Voula Grand has been a client of The Writing Coach since September 2010. Her first novel Honor’s Shadow is about to be published by Karnac books in July 2011. This is the first in our series of author interviews.
Voula, you describe yourself as a novelist and psychologist. Are the two related?
I believe they are. I’ve practiced as a business psychologist for the last twenty five years; and I’ve been reading novels since I was three. These are two different ways of doing the same thing: reflecting on life, ourselves, others, relationships, emotions and thoughts. The two subjects come at this from different angles: psychology is a science that observes, studies, analyses, and concludes. Fiction, an art form, presents the lives of others in stories, and leaves it to the reader to take what they want from it. Both provoke us into thinking more deeply and that commonly results in the development of new insights and ideas: then we have more choices.
Honor’s Shadow is your first novel, about to be published by Karnac in July this year. For so many of my clients, finding a publisher is the ultimate goal. How did you find yours?
Happenstance. My publisher is Karnac books, and they had asked me to write a book on Executive Coaching, something I spend a great deal of my professional time doing. I agreed initially, though I was also writing a novel at the time. Eventually I realised I couldn’t do both, and when I explained to Karnac that I couldn’t write their book because I was writing a novel, they asked to see it, and that’s how I got my contract.
When did you first think you might want to become a writer?
When I was around 8 years old I moved schools and the headmaster there loved my compositions. He told my mother what a good writer I was, and she, a great reader herself, was very excited and encouraged me to read and to write.
I used to buy exercise books from the newsagent and write on the front, A Book by Voula Tsoflias, and then write stories in it. When I went to university, as a mature student aged 28, I planned to study English literature, but got diverted by my interest in psychology. During my long career in psychology, and my child rearing years, writing became an ambition for my retirement and later years. Once I turned fifty, I thought I’d better get on with it if I was to have any chance of realizing this ambition.
You did an MA in Creative Writing. Was that a key turning point for you and would you recommend it to others? What did you learn from your MA course?
Yes it was a turning point, because it gave me confidence to formally study my craft to the highest level currently available. I had attended writing courses for many years, keen to learn. I wanted to write as well as I possibly could. Completing an MA seemed the ultimate: a hallmark of excellence, of quality. I learned a lot, definitely: how difficult it is to write really well; how my professional work had got me into habits of business writing, not creative writing. Most importantly, I learned that whilst theory is important, until you practice, practice, practice, nothing will change. I would recommend an MA to others, provided you are clear what you want to get from it – it’s demanding, time consuming and costly, but I’m glad I did it.
Tell me briefly about your novel – and what attracted you to the themes that you write about?
Honor’s Shadow explores themes of secrets, revenge and betrayal, through the lives of two women who, as young women, were love rivals for Thomas. Honor moves away from her home town and she and Madalena lose touch, until twenty years later, when Madalena’s daughter appears in a national newspaper, reminding Honor of the past and re-awakening painful memories and old grief. How Honor, now a psychiatrist, deals with this old injury is the subject of her story, along with her struggle to contain the vengeful impulses of Tisi, a strange new client.
Madalena, living a life of luxury with her wealthy partner, has everything she ever thought she wanted in life. An anonymous letter jolts her: somebody thinks they know something about her past that could destroy the life she loves. She is desperate to find out who wrote the letter: she must stop them from taking further action.
The stories of Honor and Madalena weave together: how do they both resolve their difficulties?
The themes of revenge and betrayal are primitive and universal, causing suffering and distress for many people. The betrayal of infidelity in marriage, the betrayal of friends, of children, the way we betray ourselves: these experiences can be character shaping and life changing, depending on their resolution. So for me, these themes are fundamental aspects of psychological development: what do you learn from suffering? About yourself? Other people? Relationships? Life?
Which writers do you most admire?
My all time favourite writer is Doris Lessing. She writes about profound themes in accessible ways. The Fifth Child and The Cleft are two of my favourites of hers. Other writers that I hugely admire are Margaret Atwood, Margaret Forster, Toni Morison, all older writers who have demonstrated their commitment and talent repeatedly.
In recent years, some of my favourite books have been “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver; “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “The Secret River” by Kate Greville and “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro
What advice would you give to fellow authors who have finished novels and are currently seeking publication?
