Friday 25 November 2016

A Conversation with Elle Wild

Elle Wild grew up in a dark, rambling farmhouse in the wilds of Canada where there was nothing to do but read Edgar Allan Poe and watch PBS mysteries. She is an award-winning short filmmaker and the former writer/host of the radio program Wide Awake on CBC Radio One. Her short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Magazine and her articles have appeared in The Toronto Star, Georgia Straight, and Westender. Wild’s debut novel, Strange Things Done, won the Arthur Ellis Award 2015 for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel, and was shortlisted in multiple contests internationally. Recently returned from the U.K., Wild currently resides on an island in the Salish Sea named after the bones of dead whales.

As winter closes in and the roads snow over in Dawson City, Yukon, newly arrived journalist Jo Silver investigates the dubious suicide of a local politician and quickly discovers that not everything in the sleepy tourist town is what it seems. Before long, law enforcement begins treating the death as a possible murder and Jo is the prime suspect.

What a wonderful dark, quirky, and complex debut novel this is. Canada’s north was never more sinister. Jo Silver is a character who needs more than one book.”
                                – Ian Hamilton, author of the internationally bestselling Ava Lee series

The deeper that Jo is drawn into the investigation, the more she finds that everyone is hiding something. Ultimately, Jo must piece together fragments of her own memory about the night in question, culminating in a startling revelation. 

Strange Things Done is a top-notch thriller — a tense and stylish crime novel that explores the double themes of trust and betrayal against a snow-swept backdrop of the Canadian north. We would like to thank Elle for taking part in A Conversation... and wish her luck with her writing for the future.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

My journey to publishing has been rather circuitous. I spent years as a short filmmaker, then worked in advertising, wrote and hosted a CBC radio show in Canada, and then finally began my novel during an Artist in Residency stint in Dawson City, in the Yukon. I continued working on the story when I moved to the U.K., and finally entered the manuscript in some contests there. It was shortlisted in the “Criminal Lines” contest by London literary agency A.M. Heath and in the Harvill Secker/Telegraph Crime Competition, among others, and finally won the Arthur Ellis Award in Canada for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel, which is when it was picked up for publication. Strange Things Done launched in North America on September 24th and is coming soon to the U.K.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

My favourite thing about being a writer is doing a lot of daydreaming. When Strange published this fall, it felt like I’d downloaded a long daydream in book form that someone else could then upload to their brain and enjoy. It’s a funny feeling – but a pretty wonderful one. I kept sneaking into Chapters Indigo in Vancouver to see my book on the “W” shelf next to Irvine Welsh. It still feels very surreal.

I see the role of writer as being primarily to entertain an audience and provide a passport into another world.  That said, I think there’s also an opportunity whenever someone spends time in another person’s head to experience empathy, another perspective, another culture, and to increase our understanding of the human condition.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

I empathise with all of the characters in my novel and short stories, even the ones I wouldn’t spend time with if they existed in real life. I’m fascinated by the grey area that exists in all human beings. To me, the most interesting characters in literature are the ones who operate in that moral grey area; they’re the characters who are most in conflict, and conflict creates drama and forces difficult but interesting choices. As a reader, I love it when an author gets me to understand a character’s choice and empathise with them, even if it is the wrong choice from a moral perspective. In Strange Things Done, I tried to create a world where everyone is keeping secrets and making dubious choices, but hopefully the reader will nonetheless empathise with the characters.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

One of the main characters in my debut novel is Canadian First Nations, from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in band in Dawson City, Yukon. The Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC) helped pair me with a representative of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in while I was in Dawson researching the story, so that I might be able to ask questions about who I thought the character might be, and to better establish what might drive my character, what kind of issues he would face, and what his own personal conflicts might be. All of the details were called into question, things like where the character might live, or whether or not he would still be single if he were older, (unlikely, I was told, as people marry much younger in the North). I had to change the age of my character, and many of the little details about him and what made him tick. I was extremely fortunate to have that kind of research assistance.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Oh, that’s a challenging question, as I am a person who is torn equally between two places, the U.K. and Canada. Here in Canada, I live on an island off the rugged coast of BC. I’m spoiled with lush fern and forest views from the window of my home office, and I’m a five-minute drive to the beach. Often, though, I miss my old loft office in the Victorian house we owned in the U.K., and the views of rolling farmland just outside the charming village of Box, near Bath. Given the choice, I’d flit back and forth between the two worlds at random. At the moment, I settle for importing my old Box neighbours in from the U.K. for summer and winter holidays. I try to get back whenever I can to visit, and to research my next novel, which is set in Victorian London and Dorset.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

