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Chris Robertson lives in the community of Niagara Falls in Ontario. I wondered how long he has lived there.
“I’ve lived pretty much my entire life here in ‘The Falls’ as locals call it. I was born here, married here, and all three of my children were born here. In my mid twenties my family and I moved to Peterborough, Ontario, but moved back here after only eighteen months. There really isn’t all that much to say about likes and dislikes though. Other than a whole bunch of falling water and ‘tourist traffic hell’ in the summertime it really isn’t any different than other places. No matter what happens it will always be my hometown.”
He doesn’t see his writing as a career:
“Not the way I look at it anyway. It’s really something that started off as a joke. Tom Rotella (co-author of Sparks in the Dark) and I were talking about entering a short story contest one day. He showed me the story he wrote, I thought it was good so I wrote one for fun. That turned out good as well so we both just continued writing and reading each other’s stories until one day I realised there were enough of them to put together a book. I approached him with the idea, he said yes and the rest is history I guess.
I love writing short stories, probably because I have always been partial to reading them as well. I feel like a lot of authors ‘pad’ their works with over-descriptive nonsense. In a spot where I would write His grey hair was moving in the gentle breeze. Other authors take three full pages to describe that very statement. I feel like any full length novel on the market today can be condensed down to eight to fifteen thousand words and still be just as good (or bad) of a story as it is full length. The pacing would just be more exciting.”
On the surface his latest book is about the topical subject of sexual abuse but
“It is actually the biography of someone very close to me and I felt like it was a story that needed to be heard. Other than some minor changes throughout, it is a true story and that is probably the most disturbing thing about it.”
Chris’s short fiction is inspired by song titles:
“How I choose my subjects is totally unorthodox and most people will probably laugh but here it is. On a day when I know I am going to be writing, I set my music player to random. The first song that pops up is now the basis for whatever I want to write. I just take whatever the song title is, mull it over and over in my head and usually within minutes I have a full story in my head based on the song title alone. If you look into the anthologies you will see titles such as Joey, Welcome to the jungle, Crazy Mary, According to You, The promise, These Days, I Don’t Love You Anymore, and Airplanes, which are all stories that were created simply by thinking about the song title for just five to ten minutes.”
Chris is mainly a “plotter” but admits to occasionally being a “pantser”
“Sometimes when the ideas come I will start with just bullet form. After that frame is down I start at the top, look at the first two and figure how they get from one point to two and add a few more points in between. I continue this all the way through then start over again. Eventually there are enough bullets to start to form sentences and paragraphs with them, and then the story is born. Other times I just start writing and see where my mind wanders off to and just make it all up as I go. Those ones tend to be darker and more twisted.”
Chris plays bass in a heavy metal band and enjoys cooking so
“I really don’t have a [set] time [for writing]. I just do it whenever I can. Between work, playing bass in a band, and my family I don’t get near as much time as I would like. As for a place, I have an office adjoining my bedroom at home. That’s where ninety percent of my writing is done. The other ten percent is when I am lying in bed with my laptop.”
Asked about his favourite writers, Chris admits to having lost his early admiration for Stephen King and Dean Koontz:
“I grew up on Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, and Dean Koontz. Those guys were the be all end all for me. I couldn’t get enough. As I got older though and I read some of their newer stuff, (King and Koontz) I find that their style has changed and I am finding them harder to read now. It goes back to the ‘padding’ that I spoke of earlier. Their newer books have so much of it that some I have tried to read have been absolute snorefests. Some I’ve had to put down after only a couple chapters because they totally lost my interest just droning on and on.
I have recently started reading Edward Lee and Jack Ketchum and I am impressed with them in the sense that they hold nothing back. They don’t care if something is offensive or disgusting if they feel it belongs in the story then they put it in there. That’s something that I have now integrated into my own writing as well. I held back on the first book so as to not scare people away but in the end I felt I wasn’t being true to myself so no more holding back.
