Book reviews

Of Dublin and Other Fictions by Nuala Ni Chonchuir Review and Interview

Of Dublin coverBeing a flash fiction aficionado it was my pleasure to be able to review Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s chapbook of tiny fictions Of Dublin and other fictions. Published by Tower Press in the USA it consists of eleven flash fiction gems. What I particularly love about Ní Chonchúir’s writing in general and this collection in particular is the diverse mode of her writings. She explores both territory that is otherworldly and situations that are utterly real and feelings that are both tender and terrible. In stories such as Penny, Leo and Married Bliss and in the voice of Jesus of Dublin she evokes the colloquial and colourful. We feel a strong affection for the characters in these slices of life. Her stories are lusty, vibrant and irreverent, grabbing you right into the heat of the moment, and with her stories, it’s definitely heat.

In Room 313, From Ugly to Alice and Fish the undercurrent of sexual tension reveals the very human vulnerability of the characters. Throughout, and very much in the more fantastical and philosophical stories such as TreeDaughter, Vincent in the Yellow House and The Road that Mills and Boon ®Built the book is both sensuous and gorgeous in language and sentiment. Striking moments of connection leave the reader with an sense of humanity’s enduring journey throughout time – no mean feat for stories that are only a few hundred words long. Whether it is because of this brevity, the flash fiction stories in this chapbook had, for me a particular potency and resonance. It is a collection that will stay with you long after the read and I highly recommend it.

Nuala on flash fiction…

I had a chance to ask Nuala about the particular characteristics and strengths of flash fiction.I wanted to know what she felt the power of flash fiction is. “I love the way flash stories suit the surreal and the odd; they can be about anything and can be driven by language or mood or by the ‘what-happens’, so there’s a lot of scope for experimentation and/or fun within flash. Their power lies in their brevity coupled with the ability to set the mind ticking; they beg re-reading when they are done well. I like that.

As a reader I enjoy a range of flash: a quirky chunk of banter like Kevin Scott’s ‘Sheltered’ (http://www.fracturedwest.com/issue-4/sheltered/); or an emotion-driven short like Thisbe Nissen’s ‘Deer at Rest’ (http://www.obscurajournal.com/Nissen_Deer_at_rest.pdf). I also love short-shorts that delight in language, like ‘Funky Little Blaze Orange Pork Pie Hats’ by Michael Gillan Maxwell (http://www.metazen.ca/?p=13207)”

Since she works also as a poet and a novelist as well as producing this book of flash fictions, I wanted to know if Ni Chonchuir thought that the subject or sentiment dictated the form and what she thought made something fit into flash rather than poetry mode.

“I have really been neglecting poetry for the last year or so. It’s like that part of my brain has shut down while I get on with writing novels. But I can manage flash (maybe because I am in fiction mode?) The other thing, and it just occurs to me, is that my poetry tends to be confessional (not a dirty word, in my book) and I’m not going through any major upheavals lately, so maybe the poems are not there because life is good.

My flash tend to be language-  and narrative-driven – so the two things have to collide in my mind and offer me a first line that will take me somewhere interesting. So it’s subject coupled with language coupled with a forward impetus. I think the sentiment (the emotion) grows out of the rest.”

Given the great humour in several of these short fictions, particularly ‘Jesus of Dublin’ and ‘Penny and Leo and Married Bliss’ which comes out best in the voices of your characters. I wondered what Ní Chonchúir thought could be achieved with humour in a very short piece.

I think humour is unexpected in literary fiction – people expect lit fic to be dour and worthy. And I think we are all guilty of feeling this and acting on it – very few writers enter funny stories into lit comps, I find (having judged many of them). I love funny. To me Anne Enright is funny because she uses the self-deprecating, rueful, dark humour that Irish people are good at – we love to laugh, to slag each other, to poke fun. Ulysses is funny, but it’s not the first thing that springs to mind when people think about it. ‘Penny and Leo and Married Bliss’ is a rewriting of the Penelope episode in that novel and I had great fun transposing Molly Bloom’s bawdy humour to the 21st century.

I guess humour works best when it is wedded to something more profound (in Molly’s case, infidelity), so that it achieves more than a mere gag or extended joke – it makes you feel for the character(s). So, while the reader is laughing, she is also being made to think.”

Nuala Ní Chonchúir 2013

Nuala ni Chonchúir lives in Galway. Nuala’s awards for her writing include RTÉ Radio’s Frances McManus Award and the Dublin Review of Books flash fiction prize. Mother America her fourth short story collection was published by New Island in 2012, her second novel will be published in spring 2014.

Of Dublin and Other Fictions will be available shortly on Amazon and from Tower Press direct.

