Today I’m excited to share in celebrating the release of a new historical novel, set in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary QoS is one of the most intriguing women of the 16th century, inspiring a large body of fiction and drama, the latest being the movie Mary Queen of Scots (2018) starring Saoirse Ronan. Her story has so many facets to explore. I sometimes wonder how her experiences would look in a modern-day context, but am more than happy to read more about her in historical fiction.
The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown is being released today and is going directly to my TBR list. I’m also looking forward to interviewing Tonya later this year for Last Word of the Week, and discovering more about her historical fiction.
In the meantime….Look at the blurb! Look at the cover! Enjoy!
The Queen’s Almoner
Sometimes loyalty to the queen comes at a cost.
Thomas Broune is a Reformer and childhood friend of the young queen, Mary Stuart. When Mary embarks on a new life in her estranged homeland of Scotland, Thomas is there to greet her and offer his renewed friendship. But the long-time friends grow closer, and Thomas realizes his innocent friendship has grown into something more. Yet he is a man of the cloth. Mary is the queen of the Scots. Both of them have obligations of an overwhelming magnitude: he to his conscience and she to her throne.
The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown
When he must choose between loyalty to his queen or his quiet life away from her court, he finds that the choice comes at a high price. Driven by a sense of obligation to protect those he loves, and crippled by his inability to do so, Thomas must come to terms with the choices he has made and find a peace that will finally lay his failures to rest.
Earlier this year I had the great good fortune to review an astonishing debut novel: People Like Us by Louise Fein. You can read my review here, where I describe this as a heartbreak of a book. It’s so much more, and I recommend you read it too.
People Like Usis being released worldwide this month, and I’m thrilled to have Louise on board in this special Something to Say post. Here she isto tell us a bit about the background of the novel and how is came to be published.
Welcome, and congratulations on your novel, Louise. It must be exciting to finally have it launched, even into a world filled with strangeness. Can you tell us a bit about the process and the story behind the story?
Louise: I’m delighted to announce the publication of my debut novel, People Like Us(in the USA, it has a different cover and the title Daughter of the Reich). Like so many authors, having a book published has been my ultimate lifelong dream. As a child, my ambition was to become an author and I spent many hours writing stories, usually based around the subject of ponies. But then I grew up, needed to earn a living and the appeal of ponies dwindled (well, only a little), so the writing took a back seat for a while.
The appeal of ponies never really dies. But you did get back to writing?
The writing bug never left me, and over the years I wrote ideas for novels, poems, diaries and stories, in and around work and family commitments. But I never fully committed to writing a novel until I finally took the plunge and began a master’s degree in creative writing at St Mary’s University, London. It was then that I began work on People Like Us. My idea, initially, was that I would have the novel finished alongside the MA in a year. How naïve I was!! The first draft took around two years to complete, after I ditched the first attempt half-way through my MA year. But it was just that. A first draft. It required a lot more work, many re-drafts, and a good deal more research, until finally I had a manuscript ready for submission to agents.
I haven’t found the agent road an easy one to travel. How did you get on with it?
It took essentially another year to find an agent. There were many rejections, but I also had interest from some and that spurred me on to keep going and keep submitting. I carefully selected agents I would really like to represent me, and I was very lucky that one of my favourite agents liked my work. Much of the agenting and publishing world works very slowly, but sometimes it moves at the speed of light. I sent my manuscript to the agent who is now my agent one Friday afternoon, and I heard back from her the very next morning that she loved my book. The same process happened when I went on submission to publishers. Within a week there was interest from a publisher in the UK and then I went on submission to the US and there was interest the same afternoon. In the end the book was pre-empted by William Morrow (imprint of Harper Collins).
That’s such a great story! Rejections to instant acceptance – definitely the stuff of dreams.
My dreams had more than come true, they had exceeded all my imagination. On top of that, I have also had some wonderful foreign translation deals (eight to date) and these really have been the icing on the cake. So what I would say to any unpublished authors out there: Keep going: keep improving your work, keep submitting. What feels like an impenetrable wall can be breached. I was hooked off the slush pile and knew nobody in the publishing or agenting world at all. It is all possible, but it’s a long game.
That’s such an affirming story, thank you, Louise. Now about the book…
So, a little bit about People Like Us. It’s a story of forbidden love, set in the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Leipzig. The novel is told from the point of view of Hetty, a young girl who has grown up on a diet of Nazi propaganda and is hungry for a part to play in Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Until, that is, she encounters Walter, a friend from her past, a Jew. As the thirties spiral ever deeper into anti-Semitic fervour, Hetty and Walter’s developing relationship puts her beliefs into stark conflict and danger forces them to make choices which will change their lives forever.
