Interview with Marianne Wheelaghan, bestselling author and director of writingclasses.co.uk

Today I’m welcoming Marianne Wheelaghan to the blog. Marianne is the author of The Blue Suitcase and The Scottish Lady Detective series, which includes Food of Ghosts and The Shoeshine Killer. She’s also the director of the excellent writing school, writingclasses.co.uk, which I attended and whose alumni and teachers continue to be an incredible support to me.

Welcome, Marianne!

Marianne

Firstly, could you tell us a bit about your writing and books?

I write both crime and historic fiction and am interested in exploring themes to do with “home” and “place” as well as “identity’ in my writing.

Food of Ghosts and The Shoeshine Killer are my first two crime novels in the bestselling Scottish Lady Detective series and are inspired by the time I spent living in the Pacific.

My first non-crime novel is the bestselling The Blue Suitcase. It is inspired by letters and diaries I discovered after my mother’s death and tells the true life story of a Christian girl growing up in Silesia in Nazi Germany.

How did you begin writing?

I have six sisters and two brothers. Growing up with so many siblings meant it was sometimes a bit difficult to get heard. My way of standing out was to tell stories. I suppose I must have been reasonably good at it because telling stories quickly became “my thing”.  It was only as an adult I started to write certain stories down and quickly realised there was nothing I’d rather do. I enrolled on a Master’s degree in Creative Writing with Lancaster University to help hone my skills. This changed my life. Not only did I develop my writing skills, but I gained the confidence I needed to take my writing seriously.

The Blue Suitcase

Marianne’s debut novel

Your debut novel, The Blue Suitcase, was loosely based on your mother’s experience of living in Silesia at the time that Hitler came to power. Could you talk a little about how the idea for the novel came about?

Shortly after my mother’s death I was helping my father sort out her personal things. We discovered a scuffed, blue suitcase full of her letters, diary extracts, photos, old postcards and faded documents, written in German, my mother’s first language.

My father wanted me to translate the documents – I’d studied German so it was not as mad as it sounds. I was appalled at the idea, my mother had been a very private person. I thought it a terrible intrusion of her privacy to read her private stuff. But Dad wouldn’t give up. You see, my mother was from Germany but she never talked about her family life before coming to Scotland after the end of WW2. In fact, you could say my mother’s early life was a mystery – we weren’t even sure where she was from in Germany. Dad believed knowing what was written in the letters and documents would bring her closer to him. I resisted doing what he asked, until we discovered this photo of Mum’s family.

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Mum is the smiling girl at the front of the photo, next to the older man – I recognised her immediately. The other people in the photo are her family – who knew I had so many aunts and uncles? However, it was not seeing all the family that made me change my mind, it was, rather, seeing the picture of Hitler on the wall behind them: if you look carefully, you can see it above my grandfather’s head. I was totally shocked at the sight of it. My mum was a good, kind, thoughtful person and although I didn’t know her family, I couldn’t believe they were not also good people. So why was there a picture of Hitler, a war criminal, on their living room wall?

Around this time I was also very aware of a book that had been around since 1996 called Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen.  In it, he argues that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were “willing executioners” in the Holocaust. The book was scathed by historians, and in the words of Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, “it is totally wrong about everything and worthless”. However, seeing this photo of Hitler on my grandparent’s wall made me wonder if, after all, there could be some truth in Goldhagen’s theory. I decided to translate the documents to see if I could discover the truth once and for all.

The more I read about Mum’s life, the more shocked I was by what I discovered. When I finally finished translating everything I was both astounded and horrified and felt compelled to share my findings. Like thousands and thousands of ordinary Germans, my mother was not one of Hitler’s willing executioners, far from it. Like thousands and thousands of other ordinary Germans, she was a victim of Hitler’s terrible regime. As if that wasn’t enough, after the end of WW2, in peace time, my mother’s family, along with millions of other Silesian Germans, were forcibly expelled from their home. I knew what I had to do. It was time to set the record straight and the idea for The Blue Suitcase was born.

Food of Ghosts

Book 1 of the Scottish Lady Detective series

Your Scottish Lady Detective Series is set in the Pacific Islands, specifically Kiribati and Fiji. Why did you choose to set the novels in this region?

When I was growing up we didn’t have a lot of money. This meant we never went on holiday like others did and treats were for birthdays and Christmas only. But one thing we had all year round were books, hundreds of them, bought by my mum and dad from second-hand shops and jumble sales. They included, amongst many others, almost all of Agatha Christie’s 66 novels, RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Stacpole’s The Blue Lagoon. These books fuelled my imagination and shaped my dreams. When I wasn’t reading, I was travelling around the world in my head, voyaging to faraway, unspoiled places, populated by gentle, innocent people.

Then, one day I was lucky enough to get a job in some of the lesser developed countries in the Pacific, namely Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and later Fiji. I was going to live my dream. The reality, however, was very different from what I expected. Yes, there was unspoiled beauty and traditional culture and kind people, but there was also a dark side to life there. My paradisiacal countries were wonderfully different, but also wonderfully not so different.

It struck me that travelling was not so much about going to new places, as seeing our surroundings with a fresh perspective, and seeing it all: the good and the bad and the ugly. As Marcel Proust once said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in looking with new eyes.”  As a writer, I wanted to share this lightbulb moment with others and I did what writers do, I wrote a book, or two. Why a crime novel? I believe a good crime novel can tell us as much about the darker side of society as any literary novel. Plus, I have many fond memories of reading an Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham into the wee hours, riveted until I found out who had done it. I wanted to recreate that feeling of suspense in my readers. So Detective Sergeant Louisa Townsend, AKA The Scottish Lady Detective, was born. Maybe not surprisingly, DS Townsend is a kind of modern day Miss Marple: a tad more gritty than cosy, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly but can also be kind, who is shrewd and intelligent but who can also make mistakes and even behave downright silly sometimes, and who has a dark side of her very own.

