Jane: I’m delighted to be speaking to Linda Gillard. Linda Gillard lives on the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands and has been an actress, journalist and teacher. She’s the author of six novels, including STAR GAZING, short-listed in 2009 for both the Romantic Novel of the Year and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award (for writing that promotes the Scottish landscape.) Linda’s fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE became a Kindle bestseller, selling over 20,000 copies in its first year. It was selected by Amazon UK as one of their Top Ten “Best of 2011” in the Indie Author category. Linda’s latest novel, THE GLASS GUARDIAN is a supernatural love story, set on the Isle of Skye.
Linda, welcome. You are a huge cheerleader for self-publishing and for your fellow indie authors, but you’ve also had the experience of being published by the traditional press. How do the two experiences compare?
Linda: Being traditionally published was in some ways very disappointing. I had no idea publishers would buy a book, publish it, then do very little to promote it. I was staggered to find I was expected to do almost all the promotion myself.
When I was eventually dropped by my publisher I was an award-winning, mid-list author. After two years my agent still hadn’t managed to find a publisher for my fourth and fifth novels. Editors liked the books, but said they’d be hard to market because they belonged to no clear genre. A lot of readers were asking me when there would be a new book, so I self-published my fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE on Kindle. It was a big success and Amazon UK selected it for their Top 10 Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category.
I’m now very happy as an indie author. I can say what I want to say, in the way I want to say it. When I was traditionally published, editors wanted to shoehorn me into the romance genre because they didn’t know where else to put me. But I was writing issue-led, contemporary fiction and the issues were challenging: mental illness, PTSD, disability, bereavement, addiction and incest. But the novels always had a love story at the heart and that confused the marketing people (but not readers.)
Another marketing problem for publishers was that my books are all different, but variety hasn’t been a problem for me as an indie because I market myself, not a genre. I now have five indie novels on Kindle (three new, two backlist) and I earn a living from those five books – something I never dreamed of doing when I was traditionally published.
Jane: I have to say that your story sounds very familiar. My publisher then turned down my second novel. Despite being ‘beautifully written’ I was advised that the lack of a strong female protagonist meant that it couldn’t be published under their women’s fiction imprint. Having never set out to write women’s fiction (my agent had always described my writing as ‘literary’, another label I am uncomfortable with because of its high-brow connotations), it appeared that I had been pigeon-holed – without my permission. It may not be a smart move to spend time working on a novel without a particular market in mind, but for writers who want to hone their skills, I think it’s essential.
You describe your writing as ‘genre-busting’? Have you ever been put under pressure to write something aimed at a specific market?
Linda: Yes. I withdrew the manuscript of HOUSE OF SILENCE because I was asked to re-write it as a romance. I was told if I didn’t do this, my publisher wouldn’t be able to market the book. I thought the book was fine as it was so I withdrew it and published it myself. I’ve now sold 40k downloads marketing it as “REBECCA meets COLD COMFORT FARM”.
Readers like mixed-genre books, but I think publishers and retailers don’t really know what to do with them.
Jane: I would go as far as saying that, save for Sci-fi, Fantasy and Thrillers/Crime novels, the majority of readers don’t think of books in terms of genre. They are far more willing to explore than publishers give them credit for.
You post regular updates about your writing journey on Facebook, so I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag by asking about the novel you are currently working on. You’ve described CAULDSTANE as a family drama with a strong paranormal element and I know that it also touches on the subject of religion.
I tackled these issues in THESE FRAGILE THINGS so I’m very keen to hear about how you approached the subject-matter.
CAULDSTANE is a strange book. It’s my artistic response to the experience of breast cancer in 2012. I went from diagnosis to mastectomy in less than 3 weeks. I had a very bad time with chemo and it’s left me semi-disabled. For a year now I’ve suffered from peripheral neuropathy (pain in my feet and hands) and I can’t walk or stand for very long. I have a wheelchair for anything more than short excursions. I haven’t yet found effective pain relief for the PN, nor has it improved. It’s rare that this kind of damage is permanent, but it could be.
So unlike most people who are treated for cancer and survive, I haven’t ever “got my life back”. I haven’t really moved on. I’ve found it difficult to put the nightmare experience behind me, particularly the fear of cancer returning. Cancer was the biggest thing in my life for almost a year and now fear – of more chemo, worse disability and death – is possibly the biggest thing in my life, or it was until I started writing CAULDSTANE. Working on a new novel gave me a sense of my old self and the nature of the story gave me a channel for examining and expressing my fears.
I went public about my cancer on my Facebook author page and many people suggested I should write about my experience, but my attitude was, it’s been bad enough living it – why would I want to write about it? Nevertheless my experience was so physically and emotionally traumatic, I felt I needed to find a way to assimilate it. So I decided to write an allegorical novel – about my experience, but not describing it. I thought that would be helpful for me and still entertaining for readers.
But you don’t need to know any of this background to enjoy the novel. Cauldstane is a decaying 16thC castle in the Highlands where the MacNab family live and it’s a money pit. The MacNabs, asset-rich, cash-poor, have lived there for generations, but in the 21stC they’re finding it hard to hold on. The family is divided as to whether they should sell up or try to use the castle and the estate as the basis of a business. Cauldstane is blessed with quirky architecture, red kites and a riverside location, but there’s also an ancient MacNab curse and a malevolent ghost who poisons lives and relationships and wants to drive the family out.
