Year of Indie Debuts: Electric Souk by Rose McGinty

I first met today’s Indie Debut star in real life at the launch of my own debut novel last April and just after her flash fiction, Last Judgement, had won her a place at the 2016 Short Story Retreat, so I knew that I was going to be in for a treat when the time came to read her debut novel, Electric Souk.

That hunch was proved right and it is a gripping read, set in the Middle East in the run up to and during the Arab Spring. The main character Aishling finds herself caught up in all kinds of trouble she hadn’t envisaged when relocating there for a job, hoping to find an escape from a love affair gone wrong and the austerity in Ireland following the global financial crisis.

Congratulations Rose on the launch of your excellent debut and thanks for coming to chat to us about it today. Electric Souk has a creeping sense of dread and paranoia running through it that put me in mind of Patricia Highsmith’s writing. Is she an inspiration for you? What other authors have inspired your work and why?

My influences perhaps seem a little strange for a contemporary novel set in the Middle East, however I think Emily Bronte’s cruel moors and Hardy’s brooding Wessex influenced my desire for the desert to be as much a character in Electric Souk as any of the human characters. I’m drawn to intense, dark settings and novels and wanted to capture this psychological atmosphere, as the desert is the one landscape I have encountered that truly terrifies me. It strips you down to your most foetal fears.

I also see the influence of the Latin American magical realists. In the works of Marques, Borges, Allende, all of which I have devoured, the personal is political and vice versa. In times when it is impossible to know what is true and who to believe, they reveal how we can only really trust in story tellers. Even if they write of interfering family ghosts and other phenomena, this only serves to heighten the unreality of the brutal regimes.

My other great influences are the Irish writers Jennifer Johnston, Edna O’Brien and Kate O’Brien for their exploration of the internal emotional worlds of women in repressive times. Their women fight their families, their societies and themselves for their independence.

Answering this question has been fascinating as I’ve seen patterns and threads right back to my teenage years, when O and A levels meant I read the classics, and because I loved them so much I read them widely. I was drawn, now I see, to understand and know more of fearful landscapes, as a teenager just stepping out from home into the wider world.

In my twenties it was all about the politics of the wider world, these were turbulent times, the first Gulf war, Bosnia, Rwanda. I sought understanding of man’s brutality in the magical realists. My thirties were about my roots, Irish literature and the intimate world of relationships as I tried to understand more about those closest to me, retreating from the horrors of the post 9/11 world, recognising the meaning, joy and pain in our own worlds.

I’m not sure I can quite see the patterns in my forties yet. I’ve become a writer and now I read much more randomly as I read novels of friends, recommendations of writer friends, and novels that haven’t even been published yet. Every decade has been wondrous, but this is proving to be the most adventurous, the most free, the most surprising, so I am curious about what will happen to my writing now!

Your narrator, Aisling, seems consumed with finding love and this leads her into some difficult situations where she puts her trust in some people she probably shouldn’t. Trust and whether you can ever really know other people was a strong theme in the book, so can you tell us what made you want to explore this?

Trust is how we connect to each other, to the world. In our daily lives we have a constellation of points of references that help us to trust – in our friends, colleagues, people we meet, our news, events, the machinery of how government and society function.

We have personal and cultural histories that mean we can make assessments, judgements, be alert to risks and dangers, and open ourselves to others and experiences. On a day to day basis we mostly don’t realise the extent of these reference points and how our past equips us to move forwards. When Aisling goes to the desert all those reference points are torn away.

She knows only one person there, the elusive, poetic Professor, who gives her no obvious pointers and nothing is obvious, as it’s a world where women are fully veiled, the locals live in villas behind high walls, nothing is written down and everything is rumour and paranoia. I wanted to explore what happens when all your anchors are gone. How do you trust and connect? Who do you trust? Do you become more cautious or do you throw caution to the wind, for once, as you are in a place where there is no one from home to judge you, remind you of mistakes?

