Rosaline Riley is the 14th author to participate in my interview series with independent authors of literary fiction. If you publish independently and wish to participate, please click through the image on the right column of the screen that reads “Call for Survey Respondents: Indie Authors of Literary Fiction”. If you wish to receive email notices when future interviews are published, click the link toward the bottom of this post, just above the bio
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.
“It is September 1959 and two significant things happen to eleven-year-old Ellen McCann; she goes to the Convent school in the neighbouring town of Turneley where she meets Erica Latimer, and, back at home, she falls in love with Michael Chadwell.
During the months and years that follow, her school life and her home life continue along parallel tracks. Her friendship with Erica develops and intensifies, and she gets drawn into a series of Latimer family intrigues and revelations which – ultimately and unexpectedly – lead to tragedy. Meanwhile, her childhood love for Michael Chadwell appears to have run its course. Or has it?
She leaves for university in September 1966, looking forward to the opportunities that lie ahead – but still grieving over the losses she has incurred along the way.”
2. Was the seed of your story an idea or an image? Are you a visual or a conceptual writer, in other words?
I’m not sure I understand this distinction. I’m not really sure what a conceptual writer is! Surely all stories start with an idea or ideas? And, is it possible not to be visual when you are writing fiction? Sorry – more questions than answers here!
Clad in Armour of Radiant White is a coming-of-age novel and is very much autobiographically based in terms of time and settings. So yes, I had lots of images in my mind when writing it. Equally, I needed story ideas to make it fiction and not autobiography.
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?
I’ll try to answer this alongside Question 4.
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?
The over-arching theme of Clad in Armour of Radiant White is growing up – with all its joys and sorrows – with the focus on friendship, sexual awakening, love and loss. There are several, interlinked story strands in the novel that allow for an exploration of the gains and losses brought about through education and a religious upbringing (Catholicism). Therefore, I would say that social class and religion are important underlying themes.
I think that these themes were there from the outset. And, as a coming-of-age novel, the general outline of the story was straightforward. But as the novel progressed and the themes strengthened, new plot ideas occurred to me. So you could say that the details of the story/stories emerged from the themes.
5. There are as many definitions of “literary fiction” as there are self-identified literary writers. What is your definition of literary fiction?
A difficult question!
I think ‘literary fiction’ is hard to define but easy to recognize. And I don’t think it’s useful to think of it as another genre (another problematic word). Indeed, it can and does incorporate other genres. For example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is literary and historical; Margaret Atwood writes literary science fiction. All (and any) genres could qualify as literary fiction, but, of course, not all of them do.
Perhaps one way of looking at it would be to say what is not literary fiction – a mine-field across which I’ll try to tread carefully!
Romances, historical or otherwise, chick lit, crime fiction, thrillers, science fiction, etc. that are formulaic and can be (and are) churned out at speed – what Linda Gillard in a previous interview called ‘comfort’ books – are not literary fiction. Often they are classified as ‘popular’ fiction which, again, is problematic as it implies that literary fiction, being less popular, is somehow elitist. Which, of course, some of it is. But it doesn’t have to be, and most of it isn’t.
So, back to the question, what is literary fiction? I’ve been reading through some of the previous answers to this and would agree with many of the analyses. J.S. Watts sums it up succinctly: ‘…well-written, stylish fiction with something to say beyond the immediate storyline…good writing with depth.’ Other words include: challenging; resonant; experimental; utterly fearless.
I think all of these describe literary fiction – although I don’t think that every work of literary fiction has to demonstrate all these qualities. (I’m particularly nervous about the ‘utterly fearless’ one, for example!!)
Another word I would add to the list is ‘accessibility’. I spent many years teaching literature (mainly the novel) to mature students and was often struck by how the best novels managed to be totally accessible while at the same time lending themselves to detailed study of their depths and complexities. In other words, they could be read on as many levels as the readers were capable of. Excavating these layers is one of the joys (and purposes?) of good literature, but it can only be undertaken if the novel is readable.
