Ann Victoria Roberts Interview

Here Ann explains her inspirations for writing and offers advice to aspiring writers.

1) What first inspired you to write?

1504478_562581500494664_1784539756_oI’d always been an avid reader, but when I was fifteen, in a stack of dusty volumes from Grandma’s attic, I found a large-format book I hadn’t seen before. Covenants With Death turned out to be a collection of photographs from WW1. Some of the images were truly horrific – and this was my introduction to WW1.

Half-afraid of what else I might find, I picked up a large manila envelope, quite weighty. To my astonishment, it contained a portrait photo of a young soldier. The bush hat and Australian uniform told me who he was – my grandfather’s brother Will, who’d emigrated in 1913. But that wasn’t all – with it was a pocket diary for 1916. Will’s diary, with his name and army number on the flyleaf. ‘In the event of my death,’ he’d written, it was to be returned to his family in York.

In the light of what I’d just set aside, these two items had the most profound effect. That this young man should have lived through all that horror, only to be killed in 1917, struck me as unbearably poignant. But he’d left a diary – crammed with tiny writing – and once I started reading, all sense of time vanished.

Consumed by curiosity, I wanted to know everything – about the man as well as the war. Since we didn’t do modern history at school, I had to rely on the library and an old encyclopaedia for information. I should have been studying for O Levels, but instead I started writing a novel…

That first attempt was never finished, but the plan to write his story didn’t go away. Years later the diary was given to me, and then I started researching in earnest. But one thing led to another, and Will’s family history threw up a set of circumstances that seemed to explain so much more.

My plans changed. Instead of the WW1 novel, I found myself writing about the previous generation. 1890s York, and a story the tabloids would call a ‘love-triangle’, between Will’s mother, the man who was her lover, and the man who protected her.

Pre-internet, it involved many research trips, and Louisa Elliott took five years to complete.

I’d had a previous novel rejected and was far from confident – thought maybe my Victorian novel was too old-hat – but after reading it my new agent said it contained surprisingly modern themes…

Thanks to an extraordinary set of coincidences, Louisa Elliott found an agent at first try – and similarly a publisher. Carmen Callil, MD of Chatto & Windus, was almost a legend at the time. She was also Australian – and loved the idea of the follow-up, Liam’s Story, about the young Australian soldier…. The two books were originally published in 1989 and 1991.

They went on to be international best-sellers. In 2014 I published them again under my own imprint, Arnwood Press.

2) What was the best piece of advice you have been given about writing?

After ditching the teenage attempt at a WW1 novel – ambitious, or what? – in my 20s, I focused on something requiring no research at all. An autobiographical novel that wasn’t quite a romance, nor the kind of kitchen-sink drama popular at the time. After two years’ work it was rejected by several agents and publishers.

Disheartened – and with a young family to care for – I returned to painting for a few years. I longed to start writing again, but wasn’t sure I was up to it. Having heard of a literary agent in Ilkley, I approached him for advice. The rejected novel was badly dated, but I explained its history and asked his opinion. Did he think I might make a writer? If not, I said, I’ll stick to
painting. He liked it, but could see its problems. I could certainly write, but as to whether I would I make a writer – that was up to me.

‘Writers,’ he said, ‘like all creative people, need to be driven from within…’

Those words, driven from within, etched themselves into my brain. I felt the truth of them, nodding as he went on to confirm what I knew already, that no sensible person would lock themselves away for months at a time, with no more than the smallest chance of success at the end of it. To embark on a novel, it had to be something which needed to be said – something that refused to go away.

Shortly afterwards, Will’s diary came into my possession. I knew then that his story – and that of his unconventional family – was the one demanding to be told.

ANN VICTORIA ROBERTS BOOK FIRST“If you want to write fiction, read fiction – lots of it, and as broadly as possible. That’s the best way to learn how it’s done.”

3) What words of wisdom would you give to aspiring authors?