More about Nuala here www.nualanichonchuir.com
http://womenrulewriter.blogspot.com/

Niamh Boyce’s Debut Novel The Herbalist

D47R5524Niamh Boyce is from Athy, Co Kildare. She won Hennessy XO Writer of the Year 2012 for her poem Kitty. She’s currently editing her short story collection Wild Cat’s Buffet and writing her next novel. I met Niamh first at the Hennessy Awards 2009, where we were both finalists and again at a book launch where I was thrilled to hear about her forthcoming release. A talented and versatile writer and a lovely person, I couldn’t be more pleased to have her here on the blog to talk to us about her debut novel The Herbalist which has just been published by Penguin and launched in Athy just yesterday. First my thoughts on the book…   

updated jacket - WIP (2)

The Herbalist is a vivid and compelling tale told about a town in 1930s Ireland which witnesses the arrival of an exotic stranger – the Herbalist who sets up his stall and begins to enthral, influence and unsettle the women of the town, beginning with teenage Emily. Mindful of the social constraints of the times and the real difficulties that women found themselves in, this novel conjures up a cast of strong female characters (a great strength of the book) with various desires and hopes which they bring to the Herbalist’s door. Without giving the plot away, the Herbalist’s activities become more sinister and the final outcome depends upon the action of the women in the story, particularly Emily. This is a finely told tale, with lovely details of the times that will keep you turning the pages until the satisfying conclusion.

I asked Niamh three questions to delve more into the novel and its characters.

Alison: I found I had great sympathy for the female characters, Carmel,Aggie, Sarah, Emily, Mai etc who all displayed various character flaws but who were strong and vivid women. What did you hope to achieve with your female characters and by including such a range of these.

Niamh: I initially planned for just two main characters but the book had different ideas! I think the strong female characters that eventually emerged reflect the very nature of story itself; that of a man who was known by many women, but who was essentially a different man to each of them.

I began the first draft writing from the point of view of both Emily and Sarah, but very quickly other voices began to clamour to be heard, and as they became more distinct, they became more recognisable as Carmel and Aggie. Rose’s voice was very faint, but I knew instinctively that she was important.  So in the end I threw out any ideas I had about who should tell the tale. Actually I stopped trying to tell the tale at all; and just let them tell it to me.

Alison: I also admired how you weaved detail of the times including the fashion, music, film etc into the book to make it a rich tapestry. Did do your research up front or alongside as the story developed?

Niamh: I left most of the research till the final draft. I used the films from the era as a touchstone as I wrote the initial draft, movies like It Happened One Night, Wuthering Heights, Flash Gordon, Tarzan and all the Betty Davis and Greta Garbo pictures.  I also read the local newspapers from the late thirties on microfiche in the library. That’s as much research as I allowed myself at that stage.  I trusted the story to reveal itself, and left the more serious research till the final draft stage when I used the internet, the national archives,  old newspapers and of course good old fashioned history books.

Alison: How did you come up with the character of The Herbalist?

Niamh: He was inspired by a real person that I came across years ago when I was archiving local newspapers. I read an article that referred to an Indian Herbalist who had been arrested for offenses against girls and was curious as to what the truth behind the article might be. I recall thinking, even back then, who were you the scapegoat for? That was in 1990, and I didn’t start writing till 2008 but when I did begin writing I remembered that man, and became curious again about him.  I decided to base my first novel around the idea of him.  So though The Herbalist was inspired by a real man, the herbalist of my book is a completely fictionalised character.

Niamh blogs at niamhboyce.blogspot.com where you can find out more about the Herbalist, her blog tour and other literary matters.

I highly recommend The Hebalist as a really great read, it’s available in all good book shops and here.

Thanks once again and huge congratulations to Niamh Boyce!

Review of Bloodmining by Laura Wilkinson

BloodMining 600 With the emotional resonance of a Maggie O’ Farrell and hints of Ishiguro’s Never let me go, Bloodmining is a vivid and believable rendering of a familiar but crucially altered near future.  A compelling debut novel from Laura Wilkinson that I read in one sitting, this is well worth the read.

Over the course of the novel we develop great sympathy and affinity with the characters: Megan who must chart her past to save her child’s future, Elizabeth, whose story is both shocking and profoundly moving as well as Megan’s colleague Jack North who introduces resourcefulness and humour to a difficult quest. I enjoyed Megan’s tough exterior which is paired with a fierce love for her son Cerdic who develops a life threatening hereditary illness.

What Megan learns as she tries to find a suitable donor for her son’s treatment is central to the plot and there will be no spoilers from this quarter. We visit two eras, near future and a future right on our doorstep, although one I hope we do not witness. But that’s as far as I’m telling. I strongly urge you to find out for yourselves, Wilkinson’s prose is light, clever and accomplished, the story structure elegant and effective and her descriptions utterly evocative and riveting. She explores  ethical dilemmas and decisions that are close at hand.  If you want a book to grip, shock, surprise and satisfy you, with plenty of discussion for reading groups this will not disappoint. Bloodmining deserves a wide readership and recognition and I look forward to more from this author.

