Eyes on the Prize - in discussion with Lynn Michell

Every author and publisher appreciates that they have to raise the visibility of their books. There are strategies aplentyapparentlyand often the best publicity lies in the story behind the story. This might be a link between a current news item or a wider ongoing discussion with a theme in the book or headline-grabbing stories about the authors. But how many of us want a rake through our private lives?

Sometimes though we simply need to speak out, even if taking a stance divides opinion. Lynn Michell, both an author and a publisher, found herself in such a position when considering entering one of her Linen Press books for the Womens Fiction Prize. She raised awareness about a situation that is, frankly, surprising (and not in a good way).

Lynn and I each work in different genres, but we share a love of the written word and a passion for the sustainability of British publishing. Given our different experiences, weve been enjoying something of a cultural exchange programme by email. Its my pleasure to share some of her thoughts here.

Please read article in the link above. Its a real eye-opener. Wed appreciate your views in the comments section below. Dont be shy now! Any links on this post have been added by me.

Q1 Gave you been contacted by other publishers, editors or authors, since your article came out?

When an editor at The Bookseller asked if other small presses felt the same as me and could they talk to a couple more NOW, I gave them contacts for the directors of Patrician Press and Inspired Quill, publisher of my next novel, The Red Beach Hut and both sent supportive replies, Patricia Borlenghi (Patrician) more forthright than Sara-Jayne Slack of IQ who had a lot to say. They are quoted in the editorial article. No other publishers have been in contact though.

Q2 How do you compartmentalise your time and focus between being a publisher and being an author?

It varies. At times completely compartmentalised, other times overlapping. When I'm engrossed in my own writing and the characters are talking to me while I walk the dog, I'm inside the narrative more than I'm in the real world and everything gets neglected. You know those times when you live on digestive biscuits? When stories write themselves and suddenly it's dark outside? It took five years to write each of my previous novels with intense periods interspersed with calmer ones. When my energy for my writing plateaued and it felt safe to let it float along for a while, then I turned back to Linen Press. The Red Beach Hut was different. It came suddenly and vividly and I wrote manically for three months. It was good timing because there was no Linen Press queue. Usually I can juggle the two, and if necessary put one on the back burner to accommodate the demands of the other. At the moment, with The Red Beach Hut finished, I'm editing Ali Bacon's historical novel In the Blink of an Eye about the Scottish painter D.O.Hill and when a revised chapter comes in, I drop everything and give it my full attention. I can be almost as immersed in a novel as an editor as I am as an author and I only take on novels that I can see from the same perspective as the author. My next project is very different, a commissioned biography of an extraordinary painter, Rosa Branson. Unlike fiction, there are constraints - like the truth. I don't know yet whether it will tear me away from everything and burn as brightly in my imagination as the novels did.

Q3 How do we make the Arts and the book business in particular more democratic? (Has it ever been that?)

We can't. Not while monopolies dictate what we read by throwing massive publicity and advertising budgets at the few chosen crowd-pleasers and award winners that we see on the shelves of all the stores. Will Amazon listen to a plea for sales programmes that are a bit more generous and manageable for small presses and which offer them terms they can meet rather than demanding the same trading terms they ask of the Big Five like taking a whopping 55% of the RRP for their Amazon Advantage programme? You bet they won't. If a small press can't pay to have books pushed up the publicity ladder, hard luck.

The three big prizes, the Booker, Costa and Women's Prize for Fiction could have a fairer sliding scale of entry fees so that a one-woman press with no paid staff doesn't pay the same to enter as Penguin Random House which holds 23% of the book market. £10,000 plus 70+ copies of the book is prohibitive for many independent presses.

Q4 What was your greatest challenge in writing The Red Beach Hut?

