Why Mother’s Day Is A Pisstake

reblogging as it’s Mother’s Day UK this Sunday, #ThrowbackThursday

The Glorious Outsiders

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Before I start, let me just say that it’s not just Mother’s Day that gets on my nerves, it’s all these commercialised ‘days’ we have to have. It’s the fact that you can tell what ‘day’ is approaching by what exuberant displays greet you when you walk into the supermarket. For example, my local Home Bargains shop was nothing short of a confused mess just recently when they were displaying Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Easter all at the same time!

Loads of things annoy me about Mother’s Day. Maybe I’m bitter and cynical. Well yeah, probably a bit. I’ve had plenty of nice ones, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had plenty of those sweet little cards they help them to make at school, and I’ve had croissants smeared with jam brought up to me on a tray in bed, and I’ve had kisses and cuddles and flowers and the…

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Diversity In Books

About a year ago I noticed something about my books. I realised that all of my characters were white and straight, with the exception of the head teacher in The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. Or at least they were white in my head; obviously readers may have imagined them differently. I have to admit I felt a bit ashamed by this. It was never intentional of course, not to write about more diverse characters, it’s just that I’ve always lived in a very white area, where everyone I grew up with was white and so on. As for writing characters that were gay, this had also never occurred to me, I guess, because I’m not gay.

After realising this, I decided to change the ethnicity of my main character Elliot in Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human nature. It wasn’t a huge change. I just mentioned that his absent father was Indonesian, making him mixed race, with dark skin and hair, unlike his mother who has blonde hair and fair skin. Not much is made of this in the book. It did, however, tie in nicely with the hatred his mother Laura feels for the people who live in her claustrophobic neighbourhood, such as Tony, who likes to knock on people’s doors to warn them there are immigrants living behind them.

At the time, I spoke to a lot of other people about the topic of diversity in books. My daughters thought I was right to change Elliot’s ethnicity, and were quite appalled that all my characters so far had been white and straight. Other people said to change his ethnicity seemed a bit like a token gesture, and if he was white in my head I should leave him like that. I’ve since thought about the decision in other ways too. For instance, does a white writer have any right to write about a character who has a different cultural background to them? I would argue that they do, as long as they have done their research if research is needed. In this case, it was not. Racism is not an issue for Elliot, only his mother, who cannot stand the Little England mentality of people like Tony. His mother is in a state of despair about the state of the world, and for example, cannot understand the callous attitude people are having towards the refugee crisis.

I decided to leave Elliot as mixed race and think about it again later. If he persisted as blonde-haired and blue-eyed in my head, then I would change him back. But for me now, after about a million drafts, he is darker skinned than his mother, with very dark hair. He’s become this Elliot in my head, so I’m pretty sure that’s the way he’s going to stay.

While Elliot Pie was with beta readers, I took a break from it and wrote a rough draft of a YA novel about an alcoholic teenage singer. I’ve blogged about this story idea in the post  Untold Stories , as the original story was one I penned aged 16 and then discovered in an old suitcase under my bed. In the original story, again, everyone was white, straight and working class. In this new version, as I was writing it, the characters changed. One of the secondary characters became gay, and the main character, Bill became bisexual. Well, I say bisexual, but this is not entirely confirmed by the end of the novel, and he certainly doesn’t waste any time feeling confused or upset about what he is or isn’t. He just has a lot of fun kissing his best friends, one of whom is female and one of whom is male.

Now, again, why did I do this? I think there are several reasons. I think because diversity in books has been on my mind. It’s been on my mind because I too have noticed how many of the books I read contain, straight white characters and this has started to annoy me. It’s been on my mind because of my children, who are, to my great pride, growing up to be the sort of people who are accepting of anyone of any culture, ethnicity or sexual preference. In many ways, my children educate me on the issues facing the LGBT community. Plus, I feel that with recent political events, and the horrific rise of hate crimes against ethnic minorities and LGBT  people, we all have a responsibility to stand up for equality and decency and kindness.

With all this on my mind in recent months, it’s no wonder it crept into this rough first draft. It was not intentional, but rather an organic and natural progression. It felt right for the characters and added to their storylines hugely.  Have I got it right? Who knows at this point? I will see how it all reads once I get around to the second draft.

And as for Elliot Pie’s ethnicity, this still feels like the right thing for the book. So, what do you think? As readers, do you feel the books you read have enough diverse characters? Is diversity in books important to you? Do you ever feel certain groups in society or ignored,

So, what do you think? As readers, do you feel the books you read have enough diverse characters? Is diversity in books important to you? Do you ever feel certain groups in society are ignored, sidelined or stereotyped in literature? What about you writers? Do you write about diverse characters, and if you do, is it intentional or natural? Do you tend to write about characters who are similar to yourself? Or do you feel writers have a responsibility to open people’s minds up to other lives, cultures and backgrounds? I would love to know your thoughts, so please feel free to join in the conversation!

