Today I’m pleased that the insightful and generous Sharon Maas is back with us on Women’s Fiction Writers. Sharon struggled to find a home for her novel that features Guyanese women, a story not set in the US. But she held fast to her belief that “Diversity in publishing seems to be hot at this time, and publishers are waking up to the fact that brown people read too, and white people don’t mind reading about brown characters in foreign countries!”
While it’s not the same thing, in the early stages of getting feedback for The Glass Wives, I an editor told me no one would read it or understand it unless they were Jewish. (Soooo not true!) That really made me mad and I realized there would always be people who wanted to read only about what and who they knew. Luckily, most people want to expand their horizons through reading, not limit them.
Sharon Maas deserves your attention. Grab a cuppa, read, and share your thoughts in the comments.
Author Sharon Maas Tackles Diversity In Publishing And Writes A Story About A Family Of Women, Healing, and Love
Amy: Congratulations on The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q! I just love the title of the book. Can you tell us a little about the main characters and the story (without any spoilers)?
Sharon: There are three main characters, three generations of women:
We first meet the Dorothea of the title as a cantankerous old lady in a wheelchair, arriving in London to join her daughter Rika and granddaughter Inky. Later in the story we go back to Dorothea’s youth in Georgetown, Guyana, learn of the great tragedy in her life, and find out why she is the way she is.
Inky, the granddaughter, is the first-person narrator for a third of the story; Dorothea gets on Inky’s eighteen-year-old nerves on the one hand, on the other hand she slowly learns respect, and grows curious as to her grandmother’s past. She is also desperate to find out the enormous family secret: why did her mother, Rika, run away from home when she was 16, never to speak to Dorothea again until now?
Rika is a woman of many secrets. By nature introverted and bookish, she is an enigma to Inky; as the story unfolds, we go back to Rika’s own colourful past in Guyana, and learn of her own deep wound.
These three stories intertwine throughout the novel. There’s a lot to be forgiven, and a lot to be understood. Inky tries, and fails, to mediate between her mother and grandmother, but in the end she too has to go back to her family roots in Guyana, learn respect, and solve her own problems.
The “Small Fortune” of the title is a tiny heirloom Dorothea has in her possession: a valuable postage stamp. As we all know, heirlooms can bring out the worst in some families, and this is the case here as well! In fact, the stamp – a sister to the world famous British Guiana 1 Cent Magenta, the rarest stamp in the world – is a McGuffin, driving the plot. On it hinges all the complications between these three women – and on it hinges also the story’s resolution.
Finally, it’s a story of forgiveness and healing. A story about the power of love.
Amy: Is your writing style rigid or relaxed? Do you outline? Synopsize? Or write by the seat of your pants?
Sharon: I’m naturally very laid back, and so is my writing style — just like Rika, who is “so laid back she is practically supine!” I write “by the seat of my pants”, as the jargon goes, letting the story come to me as I write. I often feel that the story is already there, all sorted out and perfect, inside me; my work while writing is to dig it out, unclothe it, as it were, reveal it. So I sit myself down, close my eyes for a while to tune into the story, and just write until the whole thing is finished, every day a little.
The revision process is different; it means chiseling away at all the parts that obscure the story, as a sculptor chisels away at stone, and then polishes it; it’s hard work, and I’m always grateful for a good editor. But actually, I love both parts of the writing process, the intuitive, emotional, creative part as well as the hard-nosed, critical revision process.
Though I have confidence in my actually stories, I am never satisfied with my writing; I always feel that words are somehow inadequate. The challenge is always to find the right words to reveal the story as I “know” it, so that readers can feel it as strongly as I do.
Amy: The characters are from Guyana and live in London. Is this similar to your own background? Why was London your setting of choice for Rika, Dorothea, and Inky?
Sharon: The Guyana part is very similar. Though I haven’t lived in London, I did spend lots of time with family members in Streatham as a child, and even now many of my friends and family live in the area the book is set in. The house where my characters live in Streatham Hill is the actual home of a friend of mine, where I stay whenever I spend time in London. Then of course there is Brixton Market, which I HAD to bring into the book – it’s like an excursion into another world, with all the sights, smells and sounds of the Caribbean! There’s a very dynamic West Indian culture going on in South London, and I really wanted to tap into that energy, and also explore a little bit the experience of first- and second generation immigrants from the Caribbean.
