Emma Flint: True-Life Crime, Real Characters and Little Deaths
Emma Flint’s debut novel Little Deaths has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 and the Desmond Elliot Prize 2017, and has been nominated for this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award. She will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 24 August.
Hello Emma! First of all, huge congratulations on your nomination for this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award! Little Deaths tells the story of the murders of two young children in New York in the summer of 1965, and is inspired by a true-life crime. Did you find it difficult to remain within the constraints of the true story, and how did you decide which parts to invent?
Thank you very much – I’m absolutely thrilled. I’ve been coming to the Book Festival for two decades and it’s wonderful to be on the other side. To be recognised with this nomination is truly the icing on the cake.
The real story that Little Deaths was based on was fairly sensational in its own right, and gave me plenty of material for the novel. Most of the key characters – Ruth and Frank Malone, Lou Gallagher, Johnny Salcito, Lena Gobek, and the children – are based on real people, but I’ve changed their names and embellished them with fictional details. Charlie Devlin is a composite of several of the officers involved in the initial investigation. Pete Wonicke, Friedmann, Horowitz, Gina and Bette are my own inventions.
The essential facts of the story remain the same: the real Ruth woke up one morning in the summer of 1965 to find her two young children missing from their apartment in Queens. Her four-year-old daughter was found dead that afternoon; the body of her five-year-old son was discovered a week later. The real Ruth and my character have many similarities – they’re the same age, both are separated from their husbands, both have low-wage jobs that require them to work shifts, and both are very attractive. Each has two young children who disappear from their bedroom and are later found dead – and both became the main suspects in the subsequent murder investigation. But Ruth Malone is really a work of imagination like any other fictional character.
I think writing about a real crime is similar to any other historical fiction: it’s my job as a novelist to take the basic facts and breathe life into them so that the reader can experience them in a new way. The key is to make the characters real, and the past immediate and familiar, by writing about situations and experiences that the reader can relate to. We all know what it is to experience sadness or loneliness or fear: as a writer you need to make what your characters are going through vivid enough that readers feel it too. Of course I had to select which facts to include and which ones to leave out, and I found it interesting that there were some things that happened in the course of the real investigation which my editors felt weren’t believable enough, and which I then left out and had to work around!
The children’s mother, Ruth Malone, radiates from the pages of Little Deaths. She is harshly judged by the police, the press and the public for how she lives and how she looks. Did you always intend to place Ruth at the centre of your story, and did you find it easy to walk away from her once you had finished the novel?
Thank you – I’m so pleased she resonates this way with so many readers. Ruth was my obsession from the day I started writing about her, in the summer of 2010, to the day I finished checking the final proofs, almost exactly six years later. I thought about her every day. I talked to her, I dreamed about her, I practised her walk and the way she drank. I began Little Deaths because of her – it was always going to be her story. I think of it as a novel about her in which a crime takes place, rather than as a straightforward crime novel. The question of why she is the kind of woman who becomes the chief suspect in the murders of her children before the police even have proof that they’re dead, is far more interesting to me than the actual whodunnit and the procedural nuts-and-bolts of the case. And in the end, it was very hard to let go of her. Walking away to new characters and a new story was difficult. But the story, and Ruth, now belong to my readers, not to me – and it’s wonderful to see how she’s been received in the world.
Little Deaths is set in the Queens district of New York in the stifling heat of the summer of 1965. Your portrayal of claustrophobic working-class lives, corruption and sexism, and the social mores of the day are eloquent and acutely observed. How did you set about your research?
Details of the real case that inspired Little Deaths, and biographical details of the woman who was the inspiration for Ruth Malone were fairly easy to find online. I did a lot of reading about the case, particularly of contemporary newspaper articles that gave me an insight into how she was judged even before she was charged. I also read modern newspaper accounts of women who’ve been involved in more recent crimes, such as Amanda Knox, Kate McCann, Amy Fisher and Andrea Yates. I wanted to see how women like these – either accused of, or linked to, violent crimes – were treated in the media today.
I deliberately didn’t visit New York while I was writing Little Deaths: I wanted to focus on photographs of suburban Queens as it was in 1965 and store those images in my head, rather than be distracted by how it looks today. I’m obviously not American, and wasn’t alive in 1965, but I did use memories of my own childhood when writing. I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb, and I think anyone who grew up in that environment will understand the closeness of this kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.
Are you a disciplined writer, and are you easily distracted?
Oh, I wish I was disciplined! I could win Olympic medals for procrastination. If I try to write at home, I end up doing laundry, napping, playing with my kittens, and going down the black hole of Wikipedia in the name of ‘research’. I’ve realised that I need to get out of the house to write – even a friend’s spare room is better than my own. I try to write every day, even if it’s just half an hour at lunchtime or on the Tube, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t manage it. I’m always thinking about my story and my characters, and the thinking time is as valuable and as essential to the process as the hours you put in at your desk.
You are appearing with Haylen Beck at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in an event entitled “When Unstable Family Life Leads to Murder”. How do you prepare for a shared-stage encounter, and how do you select which part of your novel to read out?
Where possible, I always try to read at least one novel by whoever I’m sharing a stage with. It makes for a more informed and engaged discussion, and it seems only polite! I’m on my fourth book by Haylen Beck and am very intrigued by how his style has changed over time. There are three or four extracts in Little Deaths that are particularly good to read aloud because of the content, or because they don’t require a lot of context. They vary in length, so which one I read usually comes down to how long the interviewer or organiser asks me to read for.
Which other events are you hoping to see?
I’m only in Edinburgh for a week this time, and I could happily spend 12 hours a day wandering between events. So far I have tickets for Kaite Welsh and Abir Mukherjee, Lucy Hughes-Hallett and Michele Roberts, John Banville, Chris Brookmyre and the indomitable A L Kennedy. I can’t wait.
Our judge, Madeleine Milburn, advises prospective Caledonia Novel Award entrants to “give yourself the time to hone your pitch to make it stand out from all the other entries”. What advice were you given as an unpublished novelist which stuck with you?
The best advice I was given – and the best advice I can give unpublished writers – is that you cannot write in a vacuum. To write, you must also read. Read all the time. Read widely. Read inside and outside of the genre you write in. Read critically, working out what you like and what you don’t, and why. When you find an author you love, take their work apart to see how they structure it, how they construct their sentences, and how they make you keep reading.
