Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord: Jessica Bell

If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big robust circles, to tiny stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce.

Thrillers With Attitude is on a mission to find out what makes these weirdly-shaped and strangely-flavoured writers tick.

My guest this week is multi-talented author Jessica Bell.

Hi Jessica, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m an Australian writing and publishing coach, novelist, poet, and singer/songwriter/guitarist who lives in Athens, Greece. In addition to my novels, my poetry collections (including Fabric, which was nominated for the Goodreads Readers Choice Awards in 2012), and my bestselling pocket writing guides (Writing in a Nutshell series), I have published a variety of works online and in literary journals and anthologies, including Writer’s Digest and Australia’s Cordite Review. Additionally, I am the Co-Founder and Publisher of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and coordinate a variety of writing workshops worldwide.

Where did you grow up?

Melbourne, Australia. But I also spent a lot of time on an Ionian island called Ithaca in Greece as I have a lot of family there from my step father’s side.

What were you like at school?

Shy and quite eccentric, until I hit my mid teens. By then I was no longer shy (mostly by pretense), but still quite an outcast. I seemed to have accepted that, though, and was proud to be different. I was bullied a lot. Especially in primary school. I remember very clearly one ‘out of uniform day,’ I was wearing a funky pair of stockings covered in an exotic fruit pattern. The kids called me ‘fruit loop’ (which is a cereal), then somehow invited me to play hide and seek. Of course, I was ‘it’ which resulted in me shutting my eyes, counting, hearing lots of giggles, and discovering that everyone had run off and left me. In my first year of high school, everyone called me ‘Mum’, and flicked their hand forward. Apparently I made such a gesture when I talked. I’d never noticed it, to be honest, but it became a really big thing that I was teased about incessantly. Of course, I made an effort to never make that gesture again. Now in my adulthood I’m often told I’m not very ‘feminine’. Haha!

On your website you ask, which Me would you like to meet – writing and publishing coach, novelist, poetry and short story writer, musician, book cover designer?  Who is the real Jessica Bell?

Haha! I’m just a woman who loves to be creative, loves to help the underdog, and like most creative types, often experiences Imposter Syndrome. I also feel weird calling myself a ‘woman’. I’m 35 years old and I still feel like a shy little girl who doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

Have you ever experienced an identity crisis?

Oh yes. I’m going through one right now to be honest. I’m not sure what I want from my career from this point onward. As much as I adore my work and creative endeavors (it really does bring me great happiness to accomplish all the things I do), I often fantasise about packing everything in, buying a campervan, and travelling the world. But it’s ME we’re talking about here (I’m a terrible workaholic), so what will most likely happen is, I’ll continue to do all the things I do WHILE travelling the world in a campervan. I guess I’m going through a pre-midlife crisis. Questioning what it is in life that truly matters the most. Not a bad thing to be pondering, I’m sure.

Do you have a preference for one kind of writing over another?

Not at all. My mood dictates what I write.

How has your writing evolved?

I started writing poetry, so I think over the years I’ve really learned how to master ‘plot’ and not overwrite, which I think poets tend to do.

Are you inspired by any writers in particular?

Marilynne Robinson, Rebecca Miller, Margaret Atwood, Anne Lamott, Raymond Carver, Milan Kundera, to name a few.

What are you working on right now?

Speculative fiction with the tentative title, Anima.

What is it about?

Here is a piece of logline I’ve been playing with. It’s not perfect, but it’s something of a teaser, I guess: Icasia must find the way to ‘die happy’ so that the deceased can live happily ever after.

How much research do you do?

Pretty much nothing until I write about something I know nothing about. Then I’ll make a note of it in my manuscript and get the facts straight during the second draft.

How long does it take you to write a book?

There is no simple answer to that. Sometimes more than a year, sometimes less than a week. Depends on my stamina!

Best writing moment so far.

When I was possessed with the idea for The Book, I called in sick at work, and wrote the entire first draft in three days without taking a breath. Was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had, and I very much doubt that will happen again as I’m usually a very very slow writer. I have never had words pour from my fingertips like that. I was almost like an out of body experience.

What are your ambitions, writing wise?

