Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Young Muslim Writers' Awards 2017

by Catriona Troth

This December saw the 7th presentation ceremony for the Young Muslim Writers' Awards, and the second time I have been privileged to attend the event.

The Young Muslim Writers' Awards was founded by the Muslim Hands charity, and for the last five years has been supported of the Yusuf Islam Foundation. As organiser, Zainub Chohan, told us at the opening of the ceremony, the award seeks not only to raise child literacy in the British Muslim community, but to help every child realise that any career path is open to them – including that of being a best-selling author.

How important this is was underlined this week by an article in the Guardian (“Diversity in publishing – still hideously middle-class and white?”)

As one of the judges, poet Mohamed Mohamed said, of discovering the Young Muslim Writers’ Awards: “Oh my gosh, this actually exists!” 
Shortlisted authors, judges and sponsors at YMWA 2017

Awards are given in nine categories – for short stories and poetry in each of Key Stages 1-4, and additionally in Key Stage 3 (11-14 year olds) an award for journalism. This year all the short listed poems, short stories and essays were included in a beautiful anthology, which enabled everyone to share and appreciate the depth and breadth of writing the young people are producing.


Poetry ranged from six year old Umar Ibrahim’s hilarious and imaginative, Roald Dahl inspired Oggletrog, to Hanniya Kamran’s thoughtful and thought-provoking Am I? – which Tim Robinson of the Royal Society of Literature described has ‘having a complexity that challenges and undoes stereotypes.’

Themes for the stories were no less wide-ranging – with one taking place inside a refugee camp while another was about a super-strawberry who feared being turned into jam!

The KS3 Journalism prize, presented by journalist and lecturer Nabida Ramdani, covered topics from Women’s Rights, Child Soldiers, Acid Attacks and Grenfell Tower. The maturity of the work produced by these writers (aged 11-14 years) was humbling. The winner was Zaina Kahn for an essay on child soldiers, but the piece that sucker-punched me was Ameerah Abika Kola-Olukotun’s ‘We Must Take Action’ which sensitively recalled a visit to Nigeria. The shrewd observations of contrast between rich and poor and the ever-present fear of abduction by Boko Haram reminded me of Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing.

The afternoon included entertainment too, provided by master storyteller Alia Alzougbi and beatbox poet DreadlockAlien (aka Richard Grant).

Patrice Lawrence, author of the wonderful Orangeboy and judge in the KS4 short story award, spoke with inspirational passion of growing up in Brighton with a Trinidadian mother and an Italian step-dad, “always knowing I had other stories to tell.”

Last year’s Writer of the Year, Lamees Mohamed offered advice to her fellow young writers (‘I’m only 14 years old – it’s just what I’ve picked up so far): to read widely, to look at the world around you, to listen, look and care.

This year, the overall award for Writer of the Year for 2017 went to 6 year old Umar Ibrahim, who won not only the KS1 poetry award, but the short story award too, for The Tree Kings, “the custodians of the secrets and scripts of the ancient library of Baghdad,” which opens: “It was night-time. The six moons washed the land in a gentle light."

Judging by Umar’s two entries, if his imagination continues to flourish and grown, we can look forward to a very special talent indeed bursting upon the literary scene in a few years.

Finally, the ceremony closed with the presentation of the Special Recognition Award. Two years ago, when I last attended, the award was given to Malala Yousafzai. This year, it was given to another survivor of an attack upon education. Muhammed Ibrahim Khan is a survivor of the 2014 Peshawar school attack. Muhammad Ibrahim was shot four times whilst trying to help his friends, after helping four other school children to safety. Initially expected to be paralysed for life, he has regained the ability to walk and is now studying for his GCSEs in Britain.

Here is just a flavour of some of the depth and breadth of writing on display:

“Raindrops hit the window and slide down like tears, tiny glass-like droplets through which I watch the sky churn up all the world’s pain and anger.”
Nada El-Hamoud, The Game, winner KS4 short story

“Their hearts shattered by the grief of losing their eldest daughters, they trudged through the village, ghost of what they once were.”
 Ameerah Abika Kola-Olukotun, We Need to Take Action, KS3 journalism

Every day, a large rumbling machine would come, with its four wheels running down the straight tracks either side of super strawberry. He could see two thick legs and heavy boots resting on the machine and between them would be a large, sharp knife that would cut the stems of the fruit.

The Adventures of the Super Strawberry, Haadi Siddiqui, winner, KS2 short story.

My fantastical name is Oggletrog
I live in a cave next to a bog
Each morning I munch-nibble a frog,
Each evening I munch-nobble a hog

Umar Ibrahim, winner, KS1 Poetry


Entries are now open for the 2018 awards, which so if you are eligible, or you know someone who is – tell them to get writing! Can’t wait to see what the next year brings.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Research for Fiction: Pleasures and Pitfalls


By Annemarie Neary


Samuel Johnson said that a (wo)man ‘’will turn over half a library to make one book.”

Before you spend half a lifetime haunting Google, consider what kind of research will contribute most. One thing is self-evident, whatever the genre — you need to be able to convince the reader that you know what you’re talking about. That’s as much about imaginative absorption in your fictional world as it is about the accumulation of facts.

Research, in the broadest sense of ‘reading yourself in’, will give you the requisite depth of awareness. No one wants to fall into the trap of ascribing 21st century views to a 2nd century Greek astronomer or to create a framework that is simply not credible.

Patricia Highsmith put it this way “A reader likes to feel that the writer is quite in command of his material and has strength to spare.” So, first of all — and probably before you write a word — you need to be able to write by heart.

In some genres — fantasy and sci-fi for instance — you can make the rules up as you go along; what you are aiming for is internal consistency. But in most fiction, especially genres like historical fiction that purport to offer an insight into a particular world, you will need to supplement imagination with the kind of authority that can only come from general research. This is the type of wide reading that gives you a ‘feel’ rather than a set of undigested facts. This is what will feed your imagination and allow instinct to take over during the writing process.

But when to stop reading?
If you’re working to a deadline, there are the little problems of distraction, time soak, stalled impetus. What are the most useful sources? A rule of thumb — if in doubt, look for the firsthand account. If you’re working on an historical project, are there diaries or letters you can read? If you are writing about a specific contemporary world, are there blogs? Photographs are also useful because they import a degree of objectivity. Often, the most interesting details are the photographer took for granted or didn’t realize she was capturing.

So, find your expert.
In my first novel, one of my characters was a Luftwaffe ‘lamplighter’ – a member of one of the crews who set fires in order to ‘light’ the targets for the bombers following behind. I needed to know about what it felt like to be up there – was he freezing, terrified, bored? I searched online for a primary source, and eventually found someone in Melbourne, Australia whose elderly neighbor, a former Luftwaffe conscript, was willing to interviewed. I emailed my questions and got an audiotape back. The interviewee turned out to be quite a different character from my fictional Oskar, but he taught me about particular aspects of his experience that I’d have struggled to find in a history book — recreational fishing trips, the reality of being a hated occupier in a small Breton town, techniques for removing hornets nests, the iron grip of male comradeship.

At the moment I’m talking to several people about the fabric of everyday life in Algiers — What do you serve someone if they come to your house? What do you do on your day off? How do you celebrate a wedding? Do your friends have sex outside marriage/drink/break other taboos? What is the gossip about politicians? Where are the new cafes opening? What is the attitude to Chinese, Syrian, sub-Saharan migrants? For contemporary settings, online newspapers are also useful — particularly the Lifestyle pages.

