Interviews with writers

Readers are often keen to know more about the authors of their favourite books, for example, what inspires them, their writing process, how they have taught themselves to write.  Writers, too, are interested in knowing how their peers go about the business of writing. Here are some interviews from my former blog, Papillon.

joy-wotherspoon

What does writing mean to you?

I grew up in a religious culture that is very conservative and image-oriented, so as a child I often felt restricted about what I could say or even feel. I escaped to a world of reading and writing where I was free to be myself and express anything and everything. So, at various times, writing has been an act of defiance, of necessity, of self-preservation, and of healing, as well as a search for connection and authenticity. Once I authorised myself to write as an adult (a journey in itself!), it was easy enough to get the words to flow onto the page for my own benefit. But I call myself an apprentice writer at this point because I’m aware that it’s much more difficult to craft a piece that speaks to others as well. There can be such a gap between the story stirring in my heart and mind and what actually shows up on the page! So I’ve been taking online classes, networking with other writers, and trying to strike an elusive balance of bravery and humility.

What situations/environments inspire you?

I’ve always felt most at peace and alive surrounded by nature. I grew up in the northwest corner of the United States, and my spirit feels a little deprived if I’m away from either mountains or ocean for too long, so I’m lucky to live in a French village within walking distance of hills and lakes now. However, during my adolescence, my family lived in the middle of the U.S. in a region so flat that locals joked, “it’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here,” and that was one of the most prolific writing times in my life. So maybe a little deprivation can be inspiring—or at least motivating—too! In terms of creativity, being outdoors helps me centre and free up my creative mind, as well as pay close attention to my senses. I’m also inspired by acts of great courage and vulnerability, which help me dare to be more honest in my life and work.

Tell me about your non fiction writing?

I’m most drawn to creative nonfiction—memoir, personal essay, and experimental forms like the lyric essay, which I’ve heard described as “nonfiction meets poetry meets your grocery list.” It’s rooted in reality, but the form is more narrative and free than what we’d traditionally think of as nonfiction—it’s not just a medium for transmitting unbiased information anymore. I’ve been prewriting a book-length memoir on my experience growing up in fundamentalist Christianity in the U.S., but it is still largely unformed. The scope of the project (both the length and the emotional work involved in the writing) got a little daunting for a first project. So, this year, I’ve set my sights on shorter, more attainable goals. The essay has been a good home for me lately.

What are the challenges of writing in that genre?

I feel like there’s both a great hunger for and resistance to true stories and personal stories (large and small) in our culture at the moment. I get a lot of “oh, that’s so cute you’re writing your memories down, but it’s not real literature” kind of responses from other writers, but then I find out later that they love watching reality TV or documentaries or reading first-person essays online. I think there’s a deep human desire to see our experiences reflected in the world, in every form, as well as to understand people different from ourselves. Creative nonfiction (CNF) as a genre is kind of the new kid on the literary block, and it’s not always understood or respected, and it’s been difficult for me to find critique partners or writing classes in my field of interest. I don’t think that fiction and creative nonfiction are actually all that incongruous in terms of craft lessons (what makes the writing resonate), but the creative process is very different between the two.

There are a lot of ethical considerations when writing about real people and events, not to mention the constraints of reality, that fiction writers don’t have, and all CNF writers have our own emotional taboos and gremlins to overcome and confront. I’ve become aware very quickly that “truth” is sort of a relative concept when it comes to memory. The act of writing something down even once can shift your memory and perception of an event, so I’ve learned I have to take notes immediately. By the 7th or 8th draft, I start to wonder if the story is closer to fiction than fact—I guess that’s where the “creative” bit of CNF comes in! Even without that, though, the goal is to write to the emotional truth of a memory or event, even if some of the details get a little smudged in the process. That’s my take on it, anyway; others might disagree. It can be controversial!

Have you any plans to write fiction?

Well, my life has been so unpredictable to date that I’m learning not to rule anything out! I have thought about taking a class or two to be able to better relate to fiction writers in my editing work.

Tell me about the Writers’ Alliance you lead in Grenoble.

I tend to balk at the word “leader” when it comes to this group—I usually say I facilitate because the writers in our association are so bright, dynamic, and competent that the discussion sort of runs itself. We’re one of the activity groups in Open House, which is an association for English speakers in Grenoble. During the 2013-2014 school year (in connection with the French social calendar), we had a core group of 8 members including myself, and we met two afternoons a month for discussion on topics related to writing and creativity. Next year, we’ll be adding a component of work sharing for critique and writing practice. The gender bias of the group (as with many in Open House) is female, but we have a few brave men on our roster, and I hope a few more will join us next year when we offer an evening meeting for folks who work standard hours. Our membership is really diverse, both in terms of genre and experience and personal background, which makes for some rich and lively conversations.

