Friday, 30 January 2015

Women Writers Boxing Clever Part 3: featuring Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones and Jane Davis

In this third part of my feature on seven brilliant writers who've chosen to collaborate in producing an exciting box-set of their works, Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, we'll hear from Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones and Jane Davis.

I heard New York Times bestselling author Joni Rodgers give a wonderfully rousing speech at the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors back in 2012 - it was a real whoop whoop! tour de force right at the start of the self-publishing revolution. Here are the compelling reasons she had for writing her novel Crazy for Trying:

'Tulsa, my heroine, is a bookish, zaftig misfit, much like I was in my early 20s, and I drew on my experience as the lone female disc jockey at a rock station in western Montana. The themes of body image, forgiveness, making peace with one’s past were important to me, then and now. I also wanted to write about a healthy, loving union between two women (Tulsa’s mother and her partner) and how unfair it was—to them and to their daughter—that they weren’t allowed to marry. I was turned down by a number of agents because I refused to cut that storyline, and back then (in the mid-1990s) it was still a verboten topic for commercial fiction.
I started writing this book when I was living on a fire tower in the Northern California wilderness and finished it almost ten years later while I was undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (blood cancer). I had no immune system, which meant mandatory isolation. That gave me the space and quiet to write 16 hours a day simply because I loved placing words in rows. This purely creative purpose breathed joy and peace into what was otherwise a very dark time. My prognosis was poor; I was told I’d live five years if I was lucky, and my son and daughter were just five and seven years old. When I started seriously pursuing getting the book published, I was driven by the reality that this book might be the only way my children would ever really know me.

Crazy for Trying was originally published by a prestigious small press and was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, which launched my career and gave me a whole new life. This book, I truly believe, is the reason I’m still alive. Had I not found the purpose and peace I gained from writing it, I don’t think I would have made it. It gave me so much pleasure to revisit Tulsa and her crew. The book is a lot funnier than I remembered!'

The Centauress is a compelling tale of family conflict about a disputed inheritance, written by another best-selling author and Royal Literary Fund Fellow, Kathleen Jones. Not only am I loving the titles of the books in this collection, but I'm finding it absolutely fascinating to hear how these stories emerged! 

'The Centauress was inspired by a meeting with an extraordinary Italian sculptor who was officially female, but was very open about the fact that she was a hermaphrodite. She appeared to revel in her dual sexuality, although there was an underlying note of tragedy in the stories she told about her life. I began to wonder what it must be like to be born without any specific gender identity and what it might mean for relationships.  Almost by accident, I was present when she was being interviewed for her biography and there were a lot of discussions about the ethical questions her life story raised; how much the biographer should tell and how to protect the people she’d shared her life with.
When she died, her story wouldn’t let me go. Meeting her had changed my life – as she had changed many people’s lives, not always for the better. Fictional episodes started writing themselves in my head, often centred around one of her reminiscences.  I kept thinking ‘what if?’ and gradually the novel began to take shape. Fiction can often be closer to the emotional truth of something than factual biography.
The Centauress is set in Istria – a very beautiful part of Croatia that used to belong to Italy and has the turbulent historical background I needed for the novel. The family of my main character, Zenobia, has been torn apart by conflict. Living in Europe means living every day with echoes of a violent, recent past; sharing your village or street with people who may have betrayed your relatives, or be relatives of someone your family also betrayed. Just below my house in Italy, at the bottom of the olive grove, is a memorial to six young boys who were dragged from their houses and shot, only a year before I was born.
As a biographer myself, I’ve often felt uncomfortable ‘eavesdropping’ on the most intimate moments of someone’s life, so it’s not surprising that my narrator, Alex, became a biographer researching the life story of celebrity artist Zenobia de Branganza, who is the Centauress of the story. Alex has to struggle with the problems of her subject’s desire for honesty and the wishes of friends and family not to have their lives exposed. Alex has her own private tragedies, because the novel is also about surviving some of the worst things that can happen to you. It’s this knowledge that enables Zenobia to trust Alex with her most intimate revelations.  And the message she gives to Alex is that it is possible to heal and that you must always be ready to accept happiness and love when it comes your way.'

Finally, Jane Davis has chosen An Unchoreographed Life for the collection. Jane's debut won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and she has gone on to produce six novels - I've already read A Funeral for an Owl and was much struck by the way she observes relationships, deals with issues of class and background and writes brilliant dialogue. Here she describes how she came to write An Unchoreographed Life:

'I was gripped by a 2008 court case, when, in an interesting twist, it was ruled that a prostitute had been living off the immoral earnings of one of her clients. Salacious headlines focused on the prostitute’s replies when she was asked to justify her charge of £20,000 a week. But the case also challenged perceptions of who was likely to be a prostitute. The answer turned out to be that she might well be the ordinary middle-aged woman with the husband and two teenage children who lives next door.
Whilst I was writing the novel, it became especially relevant when change to the laws governing prostitution were proposed and became headline news.
I grew up within the footprint of Nelson’s paradise estate. The story of his mistress, Emma Hamilton, has always fascinated me. Born into extreme poverty and forced to resort to prostitution, she later became a muse for artists such as George Romney and Joshua Reynolds and a fashionista by bucking the tight-laced trends of the day. Cast aside by an aristocratic lover, she went on to marry his uncle. Completely self-educated, Emma continually reinvented herself, mixing in diplomatic circles and becoming confidante of both Marie Antoinette and the Queen of Naples.
But Emma’s story is unusual. I had a clear understanding that, had I been born in another age, the chances were that, living in London, I would have been either a domestic servant or a prostitute - but quite possibly, both. Prior to 1823, domestics under the age of sixteen didn’t receive a salary. They worked a sixteen-hour day in return for ‘bed and board’, a very generous description of what was actually on offer. And, in return, when they reached the age of sixteen, they were cast out onto the streets. 
During my research, I used the Internet extensively to source personal accounts, diaries, blogs and newspaper reports. How did sex-workers come to the attention of the police and social services? What were the main reasons they ended up in court? (The answer was generally tax evasion and financial crime, things I knew about from my day job.) How did sex workers see themselves? How did they view their clients? How did this perception change if they stopped? I also consulted The English Collective of Prostitutes, who very kindly allowed me to quote them in my fictional newspaper article.  
And then I began to imagine what life was like for the child of a prostitute. There was nowhere I could research that hidden subject. And it is always the thing that eludes you that becomes the story.'

