Thursday, 30 July 2015

A Conversation with Joanna Campbell

Joanna Campbell’s first novel Tying Down The Lion has just been named as a contender for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize award 2015. The Guardian pioneered this award in an attempt to select a ‘reader-judged’ winner and Joanna is among 70 on this year’s list.

Born in 1960, Joanna grew up in Hayes, Middlesex. She studied at Exeter University to obtain a degree in German and has taught both German and English as a second language. Her love of reading began at the age of three and remains today. Her passion for books has led Joanna to write over recent years and her ability to observe people and remember the little details has been invaluable in her writing.

As well as having many of her short stories published in magazines, Joanna has had her fiction shortlisted in many competitions including the Bridport, Fish and the Flannery O’Connor Award. A collection of Joanna’s prize-winning short stories, When Planets Slip Their Tracks, will be published later this year.

Tying Down The Lion came from a short story Joanna had written, 'A Temporary Uprooting', which was frequently short listed in competitions. It follows Roy Bishop and his half-German wife Bridget, accompanied by their daughter Jacqueline and Grandma Nell, as they take a road trip to Berlin in the summer of 1967. Berlin at this time is divided by the cold war and is recovering from the devastation caused by World War Two.

Grandma Nell has a dislike for foreigners, including her German daughter-in-law, and Jacqueline observes and records the interactions between the family members during their travels.
Tying Down The Lion is a book about division but also about reconciliation. It shows the necessity of family love and understanding. There is warmth and humour mixed with the reality of the prejudices and bigotry which inevitably came in the aftermath of WW2.    

The following conversation gives us the opportunity to know Joanna a little better and we wish her every success with the book.

Tell us of your journey as a writer
I started writing seriously about seven years ago, but there has never been a time when I haven’t invented people. My earliest memory is staggering around the garden with a stick, pretending to be a lame, elderly man. I did this regularly for a long time, presumably wanting to discover how it might feel to be in someone else’s skin. I was always cripplingly shy and craved time alone to make up other lives.
When I was a little older, I wrote stories and poems to amuse friends because I didn’t feel I could hold their attention any other way. When I was seven, I made a guitar from a piece of cardboard, composed a dozen poems to ‘sing’ and staged a solo Eurovision Song Contest to an audience of one—the girl next door, bribed with a sherbet fountain.
As an adult, I couldn’t find a job I loved because I always wanted to work by myself. I was terrified of teamwork because if the process ever ground to a halt, I was sure I would be exposed as the faulty cog in the machine.
I was in my late forties before I thought of sending my stories and poems to magazines and competitions. An initial boost came when I was a runner-up in a competition run by Woman and Home magazine.
Although I have never written with a particular publication or competition in mind, once a story is finished and polished, I check to see where it might fit best. When ‘The Yellow Room’—a beautiful, high-quality literary magazine founded by writer and editor, Jo Derrick—published some of my first stories, I felt I had set foot on a path that I had always wanted to find and follow. It seemed to lead me to buried treasure and I haven’t been able to resist unearthing more and more ever since.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?
My role is to entertain the readers; for my words to move them, either to laughter or tears—hopefully in all the right places. If even one person is stirred by what they see on the page, then that is enough for me.
It is thrilling to be shortlisted in a competition or to be one of the winners, but to hear someone say they were gripped by my story or that they laughed out loud, or shed a tear, is the real prize.
Positive feedback is the greatest accolade of all and the knowledge that I have added some value, however fleeting, to someone’s life is my favourite aspect of being a writer.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
Bridget Bishop, the narrator’s mother in Tying Down The Lion, made me bristle at first. She is enveloped in her own past and preoccupied with her quest to go ‘home’ to Berlin. However, as Bridget led me deeper into her story and took me into the past, she revealed the depth of her suffering and the disconnection with her roots had damaged her ability to notice how much her new family in England needed her.
I met her as a fragmented person with a confused sense of self, and readers will find out if a more complete woman emerges in the end. What I have learned from Bridget is that we are all on a quest to establish our own identity, and should try to understand—rather than feel alienated by—each other’s missions.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?
There are two places. One is the garden of the house in Middlesex where I grew up. I’m sure it was quite ordinary, but it seemed magical when I was a small child, with its low walls and little steps that led to different levels. It was a perfect place for solitary games of make-believe and therefore endless possibilities. It is without doubt where, after inventing my first characters, I began to think, “What if…?”
The other place is a high-ceilinged apartment on the top floor of a once-grand town-house in the former East Berlin, where I once stayed on holiday. The shabby building still showed remnants of its former grandeur and the street below had become bohemian and bustling with life since the fall of the Wall. The apartment was steeped in history, evoking both the luxury of a golden era and the barbaric slicing into flats that followed during the years of communist rule. The preliminary ideas for Tying Down The Lion acquired a real shape there.
But my favourite place of all to write is my home, a small cottage in a quiet Cotswold village. If I were told I could never leave it, then providing all my family were there too, I would be content.

