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Sunday, 6 October 2013

Blog guest - Michela O'Brien - a strong sense of place

Today, my guest is Michela O’Brien. She is the author of Playing on Cotton Clouds (2012) and A Summer of Love (2013), both published by Crooked Cat Publishing.

Michela was born in Milan, Italy, in... well, let's say some time in the last third of the 20th century. In Milan she grew up, studied, worked as a teacher, made friends and wrote, commending thoughts to page, imagining plots and characters, recording events in her life, noting observations about the world: stories, diaries, letters... In an era before personal computers, Internet, blogs and social networks, it was pen and paper and she still carries a notebook and a pencil with her to sketch ideas on the spot. She moved to England in 1994 and lives at the edge of the beautiful National Park of the New Forest with her husband and two sons.

Her greatest inspirations are ordinary people and real life stories, and her novels and short stories centre on themes of friendship, love, coming of age and self-discovery, human emotions and experiences everyone can relate to. Michela is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

Playing on Cotton Clouds
When arty Livy falls for her sister's boyfriend, she knows her dreams are unlikely to come true... Sensitive Seth thinks he has hit the jackpot when the girl of his dreams finally looks his way... While laidback Aidan is every girl's hero.

Fast forward twenty-five years as carefree youth turns into adulthood responsibilities, relationships begin and end, music and fashion change, and life moves on with its successes, failures and heartaches. As the friends grow up, they discover life rarely turns out the way you imagined it at fifteen. The rites of passage through years are eerily familiar to every 1980s teenager in this moving, heartfelt novel.

A Summer of Love
Successful artist Jonah Briggs is a man who has made mistakes. Aged just eighteen, he was sent to prison for two years, leaving his family shattered and his first love, Sally, to wait for his return. But at eighteen, two years seem like a lifetime, and some promises are hard to keep. 

When Jonah reappears in her life, Sally finds herself torn between him and Ewan, the young Cornish farmer she has married, divided between loyalty and passion, duty and love. 

Over the course of almost two decades, through meetings and partings, secrets and revelations, and two momentous summers, Jonah will have to confront his past and heal old wounds, while Sally will face the consequences of her choices – whether to follow her conscience or her heart.

My review of Playing on Cotton Clouds
In this superb book about friendship and relationship, we travel with the main characters from 1983 through to 2008, with a poignant flashback to 1980. What's interesting is that the author was born and lived in Italy until 1994, when she moved to England; yet she captures the period prior to her arrival very well indeed.

There are three teenage friends, Aidan, Livy (Olivia) and Seth who meet up at the bridge that crossed the town's river. Even when they move away into the big wide world, the bridge has significance, sometimes in their memories, sometimes when they visit the town again. It links them, it seems. Added to the mix is Livy's sister, Tara. First fumbling with sex and alcohol are depicted, inevitably, with humour and a core of truth. Indeed, truth shines through this book - we believe these people lived, we live with them for the duration of the novel, getting anxious in moments of crisis, becoming pleased in moments of happiness. Life isn't tidy, there are false paths to take, wrong turns to make, and they drift apart, yet return after years, an invisible thread connecting them. `Can you fall in love at thirteen, one rainy afternoon, in an old faded café, and find yourself at twenty-nine, sitting in the fragrant summer sun, feeling as you did then?' The answer, of course, is `yes'. That's the human condition.

Aidan isn't too bright, but he's attractive to women, which is his downfall, yet as one conquest says, `People can't stop loving you, even when they think they have.'

Seth is a little self-centred, wrapped up in his writing, early on suffering from depression (`... in the small hours of the morning, when he felt himself slowly falling and darkness seemed to chase him with cold, invisible fingers'), but with the help of his friends he defeats the Black Dog, though he's always going to be a `half-empty pint' kind of man: `I wasn't interested in collecting stamps, so I went for rejection letters. Fascinating. Some can be perversely creative.' (I have to agree with his praise for Philip K. Dick).

Livy is in love with Seth, but (fool that he is) he's infatuated with her sister, Tara. `Carefully tucked away feelings were scattered around Livy's mind, leaving her with the painful task of picking them up and hiding them again... contemplating old memories as they lay on the floor of her recollection.'

The narrative is from the perspective of these three, and at every stage there's a depth of character and an emotional resonance that rings true. Emotion in a relationship novel has to be felt by the reader, not simply observed - show, not tell, and Michela O'Brien does that brilliantly: she could have written `Livy felt hurt by him' or something similar; instead, she gives us `Her heart had taken a dive into her stomach and she briefly held her breath to fish it out and put it back in its place.' There are several clever allusions, to springs in beds and Jack-in-the-box and feelings like thorns, imbedded in the body, making themselves felt after time, which `he could not tear out without maiming himself.'

There is a birth and a death, both handled with exquisite restraint and all the more powerful and moving for that. This debut novel is excellent, the writing controlled and a delight.

Michela, your debut novel has picked up an enviable number of high-scoring reviews on Amazon. How does that feel?

It feels great! I’m still taken aback by the praises the book received. I’m especially moved when people say they loved the characters and that they felt like “real people” and “friends”.

What was the initial inspiration for the book?
The initial idea was to write about a male friendship. I started out with Seth and Aidan and their relationship. It was interesting to explore, as I was doing it from a female perspective, obviously. I then added another element with a male-female friendship between Seth and Livy, another theme that interests me.

Do you find that your characters – say, Livy, Aidan and Seth - have become real people, that you remember them as such? Or are they brief acquaintances who’ve drifted apart since you’ve moved on to meet new characters?