How much has working with homeless people and those with disabilities impacted you as a person? Has this impact affected the way you write?

The short answer is that I’m not sure I could do such an interesting question justice in a short paragraph without falling into clichés, so you’ll have to wait for the book! Without question, though, my years working in nonprofits affected me deeply. They cracked me open so that I could start to heal from some past traumas and become who I think I was meant to be as an adult. Part of the mission statement at the homeless shelter was taking the time to listen to each person’s sacred story. It was there that I witnessed the power of claiming one’s voice and the gift of being heard by a compassionate witness, which has definitely contributed to my interest in reading and writing memoir. Both communities showed me how much joy can come out of sharing our own authentic opinions and gifts, in all their diversity and brokenness. I learned that it might be OK to show people my rough edges, that I could maybe even be known and loved because of them. It’s a really difficult and imperfect process, but I think that each of our stories has the potential to touch another person deeply, if we can find the courage to tell them in a real way.

What are the potential pitfalls of editing someone’s work?

Having been on both sides of the red pen, I know that being edited or critiqued can be an extremely vulnerable process. When it’s my work under scrutiny, I want to be told, “It’s brilliant! A runaway best seller! I wouldn’t change a thing.”ull Ó But of course, most of us are not spinning out gold, at least not on the first draft. We need an outside reader to catch the things we’re too enmeshed in a piece to see. I try to make the editing stage as painless for clients as possible, but I’m continually learning and refining my process. There’s quite a range of understanding (and misunderstanding) around what writers and editors mean when we say proofreading and editing, especially now that so many first-time writers are self-publishing. Sometimes people are just not ready to get feedback from an outside reader. Sometimes the editor and writer disagree, which can actually lead to some good discussions if feelings don’t get hurt along the way. But the majority of the time I’ve had issues, have been because the scope of the project was poorly defined, which is on me as the editor. This leads in well with your next question.

Do you agree in advance how much intervention you will give in someone’s work?

Absolutely. Because there is such a range of needs and expectations out there, I’ve found that I need to communicate in advance with potential clients about the types of editing I offer, clarify the type or types they desire for their project, and pin down every parameter I can imagine (via a questionnaire) before contracts are signed. This process has become more streamlined as I’ve gained experience, but it still takes a little time upfront to be sure that both author and editor are on the same page and feeling like they are part of a team. Sometimes unforeseen challenges do come up. I’ve had to renegotiate the contract in the middle of a project before, but that’s really not my preference. I’ve learned to ask to see a sample of a part of the book authors are feeling less secure about in order to give the most accurate estimate of time and budget before I start to edit. I work on keeping the lines of communication open during the editing process so that if issues do come up, they can be resolved quickly.

If you had one tip to give to an editor, what would this be?

I’m mainly speaking to other freelance editors, since in-house editors face a different set of challenges than those I’ve experienced. Stay informed and find a professional network of some kind that suits your style, whether this is a formal editing association, online forum, other editors in online classes, or social networking group. Editing is a fairly solitary act, especially for freelancers. It can get lonely, and the technology is changing pretty quickly at the moment, which can be overwhelming. E-books, platforms, macros . . . it can all make an indie writer or editor want to crawl under the desk, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. After going it alone for the first 5 years, I started networking and doing more trainings in the last year, and I’ve found it so helpful and reassuring to have e-colleagues. I can recommend the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) and Author-Editor Clinic for folks in North America, and I follow the SfEP (Society for Editors and Proofreaders) on Twitter and Louise Harnby’s excellent blog (both based in the UK).

What are your future writing plans?

Right now a lot of my creative energy is going toward expanding my freelance editing business, but I’m in the process of revising a series of lyric essays, with an eye on entering some contests in the fall.

How can writers connect with you?

Writers are welcome to check out my website to learn more about my editing services:  http://www.fntediting.com.  I’m also happy to make connections on LinkedIn or Twitter.

 


th-6

 

Australian writer, BELINDA POLLARD, is a published author of meditations and a Varuna Fellowship winner for fiction.  A former journalist, she has been a specialist book editor for 17 years, and the owner of Small Blue Dog Publishing for 10 years.  She is currently working on self-publishing several books of her own.

