Year of Indie Debuts : Magnetism – Ruth Figgest

Firstly an apology for the delay in posting the next in my series of Indie Debut blogs, I can only plead real life getting in the way, along with a healthy dose of snow!

But I’m back and this time speaking to Ruth Figgest about her novel, Magnetism, published by Myriad.

Hi Ruth, thanks for speaking to me about your book and your writing. Your story moved back and forth through time with ease, never losing the reader, so how do you manage to keep us on board? What techniques do you find helps in anchoring the narrative without being heavy handed?

Bearing in mind that it could potentially be frustrating for a reader, I tried to incorporate the real world into the story, in order for the reader to get references to historical events. In the first two chapters there are also references in the text to indicate the shift about to happen. I’ve  worked on ensuring that the voices of the characters remain in keeping with the times (in terms of terminology and what’s happening in the world) and their age at the time of the chapter. It’s all hugely helped by having the date of each chapter at the start, of course.

You kind of tell the story backward, so it to me it does have the sense of an autobiography, which lends a certain kind of veracity to the character’s stories. What strengths do you think starting with both an end and a beginning bring to your writing?

I think it’s really important to understand the story arc, that in writing a story you are constantly working toward the end. I’m pleased that it encouraged the sense of veracity about the characters by laying out the story of their lives through this structure. I had hoped that it would encourage interest in the material and create an satisfying tension for the reader, who (almost) always knows more about the future of the characters than they do.

I am very interested in playing around with time. We never remain fully in the present. We experience thoughts and associations constantly; our minds drift back to the past, and forward to the future. The inclusion of the past in this story allows the reader to understand the characters at a deeper level.

Having said that, it’s important for the writer to know the actual chronological experience of the characters, because otherwise it won’t make sense to the reader. The novel was written out of sequence. I came to understand the characters more and more in the process of creation and then I also added work that I thought would be useful for characterisation and plot development, but I always knew that Caroline would die, and that it would be a key dramatic development for Erica. 

The mother – daughter relationship, does it ever, can it ever run smoothly? I loved the way you write them, how the mother gives this impression on one hand of being laid back and not interfering in her daughter’s life and yet the second later is doing exactly that, attempting to control her in the same breath as protesting that she isn’t. I’m not going to ask if this is built on real life experience here, but is it based on real life observations?

I honestly don’t know what smoothly might look like because I think people are messy and imperfect and intimate relationships between messy and imperfect people are ripe with opportunities for misunderstandings and clashes as they each try to figure out what they want and who they want to be. Real life observations and personal experience tell me that a new mother is still in the process of becoming. She brings her fear, her immaturity and her baggage as well as her aspirations to parenting. 

Parents usually try their best to make their children feel secure and loved and confident, but their best might not be good enough or apt, because children are all different. It’s a fine line between supporting and stifling because it’s all too easy to fail to see a child as separate from yourself. It’s a formula for failure on both sides. Children have an idea of their parents which is incomplete; they fail to see their parents as individuals outside of their role. Parents can have issues with letting go, of allowing their children to be different, to want different things, to become grown-ups.

The plastic surgery in the book is such an interesting dynamic, and the sense that even though now we can ‘fix’ everything we don’t like about ourselves, we still remain unsatisfied. Was that something you wanted to explore in the story?

Yes. I wanted to explore the experience of women with regard to ageing and appearance. In the environment of this book plastic surgery is common place. I think the mother, Caroline, wants her daughter, Erica, to have a more pleasing appearance because she thinks it might improve her chances with men and a beautiful daughter might also reflect well upon her. But there’s a sense of anxiety about this even for Caroline. Though she pushes a young Erica to have surgery, she resists getting her own teeth cosmetically enhanced. The search for this kind of “perfection” becomes never ending and never satisfying. It is the result of fear. In the future the faces of people who die of old age may look forty years old, but they’ll still be dead.

How do you create the atmosphere in all the different locations and timescales you use? What research tools do you find helpful?

I think you have to think about popular culture, products, technology and clothing as well as attitudes. Checking out what was happening at the time of the story historically was helpful for structuring the story. I thought about putting the characters in situations where they think about events in the bigger world, and the growth of feminism, and of drug use and sexual freedoms are always in the background of the novel. I also tried to include climate in the book. In the Midwest, summer humidity and heat pervades absolutely everything.

What are you writing now, another American setting or somewhere else this time?

I always try to have two or more things on the go at once, so that I don’t take anything so seriously that I get anxious about it. It also means if one thing seems to be stuck, there’s something else to work on. I am presently making good progress with a novel which is based in Oxford, but I’m also working on a couple of other stories. One set in Turkey fifteen years ago, and another based in the UK. I’m sure I’ll write about an American setting again, but maybe not immediately.

What does your writing day look like?

There’s something about the rhythm of walking that helps me with beginning to write. I daydream about my characters and, when I’m driving or when I’ve got free time, I think with intention about their lives and potential plot developments. I’m a morning person so the best day is a very early walk with the dog and writing until the rest of my responsibilities press in and force me to stop.

