Welcome, Vivien! Tell us about your background and how you came to be a writer.
I’m a middle child of three, born into a Naval family in 1948. I was an early and avid reader. By the time I was 10 years old I was an avid story writer too and this continued long into my teens when I wrote impassioned and probably quite dreadful poetry and short stories. Then was a gap for left wing politics, marriage and motherhood and years of working in a school whose educational philosophy was centred on teaching through the arts. When the school closed my two grown-up sons said it was time I went to university so, aged 50, that’s what I did, studying Creative and Cultural Studies at Glasgow University on the Dumfries Campus. There was a course in Creative Writing with Tom Pow, who encouraged me to resume writing in earnest. I lapped up the opportunities to try all the genres of writing on offer and had enough early success with publishers and competitions to think of taking it, and myself, more seriously.
How many works do you currently have published, or in development? Do you write in one particular genre or format?
I have two short story collections (‘Perfect 10’ and ‘White Poppies’ and one poetry collection) ‘About Time, Too’, a second about to be published in 2014 (provisionally titled ‘ Short of Breath’), several collaborations with other writers and any amount of work in anthologies. I try to keep my unpublished work in circulation with the result that I have very little work to spare when invited to contribute. This keeps me writing fresh work. It took me a long time to consider myself a poet - I hated poetry at school because it was taught so traditionally and rarely ventured into the 20th century - but these days I do enjoy writing poems and my work is regularly published, so I have a bit more confidence in its worth. A thread of story-telling has always run through my teaching and writing so I would have to claim the short stories as my most accomplished work. I do write for theatre too and love working with directors and actors to bring a script to life. In development are a narrative poem for performance and a monologue on the life of Catherine de Medici. I also play and perform 16th century music with my husband so am very happy when I can combine the two.
Which authors would you compare your books to, and why? Have you reached out to any of them?
My aim is to express the extraordinary in ordinary lives so in a way I have a very narrow band of interest. I read thrillers by anyone before going to sleep but for intellectual worth I love the short stories of AL Kennedy and Jackie Kay, the elegance of John Le Carre’s prose, lots, but not all, of Sebastian Faulks and the depth of humanity in Toni Morrison’s work. I have interviewed Jackie Kay for the regional literary journal that I co-edit (‘Southlight’) and found it an illuminating experience. I wouldn’t think to compare my books with any of these masters but I hope my books do what they set out to do. I hope they are honest.
How do story ideas come to you? Do you map them out in advance, or let the stories unfold on the page? Is it the same process for poetry?
I’m always amused to find that people who don’t write often consider writing to be an easy activity. It’s true that my poetry is drafted and re-drafted in my head long before it ever sees paper and I will know its sense before I write it down, so it may look as if I’ve just dashed it off. A poem can be a year in the pondering stage. For stories, especially when there is research involved, I do a graphic map to be sure that I have the balance how I want it. I have often found interesting digressions that might even make a separate story using this method. It’s a very early stage of the process though and I’m not unwilling to change the emphasis if it seems right to me. I set new stories aside for a period so my enthusiasm doesn’t overcome my critical judgement. The ideas are perpetually there, far too many to pursue in a lifetime.
How do you approach researching a topic you are unfamiliar with?
A preliminary online search for sources (except in the case of 16th century history for which I have a personal library - though I do watch for new sources) then our excellent local library which still does inter-library loans, and if I make a good case for access, the university library. If it’s on a contemporary subject I try to meet with people who know about it and just talk with them. I’m not sold on the ‘expert’ view always. If I’m needing to explore the human dimension I’m inclined to be distrustful of people who know things, rather than have experienced them. There was quite a lot of that in my time at university, right answers when my own experience was of many possible answers. I’m always on the look-out for the unheard voices.
How would you suggest a first-time novelist prepare for the emotional challenges he or she may face (such as cutting favorite story elements that don’t ultimately work and, in cases, whole chapters) when editing a first novel?
If you’ve got to the stage of writing a novel you will probably be well used to rejections from publishers and tutors. You can always learn from rejection even when you don’t agree with the analysis. I haven’t written a novel yet but I would think it’s not any different from taking your poems or stories to task. You need to be demanding of yourself - ‘good enough’ shouldn’t come into it. I also keep a scrap box of work that didn’t quite work, so I don’t have to kill my creations, just set them aside for another time. I often find there are far too many characters in novels I read anyway - I hate having to go back to remind myself who someone is - so perhaps limiting the action to three or four well-drawn characters might be a way to begin. I’ll let you know.
