Saturday, February 23, 2013

In the Family

Life is a bit fraught at the moment. This is a very busy time of year in the world of freelance teaching. I've learnt through twelve years of experience that you have to cram in as much as possible between September and April, because the rest of the year tends to be a bit too quiet. Right now, we're at the peak of the period and I scarcely have time to breathe, let alone eat or have a cup of coffee between classes. I often come home after 7 straight teaching hours realising I haven't had anything to drink since I left the house in the morning. No good, not healthy, but no time for anything else. The result is I currently feel like all the expressions for being tired rolled up into one big mixed metaphor. To sum it up, I'm hanging on to my sanity by a thread, reaching the end of my tether, stretching to breaking point and threatening to be off with the fairies. Ha!

In between all this, though, I have managed to read a really great book. The one and (for me) only advantage of the cold weather is that I have stopped cycling. It's way too bitter to even contemplate. So I take the bus and read on the thirty minute ride to work. I don't have a Kindle, and a proper book is the only alternative.

Now a few weeks ago, I happened to buy In the Family by Christina James. Its a long time since I read a detective/crime book with any real pleasure. The last one was Deborah Crombie's latest, but apart from hers and Donna Leon's, I have largely been 'off' crime fiction. It has become too 'shock and gore' for my tastes. It was consequently with a smidgin of trepidation that I started reading Christina's book.

Perhaps I should mention here that Christina is a recent blog contact. I love her posts and when I have time, I'm a regular visitor to her page, so I thought I'd give her book a try too. And, I'm glad I did because I thoroughly enjoyed it. Christina has restored my taste for detective fiction by proving that a good police drama need not be about horrific, ghastly descriptions of the most brutal types of crime. In The Family is a book of puzzles, and I was continually trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the sad and very dysfunctional family around which the novel revolves. At each stage you think you know 'who dunnit', but in the end, nothing is quite as it seems; the only confirmation is what you, and everyone else, feel about the main character, but I won't tell you here who or what that is. I can rather recommend that you read it for yourselves.

It is a thoughtful and challenging novel in the tradition of PD James, Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie, but for me it was closer to Ms Crombie than the other two because it had all the humanity without the darkness that seems to have become part of Elizabeth George's later books.

As I said, a great read and one of those unputdownable novels. I couldn't wait for my next bus ride home or the chance to go to bed and read till far too late.

Thank you Christina, and thank you for giving me a book to get excited about. I am now, of course, thoroughly looking forward to the next one.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Reporter, Writer, Communications Officer, Novelist: the diverse talents of Chris Hill

I felt it was time for another of my peeks into the lives of the growing group of excellent writers I am lucky to have made contact with on Twitter and from whom I have learnt so much. This time I've asked Chris Hill to join me in Watery Ways and tell me something about himself, his work and his books. Chris is a very experienced professional writer in many different spheres, so I was really pleased when he agreed to come and do a weberview with me.

Chris, you're a successful writer in both the literary world and the world of journalism and newspaper reporting. I've been reading your blog for a while now and I always enjoy what you have to say about writing and being an author.  I have your novel, Song of the Sea God, but have only dipped into the first few pages so far. It already looks compelling, but I promised myself I would finish another book I'm reading first, so it's waiting for me! Still, you seem to have been writing for some time and have won some important short story awards, so I have a heap of questions to ask.

* My first question is when did you start writing fiction as opposed to the factual pieces you had to write as a reporter, and why?

I remember writing creatively as a child - maybe even as early as junior school. I used to write scraps in the back of old school notebooks - not proper stories or poems, but attempts at fiction certainly. I can’t remember why I started but I always loved reading and I suppose it grew out of that. Writing as a journalist came along later.
* Maybe I should have put this first, but I'm curious about your career as a journalist. Who did you work for and as what kind of reporter? And did you enjoy journalism?

