In conversation with Charmaine Wilkerson

It’s wonderful to have support from other writers. In the run-up to publication of my new novella, I had the great pleasure of talking with the brilliant writer Charmaine Wilkerson, who I have got to know through the international flash fiction community.

CW: Cath, it was a pleasure to read through your lovely novella, In the Sweep of the Bay. Your story spans decades and generations within the life of the family at the centre of this story with such finely textured language and profound insights. How would you describe this novella in one line?

CB: It’s the story of a long marriage and the persistence of happiness, in spite of all obstacles.

CW: Where did the idea of the couple at the centre of the story, Ted and Rene, come from?

CB: I don’t know! Did I see a couple like them, in that café on the seafront in Morecambe that they visited on a day out? I wonder. Certainly I went to that café, and the scene was the first section of the book that I wrote, a snapshot of Ted and Rene in later life. It was a stand-alone flash originally and I called it Keeping the Magic Alive. Thinking about it, that could have been the title of the book – it’s what’s at the core of it.

CW: One of the things I appreciate about all of your writing, not only in this novella, is your use of small, telling details in a story. Often, those details evoke a sense of place, not the least of which is the English bay, Morecambe, which is referred to in the title of the story. Which element tends to come first in terms of inspiration for your story ideas- location, character, or event?

CB: Character, I think, always. Or rather, characters moving through their lives. I see the action scrolling out like a film. You know how in a film you can ‘read’ the characters’ emotions on their faces? That’s what I hope I can conjure up for reader in prose.

CW: In this novella, the sense of place includes the interior settings evoked through your storytelling. The buzz of comradeship at the ceramics factory, the coat shop, a hotel lobby, a marital bed. Do these details just come to you in the writing or do you find you take notes in your daily life which then lend themselves to story scenes?

CB: I do wish I was good at keeping notes, because we are surrounded by characters for stories as we walk down the street, any street, on any day. But I don’t carry a notebook. I do take photographs, though; I think I have a strong visual sense, and (I hope) good intuition.

CW: The end of the story is intriguing. I don’t want to give it away here but I do want to mention that it leaves the reader thinking, is this based on a true story?

CB: No, this is pure fiction.

CW: You frequently publish short stories, in particular, flash fiction? What about your longer projects? What can readers expect to see from you next?

CB: I like the shorter forms, novella, short story, flash fiction. I used to say I’d never write a novel. But I have a couple of longer projects. One is a novel I started in NaNoWriMo in 2018, set in Nepal in the aftermath of an earthquake. The other is what think will end up as a novel based on the life of my Auntie Phyllis, who was a famous circus artiste. I feel a responsibility to write her story. Though, unhelpfully, she left few words, only pictures, so what I write has to be fiction.

However, I may just write another novella – or even two! – first. I do seem to have an affinity with the novella form. I’ve tried writing novellas-in-flash without success, but I’m thinking of having a go at a novelette-in-flash, in which each separate story is under 500 words. I’m taking advantage of Nancy Stohlman’s prompts for FlashNano this month to help me with that.

In the Sweep of the Bay is available for order through independent publisher Louise Walters Books.

Charmaine Wilkerson

Charmaine Wilkerson is an American writer who lives in Italy. Her award-winning flash fiction can be found in Best Microfiction 2020 and numerous anthologies and magazines. Her story How to Make a Window Snake won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2017 and the Saboteur Award for Best Novella in 2018. Her debut novel Black Cake is due to be published in 2022.

Eleven days to publication day

The excitement is mounting! Yesterday I signed some books for our local Waterstones – it’s good to hear of copies of In the Sweep of the Bay being available now in bookshops in other places too.

And, for today only as it is her birthday, my lovely publisher, Louise Walters, is generously offering 10% off all her books at her website bookshop – https://louisewaltersbooks.co.uk/shop-1. Just enter the code birthday.

Meanwhile, to cheer us all up in these challenging times, here is a beautiful collage made by a friend of mine – she has used photographs taken over five years in a garden she created.

Reproduced by kind permission of the artist

Countdown to publication day

Just two weeks to publication day for my second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay. Published by Louise Walters Books on 23rd November, it’s the story of a long marriage, with all the attendant hopes, joys and sadnesses.

The main setting for my book Morecambe in Lancashire and I’ll be writing about the location when I guest on Isabel Costello’s Literary Sofa next month. Isabel has given my book this lovely endorsement:

“This poignant novella has the feel of Revolutionary Road in a northern town and the outsize power of Mothering Sunday.”

