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Wednesday, 10 April 2013
Author interview with Valerie Laws (revisited)
Back in February 2013, I interviewed author Valerie Laws for my interview-only WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...
Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist, playwright and poet Valerie Laws. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Valerie. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Valerie: Hello, I’m world-infamous for spray-painting poetry on live sheep to celebrate the principles of Quantum Theory (‘Quantum Sheep’). I collect skulls. I own a human spine (apart from my own!). I’m Writer in Residence at a pathology museum full of human specimens and I’ve been involved in dissection classes, also have a Residency at a brain institute. I invent new forms of poetry which move and change, in/on unusual media for sci-art installations. I swim a mile five times a week. I love snorkelling in foreign seas. I live by the sea, which is very important to me and my work, on my native Northumbrian coast. I was disabled in a car crash 26 years ago, (walking difficulty, pain, damage through multiple fractures) however the two cars were written off, and I’m still here and still kicking, so I’m calling it a win. I’ve degrees in English, and in Maths / Theoretical Physics. I’ve always written, started to get published in the 90’s and have been a full-time professional writer for about 12 years now. I just write because ideas come to me. I’ve always loved books and reading so writing seemed natural to me.
Morgen: Wow. What a life to write about! What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Valerie: I write novels: crime (eg ‘The Rotting Spot’ and comedy, like my new cross-over Austen-inversion ‘Lydia Bennet’s Blog’ (http://amzn.to/LydBBUK). I also write plays for stage and BBC radio (12 commissions so far), and poetry - often science poetry, or a mix of dark forensic science poetry and funny sex poems (‘All That Lives’ is my newest published collection), as well as creating the new forms/sci-art installations mentioned above. I perform my work all over the world live and in the media. My poetry film of animated text, ‘Slicing the Brain’, has just been exhibited in London, and will be screened in Berlin next month as part of Zebra International Poetry Film Festival.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Valerie: I’ve had ten books published the old-fashioned way, and one I’ve self-published as an e-book. I use my own name for all genres.
My publications include: crime fiction ‘The Rotting Spot’ (www.redsquirrelpress.com paperback, also on kindle http://amzn.to/RotSpot) with a new one just finished and more to come! Comedy fiction, ‘Lydia Bennet’s Blog’, which is my self-published ebook, and getting great reviews from some well respected writers. More on this in the next question! Three full collections of poetry (‘Moonbathing’, & ‘Quantum Sheep’ (both Peterloo Poets) and ‘All That Lives’ (www.redsquirrelpress.com). Also a joint collection and a Star Trek poetry anthology I compiled and edited! A hard-to-genre-lise (sorry!) book on ageing, challenging stereotypes, arising from a residency, ‘Changing Age, Changing Minds’ (pub. University of Newcastle upon Tyne). I wrote the life stories of lots of older people, in their voices, including those with advanced dementia, and those doing PhD’s and all between. One of my plays is published, also I co-authored two best-selling language books for schools, ‘Au Secours’ and ‘Hilfe’. Also many many poems in published in anthologies.
Morgen: If you’re self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Valerie: I wrote ‘Lydia Bennet’s Blog’ (LBB) as it just popped into my head as cheeky, shameless and full of herself as Lydia is in Pride and Prejudice. I had to tell her story. I got a top agent who loved the book. But he only tried big publishers and they turned it down, I suspect as the respondents were of an age to wish to distance themselves from teenagers, though lots of people seem to love it. Perhaps my most treasured review is from best-selling author Linda Gillard, who says it made her laugh during chemo! So having formatted the kindle edition of my crime novel myself, working with the typesetter/cover designer, I decided to put LBB out there myself. It’s on kindle and all ebook formats via Smashwords. It’s hard learning to market books this way but it’s fun too.
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Valerie: As above, my comedy novel and crime novel are available as ebooks. I formatted them myself, I love learning to do new stuff on computers! And I worked with the cover designer on LBB. I am a passionate kindle convert! Having been an obsessive reader all my life, I’m delighted with this new technology. Being able to carry lots of books everywhere is amazing for travel, especially as with my disability it’s hard to carry heavy loads. I find the screen so restful to eyes fatigued with working on back-lit pc screens. Also there are so many cheap books out there! I rarely buy dead tree books now, but I do buy poetry books and novels by friends at their launches.