My favorite book of all time though is Faerie Tale by Raymond Feist. I have read that book fourteen times and counting. I tweeted about it once and he replied that he didn’t even read it that many times while proofing it.”
And that taste in literature is reflected in his movie choices, except for one:
“My wife and I are movie nuts and watch a lot of them. I love the Jurassic World, Transformers, Avengers and almost any horror movie that comes out. As for older movies I think my favorites are Jaws, Cujo, Carrie, Rocky, Class of 1984, and there are a ton of others as well but my all time favorite, don’t laugh now, is Seven brides for Seven Brothers.”
It is hard to find anything about Chris on-line, even reviews of his books so I asked him to sell himself and his books to you, my readers.
“It’s funny that there are no reviews online but all the reviews that have been told to me in person have been fantastic. I’ve had people come up to me in the store and say ‘Hey, are you the guy who wrote that book?’ When I tell them ‘yes’ they usually say nice things and tell me which story was their favorite.
I guess one of the things that I can honestly say is that you will never be bored reading the books. They are an absolute roller coaster ride from one story to the next. As for According To You, I think that everyone should read it to get an insight into what happens to kids sometimes right under our noses. Even as neighbors and relatives we don’t always see what is happening but there are signs, and we as a general public need to be more aware of them.
One thing I will say is that no matter what genre you normally read, there is something in the collections for you. I am so proud when I talk to people and they all have a different favorite story. To me that speaks volumes on the strength of them.”
Despite being short of time for writing, Chris is presently working on
“Four different writing projects at the moment. I have a new collection coming out this year. I am also working on taking an old book from the public domain and modernizing it. I am having a lot of fun with that one. I am working on putting together a cookbook which hopefully will be available this year as well. There is one more going on but I am going to keep that one under wraps for now.”
That means that his wife will be kept quite busy, too, because
“My covers are all designed by my wife and myself.”
Chris describes himself as “just a simple family man who loves to weave words into short tales. I also play bass in the metal band ‘Oath of Secrecy.’ We have just finished recording our first album and that is yet another thing to look forward to releasing this year.
Another thing about me is that I really enjoy cooking. I don’t do it nearly as often as I would like to. My wife does most of it. Between the two of us we have come up with some great dishes. We tend to not stick with a certain cuisine though. We just enjoy food.”
I enjoyed my chat with Christopher Robertson (There is at least one other author called Chris Robertson on Amazon, not to be confused with this one!) I hope you did too. Next week I shall start updating last year’s “dates” with what they have been doing over the past year.
Here are links to his books at Amazon.com:
Sparks in the Dark (with Thomas Rotella)
This post from Rebecca Bryn resonated with me because I recently received a couple of critical reviews of Strongbow’s Wife. In one case the writer of the review kindly e-mailed me pointing out a couple of minor period details that I got wrong. The other claimed to have had his faith in the book destroyed by the appearance of a minor character who aspired to write ‘poetry in the Greek fashion’. Impossible in Medieval Britain according to my critic. Trouble is he was a real person who did indeed write epic poetry emulating Homer.
Rebecca is definitely one of my favourite authors, though I have yet to read The Silence of the Stones. I guess it’s time I did.
My latest date is with a former head teacher who has written children’s stories, a young adult novel, poems, and short stories for adults. She is a resident of Cheshire and a member of her local writers’ group. I began by asking her to tell me about the town and its environs.
“I taught in Nantwich and Delamere in Cheshire and have lived in this area for twenty five years. It is a beautiful place to live. There are lots of amazing places to visit; lakes, castles, canals and cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, not to mention Chester. The people here are so friendly and the children I taught were great fun. Originally though I came from Kent, which is also a lovely part of the country. I visit often because I still have family there.”
She loves writing poetry and goes to a monthly class with John Lindley, who is a former Cheshire Poet Laureate.
“He sets interesting tasks and gives us examples and then we share our efforts as a group. I have two poetry books out and a third one is on the way. The new book will be called, ‘The Shadows of Love’. It explores all the different forms of love, including some of the negative implications.
