This week at The Book Diner, we’re delving into the archives again, back to when I talked to the lovely Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, winner of the Bath Short Story Award and author of While No One Was Watching. I met Debz when both of us had stories in Unthank Books’ Unthology 3 and became fast friends. Debz is a real inspiration to me as she is probably the hardest working writer I know and certainly the most positive. She is an author of real versatility, able to powerful capture a variety of characters’ voices and I really think you will enjoy her warmth and enthusiasm for all things bookish, but also life itself.
Welcome to the Book Diner! Can we take your order – coffee, tea or soda? Eggs sunny side up or over easy? Home fries, French toast or biscuit?
Ooh, coffee with fat-free creamer please and Eggs Benedict (substitute meat with avocados and tomatoes) and a biscuit on the side!
When did you realise you were a writer?
When I was writing five hours a day as well as the full time day job and worked towards giving up the day job! To misquote Descartes I applied the logic – I write, therefore I am. Although having the first short story accepted for publication is what made it feel real.
Are there symptoms you think people should look out for if they suspect they may be coming down with Writer Syndrome and do you think there is any cure?
Well, a tendency towards stargazing, mumbling (no dribbling unless it’s extreme) and incessant talking about writing might be a good indicator. Long periods of being ‘somewhere else’ even when in the same room – classified as the look.
There is no cure.
Can you tell us about your latest project?
I can tell you about the debut novel that was released by Parthian Books last October. While No One Was Watching is actually the fourth novel I’ve written – after a few obsessed years honing the craft, studying for my MA, working for a small press (for free) and having a few short story successes along the way.
I adapted this novel from a short story and it’s narrated by a local Dallas reporter and a retired African-American police psychic who are unwittingly thrown together in the search for Eleanor Boone. She is a little girl who disappeared from the grassy knoll at the exact moment Kennedy was assassinated. She is still missing fifty years on.
While the novel uses this iconic moment in history as a catalyst, the novel is set now and has many layers dealing with love, loss, a classroom shooting and a whole lot more besides.
I was fascinated by the idea of something happening at the same time as a huge world event and it being overshadowed; lost in time. While people remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated (although I have to confess I wasn’t born) when Edith Boone heard gunshots and let go of her daughter’s hand she got stuck in that moment forever.
I was determined to find a publisher and not do it myself and Parthian took it on and it was out in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination last year. A proud and wonderful moment – then I was sure I was a writer!
What inspired you to write it? Where do you generally draw your ideas from?
Well, there’s a question. Ideas seem to float past when I’m not looking (aptly) and this one came more like a vision when I was in a prolific short story writing phase. Oddly, unlike any of my others I saw it like a vision. A saw a larger than life woman leaning forward on a chair, talking to a reporter holding a child’s silver locket; its silver colour standing out against her black skin. And she said, “It belonged to a little girl. She disappeared the day Kennedy was shot and was never found.”
I enjoyed writing the short story, but it felt too big for a short and so I adapted it. I love stories with many layers, taking something ‘normal’ and adding some what if questions. So I loved the idea of using a psychic. And I am in love with voice so this is what I really tried to capture. It meant a lot of research to master the African-American!
Can you talk to us about one or two of the characters from your latest work? How do your characters emerge?
Now Gary our reporter is a divorcee and what I tried to capture with him (he is first narrator in the novel) is his relationship with his fifteen-year-old son.
I do love Gary but it was our psychic, Lydia who seemed to possess me. I felt as if she was teaching me her life and not me creating her. I love that so many people seem to love her as much as I do and some even re-read the book because they missed her! She might appear in another novel! Oprah Winfrey should play her in the movie (come on – a girl has to dream, doesn’t she?).
Characters speak to me and as soon as I start to write them it’s the voice that makes them come to life for me. I never want readers to hear Debz Hobbs-Wyatt the author; I want them to hear my characters. It’s how I want to connect to my readers.
Is there a particular theme or message you’d like readers to take away from this book?
What kind of writing process do you have? Are you very disciplined in terms of having a set work routine and doing a lot of planning, or are you more of a pantster? (You fly by the seat of them – Zinkologism.)
I am a planner and a grafter. I believe in doing everything with positive heart and mind. I love writing. I show up at my computer every morning and I write, end of. I don’t overplan early drafts as I love the way magical things happen but I do approach my writing professionally and I work hard. The same with my editing and critiquing business. It’s true – the harder you work, the luckier you get!
Do you write longhand or on a computer or both? Do you believe that writing method makes a difference to style?
I have to write on a computer – long hand is too messy for me! While I do lots of drafts of anything to get it right, I am also quite a polisher as I go! Cut and paste is great. Long hand? Too many scribbles! I could never go back!
How do you approach research?
I do research and of course with this novel I had to know the Kennedy facts so did a lot of reading. I know far more than I need to! But I have to write every day so I don’t take months off to research. I might be working on some shorts while researching for a novel or working on a novel edit while researching for the next!