Back to my identity crisis. I’ve reached my writing goals and I now need a new one. Worldwide fame? Is that possible? More realistically, though, I’d love to win a legitimate award. It would give me a much-needed confidence boost. I just found out today (Sept 1) that White Lady is a Finalist in the Kindle Book Awards. Very exciting. I’d also love to be able to write full time. Isn’t that what we all say?

What is your writing routine – do you have a favourite time of day for writing?

I have no standard schedule, but I often set myself a schedule for each project. And it changes all the time. I’m a freelancer and so I need to be flexible with my hours. If I’m desperate to get something finished, I’ll usually challenge myself to finish something within a particular time frame, which results in me writing something every day until I’m done, no matter what time of day I do it.

Favourite time of day? Spare time? (Wishful thinking.)

Do you have a set amount of writing to do each day – if so, how is it measured – pages, words, lines, time…?

As I said above, there is nothing set. But when I challenge myself, I usually measure by word count to be sure I fulfill my self-inflicted deadline.

How do you manage your time – are you ultra-organised, or do you take it to the wire?

Super-duper organized. I juggle a lot of things: my own writing, book cover designing, my day job (editor for Education First), Vine Leaves Literary Journal, music …

I have a whiteboard and a diary. I usually write things on my whiteboard that I need to be reminded about every day, otherwise I’m likely to forget. This interview was one such thing!

Do you have any particular writing habits?

Procrastination.

What inspires you to write?

If I haven’t written anything in a few weeks, that will usually flick the guilt switch. I don’t get inspired by nice scenery, etc. When I’m in a nice place, I don’t want to be inside writing! Music often inspires me. Reading a brilliant book by a brilliant wordsmith. Boredom. There’s nothing like boredom to make me pull out my notebook.

Any advice for aspiring authors?

Stop trying to do this quickly and enjoy the writing process.

Learn the rules, then break them intelligently.

Find something else that you love to do instead of writing. At some point you’re likely to burn out and you’re going to need something to turn to that stimulates your brain in a different way. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s that relaxing and doing nothing does not rid a creative mind of woes. Our minds need distraction to get a decent break. It’s when we stop thinking about writing, that the biggest breakthroughs occur.

What are you reading right now?

Dear Life, by Alice Monroe.

Is there any one book you would like to have written?

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.

A few quick questions to finish with.  Favourite book?

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, Jacob’s Folly, by Rebecca Miller

Author

Marilyn Robinson, Rebecca Miller

Drink

Strawberry smoothie, Margarita

Food

Anything vegetarian (though I am not one)

Film

The Hours, The Shawshank Redemption

Television programme

Fringe, Dexter, Grey’s Anatomy

Radio programme…

That still exists? 😀

Music

Anything by PJ Harvey

Where can readers find out more about you?

You can Sign up to my newsletter and receive Book #1 of the Writing in a Nutshell series, Show & Tell in a Nutshell, or Muted: A Short Story in Verse, for free.

Website: jessicabellauthor.com

Twitter: @MsBessieBell

Facebook: facebook.com/jessicabellcreative

Thanks for taking part in the Literary Smorgasbord, Jessica.

Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell

LG Thomson is the author of Boyle’s Law, Each New Morn, and Erosion.

Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord: Aoife Lyall

If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big robust circles, to tiny stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce.

Thrillers With Attitude is on a mission to find out what makes these weirdly-shaped and strangely-flavoured writers tick.

My guest this week is poet and winner of The Irish Times Hennessy Poems of the Month, Aoife Lyall.

Hi Aoife, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord.

What were you like at school?

I loved school.  It is fair to say I was pretty competitive, and loved getting involved in art, drama and sport alongside the academics. I was lucky to have my twin sister and a solid group of friends looking out for me, and I got on well with the teachers.

What has been the evolution of Aoife Lyall, the poet?

I have been writing poetry I could take seriously since about 2012, but at that stage it was very sporadic.  A long-term family illness and bereavement forced me to turn to writing as a way to get my head around things.  A lot of my early work focuses on that experience.  Since then, I keep an eye out for ideas and write down everything.  Now my work is balanced between personal experiences and ideas that come to me randomly that I want to play around with.

Why do you write?

I have always enjoyed playing with words and poetry lets me do that in a way I find difficult with other forms.  There is a big pressure to formulate, regulate and systemise things- poetry is where I get to introduce a little chaos.