I enjoy doing all forms of writing and I usually have about three or four projects on the go at once. Then I swap from one to the other.”
She considers that her teaching experience is not always of help with her writing for children:
“In some ways it is but in other ways it’s a hindrance. It helps in that I have a good knowledge about what children can appreciate at specific ages, which is good. As a teacher you have to be careful to always have a formal attitude to children but children enjoy snotty and slapstick jokes, which
I often find difficult to do. What has helped me with writing for children is that each of my books so far has been written for one of my grandchildren. Writing for a specific audience works well. Although the books are complete fiction I’ve included something relevant to each grandchild.”
Her creativity does not stop at writing:
“I have studied fine art at what was Mid-Cheshire College. It was a brilliant place to study. I wasn’t too good at ceramics, but I loved textiles, all forms of painting and graphics. I enjoy portraits and figurative drawing and painting the most, but I’ve painted landscapes, seascapes, flowers and still life. At the moment I’m studying with the Open College of Arts. I’m very committed to my art projects and find they often contribute to or enhance my writing. Art like writing takes me to another place.
I play the piano only for my own pleasure. I never perform for others. I particularly like the music of the 1970s and some classical music, but I’ll play anything as long as there’s an easy version. It’s very relaxing to play, though perhaps not to listen to.”
Her Author page on Amazon tells us she also plays ukulele. Intrigued, I wanted to know more about that.
“The ukulele has taken a bit of a back seat lately. It’s a great instrument being portable and easy to learn to play. I’m more interested in finger style playing than strumming, but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to play music as an inexpensive and enjoyable first step. It should be brought in to primary schools.
Playing music makes people happier and in this stressful world we should help our children find ways to relax and communicate.”
She likes being independently published because it gives her complete control of the process, except publicity.
“For Desdemona: the dragon without any friends, I drew all the pictures and designed the front cover as well as writing the story. A friend of mine was picked up by a traditional publisher and her cover was produced by them. It wasn’t consistent with the story. That would have really annoyed me.”
She has worked in the past, on a voluntary basis, for a website exclusively for women writers. With all women short lists for parliamentary candidates being in the news recently in England I donned my ‘devil’s advocate’ hat and asked if she thinks women creatives and politicians need the protection of an exclusive space. It provoked a long and passionate response.
“You’ve reminded me to update my website. Thank you. I started working for All Things Girl because a friend introduced me to it. It was a great magazine to work for, encouraging new writers and getting their work published online. Due to time commitments I don’t work or contribute to the Modern Creative Life, but wish them all well. I liked All Things Girl in spite of the fact that it was all female. They wanted to promote women’s writing because women had a harder time getting published in the US. I’m not sure if that’s still the case.
I do think that men and women read and write differently. If I buy a magazine to read, it will probably be a woman’s magazine. They do of course have stories written by men but they’re probably gentler stories. All of the novelists I’ve chosen below are women. I didn’t think about gender when I chose them. Obviously I do like some male authors and probably most of the artists I like are male. I’m not a fan of erotica or extreme horror, which perhaps appeal more to the male reader, however when we make generalisations like this there will always be lots of exceptions.
I think we need more women in parliament as I think it is still unfairly weighted towards men but I strongly disagree with all female shortlists.
What we need is people who are up to the job and I would suggest that many who are in post are not good enough. In the recent UK referendum both pro and anti Brexit MPs lied to the British Public and we knew we weren’t being told the truth. Why should we be led by such incompetence and dishonesty?
We should stop worrying about who is sleeping with who (I really don’t care) and sack all MPs who are caught out in policy lies. I think women tend to lead in a different way than men and we need both in parliament, but it should roughly reflect the community that it represents and we have a long way to go to achieve that.