So, seven dedicated, dynamic writers serving up seven amazing and diverse novels in one set for only GBP7.99! Only for 90 days, though, starting on February 20th - though you can pre-order now here. 'The authors of these books are at the forefront of [a] strong cohort of groundbreaking, boundary pushing women writing and self-publishing literary fiction. i cannot recommend this collection highly enough.' Dan Holloway, Guardian book pages columnist and publisher.

Visit the Outside the Box: Women Writing Women website here.
See Part 2 of this feature here and Part 1 here.


To pre-order Outside the Box: Women Writing Women: visit these links at Amazon.co.uk  and Amazon.com. Price £7.99. The set will be available for 90 days only from February 20th 2015.

For more information, visit www.womenwritewomen.com






Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Women Writers Boxing Clever Part 2: featuring Orna Ross, Carol Cooper, Roz Morris and Jessica Bell

On Monday, I introduced you to seven excellent novelists who've got together to issue a box-set of their works at an amazing price (£7.99/$9.99 for seven novels!) - the link to that post is here. In this and the next post I'll be asking each of the writers about the novel they chose to include in the selection, Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.

I'll start with Orna Ross. I met Orna back in 2012 at the London Book Fair, when she launched the Alliance of Independent Authors. ALLi has gone from strength to strength since then. The Bookseller has named Orna as one of the 100 most influential people in publishing and she is incredibly positive, supportive and inspiring. Her philosophy is summed up in the title of her handbooks and prospective courses: 'Go Creative - It's your Native State'. 
Somehow she finds time to write poetry and novels, while doing all she can to facilitate the creativity and success of others. She's including Blue Mercy in the collection, a complex tale of betrayal, revenge, suspense, murder mystery - and surprise. Here's what she has to say about it: 'Blue Mercy is a high-octane drama in the shape of a mother-and-daughter conflict swirling around a family murder mystery. A tyrannical old father is dead, a suspected mercy killing. The answers as to who might have killed him and why are deeply embedded in male-female relationships but also, crucially for this volume collection, in something core and primal in inter-female relationships too.'


Carol Cooper, whom I've also met at the London Book Fair - such a great place for networking! - and at the Independent Author Fair in Chorleywood last autumn, is a journalist and award-winning non-fiction author who's turned her hand to writing acclaimed contemporary fiction. Oh, and in her spare time, she's a doctor. Here's how she came to write her novel about a group of people searching for love, sex and everything in between: 'One Night at the Jacaranda is the first novel I’ve created that got as far as the hands of readers. There’ve been other efforts: a coming-of-age novel set in Cambridge, a children’s story about a stray dog, a novel about a teenager coping with disability, and the chronicle of a female surgeon in training. She never reached the top as she spent too much time horizontal (like the manuscript, still languishing in a drawer somewhere).
Now I see that I was trying to fit into particular places on bookshelves. By contrast, One Night at the Jacaranda, although it’s contemporary women’s fiction, doesn’t nestle quite as neatly into a genre.
The idea came to me out of the blue. I was on a flight to the USA, on my way to my father’s funeral. As I sat sipping a much-needed gin and tonic, the idea for a story about a group of single Londoners popped into my head. There’d be a struggling journalist, a lonely lawyer, a newly single mother of four daring to date again.
I covered paper napkins with scrawled notes which eventually developed into the novel. Finally I’d embarked on creating the kind of book I’d want to read for pleasure. I wasn’t thinking about marketing angles. I just wrote.
All the characters are made up. I don’t know where ex-con Dan came from, and I’m glad I never had an au pair as manipulative as Dorottya, but some of the influences are obvious. Although the stressed doctor in my story is male, he takes on many of the frustrations I face in my day job. Ditto the single mother, the freelance journalist, and the young man diagnosed with cancer are all people I relate to.
I like to pretend that the story has nothing to do with my father. For one thing, it would have been far too racy for him. He’d have choked on a Harrogate toffee by page four.
Yet things fall into place when a parent dies, so his influence is there. The deeper message of One Night at the Jacaranda is that the characters can’t find happiness with someone else until they confront who they themselves really are.
Over the years I’d authored and co-authored many non-fiction books. The leap to writing fiction required new skills. But it was refreshing to write what I wanted to write, without worrying about word counts or thinking of appropriate illustrations. My experience in journalism shows, I think, in my short scenes, cutting from one character to the next.
Medicine has a huge impact on my fiction. You can’t put your patients in a book, but doctoring teaches you to observe. It’s no surprise that many great writers have been doctors. While I can’t pretend to be in the same league as Somerset Maugham, Michael Crichton, AJ Cronin, Khaled Hosseini or Abraham Varghese, I’m grateful that my work brings me into contact with such a wide range of people and situations.'

