Helen J. Beal
About the Author:
She is the author of three novels: Thirty Seconds Before Midnight, Rich in Small Things and Riding a Tiger, and a collection of short stories: Half a Dozen Star Jumps. She is currently working on her fourth novel.
Helen runs a writing group and a book club where she now lives in Chichester, West Sussex. She is particularly fond of llamas and tortoises and is addicted to Scrabble.
MF: Your website says you write contemporary commercial literary fiction which doesn’t fit into any recognizable genre. Does this create problems in marketing your work? If so, how do you overcome the obstacles?
HJB: I would agree that it is more challenging marketing work that isn’t easily classifiable as a thriller or a romance for example – but these difficulties are offset for me by the pleasure of writing something that isn’t formulaic, of trying to be innovative. Literary fiction is a genre in its own right – perhaps the melting pot of everything that isn’t thriller, romance, YA, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, historical etc and I preface the description with contemporary, as my stories are set in the present time, and commercial because sometimes we think of literary fiction as being quite high-brow and full of words that leave the reader reaching for a dictionary. I try to write with an energy that will engage the reader and keep them moving through the book – I don’t want them to feel bogged down in flowery descriptions, philosophising and obscure vocabulary. So I search for my readers in a number of ways: firstly, there are lot of book-lovers out there who do read voraciously and have an appetite to read something different from what they have read before – who are looking for quirky surprises. Secondly, I look for themes in my books – for instance, Thirty Seconds Before Midnight is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth which happens to have a giant land tortoise as a key narrator. His name is Herbert and he has a presence on Facebook – and it turns out there are a lot of tortoise lovers and, indeed, tortoises on Facebook. Herbert has a lot of friends and the book has received some great reviews as a consequence. Equally, I market to people who are interested in the Greek myths and fairy tales and the retelling of them. Herbert will also be starting a blog series soon where he interviews other animal characters from other novels for adults. He also blogs on my website you see!
MF: You say your are “particularly fond of llamas and tortoises.” What makes them so special to you? Are there any other bits of trivia you’d like to share about yourself?
HJB: I’m not quite sure where my love of llamas came from – I’d like to have a couple of them in the garden one day. One of my best ever memories was the gift I gave to my father on his 70th birthday – he, my mother, my boyfriend and I took a llama each for a walk one crisp December morning a couple of years ago in Ashdown Forest in Sussex. It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience – so funny, and each of the llamas had a very distinct character – mine was quite lazy – he always wanted to be at the back of the line, my Dad’s would eat ANYTHING it could… I’ve attached a picture of mine taken on the day for your viewing pleasure! Tortoises I’ve loved a long time and treated myself to a pair – Apollo and Artemis – for my birthday a few years ago. They are currently hibernating in a fridge in Dorset with Cosy Tortoises as I’ve been away a lot this winter and was concerned I wouldn’t be able to check up on them properly myself. I miss them but they’ll be back in a month or so. I’ve been to see giant tortoises in the Galapagos and the Seychelles, and have just returned from Africa where I went to see a colony on Prison Island in Zanzibar that were a present from the Seychelles. Sadly they have to live in a fenced up compound because people keep trying to steal them. Tortoises seem so wise, and actually they are surprisingly clever – and also quite fast at times too! They are very curious creatures and will always come to see what I am doing when I am near them. And they love baths! The other bit of trivia would be a total addiction to Scrabble and also Words with Friends on the iPhone. I seem to have about ten games on the go at any one time and get a rush of pleasure when I play a new word for the first time, or one of my favourites like ‘yurt’ or ‘gnu’. My favourite word ever is ‘kerfuffle’ but that’s nearly impossible to play in Scrabble due to the dearth of f’s.
MF: You have a collection of short stories as well as three novels. Which brings you the most satisfaction as a writer, shorter or longer works?
HJB: I titled my collection of short stories ‘Half a Dozen Star Jumps’ as, although I do enjoy writing them, the novel is my preferred form but I find writing a short story is an excellent refresher when writing a novel of how to pare back writing to the bare essentials – I think of them as star jumps for the brain, where writing a novel is more like a marathon – writing a bit a day for a year or so and then several months of rewriting, polishing and discussions with the editor.
MF: You run a writing group. Will you tell us about the dynamics of the group and how it has helped you as a writer?
HJB: I’ve been attending the group for about four years now and running it myself for about a year. Writing is such a solitary experience it’s fantastic to be able to share works in progress with like-minded people and receive honest, encouraging and constructive feedback. We inspire and support each other through our efforts. The group is a fairly mixed bunch in terms of ages and backgrounds, and also a healthy combination of poets, short story specialists and novelists. We only meet once a month for an evening so I set up a blog where we can share our work with each other between meetings and give feedback in that respect too. It has quite a few followers outside of the group also. We’re now working towards publishing an anthology of our work at the end of April on the theme of ‘reclaimed by nature’, yet to be titled – it will be a collection of poetry, short stories and flash fiction. It’s really enthused the group to have a project to work on – we’ve buddied everyone up and there are lots of secret meetings going on in the background as everyone pulls their work together. It’s very exciting for lots of the group as it’ll be the first time they’ve had their work published – the first step I hope for them in a long and successful writing journey.
MF: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
HJB: I’m just starting out and am yet to receive the dreaded one or two star review… I’m sure it will happen though – I think it’s important to know that you can’t please everybody all of the time. I also have a long career in sales behind me (in IT) and as a result have built up a fairly thick skin in terms of handling rejection – this was also important when I was querying agents to try the traditional publishing route – like most writers I received a lot of rejections when I was green and hopeful. So in terms of the toughest criticism so far? I wrote Thirty Seconds Before Midnight with the help of a mentor from The Literary Consultancy’s Chapter and Verse programme. At one point, he told me I had too many characters, so I removed three, one of which I was particularly attached to, and with them, eight thousand words in one evening – that’s ten percent of the book! It was painful, for a few moments, but once I’d done it, it actually felt rather cleansing. It was definitely good advice from the mentor and taught me a lot about rewriting, which still probably isn’t my favourite job (reading the same book twenty times over probably isn’t going to be fun for anyone!) but I do get a lot of satisfaction when I’ve tidied up. Although I chose to independently publish eventually, I had my manuscripts requested several times. The last time, the agent wrote back to tell me they were about to give me the worst kind of rejection I could receive – that is, they loved the book, but not quite enough to be confident to take it on in what is a very competitive and disrupted market. They did say it was ‘smart, commercial and well-written’ and it was this feedback that gave me the confidence to strike out on my own. The best compliments of course though, come from the readers. It’s fun now because people I don’t know are reading my books, so I know they don’t feel obligated to say nice things about them for fear of offending me. It’s obviously lovely to receive any positive feedback, but I particularly love it when readers describe my books as unique and unconventional. And it’s really nice when they find them funny too.
MF: Tell us about about your writing process. For example do you have a routine, are you a plotter or panster, do you sit and wait for a muse to come calling, etc.?
HJB: I’m a bit of both – a plotter and a panster. I usually have a high level idea of where the book is going, but like with most writers, characters are often full of surprises. I don’t write thousands of words of synopses like some writers do. I’m a big believer in getting that first draft out and I’ll usually have a spreadsheet with a chapter plan summary running alongside to remind me where I’ve been and where I’m going. I rewrote the ending of my second novel (the last ten thousand words) three times and I’m still not convinced it’s right! It is hard to draw a line under a book and say that it’s finished. You can tinker with them forever. There’s always another book I want to write though and that’s what compels me to move on. I am quite disciplined about my writing and do believe it’s a job like anything else – it can be hard graft. I don’t watch television and at the moment I work part time which gives me four days a week to write – although I wrote Thirty Seconds Before Midnight when I was working full time, sitting down at 7pm every night when I arrived home and writing most weekends. I moved out of London to a town where I knew nobody and became a little bit of a hermit for a while. If you do want to write, you will make the time for it.
MF: What do you read? What do you re-read?
HJB: I read mainly novels and mainly literary fiction but I also always want to and do read the ‘big’ ones – Twilight, The Hunger Games (a favourite!), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fifty Shades of Grey etc. Having just been on holiday I just read a load of books – two by Dawn French, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, The Secret Supper Club, Watch Over Me, Thursday in the Park – the four that I enjoyed the most though were The Extinction Club by Jeffery Moore, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window by Jonas Jonasson, Incendiary by Chris Cleave and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – and it’s probably no coincidence that these last four are literary fiction, although you could I suppose argue that The Extinction Club is a thriller. I enjoyed reading the others, but they are essentially romances, and you do mostly know what’s going to happen. I’m lucky as my mother taught me to read when I was three, and I’ve read so much that I do read really quickly so I do get through a lot of books. I don’t often reread, simply because there are more books I want to read than I ever possibly will, and more coming out all of the time. That said, I do revisit Life of Pi regularly – probably my favourite book of all time – I gave it away on the first World Book Night. I saw Ang Lee’s film of it in December and was utterly blown away. Fingers crossed for the Oscars. I heart Richard Parker.
MF: What is your favorite writing tip or quote?
HJB: My favourite quote is one from Albert Einstein – “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
MF: Do you have any advice for other writers?
HJB: Just write for starters. Secondly, there are lots of great books out there about writing – one of my favourites has to be Janet Evanovich’s How I Write. But there comes a time to put the books about writing down and just write. And it’s a craft – just write and you’ll get better and better at it. And then you’ll learn to rewrite and polish. I often think of writing like making a sculpture – you start with the rough shape and carve away and polish until the finished form is ready. The most important thing I think is to have a quality ‘product’. Put the hours in on that, hire a good editor and take it to market and light some fires – if the work is good, it should be able to stand on its own two feet.
MF: If you could jump into a book, and live in that world … which would it be?
HJB: This is a really tough question! We read The Snow Child in my book club as our Christmas read and there’s something haunting and magical about the wintery Alaskan landscape in that book. I’m not sure I’d want to live there though – could I just visit for a few months!?