Works-in-Progress: In Search of Y

DavidEllard1The Brussels Writers’ Circle features members who are hard at work chipping away at various monumental and epoch-making pieces of literature. Or so we would hope. In this new segment, we interview chairperson David Ellard about his current masterpiece-in-progress.

First off, what is it, novel/short story/non-fiction and what is it called?

It’s an epic (and epic-sized) science fiction novel called ‘In Search of Y’.

Where and when does the action take place?

On the fictional planet Nile in the star system epsilon Eridani, about five hundred years in the future.

The_Seven_Basic_PlotsWhich, if any, of Christopher Booker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’ are you following?

Oh number three, ‘The Quest’, without a doubt. My hero Jen Zo is searching for a bank of frozen sperm which (when unthawed I hasten to add) will allow an all-female space colony to have boy babies (Y-chromosome sperm, hence the Y of the title).

OK, pretend we’re a prospective agent or publisher and you have one sentence to sell us your work-in-progress. Give us that sentence.

The basic bouillon consists of sci-fi opera classic ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert mixed in with French feminist erotic thriller ‘Baise-moi’, then lightly seasoned with touches of ‘Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkien and ‘Don Quijote’ by Miguel Cervantes.

How long have you been working on it?

Since November 2011 so not quite four years

A work of great length?

Yep. When I started I was worried it wouldn’t be long enough for a proper novel. Now that the completed first draft weighs in at 183,000 words I rather think I have the opposite problem.

And where are you at now? Where are you going with it?

As I said, the first draft is done but now I have to take the voluminous feedback from the group, twist and tweak the plot, reinvent the start of the novel in particular to make it more exciting and immediate, and go rewrite.

Accumulated BWC members' feedback on my first draft in repose on my sofa

Accumulated BWC members’ feedback on my first draft in repose on my sofa

How did the BWC help you in the course of your work?

I got tremendous motivation from the pressure of having to present the chapters as I wrote them. Lots of great suggestions and ideas, and technical advice – my novel is very dialoguey but I learnt loads about how to try and break that up into more digestible sections.

What was the best feedback you got from the group?

Two examples stand out for me. One member told me a certain chapter reminded her of the ‘Three Witches’ scene from the play Macbeth. I liked the idea so much I am going to rewrite the chapter in the second draft with various direct references to that scene.

Secondly, several people told me to reimagine the swearwords current on my fictional planet to give greater authenticity. This I did and now my characters have an argot all of their own. Sadly, this is a family website and I am not at liberty to discuss what those terms are, but readers of my second draft will hopefully raise an eyebrow or two when the time comes.

Who will (the final version of) your novel definitely not be suitable for?

Children. The novel contains various scenes containing sex possibly not in the context of a warm and loving relationship. Oh and lashings of violence to boot.

epsilonEridaniWe assume that it will one day be published to universal acclaim and that a Hollywood blockbuster will be made from it. Which actors will play the principal roles?

I can see Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker from the 90s/2000s ‘Rush Hour’ action comedy series playing the hero Jen Zo and his side-kick Olifah Tambo. For the Grand Mother, I was thinking Meryl Streep might like the part if I can give her a weird and challenging enough accent to master.

Thanks and good luck with the second draft!

BWC member Colette Victor published for the second time

Two thousand and six congratulations to BWC member Colette Victor, who has recently published her second book! Her novel What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein was released by Cargo Publishing earlier this month.

We interviewed Colette back in November 2013 about the publication of her first book, Head Over Heartso we thought it only fitting to sit her down again to talk about her latest success. Here she talks about her novel which may never have become a novel at all if it wasn’t for the prompting of the keen members of the BWC.

What to Do With LobstersCongratulations on the publication of your second book, What to Do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein! Could you tell us, briefly, what the book is about?

Oom Marius, storeowner in a conservative, rural town, has long harboured a crush on Patty, but fails to impress her when he installs a lobster tank in his shop. Tannie Hettie, Oom Marius’ wife, must have cancer treatment in Cape Town, creating a predicament for Oom Marius. Petrus, Oom Marius’ mute helper for twenty-two years suddenly speaks! He volunteers to run the shop asking if bookkeeping-skilled Precious, a young township woman he secretly loves, can work with him. Oom Marius agrees.

In church, the dominie (pastor) informs the congregation that a black man will manage the shop while Oom Marius is gone. Many white inhabitants do not want black people taking traditionally held white positions. A group of white men barricade Oom Marius’ shop front, while Charlie, one of Oom Marius’ supporters, helps Petrus and Precious. An attraction develops between Precious and Charlie: Petrus helplessly watches.

In South Africa there are towns where the dominance of whites and contempt for blacks still exists despite twenty-one years of democracy. This bittersweet comedy raises aspects of the dilemma. A gentle story, set at the beginning of summer, always hot and dry, revolves around the shop and a lobster tank. Will the lobsters survive? Will Charlie and Precious’ feelings come to fruition? Will Tannie Hettie survive cancer? How do Patty and Oom Marius relate when Shawn leaves?

How long did it take you to write the novel?

It started off as a short story probably about four or five years ago. The novel itself took me more or less two and a half years to write, including the various edits and redrafting.

Colette (right) with fellow BWC member Sarah Van Hove at the launch of 'What to Do with Lobsters' at Waterstone's Bookstore in Brussels

Colette (right) with fellow BWC member Sarah Van Hove at the launch of ‘What to Do with Lobsters’ at Waterstone’s Bookstore in Brussels

Did you read out draft versions of your novel at BWC meetings? If so, do you have any memorable moments you’d like to share from this experience? 

I remember reading out the short story in someone’s flat at the height of summer, I think it was Kathleen’s place. Several people commented that it was too short, that the characters were too interesting to abandon to such a short piece of fiction. It was on my way home in the train that I decided to develop it into a full-length novel.

I read many chapters out at the meetings and always took the advice or comments I was given to heart. There was no point being defensive about my work and defending each and every sentence because that way I’d be stuck with a well-defended piece of writing and nothing more. If I wanted to grow then I had to listen to what people were saying. If a single person made a comment on some or other obscure phrase I would ignore it, but if several people commented on the same thing I knew I was doing something wrong. Eventually I started anticipating the comments while I was writing and I think it was at that point that my writing started improving.

This is your second experience with publication, following Head Over Heart. Was it just as exciting, second time around, learning that the book would be published? How did you feel when you found out?

The news of publication for both books followed each other pretty quickly. First I went through years and years of rejection emails from agents and publishers and then suddenly both books did well in two separate competitions – The Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2012 and the Dundee International Book Prize 2013. On the back of this success I found an agent and then two publishing contracts followed within a couple of months of each other.

And yes, it’s definitely just as exciting getting this one published. What to do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein is probably a little closer to my heart than Head Over Heart. Cargo Publishing is a small publishing house with a lot of attention for its authors. So saying I’m thrilled would be a sad understatement. There probably isn’t a word big enough to describe what this feels like since it’s something I’ve hankered after since I was nine.

Do you have any other books/novels in the works right now? If so, can you tell us about them?

I’m working on a book called The Godforsaken. It’s set in a run-down bar in the middle of Brussels and is frequented by a bunch of characters who live on the seedier side of life. It takes a look at poverty in Belgium, in Europe, and society’s prevalent pastime of blaming poor people for their situation while sitting happy and insulated on a cushion of middle-class contentment. Hopefully it should be finished to send off to my agent by the summer.

