Monday 20 August 2018

Guest Interview With Sue McDonagh

Today, I’m thrilled to be chatting to my writing buddy, Sue McDonagh. I first met Sue in 2014 when we both joined a new writing group in Cowbridge. I like to think we hit it off straightaway and, that November, we supported each other through the ups and downs of our very first NaNoWriMo. Sadly, the writing group is no longer but Sue and I still meet up regularly to talk about all things 'writerly' . . . and other things, of course. Sue’s debut novel, Summer at the Art Cafe, was published by Choc Lit on Tuesday 15th May.

Sue, welcome. Can you tell us what inspired you to write Summer at the Art Cafe?

Hi Jan, and thank you so much for having me! The inspiration behind Summer at the Art Café was my own journey towards passing my motorbike test, nearly a decade ago. Was it really that long ago? It still seems like only yesterday. Learning a new skill when you’re, *cough* older, is probably always going to be a challenge, particularly one which exposes you to the constant danger of being squashed by inattentive drivers. It certainly does sharpen up your driving responses though, and I really enjoyed the thrill of learning to control such an exciting vehicle as safely as possible. 
Belonging to Curvy Riders, an all ladies motorcycle club, brought me in touch with amazing women from all walks of life from over the UK, and the seed of the novel germinated. 

Perhaps, you’d like to tell us how you got the book published. 
Having joined the Romantic Novelists' Association under their New Writers' Scheme, I hammered my novel into shape and submitted it for their assessment. ‘Submit it’, they advised, so I began the process of sending to agents and publishers, along with carefully considered covering letters and synopses. During that time, I also sent it to publishers ChocLit, for consideration in their Search for a Star competition. Months passed before I heard from them, and no-one was more surprised than me to hear it had been shortlisted. I didn’t win, but it turns out that I was a mere one point behind the winner. ‘Did I have a second book ready to go?’ they asked. I did, but it was unfinished and I thought, pretty awful. Then my lovely mum died, and I found it really difficult to get on with finishing it. My writer friends urged and kicked me in the nicest way to the finish line, and I’m delighted to say that ChocLit signed me for both books. 
The euphoria of being an almost published writer lasted for a couple of months, until I received the edits. 

I was totally not prepared for: ‘Don’t like the beginning, or the end. Or the middle. Needs a total re-write.’Along with eight pages of closely packed criticism . . .
Put it in ‘the freezer’, I was advised. I did, and it didn’t look any better when I took it out a week or more later. I truly wondered whether I was cut out to do this. Christmas was rushing towards us, and I had a deadline of Feb 1st. I doubted myself. I doubted my editor! What could she possibly know? I’m writing this in complete honesty, because I hope it will help some of you who will most certainly experience this in your publishing journey.
Eventually, I knuckled down to the extensive re-write that was required. Encouragingly, I saw my writing improve as I worked my way through. Until I got to the last portion of the novel, when I became increasingly and horribly aware that my ending wasn’t going to work any more. And the deadline loomed.
You’re too close to it. Have a break for ten days,’ my editor told me. ‘I’ll get back to you.’ Ten days of not writing? I could barely countenance it after almost two months of focused story-building. I gritted my teeth and switched to painting, while in my head I junked the entire shameful mess. I expected the very next email from my editor to say, ‘We did our best, but sorry. Better luck next time.
I was both astonished and relieved to open an email that read, ‘It’s fine, I’ve made a few suggestions, get on with it.
Where I’d flipped into disaster-mode thinking, my editor had actually read more deeply into my characters and what they wanted and my ending was back in position. So clever. I don’t think I could have actually finished that book without my editor!

