Lucy and Todd

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on June 16, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Several years ago I was teaching some good students at a bad university. I became aware that there were rumours circulating about James Joyce’s Ulysses: someone knew someone who had read it. So-and-so claimed to be about to read it. The English department in which I worked only added to the mystery, lecturing on modernism but not assigning its works, which were deemed too complicated for twenty-year-olds (notwithstanding that when Joyce began Ulysses he was hardly a magisterial age).

Ulysses is a monument, sure: of tragedy, comedy, of art. But a literary monument isn’t like a statue: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Any writer wants to be read. Joyce wanted, desperately, to be read by the whole world, so he wrote the one book which contains the whole world, and we should all return the favour by reading it. It’s only a book – and that’s what is so great about it. You can go into a shop, buy it and read it. And then your life will be different. It’s a great system.

Books about Ulysses are many, and a lot of them aren’t very good. But Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book is a riveting account of just how difficult it was to bring Ulysses into the world, and how many people didn’t want it here, and who the hell they were. Their reasons now seem hopelessly antique and vapid, precisely because Ulysses was eventually born to us and helped us.

Ulysses was a hero, Joyce was a hero, Leo Bloom is a hero. Molly is one of the great heroines of literature. Birmingham’s book is a book of heroes, too, if not of saints: you reel from the sheer number of very bold men and, crucially, women without whom Ulysses wouldn’t have happened. The first was Nora Barnacle, the frank and witty woman who inspired the book and stood by Joyce through poverty and illness, exasperating though he was: when he was nearing the end of his task, she told him ‘You’re as dumb as an oyster now.’

The Paris bookseller Sylvia Beach was a godsend to Joyce, and eventually the first publisher of Ulysses, though in the end he bullied her, like many, into a sad retreat. Harriet Weaver gave Joyce money for many years and attempted to bring out the book in Britain, wandering London in search of a printer brave enough. Jane Heap and Mary Anderson ran the Little Review in which Ulysses started to appear in 1918. Anderson said, ‘This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives’. A few years later it was banned, and burned.

Ezra Pound, taking umbrage at the novel’s many rejections, said in 1916, ‘Why can’t you send the publishers’ readers to the Serbian front and get some good out of the war?’ The book pirate Samuel Roth turns out to have been a (troublesome) hero of Ulysses by constantly threatening to publish a corrupt edition. One marks with deep admiration Maurice Darantière, the plucky printer of Dijon, typesetting by hand a huge book in a language he didn’t know and weekly tearing his hair out. When he thought the galleys were finally finished he got a telegram from Joyce with just one more word to add: ‘atonement’! And there’s a fascinating guy aptly named Barnet Braverman, who smuggled lots of copies of Ulysses across the U.S./Canadian border. In his trousers.

There are stories both horrid and funny associated with such a cultural earthquake. Birmingham is quite dauntingly surgical in his descriptions of Joyce’s medical troubles: chronic eye disease due to syphilis, and most of the infirmities of poverty. Ulysses, he notes, is the great novel of the human body, and the pain Joyce suffered in his own was transubstantiated for us all in the book.

One of the great escapades concerns Morris Ernst, the brilliant lawyer hired by Random House in 1931 to bring Joyce’s novel to trial, yet again. The publishers had to get a copy of Ulysses confiscated by customs so the fracas could officially begin – but the book arrived on a hugely crowded boat and the inspectors were just waving everything through. So Ernst went back to the customs shed the next day, suitcase containing evil book in hand, and opened it. ‘Aha!’ he said, ‘a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce!’ The officers thought he was crazy, but eventually allowed themselves to seize it.

One of the better known champions of the novel was John Woolsey, perhaps the only federal circuit judge who could have found in favour of Ulysses, and he did. His opinion was stirring and eloquent: ‘When such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?’

Ulysses bothers people. That is one of its many beauteous functions. It bothers people because it is earthy, but more because of the way it’s written: with an insistent, uncompromising, revealing humanity. After reading Ulysses you’ll never be able to escape from yourself. And if that isn’t an attractive offer, how about this: when you buy The Most Dangerous Book, you’re entitled to a free download of Ulysses! (Applause.)