In such dizzying freedom can you even hear, let alone listen, to your own instincts any more? When I was in the Middle East I was bewildered by these questions and choices. I rocketed between wild abandon, putting myself at far more risk than I ever would at home, where in fact I had more safety nets and friends to catch me when I fell; and, a deeper sense of caution and mistrust, drawn from a very real sharpening of my instincts in such a hidden world. In the Middle East people judge you in the first moments they meet you on whether you have a ‘clear heart.’

Laila in Electric Souk has an unerring ability in this regard, and many of my female friends had this and it fascinated me. Using my new, razor instinct to see if a heart was clear became the only thing I could trust.

Of the time you spent living in the Middle East and mining your experiences for Electric Souk you have said “The parts of the story that are true, I probably wish were not; while the parts that are not, I probably wish were true.” Can you let us in on which you parts you wish were true?

The beauty and brutality of the desert is its mystery, and I learnt that’s how it should be.

The landscape and setting you paint are truly evocative and serve to enhance the sense of dread and paranoia really well. Was life in the desert really this disorientating and scary?

It’s just so opposite to our lives in the West. It’s a nocturnal culture, and like the night so much is hidden, only glimpsed briefly in the moonlight. Unlike here where so much of our lives is about the written words, from evidence based history and science to even the tweets and texts that dominate our communication; everything there was verbal, all rumour, stories and poetry.

And that’s before you get to the heat. I can’t tell you how a year without rain seriously messes with your head. I longed for rain so much, one night when I spied a sprinkler system spraying the grass at a luxury hotel I had to go and dance in it.

My time certainly had its moments. There were constant threats of purges of foreigners so that their jobs might be given back to locals, who I might add were not remotely interested in public sector jobs, which was why foreigners had been brought in anyway. The expat community, somewhat raddled by long afternoons and evenings drinking, pretty much the only entertainment for many, was utterly paranoid about being deported; and there were all sorts of stories about people getting sent home for unknown offences.

Most of this I think was nonsense, but in a world without celebrities, the ex pats and the locals had to create their own scandal. And there was enough of that for a soap opera – affairs, illicit parties, lots of strange men who believed they were secret agents of some sort. Who knows? From One Thousand and One Nights to today, fantasies abound in the desert. And fantasy has to have a dark edge, it has to scare, as its wildest moments reveal the deepest truths.

Can you give us an insight into what you are working on now?

I said I would never write a novel about a hospital, as working for the NHS is my day job and that’s where it should stay. But of course, how could I resist? Where else do you see all of life, usually at its most intense points, from cradle to grave – and believe me, on some shadowy wards, beyond the grave. And nowhere else have I met such extreme characters, mostly too extreme to put in page and be believed.

In part I put this down to twenty plus years of untreated psychosis in the political, managerial and clinical culture of the health service, which is now having a full-on episode, beyond the help of Lithium. I am intrigued by the psychological impact of relentless targets, inspections and cuts on the pressure cooker environment of the hospital and those in it.

I’ve written just over 40,000 words and my two lead characters, inspired by Beatrice and Benedict in Measure for Measure, a quite psychotic play in itself, are behaving true to type, although they seem to be fighting and provoking me rather than each other. My working title is Special Measures and I think I’m going to have to put my novel into special measures to stop my characters squabbling and get it finished.

***

Thanks again for coming, Rose. A brilliant interview and we look forward to reading more of your work soon.

***

Book blurb: Humanity blisters in this haunting, lyrical thriller about trust and treachery. Ireland’s gone bust, and with it Aisling Finn’s life. She flees austerity for adventure in the desert. But the Arabia she finds is not that of her dreams. Everyone is chasing a fast buck, a fast woman and another G&T. Expats and locals alike prickle with paranoia.

Debonair fixer, Brian Rothmann, charms Aisling with champagne brunches and nights at Bedouin camps. But is Brian a hero or a desperate expat prepared to go to any lengths to get what he wants? Is this Aisling? Or is he using her as bait? Her only hope is Hisham, a local activist. But where do his loyalties lie?