How deep do you dig when you are writing – how much of yourself do you expose?

My earlier writing was heavily influenced by my circumstances so I was dealing with myself, but the emotions were right there on the surface and decidedly raw.  My newer writing is not so much a chance to make sense of me, but to understand how I make sense of what’s around me.

Are you inspired by any writers in particular?

I love reading Billy Collins, Liz Lochhead and Roger McGough. They have a way of seeing the fantastic and wonderful in everyday life that I think is just brilliant.

Best writing moment so far.

When my husband made fun of me for being a poet- that’s when I knew I had something!  I had tried writing other pieces before- which were just horrendous- and I was so precious about them he had to be really careful not to offend me.  When he made fun of me?  That was a big push – he knew I had it in me.  Later that night I recieved an email telling me I had been awarded a commendation in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition: the first competition I entered, with the first poem I had written.  That double-affirmation was a big boost.

What are you working on right now?

A collection based on my experiences as a teacher.  It is in the early stages so I won’t go into anymore details.

What are your ambitions, writing wise?

To have writing at the centre of my career- creating, mentoring, teaching, lecturing.  The actual path it will take- who knows? This last year has taught me that it doesn’t do to plan too far ahead- the important thing is to DO and see where it takes you.

What is your writing routine – do you have a favourite time of day for writing?

Early morning- even though I struggle to get out of bed the rest of the week, roll on Saturday and Sunday and I’m wide awake at 6:00am, ready to work away in the true silence you only really get at dawn.  I tend to do my best revision work at this time of day and usually work on four-six different poems over the morning.  I find this helps keep each poem fresh and stops my attention wavering.  If I know something isn’t working, I move on to the next poem, then come back to the original later.

Do you have a set amount of writing to do each day – if so, how is it measured – pages, words, lines, time…?

I’m a full-time teacher so mid-week I tend to just jot down ideas.  At the weekend I set myself aside a block of five hours either Saturday or Sunday morning, sometimes both.  Some of that time may just be spent organising my files or reading- the point is that the time is an opportunity to focus on writing, and all that comes with it.

How do you write – longhand, laptop, typewriter, quill and ink?

Ideas and beginnings of poems are written in a lined, yellow notebook.  From there, the work is typed up on the computer and printed.  I rework the poem from the printed page using pens, pencils, highlighters, arrows and asterisks, then edit on computer print and repeat until the poem is done.  The drafts are all kept together in polypockets and folders.

Any writing habits – music, particular place to work?

I now have a writing desk at home that is solely mine. I think it’s worthwhile to have a space you can call yours- whether it’s a full room, a coffee shop or a spot on the couch.

What inspires you to write?

Pure curiosity.

Any advice for aspiring poets?

Start writing! For every piece that is worth developing you could have dozens that go into the scrap folder.  Learn to critique individual pieces of work- not yourself.

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?

 Anne of Green Gables – someone who is amazed by the everyday world.  We would spend the day eating apples, reading and talking about everything.  There would probably be a brook and scones involved at some point too.

A few short questions. What is your favourite book?

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Author…

Roald Dahl

Food…

Pizza

Drink…

Tea

Film…

Night at the Museum

Television programme…

The Simpsons

Radio programme…

Top 10 at 10 MFR

Music…

Ludivico Einaudi

What are you reading right now?

Roger McGough’s collected poems.

Thanks for coming on the Smorgasbord, Aoife.  It’s been great talking to you.

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Aoife Lyall

Find out more about Aoife at her blog.

The Irish Times Hennessy Poems of the Month.

LG Thomson is the author of Boyle’s Law, Each New Morn, and Erosion.

Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord: Stephen Keeler

If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big, robust circles, to tiny, stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce. Some of the nicest people around are writers, but some of them truly are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Thrillers With Attitude has undertaken to meet up with a few of these weirdly-shaped and strangely flavoured writers, some well-established, others emerging, so that you, dear reader, can find out more about them without endangering body or soul.

Welcome then, to the Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord.

My guest this week is poet, Stephen Keeler.

Hi Stephen, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Thanks for inviting me. This is a real pleasure.

