Liz Harris – Author Profile

I’m delighted to welcome to my blog the author Liz Harris to tell us about her life and work. Liz and I met recently at the Chip Lit Festival where we were both booked to read. The festival didn’t go quite as planned for us, for the full story on that see my post below, Day in the Life of a First Time Author, but I had a great day anyway thanks to her excellent company. And I’m very pleased she’s agreed to join us here today.

Tell me a little bit about yourself as a person?

001I was born in London. After getting a Law degree, I moved to California where I had a brilliant time doing a variety of jobs, from waitressing on Sunset Strip to working as secretary to the CEO of a large Japanese trading company.

I returned to the UK after six years, got a degree in English and taught up to A level for a number of years. For seven years of this time, I contributed weekly articles on education to a local newspaper.

In addition to my novels, three of which have already been published, and there’s a fourth coming out in September this year, I’ve written several short stories which have appeared in anthologies.

Wearing a slightly different hat, I’m the organiser of the Oxford Chapter of the RNA, a member of the Oxford Writers Group, and I’m a member of Historical Novel Society.

My hobbies include cryptic crosswords; frequent travel, particularly to Italy; reading books of every genre; cinema and theatre. I love the theatre and go to the London theatre every month.

Of course, the above tells you what I’ve done over the years, not what I’m like as a person. If you wanted something other than synonyms for ‘wonderful’, ‘giving’, ‘thoughtful’, you’d have to ask my family and friends, and I don’t think I’ll give you their names!

Tell me about your journey as a writer – how you started and how you have developed?

I loved writing essays and stories at school and at home, and I even enjoyed writing the essays for both of my degrees – I remember laughing out loud in the exam hall as I wrote an essay on Chaucer, I was having such a good time – but it never occurred to me to write a book. I thought that books just magically appeared, fully formed, without human intervention. If only!

My career choices changed over the years. First I wanted to be a farm hand, then a journalist, then a teacher, then a nun. The desire to be a nun lasted for ages as the memory of the virile, rugged Peter Finch as Dr. Fortunati in The Nun’s Story lingered long in my mind.

However, one night when my young sons were in bed – yes, I’d ditched my plan to become a nun – and my husband was out, I found myself irritated with the novel I was reading, felt my computer challenging me, and I suddenly pulled it towards me and started to type. At that moment, I found my vocation, and I’ve never looked back.

How would you describe your work – it‘s themes and the important things about it?

The Road Back was my first published novel. It takes place in the 1950s and 1995, and is set in London and in Ladakh, west of Tibet. I also have two other lighter novels, both set in Umbria and both published. The novel of the same genre as The Road Back, A Bargain Struck, set in Wyoming 1887, will be published this coming September.

My novels span two genres – historicals and rom com – but they all have to some degree themes in common; namely, appearance and reality, and the power of manipulation by words. I’m interested also in the effects of guilt on a person, and this comes out in my writing.

As a keen theatre-goer, I’m used to seeing actors adopt a disguise as a form of concealment, and I’m drawn to the dramatic possibilities of an ostensibly attractive exterior concealing a ‘worm i’ the bud’. And as a writer, it’s not surprising that I’m fascinated by the way in which one person can manipulate another, making that person think that the idea they decided upon had originated with them.

Tell me about your current book – what is it about and what makes it a great read?

TRB_revised[1]The Road Back has been described as ‘a sumptuous tale of love and adventure in the sweeping and little-known backdrop of Ladakh, north of the Himalayas … which throws together two people from radically different cultures with explosive results.’

Until fairly recently, however, I’d never heard of Ladakh. Three years ago, my cousin, who lives in Australia, asked me to help her to find a home for an album complied by her father, my late uncle, after his visit to Ladakh in the mid 1940s.

My uncle had been stationed with the army in North India, and he’d managed to get a one of the few authorised passes to visit Ladakh. On his return, he compiled the photos and notes that he’d made.

I found a home for the album in The Indian Room of the British Library, on Euston Road, and it was brought to England by friends of my cousin. I collected it from their hotel, and in the two weeks before I handed it over to the British Library, I read it from cover to cover. As I did so, I fell in love with Ladakh. From that moment, I began to research the country in depth.

At the very start, I knew that my heroine, Patricia, was born in the 50s and brought up in Belsize Park, a part of London I know well. I could see her – a lonely child, living with parents who’d been torn apart by grief over a tragedy that happened to the family in the past.

I didn’t know Kalden, though, beyond the fact that he was born and brought up in a Ladakhi village in the Buddhist part of the country.

I continued to read my resource books, which were teaching me about life in Ladakh, until one day, I read a very interesting fact about life in Ladakh. It was a Eureka moment. I felt a leap of excitement. What I read was …

Oh, dear! I seem to have gone on for long enough about the book; I’d better stop now. I’ll address the last part of your question and move on.