I have a wonderful study and I climb up the stairs to work with expectation and a sense of excitement. I almost always write to classical music and I usually start by transcribing longhand work from my current notebook onto the screen, or with something I know needs more tweaking to make it good. This starting point gets me back into the work smoothly and after a while, I find that I’m writing new material and I can see the way ahead. This is a lovely sensation and at this point I allow myself to make a coffee because I know exactly where I’m going when I get back to the computer. Every few weeks I write with others at my home – we call it a “Just write” session – People can come and go as needed, but most turn up at ten and write without discussion until one o’clock when we might then chat about what we’ve been doing. It’s a good energy, this writing with others. 

And for my silly question, are you a long walk in the cold sort of person, or would you rather be waiting in the pub for everyone else to get there?

I’m guessing it’s the afternoon or evening, so I’m definitely waiting in the pub watching people while day dreaming, or reading a book. I’m extremely happy to wait in these circumstances.


You can buy Ruth’s book here, and if you have a mother I think you’ll find it hits home and makes you both grimace and grin as you read it.



Year of Indie Debuts: After Leaving the Village by Helen Matthews

For the latest indie debuts interview, I’m speaking with Author Helen Matthews about her novel ‘After Leaving the Village,’ published by published by Hashtag Press. I often ask authors about their journey to publication, because that’s an achievement in and of itself, but hers is a little different again in that she’s had support from the charity, Unseen, who work to end human slavery. I

Helen, how are you involved with the Unseen charity and how has it helped to create your novel?

To answer your questions about my involvement with the charity Unseen – it wasn’t a collaboration, as such, but came about by chance when I  decided I was going to write a novel about human trafficking and was looking for research material. I started writing ‘After Leaving the Village’ in 2013 and human trafficking was not a high profile news story as it is now. It was actually quite difficult to find material until I discovered case studies (survivors’ stories) published by charities, including Unseen. When I learned about their work, I became a supporter and began to make a monthly donation to Unseen to sponsor a hostel room for a trafficking survivor.  While I was writing the novel, I rang their office on a couple of occasions to ask a question and, when my novel was finished, their founder and director, Kate Garbers kindly agreed to read it through to check it was factually accurate. (Similar to when you’ve written a crime novel and ask a police officer friend to read it through).

Fortunately Kate loved the story and was sufficiently impressed with the quality of my writing to offer to write a Foreword for the novel. They’ve helped me to promote the book by featuring it on their Facebook page and in a newsletter sent to supporters. We’re also doing a joint fundraising event in the New Year. I decided to donate a percentage of profits from the book to Unseen to help support the fight against slavery. More recently, Unseen has appointed me an Ambassador for the charity and invited me to  a training session, so I’m now an accredited speaker and able to give presentations about their work alongside promoting my book.

That’s really interesting, and it must feel good to think your book is working to help people who’s real-life stories are like your main character, Odeta’s. You’ve written a book which is a good read first and foremost, even though it tackles some difficult subjects. How do you think a writer can balance the passion they have to draw attention to an injustice, with their passion to tell a good story?

It’s good advice, if not always practical, to write with your potential readers in mind. If I think about what I look for as a reader (and I read many genres, from commercial to literary), the books that satisfy me most offer something more than just escapism, convincing characters and a plot that rattles along. When I’m investing time in a book, I like to learn something about the world or gain an insight into human nature. In a contemporary novel, I love a ‘state of the nation’ theme (Ali Smith’s Autumn; Zadie Smith’s NW; Capital by John Lanchester).

While researching human trafficking, I discovered that the top country of origin of victims trafficked into the UK was Albania, so I decided this was where my character, Odeta, would come from. I’d never been to Albania and my initial research was from articles, travel guides, maps, Google Earth and watching YouTube videos. When my novel was at final draft stage I realised I’d have to visit Albania to make sure details were accurate. While there, I arranged to spend an afternoon visiting a family in a village (though not as remote as Odeta’s). Their daily life, their home and their approach to entertaining guests were uncannily similar to what I’d dreamt up in my imagination. They even owned a shop – though theirs sold hardware and auto spares, not groceries.

My major concern was whether young Albanians would speak more English than Odeta because this is an important plot point in my novel. Of course, the older generation learnt only Russian and, for decades of the twentieth century, Albanians weren’t permitted to travel abroad. I found that students and Albanians who’d travelled abroad did speak some English but I was relieved to find, once we left the capital, Tirana, even young waiters in a roadside café couldn’t understand my simple request for a bottle of water.

As a novelist you can’t overstuff your story with all the facts learnt from research, however fascinating. You have to let go and trust your characters to take the action forward so your story doesn’t buckle under the weight of research.

Well, your research paid off because your book is amazingly evocative, her village life is delicately and convincingly brought to life in your writing, which makes what happens to her all the more heartbreaking, and her inner strength all the more real. As you say, human trafficking, modern slavery, wasn’t well known about even just a few years ago, and it’s been the work of charities and campaigners which has shone more light on it. How did you first hear about it and decide to research it?

