Friday, November 26, 2010

[Interview] Arthur Gwagwa

Arthur Ernest Gwagwa was born in Chivhu, Zimbabwe.

Currently, he lives in London where he works as a mental health and family solicitor.

In this interview, Arthur Gwagwa talks about his books, His Story & Her Story (The Lion Press, 2010) and Turning Point (The Lion Press, 2010):

How would you describe the two books have written so far?

His Story & Her Story (The Lion Press, 2010) is the product of combined semi-autobiographies which attempt to tell the stories of migration and related issues in a very imaginative, creative and interesting manner.

It goes on to discuss general critical social issues in black and ethnic minority communities of Britain, France and the USA as well as issues of ethnicity, race and culture in former colonies such as Zimbabwe, Jamaica and South Africa.

The book also conceptually analyses the stories of migration from a social science perspective and it shares some well-tested ideas and concepts that would help migrants, black people (especially black boys and ethnic minorities) in realizing their full potential under adversity.

Although His Story & Her Story contains hard truths which may hurt, telling a lie would have been worse.

On the other hand, Turning Point (The Lion Press, 2010) is a medley of 34 very short inspirational and multicultural family stories. The stories can be read in conjunction or individually and in no specific order. These stories reveal ways that have been shown to be helpful when interacting with children and young people. The stories can help children and young people learn about decision-making as well as help them learn how to appreciate and be proud of who they are and discover and realise their potential; maintain the right perspective in times of change;  as well as work with others and deal with disappointments.

The strategies that are shared in this book can also help children, young people and families solve relationship problems, handle difficult situations and become more confident.

The central ideas behind the stories in Turning Point come from well-tested principles drawn from motivational psychology and they try to capture these five aspects of a person’s existence:
  • Where they are coming from (Heritage),
  • Why they were born (Purpose),
  • What they can achieve (Potential),
  • Who they are (Identity), and
  • Where they are going (Destiny).
How did you choose a publisher for the books?

I worked on the two books simultaneously.

I began His Story & Her Story on 18 May 2010. Although I was done within two months, it took me another month of developmental editing before His Story & Her Story was published on 21 August 2010. At the same time, I had started gathering ideas for Turning Point together with my daughter. For its own part, Turning Point took me about a month to write although I continued editing it until 7 September 2010.

When you are choosing a publisher you follow your intuition.

It’s not so much about money although money is a crucial consideration. You want a publisher you can personally work with, who understands your work and you as a writer. You want a publisher who shares your values and world viewpoint.

The only disadvantage is that when your publisher becomes your friend also, you might lose focus in the process.

There is always a need for balance.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into His Story & Her Story?

I found writing about the Zimbabwean political situation in Chapter 1 very difficult.

I am aware that there are polarised views on what exactly happened in Zimbabwe and who to apportion blame to and I have friends on both sides of the political divide.

I also make conclusions about the existence of racism in the UK that are very uncomfortable. Most white people expect us to write about the dangers that our leaders present but, at the same time, they don’t want us to expose the racism that is here in the UK. You rarely find a book that contains the two because people who write books tend to belong to a particular ideological camp.

I feel that the first and foremost duty of a writer is to ensure that they don’t compromise the truth in order to be accepted. Once you do that, you lack credibility and your work lacks integrity.

My ethics as a lawyer helped me a lot in stating the truth without fear and prejudice but also, at the same time, allowed me to leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.

And what challenges did Turning Point present?

With Turning Point I struggled to find how I could classify the book and what age group it would be relevant to.

Firstly, when I started the book, I thought I was writing a children book. Then, half way through, I found myself thinking that I was writing a book that adults who work with children could read as a ‘parenting guide’ of some sort. Ultimately, with my daughter's help, we finally agreed that this book could be read by both adults and children.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

With His Story & Her Story, I enjoyed writing about ordinary people. For example, I write about a boy in Zimbabwe called Cliff who suffered from a hoarding syndrome. I also write about a boy in Leicester called Gerald and about a young asylum seeker called David from Ivory Coast.

I also enjoyed writing about personal experiences.

With Turning Point, I mainly like the experimental writing that I was doing. For example, I was combining cultures. I was writing about things such as a Masai herdsman who is also a baseball player. And, in the book, there is also a dog that uses an ipad and a donkey wearing iPods that dances to Usher’s "OMG".

