Today, Ramblers, I’m excited to welcome Vanessa Curtis, award-winning author of books for teens and children, including Zelah Green which won the Manchester Children’s Book Prize. Her latest book, The Earth is Singing, is released on January 27th, Holocaust Day.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was a little I wanted to be a librarian. But I’ve been a writer since I was about eight or nine when I had my poems published in the school magazine.
If not, what were your original aspirations?
I thought I’d be a musician. I trained at college as a pianist so I always assumed I’d end up going into music. I did go into music but in a more part-time way, teaching piano lessons from home.
How old were you when you first started writing?
I started young, writing stories and poems when I was about eight or nine. English was one of the few school subjects I actually enjoyed.
What was the first thing you ever published?
An article revolving around sex that I wrote in my lunch-break when I was about eighteen. It was published in Girl About Town magazine.
What inspired you to write your first novel?
My first novel was an angsty confessional about the breakdown of my first marriage back in 1997. It was too self-absorbed, too personal, and too depressing to be publishable so it went into my folder of doom, along with my other unfinished or unpublished manuscripts.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
Doing it. *laughs* I suppose not deviating or procrastinating on the internet. It’s difficult to keep the incentive going when you have long periods of waiting for publishers and agents to get back to you, especially when sometimes they say yes and then change their minds and say no. All the waiting and rejections and periods of time when you’re not being paid for your work. There aren’t many careers when you can can work for long periods of time and not get paid for it.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about being a writer?
That I can’t give it up. I have considered giving up, for the aforementioned reasons and because it’s hard, often thankless work, but if I try giving up for a few months I always find myself coming back to it.
What is your writing schedule/process?
My schedule is simply to fit my writing around giving piano lessons. My process is to get a vague idea first, followed by the typing of a very rough chapter by chapter synopsis. Then I discuss the idea with my agent before I go any further to see if she thinks it’s viable. After that there are months, possibly even years of research if I’m writing historical fiction, which I am now. Then I actually have to write the book.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It depends on the book. The first draft of The Earth is Singing took three to four months to write, with about six months of research beforehand. Then it was rewritten two or three times at the request of my agent/editor. The whole process probably took about two years.
How did you feel when you knew your first novel was going to be published?
Quite excited actually, as I hadn’t set out to write novels, particularly not children’s novels. Zelah Green was a change of direction, almost like a new career.
What do your friends/family think of your writing career?
I think my family are quite proud. My mother can’t read The Earth is Singing as it’s so close to her family history that it’s too painful to read. My friends are very loyal, always pre-ordering copies of my books.
Some people think that writing isn’t a real job. Have you encountered any such negative attitudes?
My dad said it to me! I think he regretted it afterwards when he saw my look of distress and horror. What he meant was I had chosen one of the hardest possible careers so I let him off. Now he’s really proud of me.
I had articles coming out when I was still quite young so I think people could see how serious I was about my writing career.
Do you ever encounter writer’s block?
Not writer’s block as such, but I am very good at delaying writing the beginning of a novel. And for about the first fifteen thousands words, I’m very good at getting distracted.
How do you deal with it?
Sometimes I literally trick myself into sitting at the computer. I tell myself I’m just passing by my desk, then I’ll just switch on the computer, then I’ll just put my fingers on the keys and see what comes out. And then I’ll have written a few lines.
Sometimes I’ll tell myself I can’t play the harpsichord until I’ve written a certain number of words, or I’ll tell myself i can’t have lunch.
How do you choose the names for your characters?
In different ways, really. I like strong biblical girls’ names so I sometimes pick them from the Bible. With Zelah Green, the name Zelah was something I spotted on a signpost on the way to Cornwall. I thought it was an unusual name for a character, and decided, ‘I’ll have that.’
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I enjoy walking, playing the harpsichord, teaching piano, doing writing commissions for other people, or running writing workshops at the local Arts Centre.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
I’ve changed my ideas on that as I’ve got older. Something to do with research – archiving or genealogy, that sort of thing. Maybe journalism full-time. I’d quite like to work in some kind of heritage property, anything to do with old buildings.
The Earth is Singing is your latest novel, released on Holocaust Day, January 27th. The book follows a young girl, Hanna Michelson, and what happens to her when Nazis arrive in her Latvian town. The book is an unflinching look at the atrocities perpetuated against Jews at this time. What was the hardest part about writing it?
Writing that scene in the Rumbula forest. I tried to tell it as it was, rather than trying to soften it, and I may actually have been writing about members of my own family, several generations back.
What have you learned from writing it?
How lucky I am and how lucky many of us are. Things like that could so easily happen again. That I don’t know very much about one particular side of my family. And also that I’d like to do more historical fiction.
Before the Nazis arrive, Hanna is an aspiring ballerina. What made you decide to have her dance?
I needed something light and graceful and lovely as a contrast to the harrowing scenes in the book. Also, I love ballet.
What made you write this book?
When I went to Riga (where the book is set) I visited the recently opened Ghetto Museum. On the walls there are photos of thousands of pre-war Jewish people going about their daily lives. All of these people will have been killed. I looked at these photos and looked at their eyes, and their eyes seemed to follow me around the museum, almost like they were telling me to write their story. I went home to write it, not caring if it was published or not.
People, especially schoolchildren, don’t know enough about what happened in Eastern parts of Europe during the Second World War. They’re taught a lot about Auschwitz but not much about the horrific situations in places like Latvia and Lithuania.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read more. It’s amazing how many people don’t read books in the genre they’re trying to publish in, or worse, don’t read books at all.
Continually strive to improve your work all the time. That process never stops, no matter how many books you’ve had published. I’m still trying to improve. It’s a lifelong journey.
The Earth is Singing is released on Holocaust Day, January 27th.