So anyone who frequents this blog will know how much of a fan I am of Dorothy Koomson. The author of eight books, Dorothy specialises in gritty women’s contemporary fiction and has racked up sales of over 1.5 million worldwide. I’ve been Twitter buddies with Dorothy for a while now, although we’ve never actually met in the flesh. So it was with great pleasure that I was able to interview her following the release of her eighth novel The Rose Petal Beach. So if you’re looking for a bit of a respite from over-indulging on leftover turkey and Christmas TV, have a read.
Hi Dorothy, thanks for the taking the time out to speak to me. First I’m going to start with the question you probably get asked the most, but when did you realise that you wanted to become a writer?
I’ve always loved books and loved writing stories, so I realised from a very young age. I’m not much of a reality TV fan, but I’ve always loved stories and drama and watching television and reading. I wrote my first book at 13, it was while I was at school so it was written in one of my exercise books. Every night I would write a chapter and in the day I would hand it round to my convent school friends. It was set in America – even though I’d never been to America – and it was this huge story about this girl who falls for a new guy who comes to her school, even though she was still pinning over her ex. So in retrospect it was actually quite a grown up story (laughs).
Were you surrounded by books as a child, was the importance of
reading drummed into you in your household?
There was no one telling us that we had to read, but we knew it was important, and I loved books anyway. My older brother used to read to us all the time when we were younger, and my Mum taught me how to write before I started school.
Tell us a bit about your family life growing up?
I’ve got two brothers and a sister, and two parents who are still married. So yeah, my childhood was alright, I can’t really compare it with others as it’s the only one I know. In my books I try to get across a sense of family and togetherness; growing up I was never on my own, I didn’t crave my own space though because I used to live in my head. On the way home I used to go to the library to find out how to write books, I’d read up about grammar and sentence structure.
So you were quite dedicated from a young age?
Yes, I was quite obsessed (laughs), I can get quite obsessive at
times. I do try and get things right and be as accurate as possible.
You started off as a journalist, do you ever miss the fast-paced life
of working on magazines and newspapers?
I still call myself a journalist; I’ll always be one in my heart. My life was good as a journalist, it was always wanted to do. I did a Masters in journalism at Goldsmiths which really helped me to get work experience at the Independent. From there I went onto work at the New Nation newspaper and worked there for a while until I was made redundant. The day I was made redundant was the closing date for application for a job at New Woman magazine. Because it was the closing day I had to courier over the application. They called me in for an interview and although I never got the job I did freelance for them for a number of years. But the skills I picked up in journalism are very valuable to me as an author. To be able to stand back when you finish your work and ruthlessly cut is a very useful skill. When I wrote The Rose Petal Beach I had to cut 50, 000 words. By the time it got to my editor we managed to cut down a further 15, 000 words, and it’s still the biggest book I’ve ever written.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel?
Every book is a bit different, for example with The Rose Petal Beach I had the idea initially of a woman whose husband had been accused of something, whether it be an affair or a crime, and how it would affect her. I’m fascinated by the wives of rich and powerful men who are accused of things, and how they handle the situation. So I had the idea ages ago but hadn’t really developed it. I think it was around October last year I began thinking of writing this theme as my next book with the view of getting it published. Then I signed up with my new publisher, and it took me about six months to complete. It’s quite unusual to have the idea, research it and write it so quickly, it usually takes about a year, but this time it was quite quick.
Do you plot your storylines, do you know what happens to the
characters before you start?
I kind of know, I have a vague idea. But with the subjects I cover once I start researching it’s never what I think it is. I always think I know a subject until I start to read about it, and speak to people, then it’s completely different. With The Rose Petal Beach, when I was writing it I thought one thing would happen, but then Tami (the main character) would say to me “No, I’m not doing that, I’ve had my epiphany”.
Which of your books would you say has made the most impact on you?
I would say that all of my books mean something to me for some reason, but the book that has changed me the most is The Woman He Loved Before. When I was writing the scene where Libby had to shave her hair, it really made me look at how I think about beauty. I actually thought I was comfortable with the way I look until I wrote that book and examined the emotions that Libby was going through. It was then I actually realised that I’m not as happy with the way I look as I thought I was. I don’t consider myself an unattractive person, but if I look in the mirror I only see the flaws. And that’s what I found really sad. I’m not perfect by the outside world’s point of view, but I am perfect for me and I have to start believing that.
And what did you learn from writing The Rose Petal Beach?
