Saturday, April 21, 2012

Erica James - a true English lady

About six months ago I got the opportunity to interview English novelist,  Erica James . She was, if I may behave like a fan-girl for a moment, Very Cool. I originally published the interview over on Just Heard, Just Read, Just Seen; but since I found her so inspirational I think she deserves a spot in Women of Inspiration and Soul.
The very first thing I noticed about  her was how tiny she is. Now I’m under five foot and I”m hardly a heavy weight, but I felt like a giant next to the petite writer from England.
The second thing I noticed about her is far more important. Erica James is, in a word, delightful. Delightful is not a word I use a lot – I suspect I am the wrong generation for it – but it is the only word to describe this lady (and I mean that in the royal sense – for while she may not be one in title, she certainly is one in bearing).
Within minutes of sitting down and picking up her cup of tea, Ms James was laughing and chatting – and of all things asking me questions. The realisation that interviewer and interviewee had inadvertently swapped places brought another wave of laughter from both of us and I was struck by how surreal it is. After all ,Erica James has written more than a dozen best selling novels, been a Sunday Times Top Ten Best Seller and has won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award.
And yet  there we were, in The Langham, giggling over….well nothing really.  I think the subject of men and relationships might have come up and the next thing we were behaving like school girls.
“It’s funny,” she told me, ” I never thought I’d be in this position. I started writing in my early thirties because I was unhappy, but I didn’t realise it.  When I was writing I wasn’t thinking about the things that were making me unhappy. When I was writing I was in a happier place.”
A Breath of Fresh Air, she said, was semi-autobiographical in the sense that she drew on where she was in her life at the time – emotionally and geographically.
“But it wasn’t really about writing about me – I just wanted to write about a nice place and I wanted to make this woman, the heroine, happy.”
She sipped her tea and thought a moment.
“I think I’m a romantic at heart. I really do still believe in love.  I can see genuine happiness in certain relationships.”
This talent for looking at situations that are perhaps not the happiest and using them as the basis for a novel has stayed with the author. In 2004 she was caught in the Boxing Day tsunami in Bali – and knew she wanted to write about it.
“I just didn’t want to write about me and my experience or even the experience of the tsunami itself.”
The result was best selling novel “It’s the Little Things” about a couple, who along with  their friend,  having survived the tsunami, are now struggling with the challenges of day to day living.
“I think that’s human nature,” Erica says, ” we can cope with the big disasters but its the little things that will drive us to homicide.”
One of her more recent novels, The Real Katie Lavender, was inspired by the current increase in public interest in geneology.
“Do you get Who Do You Think You Are? in New Zealand?” she asked.  When I replied yes and mentioned that it's quite popular, she smiled and said it is in Britain as well – and she didn't quite understand why.
” People are fascinated with where they come from aren’t they? I love looking back at a character’s childhood but I don’t care where my own great uncles came from or what they did.”
The heroine of The Real Katie Lavender discovers a year after her mother dies, that the man she thought was her father wasn’t. She sets off to find her biological father simply to satisfy her curiosity and to answer the question that has bothered her since she has made the discovery: who is she really? The novel is a lovely, gentle read that passes no judgement and comes to a satisfying and, oddly, realistic conclusion. I say oddly because romance by definition, even great romance (sometimes especially great romance) tends to wave the flag for the unrealistic ending.
By the time we had finished our tea I was painfully aware the lovely Ruby from Hachette was going to drag Erica away. Ignoring my cup I asked her about process. Does she plot or is she a pantser (a writer who, essentially, writes by the seat of their pants)? Where does she get her ideas? What about endings?
The first question was met with a giggle. A somewhat naughty giggle I might add as she leaned forward.
“I don’t have a synopsis, I make it up as I go along.”
As a pantser myself I was relieved to learn this and told her so. She seemed genuinely interested and pleased. I guess even the best need reassurance from time to time ...
As for her ideas, she is a self described magpie.
“I collect stories all the time. I listen and I watch and I collect them then I write stories about everyday issues that concern men and women.”
Ruby poked her head around the corner – we really did need to wrap up she said, there was another interviewer waiting.  We promised we were nearly done.
“What about happy endings?” I asked.
“Oh a happy ending is very important but it needs to be satisfying too and drawn together. It has to create order out of chaos.”
Before I left Erica asked Ruby to take a photo of us together and I was slightly taken aback as I don’t really do photos as a rule.
“Oh it’s for me, a momento.”
I agreed, the photo was snapped, we shook hands and I headed back into my day.
Carrying with me  a little flicker of romance passed on by a beautiful lady with a tinkling laugh and a wonderful way with words.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Believing in romance: Sandra Hyatt

