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Awarded December 2013 for MAKE DO AND MEND by Adam Fitzroy

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Jim Brynawel

Recently, Brandon Shire asked me to write a post for his blog; this year he's highlighting books his readers recommend as 'gems you may have missed', and MAKE DO AND MEND fell into that category.  It was of course a great compliment and I was happy to oblige - but at the same time it reminded me that I've let life overwhelm me a bit recently, and I haven't posted anything here for a very long time indeed.  So, with apologies, here's the post I wrote for Brandon in case you may have missed it - it turned out to be all about Jim Brynawel and his conscientious objection - and I really will try to do better in future!

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Some authors prepare meticulously when they begin to write a new book, knowing in detail from the outset precisely what will happen to whom and in what order. Personally, I find this approach dampens creativity, and I prefer to take the journey alongside the characters; I will usually know something about the people and their story arc before I start a book, but the way it develops can often surprise me. It's also usually the case that I have to wait until I've finished a book before I can look back on it objectively and say with any hope of certainty exactly what the story is about!

With MAKE DO AND MEND, the initial intention was to describe a growing intimacy between Harry and Jim which would be set against a background of some sort of conflict. In the preliminary sketches for the book the setting was to be the present day and the conflict with land-hungry neighbours who threatened the family's farm. (This aspect of the plot later found a home in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER WYE, which was published earlier this year and which takes place in a very similar geographical area – waste not, want not! - but there the similarities end.) However a sudden inspiration struck, of unknown origin, and convinced me that relocating the action of the book to the middle of the Second World War would make it all very much more interesting. That way the grit of conflict - which every book needs – could be supplied not so much by the war itself, nor even by the difficulty of maintaining what in those days would have been a highly secretive relationship, but by Jim's status as a conscientious objector.

I know some people think I may have been influenced by Mary Renault's THE CHARIOTEER in this respect. This is immensely flattering, of course, but in all honesty I read the book so long ago that the only thing I remember about it is that one character was called 'Laurie'. I was actually thinking more about Private Godfrey in the TV series 'Dad's Army', who had been a 'conshie' in the First World War but who had nevertheless distinguished himself as a volunteer ambulance driver on the battlefield – for which he later won the reluctant admiration of his Home Guard platoon.

It has always seemed to me that conscientious objection must be a very difficult position to hold. Individually we might well be in favour of peace and diplomacy, but "when the blast of war blows in our ears" there is usually some kind of mass patriotic effusion which paints anyone who dares to express an opposing – or even a slightly less committed – opinion as either a scoundrel or a traitor. With Jim, I wanted to be able to portray a character who loved his country enough to support it in his own way, but who did not necessarily approve of the methods it adopted.

In this context, by the way, it's important to remember that the true nature of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime didn't become common knowledge until much later. Throughout the war even perfectly intelligent people were capable of believing that the rumours of atrocities they had heard were in fact some sort of 'black propaganda', part of what we would now call an insidious media campaign; the actual truth was so far beyond the imagination of most normal people at the time that even if they had heard such stories they would have been likely to discredit them. As humans, we have a tendency to dismiss as fiction anything we don't completely understand or even believe to be possible – a trait which has sometimes prevented us from making progress that we should have a great deal sooner.

So, while in retrospect Jim's position may look hopelessly na├»ve, at the time it would have been one which required considerable courage and personal conviction to maintain; that was the conflict I found intriguing, not least because it has such obvious similarities to the historic situation of gay men. It takes some strength of character, after all, to admit that one is not like everybody else, and to be prepared to shoulder the consequences. If the majority all seem to think and act in the same way, being the exception can vary from uncomfortable to downright dangerous – as those who stand out from the crowd have often discovered. My interest is in people who are prepared to hold firm against pressure to conform, and who – sometimes loudly, sometimes more quietly – continue to attest what they believe in, even in the face of apparently insuperable odds.

In a way, therefore, Jim in MAKE DO AND MEND is not only someone I would very much like to meet but also someone I hope that – if I was facing a similar set of circumstances – I would have the courage to be. His journey was not at all the one I was expecting to take when I began the book, but it's one I was glad to have had the opportunity of exploring – and one which, I hope, will have raised a comparable series of interesting speculations in the minds of the book's readership. If that is indeed the case, then Jim and I will have succeeded in what – all unknowingly – we both set out to do.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

conversations: between Adam Fitzroy and Julie Bozza

A conversation between Adam Fitzroy, author of The Bridge on the River Wye – released by Manifold Press on 1 February 2014 – and Julie Bozza, author of Of Dreams and Ceremonies. We hope you enjoy listening in! And if you have any questions of your own, please feel free to ask via our blogs, Goodreads or Twitter.






