My New Year’s resolution was to get back to doing these author interviews that I think are so interesting. I love hearing from people who call themselves writers. I find our similarities as reassuring as our differences. I also think it’s particularly helpful in challenging the isolation that many writers face.
On that note, I’m excited to introduce the Today’s Author community to Tabatha Stirling, who shares her particular writing struggles, including the publication process of Unbound.
How old were you when you started writing? When did you decide you wanted to be published?
I was writing stories in my head before I could physically write. I think I was 7 years old when I met Pamela Kettle, the ultra-glamourous author-mother of my friend Danae, at Prep School.
I loved her at first sight. She had a massive, complicated auburn beehive, wore exotic, flimsy clothes, smoked Sobranie Cocktail cigarettes through an ivory holder (God! I know, but I was only 7), and swigged neat Stolichnya out of frosted glasses ringed with lime juice.
She wrote a few books I’d never heard of, but did I care? Not one bit and when I saw her name printed on the dust jacket I knew instinctively that I was going to be a published author one day.
It was hard for me because I suffer from Bipolar Type II and was un-diagnosed and un-medicated for a long time. This meant I had terribly low self-esteem and found it very difficult to finish projects or send anything off for query.
I found the physical act of writing torturous and was surprised when I was placed in the last 10 of a Comedy script competition run by the BBC. But I didn’t pursue it because I always felt a fluke and that anything successful that I did was by chance and I would never be able to replicate it.
My father was very unsupportive of my writing and my art. Actually, dismissive is more accurate. I remember him telling me that I should just go and get a secretarial job because ‘really, I was nothing special’.
I sometimes imagine where I would be in my publishing life if I had been supported. But that was the hand I was dealt and I’m delighted that I now have the chance to be traditionally published.
What’s your book about? Where did the inspiration come from?
My book explores the dark heart at the centre of Singapore’s maid culture and the abuses of human rights there.
I lived in Singapore from 2010 to 2014 and from my very first week I was appalled at the way both maids and helpers were treated.
Firstly, it is important to understand that these women and girls live in your house, usually in tiny little rooms, smaller even that most people’s utility rooms. They have one day off a week (there was no mandatory day off in Singapore for FDW (foreign domestic workers) before 2012), often work from 5.00 am to 11.00 pm with no breaks, are expected to hand over their passports to their employer and quite often are not allowed out in their free time.
If that wasn’t enough, some employers even change the women’s natural names to something Western and pronounceable. For example, from Rizel to Lisa. Some women come leaking breast milk, some women don’t see their children for 2-3 years and most send 80% of their money back to their home countries.
I was inspired to write the novel because I had no political voice in Singapore as an expat, demonstrations and political gatherings are illegal and the inhuman and corrupt maid agencies were not interested in a single person’s concern.
What I could do was write. And that is how Blood On The Banana Leaf came to life. I am passionate about these issues because all women deserve a voice, to be heard and not to feel invisible.
How long have you been working on this book? What else have you written?
I’ve been working on this book since 2013. I started writing it in my bedroom. My favourite place to write is my bed. I would have the fan on because I loathe AC and it gets pretty humid in Singapore and would stare out at the Banyan trees in the park and the incredibly fragrant frangipani in my neighbour’s garden.
It actually started out as a crime novel. I was washing up (as you do) and I thought ‘what if a Western employer had an affair with a maid, she became pregnant and they conspired to rid themselves of his present wife?’ And then it became something much more.
I began to see these stories from four very different women weaving in and around each other like four meandering tributaries exploring abuse of all kinds and how women cope in the most brutal of circumstances.
It was a very difficult book to write at times because much of the abuse described in the book are true stories trusted to me by helpers that lived close by, my beloved helper, Clarie and other women who had sought sanctuary at HOME, the NGO in Singapore. It is an incredible place that shelters women who want to return home but have no money for a multitude of reasons.
