“I’d love to take six months out and go from top to bottom, or the other way round,” says Sophie. “One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”
It’s a language that Sophie has proved fluent in and our local food producers are lucky to have such an eloquent and dedicated champion for their cause. She’s not just another personality dreaming up recipes in the kitchen. Sophie’s choice to be hands-on in the food world is Oxfordshire’s – and the nation’s – gain.

This interview first appeared in Oxfordshire Life magazine on June 2008 under my former name, Sandra Fraser. ©SandraKessell
Image ©Mark Fairhurst

The Story Museum in Oxford takes on a new lease of life.

ImageLast week I took my un-literary medic daughter and her friend for a tour of the Story Museum in Oxford. We arrived in true la-la fashion – in the maze of Oxford I couldn’t actually remember where Pembroke Street was, though I knew what it looked like – and after admiring the doorbells (see above), the work of resident artist Ted Dewan, we entered the magic kingdom of fiction, make-believe and all things creative.

It’s not that my daughter doesn’t read, she reads a lot, but her taste runs mostly to medical text books – she also has a medics’ anatomy colouring-in book, but that’s another story. She looks at me as if I’m a little odd when I rhapsodise about fiction. I suppose we need doctors as well as writers.

The Story Museum has found a home in Rochester House, supposedly built on the site of an inn frequented by Samuel Johnson when he was at Pembroke College (you can tell the stories here are going to run and run). It has served as Master’s lodgings and a Royal Mail, for which read GPO if you’re as old or older than I am, sorting office. Behind the main front door is another front door, with a sliding hatch and a circular counter, ideal for popping a head out of, if anyone felt so inclined. Everything about the house is “Just right” as Golidlocks might have said. There are stairs winding endlessly up to proper untouched writers’ garrets in the top of the house, creaky floorboards, wacky blackboards and odd signs on doors – which writer in residence Michael Rosen is keen to keep.

“Only dragons are allowed to smoke in the courtyard” proclaims one notice as we step into the world beyond the main Victorian building to a series of 1930s warehouse-like offices and rooms which flank all sides. One can feel (if one’s not a medic) oneself being pulled into the world of make-believe as posters and card-board cut-outs from the city’s last Alice Day stare out of windows.

“Who or what made the huge holes in the walls?” I ask Cath Nightingale, the museum’s press officer, imagining giant masonry-eating rodents still living in the corridors and roof spaces. The answer is much less poetic. Before taking on the lease, the Story Museum had to be sure the building wasn’t about to fall down and it’s structural engineers’ tests of the steel within the walls that have rendered the plaster and brickwork somewhat patchy here and there.

A very generous anonymous donor put up the £2.5 million necessary to buy a 130-year lease from Merton College and suddenly, along with a vast quantity of pigeon guano, a set of keys that would have impressed a Victorian chatelaine was handed over. Other effects have been found in the building and put to good use by avid collector, inventor and artist Ted Dewan, who has set up a workshop full of the kind of things you’d forgotten existed.

A programme of clean-ups and running repairs has been started to restore the buildings to some kind of new life after the years of neglect and decay. Some parts remain appropriately spooky, others, cosy, warm and inviting. Some have an airy spaciousness, others have a dark intimacy. The Bodleian Library’s presses have found a home here, and print workshops are already being run on site. The Creation Theatre is using the space for rehearsals, prior to its next season.

With little twists of creativity and running commentaries from visiting writers present at every turn, the building is not only a receptacle of fiction but a giver of stories and ideas to its visitors. If it inspires a new generation of authors to rival Philip Pullman, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll the money spent on the building will be an investment. If it offers children a run of imagination and riot of fancy in a world populated by exams, hoops to jump through and prescribed teaching, who cares whether they go on to be writers or doctors? As long as they let their parents accompany them, everyone will gain.

The Story Museum is scheduled to open fully in 2014. You can find more about it and the building programme here http://www.storymuseum.org.uk/the-story-museum/aboutus/ourbuilding/Rochester-House

Who or what is stopping you from writing?