The Shoeshine Killer

Book 2 of the Scottish Lady Detective series

What challenges did you encounter when writing your novels and how did you overcome these?

In the Scottish Lady Detective novels, one of the biggest challenges is to bring totally alien peoples and places to life for the reader, and in doing so make the unfamiliar, familiar. I hope to achieve this by using very specific sensory details in the writing, so the reader really sees the magnolia trees, hears the traffic, tastes the overripe mangoes, smells the earthy market smells, and feels the giant drops of warm rain on their skin.

The biggest challenge when writing The Blue Suitcase was distancing myself emotionally from writing about my mother. I struggled with this until I had an epiphany: I would create a fictional family, very much like the true family but not exactly the same. This worked. Much of what happened to my fictional family happened to my real family, but some stuff didn’t, although it could have. Certainly, everything that happened in the novel is based on true historic fact: if didn’t happen to my family, it happened to someone else’s family.

Could you tell readers about writingclasses.co.uk? How did the school come about?

I decided to set up writingclasses for two reasons: I love writing and wanted to share my passion for it with others. I also believe to teach a skill is an honourable way to earn a living and in the words of Hanif Kureishi “I felt if I knew something, I should pass it on.”  

How are classes taught?

Today, with massive online open learning courses (MOOCs) becoming a part of everyday life, it is difficult to understand how in 2002 online courses of any kind, but especially short courses, were unusual.  As a lover of online learning, I was determined that writingclasses should offer short online creative writing courses, the kind of courses that I would have loved to have attended when I began writing. In my opinion online learning offers a flexibility that face-to-face classes simply cannot. Students can join in at a time that suits them, there is no being early or late and no need to find childminders/babysitters. For those of us juggling work and family life, learning online gives us access to courses that would have otherwise been denied us.

One of my favourite elements of the courses was that tutors read and commented on all assignments (quite often in other courses I’ve taken, tutors leave the critiquing primarily to students and, while peer review is always helpful, it’s the expert guidance of a more experienced writer which is most sought after). Why did you decide on this model?

 As all beginner writers know, one of the hardest things to find is an experienced writer who will read your work and give you honest, constructive feedback. This is why attending a course can be so helpful. However, when I was a beginner writer taking short courses, a tutor might give feedback on one piece of writing, possibly two, but never three. In my opinion this is simply not enough. We writers learn by our mistakes. It follows that the more we write, the more mistakes we can potentially make and the greater the opportunity we have to develop our writing skills, always assuming we have an expert at hand to help us recognise what the mistakes are. This is why on all writingclasses courses students are encouraged to write something new every week, why  “making mistakes” is obligatory, and why our experienced tutor-writers give helpful constructive feedback on every piece of creative writing the student submits during the course.

Several of your students have gone on to become published writers, myself included. Could you talk a bit about your students and why you think it is that so many have been successful in their writing?

A little bit of encouragement and feedback can go a long way but, ultimately, the students who succeed are, very much like yourself, the ones who do not give up.  Determination and staying power are often as important as ability and creativity.

And, finally, are you working on anything at the moment?

I am writing two books – the follow on from The Blue Suitcase and a third Scottish Lady Detective novel set in Edinburgh.  I’m not sure if it is a good idea to write two books at the same time. Time will tell😉.   

Thanks so much for coming by to talk with us about your writing and teaching!

Readers can learn more about Marianne and her writing by visiting her website: http://www.mariannewheelaghan.co.uk/

Check out the courses on offer at her writing school: http://www.writingclasses.co.uk/courses.html  (Tip: The next semester starts on the 3rd October so do sign up early to guarantee your place– they’re great value!)

Follow her on Twitter: @MWheelaghan and @solovewriting

Buy her books: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Marianne-Wheelaghan/e/B004AQKRXA/

https://www.amazon.com/Marianne-Wheelaghan/e/B004AQKRXA/

 

 

 

My winning one-liner!

Last month I entered the Mslexia / thortful.com one-liner greeting card competiton. This morning I received notification that…you guessed it, I won! Woo hoo!

Here’s the lovely design they came up with based on my one-liner.

my winning card!Thortful will be selling the cards on their website. So, if you like it, you’ll be able to purchase one.

I’ll let you know more later, when I have more details.🙂

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: The cards are now available to purchase via the thortful website, using this link: https://www.thortful.com/card/57c09aebe4b06a370b86f390 

As I’ve now received mine in the post, I can confirm that they’re very good quality, A5 size and printed on paper from sustainable forests.🙂

My review of Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

book cover

At that, the crease smoothed away and she smiled at him. ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re still appalling know-it-alls. We dig things up, but then we photograph and catalogue, record and document, and as often as not we put things back. It’s not the finds so much as the findings. Not the objects but the stories they tell.’

Sandlands is a collection of sixteen linked short stories, all taking place in and around the small coastal village of Blaxhall in an area known as the Sandlings in Suffolk, England. Life and death, past and present, overlap in these stories, coming full circle. The victories, losses and betrayals of past generations come back to haunt the present, forever imprinted upon both the physical landscape as well as the realm of memory and imagination.

In ‘Nightingale’s Return,’ birdsong fills the air as a recently retired clerk travels from his native Italy to visit the farm in Suffolk where his father worked as a prisoner of war during World War Two. In ‘Mad Maudlin,’ one of the more unsettling stories in the collection, a pub lodger stays up late to compare old video footage of the pub from decades before. ‘Silver Studded Blues’ is a story of regeneration and renewal and the surprises which nature sometimes brings, wrapped up in the story of a man who has spent his entire life in (nearly) the same place.