Which novelists do you enjoy reading, and do you have any go-to recommendations?
I adore Megan Abbott, who writes novels based on notorious American murders and also contemporary crime fiction, often about close-knit groups of girls. She writes in very original modern noir style – and she’s doing something unique and fascinating with prose and with the crime genre. My favourite book of last year was See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt. Also a debut, this is a brilliant and accomplished re-telling of a well-known story (the murders of Mr and Mrs Borden and the arrest of their daughter Lizzie). The characters are exquisitely drawn and, for me, Sarah’s biggest achievement is that the prose is consistently outstanding: each of the four narrative voices is utterly distinct and utterly credible.
My favourite debut novel of all time is still Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which made a huge impression on me when I read it at twenty-two. By the end of the two-page prologue, we know the identity of the victim, the location and manner of his death, and who was present at the time. It’s a fantastic opening – intriguing, confident, confiding. One thousand words in, and we’re already caught up in the crime, already complicit. This is the book that made me understand that crime novels could be literary, and that the question of why was as fascinating as the question of who.
My go-to writer will probably always be Hilary Mantel. She’s a genius at creating rich, full-bodied characters in simple, brief strokes, and at making history real and immediate. There’s a reason she’s the only living writer with a portrait in the British Library. Whenever I need inspiration or a kick up the backside, I re-read the opening of Wolf Hall – a masterclass in the creation of character and setting, and in showing not telling.
Given your encyclopaedic knowledge of, and interest in real-life murder cases, can we expect more crime in your next novel, or can we look forward to something completely different?
For the foreseeable future, I’ll be writing about real-life murder cases: I have three more novels in various stages of planning, each about a different crime. My second is set in London in the 1920s and is about shame, fantasy and obsession. I’m at the point where I’m completely engrossed in my characters and where they’re starting to live and speak independently: I just have to watch and record them.
(Author photo by Sarah Caroline Photography)
Helen McClory: Writer, Reader, Traveller
Helen McClory is a prolific, and award-winning, short-fiction writer, whose travels have inspired and informed her writing. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach was published in March. Helen will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 15 August.
Welcome, Helen, and huge congratulations on the very recent publication of your first novel! Flesh of the Peach is an intense, candid story of a woman confronting grief, loss, and an, at times, harrowing childhood, and is set in New York, Cornwall and the American Southwest. Which parts of the novel did you find the easiest and the most difficult to write?
I think the easiest parts were the sections on how Sarah (my protagonist) would spend her money – they are flash-fiction fantasies inserted into the main body of the text, and not haunted overmuch by the more emotionally wrenching elements of the rest of the novel. The hardest parts were any of the ones I had to edit extensively, as I find editing the most arduous part of writing. So that’s every other section, really. It takes a long time to get it right, from feelings to getting characters to pick up a coffee cup.
We particularly enjoyed the road-trip aspect of the novel, and the part set in New Mexico. Did your plot come before you chose the setting or did it all happen at once?
I chose the setting because my father-in-law had once lived out in New Mexico, so I had a vague idea of the place as somewhere Far Away. I knew it went by the slogan ‘The Land of Enchantment’ and I wanted to see in what ways the enchantment would set about me. Location to me is the most important part to get right first – and by that, I mean ‘fictionally right’: compelling and plausible, but also distorted in the ways the story and writing requires. I wrote out several partial drafts of the novel in which the plot varied wildly from how it is now but never veered away from New Mexico. Especially after I had the chance to visit it for research and became smitten by the high mountains, wide golden valleys and red desert in the parts I made it to! I hope readers can get a sense of even a little of that beauty.
In your dedication and acknowledgements, you mention “the unlikeable women” within and outwith fiction. Which females were you thinking about here?
There are loads of real women who get slapped with the label ‘unlikeable’ (the violence of the metaphor is apt, I think). Take your pick – as soon as I write this, another one will be being vilified in the public eye. Sometimes for some actual sin, sometimes for having an awkward personality or a mental illness or the temerity to have a body and some opinions, occasionally clumsily expressed. We can’t escape judgements and judging – the internet is a 24-hour courtroom. For fictional women, I think of Good Morning Midnight’s Sasha Jensen. Miss Jean Brodie. Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy. I think of women written by male authors who get a bit more of a pass – Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Becky Sharp. I think of films packed with scheming dames and femmes fatales and bunny boilers. I think of the way we see women as villains when they are oversized, full of feelings that unsettle, when queer, trans, deformed, not one of ‘us’, old. My book is for all these women and the space they make (and necessarily complicate) for the rest of us.
You have been lauded widely for your short fiction, winning the Saltire First Book of the Year Award in 2015 with On the Edges of Vision. What made you decide to embark on writing a novel, and what frustrations, if any, did you encounter with regard to its form?
I had actually written Flesh of the Peach long before I wrote On the Edges of Vision. I was just becoming aware of flash fiction as a form when I was working on the novel, and that altered the way I present narrative. I had written a more traditional novel for my PhD, which is still unpublished, and found it agonising trying to flow along continuously in the way required by the old realist (or more-or-less realist) tradition. I tried for a while to write Flesh of the Peach in the same way, but found myself writing shorter, more intense chapters. Flash fiction brought into the novel form gets across the way some of us experience our days – stream-of-consciousness, clipped down. More staccato, interrupted by life’s activities, by memories or daydreams or to-do lists or a sudden, beautiful view of the orange sun slipping between tall buildings. It suited my wish to try to make this leap from one car to another on a character’s train of thought. To build Sarah, who is herself quite fragmented, out of sharp pieces. One thing I suppose I won’t be able to do using flash is to write a sprawling, 500-page novel of giant sections that billow and sail across the mind. I like those as a reader. But as a writer you have to work with the talents you have.
As a reader, you are a great champion of lesser-known literature in your excellent weekly newsletter, The Unsung Letter. Can you tell us about how this came about?
