Meet, Aneeta, winner of The Trisha Ashley Award 2022!

AneetaSundararaj

I wanted to start my New Year interviews off with a celebration!  So, when I learned that Aneeta Sundararaj, one of my London School of Journalism students, had won The Trisha Ashley Award, I asked her to share the inspiration behind her winning story.

 Welcome, Aneeta,

First, thank you for inviting me to your website, Valerie. It’s much appreciated. I must also thank the organisers for running this competition, choosing my story to be forwarded to Trisha, and to Trisha for choosing it as the winning one.  

You are welcome, Aneeta, and I passed on your thanks to both.

Margaret James of Creative Writing Matters who runs the competition was delighted and explained,

When we first set up the Exeter Story Prize, Trisha asked if we would like her to sponsor an award for a quirky or humorous story, and we said lovely, please do. So, when Cathie, Sophie and I have read all the entries, we choose a few that we hope Trisha might like, and she picks the winner, who gets £200.  Also, anyone can enter the ESP, so Aneeta was up against some very well-published authors, and she did very well to win.

The Weathermen – A Love Letter was based on a conversation I had with my friend, Swagata. I was sharing some of the challenges that I (and many girls I’ve spoken to over the years) faced. When the phone call ended, I decided to write it all out. More than inspiration, writing this story was a form of therapy.

Trisha had this to say,

I loved the quirky and original voice of the narrator in this unusual story.  It was, for me, the knock-out winner and I hope will lead to much more writing success in future.

 So, huge congratulations, Aneeta!

When did you discover a need to branch into creative writing after a successful career as a lawyer?

I left legal practice a long time ago.  I didn’t plan on a full-time career as a writer. I knew it would take me at least three months to find another job. So, I wrote the first draft for The Banana Leaf Men  I found that I liked ‘this writing thing’ and decided to try it for a while longer. I’ve never stopped.

The Banana Leaf Men (Reprint)

You are an experienced writer/journalist – what appealed to you about the challenge of writing for the RomCom genre?

This is a very good question, Valerie. I think that it wasn’t so much a challenge, but more applying all I’d learnt thus far. It starts with my need for variety. For instance, for years, I was a contributing writer for the Lifestyle section of the Sunday papers. This meant learning the art of writing feature pieces. When this sojourn ended, I focused on writing/fine-tuning the novel, which came with its own set of elements to follow. Then, I did something completely different and that was to pursue a PhD which meant returning to writing for academia. Once that was complete, I went back to fiction. This time, I focused on the short story form and creative non-fiction, like a piece called ‘Lord of the Ocean’. This story was about an invasion near my hometown that happened close to 1000 years ago. So, The Weathermen – A Love Letter was part reportage, part academic writing with a huge dose of all the elements of writing fiction.

 What challenges did you find or did the story flow naturally as the idea occurred.

The main challenge was to strike that balance between  having the courage to tell the story, still respect the practices of the East and make it all plausible for a Western reader. Nothing is worse than reading stories about a Malaysian or Malaysians that I don’t recognise. It’s painful! The best example from The Weathermen – A Love Letter is when a spiritual master asked Anjali if she was ‘clean’ to make sure that she wasn’t on her period. I understand the religious strictures at play. However, ask any Indian girl how she feels when she’s asked this question in the presence of men and I guarantee her honest (operative word, here) answer will be a negative one. If she’s ‘dirty’, she cannot step into a spiritual centre or temple and is only good for sweeping up rubbish. We girls are taught to hide our shame, but I often wonder how a man would like it if I asked him, “Are you clean?” My challenge was to write this without causing maximum offence.

Whenever I’ve faced such challenges, I think of two things. One is that there must be readers like me elsewhere who are open-minded enough to appreciate the practices of others. I mean, if I can accept reading stories about stigmata and what people put themselves through during Easter, why can’t others understand what my people will put themselves through in the names of faith and religion. Second, I go back to the British television series, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. The topics discussed were always so serious, but the writing was entertaining and everlasting.

The Age of Smiling Secrets is an intriguing title – but the topic covered is very serious and highlights the problem of having religious law running alongside that of the country’s High Court, where the two can give conflicting outcomes. This is obviously a subject that is close to your heart. Why did you decide to write a fictional tale to illustrate the issue?

