Tag Archives: The Great Gatsby

The Intel: Deborah Bee

Deborah BeeThe Blog Tour for Deborah Bee’s startling debut The Last Thing I Remember starts right here, right now, at Crime Thriller Fella.

Deborah’s debut is a fascinating, twisty tale of two women:

Sarah is in a coma. She was mugged. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She didn’t deserve any of it. She’s a nice girl from a nice family. She’s a victim. That’s what they say.

Kelly is in the waiting room. She’s just a kid. A typical schoolgirl. Bullied a bit, probably. She doesn’t know anything. That’s what they say. So why is she there? Why does she keep turning up?

Can Sarah remember what happened to her, and work out who is it that keeps coming into her room at night?

Published in ebook next week by Twenty7 – with the paperback to follow in July – The Last Thing I Remember has already been snapped up by the telly people. Deborah’s background is in fashion. She’s worked at various magazines and newspapers including Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Times and the Guardian as a fashion writer and editor, and she’s currently a Creative Director in luxury retail.

In this terrific intel interview, Deborah gives us the lowdown on her women protags, Locked-In Syndrome and why to avoid top-stitching.

 

Tell us about Sarah and Kelly…

From the start, Sarah is our victim – unable to move, see, keep herself alive without life-support, but she can hear. She has Locked-in Syndrome. Kelly is a sassy 14 year-old who looks like a geek. Sarah has no history that she can remember, not even her own name. Kelly knows what’s what, but no one bothers to ask her, because she’s a kid. And she looks like a geek. They have an unusual relationship that unfolds as Sarah starts to remember, and as the police are called in to investigate Sarah’s mugging and the murder of her husband – something Sarah only discovers through overhearing conversations between her family and the medical team.

The publishing team seem to focus on Sarah. The TV company looking at turning the story into a 3 part drama (don’t hold your breath – these things apparently take ages) is more interested in Kelly.

The Last Thing I Remember has got a terrific high-concept hook – where did you get the inspiration?

I didn’t start out with anything high-concept. I just wanted to tell a story and the only way to maintain interest for a character in a coma, was to have a dual narrative, with two protagonists. It was only afterwards when I read up on the ‘rules of writing fiction’ that I realised that it was an unusual approach. It was a massively complicated structure. I got lost all the time. I had to do charts and all sorts just to make sure I hadn’t given away too much. And I had to rewrite Kelly’s dialogue to make her voice sound entirely the opposite of Sarah’s.

What kind of research did you do for Sarah’s condition?

I read every book I could find on real-life experiences of comas and Locked In Syndrome. Many of them are not particularly well-read books – but they are written from the heart, which is what I needed. I also watched a load of Emergency Room fly-on-the-wall style documentaries, which show a truer picture of intensive care situations than hospital dramas, and the way relatives try to cope. The proper medical research is evolving all the time.

The latest research is getting volunteers to sleep and dream while monitoring brain activity. When the volunteers wakes up they are asked what they were dreaming about so that the scientists can match the areas of activity in the brain with places, objects and emotions. They hope to use the research to increase the possibility of communicating with Locked In Syndrome patients.

The Last Thing I Remember_Deborah BeeWhy are readers so fascinated by characters who have amnesia?

I guess we are all shaped by our experiences and rely on them to make choices. It was even part of Blade Runner – when the Rachael character who was a replicant was given false memories in order to make her feel more human.

The novel is a long way from fashion journalism, do you ever imagine yourself setting a crime novel in the ruthless world of couture?

I’m not sure I agree that the world of couture is ruthless. The fashion industry can be pretty competitive, but the actual ‘couture’ is done by amazing artisans in tiny rooms dotted around Paris. They are usually devoted to their art. There’s definitely something in the fashion world though. I’ll dedicate the book to you if I ever come up with a good story.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Writing is all about confidence. If you believe in yourself then you can keep going for all those thousands of words. There’s a massive temptation to tell everyone about it or worse still, get them to read it – and then suffer their criticisms going round and round your head. The first person to read my book was my agent. When she said she liked it, I gave it to my husband to read. My son is in the middle of it now. If he says he hates it, I can live with it. Although, clearly I’ll be devastated.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I love a great story so my favourites are the ones that everyone loves – sorry to be boring. I think John Irving weaves a great tale – A Prayer for Owen Meany has the best twist at the end that takes you right back to the beginning. I like circular stories like that. J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is similarly circular. I think a clever structure can make a novel – Pierre Choderlos de Lacios’ Dangerous Liaisons is told through letters between two hugely manipulative characters.

Paula Hawkins Girl on a Train has the most brilliant unreliable witness.  Nora Ephron’s Heartburn makes you laugh and cry at the same time – it’s an autobiographical account of the breakdown of the author’s marriage and she somehow makes it funny. F.Scott Fitzgerald is a bit of a hero – The Great Gatsby is perfect – a protagonist who is not what he makes out – love that.

