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Rhoda Baxterís passion for fiction writing

Influenced by factors as Sri Lankan teledramas of the 80s and Enid Blyton novelist Rhoda Baxter who is a Sri Lankan by birth domiciled in the UK found writing fiction as a calling that was very much inherent to her nature for creativity and love for literature.

A past pupil of Musaeus College, Colombo, her beginnings in writing go back to her school days. She is a scientist holding a PhD in Molecular Biology. Her passion for writing has never been relegated to linger in the background in the face of her demanding professional engagements, which is proven by the fact that she strove to realise her dream of becoming a novelist.

Her next publication ĖDoctor January, a romance novel, is set to be released in August 2015. In this interview Rhoda reveals how she got started on the path to publication and offers insights of how her approach to fiction writing and the factors that moulded her as an author.

Excerpts:


Rhoda Baxter

Question: Can you tell us something about your background and how has the experience of leaving Sri Lankan shores to settle down overseas been for you?

Answer: I was 16 when I moved from Sri Lanka to England. I went from sheltered, all girlís school (Musaeus) to a mixed sixth form in Yorkshire. To call it culture shock is a massive understatement. For a start, everyone had a strong Yorkshire accent and I couldnít understand a word anyone said. It took a couple of weeks of smiling and nodding politely like an idiot before I got used to the accent and finally figured out what people were talking about.

I was the only non-white student in the sixth form for about a year. The things that helped me most were that I spoke excellent English and I was bright.

Biochemistry

I did science at A-level and went on to read Biochemistry at Oxford University. That was an eye opener on many levels Ė I had to learn to live away from home and to cope with the constant barrage of information being fired at me.

Undergrad life in Oxford is an experience as well as an education. After I graduated, I didnít quite know what to do with myself, so I did a DPhil (thatís Oxford speak for PhD) in microbiology. A short post doc later, I was ready to get out of the laboratory.

I moved on to become a patent searcher and now I work in the commercialisation of university IP. Itís a great job for me because it keeps me in touch with cutting edge science and feeds my tech geek side, without my having to actually be in a lab. Best of both worlds.

I have two children and I work four days a week. This gives me one day a week and a few short hours each night after bedtime in which to write. Itís not the easiest thing to do, but I still do my best. Iíve written five books now Ė three of which have been published (and Iím waiting to hear about the fourth).

Q: You had your schooling at Musaeus College, Colombo. Did your school days influence your writing ambitions? What were the school time memories you have related to your pursuits in creative writing?

A: My mother taught me to read before I started school. So I read a lot. When I was at school, I had a friend Madhuka who also read at the same speed. We used to read our library books, then swap and read each otherís. At one point we were reading about six books a week.

The school librarian let us take books (under her watchful supervision) from the upper school library. She was brilliant.

Prize

When I was in year 3, I wrote an essay called ĎThe Day in the Life of a Grown upí as part of an English examination. My class teacher at the time suggested I send it to the Observer Childrenís Corner. I did so and it won a Rs. 100 prize! It may not sound like a lot, but when youíre eight years old in the 1980s it was a fortune.

I spent the money on a book. Those women took my small spark of talent and fanned it until it caught fire. I wrote for the Observer Childrenís Corner for years after that.

Q: Where did your venturing into fiction writing start? What was your first full length manuscript?

A: I wrote fiction, often terrible fiction, right throughout my school years.

My stories were passed around the class and would come back with dog-eared and covered in little notes from people. I still have those manuscripts Ė some of the hand written ones are so faded you can barely read them. They were my first experience of reader feedback.

When I was at university, I had to stop writing because I had no time to do it. I started writing again when I got my first real job.

I had a long commute to London each day, so I had lots of time to think and plan my writing, but the only time I could actually write was in the evenings and weekends.

So my first manuscript took three years to write. It was called Chayaís box of Letters and was a three part story set in Sri Lanka and England and heavily influenced by the teledrama Rata Giya Atto.

As with most first novels, it needed a lot of work. Itís still filed away waiting for the day Iím brave enough to tackle editing it again.

