Category Archives: interviews

Becky Albertalli Author Interview

Becky Albertalli is a debut American YA author of the forthcoming Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Simon Vs is out on April 7th from Balzer and Bray/ Harperteen. Before becoming a full time writer, Becky worked as a clinical psychologist and co-led a support group for gender nonconforming children.

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Simon Vs follows closet gay teen, Simon Spier.  When an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the limelight. Simon is being blackmailed. If he doesn’t help class goofball Martin score with Simon’s beautiful friend Abby, Simon’s sexual identity will be everyone’s business. Worse, it’ll compromise the privacy of Blue; the pen name of the unidentified wallflower boy he’s been emailing. Simon VS is a heart-warming, funny and compelling love story. You can pre-order it on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Simon-vs-Homo-Sapiens-Agenda/dp/0062348671

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Zomzara: Hi Becky! First off, thanks for coming to talk to us!

Becky Albertalli: So excited to be here. Thanks for having me!

 Z: Simon is a lovable, loyal, funny boy who allows himself to be blackmailed in order to protect the boy he loves. The book celebrates diversity, not just sexual diversity but also cultural. Why do you think diversity in YA and adult fiction is important?

 BA: Thank you so much for your kind words about Simon! I think diversity in fiction is incredibly important. The We Need Diverse Books team says it better than I can (love this FAQ from their website: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/faq/). Basically, I believe that all readers need to see themselves reflected in books – and they need books to help them access the experiences of others. In Simon’s story, he becomes increasingly frustrated with the idea that straight, white experiences are considered the default. This idea is really important to me. When approaching diversity in writing, we have to remember that including diverse characters is a decision – but it’s also a decision to include characters white, straight, cisgender, non-disabled, etc. We have to approach this decision thoughtfully and intentionally every single time.

we need diverse books

 Z: Simon’s narrative voice is amazingly authentic. I’m British, an adult woman, basically straight, despite all these differences I could totally relate to Simon. How did you manage to capture his voice so convincingly? Did you find it hard, considering you are not a gay teenage boy?

 BA: I’m so happy to hear that his voice worked for you! I don’t even know if I can explain where Simon’s voice came from. I think he kind of revealed himself while I was writing. For me, that part of the process came together really naturally. I think the most difficult part for me was the uncertainty about whether I had created a character that would resonate with readers, including gay teen boys.

 Z: Are you a plotter or a pantser? (ie – do you plan everything in advance or does your writing come out more organically?)

 BA: think I fall somewhere in between! I tend to loosely outline, but I definitely go where the characters take me.

 Z: Please describe your route to being published

 BA: My route to being published was unbelievably (probably annoyingly) quick. I think I’m still processing it! SIMON was the first novel I attempted to write, and it took me about four months to draft. I revised for a month and worked with my amazing critique partner, Kimberly Ito (we met on Absolute Write about a year and a half ago, and we’re still in touch daily).

After revising again, I actually brought it to the Atlanta Writers’ Conference, where I had scheduled critique and pitch sessions with two different agents. I also ended up connecting with my agent, Brooks Sherman, at the conference mixer, and he invited me to query him. I spent another week or so revising based on my critique feedback, and then started querying. Brooks requested the full manuscript two days later, and offered representation two days after that. I spoke to a few more agents that week, but ended up signing with Brooks, and I’ve never regretted it for a second. He sent SIMON as an exclusive to Donna Bray at HarperCollins a few days after I signed with him, and she offered us a pre-empt at the end of that week. It was a complete publishing fairy tale. Super weird, but wonderful.

 Z: A couple of us at Storylingers have recently “come out” as YA writers – before this we thought we were serious literary adult writers. Was there a process of coming out as a YA author for you, or did you and all your friends and family always know you were YA orientated and it was no big deal?

