Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Interview with Linda Gillard
Welcome to the RNA Blog Linda, do tell us how you got interested in writing.
I became a novelist by accident. I’d been an actress, journalist and teacher before I took up writing fiction and I’d become very ill as a result of stress and overwork. When I was convalescing, I did a lot of reading. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find any commercial women’s fiction that reflected my life and interests. (This was 1999 and I was 47.) I couldn’t relate to chick lit, which was very big at the time. I couldn’t find any heroines over 40. Older women were always somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife and they never got the guy. So I started writing the sort of book I wanted to read. I made my heroine 47 – on principle! This was suicide in terms of finding a publisher, but I didn’t care. I was just writing to amuse myself.
I got the writing bug pretty badly and joined a writer’s e-group. The group encouraged me to try to get my novel published. I didn’t think I stood a chance. As well as being 47, my heroine also suffered from bipolar affective disorder (manic depression), but I found an agent who loved the book (actually I think she loved the hero) and eventually we found Transita who were looking for books aimed at mature women. That was 2005 and sadly Transita is no more, but the book I wrote for myself became my first novel, Emotional Geology. I was 53. So if you haven’t found a publisher yet, don’t despair!
To plot or not to plot? How much of a planner are you?
I hardly plot at all. I don’t really like knowing what happens. I write novels to find out what happens. In House of Silence, the e-book I’ve just published, I didn’t even know which man the heroine was going to end up with. I have a rough idea of the story, but usually I just write and see what happens. Sometimes my characters have other ideas! I like that uncertainty, although I used to find it scary. But now I find I’m able to trust my creative process. I think I write more bravely without the safety net of a synopsis. If you let it, the subconscious will write a better book than your conscious mind. The conscious mind tends to go for the obvious, the quick fix. My readers have often referred to my books as page-turners. Maybe it’s because I don’t know what’s going to happen next, so the reader can’t second-guess me. The outcome is a surprise to all of us!
Where is your favourite place to work?
I live on the Isle of Arran, off the West coast of Scotland and I have a desk in front of a window overlooking Brodick Bay and Goat Fell, the tallest mountain on Arran. My PC is actually in a corner of the room, not facing the view, but I usually draft in longhand, sitting at my desk.
Which authors have most influenced your work? And which do you choose to read now?
The answer to both questions is much the same because I tend to re-read fiction. Most of my reading matter nowadays is research for novels, so to relax or console myself, I tend to re-read old favourites, but I’m working my way through all Georgette Heyer’s historical fiction (only a few to go now) and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I prefer to read historical fiction for pleasure because I don’t write it. If I read authors who write books similar to mine and they’re good, I get depressed and feel like giving up. Historical fiction allows me to focus on the story, not the writing.
Authors who have perhaps influenced me and whom I still read with pleasure are Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Dickens, Daphne du Maurier, Dorothy Dunnett, Margaret Forster, Georgette Heyer, Patrick O’ Brian, Mary Renault, Shakespeare and Mary Stewart. Perhaps the biggest influence on me was the romantic suspense novels of Mary Stewart (which I see have just been reprinted with pretty “retro” covers.)
What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
Waiting. Waiting until the story is ready to write. I’m a great believer in self-discipline and writing regularly, even if it’s just “spreading ink” (which is what I call it on a day when the book’s going badly) but sometimes you just have to wait. This isn’t necessarily procrastination. Over the years I’ve learned I need to psyche myself up like an athlete to write ambitious or emotional scenes. There’s usually one big scene in every book that I’m terrified of writing, that I don’t think I’m going to be able to write (e.g: blind Marianne getting lost in the snow in Star Gazing, or Rory’s accident in A Lifetime Burning.) If I don’t feel ready to write, I don’t. I choose my moment. But the waiting can be nerve-wracking, especially if you feel your confidence ebbing away.
What advice would you give a new writer?
Novelist Robertson Davies said, “There is no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.” That’s the only reason to do it. Because you have to. Writing professionally is hard work, emotionally, mentally and physically and the financial rewards are generally pitiful. Being constantly rejected is very depressing and you put on weight sitting at a PC all day. In the winter you get cold, regardless of the number of layers you wear. Don’t think of becoming a professional writer unless you actually like the idea of spending part of your working day promoting yourself and your work in a decidedly un-British way. That’s what you have to do now. It’s no longer optional. If you must write, then write for writing’s sake. Don’t expect publication or financial reward – you’re unlikely to get either. When you feel angry about your unsolicited manuscript being rejected, just remember nobody asked you to submit it.
But remember also that rejection might have nothing at all to do with the quality of your work. (Star Gazing was rejected by six publishers before it was picked up by Piatkus.) An author is selling her story to readers; publishers are largely selling their books to retailers. There’s a big difference. Readers aren’t bothered about genre issues, but, my goodness, publishers and retailers are.
How do you promote your books, and how much time do you give to it?
