Catching up with Margaret James!

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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?

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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!

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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!

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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…

Catching up with Cathie Hartigan

Thank you for inviting me back on your blog, Valerie.

You are welcome, Cathie. So what has been happening in your world since I interviewed you and Margaret James in July 2015?

I can’t believe that it’s been a very busy eighteen months since Margaret and I were here last!

Our textbooks, The Creative Writing Student’s Handbook and The Short Story Writer’s Workbook have proved to be successes for us and we hope they had helped those who have read them. The feedback we’ve had has been fantastic. The handbook was one of our early projects, but more recently, the whole team at CreativeWritingMatters, that’s Margaret James, Sophie Duffy and myself, published A Christmas Celebration, an anthology of stories, quizzes and puzzles. A perfect Secret Santa!

It seems only yesterday that we set up CreativeWritingMatters, but recently, the ever-watchful Facebook reminded me the page is already five years old. It isn’t really surprising when I think of how our competitions; the Exeter Novel Prize, Exeter Story Prize – including the Trisha Ashley Award for the best humorous story, have become fixtures in the literary calendar. Trisha is a Sunday Times bestselling author of romantic comedies and knows a thing or two. We are delighted that so many of our winners and shortlisted entrants have achieved publication.

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Right up at the top of the achievement list for me personally in the last year and a half, is the publication of my debut novel, Secret of the Song. It’s a time-slip mystery set in renaissance Naples and contemporary Exeter (my home city). I knew little about wicked Prince Gesualdo whose music and madness lies at the heart of the story, but my research soon revealed that the Italians make our Tudors look like lightweights when it comes to bad behaviour. How awful, I thought, for those innocent servants who were caught up in the crimes of their masters and mistresses. When I read the witness statement of a young maidservant, I straight away heard the voice of my heroine.

Secret of the Song’s success has been really thrilling, especially after I decided to independently publish. This decision was made after considerable thought, and only because I was reasonably well established with the textbooks, short stories and competitions. Everyone who read Secret of the Song was enthusiastic, but when it came to agents and publishers the response was the same. Loved it – don’t know how to sell it. Music is too niche. Hmm, I thought, tell that to Gareth Malone.

A word of warning to anyone thinking of self-publishing – if it’s for your friends and relations, that’s fine, but if you want a wider readership, you’ll need a huge social media presence before you publish. Make sure you get a professional edit and proof as well.

One of the most exciting things about preparing your own book for publication is that you get to decide on the cover. I opted for Berni Stevens, a cover designer with considerable experience. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result.

One year later, having reached number thirty-five on Kindle and acquired over fifty rave reviews, I’m happy to say that’s not the case. Phew! Thank you, lovely readers.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and every continued success in 2017!