Have you ever had an experience where it feels like you’ve been transported directly into a book you’ve read? Meeting the four authors behind Chasing Marian was that for me. We met at Love Books, a charming little bookstore that feels like you’ve stepped into someone’s (very well stocked) lounge. There we settled into the corner table of the adjoining café to discuss their latest book and joint project – Chasing Marian.
Chasing Marian was authored by Amy Heydenrych, Gail Schimmel, Pamela Power and Qarnita Loxton.
Amy Heydenrych, the author behind thrillers Shame on You and The Pact started writing fiction on the eve of the 2010 World Cup. A date she remembers as that first piece of fiction she wrote was a short story that ended up in crime anthology called Bloody Satisfied. She wrote it in protest to her employer at the time who refused leave to allow Amy and the rest of the company to watch the opening ceremony. She spent that afternoon writing and discovered she loved writing and being able to communicate thoughts through stories.
Gail Schimmel, author of The Park, Never Tell a Lie, Two Months, The Accident and The Aftermath, has been writing stories since she could write. But after her father, an artist, told her that writing was too much work, she took up law – a career she still practices by day. By night (and during every other free moment) she writes fiction, satisfying the itch that never left.
Pamela Power, author of Misconception, Things Left Unseen and Delilah Now Trending started her writing career as a drama student. The first thing she wrote was a stand-up comedy routine. The first time she entertained the idea of publishing a book was back when you had to send three chapters of your book to England at quite the cost. Two positive responses later, she was encouraged but would only publish her first book years later. First, she completed a masters in writing and began her career as a TV writer. Presently she’s a script editor for The Estate on 3.
Qarnita Loxton, author of Being Kari, Being Lily, Being Shelley and Being Diane started writing fiction after a law career and baby which saw her in her words “losing my mind so I did a creative writing course”. A six-week writing course gave her the confidence to write more than 300 words and her first novel.
It was book launch day when I sat down with these four women. It also happened to be one of the first times they’d all been together IRL after two years, so they had a lot to say. To each other. And so, I sat back and watched them giggle, talk over each other, share inside jokes and yearnings to lick (Pamela) and pat (Qarnita) each other. A scene that could have been straight out of Chasing Marian making me a (well entertained) fly on the wall. It also demonstrated the chemistry between them which allowed them to write as one unit.
Chasing Marian revolves around four characters – Jess, Queenie, Matt and Ginger – who meet in a Marian Keyes Facebook Fan group and become fast and unlikely friends who plot a way to meet Marian. It’s written from the perspective of each character, and I needed to know the writing process of four authors writing one book.
Gail: “We had a concept at the beginning, so we knew what it was going to be about. Then we each wrote a chapter and got it to the group on Sunday (or Monday if we weren’t being good.) The group read the chapter and the next person would write their chapter. We each wrote a character, so each character has their own point of view.”
Nowhere in the book does it say who wrote which character and they’ve all decided part of the fun is not knowing. I guessed two out of four correct but have been sworn to secrecy so if you want to know you’ll have to ask them yourself.
Pamela: [We] would sometimes throw curveballs to the next person and end on a cliffhanger. I’d write notes saying, “I envisage this and this happening” and because I’m a soapy writer it would be “I envisage this person getting kidnapped by a sex trafficking ring and maybe it was their twin brother”, and then everyone would say “no, that’s not going to happen”.
Gail: In the beginning Amy wanted to kill off one of the characters in a thriller type way.
Amy: We wrote in a very organic way, but then there was a point at the end – around 60 000 words when our head girl Gayle said, “I think we’re reaching the end of the book, let’s start to wrap up the stories of our various characters”. Then someone started with an epilogue, and then there was some additional wrapping up and then we edited the book and that helped smooth the whole story over.
Qarnita: It was a fun way to write a book. It was also stressful because for three weeks you just read what came and then suddenly you need to write. I had three days of sleeplessness – what am I going to write. Then two days of writing it and getting out of various kidnapping, sex trafficking scenarios and then relaxed for another three weeks. It was a lot of fun. Writing it in lockdown, it was like living in a whole parallel universe that was a lot more fun.
After much deliberation the four agreed that the book took about 8 months to write, roughly a week per chapter. A rate roughly the same as when each author writes their own books. Which led me to the next question, what did they learn from writing a novel as a group?
Amy: Writing is such a solitary thing and that sometimes means there’s a lot of your own self-worth that you put in your writing. When I have put books out in the past it was very stressful being on submission, getting published, seeing how people view the book. It’s been so nice because I have this separation writing in a group because we’re all sharing the ups and downs of being published. It’s a lesson that writing doesn’t have to be the solitary thing it can be this wonderful, shared creativity and something fun can come out of it.
Gail: I always thought I would hate it. I don’t like working as a group. In the last two years I wrote this and co-wrote a series and there’s something very nice – you feed off the other people’s creativity and it’s amazing.
