Thursday, 26 May 2011

Author Interview - Vanessa Lafaye

Today's post is an interview with author Vanessa Lafaye. I'm absolutely thrilled to welcome her to Life in Clarity.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview Vanessa. I have read one of your stories on the ether books app, An Eye for an Eye and I have to say, I absolutely loved it. As well as short stories on the ether
books app, where else can we find your work?

So glad that you enjoyed the story. It was based on the life of an amazing 90 year-old woman who I met on a long plane flight. I added the violence and some other elements, but a lot of it is based on fact. She was typical of women who gained some independence during WWII, with the men away, and found life very difficult when they came back. I hadn't written a period piece before, but it was an interesting exercise, having to make the dialogue historically authentic, and avoid modern expressions. That's what I love so much about writing short stories - the author can explore an infinite variety of settings, characters, genres, and periods. Having
written novels previously (which are with my hard-working but so far unsuccessful agent), it was so liberating to write stories. I've done a fair bit of journalism, which can be found on the Guardian and Times websites, but my life took a strange turn 2 years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, having already written a novel where all the characters have the disease (based on a friend's experience). I lost the ability to write anything at all, for about 18 months, during my treatment and after. Although I owed my agent another novel, I couldn't face it, it was too much. Writing stories got me back into it, and only last weekend I wrote the first chapter of a new novel.

I'm so sorry to hear about your diagnosis Vanessa. Its strange how life imitates art at times. I can only imagine how difficult that time was for you. Can I ask how you're doing now?

I'm fine now, thanks for asking. Treatment finished a year ago and while I couldn't write, I trained as a choir leader, which I really love.

It's great to hear you are writing again. What's the premise of the new novel?

My new novel is going to be a series of interwoven stories inspired by items for sale in classified ads. I love reading classified ads, all of life is there. I used to wonder about the stories behind the items and just decided to build a book around a collection of them. The first is a Moses basket, used once, with one torn corner.

That sounds a wonderful idea for a book. Everyday things can be the centre of so many memories. I'd love to hear how you get on with that. Do you class yourself as a full time writer or something you do as and when you get chance?

I'm not even a half-time writer! I work for a publisher which is fairly demanding, although I work from home half the time. Sometimes I'll book time off work to concentrate on writing, but usually it's a case of fitting it in. I'm a very badly behaved writer. I don’t have a routine, I can’t write every day. I used to think that I needed a good chunk of time, several hours at least, to do any serious writing, but that was really a delaying tactic, as in, 'I'll just see if the roof needs re-felting, then if there's time, I'll write.' Eventually I realised that I needed to grab whatever I could, 20 minutes, half an hour, or I would never make progress. It can be hard to change gears so much, but possible with enough determination.

Where is your writing space - and can we have a photograph?

This is tricky for me, as I like to wander around the house with my laptop to write, sometimes in the dining room, or the living room, or in bed. I have a desk but I use it to do my job, so it's nice to move to a different location to write.

How difficult was it getting an agent and what advice would you give writers who are querying agents now? That's something I'm sure will interest a lot of readers.

I wish I had a special trick to pass on, but I just followed the protocol: got my manuscript into the best shape possible (with the help of a professional editorial advice service), and sent my query letter with 1 chapter and a 1-page synopsis to all the agents who could possibly be appropriate for my style of book (commercial women's fiction). I emphasised my journalism and publishing experience, and informed them that I had sought professional help with polishing the manuscript. I got a batch of rejections straight away, and no reply from a bunch of others. Then, miracle of miracles, Tina Betts of Andrew Mann wrote that she liked the first chapter and could I please send the rest. I fell off my chair.

When you're not writing what do you like to do in your spare time?

During the time when I couldn't write, after my treatment, I trained as a choir leader and now run a community choir where I live. I’ve sung in groups for years but have no musical education, so it's been a big learning curve. It's extremely creative, using a different part of my brain. And it's immensely satisfying to see the members enjoying themselves - not to mention the oodles of material to be found there! A choir will definitely find its way into a story or book at some point. And I like photography, especially underwater. My perfect life would be part writing, part music,
with regular diving trips.

What genre do you love to read?

I have favourite authors rather than genres: Pat Barker, Douglas Coupland, Kate Atkinson, John Irving, Carl Hiassen, Louis de Bernières, David Sedaris, Alice Hoffman. I like the idea that there could be extraordinary things happening all around us, which we fail to notice. My stories sometimes have that dimension, starting off with an apparently mundane setting and characters, and then comes something totally unexpected. In fact, the whole reason I started writing short stories was a bit spooky. I had a dream that I bought a sandwich from a shop and found a short story tucked inside the packaging, just the right length for reading over lunch. The next day, I wrote my first 'Sandwich Story', which was small, dark and twisted, very different from the novel I had just finished. I wrote 10 more quickly, then put them in a drawer because my agent wasn’t interested. Thanks to Ether, they’re out of the drawer.

If a film was to be made of your life who would you like to play you?

The actress who plays Roz on Frasier

Thank you so much for taking the time for the interview. I've enjoyed having you here.

Thank you, Rebecca, it’s been a pleasure.

You can find Vanessa at the following places;

Malborough Community Choir
Singing for Wellbeing


  1. Thanks, both, for the very interesting interview. I loved the video of Vanessa reading her story about the wheelchair bound lady on the Ether Books site - great story and well read, so I was very interested to read this interview. My mum has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and oddly enough, I've found my writing suddenly flowing around the subject. I think it helps.
    Hope all goes well with you, Vanessa and I love your writing.
    Thanks for the interview, Rebecca - very professionaly and caringly carried out.

  2. Thanks Rebecca for the interview, and to Vanessa for giving your time.

    I love the idea of it being essential to re-felt the roof before you can write. I'm glad I'm not the only one who had to relearn the meaning of 'priority' :)

  3. Great interview, Rebecca and Vanessa. Thank you.

  4. Deb - Thank you for the kind comment on how the interview was conducted. I always try to be respectful of authors interviewed here.

    Sarah - I was more than glad to have Vanessa interviewed on the blog :)

    Talii - Thanks Talli :)