Wendy Leighton-Porter Author of the 'Shadows from the Past' Series: 'You don't need a degree to write! Anyone Can Do It!'
Wendy Leighton-Porter spent twenty years as a teacher of French, Latin and Classical studies in the UK, before a change of career led her to writing books for children instead. She currently divides her time between homes in South West France and Abu Dhabi in the UAE. She lives with her husband and their beautiful Tonkinese cat.
I met Wendy a couple of months back on a visit to the ‘Wanna Read?’ offices in Abu Dhabi where I volunteer. 'Wanna Read?' is an NGO that believes in ‘healing through reading’ founded by Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan who is also the owner of the ‘Royal Publishing House’ in Abu Dhabi where Wendy currently volunteers to manage Sheikha Shamma’s own series of books.
Wendy is the internationally-selling author of the SHADOWS FROM THE PAST series - exciting time-travel adventure stories aimed at children over eight-years-old. The first book in the series, ‘The Shadow of Atlantis’, debuted in 2011 and since then Max, the talking Tonkinese cat (writer of his own mini-blog), and his three young friends (ten-year-old twins Jemima & Joe, and their friend Charlie) have been on various adventures travelling through different times in the world’s history. To date there have been 13 published adventures with two more scheduled for release in the very near future.
Here she talks to BookFabulous on how she began writing children's books as well as some tips for budding writers...
‘I always wanted to write a book and when I stopped teaching in the UK, I no longer had the excuse that I had no time. But then I had a moment of panic about what I wanted to write about. I knew I wanted to write for children because I had always taught children, and I still liked the idea of educating even though I was no longer in the classroom.
‘It all started when I was traveling on an airplane and had a couple of hours to think. I knew I wanted to write a series. By the time the plane landed, I’d worked out my characters and what the basic premise of the book was about and how it would happen.
‘They usually say to write about what you know. Since I was teaching Latin and Classical studies, I decided I would begin my stories set in the ancient past, in the famous of all ancient places, Atlantis. I then had the idea of a talking cat because I had a cat that I loved.
On the ‘Shadows from the Past’ series…
‘This is an ongoing series. I am probably half way through. I have published 13 in total although 9 of them are really full-length, standalone books, because occasionally I’ll write a little off-shoot story (4 mini adventures) where Max (the cat) has an adventure on his own although his adventures in a way tie in with the series. All the books in the series could be read as standalone books if one wanted to do that and not read them in order, though really they make more sense when read consecutively.
‘I probably have 9 more full length stories to write and I already know what they are going to be. I know where my series is going to end and how it’s going to end and I know each stopping point along the way and titles for these books because they are time travel stories and they started back in Ancient history in Atlantis and they’re gradually moving forward in time. So the one that I’ve just written is set in the 16th century (at the printer’s) and includes people like Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I of England.
On Max … the talking cat!
'He’s quite an extraordinary cat and he’s got quite a real character. And in fact he is the character that children love and I’m pleased about that because he’s the character that I love too. Max really has developed into a hero and with each passing story where he takes more and more of an active role he’s very funny. Thanks to a charm on his collar he’s able to talk and understand what’s being said to him so he often helps the children on their travels.
'Max is in fact my cat. Unfortunately the real cat passed away last year but he was 16. He’d had a good life. So all the descriptions of him in the book and the things people say about him in the book are things that people have in the past said about the real Max.'
On writing …
‘I always have a basic framework although I don’t stick rigidly to it. I know everyone writes in a different way. Some people have to have absolutely every detail planned. Personally, I prefer to start out with an idea of how I’d like my book to end and then I decide basic ideas on how it will go along after which I fill the missing gaps as I go along. I often get ideas as I’m writing. So often as I’m writing I’ll suddenly go off on a tangent and things will occur to me in the process of writing. And I’m fine with that. In fact as I wrote the books the characters grew in ways that I didn’t expect them to as they took on different personalities that I hadn’t necessarily planned for them’.
'The series takes the three children and their cat on time travel adventures that start in Ancient Atlantis. ‘Another,’ explains Wendy is set in Egypt in the time of Tutankhamen and there’s an ancient Pompeii one because ‘when I used to teach Latin, I taught about Pompeii. As I’ve moved into more recent history, the stories are about the [British] history that I know. Although having said that, and without giving too much away, the cast will be travelling further afield for a couple of other adventures; There is going to be one set in France during the revolution, and the last book will not end in England.
'Funnily enough, before even coming to the UAE, I set Max’s Arabian Adventure out here in the Empty Quarter (al rub al khali). It’s really a little bit like Aladdin’s tale with the magic lamp and the magician and along the way he meets a falcon and a camel who help him'.
‘It used to take me about three months to write a book. But since I came out to Abu Dhabi and got involved with all the things that I do out here, it is taking me about 18 months to complete a book because I have to try and fit in writing in quiet times when I’m not doing other things. I go through three drafts before I’m satisfied with the work mainly because I’m finicky about grammar having been a teacher. Then I normally have at least two, maybe three proofreaders go over it because you never see your own mistakes. So you need other pairs of eyes and every work does need to be edited before it goes to print.
‘My husband also edits for me and he is ruthless. He always looks at it and says ‘Adjectives, adverbs, cut them all out!’ He writes thrillers and so writes in a totally different style and I always say to him that for children you need to paint a picture so you need more description. So I slip them back in when he’s not looking. But when other people are correcting me and usually write me that this doesn’t work or that I’ve got a plot hole there or that I’m repeating myself, I do take note. Any author has to accept being edited.’
‘If English is not your first language but feel you can only write in English then make sure you get a native speaker to edit and proofread your work to make sure your writing isn’t stilted and is written in a natural flow of English. I think often when a work is translated as well, if you don’t have a good translator it can end up reading in a strange way. I was given a book to proofread that was written by a Norwegian writer who translated it into English themselves, and it was full of really literal translations of phrases and idioms that meant nothing in English’.
‘I read everything and I always have a book on the go. I love historical and detective fiction. When it comes to children’s books, every time I find that people are talking about a particular author that is current or really good, I download their book and I read it. I think it is something that is important to keep up with what’s around for kids. And there is so much good stuff out there’.