Q: Although your passion suggests youíre a creative writer at heart your academic foundations are of the science disciplines. Have you forged any crossroads between these two very different spheres? Has your higher education influenced your approach to creative writing?

A: There is a myth that scientists are dry and culturally inept. Science and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Most scientists are also creative people Ė they wouldnít be able to make vital leaps of understanding if they werenít. Nearly all of us have hobbies. Some sing, some paint, some gardenÖ I write.

Logic

Writing novels is an exercise in logic. You need to work out character arcs and tie sub plots to the main plot. Everything has to follow on from what went before and lead inevitably to what follows. Your character has to change and grow as the story progresses. Without logic all you have is a list of things happening with no apparent purpose. All those years of planning projects and constructing coherent arguments prepared me well for that sort of thing. So, yes, it helps.

Chemical patent

A lot of people ask me why I donít write science fiction. I often wonder that myself. I read a lot of sci fi when I was young. I lived in the same country as Arthur C. Clarke Ė so how could I not? I still love a bit of sci fi and/or fantasy. But the thing Iím drawn to is romance. There is nothing so intriguing to me as a coupleís first kiss. So I write romance.

That isnít to say that there is no science in my novels. Girl on the Run has a sub plot involving a chemical patent. Doctor January is set in a microbiology laboratory (the experiments are made up, but the techniques described are real), the hero of my current work in progress is a marine biologist. Science pops up in the background. Sometimes it even gives me a chance to explain something technical in plain language.

I think bringing science into everyday conversation is important. One day I will figure out a way to fit a description of PCR into a novel without boring the pants off people.

Q: As a writer how would you define your craft and approach to creating your fiction? Do you go into much research when you devise your characters and settings and meticulously work out a structure for the plot and narrative before sitting down to write or do you let your instincts guide you entirely and let things develop as you go?

A: What youíre describing is the difference between plotters (who plot, obviously) and pantsers (who write Ďby the seat of their pantsí). Iím somewhere in between.

Iím too rushed (okay, lazy) to do too much research and I find too much plotting beforehand leads to a kind of creative paralysis, so I tend to do rough outlines and just write.

I often have to write 10 or 20 thousand words before I get to know my characters properly. This is almost a discovery stage Ė as though the story already exists and I need to find it.

Quite often these early scenes will be edited out, but they usually contain the seeds of all the subplots that will come up later.

Once Iíve written the first draft, I have to take it apart, move scenes around, add bits and delete bits until I figure out what it is Iím trying to say. The second draft is usually more coherent. The third and fourth drafts refine it further until itís good enough to send off to my publisher.

I tend to write about places Iíve actually seen. This means I donít have to draw maps (too lazy, too disorganised). I never use real people in my books though. I will take a characteristic from here, a description from there and make hybrid people who, after a few chapters, become personalities in their own right.

Publication

Q: The path to publication to go from writer to author can become a very arduous journey for some writers. How was your experience in that respect? Is there any advice you would like to offer aspiring authors when it comes to approaching publishing houses?

A: My first novel (the one that took three years to write) was the book of my heart. I was, and still am, very attached to it. I submitted it to some agents and got some positive notes in response, but no offers of representation. After a few years, I joined the UK Romantic Novelistsí Associationís New Writerís Scheme and send my manuscript in for assessment. The New Writerís scheme is a sort of mentoring scheme where you get access to feedback and publishing advice from established authors. I got back three pages of notes on my book. The reviewer basically said Ďthis is good, but you can do better. Stop trying to write what you think you should write and write what you want to read insteadí.

I realised that I enjoyed reading romantic comedies, so I tried to write one. It took me a year to write Girl On the Run and it was so much fun. The enjoyment somehow comes out in the writing. That was the first book I had published. So far, every book Iíve written since has found a home. One day, I will revisit that first book and give it a ruthless edit. Then it might be good enough to submit to a publisher.

Advice to aspiring authors Ė oh, thereís so much!

Firstly, read a lot and write a lot. Strive for continual improvement. That one great book thatís going to make you famous Ö will only come when youíve written a few practice books first.