***** 5 stars

Bloodmining is published by independent small press Bridge House.

You can buy it here on Amazon or Barnes and Noble  or for the Kindle

Diary of a Penguin-napper by Sally Harris

Sally Harris from Melbourne recently launched this bright, engaging fun book for children called Diary of a Penguin-napper. The book is for children in the 8 to 12 age range so we were pleased to receive a copy of Sally’s book in the post.

What was striking about Sally’s book is that it’s so attractive that the kids pounced on it as soon as it was out of the wrapper and were attracted by the cover, the title and the catchphrase ‘3 weeks ...2 boys …1 little penguin …What could possibly go wrong?
What is also unusual is that all my children in that age range (Evan, just turned 12, Ronan 10 and Erica 8) were interested in reading the book. One is penguin mad anyway which is a plus and the others were captivated by the story. Here is what they had to say:

Erica (8):  It was a fascinating book, exciting and adventurous. I liked the part where they stole the penguin from the zoo.  How much trouble can one little penguin cause? Answer: a lot.

Ronan (10): I like it because my favourite animals are penguins. I think the book is really good because it’s funny and adventurous. I like the policeman best.

Evan (12): I really liked the way the book was told as a first person account by Marty. When I picked up the book I couldn’t put it down and read it straight through to the end. It was a really well written book and I would definitely recommend it.

Fine praise indeed. What struck me was the fantastic cover, the compelling first chapter and the little details of having a little penguin at the bottom of every page. Lovely!

I asked Sally a bit about herself and the book…

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

Well, to begin with, I grew up in rural Australia in a large town on the Murray River called Mildura. It was a fantastic place to grow up because we had so much freedom, plenty of animals around and yet there wasn’t so much to do that we didn’t have to use our imaginations!

I can’t remember a time that I couldn’t read or write.  Mum made sure that there was always an endless supply of books and paper around the house and we were always at the local library.  I still have the first ‘proper’ book I wrote – I say proper because it was good enough to be covered with plastic to protect it!  I’m sure there were others, but my ‘Food Giggles’ joke book is now a treasured possession.

I went to boarding school for most of my high school years and had some fantastic teachers who really challenged me. I went on to complete a Bachelor of Education in Melbourne.  Since graduating, I’ve spent at least part of every year teaching in schools both in Melbourne and in the UK.

In 2008, I moved to the UK to complete a Masters degree in Education, majoring in Children’s Literature, which was absolutely inspiring. I learned so much about books for children during that one-year course and I’d go back to do it again if I could, just to learn even more.  And perhaps most importantly, I came away with the crazy idea that maybe I could write them myself!

And now, only last week in fact, I have just released my first book, Diary of a Penguin-napper.

What gave you the idea for Diary of a Penguin-napper?

It’s funny, now that I think about it, that I can’t pin point the exact moment that I first heard the urban myth about the boy stealing the penguin.  I think someone might have told me during my time at Cambridge in 2008/09, because I pondered the idea and made notes for about a year before actually putting pen to paper in 2010.  What I do know is that once I’d heard of the idea, I kept hearing about it from lots of different people!  And they all had a slightly different take on it.

It kind of got to a point where I felt like the universe was trying to tell me something, I’d heard about the myth that often, that I wondered how I had existed for 25 years without hearing about it earlier.

I also find the newspaper to be a great source of story ideas.  The ‘penguin-napping’ story has made the paper a few times over the past year or two. I usually find great inspiration in the short 4-5 sentence articles that fill the sides or bottoms of pages.  I find they are often on really unusual topics and you are only given a snippet of information to get you started.  Then, it is up to you as a writer to fill in the gaps!

Why do you enjoy writing for children?

I think I enjoy writing for children because I never stopped reading children’s books myself.  There was never really a complete transition into adult books – I’d read Maeve Binchy one day, Enid Blyton the next and a favourite pony book the next.  I love the adventure that you get with older children’s fiction – when children could go camping, hiking or horse riding for days on end and nobody would worry about them.

I also like the challenge of writing for children.  People always think it is easier because the books are shorter or the plots can be less complex, but let me tell you, they are a tough crowd! If children don’t like something, they’ll tell you.  If there are any loose ends, they’ll point them out.  If they aren’t engaged, they’ll put the book down without a second thought.

What do you think makes Diary of a Penguin-napper stand out?

Well, apart from the bright yellow cover, I think there are two things that really make it stand out in the sea of middle grade fiction out there.