Through encouragement via Twitter: I was bemoaning the way good books seem to disappear off the map. There’s not enough hype and publicity funds to go around, and books that might change the way we see the world, or language, or an aspect of human nature just – go. It seems a terrible thing to me, like the melting of Arctic ice (though more people will notice and be actually harmed once the icebergs are all gone). I wanted there to be something, however small, to help people find a book they might otherwise have missed. So Twitter friends said, why not do it yourself? And so I did, and now lots of different book lovers, a different one each week, have kindly written to sing the praises of a book that might not have been put on front tables or in the major review sites, but that is worth our noticing it, and to tell us why. It isn’t much, but it’s a small good thing.
What current reading recommendations – both sung and unsung – can you give us?
I’ve just read Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, which is starting to get a bit of momentum and has, with its protagonist Helen, a great unlikeable woman at its sharp heart. Up next on my book pile is Marlena by Julie Buntin – an unlikeable young dead woman who exerts her influence on those still living. I can’t wait.
You are appearing at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival with fellow novelist Meena Kandasamy in a session called “Wells of Loneliness”. How will you prepare for a shared event? Do you like to plan ahead, and how do you select which parts of your novel to perform?
First of all, I’m planning to read Meena Kandasamy’s book, When I Hit You, which has been getting excellent reviews all around. I think our books tackle very different experiences of love and abusive relationships – in her novel, it is an abusive partner, in mine, an emotionally distant, alcoholic mother. I want to try to understand what kind of common-ground questions might come up. The event is chaired by Lee Randall, so she’ll be giving the interrogation, meaning that there’s only so much I can predict, which honestly I love. I want to think in new ways about things, and if I’m perhaps not the most eloquent in the moment, I will have the ideas swirling around in my head for possible use later! When reading, I usually take something from the beginning of the novel so that it’s not too disconcerting for the reader. I think the first few pages are accessible, perhaps for people who haven’t read Flesh of the Peach and might not anticipate its fragmented structure. I don’t usually get too nervous these days as I practice a lot and I think that I’m up there to be something of interest to a viewer – who wouldn’t get much enjoyment out of me fluffing the words or constantly apologising or going red in the face. I hope each time that we all come away with something of interest from our shared experience.
And looking ahead to your next project – can we expect a novel or short fiction or something completely different?
I’m working on a fantasy novel (in short chapters, naturally) about Aife, a fearless young woman who has the power within her to kill the local gods of her world – and about Diane, the sister she leaves behind on their small island. Diane is the not-chosen-one, the powerless girl who has to find her own courage against the machinations which have made Aife into a tool of destruction. I think it has a lot in common with the weirder stand-alone flash fiction I write, with elements of surrealism and horror.
Your writing has won and been shortlisted for a number of awards – what advice would you give to prospective Caledonia Novel Award entrants?
Read the criteria carefully. Read and tinker with your work and read it again and tinker again until nothing is at all wrong with it as far as you can see – don’t get excited or exhausted and hand in something that could be made better. Get a second pair of eyes to read it over too, if you can. Know that your chance of winning is very small, and based on subjective judgement, but if you have done your very best then you are ahead of most. Once it’s in, go and read some brilliant story or poem or novel to pick you up and reaffirm your faith in this whole writing endeavour we’re a part of.
Sophie Cameron’s Week at Moniack Mhor
Earlier this year, I was runner-up in Moniack Mhor’s Emerging Writer Award and was very kindly given some money towards one of their excellent writing courses. I chose Writing YA Fiction, a week-long retreat led by Cat Clarke and Martyn Bedford, and last week spent an awesome week in the Highlands, reading, editing, walking, talking books and, of course, doing lots of writing! (Also eating large quantities of cake. Seriously, there was so much cake.)
The centre is near Inverness, just 30 minutes or so from where I’m from, and is set in two cosy cottages surrounded by fields of heather and heilan coos. It’s very remote, wonderfully peaceful and has really incredible views – postcard-perfect Scotland, really. It used to be part of Arvon but is now independent, though the structure of the courses is much the same: we arrived on Monday night, got settled in, had dinner, did a slightly wine-fuelled writing exercise as an ice breaker, then got stuck into workshops the next morning.
Martyn and Cat alternated their workshops and focused on aspects of writing such as character, setting, etc. All the sessions flew by and were really fun – I never use prompts or do writing exercises at home, and it always amazes me how much you can create so quickly, and how people will produce such different stories from the same starting point.
In the afternoons, we had free time to write, read, walk or relax, as well as two one-to-ones with each of the tutors. I’m now on the second round of edits for my first novel, so I did a bit of that, but I made some progress with what I’m hoping will be my second and also carried on a few exercises from the morning workshops, just for fun. Getting feedback from Cat and Martyn, both of whom are brilliant and have tons of experience, on the first chapter of my new WIP was also really helpful and so encouraging. I was starting to worry it was a bit convoluted or just generally a bit rubbish, but I came home feeling much more confident in the idea and determined to finish it.
Most Moniack courses have a guest speaker, who comes for dinner on Wednesday night and then reads from their work. Ours was Anne Fine, and she was hilarious – full of writery gossip, very honest views on publishing, and stories about book tours and blood-spattered vans. On Friday, we all read out something we’d written either during or prior to the course. There were nine of us in total, all with different tastes and styles, so it was interesting to hear so much variety – everything from high fantasy to gritty contemporary. Our taste in literature was also quite different (very different in some cases – The Perks of Being a Wallflower was described, to my horror, as ‘utter drivel’. Sacrilège!) but it was great to meet such nice, like-minded people and to have so much bookish chat. I came home having bought three books and doubled my TBR list about four times over. All in all, it was a really great week in a gorgeous, inspiring place, and I came home feeling very inspired and refreshed. I can’t wait to go back!
Keep an eye on Moniack Mhor’s website for news of awards and bursaries. The Caledonia Novel Award is also offering a place on a course for a writer from the UK or Ireland as part of their international prize, so it’s well worth entering if you have a full-length YA or adult novel.
Sophie Cameron was shortlisted for the 2016 Caledonia Novel Award for Out of the Blue.
Edna O’Brien: Experience and Imagination, and The Little Red Chairs
You never really grow out of that excited feeling of anticipation at the prospect of seeing one of your writing heroes in the flesh, and the appearance of Edna O’Brien at the Edinburgh Book Festival was certainly worth the wait. She was effervescent, searingly honest, and wove such thrilling tales and stories as to make an all-too-brief hour flash past.
