Interview with Joan Fallon

Published 2016-09-16.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I can't remember if it was the first one; I doubt it was because I have always loved making up stories. It was about a girl living in a yellow tent on the beach and it was inspired because I woke up one morning and on the beach in front of our house was a yellow tent. I never saw anyone come out of it or go into it. When I walked past with my dogs it was closed up and there was no sign of anybody. The tent was there for over a week and then it was gone. A mystery. So I wrote a story about a young boy who discovered the tent one day and he watched and waited until he saw a young woman go into it. It wasn't very good but I still like the idea and may use it in a novel one day.
What is your writing process?
My writing process has changed over the years. At the moment I prefer to write for about 4 hours in the morning and sometimes an hour in the evening. I am not one of those people who write it all down in a burst of creativity and then edits it into shape. I write, editing as I go along. I go back and re-read what I did the day before and then write something new. I constantly change and improve what I am writing. Most of my books have some kind of historical background so I do a lot of research before I begin and fill an A4 notebook with notes. I prepare a structure and a list of characters but I don't always keep to them; very often the book will take off in its own direction. When I am satisfied with the manuscript I give it to friends and family to read for their comments. If they like it I send a copy to a professional editor. Then I usually have more editing to do and sometimes even some structural changes to make. It is a long process but at the end I feel that I have written the best book I can.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
That is a hard question. I have been an avid reader since I was five years old - a long time ago now. I was an only child and both my parents worked so books were my constant companions. The local library was my second home. The books that made the most impact on me, although they were by no means the first I read, were the Narnia Chronicles, particularly The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I loved that book although now I am not sure what it was that set it apart from the others. As a child I was very fond of reading fairy stories and myths and legends. Perhaps that was where my love of history came from and also the feeling that there is more to this world than just the things we can see and hear.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Another hard question. Inevitably I shall have to give five fairly recent books in order to answer the 'why?' part of it.
1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is a marvellous book and very deserving of a Booker prize. Its appeal to me is in the way that it tackles a complicated period of history and makes it exciting and alive. It also takes as its main character, Thomas Cromwell, a man vilified by historians generally and makes you like him. No easy thing to do. Mantel's writing is rich in description and moves at a fast pace.
2. The Prophet by Kahil Gibran is another favourite. It is a beautifully written book that you can turn to time and again. I always find both pleasure and comfort in reading it.
3. Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy has always been a favourite of mine. His exploration of family and relationships show me that nothing ever changes - love was the same in 19th century Russia as it is today in 21st century Britain.
4. A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd is next on my list. Sometimes I like to read something which makes me laugh and I was chuckling all the way through this book - maybe it was because I was working with the Foreign Office at the time and could recognise some of the situations.
5. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is another excellent book. The sheer size of it made me hesitate but I am so glad I read it. She writes of hardship and injustice in a way that makes you want to do something about it.
What do you read for pleasure?
I almost always read fiction for pleasure - any kind. I like some crime novels but usually go for human drama, contemporary fiction, authors I know. Like most people if I find a writer that I like I will read all of their books.
Sometimes I read biographies or history books.
To be honest I will read anything - I have even been known to read all the notices in the doctor's waiting room rather than sit with nothing to read.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
Accepting invitations to book clubs is a good way of making contact with readers. I find that book club members like to talk to an author about her books and her work. They usually buy your books and tell other people about them.
Using social media has also helped, particularly Twitter and Facebook. I belong to a number of author groups on Facebook and groups about Spain, as most of my books have some connection with Spain and Spanish life. I also post my books on as many book web sites as I can.
Giving short talks about my books and especially their historical context has been a good way to get greater coverage.
Good reviews are a great help to boosting sales, both on Amazon and elsewhere.
Describe your desk
My office is small but overlooks the garden and has views across the valley to the Mediterranean Sea, which is about a mile away. It is an inspiring place to write.
My desk is an L-shape, with the computer on the shorter side and all my notes and books on the long side. My husband built it out of some planks of pine wood and it fits the space perfectly. It is probably the most untidy place in my house, especially when I am in the middle of writing a book. One of the first things I do when a book is finished is clear my desk and file away all my research. It gives me a great feeling of satisfaction to see it all tidy again - until the next time.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in a variety of places: I was born in Scotland, with a Scottish mother and an Irish father but was educated in England - this makes me neither one thing nor the other. Even in England my parents didn't stay in one place for long so we moved house quite a lot. Then, as an adult I moved to Spain. So I have lived in many houses and many towns. I think this has influenced my writing in one sense because I use places that I know as locations for my stories. But I have no great feeling of belonging to any one place and although I always give my nationality as Scottish, I don't feel that I am a Scot. I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing as far as my writing is concerned but it does help me to see places objectively, as an outsider.