The first is that it is based on a story that a lot of people have heard of already – that of a boy stealing a penguin from a zoo on a school trip. When people ask me what my book is about and I tell them, their reaction is often that they’ve heard about that and didn’t it really happen?

The second thing that I think makes Diary of a Penguin-napper really exciting is that it is funny.  As a teacher and librarian, I know how much children (and their parents) love books that make them laugh.  There are a lot of funny male writers – Roald Dahl, David Walliams, Andy Griffiths, to name but a few – but not nearly as many well known females.

What do you plan in the future?

I love being a teacher and working with children, so I’m definitely going to keep doing that. It is great to have a captive audience to test out story ideas on and to have some time in school holidays to get cracking with writing. I’m hoping to have a new title ready for next year and I’ve got a couple of ideas simmering away.  I just need to refine my corny jokes!

The cover is outstanding, tell us about that.

I absolutely love the cover design for this book!  I think it both captures the spirit of the story, plus it both fits well with the middle grade fiction genre and yet stands out because of the bold use of yellow.

When I decided to go ahead and print the book myself, I really wanted to produce a professional looking product and part of that was having an experienced cover designer create the cover.  Andrew Brown of Design for Writers had designed a number of covers for other books that I had read or come across, so I got in touch with him. He was absolutely fantastic to work with – very patient and very receptive to feedback.  I can’t recommend him enough!

Where can we get the book?

Diary of a Penguin-napper currently is available from Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Diary-Penguin-napper-Sally-Harris/dp/0987416308/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352707832&sr=8-1&keywords=diary+of+a+penguin-napper) as a paperback and for Kindle.  It is also flying off the shelves (or should that be waddling?) in a range of e-book formats from Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/251817).

As part of her blog tour, Sally appeared on That Book You Like (http://www.thatbookyoulike.com.au/) yesterday and will be talking about using research to bring your writing to life on Lost in Lit (http://lost-in-lit.blogspot.com.au/) tomorrow.  Be sure to join her to enter the draw to win a free copy of Diary of a Penguin-napper!

Be sure to join her to enter the draw to win a free copy of Diary of a Penguin-napper!

You can enter the draw and find out more about Sally and her new book on her blog where she’s written some very engaging articles on writing research and motivation.

Interview with Eoin Colfer on The Last Guardian & what comes after Artemis Fowl

Eoin Colfer from Wexford has been a worldwide hit with the Artemis Fowl series. (He also wrote a follow up And Another Thing in the Douglas Adam’s  Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy  series)

The Artemis series, for young teens, follows the adventures of teenage technical mastermind Artemis Fowl and his adventures in saving his family fortune, and the world, alongside Fairies and Pixies, friends and foe. Eoin Colfer has just released the final book The Last Guardian. These are brilliantly written books with wit and technical wizardry. Eoin has described them as ‘Die Hard with Fairies’. This bestselling series has been hugely popular with my eldest boy so I was delighted to interview Eoin for writing.ie

Catching up with Eoin Colfer amid his travels, I ask him to cast his mind back and tell us how the idea for Artemis Fowl originated. His answer is both surprising and wry: “I got the idea for a young, super criminal from a photo I saw of my little brother making his Confirmation. It occurred to me that he looked like a James Bond villain and I thought it would be funny if that was the main character in a series.” Did he know how many Artemis books he would go on to write? “I actually had planned for only three books, but ideas kept coming so I kept on writing more. Eight is enough, I think, time for Artemis to retire.”

Writers hope for success but it’s never a given. I ask Eoin what the huge popularity of Artemis Fowl has meant to him. “The Artemis series has been hugely important for me and my family. It brought us security for one thing. Another thing Artemis did for me was allow me to be a full time writer,” Eoin says “and even more than that I could indulge myself in writing projects that I felt pretty sure would not be blockbusters, including a musical and a few one-act plays.”

For the full article: Click here

Which books have you thrown at the end of the bed?

I’ve just been having an interesting conversation on Twitter about books we’ve thrown at the end of the bed either during or at the end of the reading process. Of course there are many reasons why we might be frustrated with a book. Much of the time it just didn’t live up to the expectation we had of it or was simply substandard in some way in our estimation. But there are other potential reasons. Perhaps the material was too close to the bone. Perhaps it was very similar to the amazing novel we wrote five years ago and never had the courage to send out.

So which novels spring to mind? I’ve had some interesting answers so far: Lessing’s Good Terrorist, Miller’s “Demo”, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Perhaps the individuals who gave me those answers might visit and tell us why in the comments. My own examples are ‘One Day’ by David Nichols, The ‘Terrorist’ by John Updike and ‘The Unconsoled’ by Kasuo Ishiguro. My husband also threw the much lauded The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen at the end of the bed. It was ‘too much’ for him.