Thank you for saying that the title of The Age of Smiling Secrets  is intriguing.The Age of Smiling Secrets

I started to think about this story as early as 2005. As you’ve said, Malaysia is in the unique position where both the laws of Syariah and the Civil Law are practised concurrently. It was only a matter of time before conflicts about which jurisdiction should apply would arise. For ease of reference, my fictional story is based on the legal position when such conflicts arise. It’s about a family torn apart when a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well.

As a lawyer, I understood the position of every person involved in this drama from the lawyers pursuing and defending the case, and the judges who had to hear the arguments from both sides, to the plaintiff, defendant and the children.

No one I know has ever looked at the all the emotions at play such as love, loss, betrayal, sacrifice and so much more. What happens when everyone returns home after a day in court? What does a parent say to the child at bedtime? “You’re my baby, but the court said you’re not.” How does the wife reconcile with the fact that the man she married is no longer her husband, or vice versa? And that’s simply because a court that has no jurisdiction over her says so? Why is the second wife accepted as a legal wife in one court and the husband is committing bigamy in another? Why is the child of the second wife considered legitimate in one court and the child of the first wife is considered illegitimate in another? Worse, how on earth does a parent explain all this to a child?

I cannot imagine what it must be like for a mother when the laws of the land allow her child to be taken away from her. So, these are the emotions I wanted to explore.

I must add that I remain surprised at how successful the publication of The Age of Smiling Secrets has been. I didn’t make much effort submitting the manuscript to agents/publishers after one of them asked me to fundamentally change the story so that a British reader would ‘get it’. It implied that the average British reader was too dumb to understand the conflicts that would arise and use of local lingo. I knew that this wasn’t the case. And after ten years of the story ‘percolating and marinating’ in my psyche, I wanted it published. So, I didn’t bother with the British publishing industry, stuck to the story I wanted to tell and worked with the wonderful team at MPH Publishers in Malaysia. I am not at all active on social media and I didn’t take part in the kind of publicity that I’ve seen so many authors do. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised and delighted when the novel was short listed for the 2020 Book Award organised by the National Library of Malaysia. Furthermore, since it’s publication, edited versions of various chapters of this novel have been periodically included in various anthologies published internationally. Many readers have written to say that they cried at the end of reading the novel. Like all my books, once the first print run was over, I didn’t bother with another one. I’ve just placed them all on Amazon.com.

What is next for Aneeta?

I spent 2022 learning about submitting my short stories for many online competitions and literary journals. I figured out what it was like from the inside and, now, I’d like the chance to give back to others. So, together with a few friends, I’m using my website to host a short story competition. It’s called ‘Great Story Competition’ and we will open for submissions shortly.

Thank you, Valerie, for this chance to share my stories with you.

You are very welcome. I wish you every continued success with your projects and a happy and healthy 2023!

My thanks to Trisha Ashley Ashley gardn forgotten wishes author Margaret James 1A and to Margaret Jamesfor their kind comments and the team at Creative Writing Matters

Please like if you found this interview interesting or inspiring and leave any comments or questions below.

Check out my manuscript appraisal page, or please contact me, if you have a project you would like professional help with.

Happy writing!

 

A day in the life of Margaret James

A warm welcome back to Margaret James who is sharing a day in her busy life as an author, tutor, mentor and journalist.

Margaret James 1A

My writing days are from Monday to Friday – I try to have weekends off to do family and friends stuff – and begin at about ten in the morning. I’ve tried starting earlier, but I’m an owl rather than a lark, and find I can’t write anything before I’ve had that second coffee.

So, from ten o’clock onwards I do some online housekeeping – answering emails, writing blog posts, spending a bit of time on social media, and making notes for future articles and author profiles in Writing Magazine, the UK’s bestselling title for authors of all kinds.

I’ll have a break about eleven-thirty and take a walk around my very tiny inner city garden, snipping anything that’s grown too big for its space and checking the bird baths and feeders are full.

The afternoons and evenings are my most creative times. So then I’ll be busy writing articles, working on a novel (there is always a novel in development) and maybe writing a few short stories, too. My local writing group sets homework (I know – it’s outrageous!), giving us a one or two word theme, and asking us to produce a piece of work up to about 300 words long. I’ve written lots of pieces of flash fiction that way.

