A Look Behind The Book With Jen Gilroy.

Jen Gilroy author photo - Golden Network retreat 2016In just over a week, Jen Gilroy’s second book in her wonderfully heart-warming Firefly Lake series will be published – she is, officially, Living The Dream.

How she got there is a fascinating tale – at one point it involved a daily target of 250 words so that she satisfied her need to write while also meeting the demands of a hectic full-time job and family life.

I am a big fan of her writing (a review of Summer On Firefly Lake is coming up. Edit: here it is) and I’m delighted to introduce Jen as my latest Behind The Book interviewee. She very kindly shares some of the details of her route to publication and offers great encouragement for others starting along what can be a long and winding path.

When did the dream to become a writer start? And how did you keep that dream alive?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in words and using them to tell stories. However, my dream of becoming a published author started in junior school when, as an avid reader, I imagined seeing my name on a book on a library shelf. I was also influenced by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Emily’ trilogy about a young girl who sought and achieved writing success.

As life intervened, my dream dimmed but never truly died. After several turning points and significant birthdays, though, I began writing seriously again. Despite rejection and personal and family traumas, I kept the dream alive because I was too stubborn to give up!

In one interview, you said that when you first started to write more seriously you not only had a full time job, which required you to travel internationally, but also a young child AND a husband who travelled too. When on earth did you find the time/energy to write?

When I look back on those years before publication, I sometimes wonder how I fit everything in. Yet, I did because I had a dream that I believed in and wanted to give everything I had to try and realise it.

I wrote in snatched moments—a few words here and there at lunch during my day job, while my daughter did sport and slept, and in hotels on business travel. I set myself a daily word count target of 250 words and little by little, the words added up to become books. I also reassessed what was most important in my life and since writing followed family, I gave up other things (like watching television) to prioritise it.

At difficult times, writing also provided temporary escape and emotional solace. Just after I’d started writing the book that became The Cottage At Firefly Lake, my mum was killed in a road accident. Brief forays into my fictional world helped me through those very dark days and, for that reason, the book is dedicated in her memory.

How long did it take to write The Cottage At Firefly Lake? How soon did you start sending it off to publishers? Was it an instant hit with them? And did you always envisage it as a series?

I started writing The Cottage At Firefly Lake in 2012 and worked on it on and off for several years. It also went through the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) New Writers’ Scheme (NWS) for critique twice.

I sent the manuscript to agents first and, after many months on submission, signed with Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary Agency in July 2014. Dawn began querying the manuscript with publishers early in 2015.

It was not ‘an instant hit’ and was rejected many times, even after it was a finalist in Romance Writers of America’s 2015 Golden Heart® contest for unpublished writers (under a previous title). I owe a great deal to Dawn who didn’t lose faith in the story (or me) and worked with great persistence to find it a home until it sold to Hachette Book Group USA, Grand Central, Forever that August.

Although I didn’t envisage the book as a series initially, once I finished the first draft and, as often happens for me, some of the secondary characters had taken on a life of their own and ‘demanded’ their own stories. Nick and Mia, the hero and heroine of the second book, Summer On Firefly Lake (which comes out at the end of this month), were two of those characters.

Luckily, the publishers my agent intended to query also wanted a series proposal.

SummeronFireflyLake4_RGB300What was your reaction when you found out you had a three-book deal? Did you immediately call your boss and quit your job?

Disbelief, joy and shock. Having worked for so many years towards a dream, all of a sudden it had come true. It was a life-changing, never-to-be-forgotten moment.

My book deal also came at a time of personal and professional upheaval. Two months earlier, there was a restructuring at my day job and I’d opted for voluntary redundancy. In parallel, and after much soul-searching, my husband and I decided to uproot our lives in England and return to Canada so our daughter could start senior school there.

The news that my book had sold coincided with an international move, and what (unexpectedly) turned out to be a protracted period of single parenting until my husband was able to join us in our new home.

The moral of this story? Life—and dreams—often happen in ways you least expect.

Your first book was published in January and has been well received with comments including “thoroughly absorbing” and “heart-stirring”. How does it feel when people connect with your story?

It’s so special to know that know that my story has touched readers’ hearts. It’s a bit like someone complimenting your child.

It’s also truly humbling when readers have contacted me to say that my book has provided solace, escape or much-needed distraction at a time of serious illness or other life crisis.

I’m grateful that I can give readers something of the pleasure and comfort my favourite authors have given me over the years.

What about the odd person who doesn’t enjoy it as much as you’d hope? How do you deal with that?

There will always be readers who, for whatever reason, won’t enjoy what I write. Although negative reviews sting, I remind myself that there are some popular books that don’t appeal to me, either, and all of my favourite authors have received their share of damning reviews, too.

