Welcome to the two hundred and fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction author, mentor, ghostwriter, reviewer and spotlightee Caroline Walton. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello Caroline. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Caroline: I started writing books in the winter of 1993, when I was 36. I was living in Russia by the Volga, having gone out there to find out what life was like post-communism (I should say here that I am English – my Russophilia was sparked by reading Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn in my teens). Feeling depressed after an illness, I went to visit a friend, an elderly wise woman who lived with her animals in a fairy tale wooden hut, dispensing advice and herbal medicine. She started to tell me about her life growing up in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. A light went on. ‘Do you mind if I write this down?’ I asked. And that was the start of my first book: Little Tenement on the Volga which I self-published. It was later taken up by a publisher in America, Garrett County Press. They published two other books of mine: Ivan Petrov – Russia through a Shot Glass – the life story of a Soviet alcoholic and vagabond; and a novel, The Voice of Leningrad. Now I have a publisher in the UK – Biteback. My book on spiritual survival in extreme circumstances, The Besieged, came out in September this year.
Morgen: My goodness what a start – I was hooked at a local college classroom, not at all dramatic. You write non-fiction, have you considered other genres?
Caroline: After having a novel published I decided to stick to non-fiction. For me, the extraordinary faces of life make invention redundant.
Morgen: With inspiration like that though I can see why not. You’ve had a mixture of self-publishing and being published. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Caroline: Before The Besieged was published all I could think about was finishing the book, finding an agent and then a publisher. The day after the launch I felt I was standing on the summit of Annapurna looking across at Everest thinking ‘I have to climb that peak now – I have to sell the book.’ The publisher can only do so much; the bulk is down to me. So here I am… I work hard at it, giving talks, interviews (including one in Russian for the BBC World Service), making connections wherever I can.
Morgen: Oh yes, the Russian interview. I understand that went really well. 🙂 Speaking of success… I know, tenuous link, sorry about that… 🙂 Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Caroline: I won a New London Writer’s Award 2000 for The Voice of Leningrad. It was a booster shot in the arm for my self-esteem. The prize money was useful too.
Morgen: It certainly helps, well done. 🙂 Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Caroline: Real name. I used to hide behind C. S Walton but my agent advised that ‘the majority of readers are women and if they see a female author’s name on the cover it will help.’ Hoorah.
Morgen: That does make sense. I’m yet to know whether mine is deemed as male or female (although I have been called Mr on more than one occasion), that’ll be interesting if I do find out, but then I write so many different things being sort of non-gender specific is useful. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Caroline: Yes, I do. I wouldn’t say they were absolutely vital. Sometimes a small press will take an author without an agent. It happened to me with my first books. But then I wanted a larger publisher and very few will consider unagented work. It really helped to know there was someone out there with the right connections working hard on the book’s behalf.
Morgen: That’s the thing – they know people and as the saying goes “It’s not what you know but who you know” and of course they’re in a stronger position than a lone author to negotiate a better deal; earning their commission. 🙂 It depends what the author wants but just getting an agent is an achievement these days. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Caroline: I am told they will be available. As for reading, I like proper books. I work with a computer screen so don’t want to relax with one as well.
Morgen: Most people still feel like that although for travelling eBooks are great, so I think they can sit alongside each other quite happily. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Caroline: It came in 1998, for ‘Ivan Petrov – Russia through a Shot Glass.’ The email said ‘Fantastic. We’ll do it.’ I thought the publisher had pressed the wrong button. Acceptance is still a huge thrill.
Morgen: Or pressed lots of wrong buttons (keys). 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Caroline: Loads. After years of them I have grown fairly good at putting them out of my mind by telling myself ‘It wasn’t right for that one but it is right for someone and I will just keep on till I find them.’ My advice would be to have the next submission ready to post so that it becomes a reflex, a routine task. That keeps the emotion out of it.
Morgen: Absolutely. I was actually more disappointed with the second one. The first thing I ever sent out (short story to Woman’s Weekly) was published so by the first rejection I was even, then the second took over (and the third… fourth…). 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Caroline: I am interested in the spirituality of Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. I am setting up interviews with some fascinating and inspiring people in Ukraine for next spring. The book will be based on the Chernobyl disaster as it has a personal dimension (my husband was eight and living near Kiev when the reactor blew up).
Morgen: Wow. You see, they’re such great topics that there’s no surprise (to me anyway) that a publisher would want them. 🙂 A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?
Caroline: My books are gifts from others. They tell me their stories and I just get this feeling when the seeds of a book have begun to germinate.
Morgen: This isn’t really the same as non-fiction but it’s a question really more about the process than subject matter… do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Caroline: I follow my ideas and then look at the draft. It tells me what needs to be done next – it’s all there in the writing.
Morgen: You write non-fiction, with so many topics out there, how do you decide what to write about?
Caroline: I seem to meet the right people who are ready to tell me their stories. For example I had been haunted by the siege of Leningrad since my first visit to that city in 1979. Up to a million and a half people died – but as many survived. I wanted to know how. The conditions were inhuman: a slice of bread a day, no heating, light or running water, minus 40 degree temperatures and constant bombardment. I thought I would have given up the ghost pretty quickly but people didn’t. They faced a stark choice – succumb to fear, despair and madness (there was cannibalism) or overcome your inner demons and survive. I wanted to know how they did that – and they were more than willing to talk. I focused on creative people – actors, musicians, writers and so on. Their stories changed my life.
Morgen: I love it when I read a book and it makes me feel like that but being the author and learning first-hand must be amazing. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Caroline: I am a Russian to English literary translator. Writing ability matters as much as or more than command of the foreign language for this. I also take on ghost writing projects that interest me. And I mentor.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Caroline: Masses. As time goes on my standard gets higher so I still edit many, many times over.