Romance writer, Sandra Hyatt loved happy endings and believed everyone deserved one. She had a lovely smile and curls I would have killed for. I met her at my first Romance Writers of New Zealand(RWNZ), Auckland Branch meeting and was impressed with how friendly and open she was. During the coffee break she introduced herself to me and mentioned she lived just around the coast in Clevedon and maybe we could carpool for meetings from time to time. I remember being slightly overawed that someone who was everything I was dreaming of being (a successful, published author)would be happy to carpool with me.

In late March Sandra very graciously agreed to be interviewed for my websites and that is how one chilly autumn afternoon found us together at my dining room table, sipping hot drinks and talking about romance.
At the time, I was, for a wide variety of reasons, struggling with the idea of writing romance, so I asked Sandra her thoughts on why people are ambivalent toward the genre. She gave her amazing curls a shake and took time to think a moment before replying.
“You know, I think that ambivalence has always been there and some of it is because romance is usually written by women for women and even today that creates issues I suppose. It’s important to remember to enjoy the spectrum of genres and styles available. One doesn’t have to spoil you for others. I enjoy gourmet cooking for example but I still love pizza. It’s not one or the other.”
She paused a moment and then added “personally I just like a good book.

Sandra, who sold her first book in 2008, didn’t set out to be an author, let alone one who was a USA Today bestseller. In fact, she had a successful career in marketing before taking up writing and was home on maternity leave when boredom drover her to enrol in a writing course.
“When I started writing, this light bulb went off and I thought ‘wow, this is it’,” Sandra told me. “But I still wrote for ten years before selling a manuscript.”
Sandra, as most members of RWNZ know, was in Reno for a Romance Writers of America conference when she won a critique session with Tessa Radley’s editor. That meeting was the turning point.
“I was rooming with Tessa and it was very cool to be in a group of writers who understood the joy I felt. “

The meeting pushed Sandra to take her writing seriously and she soon had a routine of writing every weekday, while her children were at school. It was important to her she said, to show her children you could have a dream and that it wouldn’t always be easy but that you could achieve it all the same.
She admitted, with something of an embarrassed grin, that she usually didn’t plan her work out ahead of time.
“I’m absolutely a pantser,” she said. “Sometimes I have an idea but that’s about all. The details come when my fingers are on the keyboard.”
Once the first book had been sold, she said she simply rolled up her sleeves and “got on with the next one”.
At times, Sandra did write in other genres but felt she wasn’t as good at it, preferring to stay with romance.
“I love a happy ending; I think they’re good for us. I like people falling in love. “

Sandra didn’t mind the solitary nature of writing but admitted she did struggle with the discipline required for meeting her 1,200 word a day target. To help avoid the distraction of email, Twitter, Facebook and the likes, Sandra kept one computer internet free and did most of her writing there. When she forayed online, she usually managed to raise a smile.
“You would think, being a writer, that I could find a pen somewhere in my house,” she once tweeted.
As we began to wind up the interview I asked Sandra what advice she had for new or unpublished writers.
“Take what you want from conferences and meetings and course but always listen to everything. Be careful about who you give your work to, to read. Then write, write, write – don’t write-edit – just get it down on paper. You can come back and fix it up later.”