With ‘One Day’ ( A book I’m almost afraid to criticise because of the hype and exaltation around it) I was not moved in the way I expected to be, I didn’t warm to the characters over time, I felt it all quite superficial and the ending (which I won’t reveal) was just a bit let down. Particularly with film, I try particularly hard not to hear too much before I see a film because I don’t want to know what it’s about or how amazing it’s meant to be. I think I suffered with One Day with expecting something extraordinary due to the hype surrounding the book. The premise was great enough for me to buy it but ultimately I didn’t enjoy it.

With The Terrorist I was put off again by the superficiality of character and lack of real insight into the character’s motivations but also by the unnecessary misogyny evidenced more by the writer himself than the main character.

With the Unconsoled it was a far more complex reaction. The reaction was visceral, physiological. The book engages from the off but then continues it’s narration over the long book in the manner of our dreams, endlessly truncated journeys and quests, a push towards a climax that ultimately dissolves. Sometimes I physically could not stand reading the book. I threw it to the end of the bed but retrieved it just to find out what happened. One of the quotes on the jacket says that it it ‘probably a masterpiece’. An apt description. Despite my difficulties reading the book, it has never left me. It’s dreamlike qualities have infiltrated my brain as if he spoke the very language of consciousness. And perhaps we, the readers are the ultimately ‘Unconsoled.’

So tell me, which books have you thrown at the end of the bed, and why?

Write a Great Synopsis: Nicola Morgan knows how!

Nicola and her dog Amber

The Background

When I got the chance to review Nicola Morgan’s Write a Great Synopsis I was delighted. Nicola is the author of more than 90 books – covering both fiction and non-fiction. Her novel Wasted (which I absolutely loved) was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and her guide for writers Write to be Published has been much acclaimed. Like many writers, I’ve been daunted by having to write a synopsis. Having read Write a Great Synopsis I’m so sorry I didn’t have it the last time I wrote one and delighted that this time round I’ll be able to put the advice into practice.

 

The Book

What grabbed me straight away was Nicola’s no-nonsense but wry approach that’s familiar to me from her terrific blog on publishing. You know from the off that Nicola is going to tell it like it is, she’s not going to pretty it up or soft soap you but what she tells you is going to get you where you want to go. Her advice is direct and realistic, it is also very straightforward. Reading her step by step methods (she gives two alternatives) for writing the synopsis I could feel myself already becoming more relaxed about the process. She tells us the specific things we need to do, what is required within the synopsis and what isn’t and alleviates all the other worries about synopses that circulate the writer’s brain. She answers commonly asked queries about how to deal with complicated plots, several points of view or many themes. Nicola even suggests ways you might phrase elements of the synopsis to sidestep convoluted explanations. The book also includes “Synopsis Spotlights” – a synopsis clinic if you will on some real examples of synopses. If you are engaged in a novel or have reached the stage – like I have – where you will soon be writing a synopsis, Write a Great Synopsis is everything you need to know, put simply. It’s certainly made me feel more confident about the steps I need to take to write a synopsis that says just the right amount about the story in a way that will interest the agent or publisher. I highly recommend this book for any novel writer.

For more, check out the video trailer!

The Barking Mad Special Offer

Nicola Says: I have a crazy price promotion until the end of January: Write a GREAT Synopsis and Tweet RightThe Sensible Person’s Guide to Twitter will each be stupid cheap on Amazon. I’m aiming for 99p, but VAT and currency fluctuations, along with Amazon’s naughtiness, are making that hard to acheive. So, forgive me if it’s £1 or even – gasps – £1.02.

But only till the end of January. So hurry!
Write a Great Synopsis on Amazon UK – for Kindle AND laptops/ipads/etc if you download the FREE Kindle app

Tweet Right on Amazon UK – as above.

For non-UK purchases, please see the Amazon.com site and do a search for the titles.

The Brilliant Comp

If you’d like the chance of winning help with your synopsis, simply leave a relevant comment below or on any or each of the guest posts. (This could be a deep and meaningful comment or a plea to the gods of fortune to pick you!) For details of all the posts you can comment on (for your best chance) see Nicola’s blog (panel to right).

Prizes: 1st prize – a critique of your synopsis, at a mutually convenient time; plus a signed book of your choice, if available. 2nd prize – a critique of your synopsis. 3rd prize – a signed book of your choice, if available.

The Tuesday Interview: With Catherine Ryan Howard (author of Self-Printed)

Catherine Ryan Howard

Catherine Ryan Howard lives in Cork, Ireland. She has very successfully published a memoir about working in Disney, called Mousetrapped. She has documented the story of her self-printing experience and success in her blog Catherine, Caffinated and just lately released Self-Printed in which she shares the knowledge and expertise she gained from her self-printing experience. 