I've also met Roz Morris at the London Book Fair and at various ALLi events. She's a vibrant and knowledgeable writer, ghost-writer and writing coach. I highly recommend her blog, The Undercover Soundtrack, where she features writers talking about how music has inspired their stories and writing process. Last year I read the novel she has chosen to include in the collection, My Memories of a Future Life - it's an original and poetic novel, written in a compelling voice and asking questions about creativity and purpose which I found fascinating. It features science fiction and music and sharp social observation, and it veers from comedy to pathos and back again. A really original piece of work. Here's what she has to say:

I was always fascinated by tales of regression to past lives. I thought, what if instead of going to the past, someone went to a future life? Who would do that? Why? What would they find? 

Another longtime interest was the world of the classical musician. Musical scores are exacting and dictatorial - you play a note for perhaps a sixth of a second and not only that, there are instructions for how to feel - expressivo, amoroso. It's as if you don't play a piece of classical music; you channel the spirit of the composer. 

I became fascinated by a character who routinely opened her entire soul to the most emotional communications of classical composers. And I thought, what if she couldn’t do it any more? And then, what if I threw her together with someone who could trap the part of her that responded so completely to music?'


Finally, Jessica Bell, another very active member of ALLi, is an Australian novelist, singer-songwriter, publishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal - and a book cover designer to boot. (Where do these people find their energy?). Her latest novel is White Lady, an intense, suspenseful ride rife with mystery. She says: 'Some writers do have a distinct message they want to expose through their books before they begin writing. Those writers would be able to answer the question Why? pretty easily. I am not one of those authors. If there are messages in my books, they develop and grow organically, without my interference. But now that White Lady is complete and on bookshelves, I would say that message is the following: The power of unconditional love can be scarier than having a knife held to your throat.'




Orna, Joni, Jessica, Kathleen, Jane, Carol and Jessica
In my next blogpost, I'll be featuring Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones and Jane Davis.

For Part 1 of this feature, go here .

To pre-order Outside the Box: Women Writing Women: visit these links at Amazon.co.uk  and Amazon.com. Price £7.99/$9.99. The set will be available for 90 days only from February 20th 2015.

For more information, visit www.womenwritewomen.com


Monday, 26 January 2015

Women Writers Boxing Clever

Seven great writers banding together:
 Orna Ross, Joni Rodgers, Roz Morris, Kathleen Jones,
Jane Davis, Carol Cooper and Jessica Bell
Regular readers will know that I've published both traditionally and independently - and that what's wonderful these days is that every writer can choose his or her path as they wish, depending on the needs of their current project. My experience of the world of self-publishing has been incredibly positive, chiefly because it's a world of shared experience and mutual support. I'm delighted that this week I'll be showcasing an incredible group of women writers who have got together to issue a boxed set of their works - these are writers who've produced disparate, sometimes challenging, always fascinating stories of a high literary standard. Their box-set will be available for 90 days only from February 20th and is open to pre-order now (links below), at a price that's 75% less than the cost of the individually-purchased books. In this post, I ask the participants why they took part in this exciting venture and why this particular mix of authors works so well. Later this week I'll be asking individual writers how they came to write the book they've included in Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.

The novelists are Orna Ross, Jessica Bell, Jane Davis, Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones, Roz Morris and Carol Cooper. Right, without more ado, here we go!

Why are you taking part in the Box Set?
Jessica Bell: The main reason I approached these fabulous ladies to collaborate in a box set is because I admire their work, and adore them as individuals, and I couldn’t imagine collaborating with a finer group of writers. Each author in this box set is at the very top of their game; each book representative of quality fiction that explores a diverse range of unlikely heroines. I must say, I’m a little bit of a fan girl, and I can’t believe I have the pleasure of taking part in this project. It really is a dream come true. 
Orna Ross: Jessica Bell is one of my favourite authors and one of my favourite people. And the idea behind the collective she wanted to gather -- independent-minded, unconventional authors offering page-turning fiction about independent-minded, unconventional women - was irresistible. I hope the success of this project will encourage other writers who believe in their own work to collaborate and experiment together. The calibre of this collective meant I never doubted we'd put together a great book; what I didn't anticipate is that we'd have such great fun doing it. Indie authors rock!
Roz Morris: For me, these writers are the real superstars of self-publishing. They're storytellers dedicated to their craft, who have proved their worth with awards, fellowships and, of course, commercial success. Each author here is in charge of her own artistic destiny, embracing the indie path as a statement of integrity, yet writing fiction that speaks to everybody. I'm utterly proud to be included.
Kathleen Jones: I’m loving the idea of being with a group of women writers whose work I like and respect. Also intrigued by the contrasts and resonances that are set up when you put seven very different books and authors together. You know your work is going to be read by readers who wouldn’t normally have bought it. There’s an edge to that - are they going to like it? Hate it? It’s very exciting.
Jane Davis: Quite aside from collaborating with a truly inspirational – and international - team of women writers, I’m really excited about the opportunity to showcase the diversity of writing that falls under the general fiction labels, ‘contemporary fiction’or ‘literary fiction’ for example. I am rather fond of Joanne Harris’ comment that she doesn’t like to insult her readers by assuming they only like to read one type of fiction. We will not be insulting any readers. Within this set of seven books, we offer the full spectrum from light (although never frothy) to darker, more haunting reads that delve into deeper psychological territory.
Joni Rodgers: Indie publishing is the new high ground for literary fiction. Maybe this is a US thing, but publishers here have gotten more and more gutless and lit fiction is getting very much of an ilk. Authors are pressured by agents and editors into tropes and style that sell -- and that's not a healthy state for the artists individually or the art form at large. Readers will find the true artistic risk takers and creative outliers in the indie world, where we captain our own fate - as artists must.
Carol Cooper: This is a small group of acclaimed indie authors whose work I hold in the highest regard. I love their varied ways of telling a story, and what each of them has to say about the lives of women. This set of books will be thought-provoking and hugely entertaining. I’m thrilled to be part of it.

