Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Interview with Helen Carey

Best known as the writer of the London wartime Lavender Road trilogy published by Orion, Helen Carey has had several jobs including army officer, crude oil trader, tour guide and management consultant. Having lived in various part of the world, she now lives in West Wales on a small coastal farm which she and her husband run as a conservation project. 

She is also an artist and has made a gallery out of a converted goat shed. As well as writing and painting, she now teaches on the MA Creative Writing at the University of Wales and currently has a RLF fellowship at Aberystwyth University. Welcome to the RNA Blog, we’re pleased to have you here. So tell us about your latest book and how you were inspired to write it.

My latest novel, SLICK DEALS, was originally inspired by a Dolphin Survey boat trip in Cardigan Bay. For some time I have wanted to set a novel in Wales and seeing an oil exploration vessel just off the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast gave me the perfect opportunity to create a romantic, exciting crime adventure. I have always liked stories about ordinary people getting caught up in big dangerous issues. When I first left university I worked as an oil trader for Shell. I now consider myself to be a conservationist. This novel allowed me to explore both sides of the oil debate. Involving the cool, sleek, city girl Ella Crossley in her oil tycoon boss’s family crisis and making her join forces with the scruffy, laid back American environmentalist Nick Jardine also gave me a chance to add some humour and emotional interest.

What do you enjoy most about your particular genre? Are you a specialist or do you have another identity?

Having been shortlisted for the RNA New Writer’s Award for THE ART OF LOVING, and then having written the LAVENDER ROAD TRILOGY, set in the second world war, I used to consider myself to be a romance/ historical saga writer. I loved being able to explore a broad range of relationships and weaving the real history into my plots. But I have recently turned to crime! In ON A WING AND A PRAYER, my heroine Helen de Burrel joins the SOE and is sent into occupied France. A lot of people wrote to me to say that they found the final scenes of that novel really exciting as Helen evades the Nazis to blow up the ships in Toulon harbour. It made me feel that I would like to have a go at a thriller or a crime novel. Writing SLICK DEALS as a crime adventure allowed me to bring my experience of creating tense relationships to a different kind of novel.

I love sagas with plenty of suspense in them. What tips would you offer to any writer wishing to write a saga?

Create a varied cast of compelling characters, of different ages and from different walks of life. It is the extent to which readers engage with the characters that makes or breaks a saga. Find a theme for the novel (mine was how people show courage in adversity) and keep it in the back of your mind. Make sure each one of the main protagonists has their own story, their own secret (or not so secret) aims and ambitions. Try to ensure the highs in one character’s story coincide with the lows in another’s. Know exactly how the story is going to end and structure your plot to make everything work towards that climax. Try to incorporate some humour too - it always helps. Don’t forget to read. And keep at it. As Winston Churchill said: ‘Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.’

Of all the characters you’ve created, which one holds a special place in your heart?

I am fond of many of my characters, but Ward Frazer, the Canadian air force pilot (and subsequently SOE agent) who first appears in Lavender Road probably holds a special position in my heart. (And in many other people’s too judging from his fan mail!) He is physically attractive, of course, but I think his real appeal comes from his nonjudgmental acceptance of other people’s foibles, his mental strength and physical courage, and the romantic tragedy of his past. Also perhaps because he is the only person to see the true quality in the young, sickly Katy Parsons.

I know you have enjoyed a successful career in print, are you upbeat or concerned about the digital revolution? How do you think it might affect your own career?

I am very excited about the digital revolution. I think it will have the effect of liberating writers from the shackles of traditional publishing with its artificial restrictions about genre, word count and author marketability. Without the gatekeepers of agents and publishers, writers will be able to spread their wings and try writing different kinds of novels, crossover novels, short novels, long novels, in fact whatever they want to write. OK, it will be up to them to edit, promote and market their work but then most of us want to/have to do that anyway! And readers will have much more choice about what they read. Yes, there will probably be too much choice but hopefully, in a free market, the really good, readable books will rise to the top.

As a regular attendee at RNA events, do you have an embarrassing moment you can share with us?

My most embarrassing moment at the RNA was at one of my first meetings when an agent I was hoping to impress asked me if I had ever had anything published, I was just shaking my head when a friend standing next to me said, ‘Yes you have, you once had a letter published in Whippet News!’

