Tuesday, 26 June 2012

In conversation with... Charlotte Rogan

Hello Charlotte! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Lifeboat. Can you please tell us what it is about?

A: The Lifeboat tells the story of Grace Winter, a 22-year-old woman who survives a shipwreck only to be put on trial for her life. You find out in the first chapter that Grace’s attorneys suggest she write her story down as part of her defence, and the result is a day-by-day, first person account. As the days pass and the weather deteriorates, it becomes increasingly apparent that for any to live some must die. Grace watches and waits as the other passengers choose sides in a brewing power struggle, but eventually, she too must declare herself. It is because of her actions in the boat that she ends up in a courtroom, but is she telling the truth at her trial or is she merely saving herself again?

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?
A: The plot unfolds for me, kind of as it does for the reader, though a lot more slowly. I have spoken to novelists who first prepare a complete outline of the chapters, and I can see how that is a much more efficient way to work, but I can’t seem to do it that way. I do use an outline, but it isn’t finished until after the book is. And yes, my characters always do unexpected things, which is part of the fun of writing for me.

The Lifeboat is a fictional work but you must have had to research the historical period it is set in, not to mention all the technical, nautical details. What resources did you use and how much did you enjoy this process?

A: Even though the book is set on the eve of the First World War, I never think of it as a historical novel — mainly because there is not a lot of history in it. But any novel requires a certain amount of research, and I love that part of the writing process because it focuses my reading and because it is like a treasure hunt, leading to all sorts of interesting documents, both in libraries and online.


Much has been written on the shipwrecks of history, particularly the Titanic, which was a wonderful resource for everything from lifeboat specifications to shipping routes. I also researched legal cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after being rescued, and I read several non-fiction shipwreck accounts. But in the ten years I worked on the novel, I chose not to read any fiction set at sea or any accounts of the survivors of the Titanic. I felt it was important to protect my imagination as I created my own characters.

An example of how the Titanic was useful was in determining the size of my lifeboat. Most of the Titanic lifeboats could hold up to 65 people, but a lifeboat of that size would obviously lead to an unwieldy number of characters. There were also four 47-person collapsible lifeboats and two 40-person emergency cutters, but those still seemed too big, especially since my plot required that the boat be overcrowded. In order to come up with a size that worked for me, I decided that the owners of the Empress Alexandra — the steamship that sinks at the beginning of the book — had cut costs by putting greed over safety and skimping on the specifications. That allowed my boat to be in constant danger of sinking with only 39 people in it.

This is your debut novel. How did your book deal come about and how did you feel to finally see your first novel in print?

A: I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties, and in the past 25 years I have written 5 novels. Over the years I made occasional attempts to find a publisher, but none of them came to anything until a chance encounter led me to my current literary agent, who sold The Lifeboat to Little, Brown in the fall of 2010. Books have always been almost sacred objects to me, so to see one with my name on it has been a complete thrill. An even bigger thrill is knowing the book has found an audience and has sparked some interesting discussions.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I am very superstitious about talking about my current project, so I will only say that it is set in South Africa. In 2009, my husband’s job took us to Johannesburg for a year, and I fell in love with the country. While I was there, I started to write a new novel, and that is the one I am working on now.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: This is a very good question, and one I am grappling with as we speak. Years ago, I told my children that I would never have a Facebook page. Well, never say never. I have one now — as well as a website and a Twitter account. While I am enduringly grateful to the many people who have taken time to read my book and to comment on it, I have to admit that I am not naturally suited to social networking. I tend to be a quiet person, saving my words for my work, so everything to do with publicizing the book -- talks, interviews, and social media -- presents a new set of challenges. I am trying to balance those things in a way that allows me to get back to writing, which is something I really love.

What one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: 1. Read. John Barthes told his writing students to stop reading innocently, and I second that advice. Try to discover out how your literary heroes did it.
2. Stick with it. Be honest with yourself about what isn’t working, and try again.
3. Don’t give in to writer’s block. There is always something you can do: reread a favourite author; edit an old chapter or piece; put your character in a strange situation and see what he or she does; do research for some aspect of your work; visit an art museum (at least this works for me).

Thank you for your time!

To win a copy of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, please fill in this form. The competition will end on the 9th July. Good luck!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

In conversation with... Vanessa Gebbie

Hello Vanessa! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Coward’s Tale, out in paperback at the end of March. Can you please tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you very much! The book is the story of a small town in south Wales, where Laddy Merridew, a boy of ten, has been sent to stay with his grandmother while his parents sort out their failing marriage. He befriends an old man called Ianto Jenkins - a beggar who lives in the chapel porch. In exchange for a coffee or some sweets, Ianto will tell stories - funny, sad, poignant and strange - about the people of the town, and why some of them do eccentric things. The stories all go back to a coal-mining accident on a September day several generations ago. But for all the storytelling, Ianto has bever told anyone the story of what happened to him that day. He seems to recognise someone in the young boy - and begins to reveal his own story for the first time.