I believe the way to increase the number of women MPs and leaders is to broaden our concept of what makes a good leader so that it recognises female personality traits more. As a head teacher I always tried to take all of my staff with me when I wanted to make changes. This required listening carefully to their concerns and what problems they thought might arise. Sometimes this made me amend or tweak my ideas. At the end of the day I was still responsible for the children and staff and would have to make a decision, but because the staff were involved and listened to, they had a commitment to making the change work.
I must be clear though that I am not saying women are better than men at being leaders, just they may approach leadership differently and at the moment some of their good qualities are not appreciated. Some of the women MP at the moment are so tough they make me wince.”
She has an office in the house and a writing shed in the garden . . .
“. . . but I write anywhere. The office in my home is very untidy as all my art is stacked up in there. The one in the garden is neat and tidy. I love to work there on a warm day with the doors wide open. I write on the laptop most of the time and I write at any time of the day. Life is busy so I grab time when I can. I book a night or two away occasionally, so I can have a concentrated time to write.”
Asked about her favourite writers and what she would hope to learn were she fortunate enough to meet them she tells me:
“I’m lucky enough to have met John Lindley, Jo Bell and Alison Chisholm, all excellent poets. They’ve taught me how to take the ‘usual’ and look at it from an unusual angle. Regarding novels I’ve always been a fan of P.D.James, Elizabeth George, J.K. Rowling and Trudi Canavan. P.D.James had expertise in forensics, which would be interesting to know about. With the other writers I’d be interested to know how they manage to be so prolific and how they keep track of their complex plots and numerous characters.”
Responding to my final question, she would have loved to have been able to reveal something that “would make me look mysterious and interesting,” as if what we have already discovered has not achieved that.
“But I’m a very ordinary person. I didn’t really discover how much I enjoy doing creative things until I retired, but when I was clearing out all my teaching papers I found poems written inside covers, in diaries and on scraps of paper all over the place. I often wrote stories for individual classes although I’m not sure where they went. I even wrote a Christmas play once!”
Earlier this week Stevie Turner posted a piece about character development. I commented on the piece, saying that I sometimes place my characters in difficult situations in order to see how they respond. Often these situations will be tangential to the actual work in progress. I’m posting here an example of that in which I explored aspects of the relationship between my main character in the novel Transgression and his partner through the partner’s eyes. I might add that it also impinges upon the recent discussion here about diversity in fiction because my characters are gay and I am not.
Egg on my Face
There are times when being alone is the most pleasant of things. And I shall always be grateful that there are still places where it is possible to be alone. That’s what I was thinking as I strode along the sand this morning. The tide was out and I could just about hear the sound of the waves coming from my right. On my left a line of dunes concealed the coast road. Somewhere above the dunes I could hear the song of a skylark as it soared invisibly into the clouds.
I had been walking for some twenty minutes when I came to the bank of the river. Here I became aware that the dunes had protected me from the wind which now declared its hand by whipping a fine dry powder in soft clouds close to the ground to highlight the ripples in the hard wet surface of the sand.
A swallow swooped low, skimming the ground in front of me as it looped around my legs several times. I had never seen such behaviour before and wondered where its nest could be, so far from human habitation. As I walked, sand flies skittered away and I concluded that the swallow found in them a ready source of food.
Vinny bounded ahead as soon as I released the lead. I’m not sure if Van Gough ever painted a dog, but if he had it would have looked just like Vinny, all lines and wrinkles around his face and fine golden curls under his belly. Seeing him in the pound, Roger and I both recognised it at once and immediately christened him Vincent, which we soon shortened to Vinny. That syncronicity of thought is what makes us so good together most of the time, the knowledge of it adding to the distress I feel at the way things have turned out between us in the past few weeks. This holiday is supposed to help us over it so that we can continue our lives together as always.
That’s why I wanted to be alone this morning; why I offered to take Vinny for his exercise, leaving Roger to prepare our breakfast, a task I usually perform. I needed space to think about recent events, and work out a way back from the frustrations that had begun to appear since he retired. The truth is the poor man misses work. We are not used to being together in the house on a daily basis. At first retirement had seemed like a long holiday. But there came a time when all the jobs that needed doing about the house and garden were done, and there was nothing left to fill his days.