Unseen, the charity I support, has three main aims: supporting survivors and potential victims; equipping stakeholders, such as companies, police forces, health professionals, to recognise the signs, and influencing legislative and system change. Under this third remit, Unseen’s research was instrumental in inspiring government to bring in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The reason we’re better informed now is because, when perpetrators are caught, they are charged appropriately and convicted of modern slavery offences. In the past it was often the victim who was charged with, for example, prostitution or immigration offences.

I’m continually developing ideas for novels and jotting down notes for the next one. My starting point of After Leaving the Village was Kate’s story – her anxiety about her son’s Internet addiction and somewhat radical approach to a digital detox. My working title was Disconnected. As I brainstormed ideas around disempowerment and exclusion, I thought about what it would be like to be forcibly cut off from everything. This led me to research human trafficking and modern slavery. With such a sensitive subject, I took care to honour my character’s humanity and make Odeta a fully-rounded ordinary woman – just like you, or me, or our daughters – rather than the shadowy one-dimensional victims so often seen in the background on TV crime drama.

Where does this in-depth research fit this into your process? Do you write the first draft and then research your hunches, or do you need to establish the research first and then build your story from that?

My starting point is a broad plot outline and an idea for my main characters before doing some initial research. I then write a few chapters to test out whether the characters will live and breathe on the page. Not all stories have legs and some plots fizzle out. Once I’m confident, I get stuck into more extensive research. I write a first draft, checking facts as I go along. I’d strongly recommend finding an expert in the subject to check your manuscript at the end of the process and I was very fortunate that Kate Garbers of Unseen offered to do this for me.

And I think anyone looking to write such an depth novel as this one, would do well to heed that advice! This has been a huge project for you, and of course is still on going as you try and get the word out about your book – but do you have more in the pipeline? Are you writing around the same area, or striking out in a new direction?

I have a new novel underway and an early draft has been read by two beta readers and critiqued by a writer friend, who was on the MA in Creative Writing course with me at Oxford Brookes University. She is a skilful and challenging reviewer and her suggestions involve structural changes. I’m itching to get back to working on it when the launch and promotion phase of After Leaving the Village calms down. The new novel has contemporary themes (my characters will potentially be affected by Brexit, for example), but it’s set in 2016 when the full impact isn’t known. It’s broadly in the suspense thriller category, like my current book, but I’m tweaking it so it will end up slightly closer to the psychological thriller genre.

Brexit  is a challenge for writers like everyone else, it’s an odd time to write near future fiction just because everything is so up for grabs! I’m working on one set in a post Brexit Britain too which is my first foray into urban fantasy – seeing as the possibilities right now seem multitudinous, if not all positive! I always like to end with a daft question – when writing, what’s your guilty pleasure reward for hitting your daily word count?

I’ve a terrible habit of hunching over a laptop all day, staring at the screen or the ceiling. Often, I look up to find it’s 4.00 p.m. and getting dark and I’ve not stuck my nose outside the door all day. So, I go for a walk or, perhaps, a swim, and my guilty snack of choice is Cadbury’s fruit and nut.

So, dedication to the art and craft of writing, proper research and fruit and nut – I think that’s a recipe for writing we’d all do well to follow. After Leaving The Village is a story which works on many levels and as well as being a deep commentary on the way we live now, is a good story too. I was struck by how the young people in the book are all chasing dreams seen from a far, hints of a golden life glimpsed through various social media channels, dream which all too often prove to be dangerous in so many ways. Please do buy a copy and read for yourself, both because it’s a good story with real characters, and because Unseen needs our support for the good work they’re doing.

After Leaving the Village is available in paperback and as an eBook by Find it at Waterstones, Foyles and all good bookshops and on Amazon at

To learn more about anti-slavery charity Unseen go to

To read Helen’s blog and hear about upcoming author events, visit her website

Year of Indie Debuts – Exquisite by Sarah Stovel

This month’s’ books is ‘Exquisite’ by Sarah Stovell.

Hello Sarah, thank you for agreeing to chat about your book, Exquisite, I really enjoyed reading it.

Your writing is frankly amazing and I am in awe of it, which has actually made it quite hard to come up with questions! But I would like to talk about the process of writing such an intense book with two such strong characters. Did you find that they developed at the same time, or were they fighting for your attention as you went along? I wonder if one of them came to you first, or were they both always there at the start?

They were both there, full formed, at the very beginning. I had been thinking of them for years, though, so it wasn’t quite as easy as that makes it sounds.

People often talk about a writer needing a glint of ice in the heart, that we mine personal experience ruthlessly. I think both your characters demonstrate that to the extreme, in different ways. I’m not going to ask if any of this is drawn on your own lived experience, but I am asking if you feel inherently that writers are risky people to get to close to maybe?

No, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t advise anyone to behave so badly to a writer that the writer feels a need to expose them. Because obviously, the writer will go ahead and do that.

The writing retreat in this made me smile, the description of the people there, I think I saw myself among them! I guess I would say this, but they are an amazing opportunity and can have that other world feel as you have time out from the real world to focus on your passion. Have you been on one before?

