- Welcome to the Triskele Bookclub, Lindsay. Tell us a little about you and your writing.
I’ve written stories ever since I can remember, perhaps because I read avidly as a child. I’ve still got a few of those stories, and they’re not too embarrassing! I stopped work while my children were little and during that time, I wrote four novels – what I now think of as my apprenticeship. Novel four received some ‘wonderful’ rejections, including a hand-written note from Virago which said I’m sorry to be saying no to this!
When I returned to full-time teaching in a further education college, I had no time to write. But then I got the chance to teach some creative writing and I was hooked again. I began to have some success with short stories and started another novel. In 2005 I left full-time teaching to do an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University. As part of my degree, I wrote the first draft of ‘Unravelling’, which I published independently in 2010, and it then went on to win several awards. I then wrote ‘The Piano Player’s Son’, which was published by Cinnamon Press.
In my writing, I am interested in exploring the dynamics of personal relationships. In particular, I enjoy writing about family relationships, whether between husbands/wives, partners, siblings, parents and children. They often involve power struggles and are a microcosm of the wider dynamic of society’s relationships. The family can be a source of wonderful, nurturing relationships, or a cause of destruction and pain, that mixture of love and hate that is common in many families.
- I read and enjoyed The Piano Players Son. Tell us a little about the book.
‘The Piano Player’s Son’ tells the story of a family with four grown up children. At the beginning of the novel, the father, Henry, dies, and the mother tells one of her daughters, Isabel, a secret that has been kept for thirty-five years. She also makes her promise not to tell anyone. The novel largely revolves around the repercussions as the secret gradually emerges, including another – perhaps bigger - secret. Nothing is quite as it seems.
The story also concerns inheritance and the difficulties it can cause within a family. I’m not so interested in the inheritance of money but less obviously valuable things. People have told me about cases such as two sisters not speaking to each other again because one got the father’s watch and the other didn’t. It seems to be about something much deeper than the disputed item – more to do with an individual’s place in the family, their worth, how much they were valued. The item in the novel – as the title suggests – is a piano!
- Family secrets and complex relationships are a big focus. What were your influences or reasons for writing the novel?
I am interested in secrets and their impact. It often appears that it is the secret itself rather than the truth behind it that does the damage, especially when the person has died and can’t be asked questions. As Isabel says ‘Finding out undermines all the certainties.’ In the novel ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ also explores the corrosive effects of keeping secrets on the individual. In 1984, George Orwell writes ‘If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.’ And perhaps that’s the main problem with secrets – in order to keep them, we also have to lie to ourselves. We must pile thought after thought on top of the secret, so that eventually we live in a false world. But it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to explain what psychological damage such behaviour is likely to inflict on an individual. Secrets or ‘lies’ are the strongest walls we can build within and around ourselves, trapping us in a prison of deception.
Certainly, the novel suggests that Henry was damaged by the secrets he kept. He poured all his love into his relationship with Eva – the one person who shared the secrets – whereas his relationship with at least two of his children was damaged. His eldest son, Rick, craved affection, but nothing he did ever seemed good enough to gain his father’s love. Grace, the other daughter, was never convinced her father loved her, leaving her doubly upset that she wasn’t there when he died. As she tells her friend Lilian ‘I always thought one day I’d get a chance to ask him if he loved me.’ The effect of keeping secrets appears to have made him an emotionally distant father.
- You've had a foot in two publishing camps. You self published your first novel but have moved to Cinnamon press, a small Welsh publisher for The Piano Players Son. Why the change in direction?
Self-publishing has leapt forward in the four years since I published ‘Unravelling’, and I was happy to continue with the independent route, especially since joining the Alliance of Independent Authors and being part of such a vibrant group with the emphasis on professionalism. But I entered ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ for the Cinnamon Press novel writing award (some of my short stories have been published by them) and it won. The prize was publication - ‘an offer I couldn’t refuse’.
- We met at LBF 14, shared a sofa a rowdy ALLI event I recall! What were your experiences of the event and what do you think it offers authors?
The best thing about LBF 14 for me was meeting other ALLI members, both those I already knew and those who previously had been only a name, a few comments and a thumbnail photo. There was a lovely sense of community in the gathering. As a whole, though, I was disappointed with LBF’s offerings for authors. The size of the author area was inadequate for the numbers using it, and the events put on for authors (apart from the ALLI ones) didn’t take into account the professionalism of many indie authors. The session on reviews was an example of this – all the reviewers said they wouldn’t consider reviewing self-published books because you couldn’t guarantee the quality.