‘I have been reading on a kindle since I moved out here to Abu Dhabi because it’s practical but I still prefer the feel and of course the smell of a real book. Back at home I have a library, which is actually a very wide corridor along the length of which are books from floor to ceiling. I see bookshops as magical places; I can spend hours in them.
‘Although my books are published in the UK, they are all available in e-format on Kindle. To bring them in to the UAE is not terribly easy because I have to get them shipped over and that is the expensive bit. I am looking into though.’
On Royal Publishing House...
‘When I met Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa al Nahyan, also a children author, she had just set up the Royal Publishing House and had released her first book ‘The Lost Princess’. Gradually as I got to know her and she realized that I was involved in writing and publishing with my own books, she asked for my help. So, I am sort of running the publishing house now but on a voluntary basis. But it does take up most of my time and it’s lovely because a life filled with books is what I enjoy.’
On advice for budding writers …
‘We’ve all started at that stage with having never written and it is very daunting when you sit down for the first time in front of a blank computer screen or a blank piece of paper and think ‘can I do it?’ But you’ll never know until you do. They always say ‘Everyone’s got a book in them!’ and I think that having the idea is the most important thing and once you’ve got that just go for it. You don’t have to have a degree in writing to write. I don’t. Anyone can write. When I look back at what I first wrote, I think ‘ooh it wasn’t terribly good’ but you learn to polish as you go along.
‘Another thing is that I always keep a notebook so that when I get ideas I jot them down before I forget them.
'Back at home, before coming here I had my own nice office where I wrote but here in Abu Dhabi, I have to work anywhere although I do need to have peace and quiet although I know other writers who can only write to music. Everybody is different. So I don’t think that there is any hard and fast rule or magic formula for writing. It’s just about going with what suits you.’
by Rana Asfour
Andrew J. Keir is a name you can be sure will always pop up when writing and books are being discussed in the UAE. The novelist and short story writer who divides his time between Abu Dhabi and Scotland has managed since 2008 to publish two novels - 'Bloody Flies' (2012) and recently 'Mac Ailpin's Treason' - in addition to setting up and teaching a creative writing class popular with Abu Dhabi's aspiring writers.
He was the first writer to be shortlisted twice for the Kitab/M Magazine short story prize, the largest prize in the Middle East for short stories in the English language - (The Sirens' Song and Moving Messages). His story Moving Messages was runner up in the 2010 competition.
The Abu Dhabi based author holds an MA from Lancaster University's prestigious Creative Writing programme. His second novel, Mac Ailpin's Treason, is out now, and he is working on a picture book for children. His first novel, Bloody Flies, is out in paperback and ebook.
BookFabulous: Thank you for agreeing to the interview. Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into writing?
Andrew J. Keir: I am the married father of twin boys, who lives for most of the year in Abu Dhabi, and summers in Largs in Scotland. Since I was small I have always wanted to be an author and dabbled with writing. In 2008 I decided I had to do something more serious about this ambition and signed up for an undergraduate level creative writing course with the Open University. I loved it and before the year was out had published my first short story, 'The Sirens’ Song', in The National. After that, I submitted a portfolio of work to Lancaster University and, to my surprise, was accepted on to their MA in Creative Writing. My first novel, 'Bloody Flies' was the result of my time there. Since my graduation from that course, I have divided my time between writing and teaching Creative Writing. My second novel, 'Mac Ailpin’s Treason', came out this year.
BF: What is the one thing that not many people know about you?
AJK: I was once a stooge in the Ken Dodd laughter show.
BF: How would you describe you first book ‘Bloody Flies’?
AJK: 'Bloody Flies' is an episodic novel of interconnected short stories that are set in the UAE between 2000 and 2010. Each episode provides a perspective on the derailing expat life of the key protagonist, Leo Hunter, and his family. One of the themes of the book is slavery and this proved to be a bit controversial when it was released.
BF: Although a work of fiction, ‘Bloody Flies’ does in fact touch upon many situations that expats in the UAE will identify with –some good, others not so – Did that mirroring of reality cause any difficulty where the editing process was concerned (i.e the decision to include or exclude certain scenes)?
AJK: Yes. At times it was difficult to balance a truthful telling of my UAE stories with what might be accepted by others. I think a writer often, but not necessarily always, has a responsibility to self-censor at the editing stages if he/she wants to find an audience. In this case I realised that if I wanted to sell any copies in the UAE I would have to be careful and present certain scenes more delicately than I otherwise might have. In the end, I didn’t cut scenes but I did adjust them. That said, 'Bloody Flies' still caused a degree of consternation amongst certain groups on its release, and I think that was because I didn’t sacrifice the truth at the heart of the novel.
'Tell me Leo, why are you here?' His voice is soft.
BF: Your second novel is also based on real events, is it not?
AJK: 'Mac Ailpin’s Treason' is a historical adventure that tells the story of Cinaed Mac Ailpin and how he became the first King of Scotland. It is set in the ninth century and deals with Cinaed’s relationships and motivations that spurred him along in his dramatic and sometimes dark and violent life. Readers who enjoy a good story will enjoy the novel just as much as the history buffs out there.
BF: As far as historical fiction writing goes, how much artistic license do you think writers should allow themselves and how do you perceive the ethics of writing about historical figures?
AJK: I think that writers of historical fiction, especially medieval historical fiction, can never truly know the real historical figures that they write about. I think that this is also true of academic historians. In both cases the actuality of history is too far removed from modern life. However, writers can truly know the historical characters they have created, and if they have completed an appropriate amount of research that does justice to the writer’s subject, then the resultant work will contain inherent truths that make reading it worthwhile.
On the beach, men are picking up the last of the Gael bodies and moving them to graves on unused land next to the farmstead. The Viking dead and their weapons still litter the sand.
BF: Did publishing your first book change your writing process at all and if so, how did that manifest itself in your approach to your second novel?
AJK: I had begun 'Bloody Flies' with a few short story ideas but no real plan and, about half way through, I realised I was getting a bit lost. I stopped what I was doing and drew up a plan to pull all the strings together. Thankfully it worked, but I realised then that I would draw up skeleton plans of future books before I started writing them. This is what I did for 'Mac Ailpin’s Treason'. The plan was not greatly detailed and allowed room for creative development - For example, my original plan outlined twenty-two chapters, but in the end the book was thirty-five chapters long - but was strong enough to keep me on my path.