Yes. I have been on them and taught on them. They can be excellent. Really life-changing.

I like the way you use food in the book, it makes a statement about each of the main characters and the worlds they live in and that they create, especially Bo. How do you feel you the food relates to your story?

The sort of food we eat, like everything, is an indicator of social class (sadly). People at the top of the class-food chain get to munch down on gold. Those at the bottom get a few tins of economy soup from the food bank. This, in turn, will affect a person’s mental health. In ‘Exquisite’, Alice is very vulnerable and often hungry. She can’t cook, or look after herself. Bo, who has more power and wealth, eats well and uses food as a way of nurturing others. This is the first novel where I’ve used food in this way. In my new novel, I take it much further. Food is a big deal.

I think there are parallels between the literary debate over the Wordsworths, the discussion around the William/Dorothy relationship, and your book. Do you feel the two stories relate to each other?

Yes. There is a theme of a love that is so deep and shocking, it transgresses normal boundaries.

I hope that you’’ve written tons of books before this, because if this really is your first book I really will cry – but how have you developed your voice and got to the point of publication with Exquisite?

It’s very hard to pinpoint a smooth line of development in writing, but I would say that my first novel focused mainly on the voices of the characters. As I’ve developed, I have become more interested in landscape (which is something that has become increasingly important to me personally) and psychology. I think this shows in my more recent work.

Are you a baker? (Just thinking of the delicious and yet sinister french bread!)

Yes. I love baking. I’d never get anywhere on the Bake-off because I absolutely can’t be bothered to do a show stopper, but I love making cakes, scones, meringues, desserts, bread…

So, where is your writing heading next?

I’ve almost finished my next book. It’s about a young woman named Annie, whose mother has gone missing. Annie is evicted from her house for not paying the rent and goes to work as a nanny. While there, something happens to a child in her care…

Thank you for coming Sarah and giving us an insight into this novel and your writing process.

In my day job, well, one of them, I teach silversmithing, and one of the things you need to learn about is silver soldering. But soldering, the process of using a metal alloy with a lower melting point to the silver to fuse pieces together, doesn’t work without the use of flux. Flux, most commonly borax, is a glass like mineral which you paint on before you solder, and what it does it prevent the surface of the mental reacting with the silver to form an oxide. If you don’t use flux, the hot metal pulls oxygen from the air and when the solder melts, it fuses to this sooty deposit and the joint will fail.

With a lot of the writing I read, even writing I enjoy, I feel that it’s silver without flux, that there’s a coating on I can’t quite get through and which prevents the book from taking, from fusing completely with my mind. Sarah’s writing is like flux, it’s so good that I didn’t feel like I was reading, but rather that the two main characters were with me or that I was with them, that we were fused. I don’t know how you find the flux your writing needs, I don’t know if I have, but read this book if you want to understand what I mean.

You can get a copy of Exquisite here in print, digital or audio book.

And connect with her @sarahlovescrime on Twitter.





A year of Indie debuts – The Other Twin by Lucy V Hay


In this edition of our Indie debuts series I’m talking to author Lucy Hay about her thriller ‘The Other Twin’ published by Orenda books. It’s set in London on Sea, or Brighton as others may know it, a place which has always been some what subversive and alternative in nature and has attracted delight and dismay in equal measure. Her novel weaves its way through this setting and works itself into the cracks between the outward glitz and underground decadence of the town, and into the lives of two families which are equally enmeshed, one with the other. I opened my interview with her talking about the setting, as for me it came across as a tangible and exciting creation which was central to the book, almost a character in its own right.


Almost like cities such as London and Edinburgh, Brighton has a strong, vivid presence in fiction, which means that many people must come to any new representation of it with a lot of familiarity. How well do you know it as a place and do you feel the weight of all those ‘other’ Brightons behind your writing?

I knew I had to get Brighton right. It’s a vibrant city that has such a significance for so many people, especially the LGBT community. I knew that classics like Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock right through to modern icons like Peter James’ Roy Grace would be compared against my version of Brighton – which people have, in reviews – so yes, that was a pressure. But ultimately, I had to let go of that and bring forth MY vision of Brighton, not recycle someone else’s. So rather than pore feverishly over published content, I went to Brighton and sucked up the atmos there, using my eyes, ears and other senses to really get a ‘feel’ for the place. Hopefully I have transmitted that to the page.

Your novel uses the dichotomy between the public and the private of the internet to great effect, the way that we publish the most intimate thoughts to a world of strangers and yet keep them from our nearest and dearest. How do you feel that sense of sharing and yet not sharing has affected how we live now?

I’m always reminded of Shakespeare’s notion of the ‘whole world’s a stage’ quote when it comes to the internet. We all have online personas now, just as we have public and private ones. How we use these online personas can differ, person to person. For some, the online persona is a ‘work thing’ – they may create a brand and strategy, that is very carefully crafted. For other people, online may be the only place they can speak the truth and truly be themselves. For just as many, it is somewhere in-between.  Social media has so many wonderful applications, especially for women and marginalised people to find their tribes and create opportunities (including work and money). But it also has a dark side: too many people abuse social media – such as trolls – and even more use it to fuel the neverending cycle of outrage we currently live in. It’s become a conformity factory, with perceived transgressors piled on and harassed; those people calling out others then kid themselves they’re raging against the machine and/or taking on the system. It’s a real shame.