Once you’ve felt your way in, it’s best to confine detailed research to the things you really need to know. Even If you are writing a contemporary book, history is very important. You need to understand what has shaped a society or a set of characters, but be careful not to get bogged down in endless detail that just gets shoehorned in. That way madness, eternal procrastination, and clumsy writing lie. And try not to write about places you haven’t visited. Yes, I know you can find out the colour of the tablecloths in Venice’s Taverna La Fenice by simply looking online. But it’s very easy to miss things, too. For the ineffable essence of a place, there’s no substitute for stepping off a plane.

In terms of psychological or medical research, scientific verisimilitude is necessary if you’re claiming your character suffers from this or that syndrome. Otherwise, I wouldn’t worry too much. People are infinitely variable and if you avoid labels and imagine yourself into a particular mind and body you can generally get away without too much by way of research.

Once you have a ‘feel’ for time, place, character, nothing succeeds quite like a well-placed detail for bringing a scene to life — think Hilary Mantel’s moth hole in that famous sleeve. If your character is a singer, for example, then I do think you need to understand the unique type of neuroses that tend to afflict such people — their terror of colds, of damage to the vocal chords — and the technical difficulties involved in a singing a particular type of music. Yet again, you can pick up a lot from firsthand accounts.

One telling detail will do much more work for you than acres of downloaded research. For example, if you are writing about a nineteenth century seamstress, have her use the right kind of materials, wear typical clothing, sit in the right kind of chair, and then simply employ a bit of Method writing to bring the scene to life. Spend an evening, or even an hour or two, sitting in a cold room bent over your work in dim lighting, and you should be able to extrapolate enough from that experience combined with your research in order to create a convincing seamstress.

So there we have it — imaginative engagement complemented by targeted research. Wear your character’s shoes, and you won’t go too far wrong.



Annemarie Neary was born in Northern Ireland. She studied literature at Trinity College Dublin, and qualified as a barrister at King's Inns.

Her novel The Orphans is out now in Kindle and hardcover from Hutchinson (Penguin Random House UK). A Windmill Books paperback is forthcoming in April 2018. Siren was published by Hutchinson in 2016, with a Windmill paperback out earlier this year, and A Parachute in the Lime Tree was published by The History Press Ireland in 2012. She is currently working on a fourth novel.

She holds a Masters in Venetian Renaissance art from the Courtauld Insitute, and Venice — its locations, historical events, and artworks — has inspired a number of short stories.
http://www.annemarieneary.co.uk/


Wednesday, 29 November 2017

60 Seconds with Carol Lovekin

By Gillian Hamer

(c) Janey Stevens
Carol is a writer, feminist & flâneuse based in west Wales. She writes contemporary fiction threaded with ghosts, Welsh Gothic and magic.

SNOW SISTERS, was published on 21 September, 2017 by Honno, the Welsh Women's Press. It has been chosen by the Welsh Books Council as their October Book of the Month.

GHOSTBIRD, her first novel, was published in March 2016. The book was chosen as Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops 'Book Of The Month' for April 2016. It was longlisted for the Guardian 'Not the Booker' prize 2016 and nominated for the Guardian Readers' Book of the Year 2016.
Welcome, Carol, tell us a little about you and your writing. 

I live in west Wales in a small flat overlooking the hills which, more often than not, are shrouded in mist. I’m a feminist and something of a flâneuse. My stories are rooted in Wales and concern the nature of family relationships, in particular those between sisters, and mothers and daughters. I lace them with birds, secrets, old houses and a touch of Welsh Gothic.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Waking up each day knowing exactly what the plan is. And being published – twice – is a lovely bonus!
And the worst?

There is no worst! I enjoy every aspect of writing.

Do you have a special writing place?

I’m fortunate to have a spare bedroom which I use as a study.

Which writers to you most admire and why?

I have a particular fondness for Virginia Woolf and never grow tired of reading her diaries and letters. I admire the stylishness of these writers in particular: Edna O’Brien, Daphne du Maurier, A S Byatt, Eimear McBride, Amy Sackville, Alice Hoffman and Harper Lee. So many writers to admire – far too many to list.

If you could choose a different genre to write in for just one book – what would it be?

Having found my niche as a writer, I have no inclination to write in a different genre. I’ve played with stories for children but it’s a unique discipline; I don’t think I have the patience.

What was your inspiration behind your latest novel, Snow Sisters?

Initially, a hankering to write snow scenes! One of the main protagonists in the story – the younger sister, Meredith – was a left-over character from a novel I was never meant to write. I knew I wasn’t done with her and when the notion of a Victorian ghost came (from wherever these ideas do) I knew Meredith, with her insatiable curiosity and courage, was the key to unlocking the ghost’s voice.

What three tips would you offer up-and-coming authors?

Read everything: widely, critically and insatiably. Write every day – even if it’s only a note on the back of your hand – and never, ever use the word ‘aspiring’ about yourself. If you are writing, published or not, you are a writer. 

You can follow Carol here:

Twitter: twitter.com/carollovekin
Website: carollovekinauthor.com
Facebook: tinyurl.com/y79ezaxd

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

How Reading Can Help You Become A Successful Teen Fiction Writer by Jane Sandwood



Children’s literature and young adult fiction books are enjoying massive popularity nowadays. Apart from JK Rowling, young adult and children’s literature authors and their publishers are raking in the profits as it was reported that John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” earned Penguin UK more than £4 million, and in 2014, the Children’s Category earned £336.5m. And it’s not only secondary schoolers who are fans of these books—a study revealed that 55% of YA fiction readers are adults. If you’ve got an idea for a great YA novel or series, you may want to dive into the worlds created by Rowling, Green, Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, and others to prepare to write your novel. Having a good read can benefit your writing in so many ways, and here’s how reading can help you become a successful teen and YA fiction writer.

It helps you get in touch with your teen self

There’s a reason why so many adults love reading YA books—it reminds older readers of their childhoods and teen years, making these books the perfect escape from their busy adult lives. One of the benefits associated with reading YA is that it helps you get in touch with your teen self, which can be incredibly useful once you begin to write your novel. The more you read, the more you develop an authentic teenage or young adult voice. This makes your book more convincing and relatable to readers who are fans of this genre.

You get to immerse yourself in popular teen culture

Reading YA books set at the present time allows you to immerse yourself in popular teen culture, especially if you need to get caught up in current British teen slang or Millennial slang. If your novel is set in the 2000s, you may need to know how to use “bae” in a sentence, why something or someone is perceived as “goals,” why being “thirsty” has nothing to do with needing a beverage and why “throwing shade” is considered to be rude behaviour. Moreover, reading helps you learn about the latest in teen culture, and a little pop culture reference in your novel can go a long way.

You get to take a productive break

If you’re experiencing a raging case of writer’s block, you might as well re-read “The Hunger Games,” “The Giver,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” or your favourite YA book of the moment. Reading allows you to take a productive break and manage stress while you’re writing your novel, and taking the time to read may give you some ideas on how your story should continue.

When choosing YA books to read or re-read, pick ones that you think you’ll learn from and enjoy. Remember that everything that you learned while reading will be somehow reflected in the way you write. Pick up a YA or teen fiction book today and see how it can benefit your writing.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Joy and Pain of Publishing


Sometimes it's interesting for readers to discover the background of books and the origins of storylines. One of the questions writers are most often asked is about their imagination - 'where did that story come from or how did you think of that?' they ask in amazement. Here we discover the truth behind the fiction.

