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Interview with Lesley Allen

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Congratulations to Lesley Allen whose book, ‘The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir’ is out today in paperback, published by Twenty7.  I asked Lesley some questions.

 

Can you tell me a bit about ‘The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir’ please?

Biddy Weir is a shy little girl who lives a lonely, solitary existence with her old-fashioned, emotionally crippled father. But she exists quite happily in her own little world, sketching seagulls and examining bird poo – until one day she is branded a ‘Bloody Weirdo’ by the most popular girl in her class. What follows is a heart-breaking tale of bullying and redemption, which spans from the late 1970s to 2000. Biddy’s story is set in Northern Ireland, but it has universal appeal, as ultimately it affirms the value of being different.

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What made you want to write this book and where did you get your ideas from?

Biddy made me write it. I know that sounds a tad trite, but it’s true. She first appeared in a short story I wrote, but she wouldn’t leave me alone. She nattered away in my head and peck-peck-pecked at me until I agreed to explore her story some more. And bit by bit (or Bird by Bird if you’ve read Anne Lamont’s inspirational book) her story turned into a book.

 

How long has it taken you to write?

This book has a long history. It started life over ten years ago as a short story, then very gradually, over three or four years, evolved into a novel. It was almost published back in 2008, but the deal fell through, which was awful at the time. I couldn’t let it go though, and neither could my agents, Susan and Paul Feldstein, who were determined to get me another deal. So after a long break, I dug it back out, did a radical re-write – and they sold it to Bonnier. And this time it actually happened!

 

Can you relate to any of your characters?

I’ve been living with these characters for many years now, so I know them all very well. I really like some of them, and utterly detest others, and there are definitely a couple I can relate to, or at least understand what makes them tick. None of the characters are me, but some are hybrids of people I’ve encountered throughout my life.

 

What would you say to Biddy Weir if you met her for real?

If I met young Biddy, the first thing I’d do is give her a huge big hug. And then another one. Then I’d look her in the eye and tell her that she isn’t a bloody weirdo, that she needs to confide in someone about the bullying, and that, ultimately, everything will be okay. Oh, and that that Alison Flemming one is going to get her comeuppance big time! Then I’d invite her round to my house for tea and Kimberley biscuits. (If you’ve read the book, you’ll know!)

 

What do you want people to get from your book?

The reaction to the book has already surprised me. It seems to be really touching a chord with many readers, and that was so unexpected. I’ve been contacted by people who have been bullied saying that reading the book was cathartic for them and thanking me for ‘telling their story’. Others have told me it helped them to understand what friends or loved ones suffering from anxiety or social disorders are going through and some have said it’s given them the confidence to intervene in a situation they know isn’t right. It’s incredibly humbling.

 

How easy has the publishing process been for you?

It hasn’t been easy at all. A bit of a rollercoaster-come-dodgems white-knuckle ride! But after years of setbacks, rejections, re-writes and confidence crises, I’m one of the lucky ones whose book has finally been published. And I promise you, it has been worth every second of the wait!

 

Are there more books to come?

Definitely. Book two is well under way. It’s not a sequel, but as with Biddy, it does deal with some fairly dark topics.

 

What’s the best bit of advice you have been given about writing?

I’ve had so much advice over the years, from so many people, and it’s all been gratefully received – even if I haven’t particularly agreed with it at the time. But the one thing that has stuck with me above everything else is that in fiction, there are no hard and fast rules. So play with your story, and your characters and your voice. Try out different structures, and if you can’t find one that fits, create your own. There is no right way, and no wrong way, no best way, and no worst way – just your way.

 

Who are you favourite authors?

This is so tricky, as the authors and books that make an impression on your life are constantly evolving. My bookcase is a forever changing landscape. But in recent years, Maggie O’Farrell, Sarah Winman, Zoe Heller, Alice Sebold, David Nicholls and Lucy Caldwell are the writers who have inspired me the most. My very soul absorbs their stories.

 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Read. I read as much as I can, particularly debuts as I’m always interested in new writers. I also like a wee glass of red wine, and if I can combine the two, even better! And I have to admit to a bit of binging on Netflix, most recently Stranger Things. (By the way, when Hollywood comes calling, I want Millie Bobbie Brown to play Biddy in the film!)

 

If you were only allowed to keep five items what would they be?

Assuming my daughter is not classified as an item, then I’d say my laptop, a notebook, a red pen, a bottle of red wine, and my cat, Herbie. All the components I need to finish my next book! (Herbie is glaring at me as I write this with an “I’m not a flippin’ item either” expression!)

