Saturday, March 19, 2011

[Interview] Miriam Shumba

Novelist Miriam Shumba lives in Michigan in the United States where she works as a teacher.

Her books include Show Me the Sun (Genesis Press, 2010) and That Which Has Horns (Genesis Press, 2010).

Her short stories have been published in magazines in countries that include Zimbabwe, South Africa and the United States.

In this interview, Miriam Shumba talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

My earliest memory of enjoying story-telling is when I used to sit on a rukukwe and listen to my grandmother, Theresa tell us stories that began with, "Paivepo". The stories were mythical, sometimes scary, but they always had a lesson in them. That warm feeling remained with me when I started creating my own stories, at times writing long hand in school exercise books.

At the age of 10 my mother sent one of my comics to a publisher who sent the most memorable letter in my writing career. The publisher was very gracious and I was a bit embarrassed because the story my sent was in the middle of a school exercise book. The publisher (which, I recall, was Zimbabwe Publishing House) wrote back and said, "Thank you for your submission but we do not publish comic books at this time. In future you should show us where your story starts and ends etc" because it was all over the exercise book.

Thinking back, I am surprised they even took the time to read it and send it back to me with a typed letter too. I'll never forget it because about 10 years later I did get a response from a publisher that they would publish my work. That to me was the seed being planted.

In high school I kept a diary in which I documented almost every significant event that happened during my entire high school experience. If I didn’t make choir, had a great Scripture Union meeting or was upset with a friend it all made its way into my diary pages. I used to write to “Ferry” which was a nickname I gave to my best friend, Faith, who passed away when we were both 12. Writing that diary was a way of communicating with her but, in many ways, it also played a huge part in developing my love of expressing thought on paper.

The turning point in my writing career came in 1997 when I decided to send my short story “Still Waters” to Drum Magazine while attending university. It was at this time that I gathered the confidence to have my stories scrutinized by professional editors. My moment came when Drum Magazine agreed to publish the story I had sent them.

How would you describe your writing?

I write stories with a real-life theme in the context of families, love and spirituality. My desire is for my writing to inspire more than entertain; meaning that my pieces will always carry messages that can lead readers to improve their lives or, at least, get them talking about topics that would otherwise be overlooked because of the demands of everyday life. I believe that I am exploring important issues, issues that affect regular people. I would say my writing is inspirational writing.

Who is your target audience?

My books are for mature teens and adults. They are books that can be enjoyed by people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Which authors influenced you most?

I am quite a broad reader and have been influenced by authors such as Colleen McCullough, Khaled Hoseini, Francine Rivers, Francis Ray, Nicolas Sparks, Jhumpa Lahiri and many others.

These authors are all so different but they all have great storytelling abilities that grab the reader’s attention. Additionally, they are all adept at delving deep into the human spirit and share that with the world.

One author I can speak of with passion is Francine Rivers. After I discovered one of her books at a local library five years ago, I went on to read her published set of books and it helped me re-focus my own writing. Her book, Atonement Child was the first Christian novel I had read and it touched me and showed me that Christian fiction existed and it can compete at the highest of levels. I knew that my writing would never be the same as I discovered that I could write Christian Fiction that is enjoyable and that will still carry God’s powerful message of love.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

My writing is not based on my experiences and the characters I create are fictional. However, there are certain themes that may be closely related to my own life. For example, when I deal with women and self-esteem in my books, I base that on some of the experiences from my own life. I think, mostly, I write what I enjoy reading about: drama, deep emotions and surprises.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My primary concern is reaching the reader in a profound way. I measure my successes against how people relate to the characters I create.

To me it is not enough for a reader to just enjoy the story, the reader must also immerse themselves in the book and see how my characters’ experiences are similar to their own life experiences and what they can learn from them.

I guess I want people to enjoy the book and if they have more questions than answers at the end I need to do more.

I deal with this by spending many months researching, conducting interviews and revising my manuscripts to match real-life scenarios. The process tends to take very long but I think it’s worth it in the end, to have a life-changing story.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

My challenge is the discipline to write regularly. The demands of family, work and writing requires organization. So, I set my goals for each week or month and do whatever it takes to pursue and achieve them.