But the real damage is caused by fear – fear of what might happen and, as one of the characters says, “If you live in fear, you fear to live”. I’ve taken that as my tagline for promoting the novel. Fear is a kind of wasting disease that affects each of the MacNabs in different ways. (No prizes for guessing that my ghost is the personification of cancer.)
Cancer didn’t change my agnostic views but when I was researching ghosts and the paranormal, I discovered that the Church of England keeps very quiet about what is known as deliverance ministry – a form of assistance offered to people (they don’t even have to be believers) who think they’re troubled by anything from a harmless but irritating poltergeist to the demonically possessed. I was very interested to read how simple and transformative such ministry is. (It was used at the so-called “lost” garden of Heligan). Deliverance ministry uses prayer, blessing, holy water, salt and particularly light to bring peace to a troubled person or household.
I have no idea how or why it works, but it does. Its healing effects have been discerned without people knowing the ministry took place (as was the case at Heligan) so we aren’t talking about the simple power of suggestion.
One of the minor characters in CAULDSTANE is an Anglican priest who used to be a physicist. You might think this an odd combination, something like a vegetarian butcher, but I discovered many scientists have had their religious faith strengthened by their science and conversely, some have come to believe as a consequence of their scientific studies. Some people believe there’s a connection between quantum physics and paranormal activity and that the “afterlife” might exist in the quantum sphere. So it seemed appropriate to bring in a scientist-theologian to “deliver Cauldstane from evil”.
I’m an agnostic now, but I’ve been a devout Anglican and for some years I was a practising Buddhist. I have an open mind and a keen interest in science, religion and the paranormal. I dealt with some religious issues – mainly loss of faith – in my second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING and in the novel after CAULDSTANE I hope to examine issues related to science, faith and music.
Jane: I admire your tremendous courage and your openness. Your willingness to share your personal as well as your writing journey is one of the things that makes your readers so loyal to you. I’m a strong believer that if you give a lot, you receive in equal measure.
When can we look forward to reading CAULDSTANE?
Linda: I hope the e-book will be out at the end of this year or early next. The paperback will follow a few months later.
Jane: Can I ask, do you remember where you saw your first book on the shelves?
Linda: I think it was a branch of Waterstones in Manchester. I remember thinking I should be terribly excited, but I wasn’t one of those authors who’d dreamed of seeing my name on the cover of a book, probably because I’d been an actress and journalist and had seen my name in print many times.
I found it much more exciting to meet readers and hear what they thought about my characters. It’s still a wonderful thrill when readers email me to say how much they’ve enjoyed a book. Sometimes the emails are so lovely they make me cry – especially when they arrive on a day when the writing isn’t going well.
Jane: If readers have ever wondered if an author will want to hear from them in person, I hope that your response will convince them. And it’s amazing how things seem to turn up when you need them most. I had a rotten morning yesterday but in the afternoon I received a wonderful review and the book cover design for my new novel and both of those things set me back on track, which brings me neatly to the question, who designs your book covers – or if you designed them yourself how did you go about it?
Linda: I work with a professional designer, Nicola Coffield in Glasgow. She’s developed a “brand” look for me, even though my books are all different. Nicky and I work together closely. I find the photos on stock websites, I give her a detailed brief, then she sends me some draft covers. I choose one and we work on that till we think it’s a winner. It’s quite an investment of time and money, but I think my covers do a lot of the selling for me and, crucially, they work as thumbnails.
Jane: I agree that strong cover design is such an important part of creating a brand. If I collect an author’s novels and the cover designs are changed, even if they are not a series, I am actually quite upset. It’s essential to find a cover designer who understands you. My original brief to my designer, Andrew Candy, +44(0)7989 851 377 (who also runs an art gallery and has a wonderful eye), was to give him a copy of HALF-TRUTHS AND WHITE LIES and my chosen images with the request that he made them look like a set. No matter what images we use, the font style and the repeat image on the spine will always be there.
Have you ever seen a member of the public (whom you don’t know!) reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Linda: Yes. I walked into a café near Lochinver (off the beaten track, in Sutherland) and was astonished to see a woman sitting at a table reading my first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY. It’s set in the Hebrides, so I suppose it wasn’t that much of a coincidence that someone should be reading it in the Highlands. I was so astonished and pleased, I had to go over and tell her I was the author of the book. I think she was as surprised as me!
Linda, what was your first recognition/success as an author?
My first novel EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY was short-listed in 2006 for The Waverton Good Read Award which is for a first novel published in the UK.
Jane: And what did it mean to you to have your writing endorsed in that way?
Linda: I was completely amazed when I heard I was long-listed and never thought I’d make it to the shortlist. When I did, I could hardly believe it – I think because I hadn’t expected EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY to speak to so many people. It’s an intense love story about “madness” and creativity, with a 47-year-old bipolar heroine who’s a textile artist. I’d thought the book was a bit “niche”!
