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Several things recently got me thinking about the difficulty of creating solid, flesh and blood and sympathetic characters, even when those characters do things that you can never imagine yourself doing.
The first was an interview with John Boyne who has done it time and again in his novels. The next was starting to read Milkman, this year’s Man Booker prize winning book. I have so far only read the first 50 pages, but already it is teaching me things about our recent history and about the craft of writing from deep inside the head of a character. Set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s it appears to be an indictment of the stifling masculinity and the paranoia that drove the violence on both sides of the sectarian divide.
The second thing was this article by a woman film maker about the way men portray women and her admiration for two movies in which women have, in her opinion, successfully portrayed men.
When I think about my own writing I can’t escape the conclusion that too many of my characters are merely poor reflections of aspects of myself. But I also think that the problem of men portraying women, and vice-versa, is just one facet of a much more complex problem: can a heterosexual accurately portray a homosexual? A white middle class person a poor immigrant? Any of us any other person’s deep inner personality and thought processes?
It is important because the narrative arts – theatre, film and literature – are the windows through which the rest of us are enabled to experience the lives of others. If those lives are miss-represented then it creates the cultural attitudes that drive some men to behave inappropriately toward women or certain politicians to spread fear of migrants seeking a better life. And, conversely, it is the way that better life is portrayed in the media that attracts those migrants in the first place.
I’ll say no more, but hand you over to Joey at:
My ‘date’ this time is Dublin born author Max Power. In his response to my first question he agrees that his Dublin childhood is an important influence, but goes on to say that it is only part of the story.
“The Jesuit maxim of ‘give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ is not something I buy into. It’s never too late to change direction. Perhaps the greatest influence in my writing has been the deaths of my mother, my father and my elder brother who died all too young aged 53. I struggled with grief when my mother passed in particular and I know in hindsight that I was damaged by not dealing fully with the loss at the time.
Love, loss and death are central themes in all of my books, I suspect largely because of how my life has developed. I have been asked for example, why I write across genre. For me there is no line that divides the twisting paranormal tale of Darkly Wood from the book I wrote about a little boy whose name I never reveal. Both are written in my voice and it is a voice that comes directly from my head to tell the reader a story.
I am a simple story teller, no more, no less.
Other writers will understand the huge effort that goes into writing a book, but I like to think that whoever reads my stories is sitting comfortably and hearing the lilt of my voice with each written word. It is certainly what I like to feel when I read a book and I spend a lot of time when editing, focusing on words that hopefully achieve this. I guess therein lies the craft.”
Like so many indie authors, Max’s writing journey began quite late in life although he had always had stories in his head waiting to be unleashed.
“I have always been a writer I guess and I devoured books as a reader for as long as I can remember. I have a vivid recollection of being beaten by a De La Salle Brother for writing the title of my essay at the top of every page, just like I had seen in books. He ignored the fact that while every other boy in the class barely managed to fill one page for their essay, mine was 12 pages long. The shock of being punished for working so hard was unbearable at the time.
I have worked hard all through my life and part of that involved extensive travel, including a full year living and working in Australia. Along the way my children had to be reared and as you say, life gets in the way. I tend to work on multiple projects at once and one such current rewrite dates back to a book I first wrote in 1990. In short I have always tipped away, but I have finally reached a place in life where I have a little more time to dedicate to my writing and therein lies the answer.”
His first three novels were published in 2014. Subsequent books have appeared at longer intervals in what turns out to have been a deliberate marketing strategy.
“One of my primary degrees is in marketing, so I knew I had to get a batch of books to market to have any chance of developing a profile as a writer.
The first book I published was Darkly Wood, a true labour of love for me. I had already written first drafts of the next two books so in the first year I was working to a very specific plan – 3 books. I always work on multiple projects. Right now for example I am finishing Darkly Wood III, rewriting a book I mentioned earlier, a thriller called Apollo Bay set in Australia, there is a story set during the Irish Famine, and one that has a loose connection to Little Big Boy as well as a couple of other projects in development. I like to move from project to project at different stages as I feel it keeps me interested. I never have writers block and I think my methodology has a lot to do with this.”
