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A Date With . . . R.L.Andrew

My ‘date’ this week is a truly inspiring woman. R.L. (Robyn) Andrew suffers from the debilitating condition Psoriatic arthritis. This is similar to the condition which afflicted the English television playwright Dennis Potter. Being from Australia I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the English writer who I would imagine would be an inspiration. I sent her a link to Mark Lawson’ s tribute to him.

“I did not know that, Frank, and I truly appreciate the thought you’ve put into this question. He truly is an inspiration and proof of determination. I believe the man who wrote Simply Alice suffered from ALS. While not the same disease he achieved incredible things with basically no ability to physically move. I hope to inspire others in kind.

While I’m chronically ill I am still able to achieve many things albeit mentally and via technology. It’s only my physical self that’s inhibited, my mind is more than eager and capable of learning. I can’t do most of the stuff I used to be able to like work outside my home, surf, dive, swim, run etc but while sick I’ve achieved things I never believed I would. I’m about to have my second book published by an American Publisher, my first has won an award and has five-star ratings. I sell signed paperbacks at markets once a month when able and I participated in my first book fair. I’ve also met some amazing, wonderful and inspirational people through social media which has likewise opened up many doors. Instead of it being the end when I became ill, it’s become a new beginning.”

On her website she says her illness made her determined to “use the sponge like brain I have before it turned to mush.” I asked her to expand on that.

“Admittedly it took a couple of years before I realised I could not only be happy and in pain/suffering but have realistic goals. I’d always been physically and mentally active with a burgeoning legal career so when I first became sick that all stopped. My world crashed, what I had been, known or knew got stripped bare and thrown away. Pain quickly became my closest friend, enemy and confidant.

It’s almost impossible to see anything else when you’re consumed by body malfunctions, other diseases and damage that accompany it along the way, let alone dealing with different levels of pain. Your life starts being about medical appointments, tests and medication testing, instead of graduating law school. In the midst of it were my three daughters, husband, friends and relatives also affected by this. It’s a dark existence and in the process it’s easy to lose your own identity.

But, I’ve always been stubborn, determined, focused and have an unquenchable mind. I would not allow myself to be consumed by something I could not control.

I can’t change what happens to my body, yet I can change how I deal with it and how much attention I give to it. I swallowed my pride and accepted any external help I needed and continue to need. I also embraced technology and ways in which that could give me a life.

I’d written short stories and poems from the time I could write and I’d always wanted to write a book. When I put two and two together light returned to my day. I returned to writing short stories and found anthologies looking for submissions. One after another they were accepted and before I knew it I had fifteen plus in different anthologies.

a722b5b2-7652-4f9f-b774-5d78de60b408These not only gave me confidence but taught me about structure, working with editors and constructive feedback. I came across several Facebook writing groups and one in particular changed my writing life – Writer’s World. It’s an online critique group that offers other services such as novel writing boot camps. I signed up, swallowed my pride again and delved in. It’s a humbling experience and at the same time when you’re open to learning from others you become a much better writer. This is how my first book came to be and I met long lasting friends in the meantime.

Now I worry about plot holes and first round edits. I have gone a bit too far in that regard and sometimes forget about my health, but I’m working on it.

Long story short, never give up, never give in, and never let anyone tell you you can’t do something. The only person who can ever stop you, is you.”

Robyn lives in Victoria, Australia.

“I was born in Victoria and moved to South Australia at five until fifteen. At nineteen I moved to Sydney in NSW and had three daughters. We lived there for seven years and then moved back to Victoria. On and off I’ve lived here for around thirty five years. Despite several attempts I’ve not managed to move back to South Australia where I still have family, but Victoria seems to be in my long term future for a number of reasons, mostly my three daughters are in this state and the medical care is better here. Overall it’s a nice state but no matter where you live you can make it home.”

She published her first book last autumn at which point she was already working on two more. I wondered how these second and third books are progressing, given that her condition limits the amount of work she can do each day.

