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Interview with Tessa Barrie of Lost Blogs

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I very recently 'met' the Canadian author, Gila Green, who is based in Israel. Since then, I've got to know her a little better, as she kindly agreed to be interviewed.

To date, Gila has written four novels, and her work has been shortlisted for many awards, which is no surprise. Her books focus on everyday people tackling immigration, racism, alienation, war, politics, romance, poverty, terrorism, and surviving. After I read those words, I was instantly drawn.

Tessa: Gila, a very warm welcome to Lost Blogs and thank you so much for agreeing to do an interview with us.

I am always fascinated by the dedication and motivation shown by writers, who live such busy lives, yet manage to find the time to write books. You are a freelance writer, editor, online creative writing instructor and EFL college lecturer, as well as mother to five children. How on earth do you manage to find the time to write books?

Gila: First, thanks so much for having me on Lost Blogs. It's wonderful that today I can correspond with writers, readers, and creatives all over the world, and I appreciate this opportunity.

As for finding time to write books, I'm going to quote a character from my own novel, No Entry. Sipho Mbuza is a game ranger in South Africa who spends every spare moment drawing. At one point in the novel, my heroine Yael asks him how he had time to draw her such a beautiful gift with all of his responsibilities at Kruger National Park. Sipho says, "Everybody needs to breathe and drawing is how I breathe." Insert writing instead of drawing, and that's my answer.

Tessa: Brilliant answer and one I can totally identify with. Was there any particular book from your childhood that shaped you most as a writer?

Gila: I can't say there is. I'm a cliché as far as writers and childhood go. I still remember my primary school librarian, Mrs Nozick, calling me in, sitting me down, and telling me there were no more books in the library for me to read. I had read them all, and I would have to reread some or wait for a new order. This was a small private Jewish school, and it probably had a much smaller library than the public schools. Still, it was a relief to move up to grade nine in a public school and see the massive library.

Tessa: When did you first decide that you wanted to write a book?

Gila: I can only remember wanting to write a book. In high school, I wrote a lot of poetry (oh no, cliché again).

Then, as I got into my twenties, married and started having children, writing seriously seemed more distant and publishing? That wasn't even on the menu anymore.

By the time I had three children under the age of six, creative writing was barely a shadow on the horizon. It was still something I wanted, but it was not a voice I could hear any longer, though I never gave up reading and I've read a book a week all my life, sometimes two.

My very supportive husband saw how miserable I was becoming once I was pregnant with my fourth child, and the door to writing appeared closed forever. I'll never forget it. I was at the beginning of my pregnancy and I saw an advertisement for a new creative writing program opening up at Bar Ilan University (just outside of Tel Aviv). That was another obstacle; I always thought I'd have to wait until my kids grew up, so I could travel overseas to do a writing program. Whoever heard of an English-language creative writing program in a Hebrew-speaking country?

I showed my husband the advertisement, and he told me to apply. I couldn't believe it. Apply? I was due in six months with our fourth, the university was at least 90 minutes away door to door. We had no family to help out with the young children, not to mention the cost of a master's degree, of giving up the income I was bringing in as a freelance writer. He insisted. Send your portfolio, he said. If you get in, we'll make a plan. I got in. And we made a plan! I have to say that Israel is also a very child-friendly country, and my professors were thrilled to hold my new-born while they lectured. From three weeks old, she came to school with me.

Tessa: That is a brilliant story. I'm not sure how many professors in the UK would allow babies inside lecture theatres. Your first novel, King of the Class (NON Publishing, Vancouver), was published in 2013. It is set post-civil war Israel and has been hailed by one Amazon reviewer as a great novel by a debut author. Although I had the idea for my first novel in my head for years, it took me four-and-a-half-years to write it, pantser-style. How long did it take you to write King of the Class?

Gila: It took me about three years to write King of the Class and another one or two to publish it. I had only written and published a few short stories up until then. Moving from short story form to novel form was much more difficult than I thought. Particularly, as I'd read all my life, I wrongly thought I understood the novel much better than I really did. It turned that out I had a lot to learn, and I hired a professional editor as well because, at one time, I was ready to give up.

Tessa: Tell us a little bit about how the story for King of the Class first came to be?