Neither of us feels old enough yet to spend hours watching day time TV. I, always having been the one who keeps the house clean and tidy, can keep myself busy dusting, hoovering and washing and ironing our clothes. Roger has taken on some of that, and claims he enjoys it, although I suspect he says so only to appease me. As a nurse, I am in the fortunate position of being able, even after retirement, to take on the occasional shift filling in for absentees from the regular staff. It keeps me in touch with former colleagues and gives me something to do outside the home still.
I think that Roger needs something like that. I thought perhaps he might have been tempted to write a novel but that did not appeal. Too used to dealing with facts in his job as a journalist he claims. Making things up is not his cup of tea, not when real life is so much more interesting, or so he says. Anyway, it means that our relationship is going through a torrid time just now, each of us sniping at the other about the smallest things. Last night it was about the choice of TV programme: he decided he wanted to watch football. I was all for Master Chef, a programme we both like, both of us being enthusiastic cooks.
“We never watch football,” I pointed out. “Why the sudden interest?”
“I just fancied a change. I’m getting a bit tired of Greg and John and their staged debates about which contestant is going to be eliminated, when it is always obvious which of them can’t boil an egg.”
“Stop exaggerating,” I said. “You know it’s always between two who are equally incompetent. Anyway, it’s the insights into the workings of professional kitchens that makes the programme interesting. You always said that; or were you just saying it to please me?”
“I bet that’s staged, too. A star-rated chef would never let a bunch of amateurs loose in his kitchen like that. They are only in it for the publicity.”
“Oh go on then! Watch your football. You’re obviously in one of your stews.”
And that’s what we did. Sat there stiffly, neither of us really watching the game – I couldn’t even tell you who was playing whom – both of us in a bit of a sulk, wondering what had soured our relationship.
By the time the match was over we had both cooled down and we laughed at our stupidity. But I layed awake for ages worrying about where we will be if this carries on much longer. Things should be easier for us now that public opinion is generally less hostile to relationships like ours. I have seen young gays walking hand in hand on the street, something we still wouldn’t dare to do. But it’s reassuring to know we could if we wished. It’s all so much different from the days when we had to hide our sexuality or face the jeers and sneers of a society conditioned to believe we were a threat to them and their children.
In school my name provided the bullies with an easy epithet to add to the everyday ones of “poof” and “queer”. The inititials C.C. – for Conrad Clarkson – all too easily became “sissy”. Back then “Connie” was equally a name I abhored because it almost always carried the same connotation of contempt, as though I was in some way a lesser being. Now it is spoken with affection by most of those who know me and I am comfortable with it. Perhaps being comfortable is part of our problem, mine and Roger’s: we’ve been together for so many years now and been through so much together.
When we first met it was at the height of the AIDS crisis. That gave the homaphobes another stick with which to beat us. The Gay Plague it was called. I lost so many friends then, between the straight ones that were scared to be near me, and the gay friends who contracted the disease and died a lingering death. Roger was my rock back then, and I can’t imagine what would become of me if we were to part now.
Anyway, to cut a long story short so to speak – not boring you am I? – I needn’t have worried. When we got back to the holiday cottage Roger was full of excitement. Vinny sensed it and that’s how I got scrambled egg all over my face and everything – in my hair, down my shirt front. I was a right mess, I can tell you. Roger came to the door to greet us carrying the bowl in which he was mixing eggs and milk for our breakfast. Vinny, with that sixth sense dogs have, must have felt his excitement and bounded up, sending the bowl flying out of Roger’s hands and straight into my face. The egg everywhere wasn’t the worst of it. The edge of the bowl caught the bridge of my nose and left a nasty bruise. Whilst we were chastising poor Vinny and trying to clear up the mess the toast burned and set off the smoke alarm. For a while it was like something out of Brian Rix but without the double entendres.
