A.J. Porter's debut novel, The Mercies of Gwenda Wade, was released in September 2017. We thought it was time to catch up with the author and have a chat about how life had changed for her since being published.
Did you always dream of becoming an author?
Before I attended big girl's school, as I termed Faringdon Infants School, my sister was gifted a chalkboard, I became her first pupil aged around 3. She taught me to read and write. It opened up a whole new venture; I could make little books and write stories down, borrowing (without permission) my Dad’s stapler to fix the pages together. I can remember, as a very small child, making stories up in my head; many of my school reports reference 'wanton daydreaming'. No one I came into contact with was spared. The tales, mostly of the fairy variety, comprised monsters, rescues and daring adventures. Eager to progress at just shy of four, I asked Father Christmas for a Tiny Tears and a typewriter. Thankfully, Father Christmas brought me the latter.
It was never my intention to become a full time writer as an adult; or rather I didn’t possess the cajones to throw myself forward, although I continued to write and summon up stories, telling some of them to my children and grandchildren. Because of my work, I regularly had to scribe the life stories of my clients to present at court; although each tale was full of trauma and, without exception, each one drew tears of both sorrow and rage in turn, it taught me how to craft a narrative. So when I moved to the Middle East, I took pause; I still enjoyed teaching English as a second language, but the stories I invented in my head never stopped. It was time to get them down on paper. So I started with Gwenda and her story; of course it had to be a cosy crime series. I not only started to read as a child with Agatha Christie’s novels, the genre is definitely my thing; I grew up on Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, to name but a few.
So yes, I may not have exactly dreamt of becoming an author, but now that I am, I realise that was what my little self was hoping for.
What was your first job?
My very first paid job was in stables just outside Basingstoke, whilst I was still at school. After a week, I was drawn to equine pursuits; it wasn’t enormous fun mucking out twenty stables before 7am, but it allowed me to ride whenever I wanted to, and to complete my trainer's course with the BHS. My family have always been quite horsey, my ancestry on my paternal side can trace blacksmiths back many generations; on my maternal side, there are misty tales of Irish Tinkers. It’s a heritage of which I am very proud. Whilst here in the UAE, I have also learnt to ride camels, an animal much maligned. They are the most intelligent and gentle of creatures in my experience. Given half a chance, I would have my own herd, but I fear if I did, I would be left with a lot of camels and no husband.
How did you come about writing your book? Was that your intention or did you start writing for fun?
It was a matter of right time, right place, I think. When I started writing in a structured way, I still had my English classes to teach, but that was not full time as I had my family back in the UK and needed to be flexible, so I could pop back if ever the need arose. It was my husband who encouraged me to start on a full novel. He had tired of me writing bids and bods, and doing nothing with them. At that time, I started work with the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai and was flung into the company of brilliant authors, who were generous with both their time and advice. It was a world I wanted to inhabit; so, with the sage words spurring me on and renewed enthusiasm, I started mapping a road to publication. It was a long expedition into understanding the process and the business; I’m not even half way there, but I’m a lot further on than when I started seriously thinking about trying for publication in 2011.
What was your life like before you became an author?
Exactly as it is now: chaotic! With five grown children and 9, soon to become 10, grandchildren, life can be nothing but a random series of happenings; most of which contain much laughter and flying by the seat of my pants to work out solutions to problems. I would not have it any other way.
So nothing much has changed apart from the fact my laptop goes everywhere with me so that at any given moment of calm, it can be whipped out and whatever I am working on can continue.
I write everyday as before Pegasus took a punt on me, but now it’s work….and I can honestly say, I have never loved a job so well.
Did you face any struggles before becoming an author? If so, how did you overcome them?
I suppose time was my greatest hurdle; between working full time, which in my case sometimes ran to 50 hours a week, and being with the family, there never seemed to be a moment to think through plots and learn how I was to go about organising a schedule. So when I came to the UAE and had a flexible job, I made it my business to snatch any spare moments to get the first novel finished. For me, it was about shoehorning serious writing into my day. It wasn’t long before it became natural to pluck the laptop out anywhere, at any time, and get on with it.
I could not imagine how I would do anything else now.
Now that you are a published author, how has your life changed, if at all?
I no longer sound apologetic when people ask me what I do….I don’t mumble “I’m a writer”, fearing them asking me that awful question: “What have you had published?’ I now smile my broadest smile and cheekily say, “I am a writer, my first book is out…do you perchance like crime novels?”
I’m not at the stage where I have done any author events yet, but my friends and family are right there behind me when I do.