How do you deal with autobiographical elements in your work? Do you worry about offending people or baring your soul too much?
No! If you find me there then fine, but I work hard to make it the character you hear. That said, how can it not have a part of me? I write people as I know them and so if I write, grief for example, it comes from what I know. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing – it adds authenticity. I love the many facets of being human and so what my characters say is what I want them to say. I want that honesty. It’s why I write!
What’s your editing process?
I could be here all day! I work as an editor so beware!
Quick fire: polish a lot as I go.
The first draft gets it down.
The second is the BIG edit that looks at structure, plot, motivation, characters, scenes, function. This involves the most rewriting, deletion and playing with order and function of scenes.
Later edits still have this but are more about tightening the plot and the narrative. Shine to within an inch of itself until it feels like only the right words, in only that order will do!
Name one book you wish you had written and explain why it’s fabulous.
Emma as I studied it at school and just fell in love with Jane Austen.
The Stand, as I love Stephen King for his characterisation and plots.
Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger for the concept and use of structure.
When God was a Rabbit, Sarah Winman for its quirkiness.
The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer, this year’s Costa winner for its voice.
I could never name just one!
What advice would you offer to writers just starting out?
Be in it for the long haul!
Use rejection as the fuel to drive you to do better.
Don’t rush it.
Don’t give up!
Read a lot!
What would you say are the toughest things and the best things about being a writer?
How hard you have to work to make it as good as it can be. Actually that is the toughest bit and the best bit. Love what you do!
How do you handle the rejections and bad reviews all writers experience?
Rejections are part of process and shape the writer you become. It’s painful but rejection makes you work harder.
Reviews on the other hand are harder to deal with because by then it’s a done deal. They say don’t read them but hard to do! Thank God, almost all mine, so far, have been so good! But read, move on. It’s all you can do! Even the best writers get bad reviews!
How do you deal with the Inner Critic who likes to tell us our work is worthless?
Oh, it can drive you mad. But the more you write, the more you get a feeling for what works and what doesn’t. Just go with it!
What are your feelings about the growth in self-publishing? Would you advise emerging writers to self-publish or pursue a traditional book deal?
The best thing about self-publishing is anyone can do it.
The worst thing about self-publishing is anyone can do it.
I don’t dismiss it at all – I just think if you’re going to do it, get a professional critique, a professional editor and a proofreader!
I still see finding a traditional publisher as the validation, a bench mark so I would rather play the long game. It’s not just about getting the work out there, it’s about getting the best work out there.
Who has offered you the most encouragement and support in terms of your writing career?
Several people have really supported me. Dr Gill James, writer, lecturer, now business partner at Bridge House Publishing critiqued one for my first novels and saw my potential. She also encouraged me to join (and later run) a writing group. She helped shape my career with my first publishing break and later offering me a chance to learn editing and marketing at Bridge House. She is my mentor in all things writing. And a great friend.
Mary Ward, fellow writer and founder of the writing group in Bangor who taught me that writing needn’t be an isolating experience. She has nurtured my drive and supported all my endeavours. And she’s a great friend.
If you could fly off to any era on The Book Diner Magic Time Travel Banquette, where would you go and why?
The grassy knoll. November 22nd 1963. Need I say more?
If you could write anywhere in the world for a while, where would you head?
Do you like cats or dogs or both? (Writers are known for being pet crazy, so let’s pander.)
I have both! The cats just peer at me with those serious looks of theirs over the top of invisible glasses and make no comment when I read out my work to them. The dog says take a break! Take a break! Oh, please take me out for a walk! She makes me get some exercise.
Complete the following sentences. Life is like … I am like … Writing is like …
Life is like a journey of discovery. I am like a sponge for learning all that it means to live. Writing is like my door to making sense of the madness.
If you could choose to have a different creative gift, what would it be?
I’d like to be able to fly (not sure that counts as creative!).
What plans have you got for future projects and events?
Just returned from the US where I launched my novel and an now trying to have an event a month as people need to know it exists! Signing at Waterstones on June 28th 1 pm in Chester!
I have just submitted the next novel I Am Wolf to my agent so hopefully now I have an agent I will find a big publisher for the next one!
I would love to see While No One Was Watching the movie! Hey, don’t give up your dreams!
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
My website is: www.debzhobbs-wyatt.co.uk
My Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/DebzHobbsWyattAuthor
My Twitter is: @DebzHobbsWyatt
Buy my novel here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/While-No-One-Was-Watching/dp/1908946326/
Is there anything else we can get you?
I’ll have another coffee and the rest of my breakfast in a doggy bag please.
Do you have any questions for The Book Diner?
Who else can I meet on here?
Well, lots of writers from all genres and all over the world.
Thanks so much for joining us – please call again!
Thanks for having me!