It's snowing outside as I write. I'm off to wrap gifts and to curl up with a good book beside a log fire. I'll be back on Tuesday 12 January when I'll post the first writing prompt of 2010. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the interview with Bronia Kita. Happy Holidays ...
Bronia Kita's distinctive first novel,The Swansong of
Wilbur McCrum,was published byPicador earlier this year. Bronia talks about
ventriloquism, the value of writing for 20 minutes a day and novel No 2
PJ: From the opening sentence of The Swansong of Wilbur
McCrumwe 'hear' Wilbur's voice. He's so far removed from your own world - how
did you manage the ventriloquism?
BK: Looking back on it now, writing in the
voice of a man born in the American West in the nineteenth century seems an
unwise choice for a first novel, but, I've always enjoyed inhabiting characters
who are as distant from me as possible. My inspiration for the book was a
Timewatch documentary about a spectacularly unsuccessful Oklahoma outlaw who
lived slightly later than my protagonist, and featured some people who
remembered his death, or had been told about it by people who were around at
the time. Their speech patterns filtered into my consciousness. I'm not sure at
what point I began to hear Wilbur's voice - fairly early on, I expect - but how
to transcribe it posed problems.
PJ: Did you do any dialogue research?
Researching dialogue was hard because so many of the portrayals of that time -
as with any historical period - are inauthentic. In cowboy movies saloon girls
seem to have access to a full range of 20th century cosmetics and hair dye, and
everyone has unfeasibly good teeth. I built up a large collection of
non-fiction books on the era, but didn't read many cowboy novels, as they were
mostly written long after, and are no more reliable a source than the movies.
The one exception was Owen Wister's The Virginian, and I also read the Little
House of the Prairie series, and Willa Cather's, O, Pioneers. To begin with I
used far more colloquial language and non-standard spelling, but soon realised
how hard that would be for readers, so I gradually reined it in until it was
much closer to standard speech, with a few dialect words and expressions
repeated fairly frequently. Some of these are authentic and some I may have
made up myself; even I couldn't tell you which now.
PJ: What other research did
the book require - landscape?
BK: The landscape was the hardest part for me to
create. I'm not good at geography and I've never set foot in the States, so I'm
often deliberately vague about where Wilbur is exactly. I use a mixture of real
and fictional places because it was hard to be sure how long it would have
taken to travel from one part of the country to another in those days. If some
of his destinations are fictional, no-one can point a finger at me and declare
that I've blundered.Besides, even
if I'd been able to travel to the real places mentioned in the book, I couldn't
travel back to how they were then; my job, like that of any fiction writer, was
to create my own version of my characters' world, and to make it believable.
PJ: I know you worked on Wilbur over several years.Was there a time when you
thought you might never finish it? What kept you going?
BK: Inevitably I grew
fond of Wilbur and not only did I want to see how he turned out, I began to
wish him well. The earlier drafts were much bleaker. I don't know if that
always happens when you spend a long time with a particular character. Almost a
decade passed from the writing of the first paragraph to the final publication
date, and I certainly don't intend to spend so long on the next one! Of course
I wasn't working on the novel all that time: I put it aside during the MA. I
don't think there was ever a time when I thought I'd give up on it, but when I
rewrote the second part it seemed to go on expanding. I began to feel like the
ballerina in The Red Shoes who can't stop dancing, as if I would just keep
typing until my fingers were bloody and the keyboard was smoking. Somehow I managed
to reach a conclusion and hand it over to my editor and together we knocked it
PJ: How did it feel to finally realise the project?
BK: It's hard
to say at which point the project was finally realised. Although in films
writers are often shown triumphantly typing 'The end' and then bundling their
manuscripts into an envelope to be sent to their publishers, in real life it's
a much more long drawn-out procedure. My editor was making suggestions for cuts
and changes at the same time as the cover designer was coming up with ideas and
we were deciding on the blurb for the jacket and which photo to use. The moment
I received the first proof copy was something of an anti-climax, as it had a
plain cover that looked very boring. Seeing the finished product was obviously
more exciting, but I'd already been given a copy of the jacket by then. The
best moment was probably when my publicist sent me some pictures of the window
of Goldsboro Books with a display made up entirely of copies of my novel. It was
their book of the month for June, and they issued a special limited edition of
250 signed and numbered copies, for which I had to sign 500 sheets of paper,
just in case I messed some up.
PJ: Doing the Goldsmiths Creative Writing MA
part-time gave you a writing framework for two years - how did that change your
BK: I gained so much from the MA. The first thing was that I became
part of a group of writers who took my writing seriously. Although I'd
submitted work for competitions - and had some success - I'd never shown
anything to my friends and family and my daily life was occupied with caring
for my children and doing my job. It was inexpressibly liberating to be around
people who saw me primarily as a writer, rather than a mum or a colleague.
said, I chose not to work on the novel during the course, and instead
concentrated on short stories. Because we were workshopping regularly I
produced quite a number of these, and a group of us continued to meet after we
graduated, so I've got quite a collection now.
I learned a lot from your
workshops: I was particularly struck by what you said about trying to write for
20 minutes a day, rather than waiting for a time when you could devote several
hours at a stretch to it. Previously I'd been beating myself up about the
impossibility of producing anything of worth when I had so many other
commitments, but I soon discovered how much could be achieved by writing little
PJ: Life after MA - the framework has gone - what new
framework have you constructed for your writing?