Morgen: Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Valerie: Can’t have favourite books, just like you can’t have a favourite child! But readers of my two novels have said they’d make good film or TV series. ‘Lydia Bennet’s Blog’, well Lydia herself is a great character. Some reviewers have heard the older TV Lydia, Julia Sawalha, in their heads, but she’d need to be a younger, more ‘teenage’ actor. I have to admit I modelled her not only on Austen’s Lydia but on my daughter, who modelled for the cover and it’s her voice I hear in my own head.
‘The Rotting Spot’ would make good TV with its sense of place and strong characters. My mind goes blank trying to cast them though! My protagonist Erica Bruce, is a borderline anorexic homeopath, passionate, committed to getting involved no matter the cost, an exercise addict, small physically. The detective Inspector, Will, tall and dark with very blue eyes, also sporty, who could it be? Perhaps readers of this blog could suggest casting!
Morgen: Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Valerie: I’ve been very lucky to be involved with all my books, by the kindness of various publishers, from being consulted, to having final say, in covers and titles. They are vital to attracting readers.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Valerie: My new crime novel, ‘The Operator’, is just finished so I’m looking for an agent to try the publishing route first. I’m doing performances all over the place with my new poetry collection, work on death, sex, dementia and pathology. I’m marketing my two ebooks which takes a lot of time. I’ll be starting a new crime novel soon.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Valerie: I work every day, although the admin side of being a full-time writer, the marketing, the spreading the word, the getting about doing readings and signings, can take as much time as the writing! I write when I’ve something that needs to be said, a story that I feel needs to be told, or a commission to complete, I like deadlines. I don’t get serious writer’s block, I sometimes feel ‘stuck’ but it tends to be on a novel or play when you are trying to hold so much in your head at once, and changing anything changes everything, but I somehow break through in the end. I do a lot of semi-subconscious sorting out of ideas when I’m swimming.
Morgen: I love deadlines. Tell me I have to write 50,000 words in a month (I’ve done five NaNoWriMos) and I’ll do it! Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Valerie: I do a lot of re-writing, the amount varies with each book. I like to think I’ve improved over the years, but I’m very grateful for editorial advice from publishers, writer friends who offer, etc.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Valerie: I do but I’d do that if I didn’t write, out of interest. I love to learn about people’s lives. I research history for my plays, and for LBB, and I’ve spent several years working closely with pathologists, neuroscientists, and suchlike to learn about the science of dying, and the brain - this has fed into my latest poetry collection, ‘All That Lives’, but it also feeds into my crime fiction. The scientist in me loves to find out why things happen and how.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Valerie: I like first and third. Third is useful for multiple viewpoints or allowing the authorial voice to direct the story. First is great for ‘voicey’ intimate pieces. Second person to me is hard work to read at any length, I’ve used it in short bursts for getting glimpses of someone’s mind, often a criminal killer’s mind.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Valerie: Some older pieces but mostly my work finds homes these days. It’s taken years to reach that happy state of affairs mind you!
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Valerie: Like any writer I’ve had plenty of these foul critters! I deal with them in private, a good sweary rant and my boyfriend’s or son’s and daughter’s sympathy, followed by acceptance of yet another cruel blow from an uncaring world, and then I just get on with finding another outlet/agent/publisher and writing another book!