I was struck by the pace of the writing in your novel. The story line kept me turning the pages yet the characters are very credible, too. Can you say which came first, the characters or the story you wanted to tell?
I’m so glad you found it pacy! I wanted it to mimic the whole excitement of learning to ride a motorbike.  Lucy represents so many of the ladies I met who told me of their learning experiences. Several readers have written to tell me that they felt I was inside their heads as they were reading! Ash is, of course, my utterly ideal hero…

Biking is very important to you and you are very much involved with Curvy Riders. How much of you is in the novel?
Hah, they tell you to write about what you know, and it’s fair to say I’ve certainly
done that with Summer at the Art Café! Lucy’s journey to master her motorbike are very much drawn from my own experiences. Along with countless other new riders, I dropped my bike so many times trying to do a U turn that I very nearly gave up. After kicking a cone over on the first part of the test, and then failing after a perfect second part of the test by dropping my bike in the snow outside the test centre, I can honestly say I have plenty of stories of my own to call on.
Having said that, Lucy developed her own character as time went on, and I constantly found myself surprised by her dialogue, as if I was simply a conduit for her voice. She and Daisy have made me laugh so many times. Writing has been a revelation in that respect. I thought I was the one in charge!

The novel is a feel-good story that up-lifts the reader yet it deals with a number of serious issues. Can you tell us why it was important for you to explore these?
My own life has been a series of dramatic highs and lows. Treated for advanced stage ovarian cancer aged 24, it changed my life and my career path. My hopes for having a family were dashed, my long term health constantly under review.
I now consider myself incredibly privileged to be owned by a wonderful, loving, extended family that includes my two boys and their daughters, and my three step-children, one of whom is about to pop another little girl into the world, and another of which has with extraordinary generosity of spirit, long-term fostered three very young children. I believe that the way we grow from these experiences shapes not only our own personalities, but also the friends and people we gather around us.
I know people in these toxic relationships, who gradually become subservient to their increasingly domineering spouses, and yet continue to hope that things will get better, that it’s just a phase. Lucy’s friends can see clearly what is happening, but the opportunity of jumping off the Gerry-directed treadmill only occurs because she wins the motorbike. Because it’s not his idea.
Riding a motorbike requires a kind of focused isolation. There is no-one else to ask. Just you, inside your helmet, and your ability to move that motorbike about. There are often scary moments, and you can’t just walk away and let someone else deal with it, because you have to sort it out there and then. With each incident, you grow a bit more in confidence, and this is what I wanted to show Lucy experiencing.
My personal experience of belonging to a big ladies only motorbike club is only briefly touched on in the novel, although I did want to show that camaraderie. Women riders are a growing minority, and although many are just as happy to ride with their menfolk, being out with your girl-friends has a different dynamic. Getting lost just makes it a curvier ride, we help each other move our bikes on slippery gravelly car parks, we find the best places to have coffee and cake, and we’re not above a spot of mooching about in shops, building sandcastles and sightseeing when we want to, either!
Like me, Lucy always wanted her own children, but when she meets Daisy, she begins to realise that long term parenting of someone else’s child is very different from a casual meeting with a little girl on her best behaviour. 
Her life was on full throttle from the minute she sat on that purple motorbike, wasn’t it?

Since the novel was published a few months ago, the reviews have been amazing, both in numbers and ratings. Can you tell us how you felt as the first ones started coming through?
I couldn’t believe how quickly the reviews came in – I wasn’t expecting that! I even had a #BestSeller flag!
I confess I was a little bit anxious as to how it would be received by ‘non-bikers’. To date, I have had over 84 mostly 5 star reviews, and most of them have been from people who’ve never ridden a motorbike. But they’re thinking about it now…
I’m so appreciative of everyone who has taken the time and effort to leave a review. I’ve read every single one, and it’s just lovely that people have warmed to the story that my characters have woven. 
Because Lucy and Ash and Daisy, they’re real people, y’know…

‘Planner’ or ‘pantser’ – which were you when you started writing and has that changed now you are a published novelist (I love saying that!)?
Even though I’m an airy-fairy artist in my other life, I know that really I’m a complete control freak, so I’m a Planner. I have colour coded spread-sheet things with my characters on, each chapter planned, the emotion arcs, everything.
I blimmin’ love a pack of coloured Sharpies, some Post It notes and a massive flipchart! Although that could be another art form, I guess…
But when I’ve planned it all, I start writing and my characters take it all off in a different direction. I go with the flow and see what happens. There’s a magical alchemy about writing, isn’t there? I can fret and worry about plot threads that aren’t working, or stop writing altogether because I over-think something, and then I start writing and somehow the words tumble out and fix themselves.
I’m not going to analyse that in case it stops happening!

