Sunday, 18 June 2017

Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson

Book review by Greenacre Writer Mumpuni Murniati

Eric Ebner lives quietly in a yellow-wood villa at Skrea beach in Falkenberg, a west coast town in Sweden. His job is as an embalmer, he treats dead bodies in the precise manner and the discipline of his training. A child’s cadaver is a bonus, which doesn’t come often. He lays Antoine’s on the table, being giddy with excitement as his scalpel pushes beneath the cold but supple skin of the torso... 

In the nearby Olofsbo – in another era- Emily Roy studies the area where a female body had been concealed under an abandoned boat. Identified as Linnéa Blix, she was reported missing a day before in London. Roy was then called to see it because of the distinctive wounds: they match with what she’s seen on three children’s bodies -two buried, one exposed- in Hampstead Heath. Except Blix’s murder breaks the pattern: why her? What’s the anomaly for? She’s mulling over the questions while making the following mental note.

Latex-gloved hands pull the boat away. Beneath it, the body is naked, the skin blue, with a thin film of frost. Emily can’t smell the rancid scent of death, which has been blown away by the cold. The silky blonde hair frames the face, all the way down to the shoulders. The arms have been placed alongside the body. The pubis is shaven. The eye sockets are empty, black, dried blood highlighting their circles. The incision made to enucleate the victim is visible and tidy. The throat is cut wide open. The gash is deep, flaps of sin hanging on both sides of it. The trachea has been sectioned and pulled out.

Between Sweden and England, between the ghostly shadows of Buchenwald Concentration Camp and the present day, between a serial killer and a police profiler emerge a complicated plot that is gripping and worth perusing on every page.

Johana Gustawsson’s seven-year wait for the publication of her debut crime fiction is remarkable. The audacious Block 46 is the fruit of her painstaking research leafing through the documents of the Nuremberg Trial. Spanning over seventy years, it is a tale with an array of settings and flashbacks being approached differently in the génre.

Published in French in 2015, the English translation by Maxim Jakubowski, is competent and has a touch of the literary novel. The harrowing depictions of the killings can be horrifying to many, for Gustawsson is visual about gruesome details. Nonetheless, her narratives are evocative and audacious. From the organised hell of the camp to the hunting of the victims, she depicts different scenes succinctly but with great sensitivity. Her timing of events denoting distinctive places and time might take a moment of getting used to and yet her offer of a piece of the jigsaw clue engages readers during the journey to the solution. She allows readers to follow her characters closely and being in awe with the development of the case. Even in the penultimate ending she still leaves a room to wonder, to speculate.

Gustawsson pushes further with the involvement of Blix’s friend the French Alexis Castells in the investigation. It is as if it’s been the writer herself in her portrayal of Castells, whom has become Roy’s sidekick. If Roy is meticulous and exact, the other lets her mind meander to unthinkable scenarios and possibilities.

In a show-stopper pace Gustawsson juggles a lot of balls; there are moments that she almost drops them in the subplots. Nonetheless, she’s an old hand in throwing off the scent with her wild goose chase. She might give away the fact that Blix knew her killer well, but on the other hand she's managed to keep her wild card intact.

It’s inevitable to notice that the underlying issue is a matter that’s been dear to her. Her grandfather, Simon Lagunas, was on the resistance group that took over the camp from the SS soldiers before the US army went in on 11th April 1945. Her personal link shows the braveness and the perseverance that makes Block 46 an endearing tribute to the survivors of Buchenwald.

He wraps gauze around the sockets and the opening he has carved into the child’s neck. With an antiseptic cloth, he cleans the forehead, the nose and the marbled cheeks. Then the shoulders, the torso and the navel, on which he delicately places a cotton pad to absorb the blood. He throws the soaked pad away and completes his cleaning with a small, thin towel that he has rolled round his fingers. He uses it to delve into the depths of the ears, to wipe the sides of the nose and the skin on the child’s stomach.

How many knitted eyebrows, or even a wince at the above paragraph happen? Is it necessary to explain how a sociopath does ‘the work’? If anything, Gustawsson’s tenacity to plough through tough scenes is applaudable.

