This is probably the most F of FAQs – how do you learn the basics for writing professionally. Is it necessary to take courses? What about all the famous writers who we know just did it themselves, made stuff up and wrote it down, following their inner star. Courses are helpful, but the good news is, we mainly teach ourselves. So how? And what should we be doing to do it well?
That’s what we’re discussing today in episode 2 of So You Want To Be A Writer. Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!
I just discovered that Mixcloud, where Surrey Hills Radio archive the show I present with bookseller Peter Snell, has a function to share episodes on WordPress. Now you might be thinking I’ve posted a lot of audio and video recently, so let me reassure you I haven’t abandoned text. That would be somewhat absurd for a blog by a writer anyway, as prose is our instrument. Prose posts will be resumed, fear not.
But Mixcloud has these twinkling buttons, so here goes. The episode I’ve chosen is the special we recorded at Easter, where we ran through highlights of previous shows with the music we played at the time. For lo, one of the joys of working with a radio station is that they are licensed to broadcast music. (So you get the bliss of my music collection, for better or worse.)
We usually stick to two carefully chosen tracks that illustrate the topic under discussion, more or less. All right, sometimes it’s tenuous when I want an excuse to play something. Think of it as a ‘back to mine’ evening, with writing talk. But this episode we collected a few of our favourites together, so you get Symphony of Science, Grace Jones, Christopher Cross, The Eagles, Avalanches, Paul Weller, Nick Cave and a few other surprises which we’ll keep for you to discover. Hope you enjoy the trip.
Every week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.
So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.
If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Saturday afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered
Can I free my book from Amazon CreateSpace? I want to seek a traditional deal. I published my first book a few years ago through CreateSpace. It’s a prelude to the one I’m now writing, and I am trying to find a publisher. Is there any way to free it from Amazon to match it to whoever I finally publish with? Sue
If you’re an experienced self-publisher you’ll know this is easy-peasy – so I’ll just say cheerio and see you next time. If not, read on….
Many writers might have an early book on a self-publishing platform, and now want to remove it. Perhaps to try for a traditional deal. Or to rework the material now they’re in a new phase of their writing life.
Here’s how to un-self-publish.
Do you have to ‘free your book’?
There are several aspects to this.
First: the rights. Big question: Are you allowed to unpublish the book and republish it elsewhere?
Let’s subdivide this further. Did you
use the publishing platform directly, setting up your own account?
use a middle man?
You published directly
The main direct platforms for print books are CreateSpace (which is now KDP), Lulu and IngramSpark. For ebooks, the main platforms are KDP, IngramSpark, Lulu and Kobo. There are also aggregators who send your books to multiple retailers – examples are Smashwords, PublishDrive, Streetlib, and Bookbaby.
If you have accounts with any of these, then you have complete control. You can remove the book yourself. Each platform has its own instructions.
So…. You don’t have to ‘free your book’. You are not under contract to these platforms. You simply used them as a printer. It’s not like a publishing deal. So you can do whatever you like with the book.
If it’s an ebook it will disappear from the sales channels.
If it’s a print book, the sales page will remain on Amazon but customers won’t be able to order it. There’s no way around this because it was assigned an ISBN so it forever exists in the limitless memory of book databases.
This might be irksome if you wish to bury the whole thing, but actually, it’s as good as buried. Only the cover, reviews and blurb will be visible to shoppers. In theory there might be second-hand copies available, though that’s unlikely. Even then, the system will probably help you as bots will know the book is scarce and will price the book at hundreds of dollars. (Really.)
So… although the book will look like it’s available, you can be pretty sure no one will buy it. But you can look at the page from time to time and laugh.
You went through a middle man?
If you went through a middle man, such as a publishing services company, they will have handled the uploading process through their account so you’ll have to ask them to remove the book. They probably printed through the exact same channels – CreateSpace, IngramSpark, Lulu or KDP, so the process at their end will be simple.
They might tell you the book can’t be taken out of the catalogues or off Amazon, but they’re referring to the situation I’ve explained in the previous section. The book will be visible but to all intents and purposes, not available (except for a handsome, bot-inflated sum of $700).
But… there are cowboy operators in the self-publishing world. Here are two hitches to be aware of.
Some try to tie up your rights so that you can’t publish the book elsewhere.
Others will make you pay for formatting and then not release the files for you to use yourself unless you pay a further fee. This situation won’t trouble you if you’re going to reuse the work anyway, or bury it for ever. (Here’s a post where I wrote more about this.)
Once you’ve freed the book, and you want to seek a traditional deal, what then?
A publisher probably won’t be interested in a self-published book if it didn’t do very well. Unfortunately! But if you’re substantially changing it, or re-presenting it as part of a bigger project, then it’s not the same work. When you query it, be clear about its history, and stress how your new use of it will be viable and different.
Lock up after you!