What is the one book you wish you had written?
I am having difficulty choosing between two, so if I may, I would wish I had written either Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons or Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. I love both these novels for their eccentricity, the rich characterisation and wry, natural humour. I have been kept from reading many a new book by my longing to return to these and re-read them all over again.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?
In one word—finish!
Seriously, the first stage of writing a novel is like hanging out the washing on a bright day with a decent breeze. Every peg brings pleasure. The sheets are billowing and the shirts are swelling. The outlook is hopeful.
But after a while, the sky darkens and a storm lashes at your laundry-line. If you battle through the downpour, you will bring it all in—eventually. However, after that, worse is to come. You will actually become the wet sheets and dripping shirts as each of them is fed—slowly and painfully—through a mangle.
Beginnings are easy and full of hope, but you have to rise to the challenge when the clouds gather. Progress can be painful and slow, but it will be worth it. I spent five years writing and researching Tying Down The Lion, but a beautiful dawn chorus heralded the final words as I typed them and made every moment I spent putting myself through the wringer absolutely worthwhile.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?
I am currently promoting Tying Down The Lion and also thinking of ways to promote my short story collection, due for release later this year. This is so different from writing! I am naturally quiet and shy, so thrusting my book at people seems a world away from where I should be. However, it can be a lot of fun too and I have made new friends, both online and in ‘real life’, as a result. All my family have helped me with ideas for publicity and been so supportive that I wonder how I would manage it without them.
I am also writing a novel I started two years ago that is now nearing the end of the first draft. There will be many more drafts to come, but it is beginning to feel less shapeless. I have changed the structure three times, settling for four different viewpoint characters with alternating chapters, and I feel comfortable with it for the first time.
This new novel is about a family who experience a tragedy and must find their way through the dark times that follow. Only the reader is aware of a potential new disaster lying in wait.
The characters have reached the stage where they are leading me and dictating the course of events. I am looking forward to seeing how it ends and hope they all find what they are searching for. I won’t know until I reach their final chapter.

Thank you so much to Greenacre Writers for inviting me to join in this conversation. I have so enjoyed answering your questions.

You can follow Joanna on twitter: @PygmyProse
Tying Down The Lion is published by Brick Lane Publishing

Sunday, 26 July 2015

A Conversation with Linda Huber

Linda Huber lives in Arbon, Switzerland where she works as a language teacher in the beautiful and inspirational setting of Arbon Castle, overlooking Lake Constance. Born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Linda left for Switzerland, aged 22, with the view to working and travelling for a year but remained there to raise her two children. 

Linda originally trained as a physiotherapist and worked in this field for many years before moving into teaching. Close contact with neurological patients and handicapped children has given her an insight into the different coping mechanisms people have when faced with difficult and stressful situations and this has helped her in her writing.

Linda has had the writing bug since she was very young and has seen over fifty of her short stories and articles published. She loves to read suspense and thrillers and writes in this genre.

Although Linda has been writing throughout her life she considered it a hobby until the publication of her first novel, The Paradise Trees, in September 2013. Just a year later, in August 2014, The Cold Cold Sea, was published and now, July 2015, her third novel, The Attic Room, has just been released.

The Attic Room: When Nina is bequeathed a substantial estate from a man she has never heard of her life is thrown into turmoil as she unpicks the threads of her past and that of her mysterious benefactor. Having travelled from her house on Arran to see the house she has inherited, Nina becomes embroiled in blackmail and lies as she uncovers dark family secrets. It is a novel full of suspense and intrigue and we wish Linda every success with it. A trailer of the novel can be viewed.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I started as a seven-year-old, doing my Writer’s Badge in the Brownies and discovering that this was something I REALLY enjoyed. That was it; I haven’t stopped for longer than a few weeks ever since. As a youngster I wrote stories about children and these became novels for children. By the time I had my own boys I was also writing short stories for magazines, and when that was moderately successful I began my first adult novel, the book which became The Cold Cold Sea. I sent it to a few agents over the years but never really thought it would be published. But to my astonishment, in 2012 Legend Press picked up my second novel The Paradise Trees (thus turning it into my first published one) and I was a published writer!

