Welcome to another of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with contemporary women’s, young adult, and historical novelist Carmen Reid. 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, Carmen. Please tell us something about yourself, and how you came to be a writer.
Carmen: I’ve been reading and scribbling for as long as I can remember. I studied English at university, went on to be a journalist and in my late 20s, decided I had to get on with writing fiction because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m now on my 19th novel. I’ll always write even if no one reads a word, because it’s how I do my thinking, really.
Morgen: I write to be read, and love it when I get reader feedback (positive or otherwise) because it means it’s being read. I have six novels in files (waiting for final editing) so no one will if they stay there. You live in Scotland, as do many other authors (especially Edinburgh and Glasgow), do you think the country has a particularly literary pull?
Carmen: The rain, the long dark winters… maybe we’re an indoors nation so there is lots of writing going on.
Morgen: Not a bad thing. You’re best known for writing contemporary women’s fiction but you have also written young adult and a standalone historical novel. Do you think the genre boundaries have softened in recent years and, have you considered other genres?
Carmen: I think genres are useful because they signal to readers what kind of book they are picking up. The boundaries have definitely blurred, because writers push at them. If love stories are allowed in crime novels, why not have a crime in a love story? I never worry too much about what the genre demands. I write the stories I’m bursting to tell and just hope readers find them as interesting as I do.
Morgen: I’m sure they do. You’ve had 18 novels published to-date, all as ‘Carmen Reid’, have you ever been tempted or, or indeed written, under a pseudonym?
Carmen: No, I’m not sure I get the pseudonym thing. If you’ve written something, especially in the social media age, don’t you want to talk about it, champion it and stand up for it? Even if you have to explain to your readers that you’re doing something different.
Morgen: I think that’s where publishers have been keen, up to now, for authors to have other names (Caroline Harvey = Joanna Trollope, Barbara Vine = Ruth Rendell etc) because they don’t want readers to expect one thing and get another and possibly be disappointed, although they’re covers tend to have ‘x writing as y’ which sort of defeats the object. It’s hard enough to market one name let alone more. Have you self-published? If so, what lead to you going your own way?
Carmen: I’ve self-published some of my backlist in the US for Kindle. The best part was working with a designer to get the covers just as I wanted them. The titles leap up the charts when they are free or heavily discounted, but I don’t do that often as I’m not sure I want to encourage people to think that books which take a great deal of time and effort to write should cost less than a cup of coffee.
Morgen: There’s a debate about this on LinkedIn at the moment, with some saying there shouldn’t be free ones. I think it’s hard enough for beginning writers to be seen or taken seriously so if they make, say, the first in their series free or cheaper then hopefully their readers will enjoy it and buy the rest. I guess it’s try a bit of everything and see what works. Are all your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Carmen: My books are all available as eBooks in the UK. I still prefer a paper book, but for travel I load up the laptop with the help of the Kindle App.
Morgen: Most people do, although many (myself included – I gave up two rooms for two lodgers (housemates)) have run out of room for more books and as you say, Kindles are so portable. I have c.2,000 books on mine. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Carmen: I love Annie of The Personal Shopper series, Niffy from Secrets at St Jude’s and Nicole the heroine of Cross My Heart. They are all so determined, individual and fiercely independent. I’ve spent endless enjoyable hours in their company and I can’t really imagine who would sum them up for me.
Morgen: Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Carmen: Roald Dahl, Richard Adams, Hemmingway, Louisa May Alcott, Noel Streatfield, Nancy Mitford, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, The Chalet School books. I think everything you read leaves an impression. Jo from Little Women absolutely inspired me to be a writer.
Morgen: Ah yes, Roald Dahl is one of my favourites. I love writing dark twists in the tale and he was the expert. Reviews are an important part of an author’s marketing (I spotted a review you did of Philippa Gregory’s ‘The White Queen’ on http://www.bigissue.com/reviews/book-reviews/2856/white-queen-philippa-gregory-review), have you ever received great or bad reviews that have shaped your writing?
