Update November 2012 – Liz will be at the Northern Writers’ Workshop in York 22-24 March 2013 be sure to book your place early.https://itslinhere.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/northern-writers-workshop-2013/
Hello Liz, Thanks for accepting my invitation for interview.
First let me say congratulations on your recent success with the publishing house Choc-Lit. Your new romance novel ‘The Road Back’ has been described ‘as a sumptuous tale of love and adventure in the Himalayas.’ It sounds exciting. How did you feel when you got your big break?
The moment I learnt that I was being accepted by Choc Lit was heart-stopping. I’d been writing for seven years, sending out a number of different books, coming very close with some, including being invited to Caroline Sheldon’s office to talk with her about her liking my work but the real difficulty of selling anything in today’s market by someone who wasn’t already published, and a part of me had come to fear that an acceptance might never arrive. It was something that I didn’t want to let myself think about, but it was there in my subconscious.
My husband was out when I learnt that CL was taking The Road Back. The wait for him to return seemed never-ending – in fact, it was 30 minutes. I walked around the whole time, unable to sit still. When he finally got back, I greeted him at the front door, smiling. This was rare – I normally remained at the computer. He didn’t notice anything unusual and walked in, talking about the children’s choir that he runs. ‘Choc Lit have replied,’ I said, cutting through him. And I burst into tears.
He came forward and hugged me. ‘Someone will take you,’ he said. ‘I’m sure of it.’ It took a while, but he finally understood that I now had a publisher. Six days later, I heard that DC Thompson was accepting A Dangerous Heart, a People’s Friend Pocket Novel. It never rains, but it pours. I went out and bought a lottery ticket! No luck there, though.
Do you write with your readers in mind or write for what the publisher wants?
I think about the readers, not the publisher.
A requirement of Choc Lit’s is to have the male POV, but I’ve automatically done that in all of my books. The exception is a book I wrote in the vein of Penny Vincenzi, whose early work I really like. So this is not something I have to think consciously about.
I think about one reader, rather than readers, and that reader is me. I love reading, and I read a wide variety of books. The thing that I probably look for most of all in a book is a strong story. Not surprisingly, therefore, I keep the story firmly in mind. At the end of a conversation or a scene, I often actually ask myself if it furthers the plot; if it doesn’t, it goes. I ask myself if I’d find a particular plot development interesting; if I wouldn’t, again it goes.
Furthering the plot, of course, includes developing character. In the books I really like, characters behave in a consistent way, and they and the plot are in a close relationship.
What do you feel your publishers look for in a romance novel?
The definition of ‘romance’ is a controversial one. For me, ‘romance’ suggests a happy ending, and perhaps an element of fantasy, in the widest sense of the word. A fantastically good-looking, mega-wealthy hero sweeps a shy, vulnerable, very beautiful (but she doesn’t know it), sometimes feisty woman off her feet, and marries her after a few ups and downs (not necessarily in the sexual sense!)Any novel in the romance genre should do this to some degree.
‘Romantic fiction’, the category into which The Road Back, falls is slightly broader. Kalden is not a ‘romance’ hero’ and more than Patricia is a ‘romance’ heroine. Theirs is a love story.
The variety of books produced by Choc Lit is amazing: they provide books for all tastes. Not surprisingly, there are books which fall into the ‘romance’ category, though very subtly so, as well as those that fall into the ‘romantic fiction’ category.
The common themes are that they all have the male point of view, a male hero who is irresistible, and that they are all very done well and have been loved by the Choc Lit reader-taster panel.
How long has it taken you to become a published author?
It’ll be 8 years next September. When my husband and I moved back south after 16 years in the north, I went on to supply teaching in order to give me time to start seriously writing. It was a good decision.
You are a teacher by profession. Has it been difficult trying to be a writer over the years, commitments and so on?
I wrote my first book – an attempt at HMB – when my sons were 3 and 4. They are now 31 and 32. I wrote the book in longhand, then typed it on a typewriter, with tippex paper at my side. I then sent the whole ms off to a few publishers. Prior to the abolition of price control, one could do this.
I received a great deal of encouragement, and pointers as to how to make it publishable, but the boys were starting beavers/cubs/piano/violin, etc. My husband, a headteacher, was frequently out in the evenings, and I was needed to chauffeur the boys. I also needed to bring in money, so I started supply teaching with a friend, and I taught evening classes in Reading. The increasing demands of real life over the years were such that I never went back to the book. I just didn’t have the mental space to be creative.
I did write, however. I wrote for a local paper in Cheshire for almost 7 years on matters relating to education, but that was factual writing – I didn’t have to come up with plot lines and characters. It was why I stopped teaching full-time and went on to supply when we moved back to the south. I wanted to get back to writing fiction.
I admire those who juggle home lives, a full-time career and manage to write at the same time – I was unable to do it.
Like myself I see you are well travelled. How have your travel experiences helped you?
A Dangerous Heart is set in Umbria, where I go every year, and so, too, is Evie on the Job, which is going to be brought out by Choc Lit. Writing about a place that you know well is great fun.
Liking to travel means that I’m probably drawn the idea of setting some of my stories in a foreign location, even if I haven’t been there. I really enjoyed researching The Road Back, half of which is set in Ladakh, learning about terrain, the traditions and how people survived in a country in which there’s virtually no rain. I’d first fallen in love with Ladakh and its people after reading the album complied by my late uncle, who visited the country in the 1940s, and my research consolidated this. The family connection with the location added interest.
