The whole How-Dare-You row kicked off again after Anthony Horowitz revealed he’d been advised against writing a black character in his Alex Rider series.

The BBC story is here: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-39988992

This topic both interests me as a reader and a writer. (I’ll spare you the inevitable para where I impress you with all the varied and well-researched perspectives I include in my own books.)

Leaving aside the precise definition of exactly what a ‘black character’ is, why shouldn’t Horowitz dare to inhabit a character other than himself? The Alex Rider series features a junior version of James Bond, aged 14-15.

Taking it to the extreme, all my characters will from now be 62-year-old white Jewish men living in London. – Anthony Horowitz

The subject of who has the right to write is on my mind.

I read a Bailey’s Prize shortlister which tells the tale of a privileged white woman and a mixed race man to whom slavery is not just history, but family.

I read a film script written by a man which focuses on female sexuality, sisterhood and what women really think of a penis.

I’m reading a book from the POV of a character who is mentally ill. No, not your average ‘unreliable’ narrator, but someone with an acknowledged, controllable illness.

They’re all fascinating, informative and emotionally engaging. I don’t need the author’s CV or photograph to tell me if their qualifications are sufficient. If they fall into cliché, patronise, mock or don’t do the basic courtesy of attempting to empathise with a character’s external moulding and internal reactions, they have no right.

Last week, Words with JAM published an interview with Jason Donald. How did he approach writing his character of Dalila, a young Kenyan refugee woman, I asked.

I believe it’s possible to empathise with someone who is different from yourself. Assuming the opposite dehumanises everyone who isn’t exactly like you, because you relegate them to a place outside of human connection.

That being said, there’s a lot of homework to do when creating a character and you need to approach the task with a deep humility. I went to a lot of different people and asked them to read my early drafts, to guide to me, to challenge my assumptions, to inform me of things I’d never considered, to reveal nuances and to also point out where my portrayal was working.

For her Diversity series in the same magazine, Catriona Troth interviewed Debbie Reese, who runs the widely respected blog ‘American Indians in Children’s Literature’ 

First of all, caring about Native people is not a condition for getting it right. If you don’t know someone personally, what you hold in your head and heart is more of an abstract than a reality. In the 1990s, illustrator James Ransom was asked why he had not illustrated any books about Native people. His reply was, “because I have not held their babies.” That’s a beautiful metaphor for the relationship of trust you have to have in place before you can do justice to someone’s stories. Once you move from the abstract into the real, you pause to consider what you are going to write or teach.

And Farhana Shaikh, MD of Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester, which champions diverse and regional writing in the UK.

Do you believe it is ever possible for white writers to write authentically (or at least well) from the point of view BME characters?

I don’t see why not. And yes, it can be done well the other way around too. That’s more of a question of the writer’s ability to do it well enough so it’s believable, than anything else.

When I read Beauty by Raphael Selbourne, I absolutely loved it – and as long as the experiences of BME communities is represented in literature I think that’s more important than the question of who is writing it. Also I’m not sure how we qualify the authenticity – if we live in multicultural cities than surely our experiences are shared and therefore overlapping?

Finally, Christos Tsiolkas, who sums it up perfectly.

http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/2012/05/christos-tsiolkas-has-breakfast-with-jj.html

I agree.

We all have the right to write outside our own experience. So long as we understand what that means. We should work harder at getting into other skins, minds, worlds, never forgetting it’s a privilege.

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Ghost TownCatriona Troth, my colleague at Triskele Books, is the antithesis of the bang-out-a-book-a-year philosophy. Ghost Town was not an easy delivery. I followed the gestation of this book and couldn’t have been happier when it finally came out. I asked the author why.

Let’s start with the facts. How long did this book take – from start to finish?

I worked out that, start to finish, Ghost Town had taken me 14 years. My daughter, who was 18 when it was published, told me she couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on it.

What about the genesis of Ghost Town – why did you decide to tell this story?

