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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.
My latest date with an indie author arrived a bit late, but was well worth waiting for, as I am sure you will agree. I am grateful to Sylva Fae for interrupting her holiday to answer my questions.
Sylva grew up in Lancashire where, “[If] there were hard times for my parents . . . they kept them well hidden from me and my brother. I had a simple but fun childhood, and I look back with fond memories. My parents were artists who had a love of travel and the outdoors. My dad especially loved travelling and would prioritise holidays abroad over buying expensive toys etc – he wanted us to experience new places and learn about other cultures first hand. My mum was the driving force behind buying a farm, which became a sanctuary for injured wildlife and unwanted pets. When not chasing hens and goats out of the house, we often went on adventures around the local moors and would play in the fresh air while my mum sketched the landscape.”
She now lives in Cheshire and owns a woodland in Shropshire. I wondered how that came about and what were the pros and cons.
“When my eldest daughter was a toddler we booked onto a supposedly child-friendly campsite. It turned into a nightmare of rules and regulations with tents regimentally spaced in a crowded field, then there was a horrendous rainstorm! Faced with keeping a rowdy toddler entertained in a tent, we gave up and came home. We had envisaged a relaxing camping experience, sat around the fire as the sun went down, space for our daughter to run wild and have fun, but instead we got the opposite. With a little research, we discovered that there were companies selling plots of woodland. We spent the summer pottering around different sites, until we found our vision of the idyllic woodland camp, hidden in the Shropshire countryside.
Everyone thought we were mad buying a woodland, and they’re probably right but we love it.
We have created a camping area with a fire pit and benches, that is enjoyed by many of our family and friends. Our three girls have the opportunity to experience a little of the childhood we had. They run wild, climb trees, make dens and have learned to cook on a campfire. It’s great to get them playing and learning new skills in the fresh air rather than slaves to technology, like so many other young people nowadays.
Drawbacks? None that I can think of. The woods provide us with a safe place to camp, fuel to heat our house over winter, and as an investment, the value of the land has more than doubled in the nine years we have had it. The only thing I wish was different is that we’d done this years earlier.”
When I asked her about the challenges involved in her past career as a teacher of children and young adults with special needs, she explained how she “fell into this line of work quite by accident, mainly because most of the other teachers were daunted by the challenge the groups presented.
“I never saw disabilities or learning difficulties, I only saw people who approached learning in different ways.
I planned my lessons to enable them to achieve at a rate and in a meaningful way to each individual. It was incredibly rewarding but also frustrating in that the current education system doesn’t fully recognise the achievements these young people make.
The lessons I learned from working with groups of this nature have enhanced my life, and the skills I now carry forward are valuable in many situations.”
Many of Sylva’s books are based on stories she created with her young children very much in mind and contributing to the process. I asked how she thought they compared to traditional children’s fiction like Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” and “Secret Seven” or more recent works like the “Harry Potter” books.
“I grew up as an Enid Blyton fan, I think I read pretty much every one of her books. I do have a few chapter books, aimed at a similar level on the go, but my main focus is producing picture books. My own children loved the rhyming stories by Julia Donaldson, and the repetitive Hairy Maclary books by Lynley Dodd, and I aspire to create stories that will engage children in the same way.
As her children get older she is adapting her style: “I wanted to create the picture books as memories for my girls of the stories we created together, but already they have outgrown them. I have a few middle school chapter books in the works and a young adult book half written. I must say that I do love the picture book style most of all, but maybe that will change as my girls grow.”
Asked when and where she writes, she explains that since taking voluntary redundancy from her teaching job she writes while her girls are in school – and continues:
“Well, that’s always the plan but inspiration seems to come mostly at night, so I often work in the evenings as well. I type ideas on my mobile phone as they come to me so I’m rarely away from writing. I love to ponder story ideas while I’m sat on a log at the campfire.”
Next we talked about the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing:
“I was offered publishing deals by two small press publishers but I didn’t feel completely happy with either. I’m not sure what it was that held me back, but I decided to publish independently instead, and I’m glad I did as both publishers have since gone out of business.
I did discover a fantastic publisher through my good friend and children’s author Paul Ian Cross. The Little Lights Studio in Vienna has created a bedtime stories app for families, and I’m proud to have been a part of this project from the beginning. I have five stories in the app and I’m in the process of writing five more.