This review appeared in the Herald, 16 June 2014


In Our Students Vouch for Us on May 30, 2014 at 11:40 am

LEILA ABOULELA (author of Lyrics Alley, the Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards, and other novels, radio plays, and short stories – most recently, Aboulela’s “The Insider” was broadcast on Radio 3, November 2, 2013) [from published interviews]: “Thanks to…..Todd McEwen, my writing tutor, whose belief in my work made me take myself seriously as a writer” -  Mslexia  “Thanks to McEwen, Aboulela found an agent and in 1999, her first novel, The Translator was published by Scottish independent, Polygon.” The Big Interview  -  New Books Magazine


NANCY GAFFIELD (author of Tokaido Road, CB Editions – winner of 2011 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for poetry; Owhere, Templar, 2012; and Continental Drift is due out in April, 2014, Shearsman):  Todd and Lucy are that rare breed of professional writers who are outstanding at teaching. I highly recommend them to anyone who is serious about writing. Not only will you be given in-depth and critical feedback, you will also get practical help in learning how to get your working published.  Todd has been instrumental in my launch as a poet.


NEIL BUTLER (author of The Roost, Thirsty Books, Edinburgh, 2011):  Lucy and Todd will NURTURE your book – they won’t tell you what you should write or how THEY would write it.  They’ll help you make YOUR book the best it can be.  Which is a long way of saying they’re the real thing.  They’re not the friend who’ll tell you they don’t like your subject-matter or that they don’t get what you’re trying; they’re not your mum who’ll tell you you’re just brilliant: WHERE did you get that IMAGINATION from?  These are people who know how to write, they know what writing IS – so they know how you edit.  Todd edited my book and left me a book I’m proud of.  His cuts were fine plastic surgery, not butchery; his advice was practical (i.e., not ‘this is how I WOULD write it’ but ‘here’s a way to improve this’); he spotted the glaring errors that make it into every piece of writing that passes 140 characters.  Lucy gave me my cover quote – ‘It’s wonderful’ – (and meant it!).  One last thing.  They do a very good seminar, the only seminars I ever came out of feeling excited, inspired and not in need of a stiff drink.  So, tip: bring a pad and paper and scribble down the books casually mentioned, quiet-like, under your desk.  Trust me.


AARON SIMON:  Todd and Lucy were amazing mentors at Kent. With their prodding and encouragement, I was actually able to finish writing a novel and–even more amazingly–start legitimately rewriting huge swaths of text.


JAMES WRIGHT:  Todd and Lucy, as writers, readers and editors, helped me to trust and develop my ideas of fiction and have inspired the confidence to do my ideas justice and successfully write exactly as I aspire to. Their editorial support is artistically sensitive and, with the reader in mind, logically sound, so as not to lose sight of the essential narrative.


EMMA GLASS:  I would like to say that it is always such a pleasure to receive feedback from you. The response is always prompt, always honest. Even when I send long, intangible lines of random words with minimal punctuation, you always help me to find a focus. You read with such patience; guiding my rough chapters and shaping them, helping me to see through the creative fuzz. Observations always objective, practical considerations about the reader, about the narrative voice. But always, and most essentially enthusiastic and encouraging.


CHRIS BENNETT:  Truly wonderful! Fiction Atelier has not only polished my work but their feedback and guidance has improved my writing immensely. It’s a personal service that is tailored to each individual and Todd and Lucy are always available to help – just a phone call or an email away. I couldn’t have completed my novel without them.


NIK WILLIAMS (writer for Index on Censorship):  Never erosive nor evasive, their editorial help offered constructive directions out of a manuscript tangled up by syntactical choices, pockmarked by plot holes and crowded by superfluous characters. I would recommend their services to any writer without hesitation.


KYLIE GRANT (Winner of the Unbound Press/Spilling Ink Review Holiday Flash Fiction Prize 2012 and author of The House that We Built – shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2011; winner of Wise Words Fiction Prize, 2014; reviewer for The List, Scotland):  Todd McEwen and Lucy Ellmann were utterly wonderful teachers, editors, and mentors during my time at the University of Kent.  One of their many strengths is that they actively want to engage with your writing, both as writers and as teachers, giving you the freedom to experiment and create your own confident writing voice.  In encouraging you to read and question a variety of thought provoking, frustrating, beautiful and ultimately inspiring pieces of writing they improve the quality, depth and structure of your own writing. I honestly couldn’t have finished my novel without their enthusiasm, guidance and feedback.