If you want to write fiction, read fiction – lots of it, and as broadly as possible. That’s the best way to learn how it’s done.

And when it comes to writing, first and foremost, write for yourself. Like the man said, it needs to be a story that refuses to go away – one that goads you until you give in. Ignore the phone and the TV, and put the first words down.

Finding time to write is difficult for everyone – so you need to establish a routine. Force yourself until it becomes a habit – the words will come. Inspiration rarely arrives in a blinding flash – but when it does, you need to be disciplined enough to pursue it. Novels are written by sitting there at the computer – not by fantasising about it. (I’m telling myself that at the moment!)

Make no mistake, writing is hard work, and rejection is hell. The only thing to do is have a good rant, regard it as a learning curve, and set it aside. When you’ve put some distance between you – and I’d recommend months rather than weeks – look at the work again. The faults should leap out at you. If you have writer friends, their advice may be helpful, but after that, it’s decision time: improve it or move on.

4) Are you working on anything currently?

Yes. After a very busy year and a project that’s been abandoned after too many false starts,  I’ve started something new. It came to me on a nine hour journey home in the snow after Christmas. It’s about a young woman set down in a strange place where everything is alien to her – and then it starts to snow…

Set locally, in Guiseley, in the immediate post-war era, it began with thoughts of my mother, arriving there from York in December 1946 – but I’m glad to say the main character is now taking on a life of her own!

5) Are there any real life experiences based within your stories?

I would say there’s a lot of real life in most fiction, but only once have I lifted anything directly from personal experience. It’s a passage in my second book, Liam’s Story – a dual time-frame novel.

In the modern day, the chief male character is a sea-captain (job/time/experience answered all the novel’s requirements). I wanted to illustrate some of the job’s stresses, so used an incident I witnessed while aboard ship with my husband. The 100,000 tonne tanker was elderly and had been giving the engineers a lot of problems. Just as we were coming into Philadelphia with a full cargo of oil from West Africa – literally, approaching the quay head on, with Philadelphia’s main airport runway just beyond – the engines failed…

You’ll have to read the book (it’s in Chapter 3) to find out what happened next – but I was on the bridge at the time, scribbling orders and times for the ship’s Log Book. Tense? I’ll say! Thank God the situation was rescued in time, and we all lived to tell the tale – but yes, sometimes reality is better than anything you could possibly make up.

But the fact of the matter is this: if there had been an accident that day – with thousands of tonnes of oil spilling out into the Delaware, never mind anything else – the blame would have rested squarely with my husband. The Captain is ultimately responsible for whatever happens to the ship while under his command.

Which is why Captain Smith was blamed for the tragedy of ‘Titanic’ – but as to what was going on beforehand, well, The Master’s Tale is another story. . .

6) Your bio speaks of having experience of both sides of the industry – could you explain further?

ANN VICTORIA ROBERTS BOOK LATESTIn 2000, after the publication of my fourth novel, Moon Rising, set in 1880s Whitby, my husband came ashore to work for BP in Southampton. It meant a move south, and there followed a period of time in which I was doing more living in the present than writing about the past.

And I took up painting again. But thanks to an unexpected stroke of luck, I was shown documents relating to ‘Titanic’s maiden voyage. It was such a startling revelation, I started researching my novel about Captain Smith. The long gap in writing – plus the vast number of Titanic books scheduled for the Centenary in 2012 – meant that my agent had difficulty placing the novel with a mainstream publisher. So The Master’s Tale was published by a small independent publisher in Southampton in Sept 2011.

Since 2012, I’ve branched out and become an indie publisher myself. As Arnwood Press, I’ve published my first two novels again – first as ebooks, and in print 2014. Moon Rising will appear later this year. The immediate project is to get The Master’s Tale running again as an ebook.

It’s been a steep learning curve, but thanks to Ned Hoste, I’ve had excellent help and advice along the way. I’ll be speaking about some of my experiences at the Indie Writers’ Fest on 21st February at Leeds Trinity University.

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