Interview with SFF World

Interview with Suzie Wilde, Author of The Book of Bera

John Tuttle May 23, 2018 0 Comment

Suzie Wilde has had practically a life-long love for writing, from screenwriting to research to novels. The first installment of her Book of Bera series, Sea Paths, was published in 2017 and is due out in paperback this year. Her upcoming sequel is entitled Obsidian which is just a really cool name. I was able to get some interview questions to her which she kindly answered, shedding some light on her next book and her life as a whole.

Me: What are some of your passions or hobbies aside from your writing career?

Suzie: Dogs – and long country walks with them. I’m a bit wary of ‘passion’ as the word is used about liking everything from a pair of tights to Jeremy Corbyn – but I am passionate about books (helping others access them too). Rugby has taken over from football, although I support Pompey still. Amateur theatre (more about that later).

Me: How difficult was it to shift gears from a semi-steady employment to writing full time?

Suzie: It was easy for me (being totally honest here) because I have had two very supportive husbands, which sounds very old-fashioned for someone who never intended to marry at all! But I supported their careers and it’s my time now. The brutal truth is that if I were single there is no way I could have given up full-time employment. This is only about money: writing has always filled me with joy, so I have no difficulty with motivation. I know some authors who have struggled with the burden of a life-switch to Writer; a bit like being Mother, a role I never managed. My mother had seven miscarriages and I had five.

Me: What was it like pursuing your MA degree in creative writing while working at the same time?

Suzie: I did the MA full time, so work was part-time to help fund it. I chose not to return to teaching 11 to 18-year-olds because that sapped all my creativity, so I did massage, research, a bit of public speaking, anything, that would give content to the writing without detracting from learning the craft. I got a distinction, so returned as a teaching assistant to the part-time MA students in their final year, which helped me continue to grow as a writer, too.

Me: In your early life you made some endeavors in playwriting as well as acting. You even made a brief appearance in a 1975 film. Now, of course, you’re a professional author, but do the performing arts still interest you?

Suzie: Yes. (Though the film was only an excuse to meet The Who!) I teach scriptwriting and enjoy acting in community theatre, though I’m a better director and encourage new writing.

Me: Literature and show biz often go hand in hand. Both these forms of pop culture tend to evoke a range of emotions. What strong points do you think each of the two art forms has?

Suzie: Blimey. That’s a far-ranging question so I’ll narrow it to books and their film adaptations. Films are immediate, able to embrace changes of time, point-of-view, location and introduce many characters. In a book, any one of these risks losing the reader. Films can also use music and fast cuts to ramp up the suspense, whereas books need careful editing to create crescendos. BUT books triumph for me because the world they create is not the author’s or reader’s: it exists in the imaginary space between, so is particular and deeply felt by the individual. I’m fascinated by ‘the mind’s eye’ and what this means for character, place and so on.

Me: How would you best explain your relationship with the sea itself?

Suzie: I was on the beach the day after I was born. Our flat in Portsmouth had salt-frosted windowpanes after a gale. Here’s what I write about my protagonist, in Obsidian, which could be about me:

“There was no sight of the sea from the longhouse but Bera always knew the sea state. It was a constant presence in her mind: an endless sheet of iron-cold metal, relentlessly heaving to its pitiless depths. And yet she loved it.”

Me: You lived on a boat for a number of years. Could you tell us what exactly this experience was like?

Suzie: I could write a book about it! Let’s say sailing out of sight of land is 95% boredom and 5% terror. I draw on our 5% experiences for some of the sea passages in The Book of Bera, as well as eating aboard – though I was trying to cook a stew in a storm, whereas the Vikings endured cold food on open-decked boats. Coastal sailing is very different. We preferred to anchor because marinas are often expensive, smelly places where ‘liveaboards’ huddle when their nerve fails, or after their wives have gone home. I’m so glad we did it, especially because we took our small Labrador Maud into the Med, where she first swam. That was bliss. She’s dead now, so those memories are very special, of the three of us onboard our beloved yacht, Foxglove (still ocean voyaging without us). Cracks me up to think of it.

