Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Phillipa Ashley - Decent Exposure

Phillipa Ashley recently won the Romantic Novelists' Association 2007 Joan Hessayon Award for Decent Exposure,
her debut novel [...] published by Little Black Dress. The judges said: "This book had really great characters right from the start, especially the fish-out-of-water heroine and the hero who is 'always happiest when he's got something to be angry about'. We believed in this couple and their bumpy path to love. There is a real sense of lives lived, the close-knit team, the local rivalries, the small village, as well as the practical and psychological obstacles in the way of pulling the calendar together. We liked the humour nicely balanced with humanity and a bright, contemporary voice. Oh, and it has a cracker of a first sentence!" (Romantic Novelists' Association)
I haven't been able to find many reviews, but there's an excerpt available here.

Given that the premise of the story involves the making of a nude calendar for a charity fundraising effort, I couldn't help but be reminded of the film Calendar Girls,* but as Rosy Thornton of Birmingham Words explains, Ashley's initial inspiration was the BBC's adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South:
Phillipa had the original idea of placing a version of Gaskell's novel in the present day [...] A sharply witty romantic comedy, it tells how PR consultant Emma Tremayne seeks to raise money and publicity for a Cumbrian mountain rescue team by means of a nude calendar – falling as she does so for ‘Mr July’ Will Tennant. Like North and South it is the story of a bright southern girl being forced to travel north, and finding a culture shock and unexpected love in the process.
What I'd like to focus on is not the story but what Jenny Crusie's been describing as 'foreshadowing' using 'subconscious clues':
Subconscious clues are the deep structure clues, really more cues than clues, triggers for the reader that she or he many not even notice, often the motifs and metaphors that run underneath the story. [...] Is anybody but an English major ever going to notice this stuff? We certainly hope not; it destroys the enjoyment of the story. Is it crucial to the depth and resonance of the story, to the catharsis of the reader at the end? Absolutely.
In Decent Exposure the subconscious clues worked for me because I didn't notice them until I'd finished the book and started to think more closely about it. The foreshadowing begins in the first few pages (they're in the excerpt). I'm going to try to avoid giving spoilers, so this will be a relatively short post and I hope it doesn't 'destroy the enjoyment of the story' for anyone.

The most obvious theme is that of nakedness:
Excuse me, love,’ said the bearded man in the front row, ever so politely, ‘did you say naked?’
Emma Tremayne clutched her folder of proposals tighter and smiled a smile that went no further than her cherry-scented lipgloss. ‘That’s right, Bob. Naked.’
Bob, bald, ruddy-faced and fifty-something, nodded as if she’d just confirmed the price of a cheese scone in the local café.
‘You mean without any clothes on?’ murmured a whippet-like lad whom Emma recognised as a local builder.
‘That’s the general idea of a nude calendar, Jason, yes.’ (2006:1)
By the end of the chapter (and the excerpt) we have Will, the hero, agreeing to pose nude, 'But only if I absolutely have to' (2006: 18). What he doesn't yet know is that by the end of the novel he'll have been forced, despite his reluctance, to lay bare his emotional life as well as his body. Emma, the heroine, is his mirror image in that she's fairly open about her relationship history. She gives a synopsis of it on page 11 to a female member of the Mountain rescue team: 'My boss was shagging my boyfriend. I threw something at her and she sacked me' (2006: 11), but she's rather more cautious about literal, physical nakedness.

A second theme is that of risk, as embodied in the activities of the Bannerdale Mountain Rescue Team. All walkers and climbers take a degree of risk, and the purpose of the team is to rescue those who get into difficulties. What Emma doesn't expect is that in helping this team who have
saved over fifty lives in the past twelve months alone and were expert at abseiling and belaying and all kinds of skills which weren’t needed among the sushi bars and coffee houses and mirror-window tower blocks of the city life Emma was used to (2006: 2)
she's going to have to literally take a risk and learn a skill which wasn't required in her previous life: abseiling. She's also going to have to take a metaphorical risk, and in both cases she'll have to trust Will. Will too is going to have to take a 'leap of faith' (2006: 267) as he falls in love.

A third theme which is foreshadowed involves spin and PR. Emma may be a 'a seasoned PR person' (2006: 2) but 'she felt she’d tasted enough deception and spin over the past few months to last a lifetime' (2006: 11). Will may not trust PR, but, as we discover, he has deliberately shaped his own public persona and the reasons for this are hinted at in the first chapter when he opposes the calendar plan on the grounds that it would make the team a 'laughing stock' (2006: 4).

Ashley also slips in details which have a deeper symbolism. For example, Emma's duplicitous ex-boss at the appropriately named 'Rogue' PR agency is called Phaedra. In Greek mythology Phaedra first of all got her husband in somewhat ambiguous circumstances (some say Theseus preferred her to her sister, Ariadne, whom he abandoned after she'd helped him escape from the Minotaur). Phaedra later became an unfaithful wife and, in some versions of her story, a mistress of spin who made false rape allegations against Hippolytus. We also learn that at Rogue
If there wasn’t a pot of Blue Mountain bubbling somewhere in the office, there was always some assistant willing to fetch a Starbucks coffee or a smoothie. Emma shivered. That last beverage was now off the menu. In fact, she hoped she’d never see one as long as she lived. (2006: 12-13)
Emma has swapped 'Blue Mountain' for the hills around Bannerdale and 'smoothies' (both the drinks and men 'with a smooth, suave manner' (OED) ) for Will, 'a man who had all the charm of a grizzly bear' (2006: 4) and whose 'designer stubble made him look more like a grizzly than ever' (2006: 7).