If there’s a slight displeasure, it’s the fixing of the genders of the hunt and the hunted. Although it’s quite a fair choice on her part, given the history of the crimes along with some attitudes to gender roles Gustawsson is willing to discuss.

As Roy and Castells close in on the murderer, are they close to catching the perpetrator? Or in fact, are they being lured into a trap and falling into it?

At last, a great fanfare concludes. Is Eric Ebner, an ex-prisoner of Buchenwald, the murderer the police have been looking for?

Thanks to Orenda books for the review copy.

Follow Johana on Twitter: @JoGustawsson

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

A Conversation With Lucy V Hay

Lucy V. Hay is a novelist, script editor and blogger who helps writers via her Bang2write consultancy. She is the associate producer of Brit Thrillers Deviation (2012) and Assassin (2015), both starring Danny Dyer. Lucy is also head reader for the London Screenwriters’ Festival and has written two non-fiction books, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays, plus its follow-up Drama Screenplays. She lives in Devon with her husband, three children, six cats and five African Land Snails. Lucy's debut novel The Other Twin (2017) is published by Orenda Books, and hits the bookshops this August. 

When India falls to her death from a bridge over a railway, her sister Poppy returns home to Brighton for the first time in years. Unconvinced by official explanations, Poppy begins her own investigation into India’s death. But the deeper she digs, the closer she comes to uncovering deeply buried secrets. Could Matthew Temple, the boyfriend she abandoned, be involved? And what of his powerful and wealthy parents, and his twin sister, Ana? 

'A cracker of a debut...I couldn't put it down' - Paula Daly

Enter the mysterious and ethereal Jenny: the girl Poppy discovers after hacking into India’s laptop. What exactly is she hiding, and what did India find out about her? 

Taking the reader on a breathless ride through the winding lanes of Brighton, into its vibrant party scene and inside the homes of its well-heeled families, The Other Twin is a startling and up-to-the- minute thriller about the social-media world, where resentments and accusations are played out online, where identities are made and remade, and where there is no such thing as the truth... 

We'd like to thank Lucy for having A Conversation...and wish her much luck and success with her debut novel, The Other Twin.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

Like many writers, my journey started in childhood. My Mum is a voracious reader and back then had a big bookcase at the top of the stairs. I used to look at the books in and see the names and daydream about having my name on the front. It was always my intention to write a novel, but I got distracted, first when I became a teenage mother, then by university as I ended up studying screenwriting for film and television.

I love screenplays, but discovered what I really enjoyed in that world was pulling them apart and breaking them down, especially in terms structure, plotting and characterisation. I ended up becoming a script editor for movies on this basis, but I still hankered after writing something myself.

So I ended up writing my first novel, a YA story called The Decision: Lizzie's Story, which confronts a teenage protagonist with ALL the possible outcomes of a single dilemma. I wrote a follow up, then several non-fiction titles on screenwriting for Kamera Books. But I’ve always loved crime, so thought I would have a bash!

Now I’m delighted to say I’ve a book coming out with the mighty Orenda Books, called The Other Twin. It’s a crime mystery set in Brighton and protagonist Poppy is determined to prove her younger sister India did not kill herself … This journey takes her into the shady online world of blogs and social media, as well as the LGBT landscape of the city.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I think as a writer, I am principally a communicator of new ideas. I love the idea that my books or stories can help audiences consider an alternative view. I am realistic – a single book, film or blog is unlikely to completely turn someone’s worldview upside down – but I can do my part in being part of that cumulative build up.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Absolutely. There is a character in The Other Twin, who is both homophobic and misogynist. That was tough to write. It made me feel very uncomfortable, guilty and even angry, to think up the various things someone like him would think or say to other people. But no antagonist thinks they’re a ‘bad’ guy – villains are the hero of their own story. So I had to delve deep and work out why he would be like this. Once I had traced back what had caused him to have this reaction, I didn’t condone him – obviously not – but I could see what had twisted him to be like this.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?
I have quite a bit of experience writing about diverse characters! On my writing tips site, Bang2write, I started writing about female leads and characterisation back in 2009. This blossomed into talking about marginalised characters in general – especially LGBT people, BAME people and disabled people, but also personal interests of mine like teenagers, especially young parents.

