Here or There - The Launch Party

16 of February 2009

Rebecca launched first novel Here or There at Foyles

Rebecca launched first novel Here or There at Foyles

Rebecca launched her first novel Here or There at Foyles

The atmosphere at London’s most famous bookshop, Foyles, was buzzing on Wednesday 25th July as approximately 150 people gathered in the packed-out gallery for the launch of Rebecca Strong’s début novel, Here or There.

Rebecca, a British-born Sri Lankan, was set the challenge of writing Here or There within a year by Tom Chalmers, Managing Director of Legend Press, whom she met through the Society of Young Publishers in London. Legend Press, the UK’s youngest-run publisher of mainstream fiction, hosted the launch for the book, which is described as “a novel of choices, irreversible decisions and far-reaching consequences”. The novel is dedicated to her father, Kulan Mills, whose storytelling she said inspired her from a young age.

Introduced by Tom Chalmers, Rebecca gave a short talk about the book, before reading two gripping extracts that left everyone wanting to know what happens next. This was followed by a book signing and after party where guests continued to talk about this exciting publication.

Here or There is a hugely thought-provoking story, dealing with the issues of choice and decision, freedom and desire, and how much of our lives we can control. It is available from all good UK bookstores, and online booksellers, including

UK Lanka Times Interview

16 of February 2009

Rebecca Interviewed for UK Lanka Times

Rebecca Interviewed for UK Lanka Times

Rebecca did an interview with the UK Lanka Times.

Read it here

(and the cover here)

An Interview with Rebecca Strong

16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong, author of Here or There

Rebecca Strong, author of Here or There

What is your first novel, Here or There, about, and most importantly, what does it mean to you?
Here or There is set around the lives of several characters trying to find the right path in life and deal with the consequences of their decisions.  It is an exploration of something we all struggle with sometimes; the biggest challenge we face is not the quest for happiness, but the quest for that which will keep us happy.  It’s about appreciating what you have before it’s too late, whilst battling the human instinct to search for more.  As humans, we are always searching for validation and greater fulfilment in life – this can be a good thing, or a very destructive thing.

How did the novel originate?  Did you send it to various publishers, an agent?
It originated at a moment I can’t pinpoint, somewhere in the back of my mind between a short story I wrote ages ago and the intangible belief that I might, one day, be able to write a novel.

I first got to know Tom Chalmers, MD of Legend Press, in 2005 when he wrote an article for the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, which I was editing at the time. Having dabbled in writing in the past, I showed Tom some of the short stories I’d written, and received some positive feedback.  After I expressed an interest in writing a novel, Tom and I devised the challenge for me to write one within a year, and agreed on deadlines.  Not only did this motivate me to write Here or There, but I also received invaluable feedback from Tom along the way.  It was an intense process, given that I also had a full-time job, but I knew it was a worthwhile challenge, and I was thrilled when he eventually confirmed he’d like to publish it in 2007.

Who do you think the novel will most appeal to and why?
I am hoping the novel will appeal to a wide range of people, because the issues it addresses affect us all.  Here or There is for anyone who has made a choice in life and wondered if it’s the right one, or anyone who sometimes questions the person they’ve become.

Why should people read it, when there is so much to read out there, and so much of is free at the point of access?
It’s a personal decision people will make; I read free newspapers, blogs, extracts, articles and reviews, but none of them give me as much pleasure as buying and reading a good book.  I wanted to write a novel that everyone could relate to in some way, no matter who they are.  Here or There deals with emotions common to all of us, so I think it will have a wide appeal.  I wanted to drop my voice and take up those of my characters; just as in any fiction we enjoy – TV, film, literature etc – the characters should come alive for both writer and reader, albeit temporarily.  Ultimately, I hope it’s a good book with a plot everyone will enjoy, and I believe there’s something unique about it.

Are there any areas in your life or personal experiences which you have drawn on in writing Here or There?
A lot of the questions in the book are ones I’ve asked myself, and the stage I’m at in life definitely influenced the ideas in the novel.  When you’re in your twenties (though no doubt at other ages too), having perhaps finished a large part of your formal education, you begin to make serious decisions that will shape the rest of your life.  Of course these things may later change, but any decision you make will influence who you become; I wanted to write a novel that people could relate to in this way.

How does it feel to be a novelist?  Do you feel changed by the experience?
It feels great to be a novelist, but it also feels like the start of a learning curve.  I have always enjoyed literature and dabbled in writing, but now I know it’s definitely something I want to do more of in the future.  When I think back to being little and writing random stories on my DOS computer just for fun, it now feels like maybe there was a purpose to all that.  So I don’t feel changed as such, but it does feel like a lot has clicked into place.

What influenced the novel most?  A person?  A writer? A movement? A book?
I can’t say it was influenced by one thing or person, but I’m sure all the literature I have read and enjoyed in the past has subconsciously influenced how I write now.  I know what I enjoy in a book, and bear that in mind when I’m writing.  I wrote Here or There from the perspective of different characters because I really wanted to challenge myself and not just write from my own point of view.  To a certain extent, you can only write from the foundation of your own knowledge, but I believe you should always push your imagination when you write.  Several people have asked me if any of the characters in the book are based on real people, and I’ve said no – personally, I would have felt lazy as a fiction writer if I had done that.  I didn’t want Here or There to be hugely influenced by anything else, because I wanted it to be original; it’s a bit like a new musician releasing a cover of an old song as their first single – it’s disappointing because you don’t know who they are as an artist.