How do you measure success as an author?
Personal response. I do quite a lot of readings and love when people come and say ‘that’s what it was like for me too’ or even if they say they didn’t like something I wrote, that can lead to positive discussion. Writers are always being told that short stories and poetry don’t sell so I don’t worry about selling lots of books. It’s important that I feel able to stand by my own work a couple of years down the line. I may only be exploring the small print of existence but I try to be accurate and emotionally honest. That’s my idea of success.
What is it like collaborating with other authors? Do you set guidelines at the beginning of the process? How do you go about doing things like picking a cover or choosing an editor when more than one person is involved in the decision-making process?
I’ve done this quite a lot, with other writers and in other art forms. With other writers it’s necessary to sketch out a finished form - so many pages each and so on which takes away the competitive element from the start. Sometimes we’ve sketched out rough areas to focus on, often with one focus for a group work, so perhaps we are have not so much been writing with, as beside, each other. Lots of meetings to discuss work in progress which have generally been supportive. All design decisions were taken by consensus with appropriate experience acknowledged, so there was very little artistic tension generated. One of our publications was for the RSPB and another for a local Environmental Arts Festival so we self-edited those books.
I have recently been working with a calligrapher, Rachel Yallop, on a project called 26 Words, in which 26 writers and illustrators were allocated a letter of the alphabet and a word picked at random for them to work on. I was very fortunate in drawing such a sensitive and responsive artist and we worked very harmoniously together. Our collaborative piece ‘Naviculoid’ was featured in Design Weekly and the whole alphabet is going on national and European tour in early 2014. Sometimes it’s easier to work creatively with a stranger.
You have quite a list of published titles. Do you have tips for writers who are just now getting serious about publishing their work through an indie press? How long does the process usually take, and what should they expect as far as communication and collaboration?
I took the view early on that if I have written a piece as well as I can and I’m satisfied with it, then it’s worth trying to get it published. I keep my work in constant circulation so I have a high proportion of success with single pieces which stood me in good stead for my next step. I wanted to try for a collection of short stories. I applied for a Scottish Arts Council New Writer Bursary (now Creative Scotland) which was successful and which lead to the publication of ‘Perfect 10’ in 2009 by Pewter Rose Press in Nottingham. I deliberately looked for a small independent press to publish my work because I believe they do great work for non-mainstream writers and because I found myself dealing with individuals who very quickly formed a creative personal relationship with me. The editing process was thorough and mainly painless - each time it was about 9 months from acceptance to publication. Pewter Rose have since published my second collection,‘White Poppies’ in 2012, again with a Scottish Arts Council award, and I have been to the Nottingham Festival of Words on their behalf.
With poetry I looked for another small press (not so small these days) and liked the audition process that Indigo Dreams Press had in place. I was asked to send several poems for consideration, then they responded with an offer to publish which is how ‘About Time, Too’ made it into print. It’s important to note that there is a hierarchy in publishing so it’s necessary to keep a careful publishing CV of your work, especially for poetry where the quality publishers will expect a list of publications in other magazines and online sites before they will even consider your work. Some of them publish a helpful list of these and it’s unlikely that you will achieve a book-length collection without some evidence that other magazine editors have liked your work.
Prizes are another way of showing worth- after I won the 2010 Poetry London Prize I found it easier to achieve publication - but there’s a very small chance of winning a major prize so you may not consider it worth the increasing level of fees to enter them. I do one or two a year at most. The most important thing is not be be downhearted at the inevitable rejections, to have a plan for sending work out and stick to it - a day a month would do. A writing buddy is good too but may be self-limiting if your work suddenly strikes out in a new direction and your buddy doesn’t follow. Writing groups are hugely supportive if you can find one without literary luvvies. I would stay away from self-publishing - I know it has become more acceptable, especially for poetry which is hard to find a publisher for no matter how good it is, but I like the feeling that at least one other person (the publisher) likes my work.
How do you market your books? Do you have a formal plan? Do you blog, or use social media? How regularly?
I have a website, a blog, a FB page and a Twitter account - I use the website and the FB page most often but if I have work imminent, I use all of them. I do public readings, writing projects and workshops, keep contact with literary festivals and have a good relationship with my regional Literary Development Officer. I live in rural Scotland so outlets are thin on the ground, in fact a whole lot of literary activity here is created by the writers themselves, but I have been invited to events outside the region. It’s very important to keep at it, keep your name in the frame, which is why I submit work regularly to prominent/favourite websites like Ink, Sweat and Tears and Poetry.org
Tell us about your writing environment. Do you listen to music? Are you surrounded by stacks of research? Do you write best at a particular time of day?