If the comments are constructive, I consider if there’s something I can learn from them to help me become a better writer but, at the end of the day it’s only one person’s view.

Ice cream is also excellent consolation!

Setting seems really important to your books. I know you lived in the UK. Would you consider setting a book in England?

Yes, setting is hugely important to me as a writer, and I suspect that stems in part from how certain places have shaped my own life. Several areas of England—the Lake District and north Norfolk coast in particular—are special to me and would be lovely settings for books. In fact, I have several such story nuggets in my ‘writing inspiration folder.’

However, and despite spending so many years of my life in England, I haven’t yet developed a believable English writing voice, particularly when it comes to dialogue. I’ve tried and, as members of one of the writing groups I belonged to in the UK would undoubtedly attest, the result is awkward. Never say never, though!

How do you feel about social media? And how much effort do you put into it? Does it help you connect with your readers? Is that a positive?

I have active profiles on Twitter and Facebook and usually post on both platforms daily. Since I’m a new author, I’m still growing my audience but it’s lovely when readers reach out to me via social media.

I put a lot of effort into my social media work and to me it’s positive and time well spent. When I share bits of my life with readers, and they share bits of their lives in return, we build the kind of relationships and community that characterises the places I write about.

Social media is also how I connect with other authors and, alongside reader engagement, it’s a learning and professional development tool.

In addition, I maintain an active blog and post fortnightly on Fridays. Since it’s reader-focused, posts are about life and not writing craft or industry.

Are you already thinking ahead to what comes after book three? A completely new series? A one off?

The third book in my Firefly Lake Series, Back Home At Firefly Lake, will be published in North America on December 5 this year.

I’m currently working on something new—the first book in a romantic women’s fiction series due to my agent later this month.

Although it’s been a bit of a wrench to leave the cosy world of Firefly Lake, I’m enjoying getting to know new characters and a new small-town community.

What one piece of advice would you give to a writer perhaps struggling to get published?

Something I’ve said before and that a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) said to me when I was struggling in the unpublished trenches: The only difference between a published and unpublished writer is that the published one didn’t give up.

Yes, you will get rejections, many of them if you’re like me. You’ll also question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, also like me. But if the dream of becoming a published author is important to you, don’t stop believing in yourself even if others do.

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Thank you so much to Jen for sharing her journey. I loved all of her answers but her final words are especially stirring. I’m sending her all my best wishes for a happy publication day (on July 25) and I’m already looking forward to the final instalment of Firefly Lake (a place I would quite happily move to in a heartbeat).

Keep up with all Jen’s news by visiting her website, where she writes an entertaining blog, following her on Twitter and Facebook. With thanks (again) to Susanna Bavin for introducing us.

I’ll have two more interviews for you next month.

Hot Pink Wellingtons

A Look Behind The Book With A Bogie.

_RD90748You would be hard-pressed to come up with a better name for an author of children’s books than A Bogie but is it a nom de plume?

In my latest Behind The Book interview, I quiz Anna about her surname and discover more about her popular series of Happy Hooves picture books – the most recent of which, Yuk!, was published last year.

The busy mum of three is fascinated by how children learn to read and is convinced that rhyming and poetry are a huge help in aiding language and reading skills. I love rhymes – although, having attempted to write a rhyming poem once, I know it is not as easy as it might seem.

Anna also offers a couple of great tips at the end, which I am sure are important for all authors.

Here we go.

First things first, A Bogie is surely the most perfect name for the writer of children’s books?

A Bogie is a brilliant name for a children’s author – unbelievably it is my actual (married) name and not just a nom de plume. It isn’t the easiest name in the world to have but at least this career makes the most of it.

Where are you from originally and where do you live now?

I was born and grew up in Norwich and I now live in Gibraltar.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? What made you decide to write for children? 

I have always wanted to write but my career post university was actually in marketing. Having decided that I wanted a change from corporate life, I tried my hand at writing for children. It’s my favourite kind of writing because it’s so much fun and a real break from everyday life.

Your debut picture book series, Happy Hooves, was inspired by your life in Spain. How much impact does your location (and other aspects of your life) have on the subject matter of your books?

Location does have an impact because the area you are in sits on your conscience. I used to live in natural parkland outside of a beautiful place called Tarifa, in the south of Spain. It is very rustic and the animals roam freely, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the area and so location played a big part in Happy Hooves. Another big aspect of my life is that I am a mum to three gorgeous kiddiwinks – Reuben, Amabel and Lachie, and they provide constant inspiration with their general chatter.