Aisling faces severe peril when the sleazy expat and blood-lusting desert worlds collide, as the Arab Spring erupts. She has to ask, whom can she trust? Can she even trust herself?

About the author: Rose McGinty is an alumna of Faber Academy 2015/16. By night she is a writer, by day a NHS Director in London and has worked internationally. She studied literature at the University of Kent, Canterbury and her M.Phil at Trinity College, Dublin.

Rose enjoys writing short stories, poetry and flash fiction and has won a number of competitions, including: the inaugural Kent Life magazine short story competition with her story, Dreamland, published in the April 2016 issue and aired on Channel Radio, Kent Life; the Scottish Ghost Story competition 2016 for her story, A Kentish Longtail, which was read out at the Festival of Dreams at the Scottish National Library in October 2016 and can be viewed on YouTube.

Electric Souk is available from Urbane Publications, Amazon and in-store in selected Waterstones and Foyles. It is also in a WHSmith travel promotion and you can get a copy at train station and airport stores across the UK.

Year of Indie Debuts: Lost in Static

Welcome to Christina Philippou today. Her debut novel, Lost in Static, is out now with Urbane Publications and she’s also the founder of BritFic – a collective of contemporary fiction authors. I really enjoyed Lost In Static and it raised many questions in my mind about perceptions, truths and the lies we tell each other and ourselves.

Hello! Firstly, thank you to Amanda Saint and Retreat West for having me on the blog today.

I’m here to talk about my debut novel, Lost in Static, which looks at the same events from four (sometimes very) different students’ conflicting points of view. So what made me write a novel from four perspectives? I’ve always found multi point-of-view narratives fascinating, but the ‘pass the baton’ style always felt like there was so much left unsaid. A few novels have crossover narratives, like Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, but I wanted to get under the skin of the characters and show how easy it is to misunderstand others’ words and actions when you are not in their head.

Misunderstandings are easy to come by, and the novel keeps coming back to this as the characters struggle with the events that unfold. Add in a large dose of immaturity (they are university first-years) and a whole host of secrets, and the versions of reality are skewed depending on which shade your glasses are (although it must be said that none of them wore rose-tinted ones).

I became rather obsessed with misunderstandings as I was writing Lost in Static. I found myself telling friends snippets of information and then listening intently to how they recanted the story to third parties, or discussing events that we’d both attended and hearing very different interpretations of happenings. It made me appreciate the intricacies of multi-POV narratives, but also the importance of talking things through, both in fiction and in real life.

So many words in, and all I’ve talked about is the structure of the book and the misunderstandings it creates, but that is what drove the narrative – the need to show how differently people from very similar backgrounds and cultures can view things. It’s been fascinating to read reviews coming in, as the characters that readers identify with are as different as the characters themselves.

But there is more than the just the issue of misunderstandings in the novel, even if some of the themes are more lightly dealt with. Given that it’s set in a university, the coming-of-age theme is almost inevitable, though some characters grow more than others. This, too, was intentional, as people grow up at different speeds and certain (usually unsavoury) situations force people to grow up much faster than the norm.

Then there’s all the social issues that arise in a university setting – casual racism, sexuality, substance use (and abuse) and, although not all dealt with directly in the novel, they still influenced the mood of the writing.

But beneath it all is the story itself, a tale of growing up that is coated in mystery. Having grown up on a reading diet of Agatha Christie and Alistair MacLean, Lost in Static was not immune to the need for secrets and (non-gratuitous) violence in the plot…

And that’s the flavour of the book and the themes and influences behind the writing. But if you have any questions, feel free to ask – you can find me on my blog, Twitter, and Facebook.

***

Thanks for coming, Christina, and best of luck with the book.

If you’d like a copy you can get one here.