The structure, of eleven seemingly unconnected characters whose lives get more and more interlinked throughout the book must have been hard to get right – what made you want to do it this way?
The concept was one I had right from the start – perhaps the only part of the novel I had planned out when I began writing.  I love the mystery it creates, and the challenge of writing from different perspectives, some of them so different to my own.  I don’t like to have a rigid plan when writing; I’d rather focus on the characters and see where they take me.  I also wanted to break conventional stereotypes about age and reason: that teenagers are foolish, that mothers always put their children first, and that those in positions of responsibility are generally wise.  We can make mistakes when we’re young or old and, similarly, we can make good decisions at any age.

How did you first get into writing?
I have always loved words, language and literature.  I wrote many poems from a young age and some short stories.  This was my first attempt at writing a novel, and it was as satisfying to prove to myself that I could do it as it is to have it published.

What advice would you give other first-time writers?
There are no set rules when it comes to writing; you need to find a method that works best for you and embrace it.  Set yourself realistic targets and always keep your reader in mind.

What’s the worst thing about writing?
Not having enough time to write, or having the time and wasting it.

And the best?
Seeing your characters develop as if you were documenting their lives rather than controlling them.

What inspires you to write?
Little observances made throughout the day that spark my imagination.

What do you hope to achieve as a writer?  Do you have another book in you?  What do you think that writers “can” achieve, if anything?
I think there are three levels of achievement for a writer: the first is the writing itself (as in, even if your work is not published it’s still an achievement to write a novel), the second is your writing being published, and the third is other people enjoying your writing.  I’ve achieved the first two, but the third remains to be seen – it’s the most nerve-wracking part.  How you grade your own achievement probably depends on which stage is most important to you – the writing, having it published, or other people liking it.  For me, all three are important, but I imagine that the more you have published, the more impetus becomes placed on the third stage, which is understandable.  It’s a bit like the “tree falling in the forest” question: if you write a brilliant work and hide it away without anyone ever reading it, is it still a brilliant work?  Is it the reading of the work that validates it?  Or is the unread work worthy in itself?

Who is your favourite contemporary author?  Are they worse or better than authors in the past?
I can’t name one author, because I like to read a variety, but there are definitely writers I admire – Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, and Bret Easton Ellis being examples.  I used to read a lot of Stephen King as a teenager – he’s often dismissed as popular fiction, but the thing I admire about all these writers, King included, is the way they develop their characters and relationships, and the intense psychology of their writing.  I suppose I’ve fallen into the voyeuristic trap set by our society; although many of the classics are timeless, perhaps they don’t appeal to me as much because I can’t relate as easily to the characters.  I do prefer to read contemporary fiction, but I can’t claim that the writing is better now than in the past, because it changes with the times.  Attention spans are diminishing in all areas of life, and readers want instant gratification.  Great works continue to be created, and that’s what keeps literature alive.

Is the novel a dying format?
I don’t believe so, no.  Short stories and novellas are becoming popular again because people are so pressed for time, but I can’t see novels fading away.

Who is your least favourite contemporary writer? Why?
I’m not a big fan of chick-lit, though it has its own merit and can be very entertaining.  I can’t name one particular writer though – I’d never want to completely rule out reading someone’s work, because I might learn something from it.

Does your authorial personality differ from Rebecca Strong the person?  Did you invent an idealised author for the reader to adopt?
I don’t think I’m a different person as a writer, but I definitely feel more exposed.  Even when you are writing complete fiction, you are injecting part of yourself into the novel.  Those who know me well won’t be surprised, but perhaps those who don’t know me so well will now see a different side of me as an author.  I can only be myself – I don’t think the ‘idealised’ author exists – and I would rather focus on the appeal of my writing than on myself as an author.

Sell the book, in five words
Here or There – you choose.

by Heidi James / Kay Sexton / Lucy Fry
(Apis Books)

This short story collection encapsulates all that is great, and all that is frustrating, about the short story.The first story is The Mesmerist’s Daughter by Heidi James, and from the start I found myself exactly that - mesmerised.  The evocative language conjures up the enthralling world of Nicola, a young girl who stopped talking at the age of four, desperate to contain the secrets her mother made her promise never to tell.  She believes she is the only one who knows her mother is really a wolf in lady’s skin, and the responsibility of this secret world bears constantly down upon her.

“I didn’t know why Mother told lies - probably because I was not a good girl…But if I was silent for long enough, maybe I would fade away like my voice, or perhaps I’d grow big enough to fit my mother’s hole for me.”

This story masterfully contrasts the magic of a child’s imagination with the secrets of an adult reality, using fantastical descriptions you will want to read twice and savour.  It’s a short story that’s almost like an indulgent gift, wrapped up in a neat ending, and tied with beautiful ribbons of words.

Smokin’ the Queen by Kay Sexton, on the other hand, belies the limitations of the short story.  It hints at big themes - drug addiction, religion, music as a saving grace - but does not manage to develop them to a great extent.  The main character, a black DJ and recovering drug addict named Darius, travels across England after the death of an old music maestro to deliver a prized cello to the musician’s old school.  Deciding to remain in the West Country while the old man’s house in London, which Darius has inherited, is cleaned out by the local pastor and his team, Darius gets involved with a strange bunch of people that includes the ‘bewitching’ Mel.  Despite the sufficient wage he receives for manual labour, and the allegedly friendly people who keep him company, Darius slips further under Mel’s control, until he is forced to take drastic measures to save himself.  At times disappointingly restrained, the writing nevertheless contains the odd glimmer of insight:

“If you were black and skinny you were a drug addict, black and fat you were a layabout.  Black and ugly?  A mugger.  Black and fine-looking?  A pimp.”

