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Monday, 22 February 2010

Kate Long Blog Tour

Novelist Kate Long has very kindly agreed to come and answer some questions on my blog today. I asked a few to get the ball rolling, but if you'd like to ask Kate a question, please read on to find out more.

What was your first inspiration to write?

Several things came together: a teachers’ residential writing course; picking up a magazine and finding in it a story by a girl I knew from university; galloping insomnia. The course was my very first taste of positive feedback, the story made me jealous, and being unable to sleep gave me plenty of time to get my ideas down.

How would you sum up your latest novel, ‘A Mother’s Guide To Cheating’?

It’s the story of a divorce, and the fall-out that can happen right across the generations when parents split acrimoniously. Not only are children affected, but grandparents too. The heroine of AMGTC is a young grandmother who finds herself in the impossible position of having to fight her daughter for access to her grandson. Her loyalties are pulled in two. The novel also considers whether it’s better to deal with a partner’s infidelity by tackling it or ignoring it – though I don’t offer any definitive answer: there is none.

Family relationships are a really strong theme in your writing. Why does this subject matter appeal to you?

There are several issues at work. Most obviously is my being adopted, which is an aspect of my identity that’s made me think a lot over the years about what constitutes being a parent, not to mention a whole raft of “what ifs” about my circumstances and history.

Then the couple who adopted me were very traditional in their attitudes, very aware of their social and cultural heritage, and liked to talk about their Lancashire childhoods and the generations who’d been around when they were small. So this in turn made me intensely interested in my adopted family tree. I still love to hear anecdotes about my grandparents and great-grandparents. The walls of my hallway are lined with old family photographs.

And the final thread probably comes from my own struggle to have children, and what it’s therefore meant for me to finally become a mother. There’s not a day goes past that I don’t feel consciously grateful for the gift of my two sons.

What response do you want the novel to invoke in your readers?

I hope the reader takes away a sense that we should all stand up for what we feel to be morally right, and not allow ourselves to become the victims of emotional blackmail. Not always easy within the politics of the family! I hope too that the reader who’s experiencing a troubled relationship with her children or spouse might take comfort from the heroine’s facing up to her problems and largely resolving them.

What do you see yourself writing in the future?

I just don’t know! I write what’s “sent”, what arrives through the ether. I’d like to imagine that I’ll carry on creating optimistic worlds where decent characters are tested but eventually come good. That positive outlook’s important to me : I want the essentially virtuous to be rewarded.

What gives you most pleasure out of all the things you’ve achieved so far in your writing career?

Though it’s always terrific to receive fan mail, and it was a thrill going to the British Book Awards, and signing the initial contract with Picador had me giddy with excitement, there’s nothing to compete with the very first competition I ever won. I remember getting in from a tough day’s teaching, gloomily opening the post, then running, shrieking gibberish, to a neighbour’s house because I had to tell someone I was going to be in print.

What’s the best advice you could give to someone who is writing a novel and hoping to get it published?

In a nutshell: keep going. If you really want to be a published novelist, I’d say you have to approach the task with some consistency, and that means putting aside regular time to write. You genuinely might not have much time and you might therefore not accomplish much at each sitting, but any progress is better than none. Even fifty words a day builds up. And don’t panic if you get half-way through and suddenly decide it’s rubbish. I don’t know any author who doesn’t experience a mid-point confidence crisis. Keep your nerve and write through it. You can always go back and edit later if a particular section really isn’t up to scratch.

Thanks very much to Kate for those very interesting responses.

Do you have a question for Kate? If so, please leave it in the comments of this post. Kate will be popping by to answer your questions, and there is an opportunity to win a copy of 'A Mother's Guide To Cheating' for the person who asks the most original question.

The winner will be chosen by an 'independent expert' and announced on Friday after 5pm.

I hope everyone has had a chance to read the previous competition entries (the challenge was to describe a photograph) on Sally Quilford's blog, but if you haven't you can read more about it here.

Don't miss further legs of Kate's blog tour.

1st-5th March - Womagwriter's blog

5th-12th March - The Literary Project blog

22nd-26th March - Nik Perring's blog

So get those questions coming - and don't forget to make them original. Good Luck!


Bernadette said...

A very interesting post, Helen and Kate.

I'd like to ask Kate whether she let anyone read her first novel manuscript before sending it out to the professionals. If so, who did she choose and why and was it a good decision?

(Sorry - that's probably more than one question but I'd really like to know!)

Kath McGurl said...

Great questions, thanks to Helen and Kate! I've almost finished reading AMGTC now and those themes come through very strongly.

Karen said...

