Welcome back once again for another fun author interview. Today, we have Roni Askey-Doran coming in from Ecuador to visit with us. Roni, why don’t you get us started with a little about yourself, and where you are from?
- I was born in Tasmania, Australia and currently live in Mompiche, Ecuador
- I’m an army brat and grew up moving around all over the place. When my father retired from the military and bought a farm, my itchy feet kept me on the road and so far, I have visited or lived in 46 countries on six continents. For about five years, I just wanted to settle and get my hands dirty in fertile soil. In 2009, I bought a piece of land in Mompiche and built a house from bamboo and local hard woods. For now, I’m content to grow tropical fruit trees (soursop, jackfruit, rambutan, custard apple, cacao, mango, papaya, and five kinds of bananas just to name a few) and I also make my own chocolate straight from the tree, but I’m also aware that nothing is forever.
With all of that travel and experience, do you have a specific event or time you can point to and say, “There. That is when I knew I wanted to make writing part of my life.”?
- When I was a toddler, I had a story book called Epaminondas and his Auntie that Dad used to read to me at night. I loved that book so much and we read it so often that I knew the story by heart and if he got one word wrong, I’d correct him. Eventually, Dad became increasingly bored of reading the same story over and over with his pedantic little audience, so he taught me to read the book. By the time I was four, I was making up and writing little anecdotes to read to my teddy bear at bedtime. Writing has been my passion for as long as I can remember.
Do you have any books that helped influence your life toward becoming a writer?
- By the time I was 12, I had finished all of Charles Dickens and moved on to Tolkien. At that age, I devoured books and within a couple of years had read every book on my mother’s vast bookshelf, which included several authors way above my age group such as John le Carré. However, when I first picked up Tim by Colleen McCullough, something changed. I went on to read everything she wrote and, at the highest point of her writing career, I was fortunate enough to meet Colleen at a book festival. Bryce Courtenay’s Power of One was also a story that stayed with me for a long time. Absoloodle! Another story that I have always loved is Don Quixote by Cervantes. I read it while traveling across Turkey by bus in the 90s and laughed so hard at times that people looked across at what I was reading and were really surprised. I think I caused a mini-reading-revolution in Istanbul at the time, with everyone I met running out to hunt down copies of Cervantes brilliant novel.
Do you consider any of these authors to be a mentor to you, or does someone else fill that role?
- Definitely Colleen McCullough. Her writing style, her diligence in her work, her passion and her absolute dedication to research is something to which I aspire. When I met her at the book festival, after accumulating so many rejection letters from literary agents and mainstream publishers that I could have used them to wallpaper my entire bathroom, she said three words to me which I have never forgotten: Never give up.
Is she your favorite author then?
- It’s extremely difficult to pick one out of the thousands of wonderful authors in the world today. The author that has left the most impressive mark on my mind is Cervantes. The way he wrote humor is beautiful. Don Quixote is a work of art and it’s something to aim for when I’m writing humor. Annus Horribilis is funny, but as women’s fiction it’s more genre specific, whereas everyone on the planet can laugh at Cervantes work. It’s brilliant.
That’s quite a recommendation. May have to actually look up Don Quixote, it’s one of the few classics I haven’t tried yet. While you were writing, did you have any support outside the family who helped you keep going?
- Living so far away from home for most of the last three decades, it’s difficult to find one single network of support. Despite this, I consider myself extremely lucky to have such a strong network of friends, most of whom live a long way from me, who keep me afloat and make sure my feet stay firmly on the ground when my head starts traveling towards the clouds. From all around the world; the USA, Canada, the Americas, Europe, Australia, Africa and Asia there are many kind and generous people within my support network who are there whenever I need them, which can be frequently when things get rough.
I agree there whole heartedly. A world wide network of friends is invaluable when you’re writing. (Means you don’t ever have to worry about the insanely late/early hour odd question.) You mention things getting “rough” is that because of the challenges you’ve encountered in your own writing?