In this story, we are drawn with hope into Darius’s strange world, but are left slightly disappointed by so many things about the protagonist that remain unexplored.

In The Clear by Lucy Fry describes an obsessive relationship that slowly smothers the narrator - who, interestingly, shares the author’s name - and sucks her into its depths.  The interior monologue is addictive, drawing the reader in, and demonstrating how the mind can often fall victim to the heart.  The intimacy this story displays eradicates all clichés, and it almost serves as a fascinating study into human behaviour in the face of tragedy, and reprieve.

“You’d think we’d have learnt by now, wouldn’t you.  That we never really know another person the way we think we do.”

Whilst the story may occasionally seem exaggerated and unrealistic, the inner workings of a depressed mind are engrossing.  Lucy Fry captures - and is captured by - love in all its pain and glory to a frightening, yet brilliant, degree.

This collection of two shorts stories and one novella is a delight to read.  Each story has a unique tone, but all have something to offer the reader; at the end of the day the confines of the short story are superseded by the nuggets of talent they bring.  And the best thing about each is that the story is in the telling, not the resolution, which makes them all the more pleasurable; I found myself willing them not to end.

© Rebecca Strong 2007

First published in Issue 3 of The Small Press Review, 2007

A Monk Jumped Over a Wall

16 of February 2009

by Jay Nussbaum (Toby Press)

Few authors can be credited with the achievement of writing a well-crafted novel about soup, but this is exactly what Jay Nussbaum achieves with his second novel.  The eponymous, mythical soup in question, served at Oriental restaurants, gets it name from the tale about a monk who, from the confines of his monastery, could smell the delicious soup being created for a nearby rich man, and found the aroma so irresistible that he renounced his vows and jumped over the wall of the monastery just to get a taste.  It’s the old ‘grass is greener…’ dilemma: was the monk foolish, or did he do the right thing?  Could he ever have been happy in the monastery once he had smelled the soup, or did he sacrifice everything of value on a whim?

This novel takes the above story and places it in a contemporary setting.  The start of the novel throws us right into the thankless world of JJ, a trainee lawyer whose blood-sucking firm is out to make lots of money at the expense of a conscience.  JJ finds that his career increasingly conflicts with his ethics, but continues to work hard in the hope of qualifying as a lawyer and gaining the validation he’s been seeking ever since his abusive father -also a lawyer - told him he would amount to nothing.  Nussbaum uses wonderful truisms to illustrate the narrative, for example, in this quotation about JJ’s otherwise heartless boss:

“Carter Boston once told me he’d shed genuine tears the day he heard the news about the World Trade Towers.  But the people who died in those buildings were the same ones we cut off in traffic every day.  They were the people we dismiss when our legs outrun theirs and win us the only taxi on a rainy night…Why do we mourn their deaths but care so little about their lives?”

Three days before JJ is due for a big raise, a chance encounter with a couple of the firm’s ‘victims’ leads JJ to make a vital decision, and the consequences spiral.  The novel then cleverly flits between ensuing events and flashbacks to JJ’s university days, when he befriends a prominent professor who is to have a profound effect on his life.

Although fictitious enough to avoid being a ’self-help’ book, Nussbaum has nevertheless managed to create a work that raises important points about remaining true to yourself whilst attempting to please those who care about you.  As JJ says, “I live my life at the mercy and whim of everyone who matters to me.” The relationships JJ has with his family - his mother whom, more than anyone else, he looks to for praise, and his younger brother, Leo - are touching and poignant, and moments of humour are carefully juxtaposed with descriptions of hard times.  JJ is a character with whom the reader cannot help but sympathise and, having gained our trust, the reader is both taken in and fooled by the protagonist who may seem flaky but, in the end, is anything but.  I found myself rooting for JJ and his rebellion against the system, because he has the courage to rock the boat where so often we all choose to play it safe.

Another feat on Nussbaum’s part is to intertwine the two themes of law and martial arts.  This unusual espousal seems strange at first - for a reader unfamiliar with karate, long descriptions of varying kicks and punches can seem somewhat tedious - but once the rigours of the study of law and the practice of karate (and indeed, vice versa) have been introduced, they combine to add another dimension to a protagonist struggling to achieve greatness in all areas of life.  Throw in a bit of philosophy, and a somewhat sadistic sensei (master) we are brought nicely back to the idea of the soup: how can we get past external influences and listen to our inner voice?  Interestingly, the blurb at the back of the books states that Nussbaum is a lawyer who previously taught Eastern philosophy and martial arts at Cornell University in the USA, which leads me to wonder just how much this story might be a reflection of the author’s own life - especially as Nussbaum’s acknowledgements reveal the book was twenty years in the making.

The female characters in the novel seem to be the only ones through which emotions are really expressed.  JJ pines after girlfriends, is tender towards his mother, and only witnesses his favourite professor’s caring side through conversations with his wife.  At times the relationships can seem clichéd or predictable (such as the initially ‘no-strings-attached’ dalliances JJ has with a female roommate), but this is balanced by the ongoing uncertainty of events posed at the very beginning and only resolved towards the end.  The reader is kept in suspense, and by painting a complex picture of JJ’s dilemmas, Nussbaum manages to cleverly distract us from an outcome we realise was meant to be.