So now I self-publish books but have a modern publisher for online stories – it’s quite a good combination for me.”
Like all the best children’s books hers are prolifically illustrated – by the author:
“I spent a long time trying to find an illustrator to create the pictures I have when I write. I discovered several things – I am very picky about the styles I like, illustrators are justifiably pricey, and I only like the most expensive! Because of this I stalled for a couple of years, unable to afford what I wanted but unwilling to compromise. I then discovered I could create my own illustrations quite by accident. It started just as a bit of fun creating the story characters for my children, but after showing a couple of my writer friends, they gave me the confidence to illustrate my own stories. Cover design is really just an extension of the illustration process so I do that too.”
Editing, however, is something Sylva regards as too important to undertake herself:
“Editing is definitely something I seek support with.
I believe in supporting other authors and have always offered my services as a beta reader and proof reader to anyone who needs it.
Now we have a faithful network of friends who share skills on a pay-it-forward basis. My work is currently being edited by children’s author Millie Slavidou.”
Noting that Sylva’s website has been rather neglected of late, I wondered how much effort she puts into marketing, probably the most difficult aspect of publishing for us independents.
“You are right! I started the blog after advice from experienced author Lesley Hayes, to write every day. She persuaded me to set up the blog and has encouraged me from the start. As soon as I found the way to illustrate and publish my own books, my energies have gone into that, and yes my poor little blog has been neglected. This is something I want to rectify. My next marketing plan is to reinvent the blog and use it as an additional marketing tool.
I think our best marketing tool is interacting within our community. The more we become involved and support one another, the more help we receive with marketing of our own books. You get what you put in.
I particularly enjoy doing live marketing events, reading to children and answering their questions. Young children are my main audience so their feedback is the most valuable.”
When I asked about her reading preferences she produced a long list of independent authors, including some who have, or soon will be, featured in these ‘dates’.
“I love a good psychological thriller, I want to be kept guessing right until the last page. Since I started beta reading for my writer group, I have read around many genres, perhaps ones I wouldn’t have chosen previously but it has been a great experience. Independent authors like Lesley Hayes, Nico Laeser and Val Tobin are current favourites of mine. In expanding my genres I’ve also discovered authors like Susan Faw, Eric Lahti and Melanie Smith. Each has a different style but I have learned so much from each of them. I would love to meet any of my indie author friends, as I feel we have become friends despite never meeting in real life.”
I like to ask my subjects to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their fans – or, in the case of a children’s author, the fans’ parents. Sylva offers three things:
“My debut book Rainbow Monsters won the Chanticleer Little Peeps award for best in category.
Perhaps not surprising given that I own a woodland, but I run a bushcraft and wild camping group when I’m not writing.
I’m a secret geek! I won the US Navy cryptology challenge two years running despite having no prior knowledge of cryptology or related subjects. Russian newspapers speculated that the winners were being recruited into a top-secret government taskforce, and
my local newspaper suggested I might be a spy!
Of course I’m not a spy, I only did the challenge because I enjoy learning new skills and I’m tenacious in pursuing my goals.
I guess I apply this same tenacity and persistence to my writing too. There is no luck in becoming an author, it takes a lot of hard work and a willingness to learn new skills constantly.”
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 describes herself as “a Welsh girl who now lives in Turkey with her family.” When she is not writing or drawing, she loves to cook with fresh produce from the market, and look after her “thirty-odd street cats and one street dog”.
I was curious about her choice of Turkey, given it’s poor human rights reputation, as a suitable place to bring up a family. Her experience gives the lie to that reputation:
“I enjoyed many years teaching primary-aged children in beautiful Swansea. Although I never dreamed of giving up my chosen career, my life shifted focus when I had a set of twins and another child just seventeen months later. My husband and I had waited seven years to have children so when we were blessed with them, they became our main priority. I decided to take time away from my profession to enjoy time with them.
While they were toddlers we spent a couple of weeks a year in Turkey on holiday. After a while we decided to move there for a couple of years.
Turkey is a friendly, family-orientated place, as anyone who has visited will know.
In our twelve years living there, we found the Turkish people welcoming and have never once thought it a ‘far from ideal’ place to raise a family; in fact, quite the opposite. They have been able to experience an idyllic outdoor childhood; they have acquired another language; learned about a different religion, and culture; and have had the opportunity to travel. Our focus in life has always been the children, and we are proud that our Turkish lifestyle has enabled them to grow into socially adaptable, polite teenagers.”