I wish I’d written Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It’s a wonderful story, speaking of empathy and characters who operate in the moral grey area.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

I think you have to be prepared to set your first ten drafts on fire, and just keep the story evolving. Have trusted readers provide critiques of each draft. Then put it away for a while and come back to it with a fresh perspective. Try not to absorb the negative remarks yet also try to learn from them. (It’s a difficult balance to find, but I think it becomes easier with time.) Ignore anyone who tells you that getting published is difficult or impossible. Persevere. Believe.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

Ooh, I’m so excited to start working properly on the next novel. This story is a historical mystery set in Victorian London and Dorset, called The Secret Bones. Can’t say more than that at the moment, but I will keep you posted.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Probably Alice in Wonderland, because I always admired her great (if troublesome) curiosity and willingness to plunge herself into strange new worlds.

Strange Things Done is published by Dundurn Press

You can follow Elle on Twitter: @ElleWild_Writer

Thursday 17 November 2016

Writing Friendships

Writing Friendships took place at City University, last night and was introduced by Novel Studio tutors Emily Midorikawa and Emma Sweeney. As long-time friends who have supported each other's careers from the beginning, authors Emily and Emma know just how important building strong links with other writers can be.

They were joined by novelist Susan Barker, novelist and non-fiction writer Ann Morgan, and poet Denise Saul.

From LtoR: Emily Midorikawa, Emma Sweeney, Susan Baker, Denise Saul and
Ann Morgan  

The evening started with Ann Morgan who spoke about the ideas behind writing A Year of Reading the World. This started when Ann decided to read a book from every country in the world within a year and recorded this journey on the blog. The problems were many and and when she got to Burundi, the chances of finding a book that had been translated into to English were looking remotely slim. She turned to the refugee community and sent out some emails. She had an email from Edouard. He told of his old classmate from Burundi who had published two novels in English. Her name was Marie-Thérèse Toyi. She had lived through the Burundi genocide and relayed this through her fictional characters in Weep Not, Refugee. Ann also told us about the novelist Hamid Ismailov, Uzbek journalist, who was put on a watch hit list and whose books were burnt in the street. He and his family fled Uzbekistan to Switzerland. He explained after he fled he was removed from his audience. He had no one to write for and had to deal with the pain of being exiled from his language. Marie-Thérèse and Hamid were two of the big writing relationships from the book and Ann is still in touch with them today. She also said that whatever challenges we have, we all have barriers - confronting those barriers is very important and at the moment we still have freedom of speech and that we must fight to preserve that.

Next up was Susan Barker who told us about her non-writer writing friendship with Liang Junhong, in Shanghai. Susan had gone there to do research for a novel. She met Arts Officer, Liang at the British Council in 2007. She helped Susan find somewhere to live and also with the everyday things like joining a library, or speaking to electricians - though she couldn't help with the smog, Susan had gone to Shanghai to immerse herself in the culture and history but more often than not found herself locked in her room searching Shanghai on the Internet. Liang dragged her out and she learnt a lot through her. Susan found the transition from the UK to China difficult, the language in particular and without Liang's support she wondered if she would have coped. The research eventually became her third novel The Incarnations (Doubleday, July 2014) about a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing and interwoven with tales from the Tang Dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty, the Opium War, and the Cultural Revolution.

Poet Denise Saul spoke about her writing relationship with the charity Connect and how through her personal experience of aphasia, her late mother had a stroke, she created the videopoem: The Aphasic Mind. She went on to found the project Silent Room: A Journey of Language. This was a collaboration between Denise and film-maker, Helmie Stil. Aphasia is a communication disability which occurs when the language centres of the brain are damaged. The video poem focuses on language from the perspective of ‘the outsider’ or those who engage with an aphasic individual. Denise wanted to break down barriers in her writing and enter into new spaces, the carer's narrative and the disabled black body to bridge the gap and settle in those spaces. Denise said that everyone should be able to communicate and that it is important to explore other spaces as well as other disciplines. She added that she didn't really know what friendship was, it was slippery to her. She spoke more about the friendship of pleasure, of utility and virtue and that for her it was often about utility. Her top five tips for friendship included: creating and occupying new spaces; networking; accountability - she liked it when friends asked if she had finished a poem or collection, it kept her on her toes; collaboration - don't be afraid to cross boundaries; and sharing space.

