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Monday, May 17, 2010

An Interview With Novelist Ali Cooper (Part 1)

The Girl on the Swing by Ali M. CooperToday I'm delighted to bring you the first part of an interview I conducted recently with first-time English novelist Ali Cooper.

Ali's novel is called The Girl on the Swing. It's a difficult novel to pigeonhole, but I guess you could call it a literary mystery. Ali published The Girl on the Swing herself, using her own Standingstone Press imprint.

I'm half-way through reading The Girl on the Swing at the moment, so while I can't offer a complete review yet, I can say that I'm thoroughly enjoying it. To give you a flavor, here's a video of Ali herself reading from the book. The video was made in Lyme Regis, where some of the novel is set...

As ever, if you are receiving this post by email or RSS, you will probably need to visit my blog to watch the video.

Without further ado, then, let's get on with the interview...

ND: Welcome to my blog, Ali. Could you start by telling my readers a bit about your writing background. As someone who had previously only written non-fiction, what made you decide to write a novel?

AC: Thanks, Nick - it's good to be here.

Although it's true I was published in non-fiction prior to fiction, this is rather misleading. It happened that way by chance and the comparative ease of being published in non-fiction, if you have a specialist subject to offer, compared with the difficulty of getting into fiction.

Around 15 years ago I studied for a Masters degree in archaeology. This is a subject where the student is encouraged to think creatively, and the long essays I wrote drew me into the art of writing and also generated ideas which I wanted to explore.

I attended some adult education creative writing classes - mostly with a tutor named Karen Eley, who was truly inspirational - and attempted to write short stories of a general nature and a novel set in prehistory. I was quite good at the shorts but rubbish at the novel, partly due to lack of skills and technique at novel writing and also, I suspect, because setting a book in a time for which we have no written records and which eliminates so much of our modern vocabulary is extremely difficult. I also joined a local writing group, but found that much less helpful than the classes.

Eventually, when browsing through a copy of the Writer's Handbook, I saw an entry for a publisher who produced walking guides. I realised I could map out walks based around archaeology sites and tell the reader about the archaeology at the same time. I wrote some sample walks, approached the publisher, and they offered me a contract straight away. The result was Archaeology Walks in the Peak District.

So, very simply, I wanted to write novels but under-estimated the skills and learning that would be needed. I did have the skills for non-fiction, and was lucky to find a niche market for which I had the specialist knowledge.

ND: The central character in The Girl on the Swing, Julia, believes she has lived before. Do you believe in past lives yourself, or was this purely a fictional device?

AC: The past lives theme found its way into the book because I started by brainstorming ideas that I felt I knew a bit about and would enjoy writing about. I had a list of locations, occupations etc. Then I asked myself the question, what do people want to read about? At the time, past life regression was almost a parlour game. It was featured regularly on television with lots of respected celebrities being regressed under hypnosis.

So that's how it got onto the book, but that doesn't mean it was simply a business decision.

I think almost all of us would like to believe there is 'something else' beyond the physical world. I certainly would. But having studied psychology before archaeology (sorry - this is sounding like a CV!) I'm equally interested in how our minds - with our ability to think beyond the here and now - might generate a need for such beliefs, and how we might readily attribute esoteric explanations to intuition, passive learning and chance.

Much like the subject of mediums and clairvoyants, I think there are probably a few instances of past lives that are genuine but more where the information comes from other sources. And we haven't even begun to discuss the area of DNA and possible inherited knowledge.

My personal belief is that some people can genuinely pick up on the thoughts of others who have lived before. But that doesn't mean that they were that person and are reincarnated with the same soul.

In the book, I leave the reader to interpret this aspect as they will. I don't require that you believe in past lives but I do need you to believe that Julia does.

ND: What made you decide to self-publish The Girl on the Swing rather than going down the traditional, mainstream publishing route?

AC: Like most people, I tried the traditional route of publishing first. I sent queries and/or synopses and opening chapters to several agents - somewhere between 5 and 10, so not very many by most people's standards - but although there were some positive responses, none of them wanted to read the full ms.

Then I had a full ms request from a small literary publisher. I put the book on hold for 6 months while they went through their process and it was shortlisted to the final 4. Eventually they turned it down - probably not anything to do with the book and its merit or marketability according to professionals in the publishing business - but whatever the reason, I was convinced that, having reached that stage, it was worthy of publication.

