I'd like to welcome you to my interview with writer, Sarah Spilsbury. Enjoy.
Hello Sarah. Can you please introduce yourself?
I'm Sarah Spilsbury, based in Smethwick, Birmingham, West Midlands.
How long have you been writing?
I have always been writing in some form, even before my age hit double figures. However, I have probably been writing seriously for about four years – by seriously I mean making creative writing a feature of every day life.
What first got you interested in writing?
Reading! I was initiated into the world of literature prior to starting school, by my grandparents, who took me to the local public library. I remain an avid reader and am a member of two libraries and three reading groups.
On a deeper level, I think that my being an only child necessitated finding or creating ‘friends’ within the fictive sphere.
I can understand that. Do you attend a writing group?
I started attending Birmingham Queer Ink in September 2008. I also intermittently pop into PowWow, which is a group based in Moseley, Birmingham, and have recently started going to a group that meets at The Public (an arts venue) in West Bromwich.I recently took part in a three session project based which was part of Writing West Midlands: although this group only met on three occasions, due to the constraints of the one off project, a strong link was made via email as a media for giving feedback.
Why do you attend a writing group?
My primary reason for joining a writing group was to learn more about writing, ways to improve my writing and to gain feedback on work I had produced. I find each of the groups has its own different benefits. Some are more instructive, some act best as ways of helping you embrace creative techniques. With regards to Queer Ink, as the name suggests, this is a group of non ‘straight’ writers, and this offers a ‘safe space’ where I can write about characters who are not straight. This group also has a political (with a deliberately small p) raison d'être, as it increases visibility of queer writing.
What is the most valuable thing you have taken away from your writing group?
I would say that the most valuable piece of advice I have had was not from the main writing group I attend (Queer Ink), but from Andy Killeen, who runs the Pow Wow group, when he did a seminar as part of Artsfest last year (an annual event of various arts and arts related performances, workshops etc that takes place in Birmingham). This was that to be a writer you have to write…..i.e. not talking about it, not reading about it, not thinking about it etc but actually sitting down and writing something. I don’t manage to do this every day, but aim to make it part of a regular routine.
What genre(s) do you write? What drew you to these/this genre(s)?
I find it hard to say what genre I write in, as I don’t feel like I write a specific genre, such as science fiction, westerns etc: I suppose I would have to say ‘modern contemporary’, although some of the pieces have an LGB&T/queer focus, I wouldn’t say that that is the be all and end all of my work. That said, I have deliberately created a bisexual character as I feel there aren’t many of them, but hope I’ve created a meaningful and well-rounded character rather than simply having an axe to grind.
Are there any genres that you don't enjoy writing?
I don’t think there would be, although I don’t think I would have much joy with fantasy, simply because it isn’t a genre I enjoy to read myself……if I flick though a book and spy the word ‘dragons’, I tend to leave it be! I seriously doubt I would be able to follow the guidelines I understand are given out to writers of Mills and Boone / Harlequin books, as I understand that they’re quite prescriptive and don’t allow a lot of room for manoeuvre. Or swearing! The idea of a ‘soppy’ romance is rather sick-making, sexuality of the protagonists regardless.
What types of things do you write?
In the past I have written a fanzine, which was mainly about indie bands of the day (this was in the mid to late 90s), and I’ve also written song lyrics…..all of this was a long time ago! I now write short stories and am working on what I tentatively call a novel……I also write scripts for a community radio show I research, host and produce: this is about historical arcania, often with a bit of true life crime slung in as well.
Have you ever had anything published?
Does broadcast of radio scripts count as ‘published’?
Yes, I think so.
I have been doing this since 2001, in the Birmingham area, although the station I am now doing work for is available on line. I had an article in a national student magazine, some articles in the university newspaper, and a couple of reviews of plays in the Birmingham Evening Mail (more as a blag to get free tickets than anything!). I’ve had work published in two self-published anthologies with Queer Ink (‘Queer Ink’ and ‘Queer Ink II’) – these were short stories. The short story I wrote as part of the Writing West Midlands project is planned to be published later this year, as part of an anthology incorporating everyone who took part in this.