Morgen: Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Valerie: I’ve won several awards (Wellcome Trust Arts Award, two Northern Writers’ Awards) and many prizes in poetry competitions including the National Poetry Competition. Do some googling; novel competitions are mostly for unpublished writers so I’ve never tried those. There are lots of flash fiction and short story comps too. I’d advise writers to look at the judge(s), will your work appeal? Will the judge see your work, or is there a team of ‘sifters’ who could be anybody, who hand the judge a teeny percentage of the entries? If you don’t yet have much of a track record, they are a good way of getting something on your CV and your covering letter to agents and publishers. A lot of competitions are merely run for fund-raising so look for reputable organisations and decent prize amounts, to get an idea of the clout they’ll carry. The downside is, some have very slow turnaround times, tying up some work which could be out there finding a home in a magazine, ezine, or anthology.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Valerie: I’m ‘between agents.’ As I said above my last one didn’t manage to sell my ebook and we’ve just parted company, but I’m looking for a new one to explore possibilities with my new crime novel, ‘The Operator’. A good, committed, hard working agent is vital to an author’s success by the traditional, big publisher route, getting you signed up with a decent contract. But nowadays there are plenty of other agent-free routes to other forms of success. Smaller independent publishers, ebooks, self-publishing in various forms, getting Residencies with publication attached, running writing courses... However, creative writing courses often stress the importance of having an agent, and give the impression that once you’ve got one, you’re made. In reality, lots of writers find agents can’t get them a deal.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Valerie: I’ve always worked hard at marketing my work. My earliest success was with poetry and poets have to get out there and perform! Luckily I love doing this and love to hear an audience laugh, cry and respond. Even a bit of heckling is fun! I’ve been invited to perform all over the world, at festivals, events, symposia, conferences... So I’m happy to do this for my novels too. I love to do signings, readings, library gigs. Harder is picking my way through the electronic forms of marketing, especially for my two ebooks. I’m doing some guest blogging which is great fun, and also I’m using Twitter and Facebook. I enjoy these but it’s hard to get away from marketing books to other authors as opposed to readers! Amazon seem to plug kindle books which are already in the top few best-sellers, and some books, some great, some ho-hum and badly formatted, keep circulating at the top by this means for years. If you come late to the party, it’s harder to break through. I’m a bit squeamish about calling myself a ‘brand’ or being too heavy on the salespersonship. I’ve not followed very commercial lines in the past, it’s more about getting my work out to people and giving it as much life as I can. Poets don’t make big bucks, nor to most novelists, though I’ve made my living through writing alone for some years now and had two big best-sellers, non-fiction, but they were written out of conviction and I never expected to make a bean out of them. Instead of writing lots of novels of one type or sticking to one genre, I write lots of different genres because the ideas come to me with the genre attached somehow, which is perhaps less commercial but more interesting and fun for me, and I hope, for readers willing to try different genres with me.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Valerie: Write what you like and what you feel in your gut needs to be said. Accept you will need to do a lot of re-writing and to be edited by someone other than friends and rellies! Learn your craft, learn enough detachment to create a piece of art other people will engage with, but don’t be put off by rejections or criticism.
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Valerie: Amy Johnson, Oscar Wilde, and Socrates. Three of my top heroes, people I admire, and they’d be fun to have round! I’m a good cook but being a veggie with dairy intolerance, it might be best to order in for them, but if they’re willing to be flexible, I make a mean Yorkshire pudding (with soya milk) and so toad in the hole, with roast vegetables and sweet potatoes, followed by apple and blackberry crumble and/or chocolate or blueberry cake would be good. It sounds hearty and it is, but what the hell, I eat salad for Great Britain and win gold medals every day so a weekend comfort-feed won’t do any harm. Plenty of wine, and some cocktails to start with. I’d film it and get it up on youtube!
Morgen: Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Valerie: I perform my work live and in the media world-wide. I sometimes lead writing workshops, I’ve just led a crime fiction workshop on Poison Plants at Dilston Physic Garden, my newest Residency. I speak/perform at scientific conferences. I go to a lot of readings by other writers, book launches, that sort of thing. I undertake lots of Residencies, which are great for getting into new worlds and getting new ideas, and engaging with new audiences.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? :)
Valerie: I spend time with my boyfriend and children and friends, I love wildlife and being on my local beach and in the fabulous Northumbrian countryside, I travel, and always, always swim. I love to give parties for my friends too with food and cocktails. I go to films and plays and literary events.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Valerie: Shamefully, I need to get onto Goodreads and the Kindle Users’ Forum myself but haven’t found time yet! I don’t use other specific sites but I’d say get onto Facebook and Twitter. I used the Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook a lot in the past so it’s worth getting the current one of these in some form.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Valerie: No idea, which is great! The writing world is changing fast, all sorts of new possibilities are arising, and the older ones are still there, so it’s good. More electronic and less paper communication seems likely, more global, less controlled.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Valerie: http://www.valerielaws.co.uk which I shamefully neglect to update often enough as things happen so fast. Contact me through that for readings, or for signed copies of my books.
http://www.redsquirrelpress.com for some of my paperback books.