A recent reduction in published output is undoubtedly the result of what I chose to refer to as “a brush with ill health”. Turns out that was something of an understatement.
“My ‘brush with ill health’ saw me go to hospital for a relatively routine procedure. Unfortunately on the table things went wrong and to put it simply, my heart stopped and I had to be revived.
I had suffered a heart attack and ended up in a critical care unit for two weeks. It was a wrecking ball through my life. I am still relatively young and I went from being a healthy, fit man, to someone who couldn’t walk up the stairs without stopping for a break.
People asked me what was it like and I do have decent recall of what happened, though not a full memory of course. I was conscious up to the point a nurse climbed onto the table and started to squeeze a bag of fluids to which I was attached. I distinctly remember that the mood in the room changed and another nurse took my hand. She calmly told me that everything would be fine – that I would be fine.
I understood in that moment, I’m not sure why, that I was dying.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes but I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I’m melancholic by nature although I cover it up for the greater world. I suspect in those moments, as I briefly crossed over, my natural self took over. I just felt sad for those I was leaving behind, my darling Joanna and my wonderful children. When I came around I was changed.
Bizarrely for a man who is a total sceptic and has no time for ghosts, spirits etc, I discovered that I now have a new dark companion who I have blogged about so I won’t go into detail here. I strongly suspect it is a delusional apparition, but there is a very dark and frightening, portentous element to his visits that make me uncomfortable.
In the last year I have had a run of bad luck health wise, mostly relatively minor things, but they have hugely impacted my writing time. As I type, I am struggling with a shoulder injury and to be honest, I have a serious pain in my backside with the recent list of creaky, old man ailments that have hunted me down one after the other. But on the bright side, my trips through the world of medicine are always good food for my blog.”
Max’s often satirical, and always very funny, blog has a large following. He offers this advice to bloggers wishing to emulate his success:
“I approach my blog very differently than most bloggers – or at least I think I do. It is not a commercial enterprise, nor an exercise in narcissism. I love telling stories. Even in the flesh I never shut up. My blog is an extension of that side of me. I sit at my laptop and have a little wander through my thought process. I will tell a story, usually multi-compartmented, and my goal is either to bring a smile or just to share some often very honest truths about myself.
It’s not a confessional but I know from interactions with readers of my blog, that I often connect with others going through similar experiences. It is a sampler if you will, of my writing. It is my penny dreadful in a way, a teaser of me and a good place to practice being concise, which is important for me as a writer.
The advice I would give for whatever value that might be, is to know what you want to write about.
If you have to struggle each time you sit down to write a blog, then you haven’t discovered what it is you are trying to achieve.
My blog is what it is, it does exactly what it says on the tin. I do use imagery and spend more time choosing my images than I do actually writing the blogs as I understand the importance of the visual impact – again my history in the world of marketing coming out.
Like all my writing advice, I go back to the heart of what writing should be.
Be interesting, be relevant and always think of your audience first.
Some writers think too much of themselves and forget that ultimately they need to engage and entertain their readers.”
He does not (yet) have a special place for his writing:
“I write anywhere. Kitchen table, sofa, office at lunch break, hotel rooms when I travel, there is no special place. We moved to our current house three years ago and there is a space I’ve got my eye on, but with one grown lad, Joanna’s 93year old mother and three dogs, I have yet to find the time to confiscate and decorate. I write every day, if only a small amount it doesn’t matter. I alternate from a first draft, to editing different drafts or rewrites, and it is a slow process but I keep at it.”
Although his books are strongly character driven they are mostly worked out in his head before he begins committing them to paper.
“I write every book in my head, start to finish. It can take months for me to develop a story, my mind is a whirlwind of noise, it never stops and that can be a bad thing. But among the clutter there is always my latest planned project. When I am happy with it, I sit down and write it through start to finish without any edits until I get the story down. My books are entirely character driven and perhaps the best example of this is Wormhold in Darkly Wood II. He changed how the book developed and was entirely responsible for me writing book III.
Originally he was supposed to have a far smaller part in the book, but as I inked him to life, I fell madly in love with his twisted horror and I couldn’t help myself and he became central to the story. I couldn’t end the book without curtailing his wild twisted beauty, so I replotted and realized I would need a huge book to get to where I wanted to go. The upshot is a third book in the series that wasn’t originally planned.