I'm looking forward to reading Kate's latest novel having enjoyed her previous ones.

My question is: Was there one piece of writing advice you were given that made a real difference to you when you started out?

Marisa Birns said...

Very good interview.

Such a very good theme to AMGTC. I've read articles here in USA on the very same issue of grandparents having to go to court to fight for access to their grandchildren after a divorce.

Though in all cases, it was struggle against ex-daughters-in-law.

Question: What kind of books do you love to read when not writing.

Thank you.

Quillers said...

This is a great interview! Thanks Helen and Kate for giving us even more insight into AMGTC.

In regards to writing only, is there anything you wish you'd known when you started out that you know now, Kate?

Kate said...

Good questions!

Bernadette: I had a friend who read The Bad Mother's Handbook - the man who became my first agent, in fact. I didn't show the ms to many other people, though.

However, as a condition of an Arts Council grant, I had to let a published novelist read and report on my work, and that was Leslie Wilson who was an Open College of the Arts tutor. She gave me some very good advice on re-structuring the ending of TBMH, and although I didn't agree with all her feedback, it was an extremely useful exercise for me to have my ms pulled apart. It was a taste of what happens when you work with an editor to prepare a novel for publication.

Letting someone else read a complete novel script before you send it off is probably very wise since you stop being able to see the shape of the whole very clearly towards the end, I think. But that person needn't be a professional critic: just someone who knows the kind of genre you're working in, and can be honest and specific.

Kate said...

Karen: I can't remember hearing one general piece of advice that lodged with me. The friend-who-became-my-agent once told me I'd a tendency to rush endings, and he was right, so now I try and take my time over them because I know it's a weakness of mine.

Oh, there was the relief of hearing it wasn't just me as a beginner writer who tried to copy the style of other authors, followed by the reassurance that I'd come through this stage and find my own voice.

Kate said...

Marisa, I read very widely. Often I get sent new books by publishers or by writer friends, so they're always an unexpected treat. The latest one of those is Trezza Azzopardi's 'The Song House', which I've almost finished. Before that I read a couple of thrillers by Nicci French; before that it was Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall' and Colm Toibin's 'Brooklyn'; and I'm currently listening to a Val McDermid novel in the car.

Though I tend to tumble in an unplanned way from one book to another, there are certain authors whose work I'll always seek out. I'm looking forward to the next Sophie Hannah, and I note there's a new Liz Jensen in the shops, and I must try and get hold of Nick Hornby's latest. I just need more hours in the day!

Unknown said...

Fabulous interview. Can't wait to read the new novel.

My question is: Do you still get the early-days feeling that a lot of us writers get, that you simply can't do it??

Kate said...

Sally: it's terribly mundane, but I wish I'd looked after my back properly, because I now have a lot of trouble with my neck and arm and that limits how much time I can spend at the computer. Today I use a padded cushion that rests in the small of my back and makes me sit more upright - I got it from a sports physio, and it really does help.

So if you're beginning to get twinges at the keyboard, I'd strongly urge you to address the situation immediately through exercises, posture, setting time limits for your working hours etc. If you don't, you could end up with permanent damage!

Kate said...

Antonia, it's a nagging fear of mine that never entirely goes away. I squash it by sheer weight of writing - not taking much of a break between novels, not worrying too much if a scene won't come right but moving on to the next, getting on and starting that difficult article in the hope it comes right as I go.

I think if I ever took a sabbatical - months off without picking up a pen or going near a computer - I might well lose my nerve.

Quillers said...

I think that's a good point, Kate. As you know I suffer from a few aches and pains myself, and it can make the difference between a good writing day and a bad writing day.

Bernadette said...

Thank you for the reply, Kate.

I asked a friend who reads a lot to look over my ms and she was very thorough and made some useful points. She wasn't 'kind' an an anodyne way, but I think someone less close may have been a little more brutal and I think that's what it needed.

I will bear your comments in mind if I ever reach that stage again!

Kate said...

I don't think 'kindness' or 'brutality' is necessarily the issue, really; more whether your critic has the ability to understand the way the book's meant to work. If you see what I mean.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your answer, Kate. Perhaps we need that feeling to some extent, to keep us on our toes!

I so get what you mean about critics having the ability to understand. Some of the comments I've had recently have been dire.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

Thanks for the great interview.

I was wondering how many drafts you do of each book? Or is every book different?

Unknown said...

Another great interview!

The question I'd like to ask Kate is about about writing forums. I know you started out on the former Get Writing site Kate. I wondered if you feel these forums are for beginners only, if they can be offputting as well and encouraging and if in the long term if they outlive their usefulness? Thank you in advance.