Year of Indie Debuts: Sitting Ducks by Lisa Blower

Delighted to have Lisa Blower on the blog for the latest indie debuts highlight. Her novel, Sitting Ducks, was published by Fair Acre Press and recently longlisted for the Guardian Not the Booker Prize. It’s a brilliant read and a very timely look at life for the working classes in Britain today.

Lisa, this feels like a very important tale to tell as the ongoing impact of Tory policies is felt in communities across the UK but it never feels like the message outweighs the characters and the story. How did you make sure your anger at the damage done to these communities didn’t take over the voice of your characters?

When writing about politics and contentious issues such as the social housing crisis, you have to, as a writer, be constantly mindful that it is not a social commentary or manifesto but a work of fiction that needs to engage with readers, despite the hard-hitting facts you are reflecting. Therefore, Sitting Ducks is a story about family, first and foremost, and the centrality and prominence of that family is crucial to the story.

This meant creating believable and engaging characters that readers would really care about in order to care about their situation and then the cause of that situation. So, I spent a long time crafting my characters, drawing from experience, reading a lot of working-class literature to ensure I was never sentimentalising the brutal realities of their situation. Above all, I really concentrated on their voices. I’m a character-driven, voice-led writer anyway – I hear their voices before the story starts to manifest – and when I can hear them clearly (Constance, in particular, was crystal clear from the beginning, as was Kirty because she was a spot of recycling from ‘Broken Crockery’)  I can start to become them and really engage with their world. Certainly, I had to be true to their anger – situations like this are maddening, unkind and utterly unfair, and most of us are terribly lucky to not experience situations like this – but it was equally important to show their resilience, determination and devotion to one another, however skewed their motives were. I’m really pleased to hear that came through.

 

Your main character Totty is pushed and pulled in so many directions by everyone in his life and doesn’t ever seem to want to take responsibility for himself and his actions. Is he meant to be a reflection of how everyone always wants someone else to blame in our society today?

Yes and no. Yes, because there is someone to blame. And what Totty reels from is his inability to get himself in front of those people to say, Look! Look what your policies mean to someone like me and my family!  and articulately. His story is really about how his lack of aspiration to social mobility demonises him, and there is nothing more frustrating than being demonised and excluded and pushed into a margin of society undeservedly or as a process of policy: and then for the boundaries to keep on changing making it harder and harder to get out. However, he is also a very absent character and I did write him to purposefully only exist on the periphery so as to amplify his situation.

No, because blame culture is a convenient way to point the finger rather than be accountable and though a lot of readers might think they only have themselves to blame, Totty does take a lot of this blame on the chin. He recognises that he hasn’t been the son, the father, the man he wants to be and he’s watched his childhood friends succeed and overwhelm him, despite them all starting out the same way. However, I leave it up to the reader to decide just how much Constance is to blame for this!

 

The lives of people from all classes and levels of society are shown to be linked. What made you want to explore how this interconnectedness has been forgotten in the age of individualism?

Capitalism and Conservative policy is about the individual and looking after number one and there does sometimes feel, at least to me, that we are now all in it for ourselves. Consequently, what I’m interested in reflecting in my fiction is firstly the fallout of this: the breakdown of communities and neighbourliness, the lack of social cohesion that creates social isolation: then there’s the rise of internet use, virtual friends and perfected versions of self through social media’s brag pages where celebrity is currency (I did my PhD thesis on this), and finally the way the media plays a big part in steering categorisation and marginalisation.

Secondly, Sitting Ducks takes the concept of the Seven Class citizen and breaks it down, reflecting all classes and then how they can’t help but interrelate: one is cause for the other, one is the product of another, one aspires to become the other, one manages the other, and so on and so forth. Because of this social structuring, our lives are intrinsically linked to one another. Whether it’s through family, employment, location, hobbies, political standing. We might view ourselves increasingly individually, but we still seek out, participate and contribute to the group for whatever reason, and by doing so, we interconnect.