You are a busy artist so I’m sure I’m not the only one to wonder where you manage to fit in your writing time. Do you have a particular writing routine?
I don’t watch much TV, and once I start writing I am able to shut everything out, so I write whenever I can. Social media is a distraction though. Also my dog, Scribble, is better than a FitBit, nudging me to take him out for a walk when he thinks I’ve been sitting about for too long.

You have a very distinctive style of painting that is so evident in the cover of Summer at the Art Café, do you have a distinctive style in your writing, too?
I read somewhere that Art is not about what I see, but what I make you see. I’d like to think that my writing makes my readers laugh but also cry a little too.

Many reviewers are saying they can’t wait for your next novel. Can you tell readers when and what to expect?
The second in the series is already written, and should be released in early Spring 2019! It’s based in the Art Café on the Welsh Gower coast, and focuses on two characters who popped up in Summer at the Art Café. There’s a gorgeous little boy, Liam, and a wonderful naughty neighbour who never failed to make me laugh, Beryl. I’m currently writing the third in the series, about a spiky heroine with a tendency to blurt. Can’t imagine who I’ve based that on…

No comment on that! 
Thank you so much, Sue. I’m thrilled to see how well your novel is doing and it’s been a privilege to watch your journey from the start.  

Summer at the Art Cafe is published by Choc Lit.  
Link to the book on Amazon:
Blog and website:
Twitter: @SueMcDonaghLit

My thoughts on Summer at the Art Cafe: ***** 5 Stars
Summer at the Art Café is a delightful read where you'll find humour and emotion. The writing is pacy with a story line that kept me turning the pages to the end. Authentic characters are well drawn with enough layering to show both their strengths and flaws. You care about what happens to them. I particularly rooted for Lucy on her journey from life with her controlling husband to become a confident self-assured woman. The resilience she showed when learning to ride her newly-won motor bike was admirable! Added to the mix was the gorgeous Ash and lovable Daisy. The novel is a feel-good story that up-lifts the reader yet it deals with a number of serious issues, too. These are handled sensitively. A book I thoroughly enjoyed reading, I can’t wait for the sequel and have no hesitation in recommending this debut novel.

Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed finding out more of the story behind Sue's debut novel.

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page. 

Monday 6 August 2018

Guest Interview with Jo Verity

Today, I’m delighted to welcome author, Jo Verity, to the blog. Jo’s sixth novel, A Different Riverwas published by Honno on Thursday 28th June and I’m very honoured that she asked to be featured on the blog.