In our guest post this week, North Wales based author JAN RUTH reveals the close-to-home story behind her upcoming Christmas novella.


Away for Christmas is a novella about the joy and pain of fractured relationships, the joy and pain of Christmas itself – because the festive period is not always fun for everyone – and the joy and pain of publishing books! But perhaps most of all, this is a story about staying true to oneself and looking for the real Christmas spirit beyond the baubles and the glitter. 

Regular readers will know that my characters tend not to be in the first flush of youth, and that the joy and pain of relationships are often par for the course. Christmas is very much a family time and can unearth a multitude of unwelcome emotions and in the case of my character, present plenty of troublesome hurdles before the festivities can be enjoyed. His ex-wife doesn't always make life easy, but Jonathan is determined to be a better dad, against all the odds.

And finally, the joy and pain of publishing books. There are some great publishers out there, ones who achieve results, look after their authors and understand the industry from the ground up. This story isn’t based on them.

It’s no secret that I’ve been round the houses and back again with regard to writing and publishing. Thirty years ago I used to believe that a good book would always be snapped up by a publisher regardless of genre, style, and content. In the real, commercial world, this just isn’t true. After several years of agents and self-publishing, a turning point came for me when a small press offered a contract for Silver Rain. This is it, I thought. This is the change of direction I need… but be careful what you wish for! Don’t get me wrong in that I had huge delusional ideas at this stage. I was simply seeking greater visibility and some respite from the nuts and bolts of self-publishing.

And all the outward signs were good: they took five back-catalogue titles and one new title, to make six contracts. This material represented several years of my life, several thousand pounds’ worth of investment in terms of editorial advisory, editing, proofreading, designing, formatting for ebooks and paperbacks, advertising… I could go on. Producing a quality product and promoting it to its best advantage doesn’t happen by accident. If you don’t have these skills yourself, then one needs to employ freelance professionals, as I’ve reiterated many times. Of course, we know there are a lot of ‘home-made’ books out there which don’t quite cut it, but this is certainly not the case for all self-produced work. What is slightly disconcerting is that I discovered (and so does my poor character Jonathan Jones) that this isn’t necessarily the case for traditionally produced work, either!

The process of trade publishing has less to do with the quality of material than you might presume, but it has a lot to do with what is or isn’t marketable at any one time. This isn’t bad business, it’s about making money to stay afloat. Small publishers are in exactly the same boat as the independents, but with far more overheads and problems with staff. Some of these staff may be inexperienced or learning ‘on the job.’ These small companies are up against the same fast-moving on-line industry as any independent but perhaps without the resources to manage it effectively, let alone build a lively following on Twitter; a following which has the power to engage. Traditional publishing, by its very nature, is painfully slow and this produces a massive clash with the shifting sands of on-line business. We perhaps don’t realise how fine-tuned independents have become in this respect.

Worryingly, new authors are often excited by offers from vanity publishers, or those who operate under the guise of assisted publishing, not realising the implications until it’s perhaps too late. Even contracts from those real publishers with seemingly no pitfalls or upfront costs, can dissolve into a horribly disappointing experience. Of course, my poor character thinks he’s landed lucky when a small publisher offers him a three-book deal. What could go wrong? If you’ve ever dreamed of writing a book or maybe you’ve just typed THE END to your manuscript, you might think twice about your next step…

Away for Christmas is set over three Christmastimes, and because I feel sure you’ll be looking for a few hours of warm and cosy escapism at this time of the year, I can assure you that there’s a happy ending by the time Jonathan makes it to 2017.

Friday, 10 November 2017

One Woman's Struggle in Iran - a memoir from Nasrin Parvaz

by Catriona Troth
Many Prisoners in One Room by Nasrin Parvaz

In 1979, Nasrin Parvaz returned from England, where she had been studying, and became a member of a socialist party in Iran fighting for a non-Islamic state in which women had the same rights as men. Three years later, at the age of 23, she was betrayed by a comrade and arrested by the regime’s secret police.

Nasrin spent the next eight years in Iran’s prison system. She was systematically tortured, threatened with execution, starved and forced to live in appalling, horribly overcrowded conditions. One Woman’s Struggle is both an account of what happened to her during those eight years, and evidence that her spirit was never broken.

In 1990 she was released and in 1993 she fled to England, where she has been a client of Freedom From Torture. She has given talks on the violation of human rights in Iran, both in Farsi and in English, in a number of countries. She has spoken at Southbank Centre (2015 and 2016), Bare Lit Festival (2016 and 2017), and for organizations such as Amnesty International, Cambridge PEN and Freedom From Torture.

Nasrin’s prison memoir was published in Farsi in 2002, and in Italian in 2006. The English edition is now seeking support on the crowd-funded publishing site, Unbound.

One Woman’s Struggle is not an easy book to read. The opening chapters, which detail her interrogation under torture, are devastating. This is the reality of which dystopian depictions of totalitarianism, like V for Vendetta, merely skim the surface. Small wonder that many break under torture. Far more extraordinary are those who find within themselves the strength to endure.

Once the interrogations end, the hardships and degradations of daily prison life begin. The dirtiest trick of totalitarianism is to persuade its followers that those who it oppresses are no longer entirely human. The regime in Iran played this trick with brutal effectiveness. But Nasrin’s memoir also shows how the humanity of the women in prison nonetheless survived. It is a story of friendship and mutual support, of how the women drew strength from one another and found endless small ways to show kindness and even find tiny specks of joy.

The book begins and ends with fleeting encounter, when Nasrin recognises one of her tormentors in a London supermarket. The guard is terrified, but Nasrin turns and walks out into the spring sunshine.

Some things in Iran have changed since Nasrin was released. The interrogation centre where she was first held has been turned into a museum. School children are taken there on tours, but they are told that it was only used in the Shah’s time. Other things remain. In an echo of an incident described in the book, when international ambassadors visited Evin Prison earlier this year, political prisoners were hidden away where they could not be seen.

This book, however, is not simply about the prison system in Iran. It is about oppression – and especially the oppression of women – wherever it takes place. It deserves to stand with Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man as an indictment of cruelty, brutality and the dehumanising of fellow human beings.

Here Nasrin talks to Catriona Troth about her hopes for the book, for Iran and for women the world over.



Prison by Nasrin Parvaz


When you started writing One Woman’s Struggle, did you imagine it would be published one day, or was it initially something you did for yourself, as part of the healing process?


I started writing it to publish it. Publishing was my only aim as my prime aim was to communicate. My personal experience is not just personal but is part of the universal history of oppression and struggle.


How did Freedom from Torture and the Write to Life group help you?

I received therapy from FFT for a few years and my therapist was really kind and helpful. She helped me in other areas of life, as well as in the therapy room. For example, I wanted to study psychology and she helped me to find a bursary, so I only had to pay half the price of the course. Things like this that I wasn’t aware of!

When Sonja Linden started the Write to Life group, I was one of her first clients and I must say, if it wasn’t for Sonja, and later on, Hubert Moore who was my mentor, I might have not continued writing! English was not my first language and I was trying to learn it by exchanging one-to-one lessons with people who wanted to learn Farsi.

The Write to Life group helped me in many different ways – including learning how to put my prison experience into words and how to write a story.