B2W quickly became known for writing about and championing diversity in characterisation and storytelling generally. I’ve written a new non fiction book called Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV and Film for Kamera Books again, which is out this September (2017).

I’ve also attempted to take my own advice in The Other Twin: setting it within the LGBT community was deliberate, as was including an interracial family. The LGBT community is one that has always welcomed me from a young age and one I feel confident within, but another element that recurs in the story is one black character’s natural hair. Being white I had to obviously do a lot of research on this, as I was very anxious not to get it wrong. The politics of ‘natural vs relaxed’ hair can be a real minefield and I didn’t want to fall into the usual white writer traps of calling natural hair ‘unruly’ or suggest it’s anything other than beautiful, which I think it is.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I stayed in a holiday cottage in Lynmouth, Devon one year that had a fabulous big living room with oak flooring and a balcony that overlooked the harbour. You could see right across the sea to Wales. I’d write there every day if I could.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

I don’t think there is any one book I wish I’d written, though I admire plenty of them and am in awe of the talent and bravery. I do hope I could one day write a memoir as honest and insightful as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. She was a huge inspiration to me as a fellow teen mum and made me want to find out so much about the world. Another book that had a similar effect on me was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

As I always say on my website, my advice is three-fold:

Know your concept, inside out. Too many stories – whether script or novel – ‘misfire’ at foundation level, they’re not really sure what they’re about; who is in them; or why;
Have a strategy. Know what you’re trying to do, plus why and when by (the last bit is what always gets forgotten!); Finally, understand it’s not about a destination. Your journey as a writer will never be over. So have fun!! Or go and be an accountant J

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m currently working on my next book for Orenda. I love to write about dysfunctional families, sociopaths and modern things like social media, apps or other tech, so expect the next book to have some – if not all! – of these things in.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Got to be Matilda by Roald Dahl. I was a lonely, precocious child who loved books just like her. I would try and move stuff with my mind too, but unfortunately it never worked! I did have a vile teacher like Miss Trunchball though and when I was about seven I prayed that she would die … and she got run over! By a tractor! Luckily she didn’t die, but the evidence is clear. Don’t mess with me !!

The Other Twin is published by Orenda.

Follow Lucy on Twitter: @LucyVHayAuthor

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Stolen Child By Sanjida Kay

Review by Vasundra Jackison

This is a story about a seven-year old child called Evie who is adopted at birth by a loving couple living in the beautiful setting of the Yorkshire Moors. It is also a story about Zoe, Evie’s adoptive mother. The birth mother was a drug addict and the father unknown. 

Evie is a happy child who loves her adoptive parents and her two-year old little brother. But this begins to change when she starts to wonder about her birth parents. Her mother notices that Evie has become very secretive and prone to throwing tantrums for no apparent reason.

Evie doesn’t look like anyone else in my family. Her hair is dark, her skin the colour of milky tea and her eyes are streaked green and brown.

Evie’s school teachers also notice her behavioural changes, and try to help. But things become serious when they find her secret notes and gifts.

Hello my darling. I’m your real father. I’ve been searching for you ever since you were stolen from me. I love you so much. Daddy.

Zoe is extremely worried and tries to make Evie understand that she is in danger. She cannot get through to her. She turns to her husband for support, but he is away a lot on business and does not seem too concerned. The police and teachers are also alerted. The only person who appears to understand is her new friend Harris who takes her for coffee and walks after school.

As they walk through the purple heather at Rombald’s Moor and stop at the Cow and Calf rocks, Zoe finds comfort in Harris’ quiet and calm demeanour. He tells her about a magical place in Pakistan called the Hunza Valley. She is pleased and blushes when he says:

I’m so pleased I found you. I’ve waited a right long time to meet you.

Zoe’s nightmare begins when Evie disappears on the same day that her son is rushed to hospital in a critical condition. How can a healthy child collapse and need intensive care? And who has taken Evie? The police suspect everyone, including Zoe’s husband.