Message and Themes; What Are You Trying To Say?

When I was at school, English Literature was always my favourite subject. I was a total book-worm who dreamed of becoming an author, so you can kind of see why I adored English Literature. Reading books, talking about books and writing about books was my idea of heaven. Having said that, there was always one part of the subject that annoyed me at times. When analysing a text, the teacher would often ask us to think about what message the author was trying to get across. It was a question akin to the equally confusing one; what are the themes of the novel? I remember thinking, I bet the author didn’t know there was a message or a theme, or that we would try to work one out. I always considered that Shakespeare, Bronte and Steinbeck just wrote books because they had great ideas, great characters, and could string some pretty awesome sentences together.

But English Lit demands we find the messages and the themes, and yes, when you pick apart a text and analyse it within a classroom setting, you do tend to find them. But were they intended? I suppose I’m asking, did the author write the book with a theme or a message in mind? Or is it the reader who later determines what the potential messages are? I mean, did Steinbeck write Of Mice and Men because he had something to say about society or human nature? When I was a kid, I thought not. But it turns out I was wrong;

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry
I remember trying to distinguish the themes of the novel when I was at school. What seemed so obvious to the teacher, had to be pointed out to us. I haven’t read the book since then, but it is on my to-read list as part of a reading challenge I’m undertaking, where one of the books has to be one I read in school. But I think I will see things differently now.
Why? Because I am approaching my fourth decade and I’ve seen enough of life, love, people and society to know that Of Mice and Men is not ‘just a story’ as I once mistakenly believed. It’s a book about dreams and aspirations, loneliness and solitude and the author had plenty to say about all of these things. I am now the writer I hoped I would be, and writing books is a fascinating process, which involves the seed of an idea germinating into an intricate plot full of characters who become real to you and set up camp in your head. But more than that, writing is about what you want to say to the world.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately after I received feedback from a beta on my still unfinished novel Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. One of the things she picked up on was the messages or themes of the book, and in particular, her observation that some of the characters had views very similar to my own. She felt this at times made the narrative somewhat preachy, or at least, it was in danger of heading in that direction.
I had to stop and think about what she meant. None of the characters are me, or based on me, or anyone I know. I plucked them up out of the thin air to build around the character and story of Elliot, who I really did know and believe in.
However, I have to admit that unintentionally, or at least sub-consciously, bits and pieces of the writer and the writer’s viewpoints seep into the writing. I knew what this book was about, and I knew from the beginning what I was trying to say, so as you can see, I have come a long way from my previous scepticism that books did not contain deliberate messages. On the contrary, I have had something to say in all of my books, and I think it very much depends on what is going on in my life at that time. For this book in particular, Elliot and his mother are like the two sides of me. One side is heartbroken and terrified about the state of our world and wants to withdraw from it all, while the other side is perpetually hopeful and joyful, determined to the best in everything.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing? I think my beta was right to point out the danger of appearing preachy in the narrative. I certainly don’t want my books to come across that way. I have to be sure it is the character’s viewpoint being explored, not the author’s. I have to be conscious of what is being portrayed as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ So at the moment, I am going through the book again, with the beta’s notes beside me. Sometimes it just needs a tweak, some words rearranged or deleted. Sometimes I don’t need to do anything because I think the character truly believes in what they are saying, and in doing so is remaining true to character.
This brings me to another question, though. Do people pick up books looking for messages or themes? Do most readers notice them, even if they are supposed to be there? I suspect that what one reader picks up as a message or theme, is very different to anothers. Do readers want to be spoken to in this way? I don’t think many people pick up a book looking for clarity or persuasion. I think they pick up books looking for stories. And stories involve people and their messy human lives, and messy human lives contain messages, whether intentional or not. Because they are written by one person, created by one person, and whether they were totally aware of it or not at the time, that person had something to say.
So, what do you think? As a reader, do you choose a book because of the message it seems to be conveying? Do you notice the themes of a novel as you are reading it, or do they become obvious to you afterward? Do you ever feel like the writer is trying to tell you something about the world or about life? Does this every feel like you are being preached to?
And what about you writers? Do you know what you are trying to say before you start to write the book, or does the message reveal itself to you in time? Are you aware of any themes in your book, and again, are these intentional? Do you ever worry that you are trying too hard to get a message across?
Please feel free to join in the conversation!