Why this specific mix of authors?
Carol: It is important to like one another's books and respect one another's opinions and experience. And that is something that does not happen much in traditional publishing! What unites the writers is their desire to craft their fiction to be the best it can be. When Jessica approached me with her vision of who some of the central authors might be, it was a no-brainer: I wanted to be with them.

Joni: I actually met Roz, Orna and Jane’s books before I met them, which is probably the best possible way to make friends with another author. I read and loved Orna’s linked novels After the Rising and Before the Fall and learned about her life as a publishing industry mover/shaker when I was searching to see what else she’d written. She turned me on to Roz’s book My Memories of a Future Life, which I inhaled one weekend when I was down with the flu. When I learned Jane Davis’s An Unchoreographed Life would be in this collection, I’d already bought it for a traveling Kindle I share with my daughter. We load it with books we both want to read and discuss, and that haunting cover image—who could resist?

To pre-order Outside the Box: Women Writing Women: visit these links at Amazon.co.uk  and Amazon.com. Price £7.99/$9.99.


For more information, visit www.womenwritewomen.com




Friday, 23 January 2015

Testament of Friendship and Loss


January: you spar with resolutions to turn your life around. You fall for the notion that at the turn of the year you can flick a switch and be remade. You can put things behind you and move on into a bright new future.

It’s important to feel that way. It’s important to assess where you are and take steps to redeem/reform/renew your life. Time is an arrow: its flight is to the future. Go with it.

Time is also a net, though. It traps and holds you, even while you poke your reaching hands out through its mesh. It’s a boomerang, rapping you on the temple, bouncing you back to your roots.

So, this is a very personal post, this January. For many years I’ve dreaded this time of year because of huge personal loss. Now, I have even more reason. A year ago (the day after, ironically, the other dark anniversary) my friend walked out of her life. Out of all our lives. We didn’t know that then – we only knew she’d gone missing. For nine weeks of hoping but dreading, that was all we knew for sure. Then she was found. Two weeks after that, we attended her funeral.

It’s hard to put into words what the past year has been like. No day has gone by without thinking of her, of her husband and son, of her sister and parents. No day has gone by without thinking of what she went through and of blaming myself for not seeing how bleak her inner space had become.

So, on this anniversary of her leaving us, I want to write about my friendship with her and what it meant to me.

There are junctures in your life when it really matters who you meet. University is one of these: it’s a crucible for forging deep and binding friendships. There are experiences shared there which are different from those of later life. You are searching for yourself, for who you are – and in that search you find yourself by ‘trying on’ friendships. Some fit only for a season, then the fashion passes. Some fit for a lifetime and never wear out.

I met Susan at Aberdeen University in the mid-1970s; we became close as we progressed through a demanding and exciting four year MA in English Language and Literature. I specialised in medieval literature, she specialised in linguistics. We were typical students – we’d drink and dance at the Students’ Union, where Susan would endeavour to save me from yet another inappropriate romantic obsession. We’d scoot out of the library after all of forty five minutes of work, to sit for hours in King’s Pavilion, drinking coffee and bemoaning our heavy work-load. I mean, three long essays in a term! Count them! Three!

In 1979 we sat for the last time in the exam room in Elphinstone Hall. That last exam was Old Norse. When we turned the paper over we looked up at each other and smiled, because it was a good paper. A couple of hours later we were sitting in a nearby pub where old men nursed their pints and young men argued about football. We two, fresh from the world of the sagas, shell-shocked, realising that had been our final Final paper.

We had the rest of our lives to look forward to. Unknown territory. Scary.

Life took us on separate paths. Susan studied librarianship at Aberystwyth, then settled in Dundee. I had a tough year in Aberdeen before moving to Oxford. I visited her in Dundee at the start of 1982, when the temperature went down to minus 25 and the air came into your lungs like a stiletto – we went to a local health centre for a sauna just to thaw out. In 1983 I attended her very lovely wedding and cried to listen to her father’s speech about her, full of love and pride.

She visited Oxford, of course, both before and after her marriage, and we met up in the Dordogne when she and her husband were holidaying near where we were. Later, Susan and I were pregnant at the same time. I could go on, listing the meetings which grew more sporadic as the years went by and our lives were full of the business of living.

On her last visit to Oxford we had a long giggly lunch at the Ashmolean, reminiscing about our past, as old friends do. We listened to the choir in Merton College singing for Advent and that entranced her. It was in the Ashmolean that I took the photo of her, full of joy, which was to gaze out at me so poignantly from Facebook timelines and news reports during the time she was missing.

I knew, of course, that the strains in her life were affecting her and that darkness hovered. Yet I underestimated the risk because after a phase of non-communication she’d come back into the light and be Susan still. Her pain, though, became a den into which she withdrew. None of us could accompany her there. None of us could take her by the hand and lead her out, like Eurydice returning from the underworld.