- There are times it’s hard to get started. Part of my process is to think about the story for a while before I put a single word on paper. It can be weeks, months or years before I begin to write. I hand write notes at all times of the day and night, regardless of what I’m doing at the time. I’ll interrupt dish-washing or laundry to scribble a note I feel might be relevant to the story. Sometimes, all these notes are still not enough to get me off the starting block. Most of the time, I don’t let it worry me. Time spent in my garden is time spent cooking the story in my mind, and I know that when it’s cooked through, it will come out as a good product in the end. Even though there are times I feel like I need to rush things, I don’t. Some of my best work is produced in the slowest cooker.
- [Also] remembering to eat. When I’m wrapped up in the story and busting to know what happens next, hunger pangs are not welcome. They’re nothing more than an irritating distraction from my writing and could cause me to forget my train of thought. There have been times in the past when I’ve been in danger of starving to death for the sake of a good story. These days, I have achieved a modicum of balance and manage to take time out to eat and drink plenty of water. Toward the end of Broken, I kept a large pot of soup on the stove at all times, and there was often a freshly made cake in the oven. I’d cook before I sat down to write so that when the dreaded hung pangs struck, I could quickly grab a bowl and continue working. There is a jug of water on my desk at all times. I’d use the eating time to reread my work. Broken was edited over steaming bowls of tomato and quinoa soup.
Through this journey, are there any lessons you learned along the way that you can share with us?
- One of the most important things I have learned as a writer over the years is to just let the story flow out as it comes to me. Any first draft we write is really just us telling ourselves the bones of the actual story. The real work comes when we make the time and the effort to fill in the details so the reader can see our vision too. Letting the words come, ignoring mistakes and focusing on the story itself really matters to me. I’m a perfectionist, so forgetting there is a mistake isn’t easy. That kind of thing usually niggles at me until I go back and fix it, but that can detract from getting the story down too, so I try not to do it. Each book takes me one step closer to being able to let go and let the story flow.
I noticed that you had a few books out on Amazon. Do you remember what inspired you to make the shift from the vignettes for your teddy bear to longer works for the public?
- As a child, I recall my father constantly telling wonderful stories. Regardless of how many times I had heard the same story, I always listened intently and still remember a lot of his stories today. I think that part of my need to write is also a profound desire to tell stories as eloquently as my father, using vivid lexiconic imagery in the same way he used his voice, hand gestures and facial expressions.
- My first novel was Pendulum, a fictionalized story based around my own experiences of sexual abuse. I needed to take that pain and find a way to put it outside myself so that I could look at it from a different perspective and begin the healing process. It was quite a long process and that first novel took almost ten years to complete. Contrary to popular belief, it was not a cathartic experience. It was excruciating and it took me back to horrific places I never wanted to revisit, but in the end I was able to get the story out and that was the catalyst for the deeper healing process that I needed to go through at that time.
So your works contain quite a bit of reality as well as personal experience, I’m guessing?
- I’d like to think it’s [Broken] all realistic. Emily is a modern woman living in a modern world. She takes the bus, she goes to work, she eats corn chips and checks her email, and thinks she’s too fat. Every day, most of us do many of the same things that Emily does – hopefully with the exception of carefully planning a suicide on our birthday. The story follows Emily throughout her day, each chapter representing one hour of her life. As we read, it’s like taking a walk around inside her head. We know exactly how she feels and what she thinks every step of the way. Writing it this way, I felt that readers would easily be able to identify and connect with her character on many levels and cheer her on until the end.
- Apart from hearing the tragic news of Robin Williams suicide, and also bearing the pain, anger, guilt and confusion at the loss of several good friends over the years, I have stood in the same place where Emily stands in the opening chapters of Broken. Fortunately, my life was spared and I have found purpose and a million good reasons to carry on. All of my novels carry a part of my soul within their covers, whether it’s a small part of a large part depends on its relevance to the story.
Do you leave messages of hope in your writing for readers to find?
- When Robin Williams died on my mother’s birthday, Broken was born. Heartbroken and stunned at that terrible news, the whole world was left with one single question: WHY? Anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide knows that the question remains unanswered. The intention of Broken is to explore some of the possible answers to that question. It’s my hope that this story will help people with all forms of depression, and also help the families and friends of people who suffer from depression, to understand and discuss that particular thought process. Suicide is currently one of the world’s leading causes of death, and opening up a dialogue so we can begin talking about it will hopefully save lives.
With everything you have been through and learned along the way, if you were able to go back to the beginning and keep the knowledge you have now, would you change anything along the way?
- Not a thing. Broken felt right from the start. Naturally, it went though its process, first draft, second, third, fourth, editing and re-editing and re-writing until I was satisfied that the manuscript contained everything I wanted to express. There is a wonderful thing that happens when I write. It’s kind of hard to explain, but here goes: even though I fully outlined the story, once I got it down, the book wrote itself. It’s as if I was merely the vessel through which the story and the characters flowed until everyone involved was happy with the result. This is the second novel in which this has happened. The first was Chasing Unicorns. Both times, I needed to keep writing so I could find out what happened next because I truly did not know. The characters came out of the walls and explained their role within the story, each fitting perfectly into the text as naturally as moss growing on a riverbank. Broken feels to me like it’s my best work ever. It will be hard to top.
Do you remember when you first considered yourself a writer?
- I’ve always been a writer. When I accidentally changed careers from chef in the UK to journalist in Istanbul in the mid-90s, I became a professional writer for the first time in my life. Seeing my own words, and my name in print in that first issue was like a drug. Instantly, I became addicted to wordsmithing and have never stopped.
Sounds like writing is your career then. Both a self chosen, and career chosen option.
- Yes, it’s a career, and I’m dedicated to writing. Broken is my fourth novel and my eighth published book. However, book sales are not what puts food on the table. In order to survive, I rent out beds in my third floor loft and I sell home-made organic chili sauces, jams, chutneys and chocolate to local restaurants. Even though I’ve been kept alive by my cooking skills for a few years, I don’t consider it a career. My current sauciness is just a way to get by until the last twenty plus years of writing transform suddenly into an overnight success and I no longer have to eat the pages from my novels to fill my belly.
::Chuckles:: Hopefully it doesn’t take that long! Perhaps if you shared some of your current news, or a bit from your current project, the timeline to success can be cut down a bit.
- There are several tidbits of news in my life right now. My fourth novel, Broken, just came out. That’s big news in my little corner of the world. Apart from that, my newest rambutan seeds have begun sprouting and we should have fruit in about five years. This is also wonderful news. And… in August this year, I’ll be traveling to Australia to promote my book and visit with family for a while. This news is a long time in the making, but it’s happening at last and I’m excited.
- At the moment, I’m working on Phew! Argh! Eeew! a non-fiction collection of short stories that took place on my travels around the world. It’s subtitled Travel Tales I Never Told Mum, so that should make my next trip home a bit interesting. The stories recount the times I almost died, the near-death experiences, accidents and illnesses that I didn’t write home about, as well as a smattering of some of the hilarious events and also the disgusting things that happen when you put on a backpack and leave home for decades at a time. As a woman traveling alone, I feel it’s important to write about the good and the bad. In all of my work, regardless of the event, I make an effort to shine a spotlight on my sense of humor, so Phew! Argh! Eeew! will be a fun read for the most part, although it will probably convince armchair travelers to stay at home in the safety of their comfortable seats.
- There is a story called “Are you sure it’s just a cold?” about the time I contracted Falciparum Malaria in western India and almost died in hospital. Hovering between life and death for several days, the doctors and nursing staff had all but given up hope. My temperature was soaring and my pulse was weak. No one expected me to survive. They called in a priest to perform last rites and a gaggle of giggling nuns came in daily to see if I was still breathing and to pray over my inert body. They also brought in food for my travel friend who was at the end of her tether, terrified I was going to die on her and guiltily wishing I would make a decision one way or the other. The local villagers came by my bed while I was unconscious to bring flowers and pray, leaving small Buddhas and prayer beads as I lay fighting for my life. On the fourth morning, I woke up and surprised a nurse who had come to change the IV drip. One of the ten percent who survive the most deadly strain of malaria, I accidentally became somewhat a hero in the village.
With the different stories you write, do you have a specific writing style that helps set you apart?
- My style has changed and evolved over the years. I used to love long descriptive sentences and detailed descriptions. Nowadays, I prefer shorter sentences and just enough description for the reader to evoke their own mind picture. My process has also changed as I have grown into my role as an author. These days, I read all my work aloud chapter by chapter as it’s finished, and I also read my completed manuscripts backwards, from the last chapter to the first. If I were to go back to Pendulum and implement this process, I have no doubt some radical changes would be made to the manuscript. Broken, on the other hand, was purposefully written as an emotional page turner, with short sentences and brief descriptions designed to carry the suspense from beginning to end.
Changing tracks a little here. I keep hearing your interesting titles, and I’m wondering how you select them. Do you have a specific technique, or do the stories themselves provide?
- The story is about Emily Zylaz who is planning to commit suicide on her birthday. When someone gets depressed enough to reach that point in their lives, many elements of their life must be broken. Usually, it’s not just one thing that breaks a person, their heart, their mind, their spirit, and their soul, it’s the culmination of several events that leads to that first thought: I wish I were dead. Broken seemed like the most appropriate title for a novel about suicidal thoughts.
What about the cover? Did you make it yourself, or did you work with someone else?
- Usually, I design the covers of my books. There are two things I need to begin a writing project. The book needs a title, and I need an image that adequately reflects the story. Not all the final covers are the image I started out with, but that initial image helps me keep the plot on track. There is one image I did not design on my own, on the cover of I’m Bipolar And I Know It. A blind artist in Los Angeles drew the figure for me after I explained what I wanted, and another graphic artist colorized it to my specifications. Between the three of us, we created a beautiful book cover. I also post my covers online to elicit comments, but that is often more confusing than not. If you send an image to 1000 people, you get 1000 different opinions, so nowadays I just go with my gut.
::Nods:: Makes sense to me. (And, yes I’ve read it. You can find the review here. We’ll wait if you want to go look at it before moving on.)
With the tough stories that you tell, what do you read for fun?
- I’ve just started The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It’s my first fiction for a while, I spent the last year and a half reading mostly memoirs and biographies with the odd novel thrown into the mix. I’m only into the first few pages so far and looking forward to getting my teeth into it.
Do you read anything by new authors?
- I recently read Carolyn Parkhurst’s Dogs of Babel and loved it. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.
And, the dreaded question for most authors: What advice would you offer for other new and developing authors?
- Read, read and read, and then write, write and write. And then read everything you write both forwards and backwards and out loud. When you can hear your story in spoken word, mistakes leap out and smack you in the forehead. It’s one of the most useful writing tools ever. These days, they make computers that will read your pdfs in a monotone, making it easy to hear when something sounds all wrong.
Will have to try that. My poor cats are usually my first audience, but I know since I wrote it I’m not catching everything.
Roni, thank you so much for stopping by today. Before I wrap this up, do you have any last words for our readers?
- One day, I would love to meet my readers in person. There are so many fantastic people out there who read and who enjoy my stories. People from all over the world email me comments all the time and I think it would be really special to meet them face to face and share a few moments being in the same space. Apart from that, I’d like to say thanks for reading, and please keep reading and sending your comments. They’re all appreciated.
And, there she goes folks. Roni Askey-Doran. If you enjoyed the interview, you can find her blog here, Twitter here, and Amazon page with most of her books here. (Don’t ask me why Amazon doesn’t have them all listed. Shame on you Amazon!)
She will also be returning on Sunday with Emily from her latest book Broken.
If you enjoyed the interview, and wish me to host one for you, please stop by my Offered Services page, and send me a submission. I will be glad to discuss details with you.