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. Twitter: @winniemli

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

In Conversation with Lisa Jewell

By JJ Marsh

If I were a bookseller, I’d say you’re hard to categorise. Now you’ve gone and made it even harder with Then She Was Gone. Do you purposely try to stay out of a box/ off a particular shelf? 

I don’t really do anything on purpose. I often wish I did. Then She Was Gone has been such a brilliant success and not only that, almost universally liked by everyone who’s read it that I would love to be able to purposely write something that could replicate that reception. But it’s impossible. Books are so nebulous and I don’t plan or plot so really I just start at point A and end up at point B with no real idea how I got there. I think my publishers have found it quite awkward publishing me at times. I have had a sense over the years of oh God, what have you brought us this time; back to the drawing board everyone! But as a team we are trying very hard now to stay on one shelf which means, I think, that I will need to keep killing off characters so that I can be published in the thriller genre.

Since your arrival onto the literary scene in the 90s, your life has changed in all kinds of ways. How does your own personal development trigger your work?

When I wrote my first novel I was newly divorced and newly in love with someone else, I was twenty seven and kind of directionless. But incredibly, deeply happy. So although I have always loved dark themes – I love reading books about serial killers and skipped quite happily through American Psycho – at that time I was more hormonally and emotionally geared towards writing light-hearted romances. Then I got married again, had a baby, lost my mother, had another baby, went through a long period of time when my husband was physically disabled and of course I got older and more experienced and braver in many ways. So yes, life does definitely inform and shape the things you want to write about and getting older gives you the confidence to push boundaries.

Looking back over my well-thumbed paperbacks, you seem to be less of a ‘write what you know’ author and more of a ‘write what you’re curious about’. A fair assessment?

This is mainly true with some grand exceptions. After The Party was a very closely fictionalised account of the pressures a second baby brought to bear onto my own marriage, Joy’s marriage to George in Vince & Joy was almost 90% the story of my own first marriage and The Girls was set in a communal garden exactly like the one I live on in London. But generally, yes, I feel a sense of curiosity about something and then find a way to explore that curiosity via story-telling. Obsessive hoarding disorder was a perfect example of that. I looked through a dirty window into a hoarded house one afternoon and thought; god, who on earth lives in there, how did they end up living like this and what impact must it have had on their family? Then I went home and started writing The House We Grew Up In.

One characteristic I associate with you and your writing is empathy. Not only do you identify and understand some difficult characters, but you ask your readers to do the same.

Yes, absolutely. I feel sad, for example, that a lot of readers didn’t see the two sides to Lily in I Found You. I tried so hard to make her nuanced and not just a two dimensional cold-hearted witch. But the majority of readers disliked her and found her gaucheness and abruptness impossible to get past. I thought she was really funny and just trying her hardest in a terrible situation in a strange country with no cultural cues to help her. And this was why I took the reader straight into the heart of Noelle in Then She Was Gone. I couldn’t see the point of writing about a person doing a terrible thing unless you could make the reader at least attempt to understand why they might have done it. Otherwise you’re just creating characters to move the story along, not to give the story layers. That seems a wasted opportunity to me.

The trauma behind Then She Was Gone must have put you, as a parent, through the wringer. Did you cry in the coffee shop while you were writing?

No, the traumatic bits didn’t make me cry. I’m pretty hardcore when it comes to things like that and if I can read a book about Fred and Rose West and what their victims went through without crying or feeling traumatised then I can most definitely write about a made-up thing happening to a made-up person without finding it too gruelling. But the epilogue was a last-minute decision. I wrote it after my first big edit of the book and I still cry every time I read the last line.

You’ve got a pretty disciplined routine of 1000 words a day and you say you’re not a plotter, more an explorer of ideas. Do think the real alchemy is in the first draft or the editing?

It’s very much a mix of the two. The first draft is the world you’ve created and if you get that right then you know you’re onto something. The edit is where you make sense of the world, put it all into the right order. I love editing. I don’t do much as I go – apart from the occasional really dramatic excising of thousands of words or a whole storyline – but once I get the manuscript back from my editor covered in post notes and paperclips I get really intensely into it to the point of not noticing what time it is. And yes, that is when the magic really happens.

It’s coming up to 20 years since Ralph’s Party was published. In what ways has the world of publishing changed over two decades, in your view? And is it better for readers and authors?