© Rebecca Strong 2007

First published in Issue 3 of The Small Press Review, 2007

Rebecca Strong, former Editor of InPrint, looks back on the creative processes involved in writing - and publishing - her first novel.

I had been editing InPrint for just under a year when I first heard from Tom Chalmers. He had started his own publishing company, Legend Press, and wrote an article about it for the magazine. Eventually Tom asked me for a quote for the back of his first short story collection, The Remarkable Everyday, and so we became better acquainted.

I had written a couple of short stories whilst at university, which were residing languidly on my computer hard drive. When one day I mentioned their existence, Tom said he’d be happy to read them and give me feedback. Encouraged, I went home and retrieved them, my mind spinning with renewed interest. But when I did a word count, my heart sank - each story totalled only 4,000 words. Memories of spending carefree student hours carefully constructing each story came flooding back; if I had put so much time and effort into such short stories, would I ever be able to write an entire, 75,000 word novel? Was I being too ambitious in trying to translate an occasional hobby into something many people painstakingly pursue as a full-time career?

But I knew I had nothing to lose, and Tom’s offer was invaluable. I emailed him both short stories, and we met soon afterwards to discuss them. I was both relieved and excited when he said that he liked my writing style, and suggested that I turn one of them into a novel. And so, the story began…

Many people have asked me how long it took to write a novel, and it’s a difficult question to answer. I started writing in February 2006, a few months after getting married and moving to a new house. I was working full-time, still editing InPrint and occupying an SYP committee role, and I had recently joined a church choir (which meant attending practices every Friday evening and services twice on a Sunday). Additionally, I was often catching up with friends after work during the week and seeing family on weekends. Tom and I agreed on deadlines, and my first was to get him 25,000 words by the end of March. This was hugely beneficial, not only because I work well under pressure, but because it meant I would receive his feedback along the way. I wrote as much as I could on free evenings, and dedicated Sunday afternoons to writing. The rest of the time I was developing the plot in my head, thinking constantly about the narrative and who the characters were, so that when I did sit down to write the sentences would flow. I knew that, no matter what, I couldn’t let this opportunity slip away, and in between the frustrations and self-doubt, I re-discovered the pleasure of writing. Two more deadlines passed, and Tom’s feedback was positive and constructive. By December I had sent him an entire first draft, and after taking his comments on board, I sent him a final draft at the end of January this year. It wasn’t until March 2007 that he confirmed he’d like to publish it this July.

I’m sure many of you, like me, have heard authors lamenting about how difficult it is to get a publishing deal - you have to get a miraculous break or know someone who knows someone… But it might not be as impossible at it seems. I met Tom because I got involved with the SYP, because I mentioned my interest in writing, and because I seized the opportunity to create a novel for his consideration, despite no guarantee of publication. And I can honestly say that as wonderful as it is to have my work published, it was equally as satisfying to prove to myself that I could write a novel I think is worth reading.

Writing fiction can be a very solitary process. You find yourself guarding your real thoughts and emotions, and channelling them into the fictitious world you’re breathing life into. Everything you encounter in your daily life is a potential spark for your imagination; you turn the superficial into intensity, the mundane into magic. Your muse hides in everyone, and everything. And, for me at least, this all-consuming process is a secret one: a drawn-out metamorphosis that’s hard to share. Yet you are not alone: the characters you have created invade your mind and keep you company. I wrote my story from the perspective of different characters, which challenged me as a writer and broadened the world I invented.

Here or There - Rebecca Strong - In all good bookstores now!

Here or There - Rebecca Strong - In all good bookstores now!

Here or There is for anyone who has made a choice in life and wondered if it’s the right one. It is for anyone who has been affected, directly or indirectly, by someone else’s decisions. It’s for anyone who has grabbed at life, and subsequently realised they’ve left the most important part behind. But most of all, it is for anyone who is still searching for that place in life they know they’ll never want to leave. I sincerely hope you will read and enjoy it.

© Rebecca Strong 2007

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, Summer 2007


16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong shares a bookshop experience.

When you’re out with good friends you’ve known for more than thirteen years, you think you know them pretty well. Such is the feeling I had last weekend when I wandered around central London with two very good, female friends, the aspirations, thoughts and emotions of whom I felt I knew and understood. That is, until we found ourselves in Waterstone’s.

We entered Waterstone’s, near Charing Cross station, in hushed tones. It was Sunday afternoon and most of the shops had shut, echoing the spirit of London, which was winding down in anticipation of the working week to come. In the book shop, bored assistants sat reading at the till, patiently awaiting the end of their day, and a few lone shoppers buzzed around corners like bees reluctant to leave an abandoned hive.

‘Recommend me a book!’ suggested one friend, who we’ll call ‘Sim’. ‘I need a good book to read. Something you’ve read that you really liked.’

I looked at her, excited by the prospect of sharing a really good book with a friend. ‘Okay,’ I said, perusing the shelves by the door, ‘how about this one? It’s brilliant.’ I picked up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and dangled it under her nose. She duly plucked it from my hands and studied the cover.

My other friend, ‘Cat’, peered over her shoulder and looked at the book.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘what’s it about? Is it like that play about the women who all get together and deprive their husbands of sex?’

Confused by what seemed to be a reference to the Aristophanes play, Lysistrata, I began to attest that it was not like that at all, but my explanation of the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale was cut short by Cat informing us that ‘Mrs G (an English teacher at school) always used to go on about this book.’ That was enough for Sim - she put the book down straight away.

