Literary leanings… talking with Ann Swinfen

I first ‘met’ Ann Swinfen on a messageboard, part of to which we both belong. On reading various well thought out comment she made, I went to Amazon to purchase her newly released The Testament of Mariam… a beautiful read, almost shocking in its revelatory subject matter, but subtly handled nevertheless. Ann is highly regarded as a writer, her titles published in the past by Random House. She has also written a definitive text called ‘In Defence of Fantasy’, published by Routledge and which as a fantasy writer, I felt enunciated the power and place of the modern fantasy novel.

Ann and I have never actually met, (only ‘virtually’) but I find she is somewhat of a kindred spirit… we are in accord over a number of things. Thus I decided I simply must interview her for Mesmered and ask you all to welcome her. If you wish to purchase her print novels, click on the link provided. the novels are available at as well. The Anniversary is a Kindle publication and available at both outlets.

1. Ann, you have been both a mainstream and an independently published author. Many fellow mainstreamers would say that you may have compromised yourself by pursuing the indie route. What is your opinion?

The publishing industry is undergoing seismic change at the moment. Mainstream publishers seem nowadays to be run by salesmen and accountants, while editors have very little influence. Yes, publishing has always been a business, but in the past publishers were prepared to take on new writers whose work they admired, to nurture them and gradually build and support their writing careers. Now it seems that all the commercial publishers want are books which will quickly make a lot of money and in five years time will be totally forgotten. Hence they commission books “by” footballers or TV chefs, C list “celebrities” or people involved in criminal cases. These books, of course, are generally written by ghost writers. (And good luck to them! They must be the only writers making a living!) Writers with a long established record, especially crime writers (think P D James or Ian Rankin), will go on being published. However, I know two writers, both of whom had published 10 or more midlist books with reasonable sales, who have been dropped by their publishers.

As for my own experience, my literary agent loved The Testament of Mariam. She sent it out to all the mainstream publishers and we got enthusiastic responses from editors. In fact, it looked as though we were going to go to auction. Then the money men gave it the thumbs-down at publisher after publisher. In the end, the indie route seemed all that was left. Was it a compromise? Possibly. But I don’t regret it.

2. Rumour has it that we are seeing the glory days of the independent author, that in a very short space of time the online and e-marketplace will have shifted again. If that is the case, what do you think the future of the independent author will be?

Heaven only knows! As I said above, everything is changing so fast. Because of the way the big mainstream publishers have been behaving, we’ve seen the founding and growth of smaller publishers like Quercus (new) and Canongate (older, but reinvigorated). These smaller publishers are beginning to win major prizes. Then there’s Susan Hill who set up a publishing house to reissue her books which have gone out of print. There are other tiny publishers springing up everywhere. In addition it’s easy now for an author to upload a book in e-format, by-passing the normal publishing process altogether. However, there are dangers in this. Without editing, some of these e-books will be rubbish. They are also ephemeral. I don’t think they will ever replace the solid substance of a “real” book. It would be tragic if they did. I treasure my books with their individual appearances and personalities. Even so, I’ve published one book in e-format. My first mainstream-published novel, The Anniversary, was out of print, so I thought I’d try it as an e-book as an experiment. That doesn’t mean I would ever abandon paper publishing. I do think the mainstream publishers will have to take a very hard look at themselves. And I wish the newer, younger publishing houses like Quercus and Canongate a great and successful future. They are prepared to take a gamble on writers they believe in.

3. You appear to have effortlessly shifted between genres within your writing, moving with ease from literary fiction to what could be called historic fiction. The Testament of Mariam is described as literary fiction but it could just as easily have slotted into historic fiction. Do you think it restricts a potential readership by categorising a novel within one genre?

I think of The Testament of Mariam as literary fiction which just happens to be set in an historical period! Yes, I don’t like the practice of categorising novels as this or that genre. “Literary fiction” covers a huge range; there’s probably a literary version of every genre. “Crime” covers everything from crude violence to thoughtful psychological studies of human relationships and behaviour. I think the obsession with genre pigeonholes is something which suits booksellers and publishers, but is often very frustrating for authors.

4. Your writing is memorable to me for simple and elegant language that entices a reader. How hard is it to create such a tone?

I’m not sure I have to strive to create the tone, it’s my natural mode of expressing myself. I’m uneasy in the presence of flamboyant language. I also tend to hear the flow of my sentences with my inner ear, and alter anything which jars. Now here’s an oddity. After my novel The Anniversary was published, a professor of philosophy (who started out as a classicist) said he’d been noting the occurrences of iambic pentameters in my prose! So perhaps it’s somehow been absorbed into my mental makeup.

5. You claim that The Testament of Mariam is your best writing yet. Do you think a writer automatically improves with each book?

It would be good to think so! I’m not sure that it’s always the case. I think one reason why I feel The Testament of Mariam is my best is because it flowed so easily. It was by far the most enjoyable to write because it virtually dictated itself, with very little effort on my part.