Belinda founded Small Blue Dog Publishing to help writers find their own path to either traditional or ‘indie’ publishing.  She lives in Brisbane.

What have you written so far?

As a journalist, I’ve written a lot of strange things, many best forgotten. As a spiritual writer, I’ve been writing meditations for a UK Christian publisher since the late 90s, including a stand-alone short book called Meet the Real Jesus. I’m currently reworking that one for self-publication in a different style, plus writing a (hopefully) humorous dog memoir, and a business writing book. I’ve also done some ghostwriting.

My fiction career commenced with an illustrated romance novel I wrote, aged 9, for a school project – no doubt to my teacher’s surprise and possibly alarm! Can’t remember much about it now, except that someone caught a plane. (Air travel was the height of elegance when I was 9.) My thriller Poison Bay is about a bunch of old friends who go out into the wilderness and don’t all come back. It has been “under construction” for years. I keep thinking I’ve finished it, and then someone else asks me to do another quick round of 500 revisions.

What does writing mean to you?

Over the years, a number of people have asked me that Life Goal question: “If money and people’s expectations didn’t matter, what would you do?” My answer always includes: “I’d live near the sea and write.” I love to communicate and connect with people about things that really matter, and my spiritual writing stems from that. I also adore fiction – both writing it and reading it. I can’t resist the allure of imaginary worlds. It’s odd that I can be so enamoured of writing, and yet avoid it so easily when I’m procrastinating and feeling intimidated. 😉

What situations/environments inspire you?

I’m inspired by gorgeous wild places, and that’s why Poison Bay is set in a remote part of New Zealand (think: Middle Earth). Future novels in the series are set in other gorgeous wild places, like the Great Barrier Reef, Cape York, Central Australia, Antarctica and Alaska. Lots of research trips needed. Lots.

I also love the way people interact with each other, and how “good” people have bad in them, and “bad” people have good in them. People fascinate me. So there’s lots of people in my books, all trying to work out how to get along. And, of course, survive assassins and the environment!

Were you writing creatively when working as a journalist, and if so, how well did it work going from one to the other?

I mostly wrote hard news in the early days, and later did some feature writing. The journalism background helps when it’s time to research a book. I automatically start evaluating sources and looking for the best person to interview. The background DOESN’T help when it comes to deciding if I’m “allowed” to write. Because I’ve always been paid to write, spending hundreds of hours writing fiction that may never pay its own way seemed wasteful and indulgent. And that stopped me writing fiction for ages. But now I just say, “Oh, what the heck. It’s no worse than watching television.”

What has been your highest moment writing-wise?

I’d probably have to say it was the day I went to varuna.com.au to check the shortlist for their publisher fellowships (after entering lots of times and getting nowhere and feeling miserable) and actually saw my name there on the webpage. I had to read it about ten times, hyperventilating all the while, to really be sure it was me and my book in that list. And then I bounced around the room like Tigger. Strangely, being shortlisted was even more exciting than when I later won one of those fellowships. I think it was because that shortlisting was the very first time someone other than my mother said my fiction might be worth reading.

How did/do you teach yourself to write?

I studied journalism at university, which taught me useful things about research, writing and editing. Later I became a specialist book editor, and polishing other people’s books taught me how long works are put together, and important things about structure. I attend seminars and short courses whenever I get the chance. I’m always reading writing blogs, and weighing up what they’re saying, to see how I can adapt it to my own writing. I entered my novel in a variety of competitions, and the one I eventually won gave me a mentoring relationship with a manuscript consultant, which was priceless. That novel continues to be my apprenticeship in fiction, and I’m a much better fiction writer now than when I started, but also have plenty of room to continue to grow! I have savvy beta readers give me feedback on what I’ve written, which helps me step outside myself and see my writing from a different perspective. It’s a never-ending process.

What aspect of the craft do you think is most difficult to learn?

For me, it was silencing the inner critic. I’m still working on that one. Man, she’s noisy! Always telling me that sentence is no good, or I won’t be able to write this thing effectively. Working fast, and giving myself “permission to be average” seem to be the best ways to get her to go away for a while.

What advice would you give someone wanting to become a writer?

Everyone will tell you this or that or the other makes you a REAL writer. They usually don’t mean any harm by it, but it can make you miserable. If you truly want to write, just get started. Always be open to learning and improving and growing, but also respect and value yourself, your dreams, and the story that only you have to tell.

