White Feathers came out on the 28th August last year. This means that it has been out in the wild for nearly a year. It’s been an interesting, if turbulent time, as I hinted at just about the six month mark. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you have to have very resilient mental health to endure the whole process of having a novel published. Imagine having your chest cut open, your ribs sawn through, and anyone able to take your still-beating heart in their rough, unclean fingers and paw at the ventricles…You are incredibly vulnerable. This is a good thing as well as a bad thing. Through sharing your work with the world, opening yourself to them, you bring that world to readers, and seeing them react strongly, empathising and thinking about the characters – that is the best feeling in all the world.
Now I am back at the entry point of the whole cycle, trudging through an occasionally intractable first draft of the next novel. I won’t say too much of what it’s about except that there’s Germany (well, sort of), and taboo romance, and betrayed promises and MORE WAR and some friends from WF show up briefly. I sent the first tranche to my agent in May and she was encouraging, so am working on getting some more in. And now that I’m moving forward into this new cycle, I’m beginning to get some perspective on everything that’s happened to me over the last few months.
Sometimes, particularly when I see White Feathers in the library – I get that sudden rush of pride and half-incredulity – Wow, that’s mine! I wrote a book! – though days like those are interspersed with days of uncertainty and doubt. But the question I must ask myself is not “am I selling like hotcakes have gone out of fashion” but “did I achieve what I set out to achieve”?
I did not have a particular agenda when I started writing back in 2010 other than an interest in the “white feather”. But as I got utterly pulled in to Eva’s story, felt her dilemma as I wrote, fell in love as she did, I began to feel, like a thrumming of something in the background, the emotional violence that propelled the whole White Feather movement; the violence within families and polite society; the cruelty woman could administer to man, and to her fellow woman. Not to mention the parallel cruelty men meted out to each other. And society as it is now provided example after example. I read only the other day of the existence of a condition called Enduring Personality Change, which is what happens after undergoing a traumatic experience and never being the same again. One former colleague of mine who had read the book said that she believed this happened to a character in the novel. Either way, I knew by the time I was on draft 5 and working with an editor that I wanted to convey that message of domestic, intimate, emotional violence.
Another thing I truly believe I did right was to capture the tenderness, awkwardness and variability of the relationship between the two lovers. I got a lot of feedback to the effect that the romance and the characters were “three-dimensional”, that readers were invested in their plight, and that was something that was always important to me. When I heard from the publishers that I’d been shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, I was surprised, but then pleased because it made sense. Above all things, White Feathers is a romantic novel, and without that it would be a hollow shell indeed. I am still under the spell of those characters, they stay with me.
(I do love that there was quite a protracted discussion on my facebook about who would get to play Christopher in a film version, accompanied by photos. The female characters got shorter shrift, though Rich Rennicks did advocate Miranda Hart’s voice for Sybil, which made me smile!)
I had some frustrations getting my book out to a wider audience. Some of the instant invites to festivals and other open doors for many authors whom the literary establishment had chosen to fete were doors I had to bang on and shove against, even though my publisher made many representations (thanks guys!) and I’m a good speaker. I did get to go on the Sean O’Rourke show thanks to a misdirected tweet 🙂 (many thanks to them for having me on!) and thanks to booksellers (MUCH love), book bloggers (much love!), writers’ groups, local radio and fellow authors (and I am ready to return the favour any time as these great people also write damn good books!), I am slowly boosting my profile. But honestly, having to beg for a slot in an open mic and jump through hoops when I’ve been told my reading style is electrifying…it’s rather dispiriting. On the positive side, a particular highlight was getting to visit Eastbourne while doing a BBC Sussex and Surrey interview arranged by Fiona Brownlee and seeing the real life counterparts of the school and some other environs in the book.
There were also some tough times. I remember attending a book swap event last January. I felt isolated at that point for various reasons: icy silence from certain quarters, as well as chiding criticism in the manner of the Head Girl booting me back down to the Third Remove. I felt like all the “Real Novelists” , along with the literary reviewer type who revered them as proper writers and sought to hobnob with them, were present and I had no business turning up because I wasn’t, by Clique fiat, a Real Novelist, never mind the fact that I’d just written a very real, corporal, tangible novel indeed weighing 0.6 kilos! I showed up, wore a short skirt and spoke loudly to try and assert my presence – but inside I was absolutely terrified and though I did meet some fellow novelists there and chatted, I still left early, leaving behind a copy of White Feathers with a defiant message on the wrapper – “no restrained and elegant prose – just passion and pure fire.” (I’d like to thank everyone who spoke to me kindly at that event. You probably had no idea how on edge I was.)
But I got over that. I had to, really. All that is detail, if sometimes hurtful, and during much of my travels I had a wonderful time. I won’t conceal the fact that I am quite ambitious and this is my life’s work, so I will keep on fighting as much as is practicable with all the other demands in my life. And even if you fall foul of some imagined ideal…so what? What matters is fulfilling what you wanted to achieve and writing a good story. Now I need to focus on the next book and also getting more traction in the UK for this current one. Am open to suggestions on this, have already joined the RNA and looking forward to meeting more of their members in November.
Reviews have been pretty positive for the most part. I love hearing from readers like Margaret Madden (check out Irish Fiction Fortnight running on her blog!) and Liz Maguire that the book has “a bit of everything, but especially soul: good, old fashioned soul” and that “my tea went cold and unnoticed”. I love it when people tell me they can’t stop thinking about the characters, and getting texts and LinkedIn messages about That Scene. Sometimes in the middle of the night! Just today I got a lovely mail from someone saying they enjoyed the book. Those messages mean more to me than you can imagine.
I want to thank you all for reading, believing, supporting and caring. This has been the defining year of my life and I am privileged to have experienced it. I hope I can keep providing good fiction for you in the years to come. If God and the publishing industry smile kindly on my efforts 😉