BF: How much research do you go into before writing a book?
AJK: It depends on the genre of the novel and what the novel is about. For Bloody Flies I did very little research – just living in the UAE was good enough. Mac Ailpin’s Treason, on the other hand, involved a huge amount of detailed historical and literary research. This detective work was something I enjoyed very much and would like to do more of in future.
BF: What do you find is the most difficult part in a creative process? And what have you learnt from overcoming the ones you have experienced while writing?
AJK: Getting started every day. I am easily distracted and I find the daily discipline of writing difficult to stick to. The best solution is to draw up a strict weekly writing schedule and stick to it. Graham Greene wrote five hundred words a day and I aspire to that when I am in full flow.
BF: How long on average does it take you to write a book?
AJK: Between a year and two years. Teaching and child-care slows the process down considerably.
BF: From your experience in teaching creative what are common traps that aspiring writers fall into and what advice can you offer from your journey so far?
AJK: Most of your friends will say they love your work and won’t criticise you. Don’t believe them. Join a writers' group and you will receive more honest feedback. Criticism is good as it helps you to develop. Know and understand the genre that you are writing in. This will help you when you try to publish after the novel is written. Read more; Many aspiring writers don’t read enough.
BF: What is your favourite childhood book?
AJK: 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' by Roald Dahl – Fantastic escapism that proves the truism that books are always much better than their resultant movies. I still have vivid memories of my dad reading it to me.
BF: Which in your opinion do you find to be an under-appreciated novel?
AJK: 'Siddartha' by Hermann Hesse – Simple, beautiful and brilliant.
BF: What book(s) are you reading at the moment?
AJK: 'Shift' by Hugh Howey; This Sci-fi thriller is the second book in the Wool series, clever and entertaining, if a little long-winded.
After that, I am looking forward to reading Ian Rankin’s new Inspector Rebus novel, 'Rather the Devil'. John Rebus is my favourite character in fiction. He ages in real time, with each book, and his development is intriguing.
by Rana Asfour
One of the most exciting thrillers to come out in 2015, 'I Came to Find a Girl' by Jaq Hazell (aka Jacqui Hazell) is the one you should be reaching for if dark, intense crime fiction is your thing. This deliciously intense novel about female art student Mia, and her entanglement with award-winning, renowned super artist Jack Flood has hit the shelves to very high praise.
Described by the Telegraph as 'Dark, Haunting, Twisted', and listed as their top best crime fiction for 2015, and described by yours truly as 'a disturbing reflective book that will refuse to loosen its grip on you for some time', BookFabulous thought it fitting that more be known about the author, her book and her writing in general from none other than the author herself (of course!). Thankfully, she kindly and graciously agreed to oblige.
Hazell was born and brought up near Portsmouth, on the south coast of England. As a kid she wanted to be an artist and so found herself naturally enrolling at the art college (Nottingham via Winchester School of Art) to study textile design. However, her passion for writing took over somewhere along the line and that was that.
After graduating she moved to London and took up her first full time job at none other than Buckingham Palace where, 'in between typing up royal itineraries, I wrote stories'. Other jobs followed: she published a collection of humorous greetings cards and worked as a journalist and magazine editor, and wrote fiction in the meantime.
Hazell has an MA in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London, she is shortlisted for The Virginia Prize for Fiction and the Jane Austen Short Story Award and published in various anthologies, alongside a growing family, various house moves and the addition of a dog – her one constant has been her writing. Her website (Jacqui Hazell: Walk Dog, Write, Walk Dog Again) can be accessed HERE.
To read the full BookFabulous review of 'I Came to Find a Girl', click HERE and to purchase clickHERE.
BookFabulous (BF): How did the idea for ‘I Came to Find a Girl’ come about? Were there any real life experiences – possibly from Nottingham where the novel is set - that you drew on for the novel?
Jaq Hazell (JH): Safety is always an issue for women and I was thinking about what if, against your better judgement, you find yourself alone with someone you know little about? Thankfully I haven’t experienced what Mia goes through, but whilst backpacking in India aged 19, a man did lunge at me and had to be pulled off by other people. I later saw him reflected in the mirrors that lined the walls of a café in Mumbai and felt threatened all over again. Most women probably have a close scrape at some point in their lives.
BF: I found the book’s title and cover exceptionally clever and fitting the general mood of the novel, how were they chosen?
JH: There were a few different working titles but in the end I decided it had to come from the book itself. It fits because it’s something Flood says, and at the same time it works with the ending. The cover started with a photograph I’d taken of London’s South Bank in the rain. My designer added the male figure and the blue tone to give a sense of menace in a city street at night.
BF: There are many themes that the novel touches upon, some more unsettling than others. What would you say was the hardest part in writing your novel? And are there any subjects that you wouldn’t ever consider writing about?
JH: Whilst writing I do put myself in the place my characters inhabit in order to work out how they will react and that can be tough when they are suffering. I wouldn’t like to rule out any subjects. I think it depends how you handle a subject. For instance I’m not interested in portraying graphic violence but I am interested in the psychological impact crime can have on a character.
BF: Is there a message that you wanted your readers to grasp after they finish reading the book?
JH: I didn’t write with a message in mind, but on completion I suppose I’d say it’s: be aware at all times.
BF: Tell us a bit about Flood. We know he’s already dead. However, he remains this major elusive enigma throughout the story able to exert power over Mia from beyond the grave. In one sense do you you think he himself was a victim of the ‘modern’ art scene?
JH: He’s stuck in a rut making artworks with only slight variations and that does seem to happen to some successful artists.
BF: I have to admit I am on the fence where Mia is concerned. What happens to her is absolutely awful and I thought she was quite a tough, resilient, highly intelligent character. However, I got the sense that she was a flawed character too. Would you say that’s what helped her to react to what happened to her in the way that she did?
JH: Mia is flawed. Her reaction wouldn’t be my reaction, but perhaps none of us know how we’d react until we are in that position. I think she does the best she can in the circumstances and she does rise up and become more combative later on.
