October 2014


Yes, I know I just said I was taking a break, but it’s not quite November yet and I have a special guest here today: Crooked Cat author, Adam S. Leslie.

AdamSLeslie

Hello Adam and welcome to my blog. Since joining the Crooked Cat clan, I have been introduced to several genres I hadn’t read before. Your novels sound like a genre of their own – a mixture of several others. After reading the descriptions, I’m teetering on the brink, wondering if I dare to delve into them, hoping this interview will help me decide.

Could you begin by telling us something about the books?

Hi Miriam, and thank you! That’s a good way of putting it – I’m a bit of a restless soul, and I do like to mix the genres up over the course of a full-length novel. I see genres as being like cocktail ingredients: individually, they’re all quite familiar, but if you combine them in just the right quantities, you get a new and unique flavour.

Kaleidoscope, on the surface, is a dystopian satire in the mould of 1984, Brave New World or THX-1138; but it also sometimes acts as a spoof of that genre, and it’s an adventure romp too, a surrealist nightmare and at times a pitch-black comedy. So it’s quite familiar on one hand, but takes the formula to brand new and hopefully unexpected places along the way.

Blinsby, though, is a very personal book – quite different from Kaleidoscope, but I think is the more interesting of the two. I wrote Blinsby with a chap called Peter Tunstall, who I’ve known since we were about five years old. We grew up together in Lincolnshire, in one of the remotest parts of rural England. The book is a fictionalised account of our time at primary school as a pair of 10-year-olds during the mid-1980s, how it felt growing up at that time and how we saw the world.

But, of course, it’s not as straightforward as that. There’s also a conspiracy thriller plot about the disappearance of a new boy in class – who might be good or might be evil – and the way the school authorities are potentially implicated. The whole thing has a sort of hallucinatory feel, but it’s also an adventure yarn on top of that, and there are hopefully a lot of laughs along the way too.

That sounds like an unusual cocktail. Thriller, hallucinations, adventure and humour. I wonder how you combine all that. I suppose there’s only one way of finding out.

I’m interested in hearing how you and Peter worked together. How did you divide up the writing? Were there any arguments? Are you still friends? Would you do it again?

I think the fact that the story is told from a children’s eye view really helps bind the disparate elements together. That’s not to say that it’s all happening in their heads, or that what’s happening isn’t real; but we are very much in their world, and it’s as chaotic and colourful and undefined by adult rules as any 10-year-olds’.

I often pitch it as ‘Calvin & Hobbes meets Catch-22 meets Gormenghast’. Like Calvin (or Scottish comic strip icon Oor Wullie, one of my heroes growing up), our characters think like children but articulate like adults, which helps put the reader on their level and identify more with them, than if they spoke like authentic children. We as adults don’t feel that disconnect, which we might if we spent time with a real class of pre-teens.

Blinsby - AdamSLeslie

The book is structured like a school day. Apart from the opening chapter (which takes place during the summer holidays), it begins with morning assembly and runs through each of the lessons and playtimes – a chapter for each – until hometime. We really wanted to make the reader feel like they’d spent a day back at primary school.

So when Peter and I write together, we sort of treat each chapter as a short story in its own right. We spend hours and hours on the phone brainstorming the overall plot, and then go off and write whichever bit we feel like. And we do redraft each other’s material quite a lot too. Luckily, we have very a similar writing style, so it’s almost impossible to tell which bits are Peter’s, which bits are mine, and which bits we’ve both worked on!

Yes, I’m afraid there were lots of arguments. Rarely about the big stuff, it was almost always silly little details – a particular wording, or a particular way a character was acting. Peter has quite an experimental ethos, whereas I’m more rigorous about the rules we’ve established for the Blinsby universe. Luckily, we always found a way to make it work in the end.

We’d definitely do it again, and are planning to explore this world and these characters more in the future.

I suppose if you managed to agree in the end, that’s the main thing.

Do you still live in rural Lincolnshire? I ask with reference to writing about place. Some authors say they have to get away from a place in order to write about it. How do you feel about that?

I moved away during the late 1980s, not long after the book is set; Peter lived there during the writing of Blinsby, but has since married and now lives in the USA. Exotic stuff!