I also liked the underlying political satire in some of the stories in Turning Point.

What sets Turning Point and His Story & Her Story apart from other things you've written?

In the past, I have been writing mainly for Zimbabwean online newspapers as well as in academic circles. His Story & Her Story is a culmination of all the work that I have done so far. I think it signifies a maturation and combines both the factual and the conceptual.

On the other hand, the stories in Turning Point might have a multicultural, global appeal. I was also experimenting and having fun with native languages and at the same time trying to put the message out there. So, you might find a few Chinese, Ndebele, Shona, Yoruba and Zulu phrases in some of the stories.

Although the two books are different, they are similar in that all my works portray the enduring values of audacious hope, tenacious faith and abiding love. I am motivated by love in everything that I do and this shows in all my works. Although I write about many things, my themes also tend to gravitate towards hope and the vision of my work tends to gravitate towards the creation of a Zimbabwe which is akin to a theme park, fun within and secure without, which would enable us to raise confident and secure children.

What will your next book be about?

I am working on a Shona novel called Togarasei which tries to contain the essence of the social strife our country went through in the past decade, where we went wrong and the lessons we can learn to create the Zimbabwe our children will be proud to call home and in which they can confidently come of age.

I am also plotting a TV drama series based on my love for the musicals. This will take time to produce as it is a complicated project.

I have attempted to write for theatre before but got discouraged when my first script came back with several recommendations from Royal Court Theatre. I would also like to give writing for theatre another go.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

I was mainly influenced by Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian-born Jamaican, in my writing style. I was equally influenced by Barack Obama. These two authors have the ability to seamlessly weave the factual and the conceptual without losing the plot.

I was equally influenced by Myles Munroe who is a personal friend and mentor.

My descriptive writing on Zimbabwe in the fifth chapter where I write passionately about my native village in Chivhu was influenced by my early readings of Charles Mungoshi and Shimmer Chinodya.

My journalistic approach in the final chapters was influenced by several British journalists.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I am a migrant.

In my introduction, in His Story & Her Story, I state that "When those who don’t have personal migration experiences try to write [our] stories, their versions may lack a personal touch and the raw emotions associated with migration. My credentials as a migrant who grew up very poor, my struggles to fit both in Zimbabwe and in Britain mainly pushed me. In Zimbabwe I often felt I didn’t belong because of the ‘cast system’ which tends to favour particular tribes, academics and others who are considered to have made it in one way or the other. In Britain, as an immigrant, I feel I have to prove myself every day."

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

I can be a little insecure especially if people who are close to me try to belittle or invalidate my ambitions. But I am developing the emotional intelligence to deal with this.

I am very creative but can also be highly emotional and this doesn’t help. Unfortunately, if you take away the emotions from a writer, you have killed that writer, so I suppose most writers and artists struggle to maintain a balance.

My second biggest challenge is in the marketing of my work. I am naturally not a marketer but since I believe that what I write can help to change other people’s lives, I am not ashamed to sell my books.

Do you write every day?

For the past four months I have been writing every day. I have done two books and am working on a Shona novel now. However, the bulk of the time is spent in editing and proof reading.

The main writing itself is not a big problem but making it all perfect is a big problem since English is not my first language.

I only write when I am inspired. I usually go to the park, speak with my daughter or watch children's programmes of TV and I get some ideas and jot them down in a small notebook which I keep all the time.

Possibly related article:

Tendai Huchu [Interview], Conversations with Writers, October 25, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

[Interview] Belinda Hopkins

Belinda Hopkins is a Director and Lead Trainer at Transforming Conflict, a centre for restorative justice in education.

She is also the author of Just Care: Restorative Justice Approaches to Working with Children in Public Care (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009); The Peer Mediation and Mentoring Trainer's Manual (Optimus Education, 2008) and Just Schools: A Whole School Approach to Restorative Justice (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003).

In this interview, Belinda Hopkins talks about the work she is doing:

How did you first become interested in Restorative Justice?