Last but not least, what a title! Did you have any other possible titles in the offing, or was this one always it?

The book started off as an entry for a short story competition under the title of ‘In the Deep’, but it changed pretty quickly after that, to What to do with Lobsters in a Place Like Klippiesfontein when I decided to develop it further. I played around with ideas and word combinations until I found something I was happy with.

2015 BWC Writers’ Retreat

Registrations for the fifth annual BWC writers’ retreat are now open! Here’s this year’s event organiser, Hamed Mobasser, with more information:

“It’s my great pleasure to finally announce the start of the registration for our Writers’ Retreat 2015.

Siddartha 1

Siddartha, in Tremelo

Practical Information 

The retreat will take place from Friday 8 May to Sunday 10 May at Siddharta, in Tremelo (Flanders). The price will be the same as last year – €75 – which includes your bed and all your meals.

The venue consists of 2 buildings with 17 rooms in total. In principle, this means that we can accept 17 participants, but should you not mind sharing a room (see registration), we can allow more people to join the retreat as a number of the rooms contain 2 beds.

Registration

You can register for the retreat by following this link.

Please note that places will be appointed based on a first-come-first-served basis. Once you have registered, I will contact you with payment details. Your place will be reserved once payment has been received.

Preparation of Workshops

For those of you interested in helping out with the organisation and planning of the content, which we will base on the numerous responses we had from our previous survey, please contact me at: hamedmobasser at gmail.com

Want to know more about what the retreat will involve?

Read about our 2014 retreat, and see a few more pictures, here.

We look forward to seeing you there!”

2015 International Short Story Competitions

Another year, another chance to give those tales of yours a chance to win some dosh. Here we go again with our third annual list of international short story competitions you might consider trying your hand at in 2015.

Since there are more writing competitions than you can shake an armadillo at, our search was narrowed to competitions that are (a) international, (b) preferably include publication in either anthologies or magazines, and (c) do not require the donation of one or more of your limbs in order to enter.

Most of the competitions listed below require that your submission has not been published elsewhere beforehand, but you can check each site individually for comprehensive entry rules. Some also include poetry and flash fiction categories, so these have been indicated where applicable.


JANUARY DEADLINES

Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: Max. 12 double-spaced pages
Entry fee: $25USD
Prize: $1000USD
Deadline: January 30, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Unclear
Publication: The Thomas Wolfe Review
Website: http://www.ncwriters.org/index.php/competitions/3587-thomas-wolfe-fiction-prize

Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 3000 words max.
Entry fee: $15USD
Prize: $1500USD
Deadline: January 31, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: 3 submissions max.
Publication: Winner published in Glimmer Train Stories
Extra information: This is a quarterly competition, so future deadlines will be announced for April, July and October 2015
Website: http://www.glimmertrain.com/veryshort.html


FEBRUARY DEADLINES

The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition 2015
Theme: Ghost story
Word limit: 1000-5000 words
Entry fee: £8
Prize: £500
Deadline: February 28, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: The Fiction Desk Ghost Stories Anthology 2015
Website: http://www.thefictiondesk.com/submissions/ghost-story-competition.php

Exeter Writers Short Story Competition 2015
Theme: Open (but no children’s stories)
Word limit: 3000 words max
Entry fee: £6
Prize: £500
Deadline: February 28, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Exeter Writers website only
Website: http://www.exeterwriters.org.uk/p/competition.html

Nivalis Short Story Contest 2015
Theme: ‘Nivalis’, meaning ‘Winter’
Word limit: 2500-6000 words
Entry fee: $10USD
Prize: $150USD
Deadline: February 28, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Winners anthology
Website: http://www.fabulapress.com/the-contest/


MARCH DEADLINES

The Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction
Theme: Open
Word limit: Under 50 pages
Entry fee: $17USD
Prizes: 1st prize £2000USD
Deadline: March 14, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Fall/Winter 2015 edition of Colorado Review
Website: http://coloradoreview.colostate.edu/nelligan-prize/submission-guidelines/

The Pinch Literary Awards
Theme: Open
Word limit: 5000 words max
Entry fee: $20USD
Prizes: 1st prize $1000USD
Deadline: March 15, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Spring edition of The Pinch Journal (University of Memphis)
Extra information: Also includes poetry and nonfiction categories
Website: http://www.pinchjournal.com/contest-guidelines/

Mslexia 2015 Women’s Short Story Competition
Theme: Open
Word limit: 2,200 words max
Entry fee: £10
Prizes: 1st prize £2000, 2nd prize £500, 3rd prize £250
Deadline: March 16, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Mslexia Magazine
Extra information: Women writers only
Website: http://mslexia.co.uk/whatson/msbusiness/scomp_active.php

Scottish Arts Club Short Story Competition
Theme: Open (no link with Scotland necessary)
Word limit: 1500 words max
Entry fee: £10
Prizes: First prize £800
Deadline: March 31, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Scottish Arts Club website
Website: http://www.scottishartsclub.co.uk/shortstory2015

Short Fiction Journal Short Fiction Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 6000 words max
Entry fee: £6
Prizes: £500
Deadline: March 31, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: The Short Fiction Journal
Website: http://www.shortfictionjournal.co.uk/?page_id=33


APRIL DEADLINES

Inkhead Short Story Competition
Theme: Stories must be written under one of five possible titles (listed on their website)
Word limit: 1000 words max
Entry fee: £5 per entry
Prizes: £100
Deadline: April 1, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Inkhead Winners Anthology
Website: http://www.inkhead.co.uk/pages/inkhead-short-story-competition-2015

The Bath Short Story Award
Theme: Open
Word limit: 2,200 words max
Entry fee: £8
Prizes: 1st prize £1000, 2nd prize £200, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: April 27, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: The Bath Short Story Award 2015 Anthology
Website: http://bathshortstoryaward.co.uk

Momaya Press Short Story Award
Theme: ‘Treasure’
Word limit: 3000 words max.
Entry fee: £8
Prize: 1st prize £110
Deadline: April 30, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Momaya Annual Review 2015
Website: http://momayapress.com/momaya-short-story-competition/

Bristol Short Story Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 4,000 words max
Entry fee: £8 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £1000, 2nd prize £700, 3rd prize £400
Deadline: April 30, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology (Volume 8)
Website: http://www.bristolprize.co.uk


MAY DEADLINES

The Bridport Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 5000 words max
Entry fee: £9
Prizes: 1st prize £5000, 2nd prize £1000, 3rd prize £500
Deadline: May 31, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Bridport Prize 2015 Anthology
Extra information: Also includes poetry and flash fiction categories
Website: http://www.bridportprize.org.uk

Cinnamon Press Annual Short Story Prize
Theme: Open
Word limit: 2000-4000 words
Entry fee: £12
Prizes: 1st prize £150
Deadline: May 31, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Not stated
Publication: Cinnamon Press winners’ anthology
Extra information: Cinnamon Press also includes annual competitions for poetry and first novels/novellas
Website: http://www.cinnamonpress.com/competitions/annual-short-story-prize/


JULY DEADLINES

Highlands and Islands Short Story Competition
Theme: Open (no link with Scotland necessary)
Word limit: 2500 words max.
Entry fee: £5 (or 3 stories for £12)
Prizes: 1st prize £400
Deadline: July 31, 2015
Multiple entries permitted: Not stated
Publication: Online only (HISSAC website)
Website: http://www.hissac.co.uk/CompetitionDetails


ROLLING DEADLINES

Writers’ Forum Short Story Competition
Theme: Open
Word limit: 1000-3000 words
Entry fee: £6 (or £3 for subscribers)
Prizes: 1st prize £300, 2nd prize £150, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: Rolling
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Published in Writers’ Forum Magazine
Extra information: Also includes poetry and flash-fiction competitions
Website: http://www.writers-forum.com/comps.html

The list above has been compiled mainly from the Booktrust website, which also includes more information about UK writing competitions.

