Photo: Duncan Brown/Napier Courier

I originally interviewed Napier, New Zealand-based author Charity Norman for a story that was published in the May 2, 2012 edition of the Napier Courier. Charity, who is related to Virgina Woolf, chatted with me for nearly 30 minutes. I wasn’t able to fit all of Charity’s quotes into the newspaper and so, in the interest of the world-wide writing community, I’ve decided to put together this blog post based on our conversation.

Charity, 47, was born in Uganda but grew up in England. After turning her back on a career as a barrister to concentrate on her writing, Charity and her Kiwi husband, Tim Meredith, moved to New Zealand in 2002 and then to Napier three years ago. They have three children.

Her first book, Freeing Grace, was published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in 2010. Her second book, Second Chances, will be published on July 2.

BMM: Did you always want to be a writer?

CN: Yes. As a child, I lived in Yorkshire and my father is a vicar – like the Bronte sisters, whose father was also a vicar. My father had seven children and Patrick Bronte had a similar number. I thought I was Emily Bronte as a child. I used to make up really appalling poetry. But, as life went on, I realised I needed a proper career and proper money. I was a barrister for about 15 years or so in the northeast of England. I practised in crime and family, which feed into (Freeing Grace). The book is about adoption and so I was able to use a lot of my experiences in court and experiences with working for local authorities taking children away from their parents or acting for parents attempting to have their children not taken away. All of that has fed into this book and the next and, I suppose, into my life.

BMM: Tell us about your first foray into writing, after you and Tim moved the family to New Zealand.

CN: The intention was I would have time to write, because I’d always wanted to, and I’d started a book after I had one of the children. I finished that book, which is now in a drawer, and I just kept writing. It’s very difficult to write in a vacuum, not knowing if you’re wasting your time, if you’re being selfish in throwing away financial stability for no reason. And then I started worrying that I was setting a bad example for the children. And then finishing the book and finding an agent and a publisher is such an incredibly nailbiting business. It was a huge process, that first (published)book.

BMM: What was your reaction to receiving the email from an agent asking to see the full manuscript?

CN: It was like a miracle because you can’t really believe it’s going to happen. You’ve lived in this vacuum for so long and you start to lose confidence and have this niggling doubt that you might be rubbish.

BMM: You’ve said that the hardest part came after you signed with an agent.

CN: When I got the agent, I was so happy. She is excellent and I thought it would be easy from there but, in some respects, it actually got so much harder. They wanted it rewritten. I did that, sent it back to the agent’s editor and I got an email back saying it’s not ready, you’ve got to rewrite it again. By the time I sent it back, that editor had left and the new one wanted different changes. I think I had four different editors and all of that was quite soul-destroying. I spent two years rewriting, which was an anxious time as I didn’t know if I’d ever get it sold at the end of it. Every line has been rewritten; some may have been rewritten 50 times. I’m not complaining because I genuinely think it was good for me. It was a great exercise. It was a bit like doing a degree in being forced to continually look at every sentence.

When my agent finally sent the book out, it sold within a few months.

BMM: What originally attracted the agent to your manuscript?

CN: They liked the writing, they liked the story. I think a good agent knows what she likes in terms of writing style. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a rewriting test. Agents and publishers like to see an author who is prepared to rewrite. I do think the biggest secret to being a published writer is being prepared to take constructive criticism onboard. You’ve got to be able to cross it out and start again.

BMM: How would you describe your genre?

CN: I am not fond of pigeonholes but (the publishers) call it as ‘upmarket women’s fiction’. I don’t really try to write literary, because that can be incredibly boring. I want what I write to be very readable. I want it to be fun. I do have things I want to say but I want it to be entertaining at the same time. Daphne du Maurier, for example, writes really good stuff, but thoroughly readable. Intelligent fiction doesn’t have to be turgid and impregnable, as some work is. I care about the writing but it shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

BMM: Reviewers have generally been kind to Freeing Grace. How do you react to having strangers comment on your work?

CN: I’ve got better at it but you find yourself doing sad, sad, sad things like Googling your own name, Or getting your child to. Here, in New Zealand, there was much more interest in me than there was in the book, which is perhaps a cultural thing because I’m local.

BMM: Do you write for love or money?

CN: For the love. Although, if I didn’t think it was going to bring in something, I’d feel tempted to go back to what was a lucrative job, an interesting job. (The book) has started to make more –  in particular the French have been really good and have sold many thousands of copies. That’s started to make more sensible money but if I worked out how much I was paid per hour for writing that first book, I suspect it would be half a cent, or something ridiculous.