 BA: Interesting question! I think I’ve always been drawn to YA, and as a psychologist, I worked primarily with kids and teenagers – so I doubt the YA aspect surprised anyone. But there actually was a kind of coming out process for me as a writer! Almost no one in my life knew I was even interested in writing until I had gotten my book deal. I was just really private about the whole process. I think I was pretty doubtful at the time that my writing was going to go anywhere, so I kept it under wraps. I wish I had been more open about it before, and I especially wish I had become involved in the writing community sooner. It’s been amazing getting to know so many wonderful people who love reading and writing as much as I do.

Z: The secondary character of my WIP YA is struggling with his sexuality, and finds it hard to identify with any one orientation. This really bothers him. He’s had to recalibrate his understanding of his sexuality a couple of times before, and now is tentative about identifying himself as one particular type. But he desperately wants to feel like he fits in somewhere. I guess my point here is: teenagers are just at the start of their sexual awakening and there can be a lot of pressure to identify yourself as belonging to a particular group. Do you have any advice for people like my character who can’t honestly say if they’re straight, gay, bi, demi, pan or asexual yet but feel that pressure to fit in somewhere? I guess I’m asking you this as a psychologist more than an author, but it’s so amazingly awesome that you’re both and I can ask this difficult question!

 BA: This is a hard one for me, because as a psychologist, I usually try to avoid giving concrete advice. These issues are just so individualized. If your character showed up in my office, my role would be to create a space where he felt comfortable exploring his personal understanding of sexuality, along with the ambivalence he feels about identifying with any particular group. In general, what I’d probably want him to know is that it’s okay not to know. It’s okay to change his mind. He can identify with one label today, choose something else tomorrow, and avoid labels entirely the next day. He gets to decide what these labels mean to him; they’re his to claim if they help him feel more integrated, and they’re his to reject if they don’t work for him.

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 Z: Throughout Simon Vs, Simon and Blue are exchanging emails. The text swaps between prose and email form. Did you find it a challenge to swap forms? Or did that come quite naturally?

 BA: That part actually came really naturally! I love playing around with different forms. I actually think the emails helped me structure the book. With the exception of drunk Simon, they were my favorite part to write.

 Z: Who/ what are your biggest influences?

 BA: I’m going to answer this one in list form! In no particular order:

  1. My own memories of being a teenager.
  2. My work as a psychologist in a school (in a general sense – I’m careful not to borrow experiences from any particular client)
  3. My work with gender nonconforming kids.
  4. Oreos
  5. The work of a few favorite authors. I would say my most direct influences are Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury/Brookfield series and Steven Chbosky’s THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.

Z: What was the hardest thing about writing Simon Vs? How did you overcome this difficulty?

For me, the hardest thing was dealing with self-doubt. There was never a time when I felt confident about my book. To be entirely honest, I’m still terrified to put it out there. It’s so easy to feel vulnerable as a writer. With SIMON in particular, I was very worried about writing outside my identity – there’s a real risk of getting things wrong and hurting people. I don’t think I’ve entirely overcome these anxieties, and I’m not sure if it’s even possible to overcome them. However, it’s helpful for me to remember why I wanted to write it in the first place. If this book reaches even one person who needs it, in my mind, it’s worth the risk.

Z: Have you ever been given a brilliant practical tip that transformed your writing? If so, please share!

BA: I was really late to get this memo, but it was helpful for me to learn to pare down my adverbs and dialogue tags. Like, a lot. 🙂 For practical advice, I really love Mary Kole’s website (http://kidlit.com) and her book (WRITING IRRESISTABLE KIDLIT). Both were instrumental in helping me turn SIMON into an actual book.

Z: Simon Vs is packed full of cultural references, music, Tumblr blog culture etc, which gives the book a real richness. Can you talk a bit about this?

BA: I’m so glad this aspect of the book worked for you. I think people tend to either love or hate pop culture references in YA. I usually love them – I think they have the ability to make a fictional world feel more real. For SIMON, it was a no-brainer. I always knew he was a character who would have very strong opinions about music and would be very connected online (and, of course, online communication plays a big role in the plot).

