Welcome to the one hundred and twenty-ninth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. And today’s is with speculative historical author (who dabbles in horror and non-fiction) Sarah Tanburn. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate Sarah further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello Sarah. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Sarah: I wrote a lot as a youngster, mostly bad poetry, though I wrote an excruciating novel and tried to make a screenplay of the Ruritania novels.
Morgen: The first thing I read out in the very first creative writing workshop was a poem. When Sally and the rest of the room had finished critiquing it, it had more holes in it than Lancashire (Beatles fans will get this :)) but I’m still very fond of it. Sorry, you were saying…
Sarah: Then life got in the way, and I stopped writing, except non-fiction for my work. In 2003 my life changed dramatically; I moved onto our boat, Roaring Girl, and I started working for myself.
Morgen: Ah ha ‘Roaring Girl’, I see now where your Litopia ID comes from. 🙂
Sarah: The changes also undammed all that creativity and one night I found myself on the marina breakwater imagining a woman standing inside a space ship as it descended to the surface of a planet. Immediately, I knew this was the start of a novel, and an amazing new adventure.
Morgen: 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Sarah: Mostly I write speculative and historical fiction, though I dabble in some horror and even non-genre, literary work. I have two main projects in hand. The first is a speculative fiction novel, The Melkjeven Commitment, of which the first chapter is posted on my writing blog. The other is series of short stories, all in the first person, about women who went to sea under sail. That collection has the working title Women of the Wind. One of those stories, The Ocean is my Lover, can be downloaded from Ether Books if you use an ipad or iphone.
Morgen: Ooh I love short stories but sadly I have neither an iPad or iPhone. 😦 What have you had published to-date?
Sarah: I’ve had a couple of short stories published on line. I love Ether Books, who are re-creating the short story for the ebook world, publishing tales which can be read easily on screen and in a short time. I’m also really grateful to my pal Laura Wilkinson as she started a fab site at www.hagsharlotsheroines.com, and accepted work from me including book reviews, an essay on the value of science fiction, and some stories. The recently published River of Stones, edited by Fiona Robyn, and available from Amazon, has a piece from me in it. Fiona has promoted the idea of small stones, short writing that is the record or product of an intense moment of paying attention. Find out more at http://ariverofstones.blogspot.com. The magazine, Snapshots of History: Stories from the Past has accepted one of my stories Blessed are the Peacemakers for publication this December, and I’m chuffed to bits about that.
Morgen: Yay! 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Sarah: I need to improve! I started my writing blog late in 2010, and have really struggled to keep it consistent, which I know is the absolute requirement for blogging.
Morgen: There’s no doubt that having content makes all the difference and it’s thanks to you guys that I can put so much up… and I’d say (but then I’m a tad biased) it’s all good stuff too; quantity and quality… I’m very grateful. 🙂
Sarah: I am self-employed, and most years I spend four to six months travelling, but of course the last three months of 2010 were lean times for everyone. I did loads of business marketing so 2011 has been frantic, which is great for the finances, but rubbish for both the writing and the travelling. I prioritised actual story telling over blogging for a while.
Morgen: I should do but then I’ve written for a few years now so have plenty to edit and get out into the ether (keeping Rachel, my editor, in a job for a few months at least).
Sarah: Now life is calming down a little and I’m beginning to re-establish a routine which makes a bit more writing and marketing time. This interview is a big jump for me, to publicise myself as a writer.
Morgen: Oh great… I hope you get some lovely comments. 🙂
Sarah: I do have the writing blog and when we’re cruising, I keep a sailing blog, which a surprising number of people read. (I should say that my main audience for that is our mothers, so nothing really bad ever happens, or I only write it up once it’s reached humorous anecdote stage.) I’m on Facebook (though I have to accept you as a friend to see my details), and Twitter (#workthewind) and Linked In. I use LI mostly for my work life, though I notice you, Morgen, refer to writing groups there, so maybe I need to explore it a little more.
Morgen: Oh yes they’re great. I belong to 11 writing-related groups (Book Marketing, Books & Writers, Creative Designers & Writers, Creative Writing Source, Fiction Writers Guild, NaNo, Published Authors Network, Write It Down, Writer’s Bureau, Writer’s Café, and Writers) and was declined from another group (no, don’t ask again). I won’t say which one here but it’s probably the only one I don’t belong to… and I fit both descriptions of it so not sure why; maybe they Googled ‘MorgAn Bailey’ and I thought I was a porn star. 🙂
Sarah: I am pretty protective of my ‘brand’ which is one advantage of having a really rare name. In some ways, that’s an inhibition, but I try to see it as a real benefit in slowly sidling into the world of having a writing identity to bring to the market.