 

About Lesley Allen

Lesley Allen lives in Bangor, County Down, with her teenage daughter. She is a freelance copywriter and the press officer and programme developer for Open House Festival. Lesley was named as one of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s 2016 Artist Career Enhancement recipients for literature. She will be using the award to complete her second novel.

 

‘The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir’ is available to buy from Amazon UK:-

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lonely-Life-Biddy-Weir/dp/1785770381/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1478112650&sr=1-1

Interview with Herta Feely

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Herta Feely’s  book, ‘Saving Phoebe Murrow’ is out today in paperback, published by Twenty7.  I asked Herta all about her novel.

 

Can you tell me a bit about ‘Saving Phoebe Murrow’ please?

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(The novel is divided into three sections: Conflict, Revenge, and Justice. And it is written from five people’s point-of-view—three adults and two teens.)

The story revolves around a cyber-bullying episode that targets the young teen, Phoebe Murrow, who self-harms by cutting. The cyber-bullying occurs in the first chapter, which ends without the reader knowing whether Phoebe will commit suicide or not. Then we roll back in time two months to see what happened to cause this in the first place.

The novel explores social media and its prevalence in teen lives, the conflict between two women with very different parenting styles, cliquish women, mean girls, self-harm in the form of cutting, and the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. And finally, it’s about a woman juggling a demanding career and the responsibilities of family, but trying her best to keep her daughter safe in a complex world.

In the final section (Justice), we experience the ramifications of the cyber-bullying on the two girls’ families and the extended community of students.

 

How long did it take you to write this book?

The first draft took the length of a pregnancy, nine months, but that was followed by three years of revisions.

 

Where did you get your ideas from?

The inspiration for this novel came from a newspaper article I read back in 2008 about a 13-year-old girl named Megan Meier, who took her life after a cyber-bullying episode (on MySpace in 2006) led by a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans, whom she’d never met. After quite a bit of online bullying, in which friends she knew piled on, he suggested she kill herself and she did. Some weeks later Megan’s parents discovered that Josh was not a boy at all, but a 47-year-old neighbor woman who knew Megan and wanted to find out what Megan was saying about her daughter, with whom Megan had been friends, but had had a falling out. It was shocking to me that someone could do such a thing to a child, especially one she knew was vulnerable, as Megan was.

Almost immediately I knew I wanted to write a novel about social media and its impact on girls. The characters and key elements of my novel are very different from the Megan Meier story, though there a few similarities exist.

 

Did you have to do any research?

The primary research focused on self-harm and some medical issues, which I can’t say more about here. After writing the novel, I did quite a bit of research on social media and its impact on teen girls, in particular, and I feel quite concerned about what’s happening. I have read and heard anecdotally that girls are experiencing quite a lot of anxiety because of active, maybe over-active, participation on various social media platforms. There are many reports of suicide, and even reports of murder, the latter related to girls meeting strange men online and trusting them. Such an incident occurred recently in the US. After “meeting” a student from Virginia Tech through a Facebook group, Nicole Lovell snuck out of her house late one night to meet him and three days later she was found murdered. The student, David Eisenhauer, is in prison on murder charges. This latter case, hopefully, is an anomaly, but social media does lend itself to predation.

 

Do you think this is a story lots of parents will be able to relate to?

In a word, yes. I’ve had lots of readers respond, often saying it should be a book club choice to give parents (women, in particular) a chance to discuss the various issues that are raised in the story. I intentionally featured two female characters that fall on either end of the parenting spectrum—one too rigid and controlling (Isabel) and the other (Sandy) too lenient and wanting her daughter to be popular. This will allow readers to discuss the parenting issues they are concerned with, and to critique the choices made by the mothers in the story.

 

What do you want people to get from your book?

First and foremost, I want people to enjoy the read. And second, I hope the novel helps to stimulate discussions about parenting and about social media and its role in our lives, particularly that of young people. How does one parent effectively in this era of heavy Internet use and over-reliance on our various technology devices?

The other themes in the book too, such as mean girls, cliquish behavior among women, the importance of recognizing the need to be good role models to children, and mother-daughter relationships are topics that I hope will be discussed.

Certainly, social media has many positive attributes, especially in its ability to connect us, to enable us to keep up with numerous friends, to promote products and services, to spread news quickly and so on. However, in all of this connection, we can also feel estranged. We may experience not really being in touch with the people whose messages/images we are reading and seeing on a screen. Social media cannot (and should not) take the place of real face-to-face friendships, real activities, and so on. And yet, being active on social media can eat up considerable amounts of a person’s time. Especially young people inexperienced in the world and overly vulnerable to other’s reactions.

For example, there have been numerous suicides that resulted from cyber-bullying. A quick check on the Internet will provide you with numerous examples.