Qarnita: I like to think about what I’m going to write quite a bit before I write. It’s quite a sophisticated procrastination method that I’ve been very successful at. But they forced me to just write. Getting out of the thinking about it so much and just doing it, that was something I’ll take with me in any other project. Stop thinking and just start.
Pamela: I normally write like this for Television, so I’m used to it. For me it was nice because I’ve always liked that part of TV writing. I always feel very exposed when my book comes out and then my sister is going to ask me if I was sexually abused when I was 3 because that’s in the book and I have to tell her “Not everything in the book is about me”. And she does that with every book.
Amy: My dad thinks everything in my books is real and I write thrillers.
Which begs the question, how much of an author’s own experience and personality filters into their fictional characters?
Pamela: I think there is a piece of you in every character. I see there is a bit of me in everything I write.
Qarnita: it’s impossible for there not to be because you experience the world through your own eyes and your own filters, and you write characters from that experience.
Amy: I think you must have some aspect of yourself for authenticity. When I write, especially an emotional scene, I may not have gone through that specific thing, but I’ll call back a memory where I felt a similar way and write from that memory.
Gail: I always think that that’s what they mean when they say write what you know. Not write what you know as ‘I know this suburb of this town and these people’; but write the feelings you know and take what you know and use it in your imaginary world. There’s always a piece of me in the protagonist. There will be side characters that have nothing to do with me.
As for why they all love writing fiction, they all agreed it was because fiction is better than reality.
Qarnita: The world is shite. You need to make up your own stuff. The stuff in my head is way more fun.
Pamela: You can be much more truthful in fiction.
Qarnita: And you can have sex with anyone you like
Pamela: Why are you looking at me?
Gail: Fiction is fun and the people in your head have to come out.
Amy: There can be more justice in fiction than in real life. Before this novel, which is lighter, I wrote thrillers. In real life, someone gets murdered, the case document gets stolen, and the murderer runs away. But in writing a thriller you can deal with those issues and bad things can happen and you can fix them. Even in Chasing Marian everyone starts off with an issue and they can end off with a resolution. Life can be messy but with fiction you can tie it all up and find meaning in everything.
To tie up a book well, especially one written by four distinct voices, they all agreed an editor was essential.
Qarnita: They don’t get paid enough!
Gail: I love being edited; I think everyone needs to be edited. There is no such thing as a writer so good they don’t need an editor. We needed an editor to herd the cats and bring a bit of coherence into the story. To make sure the timeline is being followed properly and that we were keeping consistent. An unedited book shows.
Amy: Someone can be a very talented author but if they haven’t been edited strongly enough it brings the book down. We had two editors who were so incredible and so invested in the book. They were very constructive in helping us bring everything to life.
Pamela: I’m a script editor so I love editors. I love being edited. I’m used to it. In TV we’re ruthless because there’s no time so I just rewrite stuff. I find everyone very nice in the book world, it’s not like that in the TV world. I love the kindness in the book world.
I usually like to ask authors what their ideal writing environment is, a question I thought was safe until…
Gail: I feel quite strongly about this. You can’t have and ideal writing location.
Amy: Please wait for Gail to climb up on the hill she’s going to die on.
Gail: There is no perfect writing environment. If you really want to write you can’t sit at a beautiful desk with all your plants and an inspirational quote and quiet and the muse will come down and fill your body with writing spirit. You write whenever, wherever you can, and you don’t complain.
Amy: I feel similarly to Gail. At the moment, as a parent to a small child I write on the side of gymnastics class and there’s a brief half-hour before he goes to bed that I write on my phone. That doesn’t mean it’s my ideal. Ideally, I have a lovely desk I like being surrounded by plants and I have my notes in front of me and a cup of tea and that is ideal to me. I’m content in that.
Pamela: I’ve had to write in the car, on the plane… editing while in labor. Ideally, I want to be in my office with my intravenous coffee and my cats.
Qarnita: I like having a view. I like to able to look out the window and seeing something. A lot of writing is staring out…what do I see, what is coming. I spend a lot of the time staring out the window so it would be nice to see a view. Mostly, I don’t like my children to be in my line of sight. It’s because it’s too real when there’s someone who’s too close to me. Ideally not to see people I know because it’s intrusive to my fiction world.
Gail: You need to be able to go into that world…
Amy: My husband always says if I’ve been writing that afternoon there’s a time when I’m in the bardo – between that world and the real world and he waits for me to be contactable.
And that’s how you write a book with four people. A little bit of chemistry, a mutual love for Marian Keyes, a stellar editor, and the ability to write wherever, whenever without complaining, but ideally at a tidy desk with plants, a view, African strength tea, bottomless coffee and not a family member in sight.
Oh and as their novel is a love letter to Marian Keyes, it would be remiss not to find out which one of her books is their favorite:
Amy: Again Rachel
Gail: Anybody out there?
Pamela: Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, anybody Out There?, Rachel’s Holiday…
Zissy is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to make things, do things and wear things.