Inky is second generation, who identifies completely with London and actually rejects her cultural roots. Rika has lived there for decades and is well integrated, yet her childhood and youth have made her what she is, a hybrid. And Dorothea is the new immigrant, sniffing out the new territory, critical and slightly homesick.
Amy: I also love the book cover. I think it’s feminine and evocative of a deep story with the face, landscape, and birds. Is this what you envisioned for the cover? Were there other choices?
Sharon: My publisher chose the cover, and I think it exactly captures the flavour of the book; the wistful expression on the girl’s face, the colours, the sense of a faraway country, sun and birdsong, the reflection of a homeland across the seas. There is a sadness in her expression, and she has good reason to be sad…
Amy: How has the writing and publishing experience for this novel differed from the experiences you’ve had before with your other work?
Sharon: Oh, don’t get me started! I could write volumes on this.
In a nutshell, I was first published by HarperCollins, three novels between 1999 and 2004. I was able to tap into a trend at the time, India. The publisher set me up as a writer of epic Indian novels, as sort of female Amitav Ghosh (we had the same editor).
However, much as I love India, I am not Indian, and lack the background to truly continue writing with that setting, all the nuances needed to truly “write what I know”. I ran out of inspiration for Indian novels. What I wanted o write were books set in my own background, which is Guyana, an incredibly rich culture with a fascinating history. I fell out with HarperCollins over this. They didn’t want novels set in Guyana, as they though “Guyana isn’t commercial, readers never heard of it, they won’t read novels set there, blablabla.” My agent at the time also warned me off Guyana, noting that “UK publishing is very xenophobic.”
So I just wrote my Guyana novels and had them rejected, four in all. I had a wonderful editor at HarperCollins and kept up my connection to her, and was able to submit to her directly, but I suppose she had her directions. The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q was one of the four. I wrote it back in 2008, and queried that editor. She never replied. I submitting it to agents but they too agreed that “readers-don’t-like-foreign-settings-except-India”. The only agent who actually read the manuscript was Lorella Belli, who loved it, but thought she couldn’t sell it. So I put it away, biding my time.
Last year, my out-of-print HarperCollins novel Of Marriageable Age was re-released in digital format by the small publisher Bookouture, and I was back in the publishing saddle.
The time, I feel, is right for Dorothea and co. Diversity in publishing seems to be hot at this time, and publishers are waking up to the fact that brown people read too, and white people don’t mind reading about brown characters in foreign countries! I’m so glad I have Bookouture as my publisher – an innovative little house that will get my book into readers’ hands. And by a fortuitous turn of events, Lorella Belli is the agent who works with Bookouture for foreign sales, so she is now the agent who will take it to the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs. How fantastic is that!
Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors in today’s publishing climate?
Sharon: There have never been so many choices in publishing as today; many are going the self-publishing route, while many still yearn for Big Publishing. Both paths carry pros and cons, so it’s important to look past the hype on both sides of the argument and research carefully to find out what is the right path for you and your book. And never forget the third option, which is the one I chose: a small and successful publisher! But always: research, research, research.
Finally, though, it all comes down to the book itself. Forget about getting it published until that time comes, and just write the very best book you can. Put all you have into it, polish it till it shines, and then think about the best way to present it to the world. And have patience; everything worth having takes time. Good luck to you all!
Thank you, Amy, for giving me the mike for a while.
Sharon Maas was born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1951, and spent many childhood hours either curled up behind a novel or writing her own adventure stories. Sometimes she had adventures of her own, such as plunging off to discover South America by the seat of her pants, just like Rika in The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q. She ended up in a Colombian jail, but that’s a story for another day.
In 1973 she travelled overland to India via England, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. After almost two years in an Indian Ashram she moved to Germany, got an education, got a job, got married, had children, and finally settled down. She still lives in Germany after three and a half decades, but maintains close ties and great love for both India and Guyana; and, somewhat reluctantly, for England.