I love reading books with strong stories and characters who display the complexity of human behaviour, and I hope very much that I’ve captured real people in The Road Back, people whose story will make the reader want to keep on turning the pages to find out what happens next.

Where can I buy a copy of your book?

It’s on sale through Amazon here and is in some Waterstones stores, and in WH Smith’s at airports and railway stations.

Many thanks for interviewing me today, Chris. I’ve really enjoyed answering your questions.

You can link up with Liz here:

Twitter: @lizharrisauthor

Facebook: Liz Harris


Day in the Life of a first time author

So, I was coming out of the Green Room for authors at the Chip Lit Festival – and there was Lord Julian Fellowes, renowned author of Downton Abbey fame.

He was surrounded by admirers, as is his right, and regaling them with a tale. As I approached I heard him say the line:

“But nobody could believe she had ignored the obsequies of a Duchess!”

It was clearly the punch line to some joke or anecdote, though one pitched at a frequency so high and wild that, to my ears, it might as well have been a dog whistle.

I chuckled for a while at having heard Julian Fellowes say such a Julian Fellowes like thing – what were the chances of that happening? But on reflection I think that he probably just talks like that all the time. He probably mentions Duchesses and obsequies about as often as I talk about telly or football.

top-logoIt was certainly a high point in what was a baffling morning. As for my reading at the festival – well, basically, it never happened. I turned up at the appointed time to find the café completely empty, except for the staff and for lovely Liz Harris who was the author due to appear after me. Basically the event hadn’t been included in the programme – so the publicity was limited to say the least. It was on the website and there was a poster on the café door – still, if the aim had been to keep it top secret so that nobody knew about it, then it was a roaring success.

DSC00997Liz and I sat and nursed coffees in the silent venue through my slot and hers – when finally one or two people did filter through the doors they had come not to hear us read or talk about writing – but just to get a cup of coffee. We know this because we asked them – well, Liz did. “No,” they said. “We’re not here for the authors – we’re here for some cake.”

So it would have been a disaster, except for the fact that Liz and I got on like a house on fire and had a good old chat. One of the things we talked about was other disastrous reading events we’d done in the past. Tellingly, this one was not the worst experience for either of us. And that’s a thought would be authors ought to mull over as they seek publication. It’s not all champagne launches and glittering prizes. No – it’s empty venues and lumping unsold books back to the car.

Market_Hall_and_the_Co-op_-_geograph_org_uk_-_236399After our non-reading at the café we wandered over to the author’s room at the theatre in Chipping Norton – which is a beautiful little town you should visit if you get chance. There we consumed brownies with other authors and agents and so on who were lovely and might well have been very important people, except that I’m too much of a rube to know. And after that I drove home through a spring day in the Cotswolds with scenery so idyllic it was like the Centre Parcs brochure for heaven.

So there we have it in a nutshell – a day in the life of a first time literary novelist. And, you know what, bizarre as it may seem, I quite enjoyed it.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

What we say vs how we say it

Which matters most then – what we say or how we say it?

I bet I can guess your reply. The first thought most of us will have is that, of course, what we say is most important – the message is always more important than the medium.

But we are readers of fiction, writers of fiction some of us too. Surely we are seduced by the beauty of words? If not, then why bother?

Winston_Churchill_cph_3b12010And anyway, isn’t everyone seduced by beauty? Aren’t we all stirred by eloquence? Otherwise why did Churchill slave over his wartime speeches? He could have had a civil servant bullet point the facts for him and read that out on the radiogram, without all the three-part lists and falling cadences.

Don’t bother saying:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Just say ‘We will fight wherever necessary,’ and leave it at that.

It was the poetry which mattered – in tough times, with little food and too much work and bombs raining down – it was the poetry which counted.

And why do advertising agencies exist? Surely a brisk summary of a product’s selling points would suffice?

170px-TrumanCapote1959Here’s something Truman Capote once said:

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

He was one of the most beautiful prose stylists in the language on his day old Truman. Not so much with In Cold Blood where he was trying to fit in, be liked, impress. Instead read his stories, and read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his crystal clear paean to a beautiful boy, who he had to pretend was a beautiful girl – because of the times.

02p/43/arod/15356/P2774143One of Truman Capote’s childhood chums was Harper Lee, another wonderful writer, though by no means a poet. Her one novel was To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, I suppose, if you are only going to write one, you might as well make it a fantastic one.

It’s a curious book in some ways – more like two bundled together. One, a gentle rural remembrance, Cider with Rosie in the deep South, the other, a gritty courtroom drama about racial tensions and cultural upheaval. Both are brilliant.