My ebook links:
‘The Rotting Spot’ on Smashwords: http://bit.ly/LBBSmash
Morgen: Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Valerie: Morgen, thank you so much for hosting me on your amazing blog! You clearly put a lot of time and hard work into it on a daunting scale! Did you envisage this when you started out? What made you begin this blog and hosting authors?
Morgen: I didn’t at all. I thought it would just be me posting something useful or interesting that I was doing or that I’d found on the internet but then a little while after I started the main blog (http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com), in March 2011 because I’d heard it was a good idea, I was asked for an interview and realised what fun it was (and how much easier than the audio interviews I’d been doing for my podcast interviews). Thank you, Valerie.
I then invited Valerie to include an extract of her writing and this is from LYDIA BENNET’S BLOG: Lydia is in exile at the Gardiners’, after eloping with Wickham.
‘‘We feel,’ Aunt G went on intoning like a hornet with piles, ‘you should be improving yourself with honest toil and religious contemplation, so here is a bible for you to study.’
I’m just weighing up with a practised and expert eye how many pages I can rip out for curling papers without anybody noticing, when she delivers the coup de grass.
‘The devil makes work for idle hands. Therefore I shall expect you to help with the household’s sewing.’
WTF! I’m like, ‘Well Aunt, if you insist, however I do not excel at sewing, my hands are like, too dainty and sensitive for the task and I fear I will make a sad botch of it’(believe it, I will!).
Then she swans off full of her own goodness in giving shelter to a sinful minx like what I am, and I admit freely, buddies, that despite my innate feist and self-belief, I did howl my eyes out for a while. Not with shame, natch, but with fury and frustration. What a waste of a fortnight in London! As for the sewing, no way! Anyhoo, it’s obvs to moi, Aunt G is only having me under her roof to please Arsey Darcy, with a view to marrying off her fave niece Lizzie. Why else would he involve himself in our affairs? Why else would Aunt G? Oh, she is SO angling for more visits to Pemberley hobnobbing with the upper classes. I blubbed to the point of blotchiness, desperate for the feel of my gorgeous George’s arms, and other bits even more exciting. But then catching sight of my puffy eyes and red nose in the mirror, I exerted myself to the max, to overcome my like, sorrows. After all, I’m still getting married to the lurve of my life. I bet I’ve Done It more already than Aunt G in the whole of her long and boring marriage, as she has four ankle nibblers, she has prolly done it only four times. And with Uncle G, what’s more. Ick! So I’m counting that a win for moi. Yay! I will rise triumphant, and look totally hot on my wedding day, so ner!’
And a synopsis…
Lydia, the streetwise youngest Bennet, is a modern teen, living in Regency times! Funny, flirty, lippy, rebellious, shopping and fashion mad, and clever when she needs to be, just as Jane Austen wrote her. Now you can read her blog and find out what really happened behind the scenes in Pride and Prejudice. Lizzy, Mr Bennet, Darcy and the others little knew what went on or who was really pulling the strings, as Lydia schemes to save herself and a clueless family from a cash-free future, and to get her man, the supremely sexy bad boy Wickham. By an odd quirk of fate, Lydia’s teen generation use slang very like our own, though it all comes from her own time and her strangely patchy education. Whether you read and love Jane Austen, or prefer the films to the books, or just like a good laugh, you’ll enjoy Lydia’s conniving, eavesdropping, Mr Collins-outing, Pa-baiting, clothes-crazy, shamelessly flirtatious and outrageous adventures.
'Valerie Laws is a novelist (crime and humour), poet, playwright, performer, mathematician and specialist in science poetry/art installations and commissions. She is the author of eleven books, the latest being her first YA comedy cross-over e-book, 'Lydia Bennet's Blog - the real story of Pride and Prejudice', available on Amazon kindlestore and on her new blog www.therealstoryofprideandprejudice.blogspot.com . She is Writer in Residence at a London Pathology Museum and has won many awards and prizes, including a Wellcome Trust Arts Award. In her Arts Council-funded 'Quantum Sheep' she infamously spray-painted a new form of poetry onto live sheep using the principles of Quantum physics. She featured in BBC2's 'Why Poetry Matters' with Griff Rhys Jones, with her next random haiku on inflatable beach balls in a swimming pool, and performs worldwide live and in the media. She lives on the North East Coast of England, is disabled but works largely in the mainstream, and is a fanatical swimmer.'
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