Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Launches and Knock Backs by Sheena Wilkinson

Street Song Launch 

At my very first book launch, I was all Yay! Look at me! I know an author; I’m so cool!

Then there were the hopeful/resentful  years, when I knew a few authors, and used to go to their launches feeling like a beggar pressing my face against a shop window full of delights. One day, maybe…

Now I have hosted many launches for my own books, in bookshops and other venues. Nerve-shredding in contemplation, preceded by the nobody-turns-up anxiety dreams. Last time, for Street Song, I shredded my nerves further by promising (rashly, in print) to play my guitar and sing as part of the jollities. As I write, I’m planning the next one and worrying that nobody I know really wants to come to two launches in a year, only they are too kind to say so, but secretly they all hate me...

But this Friday I’m going to a launch in a different capacity. It’s a friend’s book, and she’s asked me to launch the book and say a few words. I’ve never been asked to do this before, though I've always a great deal to say about my own books, and I’m thrilled. It makes me feel  grown-up (which, you know, I really should do by the age of 49), but also, and more importantly, it reminds me of the importance of writerly support, networking and friendship.

The writer is Pauline Burgess, who’s had several 5-7 pony books published by Belfast publisher Blackstaff, and is now launching her first teen novel, Knock Back (Poolbeg).  Pauline, who’s head of English at my local secondary school, has been a great supporter of my career, having me in to talk to her pupils regularly, and when I was musing on what I might say at her launch on Friday, it occurred to me that writing about it here on ABBA might be a nice way for me to return the favour. Also, Pauline and I often talk about the importance of writers supporting each other, which is always a good ABBA topic.

SW:     Pauline, can you tell me something about Knock Back?

PB:      Knock Back was inspired by years and years of teaching teens and teen fiction. Way back when I first began in teaching in the very early 90s, there was really little to choose from in terms of meaningful fiction that would really resonate with our children in this corner of the world. So, I started to write – badly – and kept on writing until stories like Knock Back synthesised in my head nearly 20 years later. It is no secret that Knock Back was inspired by Holes, by Louis Sachar, but apart from being a ‘boot camp’ story, the similarities end there.

Knock Back is about young people trying to find their identity, trying to find their purpose and most of all, trying to find themselves. Ben is 14 years old and has a massive chip on his shoulder; partly because he has just found out that he’s adopted, and partly because he has a bit of a victim complex going on, as many teenagers do. The story is set on the fictional Knockmore Farm and it is here that Ben learns to put things in perspective. He befriends a host of other ‘troubled teens’ who have their own stories and troubles to share.

SW: You’re an English teacher, as I used to be. I have to say, my memories of the years juggling teaching and writing are not altogether happy! How on earth do you manage?

PB: It’s difficult but also for me, very necessary. Teaching teens every day enables me to listen to their voices, hear their stories, understand their foibles and what makes them tick. I love to see what they’re interested in reading when we visit the school library, so it’s kind of like market research happening in the classroom. However, it is hard to compartmentalise my writing into days off and evenings, especially when I have a 10 year-old at home who needs help with homework and school problems and all sorts of things.

SW: Talking of help, can you say a little about relationships with other writers? ABBA, as a blog, is run by the Scattered Authors Society. How important do you feel these networks are?

PB: Very important! When I first started writing I felt really isolated. I literally knew no-one else in Northern Ireland who wrote. I started buying a writers’ magazine, which helped a little, and then I slowly began to discover one or two online groups who offered support and help. By attending literary events and courses, I came to know more and more people in the writing community, and I have to say that that is vital in terms of support, encouragement and criticism in equal measures. Some of those writer friends are now really close friends, and without their galvanising and reprimanding, I don’t think I would still be writing today. The author of this magnificent blog will remember a day last summer when she came to my house and gave me a ‘good talking to,’ offering practical as well as moral support. To have someone like Sheena in your corner is worth its weight in gold, not only because of her talent but because she doesn’t mince her words.

Pauline and I with the wonderful Bernard MacLaverty (photo, Arts Council of Northern Ireland) at the John Hewitt Summer School, July 2017. 

SW: I have been called a champion bottom-kicker…So what advice would you give for writers dealing with rejections and – I’ve been waiting to say this – Knock Backs?

PB: Rejections are part and parcel of a writer’s career. It’s odd, because sometimes you can shrug them off and then other times they really deflate you. As a writer you do set yourself up for rejection and it’s a bit of a cliché, but you really do need to be thick-skinned. I was told once that to be a published writer you need three things – talent, luck and perseverance. Fortunately, I persevered, and in time the rejections became more positive. Agents and publishers were telling me that I could write, but that my manuscript just didn’t fit with their list etc etc. Rejections used to come in big brown envelopes; now they’re by email. I still scan down through the message to find the words ‘unfortunately’ or ‘regret.’ I was so busy scanning Poolbeg’s email for these words last November that I almost missed the bit about the three book deal. Almost.

SW: I’ve never seen those magic words! So what’s next?

PB: My next book for Poolbeg Press. Again, it will be teen fiction and focus on the theme of identity. I’m not sure why that theme resonates so much with me. Maybe it’s because identity is such a complex thing in Northern Ireland. (Too true! – SW) Maybe it’s because I see teenagers struggling with who they are and who they want to be every day in school. Maybe it’s because I struggled with my own identity as a teenager.

SW: You’ve written for much younger children, and I know there’s at least one adult MS in a bottom drawer. But right now, you’re very committed to writing for teens. Why teens?

PB: They are my bread and butter. I have worked with them for over 25 years now and I love nothing more than engaging them in a good book when they walk into my classroom. When a reluctant reader walks in and says ‘Miss, can we read today?’ I know I’ve done something right as a teacher. I just hope I have the same effect as a writer.

SW: I’m sure you will! Thanks, Pauline, and good luck with Knock Back. Now I have to go and find something clever to say and pretty to wear at the launch…

Pauline Burgess 


Pippa Goodhart said...

Both Pauline and her book sound wonderful. Thank you for introducing us to both, Sheena.

Burgess Blog said...

Thank you, Pippa.

Rowena House said...

What a great idea. Best of luck for the book & the launch.

Paula McG said...

I always knew I would see Pauline's words in print. She is a very determined lady with a lot of talent. Good luck with the launch.