BF: There is quite a lot of reference to feminism in your novel. So, whether as creators of the art or merely muses, how do you see the position of women in today’s art scene? And do you believe that the feminist movement has served its purpose when it comes to art or has it been counterintuitive in the sense of what we have been reduced to calling art where women are concerned? And do you believe there should be different standards of art for men and women?
JH: The Guerrilla Girls, who started their campaign 30 years ago in New York, recently updated their famous poster: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the modern art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female”. In other words, there’s been little improvement. Over 50% of arts graduates are women and then something goes wrong. Until we have gender equality in pay, one-person exhibitions and even quiz show panels there is work to be done. As one of the founding members of Guerrilla girls says ‘all voices in a culture matter’. Women are equally talented so I don’t think there needs to be different standards of art for men and women, but women do need to get the breaks, the representation and an equal number of reviews.
BF: The reviews for ‘I Came to Find a Girl’ have been fantastic and one review made reference to the power of words. How do you feel about that? And who/what would you say has had a major influence on your writing style, and what moves you to write?
JH: This novel took me a long time to get right and it’s a great relief that it’s getting such a good response. The reviewer who made reference to the power of words gave a five star review but found the book disturbing. Many novels cover murder but sexual assault is written about less (or perhaps less likely to be published) and that probably makes it more disturbing and therefore more powerful.
My influences would include writers such as: Emily Bronte, Ernest Hemingway, John Williams, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, James Salter and many more.
I love having a writing project on the go. Novels usually evolve from ideas I can’t shake, or a single image I might have, a dream that provides the bones of a plot, or a short story that demands more attention.
BF: Where writing is concerned, have you got a specific routine that you follow or any strange writing habits that you’d like to share?
JH: It’s pretty much: walk dog, write, and walk dog again. When I am in first draft phase I find it’s best to work six days a week – having two days off at the weekend is too much of an interruption and sets me back. My habits are predictable: massive coffee, chocolate and solitude (often interrupted by my family and dog).
BF: If you could be a literary character for a day, who would you be?
JH: I’d be Cathy running wild with Heathcliff, but it would have to be when they are young, before she married and before he turned mean.
BF: What is one thing that not many people know about you?
JH: I like gloomy music. I’m a big Richard Hawley fan.
by Rana Asfour
Professor Rehan Khan was born in Wimbledon, in 1971. As a child he loved listening to swashbuckling tales of heroism and valour, as well as dabbling in science fiction. His debut novel is 'Last of the Tasburai' (check out the BookFabulous review HERE).
As his day job, Rehan is the Regional Consulting Director in the MENA region, for a FTSE 100 corporation. He has more than twenty years of experience and has worked across a number of industries including: telecoms, media, technology, real estate, private equity and executive education.
Khan is also a Professor of Management at HULT International Business School. Between 2009-10, Rehan was a business columnist for 'The National' newspaper in the UAE. He also holds a master’s degree in applied social and market research, as well as an MBA in strategy. He lives in Dubai, with his wife and two children.
BookFabulous: 'Last of the Tasburai’ is your debut novel. So, what was the inspirational moment/event that marked itself to be the moment you decided to start writing a book and so to become a writer?
Rehan Khan: I suppose it kicked off in 2009 when my daughter, who was six years old at the time, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Clearly she didn’t appreciate that going to an office every day was work! I remember writing a column in 'The National' on 9th November 2009 entitled“What I want to be when I grow up”. It was around this time that I started planning in earnest for the 'Last of the Tasburai'. I attended the Oxford University Summer School for Adults in 2010 and remember sitting under the shadow of Oxford’s medieval castle, scribbling notes about a story centred on courage and valour. It was the genesis for the start of the Tasburai trilogy.
BF: Your book is fantasy fiction. Did you always want to write in this genre and what do you think people don’t quite understand about this genre?
RK: I wrote my first “long” story at the age of nine. We had an American teacher, Mrs Myers, a lovely lady from Beverly Hills, California, who came over to the UK as part of an exchange programme in 1980. Mrs Myers had a wonderful ability to get the most out of the children. She asked us to write a story, anything we wanted. She didn’t give any guidelines beyond that. The entire class returned back to her a couple of well-written paragraphs. I ended up writing about ten pages, with lots of illustrations. My story was about a thief who broke into the home of one of my friends whilst his parents were out and he was alone in the house. My friend had to use all ingenious ways to keep the thief from robbing his parents’ finest jewelry and he eventually laid a cunning trap which caught the thief before he called the police. Now that I think about it, the story sounds like a treatment for the movie 'Home Alone'. Mrs Myers was from Hollywood California and perhaps my idea reached the ears of a movie executive!
Since then I’d been tinkering with stories of many genres but eventually settled on fantasy fiction, as I felt it allowed me to bring together many themes which I’d been experimenting with in my other works. Some of these themes - such as courage and the golden mean, worked really well when I tied them together with a group of elite warriors (the Tasburai).
With the success of writers like George R Martin, the landscape is changing and more readers ‘get’ fantasy fiction. Additionally many of the well-known fantasy stories, such as the 'Lord of the Rings', have made it to the screen and so have re-shaped peoples perceptions.
BF: What would you say your book is about?
RK: Aristotle’s four virtues – wisdom, courage, temperance (moderation) and justice have always appealed to me. I wanted to write a story in which courage was placed at the centre. So for Aristotle when courage was in the golden mean it came across as valour and being able to control one's anger, so a person would appear dignified. When courage was unbalanced in a person on the side of excess, it became recklessness and arrogance. When on the side of deficit, it led to cowardice and meanness.
So it got me thinking what would happen if the very best people in society, individuals who others looked up to, admired, wanted to be like, what if these people developed a misplaced notion of courage? So rather than being dignified they became reckless and arrogant. What would be the implications for society?
From this concept the idea for the Tasburai warrior emerged. In my mind the Tasburai were the best of the people – an elite selfless warrior class who held deeply mystical beliefs. I like to describe the Tasburai as a cross between Japanese Samurai, with their bushido (the way of the warrior) and Sufi mystics, with their ideas on tasawuf (spiritual development and cleansing the heart).