Thornton’s stories are quiet, delicate and full of wonder. They slowly weave their way into your heart, where they remain.  They are poignant, poetic, lush with the landscape, wildlife and history of Blaxhall and beautifully written but, above all, they are perfect. By perfect I mean perfectly composed—each word earns its place, and then some. Each character, each setting, each paragraph hearkens back to another, lending a satisfying, almost musical, quality of resonance within the stories and, indeed, within the collection.

As I read, I found myself turning each story over, wondering what had really happened. This wasn’t because the writing was unclear at any point but more a result of the writer wanting the reader to make his or her own mind up as to what had occurred. Thornton’s stories are multi-layered and nuanced in such a way that they lend themselves to varying interpretations, a feature I very much enjoyed.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Thornton’s work and, perhaps, even visiting the Sandlings someday.

Sandlands is published by Sandstone Press and is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B017KU9E9K/ 

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Sandlands-Rosy-Thornton-ebook/dp/B017KU9E9K/

You can follow Rosy Thornton on Twitter: @rosy_thornton

Visit her website: http://rosythornton.com/

 

Interview with Marie Campbell about her debut novel Baby

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I’m delighted to be welcoming the talented author Marie Campbell to the blog today to talk about her debut novel, Baby, which was released by The Conrad Press on 13 July 2016. In addition to being a writer, Marie is also a trained proofreader and a fellow alumni of writingclasses.co.uk. As readers may recall, I recently reviewed Marie’s novel for Lothian Life. If you’ve not yet read my review you can do so here: http://www.lothianlife.co.uk/2016/08/baby/ 

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photo taken by Karen McGowran Photography

Welcome, Marie!

Firstly, could you please tell readers about Baby?

Thanks so much for having me, Kendra. My book, Baby, is a psychological thriller, based in Edinburgh, where I live. In it, Michael Stanton, goes to work one day and doesn’t come back. Everyone thinks his pregnant girlfriend, Jill, should accept that he has left her. But she just won’t believe that Michael would walk away from her and their unborn child. Increasingly desperate and alone, she is determined to find him.

What Jill doesn’t know is that Michael’s beautiful ex, Anna, wants him back, and won’t take no for an answer. And it isn’t just him she wants…

Where did the idea for the novel come from?

I like to explore the dark side of human nature, and look at the lengths seemingly-ordinary people will go to get what they want. Although this is my first book, I have also written many short stories, and in the main, they tend to have a dark side. I like to think ‘What would happen if…’. In the case of Baby, I thought about what would happen if someone believed they had an absolute right to something, and what they were willing to do to achieve that. I wanted to include strong, believable characters, and also to explore the flaws that exist within them.

The premise of the story is quite frightening. Being a mother yourself, did you find any of the scenes difficult to write?

To some extent, yes, but I find that I do tend to write about things that scare me, perhaps as a way of confronting them. Being a mother is a massive part of who I am, and I hope that I was able to convey the genuine, deep emotion that comes from that.

The novel is written in such a way that I couldn’t help but turn the page every time I got to the end of a chapter–I literally read the novel in two sittings, which is unusual for me. Was this purposeful on your part and, if so, how did you achieve this?

That’s amazing to hear – thanks so much. That’s what I hoped for and I’m really pleased that you think I’ve been able to achieve it. I think telling the story from the alternative viewpoints of Michael and Jill helped to maintain the momentum – hopefully readers want to read on because they want to find out what is in store next for each of them. They are both experiencing very different, but often equally traumatic, things at the same time.

Michael is still attracted to Anna, though he tries his best to hide it. There are many points in the novel where I found myself wondering why he didn’t try harder to escape. At times it almost felt like Michael didn’t mind having been abducted—as though he were suffering from some form of Stockholm syndrome. Why did you decide to write the story in this way?

Although Michael is utterly committed to Jill, he does, as you say, still find Anna attractive. I wanted to get across the fact that he is entranced by her, and that, throughout his captivity, he becomes dependant on her, almost to the point where he is so confused that he thinks maybe he doesn’t want to leave. I added the sexual elements to intensify his confusion and desire. Anna is a complicated, dangerous, but strong character, and I wanted her to be in control of the situation and to maintain her belief that what she was doing was the absolute right thing for all of them.

Could you talk us through the writing of the novel?

Five years ago, after having a baby, taking a career break from the Civil Service and moving house, I wondered what I could do to fill up all of the free time (!) I had. Writing was something I have always had a passion for, and I had dabbled with short stories, diaries and journals for years. So I decided to embark on an online writing course, as you mentioned above, with writingclasses.co.uk. Another course followed, by which time I had quite a portfolio of short stories. I started entering competitions and was even successful in a few of them. But what I really wanted to do was write a novel. Something that maybe someone would actually want to buy and read. A novel-writing course followed. As you know yourself, this was serious stuff – posting large chunks of previously private work and awaiting the critique of fellow students and tutors.

I loved doing the course though, and by the end of it I had the makings of a book – only around 40,000 words, but it was a start. My tutor from the course became a very good friend, and she supported and encouraged me to complete what I’d started.

By March 2014, I had a version of my book that I was happy with. And then all I had to do was find an agent. And then a publisher.

How did the novel come to be published?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, the first step was finding an agent – I knew that traditional publishing didn’t lend itself to unsolicited manuscripts from unknown authors. I armed myself with a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and began working my way through the list of agents. Some wanted an email, some wanted a letter. Some wanted a 100-word synopsis; others 300 words. Three chapters or fifty pages – I gave them what they asked for and waited for a reply. And some of them did respond. But it took six long months before James Essinger of Canterbury Literary Agency agreed to represent me. And then we began the process of tweaking, deleting and adding new chapters.