There are a lot of hidden identities in the book, some hidden willingly, some desperate to be uncovered. Do you think that the struggle for truth in who you are is at the heart of your writing?

Absolutely. I spent a very long time confused about who I truly was; I felt fragmented, even a fraud. It took me many years to accept my own identity and my – sometimes paradoxical – roles and emotions within it. Life is a journey and I daresay there are still lots of things I will find out about myself yet, too. But unlike before, I am not afraid to do this anymore. I think that’s why I wanted to write about identity and truth in The Other Twin – I feel it is all a matter of perspective, rather than a concrete thing.

Reading your book I did reflect on how what might be called ‘Thrillers’ do seem to have a mostly white, female and middle class cast, especially those centred in a domestic setting rather than all spies and guns, if you know what I mean. Did you set out to write a book with a deliberately more diverse cast of characters?

I feel very strongly that stories of any kind need more variety. As a script editor and blogger at, I identified a need for stories to have more characters than ‘the usual’ a long time ago; not just for ‘political correctness’, but because there are swathes of the audience not being served – it’s good business sense! I have written several non-fiction books about writing, including one on so-called ‘diverse characters’, so it was a no-brainer to take my own advice! Lots of writers shy away from diverse characters like those from the LGBT or BAME communities, because they’re afraid of getting it ‘wrong’. I can understand and relate to this worry, because I felt it too. But I picked LGBT and BAME characters because of a genuine interest and feeling of solidarity with both communities; my friends and acquaintances sharing their own stories literally helped me inform the narrative. Their POVs were absolutely invaluable and I feel very grateful they shared their perspectives with me. There would have been no story without them.

Do you start a book with an idea of where the plot is going, or do you pick up a thread and see where it follows?

It depends. With The Other Twin, I saw the ending and ‘big reveal’ in my head, clear as day – as if it was a memory, like it really happened. I could see and feel it so clearly, right down to the location and the sense of urgency. From there, I asked myself: WHO are these characters? WHAT is happening? WHY? HOW did they get here? Though the ways of getting there changed through the many drafts, that ending never did.

Assuming this is your first published book, or even if it’s not, I imagine like most of us it’s one in a long and worthy line of nearly theres and also rans, so what do you think you’ve learned about your writing by being published?

Every book teaches you something in my experience. The Other Twin is my first crime novel and what I have learned from this one is how much difference an editor who really ‘gets’ the book makes. Both Karen Sullivan and West Camel at Orenda Books challenged me every step of the way to bring my best game to drafting process, they went through every line with the classic fine toothcomb! I was allowed to get away with NOTHING. The fiends!

Where is your next book set, will you stay in Brighton or are you moving to a new location?

Book 2 for Orenda is set in Epsom, Surrey. So very middle-class, white and straight … in both senses of the word. Probably the antithesis to Brighton, in fact!

Cats or dogs?

Cats, obviously. I have five of my own, I’m a crazy cat lady in training. When my kids have left home I plan to rant and rave and throw cats at everyone like the woman from THE SIMPSONS. It’s going to be awesome.

BIO: @LucyVHayAuthor is a novelist, script editor and blogger who helps writers. Lucy is the producer of two Brit Thrillers, DEVIATION (2012) and ASSASSIN (2015). Her debut crime novel, THE OTHER TWIN, is due out with Orenda Books in 2017. Check out  here website HERE and all her books, HERE.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Other Twin’ as I am a sucker for a deep dark secret and the machinations people go through to keep it a secret. I found the main character appealing enough to want to go with her for the ride, and the world through which she traveled felt authentic and enticing. It also had a touch of glamour which one doesn’t often see in British set thrillers, which was a nice contrast to the darker side of the writing – I kept getting flashes of sequins and marble floors, bright lights and designer labels, like a brittle shell over murky waters. It also tackles some uncomfortable issues head on, in a way which wasn’t overly preachy, and it did give pause to reflect not only on what was happening in the plot, but what the book was subtly saying about the genre. So, if you fancy some nitty-gritty-glittery thriller action, this is definitely worth buying, and if you like Lucy’s work, it’s really good to see she’s got plans for many more with her supportive and high quality publishers, Orenda, who are certainly ones to keep tabs on.  And right now the Kindle edition of THE OTHER TWIN is on a 99p promotion, so there’s no excuse not to grab a copy!

Year of Indie Debuts: The May Queen

For the next in our series looking at Indie debuts, we’re speaking with Helen Irene Young about her novel The May Queen. It’s a light yet poignant coming of age novel, opening just before the start of world war two, following May as she struggles against the expectations of society and the privations of war to find herself and her love.

