Sunday, 10 September 2017

Fab Firsts - Q&A with Helen Richardson - Blog Tour

Fab Firsts is my regular Sunday feature, that is going to be highlighting books that are firsts. When interviewing authors, it will be about their first book, as well as other firsts in their lives. When reviewing books for this feature, there will be a mix of debuts, first books in a series, the first time I read an author, and possibly other firsts depending on what I can think of!

If you are an author wanting to take part in Fab Firsts then please do email on gilbster at gmail dot com and I'll whizz the questions over to you.

I hope you enjoy this look at a variety of hopefully fabulous firsts, while making some sort of dent in my review and paperback TBRs which are my current main focus!

Hi everyone, and thank you so much Rachel for having me on your blog as part of your Fab Firsts series. It's great to be here :)

I'm Helen Richardson, and my debut novel Waking is out on 14th September this year, published by Accent Press.

1) Can you tell us a bit about your first book?

'Waking' is a bit of a hybrid, a combination of the tightly-wound, plot-driven energy of a thriller, wrapped around a softer more literary love story.

Anna Caldwell has suffered from night terrors for about 15 years. She decides to move from Brighton to London with her best friend, in the hope that a change of scene will cause her increasingly bizarre nightmares to settle down.

Instead, they get worse, and as they do, Anna meets a man called Jack who she is certain she's seen before somewhere. He recognises her too. Is this how new love feels, or have they met before?

Waking is about that strange full-body sense of recognition and tesselation that consumes you when you fall in love with somebody and they fall in love with you. It's such a real and tangible sensation when it strikes, but ultimately it's made entirely of air. I wanted to push that experience, to ask whether it is a concrete thing, or if it always remains ungraspable. 

I think it's possible to read Waking in a couple of ways. You could sit down and devour it in one sitting, chasing the plot to the end, in a relatively quick (and hopefully enjoyable) read. Or you could digest it more slowly, and I hope that the symbolism and connections between Anna's state of mind and the artworks she curates is interesting, the relationship between our dreamworld and our memories, the proximity of insanity to sanity, and the difference between being responsible and being guilty.

2) What was your original inspiration to become a writer, and to write your debut?

This is a really interesting question - possibly two questions. I haven't ever felt inspired to become a writer, but I have always written. It's more of a need or a compulsion - I'm sure other writers agree. Writing is the way I translate and make sense of the world, the way I process things, the way I express myself. I know people who translate the world through sound and music, dance and movement, photographry and film; some of us feel the need to write words. I'm never more at home in my own skin, than when I am writing.

Writing a debut though, and focussing on getting published, is a slightly different thing; there are many sublime writers who aren't published. As an avid reader, literature has held a huge and central place in my life, and that's probably inspired me to want to get published, to enter into a conversation with an industry that I love.

3) How long did it take you to write your first book?

It took years really, although the bulk of the writing took about two and a half months. I was writing about Anna and Jack when I was still a teenager, so I knew them very well as people by the time they worked their way into this narrative.

The idea for Waking started brewing when I was at university, but getting set up as a producer in London and building a life and a career took about 90% of my mental and creative energy for quite a few years! I eventually took a few months off in the summer of 2015, and that's when it really took shape.

4) If you could do anything differently in retrospect, what would you change about your debut, or how you went about writing it?

I wouldn't change anything. There were some rough and difficult times along the way, but all those moments are so valuable. Those are the bits where you learn. When you're editing and something just isn't coming together, when you try something out and it doesn't read the way you want it to, when you get a rejection or some feedback that you disagree with - I'd advise any writer to cherish those moments (yes, really) because it's impossible to develop, or evolve, or get anywhere good without them.

5) Was your first book self or traditionally published, and how did you go about making that decision?

Well firstly I should say that self publishing is a really interesting, emerging, and necessary space. It's entirely valid, and I'm sure that if I hadn't had any luck with the traditional publishing route I would have considered it.

Waking is traditionally published, and the reason for that is sort of connected to my answer to your second question. As an avid and ceaseless devourer of books, I really wanted to engage directly with the traditional publishing industry. I was quite prepared (though who knows if I would have been this patient in practice) to try for many decades! I tried to foster emotional resilience, and a very 'long game' approach that kept me calm and focussed.

I was also hungry for advice, guidance, and even criticism - the submission process delivers that in spades, and at this stage in my writing career, criticism and guidance is exactly what I need. I don't think I would have got the same brutal but improving feedback if I'd self-published.

 6) Do you have any tips for other first-time authors?

If you're already getting your debut published, then I probably can't tell you anything you don't already know!

But if you're trying to get to that point, my biggest piece of advice would be: Whatever you are writing, whatever you're working on now, get it finished.

It's easy to be seduced by new beginnings, exciting new ideas, shiny new characters, fresh projects, the crisp blank page of an empty notebook! It's so much more painful and unenjoyable to wade through the mire of a hefty project you're midway through.

Ultimately, the hardest part of the writing process is getting to the end of it, and learning from it, so that is the most important bit to practice. Otherwise you're just repeatedly learning how to start something, which is unfortunately the easiest part.

I used to hate that phrase 'done is better than perfect', but it's so true. I speak to a lot of writers who have got the first few chapters of a number of different projects on the go. I'd recommend letting go of perfection, and bravely facing the inevitable discrepancy between the idea you have and the thing you end up producing. It doesn't have to be put in front of anybody, it can be a lesson for your eyes only: It's only by getting to the end of a book and viewing it alongside your original vision for it, that you work out how to bring the two things closer towards each other.

