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Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Helen Walsh about her writing career, what inspires her, and her new book, Pull Focus.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I run a literary mentoring organization, Diaspora Dialogues, that supports emerging writers in creating their first books (fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction) or first plays, then connects them with agents, publishers and/or theatre companies. Previously, I was publisher of the Literary Review of Canada (Canadian equivalent to the London Review of Books), a festival director, freelance writer, and producer.
Essentially, I’ve kicked around publishing and entertainment for a couple decades, mostly launching/running orgs or producing film and special projects.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I’ve always written. Stories when I was a child, an (almost) finished novel in my twenties, screenplays, pitch decks, grant proposals… But it took me years to get back to that initial dream of being a novelist. Partly because there were so many interesting opportunities to tackle. But partly because it’s easier to keep ahead of the nibbling ducks of self-doubt by staying horrendously busy.
In some ways being an avid reader, and being involved in the publishing community, is a detriment to writing because you know intimately all the challenges and potential pitfalls. But at the same time, the writers I’ve worked with at DD inspired me to take the plunge!
When did you take a step to start writing?
A decade ago, the late poet/novelist Priscila Uppal, said: “Look, Helen, you’re always going to be busy producing things or organizations. If you want to write a novel, write it, and I’ll be your coach.”
And so, I did. Other writers stepped in to help after Priscila became too ill to continue, including David Layton, a Canadian novelist who lives in London. We would walk the streets of Bloomsbury, Convent Garden, Trafalgar, over to Southbank, along to the Tate, pulling apart the story elements and characters.
Very sadly, Priscila passed away just before I sold the novel, but Priscila’s belief in it was so rock solid, she always knew it would happen.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
I wrote seven drafts of the novel over eight years.
For most of that time, I simultaneously ran two arts organizations. It was a crazy schedule of twelve-hour days and loads of travel. So, the first several drafts of Pull Focus were written in two-week writing retreat spurts (sometimes at the The Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Ireland or at a friend’s house in Edinburgh), followed by months of minimal writing.
There’s no way you can properly keep any novel in your head with that kind of schedule, never mind one like Pull Focus with its many story beats, characters, and immersive world.
So, I gave up the magazine and that created the space I needed to finish the novel in summer 2019, and then launch into the publishing process which unfolds on its own timetable.
What made you want to write Pull Focus?
In 2011, I arranged an internship with a LA-based production company during the two weeks of the Toronto International Film Festival for a young woman I was close with. In that position, she encountered a sexual predator we’ve all read subsequently read about in the news, and whom many of us in film knew about, but no-one yet openly discussed for fear of his power, and of legal ramifications.
She was fine, she handled it smartly, but I was so angry at his sense of presumption and trespass, and at the people around him who covered up his actions.
I wrote the first scene from the novel – one that managed to make it through all the edits – a week later and built the rest of the novel from there.
I’ve always been interested in the moment when the ground shifts beneath us – because of an external event or internal epiphany – and everything in our lives is viewed with greater clarity, or greater suspicion.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Pull Focus?
For the first few years, lack of consistent writing time because of my work schedule. And because I didn’t yet fully realize how one hour a day, seven days a week was better than a chunk of time every few weeks.
It’s the daily rhythm that keeps the characters and world alive in your head. Otherwise, you waste so much crucial time working your way back in.
It was also a challenge getting the correct balance between the two main narrative thrusts – Jane’s professional and personal lives and all the A, B and C storylines in each – and their point of intersection.
Some early beta readers felt I should focus on one storyline or the other – though they didn’t agree which one! But I knew I needed both to fully realize her character. I also knew I’d chosen the correct editor/publishing house for the novel when they felt the same way.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Jane, the Protagonist, came to me right away. I knew the story was about the lived experience of women in a world where gender and power are indivisible, particularly in the entertainment industry which has been fraught with sexual harassment and assault. I wanted her to be tough but tender and to face the vicissitudes of life with a dark humour, so the readers could connect with her. It was also important to me that she be the agent of her own survival.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
There are two! Although it is fair to say they’re flip sides of the same coin: male dominant power.
Years ago, shortly after starting the novel, I binge-watched the first season and a half of Shonda Rhimes’s Scandal. I was fascinated and repelled by the character of Olivia Pope, and the world of the show. But I found it impossible to see her and her crisis manager colleagues as saviours, which the show seemed to be asking. (I understand that changes in later seasons.)