A Catch-up Interview with Author Kate Rigby

Just over a year ago I posted my very first author-to-author interview to this blog. I was honoured to host the wonderful Kate Rigby, an indie author I had discovered by chance. You can read the interview here. I’m a huge fan of Kate Rigby, and I’ve been working my way through her huge back catalogue since I came across her on social media. I think we’re fairly similar in style and content, and we certainly have the same views in life, so inevitably we’ve become friends and even got to meet up with each other a few months ago! Anyway, I thought it would be great to celebrate a year of author interviews by catching up with Kate to see what she’s been up to since the last interview! Kate has the experience of being both traditionally and independently published, so it’s always interesting to talk to her.

1- It’s been a while since we last chatted – can you tell us what you’ve been doing since then? What books are you working on etc?

Yes, the only new book I’ve been working on at the moment is one I began circa 2005. It’s about a neighbourhood conflict but the political climate of that time which formed the backdrop has changed a lot. So in a way it’s been more difficult trying to bring it up to date than if I was starting it anew. I have spent many years converting my backlist into digital format, this was the one I left until last and inevitably it got more and more out of date! The more out of date it got the more daunting the thought of updating it became. But I need to finish it this year. I planned to finish it last year but things didn’t quite work out that way! I think it’s nearly there or it may be I’m just tired of it now but I’m struggling with the title, not something I usually do.

2- Thalidomide Kid is a story about Daryl, who was born without arms due to the Thalidomide tragedy. Could you tell us what inspired you to write this novel?

thalidomidekid

I think it was a gradual evolution and dovetailing of several ideas. I had an idea for a short story involving someone who cut the limbs off their rag dolls (as my sister and I did!) and the idea for a Thalidomide survivor very much fitted together with that idea. I also had an idea about writing a book in a school setting. I wanted it to be retro and to draw upon my own schooldays, so that side of it became (partially) autobiographical. I spent the same years in Cirencester though I slightly changed the name of the secondary school. There was a boy who was a Thalidomide survivor at the school I went to in Liverpool, although I didn’t really know him and visually he was very different to Daryl. But I wanted Daryl’s disability to be incidental and not the raison d’etre for the story. Yes, it has an impact on his relationships and the way his peers relate to him, but he’s also just another kid growing up and having to deal with what all adolescents do: romantic encounters, sexual awakening and friendships with his added disability.

3- How do you think things have changed for people with disabilities since you wrote Thalidomide Kid? Are they better or worse?

I’m not sure how they are for schoolchildren today, I am hoping things are a lot better with all the strides that have been made by people with disabilities for parity in all spheres of life, the Equality Act and so on. I like to think that things like the Paralympics have made a lot of difference to how kids view disability but at the same time I think the pendulum is swinging the other way due to contradictory government policies. You only have to look at the rise in disability hate crime and the number of attacks on people with disabilities, stoked up by the right wing tabloids to justify stripping people of their benefit entitlements. I could get very political here! But it does make me really angry and ashamed to think this is the way society is heading, after all the decades of progress. It just goes to show how fragile progress is and that we can’t take anything for granted.

4- How much research went into the book?

I mainly based it on observation although I will always try and research around areas where there are gaps in my knowledge. But I do like to be accurate and authentic if possible and of course I had a publisher – Bewrite Books – for this novel so had the added input from the wonderful editorial team at that time. I often get my information from TV programmes or documentaries that just happen to be on during the course of writing a book. But having been a child in the 60s I do remember the climate and the impact of the Thalidomide drug. Every child of that era knew of it.

5-I know you are politically active, and in our last interview, you mentioned keeping a ‘campaign diary’, perhaps with a view to releasing another ‘Guide To…’ style book. Is this still something you might do?

Yes, this follows on nicely from the question about whether things have changed for people with disabilities. I began the Campaign Diary in 2012 when I saw how bad things were getting for people with long term health problems and disabilities under the Welfare Reform Act. After yet another person died, quite needlessly, I felt I needed to record it in words. I didn’t really know her, although we’d spoken now and again on Social Media and her name was mentioned on Question Time. But there have been so many needless deaths. There’s much solidarity along many campaigners. This is important because all the time the government rely on divide and rule tactics to divert us when we need to be united. I just had to begin writing down all the terrible things that were happening, as some sort of outlet, and as documentation. Some of it is just copying and pasting from articles until I can get round to shaping into something. Now it has moved on to Brexit and Trump and other depressing things, although Welfare Reform still plays the largest part. It is all too close and depressing but one day I may have the energy and the distance to distil it. Having said that, there are various things relating to it that I’ve incorporated into my current novel.

As for the Little Guides, yes, they are a lot more fun! I have only written Little Guide To Unhip so far but that went down well on Authonomy when I first showcased it and subsequently when it was published. I have ideas for several more but they are stuck in the backlog! But they don’t require a lot of planning and plotting, so they could be done relatively quickly.