Hello Helen and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions about your novel. We (us authors I mean) are  always being asked to class our writing as one genre or another, and I suppose I’d class The May Queen both as women’s fiction and historical fiction, have you decided which it is? Will you write more in that genre, or is the May Queen a one off?

Yes, it’s tricky. I never set out to write ‘historical fiction’ as such because it gives more importance to the notion of genre rather than content. When you say it’s historic and it doesn’t have enough period detail, people get upset. I’d probably tell them to go visit a museum. I don’t even know what ‘women’s fiction’ is. It’s a label I really struggle with. When writing The May Queen I got really obsessed with the idea of telling a modern story set in a past time because inherently there isn’t anything different in the way people acted then to how people act now. They’re just clothed differently. You could call The May Queen historic fiction but you could also call it motorbike fiction, if you wanted, because there’s a motorbike in it. Actually ‘women’s motorbike fiction’ has a nice ring to it.

Oh yes, I really like women’s motorbike fiction, that should definitely be a genre all of it’s own!  Your main character May, the motorbike rider,  feels like a very real person, with a deep sense of her place in time – her story would have been very different if only set ten years earlier or later. Was the idea behind the book sparked by real life stories?

That is great to hear, thank you. I certainly lived and breathed her from start to finish. She was initially based on my grandmother who grew up in the mill cottages in Fairford, Gloucestershire, which is where May lives in the book. She quickly became something other though, perhaps retaining something of what I thought my grandmother might have been as a girl, something of my mother too and lots of me. In terms of her sense of place, you’re right, her positioning at this time, at this age in wartime Britain could not have happened at any other time. It would have been a different book.

I felt that there was a lot of symbolism around vehicles of different kinds, the car in the big house, May’s bike, her later war work – do you feel that they represent more than just a means of getting about, that they’re a metaphor also?

I hadn’t thought of that. I was focusing too much on water being a metaphor! Vehicles do this too though, you’re right, however, their main function is to get May from A to B. I suppose that I made her a dispatch rider because it was the most exciting of the WRNS professions for me. She could have worked in an office, she could have been an engineer or she could have been a boater as her friend, Rene, is. I thought if she had her own wheels she could go anywhere, quite literally.

I think one of the strongest ideas which comes across is how although the war was so utterly devastating, it also offered a way ‘out’ of traditional roles and life paths for women, do you think that’s the case too?

Yes, there were so many chances for different love affairs for one! I think this period saw more free love than the 1960s. Women really took charge of their sex lives and they were everyday women, not society women either. That was a new thing. In The May Queen, May is free to marry but she doesn’t have to either and that is the big difference. It changes the way she thinks about everything.

I’ve heard that the book was serialised in a women’s magazine, which must have felt like a huge vote of confidence! Which magazine was it, how did you find that experience and did you have to re-edit it for that publication?

This is the point at which I pretend this happened and name an obscure literary magazine.

Oh blimey, I better fire the office underlings – goodness knows how I decided that was a thing! Well, I think it would sit very well as a serial in a magazine, if that helps! Let me recover my blushes with my next question: What sort of writer are you, what’s your process? I tend to write loads and try not to stop, then think about it afterwards, how do you approach creating a novel?

Good question! (phew!) I try to let an idea grow into something all-encompassing in my head first. This helps me to mull over character, plot and circumstance and also the big WHY. As in, why am I doing this? What am I trying to say? Does it matter? If it matters, why does it matter? How do I want my reader to feel afterwards? I really like that last question. As a writer I try to drive everything (no matter how small) towards that. Once there is too much going on in my head I let it explode into plot, which I usually map out using post-its on my kitchen wall. Then begins the task of getting that first draft down. I work industriously day-after-day letting each plot point carry me through to completion. If I don’t do this it just won’t happen. Usually, with a good wind, I get a first draft done that way. Then the real work begins.

And of course we always ask, what are you working on now and what will fans be able to read from you next?

I don’t know if I have any fans but I am currently consoling myself with a tale of lost love and redemption set in pre-civil war Colombia.

I think if women’s motorbike fiction is your thing, or more properly fiction with a twentieth century setting and a well rounded female lead is your thing, then I think you’ll soon become a fan of Helen’s writing. 

You can find a link to Helen’s blog here….

If you’d like a quick bite of her writing, she was a runner-up in the Retreat West Quarterly Themed Flash Fiction Competition this year, which you can read here.

You can buy The May Queen from Amazon here….


Year of Indie Debuts: The Favourite by S.V Berlin

This week on the Retreat West Blog, I have the pleasure in talking to SV Berlin about her novel ‘The Favourite’,  published by Myriad books. My review of the book comes after my interview with Sarah:

Thank you  for giving me the chance to read your book; could you give us a quick intro and tell us who are you and how you crafted your way to publication?

