Welcome to the two hundred and sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with literary and crime author Avril Joy. 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, Avril. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Avril: I started writing about twelve years ago. At the time I was working in a women’s prison on the outskirts of Durham City UK and the Governor decided to appoint a Writer in Residence to work with the women prisoners. That writer was Wendy Robertson. She worked a lot in my classroom. We became great friends and I joined the workshop she ran for the staff including prison officers and teachers. When she decided to put a collection of the women’s work together she asked me to contribute a piece about teaching and about women writing. After I gave it to her, with I might add, some trepidation, she told me she thought I was a writer, so I guess the idea grew from there. I’d been struggling for a lot of years with the desire to be creative, had done some painting and collage, now suddenly I’d found what I was looking for. I was incredibly fortunate in subsequent years to have her as a friend and mentor. I learned so much from her and still do.
Morgen: A lot of established writers (household names, even) say they’re still learning. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Avril: Literary fiction has been my genre to-date but I’ve always been interested in the darker side of human nature and I’ve recently completed a crime novel Blood Tide which will be published in Spring 2012.
Morgen: I love dark. I always say I’m a dark and light writer: crime and humour. What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first book on the shelves?
Avril: I’ve published The Sweet Track – 2007 Flambard Press and most recently on Kindle The Orchid House and When You Hear The Birds Sing – all available through Amazon or linked on my website. I saw the first copy of The Sweet Track on a library shelf in Durham City. That was a very special moment as I’m a big fan of libraries having spent hours in the Public Library as a child.
Morgen: Me too and they’ll feature heavily when I go freelance in the New Year (quiet, no internet connection and a twenty minute / half-hour walk each way to the nearest ones). Have you ever seen a member of the public (whom you don’t know!) reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Avril: No, but someone once told me they saw a news item about trains and a passenger waiting on the platform was reading a copy of The Sweet Track (of course it has nothing to do with trains).
Morgen: How thrilling. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Avril: My marketing really consists of my blog / website www.avriljoy.com. I also blog for authors electric, a daily blog by professional UK authors independently publishing e-books for Kindle and other devices.
Morgen: Ooh, I’m going to have to check that out, being one of those… well, UK with independent eBooks, I’m working on the ‘professional’ bit. 🙂
Avril: I do work quite a bit with writers in the community so that gives me a platform too.
Morgen: It’s all about getting out there, isn’t it. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Avril: In 2003 I was awarded a Northern Promise Award by New Writing North. This led indirectly to my first publication. I think one of the great things about competition success is that as well as getting you noticed it helps you believe in yourself as a writer. I would definitely encourage all new writers to enter appropriate competitions.
Morgen: New Writing North sounds familiar… if they do anthologies I think I may have one (I’m going to have to check and see if around 2003… wouldn’t that be funny. :)). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Avril: I do have an agent but I think increasingly writers are doing it for themselves and not waiting for agents and editors approval.
Morgen: Yep, that’s me. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Avril: I love e books! The Orchid House and When You Hear The Birds Sing are available on Kindle. I put them onto Kindle myself and although the process can be tricky at first, once you know how, it’s not too difficult and the rewards are great – royalties are up to 70% of all sales – which is much more than you can expect from a conventional publisher.
Morgen: I’ve only gone with Smashwords so far because I knew their style guide was 70+ pages – in the end it wasn’t that tricky and I now have the shell so just slot new pieces into it. Amazon next. 🙂 Did you have any say in the titles of your books? How important do you think they are?
Avril: My titles are my own. I think titles should attract and intrigue the reader although I’m not sure mine fit this bill. Up until now I would say the cover’s the thing but with e books this is becoming less important.
Morgen: I agree although I think the cover picture you’ve given me is great (and I’d say perfect for eBook – striking colour, large lettering, simple design). Who designed your books’ covers?
Avril: I had a lot of input into my book covers, smaller publishers are great for allowing this. I have chosen all my covers to date. I like simplicity and I go with what I think looks classy. I’ve been lucky as I’ve had some help from my daughter who works in the design field.
Morgen: What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Avril: My first acceptance was for my first novel The Sweet Track from Flambard Press. They phoned me up and I have to say I was dancing around the room! I don’t think that thrill of recognition diminishes. I experienced it recently when a story of mine was placed in a competition and published in the anthology.
Morgen: I think if a writer wants to write, the thrill will never diminish. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Avril: I’ve had plenty of rejections, mostly via my agent. I’m always upset but after a day or two this fades. I try to deal with it by remembering that the writing is what brings joy and feeds the soul and the rest – success in particular – is often illusory and doesn’t necessarily bring peace or happiness with it.
Morgen: It’s just finding the right thing for the right editor. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Avril: Stories I’ve written about women in prison. I’m calling the collection Beyond The Mask. The first, which is around 10,000 words, When You Hear The Birds Sing is available now for 99p on Kindle. I am hoping to share the proceeds with a charity that supports prisoners.
Morgen: Let’s hope this interview helps a little.
Avril: I’m also working on a sequel to my crime novel.
Morgen: Ooh great. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Avril: I write most days but I’m not strict about it as I don’t have a problem getting the work done. This is probably a throwback to my last, huge, Senior Manager’s job in the prison; everything just seems easy after that. To complete my crime novel I wrote approx. 2,000 words (a chapter a day) for two months while in France. So when I came home I had the first draft of the novel complete.
Morgen: My goodness, that’s two NaNoWriMos in a row. 🙂 A question some authors dread: where do you get your inspiration from?