In some ways I have always been interested in a restorative approach when working with young people – although in the early days I would not have used the phrase ‘Restorative Justice’ or ‘restorative approaches’

My first experience of teaching, in the field of English as a foreign language, radicalised me in terms of thinking of my students as autonomous, self-directing partners in their learning. Having subsequently trained as a modern language teacher, I found the authoritarian regime of school difficult to accept. I was inspired by Reimer (1971), Postman and Weingartner (1971), Holt (1966) and Freire (1982), who questioned the role of adults vis-à-vis children and the issue of children’s rights and responsibilities. I also read about non-violence and conflict resolution in schools (Isaacson and Lamont 1982; Judson 1982).

My teaching style was informed by a desire to create a democratic classroom, and I often used a format which is now called classroom conferencing (Thorsborne and Vinegrad 2004) – resolving differences and problems by sitting in a circle, actively listening to each other and finding ways forward together. I based much of my modern languages teaching around the social goal of creating community and trust in the group, using game-like activities to develop self-esteem, communication skills and cooperation, albeit in French and Spanish. Eventually, in 1994, I left the teaching profession to become a freelance trainer and consultant in the field of conflict management and mediation.

In 1997 Terry O’Connell, a police officer pioneering Restorative Justice in New South Wales was invited over to the UK by the then Chief Constable of the Thames Valley Police Force, Sir Charles Pollard to talk about his work with young offenders to youth justice professionals and educationalists. Hearing O’Connell speak, I saw the relationship between work I had been doing in schools for many years and the potential of restorative justice philosophy to provide an overarching framework for this work.

After O’Connell’s visit I was invited to be involved with the Thames Valley Police to develop work in schools, and I began to write about the connections between restorative philosophy, conflict management, mediation and circle time, urging people to consider restorative justice more as a whole-school approach than a discrete intervention (Hopkins 1999a; 1999c; 2002b; 2003a). These ideas all came together when I wrote my first book on the whole school restorative approach – indeed the first book ever to be written on the subject- Just Schools (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004). (This section is an extract from an article that can be found here and was adapted for my doctoral thesis.)

What do Restorative Approaches have to offer that the more traditional routes of blame and punishment don’t?

Traditionally, in families, schools and in the criminal justice system there has been a response to wrongdoing that could crudely be described as ‘name, blame, shame and punish’. In other words, if someone does something wrong then they must be punished for it. If there is no punishment then the miscreant has ‘got away with it’. Certain key questions inform the mindset of those with the power in such settings:
  • What happened?
  • Who is to blame?
  • What is the appropriate response to deter and possibly punish those at fault, so they will not do the same thing again?
The first question - What happened? is based on the belief that something factual happened, some essential ‘truth’ and that this can be discovered by interviewing or even interrogating whoever was involved or whoever witnessed the event. Words such as ‘interview’, ‘interrogate’ and ‘witness’ give away the origin of this approach – the criminal justice domain requiring people to be detectives! In this approach discrepancies are viewed as suspect, inconsistencies considered proof of dishonesty and written testimonies acquire the status of evidence, often with priority given to those statements given by those with more age, rank or status.

The second question – Who is to blame? is informed by the belief that when something bad has happened there must be a culprit or culprits. ‘Dealing with the situation’ comprises first identifying this guilty person or people and laying the blame for what happened at their feet.

The third question –What sanction will deter and punish? is based on the belief that accountability comprises being punished, and that punishment will deter both the miscreant and others from repeating the wrongdoing. This latter belief is held on to despite evidence to the contrary. Sanctions and the threat of sanctions are rarely sufficient to deter further wrongdoing – a fact about which much more will be said.

Restorative practitioners bring a different set of questions to bear on any situation of conflict or wrongdoing:
  • What’s happened?
  • Who has been affected or harmed?
  • How can everyone who has been affected be involved in repairing the harm and finding a way forward?
The first question - What’s happened? looks deceptively similar to the first, traditional, question. However its intention is very different. When a restorative practitioner asks a person to explain what happened they appreciate that this is only one person’s perspective, and that they will get a different answer from everyone they ask – and that this is inevitable, normal and interesting. They appreciate that there is no ‘one truth’ about an event, but many truths – and it is the discrepancies in perception about an event that may have given rise to the problem in the first place. Thus a key quality of a restorative practitioner is curiosity, and they like to encourage that curiosity amongst everyone they interact with.