King of Class (NON Publishing) Now Or Never Publishing… what a great name for a publisher

Gila: Initially, King of the Class was a story that centred around the bullying of a young boy. There's a concept in Israel that each class has a "king" and a "princess." They are the ring leaders and, if the teacher cannot get them under control, the teacher loses control of the whole class. This kid is now tagged for years.

At the time, I had no idea how important the location and setting are in a novel. In short stories, it had not been overly taxing, and I was inexperienced enough to think the novel wouldn't be so different. Ha, ha. I did not want anyone to compare anything I wrote to an actual, contemporary community – another newbie error – and I wasn't interested in writing a historical novel, so I chose the future. I had no idea what a huge decision that was. In that sense, it's probably a great thing because if I knew then what I know now, I would not have tried King of the Class. As it is, I learned a fortune, and it was worth it but not an easy road at all. I had no idea then just labelling something "futuristic" would alter the selling, marketing, audience. Those things didn't enter my mind, and the social media landscape in 2009 was a universe away from what it is today, so I was walking in blind.

On top of that, there was a lot of tension in Israel between the religious and secular communities, and it seemed so obvious to me that at the pace they were going, they could not continue to co-exist. So, the novel became set in an Israel of the future with one secular and one religious state.

People became far more interested in the setting than in my original idea about bullying and, in the end, the setting "took over" the novel. It was a big lesson for me about novel writing, and though the result was far from my original vision, I still enjoy the feedback I receive, which has gone as far as a review in Room Magazine (Vancouver) in which the reviewer compared the three major characters to the Holy Trinity!

Tessa: 2018 saw the publication of your second book, Passport Control (S&H Publishing) which has received excellent reviews, described by fellow author Steve Stern as a stunning achievement. I understand that this book started life as a short story you wrote while you were pregnant with your fourth child. I homed in on this as my current novel-in-progress has evolved from a short story I was long-listed for at the beginning of this year. And, I have carefully plotted this one. Would you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser?

Gila: Initially, I was definitely a pantser. Hands-down. But I've become more of a plotter as time goes on. It saves me a lot of time and forces me to think out the whole novel. Having said that, I have no problem making radical changes, deletions, additions, and so on. My original plot is never the final product, but I do plot now – it's not my favourite activity, but I have come to see that in the long run, it's far more efficient and worth the slog through it, no matter how much the final draft differs.

White Zion is a novel that takes readers into the worlds of 19th century Yemen, pre-State Israel, modern Israel and modern Canada. You will hear the voices of a young boy marvelling at Israel's first air force on his own roof, the cry of a newly married woman helpless to defend herself against her new husband's desires, the anger of the heroine's uncle as he reveals startling secrets about his marriage and the fall-out after generations of war.

Tessa: 2019 has been a hectic year for you with the publication of two books. White Zion (Cervena Barva Press) in April and your first young adult eco-fiction novel is No Entry (Stormbird Press, Australia) in September. Many congratulations, two books in one year quite an achievement.

Gila: Thank you.

Tessa: White Zion is a novel in stories, which has been described by Ruchama King Feuerman, author of In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist and Seven Blessings, as gritty, yet shimmering stories. Where did the idea to write this book come from?

Gila: I mentioned that I originally wrote short stories. On a technical level, they came naturally to me, whereas novels did not. Also, at that time, novels were not acceptable as a thesis for my MA in Creative Writing, so I got around that rule by writing a novel in stories. Those are the practical reasons for White Zion.

As for the idea, it always niggled at me that no matter how much Jewish literature I read –and I read it by the kilo—the grandparents were always Yiddish-speakers, no one was from the Middle East, there were few Jewish soldiers, and so on.

My Canadian mother fitted the bill for the background of the typical character in a Jewish novel by the typical famous Jewish novelist. But, anyone remotely like my father, and anyone he associated with did not.

As a young person, I always wanted to round this out. To say, hey! There are millions of Jews from Middle Eastern countries who speak Arabic, Farsi, and other Middle Eastern languages. Hebrew anyone? They eat different foods, listen to different music, and they are no less Jewish. How can it be that they are entirely absent from the canon of Jewish literature? Not much has changed since my childhood.