 

How did you find out it had been accepted for publication? What was that like?

I had two very small children when I found out Happy Hooves, Ta Dah! was going to be published, it was very exciting but also slightly overwhelming as I hadn’t expected it to happen at that time. A picture book takes a long time to come together and it all felt quite unreal until I actually held the book in my hands. Fat Fox Books is a brilliant publishers and they’re very supportive – I call Holly, the managing director of Fat Fox Books, my Fairy Godmother because she made my wish come true.

How much say do you have over the illustrations? Is it a team effort? What was it like seeing your characters as someone else sees them? Were they as you imagined?

The publishers had full control over the illustrations for Happy Hooves and I was absolutely thrilled that they chose Rebecca Elliott. She is incredibly talented and made Happy Hooves more beautiful than I could ever have hoped. If you ever visit Tarifa, you’ll see how well she has caught the essence of the place, even though she hasn’t been there.

During a creative writing course, years ago, we had an exercise to come up with a children’s tale (or the start of one). I remember people muttering about how “easy” it would be but the majority of the class really struggled. Have you come across this attitude before? If so, is it frustrating?

Writing a children’s book is very intense, every word has to be perfect because you are working with so few, there is absolutely no room for unnecessary details. Children are very harsh critics and won’t read a book unless it keeps them captivated and so there is a huge amount of work to make sure the story will not lose the child, even for a second. People may think writing a children’s story is easy but the writing is actually only one part of being an children’s author – it is hugely competitive and most writers have to go through a lot of rejections before anything is published so it’s all about the long haul struggle to be honest and whether you can stay in it for the long run.

How does it feel to know you’re engaging a younger audience? That your books could be among the first they have ever read? Do you feel any pressure? 

Now I do…! I love writing for a younger audience, but I don’t feel a pressure, just a privilege if mine is one of the books they read. All I can hope for is that they ask to read it again, and enjoy it. I especially love visiting schools where you get to engage with children directly, it is really rewarding and the questions can be brilliant.

What are you working on at the moment? And do you write better at set times or can you sit down whenever and get straight to it? 

At the moment I’m working on a book for a Scottish charity, which should be published as an ebook this year. I’m also working on a new series of books that unfortunately I can’t divulge upon yet.

Is there any advice you could give to would-be authors? Something you would have found useful when you started?

Firstly, it’s all about the editing and making sure that every word deserves its place on that page.

Secondly, an author has to do a lot of their own self-promotion and create their audience. I’ve found this very hard and I am working a lot on my social media so that I can get myself out there.

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A massive thank you to Anna for answering my questions. I had no idea just how much authors, even ones with big publishers, have to peddle their own wares. It seems like a great idea to start building up your social media presence in advance.

Speaking of which, you can find out more about Anna via her website, which also has some great free colouring activities to download and print, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

For more Behind The Book posts please click here. I’ve got two more fabulous authors lined up for next month. I can’t wait to post them.

A Look Behind The Book With Keiron Pim.

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Keiron Pim’s latest book, Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Underworld, received widespread acclaim – including being named best debut biography in 2016 by The Guardian.

An award-winning journalist, author, editor, proof reader, mentor and, best of all (possibly), my lovely friend, Keiron is “absorbed in a world of words” – making him the ideal person for my next Behind The Book post.

His three books are on diverse subjects (medieval Hebrew poetry, dinosaurs and an “extraordinary man who connected the worlds of art, rock’n’roll and criminality in Fifties and Sixties London”) so he knows a thing or two about writing and publishing – and has some great tips for anyone thinking of heading down the non-fiction route.

Without further ado, here is our Q&A.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

With hindsight, the signs that I’d be a writer were there from the age of six or seven, when I used to write poems and make them into little illustrated books, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that this interest in writing crystallised into a precise ambition, which was to be a journalist. I loved words and had an interest in current affairs and politics, along with some vague ideas about wanting to make the world a better place, and it seemed the perfect way of combining these into a career.

I spent 13 years as a newspaper journalist and now I’m an author and freelance editor, proofreader and mentor to aspiring non-fiction authors. And when I’m not editing or writing, if possible I’ll be reading… I’m absorbed in a world of words, and I like it that way. That said, I don’t spend all my time in a rarefied, introspective reverie. My wife and I have three daughters aged eight, six and four, so I balance my work with helping to look after them. They soon let me know if I’m not keeping up with their various requirements: entertainment, life advice, sustenance, dispute arbitration, you name it. It’s a tricky balance at times but fatherhood is the most wonderful thing, and one of the best things about being self-employed is that I can be around for them far more than when I worked on the newspaper.