I actually had in mind an entirely different story – a sequel to Gift of the Raven with Terry as an adult, finding his way as an artist. But I quickly worked out that I couldn’t write about being an adult in Canada in the 80s when I’d left as a teenager in the 70s. So I looked around for a different location, and thought about the time when I’d worked in a night shelter for the homeless in Coventry.

I remembered a little about the tensions that were around back then – as well as the joyous sound of Two Tone that synonymous with the city. But when I started to do my research, I realised that so much had gone on that I had been virtually unaware of. Coventry had taken itself to the brink of an all out race war – and then stepped back and said ‘not in our name.’ I became obsessed with telling the story of how that had happened.

How did you fit in the writing between motherhood and a full-time job?

KatActually, I was lucky enough, after my children were born, to be able to go part-time. But I was still commuting into London three days a week. And motherhood was full-time, as it always it. It was the commuting that made it all possible, actually. I’d bought a stack of A5 note blocks from Smiths, and spent that precious 40 minutes on the train filling them with scribbles and ideas and diagrams. Then in the evening, after the children were in bed, I would type up what I’d written, editing as I went.

Can you explain a little about the research process?

My primary resource was the archive of the Coventry Evening Telegraph at the city’s Central Library. They were the only newspaper to cover what was going on. Apart from that, I read everything I could get hold of, from the Scarman report on that summer’s riots, to books (fiction and non-fiction) about the British Asian experience. As it happened, the second inquest into the New Cross Fire (which is referred to at the start of the book) was happening as I was writing, and one of the legal teams was posting transcripts of each day’s proceedings as they happened. I read those from start to finish, even though it was barely relevant to the book, because it helped so much to understand what it was like to be Black or Asian in Britain at this time.

I’ve described before how I ended up with a timeline spread across my wall – with one line for actually events in Coventry, another for events in Brixton and London, a line for story events and finally a line for the progress of Maia’s pregnancy.

Two Tone Panel_cropped

Catriona on the Two-Tone panel, Warwick University

When you finally had a first draft, what were the next stages?

Well, before I had a first draft, I had another ‘tear it all up and start again’ moment. About half way through, I realised that the main female character no longer belonged in this story. She belonged to the one I had originally conceived, and now the story was focused on the clashes between skinheads and young Asians, she didn’t fit. So all her chapters up to that point were torn up. Maia emerged, and of course, as she was a different person, that affected the chapters I had written from his point of view too.

But I did eventually have a completed manuscript. I edited it using the ‘triage’ approach recommended by David Michael Kaplan in his book Rewriting (which I would still recommend to anyone, by the way). Basically you start by looking for big problems (whole sections that aren’t working etc) and then work your way down to the minutiae of word choice etc.

Once I’d finished editing and created a submission pack, I started sending it off to agents. The first three or four I sent it to all asked for the full MS. But all eventually turned it down. I’d just started a new job and the book ended up lying fallow for a couple of years.

In 2007, I discovered online critique groups and thought I’d test the waters. It was an eye-opening experience. The first chapters I posted were ripped to shreds and it would have been very easy to give up there and then. But I kept going, posting a handful of chapters at a time, listening to the feedback and acting on it. The hardest thing was the response I had to the female lead character, Maia, who in some ways is quite close to me. Time and time again, I was told she was unsympathetic. To me, it felt as if I were opening veins writing her, but that wasn’t how she was coming across.

That complete start-to-finish rewrite took more than two years. And even after that, a brilliant friend, who is now a distinguished creative writing tutor, took a scalpel to it and encouraged me to cut almost 35 thousand words from the MS.

Back to sending it out to agents. Even though I knew I had a much better book on my hands, the reception was much frostier. In those three or four years since I last tried, the industry had changed. I ended up being kept dangling for two years by someone who would have been my dream publisher, until I finally wrote them a rejection letter and joined Triskele.

One of the things that most impressed me was your thematic use of black and white – it’s a very visual book. Do you think it would transfer well to the screen?

cathedral

Coventry Cathedral

Thank you! Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s odd, because I don’t think I am a naturally a very visual person, but I have written one book with an MC who is an artist, and one about a photographer. Baz takes photos in black and white, and that forced me to look at the world in that way. The conjunction with that, and Two Tone music, and the racial themes, happened organically.

