Claire Savage

An Interview

Colin Dardis

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Claire Savage is a professional copywriter, journalist and creative writer from the north coast who writes prose for both children and adults. One of Lagan Online’s 12NOW upcoming writers from Northern Ireland to watch out for, her debut novel, Magical Masquerade, is out now.

Colin Dardis: Hi Claire. You released your debut fantasy novel for children, Magical Masquerade, earlier this year – how has the response been to the book?

Claire Savage: Hi Colin. Yes, I published the book at the end of April and the response so far has been great. It’s always a little nerve-wracking putting your work out there, and this was my first novel – self-published as well – so I wasn’t sure how it would be received. However, young readers (both boys and girls) so far have given glowing reviews of it, which is wonderful. They seem to really like the magical world I’ve created, and the quirky characters.

I’ve even received my first fan mail, from a reader who took the time to write a letter saying how much she loved the book and drew pictures of the main characters at the bottom of the page. That was a lovely surprise.

Adult responses have been good too - I’ve had positive experiences with the Belfast Book Festival, who let me officially launch Magical Masquerade in June, and Libraries NI has also given really nice feedback. In fact, I’m doing an event with them in Portstewart in November as part of the Dublin Book Festival, which it’s brilliant to be a part of. I also submitted the novel to The McCrea Literary Award run by Ulster University earlier this year and, while I didn’t win, the judging panel was very complimentary in their comments about Magical Masquerade, which made my day.

CD: You’re a professional copywriter and journalist – one imagines this specialist background must put you in good stead for your own creative writing? Do you ever catch yourself reviewing your stories, thinking “this sounds too much like copy”?

CS: I think working as copywriter and journalist in the day job does help with my fiction as the habit of writing is very well instilled in me! Sometimes though, when you write all day in that regard, it makes writing on into the evening a little more effortful, as the brain needs a break.

In terms of the writing style, I’m well used to writing for lots of different markets, so have never really found that my creative writing mirrors my copywriting or journalism. Quite the opposite in fact, as I love writing very descriptive passages in my fiction, which doesn’t really suit journalistic writing, it being more pared back. My fiction also veers a lot towards the magical and the extraordinary, while my day-to-day copywriting and so on is very much of the real world and very factual!

I read a lot so I don’t find it too difficult to cross over from one writing style to another as I think I have defined styles within each type of writing that I do. For example, the reporter side of me can write brief news articles; the feature-writer can add colour and detail to an interview; the copywriter can create web content and business/marketing copy for various platforms; the author/creative writer can go to town on fantastical descriptions and so on. But I do think journalism and copywriting (and reading of course) helps me with writing short stories, which require more brevity than novels.

CD: Is it difficult to find a balance between writing that pays the bills, and writing for creative pleasure?

CS: The short answer to that is yes! My working day (the 9-5) is reserved for my business – doing copywriting work for clients, networking to find new clients, attending events, delivering workshops and so on. It’s my full-time job and is what earns me a living, so has to take precedence over my fiction. In that respect I’m like most authors I know as the creative writing just gets fitted in around everything else.

It means that my book-writing and writing short stories and poetry is done in the evenings and at weekends, when of course there are other ‘life’ things to be done. So, it can be difficult to strike a balance. In fact, there isn’t really a balance I suppose, as I don’t give equal time to my business and my creative writing – the business has to come first.

Also, as I mentioned before, because I write all day in my business as a copywriter/journalist, it means it can be difficult to motivate yourself to keep writing into the night or at the weekend. Sometimes, the fact the subject matter is so different makes that less of a problem but the act of writing constantly can be draining – both mentally (for ideas/inspiration) and physically. Though I do hand-write all my fiction, so that helps, as it takes me away from the computer screen and ‘business work mode’.

CD: More and more contemporary voices from Northern Ireland now seem to be urban in origin, or at least setting. Living near the Giant’s Causeway, are you conscious of the surrounding landscape as an influence on your work?

CS: I was definitely conscious of my environment when I wrote Magical Masquerade, as I decided early on that I wanted to feature the landscape around me in the book. It’s so scenic and magical, and is steeped in folklore and history, so I was keen to weave that into the story.

When I first approached publishers back in 2011/12, feedback was that readers weren’t really interested in Northern Ireland and that it was best not to set a book there, or to use it as inspiration. I actually found that all the more reason to set my story on the North Coast which, ironically, has since become one of the most desirable destinations in the world, thanks to Game of Thrones. It’s always been a popular location but recent years has really seen tourism take off here and that’s all based around the stunning landscapes which have been showcased on screen.

Like most writers, I find inspiration in where I live and no doubt that filters into my writing – sometimes consciously and probably often, unconsciously too.

CD: What’s harder: writing for adults, or writing for children?

CS: A tricky one to answer as I think children’s authors would say writing for children, and those who write adult fiction would say writing for adults! As someone who has written short stories for adults and a book for children, I think I’ve experienced the challenges of both. Perhaps writing for children has a slight added challenge in that you have to be more careful in how you pitch your work. For me, aiming my novel at the 9-12 age-group meant I had to make sure I didn’t dumb things down for them, while at the same time not over-complicating the writing either.

When writing for adults, on the other hand, I think you can just go for it without that barrier – there’s also more of a general understanding about how the world works. However, writing any novel is challenging in different ways.

I do think, however, that if you don’t write for children, there’s often a misapprehension that it’s somehow easier to write children’s books because the readership is younger. It means children’s authors are sometimes held in less regard perhaps than those who write for adults, which is unfortunate. Some might argue that children’s authors are under more pressure and have more of a responsibility in their work, as they’re helping to influence and shape young minds that are still making sense of the world, whereas adult readers have already got a sense of themselves…

CD: Your website mentions that along with your writing talent, you also enjoy playing the violin. Would you ever consider any kind of musical collaboration for your work in the future?