You had a very successful career as a feature writer for a regional newspaper, what made you decide to go freelance?

I left the Eastern Daily Press in May 2013 to focus on writing books, after nine years as a feature writer and, before that, a four-year spell as a news reporter. Writing features for the EDP was a wonderful job that took me around the world – to Iraq for a few days as an embedded reporter with the Royal Anglian Regiment, to the southern USA for travel pieces, to Latvia for an article about a local charity working with impoverished children in Riga – as well as introducing me to interesting people all over Norfolk. There’s nothing like local journalism for teaching you about the place you live in – you meet so many people from all walks of life, it’s wonderful. But after a while I wanted to see if I could write something more sustained and substantial than a 2000-word feature, and I began work on a couple of ideas. I was taken on by a great literary agent, Matthew Hamilton at Aitken Alexander Associates, and by early 2013 I had almost finished my dinosaurs book, and had a contract and advance for my David Litvinoff biography. Job cuts had become a regular feature of life in regional journalism by then, so when the EDP announced it was yet again seeking volunteers for redundancy, I thought, to quote Rabbi Hillel: ‘If not now, when?’ There would never be a perfect time to take the leap but this seemed as good a moment as I could imagine.

How much research time do you set aside? How far would you go to follow a lead for a book?

My preference is to start off by getting a good few months’ research under way – plenty of reading around the subject, a few interviews with people – and then trying to write once I feel I know what the story is and I am confident enough to write it with assurance and vigour. But of course the story continues to assume its form as you write the first draft, and you run into questions that you need to research, so the research and writing happen in parallel. They overlap and feed into one another.

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The balance of control seesaws as you work your way through the research. You have this constant tension: are you controlling the story, or is it controlling you? It’s fascinating to observe in yourself.

How far would I go to follow a lead? As far as possible, i.e. the other side of the world. When I was in the early stages of researching David Litvinoff, people I interviewed told me that if I was going write about him, I absolutely had to talk to a man named Martin Sharp, an Australian pop artist who was one of his great friends. By that time, early 2012, Martin was seriously ill with emphysema and was pretty much housebound; and his house was in Sydney. Given his illness speaking at length on the telephone wasn’t an option, and in any case if possible I always prefer to interview people in person, at least for the first interview. You establish a rapport that way and the conversation tends to be much more revealing. Martin said I could stay with him for a few days, and another Australian friend of Litvinoff’s named Juno Gemes also kindly allowed me to visit (she also arranged for me to visit several other friends of Litvinoff’s in Australia and was a great help throughout my research). So I took the plunge and bought myself a ticket to Oz, and came back with lots of great material that made it more than worthwhile.

I know you’re writing non-fiction but you must feel some connection to your subjects. Can you put any of yourself into the books (I know Litvinoff, especially, was very personal)?

Oh yes, certainly. That book brought together numerous subjects to which I already felt a connection: Jewish history, the East End of London, fine art, literature, Sixties pop music and the blues, all of which were longstanding interests. But beyond those contextual subjects I did feel a degree of personal connection to him as an individual, which allowed me to empathise in certain ways and get inside his head. Some of this was to do with my Jewish ancestry. Litvinoff had a sharp understanding of, and deep contempt for, antisemitism and this resonated with me, while more generally I could relate to a certain diasporic Jewish sense of being on the outside looking in, which I know he felt acutely. Non-fiction is about writing truths, and these can be emotional truths as well as cold facts, so this allows plenty of scope for putting yourself into your work if doing so reinforces the central story you’re telling.

Have you considered writing fiction?

I’ve tried writing fiction in the past and have a couple of abandoned novels languishing somewhere in the depths of my computer… I don’t think it’s my forte. The more recent attempt, from eight or nine years ago, concerned the experience of central European Jewish refugees during the 1930s and the Second World War, arriving in London and attempting to fit in. I realised that actually I was the historical period that interested me more than the characters I’d created, and that it’s possible to be equally creative while writing factual, historically accurate text. This is generally termed ‘creative non-fiction’, of which my David Litvinoff book would be an example. Non-fiction prose needn’t be dry and matter-of-fact, it can be poetic and evocative and emotional. Likewise with structure, one can be formally inventive just as with fiction, playing with chronology, employing multiple narrative voices.

Do you have set times that you write each day? Do you need to be in a specific place or can you work anywhere?

When I became immersed in writing my first book, The Bumper Book of Dinosaurs, I came to understand my daily working pattern and that I write best in the afternoon, so I stopped berating myself for a lack of productivity in the mornings. By lunchtime the morning’s clouds have just about evaporated from my brain and a few beams of sunlight usually start to pierce through the haze. Is it because my brain is geared to work best then, or is it that the end of the working day is looming and the adrenaline kicks in? I don’t know, but either way, I tend to deal with emails, invoices and other admin in the morning and then start writing after lunch. Then as often as not I’ll get straight back to it in the evening after my daughters have gone to bed, and try to regain my momentum.

