Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Author Q&A: Katie O'Rourke

Katie O'Rourke's novel Monsoon Season, is out this week, published by Canvas Books, who first spotted her on author showcase site Authonomy. Monsoon Season was one of the first books I "backed" when I joined the site, so it's exciting for me to see it come full circle. 

The book tells the story of Riley Thomas, whose first foray into adulthood hasn't worked out quite as she planned. A year after her college graduation, she's back at home with her parents in Massachusetts, escaping a dysfunctional relationship and other secret mistakes from her year in Arizona. 

We see what Riley has learned about love from the people closest to her, how she has grown into the person she is, and how she attempts to chagne. When she's forced to accept help, Riley realises that being independent doesn't have to mean being alone. Monsoon Season explores how well we know the people we claim to love and how much every personwe choose to let into our lives shape who we become. 

I caught up with Katie - sadly not over coffee, since distance prevented that - and asked her a little about life as one of that rare and venerated breed, a Published Writer.

In three words, can you describe...

Yourself? introspective, quirky, optimistic
Your book? connection, growth, strength
Writing, as an experience? personal, satisfying, vulnerable

You say you've been writing "seriously" for about a decade. What does "seriously" look like to you? 

 For me, ‘seriously’ means with an eye toward publication, a concept of an audience. I’ve always written, but when I was younger, I kept my writing private. Writing ‘seriously’ means getting comfortable being read, throwing yourself into the critique process and developing a thick skin.

How does it feel to finally be published? 

It doesn’t feel real yet. I don’t know when it will. I had a little book party to celebrate with friends and I did a reading. I’m loving that people are finally reading it and I’m getting feedback. I check my amazon reviews daily. And also, my extended family is reading it and I’m getting responses trickling in. That’s really rewarding.

Are you able to give us any sneak peaks into the other two novels that are to be published? 
The next one is about cousins who reunite as adults after a long separation during childhood. They were close as children but have lived very different lives after the divorce of one set of parents and the ramifications of that. It’s another book that alternates narration and it includes the perspective of their grandmother. It deals with the repetition of family history and issues of identity. Like, how much of who we are is already determined when we’re ten years old? What can a decade of separation do to change who we are?
The third book has a single narrator. Jenna is a people-pleaser dealing with the death of a parent when she unearths a family secret.

Are there recurring themes in your fiction - dysfunctional relationships, families, longing for home, something else?

Absolutely. For me, family dynamics are fascinating. Patterns that get repeated through generations, often unconsciously. I also like strong female characters who are more interested in finding their path in life than finding Mr. Right.

What advice would you have for people who are just beginning to write?

Get comfortable being read. It can take years to figure out which feedback to take on and when to go with your gut. It’s a tricky balance. To a certain extent we write for ourselves, but there comes a point when you have to concern yourself with your reader. 

And how about for writers who are discouraged because they can't find a publisher? 
I think it’s really hard. I think there is no shortage of writing talent, which makes the competition fierce. Plenty of crap gets published, promoted and purchased. And good writing that doesn’t get into the right hands will never see the light of day. It’s discouraging. I think you have to be really persistent.
The other thing is that you should really examine your motivations. Do you want the credibility of getting published? Fame and fortune? Readers? These are actually different things and there are different routes to get there.

Do you have a writing "routine", a favourite time and place?
I tend to write in the evening with music playing.

What are you working on now? 

I have a trio of characters percolating in my head. They’re unlikely friends- like two of them only know each other because of the third person. I think we all have people like that in our life- people we might not be friends with if it weren’t for the fact that they’re family or they married in or they helped us through a really tough time in life and we’re loyal to that. It broadens our world view. I haven’t figured out what their story is yet. I’m still getting to know them.

Katie blogs here and you can buy her book here in the UK and here in the US.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

University 2.0: Air Miles 2.0

When I started my first degree back in the mists of time, Sainsbury's had just launched their first reward card. I became a little obsessed with it.

I realise I may be alone in thinking this, but that first card was  better than its successor, the Nectar Card, and here's how: you could use it for air miles. And air miles were straight forward, tax-free, and generously allocated.