In Sitting Ducks however, I am also reflecting the working-class mindset of us ‘v’ them and that meant breaking down what ‘us’ and ‘them’ meant in terms of today’s society and then focusing upon those ‘in between’, I suppose, (Jake as a social worker, Della as a teacher, Frank as a Police Officer) as interrelational to both.

 

Although it is a very bleak tale there is also a lot of dark humour and it does feel like there is still a strong vein of hope running through it and that there could still be a chance for the younger members of your cast. Do you believe this to still be true in today’s UK?

Sitting Ducks can be read as a story reflecting what is essentially a very bleak situation – a family is being evicted from their council owned home and forced into private accommodation where they become victims of landlordism. In fact, I could argue, that the very concept of landlordism, which Right to Buy went some way to create, has become an incredibly bleak situation for many otherwise reliant upon social housing; as the current housing crisis is equally as bleak. So yes, I am writing about bleak subjects and the facts that circumscribe those subjects are unavoidably bleak – such as the new Pay-to-Stay policy that passed legislation last December which allows Landlords to hike up rents for families to retain the security of a tenancy. I guess to make the bleakness palatable is to invite humour and if there’s humour, there’s hope and with hope comes optimism. Sitting Ducks is about Constance, Totty, Frank, Della, Jake – all of them working towards securing a more hopeful future for Joss and Kirty – and as a reader, you have to believe, given the novel’s ending, that there will be hope for them.

 

Why do you want to give a voice to this under-represented element of our society?

Kit De Waal recently called for more white working-class stories in an article for The Guardian. An essay in the New Yorker last week discussed how class, as a subject, was being less and less represented in contemporary fiction. Dead Ink have recently called for essays on the canon, and I will contribute to a panel event with Kit, Tim Lott and Niall Griffiths at the Birmingham Literature Festival in October to discuss this very subject. Sitting Ducks struggled to find a publisher for over a year because most publishers found it “too angry, too political and too working-class,” and I am often told, even by friends, to perhaps avoid “the working-class thing” as it’s too raw.

This utterly frustrates me as much as it does many authors. Because we are all just wanting to write good fiction, good stories, and simply reacting to our own imaginations. For the past six years, I have been motivated to write short stories about subjects that really interest me such as the notion of retirement when a life’s been defined by work (Dirty Laundry, Chuck and Di), or being a happy hooker in light of postmodern feminism (The Land of Make Believe, which was Highly Commended in the Bridport Prize 2015). But I also think that it is more essential than ever given Brexit, the housing crisis, the fracturing of the Labour party, for working-class fiction to keep on finding its voice, if not to move away, as far as possible, from the poverty porn tag that has completely derided both the working-classes and their representation through ‘entertainment’. And contemporary working-class fictions are doing nothing that Lawrence, Dickens, Hardy, or Sillitoe didn’t do. It comes down to reader appetite I suppose, accessibility, and that old adage that readers prefer fiction for escape rather than being a big fat reminder of what’s really going on out there.

 

What’s next from you?
A short story collection, ‘It’s Gone Dark over Bill’s Mother’s’ inspired by my childhood in the Potteries, and a second novel, ‘Green Blind‘. I was recently writer in residence at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery and I drew inspiration from their exhibition on Mary Webb to pen a contemporary reimagining of Gone to Earth. I’m hoping to get it out by 2017 to coincide with the centenary of Gone To Earth’s first publication.

***

Thanks for coming, Lisa, and for such great insights into your characters and your thoughts on the current social climate in the UK.

You can get a copy of Sitting Ducks here and keep up to date with Lisa’s writing news on her website.

Year of Indie Debuts: 183 Times A Year by Eva Jordan

Today’s Indie Debut star is Eva Jordan, whose novel 183 Times A Year is about mothers and daughters, a relationship that always has a lot of material to mine! 

Firstly, I’d like to thank the lovely Amanda, fellow Urbane author, for having me on her blog today. Amanda suggested I write a post about the themes discussed in my debut novel.

