Here's what happened at The Riff Raff March meet up
It felt like we had been away for ages by the time we reconvened for March, but wowzer – it was worth the wait.
Not only was Amy back from Austraila, complete with sun-bleached highlights and a goddess tan, we had an awesome, all-female fivesome of authors in honour of International Women’s Day.
“It wasn’t the book I wanted it to be.”
Our first author of the night was the marvellous Nicola Mostyn, who like Riff Raff favourite Emily Morris had travelled down from Manchester to join us. She described her debut The Gods of Love as "Sex in the City meet Clash of the Titans", which made us hoot (it’s pretty accurate, too.)
Not only was Nicola beautifully articulate about the writing process, she was informative: did you know the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus is actually his brother, Anteros? Yeah, us neither...
Like many authors, Nicola had a couple of false starts with her first book, acquiring an agent only to put her manuscript in a drawer for five years and re-write it twice, amassing a whopping 660,000 words before finding success.
“It wasn’t the book I wanted it to be,” she said of abandoning that first draft. “I’d lost the connection and the joy.”
She talked about staying true to yourself and taking the time to write the book you want, not the book the industry is pushing for. We were in awe: it takes a courageous soul to walk away from potential publication and wait for the “magical, meant-to-be quality” as Nicola astutely put it.
When the time was finally right, Nicola wrote The Gods of Love in six months and the published book is barely unchanged.
“Ignore the rules.”
Our second author, Natasha Bell, professed to some pre-reading nerves but you’d never have been able to tell: candid, thoughtful and enlightening, Natasha had the audience rapt as she read from her debut novel, Exhibit Alexandra.
Like Nicola, Natasha had worked on her novel for years – eight to be precise – re-writing it “in every style, person and tense” to ensure it was the story she wanted to tell, even if she didn’t know what genre she was penning until her agent mentioned the words ‘psychological thriller’.
This led us into a discussion about cross-genre fiction and whether authors should adhere to the rules of their category? “Ignore the rules,” Natasha stated firmly, adding that fiction would not progress unless authors dared to do so.
Exhibit Alexandra tackles some big themes but Natasha advised the aspiring writers in our audience to, “Write what interests you…I read and write in order to ask questions…write the book that you need to write.”
“Light and shade comes from life.”
It’s a brave author who starts their first book with a sex scene, and a braver one still who reads it aloud in front of a 40-strong crowd. Fortunately, Emily Phillips is no ordinary author and her saucy opening had our audience hooting with laughter.
Trying follows couple Olivia and Felix as they attempt to get pregnant. The book is fictional but Emily has been open about her own fertility issues, and she explained that it was important to protect her husband and friends’ privacy, which she did by adding in new, entirely fictional storylines; changing the physical appearance and traits of Felix and talking to a range of people to get their take on baby-making sex so that the sex scenes were generic without losing their authenticity.
Emily also looked to a totally different medium to inform her writing: film. “I’d always loved films and initially wanted to be a screenwriter,” she said, adding that it was when she read a book on screenwriting that Trying truly found its footing.
It shows: the narrative zips along at phenomenal pace and is by turns hilarious and poignant – how did Emily manage the balance? “It wasn’t always conscious," she said. “I think light and shade comes from life naturally and a lot of the time, you have to laugh, otherwise you'd cry.”
“I didn't want it to be a manifesto.”
After a short break we welcomed Abi Andrews to the stage. Her debut novel, The Word for Woman is Wilderness, takes inspiration from Into The Wild, a film about a young man who sets off to explore Alaska alone.
Abi wryly explained that she had intended to recreate the journey but life got in the way – so she decided to imagine the trip instead. The fact that she was writing as a woman was important. “It was almost a critique of travel writing. Men are allowed to go into the wilderness and write epic literature, women have to have some sort of crisis.”
Our audience was keen to know why Abi set her protagonist Erin's age at 19, and how she got into her heroine’s mind-set. “I’m 25 so 19 didn’t feel that far away,” Abi told us – although, “I didn’t know she was 19 until I was half way through. I didn't want to be didactic so she needed to be young to discover the world. I didn’t want it to be a manifesto.”
Originally, Erin was accompanied on her journey by her best friend but we were left slack-jawed when Abi told us she had killed off said best friend after the book was finished. “Something didn’t feel right but I didn’t have that instinct until right at the end. Sometimes it takes a while for instinct to form.” When she actually came to erase the character, Abi said the job was surprisingly easy, which suggests, “she wasn’t a fully formed character to begin with.”
“I thought I would self publish.”
Our final author for the night was the marvellous Holly Cave. Having qualified as a biologist and started out as a science writer, we weren’t surprised to find her debut, The Memory Chamber, combines elements of science-fiction with romance and crime. How did she come up with it?
Reading widely, Holly said. Walking her dog. Really seeing what was around her. Feeling like she really was in heaven.
Before The Memory Chamber, Holly explained that she had actually self-published a book called The Generation, “and I really enjoyed the process so I thought I would self-publish this one, too.”
Fate intervened, and Holly ended up going down a more conventional route – we are delighted that she did.
Huge thanks, as ever, to our photographer for the night Alice Lubbock, as well as all our authors and especially to our lovely audience who joined us for the night.