Finally Emily Midorikawa  spoke about how she and Emily Sweeney had met in 2001 in a remote part of Japan. It was quite sometime after they met that they finally admitted they were both writing. They then began to post each other letters of writing and anxiously wait for feedback. Emily spoke of how literary friendships are important for writers. They began to discuss other writing relationships and realised the well-known writers were often about men Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth and Coleridge for example. They wondered if Charlotte Bronte had a writer friend apart from family members or Virginia Woolf in the male dominated Bloomsbury Set. They discovered there were female friendships but they hadn't been mythologised in the same way as the men. Emma and Emily went from friends who had something in common to actively working together both as tutors, and collaborators on a project. They created the blog Something Rhymed. This celebration of female literary friendship includes past authors as well as contemporary writers. From the blog came their forthcoming book: A Secret Sisterhood, which will look at the literary bonds between Jane Austen and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontë and feminist author, Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

A Secret Sisterhood will be published, by Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA, in late 2017. The year coincides with the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death.

The panel shared their own experiences of literary friendship and offering practical advice for new and experienced writers on ways in which they can forge and develop meaningful writing relationships of their own.

As the event came to a close and myself and Lindsay, my writing friend made our way home, I reflected on our literary friendship...

Saturday 5 November 2016

A Conversation with Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith teaches creative writing at the University of Southampton, and is the author of three novels: The Bluebird Café, Happy Birthday and All That and A Bit of Earth as well as a work of nonfiction, Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas. Her first novel for children, Shadow Eyes, was shortlisted for the 2012 Kelpies Prize. From 2009–2010 she was the Writer in Residence at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton. She lives in Southampton.

In her latest work of nonfiction, The Jane Austen Writers Club, (paperback published today) Rebecca examines the major aspects of writing fiction - plotting, characterization, openings and endings, dialogue, settings, and writing methods--sharing the advice Austen gave in letters to her aspiring novelist nieces and nephew, and providing many and varied exercises for writers to try, using examples from Austen's work.

Pretty much anything anyone needs to know about writing can be learned from Jane Austen. While creative writing manuals tend to use examples from twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers, The Jane Austen Writers' Club is the first to look at the methods and devices used by the world's most beloved novelist. Austen was a creator of immortal characters and a pioneer in her use of language and point of view; her advice continues to be relevant two centuries after her death.

Bursting with useful exercises, beautiful illustrations and enlightening quotations from the classic author’s novels and letters – and written by none other than Austen’s five-times-great-niece – this book will teach you her methods, tips and tricks, from techniques of plotting and characterisation through to dialogue and suspense.

“This book channels Jane Austen so convincingly I wasn't at all surprised to learn that Rebecca Smith is her five-time great niece. Smith doesn't just use Austen's writing to illustrate important points in creating fiction, but offers letters where Jane advised aspiring writers on their craft. She even has a few saucy tricks up her sleeve that are surprisingly modern--such as torturing your darlings.” – Book Trib

Jane Austen is one of the most beloved writers in the English literary canon. Her novels changed the landscape of fiction forever, and her writing remains as fresh, entertaining and witty as the day her books were first published. We'd like to thank Rebecca for taking part in A Conversation with and wish her many congratulations on today's (1st June 2017), publication of the paperback version of The Jane Austen Writers' Club.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I started writing when I was a teenager. My mother, Shena Mackay, is a writer so I grew up thinking that being a writer was very normal. When I was a student I started what would have been a truly dreadful novel. The title was from Candide… I’m so impressed by the things my undergraduate students write – a thousand times better than anything I was doing when I was their age. The first novel I finished was The Bluebird Café. I started it just after I’d finished university but it took me ages to complete as I didn’t focus on it properly until I was on maternity leave with my first child, Harry. I worked in short bursts when he was asleep; somehow having less time made me work much more efficiently.