I was born in London, in the spot where Dick Whittington ‘turned’. Years later I moved to Manhattan because I saw it in a movie and thought I’d be happy there. At this point I have lived there for most of my life and have had more careers than George Osbourne – wilderness SAR professional, textile designer, corporate facilitator…the list goes on. I’m far too inquisitive and have all kinds of obscure interests. These days I’m a freelance marketing and branding copywriter, and an occasional speechwriter for the self-styled titans of Wall Street. As to getting published, it was graft and craft in equal measure. I had a hazy idea for a book and promised myself that I would not only write it – but finish it. After about three years, I began the yucky bit: submitting the manuscript to agents. A depressing number of rejections later I happened to hear about Myriad Publications, who accept submissions directly from authors. I not-very-hopefully sent in my first three chapters and was almost bemused when they wrote back and said they’d like to chat…

There are a lot of triangular relationships in The Favourite, echoed in the way the chapters move between the three main characters, going over events from their perspectives – the mother and two children, mother, son and girlfriend, even the girlfriend’s sister’s marital problems are triangular – was that a conscious decision to explore the potential unbalanced nature of that sort of relationship?

Yes – and no. The dynamics of power change dramatically as the novel progresses, and in some quite shocking ways. Even the cat is caught up (somewhat obliviously, it must be said) in its own power triangle. However, aside from the more obvious tensions between the three primary characters, I did not set out to create a sophisticated set of inter-connecting triangular relationships. So I’d say that some of it evolved organically – clever me! More seriously, I am discovering one of the great pleasures of being a published writer, which is that you get to have readers. And readers spot all kinds of interesting themes and associations that a writer may have completely missed.

There are moments when the characters are both intentionally and unintentionally funny in quite sad situations, all of which come across as being very well observed and authentically derived from both their character and the plot – is that something you work to include or does it just develop as part of your character writing?

Who hasn’t experienced an uncharitable thought at a funeral? Or giggled when a newsreader describes a devastating flood as a ‘very fluid situation’? Despite all my years in America, I find it impossible to maintain an entirely po-faced approach to misery. In writing, as in life, my English self feels compelled to inject humour into overly sober situations. Whether that’s through a character’s wry observations, or that same character behaving in a manner that’s ridiculous or unintentionally amusing, I just can’t help myself.

The self-improvement book “Pathways to Possible” is a wonderful…shall we say homage…to a number of books I’ve come across. What are your thoughts about self- improvement books like this?

Yes, if we’re being diplomatic, ‘homage’ is certainly is the word, isn’t it? I had great fun with ‘Pathways to Possible’. There is a rather pernicious strand of dopey self-improvement dogma that’s been around, in various guises, for many, many years – mainly in the US. The general idea is that anything you desire can be acquired or ‘achieved’ through ‘positive thinking’ and by ‘manifesting’ your thoughts on the ‘physical plane’. The corollary is that if you don’t single-handedly cure yourself of cancer or ‘manifest’ your way out of poverty, it’s your own fault because you didn’t think hard enough. As a ‘philosophy’ it’s morally and intellectually vacant, and blatantly materialistic and acquisitive – but also very funny. In my novel, Edward’s shy and devoted girlfriend Julie stumbles across Pathways to Possible and is hugely taken by it. For potentially self-regarding souls (most of us know at least one) belief in magical thinking justifies a good deal of extended navel-gazing. Like a lot of people who feel anxious or powerless, the pseudo-scientific logic of self-improvement is a tool that helps Julie make sense of the world and reach for a life that she has – until now – felt deprived of. The book gives her a sense of control. Edward thinks it’s absolute bollocks. And he’s right. And yet…Julie’s commitment to Pathways to Possible has far-reaching consequences and changes both their lives in ways that are unimaginable.

This quote from the book really resonated for me and brought me up short – “Each cupboard, each shelf or drawer, was set with its own booby trap, a snare of precious objects. Whenever she got up her courage and managed to make an actual decision – to tackle a shelf of ornaments, say, or the postcards stuck into the sides of the dining room mirror – she would make her approach only to find the object suddenly caught in the glare of some imaginary spotlight – Exhibit A – and feel instantly guilty. It was like being asked to go round with a Sharpie and perform triage in some mass-casualty disaster. Who would get loaded into the ambulance? And who would get the ‘X’ on their forehead? In the interim, as some sort of unreliable insurance, she had gone through the process of imprinting each object, each ornament and every piece of furniture, on her memory.” – I have to ask, and having cleared out my own parents house after they died younger than everyone expected, this is so redolent of the feelings you go through at this time – have you had to do this yourself, or been close to someone going through it?

It’s a sad and surreal experience, isn’t it? When my mother died, I found myself sorting through her house and all her belongings. Some years earlier, a friend had told me that it’s often the smallest, fairly mundane-seeming objects (e.g. a pair of spectacles) that are the hardest to dispose of. In the event, I found this to be true. The real challenge lies in the everyday things we use the most – yet think the least about. Perhaps something of the lost person’s essence seems to us embedded in these objects, so that discarding them feels like discarding the person (and losing them all over again).

The book is a very elegant and real discourse on the nature of grief and the subtle, insidious way it sneaks into life long after the dramas and ritual of a funeral is over, however it’s organised. Do you feel that as society, we’ve got a handle on how to cope with death, or is that a stupid idea anyway, the idea that we can ever really cope with it?