 

How different would this book be if you’d finished it in a year?

Gift of the Raven Cover MEDIUMI would have stuck with writing a sequel to Gift of the Raven – so the Coventry story would never have been told at all. But even if I take that as one year from when I started writing Baz’s story, then female lead would have been an entirely different person, the depiction of the background events would have been sketchy, unrealistic and with very little depth. And the writing would have been clunky as hell.

What are the benefits of taking your time over the work?

I wouldn’t recommend anyone to take quite as long as I did. I was basically teaching myself to write, and whereas saner writers have MSS tucked away in their bottom drawer that they have perhaps started and never finished, or written the first draft of then wisely abandoned – because I had become so obsessed with telling this one story, I kept writing and rewriting the same MS.

But it did enable me to burrow into the history of the events and into the characters, to give them a depth I could never have achieved in just a year. It allowed themes and symbols – like the black and white you mentioned – to emerge. And it gave me time to hone the use of language.

And how’s the next one coming along?

Slowly … again. I have three wonderful characters. And I have a premise. What I don’t have at the moment is a plot with enough momentum to drive the story forward. I’ve never been strong on plotting, and this time I don’t have a sequence of real events to piggyback on. Wish me luck.

 

Two tone

Members of the Selecter and the Specials at the Belgrade Theatre for the announcement of a new production of the Two Tone Musical, Three Minute Heroes, July 2014

Ghost Town

Ghost Town1981. Coventry, city of Two Tone and Ska, is riven with battles between skinheads and young Asians.

Photographer Baz—‘too Paki to be white, too gora to be desi’—is capturing the conflict on film.

Unemployed graduate Maia—serial champion of liberal causes—is pregnant with a mixed-race child.

Neither can afford to let the racists win. They must take a stand.

 A stand that will cost lives.

Website: www.catrionatroth.com

Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/catrionatrothbooks

Twitter: @L1bCat

Pinterest for Ghost Town: http://www.pinterest.com/triskelebooks/ghost-town/

 

 

 

I’m an indie author and proud of it.
But I didn’t exactly go it alone.
I chose the collective route.
Here’s why.
http://www.triskelebooks.co.uk/home/4561070049

 

Triskele Books is an author collective spread over three countries and two time zones. So it’s no surprise that all Triskele novels have a strong sense of time and place.

How does it work? Answers from the gang.

How does an author collective differ from a small press?

Jill: It’s very similar to a small press, but the crucial difference is our independence. Legally, we wanted to retain our own rights, so we chose not to create a publishing house. Instead, we just act like one. We’re a group of people who can edit, proof, consult, advise, co-promote and market on a shared platform. Each of us works as an independent entity but we all benefit from mutual support. Financially, we contribute equally to any costs incurred, such as webhosting, print materials, etc, but each of us keeps the profits from our own books.

What factors triggered each of you to go indie?

Liza: We’d met each other via an online writing group, and found ourselves in a similar situation: Gillian and I both had agents, but they couldn’t find our books a home. Jill stopped trying the trad route after an agent called her work too cerebral. Catriona was left dangling by a publisher for two years, until she wrote them a rejection letter. And Jane (JD) loved the freedom of creativity found by going indie.

We got together and discussed our options. Going the independent route, as a team, felt more manageable. We established ideals: high quality writing and professional presentation, and committed ourselves to publishing the books we wanted to write, not what the market dictated.

Triskele_Group_018

Kat, Liza, Gilly, Jill, Jane

How did your publishing cooperative come together, and what made you decide to establish it? How many of you are there?

Catriona: I began reading about author collectives in the States. And I thought this has to be the way forward, the power in working together.
So four years ago, the original members of Triskele met in London to decide if the idea really had legs. Turns out it did. Ten of them.

Triskele has five core members and periodically we bring ‘associates’ on board, whose writing we feel we can develop. We were recently dubbed The Wu-Tang Clan of Publishing.