As a result of all this, parents have quite a lot of challenges these days, especially relative to social media. First, because most parents did not grow up with social media, they have a lack of familiarity with it; second, it’s hard to keep up with the ever-changing and new social media platforms—Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, Twitter, etcetera; and third, parents have to figure out how to establish boundaries and limits and then monitor use, all of which can be extremely challenging.

I hope the novel will spark conversations along all these lines.

 

Do you think it would make a good TV drama?

I suppose most people say yes to this question (I’d like to insert a smiley face emoticon or a winking one here!), but considering the contemporary nature of the topic raised in Saving Phoebe Murrow, I’d say this is a definite yes and much needed for the reasons listed in the above question. I’ve focused more on adult readers in regards to the hopes for my novel, but in terms of good TV drama, I think it would also be helpful to see this from the children’s angle. I’d love to see a drama that explores social media and its dark sides so that teens have greater awareness of the dangers and negative aspects. Certainly my novel could be seen from both the teen and the adult perspectives (just as it is written), and it could also be expanded upon, with a series that explores more and more forms of social media and how this affects girls and boys and their parents.

 

What are your feelings about social media and do you find it useful?

I do enjoy using social media (mainly Facebook and Twitter) to keep up with friends, to hear the latest news (world and also book news), and to promote my own novel. And, yes, it is useful. Sometimes, though, I find it tedious. And time consuming. I’m beyond that point where I’m worried about whether people like a post or a tweet, though occasionally I’m subject to the same anxieties I’ve read young people can have. I even question whether I’m using the media appropriately and/or effectively. So I guess I’m not entirely immune to what “other people think,” am I?

I think I’ve expressed myself pretty fully about other aspects of how I feel about social media. It’s good and bad. It’s all in how we use it and/or how we let it control us!

 

Are more books planned?

Indeed. The next novel, ALL FALL DOWN, is about a woman who reaches the pinnacle of her career (in the human rights field), only to have her entire world slip out from under her. And, I’ve discovered, it’s a love story. Between Charlotte Cooper and Damian West, a Nigerian sculptor she met at Oxford as a student. It also takes place in different parts of the world, and explores human rights violations there and the destruction of archaeological artifacts in the Middle East.

 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Lately, there hasn’t been much free time. But I do enjoy traveling with my husband, biking, hiking, and eating good food. I attend plays at local theaters quite often, and recently saw “Hamilton” with the original cast in New York.

 

Did you always want to be a writer?

I always loved to read…always. From the time I was about eight I began writing plays for the kids in the neighborhood to perform, and I enjoyed writing the occasional story. Once, in 6th grade, I had to write part of a play that had to do with the future. So my main character was a woman, who became the first woman president of the United States, and she had a secretary who was male. Perhaps I was prescient?!

I didn’t seriously consider being a novelist until later in life, somewhere in my early forties, and then it took some time to get my writing “legs” and figure out what I wanted to write about. Now I can’t imagine life without it.

 

What’s your advice to anyone trying to write their first novel?

First, I would say, yes, do it. Life is short and you should give it a whirl. But I also believe that people often don’t fully appreciate how much writing you need to do before you can churn out your first decent novel. It requires much practice. Becoming a successful writer requires dedication and discipline with regular and frequent bouts of sitting and writing. There’s simply no way around that. You can have the most brilliant idea, but then you need to sit down and write it.

Everyone has their own method, but I highly recommend allowing time for your idea to gain traction in your imagination and jotting down characters that come to you, snatches of dialogue or interior thoughts, and the occasional scene. It can be very helpful to do a little bit of plotting and figuring out what the main character wants and what stands in his or her way. Identifying the conflict. Doing this sort of pre-work can really help when you get stuck, staring at the computer screen and not knowing where the story is headed. Then you can turn to your notes or do a little research and that can give you the confidence or push to keep going.

And, finally, I would say that though we all write, writing fiction requires some contact with the “muse.” Without going into much detail, I believe this is the ability to open oneself up to the creative spirit and believing in it and letting it flow through you and onto the page.

 

About Herta Feely

Herta Feely is a writer and full-time editor, working with a wide array of authors and writers from around the world. Born in former Yugoslavia, she and her parents emigrated to Germany when she was three, and then to the United States at the age of seven. Her work (both short stories and memoir) have been published in a number of anthologies and literary journals, and she has received the American Independent Writers’ award for best published personal essay. In her previous work, she was a journalist, press secretary and activist, co-founding Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization dedicated to saving children from unintentional injuries.

She now lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and two cats, Monty and Albert. She has two sons, Jack and Max.