I have a room of my own (thank you, Virginia Woolf and my husband, Richard, who is respectful of my space and time) where I read and write. Music is hugely important in my life (I earn part of my living from performing) so I don’t use it as background. Our whole house is a book-stack of one kind or another. I’m more likely to write in the daytime since R and I keep evenings for each other.
How do you know when a story is complete? Do you work on more than one project at the same time?
I often have the end of stories first so it’s a case of converging on that. A writing mentor of mine, Jules Horne, once told me it was a good starting point to answer the question ‘What if...? That’s great advice for anyone with an active imagination. I do work on projects simultaneously but only in different genres. Sometimes poems come in two or three on a theme but I’ve never been able to write a play out of sequence - re-draft yes, but not set it out. I’m very aware that every story could have several different endings or developments. We’re back to the ‘right’ answers area again. So in a way they are never complete except in that particular version - I think of ‘Lady Windemere’s Fan’.
Is there anything else about your experiences as a writer and published author that you would like to share with readers?
Be generous to others and to yourself. Write because you must. Read new work aloud even if you feel silly doing it, you will hear any awkwardness or lack of flow. Keep heading upwards - your aim should exceed your grasp.
What does the year ahead hold for you?
A second poetry collection will be published in 2014 by Cultured Llama Press. My play ’A Matter of Principle’ (adapted from ‘White Poppies’) which was the subject of drama workshops with professional director, Jacquie Crago, in 2013 is due for further development towards another performance. I am also engaged in writing a long narrative poem for voices, which may be a collaboration.
Thank you for visiting IndieBookWeek.com, Vivien. As we close the interview, we would like to invite you to share an excerpt from one of your published works with us!
from ‘White Poppies- women amongst warriors’ Pewter Rose Press 2013
Jenny Wren and Daisy
A Polish sailor had bitten a Southampton Wren’s nipple off – gasps all round the roomful of Wrens, alongside a ripple of excitement. They’d heard that Poles were passionate but that was a bit much. They were still absorbing this piece of news when Daisy came back in carrying her bloomers over her arm. The other Wrens looked up in anticipation and Daisy gave a thumbs-down and grimaced.
'Polishing' was all she said but everyone burst out laughing. Her friend, Jenny, came over and hugged her. 'Never mind, it was a good try.'
Daisy hurled the bloomers across the room where they landed on top of a locker.
'And I'm freezing cold again.'
She threw herself on her bed and sighed. Most of her escapades ended like this. The first issue of uniform that arrived had contained packages of voluminous knitted bloomers, impossible to walk in without chafing thighs. Daisy had cut out the crutches, put her head through the hole, arms through the legs and worn hers as slightly lumpy jumpers under her jacket, until discovered by Petty Officer Raleigh.
Daisy had said she'd rather do any amount of 'polishing of pointless objects' - standard punishments for misbehaving Wrens - than have Raleigh give her one of her martyred looks. The seldom seen, but saintly Raleigh, was terrifying in her cool manner and high expectation. Now Daisy had the look and the polishing to deal with. But not confined to barracks.
'Thank goodness for that at least.' She whispered to Jenny, 'I'm seeing Roy tonight.' She raised her voice to ask the room 'Who's got the nylons?'
The nylons were passed across the room, freshly washed and neatly folded. It was a rule kept as carefully as any Naval order. Any girl with a date had first call on the nylons. Between the six of them someone would be able to replace them from time to time once the little dabs of nail varnish could no longer stop the ladders.
'Must be your turn soon, Jenny. When are you going to say yes to Bates?'
Jenny blushed and turned away, muttering. 'Not ever, he's married.'
'And a long way from home. And just another date wouldn't hurt....' Daisy considered. Jenny turned away to conceal her blush. She was still angry and hurt that Andy Bates had waited for weeks to tell her he was married, waited until he knew she was falling for him. At first just a dance partner, he had twice walked her back to barracks and the last time he had kissed her goodnight and she had kissed him back. Then he told her he was married, just to be clear he had said, before trying to kiss her again. She had frozen.
' So what do you think I am?' she had blurted out. 'Some sort of tart!'
He'd started to explain. They'd married young, didn't really get on any more. He thought she had boyfriends when he was away. But he really liked Jenny, wished, oh how he wished, they'd met earlier. Couldn't she try to understand ?