Write what you know, I was advised. So I did. Inspired by the women in my life including my mother, daughters and close friends, 183 Times A Year is a humorous observation of contemporary family life. Love, loss and friendship weave their way throughout this amusing and sometimes tragic story, however, in the main, 183 Times A Year is a poignant, heartfelt look at the complex and diverse relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter.

Our history books are littered with notable mother­-daughter relationships including Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, Marie Curie and Iréne Joliot­ Curie, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane and Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst to name just a few.

The actress Jamie Lee Curtis said of her mother and fellow actress, Janet Leigh, “My mother was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. There are moments when I remember her beauty, unadorned, unposed, not in some artificial place like a set or a photo call but rather captured outdoors in nature, where she took my breath away. When those moments surface, I miss her the most.”

And to her daughter, Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland said, “Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.”

Seen from two points of view, 183 Times A Year is narrated through two very different voices, namely Lizzie and Cassie. Lizzie is the exasperated mother of Cassie, Connor and stepdaughter, Maisy, and the frustrated voice of reason to her daughter’s teenage angst. She gets by with good friends, cheap wine and talking to herself—out loud.

Whereas 16-­year­ old Cassie is the Facebook­ing, Tweeting, selfie­ taking, music and mobile phone obsessed teen that hates everything about her life. She longs for the perfect world of Chelsea Divine and her ‘undivorced’ parents—and Joe, the gorgeous boy every girl fancies.

Although I am both a mother and step mother and was therefore able to draw on many of my own experiences, as well as those of friends and family (when Cassie refers to Virginia Woolf as Canary Wharf and the current British Prime Minister as Cameron Diaz, I was actually drawing on fact, not fiction), I also carried out a great deal of research. I discovered (and suddenly remembered) that being a teenager isn’t easy. Nonetheless, being the mother of such isn’t always a bed of roses either.

Whilst most five­-year ­old girls love their mother with an unshakeable conviction, it is often a different story by the time they reach their teens. The once adored mother who barely put a foot wrong is suddenly doing or saying embarrassing things and dumbfounded mothers discover their testing teens often feel criticised or judged by their well-­meaning actions or advice. Throw in step-parents and step-siblings to the mixing pot of today’s divided and extended families and you’re probably in for a bumpy ride.

According to a survey reported by The Telegraph in May 2013 studying the relationship between teenage daughters and their mothers, a teenage girl will, during a year:

  • cry over boys 123 times
  • slam 164 doors
  • have 257 fights with brothers and sisters
  • fall out with their friends 127 times despite spending 274 hours on the phone to them.

Guess what they do 183 times a year!

Teenage daughters often feel torn between wanting to remain close to their mothers and wanting to separate. Fortunately, this wild swing from remoteness to closeness doesn’t last though. Further research suggests that the mother­-daughter relationship is so powerful it affects everything from a woman’s health to her self­ esteem. Dr Christiane Northrup, author of the book Mother­-Daughter Wisdom (Hay House), says: “The mother-daughter relationship is the most powerful bond in the world, for better or for worse. It sets the stage for all other relationships.”

So, although at times the mother-daughter relationship is a road fraught with diverse and complex emotions, it can also be – like many strong, female friendships – very enriching and rewarding. If mum and daughter can hang in there, the relationship comes full circle and usually moves to a different level altogether. Often blossoming into a loving, respectful relationship.

However, if all else fails, remember…it’s not a life, it’s an adventure!

***

Thanks for coming, Eva.

If you’d like to read 183 Times A Year, the ebook version is currently reduced to £1.99 and is available here.

Or, if you’d like a signed paperback version, or would just like to chat, you can connect with Eva on her website, her Facebook page or follow her on Twitter: @evajordanwriter

Year of Indie Debuts: Skyjacked by Shirley Golden

A big welcome to author, Shirley Golden, who’s debut science fiction novel, Skyjacked, is published today. Congratulations and happy publication day, Shirley! As well as being a debut novelist, Shirley has been a winner in the Retreat West short story and flash fiction competitions more than once and she is a very impressive and versatile writer. I really enjoyed Skyjacked and I never usually read this kind of science fiction, which is actually rather strange as I watch films like it often, and I think Shirley may have converted me to read more of this genre.

