Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction author and novelist Mary Hamer. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Mary. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Mary: I live in London, near Tower Bridge, though I spent thirty years in Cambridge, working as an academic. But what really got me into writing, at six years old, was getting a fountain pen for Christmas. I thought the word ‘fainted’ in The Wind in the Willows was so exciting that I underlined it—I’ve still got the copy, backless now, on my shelves!
Morgen: What a wonderful story, pardon the pun, and that you’ve still got the book. One of the few books I remember from my childhood is Russell Hoban’s ‘The Mouse and His Child’ which sadly I only have a later edition of. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Mary: My first four books weren’t fiction at all: it’s only with Kipling & Trix that I’ve dared to try a novel. I started by writing non-fiction, as an academic.
Morgen: “dared to try a novel” I love that! I started (eight years ago) writing short stories and saw writing a novel as a year-long project but then discovered NaNoWriMo and a month seemed feasible for half a first draft. Five NaNos later, I’ll be doing my first Camp NaNoWriMo next month. You mentioned four books before your novel, what have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Mary: Well, as a university teacher, I published a stack of articles about literature but my books are ‘Writing by Numbers: Trollope’s Serial Fiction’, ‘Signs of Cleopatra: History, Politics, Representation’, ‘Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar’, and ‘Incest: a new perspective’. I know they sound like a very odd assortment but in fact one led to another. I write under the name from my first marriage, which I kept because it was my children’s name.
Morgen: I’m all for odd assortments; the most enjoyable stories to read and write are quirky. Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Morgen: I’d say 95% of the authors I’ve interviewed feel the same. I love both formats, probably equally, especially if it means not needing to damage a book’s spine. Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Mary: Trollope—who wrote 47 novels, by the way, was a big influence. I loved the quiet way he prompted you to use your judgement in order to understand the behaviour of his characters. Woolf thrilled me by her bold determination to follow the processes of experience. But my reading was absolutely governed by greed and opportunism, which s a good thing, I think, in a young person.
Morgen: Ah yes. I spotted your name as editor on his Castle Richmond book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Castle-Richmond-Classics-Anthony-Trollope/dp/0192821733). Did you choose the titles / covers of your books?
Mary: All the titles were mine, though I had to argue for them in one or two cases. I chose the covers too, for all but the Julius Caesar book and for my novel. Even there, I supplied images for the artist to work from.
Morgen: It’s great you had that option. Many authors don’t. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Mary: I’m trying my hand at a short story: a new genre. But I’ve got an idea for another historical novel: too soon to talk about it though! Talk can just dissipate the energy . . .
Morgen: It can. Do come back, perhaps for an author spotlight, when it comes out. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Mary: I find that being committed to write something, however brief, every day has helped to keep me free of writer’s block. If you treat writing like getting supper on the table—it doesn’t have to be perfect but it needs to get out there, the sense of risk and gravity is diminished!
Morgen: I find that too. I write a post a short story (usually flash fiction) on http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/5pm-fiction every day so that’s great motivation. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Mary: So far I’ve just run with a vague sense of a half-discerned plot and used the writing to uncover it.
Morgen: Most writers work like that, and it’s my favourite aspect, especially when the characters take over. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Mary: I have to find their voice. That comes out of their situation.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Mary: I expect to need to redraft a good deal, in order to discover what I’m really driving at.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Mary: Masses. For one thing, I just love learning, finding out new information. And the energy, the impulse for writing comes from my response to what I’ve learned.
Morgen: We’ve talked about non-fiction and your novel – do you write any poetry or short stories?
Mary: In a very small way I write poetry and once had a poem published. It remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to finish my short story.
Morgen: I’d encourage you to but then they’re my first love so I could be biased. 🙂 Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Mary: Alas, yes. A memoir of my education or rather deformation as a Catholic girl.
Morgen: That seems a shame as memoir’s a very popular genre, although I wrote a ‘therapy’ crime novel which I never planned to see light of day but I really liked the result so I’m going to have to at least change some of the names. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Mary: I had no commission for my first book, neither for my novel: in both cases getting a contract was very difficult. I must have had upwards of 30 rejections before Kipling & Trix won the Virginia Prize. What sustained me was the support of the Clink Street writing group. Members had been reading and critiquing the work as it went on, so I knew it wasn’t absolute rubbish.