There are a great number of books on writing and submitting. The landscape is changing fast now, with the advent of digital publishing and self-publishing, so youíll have to keep up to date. If youíre submitting to publishing houses, read their guidelines and do exactly as they ask.

Be professional. Start out sensible and reliable. Once youíve got a following and are established, you can let your mad, quirky, artistic-genius self out.

Dream. Itís important to dream big, sweeping, glorious dreams. But donít rely on the dream to find you. Make a realistic plan for how to reach your dream, then work through it. If the first plan isnít working, take a look at whatís going wrong and make a better plan. Donít give up.

Q: In terms of genre, your works come within the young adult romance category if I have understood correctly. How do you see the matter of genre as a fiction writer is it troubling or does it offer much more clearly defined lines on which you should structure and direct your storyline and narrative style?

A: Actually, I write contemporary romantic comedy, not Young Adult. My publisher, Choc Lit, specialises in romance that has more substance than just shoes and shopping.

Like most people who aspire to be novelists, I started off being all sniffy about genre fiction. ďA book a year? Pah. Written by hacksĒ I said. ďNot for me.Ē

Itís actually surprisingly difficult to write a book thatís easy to read. Good storytelling should serve the characters and the story. The more invisible you make your writing, the better. Believe me, itís hard to do.

Iíve read award-winning novels that had sentences that were so perfectly crafted, it makes you pause, look up and marvel. The trouble is, those scintillating sentences pull you out of the story world and make you see the scaffolding that holds the story together. It breaks the spell. I read novels to escape into somewhere new. As far as Iím concerned anything that pulls me out of the book world is a bad thing.

Also, genre fiction sells. This is not insignificant. I write to be read. If I want lots of people to read my books, Iím better off writing genre fiction. I can grow into my literary ambitions later. I will get better and better with each book.

If you want to see an example of a writer starting off as a genre fiction writer (in this case, Fantasy) and growing into greatness, read Terry Pratchettís books in chronological order. They go from competent and lightweight to plot and character driven masterpieces. Nation is a masterpiece.

Q: Migrant writing gains some considerable attention in the category of literary fiction. As a Sri Lankan who has migrated to the West do you see yourself entering that fold to write novels that capture the immigrantís world brimming with elements of hybrid identity dilemmas, nostalgias related to the homeland, challenges in cultural assimilation?

A: Of course I do. The tension between a Sri Lankan inner life and a British outer life is one of the central things that shapes my world view.

I read a lot of fiction written by ťmigrťs. For the longest time I didnít recognise those pictures painted by people Ė where the homeland is impossibly romanticised or worse, depicted with a brutality that I didnít recognise. The worst thing was that my European friends believed that the world in those books was the world I remembered.

The first book I read where I recognised Colombo was Shyam Selvaduraiís Funny Boy. Green Cabin, Flower Drum Ė all places I actually knew. I love Selvaduraiís clean and economical prose. Itís so lean you hardly notice the words Ė all you see are the characters and pictures they create.

I have rough outlines for books about Sri Lankans, but I donít think I can do them justice yet. Iíll write them one day, though. I try and make sure there is at least one Sri Lankan secondary character in each of my books. They are always around in the background being teachers, university lecturers, secretaries, engineers, research scientists.

Q: What will your next work be? Is it on the cards or are you waiting for a spark of inspiration to set your writing pulse in motion?

A: One of the most valuable things I got from my three years on the New Writerís Scheme was the discipline to write a book a year. To paraphrase Peter Devries; I write when Iím inspired, but I see to it that Iím inspired every year.

My next book Doctor January will be released in August 2014 Ė itís set in a microbiology lab and deals with emotional abuse in relationships. Itís my way of responding to the recent trend of having heroes who dominate the heroine to the point of bullying. I dread the thought of my daughters reading Twilight and thinking that Edwardís behaviour is acceptable! Doctor January is not a young-adult book, but maybe they can read it when theyíre older.

The book Iím writing now is about father-daughter relationships. Itís a straightforward romantic comedy and, if Iím honest, itís a relief to be writing something funny again.

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