RUPERT SMITH (Winner of the Bloomsbury Writing Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize at the University of Kent; his short story, ‘Fripperies’, was broadcast on Radio 4 in October, 2011):  Lucy and Todd were meat and drink to me whilst at Kent. I never dreamed that my writing would be invigorated in the way it was – suddenly I was urged out of my comfort zone, but at the same time I was never happier in taking the risks I took on the page to the extent that I almost forgot I was on a degree course. What was so revelatory was how the reading fed so appropriately into the creative process; works I’d never before come across (by writers I’m still exploring) were shoring up all the experiments I doubt I would ever have otherwise undertaken, and validating them.
Lucy encourages her students to think deeply about their craft, and I’m delighted to say that the generous feedback I received during her module ‘The Body’ was instrumental in helping me to strike out and complete what was to become my Radio 4 short story debut.
And Todd is just so supportive and wise: who can resist a tutor who asks, à propos of nothing, ‘What’s exciting you?’?  His tutorials are mini literary adventures: invaluable assistance with envisioning the writer’s journey alongside an uncanny bibliophile’s sixth sense in steering you towards your next feeding frenzy. I never shifted to the uni library so fast.


EDDIE GIBBONS (latest poetry collection: A Twist of Lime Street; What They Say About You was shortlisted for the Scottish Book Awards, Poetry Section):  If Todd and Lucy were mechanics, they’d work for Rolls-Royce or Ferrari. They are fiction engineers. Todd McEwen set me on the path to five published collections of poetry by instilling in me a belief that I could become good enough by building on my raw ability through application, study, editing and enjoyment of all these processes. But he didn’t stop there. Once he thought that my work was of a sufficient level he encouraged me to send it out into the world, where some of it got published in literary magazines. Not only that – he actually brought the editor of one of those magazines to meet me, whereupon he offered to publish my first collection. But it doesn’t end there. Todd and Lucy have inducted me into the wider world of authorship by introducing me to many luminaries of the writing profession, including Billy Collins, former poet laureate of America. Their tutorship and continuing friendship are things I treasure.


KRISTEN LOWMAN:  You won’t find anyone better than Lucy and Todd.  I can say this; I’ve attended some fine workshops, but I have never received such detailed, precise, thoughtful notes; some dealing with the story’s subtlety, some addressing the technical, all of them honoring and enhancing the story.  They also have a unique way of making me reach higher, without fear – it comes from their generous natures as artists, as professional writers.  After working with them, I find myself enthused, excited to get back at the story.  They pass on their joy, igniting my own.  Thank you.


EFFIE CURRELL (author of short story collections published by the Kreol Institute in the Seychelles, and a children’s book published by Macmillan Caribbean):  So many things keep pulling me away from writing, and sometimes it would be easy to abandon a story that no-one will miss if it’s not told. So, as I sit to write sans publisher, sans book deal, sans contract, sans any of the things that I – perhaps naively – imagine help writers to feel that they are not suffering from delusions of talent, I am glad that I am at least an apprentice at the Atelier.


Lucy Ellmann and Todd McEwen

In Atelier Work on February 9, 2012 at 10:00 am


In a recent interview in the Guardian (, Fiction Atelier’s Lucy Ellmann expressed the opinion that universities are no place to study writing: “the purpose of corporations – which is what universities now are – is to scupper originality and dissent. Universities have gone from being culture-preserving institutions to being culture-destroying institutions. And people queue up to pay these culture-destroying institutions £9000 a year to ensure that any idea of literature is destroyed before it can enter their heads.”

A good editor may be all your book needs.

Fiction Atelier doesn’t feel that the almost ubiquitous ‘creative writing’ workshop, or even many a homespun writing group, is the best way to help someone’s fiction flourish. Why be part of a group? Groups are irrelevant, unpredictable, potentially unaccommodating and therefore destructive. And the workshop is, at its best, a hit-or-miss technique; at its worst, it can become a gladiatorial sport. Why gamble with your psyche and your writing in this way?