I tried again. ‘Well then, how about this one - I couldn’t put it down when I read it’ I assured them. I was pointing at Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, my eyes wide and my mind hopeful. Sadly, my hopes were dashed - we’d hit another impasse.

‘It looks a bit boring,’ said Sim, quickly placing it back on the shelf. ‘I’m not sure.’ Cat nodded in agreement, so I decided I’d give up.

The difficulty in recommending a book is that a) taste in literature, as with everything else, is so subjective, b) as with films, a person is likely to have higher expectations if a book’s been recommended, and is therefore more likely to be disappointed, and c) you’re held accountable if the person you’ve made the recommendation to subsequently doesn’t like the book. These were two friends who were intelligent, well-read and with whom I had plenty in common, yet when it came to literary ‘common sense’, we couldn’t seem to converge.

Fortunately, the recommended stalemates were soon overshadowed by our discovery of the ‘3-for-2′ tables. We had a common brainwave: what better way to seal the bonds of friendship than to jointly partake in the book-buying ceremony whilst simultaneously reaping the fruits of the offer. However, we then became slightly stuck again. We rejected the crime novels, the romance books, the novel about an Arab woman’s sexual awakening, the study by a dwarf and his obese lover who swapped places (he wore a skirt; she, a moustache) documenting how society reacted to them, the novels that had been over-hyped and the novels we’d all already read. And I discovered that not only did we have different taste in literature, we also had different strategies for choosing it. Sim, a lover of art and its aesthetics, picked up all the books whose covers she admired and imbibed their packaging. We had to drag her away from the book entitled Panic (she has recently developed a fear of flying and paranoia of natural disasters among other things) and a few other perturbing choices with pleasing covers. Finally, she pounced with delight on the bright green cover of The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter by Colin Tudge - no, not a work of fiction, but a genuine revelation into what some would class as man’s best friend. ‘Trees?’ Cat and I asked quizzically. ‘Yes,’ she responded to our surprise, ‘I love trees!’

Cat, on the other hand, was searching for a book to suit her lifestyle - she wanted something entertaining and easy to read, given the long hours she works and the little spare time she has. We dissuaded her from choosing some truly poorly-written chick-lit and instead steered her onto The Devil Wears Prada - we had been discussing the film adaptation earlier in the day, and in this case, the re-vamped, high-heeled edition prevailed. Satisfied, and excited by their choices, that only left me before the deal could be sealed.

I have to confess I do love ‘3-for-2′ offers, and not just the thought of getting one book free (because, let’s face it, most of the time you either end up buying several books you don’t really want, or you ended up buying two expensive ones and get a cheap third one free, so you haven’t really saved money). I like the way that once you have found one book you like, you feel compelled to buy two more to take advantage of the offer (yes, I fall for the shop’s ploy), which often forces you out of your comfort zone and into the arms of books you would never otherwise discover. And I like the way the selection on offer usually includes a good variety of both books you’ve been meaning to read for ages, and those little oddities you now have the perfect excuse to purchase.

After failing with my own recommendations, I ended up following those of prize judges, the media and many book fanatics by choosing Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. And as we left the shop - a tree-hugger, a chick-lit lover and a literary shepherd-turned-sheep - we each realised that you can never really know your friends until you’ve got under their literary skin.

© Rebecca Strong 2006

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, Autumn 2006


16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong meets the man himself.

When I heard that Bret Easton Ellis was giving a rare reading and interview on 10 October at the Royal Festival Hall, I phoned up immediately for tickets. I was curious to discover what he was like in real life, given his often violent and drug-fuelled writing. The woman I spoke to on the phone promptly informed me that she would also be going, and that she couldn’t wait to see what he was like either. ‘I think he owes all women an explanation,’ she said.

On the night, the atmosphere in the Queen Elizabeth Hall is hushed and the lights are dimmed, with spotlights focusing on the two white chairs in the centre of the stage, and a microphone to one side. Bret Easton Ellis enters stage left accompanied by the critic, John Walsh, who is interviewing him, and immediately his standard publicity shot appears on a looming screen. Bret (we’re on first name terms now) is dressed in a smart suit and looks somewhat unaffected as he takes his seat. John Walsh begins with flattery, claiming that all the books up for this year’s Booker Prize are old-fashioned and that Bret’s writing is refreshing in comparison. They are primarily here, of course, in light of the impending publication of Bret’s latest novel, Lunar Park. John Walsh introduces the semi-auto-biographical work that takes the reader through his struggles as a writer, onto a fictional marriage and parenthood, and out through its main premise - a nightmarish ghost story where a Patrick Bateman doppelganger is committing copycat murders, at which point The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse comes to my mind.

Bret sits patiently through the introduction, his hand nonchalantly on his chin, sometimes staring into the distance. My first impression is that he’s bored, he’s going to be obnoxious, he’s heard it all before, and he doesn’t want to be here at all. But soon the introduction is over, and Bret slopes to the microphone to read an extract. The audience’s silence is pierced by a clear American accent, which soon picks up speed and snowballs into the idiosyncratic monologue so familiar to Bret-lovers. Ten minutes later he is still reading, and it barely seems like he has taken a breath, word after word, list after list. The extract is funny, engaging, and fairly self-depreciating (though the line between the protagonist and himself is somewhat blurred). ‘I could never be as honest about myself in a piece of non-fiction as I could in one of my novels,’ Bret later declares.