It’s been a long January and now we’re well into February, with bees clearing out winter nests and snowdrops and miniature irises appearing under the trees, everything feels more spring-like. Post-Christmas finances, the grim weather and a lack of daylight all conspired to make staying at home in front of a fire seem a good thing. It’s not only nature that is stirring into new life now. In the last two weeks several unsought commissions have been dropping into my in-box. It’s encouraging to get paid for something you like doing, something you spent three years training to do, and it’s an ego boost if an editor seeks you out to do it and puts money into your bank account as a result. Even after 25 years earning a living from writing I never cease to be surprised that people read, and appear to like, what I produce. Shutting oneself away behind a laptop screen doesn’t feed one’s soul, however. I live in a lovely place – it’s quiet, a rural idyll that’s not too far-flung, where few disturb my thoughts. My very artistic husband, occasionally, will ask if I’d like another coffee or remind me we’ve not stopped for lunch. It ought to be a writer’s heaven – indeed, it would be the ideal location for a writer’s retreat and it’s very useful for my day job – but is it inspiring imaginative fiction and does it make me think about who I’m writing for?

It’s not a thought that’s new to me, but perhaps I’ve not really acknowledged the nagging feeling at the back of my brain. In order to spark plots and provoke daydreams I need a chance to observe (slyly) the goings-on of unknown passers-by and a reminder that there are people out there who read. Essentially nosy, I like to snatch snippets from the everyday lives of urban folk. My creative cogs start turning as I stand on a station platform, or wait at a pelican crossing. Here are characters to write about – here’s an audience to write for. So yesterday, as I drove up St Giles in Oxford, past The Eagle and Child – literary second home to the Inklings, whose number included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, I was already feeling the clank of creaking thought on rusty imagination. Once I’d parked and started walking along the street, I ear-wigged other people’s conversations (what a wonderful invention the mobile phone is – half an exchange of dialogue delivered in a public space – leaving the other half to be imagined). The population of Oxford is a quirky mix of foreign visitor, eccentric don, too-young student, elderly blue-stocking, yummy cycling mummy, serious scholar, earnest curator, muscular sportsman and terribly thin artist. The clothing that they wear, or affect to wear, includes silk scarf wrapped around canvas bag, brown boot, tan brogue, crepe de chine skirt, Converse trainer, tweed suit, red hat and black gown.

Of course, it would jolt anyone back into a creative phase if the person they were meeting for a mid-week lunch happened to be artist and novelist Roma Tearne – a one-woman walking wake-up call, whose output includes books, videos, paintings and lectures on the literary circuit. While we’re sharing a platter in the roof-top restaurant at The Ashmolean exchanging gossip, catching-up on several months’ news and speculating on who is doing what with whom and why they’re meeting, the grey skies are forgotten, the rain is elevated to a water feature on the outdoor terrace as it imparts a sheen on the sodden tables and chairs and gushes through gargoyles’ mouths. Apart from a trip to sunnier climes, is there any better way to shake off the winter blues? A descent through the atrium stairwell into the new galleries, glancing at the beckoning treasures of the world brings stories to mind. Who could fail to be inspired?

Afterwards, I drove home to the humdrum, past the girls from St Edward’s School in their unfashionably long skirts, overtaking a Tesco lorry and postal van to dutifully perform the school pick-up before the routine of supper, homework, music practice, bed. Cyril Connolly’s “pram in the hall” is often cited as an excuse for a lack of creativity. His quotable quotes survive him, however, and in common with many male writers, he had wives who got on with the child-rearing and housekeeping, leaving him free to earn a living in whatever way he chose, or was able, to. I don’t believe the pram is the only barrier to getting out of the door, or that children are the thieves of time; what really stifles, constrains and contracts our thoughts is the lack of opportunity to connect with the outside world. The rushed journey into the office (or the dash downstairs to the desk), the need to earn a living, the whizz around the supermarket, each push wordplay – or in my husband’s case, painting – towards the bottom of the priority pile. If wordplay and painting were always at the top, the children would go unfed, the house would be filthy, there would be nothing in the bank account (ever) and I’d probably sink into a routine of writing in an exercise book with a pencil (there being no money to pay for electricity to charge my MacBook), while my husband would be re-using old canvasses to get his creative fix. But there’s a balance to be struck. Would I write if I didn’t think I had an audience? Probably. Would I get satisfaction from it? Possibly not. Do I need to earn a living? Yes. Is writing how I’ve done it for 25 years? Yes. Am I lucky that my day job dovetails nicely with my aspirations? Um – yes.