“My second one is in second round edits and hopefully will be published by mid year! It seems to take me about a year from first draft until it’s ready to publish and that takes into account my health. I do some writing every day. Some days I’m able to do a couple of hours in fragments, other days it’s less. However, the beauty of technology these days is that you can write on your phone or tablet. It doesn’t matter how much I do as long as I do some.

With the first one published I have to work at selling it which is difficult given my limitations, but I make it work. If I have to miss a market or something I will. On the same token I take as many opportunities as I can to promote it even if it means leaving my house.”

She writes about relationships with humour but her books are set in an alien world.

“No matter how crappy life gets you can laugh about it and it makes you feel better.

I’ve always been fascinated in life on other planets and I love making stuff up so it went from there.”

Her experience as a Legal Executive “has not come into my writing at all as yet. I’m not sure it will.” Instead she “finds writing an escape from reality. I love getting absorbed in my worlds and characters. It’s so much fun and it’s often cathartic.”

She is published by JaCol, a small independent. I asked about her experience with them and editor Randall Andrews.

“I have loved every minute of it. It has not been easy, it’s been a lot of hard work, thinking, plotting, planning and tossing away parts that don’t work. Randall has a way of getting me to see where something doesn’t work or what I need to change without saying much. He also knows how to get the best out of me and my story and knows I’m prepared to do what it takes. I highly recommend Randall and Jacol to all authors. I want to see it grow bigger.”

I always ask my ‘dates’ about their writing space and time. Robyn’s is dictated by her illness.

“Until a week ago I wrote from my bed or couch but our former office is now my writing room. I have a motorised bed in there which lifts the feet and head however I need it and it vibrates! It’s also the warmest room and all my books, market and writing stuff in there. Now I’m on the third book with another five planned in this series I needed more room.”

She admires “so many [authors] it’s hard to choose one. Perhaps Edgar Allen Poe was the first author who really grabbed my attention and holds it to this day. My Great Grandmother had a full collection of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I read everyone of those too.”

Asked to reveal something about herself that might surprise her readers she admits to being “big into the UFO scene and spend time each day researching it. I’m also a keen gardener, such as I can, and a great cook.”

I am in awe of someone who manages to write something every day despite the obstacles life has placed in her way, with the ambition to complete an eight volume series. I hope you are, too. You can connect with Robyn on her website and Facebook. Better still, buy her book here. You can also arrange to receive a signed paperback copy via her website.

If Writing is not Political, What’s the Point?

A recent blog post from Allison Maruska highlighted the dilemma that some writers face when exposing themselves via their blogs and social media. If potential readers get wind of my political beliefs will they decline to purchase my books?

Do the people I hope will buy my books need to know my thoughts on Donald Trump or just how many cups of coffee I drink whilst working on the next novel in the series? My views on creationism or climate change, or only how my latest research trip is going?

My question to people who struggle with these dilemmas is: “why do you write?” Because the truth is that all writing, if it is to mean anything, is of necessity political.

Is anyone in any doubt about Dickens’s politics? Or Orwell’s? Did Wells’s well known Socialism put people off his writing?

Of all genres, Science Fiction is, perhaps, the most obviously political. It’s basic plot involves an individual or group struggling against a regime with which they disagree. However the author chooses to present the two sides, which one is portrayed as the embodiment of evil and which as all that is good and just, he or she is making a political statement.

Neither the writer nor the reader can relate to the situation in an imagined world except by comparison with parallels in our own world. And it is how the author handles those parallels, how, for example, he portrays fear of “the other” as natural or irrational, that reveals his or her political stance on problems in the real world.

Which features of an invented religion are based on the beliefs of certain religions in our world? Are they shown to offer clear benefits to those who practice them, or are they revealed to be the cause of unnecessary suffering?

Even in romantic novels, which might be deemed by some as trivial, the protagonists have conversations and disagreements. The nature of those disagreements reveal, whether intentionally or not, the author’s world view.