Publishing has become much more risk averse. No one, for example, would have picked EL James’s 50 Shades books from the slush pile these days. That only got published because of the huge online success it had had. I think of the late 90s, when my first book was bought and published, as a kind of heyday for publishing – there was a lot of money flying about and publishers were really keen to try new things and see what took off. Nowadays they tend to want to replicate what’s gone before and pay less when they do take a risk. But the book world as a whole is incredible right now – social media has brought authors, readers and publishers together into the same sphere and there are so many forums for people to share their passions. Being a reader has become much less of solitary pastime and more of a wonderful universal experience.

E.B. White in Charlotte's Web said “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer”. I suspect you’d disagree, as you have a wonderful circle of authors as friends. How important is it to have an understanding group of writing mates for you?

It is hugely, enormously important and again, a situation for me which has been facilitated greatly by the internet and social media. When I was first published and the internet was quite a fresh, new place, a writer’s husband set up something for a group of us called a ‘chat room’! We’re still on it, twenty years later and out of that core group of people have come more groups and sub-groups and every time you do an event you’re meeting new authors and they get absorbed into your circle and we all use each for support and reassurance and wine and nights out and it is just brilliant. My writer friends are one of the best – and most unexpected - things to have come out of my career. And no, there is no competition between us. Readers buy up to 50 books a year so there’s plenty of the market to go round and the more good books there are out there the better for all of us.

Last question - best of three. Which book affected you most as a teenager? What’s been your best read of the year? Which book is your comfort read?

I barely read as a teenager. I just listened to the radio and wrote letters to pen-pals. But in my pre-teen years I read like an animal, anything and everything, under the covers into the early hours. My biggest passion then was Agatha Christie – I read four of her books a week and once I’d exhausted her oeuvre I sort of stopped reading until I was in my 20s. My best read this year I suspect I have not read yet as I have five amazing books lined up for a week in Tenerife in October all of which I am expecting to completely blow me away. But thus far I have adored The Vanishing Act of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase and, in the thriller genre, Here and Gone by Haylen Beck. I don’t re-read books so I don’t have a comfort read. If I were to re-read something from the past it would probably be The Country Life by Rachel Cusk; so incredibly funny.

Then She Was Gone is a Sunday Times Number 1 Bestseller – available now (Century Hardback, £12.99)

Read JD Smith's review on Bookmuse

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Long Road to Publication - Part One

When First Page Competition Winner Andy Smith contacted us to ask our suggestions for what next, we gave him a bunch of ideas and had one of our own. Why not share a diary with Words with JAM readers, detailing his progress from competition winner to published author? Happily he agreed. 
You can read Andy's winning First Page here 

I’m Andy Smith, the still shell-shocked winner of the First Page competition. I’ve officially got a good opening page, plus some great feedback from Alison Morton. But how do I know if the rest of the novel is any good? I could enter more competitions: Best Second Page, Best Third Page, etc. I reckon I would need 194 more competitions to get the end of the book, which might take a while. So I think I’ll try a different approach.

I’ve been working on editing, tidying up, sorting out and general polishing of the whole novel (not just the first page) for quite some time now. I’ve got a number of beta readers who’ve provided comments – good and bad – which I’ve incorporated. And, most importantly, I’m a member of a writing group who provide serious critiques and criticisms when required.

(Aside: in my humble opinion, if you want to improve your writing, the best thing you can do is join a writing group. Pick which one you join carefully though: not one where everybody goes “Yes Mabel, that’s wonderful” to everything they hear. You want one where people will point out flaws and tell you honestly when things aren’t working. I’m in South Manchester Writers’ Workshop, something I mention as a thank you to the folks there rather than as a plug – we haven’t got room for any more members at the moment! However, there are lots of other groups out there. End of aside.)

As a result of all the above, I think my whole novel is now in a sufficiently good state to try and get published. That’s the next step. One giant leap sideways for crab kind.

Important decision time. Do I send it off to agents and publishers and fight the uphill battle against rejection letters? Or do I self-publish, and fight the (possibly even more uphill) battle of making it stand out from the 47 billion other self-published books?

Answer: dunno. I think I’ll try both, and pick the brains of the good people at Words With Jam for their ideas on the self-publishing route. As you’ve probably gathered from the competition results, this is a comic fantasy novel which mixes a few other things together, and thereby gives agents a bit of a dilemma. (Doubtless more on that in future posts.) But if I self-publish I’ve got to sort out a professional editor, someone to do the cover, etc, etc. Why do I get the feeling this where the hard part starts?