You set up Small Blue Dog Publishing to, quote, ‘ help writers find their own path to either traditional or ‘indie’ publishing.’  It seems that you could be the dream answer to a writer’s problems with your knowledge of writing, editing, publishing and marketing.

What made you set up the business?

Initially, I was providing a variety of services to specialist publishers, developmental editing to authors of non-fiction or memoir, and publishing consultancy to self-publishers writing as part of their business. Nowadays that has expanded to include encouraging fiction authors and smaller self-publishers through my blog and social media, and I’m developing some online courses to help authors of non-fiction, fiction and memoir make their books the best they can be.

In such economic times, it seems that many publishers are no longer able to provide either an editing or marketing service.  Do you think this is true?

I can’t speak for the whole industry. However, I am aware of cases where publishers not only expect their authors to take a key role in marketing a book, but also ask them to arrange (and pay for) their own pre-editing before the book is signed, and even buy a portion of the first print run. These are not “vanity” publishers, but the real thing. This shocked me when I first heard of it, but it seems to be becoming more common.

Do you believe that authors can become skilled at marketing their work?

Absolutely! The trick is finding the forms of marketing that suit you and your book and your target audience, and not just slavishly following what everyone else is doing. It’s like getting fit – if we force ourselves to go for a run even though swimming is the exercise we actually love, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. The marketing options we choose have to be sustainable, and part of that is making sure it’s something that matches our temperament and skills.

If you were asked for the top five most efficient ways of publicizing work for a writer without a marketing budget, what would these be?

Because each book, author and market is different, the most effective marketing plan is unique to the project. However, I’d make two broad suggestions.

1. Make intelligent use of social media and blogging, because it’s free or cheap, and has a global reach. “Intelligent” means going where your readers are hanging out, and talking about things that are interesting to them. It also means being selective, and not spreading yourself too thinly across too many social networks, or a blogging schedule that sucks the life out of you. Don’t “sell”, truly engage. (I recently blogged about the Two Golden Rules for Twitter: http://www.smallbluedog.com/twitter-two-golden-rules-for-writers.html ) Those new friends can become your champions, gossiping your book to their networks, and the ripples spread.

2. Don’t invest too much hope or energy in the traditional marketing methods, like book launches or seeking book reviews from major newspapers. They tend to have very little success when they’re not backed by the power of the big publisher. Sure, pursue them if you love them, because excitement is important to keeping the motivation going. But they can consume a lot of time and resources for very few sales. Reader reviews on Amazon or GoodReads are a lot more powerful for most self-publishers.

Where do you see the publishing market going?

It’s anyone’s guess. But I have a hunch the changes will be less radical than many pundits would have us believe. Just as video didn’t kill cinema forever, I wonder if print books and ebooks will learn to live together much better than everyone says. And the huge rush to self-publish will probably moderate, as people who aren’t really suited to it drop out, and the people who are good at it get even better. But then, I could be wrong! And either way, we’ll adapt and make the most of the new world when it settles.

How can readers connect with you?

I’m on Twitter as @Belinda_Pollard and I blog writing and self-publishing tips at www.smallbluedog.com

I also blog wildernesses, spiritual thoughts, and silly stories about my dog at www.belindapollard.com

 

Thank you, Belinda, and the best of luck with the publication of Poison Island, and your dog memoirs.

For more information about Belinda’s forthcoming novel, Poison Bay, please go to:

http://www.belindapollard.com/poison-bay-the-next-big-thing.html

 

photo-of-gill-hoffs-6

 

GILL HOFFS  currently lives in Ayr, not far from the fishing village she grew up in. Her second novel, In her skin, was recommended for shortlisting for the 2011 Virginia Prize, and her collection of short fiction and nonfiction, Wild, is available to buy from:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/gill-hoffs/wild/paperback/product-20190137.html.

What sort of things do you write?

As the blurb on Wild (published by Pure Slush) says, ‘fact, fiction, and the half-truths in between’. Books, flash fiction, articles, blog posts, the occasional poem, short stories – gritty noir, horror, magical realism, poetic fiction, ghost stories… whatever pops into my head and shouts over the rest of the stories quarreling in there.

What made you start writing?