O’Brien launched the session by discussing her previous work: she has written a lot about love, set within the confines of her own country, and has always covered stories she felt passionately about: “One learns from life – I’m trying to – still!”
O’Brien now writes political stories with a personal narrative, but only tackles subjects which have “a corresponding echo within myself”. She knew that The Little Red Chairs would start, “as my novels always do, in a familiar landscape – County Clare is the locus of everything I write”, and acknowledged that The Little Red Chairs is ultimately about longing for home. O’Brien also wanted something different, something redemptive, as an ending: “Cathartic endings sicken me.”
She saw Radovan Karadzic on television in Europe after his capture, and thought his transformation from killer to mesmeriser was brilliant. Visiting the 2012 Sarajevo Red Line installation, which inspired The Little Red Chairs, was pivotal. She went to The Hague to see Karadzic, but he was, allegedly, too ill to meet her: “It was like going to see Lawrence Olivier in Richard III and he wasn’t on stage that day.” O’Brien did eventually get into the prison where Karadzic was being held, and spoke to his guards who informed her, among other things, that the prisoners got fed steak and red wine every night. She also spoke to Karadzic’s lawyer who described his client’s magnetism, and maintained that she and Karadzic would have liked each other “too much”. O’Brien quipped: “There is no end to human blindness!”
O’Brien delved into her early life with characteristic wit: “My mother disapproved of my emerging.” Her childhood home had no books in it apart from prayer books (“wonderful language!”), Mrs Beeton, and her father’s bloodstock manuals, and the convent she attended only offered “the worst kind of well-intentioned provincial tomes”. Du Maurier’s Rebecca circulated around the village, but only in single pages, and these were not in order. O’Brien’s family did not want her to be a writer: “They thought there was sin in it.”
As a writer, O’Brien wants literature “to be literature and not just words flung down. There is no
need to go away from the power of your own experience and imagination”. She was asked whether she felt that the provincial or the metropolitan was more important for writers, having praised provincial newspapers for their wealth of stories: “It all depends upon the geography and temperament of the writer. Philip Roth has never written about a tree or a stream that I know of! What matters is the truth of the words and what they do to a person.”
O’Brien rounded off by returning to her craft: “Every book you write changes you a little bit. And then you have to do it again. And again. And again. I’m in my ninth decade and I am searching around and I really do pray that I’ll find another story!”
Debut novelist Kit de Waal discusses the real and the familiar
Kit de Waal’s short stories and flash fiction have won numerous awards, including the Bridport Prize, and have been broadcast as BBC Radio 4 Dramas. Her debut novel, My Name is Leon, is nominated for this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award.
Hello Kit. Congratulations on your nomination! Does the fact that the general public can vote for your novel to win make this award different? Have you had a chance to read any of the other nominees?
Anything that’s voted for by readers is definitely a plus in my view. They are the ones that have been parting with their hard-earned money and time, so their vote, especially when up against this sort of field, is massively important. I’ve read a few of the novels on the list and the two that stand out for me are The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle, and Schtum by Jem Lester. Both are brilliant and real in entirely different ways.
You are appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 24 August with Simon Van Booy to discuss love and loss in childhood. How do you prepare for a shared-stage encounter like this?
I think the preparation comes in being present, remembering to contribute honestly and fully, and to have respect for the other person.
Will you be going along to any other Edinburgh Book Festival events whilst you are here?
I’m hoping to get to Nadim Safdar’s event on veterans and also to Joanna Cannon’s event about friendship in childhood. There are so, so many interesting talks going on at the same time, I’ve had a bit of a headache trying to work out where I should be!
We love your description of going from writing short stories to writing a novel as “the difference between picking up a cushion and picking up a mattress”. What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?
The best piece of writing advice I’ve heard, although it wasn’t said to me directly, was, “Turn up”. What that means is sit down and write rather than talking about writing or reading about writing or plotting on index cards, researching, reorganising your desk. Actually, as writers we have to turn up at our desk and write. That’s the only way you finish your work.
You set up the Kit de Waal Scholarship in 2015, a brilliant opportunity for a writer from a disadvantaged background to study on the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA. In an interview in The Observer, you revealed that you wanted to call it the “Fat Chance Scholarship” – can you explain?
When I’ve spoken to people about doing an MA in Creative Writing or any other writing course, in fact, the response I’ve had is “Fat chance”. So many people can’t afford university tuition fees or course fees or the travel to get there. Or they work so hard and so long they can’t afford the time, or for whatever other reason, they feel there is absolutely no chance of them being in that sort of learning environment. The Scholarship is a small attempt at offering someone that sort of opportunity and a few runners-up a bit of mentoring and support. An MA in Creative Writing is no guarantee of a publishing deal or a book in Waterstones, but it can give someone the confidence and the tools with which to start a career and, more importantly, to learn the tools of the craft and have the experience of going to University, sitting down and saying, “I’m here at last.” (Details of the Kit de Waal Scholarship can be found here)
My Name is Leon is an honest and engrossing novel, deftly written with a tight cast of characters, which took you less than a year to complete. We were particularly affected by Leon and the glorious Maureen. Is your work primarily plot- or character driven?
It’s difficult to make that distinction, but I would say it was Leon who captured me and drove the book on. Leon and all the other characters are very real to me and behaved very much as I would expect them to, so in that, it was driven by them. Although the plot is intrinsic to the character, there’s not much space between those two things in my opinion. I did write it quickly, but mostly that was because I didn’t have to do any research. The characters, the subject matter, these are things that are real and familiar to me so there was a lot already in my head.
Which novelists, both classic and contemporary, do you enjoy?
I love Graham Greene, Guy de Maupassant, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Arnold Bennett and Patrick Hamilton. All of these writers (with the possible exception of Graham Greene) were particularly interested in little stages, small domestic dramas and the minutiae of life. They could construct a whole chapter around the closing of a door. I love that sort of thing. Cormac McCarthy, Jane Gardam and Kevin Barry are contemporary writers who I read a lot and who always make me think, “How have they done that?”
You are in the middle of a really busy year of appearances and events! How do you make time to write, and what is on your writing horizon?