Julie: Where did The Bridge on the River Wye come from? What was the inspiration or motivation?

Adam: It's entirely possible I watch too much 'reality TV'!  I love shows where people make something out of nothing – homes and gardens in particular – and bits from them seem to fit together in my mind like jigsaw pieces.  I had a plot involving the mysterious death of a brother which had been bubbling under for a while, and although I wasn't quite ready to write a fully-fledged 'whodunnit' I thought it would work within the framework of the organic/intensive farming dichotomy … and everything else just seemed to follow on naturally from there.

Julie:
Excellent! I very much enjoyed reading the advance copy you kindly sent, and thought you really made the most of the urban and rural locations in London and the Wye Valley. I can see now where the reality TV comes in. I was left with a real sense of the passion, the creativity and (if all else fails) the sheer cussedness with which people can make things happen. Not to mention the necessary dirt under the fingernails! It was all very well done.

Julie: Do you find yourself addressing certain themes or tropes in your novels, or does that change from work to work?


Adam: I try not to repeat myself too much, but I've had a bit of a theme going lately concerning characters who are either desperately short of money themselves or having to use ingenuity to get by in a time of general shortage.  I'm not sure I'd know how to write a really rich or privileged character – not unless he'd originally come from a humble background, anyway.  It's a mindset which is very difficult to break, and people on opposite sides of the economic divide always have a lot of trouble figuring out 'how the other half lives'.  But I promise faithfully not to do the same thing again next time!

Julie: I am, of course, intrigued to read whatever it is you do next!

It’s an interesting point, about the differing mindsets either side of the economic divide. One of the characters in my next novel, A Threefold Cord, has come from a very privileged position, and is very conscious of his luck, knowing that it has nothing to do with being deserved (or indeed undeserved). I was interested to consider the effects of that on who he is and how he chooses to live. I’m looking forward to discovering whether other people find him interesting as well!

Julie: How do you choose the names of your characters?

Adam:
That's a lot like finding a title – either incredibly difficult or incredibly easy!  For example, I recently came across the first lot of sketchy notes for my next project (of which more anon!) where I'd written 'POV character's name is Howard'.  Well, no, it isn't, because at some point between then and now he's changed in my mind to 'Hugo', and 'Howard' just seems completely wrong!  I do think names have personalities of their own, though, and a name will tell you something about the character before you start looking any deeper.  I'd expect an 'Adrian' to be clever, for example, and a 'Rory' to be fun, and a 'Christopher' to be quiet – maybe that's just because I've met people with those names who match those descriptions!

If you're wondering about Hugo – he's clever, but muddled and socially awkward and there are lots of things about life in general that he really doesn't 'get'!

Julie: I’m the same with that first point you make – I either know a character’s name instinctively, or I agonise over the matter for ages. Sometimes what makes it hard is that the ‘official’ meaning of a name doesn’t fit with how I envisage the character … It shouldn’t really matter, but I couldn’t give one of my heroes a name that has a negative meaning, even if most readers wouldn’t know or care about those connotations. I agree with the notion that ‘Adrian’ is clever, for example, but there is also a meaning of ‘dark’ attached, so I have used that for a villain – and I named his sister ‘Elena’, which has a meaning of ‘light’, because she’s on the side of the angels … Whether readers mind about me being so pernickety is another matter.

Julie: How would you define your chosen genre, and what draws you to it?


Adam: Basically, I just write the stuff I really want to read.  For a long time most of the available fiction about gay men was either so decorous you could have blinked and missed the relationship or it was steaming pornography which was just too exhausting to read.  I always felt there had to be a middle ground – where the characters were gay but that wasn't the only interesting thing about them, and where they had something else to deal with as well as their love for each other.  Take Doug in Dear Mister President for example; what's interesting about him is that he's President, not that he's gay (or, rather, bi).  I don't want my characters to be defined exclusively by their sexuality, in other words, because there are as many ways to be gay as there are gay men - and it's all just part of a wider continuum of human sexuality, most of which I feel we should be accepting without comment as absolutely normal.

