Best Known Works: Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, Lucid, Angorichina
Top Writing Tip: You're in it for the long haul. Give yourself time, be patient, learn well from others, and write lots and lots of words. Eventually they'll sparkle.
Tell us a little about yourself, when and why did you begin writing?
My background both in literature and life is pretty eclectic. I went to the BRIT School of Performing Arts before uni, which was a great place for learning what makes a good story and how to express myself.
I went on to combine my love of drama with a passion for British Sign Language. I studied Deaf Theatre at Reading, then an MA in Language and Communication Research at Cardiff. My academic background has always been far less vocational than it has been artistic, although to call art non-vocational is perhaps a disservice. It's just how I feel when I check my bank balance.
In 2007 I signed up with Voluntary Services Overseas and went to Rwanda, where I helped to develop the first Dictionary of Rwandan Sign Language, published in 2009. I've called Kigali my second home ever since. I currently work as the program director for a small human rights organisation focused on post-genocide countries.
It was during my first time in Rwanda that I decided to try to write a novel. I didn't have a TV, radio or many books, and the internet back then was fairly shonky, so I had a lot of spare time on my hands with few distractions.
Rwanda has always been a very productive country for me writing-wise.
What are the main life experiences that have led to this book?
Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran was less about life experience, and more about inner fascination. It's dark Gothic fiction, strongly inspired by Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera.
Leroux hinted at another story, one set in Northern Iran prior to the Paris Opera House. There were enough breadcrumbs dropped to bake a loaf, yet the full story was still something of a mystery.
Susan Kay tackled it in her 1990 novel Phantom, but I chose to approach it from a different angle. I wanted to explore what could make a young girl, the daughter of the Shah of Iran, so twisted in her pleasures. What drew her to indulge in darkness and murder?
So I wrote the story through her eyes.
Is this your first published piece or have you had work published before?
This was my first book published by Ghostwoods Books. I can't recommend them enough. I think they saved me. Rosy Hours was really my last push. I'd had three novels published before, but the publishing houses, although enthusiastic, didn't have a marketing budget to promote the work.
Ghostwoods have been incredible. Not only did they rustle up a modest marketing budget and a talented cover designer, they also split the profits 50/50 with their authors.
At the time they picked up the book, I was quite discouraged by the publishing industry. Looking back at my first attempts, I'm sort of glad they never got a wider readership. There was a lot wrong with them. But I knew that this time I'd written something good, something that deserved to be loved, and that's what Ghostwoods did, they really looked after it.
The finished product was a beautifully produced book, and also an audiobook. That was a really big experience for me. I'd never had anything turned into an audiobook before and the whole process, working with my editor Salomé Jones and Emma Newman, was something I'll always remember.
When did you realise that you were Pagan?
My dad collects Green Men, my mother once told me we should 'respect the land upon which we are born and the spirits which dwell upon it,' and I come from a small village in the Midlands famed for witchcraft. I'd have been surprised if I turned out anything else. Though over the past few years I've made a steady transition towards Humanism.
Where do you go when you need to recharge?
How long does it take you to write a book, are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
On average, it tends to take me five to eight months to write a novel. I don't usually write every day, but once I'm on a roll I can write between 2,000-5,000 words in a sitting. Sporadic, but regular enough to get to the end. I usually know whether a work is going to be a novel around the 20,000 word mark. If I sail past that, it's onward to the 100,000 mark. If I struggle to get to 20,000 then it's usually a short story or an idea for the bottom draw.
Do you think ebooks have changed the publishing market for better or worse?
I think e-books are magnificent.
That doesn't mean I love paper books any less.
I've never understood this either-or mentality. Surely anything that gets people reading has to be a good thing?
I work with an organisation called Isaro Foundation in Rwanda. They distribute around 45-70,000 books to public and school libraries across the country. Last year they set up the first e-library. They received around thirty Kindles and created a stock of free-to-download and donated e-books at a school. Within a few months they recorded a 70% increase in kids reading for pleasure. Partly because the books were affordable and easy to access, and partly because the kids just loved playing with technology.
In the face of that, the argument 'e-books aren't as good as paperbacks' seems a little silly.
It's the stories and characters we fall in love with, whichever format they come in.
Who encourages you?
My editor and satisfied readers. Ghostwoods did such a good job on Rosy Hours that I feel inspired to keep writing and to improve. My family and close friends also play a strong role, those who tend to coat any criticism with kindness. But I'm not sure how much encouragement comes into it. I've never needed much encouragement to write. It's habitual. I think I'd need drastic intervention to stop.
Tell us a bit about your story, key characters and plot.
Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran is set in Northern Iran in the mid-1800s. A time of political tension and attacks against the Bábí faith. The story focuses on Afsar, the eldest daughter of the Shah, born into ultimate wealth and privilege.
For her birthday, her father brings her a travelling circus, and she strikes up an unlikely friendship with a masked magician called Vachon. Their characters are very similar, and it isn't long before they goad one another into cruel games.
Whilst engrossed in these games, the politics of Iran play out about them, and eventually threaten to overwhelm.
It's not a book for the faint-hearted. I departed from Phantom as a love story and took it back to its original Gothic roots. But if you like your fiction on the shadowy side, and your characters complex, you should enjoy this.
Has your style changed over the past five years – how and why?
Oh gods, yes.
I think there are two key parts to writing: technical ability and imagination.
In terms of technical ability, I've made huge strides. I was a very late developer when it comes to grammar. I didn't really start to grasp it until my early twenties. A love of writing taught me to embrace grammar, and now I do a passable impression of someone who can apostrophise a contraction. I've also become slightly less homonymically challanged, no longer preying at the alter of rite and wrong.
Thanks to a couple of really good editors, and to advances in online tools such as Google's Define function and Etymology Online, I've learned a lot.
As for imagination, I wrote my first couple of novels with no awareness of the market at all. I just wrote what I wanted to write. I still write what I want to write, but now I do have half an eye on the market. I've never had much trouble getting published, but selling books is really tough going.
Like most authors, I'm never short on story ideas, but now, when I'm weeding through them, deciding which to nurture, I have the haunting voices of publishers and editors in my head warning me that unless I want to spend six months writing a book no one will read, I should probably be a little more mindful of my style.
I suppose, having read more and written more over the past five years, I'm just developing greater awareness of what makes a good story. Hopefully in another five years I'll be a total aficionado...
If you could pick one book you wish you’d written, what would it be?
Bem Le Hunte's The Suduction of Silence.
What are your future plans for writing?
I've just completed another novel, The Children of Lir, an epic retelling of the original Irish legend.
It's a very different sort of book to Rosy Hours - 1850s Northern Iran to Iron Age Ireland - but it's a story I've always wanted to write, so I'm glad I got around to it.
I hope to be able to make a happy announcement about it later this year. It's had some positive feedback so far. With any luck it'll be available for reading in 2016.
Thank you again for giving us a glimpse into your passion and your process. The best of luck with The Children of Lir, we look forward to reading it.