Thursday, 11 June 2015

In Conversation with Novelist Helen Cannam

I have very much enjoyed my conversation with Helen as, although we have only just met, our writing lives are something of a mirror to each other. And I think, other ‘mid-list writers' who are taking on the contemporary challenges in writing and publishing.

Helen has written since she was eight years old. To date she had written twenty
three books and has done a stint as a columnist for the Northern Echo. She lives with her husband on the fringe of Durham City. And has two adult children and two grandsons. You can find her HERE

Wendy: What are you working on at present, Helen?

Helen - The novel I am working on is my first full-scale historical novel for twenty years.  I've written other novels in the interim - eight of them- but none of them the full-scale, carefully researched explorations of the past in which I once loved to lose myself, taking two years at least in the writing of them, researching, imagining, living with my characters.

Wendy: Is this one taking you the same length of time?

Helen: I've had this new novel in my head for more than a decade, along with a synopsis and lots of research notes. Not having a publisher to commission it, nor much hope that it would appeal in today's tough market, I used it as the background to the last contemporary novel I wrote, 'A Scent of Roses'
          This new one is the story behind the supernatural appearances in that book, whose explanation is never given in full. And it was my experience with 'A Scent of Roses' that taught me I no longer needed to depend on a publisher. I could write the book anyway and launch it on the world all by myself.

Wendy: So many good writers are taking this path now. You seem to be enjoying it.

Helen: In some ways it's been daunting, going back to the early years of the seventeenth century, reliving the lives of these people who have reality only in my imagination.  

Wendy: How do you deal with the presence of real historical people in your novels?

Helen: In my historical novels (with one exception), 'real' people only appear at the fringes of the story. My characters are people who live through these difficult times, shaping and being shaped by them, emerging at the end into a new world, a new understanding of who they are and what their place is in the scheme of things.

Wendy: And with this novel you are going back to your old routines?

Helen: So, with this novel I'm working on, I have embedded myself again in the once-familiar routines of being a writer.

Wendy: So, how do you set about your writing day?
Get up, shower, breakfast (most important meal of the day, they say...) a mug of strong coffee, a brief walk to get the circulation going, and I'm at my desk.
        I get up now and then just to keep my brain ticking over and my legs from seizing up; and I need quiet-- no one to talk to, nothing to interrupt the invisible cord that connects me with whatever it is that feeds the creative process.
        I'm wary of the word 'inspiration', because that can be given too much emphasis, when writing is indeed 99% perspiration, as the saying goes. But still, the elusive, fragile thing that some call inspiration is as essential as any amount of hard work. Without it there would be no novel at all.

Wendy: And then?

Helen: A morning of work, a light lunch and then a good walk; then if all's going well the story continues and develops in my head. In fact, for me, any routine activity--ironing, making soup, cleaning--is ideal for working out details of plot - how to get that character from here to there, or rescue her from a difficult dilemma.
        Sometimes I will write again in the late afternoon or early evening, especially if I'm in the final stages of a book. But morning is my writing time: if anything intrudes on my morning, then that day is lost.

Wendy: And where are you now?

Helen: I've just come to the end of the first draft of this new novel, written in a wild rush of words, a minimum thousand a day, just dashed down any-old-how.

Wendy: I have been writing recently about that on my Newsletter – trusting that first powerful creative rush. And what happens now for you?

Helen: Now the pace slows, and I work chronologically through the story, chapter by chapter, at the same time fine-tuning the research, absorbing myself in these past lives and the terrifying events that swept them up.

Wendy: I sense you are enjoying it.

Helen: Well,  I'm writing again. And oh, it feels good to be back where I belong! Because writing to me is as essential to my well-being as breathing, with the obvious difference that I can actually survive without writing, if I have to-- and sometimes life forces you to do so.

Wendy: I mostly feel I can’t survive without writing. As you say it is as essential as breathing! Where did it all start?

Helen: I wrote my first complete story at eight years old and have barely stopped since. My publishing career began around 1980, with seven historical romances (all now available for Kindle under the pen name Caroline Martin).
Then came the breakthrough into the mainstream, with 'A Kind of Paradise' (1987) the only novel of mine to tell the story of people who really lived-- the lives of Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood.
 Six other historical novels followed, before my publisher decided that middle-brow historical fiction wasn't doing too well. So I wrote a couple of historical stories for children, and then a series of 'contemporary' novels, which are arguably now verging on the historical!
And then, after a spell when real life seriously interrupted my work, I found myself without any outlet for my writing. 'A Scent of Roses' was completed
in 2011 and did the rounds of the publishers, with some good feedback but no takers; at which point my agent suggested I self-publish the novel as an eBook.
It's good for the ageing brain to be faced with new challenges, but I did wonder if this would be a step too far.

