Author Lissa Oliver’s published books include Nero – The Last Caesar, Gala Day, Chantilly Dawns and a collection of short stories Tales Of The Turf & Other Worlds. She regularly facilitates creative writing classes, is a Director of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency and is a long-serving Executive Officer of the Irish Writers’ Union. Lissa is also an award-winning freelance horseracing journalist and broadcaster. Based in Kildare, she writes for The Irish Field, International Thoroughbred, Racetrack, European Bloodstock News and European Trainer, among others. She has twice been a Finalist for the prestigious ‘Derby Awards’ in the UK and was named ‘2014 Person of the Year’ in Libya for services to the racing industry.
Welcome to the series, Lissa! Can you tell us when you first began to write?
The moment I could hold a pencil and form letters. Older relations tell me they never remember me not writing and my earliest primary school books are full of my little stories about all my teddies! I began my first serious adult novel at 16.
And your first time to be published?
I had a poem published in the Brownie magazine when I was 7, and things published in the kiddies’ section of Woman’s Realm around that same time, but I don’t think they count! An article published in an Australian horseracing magazine at 16 got me started, but it was a long wait – my full-time journalist career began when I was 40 and my first novel was published when I was 36.
So how did your ‘breakthrough’ opportunity come about?
After a few articles submitted here and there, another Australian horseracing publication accepted an article and begged for more. These were seen by other editors, who requested articles. This quickly snowballed and all English language (and one Chinese!) horseracing publications now commission me for articles on a permanent basis.
My novels were not so easy. I self-published the first two, then finally had number three published and that same publisher bought the rights of my second, previously self-published, novel. I’m currently writing my fourth novel for that publisher. I believe being well-known within my niche market of horseracing made a big difference in securing a publisher. As an unknown writer, they just couldn’t take a risk, regardless of the actual manuscript.
Being immersed in the world of horseracing then, is your writing genre specific?
My first novel was a fictionalised biography of the Roman Emperor Nero, simply because I love reading the first and second century Roman authors and had an interest in the Caesar family, of which Nero was the last. I have an idea for a second Roman novel, whenever I finally get the time!
Since then, however, all my work has centred on horseracing, as that is another of my consuming passions and my full-time ‘day job’ is as a horseracing journalist and broadcaster. It’s a unique world, due to the horse itself. Those involved work a seven-day week all year round and are out working in the yard from 6am, if not earlier in some cases, so it’s a case of being in bed by 9-10pm at the latest. From stable yard to racecourse to bed, that’s pretty much the existence of most, so it’s a little bubble of a world, separate to the outside world! That alone provides plenty of plot opportunities and the all-important “What If..?” trigger for a story. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a corrupt world, it’s very tightly policed, so the Dick Francis plots are all imagination and pretty much used up by now, so I look more to the psychological aspect for drama, rather than straight thriller.
And in that context, do you agree that authors should write what they know?
Definitely agree! I couldn’t imagine not writing about the horseracing world at this point in my life! I don’t have to think about the details, they’re second nature. However, I did enjoy writing about first century Rome and would like to do so again. It took a lot of research, but I enjoyed that, and one could argue that, after successful research, I was writing about what I know! Ultimately, the reader has to believe in the world you have created and your story must be credible. Whether that comes through personal knowledge or research is entirely up to you.
Did anyone, famous or not, inspire you to write?
Probably my first English teacher at secondary school, Mrs Malenczk (Haling Manor, Croydon), who really saw something and encouraged me. I have always been a great reader and devour novels, but it was only Winston Graham’s books that I connected with on a practical basis. I’d already completed one novel by then, but recognised similarities in his method of handling time that reassured me I was doing it right. The minute I first read Interview With A Vampire by Anne Rice was the minute everything I’ve written since has been inspired by. I just aspire to write my own ‘Interview’ book one day. The whole technical aspect, craft, tools were inspirational, even without getting into plot, character or drama.
Sticking with the theme of inspiration, give us the names of six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!
Goodness! Even the favourite beverage is a hard one! Just nosing out a pot of tea is a good room temperature pint of real ale! So sitting in a British pub with me somewhere are… well, do we want to relax and chat? Have an energetic debate? Or do I just sit and listen to my heroes?! There are 18 people already! Shall we just settle for Ernesto (Che) Guevara, Sir Peter O’Sullevan (racing commentator, writer), Marcus Otho (1st Century Roman Emperor), Nanny Ogg (fictional character from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), George Fordham (Victorian jockey) and Andrew Eldritch (The Sisters Of Mercy rock band). Could my husband and daughter join us, too, please?!
Interesting group! And the more the merrier, Lissa! Now, tell us, do you write every day?
I do write every day, though not always on what I term ‘my own thing’. I get a few household chores out of the way first thing, unless a deadline defers chores to another day, then settle down on the laptop and will usually get a 1,500-word article done in a day. I often have 3,000-word features to do and they could take a day, too, depending on what else is being done at the same time. I have no structured day, I just write when I can and would keep on doing so until I’m made to stop! Generally, though, I begin at around 10am and just keep going.