I have an assistant who keeps me on the straight and narrow and who makes sure I block out whole weeks for writing. I’m actually writing this from a writer’s retreat at Gladstone’s Library! I’m working on my second novel at the moment and then I intend to write a short story collection and a novella. Then another novel…. I have so many plans and so little time!
You have won many prizes for your work across the genres – do you have any words of wisdom for prospective Caledonia Novel Award entrants?
My advice would always be to do your best. Submit your very best work. Don’t be afraid of rewriting and editing, but also be ready to say, “It’s done” and then press send. I would also say that most of us write to be read. Very few people are happy to have a manuscript locked in a drawer. If you are ambitious about work and proud of work, do everything you can to get it out there, enter competitions, go to networking events, listen to advice and put it into practice, learn and relearn the craft of writing, join a writers’ group, go and hear your favourite author talk, read books on plot and character. Do whatever it takes but most of all, turn up.
Rob Ewing and The Last of Us
Rob Ewing’s short stories and poetry have been published widely and performed on BBC Radio Scotland. His debut novel, The Last of Us, has been nominated for this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award. He balances his writing with his career as a GP.
Hello Rob! First of all, many congratulations on your nomination for the Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award! The Last of Us is a riveting, unsettling novel which tells the haunting story of the last five children left alive on a remote Scottish island after all the adults have died. Did you write it with a particular audience in mind?
Thanks so much! It was written mainly for an adult audience, I guess – though it was suggested to me early on that it might also appeal to YA readers. The youngest readers I know of have been about 15 – it does explore some very adult themes, but if there’s crossover into YA, then all good.
You will be sharing the stage at Edinburgh Book Festival with Lin Anderson for a session called ‘Island Life and Death’. How do you prepare for these appearances, and how do you select which parts of your novel to read out?
I have no experience of appearing at festivals at all – help! I’ve done a couple of talks, and spoke at the book launch, which was pretty nerve-wracking. Funny thing is, by the time a book comes out you’ve spent so long thinking about it – spent so long inhabiting its scenes and rewriting (and rewriting) – that most questions are reasonably straightforward to answer. The really interesting moments are when someone picks out or sees something you missed yourself – in which case the correct response is, “Oh aye, I totally meant that,” while nodding sagely.
I’ve tended to read out the first chapter — which sets the scene without spoilers — but there is another scene I quite like to read where the children are being given a presentation by one of the GPs on CPR, and he receives his first phone call about the virus.
Which other events are you hoping to get along to?
I’m going to see Don Paterson – seen him loads of times before, and always brilliant. And I’m a bit gutted I can’t get along to see Joanna Cannon and Jem Lester: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Shtum have been two of my favourite reads this year.
The Last of Us has been described as “reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and The Cement Garden” – do you feel that these are accurate comparisons?
Got to be honest, I’ve never read The Cement Garden. But yes, I put off writing The Last of Us for a couple of years because I thought it was too close in subject matter to Lord of the Flies.
Then I read Emma Donoghue’s Room, and was really impressed by how completely she got into the head of four-year-old Jack. So then I thought: ok. If I write first person then that might set it apart from Lord of the Flies, which was written in third.
All of the children in The Last of Us are strong characters with very clear and individual voices, and your novel is written, with great empathy, from the point of view of Rona, an eight-year-old girl. Why did you choose a child’s-eye view, and why a young girl? Did you find it tricky plotting the characters of so many children?
My children were still young when I got the idea for The Last of Us. Separately, I’d been jotting down all the funny things they said – just to keep, so I could show them later. Then, when the idea for the novel came, I realised I had a trove of real kids’ words and sayings which would help to make the novel come alive.
Also, though, I love getting inside the heads of other people. In the past I’ve written from the point of view of a cut-throat cut-purse in Victorian London, a colonist in Darien at the start of the 18th century, a barmy young inventor in early-19th-century Edinburgh, a drugged-up lothario choking to death on a lolly in a Sydney nightclub, a Yemeni girl who has to care for her siblings and feckless father, plus many others. Put simply I get a buzz out of being other people – inhabiting their minds, seeing and experiencing their lives.
As for plotting characters: I use a crib sheet of character traits, which helps define who that person is. And often I draw them, which lets me picture who they are, how they dress, walk, talk, act. It was a bit tricky though: there was a risk that Alex might turn out too childish, or that Calum Ian would end up one-dimensionally bad; that Elizabeth would be a sap, or that Rona would end up annoying as narrator, or Duncan’s character remain underdeveloped. I had to keep testing what I’d written to make sure they were plausible and (especially in Rona’s case) sympathetic.
The medical references in your novel are particularly authentic – and you do not shy away from graphic descriptions – which make the whole ‘plague’ scenario feel all-too believable! Given your other career, were the medical aspects the easiest parts to write, and how long did the novel take you to complete?
Yes, the medical details were not too difficult. Much harder was putting them into Rona’s words. I spent a lot of time trying to work out how an eight year old would see and describe the indescribable – e.g. an old lady whose face looks like ‘rotted tree bark’, ‘mushy spots’ on someone else’s skin, and lots of ‘dirty stuff’ and ‘yuck’ on the floor.
The novel took about a year to complete, and then another year to rewrite. I took my time with it, partly to get it right, partly due to time constraints.
In the Scotsman, the reviewer wrote, “Be warned: you’ll feel well and truly wrung-out after reading this, but you’ll also hold your loved ones that little bit closer.” This reader experienced a huge desire to look away and be spared some of the intimacy of the details in the novel, but was completely unable to do so. Can we expect more of the same in your next novel?
Yeah, I definitely still want readers to squirm with open eyes..! Though in subject matter and genre, the next book is completely different. It’s a medical crime/thriller set in Glasgow, about a GP who begins to suspect the senior partner at her practice of being a killer. It’s written in third person, tells the story of adults rather than wee kids, so should be quite different in tone.
Which writers do you enjoy reading?
From the top of my head: George Mackay Brown, Belinda Bauer, Gerard Woodward, David Mitchell, Edward St Aubyn, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Tim Winton, Aravind Adiga. Oh, and I’ve just read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See – a really wonderful book.
And finally, what advice would you give to prospective Caledonia Novel Award entrants?
