Sunday, 22 November 2015

Sebitically Speaking: Reviewed by Mumpuni Murniati

Born in Ghana in 1975, Nana Awere Damoah is the author of four non-fiction books: Sebitically Speaking (2015), I Speak of Ghana (2013), Through the Gates of Thought (2010) and Excursions in my Mind (2008); and one fiction book, Tales from Different Tails (2011).

Sebitically Speaking

At dawn on Tema Motorway, a taxi driver goes along a nineteen‐kilometre stretch; half of the street lamps are out of order. At the same time he is dodging potholes with metal protruding, like a cat gnashing its teeth.

In the back seat the passenger, aware of the foreseeable dangers he’s facing, reflects: ‘Ghana is usually happy to be the first to hit a mark but we don’t do anything else beyond that, least of all maintaining the lead. We seem to have used all our allocation of creative ideas before 1966...’

To Nana Awere Damoah the motorway represents the state of his country’s development since her independence in 1957. Opened in 1965, it was one of the first motorways in Africa. Fifty years later it remains the only one. Nonetheless, it is not the only issue which tickles him: From education and social mobility to the Government’s absurd policies; from the running of the state-owned energy company to Sikaman’s customs, his musings list a number of developmental challenges still engulfing the Land of Gold. Sebitically Speaking deliberates on the unsolved and ongoing problems when it comes to meeting the basic rights for the citizens and attacks the politicians’ fixed mindset which hinders progress.

In his lucid and fervent narrations Damoah weaves in the wisdom of his enigmatic uncle Kapokyikyi, enthralled by the old man’s liberating mantra ka na wu : speak your mind and damn any consequences. ‘If a big mouth was the requirement for being a Catholic priest, the pig would be a cardinal,’ he says on one occasion. On another he enquires of the Chieftain as to whether he knew that his subjects were calling him ‘Comfort’ because he didn't crack a whip. Although he would say ‘sϵbi‐sϵbi’ beforehand – Akan’s phrase asking for permission to speak bluntly over a matter.

With humour bordering on irony Damoah is far from shy to admit that some problems depicted have gone from bad to worse. Thus, Sebitically Speaking, if half of the roofs in a primary school are gone after a storm, expect the government to fix them ‐ eventually. For a ‘deadline is on wheels’ is the norm – so, it is either: through a social media campaign the roofs return shipshape in five months’ time or wait. Also, Sebitically Speaking, if a road construction which began in 2007 is still uncompleted, consider it as an on‐going project. For one minute in Ghana Man Time (GMT) is a hundred seconds.

Be that as it may, Damoah’s comparison of his countrymen’s attitude with the neighbouring Nigeria is intriguing. From the traffic arrangement to voting for their next president, he expounds his views in the decision‐making process involved and points out the similarities in the results.

The drawback of the book seems to be its target reader. It may be easier for Ghanaians and West Africans to laugh at Damoah’s satirical illustrations, given their knowledge on both political and cultural contexts. Non‐African readers nonetheless may require background information on Ghanaian history and culture and therefore fleshing out some chapters, particularly for a certain custom, is in order. What’s more, selective use of Akan words will help the flow of the writing; having too often to refer to footnotes to find the meaning of a phrase can be quite taxing.

In the end, the book’s explorations on growth versus fixed mindset encompass race and ethnic groups. Damoah nails down the need to change attitude to move forward. The book may be about a West African country, but I suppose in every country in the world, regardless of economic growth, the dynamics of developmental issues and challenges bear resemblances.

Next time while driving on the A1 Northbound after dark, take a few minutes to imagine how it would be if the street lamps were not working, or remember what is was like to be stuck overnight in 2009’s blizzard.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A Conversation with Catriona Ward

Born in Washington DC, Catriona Ward spent most of her childhood and adolescence in various locations around the world: Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen and Morocco. She studied English at Oxford and obtained a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. 

Alongside her love of books and writing she trained as an actor in New York. Catriona now lives in London and works for Bianca Jagger’s human rights foundation. 

Rawblood is Catriona's first novel and was inspired by the summer holidays she spent in a 17th Century stone cottage on Dartmoor. During her time there she experienced a ghostly presence in the bedroom and this fuelled her imagination, providing the background for the story.

These experiences also raised the question in her mind of what the ghost wanted; of what any ghost wants from those it haunts. She says that, “Traditionally there is some revenge to be enacted, some mortal task left undone, some corpse unburied. But perhaps ghosts are driven by something entirely other.” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Catriona has given the ghost in Rawblood an exceptionally good reason for its actions and finds storytelling a good way to express the fear she experienced at the cottage.