‘Time heals’ and all that, but there are some deaths that will undo a person utterly. They may never be able to fully accept or get past it – and if you think about it, it’s astonishing that this isn’t the case for all of us. Some of us might be lucky and skate along for some years on mere nodding terms with death – elderly neighbours, friends of friends, tiresome cousins, etc., gradually popping their clogs. But when it happens to you it’s like a bomb going off. The experience puts you on the other side of something. For Isobel, in the immediate aftermath, that ‘Stop All the Clocks’ feeling is extremely vivid. She is struck by the realisation that, though her mother has died, people are going on with their lives as if nothing has happened. While intellectually this makes total sense, in the midst of grief it can seem absolutely unbelievable.

Then, after weeks or even days, the tasks to be done are done with and you’re faced with this sort of…blank bleakness. (In the novel, Isobel likens it to being the last one left at a party.) We cope with death very badly in our society. It’s the club no one wants to join, taboo in the way that sex or cancer used to be. There is this feeling, too, of death as somehow ‘catching’, like a disease. No one wants to talk about it, and no one knows what to say – least of all to the bereaved!

While some friends will rush forward, others may go quiet or take a step back, and this provides yet another small devastation in what can seem like an absolute sea of them. You understand that your task is now the work of mourning, thence to ‘move on’ in the New Age way of things and spare yourself and others any further embarrassment. But how? It’s a question no one has the answer to.

What I loved about the book is the ability of the writing to draw the characters and to give their stories such power, without resorting to big weirdness and spectacle to make them interesting. I always think that takes real skill and is much harder than creating unreal monsters, how are you able to capture people in such detail?

Thank you! In the novel, Edward misses a lot of stuff that is sitting right under his nose, but like him I take great pleasure in observing people. I note all the details and little things that make them who they are – their mannerisms, their habits, their tics and speech patterns, how they dress and the way they carry themselves. As a child I loved drawing; I was also a passable mimic. As an adult I trained as an actor and learned how to achieve this in a more technical way. Each of my characters is constructed from a whole collage of experiences, encounters and observations. (That said, I made a decision never to physically describe Isobel, Edward or Julie. One character might think the other ‘mousey’, but that’s about as far as it goes. Otherwise I pretty much leave it to the reader.) I can see each of my characters in my mind and they feel absolutely real and alive to me. So, to answer your very good question, I suppose there’s a sense that creating characters comes naturally to me, but it’s thrilling to hear that it all comes together for my readers.

What are you working on at the moment?
A literary thriller set in New York City.

Thanks for taking the time to answer, and best of luck with this and all your other books.

Thank you for reading. And thanks for having me. Your questions were so perceptive and really made me think!





The Favourite – My review

Everyone has their type of book, guilty pleasures which they sneak in between the more worthy tomes you want random strangers on the tube to be impressed by. My guilty pleasure would probably be thrillers, with lots of action and grim reveals, the sort of thing which get turns into unbelievable films with stupidly high body counts, so The Favourite would not necessarily be my usual go-to relaxtion read.

However, and you knew there was going to be one, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t find myself turning pages to see what happened next; it’s just that the scale of the writing is wholly opposite to a boom and bang head-line grabbing thrillers.

I remember an artist who spent years photographing the Great Lakes and then set himself the challenge of photographing puddles with the same sense of awe and majesty. The Favourite reminds me of this because it looks at huge topics on a tiny scale, picking apart the intimate details of three ordinary lives and the micro-aggressions, unspoken thoughts and festering, unfinished arguments that slowly and inevitably grow from puddles into vast, un-navigable lakes.

The book works on the power of three, the relationships it describes always three sided as such ungainly and unequal, the narrative never quite joining up as it moves between each of them, seeing only what they see.

It opens with the death of Mary, sudden and unexpected, and the impact this has on her two children, Isobel in New York and Edward, the dutiful son at home and his girlfriend. the mousy, apparently brow beaten Jules.

If you’ve ever been involved in the clearing of a house after a death, or during the upheaval of divorce or a move, you’ll find the passages detailing the wasp-nests of emotions and practicalities this throws up really hits home. It’s the sort of reading which catches you out, and jerks you out of the story with a memory, pulls you up short with an image from your own life.

I found myself wanting to shake each character in turn, to demand they stop behaving like an idiot and say something, but this is the truth at the heart of the book and at so many lives – people just don’t say something, do they? As the book moved along, I found myself first hating Edward and feeling sorry for Jules with her terrible self help books – to feeling desperately sorry for him trapped with Jules and her monstrous family – and in this way the book never lets you be wholly sure of the empirical truth in a way which is both unsettling and all to real. This is not a book of extremes, there are no dragons or psychopaths, but if you want a book which knits you into the lives of ordinary people, full of their quiet desperation, passion and tragedy which you could imagine all too easily happening in the house down the road, then you’ll love getting wound up in it’s world. Find a quiet corner, a packet of custard creams to go with your tea, and enjoy.


Buy your copy of ‘The Favourite’ here!