So the deeper meaning behind the story was the journey human beings take to return to the golden mean, because when we are in the mean, though we’re all different we can connect with other human beings. Whereas when individuals go to the extreme, it polarises and splits society.
BF: We know that the land of Avantolia is a made up place, yet it is situated by the Caspian Sea; an area in the real world that has been witness to a lot of history (particularly in the Caucasus region). Has your writing drawn inspiration from any of that?
RK: Yes. Avanotolia is loosely based on Anatolia, the old name for Turkey. Many of the names of places in the novel have Anatolian or Hellenistic (Greek) origins.
BF: The book has quite a long list of characters, some with quite unfamiliar names and each with a very unique personality. How did you go about choosing the names of the characters (was it by liking the way they sound or possibly by meaning?) and then deciding how each one would act?
RK: The meaning of the names was very important to me. Though they may be unfamiliar in sound, if readers are interested and do some research they’ll find historical reference points for every name that is used in the novel. So to give you a few examples:
Suri-Yi, who is a Tasburai grandmaster and one of the protagonists, her name originates from Suri (Princess or Red Rose in Persian) and Yi (Chinese for justice or harmony). Naram-Sin, one of the antagonists, has his name originating from Naram-Sin who was the first Akkadian/ Mesopotamian king known to have claimed divinity for himself (2254-2218 BCE). He was the grandson of Sargon (another character on the novel) of Akkad.
I’ll leave the readers with the delightful task of tracing the origins of the other names of people, items and places. I’d love to hear from readers to see if they’ve tracked down all of the origins!
BF: Were there any particular challenges you encountered while writing ‘Last of the Tasburai’?
RK: The writing process took four years and the most challenging aspect for me was trying to find authentic character voices. As there are five main protagonists, this proved to be quite a task. I didn’t want all the characters sounding the same. So it ended up taking me two years to find the voice of each character.
BF: Is it true that some characters take on a life of their own regardless of what the author wants them to do? If so, which character did you have the least influence over in ‘Last of the Tasburai’? Any favourites or possibly least favourite?
RK: With respect I’m not sure about that. Every character is created in the imagination of the author and if the author wanted to kill the character off in the next chapter, they could do it quite easily.
Suri-Yi remains my favourite character, because she is the last of the Tasburai and I found it easiest to sink into her persona. There are no characters who I’d say are least favourite, because each of the characters brings exciting elements to the story and without them being there we wouldn’t have conflict which creates dramatic and emotional moments in the novel.
BF: Why did you decide to present ‘Last of the Tasburai’ as a series rather than as one book?
RK: I always planned it as a trilogy because there was so much to tell and one book would end up being over one thousand pages.
BF: Are you happy with the way the book has been received and what has been the most memorable comment regarding your work from readers?
RK: The initial professional reviews have been very positive, as have the reader comments on Amazon. I suppose the most memorable comments have been those that have likened my work to globally known established authors.
BF: What surprises can we expect for book 2 of the series? And when do you think it will be ready?
RK: I’ve started the writing process and it will be another year before it’s out. As for surprises, it wouldn’t be a surprise if I revealed it!
BF: What books(s) are you reading now?
RK: I tend to mix my reading between one work of fiction and then one work of non-fiction. So I’m presently reading “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science” by Richard Layard and prior to that I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
Jeremy Banx is an award winning cartoonist. He has contributed to many magazines and newspapers, including the Private Eye, Punch, She, The Week, New Statesman, London Evening Standard and The Mail on Sunday. His strips have appeared in comics such as Oink! and Toxic!
Since 1989 he has been the pocket cartoonist for the Financial Times. In 2008 and 2011, he was voted Pocket Cartoonist of the Year by the Cartoon Art Trust. He has published books, designed floats for the carnival in Nice and made 156 short animated films based on his book ‘The Many Deaths of Norma Spittal’. The Derby winning thoroughbred racehorse Dr. Devious was named after one of his characters. He lives and works in Greenwich, London with his wife Elaine and has four children.
Jeremy recently released his first illustrated e-book entitled ‘Frankenthing’ a funny horror story for adults and children. The plot revolves around ‘Frankenthing’, a creature of mysterious origins that Dr. Frankenstein brings back to life to serve as a companion for his other creation; mumbling, cat-allergic, Monster. The cast would not be complete without Igor, the castle cat, who has a score to settle with ‘Frankenthing’ and wreaks havoc in his attempts to re-kill him that soon puts the inhabitants of the castle in grave danger.
The book is not only humorous but witty and lighthearted as well, in spite of its abounding scenes of gore, snot and flying body parts. I loved it (For a full review see HERE).
Jeremy took the time out of his very busy schedule to answer a few questions BookFabulous emailed to him regarding his book and writing. Below is the full interview.
The turning point came when I got the idea of Igor dragging him in from the garden and Dr. Frankenstein making him into a friend for the Monster. That made it fun for me and it sort of took off from there.
And silly ideas cropped up like making the Monster allergic to cats, which became really useful later on in the story. But there was no one ‘Eureka’ moment. It came in little bits, layer by layer, quite organically, till it started to become a world in which all sorts of ludicrous things could happen.
A good example of a complex one would be the scene were Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory is shaking like ‘…a wheelbarrow full of jellyfish rolling down a cobbled path’. Each element does something to crank up the visual story of just how wobbly the laboratory is. But sometimes I wanted them to be very simple and to the point. Such as when ‘Frankenthing was as scared as a vampire’s lunch.’
They’re naturally interested in death and body parts and guts and other gory stuff. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s their bodies and their deaths after all. The main thing that differentiates humans from other animals is the awareness of our own deaths. So children have to be aware of this and be curious about it or they wouldn’t be human.
But children do need a framework of support. And you have to give them a happy ending, no matter how many dark places you have to go to to get there. Which isn’t to say that everything should go back to how it was at the beginning of the story. I don’t like the status quo to be preserved. I like my characters to be altered by their experiences.
I suppose my favourite character would have to be Frankenthing himself. For some reason I identify with him the most. I worry about his wellbeing. Getting him in and out of predicaments was always great fun. But I like Igor too, even though he is Frankenthing’s predicament for most of the story. He’s horrible but he’s highly motivated. There’s always something funny about characters who obsess.