Having my son. I’d really enjoyed creative writing at school, and did well in children’s competitions and class, but I thought writing for a living was something other people could do, not me. I read for pleasure, knowledge, education and escape, and always enjoyed interview pieces with writers, pictures of their workspaces, and glimpses of their correspondence with publishers, agents, and other writers. Sometimes I’d have ideas of stories I’d like to read but hadn’t come across, and I’d jot them down but nothing really clicked on the page. Then I had my son, Angus, and something about the hormones and stress of pregnancy, labour, and breastfeeding made my brain switch tracks. It meant I was suddenly swamped with odd symptoms which turned out to be unusual migraines, and a desperate yearning to write. The neurologist thought this was possibly a symptom but since I wasn’t just writing and rewriting lists or the names from the phonebook, and it didn’t interfere with my life – it improved it – it wasn’t a problem.

What does writing mean to you?

The pixels and ink are the antidote to certain insanity. All these stories shout for attention in my head, and my attention is only in the here and now in the most grudging of ways. I love being with my family and cat, and wandering in the woods and along the beach, but there’s always a part of me excusing itself from reality. Writing is near enough everything. Writing is the only way I can embrace real life and remain whole. It allows me a distance and opportunity to reframe events and issues which are just a bit overwhelming, otherwise.

How do you teach yourself to write?

It feels like it just happens – but I think really it’s an accumulation of reading voraciously and seeing patterns in things that has helped me write as I do. My family has always been very keen on books, and at weekends I used to read three or four novels a day, so the written word has always been integral to my life. It’s something my husband and I hope to pass on to our son. I studied English Literature for a couple of years at the University of Glasgow, but I (very stupidly) resented being told what to read and how politics, which I find intensely, soul-sappingly, boring, was seemingly integral to everything we read. Now I write myself, I read for pleasure but also take note of what works and what falls short. I’m a sucker for literary quotes, interviews, and craft articles, too.

What aspect of the craft do you think is most difficult to learn?

Hmm. The ability to read your work as a reader, not the writer. I’m still learning about that, but working with Matt Potter, editor of Pure Slush, has helped me view my work (and that of others) in a different way to how I did before. And patience. It’s hard to balance the patience you require as a writer with the hunger you need to progress in your career as an author. Hard, but necessary.

What situations/environments inspire you?

Everything inspires, everything. But I don’t like city life for anything other than the briefest of visits, I’d much rather be in the countryside near some water – a pond, lake or river, or preferably the sea. This is where I like to go in my head, too, which I think tends to be reflected in my writing. Quite a few of the fiction pieces in Wild are water or coast related, and all of the nonfiction pieces are to do with it. Matt told me when we were discussing possible titles for my collection, and I was querying whether my work would live up to Wild, that my work has ‘an almost Byronic wildness’ which pleased me greatly. Perhaps that’s because I’m easily bored and would rather escape into the outdoors in my head when I’m trapped in a town or building than be present in the grey sterility of concrete, pavements, and bins.

What has been the most encouraging comment someone has made about your writing?

I’ve been very lucky so far and received words of encouragement from a lot of great people, all of which I’m very grateful for. I usually call my Nana and read her the comments on pieces which attract feedback, it pleases her greatly (and me). Mike Joyce, one of the editors at the hauntingly beautiful new site Literary Orphans, said to me this morning on facebook “Gill, I just got home to see my copy of Wild: a collection delivered. What can I say? I’m stunned. I’m only 3 stories in, and already I feel that this is probably some of the best material I’ve ever read from you, which is saying A LOT, considering how consistently fantastic a writer you are. You really put a lot of heart and soul into this…” It made my day!

What has been your lowest moment writing-wise?

I’ve been trying to remember – generally I prefer to focus on the positive where I can, and I have a terrible memory, so nothing immediately springs to mind. It’s probably when I was trying to write Black Fish (winner of the 2011 Spilling Ink Nonfiction Competition, and included in Wild). I really worried about doing the subject matter justice, and how some of my friends and family would react when they read it. It’s about the fishing industry in Scotland and the risks the workers take, how people are capable of extraordinary acts to survive, and grief. Without giving too much away, somebody I had a crush on drowned while poaching one summer and it haunted me for years though I barely knew him. It was so very sad, and it’s important with nonfiction to respect the facts and the people involved, and I knew for weeks that this was something I had to write but worried it wouldn’t translate from my head to the page adequately. The prize money went straight to the RNLI. We were flat broke at the time, but it only seemed right.

Do you have a routine where your writing is concerned?