It is clear that Bret has a lot to say about modern, suburban society in America. The extract lists all the things he finds wrong with it: ‘terrorism, Starbucks, Walmart, subway bombs, dead bodies, bullet-proof vests on sale, the military everywhere … even the children are prescribed stimulants, ADHD medicine, antidepressants …’. Later on he tells us that, although much of his writing seems far-fetched, a lot of it is based on reality. In his latest novel, the children attend a ‘rehearsal’ party, where many children go to interact and be observed, and only those who interact best are invited to the ‘real’ party two weeks later; the audience is incredulous, but Bret swears that rehearsal parties do indeed exist. He also thinks that over-medication of children in the US is terrible, though ‘I’m not going to get all “Tom Cruise” about it,’ he says, maintaining his sense of humour throughout.

He resumes his seat next to the eager John Walsh, who asks him why he indulges in such elaborate fantasy. ‘Because it’s fun,’ says Bret, ‘why does it matter?’ He says that he hates it when writers complain, because he can’t imagine anyone writing unless they truly enjoyed it.

Indeed reality and fantasy are clearly blurred for Bret himself. He claims that he loves the ‘celebrity’ world (‘I got to meet Jackie Collins!’ he says, with a cheeky grin) and says that to an extent ‘the public image is the real Bret’.

Bret’s own childhood - or rather the need to escape from it - seems to be the inspiration behind Lunar Park. He briefly mentions his ‘alcoholic, abusive father’ who he says he has since forgiven, but of whom he was terrified as a child. He has exorcised those demons, he says, but he won’t elaborate. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, in a frightening family home similar to that in his latest novel. He thought that everyone’s father was as abusive as his own, and when he realised this wasn’t the case, he suddenly had a lot more sympathy for himself and his two sisters. It becomes evident that he has a lot of sympathy with children, and whilst the protagonist in Lunar Park is the one that most resembles Bret, he himself admits that he ‘possibly has more affiliation with Robby’, the protagonist’s son. He was afraid a lot as a child and there were happy times, but he used to read a lot in order to transport himself from his fear into another world. When asked about the writers he admires, Bret says that he loved Stephen King horror stories, especially Salem’s Lot, as a child, as well as novels of international espionage, such as those by Robert Ludlum. He also thinks that every writer is influenced by film, but says that he does not think of his writing in cinematic terms, as they are novels rather than screenplays. His favourite film adaptation of his work is Roger Avery’s The Rules of Attraction, which he says is visually stunning and accurately captured his sensibility. His favourite book is Seminal Education by Gustave Flaubert, although he has recently re-read The Great Gatsby for the fifth time and finally ‘got it’.

He also started writing at a young age as an escape, and accepts that his father may be responsible for him becoming a writer. When he was old enough, he ran away to art school in Vermont - as far away from LA as possible - but his father refused to pay the tuition fees. His father was suing his grandfather at the time, so when Bret approached his grandfather for the tuition money, he gladly paid - ‘that’s how the Ellis men work,’ concedes Bret. At university he began to write about the drug-fuelled exploits of fellow students - without changing their names, in hindsight a ‘big mistake’. He wrote his first novel, Less Than Zero high on crystal meth - apparently the only book he has ever written on drugs - and it took him eight weeks to produce a 4,000-word manuscript that then took two years to re-write! He says that his sisters liked Lunar Park but not any of his other novels, and that his mother liked the latest novel too, but found the others ‘difficult’ - somewhat understandable given their content.

And then he comes to American Psycho, his most famous, and perhaps most controversial, novel that I think many people in the audience are curious about. He says that he was shocked when it wasn’t the ‘conservatives’ that protested against it, but the ‘left’ - those he describes as ‘my people’. His apt words are, ‘the New York Times went on a killing spree’ and journalists gained notoriety by criticising the book. ‘I always believed there’d be a time when people got it,’ says Bret. Clearly there must have been - despite opposition, the book was a huge success. In carrying out research for the book, he met and hung out with ‘Wall Street guys’ that never talked about their business, but instead talked constantly about status - the best restaurants, their suits and how ‘hot’ their girlfriends were. The protagonist of American Psycho was originally meant to be one of these guys, but one evening, listening to them drone on and unable to take any more, Bret had the sudden inspiration to make him a serial killer. The rage in American Psycho stemmed from leaving university, he says, and ‘discovering that society sucks and that you have to conform to its rules’. He claims to have had a realisation that society places value on all the wrong things.

By now, the audience is eating out of his hand, and clearly welcomes the reading of another extract from Lunar Park. This extract is more personal, clearly relating to his father, more descriptive. After opening up in this way, when he sits back down to take audience questions there is a shift, and he seems to close up again, becoming evasive. He cracks jokes to distract the audience: ‘why is everyone in the back row wearing blue?’ he asks, ‘is that a school uniform?’ ‘Paranoia, paranoia,’ tuts John Walsh in response, and everyone laughs. He avoids discussing why Lunar Park might end on a more positive note than his other books, and virtually humiliates the girl that asks him to explain the ‘central themes in American Psycho’.

When asked about his attitude to drugs, he says that he never wrote about drugs or addicts, but about people that take them casually, and he also writes from his own experience.

Bret is asked about his connection to Donna Tartt, and whether the classicists in The Rules of Attraction are based on the ones in her book, The Secret History, and admits that it’s true. They were once set up on a blind date and decided to exchange first chapters before meeting. They remained firm friends and she subsequently dedicated her book to him, as he was the one person who had been in on the project from the beginning.