Kate said...

I think you're right, Antonia, about needing to feel that niggle of insecurity as a kind of incentive to try for our best.

And yes, you can have the most honest comments in the world, but if they're coming from someone who doesn't get your genre or style, then they're probably worthless. I always come back to Alexander Pope, who says the perfect critic will 'judge each work of wit in the same spirit that its author writ'.

Kate said...

Debs, I lose count. It's an ongoing process, the re-writing. Then after the first draft, I go back and attend to all the sections and threads I know need work - I make notes on these as I go along so I don't forget. Then I do a fairly major re-write that addresses structural areas. Then, when that's completed, I start with the fine-tuning, and I'll do any number of those finer drafts.

Then I submit the ms, and my editor's comments arrive and I start the whole process again!

Kate said...

It's hard for me to sum up what I think about writing forums as so much depends on the requirements of the individual writer, and also on the nature of the forum.

I met some terrific people on Get Writing who are still dear friends, and on Write Words, a forum I joined later on, I met more lovely people and had some excellent feedback.

But there are two major caveats regarding internet writing forums. The first is that some forums can be places of quite robust discussion, which doesn't always suit some people and might put some beginners off.

And secondly, I think you need to go very carefully with forum feedback - try to develop a firm sense for yourself of what you're trying to achieve, and where your strengths and weaknesses lie, before inviting lots of others in to comment. Then, when other forum members submit their criticisms, you're in a better position to weed out what's right for you and what's not so appropriate.

In my development as a writer, that sense of my own work came mainly from reading, and from discussing pieces with just one or two friends (such as the man who became my first agent).

CL Taylor said...

I had my debut novel published in October 2009 and really struggled writing the second one because I was worried about living up to my agent's/publisher's/reader's expectations. Obviously the more novels you publish the more that kind of pressure builds (in your own head if nowhere else) and I'd like to know how Kate deals with it?

Kate said...

Hi Calistro! Congratulations on your novel. I saw it reviewed in a magazine and it looked great.

To answer your question, I go back to what I said to Antonia: I try to silence the doubts by writing over the top of them. Sheer weight of writing squashes panic, for me, so I rarely take days off and I try and stick to a given daily word count and also make sure I have what's coming up in the novel carefully planned out. (Not, I know, that everyone works to plans.)

I sometimes have an image of myself walking through a heavy storm with my coat collar up and my hat pulled right down, just concentrating on moving forward one step at a time. Not that the writing itself is a battle; it's just the noises off I have to contend with.

Suzanne Ross Jones said...

Fantastic interview - can't wait to read the book.

Kath McGurl said...

Great discussion, all, I'm really enjoying reading this.

Kate, my question for you is, what's your next novel about and when's it coming out? I've just about finished AMGTC even though I've been trying to make it last!

Kate said...

That's nice to hear, womagwriter!

I'm 62,000 words into my next book, which follows the fortunes of a woman in her early twenties with two mothers - the one who adopted her, and the birth mother she contacted when she turned 18. All three exist in an uneasy truce, but the experience seems to have frozen our heroine into a permanent adolescence so that she's unable to leave home or pursue the job she really wants.

I suppose what I'm looking at through the story is who supports whom, and when is it best to step away and let someone fend for themselves.

Kate said...

Oh, and I'm not sure when it'll be out. This time next year, I'm guessing.

Kath McGurl said...

Ooh, I will look forward to that one then. I would hazard a guess that no one could tackle that issue in a novel quite as well as you will.

Kate said...

You're very kind.

As you know, I'm always interested in what constitutes a family - that's the question 'Swallowing Grandma' ends with. And in these days of second and even third marriages, there are now thousands of children growing up under the roof of parents other than birth parents, shuttling between households, and getting on with it OK. Modern family units are more complex than they've ever been, I suspect.

It's also fascinating for me to investigate the changes that have happened within the formal adoption process. The team of social workers at Shrewsbury Council were brilliant with me and spent hours talking about how procedure had changed over the past few decades.

Quillers said...

I love the sound of that new novel, Kate.

Unknown said...

Wow! That new novel sounds brilliant!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

Thanks for your answer Kate, and for such a great interview Helen.

DJ Kirkby said...

Hi kate
Thank you for the advice about writing a little every day, even if it's just 50 words. I've been in a slump for ages as I have almost zero free time due to working fulltime and studying but I miss writing a lot. I've decided to try for 20 words a day and see where I go from there.

Kate said...

Brilliant! I once read an article about dieting, and how even cutting out a single mid-morning biscuit can lose you a stone in a year (or something). It's the same sort of principle. :-)