Avril: Place is my big inspiration. When I go somewhere new I always seem to find a story. The Orchid House grew out of a visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan and also my travels in Sri Lanka and India.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Avril: I mainly get an idea and run with it then stop along the way to think about the plot. I do like to let it develop organically through character, when possible and then do the planning later. With Blood Tide, my crime novel, I found I did have to pay more attention to plot and I did more continuous planning for this novel. But whatever I’m writing I’m always asking myself what’s going to happen next?
Morgen: That’s good because if you do, hopefully your readers will too. 🙂 Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Avril: Names are crucial and often the character comes into being when I find the right name. I look everywhere for names, especially on the credits at the end of films and TV programmes and I’m always jotting down names I think I might use. If I’m struggling with a character sometimes I’ll change their name and this can make a huge difference, somehow with a new name I suddenly get them. I look for pictures too – paintings and photographs – as I need to see my characters. But when I can hear their voice that’s when I know I’ve really found them and they are believable.
Morgen: Credits… what a good idea. I’m going to stay a bit longer in the cinema in future. 🙂 Do you write short stories? If so, apart from the word count, what do you see as the differences between them and novels and why do you think they’re so difficult to get published?
Avril: I do write short stories. I think the difference between a short story and the novel (apart from the most obvious one of length) is that a good short story is less explicit. It’s full of space. It has room for the reader.
Morgen: “It’s full of space.” I love that. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Avril: I run writing workshops and conferences with two colleagues at Room To Write and currently I work monthly with a small group of people who are completing their first novels.
Morgen: Room To Write (another site for me to check out :)). Who do you first show your work to?
Avril: My agent.
Morgen: A very good place to start. 🙂 Mine’s my editor, Rachel, although my writing groups get my favourite bits. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Avril: I do tons of editing and think I always will. I believe it’s when the hard work really starts.
Morgen: Having ‘won’ (completed) my fourth NaNo, I’d agree with you there. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Avril: I just start. I don’t find it difficult. A cup of tea helps but I don’t suffer from writer’s block.
Morgen: Snap. Idea, tea, crack on. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Avril: I write in notebooks first usually and transfer to the computer later. I think this is more creative and I’m less likely to let my editor’s head interfere too early in the creative process. I sometimes write direct onto the machine but always, if I do, I try to keep the editor at bay.
Morgen: I’m quicker on my computer but the good thing about writing then typing it up is that it can also be your first edit, plus it uses different parts of the brain apparently. 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?
Avril: I like the silence but I’m happy to scribble in notebooks in cafes too.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Avril: Some, but on the whole I think you should use what you’ve written. I’m not someone who believes in tearing up your work – it’s just too wasteful.
Morgen: Absolutely not. I cringe when I hear writers say they deleted or shredded some of their writing. Coming back to it later you may well think it’s better (often much better) than you think. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Avril: Favourite: People who say wonderful things about your book – it’s amazing how generous readers are.
Least favourite: When an editor wants your book and your agent thinks it’s sold and then in the end it doesn’t come off – big disappointment. As I’m sure you can guess this happened to me fairly recently!
Morgen: I love getting feedback – even if it’s constructive criticism – it’s how we learn, plus I often get some great ideas from that (Rachel’s good at that). If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Avril: That I can do it – I had no notion of being a writer or that it was something I might be able to do.
Morgen: Me neither, but I’m hooked, have been for months and there’s nothing quite like it – the not knowing what’s going to come out. It’s why I wear myself out every NaNo. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Avril: Write every day. Don’t give up when it’s tough. Start a blog and get used to publishing your words. Most of all LOVE what you do.
Morgen: 🙂 What do you like to read? Any authors you could recommend?
Avril: I’ve just re-read Toni Morrison’s Beloved – it defies description in a few words – so I’ll just say read it if you haven’t already. I love most things by Alice Hoffman and I’m currently enjoying Julian Barnes The Sense of An Ending – very thought provoking.
Morgen: I’ve not read any Toni Morrison (although I’ve heard great things) but do like Alice Hoffman. The only Julian Barnes I’ve read (listened to on audiobook actually) was ‘Arthur and George’ and wish it had been half as long and called ‘George’ (I couldn’t get on with Arthur at all – how funny (peculiar) was that? Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Avril: Oh there are so many! I’m an inspirational quote junkie. At the moment this is sitting scrawled on a piece of paper on my desk: Those who wish to sing always find a song. – Swedish proverb
Morgen: I like that, and writers / inspiration. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Avril: Talk about writing with friends, think about writing, blog, garden a bit, read a lot, drink wine, hang out and watch TV.
Morgen: You’ve mentioned a few already but are there any other writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Avril: I go back again and again to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones – Freeing the Writer Within. It’s great if you’re a beginner but it’s also refreshing to go back to. For anyone writing a novel I always recommend This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley. It’s such a slim volume but it tells you all you need to know.
For anyone working on editing their novel I have a number of blog posts under ‘editing your novel’ on www.avriljoy.com on which I’ve had some really good feedback and which people have said they found helpful. Writing Our Way Home is a great site for those interested in the way writing connections with our spiritual life. Advice To Writers is great for the daily quote.
Morgen: Where’s the best place to find out about you and your work?
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Avril: The future for writers is wide open and exciting. With the advent of e-books we are witnessing a revolution in publishing and I believe we will see many more writers getting their work published and readers having a much greater choice.
Morgen: I think so too, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Every time I get a ‘purchase’ or ‘review’ notification from Smashwords it makes my day. If you could have your life over again, is there anything you’d have done differently (writing-related or otherwise)?
Avril: Started writing earlier!
Morgen: Oh me too (I started at evening classes, lead by crime writer Sally Spedding six years ago). Thank you so much, Avril.
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.
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