Julie: Amen! Over the decades that I have been writing contemporary gay fiction or male–male romance, so much has changed. And I am still very much enjoying the heady feeling of our characters being a whole lot freer to simply be themselves at last. (There you go, I’m getting giddy just thinking about it.) On the other hand, I have to admit I do also enjoy a bit of ‘forbidden’ love in my fiction – so even though are certainly still pockets of that around these days, maybe I will end up returning to historical fiction when I want to explore that trope.

Julie: What do you enjoy most about writing? What do you enjoy least?

Adam: I love plotting.  To quote Hannibal in The A Team, I love it when a plan comes together!  I love that you can start out with a lot of disparate elements and suddenly realise that there's a pattern to them, and that a narrative thread which starts from Point A will inevitably lead you to Point B and beyond.  I also – as I think most writers will probably say – love the days when the words flow like wine and you can be completely intoxicated by the experience.  I have a nasty habit of talking out loud as I type when things are going well, and there are days when I just can't get the words onto the screen fast enough.

What I don't like much are deadlines, although I find them absolutely essential.  The quickest way to get fed up with a book is to have to race against the clock to get it finished, although fortunately I do seem to be able to do that if I have to.  I always feel the composition process is more likely to be successful if it's a little more relaxed, though!

Julie: I find this sort of thing very interesting to ponder, especially relating to the balance needed between instinct and intellect when writing. For example, perhaps it’s the instinct bringing those elements together, and the intellect at first thinking them disparate – and then the intellect finally understanding what the connections are, which the instinct knew or at least guessed all along. Similarly, perhaps the desire for a more reasonable deadline that allows for a relaxed writing process is about giving the instinct enough time and space in which to truly flourish. Would you agree … ?

Adam:  Yes, and I like the way you put that!  A lot of what I do is 'seat of the pants' (if you'll pardon the expression!) - I don't really understand how or why it works but I do like to have time, if possible, to reflect on things a bit and convince myself that they actually do make sense.  To mangle the metaphor beyond redemption, I'm constantly afraid that one day I'll look down and discover that I've sawn right through the branch and there's nothing holding me up any more … instinct on its own is not nearly enough, in my opinion; it requires intellect for reassurance!

Julie: And finally, what’s your next writing project? What do we have to look forward to?

Adam: The next book is going to be Fandango, which is about a ghost writer (Hugo, who we talked about above) sent to interview Vince Bliss, a cultural icon who has only reluctantly agreed to produce an autobiography.  (It's still at a very early stage so there are some details I haven't quite pinned down yet.)  It's not exactly a match made in heaven but as they get used to one another – and as Vince's two awful adult children make their presence felt – they find themselves sharing experiences and growing closer together.

Boundaries, which I had to set aside last year, is about half-finished, and I'm hoping to return to that as well before the end of 2014; there's a whole subplot which has to be stripped out before I can go any further with it, but otherwise the book's in very good condition and could very well be publishable by this time next year – all things being equal!

Julie: Excellent news indeed. You know how keen I am to read Boundaries in particular, but both of those sound fascinating!

The next book I have coming out is A Threefold Cord, with a likely publication date of 1 May (thanks to Manifold Press). I have really enjoyed writing this one, as it’s a ‘traditional’ romance in most ways except that it involves three men instead of two. I like to set myself some kind of challenge with each book, and that one was fairly obvious.

Meanwhile, I’m just about to launch into Serious Plotting Mode for the third (and final) Butterfly Hunter novel. This will be set about seven years into Dave and Nicholas’s future together – which makes me a tad nervous, I have to admit, as it’s also our future, and who knows what will change between now and then! It will focus on their relationship, of course, but also on issues of ownership and custodianship around the waterhole Dave discovered. And we’ll be finding out more about Nicholas’s beloved nephew Robin, who’ll be in his late teens.




Thank you, Adam, for the awesome chat – and good luck with your new book!

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If you’re reading this and would like to read Adam’s latest title, ask your own questions or browse for more info, you can find us here:

Buy link for The Bridge on the River Wye
Adam on Goodreads
Adam on Twitter
Adam’s blog
Julie on Goodreads
Julie on Twitter
Julie’s blog

Friday, 17 January 2014

HEROES

With kind permission of MANIFOLD PRESS: here's a copy of the Author Guest post I wrote which has recently appeared on their blog and LJ.