When it was finally as good as we both thought it could be (and very different from that rough first draft), James started the submission process. Some publishers responded, offering feedback and comments but saying they weren’t taking new authors. Others asked for more, and said they wanted to read it again, but it took a very long time, and many changes and amendments, before The Conrad Press, a publishing company based in Canterbury, Kent, took on my book.

What advice would you give to a new writer who is just starting out?

I’m no expert, but I would say just go ahead and write. Writing every day, or as much as possible anyway, is key to honing your craft. There have been many periods of time in my life when, for various reasons, I haven’t written, but I know now that practice is hugely important. I also remember my English teacher telling me not to ‘hide my light under a bushel’ when I wasn’t keen to read out my work in class. It’s taken me many years to heed this advice and be less secretive about what I do.

Doing courses has also been a massive help for me. And joining online forums and groups, where readers, writers and bloggers can connect and talk about all things books. Joining a local writing group is another great idea. Oh, and never leave the house without a notebook and pen (hard back A5 and blue rollerball for me, or, on the rare occasions I forget, a Minions notepad and broken crayon from the depths of my handbag…). You never know when inspiration might strike.

Do you plan to write any more novels?

It’s my intention to always write novels, from now on. I’ve started work on my second, another psychological thriller, this time exploring revenge.

Finally, how can readers keep in touch?

In lots of ways. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed doing is setting up a newsletter, which lots of people have signed up for. Receiving replies to these has been a great way of connecting with readers, and I’ve taken on board one of the suggestions I received via this route, in that my next book will be set in the North East of England, where I was born and lived before moving to Edinburgh eight years ago. If anyone is interested in signing up for the newsletter, they can do so here. Baby also has a Facebook page, Baby – Marie Campbell, and you can also find me on Twitter  @mariecampbell72. I also have a website Marie Campbell – Writer.

Thank you for the interview and a big congratulations on the publication of Baby!

Thanks for having me Kendra, it was an absolute pleasure.

Readers can obtain Baby from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Baby-Marie-Campbell-ebook/dp/B01IEB920K

Baby can also be purchased directly from The Conrad Press website: http://theconradpress.com/our-books/

The print copy is also now available on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Baby-Marie-Campbell/dp/1783019646/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470301480&sr=1-3&keywords=baby+marie+campbell

 

 

My review of Tregunna by Carla Vermaat

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I sit down, leaning a bit forward, hoping that my sweater covers the bulge on my belly. I don’t know if anyone told her that I am wearing a stoma bag. It’s not something I can easily ask her.

Firstly, I’d like to say that Carla and I are both members of the Writers, Authors, Readers group on Facebook. It was here that I first learned about Carla’s novel—a detective story set against the beautiful, dramatic scenery of Cornwall. As I was just about to embark on a short holiday to Cornwall, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did as the novel is a compelling and swift read with many interesting components to it.

The story opens with a five-year-old girl discovering that her parents have been brutally murdered. This murder is one of many in the area which has gone unsolved over the years. Meanwhile, back in the present-day, Inspector Andy Tregunna has just taken on his first murder investigation. The body of a woman has been discovered in a car park by two ten-year-old twin boys. Figuring out the identity of this woman and piecing together the various components of her life is hard enough, but Tregunna must also learn how and where she died and, most importantly, who would want to kill her.

Unfortunately, Tregunna’s progress is slow and his increasing stomach pain and worries about his health only make matters worse. When he’s forced off the case due to an emergency operation to remove a cancerous tumour from his colon, he not only has to contend with unsympathetic colleagues while also trying to get to grips with a stoma, but he also realises that the body in the car park is linked to other deaths and disappearances in the area. In order to solve the murders, Tregunna will have to break all the rules and work his sick leave, if his body will allow him.

Inspector Tregunna is a refreshing change from the usual hard-boiled and, sometimes, insensitive male detective. When we first meet him he’s reflecting on how difficult it was to see his first body, that of a young man who’d been hit by a lorry. Later we see him struggling to come to terms with his new disability and the possibility that the doctors may not have been able to remove all of the tumour, meaning he’ll have to undergo further disruptive, complicating and potentially painful treatments. Despite all of this, Tregunna continues his investigation of the case, with some help from a sympathetic and astute female colleague.

I enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading book two in the series, What every body is saying, which was released on the 28th June.

The Tregunna series is available from Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B0125J6E1W/

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0125J6E1W/

Follow Carla Vermaat on Twitter: @carla_vermaat

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/carla.vermaat1

Check out her website: http://www.carlavermaat.co.uk/index.html

Interview with Emma Claire Sweeney, author of Owl Song at Dawn

Today I’m delighted to be welcoming the talented Emma Claire Sweeney to my blog as the final stop on the Owl Song at Dawn blog tour. Owl Song at Dawn is Emma’s debut novel and was inspired by her sister who has cerebral palsy and autism. The novel was published on the 1st July by Legend Press.

My review follows the interview.

Owl Song Cover

Welcome, Emma! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your novel.

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photo  taken by Rosalind Hobley

Firstly, could you please describe the story for readers?

Maeve Maloney is a force to be reckoned with. Despite nearing eighty, she keeps Sea View Lodge just as her parents did during Morecambe’s 1950s heyday. But now only her employees and regular guests recognise the tenderness and heartbreak hidden beneath her spikiness.

Until, that is, Vincent shows up. Vincent is the last person Maeve wants to see. He is the only man alive to have known her twin sister, Edie. The nightingale to Maeve’s crow, the dawn to Maeve’s dusk, Edie would have set her sights on the stage all things being equal. But, from birth, things never were.

If only Maeve could confront the secret past she shares with Vincent, she might finally see what it means to love and be loved, a lesson that her exuberant yet inexplicable twin may have been trying to teach her all along.

What is it that makes this story unique?