The Monster is just a great lummox. I enjoyed playing around with his back story, to show there had been a lot more to him, especially as a significant part of it took place in the grave and at the undertakers.
Dr. Frankenstein is probably the character I have the least sympathy for. He’s selfish, thoughtless, egotistical, vain and smug. And he doesn’t have to do all the crazy things he does. He does them because he is fundamentally irresponsible and thinks only of himself and what interests him. He jokes with life. I really enjoyed revealing more and more of that aspect of him as the story progressed because at the beginning he seems quite nice.
My advice to anyone interested in self-publishing is just to do it. There’s plenty of advice on the web and free software. Forums are very useful. It’s nowhere near as hard as it may seem at first. I think publishing is going towards e-publishing. There can’t be any doubt about it. I don’t think it will do away with traditional books. I think there’s room for both. And it’s ideal for self-publishing.
It was perhaps the most stimulating time I had working on the book. Because once I’d got over that hurdle and pared everything down to the bone and thought up some new ideas, I felt I had a plot that really worked.
And I’ve kept a lot of the stuff I discarded for future Frankenthing stories. That’s why there are references to Dracula’s castle and icons for werewolves in the map in the appendices at the back of the book.
But my next e-book will probably be a collection of stories based loosely (very loosely) on my parenting of my girls. Then there’s a sci-fi book, and then another Frankenthing. Perhaps not in that order.
To contact Jeremy: twitter -(@banxcartoons) / www.banxcartoons.co.uk / firstname.lastname@example.org
Author Savita Kalhan, takes the time to answer a few questions about her thrilling debut novel, The Long Weekend. Click HERE to check out my review of this gripping heart-in-mouth novel.
BookFabulous: So, let’s start with the theme of The Long Weekend: an abduction of two pre-teen boys. What was the reason behind wanting to take on such a heart-wrenching, traumatic topic?
Savita Kalhan: It is a traumatic topic, and it is heart-wrenching too. The news today from right across the world is full of such terrible stories. It’s a difficult subject for teen fiction – for the writer and the reader, so very little has been written for teenagers on the subject. I think it depends on how it’s approached – with sensitivity, without graphic details, and yet without shying away from the terrible reality of what happens when a child is abducted. And for me any such book must be gripping and real. Those are pretty difficult criteria to cover!
The initial inspiration for The Long Weekend came from a flyer that went round the local schools warning parents and children that a large flashy car had been trying to abduct kids after school. Parents and kids were warned to be alert and report anything suspicious. As a mother I know that the school gates at pick-up time is a frenzied chaotic period of time. I wondered how easy it would be for a child to be taken – particularly kids aged 11- 15, who think that it could never happen to them. But, as we all know, tragically it does happen.
A scenario came to my mind where it could happen with frightening ease. I set aside the story I had been writing as The Long Weekend took over.
BF: I thought this was a cleverly written book for the way you were able to convey the sizable trauma abduction victims suffer (whether during their ordeal or after) relying on insinuation rather than gruesome graphic detailed descriptions. Although having said that, this technique, in my opinion, added a scarier dimension to the novel. Was that done intentionally maybe due to the sensitivity of certain parts of the book with regard to the age group that the novel is mainly targeting?
SK: Yes, it was intentional. I didn’t want the book to be graphic in any way given the subject matter of the book and that young teenagers would be reading it. I don’t believe that a book has to be graphic in order to still have a strong impact on the reader, and indeed, it can, as you say, make the book feel even scarier. Our imaginations are very vivid. Where the words stop, the mind takes over and takes those few words and the unspoken words and images to paint a whole picture – particularly when the reader has stepped into the character’s mind.
BF: Lloyd and Sam are two boys who obviously come from two different social backgrounds. Lloyd is the rich cool boy at school who everyone wants to be like and Sam comes from a middle class working background with slightly stricter home rules (no mobile phones and no play station). Do you think this discrepancy in backgrounds played a role in how the two boys handled their situation? And do you think if Lloyd had been more like Sam he would have been spared his ordeal?
SK: The difference in the boys’ backgrounds facilitated aspects of the storyline in The Long Weekend, but I think it was their very different characters that played a larger role in how they dealt with the situation. In all honesty, I’m not sure Lloyd would not have been spared his ordeal if he had been more like Sam. The crux of the book would have changed, and the gut-wrenching aspect of what happens and how the boys deal with it would have been lost.
BF: What would you like the children who read the novel to get out of it?
SK: I’d like them to enjoy the book, to find it a gripping, absorbing read, and for it to be a memorable one, a story that stays with them long after they’ve put the book down. There is also a cautionary note to the story. Teachers have told me that The Long Weekend is far better than any school assembly talk on stranger-danger. Kids have told me the same.
BF: This is your debut novel. So how long did it take to complete ‘The Long Weekend’ and what were the main challenges you faced during the process?
SK: Once I had the idea for the book, the story and characters came very quickly. The first draft of the book was finished within a few months, except for the last chapter, the Epilogue, which was written several months later. During the writing process, the challenges came mainly from deciding how far to go in terms of how traumatic Sam and Lloyd’s experiences would be. I have to admit that I did have a few nightmares while I was writing the book – the monster was all too real! Once the first draft was written, I read it through and edited it. A couple of friends did the same for me. And then I left it in a drawer for a few months before sending it off. It was quite a different book to anything I had ever written before, so I was a little nervous of how it would be taken.
BF: Away from the ‘The Long Weekend’, have you always known you wanted to be a writer and what influences shaped or continue to shape your journey? Have you got a writing regime that you abide by or do you write when inspiration strikes?
SK: When I was growing up I never thought I would be, or could be, a published writer. The journey has been a very long meandering one. I started writing while I was teaching English in the Middle East. The city I was in had one book shop, everything was vetted by the authorities and most books and magazines were censored, many banned, so I used to hide lots of books in my suitcase when returning there after holidaying in the UK. I was reading everything then, and still do, but I was going through an epic fantasy phase and sharing my books with a friend, which led us to try our hand at writing one. Well, my friend decided I should write the first chapter and she would write the next, but what actually happened was that I ended up writing the whole trilogy, and she became my reader.