You now live in Lewes, East Sussex, but you’re originally from Wales. How much of The Coward’s Tale, which is set in a Welsh mining community, was drawn from your own experiences and how much is just the fruit of your imagination and research?

A: I was adopted by a couple from Merthyr Tydfil, a large town in the valleys of south Wales. They’d had to leave Wales to find jobs, but both families were in Merthyr, and at every opportunity we went back and stayed with my paternal grandmother, who I adored. So the setting of the novel is based on the streets I remember, the buildings - library, school, cinema - but with plenty of artistic licence! It wasn’t really a mining community then, most of the mines had already closed, but the evidence was there. There is a lot of imagination in the novel - but I needed to focus on the realities for the details of the mine in the book, and concentrated on a mine called Senghennydd for research, and a tragic accident that happened there in 1913.

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing The Coward’s Tale or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?

A: Absolutely not - I don't do much plotting, I’m afraid - which has its own advantages and disadvantages - I had a lot of work to do to tidy the completed first draft. The whole novel took six years to write (or thereabouts) but I was never only writing that - I also worked on my other three books at the same time - writing two collections of short stories and editing a text book.
When I write, I think of it as ‘telling myself a story’, so I just write and follow my nose as I go. It was lovely - plenty of things happened that really surprised me, and I love that!

Which of the novel’s characters are you fonder of? Are there any characters that you don’t particularly like but that you think the fictional Welsh village wouldn’t be the same without?

A: I like and admire all my main characters, but the ones I am most intrigued by are Laddy (the boy) and Ianto (the old man) whose story forms the backbone of the book. Do I dislike any - probably black-skirted Nan isn’t my favourite - but as she is partly based on my own maternal grandmother, I’d better be careful! I actually was frightened of my own nan - she wore long black skirts and ankle boots, and was a real matriarch.

The Coward’s Tale was first published as hardcover book in November last year. What feedback have you received from the public?

A: I have been lucky - there have been some very lovely reviews left by readers on Amazon and on Goodreads, and I am hugely grateful for those. I have also had some great messages through my website, from people who have loved it enough to tell me so - quite a few from Wales, which pleases me enormously.

The book came out in the USA earlier this year, and again, I have had some lovely messages out of the blue from readers who have picked it up thanks to the intriguing cover, which is very different to either of the UK ones. The lastest is from a professor of literature and writing at a college in New Jersey - he tells me he is going to put it on the curriculum for his undergraduates next year. That is so lovely to know - I am going to keep in touch, and interact with the students when they have read it - answer questions and so forth.

Talking about the two UK covers, which one do you prefer? Assuming that you didn’t have any input in the selection process, would you have chosen something different?

A: But I did have input - Bloomsbury were brilliant. They asked me right up front what I would like, and I ummed and aahed and came up with a list of things - a statue, preferably Dalou’s Le Grand Paysan’, feathers, and leaves, and maybe the boy and the beggar - and when I saw Holly MacDonald’s interpretation for the hardback jacket, I was really moved. The only changes she needed to do for me were tweaking the character silhouettes. The whole is rather like an Eric Ravillious woodcut - very appropriate for a writer living in Sussex. The hardback cover is designed to appeal to serious reviewers, and it certainly worked.
The paperback is designed to appeal to a different readership, broader and younger. I was sent one cover image and loved it immediately. I now know it was one of several discussed at Bloomsbury, and have seen the alternatives, unusually - and they were so right to pick this one. With that bright reddish-orange sky, It is easy to pick out the book in Smiths and Waterstones!

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I am working on lots of things... the one that will hit the shelves first is the second edition of Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story which is scheduled to come out with Salt Publishing in 2012. I am adding new chapters to an already strong mix. The new chapters are terrific- from some amazing talented writers who are also gifted teachers.
I am also working on the next novel. Provisionally entitled Kit, it is a sequel and a prequel to The Coward’s Tale... and will take me a long time. Don’t hold your breath!
And never being one to hang around, I am self-publishing a collection of short short short pieces together with an artist colleague, this year. Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures will make it five books in five years.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: Of course, they do disrupt. That is one reason I go away to write - with a laptop that does not know the codes to get into the broadband at my chosen writing retreat! I go across to Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat in Ireland, and have been doing so since 2005. Later in the year I am trying out a new place in Devon - and in the winter, I will be in Scotland on a Hawthornden Fellowship - a whole month with no internet or phone signal. Gee whizz.
Having said all that, I think it is really important to interact with writers and readers, and Facebook and Twitter facilitate that really well. Maybe you do have to limit the time spent - but I dont find that a problem. I’m not one of these amazing people who tweets about 500 times a day. I run a blog, and update that when I feel like it. It gets about 500 readers a week.
I do tweet a writing prompt every morning, under #StoryGym. You dont have to follow @vanessagebbie to access those.

