Ballad Tales: An Anthology of British Ballads Retold emerged out of my PhD research into folk music. The idea came to me while walking Offa’s Dyke long distance footpath last year. As I sang to make the miles a little easier I reflected upon the fascinating stories that ballads often contain. My novel project interweaves and dramatizes some key supernatural ballads of the Scottish Borders, and I’ve revelled in contemporizing them, twisting their plots, motifs and sexual politics in unexpected ways. I thought of all the many other ballads this could be done with, and the many talented writers I know ... Imagine an anthology of such voices ... And so I pitched it to the commissioning editor of The History Press. Having written a couple of a monographs for them already (Oxfordshire Folk Tales; Northamptonshire Folk Tales) and having been a contributor to another (An Anthology of English Folk Tales) she knew I could deliver the goods.
Getting a book or two under your belt gives you a little leverage when pitching, paving the way for future projects. It's Catch 22 if you haven’t had anything published yet, I know, but persistence does pay off – combined with seeing a gap in the market and being the one to fill it. You have to qualify yourself for your job, and, in your pitch, write your own job proposal. What do you want to spend a year or two of your life putting energy into? Can you stay the distance? Pulling together twenty-one contributors was, to a certain extent, fun – it was like being patchless Nick Fury, cherry-picking my very own Avengers. However, when it came to getting such an eclectic, creative bunch to meet deadlines, comply to word counts and formats, accept editorial suggestions, and the other countless, demanding minutiae of a book project – it was like herding cats. Yet, receiving each first draft of a story was like opening a Christmas present early. Beyond choosing a traditional British ballad I gave the contributors (all writers and musicians I know, have seen or heard and been impressed by at some point) carte blanche. This paid off time and time again as they first selected, then created genre-bending re-imaginings of ballads. Some went with the grain of the ballad, some against – changing the setting, genders, morality or ending.
I invited a Stroud-based printmaker who draws inspiration from broadside ballads to do the cover, while I illustrated each of the ballads within the text, drawing upon my Fine Art background. Choosing a motif to depict was a real pleasure, as I went for a metonymic approach – the telling detail. So, slowly, it all came together over the autumn and winter. The really exciting moment was when I was shown the cover by the artist, Andy Kinnear. A large print of it hangs by my desk – a reminder of what can be achieved when you have a good idea. And so now, the book’s due date is imminent – the 8th June – with a launch showcase planned for the 9th here in Stroud (that I’ve had to organize: booking the venue, arranging publicity, planning the running order, the drinks, the bookstall, the stock...). It’s important to wet the baby’s head – to celebrate an achievement, and I’ll be doing this with my fellow balladeers while I M.C. the evening. In the last week the proof copy has been scrutinized and signed off – and it’s gone to print. My book is on the way. And now the next marathon begins, in promoting it, getting it reviewed, and ensuring it is noticed, it sells, and it creates the opportunity for the next one, for there are plenty more ballad tales left to tell.
Ballad Tales is published by The History Press (8-6-2017)
Kevan Manwaring is a prize-winning writer and storyteller based in Stroud. He is the author of Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, The Bardic Handbook, Desiring Dragons, and a contributor to English Folk Tales. A founder member of Fire Springs, and one-time host of the Bath Storytelling Circle, he set up and MCs Stroud Out Loud! – a monthly open mic event. Since 2014 he has been undertaking a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester dramatising his research into folk and fairy traditions of the Scottish Borders.