For a debut novel, Rawblood reads as though written by a much more experienced writer. It is well plotted and beautifully scripted. 

Intravenous Magazine says it "utilises all the expected conventions of the genre but remains an original and compelling read".

We wish Catriona the best of luck with the book and look forward to reading her next novel which she is currently writing.

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

My parents tell me that my first sentence was a demand that they ‘Read, read, read this! During my childhood my family lived in some fairly remote places – Madagascar, Kenya and Yemen, among others, and books were constant companions. Later, my English degree at Oxford opened the door onto different kinds of literature. It was a revelation. I then trained as an actor in New York, but found my stride when I began writing and researching for a human rights foundation. It was satisfying work, and the act of writing every day started the synapses firing in my head…

About six years ago I started writing Rawblood. I don’t have a cupboard full of discarded novels – I was possessed by one idea, by this world and its characters, and I worked furiously and probably quite obsessively during evening and weekends. Later, I decided that I had to commit to it seriously, and I enrolled on the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. Much of the novel was completed over the course of that year.

Rawblood was inspired by uncanny events in my childhood, at a cottage we went to every summer on Dartmoor. I was haunted by a furious, malign presence, which would push me out of bed each night. I have described it in more detail here. These encounters produced a deep irresistible fear, a unique calibre of feeling that only occurs when one brushes lightly against the unknown, the dark. There is nothing quite like it – except the feeling you get when you read horror, or ghost stories.

The experiences left me with more questions than anything else. I could find no meaning in them. Rawblood began as a way of exploring those questions. What was the presence I felt so strongly in the night, and what did it want, from me or from the world? What order of being was it?

I found that as I wrote, the novel transcended its origins and grew. Six years later, Rawblood is about much, much more than my experiences in that house.

It was very hard to let the novel go when I finished! But it was also immensely cathartic. And I was lucky to find a wonderful agent, and editor who I trust, which helped me feel confident in releasing it.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I love the solitary process of creation. You really can lose yourself in imagined worlds for days and weeks at a time. It’s wonderful, as a writer, to take readers to these strange places.

As for the role of a writer… Both writing and reading are powerful acts of empathy. Rawblood is a historical novel, set between 1839 and 1919, but I hope that the concerns of the characters, what drives them and the injustices visited upon them feel very present, and immediate. The ghost story genre and the historical setting are conduits for describing particular human problems. Horror, and ghost stories in particular, are really about human action. Grief, suffering, guilt. Memory. How we process these things, and how we transcend them – or not.

Novels should show us back the world, but in unfamiliar patterns of light and shade. I think that’s a good way to see the role of the writer – as a portal to empathy and understanding. And entertainment!

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

The unlikable ones are my favourites. Fiction gives free rein to some very undesirable parts of the imagination! I am very fond of a character called Meg in Rawblood. She is a witch and commits some dreadful acts, including murder. But she’s not motivated by evil. She thinks she’s doing her best for her family.

4. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I wrote a lot of Rawblood at my parents’ house on Dartmoor so that has a symbolic importance for me. I’m quite superstitious about it. If I’m stuck, sometimes I go there to free up the imagination. So, there.

If I was feeling more adventurous, I would choose a cabin, deep in the plains of Wyoming, under a starry sky.

5. What is the one book you wish you had written?

The Sea, the Sea, by Iris Murdoch.

6, What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Read avidly, write compulsively. Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. It’s worth getting the novel into a really good shape before approaching agents. They’re busy people and a fantastic premise or great character can be obscured by sloppy prose or plot holes.  

Identify friends who are great readers of your work, or a join a group to workshop your writing. It’s impossible for the author to see the text with absolute clarity. Reader’s feedback is invaluable. If ten out of twelve people don’t understand something you’ve written, it’s probably not working.

Enjoy it! Writing is such a great pleasure.

7. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I have a two novel deal with Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2017, so I’m working hard on the second one... It’s about a woman who may or may not have killed all her family, in a famous massacre at a remote Scottish castle, on New Year’s Eve, 1928.
If Rawblood is a hymn to the Gothic novel, this one has its ancestry in the golden age of the murder mystery. I love the subtlety and agility of murder plotting. The 1920’s is such an exciting time to write about, too – full of change and rapidly shifting morals. I’m finding it all very exciting!

You can follow Catriona on Twitter: @Catrionaward

Rawblood is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, (Orion Books) September 2015

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Book Reviewer - Tony Malone

As part of our #diverseauthorday Greenacre Writers want to continue the trend and will be posting interesting books and linking to book reviewers.

