Sometimes literary fiction can be, simply, that body of writing that doesn’t fall anywhere else. At least that was the predicament faced by Catriona Troth, the eighth indie author in my literary fiction interview series, when she sought to place her novel, Ghost Town, for sale. Powerful language and the ability to deliver something deeper than a superficial plot are equally defining characteristics.
Timing, finally, can play a role in the genre of a story. Troth’s novel, set in 1981 in the British Midlands city of Coventry, doesn’t quite qualify as either historical or contemporary fiction.
Troth holds out hope that one day the Kindle store will offer narrower and more varied classifications of literary fiction. But for those indie authors who worry about competition, her good news is that traditional marketing budgets have evaporated for most except for those brand-name authors already expected to sell. Despite the occasional difficulty in finding a home for their works of literary fiction, those writers who have a marketing penchant are finding the playing field may be more level than they imagined.
1. What novel (or piece of writing) did you author that inspired you to fill out my survey? Include a link so readers can check it out.
That would be my novel, Ghost Town (print/e-book), set during a very turbulent period in the recent history of Coventry (and city in the British Midlands).
2. Was the seed of your story an idea or an image? Are you a visual or a conceptual writer, in other words?
Definitely an idea. Imagery arose as I was writing it, particularly as one of the characters was a photographer, and therefore perceived the world in a visual way. But that isn’t something that comes easily to me, as a writer.
3. Keeping with one survey question, you identified a great theme for your literary work. Did that theme exist at the beginning of the writing, or did it emerge only through the telling of your story?
No, I started with quite a simple idea for a story, something which survived as the spine of the novel. I wanted to find an interesting setting, somewhere that was familiar to me but not for most readers. I remembered a time when I was working in a night shelter for the homeless in Coventry, and when there was, at the same time, a great cultural buzz in the city and also a good deal of racial tension.
As I researched the background for the story, I learnt a great deal more about what had been happening during that period – about just how bad things had got and how the city had turned things around. It was a story so little known outside Coventry, I became obsessed with getting to the heart of it and telling it in the most honest way I could.
4. Did your perspective on this theme change as you wrote the story? Did you find yourself less in control of your narrative than you expected? Or did you find that you knew all along, based on your convictions, how the story would emerge? Were you, in other words, the “alpha” in the emerging narrative?
My perspective changed so much that, by the time I had written half of it, I knew that one of my two protagonists no longer belonged in this story at all. She was pulling in another direction entirely. I had to pull her out of the novel entirely and find a new character to fill her place – one who fitted the theme as it was now emerging.
5. There are as many definitions of “literary fiction” as there are self-identified literary writers. What is your definition of literary fiction?
I think a novel, from any kind of genre or none, can be considered literary if (a) it explores something deeper than its superficial plot and (b) as much attention is paid to the language in which the story is told as to its action. I think people get put off the idea of literary fiction by supposing that it is all ‘experimental’. Some of it is – and always should be. (The idea of the novel itself was once a radical experiment!) On the other hand, one of the best-loved crime novels of all time, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, is in my mind unquestionably literary.
6. Within the scope of that definition, how did you hope to impress the reader? Did you hope to evoke emotion with a story about some element of life the reader would connect with? Or was your mission to challenge and thereby expand a reader’s perspective on a subject most others would feel is already “known”?
Because the racial conflicts I was writing about were both widespread and particular to a specific time and place, I felt a profound need to get the story ‘right.’ That meant being as respectful as I could towards the people who had actually lived through those events. It also meant being honest to myself about my own position as a privileged, white, middle-class British woman. There is saying about finding the universal in the particular, and I think that is what I was trying to do.
I said earlier that I am not a visual writer. One of the things I had to work hardest at, and which I am therefore most proud of, is discovering the visual imagery within the writing that resonated with the theme, then drawing it out and allowing it to echo through the story.
The other thing I found hard was, paradoxically, letting go of the research I had done. In order not to make stupid mistakes, I needed to know a great deal about what happened, day by day, between the two dates that start and end the story. But the first draft of the novel was overburdened with all the stuff I had learnt. One of the smarter things I did was to allow myself time to forget most of that, and let the story that I wanted to tell shine through.
All this meant writing and rewriting the book a great many times before I felt I had done the story justice. In fact, I went back through my records when I finally brought the book out in 2013 and realized that I had been working on it, on and off, for fourteen years.
7. Do you consider yourself a writer of literary fiction? Or a writer of other genre fiction that carries literary elements? Please provide an explanation for your answer.
I do try to explore deeper themes, and I do take care with the language I use to express myself, so I just about squeeze into my own definition of a literary author. But I would be happy to find a less ‘austere’ label to give myself.
8. How would you discuss your book in context of its genre? If you consider it literary, why? If your book falls more closely within another genre, what elements would you say make it literary?
