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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.