BMM: With Second Chances hitting bookstores in July, are you worried at all about the dreaded sophomore slump?

CN: (With the first book) it was such a long slog – so many false dawns, so many times I thought they’d say this time it’s ready and it wasn’t – all those constant disappointments give you a better attitude. Eight years ago, I would have been biting my nails but I’ve got so much better at thinking, ‘I’ll just keep going. If it’s not selling, don’t panic. You’re lucky to be published.’ And I do feel so incredibly lucky to be published at all.

BMM: Tell us about your writing routine.

CN: In theory, it starts as soon as the children go to school. And I carry on without stopping, at all, until they come home from school, and then I write at night. In theory, I can go from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. In practice, someone phones, someone comes to the door, my husband walks in and out of the house saying annoying things, I have to go do this or that – so it never works like I’m hoping it will. And so I end up doing an awful lot late at night. When I get really desperate, I go stay in a cabin belonging to some lovely friends. Twice I have gone up there and done nothing but write for a week and that really helps. That’s really good for getting you over the hump.

The owners of Thorps Coffee House (in Napier) have also been incredibly good to me. When my house is chaotic, the washing has piled across all surfaces, the phone won’t stop ringing and I am completely desperate, I can go down there. It’s a haven. They let me plug my computer into their power source. I have a quiet table at the back that I think of as my emergency office. That and several cups of coffee – to which I am addicted – normally gets 1,000 words written. In fact (Second Chances) owes a lot to them.

BMM: Where do your book ideas come from?

CN: I used to take very long walks and a lot of ideas would simply come to me. I think that was a better way to write, to have time to let ideas form. I should make myself do that now more. Snippets from newspapers. The library. People tell you stories or you hear of stories. When you are thinking of things you can write about, things take on a different meaning to you.

BMM: What advice can you offer to new writers?

CN: Keep writing. You’ve got to write. A lot. Hone that skill. Never assume that you are skilled enough. You can always get better. Keep reading and keep rewriting. If you are criticized constructively, be grateful.

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HBTV’s Simon Nixon (left) interviews Brown Girls author John Wesley Ireland during the taping of an episode of Chatroom. (Photo: Warren Buckland/Napier Courier)

The last time I wore makeup was when two small children decided to dress me up as a woman. I only held still because I was trying to impress their mother. Considering their mother and I have now been together for 20 years, it would appear enduring the assault on my manliness worked a charm.

My most recent brush with cosmetics came when the lovely Vania applied powder to my face in an effort to make it appear less full-moonish. Needless to say, the procedure used up an alarmingly large amount of her supply.

The reason Vania was doing her utmost to make me look presentable was my first TV appearance since I hosted a news magazine programme for Cook Islands TV. This time, however, I would be answering questions instead of asking them.

The occasion was the taping of an episode of Chatroom for Television Hawke’s Bay. Going into the studio, I still wasn’t sure why anyone would be remotely interested in anything I had to say. But, apparently, station director Judith Sawyer is a fan of this column and thought her viewing audience might be entertained by a veteran journalist with a novel to promote.

While I awaited my turn on the brown couch, I watched host Simon Nixon on the monitor as he interviewed a lady about her anti-fracking stance. She was well-spoken, well-informed and well-dressed. That’s when the nerves kicked in and, for a brief, terrifying moment, I was positive I’d start sweating through my makeup to the point where it would look as if my face was melting.

“Please buy my book before my forehead sloughs into my lap” is probably not the ideal marketing campaign.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Simon and I hit it off right away and were soon nattering away like two old friends meeting in a cafe. If cafes came equipped with really bright lights and three large cameras and a microphone cord shoved down your shirt.

I told him about my journalism career and how I came to write my novel, Brown Girls, and why I’ve decided to market and sell it as an ebook through my own website.

The interview was divided into three segments, each consisting of eight minutes (commercials will fill out the rest of the 30-minute time slot), and my original fear of not being able to fill even one segment was quickly replaced by a fear of not having time to say everything I wanted to.

In the end, we never did talk about the Cook Islands photography book I hope to publish in an effort to raise money for the Red Cross.

Neither did I have the opportunity to mention the “A-ha!” moment.

