Sunday, 19 August 2018

Leading Questions by Jan Edwards

I was recently sent a Q&A interview by a publisher for an upcoming anthology Into the Night Eternal: Tales of French Folk Horror, (which (shameless plug) will include my novella A Small Thing for Yolanda’). As always that online interview sheet included that old chestnut ‘Which books have influenced your writing the most?’ And, as always, I was at a loss for an answer.
The books that had any effect on us at age four are never going to be the same at age fourteen, or forty-four, or sixty-four.  That said I am not sure that books read in adulthood ever affect us in the same way that they do when we are young.
I suspect what the question is designed to portray authors as astonishingly erudite by naming the latest literary success or else one of the classic worthies such as Joyce, Naipaul or Woolf.  I have read and enjoyed my share of literary classics – ancient and modern, but I suspect the books that really influenced me the most will always be those favourites of childhood. There is wonder in reading for the pure pleasure of being absorbed in something beyond our experience; when even the oldest of fairy tales were new to us.
This same ‘influential reading’ question came up in a Facebook reading group recently, and though some named worthy reads the vast majority (across the ages) named the books of Enid Blyton as their first passion.
Whatever your own feelings about Blyton as an author the fact remains that she is one of those writers who possess the gift for appealing direct to her readership, despite all that the literary critics have said during her lifetime and since. BBC records show that she was kept from children’s radio for many years by BBC executives. In 1938, for example, Jean Sutcliffe, head of the BBC Schools department, wrote: "My impression of her (Blyton’s) stories is that they might do for Children's Hour but certainly not for Schools Dept. They haven't much literary value." There was a similar reaction against her books within some schools and libraries through the 1980s and into the 90s that pointed toward her middle-class values and political incorrectness as unsuitable reading for modern children. Yet of most of Blyton’s 700+ books, so far as I am aware, remain in print.
Returning to my Q&A – I know that what they really want is for me to be terribly erudite and name the latest prize-winning books or classic ‘must reads’ such as Joyce or Rushdie. But truth to say that whilst I have read a fair few literary classics – ancient and modern, I suspect the books that really influenced me the most will be from my pre-teen reading list.
If pushed I would point toward Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons as a series that has stuck with me for the longest time. Not for the four central characters, the Walker children, nor because it reflected my own upbringing in any way (far from it), but because Captain of the Amazon, Ruth ‘Captain Nancy’ Blackett who struck an indelible chord. She was one of the few truly independent young women in children’s literature of her time, and may possibly still hold that title. Captain Nancy broke rules and defied convention and never stepped back to allow the boys to take centre stage. When I consider other books that have stuck with me, both from my younger years and later, the recurring theme is invariably that of a female character who refuse to be put back into her box. Even Rowling’s Hermione Granger had to battle against expectations.
My novella ‘A Small Thing For Yolanda’ is a folk horror tale based around the unsolved murder on the metro of Laetitia Toureaux in the late 1930s. Whilst it is true that Toureaux was murdered, it is almost certain that it happened as a result of her work as a female private investigator. In my crime novel Winter Downs the lead character, Rose Courtney, set in the 1940s, takes no quarter from anyone. I think I detect a pattern developing...
Captain Nancy may have been the first and most influential inspiration on my list of fictional women, but many other came after to bolster the message. Lewis Carroll’s Alice; Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett; Daphne Du Maurier eponymous Rebecca; Flora Poste, courtesy of Stella Gibbons; Sarah Paretsky’s V I Warshawski. That is not to say I don’t have male characters that have been an influence. There have been Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle), Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L Sayers), Harry Dresden (Jim Butcher), Peter Grant (Ben Aaronovitch).
I could go on, and on, and on because there are so many books that I have read and loved over the years. How can any of us genuinely pick just one?

Information on Jan Edwards and her work can be found on:
Facebook: jan.coleborn.edwards
Twitter: @jancoledwards
Titles in print – all available in print and dig formats
As author: 
Winter Downs; Fables and Fabrications;  Sussex Tales;  Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties
Jan’s award winning novel Winter Downs is first in the ‘Bunch Courtney Investigates’ series. Book two, In Her Defence, is coming soon!


Saturday, 18 August 2018

Life on the other side of the fence by Ava Manello

I recently attended a book signing in Oxford from the other side of the fence, as a reader rather than an author. I now have a whole new appreciation for my readers. I thought it was a tiring day standing in front of my table talking to readers, but life on the other side of the fence is pretty gruelling, although massively entertaining.  

The signing took place in Oxford Town Hall, a grand setting, but perhaps a little too small for the number of readers who attended which meant that many signing authors had to be ticketed, and those that weren't still had queues.  

The camaraderie that was evident amongst readers was infectious, from friends made in the registration queue outside the venue that began a couple of hours before the doors were due to open to friends made whilst bumping into each other inside. This was only the second signing I'd attended as a reader, a good four years after my first one, and I'd thought I'd planned pretty well. I hadn't.  

Apparently, a book signing on this scale should be approached with military precision - colour coded table plans that can be marked off as pre-orders are collected, scrapbooks are signed, or books purchased. I confess, with trying to find the shortest queue I may have lost track of where I'd been and who had signed what, despite there being just under 30 authors to meet. Only having less than a handful of items to be signed I'd taken a large shopper which was discarded before the event started. Instead, I carried everything in my left arm, and as the pile of items grew, so did the dents in my skin. There wasn't time to faff around putting books and canvas totes back in the bag to get them out again at the next table. Partway around the room another author asked me to get some things signed for them as well, queue me not remembering where I'd been with what. I felt like a total amateur!  

Surrounded by readers with trolley crates overflowing with pre-purchased books and colour coded charts I felt out of my depth. Two ladies who were attending this as their first signing even had drag along truck crates that made a pushchair look small. At the start of the event they were pretty much empty, by the end they were overflowing with more books than would fit an average bookcase. I was in awe of their determination and dedication.  

