A native of Belfast, R.B. Kelly has a PhD in Film Theory and published her doctoral thesis, Mark Antony and Popular Culture, in 2014. She is former winner of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair and The Edge of Heaven is her first novel, published by Liberties Press.
What are your earliest memories of writing?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. I must have been about seven or eight when I finished my first attempt at a novel-length piece of work: that’s “novel-length” in seven or eight-year-old terms, but it was still about 80 pages long and I was incredibly proud of it. It was the melodramatic tale of Aislinn, a talking Connemara pony, and her friends as they head off on a cross-country adventure after her mother gets eaten by an escaped tiger, because apparently my genre leanings were manifesting themselves from the very first. Yes, I still have the manuscript. No, nobody is ever allowed to set eyes upon it.
You studied journalism and film studies. How have these contributed to your writing – do you write imagining your novels as movies, or is that a bad thing for a writer to be doing?
I can’t say if it’s good or bad; all I can say is that it’s what I do! That’s not because I’ve got one eye on an eventual film adaptation (though I certainly wouldn’t be averse!), but simply because that’s the way I see the novels unfolding as I write. Film is a big part of my life; I consume at least as much science fiction through film and television as I do through text, so I suppose it’s probably inevitable that it influences the way I write. I can’t write a place unless I can see it very vividly in my mind, and I can’t draw to save myself, so I have to try and build a picture through words instead.
You write dystopian fiction. Can you explain to us what that is and how it fits within the science fiction genre?
Dystopian fiction is fiction that imagines the future as having taken some kind of turn for the worse: whether that’s because of some kind of apocalyptic event (as, for example, in The Road), because of increased political control and decreased individual freedoms (as in 1984 or Brave New World), or just general deterioration of quality of life because of diminished resources and systemic inequalities (as in The Hunger Games). Science fiction has always had a dual function: on the one hand, it’s about having fun with possibilities and letting the imagination soar, and I’ve always loved the capacity of good sci-fi to dazzle and amaze with its imaginative leaps. But on the other hand, science fiction works as a kind of safety valve to explore the issues and concerns that are bubbling away just beneath the surface of society, and the past few decades have seen increasing anxieties about our future if we carry on using and abusing the earth’s resources as though they’re infinite. The surge in popularity of dystopian science fiction can be seen as a response to that: it’s a way of exploring and exorcising worries about what the world of fifty or a hundred years from now will look like, and if it’s a place we’d want to live.
You wrote the first draft of your novel at the age of fifteen, but it took over twenty years for it to be published. How does the finished draft and that first draft compare?
In some ways, they’re very similar and in other ways they couldn’t be more different. The characters of Danae and Boston have changed very little and the central narrative is broadly the same as in the first draft. Some of the ancillary characters have also survived two decades of periodic purging, too. But fifteen-year-old me was trying to write my first ever grown-up book, and that initial draft was deliberately setting out to show how mature I was, so it’s absolutely littered with f-words and gratuitous violence, because that’s how I thought one did “provocative” when I was a teenager. In some ways, though, I look back at that first draft now and think that, for all its flaws (and it is not, objectively speaking, very good), there’s a freedom to it that’s very difficult to replicate, the more writing I do. That book was written entirely for myself, and that gives it a fearlessness that I think it’s hard to hold onto when you start to try and make your work saleable.
You were rejected by 94 agents and publishers. Did you always know you would make it and where did that drive come from?
I’ve always known I would write, and I’d write whether or not anyone ever read a single word I put on a page. I’ve been very lucky, in that I’ve had encouragement from my earliest years from my parents and teachers, and I suppose that helped found a solid sense of self-belief that kept me going through all the rejections. I can’t really explain how I knew that Edge Of Heaven would be the first novel I published, but I always had that feeling, even though it wasn’t the first novel I completed and there’ve been several others since. I read a wonderful quote, many years ago, in a book about guerilla filmmaking, that said – and I’m paraphrasing here, because I don’t have the book anymore – “The only reason to make a film is if you can’t not make a film.” That’s probably when I realised that I was never going to be the next Ridley Scott, because I’m perfectly happy not making films, but I couldn’t not write a book, and I couldn’t not keep trying to get it published.
Tell us about your experience of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair, where you were eventually discovered?
The Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair is an incredible opportunity, and I can’t praise it enough. I’d entered Edge of Heavan into similar competitions in the past, but when the deadline for the Novel Fair competition was looming, I’d just recently been given some long and detailed feedback from two genuinely wonderful people, Sam Taylor and Maeve Gorman, who took my doorstopper of a manuscript and gave up the free time that it took them both to read and critique it and offer their suggestions for improvement. Every aspiring writer should have a Maeve and a Sam in their life: that kind of help is both essential and invaluable. The problem I then had was that I hate editing with the fire of a thousand suns, and I am an expert at finding ways to avoid it, so the revisions I needed to do just weren’t getting done, and I needed a deadline to shake some sense into me. The truth is, I never expected to win the Novel Fair Competition: I just needed a bit of pressure to make me knuckle down and get the work done! I’ll never forget the phone call letting me know I was a winner: I basically lost the power of speech and just kept repeating, “No…. Really?!” over and over again.
The preparation day for the Novel Fair itself was a huge eye opener. It’s one thing to know your novel inside out and back to front, but that’s not the same as being able to sell it, and that became clear very quickly. My group was mentored by Sarah Davis-Goff, co-founder of Tramp Press, and when she asked me to explain my novel to my colleagues in a few sentences, I completely fluffed it. A sales pitch isn’t about themes or characters or even narrative, really: it’s about condensing your novel down into punchy, salient points that give a general feel of the overall story and make it sound like something an editor might want to read. That’s a completely different skill to writing fiction, and it took me several long and frustrating hours after the session to work out exactly what information I needed to get across. The Novel Fair is the kind of opportunity an aspiring writer can only dream of, and I knew that if I let myself down that day, I would be wasting the best chance I’d ever had of getting my novel into the hands of someone who could turn it into a book.
Being put in a room with publishers and agents from across the UK and Ireland was, frankly, terrifying. It helped, I think, that I knew that the majority of them didn’t publish or represent science fiction, so I was able to relax a bit when I was talking to folks that probably weren’t going to pick up my novel, and that helped me, overall, fall into a comfortable groove. Eventually, I even started to enjoy myself. I knew that Liberties hadn’t published any sci-fi before, so I wasn’t expecting them to request a full manuscript, and consequently didn’t feel any great pressure to sell Edge of Heaven to them. I honestly can’t describe my excitement when I got a follow-up email from them asking to read my novel. The fact that I’m published now is as a direct result of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair; it’s just the most incredible resource for writers on this island and I can’t thank them enough.
You had success with short story writing. Can you tell us about this and did this help in the long process of getting your novel published?
I had my first success in writing with a short story that I wrote over a decade ago: Long Anna River won the Orange/Northern Woman Short Story Award and was the first piece of writing that I ever saw in print. Nothing compares to that feeling! It encouraged me to keep trying to publish, though it was a long and slow road. I’m not sure how much it helped in the process of getting the novel published, but it certainly didn’t hurt: when querying agents, it’s generally good to have one or two prior publications to list in the cover letter, if only to demonstrate that somebody somewhere has seen fit to take a chance on your writing. Having said that, I’ve heard mixed reports as to how much difference that makes, and my agent found me, rather than the other way around, so in my case, the real value in short story writing was from the validation I felt as a writer when my work was accepted for publication.
Tell us about your screenwriting experience. Is it easy for a writer to move between the two disciplines?
I don’t have any strong preference for one over the other, but I’ve always found that any story idea I’ve had tends to announce itself quite stridently as either prose fiction or screenplay. That’s not to say that I haven’t experimented with transposing work between formats, only that when I start a project, whatever it is that I’m writing generally feels very strongly as though it’s one or the other. What I love about prose fiction is exactly the opposite of what I love about screenwriting: in prose fiction, I’m in charge of building the entirety of the story world and every single detail of that world will flow from the images I see in my head. Characters exist and act in a certain way because that’s how I’ve imagined them. Everything from the feel of the ground beneath their feet to the colour of the sky at sunset is up to me to visualise and describe. In screenwriting, though, the opposite is true: it’s my job as a screenwriter to sketch out the skeleton of a story and mobilise characters to deliver that story through dialogue and action, but the nuances and details of that world and the people within it are up to the actors, directors, and design team to bring to life, and part of my job as a writer is to not try to do their jobs for them. Each format has its own challenges and rewards, and I honestly couldn’t pick one over the other.
