Friday, 29 August 2014

Interview with Al Brookes, author of The Gift of Looking Closely

This month on the Triskele Book Club, Catriona Troth interviews Al Brookes, author of The Gift of Looking Closely, winner of the Guardian Self-Published Book of the Month, July 2014.

As someone who also published her first book in her fifties, I can definitely empathise with the comment, “So, everyone has a book in them... thank goodness mine is out of me.” Has this book been a long time in the making?

It took me ten years to write The Gift of Looking Closely. I always expected to write novels, even as a child, so I turned out to be a very late starter. But the truth of the matter is that I couldn’t have written this book sooner – I didn’t really know what I wanted to say until later in my life.

So, yes, it really has been a long time in the making – most of my lifetime. I’m enormously satisfied that it’s out in the world at last!

Can you identify a first spark of inspiration? Did you start with the idea of assisted suicide or did that develop out of the story?

In 2003, I saw a programme on the television about a terminally ill man called Reg Crewe, who travelled to Switzerland to have an assisted suicide at Dignitas. His wife and daughter went with him, and I was deeply moved by their support for him and their courage.

That stayed with me. I began to think about different situations, alternative perspectives. I wondered what it might be like for a relative to support an assisted death when they didn’t really want to… and from there I moved to the concept I developed for the novel, which was that someone might actually be tricked into helping someone commit suicide. But it was that programme that got me thinking and provided me with the first spark of an idea for the novel.

That exhortation to the reader – ‘You be Claire, then, and I’ll watch.’ – is daring and unusual. Why choose to tell the story in this way?

Asking the reader to step into Claire’s shoes is my way of creating a more intense reading experience. It didn’t feel enough just to use the second person. I wanted to take it a step further; as if to say to people, I really really want you to feel this.

Once I chose to tell the story in that way, I found it really suited me; it felt like a really comfortable place to write from.

It is quite daring and unusual – but there are an awful lot of books in the world already. I figured that if I was going to write (yet another) one, I should at least aim for something original.

Claire’s ‘gift of looking closely’ reminds me of Mary Norton’s letter to a young fan, when she describes growing up as the short-sighted sister of a gaggle of long-sighted brothers – focusing on tiny things in the hedgerows because she could never see the distant, fleeting objects they tried to show her. Do you share that gift? What sorts of things cause you to look closely?

I love the idea of the young Mary Norton focusing on the tiny things because she was short sighted! I wasn’t short sighted as a child, I was just fascinated by close up-ness. I wanted to sink into the detail of things.

The sorts of things that cause me to look closely now are invariably things in the natural world – flowers and wet stones and bark and insects and leaves. And moss, especially.

I also like to look closely at emotions. How do I feel, what do other people feel, honestly and deeply? What makes us tick? I trained as a counsellor and even though I don’t practice any more, I still tend to be very aware of the emotional landscape at any time.

It’s not an easy decision to publish a first book yourself, and there are many reasons for doing so. Why did you make the choice? Are you glad you did?

In 2013, the first chapter of The Gift of Looking Closely won a competition run by a Brighton-based publisher, Myriad Editions. That was fantastic; it really motivated me to get the novel finished, to find out whether they would want to publish it. In fact when they saw the whole book, they didn’t want it. They hadn’t expected it to go off in the direction of assisted dying. At the same time, two agents had a look at it and said it wasn’t for them, either.

Just at that point, I was given a diagnosis of cancer. That made the decision to self publish a great deal easier. I knew it was important to me to get the book into the world, I didn’t know how long I’d be feeling well, or even how long I’d be here. I didn’t have time to spend sending it out and waiting for responses from agents and publishers. I decided to do it myself.

I’m delighted I did. It’s been a massive learning curve and I still have a great deal to learn about the industry. But I love the fact that my book is available and people are reading it and engaging with it. And I’m completely well again now.

Al Brookes, like S.J. Watson and J.K. Rowling, is potentially a gender-ambiguous author name. Was that a deliberate choice on your part?

I like the fact that Al Brookes is gender ambiguous, but I didn’t choose it for that reason. I’ve been called Al for the past 25 years. It’s just my name!

The switch from the introspective world of the writer to the extrovert world of a book-promoter is not an easy one- perhaps not unlike Claire’s decision to let go of her carefully constructed shell! How is the transformation going for you so far?

It really isn’t easy at all, is it? I find it quite difficult and it makes me quite anxious in some ways – not the process of the book being seen, I love engaging with people to discuss the book, I enjoy doing readings, running writing workshops and generally offering my tuppence worth – I’m not particularly shy! But having to generate sales opportunities, negotiate my way into bookshops, badger folk to post reviews… I find all of that pretty horrible.