In general I allow my characters to take their natural course, but they ultimately stick to the end goal. I’m a far more technical writer than most people would notice. Writing a book in the first person without ever using the character’s name was an enormous challenge and within Little Big Boy for example, there was a need to write about terrible things that the reader had to understand but the narrator, my Little Big Boy didn’t understand and on occasion had to be oblivious to the events in the story.
It may sound simple, but I literally slaved over words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, to achieve something that reads like it is falling off the little boy’s tongue, all the while revealing the sometimes unrevealable as my main character was too young to see or understand context and circumstance. I loved writing the book because I think I got into the space I needed to get to write it, the head of a seven year old boy. I also hated writing it, because I was very ill during the process so I struggled a lot getting this one finished.
Larry Flynn drove me to distraction. He is such a simple character in theory, but I understood his secret backstory so he diverted me quite a bit. I think both Larry and James Delaney in Bad Blood, had their own meanders but thrillers are easier to keep in line as they have a much more fixed structure if everything is to work out.”
As I imagine we all know, the standard disclaimer “any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental” is only half true and Max is not afraid to admit it.
“Little Big Boy has my face on the cover. I wanted a little boy on the cover and there were no copyright issues with my own photo. I stole many bits and pieces from people I knew in my childhood, but it was very much a case of taking all the fragments and creating something new.
In Darkly Wood some of the characters despite the strangeness of the tales, have origins in people I have met, but again they are only shadows of real people falling on my invention.
I did use one real name that might surprise people when they hear it. My daughter’s boyfriend has a friend called Zachary Westhelle Hartfiel. He is as Irish as they come despite his name and when I met him I told him that I simply had to steal his wonderful name for my book. I turned him into a swashbuckling chap in the vain of Black Adder’s version of Sir Walter Raleigh. He came to a dark end though. I would say that in general my main characters are pure inventions of my own, created in my mind as I plan my story.”
As you might imagine, Max includes a number of classics among his favourite writers.
“I love Charles Dickens, Henry James, George, Elliot, for example but I have a broad taste beyond the classics. Stephen King’s The girl who loved Tom Gordon is one of my favourite books but most people miss this short little gem in his catalogue of more famous books. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a cracker and I enjoy Flan O Brien.
Perhaps my favourite book, is still The Little Prince for its simplicity and for Alexander du Saint Expurés interesting life, I think I’d have to have him to dinner or a pint. As always with people I meet, I want to learn about them primarily. New people fascinate me and I think we have most to learn by simply listening.”
I always like to end my ‘dates’ by asking the subject to reveal something surprising abut themselves.
“There are things that if I put on paper people literally wouldn’t believe and tempted as I am, I’ll keep the strangest ones to myself. I can tell you that I have an empathic ability to feel the physical pain of others by touch. I can touch someone and from that touch I can literally pinpoint a point of pain on their body. I keep that to my self – until now – only Joanna can back that assertion up. There’s that and the fact that I have no tickles, never had. I used to tell my kids that they all fell out as I snapped back up from the bottom of a bungee jump – a little embellishment I know, but I simply can’t help myself I’m afraid.”
I thanked Max for some fascinating insights into his life and his writing. Do please check out his books, if you have not already done so. Probably the best place is on his website where every blog is ended with a set of links to your local Amazon store. He is also on Facebook.
In case Sally’s description and Lesley’s review posted in Sally’s Cafe and Bookstore below don’t convince you to buy this book, here is my review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2471099115
My ‘date’ this time is with a Scottish writer who has lived for more than a quarter century in Australia. Cathy Donnelly lives in Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula in the State of Victoria. Here is her description:
“It is a coastal city about an hour from Melbourne and is a great place to live. I am fortunate to be able to walk on the beach almost every day. When I was in Scotland I bought all the waterproof gear so I can walk even when the waves are thrashing against the rocks and the sea wall. Everything I need is no more than 15 minutes’ drive away – the bay, the library, the shops, where I attend the local writing group and lovely botanical gardens.