This book has probably been the hardest to write because the stuff I thought I knew about affairs was only touching the surface – I didn’t actually realise the huge impact they have on families. I also learnt a lot about porn addiction as well, and how many women’s lives have basically been ruined by the easy availability of porn. Women are putting other women down for not being okay with porn, and I think that’s quite horrendous. I also find the way it depicts women is also horrible. But I can guarantee the minute you say that you’ll get a million people defending it saying it’s just porn, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I’ve learnt that there is quite a lot wrong with it – young people are being brainwashed into thinking that’s what sex is and young women are being brainwashed into thinking they should be up for certain things. If you are up for certain things that’s fine, but go into it with your eyes open and knowing you should feel absolutely comfortable with it.
Most of your books feature black female protagonists from similar backgrounds as you, are any of your main characters based on you?
My characters have certain things that are similar to me, for example we like chocolate or watch the same TV programmes. But I’m not my main characters, people always think I am, but I’m not. I was talking to another journalist recently and she was saying that she interviewed an author who kept getting annoyed when someone suggested that she was her main character. I actually think it’s quite complimentary as it means you’ve got the character down accurately.
Your last few books have all been emotional thrillers, do you think you’ll continue to write these type of stories?
Yes, I think so because these types of stories give you a lot to look at and to analyse. The themes examined in Goodnight Beautiful and The Ice Cream Girls (the books cover topics such as female exploitation and rape) were interesting to write because there was a gap in the market at the time I wrote them. With The Ice Cream Girls I wanted to look at two people who had been separated for twenty years, who had very similar lives up until a certain time until one of them is sent to prison. Then I did some research and discovered that the most common reason that women are sent to prison for a lengthy time is for murdering an abusive partner, so that’s how the subject of domestic violence came up. I think we’ve all got a dark side of us, we’ve all got the ability to be not very good people. It’s just that some people are able to show it more than others.
Do you ever feel emotionally drained after completing a book?
All the time, definitely. It’s such a big push at the end, having to stay up all night writing. Also, I can’t just walk away from the characters after finishing a book. After I hit the send button and send the finished draft to my agent I often can’t sleep because the characters are playing around in my head. So it takes a few days to unwind, and it takes a few days to let them go. And it leaves me feeling a bit sad because I know that’s it; I won’t be seeing them again. So when I finish a book it’s about winding down and catching up on unfinished things I’ve neglected. That said, I’m very lucky, I’ve got the most amazing job in the world, I am able to spend each day living out my imagination.
We learnt recently that your book The Ice Cream Girls will be made into a TV drama, congratulations. How did that come about?
Thank you. Well I heard a production company were looking at the book, but in publishing this happens all the time, a lot of authors have their books optioned for TV and films and nothing becomes of it, so I just forgot about it really. And then they told me that it had been accepted, so yeah it was great. It’s scheduled to air in Spring 2013.
And how much artistic control do you have?
It depends on the production company, really. Sometimes they’ll completely change it and you don’t have any say it, and sometimes you do. I feel I should point it out though, although I’m extremely excited about the TV programme, it isn’t as exciting being published. I love reading and love books. I also love TV as well, but there’s a different connection I have with books. TV is not the end goal, although it’s a still fantastic thing to happen. But nothing compares to having a book published and seeing it on the shelves. I love being published. I get emails from people who say that my book has changed their lives to a point where they can now reveal certain things to other people. You can change people’s lives with books.
What advice can you offer black authors who are struggling to get exposure for their work?
It’s really hard question to answer because I think there is a certain expectation from black authors with a lot of publishers. They expect black authors to write about the so-called ‘black experience’, and not so much, popular fiction. In the early days when I was trying to find a publisher I’d get a lot of letters back saying although it’s about a black woman it’s not about the black experience. I think it’s difficult for anyone to get a book published these days, it’s just so impossible. It’s very difficult to write a book to begin with. It is difficult to get a publisher or an agent, and extremely difficult to get a publishing deal. So it’s actually getting harder for everybody. So for black authors, if you are not writing books that people expect you to write, it’s hard to break out of that mold. The main advice I give to people is to keep writing what you want, writing what you love and keep going. Keep trying. And also look into self-publishing, although you’ve got to make sure that your book is well edited and reads properly – don’t just put it out there. My first draft was shocking! So if you’re going to go the self-publishing route, be as professional as possible. Get a professional to read it; there are a lot of services that will do that for you. They’ll find plot holes and suggest you re-work stuff that doesn’t work. Every writer needs an editor, no matter how well you write.