Z: Also- I did what I bet loads of readers will do, and I typed creeksecrets.tumblr.com into my browser. There’s nothing there. I was sad. Have you ever thought about setting up a fictional blog? I’m thinking about doing it for my own novel.

BA: It actually never occurred to me to do that! I am terrible about maintaining blogs, but I’d LOVE it if a reader set one up. I will say, I’ve been waiting to receive emails at Simon’s, Blue’s, and Marty’s email addresses (all of which I own!). Hasn’t happened yet, though I am not too cool to admit I’ve made them email back and forth a few times. 🙂

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Z: On the front/ copyright page of Dave Eggers’ book a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius his copyright information goes:

eggers sexual-orientation scale

 

So, what is your place on the sexual orientation scale, with 1 being perfectly straight and 10 being perfectly gay?

(not sure what mine is! Probably 3.5, but I don’t consider it fixed at that)

BA: The amazing thing about this question is that I realize I’ve never given this issue much thought! I just tend to identify as straight. What a huge reminder of my own privilege – just like Blue says, it seems like the only people who have to consider their identity are the ones who don’t fit the straight/white/cis/etc mold. If I really think about this, I would say I’m probably a 3? I have a pretty big crush on Poussey from Orange is the New Black…

Z: What are you working on at the moment? How does writing the second book compare to the first?

BA: Right now, I’m working on edits for my second contracted book with Balzer+Bray/Harper. It’s actually a loose companion book to SIMON, focusing on the group of friends Abby left behind in Washington, DC (Abby plays a significant role in the book, and Simon and a few others get shoutouts). The process has been really different. I know a lot of authors find their second book much harder to write – this has DEFINITELY been the case for me. I’m rewriting it for a second time, and am only now realizing how light my edits were for Simon. It definitely adds pressure knowing beforehand that this book will be published and read – and writing under a deadline brings a whole new set of challenges. Also, I had my second baby in October, so finding time to actually sit down and write has been incredibly hard. On the other hand, I have a rock solid support system this time around, and the input I’ve received from my editor, agent, and critique partners has made a huge difference. It will be interesting to see what the end result looks like!

Z: I could ask you a billion more questions, but I don’t want to pull you away from writing whatever amazing thing you’re working on right now, so I’ll leave you in peace. Thanks so much for talking to Storyslingers!

BA: Thank you so incredibly much for these amazing questions. It was such a pleasure to hang out with you and the Storyslingers today!

Keep up with Becky on twitter and check out her website https://twitter.com/beckyalbertalli  |  www.beckyalbertalli.com/

Storyslingers is also on twitter (kinda, in a half-arsed way) so follows us on @storyslingers for glorious yearly tweets.

Jennifer frequently tweets from @zomzara and blogs on zomzara.tumblr.com

Zomzara, signing off with a classic photo by Turner Prize winning artist, Wolfgang Tillmans. Tillmans has just won this year’s Hasselblad Award.

The Cock (Kiss) the-cock-kiss

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Author Interview: Tony Benge

Tony Benge has been writing plays on and off for twenty years. He has had plays commissioned by the Library Theatre Manchester, Contact Youth Theatre, Salford Metropolitan Borough, Radio 4 Drama, Oldham Coliseum, and Lifeline Manchester, plus four short audio plays for Manchester Open Learning. He is also a trained Drama therapist. And he was kind enough to answer some questions about writing for Storyslingers.

Hi, Tony. Thank you for talking to us. First, please tell us about what you write, and what you’re working on at the moment.

I write plays for performance. I’ve just complete a first draft of THE COLOUR OF GRIEF a play about combat veterans in an art therapy session in which the Combat Veterans Theatre in London have expressed an interest.

Do you plot your stories, or are you more of a seat-of-the-pants writer? Can you tell us about the process of beginning a story?

Ideas come mostly from what I know, feel and see. For the COLOUR OF GRIEF I used my training as a drama therapist and much earlier as a painter.  I was also inspired by seeing the Lee Hall play THE PITMAN PAINTERS.

