Many thanks to author Wanda Dehaven Pyle for this feature interview on her blog.
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’.
I’ve been a librarian for over 16 years. I’ve read a lot of books. Some I love, some I just like, some I discard. I have a rule, you see, the ten page rule. If a book doesn’t grab me in those first vital pages, I’m out of there. Relationship over!!
I don’t read stuff because it’s popular, because everyone else is reading it. I pick up a book because it connects to me in some way, a manner that often, I can’t quite put my finger on. Put simply, the magic is in the writing, and I’m captivated.
And I’ve also read a lot of books on writing, and while some remain classic bibles and helpful tomes, I’ve learned to avoid the formulaic drones from the ‘experts’. You know them, the ones who tell us how to ‘DO IT’ but actually, ‘DO’ fuck all themselves. [Other than keep flogging the ‘how to’!]
Now and again, I discover a book that gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling, like I’ve made a new friend. A frisson of connection that makes me look forward to getting back there, spending more time there, all cosied up between the pages as sentence upon sentence layer up to enlighten and soothe my senses. Affirming what I know, what I feel, and articulating it in language that appeals to me; in language that matters to me.
Bird by bird, some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott is one such book. It’s funny, it’s helpful, it’s a kick in the arse and it is honest; probably the most important quality of all. As a self-confessed perfectionist, I balked, squirmed but ultimately laughed out loud at the following passage…
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and your shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
And then, there is this brilliant insight!
“The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgement, doom, guilt. Also, there is hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched-like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you may have meningitis. Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon every ounce of noblesse oblige, and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you’re working, and you say yeah, because you are.”
Whether you are just starting out, or like me, have been scribbling away for years, you are bound to get something meaningful from this book. So do yourself a favour – don’t pass it by, and of course, it will be all the easier to spot if you quit looking at your feet!
Bird by Bird : some instructions on writing and life / Anne Lamott. Anchor Books. A division of Random House, Inc. New York. 1995
Writing, for all of us scribblers, is a necessary pain in the arse. Thinking about writing, as opposed to doing it, is the big, weeping boil that sits on top of that pain in the arse, throbbing away until action is taken and the lancing begins. Thinking about why we write, and what we choose to write about, is…well, think of the most pain-filled analogy you can imagine and place it firmly on the top of that weeping boil…
Of late, my nemesis, that little bastard aka procrastination, has come to visit again, and has not been kind, cruelly and mischievously pushing me, unawares at first, through the gawd-awful door of reflective thinking. Once there, I am finding it nigh impossible to break away from analysing almost every thought and action, and not just my own.
Bewares, people, I is watching yiz!
Seriously though, it’s uncomfortable, painful even, and at times, probably akin to the navel-gazing that I generally abhor so much, but it is all helping me to finally ‘get it’. To understand stuff, personally, historically and socially; and to fully realise that through this reflective, and mostly silent, journey, I can finally accept where my personal, creative and social vision is rooted.
Taking stock of my own experience, from where I have come to where I am now, I am also forced to examine the why. In realizing the why, I can make meaning of it all; the way I look at the world, my every action and reaction, and my sometimes frustratingly innate sense of responsibility that is relational, though built around a strictly selective connectedness that can be at once liberating, but also, an invisibly lethal thread of confinement and inertia.
In her book, The Heroine’s Journey, written from the view of a feminist in response to Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Maureen Murdock wrote on the difficulties of our life path as women.
“It has no well-defined guideposts nor recognizable tour guides. There is no map, no navigational chart, no chronological age when the journey begins. It follows no straight lines”.
Yes, of course, this sentiment applies to men also, and is an appropriate description of the pathways towards transformation and self-realization for all of us. In response to Murdock’s book, Campbell said,
“Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”
Whatever you believe, the truth is that very few of us come out into the world as adults, unscathed and perfectly intact, but by God, we learn from the experiential!
I cannot imagine a way of expressing my visions without understanding a life journey that so far has run the gamut of experiences and emotions that have offered me unimaginable joy. But there have also been the far from positive aspects. And in looking back, there is fear, there is disappointment, there is anger and there is regret, though I firmly believe that out of every dark place comes a glimmer of light. The best we can hope for is that we, as scribblers, can look back on these sequences of our personal journeys and know intuitively that these learning processes have helped us to rise to the challenge of becoming critically reflective writers; authentic voices, and at the very least, empathic ones.
Sincerity and intention are not enough. So thanks for that, I say begrudgingly, to my Nemesis.