And don’t forget to block off the pathways to the book you’ve unpublished. Check through your blog, social media descriptions – anywhere you might, once upon a time, have laid a pathway for readers to find the book. There will be more than you think! Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest… unpick whatever you can.
If you have a blog or website, you might want to write a brief post explaining that you’ve now retired the book. If you have exciting plans for it, write about them. This will help make your site look current – readers are put off if they come to a site that looks unloved and out of date.
Where do you find the books you want to read? There are theories galore about how authors and publishers should advertise, use categories, keywords etc. But I often find myself a bit bemused by them.
Because I don’t buy books that way. These theories seem to describe a behaviour that I simply don’t recognise. But I do buy books. All the time. So where am I discovering them?
I don’t expect this post will set the world of book marketing alight. But I hope to illuminate some less acknowledged processes. And I’m curious to know what you do, so I hope you’ll join in at the end.
I’ve never bought a book that I’ve seen on a Facebook advert. Yes, I know that advertising is there to remind you a book exists, not necessarily to grab your £££ immediately. I know that adverts have to be seen a certain number of times before they get noticed. And that they work in conjunction with other forms of exposure.
But Facebook has never managed to show me book adverts that I find appealing. This must mean I’m giving it some very wrong signals. (How many other readers are giving the wrong signals, I wonder?)
I’ve certainly bought books by people I know on Facebook, but not because of adverts. I’ve bought because of meaningful contact – chatting to them, or an interview. More on that later.
I don’t browse for books on Goodreads. I go there AFTER I’ve read a book, to keep the karma going with a review, when (ahem) time allows. (For the last few months it hasn’t. I’ll be rectifying that soon.)
Bargain book newsletter services
BookBub et al. I know these are smart sales tools, but they’ve always seemed rather superfluous to me as a reader. First, I don’t buy books because they’re bargains. I don’t find a book more appealing because it’s on special offer. I want the right book.
Second, these newsletters are selling ebooks, and I’m one of those throwbacks who likes a solid version. To have, to hold and to keep. To remind me, by its bulk on the shelf, to give it attention. But I do use Kindle samples to check books out, so it wouldn’t be totally useless to me.
Still, they are popular and effective for authors, so I thought I’d better evaluate them properly. What gems might I find by subscribing as a reader? An excellent article by the Alliance of Independent Authors compared them in terms of value for advertisers, and rated BookBub, Fussy Librarian and Bargain Booksy top. Fussy Librarian got a special mention because it wasn’t just promoting bargains.
I subscribed to Fussy Librarian as a reader, asking for news of literary fiction. After two months of emails, I can report they – or the authors who advertise with them – are not remotely fussy about what they categorise as literary fiction.
And this is a problem when you shop in this category. It’s easy for us all to agree what’s meant by categories such as crime, thriller, romance, paranormal or YA. But literary? The term gets put on everything that might not fit in the other boxes (and so, in Fussyland, it seems to mean cross-genre or two timelines). Here’s a post where I attempt my own definition of literary, in case you haven’t had enough. Meanwhile, several writers I know avoid the term altogether because they’ve learned their readers are put off by it.
But Fussy Librarian isn’t everything. I decided to try BookBub, the grandaddy of book email lists. And here’s where I was surprised. I have seen a few titles that I’m keen to know more about, so it will be interesting to see if my buying habits change as a result of BookBub.
So how do I discover books?
My sources are:
Newspaper review pages and the London Review of Books
Publishers’ lists (because of The Undercover Soundtrack, publishers send me their catalogues and I invite authors whose work appeals to me. What’s The Undercover Soundtrack? Sleeve notes here)
Amazon’s ‘people who bought this bought that’ algorithm. I could wander in there for hours.
Oxfam bookshops – a great way to find books everyone else has forgotten about. Especially non-fiction. Yes, I know that’s dodgy because the author doesn’t get a royalty. But often these are books that aren’t available anywhere else or I’d never have known to search for them.
For research, I use Library Thing – this is the only time I search for books by categories, tags and all that labelling, because I’m shopping for something specific. But my pleasure reading is all surprise finds.
My favourite way to discover books
This has to be blogposts or interviews. I’m most likely to go hunting for a book if I’ve enjoyed the writer’s company in another piece of prose. I’ll check their reviews too, obviously. If I read a really thoughtful review, I’ll often want to know more about the reviewer – especially if they have a book of their own.
This means, therefore, that I’m a lot more influenced by gut feeling about the writer’s curiosities, thought processes and delivery. I’ll follow a good voice into any genre. I don’t read fantasy but I love Jack Vance. I don’t read crime but I love Barbara Vine and Dorothy L Sayers. I’m wary of horror, but I’ve been joyously sucked into the latest by Josh Malerman (who is coming up next week on The Undercover Soundtrack … that’s another place where I find glorious reads).