What elements of the publishing process are done collectively? How do you handle the finances, such as royalties and so on?

Gillian: We critique, edit and proof each other’s drafts before they go for professional proofreadings. If needed we all give advice on cover design too.

Finances have been relatively simple. We all keep our own royalties from sales of our own books. If we choose to market or advertise Triskele collectively, we all contribute equal shares. And for joint ventures, like The Triskele Trail, we divide initial outlay and profits go into our Triskele bank account to cover future overheads like webhosting, print materials, advertising etc.

triskelites

Where does the Triskele name come from? Does a Triskele book have an identifiable style that sets it apart?

Jane: The name came from the Celtic symbol of the triskele, which shows three independent circles joining to form something greater than its parts. It represents the concept of our collective – authorial independence balanced by mutual support. Going it alone, together.

Triskele books are top quality – they must be well-written, tell a good story and contain a strong sense of place, which is Triskele’s USP. They’re also thoroughly edited, proofread, carefully typeset and have a professional cover.

What about the design aspects? Do you share a designer? And do you try and go for a shared look or feel?

Liza: We’re lucky enough to have talented designer JD Smith on the team, so yes, we all use the same designer. We don’t go for a shared look since we range across different genres, but we try to harmonise all our visual material.

heads soft

Triskelites in Porto

You are located in three different countries. How do you manage the communication issue?

Gillian: Skype! And email. And we have our own Facebook private page. We communicate every day but only meet physically three or four times a year. But when we do, it’s brilliant fun!

What do you see as the key benefits of being in a collective? Any disadvantages? What advice would you give someone thinking of doing the same?

Catriona: Two huge advantages! Firstly, you are not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. These days, it can be pretty hard to keep thinking of new and original things to say, so you don’t become one of those awful people on social media who just keeps bleating, ‘buy my book, buy my book!’ Being part of a group means you can take turns spreading the word in your own style.

The second advantage is having someone to answer questions and give advice. Among the five of us, someone will have had the same problem and know a solution. And on a larger scale, there’s the Alliance of Independent Authors, an amazing source of information.

Disadvantages? The classic downside of being a team player – if you mess up, it’s not just yourself you’re letting down. That adds a lot of pressure. But the flipside is the others are there to catch you if you fall.

My advice would be to learn from those who’ve gone before, then find the path that’s right for you. There’s no one way to do this.http://triskelebooks.blogspot.co.uk/How do you know whether an author is a good ‘fit’ for Triskele Books? Are you actively seeking new members?

Jane: Writing good books is a given. We as a group need to ‘fit’. When working so closely as a team, it’s important everyone pulls their weight and believes in the collective as a whole. We share experiences, snippets of information, the highs and lows, opportunities for genres, news stories relevant to an author’s theme, place or period. We’re really supportive of each other and the group. We’re not seeking new members at the moment. We’ve found our ideal balance.

What are your plans for the future?

Jill: Every six months, we stop and evaluate where we’re going. What’s working, what needs to be improved, and how best to move forward. We’re planning The Big Launch Party for November 2015, writing new books and organising festival appearances; exploring formats, such as audiobooks, boxsets, translations and adaptations, and finding more ways to connect good books to discerning readers.

Triskele_Group_041 bw

http://triskelebooks.blogspot.co.uk/
http://www.triskelebooks.co.uk/

 

Gillian E Hamer’s novels are set in North Wales, blending modern crime, ancient history and an otherworldly element.

JJ Marsh writes contemporary European crime. The Beatrice Stubbs series explores ethics, politics and justice – from Athens to Zürich.

Liza Perrat’s historical fiction novels are set in rural France against the backdrop of the French Revolution, WWII and The Black Plague from the perspective of extraordinary women.

Catriona Troth’s novella, Gift of the Raven, takes place in Canada in the 1970s while Ghost Town tackles the themes of race and identity in 1980s Coventry.

JD Smith’s retelling of the Tristan and Iseult legend brings ancient Ireland and Cornwall vividly to life. The Overlord Series takes the reader back to 3rd Century Syria to tell the story of Zenobia, Warrior Queen of Palmyra.