Wendy: I’m not sure about the ageing brain reference myself. Look at the Pablos  -  Picasso and Cassals. Look at PD James. Great old brains! We have many good role models. Now - what about the mechanics of your creative process?

Helen: I've used a computer for my writing ever since I got my first Amstrad back in the late 80s-- at the time I was sure I would still continue to write my rough drafts as I always had, longhand on alternate lines of lined A4 paper. In fact I found writing straight to the computer gave me a wonderful sense of freedom, though it was a very long time before the Internet meant anything to me; now I use an ageing Mac laptop and enjoy the ease of checking odd things on the Internet. But I'm no techie, in any sense.
Fortunately, my son is; so with his help I set up a website and investigated the process of converting a book for Kindle (I first bought a Kindle myself, to find out how it worked). The worst moment was when I reached Amazon's instructions 'for advanced users only' just as my son was out of reach at an important conference. I was on my own, and too impatient to wait. So, I concentrated very hard, read and re-read the initially impenetrable instructions-- and I did it!

Wendy: Bravo!  I keep telling people it’s an accessible process for all of us.

Helen: Anyway, the essential gizmo was safely downloaded, nestled in my Scrivener word-processing software, and my book was converted to the Kindle format, tested on the 'Preview' device, and launched into the Amazon Kindle store. After a few hesitant weeks it began to sell.

Wendy: It’s kind of magic when they start to sell isn't it? And after that?

Helen:  After that, I decided the time had come to convert all my now out-of-print back titles for Kindle too, which meant scanning and editing them (and sometimes rewriting parts of them) before converting them to the right format. I am a very picky editor: I read and re-read every book I publish, to be as sure as I can that it hasn't any mistakes. But if I don't on the whole regret the absence of a copy editor, there are other things my publisher used to do which I really do miss.

Wendy: My experience too. Very hard to hyper-edit one’s own prose.

Helen:  The cover design was one issue.  I didn't always like my print book cover designs (sometimes I hated them) but at least I didn't have to do them myself, or pay for them. But I couldn't afford to commission a designer of my choice, so it was back to self-help-- or my son's help. Anyway. I provided the photos (one came from a kind friend) and my son did the rest.

Wendy: How long did that take, then?

Helen:   It took me a good two years to get all my books converted, in which time I did little writing, apart from the odd blog on my website.
One thing self-publishing does help with: you can easily see which your best sellers are; and mine was a book that had only ever been published as a hardback library edition. It had good borrowing figures from PLR, but that was it. So, earlier this year I launched a paperback edition of 'Family Business', just for those readers who prefer a 'real' book. I did this through Amazon's 'Createspace', as that seemed the simplest way, though this time I did commission a cover design. I hope to launch its sequel 'Queen of the Road' very soon; and then issue 'A Scent of Roses' in the same way.

Wendy: Have you hit any problems in this process?

Helen:   I've realised too that I have to up my game as far as publicity goes--
because that's another thing that a publisher normally does for you. And without publicity the book is likely to disappear without trace. So now I'm on Facebook and Twitter (I find the latter time-wastingly addictive).
          But the real trouble is that with all these extra activities self-publishing involves, the time for actual writing shrinks horribly. It's a dilemma for which I think there's no real solution, except a rigorous self-discipline--and in my case, lots of daily lists of things to do, to make sure I don't fritter time away.

Wendy: So what is the very best thing about your present writing life?

 Helen:   There is one thing I've realised since I started writing properly again: though I'm writing without a publisher's deadline, that looming date that used to keep one at work even on bad days, there's something that's replaced it. If you blog about your work-- how many words written today, what your research has uncovered, how it feels to be writing again-- then you've gone public.
        It's like a sort of imprecise publisher's deadline, because once you've admitted in public that you're writing a book, then you've really got to finish it, and within a reasonable period of time, or you lose face and credibility.
I write because I have to, because it's an essential part of who I am.
Sometimes it seems nothing but a slog. But when it goes well-- there is nothing to match that sense of being caught up and transported into the world of the imagination, where something outside yourself seems to have taken over and be doing all the work for you.
The final result is rarely quite what you hoped for; some books come nearer to the ideal than others. But once the book's written, there's a great satisfaction in seeing how well (or not) it's doing. I write for myself first, but I need to have readers too. And knowing that someone's enjoyed a novel of mine is a delight.
 A letter from a happy reader or, these days, an enthusiastic four or five star review appearing on Amazon is enough to lighten even the hardest day and send me back to my laptop with renewed enthusiasm.

Wendy: Thank you Helen. I love your renewed enthusiasn and  identify with your practical can-do writing spirit.
 And, of course, I  look forward to reading the new novel.

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