So I said like
‘How many people have you slept with?’
And he said like one
And I said like who
And he said like YOU!
And I said
That’s the conversation I overheard on the train home, after running a workshop with novelist David Calcutt. I texted him and by the time I got off the train, we had invented Bugged.
The idea was this: writers all over the UK would go forth and eavesdrop on July 1st. They then had six weeks to submit a piece of writing – poetry, short story, script – based on their overhearings. David and I had a further eight weeks to select the best, make them into a book and launch it at literature festivals in Manchester and Birmingham.
No agenda: no Arts Council evaluation, no community cohesion remit, no obligation to write about recycling or social inclusion. No fee for entering, ergo no prize money. We did it, dear reader, for fun and not for funding.
And fun it was. Bugged gave writers at all levels a shared mission and a virtual meeting place. Overheard comments are not of the writer’s choosing, so we were led into new subjects and forms. I wrote my first ever short story. Stuart Maconie, broadcaster and doyen of non-fiction, sent us a long poem. In an act of supreme dedication to her craft, Jenn Ashworth wrote from the maternity hospital where she was about to give birth. Work came in from Ian Duhig, Alison Brackenbury, Roz Goddard. Who would make it into the book? We mused. We discussed (see photo for proof).
In creative terms, our aim was to connect the stratosphere with the earth-dwellers. There are those who regularly enter competitions or submit to journals like Magma: and there are those who share their competence, but not their confidence. These writers stay in the shadows, not through a lack of talent but a lack of aspiration. We aimed to combine a friendly, approachable tone with a ruthless standard of editing – a democratic project with a meritocratic output.
Apart from the book itself, no trees were harmed in the making of Bugged. We recruited by email, by social networks: we added a line to our email signatures. The book is published via print-on-demand (POD), a technology often reserved for self-publishing egomaniacs. Professionally designed and edited, it is still cheap enough for a beginning writer to buy a handful of copies to sell at readings, and yet we won’t have a garage full of unsold copies. POD has shortcomings too. Our book will not be marketed through a publishing house, but by the best efforts of its 54 contributors. It will not be sent to Waterstones on a sale-or-return basis, but ordered copy by copy: and the special-edition version, for sale at the two launches, is superior to the standard POD version available on or Completely Novel.
We’re proud of our book and its content. A UK-wide community of writers was galvanised around a single happening; they had a ball and generated some great new writing. The book looks wonderful and we think it’s a good read. It’s a great model, too, of how to produce a fine book cheaply, and raise the profile of unknown writers by association with well-known names and discerning editors. We have another project twinkling in our eye… watch this space.
Jo Bell is Director of National Poetry Day. Her website is http://www.bell-jar.co.uk.