Having read Self-Printed, the quality and depth of the information shared is astounding. Catherine covers all the specifics on self-printing your manuscript, from cover design and formatting to uploading to the different platforms and troubleshooting. She also tackles the wider areas such as whether to self-publish or not, preparation and design, building a platform, selling and using data and tags to improve sales. Overall it’s a generous, clear, comprehensive book and written in Catherine’s lively and no-nonsense style, it’s a joy to read! Definitely the book to read for anyone considering self-printing.  Catherine’s here today for an interview on Head above Water so let’s find out more about Catherine and Self-Printed.

Let me begin by asking you the most important question of all. How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?

If I’m at home and working, I stumble to the kitchen in a zombie-like state as soon as I wake up to put the machine on. That makes about three cups, “cup” being the ceramic bucket I bought at Starbucks. (So probably about six cups, technically speaking.) I usually have that drank by lunchtime and it’s a rare day I’d drink any more coffee after that, because the only thing I like more than caffeine is sleep and I need to stop then in order to get any later.

And what’s so good about Cork anyway? (I hail from Cork’s arch rival county Kerry).

I doubt anyone would be able to recall me ever saying anything nice about Cork  – I only like sunny places which pretty much rules out the whole country of Ireland. (The tourist board won’t be hiring me anytime soon…) Cork is a lovely city on a sunny weekend, which hopefully we’ll get here sometime between now and the end of days.  We do have a staggering array of cafés and a big Waterstone’s, which helps. And we’re definitely better than anywhere in Kerry… [Runs and hides]

You’ve become a bit of a (perhaps unintentionally) self-printing guru. Did you plan this or did it fall upon you like Newton’s apple?

I think the whole orchard fell on me. I knew absolutely nothing about self-publishing when I started this whole thing, other than it costing a lot of money and it being only an option for deluded losers (I thought). I still might not know anything about it today if it wasn’t for a friend sending me a link to Lulu.com saying, “I think you might be interested in this.” I’m only a guru if “guru” means “person who can use Google to find the answers to questions as they arise.” So no, this wasn’t planned – this was the opposite of planned!

Are you super rich now?

Oh, yes – disgustingly so. As Chandler Bing would say my wallet’s too small for my fifties and my diamond shoes are too tight…

Eh, no. I am making enough money from self-publishing to not have to do anything else, but I live (for now) with my parents. This year I’ve really starting treating self-publishing like a business I’m starting up, so I’d expect (or hope!) that by the end of next year, I’ll be making a comfortable living from it. And that I won’t be thirty years old and still living with my parental units…

Tell me how you started. Why did you decide to write your first book and then to self-print it?

I’d always wanted to make a living as a novelist. Growing up I thought this might be on the side of something else – I did want to work with the Ebola virus for a while – but eventually I realised that the only way my life could be exactly as I wanted it to be (i.e. dreamed of it being) is if I did it full-time. But then when I was 22 I started working abroad and that lifestyle just didn’t bode well for novel-writing. I forgot about it for a while until I went to Orlando to work in Walt Disney World, and started scribbling down my thoughts on all the rubbish stuff that was happening to me. I got an agent interested in a book about my experience – Mousetrapped – and when, ultimately, I couldn’t get an agent or a publisher to take it or me on, I decided to stop wasting time submitting it and get started on my original goal – writing a novel – instead. Then a friend sent me that link to Lulu and I thought, “Hmm. Wait a minute. Maybe I should throw Mousetrapped up there and see if I can sell a few copies…”

How did you learn about self-printing, it’s methods, pitfalls etc?

Google! I read all the instructions and forum posts and stuff on the websites involved, and if I had a question I couldn’t find the answer to, I googled it. I also found other self-publisher’s blogs and websites helpful and a lot of it was learned through trial and error. It’s no coincidence that I went through five proof copies of Mousetrapped before I could put it on sale, but for Backpacked – the one out next month – there’ll only be two. (Maybe one day I’ll get it down to one…) Self-publishing is just like using computers: you learn by doing. It’s the best way.

Things took off for you. Tell me a bit about the sales of Mousetrapped and when things really got going?

I released Mousetrapped in March 2010, and for the first six months sales were just a trickle. I think I sold just over 500 copies in that period which was great, because that had been my goal (100 copies in first month, 500 copies in six months, 1,000 copies in first year). But between editing costs, cover design, review copies, etc. I hadn’t even broke even. But in December 2010/January 2011, things took off – thanks to the Christmastime boom in e-books, I think. Then in February the Sunday Times here in Ireland did a story on me, and that’s when things went a bit mental. So having sold 500 copies in the first six months of the book’s life, I’m on track to have sold more than 7,000 copies in the twelve months after that.

