BWC Member Nick Foster on publishing his True Crime book ‘The Jolly Roger Social Club’

The BWC is thrilled to announce that member Nick Foster’s True Crime book ‘The Jolly Roger Social Club’ is being published by Henry Holt next month. Huge BWC congratulations are therefore in order!

CNENickFPhoto

Nick Foster, who hails from Liverpool in the UK, has been a member of the Brussels Writers’ Circle since 2000 – when the ‘Circle’ was a ‘Group’, Belgians spent francs in the shops, and we were all a lot younger. The commitments of family life mean that Nick doesn’t attend meetings as much as he would like; the rest of the time he cheers on the efforts of the group from a distance.

In 2014 Nick got a deal with Henry Holt in New York to write a non-fiction book on the story of an American serial killer who murdered five of his compatriots in Bocas del Toro, Panama – an outwardly idyllic stretch of Caribbean coast, with azure seas and white-sand beaches.

Nick’s book, The Jolly Roger Social Club, will be published in July 2016 by Henry Holt in North America, and by Duckworth Overlook in the UK and other English-speaking territories.

So Nick, tell us about your book?

I was living in Latin America back in 2011 and I came across the story by chance. A young American man named William “Wild Bill” Holbert had, apparently, killed at least five of his compatriots in a vaguely sinister expat community located in a remote part of Panama. Holbert ran a bar called the Jolly Roger Social Club with a flyer promising that “over 90% of our members survive”. That itself seemed ominous. Then I wondered about the expats: Why were these people there at all? What were their motivations? And how did it affect things that this was an American crime transplanted, if you will, to Latin America? What kind of culture clash might this entail? My questions went on and on. That’s when I figured that this was the story I was looking for. There’s a longer description here: http://us.macmillan.com/thejollyrogersocialclub/nickfoster.

William "Wild Bill" Holbert

William “Wild Bill” Holbert

 

 

CNENickFCover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How did you get a book deal for The Jolly Roger Social Club?

Through the traditional route of getting a literary agent (in London, in my case) and then a publisher. I took a month off work to visit Panama and to write the book proposal. For me, it was important to set a deadline to get the proposal ready and sent off. From then it took about four months to get a book deal. The North American rights to The Jolly Roger Social Club were put up for auction by my agent and he set a date and time for bids to come in from the States. Ten minutes before the deadline there were still no bids. I was getting despondent. Then two bids suddenly came in, including Holt’s. I could hardly believe it – it was a really happy moment. After that, the hard work really started. Everything had to be researched – non-fiction means precisely that: it’s all true. I went to Panama a further four times and once to the United States. They were all long trips. As I wrote the story, I discovered it had the most amazing twists and turns. You really couldn’t have made this one up.

CNENickFBocas1

You read your book out at BWC meetings along the way. How did the feedback you received help with writing the book? 

It was very useful. Even though most members write and read fiction, rather than true stories, I got really good feedback. I could instantly see which passages worked and which ones didn’t.

Any tips for aspiring non-fiction writers?

First of all, read a lot. In my case, before I even got on the plane to Panama I devoured a vast amount of narrative non-fiction to see how it was done, to try to break it down. That alone took six months. I needed to see how other writers structured their books. It’s a really important point: if my book just follows me, the writer, discovering a story by interviewing people and uncovering facts, it won’t be very compelling – it will simply be an account of me becoming gradually less ignorant about something. To make a story riveting, you need look how good writers approach chronology, how they use flashbacks, how they establish a powerful sense of place, how they arrange their narrative around strong scenes. You also need to get the pace right and your story has to be suspenseful.

When you pitch your book to an agent, you have to be absolutely focused. Most agents explain on their website precisely how they want to receive pitches. Follow their instructions to the letter. Do exactly what they ask you to do. Try and put yourself in their position: the publishing industry is a business and, if they take you on, they will pitch on your behalf to publishers. So don’t complicate things for them – be clear precisely what your book idea is about, and tell them clearly and concisely. Check this page out for some more tips: http://ducknet.co.uk/blog/ten-tips-writing-creative-nonfiction.

It helped me when I started writing my book to think of it in terms of building blocks. You have a certain number of chapters and then sections in each chapter. It’s easier to think of a book as forty sections of 2,500 words than a big job of 100,000 words you have to sit down and write.

What are your influences?

On the non-fiction side, the direct influence for The Jolly Roger Social Club was A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb. Apart from Robb, Sebastian Junger and Jon Krakauer are both excellent. The late Gordon Burn was a terrific writer, and a northerner to boot. The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman is beautiful and heartfelt. Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is the best true crime book I have read in a while, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken – the survival story to end all survival stories – has a wonderful cinematic quality.

