Thursday, 19 October 2017

A thoroughly modern genre – the eco-thriller

Sue Knight’s second book, Waiting for Gordo, published this year by Fantastic Books Publishing, is billed as an eco-thriller. I’m not entirely sure what that is but I know it doesn’t do justice to the emotional range that this short novel evokes. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in its beautifully observed relationships, but within a paragraph unease has crept up and turned into terror. And all within an incredible landscape.

One reviewer said of the book that it took them right back to the Maldives, and it’s hard to imagine any other setting provided the inspiration and back drop, though the location is never specifically mentioned. I ask about what inspired the setting?

Sue says, ‘It was indeed the Maldives and I am so pleased that was recognised. I did want to convey the beauty of the islands. We had many many dive trips there in our expat days, staying at various small islands. And I wrote and edited quite a bit of it on those trips.’

So what exactly is an eco-thriller?

‘Yes. That is an excellent question,’ says Sue, adding into our live chat interview the line <...looks evasive and tries to change subject...> but she goes on to say, ‘Perhaps because one of the book's main themes is the way we find a paradise destination, go there, in our droves, and in doing so, do we spoil it? And yet we are wanted and needed there. The issue of global warming is touched upon too. But I take no sides politically speaking, and have no political answers to offer.’

I wonder were there things about the Maldives and society there that made her uneasy while she was there or have her misgivings emerged with hindsight? Or indeed are these misgivings entirely fictional?

‘I wouldn't say I had any misgivings really - the tourist islands are very separate from the day to day life of the Maldives and I never even travelled to Male, the main island. My thoughts over the years were mainly about the increasing luxuries tourism requires, and how it weighs with these small isolated islands, so remote and set so low in the beautiful Indian Ocean.’

The story at times is very funny as it charts the different relationships of the group on the island, but there are moments of dreadful unease that become real terror. I ask Sue if she has walked around a remote island at night on her own? And if so, how did it feel?

She thanks me for finding the book both funny and frightening as that was what she was aiming for. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I have walked on the islands at night, though not all the way round as my heroine does. It was lovely. And felt safe. I liked the evenings and nights there best of all. There are no cars, no traffic noise, just the sea beating and beating against the island edges. The stars are bright and the air smells of frangipani blossom. I wasn't so keen on Disco/Karaoke night blaring out from the bar at the other end, but that was only one night, and it is what many tourists want. I never felt at all uneasy about walking on my own in the dark there. I enjoyed it. But it is nearly ten years since I was there, and sadly things may have changed, as violence seems to be on the increase everywhere.’

Sue’s first book, a novelette called Till They Dropped, was very different in terms of its setting and characters, yet it had that same edge-of-seat tension and was perhaps giving the same message from a very different angle. I ask if she would agree.

‘Yes, “Till they Dropped” could be described as an eco-thriller I guess, as, many many years ago, I began to wonder about all the shopping malls being built, and whether the world would run out of shoppers. So I decided to write the story of the last shopper left alive, and the deadly danger that would put her in. But that was also about the brave new world we tried so hard to build in the wake of WW2.’

Will there be any more Maldives-inspired books?

‘I don't think so, no. So I hope I have done them justice in this one.’

Undoubtedly, she has. Waiting for Gordo perfectly captures the beauty and remoteness of these small tropical islands.

What is next?

‘I am working on another thriller inspired by my childhood family home and another paradise which was my granny's rambling old house and garden - a fairy tale place for us grandchildren. And I am using a Rebecca-ish theme in that my heroine is the second wife haunted by the memory of the first wife. I even have a Mrs Danvers figure. It is nearly finished. And I hope it is scary, but also funny.’

I for one, can’t wait for the next book, and I’ll leave the last word to Sue who, in response to that genre question again, says, ‘I would like to call it a post-modern version of Rebecca, but the problem with that is that someone might ask me what that means. And the only thing I can think of to say with reference to “post-modern” is that it is a phrase that testifies to the foolishness of calling any movement in art “modern”.’

Follow Sue’s blog HERE

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Out of Africa? The Midrashim

Elaine Hemingway is a writer with a wide and varied writing CV. Retired now, she spent many years in Africa and was once a regular contributor to a local newspaper with a column called Stille Oomblik, which translates to Quiet Moment. 

‘I had to give up the column,’ she says, ‘when we moved to Natal.’ But clearly the writing bug had well and truly caught her long before then, and her publications track her progress down Africa, with a short story in a Zambian newspaper, an article in a car magazine reflecting the self-sufficient life she and her family had to lead, and her Stille Oomblik column from the Transvaal.

Elaine has long nurtured ambitions to write a longer piece. ‘As we moved down Africa,’ she says, ‘I became fascinated by the history, acquiring the diaries of Johan van Riebeeck and attempting an historical novel based on his time in South Africa.’

Was the book ever completed?

‘Sadly not, because life continued to intrude,’ says Elaine, ‘and I became more adept at procrastination. But it was my religious values that brought me back to my writing. I grew up with Christian beliefs, but only after a particular disaster did I come to full commitment and find my niche. Writing and studying became a real pleasure, to be indulged more deeply. My Stille Oomblik column was a part of it.’