I tend to work consistently when I have deadlines drawn for me by my publisher.

In the coming year I will schedule one hour every single day for planning, research and writing to enable me to reach set weekly goals.

How many books have you written so far?

I have had two published novels available right now in bookstores around the world and I am working on a third manuscript.

I also have several short stories that have been published in mainstream magazines such as Jive, Drum, Parade in the USA, South Africa and Zimbabwe respectively.

My novels were both published in 2010 by a publisher based in the USA.

The first novel to be released was Show Me The Sun, a story about love found and lost, wading through darkness to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

The second book is That Which Has Horns, is story about Priscilla, a young woman who tries to understand where she fits in the new Zimbabwe. After watching her mother and many women struggle to survive in difficult marriages, complicated by cultural bonds, Priscilla has decided that she will control her own destiny, making decisions that will affect the course of all who know her. One thing she had not counted on was the power of love.

Which aspects of the work did you find most difficult?

I enjoy the creating part, the early stages when a story is forming in my mind and it’s fresh and exciting. The part when I am constructing characters and forming the plot is exhilarating for me. I feel like I get to know these people and I keep adding to their personalities as the weeks go by. I like to spend time developing their likes and dislikes, their quirks and state of mind. It’s easier to write a story when I know the characters very well, like I would recognize them in the street if they walked by me.

I really find revising difficult. With both books I had to cut out abut 30,000 words and this was very challenging for me. After you remove a particular event you have to make sure that you don’t refer to it in the next chapters. And it’s also hard to remove sections that you enjoyed or worked hard on.

What will your next book be about?

My next book is almost done. I have finished most of the first draft and now the real work has began. This book is called Chasing the Wind and it’s about a young woman who comes to America from Zimbabwe to chase her dreams only to have them shattered in the most dramatic way.

This book is one I am most excited about because it’s about the character’s relationship with God and as I am writing it my prayer is that I am growing stronger as a Christian and that the message in the book speaks to me first and transforms my life even as I know that God will work in the readers’ lives too when it’s finished. This book is one that I now know that I can let God breathe through it and use me to send His message of love.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Getting my books released in the same year was my most significant achievement. It was wonderful and I wouldn’t have dreamt it and I know God used 2010 to make all these dreams come true.

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Reading 2010: Miriam Shumba (Zimbabwe/USA) [Interview], Wealth of Ideas, January 9, 2011

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

[Interview] Gordon Jack

Gordon Jack is Reader in Social Work at Durham University. He has more than 30 years' experience in social work practice, education and research with children and families.

His work includes The Missing Side of the Triangle assessing the importance of family and environmental factors in the lives of children (2003, Barnardo's); Child and Family in Context: Developing Ecological Practice in Disadvantaged Communities (2007, Russell House) and Hitting the Ground Running: The survival guide for newly-qualified child and family social workers (2010, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

In this interview, Gordon Jack talks about the challenges faced by newly qualified social workers:

How did you first become involved in social work?

I think I probably have to blame my mother for that. I come from a family of five children, but despite the demands that this obviously placed on her, my mother has always found time to do regular voluntary work with disadvantaged or vulnerable groups of children and adults as well. I suppose this is where the seeds of my future social work career were sown.

What inspired you to write your new book The Survival Guide for Newly Qualified Child and Family Social Workers: Hitting the Ground Running?

I had been involved in social work education for many years, so I was well aware of the difficulties social workers face in the early stages of their carers, when they are trying to manage the pressures of their day-to-day work at the same time as continuing their professional development.

Together with Helen Donnellan, I was responsible for the delivery of a post-qualifying child care social work programme in the far south west of England, and we were interested in finding out more about how newly qualified practitioners were coping during the transition from student to established professional. Having completed the study, which involved a series of interviews with social workers (and their managers), we realized that the results carried a number of important messages, and that there were very few resources available to help newly qualified social workers in the early stages of their careers. The book is intended to fill this gap in the literature.