I love working in my garden and feeding the many species of birds that come to visit. They used to come for dinner in the evening but now it is breakfast and a snack during the day as well. It always makes me smile to see them lined up on the decking rail, singing their hearts out, or just waiting patiently until I notice them. The kookaburras take the food from my hand and the magpies bring their babies and leave them while they go off and do what they do. They obviously trust us not to harm them as they are known to attack anyone who gets near their young.
We get the different seasons here, which I love. It can reach 40 degrees sometimes in the summer but not usually for weeks on end. You know relief from the humidity will eventually come. The area also has a reputation of having all four seasons on the same day.
Nevil Shute, the author of A Town Like Alice and On the Beach, used to live here. Some of the scenes in the movie version of On the Beach were filmed around here and there is an old photo of Gregory Peck standing on the same station I caught the train from every day for the 15 years I worked in Melbourne.”
Despite her long sojourn in Australia, it is Scotland and its history that inspires Cathy’s writing.
“I moved to Australia when I was forty and although I have lived here for 26 years now, Scotland is still home. I visit my family every two or three years and its beauty still takes my breath away. My sister, Linda, and her family live in the house I was brought up in.
It is so special to still be able to sleep in my parents’ old room and visit the village where I went to school and grew up in. I love the familiarity and the memories.
I was checking with my other sister, Wilma, on Skype the other night about the time it would take for one the characters in my new novel to travel by car from one of the tourist hotspots near her, to Edinburgh. The route is mostly two-way roads through villages. She said it depended on the ain’t thats. You could be driving along the road doing the speed limit when suddenly the car in front of you slows right down, causing all the cars behind it to put on their brakes. The locals call these drivers aint thats because they know at least one person in that car is pointing out of the window and saying “ain’t that beautiful”. It happens all the time. I am sure everyone knows that the Scots are well known for their calm demeanour.”
Like Kate Mosse, Cathy uses the idea of reincarnation and other time-shifting devices to take her protagonists to different historical periods.
“I have always been fascinated by the concepts of past lives and time travel. They open up such possibilities from a personal point of view, and more so when it comes to telling a story. With my first novel Distant Whispers, I was able to combine quite a few of my interests – reincarnation, the Knights Templar, Alexander the Great, religions – using these concepts. I thoroughly enjoy the scope it gives me in my writing.”
I asked Cathy about the lessons that could be – and perhaps have not been – learned from the many conflicts that feature in Scottish history.
“History was one of my favourite subjects at school so I knew even as a child that the English and the Scots had always fought amongst themselves, and against each other, throughout their ancient history.
The kings and queens, nobles and gentry, could do what they wanted in those days. It could be that they were just bored with their daily lives or easily offended, but no matter what the reason, one side would do the wrong thing and it would be “round up the peasants” and off they went to pillage and destroy.
I used to think all this history was just that – something in the past, but for some reason the Scots, as with the Irish, do not forget easily. They can carry a grudge for a very long time. I listened to some of the debates and discussions about Scotland independence. I am a very patriotic Scot but I had to ask myself – why do we need it?
We may share the same island and have the same royal family, but the Scots, the English, and also the Irish, all have their separate identities.
I have never considered myself anything but Scottish.
I have noticed that Scots do not seem to mind if their accent is mistaken for Irish when they are overseas, but God forbid if someone asks if they are English. I do not think there would be many Scots who do not have English relatives.
In the lead up to the vote for independence, I asked a friend, who is a fierce, obsessive, Scottish Nationalist, how would it work regarding pensions, health care, borders etc. Her answer was “just let’s get independence and we can worry about all that later.’
On the English side, I do not think they care one way or the other. They recognise we are Scottish and they are English and we both have pride in our heritage.
So, the answer to your question. There are still many people who have repeatedly failed to learn any lessons from the past, but I do understand that it is an emotional issue and you cannot knock being proud of who you are and where you come from.”
Cathy has only recently begun using a computer for writing:
“I have an office area set up at home with my computer and files, but I find I get more inspiration from writing by hand. I wrote my first novel, the majority of my second one, and most of my short stories by hand on the train journey to work, or in bed at night. It was quite an adjustment for me to try to put it straight onto the computer, but when the house is quiet and all I can hear are the words going around in my head, I am getting used to it. I still look forward to taking my notebook to bed and just letting my thoughts wander.”
