The author of the stunning Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, available from Ghostwoods, chats with Laine Cunningham of Writer’s Resource about her stunning debut novel. For the review, see Monday’s post (3-23-15).
LC: Tell me about the idea for Those Rosy Hours. What sparked the seed concept?
MGW: Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran is a reference taken from Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera. It refers to a period in the Opera Ghost’s life before the Paris Opera House was built. As a young man, Erik is said to have travelled extensively, learning to throw the Punjab lasso in India, and eventually becoming playfellow to the daughter of the Shah of Iran.
It’s a story that is hinted at, but never fully told. There have been previous attempts to piece it together, most notably Susan Kay’s novel Phantom, but I wanted to take a different approach. My interest lies with the Little Sultana and her world. She was born into ultimate wealth and privilege, yet found her closest companion to be a travelling conjurer with a lust for blood. I wanted to give her a voice, to see what made them similar and what brought them together.
LC: How did the idea develop once you’d latched onto the seed?
MGW: In the grand style of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it was really about taking a very minor character from a much loved classic, and putting her centre stage. The existence of The Persian in the original novel, and reference to both the Sultana and ‘those rosy hours,’ would suggest that something deeply significant happened all those years ago.
The first part of developing the plot involved working out roughly when those years ago actually were. By taking the completion of the Paris Opera House as an anchor, and assuming Erik, the Phantom, must have played a part in building it, I was able to work backwards, leaving him enough time to meet Christine and to have left home at an early age. That brought me to around 1850.
From there it was a case of researching the times. Thankfully, there was a vivid cast of historical characters to draw inspiration from.
LC: What was your primary challenge writing this work? Is this usually a challenging area for your other writing projects or did this come as a surprise?
MGW: It’s always difficult writing historical fiction. You’re constantly at risk of tripping yourself up, having your characters see something that hasn’t been invented, saying something out of context for the period. I like to spend the first few weeks completely immersing myself in the time, looking through picture archives, listening to music and watching documentaries on YouTube. But there comes a point where you have to turn off and let the story speak for itself. Anything you’re not sure about you can look up along the way.
That’s fairly standard, I think. The part that proved more of a challenge was taking on an established novel with a cult following. Anyone who loves classic literature tends to feel a strong sense of ownership over the characters. Some fans are willing to follow you into new territory, others are not. Those who see Phantom as a tragic love story are unlikely to enjoy the young Phantom I present them with, who is deeply rooted in Leroux’s dark, Gothic original.
LC: What was the part you enjoyed most about writing this work? Was this in line with your other works or was it a surprise?
MGW: Growing up, I always wrote stories to entertain myself, but it wasn’t until around 2008 that I attempted to write my first novel. I was a VSO volunteer in Africa, and there wasn’t much to do in the evenings. I didn’t have a television, radio, or many books to read.
Up to now, most of what I’ve written has been practise. It’s been about me exploring my interests and my style of writing. I’ve dabbled in horror, historical fiction and romance. I’ve learned something from each novel I’ve written, yet when I look back on them, I see so many of the mistakes writers make in the early days. With Rosy Hours I feel as though I have finally come of age.
LC: Tell me how you connected with Ghostwoods.
MGW: I was accepted by Ghostwoods Books via the submissions process.
I’ve been published in the past by a couple of small presses, Green Sunset Books and Netherworld Books. They were both enthusiastic, but neither had a marketing budget. Once you get over the buzz of being published, you quickly realise that selling books is a much harder mountain to climb.
I felt that I’d written something good with Rosy Hours. I knew that it was better than anything I’d written before, and I didn’t want it to follow my other novels to the grave, so I decided to run the gauntlet of submissions again.
Ghostwoods came back to me almost immediately. I was bowled over by their appreciation of the manuscript, and by their fair trade 50/50 split of profits. The problem was that I was in a first refusal contract with another publisher. I didn’t think they’d want Rosy Hours because it’s quite a dark story and they’d turned down a previous manuscript on those grounds. It turned out they did want it. We have a good working relationship and, after negotiating, they were gracious enough to let me take up Ghostwoods’ offer.
LC: Since a number of the readers of this blog are authors, tell me the process the book went through to get endorsements from other authors.
MGW: My publisher is really on the ball with pre-release blurbs and early reader reviews. It’s because of their existing contacts that we got it in front of people like Kate Harrad and David Southwell.
My own personal contacts came into play as well. A few years ago I did a turn at booQfest in Northampton, UK. I met authors who remained friends, including the incredible Will Davis, whose work I very much admire, and crime writer Adrian Magson, who is the editor for Writing Magazine’s new writers feature. Will agreed to review the book, and Adrian offered me an interview.
Usually it doesn’t hurt to ask. If people have the time and they’re interested in what you’re writing, they might just say yes.
LC: What are you working on now? Are there other books already in the process of being published that we should watch for?
MGW: I’m currently halfway through my next novel. It’s a retelling of an ancient Irish legend that I’ve always liked. As with Rosy Hours, I’m trying to take it out of its original context and put a slightly fresh spin on things.
I love folktales and legends, but, due to the times in which they were written, they can often come across a bit dry in the telling. I’m going for multi-character first person, and weaving in a few other legends and characters of that time.
It’s a bit of a leap from 1850s Northern Iran to Iron Age Ireland, but I enjoy the challenge.
LC: Which books are you reading now (fiction and/or nonfiction), and why?
MGW: I’m currently reading Red Phone Box, which is a story compilation by my publisher Ghostwoods Books. It’s a bit of dark fun, and I’m reading it because my editor Salomé Jones, cover designer Gábor Csigás, and Ghostwoods’ media guru Tim Dedopulos each contributed. I know them professionally, it’s nice to get to know them creatively.
I’m also working my way through Game of Thrones, in the hope of catching up with the TV series, so that I can finally know what it’s like to read the book before watching the episode.
LC: What are the typical things you do during the day to enhance your creative process?
MGW: Honestly, I don’t really push myself. I spend a silly amount of time on social media, I’m also reading quite a bit at the moment and holding down a day job in international development. I’ll go through fits and starts of creativity. Some weeks I’ll go for days on end without writing anything, other days I’ll sit down and bash out five thousand words in a couple of hours. I really don’t worry about it too much. Writing is pleasure. If it turned into stress I’d probably stop doing it.
LC: What do you love most about being a writer?
MGW: I love the free-flow exchange of ideas. I love knowing that something I’ve written might just inspire someone else to create something else. The knock-on effect of art. For instance, I was inspired by Gaston Leroux to create Rosy Hours. From that, we’ve already had cover art featuring a picture, To The End, by Iranian photographer Babak Fatolahia, a drawing by cartoonist Stephanie Piro, and even jewellery. It’s fascinating how inspiration spreads and stories gather life. As a writer, you stand at the gateway between thought and form.
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