The second question - Who has been affected or harmed? recognises that when something has gone wrong people will have been affected or even harmed (as in – distressed, hurt, upset, angered) and that whatever else happens there will be the need for some kind of repair. Many working and domestic environments remain unpleasant because conflicts have not been resolved and relationships that have been damaged are left in tatters. Curiously people’s needs are very similar whether they have been personally harmed by conflict or wrongdoing or whether they themselves have been responsible for causing harm (either inadvertently or on purpose.)

The third question - How can everyone who has been affected be involved in repairing the harm and finding a way forward? contains the key to what is different and radical about a restorative approach . It comprises two challenging paradigm shifts for some people – letting go the need for sanctions and letting go the need to be in control and impose solutions.

Many people equate justice having been done with the administering of a punishment, and in schools and residential child care contexts a similar expectation prevails, or is believed to prevail. The logic is that if somebody does a bad thing then a bad thing needs to be done to them. In a sense this is the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ philosophy, but of course this lesson taught to children by adults can lead to behaviours in youth settings and in the community that mimic this approach, which is based on revenge. A restorative approach, coupled with interpersonal conflict resolution training, can offer an alternative that may influence the way young people deal with conflicts in later life.

A restorative response, with its focus not on blame, punishment and alienation but on repair and re-connection, encourages a wrongdoer to take responsibility for the harm they have caused, and gives them an opportunity to repair the harm. Empathy is developed, accountability is encouraged and the outcome can help both wronged and wrongdoer feel better about themselves and the other person. (This section is adapted from Chapter 2 of Just Care.)

Why are Restorative Justice Approaches particularly pertinent to residential child care?

Statistics show that young people in Residential Child Care are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice arena (DfES 2006; NACRO 2003a; NACRO 2003b). This situation has arisen not necessarily because children in care are more likely to offend but because the disruptive behaviours of the children have resulted in a call from staff to the police, often followed by an arrest and a caution or final warning (NACRO 2003a). Probably neither the staff concerned , nor the police involved, would wish for such an outcome. However, without training in alternative strategies staff often turn to the police in desperation, whilst the police themselves, because of crime recording protocols and targets, feel obliged to deal with the incident as a crime.

Using a restorative approach instead can divert children in care from the criminal justice system by ensuring that the incident is dealt with by staff in such a way that both wrongdoer and those affected reach a mutually agreed way forward without recourse to the police (Willmott 2007).

However whilst restorative justice in its formal sense can and does make a contribution in care settings, it is in its less formal aspects, described as ‘restorative approaches’, that it can have most impact and address many of the issues and challenges currently facing the residential child care sector.

In residential care settings staff who were initially trained in the restorative conferencing model swiftly discovered that the more formal process was less useful than they had first hoped because most of the incidents they needed to address flared up quickly and needed immediate attention. More often than not there was no clear-cut case of ‘offender’ and ‘victim’ but simply two people in conflict, each blaming the other. They therefore began to request training in a range of less formal processes which were nevertheless informed by the philosophy of restorative justice. Their experiences using these processes has gradually led to a realisation that the approach required a cultural shift in the way staff and young people interact on a day to day basis and that the benefits of using such an approach could go far beyond the narrow remit of reducing potentially offending behaviour.

One particular concept that is gaining ground in residential settings is that of ‘social pedagogy’ and it is be argued that day to day restorative practice provides a framework for care staff to operationalise socially pedagogic principles, especially in challenging situations. (This section is adapted from Chapter 1 of Just Care.)

Could you tell us a little about your organisation Transforming Conflict?

I founded Transforming Conflict in 1994 for the reasons I explained earlier. In the early days, I was the only trainer and consultant, but over time I have built up a superb team with backgrounds in education, social work, youth offending teams, and residential care who share the training with me.

Having developed a reputation for being one of the lead training organisations in the UK, we are now also known as the National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings. We offer training, consultancy and support in a variety of youth settings for people seeking to enhance their skills in building a sense of community, fostering a spirit of inclusion and dealing creatively with challenging situations.

Our work is underpinned by the philosophy of Restorative Justice, which stresses the importance of relationships above rules and the value of dialogue in healing the damage done to relationships by inappropriate behavior.