With so much in the news about human trafficking, Zoe fears the worst. Then photographs of little girls in their underwear are found in the house of a friend. Unspeakable thoughts of child grooming and sexual abuse torment her.

I feel lost, adrift, with nothing to cling to. I’m literally helpless. How can I find my child? What can I do to save her?

Zoe believes that Evie has been snatched from her by the man claiming to be her real father. She is desperate to find out who he is and where he is holding Evie.

This is a very good read with lots of twists and turns to keep you turning the pages. All through the book, you think you know what will happen but the book has a surprising ending.

Thanks to Corvus for a review copy.

You can follow Sanjida on Twitter: @SanjidaKay

Saturday, 10 June 2017

A Conversation With Kerry Fisher

Kerry Fisher was born in Peterborough, she studied French and Italian at Bath University, followed by several years working as an English teacher in Corsica and Spain before topping the dizzying heights of holiday rep and grape picker in Tuscany. She eventually succumbed to 'getting a proper job' and returned to England to study Periodical Journalism at City University. After two years working in the features department at Essentials magazine in London, love carried her off to the wilds of the West Pennine moors near Bolton. She now lives in Surrey with her husband (of whisking off to Bolton fame), two teenagers and a very naughty lab/schnauzer called Poppy. Kerry can often be seen trailing across the Surrey Hills whistling and waving pieces of chicken while the dog practises her 'talk to the tail'. In her third book, After The Lie, Kerry shamelessly exploits every embarrassing dog misdemeanour to create her fictional hound, Mabel.

Kerry has spent half her life talking about writing a novel, then several years at Candis magazine reviewing other people's but it wasn't until she took some online courses with the UCLA (University of California) that the dream started to morph into reality, culminating in the publishing of The Class Ceiling. The Avon imprint of HarperCollins picked it up and retitled it The School Gate Survival Guide, published summer 2014. Her second book, The Island Escape, came out in May 2015. It won first prize at the York Festival of Writing for the opening line: 'I was wearing the wrong bra for sitting in a police cell'. After The Lie, is the story of how small lies become more toxic as they pass down the generations.

Her latest book The Silent Wife asks if you would risk everything for the man you loved? Even if you knew he'd done something terrible? 

'A heart-wrenching and gripping tale. I was hooked from the very first page.' Write Escape

Lara’s life looks perfect on the surface. Gorgeous doting husband Massimo, sweet little son Sandro and the perfect home. Lara knows something about Massimo. Something she can’t tell anyone else or everything he has worked so hard for will be destroyed: his job, their reputation, their son. This secret is keeping Lara a prisoner in her marriage.

Maggie is married to Massimo’s brother Nico and lives with him and her troubled stepdaughter. She knows all of Nico’s darkest secrets – or so she thinks. Then one day she discovers a letter in the attic which reveals a shocking secret about Nico’s first wife. Will Maggie set the record straight or keep silent to protect those she loves?

For a family held together by lies, the truth will come at a devastating price.

A heart-wrenching, emotionally gripping read for fans of Amanda Prowse, Liane Moriarty and Diane Chamberlain.

We'd like to thank Kerry for taking part in A Conversation and wish her much success with her future writing and all her books.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I wrote three books over five years with lots of ‘nearly but not quite’ rejections from agents. After the third book I didn’t have the energy to write another book with an uncertain future so I self-published. I was extremely lucky that I managed to prove there was an audience for the books I wanted to write and my debut was picked up by HarperCollins. It was republished as The School Gate Survival Guide, followed by The Island Escape a year later. I’m now just finishing my fifth novel, published by Bookouture.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I see my role primarily as entertaining people, though I’ve dealt with some themes – domestic abuse in The Silent Wife and keeping a secret from your family in After The Lie – that seem to have really resonated with some readers. I’ve had some incredibly touching letters and I feel very privileged that anything I write might help someone see their situation differently.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