 

Fourteen years ago, I walked into a room and looked into a pair of eyes.

Something peculiar happened. An invisible tendril snaked over the grey carpet, wound its way up my leg and started all sorts of shenanigans in my stomach. A consummate professional, I shook it off and began the lesson on phrasal verbs.

Fourteen years later, we’ve been married for six, weathered various storms, celebrated glorious highs and look forward to more adventures and experiments.

That four-letter word, so often over-used, the subject of so many songs, books, films, artworks and clichés. That emotion so elusive which can poleaxe the mighty and ennoble the tiny.

Love is a perennial literary theme, especially on an epic Wuthering Heights scale. Yet the books that have affected me most don’t always fit the epic traditional mould. To celebrate my anniversary of meeting the right person, here are fourteen of my favourite novels on the subject of love.

Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain Fournier: love never recaptured14 grand meaulnes

My Ántonia, by Willa Cather: love for place and person entwined14 Love Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: lasting love

Tristan and Iseult, by JD Smith: tragic legend retold

Maurice, by EM Forster: love is not a phase

Betty Blue, by Philippe Dijan: love in extremis

14 Betty-Blue

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles: did love win?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera: the agony of love

14 PossessionPossession, by AS Byatt: echoes of love and shared passions14 Brilliant Friend

Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand (Anthony Burgess translation): eloquence, wit, disguise and honour

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro: love reduced to its essence

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante: the powerful bonds of friendship

Ghost Town, by Catriona Troth: nothing is ever black or white

The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson: Love is strong as Death, as hard as Hell

 

What love stories have I missed? What are your favourites and why?

 

 

 

 

Recent events at Foyles Bookshop (see below) in central London created some multi-media perspectives on indie authorship and author collectives.

Roz, Peter and the Gizmo Gonk

Roz Morris and Peter Snell

 

First up, audio.

Here’s a radio interview with JD Smith and myself, talking about Triskele Books author collective with Roz Morris and Peter Snell on Surrey Hills Radio. (Warning, contains seriously cool music.)

 

JDS JJ

JJ Marsh and JD Smith

 

Kat

Catriona Troth

 

Next, visuals.

This take on the collective is neatly delivered by our fellow Triskelite Catriona Troth, speaking here to Ingram Spark.

An author collective in three minutes!

I started writing because I wanted to tell stories.

My aim was to communicate – raise a smile, elicit a nod, provoke a frown or incite a reaction. Letters, journal entries, articles, stories and now books.  My measure of success was simply to be read.

I knew I’d never make myHardboiled Noir 50s fortune that way, but none of the things that make me happy are likely to clog the postbox with large cheques. Theatre, teaching, writing, eating fire…

The only thing that really mattered was to please my ideal reader. I wrote for someone judgemental, opinionated, ponderous, fickle, emotional, easily bored and difficult to entertain.

Me.

But to my own horror,  I wasn’t good enough. Reader Me found Writer Me gauche, awkward, and embarrassingly derivative.

I needed help. I found writers’ critique sites, tested a few and finally found a home with similarly judgemental, opinionated, ponderous, fickle, emotional, easily bored and difficult-to-entertain folk. The difference? They showed me how to meet my own standards.

Ten years later, I’ve published four books and played midwife to another dozen. My keystone is always quality. So I ask questions. Is this book as good as it can possibly be? Does it look, feel and smell like an object of desire? Will it be read and enjoyed as a Good Book? Is it what I really wanted to write? Is it honest?

Last month, I spent a weekend with an author whose rewards from writing could allow her to retire. Yet she writes. Every day. Why? While there are stories to tell, a good writer can always get better.

On ALLi’s Self-Publishing Advice blog today, my Triskele colleague, Catriona Troth, tackles the troublesome question of why indie-published books only ever make headlines because of sales. And asks a question. What matters most to the Indie Writer – quality or quantity?

Whether you’re a reader or a writer, check it out.