Have you sent your writing to agents/publishers?
Not really – I’ve tried to submit reviews and news articles to the local press, which have been knocked back though.
Would you consider self-publishing/e-publishing?
The two anthologies by the Queer Ink group were self published, but haven’t sold extremely well, as places such as Waterstones will not accept them due to their policy of only dealing with publications that can be made available in ALL of their branches – which ours wouldn’t be.
In regards to personal projects, I’m in two minds about self-publishing, although in the immediate future this isn’t anything that will be keeping me up at night as:A. I don’t have a finished manuscript
B. I’m skint!
I see the value in self publishing and know people who have done so successfully, but at the back of my mind there is always the spectral nagging voice that says that it’s for ‘vanity’ projects that wouldn’t get published by any other means because they’re too poorly written……I also think that there’s a greater mark of approval from being selected by someone else…..if a publishing house thought my work was good enough to publish, then that would be an external verification of the worth of the work, not just my own opinion.
In regards to e-publishing, it is something I would consider, even though I’m essentially a twentieth century soul, I can see that this new-fangled technology seems to be catching on with people J As regards personal preference, I still prefer to have something concrete (or rather ‘papery’) in my hand when I read.
Who/what influences your writing? Where do you get your inspiration from?
Often things that have happened in the day will get included in my writing….things at work etc. Being a light fingered so-and-so, I might find myself ‘inspired’ by something I’ve read.
How do you come up with your characters' names and personalities?
I’m not quite sure where my characters come from…..they come from the magic place where the inspiration is! Some are aspects of myself (distorted, or what I might want to get away with!) Names I tend to get from books of names (first names) and the phone book (second/family names). I don’t tend to deliberately give characters names that have any major significance, although some may come to light in hindsight. Although I did once come across the name Wendy Vague in an email, which I might have to swipe at some point!
I try and avoid having characters with similar names, or with names starting with the same letter, as I know that this infuriates readers and can cause confusion.
I know what you mean. I recently finished reading a book with a Richard and a Robert. It became irritating after a while to remember who was who! Do you have a writing routine?
I don’t always manage to write daily, although I aspire to. As I work full time, I often tend to do my writing when I get home from work, so early evening is the time associate with writing – even on weekends, it doesn’t feel right to do it in the day.
I can't write during the day; there are too many distractions! Do you start out with a complete idea for your stories, or do you just start writing and hope for the best?
I have a general idea, but normally just tend to start typing and see what happens, although it would probably be better if I had a clearer idea in mind…..
Do you have an editing process?
I tend to read over what I have written and check I haven’t used the same word too frequently. I have gained feedback from other people reading my work, which has been useful. I’ve read things out aloud, but not in front of a mirror!
What do you enjoy the most/least about writing?
The thing I like best about writing is escaping into another world. Even though the world I write about is generally very commonplace, it’s a different place to go, because the characters are involved in situations that are different from my own day to day life, or at least once removed from it.The worst thing? Hmmm. Trying to keep it fresh and not repeating myself.
How important is it for you to share your writing?
Very. I believe that every writer wants their work to be read, and I like to know what people think of it as well. Although it primarily serves as something to entertain myself, and maybe some friends, I’m quite ambitious with it, and have no desire to be the writing equivalent of bands who say they make music for themselves and ‘that if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus’.
Have you ever entered any writing competitions?
I think I did once, when I was at sixth form, but haven’t since.
Have you ever attended an open mic event for spoken word performers?
Yes: I’ve been to readings and recently did a reading as part of Queer Ink as part of the aforementioned Birmingham Artsfest. We’ve also done readings at community events and fundraisers. I would do so again, quite happily. I’ve also done some stand up comedy, although that is a separate interest. That said, I’ve noticed there’s quite a crossover between comedians and writers. Alexei Sayle has written some alright stuff, and I’m currently in the middle of a book by Mark Watson.
What is the best piece of writing advice you've been given?
Try and write daily, or at least regularly.
Apart from writing, what are your other hobbies/interests?
