Interview with Author Jo Chumas

 

What is your book’s genre or category and what draws you to the genre?

I have to admit I struggle with the concept of genre in my own writing. I know it’s important as a useful tool for readers to locate their favourite novels, but my novels tend to cross genres. As a reader I probably ignore genres up to a point, and select novels based on blurb, covers and writing quality (from sampling a taste of the novel).

     After Rafaela is all of the following; a love story (but not a romance novel), a mystery and a women’s empowerment novel; there’s also a dash of spirituality in it (not in the religious sense) but in the inner-soul-workings sense.

     I hate classifying it as ‘women’s fiction’ because the men in the novel are just as important as the women, and I love the male characters, but the main characters are women – three friends who have never recovered from the death of their childhood best friend in Italy, over twenty years prior to the novel’s setting.

     If I had to classify myself I’d say I’m a mystery novelist because I am drawn to the mystery in most things, so mystery is always a starting point for my work.

    Within the genre conversation, there’s also the issue of literary versus mass market. After Rafaela is a literary novel, despite me rewriting it many times for a mass market audience, on the advice of a literary agent who courted me, then changed her mind.Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 8.12.08 PM

     The story, therefore, has a slower pace than a mass market story where speed and build-up are everything. I wrote the novel at a time when I was interested in pitching the story to traditional publishers via an agent. Literary agents and traditional publishers have called my work ‘too literary’ for profitable sale but my novel The Hidden which won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) in 2013 in the Mystery/Suspense category and was then published by Thomas & Mercer in the US, earned back its $15,000 advance in three weeks post-publication in October 2013.

     Having said that, my sequel novels to The Hidden, entitled The Zephyr and The Unforgiven were rejected by Thomas & Mercer based on the fact that they were too ‘literary’ for the imprint. This was the opinion of only one acquisitions editor, and I accepted her decision with no problem at all. It seemed right to find another way.

     I self-published these two novels and the response has been very good. The Hidden has to-date sold around 30,000 copies – most as ebooks, but this is not enough for traditional publishing companies such as Thomas & Mercer with its starting point for interest and contract now appearing to be sales of 100,000 copies. This is my view based on my analysis of the situation and from my observation of their working model. This figure might not be totally correct, and I am giving it as an estimate. In this respect, despite earning back its advance in three weeks, The Hidden was a Thomas & Mercer flop.

     It’s interesting because I recently went to a talk at the National Library of Scotland on the life and work of Scottish author John Buchan of The Thirty Nine Steps fame. The Thirty Nine Steps was published in 1915 and Buchan never sold more than 2,000 copies of his novels. The same applied to The Thirty Nine Steps. It was only after it was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock twenty or so years later that it sold millions. I am trying to put things into context here, that maybe traditional publishers have lost perspective and that’s what makes self-publishing so immensely alluring and attractive. Times are different now and cost and profit appear to be about all that matters to traditional publishers. Again, this is my perspective and I’m happy to be proven wrong by any trad publisher who might be reading this.

     With regard to the label everyone seems to have of my work that I am too ‘literary’, I have struggled for years to understand exactly what the story is behind those words; I have always felt there was a sub-text to those words ‘too literary’ – basically it means ‘your appeal is too narrow’ (that’s my interpretation), but this view insults the many millions of readers out there who appreciate poetry within descriptions, time taken to build the plot, a storyline that is more solar plexus than hard-boiled and an author who wants to paint a filmic picture of scenes within a story.

     After Rafaela is also a long novel – 125,000 words – which is way too long for traditional publishers nowadays where profit is everything.

     When I published it on KDP, I got a lot of wonderful contact from readers who loved the story, and the interesting thing is that many, many men loved the novel too which I had not expected. The novel has been out now for a while and ticks over very nicely. My one disappointment is that I wish readers reviewed more. People are so busy but it takes a minute or so to review a novel on Amazon and reviews count for so much nowadays.

     My wish-list is this: I want every single person who has ever read my novels to contact me via email to say hello, to connect, and to review my novels. It’s the greatest gift; I wish readers knew and fully appreciated how important they are. They are far more important than agents and publishers and any of the predatory add-on micro-industries that flap around the publishing and self-publishing industries like vultures. Readers are the only people who matter and readers are the only people I care about.

Can you describe the story in one or two sentences for our readers?

After Rafaela is about three close friends who still can’t get over the death of their friend Rafaela Green who drowned in Lake Como in Italy the summer of 1990, at the age of 18. Their lives and relationships have splintered in the years and decades after Rafaela’s death, and they don’t understand why. It’s about saying goodbye to the past for good; it’s about unresolved grief; it’s about repressed emotion and the toxic legacy that comes from not expressing your feelings, and not living true to yourself; it’s about the pain of living in 2010 (when the novel was written); it’s about growing older, leaving behind the innocence of youth; it’s about guilt on a massive scale, about unexpressed love that haunts you through the years, about bad relationships, dreams that are never achieved, the beauty of memories and about girlhood innocence. Sorry, that’s a bit of a long description.

As a writer, do you find it hard to tell a story that takes place over decades?