I do have a writing regime and without it I would be lost. I do the school run in the morning, then to the gym, and aim to start work by about ten. I usually aim to work right through the day into the early evening, and sometimes into the weekend too. It all depends on the story. If I take a break it’s to walk down to my allotment, which is great for thinking, for getting over writer’s block, and for switching off for a while too.
BF: ‘The Long Weekend’ is your debut novel. Has getting it published affected your writing in any way? Are there certain aspects in the publishing world that you found challenging or even helpful based on your experience?
SK: As much as you don’t want it to affect your writing, what you write and how you write it, there is an inevitable impact. In the publishing world today, writers are told they need a ‘brand’, something which sets them apart from other writers in their field. The parameters of that branding are shrinking, the niche becoming all-important. They want you to own it, make it yours, so they can sell and promote you better. That’s great for them, but it’s a challenging time for writers.
BF: With regards to marketing the book, what technique had most impact on your sales? And where do you see social media’s role in the fame of an author and consequently the sales of their book/s?
SK: Social media has a huge role in a writer’s career. Publishers want to see their writers being active on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites. Writers feel pressured to blog, to be active on the internet. Book bloggers love reading and writing about books, so publishers and writers want them reading and writing about their books. Obviously all of this is important in terms of promoting your book, your name, your brand as a writer, because if no one has heard of you, no one will have heard of your book. For me, Twitter has been very good. It led me to lots of amazing book bloggers, who have loved my book and wanted to read and shout about it! And, yes, it does help sales, but it also spreads your name as a serious writer.
BF: What advice would you give to aspiring writers or for those with the dreaded ‘writer’s block’?
SK: Every writer you speak to will have different techniques for trying to get over that ‘writer’s block’ moment. It helps me to talk over the plot with someone I trust. Those brain-storming sessions have helped enormously. If the story is really stuck, I go back to the beginning and start reading it again, tweaking things here and there while I’m waiting for inspiration or for that ‘light-bulb going on’ moment. Setting the manuscript aside for a while and writing a short story or some opening chapters of other story ideas has worked for me too. And if all else fails, take a walk, take a few days off. A short break can work wonders.
BF: According to research, kids are reading less and particularly boys. Do you think this is due to modern lifestyle such as electronic games and gadgets or is it due to the fact that authors are failing to spark boys’ interest with subjects that aren’t relevant enough?
SK: The modern lifestyle of most teenagers, boys and girls, doesn’t help – they see relaxation as switching on their PlayStation or going on You Tube, Facebook etc., and this is definitely more the case with boys than with girls. Having said that, boys are still reading. They take a little more to be inspired to read and the choice of books for them has definitely dwindled. Browse through the teen section of any book shop and you’ll see that for yourself. My teen son despairs at the shelves full of one particular type of fiction that’s clearly aimed at girls, with very little choice for boys. It’s not to do with the writers. It’s because of publishers trying to get the maximum sales from the group they think buys the most books. Not so long ago, there was space on the shelves and a little more vision on the part of publishers for a wider variety of books.
BF: When you read, do you prefer traditional paper books or e-books?
SK: I have to say I still prefer paper books, although having said that I wouldn’t be without my Kindle! I usually have a book on the go in both formats.
BF: What are you reading now?
SK: I’ve just started Toby’s Room by Pat Barker.
BF: And finally what’s your favorite book of all time?
SK: Now if you had asked me for a top ten I would have struggled! My favourite book of all time is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and I would thoroughly recommend it if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
'The Long Weekend' has a book trailer, here’s the link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14TfYyHgD6Y and you can find Savita Kalhan on:
Twitter: @savitakalhan and on
Savita Kalhan's website: http://www.savitakalhan.com/
Well folks, the time is fast approaching. The suspense novel ‘TheTaste of Fear’ by author Jeremy Bates (our review HERE) will be released on October 19. His first novel ‘White Lies’ has been nominated for several awards. He was an International Thriller Writers debut author for the year of 2011-2012 and a guest speaker at Thrillfest in New York this July.
BookFabulous: How did you come up with the idea for ‘The Taste of Fear’? You also seem familiar with the region in which the story takes place, have you been to any of the countries mentioned in the book?
Jeremy Bates: I’d done a lot of traveling over the years, and when I was thinking about the next novel a couple years back I wanted to do something that took place outside North America. Originally I had called the story something silly like Passport. Anyway, I must have heard or read about the anniversary of the bombings of the American embassies somewhere and thought it would make an interesting story to explore. I have been to a couple of the countries in which the story takes place but not to the Congo.
BF: What research did you rely on to bring everything together?
JB: Mostly the Internet. Google Maps played a big part, so I had an idea of the geography etc. I also referenced a couple books along the way. One of the problems, however, was that there really isn’t that much stuff written about the Congo in relation to other countries.
BF: There is quite a strong cast of characters in ‘The Taste of Fear’ and all have a presence and personality that come through in the novel but which character did you most enjoy creating?
JB: I probably enjoyed writing the bits with Damien Fitzgerald the best. He’s the bad guy, and bad guys are always fun to write because they can do stuff that other people can’t, morally and often physically. I once heard an actor say a similar thing: that he liked playing villains because it was so much more fun.
BF: Do tell more about Australian character ‘Thunder’. He seems out of place with this lot abducted in the African jungle. How did he come about?
JB: He came about because Scarlett had just had that big fight with Sal (her husband), and they split up on a road in Tanzania. I needed a way to get Scarlett to the embassy right before the attack. But I had a lot of fun writing him too, and he ended up staying around until the end!
BF: Your heroine Scarlett baffles me. How would you sum her up in three words?
JB: Rich, stubborn, and grounded.
BF: Will there be a sequel?
JB: No, I don’t think so.
BF: What are you reading now?
JB: 'Don’t Blink' by James Patterson.
Saying that BOOKFABULOUS! fell in love with Justine Crow is the understatement of the year. She is fun, bubbly, and very very passionate about everything she does. And boy does she do a lot; She is co-owner of the quaintest bookshop 'The Bookseller Crow' with her husband Jonathan. She is a restaurant reviewer, swimming instructor and mother of three. If that were not enough for any one person, she has just added author to her list of achievements by publishing a divine guidebook called 'The Little Book of Nits' with Richard Jones.