Jo, welcome. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your writing.
Hi everyone. Thanks, Jan, for inviting me onto your blog.
I’m Jo Verity and I write contemporary, non-genre fiction. (For what it’s worth,  Amazon tags my novels as Literature & Fiction > Contemporary Fiction > Family Life.) My characters are ‘ordinary people’ struggling with the ups and downs of the twenty-first century. Like all of us, they make good and bad choices. They succeed and they fail. But mainly they keep trying. In my novels, we spend time with people a bit like us, measuring ourselves against them as they muddle through. Hilary Mantel wrote in her introduction to the wonderful The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins. ‘Apart from a war, what could be more fascinating than a marriage?’ I might be tempted to swap ‘a marriage’ for ‘a family’ – but we’re on the same track. So, marriages, families, friendships, relationships – that’s the sort of thing that I write about.   
When did you start writing?
It was March 1999. I’d arranged a rendezvous with an American friend whom I’d met in Prague in 1992 when I was travelling. Ruth (a Jewish Zen Buddhist sculptress) and I kept in touch. I’d visited her in Rhode Island and she’d come to Cardiff. We’d met a couple of times in London. Ruth and I were going to spend a week together in Budapest. At the last minute, she pulled out (she wasn’t the most reliable) leaving me with a week’s leave and nothing much to do.
We’d just bought our first PC so it was the obvious time to learn my way around it, creating and saving documents, changing fonts and layouts, altering margins – that sort of thing. For some reason – I still don’t know why – I decided to write a story and use my flaky friend as its protagonist. This would do as my practice piece. Despite being an avid reader, I had never written anything. Within five days I was hooked. All I wanted was to write. It was thrilling finally and by accident to discover the thing I really wanted to do.
(That story – Think Like a Bee – took five months to finish. It was eventually published in 2006.)  
What inspired you to write your latest novel?
I was mulling over ideas and I happened to re-read The Bridges of Maddison County. Who can resist Robert Waller’s tale of a chance meeting, instant chemistry and the soul searching this causes to its middle-aged lovers?
So I decided to write a love story. Not the juvenile, ‘moon and June’ kind, but something truthful, realistic and yet a little off-beat. A love story which I would like to read and which chimes with the complications of present-day life.
really enjoyed ‘A Different River.  It’s one of very few books I’ve read recently with an older protagonist. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Yes. And my reason is partly answered by your question. When I was writing my first novel, Everything in the Garden, I was advised by a literary agent that ‘no one wants to read a story about anyone over the age of forty’. This horrified me. The notion that no one over forty does or says anything interesting is patently untrue. Maybe it’s easier to market such stories but that’s just lazy and makes for a very blinkered take on the world. Besides, sixty is the new forty, isn’t it?

It’s not uncommon these days for someone in middle age – usually a daughter, I have to say –  to find themselves the unwilling yet dutiful lynch-pin of a four generation family. As daughter, wife, mother and grandmother they are relied upon to support so many people in so many ways. In A Different River, sixty-one year-old, Miriam, is being pulled in all directions. She has lost confidence and self-esteem and is beginning to fear she’s fading into the wallpaper. Her reaction to her loss of self is at the heart of the novel.

Your characters are very convincing and there is a real depth to them. Can you say which came first, the characters or the story you wanted to tell?
The characters. Always the characters. For the first couple of years I wrote only short stories which, by their nature, tend to be character driven. When I plucked up the courage to embark on my first novel, I tackled it as if it were a very, very long short story. It seemed to work and having found a methodology which suits the kind of narrative I write, I’ve stuck with it. I take two or three characters, set them down in a challenging situation and see what they’ll make of it. If they get too complacent, I chuck a spanner in the works. Some kind of a plot will inevitably emerge but it won’t be the kind you can write on post-it notes and stick on a timeline. When I start a novel I have absolutely no idea how it will finish. That’s both scary and exhilarating.  
Are any of the characters based on people you know?
If I’m to stand a chance of making my characters convincing to readers, I have to have total belief in them myself. They must think, speak and act exactly as they would in whatever I throw at them. I find the best way to do this is to plunder the traits and habits of people I’ve encountered, tweaking them enough to conceal my source. I have to know what my characters look like too because when I’m writing a scene I close my eyes and picture it as if I were watching a movie. I see Miriam as a cross between Emmylou Harris and Christine Lagarde, and Paul as the man in the catalogue for over-priced hiking equipment that arrives with the junk mail. Minor characters don’t have to be so precisely drawn – they can be more pencil sketch than oil painting. I can have a bit of fun with these. Exaggerate a little, make them larger than life. 
As well as telling a compelling story, you have explored a number of serious issues in the book. Would you like to tell us why these are important to you?
This sounds daft but it’s only after I’ve finished the final draft of a book that I discover what its themes are. My aim is to tell an engaging and credible story. In the course of this, my characters encounter a range of problems. I’m often surprised and delighted by how they deal with things that their fictional lives chuck at them, what rattles them and what they shrug off. It might be said that A Different River raises questions about responsibility, loyalty, self-awareness, the unreliability of memory but I’d prefer readers to decide for themselves what its themes are.    