Yesterday’s trip to Oxford was a wake-up call. I need to unplug my i-Pod, open my eyes and dust off my notebook. Switch off the internet, drink my latte and get creative. The only person stopping me writing fiction is myself.

Welcome

Sandra Kessell ©Paul Wilkinson Photography LtdWelcome to my blog. It’s an informal collection of thoughts, visits, experiences and features. Sometimes I will include a review of a place or event I’ve been invited to preview, but most of what is here has been published in magazines and books.

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You can also find articles on my old WordPress site under my previous name, Sandra Fraser. I also have a professional site at sandrakessell.co.uk and a professional CV profile on LinkedIn if you want to know more about my work and experience in depth.

Thank you for visiting, I hope you enjoy reading what I enjoy writing.

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Why not stop being a writer?

I’ve just put the phone down to a charity fundraiser asking me to increase to my monthly direct debit donation. Couched in cautious terms, the invitation to put my hand a little more deeply into my pocket was polite enough and he emphasised that he would also be trying to recruit new donors. Slightly sickened by my reluctant self, I felt I had to say no. I didn’t want to explain further or try to justify my refusal, but it’s not the only charity I make a monthly donation to and I further support this particular cause by buying most of my Christmas presents through a gift scheme, by giving its shops unwanted presents and unused household items and by putting the odd fiver into a rattled (yes, I know they’re not supposed to be) collecting tin. I also have my seasonal favourites – October is Breast Cancer month, for example and a Red Nose Day doesn’t pass without more money leaving my bank account.

If I’m writing about this to salve my conscience, I can also think of a hundred reasons why I should have said yes, rather than no, to the request. I could stop some of my other outgoings, I’m not starving, nor do I live in a garret, but the truth is, since being made redundant last year, I’ve not exactly been rolling in cash either. I feel a curmudgeon for not ticking the metaphorical yes box, but the telephone call came immediately after I’d e-mailed a features editor asking if she had any freelance work going. I still get delicious commissions out of the blue from those who know and like my work, but also get editors offering to “pay my expenses” rather than pay me a fee. If only we could live on air and my children didn’t need shoes I could write for nowt but the love of putting words on screen and seeing them in print. I could give it all up and go out to clean other people’s houses, or get a job in a supermarket, I suppose; I could make a career change and retrain for something more lucrative, like teaching perhaps, but writing is what I do, it’s how I’ve earned a living, in between and around having children, for 25 years; it’s what I love and what I know, it’s just there’s not much money in the job at the moment.

On Twitter today a former colleague rued the end of another journalistic career through burnout, another dream that has ended in frustration. Since giving the charity canvasser the brush-off, I’ve spent the last half-hour pondering the fate of the journo. Our profession has never been particularly liked, but my long-standing retort to those complaining about inaccurate stories and made-up quotes has been to suggest they should switch to a more reliable source of news and information if they want to believe what they read. My friends and colleagues in the business would no more make up copy than they would serve their children a deadly nightshade salad. Our newsroom mantra was “Accuracy Above All” and we worked very hard to maintain integrity and fairness besides every day. We were never allowed to express opinion in our reporting, saving comment for our column, if we were lucky enough to have one. On a well-known local daily newspaper with a readership estimated at 250,000 at the time I was a staffer, serving a community your editor had to live in, reporting untruths and half-truths would have been a sure way of being drummed, unicorn-like, out of the city. My job couldn’t be compared with working on a national tabloid, where slap-dash reporters could get away with phone-tapping and careless editors could hide, ignorant, inside huge office buildings, safe in the knowledge their readers would never meet them, much less could afford to sue them.

