Shereen Malherbe: Seeking to understand people as humans must be the basis for more understanding and in climates where fear is induced by exacerbating differences, another narrative is needed
by Rana Asfour
This month saw Shereen Malherbe's much anticipated second novel published by Beacon Books hit the shelves. 'The Tower' is the story of two women who become friends after bonding over their altered circumstances. Neighbours in a communal building in London, Reem, a recently arrived refugee from Syria, and Leah, a British single mother from Kensington forge a friendship as they learn to navigate a life foreign from anything they knew before. Despite the tragedy at the core of this book, it is a novel about hope and resilience in which Malherbe explores life in a tower block and what it's like to share a public space in daily proximity with residents who come from different religious, socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds and how that affects the general well being and social structure of the tower dwellers not only when times are good but when they are far from good as well. You can read my full review HERE.
BookFabulous: Your book is inspired loosely on the Grenfell Fire that took place in the UK in 2007. Can you tell us a little more on why you chose that event on which to build your novel?
Shereen Malherbe: The Grenfell Fire was such a devastating event and one that affected the whole community. It brought to light many underlying issues from the socioeconomic divide to the amazing resilience, diversity and support of the community there. I read many heartbreaking stories about those who were lost. This idea of a multiple living accommodation was in my notes for a while, but after Grenfell I had a new urgency to write about a setting like this.
BF: There are so many characters in this novel but the one that stood out was obviously Reem, the Syrian refugee who although seems to speak very little English and feels completely alien to the society she’s in, is however not lacking agency and is surprisingly strong and capable despite what she has been through and the secret she carries. How difficult was her character to write and what did you wish to accomplish through her story?
SM: I wanted to bring a different perspective of someone who is fairly privileged and sheltered and, as with many escaping the atrocities of war, they have no choice but to try and live somewhere far from home. I don’t think this is often a considered perspective. When researching, I realised that what crossed borders was people’s faith. They drew strength from it and this helped Reem to find an anchor despite everything falling around her. This also helped me understand how someone could cope with the devastating events in their life and gave me an optimism to propel the story forward.
BF: This brings me to Leah who arrives to ‘The Tower’ from a pampered place where everything had been done for her and now she is alone and a single mother too. I couldn’t figure if Leah was naïve or just privileged and whether she could have done more to help Reem instead of coming across as slightly self-absorbed. What do you think?
SM: For Leah, she didn’t have the same kind of grounding as Reem; her values were based on transient things like materialism or status, so that comes across in her privilege. I think it represents privilege in some ways in that it creates a barrier that can be hard for people to see past it, into other people’s problems and lives.
BF: Although ‘The Tower’ is not a love story per se, is it safe to say that it is a story about love despite the personal tragedies (some more harrowing than others) that take place or is it because of what the characters experience both on a personal level and collectively that love and empathy became so important?
SM: I would say it is a love story but that often love centres around two people falling in love and I wanted to explore it in another way. As you point out, collectively love and empathy become important because that is what provides us with comfort and forms the foundation to our most important relationships. Without it, the world would be an even darker place and for this book, I feel that it is that shared humanity that provides some much needed hope.
BF: When I reviewed your first novel ‘Jasmine Falling’ I felt that Islam had a mystical presence in the narrative which is far from the case in ‘The Tower’ where Islam seems to be more a religion of conduct and leading by example as Mo and Nidal demonstrate time and time again which I felt made Islam more relatable to everyday life. Was it a conscious decision on your part to do so?
SM: I don’t think it was a conscious decision as such, but more as personal growth from the first novel and how I have experienced people gain strength and direction from Islam. Also, Islam is so widely misunderstood that it was a conscious decision to show the effects of what it looks like in everyday life. The scene where the Muslims returning from prayer and were the first on the scene was taken directly from research of the Grenfell fire and I think representation should be authentic and balanced because positive contributions to society should be seen.
BF: How much research did you have to put in to write this novel and are any of the characters based on real people?
SM: I researched the event for months before I began the writing. I also researched refugee experiences and most of the plot points were taken from actual events. But as for the characters, they are not based on real people. The beauty of fiction is that it enables you to take readers on a journey through them.
BF: Although it felt that much of your novel was a case of documenting hot current political and social news stories both globally and in the UK, it also felt like you were deliberately turning the tables to allow for the stories to be viewed from a different perspective. If so, could you elaborate on that a bit more.
SM: Yes, the differing perspectives is what I wanted to create. I think reading should be an experience so I wouldn’t want to impart my views on readers. Instead I use multiple perspective stories to show different trajectories to allow the reader to come to their own unique conclusion.
BF: I'd like to discuss the sense of community in ‘the Tower’ where everyone seemed to pull together regardless of their background and it felt that ‘The Tower’ was in a sense a place of refuge for all of them. But it was also a space that was not immune to stereotyping with the perpetrator not necessarily white or British. Would you tell us more about that.
SM: As you have eloquently said in your review, stereotypes and labelling mean people are not given agency as individuals. I wanted to turn these upside down as they are too reductive, often incorrect and boring to read. Societies are turning into melting pots and the global influence of these communities that do exist in London and all around the world mean that we are exposed to each other’s differences. I wanted to celebrate diversity and show how we can use each other’s differences for the better good.
Seeking to understand people as humans must be the basis for more understanding and in climates where fear is induced by exacerbating differences, another narrative is needed. As in the novel, events have mirrored real life and this isn’t a coincidence. When you spread hate and fear it leads to real, devastating consequences and it’s important we recognise and try and change that.
BF: Without giving away spoilers, we know there is a big tragedy that happens. But when it does happen we’ve already come to care about most of the cast and then some don’t make it. They die. How hard was the choice to decide which characters you were going to dispense with and did you know beforehand who was going to stay alive until the end?
SM: This was a tough one. Believe it or not I am an idealist and I hated to do it. But I wanted to go to the darkest parts of us and almost discover how you would survive and what would keep the characters going. My husband hasn’t forgiven me yet, and I am sure there will be more readers who don’t, but death is an inevitable part of life. What I was most interested in, is seeing how you can scrape good from tragedy.
BF: Final thoughts?
SM: I just want to thank you for your time on this, and to extend a thank you to my readers who give the book their time. The most important part of writing is having an audience to share it with.
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.
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.
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.