Zen practitioner, artist, writer, gardener, willow weaver. Novel – Giselle and Mr Memphis published by Vagabond Voices just out.
Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) novel?
When I first came to Scotland in 2005 I joined Ray Ross’s Find Your Voice creative writing class run by The University of Edinburgh’s Lifelong Learning programme. One of the first tasks Ray set us was to think up an imaginary friend – mine was Ignatz. He was a kind of timeless German dwarf figure, a bit brothers Grimm but more modern, someone of uncertain origin, Oskar from Gunther Grass’s Tin Drum was probably there somewhere in the background, but also a Turkish guy I had known in Frankfurt in the seventies, who played the guitar and only had a thumb on his right hand. He was really mixture of folk I had met back then, who would sidle up to you in bars ,a little drunk, but wanting to disclose how they had survived the Nazi period. A survivor, not untarnished, traumatized, making the best of the now, a man who knew how to look after himself but was keeping the lid on a traumatic past, canny and a good story teller. I wanted him to emerge as if from a fairy tale.
What came first the characters or the world?
They came together. Once Ignatz was in my head, my memories of Frankfurt in the seventies flowed, the protests, the American presence in the city, some Vietnam casualties. As a young student of history I had been horrified and affected by the uncovering of what had gone on the Nazi period, as well as all that was happening in Vietnam and had happened in the Biafran war – the horrors of slaughter, the inhumanity. I was talking to student protestors and aware of their determination to out and uncover the Nazi pasts of many who were in power. I was in my late teens, fresh out of school and had begun to question the stories of glorious derring-do that I had read in my early teens and was now more of a witness to the horrors of history.
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
Hard! I had some early success when the first few pages were published in Gutter Magazine in 2012 and thought I was on a roll…some agents were initially interested but turned me down, some publishers were the same but mostly rejections. I thought Vagabond Voices would be a good fit because they publish a lot of European Literature and translations…they were initially very kind, seemed interested but then decided to do more translated work and my book was put to one side. Finally, in 2020, just as I was going to send out a revised manuscript to a few selected independent publishers for a final go, I had an email from Galina Miteva, at Vagabond Voices, to ask if it was still available. She had read the book as an intern and loved it and, when she went back to work for them, she persuaded them in to publishing it! So choosing Vagabond Voices at the start was a good move. They are a great wee publisher and publish some amazing books in translation. I’m just glad Galina had such faith in the book.
How long did it take to write?
The first version was written between 2006-8 from the point of view of Hermann (the young man Ignatz befriends). Then I completely re-wrote it as a journa written by Ignatz. Also by then I had done an MA Screenwritig which helped me make the scenes more visual and much tighter. It was finished by 2012.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
I don’t but I do have a Giselle and Mr Memphis playlist (music is what binds Ignatz and Giselle together) – it is on Spotify. A lot of blues, jazz and soul, and accordion music, early seventies pop. https://open.spotify.com/playlist/30InfLmKg9j5ailpipjhwg?si=645c759a6f3b44e1
How many publishers turned you down?
I lost count over those 8 years from 2012-20. At least 40.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
The book was only published in September but I have had some great feedback I am pleased to say. It was nerve racking waiting for the first responses from folk. I was most relieved when a Professor of Literature was kind enough to email me to say how much they enjoyed it. I’m pleased to say most folk think it is a great story that pulls you in and keeps you on the hook and that it has great momentum. Some are a little shocked by some of the more grim scenes.
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
That would be from an ex-partner of mine, who encouraged my writing way back in the late seventies. She was one of the first to get back to me after it was first published and loved it. That meant a lot to me as we have only recently got back in touch after many years.
What can you tell us about your next book?
So far I have written about 80 pages on the rough draft of a new novel. It is part memoir, part story and involves the healing of a traumatized child.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
Not had any yet but would welcome some.
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
Yes. I do write poems and short stories. I’d like to get into a more magical realist form of fiction
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
I am now retired but volunteer on a local garden and growing project, a charity that offers support in mental health and well being. For many years I taught children excluded from mainstream education and then children in a psychiatric hospital as part of a multi-disciplinary team. I also worked for a while with adults with learning difficulties. I am a zen buddhist practitioner.
Which author(s) inspire you?
There have been many over the years…here are some – Olga Tokarczuk, Günter Grass, Mieko Kawakami, Donna Tart, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kurt Vonnegut, Arundhati Roy, Penelope Fitzgerald, Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, Ian Banks, Ruth Ozeki, Gary Snyder, Chaucer, Seamus Heaney, Jon Foss, Shokoofeh Azar. I really enjoyed reading Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (translated by Daisy Rockwell) this year and want to read more of her stuff…I could go on.
Which genres do you read yourself?
Mostly literary fiction, speculative fiction, memoir too .I’m keen on big narratives and increasingly taken by magical realist and experimental fiction.
What is your biggest motivator?
Exploring the human condition, looking at and respecting the resilience of the traumatized, finding a better way forward, encouraging compassion towards all beings. Getting positive feedback to drafts is a great motivator. That feeling when you really get in the flow and a character begins leading the way.
What will always distract you?
Sometimes it is anything but the page…the web and social media are a blessing and a curse…a beautiful day will easily lead me off outside and into enjoying the present moment, or I may have had enough of the screen and want to draw or paint. At 67, although I enjoy writing, it is not the be all and end all for me, I like to enjoy life and take moments as they come, writing can be part of that.
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
None, though I am absolutely delighted with Mark Mechan’s design for Giselle and Mr Memphis and the vibrant colour. Mark designs all the covers for Vagabond Voices.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Yes, a bookworm from the start. Alays being told to put that book down and get outside,
What were your favourite childhood books?
Treasure Island, Swallows and Amazons, Stig of the Dump – I was a child of the late fifties and early sixties and was conditioned accordingly. There were not a lot of books in our house but the local library was great. I also loved The Beano…
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
No real favourite but I do enjoy browsing in Toppings, Lighthouse and Portobello Bookshop when I’m in Edinburgh.
What books can you not resist buying?
Books from fellow writers for independent publishers who I have come to know through twitter. I’m enjoying reading so many more writers in translation from around the globe and small presses like Charco and Tilted Axis. I’m enjoying expanding my viewpoint and learning more about other cultures.
Do you have any rituals when writing?
Not really – I like to meditate briefly before hand and clear my mind. I’ll usually have a cup of tea on the go. I read through yesterday’s writing and make notes then get into the next session. Recently I’ve lost some of that commitment to write every day so I take myself off to draw or paint or make a basket and then more story and ideas come.
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
30 or so at a rough count.
What is your current or latest read?
Zen Therapy by David Brazier – it is so well written, so well explained and has brought me back into zen after a recent lapse. Also reading Stepping Stones – Dennis O’Driscoll’s Interviews with Sheamus Heaney – wonderful.