Carmen: A good review which shows the reader really got it, really understood your story and was deeply moved or entertained is truly wonderful. It makes all those long lonely hours worthwhile. Bad reviews are the flipside. Sometimes you can shrug them off, sometimes it’s wounding and you wonder why you’ve exposed yourself just to garner comments like that. I take well-meant criticism very seriously because I am always, every day, striving to raise my game.
Morgen: That’s exactly how we should be. I’m a freelance editor and like to think I’m firm but fair. Many of the authors I’ve worked with have said my feedback / suggestions have improved their writing ongoing, which is a great compliment. Some of your books are audiobooks at a variety of outlets, were you involved in that process at all? And how close are they to how you pictured your characters being?
Carmen: I did help to choose the voice of Annie because in my head she has a distinctive Luhndun accent and that had to come across.
Morgen: I love the sound of that. Your books have also been translated into ten other languages, do you get sent copies of these? Have you had any overseas reader feedback from them?
Carmen: Yes, I have a shelf of foreign editions. Some of the covers are brilliant – Italy and Holland especially – some are utterly weird. I got an Eastern European hardback once which was covered in scribbles and looked like an electronics textbook. The joy of Facebook is messages from readers all over the place. Lots of lovely girls from a school in Pakistan are Facebook friends because of St Jude’s.
Morgen: How wonderful, and flattering. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Carmen: Writing is my day job. I get to the desk and I crack on. I’m not just writing but planning, researching and re-writing. I’d say writing is quite like cycling, some days it’s uphill all the way and a struggle to get even one scene right. Then come the amazing days when I freewheel and whole chapters come out almost exactly the way I want them to.
Morgen: I love it when that happens. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Carmen: I’m definitely a plotter. It totally works for me to know where I’m going and who I’m going with and I like plot twists, convolutions and a big reveal – so I always need weeks of planning before I get started.
Morgen: After 18 novels you would certainly know what works and what doesn’t, and I guess plotting so much does make the writing process easier. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Carmen: Research is really important. You have to go to the places you’re writing about or at least Google Streetview them! Talk to people who’ve done the things your characters have, or read autobiographies. Old newspapers, available at most libraries are a really useful source of what it was really like at the time. No matter what your imagination can come up with, someone who’s been there and done it will have insights and anecdotes you could never have imagined and these will make your tale properly authentic. It will taste and smell and feel much more real.
Morgen: So important. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed, and does your editor make many changes?
Carmen: I do a lot of re-writing. Advice supposedly from Hemmingway is up in my office: ‘the first draft of anything is sh*t’. I also bear in mind a news editor’s advice on simplifying my style: ‘Just because it’s easy to read, doesn’t mean it’s easy to write.’ Good editors are worth their weight in GOLD.
Morgen: They are, and I have a great one for my writing. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Carmen: I’d always written third person, until I did Cross My Heart in the first person present tense. I’m hooked. The book I’m working on now is also first person. I love this style. It feels diary like, confessional, true and there’s an element of suspense… will she make it to tell the rest of this story?
No never tried second person; that could be creepy!
Morgen: It certainly can be… probably why I like it. 🙂 Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Carmen: I used to fill whole notebooks with poetry. I was a teenaged poet. I spent several months this year writing non-fiction, then decided it maybe wasn’t for me. Short stories I do now and then for magazines or anthologies but actually, I prefer getting stuck in and writing a novel.
Morgen: And most readers prefer reading novels. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Carmen: Yes… probably those thousands of words of non-fiction. Never mind! And hopefully all those notebooks full of teen angst poetry, not to mention my teen diaries.
Morgen: 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Carmen: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… although sometimes it just kills you a little bit. When my first novel was being rejected all over the place, I started writing my second. I’m not sure if this is good advice, or madness!
Morgen: It clearly worked. Do you think having an agent is vital to an author’s success?
