This conversation with the stunningly talented debut novelist Rose McGinty started out as a chat over coffee, which turned into cocktails, and wound up two days later as an interview on the page. Rose is a thoughtful, wise and generous writer and there are lots of useful tips here for getting started with writing your novel.
Rose McGinty is the author of Electric Souk, published in 2017 by Urbane Publications and Spokenword Audio. Rose lives in Kent and is a creative writing tutor and editor at Retreat West. Previously she worked for the NHS for twenty five years, and has worked overseas, including the Middle East. She is an alumni of Trinity College, Dublin and the Faber Academy. Rose has won a number of writing competitions and had short stories selected for various anthologies. She also enjoys facilitating creative writing workshops in support of social causes.
Electric Souk is a thriller about forbidden love, corruption and an encounter with evil in the desert, set in the Middle East as the Arab Spring erupts. Rose says of her story, The parts of the story that are true, I probably wish were not; while the parts that are not, I probably wish were true.
Rose is now completing her second novel, a thriller that has taken her to some rather gothic hospital corridors!
Follow Rose on Twitter @rosemcginty and rose.mcginty.wordpress.
Rose, you’ve had a really exciting year as a writer. You’ve not only recently published your debut novel Electric Souk, but also several short stories in book anthologies. Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication? Where and when did the writing urge begin?
I have been writing as long as I can remember, all sorts of things, especially letters. My grandmother used to write to me every week and that developed my discipline for writing, and also story telling as I tried to make the dull routine of school life more vivid. I love receiving and sending letters and postcards and it’s one of the things I miss most since the internet revolution. I don’t write letters nearly enough myself now, although for the last year I have been writing to a friend on the other side of the world and I find taking the time out, usually late at night, to write is such a quiet and precious time. It’s reminded me of the joy of letter writing.
Letters help you so slow down, think, understand, and change perspectives. Once you’ve written a letter something that has been troubling you has often lost some of its sting and you’ve come up with a new way of dealing with it, or else you’ve captured a memory that stays with you so much more now that you have blessed it with words. I even miss work memos and wonder how the relationships between countries and cultures would improve if we returned to the diplomatic letter, with its finely crafted turn of phrase, rather than the quick fire, blunt tweet.
I love reading the letters of writers, seeing the wide span of the minutiae of their domestic lives to the emotional sweep of major life events. I would pick out the letters of George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Colette and Anais Nin for their intimacy and integrity.
My time in the Middle East was extreme, both enchanting and brutal
Writing letters, also led me to my pathway to publication. Once I had graduated with a literature degree, life and the long hours of working in the NHS and commuting took over for some years until I went to work in the Middle East. The work day started and ended early so that people could have a siesta in the 50 degree heat, but despite the fact I had always craved an afternoon nap, I found I just couldn’t sleep. I started to write instead, long letters home and a journal. I was living in an intensely verbal culture, little was written down, books not in abundance, but nevertheless I was surrounded all the time by stories. The local girls in my office told me about their lives. Words became the focus of my day as we wondered over so many shared words between our languages, for example the word hal means moon in Arabic and has comes from the aura around the moon, the night goddess.
My time in the Middle East was extreme, both enchanting and brutal and friends urged me, once I had returned to England to write a memoir for publication. I tried but it was all too raw, and I couldn’t believe anyone would really want to read it anyway. Yet, I had a story burning within in me and one day as I was struggling with the memoir a shadow caught my eye, walking down the garden path. I could see this earnest man with a fire in his belly and he demanded to be in my book. At that point I knew it had to be a story not a memoir, drawing on my experience, but soaked in the old perfumes, desert colours, dusty souk and the heat.
I shared some of the chapters with friends and they urged me again to think of publication, but I knew absolutely nothing of that world, had no connections and didn’t use social media, so was unaware of the resources and incredibly vibrant writing community out there. Eventually one of my friends took things into her own hands and booked us on a day long workshop about how to get published. It was a boiling hot day and a long, difficult journey to get to the church hall where the workshop was being held. I nearly didn’t go, but the allure of seeing chickens in the local bookshop drew me.
What a day! Sitting in the cool, plain Georgian church I was transfixed hearing about most elements of the publishing process from authors and industry professionals, and even got to vote on the cover design of a novel that was due for publication. By the end of the day I was hooked and wanted more of this – talking with writers about their process. It was my first glimpse into the writing community, and it was generous and stimulating. The chickens couldn’t compete.