In short, I seek the quality that categories can’t measure. And this possibly means that if you’re a writer whose distinctive strength is nuance, your best marketing tool is an interview, a personal essay or a well-turned review.
Anyway, this isn’t a post that provides theses or theories, it’s a post of open-ended enquiry. Not a ‘how-to’; more of a ‘how-we’.
What are the last 5 books you bought?
Let’s examine our book discovery habits. How did you find the last five books you bought? You don’t have to have read them yet. I want to see how you met them. And I hope you’ll teach me some new shopping tips.
Here are mine A personal essay: I read this post and so I bought this. The piece is hardly about the book at all, but I feel I’ve been shown a piece of the author’s soul. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
An interview: I read this and was bewitched. I ordered this. The Next by Stephanie Gangi. She’s also coming to The Undercover Soundtrack soon.
Search by category + friend recommendation: This one’s for research. I was looking for accounts of bereavement and Library Thing did its thing. I haven’t read a Didion before, but she’s a favourite of a friend of mine. The irony in the title made it irresistible. Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking.
A friend: Another friend this time. He said: ‘You’ll like this. It’s weird and it really stays with you. I don’t know why. It just does.’ The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Lucky find in an Oxfam bookshop: I would never have thought to search for this. But there it was in a display. A sane biography of the teenage idol I’ve never grown out of. Under The Ivy. The Life and Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson.
Over to you. Where do you discover most of your books? On line, by browsing in a shop? How did you discover the last 5 books you bought and what were they? Any opinions on FB adverts and bargain book newsletters like Bookbub? Your favourite tip for book shopping?
My guest this week is a fan of BBC literary adaptations and describes music as a ‘necessary luxury’ in her writing process – magnifying the worlds of her characters, helping her to wriggle inside their plights and their conflicts. She is historical novelist VR Christensen, author of the bestseller Of Moths And Butterflies and she is flitting over to the Red Blog today with its Undercover Soundtrack.
Guinotte Wise is currently two people. Guinotte the sculptor, making found objects into quirky metal creations. There’s also Guinotte the writer, who has published poetry, novels, short stories – and most recently a memoir in essays, Chickens One Day, Feathers The Next. That’s about all the other people he’s been, of which there are quite a few.
But let’s start with writing and sculpting. Creativity seems to have been welded into his DNA. He says:
My great-uncle Jack Gage Stark was a pretty well-known California impressionist painter back in the 1930s to 50s, and I met a relative at the one family reunion I attended, Maude Guinotte, who was a sculptor and a wonderful character. She worked in clay and bronze. One of many stories about her; she bought a new Chrysler convertible to drive to the coast, hated it, traded it for another after a couple hundred miles, disliked that one, traded it, so the (perhaps apocryphal) story goes, it took maybe five Chryslers to get the trip done.
And my mom wrote Dorothy Parkeresque poetry from time to time—really good sardonic stuff.
You’ve also been a bullrider, ironworker, labourer, welder, funeral home pickup person, busboy, warehouse worker, bartender, truckdriver, postal worker, ice house worker, horse groom, paving field engineer. How did those happen?
I started working and squirrelling away money at 12 or so—I thought we were bankrupt and that meant people coming and taking the furniture and carpets. I kept money in a desk drawer against this catastrophic time, after I spent some for necessities like a Red Ryder BB gun ($3.79 at a local hardware store). I worked hard at a lot of jobs from then on. I should be a millionaire by now, but that pinnacle escaped me.
A bullrider, though! How did you get work as a bullrider?
I went to bullriding school in Texas, and, before that, I’d hung around jackpot rodeos in little towns, watching then competing. You go to the arena office, show your affiliation card, pay a fee, draw your bull. Then you’re on your own, you and that bull.
It was not lucrative. I remember a very good bullrider, when asked by a local radio station how much he made in a year, said $15,000 (this was back in the 50s), then they asked what his yearly expenses were: he said $20,000. When asked why he did it, he said, “Too lazy to work, too nervous to steal.”
And a funeral home pickup person?
That came up when I was in art school. I worked nights, from 6pm to 6am. I had to wear a suit and get a decent haircut. If nobody died, I would sleep or study, talk to the night people. From 6 to 10 I’d usher people into state rooms, to see friends or family at rest. People die at night a lot; a night man named Verne and I would pick them up in a hearse.
I have to tell you this one; Verne and I went to pick up a deceased person, and it was 3am. Verne would always lay on the gurney and sleep while I drove to the house or hospital. At a stoplight a carful of partying girls drove up next to us and started laughing and hollering at me; they could see Verne in a suit laying with his hands on his chest—then he sat up to see what all the noise was and they burned rubber for a block getting out of there. The stories I have about that job.
Assuming these jobs were a process of self-discovery, what did you discover?