So yes, experimental is good, but if a novel is not ‘accessible’ it won’t get read. How many people do you know who have read Finnegan’s Wake? An important novel? Possibly. But what’s the point if hardly anyone can read it?
Elitism – ‘not for the likes of most of us’?
Which isn’t to say that literature should never be difficult or challenging – but when it is ‘impossible’ to read perhaps this gives literary fiction a reputation that is unhelpful for those of us with more modest aspirations?
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”?
My primary aim was to capture in writing a time and a place and a set of experiences which were very dear to me. A record, if you like. And in doing so I hoped that readers would connect with it through their own memories and/or life experiences, similar or otherwise. In addition, I hoped that the story would entertain and amuse.
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 regard myself as a writer of literary fiction. I put a great deal of thought and effort into both the form and content of my books and spend a lot of time crafting, editing, polishing, editing, adding, subtracting, editing – again and again, over and over.
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?
As a coming-of-age novel, Clad in Armour of Radiant White is about the protagonist, Ellen, from the age of eleven to eighteen. It is the story of what happens to her, and around her, during those years. But I wanted to focus on the how and the why of these happenings, in other words, to focus on the themes, and so I played around with the structure of the novel.
There are twelve chapters, sandwiched between a split chapter which deals with the final scene of the novel. These chapters are the twelve months of the year, beginning with September to reflect the start of the school year. Adopting this framework allows for the treatment of the school year, the seasons, and the liturgical calendar.
The months are sequential – September, October, November, etc. but the years are not. E.g. September 1959; October 1961; November and December 1963 and so on. Within this, there are also flashbacks to Ellen’s primary school years (some month-specific, some not).
The effect of this is that the plot unfolds gradually as information is given but details are withheld until later in the book. Similarly, it also allows for character development to be demonstrated rather than described.
[I sent the novel for a manuscript appraisal and the appraiser – obviously not appreciating the purposiveness and subtlety of this structure! – wondered if anything had been gained by this non-chronological approach. So, to test this out, I redrafted it as a straight chronology. But as such I felt it lost nearly all its depth and resonance and I quickly restored it to its original conception.]
I spoke about layers earlier. I think Clad in Armour of Radiant White has many layers, not all of which will be apparent to everyone. In particular, the religious element that runs through the book probably needs a religious knowledge and sensibility to be fully appreciated. (A clue here: the names of two of the characters have a specific significance.) Hopefully, though, there is sufficient other content to please most readers.
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?
Up to now, I’ve only tried to sell my books on Amazon, but I suspect that it is difficult to make inroads elsewhere with my kind of fiction. Unless and until, that is, more bookshops are willing to stock independently published literary writers.
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.)
One question often asked is: how should we, as independent writers, market our work? If we emphasise the fact that it is literary fiction and put it into that category on Amazon will it attract less searchers? Probably, but what’s the alternative? You do see some strange books in all the Amazon categories, often there in a dishonest attempt to attract readers. This might result in more sales in the short-term but it doesn’t mean more readers, and it runs the risk of annoying people who know when they’ve been misled.
And the sad truth seems to be that readers of literary fiction are less likely to go trawling through the Kindle Store in search of things to read. They are much less likely to be prepared to read ‘unknown’ writers, and so grabbing their attention is definitely a big problem.
Comment: Questions or observations for Rosaline Riley 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.
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Rosaline Riley was born and grew up in Lancashire in the north of England. She lives in London now, and has one husband, four grown up children and five grandchildren.
For many years she was a literature tutor in the Lifelong Learning Department at Warwick University where she specialised in teaching 20th century and contemporary novels, both on the university campus and in outreach locations around the area. For her this was a dream job. What could be better than studying novels with groups of interested readers?
When she moved to London in 2006 she began writing seriously, attending novel writing courses at Birkbeck College and the Faber Academy.
To date, she has written and published two novels – The End of the Road which has recently been awarded a BRAG Medallion and Clad in Armour of Radiant White which was awarded the Awesome Indies Seal of Excellence.
She is now working on her third novel – which is set in Australia, a country that she and her husband fell in love with eleven years ago and are always looking for excuses to revisit.