Give me some advice about writing…

Never forget who your audience is. Never forget that they don’t have to read it – you have to entertain them. Don’t try to sound cleverer than you are. Never start a paragraph with the weather (courtesy of Oscar Wilde – “Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”) Go easy on exclamation marks (Elmore Leonard). And finally from my fashion journalism tutor at Central St Martins, Felicity Green – “If you find yourself describing pleats or top-stitching – you know you’re in trouble.”

What’s next for you?

I have two stories that I’m working on. Both are waiting for some time off for me to decide which one to go ahead with first. One is commercial – an easier read than The Last Thing I Remember, the other is difficult – a psychological thriller full of time lapses and flashbacks. The difficult one is easier to write. Weird but true. More my style.

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Published by Twenty7, the ebook of The Last Thing I Remember comes out next Thursday, March 3rd.

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The Intel: G.J. Minett

G.J. MinettG.J. Minett has been getting terrific reviews for his debut crime novel The Hidden Legacy, which looks at the repercussions of a childhood crime on the perpetrator, their family and the families of the victims.

In 2008 Graham finished a part-time MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. He wrote the first chapter of The Hidden Legacy as part of his course and the piece subsequently won both the inaugural Segora Short Story Competition in 2008 and the Chapter One Competition in 2010.

Graham, who works at a timetabler at a school, is currently hard at work on his second novel. He’s here — and he’s bought all his own bullet-points — to tell us the intel about The Hidden Legacy, how he developed the novel from that first award-winning chapter, and how less if often more. And read till the end, because his last line will resonate with every debut author, young and old…

Tell us about The Hidden Legacy.

The Hidden Legacy essentially tells two stories which seem at first glance to be completely separate but which are actually intrinsically linked. One timeline, beginning in the 1960s, describes events which lead to the demonisation of an 11-year-old boy at the hands of the media for an atrocious assault in the school playground. The other, set in 2008, follows a recently divorced mother of two who is trying to keep too many balls in the air in both her personal and professional lives and who seems to have been handed the ultimate in gift horses when she learns she has inherited a Cotswold cottage that is worth three quarters of a million. The only snag is, she doesn’t understand why as she has never heard of the woman who has left it to her.

The novel deals with a number of issues:

  • should family always come first?
  • does the need to fill in gaps about your past justify any risk?
  • should anyone be expected to pay for the rest of his life for something he did as an impressionable child, however appalling that act may have been?
  • Where should the line be drawn between the public interest and sensationalism on the part of the media?
  • Given that once you know something, you can’t then unknow it, is there ever a case for accepting the bird in the hand and walking away?

More than anything else though, I’d like to think it’s an intriguing mystery which will keep the reader guessing until very near the end.

What was the inspiration for the novel?

The two timelines came from news items which I’d filed away for future reference, probably as separate short stories. Older readers may remember the case of Mary Bell who, as an 11-year-old, was convicted of killing the child she was babysitting. She had been released as an adult and given a new identity and was taking out a court injunction to prevent the media from disclosing it but it was her reason for doing this that caught my eye. It transpired that she now had a daughter of her own and was trying to protect her because she knew nothing of what her mother had done when she was a child. I thought it had potential.

The details of the other news item didn’t really stay with me. It was one of those ‘and finally . . .’ type pieces and it concerned a man who’d inherited something unexpected and couldn’t work out why but I can’t really recall any more than that.

I already had a strong female lead character playing around in my head and was trying to find the right storyline for her when it occurred to me that I might be able to combine both of these. So I suppose there’s a case for saying that there was more than one inspiration for The Hidden Legacy but never any doubt as to why I was writing it. It was always all about Ellen.

Murders committed at school are sadly all too common – how did you go about approaching such a sensitive subject?

Like a bull in a china shop, if you want the honest answer. The scene popped into my head one day, which is worrying enough, and I wrote it almost at one sitting. It really (honestly!) hasn’t changed much at all despite all the edits that the book has been through. Inevitably there have been odd phrases which have been altered and some bits have been deleted or added but these changes have been relatively few and far between because of the response to it on my MA course right from the outset.

It was only once I’d moved on from it and started to develop the rest of the novel, thus putting it into a more clearly defined context, that I realised there were a lot of sensitive issues here that I needed to think through. I imagine all writers have to go through something like this sometime but it was the first time I’d ever had to look past my own pleasure in having produced a piece of writing which was being widely praised and consider the fact that it could be extremely upsetting for anyone who has been through a similarly traumatic experience. I was writing a hook to draw readers in, not taking a moral stand or seeking to promote a debate on the concept of rehabilitation and the treatment of juvenile offenders but that wouldn’t necessarily be how others would view it.