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?
I love writing – creating my paper people, shaping their world, their hopes and fears, their story. It’s the best feeling in the world when you write something and it works. I’m not sure I have a role as a writer because I write very selfishly, for myself first of all. And in a way it’s like having children – I love my book ‘babies’ and I’m gratified when others like them too, but I would still feel the same about them if no one else ever read them.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
No. I’ve created a character who does awful things – the Stranger in The Paradise Trees – but although I see what made him the way he is, that isn’t truly empathy because I don’t understand how anyone could make such bad choices. Many people have similar childhoods without becoming Strangers. In The Cold Cold Sea I can empathise with Phillip, who does a truly terrible thing, but he’s such a nice guy, I just want to hug him!

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing?
Ooh, if instant transport was available I’d go to a different place every week and soak up inspiration. I’d start in Scotland, on one of the islands, then I’d go to Cornwall and Greece and to Hawaii and California and New York. It sounds amazing. Wish it was possible!

What is the one book you wish you had written?
A High Wind in Jamaica (by Richard Hughes).

What advice do you have for would be novelists?
When you’ve written your novel, you’re a novelist, and your job now is to make it the best novel it can become. For this you need outside help. (If I’m allowed to make recommendations here I’ll mention The Writers’ Workshop. I still work with the editor I met there in 2011.) Then you can choose if you want to look for an agent, a small indie publisher, or self publish. There’s never been as much choice as we have today.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?
I’ve just self-published The Attic Room and hope to have another out this year or early next. Then I have a further completed and edited novel and at the moment I’m swithering about what to do with this one. My work-in-progress has a working title of The Death of Grandma Vee. It’s based on a lengthy subplot we edited out of The Attic Room because it was really a novel in itself. It’s fascinating using it now with different characters - the plot is developing in quite a different way.

You can follow Linda on Twitter:@LindaHuber19

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A Conversation with Helen Barbour

Helen Barbour was born and brought up in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and now lives in North London. She began her working life as a journalist on the Express & Star evening newspaper in Wolverhampton, and has written for the lifestyle magazine, Complete Wellbeing, and for the mental health charities Mind and OCD Action. Raj Persaud, well known consultant psychiatrist, (and ex-member of Greenacre Writers) recently interviewed Helen about her OCD

She blogs as The Reluctant Perfectionist about living with obsessive‑compulsive disorder, perfectionism and anxiety. Helen enjoys red wine, live stand-up comedy and adventurous travel and experiences, which have included trips to the Arctic, ballooning and a tandem skydive. Her life’s ambition is to figure out what ‘good enough’ means. 

Helen is a member of Greenacre Writers, whose Finish That Novel group helped her to fine-tune her debut novel, The A to Z of Normal, which has just been published. This week, Helen talks to us about why and how she wrote it.

What inspired you to write 
The A to Z of Normal?
Like many a writer – and, indeed, non-writer – I’d been saying I wanted to write a novel for years, but did nothing about it until one of my closest friends was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That made me reflect on what I would want to have achieved, if that were me, and provided the impetus for me to turn my dream into reality.

I was inspired to write about mental health issues by my own experience of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. There is still a huge amount of stigma around mental health, and I wanted to raise awareness and understanding, but to do this in an accessible way.

Tell us a little bit about the book
It’s the story of a woman struggling to overcome her obsessive‑compulsive behaviour, so that she can marry the man she loves, while also dealing with some difficult family relationships.

My approach is similar to that of Mark Haddon, who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Spot of Bother, in which the central character suffers a mental breakdown. I write in a similar vein: tackling serious topics, but with a light touch.

How long did it take to write?
It’s always hard to answer that question! I started it nearly 10 years ago, but when I say ‘started it’, I mean that I faffed about for the first 10 months, doing research, plotting and developing characters…until some friends on a writing forum pointed out that I had turned a necessary activity into a form of procrastination. It was certainly much more fun – and easier – to sit and make up characters than to put fingers to keyboard and actually write a book.

When I finally started, I set myself the target of producing 2,500 words a week, as the prospect of writing 100,000 words was too daunting to contemplate.

The first draft took a little over a year to write and I was pretty pleased with the end result. Just a bit of tinkering and editing and it’ll be done, I thought…until I read it again three months later. In fact, every sentence was badly overwritten, some chapters were utterly contrived and, worst of all, it was in the wrong tense.

