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Industry Insight: Q&A with Alison Hennessey (Raven)

Liz Robinson

By Liz Robinson on 1st October 2020

Publishing Director Alison Hennessey and her team launched the new imprint Raven Books for Bloomsbury in 2017: "for all those who love their books with a touch of the dark side”. Covering crime, thrillers, ghost stories, non-fiction, the past, present, and all that is dark, edgy, or mysterious, you can find some seriously beautiful books on offer here. 

Three Raven titles have recently been chosen as Liz Robinson Picks of the Month. They are all very different, yet slide into the dark side with attitude. Between Two Evils by Eva Dolan is whip-smart, incredibly readable crime novel that comes with a fierce bite, we can highly recommend diving straight in! To The Lions by Holly Watt is an intelligent provocative thriller and much deserved winner of the 2019 Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson is an addictive and thoroughly entertaining dramatic read, it includes a book group, need we say more! The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is a terrific gothic tale that the team chose as a book of the month, our editorial expert Sarah declared: “no more spoilers, just read this haunting, compulsive and genuinely spine chilling novel, full of the unexpected”.

Our October Industry Insight features Alison, we’ve asked her questions about Raven Books, her own personal favourites from childhood, and why she thinks people are attracted to books with an edge. Welcome Alison!

Tell us about Raven Books and how it started.

I worked as an editor for Random House for over eleven years, the last four years of which were spent at Harvill Secker, where I was lucky enough to publish some of their amazing existing authors, like Hening Mankell and Jo Nesbo, while building up a list of my own, including writers such as Abir Mukherjee, Ruth Ware and Denise Mina. Bloomsbury approached me to ask me if I’d like to set up a new list for them; they had published a few authors within the crime and thriller genre over the years, often very successfully, but they now wanted to have a dedicated list that would complement their wider literary publishing and who could resist an offer like that?

What was it about the Raven that called to you when thinking of names for this Bloomsbury Publishing imprint?

My very first editorial job was working on the Penguin Classics list, and one of the things you’re very aware of when working at Penguin is just how brilliant their brand is – and how much fun they have had with their logo over the years! So I was determined to have some kind of animal as our branding, and ravens sprang to mind immediately: they’re associated with all kinds of dark events, not least Poe’s famous poem, while one of my favourite Bloomsbury books is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, with its iconic raven on the book cover. I also loved that it didn’t feel too tied to one particular type of writing and that it felt timeless to me, a name that might have been around for years. I could imagine seeing Raven Books on a book’s spine in the eighteenth century and the twenty third century.

Why do you think a touch of the dark side calls to people?

I think most readers are naturally curious people and want to know what makes other people tick; our books get you under the skin of people who are often making some pretty shocking or dangerous decisions, or being put in the kind of circumstances most of us (thankfully!) will never have to go through. It’s always fascinating to ask yourself what you might do in a certain situation.  I also think we enjoy being scared safely – look at the success of horror films or rollercoasters, we love that adrenalin shot! – and many of our books do that for you without you having to leave the comfort of your home. 

When it comes to your particular role, what makes your heart beat faster?

In my submissions I am looking for a distinct voice – something that grabs me and won’t let me go – and I am also looking for ambition; I want to be surprised and challenged, to be taken somewhere new. That can be related to the character – Alex Reeve’s Victorian London set series with a transgender protagonist for example – or the setting, such as Femi Kayode’s forthcoming Lightseekers, which is set in Nigeria – but I love to read something that to me feels genuinely new and exciting.

Do you remember the very first book you read as a child or teen that was intriguing, unsettling and incredibly engaging… what was it and have you read it since?

I am not sure what was the very first but there are a few that I think had a real impact on me. I love Robin Jarvis’s books: The Deptford Mice trilogy and The Whitby Witches series. They are incredibly atmospheric, genuinely frightening at times and so vividly drawn and plotted: there are certain scenes I can still remember now, nearly thirty years later! I also loved Moondial and The Children of Green Knowe – the latter of which I re-read every Christmas – and I am sure anyone who has read The Silent Companions or The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle will be able to see the influence of those, as well as Bleak House; if Raven Books were around in the nineteenth century, I’d like to think we’d have published Bleak House.

Since Raven Books first started in January 2017, what has remained constant, and what has been the biggest change or challenge over the last few years.

I think our mission statement – to find the best and the brightest in new fiction for all those who like their books with a touch of the dark side – has stayed the same, as has our commitment to finding books and authors that are doing something that little bit different or unexpected, whether that’s in the author’s style or the setting or the concept. 

One of our challenges, albeit a nice one, is reminding people that we’re not a crime imprint, as we’re sometimes described: we publish everything from high concept murder mysteries to gothic tales to women’s fiction with a dark heart to formally inventive literary fiction, so I like to think we’ll always have something new and exciting for all readers.

Is there an existing novel you would be thrilled to have published, or even a historical/fictional character that you think would write a fabulous book? Why is that and which edge of the dark side would you like it to explore?  

I would have loved to have published Bleak House as it’s one of my favourite reads, and the diaries of Mrs Danvers would be enormous fun. Imagine getting her take on the new Mrs de Winter? 

What would you like readers to know about the world of Raven Books?

Although readers often associate us with the historical and the gothic, our list is very broad – we have some fantastic non-fiction coming soon and we publish the most incredibly contemporary thrillers in the form of CWA Dagger winner, Holly Watt, not to mention Eva Dolan’s police procedurals or Tara Isabella Burton’s horrifying and brilliant Social Creature, which is a Talented Mr Ripley for the Instagram Age, set in contemporary New York. If it’s a good book with a dark edge then I like to think we publish it, so whatever your taste, we will have a book for you!

If you're looking for a dark read, dare to take a walk on the dark side with our new collection!

If your enjoyed this, check out our other Industry Insight blog pieces.

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