Now that she has been gone for a year, I want to say something that captures what she was. I don’t think I can. Four hundred people came to her funeral. That says something about her. She was – and here’s the irony – a joy. A joyous person. She was empathic, gossipy, acerbic, warm. We shared a love of books, it goes without saying. We shared those moments of finding your way in the world. She understood me and thought more of me than I deserved.

She had a quick wit and a sentimental streak. Her laugh was unrestrained and irresistible. She was devoted to her parents, to her man, to her boy. She never failed in her love and her protectiveness. She learned to fight against the unyielding system, fight for her husband when he could no longer fight for himself. She endured the strain, she found religious faith, she drew love to her everywhere she went, she spread ripples of worry and grief when she left all our lives.

She was beautiful and utterly feminine. Four hundred miles apart, we would often buy the same scarf, the same necklace. It was a joy to buy a gift for her and it breaks my heart that I never will again.

Last year, her loss wasn’t the last loss. My dear brother-in-law abruptly left this life too, and there is a different sort of devastation involved in that.

My responses to Susan’s death have been complex, riddled with guilt and bewilderment, for hers was a chosen departure. We can understand that choice but feel mangled by it, for we knew her value and the value of her life. All bereavement involves selfishness – ‘What about me?’ we cry. ‘How could you leave me?’

How, though, feeling as she did, could she stay?

Since her death, white feathers have floated onto my path, in through my window. I’m not airy-fairy in my beliefs, but still, I gather and keep them. Keep sending those feathers for me, dear friend. Keep forgiving me for not being aware enough. The black dog has growled at my door before. I should have known he was on your trail and hunting you down.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Author interview - Bobbie Darbyshire: light and shade and a land down under

I interviewed Bobbie Darbyshire for the first time on Literascribe back in 2011, having met her at the Winchester Writers' Conference (here's the link and another link to part 2). She had already published two novels, Truth Games and Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones - I was interested in her experience with two smaller publishing companies, Cinnamon Press and Sandstone Press, and admired her commitment and energy when it came to hand-selling copies of her books. As she has just published a new novel, Oz, I'm delighted to welcome her back for my first author interview of 2015!

Your latest novel, Oz, has a very intriguing title – how did it come about?

The title came to me early because it reflects the story in three different ways. There’s a mystery character called Oz. One of the locations is Sydney, Australia. And thirdly, though it doesn’t matter at all if readers don’t notice this, the story also has echoes of The Wizard of Oz, not least in the contrast between Sydney’s glittering heat and London’s dreary grey winter.

This question may overlap with the previous one, but I’d love to know what sowed the seed of this story in your mind.

It grew from a short sentence, typed on a slip of paper that I drew from a box in a writing workshop. I went to several workshops at the Winchester Writers’ Festival 2007, and in this one Margaret Graham was illustrating the ‘zigzag method’ of constructing a story. ‘You start with a gleam in the eye,’ she said, ‘a newspaper headline or a line from a book. Then you ask yourself questions.’
The slip I drew from the box said, ‘The secret was all she had that was hers.’
Something clicked with me. I had no characters or location at first, just a notion of someone opening and reading an email addressed to their late mother, but I knew this was the germ of a novel I wanted to write. Initially, taking my cue from the slip of paper, I imagined the protagonist to be a woman, perhaps in her thirties. Only several months later did he turn out to be a 29-year-old man, and only then did I begin to discover who Mark Jonnson was and what his conflicts and dilemmas were.

I know that in your earlier novel, Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones, the Inverness setting played an important part. What led you to choose the locations in Oz and were there any particular challenges in making those choices?

The choice of Sydney came easily. I’d been determined to write about this fascinating and wonderful city ever since I’d spent three weeks there in 2001. While other tourists were clicking their camera shutters, I was constantly scribbling in a notebook, recording not just what I saw and heard, but my emotional responses, jetlag symptoms, etc.
For the contrasting London setting, I felt the urge to put my own locality on the page – Clapham Junction, Lavender Hill, the 77 bus ride from Tooting Broadway to the Hole in the Wall pub at Waterloo Station. I don’t live in the same streets as Mark’s mother, but I know those streets well.
            The main challenge of course came with the Sydney location, because my story took me to places and times I hadn’t researched on my visit. I am hugely indebted to Australian friends who helped me with many evocative details, some crucial facts and with Aussie dialogue.

What did you most enjoy about writing Oz? And what did you find most frustrating?

The chapters from Mark’s mother’s point of view flowed most easily and needed the least rewriting; however strangely it wasn’t those that I enjoyed writing most. The best moments were when I finally, after many failed attempts, resolved something intractably frustrating! The characters of Mark, his wife Gina and their little daughter Matilda all caused me no end of grief. These elusive people grew incrementally from very patchy, scratchy beginnings, and it was wonderful when at last they blossomed into unique and complex human beings.
A final problem that had me stuck and stymied for months was the opening scene. I rewrote it dozens of times, and it never felt right. And then one of my alpha-readers said he didn’t really connect with the book until such-and-such a place, and I realised – in a fabulously enjoyable moment – that my overworked opening belonged, all but a few words, on the cutting room floor! Bang, jump forward. Straight in. Much better. Yay.