I worked on regional newspapers in England. I started out as a reporter after university on my home town paper in Barrow-in-Furness and I was a crime reporter for some time, which was exciting when you are young, chasing round with the police, going to murder scenes and so on. I did a bit of shifting on some big city papers like Liverpool Post and Echo and even a few on the Daily Express in London then later I moved to Gloucestershire where I still live and I was news editor of the evening paper in the city. It was just at the time when the Fred and Rose West, House of Horrors, case was going on. They were a lovely couple who assaulted and murdered a large number of women and girls, including some of their own children. Working on a story like that certainly makes you question your conception of man as nature’s final word. Later I was editor of a weekly newspaper in Gloucestershire.

* Oh my, I remember the West case! That must have been pretty grim, but now I'm wondering whether you need to put on a very different writing 'hat' for fiction from the one you would as a journalist.

Quite different yes, but there is some cross over I would say. I think the discipline you learn writing news and features helps when you are writing fiction for example. But there are differences too - for example, in fiction you are often hinting at and implying certain truths about the characters and the story - when in journalism the trick is often to say things as clearly and plainly as possible so there’s no room for doubt.

* Ha, yes, the whole four C's thing! A different approach to the craft altogether. Chris, I've read a bit of th e background to your novel, Song of the Sea God, but could you tell the readers here why you decided to write a novel after being a successful short story writer, and what inspired this novel set on an island off the coast of England?
I suppose I always saw myself as a novelist in waiting, even while I was writing stories. I’ve actually written three novels now - this one is the second I wrote and I’m hoping my most recent one might make an appearance at some point if I can find a publisher whose list it fits.
The reason the book is set on and island off the coast of Northern England is that I grew up on just such an island - Walney which is off the coast of Cumbria. I set the book in a kind of imagined version of Walney as I felt it was easier to write about somewhere I knew. I only borrowed the geography though - I’m always careful to say that the plot and the characters in the book are not related to the people I grew up with on Walney! Having this place I knew well as a solid bedrock to build on meant I could embark on my flights of fancy and create my not quite real world, whilst still anchoring it to something which truly existed.
*That's interesting. A blend of keeping to what you know for the background with having the freedom to be creative within a familiar sphere. But, Chris, according to your blog, you now work in communications. That's quite a broad term these days and I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about what you do?
I’m communications officer for UK children's charity called WellChild. I handle their PR, website, social media, publications such as magazines and so on. it’s a brilliant job as I feel I’m working for an organisation which does real good. They provide children’s nurses for example, whose job it is to get very seriously ill children out of hospital, where they can spend months and even years, and organise for them to be cared for in the family home with the right care and support. It transforms families and gives hope and quality of life to people who really need it.
* Wow! That's fantastic. You must go home every day with a great sense of fulfilment. Another thing I'm curious about is whether you find your experience as an editor helpful when it comes to writing a novel.
I do indeed. I think being able to self edit is one of the key skills you need as a writer. You need to be able to go back to the text afresh, almost as though somebody else has written it, and take a clear sighted view of what works and what does not. Having said that we all need another editor in the end I think - my publisher found a couple of real clangers in my book for me which I had missed despite, or perhaps because, I had rewritten it so thoroughly.
* Yes, that's happened to me too. Now about the book: from what I've read of it, it's quite edgy in its tone. The descriptions are sharp, vivid and quite raw. There is a bite to it and I sense it is going to be quite a moody book that speaks to us in some way. In fact, it feels like literature. Would you agree with that impression?
I guess that’s a fair summary in some respects. What’s surprised me about the reaction to the book so far is that it seems to be different things to different people. If you take a look at the reviews it’s had on the UK an US Amazon sites you’ll see what I mean. Some people say it’s dark and menacing, others that it’s funny, others that it’s lyrical. I’m delighted with all this because what I really wanted was for it to be rich and layered and hard to pin down. I’m hoping the fact that people hold a range of opinions on it means I might have gone some way towards achieving that.
* Well, I'll let you know what my final impression is when I've finished it...maybe all of the above! Chris, you are quite a presence on Twitter, and you come across as a very cheerful, easy going and friendly soul who does all the normal, family stuff that we all do. Is your literary side a reflection of another kind of Chris, or is Song of the Sea God's central character a complete creation?
Well thank you for saying so and I’m sure my wife would describe my personality in precisely the same glowing tones as you have! I am reasonably cheerful as it goes but I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t have different aspects to their personality. We’re like Russian dolls us human beings I think, all different character traits in one.
The other thing I would say is that characters in literature are pure creations rather than mirrors of their creators, and often they are there to make the wider novel work or create an effect for the reader. Bes, the narrator of Song of the Sea God is its beating heart of the book and in some ways its moral compass I would say (though a often a faulty compass). The main character John Love is charismatic, driven and focussed on his strange and wonderful obsession.
* Yes, I can see that these characters would operate on a wider stage than a personal reflection would do. But Chris, this is the question every aspiring writer wants to know (of course): how is the book doing, and are you close to being able to give up your day job?
Absolutely nowhere near it I’m afraid. My book seems to be doing ok for a literary novel by an unknown first time author but let’s be honest, it’s never going to sell like Harry Potter. I’m just glad people are reading it, and, because of social media they are reading it around the world - in the USA, Canada, Australia and so on as well as in the UK. Only in very small numbers though! If you want to add to this select, but growing, group of readers you can find it on Amazon here.
* Well, I hope my blog can help contribute to that growing readership. I don't have a big following, but the ripple effect might work! Anyway, now I've grilled you and satisfied all my nosy curiosity, are you writing another book now, and if not do you have plans for any more books in the near future?