I discovered one night while having a cigarette and watching the smoke from the crematorium next to the mortuary that I was increasingly bummed by this job, although I liked the people and the pay was decent, but I just had to find something else. I had turned 21, and I got a job bartending at The Jubilee Room, a reporters’ bar, a cops’ bar, a sports figure bar. A Damon Runyonesque mix. I liked it there. And I could slide freebies across the bar to school buddies.
How did this colour your writing and art?
I’d say all my jobs coloured my art and writing, especially the construction jobs, bridges in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Minnesota.
You settled into a career as a creative director in advertising. Why that?
It was what I’d wanted since high school. Everyone tried to talk me out of it—you know, the ‘starving artist’ stuff. I started on the art side in a bullpen, and graduated to an office, had some shops of my own, worked at big agencies. It can be precarious; when creative is in your job title, you have to keep earning it.
In advertising, as in any business-oriented writing, I presume you had to write to constraints. Now you don’t. Any thoughts on that?
Actually the discipline was wonderful. Sometimes in print ads you had wordcounts and the art director would ask you to cut 35 characters so he could fit it to a graphic. You do it, and you know what? It’s better copy.
Also, you had to write around industry restrictions and client dictums—one client said no contractions, which can look awfully stilted and school-teacherish in ad copy.
I’ve written four books of poetry, books of short stories, a novel, an essay collection, and I’ve killed some darlings—not enough, I’m sure, and I must admit, it was sometimes comfortable writing to rules in an agency situation. But try to write a 30-second TV commercial for a car. Daunting. 60-second radio, better, but no pictures—you’d better know how to make pictures in the mind. I credit NPR in helping me do that. And Stan Freberg, what a genius.
Why does sculpture appeal to you?
I can’t answer that in any conventional way. I’m not being difficult—I just can’t. It’s a fugue state with me. Time becomes non-time. I used to do assemblages as a kid and a day would elapse.
You describe your style as ‘found object’ art. Your newest book, Chickens One Day, Feathers The Next is similar – the found objects of a life. A bit about rodeo riding. A bit about advertising. A bit about motorbikes. Most of all, it’s about liking the things that make us who we are. Tell me your version.
That’s a very good version right there, your version.
I love that title. Do tell me more.
There’s an essay in the book with that title; it’s something a very good friend used to say if the newspaper headlines mentioned a prominent death; he said it when JFK was killed. I think it was juju against the reaper. Rudy served in Vietnam, three tours, wounded twice. He was a captain in the USMC and when they stuck him behind a desk he quit. He bought into a ski resort in California, had a position with a big drug company. He was killed by a carjacker in Fresno. It’s his title.
Where do you write?
In a kitchen breakfast nook. Though I have a great mid-century modern office in a loft in a separate building—a studio we built for my wife’s silversmith work. I just slide into that booth in the morning, and only get up to do my walking periodically, or various chores.
Everyone who reads my blog knows I’m fond of horses. How do horses figure in your life?
In Chickens there’s an essay ‘The Horse Worrier’ which opens ‘Horses haunt my life’. As you know, Roz, they are so, so special. They’ve owned me for over 50 years. Fascinating, wonderful, giving creatures. I was privileged to know them, have them as friends.
One of my poetry books is titled Horses See Ghosts, and they often appear in the other poetry books as well.
You write everything – poetry, essays, short fiction and novels.
How do you decide what form an idea deserves?
I think I save horses for poetry. Nonfiction can start anywhere; presently as a list of things I just don’t get (NFTs, crypto, atrocities of Russians in Ukraine, Lego, $50,000 bottles of bourbon, Kanye, Heizer’s ‘City’…). I have a half-finished private eye book, some ideas floating around, a possible screenplay…
What’s the weirdest response you’ve had to any of your works?
I don’t know if it qualifies as weird, but I had a sculpture show in Santa Monica, shipped a dozen big pieces out there, and it sold out. I’m lucky to sell four pieces a year here in the Midwest. Go figure.
Also, a well known agent in New York read a piece of mine in a lit mag, contacted me and asked if I had a novel ready by any chance. I sent it to him. He said, in effect, have you got another one ready?
In all that, are there themes or life questions you always return to?
As a subject I like good bad guys who win over the bad guys. No one is all good, no one. I’ve known some really good bad guys, bikers, loners, marchers to their own drumbeats. People I met in paving, construction, rodeo, heavy equipment advertising, horses, writing, farm people, biking. Hot rod enthusiasts. A cop or two. Real hippies.
What is Guinotte wise about?
There was a kid whose folks were mean; they gave him a box of horse manure for Christmas. He looks at it, brightens up and says, ‘There’s got to be a pony around here somewhere!’ Optimistic. That’s me.
I’ve been flitting through your pictures on Facebook. At random, I’ve picked this.
Tell me about it.
My favourite gloves. I wore ’em today when I upended the big flower urns after a hard freeze last night. I have a dozen pairs of new mule-skin Wells-Lamont gloves, and heavy-duty Tillmans, and I reach for these. That was a postcard for my last show at The Hilliard Gallery in KC. I didn’t have any sculpture finished enough to shoot, so I used those gloves to say I’d been working.