I can’t speak for Peter, but I certainly think having a certain nostalgia for the place helped me fictionalise it and turn it into something ‘other’, a sort of dream space where magic can happen. It’s tied to that period in my life; whereas for Peter, until very recently, it was a place he’s always lived.

It would be interesting to get Peter’s take on that as well, then.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Peter interviewed, but I reckon it’d be a fascinating experience for all concerned.

Can you tell me anything about your next book?

I’m mainly concentrating on writing for film and television at the moment, but I would love to have the opportunity to explore the Blinsby characters and universe again sometime soon.

I just read your very interesting interview with Fiona Mcvie, and was surprised when I read your reply to the question about making changes to Blinsby if you could: “Only a couple of typos we’ve noticed since publication, but other than that we’re exceedingly happy with it, which is a bit sickening.” To me, being so satisfied with something you did sounds fantastic. Why do you feel you have to make a sort of apology for it?

Some of my awkward British modesty at play I think!

Yes, perhaps I notice it more, living away from Britain. Coming back to the setting, why did you make it fictional? What were the advantages of doing that? Were there any disadvantages?

It’s funny, we never really considered otherwise. We started writing the book 20 years ago, when we were around 19, and had previously written other adventure yarns based around ourselves and our environment. The sub-Tolkien stories we wrote as children, which I mention in Fiona’s interview, were a retelling of our own real-life adventures, but with added lopping off of orc heads and suchlike. And in those we renamed all the places and all the people. Peter was Vorogond and I was Culfindol, and our brothers were in there too. So we already had a bit of a history of our egomaniacal writing style!

But I think fictionalising the setting of Blinsby has really helped cut our imaginations loose from the geography and feel of Caythorpe – that’s the starting point, but Caythorpe is not really Blinsby. Blinsby is its own unique place. And so we could make Blinsby as surreal or as different as we liked.

Same with the characters. Writing for Erasmus and Frank, rather than Peter and Adam, gave us the freedom to diverge from ourselves wherever we needed to. They’re based on us, but they’re not really us. They both say and do some things which neither of us ever would, especially Erasmus I think. Erasmus goes on the biggest journey and has the biggest arc of any of the characters, by going through life-changing events Peter never had the chance to experience.

When it comes to the supporting characters, we also wanted to be quite sensitive about not saying “this character is based on this person”. So we played with archetypes a lot; and even when real people may have acted as a starting point for some of the characters, everyone is very heavily fictionalised by the time they reach the page. I think this is why readers have responded with such familiarity and positivity to the characters – no matter what your school environment, or where or when you went to school, everyone knew these people. Everyone remembers an Anastasia Krum or a Posy Flatfist or a Benedict Hornbeam or a Luke Carpenter.

Thank you so much for joining me on my blog, Adam, and for your thoughtful and comprehensive replies. I am now intrigued about Blinsby and looking forward to reading it.

Thank you for having me, it’s been fun!

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Blinsby is available from Amazon, Crooked Cat Books and elsewhere.

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November, for my third year running, means: NaNoWriMo, that month when crazy people around the world, together or alone, type out a lot of words, hopefully 50,000 of them. So if you don’t see me around so much, you’ll know what I’m doing. As usual, I haven’t planned enough of the novel in advance, but I have a provisional title and a cover that I rather like.

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Last night, at my Toastmasters Club, I gave a speech called: A Novel Approach. I’m sure you can guess what that was about. It was my second speech there. I didn’t think my first one was good enough to publicise. This one wasn’t perfect either, but it’s an improvement:

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Today, I discovered a new, comprehensive map of the Machane Yehuda market, which features in my novel: Neither Here Nor There. It’s designed by Joel Haber and includes a complete list of all the stalls, shops, bank and whatnot in the area. I used the map to rewrite part of the novel:

So, Esty is at number 7 when she spies Mrs G and her accomplice marching towards her. She has to get away from them. Along 16 and back along 3 and 4? No, she’d be too visible there. So she goes along 6 and 5, then turns along 12 and hops on a train at 29. But the two women are just behind. Will they catch her?

but I think  prefer the original!