The second draft largely consisted of converting the text from the past to the present tense, which wasn’t nearly as easy as it might sound.

And so began years of rewrites – if I’d known at the outset how many were to come, I might have thrown the whole thing on the fire at that point! In fact, I lost count of the number of so-called ‘final’ drafts, but none of that work was wasted. With every redraft, I learned more about my craft: from technical skills, such as how to use a semi‑colon correctly(!), to the subtler aspects of writing, like adding symbolism and developing sub-plots.

I also left the novel untouched for long periods, while I made submissions to agents and publishers.

What prompted you to self-publish?
In spite of getting a lot of great feedback, including two requests to see the whole manuscript, I didn’t receive any offers of representation; as most writers will know, it’s a tough time to be an unknown debut novelist.

Ultimately, I decided that it was more important to me for my book to be out in the world, being read, than to secure a traditional publishing deal. From the comments and reviews I’ve had so far, I know I made the right decision.

The A-Z of Normal (2015) is published by SilverWood Books
You can follow Helen on Twitter: @HelenTheWriter

Sunday, 12 July 2015

A Conversation with Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie was born in Nigeria and sent to England at the age of eight to attend a boarding school in Norfolk. The difference between the rich and diverse culture of Nigeria to her new life in England took some adjusting to and Irenosen wrote diaries to put her feelings into words.

This appears to be a thread in her life as Irenosen expresses her thoughts and emotions through writing. When her mother was in hospital for an eye operation, Irenosen passed the time in the waiting room penning a poem. During bouts of insomnia in her younger days the natural remedy was to pick up her pen and write.

Irenosen gave up her study in law to pursue a career in the arts. She has had articles published in many magazines and newspapers, including the Guardian and the Observer. Her short stories - no doubt influenced by the custom of storytelling at social gatherings in her early years - have been published in the UK, the USA and Africa.

Now Irenosen has written her first novel Butterfly Fish released on 8th July 2015.
The novel links contemporary London with 19th century Benin, Nigeria through Joy. When her mother dies, Joy is heartbroken and is pulled towards an artefact which she inherits from her mother: the cast of a warrior's head of a 19th century king in Nigeria. Her interest in the artefact results in Joy dreaming of a mysterious woman of the past which leads to revelations of family secrets. Butterfly Fish is a powerful novel of love, hope and loss written in Irenosen's unique and compelling style.

The following questions and answers allow us to get to know Irenosen more personally. We wish Irenosen all the success she deserves with the novel and her future writing.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.
I've always been obsessed with books from a young age. I carried them everywhere. I always wrote poetry and kept diaries. Even then, there was something about documenting my interactions and experiences that was intriguing. Not because of me but because of what I could glean about other people and their lives through these encounters no matter how trivial. I did different types of writing in my twenties; essays, articles etc. I wrote for a film maker's magazine and for a couple of women's magazines. Then, I penned a short story which morphed into a novel when I joined a writing development programme. I just kept writing, till it grew into this animal that felt urgent, pressing and necessary.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?
It's funny; initially it feels like quite a selfish endeavour. It still does! It requires a huge amount of focus and concentration. Writing my novel almost made me anti-social, I just didn't have as much time for friends as I would have liked. Sometimes it felt like coming out from an underground space only within yourself. Irenosen meet sunlight! And try not to reveal these odd tics you've suddenly inherited. I enjoy holding an imperfect lens up to the world and re-interpreting what I see.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
Here's the thing, I never dislike any of my characters even the ones that do terrible things. I find characters I know other people will dislike more interesting to write because you have to find the humanness in them and there's so much complexity there to explore. A good example of this is from one of my favourite actresses Samantha Morton in the film Morvern Callar. The book is written by Alan Warner. Here's a woman whose boyfriend commits suicide. Instead of grieving in a way most people would expect, she chops up his body, gets rid of it, invents stories to explain his disappearance and pretends to have written the novel he wrote. It's just an astonishing performance, there's such flatness to it you can almost project a series of motives onto the character but they all sit uncomfortably and you're never quite sure and I love that ambiguity.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing?
Ooh, some time in Machu Picchu and Zanzibar.

What is the one book you wish you had written?
Oh God, I really can't just say one, impossible! A few are Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achibe, Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, Tar Baby by Toni Morrison, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Patel.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Write loads, read voraciously, go out and live. Things will emerge in the spaces in between and you might be surprised by what does.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?
My debut novel Butterfly Fish has just come out! I have a collection of weird, dark, surprising short stories out next year that'll hopefully take you to Irenosen's planet so look out for that.