Morgen: I’d say so. It’s about people remembering you… there are only three or four MorgEn Baileys as far as I know so as long as people remember that… Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Sarah: I won a competition on the hagsharlotsheroines site, which was a great boost early on. A section of The Melkjeven Commitment was one of the 100 shortlisted debut novels from the Writers & Artists Yearbook in 2007, something I find very consoling when I need to keep the faith.
Morgen: Oh wow. The W&AY is the guru of guru guides in the UK. Well, done <pats Sarah on her back>
Sarah: I’m sure competitions help with both profile and confidence, as well as credits. I keep missing the announcements though, and need to get better at making sure they arrive in the inbox.
Morgen: I can add you to my mailing list for my fortnightly handouts although I do end up putting the information on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/useful-info.
Sarah: Competitions have word limits (of course), and sometimes I don’t have anything that’s the right genre and length that’s ready at the right time. If I planned better, I would be more effective at writing to the requirement, which would help. Again, this is about making time not only to write, but to market.
Sarah: No. I see having a rare name as an advantage, so I want to use that.
Morgen: What Sarah? Oh, Tanburn. Yes, you’re right. 🙂 Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Sarah: I’d love to have an agent. So few publishers now accept unsolicited submissions, so it’s vital to have someone fighting your corner. I’m delighted to be published electronically, which is the obvious alternative strategy. I can be a bit of a geek, but I would still love to have a real, paper based book (or indeed more than one) out there on the shelves, and that seems impossible without either publishing (paying for, marketing, distributing) yourself or finding an agent, or at least not in the current state of the industry.
Morgen: I’m going the eBook route (with Rachel in my corner… I ought to go and check on her actually, feed her a little something from time to time :)) but if an agent or published wanted my book. I had an email from a ‘publisher’ called ‘Just Fiction! Edition’ wanting to publish my book that’s on Authonomy. For some reason I didn’t get excited which is just as well as it turned out to be carefully selected spam. Talking of eBooks, are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Sarah: My stories are, but not the book. I do read ebooks, and I love my Kindle. I travel a great deal and since I bought it in March, I’ve used it a lot. Many people seem to see a Kindle as supplanting paper books, but that’s nonsense. What they are is an addition, an alternative format. I still read paper too; my next Woman of the Wind is Noah’s daughter-in-law, Adataneses. I found a wonderful book about Jewish seafaring in ancient times which is full of helpful ideas and would never be available electronically. We are living in an extraordinarily exciting time for publishing, comparable to the invention of the press. That led, amongst other things, to the availability of sacred texts (the Bible) for everyone, to translation and increased literacy, and hence the Reformation and the Enlightenment. New formats and media, making the world of creativity and exploration more accessible, seem to me to be in principle a good thing. It creates huge challenges for writers, readers and (most of all) for distributors such as bookshops and libraries. We should explore those challenges and invent the new models, rather than stick our heads in the sand and hope it all goes away.
Morgen: I’m exploring. 🙂 What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Sarah: You could say editing my school magazine was first foray into publication. Acceptances are great. I’m a thrill seeker.
Morgen: I could, yes. 🙂 I’m clearly not, as I’m rubbish at submitting so not so many acceptances (but not a huge amount of rejections either; 29 🙂 Speaking of which, have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Sarah: Many, like (I believe) most writers. Not all rejections are the same. I prefer ones which tell me a little about why this piece wasn’t accepted, because that helps me to improve. I’m a bit peeved with agents whose websites say they’re open to new proposals, but whose refusals say they’re not reading at the moment. Please save me the time and postage. I try to remain professional and open to the lessons from any rejection, and move on to the next story and the next opportunity.
Morgen: Good plan. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Sarah: I am writing the collection of stories, Women of the Wind. Four are just about done, and there are three or four more to come. They’re not that short, coming in at between 6,000 and 10,000 words, so seven or eight will be a book, even if I get more of them published individually. I’ve had some publisher interest in the idea, but they need to be written first. Then I’m going back to The Melkjeven Commitment, particularly in the light of crits from Litopia, to do the fourteenth rewrite and then start submitting it again.
Morgen: Litopia crit… great. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Sarah: I don’t manage every day, because the need to earn a living gets in the way.
Morgen: I know, how annoying is that?
