Sunday, 6 December 2009

How come Gypsies and Travellers?

This is what seems to intrigue people. How come I am writing a story with a theme that hinges on Gypsies and Travellers, their origins, culture and present-day problems? I do not, as far as I know, have any Gypsy blood in my ancestry. At book signings, or when I give talks, this is usually the first question.

Two happily converging paths led me there. I had written two novels (still gathering dust somewhere, as many writers own up to) that can be regarded as a training ground, although I may revisit and revise them. Why not? I was already veering towards stories relating to social division, perhaps contentious subject matter. For my next novel I wanted something gritty to push the boundaries. I was looking for a theme that would fit with this but which, most importantly, would also engage readers. It needed to be an enjoyable read.

That was the first thing.

The second influence that prompted me was through a job I had supporting single, teenage Mums. Not wishing to bore you to sleep with biographical detail, for about six years, I’d had my own PR and Marketing business: brochures, press releases and feature articles for mostly IT companies. I began to tire of the copywriting, which became largely re-arranging similar words – ‘cost-effective; functionality; systems integration; business solutions; connectivity …’ Yawn, yawn. Well you see my point. I yearned to escape from software and other high-tech products that claimed virtually the same benefits for different industry sectors.

This may seem convoluted, but you see my life then changed for, in the closing years of working life, I decided to ‘work with people’. When I was in the community helping support single teenage mothers I questioned whether my colleagues and I should approach the local Travellers to offer our services – mostly information and emotional support. I was told families tend to look after themselves and might not want us interfering. This set me off on a fact-finding trail, reading about their secretive and proud culture to discover a mix of persecution, poverty and achievements, origins, the differences between, say, Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers. I became more and more fascinated. It is, believe me, a huge and complex subject!

As I went on to meet many Gypsies and Travellers, visit their sites, attend their meetings, I came to realise that these people did not, by and large, match the negative stereotypes fixed in the psyche of mainstream society. This launched me into something that has become a bit of an obsession, or at least a passion for my subject. There is so much to learn, and so much to say! And I must add there are plenty of Gypsies and Travellers who speak for themselves, both as individuals and through numerous organizations, but they are not always listened to. Other people sometimes put up a barrier with their prejudices.

Waterstone’s attached a note to Gypsies Stop tHere: “A fantastic, insightful first novel by a local author. Challenges prejudices and entertains thoroughly. This is a perfect holiday read” which shows that the ‘issues’ are woven into a story that is not heavy going! Since it was published, I have learned yet more about … well that would be telling. The sequel will be out in March 2010.

© Miriam Wakerly

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Still Bugged by Genres

Yes, I’m slightly bugged now by the Genre debate. Yes, we understand the need, but … but …

What about Life of Pi? Or Curious Incident of Dog in the Night-Time? The Kite Runner? And novels with social comment like Small Island by Andrea Levy or Brick Lane by Monica Ali? Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Quicksolver? Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks? Just a tiny sample of popular books that perhaps do not slot easily into an existing category, but had they not been taken up by a publisher, the reading public would be the poorer. They all have ‘something to say or show’. Are they just 'general fiction'?

Since my post on the vexed question of Genre, many more classifications – and is classification synonymous with genre? – have popped into my head. So is there room for another I wonder? I would love to hear from publishers or anyone else who is knowledgeable on these matters. A term that captures real issues/ethics/substance within the framework of a captivating story. Thus the reader is both entertained and enriched. Such novels may or may not be ‘literature’ – perhaps the most challenging term of all to define. They may or may not be exploring ethics or politics.

‘Faction’ does not quite do it for me. ‘Social comment fiction’? ‘Reality fiction’? ‘Themed’? Sue Cook on The Write Lines suggested ‘intelligent story-telling’.

Perhaps the elusive genre already exists. If so, please tell me.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

A Question of Genre – is it vexed?

I am sure many writers, agents and publishers can quote chapter and verse at me on the thorny issue of genre; it is commercially vital to brand and pigeonhole books so that potential readers know what they are getting. Targeting and demographics are key.

So ‘modern/contemporary fiction’, as per BIC classification for ‘non-genre’ novels, does not perhaps cut the mustard. But what if your novel is neither romance, crime, sci-fi, historical, fantasy, erotic, thriller, nor literary? Not adventure, saga, chick-lit, grit-lit or whatever term is knocking around at the time? Nor is it the more esoteric metafiction or allegory? Perhaps it is a cross-breed, like historical romance. But if it cannot claim to fall under any such labels, does this mean it should never have been written? If so, is this not the tail wagging the dog?

A reader described Gypsies Stop tHere: “…a good read, this story provides an entertaining way of understanding a very important social issue ...” Well, is there a genre that covers this? I don’t know. Socio-rural reality page-turner? Prejudice-challenging fiction? Or perhaps simply ‘other’.

