Thursday 2 April 2020

Angorichina for #IndieApril

Okay, kicking off my Indie April book tour with Angorichina which was published in 2011.

This is actually the second novel I ever wrote, but the first one to be published.

The first book I ever wrote was Lucid, which I'll cover in my next post. I wrote that one to see whether I could make the word count, then I wrote Angorichina to see whether I could get published. It was picked up by Green Sunset Books. They were the thirteenth publisher I approached and the only one to accept it, though I have a very nice message back from a couple of others. One said they really liked it, and another said that, had it been ten years ago, they would have said yes, but 'literary fiction is very hard to sell nowadays'.

I got the inspiration for this one whilst travelling around Australia in 2003/4 with my ex. We got together in my last year of university. I moved to Colchester immediately after graduation to work in a travel agent's whilst interning at a solicitor's office, then moved back to Reading to be with them. Long-distance relationships are dreadful, though we did write a lot of love letters to each other over that time and I took great pleasure perusing the card shops for nice pictures.

Anyway, we eventually had enough of Reading and decided to head off on an adventure. We got working travel visas to go to Australia for a year. It was quite funny. We'd been dying to leave Reading for so long, but just after the train pulled out of the station it had a technical issue and had to reverse back in!

We eventually got to Australia, though.

After working as fruit pickers in Swan Hill, we bought a car with our savings and travelled through Canberra to Sydney for New Year, then down along the Great Ocean Road, two weeks across the Nullarbor and set up camp in Fremantle. We lived in a tent on a camp site, with a swimming pool to dive into each morning. It was lovely.

We saved up some money again and decided to do one last tour de force before flying home. We headed up to Alice Springs and joined a tour down through the Red Centre - King's Canyon, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta and Coober Pedy - to Adelaide. One of the last stops along the way was a place in the Flinders Ranges called Angorichina. You pronounce it ango-reach-na.

The video above explains why it inspired me.

Being a young, naive writer, I didn't fully understand all the intricacies of copyright. I included some song lyrics in the book as I listened to a lot of early 20th century music whilst I wrote, to try to get in the mood. Music became very important to the characters. Later, I was faced with the issue of removing those lyrics or paying for them. They had become such a part of the book that I did pay for them, but it was a heck of a process, as you can read about in my post Copyright And All That Jazz.

That was quite a learning curve.

Something else I learned was the power of immersing yourself in the time period. As I have with every historical novel since, I began by drowning myself in photographs, music, fashion and contemporary politics of the time. A huge help was the Mortlock Pictorial Collection at the State Library of South Australia. Unlike the music industry, they were extremely liberal with their collection and only wanted to know where the cover picture would be used. There was no fee.

There were a few pictures in the collection that really spoke to me.

The first is this one, in which I feel as though I can see all four of my main characters. Heath Denbow, top centre, Joe Siren leaning at the left, and Sean with his tilted hat standing beside Charlotte to the right. I don't know who those people actually are.

Welcome to Our Home of Happiness is the opening scene for Chapter Four, where Charlotte and Joe have a conversation looking down at the white lettering on the lawn. That would never have made it into the book had I not seen the picture.

I'd already decided on the name Benbow for one of the characters. There was a person in my home village by that name and I liked the sound of it. Whilst flicking through the photos, I discovered this one. It's names scrawled on one of the walls at Angorichina. It was too much to ignore, and Heath was born.


I had tried several times to start this book but it had always been third person from the perspective of a man who was a slightly softer version of Sean. It just never had legs. Then, one night, I sat down at the table in my front room in Kigali, my kerosene lamp burning before me, and it was as though four fully formed characters stepped out of the dark and started talking to me. I could sense their stories from the very beginning and I never stumbled whilst writing. They always knew where to go next. It is still one of the easiest books I have ever written.
Something else a little strange also happened after I'd written it. I'd signed it off with Green Sunset, but from quite early on in the writing process, someone told me about a short story by Somerset Maugham. I'd been looking for stories about life in a sanatorium so that I could get a feel for what it might have been like. Maugham's story was actually called The Sanatorium, but I couldn't find it anywhere.

Then, one day, I was in a charity shop in Bath with my friend Graeme, and there on the shelf was a massive doorstop of a book containing sixty-five of Maugham's short stories for about three quid. I hauled it back to Graeme's house and started reading as he cooked breakfast. As he was frying halloumi in the kitchen, all he could hear was me uttering the word, 'fuck' and 'no way.'

There were so many striking similarities between his short story and my novel that I was honestly afraid people might think I'd plagiarised him. Some of it was just coincidental, such as two men who drove each other up the wall and spent the last years of their lives arguing. Then it got a bit more specific - both his main female character and mine were young, pretty redheads and both of us had a character called the General who was an imposing old military sort. Then it got downright ridiculous - we both had characters called Templeton. His was a retired playboy in love with another patient, and mine was 'The Ferry Man,' responsible for driving the sick to Angorichina. But, honestly, how on earth did we both just pluck that name out of the air?

Graeme suggested I was 'channelling the spirit of Somerset Maugham.'

If that's true, I just wish he'd had something more original to say.

Anyway, it was a very strange experience.

I've spoken before about feeling uneasy about my backlist. I think it's always very uncomfortable for writers to revisit work a few years down the line. You either want to burn it to prevent anyone else from ever reading it or you want to snatch it back from the publisher and give it a complete rewrite. I cringe every time I open it because there are two semi-colons on the first page, and that's a punctuation mark I now stringently advise my creative writing students against. It's a dreadful punctuation mark that every new writer feels the need to insert and every competent editor feels the need to replace. Around 98% of the time a full stop or a comma would do much better.

Thankfully, I didn't continue at that rate and I don't think there are more than a handful of semi-colons in the rest of the manuscript. But it irks me.

On the other hand, Sean Buckhannon remains to this day one of the characters I'm most proud to have written. He was absolutely authentic. I feel a great kinship with Sean. Writers aren't supposed to feel favouratism for particular characters, but we do, and this is mine.

Oh, and I probably should also give a little explanation of the dedication: For Martine, without whom most of what I write would never get written. Martine is a very close friend of mine. We met in Rwanda in 2007. I arrived with VSO as a sign language researcher with the National Union of the Deaf and she was working with the National Union of the Blind. We worked very closely together for two years, through many ups and downs. When I decided to try writing a novel, Lucid, she was my beta reader. There were points where I tried to back out of it and felt like I was dreadful, but she spurred me on, constantly asking for the next chapter.

That's how I went on to write my next couple of books. I would write a chapter or two and send them over to her. She wouldn't usually comment until the very end, but just knowing that there was somebody there waiting for it gave me the motivation to continue.

After Rwanda we caught up a few times in Scotland, where she married fellow VSO Ruairí (son of Irish author Breandán Ó hEithir) in Ireland, and then in Dublin and later Laos where they moved to. Unfortunately, we haven't seen each other in a few years now. I'm hoping to remedy that once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, and providing there's any airlines left.

Martine, me and Ruairí in Dublin
But, that's why the book is dedicated to her. I definitely don't know whether I would ever have completed a novel, and therefore been published, without her encouragement.

If you'd like to pick up a copy, you can find it in paperback or ebook here:

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