Owl Song at Dawn explores the UK’s hidden history of learning disability from the 1930s to the present day – a subject very close to my heart since my sister has cerebral palsy and autism. Few novels enter this territory, and, those that do, tend to perpetuate the myth that learning disability leads irrevocably to family breakdown.

What motivated you to write this novel?

I have yet to come across a novel that offers a place for my kind of family: one that has largely succeeded in lovingly accommodating learning disability. And yet, such families are – and always have been – typical.

Novels, I believe, can subvert misconceptions. I wanted to challenge the assumption that a sibling must inevitably resent her sister or brother with learning disabilities; that the life of someone with learning disabilities must be overwhelmingly bleak; that families who raise their disabled child at home are somehow saintly in their powers of endurance. I wanted to celebrate people of all sorts of abilities and call into question what our society tends to value. 

When did this story begin, for you as the writer?

Inspired by William Horwood’s wonderful novel, Skallagrigg, my first ever secondary school creative writing assignment was about a girl trying to decipher a phrase that her sister kept repeating indistinctly.

Over a decade later, when I was studying on the University of East Anglia’s MA course, I found myself gravitating again to this subject during timed creative writing exercises even though I was working on a novel about an entirely unrelated subject.    

Keenly aware that I was in the early days of studying my craft and alert to the importance of a sensitive representation of learning disability, throughout my twenties I wrote about other subjects. And yet, I never doubted that my pen would one day return to this.

What challenges did you encounter while writing the novel?

I wanted Edie, the twin who is diagnosed back in the 1930s as ‘severely subnormal’ to narrate in the first-person, answering back stereotypes with candour, authenticity and verve. And this is where I came unstuck. Initially, I imposed certain limitations on myself – Edie’s voice would only be in the present tense, for instance – in my attempts to capture her apparent inarticulacy on the page.

Although early readers praised the energy of such excerpts, I knew deep down that there was a falsehood at their heart. The rules I imposed on myself threatened to alert the reader to the artifice of Edie’s voice rather than providing the intimate empathetic experience I’d so confidently set out to offer. What’s more, there was a childishness to these sections that undermined my desire to subvert the persistent popular perception of people with learning disabilities as infantile.

How could I convey a certain type of inarticulacy, distinct from the language (or lack of it) in early childhood that would nonetheless demonstrate full access to emotion and the experience of being human?

The answer was close to home. I began transcribing all the things my sister said to me during our nightly phone-calls. In my revised novel, I have attempted to capture something of Lou’s inventive phrases and melodic use of language in the voice of Edie, my character with learning disabilities. Of course, I have simultaneously adapted it for the character who was born in the 1930s in Morecambe and whose seminal life experiences are radically different from Lou’s.

One of my favourite things about this novel is that it not only features disabled characters, but it contains a number of them—in fact, the story is reliant on them, as are the other ‘able’ characters. Could you talk a little about what went into your decision to create a positive story with disability at its centre?

People with learning disabilities and those who love them often know lots of other people with learning disabilities too. I felt that an authentic representation would explore this sense of identity.

When I moved to the town where I now live, it took me a while to feel at home. My first real sense of community came when I was awarded an Arts Council sponsored writing residency at Sunnyside Rural Trust – a social enterprise that offers work experience to adults with autism and learning disabilities. The people there welcomed me into their world with such generosity and warmth that I was struck by the inadequacy of the term ‘disability’. Here were a group of people with all sorts of abilities that demand to be celebrated.    

There are very few characters like Edie, Len and Steph in literature. Why do you think this is and what can be done to remedy it?

I’ll be candid! I suspect that publishers shy away from acquiring books about people with learning disabilities – especially those novels that question misconceptions. We have a problem in the UK with the literary industry showing little faith in readers.

Publishing is chronically undiverse – white, middle-class, Oxbridge, metropolitan – and the gatekeepers are often subconsciously attracted to characters and scenarios that are close to home. But I think that readers are far cannier: we want to read about all sorts of people and enter into all sorts of new worlds – whether they be refreshingly new or reassuringly familiar.    

Your novel not only includes a rich cast of disabled characters, but also features characters who are elderly. Both of these groups are often neglected in mainstream fiction. What advice would you give to writers who wish to expand their character range to include more diverse characters?

Just do it! If the world you are representing would contain all sorts of different characters, then it is only right to render this on the page. But you must do it with authenticity. Work out both the stereotypes and the overly politically correct versions and then try to avoid either extreme. Immerse yourself in the worlds about which you write.

Edie, and those like Edie, aren’t always able to communicate their experiences in the same way as others. Unfortunately, because of the society we live in, this means that they are often excluded. In your opinion, what can be done to create a more inclusive and welcoming society, and what can individuals do to help foster a culture of positivity towards difference?

We need to start focusing on what people can do and less on what they can’t. If we really began to value a wider range of skills, we could increase the shameful rates of paid employment among people with learning disability in the UK (currently 6.6%) and we would see a much-needed fall in rates of disability hate crime (which rose by 41% last year).

I hugely admire my sister’s capacity for happiness – a skill far beyond the reaches of most classrooms. At parties, she is always the first on the dancefloor, giving the rest of us permission to shed our inhibitions by dragging us in her wake. The best way to foster inclusivity is to discard any anxiety or embarrassment and interact with people of all sorts of abilities, learning to value all they have to give. 

Could you talk us through your journey to publication? Was it difficult to find a publisher for the novel, given its themes and characters?

The journey to publication began with relative ease when I was signed by Veronique Baxter at David Higham Associates. I had long admired her, since she represents Emma Henderson (Grace Williams Says It Loud) and Edward Hogan (The Hunger Trace) – two authors whose representations of disability I hold in extremely high regard. Early readers likened Owl Song at Dawn to novels by Maggie O’Farrell, and I was hugely complimented by the comparison. Naively, I assumed that publishers were hungry for books like this that bridge the literary/commercial divide. But editor after editor came back to us saying that they could not work out how to market this book.