How did your first book deal come about and what one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: My first book deal was with Salt Publishing back in 2007/8, and the book was a collection of mostly prizewinning stories - Salt is an independent publisher and produces beautiful books. I sent them a few stories, and they jumped - I was delighted.

The best piece of advice I was given is this, “Never stop learning. Never think you’ve ‘got there’ - always try to write better tomorrow than you did today.”

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: I’m always happy to visit local book groups who have read The Coward’s Tale.

Thank you for your time!


A: Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog.

Intrigued? To win a copy of Vanessa Gebbie's The Coward's Tale, please complete this form. One winner will be picked on the 25th June.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Terri Giuliano Long on Writing & Motherhood

I grew up in a big traditional Italian family. Being a mom has always been part of my story, an expectation as well as a dream, an essential part of who I am. It’s only natural that being a mother would shape my life as a writer and it has - both practically and philosophically.

My husband and I have four daughters. We were very young when our eldest was born; in that sense, I’ve lived my life backward. We had children, and then I attended college and graduate school. While our children were growing up, I worked part-time. Although all my jobs involved writing, I didn’t have the luxury then of an apprenticeship in creative writing. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I loved my life – and my jobs. I wrote news and feature articles for the town paper, a column for a regional paper. I edited a newsletter, and wrote copy for marketing, advertising and public relations. This was all great practice.

I attended my first creative writing class in my mid-thirties. Once I did, I was hooked. As a young woman, I’d read mostly spy novels and sweeping sagas like The Thorn Birds. In my thirties, I favored literary fiction, stories about people and families that felt real and pertinent to my own life. Like most authors, I wrote stories similar to the stories I read.

Given the timing, the fact that my life revolved around my family, it’s not surprising that family plays a central role in my body of work. When I wrote In Leah’s Wake our daughters were teenagers. At the time, immersed in their world, I was acutely aware of teen issues and problems. In Leah’s Wake is not our family’s story—not a single event portrayed in the novel happened to us - and I’m not, or at least I hope I’m not, anything like Zoe. But the thoughts and feelings I describe absolutely belong to me and spring from my being a mom.

Like Zoe, I worried constantly. I used to think, if only I knew everything would turn out well; I wouldn’t worry so much. Of course we can’t see into the future, and fear of the unknown kept me on edge.


Addressing Issues Related to Parenting & Parenting Philosophies

The ways in which my philosophy and parenting style were accepted or challenged by others, my fears, my anxieties, the pressure I felt to raise perfect children, inspired and drove In Leah’s Wake. My novel-in-progress, Nowhere to Run, is a psychological thriller, a very different story from In Leah’s Wake, and yet many of these issues and themes repeat.

Parenting is the toughest job in the world, bar none. Unfortunately, children don’t come with instructions. We do the best we can. Really, that’s all we can do. The Tyler family is far from perfect, yet they love one another. Had the community rallied and supported them, Leah might have not have gone down such a terrible path. At heart most teens just want to feel accepted and loved – not for what they accomplish or contribute, but for who they are. When problems arise or when teens go astray, the fallout affects the entire community.

These themes of community and communal responsibility run through both novels. This repetition of themes is, of course, common with novelists. Like anyone else, authors are driven by our internal beliefs, philosophies and assumptions. We all have what my college philosophy professor called “mobiles,” or internal motivators that we may or may not be conscious of. For better or worse, novelists tend to be more introspective than the general populace; we’re always thinking and digging, trying to scratch the itches that most normal people let go. Those itches become storylines or themes in our work. This is certainly true for me – it’s one of the myriad ways that being a mother has influenced me as a writer.

I feel tremendously blessed to be a mother and doubly blessed to be a mother of daughters. My family means everything to me and they come first, before anything or anyone else. If my children need me, I attend to their needs. As with many moms I know, this affects my productivity. I admire writers who can pump out a book every year. I doubt that I’ll ever achieve that goal. This makes me neither a martyr nor a hero. It simply makes me a mom!

About Terri
Terri Giuliano Long is a contributing writer for IndieReader and Her Circle eZine. She has written news and features for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, began as her master’s thesis. For more information, please visit her website. Or connect on Facebook, Twitter or Blog.

And... for a chance to win a copy of In Leah's Wake, simply enter a comment below and make sure I have a way to contact you. The prize draw will take place on 18th June.