(l-r: Holly, Alexa, Paul and Ann)
Those of you who have been following this blog for a while now, know I love the bookish events that take place at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, from evenings with authors Rachel Caine, Maggie Stiefvater and Cathy Rentzenbrink to the recent Quick Reads 10 Anniversary event. Last night three debut authors took the stage during the insightful Bloomsbury New Writers' Evening, Ann Morgan (Beside Myself), Paul M.M. Cooper (River of Ink) and Holly Müller (My Own Dear Brother), as they spoke with editor Alexa Von Hirschberg about their novels, meticulous research, and their writing process.
All three authors kicked off by telling us a little bit about their books and reading an excerpt, which made each of the novels sound hugely intriguing.
Ann's reading was very engaging as she put on different voices for the various characters in her book, including unique accents.The words she spoke were beautiful prose too, in addition to what sounds like an incredible story: 6-year-old twins playing a game by swapping places except one doesn't want to swap back. It sounds chilling and focuses on themes such as family (which parents wouldn't notice?!) and the importance of identity, and how other people around you project this upon you.
Paul's book was described by editor Alexa as "full of language, love and power". Set in Sri Lanka it centres around a dark period in the country's history, one where a tyrant king was in charge. The tradition of the buddhist monks in Sri Lanka is to write everything down in chronicles, yet there is a blank spot in history from went this king reigned over the country, which fired Paul's imagination. The poem at the heart of the story is an astonishing 1.8 million words long, which is twice the length of the complete works of Shakespeare! The poet who is translating the work in the novel weaves in criticisms about the king; a very fascinating concept.
Holly's book is set in a rural village in Austria at the end of the second world war and was inspired by her own family history. The village is incredibly controlled, allowing little space for individuality (a running theme throughout the evening) and centres on a teenage girl and the way the Nazi regime impacts her life.
All three books are steeped in an immense amount of detail that make the fiction come to life and feel hugely realistic, so Alexa asked each one of the authors on stage how they approached the research accompanying their work.
Ann said that she wrote the story first, to get it down, then she did lots of reading around schizophrenia and sexual abuse to ensure the details rang true. So the story came first, then the research happened.
Paul spent time in Sri Lanka, learned some of the local languages and got to know the culture as a whole, which he said was "absolutely important" to writing his book. He also went to the city the story is centred – now in ruins – which involved a lot of creeping under fences. This, because tourists were charged $25 for entry and locals the equivalent of 15p. After paying $25 several times, and wanting to spend more time in the city, he found different ways to enter.
Holly's father is Austrian and she wanted to know more about the history of her family. She stayed in her cousin's empty flat in Vienna for a while and while she didn't want to speak to her grandfather about his experience during the second world war as an antisemite, she did approach his contemporaries, which was usually a grandparent of a friend of a friend. She randomly came across someone who also wanted to learn more about this part of history and he offered to be an interpreter. She asked hard-hitting questions yet the interviewees talked for hours, often seeing the outpouring as a confessional. She called the experience intimate but intense.
Dealing with such heavy subject matters, did the authors feel a certain sense of responsibility to ensure their work was true to fact? Holly said she did but as she started to doubt whether the sun indeed shone on 23 December 1944, she was told she was a fiction writer and not a data handler. However, she felt a responsibility to reflect her findings in as many facets of the story as she could, to show the horrors but also to humanise it.
When did the authors know they wanted to be a writer for a job? Ann said she attempted to write her first book at 7, and when she read Anne of Green Gables aged 8 she decided to study English literature. She did and followed this up with a masters in creative writing.
Do the authors plot and plan every step on their writing journey, and do they ever get writer's block? Ann said that planning depends on the project and the writer. Personally she's too curious and she wants to know what will happen in her book next, which is what keeps her going. Holly didn't go into her book with much of a plan, which left her with stacks of unused material. Going into it in this state of mind is "a little addictive and more intuitive", she said, opposed to planning meticulously. However, she did add that she's found that you need a roadmap and the scaffolding, but to make sure it allows flexibility. This is the approach she's taking with her second novel. Paul uses formulas rather than story plans.
After finishing their books, do the characters ever pop back in? Holly said that the characters will continue on their trajectories without her. And Ann experienced that a character from Beside Myself slipped into another story she was working on, so she had to put it aside. Paul added that they now belong to other people; those who read the book.
Finally, an audience member asked for a top tip on the bumpy road to getting published. The authors on the panel were in agreement that networking was key. Not just to find publishing contacts or an agent, but also to establish a connection with fellow writers in your area and ensure that you don't just write in solitude all the time. Ann finished with a great piece of advice as she said: "make sure that you are proud of the work you have created and it's the very best it can be". She explained that you'll have to defend your work time and time again and maybe even answer difficult questions, so you have to ensure it is the very best you can do.
Thank you so much to the authors and team Foyles for another inspirational event (and the tasty pizza we enjoyed while listening to the authors!).
You can – and should – buy Beside Myself, River of Ink and My Own Dear Brother from the lovely folks at Foyles (each book title links to the page on their website) or your own preferred retailer.