If any BWC members or random site visitors know of a competition that fits our bill (i.e., it’s international, includes publication, and doesn’t cost too much to enter), just leave a comment here and we’ll see about adding it to the list.

Disclaimer: we cannot speak for the legitimacy of any of these competitions. They all seem bona fide, but we advise that you check the individual websites to make up your own mind!

Self-publishing: the pros and pitfalls

Here at the BWC there are sure to be at least a handful of us tempted by the idea of self-publishing. In fact, there are at least a handful of us who have self-published already. So, if you’re thinking about going it alone to get your book out there, read on to see what our self-publishing members have to say about it.


Claire Handscombe: self-published Conquering Babel 41yRaeFaTzL

Why did you choose to self-publish?

I wrote an article for The Bulletin (the now, sadly, defunct magazine of the expat community in Brussels) about language learning. As I did so, I realised that over my years of teaching languages to adults in London and Brussels I had learned a fair amount of useful things about resources, learning styles, what works and what doesn’t. There weren’t, at the time, really any books out there with tips on learning a language, and in any case, since I am opinionated, I wanted to put my version out there.

I was querying my first novel at the time, and not having a lot of luck with agents. I honestly didn’t have the energy to do it for non-fiction as well, and I wasn’t optimistic about its chances of publication – not least because it’s short, though I suppose I could have “padded” it – but I knew people would find it a helpful resource. It also fed nicely into my language teaching business – I could offer discounts if people bought the book, for example, and was another way of getting my name and the name of my business out there, and of creating a “platform” for myself as someone knowledgeable about languages and language learning.

I also wanted to experiment a little with self-publication. I was hearing a lot about it at the time – it was still a new concept, and the marketplace was far less flooded than it is now. I enjoy the marketing side, and it’s fun watching numbers in real time on the Amazon marketplace.

What is your book about?

Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language does what it says on the tin!

It includes sections on staying motivated, finding a language tutor, how to improve in the four key areas of writing, reading, speaking and listening, and the pros and cons of different ways of learning (one-to-one, group classes, self study, etc.).

It’s available as a Kindle book on all the Amazons (co.uk is here and .com is here) and also as a physical book.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

The number one thing, and the thing that in the end might convince me to do it for my fiction too, is that you get your book into the hands of people who might find it helpful, instead of it just languishing in a drawer. I haven’t made much money from it – nor did I expect to – but it still adds up to a bit of extra pocket money. If and when I go back to language teaching, it will also be a good resource for my students and potential students.

Even back in 2011, when I self-published, the process was a relatively simple one. I can only imagine it’s got more user-friendly since then.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

In my experience so far, there aren’t really any, with non-fiction like this. I’m under no illusions as to the likelihood of the booklet being published and available in a bookstore. The disadvantage for fiction, and the reason I’m holding out for traditional publishing – so far – is that I really would like my book in bookstores, and I would like the kudos that comes from being traditionally published. Many readers don’t care, or even know, if a book is self-published, but in the literary community it is still looked down on. I do believe that publishers have a vital role to play in gatekeeping and, in theory at least, marketing. These days, too, it is harder to get an audience as more and more books are published and some of the useful tools that Amazon deployed in the early days are not available anymore or have been weakened. You have to be prepared to spend a lot of time marketing yourself – which for me is enjoyable, but still detracts from the main thing, which is the writing!


Klavs Skovsholm: self-published Golden Fields SKU-000952890

Why did you choose to self-publish?

I actually never really considered anything else than self-publishing Golden Fields. From what I can gather it is very much the way new writers get started these days. The beauty is that you decide when you want your book published.

What is your book about?

Golden Fields is a story of adventure, love and war in the lives of a few unusual people living in South Africa at the time of the Boer war until the First World War. During this time, many important historical events influence their lives. It also tells a beautiful love story between two elderly women, Theodora Villiers and Lily Wood, as well as about their relationship to Theodora’s grandson Antonius. It was published by the American firm Balboa and can among others be ordered via amazon.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

The most positive aspect is that you decide where and when, so to speak.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

Well, the first downside is that it costs money. Although the production costs are fairly reasonable, a lot of things you will need to do for the people producing the book, like proofreading, deciding on layout issues (such as what text you want to have on the dust cover), giving directions as to how the cover design should look, and so on. Also, if you want a press release that will cost extra. However, prices do vary. I was happy with Balboa in many ways, but it was a bit cumbersome to work with people in a very different time zone.


Sarah Strange: self-published A Turn in the Road 10672186_10152828562474743_543491562084389503_n

Why did you choose to self-publish?

Actually I did not choose. My agent (a long term friend who usually promotes artists and painters) decided to widen her field so I am her first writer. She has followed my work for 30 years at least. She found me the printer and the literary critic who did my introduction. However, I found the artist who did my illustrations. We are both members of the SABAM. So all a bit serendipitous, really. I have always found people like my writing but did not realise it could have a wider appeal so we set up a blog last September and it soon became clear that it had widespread interest. I had 3000 hits the first month. That made my agent decide to go ahead.

My main reason for going ahead with it is not so much to make money as to be able to share my work, as I have been told it is uplifting and poignant and gets to the ‘nitty gritty’. Check out my blog and see for yourself.

What is your book about?

My book, A Turn in the Road, is a series of bereavement poems spanning 9 years. My husband, also a poet, died in 2005 and I wrote how I felt as the months went by. Bereavement is not a popular subject but it is a universal one and since I found a new partner last year the ‘journey’ now has a happier (and more palatable) ending. Lots of charity organisations are interested and I have been reading out my poems to Relay for Life (cancer org.) since 2011.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

You can choose your own style, cover, number of copies (electronic publishing makes small print runs much more practical these days). You are your OWN publisher – any profits go to YOU.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

You have to find your own distribution outlets but with the internet this is becoming much easier. It is harder to get known when you cannot benefit from wide networks.


Sarah Harris: self-published A Sheep Called Skye ASheepCalledSkye-345x565

Why did you choose to self-publish?

I had a contract with a Belgian Publisher for the Dutch version of my children’s book but I thought it would be exciting to do the English version myself using a local illustrator from the Isle of Skye. I’d recently set up my own company together with my husband and we wanted this to be one of our projects.

What is your book about?