I give up a lot of writing time to promote my books, but I have mixed feelings about it. I’d much rather be writing. You have to find a balance. I’ve worked hard to promote my novels with guest blogs and interviews and I’ve joined in discussions on many book forums. Participating in those took a lot of time, but it was great for building up a following. It was also very enjoyable.
About 90% of what you do in terms of self-promotion is a waste of time – sending out press releases no one reads, doing library or bookshop events attended by a mere handful of people. (I travelled from Skye to Inverness to do a book signing at Ottakars where I sold one book. To a friend.) The trouble is about 10% of what you do is really valuable. You just don’t know in advance which 10%! So I’ve been generous with my time when there appeared to be no immediate reward for me in terms of sales, because one thing often leads to another. Readers who are active on one book forum tend to be active on several. I got chatting (as an author) with someone on the Read It, Swap It forum and she turned out to be a moderator for the Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) Book Club forum. She invited me to join in as a participating author in their Book of the Month discussion. They’ve done two of my books now and will do a third later this year.
I believe in casting your bread upon the waters. I’ve given away a lot of books but I have faith in my product. I know from experience that if people read one of my novels, they’ll want to read the others, so promoting one is actually promoting all of them.
Katie Fforde advised me to join if my wip had the slightest romantic element. I did and went through the NWS and my reader gave me a helpful and encouraging report. Because Emotional Geology found a publisher, I was up for the Joan Hessayon award, and short-listed for the first Pure Passion award. Then Star Gazing was short-listed for the main award. I was beginning to get used to losing, but finally SG was the winner of the RNA’s Golden Poll award for Favourite Novel 1960 – 2010.
I’ve made a lot of friends in the RNA and have met many helpful, generous and talented people. For the last ten years I’ve lived in fairly remote areas of Scotland and contact with other writers has been important to me. Membership of the RNA hasn’t just been a positive force in my career, it’s been a terrific morale boost and a great source of companionship.
Do you enjoy research, and how do you set about it?
Yes, I do enjoy it, but I don’t do much before I start writing. I think research can get in the way. There’s an almost irresistible temptation to use the fascinating stuff you’ve spent hours collecting. I’m currently writing a contemporary paranormal and it has a ghost soldier-hero who died in WWI. I now know all sorts of riveting stuff about life in the trenches that I cannot and must not use, because it’s irrelevant! It will hold up the story, distract me, distract the reader. (I always try to follow Elmore Leonard’s excellent advice: “Leave out the boring bits.”) But I’m glad I did the research. I hope at some level it will add depth to my ghost hero. The funny thing is, I usually find that what I’ve imagined is confirmed by research.
Readers assume I did lots of research to write from a congenitally blind “point of view” in Star Gazing. Some have assumed I have a blind family member, or at least a friend. I don’t. I made it all up, based on a modicum of research (mostly on Google.) Then I checked that what I’d imagined was possible/likely and then I got someone who was visually impaired to read the manuscript. I didn’t have to change a thing.
Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it.
My fourth novel, House of Silence has just been published as an e-book for Kindle on Amazon (£1.90.) It's a mystery romance about an eccentric family with secrets. The original idea was a poignant story my mother told me many years ago about her own mother. To go into more detail would spoil some of the surprises, but that story lodged in my memory and, many years later, I began to wonder, "What if...?" and a plot gradually formed itself around that original family story. I wanted to try my hand at writing an English country house mystery, something like Rebecca with an element of rom-com... And a touch of Gothic... Something like Cold Comfort Farm. Well, as you can see, House of Silence belonged to no single genre and that proved a stumbling block for editors who liked the novel but said they couldn't see how to market it. After numerous rejections and a couple of protracted near-misses, I decided to go it alone. I had lots of fans asking me for a new book and I knew a mixed-genre novel wouldn’t be a problem for them.
As I write, House of Silence has been on sale for 4 days. It’s currently ranked at No. 75 in Romance e-books and No. 19 in Women’s Fiction. And that’s before it’s reviewed. I believe those rankings demonstrate the value of using blogs, forums and social networking to promote your work. I’m determined to prove I don’t actually need a marketing department, because I have a following.
Can you tell us something of your work in progress?
I'm now working on a contemporary paranormal love story. (It's a vampire-free zone. As I mentioned earlier, my hero is a ghost.) The book is set on Skye where I lived for six years and the heroine is 42, so it’s familiar Gillard territory, except that the hero’s a ghost. The book is actually proving very challenging to write because I’m not able to create a fictitious world with its own rules and rationale, as other paranormal authors do. My story is set in the real known world, but the heroine can see a ghost. The trick is to keep it all believable. Easier said than done! If I can find an editor who likes it, I will of course have to publish under a pseudonym. Changing genres is even more of a literary crime than mixing genres!
Fascinating stuff, Linda. Persistence obviously pays. To find out more about Linda and her books go to: www.lindagillard.co.uk
Interviews on the RNA Blog are conducted by Freda Lightfoot and Kate Jackson. If you would like an interview, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org