CS: That’s a lovely idea! I would certainly consider something like that. I love classical music and matching the right sound to a piece of work can really enrich and add layers to it – bring it to life in a whole new way. Music is incredibly powerful in evoking a sense of story and place and there would be so much scope within Magical Masquerade to conjure up something really beautiful in that regard.

Unfortunately I don’t play my violin as much as I used to – there’s only time for so many things and I’ve been focusing on my writing more over the past few years. I did get to Grade Four when I was taking my lessons though, so I must get back to practising!

CD: You also teased recently on your blog that you spoke to a purchasing manager for a “top tourist location” about stocking Magical Masquerade – has it been challenging finding distribution channels for the novel?

CS: It depends on what you mean by ‘challenging’ I suppose. Although I self-published my book, I produced it just as a traditional publisher would, using a professional editor and book cover designer, and refining my writing over the years to ensure the best quality novel I could. As a result, I was very pleasantly surprised (and relieved) that those in the book industry whom I approached were receptive to it.

There was a possibility that I could have had Magical Masquerade stocked in a big chain bookstore (maybe even more than one) in Northern Ireland. However, the difficulty for independent authors arises in the cost of supplying their books to the bookshops. Traditional publishers supply book distributors with their books in bulk, and these distributors in turn, supply the bookshops. Both take a cut of the profits.

As a self-published author without the backing of a traditional publisher, I would have to buy in a lot of books to give to a distributor, to give to a bookshop (if they wanted to stock my book). Obviously that costs the author a certain amount of money and with the distributor and bookstore discounts (which can be fairly hefty and differ according to who you deal with), you may make no or very little money from your book. You may even likely make a loss.

That’s not to say authors don’t go down this route, but having already invested in my book editor and cover designer I haven’t gone down this particular road myself, as it’s another big investment. It’s not all about making money, but at the end of the day, authors do deserve to get paid and it’s not always viable for us independents to get into shops. The very nature of Print on Demand anyway, which is what I opted for with CreateSpace, is that it focuses on online sales. It allows authors to side-step the aforementioned supply chain costs by selling their book on Amazon so they can at least make something back from it. For an author with limited funds, that’s very helpful.

I’m waiting to hear around Christmas-time whether my book might be accepted for the shop I mentioned in my blog – it might work a little differently so it could be an option. I also had a bookstore in Dublin which had said would take some copies so I plan to visit them soon as well!

CD: You previously received a SIAP award from Arts Council NI to develop a collection of short stories, as well as a collection of poetry. Is this what we can expect next?

CS: Yes, I received that award back in 2014, so from June 2014-2015 I worked on a collection of short stories and a collection of poetry, which were both completed. It meant that I then had a body of work which I could submit to literary journals and the like, which I subsequently did. I’m happy to say that quite a few of my stories from the collection found homes in various journals, and I had some poems published as well.

I didn’t go down the route of publishing the stories or poetry as full collections – nor did I approach publishers about that. I wanted to establish myself first by getting work published and it was also a testing of the waters to see if my stories were any good and ones that people were willing to publish! I think to approach a publisher with a view to getting a collection published, it’s best to have been writing for a while and developing yourself as a writer – getting work into journals and so on and building up a writing CV of sorts. Of course, there are people who will write away and never submit to journals – they might work on a collection, submit to a publisher and get it published – but I didn’t have that confidence, so I preferred to find my individual stories homes.

As for what next – having been focused on Magical Masquerade for the past year or so, I am keen to get back to writing more short stories and poetry (which tend to be for adults), but I’m also planning the follow-up to MM, so we’ll see what happens. In the future, I’d love to have a short story collection published – something to aim for!

CD: As a journalist, you’ve interviewed other prominent Irish/Northern Irish authors, and covered many literary events. Do you feel connected to the idea of a ‘literary scene’ in Ireland/Northern Ireland?

CS: Yes, I feel connected to our local literary scene in two distinct ways – both as a journalist and as an author myself. The journalism connection came first – I sought out authors to interview from an early stage in my career, writing for Verbal Arts Magazine and trying to slip in features on writers anywhere I could!

Carlo Gébler (who I was delighted gave me a quote for my cover and a lovely review of the book) was the first author I chatted to as a reporter at the Coleraine Chronicle. He was doing an event at Ulster University in Coleraine with Martina Devlin, and I’ve interviewed both of them a few times now over the years, along with Bernie McGill. Through Culture NI and as feature writer for The Incubator Journal, I’ve also had the chance to chat with many more authors and cover literary events. That has inspired me in my own writing and is always very interesting, as I love finding out about writers’ habits and processes, and their creative journeys, as well as their latest work.

Through Women Aloud NI and the tireless efforts of Jane Talbot, who set it up, I’ve recently become much more connected to the writing scene as an author myself. Initially, going to writing events and festivals, such as the John Hewitt International Sumer School, and meeting people at these helped me to feel part of ‘the scene’. But being based on the North Coast (when most things literary-related seem to happen in Belfast!), can make you feel a bit disconnected, so Women Aloud NI has been great in hooking up women authors online through our Facebook group, page and Twitter. There are also various Women Aloud NI events, which have now happened north and south of the border, extending our sense of connection even further.

My own recent participation in the Belfast Book Festival and other events, as well as my upcoming participation in the Dublin Book Festival, has also helped make me feel more connected to the writing community. I’m grateful to be included in these.