In The Spotlight this week the talented novelist Laura Wilkinson
This week I am delighted to welcome Laura who won the Bridge House Debut Novel Competition and in fact her novel BloodMining is the only novel Bridge House has published. I’ve met Laura a few times now and she was also one of the first round judges in the Paws competition … so please give her a very warm welcome …
Tell us something about yourself …
I grew up in a Welsh market town. I read voraciously as a child (and still do) and told many tales, but never got as far as writing any of them down, unless ordered to do so by my English teacher. After school, the hedonistic delights of Manchester beckoned and here I studied for a BA in Literature. Since then I have steadily made my way south, working freelance as a journalist, editor and copywriter, before turning to fiction. I’m mother to two ginger boys.
Around seven years ago I started writing fiction. I have had published short stories in a handful of magazines, anthologies and digital media. As you know, my first novel, BloodMining, is published by Bridge House; it won your debut novel competition.
At the moment I’m working as an editor for literary consultancy, Cornerstones, and in a school close to my home in a never-to-be-chic area of Brighton. My current work-in-progress is set against the backdrop of the 1984/85 miners’ strike.
If you’d like to know more, or hear about what I’m up to regularly you can check out my website, or follow me on Twitter @ScorpioScribble. I love hearing from readers, and other writers.
Have you always wanted to be a published writer? Tell us something about your path to having your first novel published. Have you had other things published first?
No, to answer your first question. Storytelling and the written word have been a big part of my life; I worked as an actress before training as a journalist, and I wrote terrible poetry in my teens and early twenties but mercifully never gave publication a thought. I started writing fiction after I’d had my children. Last summer I read Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman and one of the many interesting things that she talks about is how having children spurred on her ambition. I relate to this; I’d dithered about turning to fiction for years, but after the boys I thought: just do it. I think I answered your other questions above!
Do you have an agent? If not did you try to get one? Any advice about that?
I don’t have an agent, though I’d like one. I had two near-misses with BloodMining and several (!) with my second novel, which I’ve placed in a drawer for now. I may drag it out again in a year or so; the characters still feel very close to me. In the meantime, I’m focusing on novel three and another project, which I’m writing under a pseudonym.
Do you belong to a writing group? Crit group? Have you had someone professionally critique your novel before submitting or publishing? How was that? Would you do it again?
I meet with writer friends regularly and we talk about our work, the challenges we’re facing and we feedback on specific chapters when necessary. You can read about some of them here. Feedback is vital, I believe, because we are never best placed to look at our own work with a critical eye. That’s why we have editors. My second novel was critiqued professionally and I found it useful; my third has recently gone to the Welsh Books Council. I work part-time as an editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy so I suppose it’s predictable that I believe in the value of an outside eye before submitting. Whether or not you choose to go to a professional editor is a matter of personal choice, and resources. What I would say is that whether you use a consultancy or a group of beta readers the important thing is to take what people say seriously. If you want to be published you need to perfect the art of pleasing others, as well as yourself. You won’t agree with all of it, but if you dismiss it all, your chances of success will be reduced.
Did you have your book accepted by a traditional publisher or choose self-publishing?
BloodMining has been traditionally published and it’s a traditional deal I seek for my current novel, though I am considering self-publishing the pseudonymous work. An author friend (traditionally published with one of the big six, or is it four nowadays?) has self-published her second novel and is doing rather well. I would never have had the confidence to even consider self-publishing before winning the Bridge House competition and the critical response to BloodMining, but I feel now that I have reached a standard that can be considered professional. Whether or not people like my stories is another matter!
It was Debz who told me I’d won the competition and would like to publish the book. I’m so grateful to Bridge House for taking a punt with me. I didn’t tell anyone other my fella for ages, expecting the ‘gosh I’m so sorry we called the wrong person, it’s a Laura Whittaker who won…’ type call.
What happened next? What was the editing process like and how long did it take? Did you work with an editor?
BloodMining was edited by Bridge House founder and director, Gill James, and it was done in three stages over a four month period: a substantive edit (though this was very light as BloodMining had been through seven or so drafts by the time I entered the competition), a copy edit and then proofreading. It was important to me to have an editor. Editors are vital, and a strong editor can make a good book better.
How much marketing have you had to do and how have book sales been?
I have nothing to compare it to, but I tried! Quite a lot, I’d say. Bridge House is a very small publisher, and staff work for the love of books and stories, so it was clear from the outset that I would need to chip in and help promote the novel and I was happy to do so. Promotion is a significant part of an author’s job nowadays, even those who are signed to the large publishing houses. Selling books is hard work; competition is fierce, but thankfully people are reading more than ever.