People Like Us by Louise Fein
I believe you have a family connection to this story?
The book was inspired by the experiences of my father’s family, Leipzig Jews, most of whom fled Germany for England or America during the 1930s. Whilst the story and the characters are fictional, the setting is authentic, and it is based around real events. My father died when I was only seventeen and he never spoke of his experiences of living in Nazi Germany.
Instinctively, I knew the book should be fictional, but its form and content were shadowy. I read Mein Kampf and learned about the experience of growing up under Nazi rule; I travelled to Leipzig and met with experts; devoured family papers and listened to the memories of survivors. The characters of Hetty and Walter came to me, and with them their story. The more I read, the more interested I became in trying to understand how a democratic, civilised nation could, in just a few short years, overthrow democracy, demonise the Jews (and others), and descend into a violent, fear-filled fascist state who aimed to exterminate the Jewish race. I felt my story would be powerful if told from the point of view of a young, innocent girl, brought up to fear and hate perceived difference. What could possibly change her beliefs?
It’s a story of the fragility of freedom, and the ease with which one group can de-humanise another to the extent of un-imaginable horror. But it is also the story of friendship, hope, and above all, the power of love.
It’s a very important book, I think, and I’m so glad that you wrote it. Thank you for telling us about the release, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon about how it’s going. Stay safe, Louise!
Today I’m jumping up and down with excitement as the cover of Susan Allott’s debut novel The Silenceis revealed. The Silence will be released in April next year.
I’ve been lucky enough to have Susan answer a few questions, too, about her writing process and the story behind her novel, a suspenseful mystery about a missing woman, marriage, emigration, children, and especially secrets. The Silencehas been compared to both Jane Harper’s The Dry and Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours.
I can’t wait to read it.
Welcome, Susan! At last, your cover is here, and it looks wonderful. Covers are so important. Can you tell us something about the process for you? Who gets to design and choose the cover – do you have input? And what about the title – was that your choice?
Susan: My covers were done by the in-house team at Harper Collins, one designer based in the US and one in the UK. The US cover came through first and I thought it was beautiful but I did ask for some changes. I had a very specific image in my mind of what the houses on Bay Street look like, and it bothered me that the houses on the cover weren’t exactly as I’d described them in the book. The designers went away and made the changes I’d asked for and when it came back the houses were accurate, but the cover was no longer beautiful! It was a good lesson. I realised the cover needs to evoke the book rather than depict it in a literal way, and it needs to be attractive to potential readers.
When the UK cover came through I loved it immediately. It’s so intriguing and inviting: exactly the kind of book I would pick up in a bookshop.
The title was my choice but it took me ages to come up with it! My book is about a woman whose disappearance goes unnoticed for thirty years, but it’s also about Australia’s ‘forced removal’ policy which continued for decades, and most white Australians were somehow unaware of it. We were trying to find a title which brought those two elements together, but nothing was quite right.
In the end I went back through working titles I’d used before I found a publisher. One of these was ‘The Great Silence’, a quote from W.E.H. Stanner’s famous lecture which describes a ‘cult of forgetfulness’ around the history of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I played around with it a bit – ‘The Long Silence’? ‘The Huge Silence’? – but of course the more powerful title was the simplest one. I sent an email to my editor and agent: ‘How about The Silence?’ And they both replied ‘I love that.’
It was such a relief, that we’d found the right title, but also that we’d held out for one that really worked instead of compromising. It’s so right for the book, I can’t believe we didn’t think of it sooner.
Do you have a favourite task in writing, such as scribbling ideas, fleshing out scenes, inventing characters, visiting locations, editing? If so, why?
I get the most pleasure out of editing. I do a lot of deleting, rewording, deleting again, over and over until it finally works. My happy place is sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, reworking what I wrote yesterday and making it shine. I have to force myself to push on and write new material. I think it’s because the first draft is often so flat and clichéd that it dents my confidence. I need to get over that. I do know that even the best writers’ first drafts are appalling.
I’m going to ask you to play favourites: who is your most beloved character in your own writing, and why?
I think I’d have to say Mandy, the character whose disappearance is central to The Silence. She’s a 1960s Australian housewife who doesn’t fit the mould. Her husband wants nothing more than a brood of children and she is secretly taking the Pill.