I might also do some reading for competitions. I’m involved in several and I enjoy reading the entries. I never know when something amazing is going to pop up with the next click. Some competition entrants also ask for reports on their stories, and it’s good for me to have to think hard about what they’ve written. Oops, I sometimes think, as I point out that the author has spent the first few pages describing the set-up for the story, I’ve been guilty of that. I’m part of the team that runs Creative Writing Matters, and we organise several short story competitions every year, as well as the Exeter Novel Prize.

I’m also the author of three creative writing guides with my writing partner Cathie Hartigan. We’re very proud of the success of The Creative Writing Student’s Handbook.

The late afternoons and early evenings are for winding down, perhaps meeting friends in town, maybe going to the cinema or having something to eat, and having the obligatory good natter, too. Then it’s home to open my laptop again, just to make a few notes on what I’ve done that day, and before I know it it’s two o’clock in the morning and I really, really, really need to go to bed!

My crime and mystery novel The Final Reckoning is published by Ruby Fiction and is available in ebook and audio format from all the usual platforms, including Amazon and Kobo.

THE FINAL RECKONING_FRONT.jpg

Here’s the blurb.

What if you had to return to the place that made you fall apart?

When Lindsay Ellis was a teenager, she witnessed the aftermath of the violent murder of her lover’s father. The killer was never found.

Traumatised by what she saw, Lindsay had no choice but to leave her home village of Hartley Cross and its close-knit community behind.

Now, years later, she must face up to the terrible memories that haunt her still. But will confronting the past finally allow Lindsay to heal, or will her return to Hartley Cross unearth dangerous secrets and put the people she has come to care about most at risk?

I always love to hear from readers, so please feel very welcome to contact me!

https://www.facebook.com/margaret.james.5268
https://twitter.com/majanovelist
https://margaretjamesblog.blogspot.com/

 

Catching up with Margaret James!

Margaret James 1

Welcome back, Margaret! I was amazed when I realised that you were my first guest in 2013!

I was amazed, too! My goodness, doesn’t time fly? Perhaps this is because writing a novel is such a long process and sometimes another year goes by without us really noticing? It’s very good to be back. I see that since we were last in contact you’ve had several of your books published by Endeavour Press.  Many congratulations!

Thank you! I love the cover of your new novel ‘Girl in Red Velvet’, which is book 6 in the Charton Minster Series. What inspired you to create this series?

GIRVD_v3.4

The inspiration for the Charton Minster stories was driving past a country house in Dorset at least a decade ago. I wondered who lived there and later that evening my imagination started to run riot, conjuring up a whole family and their descendents. The first novel in the series is The Silver Locket, which is Rose Courtenay’s story. The subsequent five novels are about Rose’s children and grandchildren and even her great grandchildren.

Who is the ‘Girl’ in Red Velvet?

The girl in Girl in Red Velvet is Rose Courtenay’s granddaughter Lily Denham, who goes to university in the 1960s and meets two men who become her friends, the three of them have some great fun together, but then Lily finds she is falling in love with both of them. She makes a choice which looks as if it will turn out to be a very bad choice indeed. Or will it? What do all three of these people want and how will they get it? I hope I’ve given them plenty of challenges but that I’ve also given all their stories satisfying endings.

Do you remember the 60s with fondness?

I do because I was young and at university myself and having a lovely time living away from home. It’s quite difficult for younger people alive today to realise what a huge place the world was then. I went from living in a small rural community where I never met anyone who wasn’t British and white to living in a big city where I met and made friends with people from all over the world.

What is next for Creative Writing Matters?

We’re expanding our range of writing-related services all the time. We run two major international competitions (The Exeter Novel Prize and the Exeter Story Prize which incorporates the Trisha Ashley Award for a humorous story) and we offer mentoring and various shorter courses and smaller competitions, too. We’ve found that offering feedback on competition entries has proved very popular so next year we will be doing more in that respect by offering feedback on some of our short story competitions as well as on entries for the Exeter Novel Prize.

What is next for Margaret?