Writing is 90% rewriting. Write the story that only you could write (not your autobiography). If you haven’t already, check out Jonny Geller’s TED talk on how to write a bestseller – it’s fantastic. Learn everything you can about creating a sympathetic character – then create that character. Learn all the tricks for building and maintaining tension – and use them all. Never ever give up – but if your novel isn’t going anywhere, ditch it and get cracking on the next.
Lucy Ribchester on Bringing History to Life
Edinburgh-based writer Lucy Ribchester is the author of two novels, The Hourglass Factory and The Amber Shadows. She won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award in 2014. Lucy will be appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 16 August.
Hello Lucy. Last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival you were a First Book Nominee for The Hourglass Factory – a fine achievement. What kind of impact has this had on your writing career?
Hello! I think the Book Festival’s First Book Award is a fantastic thing and really does draw attention to debut writers, by bringing all of our books together on one page. I love looking through the lists of nominees to discover new authors. It’s inspiring, humbling and massively intimidating to see how much debut writing is out there. It’s hard to pinpoint what impacts directly on your career but I’m in no doubt it brought loads of good attention to the book.
This year you are appearing beside fellow Edinburgh writer Sara Sheridan in a session intriguingly called ‘Women Who Shape Big Adventures’. What has been your biggest adventure to date?
Haha, great question. I think discovering it is possible to do the thing I love to do for a living – however long that lasts – that’s really been an adventure. Really, throughout my twenties the notion of becoming an author seemed like such a distant pipe dream, I don’t think I ever believed it would happen. But it crept up on me, very slowly and subtly, through firstly being paid to write copy, then journalism, then getting short stories published. And it is kind of like being on a tightrope. You just have to keep looking ahead and getting on with it, because having your dreams come true and seeing what they are like in reality creates quite a weird mix of feelings. Actually though, aside from writing, I’m hoping that my best adventures are still to come.
How do you prepare for an Edinburgh Book Festival appearance? Will you and Sara swap notes beforehand, or will it be more of a seat-of-the-pants affair?
I’ve read Sara’s fantastic latest-but-one book Operation Goodwood and am looking forward to On Starlit Seas when it’s out. I like to read an author’s work if we’re doing a panel together because I think it makes the discussion more interesting. Other than that, I think I’ll probably just turn up and enjoy some good chat in the Spiegeltent.
You describe your career path as “strange and waggly” (swimming with icebergs and setting foot on St Kilda were our highlights!), but when did you decide upon a career as a fiction writer?
Thanks, those were my highlights too! I’ve pretty much written for as long as I’ve read. When I was a child I used to respond to books I liked by writing my own little pastiches of them. It was a way, I suppose, of prolonging the adventure of being in that book world. But my head got turned by acting when I was a teenager and for a long time I read nothing but plays and really thought I wanted to pursue both acting and playwriting. After completing the Young Writers Programme at the Royal Court I began to think playwriting might not be for me, and rediscovered a love of reading novels. It took a long time after that for me to decide to have another stab at writing one, and an even longer time to get published.
When writing your novels, do you try to stick as closely as possible to historical facts, or is it more liberating to focus on the fiction?
It’s an odd balance. A year ago I would have said I definitely err on the side of the story rather than historical fact. But looking back on my drafts for The Amber Shadows there were one or two things I got quite prissy about with regard to accuracy. I think any writing of history involves a degree of imagination and speculation and whether you fill the gaps by imagining a cause-and-effect narrative, as in conventional history books, or by informed speculation about people’s emotions, as in historical fiction, it’s kind of the same thing in a way. It’s hard to describe, but for me I want the history to be a cradle, a context which supports, contains and also nourishes the story. But…yes probably at the end of the day it is more important that the story feels alive than, say, you record the exact month the butter ration came in correctly. It’s a balancing act.
Our Caledonia Novel Award 2017 judge, Richard Pike, has this advice for prospective competition entrants: “Don’t be afraid to defy the conventions of genre.” What piece of advice were you given which stuck with you as an unpublished novelist?
I had some bad/weird advice like, “Don’t write on a laptop”. Also, “Don’t give up the day job” comes up quite a lot – that’s a good one, I think. Not just financially – I’ve discovered it’s really not great for my mental health to be stuck indoors writing all the time, so I’m planning to get back into some tutoring after the summer. Oh, actually, I just remembered: Francis Bickmore, Canongate’s Editorial Director, said at an event that you have to “find your people”. And that always swills round my head when I think of how divided reactions to my books have been. It’s horrible to think people dislike your writing, but it’s beyond wonderful when someone tweets you to say how much they have loved your book. I think all authors are reaching out into the dark, and to find people who connect deeply with your work, and for whom it resonates, is incredible, no matter how tiny that group is.
You recently won a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship – congratulations! Can you tell us more about it?
Yes, I’m off to France in about a week to embark on a terrifying self-imposed boot camp of research and drafting. Seriously, I can barely lift my suitcase it’s so full of folders and books. It’s a truly wonderful opportunity that the Scottish Book Trust offer and I really want to try and make the most of it, disconnect from the internet and get stuck into my new historical period. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more about it after I come back.
Both of your novels so far have been historical fiction, with strong female themes and characters. What can we expect from your third novel?
It’s a secret! I have a serious phobia about articulating what I’m writing about while I’m working on it. I know that sounds very pretentious – it’s not, it’s just a strange little superstition. There will most likely be women and history, and women from history in it.
The Edinburgh Book Festival programme this year is a truly joyous read – which events are you particularly looking forward to?
It is, isn’t it? I love the variety. I’ve booked tickets to see Jenni Fagan read from her poetry collection and Stanley Wells talking about Shakespeare. My friend Graeme Macrae Burnet is appearing with Cecilia Ekback and it’s always wonderful to hear Graeme talk about his work, so I’ll go to that. I’m also really interested in the Reading Workshops and am swithering about plucking up the courage to go and see Stuart Kelly exploring Finnegan’s Wake. Ever since reading The Bell Jar when I was a teenager I have been too scared to read Finnegan’s Wake, so maybe this will be my courage-year!
Annabel Abbs was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award in 2015 with The Joyce Girl, a compelling account of the tragic life of Lucia Joyce. Abbs signed with Impress Books, and her novel is due to be published on 16th June.