Danish poet and writer Naja Marie Aidt was born in 1963. Her first book of poetry While I’m Still Young, was published in 1991 prompting Aidt into full time writing shortly after. She won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2006 for her short story collection Baboon and first novel Rock, Paper, Scissors(2015) was translated from the Danish by K E Semmel.

The following quote is from a review written by Tony Malone for WORDS without BORDERS:

“With many readers praising Naja Marie Aidt’s short story collection Baboon (Two Lines Press; translated by Denise Newman), it was not a huge surprise to see the efforts of writer and translator alike rewarded with the PEN Translation Prize earlier this year. Those who enjoyed Aidt’s slices of the darker side of life will be happy to see her vision extended over a broader canvas in her first novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors (Open Letter; translated by K.E. Semmel). This book is centered on the extravagantly-named Thomas O’Mally Lindström, the owner of an upmarket stationery supplies shop, with the story starting after his father, Jacques, an inveterate criminal, has passed away in prison while awaiting trial for an unspecified crime.

Tony Malone has been reviewing works of literary fiction in translation for over six years and has reviewed over seven hundred books. His site Tony’s Reading List comprises reviews on books originally written in German, French and Japanese and is expanding to works from Korea.

You can follow Tony Malone on Twitter:   @tony_malone 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

A Conversation with Katarina Bivald

Katarina Bivald grew up working part-time in a bookshop. Today she lives outside of Stockholm, Sweden, with her sister and as many bookshelves she can get by her. She's currently trying to persuade her sister that having a shelf for winter jackets and shoes is completely unneccessary. There should be enough space for a book shelf or two instead. Limited success so far. Apparantly, her sister is also stubbornly refusing to even discuss using the bath room to store books.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a book about books. All sorts of books, from Little Women and Harry Potter to Jodi Picoult and Jane Austen, from Stieg Larsson to Joyce Carol Oates to Proust. It’s about the joy and pleasure of getting lost in books, about learning from and possibly even hiding behind them. And one of the questions at its heart is whether or not books are better than real life or real relationships

The Readers of Broken Wheel has touches of 84 Charing Cross Road, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Chocolat, but adds an eccentric Swedish originality and intelligence all its own. It is a celebration of books and the bookworm. The descriptions of Broken Wheel are so lifelike that somebody once asked if Bivald had ever visited Iowa: "I just made it all up. In fact, When I wrote the book, I had never even been to the US, let alone Iowa. The only thing I knew about Iowa when I began was that they once had a library cat named Dewey Readmore Books"

Katarina Bivald sometimes claims that she still hasn't decided whether she prefer books or people but, as we all know, people are a non-starter. Even if you do like them, they're better in books. Only possible problem: reading a great book and having no one to recommend it to. But, of course now we have social media so never have to speak to a real live person ever again!

The Readers of Broken Wheel is a beautifully written book and we wish Katarina much fictional good luck with its future and look forward to the patter of tiny text in the not too distant future.

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

I have always known I wanted to write, and somehow, I have always known that one day, I’d get a book published. It’s been a dream of mine so long that I never doubted it would come true. But then again, I never really worked on it either. Oh, I wrote. I started ideas. Gave up. Got a new one. Wrote for a weekend, or a week, or a few nights. Moved on to another idea. I studied and I worked and somehow I spent the least time and energy on the one dream that really mattered to me. I wonder if that’s not often the case in life? So one day I sat down, and I said to myself: pick any idea you like, it doesn’t have to be a great one, write a book, it definitely doesn’t have to be good. It will never be published. But write from Chapter 1 to The End and finish something.

Since I only wrote for practice, I decided to fill it with everything I like in books. And I like small American towns, quirky characters, unexpected friendships, books and love.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I want to write books that people put down with a smile after reading it; that makes people feel that life is more strange, fun, quirky and warm-hearted.

Otherwise, I don’t really know anything anymore about what a writer should be or do. I used to have very firm ideas on it. A writer should entertain, take responsibility towards her readers, write only great books but at least one a year, and whatever else, never experiment. Just focus on the readers and do their job. I need hardly say that I feel slightly different about it since becoming a writer myself…

My characters. That’s what I like most about writing. Writing is basically a socially acceptable way of having imaginary friends as a grown up. And if the book gets published, it’s like having imaginary friends that other people can suddenly see and relate to and have as their own friends.

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Yes. He makes all the wrong decisions for partly the right reasons and suffers as a consequence – I identify with him, I understand him, I suffer with him, but I can’t bring myself to like him. I can’t even give him a happy ending. He just refuses to be happy. Although it’s not entirely his fault, but he refuses the small chances of happiness that he gets. I’m still not sure if I’ll ever be able to write the book. And if I do, I’ll probably have to use a pseudonym.

4. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

At the moment, Chiloquin, in Klamath County, Oregon. But like Sara in my book I don’t have a driving license for cars, so small American towns is somewhat impractical.

5. What is the one book you wish you had written?

Fried Green Tomatoes at Whistle Stop Café. It’s a wonder of a book. And I would have loved to get to know Idgie. But it’s also such a great book that I’m deeply grateful that I did not write it, but just get to enjoy it.

6. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Write the same way you like to read. I often like to read for escapist purposes, to go some place else and meet other people, experience other things, make things up – so that was how I wrote The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. I had never even been to Iowa when I wrote it, but I could sit in my apartment in Sweden, look out on our pine trees and birches and see corn fields. And I could sit at a bar, talking to some acquaintances from work, and hear my characters answer instead. 

7. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

My second book has just been published in Sweden – Life, Motorcycles and Other Impossible Projects. It takes place in a small, fictive, Swedish town and features Anette, a single mom who starts taking motorcycle lessons when her only daughter moves away to study in another town. So at the moment, I’m toying with the idea for my third book – looking out over the small pine trees and birches outside my apartment and seeing the trees, mountains and lakes of Oregon. Or possible Idaho. I’m not sure.

You can follow Katarina on Twitter: @katarinabivald

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is published by Chatto and Winduspart of Vintage Publishing.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A conversation with Lucy Cruickshanks

Lucy Cruickshanks was born in 1984 and raised in Cornwall, UK. She holds a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Warwick and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. She lives on the south coast of England and divides her time between writing and caring for her two young sons.

Lucys’ love of travel inspires her writing. A great fan of the underdog, she’s drawn to countries with troubled recent histories, writing about periods of time when societies are at their most precarious and fraught with risk. She’s fascinated by their uniqueness and moral ambiguity, and in capturing the people who must navigate them.

Her debut novel, The Trader of Saigon, began life after she sat beside a man on a flight who made his fortune selling women. It was shortlisted for the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award and the Guardian Not The Booker Prize, longlisted for the Waverton Goodread Award and named a Top Ten Book of 2013 by The Bookbag. If you want to learn more about Lucy's first book, Simon Savidge, the man behind Savidge Reads, reviews it here.

Patricia Highsmith, Amitav Ghosh and George Orwell have all influenced Lucy’s writing, but her favourite books are Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In an article for Writers and Artists, Lucy talks about the importance of setting in novels, and what it can tell readers about your characters too: Creating a Memorable Sense of Place in Your Writing

We wish Lucy oodles of good fortune with her new book The Road to Ragoon. Described by the South China Morning Post as “Exotic, dangerous, slippery, enjoyable, well-written…” This emotional thriller takes place in the heart of Burma's exotic Rubyland. Three lives are thrown together by the desperate choices they make to survive in a country gripped by civil war.

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

My husband persuaded me to write my first novel, The Trader of Saigon. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I had been saying ‘I want to write a book for as long as I could remember, but without ever picking up a pen. I’d been bouncing between jobs that I struggled to get excited about, and travelling as far and as frequently as I could to try to escape them. He encouraged me to think about writing and travelling differently, and to see that I could make these things my career if I stopped procrastinating, took a risk and actually wrote something. I left my job, enrolled on the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in the UK, and gave myself a year to write a novel and get a publishing deal. Of course, this was wildly optimistic, but at the end of the year I had a first draft, and real drive to see just how far I could go.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I think of being a writer as a job. It’s a wonderful job, though maddening at times, but calling it a role implies some sort of higher responsibility, which I’m not sure I feel. I write the stories I’m excited and inspired by and hope others will be interested to read them too. That said, I love the sense of adventure at the start of a new novel, where anything you can imagine is possible. I love research. I love the detail of language, of choosing words to build sentences, paragraphs and chapters along the way as I try to create the most evocative places and people that I can, and provoke emotions in the reader, be they horror or joy. I love the sense of accomplishment when you look at the finished beast and think: YES.

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Absolutely. If anything, it’s what I strive to do. My novels are set in morally ambiguous worlds – post-war societies riven by poverty, corruption and violence – where it’s far too simplistic to pitch ‘good’ against ‘bad’. Living in the West, it can become easy to see the world as very black and white – to filter what is right and wrong through a privileged viewpoint as we generally live such comfortable lives. My protagonists don’t ever have this comfort, and their decisions of morality are rarely clear cut. They have been described as ‘slippery’, but really they’re caught between opposing sides, stretching the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ behaviour and doing what they must in order to survive. It may not always make them most conventionally likeable, but I hope it makes them authentic too.

4. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I have two sons – a toddler and a newborn – so in truth I’d be happy with anywhere tidy and quiet. A sea view would be a bonus, though.

5. What is the one book you wish you had written?

There isn’t a single book I wish I had written, but there are certainly several authors I would like to emulate. One of my favourite novelists is Patricia Highsmith. I love the darkness of her wit, and the way she creates genuine anti-heroes and somehow leaves you rooting for characters that are utterly deplorable. Amitav Ghosh’s mastery of language is a joy. The way he can capture the essence of a time and place continually astounds me. I admire George Orwell for how he champions the underdog and his caustic judgments on the nature of power. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is a triumph too. How he manages to make three hundred pages of a boy alone on a boat so captivating is a wonder to behold.

6. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Don’t romanticise it. Writing is a skill as much as it is natural ability, so the more you practice, the better you’ll get. Read lots. Research thoroughly. Seek feedback, but learn to separate subjective criticism from the things you really need to have a hard look at. Make sure you understand your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be precious. Draft and redraft. Persevere.

7. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

The novel I’m currently working on is set in Cambodia, against the backdrop of the trial of Comrade Duch, the first senior ranking Khmer Rouge official to be charged with atrocities committed under the Pol Pot regime. It’s early days and a long road ahead of me, but I’m excited to be working on something new.

You can follow Lucy on Twitter: @LJCruickshanks

The Road to Ragoon is published by Heron Books, an imprint of Quercus.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Five Crucial Things You Need to Know about writing a book

Greenacre Writers Guest Blog by Lisa Cherry

About two years ago I was standing in front of a small group giving a talk about the book I had just written when someone asked the question “how many books do you think you will write?” Without a thought, I replied “12”. I almost had to turn around to see who this person was that was answering questions on my behalf like that.
So there we have it. I am to write 12 books it seems and as I am just about publish book number 3 I thought a reflection on how I’ve made this happen to so far would be useful for anyone out there thinking about embarking on this journey of writing!
1.       It’s a project. If writing a book were only about the writing, I might attempt one every six months. You need a robust and tolerant team and the skill to pull it all together. As a guide, if you’re self-publishing, at the very least you need:

·         A proof reader (you can’t do this yourself even if you proof read)
·         An editor (you also can’t do this even if you’re an editor, you’re too close)
·         An isbn number or publisher
·         A designer (are you a graphic designer?)
·         A book cover creator (are you an artist)
·         A printer (do you have the machinery?)

2.      You’re not shit. It’s important that you know that the little voice in your ear telling you that no-one would want to read your stuff anyway, isn’t real. Give it a name and tell it to go away please, as you’re busy.

3.      Your book is now your business. Unless one of the big 6 publishers has published you, you’re going to be marketing your own books whether you self-publish or are published by a small firm. They are likely to want to see what sort of a ‘platform’ you have before they even look at your work and the developing of your platform needs to start long before the book is published.

4.      You need to able to set clear boundaries in your personal life.  Writing a book means people have to understand that you’re not available in the same way as you might have been before. Chances are that you’re doing this alongside the rest of your other life/work so ‘leave me alone, I’m writing’ needs to be understood for what it is and not taken personally.

5.      Writing a book will take you on an emotional journey, a professional self-styled degree in all things book writing, marketing and publishing and a personal learning opportunity you could never have imagined possible. Put it this way; it’s not for the feint hearted but if you want to be part of something that is a game-changer, then writing a book might be just what you’re looking for!

Friday, 9 October 2015

Book Reviewer - A Life in Books

As part of our #diverseauthorday Greenacre Writers want to continue the trend and will be posting interesting books and linking to book reviewers.

Nellallitea "Nella" Larsen, born Nellie Walker (April 13, 1891 – March 30, 1964), was an American novelist of theHarlem Renaissance. First working as a nurse and a librarian, she published two novels—Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929)—and a few short stories.

As part of #diverseauthorday, A Life in Books posted details of Nella Larsen's writing and novellas:

"Recently published in a single volume, Quicksand and Passing are the only two novels – well novellas, really – written by Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. They each deserve to be treated separately so I’ll start with Quicksand and save Passing for later. Written in 1928, it’s widely considered to be an autobiographical novel – like the book’s main protagonist, Larsen was the daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian father – knowledge that makes reading it all the more chilling."

Find out more about Quicksand and Passing from A Life in Books here.

A Life in Books picks out snippets of book news that interest her and hopefully others, She discusses some of the books and alert readers to titles that might not find themselves in the glare of the publicity spotlight. She tends to tweet about literary fiction and interesting debuts.

You can follow A Life in Books on Twitter: @alifeinbooks