Tell us about the novel …
Set in Wales in the not-too-distant future, BloodMining is the story of Megan Evens and her family. Megan is a former foreign correspondent whose life is thrown into turmoil when her son is diagnosed with a terminal condition: a degenerative disease passed down the mother’s line. To save her son Megan must unearth the truth about her origins and its intimate relationship with a catastrophic event from the past; she must excavate family history and memory, and embark on a journey of self-discovery and into the heart of what it means to be a parent.
What next? Tell us about work in progress and aspirations. Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
Novel three is set against the backdrop of the 1984/85 miners’ strike and is provisionally called Public Battles, Private Wars. It’s a story about friendship, rivalry and love. It follows one young woman’s journey to independence, and is intertwined with the story of a community on the cusp of a seismic shift. My ambition is to craft the novel as well as I possibly can and, fingers crossed, see it published. My other work is an erotic romance. Ten years time? Gosh, I have no idea; I find it tricky to plan tomorrow’s supper. I’d like to be writing, and being read.
Any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published?
Read a lot; write a lot. Rewrite even more.
Tell us something random about you for the pure hell of it
I broke the school long jump record when I was twelve; I’d never long-jumped before and only took part because no one else in the house team would do it. I wasn’t tall; I was a real titch, so it was a shock to everyone, not least me.
Finally: can we post an extract of your novel?
Extract early on in the novel. Megan has moved back to Wales, to the house she grew up in. In this scene Megan and her mother, Elizabeth, are clearing out a bedroom for Megan and her baby when it arrives.
‘What’s this?’ asked Megan.
‘It’s called a pomander. An old-fashioned thing, to hang in wardrobes amongst clothes to keep them smelling fresh,’ Elizabeth said, reaching over to take it from Megan’s hands.
‘How do you replace the fragrance?’
‘You can’t. It’s why it stinks now.’
‘How old is it?’ said Megan.
‘It belonged to my mother’s mother, your great grandmother. She was fond of roses. When she died, my mother, Hannah, planted four bushes at the back of the patio in her memory.’
‘They’re still there.’
‘Yes. Thorny old things.’
Elizabeth turned the pomander in her palm. ‘It’s not worth anything but I can’t bring myself to throw it away.’
‘Then you mustn’t. Keep it.’ Delighted that Elizabeth had revealed some family history, and sensing a rare opportunity to find out more, Megan pushed on. ‘The rose reminds me of those on the wallpaper upstairs.’
‘So it should. Hannah decorated the attic in her mother’s honour. Pink, cream and white soft furnishing and a floral wallpaper chosen by a young me on all four walls. The paper was never covered over,’ said Elizabeth, carelessly throwing the pomander in the box destined for the cellar.
‘Why don’t you keep it out? It’s precious to you. All those memories.’
‘It smells. Musty, ancient, decrepit. The stench reminds me of death. Too close for comfort.’
‘You’re seventy. Not ninety.’
Elizabeth ignored her. ‘Some of my tops stink thanks to this. I don’t even like it. Never did. I’m not fond of roses, they only look good in June, and the thorns are vicious. As to the heart shape, Lord!’ Megan could feel her mother drifting away again. Closing the door to the past.
‘But that’s not the point. It was your mother’s, your grandmother’s. It’s your connection to her. It doesn’t matter that it’s ugly.’
‘The past is the past. Over, done with, I must look to the future these days. I don’t need ugly little keepsakes to remember Mam by. She’s in my heart. Always will be,’ she said, busying herself moving things from one box to another, quickly, without thought.
Megan returned to sifting through the box. She pulled out a sepia toned photograph of a woman who looked like Hannah and a tall man in a suit whose face had been spoilt by a stain, a raindrop or spilt drink perhaps. She wiped away dust with her finger, and realised that the man’s face had been scratched away. ‘But things help us remember. Prompt the details, spark other, faded, memories. We need to talk of our memories, to keep them alive.’
She lifted the image to her face, studying it closely. The man had his arm around Hannah’s waist and there was an intimacy between them that Megan hadn’t noticed at first. Elizabeth said nothing, rummaging without purpose.
‘Who are they? This looks a bit like you, and a bit like your mum, but I don’t recognise the guy. He’s too tall to be your dad, if I’m remembering right. Like the one in this bedroom when I was little.’ Megan was talking to herself as much as Elizabeth. She was intrigued, though not especially so. She was interested in the vaguely dispassionate way most people are in their distant ancestry, those characters unknown to them personally.