Butterfly Fish (2015) is published by Jacaranda Books.
You can follow Irenosen on Twitter: @IrenosenOkojie

Thursday, 2 July 2015

A Hippopotamus at the Table

Anna Meryt is a member of Greenacre Writers 'Finish That Novel' group. She has published two collections of poetry, Dolly Mix: A Take Your Pick Poetry Collection poetry and Heartbroke described as a collection " inspire hope through experience and identification...Meryt does her motivation proud with titles like 'Hurling Bricks', 'A Shell Explodes' and 'Give Me A Break'." 

Anna has just published her memoir, A Hippopotamus at the Table, the story of a journey to a new life in Cape Town, South Africa in 1975.

Anna, with her husband and baby travelled to South Africa in 1975 at a time when apartheid was at its height. Their journey took them from a high rise apartment in Johannesburg, to a chicken farm and then a thousand miles across the Karoo to Cape Town. There they lived for over two years at a time of growing social unrest against the rigid strictures of the apartheid system. Her husband’s work as an actor took him touring from Cape Town to the townships and into major roles in innovative theatre. Anna's journey became a spiritual quest to make sense of the world in which she found herself, a world where black and white mingled but were kept apart.

The government of the time was clamping down, enforcing rigid censorship and the separation of people. It was the children of the townships who fermented the riots of 1976, rebelling against the oppressive rules of a hateful system. The murders of these children resulted in a huge outcry across the world. Censorship kept that largely hidden from many of the people who lived there.This is a story of a young family living in those times in South Africa.

The effects of apartheid crept up on them until two tragedies drove them to realise that continuing to live there had become untenable.

"Waiting at the reception desk to check in, I saw the toilet signs for the first time, in both Afrikaans and English – Blanke Dames (White Ladies), Nie Blanke Vrou (Non-White Females) … the first time I had to go, I stood outside, hesitating, feeling that by choosing one I was accepting their distinction."

You can see Anna being interviewed about the book via Arise News 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

GW Book Club

This month's book choice is:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014) by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler is the award-winning author of three short story collections and six novels, including her bestselling 
The Jane Austen Book Club (2004). She is an American author of science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. Her work often centers on the nineteenth century, the lives of women, and alienation. Her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a remarkable story of a seemingly ordinary American family, where behavioral science trumps love, where a chimp is a sister, and daughters are research subjects. Fowler serves up a heartrending tale of loss and despair with her signature wit and humor, challenging our definition of what it means to be family, what it means to be human, and what it means to be humane. From a family undone by ambition and grief, narrator Rosemary takes a surprise filled search for brother (Lowell) and sister (Fern) through a forgotten past that explores the mysterious workings of memory.

If you want to join in with the GW online book club email:

We read the book by July 9th and discuss it online or at the next Writers Meet-Up (Second Wednesday of alternate months) for anyone interested in writing.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2015 Readings

Greenacre Book Club
Meral Mehmet:

It was great to be given a free ticket and my ‘one other’ also enjoyed the evening too.  The evening comprised of readings of sections from the books shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize.  All but Ann Tyler, who was unable to attend but had her friend Stanley Tucci, film star etc reading on her behalf, were there and read extracts. For my part, having been quite critical about the book we read – The Paying Guest – Sarah Waters read well and the voice of Frances was much more sympathetic than had come across on the page.

It is always exciting to put faces to the names of authors that most of us will have read and especially interesting to hear how they translate the voice of their characters and where they would put the accent on to a sentence etc which is more likely to give you a view of something you might not have picked up.  Both me and my friend were especially impressed with Ali Smith, someone we had both been meaning to read but not got round to – she was extremely effervescent and captivated the audience not just with her story but with her personality. The evening was chaired by and the individual authors were introduced by Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty who added to the air of feminist strength, intelligence and humor. Kate Mosse was also there at the beginning.

It was great to be in a crowd so evidently there to celebrate women’s writing and to hear the authors’ responses to questions asked – some of which were a bit incoherent – and to hear how they cope with aspects of their craft.

As you will all know by now Ali Smith did indeed win and my friend and I are now determined to read her book.  As if the evening wasn’t enough, we were all given a freebie in the form of a linen bag with the 2015 Bailey’s Prize for fiction, a book mark with the same logo and a miniature bottle of the beverage. What’s not to like?