We have experience of running courses for teaching staff, learning support staff, lunchtime controllers, parents and students, educational psychologists, pupil support teams, residential care staff, senior management teams, governors, social workers, police officers, youth justice and other local authority personnel. We work in primary, secondary and EBD and PRU school settings and run both public and bespoke in-house courses.

In recent months there has been increasing interest in developing joined–up approaches across all multi-agency teams in a single local authority and we are at the forefront of these developments working with teams to look at how they can integrate restorative ways of working not only with their client groups but also amongst their own teams.

What are you currently reading?

I am beginning the research for my new book about restorative classrooms – exploring the links between pedagogy and classroom management so I’m afraid my current reading is all work-based.

I am very excited by my friend and colleague Richard Hendry’s new book – Building and Restoring Respectful Relationships in Schools and also by an amazing book called Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen et al. which really turns the whole notion of manipulating children’s behaviour using rewards and punishments on its head. However, I do plan to take a break at the end of August and looking forward to reading something totally escapist like The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

(c) Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010

This article was first published in the Jessica Kingsley Publishers Social Work Newsletter in August 2009

Possibly related articles:

Friday, November 12, 2010

[Interview] Michael McIrvin

Michael McIrvin has five poetry collections, two novels and a collection of essays to his name.

His latest novel, The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time (BeWrite Books, 2009) has been described as an implicit indictment of the use of murder and torture by modern nation states.

In this interview, McIrvin talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?.

My most recent book is a novel, but I have also published poetry collections, and that genre was my first calling.

I started writing poetry at age 12 after my first crisis of faith. I read the Bible like a cabalist in my search for answers, every syllable, afraid I might miss some truth hiding there. When I reached the last page, I started over; but this time I only read Genesis, Revelations, and the Psalms, the Christian creation and destruction myths and the King James’ version of poetry — the good bits in my 12-year-old opinion.

In fact, the intersection of language and mythology remain important to both my poetry and my prose. My first poems were a cross between the Psalms, poetry that looked like that text in terms of long lines (mostly Whitman and Wordsworth) in my father’s old intro to lit textbook from college, and popular song lyrics.

I 'published' my first book a year or so later, a few copies of Xeroxed poems stapled together (I did the cover art too, of course). My first real book came out from a small poetry publisher in New Mexico, USA many years later, and I have published eight books in total since: five poetry collections, an academic essay collection, and two novels.

I can’t claim to actively seek publication like I did when in my 20s and 30s, but rather, I generally send mss to publishers who ask because they have seen my work in literary magazines or because of the previous books. I did send my current novel manuscript to BeWrite Books unsolicited, however, after a friend suggested that the themes in the book would be more readily acceptable to a non-US publisher.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

The most recent novel from BeWrite Books is about counterintelligence, and it is billed as a literary thriller. It is perhaps as accurate to call it social and political commentary in the guise of literary fiction, but the book is still fiction and so said commentary is implicit in the story, sublimated to story and character.

The poetry collection on which I am putting the finishing touches is about death and war and memory, and I am starting a new one that is made of stories: vignettes of working class life that all seem at this point to be, as a friend said of them recently, transcendent, the stuff of myth and ritual in everyday existence.

I am trying to find the time and energy to start the next novel too, which will be based on a short story I wrote some years ago about a feral child and his memories of his time in that mode. The novel will then follow him through his life as a 'tamed' adult, a man living on the edge of society even as he walks through it. At least that is the plan presently.

Has your personal experience had an impact on your writing?

I am a poet, fiction writer, and essayist with cultural concerns, but all of these genres are connected for me, the writing all of a piece. I frequently write narrative poems, for example, poetry that tells a story or has a character at its center. I also include some of the poet’s most powerful tools in my fiction, especially figurative language, and I use these same tools in my essays as well. And all of my work includes the stuff of modern life, the kinds of cultural issues that figure prominently in our current existence, like what constitutes individual identity in an age of hive behaviour, like how political power functions in the lives of individuals.

Don’t get me wrong. The overriding aims in my poetry and my fiction are still artistic and my poems and novels are not textual soapboxes. But like every writer, the elements of my life, what concerns me, enter the work almost inevitably and I always try to figure out how to make them serve the project at hand rather than the other way around.

Who is your target audience?