It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for you in terms of publicity for your book and for you as a self-printing writer, what were the highlights?

Seeing my paperbacks for the first time (when they arrive from CreateSpace) is probably the most exciting thing, which is hilarious considering I could do that without ever selling a single book! I’m ordering proofs of my next two books this week including my first self-published (or anyway published!) novel and I cannot wait to see them. I just LOVE that moment, because I love physical books so much and see mine on Kindle doesn’t have the same effect. I also have to say that getting a security pass with my name and the BBC logo on it when I did a radio interview for BBC Radio Ulster in Belfast was pretty darn cool.

You’ve recently published ‘Self-Printed’ and cleverly also delivered it in bite sized chunks. It’s a very generous book. Why didn’t you want to keep all your secrets to yourself?

Because I’m so nice, of course! (Don’t say anything…) Well for starters, they’re not secrets. I don’t do anything special or claim to have any miraculous knowledge about how to sell books. I think 99% of what I do is just basic common sense and the rest is imagination. The other reason is that I thought there was a gap in the market for a self-publishing guide aimed at the non-deluded. Other guides seem to bloke smoke up the reader’s rear, tell them they’re amazing and encourage them to fire-bomb the offices of traditional publishing houses, whereas I just see self-publishing as a good Plan B. Plus the more people who self-publish well, the better it is for me and all other self-published writers, because as the general impression of self-publishing improves, more people will be willing to buy my self-published book. So if I can stop even a handful of poopy titles making it out into the world – unedited and in Bradley Hand ITC pt18 – my job is done.

With the way publishing is changing, should everyone publish an e-book?

I think e-books are fantastic for giving writers – especially those who are still pursuing traditional publication – a source of income, but no, I don’t think everyone should do it. Once you put something out there you can’t take it back, and sometimes the ignorant bliss of believing that everyone wants to read something you’ve written is better than the stark reality of you having writing out there that no one can be bothered with. It may not sound like it if you’re outside looking in, but selling e-books is hard work. If you have a manuscript that almost made it – maybe a publisher read the full manuscript, liked it but ultimately decided it wasn’t for them, or maybe you had a book published a few years back then didn’t make a splash and is now out of print – then by all means, get it out there. But don’t do it for the sake of it. Do it because you have begun work on your dream of becoming a full-time writer and you are sure the e-book is supposed to be part of the plan.

Why don’t you like people calling publishers ‘gatekeepers?’ What have you got to say about purple unicorns?

I don’t like the whole “gatekeepers” thing because it implies that publishing is an exclusive club that exists to keep people from joining it, as if every editor and agent meets up in a dark, secret room once a month to drink pig’s blood and laugh about how silly the little people are. Everyone in publishing loves books, and they want to publish them. That’s how they keep their business going – and business is the key word. If your book gets rejected, it’s because it wasn’t a product that was going to bring in as much as it was going to cost to put it out there, or bring in enough to make it worthwhile. It’s unromantic, but that’s reality. And it’s not personal. Claiming that it’s all a big conspiracy against unpublished, non-blogging, non-vampire-creating writers who aren’t called James Patterson is just pathetic. And don’t even mention purple unicorns…!

How did you feel about the last Atlantis flight? (Catherine gives a wonderful account of witnessing a space shuttle launch in her book Mousetrapped).

Very, very sad. I always believed the Shuttle was an overly complex machine that was drinking up NASA’s budget at an astonishing rate and they should’ve retired it years ago, but I wanted something else to come in its place. Now we’ve retired the most visible spaceship we had and we’ve nothing to put in its place, and so how are we going to keep children and teenagers interested in space exploration without it? Not to mention the thousands of people in the US space industry who have now lost their jobs. Also, I am going to be forever grateful that I got to see a launch up close, especially now that the world has a finite number of people who can say that.

What are the 3 most important things people need to get right in self-printing?

Your book has to be good, and I don’t mean in your opinion or in your mother’s/husband’s/best friend’s. I mean a professional publishing type – an editor or a manuscript critique service, for example – has to say, “This is a good book.” If you don’t have that, whatever else you do is irrelevant and a complete waste of your time.

Next: the cover. Don’t do it yourself unless you’re a professional book designer and DO NOT use the free “cover creation” software on sites like Lulu and CreateSpace. If your book even whispers “self-published”, you’ve failed  – and you haven’t even started trying to sell it yet.

Finally, pick the right price. Realise that the price-tag is not reflective of how much work, time and talent you put into writing your book. If that was the case, Jonathan Franzen would be charging hundreds for his titles and Katie Price would be paying us to read hers. If you don’t have an established readership, you need to price your book to sell. Readers are more important than money.

