Life for authors is all about two things. Books and opportunities. I feel sure if a psychiatrist was able to peer inside our heads, they would find its various sections teetering lopsidedly in favour of creativity - in other words the creation of pictures solely with the aid of words and sentences. The other bits, family, friends, ordinary everyday existence, they are still there, but if one is written in uppercase, the other is definitely lower case.
And opportunities? That is being in the right place at the right time. This is what Sonja Price, my guest this week, says about that very subject:
I was sitting next to an artist at a Thanksgiving meal hosted by an American friend when she asked me what I did. After I told her I wrote but hadn’t ever shown anyone my work, she asked me why on Earth not? So I sent the rough draft of Giants to the Mslexia First Novel Competition and was thrilled when it got long-listed. As I lived in Germany at the time the online Wordcloud Writing Community was very supportive and I also attended three Arvon workshops sponsored by the British Arts Council. Before my novel was published I entered a few short story competitions which resulted in my stories appearing in a handful of anthologies. This was encouraging but I always felt more drawn towards novel writing.After being accepted on the New Writers’ Scheme of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, I signed with my agent Jane Conway-Gordon who then sold it to Robert Hale.
I have known Sonja a while - I was part of Stella Scribes, a quintet of writers who trotted round Somerset offering aspiring authors advice about books. Sadly, with a very different literary background from the rest of the team, my departure was swift. Now a trio, comprising Nikki Copleston, Jan Ellis and Sonja Price, even though I no longer take part I am always interested in hearing about their writing workshops - I might even go back to school myself one day.
A second-time-around mum, with a step-son, husband and dog, Sonja also has a career, teaching English at a univeristy in Germany. A member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, her short stories have appeared in Stories For Homes, the Shelter Anthology of Short Stories and In these Tangles, Beauty Lies, an anthology in aid of the Beanstalk Trust for children with reading difficulties. Her debut novel The Giants Look Down, made her a finalist for the Joan Hessayon Award. At present she is working on Black Snake, a novel about a widow’s quest to solve the mystery surrounding her husband’s death out in the Canadian Wilds.
The Giants Look Down, Synopsis
At the age of ten, Jaya Vaidya decides she wants to follow in the footsteps of her beloved father and become a doctor, much to the chagrin of her traditional mother and the patriarchal community she lives in. It is the late 1960s and the family enjoys a rather idyllic life in the Vale of Kashmir, despite the area being riddled with conflict and poverty. After a devastating earthquake wipes out her entire family, Jaya is in the care of relatives in Delhi, who attempt to marry her off and keep the possibility that her youngest brother, Tahir, has survived the earthquake from her. After escaping her arranged marriage thanks to her father’s generous friends, Jaya is put through school and medical training in Scotland as she always dreamed of. But as she negotiates a different culture to her own, where women are allowed opportunities, she also negotiates the realms of her own heart as she develops feelings for her foster family’s older son, Alastair, who happens to be engaged to someone else. In the meantime, her brother Tahir has been abducted by Kashmiri freedom fighters, who have made him one of their own. Will Jaya return to her troubled homeland to find him and make peace with the loss of her family? And will her love for Alastair ever be returned?
Recently, Sonja gave a talk at Wells about describing places in books you haven't visited. All writers are guilty of that transgression from time to time, if indeed it can be called a transgression. Sometimes, it is a case of simple common sense because outside in the big wide world, there are always those waiting to pounce and tell you, triumphantly, you are wrong. (Aficionados of Harry Potter comb the films for errors). Fortunately with pure fiction, they can't do that.
Q&A: Have you ever visited Kashmir?
I love to write about places I have never been to. I find it wonderful to go there in my imagination from the comfort of my desk. Of course, I want to go to Kashmir but I just haven’t found the time of the money yet. However, if you’re writing about foreign cultures you can put your foot in it, but everyone praised the book as being terribly authentic including my agent who has lived in India. One Indian political journalist was very critical about how I could set my book in a place I had never been and also do justice to the conflict there. I took his questions very seriously and he then printed an interview with me under the headlines: Writers Go Where Their Imagination Takes Them (see attachment). My next book Black Snake takes place in the Canadian Wilds where you’ve guessed it, I’ve also never been!
What was the inspiration that led to your writing your first book?
I was listening to a report on the terrible Great Earthquake that hit Kashmir in 2005. Despite the tragedy, the description of the Vale of Kashmir, surrounded by some of the tallest mountains on Earth and boasting a string of lakes among emerald green valleys and fields of saffron ignited something in me. Apart from the natural tragedies, this paradise is dogged by political conflict, military and religious conflict. I thought there must be a story in there somewhere. . .
How long does it take you to write a book?
Much too long. Years. But I simply cannot take a shortcut and admire all authors who turn out book upon book in less than a year.
Who designs your covers?
The publisher designed the cover of Giants. I had no say whatsoever in it but they must have read my mind because it turned out to be exactly what I wanted. There are mountains in the background because Giants refers to the Himalayas. I was lucky I was because sometimes you can be stuck with a hideous cover for your much-loved baby.
Did you give up the day job to be able to write?
I work parttime now so I can be more at home and write. Otherwise, I would have to live in Germany and it’s very important for me to be immersed in English and able to mix with other authors like you, Barbara!
What is the single most important event in your life – so far?
Well, apart from the birth of my children and being the first to go to university in the family, getting my first novel published has meant an awful lot to me. It’s as if I’ve finally found what I really want to do in life. But who knows what else is in store for me? Life is so unpredictable.
Are there any secrets in your novel that we can share?
I guess I can tell you that it has a happy ending.
Where can we buy your books?
5* 11 February 2018
One sign of a good book is when you don’t want it to end. “The Giants Look Down” captivated me from the first pages. Having trekked in the Himalayas myself, the vivid descriptions of the ‘snowy summits meditating in the early morning sun’, ‘the lake slumbering peacefully under its blanket of mist…’ ‘…in the valley of the gods’ brought memories flooding back. The author’s pictures of grimy, claustrophobic Delhi also struck a chord and I was amazed to learn that Ms Price has never visited these places, because the scenes were so real. It proves that a lot of research doesn’t have to pull narrative out of shape. This book is so much more than a romance. The effect of political and religious divide on communities is portrayed through the heroine’s brother, Tahir, in his involvement with insurgents and through scenes of rioting and extremism threaded through the story. After a devastating earthquake, the lives of both siblings change exponentially. Cultural differences between Britain and its former colony are inevitably explored – impossible to ignore in writing about India. Our heroine, Jaya Vaidya, narrowly escapes an arranged marriage and a thwarted career until she is rescued by the kindly Scottish family who had earlier helped her own father train for medicine. At the end of the book, a tragic situation causes Jaya to ask ‘what was the point of me being here? ...There was no sense, not a single morsel of good in the whole affair.’ Nevertheless, the reader is left with the feeling that these two disparate worlds can survive together with good will and the story ends on a positive note. I’m looking forward to reading Sonja Price’s next novel.
A cracking read. Well written by an accomplished story teller. Highly recommended. Looking forward to reading other works by this author