Tell me about your first... 

My first memory is of my younger brother being born. I was two weeks away from my second birthday. I remember going into the hospital and meeting him. He looked like a little starfish in a purple babygrow and he had black baby hair that later fell out and went white-blond.

I don't remember much else from the day, apart from happiness. Mum smiling, Dad smiling, little baby Mark smiling. He had bought me a present, a plastic doll that I called Debbie and kept for years. (I'm fairly certain he hadn't had time to buy it himself, but this is definitely a clever parental ploy to appease precocious first-borns on the day they get upstaged.)

Album you purchased

I don't think I purchased this, but the first album I can remember enjoying was the Talking Heads live album that my Dad and I used to listen to in the car whenever he drove me around to things at the weekend. I grew up in a house of 99.999999% classical music, so the sound of amplified guitars and vocals blew my mind, and I remember thinking how intoxicatingly ordinary and unpoetic the lyrics were. Whenever I hear Psycho Killer or Once in a Lifetime I can hear my Dad singing along at the top of his voice, dancing (responsibly) in the driving seat.

Embarrassing moment you can remember

I remember this acutely. I was listening to a conversation my mum was having with a friend we were visiting. My mum was trying to reassure them that they shouldn't worry about their money problems, shouldn't feel guilty that they couldn't by the children things, because 'children don't love you more for buying them presents, just remember that'.

I chipped in at this point, aged about five or six, and obviously with no ability to read the conversation. I said 'I do love you more when you buy me presents actually'. As soon as I'd said it I realised what my mum had been trying to do, and what a brat I was. I remember my whole face going red and feeling SO embarrassed.

Time you were in trouble

Probably flying to Barcelona with a friend when I was seventeen/eighteen and getting my purse stolen as soon as we got into the city, so that I had no money or bank cards or anything. I felt very far away from safety at that age. Looking back on it now it was a completely manageable situation, but definitely an important lesson on keeping your wits about you when you travel!

...choice of alternative career if you weren’t an author

I work full-time as a producer, making commercials and short-films/documentaries, and it is definitely my dream job next to writing.

I love the flexibility of being freelance, and the creative intensity of being thrown together with a group of people who are all united under a shared aim, to make the film. I love not knowing where I'm going to be travelling next, and I absolutely LOVE getting to know other countries through a film shoot. Obviously going on holiday is divine, but getting dropped in Shanghai or Singapore or India and producing a shoot gets you under the skin of a place and into its nooks and crannies in a way you never do as a tourist. I've found myself in some very bizarre situations, in places that you'd never have access to if you weren't filming, and have met many incredible and inspiring people along the way, both behind and in front of the camera.

I think the producing work I do has made me a better writer, because it teaches you how to muscle your way through the deeper waters of making a finished thing, the bits where it gets tricky and you wish you could just start again or move onto something fresh. The feeling when you get to the end and deliver a finished film is a reminder of just how much of the 'creative process' is actually just dogged hard work!

It's also taught me how to collaborate and share ideas. I don't believe that any single mind/brain can come up with the best version of a thing. If you think you can do it all on your own, the chances are it isn't going to be as good as it could be. You never know what somebody else can bring to a project, and it's just as helpful to work out why you disagree with a suggestion, as it is to take something on board. It's vital to keep an open mind and be receptive - while keeping your eyes on the ultimate vision of course.

… time you were really scared

My absolute earliest, first ever memory of fear, is being inside a bouncy castle at a birthday party and it collapsing and deflating around me. I thought I was going to get trapped and die. I think it might be why I was claustrophobic for years!

Thank you so much Helen for this wonderful interview. Have a fabulous publication day later this week. 

About Helen

From a young age, Helen devoured books and wrote stories. Still in single digits, she surrounded herself with contemporary literature, writing stories or poetry at every available opportunity. This passion took her to University College London to study English Language & Literature. There, she discovered and fell in love with the classical, canonical works that developed her understanding of the more modern writing she had grown up loving.

Graduating with first class honours, and at the beginning of a long love affair with London, Helen remained in the city, and began work in the film and television industry. Now a freelance producer making films for brands, charities, and channels, Helen has travelled all over the world with her work, making documentaries about the Mississippi River, following the McLaren F1 team around the world for Johnnie Walker whisky, making films for Mazda on the southern coast of Spain, shooting world-class Hungarian skateboarders in Budapest, and scaling the snowy peaks of the Swiss alps with Sir Richard Branson for Virgin Media Business.

Throughout this developing career, Helen has continued to write, finding the combination of writing and producing brilliantly complimentary. Her work as a producer has helped her to understand the tensions that exist within every creative process, and to become practised in the long hard slog of execution that inevitably must follow that initial, seductive, flash of inspiration. Her writing has helped her flex her creative muscles, become practised in the art of storytelling, and to trust her instinct when it comes to an idea.

Helen continues to move between producing and writing. She is currently developing film work for CNN's sponsored content department in London, CNN Create, and hoping to take some time later this year to begin work on her next novel. She credits her daily yoga and meditation practice, for her ability to juggle the two sides of her life. She lives in East London with her husband.

Purchase link:

Twitter: @helen_r_writes

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