 

‘Saving Phoebe Murrow’ is available to buy from Amazon UK:-

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Saving-Phoebe-Murrow-perfect-mother/dp/1785770349/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1476813806&sr=1-1

 

Interview with Rory Dunlop

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‘What We Didn’t Say’ is Rory Dunlop’s debut novel and it’s out today in paperback, published by Twenty7.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Rory.

 

Can you tell me a bit about ‘What We Didn’t Say’ please?

It’s a novel about a marriage, told by the husband and the wife.  They love each other but they separate because of a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications.  Then, two years, later they meet up.  They want to get back together but they’re each hiding secrets from the other.  It’s written in the form of a diary by the husband, with comments from the wife.

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Where did you get your ideas from for this book?

I’ve always loved unreliable narrator books, like Lolita or The Sea, the Sea.  I enjoy, as a reader, seeing things the narrator can’t.  I thought it would be fun to have two competing unreliable narrators telling the same story.  I’d never seen it done before.

 

Do you see yourself in any of the characters?

There’s a fair amount of me in Jack, the husband.  He’s a bit more insecure and anxious than me but it wouldn’t take too many changes before I found myself thinking like him.  There’s also rather a smug and insensitive barrister who appears briefly.  I don’t see myself in him.  It’s the opposite – he’s the person I try to avoid being at work.

 

Would you like to know any of them for real?

Yes! Absolutely!  I identify with Jack, I think Laura’s cool and I have a particular soft spot for Adam, who is very similar to one of my best friends.  I sent an early draft to a publisher who said ‘I love the concept but I can’t stand Jack and Laura.  I suspect Dunlop intended this but…’  I was horrified.  I hadn’t intended it all.  Jack and Laura were meant to be flawed but likeable – that was how I saw them.  I had to do an exhaustive re-draft after that.

 

Are you currently working on any other writing projects?

No.  I’m trying to earn a living!  Literary fiction is not all that well-paid and I have two children.  I would love to write another novel but I’ll just have to see how this one does.  I have a plot in mind – a courtroom drama.

 

Would you like to see ‘What We Didn’t Say’ made into a film?

Of course!  Then I could definitely justify taking the time off work to write another one.

 

Do you have a favourite place where you do your writing?

Not really.  Just not on a laptop, otherwise it does my back in after a while.  The key thing with writing, I think, is having the time, rather than the place.  You can’t, or at least I couldn’t, write a novel in the mornings or evenings before or after work.  You need weeks at a time with nothing else to think about.  I’m extremely lucky to be self-employed and able to find that time.

 

What’s your advice to anyone wanting to pen their first novel?

Two things: get help and, if you enjoy doing it, don’t give up.  The first is the most important.  I thought, when I started, that it all had to come from me, that creative writing was an inherent talent you either had or didn’t have and that tuition was cheating.  That’s all nonsense.  It’s a skill, like any other, and there are tricks and techniques.  Go on Arvon course.  Do an MA.  Find a creative writing tutor.  I learned more about writing prose in 15 minutes with Jim Crace than in a lifetime of reading novels.

 

What made you decide to write?

There are so many reasons that made me want to write: because I love reading, because I don’t express my feelings often enough, because I’m terrified of death etc.  The novels I love most are the ones which make you think about your own life – the ones where you can see, perfected into sentences, ideas or thoughts that have fleeted through your mind.  There’s so much all of us think about that we never express.  It’s a joy to try to tease those half-thoughts out into words.  If you don’t try, there’s a part of your personality that no one will ever know, that will disappear forever when you’re dead.

 

What else do you enjoy doing? 

I love playing most forms of sport: cricket, football, tennis, golf etc.  Now, with a demanding job and two kids, I don’t find time to play cricket or golf or tennis and I’m down to one game of 5 a side football a week.  The guy who organises it, on whom we all depend, is having a baby and we’re all terrified it will come to a halt without him.  If you’re reading this, and you fancy playing football in Acton on Tuesday nights, get in touch on twitter!

 

Has social media been useful for you?

It’s hard to tell.  You put something out on twitter and you just don’t know how many people read it or how many of them take the trouble to buy or read your book as a result.  The main impact of social media, to be honest, has been to make me feel jealous.  When I read newspapers I skip over the book reviews as all the 5 star reviews for other people are a downer.  Now, on twitter following lots of writers and book bloggers, I can’t avoid it.  Every time I look, there’s ten more novels that I’m told are brilliant and topping bestseller lists.  It feels like my novel will be lost in the deluge.

 

What type of books do you read?

I like novels that have beautiful prose.  If they can make me laugh, that’s even better.  For example, I’ve recently got into David Szalay and Joshua Ferris – they’re both incredible prose-writers and very funny.

 

‘What We Didn’t Say’ is available to buy on Amazon UK:-

https://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Didnt-Say-Rory-Dunlop/dp/178577042X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

 

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