Interview: Jen Campbell

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Jen Campbell, author of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops
Jen Campbell is a graduate of the prestigious Edinburgh University where she studied English. During her time in Scotland she worked in The Edinburgh Bookshop, but now resides in London where she writes poetry and works in Ripping Yarns, an antiquarian bookshop.

Campbell's first book, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, is a collection of amusing anecdotes collected during her years as a bookseller. She is also a published poet and short story writer. Her first poetry collection, The Hungry Ghost Festival, will be published later this year by The Rialto. Weird Things grew from a few posts on Jen's blog, which caught the attention of some influential people. 

You can read my review here: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell.

What first inspired you to start jotting down amusing customer queries and posting them on your blog?

I first started writing them down when I was working at The Edinburgh Bookshop. I was working there part time when I was doing my degree. Someone had come into the bookshop and asked us if Anne Frank had ever written a sequel to her diary, because they'd liked it so much. That was a rather large WTF moment. After that, every so often I'd make a record of the weird things that had been said. Then, when I graduated, I moved to London and started working at Ripping Yarns bookshop – an antiquarian bookshop in North London – and after a particularly strange day at the shop, during which a customer had asked if I was sure that the place really was a bookshop, I started putting some of the quotes up on my blog.

How did the leap from blog to publication come about?

Twitter had a large part to play. When I started putting the blog posts up, people were Tweeting the links to the blog posts – bookshops, publishing companies, journalists. The first blog post went up in May 2011, the second in June 2011. The second attracted the attention of Neil Gaiman. He tweeted about my blog, and then blogged about it, too. Naturally, as he has a massive following, this spread the word to a lot more people, including Hugh, who works at Constable and Robinson. Hugh called me at work, and said that he used to work at Ripping Yarns ten years ago and that he and his colleagues really liked the blog posts and would like me to think about making it into a book. Hugh and my agent had a chat, and the contract was signed – it all happened rather quickly!

Have any of the customers featured in the anecdotes got in touch either after reading your blog, or the book?

No, they haven't. We all say strange things sometimes [myself included!] but often we don't realise that we're saying them. I honestly don't think that the people in this book would recognise themselves.

Were there any queries that were just too bizarre or rude to include in the book or on your blog?

Yes. Sometimes I get rude/offensive comments about me personally, as I have a condition (EEC Syndrome) which means my hands look rather funny. Some of those were in a blog post but I chose not to include them in the book, as they weren't applicable to bookselling in general.

And this was a little too rude to go in the book:

MAN: (who had been pretending to browse the shelves for ten minutes, came up to the desk, smiling, carrying several books): I would very much like to take you out to dinner sometime.

ME: That's very nice of you, but I actually already have a boyfriend. Man (slamming his books down on the desk): Well... FUCK YOU, THEN, YOU BITCH. (storms out)

Oh dear!

Ouch, and of the ones included in the book, do you have a favourite?

Ah, that changes all the time. Here's one for now:

CUSTOMER: Do you have any of those books where you can change the names of the main character to the name of the person you're giving the book to? Do you have Alice in Wonderland, but not Alice; I'd like Sarah in Wonderland.

BOOKSELLER: I'm afraid you have to buy those from the publisher, as they're a print on demand service. Customer: Yeah, I don't really have time to do that. Do you have a copy of Alice? Then I can buy some Tipp-ex or something, and edit it.

Your book will definitely tickle a lot of booksellers up and down the country – but do you think there is still a place for independent bookshops on our high streets?

Absolutely. I wholeheartedly think that we need bookshops, and that we should continue to need them. I think that a lot of things have happened in the publishing industry to make people think that books are things that should be cheap. It’s easy to forget how many people have to be paid for one book: the writer, agents, editors, marketing people, designers, proof readers, illustrators, wholesalers, bookshops. Those bookshops in turn have to pay rent, business rates, their staff... the list just goes on.

I think we all know (because it makes sense) that if we don’t shop in bookshops then bookshops will close, but it seems (as with a lot of other things) we’re waiting for other people to rush to the rescue. That isn’t going to happen. If we want to keep bookshops then we have to support them.

How do booksellers compete with Internet sellers, and more importantly perhaps, the big supermarket chains?

We compete by interacting with the community. Bookshops offer customers the chance to meet authors and get writers into schools. They have book clubs. Booksellers work hard to recommend books to people, especially children; it's so lovely helping children pick out books and then have them come back time and time again, it's like watching them grow up via the books they read.