In fiction, and off the top of my head: James Salter, Graham Greene, Richard Ford, Kazuo Ishiguro, James Joyce, Philip Roth, JM Coetzee, Peter Carey, David Szalay, William Boyd, Geoff Dyer and Tobias Wolff (I’m not a big fan of memoirs but Wolff’s are superb). Finally, I don’t read very much poetry – at least not compared to prose – but I simply cannot get enough of Philip Larkin.

Thanks Nick, and congratulations again!

Coming Full Circle – BWC says Farewell to Chairman Todd Arkenberg

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” Andre Gide.

CNEToddPhoto2That quote, one of my favorites, speaks to the necessity of risk—courage to leave behind the safety of the familiar—in order to grow. As authors, we soar highest I think when we push ourselves away from the familiar. Readers crave fresh perspectives, unique storylines, and unfamiliar settings. Experimentation is a great teacher.

But as rewarding as discovery may be in our writing, losing sight of the shore in our personal lives can unsettle. As I prepared to leave the USA two years ago, apprehension tempered the excitement. What would life be like in Brussels? What about my writing? A new continent and city would certainly provide fresh material. But writing is lonely, an occupation often pursued in silent refuge. In Chicago, I found a cure for isolation. I joined, Off Campus Writers Workshop and The Barrington Writers Workshop, the city’s two oldest writing groups. The bonds formed with fellow writers fulfilled me, personally and professionally. Camaraderie was only one benefit. Members inspired and motivated, helping me to become a better writer.

Surfing the Internet from the security of my Chicago home, I found the Brussels Writers Circle. The website was informative and welcoming. With a very favorable first impression, I dashed off an email of introduction. Upon receipt of David’s reply, I felt comforted. A safe haven awaited me on that distant, unknown shore.

Within a fortnight of my arrival, during the dark, drizzly evenings of early January, I made my way to La Maison des Crêpes on Tuesdays and Le Falstaff on Thursdays. The first tour de table of introductions allayed fears that I was alone. All of the writers had made their way to Brussels from some other shore, near and far. Many had even crossed another frontier, language. BWC members for whom English is not their native tongue amazed me.

Weeks turned into months. BWC didn’t disappoint. Among the writers, I found the same dedication, resourcefulness, imagination and support that endeared me to the colleagues left behind in Chicago. Similar passions, I guess, drive those who yearn to write. We have a need to tell stories, stir emotions, and share truths.

And maybe even more important than providing a place to hone my craft, the writers of BWC offered friendship to Jim and me. That social outlet allowed us to adapt much quicker to our Expat life. Once settled, I could focus on writing.

CNEToddNoneShall1 CNEToddNoneShall2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, I’ve been very productive. While living in Brussels, I self-published two novels, Jell-O and Jackie O and None Shall Sleep, and nearly completed the initial draft of my next project, a memoir. Throughout this time, BWC members offered encouragement.

Perhaps that explains why so many BWC writers are published authors. Sessions provide a safe forum. I felt comfortable experimenting with non-fiction and poetry. Honest critique based on trust and respect explains BWC’s success. The opportunity to co-chair Tuesday night sessions pleased and honored me.

Jim and I both hoped that we could have stayed in Brussels longer, but a life open to adventure knows few certainties. A new job for Jim within the Nielsen Company takes us back to Chicago. As for me, I plan to take a playwriting course to turn two ideas into dramas.

CNEToddPhoto1Things are starting to disappear from our home as our departure date nears. A barbecue grill, vacuum cleaner, blender, even Jim’s car. Of course this is merely stuff. We’ll miss many things about Brussels. But most of all, we’ll miss the people, especially, our many good friends of the Brussels Writers Circle.

As Jim and I prepare to leave Brussels, we face resettlement with a mix of apprehension and excitement. Yes, we have come full circle. But we return richer people because of our experience. And, I’m a better writer because of the Brussels Writers Circle. Thank you, BWC.

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.

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

Almost as good as having kids and getting married: BWC member Colette Victor on getting published

Congratulations wrapped in a big red bow go out to BWC member Colette Victor, who has recently joined the ranks of our published members! Her children’s book, The Zig and the Zag of Being Zeyneb, will be published by Chicken House in July 2014.

Colette, South African born but Belgium-based for 13 years, is a long-time member of the BWC, and read out chapters of her book at our meetings. We interviewed her about her new book, the long road to publication, and how she felt when she found out the good news. Of course she has some lovely things to say about our little Circle along the way, and she also has advice for those of you hoping to be published someday yourself.

Congratulations on your publication! Could you tell us, briefly, what the book is about?

The Zig and the Zag of Being Zeyneb is my first children’s novel and was shortlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2012. It is a coming-of-age story about Zeyneb, a young Turkish girl growing up in an unspecified European city. She is faced with 2 dilemmas: will she wear the traditional hijab (headscarf) or not? What is she going to do about her feelings for Alex, a boy in her class who is not a Muslim? It’s aimed at girls between the ages of 12-15. (Although it really sounds like it, it’s not an issue-based book, but it’s hard to describe until you’ve read the book. My agent and my publisher agree with me about this one.)