The book has already been published in Farsi. Why is it important for you that it is published in English as well?

Actually I first started to write it in English, but half way into it I realised it wasn’t good enough, so I began to write it in Farsi. I want to tell the world what is happening in Iran and to tell them that the government is carrying out crimes such as imprisoning and executing people for what they believe in – or what they don’t believe in.

Because of my personal experience when I started to write my book, I could only see that torture and execution were happening in Iran; but now I can see that this is happening everywhere. Some might say it’s not happening in western countries, then I’ll tell them that I see it whenever I walk down the road. Yes, the homeless people living in the streets of London and other cities of the world are subject to physical and mental torture. I no longer see that torture - as a means of crushing people - is something that happens only in prison, but as something that is part of the world’s system. Witnessing something so dehumanising is psychological torture for passers-by: it is for me. Every time I see a homeless person, the same feelings of frustration and helplessness I experienced in prison when I was being tortured or my cellmates were being beaten come over me and I feel depressed. 
 

As much as the book is an indictment of oppression, it is a celebration of the strength of women and women’s friendship. How do you think that spirit survives when everything in the system is designed to crush it?

The strength of women and our friendship was one of the ways in which prisoners put up resistance to that system. The Iranian women’s resistance started in 1979, when only a few days after Khomeini arrived in Iran, he announced women should wear the chador – which is like a burqa, except that the woman’s face is uncovered. The next day, on the 8th of March women poured into the streets of Tehran and many other towns. It’s true that the regime eventually forced women to cover their hair; but it took three years till they made it a law and they couldn’t put women into sacks; head scarves became compulsory and nowadays, women are arrested if they don’t observe this law.

Unfortunately so many men have not supported women’s struggle against this sexual apartheid and actively benefit from it.


How optimistic are you for the future of Iran, and particularly for the role of women in the country?

I can’t separate Iran from the rest of the world. We all are in the same boat that is running fast with the current towards a future full of more misery, unless we do something about it. In Iran – the same as in the rest of the world - we need a just system that safeguards freedom and equality.

Regarding the women of Iran, I must say that they haven’t given up their struggle for freedom and equality with men. Since marriage gives all the rights such as divorce and custody to men, for many years it has been common practice for some women to ask their husbands to sign papers giving both parties equal rights. Many of the new generation don’t even bother with marriage and simply live together, even though this is illegal.


What is the most important message you would like people to derive from the book?

That we need to struggle for a just world: a world without torture and execution.

Thank you, Nasrin. I hope many people will support your book and enable it to be published! It deserves to be widely read.

To pledge support for Nasrin's book, please visit the Unbound site here, where you can also watch a video interview with Nasrin.

You can follow Nasrin on Twitter at @NasrinParvaz


Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Long Road to Publication #2

By Andy Smith

Since last time I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my novel into readers’ hands. For the moment I’ve been sticking with the ‘submitting to agents’ route. (Other routes into publication are available, but you’ve got to try sending a submission letter which includes “and I won the First Page competition”, haven’t you?) I said I’d tell you how I was getting on. I also promised to tell you a bit more about how I’ve got a comic fantasy novel which mixes a few other things together. So let’s do them both at once, shall we?

Breaking the Lore is a fantasy comedy which follows the events of a very strange police investigation. In modern-day Britain, a policeman discovers the body of a crucified fairy. There’s an army of demons on the way, but before he can stop them the policeman must overcome one major problem: he doesn’t actually believe in magic. Unfortunately for him, this is a detective story with elves, dwarves, mystical beings, cigarettes, alcohol and lots of jokes. Think Inspector Morse, as written by Tolkien – after several plates of magic mushrooms.


Because it’s a comedy, you can get away with things that you couldn’t otherwise; and you can mix things up. So there are sci-fi references, which are thrown in as comedy pastiches. There’s love interest, which is there to give Inspector Paris a bit more character, and to make him uncomfortable for comedy purposes. There’s explanations of the world I’ve created so the reader knows that everything does hang together. (Because fantasy fans – me included – are big on coherent world building, even silly worlds. And the explanations are usually deflated with some more comedy anyway.) The detective story is what enables events to move along and provides a plot around which everything else takes place. But, basically, it’s a comedy, which just happens to involve lots of fantasy elements.

Also because it’s a comedy, you can sneak in things under the radar. Things like how people who are different from yourself are not necessarily bad, and can actually make a valuable contribution. I don’t beat anyone over the head with it, but that’s the underlying theme of the story really; something which I think is a very important message for the times we’re living in.


Now that’s how I see it. That’s how everyone who has read the whole story sees it too, and they’ve all enjoyed it. (Including Alison Morton, judge of the First Page competition, and a proper author with actual published books!) A few months ago I was a finalist in the Writing on the Wall ‘Pulp Idol’ competition, where I had to read out the first chapter to the judges and audience. Afterwards, I received feedback from numerous members of the audience who said “I’d buy that book.” They were people of both sexes, all ages, and readers of various genres. Recently I took part in the Sheffield Novel Slam, similarly involving reading out to the audience and getting their feedback, and I received a similar reaction: people telling me they liked it and wanted to hear more.

But, when I send it off to agents – slightly different response.

Like most people who try to get something published, I’ve got a growing pile of rejection emails. I’ve found that most of the time you either get no reply at all, or you get a variant on the “thanks but no thanks” message. I’m building a fair sized collection of a different type of rejection; one which basically says “your writing’s good, the story’s great, but I can’t sell it.” AARRGGHH!


Deep breath.

Conceivably I’ve got too many things going on in the book. Maybe I’m being too ambitious. However, I’ve got people telling me they want to buy my novel. I know for a fact that I’ve got a potential audience out there. I just need an agent who can help me to reach them. So if there are any of you reading this blog and want to be that one – please get in touch! My potential readers are waiting for you!


Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Crime, Calcutta and the End of the Raj - interview with author Abir Mukherjee

Abir Mukherjee is the author of historical crime fiction novels A Rising Man and A Necessary Evil, both set in Calcutta in the aftermath of WWI. A third novel, Smoke and Ashes, is due out next year, and he has just received a contract for another two. 

Here he talks to Catriona Troth about his inspirations, his research and his plans for the series.

As someone who began as an applied mathematician, I am always fascinated by others who have made a less-than-conventional journey into writing. Can you tell us a bit about how you got started?

Thanks so much for having me on your blog!

I suppose it was a bit of a mid-life crisis. I’m an accountant by profession and had spent the past twenty years in finance. I was thirty-nine, hurtling towards forty and I thought, maybe there might be more to life than accounting.

Then I saw an interview with Lee Child on BBC Breakfast where he talked about how, at the age of forty, he started writing, and I thought, why not? I’d always wanted to write a book but had never had the confidence, and anyway, it seemed safer than other methods of dealing with my stage of life, like buying a motorbike and piercing my ear.

I started writing A Rising Man in September 2013 and a few weeks later I came across details of the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition, looking for new and unpublished crime writers. The judges were looking for the first five thousand words of a novel, together with a two page synopsis of the whole thing. The only other stipulation was that, in keeping with Harvill Secker’s focus on the best of international crime fiction, there be some ‘international element’ to the submission. By this point I’d already written about ten thousand words, and as the plot was set in Calcutta, it seemed as though what I was writing was tailor made for the competition, so I tidied up the first few chapters, wrote the synopsis and sent off my entry. I really didn’t expect to win.