Morgen: Me too. 🙂 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?
Caroline: Silence. Not always easy to find where I live in central London. When I am really absorbed I can shut off from surrounding noise. For the final edit of my last book I went to a monastery on an island off the South of France. That was fabulous.
Morgen: Wow. I’d love that… although I’d miss my dog. Again this probably doesn’t apply but do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Caroline: Yes. They are useful stepping stones across time.
Morgen: That just goes to show how little I know about non-fiction writing (I don’t read or write it other than writing-related articles). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Caroline: It is not an accident that you have the urge to write. Listen to that urge. Persevere. Believe in yourself and the writing and never give up. Surround yourself with people who believe in your work and in you.
Morgen: Like a writing group. 🙂 What do you like to read?
Caroline: Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is my favourite novel of all time. I love the Russian canon for dealing with the big questions of life. But these days I read almost exclusively non-fiction – guides, if you like. At the moment I am reading ‘The Adventure of Consciousness’ by Satprem. I also love the writings of Paul Brunton. I have just finished Sasha and Olga by Eva Maria Chapman and that blew me away. The book I wish I had written was Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi, and for style I pay homage to Jean Rhys.
Morgen: Again this may be different for non-fiction but a lot of writers are afraid to read their own genre in case it influences them but I think it should be an influence. I read crime and humour, and write dark and light. Unless you have a great memory (I don’t) and lift entire passages, a writer won’t be plagiarising… but homagerising instead. 🙂 What do you do when you’re not writing?
Caroline: I meditate every day. Getting in touch with the source of the book is a crucial part of the process.
Morgen: You mentioned earlier that you’re based in London do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Caroline: It helps a great deal in terms of personal appearances and interviews.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Caroline: Various writers’ forums, LinkedIn, Facebook. I try to work on these but there is nothing like face-to-face meetings. I especially like giving talks as a way of connecting with people. So far, the greatest pleasure in having The Besieged published is that it has brought me in touch with some wonderful, creative, talented writers (and I hope being featured on your site will add to this).
Morgen: I hope so too. 🙂 What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Caroline: I would like to answer this question with an excerpt from The Besieged – a story of survival. It proves how books and writing can literally save our lives. Here my friend Lena is reading from a diary kept by a man called Alexander Boldyrev during the siege of Leningrad. Boldyrev meets an elderly bachelor, an aesthete and ballet lover who refuses to leave Leningrad. He is on the lowest rations, so weak his legs can barely carry him but he persists in spending a large part of his salary on books.
“Over my shoulder Lena reads aloud, “Such courage, such strong-willed resolution to overcome the law that says ‘to eat is to live.’ A powerful rebellion against the animalistic yoke. At the beginning of our conversation he announced his aversion to the subject of food and rations. Now there’s a man!”
Eyes shining, her cheeks flushed, Lena squeezes my hand, “There you are! That man was able to transcend siege conditions.”
“Did he survive?”
She shrugs. “Physically you mean? Boldyrev doesn’t say. But that’s not the point.”
“What about Boldyrev himself?”
“You mean what pulled him through? Precisely this.” She taps the book. “As the siege wore on he began to realise the significance of his diary. It was more important to him than all his other work. He wrote that it would be more than a miserable record of food consumed, more than a death rattle, it would be a truthful witness to the time.
“Let me show you, I marked the page.”
And there arises in my mind’s eye an undreamed-of pleasure: a study, warm and light. Alive, well-fed, clean and calm, I sit and write. All horrors are in the past. ‘ Siege Notes’ – are notes about the past and in the past. The diary is finished and I am preparing it for others to read.
“He wrote that on 15th December 1942,” Lena continues. “The second winter of the siege. He had another year to go, but already his spirit was vaulting over the horrors.”
The creative spark that saved Boldyrev’s life lies within all of us. If we don’t nurture it, if we don’t ‘rebel’ against the voices of self-sabotage (‘get a proper job,’ ‘you’ll never write as well as X…etc), then we lay siege to ourselves. Our spirits shrivel. For us writers the urge to put words on paper means that is exactly what we need to be doing. We damage ourselves by ignoring or suppressing that urge.
So-called ‘writer’s block’ is usually a product of listening to those voices. I am passionate about helping fellow writers develop new belief systems about their work. I offer mentoring, face-to-face, by phone or email. Anyone who is interested is welcome to drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org. My website is www.carolinewalton.co.uk.
Morgen: Thank you very much Caroline. 🙂
Award-winning author Caroline Walton’s book on spiritual survival in extreme circumstances, The Besieged, is published by Biteback UK. Her first three books were published in the US by Garrett County Press: Ivan Petrov – Russia through a Shot Glass – the life story of a Soviet alcoholic and vagabond; Little Tenement on the Volga – Caroline’s account of living in post-Soviet Russia; a novel, The Voice of Leningrad, which won a New London Writer’s Award in 2000. Caroline is also a Russian to English literary translator and a writing mentor. She has worked with the Open College of the Arts, the Wimpole Street Writers’ Group and now privately. Skilfully guiding writers through the process of preparing for publication and submission to agents and publishers, she is a wizard in banishing any demons lurking along the way. You can also listen to a podcast interview with her carried out for US public radio stations. 🙂
Update August 2012: I am having another book published in March: Smashed on the Steppes: fear, loathing and vodka in the USSR (Old Street publishing). It is the true life story of a Russian alcoholic whom I met over here. He was born in 1934 and wandered all over the former Soviet Union, seeing the inside of several camps in the process.
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