It’s reading the entries for this year’s Exeter Story Prize, which closed on 30 April. We’re constantly astonished and impressed by the range and quality of entries, so although this is a pleasurable task it’s always quite demanding, too.

I wish you every success with all your amazing ventures. Reader’s can follow Margaret on: Facebook Twitter    or you can visit  Margaret’s blog

Meet Sophie Duffy!

sophiecol-matt-austin-44

When did you discover your love of books?

I could read before I started school so as long as I can remember I’ve loved books. Mum or Dad read to me every night and once they’d tucked me up, I would hide under the bedclothes with a torch, up late (a notoriously bad sleeper all my life), with a heap of books, looking at the pictures and making up stories until I could make out the text. I loved Ladybird books (which I still have on my bookshelves), Enid Blyton, especially Mr Pink-Whistle and Amelia Jane, and ‘Twinkle’, the comic I got every week as we lived above the newsagent’s run by my parents in Torquay.

When did you decide that you wanted to write your own?

I wrote a lot of stories when I was a child but that fizzled out by the time I reached secondary school when I was more concerned with Wham! and boys. At university I studied English and wrote bad poetry. It wasn’t until my children were small that I went to a creative writing class at the adult education college. By the end of that first lesson I was hooked, and knew I wanted to be a writer. I was 33. It was another ten years before I had my debut novel published.

What can a reader expect from a Sophie Duffy novel? 

The reader can expect a nostalgia-fest with a few tears and laughs along the way. They will get a blended, dysfunctional family or group of friends, and a main character trying to negotiate their hazardous journey through the world with all its ups and downs.

Change and facing the difficulties that this presents is a strong theme in your novels. How much of an influence has change in your own life experience driven the empathy you create for your own protagonists?

 The one certainty in life is that we will face change. It’s how we adapt to change that marks us as individuals. Sometimes we resist change, sometimes we embrace it. We might make bad decisions. We probably will. And it’s the repercussions of these decisions that echo down the years that I am interested in as a writer.

 

The award winning The Generation Game (The Yeovil Literary Prize 2006 and Luke Bitmead Bursary 2010) confronts many issues including childhood abandonment and buried secrets. Where did the idea for this acclaimed novel come from?

The idea for ‘The Generation Game’ came from a short story wot I wrote. The idea for the story came from my early childhood when we lived above the newsagent’s (also a sweetshop/tobacconist’s) in the early 70s. Sadly, my father took his own life when I was ten which I suppose counts as abandonment of sorts, so maybe that is why I am drawn to this as a theme. Love and loss go hand in hand but I truly believe that love – often from unexpected places – conquers all. I have bitter sweet memories (if you’ll pardon the pun) from this era, as do most of Generation X who grew up in the golden years of Saturday night television. We have seen several of our childhood icons fall by the wayside in the wake of Operation Yewtree. Thank goodness for Sir Brucie is all I can say.

This Holey Life (runner up of The Harry Bowling Prize 2008) is another successful novel that looks at change and faith with humour, yet balanced reality. What was the greatest challenge this project posed?

I was worried that readers might be put off by a vicar’s wife as a main character but felt encouraged when I saw ‘Rev’ on the television, a sitcom which looks at life in the church and all the eccentric characters that make up a spiritual community. It’s not a ‘Christian’ book as such but a story that embraces life with all its flaws and imperfections.

 

You are part of the Creative Writing Matters team. How much do you enjoy sharing what you have learned with new writers?

It’s brilliant! I know how much I have learned and continue to learn from other writers. I know that being a writer is a life long process and that I receive more from my students than they get from me. Administering the Exeter Novel Prize and the Exeter Story Prize has also been a revelation. Having read hundreds of thousands of words over the years, I understand more about what makes good writing and good storytelling. I hope this feeds into my own work!

creative-writing-matters

What key piece of advice would you give to an, as yet, unpublished author?

If it’s what you really want, then keep trying. Don’t give up. Enter competitions where your writing will be both read and considered. Keep writing. Read a lot. Listen to feedback, sit on it, and when it rings true, rewrite, edit, submit.

 

What is next for Sophie?

I have just signed a contract for the next book. All I can say for now is the novel involves two ninety year old ladies, one of whom is the queen. Watch this space…