I didn’t like Dorothy in After The Lie. She was so critical of her daughter, Lydia, but in the end, I felt sorry for her. Everything she’d done to try and put the family life back on track after her daughter made a terrible mistake came from a place of love. Her actions were misguided but her intentions were good – she wanted her daughter to be able to move on in life and be happy.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I love the diversity that writing affords me. It allows me to explore what it would be like to be really outspoken, to not care what people think, to laugh in the face of disapproval, like the affluent hippy, Clover, in The School Gate Survival Guide. I’ve also enjoyed writing completely buttoned-up characters like Lydia in After The Lie. She’s so busy keeping her secret, she can’t let herself relax or confide in anyone, not even her husband. The absolute antithesis of me – I don’t think I have a single secret someone doesn’t know!

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I wish I could come up with something really exotic but the truth is, I love wild British seaside. I’ve just returned from Pembrokeshire and fantasised about renting a place on the cliffs, overlooking a raging sea, where I could tuck myself away in the winter months and walk among the foxgloves and butterflies in the spring. I found that my brain relaxed amidst the gorgeousness of nature and that’s one of the hardest things when I am writing a book, feeling as though my mind is ‘on’ all the time and never resting.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

I love books that help me see the world differently. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was brilliant because it dealt with racism through the vehicle of humour without trivialising it; in fact, I thought it underlined the message.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Where do I start? Probably the most important piece is that you’ll have to believe in yourself long before anyone else does. Keep persevering, keep reading, keep learning. Accept that feedback is part of the process – that it doesn’t stop even once you get published (editors and copy editors), so it’s best get into the mindset of being prepared to listen and weigh up whether there are valid points being made. I see feedback from my editors as something that will improve the final book rather than a criticism. And all comments will prepare you for the reality of Amazon reviews…my favourite one star: ‘I wish I’d saved my money and bought a Twix’.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m working my fifth novel about a woman who gives a baby up for adoption and how that impacts on her relationship with her husband and subsequent children. It’s a story of family secrets, lies and how life can turn on a sixpence with one wrong decision.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I loved George in the Famous Five series. She was strong, daring and adventurous (or at least that’s how she appeared to me then). I’ve translated that into a postcard above my desk that says: ‘The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who’s going to stop me.’

The Silent Wife is published by Bookouture

You can follow Kerry on Twitter: @KerryFSwayne

Monday, 5 June 2017

A Conversation With Louise Walters

Louise Walters, who lives in Northamptonshire with her husband and five children, is the author of the acclaimed debut Mrs Sinclair􏰄s Suitcase, published by Hodder in 2014 and translated into 15 languages. 

She returns with her second novel, A Life Between Us, a gripping and heartfelt story of a family coming to terms with a devastating secret.

􏰀􏰂Following a childhood accident, Tina Thornton􏰁s twin sister Meg died, but for almost forty years Tina has secretly blamed herself for her sister􏰁s death. During a visit to her aging Uncle Edward and his sister Lucia, who both harbour dark secrets of their own, Tina makes a discovery that forces her to finally question her memories of the day her sister died. 

"Louise carefully weaves a tale of family secrets and effortlessly spans decades in this cleverly crafted story." 
             - Louise Jensen, author of The Sister and The Gift.

􏰀The day was set, in her mind, if not in her heart. She knew what happened. For many years she had re-lived it, frequently, slotting things into place, arranging them to her satisfaction. But had she got it wrong?􏰁 

Who, if anyone, did kill Meg? As Tina finds the courage to face the past, she unravels the tangled family mysteries of her estranged parents, her beautiful French Aunt Simone, the fading, compassionate Uncle Edward, and above all, the cold, bitter Aunt Lucia, whose spectral presence casts a long shadow over them all. 