BookFabulous: Justine, you're not a scientist or an entomologist, so what made you decide to write this book about nits? Is there a certain message you want your readers to grasp?
Justine Crow: Today in my bookshop a rather awkward customer asked just that question - she picked the book off the counter, screwed up her nose and said: "Who on earth would want to write a book about nits?" with an expression that implied she thought the whole concept was perfectly ghastly. Initially, the idea from all the stories my fellow parents blurted once the secret was out that their kids had head lice because I found it extraordinary that something so ordinary was so funny and interesting. My middle daughter was friends with Richard's [her co-author] daughter; he is known as the Bugman. We chatted and as an entomologist, he was instantly enthusiastic. He also understood the 'Little book of ...' bit. Though secretly he'd prefer to have written the Complete Nit! If there's a message it is that by addressing the scourge of head lice as a social and cultural phenomenon, we apply some common sense. If we stop desiring and instant solution to an age-old problem, we will be better equipped to control infestation.
BF: What kind of research did you do for this book?
JC: The Bugman had tons of brilliant books containing exquisite Victorian plates of lice and he really enjoyed getting down to the er, nitty gritty of scientific research. No kidding, he could write volumes on lice alone. Meanwhile, I was working in schools so it was easy to collect people's experiences. And I was astonished by the misinformation out there, often peddled by those in authority through ignorance. Why on earth would a nursery nurse actually prefer to believe that blondes don't get nits? Ah, that's be because she was in denial. Then between us we added louse related ephemera such as the Russian anti-lice poster, the recipes and remedies, the stuff about lice in literature and art.
BF: What were the challenges you faced bringing this book to life? And what have you learnt in the process?
JC: we were very lucky when we finally go Bloomsbury on board as they totally 'got' what we were trying to do. Before they made contact, despite Richard's breadth of knowledge and publishing and broadcast experience - as well as writing insect-based reference works for other publishers (he contributes to the BBC World Wildlife and was a regular on R4's Home Planet) we couldn't drum up any interest. We had almost given up when Bloomsbury called. And they have been excellent. They applied our ideas, worked fast and produced a very attractive book. They should be proud. If we learned anything it was that a good idea doesn't go away but being a bookseller meant that my expectations were different to those of most other first time authors out there.
BF: How would you rate the experience of writing and do you see it as a career now? Do you have any advice for other writers?
JC: Writing the book was fun but on occasions, mind numbing. I already write, short, fast reviews for children's books and restaurants but what I love doing most of all is telling stories, fictionalized or anecdotal non-fiction type things. Creating what is essentially a reference manual with jokes was - how can I put this? - a test of my intellectual stamina. The Bugman thrived on it however! As for other people who want to get published I would advise patience and a general lowering of expectations. That is me wearing my bookseller's hat. There are just soooo many books out there that even if you get a deal, you cannot guarantee sales success. Either find a niche and pursue it with web presence or write because you love it and need to and any sign of a reward for what you do, recognition or cash, is a bonus. I certainly don't see writing as a 'career' but I do see it as something integral to my character.
BF: Who designed the cover?
JC: I designed the cover! As I said, Bloomsbury was just fantastic at interpreting our ideas. I pictured a kind of vaudevillian, medicine show, snake oil sort of feel. And of course,head lice are so pretty.
BF: You co-own a bookshop 'The Bookseller Crow', in your experience how has the book industry been affected by the emergence of e-books on the scene? Is there a real threat to bookshops?
JC: Our shop has had much to cope with over the years and it is a wonder we are still standing. First the net book agreement was trashed, thereby removing the the 'level playing field' and allowing supermarkets and big chains to flog books off more cheaply than we could afford to buy them from the publishers (there are many other countries with thriving book industries who refused to allow this to happen). Then, the rise of the internet retailer meant that any residual business was mopped up. Of course we use the web ourselves - our website gets many hits and Jon's daily blog is very popular, plus he is an utter Twitter fiend. Now e-books have muscled in. We are not so naive - we have an e-reader at home. It is perfect for downloading the manuscripts my partner reads for publishers. In all honesty, we have noticed a drop in holiday reading sales but often those books are airport reads and frankly, we lost the best of that business to the supermarkets long ago. Some things suit the hardware like text books but we never made money from academic stuff anyway as the margins are so tight. Children's books look awful on a Kindle. Where's the fun if you are three years old and can't turn a page yourself? I think it is human nature to want to reflect ourselves through fashion and lifestyle. At the moment, some like to be 'seen' holding an e-reader but if your fellow commuters can't get the statement message about the novel actually being read on the screen and can't even guess at what kind of person is behind the gadget, I can't see it remaining a fashion accessory for ever. Though apparently the rise in soft porn fiction is related to the fact that nobody knows you are reading it... it's like having a copy of the Beano to hide the smut under!
Ultimately though, we are disadvantaged once again because we aren't allowed to sell e-books. Big business has kept that innovation to themselves and the independent trader doesn't get a look in. Even the noble independent bookseller James Daunt went in with Amazon once he was given the reins at Waterstones. There is a threat to bookshops but it is a combination of factors that has engineered their disappearance from the high street. Even big chains like Borders and Ottakers have gone. The public gets what it asks for...
BF: What's your next project?
JC: Our next 'Little Book of ...' is going to be about all things that bite and sting. We are definitely drawn to things that many consider unpleasant but that are in fact easily avoided and dealt with. I have lots of other ideas for books and in a virtual world, I could fill many gaps on our shop shelves with titles that nobody has published yet. The hard bit is getting the blimmin' publishers to do their bit.
BF: What are you reading now?
JC: I have just finished reading 'Irma Voth' by Miriam Toewes. A superbly bonkers novel set in New Mexico amidst a Mennonite community. It was quite simply the most uplifting celebration of art on the printed page I have come across for donkeys. It is at last, a story that isn't miserable, even though it contains misery. Next up, Philip Hensher's 'King of the Badgers' for our shop reading group.