I'd bought my tickets a year previously when my unicorn author was announced, this was her first visit to the UK and probably the only chance I would have to meet her. If you've never heard the phrase unicorn author it's your absolute must meet, favourite author ever. I wasn't the only reader who'd had the same idea, over a quarter of the tickets sold queued up, some practically all day, just for that moment with her. Outside of the book world I'm not sure how to explain this phenomenon to someone, other than imagine an opportunity to meet your favourite rockstar, have a photo with them and a quick chat. It's a priceless moment you will remember forever.  

Before I started blogging and reviewing I hadn't even realised there were book signings like this, then as an author I decided to run one of my own. The amount of work that goes into them is unbelievable, hence me only running mine every two or three years. Not all signings have to be on a grand scale and I'm looking forward to attending a more intimate signing as an author late next year to see how that goes.  

The romance community embraces signings, and over the last four years we've gone from having only one a year to multiple signing opportunities throughout the country. Imagine a room filled with forty plus authors and several hundred readers. It's one of those experiences you really should try at least once. Authors are just ordinary people, and all the authors I know love getting together with readers and talking books. You get to know certain faces that seem to pop up at events regularly, and they become firm friends. You also make new friends as no one ever seems to be alone, they may arrive that way but by the end they've been adopted by fellow book lovers and become part of this wonderful book community.  

So, if you see a signing come up near you, do consider attending. You'll find authors you may not have known about before and make new friends who'll happily recommend their favourite books to you. 

Writing – Isolation or Immersion?

By J.D. Peterson

Visualize for a moment an author working hard on their latest manuscript. A small room with a laptop, late at night. A table lamp scatters sparse yellow rays amid the shadows looming over the desk, highlighting an alarm clock, slowly ticking away the minutes. A profound silence is only disturbed by the echo of the clock and the occasional rustle of papers as the writer refers to handwritten notes, then returns their focus to the blue screen light of the computer.

            We’ve seen it a hundred times on television and in films. Such is the stereotype of the diligent writer. Alone, and quite frequently portrayed as struggling, they hope that this novel will be the one that shines the light of stardom on all their hard work and talent.
            We are all quite familiar with these stereotypes, but do they really portray an accurate picture of the reality of writing? Speaking only for myself I offer a resounding ‘no’. Frequently my writing space is the local café, and I know that’s also true for many of you. Our sentences are punctuated by the noise of the cappuccino machine brewing the next cup of coffee and the squeak of the door as it opens to welcome new customers. Often a sound system is playing the latest music, adding more activity to a room already brimming with a multitude of sounds.
            This is the scene for my creative writing. Background sounds rarely disturb me, unless a favorite tune filters through from the radio. That can be a distraction – and also a springboard for memories. Memories lead to emotions and the essence of times gone by. Emotions lead to words. Words that begin to fill the page at a steady, even pace. Flourishing, descriptive and melodic words that jump to life, born of the images and scenes that tango their way through my memory. Some words are like phantoms, they need to be hunted and drawn out of hiding. Others are more bold and clear, as if they happened yesterday, jumping onto the page with ease.   

Walking down to the train station, I find a gathering crowd waiting for the next arrival. Groups of people stand around, some of whom appear to be families, and some who seem to be workmates; then there are the lone passengers impatiently tapping at their phones. Conversations filter through to me. I overhear hard words between an angry couple, a tersely spoken, “I never want to hear from you again!” Excitement bubbles from a brood of children questioning their harried mother. “Where are we going?” “How long will we be gone?” Each conversation can be the inspiration for a new character, or a new dialogue and may illuminate emotions between existing characters on a developing story. I study the expressions of these people whose identities are unknown to me, and I ask myself how I would write the face that I see. What particular words could I put down on paper to illustrate the emotions that are so clear to me now? The peak of an eyebrow, the curve of a frown, so easy to decipher with the eye, but not so easily translated into specific words.
            The world is filled with locations and people that inspire and encourage new scenes for a writer. So why would I lock myself away in a dark, lonely room, more a prisoner of my craft than the curious novelist that I am?                                            

            I will admit when writing in a café or other public space, I don’t particularly want to be disturbed or to engage in conversation with people. I won’t situate myself in an area where folks frequently ask for directions. I much prefer an out-of-the-way corner seat where I can view the activity like a spectator sport. There, I’m free to pluck a scene or a conversation from the garden of human hustle and bustle, trimming and pruning what I witness to cater and conform to my stories.
            Writing in cafes or other public areas can be a cure for writer’s block, another common stereotypical characteristic bestowed upon authors. With so much activity and colorful people to watch, a person only needs to stay alert to the action for new inspiration. The television news can also inspire, with tales that are often much stranger than any imagination could concoct.
 I’m not immune to writer’s block and sometimes I do write alone in my home. Sometimes there’s comfort just being in my own familiar space. But it’s not a necessary ingredient for my creative endeavors. There’s a rhythm and a flow to the process, and I’ve learned to listen to my inner voice, whispering what I need each day. Sometimes I need to walk away from writing my story and ponder the tale in my mind, unrestricted from the structure of words and sentences. Other times I’ll write free-flowing poetry, and let the words stream through in a way that I can’t do within the confines of a paragraph. Occasionally I’ll paint, or garden or cook a fancy dish, expressing my imagination through a completely different medium. Too soon the editor will return with the ‘inner critic’ in tow, slashing and hacking away at my flaws.
            But for now, I’ll sit in this coffee shop and observe the daily rituals of the neighborhood. The dark, lonely writer’s room will always be there, waiting with a lock and key on the door. Then I can be stereotypical by choice, not by the expectations of others.