When it comes to blogging, if your aim as an author is to show your readers the kind of person who wrote the book or books that you are publicising; if, in doing so, you hold back some essential part of yourself, are you not being dishonest? And if the reader discovers, through reading your book, a set of beliefs he despises is he not just as likely to reject you and your writing as if he made the discovery through your blog?

You might think you are protecting your “bottom line”, and, by extension, the welfare of those who depend on your income for their own security. The truth is, I contend, that you are not being true either to yourself or to your hoped for readers. If you are afraid, as Frank Sinatra put it, in Paul Anka’s words, to “state [your] case of which [you are] certain”, perhaps you are not meant to be a writer.

New World Order

The following opening to a possible science fiction story came about in response to a writers’ group prompt: “the mist cleared to reveal …” I wanted to show a group of people arriving on a strange planet and seeing their new surroundings for the first time. To make the story work I had to decide how and why they got there and, most importantly, who they were.

My answers to those questions were prompted by the two big news stories of the summer. Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to political prominence in the UK, and secondly, the mass migration into Europe of people from the Middle East and further afield.

The movement that propelled Corbyn has echoes elsewhere as the political left reacts to the austerity programmes adopted by governments in response to the banking crisis of 2008/9. Both events are manifestations of the inability of free-market economics to ensure the fair distribution of the planet’s resources. I invite you to join me in a discussion of this seemingly intractable problem after you have read the fiction piece below. At the end there is a link to a page where I explain why I think the group of people in my story are, like the alternatives proposed by the political left, doomed to failure. This is where you can tell me why I am wrong.

New World

A gentle vibration woke him from his slumber. A quiet voice in his ear. Quiet but insistent.

“It is time, Jason. It is time.”

He rolled over and rubbed his eyes. Memories began to flood his brain. He tested his limbs, wriggling his toes, stretching his arms, clenching and unclenching his fists. So far as he could tell from these initial tests the systems built into the machine had worked. Systems that manipulated his muscles and joints as he slept, simulating normal movement in order to prevent wasting of the former and seizure of the latter.

Cautiously he sat up. All around, the others were doing the same. Tom, Adam, Gill, Jane, Susan and Kate. Seven people. His heart skipped a beat. There should be eight. Where was Jim?

Jim had entered the slumber in the station between Kate and Susan. Jason’s mind began to race. Wide awake now, he thought again about those systems. If the wake-up call had failed in Jim’s station, what else might have failed? It was time to test his vocal cords. No-one had been able to devise a means of stimulating them during the slumber. Tests, however, had demonstrated that there was no loss of functionality during prolonged sleep. Subjects often talked in their sleep, even in the depths of drug-induced slumber. It had been impossible to simulate a slumber as long as that to which he and his companions had been subjected.

“Jim.” His voice sounded strange to him but must have carried. Kate and Susan both turned towards each other, their faces transfixed at what they saw. Or, rather, what they did not see. They should have seen Jim’s smiling eyes and long nose, that cheerful grin they’d all become used to in training.

“Jim.” Both women spoke at once, echoing Jason’s cry. Both slipped from their stations. Jason was already striding towards them. The other members of the team, too, quickly joined in the common feeling of concern for their colleague.

Kate was the first to hit the resuss button. All crowded round and watched as the luminous green line on the monitor screen changed. There was a communal sigh of relief as the semi-cylindrical panel that covered Jim’s station began to slide into the floor of the compartment to reveal Jim. Not grinning yet, but his eyes open, a puzzled look on his face.

“What are you all staring at?” He eased himself into a sitting position.

“Some kind of minor malfunction,” Jason said. “The resuss system didn’t operate on your station. Kate activated it manually.”

Turning to the rest of the group, he continued: “OK, so we are all relieved to see Jim apparently hale and hearty, but we don’t know what other systems may have under-performed. All the more reason to follow the routine we were trained to undertake. Let’s all meet in the gym in twenty minutes.”