When it was all over and we finally got to talk about something else, Roger explained that Madge Morris – you know, the woman that plays the part of landlady at the Red Hart pub in the eponimous soap – she comes from the same town as Roger. Well, she’s only asked him to help her write her autobiography. So now he has something to keep him occupied and we are going to be OK. I am so happy for him.
I came across this writer when I was assigned one of her books in a Goodreads review group. I was so taken with the book that I wanted to find out more about the woman who wrote it.
Kyle has been writing since she was a child. As a teenager she kept her friends entertained with a serial. As an adult she decided most of what she had produced so far wasn’t good enough to be published and burnt it all.
She is a perfectionist, a trait that suits her well in her other activity, that of a potter. Quoting a saying coined by a master ceramicist, the hammer is the potter’s best friend, she goes on to regret the fact that modern computer technology with back-up in the cloud makes it hard for us to irretrievably delete something, thereby tempting us into not being radical enough, but instead to merely tinker around at the edges.
She does not understand the need for a special place or time for her writing. “But I do need hours of concentration and silence,” she says. A keen climber, she adds: “My best ideas come to me when belaying at the bottom of a sea cliff.”
Six book series
It is when we get on to the subject of her six-book series that her passion and perfectionism shines through. Her protagonist is a young woman who is determined to become the first woman to win a World Championship at stock car racing.
“Initially I wrote a book about a young female car mechanic. My agent at the time asked me to turn it into a series. I said I hadn’t planned to, but then the first sentence of the next book just popped into my mind and I knew what it would be about.
Half way through writing the second book of the series, I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme where Brian Sewell talked about his love of Stock Car racing. Yes, that Brian Sewell – the man so posh he made the Queen sound common. The man who came home from school once and asked his mother, ‘Mummy, what are elocution lessons?’ Mummy: ‘Something you’ll never need, darling . . .’ Anyhow, apparently he was a self-confessed petrol-head and was addicted to attending Stock Car races, declaring you could get drunk on the fumes in the air, and purring remarks such as, ‘it’s so utterly common, darling! The cars are all pink and purple and orange and they smash into each other and turn upside down – I love it!’
And I thought – wow, my heroine would think she’d died and gone to heaven. So I researched it, and no female had ever reached further than a semi-final of the World Championship since 1980, and that was the decider, I knew where my heroine Eve was headed…
My husband came home from work to find me staring endlessly at YouTube footage of cars driving mindlessly round in circles. He was bewildered. He’s a man who could get you safely up Everest, but he wouldn’t know a camshaft if it hit him between the eyes (except he might realise it would be safer to duck).
Soon we were puzzling our extended family by attending our nearest big oval in Manchester, Belle Vue, (where my husband apparently once went to the dogs). The BriSCA F2 Stocks’ chief grader sent me PDFs of the scoring systems. I studied the construction rules until I knew them better than most of the drivers. It was fiendishly difficult to find out some details. Stoxradio would always message me back to say that it was on the BriSCA website. IT WASN’T! Come on folks, this is your life, and how come NONE of you can tell me what colour you paint your roof when you win the World of Shale title?! (Two gold stripes, by the way. Someone finally dredged it up!)”
She goes on to reflect some more on the use of research in fiction:
“The trouble is, once you know a lot about a subject, there is a danger that you feel obliged to prove to the reader that you do. But
putting too much technical detail in holds up the flow of the story, and can seem awkward.
As authors we have to put a lot of research into the topic of our latest book to make sure we make it as authentic as possible, and yet we often have to end up writing the bulk of the story without any explicit reference to all that knowledge.
However, sometimes there is information that you feel you have to insert, or else most of the readers won’t understand the import of the story. It’s a ticklish line to tread. How do you ‘educate’ the reader about the technical facts/background information that they need to know to appreciate the storyline? Mostly, you end up leaving it out.