The questions are soon wrapped up, and the majority rushes to join the queue to get a book signed. The queue is more than two hours long, but clearly worth the wait. Bret looks at his fans with curiosity, chats to those who ask him questions, and writes ‘Best Wish’ in all the books. He clearly favours the young ladies to the gentlemen, is charming but cheeky, and continues patiently to sign each copy presented. When it’s my turn, I tell him my name, and he chirps ‘I know that name!’ before proceeding to write ‘Becca’ at the top of the page. ‘No, it’s REbecca,’ I say politely, and he sheepishly corrects it; I shall treasure the inscription ‘To ReBecca, Best Wish, Bret Easton Ellis’ for a very long time.

I don’t think we did get the answers to all the questions, but I think Bret Easton Ellis provided a lot of explanations to questions we hadn’t thought to ask. He has shifted in my mind from perpetrator (as creator of Patrick Bateman) to empathiser (as victim of troubled childhood) and not the promoter of meaningless violence that I supposed him to be. It could be that he has found a great literary formula - gratuitous sex, drugs, violence and satire - but I think Lunar Park will shed new light on the real Bret Easton Ellis, even if it is just the public persona he chooses to display.

© Rebecca Strong 2005

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, November 2005


16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong discusses cultural diversity in literature, and how important identification is when it comes to our choice of novel.

This year, the Guardian is boasting that the longlist for its Guardian First Book Award is the ‘most diverse yet in ethnic origin and theme’. Authors that made the grade come from Iran, Thailand, India, Malaysia, the US, Kent, Oxford, Neasden, Doncaster and Co. Tyrone and the themes of their books vary even more (transsexuality, mythical lands, tourism and the loss of an identical twin, to name but a few). But how much is this a reflection of current reading tastes?

Successful ‘ethnic’ authors such as Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and Monica Ali (Brick Lane) broke into the publishing industry in a big way, setting the trend for novels about everyday families of different cultures becoming intertwined and struggling simultaneously to integrate themselves and preserve their cultural heritage. Their novels struck the hearts of many people - those belonging to ethnic minorities, as well as those who are interested in, or curious about, other cultures and faiths. They are intelligent, young, female, authors with a dichotomous view of the world - what’s not to like?

Yet behind their writing lie two well-educated women who have grown up in England, and I can’t help feeling that there is something slightly contrived about their writing. Both authors are mixed race - Smith is half-Jamaican, half-English and Ali is half-Bangladeshi, half-English - and both are Oxbridge graduates. Smith is married to Nick Laird, a well-known Irish writer (who, incidentally, is the writer from Co. Tyrone up for the Guardian First Book Award as mentioned above) and Ali is married to Simon Torrance, a management consultant. Zadie Smith even changed her name from ‘Sadie’ when she was 14 to give herself a more ‘exotic’ feel. Smith’s second book, The Autograph Man, shifted the focus away from ethnicity slightly, but with her latest offering, On Beauty, she returns to issues of race and class. James Lasdun in the Guardian describes the Belseys, the principal family in On Beauty as ‘its own little compact multiverse of clashing cultures: the father a white English academic, the mother a black Floridian hospital administrator, one son a budding Jesus freak, the other a would-be rapper and street hustler, the daughter a specimen of US student culture at its most rampagingly overdriven.’

I cannot say I have ever been in the same circumstances as the Jamaican, English or Muslim families in White Teeth, or as the Muslim community in Brick Lane but, being of an ethnic minority, there was something I felt I could identify with - maybe the sense of being on the outside of the dominant culture. It’s a question of just how much we want to read about ‘the familiar’ in a book, how much we need to identify with the character(s) and to what extent we can empathise with them. I imagine that most of us in contemporary British society would find it strange to read an exclusively ‘white’ book, but do those from the ethnic majority find it strange to read a novel predominantly focused on ethnic minority characters?

Helen Oyeyemi recently catapulted to literary fame with her début novel, The Icarus Girl. A 20-year-old student at …wait for it…Cambridge university, she was born in Nigeria and moved to England at the age of four. She wrote the book whilst studying for her A-Levels and, after sending a sample to Bloomsbury, was promptly handed a two-book deal. The protagonist is the daughter of a Nigerian mother and English father, who travels to Nigeria on holiday and befriends a girl named ‘TillyTilly’ who turns out to be a ghost. Through the book, Oyeyemi seems to be exploring her own feelings of growing up with two cultures, and even states that ‘you can read a lot of books and the main characters are white people - especially in the classics - and after a while you forget that you’re not white, almost, because it’s this big pervasive culture’. Due to her subject matter, she may come across as a mature, perceptive young woman, but some critics have said that the book is too ‘young’ to be read by adults. Although it received a certain amount of critical acclaim, how much of her success if down to fashion, marketing, and the drive of publishers trying to produce the next ‘Zadie’? It is time other cultures and voices were given the space to flourish, but is publishing every other Oxbridge educated female with ethnic roots the way to go about it?

I don’t mean to criticise any of these authors - their writing is very popular and I have enjoyed their books myself, but it makes me question just how much of a position they are in to offer a realistic picture of society, and how much they are simply good storytellers. They may be the voice of mixed-race Britain, but where is the authentic, foreign, immigrant perspective, rather than these voices hailing from the most hallowed educational institutions in the country?