No, I love routine and function better when I know what’s about to happen, but with a four year old in the house it’s just not possible to have a proper routine for something that’s just for me. I have a battered old bureau I like to sit at for longer pieces, novels, and research, and a rocking chair with armrests at just the right height to stop my elbows getting sore from hours of typing. My cat, Coraline, has a hot pink fake fur cushion on the research table beside it, and she likes to sit with me when I’m in the glorified cupboard which constitutes my designated writing space. I always have some kind of snack as soon as I sit down to write there, I suppose that would count as a routine. If I’m revisiting a particular subject time and again, writing a novel or a longer piece, then I find it useful to light a scented candle at the beginning of my sessions at the bureau, just to help my mind’s eye reconnect with that particular wordscape. I like to think that when my son is older I’ll be able to have a daily routine rather than snatched moments and late nights, one where I swim and garden and launder while I think, then sit down as the clock strikes something o’clock and let the words flow from my fingertips to the screen of my laptop. I like to think that, but it’s quite improbable.

What advice would you give someone wanting to become a writer?

To read what thrills you, and to write. Write anything and everything, diaries, blogs, social updates, recipes interweaved with family memories, whatever you’re drawn to. Whatever jumps in your head and won’t let go. But I have to point out, I think there’s a big difference between someone who wants to become a writer, and someone who wants to write (though of course there’s some overlap there, and one tends to lead to the other). Take a pen and paper with you everywhere, jot down notes and snippets of overheard conversations, odd medleys of words which please you or jangle your nerves, potential titles and plots. Don’t let a blank page intimidate you. Let your imaginings spill out.

Which published/unpublished writers have inspired you most and why?

GILL: Jeremy Scott, author of Fast & Louche, Dancing on Ice, and The Irresistible Mr Wrong and several other works, is my literary hero. His prose sings on the page, it educates and enchants and carries me along wonderfully. I’m delighted beyond measure that he took the time to write the introduction to my collection, and is working with me on my third novel, An Unusual Darkness.

Len Kuntz, possibly the most prolific writer I know as well as one of the most gifted, somehow finds unique ways of describing the most mundane things and has a talent for capturing rare moments of simultaneous kindness and darkness in poignant, unexpected ways. A lot of his work is threaded with poetry, for example “That night I paint a new galaxy. I color the stars pink and lavender and lemon meringue. I sand down their sharp edges. From a collection of the palest ones, I make metal ropes and crystal coffins.” [The Day The Universe Learned How To Lean (http://matterpress.com/journal/2012/01/16/the-day-the-universe-learned-how-to-lean/) ] He has a book coming out in 2013 and I’m looking forward to it already. I think he’s going to become very well-known soon, and deservedly so. He’s also a sweetheart. I read his work and every time I think ‘damn, I wish I’d written that’.

What are the drawbacks of asking someone to read your work?

Asking someone to read your work needs a delicate balance of expectation, responsibility, feelings, and reason. And I’m not a delicate person, though I do try.

At first, I was uncomfortable about asking people to read my work in case it wasn’t what they were hoping for or expecting, and they were in the unenviable position of saying so or lying to save me pain. Now I’m uncomfortable about the time it takes from their own work, and also about how to handle it if they say they dislike something and I disagree with their thoughts on changing it – it seems churlish and immature to do so, and I do think that as with reviews if you’re accepting the praise you should also take the crappy ones on the chin. There’s an emotional discomfort for all concerned when time is taken, intellect is engaged, words and structure are dissected, and opinions considered and delivered… and then discarded or rejected. It’s ungrateful to do it, but I think it’s important to listen to opinions you respect and opinions you don’t – and then trust your gut. I trust Matt and he’s great at saying when he thinks something does or doesn’t work, and why. So when I have doubts, as all writers do, I tend to bounce them off him. If you find another writer or editor who you ‘click’ with and whose advice improves your work rather than just changes it, then treasure that relationship – and be sure to give as well as take.

Your first book has just been published. (Congratulations!). Can you describe the process you went through in terms of finding an agent/publisher?

I was approached by Pure Slush last summer regarding submissions to the site – it’s primarily a litzine. Matt worked through one of my early stories with me, taking care to explain why bits didn’t work, or words needed replaced. It was like a crash course MFA and his advice and help altered the path of my writing for good. We got on well and I sent a piece to him every month when he sent out a call for submissions of flash fiction for the site and its associated anthologies. Most were accepted, and the ones which weren’t were rejected with reasons (mainly to do with subject matter) so I knew better what to send next. When I was thinking of putting out a showcase collection of my work, I sent him a courtesy email to check he was fine with my including some of the Pure Slush pieces (I still had all rights to my pieces, but it felt like the polite thing to do). He was very supportive of the idea, and we got talking online, and a little while later he emailed to suggest Pure Slush put together a collection of my fiction and nonfiction and publish it. That was a couple of months ago, and the book has now been released – and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Were there any unexpectedly pleasant/scary moments during this process?

Taking the picture for the cover was lovely. We’d chosen the contents for the collection, and the title, and I knew roughly the colour palette and subject matter I’d like for it but didn’t know what the actual picture or composition would be, or whether I’d be able to capture it – or if Matt would like it too. I took my little boy for a long walk along the shore, past tractors and swans and white deer, till we got to Greenan Castle. We built sandcastles, played with driftwood and seaweed and found stones to plop in the water (he’s too young to skim), then meandered back to Ayr. On the way, we found a dried plant still standing tall on the sand dunes. Something had made a cobwebby nest in it, and it reminded me of the ‘candyfloss’ Fiona makes in Shrek. Angus was pulling at me to come see something while the wind blew the plant about, so in the end I held it still, snapped a couple of shots, then took him for icecream. Matt and my husband liked it, and that was that. I’m so glad to have Angus-related memories for my book, and the bonus of my name next to the cover credits.

With regard to the options of approaching agencies for representation or bypassing that stage and contacting publishers direct, do you have advice for other unpublished writers?

I think each writer has to make the most of the opportunities that will inevitably present themselves at each stage of their writing career, recognize them as such, and look for the positives around them. As the American poet W.F. (Bill) Lantry once told me, people are drawn to the positive, they love success. I was advised early on by the lovely Amy Burns of Spilling Ink Review to seek credible representation, and I’ve approached three agencies so far. Another agency approached me and requested sample chapters, but my work wasn’t quite right for them. One of the other three was enthusiastic and keen to see the completed draft, and once I’ve finished my current novel, I’ll be sure to send them it. Of the other two, one sent a personal rejection encouraging me to carry on, and the other never replied. With the excitement of self publishing and print on demand sites, e-books, and independent publishers mixing more easily with the usual big publishers, I think there are more options for authors than ever. But it also means the writer seeking publication should be careful to choose well to ensure their work has the credibility and production values it deserves.

What is your next writing project?

Well, I have several on the go at the moment. Apart from promoting Wild, I’m also writing my third novel, An Unusual Darkness which I’ve been pitching as Lord of the Flies meets Jonah and the Whale, with a liberal dash of Jaws. Jeremy Scott is editing it, and the first chapter is included in ‘Wild’. It’s requiring more concentration and research than either of my previous two novels, partly because they were both set in contemporary times and locations I’m very familiar with whereas this book is set long before I was born and deals with situations way beyond my own experiences, and partly because this is The Book, the one that lays me bare and haunts my waking thoughts. So far, reactions to the completed chapters have been favourable, which is always encouraging!

Apart from that, I’m researching a nonfiction book which explores further the events in the nonfiction piece Prospects, also included in my collection, for a leading publisher of nonfiction and historical fiction; plotting the next in the series of Warrington crime thrillers, and writing some guest blog posts, online articles, and short stories as well as co-editing an anthology or two.

Visit Gil’s website: http://gillhoffs.wordpress.com/

Gill, thank you for providing so much insight into your writing life  Best wishes for all your writing projects.

 

marknicholls

 

MARK NICHOLLS writes under the name M.J. Nicholls and was a co-student with me on the Edinburgh Napier Masters in Creative Writing course. Like me, Mark hails from Glasgow. Unlike me, his defection to Edinburgh was only temporary.

What sort of things do you write?

I write short stories and drawer-bound “first novels” in the following modes: sardonic realism, satire, magical realism. Most of my writing is a composite of the three, except when it isn’t.

What made you start writing?

Being bored and isolated as a teenager. I started out drawing violent comics to exact my revenge on the world that had smitten me. I found I could make myself laugh with words. It helped me feel less alone and gave me a means of (trying to) understand the world.

What does writing mean to you?

At present? Frustration. It’s a Catch-22 between wanting to do nothing else but finding the practice so torturous and unpleasant. Since I have no practical means of making a living I would rather not be a writer, I would rather do something where I can make a living.

What environments inspire you?

Mostly I’m interested in what goes on in people’s minds that makes them behave in such peculiar ways. As someone incompetent at life, I’m interested in people who fail. As a relentlessly self-criticising socially awkward type, I am fascinated by people who can walk through life as though it were the most normal thing in the world – how do they do that?

What has been your highest moment writing-wise?