This, of course, is not to be confused with the “Eureka!” moment or the “Woo-hoo!” moment. “A-ha!” is the noise I make when, while reading about a wildly-successful person, I come across the exact moment when they caught their big break. The hungry fashion photographer who drops into a fast-food outlet, only to stumble across the beautiful girl working behind the counter. Chris Klein charging around a corner in his high school and bowling over a talent scout looking to fill out the cast of American Pie.

We’ve all experienced such moments, the times where, for no good reason we can explain, we turned left when we had every intention of going right, and so met a future partner or the person who hired us for our dream job or somehow changed our lives.

Serendipity? Dumb luck? Good timing? Karma gods smiling? Best not to attempt to label it. Best to just sit back, hold on tight and enjoy the rocket ride to fame/success/riches/wild women.

I didn’t get to talk to Simon Nixon about “A-ha!” moments. Maybe because I’m meant to talk to him about that during our next interview. The one where, after this column is published, Brown Girls goes on to sell a million copies.

Someone should warn Vania she’s going to need a fresh supply of powder.

* The Chatroom interview featuring John Ireland will air Friday, May 11, 7.30pm on TVHB, UHF 51, and be re-broadcast the next day at 7.30am and 12.30pm. It will also be available for viewing at http://www.tvhb.co.nz

* For more information on Brown Girls, visit http://www.johnireland.co.nz

Cover JpegJack’s back. Jack Nolan, that is. So is Nurse Heather. And that cheeky monkey Maina Rima. And, oh yeah, the League of Jackals is still up to no good.

Five years after PublishAmerica first printed it, and about three years after I took possession of its rights, my first published novel, Brown Girls, is once again available to the world.

I have seen the future and it’s spelled Kindle. And ePub and LRF and PDB. I have seen the future and it does not include hard copies of books unless your name is King or Brown or Grisham or Rushdie.

For the rest of us commoners, the future is all about the ebook. And so, after years of enduring the rejections of callous literary agents, I have decided to skip right past the naysayers and shove Brown Girls straight into that future.

Which would explain why my first-born now resides at smashwords.com and can been sampled or purcahsed via http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1937.

For you still stuck in the here and now (and how so very quaintly 21st century of you), the manuscript is also available in HTML, JavaText and Plan Text, allowing it to be read onscreen or printed off so you can be transported to the Cook Islands while comfortably tucked into your favourite chair.

Those of you who were kind enough to buy the 2004 edition will note that version 2.0 has been re-edited and polished and, unlike its author, is now slimmer and trimmer, thanks to the punting of some 17,000 words. Included in that cut was every one of the F-bombs, meaning my mother can now safely put down the latest Danielle Steele novel and finally read her No. 1 son’s tome without fear of encountering words you can’t say in church.

If you’re thinking, “I bought the original, it was excellent, now where the hell is that sequel you’ve been promising us for five years?”, you’ll be pleased to know The Blue Beneath is progressing rather nicely, and will continue to do so if you recommend that all your friends buy the Brown Girls ebook, thus proving to Viking Woman that, yes, I can earn money by sitting on my arse at home all day.

That’s the key to marketing ebooks — getting the word out. Unlike hard copies where, with a bit of time and patience, a buyer will eventually stumble across your masterpiece in a bookstore, the World Wide Web is a great big haystack and my book, no matter how significant to me, is but a mere needle.

Placing the book on smashwords.com is a good first step but now, as you might expect, everyone with one knuckle and a keyboard is starting to turn away from POD and vanity publishing and going the ebook route as well, thus avoiding all those pesky editors and agents and publishers who, obviously, have no appreciation for truly great literary art.

Which means Smashwords’ inventory grows larger by the day and, at the risk of sounding mean-spirited, you do have to sieve through a lot of gravel to find the gold. Hopefully, with the help of you, my faithful blog readers, people will manage to discover and buy and read and enjoy Brown Girls.

I will keep you posted on sales figures, if they happen, and comments, if they are filed (and please feel free to add your own review, good or bad, to the Brown Girls page — all feedback is welcomed and encouraged).

My plan, you see, is to sell a million copies. Hey, if Dan Brown can do it, anyone can.

The second part of my plan, once the royalty cheques start to roll in, is to retire to an island in the South Pacific and live in a huge mansion from where I can watch starlets frolic on a clothing-optional beach while nubile Nubian women fan me with palm fronds and attend to my every need and desire.

And then . . .

And then Viking Woman elbows me awake because I’ve been snoring and I realize it’s all been a dream. Well, except for the clothing-optional part. Somehow in the night I’ve managed to lose my pajamas. I’m going to blame the Nubians.