Why Calcutta and why this particular period of Indian history?

I find the period of British rule in India a particularly fascinating place and time, unique in many respects and one that’s been overlooked, especially in terms of crime fiction. I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and Britain, and it was a time that saw the best and the worst of both peoples.

I made a conscious decision to set the series in Calcutta, not just because it was the place my parents came from, but it’s a fascinating city, unique in many respects and in the period that the series is set, it was the premier city in Asia, as glamorous and exotic a location as anywhere in the world. But it was a city undergoing immense change and it was the centre of the freedom movement, a hotbed of agitation against British rule. The history of Calcutta is the history of the British in India. Their presence still cries out from its streets, its buildings and in its outlook.

It would have been harder for me to write authentically while setting it in another Indian city. While I know Bombay and Delhi quite well, I don’t speak the language. Also, I don’t think either city had the same hothouse atmosphere that Calcutta had during the period.


Your books are brim-full of period and location detail. How do you go about researching the background to your books? And conversely, how do you avoid the trap of getting so lost in the research that you forget about the writing?

My research tends to happen in several phases. In the first stage, I’ll do a lot of general reading about the time I’m hoping to write about – in the next book, Smoke and Ashes, which comes out next June, I knew I wanted to set the book in 1921, so I started my general research on that year in India. It turns out that 1921 was the year that Gandhi launched his first all-out non-cooperation campaign and that seemed really interesting to me, so I decided to set the book against that backdrop. I then narrowed my research to the effects of that campaign, both on the Raj and on Indians, so that I could get the background to the book to be as authentic as possible.

At the same time, I’m working on the plot, and deciding how to enmesh it into the period and the setting. I’ll then start writing the first draft, and that is where the next stage of research comes in. At this point it tends to be very specific, micro-issues, that are fundamental to the authenticity of the action. For example there is scene at a fairground in the new book and I needed to make sure I knew what sort of stalls and entertainments there would have been at a fair in India at that time.

You’re right though, sometimes there is the temptation to get bogged down in the research and then put as much of it as I can in the story. But then I remember that no one is likely to be interested in intricacies of things like the Calcutta sewer system.


You have two brilliant main characters – Captain Sam Wyndham, British war veteran, newly arrived in Calcutta, and Surendrenath (Surrender-Not) Banerjee, his Harrow-educated, Bengali detective sergeant. But it is Sam whom you chose as your point of view character and the voice of the narrative. Why him and not Surrender-Not?

There were a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, I needed my narrator to have access to all levels of society – from the Viceroy all the way down to the poorest sections of Calcutta society, and at that time, an Indian policeman, even one educated at Harrow and Cambridge, just wouldn’t have been able to access the British parts of that society.

At the same time, and more fundamentally, I just didn’t feel I could write authentically from an Indian’s perspective, even though my parents and heritage are Indian. I’d like to write something from Surrender-not's perspective – maybe one day when I’m more confident in my writing.


You say in your Author’s Note that A Necessary Evil was inspired by the Begums of Bhopal. Can you tell us a bit more about them, and how they triggered the kernel of your second novel?
Between 1819 and 1926 four Muslim women rulers reigned over Bhopal, the second largest Muslim state of India, despite staunch opposition from powerful neighbors and male claimants. The British East India Company also opposed female rule in Bhopal until the Begums quoted Queen Victoria as their model and inspiration.

As I researched the period, I found that these women, and others like them in other kingdoms, seem to have been very influential and somewhat forgotten by history. Often, while the maharajahs became debauched, it was the their maharanis and princesses who became the true keepers of the traditions of the kingdoms. I found this fascinating and wanted to make it a part of my story.


The line that made me laugh out loud came when Sam tells Surrender-not that Indian women are just as capable of murdering their spouses as English women. “Not Bengali women, sir,” Surrender-not replies, “They just browbeat their husbands into submission. I doubt the need for murder would arise.” Reminded me of a couple of friends of ours! I have a feeling there might be a story behind this, if you’re willing to share.

Of course!

Rather than one story, though, it’s more an amalgam of many examples I’ve seen over the years, both from my parents' generation and my own. It might be because Bengal has historically been a pretty liberal part of India, where women have played a more equal role in society than their peers in other parts of the country, be it in terms of education or workplace opportunities. Whatever the reason, Bengali women can be fearsome!

In terms of stories, probably the best illustration is the tale of the weekly poker game which my father and some of his friends used to hold most Saturdays. One of his Bengali friends who lived close by, was given strict instructions by his wife that he was not to attend as he tended to lose money most of the time. So he gave her his word that he wouldn’t. Instead he told her to go up to bed for a nap while he tidied the house. Being a clever chap, however, he simply switched on the hoover, and leaving it running, he left the house and came over to ours for the card game. Half an hour later, there was a terrible banging on the front door and an irate auntie looking for her husband, who by this time was fleeing out the back way.


I believe you have some pretty long-reaching plans for this series. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Ideally I’d like to look at the whole period of British India between the end of the First World War and Indian Independence in 1947, which is almost thirty years. I want to see how the relationships between the British and the Indians evolve during this period, and I think that will be mirrored in the changing relationship between Sam and Surrender-not.


And I think Ian Rankin has told you that you really ought to write something contemporary as well. Any temptation to follow his advice? And if so, what might you write about?

I would love to write something set in the present day, looking at issues around radicalisation of Muslim youth or some of the other problems facing British society. The problem really is one of time. I’m still working full time and my publishers, Penguin Random House have just given me a new contract for another two Sam Wyndham novels. I’d like to think that once I’ve written them, I’ll be able to take a break to write something more contemporary.

Thank you, Abir. Looking forward to reading Smoke and Ashes as soon as it comes out!

You can read Catriona Troth's reviews of A Rising Man  and A Necessary Evil on BookMuseUK.



Abir Mukherjee grew up in the West of Scotland. The son of Indian immigrants, A Rising Man, his debut novel, was inspired by a desire to learn more about a crucial period in Anglo-Indian history that seems to have been almost forgotten. The first in a series starring Captain Sam Wyndham and ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee. It won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, was a Waterstones Thriller of the Month and is currently shortlisted for both the CWA Gold and CWA Historical Daggers, and also for the HWA Debut Crown 2017. His second novel, ‘A Necessary Evil’ is out now.

You can follow him on Twitter at @radiomukhers

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Asian Writer Festival

On 21st October, the Asian Writer celebrates its 10th birthday with an all-day festival at the Royal Asiatic Society in London.

The Festival balances showcasing new writing with sessions demystifying the publishing process and workshops on novel writing, poetry and short stories.

Critically acclaimed author of The Good Children, Roopa Farooki, will be kicking off the day’s proceedings with a keynote speech, drawing on her experience of writing six novels since 2007.

In a panel entitled ‘From draft to publication,’ debut authors, Mahsuda Snaith (The Things We Thought We Knew) and Radhika Swarup (Where the River Parts) will join Penguin Write Now Live mentee Emma Smith-Barton to read from their first novels and explore the experiences of first time writers.

In ‘Meet the Gatekeepers’ literary agents Lorella Belli (Lorella Belli Literary Agency) and Juliet Pickering (Blake Friedmann) will be joined by Wasafiri deputy editor, Rukhsana Yasmin to discuss the role of agents and editors.

Best-selling crime writers Vaseem Khan and AA Dhand will be in conversation with thriller writer, Sanjida Kay to explore explore what makes good crime fiction and how writers can sustain readers interest over a series.