It’s been a salutary lesson in the importance of thinking things through before I get them down on paper.

The Hidden LegacyThe award-winning first chapter of the book was written for a Creative Writing course – did you always have a good sense of how you wanted to expand it into a novel?

To be honest, I wasn’t even one hundred per cent sure it would be a novel. Initially it was just a module that had to be completed for formal assessment. Then, because it earned a distinction, it seemed to make sense to develop it a little further for the dissertation for my MA but even then any thoughts of going on to complete the novel were still no more than vague speculation. But that earned a distinction too and when it went on to win a national competition for the opening chapters of a novel, the decision more or less made itself, especially as part of the prize was to work online with an editor in London to see the ‘novel’ through to completion.

As I said earlier, I had a clearly defined character in mind, someone I’d been carrying around with me for some time, so I used her as the focal point for brainstorming where the novel would go from the opening chapters. It was planned in minute detail on postcards pinned to a huge notice board and by the time I did any further writing I knew exactly how many scenes there would be, how each would move the plot along, and also which elements of Ellen’s character it would either reveal or put to the test. So it would be something of a stretch to say that I always knew exactly how it would develop but I did at least have in place the central pivot around which everything was going to revolve.

You work at a school as a timetabler – how have the pupils there reacted to your success as an author, and to the subject matter!

As it happens, very few of the students would know who I am nowadays because I work from home for a lot of the time. I’m sure it would have created quite a buzz while I was still Head of 6th Form and teaching a pretty full timetable in lower school but my contact with the students themselves is much reduced now as my job is essentially an admin one. I have taught a few Creative Writing lessons recently to the A-Level group and the students seemed intrigued by what has been happening in the past few months but while the younger ones may have heard about it they’re probably mystified as to who this person is. There has already been some lovely feedback from former students though.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Probably that more is often less. I have always had a tendency to overwrite and need to be pulled up short from time to time and reminded that frequently the simplest form of expression is also the clearest and most effective. Not every reader wants to dive into a dictionary every other page of the book and very often the use of obscure vocabulary or complex sentence structure, apart from hindering a reader’s understanding, can cause the writing to sound unnatural and forced. The importance of communicating clearly is not a difficult concept but remembering to put it into practice can be so difficult, especially if I’m striving for the wow factor in any passage of writing. It ought to be deeply ingrained in me by now but I still need reminders every so often.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

There are so many authors from so many eras and so many genres. If I had to choose a top 5 I would probably go for:

  • William Faulkner, because in his brilliant creation of Yoknapatawpha County he managed to to make the Southern states of the mid-20th century come to life in a way no one else has managed since.
  • F Scott Fitzgerald, for The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night and for the beauty of his language
  • Kent Haruf, for a series of novels set in the fictitious farming community of Holt, Colorado that look at relationships and the aging process with affection and quiet restraint
  • Kate Atkinson, who is so versatile and getting better and better with each novel
  • Maggie O’Farrell, because she has that uncanny knack of reaching in and plucking the heartstrings when you least expect it

Give me some advice about writing…

I always feel a little edgy about something like this because what works for me is not necessarily going to suit someone else. I do feel though that it’s important to get the right people around you while you are writing. I was very fortunate while doing the MA because a lot of what I wrote was extensively workshopped and this made such a difference to the quality as well as forcing me to think hard about everything I produced so that I could justify it.

Some fellow students were of little help (other than in stroking the ego) because they tended to say nice things about just about everything, with the inevitable consequence that their advice didn’t really do a great deal to improve the work. Some others were overly critical, seemingly more interested in scoring points than making a valid contribution. But by the end of the two years I knew which ones I really wanted to work with – they were the ones who always did their best to find positives in any piece of writing I produced but were not afraid to offer constructive criticism whenever it was needed . . . which was most weeks. Their advice always guaranteed a significant improvement in the quality of whatever I’d produced.

What’s next for you?

Book two will be published as an eBook and paperback simultaneously towards the end of 2016. It has the provisional title of The Goose Drank Wine and has already been accepted by my publishers Twenty7 although the editing process is not yet complete. It’s a little darker maybe than The Hidden Legacy but there is more humour too and I’ve opted for a range of characters rather than just a strong female lead like Ellen.

I’ve also started thinking about book three and have a fairly clear idea of where I want to go with it but what I had been envisaging as my detailed planning time for it is being taken up with unforeseen developments such as edits, PR plans, social media . . . in fact a whole range of activities associated with becoming a published author that I hadn’t even considered.

You won’t hear me complaining. This is just wonderful.

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The Hidden Legacy by G.J Minett is out in ebook tomorrow – 5th November – and released as a paperback in 2016, published by Twenty7.