Over 50% of the novel is set in the 1960s, before Mandy disappeared, so we get to know her well. I wanted her absence to be felt in the chapters set thirty years later. Hopefully she comes across as complex and relatable, as flawed as we all are. She’s been in my head a long time.
Can you tell us something about yourself that you think readers should know?
The Silence began as a story about my experience of living and working in Sydney in the late nineties. More specifically, my experience of failing to love Australia, while everyone around me seemed so happy and at home. The book I tried to write was about a young British woman called Louisa who, like me, left Australia to return to the UK. Then she got home and wondered what was wrong with her. That experience of overwhelming homesickness was my starting point. But the story didn’t come to life until I started exploring the world Louisa had left behind: her husband Joe and their neighbours, Steve and Mandy. I wrote against my own experience, describing Australia through the eyes of people who loved it and called it home.
I fought the idea of setting the book entirely in Australia for a long time. Funnily enough, I met an Australian man in London a few years later, and went on to marry him! He encouraged me to keep writing. We visited Australia a few times over the years and gradually I accepted that my story was there. In part the novel is about the experience of migration, and how liberating it can be to make a new home on your own terms, even though that didn’t happen for me.
Are there any particular writers or books that inspired you on your own creative path?
The biggest influences for me while writing The Silence were Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, and Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara – the book and the film. Tim Winton too of course, I’ve read everything of his including his memoirs. Oh and Evie Wyld is incredible. The trouble is, these wonderful writers can be slightly intimidating and I spent a few years thinking my writing wouldn’t be good enough until I sounded like them. I think I took a long time to accept that my own voice was ok. I read a lot of non-fiction too while I was researching. The stolen generation storyline was inspired initially by a passage in a book called Australia: a biography of a nation by Phillip Knightley. There’s a section in that book about an Australian policeman who used to come home from work, sit at the back of the house and cry. I knew I wanted to tell his story.
What would you say is the most difficult barrier to overcome in writing a novel and having it published? Do you have advice about that, or a good story of how you got there?
I think the hardest thing is to keep going, especially when you’re aware of how hard it is to get published. For me, the challenge of writing alongside the demands of work and family life sometimes felt insurmountable. My advice would be not to fixate too much on publication as a goal, especially not in the early drafts. Write primarily for yourself and try to write the kind of book you love to read. If you love your book and enjoy writing it, that will come through on the page.
I’d also caution against giving up the day job too soon. Time is not always your friend. I never had enough time to write for the first few years, when my kids were little and I was working. I wrote whenever I could find a spare hour in the day. (Sometimes it was only twenty minutes.) It gave me an urgency when I did sit down to write that may not have been there otherwise. Writing was always the thing I did when I should have been doing something else. My me-time.
That said, I think it was a gift from the Universe when I was made redundant at the end of 2018. I had an agent by that stage and she was keen to submit my manuscript before the London Book Fair in March this year. The months I spent writing full time in the run-up to submission were completely immersive and I’m not sure I’d have managed it if I’d still been employed. I might have found the time somehow but I wouldn’t have had the headspace.
And the book did sell in the run-up to the Fair! I don’t like talking about luck, when really it’s sheer stamina that gets the book written in the end, but I do feel very lucky that I had that period of time to finish the book just when I needed it.
What was the most difficult scene to write in the novel – you don’t have to give away spoilers!
There’s a scene about a third of the way through where Isla, my protagonist, starts to question her long-held loyalty to her father, who is suspected of murder. I needed to show her range of emotion while also managing the plot and the logistics of the scene. The hard part always is trying to be subtle, but not so subtle that the reader loses the thread of where the character is coming from. I’m pleased with that scene now but it took forever and I drank an awful lot of coffee.
What are you most looking forward to in your writing?
I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the new book, which is set in London this time. I want to get the sense of momentum again, where the hours go by and I barely notice. Other than that, I’m not sure if this is strictly ‘writing’ but I want to hold the published copy of The Silence in my hand and flick through the pages. I can’t think of anything more exciting.
That will be a wonderful day indeed. Congratulations, Susan, and I’m looking forward to holing a copy too – and reading it!
The Silence by Susan Allott will be released on April 30th 2020.
Something to Say is pleased to welcome Pernille Hughes, whose debut novel has just been released. So exciting. Brand spanking new book!
Photo by I. Hughes
STS: Welcome, Pernille. This must be a thrilling time for you! Tell us something about your project.
My debut novel Sweatpants At Tiffanie’s was published on August 3rd. It’s a Romcom, a second-chance love story, a HEA story, and ‘getting up again when life punches you in the face’ story.