That is admirably resourceful. Some quick-fire questions.
Hooves or Harleys? Harleys don’t die, but they also don’t nicker and gallop up when they see you.
Early mornings or late nights? Early to bed, not so early to rise. Love bed. Love sleep.
Any near-death experiences? Right now, I’d say.
Are you louder on the page or louder in real life? Page. Big talker on the page.
‘Dear Roz, how do I get a career with my writing?’ – Anya
You might already guess what I’m going to say: everyone finds their own way, and a career happens after an apprenticeship of muddling and wandering. That muddling period might be long, or it might be short if the stars align. (It will still feel long to you, even if everyone else tells you it’s short.)
Planning might help, but luck is more important; outrageously so.
But here’s where I can be more encouraging. Luck doesn’t have to mean dramatic big breaks. Luck can also be small stepping stones that together line up into your own individual and unexpected path.
Also, most of those stepping stones are not random; they are choices you make yourself. You try this and that, and even if this and that were not what you hoped, they helped you stumble across a better this and that.
For a while now I’ve been running a series of interviews where I ask writers how they made their careers. I’ve seen lots of those stepping stones and choices.
So here are a few general principles.
You might follow in the footsteps of creative family members.
Connie Biewald’s family encouraged creativity. One of her brothers is a musician. Her father built furniture.
But every principle has a contradiction. Your family might believe that arts are only a hobby, not a means to earn a living. No worries. You’ll do it anyway.
Like Annalisa Crawford. And me!
You might take a writing course or two, or even a degree.
Like Ian M Rogers.
Or you might teach yourself as you go along.
Like Apple Gidley. Actually, like everyone. Even if you take a degree course, that’s only a few years – a blip in a writing lifetime. Your real education as a writer starts from the moment you discover reading, when words become your playground, your workshop, your analyst, your element.
You might decide there’s a point where you own that you are a writer.
John McCaffrey describes how he had always ‘couched my writing in deprecation when asked, but decided I was making light of real accomplishments and harming my true self’.
You might use your writing sensibilities in adjacent professions.
Many of the novelists I interview are editors or teachers for other novelists. Some use their writing-fu for more down-to-earth purposes, as journalists – like Martha Engber, Mark Chesnut (and me!). Ann S Epstein wrote psychology papers for many years. Ian M Rogers edits academic and business materials. Rishi Dastidar is an advertising copywriter, journalist and brand strategist. John McCaffrey writes grant applications.
Or you might keep your writing mojo for yourself.
Connie Biewald says she decided early on to not try to work in the literary arts – ‘I thought it would take my writing energy away’. Even so, she hasn’t strayed far from books – she teaches reading and writing in schools and is a librarian and growth education specialist.
Or you might work in something completely different.
Martha Engber and Annalisa Crawford are also fitness instructors.
Although you might have imagined your destiny was novels, you might find you also write other kinds of books.
You might write manuals for other writers, like Martha Engber, Jessica Bell, David Starkey, Alexis Paige and me.
Because narrative is intrinsic to your way of living, you might surprise yourself by writing a memoir.
Like Gina Troisi. Elaina Battista-Parsons. Jessica Bell. Mark Chesnut. And me.
You might, if you’ve been at it long enough, answer yes to most of these statements.
You might do a lot of unpaid work to get started.
Amie McCracken describes how, in the early days, ‘I worked my butt off, most of it for free’.
But you learn your worth.
You learn that when you contribute to another person’s creative work, you give something of value. You learn to ask what value you’re getting. In the early days that might be a training experience or contacts or a reputation. But there comes a point where you can charge the full value that you’re offering.
Creativity doesn’t switch off. You might also do other artforms.
Steve Zettler is an actor. Nick Padron and Jessica Bell are musicians. Ann S Epstein weaves textiles. Melanie Faith is a photographer. Mat Osman… well, if you know the band Suede, you’ll know what Mat does when he’s not writing novels.
You don’t do it alone.
You might set out alone, perhaps in secret, but you’ll gather others around you. Some will be fixers and mentors – editors, critique partners, publishers, other authors. Some will be cheerleaders – advance readers, reviewers who are pleased to see new work from you. Some will stick with you, some will become an inner circle who’ll see the wobbly days, who’ll tell you the truth or help you find what your truth is. You have publication credits, books in the world, people who have read you and want to know you because of that, maybe want to work with you too.
Apple Gidley has lived all over the world, has taught English, sold SCUBA gear and negotiated British nationals out of jail when she was the British honorary consul in Equatorial Guinea. Her writing is powered by a fierce interest in the history of the many cultures she’s lived in and her latest novel, Have You Eaten Rice Today, brings to life Malaya in the 1950s.