It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I fully understood why it’s called Different River. How long did it take to come up with such a wonderfully apt title?
It seemed cold blooded to refer to work in progress as ‘Novel number 6’ so I had a couple of generic-type titles in mind but I was on the lookout for something more pertinent. As I wrote on, the story began taking unexpected turns. The way in which Miriam’s past, or rather her recollection of it, related to the present became the driving narrative thread. I recalled reading something that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (apparently!) said: ‘No man steps twice into the same river, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.’ Hence A Different River.

Jo reading from A Different River
at the launch in Rhiwbina Library

How much planning do you do for your novels?
I don’t plot in the conventional way but I do need to be sure that I’ve chosen my protagonist/s well and that they have the potential to generate a multifaceted story. I need to be clear in my own mind whose story I’m telling.
The structure of the book has a lot to do with how the reader gets to know the characters but it mustn’t get in the way of the story. If you’re going to employ tricky time shifts and changing points of view it must be done skilfully or you are going to irritate and confuse your reader. In my long fiction, I have stuck with third person, past tense, limited to one or two points of view. (One in Everything in the Garden, Not funny, Not Clever and A Different River; two in Bells, Sweets from Morocco and Left and Leaving.) When we were children, stories invariably began ‘once upon a time there was…’ Third person, past tense. Simple. Direct. Honest.  
What are you currently working on?
It depends what you mean by working! I have two ideas and I haven’t yet decided which one to pursue. I’m making lists of pros and cons, possible characters, mentally meandering down various highways and byways, seeing which appeals, which has the most potential. I’m a slow writer. If I’m to spend years with my characters I want to be sure that, even if I don’t like them, I believe in them and understand what makes them tick. They must hold my attention.  

You must view every novel differently as you progress along your writing journey. How does A Different River compare with your other novels?
It took longer to write, for one thing. Four years from start to publication! I made several false starts. It was perhaps six months before I was confident I was on the right track, striking the right tone. The more I write, the more critical I become of what I’ve written. This makes for slow progress but it’s consistent with the organic way my narratives develop.
My novels are standalone yet, with the publication of the sixth, it has dawned on me that, without realising it, I have been creating a patchwork quilt of story-lines, covering many of the facets of contemporary life.

What is the biggest compliment a reader could pay you after reading your book?
There’s a great deal of truth in what you’ve written.’ That’ll do for me.
Thank you so much, Jo, for taking time to chat to me. I wish you good luck with your book.

My thoughts after reading A Different River - 5 stars *****

I thoroughly enjoyed A Different River. The novel appealed on a number of fronts, not least because it’s one of very few books I’ve read recently with an older protagonist. The main character, Miriam, is sixty one years old and her role falls between being a dutiful daughter of elderly parents and a grandmother to her daughter’s young children. The book deals with her torn loyalties and unconventional decisions in her private life as she gains in confidence and her self-esteem is raised. The novel is beautifully written and the story of Miriam’s journey is a compelling one, keeping you turning the pages. The characters are multi-layered and authentic with traits and characteristics that we can recognise in people we know. An excellent, satisfying read! I look forward to reading more novels written by Jo.
A Different River is published by Honno Press 
You will find more about Jo and her latest book on:
Twitter: @jo_verity
Jo's FB Author page

**STOP PRESS: Since the interview, A Different River has been nominated for the 'Not the Booker' prize 2018. If you have read the book, you have until 11.59 p.m. this evening, Monday 6th August, to register your vote. Please click HERE. Good luck, Jo!

Thank you for reading. What are your thoughts about what Jo was told by an agent that 'no one wants to read a story about anyone over the age of forty’? 

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.