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The other day, I read a blog post that made me angry. I was so angry that I decided to write a blog post about it, even though it wasn’t about anything this blog is about. When I’d finished writing it, I felt less angry and decided it really wasn’t suitable here. So it remains in my draft posts. Perhaps I’ll put the sentiments into a novel one day. Perhaps I’ll put them into the novel I’m about to write. We’ll see.

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Whether you’re doing NaNo or not, I wish you lots of success and will be back on the other side, if not before.

BackInApril

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No, that’s from a different break.

This time it’s December.

History was one of the subjects I quite enjoyed at school. I wasn’t so keen on the ancient history we started off with, but I found later history interesting. I also liked the fact that the History teacher often chose me to read from the text book while the English teacher never did. I was disappointed when I couldn’t continue History to O-level because of timetable conflicts.

Printing PressHow much of my three years of History do I remember now? Not a lot. Certainly not the lists of dates I memorised then. But there are some facts I remember learning – like the invention of the printing press by William Caxton, for instance. In fact all the people and places we learned about were either British or involved in wars against Britain. I didn’t really question why this was. I sort of assumed that only Britain mattered in the world.

Anyway, I was British and it was good to know how important Britain was, especially while the news was often about the colonies that Britain was losing.

In some ways I felt the history we learned belonged to me while in others I didn’t. Jews were never mentioned in that history. The only time I heard about Jews of the past at school was in an English lesson when we started studying The Merchant of Venice. The teacher said, “I know that a lot of you are Jewish and there has been some criticism of the portrayal of the Jew in this play. You have to remember that there were no Jews in England at the time it was written because they’d been expelled, so Shakespeare didn’t actually know any Jews.”

“Hmm,” I thought. “Why weren’t we told about that expulsion in History lessons?”

Then I found a book at home called The History of the Jews in England, and I actually read it just out of interest, because I identified with the people mentioned in it more than I did with the kings and queens and everyone else in my school text books.

I digress. Where was I? The printing press and the trigger for this post. It was a BBC Radio 4 series called Germany: Memories of a Nation. In one of the episodes I learned something that surprised me: the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. William Caxton visited Gutenberg in Mainz and introduced Gutenberg’s invention to the English.

Why didn’t we learn this at school? Why was British history the only history? Why were deeds of note by foreigners transferred to British people?

I wonder if this has changed since I was at school.

This is the first of a series of author interviews. I decided to hold them interactively rather than sending authors a list of questions. That way, my questions can relate more to previous answers. I hope this will produce some interesting interviews.

My “guineapig” is Sarah Louise Smith whose new novel, Independent Jenny, was published by Crooked Cat Publishing last month.

Sarah Louise SmithHello Sarah and welcome to my blog. Could you start by telling us something about your new book?

Hello Miriam and thank you so much for having me!

Independent Jenny is about a woman who has just found out her husband cheated on her. While she’s trying to process this and figure out whether to forgive him, she finds out her brother-in-law has always had a thing for her. Confused and unsure which brother sh wants, she goes on holiday with her friend Hayley to clear her head… but Hayley has an ulterior motive which leaves Jenny to spend time with her ex-boyfriend; who is now married. It’s about love, lust, relationships, forgiveness and figuring out what you want.

This is the third novel you’ve had published by Crooked Cat. What do you think stands out in your novels? Why did Crooked Cat choose Amy and Zach – your first novel – over the many others it must have rejected?

Wow, that’s an interesting question and only Crooked Cat could tell you the real answer. I think I have quite a clear voice in my novels, they’re all written in the first person and the characters really talk to the reader. I also try to keep them fast-paced, and although there are sad moments, they have a bit of humour and light-heartedness which perhaps made the Cat smile on occasion 😉

I also think humour is important – even in novels that are basically serious or sad.

How important is setting in your novels? Do you have real or fictional settings? (Sorry I haven’t had a chance to read them yet.)