I have, in the past, curbed my enthusiasm for whatever I am writing when talking to new people, I’m sure I came across a quite a bore, but now it’s legitimate…..I’m marketing!
The main change is that I work everyday, on whatever I am writing at the time. I try to be strict on my working day, but I, like everyone, still have a family to corral and I have to do it from 6000km away.
Can you please describe a typical day in your life now?
That is a tough one, as one day is rarely the same as the next. But, on a good writing day when we have no visitors or I’m not back in the UK, I would rise at about 6.30am with a coffee from my husband. I am greeted (very noisily) by my three rescue cats, Beryl, the one eyed mog who was dropped into my garden as a tiny kitten by an eagle; three-legged Audrey, who was run over and had to have a leg removed, and Spartacus, who was found by my husband outside the Spar shop, very poorly from a fight wound from bigger street cats. I have to do some nimble side stepping to avoid their cupboard love as they insist on circling my legs as I negotiate the stairs.
By 7.30am, I am in my ancient Range Rover, Roxanne, with my two rescue dogs, Basil and Bertie, and heading to Kite Beach on Yas Island, which lies just off the main island of Abu Dhabi. We spend about an hour splashing about and warming up in the morning sun. If it’s during the summer months, we try to get there a little earlier as it can be up to 40C by about 8.30am. Unfortunately, there can be a lot of rubbish down there; a little guy in overalls, whose job it is to clear the worst of it, does his best and we share a good morning wave and a bottle of water. I tried to help him one day and he was most put out, telling me “No Madame, it is my work.” So I sneak a few bits into bags when he’s not looking. I choose three of these items, photograph them and make up a crime story, imagining these things are the only clues I have. I tweet them sometimes when I get home. Gets the creative juices going, I suppose.
Once home, dogs showered off, I get another coffee and get down to writing. I always have music playing. I have a strange mix of favourites, influenced by my parents tastes, my own and that of my children. If there is one available on the iplayer, I listen to a Liza Tarbuck, Zoe Ball, Tony Blackburn or Sarah Cox show. The dogs snooze under my table while the cats sit atop, mocking my efforts as only cats can. I have started planking while my coffee milk is warming in the microwave, after I could no longer fit into my favourite shorts with any measure of comfort. No sign of a miraculous narrowing of the waist, just aching muscles at the moment; still, ever the optimist.
I have finished the first draft of the second book in the Gwenda Wade stories, so I have embarked on a series for a magazine before I start on the edit. With a new cast of characters and a different setting, I need to research. I am so easily distracted when I research, so I have to keep a tight reign on what I do. I could quite easily start on what type of fabric de-mob suits were made of, and end up browsing old magazine ads until my husband arrives home from work. I am enjoying the research as the new work is set in the 1950s. As well as desk research and a few Skype calls with my Dad, I am immersing myself in 50s crime writers, so a couple of hours will be spent in the garden by the pool reading (it really is research, honestly).
My husband gets home a little after 4pm, so while he has a cup of tea and a wee nap, I make our supper listening to a fabulous online radio station called ROK Radio. They air vintage crime plays from all over the world; my absolute favourite is Johnny Dollar, an insurance clerk who solves crimes through the medium of his expense account. Sounds dull, but believe me it’s classic crime at its very best, particularly as they leave in all the radio ads from the era.
At the moment, evening time may allow a few episodes of Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars or a black and white film to help me set some background for my new endeavour. That is all dependant on whether I can get to the remote control before my husband.
The whole day is punctuated with social media or messaging with friends in other countries, and of course, all interspersed with quotidian life tasks. I am not exempt at washing, cleaning and any number of mundane necessaries. Bedtime is around 11pm; I’ll round up the cats by shaking their treat tin and acting as lady bountiful by scattering some Friskies in their room. The dogs sleep outside the bedroom door, so they will be stationed there, ready for their snack by the time I mount the stairs with my lavender water. A last look at Twitter and Facebook, and snuggle down with whatever I’m reading. It will be a crime novel, most probably, but I do love E.F Benson, Miss Reid and others of that ilk. So that’s my day, morning to evening crime….everything a murder weapon, everyone a suspect!
What is your most memorable moment of your life as an author?
Telling my family I had a publishing deal. Still makes me tear up a bit. Although I’m quite garrulous and perky, it’s a bit of bluster as I am quite shy behind it all. My family were so happy for me and knew what it meant for me to get recognition for my efforts. They are such a wonderful bunch of people, none better.
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