Another thing I’m going to need to do is consider a pseudonym. When my Mum and Dad were naming their children they never thought about one of them trying to be an author. Hence I’ve been lumbered with ‘Andy Smith’, which is about as noticeable as ‘A. Nonymous.’ I could try Eric Blair, perhaps? Dorothy Parker? Peter Parker? My spider sense is telling me that none of them would be right.

Watch this space.

About Andy:

I was born in Liverpool but now live in Manchester.
The people there are great, but we don’t talk about football.

I work as a project manager for a software company, which really is every bit as exciting as it sounds.

Writing is what keeps me sane.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

60 Seconds with Susan Grossey

By Gillian Hamer

Susan Grossey was brought up in Singapore, graduated from Cambridge University in 1987 with a degree in English, and then taught secondary English for two years before realising that the National Curriculum was not for her. She became a technical author and realised money laundering was a topic that could keep her interest for years – and so it has proved.

 Since 1998, she has been self-employed as an anti-money laundering consultant, providing training and strategic advice and writing policies and procedures for clients in many countries. As part of her job, she has written several non-fiction books with exciting titles like “Money Laundering: A Training Strategy”, “The Money Laundering Officer’s Practical Handbook” and “Anti-Money Laundering: A Guide for the Non-Executive Director”.

However, even this is not enough financial crime for her, and in her spare evenings and weekends writes fiction – but always with financial crime at the heart of it. Susan lives in central Cambridge, with husband Paul, no children (by choice) and a tabby moggy called Maggie (short for Magnificat). When not writing, Susan enjoys reading, knitting, or pedalling madly on the back of a tandem.

Hello, Susan, tell us a little about you and your writing.

It all started with my day job: I am an anti-money laundering consultant, which means that I advise people on how to avoid criminal money. I have become absolutely fascinated by what criminals do with their money, and when I decided to just knuckle down and write that novel, of course financial crime was at the heart of it. I am writing a series of seven novels, set in consecutive years in 1820s London, which have as their narrator a magistrates’ constable called Sam Plank. And – would you believe this coincidence? – he is fascinated by financial crime.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

For me, it is the chance to escape into the past – I find it all but impossible to stop researching and start writing, as I could read all day long. I also like having control over events, particularly in these rather turbulent times. It’s not always straightforward, but Sam generally gets his man, which is reassuring.

And the worst? 

Sometimes it can be a bit lonely: left to my own devices, I can spend days on end living in the past, which is not always good for current relationships! And – of course – the fear of finding that, despite evidence to the contrary, I can’t write any more…

Why did you choose your genre? 

Well, don’t tell my (engineer) husband, but I have a bit of a thing for policemen! I am particularly keen on the ones who use their brains to untangle tricky cases. And I noticed that although there are plenty of Regency romance novels, and more Victorian detectives than you can shake a truncheon at, no-one else has written about a Regency sort-of detective.

Do you have a special writing place? 

I have two. Most of the time I am in our back bedroom, looking over the little garden and our neighbours’ roofs. And if I am treating myself, I go to the Cambridge University Library and install myself on the fifth floor of the north wing. All the books there are about chemistry, so I’m not tempted to browse, but I love being surrounded by all that knowledge. And if I’m stuck for a character name, I just look at the book spines – chemists are probably over-represented in my books!

Which four writers would you invite to a dinner party? 

All of my favourites, so that I could gush and fawn: Elizabeth Goudge, Robertson Davies, Stan Barstow and Michael Bond. I doubt they’ve met before, and they’re not exactly competitors, so they should have plenty to discuss. And it would distract them from my awful cooking.

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

I can’t imagine writing a modern book, but I might give a slightly historical epistolary novel a go. I do like to have a framework rather than a blank page, which is the attraction of books requiring lots of research.

What do you know now you wish you’d known at the start of your writing journey? 

That it is remarkably difficult to get reviews – even one-sentence ones on Amazon from friends and family!

What is your proudest writing achievement to date? 

The self-publication of the first Sam Plank novel, “Fatal Forgery”. Once I knew that I could do it, the others were inevitable. But that first step was enormous.

What are your future writing plans? 

I have published four Sam Plank novels: “Fatal Forgery”, “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat”, “Worm in the Blossom” and “Portraits of Pretence”. I am now in the throes of writing “Plank 5” (not the final title!), and books six and seven in the series are plotted. I can’t even bring myself to think about what I will do once Sam retires, as he must in 1829 (when the Metropolitan Police was formed).

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