Jenny was up from the country, a little Devonshire village, where everyone knew everyone and lives unerringly followed well defined paths. In her first weeks as a Wren, her eyes and ears had been wide with astonishment as she met and mixed with sophisticated girls from London whose jokes and vocabulary were as colourful as the men's. The very idea of a married man dating a single girl had shocked her. She had been even more shocked to discover that the other Wrens weren't shocked at all, only amused at her naivety.
Daisy had commented,' Well, it's either masturbation or infidelity when they're far from home. And there's a war on.'
'That's no excuse.' Jenny had replied sharply. 'How can we make sense of fighting a war if our personal conduct is shoddy?' But Daisy hadn't heard her and Jenny was glad because, even to herself, she sounded stuffy. She didn't want Daisy to turn away from her and things had certainly changed in her world. She might not return home at all. After three years of war, three years of living and working away, the village seemed to have receded into an unreachable, rosy past. She thought it a real possibility that she might not want to return home at all.
Daisy was back late and had to climb in the bathroom window, swearing roundly when she snagged the precious nylons on the latch. A light went on down the hallway and a voice called out. She slipped very quickly into the dormitory, under the bed clothes fully dressed on top of the blankets that Jenny had rolled up to cover for her, just before the door was flung open and a bright torch light panned the room.
'My, but some of us flourish on Navy grub. Getting quite fat. Report to me in the morning, Daisy Paine.'
It was Leading Wren Beddoes, a personification of domestic and sartorial oppression, who spoke into the silence. Daisy would be in for more polishing.
When all was dark and quiet again, Daisy sat up and reaching over to Jenny's bed, shook her.
'Are you awake?' she whispered fiercely.
Jenny rolled over, yawned and stretched.
'I am now.'
'Wake up - wake up ! I have to tell you. I'm engaged! To Roy! Oh do wake up Jenny. I'm so excited.'
Jenny sat up too.
'To Roy ? But you've only known him for three weeks.'
'I know. Isn't it romantic? He says why wait when there's a.....'
' ....war on. I know. But still, three weeks.'
'It's long enough to know that you're in love. And to show it.'
There was a silence whilst Jenny considered this.
'Oh Daisy - you didn't.'
'I did. We did. And it was wonderful.'
'All the way?'
Jenny fumbled for her torch and shone it on Daisy's face. Her lipstick was smeared and she looked rather pale. There were streaks on one cheek.
'Have you been crying?' Jenny asked.
'Well, it hurt at first. We were standing up and he was very excited. I didn't quite know what to do so it was probably my fault. But we did it again and it was better.'
'Oh Daisy. It sounds awful.'
'Better get changed. I'm a bit of a mess down there. Can't go to the bathroom in case Beddoes hears me. Have you a spare hanky?'
Jenny reached into her locker and pulled out a pile of hankies. Her Aunt Joan would not be pleased to think that the six fine lawn handkerchiefs, with a curling embroidered J in each corner, given as a birthday gift were to be handed over to her niece's friend to mop up the results of her immorality. Jenny could just hear her saying it but, since she suspected the hankies had been an unused gift to Joan passed on to Jenny, she handed the pile over to Daisy.
'Thanks. There's an awful lot of it.'
Daisy rustled around in the dark, twisting round to reach both sides of herself.
'I'll wash them.' she promised.
'Don't bother,' answered Jenny, shuddering. 'I take it, it wasn't quite the Valerie Hobson number?'
They both laughed, thinking back to the week before in the cinema when they'd sighed over Valerie Hobson's film romance, imagining themselves in Roger Livesey's strong arms somewhere in the Punjab.
'There weren't any sticky hankies in the film,' Jenny recalled, watching Daisy stash the rumpled pile in her locker.
'Don't suppose she made love in an alley beside the pub either - still, it was romantic, Jenny. He did say he loves me.'
Daisy snuggled down and her voice became sleepy. 'Goodnight.'
'And at least he's not married.' Jenny said, snuggling down too. 'Goodnight.'
There was a long enough silence for Jenny to close her eyes before Daisy murmured. 'Actually, he is. '
CONNECT WITH AUTHOR VIVIEN JONES
Year first published: 2002
Number of works currently published: 1, soon to be two, poetry collections, 2 short story collections, several collaborative publications and countless items in anthologies and literary magazines
Vivien's Blog: bassviol.blogspot.co.uk
Purchase Links for Books by Vivien Jones: