F C Malby. Literally Engaged With Her Writing.
F C Malby came to my attention through Twitter. I was impressed by her professional approach both on Twitter and as a blog writer. What really fascinated me though was the fact that she had self published a literary novel. I was not disappointed with Take Me To The Castle and wanted to know more about the background of the book and her experiences as a self published or independent author.
Talk me through how you came to write Take Me to the Castle.
It was 1993 and Czechoslovakia had split, following the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. I was in my teens, still at school and thinking about teaching as a career, when I found out through friends in London that they were looking for native English speakers to work and teach in the Czech Republic. Up to that point people from the West hadn’t been allowed into the country. They wanted a native English speaker to go out to teach English. I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to see the country as it was changing and to gain some teaching experience.
I contacted a school in the Czech Republic and they said they would like me to work with them for a few months. I had to fill in a form that had to be signed by the headmaster, the state police and the central government, and photocopied eight times. The bureaucracy was incredible. I went out in February 1993 and spent several months living above a school for children with disabilities with some of the teachers who worked there, but I was teaching at a gymnasium, a secondary school, in a nearby town. I spent several months teaching English, via a translator, to students between the ages of 11 and 18.
It was an amazing opportunity because it was a country at a political turning point. People’s life opportunities were opening up and they were keen to learn English. There had been no opportunity to learn it in schools. They had learned Russian and German, but English had been banned from the curriculum under the communist regime. Many people of my age didn’t want the freedom that they were being given because they were so used to life under communism where there was 100% employment and they liked the security of knowing where their boundaries lay. They had not experienced the same difficulties as those who had lived in Prague, whose family members had been imprisoned. I think what struck me was the fact that they didn’t want the change, and they felt safe with what they knew. Growing up in the West you see a very different view of the situation. I think that sowed the seeds for the novel, without my realisation at the time.
I then went on to get a degree in Geography and Education and I taught in London.
I moved to Vienna in 2007 and began writing while I was looking for a teaching job. I had the idea for the book in my mind then. There is something about a different culture and location that inspires you to write and brings with it plenty of new ideas. I wanted to see whether I could write consistently and for long enough to produce a book. I was fairly disciplined and sat down at my desk every morning from 8am writing continually for quite a few months. I really enjoyed the process and I kept going until I finished the novel in 2011, having had two children in between starting and finishing the book. I spent the best part of 2012 polishing, editing, and getting the manuscript ready for publication.
I researched the political changes that were taking place at that time. I had learnt a lot while I was living in the Czech Republic but I also wanted to look into the history more deeply. I began to look into the government files and the lives of people who were imprisoned. It was important to look at all aspects from different angles. I wrote the book partly to give people an insight into the lives of those living through the communist regime. The story is told through the eyes of Jana, a Czech girl who is around the age that I was at the time. The story is a weaving of fact and fiction.
It is interesting reading a book about Czechoslovakia written by an English person, because here in the UK we have a very different viewpoint to someone who’s been brought up in Eastern Europe. Your book does seem to successfully convey the impression (as far as it can to someone embedded in English culture) that it is written by someone immersed in the Eastern European culture. How were you able to do this?
The book would not have worked if I had written it from an English viewpoint, although in my head I was writing for a Western audience. Czech and other Eastern Europeans have read it and have said that the story resonates with them. It was a difficult mix of presenting an Eastern European viewpoint to an audience who would not have experienced this particular period in history through the Czech culture.
I think I was able to write the book with a certain level of understanding because I had lived there, in amongst the Czech people, at a critical time in the history of the country.
I experienced a real culture shock when I arrived, but it was much harder when I came back because of the way I had become integrated into the culture. I found the sheer choice of food and products in supermarkets overwhelming when I came home. Everything felt like an unnecessary excess. Czechoslovakia was an amazing place in that it was untouched by the West in many ways. There was a freshness about it, because they were deeply rooted in Czech music, custom, and folklore.
So the book did resonate with people who were from Eastern Europe and they felt it was a pretty accurate representation?
I had an email last week from a reader from Slovakia who said she could really feel the emotion because she and her family members had lived through similar experiences. She said she was surprised that an outsider had managed to produce something so honest and authentic.
So you say you looked at documents and researched the book very thoroughly, do you read and speak Czech?
All the documents were in English. I contacted various people, mainly for the prison records and articles on prison conditions. I also read a lot of biographies and autobiographies of people who were imprisoned and books written by the wives of communist party leaders, which were really insightful.
For the chapters on conservation work at the cathedral, I contacted the Getty Institute and found their records and reports on the restoration work. I enjoy research and my next book will also have historical aspects to it.
Was the restoration of the cathedral an intentional allusion to the restoration of normality?
Yes, it is meant to be a parallel story of what was going on in the country and in the lives of those going through all of the changes. They didn’t have the finances to restore it properly under the regime. A lot of funding came in at a later date from various conservation institutes, the new government, and from different organisations, so that it could be properly restored. It was an expensive project and required a lot of specialists from quite a few different areas. I studied archaeology as part of my Geography degree and I find it fascinating. I think it lightens the story, because parts of it centre around imprisonment, secret police activity, and the devastating effects on people’s lives. Writing the book and making it all work became a balancing act.
Some reviewers have commented on the historical sequencing of the book, which seems to jump about a bit at the beginning. How much trouble did this particular part of the book give you to write, because it could be confusing to the reader? It seems to be one of those things where once you’ve read the story you can then go back and understand properly what’s going on.
When I first wrote the book it was completely linear chronologically, and then I went back and layered it. The flashbacks to Jana’s childhood, and with the scene in prison, were written later because when I had finished writing the story I felt it needed more backstory. If I had written those scenes at the beginning and followed a chronological timeline it would not have worked. I think it needed the flashbacks.
Lukas is an interesting character, in that a lot of people must have been in his situation then. Have you talked to people who were in this difficult situation?
Some of the research for his character came from reading the biographies, but I also visited the Statue Park in Budapest. This is where they collected all the statues, which were originally in the city, and it is almost like a shrine to communism. The communist sympathisers in Budapest will go out there regularly. There is an interesting video which looks at secret police activity and I also watched a German film called ‘The Lives of Others,’ which had a huge impact on me and shows the intense pressure that people were put under. Speaking to Czech people, I found out that families were turned against one another, and marriages pulled apart, in such an incredible way that I think it can be difficult to understand for those of us who have not been through it personally. I wanted to get inside the mind of the character of Lukas and to try and understand what it must have been like to have lived under that pressure. A fictional character allows you that liberty.
I found out while I was researching that they would often release people on the grounds that they would share information. This practice was rife and people would live not knowing whether any of their family members, or co-workers, were members of the secret police. They knew they could potentially be betrayed at any point and be imprisoned, or even lose their jobs, and children would lose places at their schools. It was a very difficult time to live through for many. I wanted the wrestling in Lukas’s mind to come across in a way that would be both convincing and believable.
It seems, in the book, that now the whole regime is changed and it’s going the other way, they’re trying to identify all the Secret Service informers. What has been going on with that? Was there a witch hunt?
A lot has happened since the early 1990s and there is now a great deal of freedom. The Communist Party still exists and has some young members with some as young as 23. Communism is still active in the Czech Republic on a smaller scale. The party holds about a third of the seats in government. It has become a much more liberal society in many ways. In the early stages of the new government they did root out many of the communist leaders. What affected people most was the release of government records. The public were allowed access to the files and it destroyed so many families.
Now they’ve moved on and the older generation of Czech people don’t want to talk about it. I think it runs the risk of being swept under the carpet. I wanted to create some sort of a record of what happened so that future generations can learn from it. I think it’s important that young people learn about key periods in history.
Moving now onto the process of actually getting the book written and published. Was it just a case of you having the discipline to sit down and write?
Once I got going I really enjoyed it. Writing wasn’t something I initially thought of doing, but looking back I realised I’d written a lot in the way of poetry and journals for years. People always say that you get to the halfway point you can’t go any further, and I did find that at about 30,000 or 40,000 words in I felt daunted by the idea of writing the same amount again. It wasn’t as difficult as I had originally thought it would be because I was so hooked by the story. You have to be disciplined to write consistently and I did sit down each day and work from eight till six, pretty much day in day out until it was done.
One of the hardest parts is editing, which took up the best part of last year. I sent the manuscript off to two professional editors and then did a big rewrite once it came back. That was much tougher for me than actually writing the novel. They say writing is rewriting and I can see why.
The issue of editors is an interesting one because you’ve independently published the book. Having said this, the quality of the writing is high and the presentation both of the printed book and the e-book is very professional. How did you find and use your two editors and did it work well?
Thank you. I looked at the Society of Authors’ website because I wanted to make sure I was working with professional editors. This helped me to find an editor who had a lot of experience with editing literary fiction. He agreed to copy edit the work and then sent the manuscript on to a proofreader who looked at whether or not the general story made sense and whether things were linked up correctly, checking for consistency, so they both worked on different parts of the book. It is important to get both a copy editor and a proofreader. What came back was really good. The track changes helped me to work through the manuscript. They made some suggestions, most of which I followed through. Working with these editors made the process much easier and the writing much tighter.
I also hired a professional cover designer who created a range of covers and we worked together to create the finished product. I then did an enormous amount of research into print and e-book publishing. An important aspect of e-book publishing is that you must check that it works properly on every device. The formatting took quite a while for the e-books but it is important. I did my own formatting but you can hire people to do the formatting for you.
So how did you find out how to format an e-book?
I spent a lot of time reading books and articles. If people are paying for your product it has to be professional. You can’t ask them to pay for a book with punctuation and grammatical issues, with text all over the place. There is a huge amount of pressure if you are self-publishing because people often expect it to be a lower standard and I didn’t want that to happen.
It’s incredibly hard work and I’ve learnt a lot for next time around. I have also published a short story (The Bench) since the novel, so it was much quicker because I knew what to do. Some of my other short stories have been published in online journals, and longlisted in competitions, so I would like to publish an anthology at some point.
Did you decide to publish straightaway or did you try submitting to agents and publishers?
