This week we’re delighted to welcome our first ever guest blogger, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt. We invited her because three of us, Gail, Shirley and Ali, all read her debut novel While No One Was Watching and all absolutely loved it. The book (Ali’s review is here) tells the story of what else might have happened in Houston on the grassy knoll at the moment when Kennedy was assassinated – of course while no one was watching. A brilliant premise and as we thought brilliantly executed. Here’s Debz to tell us more about herself and her book.
Would you like to give us a bit of background about yourself and your writing career?
I always wanted to be a writer and I wrote my first novel at the tender age of nine! (A Famous Five rip-off complete with tom boy and dog!) I have always been an avid reader and while I eventually studied science and worked for a pharmaceutical company, I always wrote in one form or another, either for work or for fun. I had the idea for my first novel at the age of sixteen, although I didn’t feel I had lived enough then to have something to say!
Then about nine and a half years ago I started to write seriously, working on that first novel (for me it was always about the novel!) and it became an obsession. And when my lovely partner Lee died suddenly in 2005, writing became my escape and my saviour. I have always been an optimist and a great believer in living the dream but none more so than when I lost Lee. I was determined to just do something that made me happy and I am. Truly.
The journey to this point has involved a lot of hard, but enjoyable work, honing the craft. Part of that was realising the power of the short story for experimenting with style, voice, tense etc. It speeds up the process and one that I think is so necessary. It was five years ago, I had my first short story accepted for publication and since then I’ve had twenty shorts stories published, won competitions, got my MA in Creative Writing and given up my day job!
I now work from home – in the mornings I write and in the afternoons I have built a small business editing and proof reading for private clients and some small publishers, and I also offer in-depth critiques for clients. I also have my own small press, Paws n Claws encouraging children to write and I publish the stories for the Born Free Charity. I realise now how important and wonderful it is to work with other writers. In order to teach you have to know it – and I am certain the critiquing has made me a better writer.
Shirley has commented that for her one of the most striking things about While No One Was Watching is the language, the way you capture characters through their American voices. I’m thinking of Lydia especially, of course. She comes alive through the way she speaks. Assuming you’re not American yourself, how did you capture such an authentic black, Southern voice, with its vocabulary, syntax, cadences, lilt?
I am from Essex, I spent ten years in Liverpool and I now live in Wales. But I have travelled a lot in the US and it does seem to come through in my writing – less so with the shorts as they tend to be set in the UK but for some reason my novels want to be set in the US.
I am obsessed with voice as this is what really connects the reader to the story – I want the reader to hear the character and not me. The main concern was being authentic and not making the characters stereotypes. I had to study the nuances of the African American Vernacular (AAV) – with a Dallas twang! I needed to look at the kind of expressions used and in Lydia’s case, how her parents would have spoken, one generation back. I also looked at books like The Color Purple and The Help. I listened to people speak; there are online libraries of dialects. I hope I did it justice; I studied it hard and along the way was looked at by my editors for accuracy.
What I did love was how my publisher was convinced an American had written it. But then he is Welsh! It will be interesting to see how it’s received when the book’s released in the US in March.
Do you like treading the line between fact and fiction (as you’ve
done here) or can the weight of historical research sometimes get in the way
While No One Was Watching started life as an image. I saw the psychic sitting in a chair looking at a reporter. She wrapped a child’s silver locket around her thick black fingers and said, “It belonged to a little girl. She disappeared the day Kennedy was shot and was never found.” It seemed like a big premise, a new way of looking at an old story? And while the novel is about Eleanor Boone, that little girl who disappeared from the grassy knoll, it’s about a whole lot more than that. I added many layers.
Never the less, it seemed I could not write a story like this without there being a strong Kennedy tie in and hence I lot of research! But I loved it! In itself the Kennedy story is like trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle. I also loved the way fact and fiction rub up against one another. . I had the characters looking at real evidence from that day but this time looking for a little girl and not a man with a gun. It seemed to me that people are already fascinated by the story of what happened to Kennedy, but add to that the idea of missing child (bad enough, right?) but still missing after fifty years – I knew it would also tap into something universal. And it seems to have worked.
So while I don’t, in general, write historical fiction, there is something about taking an iconic moment in history and using it in a contemporary way. I find research is just another part of process and it’s essential for authenticity. And credibility. It doesn’t get in the way.
You’ve already had lots of success with short stories. Have you always wanted to write a novel, or did While No One was Watching take you by surprise?
I will always wave a banner for the short (While No One Was Watching actually came from a short story) and this year I won the Bath Short Story Award and was shortlisted in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize – but in my heart I will always see myself as a novelist. While No One Was Watching is actually my fourth novel but the first one to be published. The first novel was the practice one. The second did get some good interest from agents but I knew even before they confirmed it, that I wasn’t a good enough writer and that’s when I stepped up another gear and was part of why I did my MA. But I still plan to redevelop that second one and I have another thriller waiting to be reworked and the current work in progress. Not to mention lots of other burning ideas.
Ali has said that for her While No One was Watching is somehow much more than a thriller. I have to ask what’s in the pipeline now? Another thriller? Or something completely different? Or could there more adventures ahead for the amazing Lydia?
I am drawn to thrillers, I love page-turnability. The new work in progress is an adaptation of one of my published short stories I Am Wolf, it’s about identity, a feral child, set part in Russia and part in Alaska and while again it is really about a reporter, she is a flawed and complex character and there is a mystery but it’s very different in lots of ways to the first novel. I also have a pacey psychological thriller called Isle of Pelicans related to Alcatraz and a reluctant clairvoyant – very different to Lydia! That will be developed next. But I will also develop Colourblind that second novel and it has important tie-ins to the American Civil Rights Movement and have a feeling that it could be developed for the fiftieth anniversary of the Martin Luther King’s assassination in five years’ time. I really want to rework it, and I think there might be room in there for a cameo appearance by Lydia Collins!
Any particular career ambitions?
I feel like I am finally living the dream – I always said you must never give up and now I can say, see? I was right. I am so proud. It’s not about being rich, or being famous, it’s about being successful to yourself. It was pretty scary. I love sending my characters out into the world. I am just so relieved people seem to be looking after them! HUGE PHEW!
Next stop? While No One Was Watching – the Movie? And an agent, I hope! To get the next novel published. I am so grateful. But we must continue to learn and there are no guarantees the next ones will be published, just an unwavering belief that if you do what you love, every day, and you are receptive to advice and criticism, and will write no matter what – no reason why it doesn’t make a career.
Can I just say a huge thank you for letting me be a guest on this blog and for the very positive reaction I received from Ali and BWW for my debut. Thank you so much. It means a lot. Thanks everyone, never give up your dreams.
It’s been a pleasure, Debz,and thanks for telling us about your writing journey. I’m sure we could all learn from your persistence and passion.
Or The Book Depository offer free shipment globally and they still have the first edition (we like the sense of a book about Kennedy being from The Book Depository!) My editor bought her copy from them for that reason!)
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