The setting is very important, and I tend to use real places. In my first novel, Amy & Zach, it’s all about a girl who travels from the UK to live in Boston, Massachusetts… in Izzy’s Cold Feet, Izzy goes on a bit of a trip … and as for Independent Jenny, the novel is set in two of my favourite places in the UK: Bath (Jenny’s hometown) which has so much character, I adore it … and the Isle of Skye in Scotland – I went there on holiday last year and found much of my inspiration for the novel while I was there…

I spent a holiday on the Isle of Skye several years ago. It is a beautiful place. I’ve never been to Bath, so I look forward to reading about it.

Do you think it’s possible to set a novel in a place you’ve never been to?

I think that very much depends on how much of that place features in the novel. In all of my books, the places are described quite a lot so I think I would find it tricky to set a novel somewhere I had never been without a lot of Internet research; but that isn’t quite the same as being in that place and soaking up the atmosphere…

How do you create your characters? Are they based on people you know?

My characters are completely fictional although the female lead in each one has some similar traits to myself. For example Jenny has a golden retriever, loves walking and taking photos – as do I! Each time I start a new novel I think about the central characters and what their personality traits might be, so I can (hopefully) give them some depth and make them feel more real.

I like walking, too. Perhaps we could go for a walk together – if the golden retriever doesn’t get too close!

My golden retriever likes to run out ahead if possible 🙂

Have you ever created a character with mental health issues?

No, chick lit is quite light and easy-going so it isn’t something I’ve really considered. My characters usually have emotional issues, but nothing as serious as that. I’ve thought about writing about a character with severe depression, but it doesn’t lend itself so easy to the fun-ness of my genre.

Do you think it’s important for authors to stick to one genre? Have you ever thought of writing in a different genre?

I think it’s different for everyone. But I have tried to build up a readership and brand for myself. If your reader expects a certain style or genre and you change, it may mean that your usual readers are disappointed and new readers are harder to find… I enjoy romantic comedy a lot anyhow so I have no plans to try anything else.

To finish off, what are your plans for the future?

I am currently writing my fourth novel, and hope to finish that very soon. It’s about a girl who has a fling and lies to the man she meets as she thinks she’ll never see him again. But things get serious and then it’s too late to tell him the truth…

Sounds intriguing!

Thank you so much for interviewing me, it’s been a lot of fun 🙂

Thank you for agreeing to be my first interviewee. I wish you lots of success.

Independent Jenny

About Independent Jenny:

“I slept with someone else.”
Those five words changed everything.

After her husband Ross drops a bombshell, Jenny’s emotions go hay-wire. Things are made even more complex when his brother Aiden makes a confession of his own…

A holiday escape with her friend Hayley seems the perfect way to figure out what – and who – she wants. But Hayley has a hidden motive that results in Jenny spending time with her ex-boyfriend Will, who is now married.

Should Jenny forgive Ross? Can she ignore her feelings for romantic Aiden? And why can’t she get Will out of her head?

One thing is for sure: Jenny doesn’t want to be alone. Surely any man is better than no man, right?

 About Sarah Louise Smith:

Sarah Louise Smith lives in Milton Keynes, UK, with her husband, a cute cat and a loopy golden retriever. She has an extremely lovely step-daughter and spends most of her free time writing, reading, cooking, and taking long walks.

She’s the author of three chick-lit novels: Amy & Zach, Izzy’s Cold Feet, and Independent Jenny, all published by Crooked Cat.

Sarah’s website/blog: www.sarahlouisesmith.com

 

You can purchase paperbacks or e-versions from all the usual online book sellers.

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sarah-Louise-Smith/e/B00AX55ZOI/

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/author/sarahlouisesmith

Follow Sarah on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SarahSmith16

Find Sarah on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahlouisesmithauthor

When I walked out of my school gates for the last time, I resolved to forget about school and everything that had happened in it. In a couple of months I would turn eighteen. If my grades were good enough (and they were) I would go to university. The future looked rosy; no need to dwell on the past. In today’s language, I could at last move on.

I didn’t think, then, about how the past had changed who I was. Although, in the years that followed, I had reasons to reflect on that fact, I continued trying to push the past away. It was only after about thirty years that I began to face my past again.

And my past was nothing like as dark and tragic as that of Stephen in the novel I just finished reading: That Dark Remembered Day by Tom Vowler.