However, I have this idea that if the book is good enough, it will eventually find its way to the readers who will appreciate it… That was one of the reasons I entered the Guardian competition.

The Gift of Looking Closely won the Guardian’s Self-Published Book of the Month in July 2014. What role do you think awards like this have on the way self-published books are perceived by readers?

Awards like this don’t change the fact that lots of self-published books are rubbish. But they do highlight the fact that there are some outstanding self-published books to be found. At the moment, readers are discovering the self-published books they want to read via blogs and review sites, Amazon ratings, social media and good old fashioned word of mouth. Mainstream awards provide these readers with another route of discovery – and they offer some of the best of self-published work to a new audience of readers. Hopefully, they will also encourage bookstores and libraries to be more open to the idea of stocking self-published writers.

You’re sitting in your favourite writing space. What can you see?

I can see a lined page, and I have a pencil in my hand… and I’m not alone.

My favourite writing space is not a specific physical place, it’s with a particular group of people. I’ve belonged to the same writing group for the past ten years – we still meet and do writing exercises together. That’s my favourite writing space, with that group of people. It feels safe and brave and positive and accepting.

Do you read other indie (self-published) authors? What’s your top indie recommendation?

I’ve read some self-published authors. But as a reader, I’m not hugely concerned whether a book is self-published or traditionally published – it really is just about the quality of the writing. I read writers like Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Ali Smith, Martin Amis. I love literary fiction; I love writing that crafts the language and takes risks. 

Thank you, Al.

Thank you for asking the questions – I’ve enjoyed exploring the answers.

The Gift of Looking Closely is available through Amazon or from Al Brookes' website

Friday, 22 August 2014

Gifts of the Journey – Writing about Family History

Author, Bernice L. Rocque has kindly agreed to tell us how she wove her genealogy research into  a heartwarming family story.

Ten years ago I started to write stories about my family. It was a desperate move, really, an emotional reaction to an epiphany about “essence,” triggered by the slow goodbye with my parents. I hated the thought that who they were as people would be lost—in a relatively short time.

Records exist for people who lived centuries ago. The “essence” of most people, though, disappears in 3-4 generations. Just ask ten people older than fifty (non-genealogists) to describe what their great-grandparents were like.

I’ve researched my family history for decades, yet failed to comprehend the implications of this fading phenomenon—until it became personal. The insight hit with a thump and set me thinking. What could I do to preserve the essence of my loved ones for future generations?

Within days, I spotted a notice. The public library’s writing groups were welcoming new members. The next step I took—brought many unexpected gifts.

The first gift was membership in a writing group.
Member feedback on writing pieces, topics, and exercises acts like a magnifying glass. With insights, ideas, and encouragement, this fellowship has fed my efforts to capture the essence of my family members—first via nonfiction vignettes, and then in my fiction novella with its Author’s Notes.

The second gift was that writing stories became a passion, like gardening and genealogy. As my skill improved, it was clear that writing stories WAS illuminating the essence of family members, with a magic similar to those fascinating holograms from the movie, Star Wars. The greater surprise, though, was that the PROCESS of writing gladdened my heart.

The third gift was that researching the book reconnected me with my relatives.
Working on the book, Until the Robin Walks on Snow took me “home” to Norwich, Connecticut a few times a month, for interviews with family and others, as well as research at the Otis Library. Telephone calls and emails with cousins caught us up on each other’s lives while generating information and reflections for the developing book and future stories. One of my cousins shared a 1920s family artifact I did not know existed. As we gazed at the large copper pot, my uncle explained how my great-grandfather made liquor from mash. A few weeks later my uncle surprised me with a small model of the distilling system. His engineering mind drew on the memories of a “child” whose hands had carried the snow inside to cool the vapor stream!

The fourth gift was the change in research pattern from “vertical” to “horizontal.”
What a pleasure to plop myself down in an era, like my cousins and I once did in the meadows of our youth. So, instead of “vertical” research to further my family tree back in time, the “horizontal” approach behind the book concentrated on life in the early 1900s. I used an iterative method to develop Until the Robin Walks on Snow—alternating waves of interviews, writing, and library-type research. Residing in the narrow time period deepened my understanding of everyday life and produced numerous authentic details. It also yielded bonus items. During interviews, sudden diversions in memory recall, such as my uncle remembering the fingerlocks that secured the farm building doors, led to useful conversations and colorful detail for this book and future stories.