I was born and grew up in the north-east of England and read English at Durham University where I also qualified as a primary and secondary teacher.  I worked in Sweden for five years in the early 1970s, and met my (English) wife there. She was a school teacher and eventually head of a large west London junior school.

I took an MA in applied linguistics at London, and we moved to China in 1981 where I directed a UNDP programme for British Council in Xi’an for a couple of years.  Back in the UK, we found a lovely house in Richmond-upon-Thames and lived there for the next 25 years during which I worked as a freelance language teacher and consultant, mostly in Sweden but also in the UK and for The British Council in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and other Soviet bloc states. Our daughter was born in 1988. My wife died in 2003.

I moved from west London to Ullapool in 2010, to write, and this year (2015) I was fortunate to be selected for a Scottish Book Trust New Writing Award.

What were you like at school?

Junior school me was well-behaved and polite and passed the 11+ (thank God!).

Grammar School me was a bit of a yob, really (massive understatement). I was rarely in serious trouble but rarely really out of it, until Philip James Osborn walked into my classroom spitting fire and ready to haul me into some kind of civilised state, with violent force if necessary, not least by introducing me to Lit-er-a-ture. I owe him everything: Joyce, Milton, Chaucer, Forster, Golding, Shakespeare, of course…

What has been the evolution of Stephen Keeler, the poet?

I wrote the usual compulsory embarrassing guff as a fey teenager, and even gave some of it to girlfriends. Ouch! My toes are actually curling as I type this. Another English master at the same school told me my poetry was crap so I wrote no more for over forty years. No exaggeration.

I wrote prose, and much of it had poetic elements. I also wrote occasional journalism, travel pieces, a detailed journal, academic papers, school books, study materials, occasional memoir sketches and even an award-winning series of English-language magazines and workbooks for teenagers. But I kept the poetry well back until I suppose it began to seep out.

I started to write poetry a little more consciously when I joined the North-West Highland Writers group which I found very supportive when I first moved to Ullapool.

Last December (2014) those wonderful people at the Scottish Book Trust decided to give me one of their New Writing Awards, and it is no exaggeration to say that it has changed everything for me.

At what moment did you first define yourself as a writer?

One sunny school day in 1958, in Mrs Butterwick’s class when she asked us all to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote, “I want to be a writer.” and could think of nothing else to write.

Everyone else wrote pages about being a nurse or a train driver or fireman or secretary – they were somewhat unenlightened not to say unimaginative days – but I could write no more and so was hauled out in front of the class and made an example of. “Well some writer you’ll turn out to be if you can’t manage more than that!”, hissed Mrs Butterwick through pursed lips, her eyes narrowing like a big cat about to maul. I was metaphorically mauled anyway by then. And maybe she was right. OfSTED wouldn’t have let her teaching style pass unremarked but I bear absolutely no grudges. No, really I don’t.

Why do you write?

Because I couldn’t not write.

How deep do you dig when you are writing – how much of yourself do you expose?

Two questions there, I think. I dig deep. I had what might euphemistically be called a colourful childhood; I’ve travelled very widely and lived for lengthy periods in a number of countries. I have a lot of ‘material’ to call on. I am especially interested in the importance of objects (was it Rilke who said that there was nothing of any more significance than objects?) and how they signify. I find myself calling on childhood memories even when not writing specifically about childhood. Toys, ornaments, streets, cities, cars all seem to feature a lot in my poems. Old girlfriends, my daughter and my dearly-loved and much-missed wife, too.

But, having mined material, I’m not sure that I really ‘expose’ much of myself. No one would be interested in that. It is the universal appeal of literature, its ability to speak to the reader in language and images and rhythms and signs that help us keep our sanity. I think.

Are you inspired by any writers in particular?

I read the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming as they were published over fifty years ago, and swallowed them whole. I have no doubt that much of my professional life and the vast amounts of travelling I’ve done are as a direct early influence of Fleming. For a while, as a gauche young man with more on his mind than in it, I even smoked Morland cigarettes, and I once went into Boots, in Darlington , and asked if they sold Benzedrine tablets!

As a poet I am strongly influenced by Philip Larkin who I believe to have been England ’s greatest poet of the second half of the twentieth century.

Best writing moment so far?

The realisation that you’ve somehow, against all the odds, managed to nail it in a poem. Nothing, well nothing much, beats that.