We'd like to thank Louise for taking part in A Conversation With...and wish her much luck with A Life Between Us, and her future publishing journey.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

I think the writing grew out of my love of reading. Ever since I can remember I’ve loved to read, and as a child I used to love writing stories. In my 30s I started writing poems, then in my 40s I started writing novels. I’ve now written three, and I’m going to be waving goodbye to my 40s this year…! Hopefully the next decade will bring forth another three novels…

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I’m not sure what the role is… I just really enjoy it. I can’t imagine not writing. I also need to earn money, so if I can do that, it’s a bonus. I do now critique and edit other people’s novels, as I need a regular income. It’s hard to earn money from writing alone. But regardless of money, writing is just what I do.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Yes, I have. In my latest novel, A Life Between Us, my “baddie” grew from being utterly hateful, in my mind, to being not all bad. I found her soft spot, and made sure the readers could see it too. She is still a meanie, but I do feel for her.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

In my third novel, I write about a family who decide to home educate. Home educated kids (and parents!) struggle to find themselves in fiction… often it’s in a negative light, or in a strange or “wacky” light. I’ve tried really hard to show the reality of home educating. That’s about it for diverse characters for me. Don’t we all tend to write, at least to begin with, about people like us? I do have a few ideas swimming around for future novels, and one of those is about a friendship between two women from different cultures. It’s an idea I’m really excited about and can’t wait to start work on it.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I have a fantasy of owning a large house, in the middle of the English countryside, where it’s always summer, and I have a desk at an open window where I spend my civilised days writing. I would relish that peace. The reality is somewhat different! Luckily, I can write anywhere. I don’t have a room of my own, but I do have a desk of my own, in the corner of our living room.

What is the one book you wish you had written? 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. It’s an incredible novel, one that any novelist would be proud of.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

I always say read, read, read. It’s the most important thing you can do to learn to write. When you are writing, don’t think too much in terms of finding an agent and getting published. Write for its own sake, to begin. But be honest with yourself. You have to develop objectivity towards your own work.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’ve just finished the most recent edit on my third completed novel. It’s with my agent. Fingers crossed it will be my third published novel! Whether I’ll get a book deal or bring it out myself, I’ve no idea. Right now I’m working on my second screenplay. It’s a totally different way of writing, and I enjoy it very much. Lots to learn though.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I loved to read as a child, and I read a lot of classics. Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) was a favourite, I loved her attitude to life. Also Jo March from Little Women, with whom I identified big time!

A Life Between Us is published by Matador.

You can follow Louise on Twitter: @LouiseWalters12

Friday, 2 June 2017

A Conversation With Isabel Costello

Isabel Costello is a London-based author and host of the Literary Sofa blog. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Stories for Homes in aid of Shelter. In 2016 her debut novel Paris Mon Amour was published in digital by Canelo and she has recently released a paperback edition under a new Literary Sofa imprint. Isabel has been involved with the WoMentoring Project since it began and runs workshops on Perseverance and Motivation for Writers with author and psychologist Voula Grand.

Isabel Costello’s lifelong connections with France started through her mother, a languages teacher, and developed into a passion for books, languages and travel. A degree in French and German led to a career in marketing and communications and on to writing fiction and founding the Literary Sofa blog. She lives in London with her husband and sons but is often to be found on the other side of the Channel.

Paris Mon Amour has been praised by readers for its vivid sense of the ‘real’ Paris and ‘grown-up’ take on sexual politics and relationships

A tale of lust, love and loss with a beautifully described Paris as its backdrop. I galloped through it in a couple of days

                                                                  - Claire Fuller

Alexandra has built a new life in Paris, finding happiness she never expected with her husband Philippe. But lately she suspects he has someone else. Can we ever truly know another person?

Philippe values the comfort and intimacy of his second marriage to Alexandra. Hard to believe he’d risk it all. Does anyone know what they really want?

Jean-Luc is the son of Philippe’s best friend. He wants Alexandra, and once she’s involved there is no way out. Do we ever stop to think how it’s going to end?