Sarah: But if I can live like a writer, which happens sometimes, I’ll write about 2000 words most days. Of course, 1,999 of them may not survive overnight.
Morgen: 🙂 What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Sarah: I don’t really suffer from it. When I’m feeling stuck with a story or situation, I find it can be very helpful to write about something else completely. I’ll find a prompt and get one with it. That can be really simple; I’m writing this on a train and we’re delayed next to a huge yard full of bricks. Wow! Who knew there were so many thousands of bricks in the Fens? I could easily write something set in that strange, dusty, red place.
Morgen: Fens… Cambridge / Norfolk? I spent my birthday morning last month on a Norfolk beach (a 3-hour drive from me, so worth it… on the warmest day in August!)… and took loads of photos for potential eBook covers. 🙂 Where do you get your inspiration from?
Sarah: Anywhere really. I do subscribe to Nature and Science, and they’re great sources. On this train, we’ve just been told the delay is due to cows on the line. There’s inspiration right there. I once got delayed on the Nairobi / Mombasa train (in Kenya) by elephants on the line. That’s even better. I enjoy sometimes just taking two or three words and writing something that incorporates them. Whale. Daisy. Crane. Go.
Morgen: You’re on a train doing this? Wow, I think that’s got to be a first.
Sarah: Children’s story about a whale called ‘Daisy’ talking to a crane with a sore throat. A crane called… Albert. How did I do? 🙂
Morgen: Lovely… I’m constantly amazed what we come up with in our Monday night sessions from one word, a sentence beginning, keywords etc. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Sarah: A bit of both. In my work life, I write a lot of reports and policy documents, and it’s essential to structure such work, making sure complicated, technical material is accessible by the intended audience and fit for purpose. When I got back to creative writing, I started out thinking I must escape that straitjacket, and just wrote whatever came. Over time, I’ve found that’s terribly wasteful, both of my amazing prose and my scarce time. Now, I will start with an idea of the character or the story which is a bit more than a seized image but less than a bunch of index cards detailing each chapter. I can begin writing with that. For historical fiction, it can be relatively straightforward. Take Adataneses: there’s going to be a flood and a rainbow and she’s going to survive. The important part then is character: who is this woman and how does she experience surviving the end of the world?
Plot becomes more important the longer the work. A full-scale novel needs to be plotted, to have the rhythm and internal structure that comes from real attention to the order and pace of events. I also find an awareness of plot helps enormously when editing and self-critting, to make sure the architecture of the piece is right.
Morgen: It sounds like you have this writing thing sussed. 🙂 Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Sarah: Characters tend to appear but may mutate enormously as I discover more about them, and their role in the story. This can include gender, though some people stubbornly refuse to change. I love the naming of characters, and work hard to associate names with the backstory, even if the backstory never ends up in the final piece. The climatologist in The Melkjeven Commitment, who is a minor player in the novel, is called Jyoshi. It’s derived from the Swahili for weather, and reflects his Muslim heritage as well as his profession. Detail and motivation make characters believable, I find. At a workshop once I was given an exercise which asked us to describe the five things the character always carried with them, and five rituals or actions they undertook every day. That’s great; even thinking about how a person cleans her teeth can tell you so much about them, how they operate in their environment and why.
Morgen: Ooh, five things (noted). 🙂 Do you write any non-fiction, if so, how do you decide what to write about?
Sarah: I write tons of non-fiction, on many topics of public policy, but I don’t think that’s what you meant. On the blogs, I write what comes up. The sailblog is easy enough, because it’s based on what’s happening. On the writing blog it’s a mixture of (relevant) events and readings or musings that spark me off.
Morgen: And poetry, do you write to form or free verse? What would you say is the difference between a piece of prose and a prose poem? Why do you think poetry is so popular and yet so poorly paid?
Sarah: I don’t write poetry. Some of my work might fall into the prose poem category, but that always feels a little pretentious to me. I think poetry has two attractions to many writers. It’s relatively short, so you can concentrate on it and hone it in your head. And of course it’s easier in many ways to perform. There’s a symbiosis between writer’s cafes and other such events and the growth of poetry, which is not so effective for even very short prose.
Morgen: I love short stuff but poetry? Sorry, don’t get it. I leave that to the poets (I have a few great ones in my group – that sounds vague but two do nothing else but others do a bit of allsorts). Talking critique, who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Sarah: Usually my writing group in Ipswich. I would like to find at least one good online writing group, which I could fit in with travelling and working, but haven’t succeeded so far.