They are definitely very real to me. I feel like they are friends I have come to know well. Both my books span several years and I got to see the characters grow and change from youth into adulthood. I sometimes think it would be nice to revisit them and find out what they’ve been up to. I might very well do so, in the future.

Most debut novels take a long time to gestate. How long did you work on Playing on Cotton Clouds?

If we are talking about the actual writing, it didn’t take very long. About six months. If we are talking about “gestation” and how the story came together… well, I subliminally wrote this novel since I was 19 – and that’s a long time ago! I love choral stories, with different threads and subplots, and wanted to write about a group of friends, how they start together as a unit, and how then life splits their paths. Sometimes they run parallel, sometimes they meet and part and meet again. I actually started this novel many times and never finished it. Finally, I managed to get to the end.

In many ways, second novels are easier, because you’ve learned a lot from the first. (Some feel cursed by the expectations implicit in a second novel after a successful first one). At what stage did you begin A Summer of Love?

Funnily enough, I wrote A Summer of Love first. I sent it out to a few agents and publishers with no joy, so I shelved it and moved to another project, what became Playing on Cotton Clouds. After the latter had been published, I got back to the first novel and edited it, cutting a big bulk of the first draft and rewriting entire sections, until it was in the current form, which led to it being published too.

Excellent approach, to rewrite and rewrite, rather than just send out the MS! Now that you’ve got your second book published, are you writing another novel at present – and if so, can you tell us a little about it?

Yes, the third novel is almost finished and ready for editing. It has the working title of “Finding Paige” and it’s another story focusing on relationships, with an exploration of “timing”, meeting the right person at the wrong time and making what could be the wrong choice.

When you’ve finished your books, do you feel you’d like to see where the characters go next, or do you leave them alone to get on with their lives without your input?

Normally when I reach the end, I’m satisfied with the journey my characters have taken and happy to leave them where they have arrived. So, yes, I tend to let them “get on” on their own. Plus, I’m always thinking about a new project, a new idea. But you never know, one day I might like to revisit some of my characters and take them on a new journey.

How long have you been writing? 

Forever! I started writing stories as soon as I was able to, at about six. More seriously, though, with a look at being published, about 12 years.

What influenced you to start writing?

As I said, it was something I started doing very early on. I just love stories. Hearing stories, reading stories, watching stories… so I started to create my own.

You obviously know Italy well. Do you bring in other foreign places into your fiction?

Yes, I have done. In Playing On Cotton Clouds the actions move between the UK, Italy, Amsterdam and New York. A Summer of Love is based in the UK, switching between London and Cornwall, a county I know well and love. My new novel moves between London, Devon, the South of France and Northern Italy. Some settings like Cornwall, London and Italy, are very familiar to me, others I make up – for example the Midlands town the characters in Playing on Cotton Clouds come from, or the Cornish village to which Jonah belongs in A Summer of Love, are fictitious amalgams of similar towns and villages – and others I get to explore through research using the internet and even Street View! I did that when describing places in New York, a city I never visited.

New York is like you describe in Clouds, like being in a film, it's so familiar! I believe that a sense of place is important in fiction; how do you achieve that?

I share in your belief and as a reader I love books that have a strong sense of place. I treat the settings almost as another character, describing not just its appearance, but the feel it conveys and the influence it has on the characters. Roots and belonging versus a sense of adventure is a recurrent theme in my stories.

How do your family/friends feel about your writing?

They are very proud of what I have achieved, though writing takes a big chunk of my time and that is not always easy on family life.

Do you intend to stick with the personal relationship genre or switch to other genres?

Writing about relationships and emotions is what I like best and I will probably continue in this genre. But I have a few ideas for more “topical” stories and I’d love to dab into historical fiction as well.

A tall order, I know, but what is your favourite book? And why?

That is a hard question to answer! The first novel that made a huge impression on me was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which I read when I was about 13. It encapsulates everything my writing is about: relationships, families, everyday life against big political and social changes, ordinary people dealing with small and big issues. Jo March was more than a heroine, she became a role model. An independent woman, aspiring to be a writer, who also happened to become a teacher – which I am too. I don’t know if it’s my “favourite” book, but it certainly occupies a special place in my affections.

Other books that made a big impact on me were Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith and Rosso di Sera by Brunella Gasperini, an Italian writer, journalist and feminist that shaped a great deal of the way I write and view the world.

Where do you hope to be in 5 years?

Mainly alive and in good health! I’d like to take my writing career forward and hopefully have my books in more homes!

You’re generous with giving space and time to other authors on your blog. Can you tell us how this came about?

To be honest, they do me a favour writing for my blog as I’m always stuck for ideas! And I’ve had some truly interesting and fascinating entries. How it came about? I just asked “would you like to write a piece for my blog?”

Where can readers find you?

and, as you mentioned, on my blog

My books can be found on Amazon


Richard Sutton said...

Wonderful interview. Ms. O'Brien's attention to detail in her writing makes all the difference between a setting that can be grasped or accessed and one that's lived in for the duration! I'm glad to make an acquaintance with her work.

Nik said...

Thanks for the comment, Richard. Michela infuses her characters with emotion that is felt, not simply told to us. That goes for her sense of place too.

Jan Warburton said...

I was most impressed with this interview with Michaela O'Brien, Nik. I love the premise for each novel... and they're absolutely my kind of character driven books. Hence, both are definitely now on my TBR list! Looking forward to reading them.

Nik said...

Glad you liked it, Jan. I hope your back's not too bad of late.