Stephen has also tried to put the events of that one day out of his mind and pretend it never happened. Then, two things happen to cause him to go back and remember that time, that day. And the assumption, although we don’t see it, is that he will be a better person for having done that. I have no reason to doubt that, although in my case I’m not sure how much difference it has made.

This is a novel that will remain with me for a long time. I liked being kept in the dark about the true nature of the event. As the end approached, I was keen to know what happened all those years ago, but nevertheless had to put the book down between chapters, because the story leading up to the event was so dark and difficult to read. The event, when it finally came, wasn’t what I expected. I thought… no, I can’t even say that without giving too much away. You’ll just have to read the novel.

The next novel I read will be light and humorous!

PS I won this novel on the blog of Jen Campbell, whose latest book, The Bookshop Book, was released recently.

So this all started when I was reading Seumas Gallacher’s blog and I noticed he’d reblogged something about Alzheimer’s from Chris the Story Reading Ape’s blog, in which he (Chris) had included a moving and personal letter written for World Alzheimer’s Day. The blogs encourage people to reblog and tweet and generally help to raise awareness of the disease.

While that is definitely a worthy cause, it’s not the one I have chosen to champion. So I decided to see if there is a World Social Anxiety Day. There isn’t. But I did discover World Mental Health Day. By chance, it’s today, 10th October. Then I looked around to find out who was talking about World Mental Health Day and whether social anxiety was included.

On the BBC site, I found:

Stephen Nolan presents a special programme on mental health to coincide with World Mental Health Day. Stephen discusses a range of issues; including depression, stress, post natal depression and dementia.

(The semi-colon is not mine.)

Very good, but what about social anxiety?

I know that the main focus this year is on schizophrenia, but I saw other issues mentioned on various sites. Not social anxiety, though. And yet social anxiety is more common than most of these others. Statistics vary because no one really knows, but they say that between 5% and 13% of people will experience social anxiety in their lifetime.

The main reason why social anxiety isn’t better known is because of its very nature. People with social anxiety prefer not to talk about it. But by keeping it out of the limelight, they are doing a whole community a disservice.

Another problem is that of people claiming to have social anxiety when they probably have a mild fear of public speaking. This downplays the effects of social anxiety disorder.

I don’t know if a World Social Anxiety Day is needed, but somehow the world needs to be aware of it.

What’s the point of school? Why are children sent to school? What do we hope they’ll get from it?

I think a good school should show children what’s available to learn and encourage them to discover as much as they can. It should make them excited about all the possibilities and hungry for knowledge.

My school did the opposite for me. Looking back now, I can recognise that some of the teaching was less than inspiring. But I think the main problem was that I was made to learn things I wasn’t ready for.

I received a mark of 29% for my first History exam. Although I worked at it and revised before the exam, that was all I managed, and later on I came to the conclusion that history before the 17th century  is just too boring to remember. But my poor grade was also the result of not being used to thinking and writing fast, because that’s what you have to do in a History exam.

And then, in English, we had to read a book called Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. This historical adventure novel is set in Roman Britain in the 2nd century and I hated it. Looking back, that could be because I didn’t understand it, because I wasn’t ready for it. Maybe if I read it now I’d enjoy it. All it told me then was that ancient history was boring. I was happy to be able to leave ancient history and move on to times that made more sense to me. Whether that was because those times were closer to modern times or because I’d matured in the meantime and was more able to follow, I don’t know, but I haven’t returned to ancient history since then.

The Beltane ChoiceUntil now. I won an ecopy of Nancy Jardine’s novel, The Beltane Choice, which is set in Celtic/Roman Britain in the year 71. I started reading it with some apprehension and I did find it a little slow at the beginning. But the writing was good enough for me to keep going and soon I became involved in the story of the two main characters, really hoping they would be able to overcome all the odds.

This is such a beautifully told story that even I could put my preconceived notions aside and immerse myself in the lives of the Celtic warriors. Even the sex scenes, as I mentioned in a previous post, are described with passion and sensitivity and just the right amount of detail.

Maybe, one day, I’ll have another go at art – another subject I hated at school. But I can’t see myself ever playing hockey again!

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