Of course, in ‘career’ terms nothing has come close to getting a Scottish Book Trust New Writing Award, as a result of which I got a support gig with Elvis McGonagall recently and learned all over again what it means to be stage struck. I loved it!

What are you working on right now?

All poets want their first collection published. I have the material for a first collection and am actively seeking a publisher.

I’m working on a pamphlet of poems about railway travel. Yeah, I know.

My Scottish Book Trust year project is The Poet’s Calendar in which I am writing one poem each month, about that month. So far I’ve written January to June… a bit predictable maybe but a realistic project with a more or less 100% chance of being completed.

What are your ambitions, writing-wise?

Getting that first collection in print and on bookshop shelves.

What is your writing routine – do you have a favourite time of day for writing?

I live alone and so can write whenever I like. I frequently write very late into the night, and just as frequently wake at three and jump out of bed with a ‘thought’. I’ve been known to greet my postman (around 10.30) in pyjamas having been up for eight hours writing. Something he never believes.

Do you have a set amount of writing to do each day – if so, how is it measured – pages, word, lines, time..?

I try to write something every day, even if it’s only notes. My writer’s notebooks are my most important piece of kit.

I don’t measure by quantity or time. When I begin to work on a new poem I try to work on it uninterrupted until at least a first draft is complete. I may work on some poems like this for three or four days. Seamus Heaney’s answer to the question’ ‘how do you know when a poem is finished?’ was, ‘when it stops bothering me’. I get that.

How do you write – longhand, laptop, typewriter, quill and ink?

Quill and ink, of course. I’m a poet, what d’you expect?

Any writing habits – music, particular place to work?

I need complete silence to write. I write on narrow-lined A4 pads from Ryman, with a Staedtler Stick 430M (nerdy enough?) but usually transfer to my laptop at some difficult-to-pin-down (critical mass?) moment, to develop and finish.

What inspires you to write?

The unbelievable good fortune of being alive, and wanting to celebrate that. I know that sounds guffy, but hey…  And all that stuff about wanting to know what I really think about more or less anything. It’s true for me. And the exhilarating experience of finding a poem taking its own course (sometimes you have to rein it in).

Any advice for aspiring poets?

Three things: read poetry, read poetry and read poetry. You cannot write poetry if you don’t read it.

If there was one person, either contemporary or historical (or fictional character) you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?

Flippant or serious? Flippant, I think: Greta Garbo – or the person who is for me her latter-day equivalent – Susan Sarandon. How would I spend the day? I should be so lucky!

Serious: my maternal grand-father who was a complex and accomplished man but who was profoundly ill-at-ease with himself. I’d love to spend a day with him teaching me to build radios and use a soldering-iron and develop photographic film and make mandolins, all of which he did effortlessly it seemed to me as a small boy. Odd how I don’t miss my parents but I frequently think of him and wish he’d had an easier life.

What are you reading at the moment?

Fifteen poetry pamphlets I’ve just been sent to review by the end of the week, oh and Johnny Rogan’s comprehensive biography of Ray Davies (a hero of mine and contender for your question about who I’d like to spend a day with).

 A few quick questions. Favourite book?

The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin.

Author…

William Boyd

Drink…

Hendrick’s gin

Food…

Janson’s Temptation (a Swedish dish with anchovies, potatoes and cream)

Film…

Casablanca – unoriginal, I know, but that moment when they all stand to sing the Marseillaise has the tears pouring every time

Radio programme…

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (Radio 4)

Television programme…

Lilyhammer (Netflix)

Music…

Elgar Cello Concerto and Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite; Beatles, Kinks, Cream, Elvis Costello, Tord Gustavson.

And finally, where can readers find out more about you?

On Twitter @stephenkeeler and you can read about me and my fellow New Writing Awardees at the Scottish Book Trust.

Thank you, Stephen.

This has been a lot of fun. Thank you so much for inviting me.

 

Stephen Keeler. Photo: Rob McDougall/Scottish Book Trust www.RobMcDougall.com 07856222103 info@robmcdougall.com

Stephen Keeler.  Photograph by Rob McDougall/Scottish Book Trust.

LG Thomson is the author of Boyle’s Law, Each New Morn, and Erosion.