Sandra died on August 21, 2011 after being taken suddenly ill at the RWNZ conference.  I was devastated because although we had met again at my house about six weeks after the interview, we didn’t know each other well enough to be friends yet. I would like to think that perhaps one day we would have become so because on that cold autumn day as I watched Sandra drive away, I knew one thing.

I wanted to be just like her.

Photo of Sandra Hyatt:  Janice Van Huenen Photography
©2010 Angelique Jurd – All Rights Reserved.

Fun with frugality: Melanie McMinn

Melanie McMinn is the inspirational woman behind a popular and spirited blog by the name of The Frugal Kiwi –  a 2011 finalist in the highly acclaimed Bloggie Awards and runner up in ApartmentTherapy Best Green Home Blog Homie Awards.
“In the interest of disclosure,” Melanie says with a grin, “I should admit, I’m not really a kiwi.  I was born in Sevierville, Tennessee, USA but I love New Zealand.”

Melanie launched the blog in 2009, when, at the age of 36, her life was turned upside down by what the doctors at the time believed had been a stroke.    It took 20 months for specialists to discover that in fact Melanie was suffering from an extended duration, extremely severe migraine.
“I’m happy that I haven’t had a stroke. Thrilled, in fact. My long term prognosis is much better than if I’d truly had a stroke at age 36,” Melanie says.

Since the onset of the migraine Melanie’s natural tendency to frugality has blossomed into a full-fledged necessity and from there The Frugal Kiwi was born.
“I thought I’d share a tip or two to others who are frugal by nature or necessity and love living the green life.”

Melanie grew up in the southern states of America, the eldest child of simple, hard working parents.  Her father, a preacher, worked in the family business, a holiday park, and her mother was a stay at home mum.
“My mother, who suffers from various thus-far undiagnosable neurological disorders, was a stay at home mum, lover of books and quilter of beautiful things and still is.”

The family moved all around the South and Melanie changed schools often, learning to enjoy her own company and developing a love of reading.
Later, whilst completing a Master’s degree in Audiology Melanie’s eleven year marriage ended.
“ I struggled as best I could through the rest of my training as an audiologist and worked for a while in Arizona. Feeling I needed a break from life as I knew it, I sought out a job in New Zealand. I landed a position at Auckland District Health Board and moved to New Zealand.”

Still, moving half way around the world was not enough for Melanie and before long she left audiology and launched a career in freelance writing.
“ I wrote a couple of magazine pieces, but mostly worked a corporate freelancer. Before I could get fully established as a freelancer, the migraine hit.”
Unable to work, wanting to contribute to the household as best she could and needing a distraction from the excruciating pain, Melanie designed the Frugal Kiwi site and started blogging.   In the beginning she posted recipes but before long her love of adventure kicked in and she embarked on more adventurous projects like soap and felt making, bee keeping, and a variety of other activities.
Since then it has been a challenge to keep the mix on the blog balanced.
“It is easy to go off on a tangent and write about one subject, chickens or bees or felting for a month, but not all of my readers are that interested in any one of my projects. Making sure I keep a mix of posts that will engage the majority of my readers is a priority and a challenge for me.”

Designing, writing and managing a blog can be a challenge for most people  - but Melanie has her constant companion, The Migraine, to battle with as well.  She says her posting can sometimes be erratic and there are times when the pain is bad that she worries about her content.  The blogs numerous fans, however don’t seem to share her concerns.
“ I went through a period of four months earlier this year where I was barely conscious-a time I call living in ZombieLand.  I did my best during that time to create engaging content, but only my readers can say how successful I was. It did amuse me no end to have several comments from reader during my time in ZombieLand saying how energetic I was, so I must have been faking it pretty well at times.”