I think they were put off by the combination of a cast of characters with disabilities, the northern setting, and the elderly protagonist. Ironically, if I had written a high literary novel, representing a bleaker narrative of disability, it might have been easier to get it published. Certainly, a more commercial novel that repeated well-worn stereotypes would have fared better.

I did work on the novel with an editor from one of the big publishers but she ended up getting cold feet. But this redraft meant that the novel was pretty much ready to print when my tenacious agent sent it to the wonderfully risk-taking team at independent publisher, Legend Press.

Can we expect another novel from you?

So long as I can get it published! I’ve completed the research for The Sister Who Throws Scissors – a novel that will bring together both my fascination with female novelists and my interest in disability. I discovered that the sister of one of my favourite authors was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’ and written out of the family history. The Sister Who Throws Scissors will be narrated by her. 

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or your writing?

My next book will be a non-fiction book on female literary friendship, which I am co-writing with my own writer friend, Emily Midorikawa. A Secret Sisterhood: the hidden friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf will come out in autumn 2017 with Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA.  

Thanks so much for coming by to talk with us today! Best of luck with Owl Song at Dawn and with all your writing!

Readers can obtain Owl Song at Dawn from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney/dp/1785079670/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney-ebook/dp/B015H5RQZY/

Owl Song at Dawn has been selected for Books etc. book club, so, until the end of July, the paperback is half price through them: http://www.booksetc.co.uk/features/view/1676-the-books-etc-club-july

Visit Emma’s blog: www.emmaclairesweeney.com

Follow her on Twitter: @emmacsweeney

Catch up with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emmaclairesweeney/

My review of Owl Song at Dawn

I want to tell him that I need you to sit beside me in the pew, your head resting on my shoulder, the scent of Pears soap on your skin.

Vince Roper and Maeve Maloney’s shared youth frames the budding romance of their twilight years. But, while light-hearted in places, this is not your typical romance novel. Instead, it’s a novel about love—the love we seek, the love we share and the different forms this love may take, or not take, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Set against the once-glamorous backdrop of Morecambe in its heyday, Sweeney skilfully compares Morecambe’s glory days to Maeve’s own.

For Vince and Maeve, it was their shared love of Maeve’s twin, Edie, which brought them together. Edie was an enigma to Maeve. While similar in some ways, in others they couldn’t have been more different. While Maeve expected to obtain a degree, to travel, to marry and to have children, Edie’s life would never contain these pleasurable pursuits due to what her unhelpful physicians termed her ‘severe sub normality,’ and a society which seemed to be set against her unique abilities from the start. In modern-day terms, Edie was affected by  cerebral palsy with associated epilepsy resulting in frequent grand mal seizures, which sometimes put her life at risk. She was also autistic.

Their parents, already living under the constant fear that their beloved daughter might be taken from them, decide against medical treatment and instead choose to raise Edie at home (the story takes place in the 1930s, when the forced extermination of the disabled was taking place in Germany and eugenics was popular in Britain and America). This decision results in a close bond amongst the family and especially between Maeve and Edie, who is particularly loving and affectionate.

With not a word out of place, Sweeney tells her story with poetry (quite literally in the scenes where Edie speaks), poignancy, grace and an uplifting humour. Her characters make for a refreshing change as many of them are learning disabled. But Sweeney doesn’t make the mistake of treating her characters as poor, defenceless victims worthy of pity who sit helplessly on the side-lines while the other ‘real’ characters get on with the action. Instead, her disabled characters are central to the story. For without Maeve’s sister Edie, there would be no story. Without the help and companionship of Len and Steph (both of whom are learning disabled and who help to run Sea View Lodge), Maeve Maloney’s life would be joyless and she would not be able to keep up with her work. Sweeney’s novel demonstrates the importance of diversity and the pleasure which can be achieved when we embrace and celebrate our differences.

Owl Song at Dawn is a novel unlike any other I’ve ever read. Striking in its subtlety, nuance and depth, this is a novel to cherish. I shall look forward to re-reading this for years to come and uncovering new layers with each reading. I strongly encourage you to read this for yourself and see what you make of this ground-breaking new title.

Owl Song at Dawn blog tour

Interview with Denise Ersalahi Erguler, author of children’s fantasy novel The Adventures of Shifting Jack

 

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I’m delighted to be welcoming the talented Cypriot children’s author Denise Ersalahi Erguler to the blog today to talk about her novel, The Adventures of Shifting Jack, which is released today as an ebook. My review follows the interview.

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credit: Olkan Erguler

Welcome, Denise!

Firstly, could you please describe the story for readers?

Yes with pleasure, it is about a family of bird shifters that have been in hiding moving from country to country

What’s the inspiration behind The Adventures of Shifting Jack?

I had an idea for an adult fantasy novel rattling in my mind for a while, so I decided to write my book called The Essence. It’s about a planet called Nageena. Fiona, an interior designer, is kidnapped by  aliens who are hoping Fiona can help them with the civil war that is killing their planet. They picked up on Fiona’s unique brain waves – she has empathic abilities – but it doesn’t help the civil war as they have a problem with the planet’s defence system. Fiona meets the man of her dreams, literally. She has been dreaming of a man since she was a little girl. In her dreams they grew up together, and now she meets him in the flesh. However, she doesn’t feel anything for him. Even worse it looks like he hates her!

The Denizens of planet Nageena are shape shifters, they host a symbiant entity called The Essence, which allows them to shift into various animals.

My son wanted to know what I had written about, so I told him the clean version. His face lit up when I told him about shifting, so I thought I would write a shifting story for children.