A little later, while running an ideas festival, I produced several public talks with political fixers, crisis managers and communications consultants on their dark arts. Their message: negative tactics work, so the fault is with human nature, not their actions. I felt the same way about that justification as I felt about Olivia Pope.
And of course, in my life I’ve up against versions of Jacob and Darren. So, all that went into the mix and out slithered the Antagonists.
What is the inciting incident of Pull Focus?
Jane is offered the chance at her dream job when her predecessor is caught in a sexual harassment scandal that divides the organization. She jumps at it, even though it’s a poisoned chalice (influential factions want to see her fail). But on opening night, her partner Bob disappears amidst allegations of fraud and corruption, and strange women come calling.
What is the main conflict of Pull Focus?
Jane must race against time to find Bob and unravel the secrets that his disappearance reveal, ones that threaten their freedom and their lives, while simultaneously juggling the professional knives coming at her, until two worlds intersect.
Did you plot Pull Focus in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
A bit of both. I need structure to then write freely. It’s like the mind moves creatively once inside defined parameters but if everything is boundless, then overwhelm threatens.
So, I wrote an outline, character descriptions, a beat sheet – as if I were doing a film/tv treatment – and I storyboarded it.
But each day I woke up early and wrote freehand about the characters, their goals, their relationships to each other and the world they inhabit. I’d write what I needed to achieve in whatever chapter I was on, and when things were flowing, then I’d start to type.
I often made structural notes long-hand as I went along, to keep things in my head, and/or on little stickie notes I’d paste onto the storyboard and move around, or pieces of paper I’d stick to my desk-top. I’m overly fond of the visual. I’d leave some months between drafts, and when I started revising, then I’d first go back and revise the storyboard and start the process again.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Pull Focus need?
I had several writers I trusted read drafts and give me macro feedback (two of which, Priscila Uppal and David Layton, I mentioned above). At one point I also hired a freelance editor who read two of the early drafts.
When I felt I had taken the novel as far as I could, I approached Susan Renouf, a friend who is also an acquiring editor at ECW Press (Canada’s largest independent publisher). I asked her if she’d read and offer advice. She agreed. She said she loved the book and suggested some story revisions.
And although she felt the novel would be better served commercially to go to a major US house, she said ECW was interested in publishing, should I choose to submit. I wanted to work with Susan – she’s a great editor – so I sent in the manuscript, and their editorial board made an offer.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Write with passion and a sense of pleasure.
Make sure the book is as good as you can make it before you submitting to a publisher or agent. It’s rare that someone will read your work again if they reject it.
It’s essential to receive creative feedback during the writing/revision process. Seek out mentoring opportunities; these can be writing courses, writers’ groups, community-based mentoring programs, writers-in-residence at libraries and other public institutions. Hire sensitivity readers if you’re writing primary characters from cultural backgrounds significantly different than your own.
Read your contract and take the time to understand all the clauses, even if you have an agent. Your book took years to write, and it’ll be governed for years afterward by the contract. In publishing like in relationships, a solid pre-nup is better than a messy divorce.
Remember that all buzz is created. Buzz doesn’t mean a book is good; but it does mean that someone (publisher, publicist, agent, author – or all the above) has invested considerable time and money promoting it. Writers, especially those without a track record, need to start working on marketing at least six months in advance of publication date (preferably longer) and remember they are the primary driver of that process.
Also, have some fun! Celebrate your success in finishing and publishing your book. Take time to build community – read other writers, review books, blog, host book discussions or author talks. That community will support you back. Let your measures of success be wider than just book sales or media hits.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Pull Focus is a stand-alone novel, but when I finished it, I realized I wasn’t done with these characters or themes. So, I’m on the second draft of a follow-up novel that opens four months later and is set in the Bahamas. I have a rough sketch of a third related novel, set in London. I think overall it’s a trilogy not a series, but who knows!
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I am, and it is. To see the book on a bookshelf for the first time was very meaningful. As was the incredible support of friends, family, and other writers. I was also profoundly touched at the first book club meeting I did; the women had read the book carefully and felt so protective of my protagonist.
There’s been lots of frustrations about bringing a book out during a pandemic, in a very crowded literary season, fighting for bookseller and media attention. But all of that is fades in the gratitude I feel for people who read the book and love it.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
To buy Pull Focus: https://linktr.ee/HelenWalshBooks
Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Linked In: @HelenWalshBooks
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