I’ve written loads of short fiction and poetry and have had quite a bit of success having things published which is very pleasing (and a relief). I’ve also written a 30 minute play, Don’t Like Mondays, about a school shooter. It is published on Amazon and was performed for Drama GCSE in 2014.
I have stories and poetry in two anthologies published by the Cake and Quill Collective and poetry being published in an up and coming anthology by The Feminine Collective.
Oh! And my next two novels are decided and sketched out. I think that’s it.
When you hit a writing slump, how do you get motivated again?
Writing blocks are the scourge of all writers in any genre but I think they are particularly dreadful for novel writers. Part of successful writing is the fluidity of the words, a flowing narrative and ideas springing from every corner of your world. This happens in patches and when it does you feel like you’re invincible and your novel is absolutely the best thing you’ve ever written. I think it feels quite like being in love. Intoxicating, heady and seductive.
On the flip-side when it staggers, drops to it’s knees and falls face down on the dusty page, then it feels as if you will never write anything good again, you will never be published and why the hell are you even bothering.
This is where writer’s groups are so important because you all understand this process and can lend moral support and practical ideas when someone is hollowed out with anxiety.
When it happens to me, I leave it to one side and design things. I am a book cover designer by trade and I just let the other side of my creativity make beautiful, colourful things.
Unlike writing, I never freeze up with design and I find it much easier. I can work for 18 hours a day on a design project and never get bored. Writing takes much more focus for me with frequent breaks and total silence.
I’ve always wanted to be a cool fantasy YA writer like Victoria Schwab and have groovy playlists that she publishes for her fans.
But no, frequent breaks, mostly on the net, and total silence.
I have a young, energetic family and an incontinent Beagle so total silence is very unusual but I’ve got to bang on with editing soon and some friends have offered a room when I need the peace.
Tell me a bit about the Unbound process.
The Unbound process is a white-knuckle, white water rafting experience. It is a game of sweat, tears and so much sighing that one sometimes wonders what it’s all about. But never, ever, ever do I regret signing with Unbound or starting the journey because once I’m funded I will be traditionally published and that is all I have ever wanted as a writer.
I know some authors write to tell their stories to readers, and some just because they love it and some because it’s a bit of a hobby.
I write to tell my stories, to make a really good living, to become an acclaimed writer in my field and to be able to write full-time. I may not achieve all these goals but I’m going to have fun trying.
Unbound is a literary crowdfunding platform but unlike other crowdfunding models it has a strict submissions process, a traditional publishing house that kicks in once funding is achieved AND a distribution deal with Penguin Random House which means our books will be in Waterstones and other well-known book shops.
I was signed by Scott Pack (iniitally through a Twitter pitch) who was Head Buyer for Waterstones for 10 years. I first heard of Scott when I was on Authonomy, a writing site that gave authors a chance, if their book was popular enough, to get to the ‘Editor’s Desk’ and receive a critique from a reader at Harper Collins.
But first you have to crowdfund your book with pledges by many, many people. And trust me, even if you have a billion friends on Facebook and 2000 followers on Twitter not everybody understands the idea.
I’ve had people think I’m asking for a loan and becoming quite cross and at times it does feel really grubby. But this idea, the idea of Patrons funding books has been around since Dickens who, incidentally, used the same model to fund some of his best known works.
British culture is Fort Knoxed about asking for money. The Americans and Chinese are much more open to it but still I keep banging on those doors and am now up to 50% which is half-way there. A very exciting milestone.
There are some incredible rewards for supporters even at entry Patron level. £15.00 will get your name on the Supporters page of EVERY edition of the book. Literary immortality for fifteen quid is not a bad deal!
So that’s a tiny window into my mercurial brain. Thank you for reading my article and do remember to pledge if you feel inspired: www.unbound.com/books/blood-on-the-banana-leaf
And thank you, Katie, for having me. Some great questions to answer.
You can check out Tabatha’s blog here.