Publication Date: February 28, 2018
Williams & Whiting
eBook & Paperback; 388 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
It was a time when women were starting to rebel against Victorian conventions and to strive for their independence. This is a story of Hannah Russell’s physical, emotional and artistic journey from the back streets of the East End of London to the noisy souks and sandy wastes of Egypt; from the labyrinthine canals of Venice to the lonely corridors of Russell Hall in Kent. Hannah thinks she has found love with Mary De Morgan, a writer of fairy tales and one of William Morris’s circle of friends. But where there is devotion there can also be deceit and where there is hope there also dwells despair.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I have written a biography of a Victorian writer called Mary De Morgan (Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan). She died in Egypt in 1907 and is buried in Cairo. I went for a holiday to Egypt a few years ago with my two sisters to celebrate one of them being 60. Whilst in Cairo I declined a visit to one of the tourist sites and took myself off to the cemetery where Mary was buried. I had found the plot number in some papers held in the archives at Kew, London, so I knew exactly where her last resting place was. Unfortunately, there had been subsidence over the years and there was nothing left to mark her grave - just an area of flat sand. I was nonetheless still incredibly moved.
What is the first book that made you cry?
I am 64 years old and I have read a lot of books and honestly can’t remember. As a child I read Enid Blyton - I can’t imagine she had me in tears!
What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
Asking an author to pay money towards publishing, as so-called vanity publishers do.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Thinking that what you write today is the final version and can’t be improved, thinking that writing the book is the hardest part (wait till you try and write the synopsis!), thinking that getting a book published will be easy.
Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
All writers have to have a belief in themselves and a feeling of self-worth - it is often the only thing that keeps us going. But if an ego means that you feel you are better than other writers or more deserving to get published - then that is hurtful to self and other writers.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Rejection after rejection after rejection, making me think that what I am writing must be rubbish after all.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I have a story to tell and I tell it in my own way. I am not trying to please readers - after all, there are potentially so many and you can’t please all of them. I suppose I write to please myself in the hope that others will also enjoy.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Of course. You don’t need emotion to write non-fiction. Nor are all fiction books are about emotions - a straightforward “whodunnit” for instance, or perhaps a science fiction doesn’t usually spend much time on the emotions.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer? I have been a member of a local writing group for a number of years. The leader is a published writer and the other members all write with varying success. We are all tremendously supportive of each other and offer useful feedback when extracts are read out. I would recommend every new writer to join a writing group.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Each book stands on its own, so far anyway.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
I actually started writing fiction when I was 60. That was the right time for me to start so my younger self wasn’t writing at all.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
It didn’t really, to be honest.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I am hoping it will be this blog tour!
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
None come to mind.
What did you do with your first advance?
Ha! I have never had one.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I read books for my BA that I learned had actually resulted in society being changed and improved. Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, for instance, resulted in significant changes to the laws regarding sending children up chimneys.
What are the most important magazines for writers to subscribe to?
A writer doesn’t have to subscribe to any magazine - they should do so only if they want to, not because they feel they aught to. I buy Writers’ Forum and as I am a member I also get the magazine from Society of Authors and the Historical Novel Society.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
The Jewel Garden is set during the Victorian era and, of course, things were different then. I try and describe things as part of the story so that readers feel that they are living in those times, but I don’t spend pages “telling” in great detail. Part of the book is located in Egypt and I include a few Arabic words and phrases - I sometimes offer a translation but not always, the words are there to add to the atmosphere, not to drive the plot. I also like to leave some things to the readers’ imagination and for them to make up their own minds about certain events. I don’t always tie up loose ends - life just isn’t like that.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Sorry, no idea.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
The one person who has been a huge inspiration is Mary de Morgan, a Victorian writer. I “discovered” her whilst researching for my PhD on Victorian fairy tales and I became (and still am) totally obsessed with her. I wrote her biography (Out of the Shadows), followed by a novel based on her life (The Jewel Garden). I am now on my third novel and intend to continue until I die - so she really set me on the writing path.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Three: Song of the Nightingale is a historical novel waiting for a literary agent to spot its potential; I also have a children’s book, The lion who lost his roar, also waiting to be discovered. I am in the process of writing my third historical novel, Grandmothers’ Footsteps, that will tell of three generations of women who have “her”stories to tell but who are not heard by a patriarchal society.