White Zion is absolutely a response to that. It travels from Yemen to Ottoman Palestine to British Mandate Israel and finally to modern Israel and modern Canada. I am proud to expand the palette of Jews represented in literature in both White Zion and Passport Control.

Tessa: I believe you are working on a sequel to No Entry, with the view of turning it into a series. Is this correct?

Gila: Yes, I finished the first draft to the sequel in August. It's titled No Fly Zone, and the favourite characters in No Entry are back. My plan is to write a "No" series. I'm very excited to once again have a chance to stress the dangers of elephant extinction through a fun, adventurous novel, and a daring heroine who is ideal for spreading this serious message.

Tessa: Has having children of your own influenced your decision to write more young adult fiction?

Gila: I do love the idea of writing something for my own teens, who I am delighted to say, are all readers down to the last. Note to parents: That's what years of schlepping them to the library once a week, no excuses, might do if you keep it up, and it helps to throw in a pizza afterwards here and there.

Tessa: I love the word schlepping! It's not often used in the UK, but I am thinking of weaving it into something soon! And, ah, yes… the power of the pizza…

Gila: No Entry was primarily written by my desire to expand my canvas, to radically change my landscape. I had written White Zion, Passport Control and King of the Class. I have another novel titled A Prayer Apart in submission, and that too is Israel-based and for the first time (for me), told through a teen boy's point of view.

After four Middle Eastern-based novels, I worried that my next novel might be a rewrite or partial rewrite of one of the first four. The idea spooked me. I didn't want to be one of those writers writing the same novel again and again with different characters. I decided a major shake-up was in order and took the plunge. It was daunting to write a book set in a country I'm not from! My husband is South African but I'm not, and I hadn't lived there for two decades. The occasional visit with babies wasn't a big help. But I dived off the board and did it.

Tessa: Finally, many people who read my blog are in the same boat as me, trying to get published! What advice do you have to give us aspiring writers?

Gila: Gosh! This is such a great question. Here are a few of my best tips:

  1. Don't give up if you believe in your work. The second half of that line is as important as the first. With the exception of the stories you read about online, you know those, "I sent it to five people and got four offers right away" stories, most people must have the perseverance to get published – it has to be the air you breathe.
  2. Decide what you mean by "get published." Will only one of the major publishers do? Are you fine with a small press? Do you want to self-publish? Answer, and then research the heck out of that option.
  3. My mentor author and editor Mark Mirsky told me this fourteen years ago and I've never forgotten it: always continue to expand your body of work. In other words, writers write! He also told me that I must never stop sending out my work, that my work must always be "in circulation." I never forgot that one either. I've put years into submissions.
  4. This one I learned in journalism school in Canada and for me, it's been gold. Here it is: there's always another source. Back in journalism school that used to mean that your story had to be balanced (yes, this was decades ago) and you didn't dare hand in a piece that didn't have two equal sides to a story. Too bad if you couldn't find someone to quote from the other side—your grade is zero. From this, I learned never ever to think there's some messiah out there, whether it's a magazine I want to get published in, an agent, a publisher, and without that person, I'm not in the game.

Never think that. It's poison. American publishers aren't responding to you? There's a whole world of countries out there! Canadian bloggers don't seem interested? Ever heard of the UK? Australia? A particular influencer on Instagram hasn't offered you a review. Twitter is only a click away. Do you get the picture? This has always proven to pick me up every single time I've fallen and I could paper the Western Wall with rejections. No one has the key to your future. No one's rejection means you're out of the game. Only you can take yourself out of the game.

I could tell you some great stories about that but that's for another interview! Thanks so much for your time.

Tessa: It has been an absolute pleasure, and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Perhaps you will come back and talk to us again after No Fly Zone and A Prayer Apart are published, so we can hear some of those great stories? Until then, we wish you every success with all your books. 

A warm thank you to the wonderful Tessa Barrie. Please visit Tessa on her excellent website Lost Blogs for more author interviews and blog posts and to read all about her writing journey.

Photo image: from Tessa Barrie, Lost Blogs

My No Entry interview on Jera's Jamboree
Something to Remember
 

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Wednesday, 11 December 2019

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