I usually ask my subjects to tell me which writers they most admire but I already know from a previous interview she did with Millie Slavidou that she is a fan of David Mitchell and his book Cloud Atlas. What was it about that book and its author that so affected her?
“Cloud Atlas took the theme of reincarnation to a completely new level. It was a complex story in so many ways and I was blown away by the writing, the characters, the locations, the timelines. I read it a second time immediately after the first reading, and have watched the movie three times. I can say without hesitation that this will always be my favourite story. You ask what I would hope to learn from David Mitchell if I spent time with him? I am really not sure if it is possible to learn genius.”
To date Cathy has not used a professional editor:
“My background is proofreading of Cabinet and Ministerial briefings so I assumed I would be okay with the grammar and spelling components of writing. Obviously, that is not all that is needed in writing a novel. I was fortunate that a couple of people offered to read my first novel before publication and a friend who is a Scottish history expert read the second one. Thankfully they all picked up things I had missed and made very useful suggestions for which I was very grateful. It is all a learning curve and I hope to get some beta readers, and also a professional editor, for my new novel.
I think a first novel is very precious and there is always the fear that if you get someone else to read it they might come back and say it is awful. I am over that now and realise the benefit of having the opinion of others.”
Many independent authors find marketing the hardest part of the business of writing. Cathy has succeeded in getting her books stocked in the heritage sites that feature in them, something I’ve tried myself. I wondered what other marketing techniques she has found useful.
“For me, marketing is definitely the hardest part of the business. I am learning as I go. I am fortunate that Wilma, pushes me along. She took my Scottish novel There is a Place to the VisitScotland tourist shop in Aberfoyle, which is near the main location in the book, and asked them if they would consider stocking it because of the local interest.
As a result, they invited me to do a book signing when I was there last year. It was not as scary as I thought it would be. I am going home again next year and they said to let them know and they would arrange a signing for the new one.
I would also say that being part of the Indie Author Support & Discussion Facebook group has given me more confidence to put myself out there. The members share what they think works and what does not, and their support has helped me move outside my comfort zone. When I release my new novel, I will make sure I have a clear plan on how to market it.”
Cathy is currently working on her third novel and she revealed a little about it.
“Memories of the Night Sky is the story of Catriona, an author who begins to dream stories she feels compelled to write. It is set in Scotland in the present day, the 9th century and in 1307 and involves Druids, Knights Templar and forbidden love. I enjoyed being able to incorporate my interest in different spiritual traditions and pagan rituals.
I am working on the first edit at the moment and hope to have it ready to publish by the end of the year.”
I like to conclude my ‘dates’ by asking my subject to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their readers. Here’s Cathy:
“For decades I thought of joining a coven and training to become a witch – a white witch, of course. I have lived and worked in various places around Australia so I kept putting it off until I settled. When I did settle in Frankston I thought the time was right, but do you know how hard it is to find a coven? I thought they would be everywhere but alas, no. I am now in my sixties. I wonder if it is too late? Perhaps not.”
As authors outside of the ‘mainstream’, we all face the difficulty of getting knowledge of the very existence of our work out to the people we are doing it for – readers.
Fellow author Stevie Turner has captured the dilemma precisely in her blog:
That’s what makes a great writer, according to Rebecca Bryn and she should know, being one of the greatest. Her work deserves much wider recognition. “For Their Country’s Good” would make a TV series to rival “Poldark” and “The Dandelion Clock”, which I had the privilege of reading pre-publication, has echoes of Michael Morpurgo’s “War Horse”.
Writing that comes from the heart, with deep emotional overtones and well developed characters, will always captivate me as a reader. Ms. Bryn does that brilliantly.
My thanks to Sally Cronin for featuring Strongbow’s Wife on her blog, along with an excellent review.
For anyone that’s interested, there are two ways in which the Strongbow story connects with Archbishop Becket. Both he and Henry II were close friends with the Bristol merchant Aoife’s father first turned to for help in regaining his kingdom. And, once Beckett had been murdered in Canterbury Henry felt the need to atone. His mission to Ireland, suggested by the Pope some years earlier probably seemed like a good way of doing so.