Next I wondered about the temperature in Turkey, especially as the British Isles is currently experiencing one of the longest, hottest summers for a long time and some people are finding it difficult to cope with. In addition, the small coastal village she calls home sees a huge increase in population every summer.
“Turkey’s dry atmosphere is entirely different to the UK’s more humid environment, which makes the equivalent heat in Turkey feel much cooler. Having said that, I am not a fan of searing heat or hordes of tourists. To avoid both we leave Turkey from mid-June until the beginning of September (while the schools are closed.) This allows us to pack our trusty car with a tent (or book an airline ticket) and travel for three months a year. We have been fortunate to visit many places, from the more traditional USA, Australia and European destinations, to the more obscure countries such as Syria, Moldova, and Transnistria. Each country we visit gives me inspiration for another story!”
She recently published the fourth book in her series about Vikings. I wanted to know what drew her to that period in our history as the setting for her stories.
“I’ve always loved history and most of my books contain snippets in some form. I grew up in the old Roman town of Isca (the modern village of Caerleon, not to be confused with Exeter, fp), surrounded by history.
My father’s enthusiasm for the ruins, museums, and castles firmly cemented history into my heart.
I am particularly interested in the ‘rise-in-power and fall-from-grace’ of groups of people—the Huns, Egyptians, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Ottomans, to name a few. Hopefully, in the future, I will write stories about them all!”
Each book in the series has taken about a year to produce:
“Due to their historical genre, research takes most of my time, but this is the part I love. I take roughly six months to compose and write the story, and a couple more months to edit. This timescale is not set in stone as I am not an author who has the whole story in their mind before they start. I have a rough idea of its path, and as I write, the characters develop the rest of the story for me. (Unfortunately, this method keeps me awake many a night! Lol)”
She does not invest in professional editing for her books:
“As an emerging indie author, paying a professional editor has been out of the question so far, due to the cost. I have trusted beta readers who help me, and as I gain more fans, finding people willing to help is becoming easier.”
Ceri does not yet regard herself as a full time writer, nor does she regret leaving her profession as a teacher
“I am not a full-time writer—I write if, and when, the opportunity arises. Most of the time, this works for me, although it can be frustrating when I have a story in my head and haven’t had the opportunity to get near my computer. I have no regrets about leaving teaching because I have spent the last sixteen years dedicating my time to educating and travelling the world with my children.”
My next question was posed before I realised how long it is since she left teaching. I wondered if recent cuts in all public service budgets in the UK, including education, had influenced her decision.
“It saddens me to see cuts in the UK public services. Education is close to my heart, and one day I hope the ‘powers’ realise that they need to invest in the future generation.”
She offers a long list in response to my question about authors she admires – and has a cheeky question she would love to ask the Brontë sisters.
“There are so many! My tastes vary greatly from the Brontë sisters, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, and Mario Puzo to the modern Nora Roberts, JK Rowling, Cassandra Clare, and Janet Dailey.
What would I ask them? That’s difficult…
I would ask them all what gave them the determination to continue to write when they were knocked back by publishers and critics many times? I wouldn’t ask them about their writing processes as I am sure they are as diverse as the authors themselves. (ps I would ask the Brontë sisters why they burned Emily’s unpublished book after she died? I’m sure it would have been another amazing story…)”
Her preferred time for writing is in the afternoons:
“when my children are in school.
Over the years, I’ve learned that every author has their own method of getting their story written. It took a long time for me not to feel that my method of a more ‘free’ story structure wasn’t incorrect; it was my more random way! Some authors have dedicated times for writing, and have strict story arcs and structures; I do not. I jump around my story, filling in the gaps when I get inspiration. I also have a computer filled with half-finished stories and will leave them there until they invade my mind and I have to finish them. I am sure my method would send most authors into a tizzy! lol
The only thing I always do is keep a notebook by my side. It contains vital research, dates, and names in it. I use it when my memory fails me! Lol”
Like most independently and self-published authors she feels uncomfortable with self-promotion, and marketing is not her favourite part of the process.
“But I realise it is an important part of the journey. Luckily, my four Viking books are in the top 100 bestsellers in Amazon’s Viking romances and because they are visible to potential readers, I no longer have to ‘push’ my books so hard, which is a great relief.”
