Thursday 3 October 2019

Interview with Tracey Iceton

Tracey Iceton is an author and creative writing tutor from Teesside, with a PhD in creative writing at Northumbria University. Tracey won the 2013 HISSAC short story prize for 'Butterfly Wings', was runner up in the 2013 and 2014 Cinnamon Press short story competitions with 'Slag' and 'As the world (re)turns', which appear in the anthologies Journey Planner and Patria. She also won the 2011 Writers Block NE Home Tomorrow Short Story Competition and has been shortlisted for the 2012 Bristol Short Story Competition with 'Apple Shot' and the 2015 Mslexia Women's Short Story Competition for 'Ask Not'. Green Dawn at St Enda's, her debut novel and part one of her Celtic Colours Trilogy, was published by Cinnamon Press in 2016. Part two, Herself Alone in Orange Rain, came out in 2017 and the final part of the trilogy, White Leaves of Peace, was published in 2019.

Q: How do you know when the writing is going well?

TI: When it's pouring out of me and I'm so engrossed in the writing that I don't want to knock off to do anything else, including eating and sleeping. It's not unknown if I'm really running with the writing to get up in the middle of the night to write for a couple of hours. I think when you're in the flow like that you know it's good because it just keeps coming, no pauses or hesitation about the words. But of course, it isn't like that all the time and you have to battle through the days when you are struggling to put a single sentence together. Knowing that it will come easier at some point helps with that.  

Q: What was the inspiration for the first novel in the trilogy, Green Dawn at St Enda’s

TI: In 2003, before I was even writing seriously, I went on holiday to Dublin.  One of the typically touristy things to do is the Kilmainham Gaol tour. The Gaol is an historic building that has played a part in some key moments of Irish history, not least the Easter Rising of 1916 as this was where the leaders of the Easter Rising (fourteen men) were executed. Part of the Gaol tour is a stop in the stonebreakers yard where the guide tells people of how James Connolly (leader of the Irish Citizen Army and one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of Independence that was read on the steps of the GPO in central Dublin by Patrick Pearse at the start of the Rising) was so badly injured he had to be sat in a chair to face the firing squad. It's hard not to be moved by that story and also shocked. This event is as much a part of British and it is Irish history and yet it isn't taught in schools and I had never even heard of it at that point.  

Ironically, in one of those moments when things coalesce, I was also at the time teaching WW1 literature to my English A Level students (I was an English teacher for ten years before I gave up the day job for writing). One of the texts we had been reading was Lloyd George's Pinnacle of Sacrifice speech in which he talks about the need for Britain to defend the right to independence of 'little nations'. He is referring to Belgium and I felt keenly the hypocrisy of him saying while denying Irish independence (Lloyd George was instrumental in preventing the passing of the Irish Home Rule act which would have given Ireland, then wholly part of Britain's empire, a degree of self-government). This coupled with the tragedy of the Easter Rising and the emotive experience in Kilmainham made me research the Rising, convinced there was a story to be told, that needed telling in a way that made it accessible to British, as well as Irish, readers, in order to make people aware of this part of history.  

While I was researching I learnt Patrick Pearse, often regarded as the leader of the Rising, was, like me, a writer and a teacher. This set me wondering how someone with whom I had things in common ended up in front of a dawn firing squad. From there the story was born.  Setting it around his school, St Enda's, and focusing the action on a fictional pupil there, Finn Devoy, allowed me to draw on what I knew about schools, students at that pivotal time of adolescence, and tell the story in a way that would engage readers and allow them to learn about the Rising without feeling they were being taught a history lesson. And once I started researching modern Irish history, I knew there was too much to be contained in one book so from the outset it was always going to be a trilogy.

Q: You undertook the second part of your Celtic Colours trilogy, Herself Alone in Orange Rain, as part of a PhD project at Northumbria University. How did the PhD and your chosen supervisor help with the writing of that novel?  

TI: Prof Michael Green and Dr Fiona Shaw who were my supervisors, were instrumental in making the second novel what it is and I will forever have to credit them with generally developing my writing and helping me hone my craft. The close readings and regular feedback they provided meant I produced what I still think is thus far the best book I have ever written (I had already written two at that point, Green Dawn and Rock God Complex which is being released in Sept 2020). Their guidance covered everything from how to control the characterisation of Caoilainn, the main protagonist who becomes an IRA volunteer during the novel, to the fact that I had incorrectly described Brighton beach as sandy when it is pebbly!

The regular contact with professional writers such as my supervisors offered me a rare and privileged chance to learn from those with far more writing craft to their credit than I had at that point. Now, drawing on that experience, I work with emerging writers one to one, providing mentoring similar to the PhD supervision but without the academic elements as I want to pass on what I gained to others and I appreciate that finding someone to work with you on your writing is difficult. I was also fortunate enough to be fully funded for the PhD so I was able to write full time and having that block of time to work on the novel helped with the writing enormously.

Q: Did you have any difficulty in getting the trilogy published?