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At first, it seemed to me that I might have difficulty deciding on a subject for my guest blog, since my fellow authors have already staked out the territory so ably. I feel much the same way as F.M. Parkinson about proof-reading and editing, for example, and take just as much delight in research as Morgan Cheshire; from that point of view, they've already said more or less everything I might have wanted to say myself on either subject. (Although I do envy Morgan that workhouse trip, despite all the travelling involved!) However I was lucky enough to have one of those great 'light-bulb' moments when inspiration strikes out of a clear blue (well, grey, actually) sky, and it came to me all of a sudden that one subject I have particularly strong feelings about is the heroes themselves.

To me, the very definition of a hero is that he is flawed. Although I grew up on a diet of superhero comics, physical perfection – or any other kind of perfection - in a hero is not particularly interesting to me. After all, if a man has great physical powers and a massive intellect, as well as … let's say … shining azure eyes and a tousled mop of blond curls, he's actually likely to get on people's nerves rather a lot. I suspect that's why as a general rule we expect our actors and sports people to have feet of clay - and why we're never really surprised when we hear that they've been caught out in a sex scandal or cheating on their taxes – because we know that perfection is impossible and we instinctively distrust anything that seems too good.

That's why I prefer heroes who are world-weary, or who have been beaten-up by life to a greater or lesser extent. I like them to have achieved a certain amount of self-knowledge, to have sorted out their priorities, and to be able to recognise the potential for a satisfying long-term relationship when it comes their way – no matter in what unprepossessing guise. You see - and I say this with great respect to those authors who see things differently – I just don't believe looks matter a row of beans; it's what's beneath the surface that counts most.

That's why you'll find very few – if any – gorgeous 27-year-old hunks in my books. (And even fewer who are younger than that!) I won't pretend that at 27 a man isn't capable of being heroic or of making life-changing decisions – of course they are, because men of that age are serving in the armed forces and getting married every day of the week and in every country in the world. They're also, however, wildly over-represented in romantic fiction - to the extent that I'm aware of some people who think romance, heroism and even sex are either indecent or frankly impossible for anybody over the age of 30 or who isn't drop-dead gorgeous. (Or indeed both!) Not only that, but there is a distinct subset of opinion that ugly or geeky or clumsy or unhappy people don't deserve to be loved by anybody, and that's so flagrantly unjust as well as unkind that I'm determined to do anything I possibly can to showcase more unconventional heroes and hopefully redress the balance a bit.

The storylines that appeal to me are the ones in which ordinary men – the sort you might see at the bus stop, or queueing in the Post Office – are presented with situations and choices that they're not fully prepared to meet. I like to challenge them, to shake them up a bit, to move the goal-posts in what might previously have been a generally uninteresting life. Take Chad in DEAR MISTER PRESIDENT, for example; he's minding his own business one day when Fate unexpectedly gives him the opportunity of saving the President's life. If Chad hadn't been at work that day, or if he hadn't intervened, the history of the world would have been very different – and yet Chad's no conventional hero, he's an image analyst with a back-room job and no great claim to personal beauty; he's simply the right guy in the right place at the right time. Those are the people I care about, the ones who make life pleasanter – or even possible - for others in a thousand tiny ways simply by existing, and by doing what they do.

There's a film called 'Something For a Lonely Man', in which the romantic hero is played by Dan Blocker – yes, 'Hoss' from 'Bonanza' of all people - but that doesn't make it any better or worse than your traditional love story, just different. There's also 'Clerks II', which features among other things a love story between ordinary-looking Brian O'Hallorhan as Dante and the stunning Rosario Dawson as Becky; it's believable because we're shown why a beautiful woman might well be interested in a man who doesn't look like a Hollywood star – she can see through the humble exterior and learns to value the person he is inside. These are a couple of examples from the heterosexual world, but the same holds true across the board - whether it's men loving men, women loving women, or a mixture. "We do not love people because they are beautiful," says the proverb, "they are beautiful because we love them." Or, to paraphrase Howard Keel in 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers', "If looks were all that mattered, there'd be a power of lonely [people] in the world." Also, if looks were all that mattered, there would be far fewer interesting storylines in the world – and far fewer fascinating characters for authors like me to write about - which is one of the many reasons why I'm profoundly grateful that it isn't so!