For the novel in progress, A Bargain Struck, which is set in Wyoming, 1887, I shall be doing a different sort of research – I shall be going to Wyoming in August. I’ve followed the usual research paths – the internet, books, and so on – but obviously the best research is on site. We’ve planned a marvellous research/fun trip. More accurately, I’ve planned it and will be dragging my poor husband along behind me!
Strangely, it’s been harder to research ABS than TRB. Had I set ABS 30 years earlier, or 30 years later, it would have been easier. There seems to be little recorded about that time, however. I have a huge list or questions to which I have to find an answer when we’re in Wyoming.
Moving on to your pocket novel for People’s Friend, I see ‘A Dangerous Heart.’ Is set in Umbria, Italy. Tell me the story behind the story?
As I said above – I know the area very well. Liking the place as I do, I was keen to set a story there, and then one day, reading one of the Sunday magazines, I came across a short extract about the way in which a girl had come across the name of her father who’d deserted the family when she was very young. This gave me the idea of a heroine, Jennifer, encountering the name, quite by chance, of someone she held responsible for something, Max Castanien, and A Dangerous Heart was born.
Because Umbria is such an inspiration for artists, I decided that Jennifer would be training to be an Art teacher.
I love languages (I studied Anglo-Saxon as part of my English degree) and I’ve been learning Italian as the people there don’t speak English. Beautiful Umbria is not populated by Brits in the same way as Tuscany is. This gave me a possible way of linking Jennifer with Max.
What age group do you feel you are targeting in your writing?
The Choc Lit reader panel comprises a complete range of ages. All of the readers have to ‘pass’ the books. This means that it appeals to all ages. I’m so pleased about this as I didn’t write it for any particular age group – I just wanted to tell the story of Patricia and Kalden and their love for each other – a love made more difficult because of their different cultures and backgrounds.
As a writer building your author name for the future, have you any advice for new writers who might feel the road ahead is a very long one?
Anita Burgh did some research a few months ago about the average number of years it takes to become published. If I remember correctly, the average was 12 years. It is a long road, but if you are doing something that you love, then the journey along that road doesn’t feel oppressive. It’s only when I look back that I realise how many years have passed since I started writing.
My advice would be to write only if you love it. It will consume your thoughts, and there’s no guarantee of publication, and even if you are published, few authors make big bucks – if you don’t enjoy it, then don’t do it, because that road will feel oppressive.
Your blog says a lot about you http://www.lizharrisauthor.com/ How important is it that new writers set up a blog of their own even though they are unpublished?
I held out having a website until I had a publisher as I felt that a) no one would be interested in reading it, and b) it would take time out of my writing. However, when I was accepted by Choc Lit, I went ahead and had a website/blog set up.
As for an unpublished author having a blog, I think it depends upon the amount of time the person has for writing. If there’s limited time, it’ll take up valuable writing time, and no matter how you get your name known among the twitter writing community, it is the book that will ultimately sell itself, not the blog.
But if there’s sufficient time in the writer’s life, not only to think up what to write on a regular basis (difficult!!), and to write it to a high standard (you are selling yourself, after all), it may get an agent more interested in the writer, and anything that helps with the slush pile is a great thing.
I think it was an excellent thing for me to do at the time I did it. Apart from it being a way of meeting readers and exchanging ideas with them, I’ve been told that by librarians, for example, that they’ve referred to it when deciding whether to invite me to give a talk.
There are three stages to being a published author, I’ve learnt: writing the novel; getting a publisher; selling the novel. Selling the novel is a partnership between publisher and author, I believe. The more the author can get out and meet readers, the better, and I think that a website/blog facilitates that.
As a published author, how has this affected your life? Will you be attending more functions now than you ever did before?
I have always attended all of the RNA functions. Apart from the fact that I’ve met some super people and really enjoy seeing them again and again, there is no better way to learn about industry and to meet agents, editors and publishers who might be able to help you on your way. This is the best way to bypass the slush pile.
Writers spend fortunes to go to some of the writing conferences that are springing up in the hope of meeting an agent or a publisher, rather than for the workshops. Everyone in the RNA can meet agents, etc, at a fraction of the price, in the most pleasant surroundings and among the nicest of people.
Did you consider writing would only be a hobby before you were published? Did you ever feel like giving up?
Despite fearing in my darkest hours that I might never get published, I never for one minute considered giving up. I love the act of writing. I love giving birth to characters who didn’t exist until I sat down to type page one, but who are talking to me long before I reach the end of the novel. There is no other way that I would rather spend my day.
You are a member of both the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Historical Novel Society. How important is it for new writers to belong to a society of their genre?
I believe that membership of such organisations is a wonderful help and support for authors, and a source of friendship with people who share your interests and whose eyes don’t glaze over when you start to talk about books.
Apart from being a source of friendship, though, they teach you about the latest developments in your genre. When I taught, I took the Times Educational Supplement each week to keep abreast of the world of education. The RNA and the HNS keep me au fait with the latest developments/trends in the publishing industry. I feel that we give ourselves the best chance if we know what is going on in the world of our chosen genre.
Finally Liz I wish you every success and I hope we can see another novel coming out in 2013.
Evie on the Job, a light rom com, may be out this year, and A Bargain Struck is coming out in 2013.
Many thanks, Lin, for the interview. I really enjoyed answering your questions and do hope that they will be of some help to those who read them.