What does literary success look like to you?
Having a literary agent love my books enough to want to represent me. It is nothing to do with money but more to do with someone else agreeing that the books are good.
What’s the best way to market your books?
I wish I knew. I have joined FaceBook and Twitter (something I managed to avoid until I had my first book published), I write Press Releases, I submit the book to numerous competitions, I give talks in libraries, I have my own blog and write for others. This blog tour is yet another attempt to get my book out there. I doubt there is a simple or single answer.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I do a lot of research. I buy books, browse the internet, search archives, visit places. I research throughout the writing process but I suppose I take a few months to begin with just writing up the basic things I know - it won’t all be included in the book but is there for me to understand how life was lived and what their concerns were, so that I can write about the people and events as accurately as possible.
Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Not sure what you mean.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Knowing how they think! My second novel is written in the first person from a man’s perspective - time will tell if readers think I have got it right.
How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?
I am still a part-time writer as I have a full-time job. But when I retire at the end of 2019 then, oh joy, I can write full-time.
How many hours a day do you write?
Up until a few weeks ago I only wrote at weekends and only when I wasn’t visiting my grand-children, which always takes priority - so probably minimum 0 hours to maximum 7 each weekend day. But I have just got rid of my television (absolute bliss - I strongly recommend it) so I try and do some writing each evening after work - probably only an hour or so, but it all adds up.
What period of your life do you find you write about most often?
I don’t write about my life. My books mainly focus on the adult years of the protagonists, but every book is different.
What did you edit out of this book?
Sorry, not sure what you mean.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
All the books I read as part of my PhD!
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
Try and be as accurate as possible and not represent them as people they were blatantly not. In The Jewel Garden I had Mary de Morgan visiting places, doing things and meeting people I knew she really had from my research but I also put words into her mouth she didn’t say and I had her have a relationship she didn’t have. But this is fiction and I do explain at the end of the book that much of the book is fact but most is fiction. I will be very honest here and admit that I actually changed the year of Mary De Morgan’s death, which has been strongly criticised by one reviewer only. Most readers don’t know or care but this one reviewer was incensed. I had my reasons for changing the year of her death, which I have recorded in my blog. In retrospect I was probably wrong to make such a fundamental change but to be honest I don’t think it makes a jot of a difference to the story or to the readers’ enjoyment.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I try and pick a name that is right for the era, that is memorable and not similar to another name in the story, and is easy to type!
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I don’t write for work and never will.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I do read them. I only have 17 on Amazon for The Jewel Garden but they are all wonderful. I had a bad one printed in a magazine (the one that criticised me for changing the death of Mary De Morgan) and I was absolutely gutted. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. It resulted in me writing a blog and I will never do such a thing again.
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Not knowingly although perhaps changing the year of Mary’s death can be considered a secret? It wasn’t intended to be a secret.
What was your hardest scene to write?
The end. Just because I knew it was the end and I was sad to finish the book.
Do you Google yourself?
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
What are your favorite literary journals?
The one sent out by the Historical Novel Society
What is your favorite childhood book? I always remember Bimbo and Topsy - a book about a dog and a cat, written by Enid Blyton (I had to Google it as I didn’t remember who had written it) and also her The Wishing Chair - how I loved that book.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
As a Planner I know the story I want to tell and the key scenes are plotted and written onto colourful post-it notes that are stuck to the wall. But I still sometimes find it hard to break down the concept into actual words. I have to stop looking at the big picture and dive into the detail and focus on a single event or conversation. Then the words start to flow, but it can sometimes take a while and will often involve going for a walk.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
Yes, they listen to me witter on about my writing ad nauseum. My sisters have bought my book and one of my sisters has read the second one and given feedback. My two children were happy to receive a copy of the book and were pleased that I had dedicated it to their own children - but I don’t think either of them have actually read it!
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
Nothing. I see no point in looking back and wishing things were different.
How long on average does it take you to write a book? Difficult to say having only written 3 books. 2 - 3 years on average.
Not sure “believe” is the right word. If someone thinks they have writer’s block then I would never say “I don’t believe you” - that would be extremely arrogant and unsupportive. I have often sat down to write and not produced anything - is that writer’s block or just a lack of inspiration at the time?
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