Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Fiona Shaw and Katharine McMahon author talk

As promised, here is the review of the above event that I attended as part of the Morley Literature Festival on Monday evening.

Both authors know each other through the Reader Organisation as both are course facilitators for round table groups (Katharine's is in Watford) where they read aloud and talk about a book there and then.  The Royal Literary Fund also supports a writing scheme which puts writers into Universities.  They admitted that this is not the most obvious way for writers to meet up.

Katharine McMahon has written eight novels and Fiona Shaw four, plus a memoir and both authors dip into the past in some way.  Katharine was drawn to a woman in medicine, the first doctors, for her book 'The Alchemist's Daughter' as she had a ladybird book about Florence Nightingale that got her into the story.  But she needed a hook to see where it took her off to, so she researched other women in medicine as they were more interesting to her and she knew she also wanted to write about a woman who disappears.

Fiona Shaw's new book 'A Stone's Throw' was triggered by two stories that were told to her years ago and this has never happened before or since.  An older lady, who was 19 in 1942, who she met 21+ years ago, told her about how she travelled to Africa as her husband was working in administration in Africa.  She travelled many miles to go to him, but the ship was torpedoed and she ended up in a lifeboat with no room to move and she was the only woman.  This threw all kinds of scenarios up, such as how are you going to pee?  They decided to pass a bucket around, but the lady decided that if she was not rescued she would rather throw herself over the side and drown, than pee into a bucket in front of all the men.  The other story involved two friends carrying a boat on slippery land and the consequences of this.  So she decided that two stories with no connection had to be at the centre of the novel.  She admitted that you can't write someone else's story, but once the tools are there, suddenly everything becomes relevant.

Katharine revealed that when her book 'The Rose of Sebastapol' was chosen as one of the Richard and Judy Book Club novels, this felt like her big break but she felt it was sheer luck.  She said the publishers know which ones are likely to be picked and lined up for it, but the authors are not told about it.  Katharine feels it changes everything - she struggled to get the book noticed, when that happens, it's all done for you.  Her new book 'Season of Light' is set in the french revolution and it was inspired by a Jane Austen biography which detailed about the husband of Jane's cousin, a french Marquis who went back to France during the revolution and was guillotined, though no mention of this, appears in any of Austen's work.  She started by reading everything she could about Paris at that time and the revolution and then narrowed it down to what really interest her.  The French Revolution slowed down the abolition of slavery in this country and priests were locked up in Paris and massacred as they thought they were Royalists.  They also killed prostitutes to prevent them from becoming insurrectionists.  Katharine felt she needed to keep the revolution alive in her book although her story happens in England, so to achieve this she had her heroine fall in love with a revolutionary.

Creatively, Fiona does not usually come up with the idea in a big splurge, but she loves the reading, although it can easily become a way of not starting to write.  She gets the core idea or storyline/theme to pursue, but she doesn't know what the ending is going to be.  She likens herself to a mole, in that she knows where to start, but not where to come up.  Some other novellists plot everything, others some of their scenes, but there are many different ways for different people and some scenes/novels never see the light of day.  'A Stone's Throw' is written in five parts and the theme is one family in three generations and that the first loss plays out throughout the novel.  She does not usually have the title for her novels, but she knew this one from the beginning.  She sees it as a stone that lands on water at five points, before finally sinking and the trauma of family plays out through the events, affecting the conclusion.

Each author then read a section of their novels.

Upon being asked whether she felt her style had changed, Fiona said that she has had lots of good reviews and most authors hope that they get better.  She feels she does not now feel the need to show that she knows her research.

Asked about mentors, Katharine said that every writer needs a mentor and she feels that hers is, as he is a critical friend.  He scrutines her novels and tells her opportunities that she has missed and where he is bored (e.g. 'you don't need to educate people about the french revolution'), but that an editor is more cursory.  Fiona has had lots of editors and you can get a lot of useful editing, e.g. if a character is not likeable, explain why she is so unlikeable.

Both authors still get the same thrill from their published books as it's finished.  Katharine likened it to being pregnant and producing an absolute monster!  Also, they agreed that publishers put whatever they want on the cover, Fiona admitting that the only cover she likes is her second book as the picture on the front is a picture from her research of a woman's profile looking for planes in binnoculars and it is one of the women the novel is based on.

They agreed that it is very tough to get a novel noticed once it is published and they feel the internet has not helped.  In a store, one can browse, but there is no browsing through Amazon and you have to rely on word of mouth, libraries and book clubs.  Each book gets short time promotion, then you have to do it yourself.

Katharine and Fiona are in ebook territory and Fiona's first three books are out of print so they are now ebooks only.  Anyone can publish onto Kindle, so it is an enormous market, but new books go out to Kindle as part of your contract now.  Authors get a percentage of book sales and paperback sales are less than hardback.  Quantity is the key, as writers do not get a payment for used copies, but you can get cheap research books.  Both authors would be delighted for one of their books to be nominated for World Book Night.

Asked if they ever visit a location that a book is set in, Katharine admitted that when she went to the Crimea it was at the end of October and like the English army before her, she knew little about the weather.  It is warm and then so cold you cannot stand up - the soldiers got frostbite because they left their coats behind.  She got a bargain deal on a Telegraph holiday that visited all the Crimean war sites.  Fiona revealed that she was going to set a book in Africa, but that publishers don't think people want to read books set in Africa, so was asked if her idea would work in another time and another place.

Katharine revealed that 'The Crimson Rooms' is her favourite of her novels because she feels it is the best mix of her storytelling and her knowledge.  She is currently writing the sequel which will be out next November.  Fiona always feels closest to which novel she's just finished, but she does have an affection for 'Tell it to the Bees' too.

Fiona and Katharine then read excerpts from their novels (Fiona from 'Tell it to the Bees' and Katharine from 'The Crimson Rooms').  Fiona explained that it was a harder novel as it concerns a love affair between two women (a GP and a factory worker) in the 1950s and some of it is told from the perspective of the 10-yr-old son of the factory worker.  Katharine explained that her story concerned a young woman's murder where the chief suspect is her husband, but Evelyn (the heroine) a lawyer who is bereaved because of the first World War, can bring a woman's perspective to the crime scene.

This was an excellent and informative evening and I am looking forward to attending more Morley Literature events this week.

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