My first question has to be: how do you get someone out of jail?
By getting to the police station before the person had been processed. No one likes paperwork.
The jungle drums worked fast in Malabo. I grew to dread the words ‘Apple, we’ve got a situation’. Charges were invariably trumped up, with the aim of getting a bribe – not something I ever paid. I think it helped that I’m a woman. I smiled a lot. Reminded the jailer-in-charge that it would be a terrible pity for the press in Britain to hear of Mr Smith being jailed for taking photographs of kids playing soccer, because the minister would look bad. It was blarney really, and I never showed how nervous I actually felt. The adrenaline would keep me going until it was all over, then I’d shake.
Maybe that’s why I don’t get anxious facing a roomful of people. Public speaking is not nearly as scary as dealing with one crabby man with a gun.
And that’s how you became a published writer, isn’t it?
A number of years ago I was a keynote speaker at a conference for families in global transition. It seemed to go well, and people suggested I write the stories down. It became my book Expat Life Slice by Slice.
You’ve continued to write, with another memoir collection and several novels. What has helped you become the writer you are now?
Reading. Reading. Reading. All styles, most genres, though I don’t like horror. And eavesdropping, for dialogue.
Who are the important people in your writing life?
My husband. He is a tough but fair critic. I’ve had to learn to listen. And I’m incredibly fortunate to have a group of five trusted people around the world who are my first readers. Also, I run the Writers’ Circle of St Croix in the Virgin Islands and am hugely supported by them.
I have also had fabulous editors, from whom I have learned so much. I don’t think they get enough credit for pushing us to be better.
How do you refill the well?
Fortunately the well hasn’t run dry yet. If I get stuck on something, I’ll walk the dog or weed the garden – anything rather than clean the house. Since I decided to try my hand at writing, I try to write every day. I get pissy when I can’t.
Where is home?
Wherever I happen to be hanging my hat. Currently St Croix. I suppose I’m a chameleon in that I’m adaptable. My life has been peripatetic, both as a child and an adult. I’ve always been up for trying somewhere new, something different. And you don’t know what you can achieve until you try something a little scary. There are a couple of places I would rather not live again but I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to experience them.
What jobs have you done besides writing (and jail negotiations)?
When I married and we went abroad, I knew a career wasn’t on the cards. I feel immense gratitude that I was able to be at home, wherever that was, with my children but I also always became involved in the community. And I’ve been fortunate to pick up work in most places, if there weren’t visa restrictions.
I edited a magazine for Cheshire Homes for disabled people (Far Eastern Region) while living in Singapore and Thailand. It was a humbling experience. Any bad day I had paled into nothingness compared with the challenges faced by these disabled people. But that did not stop me haranguing them if they didn’t deliver an article they had promised me. My sticking to deadlines perhaps gave people a sense of normalcy.
I ran my own interior design business in Scotland. I preferred commercial work to residential, where we got tetchy exchanges between spouses. Then I sold SCUBA equipment in Texas. That’s a great leveller. No one looks good with a regulator in their mouth.
You are so right. Consider the Bond movies…
When we knew we were heading to West Africa I took a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in case the chance came along to teach English.
While there I wrote geopolitical reports for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which I enjoyed. I suppose it was there I started to consider writing as a possible job.
Your novels are historical fiction, Fireburn,Transferand Have You Eaten Rice Today?, which is your most recent. What’s the appeal for you of historical fiction?
History has always fascinated me. I went to boarding school in Australia and I’ve never forgiven them for not allowing me to study both ancient and modern history. Instead I had to choose a science, which didn’t interest me at all. Anyway, for the writer, historical fiction involves diving deep into a period – not just the story events but the back story, the dress, the food, the manners, the way people spoke, the way people moved around. It’s fabulous.
Have You Eaten Rice Today? is an enigma. The title is thoughtful, but the blurb copy describes it as ‘intense, drama driven and suspenseful’. What pulls the two aspects together?
Have You Eaten Rice Today? is a salutation used throughout Asia – a kind of ‘how’s it going?’ The timeframe of the novel is the early 1950s in Malaya when communists fueled general disgruntlement at the slowness of Britain to grant independence, merdeka. The communist terrorists had camps deep in the jungle where discipline was rigid, discomfort enormous and food scarce. Hunger drove many to surrender. It’s a story of misunderstandings and love in this violent period.
In your memoir collection Crucian Fusion, Essays, Interviews, Stories you mix fact and fiction, which can be tricky as readers usually prefer one or the other. How did you decide what to fictionalise and what to keep as truth? What boundaries about this did you set? How did you bring it all together in one work?
Interesting question! You’re right, people do usually prefer fact or fiction but I wrote Crucian Fusion as a thank you to St Croix, the island that has embraced me.
