Sunday, 26 June 2011

Interview with a Debut Author: PAULA RAWSTHORNE

* Hi Paula and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi Tracy, thank you for inviting me back onto your wonderful blog.
I’m married with three kids. I was born in Liverpool but have been living in Nottingham for the past twenty years. I went to university there and stayed! I was a hospital social worker but gave up work to be at home, full time, with my kids and that’s when I started writing.


Celia Frost is a freak. 
At least that's what everyone thinks. 
Her life is ruled by a rare disorder that means she could bleed to death from the slightest cut, confining her to a gloomy bubble of safety. No friends. No fun. No life. 
But when a knife attack on Celia has unexpected consequences, her mum reacts strangely. 
Suddenly they're on the run. Why is her mum so scared?
Someone out there knows - and when they find Celia, she's going to wish the truth was a lie. 
A buried secret; a gripping manhunt; a dangerous deceit: what is the truth about Celia Frost?


A tall tales & short stories review
& Jo Unwin of Conville & Walsh explains why she chose to represent Paula.


* What inspired you to write The Truth About Celia Frost?

I started with a strong sense of what kind of story I wanted to write. I knew it was going to be a contemporary setting and I wanted it to be gripping and twisting, entertaining and, hopefully, thought provoking. I wanted it to be the kind of story that I would enjoy writing and that others would enjoy reading.

However, before any plot idea emerged, it was the characters of Celia and Janice Frost that came to me. They were so vivid, that I could picture exactly what they looked like, their mannerisms and personalities. Once I had them standing in front of me, I realised what made them the people they were: There was something about Celia that her mother wasn’t telling her.

So, with this notion in my head the plot soon began to develop and evolve.

* You worked as a social worker and taught secondary school children in the Sudan and Israel. Did these experiences help inspire or influence some of your book’s characters and their situations?

Probably the kind of work I’ve done has influenced the fact that I’m drawn to creating certain characters and places, like The Bluebell Estate. However, the only characters in the novel that have been consciously inspired by my life experiences are the Girans; even though the characters and composition of the family in my book bear no resemblance to my Ethiopian friends, my aim was to capture the spirit of the family.

The story of my Ethiopian friends deserves a novel all of its own. When I worked in the Sudan the family were there as refugees from Ethiopia. I was working in orphanages alongside their daughter. They welcomed me into their home and made me feel like part of their family. After I left Sudan they were airlifted by an American charity to San Diego. When I went to visit them the first taxi driver at the airport refused to take me as he said the neighbourhood was too dangerous. The family had lived in two of the toughest countries in the world but within weeks of being in America one of the boys had witnessed his first drive by shooting.

* I particularly liked the way all your characters are well-drawn and flawed individuals. Sometimes I genuinely didn’t like Celia very much but her actions were entirely understandable given the circumstances. Did your characters come fully-formed or do you write copious notes to really get inside the head of each person?

I love creating characters and getting inside their heads. It allows me to be a corrupt private eye, a confused, rebellious girl, an unravelling woman, a gentle, fun boy. I don’t write copious notes but I do know about my characters backgrounds, their childhoods, what’s made them the people they are at the start of my story. I want my characters to reflect that human beings are complex and flawed, often struggling to do the right thing, sometimes seeking to do the wrong thing. Of course, I’m biased, but I absolutely love Celia. Mixed up in her understandable anger and desire to punish Janice is compassion and love and although I hope my novel is a gripping thriller I also see it as a coming of age story with the complexity of emotions that entails.

* Paula was one of the winners of the 2010 SCBWI-BI Undiscovered Voices competition. You can read Paula’s account in a previous interview here.

* Before becoming a Discovered Voice, getting an agent and achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way? How did it feel to finally secure the agent and publishing deal?

Ironically, it was probably my fear of rejection that actually saved me from having to deal with a lot of rejection!?

After I’d written the first draft of a book that I so desperately wanted to be published, I was shockingly slow and disorganised about sending it out to anyone. Although I couldn’t fathom it out at the time, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that I was just terrified of it being rejected (what a baby!)

I eventually got my Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook out and sent the synopsis and first three chapters (unsolicited) to an agent with a nice sounding name. I then waited months for a standard rejection letter to arrive before I reopened the W&A book to look for another agent with an appealing name. They eventually replied that it was not their kind of thing and I was just about to open that handbook again when I found SCBWI on the internet and discovered, Undiscovered Voices. I thought that the organisation and the competition sounded fantastic and I entered. If it wasn’t for the fact that it would upset my husband and children I’d admit that entering Undiscovered Voices is the best thing I’ve ever done!