Is there anything you particularly find challenging when working on a new piece?

Trying to make sense during that early oceanic state when loads of images, hunches, possible characters, scene fragments, snatches of dialogue/monologue often bizarre which plague me while I’m trying to sleep.

How do you manage your creative time alongside your work/daily life?

Writing is predominantly my daily life.

Criticism is virtually impossible to avoid when you’re putting things out for public consumption. What are some of the toughest criticisms you’ve dealt with, and how have they helped (or hindered) you in the long-run?

Many years ago having just had my first play professionally performed in Manchester and receiving an enthusiastic response, I sent an extended version of it to the Royal Court in London. Their verdict: It will take you a long time to write a proper drama. Yes of course it hurt but I still wrote what I thought were plays and they still got professionally performed. But I also now know exactly what the Court meant and I’m still trying to write a really proper drama.

A lot of new authors go into writing and publishing wearing rose-tinted glasses, but the industry is rarely as smooth sailing as it seems from the outside. What are some of your biggest disillusionments with writing and/or publishing?

The certain knowledge that there are so many far more intelligent, skilled, talented AND MUCH YOUNGER writers than me out there … damn it!

Tell us about some of your biggest influences? Which writers have inspired you throughout your career, and what lessons have you taken from their work?

Changes all the time depending on what I’m reading. Currently it’s PIAF by Pam Gems which I’ve only just started as research preparation for a play I’m planning.

And finally, what’s on the creative horizon for you? Are there any projects you’re working on right now that you’d like to talk about?

Currently very enthusiastic about a Wiltshire artist whose short but exotic life might just make a play. But it’s very early days and may come to absolutely nothing.

Thank you so much for your time!

Author Interview: Sue Ashby

Sue Ashby is a writer, playwright, script writer and also co-directs the Dorset Writers’ Network which aims to support and encourage writers from across Dorset. She was recently kind enough to answer some questions for us at Storyslingers.

Welcome, Sue! First, can you tell us about what you write, and what you’re working on at the moment?

I have written poetry, short stories (children’s story published by Scholastic in WOW 366 anthology), and a teenage novel unpublished because there’s too much sex in it! My first love was playwriting and I had 4 Afternoon Theatres BBC Radio 4 transmitted, episodes of Families and Coronation Street, was a story liner on Families, and had 10+ plays produced for professional theatre in and around Manchester.

Currently I am writing Bride Ship, a full-length play about the forced emigration of young women to British Columbia during the 1862 recession to provide wives for prospecting gold miners.

Do you plot your stories, or are you more of a seat-of-the-pants writer? Can you tell us about the process of beginning a story?

As a former TV storyliner I do plot my dramas and also plotted my novel although it was very much visually/location-led. Often with a short story I know I have a limited word count so a tight structure is important. I love it when characters in a drama start to take control and take me somewhere I hadn’t dreamt of going…

Is there anything you particularly find challenging when working on a new piece?

Giving myself enough time for total immersion. Finding characters’ voices. Writing for theatre requires big bold images and working towards those moments is always a challenge.

How do you manage your creative time alongside your work/daily life?

I work hard raising funding for various organisations like DWN and Juno Theatre. so sometimes I’m up against a deadline which takes my eye off the ball.

Criticism is virtually impossible to avoid when you’re putting things out for public consumption. What are some of the toughest criticisms you’ve dealt with, and how have they helped (or hindered) you in the long-run?

I prefer to use the word ”feedback”. Having belonged to many writers’ groups over the years I have greatly benefited from being part of a reading and writing community. I have experienced nothing but creative growth from working with producers, directors, dramaturgs and my MA group at Bath Spa. Of course it is important to give fair feedback from a position of goodwill and wanting to support other writers – e.g. saying what works in the piece before what doesn’t.

A lot of new authors go into writing and publishing wearing rose-tinted glasses, but the industry is rarely as smooth sailing as it seems from the outside. What are some of your biggest disillusionments with writing and/or publishing?