Shirley, your cast of characters are all very distinct and very real, how difficult was it for you to create so many different voices at once?

It wasn’t something I was conscious of doing in the first draft. I was very much led by my main character, Corvus, whose voice was strong in my head. Once the interactions began with the other characters, I went whichever way the dialogue took me. I like to allow the first draft to come out in whatever way it will. Originally, I had three perspectives. But then I spent a great deal of time in later edits, swapping viewpoints and trying first or third person, until I decided to alternate between Corvus and Janelle in close third person viewpoint, as they underwent the most change, and I felt their internal monologues were distinct from each other. I honed the other characters’ ‘voices’ as I developed their backstories, and adjusted the dialogue, highlighting individual nuances. It wasn’t easy, and took many months of editing once the initial draft was written, but it’s the part of writing I enjoy the most.

Your main character Corvus is given a great opportunity to change his selfish ways – do you think he’ll make the most of it?

Mm, well, I think he’ll try. He’s nothing if not a trier! But it’ll perhaps be all too easy to slip into old habits. I think intentions to change are often hard to maintain long-term or when placed under pressure. I have written a first draft of a sequel so have a rough plan as to how far he will transform. But that could change quite dramatically over subsequent edits, so even I’m not sure at the moment.

You explore the concept of AI robots having real human emotions and relationships – do you think this is something that could become a reality?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of consciousness and how it comes into being. I believe that given the right amount of connections and experience, consciousness has the potential to develop in any living creature. It’s therefore not such a leap to imagine it would be possible for entities that mimic organisms capable of consciousness to develop in similar ways. I’m not so certain it would work if parameters are fixed within the systems, but think it’d be feasible if the systems are able to adapt.

For me, a really strong theme emerged of love and understanding being able to cross divides – is this something you set out to explore or did it just emerge in the writing?

I never set out to explore anything at the start of writing fiction! It always begins with ‘voice’ and a character that won’t go away. Once I’ve written the story, I’ll then go back and sometimes strengthen the themes. Although initially they have to emerge from the interactions, rather than consciously forcing things as I try not to become heavy-handed about it. At an individual level, I like to think that Corvus learns to take more responsibility for his actions and, that after everything, Isidore learns to trust in others a little more. However, Janelle has to let go of her ideals and travels an altogether darker path, and this is something she’s going to have to deal with in the future.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a sequel to ‘Skyjacked’, but unfortunately recent ill health has slowed the editing right down. I’m hoping to get back to it very soon.

Thanks, Amanda, for having me across. Your questions really gave me something to think about.

***

Thanks for coming, Shirley, and giving us an insight into your writing process. I hope you are on mend.

You can get a copy of Skyjacked from the Urbane website or on Amazon; and you can connect with Shirley on Twitter and keep up to date with her writing news on her website.

Year of Indie Debuts: The Hungtingfield Paintress

The latest debut author in the spotlight is fellow Urbane author, Pamela Holmes, whose novel The Huntingfield Paintress is a fictionalised tale of a real person’s life. That person being Mildred Holland, a vicar’s wife living in rural Suffolk in Victorian England. It’s a fascinating account of her fight to do and be what she wants to be in a time when women didn’t really have that much choice.

Was it difficult to write from the point of view from a character that was real – did it inhibit you in any way? What approach did you take to find her voice?

I found out everything I could about Mildred Holland (1813 – 1878) and the times in which she lived. In the British Library, I read about the role of women, parish life, the impact of industrialisation on rural areas and the Gothic revival. A local amateur historian with an interest in the genealogy had commissioned a Holland family tree and let me pore over it. Diaries and accounts of people who had taken a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe like Mildred and Willian did for eight years in their early married life gave me insight into what they may have seen.