The launch of Dividing Lines, the Asian Writer Short Story Prize anthology, launch will bring new voices to the stage, some of whom are published for the first time.

Finally, a closing panel will look at love and marriage and whether writers exploring such themes consider it an ultimate road to happiness.


Here Catriona Troth interviews organiser Farhana Shaikh and some of the authors who are taking part.

Farhana Shaikh: founder of the Asian Writer and organiser of the festival

Congratulations on your 10th Anniversary! Looking back, what were your goals when you started The Asian Writer? And what are your aims for the next ten years?

Thank you. I wanted to create a platform to showcase new writing as well as raise the profile of published writers. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure back then where an online magazine could lead and I certainly didn’t think I’d be setting up a small press publishing company.

Our aims for the next ten years are to work more closely with writers on developing their work and continue to platform and publish these writers, on our site and through our anthologies. One of the features of the network which excites me most is that a significant proportion of our traffic now comes from South Asia, so I’m looking at ways we can develop partnerships in India and Pakistan to better engage this audience.

How did the idea for The Asian Writer Festival come about?

I think I always knew I wanted to do something to mark our tenth anniversary, which fell in August this year but I wasn’t sure whether that should be a publication of some sort or an event. I’ve been running the Leicester Writes Festival since 2014, and it’s always a lovely space to meet writers and better understand their needs. A festival dedicated to showcasing new and established British Asian voices seemed like a great way to bring people together and celebrate their work and ours.

The programme is an interesting mix of showcasing new writing on the one hand, and providing illumination on the publishing process for inspiring writers on the other. Tell us something about the thinking behind that.

Programming the festival was always going to be a challenge. I tried to find a balance between what would appeal to our readership (who are mainly writers) but also tempt a wider audience to discover exciting new voices.

*****

From: Up-lit to grip-lit: the new faces of crime fiction
Vaseem Khan – author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series

 

Baby Ganesh is a delight – but where did the inspiration for his eccentric partnership with Inspector Chopra spring from?

You could say this partnership was born on my first day in India, back in 1997 when I went out there to work as a management consultant. I was in a taxi and we stopped at a traffic junction. As I looked out into the passing passing traffic of honking rickshaws, honking trucks, bikes, people, cows, goats, and dogs I saw, lumbering through the chaos, an enormous grey Indian elephant. This surreal sight stuck with me and eventually became a part of the crime novel I wrote when I returned to England ten years later.

You’re a British author writing novels set in modern day Mumbai. Why there, and how would you describe your relationship with the city?

I lived in Mumbai for a decade, and for me it remains the most dazzling city on the subcontinent. The place is a non-stop assault on the senses. I’ve tried to encapsulate this in my books, to give readers an idea of what Mumbai looks like, feels like, sounds like, smells like, and even tastes like. My aim was always to take readers on this journey to the heart of modern India, a place that is undergoing immense change, with globalisation bringing money and sweeping cultural transformation. Yet at the same time it is a place beset by ancient problems such as poverty and caste prejudice. This dynamic between old and new gives me a unique canvas. As someone who loves crime fiction set in exotic locations I wanted to use this to give readers something different.

The Baby Ganesh series comes from the lighter end of the crime fiction spectrum – but you don’t shy away from showing us the poverty and deprivation that lives alongside Mumbai’s prosperity. Did that balance between tone and subject matter come naturally, or did you struggle initially to find the right voice?

I always set out to create a sort of 'gritty cosy crime'. Inspector Chopra is a serious man, and the crimes he tackles are serious crimes, murder, kidnapping, robbery. His elephant sidekick offers light relief, as you suggest, but I always intended for the books to showcase both the light and dark of modern India. This reflects my own experiences there. When I first went to Mumbai, every aspect of the city was exotic and different. However, once I’d spent some time there I began to see that there were aspects of this amazing place that required me to put aside my rose-tinted spectacles and take a closer look. My first trip to the Daravi slum for instance left me open-mouthed. Poverty is endemic, but what is more endemic is the acceptance of poverty, of poor sanitation, of very limited medical facilities, of terrible transport infrastructure, all the things we take for granted in the West. There is a massive gap between rich and poor, and although social change is taking place there are still ancient prejudices ingrained in people’s thinking. Chopra and I both worry about such things - in effect, his voice is my voice!

*****

From: First time writers: From draft to publication
Radhika Swarup, author of Where the River Parts

 

Hi Radhika. Nice to talk to you again, one year on from the Triskele Lit Fest. It must have been an interesting year for you, with all the attention given to the 70th anniversary of Partition. Has it led to any new discoveries about what happened back then?

Lovely to hear from you, Catriona. This year has been poignant, not just for the milestone it represents, but also for the memories it unearths. While things are getting more political - and more polarised - on both sides of the border I have written about, it is interesting that the same hand-wringing was followed by increased political machismo twenty years ago. Where the River Parts draws to a close 50 years after Partition, when both India and Pakistan embark on their nuclear programmes. This, the 70th anniversary of both Independence and Partition, is also serving as a forum for families to talk and share their individual histories. While Independence is, and should be the main story, the generation that lived through the Partition is now reaching the end of its life. It is essential these stories are handed down while there is still time.

Your protagonist, Asha, is very young at the start of the novel – feisty for the times, but by modern standards, very much constrained by rules and conventions. How did you find the right voice for her?

We are all subject to the constraints and prejudices of of the times we live in, and Asha was no exception. Her head is kept covered at the start of the novel, and she is expected to marry her parents' - and crucially, her father's - choice, but if you examine the path she leads, she has great agency. She survives a very tough journey into a new country and settles into a hostile household. She chooses not to be defined by her disappointments. She is a true survivor, able to make her way in whichever environment she finds herself in, and though she has her quirks, her impetuousness chief among them, it was a privilege to be able to inhabit her world.

Tell us about your writing routine.

My writing routine is largely defined by two variables. My children and my relationship with my Work in Progress. If I'm in the middle of writing a draft, I find it easiest to wake at 4am to write while the house is quiet. The children rise around 6, and as winter draws in, closer to 7, and we're all in a rush to finish off breakfast, homework, music practice, gather the football cards my eldest loves to trade, and deposit them both safely - and gratefully - to school. Then I write again from 9am to pick up time, and after they're in bed.

Are you now writing a second book, and how does that differ from tackling a first novel?


I'm working now on my second novel, and the main difference to writing my first is that I now know and am comfortable with my habits. I know to adhere to the schedule I've described above, but everything else - the uncertainty while you plot, the frenzy when you actually get down to the writing, and the visceral disdain for your work when you first read it back - remains the same. I think that's what keeps you going as a writer, and that's what keeps you striving to improve.

*****

From: Love and marriage in fiction: a road to happiness?
Radhika Kapur

You’ve written advertising copy and worked as a ghost writer as well as writing your own short stories. How does the writing process differ in these three media?

Well, in my work in advertising I write in a brand's voice. After a few years of doing that, I was bursting to write in my own. That's when I turned to short stories. Also, advertising is about influencing human behaviour, short stories are about human behaviour.

Of course, each medium requires a different skill set and also overlaps with and enriches the other. That's what I love about it. My work as a copywriter has taught me the power of strong, bold ideas and of editing - I usually have just one headline or thirty seconds to make my point. The more you chisel it, the sharper it gets. That's what you need to do in short stories too.