It has got harder over the years to sell plays or get commissions – as the business became more and more producer-led. (I had a lot of success in the 1980’s through to 2000 mainly in Manchester, the North West and Northern Ireland.) That was very much to do with a writer-led community that was well-resourced by North West Arts. Now I’m finding a resurgence of that energy in writing for theatre in Salisbury and surrounding districts, supported by theatre practitioners in the south west. I’m very committed to theatre because it gives that opportunity to write, get a group of actors together and just do it either at the developmental or completed stages. Somehow writers can be more in control. Just as we can through self-publishing e-books.

Tell us about some of your biggest influences? Which writers have inspired you throughout your career, and what lessons have you taken from their work?

I’m a great fan of YA fiction – David Almond, Julia Green, Linda Newbury (YA writers). I recently saw amazing plays by prize-winning women playwrights Lolita Chakrabarti, Lucy Kirkwood, Lynn Nottage & Jessica Swale. Juno Theatre is an all women’s theatre company redressing the imbalance of women in the theatre (writers, designers, directors); only 17% of plays produced in London are by women (even less in the provinces).

You are one of the founders of the Dorset Writers’ Network, an invaluable project to writers from all walks of life in the Dorset area. Care to talk a little bit about it? How did it come about, and what have been some of the highlights in running the DWN?

I ran a project called Making Connections: writing for health & well-being where I set up three workshop sessions in 15 different venues across Dorset – many in rural communities. And out of this came a core of writing groups who wanted to carry on running their sessions after receiving some training. Then we got £10K from the lottery and spent a year running networking sessions to find out what members wanted, three training days and lots of author events always with the emphasis being experiential.

Highlights: A Publishing Day in Dorchester, workshops with Nell Leyshon & Sarah Duncan which were so well attended, working with two groups of young adults with learning disabilities for the first time and loving it, and seeing so many groups take off (often for different reasons – friendship, therapy, developing writing skills to the point of publication) and still together today.

And finally, what’s on the creative horizon for you? Are there any projects you’re working on right now that you’d like to talk about?

I’m getting my play Bride Ships out there soon and if no-one takes it up I’m planning to go to Edinburgh with it next year. I’m completing a two-hander and sending that out and writing short plays for various theatre and fringe events.
Plus getting the next DWN development – Dorset’s Digital Stories – on the road.

Thank you so much for chatting to us today!

If you’d like to find out more about the Dorset Writers’ Network’s upcoming events, check out their blog.

Interview Tips

When you’re a freelance writer, you take any writing gigs that you can get; that includes the dreaded telephone interviews. Even if you have never done an interview before, this is something that you don’t want your editor to know – as far as they’re concerned, you’re a professional, you’re a natural, you’ve done hundreds of telephone interviews before.

Even if you are quite the professional interviewer, there are several tips that you cannot enter an interview without.

Number one: Probably the most obvious – do your research. You don’t want to make the call to your interviewee and get any information wrong, because if you get the facts wrong, you won’t get the story you want.

Number two: Don’t ask the questions that everyone else always asks; ask the questions that you and everyone else really want to know the answer to.

Number three: Do your prep, but don’t stick to your script. Sure, make some notes before you begin the call and have your questions at the ready, but if your interviewee feels comfortable and is on a roll, just go with it and let them steer the conversation, even if it isn’t necessarily going in the direction that you hoped.

Number four: Allow it to open doors; you never know what might come of the interview, what event you might get invited to and what networking opportunities that could have, so be open to everything and anything.

Number five: Don’t rely on technology. More often than not, you will be recording the interview so that you can type it up later. If you’re using a Dictaphone, make sure that you have spare batteries, and if you’re using your phone to record, do a few test runs, make sure you’re fully charged, and take some notes during the interview just in case. It pains me to admit this, but this is where shorthand (that you felt like you were being tortured with in journalism class for months and would never ever be useful) comes in handy!

