by Shanta Everington
Hello Glenis and welcome to The View From Here.
Huge congratulations on winning the Cinnamon Press First Novel Award with Brother 'Lijah Built the Ark, a chilling, thought provoking story about Liam who turns to a religious community after going through hard times. What inspired you to write this particular story?
I was a member of a writing website and we were given a writing exercise using a list of criteria, one of which was to include a quote from the Bible. I googled, ‘biblical quotes,’, chose, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” and wrote a short piece in which there was somebody preaching and someone listening who was not very happy with it, as in, for example, “Oh no! Elijah's off on one again”. I posted the exercise and several people suggested I make it into a short story. Not long after, I took a short story course and I used the opportunity to expand it into a short story. The story was called, “And Pass the Ammunition,” – I threw in everything that I could think of, including a hidden stash of guns. There were two main comments on the story. The first was, as it was set in England, I should get rid of the guns and the second was that I should make it into a novel. So I did, although it took about eight years to do it.
Looking back, I can also dredge up other influences which directed me towards this particular story. For example, someone I met when I was doing my first degree had been travelling in America with her cousin. They were invited to a weekend social event which turned out to be in a religious cult. The person I talked to had ‘escaped’ in the early hours of the second morning but, at the time we talked, her cousin had been living in the cult for six years. Not only that, my daughter took Religious Studies at university and one of her modules had been New Religions. If there were any programmes regarding religious communities on television, I would video them for her to watch and when she was home we would watch them together.
I am not a religious person but have to admit that it fascinates me. It’s what makes a lot of people tick and, whilst I might not share their beliefs, I always do my best to respect their faith. I do feel, however, that it can make some people vulnerable to various forms of abuse.
The imaginary religious community, The Larches, felt very believable. How did you achieve this? Did you do a lot of research?
Yes, I did a lot of research. As I have already mentioned, I watched a lot of television programmes about the subject and I still do. I also regularly trawled the internet, library and newspapers for anything of relevance. The fact that I was personally interested gave me additional motivation.
For a lot of the time when I was writing the novel, I was volunteering as a listening Samaritan. I hasten to point out that this is not a religious organisation, nor is it one where abuse takes place. However, it is a very structured and very private organisation and I used some of the hierarchy and organisation in my novel. This may be why it comes over as believable.
Interestingly, while I was working on the novel, I visited a local residential Buddhist Centre on an Open Day. The Social Room looked exactly as I had imagined the social area at The Larches and it took my breath away when I walked through the door.
The subject matter is particularly topical now after the Harold Camping affair. Has this influenced responses to your book?
It doesn’t seem to have had any effect. To be honest, I wouldn’t have chosen to write a ‘religious’ book, it just sort of happened and when it was being published I was afraid that it might offend or worry some people but all comments have been based on its success as a ‘rattling good tale,’ rather than any deeper significance.
I understand that you wrote Brother 'Lijah before undertaking a three year MA Creative Writing at MMU from 2003 to 2006. I'm interested to know whether you submitted the book to publishers beforehand and whether you revised the book significantly following the course.
I wrote a large chunk of the novel before I took the MA but I didn’t know how to end it. In retrospect, I should have used it for the novel part of the MA but I didn’t do that for several reasons. One, as I’ve said, was that I didn’t know how to end it and the second reason was that it felt a bit like cheating to start off with a novel already begun. However, the main reason was that it had been four years since my daughter had died and I was ready to write about a woman whose daughter had died. I have to say that it was a big mistake choosing that subject and I ended up with a novel that I wasn’t particularly happy with and my confidence in my writing ability was at a low ebb.
Anyway, back to Brother ’Lijah. I did some revision while I was doing the course, usually at the times when I became frustrated with the novel I was supposed to be writing. I’m not sure how much the editing was to do with the course. I do know that my tendency to take risks didn’t always go down well in the MA but that didn’t stop me doing it in Brother ’Lijah – I’d been doing that right from the start.
Best laid plans and all that - when I got the email saying I had been shortlisted I hadn’t written any more of Brother ’Lijah. I had a month to complete it so I cancelled everything I could cancel and sat down to write. I think the pressure gave me the impetus to find an ending I wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise.