I could hear in my lively imagination the sound of the loud scoffing of mechanical types at my heroine standing around with a spanner in her hand and condemning it as lazy stereotyping! But the book is aimed at teenage girls who really do not want endless details of engine repairs, and the thrust of a scene in a garage is often only moved on by dialogue, and what do we do when we’re stopping to talk to someone? Straighten up and stand there chatting with the tool still in our hand…”
I ask about editing and the use of beta readers. In response she reveals the tension between her determination to tread her own path as a writer and the advice from professionals to write to a market.
“Writing advice is there to be ignored and rules are there to be broken. It’s up to you to decide how you’ll write. Virtually all of the novels that have won the literary prizes over the past few years were published by small independent publishing companies because the big established ones aren’t willing to take risks. When it comes down to it, some writing will achieve a popular audience but the scorn of the literary snobs, and other books will garner critical praise but the majority of readers will be wading through it out of duty.
There isn’t a book in existence that will speak to everyone who reads it. So we need to be resigned to that fact.
A novel is a collaboration between the writer’s imagination and craft, and the reader’s imagination.
The reader may not want to imagine what you are asking him or her to. And that’s their prerogative, they are the guardian of their own mind and spirit, and they have a right to choose what they allow into it. In any crowded room there will only be a few people you will feel able to ‘click’ with and desire to engage with further at any depth. Readers feel like that about books and authors. They have to trust that the murky depths of the writer’s psyche isn’t going to turn sour on them…”
The subject comes up again in relation to the serious subject matter dealt with in the book I read, Purgatory is a Place Too. It concerns the exposure of a paedophile ring run by men of Pakistani origin. But, in the earlier books the protagonist Eve, has a friend who is a Pakistani married to an Indian. I’ll let Dominique explain the problem she encountered with agents and editors in relation to that:
“I haven’t had a good experience of agents, editors or publishers.
The first book in my series went out to agents ten years ago. Two agents got back to me, offering to take it on. The one that took it told me that it was already nearly perfect, but she was going to send it to an editor as a precaution. The editor fiddled around saying the ‘policeman’ in it should be turned into three different policemen because it wasn’t realistic. I spent ages doing that then realised it completely ruined the point of the story. Doh! Told my agent I was changing it back again. The editor then told me to take out the Pakistani girl because she was ‘irrelevant’. I refused. My agent herself was from a Bajan background. How come the only ‘ethnic minority’ friend of my heroine was considered irrelevant? Anyway, the next book turned out to be almost entirely about her.
My agent sent the book out to 15 publishers. They wrote back (and I quote) ‘we love her writing style but no-one is reading contemporary novels right now – can you get her to write one about magic or vampires and send it back to us?’ It was the height of the Harry Potter and Twilight hysteria.
My agent got quite depressed. She had several other YA authors that she’d taken on writing similar contemporary ‘issue’ books and she couldn’t get any of them published.
(There is)a hunger out there for books that reflected the real lives of young people
I knew the publishers were wrong and that there was still a hunger out there for books that reflected the real lives of young people, as virtually every 13-15 year old in my small town had enthusiastically read my manuscript, and they kept asking me when it was going to be published because they wanted to buy a copy.
I guess we were ahead of the curve, because just recently a lot of YA novels have come out about gritty issues. So if I’d been touting it around a couple of years ago I might have struck lucky. By the time it comes to anyone’s attention, it’ll probably be considered passé again…
I put the book aside for 5 years, then took up the series again, finished it and went down the Indie route. The problem is – how do you get it out there to the demographic that needs to read it before it’s completely out of date? That is proving extremely difficult at the moment without the machinery of the conventional industry behind me.”
That’s something with which all independently published writer can empathise.
Now to the sensitive subjects of paedophile rings and racism. Dominique is emphatic in her defense of this choice of subject.
“I didn’t set out specifically to tackle it. I had written 4 books in the series already, but I knew the series wasn’t finished yet and I needed a fresh direction. Maybe a detective type of thing?