That book staked Harper Lee’s claim as a great novelist, what she wasn’t, I don’t think, was a great prose stylist. Her writing was functional rather than beautiful, it was more about the message than the medium. And when her book came out, Truman, her old friend, couldn’t really understand what the fuss was about. Where was the poetry, the sublime music of the words – where was all that useless beauty?

But it was a book which meant a lot, still means a lot, to many, many people, including me. And yet, so, quite rightly, does Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So which wins – the medium or the message?

Which matters most, what we say or how we say it?

I’m calling it a dead heat.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Words worth

How important are words? Very! Don’t ask me, don’t ask writers generally – ask marketers, brand managers – they will tell you how powerful a word can be.

Here’s an example, from history, which illustrates just how important what you call something can turn out to be. The place where I live, Gloucestershire in the UK, used to be apple country – they made cider in these parts and cultivated apples in a seemingly infinite variety. Every country lane you turn down still, to this day, has a cider orchard in it full of ancient trees, their bent backs held up with wooden props like little old men with walking sticks.

Red_AppleAmong the many varieties of locally cultivated apples, now sadly all consigned to the pantry of history, was one which was considered particularly tasty and useful – yet you will not find it on the shelves of Asda and Walmart. Why not? you may ask. Well – the name of this sumptuous fruit ladies and gentlemen was the Hen’s Turd.

Mouth watering it may have been but you won’t find it in a hopper next to the Golden Delicious in your local hypermarket. Because, essentially, what the Hen’s Turd had was a branding problem.

It had clearly been named after what it looked like in a ‘say what you see’ kind of way – but when Farmer Giles came up with this label he obviously hadn’t been thinking through the long-term marketing strategy. So, sadly, the Hen’s Turd resides in our fruit bowls no longer.

The truth is that the Hen’s Turd didn’t die out because of how it tasted, which was nice, it died out because of words. Which is why we’ve ended up eating the Golden Delicious, which tastes like wood shavings dipped in citric acid.

And that, my friends, is how important words can be.

The fingerprints we leave on our manuscripts

800px-Martin_Amis_2012_by_Maximilian_SchoenherrI read an interview with Martin Amis once where he said that when you’re writing a novel you write about the things you didn’t know were on your mind. This certainly rings true for me.

When I’m writing I certainly don’t set out to write about myself and nobody who has read Song of the Sea God has suggested it might be CiderWithRosieautobiographical. My tale of the rise of a would-be god on an island of misfits told by a dwarfish mute is hardly Cider with Rosie.

And yet, I think that the big things and the little things in anything you write hark back to your own personal experience.

By big things I mean themes, and however much you marry these to your plot, your characters and so on, there will be something of your own concerns in there too. For example, in the book I wrote after Sea God, which is called the Pick Up Artist, and isn’t published yet, the main character’s mother died when he was young and this certainly influences his development and actions. I didn’t think much about this when I was writing but it’s certainly true that my own mother died only a couple of years before I wrote the book. And though I was a lot older when my mother died than when the character in my book lost his, well, we all feel too young when our parents die don’t we?

As for little things – here I’m taking about incident, asides, scraps of plot, flashes of character. I mean the jokes, the turns of phrase, the lines of dialogue, the descriptions. They all come from somewhere, and though they are all ‘made up’ in so much as they start life in your head and finish up on the page, many of them will track back to your own life, your own concerns or ideas.

So what of myself have I left on the page in Song of the Sea God?

People who have been kind enough to review the book on Amazon tend to talk about three things. They talk about the language, they talk about humour and finally they talk about the darkness. Where does this darkness come from?

Well firstly I suppose it reflects the confusion I feel about religion. I’m not religious, in so much as I wouldn’t identify with a particular faith and, if pushed, I would describe myself as agnostic. But admitting that I don’t know the mysteries of the universe is definitely not the same as saying I believe there are no mysteries. The feeling that there must be something more than what our senses tell us, the god-shaped hole in our lives, is something we all share I’m guessing, and those feelings are at the heart of the book.

Then there’s a sense of isolation in the text I think. The island the story is set on, which seems divorced from the rest of the world; the mute outsider who tells the tale. There is a loneliness here despite all the jokes and wise-cracks. I’ve always been blessed with a fantastic and close family – both growing up and now as an adult. Still, I think it’s JohnDonnepossible to feel that as a person, you come into this world and go out of it alone, you are essentially isolated – an individual. John Donne said ‘no man is an island’ but I think Song of the Sea God suggests that’s exactly what each of us is.

I didn’t set out to write about these things, and yet that is what I ended up doing. I believe the process of writing goes far deeper than our conscious mind knows.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.