Short fiction lets me explore fleeting nuances of everyday life. It's a photograph of an emotion, a time, a moment. 


I read your short story, ‘The Nine-Headed Ravan,’ in the anthology Love Across a Broken Map last year. It’s a beautiful and ironic study of the nature of love. Where did the concept for that story come from?

From bits and pieces of my own life and my own relationships. As a young woman, I would try pinning down love, defining it and boxing it - but love is the annoyingly shaped object that won't fit into any gift box. The nine-headed Ravan actually exists - it was painted by my mother! As the story grew, the role of the painting as a metaphor also grew

I thought it would be interesting to explore a character who is anal about the truth and words. As a writer, I can be like that. I take words very seriously. Which is why my husband is always in trouble!


To echo the question being asked in the panel, what do writers gain and lose in writing about love?

The more honestly we talk about relationships and love, the more we all gain. There are so many manufactured, sugary-icing versions that sit inside our brains.

The only thing I lose is that I expose a very deep, private side of myself, while writing. But, that's ok. How is there to be any meaningful conversation otherwise?

*****

From: Dividing Lines Book Launch
Farrah Yusuf

I was very moved by your story ‘By Hand’ in Love Across a Broken Map. It encapsulated the loneliness of modern urban life. Where did the inspiration for that story come from?

Thank you, that is lovely to hear. I wanted to explore how we all connect - be that through a place, in person or remotely and the assumptions we often make from the little information we have. I decided to use the form of letters rather than email or texts because I rarely get handwritten notes anymore and when I do I always think they say so much more than just the words on the page. I decided to set the story in a flat in a city because I find it interesting that we can all be so close physically but mentally remote.


You’re a playwright as well as a short story writer. How does the writing process differ between the stage and the page? 

If I am writing a play I am always thinking about what the action is and what is happening in each sentence, as to even move a character from one side of a stage to another there needs to be a reason. In short stories on the other hand I can indulge in descriptions and move a character in both place and time with a single sentence. I enjoy both as they let me experiment with words in differing ways.

What can you tell us about the new anthology, Dividing Lines

 What strikes me most about it is the spectrum of ideas it explores on the same theme of borders, boundaries and belonging. Each story takes a unique take on the theme and the subtleties within it without straying too far from that central concept. Mine takes a broad interpretation as my story is about a missing father and the way his disappearance impacts on the other characters.

An all-day festival ticket costs £30. Workshops need to be booked separately.

For more information about the festival, for images or quotes or to interview any of the authors featuring at the festival please contact Farhana Shaikh at f.shaikh@dahliapublishing.co.uk or on 074321 29371

Festival box office: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-asian-writer-festival-tickets-37684746090



Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Ration your research

By Susanna Beard, author of psychological thriller, Dare to Remember published by Legend Press

Research can be fun! Yes, you read that right. It may be daunting at first, when you need to get going from a standing start and you really don’t know where to look, but researching for a novel can add real depth and interest to your story – and it’s deeply satisfying, too.

Some people absolutely love the process of researching their story idea. They might start online, as I did, and soon find themselves deeply immersed. It’s easy to get side-tracked. Some writers, anxious about getting down to the writing, spend a huge amount of time researching, delaying the moment of putting fingers to keyboard. Their research might be stunning, but it’s no good if they struggle to get to the writing.

I prefer to do it the other way round – I start writing, and when I reach a point when I need to research, I do it then. But even then I don’t let it take over from the writing. I might go back and add to the research later, but as long as I’ve confirmed that the key elements of my story are believable, I plough on.

Let’s assume you have, broadly, your idea for a novel. The story comes from your imagination and your personal experience and has a beginning, a middle and an end. (Well, possibly not an end – yet - if you’re anything like me. Or even a middle!). The research adds to and enhances the story, and you’re gathering knowledge in addition to your own to give it authenticity.

Without authenticity your story will fall at the first hurdle. That first hurdle comes when your reader stops believing in your character, event, place, business, historical period or theme. Your reader will be turned off the story and may never finish. So you need to research the facts around your story to give it depth – to make it believable.

Even if your story is a fantasy, it needs authenticity, through character development, a sense of place and time, and consistency. Your research might involve how people react, or how a material, like wood for example, might behave. It won’t matter if your monsters from outer space behave like humans but it will matter if your humans – all of them - behave like monsters from outer space. Our imaginations can soar, but our stories need to be grounded by (some) research.

If your character suffers from depression, you need to know about it. You need to know how she would look and speak, what her thought processes might be. My protagonist in my debut novel, Dare to Remember, Lisa, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, and she has therapy throughout the book. I researched this by reading about depression – case studies were particularly useful – by talking to therapists, especially those with experience in PTSD, and by listening to their language. It’s all in the book.

But at the same time, it’s not all in the book. One of the big dangers of researching for your novel will be that you’ve put all that time and energy into finding out the facts around your story that you don’t want to waste it. You feel compelled to put it into the narrative. Don’t. The danger is that it will change the pace of the story, bring the reader up short and look like you’re trying too hard to prove you know all about your subject. As a reader I can see when a writer wants to demonstrate their knowledge – about language in a historical era, about the geography of a place, about a real event from the past – and I tend to skip over it.

We need – as writers and as readers – to inhabit our stories. That means, as writers, we need to absorb our research, bringing it in to the story with a light touch and only when it’s appropriate. It needs to be an integral part of the backdrop of the story.

A simple example: my therapist, for example, in Dare to Remember, has a certificate on his wall, showing that he was qualified. I knew he would, from my research. I also knew what he would have needed to do to gain his qualification. But I didn’t need to tell my readers all that – it would have been too much information. All they needed to know, obliquely, was that he was ‘proper.’ He became more real because of that small detail.

So research is important, yes. It gives you credibility and confidence, and your story authenticity. But it needs to be handled with care, woven into the story where it can demonstrate its value in subtle ways. Your readers won’t even notice it, but they will believe your story.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Dark Chapter: An Interview with author Winnie M Li

Winnie M Li's Dark Chapter is a remarkable book - a fictionalised account of her own brutal rape that explores not only the victim's trauma and recovery, but delves deep into the mind of the perpertrator too. Here she talks to Catriona Troth about the genesis of the novel and her own journey to recovery.

To begin somewhere slightly ‘off centre’, I was fascinated to read that you did your dissertation on Dervla Murphy. I read her Tales from Two Cities, about her experiences in Bradford and Birmingham in the early 1980s, when I was researching my own novel. She is a remarkable woman – an independent spirit to say the least! Can you tell us a bit about what drew you to her


So I’ve always been intrigued by travel, even before I was old enough to really travel on my own. I studied for an MA in English at University College Cork in Ireland, 2000-2001, and the focus of the course was Gender and Sexuality in Irish Writing. Most work by Irish women authors seemed largely to explore stories of repressed daughters and housewives in the Irish countryside — and I found this kind of depressing and difficult to relate to. So my professor (the excellent Pat Coughlan) suggested Dervla Murphy to me. Here was an Irish woman who in 1963 decided to cycle from France to Afghanistan entirely on her own. Now that sense of adventure — that desire to explore the world and embrace uncertainty was something I could definitely connect with. I was in heaven reading her travel writing — and the dissertation was actually a joy to write.