Then my brother turned up for Christmas. He was incandescent. He’d recently moved to Rotherham to help bring some of the men involved in the grooming gang scandal to justice. He was mainly working on the Council/Police corruption side of it. But before moving there he’d sat down and read the Jay report and said he cried for two days afterwards.
I was a bit blasé. I’d already known what was going on for at least 2 years by then. I’d even tried to tell my brother. But no-one was listening. It hadn’t hit the media yet. Most of the other scandals (Rochdale, Oxford, Telford, Stoke, Newcastle etc) hadn’t been publicised yet either. So it just became blindingly obvious what the next episode had to be.
My series was already set in a large industrial Lancashire town. One of my heroine’s best friends was conveniently of Pakistani origin and now married to an Indian guy against the will of her family with an attendant honour killing story line. And there had already been a misogyny and rape story line with my heroine. Put it all together and my heroine was ideally situated to discover that a grooming gang was operating in her home town.
Everything that happens to the girls in my book has actually happened to one of the real survivors – in fact I toned it right down to make it bearable to read. For the story to be comprehensible I also had to simplify it. I read the Jay report and stuck to details from that. I didn’t read any of the girls’ accounts so that I wouldn’t accidentally put something in that was too specific to an actual girl. I’ve had contact with survivors since finishing the book and I have read the last few chapters of all their books to accurately reflect their experiences in court in Book 6.
the reality of the British Northern town grooming gang scandals is that the race element is the most explosive and poisonous part of it.
If I was making this up, I’d have carefully established that the individuals from the grooming gang originated from all sorts of backgrounds, but the reality of the British Northern town grooming gang scandals is that the race element is the most explosive and poisonous part of it. It’s the element that most commentators are too squeamish to take on. But it’s exactly that element that has ripped apart the local communities.
In Rotherham 1300 mainly white girls were abused by the almost completely Pakistani gang over a number of years, and those in authority turned a blind eye, and re-framed the girls’ situation as being willing ‘child prostitutes’ which is a maddening conclusion to come to when you bear in mind that these girls were raped as young as 11, and that it generally would start at around 12-13 years (as that is an age when they are still conveniently easy to control).
I felt obliged to increase the age of the girls involved in my novel so as not to distress the reader too much, and to give it some vague chance of maybe getting published. My brother is very brave – he puts his email address out on his website with the sentence ‘Feel free to send all your death threats to this address’. Whereas I don’t allow my image to appear on the internet, as I need to protect my family.
I have tried to represent all sides of the debate so as not to be in danger of inciting race hatred. Due to the book going out to more beta readers than usual I’ve ended up having to add more and more corrective ‘information’. It has now become unwieldy and I can feel a final edit coming on to un-stodge it again…”
Having read Dominique’s book I can confirm that she is scrupulous in her treatment of the issues surrounding the controversy. To end the conversation I ask about her favourite books and writers.
“I tend to read ‘literary’ novels, but want to write entertaining ones. I have no favourite writers. Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’, Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, and Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring up the Bodies’, are all excellent. I like books to be absorbing, detailed, complicated, and make you think, but not what I call ‘one-read-wonders’ – where once you know the ‘tricksy’ ending, there is nothing of any depth left to bring you back to the book again. Many of the top best-sellers are in this latter category.”
I am grateful to Dominique for agreeing to be my first interviewee for this series and for her frank and detailed responses to my probing. I hope you enjoyed the experience, too. You can find Dominique’s books here (these links will take you to her author page at the relevant site) Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com
I’m well aware of the ability of a walk to set the creative juices flowing and there’s no better place to experience it than beside the sea shore. Read Rebecca Bryn’s musings on mist, mysticism and religion, and their role in her work. Then read the books she mentions – if you have not already. You will not be disappointed.
Yesterday I shared the long list for the November Word Weaver short story prize. Today Dan has published the 3 ‘honorable mentions’. They are well worth reading and demonstrate the quality of entries this contest attracts.
So I’m pleased to note that I am still there, in the top six!