Annabel, many congratulations on all your success so far with The Joyce Girl. Going back to the beginning, what inspired you to write it?
I came across a shortened version of Lucia’s story in a wonderful graphic novel calledDotter of her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot. This is a cartoon-style autobiography through which some of Lucia’s life story was woven. I never knew Joyce had a daughter, let alone onewith such a fascinating and tragic life. I was very moved by what happened to her and wanted to find out more. However, all her letters (to, from and even about her) had been destroyed, as had her medical records, and poems and a novel she’d written. It seemed to me that she had been purposefully denied a voice and I was struck by the juxtaposition of this with her father’s growing stature and celebrity. I decided to give her a voice.
Did you find it difficult to find an agent?
Not once I had some recognition from the Caledonia Novel Award! I sent a very early draft of The Joyce Girl to a few agents and they all (quite rightly) rejected it. I then rewrote it twice and submitted it to the Caledonia Novel Award. After I was longlisted, I edited it again and then sent it to about eight agents and got two offers. I chose (perhaps oddly) an agency based in Brussels because the owner loved it so much and wouldn’t stop hounding me. I also thought that, because it was such a European novel, a more European agent would have more success. But then I won the 2015 Impress Prize for New Writers and decided I’d be better off as a big fish in a small pond.
Why did you choose Impress Books?
When I won the Impress Prize, my agent had just put The Joyce Girl on submission in the UK. But Impress were really enthusiastic and, as their 2015 prize winner, they said they’d get right behind the book. My father had a tiny publishing company when I was small and I liked the idea of being with an ambitious indie.
Can you tell us what you’ve been up to since you were signed by Impress Books? We believe you’ve had some exciting news…!
Yes, The Joyce Girl went to auction in Australia and sold to Hachette in the end. And it’s just sold in Germany and is on submission in another ten countries. And it’s been taken on by a book-to- film agent – watch this space!
You have written short stories, a regular blog, and articles for Myslexia and The Huffington Post – how did you find time for all this, and for editing your manuscript?
I inherited a very strong work ethic from my parents. And we grew up without a TV. So I never watch TV and I work every spare minute I have. When I’m on the move (that includes walking the dog, cooking, hoovering the house) I’m plugged into an audio book and making notes on my iPhone.
In addition to your writing, you also sponsor a scholarship on the University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA – how did this come about?
Writing a novel on your own is very, very hard. I was only able to do it because I sold my previous business and no longer have financial constraints. As I wrestled with The Joyce Girl, I knew I was very lucky not to have to go out to work every day (I couldn’t have written it if I’d had to work and look after four kids). I wanted to help someone who was in the same boat but was unable to afford the huge fees. I went to UEA for my first degree, so it seemed the obvious university to talk to. You’ll find details on how to apply for the scholarship here.
We know you are a great supporter of writing competitions – what advice would you give to prospective Caledonia Novel Award entrants?
Enter as many competitions as you can afford. Consider it an investment in yourself. Don’t enter your novel until it’s ready – have it beta-read and/or professionally edited beforehand, if you can. Choose your beta readers carefully (they should be extensive readers – in your genre – and ideally writers too). Approach others on award long- and shortlists if you don’t know anyone. With Skype and Facetime, this is much easier. You could have a writing buddy in Australia, for example. Give your readers hard copy and a short questionnaire. Ask them to mark-up pages as they go – where the plot is too slow, where a character says something out-of- character, scenes they like and dislike, and so on. Work really, really hard on your opening chapter. I used to spend whole days in my local library just reading first chapters. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Typos, poor grammar and spelling mistakes quickly distract a reader/judge. It doesn’t matter how clever your plot or how poetic your writing – if it looks sloppy you won’t win. Likewise, follow the award’s instructions – if it says double spaced, do it double spaced!
The launch date for The Joyce Girl is 16th of June – what have you got planned?
We’re having a big launch party at Waterstones the night before and then the 16th is dedicated to blog tours, with bookshop meet and greets around the same time, and my first speaking engagement a week later. I’ve decided not to do a reading at the launch party because I want to talk about Lucia and what impelled me to write about her – and I want to talk about the charity I’m giving my first year royalties to: Young Minds. I want to keep the debate about mental health in young people alive – it’s so important and never raises the sort of money that animals and cancer do. Even now, it carries a stigma and this needs to stop. Ruby Wax, Kate Middleton and many others are doing a fantastic job of changing this. I hopeThe Joyce Girl can help – just a teeny bit!
Lesley Kelly, debut novelist published
Lesley Kelly was a Caledonia Novel Award 2015 longlistee with A Fine House in Trinity. Her novel, published by Sandstone Press, will be launched on 21 April in Waterstones Westend in Edinburgh. We caught up with Lesley as she made her final preparations.
Your debut novel A Fine House in Trinity has its launch in Edinburgh this week – congratulations! You must be so excited! How will you prepare for the launch? Have you chosen which part to read?
I’m hugely excited (and just a little bit nervous!). I’m actually trying to choose which parts to read this morning. There is a real art to this. It needs to not be too long or too short, to communicate the key themes of the novel, and, because my kids will be in the audience, to not have too much swearing in it!
Tell us a bit about the plot.
A brief summary: Joseph Staines left town with a stolen tallybook, but two suspicious deaths and a surprise inheritance have lured him back home to Edinburgh. No-one is pleased to see him. The debtors want him gone. The police have some questions for him. And a mysterious stranger has been asking about him in the pub. To survive, Staines has to sober up, solve the murders, and stay one step ahead of the man who wants him dead.
Where did the original idea come from? Why Edinburgh?
Like every debut author, I was writing about what I know. I grew up in Trinity and Leith here in Edinburgh, and found some of the really old houses fascinating. There were all kinds of rumours about the old mansions having secret tunnels down to the sea, and hidden rooms. Whether these were to avoid the Press Gang, or facilitate smuggling, I don’t know, but either way it was a great setting for a crime novel.
We loved the characters in A Fine House in Trinity – how do you go about first choosing and then writing your characters?