6-Do you have any promotion/marketing tips for newbie indies out there? Has anything been a particular success?

Ooo, I wish I knew the answer to that one! I think it’s what all indie authors want – to find that golden goose. Things are changing so fast too, that what worked a few years ago, or today, may no longer work tomorrow. I do the occasional paid promotion with tried-and-tested promo sites but if I break even that is good. The general advice is to build up your reviews so that you get more visibility on place like Amazon. But people rarely leave reviews these days, even friends who mention how much they’ve enjoyed a book, and I’m not very good at asking people to post reviews! I don’t wish to sound as if I’m nagging. I prefer to approach review bloggers who like my work and there are some wonderful dedicated bloggers out there doing a fantastic job of featuring or reviewing indie authors on their blogs. It’s just a question of finding the ones who review in your genre and like your work. And of course interviews and guest posts like this all help to garner visibility! Another area that is growing is audiobooks and that’s something I would like to explore at some point. The thing that has been most successful in all my years of writing was having a traditional publisher. I was very lucky to find one back in the day when books were all paper and there were many more bookshops. They did all the marketing, they had the contacts and they did get me some reviews in some thrilling places like The Times and The Face as well as publication in the States. But those times are gone. Even people with traditional publishing contracts these days are expected to put in a lot of the leg work and time on social media, so the lines between different publishing contracts are blurring.

7-If you could rewrite any of your novels now, would you, and if so what would you change?

Not so much a major rewrite but maybe some major tweaking. Nowadays that is easy to do with the advent of digital technology but with my first published novel, Fall Of The Flamingo Circus, once it was in print that was it! If I was writing it now I would have included more about punk music and bands than I did and also I’d have had Lauren in a band. In fact she was based on a character I invented called Donna who was in a band so I just don’t know why I didn’t translate that into the book. When I brought it out digitally a few years ago that was the time to rewrite it but because it was successful as it was I decided to leave it be. I also should have properly capitalised on the relative success of Flamingo Circus. I had a publisher and an agent at that time and they were trying to help me with my follow up book but I didn’t really take on board their feedback. They say that it’s harder to get a second book published than a first and I think that was very true in my case.

8-You’ve covered so many gritty social issues in your novels, such as domestic abuse, substance abuse, homelessness, racism, runaways, disabilities and even feral children. What else is left to do? What else would you like to get your teeth into?

I think humanity is such that you never run out of things to get your teeth into! It may seem as if I’m an issue-based writer but often it’s the characters that come first. I have a backlog of ideas for novels and short stories. Sometimes a couple of ideas for short stories, for instance, will be combined into something longer. I also want to get on with the Little Guides and have also been doing some poetry so I have an idea of putting together a collection of that too at some point. Shorter pieces in the form of poetry, flash fiction or short stories seem to be the way forward, not only because of my own health and time restrictions these days, but also seem to lend themselves more to the 21st century way of life where there’s so much more vying for people’s attention but only the same number of hours to read it in, and that’s just the literature! The same is happening in art, photography and music. If people have to leave Facebook and click on a link to read more or listen to something they tend not to. So their attention needs to be held before that. This is where poetry, art or photography have the advantage in their immediacy. I also want to write something more autobiographical, not that I’ve led a particularly exciting life but I have a plan to do a slightly different take on it. My mum, on the other hand, lived through WW11 and has written an autobiography of her early years but she doesn’t want to get it published! But it would be nice to get it into print form for the family and the technology exists for that too these days.

9- Do you currently have any characters in your head who are waiting their turn to get written?

At the present time, it’s more a question of following up on characters from former novels to see where they’re at now. I already decided to do a follow up of Down The Tubes as some readers wanted to know what happens next! I already knew in my mind some things that have happened so thought I should write about it but just haven’t caught up with myself yet. I’ve never been one to do series or sequels but one reviewer expressed an interest in a follow up to Thalidomide Kid and I’ve also left other novels open-ended, like Savage To Savvy, which would lend themselves to a sequel. So maybe I will do some sequels after all!

10-What are you hoping to achieve in 2017?

For the last two or three years I’ve tried to set myself writing goals as well as other goals. This year I tried not to be too ambitious as for the last couple of years I found that I didn’t achieve them and then felt very disappointed with myself. So this year I have been more realistic and then I won’t feel as if I’ve failed dismally! My writing goals for 2017 are to finish the novel I’m currently working on, bring another of my books out in paperback (perhaps Fruit Woman or The Dead Club, both would be nice) and begin the follow up to Down The Tubes. I think that is manageable!

Thanks very much, Chantelle, for this interview – I’ve really enjoyed it.

If you would like to find out more about Kate Rigby and her books, here are the links!

Amazon Page / Facebook Author Page / Goodreads / Website/Blog