What do you think are the main challenges currently facing newly qualified child and family social workers?

The social workers in our study told us that the transition from the protected environment of being a student to that of a qualified worker was often extremely challenging, at both a professional and a personal level. In particular, they found it difficult to cope with the change from an emphasis on developing their learning and achieving best practice as a student, to the demands of heavy workloads and an emphasis on meeting deadlines and seemingly endless record-keeping (often involving cumbersome IT systems) as a qualified worker.

Whilst help with the practicalities of managing individual cases through supervision was appreciated, many newly qualified staff found that the need for critical reflection on their practice, as well as recognition of the emotional demands of the job and the importance of continuing professional development, were not so well recognised.

If you could give a newly qualified social worker one piece of advice what would it be?

I think it is important for newly-qualified social workers to understand that they won't be able to develop a successful and satisfying career, in which they can make a sustained and positive contribution to the well-being of the children and families they are working with, unless they make sure that they look after themselves.

It is also important that their employers are providing appropriate supervision and support arrangements and opportunities for continuing professional development that recognize the person within the developing professional.

(c) Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011

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

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

[Interview] Daniel Tyler Gooden

Daniel Tyler Gooden was born in Independence, Missouri and graduated from Baker University in 1998 with a degree in English.

His short stories have been featured in magazine and anthologies that include Crown Tales (Dark Quest Books, 2009), Nth Degree and Alien Skin Magazine.

His second novel, The Unmade Man was published by Outland Entertainment in 2009.

In this interview, Daniel Gooden talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

My first story came after watching a horrible Leslie Nielsen Dracula spoof. I thought it was so corny that anyone could write something more entertaining. That evening I tried my own short horror piece, and while I can’t remember it being good either, I distinctly remember how spooked I was while writing it. The thrill definitely hooked me. I think that I got my first taste of the story being in control, the sense that it was a creature moving under its own power.

I got my degree in English, and after college found myself writing for a small bi-weekly newspaper. It was rural Louisiana, west of New Orleans, and great work for a young writer. Regular deadlines really drove home that writing wasn’t about waiting on inspiration, but just getting the first line of letters on that blank screen.

I was lucky enough to be given a new parish that the newspaper had only rarely covered. While there was a share of dry governmental reporting, most of the job was driving the roads and looking into the landscapes for stories. Stories are everywhere, once you really start looking. The best stories too were just about regular people. People are doing good, fascinating and tremendous things and they have no idea. It is daily life for them.

After I married, and moved back home to Missouri, my wife gave me liberty to work part-time. I decided that if I was going to continue to dream about being a fiction novelist, I would have to make sure I could actually write an entire book. That project taught me there is no better hone to your writing mind than daily effort. I was amazed to find that after a week of writing, I knew what was coming in the next two days. If I took more than two days off I’d have to pull the story back out from under my fingernails.

Soon after I finished that first book, I joined with a group of writers and illustrators in building a world called Baeg Tobar. I’ve spent the last few years with them, writing a second novel and a number of webcomics, all of which they’ve published, or are currently publishing online.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

Most of it is traditional fantasy at the moment. I’ve enjoyed recently mixing science and magic. Baeg Tobar has blended pre-industrial technology into their magical realm. It is a fun bit of work to rationalize ways magical elements can be used in concrete scientific rules and what inventions can be born from that.

I’ve always wanted to write for borderline genre fans. I read as much, or more, horror growing up and tend to want someone to pick up my work and decide that though it is magic, swords and sorcery, the characters are not that much different than the characters they know and love.

Which authors influenced you most?

What I really have wanted to do is write the common-man character that Stephen King has done so well with. Judges and housewives alike read King, I think, because his characters are most like you.

