A lot of people have been asking me about themes in my work, especially for some podcasts I have appeared on. It really got me thinking. One obvious thing I know I'm fascinated by is memory. I love how the brain can lie to you, hide things from you - and that line between what you know and what you don't know consciously, unconsciously, and even subconsciously. I also find head trauma and changes to memory as a result really interesting.
I love books that really delve into this, such as 'Before I go to sleep' by SJ Watson. Also 'Regeneration' by Pat Barker, which is almost about remembering too much. Lastly, I love 'The Woman Before Me' by Ruth Dugdall. All of these books have elements about memory and trusting yourself (or not).
While I was thinking about this though, I also started thinking about other themes. I realised that my two novels have some characters who are especially detached from their emotions. Two characters in particular have little understanding of consequence, or if they do, they have a limited response to it. I started thinking about why I am interested in this.
A realisation hit me - I grew up with someone who would now been referred to as 'neurodiverse'. While at the time, they had no label and it wasn't until adulthood that they did. In contrast, I was always very emotional and often labelled 'too sensitive'. I remember it being upsetting then but now, I'm proud that I feel things so strongly. I think it makes it easier to write down emotions.
So back to my point, I wonder if my interest in characters who have limited emotional capacity (for whatever reason) might be connected to my life experiences. So when I tell people I don't tend to write about people I know, that perhaps on some level, I actually have been! It came as a shock to me in some ways. I hadn't thought about it before but there were many times in my life growing up where I tried to understand this person, their reactions or lack of, the way they didn't process things like I did. And maybe, in some strange way, this has snuck into my writing through the back door.
What themes are in your novels/poems? Are they things you're aware of? Maybe there's something in there that you didn't know you were exploring, much like me!
You can listen to me speaking on the Writing for Wellness podcast
You can also listen to me speaking on the Full House Lit Mag podcast (time - 31:51)
Q: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your writing?
Wayward Voyage, based on real life pirate Anne Bonny, is my debut novel. I’ve always been a reader and I have a background in journalism, dance and theatre and love film. I first heard about pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read more than twenty years ago and was fascinated by these women embodying ‘girl power’. I didn’t have the slightest ambition to write about them, but I wanted to find out more. This was before the first Pirates of the Caribbean film came out, there were few pirate books in print, and the internet was in its infancy. I first wrote Wayward Voyage as a screenplay but getting screenplays read, never mind produced, is a long shot. Years later I returned to the story and wondered if I had it in me to write a novel. I love world building, with character and plot led stories. And I love research.
I revisited many books (political history, social history, sailing in the age of sail). I returned to the National Archives at Kew, South London, to access historical documents and letters from Woodes Rogers who was Governor of The Bahama’s at this period. Snippets of what he actually wrote made their way into my book. It was at the archives that I first handled an original copy of the 1720’s pirates’ trial in Jamaica.
But research wasn’t all about reading. Years ago, I signed on as voyage crew on the Lord Nelson, a tall ship owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust. That week sailing in the Canary Islands learning to handle ropes and going aloft to take in or drop sails will stick in my mind forever. You are in a world of your own out there. I recall my wobbly legs going aloft for the first time and inching tentatively along the lower yardarm. By the end of the week, I had ventured to furthest reaches of the higher yard. I make use of this experience describing Anne’s first time aloft.
In summer of 2019 I visited South Carolina to walk in the steps of Anne Bonny and visited plantations to get a feel for life in colonial America (though these plantation houses date from a much later period).
Q: Which book/s have you read at least 3 times?
These come to mind... a real mix: To Kill A Mocking Bird; A prayer for Owen Meany; Pride and Prejudice; Middlemarch; Anne of Green Gables.
Q: Is there a writer you would love to meet? Who and why?
John Irving. Before I started writing I would think to myself “if I were ever to write I would love to write like he does”. Plot, character, finding that sweet spot between literary and commercial appeal. I wish!
Q: What’s your least favourite part of the writing process?
I guess starting a new scene is difficult. That moment of sitting before a blank sheet. You are getting to know your characters but you don’t yet know them intimately. You are getting to feel your way through your story, but its still blurry. But quite honestly, I love it all!
Q: How would you describe your writing style? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you write everyday or whenever the moment strikes you?
I’m a planner. Originally, when Wayward Voyage was a screenplay, I wrote scenes on file cards and storyboarded them across my floor, then I worked systematically through them card by card. Later, writing and rewriting my novel I found it useful to create a spreadsheet with scene-by-scene analysis. (What is the scene about? Does it take the story forward? Does it need changing/moving/deleting?) That document ended up more than 50 pages but was a useful tool. I have used a similar approach with next books.
I have a morning routine. Yoga for an hour; breakfast; desk/computer. Since I started writing, I have lived in different houses but always had my own writing room. Where we live now, in south west London, I’ve set up a desk in our bedroom, so this is a dual-purpose space. It is light, overlooking the back garden, and I spend far too many hours here! Most weekdays I am at my desk any time from 9 and, mid-morning coffee break aside, work through to about 1 pm. Afternoons I may research, do other related activities read other books and make time to go for a walk.
Q: What advice would you give a new writer?
Don’t give up. If one route doesn’t work out, try another. Celebrate finishing your first draft, take a break, then re-write. Again. Again. And, don’t leap to accept a publishing offer. Take your time and do your research.
A decade ago, I made a documentary film about older flamenco dancers in the UK. Just like with the story of Anne and Mary, I first touted my flamenco idea to various TV commissioning companies I knew but was told it wasn’t interesting enough for a broad audience. I took stock. I knew loads about dance and flamenco; knew how to put a story together; had experience as a producer, so figured I could learn the other bits. I met up with a documentary film student and – hey – we had a team. I made my low budget documentary and have never regretted it. The old dancers are passing and the Soho of post-war London is passing but I have captured a valuable social and cultural record of this period. The film was shown at a film festival and is now shared freely on YouTube. I guess money doesn’t matter so much but doing things I love matters mightily. It was the same with dance when I was younger.
So how does this sum up?
Q: What inspires you?
Multi-layered stories in film and book. Uplifting and informative documentaries and biographies. I’ve just finished reading In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park about her escape from North Korea. And learning. I want to continue learning throughout my life.
Q: Tell us about your latest work.
My next novel, Blind Eye, an environmental thriller, is about illegal logging from tropical rainforests and government collusion. This will come out in autumn. My partner is a founder member of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) so through him I reached out to a lot of specialists for advice. This also started out as a screenplay 15 years ago and I recently updated it and reworked. My film version was awarded joint first prize in the 2020 Green Stories Screenplay Competition.
Q: Where can we find out more about you and/or your book?
Links to retailers. Info about myself. Information for Books Clubs, including quick research links and a PDF to download with topics and questions. I invite readers to up for a monthly newsletter where I can delve into a topic, relevant to my writing, that interests me: https://www.annamholmes.com/newsletter
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