If I call Ghost Town a literary novel, it is largely because it fits into no other boxes. A book set in 1981 is not historical fiction, but neither does it seem right to call it contemporary fiction. There is a love story in it, but someone looking for a romance would almost certainly feel cheated if I labeled it as such. The same goes for the thriller/suspense elements in the story.
9. Is the literary community a closed community? Or are there inroads for writers of literary fiction to reach readers other than those reading literary fiction now?
I think because of my ‘don’t quite fit into any box’ status, I do best when I can talk to people directly about my book, and about the real events that lie behind it. People ‘get it’ then, and classifications don’t matter.
Truly experimental fiction is another matter. On the one hand, the independent publishing world frees authors up to try things that the gatekeepers of the publisher world might shy away from. On the other hand, the mechanism of online discovery all-but ensures they stay invisible. Again, face to face events may be a way of getting round that – though much harder with a text that may need poring over in order to truly engage with it.
10. Is it realistic that the Kindle Store will one day feature more independent writers of literary fiction? Or will that category always reflect traditionally published writers with traditional marketing budgets? (This question relates to #9, I suppose.)
It would be a massive step in the right direction if the Kindle Store would allow a narrower, more varied classification of literary fiction (and of contemporary fiction, for that matter). If you are a crime writer, you can classify your book in all kinds of different ways that both give you visibility and allow readers to have some idea what your book is like. No such refined classification exists for non-genre writers. It makes it extremely hard to follow the advice of marketing and discoverability gurus like Joanna Penn (The Creative Penn) which is focused on metadata and the careful selection of ‘key words’.
You talk about “traditionally published writers with traditional marketing budgets.” I think that beast is long dead. Trade published authors benefit from the distribution networks of trade publishers, making it somewhat easier for them to get their books into bookstores. But marketing budgets are, for the most part, focused on the handful of authors with profiles that probably mean their books will sell anyway. The vast majority of other trade-published authors have to do almost as much of their own marketing as do indie authors.
The other advantage that trade-published literary authors have is a better chance of being considered for the sorts of prizes that raise an author’s profile and mean that their books sales rise above the few hundred that most literary titles can expect to sell. ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) is working hard to open up some of these to indie authors.
*A special acknowledgment follows Catriona’s bio below.
Comment: Questions or observations for Catriona Troth can be left in the comments section below. If you’re an author who wishes to join the ranks of other writers of literary fiction who have participated in the LitFic survey, click here.
Catriona Troth was born in Scotland and grew up in Canada before returning to the UK. After more than twenty years spent writing technical reports at work and fiction on the commuter train, Catriona made the shift into freelance writing. She now writes regularly for Words with Jam literary magazine, researches and writes articles for Quakers in the World and tweets as @L1bCat. She is a proud of the Triskele Books author collective, and the author of Ghost Town and Gift of the Raven.
Thank you for having me, Jay. I’d like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Triskele Books, the author collective of which I am part. Without them, I would not have had the courage to put my book out there, or the voice with which to continue to talk about it. Even before Triskele Books was formed, the four women at its heard were my mentors, my harshest critics and my staunchest supports. They helped me write and rewrite the book until it was the best it could be. They even stopped me making a horrible mistake with the cover, as a result of which the book now shows a face to the world of which I am inordinately proud.
I am also extremely proud of the way that Triskele Books has continued to reach out to form communities with other writers. For two years, we have run Indie Author Fairs – pop up bookshop that allow authors to showcase their books and interact directly with readers. This year we are expanding on this concept to lauch the first ever Triskele Lit Fest (TLF16), on 17th September at Lift in Islington (near the Angel tube station in London). As well as a pop-up bookshop, this will feature a series of exciting author panels, including one focused on literary fiction. Preserving the Unicorn will bring together authors and editors to discuss how they work together when the text, at first sight, defies conventional wisdom on how a narrative ‘should’ be put together. How does an editor hone such a text without destroying the unique magic the author has created?
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
I found Catriona’s statement that traditional marketing budgets have disappeared, for literary fiction (excepting that for novels assumed or already known to be prize winners), both sad and enlightening.
It makes sense – writers are not in a position to complain when their publisher doesn’t do much promotion. The literary authors I have met have day jobs, often in teaching, where the published novel is almost a credential, and certainly not a money-maker.
Literary novels almost always take longer to write than popcorn fiction – it takes time to get the language right, the layers and complexities and themes built in. So definitely more of a labor of love.
I hope it doesn’t have to be that way. I noticed today that The Handmaid’s Tale is about to be broadcast, or more accurately, streamed. Netflix? And regardless of what SF fans have complained about, Atwood is a literary novelist, and the Tale is an excellent book. As is Gaudy Night, which I have just reread for the fourth or fifth time (it is one of the spiritual ancestors of my own book).
I’m also encouraged to hear that ALLI is working to get awards opened up to indies.
A great interview. I’ve added Ghost Town to my TBR list.