STS: That’s HEA as in Happily Ever After, yes?
It certainly is! Tiffanie Trent gets dumped by boyfriend Gavin on their 10th anniversary. Heartbroken and homeless, Tiff, a bookkeeper at an old-school boxing gym, figures that at least she has her job. But then the owner drops dead, leaving her floundering. When she then inherits the gym, Tiff, not sporty at all, needs to decide if she can take it on, defy the naysayers who say she can’t do it, and bring the club and her life into a better state of play.
STS: And Sweatpants At Tiffanie’s was just released last week on August 3rd. That’s awesome. Is there one aspect of the story that you relate to most – a favourite character, scene, effect? Can you tell us more about that?
As well as sharing Tiff’s reluctance to take part in physical exercise, I relate to her coming to see that she needn’t let others tell her what she is capable of. A teacher once said I couldn’t be a writer and I believed her, abandoning writing for about ten years. When I had my kids I turned back to the words to keep my brain clocking over and saw that actually I get to decide whether I am a writer or not. Tiff gets to examine her life too and understand that she determines what she can do, not others.
Photo by C. Knappe
STS: I’d like to meet that teacher now! What is it that drives you to pursue your creativity, despite that lack of encouragement?
Without wanting to come across as scary, the voices just rattle around in my head and need to come out onto the page. I’ve been making up dialogue since I was little, verbally playing out scenes either in my room, or say, if we were walking on holiday. Additionally I’m conflict shy and so always end up coming away from issues and spending the rest of the day making up what I should have said and wished I’d said. Writing stories is great for getting it out, although it doesn’t make me better at wading into conflicts.
What pushes me to get my writing out there is partially a desire to make others laugh with my words and also to get validation for them (so, I’m ‘giving’ and ‘needy’ at the same time…). Also, as a stay-at-home mum, words and my stories are my marketable commodity.
STS: Many writers have described their processes using analogies – stitching scenes together, following characters on a journey, immersing themselves in a storyline. What can you say about your process?
I visualise my process as sculpting. First I’ll write what I call a Vomit draft, just splurging words onto the page, only writing forwards and chronologically, not going back to correct anything, even if it means writing ‘something about XX, here’. That feels like choosing the material, like clay or stone.
The next draft will be looking at the ugly lump of words and deciding what the form of it is, what the essence of the piece will be and beginning to shape it. Each draft is then shaping the clay/stone until the sculpture is defined and the final draft will be the polishing. I like to have everything rounded off in my stories, ideally no loose ends, so when I’m asked to make edits, I find it really hard. In this analogy it’s like having to add an arm or something to a contained piece and then having firstly to make it look like it was always supposed to be there in the balanced piece and secondly smoothing the edges so no one can see the joins.
My stories start from an idea and then conversations around that idea come into my head. Until now my Vomit drafts have been extremely loosely plotted, after which I’ve found that when starting the first proper draft, I work best if I have a fully plotted plan and know the arcs of my key characters so that the choices they make from the start are true to their needs.
STS: That’s amazing. I love the name Vomit draft! Thank you for that – I’ll feel better throwing out great chunks of draft one now. Finally, what five words would you use to describe yourself as a writer?
Contemporary, Funny (hopefully), Plotter, Un-ambiguous (I’m not a fan of an ambiguous ending), Distraction-prone (ach, Twitter, you are my downfall…)
STS: Wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing your news with us today, Pernille, and I look for to a HEA future for your writing!
Here’s a great cover reveal for a new instalment in Jane O’Reilly’s Second Species trilogy – Deep Blue, the sequel to Blue Shift.
Add this blurb, and it’s yet another book I can’t wait to get my hands on!
Jinnifer Blue opens her eyes to find herself in a ship that is the source of her darkest nightmares. Her plan to expose the horrific truth behind the government’s secret Second Species programme has failed, and now she’s being turned into a weapon by her worst enemy . . . her mother.
At the other end of the galaxy Caspian Dax, ferocious space pirate and Jinn’s sometime lover, is facing an even more terrifying fate. He’s being forced to fight in the arena on Sittan, a pitiless, ruthless alien landscape where blood is the only prize that matters. They will use him, destroy him, change him.
Jinn has only one chance – to go to Sittan and find Dax before his mind is completely destroyed. She must rely on her friends and one old enemy, leave her beloved ship the Mutant behind, and travel to a hostile planet. But hardest of all, she must keep faith that when she finds Dax, there will be something left of the man she knew.
One thing’s for sure: the fight has only just begun