I wrote it just for myself when I was recovering from a mental breakdown and had to give up teaching. I never intended to publish it but my writing group suggested I should try.
That award short-listing taught me a valuable lesson. Passion – obsession, even – is what speaks to readers. If you care, they will care.
Jane: I think that’s very true. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Linda: When they’re finished, I show my books to several trusted readers, including my agent. I listen to their suggestions and sometimes I re-write, but to be honest, I don’t much care what other people think. I write for myself and I always have. I’m 61, I’ve had cancer, I do things my way. That’s the joy of being indie. If people enjoy my books, that’s wonderful, but I’d be writing the same books if no one wanted to read them. When my publisher dropped me, I got on with writing my fifth novel, UNTYING THE KNOT which I consider to be one of my best. I suppose I was preparing for a miracle.
Jane: Do you write your first draft on paper or do you prefer a computer?
I draft on lined A4 with a pencil. I can write straight on to the screen, but for some reason I feel braver if I scrawl on paper. I think I produce better writing that way.
Jane: I know of many authors who are jaded by technology and agree that writing flows better with pen and paper. Sadly, my hand-writing is so appalling that typing has saved me from myself.
What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Linda: I use both and sometimes in the same book. I like the way first person allows you to establish a “voice” and sometimes an “unreliable narrator”, but I do get bored with first person when it’s a whole book.
My favourite narrative method is to use both first and third. I think that gives you the maximum flexibility, but I know some readers don’t like it and find it confusing.
Jane: An agent once refused point blank to read what I had written because it was written in the first person so now I often write in first person so that I can get right inside the character’s head and then convert the text into third person. I am told that 70% of readers prefer books written in the third person, but I disagree. When I am reading, my experience is improved by first person narratives.
What key piece(s) of advice advice would you give aspiring writers?
Linda: Don’t expect publication or financial reward – you’re unlikely to get either unless you go down the indie route. Writing is its own reward anyway. When you feel angry about your unsolicited manuscript being rejected, remember: nobody asked you to submit it!
If you’re thinking of going indie, write the best book you possibly can and make sure it’s properly edited. Ideally, wait until you have several books ready to e-publish. It’s hard to make an impact with just one.
I’d also recommend any would-be indie author to join the professional body, The Alliance of Independent Authors. They offer advice, support and friendship. Their closed Facebook group is a mine of information, generously shared.
Jane: Joining is one thing on my very long ‘to do’ list!
What do you like to read? Any authors you could recommend?
Linda: Most of my reading tends to fall into two camps – books I have to read as background for the work-in-progress and books I read to relax when I’m not working.
Books in the latter category tend to be classic crime (I’m a big fan of Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers) or historical fiction. My favourite historical authors are Dorothy Dunnett and Patrick O’Brian. I’m 14 books in to his 20-book Aubrey-Maturin series.
I’m also a big fan of Mary Stewart who wrote what’s popularly known as romantic suspense, but really her books are John Buchan for girls with resourceful heroines in jeopardy. I regard Stewart as an early influence on my own writing. She was very good at dialogue and brilliant at evoking a sense of place. I admire that because, even though I’ve been praised for it, I find descriptive writing very hard to do.
Jane: Is there a phrase or quote about writing that you particularly like?
Linda: I have two and they’re both by Stephen King.
“I have never felt like I was creating anything. For me, writing is like walking through a desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there’s a house under there, and I’m pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want. That’s how I feel. It’s like the stories are already there. What they pay me for is the leap of faith that says: ‘If I sit down and do this, everything will come out OK.”
That is exactly how I feel about my own writing.
The other King quotation is, “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” I often quote that one in writing workshops.
Jane: Are there any books on writing that you find useful and would recommend? (please include links where you can)
Jane: You’ve beaten me to it. ON WRITING is my favourite book about writing. I think it succeeds because it is part-memoir and partly instructional. It is wonderful to discover how such a master honed his craft.
Linda, it’s been wonderful talking to you and I wish you all the best with your launch of CAULDSTANE.
For those of you not yet familiar with Linda’s writing, she has very kindly given me permission to publish an excerpt from HOUSE OF SILENCE, which follows:
Excerpt from HOUSE OF SILENCE – The opening of Chapter 1.
I used to wonder if Alfie chose me because I was an orphan and an only child. Was that part of the attraction? I came unencumbered, with no family.
We were kindred spirits in a way. Detached, self-centred, yet both obsessed with the past. Our past. The difference was, I had no family and Alfie did. He had a family – a large one – but mostly he behaved as if he didn’t, as if he wanted no part of them, however much they might want a piece of him.
As a lonely child, then a solitary adolescent, I used to fantasise about having a family – a proper family, teeming with rowdy siblings, jolly aunts and uncles and of course doting parents. Alfie had that. But I suspect his fantasy was that they had all died, leaving him in peace as sole owner and occupier of Creake Hall.
It was a macabre joke we shared: that he lived on grim expectations. I used to chide him for his callousness and he would get angry, which was unlike him. He’d say, ‘You have no bloody idea, Gwen! You don’t know how much they expect of me.’
And it was true. I had absolutely no idea.