You have written very openly about the fact that you were raped in Belfast in 2008. What happens to Vivian in the book follows almost step by step what happened to you in real life. Why did you chose to write about your experience as fiction, and yet on the other hand to stick so closely to the actual events, rather than allow yourself a bit of creative distance?

I get asked a lot why I decided to write this book as fiction and not as memoir. There’s a few reasons for that. One is that there are already a number of excellent ‘rape memoirs’ out there, which were a great help to me in the year immediately after my assault (After Silence by Nancy Venable Raine and Lucky by Alice Sebold come to mind). I didn’t think I’d be contributing anything new to the field if I just wrote another rape memoir. So what I really wanted to do was explore the character of a young perpetrator, writing his perspective, and intertwine that story with the that of the victim. And that was something I could only do in fiction, since my real-life rapist was a complete stranger to me. Writing Johnny’s perspective was quite a creative leap, so I felt if Vivian’s experience closely echoed my own, that would at least ground the project a bit for me. In other words, Vivian’s sections wouldn’t require such a stretch of the imagination and could offer a bit of creative ‘rest.’


So as you say, Dark Chapter is written from two alternating perspectives. As well as walking us in Vivian’s steps, you delve deep into the mind of her attacker – the last place one would imagine you would want to go. Why was it important for you that you included Johnny’s perspective?

Yes, it would be an entirely different book without Johnny’s perspective, and probably a book that would have held much less interest for me to write. By writing Johnny in an empathetic way, I was trying to push the boundaries of what I felt capable of thinking and feeling as both a writer and a survivor. I also feel that we as a society need to start thinking of perpetrators as human beings whose experiences, upbringings, personalities, etc somehow lead to sexually violent behaviour — they are not born ‘monsters.’ If we’re not willing to understand the contributing factors that lead to perpetrators’ behaviour, we’re never going to be able to prevent this crime from happening in the future.
 

It must have been a very different, but equally painful process to delve back into your own experience. How did you deal with that as a writer, and how did you deal with it personally?

Writing Vivian’s sections was a very different process, but being able to switch back and forth between writing Vivian and Johnny kept things interesting, less monotonous, and less painful for me as a writer. Yes, it was difficult emotionally for me to relive some of the worst episodes in my life, which I had to do in writing Vivian’s trauma, PTSD, and depression. As a writer, using the close-third perspective offered a bit of distance, and this made it possible to look back on my own lived trauma and try to re-frame it as fiction. I also experimented to see how the language could best reflect the sense of isolation and fragmentation that Vivian undergoes at certain moments. Personally, I guess I cried a lot when writing some of these sections! But there was also a slight sense of power gained because I could tell myself: ‘Look, I went through that, but it’s over now. And now I can gain mastery over that experience by transforming it into fiction.’


I believe you wrote the first few paragraphs which were to grow into Dark Chapter just a few weeks after the attack. A few years later, this became an essay published in a book called Sushi and Tapas: Stories By and Of Young Women, for the charity Women for Women International. What prompted those first attempts to put things in writing? How did that differ from writing the novel?

Actually the essay in Sushi and Tapas was entirely different writing from Dark Chapter. That was written as short-form memoir, in first-person, present tense. So it was entirely open and up-front about my experience as lived truth, as reality. It’s true: the prologue of Dark Chapter was written just a few weeks after my attack, and that sparked the idea for the book (the intertwining perspectives of victim and perpetrator). Even though I knew I would have to wait years before I was ready to write this book. Writing for me has always been my way of making sense of the world — I’ve been writing since the age of 6. So it’s impossible for me to not write about things, especially something as momentous as my own rape. But still, the Sushi and Tapas essay was much more direct in portraying my own experience. It didn’t require any research. As fiction, Dark Chapter is significantly more crafted; I had to think a lot about creating character, plot, tension. I experimented with language, I researched heavily. That’s why it took two years to write!


In 2014, you returned to Belfast for the first time since the trial to begin the research for Dark Chapter. What was it like for you to go back? Have you been able to make some peace with the city?

At first, I was terrified at the thought of returning to Belfast. I associated it so closely to my trauma that hearing a Belfast accent would make me nauseous. But I also knew I couldn’t write the novel effectively if I didn’t go back to do that research. So even though I dreaded it, I forced myself to go back. I found that the people of Belfast whom I interviewed were incredibly kind and generous, and bit by bit, I was able to overlay those traumatic memories of the city with much warmer, friendlier ones. Now, I feel perfectly comfortable returning to Belfast and having made a lot of friends there, I even consider it sort of a secondary home.


Your own attacker pleaded guilty, which at least spared you the trauma of examination and cross-examination in public court. But as part of your research you attended trials where this was not the case. What did you learn about the way victims (‘complainants’, in the court jargon) are treated? And how would you like to see that change?

The court procedure really does not value the well-being of victims, and the main argument of the defence is to completely undermine the credibility of the victim’s story. This is incredibly insulting and damaging to a victim, and does not help with recovery. In addition, the prospect of testifying in public, in front of one’s own perpetrator is horrifying. This fear can be very disruptive to rebuilding a victim’s life. In the ideal world, victims would not have to face their perpetrators in court, there would be counselling support available for victims as they go through the criminal justice process, and the whole style of cross-examination would be handled differently. I’m also not a fan of trial by jury with these kinds of crimes, as I think the public harbours some very problematic misperceptions of how a victim should talk, behave, or even look in the case of rape. None of this is actually relevant as to whether or not a perpetrator committed the crime or not, and yet the victim is often judged. 


You clearly believe in the importance of art and creativity as a way of talking about rape and removing the stigma around you. A few years ago you co-founded the Clear Lines Festival aimed to “create a space in which to talk about rape and sexual assault.” Can you tell us some more about that?


I actually started Clear Lines when I was in the middle of writing Dark Chapter. I was feeling very lonely and isolated during all that writing, and I wanted to do something that could maybe combat that isolation and bring together all these artists, writers, activists, and survivors on the issue of sexual assault. I had started to realise how much art was being created to challenge this topic, and how many people out there wanted to engage with that art and not feel as alone. So if I could create some kind of platform or space for artists and audiences to come together, then that could be a positive, healing step in the right direction. It would also allow us to celebrate the value of creativity and community in addressing this issue.


I believe you now consider yourself a survivor, as opposed to a victim. You have even written, “the experience contains the potential for regrowth and recovery, the way a broken bone mends itself to become even stronger” – a remarkable and inspiring statement. If you could speak to the young Vivian now – perhaps the one sleeping on the floor by that window overlooking the Thames because she cannot cope with being shut inside her bedroom – what would you say to her?

It gets better. You won’t always be trapped by the trauma. You’ll be able to travel again, to live again, to enjoy the world again — and one day, you’re going to publish a book about this.


And is there anything you would say to Johnny, if you thought he was ready to listen?

Don’t be so mean to people. Stop and consider their perspectives. Because people are willing to consider yours.

Thank you, Winnie! We wish you every success with the book.


Winnie M Li is an author and activist. Her debut novel, DARK CHAPTER, was published June 1st by Legend Press and will be translated into seven languages. It is currently shortlisted for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, and was 2nd place in the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2016 and Highly Commended for the CWA Debut Dagger 2015. A Harvard graduate, Winnie previously wrote for travel guide books, produced independent feature films, and programmed for film festivals. After earning an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, she now writes across a range of media, runs arts festivals, and is a PhD researcher in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. She lives in London yet is somewhat addicted to travel. http://winniemli.com Twitter: @winniemli