Ashley, Phillipa, 2006. Decent Exposure (London: Little Black Dress).

* At the end of the novel mention is made of the fact that 'a production company [...] want to make a documentary' (2006: 274) about the making of the calendar, just as happened with the story of the 'Rylstone WI Calendar: 12 sepia-tinted photographs, showing various members naked - their modesty concealed only by the jam-panned, cider-pressing paraphernalia of traditional WI pursuits' (The Guardian). This became the basis for the film Calendar Girls, though it's hardly a documentary: ' "It's 75% of the true story," he [Director Chris Cole] estimates. That number might be a little generous' (Carrano 2003).


  1. Wow, Laura, Thanks for taking time to comment on Decent Exposure.

    I only began writing friction in December 2004, inspired as you say by North & South. I still can't say why – that programme and its hero, Thornton, triggered everything
    off. Decent Exposure was my second piece of writing and the influences of N&S are really, quite slight.

    An updated version of 'North & South' was the first and I suppose I could to post a little on my blog.

    I do use a lot of metaphor and I'm prepared to admit, the more I read it in hindsight, the more subliminal messages I see.

    It's true that Decent Exposure is really about emotional exposure and risk. The name Phaedra is apt but partly serendipity - I was intrigued by the name and when I looked up the legend, it suited the theme too. It's the name of the boat, Artemis, that I spent ages choosing. That IS significant as Emma explains to Will...

    The risk theme is deliberate. I am not sure about the Blue Mountain, maybe... but it might just be it's a classy blend of coffee. :)

    The spin and PR themes: I work in PR in my day job. Emma knows how ‘spin’ can be used to help people communicate as well as for deception; Will thinks he plays things straight but of course, he is lying to himself as well as the community, creating this image of himself as an unemotional 'bad boy.

  2. Dear Laura.

    I read with interest your analysis of my friend Phillipa Ashley’s brilliant (and now prize-winning) debut novel, ‘Decent Exposure’.

    Just to add: what I like as well is the way the three themes you identify – nakedness, risk and spin – are all encapsulated in the book’s great title.

    I would like, if I may, to correct a small error. You mention me as being from Birmingham Words, and this is not the case. Like Phillipa, I am a novelist, and I wrote the piece for Birmingham Words about how the two of us got started. By a bizarre coincidence, Phillipa and I both began to write fiction as a result of watching the BBC’s adaptation of ‘North and South’ at the end of 2004; our respective novels, ‘Decent Exposure’ and my own ‘More Than Love Letters’, were published by Headline within a month of each other in the autumn of 2006.

  3. An updated version of 'North & South' was the first and I suppose I could post a little on my blog.

    That would be fun! I'm rather fond of North and South myself.

    I do use a lot of metaphor and I'm prepared to admit, the more I read it in hindsight, the more subliminal messages I see.

    But you don't hit the reader over the head with it. Like I said, I really didn't notice any of this stuff until after I'd finished reading the novel and began to think about it and I'm someone who's always alert to metaphor/subtext, so if it took me a while to notice it, it must be quite subtle.

    What about Viper GPS? That's the name of Jeremy's company, and you could think of Emma as having 'nursed a viper in her bosom'. [As I was searching for that link I came across this medieval bestiary description of the viper, which continues over several pages. It's highly inaccurate about the reproductive methods of the viper, but the picture is fun (albeit in a slightly gruesome sort of way)]

    It seems to me, as someone's who's not an author and hasn't worked in PR, so is speaking from a position of ignorance, that there are similarities between the two, in that PR is about telling a particular story, and using the nuances of words and images to create particular associations in the mind of the reader/viewer.

    Dear Rosy,

    I did pick up on the fact that you're an author in your own right but I described you as being a member of Birmingham Words because you're listed on their pages as a member who's posted a number of articles and I assumed you'd written 'From Fanfic to Published Novels' in that capacity. I apologise if this isn't the case.

    Thanks for bringing up the nuances of the title. I was wondering about that because some authors say that their editors have final control over titles and sometimes it's the editors who make them up rather than the authors, so I wasn't sure if Phillipa had come up with this one herself or not. It certainly fits the novel extremely well.

  4. Laura - I did come up with the title and it was chosen carefully over months but I was *very* lucky to hit on it as other titles I've thought of for my books haven't worked as well and been overturned by the publisher.

    I love inventing imaginary names for companies/places - I am a copywriter/PR as well as journalist in my day job so the way commercial names are chosen, fascinates me. Rogue is deliberate but Viper - um, I can't claim that one. I guess I just wanted a contemporary and 'sexy' name for the GPS system.

    Have you read Rosy's More Than Love Letters yet? I really think you'd love reading and critiquing it. Definite echoes of North & South there.

  5. very good piece and a great blog - good reading!

  6. Have you read Rosy's More Than Love Letters yet? I really think you'd love reading and critiquing it. Definite echoes of North & South there.

    No, I hadn't seen it. I looked it up in the online catalogue for my local library and it's shelved in 'General Fiction'. I rarely go to bookshops, other than one which specialises in romance, and I tend to head straight for the romance section when I visit the library.

    Thanks, Flowerpot! I'm glad you liked the post.