No, quite the contrary; the past has always had a particular draw for me. I feel like Gil Pender in Woody Allen’s wonderful film Midnight in Paris. I live with this past nostalgia. It’s my security blanket and the place I retreat to always. Writing a story that takes place over decades seems a natural way to tell a deep and moving story; after all, we are all a sum total of our experiences and our lives unfold over the decades in good and bad ways.

The European setting is so vivid and written beautifully. Did you go to Lake Como to do research before writing the book?

Thank you for saying that. Scene setting is very important to me. I’m glad you liked it. I grew up in Europe – in Brussels, Belgium – and spent all of my school holidays travelling with my parents and siblings, zigzagging across Europe. We had a holiday home in France near the border of Switzerland and Lake Geneva, which my father bought. We rented all my childhood in Brussels; this was the norm – the European way was, and still is, to rent family homes, but the holiday home was my father’s private indulgence, and we spent a lot of time driving through the Italian Lakes to Venice and back again. I wrote the story from my memory of my time at Lake Como as a teenager, and I refreshed my knowledge with lots of research. My lovely American readers might find this girlhood lifestyle exotic, but it’s all about perspective.

     I found the concept of an American lifestyle so incredibly glamorous when I was a little girl and used to dream of going to America. It seemed so far away and that added to the allure. American characters in novels and on TV and in film always seemed so confident and empowered. I wanted to be like that.

     I was also child of the 1970s, and lived in a time before the onset of budget flights. My father worked exceptionally hard. He had a job at the European Commission and worked out of offices in Geneva, Switzerland and Brussels, Belgium. He loved his car, and loved driving long distances. We seemed to always be driving through European countries but we spent a lot of time in Italy and France. Those two countries were our main stomping grounds.

Tell us the story behind the story. What influenced you to write it and how long did it take you?

Two very powerful events shaped my life when I was a girl and then a young person; I’ll talk more about this in a moment but to put it into context, I was a very introverted child, and always lived in ‘my head’, creating stories. I wasn’t an ‘out there’ girl with loads and loads of friends. I wasn’t the life and soul of the party. I was shy and unconfident. The rules of normal human interaction scared me, so I sought refuge in books.

     When I was nine years old I met a girl who was to become my best friend. She was everything to me; being an introvert my relationship with her was intense, my first experience of pure non-sexual love. She became the most important person in my life.

     We did everything together and we shared everything. We were exceptionally close for ten years, but then she disappeared out of my life in a matter of a few weeks. It was like a death. This girl became Rafaela in my story. Five years later my dear oldest sister died at an incredibly young age. Writing After Rafaela was about exorcising the past and dealing with grief, many years after the fact. In Leni, India and Becca’s personal stories I found my own stories; of loneliness, betrayal, yearning, insecurity, low self-esteem and fear of facing my own grief. I was asking questions as I wrote the story; why didn’t I grieve for the loss of my best friend and for the loss of my sister. This grief became like a hard pebble lodged in my throat that I couldn’t swallow, always there. I wanted to understand how circumstances had shaped my life in good and bad ways and why I still lived with questions and unexpressed grief.

     The novel was started in 2010 and was written in the UK and in Hungary in central Europe. It was written in pencil, in note form, then on a small laptop. I wrote many versions of it, always trying to impress this agent. (I eventually got bored trying to impress her and knew I’d never be what she was trying to make me become).

Do you have a message in After Rafaela that you want your readers to grasp?

I don’t know if offering a message to readers is the responsibility of the author; what I think is important – for me anyway – is to lay down stories that expose the humanity in us all; if the bones of the story show pure and difficult-to-digest emotion then there might be a message in there for the reader to absorb based on their own life story, but for me, the message is not important; it’s about how a story makes the reader feel, what thoughts it kicks up in the reader’s mind. It’s about connecting with my readers on a pure and real level, about peeling back humanity’s amazing skill at fakery to expose the electricity of human emotion in its rawest form. That’s something everyone has in common; the power to feel, really feel.

Do you have a favourite book or artist that inspires you to create your own art?

I’m a big mystery fan, and all my covers are opaque, surreal renditions of a tiny element of a plot thread in my stories. Novel covers have to make you think, and ask questions.

What are you working on right now?

Coincidentally, I’m working on another version of After Rafaela, a dark psychological version of it that has a completely different plot, but uses the location and the characters and turns everything on its head.

     The novel has a current working title – All Fall Down – and the characters in it are not very nice at all. I have introduced a new character Ellis Yannick, a London solicitor, who narrates the story. Being written in 2016 it’s fairly Orwellian in its approach in that it’s a bit of a commentary of how exposed we all are in life and how it seems as though nothing is sacred or private anymore; it’s about the wide-angle exposure of the evil in all of us and centres around the power-trip that the main protagonist – Luisa Green, the pathological narcissist who is Rafaela Green’s mother – sends Leni, India, Rafaela and Becca on. In this novel, Rafaela is not dead. She’s very much alive.

How can readers find you online? 

I love talking to readers and always answer emails. I like to engage with readers directly as much as possible. I can be contacted by email,  – on Twitter @JoChumas – via my website www.jochumaswriter.com and on Facebook 

Find all of Jo Chumas’ books on Amazon.

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