BK: The short answer is: none.
I'm afraid that the tide of other stuff to do is flowing in again. My children
and my parents require a lot of support and I'm doing what I can to publicise
the book, so at the moment I'm hardly working on the new novel at all. I'm now
involved in a Spread the Word project called Encompass that aims to train
writers to run community workshops in creative writing. I'm hoping that, even
though it's an additional commitment, it will give more structure to my working
week, and I'll fit my writing around it.
PJ: Has getting published changed the
way you see yourself as a writer?
BK: I think it has. I firmly believe that if
you write, you're a writer; you don't need to be published to give yourself
permission to use that description, but obviously I've now had feedback from a
large number of people, most of them strangers with nothing invested in me as a
person, and inevitably that's helped me to take myself more seriously. People
have paid good money to buy my book and to come and listen to me talk about
writing it - I've even had fan mail! Before I was published there were plenty
of occasions when I asked myself what I thought I was doing, but once a
publisher gave me a cheque I felt vindicated. I even described myself as 'a
novelist' to some young man from the bank who was annoying me. That took me by
surprise, but I'm getting used to it. My passport is up for renewal next year,
and I still haven't decided what to give as my occupation.
PJ: What surprised/delighted/shocked
you abut the process of getting published and getting the book to readers?
The surprise was that it happened at all, the delight was the way it was
received, and the money - although I did accidentally put one of my advance
cheques in the recycling bin and only just managed to retrieve it before it was
collected (I'm not an orderly person) and the shocking part was the growing
realisation of the importance of marketing. No doubt that seems naïve, but it
wasn't until I saw that plain proof copy that I began to consider the
importance of a book's cover, and the need to package it in a way that will
appeal to potential readers.
PJ: Can you tell us a bit about the new book you
are working on? Does it have a title yet?
BK: The new book is something
completely different, and probably much closer to my usual work. It's a
narrative with three main points of view, made up of memories of an elderly man
in a care home, his daughter and granddaughter and spanning the period from
just before the outbreak of the Second World War to the turn of the millennium.
At least, that's what it is at the moment; in another few months it might be
something else again - and no, I haven't decided on a title yet, although I've
got one for the book after that.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
Sarah Hall's How to Paint a Dead Man, which is less strikingly original than
The Electric Michelangelo, but more assured and probably easier to read. I'm
finding it interesting because it, too, has several points of view in
alternating chapters, two of which are those of a father and daughter.
advice would you give to someone just embarking on a first novel? BK: Don't, at
least not if you expect to make a living out of it. Only a lucky few manage
that, and not many writers of literary fiction. If it's something you truly
want and need to do, go into it with your eyes open, be aware that getting a
book published is like climbing a pyramid: the first step is to produce a
manuscript that you're reasonably happy with; the second is to find an agent
who will take you on; the next is to get a book deal, then to do the rewrites,
and so on. It's not like bursting into a sunlit field and skipping through the
buttercups, shouting 'I've arrived!' The chances are that your agent will
probably sidle up to you at the launch and ask if you've started work on the
next one yet. As for the process of writing: believe in yourself, because if
you don't, you can't really expect anyone else to.
Congratulations to Sue Rose who took first prize in the 2009 Troubadour Competition.
The Troubadour Prize has quickly established
itself as one of the top poetry competitions. One reason being the quality of the judges and the fact that both judges read all entries. This year Maura Dooley
Jamie McKendrick selected an impressive range of voices and forms in the 23 winners - top 3 + 20 commended. Among the commended are Jane Draycott and
This competition not only supports regular live
readings at The Troubadour since arts funding was cut, it showcases some
extraordinary poetry. Now, you can now read all 23 prize-winning poems here.
That was the question at the heart of a workshop I ran a couple of weeks ago.
The workshop was for writers who had completed the first
draft of a novel. These were committed writers with strong ideas that
they'd seen through to produce a full manuscript.For many it was their first novel.
For me - probably for
most writers - finishing a novel 'emotionally' is what you do in a first draft.
It can leave you exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure, both states
convincing you that - bar a few tweaks - it's done!And, anyway, won't Spellcheck do the work now?
At the end of
that 'emotional' first draft you have probably got everything off your chest,
you know what your novel is about.Now the work starts.
Michelle Lovric writes novels for adults and
children. She says, "the first draft is the most exciting bit, for me. All
the ideas are fresh and uncontaminated by pessimism. It is always going to be
the best thing you ever wrote. In a way it is without responsibility and
gloriously free. It is like being in love. The second draft is more like being
Blinded by love, exhausted and exhilarated, many first time novelists make the mistake of sending out their
work too early. Doing this risks throwing away valuable chances for your work
to be picked up by an agent or editor. Are you really sending out the strongest
version of your story?
Part of the problem is the term itself. To get to the end of that 'emotional' or getting-it-off-your-chest draft might mean that you've revised some chapters ten times already.
For first timers, a key step towards really finishing
your novel, is to recognise that what you have when you first complete the whole manuscript - no matter how many revisions some chapters have gone through - is a first [of many passes
through] draft [beginning to look like a real book, in parts].
Ross Raisin, successful first time novelist, clearly knows what a first draft is for.
The end of a first draft is the end of the honeymoon. Time to start working at the