‘It is Mam. Hannah…’
‘It’s a lovely photograph of her. She was an attractive woman, even when she was older. I am like her, a tiny bit. I’m a skewed version.’
Megan looked at her mother and back to the picture. She could see the similarity but disagreed that Hannah was the more attractive. She was certainly more polished than Megan had ever seen Elizabeth, but there was something slightly odd about her. As if she was wearing someone else’s nose. Megan kept these thoughts to herself and turned her attention to the man. She said again, ‘This isn’t your dad. Who is he?’
‘I didn’t say it wasn’t my da.’
‘You didn’t have to. It can’t be. Too tall, too skinny. Who rubbed his face out? Hannah after a row?’
Elizabeth laughed, and Megan thought she detected a slight rancour.
‘I did. It was me. I didn’t like him,’ Elizabeth said.
‘So who was he?’
‘A friend of my mother’s.’ Elizabeth continued to move things from the large box into a smaller one.
‘Why didn’t you like him?’
‘I can’t remember now. It was a long time ago, Meg.’
‘But you hated him so much you scratched his face out? With a knife from the looks of things.’
‘A compass as a matter of fact,’ Elizabeth corrected, always the teacher she couldn’t help herself.
Megan thought it odd that her mother remembered the instrument she used to deface the image of this stranger, but not one reason why she disliked him so much. And why had she kept the photograph? She was withholding information. Megan knew her mother didn’t like to dwell on unsavoury behaviour, to rake over former actions of her own and others in an attempt to rationalise, understand and excuse. She disapproved of therapy. ‘No one ever got over trauma thanks to talking about it,’ she’d said. ‘Time cures, if it can, and some things we never get over.’
Questions whirled in Megan’s head. ‘Where was your dad, my grandfather, when this was taken? Was this man a lover? Why did you keep it?’ The words were out before Megan could censor them. They weren’t loaded in any way. After all Hannah meant nothing to Megan and neither did Robert. They were abstract figures, important only for their influence on Elizabeth.
Elizabeth dropped a hairbrush with a ceramic back. ‘Good heavens no! Da was dead, Lord rest his soul.’
‘I always thought your parents died within months of each other,’ Megan said.
‘No, no. Mam survived. She died later, years later. After you were born, though you were tiny. You won’t remember her.’
‘Such a shame. You would have loved a nana, wouldn’t you?’ Elizabeth’s voice caught.
‘What you never have, you never miss,’ Megan said, though privately she wondered if this was true. ‘So Hannah met this guy when you two lived here together, after… everything, you know.’
‘Before you met my dad?’ Megan scratched her stomach. She felt as if her skin would split apart, like an over ripe fig.
‘Yes.’ Elizabeth turned away.
It should have been Mum first, thought Megan. No wonder she resented this tall stranger, this interloper, imposter to her beloved father’s throne. Megan ached to know more, but she held her tongue. She held the picture, resting it, along with her swollen belly, in her lap.
There was an awkward silence. Then Elizabeth picked up another treasured object. ‘Would you look at this! How lovely is she here?’ She held up a photograph in an ornate gilt frame. Hannah and Robert on their wedding day. Megan’s maternal grandparents. She took it from Elizabeth, studied it and then handed both pictures back to Elizabeth who went to place them in one of the small boxes.
‘It’s a beautiful picture, Mum. It’s the one from the wall, isn’t it?’ She looked up at the empty space. A faint brown outline stained the wall. ‘It seems naked without it.’
‘Yes, it’s beautiful. She was beautiful. He was beautiful. Lovely, lovely Da.’ Elizabeth’s voice began to break.
‘It should stay on display. Why pack it away?’ Megan said.
‘My room’s too cluttered already. This place is packed with junk.’
‘There’s here.’ Megan corrected herself. ‘My bedroom. I’ve virtually no personal stuff. It’s going to look so bland. Let it stay in its place. To be seen, not buried away, out of sight. It’ll be something I can tell the baby about in years to come. Family history.’
Elizabeth looked unsure.
‘I’d like that.’
‘Very well.’ Elizabeth closed the lid on the box.
© Laura Wilkinson, Bridge House Publishing. Reproduced with kind permission of the author
Thanks so much for sharing Laura and we wish you all the very best with your ventures.
Next week we welcome to the spotlight children’s writer, author of Sky Hawk, Paws celebrity judge: Gill Lewis with a sneak preview of her new novel, you won’t want to miss that!