- They say to be a great writer you must be a great reader. What do you read and who are your literary heroes?
I read mainly novels and poetry. When I was younger I read all the classics, but now tend to read modern novels, probably veering towards literary fiction, although I do enjoy thrillers sometimes. And I think all novels need that ‘must turn over the page to see what happens’ quality that the best thrillers and crime fiction have.
I’m not sure I have literary heroes as such, but writers whose work I’ve loved but haven’t read for a long time include Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Rosamund Lehman, Graham Greene.
More contemporary writers whose work I like include Maggie O’Farrell (especially ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’), Helen Dunmore, Rose Tremain, Anne Tyler (I’m thrilled that some people have compared my books with hers), Stella Duffy, Anne Enright. I’m conscious they’re all women, so redress the balance slightly I also like the Irish writers William Trevor and Sebastian Barry.
- What's next for you in terms of your literary career?
I’m about 60,000 words into the first draft of my next novel, provisionally called ‘Phoenix’. It involves a family again, this time a brother and sister are the main protagonists, and its theme is the clash between personal ambition/self-fulfilment and family expectations and demands. I’m hoping to finish this draft by the end of September/October and then start the redrafting and editing process. I hope it will be ready to publish April or May 2015. I will probably take the indie route again. I also hope to continue writing short stories and flash fiction and will send those off to competitions
You're a creative writing tutor, as well as a novelist, what are your three top tips to an up and coming author desperate to see their work in print?
- 1) Learn the craft of creative writing and write the very best work you can. This includes reading widely and studying how other writers do it.
- 2) Be prepared to rewrite and rewrite until the writing is polished. Discipline, determination and patience are necessary qualities for writers. Value the feedback you receive whether it’s positive or negative – there is usually something to be learned.
- 3) When it’s as good as you make it, send it out or find out about self-publishing. It won’t get anywhere tucked away in a drawer.
- What advice do you wish you'd been given when you started out as a writer?
The best advice I was given in my early days of writing novels was ‘cut, cut and cut again’. I still think that’s true, but now I realise it’s also important to develop scenes, to flesh them out or dramatise them. Sometimes a first draft is sketchy and the layers need to be added. I also wish I’d understood more of the craft of writing. Most of my fiction was instinctive or what I had absorbed subconsciously from my reading. I’ve learnt a lot about writing from teaching it.
I wish someone could have looked into the future and told me about computers and how indie publishing would burgeon. I was conditioned to believe that if your work was good enough, it would be picked up by a publisher/agent one day. I don’t think that any more, but nowadays it doesn’t matter – the stranglehold of the traditional publishers is being prised apart.
- What writing ambitions do you still want to achieve?
I want to write and publish more novels. The one I’m currently writing began life with another huge thread attached to it. I eventually had to accept the novel wasn’t working because it was actually two narratives that I was trying to jam into one, like trying to put two feet into one sock. I had to unpick them and decide which thread to go with first. But I’m itching to return to the other thread as soon as I’ve finished the current one. It’s about a young Ethiopian woman who was brought out of Ethiopia when she was about eight and brought up in England by the white middle-class English man who ‘rescued’ her and his wife. I think it will be my most challenging novel to date.
I would also love to be successful in a major competition such as Bridport or Fish publishing. I was one of ten winners for Fish in 2013 with one of my flash fictions, but have only reached the long or shortlist with my stories. But my main ambition is to be read. I would love more readers to find my books.
- EBook or Paperback. Your vote?
Definitely paperbook. I love everything about books – the feel, the smell, the covers, the whole experience of seeing the words on the page. I occasionally read on my kindle, but for me, it’s a poor substitute.
- Finally, where do you see the publishing industry in a decades time after all the recent changes we've seen?
I would like to think the stagnant heart of traditional publishing will have finally gone and traditional and independent publishing can co-exist as equals. I get worried when I read items such Amazon’s plan for book streaming – customers pay so much per month and have access to any book as part of their subscription. That would seem to put an end to valuing individual authors. A lot of negatives are raised such as too many books and too few readers – and there’s no doubt that visibility is becoming more of a problem – but I hope the positives outweigh the negatives. As writers and readers, we have to remain optimistic.
Thank you for inviting me to be part of Triskele's Book Club, Gillian, and for asking such interesting questions.