6. In terms of Testament, what was it about that era that enticed you to write a novel?

I’m not sure it was exactly the era that enticed me, though – since I also started out as a classicist – I was pretty familiar with it. It was rather that I’d had this idea niggling at the back of my mind for a long while that there were real people behind the exaggerated and mythic figures which have come down to us. What were those real flesh-and-blood people like, leading their daily lives, with all their hopes and fears? What was the situation like in a country under Roman occupation? A country whose people could not, would not, agree to conform? Then one day Mariam walked into my head and started talking . . . and that was that! Of course I did lots of research, which was very enjoyable, as I found how many discoveries about the people, places and events have been made in recent years. It was all part of the pleasure of writing the book. What I have found so interesting and rewarding about readers’ responses is that people say over and over again that everything seems so real to them, it all makes so much more sense. That alone has made writing the book worthwhile.

7. Two of my favourite authors (Rosamunde Pilcher and Dorothy Dunnett) have lived close by you. In addition there are many contemporary Scots authors who are loved and sought after by readers. What is in the waters of Scotland that produces such powerful writers?

I live in Scotland, but I’m not a Scot. Nor is Rosamunde Pilcher. She comes from Cornwall. I really don’t think I could be called a Scots author, and I know that my Scottish neighbours definitely see me as an outsider. However, I think there is a good deal to be said for living away from large metropolises like London or New York for giving one a wider perspective. The same could be said for writers living in Wales or Yorkshire or the Cotswolds. Or Tasmania! Some Londoners I’ve met seem to have a curiously narrow view of life, as though nothing happens outside London.

As an aside, I have to say how much I agree with Ann on this point. Certainly the writers in my home state are world-class and renowned and have the broadest perspective on the world and a sharpened appreciation of their place within their surroundings. Quite simply, they realise that the world doesn’t stop at their door.

8. You were heavily involved in the creation and running of a major book event in Dundee. Sadly it has suffered with lack of funding and was recently terminated. Do you believe there is still a demand for such an event and do you think it might rise from the ashes?

I set up and for fifteen years chaired Dundee Book Events. We put on about 10 events a year, usually with one writer at a time, but sometimes with a panel, so altogether about 200 writers – many of them very distinguished – came to our events. Several made more than one visit. They also kept saying how well we looked after them, compared with other events they attended. We didn’t lack funding. We were entirely self-funding and at the end had enough money in the bank to make substantial gifts of book vouchers to the 40 local primary schools and 15 local secondary schools. What happened was that an ambitious woman in the external affairs department of Dundee University, where our events had always been held, persuaded a new Principal that she should run all literary events, although she had neither our experience nor our contacts. She had us excluded from the university and we decided to wind up our organisation. It caused a great deal of disappointment amongst our hundreds of supporters.

9. I understand you are working on a new novel and also that you prefer not to speak about a work in progress. Can I ask which genre you have chosen? And why?

Quite right – I won’t go into details. This isn’t due to some mean streak. I have found from experience that talking to anyone in the early stages of a work in progress is disastrous for me. Not even my husband sees it until I have a reasonable first draft. The actual writing is a process of discovery. Too much talking instead of writing undermines the adventure and destroys creativity. All I can say is that the main idea in hand at the moment involves one historical and one modern timeframe, with the story moving back and forth between them, echoing events and characters. I do have another idea bubbling away as well.

10. In other interviews you have done, Ann, you have given writers firm, logical advice. The most interesting to me was the idea one should get that first draft down and not refine in any way until the story is there. I had an instance recently with my current work where as I continued to write, the non-linear narrative was annoying me. So much so that I ground to a halt and found that I could go no further until I had re-structured the previous 60,000 words. Would you have stopped and re-jigged if that happened to you, or would you have kept going?

That’s an interesting point, Prue. I think you have to do what suits you best. If you were really stuck, going back and restructuring was probably the best thing to do. My advice about finishing the first draft is really aimed at those people – and there are many would-be writers who belong to this group – who write a first chapter (or even just a few pages), and then go back and back and back over it, trying to make it “perfect” before they progress any further. Big mistake. These writers are almost always doomed to failure. That first chapter will never be satisfactory until it can be seen in the context of the whole novel, and it will never, ever, be perfect. Some writers do quite the opposite. They slap everything down and do virtually no editing. I know two published writers like this. They do make mistakes. One in particular has a lot of inconsistencies. I could never work like that either. But to each his own. To return to your own experience: you were 60,000 words into the book when you felt the shape was wrong. You weren’t just tinkering with the first few pages. Yes, I think you did the right thing in restructuring at that stage.

11. One final question: in the past you have mentioned the value of submitting your work to a writers’ group or an online peer-review group. Do you think that sort of review is better than a major editorial from a specialised editorial consultancy?

They are two different things. Submitting to a writers’ group or a peer-review group is rather like canvassing the opinions of a well-informed group of potential readers. Few are likely to possess the expertise of a specialised editor. Notice that I say a “specialised editor”, that is, someone with genuine editorial experience. A consultancy may or may not have that expertise and I’d advise anyone thinking of using a consultancy to check the editors’ credentials and experience very carefully before paying out large sums of money. Several years’ experience with a reputable publishing house will establish that the editor knows what he or she is doing. But even professional editors are not infallible. My original editor at Random House was a lovely person, but she did make a couple of mistakes, so the writer always has to be alert.

There is something every writer has to bear in mind. Most of us are deeply unsure about the quality of our own work. If you read the letters and diaries of distinguished writers (like Virginia Woolf, for example), you will realise that you are not alone in this. So when many people offer their opinions, wanting you to change this or that, to go in another direction, or if they simply fail to understand what you are trying to do, you have to have the courage of your own vision.

Thanks so much Ann for agreeing to be cross-questioned on Mesmered.