I studied film, initially, with the idea that I’d like to work in the industry, and for a while I was quite heavily involved in the local no-budget filmmaking scene in Belfast. That fizzled out after a while, but I kept writing screenplays and making vague efforts towards trying to drum up interest in them, with very little success. Then, last September, I was accepted onto Northern Ireland Screen’s New Writer Focus scheme – a six-month long mentoring and development programme for emerging screenwriters – to develop a feature-length science fiction screenplay that I’d written. At the end of the programme, I was lucky enough to have the screenplay optioned by a local production company, which is very exciting.
What is your writing routine?
I wish I had a writing routine! I’ve tried very hard to establish one, but the closest I’ve got is setting myself a minimum word count on writing days and not letting myself get up from my seat until I’ve achieved it. I’m fantastic at procrastination. My house is never cleaner than when I’ve got writing I ought to be doing. On the other hand, when I actually do manage to invoke my inner grown-up and sit down to do some work, it will generally go one of two ways: I will either fight for every single word, in the depressing knowledge that I’m going to have to edit severely at some point, or else I’ll look up from the keyboard eleven hours later to discover that it’s dark, I’ve forgotten to eat since breakfast, and I have three new chapters. There is no middle ground.
Who has been the biggest influence on your writing?
The reason I write science fiction is because I read Ben Elton’s This Other Eden in my early teens, and it completely changed the stories I wanted to tell. Science fiction has always been a big part of my cultural upbringing – I have vivid memories of watching the original Star Trek movies with my dad as a child – but This Other Eden was the first novel to make me really want to explore the potential of sci-fi to address real-world issues. I love the way Elton uses comedy to soften the edges of his message; there’s no mistaking the book’s moral undercurrent, but it’s always secondary to the strong plot and humour that drive the narrative. I’m no comedy writer, but any time Edge of Heaven takes a turn for the sardonic, that’s a direct reference to Elton’s influence.
Have you ever suffered from writers’ block?
I don’t think there’s a writer alive who hasn’t. Getting started is my biggest obstacle: because I loathe editing so intensely, I find that the fear of having to edit what I’m writing creates a massive barrier to writing anything at all, and often all I need to do is start typing to break it down. But other times, I’ll be genuinely confounded by a story development or a plot hole that appears and my writing will just grind to a halt until I can work it out. There’s a beautiful stretch of towpath not far from where I used to live in Belfast that I’ve nicknamed Inspiration Avenue, because for some reason just walking along that path is the very best antidote I’ve ever found to writers’ block.
What projects are you currently working on?
At the moment, I’m in the planning stages for the follow-up to Edge of Heaven. I started writing it before I’d signed with Liberties, but ran out of steam after a couple of chapters and left it alone to focus on getting Edge into shape, and I’m really ready to come back to it now. Having a break has also clarified a few things for me, so I’m excited to start work on it again.
What do you like to read?
I’ll read most things, and I often have more than one book on the go at any given moment. At the moment, I’m really enjoying zombie fiction: I’ve just finished the second in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and I’m about to start the final book. But while I was on holiday recently I read Jan Carson’s Children’s Children and David Mitchell’s Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse, and started Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. My reading habits are less ‘thematic consistency’ and more ‘anything goes.’
Where do you write?
I can’t write at a desk. I’ve tried and failed to have a writing desk, and eventually gave it up as a bad job. These days, I write with my laptop on my knee, curled up on a sofa with my cats.
I love that Rachael has a work from when she was 15 to look back on and that much of what she wrote then has survived to the published book. I think the teenage years are such formative years for the writer – when we find the genre we love and the stories we want to write about. She also talks about the freedom of writing as a teenager. With no learned thoughts or structures about what you should be writing, there is a great freedom of expression when we are younger – a naivety and a vast future of empty writing space. Perhaps it would do as all good to go back there a bit in our minds. Her experience and description of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair is a lesson to us all – you may have your book ready – but can you sell it? How much work do you need to do to condense it into a few lines that will peak a publisher’s interest? Personally, I’ve been struggling with this. My failure to accurately describe my novel in a few lines has left me wondering if my book is good enough or whether it’s really finished. I thoroughly enjoyed this lengthy interview with Rachael – I love the positivity that shines through, the optimism that her publishing dream would be real, as well as all the other facets that form the writer, including her film studies and the way she visualises the pictures in her mind as she writes. I think we all do this in part, influenced by our years of TV and movie watching. Perhaps one day we’ll see those images taken from Rachael’s head and projected onto our cinema screens. A continuation of the writer’s dream?
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.