Put it this way, if I’d had any clue about agents before I opened my Writers and Artists handbook, then the wonderful Jo Unwin would have been top of my list. Being the lucky devil that I am, I somehow found myself in the situation where I had Jo asking me whether I’d like to be represented by her. It was the easiest question I’ve ever been asked!

Being offered a two book deal by Usborne felt tremendous. I’ve fallen on my feet with both Jo and Usborne. They have been fantastic to me.

*  How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I didn’t realise that I could write stories until my early thirties when I gave up my social work job to be at home with my two children. Bizarrely, being under siege by a screaming baby and infant unleashed a writer in me. One day, out of the blue, I felt a strange compulsion to sit down and write a story based on a comic/tragic episode that had happened to me. I wasn’t doing it to see if I could actually compose a story, I just felt I had to tell this tale and when I’d finished, I was buzzing. I’d loved the whole process and I had an absolute ‘ light bulb moment’ as I realised that this is what I should be doing.

In between gestating another baby and being too knackered to string a sentence together I decided I needed goals and deadlines to aim for so I signed up to a course. However, as the first raft of assignments were nonfiction, I realised it wasn’t for me and I gave it up. What I really needed to be doing was just sitting down and writing stories. Luckily, I found the perfect motivator when I was watching BBC1 one night and they announced a ‘Get Writing’ Competition to write a modern version of a Canterbury Tale. I wrote a comedy ‘The Sermon On The Mount’ and to my amazement it was a winner and ended up being read by Bill Nighy on Radio 4.

From there I wrote more short stories for adults (two are published in anthologies by Route) and worked on a few community plays (fun but exhausting).

Once the kids had all started school I knew that I ought to be getting back to gainful employment but I also knew that this was my chance to have a go at writing a novel. Luckily for me, I have a husband who had blind faith that I could do it. He also knew that I’m no superwoman and would never be able to write a novel and go back to work. So I took a school year and wrote the first draft of Celia Frost and, eventually, I submitted the first two chapters to Undiscovered Voices.

* Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

No, and my kids think I’m really mean but I just want to get it down and work it out for myself, especially in the first draft. I have just been able to give my older kids the finished copy of Celia Frost and it felt right presenting it to them when it was completely ready.

* How long did it take you from initial inspiration for The Truth About Celia Frost to finally achieving the publication deal?

From starting to think about the novel, to getting the publication deal, took just under three years.

*  Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?

Yes, I work harder and that’s not a bad thing.

* Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

Once I had Celia and Janice in my head, planning the story was particularly important as Celia Frost is a twisting, turning tale. However, as many writers find, soon the story takes on a life of its own, regardless of your initial plotting. As I was writing, I think the story was quietly fermented in my subconscious and this led to a number of Eureka moments when I’d suddenly wake up in the middle of the night to scribble some plot revelation that had worked its way to the front of my brain – I love it when that happens (although I’m not sure my husband does).

*  During the editing process what would you say are the most important things you’ve learned and that all aspiring writers should aim for?

It’s most helpful if you take a big step back and view your first draft, not as your precious, delicate child that needs nurturing but as an unruly delinquent that needs reining in.

Whilst I was writing my novel the only person I showed it to was my husband whose free speech was impaired by the knowledge that he’d (literally) have to live with the consequences of his feedback. So when I got Jo Unwin, my agent, it was fantastic to have her eyes on it. Her feedback was invaluable and, rather than being traumatic, I found looking at my novel with her to be exciting and stimulating. I worked very hard and my brain ached as I thought through how best to improve the parts that needed improving, but it was all worth it. When we thought the book was completely ready, we sent it out.

When Usborne bought the book, I found myself dealing with editors who were so good at their job and were so in tune with my story and characters, that their edits were insightful and minimal.

* What made you think ‘I want to write for YA?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to write my first novel for Young Adults. There are several reasons, one of them being that I see Young Adults as the harshest critics. If they decide to pick up a book they certainly don’t feel obliged to keep reading if it isn’t engaging them. I wanted to try to write a story that would be gripping, entertaining and hopefully, thought provoking enough to keep me and them hooked. In general, I think that what most teenagers want out of a book is the same as me: ‘a great story, well told’ and this was something to aspire to. I also, particularly, wanted to create a central female character with real depth, that my daughter could read, (when she is older), and know that heroines don’t have to be conventional beauties, who spend most of the story pining after some hunky boy.