I learned quite a lot from my conversation with Ceri – that Turkey is not as bad a place to live as I had supposed; that there are at least two Iscas; and the location and political status of Transnistria, among other things. I hope you now feel equally well informed!
My ‘date’ this week is with a woman who lives a stone’s throw from the ‘Dreaming Spires’ of Oxford.
“I moved to Oxford about thirty years ago, having flirted with the idea of living here for at least five years before that. I was born in London and lived there until my early twenties. I’d never want to go back there for more than a visit now.
I’ve found Oxford is an ideal place for writers, eccentrics, and artists. It’s a place that celebrates diversity, and where you can be anonymous if you wish, and yet experience the feel of a village if you want to find your tribe. I love the way history is embedded in its streets and secret alleyways.
My own personal history is embedded there too, now. The only thing I would change seems like wishing for the tide not to turn – I’m not keen on the vast new shopping centre that screams commercialism, and the mad traffic congestion. But I suppose those hazards are inevitable in our modern society.”
Lesley worked full-time as a writer from the age of 17 and, afterwards, had short stories published and/or read on radio over a period of several years before deciding to switch careers and become a psychotherapist. I wondered if that was a difficult decision to make.
“Not at all. It seemed an organic progression, just as turning again to my writing twenty years later felt the right time. My writing had always focused on the psychological motivations and quirks of human nature, and I was trying to work out my own salvation through it, without realising it at the time.
As I reached the end of my thirties I had survived a great deal of trauma and my move to Oxford had begun a process of profound healing. I trained as a psychotherapist to help me understand more of that trauma and what had enabled my survival, and having learned how to go beyond my own suffering, I wanted to pass that on. It’s something of a cliché that therapists are wounded healers, but it’s true.
My work in therapy and in writing fiction has not been so different.
For me, it’s always been about reaching for the truth, and communicating on a deep level with other human beings.
I recognise that like many introverts I also have a driving need for meaningful connection. It’s what keeps us all afloat.”
Her childhood was lived in a part of London that followers of the BBC soap opera ‘Eastenders’ would recognise. However, whilst the fictional ‘Walford’ has changed hardly at all in the 40 years since its arrival on our screens, the part Lesley knew has changed beyond recognition.
“It’s now very different – the little I’ve seen of it in recent years. I’ve looked up the street where I lived for much of my childhood on Google Maps, and it’s weird to see that it’s all part of Docklands now. The interesting thing, however, is that I only have to call on my memory to see it exactly as it was. I have strong images in my mind of the house where I grew up. I didn’t realise it was a slum, and took for granted the outside lavatory and the huge bomb site at the end of the road. Those early experiences in my working class family are vividly imprinted on me.”
Mention of bomb sites reminds me that Lesley recently turned 70. What do the advancing years mean to her in her life and her writing?
“In spite of the additional physical challenges that ageing brings, I don’t think I’ll ever feel old. The generations of women in my maternal family have been strong and feisty, and youthful in our outlook. I loved my grandmother, who in her late eighties still had a wicked sense of humour.
My mother died only two years ago, also in her late eighties, and she remained politically astute right to the very end – and made sure her vote got cast in the referendum, even though by then she was bed-ridden.
I’m anticipating clocking up quite a few more years than either of them. But I’m also prepared to give in gracefully at whatever age my number comes up. My friends range in age from their early forties to their mid-eighties, and
where like-mindedness and a lively, creative intelligence are present I don’t think age really matters.
As a writer I feel I am at my peak (though I’d probably have said that at whatever age I’d reached when doing this interview!) In writing my current novel I am aware that I am bringing a lifetime of experience and understanding to it. I write with increasingly more compassion and empathy for my characters – which is a reflection of one of the blessings of getting older.
As I see the end of my life no longer as a mere dot on the horizon, I am poignantly aware of my connection not just with other humans but with all creatures, all life. We are all part of ‘it’, and although I’m still no wiser about what ‘it’ is (a lifetime’s inner and outer journeying have been devoted to finding the answer to that) I feel more strongly aware that it is all-encompassing and beautiful.”
How did her past experience as a published writer influence her decision to self-publish when she returned to writing in later life?
“Initially I did put some effort into finding another agent, as the one I’d had for all those years before had retired from Laurence Pollinger. But I soon discovered that in those twenty odd years since I’d last been published the whole world of publishing had changed. It was a salutary lesson in humility to be reminded that for all intents and purposes, and whatever my previous history, I was now a new girl on the block.