Jack and his father, Militis, are shape shifters—half breeds. What appealed to you about shapeshifters and, for those who don’t know what a shapeshifter is, could you please describe one?

A shape shifter is being that can change their body into another shape like a human into a bear, or bird.

One of the things I took away from my reading of the book is the value of respecting nature and being kind to animals, and each other. This is a very important message, especially for young children. Did you consciously weave this lesson, and others, into the book?

Yes, Mother Nature needs to be looked after better. It’s always easier to start with children of a young age, you would be surprised what they pick up on.

How long did it take you to write the story and what obstacles did you encounter along the way?

It’s been three years since I wrote my first word. The biggest obstacle we came across was when I was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. Since then I have been focusing on getting better–my writing has taken the back seat for now.

Once your first draft was written, did you have a lot of rewriting to do? Could you talk readers through your writing process?

First I wrote a basic outline, then I expanded that into chapters. Once it was finished I passed it on to Anne Hamilton to edit. Once I had her feedback I changed one scene and added other scenes and events.

The story is written in close third-person, from nine-year-old Jack’s perspective. Did you find it difficult to write from a child’s viewpoint, and what challenges did you come across as a result?

I didn’t find it difficult to write as a nine-year old, as I have a nine-year old boy myself.

How did you come to writing? Have you always enjoyed storytelling?

 I’m a dreamer, sometimes I think I’m away with the fairies more than I am on earth. I lived in The Essence story for over a year. It was hard to end the book.

Are there any future novels in the works?

Yes, I’ve just started to plan out the second Shifting Jack of the series.

Thank you for the interview and a big congratulations on the publication of The Adventures of Shifting Jack!

Readers can obtain The Adventures of Shifting Jack from: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01I5GAMNA

You can follow Denise on Twitter at: @Denise_Jack16

Catch up with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Denise-Erguler-Author

My review of The Adventures of Shifting Jack

Nine-year-old Jack and eight-year-old Lily move with their parents, Linda and Militis, to Turkish Cyprus, uncertain of what to expect from their new school and home. The family has already moved numerous times for Militis’s work. Jack and Lily have become used to switching schools and not having friends. As a result, Lily is shy and withdrawn and Jack feels it’s his duty to look out for her; Lily is all he has in terms of a playmate. Linda worries about them and wishes they could stay put for once.

When Linda takes the kids to their new school, she’s impressed. The staff and students are welcoming and friendly, far more so than those at the previous schools they attended. Lily makes a friend almost immediately—Bahar—whose mother also reaches out to Linda. Before they realise it both families have become close.

As the kids are playing on the playground one afternoon, a small earthquake hits. Jack reaches out to try and help Lily escape from a falling swing-set when something remarkable happens—his hand turns into a claw and grows feathers. When it changes back again, he thinks he must have imagined it.  But Militis confesses to Jack that they’re shifters—creatures who are both human and bird. Jack knows he’s finally figured out why his family have always seemed different to him.

Unfortunately, Bahar’s father, Ali, is a hunter—an activity which Jack’s family is firmly opposed to. When it comes to light that Ali isn’t only a hunter but is also being blackmailed by foreign poachers, Jack and Militis decide to get involved by using their shifting powers to help. But will they be too late? And will Jack ever master his shifting, or will he end up getting himself, and his family, into trouble?

The Adventures of Shifting Jack is a delightfully imaginative fable for middle-grade children whose fresh and different perspective will also appeal to their parents.

Interview with J.A. Corrigan, author of Falling Suns

Today I’m welcoming debut novelist J.A. Corrigan to my blog as part of the Falling Suns blog tour. Her psychological thriller, Falling Suns, is published by Accent Press and will be released on the 14th July. It is available to pre-order on Amazon now.

J.A. Corrigan is holding a book launch for Falling Suns on Thursday 21st July 2016 at Daunt Books, 158-164 Fulham Rd, London SW10 9PR. If any readers would like to pop in for a glass of wine, contact J.A. at jacorrigan.writer@btinternet.com

My review follows the interview.

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Welcome, J.A.! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your writing, especially your debut novel, Falling Suns.

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credit: Graham Keutenius

Firstly, could you describe the story for readers?

Thank you for having me on here, Kendra.

The story is essentially a tale centred on the themes of grief, guilt and revenge. Rachel Dune’s son is brutally murdered. She is devastated, and feels some guilt that in part she is somehow to blame. Rachel is an ex-detective; she is mentally strong, and possesses a vigorous sense of what she thinks ‘right.’ Being an ex-policewoman she is endowed with many of the necessary emotional and physical ‘tools’ to carry out her revenge.

However, as Rachel moves closer to her target and begins to remember her own past, reservations emerge about both her actions, and motivation.

Why did you choose to write this story? Your novel contains some very dark, distressing themes which I can imagine would not have been easy to write about!

The idea for this story arose from, I suppose, being a mother, and all the emotional turmoil that comes with being a mother; the real angst and worry that something tragic could happen to your child. How would you cope? Especially when the child is brutally murdered, and as is so often the case, murdered by someone known to the family, or within the family itself. I thought hard about Rachel’s decision and path to revenge. I even did straw polls of mothers! Only a few said that they could not contemplate revenge – that to lose a child would be so devastating that any thoughts of reprisal would be the last thing on their mind. But as I questioned more, more mothers agreed that given a chance, and if they were given the opportunity to do so, they would indeed think about revenge. 
I carried out a lot of research for this novel, and some of the events are based loosely on that research; but as we all know, fact can be a lot stranger than fiction. I also wanted to explore areas of criminal behavior that are less well-documented and discussed.
Parallel with the revenge theme, I set out to explore institutional corruption and the effect it can have on the patients within those institutions. And so the story of Rachel’s revenge became woven into the murderer’s own tale.