For most of us, I would imagine, 2012 was a bit of a rollercoaster of mixed experiences. Mine certainly was. No personal tales to be told here, but suffice it to say that I took a large cup of pure joy, followed by a bitter smattering of deep sadness. Throw into the mix the odd crisis and a couple of heaped tablespoons of the old reliable stressful situations, and yes, I am guessing that many of you are nodding your heads in recognition of that familiar recipe right now.
And to the artist, it’s all copy, after all. Lived experience and inspiration for future work…
Whatever 2012 brought, [here comes the cheesy bit!] it is wise to remember that 2013 is as yet, an unspoiled page in the book of time, and as hopeful creatures, we shall creep, leap, stagger or dance into it with all the blind optimism that never fails to invoke some much-needed anticipation at this time of the year.
Not just from a writing perspective, but certainly intrinsic to it, reflection must be a component of the process of moving forward; knowledge gained to put into practice what you have learned, realising what you need to change, nailing down what you most desire, and naming what you hope to achieve in the coming twelve months.
The voyage of 2013 is about to begin, and though I cannot control many elements of it, it will not go uncharted…regarding all of the above, I think I have it sussed. I know what I want to change, I know what I most desire, and by jaysus, I know what I want to achieve.
And only Mother Faith and Father Time will tell the outcome.
I’ve done okay with the scribbling in 2012. Have placed well in some writing competitions, and was shortlisted for an Irish Film Board Gearrscannain Award. I got into the Second Round at the Austin Film Festival [Couldn’t manage the trip over, but I’ll get there in person this year, no stopping me!] and was shortlisted for best Arts and Culture Blog at the Blog Awards Ireland.
I continued to work towards the development of two feature scripts, LADY BETH, and THE CAPTIVES. I’ve continued to plug away with the family fantasy feature script, PIXER KNOWS, and have seen two of my short scripts, ADAM, almost locked, and IN RIBBONS, due to begin shooting in April, 2013, take leaps in terms of development. I look forward to working on these projects, collaborating with some talented, like-minded and exciting people attached.
And then, there is always the novels, three of them..but enough about them for now.
So, I will leave you all [In the 193 countries that 2012 WordPress Report has indicated my visitors come from!] with the sincerest good wishes and the best intentions for the new year, by imparting some seriously profound and learned advice…
BACK UP YOUR FILES, PEOPLE!
Computer Hard Drives, much like the human brain, are labyrinthian networks of mystery, prone to short-circuit now and again, and for no identifiable reason, to malfunction with complete loss of memory, and to fold and shut down under the pressure of too much information and / or neglect. Treat both with tender, loving care…
I’ve always believed that symbolism in a piece of writing is what the READER makes of it through their personal interpretation and perception, as opposed to the idea that the writer plants it deliberately to evoke a feeling, image or understanding.
Concrete, the symbolism should feel organic and vital to the narrative (the writer’s role!) and abstract, it should flow from the writer’s sub-conscious to the reader’s imagination and experience.
If symbolism arises from the gut feelings a reader may experience from the stimulation of the writer’s descriptive narrative, it can never feel forced or deliberate. When a writer unconsciously gets it right, for the reader, symbolism can evoke completely different feelings and interpretations of the same words and meanings; a personal connection.
I came across this fascinating article on the topic, Famous Novelists on symbolism in their work, and whether it was intentional, in which some of the great masters of the craft give their own tuppence worth on the topic, including the late and great Ray Bradbury, who is quoted with the following:
“No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing.
That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way.
The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”
Enough said! And you can read the article in its entirety here: http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/130315
The above image shows my companion of late, Procrastination. Or at least, if he were to manifest in some human form, this is what I think he would look like. A mischievous little bastard and thief of time, chuckling to his heart’s content at my dilemma.
I know I am not alone in my visits to Procrastination’s world, but I’ve lately begun to wonder if it is necessarily a negative thing to become unfocused. To chop and change from one thing to another, and continually get distracted by stuff that ordinarily, I wouldn’t give a second thought or glance to. And all the while, avoiding the very thing I am supposed to be working on!
I compare it to my mind going on a fantastical journey to the world of nonsense; a maze with never-ending pathways that lead to other places with never-ending pathways!
But is that such a bad thing?
Maybe I need to be in the nonsense place for a while. Maybe I need to give my generally over-active brain a rest from focused thinking ( and from over there – on the dark side!) and let the mind escape to wander through the wilderness for a bit. A holiday for my imagination, where my imagination is taken to a new realm of seemingly disjointed, random, bat-shit stupid thoughts and experiences.
Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Live, drink, be merry, love the reeling midnight through, for tomorrow ye may die, but alas we never do.”
I like it! And it hasn’t all been time wasted, after all…I did get to procrastinate here on Procrastination. So okay, you mischievous little bastard, you can stay…for a little while!