Focusing on the Gypsy theme, an academic writer recently said, “Miriam Wakerly's books Gypsies Stop tHere and No Gypsies Served (coming out March 2010) are a window to the bigotry that a race of people in the UK still experience. Textbooks illustrating statistics of what racism is like are all well and good but what Wakerly adds is an accessible and readable 'way in' to the situation for the general reader, and the storytelling approach reinforces we are talking about real people here, not statistics. I would recommend that people read these books as a reflection of the reality of contemporary Britain.”

This all sounds terribly grave but there are many other happenings within my pages, I promise you! Relationships and various interconnecting storylines in an English village seem to ‘captivate’ a wide-ranging readership, so they tell me.

I could define my novels as a ‘village-novel-with-edge’ or something like that. It’s not Miss Read or Rebecca Shaw. I cannot think of a word that single-handedly encapsulates it. Can you? If so, please let me know!

If anyone wants to quote from this blog then that’s fine but please credit me! Thanks.

© Miriam Wakerly

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Tip-top Top Tips for Self-Publishing

People have different reasons for self-publishing. This can range from having a few digital copies printed at low outlay to give to family and friends; to going the whole hog, pulling out all the marketing stops to justify a larger traditional print run. The latter brings down the unit cost substantially but then you have a liability on your hands. All those books!

I decided to self-publish and once I’d made the decision I felt as if a dead weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was positive because people were saying good things about my book. This helps.

Tip 1
Be clear about your end objective; it will influence decisions and choices you make in the process.
Tip 2
Get as much feedback as possible. It enables you to revise confidently.
Persuade people, whose opinion you value, to comment on your mss before it goes to print. These good people are in effect your proof-reader and editor, and you, the author, are your own agent and publisher. But I would never have gone ahead without heeding critiques from many people before Gypsies Stop tHere went to print. Every author probably thinks their book is wonderful on so many levels; I couldn’t just trust my own biased judgement. I was happy with it but I needed to be sure that others were too. Writing circles are invaluable for getting honest feedback.
Some self-published books let themselves down, so it is said; probably due to forging ahead regardless of others’ opinions.
Tip 3
Examine what skills you can utilise. Are you good enough at word-processing and layout to provide printer-ready mss? to not stand out like a sore thumb? Are you familiar with printing terms and confident enough to be able to sign off that final proof or pdf – the last time you see your work until it is in book form? Can you design your book cover or will you need to pay for this artwork? Could you set up a website as an online shop?
Tip 4
An adjunct of this is to don your business hat because whatever you cannot do yourself you may need to pay for. Keep account of costs and your profit margin. It is so easy to keep paying out for things you think might help your book along and if you are not quite mean with yourself, costs will spiral – upwards!
Tip 5
For the mechanics: ISBN numbers, barcode, marketing methods, information on distributors and wholesalers, registering with Nielsen Book Data, and other essential tasks, then it is a good idea to get a couple of step-by-step books on the subject. There are many available.

With two previous novels I ventured down the disheartening and time-consuming agent-and-publisher trail. If you are an unknown, there is little alternative to submitting letters with required enclosures. I was slowly working my way through the Writers and Artists Year Book! It demanded stamina and incurred cost. Every rejection hurt! Once I had finished writing Gypsies Stop tHere, already feeling almost bereaved - missing my characters and their world, as you do – I decided to grasp the proverbial nettle.

I have had a wonderful time with book signings in shops and at events; giving talks; setting up a website; meeting so many fascinating, open-minded people and, of course, having fun with Twitter! Looking forward to the next one soon.

If anyone wants to quote these tips then that’s fine but please credit me! Thanks.
© Miriam Wakerly

Friday, 9 October 2009

Caught Between Two Big Brains

Well! Controversy! Did you see a programme a few weeks back on Roma Gypsy children in Spain and Italy allegedly being trained to a life of crime – petty thieving? It went on to show apparent adult Roma in Romania boasting their wealth and large houses.

A Professor I know who is a leading authority, has dismissed this: ‘The whole thing was about as plausible as Sacha Baron Cohen's Kazakhstan,” he told me. “A tiny minority of thieves, easily caught, photographed, and voluble about their methods - it's usually called attention-seeking behaviour.’

But a Romany journalist, with whom I am acquainted online, who could be fairly described as an activist in support of his people, says in his blog O NEVO DROM about the programme: ‘While this program has come under attack, some rather severe, from several quarters, especially from academics in the field of Romani Studies in the West, including Romani People amongst them, and also some Romani activists, it is time that we, the Rom, the Romani People, firstly admitted to ourselves and amongst ourselves that this problem exists and then admitted it also to the outside world; and secondly that we, as a People, did something about stopping this practice.’

Such a difference of opinion from both exceedingly knowledgeable people. I watched the programme again last night and am still sitting on the fence.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

WI do a U-Turn?