Did you carry out any research for the novel? If so, could you describe this for readers?

As I have mentioned in the previous question, I did carry out extensive research for the novel. I read non-fiction books about the United States’ penal system, and many of those books were written by psychiatrists who had spent their life working with inmates on Death Row. I also researched psychiatric hospitals in the UK – looking online at old news reports etc. I am very lucky to know a criminal lawyer, who after years representing many of the people who were subsequently sectioned and sent to one of these institutions, now works as a lawyer sitting on mental health tribunal panels.

I also did substantial research into Method acting, speaking at length with an actress who was great in answering my questions, and generally really helping me understand not only about Method, but acting in general. I researched Chinese Medicine too, although as with some of the medical scenes with Rachel, I did draw upon my own medical background – I am a qualified physiotherapist and have used Chinese acupuncture for pain relief with my patients.

What obstacles, if any, did you encounter when writing Falling Suns?

I think the main obstacles were firstly, achieving the balance with Rachel’s character – she has to be strong and quite hard-nosed, but also emotionally fragile. Secondly, I did find writing the more harrowing scenes difficult and often found it hard-going to write them. In the end I had to take myself away and pretend I was someone else (like an actor) and just write those scenes.

I understand that an early draft of Falling Suns was longlisted for the 2013 Mslexia Novel Competition. How did making the longlist affect you as a writer? Do you think that being longlisted helped you to achieve publication?

I think for any aspiring novelist, being longlisted (and definitely shortlisted) in a prestigious writing competition can only be a motivator. It did give me the impetus to carry on, and rework the novel. I think being longlisted in the Mslexia competition made me realise that with more work ­I might just make the grade! The bar is set high these days. The standard of writing is towering in these competitions, as there are so many authors out there with talent, and a desire to succeed.

What do you feel you’ve gained through the writing of your novel?

With Falling Suns I honed more my craft both as a writer, and to a large extent – I think – became a ‘nicer’ human being. Writing Falling Suns encouraged me to think a lot about life, and the emotions of grief, loss and anger. About what is important, and what is not so important.

On a more practical level, writing Falling Suns really did hone my skills in writing a coherent story – a story with a beginning, middle and end. I think the novel taught me how to build some tension in the story, which is so important, and something that has taken me years to be able to do … well, I hope I manage to do it!

You’ve chosen to publish under your initials. Why did you choose to do this and what went into this decision?

In many ways, I wanted to be genderless. I wanted the writing and the book to stand-alone ­– away from my name, and me. I also quite like J.A. Corrigan!

I understand that you’re also a published short story writer. Do you feel that writing a novel was a natural next step for you? How did you make the transition?

I started my writing ‘career’ with the short story form and I think many writers do begin this way. The discipline of making every word count is essential to the novelist. The trick is – not to write the bits that the reader skips over and I truly believe writing shorts assists the aspiring novelist in achieving this.

I decided to write a novel when I realised that each short story I wrote was in fact like a mini-synopsis for a novel! I think I was itching to write a longer length work, although at the time I had no conception of how difficult it would turn out to be, which in retrospect is probably a good thing …  

Are there any future novels in the works?

Yes, I am working on my next novel, which is another dark tale and the same genre as Falling Suns.

Many thanks for coming to speak with us today, and best of luck with the publication of Falling Suns!

Falling Suns is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Falling-Suns-J-Corrigan/dp/1786152495

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Falling-Suns-J-Corrigan-ebook/dp/B01FUI9NKY/

Falling Suns is also available from Waterstones: https://www.waterstones.com/book/falling-suns/julie-ann-corrigan/j-a-corrigan/9781786152497

The Guardian Bookshop: https://bookshop.theguardian.com/catalog/product/view/id/414323/

And WH Smith: http://www.whsmith.co.uk/products/falling-suns/9781786152497

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My review

Falling Suns is an emotionally intelligent, well-plotted thriller which explores the experience of being a mother, with its unwavering responsibilities and attachments which may not always be understood–or accepted—by others. Rachel and Liam Dune would appear to have a good life, when viewed from the outside. Rachel’s ever-helpful best friend, Charlotte, lives nearby as do her parents and aunt and uncle. Her husband, Liam, works from home as a renowned painter. So when Rachel eventually decides it’s time for her to go back to work as a detective it would seem that their son, seven year old Joe, will be well looked after in her absence.

Of course, appearances can be deceptive and sometimes what is hidden can be more dangerous than what we think we see. When Joe goes missing, his parents fear the worst. Rachel has worked on cases such as this herself, and understands more than she’d like to.  How will Rachel’s worst fears compare with the reality of what’s actually happened to Joe? When Joe is later found dead, and Rachel’s cousin Michael Hemmings admits to the crime, will her suffering give way to grief, or will it simply continue on, taking new and ever changing forms?

Four years after Michael Hemmings has been confined to a secure psychiatric unit, Rachel receives notification that he’s being moved to a less-secure unit in order to begin reintegrating him into society. Unable to bear the thought that Hemmings may one day be free, Rachel Dune decides to quit her job on the force in order to make sure that never happens. But to achieve her aim, she’ll have to cut ties with everyone, and everything, she thinks she knows.

Rachel’s character is the antithesis of the distraught, oppressed female heroine who silently suffers while the men in her life go out and right wrongs. Not only is Rachel a character to be reckoned with, but Corrigan does not shy away from showing readers the more disturbing elements of Rachel’s personality, thus turning female stereotypes on their head.

Corrigan explores the layers which make up families, friendship and society as a whole, and the ways in which relationships can go terribly wrong. Falling Suns raises interesting questions about the nature of the mental health institutions we have in place in modern-day Britain and how effective these are at both assisting individuals in need and in containing those few who really are a danger to others. Oh yes, and it’s a gripping read too.

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