I had heard so many horror stories about the amount of rejections. Because I have two small children it took me a long time to finish the book and get it edited. I was not happy with the idea of going through months of sending off submissions, then waiting for a year or two for the whole thing to come to fruition if I did get it accepted.
Many people were asking to read it and I just wanted to get the book out. I’m really happy with the decision, it is quick and I can see exactly where the sales are coming from for both paperback and e-book in real time, and the royalties are relatively high. I can change the cover or update the book with a new edition easily. It has been a really positive experience.
You’ve obviously had to invest money in this enterprise, because you’ve used editors, a professional cover designer and have an ISBN number.
Things have moved on from the vanity publishing in the early days of self-publishing. You upload the book, format it, and are given the ISBN number. I sent a copy to the British Library to be catalogued then published the eBook. At the moment the book is only available on Kindle but I am considering spreading it across other eBook platforms as I have had emails from people asking if they can read it on their iPad or on Nook and other devices.
I have been surprised at the high quality of the paper. The book feels very substantial and the paper is relatively dense and hard wearing.
I read a book recently that I absolutely loved but I was surprised to find that the binding fell apart very quickly. I wanted mine to not only look good but hold together well and to be printed on good quality paper. I was able to look at proofs, much like a traditional publisher, and I ordered several to read through to make sure I was happy with them. I also sent copies to beta readers to read through at the pre-publication stage
Has the money that you had to invest in publishing Take Me to The Castle been worth it?
Absolutely. The sales were higher than I had anticipated, both with paperback and eBook. To begin with the two were equal, now the eBook is overtaking the paperback in terms of sales. I have certainly been able to recoup what I paid for cover design and editing services. I would have published the book anyway, because I believe in it and I wanted to get it out to readers. I have made a profit on it but I write for the love of writing.
This is interesting because, in writing literary fiction, you’re not going into the easiest independent publishing market.
Yes, I know the sales are not particularly high with literary fiction but, although I read widely, I read mainly literary fiction and that is the style I feel comfortable with at the moment. I also read a lot of political biographies and travel books and I try to read a range of books. I think it is important for writers to branch out. I didn’t think that the sales would sky rocket, but it’s done well. I had a free giveaway for a week and Take Me to the Castle sat on the Amazon chart at number eight in historical fiction and 11 in literary fiction, which was a pleasant surprise. I have had thousands of downloads, so it helped to market the book.
The key with self-publishing is the marketing. I set up an interview with a newspaper in the UK and sent copies to local radio stations. I spoke to bookshops who said they would be happy to stock copies. The marketing and PR is a lot of work but a traditionally published author is also expected to help market their book. Publishing houses expect authors to be pro-active.
You are engaging very actively in online social networking. Has that been useful?
It has been very useful, although it was completely new to me. I only began using it in September 2012 and I set up a blog. Until then you wouldn’t have found my name anywhere on the Internet. It felt very strange to put my name on social networks as a writer, and it took a long time before it felt comfortable for me to call myself a writer, because I was at the beginning of what I hope will be a long career.
I have met some really interesting people, both readers and other writers, and the book has been picked up by several agents through social media sites like Twitter and Linkedin. Network platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been a very good way of interacting with people and I really enjoy it. Readers have started following some of my Pinterest boards based on the book and sent in photographs of themselves reading Take Me to the Castle in different locations. Other writers are following my writing board, which has my blog posts and writing tips. I think social media makes it possible to learn a huge amount from each other and to engage. I’ve built up a blog following and a mailing list which is really important. You do need a website, at the very least. Book bloggers have also asked to interview me or review the book and, for each of those people and the resulting exposure and sales, I am really grateful.
Something new that you did which is very interesting is young filmmaker Alfie Barker’s trailer of your book.
I made contact with Alfie Barker through crime writer, Christina James. I’d been following her blog and thought the trailer for her book, ‘In the Family’, was fantastic. I contacted her and asked who had created the trailer. Christina is lovely and she gave me lots of helpful information. I made contact with Alfie who he said he would be happy to make the trailer. It was shorter than Christina’s but I didn’t feel the book needed a particularly long trailer. Alfie spent a weekend working on the filming through the snow that you had in England and, after his masterful editing and film making skills had been put to work, I am really pleased with the result. He is a remarkable filmmaker and he is up for several awards at the moment. The trailer has really boosted sales and I have spread it across all of my sites.
Through online networks, and readers who have read the book, it has been promoted by word of mouth which is by far the most powerful marketing tool. If you have picked up a book to read, it’s usually because somebody you trust has recommended it. They say that you have to see a book between 5 to 7 times before you actually buy it, which is quite a lot, so you have to get the book in front of as many readers as you can. You have to be careful that you don’t get so taken up with marketing that you lose valuable writing time. It is important to get on with the next book.
Did you find that the short stories helped you to limber up the next novel?
Definitely. I have experimented with subject and style and I have written some crime fiction pieces. I enjoy the punch that you can create with a short story or a piece of flash fiction. The impact of which is difficult to match in a novel. When you start a novel, and you know you have up to 100,000 words ahead of you, it can feel daunting and you have to stick to a plan. There is a real freedom in writing short stories and I have really enjoyed it.