Morgen: Oh dear… come to Northampton. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Sarah: I edit and edit and edit. I often line edit the last section of the previous session’s writing before I start the next days work. I edit and review at least once (often many times) before I submit a piece to anyone. I re-do in the light of feedback. I often review a piece if I’m resubmitting. So my challenge is not losing that first excitement and pace.
Morgen: How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Sarah: Both historical and speculative fiction need a lot of research. What meat did the Vikings have in Greenland? How heavy is the largest squid known in the oceans of Earth? I am a magpie for all sorts of facts, and am lucky enough to have a pretty good memory and reasonable filing system. Feedback suggests I can overweight fiction with the research, and I am still learning to stand back from all the information. There’s a wonderful comment by Hemingway, in his interview for the Paris Review, where he tells us to leave out what we know. He says: I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out…. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg. (The whole interview is at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway.) I remind myself of this comment all the time.
Morgen: Another noted, thanks for that. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Sarah: I aim to enable three stages, which often overlap, and cycle around each other for a while. The first is essentially noticing things, and jotting them down. Bits of notes, ideas, images, flashes of inspiration. Another stage often happens in bed at night, or during a long stint at the helm of a boat, or on a long walk. That’s dreamlike, episodic, and very visual. This stage is very important to me, and may be why a common piece of feedback for me is that my writing is quite film-like, though I’m not very knowledgeable about film at all. These are the most creative, lucky stages. Then there’s conscious planning and preparation. What research I need to answer a question. Have I checked the timeline, for example making sure I’ve allowed long enough for my characters to get from A to B? Ideally a lot of this has happened before I start writing. When it has, then the story will be written fast, and (I believe) better. I will capture that excitement and voice, without sacrificing consistency and accuracy. Because my life is a bit fragmented, with lots of other adventures and deadlines happening, the whole iterative cycle doesn’t happen often enough, which creates more re-writing and editing.
Morgen: Yep, very thorough. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Sarah: I write with what I have. I like to write at a computer because it’s easier to edit but drafts, particularly of sticky scenes, are often handwritten first. When we’re cruising, we live off the grid and generate our own power (solar and wind) and that means I write a lot more in long hand and edit on paper before moving to a computer. When I’m living ashore, I write earlier drafts on the screen, because I can.
Morgen: Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Sarah: I like to start in relative quiet, but once I get going, you can drop the dustbin by my ears and I won’t notice. I find the spoken word very distracting, particularly my favourite Radio 4, so that must be turned off (to my partner’s annoyance.)
Morgen: I love that ‘dustbin’ reference. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Sarah: That depends on the story, the character, the tense. I’ve never tried second person, and I often find it very annoying to read.
Morgen: Longer passages certainly can. I ought to post one of my second person pieces. I love writing it, really love writing it so would urge every writer to at least have a go. Some people do hate it. 😦 Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Sarah: I have used them, but (so far) have always done away with them in the end. I suspect they are often a darling the author just cannot bear to kill.
Morgen: Ah yes, ‘’kill your darlings’ (or in the States I think it’s ‘slaughter your babies’). Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Sarah: Loads. Some of them I will never want to publish.
Morgen: I have at least one of those; a very therapeutic piece. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Sarah: Favourite is the creation of something from nothing, the discovery of the new, the feeling that one is building the narrative, mining the story from the morass of possibilities. Least favourite? That has to be not getting paid for it. If I earned enough money at it, I could do it more.
Morgen: Snap. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Sarah: I realised I would have to kill a favourite character so that the main character would end up where she needed to be. I wept for days, and I was astonished at the emotion I had invested.
Morgen: Ah… JK Rowling was going to kill off a particular character but he / she didn’t want to be killed so she killed another… it’s funny how that works. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Sarah: Keep going.
Morgen: Absolutely. What do you like to read?
Sarah: I’ll read anything. (Bleach bottles. Twitter.) I recommend that writers read, especially in their chosen genre or field. I enjoy history, speculative fiction, literary fiction, some biography. I loved Sarah Maitland’s Silence, which I’ve just finished, and Stella Duffy’s Theodora. Chris Moore’s Fool (which I bought after he appeared on Litopia After Dark) makes me LOL in public. For writers, I always recommend Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and the Paris Review interviews. I regularly refer to various grammar texts, including Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves.