The fifth gift was a second “aha.” Fiction was less difficult to write than I imagined. Writing fiction is not easy, but writing Until the Robin Walks on Snow, was easier for me than writing a strictly factual narrative. I knew where the story would start and end, but chose not to prepare a detailed outline. The process of recreating an event from my family history did feel organic. The facts suggested the skeleton. The family history and research (medical, setting, history, and weather) provided the organs and blood vessels. Knowledge and impressions of the characters (reconstituting their essence) fleshed out the book’s muscular tissue. Fiction and literary devices, much like sinew, connected all the story elements. The book’s format acted like skin. With a little patience, and sometimes a “sleep on it” approach to dilemmas, the most logical story emerged.

The sixth gift was the discovery—of other works of fiction based on family histories.
If like me, you are interested in reading more historical fiction based on family history, take a look at the Goodreads List, Fiction Based on the Author’s Ancestors. Many authors and readers helped me to assemble it, and to them I am indebted. Here’s the link:

The seventh gift has been the generosity of authors and readers. Communication with authors and readers from all over the globe has inspired me, as I acclimated to this new creative endeavor. In that regard, I would like to thank author Liza Perrat, for inviting me to contribute this guest blog piece. We’d love to know your thoughts on writing about family history.

Doris Kearns Goodwin recently said, “The people we love will live on so long as we pledge to tell and retell the stories of their lives.” I so agree. Every day, I am grateful for the gifts of this writing journey.

Bernice L. Rocque is a writer, educator, family historian, and avid gardener. She grew up in Norwich, Connecticut in the surroundings described in her novella, Until the Robin Walks on Snow. She has authored numerous business articles associated with her work in libraries, training and development, and project management. Articles she has written about her family have appeared in the Norwich Bulletin, Good Old Days magazine, and Family Chronicle. Ms. Rocque lives in Connecticut, USA.

Twitter: @UNTILtheROBIN

Retail links for Until the Robin Walks on Snow

Here is our full review of Until the Robin Walks on Snow.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Writing from the heart - location

Menai Suspension Bridge
By Gillian Hamer

A strong sense of location is a key part of the Triskele Books brand. All of the novels published under our collective carry that USP. Whether it be medieval France, 1980s midlands, Roman Britain, cosmopolitan European cities or the deserts of far-flung Palmyra – location and its relevance are vital to our stories.
Crime novel set on Anglesey
You may know that I have so far based all my novels around North Wales and the island of Anglesey, and I’m delighted how many readers mention how much they love the sense of place, that the location comes alive for them, much in the same way a character would.

I truly believe that writing about a place that you love, which inspires you, is a huge part of writing a successful book that will end up being loved by, and inspirational to, others.

Over the years via book clubs and online groups, I’ve met a handful of talented writers who all share my passion for Wales, and choose to set their novels there. Some live there, some were born there, and some are simply inspired to write there. Whether it is the passion of the people, the depth of history or the beauty of its surroundings, it seems we all take something equally important from this small Celtic land. 

I’ve asked a selection of these writers the same question, and I’m intrigued by their answers. Hopefully for writers out there who aren’t sure how to handle the setting of their novels, some of these replies may make you realise just how vital location is in a cross section of genres.


QUESTION: What is it about Wales that inspires you to include it as a setting in your novels?


There’s a theory that first novels are almost always coming-of-age novels in some way. Add to that the First Commandment of the writing class: write what you know … maybe it was inevitable I’d set my first novel in Wales.
The Miners’ Strike was a defining event, but its effects are felt to this day. Until Our Blood is Dry is a novel about loyalty and belonging and choosing sides.
Although the book is set in a very specific time and place, given the austerity and the job losses, the widening gap between haves and have-nots and the rise of parties that blame all these problems on immigrants, these questions remain urgent and valid.

 Wales offers a rich seam of protest and dissent. ‘Until our blood is dry’ refers to the General Strike of 1926 in a line from the poem Gwalia Deserta by Idris Davies.


Short answer: The historic landscape.

Medium answer: The mountains, the churches, the wild ponies, the burial grounds and druids circles, the sky at dusk, the smell of the wild hedgerows, the sound of the language. 

Long answer: Snowdonia kick-started my stalled obsession with writing in a very positive way. I am certainly in my creative comfort zone tramping up the hills on a moody day. There’s no better way of plot busting. The tiny church of St. Celynin (sometimes known as Llangelynin) is a great find for historians, spiritualists, all kinds of artists, and a certain weary walking writer! It’s quite a climb, some 900 feet above the village of Henryd, but sheltered from the Irish Sea by the comfortable bulk of Tal-Y-Fan. It proclaims to be the most remote church in Wales and due to its location, it is actually better accessed on foot or on horseback, but that’s just me wearing my whimsical hat again. I guess you could ride a quad bike or get a 4x4 along the green lanes and tracks up from the village, but that would spoil the experience considerably. Someone said that ‘The centuries of men’s hands on the same stones put the feeling into a place’. I can relate to this and there’s no better way of making that connection than scrambling over those very same walls and finding a way across the hills. Even the names of the mountains are laced with enough magic to fuel the effort.