Morgen: <laughs> We always have less confidence in our writing than others do, don’t we? Getting validation from others, especially in the way of prizes, does help keep us going. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Mary: I do seriously recommend AuroraMetro’s Virginia prize. Winning it brings publication and £1,000 of course but even better they do a serious job of editing, a rare luxury these days. And remember, competitions set up a space where judges are looking for a chance to say YES. Mostly publishers are looking for the excuse to say ‘no’, because they’re scared of making a mistake.
Morgen: Which is a shame. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Mary: Couldn’t get anyone to take me on! Now I have the prize, maybe someone will. . . but I’m not holding my breath. I think success as an author has to be defined by the individual. If you’re hoping for big bucks and becoming a brand, I wish you all the best but it’s not all that likely.
Morgen: Let’s hope an agent is reading this. Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Mary: I’m taking every opportunity to put myself out there, as you can see. AuroraMetro have put me in touch with some websites, like your own, writer friends have interviewed me on their blogs and I learned to FB and tweet. Giving talks is another thing I do, at festivals and to reading groups. I’m still finding all of this fun, sharing what it was like, writing and researching K&T.
Morgen: Yes, thank you to Rebecca at AuroraMetro. I’m delighted you’re enjoying yourself. Whatever ‘job’ someone does it should be enjoyable. I love it all too. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Mary: Read like mad, find other writers you can trust enough to share work with, find your own voice, don’t copy others. Follow the pleasure and the excitement!
Morgen: For anyone looking for online writing groups, I have five. 🙂 Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Mary: Working with others, in the Clink Street writing group, where we share and critique each other’s work. Another way of learning.
Morgen: It is, absolutely. I’ve only recently started the writing groups so we only have a handful of submissions on each site but it’s great having the interaction, and I get to red pen all of them (except poetry because I don’t feel qualified because I don’t write much and read even less). Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Morgen: I don’t think I’ve come across Pam but I did interview Emma Darwin back in February 2012. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Mary: LinkedIn, Facebook? Not terribly, to be honest. Though it’s nice to get a swift response to posts.
Morgen: It certainly is. All the posts from this blog get announced on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and Tumblr and for Yahoo and Tumblr, it’s pretty all I do there. I get involved in some discussions on LinkedIn (and accept connections when asked) but on Facebook and Twitter I tend to leave my pages on my wall / connections so I see when I’m involved in conversations but not what’s going on in the general world because I can take the dog out and find hundreds of conversations having taken place. You can easily lose days like that. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Mary: Thanks for asking, Morgen: http://mary-hamer.com
Morgen: You’re very welcome, Mary. I’m delighted you could join me today.
I then invited Mary to include an extract of her writing…
Carrie Kipling ran her fingers over the page where she had pasted in her husband’s obituary. This was one scrapbook that Rud would never take down from the shelf. She looked up at the row of tall green volumes that housed his newspaper archive, then round at the packed bookcases, the bare plain of the desk. His briefcase appeared absurdly small, like a child’s toy, propped against the vacant chair.
Two years on, she was almost used to missing him. But today, as January 18th came round again, she’d had Rud in her thoughts ever since waking. It was the anniversary of their wedding, as well as the day of his death.
They’d lived together forty-four years.
Reading down the column from The Times once more, she felt a gathering indignation.
‘A great mind? A great man?’
‘Impossible to tell under the blow of a great loss.’
She let out a scornful laugh.
How could they know anything, these men who took account only of scenes played out on the public stage? The world’s honours, even the Nobel Prize had meant little to Rud. ‘What does it matter, what does it all matter’, he used to say.
and a synopsis…
Kipling and Trix tells the story of two lives. Filled with drama, they share a childhood darkened by terrors that will colour the years to come, as brother and sister take very different paths. Supported by his wife, Carrie, Rudyard will weather great fame as well as terrible loss, while Trix comes to shipwreck before finding a place…
Mary Hamer was educated in Birmingham and Oxford. She lives with her husband in London and has seven grandchildren.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on the mixed blog but everything else (see Opportunities on the main blog) is free.
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