I do not aim my work at a given demographic, but if anything, I guess I write for an astute reader, one not only capable of considering the thematic elements but who also appreciates what the poet Robert Duncan called the snakelike beauty of living syntax. A good metaphor is only worth its weight in gold if the reader gets it.

Which authors influenced you most?

The influences for The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time will probably shock my publisher because those influences are perhaps not readily apparent. I am of the age now that influence is not so much stylistic as something tougher to explain, like how a given writer handles a topic or the overall tone of the prose.

Don DeLillo (Underworld) has always impressed me with his ability to include what one might term topical material without waxing didactic, and some of his prose is so lyrical it is obvious that he understands the poet’s toolkit well (again, tools I use in my fiction too). The protagonist in my latest novel is a former CIA agent, and the subject of torture is important to the book, but the book is not a heavy-handed expose on the subject but rather a larger indictment via a dramatization of the practice in historical context — in this case Mesoamerica at the end of the 20th century.

I also love Cormac McCarthy’s terse prose (Blood Meridian may be the best US novel of the 20th century), his ability to make the reader shudder for a long time in few words but also his ability to move the story forward quickly. Many of his characters also rise to the level of archetype and their story to the level of mythic undertaking. The main character and his tale in The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time, I hope, achieve those levels to some small degree.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I just want to get it right, which is of course a moving target and a writer does not “get it right” via an algorithm. So, the work at hand is always an exercise in problem solving as well as creation. I suppose the key is tenacity, a willingness to go after my own text as many times as it takes to find shortcomings and figure out the necessary fix.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

These days, time and energy. I somehow manage to find both, and it frequently amazes me to open a notebook or a manuscript file and see how much I have done. But the work tends to proceed more in fits and starts than when I taught because that profession included a known time that one could set aside to write, but fits and starts is the necessary rhythm now.

Do you write every day?

I do not write every day, and I marvel at those who do (my heroes, in a way). However, I am always working on the next poem or novel. I keep notebooks, wherein there are ideas or scenes or drafts, and then I have to find a larger block of time to do “official” work: to put down a draft that is closer to finished with each iteration, to revise, to put together a manuscript in something like the fashion it will look ultimately.

I also think about what I am working on even if not writing something down, which can be a pitfall if one mistakes it for actually writing; but nevertheless, that kind of imagining is important to the finished work if kept in perspective. That pitfall is not a problem I have to worry about, however. I know when it is time to do the writing viscerally, almost as instinctual need, and I will turn over heaven and earth to find the time to get it done.

And a book is a book only when the galleys are proofed. Up to that point, any reading of the manuscript can result in changes. So, I don’t let a project go, so to speak, until it is a half step from being a book.

How many books have you written so far?

I am the author of eight books:

How long did it take you to write The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time?

The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time was started in 2001, but it was put aside for a long time because of the political climate shift that began then (you can read a bit about this decision in an essay I wrote for Comparative Literature and Culture, “Poetry and the Aesthetic of Morality”.

The book is about a former CIA agent who must reconsider his one-time role as a counterintelligence agent, what constitutes terrorism, and the nature of power in the modern world. His journey takes him from the American rustbelt to Chiapas, Mexico, where he meets another former intelligence operative who doubles as a jaguar shaman for his Mayan tribe. The main character must also deal with other former CIA colleagues and has flashbacks to his bloody role in American history. A Mayan boy he meets has a cultural role and a future that are perhaps the most terrible revelations in the novel.

As I noted previously, a friend suggested that perhaps the topic and my handling of it might be more readily acceptable to publishers somewhere other than in the US. BeWrite was the first non-US publisher I sent the ms (and I must admit that I had not sent it to many in the US either, believing the exercise a waste of time on this side of the Atlantic), and the editor, Neil Marr, accepted it immediately and enthusiastically.

The book was published in December, and so I am too early into the process to know much about “advantages or disadvantages,” but the people at BeWrite are consummate pros and attentive to every last detail. I am also impressed by the fact they are actively exploring “what comes next” in publishing. For example, they offer an eBook version of The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time on their site (in PDF) as well as a traditional paperback, but my book was also the among the first BeWrite titles to be made available to all current eBook devices via Smash Words.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

The book is an implicit indictment of the practices of modern nation states, specifically of counterintelligence and its methods, including murder and torture as tools of state. As noted in the essay I just mentioned, many of my acquaintances did not understand my desire to write such a book let alone to include these thematic elements. The book is about the practices of the CIA in Mesoamerica late in the last century, but as one reviewer has said, the topics covered are utterly timely. Some readers of early drafts thought them too timely, apparently.