Many fiction writers develop a recognisable tone, style and subject matter, but your three novels are surprisingly different from each other: Truth Games takes a wry look at fidelity in the 1970s, Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones is surreally comic, and Oz is quite serious, even melancholic, though shot with humour. Do you feel these stories have anything in common with one another? Do you feel there is a ‘Bobbie Darbyshire’ type of story, approach or voice?

Readers tell me my books are recognisably from the same pen, but it’s hard to pin down why this is. I don’t think it’s ‘voice’ because I write from the close point of view of my characters and work at giving them distinctive voices, not my own. Maybe it’s structure and pace? I think hard about how to make the pages turn and always keep the story moving forward. What else? A filmic quality, the hopefully vivid part played by location? And all my books contain dark and light, comedy and tragedy; I particularly like the poignancy of sadness and humour combined. As to subject matter, my characters often have troubled, unresolved relationships with their parents; without my willing it, that seems to be a common thread!

Do you have plans for a fourth novel – and if so, will it be entirely different from your previous ones or will it have any similar characters, locations or themes?

I’m currently polishing the fourth, and yes, it is different again, but the common threads are still there. Humour and tragedy, paciness, vivid locations, dysfunctional parents. This one will be surreally comic again, but not a repeat of Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones. The humour is blacker, and the surrealism involves a rather alarming afterlife – one of the two protagonists is a ghost in a serious fix. The city this time is Brighton, another place I have roots in and a great big soft spot for.

I interviewed you on Literascribe a few years ago, when e-publishing was beginning to take off and the publishing industry was entering its ongoing phase of adjustment to self-publishing and to ebooks. At the time, you were able to hand-sell your books, very successfully, in bookshops such as Waterstones. What changes have you seen take place since then – and is it harder to bring your books to the attention of readers these days?

The short answer, sadly, is yes, it is much harder to bring my books to the attention of readers these days. Saturday signings in Waterstones were a wonderful way to introduce them to strangers, but in the last couple of years most Waterstones have discontinued them. I’m still welcomed back by a couple of lovely branches, and I hope a few more may reintroduce signings now their HQ is giving them more local discretion. Apart from being a significant boost to Waterstones’ sales, customers find chatting to an author in a high street book shop a real point of distinction from Amazon. Footfall has been lower because of Amazon, e-readers and the recession, but seems to be levelling out and even increasing a bit now.
           
What is your favourite piece of writing advice?

Work hard at keeping readers wanting to turn the next page. Books on screenwriting (e.g. by Christopher Vogler and Robert McKee) analyse how compelling stories work their magic, and their principles apply just as much to writing a gripping novel. Some reject this advice as formulaic, but so is the form of a sonnet; the challenge is to write originally within the form so the reader feels the poetry not the form. And even if you’re determined to break the principles of the storytelling craft, it helps to understand them first!
            The four other top tips for improving as a writer are, one: write fearlessly – banish the worried ghost of your mother from your shoulder; two: write lots, rewrite lots, and rewrite again lots; three: get honest, tough feedback and open your ears and your mind to it; and four: read lots, keep reading lots, never stop reading.

Thank you so much for joining me again on Literascribe, Bobbie - I wish you every success with Oz!

More about Bobbie:
Bobbie Darbyshire’s third novel, Oz, just out, is getting an enthusiastic response from readers. Set in London and Sydney, it starts with a mystery – a young man uncovering secrets in his dead mother’s house – and it ends with a nail-biting tug-of-love for a little girl called Matilda, seven years old.
Bobbie’s earlier novels are Truth Games and Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones, and she is currently polishing a fourth. Winner of the 2008 fiction prize at the National Academy of Writing and the New Delta Review Creative Nonfiction Prize 2010, Bobbie has worked as barmaid, mushroom picker, film extra, maths coach, cabinet minister’s private secretary, care assistant and volunteer adult-literacy teacher, as well as in social research and government policy. She hosts a fortnightly writers’ group and lives in London.

Oz on Amazon: http://is.gd/qE3sEY
Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones on Amazon: http://is.gd/DZBpJk
Truth Games on Amazon: http://is.gd/akQgC1
Amazon.co.uk author page:

Connect with Bobbie:





Wednesday, 31 December 2014

What have I learnt from 2014? Sharing thoughts about getting back on track when life derails you.


Sunset at Sennen, Cornwall
So, here we are again, at the cusp of the year, the transition point where we look forward and back. As I review the past twelve months, I rejoice in many things: the love of family and friends, a comfortable home in one of the most gorgeous cities on earth, professional progress, two significant writing competition wins, a growing network of supportive writing allies.

However, 2014 has also been a ghastly year. I started it with fine, overly-ambitious plans. In January a very dear friend went missing. Many weeks of agonising anxiety later, her body was found. I struggle on a daily basis with this, because she was a special, joyous person who’d been such a significant person in my life – and now she was gone, far far too soon, into the dark. A couple of months after her funeral, my brother-in-law, staunch, cheery, loyal and loving, devoted to my sister, had died – his death also completely out of the blue.

Shock and grief derail you. In despair and devastation, work is something to cling to. It gives shape to the days, it provides distraction. However I have at times taken on too much, driven myself too hard. I’m not one of life’s delegators – I always want to do it all myself. Over the past three years I’ve trained myself to work at dead of night – I’m a natural owl anyway. But I’ve taken it too far and for too long, to the detriment of health and concentration. And apart from the spurts of creativity which led to those competition wins, my own writing has ended up like the relative you haven’t rung in ages. Week by week it becomes more difficult to pick up the phone.