Although popular, the Frugal Kiwi doesn’t bring in a huge income, although it does bring in potential customers for Melanie’s Felted Kiwi product.  But money isn’t the point of the exercise.  Melanie blogs because she loves it.  When asked what she would do if handed a blank cheque, she laughs.
“Can I have the blank cheque now? In any case, I would still blog as I do now. I love knowing things. I love learning things. I like knowing how to do things and how things work. I'm not ONLY frugal and green because I have to be. I like my life the way it is. Passing that knowledge on in a way that people enjoy satisfies a pedagogical part of my soul.”

Melanie is not just adventurous in mind - before the arrival of the migraine, Melanie had another blog called Intrepid101,about her adventures  as a curvy lady:   skydiving, kayaking, rock climbing, riding in stunt planes, to name a few.  Melanies say too many women think, "I'll do that when I've lost a few pounds" and then life passes them by while they wait to get thinner.
"I wasn't waiting and boy am I glad now I didn't. Doing those sorts of things have been off the cards for me lately, but will hopefully be back on again in the coming months as things improve for me healthwise."

 ©2010 Angelique Jurd – All Rights Reserved.

Honoring with her song: Yulia

When singer Yulia was younger she would visit her grandmother in the suburbs of Moscow and together they would sing.
“My grandmother dreamed of being an opera singer, “Yulia told Underground Mainstream.
“She even had some vocal training – but family and children came first.”

In her grandmother’s kitchen, Yulia learned Russian folk songs and listened to Caruso on her grandmother’s record player.
“My grandmother loved opera.”

A decade and several thousand miles later, Yulia – who now calls New Zealand home – is living her grandmother’s dream.

2010 was a busy year for the Russian born singer. She won the Grand Prix in the European Song Competition in Riga, Latvia and the national award for Best Nationwide Entertainment in the Corporate Events Guide 2010 People's Choice Awards while in the United Kingdom she was also an International Classical Crossover Album of the Year finalist.

The awards are the result of a combination of talent, passion, and good old fashioned hard work from the singer.  In 2009 Yulia spent year training with classical Russian and Italian singing teacher Valeriy Maksymov.
“It was a year of total immersion in classical singing.  I had to travel quite a distance several times a week to work with him.”

During the same period Yulia auditioned, and was accepted into Southern Opera and although she later declined the role, she  received valuable guidance from opera historian and former NZ Opera patron Jeremy Commons.
“He felt I needed to cultivate my own voice, so I took on board everything they both told me and I train every day of the week.  This is my life and this is as much a job as being a Doctor is.”
Yulia sees singing as an extension of herself and when she connects with a piece of music – whether be it be something she has written or a piece from another composer – she knows she can ‘really deliver’.

While in London in November 2010, Yulia ‘delivered’ for producer Craig Leon.  Leon, who has worked with a variety of artists including Blondie, The Bangles, The Ramones, and the late Pavarotti, heard Yulia’s music online and requested a meeting.
“It’s exciting to be working with him.  One of my dreams is to create a legend with my music and this is part of that.”

For a long time, Yulia says, she struggled with her identity.  She grew up in poverty and it is a normal human reaction to want to replace the hardship associated with that history with ease and abundance.  What is not quite so usual is that wealth in and of itself is not what drives Yulia.
“To achieve artistic greatness mean I could use that profile, that resource to help others achieve their greatness. I want this so I can share it with others.”

The words are far from empty; Yulia has already raised over a million dollars for New Zealand charities and would like to set up her own charitable organisation to educate, empower, assist and inspire others – with a special focus on orphans.
“My grandmother was given up for adoption during the war so orphans are close to my heart.”

With so much ahead of her and so much to focus on Yulia is philosophical about how to achieve her goals.
“In music, things take time.  Concentrating on what is in front of me right now is my focus.  Everything will happen one step at a time.”
With her eye fixed firmly on her destination, Yulia’s steps are well and truly on the right path.
©2010 Angelique Jurd – All Rights Reserved.