By that time I was part of a huge international writing community. It was very clear that there were many talented authors, producing quality writing, but that very few - and certainly no writers of literary fiction - were getting contracts. I know of several literary writers who've been represented by agents for 2 years or more but are no nearer to being published, and by contrast I know one or two genre writers who are taken on and sign a contract almost immediately. The impression I get is that the agents who secure contracts are working on a wish list from publishers for books that fit very specifically into their 'list'.

Also, I know quite a few authors who have come very close to being published traditionally. This has raised their hopes and they've persisted, but again, over a year on and they're no nearer.

So I had the choice of carrying on applying to agents and putting the book on hold with no guarantee of success; applying to very small presses who often have 2 years waiting list if they accept you, might go out of business in the meantime, and would probably not produce more sales or promotion than I could do myself; or self-publishing.

If I had been entirely on my own I doubt I would have had the confidence to self-publish. It would all have seemed too daunting. But, thanks to the internet, I am in touch with many other writers. In addition, I am a member of the literary fiction collective, Year Zero Writers, several of whom had already self-published.

I went one step further than my self-published UK friends because, whereas they had gone via author service companies such as Lulu, I was determined to deal directly with a printer/distributor. This decision was partly to reduce the cost, partly to give me more choice in the dimensions, format and paper quality of the finished book, and partly because I felt that, if I was self-publishing, I wanted to be just that - the publisher.

Luckily I do have some training in design for print and, though my skills and computer are out of date, it gave me confidence to design and format a professional product.

In addition to the help and support from my writer friends, I was very lucky to have friends help me with the various stages of editing. Quite a bit of this input came from people in the village where I live.

I would always say, never underestimate the wisdom and generosity of people nearby. They may not be experienced professional editors, going for power lunches in London society, but they may have more skills and valuable suggestions than you expect.

And one other word about self-publishing. Apart from teaching you to take full responsibility for your work, it allows you to move on from it. Rather than continuously rewriting that ms in the hope that an agent will like it, you can move on and write your next book.

* * *

Many thanks to Ali for answering my questions in such interesting detail.

In the second instalment of this interview, Ali reveals much more about The Girl on the Swing, including why she chose to write it in the present tense, how she has been successfully selling a version for the Amazon Kindle, and her hard-won tips and advice for other aspiring novelists.

Finally, I should just say that, if this interview has whetted your appetite, you can read the first chapter of The Girl on the Swing on the Year Zero Writers' website. You can buy the paperback from and For the electronic version, see Ali's Smashwords page or Amazon Kindle store page.

Ali also says, if you live in the UK, you can email her at standingstonepress at hotmail dot co dot uk and she will send you a copy inclusive of postage for less than the Amazon price.

To read the second part of this interview, please click here.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This interview, both halves of it, was rather interesting, but the following paragraph leapt out at me.

And one other word about self-publishing. Apart from teaching you to take full responsibility for your work, it allows you to move on from it. Rather than continuously rewriting that ms in the hope that an agent will like it, you can move on and write your next book.

I know from experience how easy it is to keep on polishing and tweaking a favourite book. Thorough editing and proofing are important, but if you let them become an end in themselves then the book will never be finished.

Self publishing can let you set your own short-term deadline, and then, as Ali says, move on to the next book. If you're any kind of writer t all there will always, be a next book clamouring for your attention.


7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that some people like the video and others don't. I would point out that it was filmed in somewhat adverse conditions (very windy) and therefore we couldn't do it as I'd hoped (spoken to camera) and had to add a voice over later. I'd also hoped we'd walk onto the fossil beach but the camera was larger than I expected and not very portable, so we had to stay near the Cobb and try not to look like a scene from French Lieutenant's Woman. But big thanks to Nomad and the team for filming.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi Gyppo,

I'm glad you got what I was meaning re self-publishing - so hopefully others did too. And in case they didn't, I'm not suggesting that we should self-publish less than perfect books. But there comes a point where all that tweaking is not improving the book but trying to second guess a publisher or agent's preferred style.

Another related point I didn't mention in the interview is the fact that I believe that a book is set in place and time. By this I mean that the way it is written reflects the way the world is at that time and the way the author perceives the world. A year or two later, the world has changed and so has the author's view of it. Even if you are writing something historical, the way you interpret it will be affected by the way you see the world now.

And this is another reason to move on from a book. Because each time you go back to it there will always be something you perceive differently and feel a need to alter.


12:31 PM  

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