So what now? No resolutions – I don’t feel brave enough for those. Resolutions are broken and you’re burdened by that breaking. When I ran my workshop/retreat in St Ives in the autumn, we agreed it was better not to talk of ‘goals’ and ‘targets’ so much as anticipated ‘benefits’ from what we do.

Here, then, are how I hope to create benefits in my life in the coming year:

Balance

I need to find a better work/life balance and a better balance between helping other writers and paying attention to my own creativity. I don’t want to feel exhausted all the time. I want to refill the well and dip the bucket into the well.


Focus

I’ll continue to run my workshops in Oxford because I absolutely love face-to-face teaching and interaction. I’ll be running my second Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat in April and I can’t wait to see St Ives again. I’ll be teaching at the Writers’ Festival at the University of Winchester in June and in July and August will run creative writing summer schools on two Oxford University programmes. I’ll continue to edit and appraise manuscripts and mentor writers, of course, but will be wary of over-commitment in these areas.

Creation

I have so many stories waiting to be written or waiting to be revised and published. I won’t set specific dates but I will aim to get more of my work out into the world this year, not locked into hard drives and tucked into folders. The important thing, whether I have two readers, two hundred or two thousand, is to make the work available on my own terms.

How to do this? I have to learn to inhabit my own stories once more. When working on a client’s manuscript, in a way it becomes my manuscript – I have to live inside that story to discover its achievements and its flaws, to evolve suggestions for improvement. It’s an incredibly rewarding process and it’s a great responsibility when a writer entrusts their work to me – but at the same time, it puts me at a mental distance from my own imagination and my own plots and characters.

Re for revive

To sum up, 2015 means rebalancing of elements and rediscovering of joy – I hope. I aim to redefine the structure of my time, because I’ve slipped into a habit of being in Fictionfire mode seven days a week. I need to set aside days for my own writing and days for being free of all of it. I want to read more – I want to rediscover splurge-reading, from cover to cover, not getting through a book in sporadic, interrupted segments.

Someone very wisely said to me recently that I need to try treating myself as I would a client. So, balance, focus, kindness, honesty, nurturing myself instead of hectoring myself – I will try to incorporate these into my writing life.

As the New Year dawns, you might like to examine how you balance the elements of your life. Do you give yourself downtime? Have you evaluated where you stand and where you want to go and analysed how to optimise your chances of getting there? Bereavement makes us take a step – no, several steps – back from our own lives. Where are you in your life’s journey? (I hate to use the ‘j’ word, but it actually is the best metaphor for how we see our life-stories unfolding). If you’re young, you see numerous potential routes ahead and the sheer choice may dizzy or alarm you as much as excite you. If you’re older, those choices may have narrowed and you may worry that you chose the wrong paths. Is it too late to retreat? Can you make the best of the path you’re on? Can you choose another?
Sunrise over St Ives Bay

Take the long view of your life. What do you want to achieve with it? Achievement doesn’t need to mean money and glory. Achievement is that sense you have within yourself, quiet and satisfying, that you’ve made progress, that you’ve added something to the significance of your life that wasn’t there before.


I wish you balance, focus and the joy of creativity. I wish you love and fulfilment. I wish you every benefit you would wish for yourself in the coming year.

Fictionfire Literary Consultancy - the new series of Focus Workshops in Oxford will be announced imminently. Fictionfire by the Sea Writers' Workshop and Retreat in St Ives in April - places are already very limited. Sign up on my website to join the mailing list for news of workshops, courses and new developments.

Photographs copyright Lorna Fergusson


Thursday, 11 December 2014

Author interview: Katharine E. Smith - juggling tasks and jumping off the page

I'm delighted to welcome Katharine E. Smith to Literascribe today. Katharine runs Heddon Publishing, freelances as an copywriter, editor and proofreader, has two very young children and, oh, has found time to publish two novels as well! Her second novel, Looking Past, has just come out. In this interview we discuss, among other things, the challenges of multi-tasking and a shared love of St Ives.

Welcome to Literascribe, Katharine. As writers we often struggle with balance – you’re juggling writing, running a business and looking after small children. Could you discuss the challenges you meet and how you deal with them in order to keep your writing productivity going?

It’s definitely a juggling act. I know that’s a real cliché but it’s true. My children are two and five so really do need immediate attention much of the time. They have to be my priority and I wouldn’t have it any other way. However, I have two days a week when my two-year-old is in nursery so those are my official work days, and I prioritise my paid work for Heddon Publishing and freelancing during those days.  I work from home and I must admit I relish coming home to an empty house and being able to get my head down, uninterrupted, for a few hours. I also fit in little bits here and there, whenever I am able – great for emails, that sort of thing, but for editing, proofreading and writing I need space, time and solitude.
Katherine's covers feature commissioned artwork
 by Catherine Clarke
Then there’s my own writing. This I do in my ‘spare time’ (i.e after children are asleep, dinner’s been eaten, and when I probably should be in bed). My great ambition is to get to a point where I am at least partially earning my living from my books I don’t think it’s likely right now as I simply don’t have enough time for the amount of marketing and promotion I think is necessary. I have managed to complete and publish two of my own novels in the last few years, alongside two pregnancies, and starting two businesses… putting it that way it appears that good things come in twos for me. Having said that, I hope I’ll be writing many more than two books (two children and two businesses is about right though).
As you can imagine I don’t get a lot of time for housework…

The view from The Island, St Ives
(copyright Katharine E. Smith)
I know that setting is absolutely crucial in my stories and I see you’ve chosen Cornwall as the location for your first novel and Yorkshire, your home county, for your second. Which setting has been easier to describe?