Non-writers (i.e. mothers) tend to measure your success in column inches or your presence in Waterstones. As a consequence, writers tend to discard all their minor successes. I find this damaging. The MA I completed at Napier forced me to think about writing in ways I will take with me throughout my career: I consider my time there my highest moment. I’m also pleased to have been printed in various experimental fiction monthlies: these are the pubs I relish the most, where daring and “difficult” work finds a home.

What has been the most encouraging comment someone has made about your writing?

I think all positive feedback should be swiftly ingested as ego-food, but when “established” writers like our work we tend to feel special. When James Robertson (former writer-in-residence at Napier) bumped into me in the corridor and said, of a story I had sent him the day before, “that was fucking brilliant,” I almost burst out of my socks with pleasure. Positive feedback is essential, otherwise we really have no reason to go on, do we?

As a poet once said: the worst thing is to be admired through being misunderstood.  What has been the least encouraging comment you’ve received about your writing?

I used to write for a music website and whenever I slated an album (often with unfair comedic glee), trollers would attack my reviewing style with similar viciousness. Fair game, I suppose.

Do you have a routine where your writing is concerned?

God no. I recite Stendhal’s mantra “one thousand words per day, genius or not” in the hope it might someday stick. I have a serious problem with concentration and commitment (which also explains my poor sexual performance). I would really rather be reading. Or walking.

What are the pitfalls of writing?

MARK: You could stab yourself in the eye with a pen. You’ll end up with poor posture and RSI. You’ll experience more feelings of inadequacy in your lifetime than non-writers. The list goes on.

And the good things?

Difficult question. I do take pleasure in reading back a completed MS with motherly pride. When all my doubts have been suppressed and all I want is to go foist my brilliance on the world. Some writers never get this. If I never took pride in anything I wrote I’d be screwed.

What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

Unless you have a “vocation,” i.e. you’re stuck because there’s nothing else in life you want to do, don’t. Seriously. There are too many writers who are also talented lawyers and teachers and proctologists. This isn’t fair. Some of us can’t do squat else. I don’t want to have to compete with astronauts and paragliding instructors who write in their spare time. If you’re in a miserable, bill-paying occupation, by all means keep up the writing. (Bitter, much?)

Which published/unpublished writers have inspired you most and why?

Gilbert Sorrentino for mixing innovative formal and structural techniques with outrageously funny comedy and satire. I admire this man’s writing more than I admire the universe. He never compromised his art for financial gain. His body of work is singular in world literature for its breathtaking erudition and stylistic relentlessness. If I could sleep with a man I would sleep with Gilbert Sorrentino. All his work is available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Re the saying, ‘people ask for criticism, but they only want praise’, is this true for you?

Criticism always smarts. It depends who’s criticising. I tend to take comments on board if I respect the comment maker. I could be better at taking criticism but I never lash out. Or kill, intentionally.

What are the drawbacks of asking someone to read your work?

That they’ll misunderstand your work or dislike it on principle for not being easy to read. As someone who writes “challenging” fiction I have this problem: people see their difficulty to read the work as a flaw in the writing. Clear, easy-to-follow prose is not my business. You need to find readers willing to unpack your intentions, ideally fellow writers.

With the ever-advancing internet access, how do you see the publishing business developing in the future?

I suspect e-books will prosper over print books but a strong devoted readership will continue to read them. Hardbacks will become boutique items. Fiction outside the mainstream will end up swimming in the self-publishing market as people’s attention spans diminish.

How did/do you teach yourself to write?

MARK: By repeating the same mistakes over and over again for years without guidance. Don’t do that.

What aspect of the craft do you think is most difficult to learn?

You have to become aware of all the techniques open to you. Or, at least, know enough to achieve your aims. Knowing which ones to deploy for what purpose is the Great Headache.

What changes in how you write have you been aware of over the years?

I have become more attentive on the level of the sentence. I have an instinct to plan and map stories in a formal way, but I write more naturally on the hoof. This contradiction causes more Great Headaches.

Have you ever suffered from writers’ block, and if so, how did you get over it?

Reading. Read everything. Other people’s ideas are the perfect way to learn what your ideas are, and whether they’ve been done before. I think writers’ block is a myth, actually . . . it’s probably more you’ve written yourself into a corner or your project is collapsing in front of you.

Have you needed to make any sacrifices to allow you to write?

I’ve sacrificed having a career that earns me money to write. Quite a whopper of a sacrifice, methinks.

Thanks, Mark.  The sooner the world discovers you, the better, not least for your wonderful self-deprecating humour.