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

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.

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

Entries (RSS)
Comments (RSS)