Well, not the whole organisation, but members of a Hampshire branch, possibly no more than a twig, have proved to be independent thinkers. They emailed me because one of them borrowed my book, Gypsies Stop tHere, from the library and enjoyed it so much they all thought they would like to hear my talk! Now that is the kind of thing I like to hear very much indeed.

Are they scheming to rip me apart now they’ve lulled me into a state of calm smugness? To find out I must wait till next March. You may remember the Madonna like reception I often get once my thorny topic is raised, as outlined before. This audience I feel absolutely certain will be lovely. I just know it. I can taste the warmness of their welcome already.

I wonder if anything will have changed by then. I attended a Gypsy and Traveller Forum a couple of weeks ago, where various agencies and members of the G&T community come together. The air was electric with frustration! One committee member stormed out of the room! Resigned after (I think) 17 years! Fact sometimes offers more drama than fiction, except for my book of course.

Site provision is a complex subject and no way can I tackle it in a blog. As ever, though, the nub of the meeting came down to G&Ts being permanently worried about having nowhere to live, largely due to objections by local residents. For any councillor this is not a vote-winner. So a tiny minority have to resort to unauthorised encampments without facilities … highly visible. It’s a self-perpetuating circle that gets dizzy chasing its own tail. I can see all sides of the problem but what many people do not realise is that their proper sites, usually tucked away out of sight, are kept immaculately. Trailers are gleaming, usually fitted with pale upholstery and carpet and everything put away. Puts some houses to shame!

Also crime rates do not increase with the number of G&Ts living in an area. This false view is often in people’s minds fuelled by biased scapegoating in media reports, headlines and photos. Police are clamping down on such hate-related reports now.

Well that’s me done. I’d better jump off my soapbox and my high horse. Tweet me if you have some thoughts of your own. And don’t forget to read my book before the sequel is out.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Spaghetti Squash

Is it a pasta smoothie?
Is it a racquet game involving bolognese sauce?

Maybe you know about this phenomenon (known variously as Zucchino or Vegetable Spaghetti) but, if not, let me tell you and prepare to be amazed. It looks like any other squash, rather fat and boring if I'm honest. Bake it whole until soft inside, (test by poking with skewer), splice it in half, gouge out its seeds (this is all quite physical work but so simple you could do it blindfold with one arm behind your back when drunk), then take a fork. Then, then - and this is exciting the first time you do it at least - no, I'm not going to tell you. It'll spoil the moment.
Maybe I've said too much already. But if you Google it all manner of things come up, as you would expect of Google. Like pasta, it needs flavoursome sauce.
In 1957 the best April Fool ever was 'spaghetti trees' - well you probably know that too. It was on Panorama and the spoof was both loved and criticised.
This however is TRUE.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Me and Madonna

Welcome to my d├ębut blog! I would have planned to set the scene with thumbnail biography and what to expect from my ramblings. But this bit about Madonna came up and although I don’t lie awake at night pondering possible common ground between me and Madonna, (apart from striking physical resemblance and singing talent) the similarity struck me at once. Madonna at Bucharest, Romania; me at Women’s Institute. Well, not exactly … I could empathise though.

National press told us last week (first spotted in that, at first, fans politely applauded the Roma performers sharing a stage with Madonna. ‘Then the pop star condemned widespread discrimination against Roma and the cheers gave way to jeers. The sharp mood change that swept the crowd of 60,000 … underscores how prejudice against Roma remains deeply entrenched across Eastern Europe.’

Me at various meetings, as author guest speaker on Gypsies and Travellers, Past, Present and Future. Woa! Big subject! I would report thus: ‘After a warm reception, as ‘issues’ were explored the air turned frosty; arms folded and one sensed murmurings of ‘green-belt’. The advice afterwards was to bring along Gypsy crafty objects that the audience could see and touch and less of the campaign, please.’

I try to redress the balance, to explain what might lie behind negative views held by mainstream society. Author of ‘Last Bastion of Racism’, Dr John Coxhead, helped explain to me the psychology of entrenched attitudes. ‘Many attempts to position the ‘other side’ of the story about Romanies, Irish Travellers and Roma are ridiculed or scorned … people feel a lot of the things instinctively … and the psychological process behind bigotry means they often drown out conflicting ‘facts’ (cognitive dissonance) to keep their existing ‘world view’ intact …’ He pointed out that the audience was probably thinking, ‘for you to be presenting this ‘alternative’ angle you must be biased but in fact we know the real truth, so we dismiss what you’re saying, and we’ll carry on thinking the way we do now thank you very much.’

Should I stick with the books? Forget the talks?!

Well, maybe it’s a tenuous link, maybe not, but on the one hand, “Romanians watch Gypsy soap operas, they like Gypsy music and go to Gypsy concerts,” said Damian Draghici … In some way, people hang on to the romantic notion of Gypsies living in gaily painted wagons; the pretty bits of their lifestyle they can accept; but refuse to try and understand the plight of the modern Traveller.

For the future my ramblings will be like that box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.