Brother ’Lijah has never been sent to any other publisher.
Can you tell me a bit about how you write? Do you follow any particular routines or practices?
I have no routine about writing. I have no routine in my life either. My husband is semi-retired, working seven 12 hour days a month including weekends and I have been doing casual work for the library so that could be any day including Saturday. When we are both not working, we do a lot of going out for walks, going to supermarkets in other towns for a trip out, driving to the Trafford Centre for a cup of coffee. I can go weeks without writing or I can work from morning till evening every day for a week.
I rarely plot in advance, although I might have a vague idea where I’m going. I do need something to get me going though. As I’ve said, Brother ’Lijah came from a writing exercise. Without came from a piece of free writing in which I described a woman picking up her children from school and having to show her id to the armed soldier at the gates – the novel began as a working-out of why that should be. The novel I’m working on now, Halfway Down the Stairs, stems from an image of a woman sitting in the middle of the stairs – I first had to explain to myself why she was there and then write about the situation. I often start writing chapters with a single image in my mind and work from there.
I try not to hand-write: I’m too lazy to write neatly for myself and it’s usually difficult for me to read it back. I tend to do a lot of editing and regularly read from the beginning of the novel, cutting and changing as I go. When I get near the end of the novel it’s a time consuming business to start from the beginning and I get cross with myself for doing it. It also means that the beginning is very very worked on and the ending much less so. No-one has complained ... yet.
You also self-published a novel, Without, last year. How did that come about and how have you found the experience?
I self-published when I became disillusioned with the response when I was sending Without off. It wasn’t the rejection as such that bothered me, everyone has the right to decide they don’t want to publish my writing but it was the reasons they did so that upset me. Without is set in the future - agents/publishers who didn’t represent science fiction said it was science fiction and didn’t want anything to do with it but agents/publishers who did represent science fiction said it wasn’t science fiction and they wouldn’t touch it! My novel was being rejected because of a label not because of its quality.
I used Matador to self-publish as they are very supportive and do a lot of the work that a ‘traditional’ publisher would do. I had to send off the beginning of the novel so they could decide whether to accept it. There were a range of services I could choose, including proof-reading and marketing and they provide a web page for all of their authors. The end quality was very good and I was particularly pleased with the cover they designed from an image I chose. I don’t think I could have done it all by myself.
How have you been involved in promoting both books? Do you enjoy this side of the writer's life?
I have done some promotion, although probably not as much as I should have done. I have had a couple of articles in the local newspaper, I did a book event at a local library and I was interviewed on local radio. After each event or article I found that the number of visits to my website increased significantly.
I signed books after the library event but I haven’t done any events which were just book signings. I enjoyed the radio interview and I liked giving the talk at the library but the thought of simply sitting in a book shop and signing books does not appeal to me at all. I may do that in the future but for now I’m focusing on talking first and signing after and I’m about to send out some flyers for doing that.
Do you have any advice for writers trying to get published?
All I can say is keep on trying. I found the self-publishing was an introduction to the whole process and maybe is an idea if you are struggling to get going. Self-publishing is not as denigrated as it used to be – I went to a talk by a literary agent last year and he said he liked to be sent copies of self-published books, it showed that the author was serious about their writing and it was good to see ‘the finished product’.
The Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book recommends several self-publishing companies.
What are your future writing plans?
As I mentioned earlier, I am working on a novel called Halfway Down the Stairs. It’s about a woman who, after a distressing event, no longer wants to leave the house. When she’s alone there, she sits on the stairs where she can watch that no-one comes into the house without her knowing. She doesn’t tell her husband what’s going on and he doesn’t realise that she is agoraphobic. Then he is made redundant and doesn’t tell her that he’s lost his job, he just carries on leaving the house as normal in the morning. One’s in the house all the time, the other is wandering round town pretending they are working
When I’ve finished this novel, I am hoping to work on a novel about my great grandmother, Clara Louisa. In 1905, when she had eight children, she ran off with another man and emigrated to America. They took the youngest child with them. It’s going to take a lot of research and I’m hoping to take a history course covering this period to help me get the feel of it.
Thank you, Glenis, and the very best of luck with all your writing.
For more information on Glenis and her books, please visit www.glenisstott.co.uk.