I was reluctant to self-publish at first, but it was my son who persuaded me. I hadn’t even heard of kindle, never mind discovering the joys of having one. As it has been with most projects in my life, once I seized the nettle I began vigorously waving the flag for nettles everywhere.
It gets easier with each book I publish to learn the ropes of what’s required. The hardest part has been managing to generate the publicity, as I’m not comfortable with blowing my own trumpet. But I love the process of creating the ads for my books, and the covers. And the one huge advantage of self-publishing for me has been editing my own books (which I always did in the past anyway) and not having a publisher trying to convince me to put in more of this or less of that. I do like having complete creative control.”
Her training and work as a psychotherapist feed into her more recent writing:
“I’m sure the richness of those years of deeper exploration into the psyche, and more importantly the human heart, have influenced me more than I realise. I have always been fascinated in hearing people’s stories (sitting at the feet of my mother and grandmother as a child, listening to them gossip and relate anecdotes about their history, was a rich source of material for my imagination!) I brought that genuine deep interest to my work as a therapist, and I learned to look for patterns and layers in the stories people told about themselves and their families. I think that honed whatever skills I already had, so that I now embed those patterns and layers in the novels I write. I’m not sure I could write in any other way – because I have to be fascinated in what I’m writing and the characters who introduce themselves to me as I bring them into life.”
She is reluctant to start listing author she admires
“because I’d have a hard job choosing which were more important or influential. The writer who has impressed me most recently has been Philip Pullman. I watched a documentary about him and felt such a rapport with him and how he described the way he works. I admire the way he delves so deeply into his characters and the invented landscape he creates in his books. He has such an incredible imagination, and he brings philosophy and spirituality into his books in a way that encourages the reader to question and perhaps even begin thinking in a way they hadn’t before. I love a book and a writer who is able to do that. I don’t know that I could learn anything as a writer from spending time with him, because we all have our unique style. But I would so enjoy hanging out with him and just talking about the process of writing, and life, and what it means to us.”
Like me, Lesley is full of admiration for the way in which other self-published and independently published writers support each other through organisations like IASD. Some say that such support is less forthcoming from traditionally published writers. Some of the people Lesley worked with in the 1970s went on to become household names. Did she consider approaching them when considering re-entering the world of publishing?
“No, I haven’t done that. I did get in touch with a local writer who has had some success (and ironically, all those years ago, just before I gave up writing for psychotherapy, I gave him the name of my agent, which started the ball rolling for him!) I contacted him a few years ago, just before I started writing my last novel, when I was considering trying to get back into mainstream publishing. He wrote back and said he’d had a look at my profile on Amazon and all the reviews I had, and his advice was to stick to self-publishing. Although he had continued to be published by one of the ‘big’ publishers he was making very little money, and being messed around by them. As for those who worked with me on the magazine, it honestly hasn’t occurred to me to get in touch with them. I tend not to look back once I’ve moved on.”
I am envious of her disciplined approach to writing:
“I’m quite disciplined, which I think is essential. I’ve always had to have a ‘writing room’, wherever I’ve lived, although it’s also an internal space. The one thing I’ve always required is non-interrupted silence – which is probably why I’m much happier living alone, and have a cat who doesn’t even purr. I work in the mornings. My preferred routine is between breakfast and lunch, although because I also have a healthy routine of meeting friends in the mornings, that can be reduced. If I’m burning to get on with a particular chapter I’ll return to it later in the afternoon, but never past 6.30 pm. Every day I go back over the previous day’s writing and edit before starting anew. It helps to keep the thread active, and I’ll sometimes see where I need to insert a couple of paragraphs that link to something that has gone before or is about to be written.”
There is nothing not already exposed here or on her website that she would wish to reveal about herself:
“As you’ve pointed out, I reveal a great deal. Possibly too much. When I was writing the material for it (her website) I lost sight of the fact that complete strangers would one day be reading it. On the other hand, anyone who reads my novels can guess certain things about my own life (although the tease is – which bits are fictional?) I’m an odd combination of being both open and private. I’m honest about who I am, and the truth has always been important to me. The details I wouldn’t want to reveal are those that cause me pain to talk about or would in some way impact on someone else.
I’ve always been good at keeping other people’s secrets… and a few of my own.”
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 ‘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.
These 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.