What has changed recently is the amount of advertising and copy sales revenue newspapers and magazines generate and the number of feature writers looking for work in a shrinking print market. One side of the scales has dipped, while the other has risen. Besides all the old hacks of my acquaintance ready to turn out polished prose, there are hundreds of youngsters fresh from “Media Studies” courses prepared to work as interns – ie, as free labour. Blogs and online publications abound and every third website I visit seems to flash out the question “Why not be a writer?” to which the answer must surely be – because there are too many of us, earning too little, in an already overcrowded market.

When I worked as a magazine editor I used to have a slush pile, added to daily, teetering with uncommissioned feature offerings. Rarely, I would make time to take a look at these submissions. Occasionally I would find a gem – a gardening writer who, Mary Poppins-like, was practically perfect in every way, but more often than not I would wish I’d made time for another cup of coffee instead. I’ll never forget trying to explain, politely, to an apoplectic interiors writer, (who was married, at the time, to a famous novelist and columnist), why I wouldn’t be commissioning him in the future. His copy took three subbing sessions to knock into readable shape and in an office with few staff, where everyone worked long hours, it wasn’t worth the effort, despite his stellar connections. Instead I started using someone less flashy and more reliable –  a policy I never regretted. I had a “possibles” pile – people I could have used, if my sales staff doubled their advertising revenue on a regular basis or if a supplementary magazine was being launched. Only rarely could I try them out or offer them work – sometimes being picked for publication really is down to timing and luck, not just ability and contacts.

It drives my husband to distraction that some of the commissions I accept undervalue my writing skills to an almost derisory level. I get paid the same amount now as I earned 20 years ago. Why am I a writer? I’ve been asking myself that of late as yet another editor tells me they are having to pay their freelancers from a tiny budget that includes their own salary. In other words, the more they write for their publication themselves, the more money they get to keep. Since they’re already acting as features editor, flat plan editor, commissioning and copy editor as well as sub I can’t help wondering if next they’ll be hand-cranking the presses in a bid to save on printing costs.

All that written, however, I’ve recently re-worded my e-mail signature to include the word “journalist” to show that I am a professional, rather than an amateur, wordsmith. It took three years and a series of exams to gain that professionally recognised “senior” status, so I ought to be proud of the title, I’ve decided. At the same time, besides all the experience I have under my belt, I’m attempting to write a novel and so find myself back in the realms of the wannabe. I hope I can earn enough to survive on, between my factual writing, and any fiction that finally gets published. I don’t expect to generate J.K. Rowling-like returns from my penmanship, though I promise, if I did, I too would donate large amounts to charity, rather than the paltry sums I eke out of my present income.

Why did I become a writer? I write because, besides reading and looking after my children and, occasionally, my husband, that is what I do. It’s what I have done since I was a small child, old enough to scribble in my books and deface the frontispiece. Why not stop being a writer? Oh let me count the reasons…

Thoughts on writing, not writing

It’s almost a year since I was made redundant from my job as a magazine editor, but don’t cry for me, my dear reader, the truth is, I never loved it. It took several phone calls and a meeting to convince me to switch from freelance writing to taking up a red pen again and after a couple of months I found myself telling my bosses I was resigning, though I allowed myself to be persuaded to sit back down in my chair and give it another whirl. The 18 months I spent in the job reinforced something I already knew about myself, that I’m much happier dreaming up and creating articles than editing them and that I get a real buzz out of capturing someone’s essence and putting it into words, giving readers a glimpse into another life – oh and that I love seeing my byline on an article I’ve slaved over (and I slave over every one). I find the job of magazine editor akin to wearing a strait jacket while trying to trampoline – not impossible, but a bit tricky and much easier if you don’t have your hands tied behind your back by falling revenue and rising advertisers’ demands.