Carmen: I think it’s difficult, but not impossible, to be published by a big name publisher without an agent. Agents know the market, they know what publishers are looking for right now and can help to make your manuscript good enough to sell.
Morgen: Again, they can be worth their weight… What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Carmen: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Re-write, re-write, re-write. And repeat.
Morgen: Absolutely. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Carmen: I always enjoy a good dip into Robert McKee’s ‘Story’. It’s so encouraging and packed with great advice. I love his insistence that if you write a magnificent story, the world will beat a path to your door, no matter what. Mind Your Business by Michele Wallerstein is also a very good guide for writers and I also enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing.
Morgen: Ah yes. ‘On Writing’ is the most recommended book here. ‘Story’, I’d say, is in the top five. You are on Twitter and Facebook / author page (any others?)? How valuable do you find them?
Morgen: The fear of the unknown can be very off-putting. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Carmen: I think people will always want to lose themselves in wonderful stories. Will we still be reading in 100 years time? Who can say? Maybe it will all be screens, chips in our brains and virtual reality. But the spinners of amazing tales that touch and teach us will always be important to our society. They always have been.
Morgen: Hear, hear. Your website is http://www.carmenreid.com – are you involved in updating this?
Carmen: Yes, this website is mine, all mine. Though my lovely web designer does anything too technical.
Carmen: OMG who wrote that??! I’m definitely going to edit that page. Light fiction indeed!
Morgen: <laughs> And now a personal question, your website’s http://www.carmenreid.com/about page says you’re “six foot plus” (I’m 5’10”), has being tall ever featured in your writing?
Carmen: Niffy of Secrets at St Jude’s is a gangly tall teenager like I was. I’m quite clumsy and accident prone – especially when nervous – and many of the embarrassing pratfalls that happen to Annie Valentine have happened to me. Nicole of Cross My Heart is particularly small, barely five feet tall. Maybe being very tall has made me a bit more height aware of my characters than other authors.
Morgen: Me too. Izzy in my chick-lit novel is the same height as me and the first guy she meets is also 5’10” but perfect in every other way so she’s disappointed. There’s a lot of me (and some of my dating experiences!) in that novel. Great fun to write. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Carmen: What inspires you to write?
Morgen: Everything. I already have far more ideas than I could possibly write and more stream in. Whenever I’m walking my dog (two or three times a day) and spot a juicy conversation, I pretend to turn up my iPod’s volume but I’m actually pausing it so I can listen in. Newspaper articles are very useful, especially the quirky ones. My free short story Feeding The Father is inspired by an article and sticks in my brain because a reviewer on Goodreads had loved my free short April’s Fool so much she looked forward to reading more but then read FTF and hated it so much she vowed never to read anything by me again. Although disappointing, it made me smile that my writing could affect her so much, either way.
I’m very fortunate in having a good imagination and since being a writer, I’m more aware of the world around me and it doesn’t take much for something to inspire. Mainly it’s finding the time to write although I have been running a daily-then-weekday 5pm Fiction slot which got me writing almost/every day. That’s on hold while I do NaNoWriMo and I’ll probably not run it again for a while as it’s been keeping me too busy to edit my novels or submit stories elsewhere but it got me writing and really, that’s what we should be doing. Thank you, Carmen, for joining me today.
I then asked Carmen for more about Cross My Heart, her new book for YA readers, and here follows the back jacket summary…
How far would you go for freedom?
Would you lie to your family?
Break up with your best friend?
Follow the boy you love into danger?
Would you risk your life?
It’s 1940. Europe is at war, and fifteen-year-old Nicole’s city has been invaded by the Nazis. Desperate but determined, she joins a secret group of freedom fighters – and learns that she’s not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak, or put her life on the line.
Carmen is a British bestselling author who has sold close to one million books and e-books in 11 different languages. Her 18 novels range from contemporary romance to romantic comedy to young adult fiction. Carmen’s website is http://www.carmenreid.com.
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