The Red Beach Hut gave me an easy ride compared to White Lies and Run, Alice, Run. Alice in particular started as one novel and turned into another and I can still see the seams and stitches. The Red Beach Hut arrived like a short film, very visual and with dialogue, almost ready made. I'm a sailor who's crossed the Atlantic so in the scenes on the beach and in the boat I'm on familiar territory. One challenge was the office scene in which a computer is hacked. I'm no technology wizard so I had to do some homework. I was also concerned about getting the facts absolutely right about children on the at risk register. Serendipity intervened in the form of a much-delayed Ryanair flight. I exchanged moans with a fellow passenger who turned out to be a senior policewoman. Over a glass of wine or three, she told me exactly what happens if someone reports a worrying incident that involves a child on the at risk register. I took notes. Thanks, Lolly! You know who you are. The other challenge was to not over-egg my tabloid-reading baddie and turn him into a caricature. He had his lines changed quite a few times. The overarching challenge is for everything that happens to ring true. What I want is for the novel to have structural and emotional integrity.

Being Krystyna

Most authors will tell you that the fictional world of their books comes from a real world inspiration. - a news item, an overheard conversation, or perhaps a personal experience that sparks off a chain of inspiration. There is another purpose of storytelling - to memorialise a true story so that friends, family and future generations can see history through the eyes of those who lived through it (and often those who did not).

I'm grateful to Carol Browne for making time to discuss her work on Being Krystyna - A Story of Survival in WWII.

1. What was it that drew you to the project?

I volunteered to write the life story of local woman Krystyna Porsz after a chance meeting with her son in a Polish restaurant in 2011; but I was a very reluctant biographer. I did it because no-one else could be found who was either able or willing to take it on and that was my only reason. I thought, “If I don’t do it, no-one will.” It seemed far too big a responsibility to me but I told Krystyna’s son I’d give it a go, even though I was convinced I wasn’t up to the job. I write fiction. I make stuff up. I assumed non-fiction would be completely different.

2. Did your approach differ from writing fiction?

I discovered that non-fiction and fiction aren’t so different after all because the author still needs to provide the reader with a compelling read. It can’t be written as a chronological series of events or it will be very dull. In the case of Being Krystyna - A Story of Survival in WWII, although I had the facts of Krystyna’s life, they amounted to a few sheets of A4 paper, hardly enough material for a book. So I had to build a structure to hang those facts on, very much like creating a plot for a work of fiction. A young Polish friend of mine had visited Krystyna on two occasions and I used her as a narrative device, so we see the story unfold through her eyes. This gave me much more opportunity to expand the text while still being true to the available facts. It also added another dimension to the story, comparing the very different life experiences of two Polish women.

Additional challenges, however, present themselves when you remember you are dealing with someone’s actual life. Writers of fiction know that characters are apt to take on a life of their own. They seem real to their creators and as authors we want to portray them in their best light. When you are writing a real person’s story, this becomes vitally important. The sense of responsibility the author feels is magnified. For me, writing about Krystyna, it was off the scale; here was a very old lady whose ability to communicate was seriously hampered by dementia. There wouldn’t be any chance of being able to discuss the book with her. There wouldn’t be any feedback. While I was writing the book, I kept thinking, “If this were my life story, would I be happy with how it’s being handled?” That was my benchmark all the time and I’m confident I kept to it.

3. How did the experience change you?

Writing a real person’s story is a challenge. It’s hard work. But I recommend it, especially if that person’s life is drastically different from your own. It’s an enlightening experience. It will broaden your mind and test your ability as a writer. It will give you the opportunity to write something that really deserves to be written. I only met Krystyna once but I made a point of shaking her hand before I left. I needed to physically touch someone who had survived the Holocaust, who had lived a history I had only read about or seen on black and white newsreels. Krystyna Porsz is a truly brave person. A survivor. I’m grateful not only to have met her, but to have had the honour of telling her story.

4. Where can we find out more about Being Krystyna?

Being Krystyna is available in Kindle format on Amazon.
Being Krystyna (UK): http://tinyurl.com/hanoycg
Being Krystyna (US): https://tinyurl.com/ya6gn7c5

You can visit the website of my publisher, Dilliebooks:  https://www.dilliebooks.com/ 
I also write other books and you can find my blog at https://authorcarolbrowne.wordpress.com