That weekend also forced me onto social media. I started to link up with other writers and attend more workshops and was recommended to go to the West Cork literary festival, as I was told it was particularly friendly and everyone mingled together. I was pretty terrified about going to my first festival alone so I decided to book onto one of the courses as a way of at least speaking to a few people in class each day. This was led by Richard Skinner, Director of the Faber Academy. The course was life changing. It gave me my own writing community and I am still in touch and count some of my class mates that week as my dearest friends and beta readers. Richard is an exceptional coach, the most important gift he gave me was the confidence to write, as I had been about to cast my first draft out into Bantry Bay.
When I got back to London I enrolled at the Faber Academy, where I completed my novel. I went through the usual ups and downs of the submissions circuit, and those long days, weeks and months waiting for an acknowledgement, that never comes, that your submission has arrived and isn’t lost in the ether. Whilst I thought all hope was lost in the ether, with my new Faber writing group we started to attend more festivals and it was at the Margate Bookie that I sat next to Matthew Smith of Urbane Publications, who encouraged me to send him my manuscript for Electric Souk. At Christmas 2015 I got the email that said he wanted to publish my novel, the best Christmas present ever.
Publication though is only the first stop on the journey to being an author, it’s base camp.
You quickly discover that once you have got to base camp there is still an enormous mountain ahead as you want to develop a career, to push your writing abilities further, to experiment, to try out other forms, such as poetry. While I was in West Cork I heard Ben Okri speak about the puzzle of the short story, of creating a whole, authentic world, in so few words and I have become passionate about writing short stories too. I started entering competitions as these were a great way of prompting me to write and I found myself drawn to those which were in support of social causes, such as Stories for Homes in aid of Shelter. This in turn has led me to get involved with facilitating creative writing workshops, for example for the Hounslow Young Women Writers project. I’m not one for running marathons or shaving my hair off, so this new pathway has been rewarding as it has allowed me to bring together my passion for reading and writing with my commitment to social causes and my NHS experience. It has also opened up other pathways and I am now a creative writing tutor and editor for Retreat West. The journey to publication for me has become much more than the battle to get a novel published. It’s been about developing the confidence and skills to immerse myself in a creative life.
Rose, I know that you are a writer who is strongly influenced by a sense of place, and your setting in Electric Souk really comes to life, almost as a character in itself. Can you talk a little here about the Middle East, and how it inspired you?
There are two seemingly very different worlds in Electric Souk, one is the hot, dusty desert world of the Middle East and the other is the grey, rainy landscape of County Kerry, Ireland. The desert world is also one of extreme contrasts, ancient souks, abandoned fishing villages and the unforgiving sand dunes set against the new glittering skyscraper cities with glamorous malls and ex pat compounds, where anything goes. But there is no real escape from the sand djinn and the dust storms that batter the new cities, scratch the surface and the brutalities of the desert world aren’t far below. Aisling, my protagonist, is unusual as she sees into both the seedy ex pat world where everyone is chasing a fast buck and fast woman, and also the lives of the local women, who are intrigued by a young woman on her own in such a hostile environment and take her into the secrets of their bedouin tents.
A sense of place hugely influenced the novel as the intensity of the desert fuels the paranoia and claustrophobia of the story as Aisling finds herself caught in sinister circumstances. She longs for the rain back home and the wide vista of the sea, for her freedom, as she loses this the minute she steps off the plane in the desert.
But although these worlds seem remote Aisling’s friendships with local women and her relationship with Hisham, a revolutionary, help her to find parallels, the Arabic love of poetry, folklore, an oral tradition, the passion for freedom, and the importance of blood ties.
Equally, in the novel I am currently working on the sense of place influences the story as it is set in a dilapidated hospital, that was once a Victorian workhouse. Everything and everyone is falling apart as the past catches up with them. Colour is always important to me, I think because I am also a painter and fascinated by colour mixing, how from just three primary colours you can create every shade on the planet, so there are stark colours in this novel – the dazzling white mortuary, grey shadowy wards, the hierarchy of nurse uniform colours and the blood red corridors that run through the hospital.
Everyone I know likes to think they are in my stories and I do magpie
Where did you draw your characters from, Rose?
