Today I am pleased to welcome the incredibly talented Susie Williamson. Author of Return of The Mantra, one of favourite books of 2018 to my blog for another female author spotlight interview.
DS: Welcome Susie. Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview
SW: No problem Dan. Thank you for having me.
DS: Lets begin I am dying to find out more. For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself, and how you first got into writing?
SW: Growing up in a village in West Yorkshire, some of my favourite childhood memories are the Saturday morning ritual of visiting the local library, and returning home with a stack of books to devour. Stories are a gift, and I started writing them as soon as I could write, mostly pages and pages of adventures that never seemed to have an ending. For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to write a book. Life took many tangents, until I finally found the inspiration, and space, to get serious. I returned from four years living in Africa and settled in Exeter. While taking walks around the river Exe, I mulled over characters and scenes, and soon my door was covered with scribbled on post-it notes. The plan was developing, the characters taking shape, and 300 words a day around various shift work saw the first draft make progress. After several drafts I began to believe I might one day have a book I wrote nestled on my bookshelf. I still live in Exeter with my partner Kate, and my writing partner, Mia the cat. And with Return of the Mantra nestled on my bookshelf, I’m working towards seeing my second book sitting next to the first.
DS: Please can you tell us a little about your writing routine if you have one?
SW: I allocate writing days. I have a tendency to analyse, overthink, and get distracted, so writing on days filled with work or too many chores doesn’t work well. Writing days involve get up, get dressed, and turn the computer on by 8am at the latest. Aside from a midday walk, I’ll stay there until 5ish. I don’t have a problem with self-motivation, and find that just making a start, writing something, anything, gets the creative juices flowing. In the early days I found these stints more difficult to maintain, and disciplined myself by writing to a word count. 300 words at the very beginning, turned into 500 words and then 1000 words. When I hit 2000 words I stopped counting. Then, when I started editing with the mantra, every word must count, I realised that progress involved reducing the word count. Ultimately we all have to find our groove for what works for us, but make a start, write something. You can’t edit a blank page!
DS: You’re quite the globetrotter. How much has your travels impacted upon your writing?
SW: Living in Africa from 1999 to 2003 greatly influenced my debut novel. From the extraordinary sights and sounds of Khartoum to South African township life, the colours of the social and geographical landscapes inspired the world building in my novel. Living and teaching among local African communities, with drumming, prayer and ritualistic chanting the norm, magical realism didn’t feel too big of a stretch. Together with extraordinary African wildlife, the concept of the book, complete with its magic system, was born. Writing Return of the Mantra became a refuge to revisit Africa and relive cherished memories. When I read extracts now, I’m reminded of life in the rural South African township; the smell of bonfires, and cowhide soaking in big barrels of water, then being dragged out to dry in the sun ready for making drums. The seemingly magical rituals of the Sangoma, and the tight bonds between members of the community as they lived with the reality of poverty and violence. I’m reminded of the lush green landscapes and incredible wildlife, and the efforts to preserve it. And then there was the contrasting Sudan, with its arid landscapes, rolling haboobs and much needed rainy seasons. I’m reminded of the old woman roasting coffee beans over hot coals in the market, of the stern Sudanese soldiers upholding curfew, and a gift I received from a Sudanese friend – a matchbox with a big emerald green beetle inside. He told me a story that day, about a game he used to play as a boy, tying string to the legs of these beetles and flying them like kites. This childhood tale is just one example of how I used realism to add depth to the characters and environment in this land of contrasts
DS: What do you think makes a perfect fantasy novel and why?
SW: Primarily, as with any novel, I look for character driven storylines. Beyond that, imaginative settings with a plausible magic system. I look for protagonists that I can root for from the first, someone I can relate to and empathise with. I look for settings that spark my imagination, plot lines and character back stories with depth, and fantastical elements that make sense, that are explained, that have logic. I look for diversity among the characters, written with sensitivity and free from stereotypes, stories that are inclusive and represent our diverse societies. I think the genre of fantasy in particular gives us great opportunities to reflect this diversity.
DS: Your main protagonist Suni is a teenager. Yet you make her endure some brutal experiences. What made you decide to write these scenes for such a young girl, and what do you feel this brings to Return of the Mantra?
SW: I aim to write with representation of diversity in mind, to attempt to reflect society. For me, this is more than looking at gender, race, etc…, but more broadly, including life experiences. In writing my debut, I thought back on my life and the lives of women and girls I’ve known, both in Africa and here in the UK. In the UK I spent five years working in a women’s refuge, supporting women and children fleeing domestic violence and abuse, as well as prostitution. Domestic violence and abuse was discussed at length with students in the Sudan, and this, as well as sexual oppression and violence was sadly prevalent in the South African township. In writing a female protagonist, as well as a number of female secondary characters, I wanted to see women and girls represented, to include real life experiences, to not shy away from the suffering experienced in real life but to also include messages of empowerment. Some of these experiences are more common than many would like to believe, are uncomfortable subjects that are often, conveniently, brushed under the carpet, meaning those who experience them are ignored. Readers look for characters they can empathise with. I wanted to include characters that people I’ve known might be able to relate to.