“Don’t be a spoil sport,” Alice complained. “I want to take a look outside.”

“That’s exactly why I said twenty minutes. I guess we all want to see what our new home looks like.”

Jason led the way to the observation platform. A bank of screens revealed what cameras on the outside of their vessel were picturing. Nothing much, except a swirling, milky mist.

Adam pointed to one of the screens behind Gill’s head. “Look.”

All eight turned and watched as the mist slowly cleared to reveal –

“Grass.”

“Trees.”

“And, look, a river.”

“No animals.” Gill, always the pessimist, joined the chorus.

“Or birds,” added Tom.

Jason was silent. The mist had not yet lifted above the highest ground. In one of the screens it was pierced by a bright glow that surely was this planet’s sun. Close to the horizon, lower than the high ground. “It’s still early in the day,” he said. “Come on, it’s time for our check-ups.”

By the time each member of the party had been subjected to a series of physical and mental exercises designed to establish that all were, indeed, hale and hearty, the sun was high in an azure sky and the mist had dispersed. Drops of dew like a million diamonds bedecked the grass and the leaves on the trees. White clouds floated above the hills.

“It looks just like home.” Jason heard the note of awe in Kate’s voice.

Before he could respond Gill spoke, returning to what was fast becoming a hobby horse. “Earth has birds and animals.”

“Well, the atmosphere checks out alright. A lot cleaner than the earth we knew. More like seventeenth century Europe, before the industrial revolution. The temperature is a comfortable 20 degrees. There is no reason to suppose it isn’t safe to go outside.”

“Look there!” Adam pointed to a small screen apart from the rest. With a collective gasp all eight watched as the image relayed by the robotic explorer revealed something even more homely: an array of spiders’ webs, their delicate threads be-jewelled by droplets sparkling in the rainbow hues of refracted light from the sun.

“Well, Gill, what do you make of that?” It was Jim who broke the awed silence.

“Spiders aren’t animals. Nor are the insects they live on. Don’t the rest of you get it? A planet with an atmosphere like Earth’s, a temperature, in this corner at least, the same as earth’s temperate zones, enough water to sustain plant life, ought to be teeming with animals and birds. We should at least be able to hear them, and yet the mike’s are picking up nothing more than the rustling of the leaves in the breeze. I don’t like it.”

Jane had said little since the group’s awakening. Now she touched Gill’s arm. “At least no animals means no humans either. Isn’t that what we wanted? To escape from the horrors our fellow humans had inflicted on Earth.”

A sombre silence followed Jane’s reminder of why they were all here. Each member of the team had been chosen, not just for their particular skills and experience, but for their personalities: tolerant, easy going and with a well developed sense of justice and fairness. Not only would they work together well, establishing a successful community on the new world, their genetic make-up ought to ensure that their off-spring continued the co-operative life style into future generations.

That, at least, was the underlying ideal of the foundation that had recruited the team three centuries before. Motivated by a desire to end the centuries of conflict that had devastated the home planet a group of wealthy individuals had come together initially to pool their resources, creating the Foundation. To begin with they had deployed their vast collective wealth on so called ‘good works’; like a project to green the deserts of North Africa, harnessing the power of the sun to provide clean energy some of which was used to run desalination plants to provide the necessary water.

Aware that uncontrolled population growth placed unbearable pressure on Earth’s natural resources they funded a programme of birth control education throughout those parts of the world where the problem was greatest. This had brought them into conflict with religious leaders but they had persevered, employing retired politicians and diplomats whom they had sent into war zones with a mission to reconcile differences and bring peace to regions torn apart by generations of violent antagonism. That mission had failed, the numbers of people displaced by war and famine continued to increase, threatening the stability of those nations who had finally, in the second half of the twentieth century, learned the value of peaceful coexistence. It was then, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, that the idea of establishing a new start for the human race on an alien planet had been conceived and implemented.

Can society ever be fair and just? Go to the discussion