I’ve already mentioned the many reading groups I’m in……I also enjoy taking myself on trips out, quite often to London, to visit museums/art galleries/quirky events etc. I like watching films, and have tried making little travelogues of my own…..I’m a member of a lot of LGB&T related community groups…..a Mixed Bi group and a Bi Women’s Discussion group, and also a queer photographers group. I also enjoy cycling, but view this more as a practical means of transport rather than a sport or leisure activity.
What types of things do you read? Do you think your writing reflects your book tastes?
I generally read modern contemporary fiction and would say that this informs my writing, in the subject matter and setting, and also some of the language. One of the sessions I led for Queer Ink was based on lists of words I’d made a note of that I was unfamiliar with from books by Martin Amis and Will Self (the latter was a particularly crammed sheet of A4!) – the exercise was to pick 5 words and use them in a piece of writing. I like to extend my vocabulary via such means…
That's a very interesting way of working. I may have to do that myself. Do you have any favourite lines from novels/plays/poetry/songs, or any favourite literary quotations?
The first one that springs to mind is ‘I used to speak the truth but now I’m a liar/I used to speak the truth, but now I’m clever’ from Wrote For Luck by the Happy Mondays. Tony Wilson once compared Shaun Ryder to WB Yeats. I haven’t read Yeats, and suspect Wilson was getting characteristically over-excited, but it’s still a genius line.
If you could have written anything, what do you wish that could have been?
The Fifty Shades or Harry Potter series….for financial reasons, ha ha! (I haven’t actually read either). Which neatly segueways into my real answer, which is ‘Money’ by Martin Amis. I also really loved Steven Tolz ‘A Fraction of the Whole’ for all the crazy ideas it had in it. ‘White Teeth’ Zadie Smith also has a very special place in my heart, possibly because it made a pretty good users guide to moving to the equally diverse area I now live in.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a novel set in contemporary London, with two main characters who at first glance don’t have anything in common but are actually old friends who have recently reunited. One is a pretentious and self-important homosexual and the other is a wide-boy minicab driver, who is reluctantly coming round to the idea that he feels more than friendship towards his friend….
Do you have a website/blog/Twitter/Facebook dedicated to your writing?
There are Facebook pages for Queer Ink and teh west Bromwich groups. I don’t seem to be able to find the details of the PowWow group (Moseley).
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I would like to add that the above has had the publishing world fighting over the rights and that all other writers have decided that they might as well throw their pens and laptops away now – but sadly that really is fiction, for the time being at least!
Ha! Would you be able to provide a short piece of your work?
This is part of a piece entitled Meeting Hilary Wilson Jones, and appeared in the first Queer ink anthology. Hilary is a key character in my novel…..and is keen to meet his publicJ
‘I always thought that my parents were just in the routine of giving us all girls names…..’ explained Hilary. ‘I’d get the piss taken out of me at school something rotten, but then I’d either give them something else to talk about, or we’d move - again.’‘Sounds a bit unsettling.’‘In a way. But the advantages included my absolutely having to become a quite gregarious boy. I got to have a real bit of fun sometimes, too - trying out different sides of my personality on new people, who’d be none the wiser. Great way to reinvent yourself, always being on the move. My one self-imposed limit was never to be boring – I mean, when you have a name like Hilary Wilson-Jones, people sort of expect a certain panache. Or is that just me? Actually, no, it’s probably just me. Not that I give a damn!’‘Bit flash, I s’pose…..’‘I can live with flash.’ I asked him to tell me about some of his adopted personas: One time, he’d decided to be a goth: ‘It was kinda fun, at first, getting to weird people out, pretending to be into Satanism and suchlike. But my mother refused, point blank, for me to dye my hair, so, as you can see, I was never really going to corner that particular market….’ (he tugged at his floppy blonde hair) ‘Of course, it got really useful a bit later on, when sex entered the equation. Who was I going to be today? Your straight mate, a bi guy or a big old queer leer?’‘And? Who were you?’
© Sarah Spilsbury
Thank you very much Sarah.