Everyone I know likes to think they are in my stories and I do magpie, without even realising it, little bits of people I know and meet, but at the editing stage I very consciously try to strip as much of this out of my writing as possible because I want my characters to come from the imagination as they can be more free that way, and often they come from and continue to grow in my dreams. The Chief Nurse in my second novel plagues my nightmares to the point where she seems quite real.
I may start with someone I know, almost as that base colour, but I soon mix in other colours and quickly they are left behind as I follow the new pigments and my imagination. I think this comes from how I read too. I’ve always loved taking the character an author has created and imagining different endings and adventures for them. It’s the same with the characters I write. The only exception is that sometimes I may use bits and pieces from famous people or strangers I observe, because I don’t know them. I feel uncomfortable about taking from people I do know. However, despite all that people still read themselves in.
Who or what are the biggest influences on you as a writer?
Memory is one of my major influences. Those pin-pricks of the past that won’t leave you because they draw you time and again to questions where it is hard to find the answer. The pin-prick for the novel that I am currently working on is the memory of standing early in the morning at my bedroom window, looking out across to the hill where there was smoke pouring from a block of flats. I remember the curtains, they had lots of wildly coloured parrots on them. I was five years old and this was probably the first fire I had ever seen. In my mind’s eye I can still see the speed and density of the plumes of smoke and feel the sense of panic. Later that day we were told at school – we had to walk past the blackened flats to get to school – that Kevin, a boy in my class and one of my first friends, was not coming back to school as his family had died in the fire. I remember the mums in the playground telling us not to play with matches and the teachers blaming him for the tragedy. He was condemned as a bad boy. There was no compassion, only dire threats not to turn out like Kevin. But the Kevin I knew was a gentle soul, ostracised by the pack of boisterous boys. He played with me even though I was a girl and he would be picked on by the boys about that. That pin-prick has stayed with me – what happened to that gentle boy and what would being blamed so young do to you? I used this as a starring point for my current novel.
I also use photos and paintings to help me channel my characters. I went to K Fest, an art festival for up and coming artists in Ireland, a couple of years ago, and was really struck by a portrait of a young man by the artist Tom MacLean. I bought it and have had it by my desk as I wrote my second novel, as the young man was exactly how I saw my male protagonist, Jez. This was the first time I had written from a male point of view and it really helped me to get inside Jez’s head. I have a few of Tom’s portraits now as somehow I see my characters in his paintings. He captures a still moment, you can see a thought crossing the faces of the people he paints, and that draws me into their inner worlds.
Finally, I read avidly and return again and again to some novels and authors to help tune my writing. At the moment I am addicted to Patricia Highsmith’s writing.
A lot of writers seem to have what might seem to others like slightly eccentric rituals when they write. Things to trick themselves into exiting the real world and entering the imaginative space of their story. Do you have any special writing rituals, or tips for getting started?
I seem to be unable to really write much, or find my flow, before about eleven in the morning. It was the same when I was a student, writing a dissertation. But that time up till eleven isn’t dead time, this is when my mind is at its dreamiest and lots of thoughts and images are swirling around that I can’t make much sense of, although I try to hold on to some of these in notes or even voice memos to myself on my phone if I am dashing for the train. By eleven it starts to settle down and I can grab one of those thoughts and get going. I think it’s important to work out your energy patterns and as much as possible go with these, even if it is intensely infuriating when you want to be one of those virtuous writers who can get up at four in the morning and knock out a thousand words before daybreak.
When I do settle down I like to read over what I have written the day before and tweak that, as it helps me to get going again. I’ve tried leaving sentences half finished but I’m too much of a completer-finisher to do that, but often in my reflective early morning period something else while have come to me that I want to add to the day before’s writing.
I started my novel as a letter.
When I first started writing, because I am such a letter writer, I started my novel as a letter. Isabel Allende does this in The House of the Spirits, one of my favourite novels, and I thought what a great idea, as it’s easier to tell a story when you have someone in mind that you are telling it to. If I get stuck now, I start to write a letter to a friend telling them about how I am stuck and usually as I do this my writing starts to morph back into my chapter and I can cut and paste back to my work in progress and keep going.
I don’t have any rituals like a favourite pen or piece of music, my only practical ritual is nudging the cat off the laptop, although that has probably evolved into an art form now. This is possibly the most important skill a writer can learn, as I see on social media that many writers seem to have cats and dogs that are only too eager to be their editors.