TI: As most (probably 99%) of debut novelists will attest, getting published is far harder than writing the book in the first place. I had tried some small presses and agents to no avail.  There was even one who said that it would be a good book if I took out the history and politics which would have left me with a story of a boy at boarding school! But Cinnamon Press had been on my radar for a while and I entered the book in their debut novelists' competition. The top three would be published by Cinnamon. I made it into the top five. But Cinnamon, as an indie press, offer the personal touch you just don't get from mainstream publishers and they are incredibly approachable. So, I contacted Jan Fortune who runs Cinnamon and is a brilliant writer herself, to ask why top five, not top three and what could I do to improve the book. She said the beginning needed work (I ended up cutting about three chapters from the start) but that she could see the potential in it and wanted to work with me on it. So, I ended up on the Cinnamon Press mentoring scheme and for a year honed the novel with them at the end of which they confirmed they wanted to publish it, releasing it in 2016 to coincide with the centenary of the Rising. 

Jan knew at the time that it was part one of a trilogy and I quietly hoped that they would consider the other two as well. But I was completely gobsmacked when she told me, matter-of-factly, of course they would be publishing all three and that before I had written a word of book two. She believed in the story and that is the key to getting published, I think, finding someone who feels as passionately about the story you are telling as you do.  My advice to other novelists is always to keep submitting because, as long as the writing is good enough, you will find someone who feels as strongly as you do that this is a story that people need to be reading.

Q: Is there an autobiographical element to your novels?

TI: Writers are always being told to write what they know and to some extent that is good advice.  I certainly recommend drawing on your experiences where possible but I also tell people not to be restricted by what they know. As a fiction writer your job is to invent so just because you haven't lived it doesn't mean you can't write about it convincingly. So, having said that, yes, there are elements in the books that have come from my personal experiences, although I should probably state now for the record that I have never been in the IRA! There is something in Caoilainn's resolve though, that reflects my own personality. And in more concrete terms, a lot of the Australia scenes from the third novel, White Leaves of Peace, are based on my own year of living in Australia. In fact, faced with the whole world as a possible setting, I chose Oz partly because I had been there so I knew enough to not need to do a lot of research.

Q: How do you bring your stories to a close?

TI: I'm a big fan of the 'open endings' when there is a sense that the story gets bigger, not smaller, at the finish, leaving readers to speculate for themselves what happens to the characters after they close the book. This is true of all the books in the trilogy but especially part three and I have been asked by several readers, "Well?  Does he or doesn't he?" referring to a decision Cian, the main character, is left to make at the end. Truthfully, I can't tell them because I don't know. I don't need to know. They can and should decide for themselves, based on their reading of the story and his characterisation, if he does or not do what he has been asked to do. In terms of actually coming up with the endings though, I have come to accept the fact that for me stories tell me when they should finish and how. 

With both parts one and two I had endings in mind and didn't use them. I just found myself at the point where the character's quest was over and they were beginning a new one, one that would be a separate story so wouldn't be included in the pages of that book. With Orange Rain this was particularly dramatic for me as I was writing away furiously one day, in the flow, thinking I had chapters left to go to wrap the story up and suddenly I was done. It was like turning into a road you think leads somewhere to find a dead end. But I knew it was exactly the right place to stop, so I stopped. A great novel can be ruined by an ending that goes on well after the story is finished.

Q: Between the first book of the trilogy and the last book, have you changed your way of writing?

TI: I think I've honed, rather than changed, the way I write.  I am much more concise now, thanks in part to both the Cinnamon mentoring I did and the PhD supervision. I know what not to say which is as key as knowing what to say for good writing.  I think and plan a bit more now than I used to also. There was a loose plan for Green Dawn which tracked the timeline of real events and a more detailed one for Orange Rain but initially I didn't plan at all for White Leaves. I think I thought, "I've written three books now, I know what I'm doing, I'll just go with it." That was a mistake. I ended up throwing away about 100,000 words and pretty much starting again with a plan having had a damn good think about what I needed to do with the story. A lot of writing happens in my head, in fact most of it, then I just type it up.  
Also, I was a lot more experimental in the second book, using different types of texts (there's a play script at one point) and different narrative perspectives (the second person 'you' voice appears a couple of times) and some of this carried on into the third book. And I'm definitely better at not overusing extended metaphors now which is a relief to my readers I'm sure! No doubt my writing will continue to develop and I think every book will have its own challenges so will demand a slightly different approach. Ultimately the greatest lesson I've learnt in regard to writing is to do whatever is in the best interests of the piece you are writing at that time so be prepared to adapt.

Q: How would you define “the writer’s life?”

TI: Self-indulgent. I write because I love making up stories and to get to do it professionally makes me feel a little guilty as most people don't get to do what they love. It's very rewarding and satisfying, especially when a reader tells you they enjoyed your book. But it's hard work too, not so much in terms of actually doing the writing but in finding that balance between having time to write and earning a living. The reality for writers is they don't make a living from book sales. Most, like me, make it from teaching writing which, once you are published, you have enough credibility to do. So, I run a lot of courses all over the north east of England where I'm based as well as the work I do one to one with writers who are slogging through a particular project. I have held a couple of writer in residence posts too which were well paid and rewarding. And I do some work in schools, delivering creative writing sessions either as extra-curricular activities or as required by the exam syllabuses (there is now a creative writing task on the GCSE English language exam). But this all takes up a lot of time meaning ironically that even though I am technically a writer I sometimes don't write for weeks at a time. But because I love writing I'll always make time. And deadlines help! I consider myself very fortunate that, when people ask what I do I'm able to reply, "I'm a writer." 

About the reviewer
Lee Wright's fiction and non-fiction has been published by Fairlight Shorts, Burning House Press, and Newmag Magazine, as well as others. His interview series with writers has been published by Everybody's Reviewing and  

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