Colette's back garden: the scene she looks out on while writing

Colette’s back garden: the scene she looks out on while writing

How long did it take you to write the book?

I wrote this book over the summer of 2012. I’d done research beforehand on how to write for children and, it being my first children’s book, I followed the format diligently which seems to have paid off. I carried the idea of this story around in my head for a long time before that though. Having a job and a whole bunch of kids, I’ve been forced to become a fast writer. Then, when I heard I was one of the finalists for the competition, I spent about 2 months doing the editing – with the invaluable help of Sarah (van Hove) from the BWC – to have it ready on time.

You read your book out at BWC meetings along the way. Do you have anything to say about the feedback/encouragement you received? 

Yes, I read out the first couple of chapters at the BWC meetings. The feedback and support were inestimable in helping me become a decent writer. I know, for a fact, I would never have reached this level without all those years of attending the BWC meetings.

Most of the comments you receive are genuine so I listened, I took everything on board, tried to improve what wasn’t working. After a while you already anticipate the comments you’ll get on a particular sentence or paragraph so you can work on this before you get to the meeting. I used to sit around on my little island, writing to and for myself, and all that resulted in was some pretty poor writing. Writing is not a solitary practice – or, at least, not for me. You need people, you need feedback, if you’re going to write anything halfway decent. Plus, which is probably the hardest part, you just have to keep on going long after you want to give up.

How did you go about getting your book published? Did you have an Agent, or did you approach publishing companies directly?

Well, can I give you the short, happy version or the truth?

The truth is that I’ve literally been looking for an agent on and off since 1998. The last 5 years very intensively. I tried approaching publishers directly but they’re simply not interested. No matter what they say on their websites, the truth is they only read manuscripts sent in by agents – and then only the agents whose judgment they trust. I have approached literally hundreds of agents. I had a few close calls, about 5, from agents who considered taking me on but didn’t in the end for some or other reason. Then, last year about this time, I approached yet another batch of agents (I’d long since given up on the advice of approaching agents whom you know represent your kind of work. I simply took the Writers and Artists Yearbook and worked my way through the list). I’d just made the shortlist for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition as well as the long list for the Dundee International Book Prize for an adult novel I’d written (which I also read out during BWC meetings). On the strength of this, my agent signed me up.

Her initial email – 1 December 2012 – to give me the good news, actually never arrived in my inbox. I sent a follow-up email in January because I hadn’t heard anything from her and she was shocked that I still hadn’t heard the news and baffled as to why I hadn’t replied to her! Of all emails that can go missing in bloody cyberspace, it had to be that one!

Anyway, she started sending off my manuscripts and managed to get me a fantastic deal from Chicken House, which I’m really excited about. This last weekend, on 25 October, I got an offer from Cargo Publishing to publish my adult novel. A long, long, long hard search is what it comes down to.

Any failed publication attempts, and lessons learned here?

Loads of failed publication attempts, like I said above. Query letters to an uncountable amount of agents, hopes raised, hopes dashed. I’ve actually written 6 novels to date. The first 3 were absolute crap, although obviously I didn’t think so at the time. They were all rejected with a laugh and a scoff. The last 2 I considered up to publishing standard and, thank God, I appear to have been right. I don’t believe anyone sends off their first manuscript and it’s snapped up for publications straight away, at least not from any of the authors’ stories I’ve read or heard.

How did you feel when you found out your book was going to be published?

Honestly, it was one of the happiest days of my life.  I’ve been going after this since I was 9 years old. Maybe having my 2 babies beat this, and my wedding day. Nothing else.

I don’t have a very bookish family so they didn’t really know how to react. I don’t think they ever took me seriously until I got offered a publishing contract. I went out for supper with my husband and kids. There was more talk about the food than the book while I just wanted to go stand on the tallest building and shout out, “My book is being published!”

I still haven’t done the shouting bit, but I adore my unbookish bloody family, and I forgive them (though they don’t know there’s anything to be forgiven for.) Anyway, the internal sense of satisfaction is indescribable. It really is. I found out about the first book in July (2013) and I’m still high from that. It’s the most incredible feeling and it definitely makes up for all the years of being a wannabe writer.

Do you have any advice for any BWC members clamouring for publication?

I honestly think too many writers write for their own ego and imagine they’re doing something really deep and intellectual and that agents/publishers/readers simply don’t understand their genius. Once you get off this high horse and start writing for readers, plain, straight, honest good writing, then things start getting easier. All the basic advice – plot matters, strong characters matter, show-don’t-tell, make sure every single word you write advances the plot in some or other way (in other words: kill your darlings), scene is important, so is dialogue and making sure the whole thing isn’t too oblique – isn’t repeated in every writing book for no reason. These things really are essential to good writing. And so is sitting your arse down on your writing chair whenever possible. Or, at least, I should say, this has worked for me. Presumably everyone will have their own formula?

