Now, my book shelves which are vast and far reaching, can be pretty much divided into three categories - women's lit, self-help and spiritual insight, but at the turn of the year, I decided that I needed to switch it up and read outside my comfy zone, and there's a good reason for that, because when you do, you discover books like Tears of a Phoenix, by Helen Noble, is a gritty tale of spiritual redemption, it's poignant, yet strangely uplifting.
Tell us about the creation process of Tears of a Phoenix - what made you write about this particular subject matter, and more interestingly from a male perspective? Having worked on the front line, with male offenders, in a psychological, rehabilitative capacity, over a five year period, I was privileged to gain a unique insight, and honoured to play a part in a cutting-edge programme. However, I soon learned that on another level I was engaged in healing process. Spending a substantial amount of time discussing poignant experiences with others is highly conducive to absorbing the raw emotion and human drama of their lives. I guess that writing about it, albeit in a fictional way, helped me to make sense of the whole experience.
I wrote in the first person, from the male perspective, as I wanted the words to sound authentic. I needed the reader to see through the eyes and feel the emotions of the main character, to get a true insight and a genuine understanding of this intriguing aspect of the human condition. The book grew organically from the initial concept or seed, with many layers being added or stripped back over the years.
When did you know you wanted to be an author and what made you actually make it happen? I have been writing for as long as I can remember; short stories, school play scripts, teenage poetry. I had my first short story published in a magazine at 19. At 21 I decided that I had to write a novel. However I couldn’t find anything meaningful to write about and I decided that I needed more life experience. So I went out into the world to find it!
Do you have a room of your own where you write? My favourite place to write is under the parasol at the garden table, in summer! Otherwise I write wherever I am comfortable. The last 40,000 words of Tears of a Phoenix was written from bed, on a lap top propped up on pillows, as I was recovering form spinal surgery at that time.
Where and when are you at your most creative? Usually when I least expect it! I’m highly visual, in response to a single image, a scene or a chance meeting, I can develop a concept for a character, short story or occasionally a whole novel.
However I am happiest when I’m in or around water. Ideas often come to me when I am in the bath or the shower. I love living by the sea, taking coastal walks; and sometimes there’s nothing more inspiring than lounging in a hot tub under the stars!
What time of the day are you at your most creative? Or do you schedule in creativity as work? Sometimes when I wake very early in the morning my thoughts are clear and the words flow. Otherwise I tend to struggle to produce anything until late afternoon. Scheduling writing time for myself is the best way to achieve nothing! I rebel against my own rules! I find that my motivation naturally waxes and wanes at different stages of the project and I have learned to respect that dynamic.
How long did it roughly take you to go from an idea in your head to a finished book o’ wonder available to buy? My debut novel ‘Tears of a Phoenix’ took a mammoth seven years from start to final manuscript stage! It was published six months later. Over that time period I was juggling the home and family (three kids, two dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and goldfish!) the legal practice, and some health issues. There were periods when I simply had no opportunity to write and others when I lacked the motivation. During that time some kind people read it and suggested it would make a good screenplay or radio play. Others made constructive suggestions to make it a worthwhile novel. I have been very lucky with support and encouragement from good friends and fellow writers who helped me the produce final product. You know who you are! In contrast, the second novel has taken a total of nine months from initial concept to the final draft. Perhaps books are like children, each unique in essence and inclined to grow and develop at their own pace?!
Do you have an agent? No! But I’m open to suggestions and offers!
Can you tell us about your book writing process please, Helen? Initially it starts with a single concept which inevitably then it takes on layers of meaning and makes all sorts of logical and sometimes unexpected connections. I love the freedom to follow my fascination. However I am also aware that to be successful a creation has to be rooted in reality. For example, my second novel is based around the Buddhist notion of reincarnation and past- life regression experiences, but is essentially a contemporary love story set against a the back drop of the actual historical events of 12th century Wales and Ireland.
What’s the best thing about being a writer? You can do it anywhere, with whoever else you choose, or completely on your own! It’s absorbing, fascinating, rewarding, illuminating, enlightening…shall I go on?!
What is your favourite book of all time? This is a toughie! I love so many books and have drawn inspiration from a diverse range of novels. I remember the impact of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’. It was the first time I had ever read a text which divulged the thoughts of the character, as well as conveying his words and actions. It opened up a whole new dimension in reading and writing for me. More recently I cried whilst reading the ‘Time Traveller’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffeneger. It’s passion was almost tangible for me. A real classic is De Berniere’s ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.’ I first read this on holidays in France when I had to rest up in the sun after sustaining a shoulder injury in a cycling accident. It was hard but someone had to do it! I have also read it a few times since.
What’s your literary pet peeve? This has to be when non- writers criticise the efforts of writers, despite not having the conviction to create something themselves. It’s all too easy to critique a piece of work to highlight its shortcomings; whereas it’s a whole different process to make something out of nothing. I think people would benefit from experiencing the creative process for themselves, before they negatively hone in on the perceived shortcomings of the work of others.
What was your journey to being published for the first time like? Did you get published straightaway? After receiving numerous rejection letters and waiting around for the replies which never materialised, I opened an email which I initially mis-read as ‘we are not interesting in publishing your book’ I so nearly consigned the message to the junk folder! However the ‘not’ was, most thankfully, a figment of my imagination! When I finally signed on the dotted line of the contract I was highly motivated to finish the project. The sense of satisfaction on uploading the final script was immense. Then came the editing…however, I have to say I enjoyed the whole experience, and particularly the choosing of the cover design.
What’s the biggest myth about being an author? It’s hard – it’s as hard, or as easy as you want to make it! It’s about attitude. If it’s such a struggle, why bother? Achieving things is much easier when you enjoy the process. That’s not to say it’s a doddle! The research and writing process can make for many hours of work. However, I believe that your personal interpretation of the process is largely determined by your frame of mind. If you see it as a struggle, that’s how it will be.
What are your top 3 tips for writers? 1. Write; 2. Write; 3. Then write some more!
It is about refining the process, gaining more insight and experience. Then trust your own judgement, have the courage of your convictions. If you don’t believe in what you’re writing how can you expect anyone else to? Years ago, I was asked during a law exam to differentiate between two definitions of reckless behaviour, then named ‘Caldwell’ recklessness and ‘Cunningham’ recklessness, after two famous legal cases. I came to the conclusion that there was actually no difference….and received low marks for that particular paper. A few years later I read that the use of the distinctions had been abandoned by the courts as it had been recognised that behaviour could only be by definition, intentional or reckless! Although that did nothing to improve my overall grades it worked wonders for my self-confidence!
How important has promotion been to the success of your books? It’s all about getting the word out there. Books are written for people to read! They can choose whether or not to read but only when they are faced with the choice!
Do you do it yourself or have help from your publisher or an outside publicity agency? The publishers are keen on promotion but I’ve also really been enjoying getting involved in the process. I love learning and this has been one sexy curve for me.
What is your number one promo tip for authors? Be open to conversation. I’m much more inclined to read and follow the work of an author I can talk to and exchange ideas with in some way, albeit mainly on-line. After all, you’re already sharing a large part of yourself with your work. I find that people who read are genuinely interested in the lives of others, and especially the authors of their favourite books. Don’t we all like to know what makes us humans ‘tick’?
What’s next in the world of Helen? More books? PLEASE say yes! Yes! I’m hoping that my second novel will be published within the next six months. I am also currently working on a book of short stories and feeling very excited about writing the third novel. Beyond that, I have detailed plots and tentative research for another four novels. Hopefully you’ll be reading much more from me for the foreseeable future.