Me: Did you keep a diary during this time? Did you enjoy writing in it regularly?

Suzie: It’s the only time I have ever managed to keep a diary beyond January 5th. I have journals over five years, which recount the truth, the whole truth … Not so much enjoyment as sanity. I suppose they are a bit like Morning Pages, for anyone who knows Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Back home, I made a couple of unique books of edited highlights and photos. Here’s a couple of pages, showing me in my Musto Oceans that were ripped in a storm 

Me: What do you do when faced with writers’ block?

Suzie: I would use Julia Cameron’s book if it ever struck. I start work at 9am and write until 1pm. It may be drivel but I write with purpose, without a set word count. Sometimes it’s only 200 words but it’s no longer a blank. I’m convinced that keeping going prevents the block: if you edit too soon you stop the flow and you can’t edit a blank page. By page I mean screen. I write several drafts with Scrivener so that I can write out of sequence, in small chunks, and then easily move text around.

Me: What writers do you look to in admiration or even for inspiration and why?

Suzie: I try not to read anyone who seems to be writing even remotely like me, so I haven’t even dared watch Game of Thrones or Vikings on television, let alone read Joanne Harris or Neil Gaiman’s Norse books. I did an English degree at UCL and that put me off writing for years because I admired the authors too much and kept comparing myself to all the Greats. Madness. So I get inspired by non-fiction writers in random areas like archaeology and sailing (or a combination, like The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin) Now, for Obsidian, I’m studying volcanos!

Me: What do sort of literature do you like reading?

Suzie: Crime takes first place, especially Lee Child, Elly Griffiths and Peter Robinson. I blame Enid Blyton as the entry drug. I sometimes re-read older crime fiction, like Dorothy L Sayers, as well as modern thriller writers. I like the structure of thrillers and used it for The Book of Bera. I like gothic and some fantasy and all the classics, apart from Dickens. The only genre I don’t read is Romance but I’d probably enjoy it if I did. I prefer action, from Rider Haggard onward. My comics of choice were Valiant and Spiderman.

Me: Who are your favorite figures in traditional Norse mythology?

Suzie: Almost too long ago to remember because I haven’t revisited since I was about ten. So without looking them up again and cheating, it’s either Freya (named our boat that was lost after her) or Fenris (big avenging wolf – I think).

Me: What do you think of some of the unique creatures depicted in Viking folklore?

Suzie: The Vikings left no written history but the Icelandic sagas include trolls and elves. Anyone who explores Iceland, especially in winter, might find themselves believing. My books assume it’s all true and I think if we had sustained blackouts in the modern world we would soon believe in the draugr (Drorgher in the book = walking dead). I also use the notion of a twin spirit (fylgja) which I call a skern.

Me: I love the title of your new novel: Obsidian. In your own words, could you describe its plotline and its significance in the Bera series?

Suzie: The first book, Sea Paths, is properly standalone but I couldn’t stop thinking about Bera and what happens next. So I wrote Obsidian as part of NaNoWriMo back in 2014 and although it follows straight on, it’s a quest that delves deeper into myth. I actually had the title first because I knew the stone was central. The second book is also standalone.

Bera foresees a series of savage eruptions that will tear Ice Island apart. She must learn about how the landscape affects her – and her child – so that she can save her folk. Is it the chaos of her own emotions that is causing the earth’s disturbance? She learns that Obsidian is forged in fire and precious for its own properties: she must use it to prevent catastrophe and fight off others who want it for their own purpose. But Obsidian is a dark mirror …

Me: I really think every author has those moments, those certain parts of his or her writing, that stand out to them. In your case, what are a few of your most prized moments in Obsidian?