I like that heroes can be, and most often are, people that don’t realize they are such kind. Heroes aren’t bred for that purpose. They are folk living their lives and suddenly required to scratch their way out of something unexpected. That is certainly not something new to fantasy. Tolkien stated immediately that hobbits were the least likely adventuring folk, but nonetheless they turned out to be fantastic heroes.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

When you begin writing it’s hard enough to get those first thoughts out well. I think people say “write what you know” because it puts the writer in a comfortable place. I thought I’d start with fantasy because had read a lot of it, and I also figured that I was young and didn’t “know” that much yet. I hadn’t realized that in building a new fantasy world not only do you need to create everything from scratch; you also have to find amazing ways to make it uniquely different from anything bearing a resemblance. So much for going with what I knew.

Stories do spring to life around you, though. Some of them you miss, just because you aren’t ready to see them yet. With everything that changes you, your writing is drawn through a new filter. After the birth of my first son, any story with a child in danger would bring out a fury in me. Characters of temptation and infidelity, in those fresh years of love with my wife, were often met with contempt. One can imagine a great many situations and relationships, and write them true, but life unlocks a great deal of emotion. It removes placards and sets these pieces of you in their place. After that they come to your writing with an honesty that wasn’t quite there before.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Most artists, I imagine, worry about whether they work in vain. While I would love to have my work widely read and well respected, making enough to support my family would be a dream accomplished.

I also remind myself that being a successful father is most important to me. If that means I work diligently and never become a successful writer … well, the lesson of perseverance will serve my children better than the pride of my success.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Maintaining a high level of creativity is not easy for me. I spend a lot of time with my children, I enjoy lounging with my wife, and I drive to my parents most Sundays. Writing time often ends up being traded for other events and once the habit of writing is interrupted, it’s that much harder to get back.

When I’m kicking myself for not sitting at my desk I try to make up for it by being creative, or at least productive, elsewhere. I work on the house, or in the yard and garden, or catch up on reading. I like to think that being active will at least keep my mind in shape for when I return to my desk.

Do you write everyday?

I wish writing for me was an addiction, like it seems for some writers. While I know I can accomplish so much more by writing everyday, it doesn’t happen as much as it should.

I finished a large edit on my last book, The Unmade Man, prior to the birth of my second boy. He pushed me out of my office and between turning an old porch into a new office, and learning how to raise two boys at once, I’ve been sorely out of the habit. Writing is returning to normal now, thankfully.

When I am writing regularly, though, I shoot for about 2,000 or 2,500 words a day. If I’ve been at it several days in a row, that is not too hard to accomplish. I seem to write action scenes faster than anything else, and if the scene is good enough I can get out 4,000 to 6,000 words in a session.

The next day I’ll re-read the prior day's work and that helps me slip back into my place.

I’ll generally end where it feels right, either on a good note or where if I continue it’s just going to be a mess that needs fixing. I’ve certainly quit with only a few words down before, but I’m striving to change that.

Neil Gaiman said, to the effect, the days where writing came easily and the days where it came hard were often indistinguishable from each other after the fact. It makes me think that it’s not talent that ebbs and flows, but just one’s concentration.

How many books have you written so far?

I’ve written two books.

The first is overweight by about 300 words. There’s a solid story under there, and once I find time to carve it out I’m sure I’ll be pleased with it.

My second, The Unmade Man, was published by the Baeg Tobar’s parent company, Outland Entertainment.  The Unmade Man was written in the Baeg Tobar setting. The setting was pretty new at the time and I had a lot of room to explore.

Baeg Tobar is a realm divided between a mortal realm and a Fae realm. I wanted to write a story that would bridge those two places. What I came up with was Boruin, a man devoid of any past. The only hint to what he was, before waking in his 50s, was a line of tattooed runes that slid across his body like beads on an abacas. Boruin can draw those runes, one by one, into his palm and create some powerful magic. The downside is he doesn’t know the runes any more than he knows his past and guessing at these rune combinations tend to cause more trouble rather than get him out of it.

I liked the idea of chaotic spell casting because I really wanted to create some oddball spells. If you asked a fantasy fan what spell he’d use to take down a dragon, his suggestions would make sense and probably work. What I wanted were spells that didn’t make sense at all, and might not even solve the conflict at hand. What a temptation—incredibly powerful spells that could save you from certain death but may kill you directly instead.

