Friday 15 July 2011

Helen FitzGerald interview: The Donor

The Donor by Helen FitzGerald

Helen FitzGerald writes young adult fiction and adult thrillers which critics have described as dark, edgy and funny. A Dutch magazine recently described her as “the rock chick of crime fiction.” Her adult books have been translated into numerous languages and her fifth, The Donor (Faber and Faber), is out this month.

Can you sum up your book in no more than 25 words?

Sophie’s Choice with kidneys.

What’s the best piece of craft advice you’ve been given?

About ten years ago, I was sitting next to Bernard MacLaverty at an awards ceremony (okay darlings, the Baftas).
So you’re a writer,” he said.
I’d only written one screenplay at the time, so my response was apologetic, “Well yeah, I s’pose.”
How did you find your voice?” he asked.
It’s Australian,” I replied.
I cringed with embarrassment for days afterwards. I’d never heard of finding your voice before then. I thought he was talking about my accent.

When my husband explained my error to me, I fobbed it off as a lot of lovey codswallop. Truth is, I hadn’t found my voice yet. For years I’d been trying to write something earth-shattering, trying to be someone cleverer and more complex than I am. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t working.

After having two children, something clicked. I was at ease with my limitations and opinions and feelings. I knew all I wanted to do was write a bloody good story, and could do it honestly, as myself. Hey presto, my voice.

But I stand by my initial gaff, Bernard, in that my voice is definitely not New Zealand.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

As in life, I’m impulsive and impatient. I rarely stick to plans. I love beginnings. Middles bore me. Ends jump out from nowhere and knock me for dead. These are strengths and weaknesses.

What aspects of marketing your book do you enjoy?

I love Twitter. When I’m not online, I feel like I’ve been locked in the bathroom while a great party is taking place in the kitchen. It’s also really useful. I’ve made loads of connections with bloggers and librarians and journalists and fellow writers, and this definitely helps.

Author talks are fun, but it’s taken me a while to understand why people come along. Having someone read out loud to me only ever served one purpose – to make me fall asleep, and I find it very hard to suppress the urge to take a power nap when someone is reading. Thankfully, no-one has fallen asleep during one of my events, even in Germany, where you read for forty minutes in a language many of them don’t understand.

I also enjoy interviews like this. For years my job as a social worker required me to listen to other people talk all day. At last, I’m getting my own back.

What are your views on ebook pricing?

What would I know about e-book pricing? What is it even? After I left Uni, I decided to be a social worker because I was a bright-haired, placard-bearing, no-makeup-wearing anti-capitalist radical. I protested against this kind of question, scoffing at business types and chucking boyfriends because they did MBA’s.

Cut to 20 years later.

I don’t have bright hair. I wear makeup. I am writing this on a terrace in Tuscany, sipping Prosecco and listening to classical music.

Ebook pricing. Am I actually talking about e-book pricing?


This month The Donor has started its ebook life on Amazon kindle at £2.49. People are buying it like crazy. It’s number 88 in fiction as I write. I’m happy.

And while I still don’t have a fascination for business, I am starting to pay attention. My book is doing well because it’s on sale as a book of the month (and it’s a work of genius, obviously). So ebook pricing. I say keep mine low and make everyone else’s expensive so I can sip Prosecco on this terrace a while longer.

How important are book covers and titles?

Over the last five years, I’ve published seven books in five different languages. The covers (19 in all) and titles have varied widely.

In Germany the publisher, Galiani, stated with confidence that my books were impossible to categorise. (Bestsellers). In Holland, the publisher marketed my books as literary thrillers (Bestsellers). In Australia, Allen and Unwin packaged Dead Lovely as chick-lit meets crime, hoping to nab both markets (I didn’t rock the continent. My editor said that chick-lit lovers found it “a little ‘confronting’”.) In Italy, my book covers were dark, moody crime (The publisher never answers my calls). In France, the covers were either pretty or vaguely surreal. I have a new publisher there now. The Donor is being released soon alongside titles such as The Slap. Fiction. Not chick lit. Not crime. Wait and see.

At the Faber party last year, the marketing guy said, “Helen, we are determined to make you HUGE in the UK.” It wasn’t just the bubbles talking. He meant it.

Attempt One: Dead Lovely, 2007. The cover says chick-lit meets crime. CSI meets Sex and the City. Did very well. Top twenty in WH Smith charts.

My Last Confession, 2008. Pink plus a girl on the cover. Did well. No 25 in WH Smith. Downward spiral, though. Kill yourself, Helen.

And now, The Donor, out this month. While the tone remains the same, the cover looks like a Jodi Picoult book, moral dilemma fiction, a summer read. It seems to be working. Despite concerted efforts with Dead Lovely and My Last Confession, The Donor is the first one to be accepted into Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s. It’s already had great reviews in big magazines and I hear there are loads more to come. It’s selling extremely well on Amazon Kindle, and pre-orders for the supermarkets and WH Smith are much bigger than ever before.

What was your favourite book as a child?

The book I read over and over as a little girl was Ping, the beautifully-illustrated story of a Chinese duck who lived on a boat with about fifty relatives. Every morning, Ping’s mother and father and sisters and brothers and cousins and uncles and aunts marched off the boat to spend the day on the shores of the Yangstze River. At night, they marched back on: in line, in order. One day Ping decided to bugger off. He hid away when the others were marching back onto the boat for the night and went on a wild adventure. I can’t believe it’s taken me 38 years to realise that I am Ping. I have a ridiculously large family. I rebel against routine and orderly lines. I crave adventure.

I’m hoping one day I’ll be happy to get back on the boat.

How do you feel about awards?

Bitter. I want one. I want more than one. I have bought the dress and written the speech. I don’t understand why all those other fuckers get them and I don’t.

The Donor by Helen FitzGerald

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