So, since May 2009, when my husband graciously offered to support me while I really put my mind to getting a novel published, my efforts have concentrated on shifting my axis, though I haven’t given up the day job of freelance journalism completely and I still love meeting and interviewing people however big or small their story. Entering the world of fiction writing isn’t a matter of sitting at your computer and issuing forth. You’ve got to work out what you want to say, make it coherent and interesting and then, the big ask, get it looked at. As anyone who has ever submitted their beloved manuscript to a series of agents will know, this last is a heart-in-mouth process and the point I am at, currently, after I found myself the subject of a pincer movement between the BBC’s George Alagiah and my husband, who were talking to a literary agent at an Oxford Literary Festival event last month, while I went in search of an orange juice. Before I knew it, on my return, I was being quizzed by the three of them, and though the result was what I’d been hoping for, an invitation to send what I’ve written to the agency, I was most uncomfortable selling myself and became very hot and flustered in the process. I’ve stood and fronted magazine events before an audience of hundreds, I’ve written for readerships of tens of thousands, but there’s nothing quite like being put on the spot about yourself.

So here are some of the things I’ve learned in the last 12 months. It’s no use bleating that the bookshelves are punctuated with celebrity dross not worthy of comparison with your own precious offering if you’re not prepared to back it up. Getting your work into a bookshop is as much about what else you’re selling as how well you can write. Start looking for ways of sticking your toe through the door as a first mission I’d advise, in parallel to finishing your manuscript, because you obviously you can’t say you’re a novelist if you don’t deliver 100,000 words. And don’t forget what getting a book published really means – that you want other people to sell it on your behalf and the reading public to buy and enjoy what you’ve written.

My voyage of discovery in this new sphere continues. I’ve learned that there are days when I’d rather clean out the chicken house than do the thing I’m supposed to love, ie writing; that perspiration is 99 per cent of the job (and I’m not sure genius comes into my inspiration, Mr Edison); that I’m not by any means the world’s next Dickens or A.S Byatt, but I do want people to get a buzz from reading my book, or books if I’m lucky enough to make it as a bona fide novelist; that there are hundreds if not thousands of people just like me, all waving their manuscripts madly; that I have to find a way to the top of the agent’s pile, especially given that he or she is likely to have another 50 brown envelopes that week to trawl through. And lastly, that I have to sell, sell, sell myself and my skills.

To look at it from another point of view, an agent has to make a living from my book too, and I’m asking him or her to stake his or her literary reputation on it to sell it to a publisher, after which, booksellers need to like it, and the reading public have to want to pay hard-earned cash for it. I’m realising the enormity of what I’m trying to do here.

If you’re an aspiring writer, your ego might be bigger than mine: you might think you’re brilliant, your lover might tell you he or she is your number one fan, your adoring mother might pledge to buy a copy – well here’s the bad news, that’s only two sales… From where I’m sitting, no longer in the editor’s chair, I can see that half an agent’s job is to discover the zeitgeist and source what’s in season, not this year, but next and the year after – which is why they’re all at the London Book Fair this week. I was due to be there too, along with another aspiring novelist and friend, who has published many successful business books but wants to switch her focus to fiction. She’s been an inspiration, giving me confidence and telling me to wear any rejection slips as badges of honour. However, she finds herself taking the long route home from Denmark and was last heard of in France, no thanks to all UK airports being closed by volcanic ash. As a result we’ve decided to postpone our 2010 fact-finding mission.

Next week brings me new excitement. I’m going to be observing and writing about novelist and artist Roma Tearne’s residency at Blackwell Bookshops in Oxford, something born out of a recent interview I did with her. It promises to be a rollercoaster of a ride with Roma at the helm, since she really is a one-woman dynamo. I’m not sure what she eats for breakfast, but I think I’ll start on the same regime. My thoughts will be posted on Blackwell’s blog throughout the next fortnight and I’ll be linking my blog to the Blackwell site just as soon as it’s up and running.

In the meantime, wish me luck as I plunge on into the unknown and await the agent’s verdict on my manuscript – my fingernails are down to the quick.

I should add that I contributed to a book that came out this month – not fiction but food. Here’s the link to the publisher punkpublishing

Taste Britain