What are you up to next? Am I right in saying that Backpacked is just out?

Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America is my second travel memoir and a sequel of sorts to Mousetrapped. That’ll was just released in paperback and e-book on September 5th. Then despite me saying on numerous occasions that I’d never self-publish a novel, I’m self-publishing a novel – Results Not Typical – in October. I call it chick-lit meets corporate satire and The Devil Wears Prada meets WeightWatchers. Then I’m going to finish a novel I’m working on that I hope will end up being traditionally published one day, and then I’m going on a very long holiday…

Are you going to have another cup of coffee now?

I’m drinking while I type.

We’re going to catch up with Catherine when she releases Results not Typical. In the meantime check out her publications so far!

Links:

Catherine, Caffinated


Self-Printed

 Backpacked

  Results Not Typical

Ray Bradbury’s ‘Metal Book’

I fell in love with Ray Bradbury’s beautiful poetic prose and his sharp psychological and socialogical insight when I picked up Faranheit 451.  Although known as a science fiction writer, it seems to me that the alternate worlds he creates in order to render his discourse and express his love and fear for humanity are predominately settings/landscapes in which to explore his philosophies as another writer might use New York, Africa, a particular historical period. Having said that. science fiction creates the ultimate ‘what if’ scenario that allows writers like Bradbury and Margaret Atwood (who is seen to write both literary and science fiction) to extend the possible scenarios in which characters must grapple with challenging and unique psychological, physical and philosophical conundrums.

Now reading Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, it is a delight to explore with him a series of scenarios that bring into focus questions about topics including the nature of reality, religious belief, cultural imperialism and self serving biases. Above all it is told convincingly but with a sense of wonder and as I have said with this gorgeous prose, particularly in the opening chapters, the scenes and emotions of which have already made a lasting impression. I’m purposely not discussing the subject matter apart from the fact that the book charts a series of expeditions from Earth to Mars but does it from the viewpoints of both the explorers and explored.

What particularly struck me is that the prose and manner of storytelling is absolutely modern, told in succinct bursts – each a short story in itself but informing the larger whole, the tale of what happened in humanity’s attempt to colonise Mars. But what is also remarkable is the prescience shown by Bradbury in a book that was published 60 years ago, in 1951. True the concerns are human and political ones, ever enduring down the ages and are absolutely relevant today.

But is was a specific prescient detail that stopped me in my tracks in the early pages of the book.  We move through a Martian house to a close up of it’s owner Mr K by himself in his room reading from a metal book. Immediately the Kindle sprang to mind! While the Kindle has E-ink to render it more apparently tactile, this one had ‘raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp’. Bradbury goes on to describe that a voice sang stories as the fingers brushed over. Perhaps not an e-reader then but an audio book, extraordinary and other worldly but rooted in the physical. Still the initial impression of the ‘metal book’ displays the extent of Bradbury’s imagination, his prose and intelligence testimony to all the possibilities (both creative and destructive) of humanity.

Mousetrapped by Catherine Ryan Howard

Review of Mousetrapped (beware, spoiler alert!)

I’ve just finished reading ‘Mousetrapped’ by Catherine Ryan Howard. It’s a captivating account of a year and a half spent working in a hotel at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, from the stark reality of settling in, to the magic and the mayhem of a girl from Cork, Ireland working and playing in this out of the ordinary setting.

Along with the story we are treated to interesting details about the Disney park, Orlando life and Catherine’s passion the space flight, shuttle launches and the Kennedy Space Centre.

What sets this book apart from other memoirs that I have read is the quality of the voice and the sense of personality that comes through. I’ve met Catherine in person just once but even if I hadn’t the book’s strength is it’s ability to make you really care what happens next and to feel a great affinity with Catherine as she tells her story.

From the practical details of accommodation and driving in the US to the emotional roller coaster of her quest to witness a space launch first hand, the book becomes compulsive reading, you’ve just got to know how it all pans out. And when it came to the final pages, I found myself wishing that we could follow her to her next adventure  (a trip to Central America).

Although it’s mostly a story about Disney magic, what I found very special in this book were Catherine’s poignant but also magical moments of emotional clarity, viewing the space launch but also on a bus listening to John Mayer’s ‘Stop that train’ as the reality of her situation hit home. Catherine’s book makes you think about the choices we make in life, about taking risks and following dreams. Combined with Catherine’s lovely personality all these elements make Mousetrapped a fabulous read.

You can buy Mousetrapped in paperback (US) or paperback (UK) or download for Kindle (US) or Kindle (UK). It’s absolutely worth it.

If you want to read more about Catherine Ryan Howard, Mousetrapped and Mousetrapped’s fascinating publication process, check out her blog Catherine Caffinated.