The story took about two years to write, as we were publishing the chapters monthly and I never did get ahead of the work. That was also a big draw in having a character with amnesia. I don’t like planning out my books in depth and this allowed me to discover Boruin at the same time he did, and my readers would.

Writing this book through Baeg Tobar and Outland Entertainment was quite a lot of fun. Being such a small, upstart company, I was given total control over my work even though the story was set in their world. They’ve even allowed me to rewrite their setting where The Unmade Man built new and intriguing concepts.

The downside of Baeg Tobar is the same with all small publishers. It’s a lot of work to get readers to your story—but that’s the task all writers must accomplish one way or another.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into The Unmade Man?

Writing for Baeg Tobar has been tricky, in that a lot of authors have put their ideas into the mix and not stepping on toes can be a huge referencing challenge. We’ve really had to keep track of whose storylines are crossing what portions of the map and setting what details into stone. You can’t visit a city and describe it contrary to what has already been laid out in another’s story. Luckily our writers tend to be cooperative and we keep in close touch, reading each others work and working to tie our stories together effectively.

Writing The Unmade Man with only hints about the character was harder than I initially expected. As I was only about two months ahead of the publishing date with each chapter, I didn’t initially have the convenience of going back and fixing contradictions. It was a challenge that in the end forced me to be more inventive in writing myself out of traps. Once the story finished its first publishing, I did finally get to revisit the work and smooth out some creases.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

Something unique for me on this book was an illustrator on hand to produce chapter art. Jeffrey Koch did all the chapter art in the first publishing. He was excellent about thoroughly studying the chapters and working with me to find the most visual scenes. To see Jeff bring my characters alive in his own art was fabulous. It made me feel like the characters were growing, somehow more alive by being in another’s hands. Scott Godlewski was hired to create chapter art in line with Baeg Tobar’s new art style and his work has been very exciting to see as well.

I find it a shame that publishing companies have turned away from regularly hiring illustrators for chapter art. I think if someone would take the hit and hire artists, they’d find their illustrated book line would really do well. With any luck, I’ll be a part of that.

What sets The Unmade Man apart from the other things you've written?

My scenes are quite visual to me while writing and so action has been fairly quick and easy to put on paper. With this book I challenged myself to introduce a larger set of characters and concentrate on carrying the scenes more with dialogue than I had in the past (my first book having one or two characters in scene most of the time). I picked four characters as my main crew and it worked well. They had a good chemistry together and it helped the story immensely.

This book also taught me to better trim the excess bits between scenes. Serial fiction has to get to the crux of the scenes quickly, especially on the web where your reader always has his cursor poised over the exit link. As a result, The Unmade Man is one of the tighter stories I’ve written, with a consistent pace throughout.

In what way is it similar to the others?

Both of my books deal with characters that aren’t trying to be special, and aren’t really. Sometimes they step up because it’s the best route toward where they are really going. Sometimes they are heroic because there is no one else around to do it for them.

What will your next book be about?

I love post-apocalyptic stories and I’m currently pursuing the idea of faith creating reality.

My next book is set in a world where people are waking up to the idea that the wonders of science have failed them and our industrial world has slipped away. People turn back to superstition, nature-based health remedies, worshipping numerous gods, etc. to create meaning for themselves and find their way through their struggles. As they begin to disregard science as absolute fact, magic swells again in the world to fill that void.

Of course, there will be some last bastion of science and working industry. There is a good chance that these two forces will square off to see who will inherit the earth.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

For the majority of writers the chance at being truly significant to more than a handful of people is a slim. Because of that, it is important that writers remember that they must be writing for themselves. As long as they are happy, even flat broke and never published, then the writing is a true and good thing. Being content with that reality may be my most significant achievement.

I love discovering stories in my own head. I love being my own boss, even though I am often not the best employee. I’ve put the weight of failure or success squarely on my own shoulders and I’ll take that over cubicle work and a guaranteed paycheck for as long as I possibly can.

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