Writing in Space (or, Creative Spaces), Part I

Where do you write? A while ago Book Chick City hosted a series of guest blogs called Where Stories Are Made, in which writers posted a short entry about their creative workspaces and their writing routines. These range from home offices to parks and coffee shops, and any other place writers feel inspired and comfortable, and most importantly—where they get stuff done.

Here at Storyslingers we thought we’d share a few of our own Creative Spaces on the blog.
Shaftesbury-based writer Becky Bye shares Old Wardour Castle:
Many people say that there is a time and a place for writing, and for me, no place is better than Old Wardour Castle, near Tisbury in Wiltshire. A romantic ruin set in the Wiltshire landscape, the castle is a serene and beautiful spot in which my notebook has been filled on numerous occasions.

There is something intriguing and mysterious about writing in a location where so much history has taken place, and that I myself become part of history in those few moments; scribbling profusely in my notepad under a tree, or sat at the bottom of a spiral staircase. The mood of the castle shifts from day to day, which has a significant impact on my writing; some days the castle reveals its secrets, most of which I was never expecting to find, and which weave their way into my stories. On other days, the castle looks less inviting than usual, blending into the grey backdrop of a dreary English afternoon, and on such occasions the grandeur of the castle simply adds a unique elegance to my thoughts and ideas. No matter how bad a particular bout of writers block may be, there is no level of inspiration which cannot be released after just a few moments at Wardour Castle.
Dorchester-based author Gail Aldwin shares her study desktop:
I like writing somewhere quiet but I’m not sure what the best writing environment is, as I haven’t experimented with this. Normally I work in the family study, a small, untidy room with a window which has a fabulous view over the water meadows to the north of Dorchester.
 I share the space with everyone except my daughter who prefers doing homework in her bedroom.  My husband and son play games on the desktop and I write on a notebook.  Sometimes we sit alongside each other but that’s only possible when the headphones are in use. If I can’t stand the distraction, I relocate to the kitchen table and work there.
Writer-in-denial Stephen Pellow talks about inner creative spaces:
Writing about something that doesn’t exist is something people who write do all the time. Being asked to write about something that probably should exist but doesn’t is proving to be problematic, though.

I don’t have a writing space. No nooks, crannies or cubby holes. No ready room. No secret garden. No stark whites, or muted earth tones and certainly nothing airy and spacious overlooking sweeping vistas. I write in my head, and with all the useless trivia I have retained over the years there’s certainly no room for a desk in there.  Sometimes that’s all I need, but it mostly comes down to having pen and paper and me, and that’s it. If I were to sit in a room at a desk and try and surround myself with inspiration – when I’m put against a clock, pressured even slightly to produce something – nothing happens. If I have to do it, I rarely want to.

So I always make sure I have ready access to a notepad and pen (or pencil) because I never know when, or where, I’m going to be pinched by creativeness!

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We will be posting more Creative Spaces over the coming weeks, so do check back for updates.

Author Interview at Paperblanks Blog

It’s no secret I’m slightly obsessed with Paperblanks notebooks, as I’ve Tweeted and blogged about them before. I recently picked up two new notebooks, their stunning “Midnight Gold” and “Indigo Sky Mares,” and after mentioning my purchases on Twitter I got into a micro-conversation with the good people at Paperblanks, which lead to an opportunity to take part in their bi-monthly “Featured Artist” segment.

Before I link to the interview, I should point you to their various ranges of notebooks (both lined and blank), guest books, day planners, and address books of all shapes, sizes and designs. It’s so hard picking a favourite design, and I talk more in the interview about the ones I tend to favour, but there are a couple I’ve got my eye on for my next Paperblanks spree—their Japanese Lacquer Boxes collection and the Mucha collection. They’re both so elegant and beautiful!

You can read the interview, in which I ramble about notebooks, creativity, and inspiration here. (There is also a pic of me looking all thoughtful and authorish.)

And the rest of their Featured Artist interviews can be found here.