We have a whole month of blogs to come, starting with a guest spot with Amanda Huggins tomorrow, 9th November, where I talk about the changing roles and expectations of women over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, as portrayed in my book.

Louise Walters is hosting a launch party on Zoom at 6pm on Sunday 22nd November, the eve of publication day. Hannah Persaud, whose brilliant debut novel The Codes of Love was published earlier this year, will be interviewing me, and there will be (short!) speeches, a reading from the book and a Q&A. All welcome. Contact me or Louise if you’d like to join us.

Meanwhile, you can pre-order In the Sweep of the Bay direct from the publisher, from the new bookshop.org that supports indpendent bookshops, or from Amazon.

More soon!

Guest Post: Drew Gummerson on Editing

In the last of my current series of guest posts from authors with new books out, a big welcome to Drew Gummerson with his thoughts on that most crucial aspect of writing – the editing process.

Certain books, written quickly, are infamous; Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, dashed off while on the bog, written in a cramped hand along the length of a single roll of toilet paper(*), Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, 2 weeks in the making, squashed between Bukowski’s bar brawls and unsuccessful attempts at picking up Women(*), (his next book, 3 days later(*)).

(Sequestered once in hotel room Bukowski refused to appear on same bill as one and only Burroughs, William (now he was editor; cut text with scissors, scatter text across floor, shoot heroin, piece text back together. For many years Burroughs carried pages of Naked Lunch (deconstructed / constructed) gripped with single elastic-band in suitcase across Paris / Tangier / Interzone.(*))

But for most of us, as Morrissey sang, These Things Take Time.

(And I know that I’m the most inept that ever stepped…)

The best advice I ever got about editing came backwards through a crude joke on The Inbetweeners. This crude joke was about having a numb hand and masturbation.

It’s better all round if you no longer feel it’s yours. (**)

When I finished the first draft of Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel I put it away for six months.

It was only then I had the right perspective to be brutal, see what worked / what didn’t. So I could slash and burn. And, I honestly couldn’t remember where it was going.

It was fresh.

And that’s where the real work started.

In this excellent New York Times article, Jenny Offill talks of how she put extracts of her new novel Weather onto poster-boards and it was only, through time, by looking at them, she could ascertain which ones sparkled, which ones weren’t merely clever.

In that first draft it’s all too easy, like Alice falling down her well, to be pleased with yourself. Time gives clear head to tidy up (delete) these sections which don’t sparkle, aren’t clever (I mean, who wrote this shit?).

On twitter Ronan Hession (writer of the wonderful Leonard and the Hungry Paul(**)) gave the Sound Advice of, when editing, to read the chapters in reverse order. This,

“1. Stops you getting distracted by the story.

2. Reveals a lot about flow… if a book reads well backwards it’s a good indication that it reads well forwards.”

Same as putting text away in drawer it is about finding a different way of looking / disrupting gaze.

And of going over and over it.

George Saunders spent 14 years(**) writing his short story The Semplica Girl Diaries

His editing process was to write reams and reams of stuff trying to find the character. It was only by writing in character’s voice that the nuggets of genius that made it into the story came out.

The rest was discarded.

But read what the man himself says, this is George freaking Saunders.

*****

Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel was written on my iPhone, sitting at my kitchen table, most often before I went to work. Just an hour or two.

Having once been an obsessive writer I made a deal (with myself) a number of years ago that I would keep my evenings free for movies, music, books etc etc etc (wine).

In those few hours, like Offill I ended up with many dozens of pieces / fragments / sketches.

The trick was to work on them work on them work on them and, as Saunders suggests, find the heart of what you are trying to say.

(*) – This is not exactly true.

(**) – This is exactly true.

Drew Gummerson is the author of The Lodger and Me and Mickie James. His latest book, Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel, is to be published in November 2020 by Bearded Badger Publishing

Drew Gummerson

And now…

It’s been such a pleasure to welcome other authors onto my blog over the past few months to share their thoughts on aspects of writing. Coming up we have the final post in the current series, from Drew Gummerson, on the topic of editing. So call back tomorrow for that.

Then I’ll be onto my own new novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, published on 23rd November by Louise Walters Books. News about the launch event coming very soon, but in the meantime you can pre-order here.

Meanwhile here’s one of the last roses of summer.

Photo: Cath Barton