The atmosphere of panic brought on by the attack on the World Trade Center has abated a bit with the revelation of just how cowardly and dishonest the previous US administration’s actions were in response, but the desire for vengeance still permeates the culture to an extraordinary degree and the entire population seems in a malaise that can only be deemed moral confusion. All that made finding my way with the book, if not harder, at least a more self-conscious act. Moreover, some elements in the book, extraordinary violence and the consequent suffering, let alone the larger thematic of culpability on the part of the US government in the destruction of tribal cultures, were really tough to write about. Some of the research was in fact harrowing.

What sets The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time apart from other things you've written?

My previous novel has an element of irony that — in spite of sometimes tough topics (like murder, the black market organ trade, and genocide) — makes the reader laugh along the way. It is something of a fairytale in this aspect. Pratfalls might be bloody but they can still be a hoot.

The present novel is not ironic, except in the darker definition of the word, and not funny in the least. But it probably shares this with my poetry, which tends to be serious and imagistic and to plumb the depths, both psychologically and on some level that might be called philosophical (though I hope always to avoid a kind of dryly didactic language that kills the art in any literary work). In this latter case, The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time includes Mayan mythology, which is quite violent, and those tales are brought forward into our age as historical fact — the characters in the novel are, symbolically, incarnations of the characters in the myths and carrying out bloody prophecy.

Related articles:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

You’ve Published Your First Book ... What Next?

By Carrie Oakley

You’ve published your first book ... what next? This is a question I’m sure many (if not all) writers have faced at some point or the other in their career.

The quest and drive to publish their first book consume most of their time and energy during the start of their career. They feel on top of the world when they know it is going to see the light of day and when it’s out and in stores, the exhilaration is like nothing else.

However, the rollercoaster does have to come down after touching the highs, so it’s back to earth with a bang once your first book is behind you. Now it’s time to take stock and plan what to do next.

If your book is doing well and selling like hotcakes, you’re definitely going to find the motivation to keep going ... maybe even write a sequel or a spin-off to ride on this one’s popularity. The adulation you gain is an addiction, and you cannot seem to get enough of it. So you settle down immediately to write the next book, and motivation is never an issue. However, you do need to exercise caution and not get carried away.

Many authors fall by the wayside because their subsequent books are almost carbon copies of their first bestseller – they try to follow the same formula and end up becoming a one-book wonder whose popularity tapered down subsequently. It’s ok to stick to what works best for you, but at the same time, pay attention to changing tastes and perceptions.

If your first book is doing well but not going great guns, you’re less inclined to start your next one. You want to write one that’s better, but there are just enough doubts to hold you back. Or, in the worst case scenario, if your book is doing abysmally, then you’ve probably just about lost the will to ever write again. You know you want to be a writer, but self doubts plague your mind and you wonder if any publisher will ever back you again.

In such situations, it’s best to step back from the situation and pretend you’ve never published your first book. Start on a fresh slate, and give room only for your creativity. Push out the doubts from your mind and focus on the task ahead. The only time you need to think of your prior venture is to examine the mistakes you’ve made and steer clear of them. Where did you go wrong? Was the book targeted at one audience yet marketed to another? Was the timing of the release wrong? Or was the subject of your book outdated and not in vogue with current tastes and trends?

There’s another pitfall you need to be aware of – when you’ve established yourself as a successful author with a few books under your belt, you may find it hard to sustain yourself as a writer. The longer you write and the more you publish, the harder sustainability becomes. How do you continue to find inspiration for new storylines that reflect your style, yet are not stale and repetitive?

The only way to ensure this is to take time off when you feel a lull in creativity and put your nose to the grindstone when your creative juices flow.

Writing is not a 9 to 5 job that is routine and repetitive; it is an art form that must be expressed when creativity strikes.

About the author

This guest post is contributed by Carrie Oakley, who writes on the topic of online colleges. Carrie welcomes your comments at her email id: carrie.oakley1983(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

Possibly related articles: