Walking down the glass corridor

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Hawker Hurricane ...

Image by Chris Devers via Flickr

At the moment, I am existing in a kind of limbo; a word I take to mean a sort of ‘purgatory lite’, because I don’t imagine purgatory would allow for the fabulous or hilarious or enervating ups that keep bouncing exuberantly over the plummeting lows, without thought for their feelings. Last week, ‘Lovely Girls’ was published. It’s my first literary piece; it’s based on some truths that many of us who have worked in mental health or learning disability institutions recognise, and I’m inordinately pleased with it. Last week also, we were told, my sister and me, that Dad is terminally ill. He is 86, an RAF veteran of the Second World War, and a victim of prostate cancer. He is 300 miles away. Fortunately, he is not alone; he lives in a residential service with my mother, and the staff are exceptional.

So now we wait. But for how long? Somehow, the other part of the show has to go on. After all, it’s my job that gives me the resources to buy the special things that they both need; that has trained me to think strategically and concern myself objectively with what needs to be done. It’s my training and experience that makes it possible for me to anticipate his needs, and to start seeking solutions to problems before they arise. I have an obligation to give it my best. But dying is a once-and-for-all event, and it doesn’t make an appointment. There’s no negotiating a ‘right time’, or fitting it in between the meeting about research directions and the review of student dissertations. Consequently, my head space is in a kind of duality. The pragmatic overlain by the intensely emotional, and the immediate forcing itself into focus ahead of the planned. I have drafted research papers while trying to find a way to manage his bank account; discussed conference presentations around attempts to pay a phone bill without access to a cheque book; and talked with staff about final arrangements in the same breath as setting up broadband, so that we can ‘visit’ by Skype, if he feels up to it.

This is a strange world; rather like walking down a glass corridor, separate from everyone else, not inhabiting their space. Mutually aware, but far from sharing any assumptions about urgencies, or what meaning really means. There are things I want to say; some of them self congratulatory and trumpeting of successes, so I will probably say those things. Other things do not come so easily; such as how to manage the irreverence – I’ve never lost a parent before, at least not outside of a large department store – or the sudden wish that a friend would shut up about her blinking herbaceous border, because for once it’s about me. And then, please don’t look at me or mention anything because your every-day chatter is what’s keeping me together for now.

I am resilient, I see the funny side of most things, my glass is more than half full, and I don’t do maudlin. For a while, though, that constant is likely to be sharing air time with this other countenance that is a little more needy, and a little less accommodating. It’s the part that underpins empathy, humanises my relationships with troubled clients, and for now, is needing a little of its own time in the chair.

‘Lovely Girls’: a grim tale of one woman’s life in an institution

‘Lovely Girls is not lovely at all. Described by one person as ‘wonderful, inasmuch as something so crushing can be wonderful‘, and by another as ‘richly conceived and … harrowing’, it is a fictional account of the life of one woman in an institution for ‘the mentally handicapped’. I worked in such places in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. I was part of the closure programme when people were moved from this awfulness to more humane environments, and I saw how the attitudes of both public and ex-patients changed. Service users gained skills and self-respect, our neighbours learned how to communicate with someone with Down’s Syndrome and not patronise them, and the locals discovered that people with learning disabilities liked much the same things as everyone else.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Some people – staff and service users – found it hard to adjust. One group of men refused the opportunity to cook their own meals, because that had always been done for them by ward orderlies. They would not clean their toilets because orderlies and ‘low grades’ did that sort of work. They considered themselves high grades, having been part of the institution’s fire service, engineering department, or trusted to remove the bodies of patients who had died. Now they were unemployed, displaced, and depressed, and it took a lot of reflection on the part of our services to see how we had been a part of that, so that we could set about finding new and valuable roles for them.

Amy, in this story, is subject to a regime that permits, by default, institutional abuse and neglect. I have witnessed such conditions, recoiled from the stinking air in wards full of incontinent adults, and observed the pervasive helplessness of otherwise benign staff, warehoused into passivity by a system that did not care. Mostly, we have improved. Mostly, we are able to bring our humanity to the fore and to think empathically about the vulnerable people in our care. But not always, as cases such as Winterbourne demonstrate. With all the protections and enlightenments of our 21st century approaches to care, staff had still somehow become so out of touch with their own concepts of decency that they were able to perceive their abuse as justifiable and ‘normal’.

‘Lovely Girls‘ is fiction, but only just. First published by The Other Room Journal, August 19th, 2011. TORJ is no longer available.

Interview with Cathryn Grant; author of ‘Demise of the Soccer Moms’

book coverIndie  Author interview

Cathryn Grant: Demise of the Soccer Moms

Website: Suburban Noir http://suburbannoir.com/

Q. Cathryn, you are the first person I have ‘known’ who has taken the publishing bull by the horns and gone Indie. Others have followed, and the quality says a lot about how difficult it is to crack the traditional route. What set you off in that direction? Had you tried other routes? How did you choose the publishing platform, and what did they offer that others didn’t? What surprised you most about the process?

Cathryn:   About ten years ago I started submitting short stories for publication because I’d been told that short fiction credits would help catch the eye of an agent. By the time I had a novel that was ready for the world, I had the credits, but the world was different. Agents said, “impressive credits, but no thanks.” The publishing industry was going through significant changes, and much of that, in my view, resulted in a desire for fiction that’s “the same but different”. My fiction is difficult to categorize. I kept changing my query intro: it’s “psychological suspense”, it’s “suburban noir”, “it’s crime fiction”.

Two key events made me decide to try the indie route.  The first was when an independent filmmaker in Melbourne, Australia contacted me through my website. He said he liked the short story I’d posted there and wondered if I’d let him consider developing a film script from it. Nothing ever came of that, but it made me realize, in a very personal way, the power and global reach of the web. The second was an ah-ha moment during a fiction podcasting class – the instructors shifted my thinking to recognize that a writer’s goal is to find readers not an agent or a publisher. (thunks head on keyboard) I’d spent a considerable amount of time focusing on what agents wanted, on what publishers were buying. Now that writers can go directly to readers, why wouldn’t we?

In terms of the publishing platform, I’m putting my work everywhere I can – Amazon in every region, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and iBook. I’ve had some challenges with iBook, but expect to have that resolved soon (long story). For POD, I use Lightning Source because they have broad distribution and a discount structure that allows a higher profit than CreateSpace.

What surprised me the most about going indie is how much the frustrating parts of traditional publication are exactly the same for an indie author! Don’t like trying to describe your novel in a way that entices an agent? Try writing a blurb that grabs interest in the online stores. Having a hard time categorizing your novel? I have to build a brand and choose a virtual shelf in the bookstore. Prefer to be writing instead of marketing? I know an author who is published with one of the big six and she’s doing all the marketing activities I am (and then some).

SCH: That’s worth knowing; the leg work is much the same for the traditional route as for the indie route, but with the latter, you have more control? And sadly, less credibility?

Cathryn:  Definitely more control. Yes, less credibility starting out. But I think that will be gradually overcome as my readership grows – I’ve had feedback from book reviewers that my novel is well-written and well-edited. I used to think there would be less credibility in literary circles beyond the foreseeable future, but when I look at how the view of self-publishing has changed so dramatically in the past 18 months or so, it makes me optimistic that self-publishing will continue to gain credibility, as long as a writer demonstrates she’s studied the craft, made use of editors, etc.

Q. Your book came out in December 2010 in paperback and on Kindle, and the first most striking thing about it is the cover. I understand that this is home grown as well. Tell us a bit about how that came about.

Cathryn:    What I love most about the cover is that the designer came up with the concept before she read the novel. She didn’t know that Charlotte (one of the three main characters) is working on a photo essay focused on women’s feet. The designer isn’t in the cover design business, but I love her photography and since she also works in marketing where she does online design work, she has a good eye for composition, so I asked her if she’d design my covers.

SCH: Can we credit the designer?

Cathryn: Absolutely. She’s credited on my website because she also provided the photograph for my header image – Lydia Schufreider. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a website yet. I’ve ended up really enjoying the cover creation side of being an indie author. The designer and I work together to come up with ideas for the image. She takes a ton of photographs and recommends which ones will work best. My novels will all be black and white photographs with a touch of blood, and my novellas will be color photographs. The flash fiction collections will all have photographs of cocktails on the covers. (I publish my flash fiction under the title Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour.)

Q. Demise is a story about friends whose relationships unravel to show the deep scars of personal trauma beneath a veneer of ‘soccer mom’ respectability. I found them convincing and awful, but somehow oddly able to evoke sympathy. How do you come by your characters? Is there an internal closet somewhere in which they sit, lifeless, waiting to be animated? Do they dash, fully formed onto your page without asking? Are they opportunistic encounters in supermarkets and cafes? Or do you have to construct them, watch how the pieces work together (or not), tweak out inconsistencies? Do they make you work for their living?

Cathryn: I’m so glad to hear that you think the characters evoke sympathy. Beta readers really hammered me with feedback that my characters were “unlikeable”. Although I worked a long time incorporating that feedback, at the end of the day, I didn’t change them significantly because theirs was the story I wanted to tell.

SCH: I like that view. There are people in the real world that I don’t like much but that intrigue me. Why should fiction be any different? Or are we not supposed to truly represent the real world?

Cathryn: You ask challenging questions – you’ve pushed me to do a lot of thinking! I like to represent the real world. Don’t they say that fiction is the only truth? Even if a story is science fiction or fantasy or a thriller with global stakes, to me it’s only enjoyable if there’s “truth” in the emotions, the dialog, the conflict, the details of the world that’s created. And I think most readers would agree that it’s truth that sets a book apart.

I may see a spark in an opportunistic encounter, but for the most part I construct characters by asking questions. I have a shadow of a figure and then start asking … Why do you think this? Why do you want that? What makes you afraid of this? I try not to tweak out all the inconsistencies because all of us have contradictory aspects to our personalities. They definitely make me work for a living!

SCH: That’s a really helpful hint. Interrogate your characters to make them give up the complexities of their personalities. Has anyone really surprised you during this process?

Cathryn: Amy surprised me because it came out that her father “blamed” her mother for being raped. Even though you still encounter that attitude with sickening frequency –”what was she doing at xyz at that time of day?” – the fact that Amy bought into her father’s view shocked me. I don’t want to give my own spoiler, but I think at the end Amy has a glimmer of understanding that she was so wrong to fall prey to that attitude. But when she had that slight shift in her thinking, I was surprised again (and pleased).

Q. I very much liked your writing style in Demise. You seem to use sentence construction in such a way as to roll out an uncomplicated internal dialogue for each character. The sentences are short, and have the feel of thought processes so that, without flagging it up, the reader ‘walks within’ each character, who becomes their host for the duration of their appearance. How conscious were you of delivering the story via the mental life of the key women? If it was a deliberate choice; what drove that choice, and what was your intention? If not, how do you think it turned out? Assuming you agree that this is what you did!

Cathryn: I’m very conscious of delivering stories via the mental life of the characters. I think the gap between what’s shown to the world and our interior lives is intriguing. At the risk of stating the obvious, what’s going on in the mind drives human behavior. We experience the world through our thoughts. To over-simplify, if a person thinks, “My manager thought the last project I delivered was sub-standard,” that thought will affect her behavior around her manager, her confidence in expressing her viewpoint, her approach to the next project, and her interaction with her peers. It could even ripple out to her personal relationships. To me, there’s a story in that, and it’s much more gripping than a car careening through city streets, in pursuit of the “bad guys”. In most thrillers, I already know they’ll catch the “bad guys”. I like the surprise of thoughts that take an unexpected direction and result in unanticipated actions. I like the “bad girls and bad guys” to be somewhat ambiguous.

SCH: Maybe because few people are all good or all bad?

Cathryn: Exactly. [But] I really can’t judge how it turned out. I hear from some readers and think, wow, it worked far beyond my expectations, and I hear from others and think, really? You read my book?

SCH: I sometimes wonder why some people choose to read, for example, a particular piece for critique, knowing they don’t really like the subject matter.

Cathryn:  Good question! I don’t know the answer.

Q. The characters in Demise are all psychologically complex, and as a professional psychologist, I found myself pondering diagnoses. I found none, and this is a tribute because, to my mind, you achieved that complexity by looking out through the eyes of the characters, and not by introducing ‘stand out’ signs or symptoms that they would not know how to describe. It makes me feel that you have a formal understanding of psychological and psychiatric issues. How far would you say that is true, and if so, which came first – the understanding or your genre preference?

Cathryn: Would it surprise you to know I have a copy of DSM-IV and DSM-IV Made Easy?!

SCH: Aha! Perhaps the diagnostic criteria have been leaking into your mind by passive osmosis!

Cathryn: It’s in the cabinet under my coffee table, so it’s possible it seeped up into my glass of wine once or twice. However, I didn’t use them for this novel. I’m fascinated by the “line” between sanity and madness, and by the people who live among us who are labelled “sane”, and those in institutions who are labelled “insane”. I think we all have varying degrees of madness, and I’m interested in what circumstances and pressures would drive a “normal” person to commit homicide. I have no educational background in psychology, I’m just fascinated by people. The notion that “All men live lives of quiet desperation” has been a bit of a touchstone in my life, partially because I’ve seen people who are slightly unbalanced or quirky suffer isolation and something close to shunning.

In marketing (my day job) they say, perception is reality. I think that’s true for our lives. The reality we experience is based on how we perceive the world.

SCH: The idea of the ordinary being capable of the extraordinary, whether that’s heroism as in tales of 9/11 rescues, or acts of horrendous inhumanity as in war crimes.

Cathryn: I think I’ve had those interests for most of my life (although I also wrote my first novel when I was ten, so who really knows what came first). I loved mysteries throughout my childhood and teens. As an adult, when I was starting to write seriously, I wrote general fiction. Then I read Ruth Rendell’s novel, The Bridesmaid. About a third of the way into that book, I knew what kind of novels and short stories I wanted to write. (Ms. Rendell is brilliant, her characters complex, her stories intriguing, and the writing in her non-series novels is at the literary end of the spectrum). I like the idea of crime as a device for creating extreme circumstances where character is revealed. I think the human mind is the “final frontier”.

SCH: I think you may be right. We are still technologically on the starting grid for producing any kind of computing that can replicate the mind’s complexities.

Cathryn: Despite Watson’s wins (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watson_(computer)), a computer, as far as I know, can still only produce data in response to what it’s fed!

Q. Since Demise, you have published Fatal Cut for Kindle and Nook. You have also made podcasts of your own readings of some of your stories, and you have flash fiction in an anthology of Every Day Fiction. You maintain a blog, and you use Twitter as prolifically as possible, given the need to be #amworking and #amwriting much of the time. How do you view these platforms with regards to developing a fan base and to marketing your work?

Cathryn: It’s a bit of a conundrum right now. Conventional wisdom says that Twitter and Facebook, blogging and participating in on-line forums is key to marketing fiction, especially if you’re an Indie Author. Writers, Indie or Traditional, are urged to develop a platform. A platform makes total sense for a non-fiction writer, blogging about dogs if you wrote a book on dog training. But the further I get into this, the more I struggle with the idea of a platform for a fiction writer. It’s getting more and more difficult for me to see how tweeting and blogging about writing is of interest to non-writing readers. I keep asking myself, if Joyce Carol Oates or Ruth Rendell blogged, what would I want to read? Would I want to read Ms. Oates’ tweets about how many words she wrote that day? No. Yet, here I am, tweeting my word counts, others’ blogs about writing, and my editing angst, as well as what I ate for dinner. All of that is great for connecting with other writers but not readers. In fact, my non-writer fans aren’t on Twitter and they rarely read my blog.

The question that plagues me is – shouldn’t my fiction be my platform? That’s why I post flash fiction – it gives readers a chance to sample my work. The fans that don’t read my blog do read my flash fiction. Right now, I’m focusing on writing more books. As a number of blogging writers have noted, if a reader falls in love with a writer’s work, she wants to read more of her books.

SCH: I can only barely claim to be a writer, so maybe I’m a twitter success story as I bought your book and enjoyed it!

Cathryn: Thank you!

Q. I know you contribute to twitter and blog post discussions with other authors, writers, and would-be writers. What would you say to new writers about the role of contact with this online community?

Cathryn: Protect yourself. That sounds very prickly, but I mean that in two ways, and hopefully not as standoffish as it sounds. It’s easy to lose your voice in any writing community, virtual or physical, and you have to know who you are and how you write and be confident in that and true to it. The other aspect is, it’s very easy to use a lot of creative energy blogging and commenting on other blogs. It takes thought to leave a comment that contributes to the conversation (at least it does for me!). At times, I’ve let too much of my energy drain into that. At the end of the day, writing is solitary. A community is a fantastic support, a lifeline, but you face the blank screen alone.

SCH: That seems very sound advice. I’ve seen the benefits of blogging and tweeting, but also noticed their capacity for to distract. Procrastination – the enemy of productivity!

Cathryn: I started tracking the hours I spent blogging, reading, commenting, and tweeting while listening to my complaints of “not enough time to write” and had to take a step back. However, you have to give kudos to Twitter for helping us pare our thoughts down to the essential!

Q. Finally, three things you would avoid, and three you would be sure to repeat in the process of writing and publishing your own book.

Cathryn: I love lists! Three things I would avoid:

  1. Editing the book after it had gone through the final proofing!
  2. Forgetting this: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” – Steve Jobs
  3. Obsessing over sales data on a daily basis (sometimes hourly). I now update my sales records once a week.

Three things I would be sure to repeat:

  1. Read my work out loud.
  2. Play.
  3. Celebrate every milestone.

SCH: No wonder you love lists, you write very very good ones that are well worth passing along!

Cathryn: Thanks again. And thanks for making me think.

SCH: Me too. Thank you for your time, and for courageously letting me cut my novice interviewing teeth on your work. I know we all wish you well-deserved success with ‘Demise’, and all your other publications.

Demise of the Soccer Moms is at both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk and comes in paper and e-flavours.

‘No Arrests in 2039’

Good old Every Day Fiction, they’re taking a chance with another of my tales. ‘No Arrests in 2039’, in which a local council gets inventive about its crime stats, will be unleashed on August 9th.

Disclaimer: Dear Elected Representatives – No, this is not a way forward, you hear me?

Update: EDF is offline at the moment while they move house to new servers.

EDF reports progress, and will be back on August 15th. Affected stories will transfer to September. 09/08/11