September 2010

30 of September 2010

Lots of exciting things on the go at the moment.

I am currently writing: an article about an interesting couple I know who are expecting a baby and, for the first time, some song lyrics.  Also compiling some favourite poems to go into a scrapbook my cousin and I are putting together for our twin god-daughters’ first birthday.

I am currently reading: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, a great portrait of life in Melbourne, and a study of the repercussions one impulsive action can have on the lives of others.

IN THE REAL NIGHT GARDEN

06 of June 2010

In the Night Garden is an extremely popular pre-school television programme, with intriguing characters.  But do they have any real-life parallels, and is there a hidden message behind the show’s well-loved personalities?

Extract:
Lush gardens, an exciting and efficient transport system¸ vibrant scenes, and welcoming residents speaking a strange language – no, I’m not talking about an exotic holiday, but the wonderful world of In the Night Garden…, arguably one of the most popular TV programmes for babies currently on air.  Cleverly slotted into the ‘pre-bedtime’ slot (i.e. 6pm on CBeebies), it’s a fantastical dream world visited each night by one of the characters, Iggle Piggle, once he falls asleep in his boat.
Many babies become fascinated by the consistent format (each day a story is acted out, and then re-told at the end as drawings before all the characters are shown going to bed), strange, repetitive character sounds, and friendly narrator (Derek Jacobi no less) but numerous ‘theories’ float around about the real message behind the characters.  From aliens to immigrants, many adults watching this programme with their children have come up with amusing suspicions. […]
© Rebecca Strong 2009

First published in the NCT Magazine, Small Talk, Winter 2009

I questioned some parents about how and when they decided to increase the size of their families, with some interesting results!  Taking into consideration financial aspects, living arrangements, the environment, age gaps, pregnancy/birth experiences and relationships amongst other factors, how do parents decide whether that want an addition to their family?

Extract:
So, somehow, you’ve got through the pregnancy, childbirth, sleepless nights, copious nappy changes, various ailments, weaning and perhaps even the crawling, toddling and potty training, and then you think, ‘shall we do it again?’ It’s a question that must surface for all parents at some point (whether the answer is ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘whoops, too late!’) and one that my friends and I have recently been discussing.
With the subject also coming up frequently among friends in my NCT coffee group, I was curious to find out how and when other people had decided to add to their families. I thought of various factors that might be considered during the decision-making process, and questioned some other NCT mothers about which were important to them. […]
© Rebecca Strong 2009

First published in the NCT Magazine, Small Talk, Autumn 2009

LIFE AS A NEWBORN PARENT

06 of June 2010

Rebecca reflects on becoming a mother

Rebecca reflects on becoming a mother

What is it really like to become a parent?  Is nine months of pregnancy, reading books, and talking to other parents enough to prepare you for this immense responsibility?  I examine my own experiences of not only welcoming a child, but taking on an entirely new role that I wasn’t as prepared for as I might have thought.

Extract:
They say there’s never a “right” time to have a baby.  I wanted children for as long as I could remember – I had an imaginary daughter when I was little, instead of an imaginary friend – but was determined never to rush into it. Having been married for three years, my husband and I decided we were emotionally, financially and practically ready to take on the responsibility, and were delighted to fall pregnant sooner rather than later.  During my pregnancy I thought of little other than the positive impact this new life was already having on us.  I read books about what to expect, listened to the advice of other parents, and thought long and hard about how this little person would be. Nine months can seem such a long time to wait to meet your baby, but now I know that no amount of time, literature or thought could ever really prepare you for the immense change to your life your first child will bring.  […]
© Rebecca Strong 2009

First published in the NCT Magazine, Small Talk, Spring 2009

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 www.legendpress.co.uk

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

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