The Impress Prize is a celebration of new fiction and non-fiction writing talent. The author who manages to impress the judges the most (pun intended) will bag a contract with Impress and have their book published in the year. Not bad, eh?
Impress has given me access to three of the shortlisted authors and I’ll be talking to them about their books.
This time, we’re chatting to Helen Salsbury about her shortlisted novel The Worry Bottles.
Hey Helen. Welcome to Book and Brew. So, can you summarise your novel in two sentences.
Naomi, a stressed businesswoman, writes down her worries and discards them into the Bristol Channel in bottles. Matthew, a painter living alone on an island, finds them and the tenor of his existence is disturbed.
What was the initial inspiration for your novel?
As a yoga teacher I’m aware of how many people turn to yoga and meditation as an outlet for stress. I should be – I was one of them! Some years ago, I was juggling a high-pressure job, my mother’s terminal illness, and a head down, hurtling attempt to make it as a writer. Something had to give, and it turned out to be me. I was struck down by a stress related illness, Fibromyalgia.
Suddenly I had all the time in the world – but was very limited in what I could do with it. I was left alone with my thoughts, many of which involved hideous questions such as, ‘What if I never get better?’ and ‘How long will my job wait for me?’ and ‘How can I be there for my mum and dad when I’m this broken?’
Fortunately, I discovered yoga. One day, I was contemplating a coping mechanism suggested to me by a yoga teacher, ‘Mentally take the things that are worrying you and put them in a casket,’ and noticing how unmanageable my thoughts were and how puny the visualisation felt. The idea came to me, ‘What would happen if someone (Naomi) acted this out and some totally unintended person (Matthew) found her messages?’
It was the start, the seed, from which The Worry Bottles grew. It’s a novel that examines the impact of the way we live now and, through the contrasting characters of Naomi and Matthew, explores alternatives, with the intention of offering hope and insight while still acknowledging life’s difficulties and complexities.
Footnote to this story: I recovered, trained as a yoga teacher, married, and wrote this novel. How’s that for a happy ending!
How long have you been working on the book? Did it involve any special research?
I started working on The Worry Bottles in 2009. It’s gone through many different drafts to become the novel it is now.
I wanted the landscape and history of Haffrey (Matthew’s Island) to become integral to the unfolding of the present day story. This involved research trips to islands, reading texts by and about 14th century mystics, researching sixties communes and the hippy trail to India.
One of my favourite finds during my research, courtesy of Bradford Peace Studies, were letters home from India written by a Quaker nurse who spent time with Gandhi. These were fascinating and one day I would love to use them more directly.
What was the most difficult thing about writing your novel?
Learning to trust myself as a writer. There were times I had to take perfectly good scenes and break them because I knew they could be better. There were times when I kept working on a scene long after I should have let it go. There were times when I got overwhelmed by technique, or by comparison with other authors, or by feedback, or when my inner critics blocked my view. And then, I would have to stand back, to remember why I was writing this novel and what I was trying to say.
Perhaps the hardest thing about being a writer is finding that belief, turning up day after day and learning. Getting a bit better each time you hit an obstacle and find your way around it, each time you notice your own saboteurs and find a way to rob them of power.
Which authors do you admire and why?
There are so many!
Currently, I’m falling in love with Susan Fletcher’s The Silver Dark Sea for the beautiful and precise descriptions she uses to bring her island and its occupants, mythologies and surrounding sea visually and sensually alive.
I admire Claire King (The Night Rainbow) and Harriet Springbett (Tree Magic) for creating vivid and believable younger characters, and using beautiful prose to create childhood or adolescent worlds where the interaction with nature is intense and exciting and perhaps even a little magical.
I adore Catherine Fox, for her humour, her delightful characters and the comfort of her resolutions.
The lyrical non-fiction authors John O’Donohue and Robert Macfarlane are a big influence, with their almost pagan appreciation of our fundamental connection with landscape, and their ability to draw on history and philosophy to derive relevance for our now.
For humanity, complexity and wonderful characterisation I would choose Nathan Filer (The Shock of the Fall), Ann Patchett and Lionel Shriver (particularly her early books). And from the classics, Tolstoy and George Elliot, explorers of human nature and philosophy, who reflected on the times they lived in and yet are still as relevant today.
What is your favourite genre and why?
Although I have a sneaky fondness for well-written romantic comedy (Georgette Heyer, Debby Holt, etc), I mainly read contemporary fiction. I love well-written books with authentic characterisation, intriguing prose and beautiful landscapes. I like to learn new things, to be intrigued and surprised, and to not know where a story is going. I love wildness of imagination, coupled with the skill to shape this. I love books that bring hope, that create characters I would like to spend time with, and that ask important questions.
List 5 fun facts about you
I love night swimming, although sometimes the tide sneaks up and steals my clothes while I’m out in the deep. I once found my hairbrush floating out to greet me, and had to beach comb for my skirt the following day.
Inspired by a trip to New Zealand, I once taught a themed yoga class whose postures included aeroplane, beach warrior, gecko, kiwi, watching dolphins from a boat and the Haka.
As a child, I taught a tortoise to rock climb. It used its new talent to escape.
Many of the items in our house now have characters and can speak – so far they only chat to my husband. Fortunately!
I would love to live in a lighthouse.
Do you have any hints or tips for people who want to start writing?
Enjoy yourself. Seek out what excites you or intrigues you. Explore, play with ideas, have fun. Use coloured pens, draw pictures. Your creative self is far more likely to turn up that way.
Establish a writing habit. The same time each day is really helpful. If you can’t get started, give yourself permission to just do ten minutes. Often you’ll find you get into it and want to keep going.
Protect your writing time. Switch the phone off, set up an internet block, put a ‘Do not disturb’ sign on the door or disappear to a writing hideout (libraries are good).
Create space for creativity to emerge. I use a mixture of meditation, chi gung, yoga or walking outside and looking at green things. But it could be running or doing the dishes, anything which helps you to quieten your everyday thoughts.
Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself. What are you passionate about saying? What experiences do you have that other people don’t? It’s your unique view of the world that will provide your authentic voice.
Read widely. Read the genre you are writing in, but read outside it as well. If you like a book, read it again and work out why – analyse the techniques the author has used to create your experience as a reader. Don’t limit yourself to fiction, read anything that engages your interest. Don’t limit yourself to reading, be interested in everything and everyone around you. You are creating a melting pot for ideas to emerge from.
Seek out other writers. They are a wonderful tribe: supportive, inspiring, encouraging and generous. You are likely to feel you’ve come home.
Find the balance between creativity and technique. Join writing groups, read books on writing, attend workshops. Listen to everything people say, then step back and listen to your own instincts. Do you agree? Will this advice help you to say what you want to say?
Don’t be in a hurry. It’s not as urgent as it feels. You’ve got the rest of your life to become a good writer. It’s a journey, so take sandwiches. When you’ve written something, allow it to settle before altering it. Before you write that first draft, allow time for your ideas to emerge and evolve. It’s harder to rewrite a draft you’re fond of, than to abandon ideas which have been superseded by better ones.
Make sure you have an ergonomic writing set up and take regular breaks (e.g. every 30-45 mins). If you start aching, work out why. Your career as a writer will be much easier if you pay attention to the physical demands of sitting at a PC/Laptop, or writing by hand*. The good news is that taking regular breaks will create space for fresh ideas and perspectives. (*If you write by hand, consider a ‘writing slope’.)