Recent events, especially in British society, have raised awareness of multiculturalism and perhaps created a real trend for ethnic writing and embracing the exotic. Recent newspaper reports have shown that cockney rhyming slang is being replaced by Bangladeshi slang in certain parts of London where there are high numbers of immigrants, and that even white youths are incorporating this language into their working class culture. It’s unfair of me to label these authors as ‘ethnic’, seeing as they have all grown up in Britain and their writing is accessible to everyone. All of them draw from their own backgrounds when expressing themselves, and it may be this that appeals to the reader the most: not the chance to read what is familiar to them, but the chance to fall into an unfamiliar world created by someone who is all too familiar with it - vicarious identification, if you will.

The majority of us are interested in other cultures, especially when they are presented to us in an enjoyable, gripping, humorous fashion. But how ready are we for a more ’street’ or ‘real’ perspective? We can only hope that publishers will continue to promote cultural diversity, both in the authors they choose to promote, as well as in content.

As for me, I’m going back to reading Small Island by Andrea Levy - another award winning novel by a Jamaican author that grew up in Britain. Set during and after the Second World War, this book is predominantly about the challenges faced by Jamaicans who move to Britain and suffer prejudice, and the English people who try to help them. I just might learn to further identify with people who are in situations as far removed from my own experiences as can possibly be - and it can only make me a more rounded person…can’t it?

© Rebecca Strong 2005

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, October 2005


16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong searches Google, finds some information to copy and puts together an article.

When I started university, I was given a big handbook that covered all aspects of university life. It contained advice on courses, accommodation, health, unions, policies, people and parties. I remember flicking through it (no one read the whole thing, surely?) and seeing the section on plagiarism. With the increasing popularity of the internet, it was a key policy all universities needed to highlight: plagiarism, in any form, was not permitted and could lead to your exclusion from the university. The handbook contained the usual stipulations: all quotations had to be referenced, all sources recognised and cutting and pasting from the internet was not the way to go. It even went as far as to include ‘self-plagiarism’, defined as the resubmission of any of your own work that had previously been submitted as coursework or in an examination. As a result, many people’s essays consisted of footnotes that dominated a third of each page: obligatory credits to necessary quotations. People already say that these days, no music is original – all notes, and combinations thereof, have been played before. Is literature going the same way? Have all words and sentences been written, somewhere, before?

We’ve all been sated, I’m sure, by recent stories of plagiarism in the news – need I say more than ‘Dan Brown’? But the one that really fascinates me is the story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the young Harvard student who signed a book deal with Little, Brown at the tender age of 17 and as a result of alleged plagiarism, has reportedly managed to lose that – and the film deal which ensued as well as any claim to integrity she may have once possessed. Her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life – a potentially very successful piece of chick-lit – is rumoured to have over forty similar passages to two different books by Megan F. McCafferty. As if that wasn’t enough, it has now been reported that parts of her book contain striking similarities to passages from Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret?, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries. How she thought she’d get away with it is one thing, but how she managed to get as far as she did is perhaps even more incredible (her official apology, while not exactly admitting the plagiarism, was that she didn’t realise how much she had ‘internalised’ the words of McCafferty). In an ironic twist, a national Indian newspaper published an interview with Viswanathan on the same day the plagiarism story broke in the US, during which they asked her how the ‘sequel’ was progressing (she had a two-book deal with Little, Brown) and her reply was: ‘I’m actually terrified about the writing process this time around. What if I find out I have nothing to say? What if I can’t write? I just wish I could move forward to the time when the sequel would be written and I could go around promoting it. I enjoy that part.’ Hmm.

Apparently, most standard author agreements – at least with big publishers – require the author to warrant that their work does not infringe copyright or any legal third party right. Although plagiarism is not expressly mentioned, it is understood to be included under the aforementioned clause. In doubtful cases, publishers may pay for a ‘legal reading’ of the text, though it understandably takes a long time and costs a lot of money – I imagine it’s avoided unless the book has bestseller potential. In the worst-case scenario of confirmed and exposed plagiarism, an author may be forced to return their advance: I am told that it is rare, but happens more than you would think. It seems that the onus is on the author to accept liability for their work, which obviously makes sense.

However, in Viswanathan’s case, the extent of the plagiarism may not be entirely her fault. Having been coached for several years by driven parents and a professional organisation called Ivywise to gain a place at a prestigious university, it is alleged that her professional coach was the one that seized upon her writing potential and sent a sample off to an agent who did not deem it to be of a high enough standard. She was apparently referred to a ‘book packager’, an increasingly popular entity within the industry that seemingly lurks in wait for flailing artists and publishers alike. Packagers undertake all manner of duties in order to get a book ready for the market – design, marketing, and in some cases, ghostwriting. How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life was apparently placed in the hands of a packager who may (or may not) have pieced the book together from … ahem … external sources.

Having faced the pressure to succeed, and the advice and instructions of others for so long, it may be that Viswanathan unquestioningly trusted in ‘the system’ and the wisdom of those more experienced, or she may have found herself unable to live up to high expectations and succumbed to her weaknesses. She has lost a deal but gained publicity, and it remains to be seen whether she will use it to her advantage or disappear into the murky pool of frauds and fools. Just who was responsible for the extensive literary theft may always remain a mystery, and the naïve Viswanathan may well have fallen prey to the dark side of the industry. Unfortunately for her though, it’s her name on the cover of the book; unlike her writing, the crime has her stamp all over it.

© Rebecca Strong 2005

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, Summer 2005

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