I’d say Cornwall has probably been easier, because it’s the place I feel most drawn to, and where I’ve actually done a fair bit of my writing. My parents still live in Yorkshire and I do love it, but there’s just something about Cornwall… particularly St Ives. I know I’m not alone in feeling as I do about Cornwall and I just find that when I’m there I feel really alive. I hate saying that as I think it makes me sound a bit pretentious, or just a bit mad, but it’s the best way I can describe it. I feel like I’ve got loads of energy and ideas seem to come to me easily. I’m sure that’s partly just being on holiday but I really do love being there.

The roofscape of St Ives features on the cover
Writing the Town Read tackles interesting subjects: you have relationship drama and self-discovery but also powerful social issues – gangs and terrorism. Did you feel this made the novel cross-genre – or no particular genre? Did this reinforce your desire to publish it through your own imprint? How did you set about marketing it?

I struggle with genres. I always plump for ‘Contemporary Fiction’ or ‘Contemporary Women’s Fiction’ but they are both so general. And also I don’t really believe my books are solely for a female readership. I suspect that their subject matter will appeal more to women than men although I’ve had excellent reviews from an ex-US Marine so I reckon that’s a pretty manly vote of confidence! Writing the Town Read comes up in the Mystery and Romance categories on Amazon, neither of which are quite right though there are elements of both in the book. I got a one star review from an American reviewer whose only comment was ‘not a clean romance novel’!
I did send Writing the Town Read off to a number of agents and I received some good feedback, particularly from one, but in the end they thought that my main character, Jamie, wasn’t immediately appealing enough. That is kind of the point with Jamie – she is a bit annoying and opinionated but her heart’s in the right place and she does learn throughout the book that there isn’t always a precise right or wrong.
I had a growing interest in self-publishing and I was approached during my maternity leave during 2012 by an author called Michael Clutterbuck, with regards publishing his book Steaming into the Firing Line. It’s a book of short stories about the days of steam, and this became the first Heddon Publishing title. Mike took a chance on me, allowing me to work on this when opportunity allowed, and the rest is history. Heddon grew from there and I decided that if I didn’t find a publisher by my birthday last year I’d add my own book to the Heddon titles – which is what I did.
In all honesty I’m still working on the marketing side of things! I really don’t have a great deal of time for marketing my books, and I wish I did, but I do my best. I have had the cover re-done this year, by an excellent artist – Catherine Clarke – who has also done the cover for Looking Past. I think this has really helped, and I had an excellent result from a free promotion recently but I’m still chasing the elusive recipe for marketing success.

Do you edit and proofread your own work, given that’s what you do professionally, or do you ask someone else to bring a fresh eye to it?

I do actually do the majority of this work myself. I feel like I should be able to, given that it’s my profession, however I do also acknowledge that I’m that bit closer to the work and more likely to miss something. Luckily I have my dad and mum who are always willing proofreaders and, I’m sure Dad won’t mind my saying that he can be quite a pedant. I’ve also had a trusty band of beta readers working on Looking Past, who discovered an excellent typo – ‘an udderless boat’. Although to be fair, the boat probably didn’t have udders so it wasn’t strictly untrue.

What do you like and dislike about being an independent publisher?

I like the freedom and the flexibility that comes with independent publishing. It enables anybody and everybody to become published if they wish. I enjoy the way that authors retain control of their books. For my own books, I get to decide what goes into, and comes out of, them – and the authors I work with at Heddon have that control as well. I will always consult authors on major editorial suggestions and they have the final say.
The downside, I suppose, is the world of marketing independent books which seems so vast, and I’m only now really starting to try and find my way around it. Whilst I make it clear to the authors I work with that I can only do so much with regards marketing, I would still like to have some more tried and tested methods which I could share with them, as well as use for my own ends…

What do you most love about writing?

I just love writing. That’s not a great answer, is it? But I love sitting down and knowing roughly what I want to write about then finding all these words and ideas flowing onto the page/screen, which seem almost to come from nowhere.
It’s exciting and I just really enjoy it. I do like a bit of peace and quiet and losing myself in my writing – so I can get a bit grumpy if interrupted. Writing can be a good way of venting frustration. I’m getting better at expressing myself verbally but writing always had the upper hand for me. There is more time to think about what you are writing, whereas speech is immediate and usually spur-of-the-moment, and it can easily come out wrong. There is usually more time with writing to get it right.

What’s your favourite piece of advice for writers – or your favourite quotation about writing?

OK, I didn’t have a favourite quote prior to this but I’ll be honest and say I Googled ‘quotes about writing’ and unsurprisingly there are a lot of good ones! I’m going to use this one because I read her book when I was at primary school and I reference it in Looking Past – and I think she is someone who wrote for the best reasons, and whose writing will, I hope, always provide meaning and food for thought for us all.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
― 
Anne Frank

 Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed on Literascribe, Katharine, and good luck with all your writing and publishing activities!

LINKS:
Writing the Town Read

Looking Past

Katharine's blog, Jumping off the Page: http://www.katharineesmith.com

Heddon Publishing website: http://www.heddonpublishing.com


I totally echo what Katharine has said about St Ives - and bookings are now open for my next Fictionfire by the Sea Writers' Workshop and Retreat in April. If you're keen to recharge your creative batteries in Cornwall, visit www.fictionfire.co.uk/page28.htm to find out more!