In countries like France and Germany, there is now legislation to help support small booksellers by subsidising rents, etc. Do you think a similar system, where independent booksellers are protected as an important part of the social and cultural landscape, would ever happen/work in Britain?

I'd like to think that something like this could work. What would be great is legislation to protect against massive discounting of books. However, I don't think it'll ever happen. Too many big organisations control the way the book industry works now. I think it would be a very difficult legislation to pass here.

Other than the bookshops featured in Weird Things, which are your favourite bookshops in Britain?

The Book Barge, Marchpane, Blackwell's in Oxford, to name just a few.

A lot of budding authors share their thoughts about writing through blogs. What advice would you give someone just starting out in the blogosphere?

Be yourself. Interact.

Did you see blogging as a route to publication, or was it a hobby that developed into a publishable idea?

Weird Things was never supposed to be a book – that was just a pleasant surprise. My blog was just a place where I talked about my poetry writing, and life at the bookshop.

Over the years that you’ve been writing your blog what been the best part of being a member of the blogging community?

The support I've had from people in the blogging world. It's a wonderfully friendly place.

Will you still be updating your blog with new 'weird things', or have you put that topic to rest for now?

I haven't put that topic to rest, but because of publication I won't be blogging about them (they now get added to a file on my computer). However, I blog about lots of other things: poetry, fiction, author interviews, book recommendations and bookshop spotlights.

As you mention, as well as collecting together all your bookselling anecdotes you also write a lot of poetry, with a collection published later this year with The Rialto, and poems in the current edition. Is poetry your first literary love?

Absolutely. Poetry is the genre I most enjoy writing, and the one I started writing first. I had my first poem published when I was eleven, and I have far too many poetry books in my house.

Where can we find your poetry at the moment?

You can find quite a bit in the four most recent broadsheets published by Agenda. Two poems of mine are in the most recent issues of The Rialto and Shearsman. You can also find my poem 'Miss Eliza's Skeleton Factory' over at The Prose Poem Project.

My first poetry collection, 'The Hungry Ghost Festival' will be published by The Rialto in their Bridge Pamphlet series later this year.

You’ve also raised some serious money through your poetry, tell us about the 100 poem challenge – what is it, what inspired you to do it, and how it felt to write 100 poems in a weekend!?

It was a great experience, but exhausting! Recently I found out because of my EEC Syndrome, it's likely that I'm going to lose my sight, so I wanted to do a fundraising event to raise money for EEC International, who fund medical research into EEC Syndrome. In the end, I decided to write 100 poems in a weekend (because I suck at running and baking!). I posted the poems over at my 100 poems blog as I wrote them, and people sponsored me. I was overwhelmed with the support the project got; I am completely indebted to the lovely people of the interwebs. Each poem was inspired by a tag word, and those tag words were sent over to me from people on Twitter. I then released the poems in a limited edition poetry pamphlet, too. In total the 100 Poem Challenge raised £4150.

Being surrounded by books every day must give you plenty of opportunity to discover new authors. Who are your all time favourites?

Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Philip Pullman, Haruki Murakami, Amelie Nothomb...

And, are there any new writers you’ve read recently who you are particularly excited about?

Liz Berry, Andrew Philip, Annabel Pitcher, Ryan Van Winkle, Cassandra Parkin...

What does the future hold?

The writing of a novel (cue scary music!). Events for Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops – those are linked down the left hand side of my blog. The release of The Hungry Ghost Festival poetry pamphlet later in the year. I'm also working on a full length poetry collection, at the moment called How to Weigh Nothing, examining 'freakishness' and the oddities of myths and fairy tales.

Favourite words, and why?

Skeleton, circus, onomatopoeia… I’m not sure why. I just like 'em.

Jen Campbell's Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops is available now in hardback at all good bookshops. To find out more about Jen visit her blog

Useful Links
Weird Things on Amazon (UK)
Weird Things on Amazon (US)
Jen Campbell's Blog
The 100 Poems Blog  
Jen Campbell on Twitter

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Review: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops (2012) is Jen Campbell's aptly named book about the odd and humourous enquiries received by booksellers up and down the land, but most particularly in The Edinburgh Bookshop, and Ripping Yarns... [Read More]

3 comments:

Petra said...

Lovely interview! I actually discovered Jen through Neil Gaiman's tweet myself. :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Brilliant - Twitter clearly works! It's amazing how small a world it is out there sometimes :)

Petra said...

It definitely does! Yeah, isn't it? :)