I have another one waiting to go. It’s lighter, funnier - and probably not suitable for my current publisher’s list - so that’s me looking for another publisher - and they are quite tricky customers to find. I’ve been having a rest from writing but I’ll be starting another novel as soon as I find an idea I like enough to motivate me to do it.
*Oh and just one more! Do you have any short story collections available? I'd love to read some of them as I'm quite a short story fan.

I have lots of short stories - enough for a decent collection I would say. I used to write them a lot and still do quite often. I’d love to get a collection published at some point.

* Oh do let me know when you have! Chris, thanks so very much for coming on to Watery Ways. It's been really great to have you here and I'm even more impressed about what you do than I was already - which was a lot! 
Hey, thanks for interviewing me Val - it’s been really fun!
You can read Chris's blog here too. It's always a really interesting read and he has plenty of good ideas and thoughts to share for readers and writers both.

Saturday, February 02, 2013


It's funny how it happens sometimes. I have great, long spells of writing when everything flows, when I am inspired: dialogue whips with the razor sharpness of a duel through my imagination (well, I imagine it's razor sharp), scenes and counter scenes are played out with scintillating brilliance in my mind's eye (this is all theory of course), and then... wham, bam, insecurity sets in. I read what I've written, pick it apart, look at it again, and then again, and end up finding it trite. Even pointless. Gloom descends.

Now I've always known I'm what I call a lightweight when it comes to writing. Shallow and undemanding, that's me. Somebody once referred to my writing as 'storifying'. That put me in my literary box well and truly. It's true, though. In all seriousness, I don't do dark, or even psychological. Reading it is fine, and I enjoy a good solid, meaty, get-my-teeth into it psychological drama, but I can't do it myself. My voice is just not cut out for it. The urge to laugh just cannot be quelled, so it just creeps in, even when I'm trying to be at the very least thoughtful.

So if I know this, why the insecurity? I have no idea. At times like this even this blog seems a bit stale. Maybe I just get bored with myself and want a different me to speak.

I'm having a spell like that at the moment. I just want to go to my book document, select all and press the delete button on my laptop. It would be a bit drastic, that I do realise, and it's probably just as well I have backups of it in so many places it would take too much trouble to find them all. Tempting, though.

I hope the feeling passes soon and I can enjoy my writing self again.

Do any of the other writers out there feel the same way?