When did you first start writing?
Although I have always wanted to write I didn't actually start writing until 2006. Many of my previous jobs had included such tasks as report writing, drawing up lesson plans, handouts for students, summaries, that kind of thing but not writing fiction. I felt that one day I would start but somehow never found the time. Then I saw a Creative Writing course with the Open University and signed up. That was it; I was hooked. As soon as the course was completed I started writing full time.
How do you tackle designing a book cover?
I used to design my own covers, looking for a photograph that reflected the content of the book but that would also have some impact and encourage someone to pick it up. My daughter, who is a photographer, usually helps me out there. But then I decided to buy a ready-made cover design to use and for a while I was much happier with the result. Just recently I realised that I cannot get the same professional look that a full-time designer can create. I contacted a few book designers and in the end chose Rachel Lawston of Lawston Designs. She seems to know exactly what I'm after, so now I'm in the process of updating most of my covers, starting with the Al-Andalus Series. It is not an enormous outlay to make to achieve a much more professional look. I'm hoping to see if that has any impact on sales.
What's the story behind your latest book?
My latest book is PALETTE OF SECRETS. It is a contemporary story about a woman who is approaching the end of her life. Nancy Miller is a famous artist but people know very little about her past. She is persuaded to let a ghost writer help her with her memoirs and quickly regrets her decision. Delving into her past is a painful experience and there are things that she does not want to reveal; despite this she finds herself recalling events that she would rather forget. It does not take long for her ghost writer to realise that Nancy is hiding a terrible secret and she starts her own investigation into Nancy's life. When, towards the end of the book, she guesses what has happened, she does not know what to do with this new information which threatens Nancy's reputation and could have devastating effects on her family.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
That's easy - no mainstream publisher would take a risk with my books. Yes they liked them, yes they were well written but no, they didn't think they could sell them. So I decided to publish them myself. Now I don't even bother to look for an agent or a publisher; I prefer to publish my books independently. There is no longer the stigma that there was a few years ago about being an independent author; people realise that the quality of indie books can be exactly the same as traditionally published ones - some are excellent, some good and some rubbish.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
It has given me access to more outlets for my books and more opportunities to promote them. Also, reading some of the publications by Mark Coker has enabled me to see what I need to do to make the most of the promotional opportunities that are out there.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
I love creating characters and bringing them to life.
What do your fans mean to you?
Without my fans I would give up publishing my books - I wouldn't stop writing but I would lose heart in my ability to do a good job. Fans are so important. Sometimes when I am feeling that I'm getting nowhere or that what I have written is rubbish, I read a review from a fan and I'm rejuvenated. I couldn't do without them.
What are you working on next?
My next book is the third in the AL-ANDALUS series of historical novels: THE SHINING CITY and THE EYE OF THE FALCON. The series is set in the south of Spain, during the 10th century and is about a beautiful city called Madinat al Zahra, just outside Cordoba. The sequel is set in the same place and follows straight on from THE EYE OF THE FALCON, where the ruling Umayyad caliph was a ten-year old boy who was kept prisoner in the old city while the regent took control of his kingdom. In the final book in the series I cover the rise of the regent Al Manzor and the demise of the Umayyad dynasty. The new book is in the very early stages at the moment and I have a lot of research to do before I start to write. Like the previous two books it will be full of intrigue, adventure and some romance.
Who are your favorite authors?
William Boyd, Graham Greene, Ian McEwan, Mavis Cheek, Beryl Bainbridge, Hilary Mantel, I could go on and on.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
My dog. He is a fantastic alarm clock and once he has you awake he will not rest until you get up. But I am very much a "morning person" so I expect I would get up anyway. I am not much good at working in the evening or having too many late nights.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
Sometimes I play golf, I walk a lot, I read, I like to watch television, especially drama and films and I spend time with my family and friends.
How do you discover the books you read?
Sometimes they are recommended by friends or given to me as presents. I also make a note of books that sound interesting if I see any reviews in a newspaper or magazine and occasionally I'll check out one that's recommended on Twitter or Amazon. I also check recommendations from Goodreads friends.
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