It’s about a sheep who feels different from the others because she never knew her mother and was brought up on a Bed and Breakfast, so she goes off to look for a place where she really belongs. I have since written three more stories in the series. The books are like fables and are for both primary school children and adults, and are often bought as gifts. You can find out more about these books on www.asheepcalledskye.com. I sell the books to shops in Scotland and also do various storytelling events to promote it. I have also done projects in schools both here in Brussels and in Scotland. I also sell it through the website and Skye the sheep has her own Facebook page and blog.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

You have complete control over the selling, marketing, design, publication and price of your book. It is all your investment and your profit (or loss!). This enhances your motivation. You can change strategy, price and marketing techniques if they are not working and try something different. You can offer discounts and do special promotions. You are completely involved and know exactly how your book is doing. If it’s a success it can be more profitable than working with a traditional publisher.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

It is very hard work and requires great motivation and commitment because there is nobody else who is going to do anything for you. It’s all completely up to you. There are fewer and fewer independent bookshops and the big chains often do not want to take your books because it’s too much administration for them. They also take a considerable discount. You have to be prepared to sell your own book, which is not always what a writer likes to do. You have to find different ways to get your book out there but you cannot afford to offer the same sort of discounts that Amazon does. It is no use trying to compete with the big companies so you need to find your own particular niche and target the places where your book will sell. This is a big challenge but you learn a lot in the process.


Todd Arkenberg: self-published Final Decent and Jell-O and Jackie O 

Final Descent

Why did you choose to self-publish?

Several author friends back in Chicago self-published. But I was skeptical. That’s not how authors made it big in the movies! So I tried my luck with the traditional route. Submission guidelines can be daunting, and the attitude of the agents, arrogant to say the least. I sent out about twenty queries. I got a couple of nibbles but mostly terse rejections. Half didn’t reply at all. I had one offer, a small publishing house in Texas. The publisher wanted substantially more rights than I was willing to give. And, they had no promotional support.  I’d be doing most of the selling and distributing on my own. At about this same time, I attended a presentation by an author and self-publishing guru. She made it sound easy and gratifying. I was tired of wasting time. I was a writer and I had a second and third novel in the pipeline. It was time to get my first novel published and move on.

What are your books about?

My first novel, Final Descent (Outskirts Press, 2013), is a contemporary story set inside the airline industry. It’s a tale of corporate greed and the toll that the chase for the almighty dollar takes on an idealistic corporate soldier and his family. It’s really a modern day allegory of good vs evil inside the nuanced world of corporate America.

My second novel, Jell-O and Jackie O (Outskirts Press, 2014), is a coming of age story set amidst the glamour and calamity of 1960’s America. It’s the tale of a little boy who finds escape in the chic world of Jackie Onassis and the jet set. While the little boy dreams of Capri and Mykonos, that era’s clash between traditional and progressive values plays out between his mom and her ‘liberated’ sister in the boy’s family home.

What are the pros of self-publishing, in your experience?

Time and control are the things I find most valuable about self-publishing. I’m a writer; I want to write. I don’t want to waste time jumping through hoops to satisfy the whims of agents who seem to take sadistic joy in their complicated submission processes. One literary agency actually said on its website: “If you think we’re making you jump through hoops and testing you, we are. If you can’t follow instructions, we don’t want to work with you.” Another agency website explained their threat of throwing out imperfect submissions with this: “Do we risk pitching the next great American novel into the trash bin? Sure! But there’ll be another on our desks before long.” I have no patience for those types of attitudes. With self-publishing, you retain complete control of your work. With my publisher, I set my own pricing. I determine when my book will go to market. In addition to pricing, cover designs are based on my concept. I offer my books in hard and soft cover as well as Amazon’s Kindle version. That’s my choice. I plan to self publish a third novel in the fall of 2015.

What are the downsides of self-publishing, in your experience?

Of course, lack of established distribution channels is the biggest downside. Large publishing houses like Random House, Harper Collins and Viking get their books into stores where many people still shop before heading to the internet to do their purchasing.  The bigger houses also have promotional budgets that push works. While my book may sell well among my friends and their friends and so on, someone sitting in Omaha, Wichita or even London isn’t going to know T.D. Arkenberg.  But no one ever said that being an author would make you rich. Self-publishing allows me to do what I love most, write.  While self-publishing was an overwhelmingly positive experience and I am pleased with the quality of the published work, I can’t say the same for the marketing add-ons. I found every one of the add-ons offered by my publisher of little value.  They are primarily gimmicks, in my opinion.

One caveat to the above: if Scribner, Penguin or Viking came knocking, I certainly would run to answer the door.

A tribute to Ann Somerhausen

Ann Somerhausen

The BWC is in mourning over the loss of one of our loveliest and longest-standing members, Ann Somerhausen. Wise, honest, a little bit cheeky and always classy, here we share some memories and stories about our dear friend, and how she touched our lives. Our little group is the less without her.


“Ann had been coming to the BWC for the best part of ten years and was one of our staunchest members. I will particularly remember her for her novel, The Runaway Housewife, which she completed (several times indeed!) with the help of the group and which, in my opinion, was the most commercial and publishable novel I have seen from a group member. It’s only sad that Ann did not live to see it appear on bookshelves everywhere as it so richly deserves.

She also produced memorable works on her life as a diplomat’s wife in Cuba, Brazil and in India and read these out to the group. Her latest contribution to the BWC was to host the Sunday afternoon sessions at her apartment in Uccle.

We will greatly miss her.”
David Ellard


“I saw Ann twice. She was the person who left the strongest memory of my very first meetings with the BWC. I was struck by her grace. I still remember vividly an aura of light illuminating the place where she was sitting. She was wearing a beautiful hat and she was dressed like an elegant woman of times gone, bringing with her all the memories of a lifetime, the wisdom and the peaceful reconciliation. We talked about her house in Long Island, which she was hoping to sell. Her soft voice still resonates, as when she invited us to Sunday readings at her place, giving us all the instructions to get there, sweetly reassuring us that there would be tea served…

I regret not having had the chance to attend Sunday meetings at her place and to listen to her stories. There hasn’t been enough time to get closer to you, Ann. But I will not forget your light.”
Barbara Mariani


“I once commented to Ann that when I first heard of the Writers’ Group my thoughts were of a group of people like the Algonquin Roundtable, but later I felt embarrassed for thinking so. She said, ‘But why should you feel embarrassed? We are like the people of the Algonquin Roundtable.’ Indeed.”
Nathan Johnson


“One evening after a BWC meeting, Julien and I invited Ann back to our apartment for a drink. I think it says a lot about Ann that she was perfectly happy at the idea of coming home with two 30-year olds she only knew through the writers’ group, at 10 o’clock at night. That evening she told us stories about her incredible life, and it wasn’t until she mentioned getting married in 1946 that we realised she was much older than we’d thought. That’s just it: she was always so engaged, so spirited, so productive and independent, that you never would’ve imagined she was in her 80s. Then again, my grandmother is the same (and she was born in the same year, in the same country), which is one reason I always felt at home with Ann: it was like having a slightly saucier version of my own grandmother with me, living as I do very far away from my actual grandmother.

I saw her at pretty much every meeting I went to, and each time I looked forward to her strikingly honest comments (she had a way of ‘telling it like it is’ when she thought something was no good, and yet she somehow managed to be diplomatic about it at the same time) her classy outfits and her gentle smile. For me she really was at the heart of the group, and in her tales and her comments she expressed what it’s all about: honesty, dedication and, of course, a big wallop of humour. It’s almost impossible to believe that I won’t be seeing her again. I’ll really miss you, Ann.”
Sarah Wiecek


“I can’t believe she is no longer with us. She was such an inspiration and a wonderful member of the group.”
Sarah Van Hove


“Ann was seated at The Falstaff on my very first Thursday session. I immediately took to her and Kathleen. Perhaps it was a subconscious connection to fellow Americans as I’d only recently moved to Brussels from Chicago or maybe it’s because Ann and Kathleen were very much like ladies from my beloved writers’ group I left behind in Chicago. Ann was one of the reasons I kept coming back.