*  Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

I started with Ladybird books full of fairytales and vivid drawings. I then basically read whatever my big sister passed onto me. We went through our Famous Five and Agatha Christie phase with Treasure Island and Kidnapped thrown in. Then she managed to get her hands on ‘Flowers in the Attic’- what a thrill! I then went through a wonderfully pretentious stage where I read books from my eldest brother’s sixth form reading list. I remember renaming my teddy bear Aloysius whilst also pondering whether I was an existentialist (I’m still not sure what one of those is).

Today teenagers have a whole category of YA books to choose from as well as all the classics. I suspect children of today want to read what kids have always wanted to read –a great story well told’ whatever genre.

* What’s next for Paula Rawsthorne? Can you tell us about any future projects?

I’m in the middle of writing my second, stand alone, thriller for Usborne and I’m busy telling people about Celia Frost so thank you very much Tracy for letting me rabbit on about myself and my writing.

I’m also a member of The Edge. This is a group who write cutting edge fiction for teens. We hope that our books get teenagers reading and talking.

* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Find out what works for you and your writing. If you flourish on feedback then seek out a suitable critique group. If you like to work in isolation then don’t get sidetracked by people’s input before you are ready.

Be prepared to take on board constructive criticism and don’t just think that no one understands your genius.

Be determined and always retain your love for creating stories no matter how many knocks you may get.

And finally, if you’ve written/are writing a book for children and aren’t published yet, then you must enter Undiscovered Voices- it’s an incredible opportunity that could change your life.

* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

I think that I’ve gone on long enough!

Why I chose to represent Paula:

I was very lucky to be on the panel of judges choosing excerpts for Undiscovered Voices- the SCBWI-BI anthology of the best children’s unpublished fiction writing. There were a lot of great entries, but Paula’s was exceptional and there was never any doubt in my mind that she would be included in the final anthology. I was thrilled when Paula agreed to be represented by me: it’s rare that you meet an author who’s as talented and hard-working as Paula, but who also has both enormous integrity and a wicked sense of humour. Paula’s next book is every bit as gripping so far and I have very good feelings about her long-term career.


The Truth About Celia Frost ~ a tall tales & short stories review

One of the most striking things about The Truth About Celia Frost are the characters. None of your interchangeable cardboard cut-outs here, just fully-formed, psychologically complex characters that spring from the page in glorious three-dimensional true-to-life form. In one of my questions for Paula, I mentioned how there were times I didn't like Celia very much, even if her actions were understandable, and that's one of the reasons to love Celia as a character. She's not beautiful or perfect or some kind of stereotyped heroine, she's stroppy, complex and average looking - she's one of us, an every girl, an every person, and it makes her even more special.

Mixed in with the cast of believable and complex characters is a compelling plot line. The opening scenes are genuinely intriguing as we wonder what the secret is about Celia's condition and what her mother is trying to hide. This intrigue leads to a page-turning read and with the introduction of a shifty, unscrupulous private eye and his unknown employer the tension mounts and the mystery deepens. I'll repeat my dislike of spoilers so I won't give anything away but let's just say there are plenty of surprising and shocking revelations and although the ending felt just a tad rushed it certainly doesn't detract from a what is a gripping, thought-provoking thriller which also vividly explores and questions the complexities of relationships and family life.

The Truth About Celia Frost is a well-paced, page-turning thriller with complex characters you can believe in.

Many thanks to Usborne for sending the book and a huge thanks to Paula for answering my questions.



Anthony Cowin said...

Another great interview Tracy. So refreshing to hear a writer brimming with passion and enthusiasm for their craft.

I wish Paula luck in what undoubtedly promises to be a long writing career ahead.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Its great to not only read this interview, but to read comments by Paula's agent also and of course, Tracy's review. An excellent post and as a fellow member of The Edge, I wish Paula every success with Celia Frost and all future work.

Candy Gourlay said...

Great interview - Paula, you've had a fascinating life and I can't wait to see how it comes out in your books!

Nick Cross said...

Paula, it's all come around so quickly! You must be absolutely thrilled at getting into print and at all the confidence that Usborne are showing in you. You have arrived - enjoy it.


Celia said...

As someone who might have become a Celia Frost (in different life circumstances!) I shall look forward to reading this one. Great interview, Tracy, thanks again,always a pleasure and an education visiting your Blog

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