Elaine ran a Resource Centre which demanded a lot of reading and presenting of reviews. She also led a home Bible Study group and Experiencing God courses, all of which left little time for general writing although she managed a couple of articles in Baptist Today and Christian Living magazines. After this and after producing a 40th anniversary brochure and magazine complete with interviews with all the many Pastors, Elaine says, ‘It seemed inevitable that we would start a writing group and that’s what we did.’

This writing group spawned a self-published novel from one of the church deacons as well as many other forms of writing including biblical crosswords. ‘We even started a quarterly Church News mag,’ says Elaine.

Elaine and her husband Dennis moved back to England, after which the group disbanded but the Resource Centre still continues.

Since her retirement Elaine has become an active member of the Faith Writers and has completed the annual NaNoWriMo challenge which she intends doing again this year. Elaine has used NaNoWriMo to kickstart an ambitious project, a Midrashim – fiction based on a Biblical account – in which she interleaves a present-day story of Marla, a young woman struck by sudden tragedy, with the story of another young woman, Shayna, caught up in the Babylonian wars of around 600 BC.

And how does it feel to have her major work well underway? ‘It is really taxing me,’ says Elaine. ‘It’s far more difficult than preparing Bible studies! Juggling two time frames isn’t making it any easier so I waver between perseverance and procrastination.’

I have had the good fortune to have heard some extracts from Elaine’s magnum opus. She has captured her two time-frames exquisitely, portraying the grief and despair of the modern Marla, and the terrifying maelstrom of war in which Shayna is swept up.

Don’t procrastinate too long, Elaine, and please come back here to let us know when the book is finished.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Looking at a few of the oddities of fiction writing

The seven blogs following this will explore a variety of corners of fiction writing, looking at some of the less well-known genres as well as the issues of writing in a popular genre. I have lined up writers whose fiction ranges from factual base to fantasy world; from debut novelists to international best-sellers, some of whom are well-nigh impossible to pigeonhole. The one thing they have in common is that I enjoy their work. I hope you will too. As the blogs are published, the links below will come live, one a week starting one week from today - mark the dates.

From old records to human stories

All things fantastical but drawing the line at Grimdark

When romance spells trouble

With Criminal Intent

International best-sellerdom via an unconventional route

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Set in Hull, the UK City of Culture – a publisher’s nightmare author

Syrup TrapCity, due out in August 2017, is set in the UK in the northern port of Hull. It opens as Hull’s City of Culture year dawns. But in order for it to be published in that same City of Culture year I had to write it in advance. In the summer of 2016 I was writing about the winter that was yet to come, studying long-range forecasts. 
(Please, no snow. Why not? Think Poirot and mobile phones)

From the start, I nursed an ambition (kept from my publisher) to grab the manuscript back out of production at the last minute to add something iconic that marked Hull’s birth as UK City of Culture. A publisher’s nightmare, the author who insists on last minute changes.

Nonetheless, I intended doing it, but what would it be? I wasn’t going to bend the plot. I just wanted that iconic something-or-other in there. It would have to happen early in the year, so as to disrupt, as opposed to kill dead, the production of the book.

And the good people of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 presented me with the perfect event.

Blade was conceived byartist Nayan Kulkarni, and was one of the first of a programme of temporary artworks created for the city’s public spaces.

Blade was a 75 metre long, 25 tonne rotor blade; the world’s largest, handmade fibreglass component, and one of the first made at the Siemens factory in Hull. On the night of January 7th, it was transported secretly in an incredible feat of logistics and engineering, to be installed in the town centre bisecting Queen Victoria Square, reaching from Savile Street to Carr Lane, rising from street level (where pedestrians could run their hands over its smooth skin) to a height of over 5.5 metres at its tip, allowing double-decker buses to travel beneath.

The only dilemma for me was whose story should intersect with the Blade’s epic journey? Someone needed to spot that giant convoy in the small hours and wonder about it for a moment. Annie maybe; she tends to be out and about at night. Or restaurateur, Meriç, who would officially disapprove of the disruption and secretly delight in the extra publicity. It could be head waiter, Yağız, out trying to track Annie. Perhaps Ayaan and Cari Ahmed could come across it whilst out for a romantic stroll late that night. It might even be Max Corder striding the city streets as he checks his many and varied investments.

To decide who would have the job, I checked to see who was where, and who would be best in the role. I expected to have many options. I’ll bet those engineers thought they would have options too. But much in the way that Blade would fit one way, and one way only, in Queen Victoria Square, it turned out that Blade would fit one way, and one way only, in Syrup Trap City
What was my lone option? Sorry, no spoilers. It'll be out soon. Read the book.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Advice for writers #13: hidden gems or crazy counsel? No greater agony...?

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #13.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” (Maya Angelou)

*No* greater agony? Hmmm...

I know from experience that there is a spectrum that runs from mild frustration to serious vexation in having the nuts and bolts of a story in my head and, for whatever reason, being unable to tell / write it.