After a term's worth of (basically) cheddar, bread, tea bags and milk, I was able to treat myself to a flight back to Guernsey to see much-loved, much-missed friends from my gap year. I'd eaten at least one meal in college per day during that time, but I'd been savvy and always chosen the make of bread or cheddar or tea bags that carried extra reward points (and there were many of those back then), and so basically one term's worth of lunchtime cheese toasties had been sufficient to carry me home. I know Guernsey isn't far, but still, that's some achievement. And my brilliance at collecting reward points was, now that I think about it, something of a legend among my group of friends. (Maybe not a legend; I exaggerate for the sake of poetry. But it was nonetheless mentioned from time to time.)

Now that I'm about to start the whole university thing again (though it will be called "school") I have picked up this obsession where it left off. America loves reward points. It loves them! And most beloved of all, as far as I can tell, are the frequent flyer miles. Unlike the Air Miles of old (wistful sigh), each airline has its own scheme, which makes it more complex, and a lot harder work to figure out.  I'm flying to DC with British Airways, who are an American Airlines partner, so I've opened an account with them, though I've opened several others too. I plan at some point to spend a substantial amount of time looking through the web site of each scheme and collating information on exactly which restaurant, which credit card, which hotel, earns me how many points with which airline. Maybe even doing a nifty thing involving a giant map and colour coding. Because it's not just flights - you can earn them on everything. I mean, everything. You can spend them on everything too, but I won't be doing that - mine are for seeing the world. Well, Colorado and California, anyway.

My air miles collecting will be legendary once more.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Aaron Sorkin does not have a woman problem.

There. I said it. Now let the onslaught of disgusted comments begin.

I’ve watched, as you ought to know by now if you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, every episode of the West Wing multiple times. I’ve watched Studio 60 at least twice; I’ve watched and rewatched the Social Network. I’ve watched the first two episodes of the Newsroom.

I’ve never once felt insulted as a woman.

I’ve also never once felt insulted as a Christian. Yes, he writes about some pretty strange, crazy and dislikeable people who call themselves Christian. In one case, he writes about one who is neither strange nor dislikeable but who behaves in ways that I would see as being at odds with her faith. (Yes, we all do at times, but that’s the subject of another blogpost.)

Do those people exist in the real world? Absolutely.

Do the women Aaron Sorkin writes about exist in the real world? I think so too.

So, you’re all shocked that McKenzie can be competent as a journalist in a war zone yet fails to use email properly and over-reacts to a mistake she makes that she knows will make Will crazy, jeopardise their already difficult working relationship, and embarrass both of them in front of their staff. Of course I know women who would calmly breathe, tell themselves “I’m a professional”, and walk away. I think I also know women who would react like her. I know women (and men) who are hopeless with technology despite being intelligent people, too. It’s plausible. It’s more than plausible- it’s reality.

People are full of contradictions. Aren’t they?

Intelligent but lacking in emotional intelligence. Incredibly messy yet borderline obsessive compulsive about not cracking their book spines. Working in war zones yet shying away from conflict in their private lives.

Do you really not know any women who are super confident in one area yet a little ditzy or flaky or crazy in another? I do. On a good day, I might even put myself in that category. Maybe the reason I get protective of Mckenzie and Maggie is that I can relate to them. Bright and ambitious but far from perfect. 

Maybe this is also why I wrote a novel that people criticise because its main character is an accomplished politician yet still wistfully daydreams about a guy she never quite got together with a long time ago. Maybe Aaron Sorkin has influenced me even more than I realise.

I don’t think he is laying out a blueprint for all women everywhere: he writes about a certain kind of person. Do you get men bemoaning that most of the guys he writes, for example, are hopeless at relationships? They understand it’s fiction. They understand that he is not saying all guys everywhere are hopeless at relationships.

Come to think of it, most of his characters are super-intelligent and articulate. Is everyone in real life super-intelligent and articulate? No. Hardly anyone is. But some people are. And those are the people he chooses to write about.

Here’s the thing: if you are a woman, he is not writing about you personally. Nor is he writing about all women everywhere – about how they do behave or how they should behave. He is writing about these particular people, and he invented them, so he knows how they react and what makes them tick. So let him write about complex, contradictory characters, even if they are women. They’re his characters. He should know.