The church is named after a 6th Century prince, Celynin, and it is a widely held belief that the remains of the settlement close by was also his home. Inside, there are inscriptions on the white-washed walls of The Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer, and strangely enough a skull and crossbones. The Welsh language, being the oldest (still spoken) language in the world, lends so much more romance and intrigue to any story, even though I don’t understand all the words. One of the well-preserved benches is dated from 1629 and dedicated to Reverend Owen Bulkeley, former rector. Oh, I’d love to go back to those times just for a few hours, to maybe listen to the man reading his sermon and sit with the congregation. Instead, we have to be content with mere historical recordings and the remnants of those times, in whatever form they present.


The coastline, the countryside. Nature. The innate pride of the people resonates with my own pride of my roots. I understand the dignity of it.

Wales can be used as a wonderful backdrop to literature; the detailed descriptions of the lure of its mountain and coastal scenery, its castles and great houses, ancient cathedrals and ruined abbeys, modern museums and centres of industrial technology. And, although not in my books (yet!), the history of the mining valleys, where, despite the social injustices, the resolute nature of the people shines through even today.


The remoteness of the Island (Anglesey) in the winter months when the winds and rain are horizontal and the sheer awesome beauty of the mountains touch my soul. They are settings, which are perfect as backdrops for my writing at times.


new Triskele associate, author of forthcoming novel, RATS

Its beauty. When I was young, visiting Barry Island, Porthcawl and Penarth were my holiday delights. When my children were young our holiday destinations were the unbelievably beautiful island of Anglesey and every nook and glorious cranny of the Gower Peninsular. Who could ever forget being the sole walkers on Rhossili beach in an early Spring snowstorm? Magic, pure magic.


The history of Wales is not widely known the other side of Offa’s Dyke and I think it should be. The castles and tiny medieval churches are dripping with history and, if you are adventurous enough to turn off the main road, the ancient pathways are still visible. It is very easy, especially in rural Wales, to stumble on the past when you least expect it. Some areas are timeless, and the countryside is so gorgeous, so lush and green and fragrant, you can’t help but use it as a back drop for a novel. It would be mad not to.


My fictional locations are entirely made up, although Penmorfa in Move Over Darling is inspired by the romantic rugged landscape where I live. The same location also features in my work in progress.


Wales has everything I need to tell a good story. Beautiful countryside, stunning coastline, historical features, a great variety of characters to draw from, the list goes on. But the setting is less about placing the story geographically and more about mood and emotion. There are parts of Wales that, for me, are incredibly atmospheric. Snowdonia, of course, is stunning and where I live, the Pembrokeshire coast is quite spectacular. If ever I’m stuck for ideas, or I’m at a crossroads in a story, a walk with the dog along the coastal path clears my mind and most definitely inspires.

Snowdonia National Park

Friday, 1 August 2014

In My Bottom Drawer (1) - Catriona Troth

In My Bottom Drawer (1)

All writers have a 'first' novel buried deep in a drawer somewhere, many that will never see the light of day, let alone face the publishing world. Some may be hidden gems, many will be steaming piles of excrement, but facing up to your humble beginnings can be a revitalising experience for a writer.

In a series of articles, Triskele authors bravely discuss the contents of their bottom drawers.

We start with author of Gift of the Raven and Ghost Town, Catriona Troth.

"The first time a sat down to write an entire novel, I was a post-graduate student. I was, of course, supposed to be doing something completely different, but as a colleague of mine memorably announced one morning, “the frontiers of science put up barbed wire last night.” I was bored, frustrated, and spending more time in the literature section of the university library than the maths and engineering section where I belonged.

The book I set out to write – first on my brand-new Olivetti typewriter and later on my state-of-the-art Amstrad PCW – was basically a love triangle. But it had ideas way above its station. The title, The Broad Continent, was taken from a Virginia Woolf quotation - “Across the broad continent of a woman's life falls the shadow of a sword...” I was convinced I was writing a feminist masterpiece, on par with the Virago Modern Classics I devoured by the sackload.

By rights, the whole thing should have been consigned to history along with the PCW. But my techy husband found a way of converting the files, so I still have a copy of it on my computer. When I look at it now, it screams pretentiousness, naivety about human nature, and amateurish writing. As for the dialogue – let’s just say I was channelling my beloved Dorothy L Sayers.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this early adventure into writing is what it tells me about how the publishing industry has changed. This overblown and faintly ridiculous manuscript received (among other things) a full reading from an editor at Macmillan who, though he rejected it (thank God), wrote a long and detailed response that I still have tucked away in a file somewhere. Ah – those were the days!"