New Tuesday Night Venue

La Maison des CrêpesAfter many years at the lovely Cercle des Voyageurs (from which, incidentally, we derived the ‘circle’ part of our name), we’ve recently switched our Tuesday night venue to the nearby La Maison des Crêpes. That’s right, we seem to have some sort of circle fixation here at the BWC. We’ve gone from meeting in a circle to meeting around circles. Edible ones!

La Maison des Crêpes is very nearby to the old Cercle, and we have a special room upstairs reserved especially for us. It has old encyclopaedia pages as wallpaper, so if you start to drift off while somebody’s reading (not that that ever happens), you can catch up on some antiquated knowledge. The waitstaff also pop up to see if we need to top-up our drinks throughout the evening, and to find out whether the sweet smells drifting about the place have made us desirous of pancakey sustenance.

It’s a cosy, friendly venue, right in the centre of Brussels, and we’re pretty chuffed with it so far. If you’d like to join us for a Tuesday night session sometime soon, we’ll be upstairs eating circles from 7:00pm at:

Rue du Midi 13
1000 Bruxelles

We look forward to seeing you there!

Sunday Lovely Sunday

At the BWC, we’re a keen bunch. We share our scrawlings three times a week: on a Tuesday evening, Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon. Of course you don’t have to come to all three meetings every week (though some do!); the main point of having three separate meeting times is to provide a little flexibility. Following Nick Hogg’s recent marketing push for Thursday evenings, we’re now going to hear from Jack Gilbey on the virtues of Sundays.

Couldn’t find a decent picture of Garden City Brasserie, so instead here’s a picture of something you might find there…

“The Sunday writers’ group is slightly different. For one thing, the daylight start time is ideal for the Cinderellas in our group (though less attractive to the vampires among us). For another, this group is sometimes the setting for workshops. In the past, we have had workshops on writing speculative fiction, writing from the perspective of the other gender, performing stand-up comedy (complete with mike!) writing about zombies, and satirising another member of the group.

In our workshops (which will usually be announced by the previous Tuesday if you are on our mailing list), the usual format is as follows: advance warning ensures that those of a nervous disposition can prepare themselves. On the day, there is an introduction to the subject, followed by examples of the desired text, and then we have spontaneous writing. There is a brief/scenario to write about, then we each write a piece (or pieces), there on the spot, for 15-20 minutes (sometimes longer). After that, we then take turns reading our pieces aloud and letting others comment on them.

We have been attending Garden City in the centre of Brussels, which, as its outdoor name suggests, has been really rather lovely as a summer location. It has plenty of room inside, and, if we make up more than half the numbers, we can have the music inside turned down, too…

Some possible future workshops might be:

  • Writing in the style of a well-known author
  • Writing about our first/a very distant memory
  • Characterisation

Suggestions for future workshops are welcome. Look forward to seeing you there soon!”

Mondays are moving to Tuesdays

After a recent email voting session described by BWC Chairman David Ellard as “almost as exciting as Eurovision, and decidedly less fixed”, it has been decided that the Monday evening meetings are permanently moving to Tuesday evenings. The time and place remain the same – 7pm at Le Cercle des Voyageurs – and the change is effective from next week (Tuesday October 30).

Hope to see all of you who cast your vote for Tuesdays then!

In Praise of Thursdays

For a while now the Brussels Writers’ Circle has been meeting three times a week: on Monday evenings, Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons. However, since Monday night continues to be the most popular, the chairman for the Thursday group, Nick Hogg, would like to gently encourage us to consider the Thursday meeting. Below he puts forward his case for Thursdays!

“As an alternative or, in many cases, a supplement to Mondays and Sunday afternoons, the BWC has been meeting at La Belladone in Rue Moris, Saint Gilles for several months now. The pub itself, an excellent choice originally made by the former Thursday evening chairman, Kailas, has the charm of a nineteenth century literary salon and is conducive to the Circle’s business. Although lacking the centrality of the Cercle des Voyageurs and being slightly outside the comfort zone of some people, the Belladone is quite easy to get to, being well served by trams and the Pre-Metro stop at Horta.

Numbers fluctuate but the Thursday meeting is typically less numerous than its big brother on Monday. The size of the group by no means detracts from the quality of criticism and, of course, the writing is up to the Group’s usual high standard. The fact there are fewer people usually means that deliberations are a little quicker with the twofold advantage of there being time for more people to read out and the literary activity of the evening usually winding up between nine and half past, leaving plenty of time for the conviviality for which these meetings are also famous.

An added attraction for those arriving straight from work are the free sandwiches usually supplied by the management. The range of beverages is extensive and the ordering procedure streamlined. Come and join us if you don’t already!”