Morgen: Great choices, thank you. I have loads of Stella’s books – I met her at Oundle Lit Fest last year… she’s great. 🙂 What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Sarah: I sail, spending (most years) between four and six months a year cruising in the Mediterranean. We’ve just completed the layout of our garden, so I’m enjoying the planting. I do have to work, too. If anyone wants to know about my work providing strategic support around cultural, environmental and regeneration services, my biz site is at http://www.workthewind.com.
Morgen: My garden is a work in progress but one of my Monday nighters is a HUGE help (and an expert) so we swap expertise on Mondays. I’ve bought her a short story course… which is, ooh about an hour after this comes out. 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Sarah: So many, so little time. I’ve really cut back to create time for my own writing. The most important for me is www.litopia.com, which I’ve found a great source of friendship, support and bracing criticism.
Morgen: I need to go on it more often. I’m the ultimate Litopia Literary Tart; I show up on a Friday and Sunday night, get what I want out of it and go back into the night. 🙂
Sarah: I find I use Wikipedia a lot. Of course you have to check the authority of what you find, but it’s a fabulous resource for any writer. I subscribe to Mslexia and love the resources on www.mslexia.co.uk. There’s a lot of good stuff on the blog at www.bubblecow.co.uk.
Morgen: Ah yes, BubbleCow – I have a cuppa (cherry cordial, actually, it was lovely) the other day with short story author (tutor, columnist etc) Helen Hunt – who’s course it is today actually – and she mentioned them. She also recommended them in her interview so I must check them out. 🙂 There are loads of good blogs and ezines out there, so it’s really difficult to single out a few. People need to explore the web and find the voices they like. In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Sarah: I’m in the UK, unless I’m cruising or visiting my partner’s family in NZ. So far, travelling so much has not been a problem. Maybe it would be if I needed to do a bookshop tour in the UK, or walk the red carpet at a Hollywood premier. I’ll worry about that when it happens.
Morgen: I like the fact you use ‘when’. 🙂 Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Sarah: These days, I only regularly go to Litopia. Even there I’ve been quiet the last few months, though I try really hard to get to their radio shows at broadcast time on Fridays and Sundays, because I love the interaction of the chatroom.
Morgen: Isn’t it great! Where can we find out about you and your work?
Sarah: Visit my blog at http://www.sarahtanburn.wordpress.com. If you want to get in touch, my email is email@example.com. If you want to be friends on Facebook, look me up, but mention you are a writer, and how you heard about me.
Morgen: Ah WordPress, good taste. 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Sarah: A writer? This writer, or JK Rowling? There isn’t a single answer. The foreseeable future will need us to recognise a changing market both in distribution and readers’ expectations. For all writers, the future involves long, solitary hours chuckling or weeping or staring out of the windows.
Morgen: But more control over I lives and that really appeals to me. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Sarah: Boring but important: look after your workstation. I’m having physio for bad pain after a long writing bout to strict deadlines. Less boring and just as important: giving good crits and feedback helps me to self-edit. I hope that works for you too.
Morgen: I get sciatica so definitely important. Is there a question you’d like to ask me? 🙂
Sarah: How do you manage the formidable discipline that your blog and site represent? Awesome!
Morgen: Thank you. 🙂 20+ years as a secretary helps with the organisational side, short nights help with the ‘getting it all done’ but I try and keep on top of it as I go along. Thank you Sarah.
I then invited Sarah to include an extract of her writing and this is… Fragment (from the secret diary of my pen)
Lines of black trail, inescapable, inevitable. My twitching, scraping life spells out the darkness: filling up, spilling over. Once gone, excreted, vomited, I care little. An occasional tweak, sharp lines, curlicues in comers, a jabbed addition, no more. Moving is the point.
It’s always black. I’m bored with black but return to its simple elegance after brief flirtations with blue, purple, green or even, once, red. Black is less distracting and more efficient. It doesn’t catch the eye but fills it, embeds itself, immoveable.
Blue is transmutable, fluid, malleable, slippery. I don’t like blue; it is effete.
Green now: I liked green once. It appeared, smug, in official margins in an authoritative way, offering ambitious opportunities to cover suspiciously empty space. But fashions change and now it is too often the colour of scrawly, loopy swoops inappropriate to my aspirations.
Purple, despite its venerable legacies, suffers from the same image failure, and is difficult to find. I may take a respite weekend, but I do not need long-term care during a violet-hunt.
Red. Ah! I hanker for red, the alarming splash across the sombre remains, the touch of it warming my cold trail long left behind. I love red.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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The full details of the new online writing groups, and their associated Facebook groups, are:
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