Are you ready to talk about what you are working on right now, Rose?
I’ve almost finished what I hope is my final draft, before submission, of my second novel. It is set in a failing hospital and is about a nurse who has to kill to save her patients. It was sparked both by my memory of that childhood fire and by bringing this together with an experience I had in my first year of working in the NHS, where I worked with a nurse who was convicted of murder. She was hugely charismatic and drew her ward colleagues into her lies and alibis. It’s always had me wondering how you go from being someone who saves life to someone who takes it – what is the character progression there? I am also interested in how toxic work environments, such as the special measures regimes and target chasing in hospitals, can fuel psychopathy in those working under such conditions, after all 0.6% of the population have psychopathic traits and over three thousand people work in your average hospital. My research has included spending time in a hospital pharmacy, operating theatres and mortuary, and many fascinating and generous conversations with NHS colleagues – with stories I could never put down on paper as real life truly is stranger than fiction.
This will hopefully be the first of a trilogy, focused around the three childhood friends of my nurse and how their childhood traumas reverberate through the years, erupting in fresh betrayal, with far greater consequences now they are adults.
I am also co-editing an anthology to celebrate a hundred years of women’s suffrage with Retreat West Books in aid of the charity Hestia, which supports people in times of crisis. Several well known authors have donated stories, including Angela Clarke, Anna Mazzola and Sophie Duffy and there will be new voices, with stories selected through an open competition. The anthology will be published in November 2018.
I’m very interested that you have moved in the direction of writing crime fiction, and that you’re currently working on a trilogy. I’ve noticed there has been a big migration of writing talent from literary to genre in recent years, would you be prepared to speculate as to why that might be, and is literary/genre even a meaningful distinction anymore? Or are there just good books and bad books?
Commercially crime accounts for about a third of sales and sales of crime fiction increased last year by 14%, so there is a huge appetite amongst readers for it. At the same time, latest research indicates that over the last five years author earnings have slumped by almost half and the average author doesn’t even earn the equivalent of the minimum wage from their writing, so you can understand the temptation to follow the market. Literary fiction in particular seem to be really struggling to generate sales.
However, I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who writes purely for the market, everyone always seems to have a story they really want to tell. Although my story centres around crime and a series of patient deaths I didn’t consciously set out to write a crime novel or series. I had that question about how do you become a killer needling at the back of my head and wanted to explore this. It’s as much for me about understanding people and how trauma affects them as it is about exploring a crime.
I think what we have seen in recent years is some first class genre novels, such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which although a psychological thriller is also an exploration of the brutality of the American recession. Equally literary writers draw on the techniques of genre writers. Deborah Levy’s hypnotic Hot Milk, which explore family dynamics, also has the edge of a thriller, with someone stalking Sofia throughout. Good story telling is good story telling whatever the genre and whether it is genre or not.
Do people look for literariness in their genre fiction now and vice versa these days? Do they just expect good writing whatever the cover? (Which would be good news.)
I think the gap between literary and genre is closing, if there was ever a real divide other than for marketing purposes. I look at the classics and many of those if they were written and published today would be marketed as particular genres, no doubt Dostoevsky would be a crime writer and Henry James’ Turn of the Screw is possibly the first psychological thriller. Genre fiction as much as literary fiction deals with a range of emotions, relationships, dilemmas and transformations, for example, psychological thrillers take us deep into the hearts and souls of characters. Perhaps some genres have certain expectations, but there are always exceptions to the rules and the rules are being flexed more and more these days. Traditionally in crime fiction, readers have expected to know the who, what, where. But readers also have an appetite for ambiguity and making their own inferences.
We live in a world of fusions – in music, food, fashion, art – and storytelling is the same. Culture is increasingly globalised, complex and rich, a series of many fusions, and so are our stories, and it’s these sorts of stories that excite me the most now. Literature, as ever, is evolving, reflecting and playing back in its many shades and perspectives the world around us.
Whatever the genre, readers are looking for stand out characters, stories that reveal something of their world to them in new and different ways and something of themselves similarly. Ultimately they want novels they can’t put down and that linger with them after, leaving an imprint in this fast moving world.
Thanks so much, Rose McGinty!
You can buy Rose McGinty’s book, Electric Souk, here