I’ve been writing the essays since I arrived here in 2013 – a diary of events and day-to-day happenings. Then, because I’m nosey, I wanted to learn people’s stories – and everyone has one – so I made a list of people, some of whom I knew in passing, who I would like to know more about. I ended up with eight conversations, which was such a privilege for me, particularly as one chap I spoke to has since died.
The short stories are pure self-indulgence. Three are historical. One brought to light a little-known piece of Crucian history – indentured labourers were shipped from India in the 1860s, a shortlived experiment that cost a lot in human misery and life.
Across all your books, are there recurrent themes and curiosities?
Actually, curiosity lurks in all my books. Without it I don’t think you can travel well. The meshing of cultures, the crossing of bridges literally and metaphorically. Love, death…. you know, all the usual stuff.
In the book I’m currently working on, dementia is a stream, particularly the effect on the spouse. It was also a theme in Transfer, now I think about it, but not up front. I think to suffer from Alzheimer’s, where you are still aware of life, must be the most Godawful thing for all concerned.
What do you like to read?
Historical fiction, of course! Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier, Abraham Verghese, although I guess Cutting for Stone only just scrapes in as historical. All genres really. And absolutely anything by the Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey. I’ve just finished Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which was terrific.
Also, travel essays – particularly ones that border on philosophical. I love the way Bruce Chatwin wrote – The Anatomy of Restlessness truly spoke to me. As does anything by Pico Iyer – The Global Soul is chockfull of wonderful essays.
What are you working on next?
So here I am touting historical fiction but my WIP is a contemporary novel set in Venice. In my naiveté I believed there would be less research and it would be a faster book to write. Wrong! But I’m thoroughly enjoying the process. Another month and it should be ready for beta readers. Maybe.
Some quick and perhaps frivolous questions…
Rice or bread?
With a book titled Have You Eaten Rice Today? and considering a large portion of my life has been spent in Asia – it has to be bread. I’m kidding. Rice.
Early mornings or late nights?
Late nights with a glass of bourbon, or wine.
Planes, boats or wheels?
Oh, that’s not a fair question. Planes, though maybe not so much now. Airlines seem to have gone out of their way to make the experience cramped and harried unless you’re up front. Although the exhilaration as you land somewhere new is still thrilling.
Boats because some of my best holidays have been sailing in the Caribbean or along the Dalmatian coast with our adult kids.
Wheels, because I love to drive. Especially on my own. That sense of freedom when no one knows where you are. When my children were little we lived in Thailand, and my husband was often away, so I’d bundle them into the car and we’d take off. Wonderful adventures before cellphones could track your every move. I miss that sometimes.
And you didn’t ask about trains….
By all means, give me trains.
I really love trains. A sense of distance, really going somewhere and seeing the scenery as you clickety-clack along the tracks. Europe is great for trains. Maybe it’ll be trains that get me back across the Atlantic.
What’s on your desk?
Clutter. But it’s my clutter and I know where everything is.
How do you make a life as a writer? John McCaffrey’s stories, essays and book reviews appear regularly in literary journals, newspapers and anthologies. He’s had a novel and several short story collections published (his latest, Automatically Hip, was released this month) and he teaches creative writing at college level. Where did this all start? How do you create a life path like this?
John, when did you start calling yourself a writer?
I love this question. It’s something I often say to emerging writers about taking that next step in their process, the importance of owning they are a writer by voicing it – ‘I am a writer!’
I feel that many writers, at all experience levels, can be shy or reticent to share with others about this pursuit. Perhaps the reason is fear of ridicule (‘are you one of those artist types?’), or condemnation for doing something that might not be monetarily beneficial (‘why don’t you get a real job?’). But if you are writing, and especially if you are serious about writing, then you are a writer. And standing up for your writing helps solidify it in your life.
And when did it happen for you?
After completing my MA program at City College of New York, and publishing my first story, Words, in Fiction Magazine. Before, I had always couched my writing in deprecation when asked, but I decided then I was making light of real accomplishments and harming my true self.
Where did your creative urge come from?
The dramatic answer is survival. But it might also be the true answer. When I am feeling creative, I feel the most alive, the most healthy, the most positive, and the most forward thinking. And when I don’t feel creative, or am not creating, I feel as if I’m existing. And that’s not bad. Living in itself is a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful for every breath. It’s just that I’m more grateful, and have a greater capacity to be grateful, when I’m being creative.
Were any of your family writers or other kinds of artist?
While I’m the only writer in the family, I’d say we’re an artistic group – my mother and sister are excellent at sketching and painting, and my father was a good storyteller.
Have you done jobs that aren’t connected with creativity?
I have been very lucky, these past few decades, to have worked as a development director for a nonprofit organization. A major component of this job is grant writing, which while different from creative writing, still demands originality and craft.
Is there any crossover?
I think the discipline needed to write grants, to keep to form, be precise in detail, and, basically, get to the point, has helped me develop a better prose style.
What was your publishing journey?