As for where I work, I jot down notes wherever I go, and I might scribble down a paragraph or two in a café, but for proper, sustained writing I need to be somewhere quiet with my reference books to hand, which means I need to be at my desk.

JJF paperback coverYour last book got rave reviews, what was that like and does it help ease the pressure for the next book?

I was thrilled by the response to the Litvinoff book. It came in at the upper limit of what I had permitted myself to imagine in idle moments during the book’s creation. The good reviews and positive feedback from readers kept coming through 2016, which was amazing and hugely heartening; it gave a substantial boost to my confidence as a writer, which has tended to fluctuate wildly over the years.

Regarding the transition between that book and the next one, it seems only honest to mention that, after almost six years on the Litvinoff book and a subsequent year of remaining engaged with the subject owing to all the reviews, literary festival events and readers contacting me, I had a profound slump last winter. I see now that I’d kept it at bay most of last year through the ego-pep-ups of good feedback, which gave me short-term energy rushes, but as the feedback faded away I had to confront the fact that my creativity was exhausted and I’d been running on empty for ages. There was nothing left in the tank. I think it’s good to talk about these things and doing so helps explain why a writer might feel susceptible to pressure while attempting to start a new project: you’re trying to force yourself into action while feeling that you have nothing left to give. When you get so absorbed in a book that it consumes your every spare waking moment, to the point where writing it is not only what you do but defines who you are, and then you send it out into the world… well, you’re left with a void inside you and a strange sense of needing to piece yourself together again, remember who you used to be before the book swallowed you, and muster the wherewithal to move on.

It sounds terribly negative to say there’s a downside to a book doing well and I don’t want to sound at all ungrateful but I’ve found the pressure to follow it very hard, and I mention this in case it’s of any reassurance to other writers. I am making the first forays into a new project that I think could work well, but I am debilitatingly conscious of not wishing to misstep. My agent and publisher have both been very encouraging and sympathetic so I don’t feel any pressure from them… I hope that by the end of this year I’ll be well under way and deep in the writing and researching process again.

Is there any advice you could give to a would-be writer of non-fiction?

I mentor non-fiction writers, as I mentioned, and I sometimes give talks on the subject too. The result is I’ve given a lot of thought to this question over the last few years.

Read around your subject constantly. Don’t have preconceptions about where doing so will take you. For the Litvinoff book my reading ended up spanning a quite bizarre breadth of genres, mixing up tawdry ghost-written cash-in memoirs by elderly criminals through to philosophical works on the nature of memory to Yiddish folk stories from the Eastern Europe where Litvinoff’s ancestors lived in the 19th century. If you’re fully engaged in researching a subject, you’ll probably not feel able to justify reading anything that doesn’t relate to it.

Sources – keep a note of every reference point for your assertions as you go along. It’s a drag, but not as much of a drag as trying to find your half-remembered source somewhere on your bookshelves perhaps three years after you wrote the sentence.

Travel to the places your subject inhabited: the home addresses, their favoured haunts. Walk them alone, unhurried, pick up the streets’ particular energy and atmosphere. Stand and look around, wait until you feel the place has soaked into you, you can picture it with your eyes closed and you know how to convey its character in prose.

Take notes – always keep a pen and paper with you, or use the Notes function on your phone. Write thoughts down all the time. They could be research ideas, insights into your subject’s character if you’re writing a biography, anything that comes to mind. Don’t self-censor, that can come later when you’re converting your notes into a draft manuscript. Some of it you’ll edit at that first stage; some you’ll edit later; and some will be edited for you by your book’s editor. If you end up self-publishing, employ an editor to hone your manuscript. All the best writers are edited, however experienced they are, from the beginning of their careers to the end.

Be ruthless towards your work when you’re editing your manuscript. If you’re not, your readers will be.

My heartfelt thanks to Keiron, who is not only an amazing writer but a brilliant friend to boot. I owe him a coffee (probably a slice of cake, too) for taking part in Behind The Book. I found it really interesting when he talked about the downside to success. I certainly hadn’t considered it and I am sure it will be reassuring to many other writers (fiction and non-fiction).

If you’d like to find out more about Keiron and his work you can visit his website or follow him on Twitter. Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Underworld is now out in paperback and on Kindle and can be purchased here.

You can find more Behind The Book interviews here. Next up I have a fabulous writer of children’s books.