Do you cry over your own emotional scenes?
Yes, and not just the first time either. I’m glad to report, however, that my husband does too, he was checking through THE ART OF LOVING yesterday prior to uploading to Kindle and came in all red-eyed to report that he had just finished it and had only found five mistakes!

Aren’t husbands wonderfully supportive of we writers? Lastly, which is your all time favourite book?

I have lots of favourite books but they all share the same characteristic. The quality of the story matches the quality of the writing. If you get a really great story and great writing in the same novel then you get a winner! I’ll choose The Far Pavillions by M.M. Kaye as a prime example. And lastly, what do you think every good writer should avoid? Concentrating too much on the words and not enough on the story. Being too precious about their work.

That was marvellous, Helen, and best of luck with all your new ventures. Do come and chat with us another day. 

Slick Deals TSAP Books
A child is kidnapped in Monaco. 
The British government is about to license oil exploration in the Irish Sea. The only person to see a link is Ella Crossley, a young oil trader in London. But Ella doesn't want to get involved. She certainly doesn’t want to get involved with the irritating, American environmentalist Nick Jardine, uncle of the kidnapped child. But when the action moves from Monaco to London and then to West Wales and an attempt is made on her life, Ella discovers that the only people she can trust are a group of tepee dwelling eco warriors. And as she and Nick Jardine get closer to finding the hostages and to exposing a government licensing fraud so it becomes imperative for the perpetrators to stop them. Permanently. 

To learn more about Helen and her work, you can find her here:
YouTube books video: http://is.gd/TqqynO

Interviews on the RNA Blog are for RNA members, although we do occasionally take guests. If you are interested in an interview, please contact me: freda@fredalightfoot.co.uk 


Maria McCarthy said...

Fab interview!
My attempts at writing fiction have often petered out after a promising start... I hit 'the curse of the saggy middle' that so many writers struggle with.
What advice would you give for authors trying to pace their novels and keep the readers' attention engaged throughout?

helencareybooks said...

Hi Maria, thanks, yes that'a a common problem and I think it stems from not having a good enough plan and story structure sorted out before starting to write. For me structure is one of the most important elements - check out Vogler's The Hero's Journey for a great insight.
I am a great believer on knowing how the story ends - then you can make sure that everything leads in that direction - makes for a tighter plot and helps keep the writer on track too!

Maria McCarthy said...

I know what you mean - I agree that structure is important too, but sometimes as a writer you can get so caught up in your own work that it's difficult to have a sense of perspective on it - I'll check out the book you mentioned!

Kath said...

Great interview, Helen. I laughed at your friend bringing up Whippet News when asked if you'd been published before. My writing career started off in South Wales Golfer, and I don't even play golf, so I know how you must have felt!

Mark said...

Hello Helen
I have loved reading Slick Deals and The Art of Loving and found them both to be really lively and entertaining fiction.
I have 2 questions - how do you set the pace for a story (as I found both these books to be real page turners)?
And secondly, as a woman writer, how do you get inside the head of your male characters to make them so believable?
Thanks, and eagerly anticipating the next novel!

helencareybooks said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed The Art of Loving and Slick Deals. Yes, pacing is obviously a key element to storytelling, there is a fine balance between rushing along with lots of exciting events and spending lots of time setting the scene with descriptions/backstory etc. I spend a lot of time working out the storyline and structure of the novel before I begin writing. I make sure that the challenges I set my characters build gradually,becoming more urgent/exciting/dangerous as the novel progresses. I also try to introduce a small cliff hanger or problem at the end of each chapter so that the reader doesn't want to stop! I think it must work because quite a lot of people complain that my books keep them awake long into the night!

helencareybooks said...

On the subject of male characters, I actually believe that all characters need to react in completely different ways. Sometimes it is actually more difficult to write about a female character I feel I would dislike in real life. I like to know my characters really well before I start writing, their background, likes dislikes, education etc, so I feel I'd know how they would react in any given circumstance. It helps that I am interested in what makes people tick in real life too, authors need to be good psychologists!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interview - as a new writer I found the advice and guidance you offer really valuable and thought provoking.This interview has helped me feel that I am on the right track!
I really liked the whippet story too.
Best wishes

Susan Bergen said...

Your new novel sounds fascinating, Helen. I, too, like the idea of placing an ordinary character in an extraordinary world. Very topical too.

Anonymous said...

Have recently discovered Helen's books and enjoyed them immensely and look forward to many more hours of interesting and diverse story lines. Please keep writing

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