As mentioned before, my first published short story appeared in Fiction Magazine, which was headed by Mark Mirsky, a talented professor at City College of New York and a noted author. With that as a touchstone, I kept writing short stories for years, and was grateful to have almost all of them published in literary journals and anthologies. The story in Fiction, for example, was selected for Flash Fiction Forward, published by Norton & Co.
I then decided to challenge myself by writing a novel, and worked for a few years to create The Book of Ash, which was published by an independent press. After this success, I went back to my trove of short stories, and began organizing them into collections. And with great fortune, Vine Leaves Press chose to publish these works – Two Syllable Men, What’s Wrong With this Picture? and Automatically Hip.
You have an MA in creative writing. What did that change?
Being accepted into the MA program at City College was monumental for me. I graduated from Villanova University some years before and was working full time, but I knew I wanted to immerse in writing and knew I needed help to do so. From the start, I loved City and the students and professors.
It felt right?
Being in that environment felt right, that I was where I should be. I was able to learn from professors and peers, learned to read and critique work, was exposed to literary classics in a more nuanced way, and made lasting connections that have helped me in my publishing pursuits.
You now teach creative writing. How did that start?
About 15 years ago, believing I now had something to say that was valuable to writers, I signed on to teach a continuing education. Like my experience at City College, it felt right, from the start. I love to talk writing, hear work, laugh and joke and get to know rising writers on a deeper level.
Next, thanks to a friend, I began teaching writing classes at a senior center in Queens for LGBTQ individuals. Then I had the opportunity to teach at college level – first at The College of New Rochelle’s Rosa Parks Campus in Harlem, and then at Sacred Heart University and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Helping people connect with their creativity and become better writers feeds my own soul.
What do you think can be taught and what can’t?
I’d say the biggest thing that can’t be taught to writers is commitment to the craft – the desire to be a better writer.
That’s a great answer – so true! In all the times I’ve asked this question, I’ve never heard that!
I believe you can help unblock people who may be in a rut with their writing, or help them better organize so they write more, or give them a starting point to move forward and finish projects. But you can’t put in them that drive, or need, to keep going and keep going and keep going, which is the basis for success.
You write short and longform… how do you choose which treatment an idea deserves?
It’s more intention than inspiration. When I first started writing with determination, I was interested in writing short stories, so all new ideas I had were funneled into that form. But as I matured, finished a novel, wrote plays and essays, there was a switch in process. Today, I pick a form I want to take on, say a novella, and wait for the idea to fill the vessel.
Do you have a writing process?
I usually write each day, but not at any set time or amount of time. What I try to do is have both short and long-term projects going at once. Say I’m tasked with writing a book review, I work on that at one point of the day, and if I’m at the same time working on a book, that’s done in a separate sitting. In this way, I am keeping my writing muscle strong while getting different rewards from the work. I also try to keep wordcount goals. One summer, I stuck to writing 250 words a day, every day – no more, no less. And yes, I am OCD.
Tell me about Automatically Hip. The cover has a kooky vintage vibe… and a lizard head, elephant head, a man in a suit and bowler hat, and music. What should it tell me about the book?
Jessica Bell, the multi-talented publisher of Vine Leaves Press, gave me a gift with her cover design for Automatically Hip. The image is a take from one of the stories, Grooved Pavement, about a man who only paints pictures of an elephant wearing a bowler. I think this image represents this book well, as many of the stories are a bit surreal, hopefully funny, and meant to pique the curiosity of the reader…any maybe bring bowlers back in fashion.
Tell me about your other short story collections.
Two Syllable Men, the first collection published by Vine Leaves Press, is about, surprise, men. Each story is a different man’s name (two syllables of course), who are the main characters. I wrote many of these pieces after a painful divorce, so the themes are relationships and loss, healing and finding new love.
What’s Wrong With This Picture? was next. These stories are more about the insanity of modernity, or the madness in the mundane. And now we have Automatically Hip, which might be a mix of both.
And your novel, The Book of Ash…
It’s comedic sci-fi, influenced by 1984 and also Fight Club. It was inspired by 9/11. I was living and working near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, and like many was trying to make sense of human cruelty. So I created a dystopian world set in a not-so-distant future that might, I’m scared to say, be actually approaching.
There can’t be a dystopia writer who doesn’t have that same ‘what-have-I-done’ feeling. We write it down and it starts to come true. Let’s return to positive vibes. You’re involved in something called the Good Men Project – what’s that?
It’s a men-focused online magazine that publishes male perspectives that are inclusive and diverse. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity for many years to pen a column for them, and with the help of an amazing editor, Kara Post-Kennedy, it’s been fun and rewarding.
What do you like to read?
I like all genres, but mostly I stick to classic mystery/thriller writers – Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Ross MacDonald, Eric Ambler. But I’ll read or reread anything by Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell. My current favorite is Burt Weissbourd. He is a master story teller.