I didn’t do an MA in Creative Writing as they hardly existed when I was starting out. I would love to have done one. If I had I would probably have completed The Bluebird Café much sooner. What I did do was read - that is the most important education for a writer. Bloomsbury bought The Bluebird Café and commissioned my next two novels (Happy Birthday and All That and A Bit of Earth). I was very lucky. I work best to deadlines. Since then I’ve written a novel for children, Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas and The Jane Austen Writers’ Club and have just about finished another novel, but hardly anyone has seen it yet.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I can’t say I’ve ever really thought about “my role as a writer”. Writers write. I like telling stories, inventing characters and trying to capture places at particular times. I like thinking about the shape and structure of what I’m working on. With my non-fiction I aim for clarity and I hope to entertain. In my Jane Austen books I’ve wanted to communicate my love for her work and to share what I’ve learnt from her novels, letters and spending so many happy hours at Jane Austen’s House Museum. The Jane Austen Writers’ Club grew from the workshops I’ve run at the Museum.

I’m very lucky to be a writer. I love the days when I’m at home and writing, that’s the most enjoyable thing, The earliest stages of a book are the most exciting, but I like the editing and polishing stages too. You have to be tireless and meticulous if you want to get things right, obsessive really. Writers aren’t the easiest people to live with.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

In Happy Birthday and All That, husband and wife, Frank and Posy Parouselli are both a bit dreadful but I wanted readers to sympathise with them equally. The novel’s ending comes down more on Posy’s side, but actually I feel sorrier for Frank.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I had an Indian grandmother who, very sadly, died when my father was little. In the novel I’m just finishing I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for a woman like her, having children with a white tea planter in India in the 1930s and 40s. The novel isn’t about her or my family, but I have been inspired by some letters and photos. That novel spans 100 years and I have a diverse range of characters.

My first three novels are set in contemporary Southampton. I came to Southampton as a student in the 80s and have got to know the city well. I would never try to write about a character whose voice and point of view I didn’t think I could capture effectively. I do enjoy creating characters of varying ages and backgrounds.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I’m really lucky to have been the Writer in Residence at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire so have already spent time writing in one of the loveliest places imaginable.

I would choose to go to Klovharu, the tiny Finnish island where Tove Jansson lived and worked. (See ) I would love to visit there. I don’t think anybody not related to her would or should be allowed to stay in her house, so perhaps I could have a temporary hut next to it. I adore her writing, not just the Moomins, but her fiction for adults, and her drawings and paintings. I feel very drawn to the north and would also like to visit other parts of Scandinavia, Iceland, Alaska, anywhere within the Arctic Circle…

What is the one book you wish you had written?

There are too many to pick just one. Emma by Jane Austen, Howards End by E M Forster, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and A Winter Book, Lorrie Moore’s short stories and novels, all of Carson McCuller’s work, Anne Tyler’s novels, particularly Saint Maybe, Dinner at The Homesick Restaurant, Searching for Caleb, A Patchwork Planet and Morgan’s PassingDogger by Shirley Hughes and The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr are perfection.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Read. That is what Jane Austen would say too. I hope would be novelists will find The Jane Austen Writers’ Club useful. I’ve tried to put everything I’ve learnt from Jane Austen and from my own experience of writing into that.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’ve pretty much finished a novel. My one after that is going to be set in a seaside town. I’m going back to using a contemporary setting – much easier.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Garnet Linden of Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright which was first published in 1938.

Garnet was halfway between nine and ten. She had long legs and long arms, two taffy-coloured pigtails, a freckled nose that turned up, and eyes that were almost green and almost brown. She wore a pair of blue overalls cut off above the knee. She could whistle between her teeth like a boy and was doing it now, very softly, without thinking.”

Garnet finds a silver thimble when she’s swimming in a creek and a strange and wonderful summer ensues. This novel for 7 to 12 year olds is perfect in every way – characters, setting, plot, structure. I realised after I’d finished my first two novels that it had been a huge influence on me and my writing. I adored it when I was a child. Elizabeth Enright also wrote The Saturdays which is the perfect book to read if you are ill in bed, particularly if you are under 13.

The Jane Austen Writers Club is published by Bloomsbury.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @RMSmithAuthor

Thank you to Bloomsbury for the review copy