Ann was bright, engaged and had a lot of spunk. She had a creative spirit, embracing all types of writing and encouraging every writer. The last time I saw Ann was the Thursday before her birthday. We were at the Falstaff, putting on our coats at session’s end. She was proud to tell me that she was turning 86, happy to be celebrating with her kids. But what made her most happy was my telling her how much I was enjoying Brussels. She flashed a grin of someone proud of her adopted home. Then we parted, going off into the Brussels night. No doubt, it was drizzling.”
Todd Arkenberg


“Ann will be deeply missed.”
Klavs Skovsholm


“I’ve lost a very dear friend of many years. Our friendship goes back to the American Women’s Club which we both joined in the 1990s. We met at the Club attending one of the meetings of its Writers’ Group. At that time Ann wrote short stories. She even got a literary agent in New York who helped her to publish one of them in Miami. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy.

We both were learning how to use those early computers for consumers, like Amstrad. We were frustrated and delighted when we mastered one or another trick. I was working at my first novel ‘Nadine. Meeting in Paris,’ which she liked very much. I had a small success with the first draft among my circle of readers but did not find a publisher and moved to active journalism.

Meanwhile, Ann moved to South America and later to North America. But I remained in regular contact with her, her diplomat husband Jean and other members of her family.

On her regular visits to Brussels we always met. Otherwise, there were letters. The main bond between us was our writing. As you all know, not only final things matter, but ideas and projects as well. Ann and I had a lot of projects and enjoyed discussing them.

It was then that Ann started working on her ‘Cuba Memoir’, though rather cautiously, because some people from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs –prototypes of her characters – were still alive and she was reluctant to put their names into print. She came back to the ‘Cuba Memoir’ a few years ago and finally her book entitled Hostage in Havana was published on Amazon. She presented it at the American Women’s Club. The proceeds from the sales went to a nursing home in Brussels. The library of the American Women’s Club has a copy.

Our annual trips to the weeklong writers’ courses in Paris given by the American University strengthened our friendship more than anything else. Then there was our common political views and love for literature.

When Ann and Jean moved back to Brussels about nine years ago, we once again met regularly. Ann tried to resurrect the writers’ group at the AWC but it did not last long and then we both came to the BWC. She loved the group and the members’ writings very much and when she was not traveling she tried not to miss a session.

We lived close to one another and frequently attended some events together like meetings of ‘Les Amis de la Monnaie’ or ‘Democrats abroad’.

We both contributed our articles to Rendez-Vous magazine which was published first monthly then quarterly by the AWC. Ann covered the books, both those recently published and classics. Everybody enjoyed her reviews. They will be missed.

She was a regular visitor in our house and got to know my daughter and her family. Our guests enjoyed listening to her stories about exotic places, where she and Jean lived and about their sailing voyages.

She was generous, interested in people, life, opera, music. Up to the last moment she continued visiting her friends and her family, traveling within Europe and to the US. For years every summer she attended a Shakespeare festival in California with her sister Pat.

Losing her husband, a companion of over 50 years, was a severe blow but Ann resumed writing, completed her first book, then a second one entitled ‘Runaway Housewife,’ which many members of the BWC have heard. She started working on a third book, her ‘Indian Memoir’ based on letters she and Jean wrote at the start of 1950s.

She was very good persuading people to complete the projects. I remember one particular case when she tried to persuade Kathleen to proceed with her book. I hope Kathleen will do it in the memory of Ann.

She enjoyed attending the BWC meetings and especially enjoyed Steven’s humor, Nick’s writing, Robert’s Seychelles saga and Norton’s crisp stories.

This year she did not to go to the Writers’ retreat since she would be leaving for the States a couple of days later. But she was very sorry about that and planned to attend it next year.

I owe her something personal. She liked my first novel and was unhappy when I dropped it. She regularly reminded me that I should finish it but I kept on postponing doing so. Now I feel that out of respect for her I should resume working at it. If she liked it so much, probably there is something in it.

I will miss her as a friend and as a sunny and kind-hearted, generous and compassionate person. With her departure I feel a big wound in my psychological cloak.”
Larisa Doctorow


“I will remember Ann as a very warm, generous and self-effacing lady who was extremely helpful and encouraging to me when I first joined the group. She was great fun to talk to, was a great raconteuse and had a keen appreciation of English literature. I found her very open minded and had an amazingly broad range of interests from travel to opera. As a diplomat’s wife she saw a side of life many of us do not come into contact with very often and it was beautiful and quite humbling to see how deeply affected she had clearly often been by her experiences of other cultures and people. The latest project was writing up her memoires as a new bride in India and a trip she and her husband had taken with her mother-in-law. The descriptions of people and places were so wonderfully warm and vivid and were just an example of the well of memories she conserved intact until the very end. Ann will be greatly missed by everyone who was lucky enough to know her.”
Nick Hogg


Sarah Strange wrote a poem about Ann, which you can read here.


“Three occasions stick in my memory when I think of Ann.

She was at the first ever meeting of the Brussels Writers Group I attended one Thursday night at the Belladonne Brasserie in Saint Gilles in 2012. I happened to have taken a seat near hers at the end of the long table. She looked chic in a beige dog-tooth patterned jacket with a beautiful gold brooch on a lapel. As contributors read their work, I noted how carefully and honestly she commented on each piece. I loved her courteous way with words and her warm American accent.

In a break in the readings she asked me about my work. I had to admit the commitment to writing a novel was proving to be a struggle, that I wasn’t making much headway and hoped the BWC might be able to help. “Oh yes. You’ll be surprised what you can do with that novel here.” And she mentioned the memoir she was writing. On several further occasions she read aloud sections from The Runaway Housewife and it seemed a very promising work. She was determined to get it right. Ann was always positive about my contributions and helped to make me believe in my own writing project.

In May 2013 Ann attended the BWC Writers’ Retreat and she and I happened to be in the same group for David Ellard’s workshop. Ann impressed me with the speed of her writing. It was humorous and witty and very well crafted in the blink of an eye. She was great company for the whole weekend.

This year I was sorry she could not attend the Retreat as she had planned. I last saw her at the AGM in July where she generously offered to host the Sunday group at her flat. We left the meeting early, the room in the Falstaff was hot and stuffy and the Agenda had been dealt with, we paid for our drinks at the till and stepped out into the hot summer night. Ann looked so elegant in a summer hat, beige blouse, black trousers and in sharp contrast to the dress-down holidaymakers thronging the street outside. We said our goodbyes and I hoped to see her again soon, perhaps at the Thursday group.

Then came the sad news last week and I realised that although my contact with Ann has been very fleeting, I will remember her most for her love of writing, honesty and positive spirit.”
Ann Kronbergs


“When I met Ann, she was completing a draft of her novel, Runaway Housewife. The adventures of her endearing, unassuming protagonist were praised by members, as they always would during the three years when I heard her read from it, first in third person, then in first person in a later draft. That was no mean feat, but the first-person version seemed as effortless and engaging, if not more, than the previous one.