That urge to tell the story is something that crops up a lot in modern life. Why else do warring couples or battling neighbours go on to daytime TV to play out the details of their mini human tragedies for the baying crowd?

Clearly each party is convinced of the rightness of their cause. And, people being people, the majority (all?) of these cases will not be cut-and-dried goodie-versus-baddie situations.

However, these are 30 or 60 minute productions that cover several cases. They need cut-and-dried; and they need goodie-vs-baddie for the baying medieval crowd they’ve assembled (and for their ratings). So every complex human tragedy will be cut, edited, shoved, shaped and led by the nose to fit the blueprint.

Judge, jury and executioner of audience ratings will vilify one side and venerate the other in the interests of shallow, knock-about entertainment.

One side will be declared ‘innocent’ from the off, on the basis of some superficial factor that might be percentage body fat. The appointed ‘goodie’ will preen and gloat, maybe squeeze out a few tears and, urged on by the rabid presenter and the baying mob, will scream accusations and shout for blood.

But what about the people who really matter back in post-production-company real life? Sadly that 15 (more likely 5) minutes of fame is usually it. The 'goodie' returns to a world that at best disregards them and at worst despises them. The nuances of the story begin to matter as the fallout hits. The ‘How could you...?’ from the people who are still around long after the production company has moved on –  children, family and friends. The hope of being recognised as ‘someone from the TV’ evaporates sharply when the only recognition is accompanied by derision. And relationships that might have settled given time and measured thought are now fractured beyond repair leaving families split and friends gone.

No greater agony than bearing that untold story inside you? Clearly that one doesn’t stack up put against the suffering around the world but I’ll allow Maya Angelou some poetic licence, because there must be something in it given the lengths that people go to get their stories told.

Here’s the caveat: where you tell that story can be more important than simply getting it out.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Advice for writers #12: hidden gems or crazy counsel? A mere 20 for Shakespeare and 2 dogs called Tina?

On stage next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #12.

“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so and that’s a lot. As you get older you get more skilful at casting them” (Gore Vidal)

This is an interesting one that has different angles. Those imaginary friends that children have; the sort that John Windham takes to a new level in Chocky; the Gondolians and Angrians of the Brontes’ childhoods. Perhaps a degree of hyperbole here though. Each and every writer? I’m not sure about that. Is it that each and every person is born with Vidal’s repertory company, but not all of them go on to be writers?

Moving on from the ‘born with’ aspect, let’s look at the size of this repertory company. Vidal lays claim to 10 or so and says that’s a lot. With the caveat that I’m not going to trawl his writing in order to analyse each character looking for pastiche and cloning, and I’ve no evidence to suggest that he or anyone else has carried out that thankless task (imagine having to set aside the reading enjoyment to keep turning back to cold analysis) I’m prepared to accept that he’s about right. With six (soon to be seven) series novels under my belt plus a children’s book, my repertory company is no bigger, perhaps a little smaller. I’m not counting extras and I’m taking into account those players who I have a tendency to typecast. I’m in good company in this recycling of souls. Alan Bennett said he didn’t realise for a long time that the dogs in Miss Fozzard finds her Feet and The Outside Dog were both called Tina.

Annie’s Aunt Marian is one of mine. Any time I need a woman over a certain age I find myself casting her again. Timothy’s great aunt (as yet unpublished) is, now I think of it, the same actor playing a different role. And yes of course some books have casts of hundreds / thousands, but they are extras hired in for the book and not part of the company.

Over the years I’ve done quite a bit of editing and I’ve judged writing competitions. One thing that distinguishes an experienced writer from a novice is the size of the cast. A whole host of named characters piling on stage on page one; named extras, whose only role is to bulk out a crowd, are signs that the writer is new to this stuff.

On the face of it, a repertory company of 10 players for himself and a mere 20 for Shakespeare might sound like a huge underestimate, but Vidal hits on a good point and it’s one worth remembering especially as you set out on your first writing assignment.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Advice for writers #11: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Lessons we fail to learn, not just as writers

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #11.

“I can shake off everything as I write. My sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn” (Anne Frank)

Nothing to argue with here. It isn’t a quote given as advice to others, it is Anne Frank talking about herself. Considering the conditions under which she wrote most of her work, it is incredible that she packed in so much of life, of emotion, of philosophy.

She had done considerable rewriting of her diaries with a view to publishing them after the war but of course the job was left unfinished. Happily for future generations the numerous notebooks were not destroyed. Less happily, and fewer than a hundred years later, we are living in a world where too many people seem to thirst for war – maybe they have no imaginations, maybe they never read, maybe they believe that war will never touch them. And whilst they thirst for the bloodshed of others they justify the starving and brutalising of children Anne Frank’s age and younger.

I don’t believe there can be a serious argument that says we don’t all have much to learn from Anne Frank – I don’t just mean this quote and I don’t just mean writers and writing – but looking around the world today it is distressingly easy to find people who have learnt nothing at all.