We'd like to thank Isabel for taking part in A Conversation...and wish her all the very best with her new venture into publishing with the Literary Sofa and huge congratulations on the beautifully written Paris Mon Amour.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

It was an immense relief when I finally took up creative writing in 2009 – I had been suppressing what I now realise was an actual need to do it for years. It’s taken eight and a half years to hold my first published novel in my hand, but it’s absolutely been worth the many highs and lows along the way. The first novel I wrote got me an agent within five years of setting out (not bad going) but it hit me very hard when that book didn’t get published. Somehow I managed to fire myself up to write Paris Mon Amour and I’ve since become very interested in the psychology of motivation and ‘resilient thinking’. Running my blog, the Literary Sofa, in tandem with my writing has been a great way to share my love of reading, support other writers and make some wonderful friends. There isn’t a single part of my life that hasn’t been transformed by writing.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I don’t think of it as a role and have never had much time for the whole ‘Being a Writer’ thing, as if that’s an end in itself. There’s something powerful and intimate about the written word that enables me to connect with people in a different way to anything else; I think some of my closest friends have been quite thrown by this, but not in a bad way! Good fiction asks provocative questions and I’m instinctively driven to explore loaded topics and moral ambiguity. My novel centres on an affair between a 40-year-old married woman, Alexandra, and the much younger son of her husband’s best friend. It questions ‘rules’ about who we are allowed to fall in love with (the British fascination with President Macron’s private life is a case in point), the link between love and sex and whether certain types of behaviour are invariably wrong. I find it liberating and exciting to write ‘in all honesty’ – it’s the only way I know to bring my characters to life and (hopefully) make it feel like a true story. The author’s relationship with the text is a very mysterious and complicated one: you have to put so much of yourself into it but at the same time try not to get in the reader’s way.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Yes, because that’s entirely possible where characters exist in every dimension – as in real life, nobody is entirely good or bad and I always think the issue is less whether a character is ‘likeable’ but whether the reader finds them in any way empathetic or interesting, and obviously that will vary hugely from one person to the next so it’s not under my control. I wouldn’t choose to hang out with my character Geneviève, ‘friend’ of my narrator and mother of her lover (as I said, it’s pretty messy); Alexandra finds her superior, controlling and emotionally cold but over time, she gains some insight into what makes Geneviève tick and comes to understand and feel for her. As for Alexandra herself, I held out against pressure to ‘warm her up’, make her less difficult, damaged, compromised, etc. because I always believed readers would respond to her the way she is, without necessarily liking her or wanting to be her friend. (Although I do like her a lot.) The pressure to make female characters nice is something I feel a strong obligation to kick against – it’s sexist and patronising.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

Most of my fiction is set in big cities (to date, London, New York and Paris) so it would be unthinkable not to reflect their multi-culturalism – I’ve lived in London for over 25 years, my children have grown up here and one of the things I love most about it is that the whole world is on our doorstep. Paris Mon Amour includes Muslim characters of North African origin, sometimes in connection with difficult political or social issues, sometimes just going about their daily business like the ordinary French citizens they are. Portraying a wide spectrum in terms of sexuality and social class comes more naturally to me as the boundaries and definitions are more flexible and subjective.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

The Cape Peninsula near Cape Town in South Africa would be very high on my wish list – I was there last Christmas having first visited the area 16 years ago and often returned in my mind in between, especially during depressing British winters. I love long walks, stunning coastal scenery and fabulous weather, all of which I could enjoy from a verandah with an ocean view. Whether I would get any work done is another matter!

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Despite my admiration for countless authors and their work, amazingly I have never had that thought. My favourite books couldn’t have been written by anyone else.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

I get asked this a lot, so here goes: Be bold. Scare yourself. Touch a nerve.

It’s not advice, exactly, but last year I wrote this piece called Seven years to publication, seven things I’ve learned for Writers’ Workshop – it’s all the stuff that helped me keep going.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

The last four months have been very busy as I grappled with learning the workings of the publishing business to bring out Paris Mon Amour in paperback under my own imprint. It’s been too long since I’ve had the time for any actual writing but I’m really looking forward to starting on my next novel, also set in Paris, hopefully this summer. You’re going to have to be patient, I’m afraid!

Who is your favourite literary character and why?

It would have to be Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Emma exemplifies just about everything that fascinates me in literature and life itself. She is flawed, passionate, fragile, full of contradictions. There’s something so relatable about her desire for intensity; her creator was the first of many to think ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi…

Thank you to Literary Sofa for the review copy.

You can follow Isabel on Twitter here: @isabelcostello