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Friday, 28 May 2010

An Interview with Caroline Smailes

More Than Words

An Interview with Caroline Smailes

Caroline Smailes is the author of the book that I wish I had written. Her latest novel, Like Bees to Honey, is a beautifully written book that combines a wonderful story with excellent form. her words, her lack of words, her use of language and her use of white space all combine to create a book that I am 100% sure I am never going to forget. I don't say that lightly; I read a lot of books. I love to read, but I have probably forgotten more great books than I have deserve to have read in the first place. Like Bees to Honey, though... I can't explain without giving away the plot just why it is amazing. Seriously, head over here and buy it. Then come back to read the interview with the ever-so-jammily-talented Caroline Smailes. .

Hello Caroline! Richard & Judy appear to have had a profound impact on your life! Can you share the details?

It comes from a moment that now seems a life time ago, back in 2005. It was before I considered myself a writer, and before I had been plunged into the world of publishing. I was watching a lunchtime repeat of Richard & Judy, with my daughter toddling around the room. Richard was talking about a woman who never quite reached her goals in life, he called her a 'nearly woman.' At that very moment I realised he could easily have been talking about the future me. I had always wanted to be a writer, but never really emotionally committed and certainly never really had the courage to ‘go for it’. Writing was my hidden secret. Within 2 weeks of that lunchtime show, I’d given up my PhD place and enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing, so yes I guess you could say they had quite a profound impact!

Was writing something you always wanted to do?

I think my story sounds clich├ęd at times. I have always written. I wrote as a little girl, (making up stories about fruits and vegetables!), kept diaries and for many of my adult years writing was my hobby. It was something I did when I had thoughts and problems that would not go away. I would turn to writing as a form of solace and when I wrote I felt better, it was my way of communicating, of speaking words that I never could in 'real life'.

What type of writer are you?

Writing for me is sometimes both a struggle and a juggling act. My aim, when writing, is to write at least a thousand words a day. I don’t plan, but I always leave a day’s writing with notes on what to write next. I find this stops any block and the pressure to create. I write with little idea of plot or story, going back and piecing the scenes together to form a readable narrative. This means that it often takes me a number of re-writes to find out what the book is really about. I tend to start by writing about characters and the events that happen to them and it is often once these characters start 'living' that my novels really start to form a recognisable shape.

Can you tell us about how your magical blog helped you to get both an agent & editor?

I was discovered online, by a cyber-scouting publisher. Back in 2006 (a year after the Richard and Judy ‘moment’) I’d finished ‘In Search of Adam’ and was unsure what to do next. My husband created a basic website for me and a friend suggested that I started blogging. I didn’t actually know what a blog was at that time! I’d put a short extract on my newly created website and been blogging for 3 weeks when a publisher stumbled onto my blog and then onto my website. She emailed to say that she’d enjoyed the extract and could she read the rest of the novel. I emailed the full manuscript and 3 days later I was offered a publishing deal! That publisher introduced me to my now agent, Cathryn Summerhayes, last year and Cathryn represented me for a two book deal including ‘Like Bees to Honey’ and my next novel.

Do you think that a web presence is important for aspiring and new writers? What about social networking?

I feel that an online presence is essential for new writers. Publishers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of writers who have an established fan base and a strong following can give new writers a real competitive advantage. I also feel that seeing social media as separate from an online presence is a mistake, as to me it’s all the same. I find the key is to find two or three online places where you can be most effective and focus on them.

You're not afraid to experiment with format & style, or to tackle difficult subjects. What are the positives and negatives of this?

As a once upon a time linguist I have always been fascinated with experimenting in ways to enhance the reader's experience. I wanted readers to see more than the words, I wanted them to consider things that I could never say in simple sentences. This led to my experimenting with white space, with fonts and with design. Coupled with that, in the past I’ve written about a darker side of human nature - abuse, self harm, undetected depression. The problem is that this means my work is not for everyone. I often come across readers who simply don't 'get' what I am trying to do. They see my style as gimmicky, they see the subject matter as unnecessary and are more than happy to shout this judgement from the rooftops. The positives are the opposite. When reader's ‘get’ my work they seem more than willing to go with what I am doing. I am lucky that my work seems to spark emotional reactions from some readers and this is such a compliment. As my writing progresses I am always trying to balance my experimental nature with the commercial reality of book publishing… I don’t know quite if I’ll pull it off, but I’m trying!

In regards to your career as a writer, have there been any unexpected pitfalls, or aspects of the industry that aren't what you expected? Is there anything you know now that you wish you'd known at the start of your writing career?

Oh gosh, where do I start? I know so much more now! The publishing world is a ruthless and cut-throat place. I think all writers know this in their hearts but most choose to see the best in the industry. The harsh reality is that book sales are often what count. I think the biggest lesson I have learned is that publishing is a partnership. Long gone are the days when a writer can sit back and let the publisher do all the work. Unless you’re a big name like J. Rowling the marketing budget for any book is limited. This means that it comes down to creativity from the publisher and writer and that’s where the partnerships come into play and where an online presence comes into its own.

Tell us about your new book!

‘Like Bees to Honey’ is the story of love, loss, family, redemption, hope and ghosts. It’s Nina’s story mainly as she travels back to her homeland Malta with her son Christopher to have one last visit with her aging parents. But when she gets to Malta it isn’t the land of her youth, a place full of memories and happiness, instead Malta is a transit lounge for recently deceased spirits and somehow Christopher enables her to see them, speak with them and help them. And, in return, they help Nina come to terms with her own loss, a loss that she hasn’t even to admitted to herself…

What are you working on right now?

I’ve a digital project to finish. It’s my most experimental story to date and I’m having lots of fun with it. I’m also working on my fourth novel, currently titled ‘Madame Oracle’ which is the story of 3 psychics who work in a lighthouse and an abandoned baby.

What is your ultimate goal in your writing career?

My ultimate goal is simply to remain publishable. Writing is such a fragile career, so, for me, my ultimate goal is to be able to keep writing and keep having a publisher willing to print my words.

And finally, what is the best piece of writing advice that you were ever given, and did you follow it?

To never, not ever, give up… and yes, I’m still following it now.

The Lovely Caroline's website and magical blog can be found over here if you would like to learn more about this amazingly talented author. I can't believe that Caroline very nearly didn't follow her heart into writing at all, then produced something so amazingly beautiful as her latest novel, Like Bees to Honey (have you bought it yet?). If she wasn't so nice, I'd have to glare at her menacingly. But I won't. I'll just stroke my copy of Like Bees to Honey again, and wish that I had written it.


Queenie said...

Ooh, I love the sound of Caroline's fourth novel! And the third, of course - but I've already read Like Bees To Honey, and enjoyed it very much.

Jessica said...

Hi Gemma and Caroline - Thanks for a great interview. I have been looking for a treat for pay day (savig for a house is a bit boring - can't I have a house made of books?) and 'Like Bees to Honey' is going to be my treat :)


paperpocket said...

Ooo another book to put on my to read list! Really enjoyed reading this in bed with my coffee this morning :P

XS143 said...

'like bees to honey' is a great book, I'm about half way through and can't put it down! Thanks for a great interview.. :)

DJ Kirkby said...

I have my copy of Like Bees to Honey and I am saving it for a period of time when I can indulge myself in reading it from start to finish.

Talli Roland said...

What a great interview, Gemma and Caroline! Thank you. I'm about half-way through Like Bees to Honey and really enjoying it. Interesting to learn Caroline was a linguist, because she does play around a lot with words and language in the book - and I love it!