When studying law I was once told that a law degree was for English students with no imagination. I was a little insulted, although the fact that this was said to me by a Geography student meant that at least I had plenty of colouring pencil related jibes to retaliate with.
It was therefore reassuring to talk to Louise Soraya Black, former lawyer and author of Pomegranate Sky, the winner of the 2009 Virginia Prize. Louise has been a lawyer in the city for a number of years but has always had a passion for creative writing. Pomegranate Sky has been six years in the making and has just been published by Aurora Metro Press. I really enjoyed reading the book and wanted to know more about Louise’s journey, and any tips she might have for writers on CompletelyNovel (as well as any frustrated lawyers out there!)
First, a little info about Pomegranate Sky:
Living in post-revolutionary Tehran, Layla refuses to bow to the ayatollahs’ rules, resisting her mother’s relentless attempts to find her a suitable husband. Instead, she embarks on an illicit affair with her art teacher, Keyvan, and they tentatively imagine a future together. But the sudden death of her uncle, an outspoken journalist, raises many unanswered questions and when Layla’s cousin, who is visiting from America, is arrested by the morality police, the komiteh, Layla’s plans for the future begin to unravel. Beneath the polished surface of upper-class Iranian life lies pain, fear and dark, dark secrets.
And now for some questions…
COMPLETELYNOVEL: How long did it take you to write this book? Did it go through many different iterations or versions before you arrived at the finished novel?
LOUISE SORAYA BLACK: It took me six years to write my novel. Yes, there were several versions and many drafts before it was finished. I found it hard to let go. If there hadn’t been a publication deadline, I would probably still be working on it.
CN: You switch between different periods of time in the book, developing different threads of the story individually, and letting the reader work them together as the novel progresses. I’m always fascinated by the way that people put their books together when they do this. Did you always intend to do this and map out the book’s structure before writing it, or did it just evolve that way as you wrote?
LOUISE: The structure of my novel changed dramatically between my first and second drafts. The first draft was all told from the point of view of my main character, Layla. However, I realised that this wasn’t working, as there were stories about other characters that needed to be told in “real time”. I put my first draft to one side, and re-wrote the entire novel, weaving in chapters from other points of view. It was hard work, but worthwhile; it made for a better story. After the second draft, I spent a long time editing, polishing and re-ordering. I cut a lot of text: my novel went from 100,000 to 70,000 words.
CN: What other creative writing experience have you had before doing this?
LOUISE: I have always loved writing; it was how I made sense of the world. As a child and then a teenager, I kept a journal and wrote poems. Pomegranate Sky, however, was my first novel.
CN: Are there any steps you took, once you’d completed the manuscript to try and improve it (showing it to friends/colleagues etc)?
LOUISE: I showed my manuscript to a creative writing teacher who is also a wonderful novelist. She gave me extremely helpful feedback. My husband was also very supportive; he read and commented on several drafts. When I was searching for an agent, a literary consultancy provided excellent guidance and advice.
CN: Can you tell me a bit about winning the Virginia prize? What did you win, why did you enter, how hopeful were you?
LOUISE: My agent submitted my novel for the Virginia Prize. She had already contacted a few publishers, but the market was difficult and no one wanted to take a risk with a new author. The prize was different: it was intended to encourage new writing and would publish the winning novel. I knew the standard would be high – there are so many excellent new writers; I didn’t dare to imagine that Pomegranate Sky might win. When I found out, I was astonished and overjoyed. The prize, a publishing contract and a cheque for 1,000 pounds, was announced by Fay Weldon at the Orange Tree Theatre as part of the Richmond Literary Festival. It was an exciting and life-changing evening.
CN: How has the publishing experience been for you – do you have any tips for writers looking for agents or publishers? Did you receive many rejections? If so, any tips on coping with that?!
LOUISE: Some authors get published quickly; as you now know, this was not the case for me. I was very fortunate that Pomegranate Sky won the Virginia Prize. My main tip for coping with the grueling experience of submitting work is to remember that agents and publishers are looking for writing that will sell; it is a commercial decision, and a “no thank you” doesn’t mean that your novel is not worthy. There are many excellent writers who took a long time to get published.
CN: Any plans for another novel?
LOUISE: I am hard at work promoting my first novel, but I hope to get back to writing soon.
CN: Any tips on how to cure writers block?
LOUISE: There are some days when it just doesn’t happen. I find it’s best to put the pen down – or switch off the computer – and do something else. A break helps.
CN: Have you turned your back on life as a lawyer, or do you think you will go back to it in the future?
Louise: When my son was born, I had to make a decision between writing and practising law. I knew I couldn’t do both, and still have time for my son. I chose writing, as it’s my passion.
CN: We’re glad you did! Thanks very much Louise.
You can find out more about Louise from her website at www.louisesorayablack.com and you can reserve a copy of Pomegranate Sky (due to be released on 14 October) here.