Ann herself was no less charming. I remember admiring her allure as she walked in the BWC meetings with slow steps but a straight back, wearing tailored suits and makeup. Her elegance did not stop there. She was well-mannered and kind to everyone, encouraging to other writers, gracefully cool in her response to the men who put on their best behavior in the visible hope of impressing her.

Although we knew her health was fragile – how could it be otherwise, at her age? – she remained cheerful and a joy to be with. She gave the impression of being contented with the life she had, with the habits she had made for herself in her last years.

It is true that Runaway Housewife deserved to hit the shelves. She spoke of wanting to see it in the supermarkets, both utterly sincere and poking fun at herself. A completed version might be published. But I like to think that reading it aloud for all this time, rewriting it in first-person once she was done with a polished draft in third-person, showed that the recognition from her peers at the Brussels Writers’ Circle, as well as spending time with her characters, already made her happy.

I remember her smile. Her transparent blue eyes. Her makeup and jewelry. How considerate she was, how she gave you her full attention. Her humour. How she sometimes spoke of her travels when she was married to an ambassador, but never flaunted her social status, which is the mark of a true lady.

I will miss her.”
Sabine Sur


“My heart is full and broken at the same time as I think about Ann’s passing. It’s hard to imagine the Brussels Writers’ Circle without her. Her writing was always so enjoyable to read, and like her, was witty with a hint of mischief. She told fascinating stories of a life well lived and always had time to give words of wisdom and encouragement to me. I valued her feedback so much, but I valued her as a person so much more. I have met few people as warm, interesting, and full of life as her. When I left Brussels for DC, she wished me a “prompt return to Brussels” – she was one of the people who made leaving that bit harder and the prospect of a return sweeter. It’s hard to imagine and difficult to accept that she won’t be there when I do come back. Rest in peace, dear Ann. I was so privileged to know you.”
Claire Handscombe


“Ann was a great writer, both of non-fiction and fiction, and I will hugely miss her readings of her travels in India and of The Runaway Housewife. What’s more, Ann consistently provided excellent feedback, commenting on my science fiction with admirable patience. Her words of encouragement have helped immeasurably in improving our writing. Her hosting of the Sunday group this summer in Uccle has been just one example of the incredible support she showed to the rest of us writers. She will be in our hearts forever. RIP Ann Somerhausen.”
Jack Gilbey


“It has been such a pleasure and a privilege to have known Ann for the past ten years. Her presence at our meetings was always reassuring, especially when I read. I was sure that I would benefit from her thoughtful comments, her considerable editing skills and her constant encouragement. After reading the last chapter of my novel eight days before her death, she handed me a page of useful comments ending with, “To be honest, I would love this scene to end with them going to bed together for a great, splendid love-making.” Needless to say, her advice will be heeded.

Ann’s friendship, kindness and support will be sadly missed.
Robert Grandcourt

Ann at the BWC retreat

Ann at the retreat

Ann

Ann and Kathleen looking festive

“Everyone is an accomplice”: Julien Oeuillet on ‘Panzi’

Congratulations to BWC member Julien Oeuillet, whose non-fiction book, Panzi, has just been published. Author of three previous books in French language – two novels, Revolution Motel and Max, and one non-fiction, Ils sont fous ces belges – this latest book covers a horrific topic little discussed in the West, and two men working tirelessly to repair the victims. The book is in French, but here Julien answers a few of our questions about it in English.

Could you tell us what Panzi is about? Panzi

The book is about the ongoing war in the Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where war rapes are endemic and used as a way to traumatise the population. This region is infested with militia of several thousand men, each led by a handful of warlords. Although they all claim to defend the interests of one ethnicity or another, or pretend to fight for some ideology, they can all be characterised as armed bands terrorising the rural population in order to enslave it and exploit clandestine mines.

The book is a collection of interviews I conducted with Dr Denis Mukwege from Congo and his Belgian associate Dr Guy-Bernard Cadière. These two men have been doing awe-inspiring work in the region, mainly in Panzi Hospital near the town of Bukavu. They repair rape victims. Not only through surgery but via a holistic approach, with psychological support and help to reintegrate victims into society as independent people.

Rape is used by armed groups as a weapon against the population. It goes beyond the violent compulsions of a sexually deviant person; the perpertrators may not even take pleasure in it: what they really want is to destroy the bodies of women. This is why every rape ends with a horrendous mutilation of the lower abdomen.

The rural population of Congo live a traditional, humble way of life. There is nothing you can steal from them because they don’t own anything; there is nothing you can do to pressure them. The only important thing for people there is fertility and the joy of having children and a family. In this way, when rapists threaten to destroy the belly of a woman, they keep the entire population under their control. Men are also tortured gruesomely and executed when they defend their women. Rape was inexistent in Congolese culture before the arrival of these militia, and the population has no idea about the proper response that should be given to victims. Instead, they tend to reject the raped woman as an abomination, and shun the men who were not able to defend her. This is how a peaceful village becomes a pack of traumatised people who end up working as slaves in mines for the profit of their agressors. By destroying women, they destroy the whole social structure.

This is also why Dr Mukwege is active in prevention and maintains a network of mobile crews: they visit villages to teach people a proper response: how to support victims, how to alert them; in short, how to maintain solidarity in front of their aggressors.

Everyone is an accomplice to some extent. We never ask where ore comes from. The tracability of minerals is nowhere near as straightforward as we think it is. Western governments have no interest in changing the situation, neighbouring African countries keep Congo down for their own profit, and Congolese elites do not always act in favour of their population. This situation has been going on for sixteen years and is poorly reported; there is no real exposure to a global audience. An estimated six million people have died there in this period, and Dr Mukwege has performed surgery on an estimated thirty thousand rape victims.

The content of your book was obviously very challenging, emotionally charged and potentially traumatising. What was it like for you to write such a book?

The hardest thing was to believe in the usefulness of the book. When I was in Panzi Hospital I started doubting the pertinence of writing about this topic instead of learning medicine, or working to help them, or, I don’t know, taking a gun and shooting the warlords until there are none left. There was a moment when I realised that the literature on this topic is actually quite abundant but remains too ‘niche’ to have a real impact. As long as the international community will tolerate it, nothing will change.

Once I was back from Africa it took me an astonishingly long time to start working on transcribing the interviews and writing the transitional texts. It was not necessarily hard work to do in terms of editorial tasks. In the long run it was not even a traumatising thing to reminisce about what I saw, because it has simply become part of my life now: I just live in a world where such things exist. Strange as it seems, I even want to go back there again someday. I definitely think the hardest thing was to constantly doubt the point of adding a book to the pile of testimonies about these crimes. No matter how many books there are, seemingly none of them have changed the situation on the ground.

The book is published under the names of the two doctors: it is their words in it, and their work. They have the entire merit of what Panzi Hospital is doing for victims in Congo. I simply did the best I could to help them introduce their stories.