I think you need to pay attention to two things: your manuscript and yourself.
The manuscript is the easy bit: edit and edit and edit, get others to edit, perfect, perfect. Do not make a submission till you are completely and utterly happy, particularly with the early chapters you are submitting.
Now the hard part: yourself. As my soldier son would say, you need to MAN UP! Whilst you may hit the jackpot and get an agent and publisher straight away, if you don’t you will have to get used to being turned down repeatedly. In other words, rejection. Tough one, and the temptation to give up after repeated rejection must be resisted at all costs.
Has the process of being published been what you expected thus far?
I’m not really sure what I expected… I was focused for so long on finishing the novel, I hadn’t really thought about the next stage. The most engaging and exciting part so far has been selecting the cover image!
We’ve been working closely together on the marketing of your novel. It’s early days, of course, but what do you think is working for you – and what strategies would you recommend to others?
The most helpful thing to me, as a novice, was to understand the three key areas around marketing: 1. All the stuff you can expect your publisher to do 2. Developing a following using a technology platform and 3. Personal publicity – visiting book clubs and book shops.
I was pretty ignorant of the technology platform stuff, but you quickly downloaded to me all the key things I needed to do and provided advice and guidance that must have saved me months of painstaking research and learning.
My advice to is, don’t be precious about marketing. It’s part of your job as a writer. Promote yourself, shamelessly, in every way you can!
Like many writers, you continue to juggle a demanding professional life with being a novelist. What do you think are the real keys to doing that successfully?
I’m sure this will be different for everyone.
Much of the received wisdom around writing is to discipline yourself to write every single day, even if only for a very short time. That doesn’t work for me. I find my professional work all consuming, so if I’m having a working day, which is most days, it is not possible for me to switch my mind from work to writing.
I have dedicated writing days, whole days when work can’t intrude. When I’m writing intensively, I have one writing day a week, Mondays, so I can spend the weekend forgetting about work, and tuning in to what I’m going to be writing next, and maybe do some preparation for that, so I can be ready for a good day of writing on Monday. That doesn’t mean writing non-stop all day… I usually get up in a leisurely way, and then take a couple of hours to orient myself to where I am in my writing and what I’m trying to do. Then I go to the gym for an hour to let my thinking stew a bit. Then I have a light lunch, and write all afternoon, aiming to draft out whichever chapter I’m working on, and if time allows, do some first editing of it. I consider 3000 words a good writing day. For me the key to success in this area is to become very conscious of my own process, what works for me. I make friends with my process, I don’t struggle against it. I take the advice of other writers lightly, as ideas that I might want to experiment with – but I focus on finding my own writing rhythm.
What do you consider the greatest challenge in your writing life at present?
Making sure I do everything possible to promote Honor’s Shadow, make it successful to ensure I can publish a second novel. I read an alarming piece recently – as a debut novelist, you can find a publisher who will take a risk on you. As a second novel writer, you are now a known quantity – and if your first novel didn’t sell enough you are unlikely to get a second chance.
Finding more time to write continues to be a huge challenge.
You are a psychologist and coach yourself. Why did you choose to work with a writing coach and was it what you expected?
I am very committed to the usefulness of coaching, because I am a coach, and I know how constructive and positive it can be. However smart you are, you can only get so far on your own – you need someone else to provoke your thinking, to ask you questions you wouldn’t think of yourself. And to point things out to you that are in your blind spot (good and bad things).
The process of coaching is, in general, what I expected. The outcomes, the usefulness of it has far exceeded my expectations, both in terms of the practical outputs, and of the personal experience of it. Writing is essentially a lonely pursuit, so coaching is a great source of support. The feeling that I have a partner in it frees me to be bolder, and more experimental: I know you will steer me away from ideas that are unlikely to work, or encourage me to develop the ideas which have potential.
What is your next writing project?
A sequel novel to Honor’s Shadow, called Honor’s Ghost. This novel is going to be a major re-structure and rewrite of an existing manuscript that I worked on over a ten year period, before writing Honor’s Shadow. I am so looking forward to starting it, but I won’t begin until I have done the final proofs on Honor’s Shadow in a few weeks time.
Thanks Voula, I’m looking forward to reading…