DS: The relationship between Wanda and Suni are some of my favourite scenes in Return of the Mantra. They are written so beautifully. How much of the relationship did you have to plan out before you wrote it down, and how much grew organically as you went deeper into your fantasy world?
SW: In South Africa, I met a number of young children who were sadly orphaned. In a way, Wanda’s character came to represent these children. Although Wanda is not the main character in Return of the Mantra, his character was one I came to know first. He’s an orphan, yet I wanted his story to be positive; I wanted him to find people he would look upon as family. Suni’s role in caring for Wanda was established in the planning stages. From the first, this relationship was central to the overall storyline. As the story developed, their relationship strengthened, as well as their own roles developing independent of each other.
DS: Please can you tell us about your journey to being published and what made you decide to go with Stairwell Books?
SW: After a number of drafts, painstakingly combing through edits, striving to make the story as good as it could be, I began to realise that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Then came the doubts. Am I good enough? Can I write? Should I get a proper job? After scouring through a writer’s magazine I came across the writer and editor, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, offering a professional critiquing service. I dared to hit send, offering up my beloved manuscript for some objective feedback. I found this support invaluable and would definitely recommend writers to get their work critiqued professionally before sending it out. Then, with a tightened manuscript ready, I searched the Writers and Artists Handbook and came up with a list of potential publishers. The rejections came thick and fast, until I began researching companies more thoroughly and narrowing down the list of publishers. Looking into Stairwell Books, I came across a U-tube clip of Rose Drew. As well as writing and publishing, among other things, she is also a performance poet. Seeing her perform one of her poems in the clip, listening to the content, it struck me that she might like my book. And she did. Seeing Return of the Mantra with the others titles of Stairwell Books feels right. Among their selection they look for work that offers good representation and diversity, and stories that make you think.
DS: Return of the Mantra is book one of a planned trilogy is that correct? If so, what can we except in the next two books, and when are they scheduled for release?
SW: Yes, so far it’s a trilogy, but never say never to more… In books 2 and 3 expect new worlds and cultures, and storylines exploring how lands are connected. In book 2 I’m excited to see the development of Wanda’s character, in particular the impact of his past. Written as a split first person narrative, the story is predominantly told through Suni and Wanda’s differing perspectives. As for release dates, with life as in stories, the unexpected happens, and due to a recent illness there has been a delay in the writing. But progress is being made and book 2 is safely in the editing process, so I will keep you posted.
DS: Which author would you compare your writing style to? Which authors have influenced your writing career?
SW: I have a collection of Ursula Le Guin’s works which I’ve read and reread countless times. One of my favourites is the Tombs of Atuan from the Earthsea Quartet. The young priestess, Tenar, is born into servitude to the Nameless Ones, destined to live out her days in a dark underground world. When she first meets the wizard, Ged, she thinks he’s a thief. But instead of leaving him to die as she’s supposed to do, she begins to consider the world outside, and dares to question everything she’s been brought up believing. The truth turns her world upside down, forcing her to realise how she was controlled. The fact that she stepped outside, leaving everything familiar to venture into the unknown, is something that stuck with me. She was a heroine, not for brandishing swords and fighting wars, but for her strength in reclaiming her identity. Female characters that break stereotypes, unconventional heroines and heroes, are certainly motivators for my own writing.
DS: You tackle some complex themes in Return of The Mantra. Which ones were the most difficult to write, which were the easiest and why?
SW: The art of fiction is writing believable stories, characters and worlds, and fantasy is no exception. Writing scenes which portray the physical and sexual oppression of young women were the easiest in terms of believability, since I have significant work experience in this area. At the same time, they were the hardest scenes to write, since, like all character writing, they involved getting into character, seeing the experience through their perspective. This was an uncomfortable process.
DS: LGBT relationships feature heavily within the story which I adored. Why did you feel it was important to include this topic in your work?
SW: Readers look for characters they can empathise with. As a gay woman, I am no exception. LGBT people exist in all walks of life, therefore if a story with a cast of characters is to be representative of society, LGBT cannot be ignored. Over time I hope to see more LGBT in stories, in such a way that it isn’t defined as LGBT but rather as mainstream. This goes for all aspects of diversity. In the end, the more people who write, hopefully the more diversity we’ll see.
This interview was done over email. Thanks again to Susie for agreeing to do it, giving some amazing answers.