The journalism is my full-time work, so I have to fit in the novels when I can. Even given all day, I couldn’t produce 1,500 words a day of fiction. My fiction writing process is 80% thought, 15% typing and 5% deleting. If I can get a page or two done in a day, I’m very happy. I’ll visualise it first (observe and listen to the characters in each scenario in my mind), then write ‘what I see’ as it happens.
How long does it take you to complete a book?
Ahh, four-five years and also nine months would both be correct answers! It takes me at least two years to get a novel created in my head, to get to know intimately the characters and then for them to suggest a plot to me. Only then do I begin writing. But I’ll get a first chapter written, which is crucial to engaging the reader, and I’ll edit it and edit it and could work on just that single chapter for a year. Then a second chapter, same process. When I type that final full stop of the third chapter, then I’m away. At that point, the characters have been introduced, the plot set up, and the reader engaged to the best of my ability. From then on, it’s up to the characters to take me on my journey, I just follow their progress and record it. From the fourth chapter on, I write at every available opportunity. I still edit meticulously as I go, but I can’t put it down or walk away, I have to keep going to the end. I’ve found with each book so far, from that point when I finally make a start, chapter four, it takes me nine months. Kind of appropriate, really…
Advice on handling negative reviews – if they arise?
If you can take something from it, then it’s very helpful. However, I’m pleased to say I haven’t yet had a negative review. I tell myself it’s all down to personal taste, so when a reviewer dislikes something, I’ll take comfort from that!
Would you deem it necessary to have an agent, Lissa?
I don’t have an agent and they seem harder to get than a publisher! But here in Ireland I don’t think they’re necessary. The Irish Writers’ Union provides free contract advice to members and most Irish publishers accept unsolicited submissions. Many UK publishers only accept submissions via an agent, however.
Do you contribute to the marketing / PR of your work?
Yes, a great deal. I haven’t found that side of things too much different to self-publishing and going it alone. My publisher comes up with ideas and markets and so do I, we work together.
What are your feelings on social media for authors?
Social media is a great form of marketing and engaging with your audience. I’m not very good at it, as I don’t have the time, but even just a simple posting on Facebook that I’d completed a chapter resulted in umpteen requests to be included in the book! That certainly opens your eyes to the audience you’re reaching and how you can promote your work.
How do you view the current world of publishing, nationally and internationally?
I can’t comment internationally, but in Britain and Ireland for the last good few years 76% of publications each year have been non-fiction, including children’s books. As the vast majority of children’s books are fiction, this means even fewer published books are adult fiction. The weak fiction market has for many years deterred publishers from taking a risk on new authors, leading to a catch 22 situation. However, the digital era now provides authors with self-publication and eBook options that will hopefully bridge that gap between ‘unknown’ and ‘established’.
The eBook and self-publishing route, admittedly, can lead to a glut of very poorly written, proofed and edited books that just shouldn’t be out there; but ultimately the cream will rise to the top. The public now have a wider choice than that which fashion dictates and good reviews will boost a book’s sales, if it’s good enough. Mainstream publishers can only safely go with what’s in vogue, so book buyers are only offered what’s in vogue – another catch 22! Self-published titles offer the public a much greater range of choices, which can only be a good thing for both reader and writer.
What’s your opinion on the importance of literary awards?
Mixed. While literary awards can be influential, there are very few for the emerging writer, so of little help to a career. The successful authors scoop the awards, while it’s the struggling emerging author who could do with that non-existent boost! As to literary competitions, I suppose by entering as many as possible it can get your name noticed, if only by attending every award ceremony, even if you’re never a finalist. Mixing in the right circles could land you in the right place at the right time or gain a useful introduction. However, it’s very costly to be entering, and only three stories will ultimately win and those are purely down to the personal taste of the judge – yours could be fourth and you’ll never know, so it’s no reflection on the quality of your work. Plus, on a personal level, short story competitions tend to set limits of up to 1,500 words and I find it hard to complete a story in under 3,000 words! 80,000 is more my comfort zone!
The obligatory question – any advice for aspiring writers?
Enjoy what you are doing, writing should be a passion, a labour of love. Develop a thick skin and doggedness. Don’t ever give up, don’t take rejections personally, simply collect them as badges of honour. If you believe in your work and are proud of it, then persevere with it. The story alone isn’t enough, you won’t be forgiven for typos or poor editing, so do give your work the attention it deserves – edit, edit and edit again.
And finally, can you share with us what you are working on now?
A pretty complex psychological drama, which sometimes seems more than I can chew! I’m weaving a lot of threads, but so far inching them out without getting hopelessly tangled! The basic plot is that a successful racehorse trainer has just hired a new jockey, but odd little accidents and mishaps and even deaths are threatening their partnership. The trainer, a widower, has the added problem of an amoral teenage son who casts a sinister shadow over all that he does. I aim to have it finished by September, working title is ‘Sainte Bastien’.