I’m not sure I did choose them! The characters take up residence in your subconscious and you have to live with them until the novel’s done. I started with Stainsie’s current predicament, then worked backwards looking at all the characters who had contributed to him being there: his long-suffering father and brother, his wife, Isa Stoddart and her crime empire…
How long did the novel take you to write, and how did you find the whole process from submission to being published?
It started life as a short story, written for the newspaper The Scotsman’s celebration of 25 years of Rebus. It won the competition, and I so enjoyed the characters in it that I expanded it (over the course of a couple of years) into a full-length novel. The whole process has been a blast, but a total learning curve. I now know a lot more than I did about Twitter, Facebook, blog tours, and all kinds of promotional activity!
Sandstone Press is publishing ‘A Fine House in Trinity’ – what made you choose them?
My friend had had a novel published by Sandstone Press (Blast Radius by RL McKinney) and suggested I send it to them. They were the first publisher I’d approached, and I’m still reeling from the shock of them accepting it!
You have said that being longlisted for the 2015 Caledonia Novel Award “played a big part in me being confident enough with the draft to send it off”. What advice would you give to other would-be entrants?
I’m a huge fan of writing competitions. Your family and friends are never going to be able to give you honest feedback, but winning or being shortlisted for a competition judged by other writers or literary agents is a sure sign that your writing is in the right place. The Caledonia Novel Award was particularly useful because all the longlisted entrants got some feedback – which of course I acted on!
After all the book signings and events around A Fine House in Trinity, will you be getting back to writing? Is there already another work in progress?
My nose is already back to the grindstone… watch this space!
“For Me, Writing Competitions Have Been Really Important” – Q&A With Debut Novelist JULIET WEST
Juliet West grew up in West Sussex and studied history at Cambridge University. She worked as a journalist before taking an MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University where she graduated with distinction and won the Kate Betts’ Memorial Prize.
The opening chapters of her debut novel, Before the Fall, were shortlisted for the Myriad Editions/West Dean novel writing competition in 2012. Inspired by a true story, Before the Fall is a devastating tale of love and betrayal set in London’s East End during the First World War. Before the Fall is out now in paperback, published by Mantle at Pan Macmillan.
Tell us about Before the Fall …
The novel is set in the Docklands area of London during the First World War, and tells the story of a soldier’s wife who has an affair while her husband is away fighting. It’s inspired by a true story which I researched many years ago while working as a journalist.
How long did it take you to write?
I started in the winter of 2010, and finally finished the first draft in February 2013. So it took two and a half years to get a first draft of around 90,000 words. Not very speedy…
The narrative weaves between first and third person narratives. Was this a decision you made at the start?
Originally I wrote both Hannah and Daniel’s voices in the third person, but I decided to switch to first person for Hannah. I found this helped to unlock her voice and gave her a more distinct identity. I continued with third person for Daniel, for no logical reason other than it always felt right. I think I liked the slight distance that the third person narrative lent to Daniel’s character. He is slightly enigmatic, and perhaps it’s easier to reflect that when writing in the third person.
Where and when do you write?
I have a desk in the spare bedroom. (Despite my best efforts to re-brand this as my study, we still call it the junk room.) I spend three or four days a week writing, usually days when the children are at school. I aim for around 800 words a day, but often much of the morning is taken up with admin, emails etc, and by the time I really get into the writing the kids are on their way home. So occasionally I get up very early and try to work before anyone is awake, but this can be counterproductive because I then feel drowsy all afternoon! I just muddle through, really, like any working parent.
How did you find your agent?
In 2012, when I was mid-way through the first draft of Before the Fall, I entered a novel-writing competition run by Brighton-based publisher Myriad Editions. My book was shortlisted and although I didn’t win, I met an agent who was on the judging panel. A year later I submitted the book to four agents, including the judge from the Myriad comp. I was lucky enough that this agent, plus one other – Hellie Ogden of Janklow and Nesbit – offered to represent me. I signed with Hellie and she has been just fantastic to work with.
How have you dealt with rejection?
When I first started entering writing competitions I’d be gutted if a story or a poem failed to place and a voice in my head would say: ‘You must be rubbish – what are you playing at?’. Gradually I realised not to take rejection personally. If you can get even one success from ten or twelve submissions that’s a fantastic hit rate (not necessarily a win, a commended or an honourable mention counts as success). As the years went on and my confidence increased, I began to get quite fired-up by rejection. The voice in my head became more bloody-minded and I’d think: ‘Right – I’ll show them!’
Any tips on writing the dreaded synopsis?
Try to keep to one page and resist the temptation to cram everything in (ie by resetting the text to 8-point, though I confess to 11-point and w-i-d-e margins). Make it interesting – a story in itself, without any flowery or inflated language. I think it’s a good idea to put the characters’ names in bold when you first mention them, to help fix those characters in the reader’s mind.
What did you find most valuable about your MA?
It’s hard to pinpoint one positive because there were so many. Taking an MA legitimised my writing and helped me to sharpen up in terms of technique. I loved the reading we were set, partly because it opened my mind to other genres which I wouldn’t normally have explored. I met some wonderful people who’ve become great friends and workshop colleagues. Also it engendered a sense of possibility. Several ex-students from the Chichester University MA are now successful writers. This alone was terrifically inspirational.
You entered many writing competitions while studying for your MA in Creative Writing. How have writing competitions helped your writing journey?
For me they’ve been really important. Partly it’s the confidence boost you get when an entry is placed. But also the discipline of entering competitions is important, because you have to write to a deadline, proof-read your work and perhaps craft a synopsis or covering letter. It’s all good practice for the day when you may finally send your work out to agents.
Before the Fall is out now in paperback. How are you enjoying events and book signings?
The prospect of public readings and events was something I dreaded, but to my astonishment I’m actually enjoying the promotional side. It’s so interesting to chat to readers – not necessarily about Before the Fall, but about the First World War in general and also to hear their own family histories from that time.
What’s been the highlight of your writing career to date?
There have been so many amazing and surreal moments, but I’m going to pick the most recent: spotting a Before the Fall poster at London Victoria station!
What are you writing now?
Another historical novel, but this book is set in the summer of 1935 in Sussex and London. There are various relationships and themes, but at the heart of the book is a somewhat dark holiday romance between two sixteen year olds.