Suzie: It’s usually those places where the characters come to life, rather than being pleased with a bit of writing (and those passages tend to get cut because they go nowhere!) I also prize moments when I cause readers to cry – and those bits still get me every time because they are coming from a real place inside me, not crafted for effect. Apart from my editor, no one else has read Obsidian yet, so it’s hard to give examples of this without being spoilers. I’ll share another kind of pleasure, where research comes to life.

Bodies not given proper burial become the walking dead after nine days. Bera and her smith, Dellingr, are only just in time:

“As soon as they saw a jutting shoulder they stopped. There was no winding sheet. They brushed away the remaining earth with bushy twigs, to expose all three corpses. Their bodies glowed faintly in the gloom, like the sunless sea creatures Bera had seen once, in a vision.

‘We’re only just in time,’ she said.

Two were fatter than they had been in life but recognisable, apart from dark red stains on one side of their faces. The farmer’s wife, Drifa, was closer to the surface and it was her bloated corpse that Bera had struck. Her mouth was gaping, as though she might batten on Bera and swallow her down whole.

‘Quick,’ Bera said, standing right over the corpse. ‘Get her head off.’

Dellingr raised his shovel and brought it down, hard, on the neck. Then again. Her head rolled to one side, as though turning away in a shame the woman had never shown in life. Bera made herself scoop up the heavy skull and place it between the thighs. Drifa’s queer smile flickered as she jammed a stone between the teeth.”

Me: In mingling with your readers at sales or promotional events, what is the most memorable compliment you have received?

Suzie: ‘My husband’s going to thump you because I took the book on holiday and he couldn’t get me off the sunbed to do anything. I couldn’t put it down and then the last bit, I read till 3am, to finish it. Now he’s reading it and then I’m going to begin it again.’

It’s exactly what I hoped to do: open a trapdoor for readers to fall through into a Norse world – and not want to come out. That’s how I feel when I’m writing it.

Me: What can readers expect in Obsidian?

Suzie: An adventure that calls on ancient myth, with a strong female protagonist and a great Viking villain (or two). It’s a tale of love and resilience in the cruel landscape of Ice Island. Oh – and volcanos that will rip apart the known world.

Me: What do you think of critics? Are they necessary? Can they be a hindrance?

Suzie: I think book reviewers are necessary because there are so many new books being published both traditionally and independently that we all need signposts. A good critic can point a reader to what s/he might enjoy by placing the book in its setting, amongst similar authors and correct genre, possibly better than the author and certainly better than an algorithm. If an author respects a critic, s/he can act on any flaws that can be improved next time. I don’t read reviews that start unfairly because writers are their own worst critics and I remember the barbed comments and not the good ones.

Me: I know you head a number of writers’ workshops to help your fellow creatives. If you could offer only one piece of advice to another writer, what would it be?

Suzie: Finish the damn thing. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? You need to use only the creative part of your brain and to try and edit as you go along uses a different part: so it’s like a train changing tracks the whole time – you will never reach your destination. That way lies writers’ block. And when you have finished, something happens that is more than satisfaction. You have become a writer.

Me: You’ve said your dad told you the family was related to the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. Have you ever done any research or had any tests performed to see what you could find out about your ancestry?

Suzie: I’ve done genetic testing (who doesn’t want to be a Viking?) but deliberately steered away from genealogy. Dad was a terrible liar – but his mother said her husband Harry was somehow related to Shackleton and I’ve used that to stiffen the backbone whenever I feel like wimping out: which is often!

Me: When you take your whole life into consideration, what have you done that you’re most proud of?

Suzie: I don’t really feel proud of anything – I always feel I could do better – but you’ve caused me to look back over my life and I think the fact of getting here from where I started is quite an achievement. I hope it encourages others, even if it takes a long time, to keep at it. I began in a rented flat above a row of shops in Portsmouth, with a working mother and the very opposite of a supportive father. There was no money for clothes or holidays and not even a birthday card from my dad, who could have afforded that. No one to play with. Without loving cousins, I would have had nothing, and without my mother I would have been nothing.

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