There are better ways to talk about art.

We are convinced that individual editorial help is the thing every good writer needs. It is the most sensitive and flexible form of response there is. You don’t need to be part of a group. You don’t need a degree in writing. You don’t need random writing tips handed down from on high by overworked (and under-published) know-it-alls. You need someone to read your work intently, and respond to it intelligently. You need someone you can talk to seriously about literature, your own and other people’s. You need someone who can help your ideas develop, and someone who can challenge you to write BETTER. This is not a game, not a sport, not an academic discipline, not a hobby – this is an art form!

Talking one-to-one

Having taught literature and writing at university level in both Britain and America, we have come to the conclusion that the one-to-one approach is the only valid way of aiding a novel towards completion. This is a delicate process, and should be handled with due care.

We are internationally acclaimed novelists, based in the UK. We have always worked with other writers, through reviewing, editing and teaching. We have helped published authors with final edits, and we have have helped new authors get into print. To supplement our own writing careers, we now work individually with serious, aspiring writers of fiction through Fiction Atelier – by phone, email, and in person. Our intention is to enrich writers’s understanding of their own work, and of fiction in general, from an artistic, not academic, point of view, and to be of help to them in making their books the best they can be.

An unedited book will remain unedited to the end of time. Why not get it edited NOW?

The ‘atelier’ model

The idea behind the ‘atelier’ is that we are writers together. It is a mutually supportive environment for all – both the advisor and advisee. This does mean that we fit editing in around our own projects, but so far this has rarely led to serious delays in providing feedback. And the benefits are obvious. University Creative Writing courses pretend to offer sanctuary to writers but actually they tend to stop their tutors from writing (through admin, teaching overload and other sinister forms of discouragement). This leaves the unwitting and hopeful students in the hands of depressives who have been involuntarily rendered defunct as practising writers. With Fiction Atelier you help us survive as writers, and in return you receive help from active writers with daily experience of the difficulties, dilemmas, delights – and importance – of producing work.

The first consultation is FREE!

We will happily read up to twenty pages of work, and make detailed comments on it, as a sort of taster of the way we edit and our particular take on the work you send us. We both try to look at every new submission, and then decide who might work best with you (you can also express a preference if you have one). This interchange allows us to see how we can help you, and gives you an idea of what it would be like to work with us.

We will then discuss with you what you may require. This may involve a full line-edit (with detailed comments), a read-through (with detailed comments), general feedback, a one-off consultation, a schedule and writing plan with agreed deadlines, advice on reading, or discussions of literature or the publishing scene

Flat fees and hourly rates

We want to work with you and for you. You might be surprised by how much can be accomplished in, say, two hours of concentrated editorial time, if it’s focussed on you and your book alone. For the purpose of simplicity, our hourly rate of £50 is based on the psychotherapist model. We also negotiate flat fees for perusal of complete manuscripts, and of final drafts. Various payment arrangements can be made. But—

No charges will be incurred until we have agreed with you about the sort of help you want and need.


So, if you have some work you’d like to show us, please send us up to twenty pages, with a short cover letter  (of up to 200 words) describing your fiction project, to:

Reply guaranteed. Thanks you for sharing your work with us. And welcome!





Amalfi Coast Music & Arts Festival           In July, 2014, we will be holding informal reading and discussion groups in the Amalfi area, in conjunction with the long-established music festival held there every year. We encourage you to come for some fabulous music and a more casual kind of conversation about literature over a glass of wine. This is an opportunity to chat about books and make the acquaintance of fellow writers, musicians and artists. If new to us, let us see your work ahead of time. As Humphrey Bogart says to Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca, it could be the start of an ongoing editorial relationship. for more information.


Edinburgh International Book Festival    From August 9 to August 25, in conjunction with the book festival, we will be holding casual one-to-one meetings, in Edinburgh, with any writers who would like to discuss their current writing projects with us. You can send us a sample of your work ahead of time, or just come along and talk. It’s free, and does not commit you to working with us further.

Contact us at to book an appointment.


Writer’s Retreats in Central Edinburgh   

We now offer three- to seven-day writer’s retreats in pleasant, quiet B & B accommodation, with time to work on your own, interspersed with individual editorial sessions.

Contact for more information.



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