I interviewed art historians and restorers about painting techniques in the 1850s as well as scanning architectural magazines from The British Institute of Architecture to understand more about that profession. Completing all this research was ultimately liberating for it gave me the impetus, the structure with which to focus my imagination.  Mildred’s voice emerged from it all. I realised I knew where she came from, what and why she would want to act or might feel in a particular way. So it was not difficult to write from her point of view; I felt I knew her. As for what she looked like, I could find no existing photograph or description of her appearance but I think she was physically magnetic.

What inspired you about Mildred that made you want to tell her story?

I recognised that when Mildred settled in Huntingfield after eight years travelling the Continent with her husband, she was in limb. The opportunities to express herself, to do something for herself were few. She was a vicar’s wife. She could run the home, support her husband, serve tea to guests, administer goodly works to those in need. But that was about it. There were firm expectations about what she should do but, as importantly, what she should not.

The Huntingfield Paintress describes her journey to self-expression. The book shows us that Mildred found a way out of her situation. But to do this she needed her husband’s support and she succeeded for there is evidence that William paid for what she did. He would have come in for criticism, allowing his wife to ‘work’ although the fact that it involved religion provided some degree of acceptance. There would have questions about her morality. None of this stopped Mildred, and realising this convinced me that she was determined and clever woman who was willing and able to manipulate people to achieve her ends. That made her fascinating. An impressive woman who I liked very much but also a woman with foibles and faults.

Where did you find out about her life in Huntingfield and also her travels before she settled there?

The local library was a brilliant source of information about the area, its flora and fauna. As I became more absorbed in the writing, I decided I needed to live in Huntingfield for a time so I rented an old laundry building. I sketched, walked the hills and woods she must have wandered, went to churches and towns she may have visited. I was invited to tea in the Rectory where Mildred lived for over 30 years and drank in the pub (or tavern) which still exists in Huntingfield, where her servants may have gone even if she might not. All this helped me to understand what life may have been like there.

Before the couple settled in the village, they travelled widely. For eight years, they were in various parts of Europe, going as far as Constantinople and across the Mediterranean to Morocco. They would have seen glorious examples of medieval, Gothic and Islamic art and architecture as well as experienced the life, geography, weather and cultures of these different places.

What would it have been like to return to a tiny Suffolk village? What would they have thought of their church, a victim of the Reformation when statues, fabrics and glass showing pictures were all destroyed? Inside it was white-washed, according to an entry in the parish records from 1583, so as to cover up ornamentation. By comparison to the splendours of Venice or Florence was it just a little dull?

What did you enjoy most about writing a novel about a real person?

Mildred was at a crossroads when she settled in Huntingfield. She had had a life-changing experience travelling the Continent and she was now in a place which ostensibly afforded few opportunities to express herself. When I came across her story, I was also at a point in my life when there were choices I could make if I only could find the courage and commitment to do so. My two boys were both at University and though I had a job I enjoyed, I knew I had energy left to do more. Finding out that there was little lot known about this fascinating woman gave me the opportunity to create a version of her life that is based in truth but more importantly, I hope, is psychologically and emotionally convincing.

Will your next novel also be a fictionalised account of a real person’s life?

I’ve started writing my second novel. My ideas about it change as I write. It is not a fictionalised account of a real person’s life but, of course, draws on experiences of others as well as some of my own. I think all novels do this at some level; we watch how others cope, respond and are driven by events, circumstances, their past lives and their dreams. It is a wonderful and painful process to write, at least for me. I find this quote from Emile Zola of comfort: ‘From the moment I start a new novel, life’s just one endless torture…..’ If one of the world’s most talented, famous and erudite writers find the process hard, is it any wonder that I do?

***

Thanks very much, Pamela, for this insight into the creating of The Huntingfield Paintress. You can get a copy on the Urbane website, in bookshops and on Amazon.