One positive thing is that Dr Mukwege has achieved a very important worldwide fame. But then again, I am afraid that his fame is too confined to people who already pay interest in such affairs. As I told him in Panzi hospital: “Sadly, I think the only time people will sit up and pay attention is when your story is turned into a Hollywood movie.” He laughed when I said this and we jokingly speculated about which American actors could perform his role and Dr Cadière’s. I stick to this idea, though: it is somewhat despicable and shows how superficial our society has become, but nothing will change until Dr Mukwege is portrayed on the big screen by someone like Forrest Whitaker or Jamie Foxx for a white Western audience to enjoy…

How did you feel visiting Panzi Hospital and The Democratic Republic of the Congo? 

The hospital is a much more joyful place than one would think. Every morning, Dr Mukwege starts the day with a sort of mass for the patients and personnel alike. It happens in a courtyard in the hospital, with the scent of beautiful tropical plants under the sun. There are women wearing splendid dresses who play drums and sing, men are dancing; it is fascinating. The people of Congo are very optimistic. Bukavu is full of signs bearing motivational mottos. In the quarter of Panzi Hospital reserved for rape victims, there are sometimes musicians who come to perform for them and invite them to sing and dance with them. Children born from rape or whose mother has been mutilated are dancing all the time. People dance and sing so much, and they are in the middle of the most horrible drama of our times. There is nothing that can be worse than a place where armed bands rape and mutilate women and torture their men to death to force them into mines. What can be any worse than that? And still, they dance and sing. Dr Cadière said something interesting: “In Congo they have fun with nothing and in the West we are bored with everything.”

It was my first experience of Africa and there are many things I could say about it that anyone who has been there could say as well; it is difficult to find something original to say. Something in particular struck me, though: in Bukavu, I never saw anyone wearing clothing that was neglected. Men dress sharply and formally, their shirts tucked into their trousers, their shoes clean. Women wear dresses with vivid colours, tailor-made to their size. People in this region may not even have running water but they are always elegant. Dr Mukwege is like that too: there was not a moment throughout his extremely demanding everyday routine when I saw any sign of neglect in his appearance. He was clean, perfectly groomed, and dignified from sunrise to sunset; this in the midst of curing horrific wounds in a hospital in the heart of Africa. This may seem like a detail but for some reason I think it says a lot about the people there: there is no such thing as ‘Gansta style’ in Congo; you don’t get street cred by dressing in rags. You show respect for yourself and for the people you meet by always keeping clean. You may only own one pair of trousers but you take good care of them. This seems to me to be in sharp contrast with what I see in the streets in the West, where we can spend hundreds to look neglected, pretending that we have it hard and we are badass. People in Congo can’t afford to look neglected. They live each day in a situation that none of us could handle for more than 48 hours; they don’t need to look badass.

What was it like meeting Dr Mukwege?

Dr Mukwege is the single most impressive person I have ever met. He was even granted a physique that goes with his personality: he is very tall and square shouldered. He is exceptionally nice and kind, even peaceful in a way. I guess you have to develop such traits if you want to survive such a situation. There have been assassination attempts on him, so he lives in a secured compound inside the hospital itself. You cannot fathom the idea of people trying to kill him. Everyone in Panzi Hospital loves him, practitioners and patients alike. He is very warm with all of them.

He is extremely humble. There are people who believe he should enter politics and change Congo from inside the system. He seems reluctant to do this, not out of fear for himself, but out of mistrust of the world he would enter.

Dr Mukwege is animated by an invincible faith in what he is doing. From what I saw, I think I can say without mistake that this man will never give up. He will never give up on his duty, and never give up believing in humanity, even when every day he walks into the worst thing humanity has to offer. His actions speak for him: he has repaired the bodies of more than thirty thousand women and all he got for it was the sound of bullets whistling past his head. This speaks more to him than the dozen prizes he has received. Every day, he is a humble man with dignity who shakes hands or hugs patients and practitioners in the place where he accomplishes the work that he thinks is right. He loves all these people, he loves all the women he has repaired. His love for people has done more than any slogan or treatise; he simply loves and acts.

One last thing: the book also praises his incredible skills as a surgeon. The surgery he performs is far from easy. The wounds of the mutilated rape victims have no comparison anywhere else in the world or in history, so he had to create a medical answer from a blank page. He had to find surgical solutions that were adapted to the very specific cases he encountered. Professionals have praised not only the humanitarian in him but also the extremely skilled surgeon.

What was it like working with Dr Cadière?

Dr Cadière is a Belgian surgeon with a lifelong passion for Africa. He and Dr Mukwege became friends and professional partners a few years ago. Dr Cadière flies from Brussels, where he works, to Panzi Hospital several times a year to help Dr Mukwege with the most challenging surgeries. Dr Cadière is a pioneer of a modern surgical technique called laparoscopy. Dr Mukwege said that the introduction of laparoscopic surgery to Panzi Hospital made a huge difference for rape victims, easing their treatment greatly.

Dr Cadière is an adventurer. His life is an adventure. He has lived it to the full. This man has been everywhere in the world, performing surgery in several war theatres. At some point, he was even a successful musician, touring as a saxophonist. He survived leukemia. He fought to develop laparoscopy at a time when the medical authorities were reluctant to change. No surprises he befriended a man like Dr Mukwege.

Dr Cadière is an extremely enthusiastic person. Like Dr Mukwege, he has witnessed a lot of suffering and monstrosity, yet he still smiles most of the time and never gives up on anything. His trips to Panzi do not bring him any money or personal gratification: he does it because he knows he can help people.

In Panzi hospital, I saw Dr Cadière playing with the children of victims, talking with them, and mostly, working from eight to eight. When he does not perform surgery himself, he trains Congolese surgeons in laparoscopic techniques. He consciously rejects any neo-colonial behaviours: he talked about not being “The white man who comes to dictate to African men.”

Instead, he works with Congolese physicians on an equal footing: when in Panzi, he considers Dr Mukwege to be his boss, because it is his hospital.

Dr Cadière also worked on editing the book with me back in Brussels, and his contribution to the story is huge. He says that he cannot write but he actually can tell a story. His life has been such an exciting story, it would have been a pity not to share it. On many occasions, he was too humble to share personal details, but I insisted that he give me all he could. The book recounts a lot about Dr Cadière’s life before he discovered Panzi, because it shows what kind of character he is: a free man without personal ambitions, at the service of others. This is his definition of adventure. I thought such stories in the book would make it even more inspirational.

You had an experience in the hospital that called into question your worth as a human being, and your career as a journalist and writer. Could you tell us about that?

Nothing I may have felt in Panzi Hospital is comparable to what patients and victims there are going through. It is true, however, that Panzi Hospital gave me considerable exposure to suffering I had never witnessed before and which has no equivalent anywhere in the Western world. I wondered at some point if I was a weak person to be so affected by all this, but now I think the only two kinds of people who can witness what I saw in surgery rooms at Panzi without being shaken are doctors and psychopaths. I already knew I was not a doctor, and now I am absolutely certain I am not a psychopath.

The most shaking thing that happened to me is not actually something I saw. In Panzi I was allowed to wander anywhere, but if I wanted to enter a surgery room I was required to wear one of those green outfits worn by surgeons. At some point I went into the courtyard but forgot to change back into my normal clothes. Some patients then mistook me for a doctor and asked me to cure them. I had to tell them I was actually not a surgeon, but some didn’t believe it and couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t help them. The look in their eyes will stay in my memory forever. This was a moment when I really questioned the entire point of writing books at all, in comparison to the work of people like Dr Mukwege and Dr Cadière.

After all you have seen and experienced, what message would you like to impart to the world about the situation in DRC?

There is nothing worse than what is happening there. There cannot be anything worse than this. More than fifteen years of gruesome rape and torture and murder to pillage ores which are sold all around the world without anyone caring. This is what it is, in a single sentence.

Dr Cadière says that what happens in Congo is important because this is what awaits all of us, and I agree with him: if we tolerate it in Congo, then it can and will happen somewhere else. Wherever you live, you are not safe from a similar fate. In a few generations, who knows, perhaps your children will be treated the same way because we found something valuable in your country.

Everything in our world tends towards cynicism, consumerism, and egotism. The situation in Congo is the result of all this.

Do you have any advice to offer those thinking about writing about similarly disturbing topics? What worked for you, what helped you through it? Is there anything you would do differently?

You will not be saving the world with your book. It is a drop in the ocean. Do not write it to save the world because you will fail spectacularly. Our book is out now and Dr Mukwege is still working every day repairing the bodies of women: it didn’t save Congo.

Write the book only because you love the people involved and you want to honour them. This is the best you can do for them. It is likely that, sadly, the only people who will read your book are people who were already somewhat aware of the situation. But at least you gave them more information and more insights about a situation they would like to help but feel terribly powerless in front of. Your book remains available in the future, so write it only because you think you can leave a testimony of something that hasn’t been said before.

Never forget that non-fiction writing is about providing information. If you cannot inform, then you are not writing a book. The personal feelings I have talked about in this interview are nowhere in the book, if only because the book is about the two surgeons and not about me at all. In the book, I gave elements of ambiance and descriptions of the place so the reader can feel as close as possible to actually visiting Panzi, but these are not personal feelings. If you ask me in an interview how I feel about it, then I can answer, but in a book no one cares. You are here to inform. You can write about a topic which has already been written about, as long as you provide fresh information about it. I’m not talking about analyses, because we don’t need more analyses, we need information. Your analyses are only one nerve cell away from your feelings.

Do not despise your readership. People are not stupid. People crave being elevated. Even those who seem the most stupid and ignorant to you will still react positively if you make the effort to inform them. If they reject your information, then it is not because they are too stupid to hear what you have to say, it is because you are not doing your job right.

***

Julien has kindly agreed to give a short Q&A session about his experiences writing Panzi at the Tuesday night BWC meeting next week (July 15), from 7pm. Meeting place is our usual La Maison des Crêpes and all members are welcome!

2014 Writers’ Retreat Review

In May a bunch of BWC members once again toddled off to Tremelo (Flanders) for the annual BWC Writers’ Retreat. Organiser Ann Kronbergs was kind enough to provide a few words about the goings on of the weekend.

Siddartha 1“From May 16-18, nineteen members gathered for the fifth annual BWC Writers’ Retreat held in Siddartha, a residential centre near Tremelo. The weather was gloriously hot and sunny so people were able to enjoy meals, as well as some of the workshops, outdoors in the garden which surrounds the main house.

Friday was for meeting and greeting, but on Saturday morning David Ellard led a workshop on Launching the Main Character. In many books, films, etc. the opening scenes serve the purpose of launching the main character. This workshop looked at how this is done using some classic movies as writing fodder (eg. Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and others) and succeeded in getting participants to recreate their own opening scenes. Groups then presented outcomes in the evening.

Sabine Sur followed David’s workshop in the afternoon with a focus on ways of using body language and non-verbal communication to portray characters.

On Sunday morning Ann Kronbergs led a workshop on how to open a novel. Looking at some of the stylistic effects used by writers to start their novels or short stories, she led a few exercises in ways of applying some of these techniques to existing openings of famous novels AND/OR to the opening paragraphs of our own “work in progress”. Attendees had brought along work of their own to revisit at this stage in the weekend.

In a final session there was a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the Retreat. People felt that next year it would be better to enlarge the focus on members’ work in progress. It was suggested that there might be a choice of workshops on offer so that attendees could opt to allocate their time to match their writing interests more. Workshop leaders felt there should be a clearer emphasis on the expectations of group members. They thought it would help to try to recruit more workshop leaders by advertising through the blog and the weekly sessions.

Hamed Mobasser has agreed to organise the BWC Retreat 2015 (8-10 May) since Ann Kronbergs is returning to the UK.”

The BWC would like to thank Ann very much for organising this year’s retreat!

Siddartha 2

Perfect spot for a bit of wordsmithery

Siddartha 3

A rather fitting statue

Group 1

Members of the BWC getting cosy

Group 2

Discussions in the sun

Joss and Mauricia

BWC members Mauricia and Joss hard at work

Sabine, David, Ann

Workshop leaders Sabine, David and Ann

Details of the 2015 BWC Retreat will be released probably around January 2015. Watch this space!

Meet the Circle: Todd Arkenberg

The members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations every week to share our scrawlings with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Chicagoan Todd Arkenberg, who’s a relative newbie to the group, and therefore in a good position to give you a taste of what it’s like for fresh members.

Todd Arkenberg

BWC member Todd Arkenberg

When did you join the group?

I joined BWC in January 2014, the very month my spouse Jim and I relocated to Brussels.

What were your first impressions of the group?

I formed my first impression of BWC back in Chicago. Deeply involved with Chicago’s two oldest writers workshops, I searched the Internet for a group in Brussels to ease the transition into our new home. The website was robust – great information on the group and welcoming to newcomers. Three weekly sessions impressed me as a sign of serious writers committed to their craft. A prompt reply to my inquiry was a bonus.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on several projects in various draft stages. I self published my first novel, Final Descent shortly before leaving Chicago. Promotion efforts are complicated by our relocation. A second novel, JELL-O With Jackie O. is in its fourth draft with an aim of publishing in fall, 2014. I expect to publish a third novel, None Shall Sleep, in 2015, having just completed an initial draft. A fourth project, a memoir, is in very early stages of development.

Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?

I was an English Literature major in college, focusing on the nineteenth century. While Hardy, Dickens and Austen fed my desire to write, modern readers have different tastes. Current literary mentors include John Irving, Alice Munro and Ian McEwan. They fill stories with rich characters, people with whom contemporary readers can identify. Alice Munro teaches me an economy of storytelling. Her short stories offer brilliant lessons in crafting works complete with mood and feelings using few words. As a writer of long fiction, I’m always looking for ways to economize on words without compromising impact. That’s something with which, I think, all writers struggle. Now and then, I still grab a Classic but consider it a decadent treat like a waffle smothered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?

I’m racking my brain to find my most memorable moment. Perhaps I haven’t been involved with the group long enough to distinguish memorable from routine. I enjoy the diversity of members and the amazing quality of the writing. I’m impressed with those for whom English is a second or even third language. I struggle every day to write in my native tongue, grasping for the right word. I can’t imagine writing in another language. Perhaps the surprising richness of the non-English native speakers is most noteworthy.

What do you get out of the group?

BWC offers a comfortable, supportive forum in which to hone writing skills. The workshop format, whether I read or critique, makes me a better writer. From a wide variety of styles and genres, I learn what works. I applied group feedback to strengthen a piece, offered for critique. By definition, there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ reader perceptions. Discussions help decipher how writing affects readers’ minds, a key to all good writing. BWC also offers camaraderie. I’ve formed friendships with many members that helped me ease into my new life in Brussels.